Tag Archives: eu

Revoke or Referendum?

I’ve been fascinated by the response to the new Lib Dem position to fight the next election on a platform of revoking Article 50 and doing so if (and at the moment, it’s a big if) they win an outright majority. Polly Toynbee has denounced it as “extremist” with Emily Thornberry deciding to up the ante by comparing the party to the Taliban (I don’t know where I stand with regard making jokes about this reaction, possibly because I haven’t come up with any good ones, but I think Rajin Chowdhury makes some strong points about the unfortunate racial dimension that, as a white man, I’m privileged to not be impacted by).

Even Caroline Lucas has got in on the act, describing the policy as “arrogant, self-indulgent, cynical and very dangerous” – her point being that the policy is likely to ignite divisions rather than heal them.

There’s a few things to unpack here. Basically, there are three questions: is the policy undemocratic?; is the policy divisive?; and, is the policy likely to be a vote winner?

In terms of the latter, I’ve heard a lot of people express the worry that it isn’t – including, funnily enough, some of the six million people who signed a petition a few months ago demanding article 50 be revoked without a referendum (indeed, I don’t recall Lucas, Thornberry or Toynbee denouncing that petition). All I can say to that, aside from that time will tell, is that I would imagine the Lib Dem leadership team did their research very seriously before committing to this position and that, thus far, the polls have borne that out.

Is it undemocratic? Well, this is an interesting one. I’m still trying to keep up, as a constitutional reformer, with the situation that all my opponents have switched from saying that parliamentary sovereignty should and does trump everything else to seeing them consistently argue the exact opposite, including by people who for decades argued to leave the EU on precisely these terms. Before the crazy started, a party pledging to keep the nation’s status quo constitutional arrangements after winning a democratic mandate in a general election wouldn’t be considered noteworthy, let alone undemocratic or extremist.

Of course, you can argue that if the Lib Dems were to do this it is still unlikely they would win more than 50% of the popular vote. This is of course true. Nor was there a majority in the popular vote to impose austerity in 2010. Nor was there a majority voting for a whole host of policies which have had a major impact on our lives since time immemorial. This is a problem the Lib Dems have always recognised and pledged to do something about; neither Labour nor the Conservatives have ever made any such commitment.

There is also the argument that a general election result cannot trump the specific mandate of the 2016 election. This is where things start to slide into the third question, which is largely about politics. But I would point out at this stage that not only does that referendum result have no legal status whatsoever, but also that any democratic regime in the world which has referendums as a central mechanism for making major decisions, particularly Switzerland, would likely have stricken that result down as unconstitutional a long time ago.

If you think referendums should form a part of decision-making, then it is incumbent on you to prevent them from being quite so open to abuse as they currently are. The UK is very, very bad at holding referendums: we don’t have a legal framework to do so other than one that was sketched out in 2000 to deal with, at the time, a series of abandoned referendums for regional assemblies. We haven’t significantly updated referendum law since them, despite the debacle of the 2010 AV referendum providing us with a very salutary warning as to what might happen in a higher stakes national ballot.

It is perhaps Cameron’s greatest failing, having decided to hold that cursed referendum in 2016, to imagine that the unfair practices done in his name in 2010 would be done against him in 2016 – despite knowing that a number of the same people were involved in both campaigns. Not only did he not take that into account, but he doubled down, unjustly excluding 16 and 17 year olds and even EU citizens from the debate, for no reason other than to hand the leave campaign an unfair advantage by excluding the people with some of the greatest stakes in the result from being able to take part.

In short, if you are going to make this claim that the 2016 result should be binding, you need to at least be able to make the case that it was held democratically. In that regard, I fear, you would be on a very sticky wicket.

Finally, as in all things, we are left with the argument that this policy is divisive, and that we should be healing divisions between remainers and leavers, not deepen them. And this argument certainly has some superficial merit: the country is indeed deeply divided.

I guess my counter to that is that I’m not at all convinced that a compromise exists that can heal those divisions, and that the best approach would be to adopt the position that will at least end this ongoing festering wound. Revoking article 50, for all its risks, would at least give British politics a chance to breathe, and to start a dialogue about something, anything, other than Brexit – a great many of which would help heal those rifts. Keeping the debate going by contrast will only ensure those divisions continue.

From where we are now, I can’t see a compromise that will keep most people relatively happy. There certainly was a window of opportunity. In the summer of 2016, like a lot of people, I worked on the assumption that we were going to end up with the softest of soft Brexits and that, by 2019, would effectively have a trading arrangement akin to Norway. The result was close enough that no-one could reasonably argue that there was a strong mandate for a “hard” Brexit in which the UK went it entirely alone. Better yet, from monitoring the debate, both Vote Leave and Leave.EU had consistently argued that claims that we would drop out of the EU without a deal were “Project Fear” and specifically cited Norway as a model example.

To be clear, it wasn’t an option that I exactly relished: the Norway model is essentially the Leave position made manifest. We’d have to pay billions to the EU and have very little say in return – certainly no more votes in the European Parliament or Council of Ministers. But hey, there was a mandate, and I guess we have to listen to the will of the people. What’s more, only a few absolute headbangers were calling for a harder Brexit and surely Theresa May wasn’t going to listen to them?

How wrong I was. The subsequent conduct of the May administration appeared to work on the basis that the referendum had been a thumping victory for leave and not the narrow one that it was in reality. And as they did so, so did leave opinion harden. One of the greatest acts of gaslighting of the last few years has been to attempt to argue that the subsequent debacle has been because of remainers refusing to compromise and secretly undermining the talks, rather than leavers. Theresa May made a deliberate decision to put them in the driving seat and leave everyone else out in the cold.

