Friday, January 27, 2006

Crisis, what crisis?

OK so there is now an internet poll (pah!) suggesting an actual slippage in Lib Dem support. It would be nice to put this down to the press hyping up a crisis out of normal politics. Nice, but self-indulgent.

While I agree with these reasons to be cheerful and I find a leadership contest great fun, it might not pay to carry on regardless.

Charles Kennedy had massive personal popular support. It would be incredible if the loss of the man did not lose the party some support. We should count this as a low point even if the polls are steady. Crises can be good, so let us not deny the crisis when we could be planning the recovery.

The Conservative Party was in crisis from Black Wednesday until the coronation of Michael Howard. If one attributes Major's premiership to Thatcher's stifling of dissenting talent, we see a picture of one badly needed assassination, leading to a decade of crisis, ending in another assassination. Howard finally put the Tories back on the offensive, and did as well as could be expected.

So melodrama demands that a similar script may be applied to the Lib Dems. Each political assassination is different, but similarities drive narratives. Thatcher, IDS, John Swinney, which script should we point to? And what of the assassination most needed in recent times and most obvious by its absence? Tony Blair, remember, took the country to war on a lie, briefed against a dead scientist, and looked for a while very vulnerable. If there was ever a time when honour demanded resignation, and a party had a moral duty to rebel, this was it. Doubtless there was a deal with Brown to give the arch-meddler more control of domestic policy and a clear run 5 years later. Assassination victims rarely know that the time has come; this is Brown's failure even more than Blair's.

The Tories have bounced back since the days of IDS. Why? Because they have been credible, optimistic, and have gone on the offensive. And that is what we are doing, and what we will do under a new leader. This is our recovery, believe it, and act like you believe it. The Tories' decade of crisis was their of own making with a string of terrible choices for leader and persistent in-fighting. The press were their enemies, they were right to test them, to question their credibility, to hype up their faults and thereby make those faults more real. The press will test us too, as they should test any party. But we will not whinge about it, we will raise our game. We will elect a credible and optimistic leader and be united.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The environment, the environment, the environment

... these are Ming's priorities. Chris will raise eco-taxes. Simon also has a good pedigree on support for the environment. No candidate is being very specific, and indeed policy is a matter for the whole party. But it would help me decide how to vote if I understood their thinking a little more clearly.

So, I will explain my thinking, and the candidate who agrees with me will get some credit for it. And in the process I might explain why the Green Party contributes little thinking of value to this area. (I hope to make the faults of the Green Party a recurring theme of this blog.)

The environment is not like other issues. "Successful sustainable development requires a comprehensive and coherent approach across all government departments, business and the public, altering the economic and social framework within which choices are made" (Meeting the Challenge) , we are told.

But is it? Do we want to shift the focus of teachers, doctors and police away from learning, healing and crime, when any environmental benefits of them doing so are likely to be extremely marginal?

The idea that the environment is so important that everybody should focus on it is an unfortunate consequence of the green lifestyle movement. If it actually happened it would do immense damage to every other aspect of public service. In practise of course it makes nobody responsible and so nothing much happens at all.

But the environment is like other policy areas. If we neglect it, people and other life forms may suffer and die. If we neglect healthcare people will suffer and die. Or crime. If we neglect education or strangle business, we will be poorer in the future and will therefore neglect healthcare, crime or the environment more than necessary then.

The "environment" covers a large range of issues. Even, according to some, the prudent use of infinitely renewable resources - which can lead to the thinking that all "resources" ought to be "conserved". Surely all "resources" ought to be used, at least a little, or they are no longer resources at all! If you are in favour of letting the yellow mellow, you are expected to be in favour of organic farming and vice versa, although there is little connection between these issues apart from the label.

Without starting to list them, I would like to suggest that while there are many sound issues under the environment label, there are also many of marginal value. One thing I would like to see from the candidates (and will never see from the Green Party) is an awareness which might be which - rather than simply asserting a degree of support for the whole shopping list.

One clearly important issue is that of energy, carbon emissions and global warming. One observation is that we should use energy less. And this is true. But it is true in the same sense as the idea that the state should be smaller. We want the state to be smaller, to spend less of our money, but we (all parties) find it very difficult to find things that the state does that we would be happy to do without. And the same applies to energy. Sure there are savings to be had, efficiencies to be found. But when energy is used, it is because it provides value to somebody. The Green Party tends to go down the somewhat dishonest path of derecognising the value that people get from travel, driving, appliances, industry, and other things that use energy. I hope we don't.

