Earthquake in Bradford. Not many dead.

“The most sensational by election victory in history”.  For once it is difficult to argue with George Galloway’s comment on his stunning win over Labour in yesterday’s Bradford West by election.  But as the dust settles, has anything changed?

The Coalition parties did badly in this election, but can be forgiven for having a chuckle.  Labour’s loss was spectacular, and it has been a tough week for the government.  For whatever reason, the media had turned on them over a series quite sensible moves (pensioners’ tax allowances, VAT on takeaway food, preparing for a potential strike by tanker drivers), which were admittedly exacerbated by some presentational gaffes.  Labour had been taking some undeserved credit for this; and now they’ve been shown to be as out of touch with the real world as they allege the coalition parties to have been.

But Labour’s big problem is that they are seen as a party of government rather than one of protest.  This leaves them vulnerable in by elections like this to candidates that seem to embody anger and frustration more.  But it is a good thing if they actually want to win a General Election.  In the narcissistic game of trivia played out by politicians and political correspondents this is a reverse.  But no reason to panic.

Mr Galloway’s Respect party is a personal vehicle, not a convincing political movement.  It attempts the feat of allying left-wing (“Old Labour”) ideas with cultivating the Muslim vote; this difficult reconciliation seems only to be feasible through Mr Galloway’s self-obsessed personality.  He has tried and failed to broaden his appeal.

For the Lib Dems (not so implicated in the week’s gaffes, but having to share responsibility) the result is not a big deal either.  They lost their deposit in a seat where they were already weak; the decline in vote was not quite as spectacular as for Labour and the Conservatives, and they comfortably saw off the Greens and UKIP.  But it offers no particular hope of the party digging its way out of its poor standing in most of northern England, to say nothing of elsewhere.

By far the most interesting feature of this election has been the behaviour of the Muslim community – which seems to have been the main factor behind Mr Galloway’s success, harnessed by some very astute campaigning.  According to Nasser Butt, a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in Tooting, who spent the last week in Bradford, the charge was led by younger members of the community, who persuaded their elders to rebel.  This was reversal of the normally paternalistic way that politics is done in these communities.

This is an exciting development, even if it causes liberals some angst.  Muslim communities (in this case mainly Pakistani derived) have a strong sense of grievance.  This seems to be shaped by two things: the West’s ill-judged military campaigns in the War on Terror, and the generally liberal ways of the society that they inhabit, which runs roughshod over their conservative sensibilities.  The latter’s flashpoints are the toleration of gays, perceived insults to their religion from a free-speaking public, and the modesty of women’s dress.

If the Bradford dynamic can be repeated elsewhere, it means that the Muslim vote is much more in play, instead of being stitched up with elders in little local deals, or not voting at all.  The liberal fear is that it will put pressure on politicians in the wrong direction on issues like  gay rights and freedom of speech.  Maybe so, but I think it is a price worth paying.  As the communities become more involved in mainstream politics, they will come to understand the need for compromise and building coalitions.  And they will feel listened too.  They may also come to understand that liberal views are held with passion and principle, and are not merely the signs of decadent society.  In the long run this is good.

Meanwhile yesterday also saw a local by election in Southfields, in Wandsworth.  There was no earthquake here.  The Tories held off a strong Labour campaign, taking nearly half the votes cast.  The Lib Dems, who did not put in a major effort, were pushed back to under 6%, but beat the Greens (under 3%) – something that did not usually happen in Wandsworth before 2010.  Unlike last year’s Thamesfield by election, when the Lib Dems fought at full throttle to get 17%, Labour can’t blame their defeat on them this time.  The Tory one-party state moves on unruffled.  There was a Muslim independent candidate, but he made little impact, with 38 votes (1%), two less than UKIP.

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Minimum unit pricing on alcohol – it’s all about cider

Perhaps to distract attention from the poor publicity surrounding last week’s budget (notwithstanding my general endorsement of it…), our Prime Minister David Cameron has moved the policy circus onto the pricing of alcoholic drinks.  A rather unedifying debate has ensued.  It’s worth trying to unpack this a bit.

