Monday, 18 April 2016

What chance of a radical welfare policy?

Sources who’ve had sight of documents for the Lib Dem working group developing welfare policy report real cause for concern to Liberator.
After Tim Farron’s oft-repeated comment that the party shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for what it believes in, even if it makes 75% of the population hate them, as long as it makes the other 25% love them, there had been hope that policymaking would break from recent trends and seriously consider radical ideas.  Alas, this appears to have been a hope too far according to our sources.
With the draft policy paper due by the end of the month, the agendas for the Social Security Working Group, chaired by Jenny Willott, are dedicated to multiple examinations in detail at specific areas of the current welfare system to consider how best to manage things.
Rather than consider a big idea as to what a Liberal welfare state would look like, the working group seems destined towards making many small suggestions on how to improve different benefits. But, while proposals to tinker with childcare provision and eligibility requirements for JSA might be worthy, they will inevitably be so detailed that no one will pay any attention to them. Once again, Liberal Democrat welfare policy will be without a big idea capable of grabbing attention.
Apparently big ideas such as Negative Income Tax, Basic Income and a Social Insurance system were considered at earlier meetings. However, no concrete decisions were made either way and all subsequent meetings have focused on tinkering with the existing system.
This is particularly concerning given the substantial levels of support in some sections of the Liberal Democrats for the concept of Negative Income Tax/Basic Income - one of the few issues that people on both the left and the right of the party can agree on. And certainly the concept of giving every citizen a minimum level of income with no strings attached is a radical one which would meet the “big idea” criteria.
Given the idea’s popularity it would be an absolute travesty if the party conference didn’t at least get a chance to discuss the concept or not. Unfortunately, however, given the working group’s current direction of travel it seems very unlikely to feature in the policy paper. If so conference won’t even have the option of discussing it.
Of course, in pre-coalition days one solution to this kind of issue where opinions were divided was for a working group to present two policy papers to the Federal Policy Committee so that the membership could make a genuine choice between two options. While this practice was largely abandoned under Clegg’s leadership in favour of insisting on a single, uncontroversial report from working groups, it is ripe for being revived.
If the working group were to do so then they may well be able to present party members with a choice between the tinkering-around-the-edges approach it seems to be on the verge of recommending and a radical, ‘big idea’ on welfare reform. That would certainly be best in terms of democratic policy making and escaping the old working group problem of only producing policy recommendations acceptable to their most small-c conservative members.
Whether this actually happens or not remains to be seen. But given the current schedule of meetings for the working group we wouldn’t hold our breath.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Ralph Bancroft

It is with great sadness that we share news of the passing of our friend Ralph Bancroft: head of the Liberal Whips' office during the Lib-Lab Pact, member of staff for the party in local government for many years, member of the Liberator Collective and Liberal Revue team, for many years compère of the Glee Club and above all an instinctive Liberal.  Ralph was in his mid-sixties.

Based in Harrow for many years, Ralph was a Young Liberal and went to Sussex University before being employed in Parliament, in the heady days of there being 14 Liberal MPs.  He rose to work in the Whips' Office during the 1977-8 Lib-Lab Pact.  He subsequently used his considerable political acumen to advise Liberals and Liberal Democrats in council administrations, and was particularly proud to become Head of Office of Andrew Wiseman's administration in Harrow in the 1990s.  Ralph was also a champion on online engagement and of the cix online conferencing system that was an integral part of party activity at that time.

Together with his good friend the late Liz Rorison, Ralph and his ever-present pipe were also for many years the linchpin of the Glee Club as it transformed from an informal gathering around a hotel piano to the unique event it is today.  He also appeared in many memorable sketches at the Liberal Revue.

In recent years Ralph had suffered from ill health and in particular severe visual impairment.  Friends and colleagues had asked: 'How is Ralph?'.  The answer was that he was spending time listening to Radio 4 and keeping pace with current events.  Thanks to Liberator colleague John Bryant, Ralph had been able to join Liberator Collective members from time to time at social events and relished talking about politics with friends over a pint of ale.  The most recent occasion was barely a fortnight ago.

