...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Day 4308: FREEDOM FROM CONFORMITY –Richard Flowers' Message to LGBT+ Lib Dems


The Liberal Democrats have always been at the forefront of the LGBT+ movement for equal rights, pressing the argument forwards in the face of Conservative reactionaries and Labour half-hearted compromise and backsliding.

As one of Millennium Elephant's famous gay daddies, I'd want us to be back at that cutting edge, with an out and proud voice on FPC scrutinising every policy to make sure our communities are never left out where we should be included and that there's a proper section in the manifesto on what Lib Dems are going to do next to keep pressing for true equality. With the party’s emphasis on “Fairness” in the last few years increasingly focused on economic fairness rather than more difficult to measure LGBT+ issues, someone needs to keep an eye out, and I’m volunteering, if I’m elected!

I'd want to consult with LGBT+ Lib Dems and take your lead on which policy areas are of most importance. Personally, my concerns focus on: the problems of bisexual invisibility; on how we can widen the debate around marriage and civil partnerships to include polyamorous relationships; and on the needs of the trans community, how government should be opening doors not putting barriers in the way. Meanwhile, there are some bad laws on the statutes, put there by Labour as much as the Tories, making people criminal where no harm has been done. Those laws need to be repealed.

It's clear that Liberal Democrats in government have taken us closer to equality, if mostly in little steps rather than great strides. The one great stride we have made is marriage equality – which is why at the next election those timid late converts Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband will both be claiming credit, despite one’s Party having opposed marriage equality for thirteen years while in power and the other's Party still being largely opposed as their recent Conference revealed. We need to be clear that this has happened because of us, Liberal Democrats with Lynne Featherstone leading the charge in the Home Office, now followed by Jo Swinson and supported by Nick Clegg and the entire Party.

There are powerful forces gathering against us – not all of them malign, but sometimes we do need the courage to call a bigot a bigot. Freedom to love should not offend anyone, but if someone is determined to take offence, that does not and cannot give them a right to prevent other people's love.

[LGBT+ Lib Dems asked candidates standing for Federal elections to submit 150-200 words on what they would do to support the LGBT+ community. Being me, I wrote 400. So, presented here is the "extended cut" version.]

Monday, October 15, 2012

Day 4306: The Problem with the Four Pledges Test


"What four pledges would you put on the front of the next Lib Dem manifesto?"

If you're following the Liberal Democrats internal elections at all, you'll have been reading closely the answers submitted to Jennie Rigg's questionnaire for candidates, and that is the second question.

But there's a problem with this approach: those pledges have to do two jobs – they have to DIFFERENTIATE us but they also have to be DELIVERABLE.

The need to have "red lines" that we can be sure the other Parties will agree to is making us pick BLAND, CAUTIOUS, "MORE OF THE SAME" policy.

We like to see it as a Lib Dem TRIUMPH that we can flourish: look at the four big pledges on the cover! We DELIVERED them all! (To a certain value of "delivered" when it comes to political reform.)

But look at what happened to us over the unofficial "fifth" pledge: tuition fees. Sure, it wasn't on the cover, but signing those pledge cards went and made it co-equal. And we had no chance of agreeing it with either Labour (authors of the Browne Report and who had form on bringing in tuition fees in the teeth of their own broken promises) nor Conservative (who were highly unlikely to disagree with making people pay for something they technically already owned).

We were completely burned for selling out one "red line".

But it makes you realise how carefully "gamed" those other pledges were: they were different enough to make a splash, but close to what the other Parties would agree.

Count Packula puts it best when he answers Jennie with:

"The best set of pledges need not only clearly represent our values, they must be electorally useful in winning support, distinguish us from the other parties and be plausible to deliver in any hung Parliament negotiations."

So I'm seeing a lot of times "keep increasing the personal allowance" and "keep investing in pupil premium" (yes, that one's on mine!), and the lack of ambition is slightly beginning to depress me.

Or to put it another way: let's have "more of the same", because "more of the same" is making us SO POPULAR AND DISTINCTIVE, isn't it.

The alternative is seeing genuinely BRAVE and INNOVATIVE policy and reacting warily to it for fear that it's going to be another bruising, busted pledge.

For example, Mark Thompson – who is an excellent candidate who I would be delighted to see on the FPC – includes in his four: "A pledge to legalise and regulate all currently illegal drugs"

Of course this is absolutely the right policy: he's done much more research into the evidence than me, but what we'd both tell you is that the so-called war on drugs is a massively expensive failure that boosts the profits of criminal gangs while putting many lives in danger from cut drugs and crossfire. Legalisation would save police time and money; allow users some certainty they were getting what they paid for and not chalk cut with horse tranquilisers or rat poison; and allow us to treat addiction medically without stigma. The levels of harm from cannabis or ecstasy (see Jennie's question one) are not nothing but are tiny compared to the levels of harm that we accept from drinking or smoking. It's obviously the liberal thing to do. And, hell, it might even boost the economy.

But Labour and the Conservatives will join forces to block it, just as they did with Lords Reform, because the status quo is in there interest – namely playing to the "law and Order" gallery for the support of certain newspapers in their ever more insane bids to outflank one another on the right.

They'll beat us up for suggesting it and then beat us up AGAIN for not delivering it!

Another example is where Prateek Buch – also an admirable (not to mention ubiquitous – how does he fit in all those speeches?) candidate who I'd be very happy to see elected – includes "coalition compromises would not cross red lines of increasing gap in wealth and power between top and bottom".

We all know that Liberalism is about dispersing power, breaking up vested interests and returning opportunity to individuals. And anyone who has read "The Spirit Level" will be familiar with the benefits, to health and happiness as well as growth, which appear to come from a more equal society. But at the same time you must see the hostage to fortune: even if you DON'T consider that an automatic ruling out of another coalition with the Conservatives, whichever Party ends up in opposition, they will immediately start looking for measurements to show that the wealth or "power" gap (however it's measured) HAS increased and that we've "sold out".

Similarly, my own manifesto includes the Citizen's Income suggestion.

