On more than a few occasions recently I have been accused of being a left-winger. This is categorically untrue. It's true I spend a great deal of time criticising Ukip and rubbishing bad ideas, but it's just a coincidence most of them come from Ukip, and it's mainly because I feel such immense frustration at the right for failing to come up with anything like a coherent, integrated agenda. Being an equal opportunities Complete Bastard I can't let this latest offering from Tim Mongomerie pass without comment.
Montgomerie has set out what he is now calling "Good Conservatism" which Conservative Home describes as "conservatism which is compassionate and electorally successful. It’s born of their belief in moral policy and their knowledge of political strategy – the latter being something that the founders of this website and YouGov enjoy in bucketloads."
Firstly I must thank Tim Mongomerie for sparing me the task of deconstructing one hundred stupid ideas and has mercifully limited himself to just twelve. That makes this task a lot less grim than fisking Ukip's utter banality. But that's as far as my compliments shall go.
First off, I get worried when politicians and hacks of any stripe speak of compassion. That usually means given away somebody else's money. Mine as it happens. But let's take a proper look at his ideas.
1) More housebuilding, more home ownership, with a particular focus on Garden Cities.
Well that's super. More houses. Why did nobody else suggest this before? Can I have some motherhood and apple pie to go with it? Sure, home ownership is a pillar of the English middle class dream but successive administrations have attempted to bring this about, including Labour ones, and have in recent years failed for a multitude of reasons. There are barriers of all kinds in the way, and Montgomerie does not outline what they are or how he would overcome them. The rather wafty suggestion we should build garden cities somewhat overlooks what happened last time we tried doing this - and is a quaint old idea that says nothing to those living in distinctly ungardenlike cities.
2) Higher taxes on expensive properties and luxury goods, in return for lower taxes on low-income workers.
If memory serves, a hack penned an article entitled "Ten reasons why I won't be joining Ukip". A choice quote from that article would be this one:
At its recent Doncaster conference its Treasury spokesman Patrick O’Flynn announced a tax on luxury goods only for it to be disowned by Nigel Farage 48 hours later. Mr Farage has a habit of disowning UKIP policies. He described his own party’s 2010 manifesto as “drivel”. He didn’t admit that to voters at the time.The author of that piece was, errr, Tim Montgomerie. Essentially it's a way of putting nice things out of the affordable reach of ordinary people. Not very compassionate one might say. You could make the case either way for high property taxes but if Montgomerie really seeks a compassionate and electable Tory party, perhaps he could set his hamster wheel running to devise a replacement to the grossly unfair and shambolic council tax system.
3) Above-inflation increases in the minimum wage.
Last thing I heard was that minimum wage causes inflation. So what's the point? If you really want to help the less well off, you could increase their living standards by reducing VAT - a tax that is disproportionately paid by the poor as a percentage of income.
4) Cancelling plans to raise the income tax threshold, and instead allocating the funds to increasing work incentives through the Universal Credit.
Would that be the equally shambolic Universal Credit system that still doesn't work? Universal credit is a fine idea, but administered through a central bureaucracy means all policy is derived from national aggregates and averages which will produce unfair and inhumane outcomes throughout. It is the same old paradigm of tinkering with fiscal levers here and there. It has produced lamentable results thus far and will continue to do so. A bit of radical and fresh thinking here wouldn't go amiss.
5) Renegotiating our relationship with the EU to a) cut energy and food bills and b) restrict free movement in order to benefit low-paid workers in the UK.
We don't have a relationship to renegotiate. We are in the EU. We are part of the EU. I can no more renegotiate a relationship with the EU than I can negotiate my relationship with my left leg. Either we are part of it or we are not. Since he chaired a conference on EU alternatives this week, I would have expected something a little more creative than the bog standard Tory renegotiation meme. The Kippers will shred our Tim on this. And it will be one of those very few occasions when they are right.
6) Use the revenue from northern shale gas to fund infrastructure in the north of England.
About ten years ago, Tim's head wasn't deeply entrenched up his own rectum and he would pay at least some attention to what was going on. Now that he has been a celebrity in the diminishing, self-referential Tory bubble for a while he thinks informing himself is to smell his own farts. Ben Pile adequately outlines here what I could never be bothered to blog, but he is right in that there is no dash for gas, and the revenues from fracking will collapse faster than our Tim's IQ.
Moreover, the North is not a charity case. With cities like Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Bradford, the potential is there to give London a run for its money, if there is an intelligent devolution policy and cities are given the tax autonomy to offer something to London businesses.
7) The state should pay for 25 per cent of private school places to be provided to scholarship boys and girls.