Funeral arrangments will be advised later by the family.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Jim Gave The Land To The Landlords

Land reform and support for the rights of crofters and tenant farmers has for over a century been a keystone Liberal value; a symbol of what the party has stood for.  "The Land" with its clarion call for reform is the anthem of Liberalism.  Since the days of Gladstone, the party has stood up against landowner vested interests, backed invariably by the Tories.

Until now.  This week in a Scottish Parliament committee on the Land Reform Bill, Jim Hume MSP for the Liberal Democrats voted with the Tories against enhanced protection for tenant farmers.  As Scottish commentator Lesley Riddoch put it, "shameful for the party that introduced land rights for crofters in 1886".

Hume has form, having recently voted against introducing Marine Protection Areas.

But what this serves to emphasise is not only the disastrous decline of the Lib Dems in Scotland and in particular rural Scotland; but the party's total lack of vision and direction.

Since at least the 2014 referendum, the battle of ideas in Scottish politics has been vacated by Labour and the Lib Dems.  Astonishing in a country with a proud history of radicalism, the work of groups like the Liberal Futures group is sadly ignored by too many.  Radical politics is alive and well; but exclusively on the pro-independence side of the divide through groups like Common Weal.  As Riddoch points outthe opportunity even exists for Scotland to deliver the Liberal holy grail of a Land Value Tax; it was one of three options set out by a cross-party commission on local taxation which reported in late 2015, alongside a local income tax.  The Scottish Lib Dems have been silent on the subject.

With only tentative steps taken towards the reform of Scotland's land laws (the land is in the ownership of fewer people than in any country in the developed world) under the Lib-Lab government in Holyrood from 1999-2007, the Nationalists have moved from inertia to strengthening legislation.  It appears this political territory has been entirely ceded by the Lib Dems, in spite of the party's consistently strong support in rural Scotland through the darkest days of the last century and until the recent SNP landslides.

Liberals have since last May's catastrophe talked (though not always acted) about clarifying and defining Liberal values in order to give the Liberal Democrats an identity and detoxify the party from association with hated Tory policies.  In Scotland where the party alienated 45% of the population by identifying itself as 'unionist' and where the Tories are hated even more, learning from past mistakes is at least as important.

Instead - and with the right wing political market crowded and a relatively popular Scottish Tory leader in Ruth Davidson, the mistakes are being compounded and repeated.

The party in Scotland has an opportunity to partially redeem itself in March by voting the right way.  However, the obituary for its abject performance in May's election and possible wipeout could be written now.  It urgently needs to present a coherent picture of what it stands for.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

What the In campaign is doing right and what it is doing wrong.

The pro-staying in EU campaign has avoided some key mistakes from the AV and Scottish referendums but is still making some significant errors.

What it is doing right.

1) It is not fronted by politicians.
2) It is not only talking about economics.
3) It is talking about issues that people care about.
4) It is talking in language that people understand.
5) It appears united, as much as it is so far getting any coverage or is visible.

What the In Campaign is doing wrong.

1) It is not talking about ideas, positive ideals, principles or vision but almost entirely about economics.
2) It is being negative – in some if thankfully not most of its literature.
3) It does not say who they are.
4) It does not say who is funding the campaign or where their money comes from.
5) It is talking mostly about money and cost-benefit, if not the directly the economy and jobs.

What it is doing right.

1) It is not fronted by politicians. This was a blunder of the pro-AV campaign (which would have been a pretty insignificant voting reform in any event), and a blunder of the Better Together campaign to prevent an artificial break up of the United Kingdom.

Britain Stronger in Europe is headed by the former boss of Marks & Spencer, Stuart Rose. He is a genuine successful businessman who has been head of a thoroughly British company (founded by Jewish immigrants). Karren Brady the football manager and business woman is also a key figure. The agent is Will Straw, son of Labour minister Jack Straw and one of the current generation of Labour Party dynastic scions. But it makes sense to have an experienced campaigner running the campaign. Though the ones running the AV and Scottish referendum anti-breakaway campaigns were pretty hopeless. The populist nasty right wing press and politicians, and populist anti-political establishment Scottish nationalist establishment politicians ran rings round them.

