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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.

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.

Tory Dog Whistle Politics is Back! (did it ever really go away?)

I’ve been travelling back from my short break in North Yorkshire today but I have a headache. Tories have been blowing into dog whistles all day and the tinny noise has been reverberating from as far away as Whitby.

For years now, this blog has been reminding readers that the problem with Cameron is not Cameron per se but the fact that he doesn’t have any control of his party; indeed, the party has control of him. And that party is, to put it politely, out of control. As it stands, even when the CCHQ says one thing, there are enough hints and suggestions out there to make it clear that it simply isn’t going to pan out like that. I offer you two (and a half) bits of evidence from the past 48 hours:

Firstly, this John Bercow business. There is an interesting debate to be had about how the Lib Dems should respond*, but for the Tories their recourse should be obvious for four reasons. Firstly, Bercow is a Tory MP, for good or ill. They didn’t kick him out and he didn’t defect – in any respectable party that has to count for something. Secondly, as the party which has always positioned itself as the defender of Parliamentary convention, to oppose Bercow would be to politicise the role of the speaker to an intolerable level. Thirdly, allowing UKIP a foot in the door to the House of Commons will have consequences that the Conservative Party would be better off not having to live with. Broadly speaking, the Tories can afford to triangulate the anti-Europe right in General Elections for the simple reason that they have nowhere to go – just as Labour has successively triangulated the far left for two decades now. Once UKIP start getting MPs however, this all changes. Fourthly, as Farage himself happily acknowledges, he is the king of sleaze.

Yet this doesn’t appear to be happening. Jonathan Calder offers a good summary of the initial bloggers’ reaction to Farage’s decision to oppose Bercow yesterday. But the support seems to go much higher than just a bunch of rabid bloggers. Tim Montgomerie reported this morning that someone from CCHQ had effectively given a green light for Tories to support Farage, claiming that because Bercow wouldn’t be an official Tory candidate CCHQ would turn a blind eye. Eventually an official statement from the party contradicted this but it took them six whole hours to put it out.

Clearly the people that Eric Pickles likes to call the “boys and girls” at CCHQ have been feeling conflicted and decided to leave Bercow on the dangle for nearly two days before lending him his support. Conservative Home’s new poll suggesting that 64% of Tory members would prefer Farage over Bercow. If two-thirds of Labour members in 1997 had said they’d like a chance of electing, say, Arthur Scargill you can bet the Tories would have made something of it.

Secondly, we have Dan Hannan’s mysterious promotion. It is one thing for Cameron to try to disown Hannan as an eccentric on the fringe of the party, quite another if just weeks after causing him so many problems Hannan gets a fat reward. Hannan flexed his muscles this summer and it was Cameron who flinched, just as we saw back in 2007 when for a time the only thing resembling a Conservative Party policy on education was support for something called “grammar streaming.”

And my “half”? Well, I’d like to cite Kit Malthouse’s extraordinary intervention claiming to have taken control of Scotland Yard, except that, like Jonathan Calder, I’m struggling to see what the fuss is about. I’m very sceptical of the Tory idea of elected police sheriffs and if what Malthouse was suggesting was that they have effectively imposed this in London I’d be fearful. But what we have is a Police Authority and I’d rather see that have control over day to day policing than the Home Office.

With all that said, if Malthouse and Johnson want to claim responsibility for the Met over the last year, then they are the ones we have to blame for the appalling behaviour of the police back in April. If this is the sort of policing we are to see under a Tory government then we have good reason to be fearful.

All in all, what we are looking at is a Conservative Party that is very different to the one being projected by David Cameron. This is very different to the situation in 1997 when we faced a New Labour government with a firm grip on the remaining Old Labour rump. The electorate might think it is voting for a warm, fluffy, “progressive” party but what it will get is a fairly ravenous beast. The clues are all there, the headbangers are telling anyone who will listen and the Tory leadership are frankly indulging them in a hope that they don’t get their heads bitten off. The problem is, Labour has done such a poor job over the past couple of years, and the Lib Dems have failed to spell out enough of an alternative, that to a large extent I suspect that enough of the electorate is in the mood to vote the Tories in now and repent at leisure.

* I’ve given this some thought today and while I think fielding a candidate is certainly not something I would automatically rule out, I’m not currently persuaded that it would be a good idea. We could never afford to target it to the extent that UKIP will be able to (we’ll have considerably more target seats) and a half-hearted campaign will only serve to make Farage more credible. Things might change – if Bercow really looked like a dead duck we might have to reconsider – and I certainly agree that any party which supports democratic reform shouldn’t be too deferential to existing Parliamentary conventions (the existing convention couldn’t operate under a PR system in any case), but at the moment there seem to be far more cons than pros.

Bercow and burying bad news

It is quite telling that on Monday the Tories opted to a) announce the membership of their new Euro grouping and b) announce the resignation of Ian Clements. Burying bad news? I should coco! At least James Cleverly has the decency to admit it, however obliquely.

