Monthly Archives: February 2008

Why Ed Davey is wrong about the Lisbon Treaty

Once again, I am indebted to Millennium Dome for organising another bloggers’ interview with a senior Lib Dem politician. This time we got to interview Ed Davey, at quite a topical time as it turns out.

Ed arrived about 40 minutes late, unavoidably so because Parliament had over-run due to a series of divisions as part of the Lisbon ratification debate. But he gave us a full hour; it has to be said that in some of the recent interviews we’ve done the interviewees have barely managed 30-40 mins. Given that Ed had promised his wife to get home early was greatly appreciated.

Foreign affairs is not something that Ed Davey has been particularly well known for since entering Parliament in 1997, the Bisher Al-Rawi case notwithstanding. What he is rather better known as is an able populist who has managed to marry an economist background with campaign priorities. Before becoming an MP, as the party’s senior economics adviser he was a key architect behind the party’s penny on income tax policy. More recently he was behind moves within the party to up the ante regarding our longstanding policy on local income tax. Say what you like about either policy, there is no question that both rapidly became core defining issues for the party.

So it is no surprise to find that on foreign affairs he is a) still learning on the job – he’s only been in the job for two months and states that his priorities have been the Lisbon treaty and his 13 week old son – and b) an arch-pragmatist. He had a tendency to talk in generalities rather than specifics. The two exceptions on this were the ongoing situation in Sri Lanka which he has taken an interest on behalf of his Tamil constituents and on international trade, unsurprisingly for an economist.

But on guiding principles he was much clearer. Challenged by Gavin Whenman to choose between justice and peace, he argued that there was always ultimately more justice in peace. He cited the example whereby MPs were asked to vote for amnesty for IRA “murderers” in the late 90s, something he did with a heavy heart.

Asked by Millennium about the implications a new US President will have on foreign policy, he was optimistic and urged people to be open-minded about the US. He cited how all the main presidential candidates had adopted a more multilateral stance compared with the incumbent and welcomed the fact that George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn – no doves they – had written a joint article last year calling for nuclear disarmament (pdf).

In response to a question by Linda Jack, he reserved the right to be cautious in his criticism of Israel. He suggested that we should be careful of being too overtly critical for fear of indirectly helping to make the situation worse. He urged a focus on human rights, although Linda was right to suggest that on that basis there was much to criticise Israel on. On a related note, he was critical of Stephen Spielberg’s decision to pull out and boycott the Bejing Olympics over China’s policy on Darfur, citing the position of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International that it is better to take part and raise such issues once the regime is in the full glare of the cameras during the games themselves. I agree and look forward to seeing the party produce a campaign pack on the issue for the summer.

So far so good; I was broadly happy with the answers he gave to the questions by the other bloggers. I wish I could say the same about the answers he gave to mine, but I can’t.

Outlining the strategy I spelled out yesterday on this blog, Ed’s response was to dismiss out of hand suggestions that Labour are in a vulnerable position and would therefore listen if we threatened to support the Tory amendment for a referendum on Lisbon. I defer to his better judgment. My response was that we therefore risk nothing by backing their amendment on the grounds that it would protest against their refusal to allow our own amendment to be debated. This was rejected as being too “opportunistic” and he cited the Lib Dems’ refusal to back the Labour and Bill Cash-led attempts to reject Maastricht in 1993.

I don’t see how this example is relevant given that we were very much in favour of Maastricht. Maastricht set a precedent in other ways too though in that we supported a referendum for it (one which we perhaps could have negotiated if we had threatened to back Labour). Davey’s response to that was that the Lisbon Treaty does not have a “constitutional nature” while Maastricht did and represented more significant changes. While I can agree that Maastricht was much more significant, this canard that Lisbon does not have a constitutional nature must be exposed. It directly affects the governance of the EU and thus the UK’s own autonomy; how can it not be constitutional in nature? For that matter both Amsterdam and Nice were constitutional – what were all those rows about voting weights about if they weren’t? If this is the justification, then we should have backed referendums for them too. The other line which Ed repeated was that this is a “minor” treaty alongside Nice and Amsterdam while Maastricht was “major”. I can’t see what criteria you can use to make that distinction objectively.