This is one we can argue the toss over. It has worked well in the past. But really free schools, a failing policy, is the one that really needed Michael Gove in place for to hammer home so that everyone gets a shot at a decent education. Like "big society" it's a good idea discredited by inept administration. But again this is mere tinkering and an entirely abstract measure apropos of nothing, in no way integrating with the other eleven goals. This is the same mentality as Ukip. Spin the Tombola and see what's pulled out.
8) Refocus state spending to prize long-term goals, including investment in infrastructure, science and long-term research. Reduce public sector pay, perks and pensions to a state of equivalence with the private sector.
Well this is really two in one, and it's difficult to see how they relate. This is yet another of those easier said than done things. The main state waste comes from overpaying locum medics, supply teachers and IT consultants. That is as much to do with inept public procurement and planning as it is employment law, which is an EU competence. To betaken seriously, Montogomerie must supply a serious analysis, which on the face of it, he looks incapable of even approaching one. As it happens, over the years public pensions have been all but decimated, along with everyone else's - except of course for our burgeoning quangocracy and council CEOcracy which the Tories thus far have done nothing about.
As to refocusing "state spending to prize long-term goals, including investment in infrastructure, science and long-term research" - this is empty rhetoric - the same empty rhetoric we can get from any of the parties at ay time - and it's as meaningless from whoever it comes from.
9) Fairer spending – by a) abolishing the Barnett Formula and instead allocating spending to regions and localities across the UK on the basis of need, and b) reducing the benefits given to better-off pensioners to fund deficit reduction and early intervention programmes.
Another unambitious idea. The same old managerial tinkering. There is a real desire for devolution. The public are wary of regionalisation because it means another layer of government that will take powers away from councils rather than devolution. What we actually need is to turn the state on its head where councils fund the state and they fund it according to their means, raising all of their own revenue. If there is one thing councils are good at, it's taking our money. We could then devolve all welfare and let councils decide which benefits are universal and which are not, according to their own finances. That would bring about the efficiency Tim seeks. We have outlined our own version of this. It's called the Harrogate Agenda.
10) Adopting measures of poverty and support services structure that combat underlying causes of disadvantage including family breakdown, addiction, indebtedness and social dislocation, rather than just focusing on income redistribution.
To save argument, read this.
11) Strict and low limits on political donations. No taxpayer-funding for political parties, but charitable relief on small donations.
The issue of party finding is controversial and there have been many proposals for reform. None have really addressed the issue. The very idea that my own tax money would be funding ideas I am opposed to is offensive, and Tim has got this much right, but the model he proposes has been adopted in the US which has pushed corrupt political funding much deeper underground, often drawing from corrupt sources; drug money laundered through property development as beautifully illustrated in The Wire. In many respects, our own system, flawed though it may be, is at least transparent. Tim must be able to argue that his model is better. I doubt it is, and I doubt that he can.
12) A £1 million bursary scheme to assist the less well-off in becoming Conservative MPs.
Were I mean spirited I would say that Tim was too skint to become a Tory MP back when he wasn't viewed as a ridiculous person, and a £40k grant from Tory central office would have sealed the deal for him. But I'm not mean spirited. I just think that if an individual cannot raise what it takes with their own talents based on the basis of their own ideas, through determination, resourcefulness and commitment, then they have no business being an MP, regardless of class. £40k might sound a lot to become an MP - but that can be raised in days if you are made of the right stuff, with the right ideas. Bursaries help crowbar mediocrity into parliament. If we want mediocrity in parliament, we can vote Ukip. In reality, representative democracy is becoming obsolete. Direct democracy is a much more radical idea. Tim is stuck in the dark ages.
Tim is actually prime Ukip material. He doesn't have any original ideas and he doesn't have any solutions. He hasn't understood what is wrong, couldn't diagnose it if he tried, and is working from the notion that the same top-down tinkering would produce better results if only he were allowed to do it. His ideas lack any kind of foundation, coherence or continuity and lack boldness or initiative.
In reality, we need bigger ideas - a revolution in governance that revitalises democracy and accountability, re-engages the public and gives them control over their lives. Nothing in Tims work suggests he has the answers.
Over the last decade we have seen Rotherham, Rochdale, Baby P, Mid-Staffs and many other scandals that share a great many commonalities, in that the public are treated with contempt when they complain - and whistle-blowers are greeted with contempt and bullying. The system doesn't work and it is entirely self-serving, the guilty walk free and we reward failure. That is what drives public anger and disengagement. And it boils down to one thing... We don't have a democracy.
A real reform agenda can be found in The Harrogate Agenda. Anything else is amateurs at play. Give the people a real coherent vision and they will snap your hand off. What Montgomerie offers is the same old tinkering where banality is dressed up as a vision. We've been there and done that. And we are sick of it.