The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
An Ethical Dilemma
by Alex Sweet

Among the many reasons Robin Cook will be missed, his aim of an ethical foreign policy stands out. This was a rare example in recent politics of the correct use of the term 'ethical'. Usually it is misused, in two distinct ways.

The dominant school of thought regards the whole concept of morality as rather dodgy: embarrassing, with religious or at least priggish overtones, and definitely best avoided in politics. What people get up to is their own business: as long as they're not breaking the law, politicians shouldn't stick their noses in. "You can't make sensible policy on the basis of value judgements, because everyone's values are different."

The minority use of the term -- exemplified in weekend newspaper supplements -- is in forms such as 'ethical consumerism' and 'ethical travel'. In this sense, 'ethical' appears to mean a Pooter-ish concern for the most trivial impacts of one's middle-class life. Key traits of this usage are a queasy mixture of guilt and smugness, and a studied refusal to make connections between the personal and the political.

It is easy to see how these two abuses of the concept of ethics re-inforce each other. The first group -- call them the relativists -- gaze in horror at the display of hypocrisy and self-regard put on by the second group, and feel even surer that if that's ethics, they want none of it.

In politics, this desire to avoid making value judgements can have strange consequences, sterilising debate and leaving an odd vacuum. For example, it can lead to a fatalism about the outcomes of market forces, even when the outcomes feel uncomfortable. Worried about spiralling executive pay, or the growing pay gap between lawyers and cleaners? Sorry, but the market has set the pay rates for these services based on their marginal value and their scarcity, and to bring a value judgement that disagreed with the market would be very high-handed. Another example would be extreme multiculturalism -- the belief that the norms of other cultures are not more 'right' or 'wrong' than ours, so we should make special allowance for them.

This dominant form of relativism is based on a mistake between ethics ("what's the right choice to make?") and meta-ethics ("what does 'right' mean?"). Relativism is a meta-ethical theory; and outside of analytical philosophy, nothing could matter less than meta-ethics. (Bernard Williams wrote that "contemporary moral philosophy has found an original way of being boring, which is by not discussing issues at all".) Whereas nothing could matter more than ethics itself. Turning to Wikipedia,

"Metaethical relativists, in general, believe that the descriptive properties of terms such as good, bad, right, and wrong are not subject to universal truth conditions, but only to societal convention and personal preference. Given the same set of verifiable facts, some societies or individuals will have a fundamental disagreement about what ought to be done based on societal or individiual norms, and these cannot be adjudicated using some independent standard of evaluation, for the latter standard will always be societal or personal and not universal, unlike, for example, the scientific standards for assessing temperature or for determining mathematical truths."

Note that while there may be no universal truth of what is right or wrong, there are individual and societal answers. And if politics is about anything, it's about negotiating, acting on and shifting these social norms, both domestically and internationally. One assumes that nobody would be involved in politics unless they had a view, probably a very strongly held view, of what their country ought to be like -- the biggest value judgement of all.

Value judgements are fine; in fact, they're inescapable, and more dangerous when hidden. Anyone who wants to accept the market's pay rates for various different jobs without remedy by progressive taxation is actually arguing about the boundary where economic efficiency should take precedence over social justice -- a meaty value judgement indeed. Similarly, acceptance of the treatment of Muslim women in whatever country would be a value judgement rather than a neutral stance.

Hats off to Robin Cook, then, for understanding that ethics belongs in politics, and has wider scope than what type of nappies one ought to put one's child in.
posted by Apollo Project @ 2:04 pm   0 comments
Monday, August 29, 2005
Frit!
by Jabez Clegg

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Ken Clarke inform us that the Lib Dems are terrified of me. Yet, later on in the same article he
indicates that "he would even consider a coalition with the Liberal Democrats" in order to get his hands on the red box.

Given the divergence of his views from most of his colleagues', we suggest the Member for Rushcliffe might concentrate on establishing a coalition with his own fellow MPs first.
posted by Apollo Project @ 9:51 pm   0 comments
Sunday, August 28, 2005
Drugs, guns, cigarettes and late nights in the bar
by Peter

There has been a mild outbreak of political correctness on the Tory leadership unreality show. Veteran heavyweight Ken Clarke has apparently promised to give up peddling nicotine, while David Cameron is "under pressure" to give up his lucrative directorship of a chain of late-night drinking dens.

This is a far cry indeed from the glorious days of the party, when Tory governments were "washed in on a tide of beer", and a central plank of the party's strategy was to keep the working classes pissed.

Meanwhile, David Davis has 'fessed up to the influence of a slightly batty-sounding American Randy Barnett who "mounts a passionate argument for the right of self-defence for the property owner and the right of retribution for victims of crime [and] represented the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Co-operative in a Supreme Court action to defend their right to provide free cannabis…".

So it will be drugs, guns , and Tony Martin-types all round if Davis ever leads a government.

Not that this is likely. Barnett has spotted that 'the Conservative party coalition has been dominated by traditionalists or pragmatists, but it has not had much of a governing philosophy. It is not entirely clear what it believes in.'

Which seems to be the lesson of the leadership contest…
posted by Apollo Project @ 9:22 pm   10 comments
Saturday, August 27, 2005
It's an alphabet soup out there…
By Peter

The PFI (Public Finance Inititive) was originally a Tory dodge to allow the government to borrow without affecting the PSBR (Public Sector Borrowing Requirement). Gordon Brown kept it going when he took over at the Treasury. It continues to mean that - Enron-style – debt is kept off-balance sheet. But these days the key aggregate affected is PNSD (sounding like a minor Italian Political Party, but actually the Public Sector Net Deficit). Brown is seeking to keep this below 40% of GDP (or should that now be 40% of GNI?).

Public Finance report that Len Cook, the Kiwi national statistician now coming to the end of his term of office has decided that the PSND cannot exclude this borrowing. As a result the PSND/GDP ratio will edge closer to 40%.

It's another small blow to Brown's reputation for prudence, and to the PFI project.

A couple of questions arise. The accounting treatment of PFI has been controversial from the outset. But why is the national statistician blowing the whistle? Shouldn´t the Treasury, The PAC (Public Accounts Committee) or NAO (National Audit Office) have done so long ago? Perhaps someone should ask David Davis or Eduard Leigh (former and current Chairmen of the PAC and actual or putative candidates for the Tory leadership).

Lib Dems have generally been hostile to PFI and will shed no tears over the changes. But somewhere in the bathwater of PFI there is a baby worth saving. The public sector has not been good at large capital projects and should be able to learn something from the private sector. Perhaps, without the distraction of Brown's creative accounting, we can come up with a more effective model of cooperation.
posted by Apollo Project @ 2:05 pm   0 comments
Friday, August 26, 2005
A breakdown in discipline
By Peter

I wouldn´t claim an encyclopaedic knowledge of Labour peers, but I have a professional interest in farm policy, and have heard Lord Haskins speak a few times. He is consistently impressive, in an "I´m not really a politician" sort of way. Danny Alexander did well to get him to help finance his campaign.

In human terms, one could feel sorry for this act getting Haskins into trouble with comradely peers. But on strictly partisan grounds, one can only hope they throw the book at him!
posted by Apollo Project @ 8:13 pm   0 comments
Thursday, August 25, 2005
Thought for the Day
How come the Conservatives' belief in more choice doesn't extend to voting systems?
posted by Apollo Project @ 3:47 pm   2 comments
Does Clarke have the big Mo?
by Jabez Clegg

Jackie Ashley, writing in The Guardian has a piece today on Tory Leadership contender Ken Clarke. She believes him to be a serios threat to Labour and therefore, by extention, the candidate liked least by the Progressive Left. Clarke, she feels, could get in touch with Midlands, Middle England, Middle Class anti-liberal voters: "Clarke's guffaw is a dangerous sound." All is not lost though, for she's sure that the Tories will once again fail to recognise this.

