Tag Archives: vince-cable

Clegg and coalition six months on

Nick Clegg signing the NUS anti-tuition fees pledge.The fact that Lib Dem conference is rapidly approaching means that I have a semi-anniversary of my own to mark. It’s now been just over six months since I left the Lib Dems.

Life after party politics

How do I feel? I’ve had a tough, and at times frustrating half year: negotiating the fineries of coalition politics when your full time job is focused on delivering democratic reform is not easy. But I can honestly say that I’ve been happier in myself during that period than I have been for pretty much any period in the last 12 years.

People who follow my blog, my twitter feed or my Facebook account will probably have noticed I’ve been exploring my non-political interests with far more gusto than I had before that period (and yes, I will finish my A-Z of Judge Dredd soon). Although I’ve never had much in the way of personal political ambitions, there has always been a tiny shiny suited version of myself in my head screaming at me to only ever present the world with a cookie-cutter version of myself. I’ve always been a geek and been quite open about it, but these days I feel I can let it all hang out a bit more: it’s heavenly.

Fundamentally though, I’ve felt less guilty. In fact, I’ve felt so much less guilty that I feel a little guilty about that in itself. There’s a significantly louder voice in my head that believes that it is important to feel the weight of the world and to do your bit to stop it from sliding into chaos, and that it is better to have tried and have got it wrong than to have not tried at all. But it would be a total lie for me to deny that the feeling of not coming home from a hard day’s work to angst about all the other awful things happen and what I can do to sort them out is anything less than bliss.

I know this feeling is temporary and that at some point I’m not going to resist getting back into the thick of things. But I’m less inclined to believe that will mean returning to the Lib Dem fold any time soon than I did back in March. Party politics feels so broken for me at the moment that while I am enormously grateful that there are still people working from inside the system, I can’t really imagine myself doing the same.

My quitting the party was a long time in coming. I haven’t been a shiny faced new believer since my disastrous party job in Leeds, which ended more than 10 years ago. Since then, things like party conferences have mostly been a chore for me: a place where there is work to do, and where some of my closest friends could be found, but something which I would escape from every evening at the very first opportunity I got. To truly love the Liberal Democrats in all its idiosyncrasies is to love Glee Club, and I haven’t been able to stomach that rather grotesque and self-congratulatory tradition for years.

I can think of no better way to sum up my six month “holiday” than to refer you to the lyrics of Blue Lagoon by Laurie Anderson (sorry, I did say I was letting my geeky side hang out more). Nonetheless, as it has been a while since I wrote about any of this and since we are about to enter the conference season, I did think it would be a good time to type up my thoughts on the party, its future and the state of politics in general. This has been somewhat precipitated by two things this afternoon: Richard Reeves’ new article in the New Statesman and Nick Clegg’s now seemingly ubiquitous apology:

Tuition Fees

On the apology, I think it fair enough, not too badly expressed and is relatively heartfelt. It’s long overdue. For whatever reason, the tuition fees incident is a running sore that has come to dominate pretty much everything the party has done in coalition since and it is hard to see how the party can move on without somehow getting over this incident. I’m not saying that Clegg’s apology will achieve that, but it will do more good than harm even if the short term effect has been to open up some slowly healing old wounds for some people.

There is a problem with it though, which is that Clegg is apologising for making a promise he was never in a position to keep. That’s not entirely true. He could have made it a dealbreaker for the coalition. I’m not saying that he should have done, in fact I think it would have been downright foolish, but he had a choice and made it. For the past couple of years, Clegg has been altogether too much in love with claiming there is no alternative to what he and the coalition have undertaken to do – as if he is some unwilling victim being buffeted along by events. If you listen to his speeches, you will rarely see him take responsibility for anything: everything is expressed as being either obvious or inevitable. It gets to the heart of his weakness as a politician, and why people find it so hard to like him any more.

So let’s have a short reminder of why he is very much the architect of his own destruction. Throughout his time in opposition, Clegg made no secret of his hatred of the Lib Dems’ policy on tuition fees. On two occasions he attempted to win a vote on the conference floor to scrap the policy; on two occasions he lost the vote. Anyone with any sense at all within the party could see that he was never going to be able to win that fight, and that there was little point in wasting his political capital in fighting that fight.

As an opponent of the policy, what he should have done is attempt to de-prioritise the policy and make it a negotiable add on to the manifesto rather than a core goal. In fact, in terms of the manifesto, he more or less achieved that and he probably could have gone further if he hadn’t raised so many people’s hackles (even a number of tuition fee supporters ended up turning on him in the end and his failure to respect the party’s wishes). The problem is, by exhausting so much energy in attempting to scrap the policy he caused a backlash. A number of parliamentary candidates, not to mention the campaigns department itself, was so determined to alleviate concerns that the party couldn’t be trusted on the policy that they ramped up its status in their campaign literature and their personal statements. Just to make things even crazier, Clegg ultimately went along with it, agreeing to be photographed signing the NUS pledge.

