Syriza, Podemos, and now Labour?

Syriza, Podemos, and now Labour? The U.K.’s main opposition party is on track to elect its most socialist leader in 30 years as support continues to surge for anti-austerity, pro-nationalization candidate Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn presents pupils with certificates after they perform in a play on their last day of school at Duncombe Primary School on July 16, 2015 in London.

Corbyn, 66, has the most indications of support from Labour’s constituency groups, backing from the U.K.’s two biggest trade unions, Unite and Unison, and topped a YouGov Plc opinion poll last week on the four leadership candidates. Three U.K. bookmakers slashed Corbyn’s odds Wednesday to make him favorite ahead of Andy Burnham.

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Ed Miliband’s tuition fees pledge: is it any good?

Labour leader Ed Miliband pledges to cut tuition fees in higher education from £9,000 to £6,000 a year if his party wins the May general election.

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He wants to free young people from the ‘scourge of debt’ imposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and save the government £20 billion by 2030.

Universities Minister Greg Clark calls the proposal ‘incompetent and cobbled-together’ and money saving expert Martin Lewis says the plan is ‘financially illiterate’.

Who’s right? Is this a more pragmatic system for funding higher education that would help students and save money? Or is this just populism, a cheap shot at the government that aims to woo the student vote without helping the neediest?

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Beware the silver tyranny – could this be British democracy in 2050?

There’s an age-old conundrum in political theory (pun intended, you’ll soon see why) and it’s called the tyranny of the majority. In short, it’s the ugly face of democracy and I think it’s going to be the big problem we Brits face come 2050. Allow me to demonstrate by way of a 21st century political allegory.

Jonny is a dutiful kid who goes to visit his Gran in the local care home. He arrives one day to find her sitting in the communal living area watching Countdown on the television. It takes some effort but he’s eventually able to prise her eyes away from Nick Hewer and they have a polite chat about elderly things: the weather, the war and the grace of Roger Federer’s backhand. It’s all gone swimmingly well but then just as he’s making to leave he has an ill-fated thought.

‘Sorry to bother you,’ he announces, turning towards the elderly congregation, all of whom are utterly transfixed by the latest offering of letters on Countdown. ‘But could I quickly switch over to BBC 1 to check the football scores?’

There’s a stunned silence. Slowly a swell of grumbling indignation rises from the gathered mass. ‘Of course not!’ they cry in unison. ‘We’re watching Countdown!’ His modest proposal has clearly invoked tangible displeasure so he raises a defensive hand. ‘Sorry, sorry. I just wanted to have a quick look. It would only take 10 seconds.’

The swell of murmured discontent merely rises. His statement has only served to add fuel to the already angry flames. At this moment the senior care worker arrives in the living room. ‘What’s all this commotion about?’ she demands, peering around the room. ‘Who’s responsible for all this?’

A sea of quivering accusatory fingers now confronts Jonny. ‘It’s him! He wants to change the channel but we all want to watch Countdown!’ There is a roar of approval, led by none other than Jonny’s Gran. He makes a mental note not to send her a Christmas card this year.

‘I see,’ the care worker says, nodding knowingly. ‘The classical mistake of trying to change the TV channel. Well then, we know how we resolve problems like this, don’t we folks?’ She suddenly brandishes a well-worn copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract from her handbag. Before Jonny can even begin to protest she ceremoniously holds it aloft and declares emphatically, ‘We vote!’

‘All in favour of watching Countdown raise your hands!’ The elderly dutifully raise their arms in unison. ‘And all in favour of changing to BBC 1?’ Jonny meekly extends his index finger, cringing inwardly at the absurdity of this situation.

‘Well that settles it then,’ the care worker declares. She turns to leave but then Jonny’s Gran pipes up again. ‘Hold on. I think this young man should also bring us a round of tea and biscuits to say sorry for making us miss the last few minutes of Countdown.’

More roaring approval, the elderly folk now nodding vigorously and stamping their feet. ‘Yes, tea and biscuits!’ they cry. ‘We vote for tea and biscuits!’ Once more the room is filled with arms held proudly aloft. The care worker turns to Jonny, a hint of apology in her eyes, and points him towards the kitchen.

