The Mansion Tax as a symptom

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week proposed an increase in spending on the NHS to be funded in part by a Mansion Tax.  This has sparked the debate about the whys and wherefores of property taxes back into life. Taxing property a topic guaranteed to send the commentariat into a frenzy. It is a topic I’ve touched on before. Property taxes can be seen as a potential solution to a range of different problems, while others seem to see them as the start of a slippery slope to the demise of capitalism.

I sent a letter on the topic to the Evening Standard yesterday. This is what I wrote: [Read more...]

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Together in election dreams

You can find one or two brave souls who are willing to put a positive spin on Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference yesterday. But the dominant view among the commentariat seemed to be that it all felt rather flat and unfocused. Given this was the last big set piece before the General Election that has got to be a worry for the Labour party. Hasn’t it?

Miliband’s omission of the passage on the deficit generated a lot of excitement, although it seems likely that this was a genuine failure of memory rather than a strategic omission. He would surely have realized that any such intentional omission would be jumped on, given that it had been pre-briefed to the media. He would, wouldn’t he?

I’m not surprised Miliband forgot some of the speech. Not just because it was long, but because it lacked much shape. I wasn’t able to watch the speech being delivered but I’ve read it and it lacks any clear structure or sense of direction. It also lacked much in the way of light and shade; highs and lows. I’m not sure it will keep students of political oratory detained for very long, except perhaps as a salutary lesson on the pitfalls of overdoing the empathy and attempts at humanisation.

Others have been more scathing. After spending several paragraphs picking out some modest positives from the speech John Rentoul finishes by summarizing with this zinger: [Read more...]

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Independence, devolution and power

When I first saw this tweet, late last Saturday night, my immediate and admittedly facile response was “Neither of them”. Alex Salmond was propounding a vision for an independent Scotland that was no doubt seductive for many, but was panglossian in its optimism. For me, the Yes campaign was irresponsible in the way Salmond blithely dismissed all requests for detail or serious engagement with potential risks. It was premised on a blatant failure to acknowledge the geopolitical realities that an independent Scotland would face. Cameron, on the other hand, would seemingly say just about anything, panicking and offering ever greater concessions, if he thought it might increase the chances of a No vote. The cynic might say that if Cameron’s last minute appeals were filled with emotion it was just as likely to be distress at the thought of an early exit from Number 10 as it was at the thought of the union breaking up.

I didn’t envy the voters of Scotland their choice. On one side, the picture being painted of the post-independence world was inaccurate in ways that were rather irresponsible. And that wasn’t even allowing for all the areas in which we just didn’t know what might happen. On the other side, enticements from a set of Westminster politicians who have repeatedly proven themselves unable or unwilling to deliver on such pledges and largely motivated by self-preservation or preservation of sectional interest. Who to believe?

I guess we will never know how much the various promises affected the voting. At the moment all we know is the outcome. The referendum is history.

We are beginning to see the contours of the post-referendum game. And the game is beginning to look ugly. It would also appear that a new settlement for Scotland may not take centre stage. [Read more...]

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Present and future conditional

job centre plus policeOne of the most striking developments in policy design in the UK is the rise of conditionality. It most prominently affects those who are out of work and seeking assistance from the welfare system, but it features across a range of other policy areas including housing and health.

Commentators might, quite rightly, rail against IDS and his insensitive disciplinary regime of seemingly indiscriminate sanctions, but he has only taken a system that was initiated by the Blairites in the 1990s and distilled it into something purer. He has made the conditions placed on receipt of assistance more stringent and the sanctions for transgression harsher. Indeed, it could be credibly argued that in some cases the system is now ludicrously harsh and vulnerable people are being set up to fail.

But conditionality doesn’t represent a distinctive evil incubated in the dark heart of fanatical rightwingers. And it is by no means a particularly British approach. Indeed, creeping – or galloping – conditionality can be observed in many industrialised countries since cuddly Bill Clinton introduced it into the American system to prove Democrats could be tough too. It is an issue that has preoccupied many social policy scholars for a decade or more. But it rarely gets examined intelligently in broader popular debates. It’s a done deal. Anyone against harsher conditionality is shouted down as “soft” on welfare and combatting “dependency”. So they can be safely ignored.