I have to say that the campaigns department was extremely foolish to put the party in this position – not for the first time it behaved like it controlled the party and knew better than the people in charge of the manifesto, the Federal Policy Committee (I still find it frustrating that the 2005 manifesto was essentially usurped by a 10-point pledge which had little resonance and was completely useless to those of us fighting seats in Scotland at the time). But Clegg went along with it. He bottled it. He made a calculation that he could get away with signing his name to a policy which he was personally hostile to. That doesn’t just represent weak leadership and poor judgement, but an outlook on life that raises serious questions about a fitness to hold public office. It reveals the inner core of a politician who, if you look at his track record, has never had to fight particularly hard for anything at all, and has always depended on political patronage (thanks to Leon Brittan who discovered him in the European Commission, Paddy Ashdown who championed his bid to become an MEP, Richard Allen who bequeathed his Sheffield Hallam constituency to him and Ming Campbell who kept the leadership chair warm while he got himself ready) and never really had to fight for anything. It is one of the reasons why I find his constant talking up of social mobility at the expense of tackling all other forms of inequality so empty and galling; I really do think he has fooled himself into believing that he’s got where he is today through his own effort and thinks that everyone else would have the same life chances if only they had a slightly better school.

But since I have been defaming Clegg, I will say this: whatever you think of his apology, at least he has apologised. You won’t hear anything even close to an apology coming from the lips of his fiercest critics on the left. And the left really do have a lot to be sorry about.

I actually think the new higher education policy marks a real step forward compared to the policy we had before that. Most students will end up paying less but over a longer timescale. It has been poorly presented, but it represents a tax on the relatively affluent which is not being paid out of poorer people’s income taxes. But even if it was the worst system imaginable, there is a real question of priorities. Why is it that the left, particularly the far left and those engaged with student politics, have been far more exercised about this single policy than they have ever demonstrated in terms of the NHS, welfare or Educational Maintenance Allowance?

Oh, and if you’re a lefty reading this, yes I’m quite sure you believe those things were equally if not more important. But you simply didn’t get the numbers out on the streets for those campaigns did you? The NHS reforms in particular were in a particularly vulnerable state in 2011 – yet the only people doing the running in terms of stopping that policy were Liberal Democrats – mostly the Winchester local party and the Social Liberal Forum. If even a proportion of the numbers who turned out for the student funding marches turned out for the NHS, it would have been a dead reform. Instead, they mostly sat on their hands.

The collective failure of the left to get its priorities even marginally correct during this period of economic uncertainty is going to be something academics will be scratching their heads about for years to come. I have no easy answers: all I hope is that a few more people would act (and speak/tweet/blog etc.) with a little more humility and responsibility than they do.

Richard Reeves

So much for Nick Clegg and the left; back to Richard Reeves. His article previewing the party conference is utterly bizarre, but manages to sum up both his success and his abysmal failure.

In terms of success, Reeves and his fellow “Orange Bookers'” greatest victory has been to frame the debate in the Liberal Democrats as a struggle between noble Liberals seeking to defend the tradition of Gladstone with sinister entryist Social Democrats. There is an irony there of course because it was entryism within Labour that the Social Democrat Party was in part a reaction against. But of course it is utter bollocks, not merely because it essentially writes off the entire Liberal Party history from 1900-1950 – including the party’s proudest moments in terms of establishing the welfare state – as an aberration. It also blithely ignores the fact that many Orange Bookers come from the Social Democrat wing of the party themselves – Richard Reeves himself was a Blairite loyalist (as he himself alludes to in his assessment that Clegg exists to fill “a Blair-shaped hole in British politics”).

It is very notable that in his rather long and rambling article, Reeves seems incapable of defining what he means by “liberalism” other than say that it is neither Conservativism or Labour. What Reeves calls “radical liberal[ism] of the political centre” emerges as little more than the triangulation of Clinton and Blair: take two extremes and position yourself between them. By sheer, breathtaking coincidence, this is the same triangulation of Cameron – and even though many of his leftwing supporters would prefer otherwise, of Ed Miliband. In short, Reeves’ answer to the Lib Dems’ ills is to simply continue obsessively pursuing the same agenda which has dominated Anglo-Saxon politics for well over two decades now and has lead to a disengagement with politics the like of which we have never seen.

For all my mocking, there aren’t any easy answers. What I can tell you is that the last thing the Lib Dems can afford to do is to take Reeves’s advice and doggedly resume the politics of the centre ground. Nye Bevan’s warning of what happens to people who stand in the middle of the road applies doubly to third parties attempting to recover from a mortally wounding coalition. The fight for this tiny bit of political real estate has already reached its logical conclusion, with three virtually interchangeable parties finding themselves completely at the mercy of global, cultural and economic forces.

To talk with most party politicians, you would think this was the only game in town and in a sense they are correct. It is simply undeniable that to win a majority under any electoral system you need to be able to win over those undecided swing voters. Their mistake is to massively overestimate what you can achieve once you get there if you have done nothing whatsoever to prepare the groundwork for what you actually want to achieve. In short, unless you can answer how you can widen the Overton window onto your territory, you really are wasting your time.

