Category Archives: politics and life

Thatcher: There is No Alternative

There was an alternative: three things the Lib Dems could have done differently

There are two post-election Lib Dem narratives doing the rounds. One is that the Lib Dems were doomed as soon as they entered coalition; that from 12 May 2010 until 7 May 2015, the party was stuck on railway tracks which inexorably lead to them going from 57 MPs to jut 8. The other is that while no-one believes the party would have come out of coalition looking popular, the party made a whole series of mistakes which would have mitigated the losses and resulted in the party still having dozens of seats rather than a handful.

I hold the latter view, but it does appear that fatalism has gripped an awful lot of people at the top of the party. Although I’m not a member and am not planning to rejoin, this troubles me because the last thing I want to see is the party simply go back to repeating history. There is a lot of talk about phoenixes (I’ve used the metaphor myself), but the important thing about the death and rebirth of the phoenix is that it is cyclical. Does the party really want to spend the next 20-40 years rebuilding only to make the same mistakes time and again? I don’t understand the point of a political party that doesn’t learn from its mistakes, and while I can understand why many aren’t really excited by the prospect of introspection right now, someone has to do it (far from it for me to suggest that no Lib Dems are having this debate; the Social Liberal Forum has published a whole series of articles exploring what went wrong, among other bloggers). The “keep buggering on” mindset arguably is as responsible for the scale of this defeat as anything else.

Here then are three specific examples where the Lib Dems could – and should – have done things differently.

Tuition Fees

I’m not going to rake over the coals of the repeated stand offs between Nick Clegg and conference over whether or not to keep the scrap tuition fees policy or the wisdom of parliamentary candidates, including Clegg himself, in signing those NUS pledges; nor am I going to claim that the Lib Dems were in a position where they could have argued for HE spending to have been protected in such a way that fees could have been kept at £3,000.

The crucial issue for me is the presentation of the policy itself. Specifically, why didn’t the party insist on replacing the fees system with a graduate tax. In many important respects the current system is a graduate tax in all but name. Vince Cable himself put it on the record that he was keen to explore this option as early as June 2010.

Why didn’t this happen? Well, the explanation has always been that the Tories wouldn’t let it. I’ve never bought that for several reasons. Firstly, Clegg, Alexander (and even Cable) were against scrapping fees and Clegg’s key advisor Richard Reeves was someone who was frequently antagonistic towards the left of the party. Secondly, the focus of that troika at the time was quite explicitly about hugging the Tories as closely as possible; their stated belief at time was that being seen to be united with the Conservatives trumped all other considerations. And thirdly, we were also told repeatedly that this was a flash in the pan issue, only of interest to the Lib Dem grassroots and student activists, and would be forgotten about by the time of the next election.

Clearly, the theory that there were few political consequences to breaking this particular election pledge has been tested to destruction, but at the time that looked pretty untenable as well. The 2009 expenses scandal had made trust a central political concern, so much so that Clegg himself had chosen to make it his core theme in the election campaign, with an election broadcast which began with the words “no student tuition fees“. The logic of the party’s own election campaign was that this sort of thing was unacceptable.

The Tories of course had good reasons for trying to undermine the credibility of the Lib Dems, but they had every interest in maintaining the stability of the government. If, as we are to believe, the option of a graduate tax really was pushed as hard as Clegg claims and he was rebuffed, then that in turn should have caused him to question the validity of the “hug them close” strategy (which he persisted with even after the AV referendum). It was simply a question of judgement and priorities for the senior Liberal Democrat team, and they made the wrong call.

The 2014 Annihilation

To the annoyance of a lot of my friends in Social Liberal Forum circles, I always believed that getting rid of Clegg and replacing him with someone else before the general election would have a limited impact, certainly if done too early. If Clegg had been replaced two or three years before the general election, as a number of people hoped, then his successor would have gone into the 2015 election almost as tainted and the party would have been open to the accusation of causing government instability in the name of self interest.

2014 however marked a new low for the party, where it had been annihilated in both the local and European Parliamentary elections. In London, it was quite shocking watching the party get wiped out overnight. Lord Oakeshott had commissioned a number of polls which showed that Clegg was a liability to the party and attempted a rather ham-fisted coup on the back of them; but you didn’t need those polling figures to tell you the blindingly obvious. Clegg was a busted flush. A new leader, punctuating a new direction for the party, would almost certainly have made a difference.

