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.