Tag Archives: conservatives

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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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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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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Young People Identifying more with Libertarian Positions?

There is arguably a much more sympathetic view amongst students towards state intervention to solve problems facing society. With this in mind I recently attended the recording of BBC 3’s current affairs program Free Speech in Liverpool.

The panel consisted of contemporary pop star Kate Nash, Conservative MP for Glamorgan Alun Cairns, Liverpool Council’s spokesperson for young people Stephanie Till and finally Sam Bowman, Research Director at the Adam Smith Institute.

Viewers at home could interact by tweeting either #Yes or #No followed by a panelist’s name to cast their vote of approval or disapproval to what they were saying, the results of this represented on a ‘power bar’. By the end of the night, interestingly it was Sam that was the decisive winner.

The first question posed to the panel was, “Should the government subsidise housing payments for first time buyers?” Alun did argue for more liberal planning laws and less restrictions on banks lending money, however the crux of his argument was that the state should do more in terms of building affordable housing. He made the case for the government’s Social Housing Guarantee, to replace any sold off social houses in the hope of keeping housing affordable.

Stephanie championed Liverpool City Council’s policy of derelict properties being sold off for as little as £1 to developers to replenish the housing stock. As well, she promoted the Council’s scheme of providing money to first time buyers to underwrite mortgages. The consensus from the two was that the government should do more to solve the issue.

Sam offered an alternative to this narrative by focussing on freeing up the planning system, and as well making the case that a lack of supply could be solved through a market auctioning system, rejecting the use of the state as a solution to this problem. He added the point that government benefits have had the unintended consequence of acting as subsidy to landlords thus driving up the costs of housing and rent further, an argument not often found in mainstream politics. The audience liked what they heard and in contrast to the others, applauded Sam’s message.

When asked to respond to the British Medical Association’s proposed solution to the obesity crisis – a ‘fat tax’, Sam again rejected any state intervention on the matter. Citing results from Denmark and the US, he took apart the argument for ‘fat taxes’. Using evidence that shows the policy to be ineffective at curbing obesity and simply acts as a regressive tax, he argued that it is cheaper to eat healthily and ultimately it was down to individuals to control their diet.

The audience again approved this message, but what followed was a fruitless ill-informed  debate over the costs of food, highlighting the real fundamental problem at the heart of the obesity issue, a lack of education. The consensus amongst the audience agreed with Sam that a tax would not work, however the argument put forward by Stephanie to have subsidised healthier food also had approval. A score draw between the market and state intervention approach.

When the panel were asked, “Is drug addiction a medical or criminal issue?” Sam took the lead and argued that it is an addiction and to treat it as criminal is counterproductive. He reasoned, drug addictions tear individuals apart, and then the state escalates the problem by putting people that need help in to prisons, an environment in which their problem will only get worse.

Using Portugal to illustrate his point, a country that does treat it as a medical issue and has legalised drugs. Sam pointed out this has led to a decline in crime, addiction levels and health complications related to drugs. Current legislation means the main beneficiaries of the ‘war on drugs’ are criminal gangs just as they were in the age of prohibition.

Encouragingly, Sam received overwhelming approval for his argument and agreed that criminalisation is hurting those that need help. Stephanie’s rebuttal was incoherent and appeared out-dated. Wrongly stating that legalisation will lead to problems such as increased drug cutting and giving more power to dealers, which are already symptoms of the current legislation situation. Alun also appeared out of touch by trying to rationalise an addict’s behaviour so that it should be treated as criminal. This authoritarian position did not sit well with the audience.

The only answer from the panel that really addressed a concern expressed by many in the audience over funding for treatment was from Sam who argued with less money spent on imprisoning users, then more can be spent on rehabilitation. The power bar following this discussion showed that Sam was way ahead compared to his opponents.

Granted the topics discussed only scratched the surface of market solutions to society’s problems. It is fair to question if the audience and viewers responses would have been as approving if libertarian stances on the minimum wage, banker’s bonuses or welfare were discussed. It is hard to say, but if more people like Sam argued for the market in an articulate and reasoned manner backed up with evidence then minds can be changed.

The program format is no formal evidence and discussion fell victim like all shows of this type to at times populism, not helped by the anecdotal ramblings of Ms Nash. However it did display that the ideas put forward by Sam Bowman were as a whole being understood better and seen as more relevant to the young audience than the solutions put forward by the other members of the panel.

I never thought I’d sit in an audience of students and watch them clap hardest at free market individualism, this can only be an encouraging sign for supporters of greater individual liberty to solve the problems we face today.

@harry_fraser

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