Friday, 14 March 2014

Is Free Education A Benefit?

There's been a lot of hot air recently about the Lib Dem announcement of free schools meals for all infants from September 2014.

Many (mostly on the left) have shouted loudly about spending money on the children of millionaires whilst others have attempted to justify the scheme on the basis of the results of a rather inconclusive-at-best pilot scheme. Others still have argued about the existing potential for affluent neglect and how it's shocking that in the 21st Century there are reports of children collapsing at school from a lack of food.

I think we can all agree that children should be eating three square meals per day, etc., etc. but the right (and classical liberals in particular) should know better than try and form policy to cater to isolated incidents and flimsy evidence. At a time when we're fighting to means-test many universal benefits it seems hypocritical to be rolling out new ones.

To me this raises a much larger question and serves as a demonstration of how centrist and uncontroversial our modern-day politics have become. We're happy to squabble over the most efficient spending of an additional £600 million per year extending provision to those who are better off but no one will raise the fact that we already spend more than £60 billion every year funding universal education for the exact same beneficiaries.

Why is it right that everyone in state education should receive a near identical experience from the start of the day to the end with the only exception being lunch hour arrangements? (This ignores, of course, the existing stratification of richer and poorer children by school and area.) Why should the entirety of a child's education be paid for by the state, regardless of your wealth, with a strange exemption for lunchtimes, uniforms and trips off-site?

There is a regular fuss made in the media about whether Blair, Cameron, Clegg, Gove, etc. choose to state educate their children or not. Again, it seems bizarre that we attempt to encourage them to avoid spending their own substantial wealth and instead take a benefit from the state when the money could be better deployed.

Why do those who feel anger at giving the like of Messrs Clegg and Cameron an additional £400 benefit per year not feel the same anger at spending around £6,000 educating their children in the first place? Surely it is rational that the state either pays for the entirety of a child's educational experience regardless of parental income or it moves to a system for defining need?

The discussion that we really need to have is whether there should be universality in the education sector or not. The intention is surely to achieve some measure of equality of opportunity but you don't foster this by equally funding those that are advantaged to those that are not.

In fact, a differentiation of educational provision on the basis of parental income is one of the most significant changes the Lib Dems have brought to government since the introduction of the Pupil Premium in 2011. Primary age children from impoverished homes now receive on average 29% more than their classmates and the (early and very limited) evidence is that it's having a substantial effect.

We need to have a much larger discussion though about where we go next with the Pupil Premium. We've brought in simplistic means-testing but the criteria for Pupil Premium eligibility are very limited and the cliff-edge is incredibly sharp with a 100% withdrawal rate. By means-testing the entire system we could far more efficiently distribute money that is currently given unnecessarily to the richest and ensure our education system provides far greater equality of opportunity.

I can't help but think that the abrupt announcement of universal free school meals was just a political gimmick because the Pupil Premium isn't bringing us the electoral success that we'd once hoped (due partially to awful branding but that's a different rant) and polling has shown it to be the most popular way to disseminate cash to those who are demographically likely to be Lib Dems as opposed to further rises in the income tax threshold.

My preferences

  • Increase choice: issue means-tested school vouchers to all parents
  • Increase freedom: allow state schools to set their own curriculum, pay and hiring policies
  • Increase supply: allow state schools to become independent and make profit

Friday, 13 December 2013

Enshrining Individual Rights to Remove the Planning System

Originally taken from the Liberal Reform publication "Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead", published in September 2013.

It is undeniable that something is wrong with the UK property market. Since 1952 property prices have risen in real terms by 253%1. An average house would have cost you 3.2 years of average pre-tax income in 1952, today it would cost 6.15 times2. What explanation is there for this price rise?

Obviously wages have risen considerably since the 1950s and material costs have likely risen too, leading to higher construction costs. The most striking difference, though, is the change in the cost of land. Between 1994 and 2008 the price of land rose in real terms by 267%3. Again, why is this? Prices will only increase when supply outstrips demand.

Yes, demand has steadily increased owing to our ever-increasing population; but it has been primarily led by the increase in those choosing to live (or, in the case of family breakdowns, needing to live) in ever-smaller households. This is superbly illustrated by the growth in housing of 12.1 million since 1952 against an overall population increase of only 12 million.

