Friday, 30 November 2012

Israeli diplomacy

Yesterday, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade the Palestinians’ status at the UN to that of non-member observer state.

Today, the Israelis responded by authorising the construction of 3,000 more housing units in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and speeding up the processing of 1,000 planning permissions, all in contravention of international law.

In other words, Israel’s response to the world is “fuck you”. And then they wonder they’ve lost the support of just about everyone except the hardline lobby in America.

“It’s just a flesh wound...”

On Liberal Democrat Voice, Liberal Eye likens the Liberal Democrats’ delusional excuses for yesterday’s by-election results to Monty Python’s Black Knight:

In defence of secularism

Congratulations to Liberal Democrat peer Kishwer Falkner for making the case for secularism in an otherwise largely deferential debate on the role of religion in public life (House of Lords, 22 November).

A video recording of the speech is here and the Hansard verbatim report is here.

Kishwer made the key point about secularism, that religion should be neither persecuted nor privileged, and “separating religion and state enables those of all religions and none to participate as equal citizens.” It was good to hear a mention of the Liberal MP Charles Bradlaugh, whose principled stand in the 1880s enabled non-religious MPs to sit in the House of Commons.

Religious interests frequently complain of persecution and victimisation in this country. They remind me of the graffiti seen in Paris in 1968: “The church complains of persecution when it is not allowed to persecute”.

In case anyone wonders who is actually doing the persecuting, this report makes sobering reading.

Party like it’s 1977

Yesterday’s three by-elections are a return to the sort of results the Liberals suffered in the late 1970s, during the Lib-Lab Pact and the Thorpe affair.

The third place ahead of the Tories in Middlesborough shows, as in Manchester Central last week, that effective local campaigning can limit the damage. But the lost deposits in Croydon North and Rotherham show that local campaigning is not sufficient to withstand a nationwide electoral tsunami. The 8th place in Rotherham is particularly dire, worse than anything the Liberals achieved in the late 1970s.

The Liberal Democrats, as a party of government, can no longer attract the sort of protest votes that are now benefitting UKIP and other minor parties. What these by-elections have revealed, yet again, is the party’s fundamental weakness, the lack of a core vote.

I analysed this problem in an article in Liberator 347 (August 2011). Yesterday’s by-election results, together with the continuing poor opinion poll ratings, have only confirmed this view. They also confirm that the electoral strategy invented by Richard Reeves and promoted by Nick Clegg – that the Liberal Democrats’ target vote is ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ – is complete and utter bollocks.

POSTSCRIPT (1): Simon Hughes, interviewed on Radio 4’s World at One today [zap forward to 16:17], attributes the Liberal Democrats’ dismal results to the three constituencies being “safe Labour territory” and to that old chestnut, the mid-term blues (“the two governing parties suffered, as they often do in the middle of a parliament...”).

POSTSCRIPT (2): Peter Chegwyn, Liberal agent in the 1976 Rotherham by-election, reminds me that, despite ‘mid-term blues’ and the Jeremy Thorpe scandal in full swing (Thorpe had resigned as party leader only a month before the by-election), the Liberal Party still finished 3rd and kept the National Front in 4th place. Peter was also agent in the 1981 by-election in Croydon North-West, which the Liberals famously won. He wonders how the Liberal Democrats managed to win only 3.5% of the vote in Croydon North, as more than half the constituency used to be in the old Croydon North-West.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The rise of virtual activism across Europe

Florian Hartleb has an article on the LSE European Politics and Policy blog looking at the opportunities and dangers inherent in the emergence of ‘virtual politics’ in Europe:
New technologies bring with them the advantage of virtual activism and the possibility of grass roots movements in a democratic and global way.
Such developments also contain some anti-democratic tendencies, however, including the creation of a more passive and drifting base of support, less ability to hold leaders accountable, and the emergence of a new, narrower digital elite that has displaced the older, more traditional activist base.
Parties which can no longer rely on the notion of membership for their legitimising myth work instead on their digital presence; they find themselves suffering a loss of real members and general support, forcing them to turn to alternative resources to retain influence.

NHS reform? It could be worse...

Issue cocoons

Robert Reich has produced a pithy cartoon summary (in slide show form) of his book Beyond Outrage, an analysis of what has gone wrong with America’s economy since the end of the 1970s.

His argument focuses on how the richest 1% has gained at the expense of the middle classes. But the most interesting slides are #7 and #9, which show how the 1% has got away with it: divide and rule. Opposition has been dissipated into ‘issue cocoons’.

The lesson for anyone seeking to challenge the forces that have got us into the present economic mess is this: to develop a coherent analysis and prescription, you must raise your sights beyond special interests or selfish identity issues, and learn to think holistically.

The tragicomic battle between the Liberal Democrats’ gender balance and ethnic minority lobbies over candidate quotas is a good illustration of how attention can be distracted and energy wasted when people lose sight of the big picture.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

T-shirt of the month

The Leveson debate in a nutshell

The self-serving arguments and attempts at agenda-setting going on ahead of the publication of the Leveson Report are accurately summed up by the Daily Mash as “...the traditional eve-of-major-report shouting ritual.”

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Did Morsi “only need to win once”?

Today’s disturbances in Egypt over President Morsi’s attempt to put himself beyond the jurisdiction of the courts reminded me of a bleak conversation I had with an Egyptian liberal at a Liberal International congress some years before the Arab Spring.

He explained that, while he wanted to see democracy in Egypt, he was worried about what it might bring, given the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity and organisational ability.

