Thursday, 30 April 2015

The emerging rage with Labour

It isn't an uncommon experience during the election to stare open-mouthed, night after night, at the television - staggered that nobody else seems to see things the way you do.

That is partly a sign of mild instability, of course.  But it may also be a ubiquitous experience for sane people as well.  It is an odd election, after all.

And I'll tell you what the oddest element is for me.  It is the apparently universal opinion, in the commentariat, that Ed Miliband is having a good campaign.

I'm aware, of course, that expectations were low.  I'm aware that most people believed he and the Labour Party would fall on their faces in the first week of the campaign, and they didn't.  But compare Labour's performance, stuck on one of their lower vote shares in the history of the party, with what might have been expected of them in years gone by.

This is after all the official opposition, facing a not particularly popular coalition in the midst of austerity and worryingly tight budgets.  Yet, the BBC poll of polls last night put them on just 33 per cent.

Of course, this is partly about Scotland, where the latest poll I saw showed Labour just within three points of the hated Tories.  An unheard of reverse.

But Scotland is a symptom of the same basic problem - the slow but inexorable decline of Labourism, the dawning understanding of what Labourism has meant in Scottish cities, just as in English ones.  Also perhaps (or maybe this is just me) the bizarre way in which Andy Burnham can stomp around complaining about the 'marketisation' of the NHS when he was part of the government which marketised it in the first place.

So here we are: three of the deep reasons why this election appears to mark a hopeless nadir for the Labour Party, not a hopeful challenge after all:

1.  Because of the policy gap.  This has been a huge gap since the Second World War between what they argue in opposition compared to what they do in office: PFI contracts, nuclear energy, massive controlling IT projects, and the enthusiastic McKinsey-isation of public services.

2.  Because of public housing.  Again, Scotland is at the sharp end here.  Look what Labour did to Glasgow - the miserable, soulless slum estates, prisons for the poor, that Labour built there.  No wonder they appear to have brought such rage down on their heads.

3.  Because they think the own the poor.  Try to oust them from places they consider their own (Tower Hamlets springs to mind) and the bitterness with which they will fight back is really staggering.  No, the dark side of the Spirit of '45 is alive and well and living in slum housing, PFI contracts and the inner city machine.

The problem with Labour is that it stands for nothing (I agree that the Lib Dems have done passable imitations of this too in the past).  It has no coherent, unifying ideology.  It has no continuity between opposition and government.  As we watch, it appears to be being left behind by parties which - for all their faults - have a purpose and a vision.

I would suggest that this is the real story of the 2015 campaign, the emerging rage with Labour.  But I appear to be the only one who thinks so, in England at least.  What does that make me?

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Wednesday, 29 April 2015

If the Old Pals Act looms again? Stay out...

The biggest constitutional crisis since the Abdication, says Theresa May. It isn’t that yet. Heavens, we haven’t even voted. But the various scenarios certainly point to confusion, as we know only too well.

So let's go a little further into this confused, post-election world.  What will the Conservatives do, faced with what they appear to be calling an ‘illegitimate’ link between Labour and their hated opponents in the SNP? There is no doubt in my mind what they ought to do, if the prospect is really as dangerous as they say it is.

They should hammer out an agreement with Labour for a government of national unity.

A week from polling day, that is hard to imagine. It is hard to see Labour MPs backing a Conservative-led government. It is hard to see Cameron serving under Miliband, but then Cameron will be gone if that situation arises.

That much is familiar. But what would the Lib Dems do in those circumstances? William Hobhouse has written a thought-provoking blog suggesting that PR should be a red line in any post-election negotiations.  The current system is justified on the grounds that it produces strong government.  It manifestly doesn't.

Given that it hasn't, and there was some kind of attempt at a government of national unity, there would be intense pressure on Clegg to take part. I hope very much that he would refuse. For three reasons:

1. The timid leading the dull.  A governing arrangement between Labour and Conservatives would not be difficult ideologically – there isn’t enough difference between them. But it would be a government of the bland leading the conventional, of the timid leading the dull. My goodness, it would be a Stanley Baldwin style 'safety first' government.  It would need an effective opposition.

2. A Scottish leader of the opposition?  If the SNP can’t be in government – though I don’t see why not – they can’t form the official opposition either. Nor should we allow Nigel Farage’s party to take on that mantle.

3. Articulate Liberalism.  The nation needs an articulate Liberalism. It would be time we escaped from the exhausting embrace of Whitehall, and set out to provide one. I can’t think of a more important task.

In the 1980s and 90s, when Liberals were turning a dull and semi-corrupt local government world upside down and inside out, they used to be opposed by a desperate series of local alliances between Labour and Conservative. The Liberals, and then the Lib Dems, used to call it the Old Pals’ Act.

That also seems bizarre looking back, but those were the days when Liberals projected something to say which could not be described as splitting the difference between the other two – and which could be seen as dangerous enough by their opponents that they had to unite in opposition.

If the Old Pals unite again, in a government of national unity to keep out the SNP – and they might – then there would be no useful role the Lib Dems could play inside such a horrific amalgam of a stultified, constipated establishment.

But an absolutely vital role outside it.

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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Submarine under the Dardanelles, exactly a century on

The Dardanelles in the early hours of 27 April 1915, exactly a hundred years ago yesterday morning. Here Agamemnon and the Greeks landed for the attack on Troy. Here Xerxes had ordered the sea to be lashed for destroying his invasion bridges. Here Lord Byron swam against the Hellespont current.

Now it was the very portals of the Ottoman Empire for the crew of the British submarine E14, staring silently into the darkness from the small conning tower, eight feet above the waves. It meant mines, forts, searchlights and wire submarine nets. It meant a formidable current pouring fresh water over strange and unpredictable layers of salt water up the 38 mile passage from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmora, and through one narrow point only three quarters of a mile wide. It meant undertaking possibly the longest dive ever contemplated in a submarine.

