GETTING ALL GLAD-EYED

“Gladstone” somebody said again. For the eighteenth time today, here at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Glasgow, the grand old man’s name was invoked again. Would he, though, be spinning in his grave? Certainly some Lib Dem policy has been centrist rather than distinctly Liberal in the traditional sense, however I have yet to come across anybody who claims to be SDP rather than a Liberal. Even if it were the case that Liberals rather than centrists flock to conference, that would not explain this anomaly. Policy is decided by a mixture of a vastly complicated and technical voting system (for committees, executives, sub-committees, presidents, etc) and by senior party figures who draft what is voted on. The voters all seem to be Liberals in the old sense; equally it is hard to spot a senior figure who is a centrist either.

The few who are from the SDP, such as Vince Cable, play little to no part in drafting policy. Why then, is the party not producing the kind of radical Liberalism espoused by Jeremy Brown’s Race Plan – a book detailing a return to economic as well as social liberalism? Jeremy Brown is not alone in this regard: David Laws (the key author of the Lib Dem manifesto so far), Nick Clegg (a former Conservative under Thatcher) and Danny Alexander are all economic Liberals, and are all senior figures in the economic direction of the party. There are the Orange-Bookers – a group of economically Liberal intellectuals within the party who very much have their voice heard. Yet despite the predominance of Liberals, in membership, seniority and on the various arcane bodies of the party the policy remains unsure of itself.

The truth is two-fold: part of the party is scared to displease anybody, partly fearing the loss of membership backing senior figures would allegedly get if they forsook all SDP ideas (but any remaining SDPers are few, dead or have drifted even further from their original party), partly fearing that they cannot win Labour marginal seats with any kind of liberal economic policies. The Lib Dems like to believe that if they fought a good enough campaign in every seat, they would win every single constituency in Parliament. There are seats the Lib Dems can never win, many of them are the aforementioned Labour marginal – and if these seats are won (they sometimes are), it is because of the Lib Dem’s huge strengths as a grass roots campaigning party, not on account of their national policies. There is a certain childish obsession with the idea that if only the resources were present the Liberals would have nobody to disagree with – because their policies are the best of every world. That is a view to take, but an absurd one.

The economic policies in contradiction to one another are not signs of the strength of internal debate in the party, but rather signs of a party incapable of dedicating itself to an idea. This does not bode well for a party already pilloried in the media for having a leader who does not stand for anything. But not all is doom and gloom, recent polling shows young voters are very much turned on by economically (dare I say Gladstonian?) liberal principles. They like small state, they like less welfare. The young also like gay marriage, they like social liberalism, and they trust the Lib Dems as being its deliverers. There is a whole generation of voters who could potentially be wooed if the Lib Dems would shake off a decades-long paranoia and embrace their true identity. A commitment to an idea would not go down badly in other generations, polls show that parties with convictions on issues earn the respect of voters- for the Lib Dems their commitment to civil liberties earned them support in suburbia.

The issue now lies with who will take the reins of the party when Nick Clegg steps down (whether it is in 2015 or 2020) – if it’s Tim Farron, he will be economically Liberal to some extent, but he, having lived through the merger, lives in fear of repercussions. Better to choose a committed Liberal in the true sense, in Jeremy Brown or David Laws. The party has a lot going for it, but it needs to make clear what it is going for.

Contributed by Gabriel Barton-Singer

“He lines up, He loses, He goes home”

