IN THE DOCK: Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband’s Labour party conference speech was never going to get a very positive response. For one thing, he had lost the expectations game before he even opened his mouth.

Everyone picked out their favourite – or least favourite – bits from their advanced text and before most of us had even had our first morning coffee the Daily Mail and the Sun were announcing he would declare war on capitalism, the Daily Telegraph was having a nice big panicked special cuddle with themselves about potential new levies for businesses, and the Daily Mirror was insisting that his speech marked the end of the “pig” society, complete with not only a picture of David Cameron wearing a fake pig snout, but – even more ridiculous – a picture of Ed Miliband with his jaw in the air looking tough.

Miliband was never going to give all those people what they wanted to hear. He wasn’t going to declare war on capitalism – although if ‘capitalism’ really is intrinsically inseparable from ‘asset stripping’ and ‘tax avoiding’ then perhaps he should. But of course it isn’t. Unless you actually are a socialist, of course, which the Daily Mail, unless they’ve had some kind of amusing divine conversion, isn’t.

The business loudmouths – not the real business community of Britain, but those who treat the market as a religion and any criticism of any profiteer as some kind of horrible blasphemy – are, quite frankly, embarrassing themselves by denouncing Ed Miliband as “anti-business” and having a tantrum about it. The “business” world – the loudmouth bit of it, that is – has been having its nappies changed by the rest of us for far too long.

The silliest thing is that corporations and businesses really are people, this isn’t some daft pro-capitalism propaganda truism, but they just cannot handle being treated like people. The fact is that the government makes distinctions between people every time they announce a policy, with no qualms whatsoever.

When the Conservatives speak of “good immigration” and “bad immigration,” or Muslims who live by “our” values, and Muslims who don’t, or “genuinely disabled” benefit claimants, and people who fake illness, or when they support tax breaks for married people, or support tax credits for people who “save and do the right thing,” or support tax breaks for people who make charitable donations in their wills, or say that housing benefit should be allocated depending on whether you’re in work or taken away if you join in with the riots, or any number of other policies (some of which, by the way, are also perfectly sensible ideas), do they mean this as an attack on everybody? Perhaps we should assume from their reaction to Miliband’s speech that they do.

It’s hardly left-wing to advocate incentives for successful businesses and better lending for SMEs. That isn’t “playing to a union gallery”, as Sir Digby Jones put it: far from it.

His notion of incentivising – incentivising! Not regulating! Incentivising! – good business practice with tax cuts is actually extraordinarily pro-business; much more so than the 20% VAT, plastic bag regulations, and stalling zero growth that the Tories are offering, in the same way that Working Family Tax Credits, Child Care Tax Credits, and even (whisper it) a raise in the minimum wage are pro-work ethic, much more so than just hacking people’s benefits away. A wide-open goal for Labour is surely that the coalition swears they want to “make work pay” and lower the tax burden whilst scrapping all these tax credits which essentially amounts to a 41% tax hike for Britain’s lowest paid workers.

My complaint with Ed Miliband’s speech, then, isn’t that it’s anti-business, or even that it’s left or right or Labour or Tory or Red or Blue or Purple or any other academic irrelevant labels we’ve all managed to come up with to box everybody’s ideas into lines so we can easily know what we think about them and what that says about us.

My complaint with his speech is that he’s selling himself short. Why adopt a damaging Conservative policy – letting people in full time work leap frog the housing benefit queue for example (finding secure housing is the first step on the road to employment for so many people: prioritising people in employment is a bit like letting people who managed to treat part of their illness themselves with over the counter medication jump the NHS waiting list) – when what you actually believe in is 100% balanced, sensible, ethical and correct?

There’s plenty wrong with Miliband’s speech, not least the total and utter lack of actual policy substance, his Thunderbird-puppet style delivery, and his alienating habit of speaking like an academic theoretician rather than a human being who gives a damn about other human beings. Andy Burnham’s education speech may have also been thicker on rhetoric than detailed ideas but at least his eyes lit up and his voice changed pitch occasionally.

