Tag Archives: liberal-democrats

Ed Miliband stone pledges

Random thoughts on the election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maggie Simpson UK election map

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

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

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

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

Nick Clegg

My Lib Dem ambivalence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greens

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

Myleene Klass and political failure

Myleene Klass may be deeply confused about how the mansion tax will work in practice, but she probably isn’t the only one. As a supporter of land value taxation, it is no surprise that I think it is a flawed policy, but what’s really problematic is the way both Labour and the Lib Dems are attempting to sell it.

In many ways, Klass’s tustle with Ed Miliband sums up the problem. She seems to think that, as a tax which will only apply to properties worth £2m and over, that in parts of London that applies to garages. She’s wrong. The £2m figure was calculated to be as painless to as many people as possible. In fact, under Vince Cable’s original proposals in 2009, the tax was to apply to properties worth £1m and over. This was quickly adjusted following an outcry from Cable’s fellow South West London MPs who feared a backlash (and even £1m is a bit steep for a garage, Myleene).

The UK – and London in particular – has a real problem with rising house prices. Home ownership has reached extremely low levels compared to recent history and the fears of another housing price bubble, despite the views of fantasists like Danny Alexander, are very real. The UK ought to be having a very serious conversation about how it tackles this.

Instead, we try to kid ourselves that this is just a problem for the very rich. Hence the mansion tax’s £2m threshold. We ought to be having a national conversation about restructuring our economy to avoid property bubbles. We ought to be talking about a property tax which kicks in at much lower levels. But we’re too busy blaming everything on immigrants and the poor.

Meanwhile, our existing domestic property tax, the council tax, has not been revalued in England since 1991. If our politicians lack the courage to even do that, what hope is there for us to have a serious conversation about what’s needed.

Ironically, the Lib Dems in particular, are in a better place than they have been in years to make the case. 10 years ago, they were transfixed with the idea of scrapping all property taxes and making taxes on employment take up even more of the strain. Now they are making the case for more taxes on property and taking people out of income tax altogether. Yet there is no narrative connective tissue between the two. They aren’t making the case for a fairer society and stronger economy in which a hard day’s work is taxed less and wealth is taxed more.

Ignore policy for a minute, which is largely irrelevant these days in a world of coalition government. What a liberal party ought to be making the case for right now is a new economy with significantly different priorities. It can’t be done overnight, but it can be done over time, piecemeal. There can be a direction of travel. It can’t however be done by stealth; the public need to buy into it or it will fall apart after the first Daily Mail headline.

The mansion tax could be step one of a new economic plan; as it is, it’s a policy cul de sac. Assuming it eventually happens, it will probably suffer the same indignity as council tax, and never be touched again. Or worse, start going up by inflation to ensure that only a tiny minority ever pay it and its true revenue potential is never realised. It’s emblematic of the political malaise; instead of dealing with the big political issues of the day, we’re reduced to soundbites.

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.

Jeremy Browne: off his trolley

Jeremy BrowneThe Times’s interview with Jeremy Browne today (link to the Guardian because it doesn’t have a paywall and there’s nothing in the Times original that you’re missing) highlights for me the inherent contradiction of the Lib Dem right wing.

They’ve always veered between two modes. One is that the wicked left of the party have tainted the party with social democracy and the purity of liberalism. This was the general approach of the Orange Bookers and the narrative that Nick Clegg presented during his rise to prominence. The other is to denounce the left for wanting to be a party of protest in permanent opposition. Notoriously, this was the subject of a Nick Clegg speech earlier this year, but it was also the main tactic 15 years ago when the right (the majority of whom were the same people), were arguing that the Lib Dems ought to be repositioning for a permanent alliance with the Blairite New Labour.

In Jeremy Browne’s flounce in the Times, he manages the double: the wicked left both want to be in permanent opposition and are not proper liberals. What’s interesting though is that it appears to be an open secret that the main reason he was sacked from the home office was because he was so comfortable with the Tories’ anti-immigration and increasingly authoritarian policies.

