Archive for May, 2010

Political Liberalism and the “Big Society”

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

When I talked previously about David Cameron’s Big Society, I mentioned that one difference between the two parties is funding.  I think this bears a closer look.

I think there is agreement on devolving more power from Whitehall to councils, but the Conservatives funding proposal seems to contradict that.  They propose freezing council tax.  If you look at how councils are funded, they get roughly 75% of their budget from direct grants and the remaining 25% from council tax.  This means that rather than increasing a council’s control over its own budget, its control would be reduced: to compensate for freezing council tax, a greater percentage of the budget must be supplied centrally.  This is exacerbated by any devolution of power where councils must do more not less.

In contrast, our proposal is to allow councils to raise local taxes.  In one version (by Ed Davey), the direct grant would be reduced, council tax would be scrapped and national tax reduced to allow a significant local income tax to be raised.  This would change the funding ratio to something like 25% direct grant and 75% local funding, allowing much greater local control.  I doubt anything this radical will be possible under the current coalition. But I can see a possible compromise where council tax is frozen (or perhaps reduced slightly) and councils are given the ability to raise small local taxes to make up the direct grant shortfall.

What is Liberalism?

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

The basic philosophical and practical foundations of British Liberalism have been a belief in personal, political, economic and social liberalism, combined with a strongly internationalist approach to extending these self-same freedoms across the world.  Liberalism is, by every instinct, an internationalist creed.

This is David Laws definition and is from The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism.  I’m going to draw heavily on this book in what follows.

Personal liberalism is easy; it is freedom of the individual from all forms of oppression including oppression by the state.  It is also freedom from ignorance, intolerance, prejudice and conformity.  But it is not a code-word for anarchy.  The basic tenet is maximal personal freedom without impinging on the freedom of others, so it is freedom under the law.

Political liberalism is the belief that power should be exercised in a democratic way through transparent and accountable structures, as close to the people affected as possible – that is, decentralisation and devolution of power.  As such it has much affinity with David Cameron’s Big Society discussed previously.

Economic liberalism is the belief in the value of free trade and free markets.  It is the belief that a private sector with open competition and consumers free to chose between products is at the root of a healthy economy.  It is also the belief that monopolies are bad and that we should be wary of state control and interference.  Note the word control: it does not mean unregulated.

Social liberalism came relatively late to the game but it is an acknowledgement that personal, political and economic liberalism are not enough on their own to ensure freedom for everyone.  It is a belief that education, housing, healthcare, and freedom from poverty are also necessary for the freedom of an individual.

So what about internationalism? Liberalism stands against narrow interests – whether they be of class or of nation – in favour of the general interest.  I can do no better and be no more topical than ape David Laws’ use of Gladstone:

Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him.  Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own

Personal and political liberalism are what set us apart from Labour who are, by instinct, authoritarian and statist.

The Conservatives also now believe in personal and political liberalism, and these form the basis of our current coalition, but they are not strong believers in internationalism.  I say they “now believe” with reason; for much of the 20th century they have been just as guilty as Labour of centralising all power in Westminster.  It is only with David Cameron that policy seems to have reverted to what I think is the natural instinct of their party.

All three parties believe in economic liberalism to some extent.  The Conservatives policies are the most liberal; Labour’s the least.  Our thinking is divided, and I think because of confusions over social liberalism.

None of the parties believe anyone should be deprived of housing, education or healthcare, or that any should live in poverty.  But the motivations are different.  At heart, I think Labour still believe in a Fabian redistributive model and the Conservatives still cling to trickle-down beliefs.  I think our belief is different because we believe these things are a prerequisite for individuals to fully exercise their freedom and for them to fully participate in power.

So why does this confuse us on economic liberalism?  Because I think many on the left have come from a Labour background and are applying redistributive and statist thinking where it doesn’t really apply.  Let me put it another way: we want to ensure people are provided with essential services and are free from poverty and have opportunity to earn to their maximum ability (without any nasty poverty traps).  We are not trying to redistribute wealth in some egalitarian belief that all people should have equal income.