The party’s decision not to go down that route was highly depressing to watch. The reason it went into government was an admirable case of putting the national-interest above the interests of the party. The reason it didn’t ditch Clegg was focused more out of loyalty for the individual than anything else. That was neither in the party or the national interest, as the electoral consequences have now shown. Being told by Clegg on a weekly basis that “there is no alternative” had lead to a dangerous level of groupthink.

Of course, a coup would have been risky. But once again, it was in Clegg’s gift to do the right thing.

The 2015 Election Campaign

I don’t really know where to begin with the general election campaign itself. One of the things it had been impossible to avoid as a friend of several Liberal Democrats was that for the past two years they had been told that the secret to the party’s success was to stay on message, and that that message was to be “a stronger economy in a fairer society, allowing everyone to get on in life”. So it was a surprise to see that messaging get ditched at the start of the campaign in favour of “look left, look right, then cross” – a phrase which was as naff as it was meaningless. If I want slogans reminiscent of 1970s road safety campaigns, I visit Scarfolk; I don’t expect serious election campaigns to use them.

But the messaging was to get increasingly worse. First, we had the odd Wizard of Oz references to giving Labour a brain and the Tories a heart; cute, but again essentially meaningless. As the election date loomed and anxiety over the Scottish wipeout intensified, the focus on the Tories and Labour was relaxed in favour of dire warnings about what would happen if the SNP or UKIP have any influence over government. Then it was if someone had suddenly realised that the party had spent four weeks talking about everybody apart from themselves, so a new slogan was concocted, which was possibly the worst yet – “stability, unity and decency” – which managed to sound as crypto-fascist as it was uninspiring.

Clegg’s resignation speech lamented how the politics of fear had won the election. What he failed to mention is that he had spent the past couple of months stoking fear himself. The election broadcasts consisted of night-time road users cautiously attempting to cross roads in the face of speeding incoming traffic. The symbolism is simple enough to follow; a vote for anything other than the Lib Dems will have pant-wettingly terrifying consequences. But nowhere is there a real answer. We know we’re meant to think that the Lib Dems are the only good choice, but we aren’t told why.

Mark Pack has lamented how the ghost of 1992 and the endless talk of coalitions was revived in this election campaign. What I don’t understand is why Paddy Ashdown, leader in 1992 and election supremo in 2015, though it was a good idea. All the Lib Dem campaign did was to reinforce the Tories own messaging about the dangers of a government which Labour and the SNP have influence over. If you tell people to vote for the devil they know, don’t be surprised if they end up voting for the senior coalition partner.

All things being equal, it is very possible that even the best judged election messaging would have made very marginal difference to the election result, but by playing up the unrelenting doom, the Lib Dems were simply curling up and dying. Worse, the party has seen the dangers of appearing too establishment in the past; I’m thinking the 2007 Scottish elections and numerous council elections where the party has been in control as an example. I simply don’t understand why took the conscious decision to spend an entire election campaign trying to sound as uninspired and insidery as possible.

There is a very real risk right now that the Lib Dems simply “keep calm and carry on”. If they do, their hopes of revival are extremely limited. The question I have for the leadership election candidates is: which of the two of you is capable of taking control of your own destiny? Nick Clegg was extremely capable of presenting all his decisions as simply the only logical course of action, that any deviation from the road would lead to chaos and instant death. He surrounded himself with advisors that told him what he wanted to hear, presented every policy choice he took as effectively out of his control, presented every compromise he made as inevitable. In that respect, he could not be more illiberal: his politics was one in which agency had no part to play. It was summed up in his election campaign: straight ahead, with no deviation, in the face of everything which said it was time to turn.

The question Lib Dem members have to ask themselves as they decide which candidate to vote for is: does this man believe that the road back to power is a straight one of “obvious” choices, or a winding one with a series of crossroads. If they know what’s good for them, they won’t go for another leader who believes it is the former.

The Un-credible Shrinking Man (Nick Clegg / Labour PEB)

How Labour’s Lib Dem bashing backfired

I’ve already said what I think about Labour’s decision to target Lib Dem-held constituencies at the expense of Tory-held ones, so I won’t repeat myself here. This article looks at the bigger picture, and how the Labour’s Lib Dem obsession for the past five years ultimately backfired on them.

