Monthly Archives: February 2006

Not the leadership election

Dragging my gaze for a moment away from the leadership campaign, an ICM poll in today’s Grauniad has the
Lib Dems back up to 21%, the same level as before this little episode began, with the Tories on 37% and Labour on 34%. Together with the Dunfermline result, this is a good reminder of how easy it is to get caught up in a largely media/Westminster village-driven concern with leadership and careers. (Not to say that I don’t think it would be a very good thing of Chris Huhne wins, of course, Richard…) I think this may have something to do with the Lib Dem vote becoming more solid, perhaps even more inspired by liberal issues. Perhaps we should just abandon having a single leader, and have a panel instead?

Follow that Cab!

Readers will recall that I asked Simon Hughes to answer the following question via his e-hustings service:

Simon, you’ve made a big deal out of the environment and green issues in the campaign, yet you drive a diesel powered Taxi. Ming Campbell has said he will give up his Jag – are you prepared to put your money where your mouth is and give up your car?

A reasonable enough question given the strong feelings Simon’s own web-manager has on the subject.

Well, it’s extremely late in the campaign, but I’m pleased to announce that Simon has finally got around to answering my question. More to the point, he has helpfully rephrased it slightly, with a view to improving clarity – no wriggling out of the tough questions for our Simon with strict legalistic definitions and other such lawyerly nonsense!

Question: How would you help tackle the issue of Climate Change, and reduce our Co2 emissions?

Thank you Simon. Your frankness and openness on this issue is an inspiration to us all! As Rob Fenwick said, this is “a crucial question of honesty and consistency“.

Things hot up

With just a few days to go now until the ballot closes, the Lib Dem leadership contenders are starting to bring out the big guns.

Alarmed by the “increasingly confident” Simon Hughes’ coup of not just “Bingo” Bob Russell but also Charles Kennedy’s brother-in-law (a man of such seniority within the party that he is currently an FE member because, um, yours truly resigned – imagine the fanfare if I decided to switch teams at the last minute?), Ming has responded by announcing that John Hemming is now backing him.

And how has Chris Huhne responded? With a quote from David Steel that, if you squint a bit and turn your head to one side, might look like an endorsement. Oh, that and forget that Steel has been backing Ming from the start and indeed sent out an email* yesterday calling for people to back him (with the rather dubious claim that it was simply his relatively short time in Parliament back in 1999 – 12 years – that stopped Ming from whupping Kennedy arse and nothing at all to do with the fact that he was involved in a faction that wanted the Lib Dems to all but merge with Labour).

Yes indeedy, it’s silly season in the Lib Dem leadership stakes now. Almost everyone’s voted, even more people have made up their minds, so the various campaign teams are planning to fill the next couple of weeks with increasingly bizarre and outlandish claims. It should be fun, lie back and enjoy!

* I seem to have been blackballed by the Campbell Campaign – used to get these emails regularly, but no longer. Fair enough, but it’s a bit petty isn’t it guys? I am still giving your candidate my second preference!

Simon’s Dodgy Dossier

Comical Ali

A spokesman for Simon Hughes said: “My feelings – as usual – we will slaughter them all.”

Quoth Mr Hughes:

Although the race is close, the evidence is that I have a slight lead with the other two battling it out for second place.

Good luck to Simon, and I’m really pleased for him if he’s feeling confident. But please. What evidence?

The evidence may be flawed, indeed I think we can all agree that to at least some extent it is, but it all points towards a close fight between Huhne and Campbell. Every opinion poll of actual members, as opposed to supporters, suggests this. The punters tend to agree, with the lowest available odds on a Hughes victory currently standing at 12/1.

There is a fine line between self-confidence and self-delusion. Guido has a rather poorly phrased joke on his blog today, which nonetheless sums it up:

Q. What’s the connection between Simon Hughes and his Nokia phone?
A. They are both Finnish.

Why I’m not willing to be part of this coalition

MatGB has written a number of provocative posts about the need to develop a “coalition of the willing” to fight the “New Labour project” (hat tip: Nick Barlow). I’m afraid I’m not convinced by all this at all, and so I thought I’d spell out why.