Most other EU member states of course have a simple way of dealing with this: either they hold referendums automatically as in the case of the Republic of Ireland, or they require super-majorities in their respective parliaments to ratify such treaties. Super-majorities generally require cross-party consensus to get through. France, Germany, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Finland and Sweden all require this; why not us? The fact that the Lib Dems in Parliament don’t argue for this either exposes them to the accusation that their position is down entirely to whether they think the treaty could survive such a process. Of course we could argue for the Swedish line that if a super-majority is not achieved the treaty must be passed on two separate occasions with a general election in between. Yet I’m not aware of us even arguing for that. If not these mechanisms, hard to introduce in lieu of a written constitution (although New Zealand has managed), then a referendum is surely the only tool at our disposal.

With all that in mind, and given the party’s reticence to push the issue, it is hard to dismiss the idea that the Lib Dem position is about anything other than expediency. Davey’s alternative to my plan is to push out clear messages on our position on Europe. Sadly though, whatever its intellectual merits (and I genuinely do agree that it has many), I don’t see any evidence that we are managing to get that point across. The bottom line is that we have opposed the best chance we have of holding a referendum on this issue; the argument over which referendum is best is a nuance that few people will care about on the doorstep. This will be used as a brickbat to beat us over the head with in Lib-Con marginal seats. It is ironic, as someone who has opposed Ed’s plans for local income tax in the past for being too populist and lacking in intellectual rigour to be in the reverse position here – begging for a clearer position that leaves us less exposed.

So much for ratification. My second question was on the contents of the Treaty itself. Lisbon grants the European Parliament extra powers, including a more definitive role in appointing the President of the Commission. I asked whether he thought this might in the long term lead to elections for the European Parliament centering on individuals that the various party groups might seek to introduce.

I’m afraid I found Ed’s response to this question extraordinary. He dismissed the suggestion out of hand, arguing that to say that giving the Parliament such powers is a “bizarre interpretation.” More than that, he suggested that if it did say that he would be opposed to it on the basis that it would play into the Euro-sceptics’ hands. And finally he argued that the President of the Commission is not like a “President” in the head of state sense and is merely one of three European Presidents which merely chair meetings.

On the first point, I can only refer him to the actual text of the treaty:

Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after appropriate consultations, the European Council, deciding by qualified majority, shall put to the European Parliament its proposed candidate for the Presidency of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its members. If this candidate does not receive the required majority support, the European Council shall within one month put forward a new candidate, following the same procedure as before.

How is this open to interpretation? To be clear: the appointment of the President remains one of co-decision between the Council and Parliament, but if the elections to the Parliament are to be taken into account surely it is unarguable that this is intended to be an issue on which parties will be expected to have a public position on? The more votes a party gets in the election, the stronger its chances of getting its preferred candidate elected. Fundamentally, given that the Parliament will be making this decision in our name, what is so fundamentally wrong with MEPs actually telling us how they intend to vote? Longer term, what is so fundamentally wrong with making the process of choosing more open?

(I hasten to add that I happily accept that there are many practical problems with this, at least in the short term. It is hard to see how a candidate could enjoy pan-continental support given the cultural and linguistic challenges. But that’s not the same thing as saying that provision is not made for it in the Treaty and that it is wrong in principle.)

In terms of the President of the Commission being just another glorified chair, why is it that this is possibly the only European office that the general public has any awareness. Remember “up yours, Delors?” Power-wise, the President of the Commission has wide-ranging powers of appointment and sets the whole personality of the Commission:

2. Each Member State determined by the system of rotation shall establish a list of three persons, in which both genders shall be represented, whom it considers qualified to be a European Commissioner. By choosing one person from each of the proposed lists, the President elect shall select the thirteen European Commissioners for their competence, European commitment, and guaranteed independence. The President and the persons so nominated for membership of the College, including the future Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, as well as the persons nominated as non-voting Commissioners, shall be submitted collectively to a vote of approval by the European Parliament. The Commission’s term of office shall be five years.

3. The President of the Commission shall:

– lay down guidelines within which the Commission is to work;

– decide its internal organisation, ensuring that it acts consistently, efficiently and on a collegiate basis;

– appoint Vice-Presidents from among the members of the College.