After personally attacking the new Commissioner, alienating nearly every political leader in Europe and condemning the European machine David Cameron claims he “will now work with” Jean- Claude Juncker. However, the question on most people’s minds is whether the future President of the EU will work with him?
Britain has always been referred to as the “awkward partner” in Europe, and that has never been truer than now. After spending the last two weeks fighting against the European People’s party’s nomination for Commission presidency, Jean- Claude Juncker, Cameron has once again placed Britain at loggerheads with Europe. In a recent article for The Telegraph he stated “an important principle was at stake” at the forced vote on the Commission presidency last Friday, arguing that the European Parliament should not have a say in the appointment of the EU commissioner. The new rules laid out in the 2007 Lisbon Treaty means the European Council- the elected Heads of State of each EU member country- must now take into account the European Parliament’s choice of candidate for nomination.
Cameron also argues that Juncker is an arch-federalist who will see the ‘ever closer union’ of Europe. In some respects this is true. As the previous President of Luxembourg, a country that majorly benefits from the EU, he is likely to fight for further integration. He is also seen as one of the architects of the Euro. Moreover, the future Commissioner has openly stated in the past that he was for ‘secret dark debates’ that could leave Britain outside the negotiating room. However Juncker’s recent promises to ‘address UK concerns’ over its place in Europe has left the Prime minister ‘humiliated’ according to Ed Miliband.
The Labour leader claims that Cameron’s ability to win over only one country, Hungary, to vote against Juncker at last Friday’s summit leaves his European renegotiation strategy “in tatters”. Also stating he was “out-witted, out-manoeuvred and out-voted” in Europe. German media have ridiculed the ‘defeated’ PM, comparing Cameron to Wayne Rooney: “He lines up, he loses, he goes home”.
Criticisms have also come from within the coalition. Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy attacked the Prime minister in Parliament today for the removal of the Conservatives from the European People’s party, as the Prime minister could have “influenced in private instead of [showing] impotence in public”. However this largely highlights the bigger issue within the European Union: the lack of democracy. The debate over the next EU commissioner has become highly heated as the unelected position wields great amounts of power over the European Commission, the only body that can initiate new laws within the EU.Deputy Prime minister Nick Clegg has remained relatively silent throughout the affair, stating only that it was time to “move on” from Juncker’s appointment to “secure Britain’s place permanently in the European Union”.
There does, however, seem to be some light at the end of the tunnel for Britain. The vice-president of the European Commission, Joaquin Almunia, has stated that “it would be very bad news” if the UK were to leave Europe; suggesting a deal may be struck for renegotiation. Talking about the new President of the EU, he commented that while Mr Juncker was “a committed pro-European” he was also a “pragmatic politician”.

Contributed by George Waddell

Should Taxpayers Fund the Monarchy in Times of Economic Hardship?

Last week the Public Accounts Committee released a report on the Sovereign Grant paid to the Queen each year calling for the Royal Household to get ‘a much firmer grip’ on its budget; but in times of austerity cuts to almost every governmental department should the tax payer continue to subsidise the Windsor’s at all?

The British Monarchy is not just of traditional value to the United Kingdom, but brings millions to the UK each year through the Crown Estate and tourism. The Crown Estate is the land ‘surrendered’ to the British Government at the beginning of each Monarch’s reign, in return for the their annual salary. Since 2011, the annual profits from the Estate have totalled £240.2 million annually, and with only 15% of that forming the Monarch’s annual salary- the Sovereign Grant- it all adds up for the tax payer. If the Monarchy were to be removed however, the state would most probably lose the Crown Estate along with it; meaning to completely remove the Monarchy would be a bad decision not just for British culture, but economically as well.

Tourism is a massive sector in the UK; accounting for £96 billion of England’s GDP (8.6% of the economy) as of 2009 and employs around 2 million people- 4% of the work force. Much of what makes the UK the 8th biggest tourist destination in the world is our Monarchy. The Tower of London is the most popular UK attraction, with three castles featuring in the top 15. Although it is argued by many that these buildings would still be there if the Monarchy were removed, what draws the 3.5 million North American and 21.5 million European tourists each year is that the history is still very much alive today in Britain- something that would be irreplaceable if the Monarchy were to be removed. It was estimated by consultancy Brand Finance in 2012 that the net value of the Monarchy is £44bn, though the methodology used to draw this conclusion has been questioned by many. This is not to say, however, that the Royal Household’s spending and management is not in need of reform.

In 2012-13 the net expenditure of the Royal Household was £33.3 million, a £2.3 million overspend from their budget, a major argument behind Chairwoman Margaret Hodge’s report appealing for the Household to improve its long term planning and management of the budget. Hodge stated there was ‘huge scope for savings’, as the body managed to escape much of public sector austerity; reducing spending by only 5% in the last six years and maintaining the same staffing levels at a time when many public sector jobs have been cut. Meanwhile, the report praised the Household’s increased income of £11.5 million- an increase of £4.9 million from 2007/08- but said it was not ‘looking after nationally important heritage properties adequately’ as 39% of the Estate was deemed to be under the acceptable condition. Moreover, the PCA argued the Queen could do a lot more to increase her income, for example opening Buckingham Palace for longer than the 78 days a year it is open at the moment to increase the number of tourists and therefore revenue created from the Palace.