Some argue that, after a century’s building, the supply of suitable land is now depleted. Obviously land is finite, but the fact that we find new land to build on each year at a reasonably constant rate whilst prices continue to increase suggests that the annual supply is being artificially limited.

One of the seemingly unshakeable myths commonly held is that England is already heavily developed. Perhaps this is because 80% of us live in the urban areas that take up around 25% of the nation’s land mass. In fact, only 2.3% of land in England is actually built on. Even in the South East, where development is densest, the vast bulk of land is classified as rural. Yes, this is what makes living there so pleasant – but is it really right that the dream of living in the countryside should be permanently restricted to 20% of our citizens (who are likely the most economically successful)? We often talk of how important it is to preserve green space for our children, so why then do we want them growing up in urban communities, isolated from it? Is ‘the British dream’ really living in a pokey flat with the countryside as something that’s either distant or for ‘other people’?

We need urgently to look instead at the mechanism through which supply is governed. The UK planning system grants privilege over whether something is built or developed – or not – to local authorities. This is a decision that becomes inevitably politicised. Building new homes is unpopular among those who already own homes and few building programmes ever galvanise more supporters than those they alienate.

Decisions are made at local authority level by a combination of the personal preferences of individual councillors and what the electorate will tolerate. As for the people themselves, their reaction is understandable. Why would anybody actively desire new house-building near them? What benefit is there to an ordinary citizen in seeing new homes constructed on a field near their house? They’ll receive all the negatives – their quality of life detrimented by built-up surroundings, increased traffic and more pressure on local infrastructure and facilities – while somebody else benefits from all the positives.

This, then, is the current situation. And the longer it is maintained, the greater the problem becomes. Those who pay a high price to get on the ‘property ladder’ gain a vested financial interest in shutting others out. This isn’t a malicious decision, it’s simply part of the complex decision-making that individuals instinctively make every day to maximise their own personal outcomes.

We can only ever build enough properties with public acceptance – acceptance not only of the need for more house-building nationwide, but also on our own doorsteps. Perhaps we could benefit from an educational campaign about the need for housing, as well as appealing to people who want sufficient homes for their own children. Ultimately, though, there are only two ways enough homes will be built: either through ‘brute force’ (illiberal); or by ensuring people are content with, even actively desire, new development (liberal).

Liberals should be instinctively suspicious of any attempt by governments, local or national, to manipulate the mechanisms of supply and demand. Are we really surprised that a market in which the government exerts such heavy influence is so horribly broken? Centralised planning was very popular in the 20th century but constantly ended in disaster4. During the 1980s, many markets were liberalised and this is a trend that has since continued, bringing with it greater efficiency and freedom of choice. The principle that shone so clear in the time of Adam Smith once more emerged; incentives matter.

How then do we make people desire development? We have to give them a stake in it. The planning system currently exists to protect people’s rights, although it does so through a community-orientated ‘for the greater good’ approach where it’ll often decide (sometimes arbitrarily) to trample over the rights of individuals.

Instead we should look to legally enshrine those rights that we value and wish to protect but give individuals the right to commoditise them so people can reach their own decisions as to the relative merits of a project. I’m sure we’d all agree that somebody living next to a green field that is proposed for development should have a say on the proposal – and indeed probably a greater say than somebody who lives a few miles away, even if they are in the same electoral district.

Rights could be allocated based on a combination of various factors, for instance: loss of light from tall buildings, a blighting of your scenic view, additional noise generated by new residents, or even simple proximity to development.

Groups of individuals could pool together their various rights and trade them for new schools, leisure centres or roads. This direct control by affected parties would mean that all building work was, by definition, popular, at least with a majority; otherwise it would never be signed off. It would also use market mechanisms to find the ‘sweet spot’ that best suited all parties. Developers would only be able to offer a certain amount for a particular plot before somewhere else became cheaper or the project became unviable. This would mean existing residents couldn’t excessively profiteer or the deal would fall through and they’d get nothing at all.

Who would you trust to make the best decision about building on your doorstep? Your local councillor, likely elected by a small, vocal minority, who has extremely limited time; or you and your neighbours, who are directly affected? I would personally choose to have the final say every time (likely following advice given by reputable third parties), just like I do day in, day out..