This body might, he said, “only have to win once” so that once elected it would then entrench itself, abolish democracy, and impose a religiously-inspired dictatorship that would make the Mubarak government look benign by comparison.

There was some limited political pluralism in the Mubarak era – liberal parties could exist though were rarely allowed to win election to anything – and the fear that Morsi aims to snuff out even this political space must be what has driven an impressively-sized crowd onto the streets.

Egypt is not Syria or Libya, and certainly not Saudi Arabia – it has long had some political and religious liberty and some freedom for women.

But it is struggling with how to reconcile a desire for democracy with its religious traditions and it has no real model to follow, given that history and circumstances in Turkey are very different.

As the Middle East’s most populous and influential country, how Egypt eventually resolves this will be important for whether the Arab Spring breaks through against dictatorships elsewhere to bring lasting change or falls back into repression but simply conducted by different people.

Conservative dogma in a nutshell

“La droite la plus bête du monde”

Patrice de Beer brings us an analysis of a major political event little reported in Britain, the implosion of France’s main right-wing party, the UMP (the party of presidents Chirac and Sarkozy):
The French right can rightly claim to be, once again, ‘la droite la plus bête du monde’, ‘the most stupid Right in the world’, even managing to outsmart a Socialist Party also well known for its internecine conflicts.
French politics appears alien to us. In Britain, the party is always bigger than its leader (whatever delusional leaders might think). But in France, political parties come and go, and are often little more than loose alliances or fan clubs for charismatic individuals (David Owen would have thrived in French politics; it was his tragedy not be born French).

France’s two-stage electoral system forces fractious rivals into two large and unwieldy coalitions, one left and one right. But it takes a strong personality to hold these coalitions together. The inevitable internal bust-ups (whether the socialists in 2008 or UMP this year) rarely involve differences of opinion on issues of substance, but seem to outsiders more like incomprehensible hillbilly feuds. One similarity with Britain, however, is an eternal political verity: one’s rivals are in other parties but one’s enemies are in one’s own.

The current socialist president François Hollande is falling in the polls and the right should be profiting. But unless the right can sort out the present shambles, it will hand victory to Hollande on a plate in 2017.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Nul points

Blimey! This austerity business is much worse than I thought.

Portugal and Poland have both withdrawn from next year’s Eurovision Song Contest, in case they win and are faced with a huge bill for hosting the following year’s contest.

This seems an unlikely contingency, since neither Portugal nor Poland has ever won the Eurovision Song Contest. Still, in these straitened times, you can never be too sure.

Hayek, Friedman and lessons for today’s neoliberals

The intellectual gurus of today’s neoliberals are Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. But Hayek would probably be crossed off your average Tea Party supporter’s Christmas card list if they ever took the trouble to read him.

That is the conclusion of Robert M. Solow in a fascinating review of Angus Burgin’s book The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression.

Hayek was right to point out that central planning was doomed, since the centralisation of decisions is bound to generate errors and then fail to correct them. But today’s neoliberals are reluctant to acknowledge that Hayek also rejected unrestricted laissez-faire as unworkable, and was keen to identify ethical constraints on market forces.

The interesting angle for Liberal Democrats is that the basic problems with the market fundamentalists on the right-wing fringe of their party are prefigured in the early years of the neoliberal intellectual movement.

Then as now, neoliberals insist that economic theory and policy are a Manichean struggle between free markets and collectivism. In the early years of neoliberalism, we were told we must make a stark choice between unrestrained markets and Soviet communism. Today, the neoliberal fringe in the Liberal Democrats insists the only choice is between unrestrained markets and Fabian-style social democracy. They deny the existence of radical/social liberalism, and dismiss pragmatic policies in favour of ideological dogmatism.

As Solow points out:
...for those of us trying to live on this planet, the issue is not between free markets and socialism/collectivism; it is between an extreme version of free markets and effective regulation of the shadow banking system, or between an extreme version of free markets and the level and progressivity of the personal income tax. The metaphor of the slippery slope is largely an invention to scare off pragmatic exploration of the policy landscape.
...the temptation to frame the intellectual issue as Free Markets v. Communism more or less guarantees that all the important practical questions about economic policy and social policy will disappear from view.
Neoliberals junked Hayek’s moral concerns long ago. Thanks to Friedman, the dogmatic insistance on laissez-faire, regardless of the human consequences, suggests that neoliberals today are unburdened by any ethical concerns.

And that is the fundamental problem with neoliberalism. Like all other rigid political dogmas, it insists that ideological constructs come before human welfare or human values.

It is no accident that most of the neoliberals in the Liberal Democrats today are single young men who spend most of their lives in front of a computer screen, often lost in a virtual world of violent computer games. They should try moving to this planet, meeting real people and engaging with some real world policy concerns. Then they might realise that politics is not primarily an individual quest to refine your ideological purity regardless of the human cost.

November’s Liberator

Over at Liberal Democrat Voice, there’s a round-up of the content of the latest edition of Liberator magazine.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Clegg’s garden cities, and a drunken evening

I once wangled an invitation to the fabled Scottish Whisky Industry Association reception while attending a Tory conference for professional reasons during the Major government.

Unsurprisingly, I can remember little about the event. But I can remember trying to discuss planning for housebuilding in the south east with three Tory MPs who were even drunker than I was.

I was reminded of this event by Nick Clegg’s latest letter to Liberal Democrat members, in which he calls for “new garden cities totalling a million new homes in the next ten years,” to meet the housing crisis.

Clegg argues that it is possible to do this “without building on any green belt, National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty” and that this would be a more attractive alternative than creating further urban sprawl:
Instead of eating away at the green belt, we can build big and even designate new green belt around new towns and cities.
We could easily build. And by doing it we could deliver homes people can afford in places they want to live.
He might be right, but if he wants to pursue this idea, he will have to be prepared to take on Middle England.