There’s a great episode of the West Wing where Jed Bartlet wins a debate because at the eleventh hour his communications team realise that because the public are so irreversibly convinced Bartlet is arrogant, he can be. There are not many parallels between Ed Miliband and Josiah Bartlet but he needs to face facts: the public are irreversibly convinced that he is a red-rose-carrying trade-unionist-loving pro-tax left-winger. Every time he takes a shot at the unions or the unemployed, he loses on every front. Even people that support this kind of blueish stance won’t respect a “leader” who simply repeats what his advisors tell him. And you can bet your boots that the actual left, even a lot of cautiously-Labour centrist voters, will cringe at his random mentions of things like “irresponsible strikes” – an empty phrase, surely, if ever there was one – and constant refusals to address the gaping, horrific holes in the Welfare Reform Bill, or the complete unreliability of Atos’ Work Capability Assessments.

It’s not even a matter of policy so much as it’s a matter of leadership. If he just does whatever his speechwriters – who clearly don’t have a bloody clue, frankly – tell him at this stage, what on earth kind of Prime Minister would he be?

He is being denounced as a red-blooded hardline socialist for suggesting that businesses and corporations are people, and he is being denounced as a closet Tory for suggesting that low paid working people feel that they’re not rewarded properly for their efforts. He is being denounced as “weird” and then denounced for caring if people think he’s weird and not caring if people think he’s weird in equal measure. This whole discussion demonstrates the deepest flaws of British politics.

He should be denounced for talking like someone who has eaten an A-level politics textbook and is choking it up awkwardly in place of a real speech. The tragedy is that underneath it all, his approach to governing Britain is probably just what we need. But if his advisors don’t believe it, if his colleagues don’t believe it, and if he doesn’t even believe it himself, how on earth are we supposed to?

A tax: the best form of defence?

The time has come for me to confess something to the left-wingers who post kind comments and send nice messages over Twitter. I’m coming out: I agree with the Taxpayers’ Alliance on the 50p rate of tax.

50% of your money is, to me, an unacceptable invasion into personal liberty. Yes, even only 50% of any capital over £150,000.

A big difference between the Taxpayers’ Alliance and me, of course, is that the TPA argues that tax avoidance is an inevitable consequence of high tax rates. I take the view that if tax avoidance was handled more sensibly in the first place, we wouldn’t need such cloyingly high tax rates. And that goes for everyone, not just the top 1%.

We have a terminology problem regarding tax avoidance. The term covers a whole range of practices, some of which are predominantly if not exclusively used by people on low to average incomes.

Some tax avoidance is not just technically legal, but is actually entirely reasonable; even a moral positive. Self-employed freelance workers and other individuals account for £13bn of the £25bn a year estimated to be lost through tax avoidance, and we should be careful about demanding that ordinary people pay more tax than they are actually obligated to, just because they happen to employ others instead of working for somebody else.

But it’s not all individuals and it’s not all small businesses who are avoiding tax. £12bn a year is lost by tax avoidance from the largest corporations in the country. And for many of them, it’s not a matter of getting an accountant to check your paperwork. It becomes a matter of actually negotiating your own tax bills. Many would not call that tax avoidance at all, but corruption.

Take Vodafone. Today it was reported that Dave Harnett, the HMRC’s Head of Tax, “did not follow correct procedure” in his dealings with Vodafone. A “settlement” was reached with the company, which – to take just one aspect of the alleged agreement which has caused anger – may not have even compelled Vodafone to pay interest on their overdue tax, something which to anybody else would quite unambiguously be an offence.

How can it be right that people on some of the lowest incomes in the country get threatened with court appearances, bailiffs, and even prison, for not paying their council tax on time, but a company which “slumped” to £46bn in revenue even in the middle of a recession get to pick and choose how much tax they fancy paying?

If this kind of so-called tax avoidance, as well as tax evasion – and tax evasion costs us a further £30billion a year, incidentally – could be stopped, and people were made to actually respect the laws of the country they choose to do business in, we could drop the top rate of tax along with the middle and lowest rates dramatically. Some figures even suggest the top rate could fall as low as 39%.

Taxes should always be as low as possible. All taxation is a necessary undesirable invasion into personal liberty – like stop and search or CCTV – that we need to collectively consent to, democratically, as a society. We need to make our economy more democratic but taxing the richest 1% in the country doesn’t do this. It just puts a plaster on the wound.

