Posts Tagged social justice

The transforming power of education

Last night we had an inspiring evening debating education and social exclusion.

The other week, my parents reminded me that my first ever political demo was against education cuts – in my pushchair! As the daughter and sister-in-law of teachers; a school governor; a former youth worker; and a scholarship girl at university, I am steeped in a commitment to the transforming power of education and the importance of seeking excellence for all pupils.

But as I’m a Lib Dem you’d expect that. What was special about last night was debating the issues with our guest speaker, Stephen Williams MP. Stephen is not only part of our Education team in Parliament, he embodies what we are campaigning for. Stephen told us of his background: a kid getting free school meals, the son of a road worker and a dinner lady, who became the first in his family to get to university – and now an MP.

And unlike the Labour MPs – who broke Blair’s tainted promise and pulled up the ladder of achievement that helped them, by introducing tuition fees – Stephen and the Lib Dems are still looking at ways to extend opportunity. Like the pupil premium, and cutting class sizes (launched in Islington!) to give the poorest infants the same pupil-teacher ratios as prep schools. And like the truly radical proposals on parental leave.

With the sad death of Ivan Cameron, parents in politics are in the news for tragic reasons. I now believe that the big divide in politics is less between men and women (although it’s still there) and more between people who have caring responsibilities (usually women) and those without.

I’m so proud that Lib Dems have serious plans to address these equity issues and to power up the transforming effect of education. This is just what communities like Islington need.

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Council tax: Lib Dem freeze on the cards

Council tax is widely hated, and no wonder.

Council tax is simply unfair. It’s not based on your ability to pay but on the notional value of your home (very notional given the boom and bust of house prices). So if your income changes (because you lose your job), your council tax doesn’t necessarily go down.

Pensioners and others on fixed incomes are particularly hard hit. And if, like many Islington residents you are a tenant, taxing you on the value of an asset that someone else owns is just bizarre.

Lib Dems have long called for the unfair council tax to be scrapped. The Labour government’s done nothing about it.

Islington Lib Dems have kept their pledge to keep Islington’s council tax below the London average. And this year they’re proposing to freeze it.

It’s not clear yet exactly what the rival Labour group are proposing. But if they press ahead with their mooted idea of free school meals for all, it’s likely to mean a council tax rise for everyone.

Free school meals for those who need them is a great idea. I’d certainly advocate looking at pushing the eligibility in Islington. But I’m not convinced that it’s right to subsidise wealthy families’ lunches by taking pensioners’ council tax – let alone putting it up.

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Time for fairer taxes

No-one likes paying tax.

I remember the taxi driver who told me he agreed with the Lib Dems on abolishing council tax. “And we’d replace it with a low local income tax,” I added enthusiastically. The cabbie disagreed. “No, no, love, just abolish it, you shouldn’t replace it at all.”

I’m not against tax. I’m one of those who believes that redistributive taxation – funding public services through taxing income and wealth – is the membership fee for a civilised society. But even so, if I’m honest, I don’t enjoy paying a penny more tax than I have to.

And unfair taxes risk losing the support of the general public for essential taxation, especially when everyone is feeling the pinch. We’ve all heard the cases of lowpaid workers paying a higher rate of tax than the company directors whose offices they clean. So the least politicians can do is make sure that the taxes we do pay are fair.

With that in mind, this week Lib Dem shadow chancellor Vince Cable proposed a motion calling for an immediate and substantial cut in income tax to benefit low and middle-income taxpayers, paid for by closing the multi-billion tax loopholes which benefit the very wealthy individuals who profited disproportionately from the economic boom.

That’s exactly the sort of policy that would benefit local people who are lower income taxpayers facing high living costs in Islington. So why did Islington’s Labour MPs vote against it?

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Guardian blog 26 Sept

My latest Guardian blog, looking at pensions, fairness, and Labour’s prospects, is now online.

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Brave Bishops and turbulent priests

I’m a great fan of Archbishop John Sentamu, who recently did a parachute jump in aid of the Afghanistan Trust. That’s after tearing up his dog collar in protest at the state of Zimbabwe. When John was Bishop of Stepney (our local Bishop for Islington), he came to conduct a confirmation service, then left the chancel steps to play the African drums during the hymns. He also chaired the local EC1 New Deal regeneration project; when blocked by a government official who kept saying, “I have to answer to my boss”, the Bishop responded, “I think you’ll find he answers to mine….”. He was also my brother’s bishop in Birmingham, where he baptised my younger niece and god-daughter Miriam (who is also an extremely feisty character).

Michael Lewis, the Bishop of Cyprus & the Gulf, is less high profile; he has been visiting Baghdad and appealing for the release of British hostages held there.

Back in Britain, Bishop Richard Holloway is taking to the stage at the Edinburgh Festival, in the role of St Thomas Beckett (hat-tip: Mandrake in the Daily Telegraph). Before he went to Edinburgh, Richard was briefly my vicar in Oxford. He has always been courageously liberal, particularly on gay rights.