To start with, one of the best bits of advice I’ve read this week has been that you should always define yourself by what you are for, and not what you are against. Too much of what both Mat and others have written seem to be rooted in a desire to oppose “New Labour”, yet New Labour isn’t the problem. Would we prefer “Old Labour”?

“New Labour” was a marketing term coined in the mid-nineties to unite a broad church of Labour politicians and activists who wanted change and a move away from a style of party management which hadn’t completely broken from the bad old days of the eighties. It encapsulated as wide a range of figures as Peter Kilfoyle and Peter Mandelson. People these days seem to have a notion that Old Labour is cuddly figures like Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, particularly in Northern cities, Old Labour is anti-democratic, homophobic, mysogynistic, racist. Above all, Old Labour was all about mob rule and the idea that the majority, or even the plurality, should be given untrammelled power over everyone else. It is no surprise that just as much of New Labour has become thoroughly disillusioned with Blair, so much of Old Labour has learned to embrace him as “One of Us”.

But when you look at what this coalition might be for, fractures begin to appear. Because, many of the people who have commented back at Mat, don’t seem to be particularly interested in the civil liberties agenda, just on bashing Labour on its current agenda. To quote “Andrew”:

Campaigning has to be very tightly focussed on the civil liberties issues we all agree on – ID cards, OTT terrorism legislation, the Civil Contingencies Act, the Leg/Reg Bill, and so on. You’ll lose an enormous amount of support if the coalition comes out in favour of a wider liberal agenda, particularly on Law and Order. Us Tories still want to brutalise criminals with lengthy jail terms, punishment beatings and hard labour. Getting New Labour out isn’t going to change that.

This would appear to be even more timid than David Cameron’s line on crime prevention, who is increasingly paying lip service to alternative forms of punishment and rehabilitation. Would you really trust a “hang’em flog’em” Tory to defend your liberties?

Worryingly, Mat would appear to be unconcerned by this, agreeing that:

The coalition needs to be strictly non-partisan, except in its opposition to New Labour. You’ll lose a lot of Tories again if you start advocating voting Lib Dem in Tory/Lib marginals, and vice versa. In fact, the coalition shouldn’t even discuss that sort of situation. Even where the Tory candidate is a rabid Cornerstone member who wants to hang gays and publicly flog benefits claimants, or where the Lib wants to install revolving doors in prison cells and to legalise and make compulsory the taking of crack by 13 year olds, they’ll still vote with the party whip when it comes to civil liberties issues.

Really? So, this coalition isn’t actually going to be about supporting politicians who believe in civil liberties at all, but just a full frontal assault on Labour, trusting that the whips will sort out the civil liberties stuff for us?

Let’s bring this all back to Planet Earth. David Cameron is still very much an unknown quantity. What we do know is that a majority of his parliamentary colleagues voted for right wing, more authoritarian candidates at the shortlisting stage. What we do know is that some Tories are up in arms at his reforms. What we do know is that every attempt to modernise the Tories in the past has looked promising at this stage and ended in crushing failure. What we do know is that Cameron is self-consciously attempting to emulate Blair.

And what did Blair do? He tarted himself around, emphasising his liberal credentials. There was not a single campaign or issue that he did not attempt to co-opt. And almost every single liberal cause ended up disappointed when it came for him to deliver. Why on earth should we believe Cameron would be any different?

If there is to be a “coalition of the willing” on civil liberties issues, then let it be for real civil liberties, not a handful that Conservatives have deemed electorally useful to cherry-pick. Let it concentrate on individual candidates and politicians, tactically opposing any candidate who doesn’t sign up to X, Y, Z rather than letting individuals off the hook and supporting “best fit” political parties who subsequently will be under no pressure whatsoever to carry out their reforms. It needs to acknowledge that for a majority of Labour and Tory MPs, and a minority of Lib Dem MPs, civil liberties simply are not on their agenda, and that just defeating party X or Y won’t change that. And it needs to look at underlying causes: Tory exhortations about the Bill of Rights as if it means something, while opposing any formal entrenchment of civil liberties in a codified constitution is simply fluff.

