Sunday, 22 August 2010

Changes of heart

I have two changes of opinion to share with you: the first being my views on the House of Lords; and the second being my opinions of the Budget, which was announced back in June. You're not actually interested in my opinions, but pretend you are so I have a reason to babble incessantly at you. Let's begin with everyone's favourite room full of red chairs and red-cheeked men:

The House of Lords

I haven't suddenly decided that I like the idea of unelected people being able to influence the legislation pursued by the Government, but putting idealism aside for pragmatism and having noted what damage a fully-elected Lords could do, I've settled on having it fully appointed. That is, we peons don't vote for the Lords, and Members are chosen internally. It's obviously indefensible to have 92 Lords who are there by luck of birth, and there can be no sensible argument put forward for keeping people in their position of power simply because their great-grandfather spent his time chopping the heads off of rebels in the Empire and was knighted for his skill in wielding a sword. (Dramatised to bring some blood and gore into an otherwise dull topic.)

So, what sparked my move from fervently believing in a fully-elected Lords, to believing we, the public, should have no say in the Members? Total Politics. That's a magazine which is, surprisingly, about politics. It costs a ridiculous £4, but I enjoy reading it. This month, it featured a section about some interesting Lords, ranging from Norman Tebbit to Pola Uddin, and throughout these short interviews, it became clearer that Parliament would be sorely lacking without the experience and intelligence of these chaps and chapesses. Ironically, it's the fervent democrat in me which leads me to oppose greater democracy in the Lords. Currently, despite being dominated by Lords who are members of political parties, they have a great deal of independence and are free from the influence of the Whips. Most do not have political ambitions, and therefore - unlike an MP who wants to progress to a Ministerial or Cabinet position - they need not always toe the party line and behave themselves as good little minions. If we have a Lords which is effectively a mirror of the Commons, it loses its purpose. Whilst legislation can be tabled in the Lords - such as the despised Digital Economy Act, put forward by none other than Lord Mandelslime himself - it mostly amends legislation, picking out weak spots or requesting minor changes. As it stands, the Lords has a wealth of experience at its disposal, comprising people of many walks of life and years of experience. They were either never part of the political rat-race, or have left it behind. Having independent, experienced, and strong-minded Parliamentarians who act as a counter-weight to the Government is a good thing. Whilst it is difficult to defend the unelected blocking the will of the elected, there are instances where this has generally been seen as positive, such as the Lords blocking the previous Labour Government's attempts at implementing a whopping 42 days' detention without trial. If the Lords was subject to the same party politics as the Commons, the Government could utilise its majority in the Lords and effectively ram through its legislation, due to little or no effective opposition in the Chamber. This dangerous for democracy and freedom.

A democratic alternative to this would be to elect the Lords on a proportional system. Rather than the FPTP (or AV if the referendum is successful next year), it would be on national list or regional list - as used for EU parliament elections, meaning that the make-up of the Lords is much more varied and representative than the Commons. This means that the Government would still face opposition in the Lords, as it does now, but from elected members who have the public's consent. This would result in a wide variety of parties being in the Lords, and therefore the House should be able to mount an effective opposition to the power of the Government. However, the flaw in this alternative is that it's incredibly difficult for independent, unaffiliated candidates to win a seat. Independents enjoy only occasional success under our current system, and where they have success,  it is generally due to being able to ardently campaign in their constituency often on local issues. Since a proportional system would remove constituencies, leaving us with only large delineations in the UK: West, South-east, Scotland, etc, an independent cannot successfully campaign in such a large area and there are not local issues to highlight. We would therefore lose a strength of the Lords: the independent and experienced members who do not feel any need to follow party policy whatsoever.

I think - aside from the hereditary Peers - we currently have a good balance of power between the Commons and Lords. It is right that our elected representatives wield the majority of the power, but there must be an effective and independent Lords to counter-balance it and make amendments. A House which replicates the Commons would be a weak house.

The Budget

I wrote a brief summary of and comments about this year's Budget shortly after it was read by George Gideon Oliver Osborne in the Commons (yes, Gideon.) At the time, I wrote generally favourably of Gideon's work, but as you may have noticed, I've flip-flopped around in my political persuasion since then. Therefore, I have some bones to pick with the budget. The crux of my argument is that more of the burden should fall on the wealthy through greater taxation, and less of it on average and poor families and on cuts in services.

The VAT rise - in my not-so-humble opinion - was wrong. Here I am again, directly contradicting what I said a few months ago, but I'm allowed to because I'm not a politician. I recently ordered a new PC; it's an early 18th birthday present. (Some people get cars, some get parties, I get a computer - and that's just the way I like it.) It was shortly sent back when I concluded that the graphics card was naff. I therefore decided to go on an epic Internet quest over the past few days, with the objective being to find individual components and get the chaps down the road to upgrade my existing, ageing workhorse. 'Why are you telling me this, and what does it have to do with the budget?' is what you're wondering. Well, I was already pushing it a bit with the total cost of these components, and I had a little random thought pop into my otherwise empty mind: this would cost even more if I were to wait until next year, since VAT is jumping up to 20%. Whilst it's a pretty small jump from 17.5% to 20, it all adds up, especially on the processor, which - depending upon how much I splash my Dad's cash - could cost in excess of £200. I concluded that I would have to reign in my budget, buying lower-quality stuff. If I'm feeling particularly rebellious, I may even decide it's costing too much with the new 20% VAT and decide to persevere with my trusty machine.  Of course, Gideon has no need to care about me and my computer woes, or me having to make do with an ageing PC, but it seems that it's predicted other people will do the same thing. Economic growth is expected to be lowered by the VAT increase, due to other cheapskates like me deciding not to buy things they could otherwise afford. I don't particularly care about economic growth, though. What does bother me, though, is that the VAT rise disproportionately hits the less-well-off whilst the wealthy haven't really felt an additional pinch.

Obviously VAT applies to everyone the same, but those who are better off can take the hit far easier than those who aren't. Despite the VAT rise, Gideon and his wife will still be able to afford to buy a new golden, jewel-encrusted pot to hold their money, whilst those who aren't fortunate enough to be born into a family which owns "an upmarket wallpaper business" (fascinating) will feel a larger hole in their pocket.

I wouldn't be so bitter if the bank levy was higher. It's only going to raise - at its peak - £2.5billion a year. The Robin Hood tax campaign called for it to raise £20bn a year to help offset cuts in services and prevent the VAT rise. It's only right that those partly responsible for this economic mess we've landed in -- and who have had success and prosperity from the years of economic growth- pay a large chunk required to reduce the deficit. Furthermore, the introduction of a tax on bankers' bonuses would be welcome.

Another important overlooked area is tax evasion. Whilst the Government has rightly recently announced an assault against those who wrongly claim benefits, it seems to be ignoring tax evasion, which is estimated to result in much greater losses than benefit fraud.

Overall though, this budget should have been one which raised tax on the wealthy more, easing the burden as much as possible on lower and middle income earners, and helping to save our services from the brunt of the cuts.

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