Chris Skidmore: Thinking, fast and slow. Why we need a long-term Education Recovery Plan.

20 Jan

Chris Skidmore is a former Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister between 2018-2020, and is MP for Kingswood.

As the first few weeks of 2021 pass in lockdown, looking depressingly like 2020, many parents will be struggling attempting to juggle working full-time remotely with home schooling their children. As I write this, for instance, I’m sitting on the floor of my son’s bedroom, attempting to be as far away as possible from the alternate shouting and screams of three children six and under. Thankfully, today is my turn to catch up on the work I’ve missed. Over the past few days, instead I’ve been immersed in the Night Pirates, Number Blocks, phonics, reading and handwriting tasks, maths, comprehension, in what seems a never-ending timetable of tasks.

My guilt at never seeming to be able to teach the work set each day is matched only by my admiration for my children’s teachers who seem to have assembled a vast array of lessons, videos and materials at short notice— and whose talent for engaging children is clearly a vocation. A talent which I’m increasingly coming to suspect that I am lacking in. Those that can, teach, those that can’t… well, become Tory MPs perhaps.

It’s clear that despite my best efforts, my own children aren’t getting the expert educational experience that I know they would had they been at school. I’m sure it’s a worry and concern of every parent — especially for those who in these trying circumstances simply don’t have access to laptops or digital equipment to even complete the tasks set of them.

While it is right that there has been a clear focus on ensuring disadvantaged students and those affected by digital poverty don’t miss out on an education, however, we must recognise that every pupil of every age will be scarred by the pandemic. Too much learning has been lost, and too many children will find their educational outcomes affected, to simply return to business as usual. It’s why we need to start thinking now about a long-term education recovery plan for our entire education system — one that encompasses early years to universities and beyond.

To start with, we must start think long-term about the scale of the challenge now. We cannot afford to simply react to events, waiting to see what happens with the spread of the virus and its containment, before we decide the next stages of an entire generation’s future. The impact of the pandemic will emerge like the widening ripples in a pond when a stone has been thrown: its impact, in particular its educational impact, will be with us for years, a fact which we must come to terms with and have a strategic plan to help counter.

Already the Chair of the Education Select Committee and educational leaders have called for a redesign of the examination system. What is needed foremost, however, is a definitive understanding of the outcomes that we wish to achieve, before moving onto the processes to deliver this.

Most importantly, is perhaps the recognition that with the Key Stage assessments abandoned for this year, we will urgently need a system by which we can monitor individual pupil progress, so that pupils at risk of educational failure due to the pandemic can be rescued as quickly as possible, and given the individual support and tuition that they need to get back on track. This should be viewed as the critical mission. Identifying those pupils at risk of educational disadvantage means new forms of assessment, and data collection, will need to be considered. Above all, there must be transparency and a common approach to what is being measured.

Another key part of a long-term education recovery plan should also be the curriculum in schools. Not to change the curriculum, but to provide all schools with the ability to teach a “Recovery Curriculum”. I’ve seen already some fantastic work taking place in my own local authority, South Gloucestershire, which is modelling a Recovery Curriculum based on the experiences of New Zealand schools after the earthquake there. Before lockdown, this had resulted in improved attendance and dramatic recoveries in reading and writing abilities of pupils whose learning had been affected during the first lockdown. Best practice is out there, lead by some truly inspiring teachers— the strategic question that must be answered is how can this best practice be spread and incentivised, and monitored to encourage all teachers to engage in these forms of learning.

Then there is the thorny question of educational outcomes. I’m cautious about re-inventing the wheel at a time when stability and certainty is needed. Pupils deserve exam results to show for all their hard work, and existing systems that have held their own as a standard over time should not be thrown out for the sake of change. But we do need to address the issue of admissions to university, and how results and assessment are used to deliver this.

Post Qualification Admissions have been proposed as a way forward, yet with the qualifications themselves under review, we need greater long-term certainty of how we can achieve an equitable admissions system that encourages disadvantaged pupils to reach their potential. The fact that just nine per cent of boys from the north east reach university remains one of the starkest failures of our education system: universities have a critical role too in helping to address some of these divides that are likely only to be compounded as a result of Covid.

Reforms to post-18 education to ensure lifelong learning and flexible qualification structures have taken on a fresh urgency in light of the pandemic, especially with the likely need for retraining and reskilling of a large number of people seeking new forms of employment. For them, and indeed the country, education will be a vital ladder, an escape route, out of their present circumstances.

Ultimately, a long-term education recovery plan must start not from what is convenient for existing systems and vested interests of the organisations that operate in this space. To do this would mean that those with the loudest voices, and greatest lobbying efforts, win out. What is needed instead is an approach that defines the “points of contact” at every stage of a child’s educational journey — and defining how these have been adversely affected by the pandemic, and what can be done to resolve this.

Defining and delivering a long-term plan, with the investment needed to achieve this, will be hard work: easier, more tactical approaches, may seem more attractive. Yet to achieve an effective recovery, the longer term, strategic planning is now essential. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, how we have the opportunity to make choices, based either on fast, intuitive thinking, or slow, rational thinking, yet “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution”.