Personally, I find the idea of a runaway greenhouse effect rather far-fetched. But global warming will do significant harm that is largely unavoidable already. We should be seeking to put the brakes on, and the principal and best way to do that is to generate large amounts of renewable energy. We should in particular be going full tilt on marine and offshore wind, which could produce all our electricity needs (and a surplus to produce hydrogen for cars) if we were willing to put the investment in. If we did this, costs would come down, and we would have a product we could sell to the rest of the world. This last point is critical. It is not the UK's energy use that is going to make the difference between a few centimetres and a few metres of sea level rise. China and India have a right to develop, and will quite happily do it clean if we give them the option at a good price.

Having said this, I agree that changing behaviour is useful, and that Chris Huhne's focus on eco-taxes is probably a good one. The bullet of domestic fuel costs is overdue a bite. We drive standards in home fuel efficiency primarily by regulation, largely because the fuel isn't expensive enough to make inefficiency hurt.

However I don't expect higher fuel costs to change behaviour all that much. I think people will largely cough up and curse. The choice Huhne offers is between energy tax and income tax. Both distort economic choices, but one distorts them in favour of the environment, and the other distorts them against employment. I support fuel taxes because I like one distortion and dislike the other. But there are limits - there comes a point when fuel taxes are too grossly distorting and unfair. My hunch is that this limit comes before very significant changes in behaviour, so I would not like a policy of escalating the taxes until behaviour changes.

The last time there was such a policy, behaviour was changed to that of blockading the fuel depots.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Orange Booker Slur, concluded

So far I have examined chapters 2 through 10 for a right-wing agenda. Laws' chapter on health was found guilty (community service I think), and Cable gets a not proven verdict. The other Orange Bookers, Davey, Clegg, Huhne, Kramer, Oaten, Webb and Holland, are acquitted. Marshall is acquitted on the pensions chapter but must also take responsibility for the introduction, and with Laws, chapter 1 and the overall message, which I address now.

In Chapter 1: Reclaiming Liberalism, Laws builds up a polemic to remind Liberal Democrats what liberalism is about. He decries the nanny-state liberalism of "compulsory animal welfare education in schools". An odd choice - the whole national curriculum is compulsory, this does not make alterations to it illiberal. Detractors are accused of "liberalism à la carte". Right back at you David.

The first thing that struck me about the Orange Book when I first read it, is that it seemed to be dogmatic in places. This is not the same as being true to liberal values. Let me explain the difference.

The Orange Book frequently argues that this is what liberal means therefore we should support it. Of course I agree that we should support liberal policies, but the message I think is still in a somewhat rarified sense backwards. I think it is a mistake to drive policy forwards by a process of defining liberalism more carefully and seeing what conclusions drop out. One risks ending up with almost theological arguments for policies based on a liberalism elevated to high dogma.

What I think we mean when we say that a policy is liberal, is that a fairly standard armory of liberal arguments can be broadly and correctly applied in its favour. Being a liberal means that I think they are good arguments. What this approach does, however, is demand that each policy is tested on its merits. It gives us room to weigh conflicting values without giving dogma a trump card. It demands that the arguments work. It demands critical rationalism and rejects dogmatism.

This difference can explain why nearly all the chapters have "liberal" in the title. To move an ideology in the direction you want you seek to have your ideas admitted to the canon of dogma; you expand the meaning of "liberalism" by using it in the odd-looking contexts of Oaten and Webb. I think it is more honest and desirable to use words in the way they will be best understood, argue your case, and let the evolution of the meaning of "liberal" look after itself.

The dogmatic trump card played by the Orange Book, is this: Use economically liberal methods to achieve socially liberal goals. How could a liberal possibly object to this? Well my objection is that even the purest motives don't make up for a policy with little merit. Kramer's chapter on the environment, although acquitted, and containing good ideas, reflects this dogma. Once values are replaced by dogma, the arguments might no longer work. True markets empower consumers and use resources efficiently, the invisible hand makes the right choices. Artificial markets (such as in carbon permits) make artificially right choices, also known as wrong choices. They might still be the best available choices, but we will only know by looking at the details.