Regardless of my earlier criticisms, at least the relatively sensible members far left get this. The purpose of UK Uncut and later Occupy was not to foist revolution on our doorsteps but to alert people to the possibility of change. While people are often quick to dismiss the anti-Iraq demonstrations as a failure, the fact that Bush and Blair were prevented from their headlong rush into attacking Iran was at least in part due to the enormous cost the protest movement forced them to pay in toppling Saddam.

The far right definitely get this: the Tea Party may be making Mitt Romney unelectable at the moment, but they’re successfully chipping away at issues which the left long presumed had been won such as abortion rights – and they have done a terrific job at putting the Democrats on the defensive on the economy despite the Republican’s own dire record. Obama’s own options in office have been limited precisely because the right have made it almost impossible to get any of his agenda through Congress without paying a blood price.

Thatcher, and the people behind Thatcher got this – and that it would take them decades to achieve. Every lobbyist worth their fee understands this. Yet, for some reason, it is a lesson which mainstream party politicians stubbornly refuse to learn – possibly because mainstream party politics is dominated by people who only seek power for themselves.

The future of the Liberal Democrats lies not in obsessively worrying about mainstream acceptance and chasing the centre ground, but in winning the argument across the country. That means that any future Liberal Democrat party is going to have to agree pretty darn quickly about what it wants to achieve. It is hard to see what the Orange Bookers achieve by remaining in the party when the best chance for implementing their policies lie in the Conservatives and Labour. If post-coalition Liberal Democrat politics is dominated by the same fissure which came to dominate the party over the past eight years, then annihilation will be all but inevitable. If by contrast it can rally relatively quickly around a clear vision of society that it wants to achieve, then it will be in a position to make a slow and painful recovery – and if it acts smartly it will see the political ground shift in its direction long before it gets another sniff of power.

Clegg and coalition

There are two questions which I suspect will dominate the late night conversations at the Lib Dem conference next week: when Clegg needs to go and when the coalition needs to end. One of the reasons why I’m better off out of it is that my head and my heart tell me completely different things in answer to both.

I’ve come to loathe Clegg and his style of leadership with a passion. At the heart of his leadership bid was a dishonest failure to come clean about his agenda; something which he attempted to impose on the party indecently soon after his narrow victory. One of the reasons the coalition has been quite the failure it has been is that Clegg negotiated a deal which he and his narrow base of allies in the party felt relatively comfortable with, knowing full well that at the same time they got to junk all the policies they never supported in the first place. During the first few months of the coalition, it was very clear that Clegg was enjoying the fact that he’d managed to get one over the party enormously (and we should admit at this point that the left of the party failed prevent this and must bear heavy responsibility as well). He didn’t govern as the leader of the party but as its usurper and it was only once he had been made painfully aware of quite how unpopular his own policies truly were that he suddenly rediscovered the “progressive” concern which he normally reserved for bluffing his way through elections.

So yeah, I’d quite like to see him out on his rear. I’d like to see that quite a lot. My big problem though is that I’m pretty non-plussed by leadership at the best of times and find the choices on offer to the party to be remarkably poor.

Dismissing out of hand the option of the Lib Dems selecting a rightwinger like David Laws or Jeremy Browne as Clegg’s successor (I suppose it could happen; suffice to say it would be political suicide), there appear to be two real choices available:

  • Vince Cable: despite stumbling over tuition fees and then being stripped of his media regulation powers by indiscreetly claiming to be at war with the Murdochs, Cable has had quite a good couple of years. He’s made little secret of his disdain for the coalition or for George Osborne’s economic policies in particular. The problem with Cable though is that he is very much his own man. A vote for Vince Cable is a vote for the party going down the Conservative Party route of having all party policy decided by the leadership – this in spite of the fact that Cable’s attempts at autonomous policy development have consistently ended in disaster. The man is simply not collegiate and has an ego the size of a planet. And let’s not forget the fact that he was fully signed up to Clegg’s project; it is only Clegg’s unpopularity and Cable’s own unpopularity within the Conservatives which has lead him to reinvent himself since joining government. There has been a lot of reinvention going on which he has largely got away with – such indulgence will end the second he becomes leader.
  • Tim Farron: Tim is charismatic and charming, and decisively leftwing. He’s a contemporary of mine, which makes his rise particularly interesting on a personal level. My problem with Tim is threefold: firstly, he has a notorious tendency to speak before thinking and to rhetorically overreach in a way that is veritably Clegg-like – he hasn’t come a cropper in the same way that Clegg regularly does, but I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t simply because he is subject to less scrutiny at the moment. Secondly, he consistently wobbles on cultural liberal issues, whether it is regarding homeopathy or his links with gay cure supporting CARE organisation. And finally, there is the fact that I simply haven’t been very impressed with his time as party president. I can see very little evidence that his crusade to bring back community politics (but without all the “it’s worth doing for its own sake” nonsense) has come to anything; similarly his membership pledge has come to nothing. What I see in Tim is a lot of dynamism, a lot of charm and heaps of rhetoric – but very little substance.