In theory, the one thing that unites Lib Dems across the spectrum is that they are liberal on social issues. The Orange Book narrative was always that the left, with its suspicious closeness to the Labour Party and love of the state and positive freedoms were the most susceptible to drifting into a “nanny state knows best” mindset. In practice however, it has consistently been the right which has ended up professing a love for Big Brother. Back when Mark Oaten was the right’s golden boy, he came up with the term “tough liberalism,” the only substantial application of which was support for ID cards.

Jeremy Browne can’t be entirely blamed for the Lib Dems’ tacit support for authoritarianism in government, even if it does appear to have accelerated since his promotion to the Home Office last year. It does appear however that the right in the party has a problem with definition. 10 years ago, the Orange Book launched on the premise that the right was economically liberal but still share the socially progressive goals the 20th century Liberal Party championed. Over the course of that decade, they have gone further back, increasingly ditching economic liberalism in favour of the classical liberalism of Gladstone where the only thing that mattered was unfettered markets. With the right’s poster child having now revealed his true disdain for basic liberal values such as civil liberties and the freedom of movement of people, you’ve got to ask yourself: what, aside from conservativism, do they have left?

“Help to buy” undermines the very purpose of the Lib Dems in government

AlexanderUnlike a lot of disgruntled former Lib Dems (and, for that matter, disgruntled current Lib Dems), I still have a lot of time and sympathy for the party. I still think that joining the coalition was the right thing to do. I see the Lib Dems stopping Tory madness on a daily basis and anyone who doesn’t accept this must either deluded or plain dishonest. I oppose many of the welfare reforms, but recognise that with Labour offering virtually no opposition on the subject and public opinion very much in favour, there is not a whole lot they could really do.

And while I’m distinctly uneasy about George Osborne’s economic policies and the Lib Dems’ support for it, I will give him this: even if he wanted to adopt a dramatically different approach, the combined forces of Germany and the financial markets would make it exceedingly difficult for him to do so. And while it’s possible the recovery would have been swifter if we had borrowed more and cut less, I can’t honestly say that I know this to be true.

But much of my respect for the Lib Dems’ work in government is rooted in the fact that it was a responsible decision in the face of economic chaos. It stops right at the point where I think they start signing up to policies which are economically irresponsible. And that brings us to this “help to buy” scheme.

I am hardly the first person to point out that inflating house prices at this time to help people to take out mortgages in an untargeted way will simply help to increase property prices in an unsustainable way and price even more people out of the market altogether. I was alarmed to hear Danny Alexander on the radio this morning denying that the current rate of unaffordable house prices was even a problem and insist that all that was needed was easier access to mortgages. To hear him wistfully talk about how he got a 95% mortgage “25 years ago” (which meant he got his first mortgage when he was 16, incidentally), made it sound as if the Lib Dem policy was now simply a case of returning to the old housing boom fuelled economics of the last few decades and had lost all interest in learning from those excesses.

Housing was one of Labour’s greatest failures. More than anything, their failure to get Britain building during the noughties both heightened the boom and deepened the inevitable bust. And of course, the housing benefit bill would not have escalated in the way it has done. Yet, tellingly, this is one area of policy the coalition have failed to attack Labour on. In the case of the Conservative wing, the reason is fairly obvious: they are engaged in class warfare and very much see the retention of an economy in which the elite’s rent-based wealth is preserved. Historically, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats stood against that sort of thing, at least in the 20th century. Cynics like myself bemoan that Clegg and his former adviser Richard Reeves are part of a faction within the Lib Dems that consider the 20th century Liberals an aberration and see themselves as merely the heirs to Gladstone. It is hard to dispute that when you hear them talking about this issue.

The 2010 Lib Dem manifesto had this to say about the economy:

Fairness is an essential British value. It is at the centre of how the vast majority of British people live their lives, but it has been forgotten by those at the top. Instead, greed and self-interest have held sway over the government and parts of the economy in recent decades. They have forgotten that growth must be shared and sustainable if it is to last.

