Category Archives: British Politics

Cameron’s Confused Conservatism: The Marriage Tax Break

During the 2010 election campaign, David Cameron made a big deal out of bashing nanny statism. He proudly stood in front of posters emblazoned with statements such “Big Society, Not Big Government” and proclaimed how “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” At the same time he also reassured the electorate he was bringing back compassionate Conservatism – he would no longer be a prisoner of an ideological past and would instead promote a more socially tolerant and inclusive governing party. As well as defining himself whilst in opposition, Cameron also made it his moral duty to bully Gordon Brown over his incompetence in governance and promised a plug on the constant stream off legislation that said much, but achieved little.

Three years in to his time as Prime Minister on these three areas Cameron has had a mixed bag of policy successes and failures, his report card reads – overall he must try a lot harder. This week’s commitment to give married couples a tax break is the latest policy that highlights Dave’s shortcomings in these areas which he has pinned his colours to – it’s nanny state moralising, it’s not inclusive and it is not going to achieve a lot.

Whilst on the surface, a tax cut looks like Cameron rolling back the state, starving the beast or whichever Ayn Rand metaphor you prefer – but in reality, the measly saving for couples of £3 a week is not worth the moral statism and social paternalism that comes with it. Implementing this policy is going to come with layers of legislation to work out who is and isn’t eligible and will make individual’s marital status the business of the tax office. As well it is hardly a policy to be championed by someone who is sceptical of the state setting society’s values – remember it is supposed to be Big Society not Big Government.

The principles behind the marriage tax allowance make it exclusive and discriminatory, hardly compassionate. It discriminates against couples that don’t register their relationships with the state and it also distinguishes relationships that do not fit in to the traditional pigeonhole as undesirable. It is a slap in the face to all single parents that went through a divorce for their child’s benefit and it is ignorant to the complexity of modern relationships. It also assumes that a married family unit will produce the best outcomes for a child when in reality a child needs stability and support, not a blueprinted perfect family model.

The stated eventual goal of the marriage tax allowance is to stop the decline in the proportion of married families in the UK and to improve child outcomes. It is hard to see how the policy could incentivise marriage or halt divorce; the saving on offer is so pathetically small. The justification that it would improve child outcomes is shaky as well, Dr Patrick Nolan the Chief Economist at Reform states “The strongest evidence shows that the most important things in ensuring children get the best start in life are having a parent in work and family income. Proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system would not help reduce the number of jobless households or child poverty.”

So whilst he has stated he is an opponent of big state bureaucracy and a promoter of compassionate government, the married tax allowance is the latest in a long string of policies that conflicts with Cameron’s supposed values that he espouses.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, the saving could come in handy but not for its intended reasons. The average marriage in the UK lasts for about 12 years and the marriage tax break over that time would save a couple around £2400. This should get both parties a decent solicitor and also cover the court costs and other miscellaneous fees involved with getting a divorce – perfect.

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No to Votes at 16

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Ed Miliband has pledged to make 16 year olds “part of our democracy” by lowering the voting age if he wins in 2015. Giving 16 year olds the vote does not improve our democracy and as well the justifications for it are weak – the policy is about populist politics rather than actual empowerment. The case for lowering the voting age to 16 is rarely discussed outside school debating societies and even when it is proposed to young people, the majority don’t want it. Probably because the majority of 16 year olds have greater concerns than choosing how much tax they aren’t going to be paying any time soon or who is responsible for collecting their parent’s rubbish bins.

Many of the populist arguments for lowering the voting age don’t add up. A few justifications from the votesat16.org website are easily undone and the idea that at 16 people are responsible enough to be able to vote is inconsistent with how the state currently views and treats 16 year olds. “You can join the army at 16 and potentially die for your country” is one argument – when in reality, with your parent’s permission, you can go through basic training whilst stationed in Britain.

“The law deems you responsible enough to consent to sex and get married.” This is again economical with the truth as the age of consent is to protect children from abuse rather than indicate a sign of maturity. To get married, like joining the army, requires your parent’s permission.

“16 year olds can leave education, enter work and be taxed.” In reality the law now obliges young people to be in some form of education until they are 17, and this is soon to be upped until they are 18. When the message from the state is to stay in education, the argument about 16 year olds being deemed responsible enough to work and pay tax like say a 30 year old falls apart. True 16 year olds can pay tax, but 15 year olds can also pay NI and IC? Why aren’t there demands for 15 year olds get a vote? How far do you take the tax line as well – anyone that has ever bought anything in their life has at some point paid VAT, so surely by this logic 10 year olds should have a right to vote for a party that would scrap VAT on their favourite sweets. No taxation without representation aye?