Of course, there should be exemptions. Areas with national designations should still be protected by national policy. This would include areas of outstanding beauty, ancient woodland and other irreplaceable habitats. It should not however, include the rather arbitrary Green Belt. If local residents had control over building they’d be able to make their own determinations of how their community should look.

This policy wouldn’t apply only to housing. Where a company wishes to build a supermarket or office block the same rules would apply. It would also apply to cases where mineral rights were to be found. Communities are often opposed to fracking for shale gas, and understandably so. Why would you want the risk (however small) of earthquakes and groundwater contamination without some sort of tangible benefit?

There are, it should be freely admitted, some potential pitfalls with these plans. Most notably, we can’t say for sure exactly what would happen to the land market. It’s possible that the fees required to procure rights would add to the price of housing while not radically increasing supply: in this eventuality the situation would worsen. However, I do not think this is likely to be the case. What is more likely, I think, is that removing control based on estimating demand and moving instead to a free market would bring large volumes of land into use, freeing owners to compete with one another in order to sell otherwise useless land.

We need to be alert to the unpopular realities of this proposal. If they worked as planned and increased land supply and thereby reduced land prices we would see a serious backlash from those who either enter negative equity as a result, or who had viewed their property value as a ‘nest egg’. This is the hardest issue to tackle. While the property market is clearly a bubble waiting to pop, the government which finally pops it will risk vast unpopularity. This should ease over time, though, as anybody hoping to ‘move up’ the property market realises this is now cheaper.

For those who feel queasy at the thought of this backlash, I ask one question: what alternative is there? Inaction will lead to greater numbers of people living in increasingly over-crowded areas with all the inherent problems this produces. The status quo cannot continue indefinitely. The age at which people can afford their first home is rising and shows all signs of continuing to do so. Eventually, enough people will become alienated from home ownership to take action through the ballot box and the homes will then be built – quite possibly, through ‘brute force’. Would you rather change things now on terms friendly to all, or see central government make the decisions for you?

There is always uncertainty plunging into the unknown but past experience has shown that whenever we give people power over their own lives they make better decisions overall than those made previously by others on their behalf.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Two factions are better than one

The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988 by the merger of the Liberal Party and the newly-emerged Social Democratic Party. Whilst there was common-ground between the two, the SDP-Liberal Alliance which led to the Liberal Democrats was primarily caused by the electoral realities of the First Past The Post system, which meant that there was not room for two separate centre-ground parties.

The constitution of the Liberal Democrats commits us to introducing "a fair voting system for all elections", which we take to mean a proportionally representative system, such as the Single-Transferable Vote. It seems unlikely that the SDP-Liberal Alliance would have ever occurred under STV and once we achieve it it seems unlikely that our party will hold together for long after.

The current problem

The modern Liberal Democrats are a collection of individuals, all with differing views. There is a strong strand of social liberalism that runs through the vast bulk of our membership but there are huge disparities, not only in economic policy but in how different members view the relationship between the individual and the state.

We're forced together in this unnatural way due to our electoral system holding a cartel over the number of viable political parties there can be. The bulk of countries with proportional systems have between five and seven parties, whereas it's rare to see more than two or three in systems like ours. This means that rather than political parties remaining reasonably static and voters moving between them as beliefs change, we instead have political parties made-up of coalitions of loose factions who come to prominence as what's in vogue changes.


The biggest problem with this is that it alienates the public. It looks like simple dishonesty when a party changes from one strongly-held position to another, seemingly on a whim. They don't understand that our political parties are themselves alliances, albeit ones which fight the bulk of their battles behind closed doors. A prime example of this is tuition fees; ordinary people can't even begin to understand how the party leadership changed their position over tuition fees, going from wanting them scrapped at the 2005 general election to tripling them after the 2010 general election. They don't appreciate that Charles Kennedy was on one wing of the party whereas Nick Clegg is on the other. To them it looks like simple political opportunism and, whilst most Lib Dems hold a much more nuanced view of the situation, we have to accept personal responsibility for our failings.