It is striking how the Labour Party opted to define itself in opposition to the Lib Dems over the last few years, rather than the Tories. The ultimate expression of that was the “EdStone”, a fairly explicit response to Nick Clegg’s broken tuition fee pledge and “no more broken promises” position in 2010. More precisely however, the EdStone was a failed attempt to get Labour out of a hole of its own making.

The main lesson of the Clegg’s 2010 campaign should have been that politicians claim the moral high ground over trust at their own peril. Any party which has been in power for any amount of time knows that not all promises can be kept, even with the best of intentions. After all, I’m a member of the generation of students who was told by their NUS president, a certain Jim Murphy, that we had to drop our support for student grants to help ensure Labour stood by it’s promise not to introduce tuition fees. In the event, Labour – and Jim Murphy MP – did no such thing. More recently in folk memory was of course the notorious Iraq dodgy dossier, and more recent still, the country was still reeling from the 2009 expenses scandal.

The risk that politicians take when they explicitly attempt to taint their opponents with dishonesty is that they end up getting tarred by the same brush. Clegg could get away with it to a limited extent in 2010 because he was a relatively unknown and seen as an outsider. He didn’t need his opponents to do much work making him look shifty after the tuition fees debacle, but Labour went for it like a dog with a bone, even producing their own re-edit of the original Clegg zombie apocalypse PEB.

Did this damage Clegg and the Lib Dems? Undoubtedly. But it didn’t give voters a single reason to support Labour; in fact it reminded them why they abandoned Labour in the first place. Every time Labour focused on this issue, they ceded ground to the Greens, UKIP and SNP who didn’t fit the public’s perception of the politician mold. And as a consequence, they found themselves in a vicious circle, having to up the stakes every time they made an issue out of it. That they ended up having such a problem with trust that they felt they had to engrave their election promises literally in stone for people to believe them should have been a lightbulb moment; when you reach that stage, the truth is that you’ve already lost.

As has been expressed to me on and off the record by numerous Labour activists over the last few years, one of their key objectives over the last few years was to wipe out the Lib Dems, and thus revert back to two party politics. The Tories were keen to see the same thing happen, and so we have seen several examples over the last few years where they have actively colluded to undermine the third party. Miliband himself, to be fair, did briefly put himself above all that during the AV referendum, but lacked the authority to restrain most of his party from signing up with the Tories. They did it again during the attempts to reform the House of Lords. I’ve upset many Lib Dems arguing that they have to accept their own share of the blame for this failure, but that wasn’t to suggest that Labour weren’t also shortsighted.

The attacks were repeated and personal, at one point producing a highly glossy election broadcast in the run up to the European Elections to brand Clegg as the “un-credible shrinking man“. And again, it was extremely effective.

Labour may have been successful in wiping out the Lib Dems, but as we are now all too aware, the attempt to revert to two-party politics went absolutely nowhere. Anyone with any awareness of political and social trends in the UK over the past 50 years could have predicted that would happen. When Labour should have been worried about the Tories, all they seemed capable of focusing on was the Lib Dems and their so-called “betrayal”. It smacks of all-too Old Labour bullying, and like all playground bullies, it revealed a distinct lack of self-confidence and deference to the even “bigger boys”. While he was busy hitting Clegg over the head at every opportunity, Miliband was letting Cameron set the terms of the debate. For all this talk of the Conservatives being stuffed by members of the upper classes, whenever they were in the room Labour couldn’t tug its collective forelock hard enough.

I don’t actually believe, or even particularly make sense of, the idea that Miliband failed because he wasn’t “Blairite” enough. Blair fought his first election campaign when the Tories’ economic reputation was in tatters due to events he could not claim credit for; Miliband faced a party which was, putting to one side how for a moment, steering the country through an economic recovery. Arguing that Miliband should have both taken more responsibility for Labour’s economic mismanagement and claimed more credit for the golden age of Blair, the First Lord of the Treasury who deregulated the City spent money like water during an economic boom which any Keynsian would tell you should have been tackling the national debt, is simply rubbish. Surely they aren’t suggesting that Blair was so weak that he daren’t stand up to Gordon Brown?

