Labour

The confusion that is transport policy

If you live in Coventry, it’s cheaper to drive to London than go by train, but if you live in Honeybourne, the train is cheaper. Stratford on Avon District Council this year threatened to impose parking charges on places like Alcester that don’t have a parking problem. In the evenings, on-street parking is free, but off-street parking, where you aren’t cluttering up the roads, is chargeable. And, woe betide you if you miss the hard to read signs, as I did shortly after they changed to evening charging (there was no sign to say that it had changed) — Stratford makes more money from the fines than it does from the charges.

The Transport Select Committee, it seems, agrees that transport policy is in disarray. It’s, of course, convenient to blame this on Labour (who are conveniently placed for many kinds of blame), but it transport policy has been in disarray for years. Barbara Castle, for those with long memories, was the one who shut down lots of the commuter and village railway stations. And Margaret Thatcher, famously, sold off the railways as a way to break the power of the unions. At the same time, lots of Labour local authorities across the country imposed the first of punitive parking regimes as a way of punishing motorists into behaving themselves.

Since then, motorists have been told that their road taxes, parking, petrol charges, and, increasingly, parking and speeding fines, are going up for all kinds of things — to save the environment, to pay for the roads, to support road safety, to manage congestion, to shift people onto public transport, to regenerate town centres, for cleaner air, for faster transits. The list goes on.

Does anybody really believe any of it?

It is disappointing that motorists no longer trust the government on transport policy. But the government has probably learned to live with mistrust now. More importantly, it seems that there is no longer a consensus within the various strands of government about what transport policy is trying to achieve. Nor much idea from the possible next government: David Cameron’s crew got very stroppy when petrol prices went up, and complained that this meant fewer road journeys, but it was their own Kenneth Clarke who introduced the fuel escalator with this very purpose. Do we worry that fewer car journeys will damage the economy, or do we worry that the endless increase in petrol consumption makes us ever more dependent on the rest of the world for oil?

Here’s another one. Until recently, diesel was more expensive in the UK than petrol. Why? Why do we tax diesel engines, which are 20% more fuel efficient (and therefore better for the environment) than petrol engines, in this way? Previously, diesel particulates were understood to be worse for pollution levels. But these are now filtered and the filtering strictly monitored through the MOT test.

And another — the new, much more expensive road tax for larger cars only affects newer larger cars. If you’ve got an old car, burning oil along with fuel as it chugs unhealthily along the road, then you pay less. But old cars are less fuel efficient and less safe. And another one — the Inland Revenue approved mileage rate is 40p per mile for the first 10,000 business miles, but only 5p per passenger: little in the way of incentive to car-share.

Until we can work out, as a nation, and agree it across local and national government, what transport policy is for, we will never work out what it should be.

Both wrong on marriage

The Tories are promising tax-breaks for married couples, which Harriet Harman has described as ‘hypocritical moralising‘. But both are in fact wrong — Harman for her notion that ‘Families won’t want to be lectured by anybody about how to lead their lives’, with the implicit underlying assumption that all forms of family are equally functional, and the Tories for attempting to use tax-breaks as a form of social engineering.

Large numbers of studies have shown that long term stable parental relationships are better for children, and that married couples are less likely to split up than cohabiting couples. But equally strong evidence suggests that increasing wealth inequality across society has an at-least equally detrimental effect. The pivotal study is described in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, which shows how more equal societies do better.

The problem with the Tory proposal of creating a more advantageous tax situation for married couples (and I was one of those disadvantaged when Labour took this away in the 1990s) is that they are piling material rewards onto those who are more likely to become wealthy anyway. Voters, of course, love the notion of rewarding the good (married couples) while punishing the bad (single mothers on benefits), and it’s an easy button to press if you are an unpopular politician facing an angry crowd. But the truth is, if you punish single mothers by limiting their benefits, then you exacerbate inequalities in society, and the result will be more crime, more social unrest, less happiness, a greater differential in life expectancy, and a vicious circle which we should be doing everything we can to avoid.