Society in many areas views 16 year olds as children – not adults. Granted, most businesses that are designed to suck as much money out of you as possible often determine that you should be charged an adult fare from about 16 or sometimes younger but the rest of society does not. At 16 you’re deemed not adult enough to smoke, drink, fully gamble, drive anything that isn’t a 50cc hairdryer, buy knives, buy fireworks or watch a film with a bit too much red or too many swear words in it. If you are incapable of doing any of these things, then how are you supposedly capable of choosing the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world? The idea that children are growing up quicker than they used to and the voting age should reflect this is also a fallacy. Today young people are; staying at home with their parents, having children, getting married, entering the job market and paying taxes later than previous generations. There is no justification for granting an entitlement for 16 year olds when their responsibilities are as a whole decreasing.

Whilst voting is a right, it is also an onus entrusted to citizens because they are said to be capable of making an adult decision. Since we do not consider 16 year olds as adults in a number of areas, why should they be considered adult enough to be able to make an informed decision when voting? There will be occasions when you get a well-informed 16 year old politico – albeit one that makes you cringe with their statements in UK Youth Parliament or on Young People’s Question Time, if anything UKYP is justification not to allow votes at 16 – that knows more about politics than someone who is old enough to vote. However, this is not justification to change the law to suit them. The 16 year old may be more informed but this does not mean they have a large enough stake in society to determine how it should be governed.

When I was 16 I was unfortunate enough to follow politics and be interested in it, but I was an exception, not the norm. The majority of 18-24 year olds do not vote, so it is a real stretch of the truth by Labour MP Sadiq Khan to say extending the right to 16 year olds will “reinvigorate politics to get teens involved at a younger age.” Giving 16-17 year olds the vote isn’t going to change the face of British politics nor are they going to be a crucial factor in the results of General Election. What the policy is however is cynical – young people as a whole are less informed and can be manipulated more easily in order to gain their vote. This plays in to the hands of parties that want to dumb down politics and push simplistic agendas to the forefront of debate to gain some support – simplistic agendas such as giving 16 year olds the vote.

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Sarah Teather’s ‘Principles’ are a Joke

English: Sarah Teather MP addressing a Liberal...

Sarah Teather MP

Sarah Teather is planning to throw in the towel come 2015 as her party has ‘failed sufficiently to fight for liberal values’ whilst in the Coalition. The Liberal Democrats’ recent stances on immigration have left her feeling desolate as well as catastrophically depressed and her party’s support for Tory welfare reforms are what apparently finally broke her. She is no stranger to acting a bit OTT, apparently sobbing on her first day as a minister at the Department of Education – “I’m a Liberal Democrat. I don’t know what to do. We were never actually supposed to be in government.” Considering Teather is a budding comedian perhaps her overuse of hyperbole is just a part of her act? But like her stand-up routine at the Lib Dem Party Conference, it’s just not that funny nor does it particularly make a lot of sense.

Teather’s ‘noble stand’ isn’t all that noble when you cut through the guff about depression and her supposed principles regarding social justice, and look at the substance and inconsistencies of her past political decisions. Her voting record is hardly that of a crusader against the ‘illiberal’ ConDem establishment, having rebelled only 3% of the time against the government. For someone that is so emotionally attached to her own belief of social justice, Teather has a voting record that doesn’t quite match up with her rhetoric. For example, she has consistently voted in favour of raising VAT – a tax that has been shown to be regressive and one that the poorest 20% of UK households spend a higher proportion of their disposable income compared to the richest 20%. She has also supported the Coalition’s line on tuition fees, legal aid cuts and did not even turn up to vote on welfare reform – hardly the actions of a truly dissatisfied MP.

The debate is not whether these policies are particularly illiberal, rather it is how hypocritical Teather’s position is – why is a welfare cap so demonstrably wrong and illiberal in her eyes but voting to cut legal aid is not? Teather’s position on equal marriage also doesn’t add up with her egalitarian image – how can you claim to pursue social justice when you vote against a policy based upon the principle that everyone is equal before the law regardless of sexual orientation?

If Teather really was as principled as she makes out then why has she not resigned now and triggered a by-election standing as an independent? Surely that would send a clear message to her party and would affirm herself as a real opponent of the Coalition’s current course of action. The evidence is stacking up against Teather – she is not standing down from her position on a matter of principle, she has instead decided to jump before the electorate pushed her out.

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The Minimum Wage Was 15 recently – Not much of a party atmosphere for Britain’s lowest paid

Sir George Bain, one of the chief architects of the minimum wage has said that the New Labour flagship policy is no longer working – and he has got a point. The minimum wage has lost its value over the years as inflation has outpaced median pay in the UK causing millions to be earning less than the accepted ‘living wage’ needed for a basic standard of living. There are signs of an economic recovery sprouting, which is giving Conservative politicians reason to be cheerful but whilst ‘Plan A’ might be showing signs of ‘working’, the reality for a lot of workers in the UK is that they themselves are still ‘hurting’. Inflation continues to rise, wages are stagnating and living standards are dropping – this is no reason to celebrate.

