Daily Archives: 22 September 2009

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?