So we ended up with a deal that didn’t please anyone and a leave contingency even more determined to leave at all costs, and this crazed government we have now. I didn’t do anything to create this situation and neither did Jo Swinson. The response by politicians on the leave side following Jo Cox’s murder by an extremist was not to pause for thought but to double down on the rhetoric about “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people” – and indeed we now have a government that has shut down parliamentary scrutiny, legally due to our shoddy constitution, or otherwise.

To be clear: this is not the situation we were in in 2016 where there was legitimate hurt on both sides that needed to be addressed. We’re in a situation where one side of that divide has been radicalised, and the other side has been repelled as a result. I’ve criticised the idea of centrism in the past, arguing that politicians shouldn’t be aiming for the moving target of the middle way because they are then entirely subject to the whims of their opponents, but it increasingly feels that trying to find a middle way here isn’t merely fudge but appeasement.

You don’t deradicalise a significant body people by trying to meet them halfway. Not only are people like Stephen Kinnock’s attempts to exhume the withdrawal agreement doomed to fail; if they had been successful they would be lumped in as filthy traitors just as much as the rest of us. Equally baffling is this idea that a Labour negotiated withdrawal agreement would somehow satisfy anyone, least of all the Brexiteers.

And so we return to the topic of a second referendum. For years, despite my misgivings of referendums, I thought this was the least worst option. I could see how revocation would be simpler, and it would certainly be my dream option, but I couldn’t see how it could be a politically acceptable solution to anyone other than a small cadre of remainers. I supported attempts to bring Labour on board and finally get off the fence by supporting this position; if they had done so a year ago we would likely have had the referendum by now.

But the question of what options you put in the referendum has become increasingly hard to answer. Six months ago, if Parliament had supported such a proposal, it was still just about possible to hold a referendum on remain versus Theresa May’s deal; I can’t see how that could be seen as anything other than a stitch up now. You could put crashing out of the EU with no deal at all as an option, but while people might relish the fight, it is surely not a responsible option any respectable political party could consider – it would be putting people’s lives up for debate in a public poll.

The other option is for the leave option to be a new withdrawal agreement. This is roughly what Labour seems to be tearing itself apart over now. The problem is, it’s an incredibly silly policy. Do you argue for remain and put forward a withdrawal deal that you don’t believe in? Do you say you’re going to support the withdrawal deal that you negotiate, and thus alienate your remain supporters? Or do you stay scrupulously neutral, as if that could possibly mean anything? Labour has got itself into such a mess that it might actually be for the best for them to have a formal position to remain, but give Jeremy Corbyn a free rein to negotiate the best deal he can come up with and campaign for it in the subsequent referendum in a personal capacity. That I can say that in all seriousness shows quite how hard to sustain the referendum position currently is. What looks likely is that Labour will end up committing itself to a policy almost identical to the one that David Cameron campaigned on in the 2015 general election; and look how well that turned out.

I can still see a referendum still happening as a compromise between the Lib Dems and Labour. Paradoxically, if the Lib Dems kept its position of supporting a referendum, the lack of pressure would probably make it harder to achieve. We’ve now reached a point where Labour feels it has ownership of the policy – helped by the Lib Dems vacating that space – and that will make it harder for the likes of Len McCluskey et al to persuade Corbyn to go back on it if they found themselves in government (I would be amazed if McCluskey didn’t still have a go though).

Ultimately, this muddle only strengthens my case that no position exists any longer that both leave and remain supporters can live with, and the fact that Labour is even considering an attempt at such a byzantine approach says more about the lamentable state it is currently in than anything else.

No Brexit policy is going to heal divisions; it is thus up to political parties to base their policy on what is best for the country, not try to ameliorate people with fudge. The Lib Dems have thus adopted the most responsible, straightforward and open position.

Ultimately, Brexit has only highlighted the deep divide in the UK; it didn’t cause it. If we’re going to ease that rift, we have to start looking at the deep inequality and alienation that was exploited in that poll. I’d have liked to have heard more emphasis on this coming out of Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth last week, and I have heard equally little from Labour conference in Brighton this week (scrapping posh schools, however desirable, won’t cut it). If pro-Europeans are ultimately going to win the peace, they need to start offering a vision of EU-membership from which the entire country reaps dividends, not just London and the major population centres. I don’t think offering a bit more hope would go down too badly in the election, either.

Brexit and the austerity paradox

Here’s a conundrum. I think it is widely understood now that at least one major factor for why the Remain side lost in the EU referendum campaign was that a significant number of people in the poorest parts of the country did not feel that they enjoyed any of the economic benefits of being a member of the EU and wanted to give the political establishment a bloody nose. There were certainly enough of those voters to make the difference between staying in and leaving the EU, given how close it turned out to be.

So if we’d spent the last decade investing in those parts of the UK and ensuring they saw greater economic renewal, more jobs and a higher standard of living instead of forcing austerity on them, driving up reliance on foodbanks and increasing human misery in the process, we wouldn’t now be seeing the sort of meltdown that we’re witnessing going on in the City right now.

Here’s the thing though. The City had made it perfectly clear that it wanted that austerity. Indeed, the City has quite a lot of form when it comes to threatening governments with economic hardship if it doesn’t get its way. During those infamous “5 days in May” in 2010 when we had no functioning government after the general election, the mood music coming from the Square Mile was grisly. The constant refrain, especially from the Lib Dems in the coalition, was that if we didn’t follow this path economic disaster would follow. I lost count the number of times that Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander over-egged the pudding and claim that we were on the brink of economic disaster on the scale that Greece has experienced over the last few years.

I can mock Clegg and Alexander, but the fact remains that there was some truth in this. The City was telling us to follow a course of action, and were threatening to punish us if we didn’t get in line. They had the whip hand, just two years after wrecking the global economy when you would have thought there would be a little more contrition.

