Monthly Archives: September 2009

++ EXCLUSIVE: Clegg and Cable quit PoliticsHome’s Phi100 ++

I was planning to write a nice, leisurely blog post about a) why Lib Dems should be following Lynne Featherstone’s lead and resign from the Phi100 panel and b) the wider trend by the right to take control of the media agenda, but events rather got ahead of me.

There I was, doing my domestic chores, when I got a series of emails from a pretty unimpeachable source informing me that both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable had quit the panel already.

That’s all she wrote for now, but I’ll try to fit the article I was planning to write in later today.

Public libraries: the final cut?

Camden Council have apologised to a self-employed dress-maker for not lending her a pair of scissors:

Lorna Watts, 26, a self-employed dressmaker, was turned down at Holborn Library in central London.

She said: “It’s ridiculous – public libraries are supposed to be supportive of small businesses.”

A spokeswoman for Camden Council, which runs the library, has apologised and said it would investigate the incident.

Ms Watts, from Islington, north London, said: “I asked why I couldn’t borrow a pair of scissors and she said, ‘they are sharp, you might stab me’.

“I then asked to borrow a guillotine to cut up my leaflets but she refused again – because she said I could hit her over the head with it!”

She added: “It’s absurd – there are plenty of heavy books I could have hit her with if I wanted to.

Am I the only one who thinks that not only was Camden right not to lend Ms Watts but that she should indeed be kept away from sharp implements in future? What is a self-employed dress-maker doing not owning any scissors? I’m not an expert in dress-making but don’t scissors play a fairly central role? Is that not why she can buy a pair of scissors and, being self-employed, not pay any tax on them?

I’m curious about how far this policy of libraries having to support small businesses is going to go. Perhaps small businesses should be allowed to take up a corner of the library to sell their wares? Maybe they should start buying cars, on the off chance that a small businessman might need to borrow one? I look forward to seeing Camden’s new policy with great interest.

On asking too many questions…

I spent most of the Lib Dem conference in a cold fury, venting off to journalists, on Comment is Free and on twitter throughout. It is therefore surprising to find that the one thing I’ve had the most stick for is simply encouraging people to ask for a bit of information.

Throughout the week I had a number of party staff and faceless bureaucrats express to my face or indirectly how furious they are at the fact that I managed to get a number of people – my thanks to Jennie Rigg, Jo Christie-Smith and Gareth Epps – to ask a series of questions to the Federal Executive (not being a voting conference rep, I couldn’t ask them myself). There were, to be fair, quite a few. When I approached people to ask them I sent them a brainstorm of possible questions and was expecting people to ask one or two each: I certainly didn’t expect them all to be submitted (not that I’m complaining).

That all of them were submitted suggests that I wasn’t the only person who read the FE report with grave concern. Last year, with great aplomb, the FE published the findings of the “Bones Commission” – a strategic review of how the party is organised. At the time we were assured that this wouldn’t go the same way as all the other strategic reviews in the past and end up gathering dust on a shelf, and indeed it hasn’t, but if you go through the reports to conference this year you will not find a single reference to it.

What has happened is that the party’s internal structures have been totally reorganised, with the “Chief Officers’ Group” sitting at the centre of a spiders’ web of new boards and existing committees. What was unveiled as a means to cut down on bureaucracy, on the face of it, looks like nothing but, yet the FE report included just a couple of lines on the restructure. And there are other proposals from the Bones Commission, such as the plans for a “Leadership Academy” which have apparently vanished without trace.

The purpose of all these questions were to establish a clearer picture about how the party has been restructured, how this is working in practice, and to establish the status of the other major proposals. In a different party with a healthier democratic culture, such questions would be welcomed as an opportunity to correct an oversight. Instead, one senior staffer came up to me spitting about he had “just wasted a week answering your questions,” and I have had about 3 or 4 seperate conversations about how X or Y is furious with me (X or Y not being the President herself incidently, as I have also been told repeatedly).

I’m not naming names because I’ve got no interest to turn this into any more of a silly argument than it is. But the culture at the top really does need to change.