Harman’s attack on the Tories is misguided — there is nothing hypocritical about supporting marriage, and a tax-break is not a form of lecturing. But the Tories have reverted to type by making a financial appeal the measure of all things. The reason we are now in a recession, despite the promises of Mssrs Clarke and Brown of an end to boom and bust, is that we have persisted in evaluating all things in economic terms. We have urged the brightest, most able, and (let’s face it) the luckiest on with ever higher bonuses, and we have supported an industry where companies are free to advertise loans to people who cannot possibly afford them, and no-win-no-fee court cases to those who would be better to get on with their lives. At the same time, our culture has increasingly valued possession of goods as the marker of personal worth. The three consequences of this should be obvious to all: economic recession, as we adjust to only spending money we actually have, climate change, brought on by conspicuous consumerism on a global scale, and deep social malaise, as everyone looks at the ideal world presented in TV ads and colour supplements and sees themselves falling short.

Social cohesion is essential for our future, and marriage is a key building block in social cohesion, but rewarding it with more money simply adds to another social problem.

As I mentioned before, I was personally cross when Gordon Brown took away our married person’s allowance, and that, with the subsequent demise of MIRAS which kept our mortgage down, had a very serious impact on our finances at the time. Taking things away that people rely on always causes hardship, and rarely does anywhere near the amount of good that was expected of it. But reinstating this allowance, as the Tories wish to, will not really be helping those who are hardest hit by the recession. Doing so in a means-tested way might help, but means testing is what the Tories hate most, since they want to reward people who have money with more money. I would not go so far as to ever accuse them of wishing to punish the poor for being poor. But in a society where relative, rather than absolute, poverty contributes so strongly to low self-esteem and consequent problems, that is effectively the result of what they are proposing.

We do need to support the things which hold society together. But we need to think of more creative and effective ways of doing it. As long as we continue to make money the measure of all things, we will continue to see British national life slide into oblivion.

The politics of hate

Do you hate the Tories? Or perhaps Labour? Or (heaven forfend) maybe even the Liberal Democrats? Or — deep down — did you breathe a secret sigh of relief at the rise of the BNP, as, now at last, there was someone you could legitimately hate without being diminished as a person by that hate?

When I was sixteen, I once told my (then) girlfriend “I really hate mods”. Mods, at that time, were not first year Oxford University exams, nor modifications to video games or other software, but were the fashion alternative to ‘rockers’. “Oh dear,” she said. “I don’t hate anyone”. We later split up, and while I, through many pathways and byways, became a politician, she successfully pursued her dream of being a diplomat. Of course, I didn’t remotely ‘hate’ mods. I didn’t even really know what mods were, and it turned out later that some of my friends were mods. But, at the moment, it seemed to establish me more as a ‘rocker’ if I said I hated them.

Many years later, I was having dinner with my ex-fiancée (not the same person as the former girlfriend) and another friend. I mentioned that I was going into politics, and, knowing that she was a skilled and passionate person, I asked if she would consider running my campaign. “Oh.” She said. “Which party?”. “The Liberal Democrats,” I replied. For a moment a shadow appeared to pass across the sun (which was impossible, because we were in a Chinese restaurant in Soho where the sun never came). All the Oxford-London fell from her voice, as she said in horror, with as deep a Rhondda valley accent as I’ve ever heard from her: “The LIBERALS?” She appeared to rise to her feet (though she has since assured me that she did not), as she said again, in a voice which seemed to fill the restaurant with centuries of astonished grief and hurt. “THE LIBERALS?”

She later confided in me that it wasn’t the Liberals she hated (we’re actually the Liberal-Democrats), but the Conservatives. She later went off and joined the Labour party, and became a Labour parliamentary and European candidate. We’re still friends, and, no, this was not why we split up, which was, in any case, ten years earlier.