In retrospect, I wonder: would the market have been able to cope with a little less austerity if what it got in return was the UK remaining in the EU? With the benefit of hindsight, I think the answer is yes. And yet here we are now, staring at economic disaster, with no political leadership in Westminster, and with the money men more in charge than ever. There is talk of sensibly abandoning austerity, but only because the economic case is pretty hard to dismiss (just as it was in 2007). And in the longer term, it looks like we’re going to be more dependent on the good will of the markets than ever. Far from having our sovereignty return from Brussels, it’s been punted a couple of miles down the Thames.

For several decades now, there has been an agenda to decouple politics from economics, with both politicians and business alike preferring to pretend that never the twain shall meet. There is only one economic model that works, and politics should focus on non-economic matters. So at the same time as we see all political parties becoming uncritical market capitalists, we see identity politics and nativism take hold. The reality is that the two are fundamentally intertwined. There are deep political consequences to economic decisions, which in turn can – and has – had fundamental economic consequences. Somehow, and I don’t know how, we need to create a greater awareness for how the decisions made on the floor of the stock exchange impacts daily life in Hartlepool. The alternative is a political system which continues to consume itself and drive itself increasingly to extremes, which in turn leads to economic ruin.

Why I’ll be voting “remain”

I decided a few weeks ago to break my blogging silence in the run up to the referendum, and the events of yesterday have somewhat concentrated my mind. I had imagined this article would be a magnificent rant about the lies and hate-mongering of the Leave campaign, but as I come to write this, I’ve found myself rather angered out.

Like many people with a history working in politics, Jo Cox’s murder feels close to home. I was working in Lib Dem HQ in 2000 when Cllr Andrew Pennington was killed by a constituent in Nigel Jones MP’s constituency office. I’ve worked the political beat in West Yorkshire. I campaigned for one of my friends, also called Jo, who also went on to represent the community she grew up in in Parliament. So yeah, despite having walked away from party politics, there are plenty of parallels in my own life to have given me pause for thought over the last 24 hours.

The referendum itself has become an undignified, ghastly mess. As a survivor of a previous referendum campaign, this of course has not surprised me one bit. What has surprised me rather more by how, as we near the finish line, I’ve found myself feeling quite as strongly as I did.

Twelve, even six months ago, I was feeling distinctly ambivalent about the EU. The way Greece has been treated, essentially as the sin eater for Eurozone’s shortcomings, has been appalling. The refugee crisis has been met with moral cowardice and indifference. Regardless of the TTIP’s merits or flaws (I’m genuinely on the fence), its secrecy has been, to say the least, undignified. For quite a while now, it hasn’t felt like the EU I felt proud to be a member of at the turn of the millennium.

The one thing I can say about this referendum is that it has clarified my thinking on that. Because the question arises, again and again, what the alternative is. I’ve heard countless people talk about how the EU is “undemocratic” – and yet not a single supporter of leaving the EU seems interested in a system that would be more democratic.

I can think of a number of ways in which the EU could be made more democratic. Opening up Council meetings, for example; there’s even a debate to be had over directly electing the Commission president (regardless of the pros and cons of that particular one, I doubt Jean-Claude Juncker would have had an easy time winning a popular vote). None of them whatsoever involve negotiating EU legislation in the same way that we negotiate bilateral treaties – entirely in the hands of the executive, with most of the work and negotiating done by civil servants entirely behind closed doors.

If we’re serious about improving the democratic scrutiny of EU legislation however, the most crucial place to start is home. Why, for example, are the committees which do the lion’s share of scrutiny of draft EU legislation, seated in the entirely unelected House of Lords? Why doesn’t our parliament scrutinise legislation as closely as so many other countries take for granted, particularly Nordic countries such as Denmark? In turn, if Parliament really wanted to give people more say, there are plenty of models it could adopt. None of these reforms would require agreement in Brussels – we could adopt them tomorrow if there was the political will.

If the EU ceased to exist tomorrow, the need for it would continue. We need trans-national agreements on standards; you might bristle about having to meet EU standards, but believe me you would bristle a lot more if you had to comply with 27 national ones. We need trans-national agreements on social and employment rights, because otherwise employers will face a Dutch auction, with the companies with the worst records in looking after their employees free to price out those with the best. And yes, all too often the EU, far from being an exemplar of free and open trade, is a cosy club of wealthy nations. But scrapping an organisation with protectionist tendencies with a free-for-all in which nation states will be under even greater pressure to roll up the drawbridge, isn’t going to solve that.

Most of the EU’s failings can be put down to narrow national self-interest, something which the EU exists to mitigate. You don’t solve that problem by embracing narrow national self-interest; I’d have thought that was self-evident. I’m actually not convinced that its main problems are institutional; predominantly, they’re cultural. “Europe lacks a demos,” by which is meant a sense of common identity and purpose amongst the people, has become a cliché, but it is nonetheless true and I can’t see an easy solution. Put simply, the vast majority of people just don’t feel a sense of ownership of the European institutions, let alone control. People struggle to name their MEPs and our media does little to report their work. As such, we have a set of actually quite open and democratic bodies which effectively operate in secret because so few people are actually paying attention.

It gets worse though. I think you could equally argue that local government largely lacks a “demos”. It is increasingly becoming true of national parliaments as well. Since 2009 and the expenses scandal, closely followed by the coalition government’s utterly failed programme of reform, the feeling that Westminster is unreformable and irrelevant seems to have set in. Increasingly, political outsiders are being invoked to ride in and solve all our problems, regardless of how unrealistic and futile their positions are. And it’s a global phenomenon: for every Nigel Farage, there’s a Donald Trump; for every Jeremy Corbyn there’s a Bernie Sanders.