We take it for granted that, unlike Beckett, today’s turbulent priests can speak out without threat; in Britain at least. It’s a decade since Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered in Guatemala, nearly 30 years since the murder of Archbiship Oscar Romero in El Salvador.

I get angry when people lazily label Christianity as repressive or illiberal, when in fact there are Christian leaders in every generation, and all over the world, speaking out for human rights and social justice.

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10p troubles

Funnily enough, Gordon Brown didn’t exactly spell out that he was effectively doubling income tax for 5 million low paid workers last year. Instead he announced “I can now return income tax to just two rates by removing the 10p band on non savings income”. It all sounded like a minor technicality. Mind you, he also claimed it was a budget to expand prosperity and fairness. The FSA should go after him for mis-selling.

Lib Dems saw the problem from the start. But some people were suckers for this dodgy deal from Gordon the bank manager. Like Islington South Labour MP Emily Thornberry. Speaking in the 2007 Budget debate – and challenged by David Howarth MP on the 10p rate – Emily said “I am proud to sit on the Government Back Benches when my Government do things like that. We had a progressive Budget that is doing the right thing for poor working families…” And even more for rich ones.

Local low earners who are hit hard don’t share her enthusiasm. One woman I met this week is typical: she’s on a low income but doesn’t qualify for tax credits, her bills are going up, and she’s frightened about the future. Now those same Labour MPs who supported the budget are frightened too, and with by-elections looming, the Government has backed down. As Andrew Duffield put it, not so much a tax cut as a Crewe cut….

But the reality is no joke. We still don’t know what the cost of borrowing the £2.7bn for this bailout will be. Only £630 million will actually go to the people who lost out when the 10p rate was abolished.

We don’t know how long these tax allowances will last. And that still leaves over 1 million low earners who are still losing out.

Maybe some voters will be bought off. But many will find it hard to forgive Labour for hiking up taxes on the poor in the first place.

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Post-conference thoughts; all believers now?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Sometimes party conference is an escape into a feelgood cocoon, where everyone is a Lib Dem, and politics is about discussing ideas in the warm not pounding the streets in the rain.

Politics is a tough old game and you need that comforting fix, that gathering of the clans, to give you the boost to keep going.
Sometimes it’s too much, literally stifling and you have to get out to get some fresh air.

Today was different. The blast of fresh air from the real world came into the conference hall, courtesy of the leader.

Yes, Nick Clegg rightly attacked the other parties. Did you know that the Labour government pillaged funds for fighting child poverty to cut inheritance tax for the 6% richest? Or that the Government that used to talk about an ethical foreign policy sells arms to 19 of the 20 countries it’s identified as the worst human rights’ abusers?

But he also attacked our own complacency. We’re rightly proud to be the greenest party (greener even than the Greens); but only 1 in 14 people agree with us that climate change is a pressing problem.

Nick struck a chord with me when he said we’ve got to do more than simply say “I told you so” when the tipping point comes. And that means really getting out and listening to people not simply doing a PR pose. Labour’s ‘big conversation’ was an invitation-only stunt, listening to hand-picked fans. The Conservatives are listening to all sorts of people, but doing little in response. Nick’s been out listening for real, no cameras, no agenda.

A couple of months ago, I went for a mid-week meal with my parents, on the edge of London. That same night Nick Clegg was doing a listening meeting at my old school down the road. I only found out when Nick came to Islington the next week and mentioned it in passing. “You should have said, I could have been there” I said. “But that’s not the point,” said Nick. He’s right.

For all the talk about personalised services, both Government and business are getting further away from people. There are straws in the wind; the BBC ‘White’ season; the fight for our post offices; the revolt against overseas call centres; anger over MPs expenses, Heathrow expansion, battery hens, and more. Even the FA Cup is showing the backlash of the underdogs.

When I lost my council seat back in 2006 it hurt like hell, but that didn’t matter; it wasn’t about me. Islington residents didn’t want a Labour council – they’d only just got rid of generations of a dreadful Labour council – but they wanted the Lib Dems to listen. Rival politicians still snigger about election losses; but the residents I talk to don’t care about all that. They want politicians who take time to listen and who remember why they are there. We must never be too busy putting our policies into practice to stop and listen to the people we serve. And we must never simply be there to prop up the Government of the day rather than put our constituents first.

After his election as leader, Nick admitted that he didn’t believe in God. One of my humanist friends at conference teased me yesterday, asking if I thought God believed in Nick Clegg? One of the things that troubles me as a Christian in politics is that so much of politics plays on hate and fear. People don’t actually like the Orwellian minutes of hate that passes for political debate these days. Private Eye rightly mocks the overuse of the word ‘solutions’ but solutions are what we need.

Last year I blogged about what I wanted in a leader. Someone who likes people, who sees people as the solution, not the problem. Nick may not be a believer, but his speech today was full of the values that make me both Christian and liberal.

He talked about beliefs, about striving to do what’s right, about second and third chances, about optimism and empowerment, about sincerity and hope. I’m certain God does believe in Nick Clegg. And so do I.

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