Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Liberal Democrats against tuition fees

I am proud that the Liberal Democrats have a long history of standing against tuition fees and supporting inclusive Higher Education.

Whatever the confused rhetoric of the coalition government on tuition fees and the broader question of Higher Education, the Lib Dems are still a party which supports the principle of abolishing tuition fees, as witnessed at the Scottish Lib Dem conference when a huge majority of party activists and members rejected increasing tuition fees.

Most of our grassroots members are more than uncomfortable with the shape government policy on Higher Education is taking. We did not campaign at the General Election for the regressive, discriminatory and simplistic remedies of the Browne Review.

We believe in a Higher Education system that is genuinely fair. We believe that education should be open to all. As the great Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith said: "a man is not free until he has the opportunities and means for education". The policy being proposed would remove these opportunities for many - and in our view that's not acceptable.

Only yesterday, over 100 Lib Dem parliamentary candidates urged Nick Clegg to oppose plans to increase tuition fees: Lib Dem candidates urge rethink on tuition fees (The Guardian, 29/11/10) This might not be the most sensible tactic in respect to maintaining party unity at the current time, but it reinforces the fact that we broadly remain a party opposed to tuition fees.

It's not just the grassroots activists who are unhappy with the government's policy. Some Lib Dem MPs, like Party President Tim Farron, have been outspoken in their opposition to increasing tuition fees; even if we are realistic enough to recognise that coalition requires compromise and that some of the changes being proposed are preferable to the status quo, we also value our distinct principles and beliefs as well as party integrity. Tim Farron accepts that Vince Cable has helped "improve the package" but that "people like me feel that it's not right to go against what we said [when] making a pledge". This is something that would strike a chord with many ordinary party members.

As Margaret Smith MSP pointed out at our Scottish conference, Liberal Democrats also see that the beneficiaries of Higher Education are not only the graduates themselves but also wider society. Any truly fair and progressive system of funding Higher Education should also be equipped to tackle current inequalities in education, rather than exacerbate them.

I have started a facebook group: Liberal Democrats against tuition fees. I would invite all like-minded people to join.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Help make ticket touting history

I'm a Liberal Democrat but - more importantly some would argue - I'm also a football fan. I'm an Albion Rovers supporter but a big fan of the game more generally and I'm an irregular visitor to such centres of culture as Cappielow, Firhill, Broadwood and Somerset Park. I wouldn't (by choice, anyway!) be anywhere else on a Saturday afternoon than at a football match. I love the game in Scotland, with its unique sub-culture and tradition. It's a completely different (and more authentic) experience watching a game in Scotland compared to, for example, south of the border - at least in my opinion.

I'm also a supporter of the national team. I manage to attend the odd game every so often. While supporting the Scotland team is perhaps evidence of sado-masochistic tendencies, I believe that the fortunes (and otherwise) of the Scotland side actually play a significant role in shaping our national identity. And while our prospects of qualifying for a mojor tournament look rather slim at the moment, at least Scotland fans can always have a good laugh at England's misfortunes.

But there's something very ugly been happening in Scottish football in recent years. No, I'm not talking about Craig Levein's Harry Potter look. And I'm not referring to the referees' strike either, although I have sympathy with their rationale for taking action.

Over the last few years there has been a noticeable increase in ticket touting in Scotland. On sites such as eBay, there are regularly Old Firm and SPL tickets for sale, often at prices well above the face value. This is also true in relation to Scottish Cup matches, with tickets fetching twice or three times their original price. More recently, tickets for the Scotland v Spain game were fetching four figure sums on online auction sites, until some principled fans took it into their own hands to sabotage the auctions by placing fake bids - as reported in the Daily Record.

While on one level this was a victory for "people power" against the touts, this isn't a lasting solution to the problems of touting. Just last week, Rangers v Manchester United tickets were being sold to willing buyers for over £100 each. What is required is legislation to prohibit the resale of tickets - or at the very least to ban resale fo tickets at a level higher than their original face value. The SFA might argue that "there's never been a great market for black market tickets" and that "the only way to [stop touting] is by refusing to pay", but this simply isnt true. Wherever there's a high demand, people will be willing to pay and it's this demand that touts exploit. The Scotland v Spain fixture was a gold mine for them.