Six years ago, when I was on the party’s Federal Executive, the level of accountability of the party’s Treasurer consisted of him occasionally turning up to meetings and telling us everything was going well, and the Chief Executive shouting down anyone who started asking any pointed questions about how the party was fundraising. 18 months later, the Treasurer resigned under mysterious circumstances and shortly afterwards the party started accepting donations from Michael Brown. It looks as if the party will now escape having to pay any of the Brown money back, but it is a lucky escape for what was an avoidable cock up. Would extra scrutiny have stopped the party from accepting this donation? We’ll never know, but I think there is a certainly an argument that it might have forced them to think through their procedures better and give it more careful thought.

Either way, if you can’t explain clearly how the party’s decision making structures work, then there’s probably something wrong with that. By all means shoot the messenger, but it doesn’t change that fact.

Nick Clegg’s angry dolphin

Clegg has come up with a great Cleggism today: “ferocity with a purpose.”

I think it’s actually the first genuinely candid thing he’s said all week. What he’s basically saying is that all this talk about “savage” cuts and doom and gloom as been a calculated attempt to wrong foot the party and “drag” (his word according to the FT) the party over to his and Vince Cable’s position.

So when I complained earlier this week to the BBC that he was playing to the gallery and that conference felt like having a drunk pick a fight with you in a pub, it turns out that is exactly how Nick wanted me to feel.

All Terribly Clever of course, I’m surprised he is now bragging about it though. I have to admit that this blog indulges in a bit of ferocity with a purpose itself from time to time, which is how it has acquired the reputation it has.

So, in this spirit of glasnost, I am hereby changing the subtitle of this blog in deference to my leader.

UPDATE: As the FT article in question has vanished behind it’s firewall, I am including the relevant section here:

Mr Clegg is unrepentant. In a Financial Times interview, he says that describing looming cuts as “savage” was part of an attempt to “acclimatise the party to a changing environment”.

He would not relish cutting back the state. But he admits that he and Mr Cable have had to “drag” the party into a more realistic position that might include a freeze on overall public spending and shelving plans to abolish university tuition fees.

This has led to resentment and anger from a party whose commitment to public services is almost as profound as its love of deliberative (and cumbersome) policy- making. Mr Cable, in particular, has come under fire for failing to consult.

But Mr Clegg says Mr Cable has given the party economic credibility unimaginable in recent years. “There have been conferences in the past when we debated whether the royal family should smoke marijuana,” he jokes.

He rejects suggestions of tensions with a man whose popularity has transcended that of the party. “I feel like the captain of a cricket team who has the best batsman around.”

The Liberal Democrat leader closes his conference knowing that he badly needs to simplify his party’s message, and that beyond the cuts the party has a positive view of the future. He calls this “ferocity with a purpose”

Policy Committee says no to Clegg: game over?

18 of the 29-strong Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee have signed a letter in the Guardian today asserting that…

…as a clear majority of members of the FPC, we think it would be valuable to clarify now that we predict that our commitment to scrap tuition fees, as part of our plans to create a fairer society, will indeed be included in the manifesto and that the party will be united in strongly campaigning on this in the run-up to and at next year’s general election.

Some of the names on this list are surprising. They can’t be dismissed as lefty malcontents – far from it. I would be very surprised if there weren’t other FPC members who would have signed the letter had the organisers managed to track them down in the short time period on Tuesday.

This is a slap down to Clegg and Cable. It can’t be spun in the way the debate was. One assumes it will dominate this morning’s Today programme. I am of course delighted.

My only concern is that with the party’s press operation under the control of the leadership how much longer is this contest of nerves going to go on, with Clegg and Cable constantly ramping up the rhetoric in the media and the FPC having to keep digging its heels in. This leads to very serious questions being asked about the wisdom behind the Federal Executive’s decision last year to fold the day-to-day running of the party into a leader-led Chief Officer’s Group. We have, in effect, the press office briefing against the settled will of the party. The cost of continuing this is coming out of our membership fees. The true cost could well be paid in votes and Members of Parliament next May.

If Ros Scott appreciates the implications of all this she showed little sign of it in the questions to the Federal Executive yesterday. But she did let slip that the COG was up for review in October. The task of persuading FE members to either scrap this committee or rationalise it to ensure that the press and campaigns departments are clearly working to advance the party’s agenda rather than whatever Vince Cable has decided this week, begins now.

ADDENDUM: I feel I should add that I was somewhat irked that the questions to the FE were slightly cut short due to the Q&A session with Vince Cable et al overrunning. These sessions are bland theatre which serve no democratic purpose; do they even get televised? We really need to scrap them and, in my opinion, replace them with consultation sessions (instead of limiting consultation to the very start of conference when most people can’t take part).

