The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
The age of consent
by Peter

Stephen Glenn has a rather knockabout post on the voting age on his Linlithgow blog.

As people tend to, he has fun with the different ages one can do different things. Certainly some of these are anomalous. But I have never thought it possible to argue that one should actually be considered old enough to do everything at the same age.

If the voting age were 17, the Liberal Party would have had one more vote (mine) in 1979. If it were 12, the Liberal Party would have had two more votes (both mine) in 1974. (Other people are probably more open-minded and flexible than I am). But at the age of sixteen I thought it ridiculous that some of my class-mates could and did leave school to become housewives. Looking back, some of them would now agree.

Stephen argues that lowering the voting age would make the 18-25 age group more likely to vote. It is certainly aguable, but I am not completely convinced.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 9:35 pm   0 comments
Monday, November 28, 2005
Lahore heroes
by Peter

Several of my early cricket heroes were Pakistanis. The first day of first-class cricket I ever watched featured a century from Sadiq Mohammed - if he hadn´t been there I might never have gone back.

There were a few who didn´t play for Gloucestershire - Imran Khan (who I first saw in a benefit game at Arle Court) and Javed Miandad (who I remember as young, skinny and an athletic out-fielder).

But the big two for me were obviously Sadiq (short, rather rotund, combative when batting, a smile on his face when he wasn´t) and the legendary Zaheer Abbas.

Zaheer was best of them all. I can´t think of a more graceful batman. He never seemed to hit the ball hard, but he scored a huge number of runs in boundaries.
I think there were four occasions when he scored a double century and a century in the same match. I watched him do it twice: once at Cheltenham and once at Bath.

He played all the shots, but his trademark was for me the cut that would streak past gully's left hand and curve into the boundary boards at wide third man.

So it was always an ambition for me to go and watch Pakistan play at Lahore - in front of a huge and enthusiastic crowd. The ideal time to go would have been to see Zaheer's final big test score - 168 against India.

In fact I have watched one afternoon of Test cricket in Pakistan. About ten years ago I spent a few weeks working in Islamabad and Quetta. I managed to clear one afternoon of meetings and took off to the ground in Rawalpindi, where Pakistan were playing Zimbabwe. The crowd were quiet and decorous, and the play was rather quiet too - Pakistan rebuilding the innings after losing a clutch of wickets while the taxi took me to the ground. (The taxi driver had been listening to the game on his radio: when he heard where I was going, he decided to come with me). Lahore, I am sure, would be noisier.

A friend of mine, a Frenchman who tried to teach me the language, once told me that he found the idea that England lost regularly at cricket to ex-colonies very amusing. I prefer that it doesn´t happen too often, but it doesn´t strike me as the worst thing in the world.

I wish I could be there at Lahore tomorrow. I´ll be hoping for an England win, but without too much hope. And I´ll be happy to applaud the efforts of the new Pakistani heroes.

(This post first appeared on a voice from the Shed)
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 4:18 pm   0 comments
Friday, November 25, 2005
Coursework: the final assessment
by Peter

Jonathan Calder has been praising the practice of oppostition through agreement.

So here's some.

Ruth Kelly, responding to Ken Boston, chief executive of the QCA, in response to its review of GCSE and A-level coursework, wrote:

I expect QCA to review the position of coursework in GCSEs on a subject-by-subject basis with an expectation that coursework should:
· only be used where it is the most valid way of assessing subject-specific skills, and is not the favoured approach where its primary purpose is to assess knowledge and skills which can equally well be assessed in other ways;
· be robustly assessed - for example including examples of work produced in lesson time under supervision.


I agree. (That'll teach them).
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 1:49 pm   1 comments
Le Rap
by Peter

Watching the flaming citroens and renaults on the television, who didn´t wonder if le gasngsta rap was responsible? Seeing another shope go up in flames, who coudl resist the thought that NTM (Nique ta mère, as they were in the bad old days) wasn´t behind it.

Thanks then to Dominique de Villepin for clearing this one up. Apparently rap is not the reason why.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 12:42 pm   0 comments
Thursday, November 24, 2005
Coursework
by Peter

I refused to comment about this a couple of weeks ago. But others have been less reticent. First Jonathan Calder took up the debate here (it's a debate provoked by Johann Hari rather than myself I should add).

