Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Tuition fee myths need to be challenged

Through a mutual acquaintance, I recently heard someone I know outside the world of politics (yes I have ordinary friends!) had been bemoaning the "fact" that he was not going to be able to afford to pay £9,000 per year for his daughter (who is soon going to be 18) to go to university.

This person is pretty well educated and I suspect does regularly watch the news but the fact that the money is paid back over 30 years following graduation by the recipient of the degree, not the parents of the recipient seems to have completely passed him by. He's not the only one from what I can tell. Various vox pops on radio and TV in recent months that I have heard and seen suggest that this misconception is pretty widespread and infuriatingly often not corrected by interviewers or presenters.

That such a basic aspect of the new system is so widely misunderstood is a pretty damning indictment of how the policy has been communicated. Lib Dem and Conservative ministers and MPs need to accept some blame for this. But another big problem as far as I can tell is that the media narrative has focused on the most negative and politically contentious aspects of the scheme. This has led to headlines such as "UNIVERSITY FEES TREBLED" and "LIB DEMS IN DISARRAY OVER FEES". Both of those things were true to an extent but the Lib Dem woes on this topic were focused on so much around the time of the parliamentary vote as well as the protests that I honestly think the substance of the policy was not properly covered. Which given how much airtime the subject was supposedly given is frankly absurd.

For me, the 2 main aspects of the new system that seem to be regularly misunderstood are:

1) It will cost parents £30K+ up front to send their kids to university. This is palpably untrue. The graduate, not the parents pays the loan back at 9% of income above £21K. And they don't pay anything back after 30 years regardless of how much they have paid to that point. So quite a few, probably most will never pay back the entire loan anyway.
2) Graduates will be worse off under the new scheme just when they need disposable income the most, in their 20s making it harder to get a mortgage. This is completely wrong too. Compared to the previous system, graduates will be much better off in their earlier years when trying to build a deposit for a house etc. It is of course true that they will still be paying through their 30s and 40s too (assuming they earn over £21K) but that's the trade-off.

There are loads more (see FOOTNOTE) but they are the two that have most irritated me.

I suspect there will be some who accuse me of being a government patsy on this as I am a Lib Dem but the truth is I would be saying this no matter who was in government. I am always happy to debate the consequences and fairness of policies with anyone but in order to do this properly, the facts need to be clear.

And far too often in this debate they are inadvertently or in some cases I suspect deliberately distorted.

FOOTNOTE: The widely respected Martin Lewis of the Money Saving Expert website who himself is no fan of the changes is nevertheless appalled at the terrible reporting on the subject (I heard him bemoaning it on Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 show recently) and has taken it upon himself to produce a "20 Key Facts" page which goes into great detail and busts a number of myths about the new system. It's definitely worth a read if you have half an hour.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Vote for meeee! (Total Politics Blog Awards 2011)

The Total Politics Blog Awards for 2011 are open for voting until the end of this week.

I've been a bit tardy with my annual "shameless grubbing for votes" post this year but here it is in in all its glory!

If you have liked what I have blogged here or elsewhere then please consider voting for me in the poll.

This year there are two sections, favourite political blog and favourite individual political blogger. I would be most obliged if you could consider me for both categories. You need to nominate at least 5 in each section for that section to be entered in the poll and you nominate a maximum of 10 in each category.

You can vote here.



Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Rebuild Reeves

Like many other people I was very moved by the dignity of the Reeves family in the face of what must be an horrendous time for them in the last couple of days. For anyone who is not aware, they own the family run "House of Reeves" furniture store in Croydon which was burnt to the ground on Monday as a result of the riots that took place.

The shop has been in their family for almost 150 years and it was burnt down in only a few hours. I suspect that building ablaze for a long time before fire-crews could get to it (because their safety could not be guaranteed) will become a symbol of this period of civil unrest.

I felt compelled to try and do something to help the Reeves family and to demonstrate that there are lots of people in this country who also want to help. They have already indicated that they intend to rebuild their shop which I find immensely heartening so I have set up a Pledge Bank page where I have pledged a small amount of money to contribute towards this and am asking others to pledge what they can too.

I have already had people asking me whether they are insured and I am not yet clear on what the situation is there but irrespective of that I thought this was a good way of showing solidarity with them at this dreadful time. Also, I know that insurance can take a long time to come through whereas I have set a deadline of two and a half weeks on this pledge to reach 1,000 people to give a small amount each which would I am sure be of good practical use to them in the meantime.

I suspect lots of other initiatives to help other business in particular and generally affected by the riots will be underway soon too and I will donate what I can to those too and would encourage everyone else to do so as well. I just felt this was a specific way to help one of the most visible symbols of the riots be restored.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Where's Cleggy?

Before I start this post properly, I know politicians can't really win. If they take regular holidays they are swanning off leaving the country in the lurch and if they don't they're workaholics out of touch with ordinary people.

However that aside I was a little surprised to hear on the news on Friday that David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne were all on holiday at the same time. Apparently William Hague was the most senior cabinet minister still in the country and he was taking charge of the initial response to the current turmoil in the financial markets.

That strikes me as a little bit odd. Nick Clegg is the Deputy Prime Minister. His role includes deputising for the Prime Minister when he is not around, e.g. on holiday. So why did Cameron and Clegg schedule their holidays for the same time? Surely they could have divvied it up so that one of them was around in the country and available during the summer at any one time?

Clegg has made it almost to the top. He is second in command of the government, a position that his predecessors as Lib Dem and Liberal leaders would have given their eye teeth for. And given the position of the third party, second in command is the best we are going to get for a very long time. Yet when Clegg has the opportunity to fulfill one of his primary duties in this role, standing in for the Prime Minister, he has chosen not to do it.

