November 16, 2006

An Alternative Queen's Speech

John McDonnell, the left-wing MP hoping to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership of the Labour Party, has issued an alternative Queen’s Speech, and it’s an interesting mix of the practical and the absurd. Here are some of the most interesting suggestions:

  • Allow non-Britons to work in the Civil Service
  • Faith schools would have to hire people of all faiths
  • Minimum wage would apply to people of all ages
  • Allow councils to invest in new council houses
  • Number of UK homes per person reduced to two
  • Local councils can set their own level of council tax
  • Abolish the Royal Prerogative (the Prime Minister’s ability to declare war)
  • Reduce the voting age to 16
  • Greater devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
  • Regulation of national newspapers: Only one daily paper per proprietor, and compulsory Readers’ Editors
  • Readers will be permitted to buy stakes in their newspapers
  • Abolition of grammar schools and City Academies
  • Abolition of tuition fees and current student debt
  • Carbon emissions to be cut by 3% every year
  • Subsidies for organic farming
  • Abolition of most anti-terror measures, such as ID Cards and control orders
  • Restore the right to protest outside Parliament
  • Increase international aid budget to 1% of GDP
  • Ban on many weapons being manufactured in the UK
  • Workers’ representatives to be elected to all companies’ boards
  • An extra bank holiday per year
  • Tax on flight tickets and aviation fuel
  • Return railways to public ownership
  • A new freight railway running the length of the country
  • Restore link between pensions and average earnings

I suspect most people will be able to find one or two ideas they agree with. But who would vote for that entire agenda? I applaud Mr McDonnell for his bold attempt to be honest about what he believes in, but I wonder how he will pay for his ideas, and how many of them would actually work.

I wonder whether some of his ideas would have benefited from further advice from outside his very small circle, especially regulation of the newspaper industry, which sounds a lot like restricting freedom of speech.


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  1. Hmm…interesting. I’d agree with you that the hypothetical ‘media regulation bill’ is fraught with potential problems – the idea of reader’s editors would either be utterly ineffective or overly restrictive, also the ‘right to reply’ also seems a little redundant given that if a comment is false or libelous you can sue anyway. The notion of limiting the number of homes per person to two also seems just a tad illiberal. Oh and the ban on arms manufacture in the uk could really screw the MOD over, further limiting the sale of weapons to repressive regimes is sensible, making the armed forces shop abroad for its kit less so. That said there’s a surprising amount in there that I’d agree with wholeheartedly. On the question of financing these changes I wonder if the increased duty on aviation fuel and pulling out of iraq – which McDonnell would almost certainly do – wouldn’t go a long way to paying for some of these policies. I don’t see it providing enough cash to buy back the rail companies but some of the other stuff might be economically feasible, the increased aid budget for instance. Question is could a Labour party with that as a manifesto stand a chance of winning an election?

    16 Nov 2006, 18:47

  2. James

    The rule of not owning more than one newspaper isn’t quite the same as restricting freedom of speech, Rupert Murdoch could still use his remaining newspaper to say what he likes, and maybe give one of his other newspaper companies to me so I can get a bit more freedom of speech.

    16 Nov 2006, 19:22

  3. I think I don’t disagree with any of them outright – although I have concerns about some of them – but I do agree with many. It would be something I might vote for.

    Newspapers – this was one of my concerns too. In principle, it’s not a restriction of freedom of speech but quite the opposite. If you own one newspaper, you have more ‘freedom of speech’ than almost anyone in the country. If you own many of them, you’re potentially restricting others’ freedom of speech. As we all know, free speech doesn’t mean no restrictions on speech (the famous ‘fire!’ example), but that no individual is systematically restricted from speaking, and that no opinion is banned. That said, my concern is that once the government allows itself to interfere in this way, the temptation is to start interfering in other ways too, which is a risky situation.

    16 Nov 2006, 19:26

  4. Oli

    Eight entries in a single day?! You’re a blogging machine!