Now Mary Reid has produced an educationalists view of some of the issues - with amusing anecdotes for good measure.

And finally, Ed Davey has come up with his prescription.

One of the first things to get right in politics is to understand the feelings of voters, and Davey manages this well:

"Parents want to know that their help won't be considered cheating and that their children won't be cheated by other pupils stretching the rules."


I think that this is correct.

Whether this will be achived by clear guidelines is, I think, open to question.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 5:12 pm   0 comments
Free and fair trade
by Peter

In the FT yesterday, Martin Wolf provided an astute critique of the claims of the trade justice movement.

A motion before the House of Commons arguing that “the UK government should not push developing countries to open up their markets but respect their right to decide on trade policies that will help them to end poverty, respect workers’ rights and protect their environment” has gathered support from 229 out of 646 members. Opponents, one assumes, wish to perpetuate poverty, undermine workers’ rights and destroy the environment. Naturally, they desire no such thing.


The aritcle is in the subscribers only section so I'll try to summarise his key arguments

1. the weight of evidence shows a positive relationship between openness and income
2. protection is a tax on trade paid , above all, on exports
3. Kenya (for example)has the purchasing power of Lambeth. Has anyone suggested that Lambeth should close down trade barriers to develop internationally competitive infant-industries?
4. Competitive exports require competitive inputs
5. and foeigh know-how (often in the form of FDI)
6. protection by developing countries often hits other developing countries hardest (and so hinders regional trade more than global trade)
7. it is senseless to support aid (which provides cash to pay for imports) and protectionsim at the same time (rather like driving with one foot on the throttle and the other on the brake).

None of this is to argue that the present situation is anyone's interest. The Guardian today runs a depressing story on the obstacles to removing the obscene subsidies for EU sugar production. It will happen, but the beet producers are pressing for the longest possible period of phase-out.

One complaint of the trade justice campaigners that I would like to see acted upon is that rich countries are better able to bring a successful case at the WTO because it is harder for them to get the best legal advice. Let's have legal aid for trade cases, so that poor countries can tackle rich country dumping effectively.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 2:16 pm   0 comments
Till we have built Barcelona on England's brown field sites - Updated


by Peter

The prospect of large parts of south east England disappearing under low-cost Prescott houses has not filled me with delight over recent months. It strikes me as short-sighted utilitarianism. Few things will influence our future than where people live, and cost-cutting (generally a good thing) may not be the approach to follow.

Lousise Alexander's recent posts on planning issues are thought-provoking, as are the comments of Lord Rogers in the Observer.

Rogers is not someone I instinctively warm to, but his comments on the low-design standards of much of London's new housing stock are easy to agree with (even before we have the Prescott belt along the Thames. His views on the need to halt/reverse middle-class flight from the cities echo those of Steve Travis. According to Rogers

'The densest city in Europe is Barcelona. If I had to say what was the best city in terms of regeneration, it would be Barcelona.'

I'll take his word for it - it certainly seems a pleasant and attractive city. And I would like to see London come closer to cities like Barcelona or Rome in terms of combining high-quality appartments, built over shops, besides boulevards and surrounding green squares.

And at the low-density end of the market, I should like to see more building land available for individuals, building to their own tastes, standards and requirements, and less in the hands of the big housebuilders who have imposed their soulless uniformity on too much of the UK.

Update: If you are interested in learning how Barcelona came to be so densely populated, Eduardo Mendoza's novel La verdad sobre el caso Savolta is worth reading.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 8:27 am   0 comments
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
My inner child...
by Peter

Regular readers will have worked this out for themselves.


Your Inner Child Is Happy
You see life as simple, and simple is a very good thing.
You're cheerful and upbeat, taking everything as it comes.
And you decide not to worry, even when things look bad.
You figure there's just so many great things to look forward to.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 5:03 pm   0 comments
Sunday, November 20, 2005
The tax debate
by Peter

Charles Kennedy and Vince Cable surfaced in the Guardian the other day to let the world know where the thorough-going review of policies had got to.

The answer seemed to be not very far - or at least the emphasis was firmly on continuity.

On tax rates, it seems that the 50% rate still has some supporters. I find this hard to swallow - certainly in combination with the other elemnts of the package.