The proposal is to force a minimum retail price on alcohol of 40p per unit.  The argument put forward in its support is highly paternalistic, in the way of modern British policy making (or “evidence-based” in the fashionable euphemism).  Alcoholic drinks are available very cheaply, especially from supermarkets.  It is thought that this has encouraged excessive drinking.  Although overall alcohol consumption is on the decrease there really does seem to be a problem with excessive drinking.  The most conspicuous problem is “binge drinking” by young people, which tends to disfigure many city centres at night.  There may also be a much less visible problem with middle class drinkers overdoing a daily dose of wine/gin-and-tonic.  This all comes out in increasing problems with liver disease.  It was reported by the NHS last week that deaths from liver disease in England have increased by 25% over the last decade, although alcohol consumption is only one factor, alongside obesity and hepatitis C.

It is, of course, the binge drinking that is creating the political pressure, upsetting as it this is to middle class and elderly voters.  Most of the noise and antisocial behaviour occurs in the region of pubs and bars where the prices aren’t particularly low – but the story goes that the youths get themselves tanked up on the cheap stuff first.  There may also be a problem with “happy hour” promotions by the bars to get people started.  The Home Office strategy paper launched by Mr Cameron (as reported by the BBC) makes the rather extravagant claim that the policy would mean 25,000 fewer crimes a year and 900 fewer deaths “by the end of the decade” (in a classic use of confusing statistics – I think this means 100 or so fewer deaths per year, or 1% of liver deaths).

For paternalists it’s a simple matter of costs and benefits.  The gains from reduced crime and health problems are set against the hardships and political costs for people who pay extra without indulging in antisocial behaviour.  The last government baulked.  Mr Cameron, it seems, is more determined to “do something”.

But liberals have a lot more angst about this.  People should be allowed to make their own choices as far as they don’t harm others.  Of course excessive alcohol consumption is antisocial – but there are two counterarguments.  First a lot (most?) drinking is not antisocial.  Second, taxes on alcohol are quite steep anyway, and surely cover all the extra costs, and more.  And there is a rather nasty class twist.  Few middle class drinkers will be affected, including the antisocial ones, but those less well off will be, including those that are not antisocial.

And that is about far as the public debate that I have seen gets.  But it isn’t so simple.  The big question to ask is how much profit are the sellers of drinks making?    This matters, because if businesses are loss-leading on booze sales we need to ask why.  Supermarkets aren’t charities.  If they are losing money on booze then they are making it up somewhere else.  I am deeply uncomfortable about this, and it undermines the argument that raising the price is an attack on the poor.  People may be underpaying on the booze, but at the expense of overpaying on other goods.  It may of course all be part of a careful segmentation strategy whereby middle class customers pay more for their supermarket goods than poorer ones, without the need for varying individual product prices.  Even so, the idea that for poorer supermarket customers to benefit they have to by lots of drink has rather difficult implications.  The issue of bars offering discounted prices in happy hours  seems to be more straightforward: to entice customers into a state where their judgement is impaired and they will accept overpriced drinks later.  This again will cause even liberals some angst.

So will a 40p per unit price just stop pernicious loss-leading, without impinging much on overall living costs?  Retailers must pay excise duty (and VAT on top) regardless of the price they charge the customer.  By my calculations this works out at about 20p per unit for beer, 25p for wine and 27p for spirits – but a mere 11.5p for ordinary strength cider (5%).  Leaving aside the special case of cider that leaves 13p to 20p (or 11p to 17p allowing for VAT) to pay for the product itself and make a margin.  That looks quite tight, but maybe feasible for beer at least.

But the case of cider is quite striking.  Duty is much lower (especially for strengths under 7.5%), and the impact of the 40p price could be quite significant.  In 2010 the dying Labour government increased the tax on cider – but this created such a stink that the change was lost when the election was called.

And that, I think, is the key.  The government thinks that cider is unhealthily cheap, but it is afraid of tackling the problem directly by harmonising the duty with that charged for beer. So this minimum pricing is an alternative.  The extra cost to the customer goes to retailers and manufacturers rather than to the state – but maybe that can be rectified at  a later date.  It will be easier to put up duty on cider if the minimum pricing policy is in place.