‘I’m sorry dear but the people have spoken,’ she solemnly declares. ‘Tea and biscuits it must be.’ For fear of reigniting the anger of the ancients, Jonny complies without protest and trudges lamely over to the kitchen, quietly cursing his Gran, Rousseau, the Greeks, de Tocqueville, Mill and all those other bright sparks who ever proclaimed the virtues of majority decision-making…

As should be clear, our care home tale of poor Jonny and the evil elders has a simple moral: democracy can be an ugly thing if you’re in the minority. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself oppressed by the democratic will. It’s an age-old political problem that afflicts all democracies, even our own.

Just look at Britain today. Our economy is in a slump and yet the remedy of choice of our political leaders is the euphemistic ‘quantitative easing’, the creation of fresh money to buy up government and corporate bonds. This is a policy of mild tyranny for a minority of the population – people like Jonny’s Gran in fact. Low interest rates give elderly people miserly returns on their savings whilst their pension funds face large deficits as yields on government bonds hit record lows. Quantitative easing also devalues the currency and hence reduces the value of their savings.

Yet why is there not uproar? How is a government allowed to let this happen? It’s demographics. Currently only one-in-six people in the UK are over-65. This means politicians can still win elections even if their parties have been guilty of supporting the surreptitious impoverishment of the elderly. It’s essentially tyranny of the 25-50 year olds over the rest.

But oh how times will change! The UK has an ageing population with rising life expectancy, better medical care and low fertility rates. Come 2050, one-in-four people will be over-65. And if these trends continue (and who’s to say they won’t?) then not soon after we’ll see the day when the elderly form a majority of the population.

What will our democracy look like then? Here’s my guess: a silver-haired Nick Clegg will lean fraily on the despatch box in the House of Commons, commanding an enormous majority having opportunistically rebranded his party as the ‘Liberal Gerontocrats’. In opposition will be the dregs of the Labour and Conservative Youth divisions, forced to unite despite their ideological differences against the silver tyranny of the Lib Gems.

Funding pensions, meanwhile, will be the hot topic of the day. The UK government has already accumulated a cool £5.01 trillion in pension obligations (342% of national income) and that was only by December 2010. With people living longer, what will that figure look like in 2050? And will the economy have grown enough for us to get even close to paying those pensions? Fear not: we’ll have the expert economics of the Lib Gems.

‘No more quantitative easing!’ Clegg the Elder will boom, cheered on by a mass of order-paper waving octogenarians. ‘The economic strategy of this country will be built on three things: higher taxes for young people, longer working hours for under-30s and reduced education budgets. This is the only strategy that will deliver fairness, fairness for all those people who deserve every penny of their pension!’

The tables will have turned. The pensioners will have their sweet democratic revenge. Tea and biscuits, anyone?
Published in The Bubble, Durham’s online student magazine – 24th July 2012

http://www.thebubble.org.uk/politics/beware-of-the-silver-tyranny

Some prisoners should be given the vote – let’s get nuanced!

Matt Williams’ article on votes for prisoners is worth reading: he gives a concise yet thorough discussion of the complexities of the issue and offers a strong case for denying prisoners the vote. I would, however, like to offer a response to his article.

As a starting point, we should note there are two key questions at the heart of his discussion and it’s important to keep them separate. The first question is ‘Should prisoners be able to vote?’ The second question is ‘Should the European Court of Human Rights be able to answer that question on Britain’s behalf?’

On that second question, Matt says ‘the ultimate decision [on votes for prisoners] must be left to the national government otherwise sovereignty is threatened.’ I wholly agree. Parliament ought to remain as the supreme law-making authority of the land. Parliament’s accountability to the British people at the ballot box ensures that the laws it creates reflect the public will.

We also already have our own British judicial system to ensure that Parliament doesn’t act outside of its powers or infringe civil liberties. We shouldn’t have to face interference from European judges and we ought to remove our commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights and adopt our own British Bill of Rights.

But it is on the first question – votes for prisoners – where I disagree with Matt. Some prisoners should indeed be able to vote, namely those on short sentences or who are soon to leave prison.

Let me begin by saying that I will not use the traditional arguments often used to support votes for prisoners, such as the denial of the vote allegedly harming rehabilitation or undermining human dignity. Frankly, I find these unconvincing. Most prisoners don’t care about voting and in addition, rehabilitation comes from things like education and skills training, not voting.

