Tag Archives: David Cameron

Conservative Policy Forum Launch

The last time I heard Baroness Warsi speak her big thing was to make sure the Conservative party was “a political party, not a dining club”.   The sentiment was spot on.   New members (like myself), will have realised the party is good at getting money out of you, good at getting you to post leaflets, good at organising social events – but not so good at giving you any sense of voice or influence.   It’s not unreasonable to suppose that many people who might feel motivated to join a political party may have as much or more of  an interest in policy as they do in giving money, stuffing leaflets or attending BBQs.


Today Warsi took a step to address this by re-launching the Conservative Policy Forum.  100+ activists from across the UK gathered at the old Custard Factory in Birmingham.  The event got off to a bit of a stilted start, the morning session was a succession of speakers (Warsi, Jeremey Middleton, Fiona Hodgson and Natalie Elphick) who were individually good, but unfortunately had very repetitive content.   The gist was:

  • they were encouraging local associations to set up groups to discuss policy (all under the framework of ‘The Conservative Policy Forum’. )
  • This is intended to mirror the history of member involvement in the old CPC/CPF.  It is recognised the forerunner got broken somewhere over the last couple of decades and this initiative is about putting that right.
  • To  help facilitate these new groups they would share discussion papers each month
  • they had agreed clear channels to receive feedback on the discussion papers from the local groups .
  • They then have a process to consolidate all feedback and get it to the relevant Ministers
  • They’re also looking at launching a website to solicit similar input for those who cannot attend the meetings..

It needn’t have taken more than 10 minutes to tell us all that:  It took an hour and half.  The irony in launching something  to enable members to talk, rather than be talked to, by  lecturing the same message four times wasn’t lost.  It contributed to a little frustration in the audience which bubbled over into the first question and answer session.  I actually quite felt for Baroness Warsi – here she was launching a sincerely positive initiative yet was getting criticised for the ‘lack of democratic involvement’  – as a flavour she was asked:  “who elected the regional co-ordinators?  Who elected the forum council?  Who elected you Madam Chairman?  Why is this kick-off the first I’ve heard about it?”.    Leadership in a voluntary organisation is an exercise in herding cats and I don’t envy anyone who has to perform that role.  Warsi handled the more direct comments with self-deprecating aplomb and just about managed to stop the moaning minnies from sapping the energy out of the room.

Oliver Letwin came after lunch and did a sterling job in properly positioning the intended focus of the CPF.  He was crystal clear that the CPF must not become a forum to critique current policy implementation – that’s the opposition’s job.   Current policy is current policy and it is the Government’s job to properly implement it.  The CPF is there to inform the 2015 manifesto and respond to the needs of Britain as it will be then.   Letwin comes across as a bit of a policy wonk on TV and his manner on the box is not everyone’s cup of tea.  In the flesh he was very convincing in his narrative.  He talked about the eyes-wide-open choices the current government has made, the strategic reasoning for doing the more ambitious stuff early in the Parliament and why there will be no respite in this current pace of policy implementation until mid 2012 (“After 13 years preparation, I don’t know why people find it surprising that we actually had a well prepared plan we’re putting into play”).    For me, the gold of the day came when he put up a straw-man of the possible priorities for the 2015 government – the CPF is expected input to a manifesto that will help:

  • Rise to the challenge of an ageing population and other demographic changes,
  • Keep our nation and citizens safe amidst the new security challenges at home and overseas,
  • Make the most of changes in technology and innovation, and support enterprise
  • Ensure we have an adequate skills base to meet the future demands of the market
  • >Respond to increasing pressures on our natural resources and changes to our global climate
  • Meet the economic challenges and opportunities of emerging economies
  • Ensure policy takes account of geographical differences in our nation
  • Strengthen the family, help the vulnerable and poor in our society, and tackle the causes of poverty; and,
  • Support ‘big citizens’ and the ‘big society’

I found it reassuring in the age of the 24-hour-news cycle that at least some politicians still do some forward thinking.  It’s not a bad first stab at what challenges we will face in 2015– he was also at pains to express this list was not exhaustive, and the CPF could well add to it.