Laws' insurance model for healthcare looks like it was written precisely with the brief to use economically liberal methods to achieve socially liberal goals. With the brief given and accepted, considerations of whether the policy would work were no longer necessary. Where there are genuine conflicts between different liberal goals, reason would have us examine them, but this dogma tells us that they don't exist and to carry blithely on.

Care should be taken when mixing the public and private sectors, that the common good is benefiting from the invisible hand, rather than, as often seems more likely, the dynamism of the private sector is crushed under the dead hand of the state. Initiatives such as PFI are at best only loosely related to the operation of free markets. They are more closely related to corporatism. The private sector does not get things right by magic, but under the pressure of competition. If only the state is buying, stupid buyer that it is, there is no competition, and there is very little reason to expect good value.

Privatisations like BA and BT were liberalising, although even with BT there was a corporatist element - creating a national champion based on a captive domestic market. But with the obvious privatisations done, Labour and the Tories have been scraping the barrel for ways to involve the private sector more. And the less obvious the solution, the more corporatist it has been. All parties need to demonstrate support for business. Lib Dems should be finding ways to make this demonstration with freer markets and lower costs of doing business, so that the private sector can flourish, honed by competition, not dulled by public sector politicking. Leave the corporatism to the other parties.

When, as is often the case, dogmatically driven private sector involvement fails to deliver value for money, we are sacrificing social liberal objectives by diminishing public service, or economic liberal objectives by raising and wasting tax revenue. That's liberalism à la carte, Mr Laws.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Orange Booker Slur, part 9

Chapter 10: Pension reform: a new settlement for a new century by Paul Marshall

This chapter is steeped in social liberalism, seeking as it does to solve the pensions crisis, rather than brushing it under the carpet as the current government seems to be trying to do.

A few points are worth repeating.

"The problem of intergenerational transfers did not take up too much of too much of Beveridge's time because the numbers were not big enough. Today, the numbers are overwhelming."

"Britain has not raised the male pension age since 1948 despite the fact that male life expectancy has risen from 63 to 75." Marshall suggests increasing the age to 67, and allowing more flexibility in retirement age.

"The regressive nature of tax incentives for savings is actually quite stark. Over half the money spent of tax relief for private pensions goes to the top income decile of taxpayers..."

A compulsory universal funded scheme is advocated, with the option to choose the state or alternative providers.

So far so good. The eyebrow is raised, however, in Marshall's introduction to the whole Orange Book. He writes "Laws' vision for healthcare reforms has strong parallels with the proposals set out in Chapter 10 for pension reform." Well I don't see it. Both are compulsory, but that is about it. The pensions proposal has a range of providers, the health proposal has a range of bureaucratic intermediaries. The gross flaws of the latter are not found in the former.

Verdict: not guilty.

I will conclude this series in part 10, looking at chapter 1 and the book as a whole.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Orange Booker Slur, part 8

Chapter 9: Children, the family and the state: a liberal agenda. By Steve Webb and Jo Holland

This chapter is an apple in a basket of oranges. Webb and Holland address themselves to an issue that tends to be of the greatest concern to social conservatives. One might almost conclude that the intention of the Orange Book is not to reach out to economic liberals in particular, but to the right wing in general.

This would be unfair. Webb and Holland advocate the good that can be done for children by state intervention and support for families.

I have some qualms with the tone - that of declining trends backed up by selective statistics - because in some respects things are getting better. And the range of possible interventions discussed is so large that none can really be done justice in the space.

They suggest "enhanced tax credits for young children" which sits awkwardly with our criticism of the child tax credit shambles. As usual well-meaning tinkering with the tax system adds costs and complexity out of proportion to the benefits.

"Schools need to focus on 'relationships education' rather than 'sex education'... This is obviously a controversial area for discussion..." My understanding is that it is largely a myth that schools do not do this. The national curriculum certainly demands relationships education. Unless Webb and Holland are actually advocating inadequate sex education, and I don't think they are, they are not being as controversial as they think.

But overall Webb and Holland makes some good suggestions, particularly about the need for "normal provision" rather than support for "failing families" which carries a stigma and risks rejection by those who most need it.

The question they neglect to ask is what the downside of state intervention in the family is, from a liberal perspective. Given the libertarian angle of much of the Orange Book, this is doubly surprising.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Orange Booker Slur, part 7

Chapter 8: Tough Liberalism: A liberal approach to cutting crime by Mark Oaten

While the slogan "Tough Liberalism" seems odd, the policy of actually doing something to make prisoners employable post-release is tough indeed. Oaten could also have mentioned the difficulty there is getting access to drug treatment for non-offenders, pushing people down the offending route.

