Thursday, March 22, 2012

It's a Budget of Two Halves

The main redeeming feature about the budget is that it is obvious which part is owned by which party. Would a Conservative budget have brought in tax cuts for the lower incomes and move towards a clampdown on tax avoidance by the wealthy? Would a Liberal Democrat budget have reduced the top rate of tax, partly paid for by a raid on pensioners? Of course not – you don’t need to be a political animal to know that.

But it is a coalition government and hence a coalition budget – both parties must stand or fall by it. So while the Conservative party can claim credit for introducing Liberal Democrat policies, so must the Liberal Democrats share the blame for Conservative actions.

Both parties made moves towards their Number One income tax objective and I expect will hope to complete the task next time round – with the top rate back to 40% and the threshold up to £10,000. These tax changes will not come into effect until 1 April 2013 – over a year away – and we will have had another budget by then, so it will be a while before we see the consequences, although I don’t go along with the view that millionaire investors will come flocking back to the UK. And we will all especially be keeping an eye on events around the Eurozone.

The cut in the top rate of income tax is a disappointment and the wrong move. As I argued in my last entry, history shows that such a cut has no effect on growth or jobs – it is simply more money in the pockets of the wealthy. So long as they don’t buy an expensive house, they will be quids in.

The tax cut presents an open goal for Labour and it remains to be seen how they make use of it. Would they restore the tax if elected tomorrow? It also depends if Labour follow their usual policy of going after the Lib Dems and giving the Tories a free ride.

While we must share the blame for the top rate cut, we have to accept that, as the junior coalition partner, there is only so much we can do. At least we can proudly state that the threshold at which you start paying tax has made its biggest ever leap and we should make it £10k by the next election – whatever happens, no-one can take away that achievement.

As for the rest of the budget, I felt it was rather unimaginative concentrating almost entirely on tax. I would have liked to have seen more on job creation and growth – just putting forward optimistic forecasts is not enough.

We knew most of the budget in advance – so the ‘granny tax’, as it is being called, was a surprise. (Also a surprise that it was not leaked). We in the south east should be concerned about the review of airline capacity. And the usual targets surfaced again (smokers, drinkers and drivers).

Overall, though, clearly a budget of two halves. We must proudly fly the flag for our half.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

History shows that cutting taxes for the wealthy does NOT produce growth

There has been much spinning lately from the Conservative party and the media that the 50% rate is harmful for the economy. The argument goes that getting rid of this – and bringing in a 10% tax cut for those on incomes of over £150,000 – will somehow contribute towards growth.

Historians often accuse politicians of ignoring the lessons of history – and this is another example.

In 1979, the first budget of the Thatcher government saw the top rate reduced from 83% down to 60%. In 1988, the top rate was reduced further to 40%. Now if we are to believe what we are told, these reductions should have brought in a period of growth and prosperity. But, on the contrary, the subsequent years saw the economy sink into recession – the 1980s saw a period of mass unemployment and industrial decline, and the unemployment returned in the early 1990s as a ‘price worth paying’ during another recession.

Now, of course, the top rate being reduced did not cause those economic difficulties – but it does prove the point. A tax cut for the top rate has no effect at all on growth – it simply gives more money to the wealthy. It is exactly what it says on the tin.

I agree however that the 50% tax rate is too high - we can all look forward to the day when it can come down. But that should be at a time of prosperity, once the recession is over, when we can all enjoy tax reductions. That is not the case now. I work in the public sector, where we are in a three year pay freeze, having pensions taken away, and going through redundancies of 20% of our staff. The private sector struggles too.

Who was it who said to make the rich work harder you pay them more and threaten them less, but to make the poor work harder you pay them less and threaten them more?

I must confess I am not so sure about a mansion tax or a tycoon tax, although cracking down on tax avoidance is always morally justified. The 50% rate is simple and straight forward. If there is any spare cash for tax cuts, it should be put towards raising the tax threshold to £10,000, ideally even higher.

If millions of people have more cash, they will spend it and businesses will get the boost they need. Raising the tax threshold is the ultimate pro-growth measure.

There are of course other pro-growth measures which can be considered – even Labour’s idea of a National Insurance holiday should be looked at. But I am not convinced that being Robin Hood in reverse will help the economy.

Now where does that leave the Liberal Democrats? We can’t blame the Tories for wanting to protect privilege, help the wealthy and privatise public services – after all, that is why they are here. But it does leave us in a difficult position.

Fairness of taxation was one of our four main manifesto pledges – it is at the top on the front cover. It was also our most popular policy. So it does concern me if we are abandoning this. The argument that we have closed tax loopholes won’t fool anyone. The wealthy will just find a tax loophole somewhere else and people know that.

To be honest, I don’t have the answer. We have gained much from the coalition to help people and modernise our politics – I have outlined many of these in previous entries – and when I read angry comments on Conservative Home and in the Daily Telegraph then I know we must be on the right lines. It would be a shame to lose these benefits by the risk of allowing a pure Tory government to run free.

Let’s hope it is all media speculation and see what George says this week. We may be pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Shame of Kemsley

The below letter appeared in the Sittingbourne News Extra - 14 March 2012

On 8 March, the people of Kemsley had their opportunity to express a view on their local politics and the actions of their Council. The local branches of all four parties worked very hard over several weeks, bringing their respective and distinctive messages to the voters as they had to decide who should represent their interests in the council chamber.

