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Monday, 22 October 2012

Class and politics

In many ways politics used to be simple. Labour, built around unions, was for the working man. Conservatism was for rich folks (or southerners). Things are different now. Change to a service based economy has all but destroyed the traditional Labour base, with the public sector now the most heavily unionised industry. This change has been accompanied by a broadening of the welfare state with many middle class people now net beneficiaries.

Changes to the economy have changed the debate too. Growth cannot be taken for granted. Britain's place at the top of the pile is no certain thing. This is no longer a discussion about sharing the proceeds of growth: we're talking about how to make sure the country survives with relative wealth.

The ideological conflict that results from this is not about class. It is about conceptions of the world and how to succeed within it. On one hand are state based solutions, where the state acts to pour money into the economy and into redistributive measures. This money comes from either borrowing or taxation. The other argument suggests the state steps back and allows the market (through the agency of individuals) to flourish.

These are not issues about where you are from, what level of education you have reached, or what your income is. You can belong to any socio-economic grouping and hold either of these views.

I am a Conservative. Not because I want to keep rich people rich and poor people poor, but because I believe in the ability of individuals to achieve. I believe in people keeping as much of what they earn as is possible. I believe in the market as being vital for creating incentives to work and innovate. I believe in the state as being a facilitator and a safety net.

This should be the message of the modern Conservative Party. It is about creating equality of opportunity through good quality education for all. It is about empowering people to set their sights high, and creating the economic incentives to do so. It is also about maintaining our commitment to care for those in our society who are vulnerable.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Referendum

It has been reported this week that a referendum on EU membership could form part of the Conservative election manifesto in 2015, with a view to being held within 18 months of that election.

It is now time for this referendum.

I am a believer in many of the economic benefits of the EU in terms of trade. I do not share the concerns that some people have around immigration. For many years I have been as pro-Europe as a Conservative could be. However, I do not believe in 'ever closer political union' and I do not enjoy the bureaucracy and lack of accountability in the EU. I increasingly feel that the core benefits of membership of the EU can be achieved from outside of the EU through treaties and other legal and diplomatic mechanisms.

A referendum is an issue of the democratic sovereignty of the people of the UK, and their right to decide on their membership of a multilateral organisation which is able to make laws and legally binding judgements. The argument for a referendum does not need to be pro- or -sceptic. It is an important constitutional issue.

The issue of Europe, hotly debated within the party and within the country, needs to be decided by the people. I support a referendum at the earliest opportunity.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Politics and Targeting Voters

There is a bit of an issue in British politics today, and that is an issue of policies targeting certain groups. Naturally parties wish to gain support for policies which will convert into votes and power, but it seems to me that increasingly the 'greater good' or the moral course is being sacrificed in favour of a few vocal voting groups.

It is no accident that those groups most targeted are also the groups with the highest propensity to vote. This means that groups of people already excluded from politics are excluded further.

All parties are guilty of this. The most recent example if that of 'the squeezed middle', who are gaining sympathy from all angles. I appreciate that many people in the middle are finding things difficult and having their finances squeezed in the current economic climate. However, instead of having policies and sympathy being directed towards this group I feel it is better to appreciate that the 'middle' are doing much better than the bottom of the socio-economic heap and continue to be advantaged in many ways.

It is a very sad state of affairs when the Labour Party, supposedly for the working classes, is more concerned with the people in the middle who are comparatively doing fairly well. This perhaps speaks to the dominance of public sector unions.

As a Conservative I am not about maintaining or reinforcing unequal social structures. I believe in equality of opportunity and gains as a result of hard work. That is why while my party is occasionally drawn in to this regrettable discourse of the squeezed middle, I am proud to support the rising personal allowance which takes many people out of tax, the academy and free schools programs which work towards every child having a good start, and enterprise zones to encourage industry and entrepreneurialism.

It really is time for people in the middle to understand their good fortune, and for policy makers to understand that the 'underclass', which was allowed to deepen under the previous government, is a serious challenge to fairness. The Conservative solution is not an oversized welfare state, but good education, a culture of aspiration, and policies (especially in tax) to facilitate this.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Why should Britain continue aid spending?


Today I spoke about the benefits to UK security of our development budget at the ResultsUK conference. Here is the argument:

There are lots of arguments for increasing UK development spending and often these arguments are humanitarian in nature, focussing on a moral duty to do something about suffering. I fully support these arguments. But development aid can also be self interested. At times this has manifested in propping up puppet regimes, or in opening up markets to exploitation.

I argue that self interest can be combined with what is morally right in international development policy. Specifically, I make the case for development aid’s ability to enhance UK security.

