My must-reads this week May 13, 2016

by Stephen Tall on May 13, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week May 6, 2016

by Stephen Tall on May 6, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

3 policies I support in principle, but not in practice

by Stephen Tall on April 29, 2016

There are some policies I really like the sound of. They are, you could say, almost too good to be true… Which is sadly what I expect we might find if we tried to implement them.

Here are three I’ve supported in the past, but when pressed on how they’d work in practice, have been forced to conclude they probably couldn’t (at least, not within a democracy by a party wanting to win elections):

Unlimited (im)migration

I like the European ideal of free movement of people, so much I’d like to extend it. We’re citizens of the world, so why shouldn’t any of us be able to move around wherever we like? That doesn’t mean our host country would be obliged to support us, of course. But if we’re willing to stand on our own two feet, why shouldn’t that be in whichever corner of the world we choose?

In drab reality, of course, I realise that, border controls and net migration restrictions are pretty fundamental to states’ abilities to manage public services and maintain their current citizens’ well-being.

100% inheritance tax

I’m with Adam Smith on the desirability of estate taxes: “There is no point more difficult to account for than the right we conceive men to have to dispose of their goods after death.” Or, as Philip Collins has put it: “As a parent I have earned the money. As a child I have not.” If you want true equality of opportunity, and I do, ensure each successive generation earns its own way.

In dour reality, of course, I realise that this will create all sorts of perverse incentives to dodge taxes, both legally and illegally, as well as the moral hazard of disincentivising household savings.

A Citizen’s income

It would, of course, be terrific to be able to guarantee an above-poverty level of income to people who have no earnings from work at all, instantly stripping away the bureaucracy of the welfare state and the associated risks of dependency, assuring dignity to all. Little wonder it’s an idea that unites the think-tankers of both right and left.

In everyday reality, though, there is the small matter of funding it at a level which is genuinely liveable on, enough for all the basics of modern life, without levying eye-wateringly high taxation on everyone else. Perhaps someone, somewhere has done the maths which squares this circle. But, until then…

Principles and slogans are the easy bit in politics, as ideologues across the spectrum continually prove. Implementation, the boring bit, is much, much harder. Mario Cuomo was right: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Dull. But right.

What a Tory cabinet minister said to me tonight: “I don’t know why you Lib Dems aren’t doing better”

by Stephen Tall on April 26, 2016

I don’t think this counts as name-dropping because I’m not going to say who it was. But, anyway, I was chatting to a Tory cabinet minister tonight, as you do, who was genuinely curious to know why the Lib Dems aren’t doing better in the polls.

“I mean, this government is giving you loads of free hits. And Labour’s so hard-left there’s no-one else around to be the voice of sensible opposition,” they said.

I defended my party. After all, we were ignored enough by the media when we were supported by 1-in-4 voters and had dozens of MPs. Life’s a lot tougher now with just eight (MPs, that is, not voters: things aren’t quite that bad).

Taking a sensible position on mainstream issues gets you ignored — it’s our out-rider policies, like Norman Lamb’s attempts to get cannabis legalised and Tim Farron’s calls for the UK to take in 3,000 child refugees from Europe, which attract what little publicity the Lib Dems still get. Worthy, important stuff. But not the bread-and-butter economy and public services issues which will decide how folk vote in 2020.

My ‘senior Tory source’ said they wouldn’t name the issues on which their party was vulnerable… before mentioning schools and the Conservatives’ daft plans for ‘forced academisation’ and abolishing parent-governors. “Champion parents,” they advised, “stick up for local, democratic accountability.”

To his credit, Tim Farron has spoken out against the Conservatives’ plans. But — as I’ve pointed out before, and will continue to point out — education didn’t make it onto the list of the party’s top seven priorities. Our education spokesman John Pugh’s contribution, Hard lessons from coalition, is more notable for its discursiveness than its solutions.

In any case, this isn’t just about my beef with the party sidelining what, for me, is the key, liberal issue: education. It’s bigger than that. My nameless Tory cabinet minister is right: given the gaping hole in the centre of British politics, we should be doing much better.