From what I’ve seen thus far, Mat’s emerging coalition is all about doing everything on Tory terms. People who remember being told that everything needed to be done on Labour’s terms ten years ago will be extremely wary of joining such a thing.

Renewing Liberal Britain

A couple of weeks ago I critiqued Jeremy Hargreaves’ take on what the Lib Dems’ narrative should be. But it isn’t good enough simply to criticise; far too few people are taking part in this crucial debate and so I thought it was time to try and work out some tentative ideas of my own.

So, here goes. My proposed narrative would be “Renewing Liberal Britain.” To use the archetypes spelled out in Neil Stockley’s article, this would seek to combine the “Great Island Nation” with the “Enemy Within”. The premise is that most of what makes Britain great can be summed up as liberal values: tolerance, democracy, liberty, questioning authority, sang froid (if you’ll pardon my French), entrepreneurship, concern for the individual and the underdog and an instinctive dislike of the mob. Those values are embraced by politicians from other parties who seek power (Blair, Cameron…) and dumped, just as quickly, by the same people, once they get in power.

In short, I’m proposing embrace and develop a liberal form of patriotism, one which doesn’t wrap itself in the Union Jack in the way that Gordon Brown has been doing of late. A deliberate, unapologetic and calculated exposition of how what one might call “drawbridge down” values aren’t simply more rational, but go to the heart of the British identity.

These values are under threat like never before. New Labour, having successfully co-opted them in 1997 with their themes of “Cool Britannia” and “things can only get better” have done more to undermine them than anyone else. David Cameron is now adopting the same 1997 approach, despite the fact that his party has always been the historical opponents of liberal Britain. Why should we believe that the self-appointed heir to Blair would behave any differently to Blair if he ever gained power? The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, are liberal Britain’s traditional champions.

Where does that leave the individual? The individual is at the heart of British identity. As Adam Smith liked to say, we are a nation of shopkeepers. The fight for individual rights and human dignity is the story behind the Magna Carta, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, the Free Trade Movement and the creation of the Welfare State. But we’ve drifted. Britain has reached a point where there needs to be a new constitutional settlement. To be frank, Parliamentary Sovereignty has let us down and we need something a little more substantial to guarantee our rights and freedoms.

Anyway, it isn’t there yet and I clearly need to develop things further, but what do you think? Comments in the usual place, please.

Has it passed on? Is it no more? Has it ceased to be? Has it expired? Has it met its maker? Is is stiff? Bereft of life, does it rest in peace? Is it pushing up the daisies? Are its metabolic processes now history? Is it off the twig? Has it kicked the bucket? Has it shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible? Is it an ex-magazine?

I’m sorry to keep going on about this, but have we seen the last gasp of The Liberal magazine? Since my last post on the subject it has emerged that Ben Ramm has got into further problems for publishing a Mohammed cartoon on its website, which is now dead.

Visitors to Chris Huhne’s website will be aware that the magazine had asked the three leadership contenders to answer some questions way back in January, but surely they can’t still be considering publishing that as the ballot will be closing soon. Similarly, their promised special on why Kennedy should go was scuppered by events (and in a very small way, by their own actions).

Bottom line though, it can’t be that difficult to bring out another issue, can it?

Am I bovvered? Do I look bovvered?

Busy with lots of things this week, so apologies if you’ve been missing my posts (hope springs eternal and all that).

Anyway, in the last few days, it looks like Our Chris has received two pointed attacks, one from the Institute of Hard Sums and one from the infamous Michael Crick. I’ll deal with the latter first.

Not that there’s much to deal with. In a sign of how newsworthy the BBC themselves consider this story, it isn’t mentioned on their own news portal. Their top “Huhne Item” is about the Guido’s revelations about a druggie article in a magazine he edited as a student. That is how seriously your own colleagues take you Mr Crick.