Taking risks is about more than stunts

I get the impression that Guy Aitchison is getting frustrated with me. While conceding that the Lib Dems need to take more risks, I keep dismissing suggestions that we should do things like David Marquand’s idea about self-organising elections to the Lords (my response here) and Mark Littlewood’s idea about fielding a candidate in Buckingham (my response here). I’m really not trying to be difficult, so I will try to lay out what sort of “risky strategy” we should be taking.

I DON’T think it should involve electoral stunts like these. The problem is that people are bored of electoral, parliamentary politics which focuses on procedures and systems – what’s so radical about giving them more of the same? These are high cost, low gain proposals.

I sketched out the direction I’d like the party to take at the Campaigning After Rennard fringe on Saturday. I also wrote a discursive piece along similar lines for the Community Politics Today pamphlet published by ALDC a couple of years ago. I see the party having a key role to play in mobilising people to campaign for things such making the case for carbon reductions, campaigning for civil liberties and fighting against public services cuts, in areas where they are completely moribund as well as in their target seats. Fundamentally, it should follow the energy and enable campaigning rather than co-ordinating things from the centre. We’re talking about a MoveOn, MyBO, 38degrees type model here, but ideally one in which the leader played a central role – not in the sense of bossing people about and insisting that it’s his/her way or the high way – but in the sense of mucking in, encouraging and listening.

I was pleased to hear Steve Webb make some remarkably similar points at the Social Liberal Forum/Compass fringe meeting last night. Clegg should have gone to climate camp. He should have placed a central role when #welovethenhs flared up.

Fundamentally, he should have followed the advice of that notorious political chancer Mohatma Gandhi “There goes my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” Gandhi is making an astute anti-intuitive point here. If you want to build a movement, which Gandhi most certainly did, and not merely be the big fish in a goldfish bowl, you have to meet them in the middle.

This is, it has to be said, a somewhat different tack to that adopted by Clegg this week. He’s spent a whole week trying to convince the world what a tough leader he is and how good he is at bringing unruly childlike activists into line. Leaving aside the question of whether this is really the best way to motivate your activist base, he’s ended up looking shallow and weak. Despite the press team’s best attempts to spin the Fresh Start debate as a collossal victory for Clegg (this is what we call being straight with people apparently), he has ended up looking foolish.

Either way, it is about a lot more than little clever-clever tactical maneauvres. We’ve been doing them for decades now and they only get us so far.

Our Vince: From Fred Astaire to Mr Bean?

As a follow up to my piece about Lib Dem economic policy this morning, I’ve written an article on Comment is Free about Vince Cable and why he is starting to be a bit of a problem for the Lib Dems:

I have huge admiration for Vince. Six years ago, when I was experiencing a credit crunch of my own, the fact that there was a single politician out there who understood how badly banks were behaving in encouraging people to get into unmanageable levels of debt meant a tremendous amount to me. But he is not infallible. He’s not, whisper it, even indispensable.

Despite this, he eschews the collegiate discipline of party policy development in favour of going out on a limb and trusting his own judgment to carry him through. There seems to be almost no strategic thinking behind how he presents his shifts in position whatsoever. He hasn’t been articulating a party position; he’s been engaging in punditry. The latter may make you incredibly popular with John Humphries and Jeremy Paxman, it may even acquire you rock-star status, but it isn’t the job the party requires him to do.

Read the rest here.

The Liberal Democrat post-credit crunch economic policy. A blow by blow account.

John Harris wonders why the Liberal Democrat party faithful seems so incapable of defining what the Liberal Democrats stand for, unlike the masterful Vince Cable. A clue may come in the fact that the party’s core message on the economy has changed in a significant way on at least eleven separate occasions over the last two years despite very few of these shifts actually being party policy.

Let’s look at Liberal Democrat policy since the credit crunch (assuming for a moment that September 2007 is effectively Year Zero). In terms of tax policy alone, we started with a policy paper overseen by Vince, itself the second in as many years, which essentially called for a 4p cut in the basic rate in income taxes to be paid for by increasing taxes on pollution and the rich. Oh, and to replace council tax with a local income tax which would come to, roughly, 4p in the pound. Clear?