It would appear that in government, the Lib Dems themselves have forgotten that lesson very quickly indeed. Justifying your role in government as having to tackle the economic crisis is one thing; setting the foundations for the next economic crisis is quite another.

So farewell then, Chloe Smith…

20131007-133217.jpg

It was quite a surprise to see Chloe Smith resign last night, less than 48 hours before her team was due to carry the Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning, Trade Union Administration and Anything Else We Can Think Of Bill through the House of Commons report stage. I find it hard to believe that the two incidents can be a coincidence.

Over the last nine years I’ve had to follow the work of the various junior ministers in charge of constitutional reform or their equivalents and I can safely say that Smith was the least impressive one. She has the most obvious “tell” I’ve ever seen in a senior politician; whenever she knows she’s talking out of the top of her hat, she starts beaming like the Cheshire Cat, like it’s all a tremendous joke. It isn’t a terribly redeeming quality, and one which did her no favours at all at the dispatch box, where she often gave the impression that she wasn’t taking her job at all seriously.

She is leaving to spend more time with her constituency, and it is fair to say that she will struggle to hold onto her seat which was, after all, a by-election gain. She’ll be joining the ranks of a number of politicians who thought that the best way to get ahead was to be impeccably loyal and do all the dirty jobs that no one else wanted. The sad truth is that while prime ministers often find such pliancy useful, they seldom respect it and it is almost never rewarded.

But what of the bill she is walking away from? The Lib Dems are now claiming that all the problems with it have been solved. However, the same people also insisted, and still do, that there wasn’t a problem in the first place. The legion of charities, trade unions, voluntary sector organisations, lobbyists and backbenchers who have lined up against it are currently waiting to see what the government’s actual amendments say, no longer giving ministerial assurances any credence.

It is a strange debacle that a stronger minister in charge would surely have been able to prevent; indeed, the fact that the task of getting the bill through parliament was taken out of Smith’s hands and put into the hands of the similarly tarnished Andrew Lansley was a significant vote of no confidence in her. But it has to be said that this is a debacle largely of the Liberal Democrats’ making as well.

The fact that Clegg himself could not be involved with anything to do with lobbying regulation was a strong reason for him to move to a different department in last years’ reshuffle. The lobbying register was the one political reform the Lib Dems had left to claim a victory over after the mess of the AV referendum and House of Lords reform.

It is also clear that much of the pressure to regulate non party campaigning came from the Lib Dem camp as well. The first hint anyone had that this legislation was being planned was in the publication of Lord Tyler’s attempt at cross party agreement on a party funding reform bill, published back in May. Overall, this is a very strong piece of work, proposing a way to introduce party funding while not actually increasing the overall cost of politics to the taxpayer. Yet, to hear Lord Tyler talk, it was clear that it was the non party campaigning section which got him the most excited and he was alarmingly quick to dismiss the criticisms being levelled at it.

Overall, this has been a farce from start to finish. Hopefully the House of Lords will be able to steer it in a more sensible direction. But the rushed through process itself ought go deeply concern any democrat. In the past, the Liberal Democrats were always the first to criticise governments for rushing through legislation without recourse to proper pre-legislative scrutiny or consultation; it has been truly shocking to see them become its greatest advocates over the past couple of months.

Whatever happened to the Lib Dem interim peers list?

Cute ermine.
The only place we should see ermine is in the wild.
I was intrigued by last week’s list of 10 new Lib Dem appointments to the House of Lords. As longstanding readers of this blog will know, I was one of the people who helped develop the Lib Dem system of electing an “interim peers panel” from which the party leader gets to choose the majority of appointments. Every party leader has railed against the constraints of this system and tried to get around it wherever possible, but even I was surprised that only one out of ten new peers this time around was from the list.

