Opinion: A note to my successor (Part 2)

To read part 1 of Chris’s note to his (as yet unknown) successor as chief executive of Centre Forum click here. Here’s the second, concluding part.

Yesterday I set out three areas of policy where there is a need for liberal thinking to be developed as a note to my successor as Chief Executive of CentreForum, the liberal think tank. Today I set out three further areas and a challenge.

Early Years policy

CentreForum has always placed a high priority on “early years policy” as an engine of social mobility. All the evidence points to the critical importance of years 0-5 in determining a child’s future prospects. That underlay CentreForum’s report last year ‘Parenting Matters: early years and social mobility’ stressing the importance of a national parenting campaign. It is clear that policy towards the early years is going to be a key battleground at the next election. There are already signs that Labour may make a national childcare service a key part of its manifesto and Conservatives such as Liz Truss are advocating a childcare revolution. Other ideas include a childcare loan system.

The focus so far has tended to be on “childcare” enabling parents to work rather than on what is best for the child. There are many issues which this raises for liberals. It is important to stress at the outset that childcare is not the same as high quality early years development and education. Whilst there is strong evidence that second earners in a household are important to help bolster incomes of the squeezed middle is it possible to have a policy which helps parents to work and is in the best interests of the child? Should we be encouraging both parents of young children to go back to work full time if our main concern is a child’s development? Should we enable childcare through tax credits or a national childcare service? Should a national childcare service be state run or should we have a childcare voucher system?

Industrial policy

All parties are struggling with developing a view of the role of the state in industrial policy. All three are agreed, at least in principle, that we should not be picking winners but there agreement ends. Vince Cable has been advocating an increasingly activist industrial policy including potentially a state run bank and Michael Heseltine has been commissioned to carry out a review of the role of government in private sector development. However this is anathema to many Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Yet there is no doubt that government does significantly influence what happens in the economy – in defence and aerospace, in any industry which is subject to regulation, in infrastructure and in tradeable sectors which are subject to sovereign influence. Before long you have covered a substantial proportion of the UK economy! The choice is do you work from the basis that government should have minimum influence or do you accept that it does have influence and then seek to use it to attain certain economic objectives?

Britain’s place in Europe and the world

Britain’s use of its veto in the EU at the end of last year raised significant questions about how Britain sees its role in Europe. The Liberal Democrats have traditionally been seen as a very pro-EU party yet one prominent foreign policy expert recently told me that he was shocked by the euroscepticism of many of the Lib Dem ministers . It is clear that Britain joining the euro is off the agenda for at least a generation. Is there a need then to re-evaluate what being pro-European now means in terms of policy?

But alongside this is there also a need to re-evaluate how Britain sees its role in the world. We came upon this as an issue during the preparation of our recent report ‘Dropping the bomb: a post-Trident future’. Deciding on what defence forces we need requires a clearer view of what is our global role. At the moment we still seem to labour under a good number of post-imperial delusions of our importance which need to be challenged.

A challenge…

Does that inspire you? Or do you think, well if that is the best he could come up with then I think I could do the job a lot better than he did! In either case, if the role of Chief Executive of CentreForum does interest you, the management committee are looking for applicants . It needs someone (a liberal but not necessarily a Liberal Democrat) who can do most, or ideally all, of the following: fundraising, managing a team, media relations, directing and carrying out research and influencing policy makers. If you think you fit the bill drop a note with your CV to [email protected]

* Chris Nicholson was until March 2012 Chief Executive of CentreForum the liberal think tank.

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  • Good issues to highlight Chris,

    Childcare is increasingly becoming a major issue. You note that “It is important to stress at the outset that childcare is not the same as high quality early years development and education.”

    We have made significant progress since the introduction of maternity leave, but compare this with our Scandanavian neighbours. Sweden provides parental leave with 80% wage replacement until the child is 18 months old; a further three months can be taken at a flat rate of pay, and then another three months of unpaid leave on top. Norway provides for a year of leave at 80% wage replacement or 42 weeks at 100%.

    Inequality has a major impact on early childhood development. We know that , by the age of three years, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are already educationally up to a year behind children from more privileged homes.
    That is a situation, that if left unaddressed, will continue to plague us.

    On industrial strategy, I think we are sometimes naive in the UK compared with the active involvement of our competitors in this area. In addition to a national investment bank and small business administration, I think we need to encourage the development of a lot more regional banks, focused on serving the needs of their local community.

    We should be the scourge of the European Union agressively pushing for widespread reform of the common agricultural and fisheries policy, full implementation of the single market in services, and staunch defenders of the principle of subsidarity.

    As regards our place in the world, as Geoffrey Payne comments, it seems to about to be tested in Iran. As long as the Royal Navy maintains a squadron East of Suez, we will be obliged to protect International shipping in the Persian Gulf.
    It is inconceivable that, should hostilities begin, the Royal Navy will not come under attack and we will be drawn in from the outset. The UK and our allies have a strategic interest in keeping the Straits of Hormuz open to shipping ,but it is not something we can realistically sustain without significant US support.

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