Since there is no point in building a garden city where there is insufficient employment to sustain one, or where house prices are relatively low anyway, what we are talking about here really is the south, East Anglia and parts of the Midlands.

As far back as 1992, Tory MPs had formed a group called Sane Planning to fight their own government’s attempts to encourage housebuilding in these areas, confident of the warm approval of their constituents.

Under the last Labour government, an attempt was made to create a chain of ‘eco-towns’ – a concept not much removed from garden cities. The response was foaming outrage, lawsuits and considerable political hostility, albeit most eco-towns were proposed for areas with few Labour voters anyway.

As far as I know, only two eco-towns/garden cities are now being developed, both on isolated former military sites – consequently with much of the infrastructure in place – and both in booming Cambridgeshire, at Alconbury and Northstowe.

Elsewhere, past experience suggests that Nick Clegg can expect an uphill battle against a combination of those who oppose rural development (whether from selfish or altruistic motives), genuine environmentalists who fear a ‘Trojan Horse’ effect, and landowners whose acreage would be less likely to be developed if garden cities went ahead.

Even if he finds usable sites, they must not just be suitable for housing but also be either near some large-scale source of employment or be capable of having substantial local employment created in them.

His argument has merits, but he may find that increasing urban sprawl by piecemeal stealth gets more homes built than will awaking the ire of objectors to new towns.

Lord Bonkers: Struck a glancing blow by Violet Asquith

I see the Daily Mail has got hold of rather a ticklish story:
At the end of a long, relatively uneventful Edwardian summer, the papers were suddenly full of dire news about the 21-year-old daughter of the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.
The headlines were shocking: ‘Premier’s daughter missing’, said one; ‘Miss Asquith’s peril’, warned another. She had been reported missing at Cruden Bay on the Scottish coast, where the family had been spending their holiday in September 1908 at a rented fortress with the ominous name of Slains Castle.
After a dangerous search lasting half the night, Violet Asquith was finally discovered lying in wet grass on a rocky ledge above the sea — uninjured but apparently barely conscious.
A doctor was summoned and she quickly revived. But rumours continued to swirl: had she fallen by accident or had there been foul play? Some even whispered that she might have been intentionally trying to harm herself.
The Prime Minister moved swiftly to quiet any speculation by offering an innocent tale about his daughter stumbling in the dark. But no one could explain why Violet had remained missing for so many hours. It took several days of determined stonewalling before the Press stopped asking questions.
What happened that night has long remained a mystery — but buried in the Asquith family papers, now at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I have discovered an astonishing revelation: the story of Violet Asquith’s brush with death is inextricably linked with her doomed love for a rising young star in her father’s Liberal cabinet — Winston Churchill.
Well, I suppose it was bound to come out sooner or later.

As one who was also staying at Cruden Bay that summer, I can confirm that Violet Asquith did indeed carry a torch for Churchill and threw herself off the cliff when he made it clear that he preferred his darling Clementine.

What the Mail does not record, however, is the reason that Violet Asquith survived her plunge.

It happened that I was walking along the beach composing a speech on Chinese Labour at just the time that she went over the edge.

The Asquith were always sporty, healthy girls, and if she had scored a bull’s eye on my crumpet her father might well have had to find a candidate to fight a by-election in Rutland South-West.

As it turned out, she caught me a glancing blow. This broke her fall sufficiently to save her from serious harm, but I still get a pain in my shoulder in wet weather.

What the Taj Mahal can teach us about economics

John Kay of the Financial Times explains what the Mogul empire can teach us about economics today: the folly of rent-seeking. Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, may have appropriated up to 40% of GDP to maintain his ostentatious and self-indulgent lifestyle.

Kay argues that we face a similar problem today. Unlike the successful IT sector, industries such as the media, defence, pharmaceuticals and, in particular, finance are engaged in rent-seeking rather than wealth creation. He criticises politicians who protect the rent-seekers by confusing “being friendly to business leaders with being supportive of the success of business”.

He concludes:
Market economies succeed when they advance through disciplined pluralism – the process that gives maximum scope for experiment and innovation, while ensuring that when experiments and innovations fail they are terminated, and that when occasionally they succeed they are imitated. That is the origin of the advances in the IT sector.

The success of market economies is not achieved by policies that encourage people to be greedy and imposing as few restrictions as possible on what the greediest of them do.

A question of identity

Most people imagine that nation-states have existed forever. In fact, the nation-state as we understand it has been around for only about 200 years, a product of industrialisation, urbanisation and mass literacy.

There is no reason why it should survive indefinitely, and other identities are already replacing it. In a compelling article in yesterday’s FT Magazine, Simon Kuper argues: “The nation-state is shrinking to just a flag, some sports teams and a pile of debts.”


Saturday, 24 November 2012

How to win friends and influence people

Who are the forty most influential British people in the European Union?

Here’s a clue. Nigel Farage is way down the list in 34th place.

Here’s another clue. David Cameron is only 9th.

Here’s yet another clue. Tact, diplomacy and alliance-building pay greater dividends that tub-thumping and playing to the gallery. (Or as Sir Stephen Wall put it, “Carrying on about Europe is not the same as carrying influence in Europe”).

Armed with these clues, it should come as no surprise that the no.1 spot is held by a Liberal Democrat and that there are three other Liberal Democrats in the top twenty.

To find out who, see the list here and the reports by the Guardian and EurActiv.

Is UKIP racist?