Lord Stuart Rose does look like another old man in a suit, but nothing like as badly as the old Tory politician who is a figurehead for the antis. I don't dismiss the experience of age but here is where I would have preferred some populist celebrity culture.

2) It is not only talking about economics. The campaign is also talking about Britain's role in Europe (the visionary part of its message), security, about opportunity and sometimes about the environment, about peace. The website has the headline “Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe than we would be on our own.” “More jobs and opportunities” and these key phrases repeated “The benefits of being in—a stronger economy, stronger security and stronger leadership on the world stage”. If you click on the Menu button it only has those tags along with “A Stronger Britain”. I happen to agree; and maybe these key slogans will convince the undecided or some antis that Yes, in reality, is the right answer. But they are also the same slogans that the Leave campaign will be using, and their brainwashed recipients of Daily Mail and Daily Express propaganda (and many Labour supporters and figures believe it too) are likely to agree with them deployed by the antis because they say what they want to hear.

3) It is talking about issues that people care about. Jobs, mostly jobs, prices, and security and sometimes the environment. Its emails include the slogan “Thank you for being a part of the campaign to keep Britain stronger, safer and better off.” Sir Hugh Orde, the former top police chief, argues that the EU is good for security. By contrast, the pro-AV campaign both failed to explain what the proposed reform was for and greatly exaggerated the possible benefits. They sloganised and failed to explain either the detail or get across why a change to the vote system was relevant.

4) It is talking in language that people understand. The recent newspaper that was distributed around the country was well put together and clearly written, with a variety of stories on different relevant issues affecting people. (The Guardian reports that 10M newspapers were to be delivered – presumably paid delivery by the Royal Mail. I know copies went out in London, and city centre and suburban Liverpool).

5) It appears united, as much as it is so far getting any coverage or is visible. The anti-EU campaign meanwhile is split and arguing amongst itself over who or which faction is top dog. I don't believe in unity being needed for the sake of unity. The press, party leaders, and opponents are obsessed with that – genuine disagreement and debate is normal in any group. The antis however seem to like fighting amongst themselves almost as much as they like hating the EU, presumably because they are such a coalition of people with completely different ideas about what they believe in, and only agree on what they are against. Hopefully the In campaign can put a positive vision of a modern, pluralist, tolerant, thriving country that plays a key part in Europe and on the World stage. The best of Britain, not the best of mythical 1950s Britain.

What the In Campaign is doing wrong.

1) It is not talking about ideas, positive ideals, principles or vision but almost entirely about economics. It is almost entirely talking about jobs – rational arguments about the cost to people of leaving the EU and the financial benefits of being in. But making almost the same mistake that the Better Together campaign made of leaving the idealistic, principled, visionary side to the breakaway campaign. True it will be hard to make creating a pro-reformed European Union a romantic vision, unlike the wilful nostalgia and rose tinted glasses of the antis, or the 'all things to all people' Independence campaign, but for some of us the vision of a peaceful united Europe is a romantic vision we would like to see. Living life in peace. Instead of the anti-vision of constant conflict (albeit not literal conflict thankfully).

Stronger In fails to adequately promote the successes, and extreme present necessity of European countries to all work together in a grown up way. Further it fails to promote reform or the need for reform. Sure this referendum cannot deliver reform but the Yes side cannot ignore the flaws of the EU and the areas where reform is badly needed. The tabloid anti-European Parliament and bloated Brussels bureaucrats may be completely awful myths but some of the criticism is fair. There is nothing on the In website answering lies about the EU or misinformation. Where are people likely to look to fact check? Where can they? – there aren't even links here. Yet the campaign is already failing to be completely truthful, by overegging the pudding. The newspaper and website cite the EU abolishing mobile phone roaming charges but it hasn't abolished them yet, as customers obviously know if they travel abroad. Why on Earth didn't they just tell the truth – the very good truth that the EU has massively cut mobile phone roaming costs and is going to abolish them. I think it was MEPs who did most on this (but it may have been the Commission).

