Saturday, February 25, 2006

 

The Final Hustings: An Opinionated Commentary

I’ll vote this weekend, but I’m ever-more convinced that it’ll be a tight and far from whole-hearted decision. After spending a night at the London hustings (with the most entertaining hair, from dashing between shops in heavy rain despite chronic impending water shortages) I was resolutely un-struck by the ‘blimey, he’s fantastic’ thunderbolt I yearned for. No surprises from the candidates: Simon the most charismatic but with dodgy material; Ming authoritative but with a nasty edge; Chris talking much sense but still boring. This is the most detailed report you’ll read. Yet I feel strangely hopeful – each was far better than on Question Time, so they’re all improving even after a month of slog. Despite my reservations, I can be enthusiastic about whichever of them wins.

I may have one more leadership piece to go (been up my sleeve to finish with for a while), but with several papers and the BBC covering the London hustings, why shouldn’t I, too? It was great to see so many people packing out a large hall, and gratifying to see the likes of Nick Robinson hanging about, or Michael White and his Guardian munchkins telling on the doorstep, and all hosted by the Independent. Yes, we all say the media aren’t important, but we like it when they pay attention, don’t we? Independent editor Simon Kelner usually comes across as rather pro-Lib Dem and gave a friendly introduction, making it rather a shame that he left the chairing to his apparatchik Steve Richards, a man who usually comes over a spiteful Labourite and, though you might think that would give him an edge, was one of the least useful ‘question time’ chairs I’ve seen.

But I’m getting ahead. Large tables outside the hall advertised each of the candidates; we got there early, which exaggerated the differences between them. Simon’s table had a couple of people on it and a close-written, FOCUS-type leaflet; Ming’s table looked impressive from a distance, with masses of coloured balloons and stickers, but no leaflets and no people; and Chris’ table had plenty of people to speak to and six different types of leaflet or pamphlet. Before the hustings started, all had been joined by more ‘team members’, mostly young, with Simon’s table supplemented by a nicely-printed A4 Manifesto and Ming’s by, finally, a single variety of leaflet, albeit London-specific and in glossy colour. All saw good business in handing out stickers, though no candidate was wildly ahead on that score (and the people wearing all three who presumably wanted to suggest party unity merely looked like traffic lights). In the absence of popcorn, I’d brought along a large bag of M & Ms…

Ming’s Speech

With each candidate given ten minutes to sell their message, Ming spoke first. His best points were on his own ‘story’, and on the attack: his tone of incisive moral rectitude really gives oomph to lines like “Who could have imagined that the opponents of apartheid should now become the apologists for rendition here in the UK?” and accusing Labour of providing “the most authoritarian government since 1945”. That magisterial line of criticism had me nodding, but rarely uplifted, and talking of how we were “unanimous on Iraq” called attention to the way he was the candidate now most apart from the others on that very subject; he was much less strong when being positive, and punctuated too many of his points with a finger stabbing downwards, as if on a firing button.

Chris’ Speech

Chris called everyone “friends” and started by making the audience feel good, with a joke about MPs helping out constituents with their tax credits and volunteering Willie Rennie to give advice to a Mr Brown of Dunfermline who’s got in a tangle over his, as well as promising that each of the three candidates will make a strong team with the members deciding the right mix. His own delivery was a strange mix of the most relaxed – mainly coming over in the chattier parts of his material – and the most nervous, with a few stumbles and noticeably reacting on the audience; when he was dry and there was no response, he just got drier, but he came alive when given applause. There were more ideas than in Ming’s speech, but less passion: when he talked about making the planet sustainable as “the pre-eminent issue,” or attacked the “Orwellian” Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill as “the Abolition of Parliament Bill,” I found myself swept along, but when he slipped into pieces of jargon such as “the social trends underpinning our growth” I’m not sure if my eyelids were fluttering or wincing.