It is people that are at the bottom of the pay scale that are affected most during times of economic uncertainty and undeniably more should be done to help ensure their financial security. There is a general consensus that the status quo is trapping low wage earners in an unsustainable and unacceptable position, however the current popular solutions from across the political spectrum could not be more disparate and neither offers an effective solution likely to be implemented any time soon.

One oft given resolution to this problem is to enforce businesses to raise the minimum wage to the rate of the ‘Living Wage’ as determined by the Living Wage Foundation – which would mean workers would be paid £7.45/h as opposed to the current £6.19/h. Admirably, there are over 200 UK companies that already pay workers at this rate voluntarily and the idea has cross party support – it has been backed by both Boris Johnson and Ed Miliband.

However, the idea of a living wage is condemned for ‘raising the ladder’ to the jobs market – making it more difficult for low paid or un-skilled workers to get employment. Using basic economic theory it’s easy to conclude that setting a minimum value for someone’s labour drives up the costs of running a business – it makes employers less likely to employ more people thus pricing people out of the market.  Raising the minimum wage would on the one hand be beneficial to workers in employment putting more in to their pockets however it would have wider detrimental implications by adding another barrier to the unemployed. It’s pretty reasonable to lobby large multi-national corporations with booming profits to chuck a couple of extra pennies towards their workers, but when you consider small and medium-sized enterprises account for between 60 and 70 per cent of jobs in the UK economy – demanding these businesses that are already struggling in the current economic climate to cough up more seems pretty counter productive.

Instead of pressuring for a higher minimum wage, the opposite argument is to scrap the minimum wage altogether in order to liberalise the jobs market, encourage businesses to employ more people and make it easier for people to get their first crucial step on to the jobs ladder. It’s a straightforward, simple argument – if employers could pay some workers lower than the artificially high amount set by the minimum wage then they could hire more workers and reduce unemployment. It’s easy to regurgitate a Milton Friedman talk and assume that if the minimum wage was scrapped all our economic woes would go away – it’s good on paper but sketchy in practice.

Numerous reports have refuted the link between the minimum wage and unemployment showing that no conclusive point can be made either way. However, what can be concluded is that scrapping the minimum wage may liberalise the job’s market but it’s almost certainly going to end up with the lowest paid with a lot less in their pocket and will further bloat the welfare bill as government will have to compensate for this. With costs of pretty much everything going up, it makes little sense to hit the most vulnerable in society with another economic gamble when the results are so inconclusive.

The jury is out about what to do with the minimum wage and neither of these proposed solutions are likely to appear in any mainstream political parties manifesto anytime soon. So if the answer is not to raise the minimum wage and it’s not to scrap it, then surely the answer can lie somewhere in the middle?  This interesting report by the Adam Smith Institute recommends an alternative that avoids the pitfalls of the main popular alternatives and exposes the elephant in the room – the post-tax earnings of a worker on the ‘Living Wage’ is painfully close to the pre-tax earnings of a worker on the National Minimum Wage – this fact should not be overlooked and it’s a tragedy that it is. A full time worker earning the national minimum wage currently earns £12,875 a year before tax and the current rate for a full time worker earning the agreed ‘Living wage’ after tax is £13,355. By increasing the tax-free threshold to levels around £13,000 and taking minimum wage earners out of tax altogether, the government would effectively allow low paid workers to earn a living wage without forcing greater costs on businesses. It really is one of the biggest and greatest elephant sitting in the corner of the HM Revenue & Customs Tax office.

It is time the debate over the minimum wage moved on from the simplistic “raise it / scrap it” arguments and considered this alternative. The scale of low pay in Britain is a national scandal but it is an even greater scandal that a living wage can be delivered without hurting businesses and no one in power seems to care.

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These so-called defenders of Britain are in fact one of its greatest threats

A driving component of nationalism is the perpetuation of national myths; one contemporary popular myth is to demonise Islam as an expansionist political ideology that threatens to undermine the foundations of British democracy.

For example, take the fresh-faced political party Liberty GB – according to them the threat of Islamist extremism in the 21st century is comparable to the danger that Nazism posed in the 20th century. In a recent viral video entitled “My name is Paul Weston, and I am a Racist”  Liberty GB’s party leader laments that the political establishment has tagged him as a racist for wishing to preserve his country’s culture and for daring to criticise Islam – a tag he now embraces as an ironic political stunt.

Weston slams Islam as a violent and savage political and religious ideology – one that needs to be ‘called out’ for it’s wicked ways. He cites horrors that have been done in the name of Islam and is convinced they will inevitably occur in Britain. Horrors such as the stoning of adulteresses, the beheading of babies and the hanging of homosexuals, Weston predicts, are soon to be a common sight in Britain.