How exactly have we failed though? We've failed because we aren't transparent about how things work within our party. We've failed because we try to paint a cosy picture of Lib Dem unity which is frankly a myth. We've failed because we talk about party policy as if it is representative of all our members and not just a simple majority of those who attend conference. And, if we ever want to be taken seriously by the disaffected majority and not simply serve as a future protest vote then we need to start being clearer and differentiating, not just from the other parties but within our own. This is not only the best choice electorally but it's also the only choice that reaches out beyond tribal politics.


We're not in a position where a electoral majority is a credible option. Despite this it is in the interests of those we represent to always try and have a say and the current best way to do this is to aim for coalition, both with the Tories and with Labour. Every additional MP we gain makes a coalition more likely as it becomes more difficult for the two traditional parties to form a majority on their own. We need to be take seats equally from both of the other parties though, otherwise our success against one side will simply help deliver a majority to the other.

Our current strategy is to sit at the centre and hope that Labour move too far to the left and that the Tories try and out-compete UKIP on the right. We cannot be complacent though and rely on the other main parties losing the next election. Yes, it's right that we should work from the middle but we need to squeeze out in both directions. How best do we achieve this? I think we can cover more ground by essentially operating as two parties side-by-side in one, a social democratic party alongside a party with a broad classical liberal appeal.

This would allow us to put forward strong centre-left candidates against Labour in the North, whilst simultaneously pushing to take more Conservative seats in the South. A party that tries to have a unified message can only occupy so much space on the political spectrum, especially one that talks heavily about liberalism but is restrained from expressing many strong economic views.


As a party locally we're often accused of simply telling people what they want to hear. Those who believe this fail to recognise that we're a broad church of liberalism and that most of our party refuses to toe the party line. This is a good thing, as liberals we acknowledge that our differences make us stronger. Being in government has been hard for us though, having an Orange Book leadership has lost us large swathes of our left-leaning supporters and at the same time we've not been economically liberal enough to avoid seeing us lose some of those classical liberals on the right that I personally value highly.

Acting like a "coalition" of parties would allow us to retain and keep motivated our activist base, who could feel at home in their section of the larger party, even when they were highly uncomfortable with positions taken by the leadership. We've already seen progress towards this with the formation of groups such as Liberal Reform, the Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Left.

Yes, there are risks

There could be in-fighting between different factions, we don't really want things to get nasty like they did between Brown and Blair but surely we're better than all that. What we'd really be doing is formalising the already ad-hoc arrangements that are in place. Perhaps we'd discover that underneath it all we didn't really like each other or we were incapable of getting along politely and cooperating but if that's really the case then do we really think paving over the cracks with faux unity will keep us together?

It could even lead to the party splitting-off before it's ready and this would be devastating. All of this is possible. I ask you though; what is the point of our party? Do we really want to rest perpetually in opposition, badly represented in the media and poorly thought of among the bulk of the general public, with the occasional glimmer of hope for a coalition when the other two parties become so unpopular that people will consider us? I would like us to form a broad, inclusive movement, to revel in our differences and to go forward and promote liberalism in all its forms.

Nothing great is ever achieved without risk. Going into coalition was the biggest risk we've taken in a long time. It's far from clear that electorally it'll pay off for us, we're likely to feel the consequences of it for decades to come and yet most of our activists are still glad we did it. Let's take the chance and do the right thing and start being honest with people.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

If not Trident, then what else?

There is an ongoing debate in our country about whether we should maintain our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent through to 2042 by beginning a programme of replacing the British-made submarines that carry the American-made Trident missiles.

All three major parties in the United Kingdom currently agree that Britain should retain its nuclear deterrent with the main Labour and Conservative parties favouring a continuation of the existing arrangements whilst the smaller Liberal Democrat party (currently minor partners in the governing coalition) prefer a rethink and a switch to a potentially cheaper land or air based solution, claiming that the current system is over-the-top for future needs and the money could be better spent on conventional military assets.

There is no real discussion in mainstream politics though about whether Britain should even continue to possess weapons of mass destruction throughout the 21st Century, either from ethical or pragmatic perspectives. Despite this I'd like to initially briefly touch on these issues as my viewpoint is contrary to that of most liberals.

Does nuclear deterrence work?