Now, "raise the personal allowance" is a policy that we can sell to either other Party – the Tories would buy a tax cut; Labour would buy help for workers on the lowest incomes – but a radical change to the tax and benefit system, abolishing huge swathes of bureaucracy (read "Whitehall power")? It's too big, too radical, too scary.

So you see the problem. This need to be able to compromise AND show we've not broken our "headline policy promises" means that far from breaking the mould, we're now moulding ourselves to fit with policies that are acceptable to the old status quo of the Labour/Conservative axis. When people are crying out "you're all the same" we are literally making ourselves "more of the same".

We make a TRAP for ourselves if we say our HEADLINES are also our RED LINES.

Red lines should be the absolute MINIMUM acceptable to us. If our headlines are no higher than our absolute minimum then what are we saying? Either we are too radical to ever form a coalition with either old Party or we're already too compromised.

With Labour and the Conservatives BOTH retreating to Nineteenth Century One Nation-ism, I think we need to be braver about offering a REAL transformation, not just tinkering with the current broken system, but a genuine promise of a new direction.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Day 4301: Facing the FPC Questions


As you might know by now, I am standing for election to the Party's Federal Policy Committee, but this isn't just about me, it's also about what you want from your FPC and your Party policy generally.

Standing for election should be about answering a lot of your questions about me and what I would do on the FPC. So I'm very pleased to say that Jennie Rigg has put together a list of decent challenging questions for every candidate to answer that will hopefully give you more idea of what we stand for and what we all might do.

You can read the replies of other candidates who are standing over at Jennie's blog, here. Meanwhile, here are the questions and the answers that I gave:

1. Which of the following activities do you consider the most dangerous and why?
- taking a single ecstasy tablet
- taking an advanced motorcycle riding test
- giving birth

This is a question about banning things, and I'd say that while I consider all these activities to be dangerous the Government should be in the business of informing people of the dangers and helping them minimise the risks rather than banning any of them.

But I realise that that is doing the politician thing of telling you what your question ought to be, so here is the thing politicians don't do which is trying to answer the question as put.

My gut reaction says this is a "trick" question (no offence) and that the "surprise" answer will be that giving birth turns out to be the most dangerous whereas the only one we legislate against, taking ecstasy, is the least dangerous.

But policy shouldn't be decided based on gut reactions or trick questions, so I would need to look the evidence.

A very brief search with Google reveals that the UK has an average maternal fatality rate of 8.6 per 100,000, which would be approximate 62 deaths based on 2011 birth statistics of 723,000.

That would compare with reported ecstasy-related deaths of 40-70. Except, as this useful piece from Mark Easton explains, mentioning ecstasy in relation to a death is not the same as saying ecstasy caused that death.

Both of which are tiny compared to the approximately five thousand motorcyclists killed or seriously injured on the roads each year. (I haven't found specific figures relating to taking the advanced motorcycling test).

Of course "dangerous" is much more broadly defined than merely the risk of fatality, so the risks of other effects would need to be identified and some way of comparing them decided (how, for example, do you compare possible brain damage against the economic impact of raising a child, say?).

Also, is it even a fair comparison? Childbirth is the conclusion to a (usually) nine-month pregnancy (with all its own associated risks), whereas taking a single tablet should be no more than an evening's duration, and a motorcycle test shouldn't take more than a couple of hours. A more fair comparison might take into account different patterns of ecstasy use – the single tablet, the occasional party-goers, the regular weekend user and so on.

I'd also want to know how to factor in the benefit versus the risks of the activity: for example, taking the advanced motorcycle test may be a risk in itself, but the rate of motorcycle accidents tends to be lower among people who have passed the advanced test. The risk of not taking the test may actually be greater than the risk of taking it.

This of course is also important in considering drug usage, for example the pain relief available from marijuana or opiates may very well be a greater benefit than the risk of harm from the drug. The long-term effects of MDMA (ecstasy) remain unknown, though some studies show possible medical use in alleviating mild psychiatric disorders and also some pain relief.

2. What four pledges would you put on the front of the next Lib Dem manifesto?

In fact I put five suggestions on my FPC manifesto:

Freedom from Poverty – a citizens' income that would help those in work and out.

Freedom from Ignorance – develop a "Pupil Premium II" perhaps with the money from charitable status of Public Schools.

Freedom from Conformity – addressing the Court system that can't seem to take a joke.

Freedom for Growth – breaking up RBS and Lloyds to make community-scale lenders for small business and jobs.

Freedom for the Future – investing in green renewables to achieve energy independence by 2050.

I don't think it would be entirely fair to make that statement in the manifesto and then make a different one to you, so I'll stick with my five if that's okay.

3. A genie appears and tells you that you can remove one law and make one law; what would you remove from the statute book and what would you add to the statute book?

I can only remove one law?

It would have to be RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act), Labour's snooper's charter which gave the power to jobsworths up and down the country to spy on citizens. In practical terms, without RIPA we wouldn't be having the present difficulty over communications monitoring and interception. But morally, RIPA is the architecture of a system for Governments to control citizens. NO Liberal Government should tolerate it remaining on the statute.

As for what law I would add, well if I knew what one law would make it possible for Stephen Gough, (the Naked Rambler) to be released from prison without getting immediately re-arrested then it would be that, because the fact that this man is basically in perpetual imprisonment without having broken any law at all, merely for having a different attitude to nudity, is a running sore on any claim that this county has to be civilised.

Since I don't know what that law would be, though, I suppose I will settle instead for a law that if you sell someone software (whether that's a book or a video or a computer program) then they have the right to control how they use that software – the main aims being that if someone wants to read a Kindle ebook on a Kobo reader, they can; if someone wants to watch a DVD without having intrusive and insulting copyright warnings forced on them first, they can; and if they want to use software they've bought without having to agree to an "end user agreement" (imposed after you've handed over the money), then they can.

4. What balance should the committee give to the views of the leadership, the parliamentary panels and the membership in setting policy priorities?

The policy committee should clearly serve the membership first. We are being elected to present certain views as representatives of the Party members.

That isn't to say that we should routinely pick fights with the Leadership. One of the strongest reasons I have for supporting the coalition, and one of the biggest disappointments with the behaviour of our Conservative Partners, is a belief in cooperation and compromise. I prefer arriving at a synthesis rather than loggerheads.

