Tag Archives: david boyle

Shroud waving over the #gagginglaw

cookiemonsterNotwithstanding Chloe Smith walking away, the government have attempted to pacify the opponents to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning, Trade Union Administration and Whatever It Takes To Stop You Talking About The Real Issues Bill with a string of amendments to be debated at this afternoon’s report stage of the bill in the House of Commons. By all accounts, it hasn’t worked. I’m actually surprised by this as I would have thought they’d be able to mollify the larger charities.

The government still isn’t admitting defeat however, and the Lib Dem wing are continuing to issue dire threats about what might happen if this bill does not become law as quickly as possible. John Thurso wrote last week:

But there is nothing liberal in permitting vast fortunes to be spent in the pursuit of electoral success. If there were, we would be arguing for the repeal of the 1883 Prevention of Corruption and Illegal Practices Act which has limited candidates’ expenditure at elections for 130 years. No one is making that case: not 38 Degrees, not Friends of the Earth, not the Countryside Alliance, not Hope Not Hate.

The Bill will ensure that no millionaire’s cheque book can outgun the voices of small organisations or of election candidates with a good case to make. We cannot allow that simple principle to be blown away in a gust of hot air about “gagging”.

That is simply nonsense. For starters, Unlock Democracy – who I worked for until September – have been making precisely that case for many years, and have more recently been joined by the Electoral Reform Society. Simply omitting the organisations which campaigning on this issue because they are inconvenient does not make a case true.

And it is simply not true that a single millionaire will be prevented from buying the political process if that is what they wish to do so. The government has repeatedly refused to legislate for a cap on donations, and however draconian this bill is on campaigning, it doesn’t include a cap on donations to non party campaigns. There is nothing whatsoever to prevent a donor from making donations of £400,000 to a dozen different organisations, all of whom would be free to campaign up to the spending limit as long as they did not work in concert.

Sound fanciful? Possibly, but then far too much of this debate has focused on hypothetical scenarios, so why not raise this one. David Boyle goes further than John Thurso, by bringing up the US Koch Brothers and their campaigning techniques:

So you might reasonably ask why the UK should have legislation about electoral activity by non-candidates at all. The answer is summed up in one word: Koch.

The reason why this is so important is because of the Koch Brothers and their activities funding ultra-conservative election support in the USA, and those like them.

They set up lobby groups and non-profits to intervene, most of them well below the radar – but tax returns show that they spent $230 million in local interventions in the USA in the year before the last presidential election, and that was just through one of their organisations.

Look at the government shut-down, the blinkered oppositionism that has degraded American politics at federal level. That isn’t just about the Koch brothers, but we don’t want it here – we don’t want an open door to every oligarch who thinks they can intervene in our elections.

The tl;dr version of that quote is: “if you don’t support this bill then you support oligarchs shutting down the government!” It’s a nice bit of propaganda, but once again it omits certain inconvenient truths. Specifically, we already have our UK Koch Brothers. The difference is that, because they are free to fund parties directly, they opt for that instead.

The Stuart Wheelers, Michael Ashcrofts and, yes, James Palumbos of this world know that you are far better off putting your money into parties either directly or influencing governments by establishing think tanks and setting the political agenda that way. In terms of getting bang out of their buck, they would be insane to do otherwise.

So the real question is, why are the Liberal Democrats shroud waving about this non-issue while doing nothing whatsoever to make the case for taking the big money out of the UK political system where it is actually being spent?

Image credit: Unlock Democracy.

The dreaded spectre of the straw Fabian

Liberator has marked the launch of the Social Liberal Forum with two articles which they have kindly allowed us to republish – one by SLF Director Matthew Sowemimo and the other by Federal Policy Committee member and writer David Boyle.

David is a different kind of critic from someone like Charlotte Gore. Very much “one of us,” he wrote a chapter in Reinventing the State and I’ve worked with him on a number of projects over the years, including a motion on participatory democracy that was debated at Autum Conference last year. So the fact that he is a sceptic is a real disappointment. Having said that, I do think he could have picked a better argument.

His problem with the SLF stems not from anything on our website, or anything Matthew or Richard Grayson have written (I seem to have been written out of the equation, being a mere flunky), but from a presentation made by a staffer of the Institute for Fiscal Studies at the Reinventing the State breakout session at the party’s LSE conference on social mobility in January before the SLF had launched. I didn’t attend that session as I was at a parallel one at the time, but David’s concern stems from the IFS chap’s definition of equality. This then moves into an all out assault on Fabianism.

He is right to warn against defining equality too narrowly or adopting technocratic solutions, but I’m not clear how either are really concerns about the SLF as opposed to the debate within the left more broadly. It is a bit of a leap, from the personal views of a guest speaker at an event before the organisation is launched to Beatrice Webb to concluding that the SLF is in danger of endorsing state socialism. By not reflecting on anything the SLF has actually done or put out thus far it does feel as if a number of straw men are being laid at our door.

The biggest straw man is the one that vaguely resembles Quintus Fabius Maximus. Fabian-bashing is a time honoured liberal pastime and one which I indulge in myself from time to time. And why wouldn’t you, when people like Beatrice Webb offer us such a wealth of infamous quotes to cite? Even Labour apparatchik Philip Collins tried this line of attack in Prospect last year. But if you think that new Labour state socialism stems from the modern Fabian Society, you are dead wrong. Indeed, the modern Fabian Society’s favourite Lib Dem-bashing tactic at the moment is to denounce us for not supporting asset-based welfare (the specific criticism that we plan reallocate resources away from Labour’s tokenistic Child Trust Fund is rather fatuous but more generally, I think they have a point more generally). I am pretty certain that Sunder Katwala being the Fabian Society’s General Secretary is a fact that has both the Webbs spinning in their graves.

And finally, while I would agree that income-inequality – and even consumption-inequality – should never be the only measure, David risks understating its importance. He is right to say that we won’t ever solve the underlying problems of inequality with charts and targets. David wrote a fantastic book in 2001 called The Tyranny of Numbers which forecast the failure of the New Labour project before most people were getting their heads around it, but the conclusion I took from it wasn’t that we must never count things – merely that we understand the limitations of statistics. Indeed, David’s own think tank, the New Economics Foundation (of which I am also a supporter), is continually coming up with new ways to measure social progress. It is an odd charge to suggest the SLF is enamoured by “the fantasies of Fabianism” while not applying the same standard to NEF.

While I think SLF has already avoided two of David’s potential pitfalls – centralisation and education – I will readily admit that the other two – snobbery and passivity – are tougher nuts to crack. But they are for everyone. How do you ensure universal entitlement without creating an inflexible, impersonal system? How do you ensure a flexible, personalised service without giving the articulate middle-classes an advantage over less well off? Unlike state socialists or libertarians, the social liberal doesn’t have the luxury of picking a side in this debate. But please don’t assume that acknowledging the need for one doesn’t automatically assume a dismissal of the other.