With large numbers of prisoners illiterate, innumerate, on drugs or mentally ill, we should not be surprised by re-offending rates. That more isn't done is idiotic and a scandal. No doubt the Daily Mail will claim that a rehabilitating sentence is less punishing than one that isn't. But they are wrong as usual. Self-improvement is difficult, doubly so for people who are used to taking the easy way out.

My only real qualm with this chapter is the use of the slogan "Tough Liberalism". What does that mean? Can anybody tell me? If any reasonable policy is automatically "liberal", the word is somewhat robbed of meaning. Apple pie is liberal?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Orange Booker Slur, part 6

Chapter 7: UK Health Services: a Liberal agenda for reform and renewal by David Laws.

So far I have been more or less defending the Orange Book, chapter by chapter. Not so with chapter 7. I find it quite indefensible. Laws starts out with a reasonable enough analysis of the problems and challenges faced by the NHS. He then seems to pull out of a hat, the rabbit of a National Health Insurance Scheme. One with defects not seen on the continent.

The scheme works as follows:
  • Insurers include the NHS and may be private or non-profit, and may supply clinical services or buy them in.
  • All insurers charge the same fee, paid by the state.
  • All insurers provide the same range of clinical services.
  • Citizens are entitled to change insurers not more than once per year.

The private sector is made efficient by competition. But what competition do we see here? Price? No. Range of treatments? No - this is even more uniform and uncompetitive than at present. The quality of clinical services? Perhaps. But in what sense is this 'insurance' if it doesn't compete on price or assess risk?

With no price variation, the fiercest competition would be for fit young customers who would incur below average health costs. An insurer recruiting more than its share of such people through clever marketing (free iPods) will make a huge windfall profit on the year, leaving the rest of the population's health care underfunded and struggling worse than ever. Sure, at the year end, they can all switch to the overfunded insurer which will then have to cut quality and increase waiting times in turn.

If the insurers were all non-profit, at least the windfall would be reinvested. But that isn't the proposal. If private sector dynamism were really in operation we would expect new treatments to be promoted all the time, but this scheme virtually prohibits them.

This is a mockery of free enterprise and a mockery of public service. Not socially liberal or economically liberal. And it promises a huge diversion of funds from healthcare to pay for rolexes for insurance salesmen and cocaine for marketing droids. At best there will be a new army of doorstep pests offering discounts on electricity if you buy healthcare from the gas board.

Market based reforms in healthcare have had mixed results because they are very difficult to achieve. Markets are most efficient when dealing in commodities because a commodity has a known quality, and comparisons between suppliers are clear and brutal. Healthcare is at the furthest remove from this. Measuring quality is very difficult. A true market would communicate comsumer preferences on quality to suppliers. But the problem here is not so much communicating the preferences, but measuring the quality in the first place. And focussing on a few marketable quality indicators would be as damaging as the present target culture.

Maybe there are responses to some of these concerns, but if so, why weren't they put? Perhaps there are figures which demonstrate the benefits of an insurance based system, but where are they? Weighing up the costs and benefits of a policy is always appropriate, but Laws doesn't even seem to recognise the costs. No mention is made of the effect on the morale and motivation of the many public sector workers who believe in public service and would rather their work contributed to the common good than a profit margin.

Healthcare is a field of insatiable demand and inevitable rationing. Perhaps it is time somebody admitted this fact. Standards will slip if you cut corners trying to do too much. And if you do too little you will be damned for refusing people life-saving treatment. This is not an argument against reform. Reforms may bring us more healthcare, but cannot end rationing. To highlight problems around rationing and claim a particular reform, market-based or otherwise, will solve them is disingenuous.

I think Laws has made a big mistake here, the reasons for which I hope to explore in the conclusion to this series. But he hardly seems to have put a case for his healthcare proposals; they appear to be more based on dogma. Verdict: Guilty.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Orange Booker Slur, part 5

Before proceeding I should mention an omission in part 4. Cable suggests that Liberal Democrats should pursue the idea of privatising the Post Office distribution network. And the idea has been so pursued. Is there anything more to be said?