I have written to my own MSP in relation to this issue, as well as the Minister (Shona Robison) and the sports spokespersons of each of the parties represented in Holyrood. Trish Godman, Patrick Harvie and Bill Butler were supportive of my proposals for legislative action to combat touting, while Tavish Scott was sympathetic but felt this was an issue for the UK government. Ms Godman agreed that “the legislation currently applying to England and Wales should also apply to Scotland” while Mr Scott asserted that “the introduction of legislation to ban the resale of tickets for events at above their face value is certainly worth considering...[but] this would be best done at a UK level...thankfully we do not have the levels of football hooliganism which would justify us following the route used in England”. Shona Robison has to date declined to reply.

I have also been in contact with eBay and the SFA. The SFA were predictably diplomatic in their response, but conceded that as long as “it’s not illegal here in Scotland...some sellers are wise to the system...making it impossible for us to trace [them]” and therefore take action. What the SFA does not admit is that, even if those reselling tickets can be traced, they are powerless to actually prevent the resale under current legislation. It is interesting to note that the SFA have “had discussions with the Scottish Government regarding the prohibition of this practice”. Clearly, the aims and principles of the Scottish Football Association are being severely compromised by its inability to be able to act decisively to prevent ticket touting and would be aided by some overdue legislation.

The irony is that UK law prohibits the resale of football tickets, but this only applies to fixtures in England and Wales. There is surely no reasonable justification for similar legislation not being applied to Scotland, especially after the Spain match provided the media with the opportunity to successfully expose the depth of the problem.

Sport is a devolved matter as are law and home affairs and therefore I have to disagree with Tavish Scott that this is a matter for the UK government. It is not; it is a problem that the Scottish government must get to grips with. Interestingly, the Scottish Government set a precedent by introducing legislation preventing tickets for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games being sold at a price higher than their face value - so why not extend this to cover other sports, or even tickets for concerts and events such as T in the Park?

My own belief is that the Scottish government is able and equipped to take overdue action. However, irrespective of which government should be responsible for dealing with the matter, my concern is that touting must be challenged. Please consider signing my petition, calling on the Scottish government to take action, featured on the Scottish Parliament website.

This is a serious issue, not least because touting undermines the SFA's principle of "football for all". The Sunday Post will this weekend be running a story on this issue, drawing attention to my own campaign for a legislative solution. Please help support the campaign and send a clear message to Shona Robison and the government.

A long six weeks...

I've not been blogging for a while and that is due entirely to the fact that unfortunately I've been ill and have spent longer than I would like experiencing first hand the services our NHS has to offer.

If a week in politics is a long time, then six weeks is an eternity. During the last few weeks, the Comprehensive Spending Review has been announced, Lord Browne announced his recommendations for the future of Higher Education, Ireland has been bailed out and a number of student protests have caused something of a stir. Here in Scotland, the SNP government is finding itself in all sorts of trouble, with John Swinney's spending review provoking criticism and the party finding itself at the centre of a row over the "Tartan Tax". There's also the matter of the election for the Liberal Democrat presidency: may I take the opportunity to congratulate Tim Farron and recommend he visits Inverclyde during his tour of constituencies.

Obviously there is a great deal about which I could write. But I have no intention of exploring in any detail these recent events; after all, these have been well documented elsewhere. However, like other Liberal Democrats I have been concerned in recent weeks at how events have unfolded and our own party leadership's response. It is more than worrying that entering the festive season, the polls continue to show Nick Clegg as only slightly more popular than King Herod.

It's all a far cry from the euphoria of April, when "Cleggmania" supposedly swept the nation. Admittedly, by its very nature, political exhilaration is always short-lived. But to have given way so spectacularly to fierce antipathy is perturbing; I imagine that none of the usually Lib Dem-friendly students attending recent protests were wearing "I agree with Nick" T-shirts.