It also meant passing the wreckage of the submarines that had tried to pass that way in the days and weeks before, the French submarine Saphir and the British E15, lying wrecked and battered on a sandbank off Kephez Point, their dead buried on the beach, their survivors in captivity.

The sea was absolutely smooth and there was only a breath of air from the movement of the submarine itself. The canvas screens around the bridge had been removed to make the conning tower less visible. The electric batteries that would power their motors underwater had been charged to their highest pitch, as they waited in their harbour of Tenedos with its medieval castle, its windmills and its Greek sailing caiques, just a few miles from the site of ancient Troy.

E14 had weighed anchor at 1.40 in the morning. There was no escort for their lonely voyage. The goodbyes had been said. They had written their farewell letters, knowing that the chances were now against their survival, and given them into safekeeping.

The submarine’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Courtney Boyle, had written three – to his wife, his parents and his solicitor – in the three hours warning he had been given at Mudros harbour the day before. Now he stood in his navy greatcoat, holding onto the rail, his binoculars around his neck, staring ahead in the blackness at the navigation lights of the allied warships, the greens and reds slipping away behind him.

Next to him, his navigating officer, Lieutenant Reginald Lawrence, only 22 years old, a reserve officer from the merchant navy, who had been there just a year before in peacetime. Below, the executive officer, Edward Stanley, was supervising the control room, listening to the rhythmic pulse of the engines.

It was a flat calm and there was no moon. From the northern shore in the distance ahead of them came the boom of guns and the flash of high explosive, a reminder that British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops were now dug in on the beaches, after their dramatic and perilous landings 48 hours before. Closer to the invasion beaches, they could see the shimmer of tiny glows from the trenches, the cigarette ends and makeshift fires of the soldiers dug into the dunes.

On their left hand side, there was a huge searchlight by the Suan Dere river; Boyle’s first objective was to get as close as possible to the estuary there before diving. Beyond that, he could see searchlights on both shores, sweeping the sea ahead of them. He and Lawrence reckoned the one past the white cliffs on the southern shore must be Kephez Point, where E15 had come to grief and, further ahead, a more powerful yellow light, was the great fort at Chanak.

One diesel engine drove them ahead, and the noise and the fumes were horribly apparent to anyone on the conning tower, where the exhaust pipe was. Boyle was as experienced a submarine commander as any other afloat, but he was aware that he had not quite earned his commander’s confidence. The calculations about speed, battery endurance, current and all the rest had been going through his head constantly since the dramatic meeting in the fleet flagship just two weeks before when – like all but one in the room – he had judged the venture impossible. The single dissenting voice was now dead.

But Boyle did have a plan. It was to get as far as possible to conserve their battery before diving, to dive as deep as possible under the obstructions, but to rise to periscope depth as often as possible in the most difficult sections of the journey, where the current was most unpredictable, to make sure the submarine did not drift He was acutely aware that his own skill and experience was now the determining factor, above all others, in his survival, the survival of the other 29 men on board, and of course of the success or otherwise of the mission.

They passed a brightly lit hospital ship, with its red crosses illuminated under spotlights, and then they were alone at the mouth of the Dardanelles. The crew were sent below and the engine room hatch was closed as a precaution. The Suan Dere searchlight loomed ahead, swept over them and then came back. Had they been seen? It flashed away again. It was not clear either how much the stripped down conning tower was visible.

Then the searchlight was back and this time it stayed on them for 30 seconds. Lawrence gave a strained laugh. They had been seen. Boyle sent Lawrence below and ordered diving stations. By the time the hatch had been shut behind them, and they had swept down the iron ladder into the control room, two shots had been fired.

Lawrence settled down with his notebook in the control room. “Now we had really started on our long dive,” he wrote later. Everything now depended on the captain’s skill and the resources of their electric batteries to drive them underwater...

Find out what happened next in my book Unheard, Unseen (£1.99) (also paperback version).

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Monday, 27 April 2015

40p a minute - why isn't it an election issue?

I had to phone the HMRC’s tax credits helpline last week. I had to report that my household income had risen this month. I’m obliged to do so for fear of the most appalling consequences if I don’t. I can’t apparently do so online, at least until my annual information pack arrives in July.

The experience was so infuriating and has made me think rather differently about the election campaign.

The helpline is not a freephone, it's an 0345 number. I had to hang on twice – first for an hour and a quarter, after which someone rang my front door bell and I had to ring off. Then I tried again and eventually got through the switchboard after 45 minutes. That is about 120 minutes at 9p a minute which comes to just over £10 I paid for the privilege of hanging on listening to their music tape.

I can afford £10, though it is infuriating that I should have to pay for their official incompetence. If I had been too poor for a landline and had to hang on via a mobile at the rate of up to 40p a minute, that is nearly £50 I would have been expected to pay via my phone bill.  Just to do what the law insists or to ask advice about it.

That kind of incompetence, enforced with all the weight of the law, is absolutely scandalous. Yet it apparently has no place in this or any other election campaign. 

So I sympathise with Aditya Chakraborrty and agree with him about the issues that are not being hammered out in this election. It is hard to list any that have, at least in any way that spreads light rather than confusion.

Labour says nothing (though the announcements about housing today were at least a shot in vaguely the right direction, though it wouldn't have the right effect.  And the Conservatives say nothing, and stay silent about how they are going to pay for it.  When they do say anything, the others say something fatuous about their "sums not adding up" (who was that today, I wonder?).

I agree with Nick Tyrone also that the lack of debate, lack of ideas has also been staggering. Dull in the extreme as the Westminster village gets excited about the prime minister’s football allegiances. But the issues, in what is supposed to be the most important election for a generation, go undiscussed.

The traditional answer is that the election campaign must focus on ‘bread-and-butter’ issues. This usually means long screeds of meaningless statistics about childcare, wages or the cost of living.

