Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Immigration and the Lib Dem Policies - Letter to Sittingbourne News Extra

Mike Apps asks for more policy details and less rhetoric from the parties on the key topic of immigration. I am happy to oblige.

Liberal Democrats believe in the positive attributes of immigration and freedom of movement - in allowing our businesses and industries to employ the cream of the world's top executive talent, in being able to employ foreign citizens to do jobs that British workers do not want to do, and in giving opportunities to our own citizens to live, work or study abroad.

This does not mean though that we should not crack down on those that play the system. Liberal Democrats have continually called for the introduction of exit checks, so we can establish how many are leaving and check on those overstaying visas. Lib Dems would reduce and then abolish child benefit for children living outside the UK. We would require new claimants for Jobseekers Allowance to have English language skills assessed and insist on language classes if necessary. EU migrants would only receive Universal Credit once they have worked in the UK for six months.

And all this is on top of what Liberal Democrats have already achieved in government - such as closing loopholes, reducing levels of appeal, and making it impossible for migrants to leapfrog over local people in the council housing queue.

We do not believe in leaving the European Union, nor do we believe in an aggressive 'keep-them-out-send-them-back' policy. The key is getting the balance right to move towards the benefits of an active and open immigration policy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Labour's Tax & Liberal Democrat Fairness - Letter to Sittingbourne News Extra

This letter is a reply to a contribution from Mr Barry Pearson who advocates we should vote Labour because they would take more from the top 1%.

Barry Pearson thinks we should vote Labour because, as he puts it, they will take more from the top 1%. Oh, what a short memory he has. Does he remember what the top rate of tax was from June 1997 to April 2010 under a Labour government? It was 40%. And what is it now? Yes, Barry, it is 45% - so the top 1% are paying 5% more income tax now than they did under Labour.

On top of that, Labour turned a blind eye to various tax avoidance schemes. The coalition government, on the other hand, are clamping down on such measures and have reclaimed £9 billion a year for the Treasury.

Under Labour, the amount you earned before you paid tax was just over £6,000. Thanks to the Liberal Democrats top demand, it is now at £10,500 - that is £800 a year in the pockets of all lower and middle incomes. This policy has proved so popular that even David Cameron is copying it.

And above all, maybe Mr Pearson has forgotten Labour's famous last words - 'sorry, there's no money left'.

In the coalition, Liberal Democrats have put fairness of taxes as the number one priority and, despite the dire state that Labour left the country in, some progress has been made. There is a lot more to do of course, but it is now the Liberal Democrats, not Labour, who, in government, have worked towards fairness in taxation, and only the Liberal Democrats will continue to do so.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Despite talk of bringing down the political elite, the ConLabs may still have the last laugh

At the last general election in 2010, over a third of voters did not vote Conservative or Labour - two-thirds of whom voted Liberal Democrat.

Since that time, we have seen a decline in the Liberal Democrat vote, along with a rise in other parties - UKIP are propelling forwards constantly in the 15-20% mark, the Greens are making good progress overtaking the Lib Dems in some polls, and the SNP, despite a failed referendum campaign, are going from strength to strength in Scotland. Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru are still campaigning hard, and of course there are the parties from Northern Ireland. At the time of writing, there are 11 different parties with MPs in the House of Commons.

Polls show the combined ratings of the Conservative and Labour parties (the 'ConLabs') hover around the early 60s - the lowest for about 100 years.

This has caused much excitement in the circles of some political observers. There is talk of no party ever having a majority again, of multi-party politics, of coalitions with two or three parties becoming a permanent feature, of smaller groups talking about the balance of power.

However, there is a huge stumbling block. It is our old favourite - the electoral system - the most formidable protector of the two party consensus. While the ConLabs may fall even below 60%, it looks quite possible that their share of the seats will go above 90% for the first time since 1992.

Firstly, the Liberal Democrat decline. Predictions are that they will lose at least a third or even over half of their 57 seats won in 2010. Who will pick most of those up? That's right - the Conservative or Labour parties, with maybe a few to the SNP.