What I’m getting round to saying here is that the problem with the EU is not rooted in the fact that we look to our cosy nation-states to represent us and solve our problems, but that democracy itself is in crisis because it is reliant on a sense of identity and common cause that we are losing rapidly. It’s a loss the left is struggling with more than the right, but even though the right is finding itself the beneficiary, it is becoming something shrill and even more incapable of providing reforms that don’t simply make things worse. Moderates who indulge their right flanks are being replaced by demagogic parodies of the politicians they have supplanted.

Not even countries with the best democratic systems are proving immune to this problem, which is fundamentally technological at root and thus irreversible (unless you consider nuclear apocalypse to be an option). Our problems are increasingly global ones. Our communities are too, even if they’ve become narrower. Walking away from the EU won’t stop that; it will just make our problems harder to solve.

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of migration. Economically, we have benefited hugely from immigration and we simply can’t control our borders without international cooperation. There simply is no drawbridge to pull up. Where there is a clear failure in our immigration policy, it is our national failure to ensure that the wider public see those benefits – especially in the case of providing decent social housing for all.

The refugee crisis isn’t going to magically go away if we decide the leave the EU. The tight border controls at Calais aren’t magically going to be made impermeable if we go – and does anyone seriously believe that the price of French cooperation in that regard is not going to go up if we do? Laughably, the Leave campaign’s solution is a “points-based” system along the lines of Australia – a country with a higher number of immigrants per head of population than we do; and while they’re busy plastering brown faces on their billboards with an explicit aim to scare white people, they’re quietly telling Asian voters that they’d make it easier for their relatives to come to the UK.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more disreputable political enterprise in the UK, with the stakes as high as they are, yet it plugs into people’s fears and has proven effective. And does anyone seriously doubt that if they get their way on the 23rd, public dissatisfaction about immigration will get anything but worse?

I have no idea what the solution to any of this is. What I do know is that things will go downhill, much more quickly, if we vote to leave next Thursday. What I do know is that the EU, already under pressure as people across Europe increasingly vote for insular and and xenophobic parties, will struggle even more. And I know that those self-same xenophobes, whether they wrap themselves in Nazi flags or claim to be insulted at the suggestion that they have anything in common with fascists, will only lead us to more violence, death and bloodshed. Not a single one of these problems will go away if the UK votes to remain, but we might just get a little bit more time to breathe and come up with something that might work. And I can’t believe that close pan-European economic, political and social cooperation won’t be part of that solution.

My current reckons on Tim Farron and the Lib Dems

This week marks the 20th anniversary of my joining the Liberal Democrats, an anniversary somewhat marred by the fact that I ceased to be a member between March 2012 and July this year. I rejoined following Tim Farron’s election as party leader, but I haven’t exactly bounced back into things. I’m still not over my political depression; my head says I should get back involved, but my heart still isn’t in it.

Farron has had a pretty low profile over the summer, but that’s fairly understandable given a) the need for a bit of post-election recuperation and b) the Corbyn phenomenon. And much has been written speculating about whether Corbyn represents a problem or an opportunity for Farron, who was widely perceived as wanting to shift the Lib Dems over to the left.

I didn’t go to Lib Dem conference this year, or watch it from afar especially closely. It seemed like a fairly typical post-election conference, focused mainly on housekeeping (adopting one member one vote, rejecting the “leader’s veto” on policy) as opposed to policy. The only substantial policy announcement I picked up on was Norman Lamb’s proposal for local authorities to have the power to raise taxes for local healthcare, which sounds potentially interesting but I’d need to see more detail.

I did however decide to watch Tim Farron’s speech. It was as accomplished as I expected it to be. I’ve seen people describe it as the best Lib Dem leader’s speech ever, or at least in “50 conferences” and I don’t think that’s far off the mark. Whatever other challenges the Lib Dems face, I think they have the best rhetorician of all the other UK party leaders right now.

If only that were enough. In terms of substance, I think the speech was fine. Excellent in places but lacking in theme and fairly dire in others. It showed potential, but it also highlighted some dangers. For what it’s worth, here are my “reckons” about the state of the Lib Dems right now:

Corbyn is the great unknown

I simply don’t know how the Corbyn phenomenon is going to play out. Like most people, I didn’t see it coming, although I understand all too well what has motivated it. A significant part of me really wants Corbyn to succeed. I technically had a vote in the Labour elections having registered as a union supporter (I felt entitled to vote given that I voted Labour in the General Election), but I didn’t cast it as I subsequently joined the Lib Dems and didn’t feel it was appropriate to vote in another party’s elections. If I had done so, to the consternation of my Labour family members, I’d have had to vote Corbyn 1, Kendall 2, Cooper 3. He was without question the most able to lead given the choice, but the choice was so limited – a fact that the anti-Corbynites within Labour seem incapable of accepting, let alone understanding the implications of. I agree with much of what he’s had to say, especially on economics.

I don’t think he’s going to succeed, and strongly doubt he will fight the next general election as leader however. Part of this, depressingly, is because the media and political class just won’t allow it. Some of that, however, he can simply shrug off. I suspect that the attacks on his republicanism, atheism and, gah, alleged lack of patriotism, will ultimately bounce off him and have the positive effect of opening up the amount of political space available to republicanism. But while I think the media’s capacity to destroy him is often overstated, the attacks from within his own party will be harder to deflect. I just don’t see him surviving in an environment where loyalty is so thin on the ground. Some of that is his own fault, but much of it is rooted in pure spite from his enemies within the party.