What is doesn’t apparently encompass is the sheer incompetence and arrogant authoritarianism of the central government services the poor have to deal with, at great expense and inconvenience in time and money.

Of course it isn’t just the poor who are at the sharp end of this bread-and-butter issue. As a company director, I’ve been warned by Companies House that I must offer my one employee (me) a pension by 31 March or face a stiff fine. I’ve been warned to expect log-in details. But can they be bothered to send the log-in details by their own deadline? No, they can’t – and presumably the stiff fines they were preparing for me don’t apply to them.

This isn’t a complaint about privatised services – they are just as bad, just as arrogant, bullying and incompetent. This isn’t about public versus private, and is therefore not recognisable as a relevant election issue. Yet it affects everyone, every day.

Election issues need to be expressed in an approved way, with enough technocratic jargon to make them sufficiently obscure. They need to be about issues where there is some obvious division between the parties.

This doesn’t. Nor do all the other incompetences and inhumanity we have to deal with in the labyrinthine services, state and corporate, that we face every day. Yet personally, in my current mood, I would imprison whoever is responsible.

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Rupert Brooke, the antidote to Big Englandism, died a century ago today

Today is April 23, a date of some significance.  It is St George's Day.  It is Shakespeare's birthday and deathday.  It is a number of other people's birthdays too (many happy returns, Andrew!).  It is also the day that Rupert Brooke died, exactly a century ago, in 1915.

We could argue about his significance now, and I have done in my short ebook about his death, Rupert Brooke: England's last Patriot.  There will certainly be people who dismiss him as twee, mixed up or naive, or all three. But he was, in a small way, a pioneer.

He articulated a twentieth century Englishness, calm, green, nostalgic and unthreatening (even his famous war poem The Soldier was about death in war not military glory).

His hymn to The Old Vicarage, Grantchester came from this nostalgic, gentle tradition - it is about the quiet which might potentially smooth his nervous breakdown.  It is about a little place, not a big place.

He paved the way, it seems to me, for the mid-century revival of pastoral Englishness, which you can see in the work of Eric Ravilious, now on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Like Ravilious and Piper and others in the new romantic tradition, Brooke's poems have a kind of glowing transcendence about them (perhaps ntot he one about being sick on a Channel ferry, but Grantchester and others).

It is a gentle, unassuming, patriotism in the tradition of Jerusalem (see my short book on the history of the song), and it is worth remembering now that there is a more strident, intolerant nationalism abroad at the election hustings.

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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

It was actually John Major's fault (partly)

I was press officer for Democracy Day in 1992, seven days before polling day in the general election.  It was a highly successful stunt organised all over the country by Charter 88.  It nearly killed me at the time.  The conventional media was pretty insulated against anyone 'intervening' in the election campaign from outside Westminster, and publicity was a frustrating business.

It was as if it wasn't really our business.

I seem to remember that Democracy Day achieved two things.  First, it successfully put the constitution on the political map - PR for elections, devolution to Scotland and Wales and so on.  Not at the time, but for later.

Second, a Conservative official had overheard Roy Hattersley talking about Labour's campaign plans over lunch at the Atrium restaurant - the plotter's eating house of choice in those days - and because of that, they knew Labour was planning to respond positively.  They were also ready for them.  A deluge of criticism engulfed us all the next morning.

It particularly energised John Major on his soapbox.  "The United Kingdom is in danger," he said.  "Wake up, my fellow countrymen!"

I was reminded of that today with Major's mildly hysterical intervention in this campaign, nearly a quarter of a century later.  But the Major sentence which really grabbed my attention yesterday was this one:

"This is a recipe for mayhem. At the very moment our country needs a strong and stable government, we risk a weak and unstable one..."

It is worth thinking back 23 years to remember why we are risking this 'weak and unstable government'.  It is because no action was taken then or later to make the voting system more representative.

The usual failure of the voting system to reflect Lib Dem support goes almost without much mention these days.  It looks as though Ukip or Green support may be almost as big (I think the Lib Dems will overtake Ukip in the popular vote) but may end up with one MP each.  You may not like their message, but virtually excluding them from Parliament will only bring the whole caboodle even further into disrepute.

But the real problem is looming in Scotland.  Because Major, Blair, Brown and - let's face it, Cameron too - failed to act, there is a serious prospect that the SNP will take most of the seats in Scotland with around half the vote.

I don't buy the argument that this is an unprecedented disaster in itself - the Victorian Liberal governments were supported by the votes of the Irish Nationalists - but if it doesn't reflect the democratic vote, then of course it will be unstable, possibly violently so.

I don't want to blame Major personally for this failure, though he has to take a share of the blame.  But it is part of a wider, more complex problem.

It is this.  Because the two old parties of government are insulated by the system, they tend to exemplify the two great British political skills - doing nothing about a clear and present danger to life in the UK for decade after decade, then riding roughshod over everyone by cobbling together a last-minute sticking plaster solution.  

So if you want to know why we are in danger of the 'weak and unstable government' that John Major describes, it is worth remembering that it was eminently preventable.

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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The rise of nationalism is Labour's fault

The burst of excitement about politics in Scotland is really unprecedented.  It requires a little explanation, and why people who have been turned off from politics appear to be turning - to some extent at least - to nationalists.  Nationalists, with all their intolerance too, which is all too obvious as they shout down opposing candidates in the streets.

Why?  It seems to me that there are two reasons.

First, the idea of imagining your own nation has an empowering effect, whether it is practical or not.  It allows people to imagine solutions to intractable problems which appear to have been ruled out by an exhausted elite at Westminster.

In Westminster, nothing appears to be possible.  Issues tend to be framed in terms of gestures within existing institutions, or in terms of budgets, which might have little or nothing to do with the basic problem.  The independence debate appears to have allowed politicians to sidestep their besetting sin: the worship of existing institutions, and a blindness to their manifest failures.