For example we are still talking about replacing council tax with local income tax. This means shifting the burden of taxation away from people who own things and towards people who earn their living. And if council tax is simply abolished it means a one of capital boost for all those people who earn property.

If this wasn´t enough we are also still talking about free personal care for the elderly - no matter how many assets they are sitting on. Now I broadly agree with James Graham on this general issue. On his blog he wrote that

We shouldn’t squeeze the wealth-creators of today, simply because we didn’t squeeze the wealth-creators of yesterday enough. I have no objection to my taxes going on basic pensions because we live in a civilised society with a welfare safety net. I have a very major objection to my taxes going on ensuring that pensioners who own large assets that will, in the main, be untaxed until they die, get to keep those assets. Lib Dem policy currently pays lip service to asset-poor, income-poor pensioners, while concentrating entirely on providing subsidies to the asset-rich, income-poor (via the abolition of council tax and free nursing care). This is theft, pure and simple, which has almost nothing to do with social justice: it isn’t the poorest who actually benefit.


We need to think hard on this. In 2005 we seem to be in favour of a big shift from income-earners to asset owners. The social justification for this is questionable: the economci impact unlikely to be positive.

On State spending as a share of GDP, Charles and Vince pronouce in favour of 41-42% (I assume that this is over the course of the next economic cycle). This is higher than I would like - but not by much.

This is work in progress and I hope we make some. There are big questionas to answer. Labour has tried to revive/improve public services with massive increases in spending and the imposition of complicated targets. The results have been disappoointing.

And Labour have also sought to improve labour-productivity - again with disappointing results.

We need to be able to take on the other parties in these areas. The 2005 manifesto did not take us very far. The problem is that much of the party seems to think that tax policy is simply a facet of social policy. The accusation that Liberal Democrats don´t spend enough time thinking about the economy still, sadly, carries weight.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 11:33 am   9 comments
Thursday, November 17, 2005
The Great Debate?
by Peter

Conservativehome have a report on the Tory leadership husting. Rather low-key they seem, although Cameron-supporter Smith accepts that Davis was winning converts.

There is little evidence that the campaign is bringing a new wave of interest. Smith says
"the two Davids were greeted by something short of 300 mostly retired people who had scattered themselves around the rows of chairs that stretched back from a raised platform emblazoned with the message “Today’s Britain – Tomorrow’s Conservatives.”"


And Smith's heart is on his sleeve when he writes that

"David Cameron's turn followed. Casting aside his notes, he stepped out from behind the rostrum to set out his message of hope, optimism and progress, earning a much-deserved standing ovation from sections of the audience."

It is the "much-deserved" that I like. For stepping out from behind his rostrum?
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 1:59 pm   0 comments
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Which twin is the Tory?


A young upper-class wastrel, good-natured and kind-hearted, but mentally quite negligible. This combination of traits frequently leads to trouble. A member in good standing of the Drones Club. (link)
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 1:11 pm   3 comments
Monday, November 14, 2005
They shall not grow old ...
by Steve Travis

Last Friday was Armistice Day, 11th of November. To my surprise this event, whilst not as popular as ANZAC day, is still marked in Australia. Cloth poppies, somewhat more substantial than our paper versions, are sold, and there were a smattering on show in the crowds on Queen Street, Brisbane's main shopping area. This year was the first year that no Australian veteran of World War I was present at the service in Canberra, following the death of Lt William Allan, aged 106, some 3 weeks ago.

For the first time in ages I have had time to read properly (aided by the quality of Australian TV), and by coincidence one of the novels I have just completed is A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry. To an extent it is Yeat's line Those that I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love teased and drawn out into a thought-provoking and moving novel about an 18 year old Catholic soldier in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and his confused reaction to the events of WWI and the Easter Rising.

It seems that with the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising looming, together, in the North, with the Unionist counterpart celebration of the 36th Division's role in the Battle of the Somme (a "history" which conveniently airbrushes out the part played by Catholics both in the regiments of the 36th, and also in the regiments, such as the RDF, of the 16th Division, who fought side by side with the 36th at Ginchy and Guillemont) some more thoughtful Irish commentators are re-examining the role of Irish troops in WWI and using it as a means to forge common links between the two communities.