But liberals are right to be sceptical.  40p is a bit high to simply prevent pernicious loss-leading.  And wouldn’t it be more honest to tackle cider duty head-on?

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The budget – the coalition at its best

George Osborne is gradually cementing a reputation as an effective Chancellor of the Exchequer and skilful politician.  He certainly understands coalition politics and how to play for the longer term.  Yesterday’s was a very interesting budget.

There a two schools of thought about coalition governments.  One may be characterised as “lowest common denominator”: all the bold ideas are knocked out and we are left with a few messy compromises that lack any kind of coherence.  The second is the “natural selection of ideas”  in which the ideas of the various parties have to compete on their merits and the weak ones don’t survive, the sum being better than any party would produce individually.  Britain’s first post-War coalition, formed by politicians unfamiliar with how coalitions work, has seen both types of policy formation at work.

The coalition started well.  The initial policy programme was full of bold ideas, while dotty ones (cutting inheritance tax for example) did not make the grade.  But things soon degenerated, as activists on both sides sensed betrayal.  This was especially evident on the NHS, where we are left with a messy compromise that is almost certainly worse than either party would have produced on its own.  But the 2012 budget shows a reversion to the “natural selection” model, for which credit must go to both George Osborne and the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

One of the interesting features of the budget has been the disappearance of budget “purdah” – the absolute secrecy surrounding budget proposals.  Mr Clegg made the early running in the media game with his bid for an acceleration of increases to personal allowances.  But Mr Osborne clearly understood this to be an opportunity rather than a threat – in this case to reverse the top rate of income tax of 50%, which until a month or so ago looked to be entirely off the agenda.  A few years ago the Lib Dems had a big conference battle over this top rate (before Labour introduced it, as it happens) and rejected the 50% – so there was evidently some Lib Dem ambiguity over the tax, which Mr Osborne was able to exploit.  And indeed world thinking has long since turned against such high marginal rates, even for the very rich.

Meanwhile, weaker Lib Dem ideas about how to tax the rich more efficiently did not make the cut.  This applied to the Mansion Tax on high valued property.  Such an idea (though based on land rather than total property value) appeals to theoretical economists, but has two major practical problems.  First is that property is not the same as cash, and that owners of such valuable properties may struggle to pay, and hence create a fuss.  The wider the scope of tax, the more of a problem this is.  The second problem is that it has to be based on a theoretical valuation rather than hard and fast fact.  This is one of those things that becomes more of a problem the more that you think about it.  Property (or anything else) is worth what you persuade somebody else to pay for it, which depends on many factors unique to the individuals taking part in the transaction and the time they make it.  A host of practical issues follow.  The eventual compromise of an increase in stamp duty for properties over £2 million, combined with a clampdown on stamp duty avoidance, looks like a much better idea to me.

The idea of limiting allowances to higher income people so that effective tax is no less than 25%, the “Tycoon Tax” – attributed to Mr Clegg in the proposal process, though not coming out of any Lib Dem official policy – also looks like a very sensible proposal – and this made the cut.

Mr Osborne was also able to push through further cuts to the main Corporation Tax rate.  I have some reservations about this: companies are sitting on too much cash – if they don’t invest it, then the best way of getting this wealth back into the economy is to tax it.  But there is logic to it to help retain footloose international capital, something that the country has been quite good at, but needs to stay in the game.  And it’s not as generous as it looks, since allowances have been kept in check.  In fact the big thing UK companies have been asking for is more generous capital allowances – but the footloose companies aren’t so bothered about this, and the Chancellor did not budge.  I’m not sure that capital allowances have been set at the most efficient level – but I do know that business leaders always ask for too much, and the game is often more about tax avoidance than real investment.