Or is there perhaps an element of double bluff here? Would Guardian Readers really quite like Clarke and his whiff of Europhilia to split the Tories wide open at the appropriate moment? One thing's for sure, all the contenders come with some sort of baggage, which makes for an interesting contest for the unattached observer.
posted by Apollo Project @ 2:18 pm   0 comments
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Liberal Principles - Part 1
Leading from the Centre
We believe in a modern society founded on freedom and democracy, individual responsibility, social justice and community.

Freedom
Britain has been built upon the enterprise and hard work of its citizens. In modern times, this has been underpinned by the freedom accorded to every man and woman, and by the performance of a dynamic free enterprise economy. The free enterprise system has ensured the dispersal of power and wealth, and has been a sure defence against the abuse of power by the state. It has proved to be the best system devised by humankind capable of combining the greatest degree of individual liberty with the greatest degree of individual prosperity. We recognise that there are occasions when it is appropriate for government to intervene - either directly or as a facilitator – when market failures occur, for example. We reject, however, the controls of the corporate state over people’s lives.

Freedom is also about the quality of life enjoyed by every man, woman and child in Britain, which can be measured by the:

- ability of individuals to acquire the education, skills and training they need to enhance their opportunities;
- way people behave towards each other;
- absence of prejudice and discrimination;
- level of income and material well-being of every person;
- absence of fear in our homes and communities;
- quality of the natural and built environment;
- level of toleration in our society;
- ability of government and society to recognise that some people are less able to compete in the market;
- range of choices people enjoy in their everyday lives.

Individual Responsibility
We believe that a prosperous, civilised and caring society can only be built if all its members share the aspirations of such a society. This means acceptance of a high level of individual responsibility for the economic and social well being of Britain, with the government adopting a role as a facilitator, or provider as appropriate.

We believe in promoting opportunity, incentive and responsibility over dependence and state welfare. In the economic sphere, government has a fundamental responsibility to ensure that individual initiative is not stifled by disincentives to hard work and enterprise. This, however, must never be narrowed to an exhortation to selfish aspiration. The greatest examples of individual responsibility are the sacrifices men and women are prepared to make for their families, their communities, society at large and less fortunate communities overseas.

We believe in building an ethos of duty, respect for others and compassion. This should be expressed by the actions of ordinary people, accepting individual responsibility for themselves and their fellow citizens – and is as much about the standards of everyday courtesy and manners as it is about performing heroic deeds.

Social Justice
We believe that social justice is about enhancing the opportunities and well being of all people in Britain; it means everyone having a sense of ownership and participation in the society in which they live. This must entail a particular focus on those in need, and the role individuals, voluntary organisations, government, local authorities and the private sector can play in meeting those needs. The concept of the welfare society, in which the responsibilities of individuals and organisations additional to government are emphasised, is one we prefer to that of the welfare state.

We recognise that continuing organic change in the systems of welfare is essential to meet new challenges but any reforms must preserve the concept of a safety net for those in need regardless of ability to pay. Our approach recognises the role of government in supporting individuals and families in need, in broad partnership. Ultimately, we believe a new social coalition of government, business, charitable and welfare organisations, and other community groups – each contributing their own particular expertise and resources – will address the social issues that directly or indirectly affect all members of society more effectively than through state welfare systems alone.

Community
We believe that individuals develop, and receive the support they need throughout life, from the communities to which they belong. Community means recognition of the mutual dependence that underpins human life; it is the context in which people learn about rights and responsibilities, and how those rights and responsibilities are exercised. For most of us, the immediate community is our family, however constructed. For this reason, we believe that society should build an environment that is sympathetic to the needs of the family.

Other types of community include, amongst others, geographical localities, schools and colleges, friends, and religion. The workplace is also an important community for most people, and for this reason we emphasise the moral responsibility all employers have for the people who work for them. We believe that to encourage business to instil a greater sense of community, such as partnership and co-operation with employees, will transform the performance of business and provide a fulfilling environment for people to develop their working lives.

The International Community
We believe we should be an unashamedly internationalist party. We believe in the concept of partnership and community amongst the nations of the world, and the benefits these can bring in terms of international friendship, the spread of human rights and democracy, and economic achievement. This sense of a shared responsibility for the destiny of all the peoples of the world is fundamental.

For Britain, international co-operation includes intelligent participation in the European Union, NATO, the Commonwealth and the United Nations. We believe in working within and through all these international bodies to lend authority to the achievement of common goals when it is in our common interests to do so. By acting within and shaping those extended communities, we can tackle the needs of the developing world, the challenges of environmental change, promote democratic values and work to preserve peace and stability across the globe. We also believe that the wealthy nations of the world have a responsibility to help the poorer ones.

We believe that Britain must be a full and committed member of an effective European Union, in so doing enabling Britain to gain a greater measure of effective power in the world. We look forward to the opportunities afforded by our influencing of a more outward looking, but reformed, European Union and to the role it can play in strengthening global institutions such as the UN and the World Trade Organisation to promote peace, economic development and environmental stewardship.

The Political Community
We believe that partnership and co-operation should be used to change the mindset of British politics. Politicians of different parties should be prepared to recognise common ground where it exists and co-operate as appropriate to advance the interests of the British people. Government at all levels must foster a sense of partnership and unity throughout the United Kingdom. Constitutional change must be pragmatic and justified by tangible improvements in the quality and accountability of government.

Power should be centred on the local community whenever it is practicable. Government should be about empowerment and not direction. Parliament must be a meeting house for the nation and not the tool of the executive. The rule of law is fundamental in establishing a just and democratic society; politicians must be seen to uphold it.
posted by Apollo Project @ 5:44 pm   3 comments
Monday, August 22, 2005
Up the Junction
By Jabez Clegg

It may only be the silly season, but already on Politicalbetting.com the future of the Liberal Democrats is being called into question. Apparently we are likely to suffer in a squeeze between GB and DD, as our scepticism over the Government’s authoritarian response to recent attacks will not go down well with the public.

Rather like Mao’s comments the success of the French Revolution, it is of course "far too early to tell" what will be important in 2009/10.

But standing up for what you believe in is always in fashion.
posted by Apollo Project @ 2:36 pm   4 comments
Sunday, August 21, 2005
Helping the police with their enquiries (part 2)....
By Peter

The Indy are pursuing a trail that leads to the Home Office:

"Within days, the Home Office had added to the "chase" theory by disclosing that the immigration stamps in Mr de Menezes's passport were not officially authorised. Someone, it appeared, had illegally put a disused residency stamp in his passport.

"This gave the impression that the Brazilian might have run from the police because he was an illegal immigrant. This was also untrue. The Home Office has since made it clear they are not claiming that the young man knew he was in the country illegally. He may have been defrauded by a "facilitator" who sold him a fake passport stamp.

"The evidence collected by the IPCC, which includes CCTV images, shows that he walked calmly through the station, picked up a free newspaper, swiped his Oyster travel pass at the barrier, and walked towards the platform. He ran when he heard the train approaching. He was bareheaded and wearing a light blue denim jacket - not what a bomber would wear to hide a bomb."
posted by Apollo Project @ 8:21 pm   0 comments
Friday, August 19, 2005
Helping the police with their enquiries...
by Peter

Rob is asking the right questions. Bishop Hill is also on the case.

But does the buck stop with Sir Ian?
posted by Apollo Project @ 6:53 pm   0 comments
Thursday, August 18, 2005
A utopian, quasi-anarchist, vision
by Peter

Liberals are usually suspicious of the state - prepared to make use of it, but reluctant to give it more respect than it earns. Transcendent models of the state (like nationalism) cause Liberals enormous concern (and so they should). This carries over into Liberal thinking on international relations, where Liberals typically wish to clip the wings of the State. Three nineteenth century figures typify the different strands in Liberal thinking: Cobden, Gladstone and Palmerston.