    16 Nov 2006, 22:45

  5. I know, look what happens when I don’t have anything to do! Except write a Fooc and do blog entries I was supposed to write weeks ago…

    16 Nov 2006, 22:49

  6. John Todd

    I think this is pretty good and supportable stuff. No one has yet really said what they would oppose, except on housing – where I have to ask – isn’t four homes per couple enough? Doesn’t buying housing (landlordism by the super-rich) and thus inflating house prices restrict the abilities of younger and poorer people to have the security of owning their own home? It sounds very practical, simple and sensible to me.

    Two points of clarification, the rail companies don’t need to be “bought back” – they are franchises which the State can absorb at the end of the franchise period cost-free – and the only weapons manufacture McDonnell proposes to ban are WMD (chemical, biological and nuclear) and cluster bombs.

    Is a billionaire press a free press? Only the Guardian and Morning Star are not owned by billionaires or multi-millionaires – and are not-for-profit trusts.

    The full details are up at www.l-r-c.org.uk

    17 Nov 2006, 01:08

  7. I think many of the ideas are absurd simply because they’d cost so much to implement. And I think that restricting newspaper ownership would lead to there being fewer newspapers in the market, i.e. less freedom of speech.

    17 Nov 2006, 09:02

  8. If he’s going to increase devolution he really needs an answer to the West Lothian Question.

    17 Nov 2006, 10:17

  9. Would the Guardian and Observer count as two separate papers I wonder? I think I agree with most of these although looking at them I reckon only about a quarter to a third could be implemented at any one time due to the accumulating cost of them. I remain dubious about the trains (although I would love to see them run better than they are now and think centralisation under government is a good idea) as that would be very expensive, and the student debt idea is lovely but I am inclined to think the £1200 pre-top up fees were best. However a retrospective tax on pre-fee graduates would be nice. The cheek of having fees imposed on us by those who got free education and grants is still galling today.

    17 Nov 2006, 12:13

  10. the rail companies don’t need to be “bought back”– they are franchises which the State can absorb at the end of the franchise period cost-free

    I confess I did not know this. My only response is w00t! the sooner this happens the better.

    On the issue of WMD – if you took nuclear weapons out of that list I’d be right there with you. At some point we’re going to have to replace trident and I’d rather it was possible to do that ‘in house’. I guess McDonnell would disagree on the need for a nuclear deterent in the first place but for the moment I’d think it wise to hang on to one.

    Still don’t entirely agree with the restrictions on home ownership though I see were you’re coming from. Yes the govt should be doing something to tackle the vast increase in house prices but telling people what they can and cannot invest in seems to me the wrong way to go about it. Besides I still don’t get the British obsession with home ownership.

    As to the West Lothian Question – well one answer would be to offer the english regions devolutionary institutions of their own. If the English rejected these at a referendum it could be taken that they were effectively consenting to the continued existence of the West Lothian situation.

    17 Nov 2006, 12:15

  11. Mostly people who own lots of newspapers don’t start lots of new ones, they just buy up existing ones don’t they? If so, that would suggest that restricting concentration of ownership would have no effect on the quantity of newspapers, and potentially a large effect on the diversity.

    17 Nov 2006, 17:38

  12. Edge of Reason

    In no particular order…

    Home ownership – if you restrict it in the way people are talking about here, you take a huge volume of the private rental market away – where exactly do you imagine those students whose parents aren’t flush enough to buy them a rental house to play landlord in for three years would then be living?

    Funding – the only thing in Mr McDonnell’s wishlist that would remotely increase revenue is taxing flights/fuel, and that increase would be pretty marginal once you factor in the effect it will have on demand. This is an environmental tax designed to reduce demand, accepting that most people that fly within the uk do it because it’s cheap, rather than because they have to. And whilst frequent, gradual increases in taxes on tickets and fuel won’t put people off in droves, they won’t raise much money.

    everything else in that list needs new money to pay for it, and in some cases (such as foreign aid, student debt and oh dear god an entire new railway?!) you’re looking at truly eye-watering amounts. More even than Holly’s delightfully spiteful FogeyTax would raise.

    Train operator nationalisation – whilst there are various problems with the way certain franchises were negotiated, allowing some companies to operate their lines as zero investment cash cows, to say the whole system should be returned to the state is bizarre. Anyone who seriously advocates a return to the days of Intercity Cross Country should break out the red marker pens, Fight to Smash Capitalism for a few weeks then concentrate on trying to become a grown-up.