Here Dermot Ahern, the Irish Foreign Minister, looks at the reaction to the war and offers the following anecdote:

The bonds that were forged among the Irish soldiers is perhaps best exemplified by the tribute paid to Fr Willie Doyle, one of 30 Irish Catholic priests to die in the war, by a Belfast Orangeman in the Glasgow Weekly News on September 1st, 1917: "Fr Doyle was a good deal among us. We couldn't possibly agree with his religious opinions, but we simply worshipped him for other things. He didn't know the meaning of fear and he didn't know what bigotry was. He was as ready to risk his life to take a drop of water to a wounded Ulsterman, as to assist men of his own faith and regiment. If he risked his life in looking after Ulster Protestant soldiers once, he did it a hundred times."

This, to me, highlights the liberal message to be found in seeking that which unites us rather than divides us - although it is a shame that so often such sentiments are only discovered when facing a far greater external threat. Nonetheless it offers a glimmer of hope that these forthcoming events might be used in a constructive fashion, for there is indeed far more that unites us in these Islands than divides us. My own children, who have a Scots-born mother of Irish Catholic parentage and a Welsh-born father of English Protestant parentage are testament to that.
posted by Apollo Project @ 11:48 am   0 comments
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Our political police
by Peter

Charles Clarke used a letter to the Daily Telegraph to confirm that he contacted the Association of Chief Police Officers on November 3, suggesting that chief constables should offer to inform their local MPs on police attitudes to the 90-day proposal,


(Scotsman).

Kennedy was surely right to complain about this

Mr Kennedy said he did not think it was "legitimate" for the police to take a "particular view in a particular way and put it out there in the political arena".

And he added: "When the chief of the Metropolitan Police takes such a high profile, as he did, over a specific amendment to a piece of government legislation questions have to be asked. I think it's overstepping the mark."

Mr Kennedy said there was "a good case to be made" for arguing the police had allowed themselves to get dragged too much into the parliamentary politics of the situation.


And the emphasis "dragging" is crucial. If only we had a written constitution. It would surely make it illegal for a Home Sectretary to instruct the forces of law and order to suggest to Members of Parliament how they might cast their vote.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 3:18 pm   0 comments
Friday, November 11, 2005
"Après moi, le déluge"
by Peter

There's a good piece by Philip Stephens in todays FT. The argument is that Blair's will be decided in the spring. As it is probably subscription only (I'm reading the print version), I'll quote the conclusion:

"My sense of British politics is that among the voters there are many erstwhile supporters of the government looking for a reason to desert it. by the time of the next election, Labour will have been in power for at least 12 years. Many will judge that is enough for any party. time for a change becomes a double-edged sword. Labour may have had enough of Labour; the country of Labour.

" Après moi, le déluge," Mrs Thatcher seemed to say to herself as she departed 10 Downing Street. I sometimes wonder whether Mr Blair is thinking something similiar."
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 2:07 pm   0 comments
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Why is Blair doing this?


?


by Chrisco

I was giving some thought to this the other morning, when my gut feeling was that Blair wasn't going to win the 90-day vote and after Clarke was forced to backtrack on the lower term amendment he had announced at lunchtime on Monday. Why is Blair doing this? Why is he driving this forward when it looks like he has no chance of getting it through? After an awful week that included much talk about the weakening of his authority, why is he playing chicken with an oncoming (Labour) juggernaut. How could the whips have been so wrong? Could they really have had no clue about what was coming? Or did Blair override what they were telling him and plough on regardless?

Then two things made it clear what game our great leader is playing.

First of all, his comments about it being better to have done the right thing and lost than do the wrong thing and win.

Then a few words from Matthew Parris (!) about Blair wanting to leave in a fit of pique.

What's it all about?

The first part is Blair's strong moral conviction. One thing seperates our Prime Minister from the American President, and it is not their black and white view of morality; it is rather that one is an exceptionally skilled political operator, and the other is a faux-Texan simian failed oilman. When Blair said he thought he was doing the right thing and was determined to do it, he was being honest. Charles Clarke might be prepared to back down and have a Dutch auction in spite of police advice, but Blair was not. That is why the Prime Minister forced him to change his stance during the course of Monday. Blair's idea of what is right is absolute, and on such a fundamental issue he refuses to back down. But he also instinctively knows how to turn it to his advantage...

