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Why I’ll be voting “remain”

I decided a few weeks ago to break my blogging silence in the run up to the referendum, and the events of yesterday have somewhat concentrated my mind. I had imagined this article would be a magnificent rant about the lies and hate-mongering of the Leave campaign, but as I come to write this, I’ve found myself rather angered out.

Like many people with a history working in politics, Jo Cox’s murder feels close to home. I was working in Lib Dem HQ in 2000 when Cllr Andrew Pennington was killed by a constituent in Nigel Jones MP’s constituency office. I’ve worked the political beat in West Yorkshire. I campaigned for one of my friends, also called Jo, who also went on to represent the community she grew up in in Parliament. So yeah, despite having walked away from party politics, there are plenty of parallels in my own life to have given me pause for thought over the last 24 hours.

The referendum itself has become an undignified, ghastly mess. As a survivor of a previous referendum campaign, this of course has not surprised me one bit. What has surprised me rather more by how, as we near the finish line, I’ve found myself feeling quite as strongly as I did.

Twelve, even six months ago, I was feeling distinctly ambivalent about the EU. The way Greece has been treated, essentially as the sin eater for Eurozone’s shortcomings, has been appalling. The refugee crisis has been met with moral cowardice and indifference. Regardless of the TTIP’s merits or flaws (I’m genuinely on the fence), its secrecy has been, to say the least, undignified. For quite a while now, it hasn’t felt like the EU I felt proud to be a member of at the turn of the millennium.

The one thing I can say about this referendum is that it has clarified my thinking on that. Because the question arises, again and again, what the alternative is. I’ve heard countless people talk about how the EU is “undemocratic” – and yet not a single supporter of leaving the EU seems interested in a system that would be more democratic.

I can think of a number of ways in which the EU could be made more democratic. Opening up Council meetings, for example; there’s even a debate to be had over directly electing the Commission president (regardless of the pros and cons of that particular one, I doubt Jean-Claude Juncker would have had an easy time winning a popular vote). None of them whatsoever involve negotiating EU legislation in the same way that we negotiate bilateral treaties – entirely in the hands of the executive, with most of the work and negotiating done by civil servants entirely behind closed doors.

If we’re serious about improving the democratic scrutiny of EU legislation however, the most crucial place to start is home. Why, for example, are the committees which do the lion’s share of scrutiny of draft EU legislation, seated in the entirely unelected House of Lords? Why doesn’t our parliament scrutinise legislation as closely as so many other countries take for granted, particularly Nordic countries such as Denmark? In turn, if Parliament really wanted to give people more say, there are plenty of models it could adopt. None of these reforms would require agreement in Brussels – we could adopt them tomorrow if there was the political will.

If the EU ceased to exist tomorrow, the need for it would continue. We need trans-national agreements on standards; you might bristle about having to meet EU standards, but believe me you would bristle a lot more if you had to comply with 27 national ones. We need trans-national agreements on social and employment rights, because otherwise employers will face a Dutch auction, with the companies with the worst records in looking after their employees free to price out those with the best. And yes, all too often the EU, far from being an exemplar of free and open trade, is a cosy club of wealthy nations. But scrapping an organisation with protectionist tendencies with a free-for-all in which nation states will be under even greater pressure to roll up the drawbridge, isn’t going to solve that.

Most of the EU’s failings can be put down to narrow national self-interest, something which the EU exists to mitigate. You don’t solve that problem by embracing narrow national self-interest; I’d have thought that was self-evident. I’m actually not convinced that its main problems are institutional; predominantly, they’re cultural. “Europe lacks a demos,” by which is meant a sense of common identity and purpose amongst the people, has become a cliché, but it is nonetheless true and I can’t see an easy solution. Put simply, the vast majority of people just don’t feel a sense of ownership of the European institutions, let alone control. People struggle to name their MEPs and our media does little to report their work. As such, we have a set of actually quite open and democratic bodies which effectively operate in secret because so few people are actually paying attention.

It gets worse though. I think you could equally argue that local government largely lacks a “demos”. It is increasingly becoming true of national parliaments as well. Since 2009 and the expenses scandal, closely followed by the coalition government’s utterly failed programme of reform, the feeling that Westminster is unreformable and irrelevant seems to have set in. Increasingly, political outsiders are being invoked to ride in and solve all our problems, regardless of how unrealistic and futile their positions are. And it’s a global phenomenon: for every Nigel Farage, there’s a Donald Trump; for every Jeremy Corbyn there’s a Bernie Sanders.

What I’m getting round to saying here is that the problem with the EU is not rooted in the fact that we look to our cosy nation-states to represent us and solve our problems, but that democracy itself is in crisis because it is reliant on a sense of identity and common cause that we are losing rapidly. It’s a loss the left is struggling with more than the right, but even though the right is finding itself the beneficiary, it is becoming something shrill and even more incapable of providing reforms that don’t simply make things worse. Moderates who indulge their right flanks are being replaced by demagogic parodies of the politicians they have supplanted.

Not even countries with the best democratic systems are proving immune to this problem, which is fundamentally technological at root and thus irreversible (unless you consider nuclear apocalypse to be an option). Our problems are increasingly global ones. Our communities are too, even if they’ve become narrower. Walking away from the EU won’t stop that; it will just make our problems harder to solve.

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of migration. Economically, we have benefited hugely from immigration and we simply can’t control our borders without international cooperation. There simply is no drawbridge to pull up. Where there is a clear failure in our immigration policy, it is our national failure to ensure that the wider public see those benefits – especially in the case of providing decent social housing for all.

The refugee crisis isn’t going to magically go away if we decide the leave the EU. The tight border controls at Calais aren’t magically going to be made impermeable if we go – and does anyone seriously believe that the price of French cooperation in that regard is not going to go up if we do? Laughably, the Leave campaign’s solution is a “points-based” system along the lines of Australia – a country with a higher number of immigrants per head of population than we do; and while they’re busy plastering brown faces on their billboards with an explicit aim to scare white people, they’re quietly telling Asian voters that they’d make it easier for their relatives to come to the UK.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more disreputable political enterprise in the UK, with the stakes as high as they are, yet it plugs into people’s fears and has proven effective. And does anyone seriously doubt that if they get their way on the 23rd, public dissatisfaction about immigration will get anything but worse?