It is bound to be energising when you find yourself in a political culture that is prepared - rightly or wrongly - to think boldly.  It is worth remembering this in the future if, as seems increasingly fraught, we are ever going to persuade Scotland to stay in the union.

Second, it  seems pretty clear that the swing to the SNP is primarily an anti-Labour swing.  It means that people have suddenly grown up, have looked around themselves and feel a sense of rage that they have been trapped, abused and taken for granted all these years by the old style arrogance of the Labour Party.

In this respect, again, the swing to the SNP must appear like a liberation.  And look at the housing around Glasgow and you realise the appallingly inhuman mess that Labour rule has made of Scotland since the Second World War.

When I saw some of the estates in Glasgow for the first time, they took my breath away.  In fact you could see that Labour-style mass houisng, inhuman and technocratic and degrading, as a vision of everything that has gone wrong with politics in the UK over the same period.

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Monday, 20 April 2015

The three biggest distortions of the general election

Spare a thought for a moment for the hapless policy wonk. I don’t really speak as a represetative of the guild, so to speak – I am far too opinionated. But I have enough policy wonk in my genes to know what they are going through, and two weeks from a general election is an absolute nadir.

The general election campaign has reached its height. Those interested in policy have waited for this moment for five long years when, at last, the issues would be aired and hammered out effectively, and decisions would be reached, contradictions revealed and we could all move on.

But of course, when it comes to the point, nothing remotely like this happens. The issues are simplified to the point of stupidity, the real problems are obscured, the parties slag each other off on the basis of mindless distortions and the world appears to go backwards.

It is a caricature of democracy. The very opposite of what our forefathers fought for, and it happens every time. Perhaps this time more than last, time because the stakes are so high.

The depths of the obscurity always take me by surprise at elections, but – like the pain of childbirth – something about the wonk genes means we are bred to forget it. This time, I reckon its worse then ever but I know I said that to myself last time.

So just as a very small and, I’m aware, a rather ineffective gesture, here are the three most outrageous distortions and evasions of the real issues that are supposed to be elucidated. Read them and weep.

Distortion #1. It isn’t about privatisation, it’s about contract culture.
Privatisation, certainly in the NHS, seems to me to be pretty much on the turn. Contracts arc being abandoned early by many of the biggest contractors, and for the same reason: there really isn’t the opportunity for profit there any more. But the culture of contracts carries on spreading. It narrows down the deliverables, pushes costs elsewhere in the system and renders services less effective – because they have shifted the emphasis from doing a good job onto achieving target numbers, which is in practice something very different.

The problem isn’t really about who is running the NHS, which matters not nearly as much. It has everything to do with the style under which they are run. Because the real problem is the extension of fatuous call centre-style management into public services, which gives the illusion of saving money but actually sprays costs elsewhere.

The real issue isn’t who runs the service, it is how it is run. It really matters that it is run so that everyone counts, and not with the alienating and ultimately expensive techniques of mass production, which only seems to meet people’s needs. Why are these issues not being articulated?

Distortion #2. It isn’t the housing supply, it’s the money supply.
Listening to the housing debate, you might be forgiven for thinking that it is the shortage of homes that has driven up the costs – it is, in a small way. But what is really happening is that house price inflation over 30 years been driven primarily by the oversupply of property finance – first by changing the goalposts about how you could borrow, manipulated during the Blair years, then via bankers bonuses and now via foreign investors.

We might conceivably be able to meet our own needs by building more homes, but we can’t possibly satisfy the demands of the property investors in the Far East without prices rising.

See more in my book Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis.

Meanwhile, I have just listened to a Conservative housing speaker talking about ‘affordable’ housing in London, apparently unaware that this still requires a salary of well over £50,000 for a small flat. Has the BBC punctured that particular lie?

Distortion #3. It isn’t the privatisation of the big banks, it is the absence of small banks.
If ever the was a monumental failure to grasp the real issue for the economy, it was David Cameron’s announcement about the sale of shares in state-owned Lloyds. It will be sold and then carry on just as before, but with the extra constraints to make it safer – but also less effective – that were enacted by the coalition. 

Yet we still won’t have what nearly every other country in Europe has: an effective tier of small banks which are committed to their community, have local knowledge and can lend effectively to small business.

Some of the manifestos acknowledge this (certainly the Lib Dems do), but where is the debate that links this to the need for a more entrepreneurial economy? Where is the challenge to Labour and Conservative for the effective dislike of small business, which underpins everything else? Where is the debate about how to achieve this new tier – given that SME lending is still falling in the UK?


So there you have it. Three boulderised issues, stupidised by the lack of genuine election debate, an empty debate that is underpinned by the collusion of the BBC and their obsession with political process (except a handful of mavericks who are invited on to talk about issues that are missed out).

You will note also that these are mainly about the failures of big institutions and the urgent need for smaller, more responsive ones. That is the key change we need – but do you hear it debated?

The institutions don’t get debated partly because mainstream parties become cheerleaders for existing institutions. Perhaps that is where we need to look when the dust has settled a bit.

This blog is cross-posted to

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Thursday, 16 April 2015

Have the Tories have abandoned the middle classes?

I wrote earlier this week about selling social housing to tenants, and the circumstances where it could be a radical idea again, as perhaps it was in 1980 - backed at the time, rather bravely, by the Liberal Party's housing spokesman, David Alton.

Of course, what we didn't know then was that local authorities would be forced to hold onto the money they made from the sales, rather than investing them in new stock.  That small mistake made an excitingly radical idea into the foundation of our current housing shortage.

What I wrote seems to have been read more widely than my posts usually are, and especially for some reason in the USA - it was copied in Florida (thank you, Maria!) and I've found myself on the receiving end of fascinating responses from there.

I've also had a number of online conversations with people who don't agree with me that the independence of owning a home is in any way superior, or that it should be extended to the poor as well as the rich.

I realise it is politically correct to say that renting is morally preferable, but that seems to me to deny the obvious - that wealthier people have a privileged independence not open to renters.