Especially in politics, we use the word ‘hate’ rather freely. But there are times when our distaste for our foes is really no more than ‘I hate Marmite’, and times when it is rather more. Ann Widdecombe famously said that she went into politics to fight socialism. ((She also, equally famously, appeared on Doctor Who in support of Simon Pegg’s John Saxon, aka The Master. If she had waited long enough, she could have joined Tony Blair’s New Labour to fight socialism.)) I always found this odd. If she had said ‘to fight communism’ I could have understood it. But socialism? Really? I remember that hatred between the Socialist Workers Party and the National Front in the 70s. And, of course, the undisguised hatred of the National Front for anyone who did not look exactly like them. As Britain, we somehow learned during the 1970s that hate based on race, then known as ‘racialism’, but now known by the catchier term ‘racism’, was simply wrong. But, in 2001, it suddenly became fashionable and acceptable to hate one particular category of foreigner, the ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. It didn’t take long for the term ‘bogus asylum seeker’ to be melded in the popular conscious with, simply, ‘asylum seeker’, so that anyone who came to these shores fleeing persecution could look forward to disdain, disgust and derision from those they met.

It’s always easier to get people to do things if you can stir up strong passions. Hatred of the BNP will doubtless bring many people into politics over the next few years. But hate is a uniquely destructive attitude. It causes us to obsess over our enemies, to see conspiracy theories, to misinterpret innocence, to categorise other people into the hated group simply because they look or sound similar. Hate causes us to mistrust, to pre-judge and to misjudge. It develops double standards in ourselves, which become embedded in a persona of hypocrisy. It causes us to skew our own positions. When we hate, we lose sight first of truth, then of honesty, and, finally, as the rot really sets in, of plausibility. We see the entire world as a battle between what we hate and what we use against that which we hate. As times moves on, those who refuse to take sides garner even more of our malice than those who are the original object of our detestation.

Hatred twists the most normal, sensible people into a horrific parody of themselves. I’ve found things written about me on websites, or said about me in meetings, by people who have never met me, never heard me speak, and (possibly) never read a word I’ve written. And yet, simply because I belong to one party rather than another, they see me as fair game for whatever they choose to throw. But these same people are, in their ordinary lives, quiet, sensible, law-abiding, the kind of person you would be quite happy to see as a magistrate or a school-teacher, or (until you found out), your town councillor.

Not all politicians are like this. In fact, it seems to me that it is more often supporters of politicians rather than politicians themselves who pursue hatred as a vocation. After I first stood for public office — as a councillor, in a seat I couldn’t win, and didn’t want to if I did — the Labour councillor who did win came up to me and said ‘Well done lad’. After the 2001 General Election, the Tory MP who won the seat came up to me and told me that he thought it was highly likely I would become an MP sooner or later, and gave me some advice on my campaign. Not sneering, measly-mouthed advice, but sensible, valuable advice, which he had learned himself, and which I have taken to heart.

All politics is made up of temporary alliances of people who agree on some important things, and disagree on others. Part of the reason we are locked into a seemingly endless cycle of boom-and-bust electoral landslides in the UK is that our parties have become virtual armed-camps. The rhetoric of Prime Minister’s Question Time makes this quite apparent. You cannot pretend a man is the devil one day, and then plan with him how the country could be served and improved the next.

Whenever I talk about this, people start to be nervous. “If we cannot hate, should we just roll over and let our opponents have whatever they want”, they start to say. Of course not. But we need to rediscover our vocabulary. We can disagree, dispute, rebutt. We can dismantle a flawed policy, discredit a misleading piece of information, decry an unworthy attitude. At times we may denounce an opponent who has, for example, claimed for a mortgage that did not exist. Not hating barely has an impact on the range of means by which we can oppose. You can love and respect someone, and yet be quite clear they are entirely wrong. You can recognise the good in someone’s motives, and yet also recognise they are completely incompetent. And you should. The duty of opposition is to oppose. It is an honourable duty, and serves the public good. But no good is served by hating them ((that is, hating a person — it is entirely right to hate injustice, hate people trafficking, hate cancer, and so on)).

It is time to take the malice out of British politics.

Cameron’s False Step

Memo on expenses seen as ‘invitation to deselect’ — The Guardian.
David Cameron has been sailing close to the wind for some time, but, now we see the first (to mix a metaphor) truly false step. There was already suspicion that he was using the expenses crisis to sweep aside the ‘old guard’, and now a leaked memo sent by chairman of the Tory National Convention (and Cameron’s man) Jeremy Middleton, has appeared to confirm this.