With all the immediate talk of laptop provision as the instant solution to current learning problems, we must not forget that now is also the time to prepare all pupils for their educational recovery, encompassed in a long-term strategic approach. It is a choice that we must take, and think rationally about how we deal with what will become one of the greatest fall-outs from the pandemic.

Lord Ashcroft: For many voters, America’s election was not about Biden – but a referendum on Trump

20 Jan

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Joe Biden’s inauguration today will be greeted with a huge sigh of relief by millions in America and around the world. The moment crowns the victory not just of Biden, but of the institutions of American democracy that many still fear are under threat. After a fortnight of extraordinary drama that saw the storming of the Capitol building and a second impeachment for an outgoing president, it would be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture – the movements that brought American politics to where it is, and their effect in the election that feels as though it took place not just eleven short weeks ago but in another age.

If the 2016 election that sent Donald Trump to the White House will stand as one of the defining political events of our time, its successor last year was in many ways at least as remarkable: the supposedly unpopular president winning more votes than any previous Republican, losing only to the candidate with the most votes ever. This week I am publishing my analysis, based on four years of research throughout the US as well extensive polling and focus groups during the 2020 campaign. The research both helps to explain what happened and why, and gives some clues about what we can expect in the next chapter of American politics. Here are some of the key points.

What is President Biden’s mandate?

With a record-breaking haul of 81 million votes, Biden is the most successful presidential candidate in American history. But for many voters, the election was not about Biden but a referendum on Trump. I found 99 per cent of Trump supporters saying they approved of the job he had done, and nine in 10 said they would be voting for the incumbent; 94 per cent of Biden supporters disapproved of Trump’s performance and a quarter said they were voting mainly to get rid of him.

Those switching from Trump to Biden were most likely to mention disillusionment with Trump among their reasons; having high expectations of Biden or liking Democrat policies were at the very bottom of the list.

While policy concerns were different for Trumpers (the economy, immigration) and Biden backers (Covid, healthcare), another telling difference was the kind of leader they wanted. While three quarters of Trump enthusiasts would rather have a president “who does the right thing even if it is divisive,” a majority of Biden supporters would prefer one “who will create a more civil political climate and build consensus even if I don’t agree with everything they do.”

In other words, for many voters Biden had one job – to see off Trump – and he will accomplish his task today. The new president’s problems will begin with whatever he decides to do next. As with any successful political movement, especially one of this size, the coalition that elected Biden in 2020 is far from being a monolithic bloc. Its foundation is the Democratic base, many of whose members yearned for a more liberal, progressive direction and found the compromise of nominating an established moderate quite agonising. Many of them hoped that Biden’s victory would, in fact, usher in a much more radical Democratic era than might have been suggested by the new president’s record in Washington or his reassuringly temperate campaign style. These were joined by a group of new voters, younger and more ethnically diverse, who were opposed to Trump and all his works and were particularly driven to address racial injustice.

Then there is a much more moderate set of voters who wish above all for a calmer, less acrimonious form of politics. Less inclined to dismiss the Trump years out of hand, they were more likely than most to prefer a president who creates a more civil political climate. If they had doubts about Biden it was over his age and health, and the prospect that he might quickly be succeeded by a new face with a more radical agenda. What they wanted was not a Green New Deal but a bit of peace and quiet. Yet with Vice President Harris having the casting vote in a 50-50 Senate, the Biden administration has little excuse not to be bold. The potential for conflict and disappointment among his supporters is already apparent.

Trumpism without Trump?

Some see the 2020 election as a repudiation of Trump and it’s presidency. Arguably, it’s a funny sort of repudiation that sees a president win 11 million more votes, and a higher vote share, than he did four years earlier. For many, the temptation to dismiss Trump supporters as the “basket of deplorables” and lump them all in with the Capitol-storming extremists will be greater than ever. But this would be an injustice and a mistake. As his reputation implodes, it is as important as ever to grasp what it was about the Trump offering that nearly half the electorate found so compelling.

Looking back at what he did and what his supporters told us during four years of research, I think this can be distilled into what we might call the Seven Tenets of Trumpism. An enduring belief in American exceptionalism – the idea that the US is different from, and in important ways, greater than, other countries; conviction that constitutional freedoms like free speech and the right to own guns are important and need defending; the belief that it is possible for anyone who works hard to be successful in America, whatever their background; rejection of political correctness and identity politics; belief in business, low taxes and deregulation; support for a forceful, independent foreign policy; and – crucially – willingness to tolerate a good deal of friction in politics in the cause of advancing these things.

The question for the Republican Party is whether this powerful proposition can be disentangled from the 45th president himself. Could you have Trumpism without Trump? In my research, one in three Trump supporters told us they approved of what he had done as president but disapproved of his character and personal conduct. This meant two thirds of his supporters said they approved of both his actions and the way he behaved. That’s not to say most will not have been horrified as they saw the seat of their democracy under attack. But for most of his presidency, what others saw as his outrageous behaviour was not just part of the package, but part of the appeal – a feature, not a bug. Many loved having a president who said exactly what they thought, refused to conform to politically correct orthodoxies and remained a political outsider.

Some would like the Republicans to put the whole Trump era behind it, but it won’t be that simple. The two parties in American politics have always drawn the base of their support from very different constituencies, but over the last forty years that fault-line has shifted completely.