You may think I’m some kind of closet-Tory (see I used the word; see my entry on terminology).  I am not.  Though we share beliefs with the Conservatives in personal and political liberalism, they do not believe in internationalism or in social liberalism.  Further than that, a belief in the traditional and a distrust of large projects and large changes is at the heart of Conservatism.  We are radicals, prepared to rip-up policies and start again.

Incidentally, some Conservatives do not believe in personal liberalism.  These are best personified by the hate-filled headlines in the Daily Mail.  My belief (and experience) is that this does not represent the views of the majority of Conservatives but it arises from them attracting a particularly mean-spirited set of C1 voters (who sadly swing elections).

Communities and Representation

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Developing the idea of communities further, not only do we all belong to geographic communities, but we belong to a wide range of other communities, some defined by our hobbies, some defined by our professions, and some defined by our beliefs.  For example, I belong to a community of re-enactors, a community of engineers, and a community of liberals.

Representation in parliament is currently limited to the geographic communities we belong to, as expressed by the administrative hierarchy I’ve already talked about.  Should the other communities we belong to have any form of representation and how could this be achieved?

I find it hard to imaging any system that enables representation of the full range of communities I belong to, but it feels there should be some kind of non-geographic representation.

To some extent the voting system used in Germany allows this.  Under the “Alternative Member System” (AMS) you cast two votes: one for your constituency and one where you express your party preference.  At the very least this allows you to vote for the candidate you think will do best for your constituency and separately vote for the party you think best represents the sum total of your beliefs and interests.

Big Society

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

David Cameron and Nick Clegg plan to talk about their policy ideas for a “Big Society” on Thursday, so I suppose it might be useful to know what it is.

“It is a guiding philosophy, a society where the leading for progress is social responsibility, not state control” David Cameron said.  “It includes a whole set of unifying approaches – breaking state monopolies, allowing charities, social enterprises and companies to provide public services, devolving power down to neighbourhoods, making government more accountable”.

Leaving aside the policy statements in there, it feels like an acknowledgement that “society” is not the same as “state” and that power should be decentralised, which feels liberal. But it still leaves open the question of what society is. With the use of the term “neighbourhoods”, there is an implication of hierarchy in there.

In Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900 – 1300, Susan Reynolds promotes the concept of society as a hierarchy of communities, headed by a monarch. Historically in England, this was expressed administratively as manors, parishes, hundreds, shires, and the royal court. In part because of the speed and limits of communication, much power was devolved, even down to the individual manor.

As the speed and ease of communication has increased, more and more power has been centralised, but this hierarchy has proved remarkably durable. Though the manor has disappeared – and the royal court has been replaced by parliament – parishes, hundreds (as districts) and shires still form the backbone of our administrative hierarchy.

This centralisation, and not just of power, has had many benefits. For example, a vast range of goods and services are now available within a trivial car journey. But this very benefit has decreased social cohesion. Many people hardly know their neighbours: they drive to the supermarket, drive their children to school, and drive to work. Opportunities for interaction within the immediate local community are limited.

Assuming this as a structure for society, where can policy help? I think both parties are united in the belief that devolution of power (and responsibility) from the state towards parishes (and ultimately individuals) is beneficial and there appears to be general agreement on policy. For example, allowing competition for local services and provision of local schools.

One area where the parties disagree is on school governance. The Conservatives want new schools to answer directly to ministers and the Liberal-Democrats want them to remain answerable to the local authority. To me, the Liberal-Democrat view is a better fit to this model of society, where a local school is answerable to a local authority. The Conservative position surprises me as it seems to run counter to the concept of decentralisation.