I believe that making a self interested case for development spending, alongside the moral imperatives, is extremely important, especially at a time when budgets are being squeezed. There is a strong public discourse which argues for the aid budget to be cut, and we need strong, persuasive arguments against that. 

DfID understands the connection between development and security and is orientating policy in this direction. There are some direct policies from DfID around governance and conflict resolution along with broader policies also feed into this benefit.

The task is huge and requires more in resources and commitment than the UK alone is capable of providing. This is what makes a multilateral commitment like the 0.7% of GNP target especially important. The UK must play its role in fulfilling this commitment and use all our diplomatic strength to encourage others to do the same. 

When talking about UK security we should understand it not just in terms of border sovereignty, but also in terms of the safety of British interests overseas. We should also understand that development aid in a general sense helps our security because unfairness can eventually lead to insecurity. 

Poverty and bad governance promote conflict and regional instability, so development aid which counters these not only benefits the countries in which aid is focussed but their neighbours as well. In turn this lessens the extended threat to the UK in our globalised world and helps to protect British interests operating in these areas.
It can be difficult to directly link development spending with specific outcomes, as security threats are diverse and uncertain. When working preventatively it is impossible to know which places would otherwise have developed counter to UK security. Some examples of areas in which development spending has a role in enhancing security are immigration, counter-terrorism, piracy and organised crime:

  •  Immigration can be perceived as a threat to UK security and is often caused by conflict, human rights abuses, famine and other humanitarian crises. Tackling these issues helps to reduce the ‘push’ factors of immigration.
  • Development is also part of counter-terrorism strategy, with the understanding that poverty, instability and failed states all increase the risk of international terrorism in the UK and against UK interests abroad. Even when terrorists do not originate from failed states, failed states provide space away from government in which training, radicalisation and planning can happen. Examples of this include Afghanistan under the Taliban and Somalia with Al-Shabaab at present. 
  • Another good example of insecurity affecting UK interests is piracy, which is allowed to continue through ineffective government in Western Africa. Keeping shipping routes accessible is vital to UK security and economic interests. 
  • Instability and failing states often provide fertile ground for transnational organised crime such as the drugs trade, people trafficking and similar. Accumulated power in criminal networks can be extremely difficult to break. In terms of UK security this is of greater concern when geographically closer. However, globalisation and trade bring distant concerns closer to home. For example, instability in Colombia has an impact here through trade in cocaine. These kinds of concerns are not always conceptualised as security issues, but as they represent a lack of state control over borders and are associated with criminality here, they can be conceptualised as a security issue. 

As you can see development spending and security is not a simple equation of certain actions and outcomes. Many of these threats to security may never happen no matter what we spend. However, working against the things which fuel these in a general sense is likely to have benefits for UK security and these benefits are enhanced by working in partnership with allies. 

A key part of enhancing UK security is good governance around the world. This should be distinguished from previous policies which promoted ‘strong’ governments at all costs, and also be distinguished from the idea that democracy itself solves everything. Good governance IS about democracy and civil liberties, but it is also about functioning economies, the rule of law and state provision of goods. 

Development policy under this government works closely with defence and diplomacy to ensure that UK interests are identified and worked towards coherently. 

Where the UK undertakes military interventions, development aid forms an important part of strategy, both in terms of enhancing the safety of troops on the ground and as part of exit strategy. This is an issue where the war in Afghanistan provides a lesson of what can be done better in the future. 

Development aid is also used as part of diplomatic strategy, enhancing UK influence abroad. This influence helps security in two key ways: by encouraging intelligence sharing (for instance on terrorism with Pakistan), and encouraging governments to take action in ways which enhance UK security (for instance through extradition treaties).  

So, from a security perspective what would happen if UK development spending was to be drastically reduced? It is difficult to argue that there would be direct attacks in the UK or to measure a specific cost in other areas of government spending. The link between development spending and security is too complex. However, I do have some suggestions:

·         Of key concern is the multilateral effect of development spending. If UK spending is withdrawn it is even less likely that other countries will seek to meet the 0.7% target, magnifying the impact on our security.

·         UK diplomatic influence could decrease as we lose some of our bargaining power. Diplomatic influence is not reliant only on development spending, but as we have decreasing hard power, the contribution of development is increasingly important.

·         There would be a cumulative effect of lack of funding of humanitarian causes and support of good governance, which in some cases would lead to insecurity and failing states. This in turn would have an impact on the UK in terms of terrorism, transnational crime, UK owned enterprise abroad and UK supply chain. 