Simon’s Speech

Simon pushed the lectern aside and took the mike in his hand with an aside about “being better without technology,” which got a Luddite laugh but not from me, and launched into what was easily the most charismatic speech, engaging with the audience in the manner of a revivalist preacher (though pretending to speak without notes meant it was much more obvious when, without a handy lectern, he had to peer fixedly down at the speech he’d stuck on the table. Write it on your hand, Simon). Like a preacher, his personal appeals came across as assuming we were all on his side anyway and merely needed to be roused rather than persuaded, with mixed results. His opening story about the Bermondsey journey was slightly thrown by Southwark-based protesters who shouted and, this being a Lib Dem gathering, were first listened to and then booed rather than arrested for terrorism. If anything, they got the audience more on Simon’s side by interrupting the smugger part of his speech and giving him the opportunity to suggest they ask questions in the Q&A stage with everyone else, which as they were clearly only interested in drowning Simon out and not in dialogue gave them nowhere to go except outside in a huff. Once back on track, Simon’s was the most uplifting speech and the most personal, constantly promising “If I am your Leader, I will…” He was clearly tilting at one section of the party, with some of his tacking to the ‘left’ hitting a persuasive moral tone – “We’re the fourth most successful country in the world, but I don’t think a lot of people notice it” – and others cheap shots, like the unsubtle “I promise you, there will be no move to the right if you elect me Leader of our party next week.”

Each of them, incidentally, found their own way to name-check Charles Kennedy.

Questions

I quite enjoyed each of the speeches, but the questions were a bit of a wash-out. I should declare an interest, in that before the hustings opened we were told to submit questions on pieces of paper and, having done so, none of mine were picked. The trouble is, given these, Steve Richards then took questions from the floor; given those, he decided he wasn’t interested in them either and tended to introduce his own half-way through a round instead, meaning we frequently heard answers to completely different questions for no apparent reason other than that the political commentator preferred to hear his own voice. With the first question from a UKIPper on which candidate would leave the EU (to laughter), we then got three questions put together from a Southwark councillor on trust, economic and social Liberalism, and coalitions. Bizarrely, having not stopped the guy for asking more than one question, Mr Richards went on to seek still more from the audience before letting the contenders start on the answers, and introduced his own on taxes after the first answer as well; no wonder there weren’t satisfactory answers to any of the six questions shoved together there in a lump. I have to admit, he may have gone on a bit, but the guy from Southwark put his finger on arguably the three most important questions and I was put out that they were lost in the mêlée.

Ming’s first block of answers was fairly nondescript, with “trust by example” and “read our preamble” to argue there’s no dichotomy between economic and social Liberalism, and repeating his formula from Question Time that we should never mention the words “Hung Parliament” (once again being the only person to use those words all evening). He then made rather a bad impression by looking ostentatiously bored while each of the others answered (while Chris politely clapped). Chris’ answer was largely on the tax question Mr Richards suddenly switched to, though he did manage to fight his way back to some of the questions from the floor; hearing him on possible ways better than the 50p rate to tax the wealthier, I have to admit that after years of Gordon Brown messing up pensions, saying we might scoop more out of them doesn’t inspire me. Still, on trust I think he’s right that we must be “absolutely honest on policy” – it’s the ‘costed manifesto’ approach that’s given us credibility in the last few elections. He was also strong on distinctiveness being vital for us, and it being “crucial we stay as an independent force,” rejecting the ‘project’ between Tony and Paddy. Simon led on trust, saying he didn’t deal well with his “most personal judgement” but that people can distinguish between that and his “political judgement” (it seems to have stopped being the ‘Leadership test’ he claimed just afterwards). He did make good points that we’re trusted on issues like the environment and civil liberties but not on those such as pensions, mortgages and security that people are more likely to vote on, and denied being in favour of “tax and spend”.

Student Fees

On top-up fees, all three were strongly committed to the party’s continuing opposition. Chris started and finished well, talking about the fall in university applications and ending with a rousing denunciation of the government, but in the middle went for an extended wander around ‘Crosslandite criticisms’ that rather lost me and, I suspect, everyone else. Simon answered succinctly and then popped in factoids on other aspects of education, which made sense, as well as appealing to the hall with a pledge that “party members decide policy and not the Leader”; this was such a shameless lunge for the audience’s g-spot that I feel bound to comment. I suspect both Simon and Chris are so committed to their own ideas that they’re likely to try and bounce the party (it’s certainly happened before with Simon). It’s just that Simon thinks we’d all agree with him anyway, and I wonder how he’d be if it turned out we didn’t vote the way he expects us to in Conference (compare “party members decide” with “I promise you, no move to the right”). Ming gave a textbook answer about Scotland, and how he – like the Cabinet – had enjoyed free education, wondering aloud where they’d all have got without it.