But one thing Blair understood was that to govern, he needed to take seats off the Tories and not sweat the small stuff. It is hard to believe he would have achieved the 179 majority he had done if he’d spent so much time and energy trying to stop the Lib Dems from making their own breakthrough, citing the ancestral hatred borne out of the 1983 “betrayal” of the SDP.

If Labour had taken twelve more seats from the Tories instead of the twelve they took from the Lib Dems last week, Cameron would have been denied a majority. More than that however, if it had focused on the Tories over the last five years and not allowed itself to have become obsessed with the notion of restoring a two party hegemony, it would have done better still.

History consistently tells us that the right has always done better out of the two party system than the left, yet this is a lesson that Labour have stubbornly refused to learn. If Labour is serious about coming out of this slump it now finds itself in, it will have to correct this mistake. Membership in the Greens, UKIP, SNP and now, apparently, the Lib Dems, is surging. Like it or not, the smaller parties aren’t going to be going anywhere. It is time they evolved or stepped aside.

Ed Miliband stone pledges

Random thoughts on the election

I haven’t had much sleep, but here are a few random thoughts about the election.

I’m angry with the Labour Party. I did my bit: I voted Labour in a constituency where they are in second place to a Tory with a majority of 106 (Hendon). I admit, I didn’t do that last time, high as I was on the prospect of the LDs getting 30% of the vote, which turned out to be a false dawn. But I didn’t make that mistake twice.

But where the hell were Labour? During the campaign proper, just one highly generic Labour leaflet was hand delivered in our area. By me. It was clear that the guy in charge of distribution was overwhelmed and didn’t really have a clue what he was doing. Sure, they hurled a load of equally generic and uninspiring literature out in the post, but there was virtually no evidence of a campaign at grassroots level. My wife and mother in law, who had offered to help, were given nothing to do (apart from the aforementioned leaflet and a target letter a few weeks earlier). You’d be forgiven for thinking Hendon was a safe Tory seat from the level of activity either party were putting into it on the ground.

Meanwhile, Labour activists in North London are busy patting themselves on the back for booting Lynne Featherstone out of Hornsey and Wood Green. Leaving aside any personal feelings I might have about that, Labour winning in Hornsey did not help to deny the Tories a majority government one iota. A win in Hendon would have.

That’s elementary electoral maths. Of course, you can’t predict what is going to happen in each individual seat. But if you put zero effort into the Tory marginal and bust a gut winning the Lib Dem marginal, then it is hard to deny that you had rather skewed priorities. And this pattern seems to be reflected across the country, with Labour going all out in Lib Dem constituencies and just tinkering in Tory seats. Norwich is another clear example, with Labour failing to gain Norwich North whilst slugging it out with the Lib Dems and Greens in Norwich South.

Labour made a huge deal out of their doorstep operation at the start of the campaign. I suspect it may have been exaggerated, but assuming for a moment that it wasn’t, it’s clear they were marching on the wrong bloody doorsteps. Who was making these calls? Presumably the same person who commissioned that ridiculous pledge stone. Presumably the person who decided on those meaningless “pledges” which were carved onto the pledge stone.

Anyone who says that Miliband failed because he went back to the politics of Michael Foot deserves to have their head rammed against that blasted lump of rock. Because say what you like about Michael Foot, he’d never have lead a campaign which was based around six vague and meaningless pledges like those ones. And he certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of doing something as hubristic as engraving them anywhere. I mean seriously. Would Michael Foot have cribbed an abbreviated Tory campaign slogan from ten years ago like “Controls on Immigration”? If you’re going to blow a racist dog whistle, at least find one that isn’t so ineffectual.

Labour didn’t lose because it veered to the left. It lost because it has no idea what it is. Either an authentically left wing Labour Party or an authentically right wing Labour Party would have done better than this vague shower.

The country didn’t turn to the Conservatives. Seriously, look at the results. Overall, they gained 0.8% of the share of the vote. Labour gained 1.5% of the vote share (if they hadn’t lost votes to the SNP in Scotland, they’d now be neck and neck). That the former shift gifted the Tories 23 more seats while the latter even larger positive shift cost Labour 26 seats isn’t just stupid; it’s morally repugnant.