A European Commissioner or Commissioner shall resign if the President so requests.

Formally, I would agree: compared to a Presidential head of state, the President of the Commission has very little hard power. But his or her soft power is immense and this is broadly recognised. Also unlike the Presidents of the Parliament and Council, the term of office for it lasts 5 years, not 2.5. The idea that Barroso is little more than an anonymous chairman is absurd. Frankly, there are plenty of examples of heads of state with less power and influence.

Why does all this matter? Because on the basis of his answers I’m not convinced that Ed Davey has read up on the Lisbon Treaty in the depth that I would expect a Shadow Foreign Secretary to. If he doesn’t accept that clauses exist in it that patently do, and furthermore claims that if they did they would be grounds for rejecting the thing, I would suggest that the rest of his argument begins to sound distinctly shaky.

The biggest problem with the Lib Dems’ current position on Lisbon is that it evades making the case for this treaty. Rather than attempting to do that, we insist that the only argument we can make is for EU membership as a whole, arguing for an in/out referendum in the clear expectation that our bluff will never be called. Ed is less aware of the contents of Lisbon than he should be because the official party line is to broadly side-step the whole debate over what it contains.

I’m genuinely torn. As readers of this blog will be aware, I have no love for the Euro-sceptics arguing for a referendum. Iwantareferendum.com is a dead duck; a dismal failure upon which millions of pounds of eccentrics’ money has been lavished. Yesterday they were out in force to lobby Parliament. They claim to have had 2-3 thousand protesters; the eye witness reports I had said it was closer to one thousand. Judge for yourself by looking at their own official photos (it looks like significantly less than a thousand to me). Either way, it was a damp squib.

So I think we will get away with this confused position as far as the general public are concerned, and the opinion polls at the moment back this up. But it is a position that seems singularly lacking in strategy, fails to understand that we get our message across through actions not words (something which Davey himself demonstrated on Tuesday) and most importantly treats the public with disdain. As a party with very few “safe” seats, we should be wary of how much trouble our opponents will make for us amongst swing voters.

Ultimately, we can’t keep dodging the European democratic deficit if we are serious about the UK’s continued membership of the EU. We have to draw a line in the sand somewhere, and be seen to be doing so. As a pragmatist and a populist I think that in his heart Davey understands this and would not have adopted our current position if he had not inherited it. I’m just disappointed he has not steered us towards a position that has greater resonance.

Will Clegg and Davey stick or twist?

Over on Lib Dem Voice, Jo has accused me of changing my tune. I disagree, but I will happily admit to allowing a glimmer of optimism cross my mind over the course of this evening as the events of Ed Davey’s protest and the subsequent Lib Dem Commons walkout begin to percolate through my mind.

Superficially, this doesn’t strike me as much more than a stunt. Flouncing out of the Commons only to meekly return to dutifully either back the government line or passively do so by abstaining (the result is the same) is not radicalism. It is empty posturing and attention seeking borne out of a desire to communicate a policy that public simply does not understand and has little sympathy for.

But it has occurred to me that it is just possible (I emphasise the word just – I’ve been disappointed before) that the Lib Dem front bench have actually realised quite what a strong position they are in and are pressing their advantage. If this storm in a teacup were allowed to escalate, and Nick Clegg quite clearly stated to Brown that he must either allow a vote on an in/out referendum to go ahead or the Lib Dems will back the Lisbon referendum, he could come out of this showered in glory. Either the government will capitulate and force the Tories to choose between joining Labour in the division lobby to vote against what would then be the only referendum on offer (indeed a referendum that a significant number of them would prefer anyway) or the government will hold its ground and risk losing the vote on the Lisbon referendum. Either way it amounts to a Lib Dem win (or at the very worst a score draw).

The speaker has upped the ante by rejecting this amendment (rather discourteous given Clegg’s obsequious endorsement of him yesterday). The Lib Dem front bench’s option is simple: raise the stakes or fold. For Clegg to do this he will need a brass neck several inches thick as it will make him the least popular MP in Westminster since Kennedy lead the Lib Dem opposition to the Iraq invasion. It would certainly silence my criticism of his handling of this issue and I suspect it a lot of others would be becalmed as well.