There is a Mythbusters page in the newspaper, but it is a list of simplistic generalisations. A list of 6 'UKIP MYTH' statements with typical statements like those UKIP and their parrots come out with, but no answer to real specific anti-EU myths. The criticism and bad reputation of the EU is most undeserved but partly deserved – failure to acknowledge the latter being a key problem of official pro-EU material. (There's no search facility, making the website of limited use).

2) It is being negative – in some if thankfully not most of its literature. The advert on Facebook is negative – immediately apt to be designated as 'scaremongering' by the antis. “What would leaving Europe mean for YOU and YOUR family?” “there will be pain”. It exposes the negative possible consequences identified by leading Leave EU figures, but it simply seems negative. Negative arguably worked for anti-AV, and for the anti-England, Wales, Scotland, NI split, but it is unlikely to convince the stuck in a 1950s idealised Britain older generation, and ignorant anti-difference younger people, that there is something good to vote for. The website does promote more positive messages. While I am no fan of NUS it is good to see the NUS President represented as the EU has been great for generations of students having more opportunity to widen their horizons than ever before. Many others on the Facebook group have called for more positives in the campaign.

3) It does not say who they are. The campaign newspaper does not say who the people behind the campaign are – to that extent, a glossy newspaper, it looks like party political or marketing PR. They miss a trick by failing to mention prominent supporters, although some business people and ordinary people are included. It looked like glossy political marketing even if the content was quite good. There is no human touch to encourage you to get involved. There is nothing about who set up the campaign (because presumably it was mostly actually lead by party political activists, as well as a few pro-Europe activists). Whereas the antis will eagerly roll out their populist figureheads. Worse, the website fails to include this information where there is no excuse for a lack of information and lack of openness. The Facebook group under 'About' is a blank. There's also no address. Ok, it's online and points you to the website but it would take seconds to put up the information.

4) It does not say who is funding the campaign or where their money comes from. Neither the newspaper or the website includes this information. There is nothing about where the money to fund the campaign came from or comes from. Sure, failure of the anti-electoral reform funders to out themselves as rich Tory donors, corporate raiders and newspapers barons didn't harm the campaign because the public believed the drivel they spouted. But the pro-EU campaign has to be totally above board – because of the bad reputation of the EU, and because the antis will show their nasty anti-social tendencies. Articles in the FT, on the BBC, and on Sky inform that it has received large amounts of money from big financial institutions and banks.

5) It is talking mostly about money and cost-benefit, if not the directly the economy and jobs. See (1) above. A case about economics is not going to win people over in hearts and minds. If people feel after the referendum that they've not had a fair vote – like in Scotland or in the previous referendum on membership of the European Economic Community, people feel somehow cheated – then there will be limited acceptance of the result and regular renewed calls for a new referendum leading to more instability in our national political debate of the kind that undermined John Major's government and has bubbled as a hot and cold war in the Tory party under Cameron. People need to feel they are making a well informed positive choice. The evidence on prices is important. I'm entirely convinced that prices in real terms for most things now are cheaper than at any time in my lifetime because of our membership of the EU. But is that enough to get people out to vote For?

I entirely agree with the reforms that David Cameron is trying to negotiate. I think his recent agreement announced by Donald Tusk is a good place to start for a fairer, more cost effective, improved EU. Maybe when (I hope) Cameron achieves a better deal, some real wins, the In campaign will at least promote these reforms as a victory for Britain and for reformers and genuine pro-Europeans everywhere. After all, Mrs. Thatcher's win on Britain's rebate helped her and the Tory's image for years. Concessions from those who do not want to relinquish excessive EU level standardisation may be the defining achievement of David Cameron's Prime Ministership, just as Tony Blair's sealing the peace in Northern Ireland was his most important positive historic legacy.

