Saturday, 17 July 2010

Zac Goldsmith vs Jon Snow - in a parallel universe

How the Channel 4 News interview with Zac Goldsmith could have gone...

Zac: Thanks for allowing me to come on the programme. I know I've got some difficult questions to answer, but I first want to just say that the fact that you've brought this to the public's attention is important. What I've done looks odd - and that's because it's a broken system, in which a certain amount of bending of the rules is 'how it's done'.

Jon: Really? And this bending of the rules is acceptable? That doesn't sound like Cameron's 'new politics' to me ...

Zac: No - it most certainly isn't. It's very much old politics - but it's old politics that was in place before we were elected. We only have the opportunity to change things going forward - and no doubt a part of the review that Nick Clegg is undertaking of our whole political process will include a good look at spending during election campaigns, and how we keep a level playing field but get rid of the very complex and blurry guidelines.

Jon: So you don't deny that you were blurring the lines - fiddling the figures to come in under the limit?

Zac: Of course I don't - the notion that you could run an election campaign in a borough like Richmond and only spend eleven thousand pounds in the short period is insane. Susan Kramer will have employed many of the same formulas to get extra value into her campaign while still technically staying within the regulations. I checked everything, at every stage, with Conservative central office.

Jon: And they directly approved the transfer of £700 of boards - bearing your face and your name - onto the local election budget? You can prove that?

Zac: They did and I can. And just as importantly - the Lib Dems and Labour will have approved the same for many of their candidates. Why do you think Labour MPs weren't out this morning baying for my blood? It's because they know that all over the country the same formulas and techniques are used for calculating the short period spend. If the electoral commission find against me then they'll also be finding against hundreds of other MPs across the country - possibly all 650.

Jon: There's no doubt that others are also playing the system - we've looked at the expenses of 30 MPs that we feel have questions to answer - but yours were materially different from the others.

Zac: If that's the case - and I'm not convinced it is, but I haven't looked at the returns of every MP - then the electoral commission will no doubt carry out an investigation. This was my first election and I sought advice every step of the way - especially on spending. If we've got it wrong then the people of Richmond can expect my apology and a by-election - and I will be happy to run, and win, against Susan Kramer again, under new, clearer spending guidelines.

Jon: You'd resign your position?

Zac: I'd have no choice. But this practice is widespread, so if I'm forced to resign then it won't be just me - it will be MPs up and down the country, and at a time of difficulty that kind of uncertainty - not to mention the expense to the public purse - is not in the national interest, so I would hope that the outcome would be more balanced - probably a completely overhaul of the system under Nick Clegg's review of the whole electoral process that is happening anyway.

But these would be the defences of a sensible, mature, intelligent person.

Instead, Zac Goldsmith entered into the most staggeringly self-centered and short sighted display of arrogance I have ever seen on television. If you haven't watched it (and you should, unless you're a friend of Zac's, in which case I'd advise that you do everything possible to avoid it), here's the video.

A democracy can be judged by its ability to tolerate criticism and inquiry. Withstanding - and even encouraging - the challenge of the democratic process itself is vital for refreshing democracy, preventing it from falling out of step with the electorate's felt-truths.

For Zac Goldsmith to believe that his injured pride, and the ins and outs of an email exchange with C4 News that he only entered into after six days of refusing to give a statement, is worthy of nine minutes of prime time news is staggering. He clearly believes that the electorate have no valid interest in the workings of the electoral process. He doesn't understand democracy, and whether or not he went over the line in the massaging of his electoral spend figures, he's shown himself not fit to be an MP.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Graduate Tax is the thin end of a wedge

Usually I am of the mind that single issue politics are somewhat bankrupt, but you do have to have a few red lines, and I've decided that this is one of mine.

So I just sent this message (via twitlonger) to the Labour party leadership candidates - @Ed_Miliband @edballsmp @DMiliband @andyburnhammp and @dianeforleader

Why I cannot vote for a labour leader who backs the Graduate Tax:

Education of any member of our society has benefits for the collective.