The big news today is the decision by Rotherham council to remove three children from a foster couple on the grounds that the couple belongs to UKIP, a “racist party”.

Leaving aside the justice of this decision, is UKIP actually racist? It is certainly xenophobic but, in any case, this is to miss the point about UKIP.

During the 2005 general election campaign, I was campaigning in the (then) Liberal Democrat-held constituency of Teignbridge in Devon. One evening, I went to a hustings held in the parish church of Bovey Tracey, a small town on the edge of Dartmoor and in the least Liberal Democrat part of the constituency.

What was striking about this meeting was the age of the audience. Almost everyone was over 70. As the meeting progressed, it became clear that their sympathies were split roughly 50/50 between the Tories and UKIP.

But they were not driven by racism. All of their various interventions from the floor, whatever the issue, seemed to boil down to the same question: “Why can’t we turn the clock back to the 1950s?”

If you are not old enough to remember the 1950s or earlier, it is very hard to appreciate just how fundamental a social revolution has taken place since then. It is not just the extent of the change but also its speed.

Philip Larkin caught the moment in his poem Annus Mirabilis:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP
Of course, ‘golden ageism’ has always been with us. The idea that there was a golden age (perpetually 30 to 50 years ago) when things were much better can be found as far back as the writings of the Ancient Greeks. Believers habitually begin with the phrase, “In my day...”

But because the depth and pace of change over the past fifty years have been unprecedented, today’s elderly aren’t merely nostalgic but often feel completely discombobulated.

And that is the essence of UKIP’s appeal. EU membership is not really the issue but a symbol of something deeper, a mourning for Britain’s loss of empire, a feeling that the country has gone to the dogs and a resentment towards an increasingly cosmopolitan culture.

UKIP understands that it is appealing to gut instincts, so it is no surprise that its policies amount to little more than a rag-bag of bar-room prejudices. But UKIP is quite distinct from the BNP. It is middle class and suburban in character, unlike the BNP, which is racist and appeals to a different constituency (and a different gut instinct) of urban working class.

Liberal Democrats often worry about this sentiment among UKIP and right-wing Tory supporters. They should not. Relatively few elderly people vote Liberal Democrat, and xenophobic and reactionary voters tossing up whether to vote UKIP or Tory will prefer the real McCoy to any insincere Liberal Democrats who try to mollify them.

But there’s a more important reason for not attempting to appease such sentiment. What UKIP’s supporters basically want cannot be delivered. It is simply not possible to turn the clock back to the 1950s. The British Empire cannot be restored. The toothpaste of people’s sense of personal liberation cannot be put back in the tube.

Britain leaving the European Union would not bring back the 1950s, any more than drinking Camp coffee, putting on Brylcreem or forcing BBC radio news announcers to wear a bow tie.

That is why UKIP is fundamentally dishonest; its nostalgic appeal is as fake as the commercials for Werther’s Originals (sweets from Germany, which were not sold in the UK until the 1990s).

Sometimes you have to be cruel to be cruel. Far from cowering in the corner when discussion turns to the EU, the Liberal Democrats should not be afraid to come out and deliver some harsh realities to any voters who believe the past is an option. But it isn’t necessary to take away their adopted children.

BBC & NHS: Is there a link?

Former Tory MP and minister Steve Norris asks whether there is a link between the problems of the BBC and NHS.

His answer is not what you might expect.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Meanwhile, in Newark...

A report in today’s Lincolnshire Echo has uncovered strange goings-on in the Liberal Democrats’ Euro-selection contest in the East Midlands.

The story is not (yet) available online, so is reproduced in full here:
E-mail reveals plan to bring in Lib Dem MEP by default
by Louise Wallace
A leaked e-mail which revealed a plan to ensure an aspiring Euro MP gained a seat as Lincolnshire’s representative in Brussels has been withdrawn.
The message to Lib Dem party members urged them to re-elect Bill Newton Dunn, who it said would then stand down to make way for a “party favourite”.
It has now been withdrawn because Mr Newton Dunn said he would not stand down if he was elected.
The message was circulated to more than 40 members by the chairman of the Newark branch of the Liberal Democrats, Peter Scorer.
It read: “Dear members, you should all be receiving ballot papers for our candidate for the Euro elections, mine arrived today. Issan Ghazni from Nottingham (who came to our lunch) has aspirations to be a Euro MP.
“Bill Newton Dunn had intended to stand down. However, it is considered that he has the best chance of becoming elected again as our MEP.
“He has been persuaded to stand again. He intends to sit for one year. Thereafter, he will stand down and our second preference will become our MEP.
“Please therefore vote for Bill Newton Dunn as your first choice and Issan Ghazni for your second choice.”
Mr Scorer told the Echo he later learned that the e-mail was incorrect and has asked all recipients to ignore it.
“I was advised at a meeting we had and subsequently I have been advised that the information was inaccurate, so I’ve sent a follow-up e-mail saying please ignore it,” said Mr Scorer.
“Someone told me the information and discussed it at the Newark meeting and it was suggested we should tell our members. I can’t remember who told me about it. I do not know whether they got the correct information or what but Bill is not standing down.
“Members can vote for who they want. There is no element of coercion.”
When asked if, in future, with the correct information, whether he would send out a similar e-mail, he said: “Knowing what I know now, I would certainly have grave reservations about it.”
Mr Newton Dunn, who represents the East Midlands in Europe, distanced himself from the message, saying the party disapproved of the e-mail and that it was the action of an individual.
Pressed on his views about the idea that members are asked to vote a particular way, he said: “Well, everybody makes mistakes, but there are more important questions in life than this, such as austerity, government finances, climate change and war in the Middle East.”
Voters in Lincoln said the e-mail seems to go against the principle of democracy.
Shaun Scott, 39, of St Botolph’s Crescent, Lincoln, said: “If you vote for someone you would expect them to do their full term in office, unless there was some serious medical reason why they could not.”
DJ Alvin Nixon, 34, of Hawthorn Chase, Lincoln, said he did not believe it was democratic.
He said: “You don’t want someone else you didn’t vote for coming in after a year and taking over from the person you voted for. That does not sound right to me.”
The decision to round off the story with two random vox pops on the streets of Lincoln is one of those bizarre things local newspapers do.