He would become the Vicar of Albion. He would warn the country, do his best, and then shrug his shoulders and sigh when his recalcitrant party refused to follow his lead, then flounce off into the sunset, knowing he was right.

Huh? What about the reform agenda? Forget about it. Blair knows that after the reaction from his own benches that greeted his education proposals, and the resignation of Blunkett, his chances of radically reforming the delivery of services in this country are dead. As a dodo. So he pushed the 90-day issue to the wire. This is going to be his legacy. He is going to go down in history as the man who was denied by his own party; the man who tried to do the right thing by his country but was thwarted by his own elected backwoodsmen, as opposed to the blue-blooded ones that used to sit in the Lords.

This defeat was just the start. Expect two, maybe even three more. They will come. If Blair manages to get some of his measures through, so much more the better, from his perspective. But it will be a fluke, because he will not compromise on the issues; Labour backbenchers will have backed down, not the Prime Minister.

And then, in the end, he will have been defeated once too many times and he will go. With his head held high. Knowing within himself that he did the right thing, but was thwarted by an ungrateful and stupid party. And his legacy? It will be sympathetic, but written by political historians and not social ones.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 1:12 pm   3 comments
100 not out
by Jabez Clegg

Today the Apollo Project Blog reached 100 posts. Our thanks to all those who've contributed over the last four months; and also to all our readers, especially those who've added to the debate with their comments.
posted by Apollo Project @ 11:30 am   0 comments
Ever Decreasing Circles
by Steve Travis

A PM seeking to legislate for detention without trial ... Muslims detained as a Terror plot is foiled ... debate in the media where liberals acuse authoritarians of undermining civil liberties and authoritarians accuse liberals of wooly-headed softness on terrorism.

Yes - the news in Australia is exactly the same as it is at home. Today's letters page of the Sydney Morning Herald gives a flavour of the debate.
posted by Apollo Project @ 11:17 am   0 comments
The Wages of Selection...
by Peter

I'm sorry to come back to education so soon, but this article on the role chance plays in selective systems deserves some attention.

Steve Travis dealt with attractions of the Grammar in an early post on this blog. Like Steve, I went to a comprehensive school. But I find the alternative less appealing.

The Guardian article shows one of the reasons why. Variation between tests taken on different days by the same pupil is so great that for one-third of children the decision as to where they go is no more than chance. Indeed the problem is almost certainly worse than this. Children develop at different rates (if all children sat the same selection tests and were marked in the same way Grammar schools would be full of girls). Children would do not do well at eleven may be much more able at thirteen or fourteen.

But the evidence of the PISA studies seems to be that the children who are branded as failures at eleven do react in the way you would expect. So countries with selective systems (Germany, Luxembourg) do badly, and countries where there is no selection until at least fourteen (Finland being the classic example) do well.

Here in the UK there is a dialogue of the deaf on the issue. Professor David Jesson comes up with interesting figures. The NGSA (check out that font) dismiss them (or say they don´t matter).
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 9:03 am   0 comments
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
The Leader who lost
by Peter

No doubt about it, the defeat of the Blair 90 day internment proposals have put a smile on my face and a spring in my step.

First because we didn´t need this illiberal law.

Second because it can never be "glad, confident morning again".

Blair took off his tie and went on the television to argue for this. He dragged Brown and Straw halfway around the world to vote. And he was - convincingly - beaten.

A comment on politicalbetting sums it up pretty well:

Blair said this morning: “Sometimes it is better to lose and do the right thing than to win and do the wrong thing.”

I’m sure a car to Buckingham Palace can be arranged for him to do the right thing.

Comment by book value — 9/11/2005 @ 5:13 pm


Well I don´t suppose it is going to happen just yet, but the sands are running out slowly but surely.

Two weeks ago we downplayed the significance of the smoking split.

A week ago we had the Blunkett downfall and the near miss.

Now we have this big defeat.

Blair seems to have come full circle over eight years in office. In his first term he was offering more or less liberal innovations in terms of devolution, incorporating the Charter of Human Rights into English law, freeing the Bank of England.