Swearing, Choice and Points of Contention

The next round asked for their reactions to the ludicrous fine for a teenager overheard swearing with friends, views on parental choice in education (from a former researcher for John Hemming, which got a laugh), economic and social Liberalism again, and what they disagreed on. Ming ignored the first question and leapt in on the last, identifying the “immensely complicated” issue of Iraq as the main difference. There must be no selection in education, he said, by Labour’s back door or the Conservatives’ front door. For me one of his most impressive answers was here as he dealt with Liberalism and public services with considerable passion and good soundbites: “I believe fervently in personal freedom… Local government must have the power to remain in provision of public services, not just commission. If a contract goes wrong, that means lots of money to expensive lawyers on the Strand. If local government goes wrong, you can kick them out.”

Simon agreed that Iraq was a difference, saying “We should honour what we said we’d do and leave after the elections.” Our reputation is soiled, he said, and I have to agree with him, with the evidence from Iraq pointing just that sorry way. However, his next argument was that we must “complete devolution properly” – which I heartily agree with – but through his utterly risible idea of ‘completing’ devolution by leaving it forever incomplete and turning Westminster into a two-tier Parliament. Sigh. He then got my back up further by saying he had a difference with Chris, that the £20 billion it would cost to take to lift minimum-wage earners out of income tax could be spent better – that bit’s perfectly arguable, keep reading – but after stating, properly, that this would be the equivalent of 4p on income tax, then directly stated that Chris would raise the money by increasing income tax by 4p and attacked him for proposing an income tax hike. Now, I know Simon’s not stupid, so as Chris has said throughout that he’d put the money on environmental taxes I can only conclude that this was a deliberate straw man. It was a lie, and I didn’t like it. Perhaps Simon didn’t want to weaken his own green credentials by attacking Chris’ actual position, but it was the single most off-putting thing any of the candidates said that night. Fortunately Simon then came back to attack the government for criminalising young people and said we should end summary justice on the streets, reminding me what’s good about him too.

Chris started off by referring back to his chairing of the Public Services Commission to show he wasn’t on one side or the other in the economic-social debate, which wasn’t very inspiring, and I got the feeling he was sticking to pre-prepared answers because he didn’t react to Simon’s distortion either. He got more into his stride by talking about giving local councils the power to experiment with ideas and providers and try new things, so they can be rewarded or booted out rather than just imposing the market on everything from above, and worried about ‘choice’ sometimes meaning the school chooses the pupil rather than the other way round, so the local authority must be “the ringmaster”. He too opposed summary fines. Things heated up when he turned to defence: if Chris is Simon’s main target, Ming and Chris are each other’s. His repeated phrase that in Iraq “we’re part of the problem, not part of the solution” may have become a cliché but I’m sure it’s right, and he went on to say that he agreed with the article Ming wrote last year that said we should set a deadline to pull out. Now, I heard Chris use this weeks ago, and I’m stunned that Ming’s still not got an answer to it other than pretty much ‘This man is dangerously imprudent and I’m going to hope you all forget I said exactly the same thing’. Perhaps encouraged by Ming’s apparent weakness here, Chris went further on defence by mocking the way British troops are still stationed in Germany to repel a Soviet invasion, leading Ming actually to come in again and bat him down, pointing out not just that unilaterally backing out of NATO decisions would be irresponsible but that they’re there to reinforce Bosnia and Kosovo. So on defence each of them is clearly better when on the attack :-)