But the party’s powers that be have more political nous than the Echo’s reporter. They should be sensitive to this sort of allegation, particularly after the damaging episode in Yorkshire & Humber in January. They might care to investigate the activities of the mysterious person known in Newark only as ‘someone told me the information’.

POSTSCRIPT: The story eventually appeared on the Lincolnshire Echo’s website here.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A load of ballots

Will mounting concern about missing ballot papers derail the Liberal Democrats’ selection contests for Euro-election candidates, currently underway in England?

Complaints have been made by a number of party members in the London and South East regions that they have not received ballot papers. Other regions may also be affected.

The number of disenfranchised members is believed to be significant, and includes at least one candidate in a selection contest, one member of a party federal committee and some senior figures from local government. A membership database error is the suspected cause.

Challenges to the results of these selection contests are likely from disgruntled candidates, because only a handful of votes could separate them from a life in Brussels and Strasbourg. In the previous round of selection contests (before the 2009 Euro-elections), incumbent MEPs tended to rack up around 90% of the first preference votes, with the remaining candidates separated by relatively few votes. The party returned only one MEP in each English Euro-constituency in 2009 (apart from the two in the South East), but coming second or third remains crucial, since this determines who will replace any sitting MEP who resigns (as has happened in the current parliament in both the West Midlands and Yorkshire & Humber).

There is added spice to this year’s selection contests in the North East and South East, where incumbent MEPs Fiona Hall and Sharon Bowles are not restanding. Rebecca Taylor is also not restanding in Yorkshire & Humber, but there is now another incumbent, former Tory Edward McMillan-Scott, who is likely to be a shoo-in for top place on the Liberal Democrat list.

This latest ballot paper cock-up follows on from a previous one a few weeks ago in the elections for the party’s federal committees. The party experimented with electronic voting, but some conference representatives have complained that they were effectively disenfranchised because they were not told that they had to apply if they wished to receive a hard copy ballot instead. Whatever the validity of these complaints, many people who were expecting ballot papers in the post did not receive them. It may be that a database error similar to that in the Euro-selections is the cause.

In both these sets of elections, there remains some confusion about what went wrong and why. But whatever the cause, the Liberal Democrats cannot afford this sort of mistake if they wish to remain the party of electoral and constitutional reform.

POSTSCRIPT: On Thursday morning, Mark Pack reports on Liberal Democrat Voice:
The original deadline for returning ballots was Wednesday 28 November. However, a problem which resulted in around 550 party members being missed out by mistake from the original ballot mailings has been identified and ballot papers have been posted out to them by first class post earlier in the week (along with first class freepost return envelopes).
In addition, the return deadline for all ballots has been extended to noon, Friday 30 November.

“It’s time for Nick Clegg to stand up for fairness”

Gareth Epps (member of the Liberator Collective) has just published an article on the Shifting Grounds blog, asking whether the Liberal Democrats will be able to prevent the Tories using the Autumn Statement to do more harm to the most vulnerable groups in society.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The curious question of Tory patriotism

The global affairs magazine Monocle recently published its annual Soft Power Survey and the results make interesting reading. The United Kingdom has taken the No.1 spot from the USA.

When a nation’s power is measured, it is usually in terms of ‘hard power’, which is power as conventionally understood: military, industrial and financial. ‘Soft power’ is less tangible but no less influential, and includes such things as politics, diplomacy, business, culture, media, sport and education.

When it comes to soft power, Britain starts with an enormous advantage, as the home of the English language. But this year, the London Olympics and the Jubilee celebrations have added to a continuing string of international successes in pop music, acting and sport.

Britain retains some hard power but any lingering status as a global superpower was definitively shattered by the Suez Crisis in 1956. There is no reason to suppose that Britain will regain such status in our lifetimes.

Yet here we are, 56 years after Suez, and most of the Conservative Party (along with UKIP) continues under the delusion that Britain is still a superpower. It is expressed in terms of a go-it-alone braggadocio, with a corresponding disdain for Johnny Foreigner.

It is the politics of the gut, not the brain. And it is completely and utterly counter-productive.

Nowhere is this more evident than the current posturing over the European Union budget. There is an argument against increasing the budget but it cannot be won by any single EU member state acting alone. There are 27 member states, so there must be patient diplomacy and the building of alliances. Unfortunately, the Conservative Party left the mainstream centre-right EPP group in 2009 and its only allies now are a few cranks from the far-right fringe.

But the Conservatives probably don’t really care, since their whole strategy towards Europe is governed by an overriding need to play to the gallery at home. Indeed, stage-managing disputes of this sort aids this strategy since it mollifies increasingly Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, plays well in the Tory press and helps fend off the threat from UKIP.

No one mentions that this strategy diminishes British influence and makes a bigger EU budget more likely.