I have no idea what the solution to any of this is. What I do know is that things will go downhill, much more quickly, if we vote to leave next Thursday. What I do know is that the EU, already under pressure as people across Europe increasingly vote for insular and and xenophobic parties, will struggle even more. And I know that those self-same xenophobes, whether they wrap themselves in Nazi flags or claim to be insulted at the suggestion that they have anything in common with fascists, will only lead us to more violence, death and bloodshed. Not a single one of these problems will go away if the UK votes to remain, but we might just get a little bit more time to breathe and come up with something that might work. And I can’t believe that close pan-European economic, political and social cooperation won’t be part of that solution.

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Save the BBC from “friends” like 38 Degrees

Yesterday 38 Degrees was forced to remove a petition calling for the resignation of Laura Kuenssberg as the BBC’s political editor following revelations that it was being used as a focal point for sexist abuse. Before then however, 38 Degrees and the wider clicktivist left had received criticism for undermining the BBC in its current mortal combat with the government and Culture Secretary John Whittingdale.

The focus of this ire is aimed at the BBC’s coverage of the resignation of Steven Doughty MP from the shadow cabinet, in which he was given the opportunity to resign live on-air. What’s fascinating about this particular issue is to question what any truly independent media agency would have done in the BBC and Kuenssberg’s shoes. The implication seems to be that she should have downplayed its significance and denied him a platform. If either of those things had happened, how would Kuenssberg have been able to defend it? I have my concerns about the nature of the BBC’s news coverage, which tends to lean towards giving members of the political establishment a relatively uncritical platform while undermining wider voices, but that tends to work as much in Labour’s favour as it does the Tories, and in this particular case it doesn’t apply at all.

But the purpose of this article is not to focus on Laura Kuenssberg’s woes but the relatively happier worlds of Telly Tubby Land and the Night Garden. While 38 Degrees were busily doing damage control on their Kuenssberg petition, they were also putting up another petition claiming that the government were proposing to cut funding for CBBC and CBeebies. An email was sent out titled “No more CBeebies?” which continued with:

But children’s TV as we know it is under threat. It’s being reported that the government plans to take money away from the BBC’s children’s programmes. [1] They want to give money-making channels a chance to compete for children’s shows.

Sounds horrifying, right? However, note the 1 in square brackets, as it’s pretty relevant. If you scroll down, you find that that [1] refers to an article in the Telegraph, which doesn’t quite say the same thing. That article is headlined “BBC in row with John Whittingdale over ‘top-slicing’ licence fee to fund kids’ TV“. It is indeed about top-slicing and the funding of commercial children’s television. Crucially however, nowhere does it say that the government is calling for funding of CBBC and CBeebies to be targeted for this top-slicing. To be clear: there is no reason whatsoever to believe that CBBC and CBeebies is under threat.

Now, you could give 38 Degrees the benefit of the doubt here. After all, that loss of BBC revenue has to come from somewhere, right? However, were you to reach this conclusion, I think you’d have to be blithely ignorant of a very important point: the chief target of Whittingdale’s concerns expressed in public thus far have all been the more profitable aspects of the BBC’s output. That comprises quite a bit of BBC TV – after all, they do have a very profitable worldwide arm. Sherlock, Doctor Who, Wolf Hall, Poldark, Radio One, sport, even news – these have all been cited not only as not worthy of government subsidy, but as actively undermining UK commercial television as a result. What is not under threat are the bits of the BBC that perform a clear public good but aren’t necessarily commercial, such as its output for children.

Believe it or not, Whittingdale is not stupid. He’s very aware that the BBC is extremely popular. Alongside the NHS, it’s one of those national institutions that the overwhelming majority of the British public want to preseve. Scrapping or privatising it could quite possibly lead to the ending of this government, and Whittingdale is not likely to put that at risk. That’s precisely why he is talking about restricting the profitable end of the BBC’s output, arguing with at least some justification that a lot of them would continue to get made if commissioned commercially and without the dead hand of the BBC hanging over Sky and ITV. And that’s precisely why he’s started talking up the possibility of taking a chunk of the license fee to pay for children’s television.

However well meaning, the 38 Degrees petition is a gift to Whittingdale. If his SpAds have any sense they will be jumping at the chance to get the message out to the 120,000 signatories that they will indeed protect CBBC from any cuts – or at least say that it will be up to the BBC to decide whether to keep Match of the Day or Peppa Pig. All he wants to do is increase spending on commercial children’s television. Anyone old enough to remember the quality of output of children’s television on ITV before the Tories destroyed that cherished national institution at the end of the 80s (or, ahem, watches some of the better shows the Cartoon Network in the US churns out) can tell you that commercial children’s TV has the potential to be every bit as good as what the BBC comes up with. More Press Gang and The Wind In The Willows in exchange for a bit less trash on BBC? What’s there to object to?

Of course the debate around top-slicing is a lot more nuanced and subtle than “SAVE THE TELLYTUBBIES!!11!” or even “SAVE SHERLOCK!” – which is precisely why Whittingdale wants to shift the debate in that direction. By giving Whittingdale such an open goal, 38 Degrees are only helping him. Fundamentally, this debate is just as much about the BBC’s independence as it is about its level of funding and with a Culture Secretary looking to actively undermine it, we need to be extra vigilant about what he decides to target. Having 38 Degrees chalk this one up as a “win” in a couple of weeks is only going to make that public scrutiny harder.

Sometimes I wonder if 38 Degrees and the myriad of other clicktivist websites have a secret agenda to actually undermine the left and progressive politics in the UK. The reality is much more banal: it exists simply to continue existing, and with that in mind will always look out for whatever simplistic and populist angle it can find on public policy and use it to increase its email database and thus revenue. I’ve spoken to enough people behind it, and experienced working up close with them enough to know that if that means they end up becoming reactionary or wildly missing their target, that’s a price they’re quite happy to pay.

That’s why they actively undermined the campaign against disability cuts during the last government, and that’s why they focused their “Save the NHS” campaign on big, high profile moments that they knew they had no chance of winning (such as their attempts to stop the second reading of the Health and Social Care Bill) at the expense of less high profile moments which required more sophisticated lobbying. Far better to fail big than to win quietly, and far better to help the government by over-simplifying a complex debate than to make their life difficult by adopting a more sophisticated position and risk losing subscribers in the process.