The examples of how this voting system has denied the British public its voice are everywhere: the SNP winning 95% of the seats in Scotland with just 50% of the Scottish vote. The fact that the Tories have done virtually the same thing in the South of England. The fact that the SNP won 56 as many MPs as UKIP despite winning almost a third of their UK share of the vote (4.7% versus 12.6%).

The thing that seems to be giving some people pause for thought about electoral reform today is the prospect of it leading to a Conservative-UKIP coalition. That’s a hard bullet to dodge; all things being equal, it’s exactly what would have happened, albeit with the slenderest of majorities. However, it is also the case that all things wouldn’t have been equal. For one thing, the Greens would almost certainly have got more votes. For another, we wouldn’t have seen Tories voting tactically in the north for UKIP because their own party was a wasted vote. And UKIP’s own populist leftwing positioning would either force them into getting some concessions from the Tories or would have bitten them in the bum.

I’d go as far as to say that even a UKIP/Con coalition would be better than what we got for the simple reason that it would have included Conservative and UKIP MPs from across the UK. The “Maggie Simpsonification” of the UK would simply not have happened. Given the choice between a monolithic one party rightwing government with no representation north of the border and a wafer thin majority and a two party government rightwing government with some representation north of the border, I’d take the latter every time.

Maggie Simpson UK election map

I would strongly urge you to sign this petition and get stuck into the campaign for voting reform in the UK.

There is nothing good about the Lib Dem humiliation. It’s no secret that I was no Nick Clegg fan. I didn’t quit the Lib Dems because of him, but he certainly wasn’t doing anything to keep me there. But I certainly don’t take any pleasure over what happened to them yesterday. They didn’t deserve it, and British politics is the worse for losing them. Hell, it’s the worse for losing the bloody Orange Bookers.

The dismay I’ve seen online in response to the prospect of a majority Tory government bears this out. The capacity for leftie magical thinking never ceases to amaze me. Somehow people can vote for a party that they no has zero chance of winning in a Lib Dem-Conservative marginal seat and still be dismayed when the Lib Dems get wiped out as if magical pixie voters were going to keep them elected so they didn’t have to. So many people who spent the last five years insisting that the Lib Dems made absolutely no difference in government seem to now be reeling off lists and lists of dreadful Tory policies which will now be implemented without the Lib Dems in the way to stop them.

Let’s be clear: yes, the fact of the coalition, the tuition fees “original sin” and Nick Clegg’s unpopularity were strategic dead albatrosses around their necks. Yes, they ran a dreadful, confused and negative campaign (at least the air war; I can’t comment about campaigns on the ground because I wasn’t there). But at the end of the day they lost in no small part due to a fit of pique by voters more concerned about their own political purity than stopping the Tories. That’s on them. It was on me when I did the same thing five years ago, so I know how it feels. I don’t condemn anyone for doing it – I understand the temptation – but I do expect them to accept responsibility for it.

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.

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.

The “TERF” debate: a primer for the terminally confused

No publication has done more to pour oil over the fire at the heart of the debate over trans rights than the New Statesman, and last night it issued its latest incendiary broadside: an anonymous article purporting to explain the debate and condemn people like Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell for not wanting to be associated with people they consider to be Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs.

Generally speaking, any writer who dredges up Joe McCarthy and George Orwell to attack their opponents should not be viewed uncritically; those are pretty clear red flags. I’m not intending to go through a line-by-line rebuttal of the whole article, suffice to say that much of it is grossly misrepresentative.

At its heart though, it is just blatantly misleading. The argument is not about whether trans women are biologically identical to cis women, or even whether trans women have different life experiences than cis women. The argument is about whether that should matter. The argument is whether cis feminists should extend the hand of solidarity out to trans women. To argue that all feminists do is blatantly wrong.

It seems strange to be even having to rebut this. If a major national political magazine were to publish an article arguing that white women are biologically different to women of colour, and that women of colour just have to accept this, the outcry would be near universal. The fact that this article is seemingly being approvingly quoted by people who otherwise consider themselves to be progressive and unprejudiced, shows us that this is a civil rights struggle over which there is still much work to do.

There’s a particularly revealing part of this article, in which the author states – with not inconsiderable alarm – that “in some circles it is considered transphobic for women to question the presence of people with openly displayed male sexual organs in spaces like communal female changing rooms” (my emphasis).

