Monday, 28 January 2013

Eric Pickles should f*** off

As I've just posted over on my blog for my county council candidacy, Eric Pickles should **** off following his comments today (well actually I said he should butt out as one has to moderate one's language in official communications). And, since I haven't posted on here for a while, I'm crossposting my post here as well:

Today Eric Pickles MP, the Tory Communities and Local Government Secretary, has said that local councils in England are “dodging democracy” by increasing council tax without holding referendums and should “man up” about it.

Now aside from the casual sexism in the use of the phrase ‘man up’ which implies that only men are capable of making tough decisions, the fact is that Eric Pickles clearly doesn’t understand the first thing about democracy.

Local government has power over local services which are funded by a local tax called council tax. The operative word here being “local”. That’s why local people elect local councillors to run local government on their behalf. 340,000 people voted in the last county council elections here in Surrey and they elected our current council by a voting system which Eric Pickles supports.

And when we voted for our county councillors we knew that the county council (and our borough councils) have the power to set the rate of council tax. In fact, the parties in the elections campaigned on very specific manifesto promises on council tax increases. So our council has a democratic mandate to decide whether to increase council taxes or not.

None of us, however, voted for Eric Pickles. He didn’t stand for MP in this part of the country. And even where he did stand he got less than 29,000 votes. He only represents 90,000 people. Surrey County Council represents over a million people.

Now I don’t want to see council tax goes up. There’s no need for it to go up in Surrey as we’ve got large reserves and plenty of waste that could be cut before any kind of council tax increase is needed. And until that’s done then the Conservative administration has absolutely no excuse to raise council tax. But, if they decide to increase it then it’s within their authority to do so and they will be accountable for that decision to the electorate and I will be proud to defend their right to increase council tax even though I’ll also be out campaigning against the decision because I disagree with it.

Because local government exists for a reason. It is government that is funded by local people and accountable to local people. How it is run should be decided by democratically elected local representatives and not some authoritarian cretin in Whitehall. For Eric Pickles is most definitely a cretin if he’s saying that it’s undemocratic for democratically elected councillors to use their democratically accountable powers. The operative word being democratic here.

A charitable person might argue that Mr Pickles genuinely believes that representative democracy is flawed and that we should have more referendums in this country rather than leaving things up to representatives who are only elected once every four or five years. That would be a perfectly valid viewpoint. But that’s most definitely not what Eric Pickles believes because he’s voted in parliament for and against major changes in tax rates without once arguing for a referendum on them. And I can just imagine what he’d say to me if I told him we should have a referendum on the decisions he’s making as Secretary of State for Local Government.

So for him to dare try and bully local councils by calling them undemocratic just for doing things he happens not to like is disgraceful. And by saying it he merely reveals himself to be a hypocrite of the lowest order. Not to mention that he has a hideously authoritarian approach to local government worthy of Stalinism.

In fact, with all due respect to the right honourable so and so, he should butt out and stop trying to control things where he has no authority to do so. And I sincerely hope that someone points this out to him the next time he starts waffling on about being a champion of “localism”.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Britain Unchained

Britain's potential is chained. Chained by poverty and by debt.

The way in which it is chained by debt is obvious. The deficit means that our national debt is growing and, as it does, the amount of money we have to pay just to service the debt is growing, taking away money that could be spent on other things. And we will never be able to thrive as a nation with a ticking time bomb of debt above our heads.

But our potential is also chained by personal debt. The level of consumer debt in this country is enormous - particularly with the advent of payday loans. And this debt, run up in a time when people were encouraged to see easy credit as the way to rising living standards and as masking tape for stagnating incomes, is now a toxic cloud hanging over millions of people - stifling them by making constant demands for ever more money to service it and pay it off.

However, debt is relatively easy to solve. In the long run the country will gradually find a way to close the deficit and individuals will, one way or another, manage to escape their debt.

Meanwhile, the greatest chain binding our nation is poverty.

1 in 4 children live in poverty. Someone born in the most deprived areas of Britain will die 15 years earlier than someone born in the most privileged. Children born in poverty are almost guaranteed to finish at the bottom of the education system no matter what their talents are while children born in wealth are almost guaranteed to finish top of the education system. And 4 million people in the UK live in food poverty - unable to afford the basic nutrition they need.

This poverty enslaves people. It enslaves them in a life where they lack proper nutrition, where they have poorer health and worse access to healthcare. Where education and its promise of unleashing innate potential and offering a chance to escape poverty is already closed off to them from the second that they are born. Where jobs are few and far between and where none of them pay enough to live on. Where benefits are an essential everyday part of life in order to survive - even for those in work.

And this is a national tragedy on many, many levels.

Because there are deep, deep wells of potential in this country that remain untapped. There are brilliant minds, great scientists, doctors, artists, teachers, public servants, engineers, builders, designers, you name it, who will never come to be because their potential is strangled by poverty.