Approximately two million British soldiers died in the first half of the 20th Century, large numbers of whom had been either conscripted against their will or indoctrinated by propaganda to fight varying foreign powers in a futile attempt to maintain the balance of power in the face of an increasingly industrialised approach to warfare. These conflicts inevitably cumulated in the creation of a terrifying weapon; the atomic bomb.

Since its advent in 1945, a mere three and a half thousand British military personnel have died in combat operations. Whilst each death is a tragedy I'd wager it's the smallest amount lost in any half-century period in British or English history. For every troop we lose today in Afghanistan we would have lost over 500 during the first half of the 20th Century and around 50 during the 19th Century.

Could this not be better explained by the spread of democracy, capitalism and international trade rather than nuclear weapons? Yes, it's fair to say that these things are what keeps world peace but people can only really think about what sort of government and economy they want when the fear of imminent invasion and/or death is alleviated  Do we really think post-War America, gripped by the Red Scare wouldn't have ended up at war with the Soviet Union and that we wouldn't have been devastated in the process? Nuclear deterrence is the umbrella under which prosperity and liberty has flourished.

It's not the Cold War any more

Perhaps we could unilaterally disarm today without there being any negative consequences. We could set the example for a nuclear-free world. Wouldn't that be nice? Unfortunately, weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, biological or chemical are an inevitability. The comparative advantage of holding them is simply too great for them not to be invented time and time again. If nuclear hadn't been an practical option then we'd likely be in an identical position but due to biological or chemical weapons.

And indeed, do we even have the right to tell other countries they shouldn't be allowed to guarantee the safety of their citizens through the ultimate defence? It is simply unfortunate that the strongest deterrent is the potential to utter destroy anyone who would become your enemy. However much Iran getting the bomb in in opposition to our foreign policy objectives, we all know in our heart-of-hearts that they do so primarily out of terror for Israel and the West.

There is also this strange argument that goes round that it's a waste to "buy things we'll never use." Those who argue this then surely do not accept the concept of deterrence at all, whether conventional or nuclear. Pretty much all British military spending is aimed to be a deterrent; it's incredibly unlikely we'll ever need 160 Eurofighter Typhoons but we purchased them "just in case" or more importantly to deter foreign powers from any negative actions. It's also a misnomer to say that we don't use our nuclear deterrent; the system is in constant use. Only if we suffer from a nuclear attack or invasion then the policy becomes a waste.

The only argument I buy against retaining nuclear weapons is an ideological one. As a liberal, I absolutely support people's free will. There is a reasonable logic that nuclear deterrence forces peace on to a world that otherwise might not want it by making the alternative unpalatable. Really we need to weigh up which is the bigger breach of liberties; a benign deterrent or the constant risk of war and the totalitarianism that follows.

What are our options?

So, if we're settled that it's worth retaining a nuclear deterrent then we should move on to discussing what form it should take.  First of all, let's talk about what Trident actually is. Trident is an American made intercontinental ballistic missile, tipped with a British made nuclear warhead, launched from a British made submarine.

The first of these submarines was launched in 1992 and has a 25-30 year lifespan and therefore will need to be replaced by 2022. This is not though what people mean when they talk about renewing Trident, they actually are questioning whether we should replace the Vanguard-class submarines that carry Trident or not. The actual Trident SLBMs are good until 2042 and will probably still be usable after then.

Those who want talk about replacing Trident, for whatever reason, sometimes suggest we should develop a new missile to be attached to our Typhoon and/or Tornado jets. This appears to be a somewhat foolish suggestion since it would mean discarding the Trident missiles which are viable for another 30+ years and additionally it would reduce our nuclear range to some 2,500 miles which basically only covers all of our European allies and Moscow. Obviously, we could refuel our planes mid-air but needing the bulk of your military infrastructure to be intact rather detracts from the desired effect.

Others seem to want us to scrap the Trident missiles and invest in our own land-based ICBM system. I've never really understood this proposal at all, it largely seems to revolve around not using "foreign" technology and creating more British jobs. Obviously as a classical liberal these ideas are quite alien to me and I'm not going to bother discussing them here. There are other problems though to us "going alone". A British made missile would most likely be ridiculously expensive to research, design, build and test and would probably never match, let alone exceed, the quality already found in the American Trident system. Trident has had 135 consecutive successful tests over the past 23 years; what other weapon system in history can boast that sort of success rate?

