Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Getting the State Off The Back of The Poorest

Further to my post about the importance of raising literacy and numeracy amongst the most disadvantaged in our society another aspect of British society that worries me, particularly as a former academic economist is the disproportionate burden of taxation on the poorest in our society.

The last budget was a travesty in effectively redistributing the tax burden from the wealthiest in society to fall mostly on middle income Britain but also disproportionately on the poorest members of society. This shift in taxation burden was supposedly mitigated by the Working Tax Credit (WTC) but the WTC system is such a nightmare to negotiate since it has been notorious for overpayments being clawed back leaving poorer working families even further under pressure. This adverse publicity has been a deterrent for some of the neediest families to claim their WTC.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies analysed the impact of the budget and it showed that marginal tax rates facing the lowest paid are at about 70%. This is way too high. I agree with Nick Clegg that tinkering with Capital Gains Tax misses the point.

The main focus on taxation policy should be reducing the burden of income taxation on the poorest and that includes local taxation as well. The Council Tax is regressive. It should be scrapped in favour of a local income tax. Government attention should be turned to getting more of the poorest in our society out of the taxation system completely by a combination of raising the personal allowance to a sensible level and reducing the bottom rate of income tax. Shifts towards green taxation should also achieve this aim.

Let's get the state off the back of the poorest!

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Literacy and Numeracy Education the Key

I've been doing a bit of catching up on TV viewing recently thanks to the excellent 4OD service. I watched the recent Dispatches programme on illiteracy amongst our kids in this country with shock and disbelief that so many were getting left behind.

I have to declare an interest as a parent of a four year old who has started Primary School this September but I'm frankly shocked that anyone could think that anything less than 100% literacy in the 21st Century in a system with 11 years of compulsory schooling is acceptable.

I'm going to sound like a bit of an old git here but as a University Lecturer in the 90s I couldn't believe the number of my students who were unable to cope with fairly straightforward numerical calculations without resorting to the use of a calculator. The impression I have is that things have probably got even worse with many adults innumerate.

If we don't get these basic things right then we have little chance of implementing much else of a Liberal agenda in this country. Education has remained the key in the 21st Century for liberating the potential of all our citizens as much as it did in the 19th Century where Liberals (and Conservatives, to be fair) supported the ideal of increasing access to education to wider sections of the population. The evils of poverty, ignorance and conformity still need to be addressed head on even now.

Nick Clegg has touched on the issue in his platform, mentioning the idea of a "Pupil Premium" which has the potential to reduce class sizes where it is needed more, in the most disadvantaged areas of our country. I can't help but think of the kids who live on some of our most deprived estates in Folkestone East and Harbour Wards and wonder how many of them we are equipping to have a better life in the future. Possibly not too many yet.

I can't see anything from Chris Huhne on this issue but I suspect that he would also have something to say, or I would certainly hope so even if he isn't the candidate I am backing in the leadership election!

The most appalling thing is how we have allowed our nation to get into this position. What kind of future we are storing up for ourselves when disadvantage is perpetuated and what are we going to do about it?

This is most certainly not a teacher bashing post. The teaching profession has been forced to cope with considerable change and impossible odds in very difficult circumstances over the years. Reduced funding and dilapidated buildings were the legacy of the late 1970s and 80s. Teachers have been held in low esteem by many and frankly I think many of them deserved a medal for continuing their vocation against appalling odds.

My desire is that the Liberal Democrats will not become co-conspiritors in the politics of educational failure. If we are to liberate our citizens then we must ensure that all of them come out with the basic equipment to participate in our society. Too often we have focused our attention on further and higher education whilst not paying enough attention to the fact that too many young adults had no hope of accessing either because they can't read, they can't write and they can't add up.

We need a new crusade to crush the root cause of so much disadvantage and crime, we need to commit ourselves to stamping out illiteracy.

Friday, 26 October 2007

At Long Last

As someone who has been inspired by the Liberal legacy of Lloyd George I am delighted that at long last he has been recognised with a statue in Parliament Square. The contribution that Lloyd George made to laying the foundations of the welfare state far outweight his demerits in other areas and deserve to be recognised.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

上海、西安 欢迎!