The idea that has really caught the imagination of radicals in Florida is the TINY home, a self-built home built to the size of an average car parking space (89 square feet).  There is rather a good film about it - but since I know that, in London, young people will soon be forced to live in tiny temporary cabins, I don't feel quite the same excitement about it as they do over there.

What they do have in the USA which we can learn from is the Habitat programme of community-led self-building, though it does have a track record in the UK (and something related is in the Lib Dem manifesto).  Self-build social housing was pioneered in Lewisham in the late 1970s over here - in the teeth of opposition from the local Labour Party.

Because it seems to me that, traditionally, both Labour and Conservative have their heads in the sand over housing.  We are clearly expected to look back fondly on the council house sales policy of 1980, but then most of those outside Westminster are aware of how much the world has changed since then.

We were already talking about house prices in those days, in training for a thousand dinner parties to come, but actually – compared with what came later – the average price of a home in the UK was very low: £18,000 (now worth about £74,500 at today’s values).

This was not quite the 1930s, the heyday of house buying, when a new semi-detached cost just over £500, available with a down payment of £50, and when mortgages cost about 10 per cent of a middle-class income and were paid off within sixteen years. But looking back, 1980 was actually the beginning of the extraordinary process which – over the next three decades – has goaded the rise in prices so brutally that it has ended the house-owning dream for many people, and which now, more than anything else, threatens the very existence of the middle classes.

See more about this in my book Broke.

This was the peculiar thing about Cameron's presentation on Tuesday about 'working people'.  As if somehow working people were the only people in difficulties, when - if you are not on the housing ladder already - working class, middle class, every class are in precisely the same sinking boat.

The Conservatives have failed to grasp that the vast majority of people in the UK, especially those under 40, are now priced out of civilised life.  They have failed to grasp that the so-called 'affordable' housing still requires combined salaries of £100,000 or more.  They have failed to understand that, far from spreading home ownership in the UK, we are increasingly dependent on Big Landlord plc.

It is, in short, a huge lie.

In those circumstances, letting 27,000 tenants a year buy their social housing at a discount is really neither here nor there.  It is a symbolic policy, of course, but there is nothing behind the symbol.  Meanwhile, the young middle classes wither on the vine.

Can we imagine a policy that might have some chance of tackling the problem, both helping 'working' families and keeping the middle classes alive?  Here is mine:

1.  Build new homes to give away to tenants, along the lines of the Lib Dems rent-to-own scheme but on a much bigger scale - on condition that, if they are given a discount, then the home must stay at that discounted price for 30 years.

2.  Clamp down on banker's bonuses and foreign investors which are currently pushing up prices so disastrously (we might be able to build enough to satisfy our own demand, but not Singapore's as well).

3.  Give all tenants, public and  private, the right to buy their homes.

Will it be enough?  No, but it would shift the power.  And let's be clear about it: there was no recognition in David Cameron's statement of quite how tyrannical the situation has become - for everybody.

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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Does anyone hear 1940s political language any more?

I have been reading the Lib Dem manifesto.  Well, I had a couple of days to spare.  And it is an impressive document.  No political party can ever have written quite such a detailed manifesto before.  I've been wondering why.

In fact, the manifesto reveals what the Liberal Democrats have become after five years in coalition.  Detail orientated.  Deeply pragmatic.  Determined to deal with the world as it is, not as it might be.  It's great advantages are that some of the commitments are vital and bold - the commitment to zero-carbon Britain by 2050, for example.  But there are disadvantages too.

It reveals itself as a document written in Whitehall.  Its small commitments are spelled out in painful detail.  Its big ones remain vague.  It has figures running through the thing like a piece of Blackpool rock.  And the language is old-fashioned: does anyone hear commitments in 1940s language - 'healthcare for all', 'prosperity for all' - any more?

Of course, this is not a document written for the public.  It is a document written to be used in coalition negotiations, and as such it works very well.  But it is so hard-headed a document that people may not feel like spending too long in the company of the party which drafted it, for fear that they will start spouting statistics at them.

Like other documents written in Whitehall, the authors forget how little people hear figures - especially when they involve amounts.  Most people, in my experience, don't hear a difference between million and billion unless they are very familiar with the debate already.

I have to declare an interest - the two major proposals I have been working on for the past two years are both missing.  This is very disappointing, but this isn't the moment to spell them out, and they are at least hinted at.

Perhaps the real problem is that it bears the scars from Whitehall battling over five bloody years.  It assumes the existing arrangements, uses the word 'continue' rather too much, thinks ahead too little and does not even attempt to inspire.  Its cover emphasises the failure to join up ideas.

Perhaps that is the right strategy this time.  I don't know.  But for all these reservations, it is a real achievement too.  It is an extraordinarily comprehensive compendium of how we would bend the system, without too many running battles in the corridors of power.  It leaves no doubt - and I realise this was the intention - that everything there is eminently achievable.

It is a hymn of praise to a highly complex system of government, and a commitment to change it a bit.  Yet don't be under any illusion - if we have a zero-carbon Britain by 2050, and free school meals, and a new Freedom Act, and a network of community level banks, and many other things that are all in there somewhere, the nation will look very different.

I just hope people read it, but wonder...

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Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Build more homes and then give them away

The Conservatives have announced an extension of the right to buy.  It is an important, populist idea, but it carries within it a serious flaw.  Enacted in the right way, it could be liberating.  Imagine the shift in power if this was applied to private tenants too.  Enacted in the wrong way, it will be inflationary, tyrannical and destructive.  

So, instead of dismissing the idea out of hand, let's think about how something along these lines might be achieved, as it should be.  Because the record of politicians over the past generation has left us a housing legacy so toxic (see Mark Jordan's television programme last night) that something demands to be done about it.

The Lib Dems alone have come out with at least three major policy announcements to help with the housing crisis, so the electorate might be forgiven for not remembering any of them.  Which is a pity because, so far, the commentators have missed what is an important and  innovative idea - and, for me, by far the most important proposal of the election so far.  The proposal for rent-to-own social housing.