The benefits may be very direct - nurses, social workers, doctors, teachers.

Or they may be less obvious but just as important - the ability to think critically to challenge faulty thinking by our leaders, a skill with communicating complex ideas so that many may take part in debates otherwise restricted to the few.

I have no doubt that there are a handful of courses that would make satisfying Daily Mail headlines, but for the vast, vast majority, those 3 or 4 years spent at university do result in a more developed mind.

We do not all start from the same place at birth, at 5, at 11, at 16, or at whatever age we realise we'd like to embark on a university course. Clearly not every degree course churns out latin-verb-declining, equation solving, book writing poly-maths. Does this mean that those courses don't add value? Not in my view. And that's what education is about. Yes - for individuals it can be life changing, but it's society changing too.

If there's a conversation to be had about what we teach on our university courses then that's a different debate. But as to how we pay for education - my view is clear:

Education is the silver bullet.

There is no problem in society which is not best tackled through increased levels of education. We are fools to exile it from the state.

Whether our problems are practical or social, increased education of our population is our best bet for anything from solving water shortages and energy deficits to tackling bigotry and personal responsibility for health.

Education helps us live longer, and contribute more to society in numerous immeasurable ways.

For some people, the confluence of education and other life choices and opportunities will result in an increase in personal wealth. As we have done for many years, we should ask these people to contribute more to the collective pot, through a combination of income tax and capital gains tax.

A separate tax on graduates corrodes our sense of collective benefit from education, and collective responsibility for paying for it. It is the thin end of a very fat wedge. What about taxing people who went to one of the schools at the top of the league tables? School education is more closely linked to the quality of state-funded input than university education, where personal responsibility (using skills you acquired before arriving) is dominant.

The argument for individual-payment for individual-benefit is one I'd expect to hear from people who put the individual at the centre of their politics. People who are blind to the randomness of the circumstances of their childhood, and equally blind to the miracles of mindful collective endeavour.

But to hear it from prospective Labour leaders? I'm shocked.

Education is the social-mobility lever. The level of education required to give a member of society a good start has shifted - as a symptom of success - from just being able to read and write, to needing to acquire a broad set of skills and then further specialise through education post-18. We should be celebrating and enabling this progress, embracing it as an emblem that proves that left-wing principles are about building a better society, not just propping up 'the poor'.

I cannot vote for any prospective Labour leader candidate who backs the Graduate Tax. Your views on education are - in my mind - the most revealing of your perspective on what social progress truly looks like.


I'm attending a labour party event where I hope to discuss this with them and other Labour members at the end of this month. I joined up after Nick shocked me by snuggling up with Dave, apparently not worried about the implications of a decision as long as he gets to make it. I was always a Labour supporter, but I kind of thought the Lib Dems were lefties too and in my constituency a cheese sandwich would have more chance of getting elected than a Labour candidate. Now I realise I need to be in the fight more actively.

As an aside, if you haven't seen this video, check it out for a would-be-funny-if-it-wasnt-screwing-real-people revelation of the extent of Nick's affinity with Groucho Marx*:

* "These are my principles, if you don't like them I have others." Thanks to blaugustine for that fantastic quote.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Warning: may contain Politics

The sight of Danny Alexander and his defenders pointing to the fact that he hasn't, technically, done anything illegal seems to make a mockery of the core liberal value (as I understand it):

A healthy society is one with less, and not more, explicit legislation, because people can be trusted to do the right thing and not just the legal thing.

The three year exemption from CGT which Danny Alexander took advantage of was intended to avoid paralysing the housing market by wrongly taxing, as second-home-owners, people who found themselves caught in a sluggish housing market. Without it, there was the danger that buyer-sellers would have been completely unable to commit to a new home until they'd sold their old home, resulting in a total freeze of sales.

We could, of course, have doubled the detail of the legislation to specify many included and excluded situations, which would seemingly have excluded Danny Alexander from exemption, but isn't that exactly the kind of over-interfering legislation that Lib Dems are against?