His second term was terrible in comparison, and the third has started in the same spirit. Browning's poem about the two Wordsworths - the young radical and the old conservative - has seldom seemed more apt.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 6:04 pm   0 comments
The way he sees it...
The FT has a piece with the snappy headline Fact-finding Middle East trip could help develop Brown's world view.

This takes some believing. I find it hard to imagine that anything has happened in the last fifteen years that could have affected Brown's world view (one meal in Islington apart, you understand). There is an air of assumed infallibility to Brown that the Pope probably envies. So I don´t think the trip to the Middle East was ever going to have much impact upon Britain's apprentice PM.

But anyway the risk of Brown changing his mind about someting has disappeared. No sooner had he kissed the tarmac (tbc) at Ben Gurion airport than he was back on another plane to vote for locking people up - without trial or charge - for three months.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 1:04 pm   0 comments
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Des res in Eaton Square
by Peter

Will Howells last week asked a question that has been on my mind in recent days: has Blunkett finally moved out of his bachelor pad in Eaton Square?

The Guardian last Friday reported that

"The Cabinet Office yesterday said that Mr Blunkett had been asked to vacate his grace and favour residence in Belgravia "within a short time", giving him some space to find alternative accommodation in London."

If anyone sees a white transit van in the neighbourhood, please let us know.

The comments here remind me that a leadership contest between Brown and Blunkett would provide an unresistable temptation for the headline writers. I rather hope it comes about.
posted by Apollo Project @ 4:14 pm   0 comments
Rendezvous at Coolum Beach
by Steve Travis

In a week and a half I will be heading out of suburban Brisbane for a week's R&R in the Sunshine Coast resort of Coolum Beach. Whilst checking out the location of our appartemnt on the map, I noticed that the road that skirts the coast between Coolum Beach and Noosa is called David Low Way.

One of my favourite cartoons is the excellent Rendezvous, and I recalled that the cartoonist David Low had antipodean connections. Alas a google search showed that he was a New Zealander by birth, but it would be nice to think the road was named after the great man.

Rendezvous was, of course, about the cynical marriage of convenience that was the Nazi/Soviet pact. This month's Liberator uses the example of those other unlikely bedfellows, Merkel and Schroder, to suggest how the Liberal Democrats should deal with questions on how they would approach a Hung Parliament. In the second article on this page, titled An Easy Answer, it recommends that:

In the event of a hung parliament, there should be a Labour/Conservative grand coalition – since the differences between them are pretty trivial.

The Liberal Democrats, whose differences with both of them are massive, could only profit from becoming the official opposition to such a government.

Liberator offers this ‘German’ scenario to the party leadership as a way of shutting down this tedious speculation by repeating this idea whenever the subject is raised.


Far fetched, maybe? Not when you realise that Cameron is touting himself as the New Blair, and Davis is conspicuous by his absence in failing to attack the Government's latest illiberal terror initiatives.

Perhaps Liberator has a point after all.
posted by Apollo Project @ 11:24 am   3 comments
A refusal to comment
by Peter

A couple of weeks ago Simon Mollan slapped me down on a Lib Dem messageboard for raising the issue of excessive assessed coursework. His argument - a good one - was that these issues should be left to educationalists.

So I will just note that Johann Hari has written an article that I find persuasive, and two educationalists have provided responses that I found enlightening (scroll down the page).
posted by Apollo Project @ 8:23 am   9 comments
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Meeting the Challenge : The Apollo Project contribution to the debate.

1. Are we trying too hard to be different?


Liberal Democrats need a distinctive set of policies setting us apart from the other parties. At the same time, we need to show that we are concerned about the same things that worry most people. There are areas where our profile is high and our values shared – such as health and the education. Two key areas where we are – let’s be frank – not trusted are crime and the economy.


2. How do people interact?


To simplify, people interact in three ways to meet each other’s needs: free mutual exchange (through markets); altruism and social exchange; taxation and law. Liberals privilege the first two, resorting to the third option only when it is clear that the first two cannot deliver. Intervention through the state ought – for Liberals – to aim first at helping markets and society to deliver social goods, rather than delivering directly.