On this map, the vertical axis represents security, in terms of things like health, income and occupation – the higher up, the more secure. The horizontal axis represents diversity, which includes factors like ethnicity and population density – the further to the left, the more diverse. Over the last 40 years, the Democratic party’s base of support has in economic terms grown steadily more upscale, while the Republicans have become the party of rural and small-town America. The coalition that sent Trump to the White House is different from the one that elected George W. Bush, let alone his father. In charting its new course, the Republican Party cannot simply trade this coalition in for a new one.

The task the Republicans now have is to hold together that base of support, and even expand back into the suburbs and cities themselves. To say that President Trump’s performance since the election has made this task harder would be an understatement of colossal proportions. Those who want it to remain “Donald Trump’s Republican Party” (as Don Junior had it at the fateful rally) might try the patience of mainstream Republicans beyond endurance: being uncouth on Twitter is one thing, inciting insurrection is altogether another. But those who want a Trump-free future for the GOP must find a way of distancing themselves from him while holding onto the millions – minus the extremist minority – that he brought into the Republican fold. This leads to another question – for another day – of whether the GOP will even continue to exist in its current form.

Can Biden reunite America?

For four years, Trump has been the focal point for divisions in American politics. But if he exacerbated those divisions, he did not create them. As we can see from this dashboard of our polling during the campaign, there are deep and genuine differences in outlook, priorities and values: the issues they care about, whether they believe minorities enjoy equal rights and opportunities, the role of the government, how the Constitution should be interpreted, and the things they worry about on a daily basis.

Combining these various views and attributes on one map makes for an interesting picture of the electorate. We see here how different issues, attributes, personalities and opinions interact with one another. The closer the plot points are to each other the more closely related they are.

We can see how issue concerns, political outlook, news sources, views of American life and Trump’s presidency were associated with support with one or another candidate at the 2020 election.

Such a divergence of views and priorities is the stuff of politics, and an equivalent map could be drawn of the electorate in any democracy. The divisions are made more acute, however, by the way each side views the motivations of the other.

Two thirds of Republicans said they thought people who vote Democrat and support Biden were “good people who want good things for America, we just disagree about how to achieve them.” However, only just over half of Democrats were prepared to say the same about Republicans and Trump voters: 42 per cent said these were “bad people who want the wrong things for America,” including majorities of those who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primaries and those who describe themselves as very liberal, and two thirds of self-declared socialists.

Nine out of ten Biden enthusiasts said either that they thought Trump was the biggest cause of recent divisions in society or that he had made existing divisions worse. Most Trump supporters, meanwhile, thought America would be just as divided even if he had never run for president.

Accordingly, the two camps took different views when asked about politics in the post-Trump era. Only a small minority of voters thought things would go back to normal quite quickly when Trump left office. But while a majority of Biden enthusiasts and almost half of Biden-Trump switchers thought things would gradually return to normal, six in ten Trump enthusiasts thought politics would either remain just as divisive or become even more so after Trump’s departure.

While Biden supporters often said they wanted more unity and less division, this often seemed less evident in the way they spoke about the people who voted for Trump. “There’s a lot of effing stupid people in our country,” said one Democrat reflecting on the 2016 result. “Idiots and frickin’ old, racist white men.” The idea that his voters had simply lacked guidance by better informed people such as themselves was also a regular theme: “Did we not do enough to reach out? Did we not do enough educating the people in our lives?” agonised one woman. “Some of my friends have Trump signs all over their yard and I still love them, and our children still play together. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think they have received stupid misinformation.”

Trump voters, meanwhile, felt strongly that the calls for agreement and consensus were only really aimed in one direction. “I’m a middle-aged white conservative Christian male. All of this inclusiveness and unity, and what they’re really saying is that nobody else has to change their mindset but me.” The supposedly tolerant left “is only tolerant if you agree with their opinion. If you voted for Trump, then you’re the enemy.” As for the idea of Biden ending the divisions, “It’s like they’re going to wave a magic wand and fix everything that’s wrong now. If Jesus came back and was the President, I’m not sure he himself could do it.”

Lord Ashcroft’s latest book, Reunited Nation? American Politics Beyond The 2020 Election is published this week by Biteback.

Ryan Bourne: A reassuringly conservative speech from Starmer’s Shadow Chancellor. The Tories will need to up their game.

20 Jan

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Just in case the Conservatives hadn’t got the message: Labour under Keir Starmer is a very different beast to the party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Dueing the past fortnight, the Labour leader has parked his tanks on conservative lawns, talking first of Labour as “the party of the family,” then setting out a foreign policy vision of the UK as a “bridge between the U.S. and Europe.” Annelise Dodd’s Mais Lecture on economics was perhaps more striking still in the break of tone and type of criticisms made of Conservative policy compared with the last leadership.

Gone were the unhinged attacks on “neoliberalism” that characterised Corbynite bloviating. The fault-finding was specific and targeted. Dodds acknowledged the difficulties any government would face in a pandemic. Her surgical critique was that the UK’s Covid-19 outcomes were worsened by government foot-dragging on tightening lockdown restrictions, and Treasury attempts to fine-tune the balance between economic and public health.