The only other person who I can conceive could take the mantle is Steve Webb. But while Steve has, by all accounts, done a great job at keeping in touch with the parliamentary party, he has been all but invisible to those of us outside the Westminster bubble. He appears to have done a competent job in terms of pensions reform inside the Department of Work and Pensions, but it simply isn’t clear how great an extent he takes responsibility for many of the more controversial welfare reforms being lead on by Iain Duncan Smith. So as a leadership contender he would have to deal with both his disappearance from the public gaze and serious questions about his own complicity: even if he tackled himself well in both respects, I somehow doubt he’d get a look in.

In short, I don’t think the Lib Dems have all that much in the way of talent on their benches, and that makes getting rid of Clegg an especially risky premise. The fundamental problems pre-date Nick Clegg, which is why the last leadership election in 2007 was fought by two former MEPs who had only taken their seats in 2005. Sadly, this dearth of talent is a natural outcome of an electoral strategy which has focused so much on casework and community work at the expense of vision and clear strategic thinking.

The other issue is when the coalition should end. Many would like it to end tomorrow, or even sooner – as articulated by Nick Barlow. I find it hard to argue against Nick’s charges against the coalition: to call it fundamentally dysfunctional would be generous.

But Lib Dems who imagine that there is some dividend to be earned by leaving the coalition early are simply misguided. The public won’t thank them – they’ll simply conclude the Lib Dems are even more of a waste of time. By contrast, there is a historic, long term gain to be earned by simply allowing this coalition to last a full five years.

The electorate has a short collective memory; I’ve lost count of the number of people who hated the Labour government but now look back on it with rose-tinted spectacles. No matter how painful this coalition feels at the moment, or what damage it does, the fact is that if it lasts the full five years it will be seen as a success for coalition politics while if it falls apart it will be seen as a loss.

If the Lib Dems ever want to return to power again, persuading the country that coalition is not the scary thing that both Labour and the Conservatives insisted it was during the last election will have to be a priority. Adding another footnote to the argument that all coalitions fall apart after a couple of years will slow any chance of a Lib Dem recovery for the simple reason that people will see a vote for the Lib Dems to be a vote for chaos and weak government.

None of this is pleasant to say and the counter-argument that this coalition is so uniquely awful that it simply can’t be allowed to continue carries a lot of weight. But again, the question needs to be asked about how effective the alternative would be. A majority Conservative government is still just about conceivable if an election were called tomorrow: the Tory argument that they need a mandate to finish the job, and that Labour aren’t fit for office will carry substantially more weight than the polls suggest. Such a government would be an utter disaster.

And a Labour government wouldn’t be much better. Labour simply do not have an economic policy at the moment and under Ed Balls it seems inconceivable that they will want to adopt one. A Labour government would probably spend a bit more, and have somewhat better priorities, but it would be a mistake to think that they would be drastically different in terms of the coalition. So destroying a long term gain (not just for the Lib Dems, but for pluralist politics as a whole) in favour of a short term highly marginal improvement simply doesn’t appear very enticing to me.

Finally, there is the question of confidence and supply. Many coalition supporters cling to this as if it would be the answers to all their problems: yet all it would mean is that the Tories would be able to speed up their spending cuts with the Lib Dems voting their budgets through. And even disregarding how votes in the Commons would be likely to go, the damage a solely Conservative government would do would be immense.

I simply don’t see an easy way out; merely a long, painful haul. Having made this bed (which I have to accept some personal responsibility for), the party is going to just have to lie in it. Instead of worrying too much about the next couple of years, the Lib Dems ought to be thinking bigger, and what they will be doing during their wilderness years. Fundamentally, they need to get over their obsession with winning parliamentary seats and start thinking much more about the sort of society they want to see. Ultimately, the problems are far bigger than simply Nick Clegg’s own incompetence and dishonesty.

Reporting back from the Fabians: What not to spend

The Fabian Society kindly gave me a media registration for their new year conference and I spent last Saturday at Imperial College mingling with the Labour Party faithful. I sadly missed Gordon Brown’s morning address but sat in on two discussions: “What not to spend” – a discussion on what public spending cuts the government should make; and “Tribes or causes: Can we campaign across party boundaries?” Both featured Lib Dem speakers, and I attended the former to keep an eye on Vince Cable and the latter to support Evan Harris (or should that be the other way around?).

What not to spend was, of the two sessions, the most frustrating. This was partially because there was no Labour Minister there to give us their perspective, partially because the Nigel Stanley and Janet Daley failed spectacularly to stay on topic and partially because Vince himself was being incredibly cautious. My hope that Vince might give us a tantalising glimpse of what he thought needed cutting, beyond that which the party has announced and reannounced over the past few months ended up dashed (despite his tantalising flash of leg in Parliament the preceeding week). And because the Cult of Vince seems to have extended as far as both the audience and the other speakers (I don’t think anyone breathed a word of criticism of him during the entire 90 minutes), he wasn’t even pressed on the kite flying list of spending cuts he flagged up in his Reform pamphlet last September. A man suggests means-testing child benefit and doesn’t elicit even a single squeak from a Fabian audience; what is going on? Indeed, the one area there did seem to be some tentative agreement on was the rolling back of middle class welfare.