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The Rennard debacle: better to rock the boat than have the tail wag the dog

A week after being elected as the House of Lords Parliamentary Party’s representative to the Lib Dem Federal Executive, Chris Rennard has resigned – effectively forced out after Tim Farron publicly called for him to go. Farron’s statement itself followed a demand by more than 200 Lib Dem members for a special conference to debate the issue. I meant to blog about this a few days ago, so now I’m coming to the topic the storm appears to have passed, but I think there are wider implications worth reflecting on.

First of all, well done Tim Farron. Perhaps it is a low bar by which to compare him, but Nick Clegg in similar circumstances would almost certainly have shrugged his shoulders and sat on his hands.

Secondly, well done to the Rock the Boat team. I don’t think anyone really wanted a special conference to resolve this, but if it had not been threatened then I suspect there would have been far greater pressure on the leadership to just let it slide.

I’m not interested in revisiting the whole Rennard Saga here; suffice to say that several of the women who made allegations against him are my friends, I believe them and I knew about the allegations for years before they were made public. They kept quiet, in part out of loyalty to the party and, contrary to some of the allegations being made by some of Rennard’s supporters, had no motivation to go out and damage the party when they decided to go to the media about it. And, despite the attempts by some to present this as some kind of Benny Hill sketch, we were not talking about pinched bottoms here, but genitalia being groped in the most degrading manner. This is important to emphasise, because these are the allegations which Alastair Webster described as “broadly credible” and which Rennard himself semi-apologised for being an “inadvertent” encroachment of personal space.

The one thing that everyone involved appears to agree with is that the Alastair Webster investigation into these allegations was a botched affair, admittedly in no small part due to the absurd disciplinary rules which dictated that for action to be taken the allegations had to reach the criminal standard of proof, as opposed to the balance of probabilities. In this regard, we have seen no justice done. Rennard himself can hide behind Helena Morrissey’s comments about the case as much as he likes, but without a process anyone has any faith in, or even the tiniest degree of contrition on his part, he simply cannot expect people to let him off the hook. The women who made these allegations have now all resigned the party. If allegations of his nature had been found “broadly credible” by a formal investigation into my conduct, I would personally have been mortified and followed them.

As it stands, Rennard has made it perfectly clear that he isn’t going anywhere. Without wishing to invoke Pyrrhus of Epirus, don’t rule out Rennard standing for the one-member-one-vote Federal Executive elections next year, and if he does then he will certainly be elected with substantially more than the 6.25% of the vote he will require to get a seat; I wouldn’t rule him out getting elected with the most first preference votes. As anyone who understands the single transferable vote system knows, that’s a pretty meaningless accolade – it wouldn’t make him any less the most hated candidate as well – but it is certainly something he will gleefully use to defend his position, and forcing him out will be substantially harder than it was this time. So while today’s resignation is a victory, it will possibly prove to be merely a reprieve.

As for the Lords Parliamentary Party more widely, I think the party is now waking up to a problem that may ultimately cause it even greater headaches in the long run. In short, the Lib Dem presence in the House of Lords is now 14 times larger than its presence in the House of Commons. The Commons team has little prospect of shifting a single vote this Parliament; the Lords team will enjoy a deciding role in every single vote. Their status and capacity will dwarf our MPs, and that’s a bad place psychologically for the party to be in.

What we saw last week was a power play; an attempt to put a leader, who they don’t especially like very much, squarely in his place. I suspect they were bolstered by the outcome of the tax credit vote a fortnight ago, in which the party was loudly cheering them on. It was crass, ineffectual and ultimately has made them all look very stupid (despite him winning his election by 2 votes to 1, not a single peer has come out and publicly defended their decision to back Rennard; although I understand that Tony Greaves has been making noises on Lib Dem forums), but don’t expect them to back down now.

I’ve always struggled with the mindset in the Lords. Its members always have the air of philanthropic paternalism, great eminences who have deigned to take an interest in mortal affairs. The fact that they are all there because of political patronage, is barely reflected upon. I’ve been involved in politics long enough to see the transformation, from loyal happy-clappy, nodding-dog committee tourist to grand independently minded (of course!) Lord of the realm, happen several times. The pomp and circumstance, the history and the chance to decide on important matters of legislation all contribute to entrench in them an almost messianic mindset.

This almost religious atmosphere is only shattered when they are forced to think of themselves in terms of real life. When I was on the Federal Executive, the Lords all-but downed tools over attempts to block them from working as multi-agency lobbyists and taking the Lib Dem whip. The common refrain was that they needed to work in public affairs because otherwise they’d be force to live a life in penury. By contrast, when the other big internal party of the day on whether to hold elections for Lib Dem peers was discussed, another refrain was that peers had to be independently wealthy to be able to afford to spend time in the Lords. Of course, as a matter of fact both claims were nonsense; pro-rata their daily allowances vastly exceeds the London median wage, and that’s before you take into account travel expenses.

What I’m suggesting here is that there is something fundamentally unhealthy about appointing people for life to sit in a legislative chamber. It inculcates a sense of entitlement and privilege which should have no place in our political system; it corrupts. As a party we ought to be wary of this.

Does it mean going as fair as the Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau has gone in Canada and withdraw the whip from them all? I can see some merit in that, but also a lot of risks – especially with the Commons party now so small. But I do think that our constitutional structures need to better reflect the fact that peers are unelected, and that that is a problem.

Personally, I’d like to see the appointees of the House of Lords PP to various internal committees as subject to a veto by the committee itself. If the Lords are going to play games like they did last week and attempt to impose someone who the leader has already stated he can’t work with, then we shouldn’t find ourselves in a constitutional crisis; the committee should simply tell them to think again. And this should apply to anyone, whether they are someone who has several allegations of sexual misconduct made against them, or simply someone who is a bit of an idiot. The purpose of the FE, Federal Policy Committee and others is to conduct party business in a professional manner; they don’t have time for stunts. Otherwise all that will happen is that those bodies will cease to be the ones where the real decisions get made, as we already see far too much is the case for the FE (in no small part, ironically enough, due to the way Chris Rennard conducted himself when he was the party’s chief executive).