I can well understand that some cis women might be uncomfortable about this. The question is where those people, who a non-TERF would call women (simples!), should get changed. Is the discomfort of cis women so inviolable that the minority, trans women, should have to get changed with men? Or perhaps they should be allocated their own broom cupboard? Again, the analogy with skin colour is hard to avoid: 50 years ago, this was a big deal. Fortunately, we’ve moved on. Maybe your discomfort at getting changed in a room with someone who looks different to you is your problem.

I repeat: this is a civil rights movement. All successful civil rights movements have got in people’s faces, upset them, made them uncomfortable and, yes, occasionally crossed the line and made mistakes. They have to; that’s how they win. If you can applaud a film like Selma, or Pride*, and somehow consider that New Statesman article to be legitimate journalism, then you need to be aware that you are part of the problem.

* Actually, I had a number of issues with that film, but I’m not getting into that here.

How we lost The Great Egg Race

So my wife and I were talking about old TV programmes this evening (to be honest, this was more me fulminating about how no-one seems to remember the TV programmes I used to watch as a kid on account of my great age and policeman getting younger every day, you get the idea), and our conversation settled on The Great Egg Race. I decided to show her a video of it to demonstrate how it had The Best TV Theme Tune Ever, but we ended up watching the entire episode. It was oddly compelling:

What’s interesting about this programme is that it marks an era when people could be intelligent on television without having to apologise for it. The basic format is essentially the same as any other modern “reality” show such as Masterchef or the Apprentice in which a group of people are set a challenge with limited resources and a limited amount of time and then get to square off against each other in a final contest. But beside that basic format, all other resemblances end.

Much of the programme consists of boffins muttering to each other under their breaths about how they plan to build their contraption, followed by Professor Heinz Wolff and his expert guest having discussing the week’s challenge without worrying especially about whether the audience was keeping up or not. The presenters do a rudimentary job at explaining things, but the viewer is pretty much left to it. There’s no Sean Pertwee sexily explaining what’s going on every thirty seconds. Neither is there much in the way of conflict; it is possible that they had their own equivalent of the Baked Alaska scandal, but I’m not aware of it.

The most striking contrast is with The Apprentice, and I think it says a lot about how our society’s values have changed over the past 30 years. While widely mocked as a piece of car crash TV, I can’t help but think that one of the reasons The Apprentice continues to be popular is that the corporate executive is now what we are meant to believe is what the ideal job to aspire to looks like. We might not all buy The Apprentice’s portrayal of corporate suits behaving like idiots and stabbing each other in the back to get ahead, but we at least buy into it as being a caricature of something real.

The Great Egg Race on the other hand is about engineers being set a similarly impossible and ridiculous challenge, who go about it by working together collaboratively and just getting on with it. They aren’t steered by the nose by producers who desperately want to drag a narrative into it all, and in the final challenge even the losers have a certain amount of dignity; they might have failed – they might even have failed badly – but even the biggest loser emerges from The Great Egg Race with a degree of dignity.

And they were engineers! A profession which our modern culture appears to simply ignore. Scientists are of course lauded, especially if they’re pretty ones like Brian Cox (sorry Heinz Wolff), but engineers seem to be pretty much invisible. Yet somehow our transportation systems, computers and widgets continue to get built.

There is, to be fair, a continuation of programmes which emulated the Great Egg Race. In the 90s we had Robot Wars, in which amateur engineers to pitch their robot creations against each other in a Thunderdome style arena. It was never really about the engineering however as much as it was about the occasional metallic carnage. It was an interesting programme to follow as both the robots and their builders evolved. You got to see the robots get slowly better over successive series and the builders become more and more up their own arses as their minor celebrity statuses (which appeared to involve opening the odd village fete and visiting children’s parties) reached their peaks. You would see them slowly coming out of their shells, wearing increasingly extroverted clothing. Some of them even (gag!) started to flirt with presenter Philippa Forrester (believe me when I say that this lead to some of the most excruciating television ever broadcast).

Scrapheap Challenge was perhaps more of a true spiritual successor to The Great Egg Race, just on a somewhat bigger scale. In so many ways, where The Great Egg Race was tweed and elastic, Scrapheap Challenge was METAL. With the number of bikers who took part in the latter, despite the years separating the two series, the amount of hair on both was about the same – they just wore t-shirts rather than suits.