Instead of talking about the current economic situation, Stanley and Daley preferred to continue a traditional left-right ding-dong which you might have heard in any political meeting at any point over the last twenty years. Both, I have to say, were much more nuanced and less dogmatic than they might have been, but neither seemed interested in really addressing what savings government needed to make. To be fair on Stanley, as a TUC staffer, it wasn’t really his job on the panel to do that, but I did expect to hear something substantial from Daley. She made a dig at the start about “not defending David Cameron’s economic policy because I don’t know what it is” yet pretty much the alpha and omega of her own economic policy seemed to consist of one word: “vouchers”.

“Vouchers” – whether they are vouchers for education, healthcare or whatever – have been a real rallying cry for the right in recent years. The aforementioned Reform think tank was for a while obsessed with them. Speaking personally, I’ve always felt it is a bit of a cop out of an argument. We’re constantly invited to believe that the key to the success of the Swedish education system lies in the voucher system, not in the amount of cash each of those vouchers represents, and to believe that, somehow, a voucher based on UK spending levels would have the same effect. I don’t buy it. I can see how they could be made to work in, say, an inner city area where the population density is sufficiently high enough to create a genuine market, but how it would work in a rural area is something I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer to.

Furthermore, while they might be a suitable topic for discussion in a debate about getting value for money from public services, I just can’t see how introducing them during an economic period where we are having to make cuts makes much sense at all. It won’t address any problems in the short term, and indeed the cost and bureaucracy that would be involved to establish the system would make it harder to introduce cuts.

The other area that troubled me was the aforementioned apparent consensus around the idea of scaling back the “middle class welfare state”. Some of this, I have very little trouble with. Creating a shorter taper for tax credits so that people earning £50,000 aren’t entitled to some tiny amount which is eclipsed by its own administration costs makes perfect sense. But that is the trouble with means-tested benefits. By contrast, there is a real danger in means-testing what few universal benefits we have left in the name of cutting costs. Partially, this is because you end up having to establish a whole new bureaucracy to administer the scheme, partially because it means that those most in need often end up failing to claim for it precisely because of that bureacracy, but also because it helps create a sense of solidarity between the comfortably off and the poor. As Sunder Katwala himself said at the Lib Dem conference last September “services for the poor will always be poor services“.

I hope that my concern about the comfort with this rhetoric proves to be unfounded and that things like child tax benefit won’t be regarded as low hanging fruit after the general election. But the way this idea seemed to be supported in the generality at the session did cause me some discomfort. It was the elephant in the room.

++ EXCLUSIVE: Clegg and Cable quit PoliticsHome’s Phi100 ++

I was planning to write a nice, leisurely blog post about a) why Lib Dems should be following Lynne Featherstone’s lead and resign from the Phi100 panel and b) the wider trend by the right to take control of the media agenda, but events rather got ahead of me.

There I was, doing my domestic chores, when I got a series of emails from a pretty unimpeachable source informing me that both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable had quit the panel already.

That’s all she wrote for now, but I’ll try to fit the article I was planning to write in later today.

Policy Committee says no to Clegg: game over?

18 of the 29-strong Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee have signed a letter in the Guardian today asserting that…

…as a clear majority of members of the FPC, we think it would be valuable to clarify now that we predict that our commitment to scrap tuition fees, as part of our plans to create a fairer society, will indeed be included in the manifesto and that the party will be united in strongly campaigning on this in the run-up to and at next year’s general election.

Some of the names on this list are surprising. They can’t be dismissed as lefty malcontents – far from it. I would be very surprised if there weren’t other FPC members who would have signed the letter had the organisers managed to track them down in the short time period on Tuesday.

This is a slap down to Clegg and Cable. It can’t be spun in the way the debate was. One assumes it will dominate this morning’s Today programme. I am of course delighted.

My only concern is that with the party’s press operation under the control of the leadership how much longer is this contest of nerves going to go on, with Clegg and Cable constantly ramping up the rhetoric in the media and the FPC having to keep digging its heels in. This leads to very serious questions being asked about the wisdom behind the Federal Executive’s decision last year to fold the day-to-day running of the party into a leader-led Chief Officer’s Group. We have, in effect, the press office briefing against the settled will of the party. The cost of continuing this is coming out of our membership fees. The true cost could well be paid in votes and Members of Parliament next May.

If Ros Scott appreciates the implications of all this she showed little sign of it in the questions to the Federal Executive yesterday. But she did let slip that the COG was up for review in October. The task of persuading FE members to either scrap this committee or rationalise it to ensure that the press and campaigns departments are clearly working to advance the party’s agenda rather than whatever Vince Cable has decided this week, begins now.

ADDENDUM: I feel I should add that I was somewhat irked that the questions to the FE were slightly cut short due to the Q&A session with Vince Cable et al overrunning. These sessions are bland theatre which serve no democratic purpose; do they even get televised? We really need to scrap them and, in my opinion, replace them with consultation sessions (instead of limiting consultation to the very start of conference when most people can’t take part).