Juxtaposed with this depiction of Islam as a savage force of evil is the factoid that the Islamic population is growing nine times faster than any other demographic in Britain. From this Weston reaches the logical conclusion that Britain is soon to face a ‘full blown religious civil war’ – to occur around 2040 mind you – and it is his and Liberty GB’s duty to confront Islam to stop this. At no point does Weston mention he is talking about extreme examples of fundamental Islamists – it is clear that he despises Islam as a whole and tars all Muslims as fundamentalists.

What Weston has effectively done is put two and two together to get five; he assumes Muslims are a united body hell bent on spreading the terrors practiced by jihadists and militants in the East to the West.  What he spews is based upon selective evidence, ignorance and unjustified fear. Groups such as Liberty GB instead of serving to protect British society and culture arguably do the exact opposite – they create tension based on selective evidence, spread ignorance to impressionable minds and whip up hatred based on unfounded claims and dubious conclusions.

Weston has proudly embraced the racist tag, twisting it to wear as a badge of honour. To avoid giving him what he wants, he should be labelled as not the defender of British culture and society he styles himself as, but one of the architects of its demise. He wilfully spreads misinformation and fear to demonise a minority the consequence of which will inevitably lead to less social cohesion, greater violence and a less safe society.

Half of Britain’s mosques have been attacked since 9/11 and if voices like Weston’s that tar all Muslims as savages become louder, then inevitably anti-Muslim violence in Britain is likely to grow. Violence begets more violence, instead of defending British culture; Liberty GB’s actions undermine it. You wont see people like Paul Weston tearing up your local town centre like the EDL, but a quick glance at the comments on the “I am a Racist” video and you can see the bile they spread is being picked up and inspiring the wrong sorts. Comments ranging from racist slurs to calls for violence are commonplace and there is no denouncement from Liberty GB for them, that is reserved for anyone that dares criticise them letting their true colours shine through.

It is easy to deconstruct the myths about Islam that Weston and his ilk peddle. Tired of constant smears and myths being propagated about Islam, a group made up of two Muslims and two non-Muslims (including one ex BNP member) decided to go out and conduct their own survey to find out what views the average British Muslim really holds. They did so in Alum Rock Birmingham, an area that contains a large Asian population. Alum Rock gained notoriety for being home to suspected terrorists and has been described as a “no go” area for white people. If anywhere is going to give an accurate poll on what British Muslims think, it is here.

Funnily enough the findings of the poll found Muslims in Britain to be a much more tolerant group than the likes of Liberty GB would have you believe. For example- 99% don’t support terrorist activities, 99% don’t believe the Quran justifies terrorism, 98% said they would support their child if they came out as gay, 95% said men and women are equal in the eyes of Allah and believe that Muslim men and women should mix freely. Less than 1% thinks that homosexuals should be stoned to death and 98% don’t believe that Sharia Law should apply to non-Muslims in the UK. Of course this poll is open to accusations of bias due to the motivation behind it however it offers a refreshingly stark contrast to the disgracefully selective bile spewed by Liberty GB.

As well recent events such as the uprisings in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood are testament that not all Muslims want to enforce Islamist teachings as a political ideology. However Liberty GB like to ignore these truths, as they don’t fit in with their depiction of Islam as the greatest threat to British society and culture. This publication also further dispels widely held myths about Islam that are far too often spread and believed.

Radical Islam has been responsible for atrocities in Britain; the obvious ones that spring to mind are the London bombings in 2005 and the murder of Lee Rigby in May of this year. These events are deplorable yet they are also so sporadic that to argue they are evidence that Islam is threatening the stability of British civil society is farcical. Groups like Liberty GB that are spreading fear and misinformation are far more likely to create a climate of terror in this country rather than the overwhelmingly moderate Muslim population.

There are legitimate concerns and debates to be had concerning radical Islam but if you believe movements like Liberty GB have the answer, then you don’t understand the question.

 

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Borrowing slogans from the far-right, what could go wrong!?

When the leader of UKIP – a party that feels the need to define itself as ‘non-racist’ on its official website – describes your immigration policy as ‘nasty and unpleasant,’ chances are that there’s something wrong with it.

This week the Home Office launched a billboard campaign aiming to increase the number of illegal immigrants voluntarily handing themselves in. The large billboards placed on the back of vans feature the slogan “Go home or face arrest” and are currently on a trial tour around 6 London boroughs with high immigrant populations.

Illegal immigrants are told to text “HOME” to a number for free advice and help with travel documents. Immigration Minister Mark Harper describes the initiative as “an alternative to being led away in handcuffs.”

Recently David Cameron appears to be taking more and more leaves out of the handbook of right wing populism,  and is increasingly more keen to shadow the behaviour of the party he once dismissed as a collection of ‘fruitcakes’ and ‘closet racists’. With the prospect of UKIP repeating their recent electoral success in next year’s European elections, Cameron is trying to out-populist the champions of populism.