For Cobden, the essence of foreign policy was peace, and the way to achieve it was to minimise contacts between governments, and maximise the contacts between peoples. Free Trade was the key means to that aim. We seldom remember quite how radical the Manchester Radicals could be: Anthony Howe (In Free Trade and Liberal England 1846 –1946) describes Cobden's "utopian or quasi-anarchist" vision. "Cobden foresaw a Europe without states, not so much a federation as a Europe of municipalities within an international division of labour. In this vision, the democracy that would liberate the peoples of Europe was integrally linked to free trade, just as surely as protection cohabited with aristocracy."

John Bright had very similar views to Cobden (Phil Grant tells me that they only once failed to vote the same way in a Parliamentary division). He was a trenchant critic of the old diplomacy: "The more you examine this matter the more you will come to the conclusion which I have arrived at, that this foreign policy, this regard for the “liberties of Europe,” this care at one time for “the Protestant interests,” this excessive love for “the balance of power,” is neither more nor less than a gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain."

For Gladstone, international cooperation (through the medium of the Concert of Vienna initially) was the key to sound foreign policy. David Bebbington in The Mind of Gladstone expresses it like this "If the European powers operated together, he argued, the effect was to 'neutralise and fetter and bind up the selfish aims of each' because 'common action is fatal to selfish aims'….What was needed was a 'United Europe', prepared to act against any recalcitrant member of the international community that threw over the traces. Action could ultimately mean coercion, but normally remonstrance would suffice."

Cobden, Gladstone (and especially Bright) were, in many ways, reacting against Palmerston, who has gone down in the history books as the arch practitioner of "gunboat diplomacy" pursuing national interests. He is usually seen as one of the last of the old Whigs. But according to Howe, at the time of the Crimean War "Palmerston's successful pursuit of 'the interests of England'…rallied to his side the flourishing Liberal bourgeoisie, including many of Cobden's erstwhile supporters." He represents an authentic strand in the Liberal tradition.

So Gladstone and Cobden stand for different versions of a moral foreign policy and Palmerston for hard-headed (or short-sighted?) realism.

The moral tradition has been massively important in the history of British liberal thought. It means that Liberals have supported (and continue to support) virtually every international body that might make the relationships between States less anarchic and more social (to use Hedley Bull's terminology). Liberals have supported the League of Nations, and the UN, and are often ready to talk of the prospect of World Government (an odd idea, given that relatively few of the polities that would have to unite are run on liberal lines). The preamble to the party constitution says that

"we will work with other countries towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security. Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration and work for unity based on these principles. We will contribute to the process of peace and disarmament, the elimination of world poverty and the collective safeguarding of democracy by playing a full and constructive role in international organisations which share similar aims and objectives."

The EU embodies (in principle at least) both Gladstonian and Cobdenite ideas: it is a body that requires European governments to sit down side by side and discuss – multilaterally – their differences and their shared objectives. At the same time, it provides for closer contacts between European peoples, both through trade and migration. For all the faults of the EU, it has made war in Europe unthinkable, and can be seen as a vindication of nineteenth century radical ideas. The weaknesses of the EU are also obvious: it puts legislative power in the hands of the executives of the Member States and a Parliament with little legitimacy; it is too prone to legislate on too many issues; and its budget – if limited – is not well-spent.

Nick Clegg, in his chapter in the Orange Book, recognised these failings and argued that
"the EU must only act where there is a clear cross-border issue at stake, or when collective EU action brings obvious benefits to all member states that they would not be able to secure on their own."

The other international organisations have their weaknesses too. Their legitimacy is still more limited, their resources feeble. Chris Huhne dealt with their deficiencies in his chapter of the Orange Book, but is perhaps too optimistic about the prospects for meaningful reform.

Above all, for both the EU and the other international bodies, Gladstone's conviction that 'common action is fatal to selfish aims' has proven unjustified. The multilateral, open debate within international bodies has been just as contaminated with selfish aims as the old secret, bilateral diplomacy.

Articles of this kind normally call for clarity, for a decision to be taken, for the party to cease to try to serve two masters. My argument is different. I should like the party to be more open to all the strands in liberal thought identified. We cannot let go of the Gladstonian tradition of support for mulitilateral bodies. But we should be clearer on their failings and limitations.

We need to be more ready to mix this with a Palmerstonian ability to speak for British interests and to be robust about achieving them (as indeed Ashdown was prepared to do).

And we need to draw upon Cobden's utopian, quasi-anarchist vision that contacts between peoples rather than governments are the greater guarantee of peace.
posted by Apollo Project @ 10:43 am   1 comments
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
I Was A Teenage Hothoused Supergeek
by Phil Grant

As Jabez Clegg, the first cuckoo of late summer, has noted, the annual season of A Level news stories and comments is upon us.

Polly Toynbee is looking forward to settling down to Thursday's newspapers and their obligatory coverage of "hothoused supergeeks with monstrous strings of mega-results". Reader, I must confess: at least as far as the local press was concerned, I was once one of these hothoused supergeeks; thankfully, this was before the wide spread of the internet, so the pictures are likely to remain obscure.

The more serious thrust of Toynbee's article is her attempt to counter the idea that more distinction between candidates is needed at the top end of the A Level grade scale, and that there is a connection between this and equal opportunities in higher education.

"If Oxford, Cambridge and a few others find it hard to choose the very, very best from among that tiny elite, so what? Let them put the names in a hat and pluck them out at random. They will all be pretty good anyway. To pick those with the best chance of getting firsts, lean towards the comprehensive-school applicants who have done well without extra cramming; research shows they tend to do better."

But this is not going to happen. The frustrated and understandable response of top universities is pretty much to discount A Levels, and rely on their own exams, tests and interviews. Is this helpful to students in state schools, where few teachers have the knowledge or the time to focus on top students to prepare them for these bespoke hurdles? Of course not. The benefits will go to those who have, in Toynbee's words, "been over-crammed in private schools".

University entrance apart, state school students are being sold short intellectually. The response one often hears to the charges of falling standards is that much less factual recall is necessary in A Levels these days. This is true, but the unspoken implication that this has resulted in a greater focus on analytical skills is not. There is very little that can't be thoroughly prepared for. When the current exam is upheld as the standard to which schools should aim, their students are not going to get much intellectual training that isn't relevant to the syllabus. Strained state schools - quite rationally in terms of their targets - prune back to the level they need to get students the grades.

Liberals value education for its own sake, and we value equality of opportunity. For both of these reasons we need a return to a public exam system that gives high achievers, just as much as anyone else, an intellectual challenge and a fair record of their achievement.
posted by Apollo Project @ 10:20 pm   7 comments
When will the oil run out? Hemming, Cable, the House of Lords and Tower of Power have their say...
by Peter


Tabman-style, let's start with a song:

There's only so much oil on the ground
Sooner or later there won't be much around
Tell that to your kids while you driving downtown
That there's only so much oil on the ground

Can't cut loose without that juice
Can't cut loose without that juice
If we keep on like we doing things for sure
Will not be cool - It's a fact
We just ai't got suffiecient fuel

There's only so much oil in the earth
It's a fact of life - for what it's worth
Something every little boy and girl should know since birth
That there's only so much oil in the ground

There's no excuse for our abuse
No excuse for our abuse
We just assume that we will not
Exceed the oil supply
But soon enough the world will watch the wells run dry


sang Tower of Power.

Now a couple of Lib Dem MPs are leading the debate on fuel prices and supply.

Vince Cable (a man who knows his oils) wrote this piece for the Guardian, arguing that prices will stabilise and fall in the fairly near future.

Meanwhile John Hemming has called for a debate on when production can be expected to peak:

"The issue", he said, "is not 'when we run out of oil', but when the global production of oil peaks. After that point oil will no longer be priced as something cheaper than mineral water, but as an essential resource that has taken millions of years to produce, but only decades to burn. As soon as the production peaks then there will be tight constraints on what can be consumed that will get tighter every year."


On the related issue of Climate Change, this House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee report makes interesting reading. The Commitee are relatively relaxed about the impact of climate change in the medium term, downbeat about the chances of Kyoto having any impact whatsoever, but upbeat about the potential of alternative sources (particularly photoelectric sources).