Specifically, she claimed that its mixed-messaging on financial support to businesses, first delivering it and then threatening to withdraw it based on firms’ “viability,” created needless uncertainty. With the vaccines hopefully soon ending the pandemic, she argued that supporting firms until reopening was now more prudent than letting the chips fall when furlough ends in Spring. On the balance of costs and benefits, most economists would probably now agree.

There was little Corbyn-like wailing about past “austerity” either. Dodds’ criticisms of the last decade of government fiscal policy were restrained, and more plausible for it. She claimed that some spending cuts may have adversely impacted the pandemic response; that 16 fiscal targets coming and going since 2010 has created instability; that there should be more focus on the long-term public finances rather than the short-term; and that rapid deficit reduction coming out of the pandemic (including tax hikes, as Rishi Sunak reportedly wants) would be economically destructive. All these criticisms, individually, would not be surprising in ConservativeHome op-eds.

Yes, Labour still wants a bigger state than the Conservatives. Yet unlike many on the Left, Dodds appears under no illusions that running up debt is riskless or a free-lunch. “…it would be an irresponsible economic policymaker who planned on the assumption that low interest rates will continue indefinitely,” she said, while musing about a longer-term inflation risk. Her new “fiscal framework,” focused on planning to balance day-to-day spending and tax revenue, would be based on the recommendations of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Now none of this is particularly exciting. The speech was littered with boilerplate progressive assertions and the usual touching faith in the power of government. But it’s telling that Dodds actively shirked the opportunity to announce some glitzy new retail offer to grab newspaper headlines. There was no promise even of a Labour government “creating” high-wage jobs, or “transforming” the economy.

Instead, the speech was quintessentially small-c conservative. Labour, we were told, would protect the independence of the Bank of England, be “responsible” with the public finances, embrace free trade, protect businesses from Covid failure, focus policy on thorny structural problems rather than chasing day-to-day media coverage, and deliver “value for public money” from government spending.

Indeed, peer through the mundane parts of the speech, and you see a rhetorical critique of the current government that wouldn’t have looked out of place coming from Conservatives a decade ago. Dodds’ subtle message was that government decisions on infrastructure and procurement contracts were often determined more by short-term, pork-barrel political considerations than sound economic judgment, bringing with them at least a whiff of crony capitalism.

The speech highlighted waste and mismanagement through Covid-19, for example, including on the test-and-trace programme and the purchase of faulty antibody tests. Any errors are more forgivable in a pandemic when there were potentially huge returns on such investments and time is of the essence.

But those types of criticisms will likely amplify with Conservatives’ newfound penchant for large regional infrastructure projects (prone to massive cost overruns) and place-based revival packages (prone to political cronyism). Again, the argument that Conservative economic decisions are politically-motivated and wasteful is a very different attack than the more ideological opposition from Corbyn and McDonnell.

None of this is to say that all of Dodds’ analysis is coherent or correct. The theme of the speech was “resilience” – that is, how the pandemic shows the need for an economy robust to future shocks. Mercifully, Labour has not jumped on the bandwagon of saying the pandemic proves we need the government to actively re-shore a whole bunch of medical manufacturing production—the braindead, yet widespread “fight the last war” recommendation of those unable to conceive of shocks originating here. Yet there was still a bit of a “this crisis proves much of what I’ve always believed to be true” about her analysis.

Dodds suggested, for example, that a lack of savings among the poor, job insecurity among gig economy workers, and “socio-economic inequality” all help explain Britain’s poor Covid-19 outcomes. Perhaps on the margins those factors did make things worse. But the overwhelming reason why the UK has performed badly so far relative to countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand, is surely little to do with the labour market or macroeconomic policy, and almost entirely explained, to the extent that policy can actually explain things, by public health decisions at various times.

It is within Labour’s comfort zone to say reducing inequality and strengthening workers’ rights would have mitigated the costs of this pandemic. It would have been braver for them to expose failures in government bodies: say, Public Health England, whose centralisation of testing proved a disaster; or the NHS, with its systemic rationing reducing the incentive for spare capacity; or government scientists, who downplayed the early need for tough measures and told people mask wearing was unnecessary. If they really want “resilience,” they would surely explore the future case for deregulation in medical innovation. Earlier human challenge vaccine trials, for example, could have sped up delivery or a working vaccine, negating much of the last year’s pain.

Such a broad evaluation was perhaps always too much to hope for. But this speech proved that Labour is developing a more refined critique of the Conservatives. This is not the sort of emotional “blood on their hands” or anti-capitalist screeching we saw from Corbyn’s Labour.

Instead it is a crisp focus on the need for decisiveness, competence, and propriety in delivering effective government. The upgrade in opposition may well, in time, sharpen government decision-making. But a party with half-baked plans to rebalance the economy through massive infrastructure projects and shifting around government departments, led by a Prime Minister known for making late calls, may find such criticisms difficult to shake off.

Even by Welsh Labour’s standards, Drakeford’s decision to slow the vaccine rollout is abysmal

19 Jan

Ever since efforts to maintain a ‘four-nation’ approach to Covid-19 first broke down over the summer, the pandemic has been a crash course in devolution for those who hadn’t been following the constitutional debate.

Although Scotland tends to get more attention, both because the stakes are higher and because of the extraordinary drama playing out between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, Wales has provided plenty of eye-opening examples of devocrat governance in action.