Launching something is not the same as delivering on it – but I have high hopes for the CPF.  It is absolutely a step in the right direction for letting ‘membership’ of the party mean more than the right to be mugged for more cash.   The instinct that solutions and great ideas need not come from smoke-filled rooms in Whitehall, but can come from the collective wisdom of the huge pool of motivated, bright people outside the Westminster bubble is something that could really differentiate Conservatives from the heavily centralised Labour Party.  We’ve always claimed to be different in that way – if we can make this work – then we can make that claim demonstrable.

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Put the armour on. 2011 is going to Hurt

Happy New Year.   Or is it?  The reality is that 2011 is going to be pretty miserable for the whole country.   Any honeymoon period for the Coalition (if there was one) is up.  The reality of austerity measures are kicking-in.  Turning the economy is like turning an oil tanker.  Things will get worse before they get better.  We will see more public sector redundancies, we will see more cuts to other services,  the VAT rise will trickle to the till,  we wont see pay rises in the private sector, even the employed will feel  -and actually be in real terms – poorer this April than April two years ago.  Health and education reforms will spook the Unions.   Protest will spread.

The Government has to accept this and hold its nerve.   It cannot do what it needs to do and be popular in the immediate or short term.  It needs, in the national interest, to do the right thing rather than the popular thing.  With eyes wide-open it needs to understand that its popularity will fall this year and it needs to carry on regardless.  The instinct and philosophy of this government is the right one.  The challenge now is to be competent in delivery.   The quicker we get the pain over, the quicker we start the recovery.  If we start the recovery then the short-term unpopularity will dwindle and we have a fighting chance of re-election in 2015.  Dither and spread the pain over the whole five years and even if the objective of shoring up the economy is met it will just gift the country back to Labour to mess up again.

Labour will blame the Coalition for the pain. They’ll say: “They’re in Government.  We’re not.  It is their choices, it is their fault”  This is a bit like blaming a doctor for making you ill with chemo rather than the fags you only gave up six months earlier.  Nevertheless, while the pain is there the public will buy their argument.  The Coalition needs to see its program through and see it through quickly.

The lessons are there in History.  Those who remember the 1981 budget may spot certain parallels with today.  For the whole period between of 80 and 82  it was inconceivable that the Conservatives would be returned to power.  Nerve was held.  The budget worked.  Britain, after the pain, prospered.   Thatcher would have won even without the Falklands.   But we must also learn from that period.  Nobody would want to see the likes of the Brixton or Toxteth riots again.  That’s why it is so crucial that we don’t just deliver on the miserable austerity side of the program –  but also on the social side – IDS has made his case well for welfare reform – he needs to be allowed to now get on and deliver .  This is the year to get moving.   It’s also critical that we strike the right balance in the way we police inevitable protests.  Get that wrong and the Government could doom itself.

So on that dour note, I say again:  Happy New Year.  Put the armour on, 2011 is going to Hurt.

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Insider View of Coalition Negotiations

On Tuesday I attended a fascinating seminar at Portcullis House on the nuts and bolts of the Coalition negotiations in May.  The speakers were Lib Dem David Laws and Tory MP Rob Wilson, both of whom are peddling their respective books on the subject*.  For me, it was a unique chance to get a perspective from people who were ‘in the thick of it’.