But Scrapheap Challenge was ultimately a lot more like a modern reality TV show as well. Aside from the narration, there was a much greater focus on controversy and conflict, both inside the teams and between them. It did indeed have it’s own share of Baked Alaska Incidents. It was, to be fair, better at explaining concepts than its predecessor, but it was ultimately much more self-conscious about the fact that what it was ultimately about was a “boring” topic like engineering; it was certainly dressed up more. You can sort of see this in the team names; while the teams on The Great Egg Race were simply named after their place of work (Kontron Electrolab Ltd), the teams on Scrapheap tended to have jokey, ironic names like The Anoraks. I enjoyed it as a series, but it ultimately came across as a much less simple pleasure.

What am I saying here? Nothing more than that I feel that in the 20 years between The Great Egg Race and Scrapheap Challenge we somehow lost the ability to celebrate cleverness for its own sake and to simply take delight in people working together to do a good job under trying circumstances. Whether “we” have lost it or TV producers merely perceive we have is of course a moot point, but watching that episode did leave me feeling oddly nostalgic.

Can’t a gesture be just that? #jesuischarlie

Yesterday, when news of the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo office was just emerging, my main reaction was simply to feel extremely sad. Fortunately I’m not a politician, a journalist or even much of a blogger these days so I’m allowed to feel that way without having my motives examined for signs of possible racism or bigotry.

Over the last day of so I’ve made a number of comments and shared stuff on my usual social networks using the hashtag #jesuischarlie. What I meant by it was merely “there but for the grace of God go I” – a simple statement of solidarity.

Apparently that isn’t the case however. According to countless righteous people who have been all too keen to leap on the bully pulpit, I used that hashtag because I’m either a crypto-racist/islamophobe or hopelessly naive, thinking of Charlie Hebdo as some kind of bastion of western satire when in fact it is a scurrilous rag and not even very funny. And apparently I’m an idiot for thinking that this was about cartoons when it was in fact about much wider issues. I’ve even read suggestions that any act of solidarity must automatically mean I’m in favour of cracking down on the very civil liberties that yesterday’s murderers were attacking.

As it happens, from what little I knew of it, Charlie Hebdo did seem pretty scurrilous, insensitive and unfunny. As it happens, I’m not so stupid as to believe this is simply about a drawing of Mohammed. And needless to say, the last thing I want to see as a result of this attack is a crackdown on civil liberties or the end of multiculturalism.

It is too much to ask for people to not use atrocities like this to advance their own agendas. Indeed, that can be useful. But is it really too much to ask that people don’t insult everyone else’s intelligence whilst doing so, inferring far more into a simple expression of grief than it warrants?

Thank you. As you were.

Will the UK voting system survive 2015?

Consider the following bizarre potential outcomes for the 2015 general election:

  • The SNP romp home, winning well over 20 seats. The Green Party also do the best they’ve ever done, gaining 5% of the national vote. Yet the latter party only win a single seat despite getting a higher UK share of the vote than the former.
  • UKIP do the best they’ve ever achieved in a general election, with 16% of the vote. They only win around half a dozen seats however. The Lib Dems meanwhile creep home with just 15% of the vote, yet hold onto over 20 seats.
  • Labour gets slightly fewer votes than the Conservatives. Despite this poor performance, they win more seats than their opponent. Their total vote share hovers at around 60% of the vote, the lowest combined score since 1918.
  • No single party gains a majority. More than that, no two party majority is possible, with the exception of a Labour-Conservative coalition.

I’m not suggesting that all of these outcomes are going to happen, merely that at this point in time they are all feasible. If they do all happen at once, it will be the perfect storm of electoral outcomes which will put our single member plurality voting system (“SMP”)* under greater strain than it has ever known.

This has in fact been a long time in coming. The reality is that “two party politics” is a historical quirk that has only enjoyed a very brief period of popularity. The modern political party as we now regard it didn’t even exist when the Third Reform Act was passed in 1884 enfranchising most men over the age of 21. 16 years later the Labour Party was born and we had decades of 3+ party politics until the Liberals pretty much gave up the ghost in the 1930s and 40s. In 1951, two party politics reached its apex with the combined Labour-Conservative vote reaching 96.8% but by 1974 that was down to 75.1% and in long term decline.