The only suggestion which is even slightly viable is that of simply installing our existing Trident missiles in military bases in the UK. This isn't an awful idea as they have a 7,000 mile range and therefore would cover most of the world (ironically, one of the five or so countries they couldn't hit is Argentina, the closest thing we have to an enemy). We do have plenty of overseas bases in which we could extend our coverage though so it was universal but do we really want to stick nukes on the Falklands or other Southern Atlantic/Pacific islands? Not only would this be unwise due to the vulnerability to foreign/terrorist attack of these areas but it would be in breach of various nuclear non-proliferation treaties that we've already signed.

What's so good about Trident?

The problem with all the above suggestions is that a foreign power might well figure out where we were keeping our warheads and neutralise them with either a conventional or nuclear attack. It might seem incredibly unlikely that anyone who chose to make an enemy of us would be able to take care of all our nukes before we could launch them and you are correct to think that but it misses two fundamental points.

Firstly, those of us who don't ever actually want to see another atomic bomb used in anger would want to give a British Prime Minister the time and space needed to make this incredibly difficult decision. Knowing your retaliatory option is vulnerable to destruction at any time could well lead to hasty and regrettable decisions. Secondly, the weaker your nuclear defence the more likely an enemy is to think it can be taken care of and therefore the higher the chance is that it will have to be used.

Let's remember, the objective is to never use our deterrent, obviously at the point we did the deterrent would become an actual weapon and the policy will have failed. It may seem like a perverse idea but the intention of us developing nuclear weapons is not to actually possess them as such, possessing them is merely the most convincing way of making somebody else think we have them and deterring them even considering the possibility of an attack.

How does our current system meet these stated requirements? We maintain a presence always at sea, in a submarine that's near impossible to detect. This gives us a clear option of "Second Strike" and therefore greatly increases the deterrent effect. There is a dangerous weakness in the current arrangements though; if the submarine currently on patrol is incapacitated for some reason then we're effectively temporarily vulnerable, although only as vulnerable as if we didn't have an underwater capacity to start with.

So why is anyone against Trident?

There's only two real groups who are strongly opposed to Trident; liberals and the military. Many liberals these days argue for maintaining a deterrent but not Trident, citing firstly its cost and secondly that our agenda has changed. Cost would would be a fine argument if Trident was expensive but it's not. The total amount we spend runs to some £3bn/year or about 0.2% of GDP. Yes, that money could be spent elsewhere but why not hypothetically cut it from the actual military budget? Pound for pound Trident keeps us much safer than the conventional military ever could. We'll spend some £100bn over the next 30 years on Trident but the total bill for the conventional military will cost us well in excess of £1tn (or roughly the same as our current total debt). If we wanted to cut military expenditure without affecting troops in Afghanistan, etc. we could do so by mothballing/reselling the bulk of our Eurofighters which will almost certainly never see real combat.

I believe it's fair to say that most liberals who want a "cheaper alternative" really don't want us to have a genuine deterrent at all and whilst I personally sympathise with their position recent history suggests this might be a little hasty. If you don't believe in a nuclear deterrent say so, don't try to sideline and weaken our existing deterrent.

The other group who come out opposed to Trident are the military themselves. For some reason we always seem to listen to our military commanders on policy matters but let's remember that they are there to manage defence in case of an attack, not prevent that attack ever occurring  After all, the military and our nuclear deterrent are in direct competition; a successful nuclear policy leads to a fall in their spending. Military chiefs are responsible foremost for ensuring the budgets for their own departments and ensuring that their subordinates get to do the one thing in life that they signed up to do; fight wars.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Why the Liberal Democrats are now the only home for libertarians

The Liberal Democrats are now the only home for libertarians interested in making a real difference in British politics. A lot of people will laugh upon hearing this and they're right that we're certainly not a party that can claim to be majority libertarian. We are a respectful party though, both of the democratic process and freedom of expression.