At the most fundamental level, conditionality represents a recasting of the relationship between the citizen and the state. While academics might debate whether state assistance has ever been entirely unconditional, it is clear that whereas once upon a time certain types of assistance were available as a right of citizenship, they are increasingly only offered upon fulfilment of certain conditions. Most typically these conditions relate to exhibiting particular behaviours – intensive job search as a condition of receiving JSA, desisting from anti-social behaviour as a condition of maintaining a social tenancy, etc.

Politicians are inclined to refer to this as a move from a “something for nothing” to a “something for something” culture. On the face of it that no doubt strikes most people as sensible and desirable. But, as is so often the case in policy, you have to get beyond the slogans and look at the detail and the practice on the ground. And when you do so it opens up some important questions about what the approach is trying to achieve. [Read more...]

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Developments in the ongoing Bedroom Tax saga

8610361700_dea8d85350_zYou have to admire Andrew George. Or at least I do. Commentators are busying themselves accusing the Liberal Democrats of inconstancy or hypocrisy in supporting his Private Members’ Bill to reform the Bedroom Tax. But we should remember that George has ploughed a rather lonely furrow in consistent opposition to the policy from the start, even as the bulk of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party repeatedly lined up behind the Tories to support it.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the George’s Affordable Homes Bill, if it were to be successful, would bring housing benefit policy closer to current Liberal Democrat party policy. In that respect the Liberal Democrats can’t be accused of hypocrisy. The more problematic issue is why the Libdem leadership supported a policy of such obvious boneheadedness in the first place.

Nor is it hypocritical to change position on a policy as new evidence comes to light. That is entirely reasonable and sensible. The more problematic issue is that the evidence that is said to have triggered the Liberal Democrat leadership change of position is not, really, very new. It largely confirms what people who understand the housing sector have been saying about the policy’s likely consequences since before the policy was implemented.

But there is some very clear hypocrisy and obfuscation in the Liberal Democrat messaging around yesterday’s events. [Read more...]

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Tax off for good behaviour

Over the weekend the CIH and the Resolution Foundation released a useful briefing called More than a roof. The focus is largely on the way in which financial incentives could be used to improve standards in the private rented sector.

The briefing provides a brief overview of the rapid growth of the private rented sector over the last few years. It then provides a decent summary of the key problems facing the sector, particularly the bottom end of the market where unscrupulous landlords lurk.

When the briefing moves on to policy it reviews what is currently being doing about standards under four headings – statutory obligations, licensing schemes, accreditation schemes, encouraging competition – before going on to look at what more could be done. Here there is an argument that modest and targeted increases in regulation are justified – in particular there is seen to be a strong case for creating greater transparency and uniformity in the standards that form the basis for licensing/accreditation schemes, more effective enforcement targeted at the worst landlords, and the greater regulation of letting agents.

However, despite noting the growth of direct regulatory intervention – notably in the devolved administrations and some London boroughs – the general tone of the report is rather sceptical. Greater regulatory intervention is not seen as the key to solving the problem. [Read more...]

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Shredded, the RBS saga and banking reform

shreddedI’ve just finishing reading Ian Fraser’s Shredded. I started it when I was up in Edinburgh last month, appropriately enough. But other things intervened and it was only over the bank holiday weekend that I got the time to sit down and read the second half.

The book tells the fascinating story of the growth and subsequent implosion of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Fraser has produced a genuine page turner from material that is, on the face of it, pretty dry.

Quite a few elements of the story are now reasonably familiar – particularly relating to the Fred Goodwin era. I have to admit that I am only an intermittent watcher of what’s going on in the world of banking and finance, so it was good to have the developments laid out systematically and largely chronologically. It was particular interesting to learn what has been happening in more recent years, after the bank found itself pretty much nationalised. Like anyone who pays attention to the news I am aware of the massive fines regularly being handed to the bank for past crimes and regulatory infringements, but I wasn’t entirely up to speed with what was happening in terms of its restructuring or the way in which it has interacted with government.