Early in the pandemic, Conservatives attacked the Welsh Government after it opted out of Westminster’s initiatives to ensure food deliveries to high-priority individuals and recruit and coordinate volunteers via the ‘GoodSAM’ app. Later the nation was treated to the absurd sight of Welsh supermarkets having to fence off isles of ‘non-essential’ goods in order to avoid “unfair competition” with other shops.

Yet none of that is as bizarre as Mark Drakeford’s decision to deliberately slow the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine in the Principality. This will leave vulnerable people needlessly unprotected – just to make sure that his vaccinators aren’t left with nothing to do until the next shipment comes in.

The First Minister faces a fierce backlash, and rightly so. Even Plaid Cymru, who have until now been generally supportive of the Welsh Government, have gone on the attack. But it remains to be seen if any of that will make a difference.

Like the SNP, Labour in Wales have yet to squander the initial ‘rally round the flag’ surge in popular goodwill from the start of the crisis, and in both Edinburgh and Cardiff the government’s popular support seems remarkably immune from day-to-day misgovernment. Whilst the most recent polls suggest a slight narrowing in their support there is nothing resembling an alternative administration to be seen, as the Welsh Conservatives are unlikely to risk striking a deal with the Nationalists for fear of turbo-charging the rise of Abolish the Assembly, who are on track for two seats.

James Frayne: Sunak must resist those calling for radical action on tax

19 Jan

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Speculation is rife the Government is planning to raise taxes in the Budget; the only questions seem to be who they’ll tax and for how long.

Time will tell; I don’t think big tax rises are a given yet, given the economic and political risks associated with such a decision and this Government’s tendency to kick hard decisions down the road until they’re sure they can carry opinion with them.

However, let’s assume the Government are going to raise taxes. Others on this site are better qualified to discuss the relative economic merits of such tax rises, but I set out here where the public are on the subject – and therefore how they might respond to different options said to be under consideration.

Don’t think tax, think living standards

In the 80s and 90s, the Conservatives won elections in part through their aggressive campaigns on tax; they savaged Labour on tax ahead of the upset victory in 1992.

In the three elections since, their tax campaigns weren’t enough to stand up to Blair’s juggernaut. Consequently, in this period, it became commonplace to think the public weren’t bothered about tax at all. And indeed, most contemporary polls on people’s political priorities tend to show the issue of “tax” as being very low down the list of public priorities.

But while “tax” sits low in the polls, “cost of living” or “living standards” are much higher; these are the questions we should be looking at in judging people’s attitudes to tax levels.

The question on tax is in part a question on income: people oppose most tax rises when they’re feeling poor. Massive numbers of people across the country – particularly those in the private sector outside the South East – have had a shocking year and their living standards have taken a battering. Tax levels really matter again, particularly where they directly eat into income.

Fairness, as ever, matters hugely

I know I’m obsessed with the English obsession of fairness, but here we go again: people must believe tax rises are “fair” – in their scale, operation and in who they hit.

Tax rises can never be too large; they must not be retrospective (for example by changing the rules in a way that punish people for lifestyle choices they made many years ago); they must not punish people who have, for example, already paid tax on some of their income; and they should not be targeted at those who are struggling.

Think of those taxes that have attracted public scorn in recent times: the “bedroom tax”; inheritance tax; and the prospect of raiding people’s accounts to pay for social care (effectively a tax). Each of them breached the public’s view of fairness.

Clear policy goals matter

In Westminster, it’s common to hear “people accept tax rises but always on others”. There’s some truth to this, but it needs explanation. Most people are willing to accept higher taxes if they think it’ll do some good.

This is why they initially went along with Gordon Brown’s tax rises in the early 2000s (they were seen as being directly linked to spending on public services), and why they also accepted higher taxes to pay for an increase in NHS spending recently.

It’s also why they are open to taxes being used to promote greener and cleaner lifestyles; while there’s scepticism about politicians’ motives on green taxes, they are open to the tax system being used, if it must be, to deliver policy outcomes like reduced air pollution and so on.

People know there’s no magic money tree

In France, politicians have been up in arms that so-called “Yellow Vest” activists want both higher spending and lower taxes; it’s a criticism occasionally levelled against new Conservative voters.

But it’s generally unfair criticism; most people know the money has to come from somewhere and debt must be repaid; they also know businesses pay a lot of tax. With this in mind, while given a choice they will often say tax “big business” first, they also know this isn’t cost free because it effects their ability to hire and retain staff.

What does all this mean? Probably five things.

Firstly, most fundamentally, any tax rises in the short term will be unpopular. No surprise there, perhaps, but the point is this: taxing families in a downturn is bad, but taxing their employers will be unpopular too.

It’s easier, as Labour discovered in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to raise taxes when the economy is doing well. It’s hard to see how the Government will be able to raise taxes and not take a hit somehow. Politically speaking, it’s about choosing the least-worst option; there is no clever route that will make the public think the Government has pulled off a wonderful move.

Secondly, and consequently, the Government should look to cut unnecessary spending wherever possible before raising taxes. People are opposed to tax rises but might reluctantly accept them – as long as it looks like Government has done everything possible to avoid them.

This provokes an immediate response: where on earth would you cut? Education? Welfare? Surely not in a downturn. This is a fair question; but the Government must at least be seen to try to reduce waste (incidentally, Labour are clearly alive to this, as they’ve been increasingly banging the drum on waste).