We can see this trend by looking at how the gap between Effective Number of Parties (“ENP”) by votes and seats has widened over the last 70 years (ENP is an academic concept used to estimate the number of parties active in an election according to their relative strengths). As you can see, the disparity between votes and seats has widened almost inexorably.

Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at  http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,  accessed 1 January 2015).
Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at
http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,
accessed 1 January 2015).

Indeed, it is also worth bearing in mind that the voting system itself was stitched up to reinforce this hegemony. SMP is not, in fact, the only voting system to have been used in a House of Commons election. Multi member constituencies were quite common for urban areas at first, and university seats were elected using Single Transferable Vote from 1917 until 1950. You can see how, in the first decade after single member constituencies were universally adopted in 1950, the disparity between votes and seats actually got worse. By contrast, if we had not gone down that route, it seems likely that UK elections would have done a better job at reflecting votes cast.

Josep Colomer asserts that as political systems embrace multi-party politics, they tend to drift inexorably towards proportional representation.

A crucial point, however, is that coordination failures can be relatively more frequent under majoritarian electoral systems, especially for the costs of information transmission, bargaining, and implementation of agreements among previously separate organizations, as well as the induction of strategic votes in favor of the larger candidacies. With coordination failures, people will waste significant amounts of votes, voters’ dissatisfaction with the real working of the electoral system may increase, and large numbers of losing politicians are also likely to use voters’ dissatisfaction and their own exclusion, defeat or under-representation to develop political pressures in favor of changing to more proportional electoral rules.

In other words, eventually the ability to “do politics” using a majoritarian system becomes increasingly difficult as more parties become effective agents within the system. He goes on to suggest that “above 4 ENPs, establishing or maintaining a majority rule electoral system would be highly risky for the incumbent largest party, and possibly not feasible either due to pressures for an alternative change supported by a majority of votes.”

Sadly Colomer doesn’t actually tell us how this switch will happen, but we are already seeing the current system falling apart. Of all the potential outcomes I listed at the top of this article, the biggest problem from a governance point of view is that difficulty we might encounter in forming a government. In 2010 (and despite the more fruity speculation by some), the arithmetical logic behind the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was quite straightforward: there was simply no other way to form a two party coalition, apart from a Conservative-Labour one of course. Despite some sunny optimism about the viability of a Labour-LD-SNP-Unionist government, the fact is that such a rainbow would have been incredibly hard to maintain.

A lot of political commentators have asserted that the outcome of the 2015 general election is impossible to predict. They are only half right. It’s actually quite clear which way people are going to vote; what is unpredictable is a voting system that is so poorly suited to its purpose that the numbers that it chews out could go anywhere. That this doesn’t lead more people than it does to declare that it is time to pick another system is a sad testament of how badly let down our media and politicians are letting us down.

After the 2011 AV referendum, the No campaign declared the matter of the voting system settled for a generation. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum has already demonstrated to us how such things are rarely that simple, and it seems likely to me that the debate over whether SMP is any longer fit for purpose will kick off in a big way after this year’s election. At least, it will among the public. The question is whether civil society and the media will join that throng or allow it to peter out. It can’t be left to the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy to make the case.

And how will the political class respond? Will they embrace the tide of history in the way that they did eventually over the Reform Acts and female suffrage, or will they continue to resist it? I hope they’ll take the pragmatic, former option; if they don’t we could be looking at decades of instability. For me, it’s the only truly interesting question about this year’s general election; until we have a system which in some way reflects the settled will of the people, everything else will just be a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

* Personally I prefer to refer to the UK voting system as “single member plurality” and not “first past the post”. This is for several reasons. Firstly, it is a simple fact that it better describes the actual system: we have single member constituencies and you win by getting the plurality (largest share of the vote). “First past the post” on the other hand doesn’t actually describe how the system works at all – ironically, to the extent that it describes anything, it better describes the Alternative Vote system/instant run-off voting which actually has a “winning post” (50%). Secondly, it is the internationally recognised description of the system; the UK loves its quirky and confusing names for voting systems (Additional Member System instead of Multi Member Proportional for example), and it is a fairly contemptible bit of British chauvinism. Thirdly, I think that allowing the supporters of SMP to use their preferred, familiar term puts them at an advantage as all other voting systems sound alien and technical in comparison. That’s nonsense, and I don’t think we should allow them the privilege.