The peers themselves vigorously opposed attempts to hold internal elections for Lib Dem appointments to the House of Lords; ironically, if they hadn’t done so, that would have increased their own political standing within the party. As it stands, while we should be grateful for their work in providing a bulwark against grotesque government legislation, we must be equally robust in opposing any further attempts by them for the tail to wag the dog. The alternative will be a party that continues to look out of touch and is more in love with being the whiggish occasional voice of calm within the establishment rather than a radical force for change.

Labour Clears The Way poster from 1911 general election

The anti-people’s budget and the constitutional crisis that isn’t

The government rhetoric about the House of Lords’ threat to derail their cherished plan to cut tax credits has been extraordinary over the last few days. To believe it, you would have to think that we are in the deadlocked position Parliament found itself between 1909 and 1911, when the then Liberal government attempted to force through David Lloyd George’s so-called “People’s Budget,” which established the foundations of the modern welfare state and, less successfully, sought to introduce a new system of taxation based on land values. It resulted in a constitutional showdown and eventually the Parliament Act 1911, which limited the powers of the Lords and sought to eventually replace it with a chamber “constituted on a popular basis”.

Then, the landed gentry clubbed together in the Lords to thwart a popular mandate for a more caring system of welfare for the working poor. Now, the Conservative government (which includes a number of members of the landed gentry) are throwing a hissy fit because our semi-reformed House of Lords is threatening to block an attempt to penalise the working poor. We aren’t talking about legislation here, which the Parliament Act prevents the House of Lords from being able to block, but an unamendable and thus unscrutinisable statutory instrument, which the government could retable the very next day if it wished to. In the past, governments have got extremely frustrated by the parliamentary ping-pong which has necessitated when the House of Lords and House of Commons disagree. Here, the government is losing its shit before the first serving volley has been fired.

I suspect this rather shrill reaction has more to do with George Osborne’s insecurities – possibly related to him seeing his future Prime Ministerial career retreating into the sunset – than it has to do with any true constitutional outrage. It was therefore extraordinary to hear this morning that Corbyn’s Labour have already capitulated. Of course, it is reasonable for Labour and the Lib Dems to have a fall back position to support if the crossbenchers are not prepared to support the fatal motion to kill the SI; but to go one step further and adopt the Tory position on constitutional sclerosis is bizarre. This puts Jeremy Corbyn in the odd position of a man who won’t bend the knee before the Queen but is all too eager to prostrate himself before the Prime Minister.

It should not be too hard to see that the Tory position on this is all bluff and bluster. The Tories can’t unilaterally suspend the Lords, as they were suggesting a few days ago. To change the powers of the Lords would require a new Parliament Act and re-open the can of worms on Lords reform, which they insisted was not a priority three years ago. To stuff the Lords with Tory peers would be an act of political suicide; it would make democratic reform of the Lords almost inevitable and make Cameron and the Tories look like the most corrupt administration in parliamentary history; don’t forget that even the Liberal threat to do the same in 1911 was part of an electoral pledge in the face of an overwhelming majority of flagrantly self-serving hereditary peers sitting in the Lords. Even Cameron cannot believe he is in the same position, not matter how great his powers of wishful thinking might be.

If this is their threat, I say bring it on. Fortunately, so does Tim Farron. I’m baffled that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t similarly energised at the prospect; just what is the point of him?

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Labour’s headbangers: rebels without a cause

There’s a curious subset of democratic reform campaigners who maintain that the number one most significant reform we could make to our voting system would be to introduce a “none of the above” option. Apparently, at a stroke, this would solve all our problems as politicians face up to their massive unpopularity.

I am, it is fair to say, sceptical. But one thing I will give them is that this does seem to be the theme of our age. Opting out is what we do in modern society. We are all Pontius Pilate now.

This, it would appear, now extends to the significant elements of the Labour Party. After getting themselves into a mess at the start of the summer, agreeing to abstain on the welfare bill and thus expose the moral vacuum at the party’s heart which Jeremy Corbyn was more than happy to fill, 21 Labour MPs decided to do exactly the same thing in response to the government’s ridiculous Charter for Budget Responsibility.

(As an aside, John Major’s government was obsessed with “charters“; what does it say about modern politics that something that resembles a desperate gimmick during the fag end of the last Tory government is now something that Labour can tie themselves into knots over?)

None of this is to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have exactly covered themselves in glory over the last few days. McDonnell’s u-turn over the charter is possibly the most inept act I’ve ever seen by a major party leader in British politics, and I’m including Nick Clegg, Gordon Brown and Iain Duncan Smith in that (feel free to list more inept actions in the comments below). It is perfectly understandable why the Labour Parliamentary Party was as angry as it was at the beginning of the week.

But anger doesn’t justify anything, and nor does “well Corbyn and McDonnell used to be serial rebels so I can be too,” unless you never took their rebellions seriously in the first place. Not everyone agrees with Corbynomics, but pretty much everyone understands the charter to be a gimmick and a political trap. The fact that McDonnell got caught in it is a reason to not leap into it yourself. All the Labour rebels did last night was make themselves look stupid and angry.

I hesitate to call them Blairites, but it is a better term than their apparently preferred label, “moderates”. They are anything but. The brigade within Labour that are fixated on bringing Corbyn down as quickly as possible have, for a long time, resemble the headbanger mindset, albeit a group of headbangers without a cause. At least you can quickly tick off a list of what the Tory headbangers believe in; it is hard to discern what the Labour headbangers actually want to achieve.

Perhaps that isn’t entirely fair, because at times it seems that whenever David Cameron manages to leave the house without forgetting to put his trousers on, there’s a throng of Labour right wingers who are quick to lavish praise on his latest act of political cunning and guile. Last week, Cameron made a few vaguely leftish comments in his conference speech. Completely ignoring the week in which the party defended its policies to cut the income of the working poor and make some blood curdling comments about immigration, Dan Hodges and John Rentoul could not have been more delighted.

Nor is this a new, post-Corbyn change of heart. Throughout the Ed Miliband era, Labour’s headbangers spent their time nursing perceived grievance after perceived grievance. Even after Miliband moderated his approach to appease his own right flank, the highly vocal attacks and grumblings persisted. What we never saw during that era was any kind of positive vision for what a “moderate”, “centrist” Labour might look like. All we heard was sneering.