By spring 2008, with the storm clouds already starting to look very grey indeed, Nick Clegg started flying kites about tax cuts. By the summer, that had coalesced into a commitment to identify £20bn of public spending “waste” and a vague promise to cut taxes if after identifying all our spending commitments there was a bit left over. At the start of September however, Clegg had announced that he and Cable had agreed that the “vast bulk” of this £20bn would be passed on in the form of tax cuts, a statement which had the predictable effect of sending the party into a complete tiswas.

A few days after that, manifesto chair Danny Alexander further clarified Clegg’s clarification by explaining that Clegg was in fact referring to the “vast bulk” of money left over after the party had fulfilled all its spending pledges, not the vast bulk of the £20bn overall. This of course begged the question of where the small amount of money that was neither going on tax cuts or public spending was supposed to be going. By the autumn 2008 conference, things had got even more confusing. Nevertheless Cable and Clegg managed to get their proposals through conference, although this involved people supporting them on the grounds that we probably wouldn’t end up cutting taxes overall at all.

This new policy, which by now no-one understood, lasted a whole fortnight before the banking bail out rendered the entire thing moot. Unperturbed however, in April 2009, the pledge to drop the basic rate of income tax was replaced by a pledge to raise personal allowance. In July 2009, after what was by all accounts a tense and at times explosive policy committee meeting to agree the party’s pre-manifesto, Nick Clegg announced that the Lib Dems’ “shopping list of commitments” at the next election would be “far, far, far, far, far shorter” despite the fact that the pre-manifesto itself says no such thing. On Tuesday last week Cable published a pamphlet proposing £14bn of government spending cuts which would have to be made to pay off the national debt. This seemed to be suggesting that the party’s list of spending commitments would not merely have to be shorter but essentially non-existent. This vision of doom opened up enough space for Nick Clegg to open conference on Saturday announcing an intention to drop the commitment to scrap tuition fees and to start talking about “savage cuts”. And the position changed yet again on Monday with Cable announcing a new “mansions tax”, a policy which had apparently been written on the back of the cigarette paper which David Cameron had been experimentally attempting to slip between the Lib Dems and Tories the day before. By Monday evening he was arguing for a watering down of the party’s commitment to a local income tax.

Is it really that surprising that we mere mortals are somewhat confused?

Neal Lawson and James Graham: All your base are belong to us

The cat is now well and truly out of the bag and it will be interesting to see how the blogosphere responds. Beyond the usual “OMG!!1! YOU’VE SOLD OUT TO ZaNuPFLieBore!?!11!” of course.

I thought I’d add a few comments here in a vain attempt to clear a few things up and prebut some of the more predictable criticisms.

The first thing is, we are calling for a coalition of ideas and thus social liberal-minded (and liberal socialist-minded) individuals from all parties and none, not some kind of pact or deal between the Lib Dems and Labour. I am personally quite sceptical about how a coalition between the two parties could be steered in the event of a hung parliament next year. But this isn’t about positioning and all the sorts of things which obsessed the architects of the “Project” in the 1990s. It is interesting to note that Neal Lawson and I were on differing sides of that particular debate. Neal has become deeply sceptical of what he called that “coalition of five individuals” approach at our joint Social Liberal Forum/Compass fringe this evening. Meanwhile I have come to learn the importance of developing a cross-party dialogue between people with shared goals across the political divide. The right are much more effective at that (look at the chumminess between Nigel Farage, Dan Hannan and Mark Littlewood despite the latter’s principled and fundamental disagreement with the former two on the issue of Europe).

The second point is that this is certainly not on my part in any way about making excuses for Labour’s horrendous record on civil liberties. I broached this with Neal at our fringe this evening, challenging him on (for example) the failure of Compass No Turning Back statement at few months ago to offer a critique on Labour over civil liberties. While acknowledging that he sees Liberal Democrats has providing a valuable critique for Labour members regarding the civil liberties agenda (just as Labour members can offer a critique when it comes social justice), he did state that for him, Tony Blair’s attempt to impose 90 days detention without charge is the one issue which nearly caused him to resign from the party. Compass did indeed mobilise a grassroots campaign in opposition to that proposal which played a major role in stopping Blair from getting his own way on that occasion. If I didn’t believe Compass were allies when it comes to reversing the database state and this attack on civil liberties (even if they do on occasion require a little jostling), I would have resisted us even beginning this dialogue.

Anyway, those are the two most obvious brickbats hopefully broken. What do have to say for yourselves blogosphere?