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...]

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...]

Ed’s brave housing proposal

Rent House Showing Rental Property Estate AgentsRent regulation and three year tenancies. That’s Ed’s big housing idea for the private rented sector. It is what the people wanted. Well, quite a lot of people appear to support the idea.

But even before the formal announcement has been made it is apparent that some are vehemently against. The initial voices of outrage were those one might have anticipated. The incorrigible Mr Shapps and the Adam Smith Institute, ably supported by that other cheerleader for deregulated markets City AM were quick off the mark in condemning Labour’s proposals for ‘rent control’ in lurid terms. It is little short of socialism, red in tooth and claw. Assar Lindbeck’s famous quote about rent control being the best way to destroy a city apart from bombing was dusted off and given another airing.

Those in the red corner were supportive of the initiative as a follow-on to Labour’s energy price freeze. Mark Ferguson at Labour List welcomed the move and argued that Miliband needs to stick to his plan in the face of the inevitable criticism – this is a bold move and should be proclaimed as such.

Ferguson finishes his post by noting that a quarter of Conservative MPs are private landlords. Which is no doubt a useful piece of information when interpreting the howls of outrage which will inevitably follow today’s formal policy announcement.

But are rent regulation and longer tenancies a good idea? [Read more...]

Fear and smear

Bird politiciansThe Commentariat might, for once, be pretty much unanimous. The run up to General Election 2015 is going to be vicious. The focus isn’t going to be measured debate on the pressing issues of the day – when was the last time that happened? – but mud slinging and character assassination. There are plenty of people willing to assert that the Tories, under the baleful influence of Lynton Crosby, are going to run the dirtiest campaign since the 1992 campaign to see off Neil Kinnock. The Tories, rather predictably, deny this is their strategy.

The Labour high command have been out in force over the weekend making the case that the Tories are going to be run a “fear and smear” campaign. Ed Miliband has claimed that David Cameron is demeaning the office of Prime Minister by stooping to unacceptably low tactics such as seeking to use the manifold failings of the egregious Rev Flowers as a stick with which to beat Labour. Insinuation of incompetence and unsuitability by association is a key part of the game plan, it is claimed. Labour’s Election Campaign organiser, Douglas Alexander, in an interview in the Guardian yesterday highlighted, among other matters, the importance of an effective social media operation in countering the smears. He argued that: “You have to counter lies with truth. When your opponents smear and vilify, you have to respond quickly and effectively with the facts”.

There are some obvious responses to Labour’s pre-emptive attempt to grab the moral high ground. We can be reasonably confident that it is about more than simply defending their good name.

What are they up to? [Read more...]

Meet the new boss … the arrival of Reeves and Hunt

7929568108_32b18088e1_nLabour seem to be getting themselves in a bit of a tangle. Again.

Ed Miliband – he of the energy price freeze and the ‘use it or lose it’ approach to development land – claims to be bringing socialism back. The removal of Stephen Twigg and Liam Byrne from the shadow cabinet and the shuffling of Jim Murphy to International Development was interpreted by some a cull of the Blairites. Some on the left hoped that this was a further indication that Labour aimed to produce a policy platform that was less Tory-lite and more identifiably social democratic. There were those who hoped control of their party may have been wrestled out of the hands of the Tory B team. But I don’t think anyone sensibly thought the party was going to travel as far as genuine socialism.

Today must therefore present a bitter prospect for those hoping for a bright new dawn. [Read more...]

Mailevolence

The evolving Miliband-Mail saga is by turns fascinating, troubling and encouraging.

The saga is fascinating because it suggests that Miliband is properly getting under the skin of the political right. His Conference speech presented a very diluted form of social democracy. It represented a tentative departure from the neoliberal consensus that has prevailed for thirty years. Yet this has provoked a hysterical reaction. The speech was immediately denounced as socialism, or worse. Yet, that interpretation could only be sustained by distracting from what Miliband was actually saying. After all, earlier this year the IMF – that bastion of leftism – suggested that it might be a good idea for the UK to consider state interventions to bring land forward more quickly for residential development. So we needn’t assume Miliband was drawing his inspiration from the confiscatory tendencies of revolutionary Marxism. In that context, you can see the Mail going after Ed Miliband’s father – playing the man not the ball – makes some sort of sense.

Which is more than can be said for the content of the attack itself. [Read more...]

Has Miliband tilted the axis of debate?

What a difference a speech makes.

The reaction to Ed Miliband’s speech on Tuesday has been remarkable. The initial press reaction was hysterical. In a matter of minutes Miliband went from an ineffectual leader who was frittering away Labour’s poll lead through inactivity to a clear and present danger to capitalist society. The “Red Ed” epithet was rapidly resurrected.