    18 Nov 2006, 12:54

  13. Nick

    Of course if you forced everybody who already owned more than 2 properties to sell you’d plunge millions of people into negative equity and complete and utter misery, probably for ever!

    18 Nov 2006, 17:53

  14. Delightfully spiteful eh? Is this spiteful because it would apply to you and you’re taking it badly? Or do you cheer on every above inflation pay increase MPs get as a sign of sticking to everyone else once your position is secured? It’s not exactly a fogey tax when I struggle to think of many (indeed any) fogies from my non-Warwick associates who it would apply to (we are talking fogies in the sense of the over-60s, right?).

    The adovcation of a graduate tax has been made by quite a large number of people, especially considering the culture of giving money to your alma mater is not as well developed here as it is in America (although the student callers here do a good job from what I can gather). Is it spiteful when it comes from those who would pay it (as I have read in papers before today)? I’ve already paid a hefty tax on my education.

    18 Nov 2006, 18:27

  15. Edge of Reason

    A graduate tax is the best idea I’ve yet come across to answer the question of how you pay for university education. Fees should be an initially notional cost that you then repay via having a higher tax code over a length period of time until the total is repaid.

    That’s direct, personal, and, as far as I can see, as fair as such a system can be.

    What’s spiteful (and indeed illegal) would be retrospectively saying to every graduate over 26 “you had an easier time of it than I did so now I’m going to punish you for that”.

    For the record, I don’t think the current system is particularly fair or good, but perhaps if when it was being introduced the NUS had offered something more by way of lobbying than “waaaaah! waaaah! give us free money!” then we might have ended up with something better than we have.

    18 Nov 2006, 22:38

  16. Taxes change over time. We get taxed for things now which we weren’t taxed for in the past (and obviously it works the other way) but we accept these things. If I buy a big SUV (hahaha) and then a tax is slapped on it then it’s just a fact of life. Ditto a degree. I’ve never owned an SUV but I can see the logic behind wanting to tax it, does that make me spiteful towards all the SUV owners? I don’t think it does, and likewise the over 26 graduates are just people who can probably afford the additional tax (which, as I said, I would pay when my time came). It’s not punishment any more than the tutition fees are punishment for students now. It’s just a fair way of doing things and if it takes down a few government ministers who got nice free degrees and who, let’s not forget, promised not to introduce top up fees, well that’s legitimate schedenfreude.

    It’s all better than taxes on hats, beards and windows.

    19 Nov 2006, 01:23

  17. Edge of Reason

    Yes taxes change, but not retrospectively. The state can of course choose to levy a tax on an asset you already own, but it cannot turn around and say “you bought an SUV in 1995, therefore you owe us eleven years’ tax on it under this new law we’re passing tomorrow”. As well as being both unreasonable and immoral, Human Rights legislation would simply not allow retrospective taxation of an individual.

    Taxing someone retrospectively for tuition extended in the past would come into the same category. It was a service provided for little or no fee, and cannot be later billed for.

    Whilst I agree with you that people who graduated under the old system paying through taxes to fund today’s students would be a much better, fairer and more sensible way of doing things, there’s a critical difference. You can sell your SUV, you can opt not to go to university, you can choose a less expensive course, stop wearing hats, shave your beard or brick up your windows, but you can’t un-attain your degree, which is what makes retrospectively taxing it a punitive (and therefore unfair) measure.

    19 Nov 2006, 01:47

  18. “Home ownership – if you restrict it in the way people are talking about here, you take a huge volume of the private rental market away – where exactly do you imagine those students whose parents aren’t flush enough to buy them a rental house to play landlord in for three years would then be living?”

    Presumably if you restricted home ownership you’d have to have a plan for what to do with the houses that no longer had owners. That plan would presumably have to involve using them for social provision (such as student housing).