A  blow-by-blow account of the evening has been done by a Lib Dem blogger here and I wont try to better that.  I will just summarise my take-away points:

  • The Lib Dems were genuinely knocked backwards by their election showing.  Nothing in their private polling had led them to expect so few seats.  Before polls closed Danny Alexander (then Clegg’s chief-of-staff) was briefing his colleagues to expect 80-85 seats.  He was way out.
  • The Lib Dems were between a rock and a hard place.  Although many of their key players would have felt more comfortable in a ‘progressive coalition’ with Labour – the Parliamentary maths and Labour’s attitude made that a no-go.  At the same time if they couldn’t form a coalition with the Conservatives we would enter a period of unstable Government with another election in November.  They reasoned a) they would do worse and b) a short-lived impotent hung parliament would be very damaging to their long term aspiration for PR – a system which would lead to hung parliaments as the norm rather than the exception.
  • The Labour party machine seemed to have done literally no planning for the eventuality of a hung parliament.  Laws had the sense they were making it up as they went along – a sense that Wilson confirmed through his interviews with the key players on their team.
  • The Conservatives had done proper planning for the Hung Parliament scenario.   They were very quick to produce a document that conceded so much the Lib Dems had no choice but to take them seriously.   Laws’ view was that the Tories essentially came into discussions with a ‘cut-to-the-chase’ final position.   The only thing that was unacceptable in the first offer was on electoral reform  (the proposal being to simply to set up another Commission to look at the subject).  I pressed Laws on whether with hindsight – if the Tories showed they had wiggle room on Electoral reform, perhaps there was wiggle room on other areas had he pushed harder.  He didn’t think so.   I personally do wonder.  Wilson made the point that for many, if not most Tories the ‘key concessions’ – the no tax on first £10k and the pupil premium were not any wrench to concede – most would have loved those policies in their manifesto in the first place.
  • Laws and the Lib Dems struggled in the negotiations to figure out how to navigate so much so quickly whilst still staying within their internal party processes.  When Laws observed the Conservative Party was spared these constraints with the leader being an effective ‘absolute monarchy’ William Hague knowingly shot back that the check and balance was “our monarchy is qualified by frequent regicide”.
  • On the final day Brown had lost the plot so much he even offered the Lib Dems 50% of Cabinet seats.

It was a good event and the second time that I have heard Laws speak.  He does impress and seems a very good counter-balance to the more loony fringes in the Lib Dem party. It underlined for me the sadness that through his wrong-doing he excluded himself from Cabinet.   If you do the wrong thing for the right reasons, you still do the wrong thing.  His replacement is not half as able.  I noted yesterday that Cameron was asked if he wanted Laws back: “Yes, and soon” was the reply.   On reflection, I could live with that.

* Rob Wilson has released 5 Days to Power while David Laws book is 22 Days in May.

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Student Tuition Fees: The Weird Thing

When tuition fees were introduced in Labour’s first year in office I actually marched on Parliament in protest.  At the time I had just completed my Masters and was clinging on for one last year as my University’s Student Union President (still the most fun ‘job’ I have ever had).

Every press release I sent out, every letter of protest that was written, every person who gave me the opportunity to bend-their-ear got the same message.  It seemed to me to be self-evident that the introduction of student fees could only:

  • Lead to lower take-up of Higher Ed across the board
  • More worryingly – lead to even greater social exclusion for those from poorer backgrounds
  • Lead to University closures and a diminishing of Britain’s academic standing

The only crumbs of comfort I could think of was that if students were paying they would become far more fussy and demanding which would drive up the standard of tuition.

Here’s the weird thing:  I’ve never been more wrong with a set of predictions in my life.  The take up of higher education went up and up.  This includes an increase in take-up from people from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Far from closures the number of higher education institutions and overall capacity increased.  I was wrong on every count.  The anecdotal evidence I have is that even my certainty that tuition standards and one-on-one teaching time would improve was  off.  I still find just how wrong I was quite sobering.

I obviously mention this now, because with today’s announcement that fees will increase to between £6,ooo and £9,000 per year the current crop of Student Union Presidents up and down the land are making the very same points as the once fresher-faced me.

Despite being proved spectacularly wrong on this issue in the ‘90s, to be honest I am still as nervous this time around.  I can’t sit here all smug that I got through the system with fees paid for and a maintenance grant because  I now have to worry about how my own two kids will afford the opportunities I had.  At some point we surely must hit the tipping point?  There has to be a cost that will put people off?  The headline £27k for a degree before living costs does sound overwhelming.