Irony died when Nigel Farage condemned this hard-line approach to immigration as nasty but whilst his criticisms are ironic, there is truth in what he is saying. This campaign simply is nasty, divisive and pointless. Sure it hammers home the message that the ‘Conservatives are tough on immigration’ but is it the right sort of tactic a responsible government should humour, and the costs are sure to outweigh the short term electoral benefits.

Firstly, the ad campaign is easily lamentable as ‘nasty’ racist propaganda. Sunny Hundal draws obvious similarities between the Home Office’s ‘Go Home’ slogan and the rhetoric of the National Front and BNP. Whilst the adverts are not racist themselves, should the government be so brazen about promoting and pandering to the voices of the fringe right?

Secondly, why is a subject as delicate as immigration being handled so coldly and with such brashness? Instead of approaching with some tactfulness the government has made a habit recently of trying to look tough on immigration, and coming across divisive. Earlier this month the Home Office controversially tweeted ‘there will be no hiding place for illegal immigrants with the new immigration bill’ alongside a picture of a dark skinned man being led in to the back of a van by some armoured policemen. Are whistle-dog tactics such as this wise at a time when British institutions are still accused of being racist? 

In response to the launch of the billboard campaign, the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London held an ’emergency tension-monitoring’ meeting with Home Office officials and warned that the initiative had created ‘a sense of apprehension, tension and confusion’ amongst its clients. For a ‘compassionate conservative’, Cameron has acted consistently callously in regards to immigration

As well as being nasty and divisive, the effectiveness of such a campaign is doubtful. As Bishop Patrick Lynch identifies, the demographics of undocumented migration have changed in recent years. The vast majority of illegal immigrants are people who overstay the terms of their visas, especially students. So instead of parading around fascist slogans in ethnically diverse boroughs of London to pick up the odd dissatisfied voter, the government should focus on working with institutions dealing with immigrants and our own border control to solve this issue.

In face of all this, prominent Conservatives Boris Johnson and Nadhim Zahawi back a one-off amnesty policy that would provide a boost to the economy coinciding with tougher border policies.  There are ways to solve the illegal immigration puzzle without resorting to the language and the tactics of the far right, unfortunately this suggestion was rejected by the party hierarchy, who’ll have next years European elections in mind and irrationally fear a repeat of UKIP’s 2013 summer surge.

Finally, the absurdness of the government’s approach has led to ridicule. On twitter, the #racistvan hashtag displays what little authority the campaign holds and is a testament to the government’s incompetence.  The UK’s online wind-up merchants have been trolling the government’s campaign by flooding the billboard’s text number with prank requests for taxis home, free holidays and lifts across the country. The idea that illegal immigrants aren’t aware what they are doing is illegal and will be punished with a prison sentence as well is laughable. All this campaign does is play on the fears of disgruntled right wing voters and spark tensions in ethnically diverse areas.

So whilst trying to appear strong and tough on illegal immigrants the government in reality has come across nasty, divisive and incompetent. Theresa May once bemoaned that some people called The Conservative Party, ‘the nasty party.’ One way of rectifying this would be to avoid decrepit political stunts such as this.

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The British Perception Problem

A new survey by Ipsos MORI has revealed there is an unsettling gap between what the British public perceives to be true, and the actual state of affairs on a number of key political issues.

When asked about divisive issues such as crime, welfare, government spending and immigration, the public paint a caricature of Britain that is devoid of any resemblance to reality. Britons think crime is rising when it has actually fallen considerably in the past decade. We believe benefits are being claimed fraudulently en-masse when in reality less than 1% of welfare money is done so. On average we believe that foreign-born immigrants account for nearly a third of the population when the actual estimated figure is a more reasonable only 13%.

Equally as worrying as this widespread ignorance is people’s reluctance to accept fact. When those who were seriously off the mark had their claims challenged, their response was to dispute and question the data presented to them. Of those who thought the percentage of immigrants in the UK was 26% or higher, over half said they stated a higher figure as they believe ‘people come into the country illegally so aren’t counted’ by official stats.

These misconceptions are what you’d expect to overhear from the sorts in your local pub that lament the current state of affairs before concluding how that Nigel Farage bloke has got the right idea.

What causes the people of one of the most advanced, liberal democracies to hold views that are so out of touch with reality? Economic uncertainty can be attributed to fuelling these fears but also the sensationalist media should also shoulder some of the blame for creating this caricature of British life.

The top 3 most circulated daily national newspapers in the UK are The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Mirror and all are guilty for their frequent casual snippets of scaremongering and sensationalism. Better still, if you happen to have the pleasure of reading the online versions of these papers on any given article, you’d be forgiven for thinking Britain was a brewing cesspit on the brink of social meltdown with only a few gallant keyboard warriors willing to tell it how it is. The comments section from a Daily Express article regarding the survey is a particularly depressing read.