I think it’s too easy to pin the blame on the leader. Tim has probably the most thankless task in British politics right now. He’s set about it with his usual brand of energy and enthusiasm. It’s not cut through yet, but it’s still early days.

Inevitably, and largely understandably after last May’s trauma, the party has been inward-looking this past year (for example, the internal row over all-women short-lists). More importantly, we have felt keenly the lack of big-hitting talent at the top of the party, with most of our defeated MPs focusing on re-building their careers beyond politics. Add to that the loss of policy advisers and key party staff, and it’s not surprising if the Lib Dems appear a shadow of our former selves. We are.

If you were hopeful that I would finish with some gleaming insights, a prescription for headline-grabbing liberal initiatives that will give the Lib Dem fightback mainstream currency, I’m sorry to disappoint. This was never going to be easy. As far as I can see, there’s no alternative to hard grind, starting in local elections this May, clawing our way back.

Which is what I (more or less) told this Tory cabinet minister. For the record, (S)he Who Will Not Be Named wasn’t impressed and said we should hire them as a consultant. I said I’d rather have Lynton Crosby, but knew we couldn’t afford him.

My must-reads this week April 22, 2016

by Stephen Tall on April 22, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

Victoria Wood RIP – aka, why she was my Bowie

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2016

Was Victoria Wood my Bowie? I guess in some ways she was. Bear with me on this.

After all, I was about 15 when the BBC repeated her breakthrough series, As Seen On TV. And I loved it. Still do. Acorn Antiques with Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall and Celia Imrie’s Miss Babs, Patricia Routledge’s self-righteous Kitty, Susie Blake’s superior continuity announcer, Duncan Preston as token male. Her songs, her stand-up, her sketches. They made their impression on me. Most of the jokes I got; some I didn’t (usually to do with ladies’ things) so I made sure I found out so I could.

And like all my generation, I remember her big gig, An Audience With, probably the sharpest, funniest 50 minutes ITV has ever knowingly broadcast. She played the old favourites, including the Ballad of Barry and Freda with its immortal line, “Beat me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly”. The camera cut-away to Emma Freud rupturing with laughter, triggering a teenage crush which has never faded (though I’ve always tried to be happy, actually for Richard Curtis).

When I got my first paid job (waitering), the biggest joy I got was being able to buy my own ticket to go and see her perform at the Oxford Apollo. I didn’t know anyone else who’d be up for going so I went alone. I sat next to an old-ish bloke who left before the second half: it was the set which included some earthy language not to his taste. I even bought a programme, probably still have it somewhere — I recall its dedication to her then husband, Geoffrey Durham: “I could have done it without him. But it would have been crap.” That was her.

It sealed the deal. I watched all her live shows, bought the videotapes, later upgraded to the DVDs. Even Dinnerladies (which, truthfully, wasn’t quite as funny as I wanted it to be; though that didn’t stop my tearing-up at its final episode).

Her Christmas specials remained my highlight — All The Trimmings showcased her at her very best: the spoof of Brief Encounter, the Anne Widdecombe ear-worm, even a cameo by my other teenage comedy fave, Bob Monkhouse. Throughout today, I’ve been recalling half-forgotten lines (“Have you met my friend, Kim-ber-ley?”, “I’ve given gallons of blood and I can’t stomach whelks, so that’s me for you”, “Wendy comes to us from the Geneva school of sterilised blackhead-popping”), admiring again her deft, light touch — ridiculing, but with affection never contempt.

Her later departure into drama I admired and respected (Housewife 49), though it wasn’t what first inspired me. Perhaps, like Bowie, her best was behind her. We’ll never know now. For me, she wasn’t just the best female comedian I’ve seen: she was the best comedian. A writer, a stand-up, an actor, a musician. Slapstick, one-liners, pathos, satire. She could do it all. But, above all, there was always warmth. You didn’t just laugh: you smiled.

My must-reads this week April 15, 2016

by Stephen Tall on April 15, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week April 1, 2016

by Stephen Tall on April 1, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week March 25, 2016

by Stephen Tall on March 25, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

Do you know the difference between unequal pay and the gender pay gap?

by Stephen Tall on March 22, 2016

gender pay gap

I have written before about how the debate on the gender pay gap irritates me.