5. How would you change the party’s procedures on gathering and analysing evidence when formulating policy?

The Party sends a lot of internal communications explaining why we've just done something. It seems it would be more productive to try and be pre-emptive: send out communications about debates that are coming up before they happen and gather feedback from the Party membership in advance of decisions rather than trying to manage the response after the fact.

The Internet provides much wider opportunities to "crowd source" ideas and evidence than we have had before and we should consider online consultative sessions and working groups.

I support Richard Morris's ideas for widening involvement at Conference through online attendance and by making the Party more democratically responsive to the members.

6. Which is more important - freedom from ignorance, poverty or conformity?

For me, the most important is freedom from conformity. I would hate to live in a world where we all have to make the same choices, or where those choices are imposed upon us.

But at the same time I am aware that I am hugely privileged having benefited enormously from a generous education and now being in a well-paid job, my own freedom from ignorance and poverty has been (I hope) assured.

That's why it's right that the preamble mentions all three as a foundation for freedom and we should act where possible to support all of them. (And possibly more freedoms: freedom from pain, some might say, would be one you could add.)

7. Are you a member of any (S)AOs or other pressure groups which might give us an insight into your policy priorities?

I am (usually, when I remember) a member of LGBT+ and a sometime member of the Green Liberal Democrats.

I don't believe in factions, particularly not ones that accept the media narrative of a left/right axis that has never had very much to do with Liberal politics. If elected, I would want to scrutinise all policies independently and then make up my own mind, rather than voting with a "slate".

That said, I'm open to ideas from anyone – I'm just not going to be tribal about it. For example, I have a lot of sympathy with the Social Liberal Forum's pamphlet "Plan C" – particularly when it comes to trials and evidence based response to policy. On the other hand, I've also read the Orange Book.

8. Which external bodies would you like to see audit the manifesto to see if our policies are workable?

The economics of the manifesto should be audited by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, as already happens.

I would like to see Liberty audit the Civil Liberties implications (and the actions of the Coalition).

I would like to see the Plain English Campaign audit the language to make sure we are saying what we mean in a simple and easily understood fashion.

If there was an external Green body that I trusted, then I'd like to see an environmental impact audit too (but I think the external Green bodies are all too politicised).

It might also be useful if an "end of term report" could be produced for our MPs in association with someone like They Work For You, provided that such a report could properly reflect the amount of constituency case work, and work on committees in addition to time in the chamber of the House.

9. What proposals do you have to improve the process of negotiating policy priorities for a coalition agreement in the event of another hung parliament?

I think that we need to make it very clear to the media (and the City) that one of the causes of weakness in the Coalition agreement was the pressure that all Parties were under to arrive at an agreement very quickly. If at all possible we should lay out a timetable that would see at least one and maybe two weeks set aside after the date of the general election for the business of forming a Government, should a second balanced Parliament be the will of the British People.

Having said that, I think that the procedure of the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 negotiations was pretty near exemplary. Certainly we made mistakes – the largest being that the negotiating team failed to reflect the strength with which the Party wanted to keep the tuition fee pledge.

However, far more of the Coalition's problems arise from the failure of the Conservatives to give their Party members and particularly their Parliamentary Party any ownership over the process, which has resulted in them largely feeling sold down the river by David Cameron and under no obligation to keep the promises that he made on their behalf.

Labour too have behaved in extremely bad faith both during and after the coalition process, repeatedly blaming us for failing to deliver policies which we could not have delivered from Opposition or even in coalition with Labour, and of course blocking policies which they purport to be in favour of in order to score political victories.

As a result, it might be necessary to make a condition of any future coalition agreement that the coalition partner conduct a vote of support for the agreement (at least of their Parliamentary Party).

10. If elected, how do you plan to engage with the wider party?

Where possible, at least within the Chatham House Rules, I want to blog about the policies considered using Millennium's diary. I'm happy to lay out my own position on issues that come up and I will try to represent other views fairly (if anonymously).

Also, through blogging and meeting other Party members, I've built up a wide circle of friends from across the Party, both geographically and politically. I would hope to reach out to them sharing what I think is going on in return for their ideas and feedback on how policy is shaped and in turn that they could talk to their own friends and contacts.

11. (was 29 on Jennie's list). Are you standing for any other committees, if so which ones, and if elected to more than one how do you plan to divide your time?

I'm only standing for FPC.

I don't believe that people should stand for more than one committee. The Party is full of good people who want to contribute, and I think that it's important that we maximise the number of people who are able to take part. One person, no matter how good they are, occupying two elected seats is stopping another good person from coming through.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Day 4299: FREEDOM FROM POVERTY - A Real Alternative to Welfare


Chancellor George Osborne has announced that he wants to cut TEN BILLION POUNDS from the welfare budget.

I will pause while you throw up.

Right, back with me? OK, here's a reminder of the BACKGROUND. The Government's total spending is, very roughly, SEVEN HUNDRED BILLION pounds every year.

The total amount spent on what we call "benefits" in the United Kingdom is in the region of TWO HUNDRED BILLION pounds per year.

It's the BIGGEST "BIG TICKET" item in the Budget. So you can see why it's such a TEMPTING TARGET for a rapacious fiscal shark like Master Gideon.

(See table D4 of the OBR's report on the 2012 budget [pfd])

Remember, the NEXT biggest item, at about ONE HUNDRED BILLION pounds, is the NHS which is currently granted SACRED COW status, so he cannot find his cuts there.

After that comes Education (FIFTY billions) under the personal protection of the Deputy Prime Monster and Defence (THIRTY billions) under the protection of a battalion of right-wing Tory Tanks. Nor can he afford to cut the TWENTY-FIVE billion allocated to Scotland with Mr Slippery Salmon's independence referendum coming up.

But it's not THAT easy to cut the welfare bill either.

The Conservatories and their allies in the press have contrived an atmosphere where the word "benefits" is practically synonymous with the word "undeserving", cultivating the idea that there are SWATHES of the country where people sit at home in their PJs rolling about in money while the poor mugs go out to toil.