Sensationalism sells and our print and broadcast media is saturated with tales of the extraordinary so that it has become the ordinary. The results of this survey poses a significant question, how can voters effectively participate in a democracy when they are so misinformed on what they are voting on?

Hetan Stah executive director of the Royal Statistical Society believes the solution comes at three levels. Firstly, politicians need to talk in facts and stats not spin. Secondly, the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues rather than sensationalising them. And finally schools should teach statistical literacy more.

His suggestions can’t be argued with, we would all like politicians to stop lying, the media to stop sensationalising and people to be more educated and aware, but are they realistic or really helpful suggestions? The most obvious way to enact the first two solutions would be through some form of regulatory legislation. Even the strongest advocate of government intervention should feel uncomfortable about the idea of the state deciding what is or isn’t news. Considering the authoritarian tendencies of governments it is irrational to assume this course of action will be corruption free.

Considering the final suggestion, I am sure it’s true that if people were more educated about statistics, they would probably think twice after reading a headline such as “Mick Philpott, a vile product of Welfare UK.”

But this is all a bit ‘state the obvious’. It isn’t just ‘uneducated masses’ reading tabloid headlines, watching channel 4 documentaries on obscure societal issues or asking the reactionary questions on Question Time. All sections of society fall victim of sensationalism and spin, and the left and the right can be equally as guilty. This is a fundamental flaw in democracy; it is impossible to have an electorate that act rationally with all information available to them.

As Sam Bowman identifies referring to the findings of a political psychology study, “the more information you have about something, the more resistant to new contradictory information you are – or, in other words, the more dogmatically ideological you are.” Just because an individual is highly educated about a subject it does not mean they will use this information in the ‘right’ way.

So if the answer is not more regulation and if more education isn’t going to cause much positive change, how can you solve a problem like the perception gap in British politics? By taking away power from central government that responds to the perception of the electorate is one way. By pursuing greater localism we can have a better politics insofar that people are more aware of issues concerning their local area. Through localism voters can be more educated about issues in their immediate area, and the sensationalism peddled in national newspapers will be marginalised. Local governments would be more responsive and accountable than a central one in Westminster and consequently policy would be tailored to benefit local needs. Instead of pandering to the public mood based on sensationalist headlines, politicians would be responsive to actual facts and stats.

Despite all of this doom and gloom about British perceptions there is a silver lining about the current state of affairs. Even though the survey appears to reveal the average Brit to be a frothing at the mouth bigot, in reality our democracy does function first rate in keeping out the views of the more extreme and reactionary wings of the political spectrum. It’s just that it could do a better job of not rising to it for cheap political gains.

 

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Theresa May – Crazy khat lady?

Theresa May’s move to ban the herbal stimulant ‘khat’ flies in the face of common sense and has worrying implications.

Theresa May has gone against the advice of experts from the government’s own drugs Advisory Council (the ACMD) and on Wednesday announced plans to ban the herbal stimulant ‘khat’, which will soon be treated as a class C drug in the UK. Khat(or Qat) is a leaf that when chewed gives the user a buzz likened to the feeling of drinking numerous cups of coffee. A number of worrying issues arise in relation to this new legislation.

The first issue at hand is the government’s constant disdain for the advice it receives regarding drug legislation. The ACMD was set up to provide expert advice to legislators, so that informed decisions could be made regarding drug laws.

In a report published in January, the ACMD said khat should remain a legal substance stating that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ that the drug causes health problems. However the Home Secretary has ignored this advice and has set the wheels in motion to make the drug illegal.

Since 2010 the Conservative led government has ignored fact-based advice regarding drug legislation on numerous occasions. When the ACMD advised that cannabis should remain a Class C substance, the government’s response was to reclassify it to Class B. A similar suggestion that Psilocybin (Magic) Mushrooms should also not be reclassified was also ignored. When the council suggested lowering the category of MDMA and also that more research should be conducted into Mephedrone before it is further criminalised, the government’s response was again to show contempt. Ecstasy was kept a Class A substance and Mephedrone was elevated to a Class B, before any extensive research was carried out.

This government prides itself on its credentials for clawing back the intrusive state it inherited from the last Labour government. However this latest disdain for the recommendations of the ACMD has an aura of nanny-statism and reeks of a ‘the government knows best’ attitude.

One of the reasons put forward by those wishing to make khat illegal is that trading of the drug has been dubiously linked to organised terrorism in the Horn of Africa. This line of reasoning has been ridiculed by the ACMD and history tells us that when something is criminalised, only organised criminals prosper under the legislation – see Al Capone during alcohol prohibition in the US, Pablo Escobar in Columbia during the failed ‘war on drugs’ and contemporary cartels that run amok in Mexico. This is the second problem with May’s actions; by making the drug illegal she is driving out legitimate businesses trading within the law, and instead creating an environment where only illegal dealers benefit with the added bonus of enhanced profits as the price of khat is set to rise.