It is lazily reported in the media as if the whole problem is down to evil companies flouting the 45 year-old equal pay act and refusing to pay women the same as they pay men for equivalent work. Now, I’m not about to deny that doesn’t ever happen, doubtless it does; but it’s increasingly rare and has little or nothing to do with the continuing gender pay gap, a much more ingrained problem which we are still nowhere near solving.

The graphic above is nicked from an excellent new report, ‘Gender Pay Gap’, published today by the Women and Equalities select committee.

It succinctly summarises the main issues which explain why women, particularly those over the age of 40, earn far less than men:

The key issues of pay differentials are: the part-time pay penalty; women’s disproportionate responsibility for childcare and other forms of unpaid caring; and the concentration of women in highly feminised, low paid sectors like care, retail and cleaning.

It also highlights that this is not just a ‘wmmin’s issue’, but one of vital importance to our economy:

There is strong evidence of the economic and productivity benefits of tackling the gender pay gap. The best organisations recognise this and are taking steps to offer flexible working and improve job design to attract and retain talent. However, the productivity case for reducing the gender pay gap has not been made strongly enough to all employers across the UK. The Government, business, trade bodies, unions and public sector organisations must work to move the discussion about the gender pay gap beyond one of equality, to one of economic necessity.

Its recommendations are sensible, but also far-reaching and bound to be controversial (especially with men, for whom the current system operates very nicely, thank you):

There is clear evidence flexible working benefits the UK economy and individual employers. However, a culture of presenteeism and a lack of creative thinking about job design are hampering progress towards flexibility as the norm. Too few employers are considering the benefits of offering jobs as open to flexible working. … All jobs should be available to work flexibly unless an employer can demonstrate an immediate and continuing business case against doing so.

The evidence is clear that caring responsibilities are a significant barrier to women’s pay and progression prospects. As long as women continue to take disproportionate responsibility for the care of children and other family members, the gender pay gap will persist. More equal sharing of childcare responsibilities can help to reduce the gender pay gap by facilitating women’s return to the labour market and changing perceptions of men and women as being equally likely to take on caring responsibilities. … If Government is to achieve its objective of reducing the gender pay gap it needs a more effective policy on shared parental leave (SPL). Current weaknesses can be addressed by three months paid paternal leave for second parents. This can only be taken when the mother returns to work and would be additional to current parental leave benefits.

Many women who have left the labour market due to caring responsibilities, or for other reasons, will need to return to paid employment. This may be because of pension shortfalls or changes in circumstances like divorce. Others will choose to return to work. In both cases, the skills and experience of this group of women can help improve UK productivity. The Government should therefore invest in supporting their smooth return to the labour market as a matter of urgency. … The first task of the Government’s new ministerial group on the gender pay gap should be to create a National Pathways into Work scheme for harnessing the skills and experience of women over 40. This scheme would give women a clear entry point into a support system offering careers guidance; retraining where necessary; and information on local skills shortages and job opportunities.

Women over 40 are concentrated within highly feminised, low paid sectors. Their low pay and lack of progression play a significant part in the gender pay gap. There must be more focus and investment aimed at these low paid employees if the goal of reducing the gender pay gap is to be achieved. … The Department for Business and Skills should develop industrial strategies for low paid highly feminised sectors, beginning with the care sector. This would bring together policies on training and skills; increasing productivity; the use of technology and innovation; regulation; and the role of LEPs.

If gender pay gap reporting is to have any impact it must help employers understand why pay gaps exist and lead to action to address these problems. It must be seen as the beginning of a process rather than the culmination of a tick box exercise. … We also suggest that the Government should produce a strategy for ensuring employers use gender pay gap reporting as a first step for taking action rather than an end in itself. This strategy should be published a year before the regulations commence.

It’s an highly readable report, and a very important contribution to a debate which too often gets mired in dodgy stats designed to shock rather than to explain.

Hopefully future debates can be based on the real issues facing women – that caring responsibilities primarily fall on them; that we lack a culture of flexible working (bad for all parents, not just mums); and that we under-value highly feminised sectors – and the ways in which we can tackle them. Not only because it’s the right thing to do for women, but because it’s also the right thing to do for the whole of the economy.

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