If this isn’t the game plan though, all the excitement that so many of my party colleagues are indulging is distinctly misplaced. The symbolism of Davey holding his ground will look completely empty in the cold light of day.

EXCLUSIVE: Vince Cable in free travel scam shocker!

At some point this week I may have a rant about Sandra Gidley’s extraordinary (and frankly ridiculous) co-option by LighterLife, a company which last month was caught out “conning” MPs (their words) by running a dummy charity (which has now, curiously, wound itself up).

But first, it is my duty to inform you, dear reader, that another Lib Dem MP has been caught promoting a product. Ann Widdecombe’s pasta peddling has nothing on this.

Freedom Pass AdvertYes, spotted at my local tube station, one Vince Cable can quite clearly be seen flogging unsuspecting old people Freedom Passes on a bizarre advert that looks like a seventies cross between On the Buses and Pigeon Street.

Well, okay, it’s an illustration, but it’s clearly Vince. Not only are his trademark bonce and eyebrows clearly on display, but the man is ballroom dancing.

Michael Martin may be palming off air miles, but this guy is giving millions of grannies free travel – at taxpayers expense! Why this isn’t on the front page of every national newspaper is beyond me.

How the mighty have fallen.

UPDATE: Being called McCarthyite for suggesting that the SWP might possibly be communists is one thing, but now as a result of this blog post I’m being accused of sadism! Boy, people take this blog way too seriously.

15 February 2003: five years (and 11 days) later

Charles Kennedy and Lynne Featherstone at the 15 Feb 2003 anti-war demo (credit: Lynne Featherstone)A combination of Valentine’s Day, a business trip and subsequent workload conspired to prevent me from writing about my experiences of the 2003 anti-war demo, but I’m taking the trouble to do so now. This is partly to provide people to an archive of the old website I set up for the day, which five years on is something of an historical archive. But it is also because, missing the anniversary aside, I believe there is something to learn from the experience.

Basically, I learnt three important things from the demo and its aftermath. The first lesson I learnt, which you will be able to vouch for, is that I really needed to learn how to design websites properly. My attempt at a website was frankly laughable – the entire thing is written in HTML (no CSS) and I had to resort to crude third party sites just to set up a working form. As I was manually inputting each pledge I received, I ended up getting swamped; the list on the website was dwarfed by the number of pledges and messages of goodwill I ended up receiving and not having the time to include. A few years later and I’m still learning, but I have at least got my head around CSS and PHP (just about), even if I’m still stubbornly appalling at planning my projects.

Secondly, I could no longer ignore the fact that the hard left is riven with dangerous arseholes who you should at all times be wary of working with. On anything. To be fair, I had broadly got this message during my university days, but my participation in the Leamington Spa Stop the War group rather reinforced this notion.

At university I learned that if you stood in a student union election against a member of the hard left and won, you were likely to get your head kicked in. I also learned about what I’ve come to learn is affectionately known as TIGMOO. Basically, if you are part of this great, glorious, socialist-labour movement you are One Of Us (even if we hate your guts), while if you aren’t you are The Enemy (even if we agree with 90% of what you say). Not so much my enemy’s enemy is my friend as my enemy is my friend as long as he can recite a couple of verses from the Internationale. Oh, the hours I wasted attempting to negotiate joint working relationships with SWPers and AWLers on issues such as tuition fees only to discover they had cooked something up behind our backs with the Labour Club which enabled both Labour and their hard left comrades to save face (even if it meant a stalemate). But I digress.

My working relationship with the Leam lot was actually quite good in the run up to the march itself. I spent a lot of my Saturdays helping to run the stall outside Woollies and a lot of my Sundays attending organising meetings. It was all good.

The problems started when the war began. In short, it emerged that a number of my comrades could not have been happier that it had happened (anyone else remember the banner greeting people as they arrived at Hyde Park on 15/2 confidently predicting that this was the beginning of the rise of the proletariat? In your dreams). At a time when the rest of us were contemplating defeat, they had got a second wind. It was all talk of demos, shutting down the town centre and vandalising the rail lines. Revolution was in the air bruvvas! Those of us who thought it would be more appropriate to hold vigils rather than demos were laughed out of the community centre.