Secondly, UKIP. They have the famous problem that the old Liberal-SDP Alliance struggled with. How to turn votes into seats. Despite the two by election wins, hundreds of councillor victories, and a consistent poll showing in the high teens, latest indicators are that even Nigel Farage will struggle to get into parliament. It is quite possible, after a four week campaign of talk about the government, that UKIP will be squeezed in the classic smaller party tradition and come away with very little, if anything.

Thirdly, the Greens. They have the same problem on a much smaller scale. Their main targets are to hold Caroline Lucas's seat and taking Norwich South - but both are top targets for Labour, the latter will almost certainly go red.

It is quite possible that UKIP and the Greens will get over 20% of the vote between them without a single seat to show for it.

Finally, the SNP. They have an advantage in that, unlike UKIP and the Greens, their support is more concentrated. But you can be sure the general election campaign will focus on who is the UK government - Conservative or Labour. Many SNP supporters may vote Labour to keep the Conservatives out. Indications are that SNP will make some gains - but probably not as spectacular as some of the headlines say.

So the overall question is - will the number of Lib Dem losses exceed the SNP gains? If the answer is yes, then the likely consequence is to increase the number of seats held by the ConLabs.

There will still be a good spread of 'other' MPs of course, and whether there is a hung parliament will depend on how close the Conservative and Labour parties are to each other, but if one of them has a majority, and there is a substantial increase in the number of seats they hold, you can imagine the pleased and smug expressions from the politicians and the media at the re-assertion of the poltical establishment.

Sorry, small parties, they will all say. You have had your fun, but you can't beat the system. It's two party politics, old boy. Back to business as usual.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Letter to Sittingbourne News Extra - A Parliament For England

With the debate in Scotland over, the focus is rightly shifting onto England and already the Conservative MPs are discussing different ways to betray the voters of England. The latest proposal is for England's MPs to double up as a substitute Assembly which is not only unworkable but also ludicrous.

So Scotland and Wales would get elected assemblies. And England would get a large Commons Committee. Scotland and Wales get First Ministers. England gets jumped up MPs. And you can be sure that England's MPs will want extra reward for their doubled up role.
The only way for equal treatment for the voters of England would be to set up a separate directly elected English Parliament with the same powers and responsibilities of the other assemblies. And before the complaints about more politicians, I would say that, with four national bodies, you would not need so many MPs - so they could be reduced by 80% or so and discuss Union issues only.
Full equality for England should be just that - no more and no less - and without giving England what the other nations have, then equality and fairness will not be achieved.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Brief History Lesson

Can you name the time and place?

1. A country which has come through some tough times but beginning to recover

2. A section of society being singled out and blamed by some for the country's ills

3. Individuals concerned about their country's culture and traditions who feel they are being ignored

4. General disillusionment, distrust and, in some cases, absolute hatred, with the established political parties and individuals

5. Controversial posters going up focusing on a campaign of hate and fear

6. Overwhelming apathy with the democratic and political processes

7. Increasing support for a right wing party with a very able and charismatic leader possessing outstanding oratory skills

Got it yet? Yes, that's right.

This is Germany in 1932. Did you think of somewhere else?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Go Back To Your Constituencies - And Prepare For Opposition!

There is one year to the next general election - and speculation will increase over the result, and the consequences.

As we enter the last year of the coalition government, there is much that we Liberal Democrats can look back on with pride.

We have made progress towards fairer taxation with tax cuts for millions, we have invested in education opportunities for those from less well-off backgrounds, we have protected the state pension, we have worked towards a greener government, we have introduced same sex marriage, perhaps the biggest and most permanent reform, and, above all, we have participated in a stable government which has reduced inflation, reduced unemployment, reduced the deficit, increased growth, increased business confidence and commenced the recovery. None of this would have happened without the Liberal Democrats.

And of course we have put the 'wasted vote' argument to bed for good. Never again can people describe us as being able to promise anything because we will never get in power - something we have all heard on the doorstep (but not since 2010!). We have proved to be capable and effective in government, and that we can produce good ministers and work well with those with whom we do not agree on most things.