There's only so much oil in the ground
Sooner or later there won't be none around
Alternate sources of power must be found
Cause there's only so much oil in the ground


Sing the Lords and Tower of Power in harmony...
posted by Apollo Project @ 12:39 pm   0 comments
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Mixing drinks
by Jabez Clegg

Like a bottle of a supermarket's own-brand spirits ambivalently snuck out of one's parents' sideboard, a media moral panic cannot long be enjoyed straight. A well-loved and strongly-flavoured mixer is needed to keep it palatable.

The BBC, glugging away at the "binge drinking" topic, has poured in a nice seasonal twist - A Level time! Ten percent of parents, apparently, believe their children drink more due to exam stress.

Jabez (who is a year or two beyond A Levels, though still a connoisseur of cider) wonders if the youngsters might simply be enjoying their summer holidays.
posted by Apollo Project @ 9:59 pm   0 comments
Reverting to Type?
by Jabez Clegg

I were tekkin' time away from t'mill t'other day, and came across a couple o' pieces that took me fancy.

First were by them Tories, a scrappin' bunch if ever I saw one. This lad Collins is not happy wi' 'is Masters:

As our MPs return to their constituencies, three things come to mind:

We could have had a new leader by now.
We could have had a Conservative MP for Cheadle.
We could have won the general election (or at least denied Labour a third successive victory)

That we have achieved none of these things is testament to some outstandingly awful leadership.


That Michael Howard will have a face like thunder when 'e sees that!

It seemed only right that I should then stumble upon Geoffrey Wheatcroft's "Strange Death of Tory England". One reviewer o' this book wrote:

To many of us outside, [The Conservative Party] represents little more than an attempt to conserve the lifestyle and views of a priviliged and affluent minority, disguised as a political party. Once this is appreciated, the decline and fall becomes inevitable. And the party seems utterly unable to learn. Just a couple of weeks ago a group of Right wing Tory MPs, no doubt to the delight of the party's incrasingly elderly and reactionary membership, launched a platform for a new direction based on an American style religious conservatism that has not, nor ever has had, any market in Britain. A suitable subtitle for this acute and worthwhile read (and the Tories themselves) would have been 'They just don't get it'.

P'raps t'lad Collins will take note!

By way o' finishin', I thought young Wheatcroft hit t'nail on th'ead wi' this:

Whether taking religious or secular form, Puritanism is a minority taste; most people want to build the just city less than they want their cakes and ale, particularly the ale.

I'll drink ter that.
posted by Apollo Project @ 12:15 pm   0 comments
Heritage Liberalism and the Urban Liberal Revival
by Steve Travis

During the relative Dark Ages for the party, between the 1930s and the 1960s, the Liberal Party had little representation in much of mainstream, urban Britain, and a majority of MPs came from what was termed the "Celtic Fringe" of Northern Scotland, North and West Wales and the South West of England. The reasons for this have been well documented by, amongst others Andrew Russell and Edward Fieldhouse in Neither Left nor Right and can be summarised as:

- a high incidence of religious non-conformism
- a failure of the Labour Party to take hold in agricultural areas, often because the Agricultural Unions were too poor to support their candidates financially in the days when this was necessary
- part of a regional "defining difference" ("We always vote Liberal here") accentuated by relative distance to London

As the first two reasons have largely disappeared it is likely that the last reason, together with whatever remains of family tradition in voting, is what maintains Liberal strength in what might be termed its heartlands. There is no doubt also that the party's relative local strength enabled it to benefit under FPTP from the "anyone but the Tories" mood in 1997. Subsequent hard work in these constituencies has made sure these MPs are, on the whole, well entrenched.

Heritage Liberalism might therefore be defined as (at least partly) working class, rural, anti-establishment (Conservative, land-owning) and metro-sceptical.

By contrast, in 2005 the party gained a clutch of urban and suburban seats (such as Birmingham Yardley, Manchester Withington, Cardiff Central, Bristol West and Leeds North West) to add to its existing urban presence in places such as Sheffield Hallam and South West London.

The nature of these seats is in marked contrast to those that provided the bulwark to the party's disappearance. The 2005 seats contain greater proportions of students, ethnic minorities, public sector workers and young professionals. In addition, these seats were in the main Conservative until 1992 or 1997, whereupon they switched to Labour, and now to the Lib Dems. The "Celtic Fringe" insult has now largely disappeared.

In these urban seats, voters rejected New Labour but did not feel comfortable with what was, in some cases, the second-placed Conservative alternative either. This is a very positive development and needs much deeper examination, for it is in understanding the thoughts and feelings of these voters that the party will be able make significant progress in 2009/10.

There is no definitive work on this new phenomenon, but we can surmise that New Liberal voters are younger, more ethnically diverse, more socially liberal and wealthier than their Heritage Liberal counterparts.

This leaves party strategists in a conundrum; how do you formulate policies which appeal across the whole range of Liberal Democrat voters?

The answer has been provided both by Phil Grant in an earlier post and Jonathan Calder. We need to move away from the constriction of a linear political space that brooks only right/left analysis of any particular problem.

The consensus on economic matters (marginal arguments over the degree of intervention in the market, rather than the old argument between nationalising or not) means that arguments in this sphere are now much more about shades of grey. The real, and more interesting, battle of ideas has shifted elsewhere, towards the shape and role of government and how it engages, or not, in peoples’ lives.

There is some evidence that the populace are beginning to realise that the media and their politicians are colluding in a charade - the idea that the State will always get things done and get it right, and that in a crisis government will solve the problem. Sadly recent events in London highlight only too well the limits of the State, as Stephen Tall argues here.
This is also on top of years of a targets culture that has failed to deliver – we know that Gordon brown has increased spending year on year, but have we seen even an adequate return on this “investment”?

We can borrow some ideas from the Greens, who term the bigger three parties "Grey Parties" for their perceived lack of environmental awareness. In the case of the Lib Dems we can portray ourselves as the Gold party in opposition to the Old parties.

The Old parties might talk the language of choice, devolution and freedom, but their instincts are Statist and centralising. They look to the few - their vested interests and core support - rather than the many. They are trapped in a grim circle of electoral requirement - continued survival relies on keeping society fractured sociologically and geographically.

For example, we see Gordon Brown implementing a series of "broken by design" tax credits whose sole aim seems to be to ensure he gets proper recognition for his largesse. Liberal Democrats such as David Laws believe that taxes and benefits should be integrated to provide a simpler, more efficient system that removes the need for demeaning means tests. And from the Tories we see the policy of keeping Council Tax with no rebanding; a naked play to Southern Sectional interest which again contrasts with the Lib Dem policy of Local Income Tax.

By contrast the Gold Party can construct a cohesive and compelling alternative strategy that appeals to all who share our values, be they Heritage or New Liberal voters, or even currently "outside the tent". The key is to build a strategy on a set of sound principles that resonate with the type of voter uncomfortable with the Status Quo, be it Labour or Conservative, and who wants a more thoughtful, outward looking and confident society to emerge. And the signs are there that the party has recognised the problem and wants to do this.

In the 19th Century, operating in a society that sought to exclude them from political power, Liberal industrialists bypassed the stasis of Conservatism to build lasting monuments to their energy and vision in the new industrial cities. They saw the need to improve the environment in which they found themselves, and engaged local people and businesses to make it happen.

As we look round the centrally-planned, and blighted, cities and dead rural dormitories of the 21st Century, surely there is a need to seize the initiative. It is up to our party to step up to that challenge.
posted by Apollo Project @ 9:36 am   6 comments
Friday, August 12, 2005
Food for Thought - Advice from an Unexpected Quarter
by Steve Travis

Discussion today over on Mike Smithson's incomparable Political Betting has turned to the implications of a Brown vs Davis contest in 2009. In particular, there has been much talk of the "English Question", or the impact of a Scots PM presiding over a Westminster parliament in which Labour does not have a majority of English MPs.