同志你们好!欢迎读我的网络随笔, 但是我想你们不会喜欢我的自由心思!




Monday, 22 October 2007

Anonymous Blogger Beware

Someone needs to be worried. Using the cloak of anonymity does not protect you from the full fury of libel law.

You IP identity can be revealed even if you post anonymously.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Hello Beijing!

I notice that today the Great Firewall of China has been breached for one and that I've had a visitor to the site from Beijing. Welcome to my blogsite.

I hope that many more Chinese citizens will be able to join you and see what other foreigners have to say about goings on in China and our concerns about the human rights situation and the need for it to dramatically improve. If you think I'm hardline on human rights you should read what others of my colleagues are saying. Some are already calling for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics on human rights grounds.

I haven't gone that far but believe that you should be held up to higher standards as you promised you would in 2001 when you won the right to host the games.

Instead I suspect that it might be used as an opportunity to refuse me a visa in the future but we shall see.

Hu Said That?

As I predicted earlier this year, it appears that Chinese Communist President Hu Jintao has maneovred key members of the Shanghai Clique (supporters of former President Jiang Zemin) out of the Politburo.

Vice President Zeng Qinghong is gone and along with him other Shanghai Clique members Luo Gan and Wu Guanzheng.

Hu is close to scoring a major home win in his battle against the remaining Jiang/Shanghai faction members and the influence of both the former President and his protoges from Shanghai is seriously on the wane.

Hu now needs to be careful not to overplay his hand otherwise he may find that he will effectively split the CPC into two parts which ironically could have the effect of hastening the arrival of democracy.

I've been slightly surprised at the reaction of the press to this. If I could see this coming why on earth couldn't they? It has been patently obvious that Hu had become exasperated at the blocking tactics of Jiang in letting him take up the reins of power and had decided that the only way in which he could effect an enduring legacy for himself would be to take on and remove the Shanghai clique.

Hu isn't interested in balancing the competing interests of different factions inside the CPC because he is a conviction politician with more powerful older backers. Jiang was only seen as a "safe pair of hands" and was not the first choice candidate of Deng Xiaoping after the Tiananmen crisis to replace Zhao Ziyang. Jiang's legacy is therefore compromised and Hu knows it.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Nick Clegg's Speech in Full

Nick Clegg got his campaign off to a flyer today with a speech which quite rightly urges us to be bold, take risks and reach out to more people who are liberal with a small l.

Here's the speech he made today in full:

"I would like to say a few words about my plans for the future.

But before I do, I would like to pay tribute to my close friend and colleague Menzies Campbell.

Ming is a man of integrity, honour and decency. Over the years he has also shown himself to be a man of impeccable judgement and extraordinary political courage.

He led the opposition to the Iraq war. He stood firm against this government's criminal disregard for our hard won freedoms and rights.

He has done our country a great service.

He stabilized the Liberal Democrats in a time of crisis. He made us more professional. And he gave us a clear sense of direction and purpose.

He has done our party a great service too.

But we now need to look to the future.

If the Liberal Democrats are to change the tired old pattern of British politics, we will have to be bold. We will have to move outside our comfort zone, and take more risks than ever before.

The stakes are high.

Three party politics is in the balance. For two years now, the Liberal Democrats have been caught up in internal self-analysis. We cannot go on testing the patience of the British people.

We must come together now and make a long-term commitment to British liberalism.

We either step up or we will fall back for good.

The leadership election gives us a great opportunity.

An opportunity to talk – plainly and directly – to the British people. An opportunity to be an outward looking party again.

There are millions of people in this country who share our values, but don’t yet give us their votes. These are the people we must be talking to in the weeks ahead.

I want us to extend our reach, and broaden our appeal. I want us to take our message to every community, every home, every family.

And that is why today I am announcing my candidacy for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

I'm delighted to be doing it here in Sheffield. It's my experiences here as a local MP - and as an MEP just down the road in the East Midlands before that - that drive me on as a politician.

Like most people of my generation, I wasn’t born into a political party. I am a liberal by choice, by temperament and by conviction.