Chapter 6: Harnessing the market to achieve environmental goals, by Susan Kramer.

Kramer discusses a variety of market-oriented alternatives to regulation that might achieve the similar environmental ends, and a more efficient use of resources. She also criticises "traditional taxation approaches" such as the landfill tax and fuel duty, pointing out that fuel duty is both insufficiently effective and widely hated.

While of course it is right to look for better ways of doing anything, I wonder if there is a little dogmatism here when it comes to a choice between a mechanism that mimics markets and one that doesn't.

One example used is the trading of carbon emissions permits, as contrasted against a flat levy on carbon emissions. I must say I am somewhat unconvinced. A market will end up determining a cost of using carbon based on the demand curve and the centrally determined fixed supply. And participating in that market will entail additional costs, particularly onerous for small businesses. If one can predict the price, a flat levy would achieve much the same result much more efficiently.

More seriously, there is no particular logic to a fixed quota of carbon emission. It is not the case that achieving, say, 20% reductions will stop global warming, and 19% will not. There is a cost to carbon emissions, that we should try to quantify - perhaps adding the economic costs to a notional cost based on the political preference that we do not want to damage the environment. A levy seems then to de-externalise that cost correctly and efficiently. What benefit, then, does emissions trading bring? Compensation through grandfathered rights? (I am not addressing here the question of trading within Kyoto, that presupposes national targets already exist for political reasons.)

As Kramer points out with respect to fuel duty, such a levy might be painfully high and still ineffective. And she may be right. But this is not a failure of the mechanism. A price determined by trading would be just as high and painful. What it reflects, I think, is that whatever the impact of carbon emissions, energy remains extremely useful.

Another example given is road user charging. Civil liberty concerns aside, I support the principle. It is a good way of increasing the efficiency of the usage of our tarmac acreage. But it is only indirectly related to broader environmental goals. Yes, more people may move to public transport. But if fuel duties are cut, more people may start driving gas guzzlers. So we should be careful not to consider road-user charging as a smarter version of fuel duty.

On the other hand road fuel is taxed rather more than other carbon sources, such as domestic fuel which is seen as a greater necessity. If there were some way of rebalancing this equation without more people dying of cold in the winter, that may be a big step towards reducing carbon emissions without putting all the burden on transport. Instead we are driven towards ever greater regulation for home energy efficiency. But I digress.

All said, it is clear from the tone of the chapter that it is not about giving up on the environment for the benefit of business, but rather finding better ways to protect the environment. So my verdict is not guilty.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Orange Booker Slur, part 4

Chapter 5: Liberal Economics and Social Justice by Vince Cable

That Cable advances economic liberalism can be guessed from the title. The question is whether he is weak on social liberalism. Pertinent to this are the questions of regulation and taxation.

Cable rejects a simple identification of more regulation as bad and left-wing, and the converse. Regulation is justified by market failures of which the world is full. "An almost infinite amount of regulation can be justified in these terms. The issue is a more practical one of whether government failures associated with regulation, and the cost of regulation, outweigh market failures and ... destroy ... entrepreneurial and competitive impulses..."

The question he asks is whether while many regulations in isolation are socially progressive and desirable, the cumulative effect is excessively onerous.

From these first principles it would be possible to defend both much higher and much lower levels of regulation than we currently suffer and enjoy. We are in the realm of tough political choices where philosophical first principles don't seem to help as much as they should. Perhaps Cable is willing to risk the suggestion of social illiberalism in order to emphasise the costs of regulation.

On taxation, Cable suggests a fiscal rule that the tax burden (or spend benefit?) should not exceed a figure around 40%. In terms of todays debate it would be that we should argue for fairer but not higher taxes. This has been criticised by some as a terribly right-wing position to take.

It seems to me that the support for tax rises or cuts comprises two constituencies. That which supports the rise or cut in question, and that which supports an ongoing programme of further cuts or rises of which this is only the beginning. The second constituency is an electoral bogeyman. It hurt Labour in 87 and 92 and the Conservatives in 05.

A fiscal rule seems a good way of promising that a tax proposal is not the thin end of a wedge. Of course much depends on what level the rule is set at. Does support for 40% rule in a 39% county make you a social liberal, and support for a 40% rule in a 41% country make you an economic liberal? Has this government turned me from one into the other in the last 5 years? The bounders! Perhaps social liberalism is the ultimate question of life the universe and everything, and the answer is 42%.

