Daily Archives: 14 September 2007

Rear end analysis from Comment is Free

Okay, let’s get the blindingly obvious out of the way first. The Lib Dems are in trouble. We are floundering in the polls. Lewis Baston has a fair assessment of our woes over on Comment is Free.

Sadly, Iain Macwhirter has also decided to have a go. Aside from the blindingly obvious – that our stock isn’t all that high at the moment – it would appear that there is no point so large that Macwhirter isn’t capable of missing. Of course, accusing him of being stupid (which is of course what he calls us) would be unfair, since he is really being disingenuous. But it disappoints me that this is what passes for analysis these days.

First of all, he makes the following claim about why the Lib Dems failed to go into coalition government in Wales:

The Welsh Lib Dems were offered a share in a nationalist-led coalition in Cardiff, but pulled out at the last moment after the party executive was leaned on by the UK leadership. “Alliance with Plaid Cymru?” said Sir Ming’s minders. “Never! Unthinkable! The Liberal Democrats are a unionist party, always will be.”

Oh really? Knowing many of the individuals involved, if there had been the slightest hint of central interference here, they would have raised a shit storm. The one thing that might have convinced Peter Black to support coalition would have been the sense that Ming was pushing him the other direction.

There are a great many reasons why we failed to negotiate an acceptable package in Wales – a clear sense of identity and vision for Wales being the main one – but to blame Ming is an accusation too far.

Meanwhile, the Tory leader, David Cameron, has been pinching Liberal Democrat clothes on the environment, green taxes, public services and personal politics. Cameron has even allowed himself to be described as “liberal”. This attempt to drive the Liberal Democrats out of Tory marginals in England has sent the party into a state of ideological confusion. It no longer knows whether it’s orange or green; or blue or red. The truth is: no one cares.

This paragraph makes no sense at all. Which party has been sent into a state of ideological confusion? If you are going to polemicise about a political party you should at least observe the rules of basic grammar.

Either way, the fact is it is the Tories who are in ideological turmoil at the moment. Even this argument about the EU referendum is small beer compared to the gladiatorial contests that have been going on at CCHQ. This Summer, Cameron has invented a new concept in British politics: the revolving door policy development tool. What you do is stick Zac Goldsmith, Ken Clarke, John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith in a revolving door, spin it round really fast and then, when they’ve finished bashing into each other and falling over themselves, scoop up the resultant vomit and call it a manifesto.

By contrast, the one thing that Ming has been getting right is the development of a coherent set of policies. He doesn’t shout about them anything like enough (AND SHOUTING IS WHAT WE NEED AT THE MOMENT MING!), and I disagree with several of them, but we have a clearer idea of what we stand for now than we did during the last general election. Credit where it’s due: Ming has delivered here.

Just what are the Liberal Democrats for? They used to be about constitutional reform, about sharing power, about proportional representation.

Gosh this sounds familiar. I seem to remember writing an *ahem* award nominated blog post on the subject. Is it too much to expect these bozos to not go around plagiarising each other? No honour among thieves, clearly.

To reiterate for the hard of thinking: we’ve never been “about” any of those things – they are just convenient things that lazy drink soaked hacks who can’t be bothered to view politics through anything other than beer glasses label us as. Even PR has never been more to the party than a means to an end, which is to create a more liberal and equitable society.

They have lost the initiative to Gordon Brown and the SNP leader Alex Salmond, both of whom have launched “national conversations” on constitutional reform.

Splutter! Both of these “national conversations” thus far have been frustratingly thin on details. Salmond’s “white paper” on Scottish Governance even states that they have no idea how to conduct this “national conversation” and plan to consult widely on the matter (which, surely, is the role of a green paper?). They’ve made a couple of speeches, but neither of these men have yet demonstrated that their commitment to democratic renewal is anything more than skin deep.

Sir Ming Campbell’s call for a UK constitutional convention rings decidedly hollow after the Scottish Liberal Democrats refused to discuss setting up a constitutional convention in Scotland with the SNP.

This I’m sure Macwhirter knows to be a lie. At no point has Salmond discussed holding a convention; by contrast Nicol Stephen’s response to his white paper was to demand one. The opposite of truth is called a lie, is it not?

Just why the Liberal Democrats have opted for political oblivion is one of the great mysteries of modern politics. In Scotland, their manifesto was a near-perfect fit with the SNP’s on policies such as nuclear power, Trident, local income tax, Asbos, constitutional reform, renewable energy, taxation, student debt, class sizes and even Gaelic education. Yet they refused to sit down to discuss a Chilton with the SNP leader Alex Salmond unless he dropped his commitment to a referendum on independence – a referendum which was never going to happen anyway because the minority SNP would lose the vote on any referendum bill in Holyrood.

Simply not true. The deal on the table was to back a bill on a referendum or walk away. The Scottish Lib Dems, elected on a unionist ticket, chose to walk away. Salmond could have dropped the subject. He didn’t. End of. Why am I repeating myself? Because from now until the end of time SNP supporters no doubt will continue to peddle this airbrushed view of history. Well, that is until the steam begins to run out for Salmond’s minority administration. Then, I think you may just find him trotting up to Nicol Stephen with his tail tucked between his legs. We shall see.