Imagine a child born today, a child with the potential to be the next Einstein, but born into poverty. At home her parents will only be able to afford the kind of cheap food that has poor nutritional value because the rest of their money is taken up immediately by the rent and the utility bills. At times her parents even have to skip meals in order to feed their children. And when she goes to school her parents won't have had the luxury of being able to afford the books to read to her so she will arrive behind other pupils on literacy. And as she grows up she will find herself with 30 children or more in a class and a single overworked teacher who has no time to help individual pupils and who has the lion's share of their time taken up dealing with the trouble makers. And she certainly won't have the luxury of her parents being able to buy her a laptop to help her do her work or having the time to help her with her homework.

Her school is unlikely to encourage her to take each science subject at GCSE, instead she, along with peer pressure, will take the easier dual science GCSE instead - because science "isn't for them". And when she comes to the end of the school any ambitions she might have will be squashed by a careers advice system that tells her that she would find it too difficult to go to university and that a job at McDonalds is more suited to her position.

Now, she might be fortunate and get past all that. She might make it to a great university and realise all of her potential. But if she does she will be one of a fortunate few who make it out of the poverty trap. And for everyone of them, hundreds more remains in the chain of poverty.

And that is Britain today. Brilliant minds, potential scientists and entrepreneurs, artists and musicians, trapped in poverty and in dead end jobs, never realising their potential. And without that potential, all of society loses out. All of us are hurt by the absence of the wealth and prosperity they would have created. All of us are hurt by the absence of more bright minds and voices.

But it doesn't have to be like this.

If poverty were truly tackled, with the same dedication and effort it was after the Second World War (a time when this country lay in literal physical and economic ruins), then so much of that potential could be unlocked. The solutions needed might have changed since 1945 but the goal and the sense of purpose needed have not.

Our potential is vast. This could be such a great country if only we could work together to achieve it. Poverty can be eradicated and in doing so we will set us all free. It is nothing less than complete and utter cowardice to give up on the task as being too big because it only remains too big as long as we set our expectations low.

If poverty was truly, meaningfully tackled then we would all benefit. We would benefit from the wealth and jobs that would be created. We would benefit financially from the massive decrease in people forced to be dependent on the state and from the welfare system returning to an emergency welfare system rather than a part of everyday life. And we would benefit morally from a society no longer so deeply divided by inequality and a massive gap between rich and poor.

For this is the crux of the matter:

You can tinker all you like with the economy but unless we truly unleash the deep wells of talent and potential Britain possesses but which are chained by inequality and poverty then we will never, ever be able to be strong and thrive as a country.

That is what modern liberalism tells me. And that is the goal, the vision, which modern liberalism must have. A vision of a new Britain. A vision of Britain Unchained.

Friday, 4 January 2013

It's perfectly fair for benefits to rise faster than wages

Ian Duncan Smith, the Tory Work and Pensions Secretary has today said that it's "unfair" for benefits to rise at a faster rate than wages.

To back up his argument he's wheeled out the statistic that jobless benefits rose 20% in the last five years, compared with an average 12% rise in private sector pay.

And, on the face of it, that seems unfair - assuming IDS's statistics are accurate, which they usually aren't.

But what he misses is that, in the economic good times, real wages rise much faster than benefits. Whereas benefits only ever rise in pace with inflation in order to keep pace with the bare minimum someone needs to live on.

When the economic bad times hit then yes, real wages stagnate. But this is exactly the time when it's vital that  unemployment benefits rise with inflation. Because during the bad times it's much harder to find a job and, while unemployed people would very much like to have a job, they often simply aren't able to find one and are forced to depend on unemployment benefit.

And here's the thing: Job Seeker's Allowance is £71 a week (or £56.25 a week if you're under 25) which comes out to under £3,700 a year - and is dependent on recipients actively looking for a job, if they don't look hard enough then their benefits get cut. Now, if that's the amount of money you're living off of, a rise of 5% in inflation, as we saw last year, means that your living costs go up by 5% and if your benefits, which are already the absolute bare minimum you need to survive, don't rise with your living costs then you have nothing to fall back on. Increasing benefits by inflation just keeps you standing still - nothing more.

On the other hand, if you're on, for example, £26,000 a year (the average wage) and you only get a 1% rise in your pay while benefits go up by 5% then yes that, on the fact of it, seems unfair.

But a 1% rise for someone on £26,000 a year is £260 extra while for someone on JSA a 5% rise is just £185 a year. And, on top of that, someone on £26,000 is much more able to afford to absorb a rise in living costs than someone on JSA of £3,700 a year.

So to make sure that benefits rise enough for people to survive on them is absolutely fair. If real wages are rising slower than living costs then the answer is to try and increase wages. It most definitely isn't to make life harder for the hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are unemployed through no fault of their own because there simply aren't enough jobs to go around.