Conservative contributor Blue 2 Win highlights that this potential democratic deficit could be one of the sleeper issues that ignites widespread concern about the role of the state:

Europe as such, is yesterday’s issue and has, in any case, been a misstatement of the root cause of the issue: who runs our country, our health service, our police and so on. And that concern is not just with the Napoleonic jungle in Bruxelles but in terms of our own over-centralisation and the submergence of the individual in the monopolistic state, in terms of people’s control of their lives and communities.

We know where Gordon Brown sits on this carousel: good old socialist high spending low efficiency centralised nanny state dressed up as modernity. Where do David Davis, David Cameron, Ken Clarke et al stand? All the old timers are statists from centralising governments of the past. David Cameron may not be?

There is certainly a chance for the Liberals in all this, if they are reborn as real liberals: but not with CK as leader and not while they have policies decided by a process that leaves them with a cocktail of the unachievable thrust on the party by the unelectable.


Despite Blue 2 Win's jibes about our leadership and policy-making, the kernel of his argument chimes with essays on the apropriate level and scope of government powers in the Orange Book, particularly those by Nick Clegg and Ed Davey.

Further evidence of the opportunity to advance the cause of Liberalism if we can repair the Liberal Schism.
posted by Apollo Project @ 1:08 pm   2 comments
Thursday, August 11, 2005
Impossible Things Before Breakfast
by Peter

I think it was the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland who announced that she could believe three impossible things before breakfast. She probably practiced by reading the comment columns of our daily newspapers and listening to the Today programme.

Yesterday we were asked to believe two impossible things.

First Michael Howard blames terrorism on the way judges interpret the Human Rights Act. An interesting point of view: terrible crimes are committed by people who had never come to the notice of the security agencies, and the judges are to blame. (Yes, this is an oversimplification, but somehow one never feels guilty about oversimplifying the statements of Mr Howard). The cynical explanation for this outburst is that Mr Howard set records for having his own acts as Minister overruled in the Courts: this is the man who based his parole decisions on write-in petitions from Sun readers

Second we have the argument that teaching people patriotism (like they do in the US) would get us out of the hole we're in. The argument seems to be that the US is immune from terrorism. But it isn´t! Remember the Oklahoma bombing? What about all those shootings of people who work in abortion clinics? The US has plenty of terrorism. Much of it is perpetrated by people who think other Americans aren´t patriotic enough. Teaching people to be more patriotic may change the nature of terrorism. It is unlikely to stop it.

Back in the 1970s there was a surge in terrorism across Europe. The objective of these groups (for example, the Baader Meinhof Group) was to rip the liberal veneer off western society and reveal the ugly reality beneath. They failed.

If there is a mastermind behind the recent attacks, he (I think we can say "he" in this case) has a similar objective. He will have failed if we respond with liberal methods. He will have won if we all start believing impossible things before breakfast.
posted by Apollo Project @ 11:44 am   5 comments
Blair’s mistake came before Iraq – Does Britain need the New American Century?
by Paul Lloyd

There has been much discussion in the media in the wake of the London bombings as to whether the Blair Government’s decision to invade Iraq with the US has made Britain a more likely terror target.

There is no doubt in many people’s minds, including many within the security services’, that this is fundamentally true. Blair’s intransigence in the face of international resistance to the US at the time of the build up ensured that Britain’s ‘head’ was well and truly over the parapet.

But in order to move forward from the situation, we have to understand why Blair committed himself to the Iraq adventure, when the risks in terms of causing Britain’s stock to fall amongst many Muslim countries was obvious to many at the time.

Fundamentally, Blair was committed to this course 11th September 2001. Although, in the aftermath of what has now become known as 9/11, Blair’s ‘shoulder to shoulder’ speech seemed so ‘right’ to many around the world, its consequences for Britain were far from thought out. The speech essentially committed Blair from that point on to steer a foreign policy course that backed America’s every move.

This had not necessarily been the intention in the beginning. The Blair Government had accepted the election of Bush Government in 2000 with good grace and assurances that the Government would work with the US in the same way as it had done when for three glorious years Clinton and Blair had ruled the world with magnanimity. But in reality, Britain’s stance became more studied in the early part of 2001, shying away from the more strident aspects of American foreign policy.

From the moment of that speech Blair, not only committed his Government to the war on terror, but to the rhetoric of the ‘Neo-Cons’ who, although not dominating the Bush regime in the ways that some have reported, were nevertheless hugely influential in foreign and defence policies. Much of this is widely documented, and I do not wish to go over old ground too much. Suffice it to say, that the Neo-Cons had long sought to invade Iraq and had pushed for it to become US policy since 1997.

The driving force behind this agenda was the Project for a New American Century, headed by leading conservatives such as Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush, William Kristol, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz). Although, there are some cursory nods to the ideas of ‘strengthening’ alliances, the broad gist of the PNAC agenda is to exert the primacy of the US in the world through military and economic means.

The adoption of the Neo-Con agenda by Blair, therefore, seems very strange, and why he did commit himself has been the subject of much speculation. Probably the best explanation would be a ‘cock-up’ theory. His speech on September 11th was meant to be just that, fine words that represented our ‘standing together in grief’. But the words were a fantastic hook for the Bush administration. Every time they wanted to push forward their agenda on the back of 9/11, and they needed an ally to do so, they just had to whisper the words ‘shoulder to shoulder’.

Ultimately, I believe this shows the weakness of Blair’s character. He knows in his heart of hearts that that is not what he meant by those words, but he has shown time and time again that he believes that he has to prove his sincerity.

So where does this leave us now? It is obvious that Britain needs to take a step away from the US. To reassess its position in the world, and what is more force the US to reassess its global position. And it is obvious that whilst Blair remains Britain’s Prime Minister we will remain locked into this relationship.

But that doesn’t mean that we should give up. Blair and Bush continue to preach the "War On Terror" in the wake of the London bombings. Terrorist activity should not change foreign policy. But recent events do not back up the case that the Iraq war was a necessary step in making the world safer.

What was really needed was a proper Liberal, internationalist response, based on principles of working through legal, international bodies. This remains the case now, as it did then, and it is never too late for this to happen. What is right for Britain, and the rest of the world, is a Project for a New Global Century – not just an American one.
posted by Apollo Project @ 11:30 am   0 comments
Monday, August 08, 2005
Muscular Liberalism and the playing fields of England
by Peter

The Apollo Project is not made up of a singleminded group of like-thinking Liberals, doing nothing but exchange views on SVT and STV, on flat taxes and proportional reporesentation. In between such exchanges you'll find us talking of rugby, cricket and rowing, and even the (elusive) pleasures of long-distance running and football.

Nor does our commitment to finding Liberal ideas for the twenty-first century preclude us looking into the past. Some problems have been around for a long time. The old solutions may not always contine to work - but they're worth considering.

Take schools, for example. Failing schools have been around for a long time. One or two of us - you can call us Muscular Liberals - take an interest in the way a failing Midlands comprehensive (admittedly, fee-paying) was turned around two hundred years ago. A new headmaster introduced uniforms, a house system, modern language teaching, and put greater emphasis on games. His name? Thomas Arnold.

For the Muscular Liberals among us, the last few weeks have seen both good and bad news. The bad news came from the National Playing Fields Association, which told the world that the loss of playing fields is far higher than anyone had expected. 34,000 sports pitches have gone over the last thirteen years. This is what they said:

"Since 1992, when the figures were collected, we have had five years of Conservative government, and eight years of Labour,” said Mrs Moore-Gwyn. “Mr Caborn says he is beginning to turn the tide, and we welcome that. But the tide he is trying to turn has been running far more strongly for the last thirteen years than anyone in government has appreciated. It has devastated our stock of playing fields.”

The Government has estimated previously that 40 sites a month were being lost under the Conservatives – a total of 2,400 sites over their five years in power. That means that according to Mr Caborn’s figures, 2,540 sites have gone while Labour has been in control.