I understand that some people may argue that this level of self interest in development policy is wrong and that people should be helped on the basis of need instead. From a humanitarian point of view I whole heartedly agree. However, policy makers have to consider two key issues:

  •  Firstly that there are so many people around the world in need that it is impossible to help all of them adequately. Our own interest therefore serves to narrow the field.
  • Secondly, in difficult economic times it becomes harder to justify the protection of, and increases in the aid budget with the electorate. Articulating a stronger self interested argument would help ensure that protection of the budget continues, which is surely better than being caught in a turning tide of public opinion.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Time for Plan B?

George Osborne has been urged again by the Labour Party to change course, most lately at the announcement of a double dip recession by the ONS.

I absolutely disagree with Labour's prescription for our economic difficulties, but increasingly feel that a change in policy is needed. Towards the middle of 2011 I felt the same discomfort, but was persuaded by George Osborne's speech at conference. The economic situation has worsened since then.

I very strongly feel that the UK economy requires rebalancing. A decade of Labour led to an overinflated public sector, fed by debt and allowing the distortion of indicators like unemployment.

The measure of a strong economy should always be the strength of its private sector. The UK was done an injustice when it became overreliant on the state for employment and growth, and it is now upto this government to take the action necessary for rebalancing.

It is a credit to the Chancellor that the UK has retained its credit rating on the back of a commitment to deficit reduction. This, in the face of European sovereign debt crises, is an achievement which is extremely beneficial to us all. However, whilst enough action may be being taken to (only just) satisfy the ratings agencies, it is not enough to turn around our economy.

Rebalancing is entirely necessary. It is inevitable that it will happen at some point in the future, and it is much less painful to do it now than to wait. My argument is that small steps towards change over a long period of time is just prolonging the pain and damaging public confidence. I would prefer a shorter, sharper course of action.

It has taken some time for me to come to this conclusion, but I very much feel that this should be a turning point in policy. We are simply not doing enough. Deeper, faster cuts in the public sector are necessary. A truly pro-business tax-regime, along with a truly pro-business Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is needed. There is no doubt that this will be painful, but if this action is taken at a faster rate the recovery can begin sooner and be more entrenched.

It should be made clear to opponents of George Osborne that cuts are not a choice: they are an economic necessity. It was striking that when the GDP data was released every economist the news channels broadcast were arguing for either a maintenance of course or for deeper cuts. All stated that this must happen for the economy to recover: within the experts, there is no debate.

Our only choice is whether we want the pain to be long and drawn out, or short and sharp. Do not be fooled by the promises of the Labour Party. Their plans may provide some comfort in the short term, but result only in ruin in the long term.

The strength of a lobby

There is a very interesting example at play in the UK today of the difference in strength and influence of different political lobbies. What makes this difference particularly interesting is that it can be seen in the same area of government: public health.

Take three substances and three different approaches: tobacco, alcohol and cannabis.

Tobacco has had a number of measures taken against it in recent years in the name of public health: punitive tax, a ban on smoking in public, a rise in the legal at which to buy and most recently a move towards tobacco going under the counter.

Alcohol gives a different picture. 24 hour licensing liberalised consumption whilst small steps in raising taxation have been taken. There is also discussion of minimum pricing for alcohol, and a strong public discourse against the 'horrors of binge drinking'. There is no hint towards raising the age of consumption or restricting the sale of alcohol any further,

Cannabis remains a banned, Class B drug with penalties for possession.

These substances undoubtedly have a negative impact on health, but arguably this impact is roughly similar for all. Indeed, arguably alcohol has the greatest impact on society - both in terms of health and public order - but also has the least regulation.

Cannabis was briefly reclassified to a Class C drug, but public opinion was strongly against this and it was returned to Class B.

The difference between alcohol and tobacco is that over several years a strong anti-smoking lobby pushed firstly the legal case for a smoking ban (focussing on health and safety for employees) and then developed a discourse which capitalised on public fear of cancer.

Though the health risks of alcohol use have been articulated, current discourse focusses on public order issues. The impact of smoking on health is made clear: it is never good or even neutral. The impact of alcohol on health is less clear, with changing advice about units where many people underestimate their consumption, ocassional research that suggests some alcohol is good for health and the idea that it is only excessive alcohol which is a problem.

Therefore politicians focus on binge drinking and scenes of public disorder. The cost to the NHS is mostly articulated as being in Friday and Saturday night incidents rather than the cumulative effect on health of years of moderate drinking.

It seems that liberalisation of any of these substances is now extremely unlikely. The differing speeds of change are largely explained by the dominance of differing narratives and their ability to persuade public opinion.