Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Federal Executive: Recovering from Omnishambles

Mark Pack at http://www.markpack.org.uk/75271/five-things-federal-executive-learn-mistakes/ has written a typically perceptive account of the travails of the Liberal Democrats' Federal Executive, which had a pretty torrid Conference.  He makes a number of suggestions as to how relations could be mended.

Rounding off the omnishambles was the declaration twice from the podium that the FE wanted to use the final pre-election conference in Spring not to promote Liberal Democrat policy commitments in the Manifesto, but to indulge in internal navelgazing by returning to the two sets of constitutional amendments it should have put to Glasgow Conference - but failed to; as well as the interim peers proposals which Conference Committee didn't take for debate at Glasgow, as debating who should go into the House of Lords wouldn't have had any effect on this autumn's elections but would have looked strange to the outside world when so many of the party's Commons seats are reportedly under pressure.  It would say something about the priorities of the current committee if they do decide to proceed with this rather than wait until the post-election conference at Liverpool, where there will be ample time for more introspective discussion.

Into the mix should also be thrown the Federal Finance and Administration Committee (FFAC): unelected but powerful, and particularly opaque.

As elections for Executive and President draw near, it focuses attention on three things.
1. The listening mode.  Individually many members of the FE are good at listening, but this is not reflected collectively.  Dissident voices never seem to make themselves known within the wider party.  This does not help the FE's image.  Both recent gaffes (on OMOV and gender quotas) where the committee failed for various reasons to heed advice, are results of this.
2. The purpose of the FE itself.  Gordon Lishman said from the podium that the gender quotas decision - arguably illegal - was rushed through after the guillotine at the end of a long meeting without debate.  How many of the earlier items were essential?  It has a long track record of discussing trivia while not focusing on key issues of strategy which is what it is supposed to be about.  As Mark says, even its own members seem to be unaware of some decisions taken in their name.
3. Mend fences where necessary.  This should go without saying.

The questions to be asked of candidates for FE and President - and their responses - will be important.  You can of course read questionnaires with the latter in the latest Liberator.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Constitutional Farce

It appears that the Federal Executive has caught itself with its constitutional trousers down, as is about to become apparent in some form in Glasgow.

In a rather desperate attempt to evade the <a href="http://www.markpack.org.uk/68347/omov-the-fe-has-submitted-a-mess-to-conference-so-lets-sort-it-out/">technical reference back set out by Mark Pack</a>, who has set out in the same post the shortcomings of the proposals, the FE has submitted a lengthy set of further amendments to the constitution and Standing Orders.  They make for interesting reading, partly as they contravene the Party's constitution by introducing new material, and partly because they fail to deal with some of the key shortcomings of the original proposals.

The Federal Conference Committee might have something interesting to say about the amendments to standing orders..... especially as the committee was not shown them in the first place.  Had they seen them, FCC members would have thrown them out on grounds that they were incomplete, contradictory and ambiguous.  As it is,  it’s surely not acceptable for the movers to rewrite their own motions so extensively - which of course, among other things means that conference can’t amend the new material the FE introduce through their amendments.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Simon Titley has passed away

Simon Titley passed away this weekend, following the news in June that he had been taken ill.  He will be missed terribly by the Liberator Collective, those who enjoyed the Liberal Revue, and many people beyond whose lives he touched by his wit, incisive writing and instinctive, passionate Liberalism.

Originally from Lincolnshire – a heritage of which he was always proud – he went to Keele University, becoming a ‘highly political’ sabbatical officer.  For a long time he worked for the Liberal Party’s central organisation, moving to work for the GLC's successor organisations and finally organising Paddy Ashdown's tour for the 1992 General Election before eventually being coaxed away by the lure of PR.  He preferred the world of the political backroom, but did stand for Parliament once, in Grantham in 1983; as a local eccentric still shot silent newsreels for the town's cinema and filmed one of Simon's campaign meetings he thought he was probably the last UK general election candidate ever to appear in a silent film.  Preferring policymaking (serving on the Europe policy working group until last year) and commentary, his unwavering commitment to numerous personal political causes [Europe and Palestine two constants] always came first, sometimes to the detriment of his career.