This requires a considered tactical strategy on the part of our party. Instead, we find our leadership becoming more defensive. Not only is this a tactical mistake, it's also very uncomfortable witnessing Clegg and Cable defending government policy which, only a short while ago, they were fiercely opposed to. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of coalition government and collective responsibility but I imagine most Liberal Democrats would prefer Nick Clegg to be not quite so enthusiastic in his selling backward-looking policy packages as "progressive".

The Comprehensive Spending Review was neither comprehensive, nor a review. Anything that protected and ringfenced specific budgets can hardly be called comprehensive. And it wasn't so much a spending review as an opportunity to formulate and implement controversial policies which otherwise would probably never be considered by any sober-minded government. I'm not naturally cynical, but it is hard to see the CSR in terms of anything other than a smokescreen for introducing policies that had far more to do with the Cameron-Osborne worldview than any serious attempt at tackling the deficit.

I'm also not one of the unrealistic "no cuts to jobs and services" brigade. That's not to say that I welcome cuts - far from it. But there has to be realism, and there also has to be policy and a considered strategy to deal with the deficit. However, in attempting to tackle this terrible legacy of New Labour the government has to recognise the potential human and social ramifications of its policy; unfortunately it would seem that not only does the coalition government have limited imagination in regards policy ideas, but at best it seems blind to problems it will either create or exacerbate. Less kind people would say it simply doesn't care.

There were some constructive elements to the CSR. Some of it was painfully necessary, and I won't take lectures from those who refuse to grasp the economic reality. If you want to see what happens when an economy continues to borrow to fund its domestic spending programme, take a look at mainland Europe. It simply isn't viable for the UK to be living beyond its means.

However, the CSR was about so much more than redesigning the government's spending commitments. What have emerged are rather worrying social policies, which reflect the thinking of the more regressive elements of the Conservative Party rather than the socially liberal values our party has consistently promoted.

Let's take the review of welfare. Well, such a review was overdue. It's right that the benefits system should be re-examined and simplified. It's right that work should be made to pay - I know many people who are trapped not only by the benefits system but by low aspiration and a poverty of hope. But it is patently wrong that instead of declaring war on unemployment the government has declared war on the unemployed. Making distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor or describing those on benefits as "scroungers", "lacking a work ethic" or having opted for a particular "lifestyle choice" is unhelpful and socially divisive (not to mention judgemental) but such worrying language has originated from senior Tories and the tabloids in recent weeks. Only yesterday former MP Howard Flight expressed his disgust that people of a particular social class might actually breed. It is from this limited appreciation of British society and its problems that the Tories propose their remedies, including such ill-conceived plans as capping housing benefit (surely capping rents in certain areas would be more progressive, but that might mean house prices in London coming down to a sensible level and that wouldn't please Cameron's friends in the City), reducing access to social housing, making claimants work for their benefit and axing benefit to those who have been unemployed for over a year. The right-wingers might think they're "punishing the workshy" but the most likely effect of these draconian measures will be to destroy communities and people's lives. Placing a cap on how far the government will support you to live where you are well connected, around friends and family, suggests that community is irrelevant. This doesn't really sound like "the Big Society", although I'm not sure Cameron will be too concerned about the inconsistency between rhetoric and policy.

This should be anathema to liberals. We value communities. We believe in fairness, and these Tory ideas are obviously unfair. We also believe the best way to tackle joblessness isn't to "punish", but to create new jobs. Admittedly that's a tough challenge when the country's coming out of recession, but that's the only reasonable, long-term strategy to actually make inroads into unemployment figures. Job creation should be the government's top priority but, regrettably and criminally, it seems more interested in finding out how "happy" we all are now we're out of work. Even more alarming is how keen our Conservative partners in coalition have been so keen to ignore or marginalise the perspectives of Lib Dem ministers on this issue.