“This is the first time that the Government has released figures like this, and it shows how urgently we need to have regular, reliable, and transparent statistics about the loss of playing fields. Mr Caborn will continue to have our support in anything he does to try to reverse this trend – but neither Labour nor the Conservatives have anything in their record to be proud of so far. In 13 years, this country appears to have squandered nearly half of our children’s inheritance.”


More on this here.

One point of interest is that, in order to tease out these figures, the NPFA had to break through the coded language of New Labour spin. More power to the NPFA, say the Muscular Liberals in our midst. Selling off the occasional playing field may be prudent financial management. Selling off half of them looks rather like selling off the family silver.

The good news came from Edward Davey, by all accounts a Muscular Liberal from the Rowlingite wing. This is what the Guardian said:

Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, has jumped on JK Rowling's coat-tails. "With the fierce debate about discipline in Britain's schools," he says "perhaps the most important lesson from Hogwarts is its traditional house system, where the students mix with different age groups, gain a sense of community and benefit from old-fashioned pastoral care."

Edward's copy of Tom Brown's Schooldays is in the post, but this is a promising start from the new Education Spokesman.
posted by Apollo Project @ 9:47 am   1 comments
‘AXE THE TAX’, OR ‘WHY THE LICENCE FEE IS THE BIGGEST SINGLE THREAT TO PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING’
by Stephen Tall

You get home from a hard day’s work, switch on the television, and settle back for an evening’s perfect viewing. What would your ideal schedule look like? Here’s a few shows I’d choose: Brideshead Revisited, Inspector Morse, GBH, The World At War, Dispatches, 7Up, Jeeves & Wooster and Brass Eye.

The sharp-eyed will have observed a unifying theme: all those programmes were the product of commercial television. They were not chosen for the purposes of engaging in sterile debate about which channel is best (of course I could have found paragons from the BBC’s back catalogue) but to highlight the danger in equating public service broadcasting with ‘Auntie’. They are not the same thing at all, just as socialism is not, [i]pace[/i] Herbert Morrison, what a Labour Government does.

It was all so much simpler back in television’s ‘Golden Age’. Scarce analogue broadcasting frequencies restricted viewer choice to a handful of channels. These were funded by the BBC’s private poll tax, the licence fee, and by “the viewers’ free lunch”, as the strictly regulated advertising funding that underpins the commercial terrestrial channels has been termed.

Those days are dead. Satellite, cable and digital technologies have transformed the broadcasting landscape, introducing a growing band of subscribers to an expanded range of wheat and chaff viewing. The consumer demand is clearly there. Around half of British households are currently equipped to receive multi-channel television; this will rise to some 80 per cent in 2010. In 2001, almost £3 billion was spent on subscription-television, and a further £1.3 billion on renting and buying DVDs and videos. We are quite evidently prepared as a nation to use our disposable income to pay for our television entertainment, over and above the licence fee. This advance of broadcasting towards a free market, with viewers exercising real control over their individual preferences, should be embraced by liberals.

Expanding consumer choice may be a worthwhile aim in itself, but it does not guarantee that public service broadcasting will survive and thrive. What threatens it most is the inability of political parties to respond to the implications of the new digital age, and their nostalgic reliance on the BBC to act as a monopolistic provider of public service broadcasting.

Two prevailing assumptions, as relevant as ever, have guided successive governments’ approaches to public service broadcasting for the last 50 years. The first is that public funding is essential to correct market failure given the importance of broadcasting to our society’s political and cultural climate. The second is that standards in public service broadcasting can be improved by governments helping to frame the market conditions in which rival channels compete on a level playing field to provide high quality programming. This vital tenet is too often forgotten by liberals, and should be championed with greater vigour and focus.

For half a century, public service broadcasting flourished thanks to the rivalry of its two great institutions, the BBC and ITV. The genesis of the advertising-funded ITV in the 1950s jolted the public-funded BBC into belated recognition that it could best foster its reputation as the voice of the nation by making quality programmes with popular appeal. By the same token, ITV’s public service remit – to provide news, religious, educational, arts, children’s and regional programming – forced it to think afresh how these genres could be made accessible to a mass audience, so safeguarding its advertising revenues. The BBC licence fee was increased in line with ITV’s advertising revenues to ensure reasonable parity between the rivals’ programming budgets.

This compact between the BBC and ITV was the basis for Britain’s public service broadcasting for half a century. The longevity of this cosy duopoly perhaps explains the reluctance of politicians to believe that it could have been so abruptly shattered.

So what’s changed, and why’s there a problem?

The BBC’s problem is the most obvious. Its privileged position as sole licence fee beneficiary obligates it to demonstrate its national appeal: if everybody’s paying for it, we must all feel we are getting our money’s worth. That used to be a slam-dunk. As recently as 1995, the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board put the BBC’s ‘reach’ (the proportion of those who watch a channel for at least 15 minutes a week) at 94%. However, by the first quarter of 2004, it was down to 89%.

The fact that one in 10 of the television population do not tune into the BBC in any given week is not due to any lack of effort on the corporation’s behalf. The BBC set out its stall quite explicitly during Greg Dyke’s tenure as Director General: to become the nation’s most popular broadcaster. The result is that if, on any given night, the peak-time output of BBC1 and ITV1 were submitted to a ‘blind taste test’ they would be virtually indistinguishable. The BBC’s public service remit has become sublimated to its ratings obsession, and yet this is a perfectly understandable response to the political imperative to preserve its universal voice in the digital age. This is the BBC’s dilemma: if it chases ratings to retain its universal appeal it is accused of ‘dumbing down’; if it focuses on its public service remit it risks losing viewers and growing licence fee resentment.

ITV’s problems are, if anything, more acute, since its survival is dependent on the commercial viability of its output. Its privileged position as principal beneficiary of lucrative advertising revenues has for decades enabled it to invest in low-profit (or loss-making) programmes. There is no inevitability, though, that advertisers will continue to choose ITV in the multi-channel age, or, if they do, that ITV will be able to charge what they could in the past. The trends are clear. In 1997, ITV commanded a 33 per cent audience share, and 65 per cent of TV advertising revenues. By 2003, just six years later, this had slipped to a 24 per cent audience share, and 54 per cent of advertising revenues. If it is to provide its shareholders with good value, ITV will increasingly be forced to maximise revenues from every available programme slot. Each morning, at 10 am, channel controllers drop everything to examine the overnight ratings: already ITV gives short shrift to those shows which cannot guarantee the audiences their advertisers demand.

ITV is not, of course, the BBC’s sole competitor, but, as a network which is a publicly-quoted company, it is the most exposed to such commercial pressures. State-owned Channel Four remains protected from the extremities of the new digital climate; while Five’s business planning was predicated on an initial audience share of just five per cent. However, it is reasonable to assume that the vicissitudes of multi-channel Britain will have an inescapably negative impact on the commitment of all the commercial terrestrial channels to public service broadcasting.

In other words, we are on the verge of turning the broadcasting clock back to its pre-ITV existence, in which the BBC is de facto the sole purveyor of public service broadcasting.

So what fate awaits public service broadcasting in the digital age? The utterances of the political parties suggest they believe no fundamental changes are necessary. The Liberal Democrats’ view is clear: “There should be a strong public service ethos underpinning broadcasting … this is best achieved through the BBC in its current form, along with public service remits carried by other broadcasters.” The BBC, the party maintains, should continue to be funded by the licence fee.

Such a strategy is fatally flawed by its refusal to appreciate broadcasting’s shifted sands. Progressive liberals should not espouse regressive economic policies: enshrining a poll tax-funded BBC as the monopolistic supplier of public service broadcasting will erode standards, and restrict the choice of the television consumer. Instead we should try to harness the new technologies to make available to the maximum number of people the benefits of the new multi-channel digital age. At the same time, we must endeavour to ensure the market conditions exist in which these channels compete to create the highest quality programmes.

But how do we achieve this?