And then there was Liz Kendall. Initially hailed as a potential game changer, Kendall’s leadership bid quickly ran out of steam. The reason? Because her vision for Labour was about as constructive and coherent as a typical Hodges or Rentoul whinge-fest. She had literally nothing to say beyond “we’re all doomed unless we sign up to all of the Tories’ most popular policies”. A more coherent Blairite might have challenged Corbyn; as it stood Kendall helped Corbyn hoover up more votes every time she opened her mouth.

I’ve yet to see an ounce of contrition by the headbangers over this. The constant anti-Corbyn refrain is that it is no good having principles if you can’t win a general election. This is true. But it is equally true that it is no good being a moderate if you can’t carry your own party with you. If you expect people to give up a serious amount of their time and income supporting your bid to win an election, not being able to offer even the most paltry vision of how you would do things different from your political opponents is a fundamental deal breaker. Yet somehow this fairly mundane idea escapes the so-called Labour moderates, and they don’t seem to be in any hurry to examine how they might to anything different any time soon.

As Zoe Williams wrote during the leadership contest, in terms of offering hope, Corbyn is more Blairite than the Blairites. What’s really odd is that with Corbyn’s leadership set to potentially end as soon as the elections next May end, you’d think that the headbangers would be more focused on finding and building up a potential replacement rather than toxifying themselves in the eyes of their colleagues. As it stands, if Corbyn does go down in a blaze of glory, what we’re likely to see is him replaced by a candidate who does at better job at bridging the divide between the parliamentary party and membership, only for the headbangers to spend all their time attempting to bring that leader down as well.

It is an odd form of political nihilism. While cast out in the political wilderness, the hard left at least had an agenda. The hard right complain about moves within the party to oust them; but shouldn’t they find a purpose before complaining about plots?

Tom Watson and the mob

Tom Watson has been mired in controversy recently, following last week’s Panorama documentary raising doubts about the Dolphin Square paedophile ring allegations. The allegation is that he abused his position using parliamentary privilege to highlight rape allegations being made against Leon Brittan. Following an intervention by David Cameron, Watson has now hit back swinging, arguing that the people who deserve an apology are the victims of abuse.

There’s a risk that the issue has now become so hopelessly politicised that we may never see any justice coming out of it. I agree with Watson, up to a point. The focus really needs to be on helping the victims of abuse, not the reputations of politicians.

Where I depart from Watson’s analysis is that I’m not convinced the victims’ interests have been best served by Exaro and Watson’s intervention. There appears to have been pressure on child abuse victims to identify Leon Brittan, Harvey Proctor et al despite a paucity of actual evidence. Getting them justice is one thing; using them to target VIPs, using fallout from the Jimmy Savile atrocity as cover is quite another. Using survivors of child abuse to advance your political agenda and career is a pretty egregious act. So excuse me if I resist the temptation to pick Watson’s side in this latest row (or any side at all for that matter).

The thing with Tom Watson is that he has form. In 2004, Watson ran Liam Byrne’s by-election campaign in Birmingham Hodge Hill. The “pro-technology” MP ran a campaign attacking the Lib Dem candidate for being too pro-phone masts. Somewhat more notoriously, his England flag-adorned, anti-immigrant leaflets managed the feat of uniting both Nick Cohen and the Socialist Worker Party in condemnation.

As a party activist at the time, one of the most striking aspects of the Tom Watson era of by-election campaigning was the practice of following rival candidates around with mobs. It reached the point where candidates had to be surrounded by an entourage at all times ready to protect the candidate. It may be Jeremy Corbyn who is identified with the sort of behaviour we saw outside the Conservative Party conference last week, but Watson has been a keen proponent of this tactic in the past – except in his case this had nothing to do with keeping an issue in the public eye but a more straightforward form of intimidation and bullying.

The thing is, if you follow his career, Watson is quite partial to the mob. Whether it is the hacking scandal or child abuse, wherever there is a large amount of righteous moral outrage, Watson unfailingly places himself at the centre of it. With his more recent campaigns, we can at least console ourselves that the targets tend to be the powerful, but his practice remains the same; stoking up anger and hyperbole rather than being the voice of reason.

Like a lot of people, I suspect Tom Watson’s affinity for moral indignation has a little bit too much to do with what he gets out of it than the issues themselves, and it is fair to say that he has done very well out of the campaigns he has tied himself to. But it is reasonable to question whether demagogues really have the people they are superficially championing at heart.

The Revolting Left

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the protests outside the Conservative Party conference and direct action more generally. This has coincided with the release of a new film about the Suffragette movement, which I haven’t seen yet.

It strikes me that much of the debate surrounding direct action and protest exists inside of a bubble in which neither side is especially interested in the truth. We’ve had a week in which journalists and Tory delegates have been acting mortally offended at being called “Tory scum” and spat at and have rushed to draw a direct link between these protests and Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, Corbyn supporters have been downplaying the connection between the two and talking about how these protests reflect genuine anger at Conservative austerity measures.

Both sides are full of it.

While I doubt that the protesters have exactly improved Corbyn’s public image, they have probably not done him any harm either. Both sides are simply too entrenched. Swing voters, watching it from afar, might well not exactly be impressed by the actions but it is unlikely to make them form a strong opinion of a party leader who has publicly called for a “kinder, gentler” politics the other week. The connection between the two can be made, but it is the political class who will make it, not floating voters.

Meanwhile, the people who claim this is some spontaneous outpouring of outrage are downplaying the fact that this is a deliberate strategy. And it is a strategy which, broadly speaking, has worked. It is hard to believe that the pressure on Cameron and Osborne about tax credits would have been anything like as intense if the conference hadn’t had a backdrop of angry protest. Yes, journalists complained about being spat at – but they also went out and spoke to the protestors, who had plenty to say about tax credits, benefits, housing and poverty more generally. It might be pretty unpleasant to be have to endure, and you can ask questions about what motivates someone to spend a week shouting angrily at passers by, but the fact is that it kept the issue they wanted on the agenda. If they hadn’t been there, Cameron et al would have had a much easier time of it.