Here are some quick points to ponder:
  • We don't all wear sandals. We have an image as a centre-left party and it's fair to say we do have a fair amount of lefties, what party doesn't? We do though have a lot more centrist and centre-righters than you'd think. The vast bulk of the party support free markets as the best means to freeing individuals but a lot rightly have concerns about the unfair power exercised by vested interests. In this way the party as a whole shares one of the main libertarian stances, they simply word it differently.
  • We believe in fairness, even when it hurts the party politically. We don't cancel elections because the wrong person wins, we don't fire people for being "hideously off-message". Most of our party spends 80% of the time being off message.
  • We understand we have factions; it actually strengthens us. We were created as an alliance, we can't pretend we all have the same views, we often radically disagree. Other parties try their hardest to hide their factions and divisions, we're proud of our individuality. Our groups such as Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Reform even put forward their own policies to conference. We disagree and squabble and occasionally throw our toys out of the pram but we largely remain respectful to each other and accept that we all have the same aims but simply differ over how to achieve them.
  • We actively welcome differing views. A lot of people, myself included, are suggesting some UKIPpers moving on might want to consider the Lib Dems. Most of us don't say this for political point-scoring, so we can parade around the newest defectors from the other side, we say it because we genuinely want smart, passionate people who hold strong beliefs such as Olly, et al to contribute to our party. Yes, he'd cause chaos and controversy and yes a lot of people would disagree with him but that doesn't scare us, unlike the other authoritarian parties who constantly have to be in control of their message even to the detriment of their members.
  • We know how to compromise and do deals. Under first past the post there will never be a significant libertarian party in the UK. Therefore a libertarian holding party membership will always be finding the most suitable compromise. Many have thought over the past eighteen months that UKIP might be the best option due to various noises they've made to appeal to libertarians; we've all seen tonight that they cannot be trusted in this regard.
  • People's economic views are more malleable than their social views. As people get older they tend to mature and increasingly reject the state from interfering in the economy. Unfortunately, they also seem to become more authoritarian. Do you think you can really convince a bigot to become a liberal? On the other hand socialists become staunch capitalists every day. A lot of Lib Dems will happily acknowledge economics isn't their bag; they're social liberals through and through and simply pragmatic about how to best achieve results.
  • We're open minded. Bring the evidence and we'll listen. Share your ideas; you might be surprised at the response. Most Lib Dems don't understand libertarianism, they've often never heard a good explanation from an genuine supporter. A lot of us have seen how University politics teaching is heavily biased towards the lecturer's (often left-wing) views. Come and make the case and help us change for the better.
  • We represent our members. Bring 50,000 libertarians to the Lib Dems and we'll become libertarian overnight. Realistically that isn't going to happen but our party works from the bottom-up. If the members come and stay they will have a say and be able to influence the party's direction.
  • David Laws is in charge of our 2015 manifesto. This is a guy who wants to lop another 7+% off of the state. Yes, UKIP say they want the state even smaller but we actually have to make policies we might one day implement in coalition.
  • We're the only party making real tax reductions. We all know the 50% policy is a headline, not a real tax policy. It is our policy that is actually cutting tax for ordinary people and yes we want to go further and take all minimum wage workers out of all direct taxation.
So, why not give it a go? I know a lot of you are former Tories and will consider returning but do you really want to jump from one bunch of control freaks to another on the vague hope that they'll actually reduce the state at some unspecified stage in the future?

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Is greater investment in education a good idea?

This is partially a reply to my interpretation of Education and the Economy: debunking the philistine myth by Tom Burkard


I've recently seen the argument made that there is little correlation between a high-quality education system and a successful economy. This same argument seems to infer that since you can't teach the exact skill-sets required for a "21st century job" that you should simply reject formalised learning altogether. It also appears to imply that innovation and success are ingrained at birth and that therefore the sensible way to manage an economy is to rely on poaching natural talent from abroad by having the lowest taxation.

Getting into a discussion regarding nature and nurture is way beyond the scope of this post but I find it hard to believe that anyone could seriously accept that the reason rich parents generally have successful children is primarily genetic and nothing at all to do with superior upbringing, education and opportunity.

Whilst it is true that you could create a relatively well-off economy by abandoning state-funded education altogether and instead focusing on free-movement and minimal taxation, this would simply be to profit from other peoples' educational investments; somewhere down the line somebody must raise children and the real discussion we should be having is how to best achieve that.