As a Lib Dem I find this quite frustrating. For years we have been told that our party cannot be trusted with the levers of power and now when our leader has the chance to do just that and show those naysayers they are wrong he decides to go on holiday. And this is not the first time it has happened. Back in February he was quoted as having "forgotten" that he was in charge of the country whilst Cameron was abroad and that he was going to head off on holiday at the end of the week so "someone else would have to do it" then. I did not like the casual implication of that comment then and I like even less the pattern that seems to be emerging.

I know that people, especially senior politicians are never fully out of touch these days but the fact that Hague was chairing meetings in London last week demonstrates that there are some things that require a physical presence, especially when there is a crisis.

I hope that next time the PM and his deputy are planning their time away from the country, a little more thought is put into coordinating it.

This post was originally published on Dale & Co.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Has Guido got this #restore campaign all wrong? #retaintheban

The Guido Fawkes blog run by Paul Staines and Harry Cole has been pushing a campaign recently to try and get 100,000 signatures on a government e-petition for bringing back capital punishment for the murderers of children and on-duty police officers.

I am personally not in favour of this but others have written extensively about the arguments against and I am not going to focus on that today but instead on the approach that Guido Fawkes has taken.

Both Staines and Cole are very experienced media performers and campaigners, especially when it comes to new media. And there is no denying that they have stimulated a debate about the issue. But thanks to Lib Dem campaigner Martin Shapland there is a big fly in their ointment.

As I write the "Restore Capital Punishment" petition has 8,949 signatures. But another petition on the same site that Shapland introduced recently entitled "Petition to retain the ban on Capital Punishment" has 15,881 signatures. Also it is worth noting that the Shapland petition was introduced a while after the Guido backed one and hence has not had as much time to garner signatures.

It is true that there are other pro-death penalty petitions on the site which may be "splitting the vote" to an extent but there are also multiple anti-death penalty petitions too so effectively both votes are being split. But it would appear that the anti-death penalty supporters online are in the ascendancy.

We shouldn't be too surprised by this. Although there has been a long vaunted majority in favour of the death penalty amongst the public (although I have always felt this is somewhat overstated and once the debate is engaged with the liberal argument is there to be won) that majority is highest amongst older people and lower amongst younger people who are more likely to be active online. Also, as we have seen from previous surveys of things like Twitter there are lots of people with liberal views active on there, perhaps not in proportion to their make-up of the population.

Which brings me back to my main point. I think Guido may have got this one wrong by trying to use new media to push an illiberal measure like the death penalty. Although the initial petition has been a good springboard for provoking a debate, it is looking increasingly likely that online at least the anti-death penalty petition has more momentum behind it. If this continues to be the case then it could be dead in the water before any parliamentary debate even takes place because the government (who probably do not want this distraction) can point to the fact that the petition site is showing we should keep the status quo. And any complaint about this only focusing on the online population could be skewered because the only reason the subject is even being discussed is because of the original e-petition. Which is online. The existence of the more popular opposing petition is a huge spoiler.

The biggest spoiler of all would be if the Shapland petition could reach 100,000 signatures before any other one and especially the Guido one.

I've just signed it and if you are opposed to the reintroduction of the death penalty, you should too.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Louise Mensch has missed an opportunity on drugs

Following Conservative MP Louise Mensch's excellent work on the Culture Media and Sport Committee, pursuing News International with robust questioning about the activities of their newspapers the tabloids have recently tried to strike back. They have of course tried the tactic that they know best. Muckraking.

They apparently have evidence that during the 1990s, Louise took drugs whilst partying with violin virtuoso Nigel Kennedy amongst others. Louise's response was swift and was clearly an attempt to cut the story off at the knees:

"Although I do not remember the specific incident, this sounds highly probable... since I was in my twenties, I'm sure it was not the only incident of the kind; we all do idiotic things when young."

As I heard this on the radio I found myself vocally praising her riposte to this. Essentially she was saying "so what". She was young and she did what young people do. She went up in my estimations.

However later on that same day I spotted this tweet from her account:

She is using the old politician's trick of admitting having used drugs when she was younger but insisting they should remain illegal now. This has been the standard way that MPs have recently tried to avoid charges of hypocrisy by distancing themselves from their previous behaviour using their former "stupidity" or "youth" as an alibi.

This is particularly disappointing in Louise's case because this tactic is usually used by MPs to keep the tabloids at bay. But she and her committee have the papers on the ropes at the moment. If ever there was a time to break free of the ridiculous strictures the print media in this country impose on public discourse about drugs, now would surely be it? She could easily have said something like "I did take drugs when I was younger as did many of my contemporaries and I think we need a mature debate about this subject rather than these salacious attempts by the tabloid press to use it as a means to push their agenda.".

Now it is of course possible that Louise genuinely thinks that taking drugs as her and her contemporaries appeared to have regularly done (judging by her own comments) was idiotic and anyone doing the same today should be prosecuted and potentially imprisoned. But if that is true then then anyone finding themselves today with a criminal record for having done this would find it impossible to ever get selected as a candidate for a party in a winnable seat, let alone get elected. So the logical conclusion is that she is saying that she is not really fit to be an MP but that she didn't get caught so was lucky. It is very hard to view this as anything other than hypocrisy.

Louise Mensch knows she is on safe ground using this sort of formulation. After all, the Prime Minister led the way with his "entitlement to a private life before politics" comments during his leadership campaign. It would appear today's politicians can have their cake and eat it on this issue.

To be fair to her, maybe she does not want to be fighting on multiple fronts given the current circumstances. That would be understandable in a way although regrettable in my view.

I can only hope that as the power of the press in general and the tabloids in particular continues to wane, partly as a result of Louise's (and others) sterling work that eventually other MPs in her position will feel emboldened to speak up honestly about their experiences and use it as a way to open up a serious debate about drugs policy.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.