Monthly Archives: March 2015

Nick Clegg

My Lib Dem ambivalence

Sadly, as with all articles about my political beliefs these days, this has degenerated into a rambling mess. This is why I write, let alone publish, so few blog posts these days. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to publish and be damned this time, which in turn might explain why I’m quite so all over the place.

Reading articles by your past, more idealistic self is a little cringe-making, and this Comment is Free article written by me at the height of Cleggmania in April 2010 is no exception. Back then, despite previously agreeing to a vote swap with my wife in which I voted Labour in the General Election in exchange for her voting Lib Dem in the locals, I ended up casting a big, positive vote for the Lib Dems. The result was a Tory MP with a majority of 106 over the Labour and an unfortunate tendency to compare same sex marriage to incest. As for the locals, the Lib Dems were beaten into third place. So much for that.

This year, I’m going to cast the least ideological vote of my life, and will be voting Labour. I will be doing so knowing that the man I’ll be supporting, Andrew Dismore, is exactly the sort of cynical Blairite that I spent most of my time as a Lib Dem activist fighting against. To be fair, he’s a genuinely conscientious community campaigner, but really the best thing I can say about him is that he isn’t Matthew Offord.

I’m lucky that my choice is so stark and so simple this time around; if I were in a constituency with a larger majority or a less loathsome Tory MP, I might have a harder decision to make. I’m extremely grateful that happenstance has left me in a situation where I don’t really have to think much about my vote this time round.

But this all rather begs the question, what do I believe in these days? Most people who have left the Lib Dems stalked off over some firm, principled objection to something they had done. In my case, it was simply that I was burnt out, feeling responsible for everything and yet not able to change anything. I’ve never advocated people following me into the wilderness, and I simply can’t fathom why so many of my former colleagues have ended up joining Labour, where the ability to actually influence anything must surely be even more limited.

At my heart, I’m still a left-leaning liberal, and by most measures I should still be a supporter. As I’ve said before however, for me it boils down to the fact that the Lib Dems don’t have a vision of the economy at their heart. I’m just not convinced that it is enough to be a “liberal” party these days. All the mainstream parties have liberalism at their heart, merely existing along a spectrum of in terms of to what extent they focus on negative or positive freedoms. You can happily be a classical liberal in the Conservative Party, or a social liberal in the Labour Party.

What should, and manifestly doesn’t, mark the Lib Dems out as different is their economic policies. I could get on board for a party with a clear vision for actually tackling the massive privatisation of our common wealth, even if that was tempered by pragmatic policies about how to get there. What we get instead is a couple of piecemeal, populist sops to a “mansion tax” – carefully designed to offend the least number of people and thus ending up not being able to raise that much money. That, aside from more austerity and pain, is all the Lib Dems have to offer about the economy, and that isn’t enough for me.

With all that said, I have a sneaking admiration for my old party. Say what you like about this government, but the fact that it has managed to last five years is a fantastic, game-changing achievement. Past experience suggested that it would have been lucky to last two years; the fact that it confounded these expectations in an age of Twitter is all the more remarkable.

I confess, there isn’t an awful lot I can put my finger on and point to as massive Lib Dem achievements that they can be proud of. There are some. Steve Webb’s pension reforms. Jo Swinson’s work on shared parental leave. I still support raising personal allowance in principle (although I don’t like the way it has been done). But at the same time, I have seen almost weekly examples of the Lib Dems blocking Tory policies that would have been dreadful.

I confess, that feels like small beer, and I can also name many Tory politics they did let through, which I find fairly hard to forgive (especially when it comes to benefit cuts and reforms). There are also things that they seemed to have been actively complicit in, rather than merely passively letting the Tories run with, most notably in the case of the Lobbying Act which has caused me to really doubt the Lib Dem top brass’s commitment to democracy.

Overall, I think the fact that they’re taking a knock in this election is justified. Despite predicting it however, I don’t think they deserve to take the beating that they look set to get. I see an awful lot of competent, smart people losing their seats regardless of their personal qualities, and that sucks.

What is most unedifying is seeing the Lib Dems getting the blame for the wrong things. Despite the “broken promise”, the resulting policy on HE funding is by all measures fairer than what came before it; indeed, it’s biggest flaw is that I suspect it will quickly be deemed unsustainable by whoever forms the next government (I’ll laugh, albeit ruefully, when we subsequently see the NUS rushing to defend the status quo then). Meanwhile, we have the monumental screw up that was the NHS restructure, which only happened because Clegg personally supported Lansley on the issue (it certainly wasn’t Lib Dem policy). If he should be crucified for anything, it is this. It is weird that our politics are such that the media is preoccupied by “broken promises” yet lacks the analytical skills to adequately assess things like competence and whether a policy is likely to actually work.