The Westminster circus has a vested interest in dismissing the effectiveness of direct action, but the fact is that this sort of protest time and again simply works. The problem is that its most keen proponents all too often believe it is the only thing that works, and that all you need to do to win any campaign is get into a punch up outside Downing Street. I remember talking at a People and Planet conference a few years ago in which my fellow speaker extolled precisely this position. Among other things, he claimed, the woman’s right to vote was solely won because of the Suffragettes’ hunger strikes, damage to property and self-sacrifice.

He has a point. The suffrage movement had reached an impasse in 1906 due to the perfidy of the Liberal government. They managed to keep the issue alive at a time when decades of patient political action had reached an impasse. Here’s the thing though: the came after decades of political action, and it didn’t actually lead to women getting the vote. That happened later, after World War I and four years after the Suffragettes had ceased their actions. And it was another decade after that before we had universal suffrage.

This isn’t to disparage the Suffragettes, merely to point out that the heart of their success was rooted in the fact that their actions slotted into a wider political movement. One of the most frustrating things over the last five years has been watching the modern protest “movement” attempting to make similar progress without any interest in conventional political lobbying. UK Uncut is widely credited for pushing tax avoidance up the pole, but again there was already a political movement making waves about that topic (and it’s both low-hanging fruit and a political El Dorado which seldom delivers because it doesn’t look at the more structural problems with tax; but that’s another topic). Other than that, protestors have made a lot of noise but very little substantial progress over the past half decade.

The rise of Corbyn, in theory at least, could bridge that divide. If both Labour and the protest movement are both pushing in the same direction, then it could prove effective. My problem with this however, is that I think Corbyn represents a leap too far in the opposite direction. While it is great for the protest movement to have “one of their own” leading Labour, the benefits for Labour are less clear. And Corbyn has seldom demonstrated much interest in the boring work of actually persuading people inside his party – let alone across the Commons floor. At this stage I’m not ruling anything out, but I struggle to see how the optimism currently rippling through the hard left has much basis in reality.

If the hard left is going to really make progress, I suspect it will need to meet the centre left halfway rather than simply bypassing it altogether. A bit of pragmatism all round would be helpful.

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Trident, Corbyn, nirvana and hell

This article by Ian Leslie in the New Statesman reminded me of an idea I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about for a long time. That is, that politics is in the state it is because our society is split between people who think politics and policy is impossibly easy – and thus the fact that bad things happen is because politicians are fundamentally bad people – and the people who think politics and policy is impossibly hard – and thus everything needs to be left to the Serious Men.

Ian Leslie gets it half right; I recognise plenty of the nirvana fallacy in a lot of what Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have to say. But there’s also the other fallacy. I don’t know if it has an official name, but its the idea that because a problem is superficially hard, only the most nihilistic and misanthropic solution is the answer.

I’m a terrible fence sitter, and as I get older I’m getting worse. That accounts for a lot for why I don’t blog as much these days. When it comes to both Trident and the Middle East, my position is that… I’m not sure. I get the argument that Ian Leslie puts forward here against unilateral disarmament. But the counter argument is that maybe, if the Superpowers weren’t around to slap anyone down who starts threatening nuclear war themselves, the sabre rattlers would be forced to take responsibility for themselves. The logic of mutually assured destruction is that the world has to live in a state of perpetual infantilism with Grown Up colonising forces effectively watching over us. And that idea works fine as long as the Superpowers themselves aren’t run by bloodthirsty sabre rattlers like, er, Donald Trump. Or Vladimir Putin.

I’m not convinced that supporters of unilateral disarmament are blind to the fact that someone deciding to press the button knowing that they won’t receive any retaliation isn’t a very real threat. It’s just that, well, we sort of live under that threat anyway; what if some rogue state just becomes so nihilistic that it decides to unleash hell anyway? I just don’t buy this idea that people exist who hate humanity so much that they’d be willing to kill millions yet are dissuaded by the threat of their own annihilation. And it doesn’t take a nuclear weapon to kill a tinpot dictator: I guarantee you that any tinpot general who lets off a nuclear bomb will have at most six months to live before the special forces of the country they aim their weapons at knocks them out.

I’m not saying anything new here. It was all summed up in Dr. Strangelove 51 years ago. And that was about the logic of MAD on the US. The UK’s own nuclear arsenal is just a plaything in comparison. The big joke about Trident is that it literally serves no purpose. It’s not there to reinforce mutually assured destruction if “necessary” – it’s a “strategic” weapons systems designed to, er, what exactly? Just what are we planning to blow up that the US and Russia don’t already have in their sights? If we set off a Trident missile for any reason, the UK gets annihilated. If someone sets off a nuclear missile aimed at the UK, they’re dead even if Trident gets dismantled. We aren’t part of the group of “grown up” nations who get to decide if humanity gets to continue to exist or not; we’re the big children who have been allowed to sit at the big table because we behaved ourselves.

Is it more complicated than that? Maybe (remember my point about being a fence sitter?). I’m glad I’ll never be Prime Minister because I too could never press the button; the moral weight of the decision would destroy me. But the idea that it is as simple as Ian Leslie suggests – that our nuclear arsenal is a bulwark stopping the whole edifice from collapsing – is more intelligence insulting than any anti-nuclear argument I’ve heard. But it’s seductive because it comes across as hard nosed and realpolitik. If Corbyn’s thinking is the “nirvana fallacy” then this is the “hell fallacy”: we can never have nice things because the world is horrible.

This “shut up and eat your dinner” argument is a common one in modern politics. It’s why we apparently have to let the intelligence services read our emails. It’s why we can’t reform our financial services. It’s why we have to force the most vulnerable people to take a cut in benefits and hunt for non-existent jobs. It isn’t the start of intellectual inquiry; it’s the shutting down of intellectual inquiry. And yes, people on the other side of the argument are also frequently to blame for being similarly simplistic and dismissing their opponents’ arguments. But that doesn’t make one side more valid than the other.

382936 02: Actors from (l-r) Martin Sheen stars as President Josiah Bartlet and Rob Lowe as Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn on NBC''s West Wing which airs Wednesdays on NBC (9-10 p.m. ET). (Photo by David Rose/NBC/Newsmakers)

Where is Jeremy Corbyn’s Sam Seaborn?