There isn’t much more I can say about the Euro grouping that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. Suffice to say, the fact that they could only muster two other parties with more than one MEP to join is all too telling.

I know the Tories like to bang on about how the other European Parties have their fair share of oddballs (I’ve never had the names of the guilty ALDES parties mentioned but no doubt someone can point me to them), but this is a grouping of ALL oddballs. Forming a grouping like this is to make a statement and the statement I hear from this is that the Tories do not consider environmental issues or gay rights anything close to a priority.

The Ian Clements incident is gobsmacking. Boris hasn’t been any better than Ken in terms of appointing his own cronies. The difference is, Ken’s ones tended to be more honest – or somewhat smarter at least.

Meanwhile, the Tory reaction to Bercow’s election is one of the least gracious spectacles I’ve seen in a long time. This, let us not forget, is from people who were complaining at how Michael Martin had politicised the role.

The objection to John Bercow from the Tories is not that he is a swivel-eyed racist, but that he isn’t one any more. An odd statement to broadcast to the nation. Dan Finkelstein rightly gives his team a good ticking off. Praise is also due to Douglas Carswell who was one of the first voices of calm this morning. Not only that, but he admitted to voting for Bercow himself (thereby scotching Nadine Dorries’ theory that only two other Tories voted for JB), and voted for my own first choice Richard Shepherd (you see, I love Tories really).

As for the result itself, personally I would have been happy with either Bercow or Young. I’m delighted the speculation surrounding Margaret Beckett’s shoo-in proved to be utter nonsense. I suspect that the hostility shown towards Bercow has been whipped up by a bunch of headbangers in the party and will dissipate fairly quickly. It is certainly the case that nothing like all of the Labour Party voted for Bercow – given that it seems most Lib Dems did a sizeable chunk of Labour MPs must have shored up Young’s vote.

I do wonder however if the electoral system they have used is the best one for letting a “consensus” candidate emerge. The downside of an exhaustive ballot/AV procedure is that it doesn’t always help build consensus. In this case, with one candidate clearly despised by a minority (how large that minority is remains an unknown quantity), it just looks like majoritarianism.

How different would it have been if they had used Modified Borda Count, where lower preferences would have been counted, or Majority Judgement? With both these systems, being despised by the minority would have counted against Bercow (this assumes that most Bercow voters would have minded Young winning less than the other way around). Enough to affect the outcome? I couldn’t say, but it certainly would have narrowed it.

The bottom line is that while we have a system which tends to ensure that a single party has a majority in the Commons, it is that majority that will get to pick the speaker. The convention of picking an opposition party speaker went out of the window in 2000. A system that at least softens the harder effects of that brute fact is at least worth considering.

What part of ‘Eurovision’ don’t you understand?

Last night’s Eurovision Song Contest was the first I’d sat all the way through in years. Cheesy pop isn’t my thing, ironically detached or not. What I saw remained not my thing, but it wasn’t the sort of frothy nonsense that exists in the British public’s imagination either. This is something that appears to upset Tim Moore.

The tone of his article is quite obnoxious. There are no fixed rules about what Eurovision is or is not and there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that many for many Europeans the joke is over. Lordi won last year because of a coalition between the Baltic states, people who wanted a wholly ‘inappropriate’ song to win and genuine rock fans. I was bored a few months ago and decided to see how the result would have changed if each country’s vote was weighted by population. Lordi still won hands down. Watching the voting last night it was clear that Serbia won because of more than the blatant ‘bloc voting’ of neighbouring Balkan states giving them top marks – they won because pretty much every single country gave them at least 1 point. They took it seriously and won. We treated it like a joke and were wiped out. It’s as simple as that.

Complaining that Eurovision is no longer about cheesy pop is to attempt to impose a definition of popular culture on the rest of Europe that they don’t share. Tim Moore’s complaint appears to rest on the fact that he doesn’t like power ballads and rock. Such music doesn’t exactly rock my world either, but if Eurovision is evolving into something new and decidedly less western, then we just need to deal with it. You never know, it might even mean that the British submit a half decent entry for once.

Cameron ditches green policies

(hat tip: Liberal Review)

The Tory confusion about the environment deepens. The problem is, they now love the environment but hate one of the best tools we have for protecting it: the EU. Out of desperation, they have thrown themselves into the arms of a party that is deeply opposed to climate change policies:

In an interview with the Czech newspaper Hospodarske noviny on February 12, Mr Klaus said: “Global warming is a false myth and every serious person and scientist says so.”

He added: “Environmentalism as a metaphysical ideology and as a worldview has absolutely nothing to do with natural sciences or with the climate.” Scientists who said global warming was happening were “politicised”, he said.

Meanwhile of course, the environmentalists they have embraced say similarly batty things about the EU. Take tin foil hat salesman Zac Goldsmith, who mixes environmentalism, cigar smoking and gambling with wanting to smash the whole thing up into little pieces and leave the rest of the world entirely dependent on the US for leadership.

All in all, it looks as if Cameron’s support for green issues is only limited to the UK’s own borders. If only climate change respected borders in the same way.