By the very clever Mark Pack:
By the very clever Mark Pack:
We are an organisation founded and run by members and activists, to both propose policy in keeping with the party’s liberal heritage, and to continue arguments for free people and free trade in the future political direction of the Liberal Democrats.
Now I must at this point make clear that I am involved with the group, and am currently on the committee that’s helping to run it until elections can be held.
My hope for the group is that it helps to keep the Liberal Democrats at the radical edge of British politics, primarily by ensuring that a wide range of ideas and policy positions are properly debated. If we want to be a radical liberal party – which I believe we should – we shouldn’t be held back by policies akin to sacred cows, which party members don’t even talk about for fear of being branded some sort of heretical or revolutionary.
Liberal Reform is broadly what one would call “economically liberal” (though I personally find the phrase rather unhelpful, particularly when set as a contrast with “socially liberal” – on the proper definitions of those things I’d class myself as both). However, the group is not only interested in “economic” issues. In fact, as our website states, we are interested in “four-cornered” liberalism: personal, political, economic and social.
What we are interested in is making the Liberal Democrats as distinctive as possible through our liberalism. To do that, though, we have to be the enemies of dogma: challenging the status quo, ignoring the pleading of special interest groups and looking at issues through the prism of our liberal heritage.
There’s been talk recently of the Liberal Democrats factionalising, which I think has been overstated. I, and my fellow members of Liberal Reform, don’t want a break up of the Liberal Democrats along tired, arbitrary lines. Our aims are simply to suggest ideas, to promote debate and in doing so ensure that the Liberal Democrats remain the distinctive force in British politics, against the staid familiarity of the two main parties.
On the day on which Alastair Campbell, one-time director of communications to Tony Blair, settles his claim for damages against News Group Newspapers, it’s worth noting an interesting family connection between Campbell and the lawyers involved.
Gavin Millar QC – who long-time readers may remember represented Phil Woolas in the election court which kicked him out of Parliament – is Alastair Campbell’s brother in law (Campbell’s wife, Fiona Millar is Mr Millar’s sister).
Yet Mr Millar is representing Glenn Mulcaire, the former News of the World journalist who went to prison for the hacking of phones. And as Mr Campbell makes clear on his website, he was not only suing the newspaper owners but Mulcaire himself:
As has just been announced at the High Court, News Group Newspapers have admitted that the News of the World intercepted messages on my mobile phone in 2006, and have apologised and agreed to pay damages and costs for the procedings I brought against them and private detective Glenn Mulcaire last year.
But this interesting tale doesn’t end there. One of the solicitors representing hacking victims is Gerald Shamash. Shamash is very closely involved with the Labour party, and was another member of Phil Woolas’s legal team along with Mr Millar. He also accompanied Alastair Campbell when he gave evidence at the Leveson inquiry (see picture; Shamash is in the centre of the picture, sat to Campbell’s left).
So not only are two key members of Phil Woolas’s legal team from September 2010 involved in the hacking cases, they are representing opposing parties, while Alastair Campbell has just received a settlement after suing Glenn Mulcaire, who is being represented by his brother-in-law. Nothing wrong in all that, of course, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
It’s completely unsurprising that there will be many people in the country tonight who will certainly not be mourning the loss of Chris Huhne from the government. What is more surprising is that some of those people will be Liberal Democrats.
I remember the moment I really became a Chris Huhne fan. It was during the leadership contest in 2007 when I saw both him and Nick Clegg speak at a hustings in Manchester Town Hall. Both were on top, liberal-crowd-pleasing form, but Huhne stood out, and I was thoroughly impressed.
And I’ve continued to be impressed since.
Just think how differently Huhne could have reacted to such a narrow defeat – and in those circumstances. He could have been bitter, resentful and spent the next few years scheming about the overthrow of Nick Clegg. He could have been Clegg’s Gordon Brown. But he didn’t. He picked himself up and got on with selling the Liberal Democrat brand.
And he is really very good at doing that. He’s undoubtedly one of the best media performers among our parliamentarians, and he’s never more than a phone call away from a camera lens. Good. Why would we want our MPs to be any different?
It’s also true that he’s never backwards in coming forwards – but how could anyone ever say that pejoratively? Since when was it an admirable trait in politicians that they are unwilling to give their opinion?
And most importantly, of course, he’s been a bloody successful minister, following his crucial role in forming the coalition (read David Laws’s book to see why he was so crucial). Even those who don’t like him personally or the policies he has implemented as energy and climate change secretary surely can’t say he’s not been effective. The green investment bank, the green deal and his work on climate change on the international stage are just three achievements which mean he can look back at his 20 months in government with pride.
I hear people say that Huhne is arrogant, prickly, cocky. Leaving aside the truth of those views (and in my personal dealings with him I’ve never found him to be anything but extremely pleasant), are those really good reasons – given all of the above – to be glad that he is no longer present in government?
One of the complaints that Tony Blair makes in his memoirs is about the difficulty of choosing effective, capable ministers from the governing party’s (or parties’) benches. Chris Huhne is highly intelligent, has been extremely successful in the three or four careers he’s had and has proved himself a first-rate minister. His resignation is a loss to the party and to the country, and I for one am hoping for his speedy return to the frontline.
I have, until now, paid relatively little attention to the government’s proposed benefit cap. I knew it was there as a proposal but made no effort to find out whether I think it’s a good idea or not.