How Not to Answer a Light-Hearted Question

Then the final, ‘light’ question, “You’ve spent lots of time in each other’s company. What have you learned?” Now, you’d expect something light and witty to make the audience go away thinking well of you, or something clever along the lines of “I’ve learnt that Ming is authoritative / Simon is charismatic / Chris is clever” – praise for some opponent’s quality that everyone already knows – “but that what I can bring to this job still more effectively is…” Instead, two were nasty and one was tedious. Give me strength. Simon Hughes, come on down: “Not a lot.” (audible gasps) “You’re asking for candid answers.” “Is that a compliment?” asks Steve Richards. “You can interpret it as you wish.” Realising this may not have gone down well, Simon then says he knows why they’re all in the same party, raising for a second the tantalising hope he’s about to say something feel-good, before praising himself as the candidate who can win people over in large numbers better. Ugh. As if for a bet, Ming tries to be even less appealing. The man whose ostentatious proclamations of humility ring as true as Uriah Heep’s gives a scornful whiplash of “I’ve learned modesty and humility. And I’ve also learned from Simon how not to answer the bloody question.” Followed by Chris talking about attendance, good heart, united more than divides us, not riven, most united in Parliament on votes… Fortunately at this point he didn’t produce a bar chart, but he could scarcely have been less exciting. All of them had done pretty well for most of the night, so what ever possessed them each to give by a long way their poorest answers at the end, so people would be talking about the bad bits at the door? Perhaps they were demob-happy.

Despite the ending, I enjoyed the night. I chatted to lots of lovely Lib Dems I’ve not seen for a while (and particular thanks to the one who remembered seeing The Curse of Fenric many years ago and enjoyed being reminded of it by my review). And though each of the candidates had their problems, each was much better than on their TV and radio appearances together earlier in the campaign, suggesting each improves with practice. Simon was more at ease and able to let his charisma flow, and fired off fewer – if not no – loose cannon shots, a relief after the Leaders’ Question Time where I thought he easily ‘won’ the first half but then messily self-destructed in the second. Ming sounded more incisive and really impressed on the attack, and has at least improved his answers on coalitions and Iraq, the two issues where his judgement seemed most wanting back on Question Time. And Chris is still intelligent and has the most ‘meat’, but has cured himself of smiling smugly every time he makes what he thinks is a good point, though he’s still the least exciting presence of the three. I remain a little sad that no one of them gave me a sudden epiphany, and a bit disturbed that our big unifying factor of Iraq has become the big row. Whoever wins, I hope the other two and their supporters will genuinely rally round and unite the party, rather than just looking to their own backers. The party needs uniting, and with each of the contenders so clearly in possession of qualities the others lack, I do hope each of them is going to be pushed to the front to take the fight out where it matters.

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Comments:
"I have to admit that after years of Gordon Brown messing up pensions, saying we might scoop more out of them doesn’t inspire me."

If this is Chris's suggestion to scrap 40% tax relief on pension contributions for top-rate taxpayers who are unlikely to have messed up pensions, it seems reasonable to me.

Ming's irascibility reminds me of the House of Cards quote someone mentioned early on in the campaign: "Beware of an old man in a hurry."
 
It turns my stomach to hear multi-millionaire Chris Huhne advocating policies such as scrapping 40% tax relief on pension contributions for top-rate taxpayers.

His registrable shareholdings have included Mining companies, Oil companies and... wait for it.. tax shelters!

Some of the more interesting companies from his vast portfolio;

Mining and Oil Companies;

Gold Mines of Sardinia Plc
Centamin Egypt ltd
BP PLC

Tax Shelters

Elderstreet Downing Venture Capital Trust Ltd
Northern Venture Trust plc
Quester Venture Capital Trust Ltd,
Baronsmead Venture Capital Trust 2 plc
Friends Ivory and Sime Venture Capital Trust Ltd,
Murray Venture Capital Trust plc,
Close Bros VCT plc.

The reason that rich people like Huhne park their cash in VC Trusts is that they provide up to 150,000 income tax relief per investor, per year, on "qualifying investments"

What other tax avoidance strategies does Chris use? He has three bank accounts - Co-operative Bank plc, Citibank and KBC - I wonder if he has money "offshore" as most millionaires do?

Being preached on tax by someone
who has squirelled their money away in tax avoiding wrappers is not something I want to hear!
 
special bets: Huh?

Are you saying that people who probably use tax loopholes should never advocate closing them?

Perhaps we should all only speak on policy questions that don't affect ourselves directly? What nonsense.
 