A prerequisite is the axing of the licence fee, that anachronistic hangover from the analogue era. It is not just that the licence fee perpetuates the myth that the BBC and public service broadcasting are one and the same. More importantly, it is insupportable to make the growing numbers of those who do not wish to watch the BBC pay for it regardless. Regressive taxation militates against social justice, and should be used sparingly; for example, to tackle environmental externalities. As David Elstein has noted, “Half of the population, many of the poorest, don’t have digital television, yet they fork out up to £400m a year for it. At the moment, it’s not a market; it’s compulsory purchase.” It is no surprise that, in 2001, of the 121,124 people prosecuted for television licence evasion, a disproportionate number were poor, unemployed, single parents. Bluntly, those who can least afford it are helping to subsidise the cultural pleasure of those who can.

The BBC could, of course, survive the removal of its licence fee income by becoming a subscription-funded broadcaster, paid for by those who actively choose to watch its programmes. Some people would, inevitably, stop watching the BBC, but at least the corporation would not need to waste its creative juices devising ever more populist ways of reaching out to those who are just not interested. Instead, it could concentrate on making dramas as darkly compelling as Six Feet Under, and comedies as daringly zeitgeist as Sex And The City, both of which are the products of the American pay-television channel HBO.

With the licence fee dispatched, a sensible discussion can commence on the best way to enhance public service broadcasting. So let us return to our earlier assumptions: that public funding remains a necessary corrective to market failure; and that governments should frame market conditions to ensure rival channels compete on a level playing field.

The most obvious present market failure is that half the population currently does not have access to digital, cable or satellite television, whether by personal choice or economic necessity. That gap will, however, be bridged within the next decade, as digital adapters become more affordable, and as households update their television sets to digital-compatible models. Within the next decade, we can safely assume there will be near-universal access to the digital age.

It is the cultural failings of the market, therefore, which should most exercise us if, as predicted, the commercial terrestrial channels increasingly withdraw from their public service remit, leaving a void which the BBC alone is fit to fill. Our agreed aim must surely be to promote a plurality of channels whose healthy rivalries ratchet up the quality of their respective programmes. What mechanism is available, then, that will assist all post-licence fee public service broadcasters to continue making ‘merit good programmes’, shows which contribute more to society than their economic value?

The obvious solution is to create a public service fund to which all broadcasters would be able to bid. Two variations on this model have recently been proposed. One version, put forward by David Elstein, and which also argues for the ending of the licence fee, would establish a new Public Broadcasting Authority, answerable to Ofcom, to run its “contestable funding” of up to £1 billion (and out of which BBC radio would continue to be funded). It would be paid for from the VAT levied on pay-television subscription services, or by new spectrum taxes imposed on all commercial broadcasters.

An alternative, propounded by Barry Cox, Tim Gardam and Adam Singer, (and which consciously eschews the controversy of licence fee abolition), would establish a public service fund to which any commercial broadcaster could bid for matched funding. Alert to the danger that such a fund could become some kind of “hideous quango trying to force ‘good for you’ programmes down reluctant throats”, they advocate careful safeguards. For example, the fund would provide between 20 and 50 per cent of the programme’s budget: the floor to prevent the fund being used as top-up money for a programme which the broadcaster would have made anyway, the ceiling to ensure the broadcaster’s commitment to its own idea.

There are two alternate visions of the future of public service broadcasting. The first, to which the three main political parties are currently wedded, accepts the realities of the digital age, but refuses to engage in its implications, believing the BBC-ITV compact will continue in the future to provide the same kind of quality public service broadcasting we have enjoyed in the past. The second vision embraces the benefits that the digital age will bring consumers, but recognises that new funding arrangements are essential to ensure a new ‘Golden Age’ of public service broadcasting.

The Liberal Democrats have the opportunity to carve out a distinctive policy stance. By abolishing that regressive poll tax, the licence fee, which disproportionately hits the poor hardest, we can advance the cause of social justice; and by creating fairer market conditions in which all channels can compete equally for funding to make high quality programmes, we can advance the cause of public service broadcasting.
posted by Apollo Project @ 9:44 am   15 comments
Wednesday, August 03, 2005
Revisiting Class - Part 1
by Alex Sweet

John Major wanted to rid society of it. Tony Blair prefers not to mention it. Social class is the topic that all politicians are happy to ignore. Yet if classes are simply "groups with shared market situation", then an understanding of class is crucial to understanding how our society works.

First, a quick primer. We are interested in a very limited view of class ( Neo-Weberian in the academic jargon). People in Britain today may not think of themselves in terms of class; class identities may have declined; and there's certainly no evidence of any collective class action. It is sufficient that class continues to serve as a predictor of life chances: as such it remains tremendously powerful.

Most useful is John Goldthorpe's categorical measure of class, that distinguishes four broad groups on the basis of the type of contract with the employer. These range from professionals, managers and experts (who have salary scales, career prospects and pensions) through intermediate positions (routine non-manual, technical and supervisory), to manual workers (hourly paid, closely supervised, less job security, no career structure), as well as the self-employed such as farmers, shop-keepers and some plumbers. Note that unlike the crude A/B/C1/C2/D/E scale used by advertisers, there is not quite a neat hierarchy, and money is *not* the key factor here: self-employed people will earn much more than some public-sector professionals, for example.

The power of this classification is simply its success as a predictor of the life outcomes of children. It was Pitirim Sorokin who advanced the first modern theory of social mobility in 1927. Certain occupations in society are important for the survival of the group as a whole, and these positions require a high degree of intelligence, he argued. Given that intelligence in children, prior to selection, is distributed across society, there will be a pressure for some inter-generational mobility, to ensure that the top positions are continually filled by the most intelligent.

So far, so much potted social science. Why does this matter to the Liberal Democrats? The clue's in the first substantive word of the preamble to the party's constitution: a *fair*, free and open society. If we're aiming for a fair society, we'd better know what we mean by that. Granted that certain occupational classes are more desirable than others (and I'd like to hear from anyone who doesn't grant that), any 'fair society' had better ensure that the most desirable positions are attainable by the best people of all backgrounds.

Yet in Britain today, the son of a professional, manager or expert is 2.7 times as likely to end up in such a job himself as the son of a manual worker. Class naturally correlates strongly with education, which is a key transmission mechanism between generations; but also with health, life expectancy and many other variables. To be blunt, Britain displays "considerable short-range mobility, very little long-range movement, a high degree of self-recruitment in the elite, and a barrier to movement across the manual/non-manual divide". That was the verdict of David Glass in 1949, summarised by David Heath; and major follow-ups in the 1990s suggested that mobility now is no greater than immediately after the second world war.

If a half-century of educational expansion and progressive social policies can't significantly increase social mobility, is it therefore a phantom, not to be targeted? Should we give up on greater mobility, and accept instead the orderly management of our stratified society by its self-perpetuating higher classes?

Quite apart from being indefensibly defeatist, this would be unwise. Sorokin wrote ominously that when the link between intelligence and the top jobs disappears, such periods "usually lead to an upheaval, after which, if the group does not perish, the correlation is re-established".

The problem appears intractable, and the policy challenge is immense. Yet Labour and the Conservatives are both compromised in their thinking on this issue, by their historical vested interests and by residual anxieties about their current class-based electorates. This presents the Liberal Democrats with a huge opportunity to take control of one of the most important debates going. We'll review possible approaches in a future post.
posted by Apollo Project @ 6:21 pm   0 comments
Tuesday, August 02, 2005
What would Nancy Mitford have made of U-PVC?
by Steve Travis

Earlier this evening on Channel 4 I caught the end of a property programme. Fronted by Sarah Beeny, the aim of the programme was to spend £10,000 trying to improve the look of a row of 12 Edwardian terrace houses in Nottingham.

Time, in the form of 40 years of "DIY", had taken its toll on these unfortunate houses. What had once been a uniform row with a degree of aesthetic integrity, was now the all-too-common collection of UPVC windows, "Wally-bricks" (stone cladding), garish paint-jobs and paved-over front gardens.

At the end of the programme the makeover had restored a degree of architectural sympathy to the street, and in the process added £10k to the value of each house, for an outlay of £800 per property (take note - good taste can also be financially beneficial. I have heard that replacing original hardwood sash windows with UPVC can knock £20-£30k off the value of a property!).