In Britain the plant is chewed by around 90,000 people and the majority of its users are people with roots in East Africa – Ethiopians, Kenyans, Yemenis and most predominantly Somalis. The third underlying issue with the plans to ban khat is that the policy will disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and turn thousands of people into criminals overnight for using something that has been a staple part of their culture for hundreds of years.

A ban on khat would inflame already existing tensions between the ethnic diaspora and the police, as it will inevitably lead to more stop and searches of ethnic minorities. Ironically, earlier this week the Home Secretary boldly lamented current stop and search laws and called for an overhaul of police powers citing that they have been disproportionately used against black and minorities.  However this is a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other as May happily enacts legislation that will target ethnic peoples. Banning khat will not have the intended purpose of stopping people from using the drug; it will just make innocent users criminals.

Making a herbal stimulant that is used by less than 0.2% of the population illegal appears on the surface to be no big deal. However, there are various reasons to be concerned. This is further evidence of the government displaying their contempt for fact-based evidence from the ACMD questioning the point of the council’s existence. Coinciding with this is an embracement of nanny statism, something the Conservatives have been happy to warn against in opposition. Finally the government is showing a worrying willingness to target an ethnic minority using very contestable reasoning.

The policy will only prove to do more harm than good: crazy khat, indeed!
@harry_fraser

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Cameron’s modernisation of the Conservative Party needs completing, not retrenching

David Cameron should remember the principles that got him in to Number 10 in response to the growing discontent from the Right.

In 2005 shortly after becoming party leader, he declared that he would not be a ‘prisoner of an ideological past’, and in the run up to the 2010 election defined himself as a ‘one nation, relatively liberal Conservative’. To stand the best chance of achieving a Conservative majority at the next general election, Mr. Cameron must reaffirm these testimonies and broaden his appeal further rather than turn his back on modernisation.

Recently there has been a marked growth in discontent towards the Prime Minister, and most notable is the grievances from the Right rather than the Left. The rise of UKIP and their populist message has frustrated the established political parties and has prompted calls for the Conservatives to assert more ‘traditional’ conservative values and reflect this with policies of that nature. A debate regarding the Party’s future is becoming more evident, a battle between ‘Swivel Eyed Loons and The Cameroons’, if you will.

In response to the growth of electoral support for UKIP the Tories’ right-wing, anti-Cameron sentiment has currently culminated with the ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’, a number of proposals from various backbench MPs that they describe as a “genuine attempt” to show what policies a future Conservative government could deliver. Most notable of the 42 bills proposed were calls for a referendum on the Same Sex Marriage bill, abolishing the Department of Energy and Climate Change, renaming the late August Bank Holiday Margaret Thatcher Day and reintroducing National Service. All of these policies you wouldn’t be surprised to find between the covers of a would-be UKIP manifesto.

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin identify that UKIP’s recent converts are much more likely to be low-income, financially insecure, and working class. The party is widely seen as to the right of the Conservatives – but that is not how UKIP voters view themselves. Whereas 60% of Tory voters place themselves to the right-of-centre, the figure for UKIP supporters is only 46%. Also interestingly 25% of Tories say they are in the centre, or even left-of-centre, the figure for UKIP voters is higher at 36%. (See here). This suggests it is more a protest thought process behind voting for UKIP rather than being ideologically drawn to the party.

Whilst it has enjoyed some gains recently this appears to be more of a blip than what is set to be a long-term trend. UKIP’s time in the limelight has led to just as much ridicule as acclaim and their support has already begun to dwindle.

Come 2015 the electorate will not be voting in protest as many did so in the May local elections, they will be voting for the party they believe is most competent at running the country. UKIP’s populist pick n’ mix manifesto will come under greater scrutiny between now and then, and Farage’s party have a long way to go before mounting any serious challenge of the political establishment.

That does not mean the reasons why people turned to UKIP should be ignored, however; nor should the fact that UKIP have a higher proportion of supporters from lower incomes than the other two parties. Cameron appears to be in a Catch-22 situation: He cannot afford to turn to the socially conservative right, which left his party in the wilderness for 13 years, yet he also can’t ignore the fact that increasingly he is seen as out of touch with the views of everyday people. When the public were asked, ‘Do you think that David Cameron understands people like yourself?’, the overwhelming response was a resounding ‘no’.

There is thus a belief that to restore Conservative fortunes and appeal to those that have jilted us for UKIP means reverting to more socially conservative, right-wing policies evident within the ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’. The zealous ideological pursuit of social conservatism conflicts with the notion that the Party is the party of pragmatism. Cameron’s modernisation of the Party has been more beneficial than damaging; we have seen a 100% rise in support from younger people since he became leader and it would be wise not to stifle trends such as these. Instead of pandering to divisive politics of the past, Cameron should stand firm by his One Nation principles that he committed himself to pre-2010 in order to offer real benefits to working people.