The scale and depth of the cuts will themselves have significant human consequences, not least here in Inverclyde where so many people are employed in the public sector, and will hardly aid job creation. I'm not convinced that, however necessary some cuts might be, cutting so deeply so quickly is the responsible solution. I found it very easy to agree with Nick Clegg when, earlier in the year he said this: "My eight year old ought to be able to work this out - you shouldn't start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing. If you do that you create more joblessness, you create heavier costs on the state, the deficit goes up even further and the pain with dealing with it is even greater. So it's completely irrational." I found it less easy to agree with Nick Clegg when, in Monday's Guardian, he wrote: "I reject the idea that it is more progressive to pay off the deficit more slowly than to act decisively". (Inequality becomes injustice when it is passed on, generation to generation, 22/11/10) Which begs a number of questions: a) when did Mr Clegg change his mind?, b) does he completely reject Vince Cable's pre-election remedies which won respect from economists and voters and c) is Mr Clegg aware that many - or probably most - members of his party have trouble with such "decisive" action?

My main criticism of the CSR is its unusually long term nature. The government has used the need to reduce deficit as a smokescreen to introduce a series of long-term policies. A review should be essentially focused on the short-term, addressing immediate priorities with the hope to be able to increase spending in key areas once these priorities were dealt with. To his credit, this has been John Swinney's approach in Scotland, but Cameron and Osborne are made of different stuff. They have cynically used the economic situation to implement polcies which will have a devastating social effect on communities like ours in Inverclyde and, worst of all, have no intention of reviewing or revisiting these policies in the near future.

As for the Browne Review...it didn't contain many surprises. In the ensuing controversy, however, it seems to be forgotten that it was Labour who instigated the Browne Commission and presumably would hardly have been able to reject the thrust of either its findings or recommendations. It should also be noted that, while Vince Cable expressed a preference for a graduate tax, he has actually done a great deal to ensure that the government's new policy is infinitely preferable to the more simplistic interpretations of Browne's remedy.

Students have taken to the streets en masse (mostly peacefully, I must add) and I respect their position. I also understand why there are many who are critical of Lib Dem MPs who pledged to vote against increasing fees only to be doing an about-turn once the party is in government. My instincts lead me to side with these critics, at least on this issue. When our party made such capital from a historic opposition to increasing fees, compromise on policy can be accepted from our colleagues in cabinet but compromise on principle can never be acceptable for the party at large.

I, however, also appreciate the pragmatic politics of coalition; furthermore, I understand that in the current economic climate it would be impossible to realise our long-standing objective to abolish fees. Those who remember the 200 Conference will remember the debate on this very issue, with the leadership asserting that, while this should remain party policy, the party must accept that it could not be achieved in the short-term. Clegg and Cable got a lot of stick at the time from party activists, but that is an inherently sensible position.

Personally, while I commend Vince Cable for imbuing the new policy with something of a Liberal Democrat perspective, I don't accept that this is actually a "progressive" policy. It's a reactive policy, not a principled one, understandably cobbled together and compromised. It's purpose isn't to deliver a fair system (however much Nick Clegg protests otherwise; it's sole aim is to find a pragmatic means of funding Higher Education during a period of austerity.

My chief regret is that, again, the coalition has forged a long-term policy on the basis of short-term priorities. For this reason it is vital that, whatever the coalition position and outcome of the vote, the Liberal Democrats retain their unique and distinct position as opponents of fees and remain committed - in the long term - to their eradication.

The problems the SNP is currently experiencing I will deal with elsewhere, but it is worth making one observation. Whatever the technical reasons behind the "tartan tax" powers being allowed to lapse, why has it taken John Swinney three years to become aware of it?

Finally, it would not be right of me not to mention the story of the week: a young couple called William and Kate are engaged to be married on 29th April next year. I don't really understand the media hype - this may be because I'm not a great believer in the monarchy - which I think drastically overestimates public interest in the Royal engagement. With this in mind, I thought the most honest, refreshing and observant journalism came from the Guardian's Tanya Gold: Royal wedding: The agony of the ecstasy. It made me laugh anyway.