Although Simon started to contribute to Liberator in the late 1970s, he was only persuaded to join the Collective in 1985.  His close friend and Liberator Collective colleague Mark Smulian describes Simon’s relationship with him and the magazine:

The first time I met Simon I inadvertantly nearly poisoned him as it turned out the cheese used to stuff rolls at a Liberal student conference in 1977 had spent the night in an underground car park and was thus richly flavoured with petrol fumes.
Alarming as this was to such a noted gourmet, it was start of a long friendship. Simon had contributed to Liberator from the late 1970s but became fully involved around 1985 when he found a book review he’d written had been insensitively edited. On being told this was to make room for a picture of a cat, Simon – fond as he was of cats – decided the only way to prevent such future vandalism was to join the collective.
From then on he, without imposing himself, provided much of Liberator’s political direction and its most telling analysis of events…. he despaired of the Liberal Democrats failure to build a core vote and to instead chase transitory grievances and split the difference in the ‘centre’.
Simon was noted for his love of fine food, wine and beer. He was deeply serious about politics, yet a satirist of great ability and the driving force behind establishing the Liberal Revue, which entertained conference goers on and off for 24 years.
He had a vast collection of erudite books on politics and economics, yet his favourite entertainment was the innuendo-strewn 1960s comedy show Round the Horne.
Simon leaves a huge gap not only in his family and friends’ lives but in the party’s resources for thinking about its future.

While the volume and quality of Liberal publications has declined considerably, even more so since Conrad Russell’s departure a decade ago, Simon fought what was almost a one-person campaign to keep the processes of Liberal thought going. His publications included Really Facing The Future [with David Boyle, 2011], a direct challenge to the party’s attempt to set out a policy programme in ‘sterile and detached language’.  He contributed to Reinventing the State, the 2007 social liberal response to the Orange Book.  His regular contributions to Liberator were supplemented by two periods of prolific blogging on all manner of topics.  His 2004-5 foray as the Liberal Dissenter was supplemented by more recent work on this blog.  

As Mark says, the culture brought to the Liberator and Liberal Revue teams by Simon was distinctive too.  Days out or even occasional weekends away were characterised by his love of the finest food and where possible a visit to the nearest record shop (politics is not the only interest we shared).  Simon was unafraid to stand up against tired received wisdom and lazy thinking – or confront those guilty of either.  The irony of some of those who whined about his blunt observations joining those mourning is not lost on some of us.  However, they are in exalted company.  Vince Cable has written this tribute:

Like many people in the party, I have been greatly saddened to see the passing of Simon Titley, long before his time.

He was in Liberator especially a tough irreverent critic of the party establishment and of conventional thinking.

I want to record my appreciations of his insights, originality and sharp wit. I benefitted personally from his advice and what he had to say was always thoughtful, considered and helpful. He will be greatly missed.

As Mark and Simon say, Liberalism and Liberal thought in particular are weaker today.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Go Back To Your Constituencies... And Prepare For A Change Of Font

An interesting missive has reached Liberator from Party Headquarters, sent to party organisations taking part in Federal Conference (it is not believed to have been sent to us, but we should embrace it in the way our readers would appreciate):-

"I'm emailing regarding our corporate identity. Many of you will have 
noticed that our logo and branding has changed recently. This is in large 
part due to a substantial amount of work carried out by our in-house designer, which has culminated in the attached branding guide.  [Sadly this document has not yet reached us]

Autumn Conference represents an excellent opportunity for us to get our
branding and corporate identity right. I?d ask that you all review your logos and branding, and where practicable, update them so that they are coherent with our new branding. For some of you, such as ALDC this isn't appropriate, given that you have your own branding, but for others, it represents a great opportunity to refresh the look and feel of your logos.

Much as I would like to, I can?t at this stage promise that Steven will be 
able to devote any time to refreshing your logo himself. If you have a specific request of him, please let me know, and I?ll pitch it to his line manager (who is off this week). Unfortunately, I don?t have access to the correct fonts to carry out the task myself, but I can send over logos and other materials if that would help. If you have any further questions, 
please either get in touch with me, or email brandidentity@libdems.org.uk.

I know that the conference team are keen to make sure that our directory and conference exhibition are as on brand as possible. Thanks in advancefor your assistance."