And when I talk to the people I represent, I become more convinced every day that only liberalism offers the answers to the problems they face.

A generation ago, many people just voted the way their parents and grandparents had voted. British politics was rigid and debate was narrow.

The left offered social justice. The right offered economic competence.
Everyone lined up on one side of the debate or another.

But today our society is more diverse and our politics more fluid.

Political allegiances are less fixed. People are less class conscious and deferential.

The new generation of voters just doesn't believe there are only two options, only two ideas worth having.

The change is already happening.

In 1951, 2 percent of people voted for a candidate who wasn’t Labour or Conservative. In 2005, it was thirty two percent.

The Liberal Democrats now have the opportunity, once and for all, to end the oppressive grip of two-party politics.

We can break apart the two-party system that has narrowed debate for so long.

And give a voice to the millions of people who feel they don’t have a voice in British politics at all.

We should be proud of the progress we have made. But we are not yet where we need to be.

I want the Liberal Democrats to become the gathering point for everyone who wants a different type of politics in Britain.

A politics that begins by giving power to people, their families and their communities.

A politics of people, not systems

Communities not bureaucracies.

Individual innovation not government diktat.

I believe that is the British way.

We are a nation with a strong sense of fair play and social justice. An instinct to protect the environment for future generations.

We are suspicious of arbitrary power, impatient with bureaucracy and wary of government interference.

We have always put our faith in the power of ordinary men and women to change our world.

Those are the best instincts of the British people. Those are the liberal instincts of the British people.

And they are the instincts that, under my leadership, will be at the heart of the Liberal Democrat vision for Britain".

All I can add to this is a loud hear, hear!

Naturally this is an overarching vision. I'm looking forward to seeing Nick and his policy team putting lots of bold, specific policy ideas forwards in the areas of: human rights (domestic and international); international relations and development; environmental protection, the economy; the relationship between the state and the individual; and a vision of how the Liberal Democrats will be organised to give ourselves a chance to deliver our distinctive policies.

A great start and I hope that this will continue.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Please Remember Burma

Before we all get totally focused on the leadership contest please spare a thought for the oppressed pro-democracy demonstrators and monks in Burma, some of whom are being subjected to appalling torture and conditions in prison. At least one person has died in detention.

I hope that the leadership candidates will raise human rights concerns in the UK and internationally as part of their campaigns to raise the awareness of the British public.

The regime in Burma is an absolute disgrace and I hope that international pressure will ultimately achieve genuine change and push the country and the path of democracy and human rights for all.

Amnesty International have declared next Wednesday 24th October as Free Aung San Suu Kyi Day. "On Wednesday the leader of the National League of Democracy in Burma will complete her 12th year under house arrest. Amnesty International will be using the day to call for the UN to demand her immediate release, and also the release of all prisoners of conscience in Burma".[Hat tip Duncan Borrowman for the last paragraph].

Nick Clegg To Formally Put His Hat in the Ring

Nick Clegg will be launching his campaign in Sheffield on Friday according to press reports.

Great news! Now let the contest begin!

Go, Nick, go!

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Makes Me Want to Study Shakespeare!

A little trip down to Folkestone Library and strangely enough I was drawn to a copy of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar".

In the light of events this year I think it rather an appropriate read.

Antony's speech in Act III, Scene 2 is truly a great one:

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Ceasar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here under the leave of Brutus and the rest,
- For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men -
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me;
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransom did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You did all see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And sure he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause;
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?
O judgement, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me.
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me".

How Apt

Simon Hoggart has excelled himself today in The Guardian but not perhaps in the way he intended. This quote is very apt:

"At Mafia funerals it's always the capo who ordered the hit who makes the most fulsome speech over the coffin - about the departed's wonderful qualities, his integrity, his patriotism, his love of family".

I think that Ming made the decision in consultation with others. I think he had several scenarios in mind and spoke to a number of people about what he should do. I don't think that he was assassinated.

Monday, 15 October 2007

The Dangers of Talking Amongst Yourselves

The other very interesting news story today, from my point of view, was Hu Jintao's speech at the 17th Congress of the Communist Party of China. Jonathan Watts made yet another excellent analysis in The Guardian. If only all of the reporting in that paper was up to his high standards!