But the other major factor is the hard left which elevated him in the first place. I can’t see a large body of people who pride themselves on their unyielding inability to compromise as capable of finding any accommodation for people within Labour whose views are not identical, let alone moderate their own platform in the interest of finding common cause with floating voters. And that’s the ones actually in Labour; in my own social network I know of far more vocal Corbyn supporters who are actually Green Party members – and have no intention of even voting Labour let alone joining – than I know of ones who have actually decided to back him up from inside of the party.

In the long term, I have high hopes that a new generation of “soft left” Labour activists and politicians will emerge from this current situation who will be capable of steering their party back to principled electability. Over the next couple of years (at least) however, we are likely to see the hard left and Blairite hard right tear themselves to pieces.

What this represents to Farron is a headache, and a much more complex one than the simplistic media analysis that Corbynite Labour will cost the Lib Dems in left-leaning voters. Labour faces years of instability and until it has settled, settling on a Lib Dem approach to Labour – regardless of what is should be – will be futile. In short, Farron currently faces his own Kissinger Question: if he wants to talk to Labour, who does he call?

Farron should own the coalition – up to a point

The leftwing media has made a lot out of the fact that Farron failed to disown the coalition in his speech, with some even claiming it amounted to a u-turn. This is of course nonsense on stilts. In his ownership of the coalition years, Farron’s position on Wednesday was precisely the same position he adopted before the election and during the leadership contest.

He didn’t list all the things the Lib Dems in coalition did wrong, partly because it would have been dull, partly because – as a rebel in several key votes – it was redundant (not for nothing did a “senior” Lib Dem describe him as a “sanctimonious, god-bothering, treacherous little shit”), and partly because it would have resolved nothing except invite pious members of the commentariat to write endless screeds about the Lib Dems’ failure in government.

Ed Miliband has rightly been criticised for failing to stick up for Labour’s record in government and Farron has almost certainly learned from this. But there is actually an even stronger imperative for the Lib Dems to stick up for themselves here. In short, the Tories’ are doing much of the Lib Dems’ job on detoxification for them. Every time the Conservative government does something heartless and cruel – which let’s face it happens almost daily – the Lib Dem response is that they spent five years stopping precisely this sort of thing.

I say all this despite the fact that personally I found many of the Lib Dems’ actions in coalition to be unacceptable and driven by Clegg’s own ideological zeal rather than the need for compromise. That problem has mainly been nipped in the bud by the fact that however much Farron might personally like Clegg, he is a very different person. He does however need to engage at some point about some of the strategic failures of the Lib Dems in coalition, and make it clear that any future period as a junior partner in government won’t lead to the same mistakes being made. Clegg’s insistence on strict collective responsibility in areas beyond the scope of the coalition agreement, and the ceding of key decision making to the so-called quartet were particularly problematic. Farron should of course be open to coalitions in the future, but should rule out a return to the Rose Garden.

Equidistance should end – but when?

My and many others’ support for the coalition with the Conservatives was very much predicated on one thing: that it was a one-off. It was unique because we found ourselves in a position whereby coalition with Labour was both arithmetically and politically impossible at a time of heightened economic uncertainty. It was assumed that Labour wouldn’t go on to collapse so completely that the Tories would go on to not only gain seats at the next election but form a majority (back in May I thought that Labour’s inability to challenge the Tories meant that with the benefit of hindsight the coalition had been a mistake; now, with Labour facing even more instability for the foreseeable future, I’m not so sure).

A case can be made that going into an election promising to prop up a defeated and deflated Labour government in 2010 would have been a major mistake; somehow however this has mutated into a position of permanent equidistance. Nick Barlow has explained in detail why this would be a mistake and that from a purely pragmatic perspective, an anti-Tory strategy is far more likely to deliver electoral success. I have to admit that the sooner the Lib Dems end up back in this position, the happier I will be.

The question however, is timing, and the reason for that is again Jeremy Corbyn. We do not yet know whether Corbyn is to be an acrimonious flash in the pan or has real staying power. If Farron had announced the end of equidistance on Wednesday, it would have been grossly premature and signalled such a massive change in direction that it would quite possibly backfire. Corbyn needs to be able to demonstrate he has the capacity to lead a major political party, or be replaced by someone who can, before the Lib Dems can seriously consider ending equidistance; and Farron needs to pick his moment well. It was after all three years between the Chard speech and the Lib Dems’ formal adoption of the position.

Being pro-Europe is not enough

The weakest sections in Farron’s speech were the ones where he attacked Corbyn directly. That’s not because I don’t think he should criticise the leader of the Labour party but because they were ineffectual. These criticisms centred around his Euro-scepticism and his economic policy.

On Europe, Farron defined the Lib Dems as the “No ifs, no buts” pro-European party, and there’s nothing wrong with being pro-European in principle. In practice however, regardless of the upcoming UK referendum on whether to remain in it, the EU is currently tearing itself apart. While Corbyn might be coming from an anti-EU position, his proposal that Labour should not accept the debate around EU reform on the Tories’ terms is not a bad one, and reform is coming regardless of what David Cameron wants – whether it is due to countries such as Greece straining at the policies being imposed at is, or the hundreds of thousands of people currently marching through the Schengen agreement and the EU’s complacent position on immigration and supposedly sharing the burden of humanitarian aid. The EU is currently not a thing to be especially proud of; a bit of ambivalence about the EU right now is not only looking awfully sensible and patriotic, but the pro-European position to take.

It was a missed opportunity for Tim Farron not to reflect on that in preference to a couple of jibes at Corbyn’s expense. And in this respect, he is very much Continuity Clegg, who never looked more like a fully signed up member of the establishment when he took on Nigel Farage in 2014 defending the status quo instead of articulating what a liberal vision of the EU looks like.

The urgent need for an economic policy

On a similar note, Farron’s main charge against Corbyn was that he indulges in “fantasy economics”. In doing so, he legitimises the current economic status quo. David Boyle has more to say on this and I’ll try to repeat him here.