So I decided to have a little look at what the current party policy on appointing peers is. Lib Dem Voice said that a report was due at the 2013 spring conference but I couldn’t find anything. But I did find the following in the Federal Executive report (pdf) published for the autumn conference taking place in Glasgow this autumn (emphasis mine):

Interim Peers Election Panel
At the beginning of the year, the FE also established a working group on Internal Democratic Reform, whose first task has been to look into a replacement for the Interim Peers’ Election Panel.

Last year, FE came to the conclusion that given (at the time), we were hoping for a more wholesale democratic reform of the Lords, and that the Peers List was not operating as well as might have been hoped, the existing list would stand until we could produce a more appropriate replacement. This replacement is intended to be in place for elections in autumn 2014.

Our group, chaired by Sue Doughty, is consulting widely on this process, and will be distributing a consultation paper and holding a fringe at Glasgow to ask for input from members. A final motion will then be brought to Conference in spring 2014. Given that we haven’t yet succeeded in convincing the other two parties of the need for democratic reform of the Lords, I hope that you will be engaging in this process with Sue to ensure that the process we end up with is a fair, free, and democratic as
our party always aspires to be.

All of that is fair enough; I’m the first to admit that the current system is not perfect. But it bears absolutely no resemblance to the list of appointments made last week. And however imperfect the current system may be, it is infinitely preferable to simply appointing whichever millionaire donor happens to want their ego stroked.

I’m amazed that the Lib Dems allow themselves to have the mickey taken out of them by their leader like this every time. No doubt the Federal Executive will shuffle its collective feed extremely vigourously over its authority being usurped once again – and then do nothing.

More than anything, the thing that made me want an elected second chamber was dealing with Lib Dem peers – especially over lobbying and Lords reform. Patronage is a poison that infects the brain of even the greatest democrat. It is a sad thing to see.

UPDATE: I should have worked out who is or isn’t on the list myself before posting. In fact, two of the peers appointed last week were on the interim peers panel: Brian Paddick (who was elected), and Ian Wrigglesworth (who was on it by dint of being a former MP). In my defence, it is a nuance between considering an elected person to be on the list and including the “ex-officio” members as well. It is indirectly linked to above, but the paper outlining the process can be found here. As far as I’m aware the party has not revised the process since then, but since it refuses to publish the rules then who can really say?

Let’s try that again. I’ve just updated the spreadsheet that I set up a few years ago. It turns out that Brian Paddick was elected in 2008, and so the four year rule means that technically he was no longer on the panel by summer 2013. A very generous interpretation of the rules could however be made that it was allowable on the basis that the party (after establishing that Lords reform wasn’t going to, um, happen), decided to not hold a ballot in 2012 – and thus the previous two lists (2008 and 2010) still apply. Ian Wrigglesworth most definitely is on the panel however – being a former MP is for life.

It appears the party has interpreted the rules regarding ex-MPs to include MSPs and AMs. That never was the case however, and you can see from the list of people who have got elected to the panel over the years that it includes former MEPs. If they aren’t eligible, why are MSPs and AMs?

Lib Dems, welfare and the art of negotiation

Nick Clegg signing the NUS anti-tuition fees pledge.As former, disgruntled party members go, I think it is fair to say that I’ve been remarkably discreet and reasonable. I’m not a huge believer in trashing my former colleagues (and still, in many cases, current friends) in some vanity exercise designed to justify my resignation ex post facto, and tend to distrust the judgement of people who feel the need to endlessly do so. Aside from a couple of blog posts, I’ve generally kept pretty schtum, and have very little time for those who denounce the Lib Dems as having sold out and failed to achieve anything in government, as if the position they were put into wasn’t fiendishly difficult or that the alternative – a Tory majority government – would be somehow better. Generally speaking, while I think they are getting the big picture pretty badly wrong, on a daily basis the Lib Dems are making a very real difference in government.

You can tell there’s a but coming, can’t you?

But, then. Tuesday. What, the actual, fuck? Just for the sake of argument, let’s completely ignore the human cost of yesterday’s vote on benefits. Let’s just focus on the politics. Back in September, flushed with his (non) apology about his handling of the tuition fees debacle going viral on YouTube, Nick Clegg issued an ultimatum: “For me, it is very simple. You can’t have more cuts without more wealth taxes.