This prompted me to dig a little deeper into the detail of what is proposed.  As is so often the case the reality of the detail isn’t quite as alarming as the screaming headline – but it is still scary.  The proposals have students only repaying their loans at 9% of their income at a real rate of interest when they earn £21,000, up to inflation plus 3% for those earning £41,000 or more.   Any outstanding loans are written off after 30 years.  If you don’t end up in employment, you don’t pay anything back.  In terms of the technicalities of repayment and pressure to repay these proposals are actually a step forward from the current arrangements – though of course the overall amount to be repaid is much higher – but a step forward nonetheless.  A kind of ‘no-win, no fee’ arrangement.

It is still a whopping burden though.  I really do pity the kids who start life with that kind of debt, on top of already silly marginal tax rates to pay for the excesses of their parents’ generation.

Of course, Labour will oppose these moves.  That’s the nature and job of opposition.  There is no need to put forward an alternative, you can just yell ‘nay’.  The media will ignore that it was the Labour Government (actually Mandelson) who commissioned the Browne Report in 2009 that led to these changes.  In many ways this is history repeating itself.   In 1996 the then Conservative Government appointed Ron Dearing to do an ‘independent’ report knowing full well the recommendations that Blair and Blunkett would inherit and which led to the first tuition fees.  This time Mandelson and G. Brown knew full well what would be recommended by Lord Browne and that whoever won would have to go with it.  One silver lining for the loser of this last election was always going to be not having to catch and deal with being lobbed this particular ticking grenade.

The Coalition have actually watered down Browne’s recommendations a bit.  There is a cap on fees (albeit a quite high one), and there is more money for bursaries for the poor and early repayment levies so that the richer folk can’t get out of paying their share by paying off their loan early.

It is what it is.  The choice was always either to revisit student funding or cut back on HE provision.  Access to Higher Ed benefits the whole of society and so it was the right choice to revisit funding.

The changes are necessary but still depressing.  All I can do is hope that the weird thing happens again and that effects of student financing policy continue to be subject to counter-intuitive economic freakery that prove me, and all those earnest fresh-faced student union presidents, totally wrong.

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Filed under Centre Right, Economy, Education, Uncategorized

Conference Day 2: The Child Benefit Anomaly

Every single cut is going to hurt someone.   And nobody likes the ones that hurt them.  I have a daughter and another child on the way.    At conference today we got the news that the Child Benefit of 80ish quid we get each month is going to be stopped.  We’re far from rich but as a top tax-band family we are certainly very comfortable – I couldn’t look anyone in the eye and say that we either need or deserve that money.  It’s one we’ll just take on the chin in good spirit.

I suspect I’ll be in the minority in my acceptance though.  The Government is living its promise to do the right thing rather than the popular thing – and I suspect that this will be wildly unpopular.

One genuine issue that people have been quick to highlight is that there is one group who this will impact more than others:   This is single income families who earn just over the threshold.  They lose the benefit whilst families with a double income of salaries just less than the upper threshold retain the benefit.   In the very worst case example a couple who both earn 43k and so have a family income of £86k will keep the benefit, the single income family earning a fraction more the £44k will lose the benefit.   This anomaly is manifestly not equitable.

That said, people who are getting on some very high horses about this need to take a step back and reflect – this same anomaly has existed for years (including the entire 13 years of Labour rule) in that marginal rates already led to the same unfairness via income tax.  In the exact same examples above the couple with the single income has already been walloped at 40% for every extra pound they bring in, while the double income couple have only been banged for 25%.   I make the point to give context rather than as a justification.  Two wrongs don’t make a right – and obviously this new anomaly adds insult to injury for those people.