3. It’s the economy…

We would do well to remember Clinton’s advice to himself. Not just because it is the issue that most worries voters, but because nothing that we wish to do in government will be achieved if the economy is not performing. Inflation, stagnation and unemployment put the State under pressure: Tax revenue goes to pay unemployment benefits; crime becomes a more acute problem.

A performing economy delivers many of the social goods we wish to see provided: employment; a sense of social worth; opportunity; self-development; and prosperity.

We need therefore to put a performing economy at the centre of our policy programme.

4. Prejudging conclusions

At several points the document sets up the context in ways that seem to prejudge the conclusion. The following quotes are examples.

2.1.4 “there has been a growing sense that major corporations exert greater power than ever before…The influence of the media…has also grown”.
There may be such a “growing sense” – but it is not clear that this is the case. Baldwin complained of the power of the press – and Asquith suffered massively from an “anti-German" campaign in the First World War. BT was a far more powerful corporation a decade or so ago than it is today. And the reach of the internet counterbalances media that are – objectively – less powerful than in the past (fewer people read a newspaper or watch television news).
2.2.3 “there is an increasing sense that public institutions are becoming too big, too inhuman…”
Public institutions have long seemed too big to many people. Perhaps the massive spending increases on the NHS mean that perceptions have changed notably in the last few years. But it is hard to resist the conclusion that this is only here because we wish to push our familiar policy prescriptions.
2.2.4 “loss of a sense of control…is a key element of threatened quality of life”
This is probably wrong (when was the golden age when people had this sense of control?). More probably people have responded to a rhetoric describing them as “consumers” of public services by becoming more consumerist in their dealings with the State.
2.3.6 “Britain’s public services have historically been under-funded…British politicians have been too prone to interfere with technical decisions best taken by professionals who understand how to deliver a service”.
The first half of this is an astonishing statement (what percentage of GDP do we think should be spent on public services?). The second provides an interesting critique of UK governments – but runs counter to the sentiments of 2.2.4 on a “loss of control”. Perhaps a better description of the context might be that the British state has been trying to do too much in recent years – and so spreading itself too thinly – and that New Labour has concentrated on the short-term and on headline-hunting.

A more evidence-based approach to establishing the context – quoting statistics rather than disembodied opinions – would have made this a better basis for reviewing our policies.

5. The danger of the abstract noun

The Liberal Democrat vision is set out in chapter 4 in the form of six abstract nouns: Freedom; Fairness; Localism; Internationalism; Sustainablity; and Prosperity. They are all concepts dear to Liberal Democrats. We should be careful about the weight we expect them to bear. Freedom and Fairness mean different things to different people. Localism and Internationalism appear to be in conflict to most people.

If we had to pick a set of abstract nouns to typify our programme a better set might be Prosperity, Progress and Participation. But the point is that we should not do so. We should turn our ideas into sentences that mean something to ordinary (non-doctrinaire) people. Pierre Trudeau’s old phrase about the State having no place in the bedroom of the people is a good example of how to put forward Liberal ideas.

The document at times sees freedom as the telos (4.1.2, for example). Freedom is a key word for Liberals and this is not an argument for dropping it but for explaining it. It is equally true that Liberalism sees freedom – the free choice of informed individuals – as a means to achieving prosperity and progress. Society and the economy benefits when individuals exercise free choice. It would be good to be clear about this.




Key policy areas

The economy


What is the context? The economy has done well for many years. But we have not closed the productivity gap, public sector inflation (particularly in the Health Service) has been high because public services have not been able to absorb the flood of extra spending, and both public and state are carrying significant debts. North Sea oil is running out faster than expected and pensions liabilities are likely to provoke a crisis across Europe in the near future. It is possible that the economy will hit serious trouble before the next election.

The market provides many of the social goods Liberal Democrats most value: prosperity, opportunity, and employment. To maintain growth the Liberal Democrats will seek to simplify and reduce the level of taxation (and the more the economy grows the easier it will be to reduce the share of public spending in GDP). A Liberal Democrat government should seek to raise the thresholds at which tighter regulations apply to larger firms, allowing small firms to grow further without regulatory overload. Action at European level may be necessary to achieve this.

We should raise tax thresholds (if possible so that people pay no tax until they reach the minimum wage) and seek to reduce the cost of Employers National Insurance Contributions and other employment costs.