We may be getting slaughtered in the polls at 6% but have no fear, brand identity is here.  Quite who it is designed to impress at the Conference exhibition remains a little less clear.

"Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for a change of font!"  

Of course, rather more progress could be made if rather than branding exercises an approach was taken to identify the Liberal Democrat brand with its values. People identify with brands based on what they think they mean to them, and that depends on what values they associate with the brand. It appears that whoever commissioned this exercise in getting often voluntary bodies to redo their logo has not grasped that basic fact.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Liberator 366 Is Out! - and an unhealthy row emerges...

Issue 366 of Liberator will be landing through subscribers' letterboxes this weekend.

Unsurprisingly, it contains a wide range of advice for Nick Clegg, little of which he will welcome.  Articles from a range of authors review the outcomes of May's elections at home and abroad; former Scottish Liberal Democrat Chief Executive Andy Myles explains why he is arguing for a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum.  And Lib Dem councillor Mathew Hulbert explains the thinking behind a new campaign to promote the Fairtrade movement within the party.

There is also mention of an unhealthy row over the Public Services working group.  Charles West, a Shrewsbury GP and former Parliamentary candidate who led the charge against the Health & Social Care Act, the ramifications of which will return to haunt the party, has written an article which sets out a series of complaints against the way the working group was run and proposes an alternative paper - a rare move.  The secrecy rules of the Federal Policy Committee mean I had better not comment as a member, but Radical Bulletin contains the following:

HEALTHY DIFFERENCES

A series of rows has marred the work of the Lib Dems policy working group on public services, resulting in both an expected minority report and a complaint to Federal Policy Committee chair Duncan Hames about the way the group has been run.

FPC set it up with a unwieldy brief to examine education, health, transport and ‘cross cutting public services’, each of which could probably have sustained a working group in its own right.

There was a dispute right at the start when the chair was awarded to Jeremy Hargreaves, a long-serving denizen of the party’s policy processes, and not to former Romsey MP Sandra Gidley, who is viewed as unsound by what many refer to as ‘the Clegg children’.

They do not of course mean his actual children but rather the coterie of academically bright but politically clueless young advisers with whom he has seen fit to surround himself.

Most prominent among the dissidents is Charles West, a general practitioner who fought Shrewsbury and Atcham at the last general election.

In is complaint to Hames, West has noted: “You may be aware of the fact that a number of us in the policy working group discussing public services have been seriously concerned   about the way in which the group has functioned.”

He went on to set out concerns that Hargreaves had acted autocratically and rejected input with which he disagreed, and that votes had not been held on contentious matters.

West has elaborated on his concerns and it now looks like the Glasgow conference in October will be presented with either a lot of options or amendments.

Hargreaves told Liberator that disagreements had arisen over West’s wish to commit the party to ending the purchaser/ provider split in health. He said the rest of the group had simply not agreed with West.

It was quite usual for FPC to be given differing views by a working group but Hargreaves said West had suddenly called for a vote on the split long after the group had rejected the idea and this had not been taken. He described the group’s work as “very consensual”. How consensual will no doubt become apparent at Glasgow.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Orange Book: Still Absurd After All These Years

There has been more inaccurate material written about the "Orange Book" than just about every other recent Liberal publication combined.

I described it at the time [http://www.theguardian.com/society/2004/sep/03/nhs2000.liberaldemocrats] as "quite an absurd and ill-timed set of policies that seem more to do with self-advancement than the party's election prospects."  That is still true.  What I and others took time to appreciate, though, is that it was far from a coherent and pre-planned set of ideas, but a suite of disparate thoughts from disgruntled Parliamentarians.  While they were happy to write a set of articles that, combined, added up to a deliberate attempt to undermine the presentation of the Party's pre-manifesto (and in so doing undermine Lib Dem electoral fortunes), they were certainly not all signed up to the timing.  One of them privately confirmed to me that he felt conned and used in a stunt.

The articles themselves largely reflected the personal hobbyhorses of individual authors.  Some, such as Steve Webb's, were faith-based.  Nick Clegg's piece on EU reform ironically would have been better received in the 2014 elections than the lines that those institutions should stay broadly as they are.  Much of it was pretty turgid, with only the chapters by its co-editors Paul Marshall and David Laws providing the controversy.