The Treasury, meanwhile, is supposed to be overseeing Royal spending but has of yet been inefficient in this capacity. The PAC’s report demands the Treasury to have a more active role in scrutinising spending, offering advice on key challenges for the Household and giving it clear incentives to become a more efficient body. It is hoped the department will also deal with the great transparency issues with the Queen’s personal income as, although the introduction of the Sovereign Grant has improved this, there is still not nearly as much transparency as there is with other public spending. British pressure group Republic argues that until the monarchy’s exemption from the Freedom of Information Act is removed, transparency cannot be achieved. Republic also stated that the ‘MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee have missed key issues in their report on Royal funding’. Their ‘Alternative Budget’ estimating the real cost of the Monarchy to the taxpayer is well over £200 million once hidden costs have been taken into account.

Whether the cost of the British Monarchy is the £33.2 million of the Sovereign Grant or Republic’s Alternative Budget of over £200 million, the statistics still suggest that a state funded Monarchy is a viable expense for the taxpayer producing £240.2 million from the Crown State and contributing massively to the tourist industry, even in times of economic hardship.

Contributed by George Waddell

Would Nationalisation put UK Rail back on Track?

The turn of the year has seen David Cameron pledge to secure the “triple lock” system for pensioners, French company Total confirm British fracking plans and, most noticeably for public transport users, a rail fare rise of 2.8% on average, causing some annual tickets to now rise over £5000 a year. Many campaigners are arguing that fares are rising three times higher than incomes; another sign of Cameron’s ‘cost of living crisis’. A highly possible solution to this, supported by over fifty MPs, is a renationalisation of the UK’s railways.

First privatised under John Major’s Government between 1994 and 1997, customer rail services are divided into regional franchises run by private companies. These companies, of which there were 25 initially, bid for seven or eight year contracts for the franchises across the country. Twenty years after privatisation, train fares have not risen uniformly; season tickets rising around the same as inflation (55-80%), whilst single tickets have risen by 208%. Although privatisation was hoped to create competition, therefore meaning reduced travel prices for customers, the number of different train operating companies has dramatically reduced, with major firms such as National Express and Stagecoach running multiple franchises.

When rail services were first privatised, it was intended that the private firms would fund investment in rail infrastructure through private borrowing. Although it was agreed rail would always have to involve some form of government subsidy, the balance between this and private funding has been a constant conflict from the offset; both pro and anti-privatisers agree that the current balance is incorrect and inefficient. Government spending received by British Rail almost trebled from 1994 to 2005, from £1,627m to £4,593m, despite a lack of real investment in improving infrastructure within this period. Privatisation has therefore led to the cost of the railway doubling in real terms for the tax payer, causing the supposed benefit of this privatisation system ‘costing the tax payer less’ to become completely unfounded.

Moreover, nearly half of the so called ‘privately owned’ companies running UK train services are actually owned by French, German or other European national operators. As Christian Wolmar wrote in November 2011, “The British railway system is slowly being renationalised, but not by our own government. Rather, it is being taken over by foreign state-owned railways that now have an interest in almost half the franchises”. The German government’s Deutsche Bahn, the largest state owner of British railway, has announced they’re “skimming profit from the entire Deutsche Bahn” to invest “in the rail network here in Germany”. If the rail system is profitable, then surely the UK should nationalise their rail network keeping that investment within Britain to make the much needed improvements to it, instead of Germans benefiting from the overpriced rail fares faced by Britons every day. This argument can similarly be used for the renationalisation of other sectors, with over 65% of people supporting the nationalisation of Royal Mail and the energy sector in a recent survey by YouGov.

East Coast main line is the most damming case against the privatisation of train services. The train line was nationalised in November 2009 after its two private owners left the job, leaving publicly owned Directly Operated Railways to keep it running. A recent report by the Office of Rail Regulation reveals, however, that the line is the most efficiently run franchise when considering its reliance on taxpayer funding. Moreover, it is reliant on just 1% government payments, with the other franchises ranging from 3 to 36%. Despite this clear sign that rail nationalisation prospers over privatisation, the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced plans in 2013 to resell East Coast to the private sector, claiming “Now it is the right time that we invite bidders to put forward proposals for investing in and improving services” even though East Coast has a record of improving customer satisfaction to a higher level than ever before.

The opposition have grasped at this serious blunder by the government; Labour’s shadow Transport Secretary Marie Eagle said “Considering the East Coast service makes one of the highest annual payments to the Government, receives the least subsidy and is the only route on which all profits are reinvested in services, it makes no sense for the Government to prioritise this privatisation”. Rail nationalisation does not look likely to be implemented anytime soon however, with none of the main three political parties committing to renationalisation as of yet; another sign of consensus politics between the UK’s three main parties creating little real choice for the electorate.