Our Vince: From Fred Astaire to Mr Bean?

As a follow up to my piece about Lib Dem economic policy this morning, I’ve written an article on Comment is Free about Vince Cable and why he is starting to be a bit of a problem for the Lib Dems:

I have huge admiration for Vince. Six years ago, when I was experiencing a credit crunch of my own, the fact that there was a single politician out there who understood how badly banks were behaving in encouraging people to get into unmanageable levels of debt meant a tremendous amount to me. But he is not infallible. He’s not, whisper it, even indispensable.

Despite this, he eschews the collegiate discipline of party policy development in favour of going out on a limb and trusting his own judgment to carry him through. There seems to be almost no strategic thinking behind how he presents his shifts in position whatsoever. He hasn’t been articulating a party position; he’s been engaging in punditry. The latter may make you incredibly popular with John Humphries and Jeremy Paxman, it may even acquire you rock-star status, but it isn’t the job the party requires him to do.

Read the rest here.

The Liberal Democrat post-credit crunch economic policy. A blow by blow account.

John Harris wonders why the Liberal Democrat party faithful seems so incapable of defining what the Liberal Democrats stand for, unlike the masterful Vince Cable. A clue may come in the fact that the party’s core message on the economy has changed in a significant way on at least eleven separate occasions over the last two years despite very few of these shifts actually being party policy.

Let’s look at Liberal Democrat policy since the credit crunch (assuming for a moment that September 2007 is effectively Year Zero). In terms of tax policy alone, we started with a policy paper overseen by Vince, itself the second in as many years, which essentially called for a 4p cut in the basic rate in income taxes to be paid for by increasing taxes on pollution and the rich. Oh, and to replace council tax with a local income tax which would come to, roughly, 4p in the pound. Clear?

By spring 2008, with the storm clouds already starting to look very grey indeed, Nick Clegg started flying kites about tax cuts. By the summer, that had coalesced into a commitment to identify £20bn of public spending “waste” and a vague promise to cut taxes if after identifying all our spending commitments there was a bit left over. At the start of September however, Clegg had announced that he and Cable had agreed that the “vast bulk” of this £20bn would be passed on in the form of tax cuts, a statement which had the predictable effect of sending the party into a complete tiswas.

A few days after that, manifesto chair Danny Alexander further clarified Clegg’s clarification by explaining that Clegg was in fact referring to the “vast bulk” of money left over after the party had fulfilled all its spending pledges, not the vast bulk of the £20bn overall. This of course begged the question of where the small amount of money that was neither going on tax cuts or public spending was supposed to be going. By the autumn 2008 conference, things had got even more confusing. Nevertheless Cable and Clegg managed to get their proposals through conference, although this involved people supporting them on the grounds that we probably wouldn’t end up cutting taxes overall at all.

This new policy, which by now no-one understood, lasted a whole fortnight before the banking bail out rendered the entire thing moot. Unperturbed however, in April 2009, the pledge to drop the basic rate of income tax was replaced by a pledge to raise personal allowance. In July 2009, after what was by all accounts a tense and at times explosive policy committee meeting to agree the party’s pre-manifesto, Nick Clegg announced that the Lib Dems’ “shopping list of commitments” at the next election would be “far, far, far, far, far shorter” despite the fact that the pre-manifesto itself says no such thing. On Tuesday last week Cable published a pamphlet proposing £14bn of government spending cuts which would have to be made to pay off the national debt. This seemed to be suggesting that the party’s list of spending commitments would not merely have to be shorter but essentially non-existent. This vision of doom opened up enough space for Nick Clegg to open conference on Saturday announcing an intention to drop the commitment to scrap tuition fees and to start talking about “savage cuts”. And the position changed yet again on Monday with Cable announcing a new “mansions tax”, a policy which had apparently been written on the back of the cigarette paper which David Cameron had been experimentally attempting to slip between the Lib Dems and Tories the day before. By Monday evening he was arguing for a watering down of the party’s commitment to a local income tax.

Is it really that surprising that we mere mortals are somewhat confused?

The Peopl(ish) Budget

Vince Cable has been dropping heavy hints about raising taxation over the last few days, so it is not a tremendous surprise to see him and Clegg calling for a tax on the value of properties above £1m.

I will blog in more detail later, but initial responses? Firstly, it is regrettable that this is yet another badly handled stunt announcement which has bypassed the policy committee, but it will surprise no-one to hear me say that I believe it to be a step in the right direction. It doesn’t go anything like far enough though. 0.5% on properties above a £1m threshold? So a £2m valued property would be looking at a £5,000 tax. Chickenfeed for the people who have profited from a property bubble for decades.

It won’t raise very much – £1.1bn. Why, when it comes to public services is the emphasis all on “savage” cuts, yet when it comes to wealth taxes we are taking such baby steps? There is a real cognitive dissonance between the two approaches. We should go further and ideally the tax should be on land values rather than property prices (although if we want to introduce something immediately, the latter will be easier and it can be replaced by a land value tax over time). Even Centre Forum, the holders of the Orange Book flame, are calling for a 1% property tax (plus scrapping exemption of capital gains on property), which they would estimate would raise £6-10bn annually (pdf). That sounds like a good compromise to me.