Thirdly, big bold changes like a wealth tax or equivalent risk political disaster. As discussed, English people go mad when rules change and they find themselves punished through no fault of their own. In this case, telling a group of thrifty, hard-working, older middle-class people they’re going to get whacked because the Government has previously enacted policies that caused their house prices to rocket would be completely politically insane.

With this in mind, politically speaking the Government would be better off pulling the levers that people understand: things like corporation tax, VAT and so on. While they would still be unpopular, they wouldn’t deliver massive losers – or, rather, massive new losers. Better to play safe.

Fourthly, the Government should consider one-off hits, justified by the need to pay for a year of massive but necessary largesse. Just as Labour introduced a one-off “Windfall Tax”, so the Government should consider one or more similar emergency taxes. People like to know what tax rises are for; they like them to be justified. There has probably never been a better time to justify a single, simple, one-off tax rise.

Fifthly, and finally, the Government should ignore the noise in the media on which products, sectors or businesses are popular or not as they consider who to tax. Instead, the Government should look at the actual choices ordinary people make in their daily lives: how they get to work; where they work; what they buy; where they buy; how they buy; and so on. The choices people actually make in life are usually the ones they really don’t want taxed.

Pretty soon, the media will be saying this Budget will make or break Rishi Sunak. A solid budget with no major political mistakes and commentators will be practically redecorating Downing Street on his behalf; a different outcome and you know the rest.

He will be encouraged to be big and bold and to do everything from launch Global Britain, to “level up” the country, and to pay off a massive chunk of new debt. I strongly suspect, when it comes down to it, he’ll play safe by using the tax system in the way we’ve all come to know – and he’ll announce that the Budget will be followed in short order by new statements on spending. In other words, he’ll try to stop people thinking this is a “one off” event.

But at the same time he’ll be thinking of his version of a Windfall Tax – and that could get dropped at any time.

Stuart Coster: Is Lib Dem election campaigning “essential activity”? A “reasonable excuse” for someone to leave home?

19 Jan

Stuart Coster is the Editor of LibDemWatch and previously co-founder of the People’s Pledge campaign for an EU referendum.

Reports have been rolling in over recent days of Liberal Democrat activists breaching coronavirus rules to make dangerously opportunistic leaflet deliveries during lockdown.

With a far keener eye on elections that are still said to be planned for May than, seemingly, public safety, Lib Dems have wasted no time in kicking off their New Year campaigns – despite much of the country being in Tier 4 and lockdown.

While supporters of other parties observe government guidance to stay at home unless for essential activity, Lib Dem activists have been spotted shamelessly putting their political leaflets through doors from Norwich to Eastleigh and Basingstoke to Derby.

Yet in every case, where the party has been challenged by the local media, even advised by the police that there are “no exceptions” to the restrictions for campaign leaflets, the clear chorus in defence has been that Lib Dem HQ has advised them that it’s fine to continue.

In Norwich, for example, local Lib Dem councillor, David Britcher, admitted to the Eastern Daily Press that deliveries of his party’s ‘Focus’ newsletter had continued for around 10 days while the area was under Tier 4 “Stay at Home” restrictions, though halted once the latest national lockdown was announced.

Norfolk moved into Tier 4 on Boxing Day, but Cllr Britcher confirmed that his volunteers continued delivering until the 4 January announcement of a full national lockdown.

But as local Conservative councillor for Hellesdon, David King, told EDP:

“As councillors, we are supposed to be leading by example and only making essential trips, so it doesn’t feel particularly right to me. I do not see delivering political leaflets as essential travel and I would not ask any volunteers to do it.”

Meanwhile down in Eastleigh, local Conservative MP, Paul Holmes, has branded Lib Dem activists “deeply irresponsible” over similar newsletter deliveries under their Tier 4 restrictions.

Speaking to the Southern Daily Echo, Holmes said:

“At a time when we know the virus is spreading rapidly, local Liberal Democrats are engaging in unsafe physical campaigning which poses a risk to residents. Surely when we are all making enormous sacrifices and grandparents are going without seeing grandchildren to stop the spread of Covid-19, Eastleigh Liberal Democrats can see that putting out party political leaflets is wrong?”

Other parties are equally dismayed. Eastleigh Labour campaigner, Sam Jordan, who said that members of his family who are shielding had received Lib Dem newsletters, told the Echo: “I’m very disappointed and very angry. We suspended all physical engagement once the pandemic really took off.”

Elsewhere in Hampshire, according to the Andover Advertiser local residents have received copies of the ‘Andover South Gazette’ from the Lib Dems – a publication that sounds rather like one of the Lib Dems’ misleading fake newspapers that we heard so much about during last year’s general election.

Test Valley Liberal Democrats defended the party’s actions, saying that they had been acting “in accordance with national legal guidance and advice received by our HQ”.

But also speaking to the Advertiser, Hampshire Constabulary contradicted that advice, saying: “We have been made aware of campaign leaflets being delivered in the Andover area, for which there is no exception for under the previous Tier Four regulations and now the national lockdown”, the police reportedly also writing to the local Liberal Democrats with “appropriate advice”.