The final straw for me, not surprisingly, was when it was “decided” that the Leam Stop the War Coalition would be supporting the Socialist Alliance in the local elections. So much for coalition (this is why I can only laugh hollowly at Alex Harrowell’s suggestion that we should offer the SWP uncritical solidarity in a stand against the “Right”. As if the SWP would do the same for anyone else!).

But thirdly, the most important thing I learned from the demo was the craven desire for what it regards as respectability of much of the Lib Dem establishment. Read the motion that Susan Kramer and I proposed to the Federal Executive and got passed nem con. To our surprise, Charles Kennedy backed the motion. Then the trouble started. If dealing with the SWP was difficult, getting our own party to implement an executive order was downright impossible!

Senior figures in the party did everything they could to stop any aspect of this motion from being implemented. They point blank refused to put anything up on the party website, hence my own ham-fisted attempt. They wouldn’t link to my site, with Chris Rennard suddenly coming up with a policy that official party website only linked to websites run by party Specified Associate Organisations. 24 hours later, I got the then LDYS Chair to agree to “publish” the website, rendering that particular “policy” meaningless.

Eventually, after weeks of lobbying (and I should make it clear here that it is Donnachadh McCarthy who deserves all the credit here; I merely skulked around in the background), and with less than a week to go before the demo itself, Kennedy was asked a direct question by David Frost on live television and, bottling it, turned volte face and said he would be “very happy” to go on it. Suddenly we got our link on the front page of the party website, publicity in Lib Dem News (which until that point had been relegated to the letters pages) and the full weight of the party’s campaigns and press departments behind us.

Yet even then Kennedy remained obsessed with having it both ways. Notoriously, his Hyde Park speech argued meekly that he was “not persuaded” of the case for war and demanding that Parliament be allowed a vote (it was; the troops went in). But the biggest single joke of the day had to be the row over placards. On the one hand, I have to admit to being vaguely amused by Donnachadh’s green piety by insisting that we should have generic “Lib Dems say no” placards on the basis that they could be reused by activists for local demonstrations on a variety of subjects (an Iain Paisley revival meeting for instance). But that paled into insignificance compared to the desperately weak “official” campaigns department placards they were insistent must surround Kennedy at all times with the oh-so-unambivalent slogan “give peace a chance!” (John Lennon has a lot to answer for for his particular brand of faux-radicalism).

The fact that, even at such a late stage, we were having such mind-numbingly daft arguments demonstrated quite how uncomfortable the party establishment was with going on this march at all. If we hadn’t dragged them, kicking and screaming, they would never have gone near it. Yet for all that, it was the symbolism of Kennedy joining the march that mattered – even his compromised speech and even more compromised policy motion at the subsequent spring conference (in which they insisted on wording that confusingly seemed to suggest that our opposition to the war would end the moment a British troop set foot on Iraqi soil) didn’t stop the party’s rise in the polls. For a brief period and not for either the first or last time, the Lib Dems truly spoke on behalf of the majority of the nation.

Does all this still matter? After all, it’s all water under the bridge now. Speaking personally, it goes to the heart of the ongoing debate waging over the party’s identity. Reading Ming Campbell’s rather self-justifying account of Kennedy’s drink problem in the Mail yesterday, I was struck by how many chances they gave the man to acquit himself despite the fact that he consistently let them – us – down. I’m afraid I have to agree with Anthony Barnett – just think of the progress we would have made in 2005 if Kennedy had either sorted himself out or been given the heave-ho much earlier (who would have replaced him is a moot point – it certainly wouldn’t have been Campbell who was still recovering from cancer at the time).

I wonder what all this pressure to keep up appearances had on Kennedy’s then-PPS Mark Oaten, and how his personal downfall is related. I hear Lib Dems continue to insist the party is in the all-clear over the Michael Brown donation and boggle (we may yet not have to pay up, but the law is quite ambiguous and the investigation continues). I welcome the anti-establishment stance Nick Clegg has adopted over ID cards, only to see that undone by his uber-establishment stance on the Lisbon Treaty (as for his line on Michael Martin, the stuff about air miles etc. is broadly irrelevant; the fact that Martin has consistently been behind attempts to block transparency and reform should be enough to prevent Clegg dismissing it all as a “witch hunt”).