I can't think of any area of public policy where we needed something generous and imaginative which cuts through the usual tired old stuff more than we do in housing.

Here is the division, and you have to put it in stark terms - because both big parties of government (I'm referring, perhaps for the last time, to Labour and Conservative) support both these untenable positions.

Position 1.  We need to extend home ownership.  We do, of course, but the political rhetoric ignores the fact that it is plummeting like a stone because successive generations of politicians have done nothing about rising house prices - or the too plentiful finance pouring into the property market and pushing up prices to ruinous levels.

As I explained in my book Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis, home ownership - even in London - is now below Romania or Bulgaria.  We are becoming dependent supplicants to the new landlord class, the rentiers which Keynes once told us deserved 'euthanasia'.

Position 2.  We need more social housing.  Again, we do.  But again, this is all political rhetoric and battling by number, aware that - in the past (for example under Harold Macmillan) - high target numbers meant low quality housing which would become slums themselves a decade or so later.

Worse, the political rhetoric stops there, so that social housing becomes an end in itself.  We trap poor people in ghettos, and leave them there, preventing their escape.  And we congratulate ourselves, as a society, because we are providing social housing for rent.  The quality of that housing for rent has been, certainly in my lifetime, deeply dehumanising high density places, where people are given little or no control over their environment.

That is the besetting sin of Labour housing policy.  In fact, the appalling housing Labour built in Scotland over two generations explains a great deal about their difficulties as a party north of the border. See Labour's hutches for the dependent poor pictured above.

I've come to believe, as a modern Distributist, that the way forward has to be building new homes and then giving them away - on three important conditions:
  • They do not go back onto the open market and fuel house price inflation (ownership need not imply the right to sell).
  • They stay at the same nominal price they were originally sold for, ratcheting down the rest of the market, perhaps for a generation or so.
  • They are built in sufficient numbers to satisfy demand.
Simply giving away social housing also works, but not if it fuels inflation and isn't replaced.  But if the social housing is replaced, giving it away seems to me a more Liberal solution, given that it  provides people with genuine independence.  I've got no time for the idea that, because people are poor, they must be forced to pay rent.

Which leaves us with the issue of how it can be affordable.  The Lib Dem solution suggests a model - rent-to-own, giving people progressive ownership rights thanks to the rent they pay.  I'm only sorry they are only promising a pathfinding 30,000.

I'm also sorry that the proposal appears, so far at least, to have got lost in the crossfire.  It is a policy of huge significance and it deserves to be heard.

Because unlike today's Conservative proposal, which involves the destruction of voluntary sector housing, it has some chance of happening.

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Monday, 13 April 2015

The antidote to nationalism: Liberalism

It is now four days since an incredibly bored Daily Telegraph correspondent on the Lib Dem battlebus tweeted in desperation that the bus had just run over a pigeon.

It was a dull day on the election front - it usually is (did you understand a word of Ed Balls' interview on the Today programme this morning?) - and the political media fell about laughing, presumably because they believe the Lib Dems are doomed and that this was some kind of omen.  I was even commissioned to write about it for the Guardian.  You can see what I came up with here.

But the exercise made some things come home to me powerfully.  One was what makes this election different from others: this will be remembered as the nationalist general election.  It is the election where the real issues have become confused because it isn't clear where the heart of the debate lies.

The truth is, it isn't really about spending commitments or otherwise - which most of the electorate take with a pinch of salt.  The central debate is about nationalism, English and Scottish.

This is the case most obviously in Scotland, of course.  One of the peculiarities of UK politics is that Liberalism and celtic nationalism often look a bit like each other.  They both seem to back local self-determination.  I remember my great-aunt (a liberal and a Liberal) saying that the only nationalism that English Liberals have a soft spot for is Irish nationalism.

In fact, the contrast could not be greater.  Liberalism is about self-determination at every level, local, regional and personal.  For nationalists, it is the nation and only the nation that counts - and that overrides local interests just as it over-rides personal ones.  That is why nationalism ends up sooner or later in intolerance.

That is all the more important in England where the intolerance is clearer and where, I have come to believe, that there is some kind of reverse relationship between Lib Dem and Ukip support. It seems clear to me that the Ukip vote is now falling and the Lib Dem vote rising, but so little that this isn't obvious yet.  Even so, I predict that Ukip will end up behind in the national vote share as well as seats.

That would then be for me the main message of the campaign, if it was to come about: tolerance and genuine self-determination faces down nationalism.  And in Scotland, I have a feeling that only a Lib Dem vote will achieve it.

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Thursday, 9 April 2015

Iceland, the Greens and the money revolution

The Green Party is a bit of a conundrum.  Go to their events and you find a strange division between the articulate, highly effective handful of activists who make things happen and the rest - who tend to be mildly misanthropic, angry types.  Perhaps a bit like me.

I have no difficulties at all with their basic premise.  It is the overlay of mushy do-gooding kind of unthinking positioning on the left that I find infuriating.  It shows little or no thought about the real changes that a greener society would require, especially a society no longer in thrall to economic growth.

They are against student loans, and heavens they may be right - but it isn't a principled stand.  It is a thoughtless one.  Especially as, behind this unco-ordinated positioning, there seems to be a great deal of equally uncritical rage.

I understand this positioning is designed to attract disaffected Labour and Lib Dem supporters, who would - I would have thought - come to them in even greater numbers if they had genuinely thought through the kind of policies we need.  But nobody has.

Consequently, they are blocking progress towards the big shift we need - which will have to attract the conservative right as well as the conservative left if it has any chance of shifting the political world on its axis.

But then, the Greens have at least had the guts to propose a bold Liberal solution: a citizen's basic income of £72 per person, as of right.