Well, aside from some tweaking to the pension rules, he didn’t get any wealth taxes this autumn. But you know what? The cuts are happening anyway. So much for “it is very simple”.

Unless, apparently, you are Stephen Tall: “It’s the kind of compromise that happens within a Coalition government.” Well, er, no. The “compromise” was that the Tories would get a cut in benefits and the Lib Dems would get a wealth tax. Spinning retrospectively that all that has happened was Cameron and Clegg split the difference is delusional. What actually happened is that Clegg made an opening gambit, Osborne called his bluff, Clegg blinked, and got a pity concession so he could at least pretend to have saved some face. Carry out your threats or don’t make them; you won’t get a second chance.

Putting benefits at the centre of a horsetrading negotiation is one thing. Failing to carry out threats is quite another. You can argue that the Lib Dems have conceded too much in this coalition, but tuition fees aside, they haven’t actually done that bad a job of over-reaching or making pledges they weren’t prepared to stand by. Clegg, to his credit, has carried out his threat to block boundary changes in exchange for the Tories’ betrayal over House of Lords reform (although the fact that the zombie boundary review lives on within the pages of the Mid Term Review speaks volumes about the weak leadership of both Cameron and Clegg). Things were looking up. Today’s capitulation however can’t be put down to naivety. What it suggests is that for Clegg there ultimately is no bottom line and no point at which he is prepared to walk away. What it tells Osborne is that he can merrily keep salami slicing the welfare bill, and the Lib Dem response will be the Stephen Tall “genius” move of “splitting the difference” each time. It would be comedy gold if it didn’t affect the lives of so many vulnerable people.

Speaking of comedy gold, it should not be forgotten that the Lib Dems communications department would very much like its parliamentary party to keep pushing the line that “The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fair society.” Based on today’s performance, it is manifest that that assertion is not true. Of course you can trust the Conservatives. They have an agenda and they doggedly stick to it. They might not want a fair society (although by their standards, and many voters’, they do), but they can damn well be trusted. That consistency counts for an awful lot in the electorate’s eyes.

It is Clegg, and all those who go along with him, who can’t be trusted. From a communications point of view, flip-flopping in this way is more damaging to the Lib Dem brand than any number of backbench MPs going off message. The Lib Dems’ communications problem isn’t non-entities saying the wrong thing; Clegg himself is the living embodiment of the Lib Dems’ fundamental communications problem. Focusing on anything else is just displacement activity.

Oh, and a final thing. I really don’t understand why it is that so many Lib Dems are so up in arms about Ken Clarke’s secret courts legislation, with talk of special conferences and all out war coming my way from numerous sources, while the best welfare gets is a shrug of the shoulders. It isn’t that I don’t think civil liberties are worth standing up for; it’s the lack of a sense of proportion. Enabling the government to hold secret trials, at most, might affect thousands of people. Benefit cuts stand to affect millions.

Even if you agree with these cuts, from a civil liberties perspective, surely last year’s legal aid cuts were more onerous than the secret courts? I just don’t understand why so many seem prepared to die in the ditch over a principle that affects a tiny minority, while don’t appear capable of doing anything more than shrug their shoulders over cuts which affect a whole segment of society. Again, it appears dangerously to resemble displacement activity; the wider cuts are too hard and too vast, so it is easier to focus on small measures and exaggerate their importance (see also: this utter preoccupation with Labour hypocrisy and opportunism as if that somehow justifies anything whatsoever).

90% of the criticism of the Lib Dems is at best unfair, at worse downright mendacious. But what I saw on Tuesday was a party that has ceased to have any kind of strategic nouse or moral compass whatsoever; that will doom them more than anything.