More important to remember is that it was hardly that new at the time.  I have many tracts written by people then regarded as Liberal Democrat policymakers in Westminster, such as sometime Clegg adviser Julian Astle, espousing the same sort of unfettered free-trade, 'we must never be seen to be left-wing' propaganda - but from the period of Paddy Ashdown's leadership. His successor Charles Kennedy, who let his frustration at the damage caused by the Orange Book be known, sowed some of the seeds by encouraging the then tiny organisation centred around Mark Oaten, Liberal Future.  David Laws had entertained a role as something of a controversialist, emphasised when the late Conrad Russell and I supported him in resisting for sound economic reasons a Conference attempt by Steve Webb to promote restoring the earnings link.

Liberator's reaction at the time can be viewed at http://www.liberator.org.uk/media/lib-0904.pdf.

Today the book finally got the launch that the long-quiet Paul Marshall cancelled at the time due to the incendiary reaction it caused within the party.  Due to its timing during the working day, I was not there; but from observation the event was what James Graham would have described as a circle jerk.  It was most notable for an appallingly male-dominated line-up; giving a platform to Conservatives and others well beyond the pale of the Liberal Democrat mainstream; in the main, deliberately emphasising a political divide that Norman Lamb described as false between economic and social liberals within the Liberal Democrats; and a refreshingly naïve absence of electoral political reality, as Stephen Tall (promoting local pay, emphatically rejected only two years ago by precisely the poorest areas that Stephen mentions) puts it:

'All-too-often missing from Orange Book-inspired discussion (as indeed it was missing from Jeremy Browne’sRace Plan, in some ways its natural successor) has been the question that’s key to any political party: “Who’d vote for this?” For instance, in the session I did attend Paul Marshall set out some of the ideas he said would be top of his list for an Orange Book v.II: ending the cap on senior public sector executives’ pay being no higher than the Prime Minister’s; local pay-settlements for public sector workers; making strikes illegal in hospitals and schools; and requiring a minimum 50 per cent turn-out for strike ballots. One of those has merit, I think: local pay, as I’ve argued before, is a potentially important way of ensuring we can recruit to vacancies in the poorest areas. The rest strike me as largely symbolic policies likely to use up a lot of political capital and achieving little. Though an Orange Book sympathiser, I’m not an Orange Book purist: there’s no point putting forward authentically liberal policies without knowing how you’d sell them on the doorstep to a sceptical public. That way lies the fate of the FDP.'


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Simon Titley – Living Obituary

John Swarbrick’s lesser known cousin Dave is one of the few people who have had the dubious pleasure of reading their own obituary. But if ever a man deserved to hear good things said about him it is Simon Titley so, while there is still time, I want to write this living obituary to one of the great Liberals and one of my best mates.

Many of us have been devastated by the tragic news that our life-long chum and Liberal colleague Simon has a massive,inoperable brain tumour and probably doesn’t have long to live. Some of us have been worried about his health for some time but, like many stubborn men, he didn’t get it checked out and he was stuck down while enjoying Sunday lunch with his family. Now, Simon likes his food and you may think that if you have to go, there are worse ways than tucking into a Sunday roast. But, and for me and I’m sure for many of you it’s a big but, we hadn’t quite finished with him.

He’s a human being and so he is infuriating and severally flawed, but he is quite simply one of a very few people on the planet who just gets it – all of it. His sharp wit; his radical liberalism; his excellent taste in music; his hilarious sense of humour; his love of great food, good beer and fine wine; whatever it was Simon enjoyed it and for the most part he got it right – spot on right. For those who have enjoyed his company and his writing over the past four decades will know, although a stubborn bastard at times, Simon had one of the best brains in the party – his ability for clarity of thought and his skill at putting that succinctly in writing was a talent to be prised and revered. There is a manifesto’s worth of good ideas out there and I hope they can be collected together for future generations to appreciate and for the party to fully understand what it has missed.