Meanwhile, Alex “monkey” Hilton has been having a pop, making the bizarre claim that not ruling out a coalition with the Conservatives and capitulating to Labour’s every whim means that we must automatically be in favour of Cameron’s batty proposals for a fiscal marital aid. Er, what? So presumably we can’t not rule out a coalition with Labour without automatically accepting the need for ID cards, the moral righteousness of Brown and Blair’s war on Iraq and gimmicky policies on anti-social behaviour which have the opposite effect to what they’re supposed to do? I don’t think Alex undestands basic concepts like “negotiation” and “compromise”. He also seems to have missed the rather startling point that unless the Tories suddenly agree to PR (which, you know, might happen on Planet Zog), there’ll be no deal anyway.

Worryingly, I find myself agreeing with the Lib Dems’ critics all too often these days. Fingers must be pulled out, pronto. But where does the Guardian dig these people up from?

Cameron and Merkin: let’s co-operate in splitting up

After a week during which the Lib Dems wobbled over EU policy, it is nice to have a reminder quite how scarily paranoid the Tory hive mind is regarding the Dark Continent.

Pravdale’s mini-me writes this about Cameron’s meeting with Angela Merkin:

What has this meeting really achieved for the Conservative Party? It could be argued that it sends a signal to the electorate that Cameron is taken seriously as a potential world leader. But then the counter argument would be that Cameron has to first convince people he’d be a good national leader before he can move onto the world stage (the polls suggest people are not so sure about that).

Whatever this trip to Germany achieves one thing though is certain, from a PR point of view it can’t be any worse than the trip to Rwanda during the flooding, and the holiday in France during foot-and-mouth.

Good grief. He has a short meeting with a world leader and fellow rightwinger and it’s being compared to vanishing in the middle of the foot-and-mouth crisis. In any normal, more well adjusted party, I doubt anyone would sit there muttering about the down side of a meeting like this.

But then, lest us forget, this is the same party which is about to abandon Merkin’s Christian Democrats in favour of a bunch of extremist xenophobes from Eastern Europe. It is rather bizarre to say you would like to work more closely together in future while simultaneously negotiating terms for a divorce.

Ming toes the Stephen Tall line

Finally, a bit of coherence:

Sir Menzies says he agrees with the prime minister – but as an ardent pro-European he is “not prepared to allow [Conservative leader] David Cameron to lead the Europhobes and their allies in sections of the media, to distort the debate on Europe without challenge”.

The Lib Dem leader, who was expected to face calls to back a treaty vote from some of his own MPs at his party’s conference, said voters should be given a “real choice”.

“If there is to be a referendum it shouldn’t be restricted to a comparatively minor treaty. It must be a decision about the EU as a whole.

“Let’s have an honest debate on the European Union followed by a real choice for the British people. That means a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

“We would ask the British people the big question – whether to remain in the European Union or not.

“I will lead the Liberal Democrats at the forefront of that debate.

“We will make the overwhelming case for Europe and trust the people to make the right choice.”

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because its what Stephen Tall told him to say on Wednesday.

As I said back then, I’m happy with this position, although I question whether it will fly. If the Lib Dem position fails to get sufficient support in Parliament though, and it boils down to a choice between the Tory option of a referendum or simple Parliamentary ratification, it will be simply untenable to argue that we should opt for the latter. After all, didn’t Paul Walter say it would end up being a proxy for a debate about EU membership anyway?

Jeremy Hargreaves and Paul Walter get in a muddle…

Okay. It’s late, I’m tired, and so I’ll try to be as brief as I can.

First of all Paul Walter:

So please tell me which provisions of the proposed EU Treaty result in transfers of sovereignty from the UK to the EU significant enough to warrant a national referendum and to justify the title “constitution”. Please list those provisions.

Quite simply, by massively extending the scope of co-decision to an extra 51 areas of EU policy, and by establishing legal personality to the EU – enabling it to sign international treaties on our behalf. I’m not against these rules – in fact I will defend them – but they clearly impact on the UK’s sovereignty.

I didn’t study any form of politics at school or university, aside from history. I have, however, taken the trouble to read the US Constitution and, peculiarly, found myself enjoying it. Yes, of course, it doesn’t have a flag mentioned in it, though its provisions do form the basis of the flag in the sense of the membership of the states in a greater union (the stars on the flag representing the current number of states, the stripes representing the original states). What the US Constitution does have are some fairly hefty items: Senate, House, President, Supreme Court.

The European Parliament, Commission, Council and Court of Justice seem pretty “hefty” to me, and the Reform Treaty impacts on each and every one of them.

It’s a revising treaty! It’s not a constitution. If you want a referendum on the EU constiution (as James, I think, implies he accepts with his point about the EU constiution being the series of treaties since Rome) you would have to have a referendum on all the treaties since Rome – i.e a wider referendum on EU membership as Ming has suggested.