What’s left of what I believe

XKCD strip on nihilism
NaBloPoMo November 2012The main reason I’ve allowed this blog to fall into misuse over the past couple of years is that I stopped writing about politics. While my original concept behind this blog was always to write in the intersection between politics and geekery, at some point – specifically in May 2010 – I decided I could no longer really afford to vent my undiluted spleen about the state of the nation and had to start being a little more diplomatic and careful about what I say.

The problem is, I’m a little all-or-nothing and being careful quickly lead to me saying nothing at all. I figured it would get easier once the spotlight was off after the AV referendum; it didn’t. I figured I could be much less careful after I’d quit the party and thus my views became instantly irrelevant in the media’s eyes, but at that point I acquired a new problem: how can I write about politics without it either coming across as or actually being score settling following my resignation? I exchanged one set of anxieties for another and sclerosis quickly settled in once again.

And so, here I am, writing a blog about politics – which once again is really all about me. This is my problem in a nutshell. All I can do is plead for sympathy from you, dear reader: after 16 years, quitting a political party really is a big deal. It’s a wrench. It is no surprise at all that nearly eight months on I’m still a little defined by it. But at least you now know why it is that I’d much rather be writing about comics or, if you’ve seen my tumblr, even more esoteric things.

My article in September about quitting the Liberal Democrats had an interesting response. It was surprisingly positive, but I found it strange how so many people told me that they either loved or hated it but didn’t really engage with the issues at all. I had several Clegg loyalists tell me how much they loved it; curious given that I was not exactly nice about him. My favourite response was from a friend who told me that he agreed with “35% of it”. It was a strangely precise figure, yet he wouldn’t expand on what he actually meant by it.

Most of the negative feedback I did get from it, other than the abuse, centred around the accusation that I was being cynical and didn’t have anything constructive to say. I think the latter was fair comment and pretty much sums up where I am politically at the moment, but there is a difference between cynicism and nihilism. I don’t think I am cynical – indeed my decision to quit the party was about as far from cynical as it was possible to get. I took the decision to walk away rather that to stay on the inside and just feel bitter about things. The fact that I don’t have a fully worked out alternative to what the Lib Dems, and for that matter, politics more widely, doesn’t make me a cynic – it just makes me average.

But yes, I am a political nihilist at the moment, and as someone used to having a cause I can assure you that’s far more of a problem for me than it is for anybody else. All I have is a few scraps of ideas about what a possible way forward might look like, and they can be summed up as follows:

  • Triangulation is a doomed strategy for any political party – doubly so if you aren’t either Labour or the Conservatives. The people leading the political debate right now are the outliers who are working outside of the political mainstream but are successfully shifting the centre-ground to their direction simply by being well organised and disciplined. Right now, sadly, for the most part that means the weird axis of economic libertarians and social authoritarians who are exemplified by the Tea Party in the US but operate in different forms around the world. They aren’t succeeding electorally, but they don’t really need to. Everyone else is dancing to their tune.
  • Capitalism as we know it needs to die. Not trade, not commerce, but the system which commodifies and seeks to squeeze wealth from everything from people to ideas and natural resources is utterly anathema in terms of what humanity needs to do to survive the next millennium. That means critically reassessing what we regard as capital and property and thus what we believe can and cannot be owned. I feel I’ve just used a load of meaningless words there, but it makes sense to me. In terms of specific examples this means a fundamental shift from income and sales taxes onto things like land value taxation, and a massive global crackdown on the drift widening intellectual property laws to mean that every aspect of our culture ultimately becomes owned by a corporation out to make a quick buck.
  • It’s too bloody easy to blame the politicians. Our politico-economic system and media have infantilised the public, but as information technology spreads so does the onus on individuals to accept responsibility for the health of their democracy and culture. We have the tools to create a much better world, yet most people just sit there like good little consumers waiting for someone else to do it for them, and consider passively shrugging about it to be the mature response for when they don’t.

Beyond that? I’m lost. I have no idea about how you take those notions and turn them into something tangible which has any chance of being implemented. But I’m thinking about it – a lot. And perhaps I should write about it here a bit more often.