The anomaly aside (and by very definition any anomaly is an exception to the norm) George Osborne has still done the right thing.  He was between a rock and a hard place – to correct the anomaly and move to a solution that took total house-hold income/means-testing into the equation would have added an administration nightmare  – more forms, more IT systems, more opportunities for fraud all of which would eat away at the savings to be made – and the savings after all are the whole point of the move.   The solution adopted is pragmatic rather than perfect.  It can be very easily be implemented with existing tax data.  Those people with double incomes  just below the threshold should think of themselves as accidental winners rather than single income families just above it thinking of themselves as targeted losers.  The principle that high income earners do not require welfare support from the state is sound.

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Filed under Center right, Centre Right, Conservative Conference 2010, Economy

The Brutal Budget?

Well, I’ve just watched George Osborne come of age.  The ‘light-weight’, ‘inexperienced’, ‘young’ Chancellor gave an assured performance that will do wonders for his poor reputation.  It should also dispel some of the prejudice that still exists about the modern Conservative Party.

The spin that had been dripping out from Whitehall over the last few weeks could be summarised in one sentence: “This is going to Hurt”.  The facts about the economic situation were not in question –

  • For every three pounds we currently receive in tax receipts we are spending four on public services (i.e we have a significant structural deficit).
  • The National Debt is already £22,400 per head.

The nation could not go on spending like drunken sailors on shore-leave.  You cannot tackle the debt until you tackle the structural deficit.  You can only tackle the structural deficit in one of two ways – raise taxes or cut public spending.  The trouble for George Osborne is that neither is a popular thing for a Government to do.  But in some ways the choice was made for him, as he put it, “We are over-spending – We are not under-taxed”.  So with an impossible juggling trick demanded what is my gut reaction to what he has done today?

Well he had some pleasant surprises that may confuse those who cannot see the Tories as anything other than the ‘nasty party’:

  • The increase in the tax-fee allowance was inspired and will benefit those on the lowest pay.  I fully acknowledge that this was a Lib Dem policy but it is a credit to our Coalition that we really have cherry picked the best thinking from both Parties.  880,000 of the poorest working people taken out of tax.  Wonderful.
  • The raise in Capital Gains Tax will mean that the wealthiest in our society cannot be accused of not shouldering their share of the burden.  Those who thought the Tories were all about protecting the rich ahead of helping the economy have been proved wrong.
  • His surrender of forecasting powers to the Office for Budget Responsibility is absolutely the right thing to do for the country – but removes a key ability for him to ‘play politics’.  The best thing Brown ever did as Chancellor was give up the power to play politics with interest rates – Osborne takes this to the logical next step.
  • The acknowledgement that the banks brought about the financial crisis and the new measures to tax riskier aspects of their behaviour will be in tune with popular feeling and was the right thing to do.
  • Restoring the link between state pensions and earnings.
  • As a small-business owner I was delighted with the measures he put in place to give us a fighting chance of getting through the recession.
  • No cuts in capital expenditure.  A grown up lesson learned from the last time the Conservatives were in power in the early 1990s.

The headline will of course be about the rise in VAT.  For all the above the pain had to come and this is where the punch landed.  A tax on consumption does encourage individual prudence, but it also risks lowering consumer spending to the point that both retail and manufacturing are hurt.  The leap of faith (no doubt supported by economic modelling) must be that the proportional pain caused by the 2.5% rise is counterbalanced by the good to the economy from the reduction in structural deficit.  We need to monitor this closely and make sure the economic modelling is correct – if it backfires we shouldn’t shy away from course-correcting quickly.

Obviously, much of the pain is also going to be felt by the Civil Service when the departmental cuts have to be worked through and Councils as they struggle to work within the constraints brought about by a council tax freeze.  The challenge for both Civil Service and Councils will be to deliver those reductions with the same equity and tone that the Chancellor managed today – and crucially without hitting the public perception of service delivery.  Ultimately, for right or wrong, it will be that upon which the Coalition is judged.