Of course I am being flippant. We are all, I hope, social and economic liberals. Deciding on taxation and spending priorities is another hard political choice that first principles do not inform so well as we would like. Even right and left wing do not summarise our response to this choice well, particularly if this prediction comes true. Big state or small state? Or, more precisely, a 40% state.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Orange Booker Slur, part 3

This part coincides nicely with Chris Huhne entering the leadership race. Based on my current rate of progress, Susan Kramer should declare at the weekend.

Iain Sharpe points me to an earlier review of the Orange Book, making similar arguments perhaps. But the slur persists and so will I. And as the term is not Orange Book chapter fiver or sevener, I shall proceed through these unobjectionable chapters until my detractors are bored into submission. Within chapters I will cut to the chase.

Taking Global Governance, Legitimacy and Renewal I have trawled pages of cogent analysis for anything that might give away a hidden right-wing agenda, much as I did in part 2.

I find a balanced discussion of globalisation. A failure to condemn it as an unmitigated evil that will horrify Greens and Socialist Workers, but need not trouble us. The impacts of globalisation on inequality and the environment are recognised.

On Kyoto, Huhne comments that "... a greater effort will have to be made to persuade the USA that there are other ways of meeting Kyoto commitments than higher fuel taxes ...[such as] intensified research and development into non-emitting technologies." While such R&D is something the USA now talks about as an alternative to Kyoto, it is also a sound policy to follow while supporting Kyoto. American obstinacy is recognised but not justified.

On economic governance, Huhne decries the degree of austerity typically required by the IMF, and speaks approvingly of a Chilean system of capital control on short term money. The latter is preferred to the Tobin Tax, popular on the left. Whether the Tobin Tax should be popular with liberals would depend I hope on its practical consequences. As Huhne makes practical arguments against it beyond my competence to judge, I will defer to him.

Huhne is not alarmed by the threat of international competition leading to a "race to the bottom on environmental and labour standards, and on taxation" observing that corporate taxation and the tax burden as a whole is stable or rising in most developed countries. Also that in the USA there is not an observable race to the bottom between states. These are fears of the left, and now of Greens determined not to recognise any progress. While right wingers would relish a race to the bottom, social and economic liberals do not fear it because it isn't happening. The benefits of trade outweigh the costs.

Next up, chapter 5: Liberal Economics and Social Justice by Vince Cable.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Orange Booker Slur, part 2

Part 1 is at

Part 2: Europe : A Liberal Future by Nick Clegg

In this series I am investigating the Orange Book for signs of dangerous right-wing attitudes. Quite what this means in the context of the EU is not clear. Does right-wing refer to back-pedalling on support for the EU? But this could equally be a left-wing position. With this question hanging, I proceed.

Clegg suggests three principles for a Liberal Europe:

1. Stop perpetual revolution

On the first principle, writing before the constitution was rejected, Clegg suggests that after it is agreed, there should be a period of political stability. He notes that "one intergovernmental conference has flowed into the next without pause since 1992." It is difficult to interpret this in light of the constitution's failure. But if you want to interpret it as back-pedalling and therefore right or left-wing, suit yourself.

In any case it is astute to recognise that constant change is a great cause of concern to the public, because it makes the scenario of the unstoppable perpetual accretion of powers more plausible.

2. Make all power accountable

That all power should be accountable might seem self-evident. Among a number of points Lib Dems doubtless all know and support, an interesting conclusion is that because there is no common demos to the EU, no credibly pan-European political parties, and because European elections are largely fought on domestic issues everywhere, the ability of the European Parliament to legitimise decisions made in the EU is compromised. And therefore national governments must remain the principle source of legitimacy at least for the time being. And radical reforms are needed to national parliaments to improve their scrutiny of EU affairs.

Is this back-pedalling from a more desirable position, of a powerful European Parliament with a pan-European mandate? I don't think so. It is recognising that the EP is not (yet) up to the task of being the sole source of democratic legitimacy.

3. Streamline EU powers

Ah, now we have it, the UKIP wet dream. Let's actually read it first, just to make sure.

Clegg writes, that for political reasons "national governments are happier to accept EU legislation that penetrates into the minutiae of domestic economic and social life, while insisting on maximum freedom of action on the international stage", contrasting the regulation of bus designs with invisibility at the UN.

