Author Archives: David Boyle

Time for a Broad AllIance to take power?

“We must be more than a political party or we will cease to be one,” said the great writer G. K. Chesterton, when he was a Liberal. “Time and again historic victory has come to a little party with big ideas: but can anyone conceive anything with a mark of death more on its brow than a little party with little ideas,”

I am writing about the man at the moment and I believe he was right, and especially perhaps in the first of the two sentences.

Nor are we such a little party these days, but the ideas we …

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Unpicking the great mish-mash of policy wheezes

The trouble with HM Treasury is that it “is simultaneously short-termist, obsessed with controlling spending, but unable or unwilling to do anything to boost growth … fixated on ‘policy wheezes’, short-term fixes and initiatives, and over-centralised”.

And don’t take my word for it. This was the innovation thinktank Nesta’s judgement in 2014, as quoted by Duncan Brack in his essay on Greening Government in the SLF book Four Go in Search of Big Ideas.

I became fascinated by why the government machine creaks so badly, and takes such poor and contradictory decisions, during the coalition years. And particularly during period I was working for the Cabinet Office in the Treasury, on public service choice.

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A Brexit thriller

Brexit may indeed mean Brexit, though that looks a little less certain these days. But what else does it mean?

To answer the question of meaning, you have to delve back into history, especially in a nation where Brussels assumed the peculiar position of Rome in the English psyche in centuries gone by.

But there are some truths that are not really communicable in the usual think-tank reports with an executive summary. Sometimes you have to fall back on fiction to help people understand parallels that are actually a good deal stranger. So I have.

I have become obsessed with understanding the significance of Brexit in this way, especially the parallels with the 1530s – when England went through a sudden withdrawal from mainstream Europe and a parallel selling off of the public service infrastructure (in this case, the monasteries) to the new rich.

I have always said that this was likely to be repeated – first as tragedy and then as farce, as they say – but had not expected it so soon, nor predicted the strange alliance of May and the hardline Ulster protestants who would seek to bring it about.

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Why we need a little civil disobedience and please help me provide it!

The rail crisis is reaching its reluctant and rather tawdry head. Even passengers campaigners are being singled out for flaming criticism by the government’s supporters in the press, as the leaders of the Association of British Commuters were so unfairly over the weekend.

We are in short being forced to take sides in the traditional management versus labour battle – when people like me believe that the slow collapse of Southern Rail is mainly to do with incompetent franchising from the Department of Transport and absentee landlord behaviour from the Treasury and owners Go Ahead (as well, of course, on the usual useless industrial relations).

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Story telling might lead to economic revolution

It is extraordinary how compartmentalised everything is – especially when we are campaigning in local elections.

We, few of us, who know a little about the way public responsibilities are demarcated between different layers of government, have a kind of sense of corrosive superiority as we expect campaigners to demand the right reform from the right level.

But partly this is just a function of sclerotic centralisation. The Treasury has a crushing monopoly on economic policy because, well – it always has.

Partly because of that, and because there is almost no local economic data collected about where money flows (the exception is bank lending to postal district level, forced on the banks by Lib Dem peers in 2012) – Whitehall doesn’t see the economic innovations at local level.

And in particular, they don’t see the emergence of a new generation of local entrepreneurs who are no longer prepared to wait patiently for the Chinese to invest or the government to give them a grant – and are trying to transform their local economies a bite at a time.

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The terrifying consequences of witch-hunts

ScandalNow that, one by one, European countries are shifting the law for allow for same-sex marriage – the spotlight now turns on Italy where mass demonstrations have taken place in support of the idea – it is  worth thinking about why homosexuality was criminalised in the first place.

We have spent so much time celebrating the decision in 1967 to repeal laws which did so, that we have perhaps forgotten to look a little further back to see how they came onto the statute book in the first place (sodomy had been a crime for some centuries before).

The story goes back to the Phoenix Park murders of 1882, when republican terrorists stabbed the Irish Secretary to death – accidentally, as it turned out: he happened to be walking with the intended victim.