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Out Of All Proportion – The Huge Surge in Support for PR

The British are a funny lot.  Currently there seems to be a parallel consensus that:

  • Our voting system last week produced the farce of secret smoke-filled room deals where people horse trade this-bit-and-that-bit of their manifesto for a seat at the big boys’ table.  This is vulgar, ‘undemocratic’ and a betrayal of what people actually voted for.
  • Therefore we need Proportional Representation to make it all ‘fair’ and so that people can get what they voted for.

It is absurd that there are so many people who agree with both statements despite their obvious mutual contradiction.  If you think  closed-door horse-trading stinks you cannot  be in favour of PR.  Under PR you would have that farce after every single election.  The key difference would be that the likes of Nick Griffin would also be in the room getting concessions aligned with his agenda before anyone could get on and govern.  Aside from the BNP (with 11 seats)  being the most extreme example, other people who would be able to hold the nation to ransom (had last weeks voting been under PR) would be UKIP (17 seats)  and the Greens (5 seats)*

The current First-Past-The-Post system does have flaws.  People say that Tories only favour the system because it favours them – well, that’s not true – think on this:  Labour got 34% of the vote in 2005 and 356 seats – (and there was no national outrage in favour of PR then!).  Whereas last week the Conservatives got 36% of the Vote but only 306 seats.    Whilst Labour were able to comfortably hold a five-year term with their 34%, frankly we’ll do well to even get through a year with our 36%.  The system, as is, is significantly weighted in Labour’s favour.  So why do the Tories support it?

My instincts remain that running a country by committee of people who can’t stand each other is a recipe for gridlock and failure.  The principal of our current representative democracy is sound – each area votes for an individual, if that area thinks he did a rotten job they can vote him or her out at the end of each term.  The link between a member and a constituency is a valuable part of our democracy which we would be foolish to throw away.  However, I do accept that it is an uncomfortable fact that very, very few MPs will actually have got more than 50% of their vote locally.

The more I think about it the more  the answer seems to be to concede that the Alternative Vote (AV) may be the way to go.  Under this system every candidate elected would have had a positive vote from over 50% of voters in their constituency (albeit not necessarily as first preference – but the voter at least had the chance to express their ‘true’ intention first – and then vote their next best option second knowing the second choice only counts if their first choice fails – it removes the need for ‘tactical’ voting, keeps the principal of constituencies and every voter knows that their vote mattered.   This gives the MP confidence in their mandate.  We also need to do more work to even up the size of constituencies to stop the system being so weighted in favour of any one party.  This coming Parliament will give us a chance to do that.

For those still demanding PR  perhaps there is a compromise through which it can be accommodated in part.  The obvious solution is to have PR in the Lords.  If we are to move to an elected second chamber then in this arena PR makes more sense.  There is no link between representatives and constituencies to break in the Lords.  Appointments to the upper house have always been about patronage so it isn’t a particular step backwards that people placed at the top of party lists are guaranteed their seats.  The one downside is that as a nation we’ve been served well from both less ‘party-political’  tribalism in the Lords and the existence of members who are genuinely apolitical.  Perhaps this could be balanced by mixing the available Lords seats with the vast majority being elected through PR – but supplemented by ‘apolitical’ members appointed on behalf of of key institutions – for instance  Senior Judges, University Vice-Chancellors, Heads of Key UK Faiths, Ex-leaders of the armed forces,  Local Government Leaders,  Science (perhaps appointed by the Royal Society), Heads of Royal Colleges of Surgery, Nursing etc.   I’m not sure if the supplementary idea could fly – it’s just an idea – but however we constitute the second chamber it would be a shame if we did lose the diversity of expertise we currently enjoy.

One thing does look certain – we seem set for some level of constitutional reform.  Given the proposals look to be for AV then I may be at odds with my party position and actually get out there and campaign for it.  Thank goodness that, despite the noise, PR for the commons no longer looks like it is on the table.

(*figures of likely seats under PR taken from Glyn Ley’s Blog)

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