It has been a similar story in Basingstoke, according to reports in the Basingstoke Gazette  that the Lib Dems’ lack of respect for coronavirus rules designed to keep people safe is far from a new development. The second national lockdown began on 5 November, but local Lib Dem campaigners had reportedly been out delivering their ‘Focus’ leaflets in Mickleover regardless. Criticising the party’s activities, a local Conservative group spokesperson told the Derby Telegraph:

“No right minded person would dream of campaigning at a time like this whilst everyone else is focused on supporting Derby’s efforts to keep Covid-19 infection rates down … That is why the behaviour of the Lib Dems is particularly disappointing. It’s shameful and demonstrates a staggering lack of judgement and, above all, is hugely disrespectful to the public.”

Councillors from other party groups, the Reform Derby group and Labour, both also confirmed they had halted local deliveries on November 4.

So what is this guidance from Lib Dem HQ that local Lib Dem activists are quoting as carte blanche to continue with their leaflet deliveries, regardless of the resurgent pandemic?

Advice evident from Lib Dem HQ, as updated on 8 January 2021, continues to encourage leafleting, playing down the idea of the virus spreading on surfaces like glossy paper, despite official advice confirming that it can indeed be spread by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes.

Professor Peter Wahl, who is leading the UK Research and Innovation team on how coronavirus spreads on surfaces, has said:

“Apart from airborne direct transmission, indirect transmission via surfaces, in particular in public spaces, can play an important role in spreading the disease.” 

A study published in the respected New England Journal of Medicine has also revealed that the virus survives on cardboard for 24 hours. We all know this well enough by now and presumably Lib Dem activists, after coming in from delivering their leaflets into thousands of houses, like the rest of us take the time to clean the surfaces of items that come into their homes. Why? Because it’s a well-established risk of contagion, however much the party may wish to play with words and self-servingly slide out of it.

Slippery Lib Dem HQ advice to activists goes on to claim that “The current lockdown guidance and legislation expressly permit people to leave their home to provide voluntary services that cannot reasonably be undertaken from home”, offering a link to government guidance that purports to endorse this view. However, it is a typically stretched interpretation of those rules to imagine “voluntary services” extends, beyond helping those needing support during lockdown, to delivering self-promotional, political leaflets. Especially when the same rules are also peppered with references to only “essential activities” being permissible.

As the information at the given link makes crystal clear, “You must not leave or be outside of your home except where you have a ‘reasonable excuse’. This is the law.” Does leafleting to promote a political party sound like a “reasonable excuse” or an “essential activity”? Hardly.

What’s more, Hampshire police, at least, seem to agree, having told the Andover Advertiser that they saw “no exception” to Tier 4 or lockdown rules for the delivery of campaign leaflets.

The only reasonable conclusion is that Lib Dem HQ is giving defective advice to party to activists, which has the potential to put the public in greater danger of the virus spreading. Yes, other items continue to be delivered through letterboxes. But that should not be taken by Lib Dems as licence to put out all items that can or should be delivered. Lockdown rules are often contradictory but are designed as far as possible to limit activities that risk spreading the virus.

And, yes, it appears there may still be elections in May and it is important that democratic debate continues. But this is January. The pivotal point, as corona cases again rise, is what constitutes an “essential activity” and “reasonable excuse” for someone to leave home. Yet revealingly, rather than deploy their own common sense in the public interest, the party’s local activists are happily quoting their HQ’s contemptibly self-serving guidance. Guidance which has now been contradicted by at least one police force.

Are the Liberal Democrats more interested in promoting themselves and trying to improve their political standing, than respecting coronavirus rules and keeping people safe during this currently resurgent pandemic?

On the basis of this evidence, that sadly does look to be the case. If you have seen Lib Dem leaflets being distributed during Tier 4 or lockdown restrictions in your area, please post the details and links to any local media coverage in the comments below – or email direct to LibDemWatch.

Robert Largan: Cutting Council Tax would do more to level up than cutting Corporation Tax

18 Jan

Robert Largan is MP for High Peak and a Member of the Levelling Up Taskforce Committee. Onward’s report, Levelling Up the Tax System, is available at this link.

At the last election, in northern constituencies like mine, many people voted Conservative for the first time. They did so for three main reasons: to “get Brexit done”; to stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister; and because they wanted to see their area “levelled up”.

We’ve left the EU with a deal and Corbyn has been consigned to the dustbin of history. In 2024, voters will judge this Government on its successes and failures in levelling up.

So far, the debate on levelling up has focused on spending, particularly on infrastructure and understandably so. There is a desperate need to invest in infrastructure in places like the High Peak, whether that be our roads and railways or our schools and hospitals or even our digital infrastructure. But this spending is only part of the levelling up equation. We also need to look seriously at how our tax system works and whether the burden is spread fairly across the whole country.

That is why the Levelling Up Taskforce along with the think tank Onward have published a new report on Levelling up the tax system.

The report takes a new approach, analysing the impact of different taxes on different parts of the country. For example, taxes such as council tax and VAT fall the hardest on the most deprived regions, while average council tax per head in London is lower than anywhere else in England, despite house prices being much higher.

We often hear about how London generates £1 in every £5 of tax receipts. But this ignores the fact that London generates less tax than any other region as a share of their GDP, partly because it benefits from much higher levels of commuters than other places. If we’re serious about levelling up, we need to reassess this situation.