Another area is on local finance where the Conservatives propose freezing council tax and the Liberal-Democrats propose introducing local taxes. Again the Conservative proposal seems to run counter to the concept of decentralisation as it relies on central funding for any new local initiatives. However, the Liberal-Democrat proposal – though decentralised – feels like it will encounter fierce resistance. How would it work? Would it be an increase in local council tax or would it be, for example, a local sales tax?

For me, one significant question remains: how can policy improve social cohesion? There is no doubt social cohesion eroded over the last century, though I don’t believe we live in a “broken society.” So what local focal points remain? Pubs, local sports teams, and local schools are obvious.

Can policy decisions help these? Yes. Both parties agree on local schooling and I think funding local sports teams is relatively un-contentious. But what about pubs?

People like to get together and have fun. Like it or not, alcohol and the pub are part of this. For example pubs have band nights, darts teams and pool teams. They are where birthdays are celebrated, where the lads (or the girls) go for a night out, and where people meet for no other reason than a drink and a chat. Yet they are going out of business at a record pace.

Why? It comes down to tax policy and the ever-increasing duty on alcohol served in pubs. Binge drinking is not generally caused by pubs, or even happy hours in pubs, but is fuelled by supermarkets selling booze as a loss-leader. For example, beer now costs roughly £3 a pint (depending where you live) in a pub yet you can buy cases of lager in your local supermarket for £10. Young people, though they may go to the pub as a focal point, either drink cheap supermarket booze beforehand or conceal it and drink it at the pub.

I believe we should change this: make the pub central again by equalising the prices. One proposal is to replace the current scheme by a per-unit duty. If backed up by prevention of supermarkets using booze as a loss-leader to attract customers, this may work.

Of course, this ignores the cities where unitary authorities predominate and where the problems of social cohesion are much worse.

Opinion Polls

Monday, May 17th, 2010

It seems there is a lack of understanding by many of how polls work.  In particular, accusations of push-polling keep popping up.  In the UK, if a polling company is a member of the British Polling Council you can be sure they never do push-polls.  It is unethical and accusations of such behaviour will rightly be met with, shall we say, a vigorous response!  For example, YouGov and ComRes have both been accused of such behaviour recently.

Another common criticism is that the sample size is too small or unrepresentative.

There are two methods of ensuring a sample is representative.  First, “random” sampling involves a polling company using a list of randomly-generated telephone numbers (usually the last digit is randomised to ensure the sample includes listed and unlisted numbers), email addresses or names and home addresses (e.g. drawn from an electoral register).

Second, “quota” sampling involves setting quotas – for example, of age and gender – and seeking out those people in each location who, together, match those characteristics.  This type of poll is frequently used by internet-based pollsters who use quota samples to select from a database of people who have already provided information about themselves.

All polling samples seek to be representative of the total electorate of Great Britain by carefully selecting samples from a variety of social groups.

Usually, Northern Ireland is omitted from opinion polls as it has a different party system.

Accuracy depends on the absolute sample size rather than the proportion of the population it represents. This means that a survey of 1,000 people for the whole country is as reliable as a survey of 1,000 people for a single constituency.

But, surely 1,000 people isn’t enough?  I’m not going into the statistics (mostly because I’m too lazy to fully research them), but it is widely accepted that polls of 1,000 people will be accurate to within 3%, with one caveat: as the samples are random, there is a one-in-twenty chance a particular poll has picked an abnormal group that lies outside that 3% margin of error.

Terminology

Monday, May 17th, 2010

When talking about UK politics, I will generally avoid using the terms “Tory” and “Tories” as these have emotional overtones.  Instead, I will talk about “the Conservative party, ” or “Conservatives”  If and when I use “Tory” it will because those overtones matter.  Oddly, there don’t seem to be widely accepted nicknames either for Labour or the Liberal Democrats except for the simple contraction “Lib-Dems.”

Also, I will try to avoid the increasingly meaningless terms “right” and “left.”  Instead, I will talk about where policy lies on two axes: state control versus economically liberal, and authoritarian versus libertarian.