8 Progressive Moves of the Coalition Government

I’m not exactly a fan of the last government, but given that I indulge in a lot of Tory-bashing and yet complain about excessive partisanship in British and American politics, I felt this list would be a testing and productive experiment to engage in. It is easy enough to pay lip service to the concept of rising above tribal politics but that depends on being able to evaluate the positions of your opponents on their merits. And in my own case, where I have less common ground with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats than even many in my own party, it can be more difficult.

1.The introduction of same-sex marriage. Few people would have expected it to be a Conservative-led government to be the one to introduce same-sex marriage: indeed David Cameron took a big political risk in forcing the policy past the opposition of the majority of his own backbenchers. But now the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is a practice that has been buried in the history books. It is heartening to see the fight for equal marriage being won even in the more conservative parts of the Western world.

2. Referendum on electoral reform. It is already half-forgotten about, and those who do remember are largely constitutional reformers bitter about it being turned into a vote on Nick Clegg. But after a century of debate coming to nothing- despite New Labour’s supposed commitment to replacing First Past The Post- the people got their first chance in British history to decide how to elect their representatives.

3. The pupil premium. The case for providing extra funding that ‘follows’ state school pupils from disadvantaged background is overwhelming. There is so much evidence that shows such children are more likely to need and benefit from various forms of extra support that schools simply cannot provide without additional resources. I do believe the last government cared about improving educational opportunities for children. It was this vigourous enthusiasm that led to them floating daft ideas like evening classes for pupils on free school meals. (This struck me as punishing children with extra work just for being poor!) Sadly the government chose to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, which has rendered sixth form education nonviable for thousands of those very same students.

4. Universal Free School Meals for under 7s. There were so many obvious benefits to this policy that I outlined in this article at the time.

5. Rationalisation of Stamp Duty. The Chancellor has certainly made his mark on the tax system. One of the few improvements he made was the recent transformation of Stamp Duty that has been needed ever since house prices went crazy in the early 2000s. As well as quietly raising rates on expensive houses acquired by non-UK residents, Osborne did away with the ‘block’ rates. Previously someone buying a £249,999 house would pay 1% duty on the entire value, while a £250,000 house would attract a 3% tax also on the entire value. I am glad to see the back of this absurd structure in favour of income-tax style phased bands. It would be even better to go further and scrap Stamp Duty altogether on the primary residence in favour of imposing Capital Gains Tax. Would that not represent a move from taxing home ownership to taxing unearned rises in house values?

6. Meeting International Development budget target of 0.7% of GDP. It might not be popular, but the desperate poverty that exists in the world doesn’t go away because the nation’s finances need repairing. Our obligation as one of the richest countries in the world to help is not a luxury spending item we can discard, so I applaud the principled position to protect the Department for International Development’s budget from spending cuts.

7. Accepting Parliament’s opposition to intervention in Syria. Although the Prime Minister did not actually have to seek Parliament’s consent for his proposed military actions, he made constitutional history by doing so. It is to his credit that he did so and to Ed Miliband’s credit that he decided to join the opposition to war, thus defeating the government.

8. Cabinet appointments made for the long term. Gone are the days of the Cabinet musical chairs that Blair used to maintain a vice-like grip on his government. Where previously a minister could not be certain of remaining in post for much longer that 6 months, Cameron seemed to prefer stability and allowing ministers time to see their own policies to fruition. Most key people remained in position for four years of the Coalition, while the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary, Deputy Prime Minister and Business Secretary all remained for the full term.

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Partisanship and Our Politics

Handshake

Photo credit: Aidan Jones

Earlier this week, I wrote an article, Plaid Cymru Thinks Big, in which I expressed my support for much of the policy platform of the Welsh nationalist party. Given that I am an active Labour Party member with a growing online following (and I do not mean to be arrogant when I make that claim) it was certainly a bold move to praise a political rival quite so unreservedly. A fellow blogger, ianchisnall, whom I always trust to give an honest and thoughtful opinion on political matters, made this comment:

You have gone as far as you can without breaking ranks – you name yourself as the Political Idealist. Stick to your ideals and break ranks. The health and energy systems mean that we all need to be willing to challenge the political tribalism. Be a leader not a follower.