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Opinion: Is business no longer Conservative

The apology for a debate about business and politics over the last few weeks is enough to make anyone independent-minded start chewing the carpet in frustration. There was a particularly annoying radio debate between Digby Jones and Polly Toynbee last week. A dialogue of the deaf if ever there was one.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the BBC would continue the traditional assumption that business was always going to be Conservative, but look more closely – talk to business people more broadly – and you find something is shifting.

Posted in News | 11 Comments

Opinion: How time banks play a crucial role in health care

Imagine that health professionals had the time to make everyone feel valued and cared for personally. Imagine there was an infinite resource to provide the kind of informal care that keeps people healthy. Imagine there was enough time.

Well, the peculiar thing – if you set the questions out like that – is that there is enough time, if you have the infrastructure and institutions that can use NHS patients, their time and experience, and that of their family and neighbours, as a resource.

That is becoming a familiar idea and the NHS is embracing the co-production agenda, even if they don’t yet very fully understand what it means. But the practical application of the idea is to set up time banks in hospitals and health centres, and I was involved in launching the UK’s first – at the Rushey Green Group Practice in Catford in 1999.

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Opinion: The future isn’t so much local, it is small

people powered prosperityDanny Alexander started all this.  He asked me, back one day in 2012, about how local economies could find levers to regenerate themselves – rather than waiting around hopelessly for outside investment that never came (that isn’t how he put it).

The result was a dialogue between the Treasury and the local economic regeneration activists – local bankers, local energy organisers, local procurement advocates, local currencies – which revealed, it’s fair to say, something of a gulf between them.

As a result, and thanks to some funding from the Friends Provident Foundation, I have been organising a project to translate between the two – so that they at least understand each other.

I hope it will also form a narrative, once cities and places have more power, which can support their own economic efforts.  If you devolve powers from Whitehall, it makes no sense for them to carry on handling your whole economic destiny on your behalf.

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Opinion: Underpinning local enterprise through the banking system

Despite a last minute attempt to scrap criticisms of the big banks, the Lib Dems are now committed to a powerful programme to create a diverse local lending infrastructure in the UK.

And most important of all, thanks to the Rebanking the UK debate yesterday, the Lib Dems are now clear about how this great diversification is going to be achieved.

The big banks are going to pay for and mentor a new infrastructure of local banks, which will be geared up – and with the expertise they need – to lend money to a new UK mittelstand, the UK small and …

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Opinion: The next devolution?

Manchester Town Hall ClockChange is in the air, or that is the implication of the strange alignment of George Osborne for the Conservatives and Andrew Adonis for Labour, whose new report on re-balancing the economy – not that he used those terms – was published on Monday.

If you add Michael Heseltine’s 2012 review into the mix – published with a full-page portrait of the great Liberal reformist Joseph Chamberlain (yes, I know he became something else) – then the shift towards serious devolution of economic power seems unstoppable.

Why has it …

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Opinion: Public services need public involvement

arrest in chicagoI must admit, I have become sceptical about the word ‘empowerment’.  For two reasons.  One is that it is a Blairite word, and based on a misunderstanding about where sovereignty lies.  Power isn’t distributed by an all-powerful prime minister. People already have it – they give it to the governments – but sometimes they have to be encouraged, persuaded or cajoled to use it.

The other reason I have become sceptical is my experience of the word.  I have sat in too many conferences where disabled people are encouraged to …

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Opinion: Small plus small plus small equals BIG

ultra-micro economicsIn the heady days of the Thatcher government, when the hideous mistakes of Big Bang were being forged and coming to fruition, I used to run an excellent magazine called Town & Country Planning.  In those days, we were extremely exercised by the idea of the huge and mounting cost of rundown private sector homes. Who was going to repair them?

We don’t talk about that problem any more. This is not because it was ever exactly solved, but because of one of the more benevolent effect of rising house prices, before the oligarchs came in, was that it made a bit of DIY worthwhile. Instead of the government shelling out to repair all those privately-owned dwellings, the young owners went down to B&Q and bought a paintbrush.

It was a lesson to me that neither the conventional public sector nor the conventional private sector may be best placed to tackle the really intractable problems.  And it makes me wonder whether the great unanswered questions about rebalancing the economy might eventually be answered – not by the long night of the soul as we wait for the Treasury, but by the places themselves.