There is a general perception that Britain's independent schools are a run-away success whilst confidence in the state sector is shaky at best. Although this could well be a false perception and, of course, there are both excellent state schools and terrible independent schools, all empirical evidence reinforces the accuracy of the public's view, whether based around examination results, value-added, progression rates to further/higher education or eventual employment/earnings. In addition to this most people who have the means choose to send their children to independent schools in the UK, even from countries that are viewed as having better state systems than our own.

Overall, I think it's fair to say that the independent educational sector offers something which if it could be successfully replicated in the state sector would add great value to our economy. The next challenge is isolating what is so special about privately-run schools. We can do this by contrasting them to the less successful state sector; state schools are both state-controlled and state-funded.

Independent schools have much greater freedom to teach what they feel is best, using the methods they think are best. Any reader who accepts that different children have different needs will most likely also accept that centralised policy cannot sufficiently cater for these needs, and that only parents can make the best decisions about what type of schooling is best for their individual child. Although there is little firm evidence on the benefits of deregulation, it appears to provide a successful foundation not only for our privately-run schools but also our world-renowned Universities.


The other major difference is funding. The government spends between £5000 and £6000 per annum on each child educated in a state-funded school. In contrast, average day school rates in the independent sector are £11500, roughly twice those in the state sector. You may well ask yourself what exactly privately-run schools do with this money and how it's translated into additional benefits for their pupils. Well, two areas spring to mind; smaller class sizes and superior extra-curricular activities.

It is right to say that we shouldn't expect schools to teach incredibly job-specific skills or knowledge; this is an approach that inevitably ends up teaching things that are largely irrelevant and outdated by the time they come to be used. It would be hard to argue though that a focus on more basic reusable skills would not pay off in the long run. It's all very well to say somebody should have budgeting skills before they leave school but a person with poor numeracy will never be able to budget well whilst an individual with good numeracy will pick it up naturally with ease.

Pretty much all businesses want well-rounded individuals who can communicate effectively, work well in a team or alone, who can organise themselves and can think originally and who are confident in their abilities and open about their weaknesses. It is correct that you can’t purely "teach" these skills and that you can’t simply set them as homework and then grade them against a mark scheme. This is where the importance of the relationship between the teacher and the student comes into play and where small class sizes show their real benefit.

We all seem to want teachers to have a parent-like relationship with our children and yet how good would we be as parents to thirty-two children of our own? It is a testament to the profession that they can even remember the names of the 300+ children that they teach let alone develop personal bonds with each and every one of them and understand their individual needs. As for extra-curricular activities, whilst it may not seem obvious how they contribute to the economy, go back and look at the list of skills that employers want and then think of a list of activities provided by schools. I'm sure you'll find that the bulk assist development of many of the most critical skills.


Surely then it makes sense to simply decrease the statutory maximum class size? I don't think so; I simply don't think it's necessary. Small class sizes aren't mandated for the independent sector, there's no need; the market dictates. The existing maximum class size of thirty-two is often disregarded by academies, they simply rename classes to something different to get round it.

Perhaps small class sizes aren't actually the answer, maybe the private sector is wrong, who am I to say? I can be sure though that if we liberalise the education sector and give teachers the freedom to offer their talents whilst providing parents with a diverse market of schools then we will begin to replicate the excellence found in the private sector.

So, do we actually need to invest more in education? The short answer is no, we don't need to but you will not mirror private provision simply by copying their techniques without their funding. If it was only regulation holding back the state sector then you would already see private schools charging similar amounts to the £6000 that the state invests per child (or even less) but this simply does not happen. It's not possible to offer class sizes of less than twenty without funding closer to £8000 per year.


Can we actually afford it though? Well, we'd need another £20bn per year or so to fund this change. We currently spend roughly £80bn per year on benefits primarily targeted at the ill-educated. Of course this is a long term investment, it wouldn't pay for itself over-night but there's little doubt it'd be profitable eventually through less benefits and increased tax revenues.

It doesn't even have to be tax-payer funded, although I personally favour increased educational funding for all. If we introduced a system of school vouchers, allowing schools to charge what they liked and parents to freely top-up then large parts of the British population would be able to provide their children with a private-level education, primarily at the taxpayer's expense.