The initial hug-them-close strategy of the Lib Dems in coalition had devolved by the halfway mark into a more businesslike arrangement, but at its heart, Clegg and Alexander insisted, was an acceptance of Osbornomics. The idea was that the Lib Dems would share the credit for the economic recovery.

The problem was of course, that it was nonsense. Faced with a choice between the authors of the economic policy and its cheerleaders, voters quite reasonably opted for the real deal. All Clegg achieved by insisting that there was no alternative was to argue his colleagues out of their seats.

Describing Corbyn’s position as fantasy is a luxury a party lacking an economic policy of its own cannot afford to do. If, hope against hope, the party goes onto adopt an economic policy of its own, any similarity to Labour’s position risks being portrayed as at best a u-turn, at worst, the very fantasy that Farron himself had been condemning up until that point.

By all means, I’d love to hear a Lib Dem critique of Corbynomics, but so far all we’ve heard is insults. The truth is that the Lib Dems have survived for decades without a meaningful economic policy of its own, other than a bit of fiscal jiggery-pokery. For Farron, it needs to be the number one priority if he truly believes in the social justice he has staked his leadership on.

Scapegoating Nick Clegg is the lowest form of populism

Owen JonesMy ire was particularly roused yesterday by Owen Jones’s latest attack on Nick Clegg. Now, regular readers of this blog may be aware that Nick Clegg is not exactly my favourite person, I actually agree that Clegg is populist with little in the way of actual principles, and that this latest capitulation to crack down on virtually non-existent use of the UK welfare system by EU migrants is an apt if depressing example of this. But Jones’s analysis has one fatal flaw: he’s a member of the Labour Party.

You don’t have to agree with Martin Shapland’s equally flawed analysis that the fact that Labour have equally let down EU migrants and indeed the UK electorate that that somehow makes the Lib Dems’ own actions more acceptable to agree that Owen Jones and his cohorts are in no position to criticise.

If Clegg’s “scapegoating” of EU migrants (which is to ignore the fact that the Lib Dem position is far less coherent than simple scapegoating) is “unforgiveable”, then what does that make Yvette Cooper’s claim that the coalition are playing catch up behind Labour on this issue? Indeed, so behind the coalition were Labour on Tuesday that they set one of their lead attack dogs to smear Laszlo Andor, an EU commissioner who had the unmitigated gall to criticise the UK for adopting such a policy, wrongly claiming he was a fascist.

This isn’t the first time, and won’t be the last, that Clegg’s team has concluded that with Labour and the Tories united on an issue they might as well go along with it for fear of being singled out. It was the same reasoning that made Clegg so keen to not come out against the snooper’s charter. Clegg isn’t a liberal, although he wore that mask for a while, and his mission is to be seen to be in the centre of politics between Labour and the Tories, no matter where that centre happens to be (he’s only sticking with the party’s pro-EU stance because he knows that dropping it would lead to a split the party would not survive from). He’s pretty despicable. But does anyone really believe that is more despicable than the party leaders he is slavishly following? Miliband could have caused a split within the coalition by adopting a pro-migrant, and fact-based stance on immigration. Leaving aside his ethical and moral responsibilities, he had a responsibility to do so as the leader of the official opposition. Cringing in fear of how Lynton Crosby would respond, he chose not to.

I’m not suggesting the Lib Dems should be let off the hook, merely that they are irrelevant. Even if every single Lib Dem voted against these measures, the combined Labour-Conservative hegemony would get it through parliament. If Owen Jones truly had the principles he has pinned his professional career to, he would have chosen to lay into who is possibly the next prime minister for his cowardly stance, rather than the leader of a declining third party. Does anyone else see the irony in choosing to pull his punches on Miliband and ramp up the rhetoric on Clegg in an article denouncing the political practice of scapegoating? This is black propaganda indeed.

Remind me how the gagging law will prevent a UK “Koch Brothers” again?

UKIP Billboard from 2004One of the common arguments by the supporters of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is that it will prevent the UK equivalent of the Koch Brothers from being able to buy the political process for their own nefarious ends.

So it is with good timing that Paul Sykes has re-emerged, promising to do “whatever it takes” to get UKIP to become the largest UK political party in the European Parliament after the elections next year.

Paul Sykes, for those with short memories, was a Conservative donor who switched sides in the early noughties. The billboard campaign he funded in 2004 had a direct effect on the result, in which UKIP leapt from 3 MEPs to 12. Even without his intervention, it was looking distinctly possible that UKIP could become the largest party in 2014, with the Tories’ popularity being dented due to being in government, and the BNP collapsing. Now it is looking like a very real prospect indeed.

This sort of intervention by a Eurosceptic millionaire is hardly a new thing in British politics; it’s been an ongoing saga since the Maastricht debate shot Europe up the political agenda 20 years ago. And while it’s true that they have occasionally dipped their toes into non-party campaigning with causes such as the disastrous (in terms of its impact compared to the amount of money that was reportedly spent on it) IWantAReferendum.com, they have predominantly sought to exert their influence via political parties rather than pressure groups.

All of which makes shroud-waving about what might happen when “Koch UK land here” seem rather odd; their tanks are already on our lawn. The policy solution is of course to limit what individual’s can donate to political parties, an issue which the coalition paid lip service to but have now walked away from even after we saw progress made on alternative, revenue-neutral funding mechanisms and the Labour Party shifted ground significantly in terms of their own trade union-led opposition to the idea.

Gratifyingly the government have now – for a short period at least – agreed to pause the legislative process, to allow more time for ministers to listen to the concerns of civic society organisations. We can thank organisations such as 38 Degrees for helping to win that respite. Hopefully it will lead to meaningful engagement and at least some of the scrutiny that the bill should have got before being read in parliament. Optimistically, it might even lead to a more robust legislative framework to regulate the role third parties can play in elections. But be under no illusion whatsoever that it will do a thing to remove the dominance millionaires have over the UK political system.