Simon’s contribution to our sense of fun has been as great as his contribution to our beliefs and understanding. It was largely his idea in 1984 to start the Liberal Revue and for many years he wrote and directed shows that had hundreds in stiches with some of the sharpest satire anywhere in British politics. Senior journalists from Vincent Hanna, to Elinor Goodman, to Michael Crick would seek him out for comment because they knew he would not just have his figure exactly on the issue of the day, but he would say it in a pithy, witty and memorable way.

Of course like most great Liberals Simon’s mind was ahead of its time and often out of step with what some might call mainstream thinking. But for those who have followed his many contributions in Liberator over the years know he has been proved right time and again and the party would have done well to have listened to him more often.

Sadly he will write no more and we will have to learn to think for ourselves. Laughter will seem a little hollow for a while and even favourite songs may sound off key. Simon, before you go, I want you to know that I and many, many others hold you in great regard – a friend and a brother, greatly loved and respected – you will be sorely missed you old bugger.

Roger Hayes

 

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Blame Game

Many Liberal Democrats, including Liberator Collective members Tim McNally in Southwark and John Bryant in Camden, will be going through that pit-of-the-stomach sensation where they try and work out exactly who is to blame for their losing their council seat.

Some have already done it - see http://www.libdems4change.org/ - and blamed Nick Clegg. To echo the words of a former leader, they say, greater love hath no man than this - to lay down half the Liberal councillor base in England (more than half the base in urban areas) for the goal of perpetuating leaders' backsides in Cabinet Daimlers.  With so little to show for it, and a 'zombie Government' careering into the final session of a Parliament with little direction, dozens of Coalition pledges left incomplete, it is tempting to agree. Not that I am commenting on the website linked to above.

Liberator has tended to argue that the problems affecting the Liberal Democrats are broader and more fundamental.  From a Headquarters operation that treats activists with a combination of bewilderment and contempt (see the crass correspondence at http://liberator-magazine.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-death-of-satire-again.html, as well as the eight emails despatched to some activists in the last 24 hours of the campaign) to a dysfunctional Parliamentary organisation of which I'll write more, the strong impression is of a party that has lost its way. A party that has lost a grip of its values, exhibited by the spectacle of Mike Hancock given a clear run to stand in Portsmouth while suspended by the Party, supporting a narrative which predictably damaged the wider Lib Dems and have unnecessary succour to UKIP.  Ambling around in the middle of the road under the bland 'stronger economy...' narrative, the party is more likely to be hit by a truck, as has just happened.

If activists think the loss of all councillors up in Liverpool, Manchester, Lambeth, Islington and other places isn't bad enough, Sunday's European election results promise little respite other than in the material of the Liberator songbook.  The initial signs of activist revolt may give the run-up to that result some added spice.

The Death Of Satire - Again

There will be plenty of time to pore 
over the local and European election results this weekend.

Perhaps Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians should take time to reflect, too.  Because it does seem that some of them appear to have been following an altogether different set of elections, on a parallel universe where a 'successful' strategy deployed by the Liberal Democrat leadership has led to tangible success.

Most of the people receiving the following letter just emailed 'from' Annette Brooke MP to Lib Dem activists, including Sir David Williams who lost the Ham and Petersham ward in Richmond held for 40 years or colleagues in Liverpool and Manchester whose huge effort resulted in losses across the board - not to mention others - may not appreciate its sentiments. Truly beyond satire, it reads as follows:

As the results continue to come in from the local elections a clear pattern is emerging. In our held seats, where we have strong and established campaigns, we're seeing some very good results.

In Sutton, where we have two MPs, we have gained seats. In Birmingham Yardley we won nearly 50% of the vote and beat Labour into a distant second. Here in my own constituency we gained a seat from the Conservatives which pushed Purbeck District Council into no overall control. In Colchester we won 7 of the 8 seats and in Eastleigh we comfortably held the Council and drove the Conservatives' vote share down to 12%. There are too many examples for me to list them all.

All of these results tell the same story - in many of our strongest areas we are winning elections.

Of course many of our fantastic Councillors and candidates worked incredibly hard in these elections and didn't get the result they deserved. I hope each and every one of them will get their names back onto the ballot paper as soon as possible.

We're now less than a year away from the General Election and these results in our held seats show that we have everything to play for. Your efforts made the difference this time, as they will next year.

Best wishes,

Annette Brooke MP
Chair of the Parliamentary Party