Instead, denying all prisoners the vote violates a more fundamental democratic principle. This principle is that all citizens who must abide by the laws of the land reserve the right to vote for the members of the legislature who create those laws. This principle is fundamental because it preserves our own freedom. We may have to obey laws that restrict free action but since we’ve been able to vote for the people that create these laws then they are in a sense self-imposed and hence compatible with our freedom.

The problem with banning all prisoners from voting is that you violate this principle. Let me demonstrate with an example. Imagine Person X. He is given a 6-month custodial sentence in January 2010 for repeat minor offending. He is unable to vote in the May 2010 general election and is then released from prison in July 2010. For the next four or five years he must obey laws made by people he wasn’t able to vote for, just because he happened to be in prison at the time of the general election. In my view, this means that the deprivation of his freedom extends beyond his prison sentence.

In his article, Matt justifies this deprivation by saying that it ‘makes no sense for those who break, ignore and abuse the law to have any influence over those who make the law’. However, the problem with this view is that you deny the prisoner the ability to influence the law for a long time after they’ve left prison, namely, until the next election.

This is the wrong approach; a prisoner should be able to vote in an election if they’re going to have to live for a significant period of time in a society governed by laws created by politicians elected in the prisoner’s missed election.

Let’s take another example to further demonstrate my position. Imagine Person Y. She is given a 20-year custodial sentence in January 2010 for murder. I believe that Person Y should not be allowed to vote for the next fifteen years because they’re not going to be living in society for the next fifteen years. But they should be allowed to vote towards the end of their imprisonment because they will soon be coming out of prison and having to abide by the laws of society.

Hence I take issue with Matt’s statement that ‘you cannot have a system which gives the vote to some prisoners and not others. [It] has to be either all or none’. To this I say, ‘Why not?’ Why not have a system where prisoners on short sentences or who are soon to leave prison can vote? And where prisoners on longer sentences can’t vote, at least not until near the end of their imprisonment?

Similar to other European countries, judges should be able to follow appropriate guidelines and use their discretion in deciding which prisoners can vote and which can’t. It doesn’t have to be all or none.

Prisoners ultimately have to rejoin society, a society governed by laws voted upon by elected representatives in the legislature. If we are to respect one of our fundamental democratic principles then prisoners should be able to vote on these elected representatives since they will live under their laws.

If this is denied to a prisoner then the democratic principle is violated and the deprivation of the prisoner’s freedom is extended beyond their time in prison. For me, that’s unacceptable. Hence you’ve got to give some prisoners the vote.

Published in Palatinate, Official Durham Student Newspaper – 16th June 2012

http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=24244

Is a Lib-Lab coalition on the cards?

I’m not a gambling man but, like our Prime Minister, I enjoy following political odds. Like public polls, I think they give a good snapshot of the state of the nation and indicate where we could be heading.

I particularly like following the odds for Britain’s next government. Paddy Power currently offers Labour as favourites to secure a majority at the next general election, closely followed by the Conservatives. No surprises there. But of most interest, in my view, is what the bookies see to be the equal third most likely outcome: a Lib-Lab coalition.

Could this really happen? In the event of a hung parliament, could Labour and the Liberal Democrats forget the acrimony of the last few years and form a progressive coalition to lead Britain? Like I said, I’m not one to place bets. But if I did, this one might just tempt me.

The odds have been shortening and here’s why. The Daily Telegraph revealed over the weekend that senior Liberal Democrats such as Vince Cable and Sir Menzies Campbell have allegedly been in regular contact with Labour leader Ed Miliband and his inner circle to discuss issues on which they have ‘common ground’. In the event of another hung parliament, it would seem, the two parties want to be ready to seize power.

And reports of such discussions don’t sound unreasonable. Cable has been a persistent grumbling presence in the current Coalition – criticising Clegg and Cameron whilst being viewed by one Tory donor as a ‘socialist’ – and the two parties share ideological sympathies on matters such as House of Lords reform and social justice.

Meanwhile, Miliband recently appointed Lord Adonis as his industrial strategy advisor, an influential peer who has strong links with the Liberal Democrats and who would be a good facilitator of talks between the two parties.