“One Nation Conservatism” is the idea that the country is strongest and most stable when united and when social antagonisms are kept under control with relatively centrist, pragmatic politics. The debates of the 2015 election will be centred on the economy and facing the realities of government has meant that the pursuit of Thatcherite economics has replaced the compassionate conservatism Cameron promoted before 2010.

The electorate are not screaming en-masse for more Thatcherite economics in light of hard economic times. In 2009 when launching The Big Society, Cameron warned of the dangers regarding a “simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life.” As the economy shows signs of recovery Cameron should spend the next two years reassuring the public the Conservatives are not ‘enemies of the state’ but are the real One Nation Party that can represent all.

Our problem is not that the Conservatives aren’t ‘right-wing’ enough, it’s that people still don’t believe they care. David Skelton provides a useful conclusion. He notes how Cameron has rescued his party from the scrapheap once, but his modernisation is still a job half done. The move away from divisive social policies of the past is half of Conservative modernisation, but until the party does more to connect with ordinary working people, Cameron’s mission will remain unfinished business.

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The Only Crisis Here Facing Men Is….Dianne Abbott

An analysis of Shadow Minister for Public Health, Dianne Abbott’s, ‘cry wolf’ statements lamenting a “crisis in masculinity”.

This week Diane Abbott declared that we are facing a ‘crisis of masculinity’, I believe that she is right to raise the importance of men’s issues and how gender equality needs to be analysed from all angles. However her narrative about the causes and fear-mongering about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ does nobody any favours.

Diane Abbott is no stranger to controversy of course; half her Wikipedia page covers her various political misdemeanours.Now, in a week when the Shadow Minister for Public Health thought using the word demented pejoratively was fair game, her latest assertion that Britain is facing a ‘crisis of masculinity’ provokes more than it aims to help.

‘Male issues’ and discussions over masculinity are important and this article’s aim is not to discredit that or any discussions regarding gender issues. Gender inequality is still a vast contemporary issue for men and women and the incorporation of men’s issues in to feminism is of great importance. However, Diane Abbott’s attempt to create a moral panic over masculinity is misguided and unhelpful.

 To her credit, Diane Abbott draws attention to issues facing men that are often not discussed in mainstream politics. She identifies, “the first rule of being a man in modern Britain is that you’re not allowed to talk about it”. There are various men’s issues that need to be tackled and Abbott highlights them. Issues such as, the reality that men are more likely to take their own lives than women. Men have lower educational attainment at all levels of the education system. Men are more likely to be homeless. Common psychological disorders, including depression and anxiety, are under diagnosed in men and men are less likely to access NHS services available to them.

These problems need to be addressed but the way Dianne Abbott frames the debate is counter productive and comes across as disorderly. Abbott argues that rapid economic change is warping male identity and encouraging machismo and misogyny leaving us in a crisis like situation.  This is like putting two and two together and getting five.

What this assertion ignores is that society and its attitudes towards being macho and issues regarding masculinity have changed. This is not to say that there aren’t issues to be dealt with, but we are not entering a new era of crisis. The notion that the economic crisis causes men to lash out in a macho and misogynistic manner is grounded in little evidence and appears to be little more than a tribal attack on the government.

Diane Abbott has identified male issues, but has wrongly asserted the causes. Abbott contends that Britain is facing a crisis of masculinity that celebrates heartlessness and normalises sexism and homophobia.

Firstly, one of the successes of feminism over the past century has meant that men’s attitudes to women have improved dramatically. Tony Parsons’ argues in response to Abbott that ‘Men have never been better than they are today. More involved in bringing up their children. More genuinely supportive of their partners. More willing to discuss their fears with those closest to them.’

The idea that this contemporary crisis of masculinity normalises homophobia conflicts with evidence that suggests that homophobic attitudes are vanishing in schools.

Abbott also contends that porn is part of this concoction that has led the modern man to crisis point. Whilst the jury is still out whether or not porn causes violence, assertions like that are not helpful.

In regions such as The Middle East, Asia and Africa where women are treated worst, access to the Internet is also more restricted. Violence against women is a problem that needs to be addressed, generalising the problem is not the way to do so.

Albeit tongue in cheek, this clip from comedy film 21 Jump Street exemplifies changing attitudes to masculinity. Being violent, macho and homophobic is far more socially unacceptable in contemporary society.

Abbott is right to raise men’s issues, it’s just a shame that her narrative is about men who she contends are still massively homophobic, misogynistic, hyper-macho and obsessed with pornography and drinking. If we are apparently entering a crisis of masculinity, then what has been happening over the course of human history? We certainly haven’t had the ideal golden age of masculinity.

@harry_fraser

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