    “everything else in that list needs new money to pay for it”

    Er, no. From the list in the original entry, the following have no cost associated to them:

    1. Allow non-Britons to work in the Civil Service
    2. Faith schools would have to hire people of all faiths
    3. Abolish the Royal Prerogative (the Prime Minister’s ability to declare war)
    4. Reduce the voting age to 16
    5. Abolition of most anti-terror measures, such as ID Cards and control orders
    6. Restore the right to protest outside Parliament

    Of the rest, most would not directly cost the state anything (although they would impact the economy which might mean there was a second order effect on tax revenue), and a few would cost a lot.

    19 Nov 2006, 02:11

  19. The state can of course choose to levy a tax on an asset you already own, but it cannot turn around and say “you bought an SUV in 1995, therefore you owe us eleven years’ tax on it under this new law we’re passing tomorrow”.

    Ah, there’s the problem. No, I don’t want it applied retrospectively. That would be unfair. Just apply it to all from the point it begins. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. What I meant by retrospective tax (ouch, badly phrased in my original comment) was a tax to apply to all those who have degrees from years ago not just those getting them today. And a levy on SUVs too. They always bully me on the roads.

    Also continuing Dan’s point, wouldn’t abolishing ID cards save money?

    19 Nov 2006, 11:47

  20. Edge of Reason

    Holly – I see what you mean by “retrospective”, but I still think it would be deemed punitive by the courts as it is a tax on an aspect of an individual’s life that (for those over a certain age) they have no way of altering.

    By all means tax SUVs, hats and government ministers as steeply as the mood takes you.

    Saving money by not spending it on something you’ve previously said you’re going to spend it on in the future gets kinda tenuous when you’re talking about government, and particularly in this case where the ID card money has (I believe) yet to be budgeted for, pending next year’s CSR.

    19 Nov 2006, 15:05

  21. Edge of Reason

    Dan – I agree that #1 has no real costs associated with it, beyond that, in ascending order;

    #6 Restore the right to protest outside Parliament – police manpower, new state of the art monitoring systems, probably new physical barriers too, plus the vetting of all the people that install/maintain the above. Pretty marginal in the scheme of things, but not “no cost”.

    #2 Faith schools would have to hire people of all faiths – congratulations, you just set up the Education Recruitment Diversity Monitoring Commission…

    #4 reducing the voting age to 16 – that should have no real cost I agree, but can you imagine this (or another) government being able to resist the temptation to both publish vast amounts of “informative material” and start mandating Ofsted to monitor/regulate the political content of lessons after sending all teachers for Political Sensitivity Awareness training?

    #5 Abolishing control orders will simply mean that governments and security services will spend increased sums on physical and electronic surveillance on the people they can no longer detain. Scrapping ID cards I agree doesn’t have a cost associated with it.

    #3 Abolish the Royal Prerogative – that would become staggeringly expensive. The prerogative extends far far further than the ability to declare war (a wholly redundant concept in any case), and removing it would require the restructuring of the whole system of government. If you think I’m overstating the case, consider how little of what government does is by means of Acts of Parliament.

    19 Nov 2006, 15:33

  22. “Also continuing Dan’s point, wouldn’t abolishing ID cards save money?”

    £20bn according to the LSE study.

    19 Nov 2006, 19:11

  23. Christopher Rossdale

    #6 Restore the right to protest outside Parliament – police manpower, new state of the art monitoring systems, probably new physical barriers too, plus the vetting of all the people that install/maintain the above. Pretty marginal in the scheme of things, but not “no cost”.

    You’d save on the ridiculous amount of police that come whenever there’s a protest near Parliament. If you’ve ever seen the number of extra police that turn up to beat people up, or the constant baiting of Brian Haw’s demo, you’d realise we waste a fortune on that law.

    The rest of those are about the government’s constant drive for a bigger bureaucracy – a huge problem I agree, but one with which the costs probably wouldn’t really defer because of these measures – any administration will use any opportunity it can to expand its power, specifics irrelevant.

    20 Nov 2006, 15:25

  24. John Todd

    In terms of costings, the LRC (of which John McDonnell is chair) published this at the time of the last budget – March 2006 (John McDonnell wrote the intro):
    http://www.l-r-c.org.uk/leap-redpapers-mar2006.pdf

    It seems like a very well-budgeted balanced book approach to policy . . .

    21 Nov 2006, 08:14


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