I recall the cold shoulder I received, again back in 2003, when I formally complained to then Chief Whip Andrew Stunell about Paul Marsden‘s comments in the Times bragging about how researchers are desperate to climb his greasy poll, and I wonder. Marsden isn’t the first Lib Dem MP to get caught out diddling the help (although thankfully he’s the only one to write poems on the subject) I’ve heard about during the years either. If a senior Lib Dem official was ever found to be, say, a kiddie fiddler, would we take action? At what point does an individual’s personal conduct become so unacceptable that they are forced out? My concern is that the party’s collective neurotic obsession with respectability too often leads us down some very dark alleys.

As a party we have always been, and for the forseeable future will continue to be, permanently at five minutes to midnight. I’m not convinced the meekness in our approach has done much in the past to rectify this situation. Over the past couple of years we have reaped what we sowed by not dealing with issues when they arose. Clegg ought to be taking copious notes. I like to think he won’t make the same mistakes as the past, and despite my own misgivings the fact remains that the Lisbon Treaty is an issue which the public stubbornly refuses to take an interest in. But we need a few more brave stances and a bit less nuance.

A final word on Donnachadh McCarthy. The Iraq demo was the beginning of the end of Donnachadh’s time in the Liberal Democrats. Despite the fact that I think he made some shocking mistakes (if he had kept his powder dry following the march instead of demanding recriminations he would have found himself in an incredibly strong position – indeed his lack of any sense of timing always was his greatest weakness), he really was appallingly treated and bullied by the top ranks in the party. He seems to be much better off without the party than the party is without him. It is deeply sad that ultimately we seem incapable of keeping someone like that within our own ranks; whatever you may have thought of him there are far worse people who happily remain party members.

Tooth Review: 1573 & 1574 (obligatory spoiler warning)

Prog 1573Prog 1574Quote of the Week: “First you say hello to Vulf’s little friend!” Wulf Sternhammer gets up close and personal in Strontium Dog (1574).

Covers: Dylan Teague draws Johnny Alpha versus Groule from Strontium Dog (1573); Richard Elsom draws a chained Gene Hackman from The Kingdom (1574).

Contents: Judge Dredd, The Kingdom, Stickleback and Strontium Dog in both progs. Shakara ends in 1573 to be replaced by a Future Shock in 1574.

Review in less than 10 words: There will be blood (1573), Hell is other mutants (1574).

Spoilers… Continue reading Tooth Review: 1573 & 1574 (obligatory spoiler warning)

The Tip Top Top of the Top Blogs – full time scores

Six months ago, I listed the top Lib Dem blogs according to mentions in the “top seven” of Stephen Tall’s weekly Top of the Blogs roundup on Lib Dem Voice. Since we’ve now had a whole year of it, here are the top 20 23 for 2007/8 (numbers in parenthesis are the positions six months ago):

1. (=) Lib Dem Voice – 43 entries (+19)
2. (=) Paul Walter (=) – 36 entries (+17)
3. (+2) James Graham – 32 entries (+19)
4. (+1) Nich Starling – 25 entries (+12)
5. (-2) Duncan Borrowman – 21 entries (+7)
6. (+1) Jonathan Calder – 19 entries (+11)
7. (-4) Stephen Tall – 15 entries (+1)
8. (=) Alex Wilcock – 14 entries (+9)
9. (-1) Linda Jack – 9 entries (+4)
10 = (+7) Jeremy Hargreaves – 8 entries (+6)
10 = (-2) Jonathan Wallace – 8 entries (+3)
12 = (+17) Anders Hanson – 7 entries (+6)
12 = (+2) Mark Valladares – 7 entries (+4)
14 = (new) Jo Angelzarke – 6 entries
14 = (new) Gavin Whenman – 6 entries
16 = (+13) Jonathan Fryer – 5 entries (+4)
16 = (-2) Chris Keating – 5 entries (+2)
16 = (-4) Matt Davies – 5 entries (+1)
19 = (new) Peter Dunphy – 4 entries
19 = (+10) Jock Coates – 4 entries (+3)
19 = (-5) Jonny Wright – 4 entries (+1)
19 = (-5) Rob Fenwick – 4 entries (+1)
19 = (-7) Liberal Review – 4 entries (=)