Many on the right and, rather more disappointingly, in the self-proclaimed centre cried “socialism”. And that is never intended as a compliment. Yet it was quite obvious that if people were willing to label Miliband’s proposals as socialism then they either have no idea what “socialism” actually means or are willing to do any sort of violence to terminology for ideological purposes.

As Andrew Adonis has pointed out in today’s Independent, what Miliband proposes for the energy market – which is the part of his speech that has attracted most attention – is no more radical than Tony Blair proposed in 1997. And, as we know, Blair stands charged of abandoning socialism.

The reaction to the proposals from the rightwing commentariat and from the energy industry has been predictably apocalyptic. [Read more...]

Miliband’s housing promises reflect an escalating crisis

[Originally posted at The Conversation, 25/09/13]

Modern Housing

The commentariat has gone into overdrive in the wake of Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference. Does it represent, at last, the shattering of the neoliberal consensus? Is it the articulation of a vision for a more inclusive and humane social democratic future? Or is it the sound of the clock being wound back to the bad old days of the 1970s, and a Labour leadership only marginally to the right of Fidel Castro?

Miliband’s speech roamed across relatively broad policy terrain, with the announcement of an energy price freeze generating the most coverage. But I want to look a little more closely at what he had to say about housing policy.

The measure that had been heavily trailed prior to the speech was the abolition of the so-called “bedroom tax”. This will prove popular with many voters, even if they are not directly affected by it. The underoccupancy penalty, as it is officially known, represents a policy blunder of some considerable magnitude.

You may or may not agree with the principle. There are plausible arguments for and against. But it is hard to disagree that the policy has been implemented in a context almost guaranteed to ensure that its stated aims are frustrated. [Read more...]

On Syrian atrocities

Stop bombing signSyria has been preoccupying the mainstream media and the political blogosphere for several days now. I’ve not blogged about it because I try to stick to things I know something about.

I know very little about Syria. Other than it is an awful situation. And awfully complicated. Clearly, the Syrian government has inflicted some truly unspeakable acts of violence upon the Syrian people. These may or may not have involved the use of chemical weapons. It seems likely that they did. Chemical weapons are horrendous. But even if they weren’t used it is clear that some dreadful crimes have been perpetrated. I’ve never entirely understood why chemical weapons, specifically, are a trigger for intervention. Is killing the same number of people by more conventional means less unacceptable?

The desire to intervene to stop such human suffering is only natural. It is a sign that simple human empathy is still alive.

But how to intervene effectively? [Read more...]

Why is Owen Jones so annoying?

8753339813_fbf37b9da0_nThe Independent columnist Owen Jones occupies a slightly strange position in the political landscape. He has been ranked in various lists as one of the most influential thinkers on the left. He has a reasonably high profile in the broadcast and print media. He’s quite active on social media. Yet his political stance is not one that is leading any debate that I’m aware of. Quite the opposite. The Labour party generally seems to do its utmost to distance itself publicly from the sorts of positions that Jones espouses. That process has gone into overdrive this week in relation to the Labour response to George Osborne’s cuts in social security as part of the Spending Review. The debate between Jones and Simon Danczuk, first on Twitter and then on the Daily Politics a couple of days ago, being the most extraordinary manifestation of this.

Whether there is more sympathy for Jones’ stance in private in Ed Miliband’s camp and the shadow front bench have been warned off attacking him, as Dan Hodges suggested in the Telegraph the other day, is impossible to say. That could just be the ultra-Blairite Hodges making mischief for Miliband. Certainly Jones has stated on social media that he doesn’t recognise the situation as described by Hodges.

George Osborne and chums must be loving watching Labour tear itself to bits on the seven day wait welfare hand grenade that he lobbed into the debate. Once Ed Balls stated that Labour would consider whether the policy saved money and worked – rather than rejecting it outright as unacceptable in a civilised society, for example – the scope for some serious left on “left” friendly fire was obvious to all. Presumably that is what Osborne was hoping for when he proposed the policy change, alongside the sadistic pleasure of inflicting more misery on the poor.

It is clear that Jones is viewed as more of a problem for the Labour party than for the Conservatives. The Conservatives presumably think that Jones is doing them all sorts of favours by publicly challenging the Labour party’s current policy approach of trying to stand a few millimetres to the left of the Conservatives.

I met Owen Jones briefly and he was perfectly pleasant in person. But there is something about his public persona that gets up people’s noses. I’ve been reflecting on what it is that makes Jones so annoying to so many people. [Read more...]