Then there is the Conservatives’ increasing contempt for the BBC and a desire for it to be broken up and flogged off, because it is seen as a nest of bearded lefty liberal cosmopolitan intellectuals; because its news coverage is ‘biased’ (i.e. not Tory); because it offends some abstract principle of market fundamentalism; or just to please Rupert Murdoch.

So we get swingeing cuts to the BBC World Service, one of the most effective and certainly the most cost-effective means of soft power Britain has.

Then there are the big cuts to cultural subsidies, likely to lead to the death of repertory theatre in provincial Britain, and a consequent drying-up of the main source of acting talent that impresses the world so much. Likewise, many school playing fields are being flogged off and local sporting facilities closed down, making it harder for Britain to ensure a supply of sporting stars and medal winners for the future.

Then there are the indiscriminate cuts to immigration, which hobble British businesses, and cuts to the numbers of foreign students admitted, which means universities lose income and in the longer run that Britain loses valuable foreign friends and ambassadors.

Still, no one wants the smell of curry in their street, do they?

The more you look at it, the more you realise that, in practical terms, this Tory/UKIP posturing is thoroughly unpatriotic, since it diminishes British power (both hard and soft). Frankly, it makes us look ridiculous.

Still, at least it gets good headlines in the Daily Express, and that’s the main thing.

End of an era

The UK’s last typewriter has been manufactured today.

The question isn’t why. The question is how it survived this long.

Why Gaza matters more than Jimmy Savile

The Jimmy Savile affair has caused some people to extrapolate bizarre conclusions about the BBC. The scandal revealed weaknesses in BBC news management but is no basis for an overarching critique of public broadcasting.

The BBC’s reporting of the conflict in Gaza is no basis for destroying public broadcasting either. As this piece on the Electronic Intifada makes clear, however, the BBC’s obligation to provide ‘balanced’ reporting can lead to distortions when this obligation is interpreted as a requirement to present Gaza and Israel as equal protagonists. And the goal of balance is not served by a failure to provide context.

This isn’t a question of siding with either Israel or the Palestinians, but providing news that gives us an accurate understanding of the situation.

News reporting of this region is never easy when every media outlet is put under intense pressure by the pro-Israel lobby, and anyone who doesn’t toe the line is automatically accused of anti-semitism (a threadbare technique of intimidation that is overdue for retirement). The BBC should be able to stand up to such bullying.

I have no interest in hearing Israeli propaganda (or Hamas propaganda for that matter). I also have no interest in the conflict being reduced to a meaningless sequence of whoosh-bang explosions. The current conflict deserves more thorough scrutiny than it is getting.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Our comments policy

When Liberator launched this blog, we decided from the outset to have a comments policy – it is set out in the right-hand column.

If you have ever seen any other politics-related blogs, you will know why. A small but vociferous band of infantile trolls and obsessive bores can ruin it for everyone else. To experience this at its worst, take a look at one of Britain’s most popular political blogs, Guido Fawkes. To read the comments beneath any post is to stare into a cesspit.

Then look at another popular blog, Political Betting. This ought to be (and often is) a really useful exchange of inside knowledge. But to find the gems, you have to wade through a lot of dross. A handful of regulars dominates proceedings, trading in-jokes and off-topic banter. The comments beneath each post read like a drunken conversation in the bar of a private club, not an open and intelligent public debate.

Liberal Democrat Voice is quite heavily moderated, with byzantine commenting rules and filters set up to intercept all kinds of potentially offensive words or phrases. Even so, the comments tend to be dominated by the same handful of (mostly right-wing) obsessives, who chip in on every topic in an often aggressive manner, while adding little to the sum total of human wisdom.

There is an understandable perception that most political trolls are right-wing libertarians, and indeed many are. But the right does not have a monopoly. Look at the comments posted under any story on the Guardian’s website (especially if it’s a story about the Liberal Democrats) and you will see that Labour Party supporters can troll with the best of them.

Irrespective of ideology, these abusive commenters have certain features in common. They are overwhelmingly male. The passive-aggressive tone suggests they are mostly young. The frequency of comments, 24 hours a day, suggests they need a life. But there’s something else. They never use their real, full names, preferring to post anonymously or hide behind a pseudonym.

You do wonder about the psychology of these people. Why resort to anonymity? A few people may have a genuine motive, such as a politically-restricted occupation, but it is doubtful this applies in many cases.

One obvious motive is cowardice. If you are going to be abusive or use intemperate language, how much easier when your real identity is concealed. You can say things you would never dare say to someone’s face.

Another motive is a desire for unearned status. If you are Fred Bloggs, a 23-year old student with no serious political track record, your opinions are likely to carry little weight, and trying to compensate with a commanding tone simply looks pompous. But invent a pseudonym and adopt a spurious authoritative voice, and delivering grandiloquent put-downs is much easier to do.

Why should any of this matter? It’s a free society, and we should be able to take the rough with the smooth, surely? It matters because, for anyone who isn’t an inadequate young man sitting in front of his computer 24 hours a day and venting his spleen, a torrent of boorish comments is, at best, tedious and, at worst, highly intimidating, especially for women or anyone (male or female) unused to the rough and tumble of politics.

Here on Liberator’s blog, we welcome comments and debate. We simply ask that you exercise some courtesy and help us facilitate intelligent debate. We don’t want a few headbangers spoiling it for everyone else.

That’s why we ban anonymous or pseudonymous comments. It’s a blunt instrument but the most expedient means of eliminating abusive comments. You may not like this policy, but it is our blog. You have no automatic right to comment here, and we are not obliged to publish everything you say. Marks and Spencer is free to trade, and I may freely choose whether to shop there, but I have no right to take a dump in the middle of their stores.

