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May 26, 2007

Labour's unhealthy regulation obsession

One of the many problems I have with the Labour government is their habit of picking a worthy aim and doing everything they can to achieve it, regardless of the implications for liberty, to the extent that they impose disproportional burdens on our lives. It’s as if a fear of appearing half-arsed has given them a pathological lust for regulation.

This week there have been two news stories demonstrating this: pay-as-you-drive in Manchester and what the Tories are calling “Bin Brother”.

Greater Manchester is to pilot a scheme to charge motorists to drive around the city, the main aim of which (apart from reducing congestion, which I don’t think is important enough in itself) is to reduce pollution and carbon emissions. It’s similar to London’s congestion charge, but those who drive farther pay more. The trouble is people are already being taxed for how much they drive – through fuel duty. I suppose it’s a way of disincentivising driving without upsetting the rural folk who actually need a car. But it’s dangerously close to dual taxation, which I presume would not be popular. Isn’t investment in better public transport sufficient? If politicians believe it’s acceptable to meddle at this level, where will it end? Fair enough, the congestion charge has proven successful enough to be adopted by the Republican mayor of New York, but the way things are going, by the time all Britain’s cities charge for driving, the government will decide it’s not enough and install smart meters in every car.

On Thursday, Environment Secretary and PM-after-next David Miliband announced the government’s new waste strategy. One of the measures was to let councils introduce incentives to encourage recycling. The strategy stresses that any schemes will have to be “cost-neutral”, so basically if a council wants to reward people for recycling it’ll have to punish people who don’t, i.e. charge for rubbish collection by weight. It’ll be interesting to see how many councils take this up, given that they all want brownie points for being green (or “greenie points”, if you like).

Once again, I feel that having a bin tax is taking regulation too far. Once again, it’s an uncomfortable case of dual taxation – council tax is supposed to pay for waste collection, damnit. (Once again, facts conspire to confound me – apparently most of Europe has bin taxes.)

You may remember the uproar in the week or so leading up to this year’s local elections about fortnightly bin collections. This week I happened to be watching a Commons select committee discuss the very subject. The witness (from Bexley Council) was arguing that if councils did a recycling collection one week and a rubbish collection the next, people would be more likely to separate their waste, thus there’d be a rise in recycling levels. Plus, councils would save money (which, in a nice example of freakonomics, is the original/official reason for fortnightly collections). In contrast, a system of incentives would surely involve extra administrative costs. In its waste strategy Defra is trying to achieve the same results through costly meddling that they could achieve through leaving people alone (every other week).

May 18, 2007

Brown anointed as PM–'elect'

Follow-up to The Blair Bitch Project from Esprit de l'escalier

Last week in my review of Tony Blair, I wondered why Gordon Brown was getting so much criticism. Channel 4’s Dispatches on Monday kindly summed up the evidence against him for me. According to various political insiders interviewed on the programme, Brown is basically a bit of a control freak, obstinate, and bears a pretty mean grudge.

Former Labour “insider” Derek Draper ultimately defended Brown’s suitability for PM; his behaviour was merely part of his strategy to secure the premiership. Now he was assured of the job, Brown would calm down a bit. Cool, I thought, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t give him a chance. I just assumed that there’d be a leadership contest and a debate about Labour’s future with McDonnell, which would give Brown’s leadership a little more legitimacy than his 1994 lunch with Blair was currently giving.

When McDonnell pulled out of the race on Wednesday my heart sank, of course. Then I read this in the Independent today. Simon Carr suggests that Gordon Brown had been personally lobbying for nominations in order to crowd out a challenge. This was according to “a journalist”. Say it ain’t so, Gordon! Did you really think it was worth shedding what remains of Labour’s integrity in order to remove the smallest risk of not getting to be Prime Minister?

Then again, if these alleged shameful tactics were meant to be publicised, he might have meant it as a big, alienating “fuck you” to his doubters, which I’d kinda respect.

May 13, 2007

The Blair Bitch Project

Blair's Premiership
2 out of 5 stars

In news about as shocking as a typical My Family punchline, Tony Blair resigned on Thursday, opening the floodgates for the media to pore over his ten years of office and deliver versions of his legacy in handy souvenir pullouts. One wonders what the newspapers have up their sleeves for when he actually goes on June 27th. For what it’s worth, here’s my purely subjective take on his premiership.

Say what you like about Blair, he’s a fantastic politician. He made Labour electable again, but was it worth it? If I take my awkward question to mean was he good for the Labour Party, then probably not. For all the things he’s done to disillusion me, I have a grudging respect for him – sure he’s a shit, but he’s a charismatic shit.

It’s difficult to doubt his good intentions, but even his successes may not be so unequivocal.
- The minimum wage and low unemployment. The least he could do; I reckon more of the workforce is in the informal sector, employed by agencies, with low job security and no prospects, than when he came to power.
- Northern Ireland. There’s finally a power-sharing executive that might just work, but how big was Tony’s role in it since Good Friday?
- Solid economic growth and low inflation. Thanks to the independent Bank of England.
- Action on climate change. To me, this has only taken off since An Inconvenient Truth came out.
- Debt relief and development. What’s actually happened since Gleneagles?

To be fair, crime rates and NHS waiting lists have fallen, though you wouldn’t know it from press coverage.

Anything positive is outweighed by:
- Privatising anything with a pulse with a more-Thatcherite-than-Thatcher zealotry.
- Privatisation by the back door in the form of PFI, which, last time I checked, is still pretty discredited (The Guardian).
- Contracting out public service management to consultants who fuck things up so they can get paid again to sort their own mess out.
- Tuition fees.
- Top-up fees, though they are more redistributive than the Tories’ HE policies.
- Oh, and Iraq: selling out the country’s foreign policy and diplomatic power, starting an unwinnable war on false pretences, and eroding any moral high ground over Islamic extremists by undermining the rule of law and civil liberties.

Two out of five is generous.

The other day I realised that I agree with very little Labour have legislated on in the past few years. So I’m looking forward to Gordon Brown’s inevitable premiership and the new direction he’ll take the party. Apart from expecting “more of the same” I don’t understand the unremitting flak he’s been coming under for the past year. For God’s sake, Gordon’s hero is Bobby Kennedy – the greatest President America never had! They’re all just ants at a picnic.

That said, unlike the jubilant but naive 13-year-old on the morning of May 2 1997, I’m bracing myself for disappointment.

September 30, 2005

The vending machine ban

Writing about web page

So Ruth Kelly has announced that the government want to ban schools selling crisps and sweets from vending machines, and replace them with, say, cereal bars, bottled water and fruit juices. Well, it's not gonna work.

Firstly, if kids can't buy their tasty snacks in school, they're simply gonna get them from somewhere else. The school would be a fool to lose revenue in this way.

Parents can't complain about this 'negligence'. Vending machines are only found in secondary schools, right? Well, kids there are of the age at which they should learn to take responsibility for their life; choosing what to eat is a nice starting point. Parents who are concerned about their child's health have a responsibilty to feed them well at home, but school is a separate sphere.

If Junior insists on eating five packets of Cheese & Onion and a Toffee Crisp for lunch, then that's his problem. If he gets bullied as a result of his consequent weight then he'll have an incentive to eat healthier, or become the class clown. And, as everybody knows, wit is almost as important as health.

Sure, healthy options must be provided at school (though you might not want to call them that if you want the kids to actually buy them) but to ban 'unhealthy' food for the sake of a few fatties is denying decent, hard working, law-abiding pupils the occasional treat – and denying schools revenue (which could be spent, for example, on healthy eating pamphlets).

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