One idea was not leaked in advance.  This was the phasing out of the age-related personal allowances.  This “granny tax” has attracted most of the press attention this morning, with howls of protest that the Labour opposition are seeking to exploit.  Yet the reasoning behind this change is solid enough.  Pensioners have done pretty well under the reforms already implemented by the government, and this is a nasty, complicated piece of work.  Although it is true that many pensioners have been punished by the general reduction in the value of savings since the crisis began, this allowance is a bad way to deal with the problem.  What is actually needed is for the economy to return to health, so that we can get back to a real interest rate of about 2% or so from its current negative value.  It was brave to take on the pensioner lobbies like this, and Messrs Osborne and Clegg (to say nothing of the PM David Cameron) deserve credit.  Critics suggest it may go down as a fiasco like Gordon Brown’s cut of the 10% tax band, or the negligible increase to state pensions the last government implemented when inflation appeared to be very low.  Both were politically very damaging, to Mr Brown and to Tony Blair respectively.  But this policy does not create cash losers (denying benefits to those who haven’t got them yet – rather than taking them away from those that have).  It may even mark a turning point in the battle of the generations, as younger voters start to appreciate just how generous the state is to pensioners, and shift their ire away from the much less costly immigrants and benefit claimants.

The budget does nothing for macro-economists.  There is no bold, imperial stimulus to “get the economy moving”.  But nobody was expecting that.  Overall this budget is a credit to the Coalition government.

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Rowan Williams’s legacy

Rowan Williams is stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury. For all his faults he is one the world’s great intellectuals. Can the Church of England sustain its establishment status without him?

Archbishop Williams’s departure has drawn a lot of comment.  I’ve seen references in Twitter and such to some very negative views, but I must admit I haven’t given these much time.  I have read one of his books (Lost Icons, published in 2000); rereading the review of this book I wrote at the time reminds me of just how profound and disturbing (in a positive sense) I found it.  His language is over intellectual; he seems to idolise a past that never existed – but he poses challenging questions that modern agnostic liberals like me that I have no ready answers to.  He makes most commentators on religious and spiritual subjects seem utterly superficial – and I have feeling that if I was left alone in a room with him my comfortable agnosticism would end up in tatters and I would be going to my local (CofE) church the next Sunday.  I know of no other person that could have that power.  I have total respect for everything he says, even though I disagree with much of it, especially when it comes to politics.

As for his stewardship of the Church of England and the Anglian Communion, I don’t have much to say.  In spite of my tendency to lecture practising Christians on their own faith, I feel completely out of my depth when commenting on the ins and outs of Church affairs.  This post which I picked up via Twitter has the ring of truth though.

But though Church politics are not something I am part of, they do impact on general politics, of which I am.  And the Church of England has a special role, as it is an established part of the state.  This is much discussed, and generally thought to be a positive.  Apart from adding a decorous component to official ceremonies, it forms a link to the country’s past heritage.  Much good can come of ambiguity.  But it is under threat for two reasons.

The first is because the Church could fragment into a number of pieces, none of which is able to sustain its state role.  Tensions abound over the status of women and gays.  I find it impossible to understand why, of all the issues that the Church has to deal with, these are the ones that threaten schism.  Can’t they just agree to differ, as they do with so much else? But it is clearly a big problem.

And the second, related, threat is that the Church is losing its moral authority over the general, agnostic populace.  Most people in this country describe themselves as Christian at some level, and have customarily looked to the Church for moral leadership.  This is what prevents the Church’s establishment status from being just a sham.  But the population’s general sense of moral values has been changing.  So far the Church of England has skilfully adapted its own practices (on divorce, contraception and women priests, for example) to stay within touching distance.  On occasions it has even led the change from the front – such as on racism and inclusion.  But with the growing acceptance of gays in civil society, the Church has mostly lost the plot, not helped by its need to stay in touch with values of the flourishing African church.

Churches must be led by their spiritual calling, and not by the fashions of the society they inhabit.  But to preserve the Church’s special status as part of the political establishment it has to stay within a broad moral consensus.  If the Church, or strong elements of it, persist in teaching things that we, the rest of society consider to be morally wrong then it is up to us to exclude them from that special status.

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What can Lib Dems learn from the NHS debacle?

The NHS is proving a political nightmare for the Lib Dems.  This reflects a failure to develop a clear vision for the service before the election.

The NHS is now a toxic issue for the Lib Dems.  This is not because the voters are turning against the party on the issue, as they did for student loans.  In the overheated rhetoric surrounding the issue there have been many claims that the public will abandon the party over this latest betrayal.  But the public judges parties on what actually happens to the NHS, not on the speculations of excited activists and commentators.  And so far as front line services are concerned, nothing much has changed, and probably not a huge amount will as a result of the reforms… a major difference with the student fees issue.