Our rules in no way infringe your freedom of speech. If you are part of the annoying minority that wants to trade abuse, there are plenty of other places online where you can do it, and they are welcome to you.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A turn up for the books

Sarah Teather is interviewed in today’s Observer and is highly critical of the coalition government’s welfare reforms.

Sarah was never a radical and always seemed a rather conventional loyalist, so if she is this unhappy, it makes you wonder how other Liberal Democrat MPs are feeling.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

End of the peer show

Rumours have reached Liberator of the imminent announcement of a new batch of life peers, including up to 15 Liberal Democrats. This was originally planned for the spring, but postponed because of Lords reform. With the defeat of reform proposals, the list of new peers has been revived.

The argument for appointing more peers is ostensibly to adjust the party balance more in line with the Commons, since Labour still has more peers than the Tories (225 to 212). Despite that argument, news of more appointments will not go down well with existing peers.

The number of peers has reached absurd proportions (currently 760, plus another 52 on leave of absence or disqualified from sitting), making it one of the largest legislative chambers in the world. Quite apart from the growing costs, the never ending expansion of the Lords is causing serious problems with such things as the allocation of office space and other working facilities.

Who will be the lucky Liberal Democrats this time? One name perpetually at the top of the rumour list is Brian Paddick, to be rewarded for his two attempts to become Mayor of London. Otherwise, if past experience is anything to go by, appointments will be used to beef up the numbers of women and ethnic minorities in parliament. In any event, all appointees will be expected to work as full-time peers (unless they have been unusually generous donors). And given the growing rebelliousness of Liberal Democrat peers, Nick Clegg is unlikely to make a rod for his own back by appointing any more potential rebels (which is why it would be a surprise if any of the MPs who lost their seats in 2005 or 2010 will be sent to the Lords).

The party has awarded peerages to most of its women who have served as council leaders, so a strong contender must be Barbara Janke, who was leader of Bristol City Council until she resigned in April. Rumours are also circulating of Julie Smith (policy wonk and Cambridge councillor) and Deirdre Razzall (editor of Liberal Democrat News until it finally closed last week).

Liz Lynne (former MP and MEP) must be a strong contender. However, her fellow former MEP Diana Wallis resigned from the European Parliament in controversial circumstances and may be passed over.

We must not forget, of course, the Liberal Democrats’ interim peers panel, last elected in 2010. There should have been fresh elections this year, but the party’s Federal Executive decided to cancel them because of Lords reform. When those reforms were themselves cancelled, the FE failed to revive the scheduled election.

The 2010 peers panel remains current till 2014, however. Might Clegg pick any of his nominations from this list? Only one person elected to the 2010 panel has so far been ennobled, and that is Sal Brinton. Of the remainder, the likeliest candidate is Chris Bones, a management consultant and close ally of Clegg, who you may recall in 2008 led the Bones Commission into party reform. Others on the panel who are more of an outside bet are David Boyle, Liz Leffman and Mike Tuffrey; none of the others seems likely.

But whoever gets a peerage, the inflated size of the House of Lords will serve only to hasten reform of one sort or another.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Lord Bonkers explains why you should always vote for yourself

I am often asked to teach Liberal Democrat candidates the theory and practice of polling day organisation.

After I have taught them the rudiments of knocking up and how to prime the Bonkers Patent Exploding Focus (for use in marginal wards), I give a little homily. (Or was she a Dickensian heroine?)

Anyway, what I say to them is this: Always remember to vote for yourself.

The truth of this was borne in upon me with renewed force today. Because, thanks to my decision to follow my own advice, I am the new Police and Crime Commissioner for Rutland.

I won yesterdays election with a majority of one and that because I rushed down to the village school to vote just before the polls closed.

So you can see that my vote was quite decisive. It was not just that I had a majority of one: mine was the only vote cast in the whole of Rutland.

But a victory is a victory, whatever the turnout or majority.

Tomorrow I shall begin work on my plans to ensure that all police constables are fat and jolly and spend their time alternately helping old ladies across the road (preferably when they want to cross) and clipping apple-scrumpers around the ear.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Where were the pro-crime candidates?

As the Today programme pointed out this morning, nobody is publicly in favour of crime, so one explanation for the pathetic turnout at the police and crime commissioner elections was that voters were not being offered a choice over anything.

While no-one would seriously run as ‘pro crime’, the ‘anti crime’ candidates I looked at pretty much without exception, regardless of place, and of any party or none, ran on the same platitudes about ‘more police on the beat’, ‘police to pay attention to the whole area’, ‘less anti social behaviour’, ‘less bureaucracy’.

If every candidate is offering the same thing, why vote?

This is the problem with elections for particular services. One of Nick Clegg’s first acts as leader was to call for directly-elected health bodies. This absurd idea would no doubt have seen equally dire turnouts had they ever happened, since few candidates would have used the slogan “Vote Scroggins for More Illnesses”.

We already have elected bodies capable of oversight of the police, health and indeed transport and other services. They are called local authorities, and yesterday’s failed attempt to interest voters in their further fragmentation should be the last.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

New edition of Liberator

The November edition of Liberator magazine is landing on subscriber’s doormats this week.

As a taster, our Commentary editorial is now online. We hope it puts lead in your pencil.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The problem of trust

Peter Kellner of YouGov has today published an interesting article about the decline in trust, in the light of the current BBC crisis.

YouGov conducted a survey of British opinion after George Entwistle resigned last weekend as BBC Director General. People were asked which media and political groups they trusted to tell the truth. No one comes out of this survey well, although BBC news journalists still came top at 44%.