Unfortunately El Presidente appeared on the one hand to recognise that increasing democracy is important but then fluffed it by making it quite clear that "We must uphold the party's role as the core of leadership in directing the overall situation and coordinating the efforts of all quarters," and "we must uphold the party's role as the core of leadership in directing the overall situation and coordinating the efforts of all quarters," he said. This strongly suggests that there will be no move towards genuine multi-party democracy in China for the foreseeable future.

Instead the usual tired old formula of "inner-party democracy" was wheeled out yet again. So, more of the claimed 73 million members of the Communist Party will have a say? Really? My experience of meetings in China was always one of watch and agree with the leader and just regurgitate what the leader says.

The Chinese Communist Party is worried about corruption undermining it's legitimacy. But rather than recognise that it is the monopoly of power which is the root cause of corruption and the fact that the Communist Party tries to police itself through the corrupt policing the corrupt, it is carrying on reinforcing the same rotten power structure.

The only way in which political movements are able to move forward are through accountability to the wider citizenry and a recognition that a small group of people do not have a monopoly on the truth. This is a lesson that could be learned closer to my home as well. It is critical to avoid the temptation to talk amongst yourselves otherwise your grasp on power will be shorter and weaker than you hope.

By failing to take on the real elephant in the room and show true leadership Hu Jintao has confirmed his status as a monochrome President who will not stand out in the annals of Chinese political history. Had he been bold and recognised that alternative centres of power are essential to ensure the sustainability of legitimacy and power then he might well have gone down in history. It is my prediction that it will be either the Sixth or Seventh generation of leaders who will grasp this reality and think the unthinkable and do the undoable before they are forced to do it by an increasingly impatient general public.

Hu Jintao has not strengthened the Communist Party at this congress. He has weakened it by failing to properly liberalise China when he had the authority and stature to do so.

Nick Clegg - Stand Up Please

I'm saddened to see the resignation of Ming Campbell but not completely surprised. He did do a great deal to strengthen the internal party organisation but unfortunately there was an image issue. I hope that whoever succeeds him in the forthcoming leadership election will have the wisdom to give Ming the Foreign Affairs brief in which he clearly has always excelled.

I'm going to declare my support for Nick Clegg who I think had what it took 18 months ago and I believe even more strongly has what it takes to lead our Party.

Go, Nick, go!

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Hu Jintao - You Don't Get Away That Easily

I've focused my recent postings on Burma where clearly something desperately needs to happen to force the Military regime to it's senses or better still, see it fall from power.

China must be very happy that the world's attention is turned to Burma as it seems that the wave of repression that I predicted several months ago surrounding the CPC Congress is coming to pass according to this Human Rights Watch report which I received today.

The world needs to raise pressure on Beijing to clean up it's act as well. I'm not sure that I'm quite at the point that Colin Ross is at of calling for an Olympic Boycott but if the kind of repressive behaviour that we are seeing in China at present continues then I will certainly have to consider whether to join those voices who would want an international boycott.

It is sad to note that so often with the regime in Beijing they seem to take half a step forward by releasing a dissident or two and then a step backwards.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Free Burma!

Immediately after my call for sanctions I received this comment which I want to publicise and encourage my fellow bloggers to participate.

Free Burma!
International Bloggers' Day for Burma on the 4th of October

International bloggers are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons. These Bloggers are planning to refrain from posting to their blogs on October 4 and just put up one Banner then, underlined with the words „Free Burma!“.

Burma - Sanctions NOW!

I'm getting increasingly frustrated at the British Government's failure to impose serious and significant sanctions against the Burmese Regime (those pathetic and odious "Nazis" in the military regime don't deserve the title of "Government").

Waiting for China to sort the problem isn't going to work. We've stood by for the past 20 years (and the Tories are as guilty as Labour has been on this issue) and let the regime literally get away with murder. It is now time to crack down hard on the Junta and help bring an end to this odious stain on Asia.

Come on Gordon Brown. It's long overdue for Britain to have an ethical foreign policy once again. Start getting tough on the Rapists of Rangoon.