The right, no doubt, will start hopping up and down and denouncing this as a tax on “aspiration.” What are tuition fees though, if not a tax on aspiration? Vince is currently calling for benefits to be scrapped for all middle income earners – families in particular. If that isn’t effectively a tax on aspiration, what is? They need to get serious and stop realise that aspiration is not a luxury that only the rich can afford.

Anyway, I need to digest this. In particular, I need to read what Vince has to say in ALTER‘s new pamphlet The Case for a New People’s Budget.

The Lib Dems don’t need a blogging strategy. They need a Lembit strategy

Alex Singleton has written a wonderfully charmless little attack post on about the state of Lib Dem blogosphere (it is always nice to find an article like this has been written by someone I have already dismissed as an idiot).

Leaving aside the usual crap about the Lib Dems not standing for anything (bizarrely, he seems to think that Cameron’s Conservatives are a good example of a consistent party – clearly he has never read ConHome – in particular he clearly hasn’t read this article about the Tory’s own internet fail), one can marvel at the sheer ignorance about the subject matter in question. Describing Lib Dem Voice and Lib Dem Blogs as “rivals” is simply gigglesome. It is as if he has never come across the idea of an aggregator before (let alone the fact that Ryan Cullen is in fact the sinister puppetmaster pulling the strings behind the scenes of both websites). He cites Guido Fawkes for attacking Labour’s blog activities, yet seems to fundamentally misunderstand Paul’s real complaint. As I understand it (and I did speak to him on the topic last week), the Guido analysis is that any blogging strategy is fundamentally a waste of time because it will only reach out to the usual suspects.

I broadly agree with that, which is why I’ve never really gone in for this whole puffing about the party via my blog thing. This blog is a way for me to develop my thoughts, to mouth off and to relieve tension (a bit like wanking). Engaging in a dialogue with similarly interested individuals is a plus. Proselytising isn’t even on the radar.

There are good examples of blogging to the unconverted, but you won’t find them at the “top” of the blogosphere but rather in the long tail. Take Mary Reid for example. A great community blog with crossover appeal between political hacks and Kingston upon Thames residents. Mary’s blog works in that way because Mary gets that engagement is about more than blogging – she’s one of the party’s (indeed the UK’s) leading e-mancipators. But you won’t see her at the top of the Wikio rankings or the Total Politics league table any time soon – to do that she would have to make compromises, talking to the political hardcore at the expense of local residents. That would lead her to disengage and ultimately be self-defeating. But Alex Singleton would of course approve.

Generally speaking it is fascinating how journalists consistently fail to “get” the internet, even at its most basic. A couple of weeks ago, a PR Week journalist by the name of David Singleton (coincidence?) reported that the Lib Dems are going to hold a “bloggers’ summit” at Cowley Street on 28 March. Not so – the party is holding a coders’ summit, a far more productive exercise. And of course, there is this incessant and persistant attack on Twitter – which sounds remarkably similar in tone to the incessant and persistant attack by the mainstream media on blogging before every journo and his/her dog started blogging. The phenomenon of mainstream journalists confusing the medium for the message is one of the great mysteries of the age (perhaps it is something Charlie Brooker should investigate on his new Newswipe series).

Are the Lib Dems getting everything right with their internet strategy? Of course not. I would suggest the following:

  • The party doesn’t send out anything like enough emails and the emails it does send tend to be a bit haphazzard. I’m a bit of a social bookmarking evangelist myself, but even I would question the point in encouraging everyone on our email list to help promote the latest Nick Clegg video via Digg. By all means put Digg buttons everywhere, but every second you spend explaining it to the general public is a second you should be communicating the party’s vision and policies.
  • Every party campaign and initiative should be focussed around collecting email addresses (legally of course). Never mind Digg, we should be letting individuals forward information about our campaigns to their address books in a way that is now old hat on sites such as Avaaz.
  • With the Liberal Youth currently mid-nervous breakdown, it is time for the party to make a strategic decision about how it intends to communicate with young people. For years now, it has tended to be left for the youth wing to organise. That was fine when they were the innovators (launching scraptuitionfees.com for instance), but they’ve been bungling it for years now. Following on from Alix Mortimer’s seminal piece last week, it is probably time a group of 20-30 somethings got together and had a serious chat about an alternative that isn’t modelled around a quaint 19th century private members club but rather is a serious attempt to create a liberal grassroots movement that is has strong ties to, but ultimately independent of, the Lib Dems.

Finally, if there is to be a Lib Dem blogging strategy, then the thing it should be focussed around is building up our existing personalities’ web presence. At the start of this year, I avowed a wish to see Lembit Opik start blogging. I’m serious. Lembit’s claim that turning up on light entertainment programmes (catch him tonight on Ant and Dec) helps him reach out to people the rest of the party doesn’t reach is a perfectly sound argument but is poorly executed. Imagine what a plus it would be if he gave people who had seen him on these programmes a place to go; a website which bridged his particular obsession with celebrity and politics? Sadly, he is so steeped in denial that he will no doubt assume this constructive criticism is yet another “pernicious” attack on him.