So powers need to move in both directions. I'm sure we'd all agree with that. But what about the specifics? Cutting to the meat, an argument is made for curtailing social policy at the EU level. Aha!

Two reasons for an EU social policy are examined. These are: to avoid social dumping; and to improve social policy in backward countries like the UK who wouldn't legislate for it themselves.

Clegg responds to these with the liberal argument that the EU should not be used as a tool for bypassing democratic domestic politics, and with the observation that there is no empirical evidence for social dumping. The latter is of course a left wing argument - at least among left wingers aware of the world outside the EU - that strong social policies are not significant obstacles to investment.

Why does this leave an uneasy feeling? Shouldn't the EU be (spiritually) more than a (filthy lucre) economic union? Shouldn't it therefore love its citizens the only way a government can, with social policy? My heart says yes, but my head says no.

Right wing would mean opposing social policy in general, not just an EU social policy. From the UK perspective it may seem much the same, but other EU members may have the opposite fear - of common social policies weakening their own. Clegg supports social policy itself. So not guilty.

Coming next, Global Governance, Legitimacy and Renewal by Christopher Huhne.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Orange Booker Slur, part 1

From time to time I hear the term Orange Booker used, disparagingly, to suggest that some Liberal Democrats are right-wing, Thatcherite or somehow outside the social liberal tradition. With an Orange Booker standing for the leadership, I thought I would go back to the Orange Book to see if the slur fits.

In Part 1, I deal with Chapter 2: Liberalism and Localism by Edward Davey.

Off the page leaps the following: "... To win the case for Liberal localism, we must, for example, show that social justice will not be harmed, but actually enhanced." And nowhere in the chapter is the opposite sentiment expressed. Perhaps I missed it.

What we do find is an analysis of the centralising tendency of the desire for equal provision of public services. "The progressive centralists fear the re-emergence of significant inequity if Whitehall hands over power to local councils, and they believe the battle to end remaining inequality would effectively be lost. ... Misguided fears of 'two tier' services and of 'postcode lotteries' drives much of this critique."

Do we accept the centralising tendency as the price of social justice? Or is there more social justice in the better outcomes all round that local control will lead to, even if they are not exactly equal from one neighbourhood to the next?

It seems to me that public services, while valuable to everybody, particularly serve to elevate the have-nots. Better services will elevate them more, and will therefore better close the gap between have-nots and haves. A socialist good if any. Perhaps the Orange Bookers are in fact dangerously left-wing? Or perhaps we can agree with the thrust of chapter 2 that better public services is more important than more equal public services.

So, in short, no justification in chapter 2 for the right-wing slur. Coming up next, chapter 3: Europe: A Liberal Future by Nick Clegg.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

David Cameron: What on Earth is his game?

I confess to being somewhat bewildered by the current behaviour of Cameron and the Tory Party. Cameron is obviously staking a claim to the centre ground, and this is a tactically sound thing to try to do. But ventures like Lib Dems for Cameron stretch credulity.

We keep hearing things like the party being liberal, green, in favour of redistribution, suspicious of big business. It is hard to believe that the rest of the party isn't choking on its cornflakes every morning at each new announcement.

Try not to be the nasty party, by all means. But deal with the fact that everybody who wants to be in the nasty party is in your party. Become more moderate, by all means, but it has to be plausible that you actually believe it.

It is hard to see why, if Cameron does believe the "New Tory" message, he ever joined the Conservative Party at all. The alternative is that it is what he thinks he has to say to be electable.

Sure, he might be making life a little bit difficult for Blair, Brown and Kennedy. But the Tories will not tolerate so much wetness for such meagre rewards for long. I think Cameron knows this, and he is playing another game. Cameron wants to appear as genuinely nice; genuinely caring, so that when he proposes or implements regular Tory nasty policies, it can be spun as necessary, hard choices. Cares about you and can make tough decisions, the best of both worlds, etc.

But this suggests very strongly that he is approaching the leadership like a game of chess, manipulating pieces and perceptions to gain an advantage on the board. This approach is doubtless very useful from time to time, but if it is all you do, people will see you as cynical and won't identify with your values.

I think the halo effects of youth and good looks have dazzled the conservative party into electing a visionless waffler as their leader. Getting on for twice his age, the Tory party membership somehow thinks he can identify with 'young people'. And worse, he thinks so too.