No, the damage is being wrought within the party’s activists and members, as this summary of blogs after the Gateshead Conference shows.  Many feel an acute sense of betrayal by the leadership, and a number have left the party; more may follow.  This weakness is being cleverly exploited by Labour; but they didn’t start it.  Lib Dem activists themselves have not required outside assistance.

The party is all over the place.  The outcome of the Gateshead conference last weekend (which I was unable to attend) merely added to the confusion.  The emergency motion to abandon the Bill was not called, the representatives voting for a compromise motion supported by Shirley Williams – but a key paragraph was taken out of this motion by a narrow vote, leaving it saying not much at all.  This has given rebels in parliament cover to break the whip, but not placed serious pressure on the leadership and those not inclined to rebel, who do not see it as a worthwhile expenditure of political capital in the coalition, compared to tax policy, say.

This confusion has deep roots.  What on earth do the Lib Dems want with the NHS?  There is no clarity whatsoever.  I can count four distinct factions.  Currently most the most vocal strand are social democrats (like Shirley Williams, a living saint to many members) – who want a strong, nationally controlled monopoly service, which is able to provide a uniform standard right through the country (England in this case – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been allowed to get away).  They are relaxed about centralisation, and indeed all the amendments made to the bill over the last year at their behest point to a highly centralised provision.  Next come the economic liberals, with whom the party leadership tend to sympathise.  While this group has not developed any clear vision, they like the idea of what economist John Kay calls “disciplined pluralism” – in other words preserving a choice of providers wherever possible, so long as they are properly accountable.  These people are very relaxed about whether the NHS uses direct employees, third sector organisations, or, indeed, private companies to deliver its service.  A third group consists of NHS insiders – who basically resist any change in practice if not in theory, and who mainly argue for allocating more taxpayer funding through existing structures, whatever they happen to be at the time.  This group was led by Dr Graham Winyard of Winchester (and a former NHS high-up), who has now left the party.  And lastly (because this group is now largely drowned out), we have community politicians.  These want to see much more devolution to local politicians, and a bigger role for local authorities in particular; this group is relaxed about the  “postcode lottery”, so long as it is balanced by postcode accountability.  This group is close to the heart of traditional post-War Liberalism, and closest to my personal views (in spite of my Social Democrat provenance).

The original Bill was essentially a product of the economic liberals and community politicians (amongst whom we should count Paul Burstow, the Lib Dem health minister) within the party, working with Tory Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, whose attitude is quite close to Lib Dem economic liberals.  The resistance was started up by NHS insiders like Graham Winyard, and quickly swept in social democrats.  This alliance overwhelmed the party leadership at last March’s Sheffield conference.  There followed the “pause” in the reforms, and a raft of amendments that took the reforms in a highly social democratic direction, leaving economic liberals and community politicians disenchanted but hoping something could be retrieved from the wreckage.  But then the NHS insiders dug their heels in, as one professional body after another advised killing the whole reform.  This fractured the whole process and left the party with a set of reforms that nobody is very keen on, and to which many are vehemently opposed.

The wider membership, and most activists, are pragmatists, who can’t be pigeon-holed into any of the four groups that have shaped the debate.  Their confusion and general scepticism is understandable .  But this reflects a vacuum at the party’s idealogical heart.  We can agree on liberal social values, internationalism and inclusiveness – but the party seems to have no settled views on how to run the state.

The party should not get too worked up about this of itself.  It shares this confusion with the other main political parties (just try to make sense of the Labour position), and I’m sure the minor parties too if they could ever be forced into making a stand.  All successful political parties are coalitions of one kind or another.  But the party failed to hammer out its own internal compromise before the election, in the way that Vince Cable managed to for tax policy.  Formation of policy at conference was too much a matter of seeking consensus.  There were some quite radical elements of official, conference approved policy (like abolishing Strategic Health Authorities), but little awareness amongst members of the implications of official policy.  The original Bill was probably quite a well crafted compromise between our official policy and Andrew Lansley’s ideas (Paul Burstow certainly thought so).  But as soon as the heat was applied, official Lib Dem policy counted for nothing – it had not been engrained on members’ and activists’ consciences.