To a degree, the same could be said about Vince, although his particular brand of personality lends itself better to helping to promote the party. But if you think the party’s success is dependent on having yet another blog to feed the obsessives, you are so wrong you ought to begin a career as a Telegraph journalist.

Why do faith school supporters want them to be so awful?

I have to admit to coming out of the Lib Dem debate on 5-19 education feeling somewhat perplexed. After a complicated series of four amendments wrangling over the same bunch of lines, what the party has come up with seemed to be little more than a state commissioned figleaf scheme. Let me explain.

The motion as originally worded (negotiated on the Federal Policy Committee by, among others, Evan Harris MP) allowed faith schools but banned selection on the basis of faith. The amendment which was passed replaced this with the following commitment:

Requiring all existing state-funded faith schools to come forward within five years with plans to demonstrate the inclusiveness of their intakes, with local authorities empowered to oversee and approve the delivery of these plans, and to withdraw state-funded status where inclusiveness cannot be demonstrated.

As I snarked on the way out of the auditorium, what this amounts to is faith schools being free to discriminate, but will have their funding withdrawn if they discriminate.

In fact, however, it’s actually worse. Never mind the abstract debate, for me the acid test is the couple I know whose humanist wedding I attended who currently attend their local church every Sunday (along with their Orthodox Jewish neighbours) in order to ensure that their children are let into the local primary school. What would this motion, as amended, do about this closely observed hypocrisy? Absolutely nothing. My friends could stop going to church, not be able to send their children to the local school, be able to demonstrate the school is non-inclusive and have the school’s funding scrapped (in so doing, harming the education of lots of other children). Or they can keep quiet, go to church and act as a figleaf for the school’s “inclusive” policy when the inspection comes. Stick your head above the parapet, and you might be able to claim revenge eventually. But it is in your child’s interest to keep your head down and be a part of the lie.

What is most crazy about all this is that many of the best faith schools out there don’t have exclusive selection policies; ending discrimination on the basis of faith only affects a hardcore. Yet speaker after speaker in the debate claimed that the motion unamended was an attempt to scrap faith schools by the backdoor. It was a grotesque libel perpetuated by, among others, Vince Cable and Tim Farron. What did they hope to achieve by making such ridiculous claims?

I strongly agree that schools need an ethos, and a religious one is better than none at all. A total ban on faith schools while broadening the range of organisations which can help run schools would mean that the National Secular Society and even Microsoft could sponsor a school while the Quakers could not. There are much worse organisations than religions that could end up running English schools under this policy.

But here’s the thing: I’m constantly hearing religious people out there banging on about the Golden Rule these days, that “heart” common to all religions which we are to believe makes them vital and moral things. Yet when you go along with all that, and merely ask for the ethic of reciprocity to extend to, well, everyone, all that nice, woolly tolerance suddenly vanishes. Suddenly asking them to not discriminate is an unacceptable position. Suddenly, far from the Golden Rule, the core of religion they want to preserve is the right to shut people out. And they dress this neat little package of discrimination up in talk about the need for “inclusiveness.”

It is no wonder that the supporters of the second amendment, which called for all faith schools to be phased out, are not prepared to take them at their word. The movers of this amendment repeatedly raised the issue of homophobia in schools and how difficult it is to grow up as a homosexual in a faith school, yet this issue wasn’t addressed. Rather than deal with this fearsomely important point, in an act of supreme irony the movers of the amendment were branded extemists.

As I’ve said before, I would rather ally with a liberal person of faith than an illiberal atheist. But liberals don’t condone intolerance. The message I got from the supporters of faith schools on Saturday was that intolerance is an integral part of religion without which faith schools would not be worthy of the name. Keep saying nutty things like that and I’ll join the barricades alongside Laurence Boyce.

If you want some of my pension Vince, you could just ask…

On Sunday, my gf finally forced me to sit down and fill in my pension form. For various reasons which I won’t go into, it has taken me a long time to do this and take advantage of my (teeny tiny) employer contribution.

Imagine my dismay therefore when I discover that no sooner have I put the form on the finance officer’s desk, that I get a twitter message announcing my own Treasury spokesman is demanding me to pay it back!

Vince Cable: Sir James Graham has a “moral obligation” to repay some of his £10m pension pot

Now, it isn’t clear, but it is just possible that Vince may have meant Sir James Crosby, who it has been discovered gets a cool £500,000 a year from the publicly owned HBOS (who also do my banking, albeit not for much longer) just for sitting on his arse after helping to cock up the global economy. But frankly I find it hard to see how the two of us can be confused as a) I am not bald, b) I am not a member of the wunch and c) I do not own any gold plated underpants (given Crosby’s dress sense I can only assume this must be what he spends his money on).

I will of course happily accept a grovelling apology from Vince. More than that however, I quite like the idea of a Knighthood (although that will make me even less popular with Republic), so anything he can do to wangle me one would be much appreciated.