But that's REALLY not where the welfare money goes. (See IFS analysis [pdf])

About 40% of the welfare bill is PENSIONS. The Government is ALWAYS going on about how pensioners DESERVE their money, and the TRIPLE LOCK means that that 40% is SACROSANCT!

Then about 20% is IN WORK benefits for people on low pay. Remember we are supposed to be all about REWARDING – grit your teeth for this phrase – "hardworking families". So you cannot really gouge that either. About HALF of that (i.e. 10% of the total) is Housing Benefit, which is one of the most important benefits and can make the difference between families being about to afford to work or not. The downside is that it mainly goes to LANDLORDS, rather than the families in need; this is the price we pay for having ridiculously inflated House prices.

The OTHER half is the price we pay for having the minimum wage set below the level where people can survive on it, subsidising low paid jobs for the benefit of employers. There's a serious question that cutting those in work benefits would destabilise the jobs market massively increasing unemployment. But there's got to be SOMETHING wrong with a system (set up by a LABOUR Government, no less) where the Government subsidises employers to pay less than the living wage, essentially allowing companies to increase their profits at the taxpayers' expense.

Another 20% of benefits are for having children (child benefit and child tax credit). For all the fulminating in the Daily Hate Mail end of the press about FECKLESS SINGLE MOTHERS TM, we've already seen what happens if you try tinkering with Child Benefit and the Chancellor might as well write his political suicide note on the same headed paper as try THAT again!

So that's a good 80% of benefits going to people who for various reasons the Government won't or can't upset. That money, like in BULLSEYE, is safe. To half of them you've promised perpetual increases; and the other half you are relying on to keep the economy afloat!

So it comes down to the 15% which goes to the sick and disabled. Nothing quite so "sick" as cutting benefits to the disabled, you might very well think, and frankly with people already DYING this is where we need Captain Clegg to stick to his promise that up with this we will not put.

And only about a measly 3% goes to yer actual UNEMPLOYED people. Gideon could abolish Job Seekers Allowance entirely, and still fall well short of his target.

(That, incidentally, leaves 2% change, most of which is Winter Fuel Allowance and free TV licences, also for the elderly.)

If, like Master Gideon, you are scheming to carve out another TEN BILLION (i.e. a whole 5% of the amount we spend), then it begins to look very VERY hard to FIND that kind of money.

The message of this is that we really need to think VERY MUCH MORE RADICALLY.

The idea that I'd like us to THINK about is the CITIZENS' INCOME.

It's important to understand that while this idea has a LOT of GOOD points going for it, there are some pretty serious drawbacks too and that's why it needs careful THOUGHT.

In its simplest form, the Citizens' Income is a fixed payment to every adult in the country and a flat tax rate on all income.

The ADVANTAGES are simplicity and universality. Instead of a complex mix of means-tested and universal benefits, everyone receives the same Citizens' Income. Because it is universal, it improves take-up so that the benefit is more likely to reach those most in need. Because it is simple, people are not put off by forms. Because there is no withdrawal or taper of the benefit, everyone who is able to work and chooses to do so is better off for doing so. Because it favours neither couples nor individuals, couples are not worse off for staying together but nor are they penalised for splitting up. Because everyone gets the same amount, there is less grumbling about "undeserving". Because we all share in the national income, we are all, to coin a phrase, in it together.

As a smaller advantage, the bureaucracy to organise this exists already largely with HM Revenue and Customs and/or the Treasury's tax credits department. You would, in theory, be able to abolish the whole Government Department, Mr Iain Drunken-Swerve's DWP (Department of Worship and Prayer). Having said that, cutbacks have left HM Revenue and Customs very understaffed, and so we might be better served by retaining DWP staff as part of the new unified tax authority.

The DISADVANTAGES are: firstly, that the unified tax rate has to be set quite high to make the figures balance and this looks like a tax rise (particularly since it would combine the 20% income tax and 12% national insurance bands) – actually most people on lower incomes are better off, but it LOOKS like a tax rise; secondly, although MOST benefit recipients would receive more, there is a disproportionate LOSS of income for certain sections of the community, for example those large families who receive Housing Benefit; thirdly, the flat tax rate, unless set very high, will be an effective tax CUT for those on the highest incomes (although you could retain a 45% top rate to avoid this problem at the expense of slightly less simplicity).

I'm going to work through a bit of MATHS here which you might want to skip over, but it's important to "show my workings" and show how close it all comes to adding up.

The office of National Statistics says that there are 29.56 million people IN WORK in the United Kingdom. With an average salary of about £26,000, that makes a TOTAL EARNED INCOME of more than SEVEN HUNDRED and SEVENTY-FOUR billion pounds.

A single flat rate of tax of 40% (replacing income tax and national insurance for all employees) would therefore raise THREE HUNDRED and NINE point SIX billion pounds.

At the moment, Income Tax and National Insurance together raise roughly TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY BILLION pounds (See table D3 of the OBR's report on the 2012 budget [pfd]) and, as above, benefits cost around TWO HUNDRED BILLION. This means that the taxes on income raise an excess of FIFTY BILLIONS which is spent on all the other things that Government spends money on. In order to keep up government spending, we should retain this excess. Therefore we have TWO HUNDRED and FIFTY-NINE point SIX billion pounds to distribute.

Given that the population of the UK is 62.6 million (and excluding approximately 10.8 million who are under 18) that would be roughly equal to FIVE THOUSAND POUNDS for EVERY ADULT IN THE COUNTRY.

Currently, the Liberal Democrats are pursuing fairer taxes by raising the personal allowance to £10,000. Under this Citizens' Income scheme, EVERYONE earning less than about £30,000 would be better off. In particular, and as opposed to raising the personal allowance, EVERYONE NOT EARNING ENOUGH TO PAY TAX would be better off.

Here's the BIGGEST PROBLEM then: five thousand pounds per year is LESS than the current basic State Pension and so almost certainly a NON-STARTER. However, it MIGHT be possible to have a higher Citizens' Income IF we were to retain the EMPLOYER'S element of national insurance.