One of the big challenges of criticising Jeremy Corbyn is that if you have any skin whatsoever in what is now deemed to be the “old politics” you’re views are instantly dismissed as irrelevant. So it is that I’ve spent the day looking at Twitter, with old politicos saying the speech was rubbish and the Corbynistas declaring it to be an outstanding and inspirational call to arms. And to an extent, I am open to the charge that I am just not getting it. I’m astounded at his rise to power, despite feeling and understanding the reasons behind it. There are examples across Europe of a populist leftwing party surging to victory in the way that the Corbynistas envision. They may be right.

There is however a real question of how far down the rabbit hole you’re willing to go. For example, we aren’t seeing much of a Corbyn bounce in the opinion polls. Do you dismiss all that as methodological flaws and biases in an industry that got the election result very wrong (apart from the exit poll)? And then, today: are criticisms that Corbyn’s speech was dull and directionless failing to appreciate that the public are hungering for more “straight talking” and less spin and thus will lap it up?

With that caveat, let me get this out of the way: Corbyn’s speech was dull as ditchwater. It was like a rambling recitation of a telephone directory. An 80s telephone directory, back in the day when you could fell a rampaging bull elephant with just volume one of your local Yellow Pages with a single blow. Indeed, from the cutaway shots of the audience in the television coverage, after the halfway mark it looked as if many members of the Labour conference had received precisely such a glancing blow.

It’s not that the policy content was bad; I agreed with most of what I can recall. It’s just that there was so much of it. There was no theme, no irreducible core.

At some point halfway through he apparently had a pop at the media, but I must have zoned out (I remember his japes at the beginning at its expense). This is ironic because the vast majority of people who will see this speech will do so because the news programmes, channels and websites will have shown them excerpts of the better parts of the speech, thus shielding them from the sheer tedium of it in bulk. So much of the praise he’ll earn this evening will be because of the eeevil media doing his spin for him.

It might well be “old politics” to say that he desperately needs a competent speechwriter, but I haven’t chugged down enough Kool-Aid yet to believe that it wouldn’t help. You don’t need to be the greatest orator to do a competent job with a little practice and good content. By all means, let Corbyn be Corbyn. But don’t let Corbyn get in the way of what Corbyn has to say. Is that really too much to expect?

What I saw today was a man who has started to believe his own hype and that somehow all the “new” politics needs to be is the opposite of “old” politics. Again, maybe I’m deluded and stuck in the old ways, but if you really think that can you explain to me what that speech today actually achieved?

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My current reckons on Tim Farron and the Lib Dems

This week marks the 20th anniversary of my joining the Liberal Democrats, an anniversary somewhat marred by the fact that I ceased to be a member between March 2012 and July this year. I rejoined following Tim Farron’s election as party leader, but I haven’t exactly bounced back into things. I’m still not over my political depression; my head says I should get back involved, but my heart still isn’t in it.

Farron has had a pretty low profile over the summer, but that’s fairly understandable given a) the need for a bit of post-election recuperation and b) the Corbyn phenomenon. And much has been written speculating about whether Corbyn represents a problem or an opportunity for Farron, who was widely perceived as wanting to shift the Lib Dems over to the left.

I didn’t go to Lib Dem conference this year, or watch it from afar especially closely. It seemed like a fairly typical post-election conference, focused mainly on housekeeping (adopting one member one vote, rejecting the “leader’s veto” on policy) as opposed to policy. The only substantial policy announcement I picked up on was Norman Lamb’s proposal for local authorities to have the power to raise taxes for local healthcare, which sounds potentially interesting but I’d need to see more detail.

I did however decide to watch Tim Farron’s speech. It was as accomplished as I expected it to be. I’ve seen people describe it as the best Lib Dem leader’s speech ever, or at least in “50 conferences” and I don’t think that’s far off the mark. Whatever other challenges the Lib Dems face, I think they have the best rhetorician of all the other UK party leaders right now.

If only that were enough. In terms of substance, I think the speech was fine. Excellent in places but lacking in theme and fairly dire in others. It showed potential, but it also highlighted some dangers. For what it’s worth, here are my “reckons” about the state of the Lib Dems right now:

Corbyn is the great unknown

I simply don’t know how the Corbyn phenomenon is going to play out. Like most people, I didn’t see it coming, although I understand all too well what has motivated it. A significant part of me really wants Corbyn to succeed. I technically had a vote in the Labour elections having registered as a union supporter (I felt entitled to vote given that I voted Labour in the General Election), but I didn’t cast it as I subsequently joined the Lib Dems and didn’t feel it was appropriate to vote in another party’s elections. If I had done so, to the consternation of my Labour family members, I’d have had to vote Corbyn 1, Kendall 2, Cooper 3. He was without question the most able to lead given the choice, but the choice was so limited – a fact that the anti-Corbynites within Labour seem incapable of accepting, let alone understanding the implications of. I agree with much of what he’s had to say, especially on economics.

I don’t think he’s going to succeed, and strongly doubt he will fight the next general election as leader however. Part of this, depressingly, is because the media and political class just won’t allow it. Some of that, however, he can simply shrug off. I suspect that the attacks on his republicanism, atheism and, gah, alleged lack of patriotism, will ultimately bounce off him and have the positive effect of opening up the amount of political space available to republicanism. But while I think the media’s capacity to destroy him is often overstated, the attacks from within his own party will be harder to deflect. I just don’t see him surviving in an environment where loyalty is so thin on the ground. Some of that is his own fault, but much of it is rooted in pure spite from his enemies within the party.

But the other major factor is the hard left which elevated him in the first place. I can’t see a large body of people who pride themselves on their unyielding inability to compromise as capable of finding any accommodation for people within Labour whose views are not identical, let alone moderate their own platform in the interest of finding common cause with floating voters. And that’s the ones actually in Labour; in my own social network I know of far more vocal Corbyn supporters who are actually Green Party members – and have no intention of even voting Labour let alone joining – than I know of ones who have actually decided to back him up from inside of the party.

In the long term, I have high hopes that a new generation of “soft left” Labour activists and politicians will emerge from this current situation who will be capable of steering their party back to principled electability. Over the next couple of years (at least) however, we are likely to see the hard left and Blairite hard right tear themselves to pieces.