Am I cynical for wondering if Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling guessed the 50p rate of tax wouldn’t actually raise any cash, and guessed that the Conservatives would be under pressure both economically and politically to drop it back again? That it is not so much an economic policy as a political trap to make the Conservatives look like they’re cutting taxes for the rich while everyone else is facing belt-tightening of the harshest kind?

I hope this isn’t true. The economy is serious; much too important for political games. Taxes are to pay for the things we need, not to make us feel better about the inequalities we create and excuse.

Dropping the 50p rate of tax isn’t a top priority of mine, and I’m suspicious of anyone who makes it one of theirs – especially if they do so without having a plan to address the problem of lost tax money. But if independent studies continue to show that it doesn’t actually raise money – worse, that it actually costs Britain money – then the government has no justification, economic or moral, for keeping it in place for any long-term period. They shouldn’t feel nervous about scrapping it.

IN THE DOCK: Nadine Dorries

IN THE DOCK: Nadine Dorries

Just why is Nadine Dorries so despised?

For a start, it isn’t because she’s pro-life, and it isn’t because she’s religious, although there are an awful lot of people who seem to think otherwise. The fact is, there are plenty of pro-life people, and plenty of religious people, some of whom are in far more senior positions of power than the MP for Bedfordshire, I might add, who don’t come in for anything like the derisive ribbing and angry criticism Nadine Dorries gets. Like Tim Montgomerie, the editor of ConservativeHome, for instance. And Liam Fox MP, the Defence Secretary. And Labour MP Frank Field, whose name is also on the controversial Health and Social Care Bill amendment.

Nadine Dorries has been having way too much fun playing the victim card, interpreting every criticism of her policies as a personal attack. It’s been easy for her to do it, too, because her opponents are falling into the baited trap of talking with immense dislike about Dorries herself: her affair with a married man, her public revelations/claims about his ex-wife (because after you still steal someone’s husband, the natural thing to do is humiliate them in the papers, obviously), her often quoted “70%-of-my-blog-is-fiction” statement, her online slander of her own constituent Humphrey Cushion. But we mustn’t do it. Because none of this, ridiculous though it may be, is the point.

What matters is policy, not personality; what actually becomes law, and how it affects people.

Dorries’ amendment, first of all, seems to be based on a failure to understand what it means to actually be pro-choice. It isn’t the opposite of being pro-life. It isn’t anything to do with when you personally think life begins, or whether you personally would ever choose to have an abortion. It just means that you accept that you – much less the state – can’t make that decision for anyone else. The absence of an ideological position, or rather, the absence of a desire to enforce an ideological position on others, simply does not equate to a devout, self-interested pursuit of an agenda opposite to the one you refuse to enforce.

And here is another point of apparent confusion. Expertise is not the same as bias. Who knows as much about abortion as an abortion charity? Certainly not the only real “competitors,” Care Confidential and Life, who’ve been investigated by Education for Choice and found to be providing misleading, even completely false, information.

Disrespect for expertise in one’s profession seems to be a point of consistency for the coalition. After all, if they want GPs to manage finances, IT companies to diagnose illness, and parents, journalists, celebrities, and even soldiers to set up schools and teach, then why not have religious groups with seemingly no – or at least extremely poor – medical expertise to provide counselling on abortion? You might as well, really, by that point.

But it goes far beyond disregarding expertise, training and knowledge. Nadine Dorries is making assertions – allegations, in fact – about bpas and Marie Stopes. She has not backed these allegations up yet she and her supporters keep repeating them as fact. The only “evidence” I can see for the claims that Marie Stopes and bpas are somehow giving biased advice on abortion for financial gain is that “only” 1 in 10 women who receive the counselling don’t have an abortion in the end. That is not unlike saying that only 1 in 10 people who visit a church convert away from Christianity in the end, and churches pass around a collection plate, therefore churches are obviously forcing people to worship there in the first place for financial gain, and should lose their tax exempt status because they are clearly manipulating people for profit.