So the stars seem to be aligning. As in 1997, Labour and the Lib Dems appear to be making the strategic calculation that an alliance of sorts might be the only way of keeping out the Tories at the next election. But the difference back then was that Tony Blair went on to secure a landslide majority for Labour and so had no need for Lib Dem support when in government, a landslide that currently looks beyond Milliband’s reach. A coalition may be the only route to power.

And – whisper it – we might not even have to wait until 2015 for such an outcome. With the Liberal Democrats floundering at 9% according to the latest Yougov poll and Britain’s economy in double-dip recession, Cable and his key supporters might decide to take a risk and call for a radical change in the government’s economic policy. Plan A of fiscal consolidation has failed, they could argue, and it’s now time to switch to a bold Keynesian stimulus approach to lift Britain out of the doldrums.

Whether the Lib Dems would be brave enough to do this now is another question. Uncertainty is rife in the Eurozone and the Olympics are almost upon us, so the time doesn’t seem right to break up the Coalition. But the seeds have certainly been sown. Could we see a Lib-Lab coalition in the near future? These are early days, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Published in Palatinate, Official Durham Student Newspaper – 6th June 2012

http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=24073

Clegg, the ‘F’ word and social mobility

Nick Clegg’s self-proclaimed raison d’etre in politics is the ‘F’ word: fairness.

And last week, speaking at a conference organised by the Sutton Trust, the Deputy Prime Minister renewed his calls for greater social mobility in Britain, an issue at the heart of his ‘fairness’ agenda.

As part of the government’s plan to monitor this issue, Clegg revealed 17 ‘trackers’ that the government will use annually to measure progress on improving life chances for the underprivileged. Clegg said that these would show ‘how well the government is doing in making society fairer’.

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Amongst the ‘trackers’ will be indicators such as how many teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve the AAB grades needed for the Russell Group of universities and how many children on free school meals are achieving a ‘good level of development’.

His fresh focus on this issue would appear to be a timely one. Recent reports by the OECD and the All Party Parliamentary Group  (APPG) provide various unflattering findings about social mobility in Britain.  The APPG found that UK mobility is low relative to other OECD countries, meaning that a child’s life prospects in the UK are often more closely linked to their parents’ circumstances than in other developed countries such as Germany or Australia.

Another telling finding is that 32% of MPs and 51% of top Medics come from privately-educated backgrounds, despite only 7% of the population being privately-educated.

But what can actually be done about the issue? How to make Britain more socially mobile? It’s a contentious question and, for Clegg in particular, one riddled with political difficulties. Three main obstacles stand out.

First, there’s the charge of hypocrisy. Critics will ask, ‘How can a Westminster School and Cambridge-educated son of a banker who benefited from unpaid internships paint himself as a champion of social mobility’?  Clegg’s response is that his own fortunate upbringing changes nothing but opponents of the Deputy Prime Minister will always be quick to shout ‘hypocrite’ whenever he speaks out on this issue.

Second, there’s the divisive question of whether or not to admit weaker applicants from less privileged social backgrounds to Britain’s top universities. Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have a strong position on this issue, declaring it a ‘disgrace’ that only ‘1 in 100 Oxbridge entrants have been on free school meals’. Giving these underprivileged students more preference, they argue, is a necessary ingredient of a fairer admissions process and is a way of improving social mobility in the short-term.

But politicians on the right call foul of such a process, arguing that students from more privileged backgrounds would then be disadvantaged and that improving the quality of state education is the more preferable way of increasing social mobility. Clegg is yet to convince these doubters of the merits of preference for the underprivileged.

And third, and perhaps most interestingly for Clegg, is the obstacle that springs from a philosophical tension within his own liberalism: how to balance fairness against that other great ‘F’ word of the liberal cause, freedom?

It seems that there will always be unequal opportunity and social immobility so long as parents are free to bring up their children as they wish. Some will want to make investments in extra tuition for their kids whereas others might prefer to book a family holiday. Likewise, a parent with good social connections will want to use these to find the best opportunities for their children.

So unless Clegg wants to interfere with these parental freedoms it seems that he’ll just have to accept that a dose of social immobility will always be with us. He can continue to push ahead with policies such as the ‘pupil premium‘, where schools get extra money per disadvantaged pupil, and these should be encouraged and welcomed as they strike at the structural issues that restrict social mobility. But he will also know that perfect social mobility is unattainable in a free society. When the ‘F’ words clash, something’s got to give.