In addition to this pecuniary benefit, the residents had gained something further - a community. It had taken them 4 weeks of argument and hard graft to get to the end of the project. But more importantly, they had all interacted with one another, often for the first time. Neighbours of many years standing who had previously barely exchanged two words, had worked together to acheive an improvement of their neighbourhood, and were all off to the pub to celebrate the success of their collective action.

Its a story to warm the cockles of a true Liberal's heart. Even if the budget didn't stretch to ripping out the UPVC.
posted by Apollo Project @ 11:11 pm   0 comments
Escaping From Stringworld - Progressives For The Small State
by Phil Grant

Steve Travis' post The Second Time Around has made the case for Liberal Democrat moves to bridge the schism with liberal-minded Conservatives. This is one way of combatting the pessimism often seen from the "Stringworld" analysis of British politics. Stringworld thinkers can't see the labels "left" and "right" without taking them extremely literally. In Stringworld, everybody in politics is tied down to a straight line. We can move strategically right or left (if the move is rightward, more often than not it is a "lurch"), but that exhausts the possibilities - there's no escaping one dimension.

Stringworld thought is depressingly common - even among political analysts and commentators who ought to know better. And if we aren't careful, we'll start believing it. We'll forget the distinct approach that liberalism has to offer, and create an insoluble riddle for ourselves - move right and gain voters from the Tories while losing them to Labour, or move left and experience the mirror image of that?

Steve has shown that an avowedly liberal agenda can win support away from the Conservatives. It can win support away from Labour too.

Why did Labour win in 1997? The unattractive exhaustion of the Major government and the personal appeal of Blair for a start, but in policy terms what resonated with the swing electorate was a narrative of public services. The Conservatives had lost crediblity as defenders of quality health and education free at the point of use, despite spending which was numerically respectable, and would probably have risen faster under the continued Chancellorship of Kenneth Clarke (who has admitted his spending forecasts would have been wrapping fish and chips on 2nd May 1997) than under Gordon Brown.

But Labour seemed to convey the appropriate serious and dignified commitment to public services, grounded in its historical record as the party which created the modern health, welfare and education systems (the last two, however, devised by the Liberal Beveridge and the Conservative Butler).
The trouble with Labour in office - just as much in the Wilson years of managerialism as now - is that means are always confused with ends. Honourable Labour traditions of cooperativism and mutualism are not quite discarded, but they are always seen as too dangerous. You just don't know what you'll get with diversity and innovation - better have something thoroughly designed by Whitehall for the whole country. And it's hard to believe that Gordon Brown as Prime Minister will challenge this.

Wherever management is devolved downwards, it is constrained by a culture of targets, with the whole complex set of outcomes and aims of running a public service reduced to a small set of measurements. No one would claim there should be no "scorecard" for a public service, but when you only pay attention to the cost of cleaning a hospital, say, rather than how well it's done, it's easy to see the traps you can fall into.

Do Liberal Democrats really have to commit to more of this in order not to scare away former Labour voters who came over to us in 2005? If we oppose it, does that mean we are "lurching to the right"? We can do better, and not by trying to outbid Labour in centralism.

Where Labour has moved outside the managerial assumptions that a service publically funded by central government must be run centrally too, it's done so in a way that gives us the worst of both worlds. Private Finance Initiative deals result, in effect, in the government borrowing more expensively than it needs to, while being just as exposed as it always was to the risks of a project ballooning in its costs or in how long it takes to complete. Foundation hospitals distort NHS funding patterns without delivering significant choice or local democratic accountability.

What are the Liberal answers? There isn't a set that self-evidently ends the debate, any more than there is a single centralised template you can apply to a public service. And there is a major question of approach - to what extent do you allow service-delivering bodies to be completely autonomous, and rely on user choice driving the bad ones away, and to what extent does local government have a strategic planning role. Instinctively most of us would probably want to see some of both: certainly in the interim at the very least, rather than a "big bang" of instant and one-sided devolution to one or another set of bodies.

Some Labour thinkers such as Peter Kellner deserve credit for their analysis of this. They may even have charmed Tony Blair. But Gordon Brown, already largely in charge of the domestic agenda, isn't listening.

Centralism isn't working. And a major task of the Liberal Democrat policy review is to think hard - and look hard - at the evidence and experiments - about alternatives. This isn't a lurch to the right; it isn't a rejection of Labour-leaning voters: it is a true engagement with the problems of how to get where Labour's managerialism makes it afraid to go.
posted by Apollo Project @ 10:56 pm   2 comments
Caught Between Scylla and Charybdis – Should Liberals Support Grammar Schools?
by Steve Travis

The Observer's Nick Cohen returned recently to a familiar theme arguing amongst other things that Grammar Schools were essential to prevent “selection by wealth”, and were killed off by an unthinking conspiracy of Labour former-Public Schoolboys as a move to finish off the competition. Cohen rather over-eggs the conspiracy-theorist pudding with this latter point, but his others bear considered reflection.

As it is, 7% of the school population attend fee-paying schools, a number that is creeping up year on year. And for those who’s “ideology” prevents them from exercising this option, they instead move to “nice” areas with good state schools (for which read produce the kind of A-Level results that means their kids will enter the “better” Universities). For a Liberal, this sort of educational apartheid feels instinctively wrong. Unfortunately, the grammar school alternative lauded by Cohen does not in practice answer this question either. Grammar schools select on ability as measured by the 11-plus examination; like all exams, having the right approach and technique gives you an advantage. You can be sure that middle class kids would be coached extensively to ensure they pass wherever possible. And they would attend the kind of primary schools that would in any case gear themselves to passing this exam, thus ensuring their march up the league tables. This issue is explored in more detail on the BBC Website.

To coin a rather unfortunate phrase, in order to unravel this conundrum we have to "go back to basics" and ask ourselves three questions:

- What is the point of education?
- What emphasis do we give to the potential conflicts between the Liberal tenets of opportunity for all versus choice for all?
- Should we try to get away from one size fits all?

To take the first point, education is first and foremost about allowing a person to fulfil their potential intellectually, socially and physically. A secondary benefit of this is that well informed citizens can contribute to society and live their lives tolerant of the quirks of others. The difficulty is that British society and culture has long had an anti-intellectual streak which is particularly prevalent amongst young males today. Consequently many children are unable to develop their potential as they are forced to conform to the playground norms that deride learning.

On the face of it, then, we have an argument in favour of Grammar Schools as separate institutions as opposed to mere streaming within existing comprehensives. They provide an oasis where the academically-inclined can learn, away from the pressure of the disruptive elements who make teaching a near impossibility in many schools. This also fits well with the concept of diversity, argued for eloquently on a similar-themed topic by Jonathan Calder

This argument is seductive, and does indeed have the potential to help the bright working class children mentioned by both Calder and Cohen. It leaves the nagging presence of those “condemned” to the secondary modern jungle to be addressed, and again part of the answer here is elucidated in Calder’s article by Nichol Stephen – a return to college-based practical education at 14. There are also the further questions to be looked into of social cohesion and practicality. These might both be addressed in the shape of the rural school. In rural communities (and often, given traffic problems, urban ones), choice is simply not an option. Consequently local schools have to be made to work, and in notable examples, given the backing of motivated parents, they do. They have the added advantage of preventing further social dislocation that is already present by virtue of the middle and working classes living and working in different places.

Some comprehensive schools do work well, when given parental support, and when staffed by well trained and motivated teachers. But given the recognition that many fail, the dilemma is whether to offer a lifeboat to some whilst the situation is as it is, or seek to change the system asap (whilst realising this is likely to be a utopian outcome). This was recognised as far back as 1976 by Jim Callaghan

When it’s your children’s future at stake, and the local school does a good impression of Sodom and Gommorrah – what would you do?

It’s not easy being a Liberal …
posted by Apollo Project @ 1:14 pm   6 comments
 
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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.

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