The top ten has barely changed, but it is interesting to see what is bubbling under. The top climbers over the past 6 months have been Jeremy Hargreaves, Anders Hanson, Jo Angelzarke and Gavin Whenman. Stephen Tall high position has stagnated as he concentrates mainly on Lib Dem Voice these days while Liberal Review, in many ways the precursor to Lib Dem Voice, is barely updated these days. Expect next year’s list to be completely different.

A final point about the Campaign for Gender Balance awards, of which I am a judge (VOTE NOW): 6 of the eight finalists for Best Blog and Best Blog Post don’t make it into the top twenty. Clearly what people read and what people like are not quite the same thing.

Being clear about the SWP

What is Alex Harrowell on? He has taken it upon himself to take me to task for calling Respect-cum-Conservative defector Ahmed Hussain a “socialist jihadist“, describing me as “offensive, stupid, illiberal and anti-democratic, not to mention libellous.” Well, I’ve been called worse.

If I had been shooting a little less from the lip, I would have been more precise in my language and described Hussain as a socialist and an apologist for jihadism, but if this disagreement boiled down to pure semantics, it probably wouldn’t have got this far: the essential difference between a jihadist and one who makes excuses for them is a fine one indeed. Harrowell demands I show my evidence. It isn’t difficult:

So the war in Iraq will continue. But what attitude should the global anti-war movement take towards the fighting? Many activists are wary of backing the insurgents, both because figures such as al-Sadr are Islamists and because of the tactics—suicide bombings and hostage takings—that some groups have used.

But as Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South points out, “There has never been any pretty movement for national liberation or independence.”

During the great Algerian war of independence of 1954-62, liberation fighters waged an urban guerrilla war that frequently targeted civilians.

“What Western progressives forget is that national liberation movements are not asking them mainly for ideological or political support,” says Bello. “What they really want from the outside is international pressure for the withdrawal of an illegitimate occupying power, so that internal forces can have the space to forge a truly national government.”

Let’s be clear here: whatever the rights and wrongs of the Iraqi invasion – and I am certainly of the opinion that we should not have gone in, the effect was to remove a dictator. It quickly became clear that jihadists were seeking to exploit the situation and impose their own bloody version of government on the Iraqis, a system not supported by the vast majority. They aren’t revolutionaries, they aren’t freedom fighters – they are totalitarians. The SWP are also strong supporters of Hizbollah.

As for providing proof that the SWP advocate violent revolutionary struggle, do I really have to spell it out? Apart from both the links supplied above, there is the simple fact that the SWP is a Trotskyist organisation. Trotsky was a believer in revolution. There ain’t no such thing as an unviolent revolution. Is that really such a contestable fact? If the SWP don’t contest it, then why does Harrowell?

And then of course there is the brute fact (pun intended) of the bruises inflicted on my friends by SWPers for wicked crimes such as beating them in a student union election. For too many SWP members and other Trots, the revolution part is distinctly subordinate to the violent part.

Harrowell then outdoes himself:

But it’s worse than that; the very notion that, as Graham says, there is a “difference between the Lib Dem opposition to the war and the Respect opposition” is repellent. We both opposed it because it was wrong and it was stupid. It has however been a consistent tactic of the Right, and of the Government’s pet columnists, to accuse opponents of the war of being pro-terrorist. It’s always been easier to push this at RESPECT because its membership includes the far Left, who are not respectable, and brown people. But push it they would at the Liberals if there were only more of us.