Every government has its failures, and there have been some here too. Fixed terms were the only constitutional change we brought in. Voting reform, Lords reform, party political funding reform, lobbying reform, the right to recall - were all frustrated, mostly by the ConLab block vote. Labour can no longer say they are part of a progressive majority - if Labour had genuinely wanted an elected Lords, the elections would be taking place next year.

And in the interests of compromise, we have had to swallow some heavy medicine. The bedroom tax, the benefit cap, a hostile approach to the EU, and a cut in the top rate of tax are all things we have had to accept with the heaviest of hearts. And as for the tuition fees debacle, let's not go there!

2015 is general election year. And in my view we will move back into opposition. If there is a hung parliament with Labour as the biggest party, my feeling is that they will go it alone as a minority. And, let's face it, after their behaviour over the last few years, would we really want to work with them? Equally the Conservative party, having promised their MPs and their members a say, are also likely to veto any thought of a second coalition. There may be possibilities where either of them work with other parties. And if either of them forms a majority then coalition does not even arise.

So back in opposition, we will have to once again reinforce our message and campaign for what we believe in. What will the next five years mean for us? (In this scenario, I am using the assumption that Scotland votes no in September).

Obviously the first question will be the leadership. By autumn 2015 Nick Clegg will have been our leader for eight years - he will always be the first Lib Dem leader to take his party into government - and it will be time to step down. I think we will only really start to appreciate Nick's achievements once he is gone. Even the media might at last forgive him for entering government.

Nick may not want to go, so it may be a case of our party grandees, such as Paddy and Shirley, having a quiet word. It is hard to imagine Nick back in his old seat at PM's Question Time.

Who will be the next leader? Because of our government experience, there are a large number of good candidates to choose from, and we will no doubt have a party debate about the direction we should go. For example, a party led by Jeremy Browne or Danny Alexander will go a different way to one which is led by Tim Farron or Vince Cable. Or maybe a chance for others such as Jo Swinson or Ed Davey.

The position we should take in opposition will depend on what government results from the election. There may be areas in which we would agree. I'll discuss that in future articles

But I hope we keep to the basic principles we have always pursued. A strong economy, a fairer society, civil liberties and human rights, a positive proactive role in the EU, protection of the environment, local issues, and, the main area which the coalition government has largely failed, political reform and the modernisation of our politics.

Above all, our task back in opposition will be to continue to make ourselves heard. The media will doubtless revert to ignoring us - we may get even fewer appearances on BBC Question Time - so it will be up to us to shout loudly on the issues that are dear to us.

There are a few perks to being in opposition. We may regain some Councillors, party membership may increase, we will get back some Short money, and we can build on our government experience to improve our standing as an established professional party. Those members who left us at our greatest hour of need, will be replaced by more serious minded campaigners who will see the party as no longer a waste of time. After all, how many of us joined the Lib Dems just to run a few Councils. Would we not one day like to see a Liberal Democrat Prime Minister? That should be the (very) long term aim of this party.

It may be a case of going back to our roots. Active local campaigning on local issues and re-building the party up from the bottom.

In the next few articles, I will at look at the various scenarios that may come out of the 2015 general election, how they may develop, and what position we could take. But my overall message is that being back in opposition must not be something that we should fear.

After the defeat in the 1979 general election, the late Tony Benn wrote in his diary that he enjoys being in opposition because of the campaigning opportunities. For an active campaigning party such as ours, there are opportunities which we should take and may even look forward to.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Clegg-Farage Debates: It Was Nick Wot Lost It

One point was lost amongst all the debates about the Clegg-Farage outcome. The number of Conservative and UKIP supporters, as well as anti-Clegg Labourites, far outweighs the number of Liberal Democrat supporters. Given this fact, it would be virtually impossible for Nick Clegg to win any sort of opinion poll over Nigel Farage.