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Opinion: The key economic shift we need next time

Lloyds Bank, Leighton Buzzard - Some rights reserved by dlanor smadaIt is a lovely spring morning in 2015 and you are on someone’s doorstep. There is a delightful breeze and you clutch your canvas cards to make sure they don’t blow away.

The lady on the other side of the front door gives you a big smile and asks you about jobs – she recognises that the coalition has made important strides towards making us all a little less reliant on the City of London.

“But how are you going …

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Opinion: How to balance the UK economy

A-Co-operative-bank-sign-007I was a bit flummoxed after being taken to task on Lib Dem Voice last week for being anti-business. What had I done? I had been criticising payday loan companies for hoovering up money away from local companies.

There are two underlying problems here, confusions which muddy the political debate on business.

The first is the misleading idea that somehow all business is always on the same side.  Organisations like the CBI claim to speak for business while actually promoting the interests of the biggest.  It isn’t the way the world is.

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Opinion: Are payday loans impoverishing our neighbourhoods?

There is a central moral conundrum at the heart of the payday loan phenomenon.

It is that payday loan companies are designed to help people through what are intended to be unusual and temporary periods of financial difficulty.  Long-term and repeated use of payday loans is seriously expensive.

Yet – and here’s the rub – the business plans of most payday loan companies envisage growth.  Their business purpose, and the purpose of their investors, is to maximise their profits – and this is bound to be at the expense of some of the poorest families and the most vulnerable places.

My report for …

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Opinion: The demise of the middle classes

I was on a policy panel recently, when I heard somebody dismissing the idea of ‘choice’ in public services as a sop for the middle classes.

Now, there are two rather odd aspects of this.

The first is that, depending on what you mean by choice – and every political party has its own distinct meaning – it isn’t actually true.

The polling I carried out during the Barriers to Choice Review showed that nearly 90 per cent want ‘choice’.  It is just that they are often muddled about what that actually means.

The second is that I hear this kind of sentence in …

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Opinion: Why local banks need Lib Dems to act

It hardly seems worth Ed Miliband’s time to actually make the speech on economics today, because it has been previewed, leaked and debated – almost sentence by sentence – all week.

There was a debate about the middle classes on Tuesday.  Then there was the important commitment to competition in the banking sector, where he flagged the idea of a market cap, an important idea – but there are three practical problems with it.

First, there is a danger that it will lead to the big banks dumping poorer customers – though equally, there will be more banks available for them to …

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Opinion: Why I backed the lobbying bill

Sarah Teather’s interview in the Guardian over the Christmas period talked about the way the political system tends to invent simple issues, in order to give the impression of solving them.

She is clearly right. Because governments are beset by global issues, by phenomenally complex systems, and they fear upsetting their key compromises – then it must sometimes seem easier to stick to the purely symbolic.

What Sarah didn’t say is that oppositions and campaign groups are almost as guilty. They create symbolic issues over proposed legislation which they can campaign on. They win, nothing changes, and everyone stays …

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Opinion: This could be the historic moment the banks shift

Tuesday will see one of those moments which may prove a turning point in the development of an effective UK banking system.

That is the day that the banks will reveal the geographical spread of their lending, down to 9,000 different postcode levels.

It is the culmination of a major effort by Lib Dems in the House of Lords earlier in the last two years, with a great deal of help from elsewhere, to make sure that this happened.

It is also a creative moment of possibility – not to criticise the banks, because they need to be given the credit for this …

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David Boyle writes… Choice works – so why not in legal aid?

Barristers wigChoice is a funny thing.  I spent seven months studying how it worked in practice when I was running the Barriers to Choice Review for the Cabinet Office.

Despite the rhetoric from parts of the left, I believe that people can improve public services by being able to choose between different providers.

I’m also only too aware how many people are excluded from that – by a lack of information or advice, by a lack of transport and any number of other factors.

I am also aware of the

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Opinion: Can the middle classes get some political clout?

I have been trying to weave a new political narrative out of the plight of the middle classes. I’ve no idea whether I’ll be successful or not, but I have learned that you gargle with the word ‘class’ at your peril.

One fact alone should tell the story. If house prices rise in the next three decades like they did in the last, the average home will be worth £1.2 million. Does anyone really believe average wages will rise enough for our children or grandchildren to afford to buy or rent a home, certainly in London and the south east?