In fact, I’d say the biggest lapse of judgement Huhne demonstrated here was agreeing to to do a recorded interview with Crick. I’m not saying he should have avoided the whole thing, it’s just that I’ve been on the receiving end of the Crick Technique, know others who have had the same experience, and have learnt that this is one of the ways in which he stitches people up. In my own case I must have done okay because he didn’t use the story at all in the end, but he has a habit of lulling people into a sense of security and then quickly ravaging them like a rottweiller to get that same look of surprise that all his interviewees have. You never get to see the “nice” bit of the interview.

Huhne should have only agreed to do an interview live, in which better journalistic standards have to be enforced. Finally, I have to say, listening to Kirsty Wark pontificate about the misuse of public funds (in this case hundreds of pounds rather than hundreds of millions) was rather hard to take.

Onto the IFS, which Simon Mollan has already gleefully alluded to. My genuine first reaction when reading about their findings was “only £21 billion?” I’d heard that this tax cut would have come to closer to £30bn.

But of course, this is tosh, and the idea that Huhne has a “case to answer” here is to misunderstand the purpose of leadership. By talking about taking people who earn minimum wage out of income tax, Chris is setting the party direction. He is purposefully not spelling out detailed policy proposals. He hasn’t said this should be done in a single term, nor has he said that 100% of environmental tax rises should be dedicated to the goal (and as both Jock Coats and myself have pointed out on many occasions, environmental taxation includes land taxes – no-one is arguing loading everything onto fossil fuels). It is for the wider party to come up with a detailed set of policy proposals that aim to meet this goal; in this sense the result of the leadership election is the start of a process, not the end of it.

What is crucial however, is that Huhne is prepared to offer us leadership on the issue. He isn’t content with saying “the environment is good, mmm’kay?” in the way the Campbell Campaign is open to the charge of. And he isn’t prepared to cop out, in the way that Zac Goldsmith has done (shock! horror! he’s sold out, who’dathunkit?), by saying that you can achieve significant environmental goals without any extra regulations or taxes.

I have to confess with getting a little bored with the leadership ballot now. It’s already over bar the shouting, but we have to observe two more weeks for the last few stragglers to get their ballot papers in. My best guess is that it will be close between Huhne and Campbell, but I can’t see how blogging about it much more will make much difference.

The one thing I’m genuinely surprised about is how vitriolic it has become, particularly towards Huhne. All that anger would appear to be displacement. Rather than question why it is that Campbell has gone from having the whole thing sown up to (possibly) being pipped at the post, a lot of bloggers (and it would appear, senior politicians) have instead opted to take their frustrations out on Huhne, who’s only crime was to make a better fist of running a leadership campaign than Campbell.

Most readers of this blog will be unaware of the incredibly unwise allegations that were posted (and removed by me) here a few days ago, which would have probably done Huhne’s election bid very little harm but if picked up by the media would have caused the whole party problems. People appear to have lost all perspective in the course of the contest.

Whoever wins, Huhne deserves real credit as it takes real skill to go from “Whuhne?” to the odds-on favourite. Win or lose, Campbell supporters need to learn to deal with that fact, and fast. I wouldn’t want to see our next election campaign run like the Campbell campaign, and I certainly don’t want to see the whole party derailed by people who can’t cope with the fact that their candidate lost.

The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill; should we be panicking?

Daniel Finkelstein seems to think so, and six Cambridge Law Professors agree with him (hat tip: Charlie Whitaker). The big question is, why haven’t I heard anything about this before?

Both the Lib Dems and Tories have opposed the Bill, but where were Labour’s “usual suspects”? And why haven’t the Lib Dems been shouting about this? To be fair, there is a whole page dedicated to the Bill on the Lib Dem website, but it is hardly prominent.

The Bill is now in the hands of the Lords. I have a lot of faith that they will make drastic improvements. The problem is, Labour will almost certainly make this another grudgematch when it comes back to the Commons, which means that the fate of the UK constitution will depend on whether Hilary Armstrong remembers her pocket calculator or not. This is no way to run a country.