Having said that, in my view, the first debate was a low scoring draw, where neither impressed. But no such doubt with the second debate. Farage found a strong finish to bring home the bacon. Not a 'wipe the floor' victory that the media have been telling you about, and will doubtless continue to build up as such, but a victory nonetheless.

I felt it was more of a case of Nick losing rather than Nigel winning. We have seen Nigel Farage wilt under fire on television and perhaps Nick, buoyed by his 2010 success, and the fact that he can take on 500 hostile MPs in one go, took Nigel too lightly. But to me the mistake was to play the man and not the ball.

What I wanted to see was Nick calmly and professionally list the reasons why it is in the UK's interests to stay in the European Union. No-one says the EU's institutions are perfect, far from it, but there are positive reasons - jobs, business, trade, opportunities to travel, live and study. Nigel can then list, in his opinion, the reasons why the UK would be 'better off out'. Each can then counter the others' points and the viewers, most of whom are undecided, will then be better informed to make up his or her own mind.

Instead Nick decided to directly attack Farage and UKIP. This would be effective if the debate was between two parties, but it is irrelevant to the overall issue of whether we should be in or out. Farage may be an admirer of Vladimir Putin, that point is noted, but waving old UKIP leaflets around was irrelevant to the discussion.

To counter this, Nigel did not directly attack Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, but instead attacked 'the political class', a far more effective tool by including Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems as part of the political establishment, at a time when the reputation of politicians is at an all-time low.

Of course the political establishment consists of the Conservative and Labour parties, who will join forces to defend the status quo to the death. I have previously argued that the Lib Dems and UKIP are actually on the same side as the 'others', those on the outside who want political reform, and whom the ConLabs wish to keep out. But Farage was able to disregard UKIP's own misdemeanours and skilfully portray himself as the leader of the 'anti-politician's faction.

Nick overdid the facts and stats. Do 7% of laws come from the EU or is it 75% or is it somewhere in between? The EU is such a bureaucratic mess that I doubt if anyone knows, but let's just leave it that some laws do. And if one has done one's homework, any case study and examples on one side can be countered by case studies and examples on the other.

And I outwardly groaned when, to the question of how the EU would look ten years from now, Nick said 'much the same as it is now.' That's the last thing we want!

Nigel had his poor moments. In the first debate he was surprisingly very nervous. In the second, he almost fell apart at the start under Clegg's attack over the Ukraine, but once on more familiar territory regained his composure and, as I said, had a strong finish.

Immigration is, of course, UKIP's trump card, which is why they talk of little else, and Nigel played it well. The positive side of the freedom of movement of people - including the opportunities for UK citizens - was completely disregarded.

David Cameron has, in my opinion, come up with some interesting ideas for future expansion - very unusual for a Conservative party leader. Clegg could have praised Cameron in his efforts here, which would have had the happy side-effect of stoking the Conservative civil war.

Overall, my assessment is that Nigel did not win the debates but Nick lost them through the wrong tactics and arguments. Anyone who was undecided and hoping to be better educated to make their own decision will be little the wiser.

Far be it for me to advise Nick Clegg on debating, and it is highly unlikely that one day I will be on TV debating the EU, but I think I would have taken a different approach. I am not here to defend the European Union but the reasons we should stay in are A, B and C, our membership has achieved D, E and F while we would like to see changes such as X, Y and Z.

And the EU ten years from now will NOT be the bureaucratic monster that you see at present, but hopefully an efficient streamlined democratic free trade body that we can be proud to be an active part of. (It is very unlikely to be like that ten years from now - but that's a better answer!).

In the 1975 referendum, as to whether we should stay in the EU, two years after we joined, a tactic used by the 'In' camp was to portray the 'Out' leaders as slightly unhinged - which, when you consider Michael Foot, Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, became an effective tool. For the next referendum (which is inevitable one day) this tactic might be repeated, as the 'out' camp is seriously short of credible leadership.

However, Britain's membership of the European Union is one of the most, if not the most, important topics out there. Although we lost this debate, raising the profile of the topic can only be good. I hope we see more debates but which focus on the issues and not on the individuals.