This is a traditional Liberal policy, proposed originally by Conservatives working with Beveridge, who saw it as an antidote to the huge bureaucracy of welfare state means-testing.  It would set people free from poverty in a dramatic and effective way, and it would slash the corrosive bureaucracy of welfare.

The trouble is that the Greens have not costed it.  Nor is it possible to cost.  As far as I know, nobody has found a way that such a policy could be even marginally affordable under the current design of money.

When the Social Credit Party of Alberta took control in 1943, their similar basic income proposals were ruled illegal by the Canadian supreme court, since when nobody has even tried.  But changes are happening elsewhere which might make this idea more practical.

The Prime Minister of Iceland, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, has commissioned a report proposing a change in the way money is created.  At the moment it is created by banks in the form of loans, and inflation is controlled by altering the central bank interest rates.  The proposal is that this should change: money would be created interest-free by the central bank instead and issued into circulation - well, that isn't clear, but potentially as a citizens' income.

This is an outline of a far more stable economic system.  Its other implications are not clear either, except that it would change domestic banks from money-creators into money-warehousers.  It is the proposal put forward in the 1930s by the Chicago School economists, and never enacted.

If Iceland goes ahead - and they might - this could herald one of the big shifts in economics everywhere.  If it fails, of course, it will be forgotten.  But if it succeeds in creating a more stable economic system that spreads prosperity, other countries will follow suit.

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Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The historic destiny of the Lib Dems. There is one.

One of the highlights of the Guardian's election coverage over the weekend was the group of 'blind dates' between opposing politicians they set up - Caroline Lucas with Vince Cable, Danny Alexander with Stella Creasey and so on.

One of these was an unlikely pairing between Natalie Bennett and the ultra-Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg, and it was here that he was quoted as explaining the basic two categories of Liberal Democrats:

"The Lib Dems have two strains: the classic liberal strain, which is essentially Peelite and quite conservative, and the Social Democrat strain, which is closer to Labour; so they could emphasise one bit of their personality to do a deal with either side..."

I was unnerved by this, not because I'm unaware that people think this, but because - for one awful moment - I thought to myself: maybe he's right.

I recovered my sense of myself, and my sense of the party I belong to, shortly afterwards.  But just imagine, if Rees-Mogg was correct.

It would mean that there would be no place for me in the standard bearer for Liberal parties everywhere.  I am not a Peelite Conservative and am, in no sense, a social democrat.  It would mean there was no place for Liberals either, as I understand them - and other people who recognise that same Liberalism in a straight line from Cobbett, Russell, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Grimond and so on.

It would mean that the ideology that shapes what I believe is no more than an awkward compromise between conservatism and social democracy, both backward-looking creeds, when I see myself as something quite different.  Liberalism, it seems to me, is an essentially forward-looking creed.

Nor can we really blame Jacob Rees-Mogg for misunderstanding.  If the party has failed to explain where they stand, what their ambitions are beyond coalition, then really it is their own fault.  I was on the party's federal policy committee for 12 years - it must be my fault too.

Yet, even in government, it seems to me, the party edged towards a Liberal view of the world whenever they could - apprenticeships, mutualism, green energy investment, local government involvement in health.  Perhaps the mistake was in failing to explain how these little shifts fitted into a Liberal approach that went beyond the sum of its parts.

This isn't the right moment to pick over the remains of the coalition years - they may not have finished, after all.

Nor is it really the right time for me to have another go at a future articulation of Liberal economic policy.

But I do think this.  Every 40 years, with some accuracy, there is a major shift in economic thinking in practice in the UK.  The next one is due in 2020 or thereabouts.  The outlines are already clear: it will sweep away the brittle, basically destructive power of finance.  It will reshape the economic landscape so that ordinary life can be affordable again, and can stay so.  It will end the growing chasm between the tiny elite and everyone else.

The big question is how.  It won't happen until all sides agree broadly about how it can be achieved, and I have some ideas myself, and then - when the crisis hits - the political parties are able to shift relatively seamlessly to the new dispensation.  History suggests these shifts happen, in the end, quite fast (1979/80, 1940, 1908/09, 1868, 1831 and so on, and so on).

One political party needs to hammer out the basic outlines of the post-Thatcher/Reagan economics in practice.  It is the historic destiny of the Lib Dems, it seems to me, that they should play this role.  Inside or outside government, that is their task in the next parliament.

Why them?  Because deep in the Liberal soul, it seems to me, is an understanding of how economies might work quite differently, and based on an idea that flies in the face of everything we are now taught: that small plus small plus small plus small equals big.

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Friday, 3 April 2015

I was wrong three times over about the leaders' debate

Well, I was wrong.  I was wrong on many counts. 

First, I thought last night’s debate with the seven leaders would be boring but found it was able to cover some issues which would never have been otherwise covered at all – though climate change only got a nod, even from Natalie Bennett.  I don’t agree with my friend Nick Tyrone that it was dull – not in comparison with the boring snoring (as they say) prime ministerial grilling by Paxman it wasn’t.

Second, I was wrong that Miliband was recovering his style.  I realise this isn’t the way the polls saw it, but I thought he came across as rather creepy, with long lists of policies that seemed incoherent.  I thought he got a drubbing on the NHS, and his hand signals seemed embarrassingly masturbatory.

Third, and I’m happy to say this, I was afraid that Clegg’s simplistic positioning as neither one thing nor the other would miss the point – that it would be too anodyne to catch attention.  In fact, it suited the occasion very well.

It was delivered with passion and personality.  I am, of course, biased, but I thought Clegg managed a kind of effortless dominance over the debate, where Cameron was too tired, Farage was too unpleasant and Miliband was too peculiar.

What  I hadn’t realised was that four of the leaders (Miliband, Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett) would simply outline a sort of vague lefty conservatism, a rather woolly condemnation of bad things and demand for good things, and that would make the Clegg formula stand out.

I’ve read the polls.  I know this isn’t the popular view, and I have tried to see the events of last night through the eyes of someone who was less committed.  I have obviously failed.