In any case, if you make an assertion, especially if you’re in a position of authority, it really is down to you to back it up with evidence, yourself. Why should these reputable charities spend energy, time, money, and other much-needed resources on defending themselves against half-baked accusations which the accuser herself cannot even be bothered to properly substantiate?

But even this isn’t getting to the crux of why so many people find Nadine Dorries so very objectionable. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that we don’t accept the above argument entirely, and that we decide to place the burden of proof on the accused, not the accuser, for whatever reason. Let’s give Nadine Dorries the benefit of the doubt, and imagine she is right, and that bpas and Marie Stopes are somehow motivated in their work by profit. It still strikes rather a lot of people as curious that the Conservative party are all of a sudden suspicious of the profit motive. If an unproven, hypothetical suspicion of the profit motive possibly lurking within the motives of an organisation providing health care upsets them this much, they really ought to read the rest of their own Health and Social Care Bill. In particular, the parts where Andrew Lansley opens up the NHS to European competition law, giving new Clinical Commissioning Groups extra procurement powers including the power to outsource practically everything to – yes, you guessed it – private companies. Where is Nadine Dorries’ moral panic about the conflict of interest in other areas of health care? The deteriorating affect this could (and almost certainly will) have on everybody else’s counselling services? In fact, if you find yourself depressed for any other reason than guilt about a pending abortion, it’s unclear how the government intends to improve the service you receive, or even protect it. At all.

Anyone who cares about preserving life this much should surely care with an equal passion about the quality of life? How can anyone who is pro-life and doesn’t trust the profit motive think the profit motive is right for schools, hospitals, food, central heating, housing, arms manufacturing, political party funding, journalism, media ownership, child care, and military strategy, but just not for terminating a pregnancy? Which begs the question: does Nadine Dorries really not trust the profit motive? Or does she actually just not care very much about any of the above?

It is perhaps rather ironic that while the pro-life agenda in Westminister focuses on making abortions harder because they believe abortion causes mental illness, while making cuts to mental health services around the country, the Scottish NHS is running Suicide Prevention Week, from September 4 to September 11. It’s a fair position to love brand new human life before it is even given birth to – in fact it’s a much-mocked yet arguably rather beautiful, admirable position to hold – but only if you carry on loving those babies and caring passionately about their lives once they’ve actually been born. If you fail to make foster families and adoptive families exempt from the welfare cuts, for example, or fail to properly fund SEN specialists for children growing up with attachment problems, or send them halfway around the world to kill other people in a war for that same profit motive that once was such a great big worry, then frankly, you are less pro-life than some of the most ardent pro-choice people on the planet. Telling someone not to abort a foetus is the easy bit. The hard bit is fighting suicide, famine, war, and AIDs. When Nadine Dorries starts calling David Cameron “gutless” for not addressing those problems, she might get more respect from the public. And that includes pro-lifers.

For a lot of people, it is this hypocrisy – this blatant, insultingly obvious dishonesty about intent and motive – which is so bloody galling. The antipathy towards Dorries isn’t because she’s religious and pro-life. It isn’t because her critics are all mad feminists or even particularly left-wing. It isn’t even the fact that Nadine Dorries is trying to push her pro-life religious agenda into law without any credible mandate or evidence.

No, the main reason she riles up even the most moderate of commentators is that she is going about pursuing her agenda in such an extremely disingenuous way. She isn’t doing it by having an open debate about abortion, which many of us members of the public could and would actually respect. Instead, she’s insisting that she’s “pro-choice,” and “pro-women,” (as opposed to what? She is a woman! And no-one doubts that she’s pro-Nadine Dorries…) and talking of “independence,” whilst slandering two completely reputable charities that have both done nothing but try to help people. And then feigning astonishment and assuming victim status when people who have worked with and for these charities, people who have relied upon their services without complaint, and even undecided, impartial people who simply look for evidence before they believe something, when all of those people ask her to back up her claims with the occasional provable fact.

An awful lot of us in the general public dislike Nadine Dorries’s approach to doing business more than we dislike her politics. We don’t take kindly to being manipulated. Nor are we keen on hypocrisy. Most of all, we don’t like ideologically-driven accusations directed towards people and organisations that we know, trust and respect. And actually, that applies whether we agree with the ideology behind it, or not.

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