Wow – I’m part of some grand rightwing conspiracy? News to me. I’m sorry, but there was a difference between the Lib Dem position and Respect/Socialist Alliance/SWP’s. They wanted British troops marched up to the Hague for war crimes; we wanted them home and safe. They sidled up in solidarity with Saddam Hussain; we didn’t. Once the war ended and the insurgency began, we lined ourselves up in solidarity with the democratically elected government; they sided with the insurgents. We are under no compulsion to join hands with the SWP in opposition to the “right” – in the vast majority of cases, we are on the opposite side. To accuse me of racism (that’s the clear implication of the “brown people” reference) is deeply offensive and a slur I would ask him to retract.

Not content with hurling every other name under the sun at me, he also has taken to accusing me of McCarthyism. How he is wrong is quite instructive: Joe McCarthy went around accusing everyone he didn’t like of having secret links with communism and plotting against America. The SWP are communists and are actively plotting against the British state – they don’t exactly make a secret of it. It is awfully inconvenient to Harrowell’s thesis then that I am not calling for them to be locked up or otherwise restricted, merely pointing out that which is blindingly obvious.

Valentine’s Day, a business trip on Friday and other stuff today have conspired to prevent me from writing the “15/2/03 – five years on” article I intended to. It is sad that this is the closest I’ve come to commemorating what was a very special day for me. The Liberal Democrats were absolutely right to go on that march. But do we owe the SWP a thing? Not a bit of it.

If you can’t stand the Heath, get out of the kitchen cabinet

Brian Blessed as Prince Voltan in Flash Gordon (1980)Ming’s successor, the Emperor Barin, has demanded undying loyalty from Prince Vultan over his policy to block a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Two questions arise from this. Firstly, should Barin have Voltan executed? Secondly, what does it say about iwantareferendum that they are targeting Heath anyway, regardless of his well-known views on the Reform Treaty?

The second one is easy to answer and it merely helps reinforce the point I’ve been making here for weeks. Iwantareferendum is of course a Tory front. Those people out there worried that the UK might eventually see US-style “soft money” derailing British politics simply haven’t been paying attention. In the last election the Tories did a great job at using the hunting issue (another fringe subject) to seize several seats via the “independent” likes of Vote OK. Iwantareferendum is remarkably similar.

Both purport to be democratic organisations, yet both are coincidentally partisan and are about exploiting a profoundly undemocratic electoral system that makes a few thousand swing voters in key marginal constituencies the ones who will decide the entire national election result. If we didn’t have first-past-the-post these campaign organisations simply would not exist. They don’t enjoy popular support and they are dependent on exploiting a broken electoral system. I’ve just returned from Amsterdam. You might expect that in the Netherlands, feelings would be running high over the fact that despite rejecting the constitutional treaty by referendum in 2005, Lisbon is simply being ratified by Parliament. Yet notwithstanding the usual suspects – who are in no fewer numbers than in the UK but who lack an electoral system they can exploit – it simply isn’t an issue for them.

Back to Voltan/Heath, Barin/Clegg is on dangerous ground if he intends to lay down the law here. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of our policy not to have a referendum on Lisbon, the simple fact is that it has not been approved by conference. Both candidates agreed with the Ming line during the leadership election so party opinion was not tested then either. As anyone who has followed the debate on the blogosphere will recognise, the argument over whether to have a referendum on Lisbon or an in/out one is at best finely balanced at worst obscurationist in the extreme. Fundamentally, the public are disinterested in such nuance. At least anti-referendum-at-all people like Jonathan Calder have a consistent, clearly put position.

I have to admit that I assumed that this matter had been resolved within the Parliamentary Party months ago, which was why Clegg was comfortable with taking it one step further and not merely abstain from the Lisbon referendum vote but actually oppose it. Clearly I was naive, but no less naive than Clegg and his kitchen cabinet were being by making this commitment.

David Heath is being asked to stick to his principles and lose his front bench job or blindly follow Clegg and lose his seat. It is absurd of Clegg to put him in such a position. And once again, there is a vague hint that he is doing so out of a desire to look “tough.” As I’ve written before, highlighting our own divisions at a time when the Conservatives’ splits are ripe to be exploited is a foolish course of action.

We’re a grown up party that can manage disagreement without going into meltdown. It is one of our greatest strengths. Yet it is one that in this instance the party establishment, as it so often does, has run scared from. We haven’t had a wider debate on this issue. If ever there was an issue to relax the whip, it is now.