I’m even in two minds about Clegg. On the one hand, he’s pretty much everything I hate about modern politics. He stood for leadership of the Lib Dems on a false prospectus, lead the 2010 election campaign on a false prospectus and negotiated the coalition agreement on the basis of his own priorities rather than the parties (which is why tuition fees, health reform and free schools were all “conceded”; these were all Clegg policies). On the other hand, to have managed to survive five years having so much ordure poured over his head, is quite remarkable. I hesitate to admit that I like him more than I did five years ago, but I do (but let’s not get carried away).

Ultimately, the thing that completely alienates me from the Lib Dems however is the internal culture. I couldn’t bear it even 10 years before I finally left, ducking out of Glee Clubs and party rallies whenever I could. I might dislike Clegg, but I had a growing problem with how Lib Dems campaigned long before he was leader. The Lib Dems simultaneously like to think that they have a monopoly on community politics, and that it can be reduced to an election-winning strategy. Neither are true, which is why it will always result in cynical campaigns and ever decreasing circles.

I had a problem with the man behind the modern Lib Dem campaign strategy Chris Rennard, long before the allegations of sexual impropriety emerged. The way the party ultimately welcomed him back under the fold, and threw the women who made the – to quote the official report – “credible” claims against him under a bus, is utterly shameful. The allegations about Cyril Smith’s conduct are clearly more serious than the ones made against Rennard, but the pattern is the same: studied incuriosity and scrupulous hand washing after the event. This is a party with a serious problem when it comes to how it deals with allegations of a sexual nature made against its own senior party figures, and we have seen nothing that suggests this culture is likely to change significantly in the future.

I have to admit that, for me, it’s personal. If I was still a party member and this hadn’t happened to personal friends of mine, I might be more inclined to shuffle my feet and shrug in the way that the vast majority of Lib Dem MPs and members have. I can’t shrug off the perception that this is linked in with the party’s wider failure to improve its record on gender balance and Clegg’s now largely forgotten decision to include a pledge to grant people accused of rape with anonymity in the coalition agreement. When it comes to sex and gender, the Lib Dems find themselves on the wrong side of the argument far too often, and it can’t begin to renew itself until they can credibly claim to have changed that.

So I’m torn. On the one hand, I’m grateful to the Lib Dems for proving that coalition government can work and stopping the Tories’ worst excesses over the last five years. On the other hand, I’m very conscious of deep cultural and philosophical shortcomings of the party. It deserves a hit in the polls, but I’m highly ambivalent about the fact that many of the wrong people will end up being at the sharp end. The pragmatist in me thinks I should get back involved and try and change it from the inside, the idealist in me is repelled by the idea of being tainted by all that again. Fortunately for my idealist side, there’s also my mental health to consider, so it is largely academic.

I’m hopeful that a new party can emerge from the ashes on 7 May. But if it ever wants my vote again it will need to have a much stronger commitment to social justice, wealth distribution and feminism at its core*.

The Greens

* Inevitably, I’m going to get asked why I’m not turning to the Greens. I have to admit that I’m increasingly struggling to come up with a good answer to that. The simplest answer is that a) I’m happy voting tactically this time and b) staying away from political activism for the foreseeable future. But as someone who was rather preoccupied with the Lib Dems’ (subsequently dropped) 1992 pledge for a citizen’s income when he first joined the party, I can’t deny that the party has its appeal. I’m not yet convinced that, if I ever do get off the bench, my time wouldn’t be better spent organising inside a party with a national infrastructure than inside a party which has yet to demonstrate that it has one. It remains to be seen how many of these new members the Greens have purportedly recruited will go on to organise themselves outside of election time and turn their handful of potential target seats into something more ambitious. If they can prove they are a sustainable force, things might be different.

Vote Match

Why political elites hate Vote Match

Vote Match has launched for the general election today and for the first time since the project started in 2008, my fingerprints aren’t all over it (declaration: I am of course married to the Unlock Democracy director, which is behind Vote Match). The design I built for the 2010 general election has been replaced by a much slicker and more modern design and I’m impressed by it.

It is a sign of Vote Match’s success that this year it is in a crowded marketplace for voter advice applications in the UK. There is Vote for Policies, I Side With, possibly Verto if they ever get it to work, and I’m sure there are several others that I haven’t come across yet. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I couldn’t be happier or prouder to see so many people leaping on this particular bandwagon.

Not everyone agrees. Former Labour councillor and communications professional Antonia Bance has singled out VAAs for being misleading and “written by people who don’t understand politics”. The problem with them, she suggests, is that they indicate that all that matters about politics is policy. And I suppose that, taken literally, the name “Vote for Policies” does suggest that, and I certainly can’t claim to speak for everyone who has ever built a VAA.

But here’s the thing. Not a single VAA exists in a vacuum, and not a single voter relies solely on a VAA to decide which way to vote. There certainly is a problem; the RegistHER campaign are quoting stats today suggesting that 28% of people don’t know anything about Conservative policies, 41% about Labour policies and 62% about Lib Dem policies. None of these stats tell us anything we don’t already know: a huge proportion of the voting public don’t even know where to begin where to vote.