The story of the rapid growth of RBS after 2000 is pretty hair-raising. But I found the story of what happened after 2008 under Stephen Hester, with the aim of bringing the bank back to profitability, no less alarming, in the sense that behaviour did not change dramatically as a result of lessons learnt the hard way. Indeed, there is the suggestion – although disputed by the bank – that aspects of its behaviour deteriorated after 2008 as it attempted to improve its own financial position at its customers’ expense. Entirely coincidentally, but almost as if to underline the point, RBS finds itself in the news again this week accused of selling mortgages without doing the necessary affordability checks, long after it was supposed to be cleaning up its act. [Read more...]

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Do political parties make any difference?

To the politically obsessed this might seem like an odd question. Of course political parties matter.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who take a more jaundiced view of politics: they’d argue that “they’re all as bad as each other” and it doesn’t matter who you elect the government always get in. The more recent revival of that argument would be that all the main political parties are signed up to some version of hegemonic neoliberalism, so it doesn’t really make much difference who forms the government – you’re going to get some version of the same marketising, privatising, deregulating and impoverishing agenda.

Among those who study politics and policy rather more theoretically there is a somewhat more nuanced debate on the topic. You can find views on a spectrum running from accounts of great leaders rising above their circumstances to reshape the world for the better to those who believe that politics is simply an epiphenomenon that does no more than deliver the policy agenda functional to deeper, dominant socio-economic interests. And most points in between. If you’re not careful you soon find yourself entangled in the thicket of state theory, reflecting on whether social institutions are objective, subjective or entirely discursive, or scratching your head over where to strike the explanatory balance between structure and agency.

A paper by Hampshire and Bale, published in West European Politics, has recently appeared online. It offers another take on these issues using coalition policy on immigration as the case study. [Read more...]

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The miraculous power of welfare reform

5078082286_61e24d05dd_nThe international news is pretty grim at the moment. This doesn’t really fit well with the traditional idea that we’re in silly season, when Prime Ministers travel to holiday destinations to point at fish.

Yet something that fits entirely comfortably with silly season is another self-justificatory speech by Iain Duncan-Smith. And today we were treated to a corker. It would be silly, if it weren’t so alarming.

I blogged about IDS’s last big speech back in January. Then I noted:

We have a fine smattering of slogans and soundbites.

There are some extraordinarily sweeping claims about the attitudes, lifestyles and behaviours of those who receive assistance from the state.

If you are looking for simplistic binary understandings of the world – those who work hard and those who are “trapped” in a lifetime on benefit – and implausible generalisations about the moral laxity or weakness of will of those who require state support then you’ve come to the right place.

We have an interpretation of the impacts of welfare reform that can only be sustained as long as we make little or no effort to understand what is actually happening on the ground. There’s a little statistical chicanery of the type that will be familiar to seasoned IDS watchers.

But then no one would mistake IDS for a member of the reality-based community.

Yet, mostly we have a great confused jumble of incoherent fragments of thought and inconsistent lines of argument.

Many of the same ingredients were very much in evidence today. But they were given some new twists and combined with some new ingredients. [Read more...]

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Borismania

I can sort of see the appeal. But, then again, I really can’t. Is Boris the saviour of the Conservative party?

Back at the beginning of last year I saw him give an after dinner speech. At one point he was stood within two metres of me, but I didn’t manage to touch the hem of his cloak. He was speaking to an audience that wasn’t, I wouldn’t have thought, his natural constituency. Yet not long after he’d got going pretty much everyone in the room seemed to be on his side.

He clearly has buckets of charisma. He started off with a topical joke at the Liberal Democrats’ expense – “As Chris Huhne said to his wife over the breakfast table this morning, there are just three points I’d like to get over to you today …”. He then went on to make a speech that was rather incongruous in its interventionist tone – it advocated a more active policy stance on the topic than anything the Labour party has proposed in years. That particular audience loved it.

All this seems both characteristic and symptomatic.

Boris is a good showman. We know this. He’s smarter than he looks. He knows how to press an audience’s buttons. Likely as not he’ll say what needs to be said to ingratiate himself to them.

And now we will no doubt be hearing plenty more from him, and about him, over the next nine months. He only made his big announcement a couple of days ago and already Borismania seems to have broken out in sections of the commentariat. [Read more...]

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