This has left me spending a good deal of time over the past few days pondering our relationship with political parties and the effect of such relationships on our politics. I have certainly seen how strong such tribalism can be: it was only when I was elected to the Compass Youth executive when I discovered the cost to the think tank of opening up membership to leftwingers outside the Labour Party. Half of the Left hates us. The idea of sharing ideas- the foremost role of a think tank- with those who have followed a different political path from our own, even when they have similar Socialist values, is so repugnant to many that they resigned from Compass. I have the greatest respect for many of these people, but I cannot comprehend their logic in this instance.

Almost any member of a political party will tell you that they feel a strong emotional bond with it, They ought to after all. There’s something almost magical about being part of an organisation of thousands of like-minded people all working to improve society in line with a common vision. In Labour, we have a rich history built on trade unions, party tradition and the eternal battle between idealism and realpolitik- a battle that rages internally in many of us. I am not alone in being washed up in emotion when the party anthem, The Red Flag, is sung to close Conference, or always feeling a little surge of delight when I see a ‘Vote Labour’ poster proudly displayed in someone’s  window. A political party doesn’t feel like a soulless organisation: it is a peculiar sort of family.

But it is important to remember that one’s loyalty to a political party should never cloud one’s judgement, and should always be secondary to one’s ideology. Of course, your ideology should broadly chime with your party’s,  but you should never be afraid to criticise your party where your views differ. Indeed, I think there’s an important distinction to be made between loyalty to party and loyalty to leadership. For example, I think that Tony Blair was unashamedly disloyal to our Party, cannibalising it into little more than a vehicle to elect a choice band of bland career politicians. Members and constituent trade unions were fine to do the groundwork campaigning and write the cheques respectively, but we were damned if we wanted a meaningful say in our party’s policies. Gordon Brown wasn’t much help either, and spoke of his ambition to do away with members altogether. Well, thanks a bunch(!)

What I mean is, if Ed Miliband were to declare today that his new policy is to disband the National Health Service, members’ loyalty to the values of their party should usurp that to Miliband: they should remove any leader who advocates such a policy. Mercifully, such a scenario is hugely unlikely, but it illustrates my point.

Similarly, I will continue to offer my honest and independent opinion on my party’s actions until we members have proper control over them. As long as I volunteer several hours a week to attempt to win over members of the public to my party, I think I have the right to say where I am being let down. For instance, Labour’s (now broken) silence on the Bedroom Tax was a severe handicap when I was expected to explain to a council tenant sliding into rent arrears that I couldn’t promise Labour’s help. I would never have tried to defend that: I didn’t vote to retain the Bedroom Tax. So yes, I think the tendency of many party supporters to blindly accept the ‘party line’ is counter productive and unnecessary.

We do need to foster a political atmosphere in which co-operation with other parties is more widely accepted. Our electoral system is designed to create a two-sided pendulum (in which there are hidden broad coalitions that we call the Labour and Conservative, or Republican and Democratic, Parties) whereas on the Continent these party divides are out in the open. It’s healthy: it’s much more transparent and it allows for more prudent co-operation. Over here, a member of the public cannot choose between a Progress or a Labour Representation Committee candidate, and are probably unaware of internal factionalism in both main parties. Maybe it would be better if they were.

Until it’s possible to say “Plaid Cymru has some good policies, I think that Labour should be prepared to co-operate with them sometimes” without getting shouted down, I’m going to keep on trying. Similarly, if David Cameron has the good idea of limiting Cabinet reshuffles, I reserve the right to say that, despite my vehement disagreement with 95% of his decisions, I back him on this one. I love my party, but that doesn’t stop me thinking for myself.