Despite all …

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Opinion: A new direction for choice

“What’s a nice guy like you doing with a bunch of Tories?” one journalist asked me as I discussed the Barriers to Choice Review.

“You see, I’m a Liberal Democrat,” I explained…

The truth is that this was not a coalition problem.  It was a problem about the word ‘choice’.

My task as an independent reviewer, appointed by the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, was to find out how people used the choices they have been given in schools, hospitals, social care and so on – especially disadvantaged people.

But the word ‘choice’ itself divides people, even those who might otherwise agree on pretty …

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Opinion: time to shift the public services debate?

Every nation dates the beginning of its welfare system from a different date. In Britain, we usually date it to 1909 and also 1942 – because that was the date that Sir William Beveridge published his famous report.

It’s the only government report in history to have reached bestseller status. British soldiers went into action against the Nazis with it in their pocket.

It provided hope, but it also set out the blueprint for the future, caring world. But there was a problem there, in retrospect, that goes to the heart of why public services remain such …

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Opinion: Save the NHS Bill

I must admit I’ve been wondering a little at being so contrarian.

My mobile phone address book and filofax (yes, I’m a certain age) is full of people who say they are too busy to talk to me this week because they are working hard to kill the NHS Bill.

I am not. What’s the matter with me?  I’m going the right way to being thrown out of the lunatic fringe.

So please, if you read this blog. Have a heart. Tell me where I’m going wrong.

Here’s my problem. I cannot see why we should be striving to maintain the NHS exactly as …

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Opinion: Why competition is the key issue

One of the many frustrations with our dysfunctional banking system is that we have nowhere else to go unless we want to keep our money under our mattresses.

Yes, there are the ethical alternatives, like Co-op or Triodos. Yes, there are a handful of surviving building societies. But we don’t have what other countries have: an effective banking and lending infrastructure at local level.

So when World Development Movement nominates Barclays for the Public Eye awards for the worst corporation for speculating in basic food commodities – artificially pushing the price beyond what the world’s poor can afford – what …

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David Boyle writes… The missing explanation of public service failure

The doyen of Liberator magazine, Simon Titley, just sent me through a cutting from the Leicester Mercury which gives us just a glimpse at the reasons why public services became so expensive under New Labour.

The report tells us of the unused regional fire control centre for the East Midlands, standing empty in Castle Donington, but still costing £5,000 a day to run, with burgeoning interest accruing in the PFI contract. It wasn’t just the dream of regional government, or the manifest problems of PFI, that caused the problem here. It was another example of a huge …

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Opinion: Only two cheers for community politics

I wasn’t there to hear the Birmingham conference back the community politics motion on Tuesday. I had meant to be but had to go back to London early.

It was one of those pieces of sacred Liberalism that you daren’t speak against, but I would have done. I’m not sorry it was passed but the party must also understand that there is another side to it.

Community politics may be a revolutionary doctrine, but BAD community politics – and we have practised some of that occasionally, let’s face it – damages the party and damages the political process.

I know I’m …

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Opinion: What we should do if the USA defaults

You can’t use the phrase ‘perfect storm’ these days.  It is a cliché. But how do you express, with sufficient clarity, the phenomenon of a financial tsunami and a financial hurricane happening at the same time?
 
Because we need to start asking how we might cope if the very worst happens – as well it might – and both the US government and key European nations default on their burgeoning debts at the same time?
 
The euro has been rescued by the latest bail-out, but an American default would unravel that and cause a second banking crisis, far more …

Posted in Op-eds | 32 Comments

Opinion: Time to publish the magical ratio

A week is a long time in politics, but it also sometimes seems to move at a glacial pace.

It is now two decades since Bill Clinton won the presidency on the slogan that ‘trickle down economics’ doesn’t work. Yet even a couple of years ago, there was Labour’s Peter Mandelson being ‘relaxed’ about people getting ‘filthy rich’.

Well, finally things seem to be shifting. Even Max Hastings, of all people, writes in the Financial Times that “gross disparities seems likely sooner or later to promote an upheaval, perhaps graver now than most western societies can now envisage.”

It certainly seems to …

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