We had a referendum in 1975, so treaties before then have already been ratified by a referendum. The Lib Dems called for a treaty for Maastricht; this is clearly the biggest reform since Maastricht. All I’m being is consistent with past party policy. Ming by contrast has only made a mild suggestion in lawyerly terms – hardly a clear commitment to a referendum on EU membership, more thinking out loud.

From the Cameron/UKIP angle this is not a debate about the EU treaty, it is a debate about EU membership per se.

In the case of UKIP, this is of course correct and I’m sure Nigel Farage would line up with Ming in calling for a referendum on membership itself. For the Tories, it is more complex. If the bulk of Conservative MPs really wanted to leave the EU, they’d have committed to this years ago. The fact is, they remain split on the issue. The fact that these splits have not been immediately apparent for the past decade is because no-one has ever bothered calling their bluff.

Cameron and Hague do not want to leave the EU, yet they are stuck in a holding pattern rejecting every EU reform, no matter how sensible. Holding a referendum will cause them no end of difficulty. If this treaty were rejected in a referendum and Cameron subsequently became Prime Minister, I can guarantee he would eventually come back from Brussels with a deal that looks remarkably similar to this one. He knows this better than anyone.

But what is wrong with a “proxy vote” anyway? I thought anti-referendum people were demanding a proxy vote in the form of a general election? The real problem is that, as Anthony Barnett points out, we are facing a crisis of trust. If the political class turn their backs on the public, the public will turn their backs on them. We can’t afford this situation to continue. If that means holding a “proxy vote” so be it.

Just as Hague’s “we want to keep the pound” campaign failed in a general election, so will Cameron’s “Referendum for a EU Treaty” campaign. So Ming is very clever, tactically, to help increase the danger of this happening for Cameron.

Oh really? In 2001, the Lib Dems were committed to a referendum on the Euro. In marginal constituencies, the party made great play of this. It was what Chris Rennard called a “shield issue”. Hague may have failed to make progress, but that was because both Labour and the Lib Dems neutralised him by being committed to a referendum. We did the same again over the constitutional treaty in 2005. Where’s our “shield” now, Paul?

As for Jeremy Hargreaves

However I don’t agree with that and it has also not been the traditional way of decision-making under the British constitution.

In fact I think it’s remembering just how unusual referendums have been in the process of British constitutional development.

Those who argue that we should have a referendum on this treaty because it represents important constitutional developments, need to answer the question of why therefore we have never ever had a referendum on any reform of the House of Commons, on any reform of the House of Lords, or on the introduction of a fundamental new piece of law such as the Human Rights Act. Are these not important constitutional developments?

First of all, we’ve never had reform of the House of Commons and only marginal reform of the House of Lords. Should we have a referendum on Parliamentary reform? Ideally, yes. Should we have had a referendum on the Human Rights Act? God yes! If we had, we would not now have the crisis of legitimacy we experience with people largely ignorant about what it is and what it does, and vulnerable to media scare stories about it guaranteeing prisoners porn, criminal suspects Kentucky Fried Chicken, et al.

In the latest party report on British Governance, to be debated at conference next week, the party does NOT commit itself to a referendum on the electoral system. But it does commit itself to a referendum on not only setting up a constitutional convention but ratifying its findings as well. The constitutional convention will, of course, be free to change the electoral system back to first past the post if it sees fit. I presume that Jeremy will be speaking against giving the public a say on such trifling constitutional matters.

And those advocating one now, especially they need to answer why we have never had a referendum on ratification of any previous EU Treaty.

The short answer to that is “because the Liberal Democrats were not in power” – we promised a referendum on Maastricht. And yes, relatively minor though they may have been, if that had set a precedent committing us to referendums on Amsterdam and Nice, I don’t think it would have been the end of the world. In fact, I strongly suspect the British public would have a much more adult relationship with the EU right now if we had (and the Tories would now be even more sidelined).

I don’t believe that people who actually believe the EU has an important role to play should fall into their trap and support a referendum on this treaty of detailed procedural points.

That’s because we aren’t falling into any trap: we simply recognise that the EU has a crisis of legitimacy within the UK which is unsustainable. Back when the Lib Dems were more self-confident than they are now, we weren’t afraid of such referendums. Sadly, the mere thought now has people like Jeremy and Paul (not to mention Ming) quivering under their beds in fear.

If they had anything positive to say about how we begin the hard work of educating and engaging the British public about the EU it might be a different story. Sadly, their bland response is “its a procedural matter”. Well, you could say that about pretty much anything to do with public administration. That being the case, why have elections at all?

We are in a bloody, unholy mess over Europe. It isn’t purely down the mendaciousness of the Eurosceptics; it is because pro-Europeans cede ground to them on an almost daily basis by positioning themselves against democracy and popular sovereignty. They come up with excuses about “proxy voting” blithely ignoring the fact that no ballot on any subject is ever cut and dried. They weren’t manning the barricades four years ago when it became apparent that the promised public debate on an EU constitution did not happen – they merely shrugged their shoulders and left it to the Eurosceptics to do all the shouting. Now the chickens have come home to roost they simply deny any responsibility. It is not good enough – it is appalling – and the Lib Dems should treat such deadbeats with contempt.