But it is the height of condescension to suggest that anyone will jump on a VAA, take the result at face value and cast their vote accordingly. Bance is keen to emphasise that brands matter too. Well, yeah. VAAs tend to either confirm or confound people’s prejudices (or “brand awareness” if you can only talk in marketing), but the thing is, everyone has prejudices. If there truly are people out there who use VAAs without having any prior awareness of political parties, that’s the parties’ and media’s fault – not having the VAA there isn’t going to help anyone; it would just lead to more disengagement.

VAAs are the start of the conversation, not the end of one. When I was working on Vote Match, that was always central to what we were trying to achieve. That’s why, back in the mists of time, I insisted on including a Twitter button to encourage engagement, despite the fact that no-one used Twitter back in 2008. That’s why we included the parties’ own statements in response to each question (if they were interested in providing them; most frankly don’t in the UK). That’s why we pointed people to look at information about their constituency. There is a live debate about how many disclaimers and clarifications you should put up on a VAA; should you swamp the user with explanations about why it is only a match against certain specific policies, not a fully objective and perfect answer? While it is good to include some disclaimers, for the most part people aren’t stupid and get that. It is only the political elites who seem to need to have those things pointed out to them.

So to reiterate: no, politics isn’t all about policies, and I highly doubt anyone behind a VAA thinks that any more than it would be utterly ridiculous to believe that because I built PartyFunding I must believe that the only thing people should consider is who funds parties. They give people a way to engage with the political process, and in a way that is on their terms and not the parties.

It is highly ironic to be having this debate a day after the last Prime Minister’s Questions of the year, in which Ed Miliband demanded David Cameron confirm if he would raise VAT or not and was completely wrong-footed when he got a straight answer. Because, when it suits them, political elites are always the first to tell you how important policy is; it is only when they don’t like what they’re being asked that they retreat into caveats about branding and core values.

Terry Pratchett with librarian

On angels, apes and Terry Pratchett

I’m what you might call a lapsed Terry Pratchett fan. For most of my adolescence, his work was a huge influence on me. But, as was typical of my late-teenage self, I walked away when he hit his most prolific period out of indignation about “cashing in” or some such self-righteous bullshit (I like to think I have a more sophisticated and generous view of artists these days). I never went back because the backlog got overwhelming, although I still intend to at some point.

Like everyone else, I was saddened to hear of his death yesterday. Amid all the tributes and an affectionate quotes that filled my various feeds, one image particularly jarred with me. Intended as a tribute, it was this British Humanist Association image, repeating the oft-cited quote “I’d rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel”:
"I'd rather be a rising ape than a falling angel" Sir Terry Pratchett
There are several things I could say about this. The first thing is, that I thought it was a shame that the first thing the BHA reached for was the most divisive quote they could find. The second is that, the concept of a “rising ape” is nonsense. The enlightenment notion that we are on a progressive path from amoeba to divine being was actually pretty much refuted by Darwin himself, whose own views about evolution did away with concepts that were very much steeped in notions of progressivism such as Lamarckism. Of course, much of that was subsequently undermined by Herbert Spencer and his championing of the most un-Darwinian Social Darwinism, but we emerged from that intellectual cul-de-sac 70 years ago.

To be fair on Pratchett, this is an off the cuff quip he made, apparently inebriated, at the end of a very long answer he answered at a Guardian event at few years ago. It’s not a quote from Pratchett as much as it is a quote from the anonymous sub-editor who chose to give this clip that title. His full answer is much more nuanced:

For me, the far more inspiring quote is at the start of the same section, when he makes largely the same point in a much more sophisticated (and funny) way:

“I find it far more interesting; in a sense, far more religiously interesting; that a bunch of monkeys got down off trees and stopped arguing long enough, to build this; to build that; to build everything. And we’re monkeys. Our heritage is [unintelligible] to climb trees and throw shit at other [monkeys]. And actually, that’s so much more interesting than being fallen angels.”

But the third point I would make, via my friend James Blanchard, is that this in turn is an evolution of something Death says in The Hogfather:

“HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”

Both the last two quotes are classic, brilliant, wonderful Pratchett. The first one is not. It is such a shame that the former seems to be the one that is being parroted by the media today.

Citizen Four

I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed by Citizen Four. As a document covering the launch of the Snowden story and its impact on him, it’s interesting enough. But as a film about the issues (something which he himself expresses concerns about his personal story obscuring), it fails utterly. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, and I don’t think I’ve read the news reports that closely.

I also don’t buy into the “death of freedom” narrative that the film seems to assume you believe. It does a lot of the security agencies’ work for them by pushing the premise that they can predict everything about from your data, despite the fact that Amazon, Facebook and Google demonstrate they are hopeless at doing so on a daily basis. If they can’t do it with a massive profit motive urging them on, why am I meant to believe that an intelligence agency with zero scrutiny and a hitherto tendency to screw up, is capable of doing so?

Honestly, the human factor – people arbitrarily using records to victimise people for entirely frivolous reasons – is a lot scarier than the all-seeing all-knowing big data aspect.