So where next?  The first point is that Liberal Democrats must realise that they either hang together with the Tories, or else the two parties will be hung separately on the NHS.  The Tories will curb their privatising zeal; the Lib Dems need to stop being so destructive.  There is no future in the parties scoring points off each other on this issue -they both need to show that all the apocalyptic talk is hot air.  I expect this means that we’ll have to find some extra funding before 2015.

And Liberal Democrats need to forge their own vision for the NHS, hopefully in time for 2015.  In doing so each of the various interest groups will have to compromise.  The best way of doing this is to have some controversial debates and votes at conference – like we did with tax policy.  Much better to have the arguments before the policy is agreed than after we try to implement it.

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The mysterious ways of God and the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church’s untenable stand on gay marriage  undermines its entire corpus of moral teaching.

So what are we to make of Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s outburst, We cannot afford to indulge this madness, in the Telegraph over the weekend against the government’s proposals to open civil marriage to gay couples?  After the outrage has subsided I am left with a feeling of plain bafflement.

The implication of the Cardinal’s words is that traditional values in British society are Christian ones, and that it is the duty of Christians to defend them against more modern modern attitudes.  One of the early critics of the Cardinal’s article argued that he was crying wolf; since he had similarly objected to civil partnerships for gays, and as this had not led to the predicted collapse in civilisation, we should ignore his objections this time.  But Cardinal O’Brien takes this episode as part of his justification: he had warned that civil partnerships were just the thin end of the wedge – and, just as he predicted, the debate has now moved on to the sacred ground of marriage.  Where will it all end?  He suggested such outrages as marriage covering more than two people, as a sort of reductio ad absurdam.

But such thinking just shows how much he is out of touch with most of the general public.  Two things have changed.  First people have come to accept that there is nothing harmful in gay relationships, and that such relationships stem primarily from how people are made, and not from their perverted choices.  This change is particularly striking amongst the young, as this Economist article shows.  The second change is that people no longer think that marriage is primarily about having children: it is about lifelong partnership and companionship, driven by love rather than the need to keep the population going.  Put these two things together and objections to gay marriage melt away.

And it’s not as if these issues challenge any fundamental Christian principles.  It is true that the Old Testament comes out pretty strongly against gay relationships, though their prohibition doesn’t merit inclusion in the Ten Commandments.  But Christians, from Jesus Christ onwards, have always taken a flexible attitude to Old Testament teachings.  If Christians may eat bacon, why can’t they have gay relationships?  we nust fall back on higher principles than simply referring to ancient texts.

And on the question of sex, marriage and the family, the Church’s past flexibility is striking.   In New Testament times the primary focus of Christians was the urgency of the Second Coming.  Sexual relationships of any kind were regarded as a distraction.  In the gospels where Jesus makes it plain that the Christian calling may well conflict with family ties, and where this happened family comes second – as he himself had shown through his difficult relationship with his mother.  But now compatibility with family values are a central claim of practically all Christian denominations, with the implication that no conflict exists between family and Christianity.

And the Catholic Church has been here before.  Their stand against contraception is widely ignored in even fervently Catholic countries like Poland.  Opposition to gay relationships and gay marriage is headed in the same direction.

According to its leaders, one of the main attractions of the Catholic Church is its clear laying down of moral principles, in a world where values are undermined by relativism.  And indeed there are important moral weaknesses in the world at large – such as when individuals come up against the state or anonymous organisations (looters and benefit cheats at one end of the social scale, company directors avoiding tax and voting themselves unwarranted salaries at the other).  It’s not that the Church avoids these moral issues, it’s that its untenable stand on issues such as contraception and gay relationships encourages a pick’n mix approach to its teachings even amongst its loyal followers.  And its credibility in the wider world is shot through.  And that’s even before we have talked about the moral failings of certain Catholic priests and the Church hierarchy’s first response when it found out.

It is safe to assume that the Cardinal is a man of faith, and feels that his actions are guided through prayer and are the will of God.  He must follow his calling, and political calculation and what the majority think do not come into it.  So why is God sending him and his Church up such a blind alley?  The ways of God are indeed mysterious.

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