If you’re in the same position, here are a few things to read first:
The proposals are for the amount of benefits a household can receive to be capped at £26,000 per year. Why £26,000? Because that is the median, after-tax household income in the UK. Being given £26,000 a year is the equivalent of earning £35,000.
The proposals would apply to all those in receipt of benefits apart from two exceptions: those on working tax credits (ie the working low paid) and those on disability living allowance.
Essentially, then, the people who will be affected are those who live in households where no-one works and the household currently receives more than £26,000 in combined benefits.
Is it fair?
It seems to me there are two arguments behind the proposed cap: the practical and the moral.
The practical argument, enunciated by Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, on the radio this morning is that the cap will incentivise work. The argument goes that the current system allows households where no-one works, particularly if they have a number of children, to claim so much in benefits (particularly housing benefit) that they can afford to live in houses in areas where people with the same size of family but where the parents work could never afford.
The cap, it is argued, will force those people to move out of the most expensive areas of the city and into a more affordable area. This, in turn, gives a greater incentive to work because the property to which they have relocated is affordable to them if they were to get a job, whereas the previous home in the expensive area would not have been (therefore disincentivising work).
(Incidentally, it’s probably worth mentioning one of the more interesting things IDS said on the radio earlier which I didn’t know. We keep hearing a lot of talk about how the changes would lead to more ‘homelessness’, but what does that mean? The technical definition of homelessness is, apparently, children sharing a bedroom. Seems rather perverse to me – not least because it means that I’ve just found out that at various points in my childhood I was technically homeless!)
The wider moral argument is that it is simply unfair for unemployed people to receive more in state benefits than the average household does by going out to work. In other words, those who work hard for a relatively low wage should not subsidise those who do not work to live in a nicer house in a nicer area. That’s a simply and fairly compelling argument.
What’s my conclusion? Well, I haven’t decided yet. Fortunately I’m not a member of the House of Lords, so don’t have to vote on the proposals tonight.
David Cameron didn’t betray the British national interest at a dinner last night. He betrayed it over two years ago, on 22 June 2009.
That was the day that he withdrew his party from the main centre-right bloc in the European Parliament – the European People’s Party, home of the parties of Nichola Sarkozy and Angela Merkel – and joined forces with a couple of dozen MEPs from various odd-job right-wing parties from around the EU.
It was the day he willingly and without reason isolated himself from the leaders of Europe’s most important countries.
And what a bizarre analysis of the situation it is to say that Cameron’s use of his veto (if we can call it that) was a sign of strength and success. Persuading his European colleagues of the merits of his (very reasonable) concerns would have been a success. Using his veto was Cameron’s last resort: an ultimate display of his weakness.
Britain’s interests in Europe are best served by being as influential among our fellow nations as we possibly can be. David Cameron’s ‘strength’ has resulted in us having the least amount of influence we have ever had over the course of our membership of the EU. Anyone who calls that a success needs their head testing.
What will happen now in the EU and eurozone is anyone’s guess. The only thing we know for sure is that Britain’s national interest has been severely and unnecessarily damaged by David Cameron’s catastrophic error of judgement back in 2009.
Over recent weeks, a fierce debate has been raging at the centre of government over the rate at which benefits will be increased next year. The original plan was to increase benefits by whatever the rate of inflation, measured by the CPI, was in September this year.
The reason the issue has been so heavily debated is because the CPI rate of inflation in September was one of the highest of recent times: 5.2%. That was a higher rate than the Treasury had factored into their plans.
More importantly, though, George Osborne – for political reasons – was reluctant to increase benefits at the rate of inflation when average earnings were rising by much less – somewhere around the 2% mark.
Lib Dems in government where keen to see an inflation-level rise, as planned.
Hence this intervention, a couple of weeks ago, by David Laws in a letter to the deputy prime minister and reported in the FT:
Mr Clegg has been advised by David Laws, former Treasury chief secretary, that the coalition should stick with plans to increase all benefits next year by 5.2 per cent – in line with September’s inflation figure – to protect “some of the poorest in society”.
Mr Laws, considered a fiscal hawk, argues in a letter to Mr Clegg that people on benefits were already under severe pressure from inflation and points out that benefits – including child benefit, council tax and housing benefit – have already been squeezed.
Skip forward a week, and Vince Cable is asked about the issue on last week’s Politics Show, and answers thus:
Of course they will go up with inflation. We believe the most vulnerable people in society should be protected in these very difficult conditions.There is no doubt; of course they should be indexed and that’s fully understood.
Then yesterday comes the report – in The Times and the Guardian – that a compromise has supposedly been reached which will maintain the index link but which will use as a measure a six-month average of inflation figures rather than the one off (and particularly high) September figure. That reports suggest that that figure is 4.5%.
The Guardian suggests that this compromise has not yet been approved by the ‘quad’ (David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander), but it looks like the 4.5% rise is will go ahead.
In my view this is a significant victory for Lib Dems in government. Inflation over the next year or so is likely to be lower rather than higher, so a 4.5% rise will still leave those on benefits better off.
It’s also worth pointing out Labour’s view on all this. The FT reported that Labour were reluctant to criticise a lower increase (even a wage-level increase) because they fear it would alienate low-paid workers, who they believe they need to get back on their side.
In other words, the only political party arguing for the retention of the index link was the Liberal Democrats – and it looks like we have thankfully succeeded.