So, the main things to think about before we were to consider a Citizens' Income would be:
• what would be considered a fair rate for the unified tax rate, and should we retain the top rate of tax so as not to be giving the biggest tax cut to the people with the highest incomes?
• what is a reasonable level for the Citizens' Income, if the minimum we could set it at is the current state pension rate – or the targeted £140 per week pension – should we be aiming at more than that?
• what would an impact assessment of the withdrawal of housing benefit say, and would be possible or desirable to retain some element of housing benefit?
• should we retain Employer's National Insurance (which Conservatories describe as the "Jobs Tax")? Might we have to to make the books balance?

A Liberal economic plan should also be looking at how to make sure that employers pay a FAIR wage, through proper enforcement of minimum wage and working time directive legislation, so that people do not NEED State subsidies.

If we COULD make this work, I think this would be an EXCITING and RADICAL departure from Labour's idea of welfare being a Government that graciously gives to those they deem the deserving poor towards a COMMON WEALTH where rather than grudgingly giving to the needy we all share in the nation's prosperity, combining the great Liberal traditions of EQUAL HELP for all and Government TRUSTING PEOPLE and empowering them get on with their own lives.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Day 4298: Richard Flowers for Federal Policy Committee


We have the lists of who has been nominated for the Federal Elections 2012, and to start with congratulations to Mr Tim Farron for being returned to the Party Presidency unopposed.

There are SIXTY confirmed (and maybe three more) people standing for the Federal Policy Committee, including a number of people I admire and think would be good. And one of them is me, Richard Flowers.

So am I vain or insane to want to do this? I hope neither.

What I want to do, the main contributions I hope I could make, are to start with a little base-level competence about the economy and liberal philosophy. There are limits to what governments can do economically, and the ongoing recession and fall out from the crash further constrain us, but that should be a reason to be more imaginative in our solutions not less.

This is a rich country but our prosperity is poorly distributed, with too many people, especially young people, out of work; while too many people in work work too long hours; and far too few people derive the lion’s share of the national growth.

So that leads to the second thing that I believe FPC needs: new, bold, big ideas. We are going to have to stand up and say that there is a third alternative model to rival those of Labour’s borrow and spend and the Conservatives’ cut and cut. A Liberal economy that looks to the future, to the individual, to Internet and creativity and increases every person’s ability to profit from their own ideas and hard work, without dependence on capital investors. The big ideas of the Twentieth Century – free trade, the Welfare State, the NHS – were Liberal ideas. We need the big ideas of the Twenty-First Century to be Liberal ideas too.

And finally, I’m a very ordinary member in a very ordinary constituency and I want to see a reconnection between the membership and the leadership, to burst that Whitehall bubble. At Conference in Brighton I was worried that there are developing two worlds, what I call the Danny Alexander world, where we are in government and getting Liberal policies into action, and the Linda Jack world, where everything is terrible and everyone hates us for supporting Tory cuts. Neither of these worlds are completely true, but neither of them are totally false either. We need to bring these two worlds back together.

How can YOU help?

Well, if you are a voting representative, then I would be very grateful if you would give me your first preference. And if you know any voting reps, and could put in a good word. In a field as wide as this, the first preferences are going to be especially important, to make sure that I can stay in the contest to later rounds of transfers.

Secondly, any rebroadcasting of Millennium’s diary or the Facebook page “Richard Flowers for Federal Policy Committee”, on Facebook or Twitter or link-blogging, will be very useful in spreading the ideas that I’m talking about.

And thirdly, if there’s anything you think I should be talking about or any questions you want to ask then please do write to me, either in comments here or by e-mailing millennium[at] or by phone on 07889 145 104.

And very best of luck to everyone who has put themselves forwards.

Day 4297: BOND GOLD: From Russia With Love


From Russia With Love (1963)

Staring Mr Sean Connery as Ian Fleming’s James Bond

The One With: The fight on the Orient Express (fighting fish!)

Beautiful direction from Terence Young, some lovely clean establishing shots such as the introduction to Istanbul with a view of the Blue Mosque, and beautiful sweeping John Barry soundtrack, especially his pounding Orient Express theme and of course the “alternate” Bond theme “007”, carry us away on an Oriental Mystery Tour.

What a lot of people say is that “From Russia With Love” is a great spy film, but not that great a Bond film. But Daddy Alex points out that the first quarter of an hour or so are in fact a CRACKING Bond movie: the pre-title mini-adventure, the title sequence which really gets it right this time, both discovering Maurice Binder’s style of projecting the credits onto women’s bodies (even though it isn’t actually Maurice binder this time) and the music that combines the “exotic” themes of Eastern Europe with the Monty Norman James Bond theme without the handbrake turn of Dr No’s calypso; then there’s the introduction of Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) and Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), the lizard and toad of SpECTRE; then the visit to SpECTRE Island; and only THEN do we get the REAL Mr Bond in a charming scene with M and the new Q (Desmond Llewelyn).

Oddly, “From Russia…” is already SUBVERTING the James Bond tropes, often BEFORE they’re even established. That pre-title adventure is actually GRANT’S adventure and sees Bond “killed”; the “gadget” scene is SpECTRE’s lethal training ground rather than Q’s rather more sedate laboratory. In this context, the Bond/Q relationship – joking and friendly, rather than acerbic – seems a deliberate reversal rather than not yet having been established. (It won’t be until the next movie, when Llewelyn waspishly takes Connery to task in character, that everyone realises that OF COURSE Q would despise this man who spends his life destroying everything Q creates.)

It’s very brave of Connery to appear with the exaggerated make-up of the first sequence, it’s enough to make him look slightly… off, so that the reveal that it’s a mask and a training exercise for Grant comes as an “oh that’s what’s going on” rather than a total cheat.

But speaking of brave, Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb is quite awesome. Her first scene, with the faceless cat-fancier (Blofeld, the titles admit) sees her fawning and crawling, the defector who knows she’s not to be trusted. But as soon as she’s out of his presence, she completely dominates any scene that she is in.