But I have a feeling that Nick Clegg managed to build the foundations of a fight back last night that will resonate with people over the coming weeks.  That isn’t clear yet.  Nor is the sheer creepiness of the leader of the opposition.  But my guess is that it will be.  We will see.

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Thursday, 2 April 2015

Has upbringing changed since the days of Rupert Brooke?

The election campaign will take all our available attention span over the next few weeks, so I’ve found myself thinking back a century – exactly a century in fact – to the beginning of March 1915. It was then that Rupert Brooke was relaxing with his friends in the Royal Naval Division in Cairo, preparing for the disastrous attack on the Dardanelles.

I’ve explained elsewhere how the Dardanelles escapade was a the brainchild of radical Liberals, desperate to avoid what looked like the inevitable carnage on the Western Front, and was stymied in the end by bureaucratic inertia.

The Royal Naval Division, as Churchill’s personal army, was at the forefront of his plans and received the bulk of casualties. Including Brooke, who died hours before the attack, of blood poisoning.

I’ve been thinking about Brooke, who was bitten by the mosquito which killed him later in April while he was in Cairo, and because my short ebook about his last days – Rupert Brooke: England's Last Patriot – was published yesterday (Endeavour Press).

I’ve learned a great deal while I was researching the book, but the main thing which struck me was huge change that hit English society in the early years of the last century.

Thanks partly to the philosophy of G. E. Moore, those born in the 1880s – who bore the brunt of casualties in the First World War – were brought up with a freedom and relaxed lack of interest that dominated the rest of the century.

Rupert Brooke and his friends were the first generation to be allowed to have a group of mixed sex friends to grow up with. We might not be romantic enough for naked bathing these days – still less to enjoy his party piece (which Virginia Woolf witnessed and enjoyed ) of diving naked into the Cam and coming up with an erection – but we recognise the pattern of passionate interlocking friendships, and the freedom to discover them.

But still, that sense of mutual cameraderie – away from parental control, and amidst a pre-Freudian innocence about the titanic feelings that youth can evoke – was something that Brooke and his friends pioneered for the rest of us.

I’m not sure, with all our technologies, that this basic model of upbringing as really changed a century later.

It would be interesting to think about how it might change, and once you think about it, it is kind of obvious how it is changing already. Our children are now considerably more controlled.

They are allowed to rove widely over the internet or approved sets of online games, but they are barely allowed past the end of their own drive – until they go to university. And even then, the economic controls are considerable and so are the mental ones. In fact the two seem to go together.

My own children were not allowed to speak in the corridors in their last primary school. They are not allowed to doodle in their exercise books.  They are peculiarly obsessed, like most of their friends, with the intricacies of politically correct speech. I have a feeling, in short, that bringing up children is returning to its pre-Brooke, pre-Victorian roots.

Stands the church clock? Well, up to a point. Find out more in my Rupert Brooke book (it only costs £1.99 and can be downloaded onto a PC or kindle).

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Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The three contradictions of anti-austerity

How does change happen?  Because God knows, we need it - and I speak as a supporter of the coalition.  Nobody should believe the coalition, ground-breaking as it has been, ought to be the sum total of radical Liberal ambitions.  Do they?

I've been asking myself this after a fascinating Guardian Long Read by Giles Tremlett about the rise of the leftist Podemos political movement in Spain, a combination of the New Left circa 1983 and anti-globalisation protest movements, with a dash of Latin American populism.

Podemos is the brainchild of a politics lecturer turned media star, Pablo Iglesias, who has taken his party to the top of the opinion polls.  It may turn out to be the model for a resurgent left across Europe, now dominated by the anti-democratic technocrats of the European central bank (Podemos means 'we can').

It rather depends how cross people are.  We have no real UK equivalent, unless it is the Greens, who are - in similar ways - radically anti-austerity.

But there are a number of contradictions about the idea that these kinds of movements represent a force capable of driving change.

Contradiction #1 - Anti-austerity is a conservative proposition. Anti-austerity, as currently expressed, implies that the pattern of government spending pre-2010 was some kind of ideal.  In fact, it was highly ineffective - pouring money into public services which had ceased to function properly because of the iron cage of targets and outsourcing contracts.  If anti-austerity means making sure the poor don't pay for the errors of the rich, then who can be against that?  But if it means no cuts to anything, and no major shift in resources in any direction, that is a deeply conservative position to take - and not one that will create the kind of radical change we need.

Contradiction #2 - Real change has to be based on a big idea. Major political and economic shifts happen, in the UK at least, with great regularity every 40 years (we are due for another in 2019/20), and it happens only when there are a set of new defining economic ideas that are available, after considerable debate, whose time has come.  It does not happen because of protest or protest movements.  People only listen to the protests when there is a practical intellectual proposition behind them.  A movement like Podemos remains a protest movement.

Contradiction #3 - Real change has to be based on new political divisions.  It is impossible to make change happen when is carried out entirely against the wishes of the majority, unless it is authoritarian in some way.  The great mistake the Greens have made here is to fail to find ways of reaching out to a somewhat conservative population.  I realise they wanted to appeal to disaffected Liberals and socialists, but they would have got their support anyway - and have by, allowing themselves to be categorised on the left, provided themselves with a rather low glass ceiling.

Podemos also appears to me only to be selling a new kind of protest.  It doesn't yet amount to the change we need.

I ask myself rather often now what I can do most effectively to make change happen, because Iglesias is right that the current apotheosis of bankers and banking is wholly corrosive and it would still reek of corruption, even if it was staffed by saints.

What I tell myself is this.  The main factor missing for major change to happen is a coherent set of big ideas, which have some potential to provide a good life for the vast majority of people - and to do so more effectively than the current failed raft of tired old policies.  So that's where I'm putting my energies.

Though it won't stop me from delivering the occasional Liberal Democrat leaflet in the meantime...

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