Friday 5th December: George Osborne’s Autumn Statement has helped bring some key issues to the fore; on growth, fiscal policy and the future role of the state. Though the recovery is underway, too much spending is fuelled by borrowing, while productivity and skills remain low. As Dr Lyons writes:
The first key message is that the economy is recovering strongly but there is scepticism about how sustainable such growth is. In some respects patience is needed, not only for wages to recover but also for confidence to increase. Yet, at the same time any recovery will likely expose some of the fundamental flaws we have seen in the past, namely too much of personal spending is driven by borrowing and that rising house prices are as much of a problem as a solution. The UK cannot get rich by selling houses to itself, or to foreigners.
We need to keep thinking globally, and it is only by doing so, that we will remain focussed on the need to reposition the economy through higher investment, more innovation and increased exports. Domestic demand needs to be strong, too. People need more money and the Chancellor is right to think that lower taxes are part of the solution, but so too is the need for higher wages based on improved productivity. UK productivity is low, due to many factors, including low skills and a lack of prior investment. But also some of the factors explaining low productivity include the high numbers in work and a lack of demand, as in a service sector economy it requires spending to rise for productivity gains to be seen.
Friday 28th November: This week Tristram Hunt MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, proposed that Labour would, if returned to government, legislate to remove business-rate relief from independent schools that do not enter into partnerships with schools in the state sector. At present, independent schools that are charities, benefit from business-rate relief (under the Local Government Finance Act, 1988) on account of their charitable status. Under the proposal, business-rate relief for an independent school would be conditional on entering into a ‘hard edged partnership’ with a state school. By way of example, Mr Hunt said that, as a bare minimum, all private schools should provide qualified teachers to help to deliver specialist subject knowledge to state schools, and should run joint extra-curricular programmes ‘where the state schools is [sic] an equal partner.’ He also proposed that all secondary private schools should assist with expertise to help get ‘disadvantaged state school kids’ into top class universities, including Oxbridge.
Friday 21st November: Dr Sheila Lawlor writes. British Euroscepticism notched up another victory at Rochester when Mark Reckless, who resigned as a Conservative MP to join UKIP, was re-elected to parliament on 42.1 per cent of the vote. The Conservatives came second with 34.8 per cent and Labour third with 16.8 per cent. Not only was immigration a central issue for UKIP and the Conservatives, Labour too focused on some of the questions it raises for this country.
The problem UK leaders face is the EU principle of free movement. From Germany Mrs Merkel is reported as saying she would rather see the UK leave the EU than compromise on free movement. From Helsinki, the Nordic leaders reiterated this month that free movement was not negotiable. But voters, from the North Sea to Gallipoli, no longer believe the EU has the solution. Though their rulers may hold out for unlimited free movement, many voters, especially in the founder western countries and Britain, concerned with the consequences of open benefits, open labour markets and open access to housing, schools and health services, see things very differently.
Even where the leaders appear to be on the side of voters, they seem powerless to win against the EU. The recent Luxembourg court ruling, which limited unemployment benefits to those migrants genuinely seeking work, may seem to be an exception, and it seems to have appeased some voters. But it is questionable whether this judgement amounts to very much in practice, since the burden of proof is on the court to prove a claimant was not genuine about seeking work. Usually, EU court rulings do not even have the semblance of supporting the interests of individual countries – as with the EU’s prohibition of the UK from deciding its own rules for bankers’ bonuses. As UKIP’s leader put it: you never win with the EU.
Friday 14th November: As Labour MPs turn against their leader, Sheila Lawlor explains that the problem is not Ed Miliband, but voters distaste for traditional labour policy.
Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader, has been ‘fighting back’, mainly to prove to his own party that he can win the general election next May. His personal rating trails that of Nick Clegg. But worse, that of his party has now fallen according to one recent poll. While one new poll shows Labour still leads at 34 percent (Conservatives 30 per cent, UKIP 19 per cent, Lib Dems 8 per cent) another suggests that only 29 per cent of people would vote Labour. On the Labour benches MPs and shadow ministers alike have the knives out. They fear Mr Miliband may lose their party the next election - and many of them their seats. One, Simon Danczuk, explains that what the public wants is ‘less’ not ’more’ Ed.
This focus on Mr Miliband, not least by himself, is however misplaced. True, he is not and never has been a popular figure, except for some trade unionists for whose brand of state run socialism he stands. But then, Westminster leaders have hardly been flavour of the year: they have trouble, or so it seems, connecting with the voters.
Friday 7th November: Prince Charles has highlighted the plight of Christians in the Middle East, driven out of their homes, persecuted and sometimes murdered in the war zones which stretch from Iraq and Syria to Egypt and Libya. At best they escape with their lives from the lands, in which, as he rightly pointed out, Christians have lived for 2,000 years, cohabiting peaceably with the Muslims who spread across the region in 700 AD.
Prince Charles was launching the report Religious Freedom in the World, http://religion-freedom-report.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/executive_summary.pdf, published by the charity, Aid to the Church in Need. Analysing developments in almost two hundred countries worldwide over the 2012-14 period, the report identifies 81 countries (c 41 per cent) where religious freedom is impaired (classified as “high” or “medium”). Of the 20 countries with the greatest intolerance of religious freedom, in 14 religious persecution is linked to extremist Islam. These include Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, troubled states in chaos or civil war. They also include Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, some African countries (eg Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Somalia and Sudan) and Asian countries such as China and North Korea where religious persecution is linked to authoritarian regimes.