More subtly, Robert Shaw as the anti-Bond Donald “Red” Grant, is carefully woven through the film. In fact, it’s possible to watch “From Russia…” without taking in the significance of the little cut-aways to Grant – watch out particularly to catch him loitering outside the meeting between Rosa Klebb and Tatiana – but once you notice him you realise just how carefully he is masterminding everything that occurs. The difference between “Dr No” and “From Russia…” is that where the first film is very much a sequence of set-pieces, the second is a sequence of set-pieces where you can SEE Grant setting them up in advance.

For example, Bond arrives in Istanbul and is met by one of Kerim Bey’s sons (Neville Jackson – “The Androids of Tara’s” Prince Reynart). They are tailed to Kerim Bey’s headquarters by Bulgarians working for the Russians. “It’s an understanding we have”, explains the chauffeur. But after Bond’s meeting, we – though not Bond – see that the Bulgarian’s Citroen has been hijacked by Grant, who now tails Bond to his hotel. Later, Grant drops the Citroen outside the Russian Embassy, where the commissionaire discovers one of the Bulgarian agents dead.

Now in itself that’s just a shock moment set-piece. But it’s also a clever reference to the scene in “Dr No” where Bond leaves a dead body outside Government House with the quip “See that he doesn’t get away”; thus we’re establishing Grant’s Bond-ish credentials. But on top of that, it’s the murder of the Bulgarian that triggers the Russian limpet-mine attack on Kerim Bey, and in turn the escalation of the fight between the Bulgarians and Kerim’s Gypsy allies, and the assassination of Krilencu. In fact the whole middle third of the film.

(British vanity puts the limpet-mine attack down to Bond’s arrival, and they later link it to the return of Kerim’s old enemy Krilencu. So they never properly pause to investigate why the truce is so unexpectedly broken, and so fail to detect SpECTRE’s hidden hand – or tentacle – behind events.)

That that middle third of the film is a gorgeous travelogue and a complete distraction from the main business of stealing the LEKTOR decoder is glossed over almost entirely by the quiet understated charisma of Pedro Armend├íriz as Ali Kerim Bey, head of section T, Turkey. Cheerfully staffing the secret service in Istanbul with members of his extensive family, while referring to keeping his mistress satisfied as “another day down the salt mines”, his honour and good humour are the backbone of “From Russia With Love”. All the more astonishing when you learn that Mr Armend├íriz was suffering from terminal cancer throughout the filming (and took his own life shortly afterwards), it makes his on-screen death, murdered by Grant, all the more poignant.

Favourite line of the movie, Kerim to the bound and gagged Russian spy Benz: Did you know I have had a particularly fascinating life. Would you like to hear about it?

Benz: Mmmm

Kerim (surprised and delighted): Oh, you would?!

You do have to say it’s not a terribly FEMINIST movie, though. Whether it is the way this film’s Bond Girl Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi) declines from assertive Russian signals officer to passive Westernised trophy wife, or the frankly bizarre scene with Kerim’s mistress where she seems to exist only as an object to desire him, or the overt lesbian = evil coding of Rosa Klebb it’s rather too much about “putting women in their place”. Even Klebb, as we observed earlier, has to be odiously subservient to Blofeld. Which is a shame after the surprising strong showing for the women of Dr No.

(Given “that thing that’s going to happen with Pussy Galore at the end of the next movie”, we did think that there was a case for “From Russia…” being a better THIRD movie, and playing on Bond’s growing reputation as Britain’s premier gigolo. Which would make Fiona Vulpe’s line in “Thunderball” even more of a payoff. But we will have to wait to see those in turn.)

SpECTRE are even more ingeniously woven into the plot of Fleming’s novel here than they were in Dr No, though in both cases they serve to magnify something that could be almost mundane into something really very special.

Grant is defeated by a combination of Bond’s tenacity, Q’s gadgetry and his own greed (if he hadn’t stolen the cash from Bond’s pocket, Bond would not have known Grant would be susceptible to the gold sovereigns in the Q-case), and that is remarkably satisfying. As is Kronsteen’s well-deserved comeuppance. (“What is Bond compared to Kronsteen,” he wheezes in an attempt to shift the blame when the plan has failed. Well, he’s the man who beat your fool proof scheme, you moron! No wonder Blofeld has him offed.)

Walter Gotell, who would later create M’s opposite number, General Gogol of the KGB, here appears as chief SpECTRE henchman, Morzeny. Clearly he’s SUPPOSED to be the same character who is in charge on SpECTRE Island, AND dealing out the death kicks on Blofeld’s yacht in Venice AND in charge of the SpECTRE speed boats that pursue Bond and Tatiana in the Adriatic. But it’s terribly tempting to think that SpECTRE just have a half-a-dozen clones of the head of Russian intelligence working for them.

Bond Quips #3: (after Bulgarian killer Krilencu is shot escaping through the most outrageous Bond-film product-placement until Moonraker: a billboard for Henry and Cubby;s own movie starring Anita Eckberg) “She should have kept her mouth shut”

Bond Quips #4: (on the death of poison-boot-wielding Rosa Klebb) “She’s had her kicks”

Other things to watch out for: The use of cigarettes to suggest sexual knowledge. At the start of the film, when Bond is called in from his picnic with Sylvia Trench, he uses a carphone to speak to Moneypenny. Here the film contrasts Sylvia who clearly wants Bond in a sexual way, with Penny who has a more worldly “been there, done that” attitude. What is striking is that, very unusually, Moneypenny is seen toying with a cigarette, as if it is a symbol of her greater knowledge.

This is mirrored at the end of the film when we see Tatiana smoking for the first time only once they have got safely away to Venice, implying Bond has finally “fulfilled” her as a woman. Note also, that she discards her cigarette – the symbol of her sexual awakening – when Rosa Klebb turns up and takes charge over her again.

The Bottom Line: Bond on the brink of becoming super-human, nevertheless tells a tale of spy intrigue, blood feuds and cross and double-cross. Probably the best fight-on-a-train scene ever!

Friday, October 05, 2012

Day 4296: BOND GOLD: Dr No


It is the Fiftieth Anniversary of the release of the first JAMES BOND film, "Dr No". It's also the fiftieth anniversary of the first Beatles single too. And it is also also Ms Cathy Gale's BIRTHDAY. So it is OFFICIALLY fifty years since the day the SIXTIES started.