Published in Palatinate, Official Durham Student Newspaper – 29th May 2012

http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=23934

Regional pay is a fundamentally sound idea – but under-paying teachers isn’t

Amidst the pasties, the top-rate tax cut and reducing relief on charitable donations, last month’s Budget also saw Chancellor George Osborne announce plans to expand the use of regional pay in the public sector. Under the current system nurses and teachers have their pay adjusted to reflect higher living costs in and around London whilst some employees in the prison service also have their pay weighted to accommodate for local costs. Osborne’s plans, however, would significantly expand this use of differential pay to encompass other regions, such as Wales and the North East.

So what to make of this proposal for more regional pay? Would this not be unfair on those people living in the north of England who could end up getting paid less than someone doing a similar job in the south? Would it not also further widen the ‘North/South’ divide in the UK, with those struggling in the old industrial cities of the North looking on enviously at their richer southern counterparts, perhaps even abandoning the region altogether to pursue greater prosperity closer to London?

Despite what the trade unions will have you believe, the answer to both of these questions is ‘no’. On the issue of fairness, greater use of regional pay would in fact be more just than the current system. At the moment, as is clear from a recent report by the NHS Employers organisation, a nurse in Southampton doing the same job as a nurse in Durham earns the same salary despite the prices of things like food, drink and housing being higher in the South. This isn’t right. It’s eminently more sensible to take into account local prices when setting pay because this way you ensure similar standards of living for workers doing similar jobs.

On the issue of the ‘North/South’ divide, the answer is a little more nuanced. In the short term, yes, setting pay regionally may well impoverish the North and exacerbate the wealth gap with the South – new recruits in the public sector would have less money in their pockets and this could depress consumer spending and subsequently economic activity. All the old Keynesian arguments would apply and the North could see a temporary slump.

But in the long run this policy of regional pay stands to rejuvenate the North. Firstly, it could make it easier for private sector firms to hire the best talent in and around cities like Durham. Currently small and medium enterprises struggle to compete with the wages offered by the public sector and subsequently find it difficult to hire those talented employees needed to make a business flourish and grow. For example, an Institute of Fiscal Studies report from earlier this year showed that wages in the North East are 30% higher in the public sector than in the private sector for full-time working men. If regional pay were in place and wages in the public sector better matched those in the private then this issue of struggling to recruit talent could be less of a problem and we could see more entrepreneurial activity in the North. In the long term this means more jobs, more growth and higher standards of living. The short-term cost might be a few years of depressed activity, but it’s a price worth paying.

And secondly, the policy is coherent with the equally sensible idea of rebalancing the economy of the UK. In the good old pre-credit crunch days of a soaring financial services industry in London, the government could afford to shower the North with the proceeds of the economic boom and artificially keep unemployment down by creating lots of public-sector jobs. Unfortunately the music has now stopped and we’ve come to realise that this is an unsustainable way of running a regional economy. Any policy that can therefore encourage the North to wean itself off these public sector jobs should be welcomed and that’s why expanding regional pay is such a fundamentally sound idea.

However, as with most things, there’s a catch. Expanding regional pay will also affect teachers and here’s where I think the government’s getting it wrong. Although it’s not conventional to single out one aspect of the public sector as more important than any other, I think the education arm is of particular strategic significance. It’s the intellectual powerhouse of our economy, producing the workers, thinkers and the innovators upon which the future prosperity of Britain depends. The only way we’re going to become world leaders in areas such as bio-technology, alternative energy and manufacturing is by enthusing the next generation and giving every child in the country a top-class education. This begins with inspirational teachers.

That’s why I think we should be putting up pay for teachers everywhere, certainly not reducing it. We need to get the sharpest, most enthusiastic graduates into classrooms. Programmes like Teach First are a step in the right direction but the government needs to do more and back this up with cold hard cash. If a university-leaver sees that there’s a good living to be made out of going into teaching then we’ll see standards rise and we’ll take a step closer towards a world-class education system.

So that’s my message for Osborne: be bold. Expand regional pay, yes. But at the same time make teaching an elite, well-paid profession that attracts the brightest and best. Our children will thank us if we do.

Published in Palatinate, Official Durham Student Newspaper – 18th April 2012

http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=22925