Joe, I think you have to ask yourself - "is this person really against tax loopholes?" - given that they use them themselves. I suppose he could have changed his mind! Does he still own them or not? Its the same on the environment - Huhne says he wants to reduce carbon emissions yet at the same time he is helping to finance TWO gold exploration companies. Gold ores need smelting which creates carbon dioxide. He also has invested in BP! Is this man credible?!
 
Special Bets, you seem to think that only hermits can be credible on matters of policy.

OTOH, I have never met a hermit who was credible on policy.

Everybody contributes to CO2 and nobody pays taxes that they think ought to be levied, but aren't.
 
Alex - was lovely to see you at the hustings - and thanks, once again, for an excellent write-up.

Special Bets - it would help if you knew what you were talking about when you raise the subject of VCTs. These aren't "tax avoidance loopholes"; rather they are Govt-sponsored investment vehicles. Yes, that's right, Gordon *wants* people to invest in thee things.

Now, it so happens that (if you're really interested - and not just trying to make a cheap point) I suspect the Tax Commission is going to make some recommendations on both 40% pension relief and VCTs, amongst sundry other things. If you want a 'special bet', my top tip is to put good money on the Commission proposing to abolish both.

But you'll have to wait till the policy paper comes out ... thank goodness you don't have to wait nearly as long for the outcome of the leadership ballot.
 
Dear the Cat!
I got the tax relief figures from Her Majesties Revenue and Customs website, so yes, I am aware that this is a government sponsored scheme (although NOT as you imply originated by dear Gordon!).
You might not think that the motivation behind investing in 7 VCTs is to avoid paying tax but I do. I did not say this was illegitmate. I'm suggesting that his "Tax The Rich" views are more than a little hypocritical.
 
Special Bets - I wasn't implying that Gordon created them, but he certainly has promoted them. VCTs are a govt-sponsored scheme to encourage people to invest in private equity vehicles. It's not much dissimilar to investing in your pension - merely that it's that much more risky than, say, an ordinary UK equities fund.

Now, that's all by the by (apart from showing that this isn't some sensational "tax avoidance" scheme, as you imply). More fundamentally, why do you think it's hypocritical of Huhne to support policies that would make him less rich?

To take an analogy, if our policy of 50p on income tax over £100k were enacted I would end up paying £000s more tax. I campaigned on that policy at the last GE & thought it was fully justified. Does that make me hypocritical?

I'm not claiming that I'm in any way alturistic, but your charge of hypocrisy is beneath you ...

Perhaps you ought to look into your own motivations - I may have misread your post on pb.com, but is it correct that you're £5,000 down on the betting markets if either Huhne or Hughes wins the leadership? How much do you stand to gain if Ming wins?

As they say, "meow"!
 
What a lot happens when my attention’s elsewhere for the weekend. Gosh.

First, Will…

Saying “top-rate taxpayers… are unlikely to have messed up pensions” sounds less reasonable to me than to you. Assuming – and this is the implications of Chris’ answers – that this is an alternative money-raiser to the 50p rate at £100,000, it would be there to draw in about £4-5 billion to the Treasury for our other spending plans, not to help out 'ordinary' people with pensions contributions. I have several problems with this.

The main reason people are quoting for dropping the 50p rate is that a lower rate than under Mrs Thatcher and at twice the earnings than under Mrs Thatcher is somehow ‘socialist’. Not remembering the ‘80s as a period of untrammelled Reddery, that doesn’t ring true for me, but assuming some ‘aspirational’ voters are put off because they’d like to get into the top 1% of earners, how is clobbering the pensions of everyone on the current higher rate – a vastly larger number of people, and including those earning an amount that really isn’t vast, if hardly modest – going to appeal to them? It sounds like penalising people on above-average earnings to spare people on mightily-above-average earnings, which sounds like a much bigger vote-loser.

The other problem I have is with the target. Mr Brown famously raided pension schemes early in his reign, and after a bad few years for the stock market as well people have very little faith in private pension provision – yet the state pension isn’t going to lift people much above poverty. We seriously need to convince people their pensions are safe and desirable, and the message this policy would send out is that we’re as bad as Mr Brown. Would it encourage or discourage you?