We will need to find savings in the public sector and to reduce regulation more generally. We should focus on schemes like SureStart where evaluation suggests that value added is minimal or non-existent, and on the countless New Labour initiatives that litter the landscape.

Education

We should introduce vouchers to help fund pre-school care, and will provide financial incentives to encourage carers to provide an introduction to a second language, so that children learn when it easiest for them to absorb a language.

We should encourage schools to introduce or retain school uniforms, house systems, and competitive sports. We should replace “A” levels with a broader-based certificate at eighteen, with greater intellectual stimulation for the brightest pupils. Parents should - in urban areas at least - be offered a choice of single- or mixed-sex education for their children. School needs to become more rewarding for both pupils and teachers, and we should seek to increase the prestige of the teaching profession and ensure that teachers are well-qualified and academically able.

Schools should focus on mathematics and English – the key skills all young people will need throughout their lives and throughout their careers. They must play a role in ensuring that young people see a future for themselves, and in fighting the worrying level of teenage pregnancies (linked to low aspirations).

Labour markets will continue to provide an incentive for more young people to go to university. The public sector as employer can do a great deal to reduce this pressure by refusing to go along with the credentialist trends of the private sector. A further increase in student numbers is unlikely to benefit the economy, and we should seek to restrain the growth in student numbers, and to maintain standards.

Crime and delinquency

We must fight crime at the roots. Education and housing policy have a role to play, and we should seek to ensure that drug-users do not become dependent on crime by allowing addictive drugs to be prescribed more easily to established users. We should beware of the tendency for ASBOs to criminalise relatively normal teenage behaviour, while showing solidarity with urban communities under pressure.

Violent crime should be punished severely and the right to vote should not be extended to such prisoners. But we should reverse the tendency of politicians to interfere in sentencing decisions: juries should decide the facts and judges should sentence prisoners.

We should launch a Royal Commission on the effectiveness of the police force. This should consider police methods, manpower management, investigation techniques, and recruitment and seek learn lessons from countries with better records than the UK.

ID cards will do nothing to fight crime and will make daily life more bureaucratic and difficult. We should oppose their introduction and campaign for their withdrawal.

Housing

We should oppose the schemes for Prescott houses. New builds should be relatively high specification and energy efficient houses. We should maximise use of the existing building stock, and invest in regenerating the worst areas of urban Britain. We should recognise that the market can have a key role here.

Public spending and effective policy

Labour and Conservatives have had a shared aimed of having the state constantly present in our lives. As a result they have supported policies and policy instruments that alleviate problems (at best) but do not tackle them at the root. We should commit ourselves to policies that work – and thus to scrapping policies that do not work. We should use the market and competition not in the Tory way – to help the rich – but in a Liberal way to reflect the choices and capture the energy of all citizens.

Our aim should be to slowly and steadily reinforce society and shrink the state. Gordon Brown has grown it from 37 to 45% of GDP. We should aim to grow society and the exchange economy so that - in the long term - tax forms 33% of GDP.
posted by Apollo Project @ 9:59 am   4 comments
The LD2 Top Ten: October 2005
By Jabez Clegg

An entirely personal selection of the best blogs from Liberal Democrats and the liberal diaspora in October.

Let's start with the diaspora

Mark Salisbury runs a blog from Wigan, full of good beer, friendship, and liberal views. His posting on the drift towards a police state has already been singled out. It deserves a wide readership.

Over in Belgium, Paul runs a blog as part of his pulpmovies site. This post on left or right is worth reading.

Stephen Tall produced a good post on the education debate. Finally I disagreed on the prescription, but it is a good read.

James Graham has replied to the debate in an interesting post. (I´m on James' side in this debate).

Simon Mollan identifies the menace of the NIR here.

Chris Black takes a sceptical look at votes for prisoners.

Lynne Featherstone had to deal with a sexist attack from Labour here.

James Oates doesn´t blog very frequently, but when he does he is always worth reading. Here he takes on migration watch.

Stephen Glenn got personal in this post. I found it very sad and moving.

Simon Radford explored the quality of life on missing shade of yellow.
posted by Apollo Project @ 4:11 am   0 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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The Apollo Project seeks to put together new ideas on policies and campaigning to help broaden the appeal and enhance the impact of the Liberal Democrats.

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