To celebrate this, and the forthcoming NEW James Bond film about the phone hacking scandal "Sky Fail", ALL of my top twenty-five favourite Bond films have been released in a new blu-ray box. (Except for the "other" Casino Royale and the "other" Thunderball. And "Skyfall" is currently represented by a GAP!)

You KNOW what this means though... twenty-two days to watch twenty-two Bond films! Excellent! And what could POSSIBLY go WRONG!

Dr No (1962)

Starring Mr Sean Connery as Ian Flemming's James Bond

The One With: Ursula Andress in THAT bikini. That bloke with the metal hands.

The picture LOOKS beautiful, from the "Le Cercle" club where Sylvia Trench first introduces us to "the line": "Bond, James Bond", to the highways of Kingston Jamaica, and that's really Connery there in the car, no back-projection for the first car chase (not something that can be said about that hearse following him on the mountainside). Jack Lord exudes cool as Felix Leiter, but Connery still blows him off the screen so you can see why he wouldn't be back to do that again.

Daddy Alex particularly remarks on the way that the movie makes no concessions at all to coming in halfway through the book series, with M casually referring to Bond's berretta jamming on his last mission ("From Russia With Love" resulting in him being kicked by Rosa Klebb's poison boot-knife), and later telling Bond and Moneypenny to "skip the usual repartee". This isn't just skipping the "origin story" but expecting you to have done the reading. And all the better for it.

(Actually, this IS an origin story... but it's SpECTRE's origin story, not Bonds!)

Also, Major Boothroyd calls Britain's top assassin "a woman". No wonder HE'S not back for the sequel!

The plot, such as it is, is no more than a series of set pieces. Bond's investigation is perfunctory at best, since pretty much everyone he meets is working for Dr No already, and Professor Dent might as well be wearing a tee-shirt saying "I've got a Guilty Secret, please shoot me!". But each follows logically from the last and the pace and charisma keep the excitement mounting, so who cares!

The film escalates through Bond's series of encounters with Dr No's organisation, with Bond suavely taking everything from fluffy spiders to femmes fatales in his stride until we get to Dr No's island of Crab Key where things start to get a bit hairy. Finally, he confronts Dr No himself in the electrifying dinner scene. And then the movie slightly loses its way for ten minutes before the climax in Dr No's private nuclear reactor.

The book sees the evil Doctor put Bond into his Deathtrap Dungeon. For laughs, mainly. It seems like the filmmakers thought that this might be a bit silly. Or they didn't have faith in their ability to do the giant octopus attack at the end. So instead we get Mr Bond sort of escaping through the oversized air-conditioning, which for some reason has some lite deathtrappage built in. And fortunately he escapes the far end just in time to catch the one guy who works the nuclear furnace exploder controls on his way back from a late toilet break. Which is handy.

Oh, and the movie avoids all mention of GUANO. But the source of Dr No's power is STILL his undoing as, instead of being buried in bird poo, he is boiled-in-the-bag by his own reactor. Icky!

There're a LOT of women in it, which is unusual for a Bond. To be fair, a lot of them are there to stare AT Bond and go "sigh". But Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) and the unnamed photographer "Freelance" (Marguerite LeWars) are both strong pro-active women; as, for that matter, are Miss Moneypenny and Miss Trench. There are a lot of minor roles – Strangways secretary; the woman who takes the message from the radio operator to the comptroller of signals – that would just be omitted from any later film. It's completely unsentimental about killing women too – the secretary getting the same treatment as her boss. A particular favourite moment though is the woman Bond approaches at the harbour when looking for Quarrel. "Him!" she says and points. It's a completely charming moment.

The recurring motif of copper everywhere in Dr No's fortress base is both elegant and reminds of electricity and ultimately Dr No's nuclear reactor again. Odd that it's not aluminium, given that they've swapped the guano for a bauxite (or aluminium ore) mine. But I suppose copper is more visually distinctive. It does make Dr No's guest suite one of the WEIRDEST hotels anywhere – number three has the en suite, the adjoining bedrooms, the coffee bar; number twelve has the manacles and the inlet from the sea and the giant crabs(!) Ken Adam gets to do at least one signature set – the room where Professor Dent receives his instructions from Dr No's disembodied voice. The reactor room set is rather functional though. Though you've gotta love an "Abandon Area" sign that lights up when the reactor's going to blow!

Bond Quips #1: (on delivering the body of one of Dr No's agents to Government House) Sergeant, see that he doesn't get away.

Bond Quips #2: (reflecting on the crashed hearse) I think they were on the way to a funeral.

Other things to watch out for: Pussfeller's nightclub where the cosmopolitan crowd are all dancing with partners of the same skin tone to get around the American censor's rather twitchy attitude to mixed race couples.

Bottom Line: This is ALL about Connery. From the moment he delivers "the Line" he on a trajectory to superstardom that no toppling can prevent. What a magnificent bad-word!

Now check out this interview with the rather wonderful Ms Moneypenny. Can't SHE by the next James Bond when Mr Craig is done?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Day 4295: Wealth is the Enemy of Growth


Returning from his holiday, Captain Clegg talked to the Grauniad and mentioned a WEALTH TAX.

You'd think this would be entirely UNCONTROVERSIAL. It's Party policy after all, and we've talked Mansion Tax enough for everyone to know that.

But BOTH other Parties ATTACKED him.

Predictably, the Conservatory right called it "politics of envy", then warned that it might "drive wealth creators away".

Meanwhile Hard Labour sneered disingenuously that if he wants to tax the wealthy he shouldn't have voted to cut the top rate of income tax.

But we're NOT talking tax on INCOME. We're talking tax on WEALTH.

Mr Milipede has already been called to task over his DODGY MATHS and FALSELY accusing Mr Balloon of getting a £40,000 cheque from the treasury.

(Because that's how tax works in New One Nation Hard Labour's heads – ALL your money goes into the Treasury and then Mr Bully Balls decides how much he will generously allow you to have back.)