If, of course, reducing the pension release only came in at £100,000, that would mean a far higher extra tax scoop having to be taken from a smaller number of people, and rather oddly targeting the prudent rather than the profligate. Obviously it would do that anyway, but the smaller the group of people the more magnified the effect. At least with income tax you've got a built-in argument about fairness.

The “old man in a hurry” quote made me smile, as it’s obviously true – though I have a feeling that was first said of Gladstone, not an inauspicious precedent – but then, if there’s one candidate most in a hurry, it’s a close-run thing between Ming and Chris. How else would you describe someone standing for Leader after just eight months in Parliament? And perhaps with most of the others of ‘his generation’ actually a decade younger, it could be said that if he’d waited he’d have looked like an ‘old man’. Looks like a reason to hurry to me ;-)
 
I think there was a Parl'y question a few days ago about how much a 50% (or to be precise, 49% - as was effectively our policy at the GE) would bring in.

IIRC it's now calculated at more like £3bn than £4-5bn.

For me, there difference on pensions is partly a psychological one: pension contributions are automatically grossed up by the basic rate, enhancing the fund. By contrast, you have to claim the higher rate relief in your pension return, the money comes back to you in lower tax payments - and there's no particular reason for it to be invested in your pension fund as opposed. In that way, its abolition is more akin to playing with the tax rate (but arguably is politically more saleable + may work better from a behavioural perspective).
 
And now Special Bets. Well, hello, ‘Special’!

Your argument seems to boil down to the idea that you can’t trust wealthy people, and especially you can’t trust wealthy people who say they want to get more tax out of wealthy people. Which chimes in with your own identity - which is all about money - but not with someone who's devoted themselves to politics, and might have interests other than cash, however well-off they are (and I agree it's uninspiring that Chris affects not to know). But who was your attack supposed to sway? I notice the main person your over-the-top tirade has attracted to defend Chris is a declared Ming supporter. That should tell you something about your powers of persuasion.

I also notice that you went through, in excruciating detail, Chris’ registered portfolio. Aside from the bizarre shriek about “smelting which creates carbon dioxide” – almost meaningless as an attack on its own, as, er, so do you – the main thing that I notice about Chris’ extensive and public list of investments is that it is extensive and public.

You may be a concerned individual with a deep worry over the power of people with a great deal of money, which in many ways I would share. But then, you might have said that Chris is someone with a great deal of money to start with who’s used his natural talents to make rather more, but instead of putting all his efforts into becoming richer has decided to devote his life to public service, which can’t possibly be as lucrative. So, as you’ve not given Chris Huhne a similar benefit of the doubt, what might a cynical mind make of you?

First, your anonymity. Why do you cover your identity? Are you an investor in rival companies to those Chris puts his money into? Are you David Cameron, or Gordon Brown, frightened of an opponent? As the only thing we know about you is that you make bets – that the thing you consider most important about yourself is the wish to make money – how do we know that your bets aren’t stacked up so you’ll make a killing if Chris loses, but get stung if he wins, and so you're frantic to turn people against him?

Now, my shareholdings are precisely zero, but I was under the impression that the reason there are tax advantages to VCTs is that the government, rightly, want to encourage investing in up-and-coming businesses. It’s a higher risk for a higher return. And the thing about company stock of all kinds is that the money enables companies to do things, so while obviously it’s good news for you if you have sufficient money to invest, the money does something useful.

Unlike, say, betting, where the money just circulates between punter and bookie, and where the only thing it feeds is sheer greed (and though I’ve never bought shares, I did once get £150 from a £10 stake, and enjoyed it very much. But I was under no illusions about its social utility). It could be assumed on the limited evidence you’ve provided about yourself that, as your defining characteristic is your betting activity, sneering at someone for having lots of money implies you desperately, desperately want to have lots yourself but aren’t very good at getting it. You ‘invest’ in a more selfish and less socially useful way than Chris, but you’re less wealthy as a result. Which just sounds like you’re spitting at him out of envy.

“Is this man credible?!”

Are you?
 
Finally to The Cat.

Thanks for your points, and I'll have a think about your pensions argument.

Oh, and I'm sure it was lovely to see you last week, too, and thanks for the kind words - but do drop me a line to let me know who you are, so I can remember how lovely ;-)
 
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