The issue is not that ‘bed-blockers’, as they are rather unceremoniously being referred to, should not be moved on. Actually, I would favour a system which created incentives for those whose political careers had essentially finished to vacate the House of Commons. Rather, it is that David Cameron has unmasked himself as an old-fashioned opportunist, willing to make the most of the old proverb about ill-winds, in order to turn a national crisis of trust into a boost for his own personal power.

Tony Blair accomplished something rather of the same sort when he faced down the Clause 4 people. But he did it rather better, and he did it very honestly, and a lot of people who disliked his policy admired his courage in doing so. Lest we forget, this is the Tony Blair before he became Prime Minister who was going to go on to rescue Labour from an 18 year electoral drought.

Are Old Tories the problem? Would the world be a better place if they were entirely replaced by New Tories? It seems to me self-evident that there is value in a mixed House of Commons — not all old, but not all young either. Not all worn-down by experience, but not all fresh-faced and accident-prone either. To my mind — though this is perhaps uncharitable — the acquisition of power and the exercise of its privileges, notwithstanding the opinions of the taxpayer, are the hallmarks of what the Conservative Party has always stood for. Under Thatcher the promise was that a greater and greater proportion of the population would enter this privileged state, which was the promise that lured Middle Britain (coupled with Labour’s abject failure in the Winter of Discontent). Lured it, and kept is skewered. Cameron may wish to take the Conservatives away from their past (although, one wonders, in what sense would they still be ‘conservatives’ if he did), but it is not enough to simply lead people away from something. One must lead them into something else. And it is this ‘something else’ which Cameron has failed to articulate.

To listen to him, one would imagine that New Conservatives are a posh branch of the Liberal Democrats. Green, clean, reformist, interested in the common man. The sort of local party you find in Winchester or Harrow. But — if you read Conservative Home — there seems to be no spirit of warming to the actual Liberal Democrats. The ‘Limp Dems’, they like to call us, accusing us of underhand tactics with out ‘Lib Dems winning here’ campaigns. Hatred of the Lib Dems seems to burn hotter than at any time since the 1930s.

There was a very clear neo-conservative ideology — almost a theology — set out in the Reagan-Bush years, and applied in the subsequent George W years. But that ideology is now largely identified with the trickle down approach of Thatcher-Reagan, and is surely one of the things that Cameron is trying to get away from. There was an older, kinder conservative ideology in the days of Ted Heath. But Cameron is clearly not advocating returning to that.

If he’s leading them forwards, where is ‘forwards’? According to Eric Pickles, 3,000 ordinary members of the public have written to him asking to be Conservative MPs. Evidently, those are 3,000 members of the public who believe they can do a better job than the current Conservative MPs. But what do those 3,000 believe? Do they believe anything, or have they concluded that the life of an MP is so easy that they have all the qualities needed, and ideology can be sorted out later. Because, truly, David Cameron has not told us what kind of Conservative party he expects, except that it will be a ‘better’ one. He has not told us what kind of MPs he expects, except that they will be more ‘honest’. He has not told us what kind of country he would like Britain to become. In as much as he has told us anything, it is contradictory. A Britain where taxes are lower, but spending is the same as Labour’s. A Britain which is more inclusive, but at the same time more anti-foreigner (or, at least, anti-European). A Britain which doesn’t allow banks to pull the economy down, but which simultaneously allows them to ‘flourish’ with less red-tape. Perhaps it is unfair to hang on Mr Cameron the promises he made before the credit-crunch came along. But, equally, if his policies were not suitable for a long-expected (at least by Vince Cable) and much predicted (again, by Lib-Dem Vince Cable) economic contraction, there is a real question about how valid or useful they were to start with. If David Cameron’s policy is no more than saying what is popular at the time he says it, then a Cameron Britain would lurch from one opportunistic position to another. Cameron leading Britain during a recession would be bad enough. Cameron leading Britain through a boom period would be recipe for disaster: he would stoke the economy far more than Gordon Brown ever did, creating the conditions for unwise investment and unbridled risk which have brought the world to its knees. We may not survive another such crisis.

No, ultimately, Cameron’s false step is not that he has angered time-served Tory backbenchers, but that he has revealed himself as a political opportunist.

Amid all the furore over expenses, it is political opportunism which we, as a nation, can least afford.

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