I will reproduce this post on my website with a few extra notes, omitted here. 

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Perhaps not the best of years: Lord Bonkers in 2015


An article by Paddy Ashdown in which he spoke of his love of the poetry of John Donne led Lord Bonkers to remember the first Liberal Democrat leadership election:
Many though Alan Beith was the frontrunner, but Ashplant began his speech to the first hustings by looking his opponent in the eye and declaiming: 
Beith be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so. 
This was widely counted as something of a zinger, and poor Beith's campaign never recovered from the blow.

Looking forward to the general election, Lord Bonkers was confident that our leader would hold his seat:
Some reason that he has upset the student vote because, after waving that wretched pledge of his at everybody last time round, he stung them for a small fortune when he got the first whiff of power. 
However, given that the polls closed as early as 10pm, one has to question how many students actually made it into the booth to vote for him last time.

Lord Bonkers reacted to the news that the police were taking an interest in Harvey Proctor, secretary to the Duke of Rutland, in characteristically measured tones:
A quiet day on the Bonkers Hall Estate. 
In particular, I don’t have the police turning over the cottage of one of my employees – unlike another Rutland aristocrat I could mention. 
Ha ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Oh my! Oh my!

The reburial of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral was beamed around the world:
I won’t pretend to have agreed with every detail of the celebrations: whilst I agree it was a nice touch to give the old boy a ride round on the Sunday, I couldn't help feeling that taking him back to the battlefield at Bosworth was a trifle tactless. Couldn't he have gone to Twycross Zoo or Foxton locks instead?

The Revd Hughes was determined to undertake missionary work among the tribes of the Upper Welland Valley:
he tells me he has arranged for a locum vicar to take Divine Service and visit the sick whilst he is away. “He’s young and keen and believes every word of the Liberal Democrat manifesto is the literal truth.” I eye him levelly: “It’s not Farron, is it?”
The next day Lord Bonkers' fears were confirmed:
It is Farron. I find him in St Asquith’s taking down the signed photograph of Leicestershire’s 1975 County Championship winning team from behind the altar. 
"Let me make a few things clear from the start," I tell him. "We are not going to sing 'Shine, Jesus, Shine,' you are not removing the pews from the church and I am not going to kiss the person next to me – unless it’s Alan Beith, of course."

Relations with Tim Farron remained a little strained:
This morning, when I pass by St Asquith’s to make sure that no more gargoyles have fallen, he stops me to ask why I insist the choirboys have rifle practice every week. 
What a question! He wouldn’t be asking it if a snap by-election were called.
And Lord Bonkers also met Alex Carlile:
"I hear you’ve been asked to serve on the committee that is going to review freedom of information legislation," I say brightly. 
He looks at me suspiciously: "Who told you that?"

As the Revd Hughes returned to St Asquith's we learnt more of Lord Bonkers' involvement in the film industry:
Today I attend the Oakham premiere of a film I helped finance: ‘Straight Outta Nick Compton’. It tells the story of an opening batsman who is unjustly treated and records the controversial single “Fuck tha Selectors” as a result. I see from its evening edition that The High Leicestershire Radical (which I happen to own) has given it five stars.
While his foreword to the new Liberator songbook referred back to the general election:
I don’t know about yours, but here in Rutland our election night party Fell a Bit Flat. It was barely past midnight when the band struck up the Dead March from ‘Saul’ and things did not get much more cheerful after that.

Complaints about 'political correctness' on The Great British Bake Off led Lord Bonkers to spill the beans on Mary Berry:
I can exclusively reveal, ‘Red Mary’ has been behind every politically motivated strike, every violent demonstration and every act of industrial sabotage in Britain for decades. And who do people imagine baked the macaroons for the Angry Brigade?

The tradition of decorating the domestic staff for Christmas was maintained at Bonkers Hall.

Lord Bonkers opens his diary to Jonathan Calder.