And what was the result? A 23% turnout! Despite various arrangements which make voting easier than ever, despite plenty of literature coming through the letter box, despite many of us knocking on doors to ask opinions, more than three out of four people could not even be bothered to vote – and they now have a Councillor chosen by less than 9%. These statistics shame Kemsley.

I can hear two main responses. Firstly, ‘you are all the same, so why bother?’ – well, anyone who has read the leaflets can see clear differences that the parties have put forward – and of course we want to hear from people too. How can we listen if you don’t speak? Secondly, Kemsley has been ‘ignored for many years’ – yes, this is true as local parties don’t have the resources to campaign everywhere – but now the people of Kemsley had our undivided attention – and decided they didn’t want it!

While many people around the world are risking their lives and liberties in campaigning for basic freedoms, and British armed forces have fought and are continuing to fight in order to protect our right to vote, it seems more and more people in this country would rather not bother. Kemsley is not alone in this apathy, and this strengthens the case for the introduction of compulsory voting. After all, it comes to something when you have to force democracy to people!

But I must finish by thanking the 23% of people in Kemsley who voted. Whoever you voted for, it is appreciated.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The NHS, the Thompson Twins and The Three Degrees

With reference to the debate about the future of the NHS, my own recent experiences had made me constantly think of two pop songs from my younger days – ‘Doctor Doctor’ and ‘When Will I see You Again?’

In early February I got a cold. Nothing unusual about that, of course, many people get colds at that time of year, and the icy weather did not help. This cold has persisted, however, and, to coin a phrase, gone ‘on .. and on.’

After three weeks, and with all the various medicines having absolutely no effect, I thought it might be best to consult a doctor – maybe he/she could prescribe something stronger. Now my local surgery has two ways of being contacted– you can either telephone when the phone will ring ad infinitum and not get picked up – or you can turn up in person to be told there are no appointments, so please go away and try again (not those exact words, but that is the gist of it – I should add that the reception staff are very polite). Sure enough, I got the latter but was offered a telephone call from a nurse. Thinking this was better than nothing, I accepted, she called later and, after a discussion about my symptoms, said I wasn’t ill enough!!

A fortnight later, and still coughing and sneezing, I had a couple of days booked off work to help in a local by-election. As I had the days free, I thought I would try again at my local surgery. Any appointments on those two days? No, sorry, please try again.

I considered changing surgeries and contacted a few others. 'Sorry, we are not taking new customers - our books are full'. So this is not an issue confined to one place.

It is remarkable that I have now been ill for well over a month and that I can’t see anyone to ask for help. The continual coughing gives me chest pains, not to mention making it difficult to watch TV or travel on the coach, and I frequently feel very weak. And I think everyone has by now forgotten what my voice used to sound like.

Of course, there is a serious point. I will eventually get better one day. But if this was someone who was 75 or 80 years old, with a persistent but minor illness, it could well finish them off. You could not say a visit to the doctor or any prescription would make any difference – I could still be ill for over a month – but I do wonder how the difficulty of such access has affected some people.

The obvious problem is that there are not enough GP surgeries to satisfy demand. We need more doctors and more GP surgeries.

Here in Swale, there has been much development of new housing estates, and while new housing is very laudable, you must have the facilities to match. The most common complaints we hear from these new estates are the lack of doctors and dentists, public transport, post offices, schools, roads, even a post box or a small shop to buy a pint of milk. More estates are in development as I type, but no addition to local facilities, so this will be a problem which will only get worse.

So my only question on any NHS reforms is – will it be easier for someone to see a doctor for a non-emergency consultation within a convenient and reasonable time? Or will they, like me, continue to hear those familiar words – ‘no appointments available, please try again'.

'Oh Doctor Doctor -- when will I see you again?'

Friday, March 9, 2012

Kemsley by-election: the result

I will soon be posting our story of the Swale Council, Kemsley by-election campaign - which concluded yesterday - but here is the result.

Mike Whiting (Conservative) - 384 - 33.7% (-16.6%)
Richard Raycraft (Labour) - 312 - 27.3% (-0.5%)
Derek Carnell (UKIP) - 279 - 24.5% (+10.5%)
Berick Tomes (Liberal Democrat) - 166 - 14.5% (+6.6%)
Turnout: 23.2%

Some points which immediately jump out.

1. All four parties worked very hard on this by-election. However the turnout was extremely disappointing - over three out of four could not be bothered to vote. The winner was chosen by less than 9%!

2. Labour were, by far, the busiest party - they were out leafleting and canvassing in the cold and snow, and had large teams of activists from all over the south east. I was impressed by the bodies they got out on the streets. However, they must be very disappointed by the fact that their share of the vote barely moved.

3. A fall in the Conservative share was expected - but this was almost a collapse. The swing to UKIP was 13.5% - which must give the Tories some cause for concern, especially considering they were reluctantly forced into some activity.

4. UKIP are probably the happiest - a surprising but good result which stands well for the continuing development of their local party.

5. As for us, I was disappointed to remain 4th, with an excellent local candidate and a hard working team. One consolation is that, like UKIP, we increased our share of the vote and ate into the share of the Tory vote, which is a good sign for Tory-Lib Dem marginals throughout the country.

My own involvement was somewhat limited by ill health and other commitments but I did find time for much activity. Also canvassing remained a pleasure with some mixed responses on the doorstep. More soon.