The Green Party, however, are supporting the renationalisation of the rail network with their MP Caroline Lucas launching a Private Member’s Bill last year with the backing of over 50 Labour and Plaid Cymru MP’s. According to the Greens, nationalisation would not only allow an ‘increase in investment, re-open lines and reduce fares’ but would create a more ‘integrated green transport system’. With the ever rising price of rail fares, the spiralling government subsidies and prospering publicly owned rail networks, in the UK and abroad, it’s hard to argue against a renationalisation of rail in the UK.

Contributed by George Waddell

Why the proposals for an MP pay rise may not be that ‘ridiculous’.

Last week it was revealed that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) plans to hike MP’s pay to £74,000 from 2015- an 11% rise on their current £66,396 pay check. At a time when the Public sector has seen a pay rise cap of 1% until 2015 and the cost of living crisis continues to hit working families the hardest, is this an unfair pay rise or simply bad timing?

There was a huge backlash against the pay rise when first announced, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls declaring it ‘ridiculous’ and ‘out of touch’. Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband were equally quick to announce they will refuse the pay hike, whilst David Cameron has stated Westminster pay should not increase while others are facing constraints. Outside the Commons others have also been criticising the wage increase, PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka saying IPSA has not “grasped what is happening in the real world” whilst Matthew Sinclair, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, stated ‘The rise must be rejected’. Yet in a recent survey by The Telegraph, only one in ten MPs declined the pay rise, hinting that yet again MPs will not put their money where their mouth is. Moreover, an IPSA survey taken by MPs revealed their average suggested salary was £86,250, with the Conservatives saying it should be even higher at £96,740 on average.

IPSA meanwhile are standing by their proposals despite the criticism, claiming the plans will not actually cost the tax payer ‘a penny more’. Along with the one off pay rise, the governmental body suggested a reform of MPs pensions including an end to the final salary pension scheme and increasing their contributions to the Parliamentary pension fund from 40 to 46 per cent. A cut in expenses and the scrapping of so called ‘golden goodbyes’- where MPs are paid another year’s salary after the election whether they are re-elected or not- have also been proposed. All this will mean that money won’t be taken from other sectors to support the pay rise, and the tax payer won’t be hurt.

Jack Straw, former Labour cabinet minister, has also shown his support for the proposed wage rise. He commented that whilst there was never a good time for a wage increase, it was important to attract people from ‘modest backgrounds’ to politics. In actual fact the current MP wage of £66,396 would put you in the top two per cent of earners in the UK; making this a pretty dubious assumption by the minister that these people would not want to enter politics. Straw’s comments have only alluded to the proposals being ‘out of touch’. Despite this, his claims do bring up the question whether the professionals at the top of their fields- doctors, lawyers, journalists- will continue to want to enter politics if the pay is so much lower than their current occupations.

When compared to the salaries of other Western countries’ MPs, or their equivalents, the wage increase does not appear too ridiculous. Although Spanish MPs are paid a mere £28,969 a year, US and Italian equivalents both benefit from a generous salary of well over £100,000. So put into perspective, the proposed pay rise is not that ludicrous.

This indecision over MPs wages will continue to resurface itself until definite regulation is put in place however. Many are calling for their salary to become indexed to the national average wage, therefore meaning MPs cannot claim their pay is too low or too high as all changes will reflect that of the average worker. Meanwhile, the public cannot complain when MPs wages are increased as theirs will have as well.

In the current economic climate the planned pay hike does seem a tad ‘ridiculous’, but if we want to keep the best people in politics- whilst also keeping the public happy- then IPSA needs to be allowed to carry out its job. Since being set up in 2009 the advisory body has saved the taxpayer £35 million with a further proposed saving of £7.5 million in 2015. With this proven track record it’s hard to argue that the proposals are not in the interest of the public.

Contributed by George Waddell

Sources
‘How to drain the poison from the MPs’ pay debate’- Jonn Elledge, New Statesman http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/12/how-drain-poison-mps-pay-debate
‘Telegraph database: find out if your MP is planning to take IPSA’s 11 per cent pay hike’- Miranda Prynne, The Telegraph
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/10512987/Telegraph-database-find-out-if-your-MP-is-planning-to-take-Ipsas-11-per-cent-pay-hike.html