Cameron’s Lisbon pledge is “grammar streaming” all over again

Do you remember “grammar streaming“? That remarkable non-policy that Cameron came up with in 2007 designed to shut down the spiralling rows over grammar school policy that had been raging throughout the summer? Cameron’s announcement about European Policy today reminded me of that prime example of ridiculousness.

Like grammar streaming it is an attempt to square a circle which a large proportion of his backbenchers, frontbenchers and grassroots are obsessed with beyond all reason, despite the fact that a compromise in this case isn’t really possible. Part of the problem is that the Tory rhetoric about Lisbon for the past four years has been so over the top that lamely muttering “never again” doesn’t begin to rectify things. If the Lisbon Treaty was as bad as they have been claiming it is then the logical course of action is to call for the UK to leave the EU. That they are not tells you everything you need to know about what they really think about how pernicious this treaty really is.

European Treaties consist of rules that we have to live with from the moment they are ratified. They are not mere events. They aren’t a kick in the balls that you feel sore about for a while but which don’t fundamentally change anything. Yet this is how the Conservatives have consistently portrayed them. Maastricht was supposed to be the treaty to usher in the European Superstate. It didn’t happen. Then we were told that the secret plan was in Nice. Didn’t happen. And so we go on, treaty after treaty. Each time the Tories confess quietly that, yes, the last one wasn’t anything like as awful as they had been making out but THIS one on the other hand… it is laughable.

Cameron’s new cast iron guarantee appears to consist of two legislative steps: first, they will pass a law asserting Parliamentary sovereignty. Second, they will amend the European Communities Act 1972 to prohibit the further “transfer of power to the EU” without a referendum.

The first one is interesting because Bill Cash attempted to introduce precisely this rule into the Lisbon Treaty bill last year. Cameron – and most of the Conservative Party – abstained. So this is another EU-turn. But they had good reason to abstain – Cash’s amendment was meaningless. Parliamentary sovereignty has always been a mythological concept, as evidenced by the fact that the executive in this country wields enormous royal prerogative powers. The Tories may now want to shave off the worst excesses of the royal prerogative, but they have shown no sign of ending them. In particular they haven’t called for the government’s treaty-making powers to be invested in Parliament. Laws such as the Treaty of Lisbon Act are really just niceties – there is nothing to stop the government from ratifying treaties without Parliament. And indeed they do in the case of less controversial treaties.

One thing you can’t do is call for Parliamentary sovereignty with one hand and then demand popular referendums to ratify EU treaties with the next. Unless, it seems, you happen to be David Cameron (to be fair, most of the Conservative Party thinks the same thing). In any case, what does this pledge mean in practice? Under Lisbon, the European Council can make all sorts of changes without going as far as agreeing another treaty as long as all the member states agree. If Cameron agrees to one of these cosy little deals will he subject it to a referendum vote, or claim that it doesn’t count because it isn’t in a treaty? And what does “transfering power to the EU” mean anyway? We have done no such thing. We’ve pooled sovereignty which is a very different thing. Once again, that appears to give him a lot of wriggle room.

What is so special about European treaties anyway? If, heaven forbid, the Copenhagen talks result in a radical global commitment to reducing carbon emissions, it will have a profound effect on UK law. We will in effect be ceding our power to set energy and environmental policy for decades to come. It will be far more profound in practice than Lisbon. Will Cameron therefore be demanding a referendum on it (I right this as someone who thinks it might not actually be a bad idea as it would force the country as a whole to contemplate the crisis we face)? What about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, due for renegotiation in the next couple of years? Is there a more profound impact on our sovereignty than security issues?

The whole thing smacks of style over substance and an attempt to buy a handful of naturally very angry people off. What I don’t understand is why it all seems to have been written on the back of a fag packet. Cameron must have known he was going to have to come up with a Plan B this summer as the opinion polls made the Irish “yes” win look increasingly likely. Yet he carried on pretending that the Lisbon Treaty was dying. The decision to promote Dan Hannan was especially surprising given the whole NHS debacle. He knew Hannan was a loose cannon and one who was causing him grief at the time. He knew Hannan would rather garotte himself than accept a U-turn on Lisbon. Yet he appointed him anyway, with predictable results.

I think Cameron will be a disastrous Prime Minister if he gets the chance: another Tony Blair but without the steel. His photo in the Guardian yesterday summed it up perfectly, something which Alastair Campbell has been mercilessly taking the mickey out of. It really is the most excrutiating photo of Cameron since That Bullingdon group shot. Here is a man who clearly puts more thought into his image than into his policies. The result is that both end up pretty laughable.

And yet, and yet… Gordon Brown is so spectacularly awful and incompetent that none of this seems to matter much. Despite the fact that UKIP will be having a field day trying to extract as much support from Eurosceptic Tories as they can on polling day, it probably won’t be enough. As with grammar streaming, the loony wing seem to have been largely bought off with this vague assortment of half promises and purple rhetoric. It certainly looks at the moment as if a sizeable chunk (by no means a majority) of the British public have made their mind up that they want Cameron as the next Prime Minister. I’m pretty sure they will shortly repent, but there doesn’t seem to be any telling them.

Isn’t it time you came clean about Lisbon, Mr Cameron

According to the Telegraph

Mr Klaus, the sole remaining leader in the European Union not to have signed the document, conceded that despite his personal opposition to the treaty, it was now too late to stop it.