The report considers which tax changes might have the biggest impact on helping people in the most deprived parts of the country as we recover from a global pandemic.

Because there are lots more Band A properties in poorer regions, cutting Band A council tax by a ninth would save 54 per cent of households in the North East an average of £147 a year, 43 per cent of households in Yorkshire an average of 146 per year, and 41 per cent of households in the North West an average of 148 per year. This would put more money in people’s pockets quickly.

While another reduction in corporation tax would benefit London most, an increase to capital allowances for plant and machinery or industrial buildings would be of far greater benefit to the North, Midlands and Wales where there are far more manufacturing businesses. Such a change would lead to large savings for businesses in places like Cheshire, Derbyshire, the West Midlands, Teesside, East Yorkshire, Northern Lincolnshire and Cumbria where capital spending is highest.

I’m not seeking to write the Chancellor’s budget for him but I hope that this report can open up a new dimension in the levelling up debate and help inform how we make tax and spending decisions in future. At the very least, the regional impact of different tax measures should be a standard part of Treasury analysis.

We won’t be able to level up the whole country if the Government has one of its hands tied behind its back. The full fiscal firepower of the Treasury is needed if we are going to give real change for parts of the country that have been neglected by Westminster for far too long.

Paul Mercer: Covid tests, airport checks – and how to avoid British citizens from being stranded abroad

18 Jan

Paul Mercer is the director of an international consultancy firm, and is a Charnwood Borough councillor.

The move to insist that returning travellers take a negative Covid-19 test makes sense, because it reduces the chance of new infections being brought into the UK, and means that passengers are less likely to infect each other.

Tests in Canada revealed that 1.5 per cent of non-symptomatic travellers were positive. Although this number seems low, it suggests that every international flight is importing potentially three or four infected people. Other research has suggested a minimal chance of catching Covid-19 from another passenger on a plane. But even if only 95 per cent of passengers succeed in getting the test, that would reduce the number coming into the UK with it to less than one in 1,300.

Governments rightly recognise that some foreign travel is necessary for international business to continue, but placing impenetrable barriers in their way ultimately means that contracts don’t get signed and the economy suffers.

On January 11, Robert Courts announced that “passengers arriving by ship, plane or train will have to take a test up to three days before departure and provide evidence of a negative result before they travel”. This was defined in a subsequent statutory instrument published on January 16 – the day before the changes were implemented.

The rules largely rely upon threatening to fine airlines who fail to check rather than doing so when one arrives in the UK, although immigration officers can still impose fixed penalty fines, starting at £500 for failure to produce a certificate.

The Government recognises that in some cases obtaining a test within three days may be difficult, but the problem is that airlines, faced with the threat of a £2,000 fine, are unlikely to allow any UK-bound passengers to board without a certificate.

A significant problem is that although many countries are offering ‘48 hour checks’ the reality is that these take longer, because the certificates can only be picked up later on the third day.

Typically, they recommend that you turn up for the check at 8.00am and collect the result two days later at 3.00pm – a 54-hour turnaround. If you assume one hour to get to the airport, it follows that you can only depart between 7.00pm and 9.00am to meet the 72-hour rule. The rules are quite specific that it is the time from when the sample was taken rather than when the certificate was produced that counts.

A third difficulty is that the negative test result must include one’s date of birth and when the sample was taken. I have had two Covid PCR tests outside the UK in the past two months, and neither of them met these requirements, although both included my passport number – which, curiously, has been omitted from these requirements. If airlines follow these rules strictly, then many people will be unable to return to the UK. The new policies stipulate that certificates must be in English, Spanish or French, and this seems likely to exclude even more people.

A final problem is that there is no way for travellers to get clarity about these regulations. Courts stated that British nationals who were having problems meeting this requirement “should contact the nearest consulate, embassy or high commission”.

When I followed his advice last week, I was informed by ‘David F’ at the ‘Consular Contact Centre’ that “the Home Office owns information regarding entry to the UK, including testing requirements, quarantine and exemptions”, and that he could therefore not help. Instead I should “contact the Home Office”.

He added that “for information about Covid-19 testing requirements abroad”, the Foreign Office recommended “an Internet search of the words ‘Covid testing near me’.” This produced helpful links to Chicago, Mumbai, Cheltenham and San Francisco.

The new regulations have also quietly taken away some of the exemptions from quarantining introduced for business travellers, those involved in advertising productions, the arts, television production, the National Lottery and journalists.

If these rules are to be effective with impending legitimate travel, more than reliance upon airlines and the occasional random check by an immigration officer is required. The current online Public Health Passenger Locator Form’ (PLF) works seamlessly, because it is linked to passports which are checked at eGates on returning to the UK. Passengers without the form are not allowed through.

It would make more sense to add a requirement to attach the Covid Test Certificate to the PLF and enter its details at the same time. This would offer several advantages. It would deter the temptation to submit a fraudulent certificate; it would make it considerably easier for airlines to carry out the necessary check; and the UK authorities would have a record that the appropriate certificate had been obtained.

Over the next few days, it will become apparent whether the Government, in reducing the risk of transmission, has stranded many British citizens abroad who have legitimately travelled for business purposes.