And it's very interesting that Mr Milipede OBSESSES with the top rate of INCOME tax. And IGNORES or RUBBISHES the actually more important question of WEALTH taxes.

People who are WEALTHY (that is have lots of ASSETS, whether that is money in the bank or estates in Oxfordshire or another small Picasso) do not necessarily have a lot of INCOME.

If the house is paid for, and the kids school fees are covered by the trust fund and there's money in the bank to pay for the next holiday... you don't have to EARN money, and so you don't pay tax. Oh, you might have to pay a bit VAT but by and large you can arrange matters to avoid most of the unpleasantnesses of Inheritance or Capital Gains Taxes.

People who are WEALTHY are NOT necessarily "WEALTH CREATORS" either. If you don't have to work, you don't have to build a business or employ people or invest in anything. Largely you can sit on your pile of dosh and cream off the rents from your properties. (Literally rent if it's buildings, but it could also be dividends from shares.)

Jobs and growth are "created" by small businesses. This has always been the case.

Oh we all LIKE the idea of WEALTH, of being, as Lord Mandy so memorably put it, intensely relaxed about becoming filthy rich, We'd love to have so much money that we don't need to work. It's why the Lottery and Downton Abby remain so popular. But at the same time, we all secretly know that it's totally PARASITIC.

If you are WEALTHY already – like, say, those good COMMUNISTS, the Milipedes – then you don't NEED to EARN lots of money. No, you can afford to take unpaid internships, getting on the inside track, and the old boy network paves your way up the greasy pole (to well and truly mix that metaphor).

But economic GROWTH, at least in a CAPITALIST society, depends on money being INVESTED to earn a PROFIT. That way your society has more money at end of the year than it did at the start. And then you reinvest it again.

WEALTH, on the other fluffy foot, means taking money OUT of the economy and parking it in a piggy bank. Or "house" as we usually call them in Great Britain, what with the ridiculous runaway house price inflation we've contracted, with the full collusion of every government and pretty much every homeowner. After all, when you're spending SO MUCH money on a house you REALLY don't want the value to go DOWN.

Wealth is about EXTRACTING productive capital from the economy. It actively harms growth.

That is why Captain Clegg is COMPLETELY right to say we want to move tax OFF the income of working people, and ON to the wealth of the well-heeled. It's not JUST about FAIRNESS – though obviously it IS more fair – but also about rewarding the people who are ADDING to the Growth while at the same time getting hold of some of that locked-away money and putting it back to work for the benefit of all of us.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Day 4292: When I say break up the banks I mean REALLY break up the banks!


Hard Labour's Mr Milipede has called for the "break up" of the banks. More accurately, he's called for no more than the implementation of last year's Vickers and Tarts report.

Not that the Coalition's WATERED DOWN Vicker's proposals are GOOD, but Hard Labour's proposal is TIMID, and leaves a HUGE OPPORTUNITY for Liberal Democrats to lead REAL RADICAL REFORM.

WE SHOULD break up the banks but NOT JUST into "high street" and "casino". We should take these ENORMOUS institutions, particularly the two that we OWN and turn them into LOTS of SMALL local and regional banks.

I wanted to say this in the "Growth and Jobs" debate at the Brighton Conference just past. I put in a card but sadly I didn't get called. Sadly, because the debate was largely side-tracked into a false debate between the leadership and Liberal Left's amendment. I don't think that that debate was helped any by having so many of the speakers against the amendment be MP's; when it came to a vote it seemed very few people – passionate though they are – actually favour breaking the Coalition's fiscal mandate agreement. It would have been HEALTHIER for the Party to see some "ordinary" members taking to the stage to speak against the amendment. I know I would have done, given the chance.

However what I really wanted to contribute was support for the policy of better access to local banking and credit for small business. Largely what I'd have said was this:

The banks are very big, international institutions. But jobs and growth in the UK have always, historically, come from small and medium sized local businesses. This is a FUNDAMENTAL MISMATCH in SCALE.

Small and medium sized businesses are the REAL "wealth creators" and often they're not ACTUALLY WEALTHY (a distinction that the Conservatories prefer to blur – but I'll talk about the need to tax WEALTH rather than WEALTH CREATION in a different diary) and not being wealthy means that these businesses, and the people who work to make them work need to BORROW.

And we know that small and medium businesses are the ones finding it HARDEST to get investment from the big banks. That's why Vince is having to set up HIS OWN bank just to try and uncrunch the credit to their businesses.

We can't expect Vince to do all the heavy lifting by himself though. That's why we need MORE banks. That's also why we need them to be SMALLER, LOCAL banks where they have the knowledge to help and support local businesses.

Hard Labour's solution to FAILING Banks, Mr Alistair Dalek's solution, was to bung them together into EVEN BIGGER banks. Even bigger FAILURES.

We all know that "banks too big to fail" were really just "TOO BIG".

The answer to the risk of bank lending is NOT to make them store up money like dragon's treasure. That's what we're doing, but it's what is stoppering up the flow of money to business.

Instead we should spread the risk about so that it becomes SMALLER and more MANAGEABLE. Small banks might be at greater risk if local businesses do badly, but small banks are SMALL ENOUGH TO SAVE.

I'm not saying get rid of ALL the International Banks. On the contrary, we need banks at all different scales. But policies of acquisitions and mergers, and laisez faire attitude to COMPETITION have seen big banks gobble up small ones, leaving us with a virtual CARTEL. (And if we're going to convince the Conservatories about this, remind them that more banks means more COMPETITION which is supposed to be GOOD for the consumer. They're supposed to like that sort of thing.)

Making banks SMALL is GOOD LIBERALISM: it protects people from BULLYING by putting them on a more even footing with their bank AND it encourages LOCALISM by giving the small bank bankers an incentive to invest in their community.

(I'm going to try writing a few "big policy idea" pieces in the near future for the fairly obvious reason that the FEDERAL POLICY COMMITTEE elections have come around again.

If you want to see the Party discussing big, radical policies again, please do encourage any voting reps to vote for me – that's Richard Flowers, rather than Millennium Elephant.

And if there are any big ideas you think I should be covering, or even any radical small ideas, please comment or e-mail me!)