He also dismisssed speculation that he would try to hold off formally signing the document after the forthcoming British general election next year. Such a move would pave the way for a future Conservative government to hold a referendum on the treaty, which could derail the entire plan if it delivered a “No” vote. But Mr Klaus said: “I will not and cannot wait for the British election. They would have to hold it in the coming days or weeks.”

Er, David, your last figleaf just fell off.

Europe, turnout, the BNP, the Greens and fair votes

I’ve just got back from an hour’s stint on LBC talking about Yurp. Myself and fellow guest Hugo Brady from the Centre of European Reform were both under the impression we were there to discuss how the European Parliament works and the elections themselves. Instead we found ourselves being asked to mount a full frontal defence of the EU itself, covering everything from the CAP to auditing budgets. Not an easy task when you aren’t prepared (and as a non-expert of the subject I probably wouldn’t have gone on on that basis, but there you go).

For the record, incidently, I would quite happily scrap the Common Agricultural Policy. It’s appalling. If you do think that however, and you actually care about people unfairly affected by it in developing countries (as one of the callers purported to do), then the single worst thing you could do is pull out of the EU and allow the opponents of reform to have it entirely their own way. I don’t like a lot of UK policies and want UK political reform, but if you heard me calling for us to pull out of the UK on that basis you would consider me to be an utter loon.

What I didn’t get a chance to discuss were the poll findings that Vote Match/Unlock Democracy unveiled yesterday suggesting that tomorrow’s turnout could be an all time high for the European Elections. 50% in our YouGov survey said they were definitely going to vote (another 11% gave an ‘8’ or ‘9’ incidentally), which YouGov advise suggests a nominal turnout of 43-45%. That’s pretty unprecedented.

It is clear that the reason for this potentially (and comparatively) high turnout is not a hard fought contest about the European Parliament itself (if only) but MPs’ expenses and the subsequent meltdown of the UK Parliament. In short, the public are out to give the political classes a bloody nose. But it is also interesting to note both the generational and gender differences. Simply put, younger voters will be turning out in much fewer numbers and are not doing so because they simply don’t know what the elections are about. Older voters are, unsurprisingly, most likely to turn out. But it is the middle-aged voters who are most likely to abstain because of the expenses scandal itself. Women are likely to turn out in comparative numbers to men but their reason for not doing so again has more to do with not knowing enough about the elections than it has to do with scandal.

YouGov have also done an eve of poll for the Telegraph, suggesting that Labour may be pushed into third or even fourth place. As Anthony Wells has been chronicling, the polls are all over the place at the moment – the pollsters’ rules-of-thumb assumptions which they use to weight their data appear to have been blown wide open by the collapse in Labour support. We live in unprecedented times and it remains to be seen which pollster emerges with the most credit.

Nonetheless Anthony makes a good fist of an argument that YouGov are likely to be more accurate than most and for all their critics they have tended to be quite accurate. Either way, it looks terrible for Labour, with the Tory and Lib Dem levels of support staying at around their 2004 levels. The Greens look like their vote will be up while UKIP could either be significantly up or a bit down.

The Telegraph report that the 5% figure the YouGov poll gives the BNP suggests that they may well make the breakthrough they were hoping for in the North West. We only have the national figures to look at right now but unless the North West specific figures say something different, I’m not so sure. Based on the national swing, that puts the parties in the North West at:

Conservative: 23% (-1%, 2 MEPs)
Labour: 20% (-7%, 2 MEPs)
Lib Dem: 16% (-, 2 MEPs)
UKIP: 14% (+2%, 1 MEP)
Green: 10% (+4%, 1 MEP)
BNP: 6% (-, 0 MEPs)

Those figures come with a health warning, not to mention the fact that national swings are pretty spurious at the best of times. But it does highlight one aspect of this election which has been criminally under-reported: the resurgence of the Green Party. The psephology behind their Stop Nick Griffin campaign is entirely spurious but there is no escaping the fact that every vote for the Greens in the North West will make it harder for the BNP to get elected (where they are wrong is where they claim that a tactical Green vote is better than a vote for the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems or UKIP in this respect). And with a poll leap of the scale that every pollster appears to be reporting will result in a quite healthy haul of Green MEPs. This is a big deal – certainly a bigger deal than the possibility that the BNP might win a single seat. Yet by and large they have been ignored.

If I have one prediction to make about these elections it is that they will be a vindications of the proportional voting system. I dislike closed list systems but even closed list-PR is better than closed list-FPTP.

Would we be looking at such a dramatic result if we still used FPTP for the European Elections? In one sense, we would. The story right now would not be “will the BNP gain a seat in the North West?” but “will the BNP gain seats in East London, the Potteries, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire?” All of these areas are places where FPTP has enabled the BNP to gain a foothold – often gaining swathes of seats with remarkably small shares of the vote. The BNP would have a much easier time targeting four old-style Euro-constituencies than they have targeting a whole region. Far from making it easier for the BNP then, PR has actually made it tougher.

But overall, it would have lead to business-as-usual. PR has given the public a means of punishing the political class (which as a whole, completely deserves it). Without PR, we would be looking at a repeat of 1989 where the Greens got 15% of the vote and not a single seat. Now maybe it is time the Greens (and UKIP) got their act together and learned to target but the electorate shouldn’t have to wait for them to get their tactics right in order to express its displeasure (and targeting is at best a necessary evil in any case).

Face the facts: under FPTP, we would not now be looking at as high a turnout and the main parties would be sitting pretty. The public would have no outlet to vent their frustration. That would have been a dangerously unhealthy state of affairs.

It is certainly frustrating that the last thing this election is being decided upon is what it is osensibly about – the future direction of the European Union. But if what we get in exchange is the first real opportunity for the public to fully express itself in a UK-wide election, that is a price worth paying. Now: let’s replace it with an open list system or STV so it can be even better!