What this represents to Farron is a headache, and a much more complex one than the simplistic media analysis that Corbynite Labour will cost the Lib Dems in left-leaning voters. Labour faces years of instability and until it has settled, settling on a Lib Dem approach to Labour – regardless of what is should be – will be futile. In short, Farron currently faces his own Kissinger Question: if he wants to talk to Labour, who does he call?

Farron should own the coalition – up to a point

The leftwing media has made a lot out of the fact that Farron failed to disown the coalition in his speech, with some even claiming it amounted to a u-turn. This is of course nonsense on stilts. In his ownership of the coalition years, Farron’s position on Wednesday was precisely the same position he adopted before the election and during the leadership contest.

He didn’t list all the things the Lib Dems in coalition did wrong, partly because it would have been dull, partly because – as a rebel in several key votes – it was redundant (not for nothing did a “senior” Lib Dem describe him as a “sanctimonious, god-bothering, treacherous little shit”), and partly because it would have resolved nothing except invite pious members of the commentariat to write endless screeds about the Lib Dems’ failure in government.

Ed Miliband has rightly been criticised for failing to stick up for Labour’s record in government and Farron has almost certainly learned from this. But there is actually an even stronger imperative for the Lib Dems to stick up for themselves here. In short, the Tories’ are doing much of the Lib Dems’ job on detoxification for them. Every time the Conservative government does something heartless and cruel – which let’s face it happens almost daily – the Lib Dem response is that they spent five years stopping precisely this sort of thing.

I say all this despite the fact that personally I found many of the Lib Dems’ actions in coalition to be unacceptable and driven by Clegg’s own ideological zeal rather than the need for compromise. That problem has mainly been nipped in the bud by the fact that however much Farron might personally like Clegg, he is a very different person. He does however need to engage at some point about some of the strategic failures of the Lib Dems in coalition, and make it clear that any future period as a junior partner in government won’t lead to the same mistakes being made. Clegg’s insistence on strict collective responsibility in areas beyond the scope of the coalition agreement, and the ceding of key decision making to the so-called quartet were particularly problematic. Farron should of course be open to coalitions in the future, but should rule out a return to the Rose Garden.

Equidistance should end – but when?

My and many others’ support for the coalition with the Conservatives was very much predicated on one thing: that it was a one-off. It was unique because we found ourselves in a position whereby coalition with Labour was both arithmetically and politically impossible at a time of heightened economic uncertainty. It was assumed that Labour wouldn’t go on to collapse so completely that the Tories would go on to not only gain seats at the next election but form a majority (back in May I thought that Labour’s inability to challenge the Tories meant that with the benefit of hindsight the coalition had been a mistake; now, with Labour facing even more instability for the foreseeable future, I’m not so sure).

A case can be made that going into an election promising to prop up a defeated and deflated Labour government in 2010 would have been a major mistake; somehow however this has mutated into a position of permanent equidistance. Nick Barlow has explained in detail why this would be a mistake and that from a purely pragmatic perspective, an anti-Tory strategy is far more likely to deliver electoral success. I have to admit that the sooner the Lib Dems end up back in this position, the happier I will be.

The question however, is timing, and the reason for that is again Jeremy Corbyn. We do not yet know whether Corbyn is to be an acrimonious flash in the pan or has real staying power. If Farron had announced the end of equidistance on Wednesday, it would have been grossly premature and signalled such a massive change in direction that it would quite possibly backfire. Corbyn needs to be able to demonstrate he has the capacity to lead a major political party, or be replaced by someone who can, before the Lib Dems can seriously consider ending equidistance; and Farron needs to pick his moment well. It was after all three years between the Chard speech and the Lib Dems’ formal adoption of the position.

Being pro-Europe is not enough

The weakest sections in Farron’s speech were the ones where he attacked Corbyn directly. That’s not because I don’t think he should criticise the leader of the Labour party but because they were ineffectual. These criticisms centred around his Euro-scepticism and his economic policy.

On Europe, Farron defined the Lib Dems as the “No ifs, no buts” pro-European party, and there’s nothing wrong with being pro-European in principle. In practice however, regardless of the upcoming UK referendum on whether to remain in it, the EU is currently tearing itself apart. While Corbyn might be coming from an anti-EU position, his proposal that Labour should not accept the debate around EU reform on the Tories’ terms is not a bad one, and reform is coming regardless of what David Cameron wants – whether it is due to countries such as Greece straining at the policies being imposed at is, or the hundreds of thousands of people currently marching through the Schengen agreement and the EU’s complacent position on immigration and supposedly sharing the burden of humanitarian aid. The EU is currently not a thing to be especially proud of; a bit of ambivalence about the EU right now is not only looking awfully sensible and patriotic, but the pro-European position to take.

It was a missed opportunity for Tim Farron not to reflect on that in preference to a couple of jibes at Corbyn’s expense. And in this respect, he is very much Continuity Clegg, who never looked more like a fully signed up member of the establishment when he took on Nigel Farage in 2014 defending the status quo instead of articulating what a liberal vision of the EU looks like.

The urgent need for an economic policy

On a similar note, Farron’s main charge against Corbyn was that he indulges in “fantasy economics”. In doing so, he legitimises the current economic status quo. David Boyle has more to say on this and I’ll try to repeat him here.

The initial hug-them-close strategy of the Lib Dems in coalition had devolved by the halfway mark into a more businesslike arrangement, but at its heart, Clegg and Alexander insisted, was an acceptance of Osbornomics. The idea was that the Lib Dems would share the credit for the economic recovery.

The problem was of course, that it was nonsense. Faced with a choice between the authors of the economic policy and its cheerleaders, voters quite reasonably opted for the real deal. All Clegg achieved by insisting that there was no alternative was to argue his colleagues out of their seats.

Describing Corbyn’s position as fantasy is a luxury a party lacking an economic policy of its own cannot afford to do. If, hope against hope, the party goes onto adopt an economic policy of its own, any similarity to Labour’s position risks being portrayed as at best a u-turn, at worst, the very fantasy that Farron himself had been condemning up until that point.

By all means, I’d love to hear a Lib Dem critique of Corbynomics, but so far all we’ve heard is insults. The truth is that the Lib Dems have survived for decades without a meaningful economic policy of its own, other than a bit of fiscal jiggery-pokery. For Farron, it needs to be the number one priority if he truly believes in the social justice he has staked his leadership on.