I can just about forgive the average citizen for failing to make the connection between their taxes and the schools and hospitals they pay for. But MPs? Surely our MPs should be beyond reproach when it comes to tax avoidance. When the expenses scandal broke, the main defence was that 'everybody was doing it'. Except the Lib Dems of course, who won many people's votes (we have friends among them) on the grounds that they were not implicated in the great MP benefit fraud.

When Nick Clegg used his public platform to hammer home the 'fact' that his MPs had not taken advantage of the second-homes system, was he deliberately missing a key sentence: " ... as far as I know, but we haven't really bothered to look into it." ?

Even if we don't feel directly conned, it's all starting to look a little ridiculous.

How a chief secretary can convincingly implement a tightening of the loop holes he just used to his own advantage is beyond me. How a government can come down harshly on the tiny fraction of people who play the system for tiny sums of money which they may not be entitled to, while turning a blind eye to the blatant fraud carried out by their own colleagues, is also beyond me.

Integrity is, in my mind, defined by how we behave in the loop holes.

David Laws, 'a man of great integrity', appeals to us on the grounds of a pathological desire for privacy combined with an uncharacteristic attack of confusion: apparently he didn't understand that the definition of partner applied in his circumstances

I don't believe that claiming that you couldn't quite make sense of the commons rules about partnership, when you're simultaneously asking us to trust you to take a financial scalpel to society, is coherent. Either you're a very bright and clever person who can make sense of very complicated things, or you're not. If you got that wrong, and you really thought you'd got it right, how can you be so confident that axing the Future Jobs Fund is the right thing to do? How can you be confident that a brake on public spending isn't going to tip us into another recession? You didn't even realise that the lover you've lived with for a decade was your partner!

He cited the lack of joint bank accounts and separate social lives as the reasons why they weren't partners. Fantastic - hundreds of thousands of unmarried couples around the country can presumably start declaring themselves single parent families for the calculation of their family tax credit, because they don't have a joint account and she never goes with him to darts on a Thursday night?

Or... was he suggesting that there are different rules for gay people?

The burden of internalised homophobia is no doubt heavy for David Laws, but I don't really want my leaders dragging that kind of luggage around with them. Ignoring the possible influence it might have on their actual decision making, and the message it sends about his willingness to demand a society in which everybody is free to be themselves, it's a headfuck.

I don't want my leaders keeping huge personal secrets. The drain emotional and psychological energy. And if they don't then the keeper is barely human, and just as unsuitable for public office.

Apparently Alexander will be protected because it's just too embarrassing to go through 2 chief secretaries in a weekend. And Laws will be back, because greed and fraud and deception are forgivable in bright posh people, just not the estate-dwelling scum who play the system so that their kids don't miss out on school trips.

A final thought: I do not believe that David Cameron didn't know about David Laws. On the day he became PM, his security advisers will have asked him if he'd like to share the names of the people he's intending to appoint. If certain names came up, the advisers will have invited him to read a pertinent excerpt from the individual's file. I just can't believe that the fact that Laws is a closeted gay man didn't come up. If they couldn't put that together with his expenses record to make 4 then we should all be worried about what other skeletons are rattling in our cabinet's cupboards.

A Conservative might well give Alexander a pat on the back for his clever tax avoidance, but Laws? Knowing the public mood, Cameron must have realised that if it came to light it would destroy him - at least temporarily - and do irreparable damage to the reputation of the Lib Dems as the 'good guys'.

In Spain, we keep a jar of fish heads and tails to attract the wasps and flies away from where we're eating. It works rather well.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Like Bees To Honey - Chapter 1

We are very pleased to be hosting the first chapter of Like Bees To Honey on our blog by the wonderful Caroline Smailes.

You can go on a blog journey reading different chapters from the book, to see the previous chapter head over to Caroline's blog.

To move on and read the second chapter go visit Helen Redfern's blog.

And if you would like to buy a copy then you can whizz over to Amazon.