Liberal Democrat readers will be less interested in the BBC’s fate, however, than the figures for ‘leading Liberal Democrat politicians’. Only 16% trusted leading Liberal Democrats to tell the truth, a drop of 20% from 36% in 2003.

To an extent, there are two mitigating factors for the party.

First, the problem of trust goes far wider than the BBC or the Liberal Democrats, as Kellner rightly observes. There has been a long-term decline in trust in authority, going back to the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Over that time, there has been a decline in deference and a growing assertion of people’s individuality, a product not only of education and affluence but also revolutionary changes in social mores. Traditional authority figures are aware of this process but do not understand it, so have no idea how to respond, veering wildly between the extremes of Tony Blair’s demotics and the increasingly absurd moral pronouncements by the church.

Second, in a survey of this kind, blind party allegiance is at work, since most adherents of a particular party will automatically say they don’t trust any other party.

However, these two factors don’t provide a complete explanation for the drastic fall in trust of the Liberal Democrats. The issue of tuition fees has been significant, not because of the issue per se but because the party’s pledge made it such a totem during the 2010 general election campaign.

But there’s something more. A big part of the Liberal Democrat promise during the 2010 campaign was that the party was different. It was offering a radically different vision of governance from the cynical practices of the Conservative and Labour parties. The party promised it would be an agent of change but, now it’s in government, it is deliberately projecting itself as part of the establishment.

This is why Nick Clegg’s apology in September about tuition fees hasn’t restored trust. And his conference speech, in which he ignorantly dismissed his party’s past, made it clear that he doesn’t understand why.

Vile, sexist and sad

Giles Coren wrote a review of the new James Bond film Skyfall for the Times. But the Times wouldn’t publish it, probably because Coren refused to join the crowd and heap praise on the film.

So he borrowed his wife’s recipe blog and published it there instead.

Take 38 pounds of flour and 3 dozen eggs...

As this Thursday is election day for Police and Crime Commissioners, and also several by-elections, you might consider baking an Election Cake.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The last word on the Tories

The BBC political sitcom The Thick Of It recently concluded its fourth and final series. The first three series were a satire on the media-driven short-termism of New Labour. The fourth series satirised the coalition government and Labour opposition in equal measure, with all three parties wallowing in the same hollowed-out politics.

One character in particular had the bullshit dial turned up to 11, and that was the Tories’ blue-sky thinker Stewart Pearson. In the final episode, he was fired and, as he walked out, abandoned his customary jargon to deliver this parting shot on the futility of trying to detoxify the Conservative Party:
Changing this party has been like renovating an old building. You can remove the odd racist beam here, the odd homophobic roof tile there, but at the end of the day you realise it’s been built on a solid foundation of c***s.

Spending and Growth

In the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrats recognised that the government deficit had to be brought under control, but also that cutting too fast or too soon would be self-defeating. The party’s manifesto said:
We must ensure the timing is right. If spending is cut too soon, it would undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs. We will base the timing of cuts on an objective assessment of economic conditions, not political dogma.
Once the coalition was formed, that wisdom went out of the window. Liberal Democrat ministers began arguing for the Tory policy of early cuts, on the dubious grounds that the UK economy was comparable to Greece.

It seems that Nick Clegg and David Laws, contrary to the manifesto, were more concerned with political dogma than “an objective assessment of economic conditions”. They saw the coalition as an opportunity to reorient the Liberal Democrats around a ‘small state’ ideology. Laws makes that clear in an essay he wrote for the IEA in June.

David Howarth has demolished Laws’s arguments in an essay written for the think tank Liberal Insight. He asks, “Is Laws right to imply that reducing the overall share of public spending in GDP will lead to greater prosperity?” and concludes he is not.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Big churn in the Liberal Democrats’ internal elections

The Liberal Democrats have just announced the results of their internal elections for party committees. What’s noticeable this year is an unusually big churn in the membership of these committees, with several high-profile defeats (such as Jeremy Hargreaves and David Boyle losing their places on the Federal Policy Committee).

The results don’t suggest any ideological shift; social liberals still predominate. What seems to be happening is that the competition is getting much tougher. Unless you are (in party terms) a celebrity, to win you must campaign hard and maintain all-year-round visibility (sound familiar?).

Liberator hears that Liberal Democrat peers were ‘encouraged’ to stand for the Federal Policy Committee. Of the seven peers who stood, five were elected (Sal Brinton, Tony Greaves, Chris Rennard, Jim Wallace, Phil Willis) and only two defeated (Mike German, Jonathan Marks).

There was no encouragement to former MPs to stand for the Federal Conference Committee, but four were elected (Sandra Gidley, Evan Harris, Liz Lynne, David Rendel).

Meanwhile, the forces of darkness were nowhere to be seen. That’s hardly surprising, since they never run slates for internal elections, preferring to win power and influence via generous donations to the leader’s office.

The one attempt at a right-wing slate came from Liberal Reform, the ginger group set up last year by Simon McGrath and friends. This effort scored ‘nul points’, so the party’s committees will sadly be deprived of hearing any further about ‘four-cornered liberalism’.

Freedom & Diversity

Multiculturalism has always posed problems for liberals. How do you reconcile tolerance of a diversity of ethnicity and faith with intolerance of, say, forced marriage?

The ‘politically correct’ response to this dilemma has been cultural relativism, which has required much contortion and hypocrisy, with some liberals arguing fiercely against racism while defending the illiberal practices of some minorities on the grounds that “it’s their culture”.

Timothy Garton Ash has squared this circle much more intelligently with “a Liberal pentagram for living together”. His article in the New York Review of Books is thoroughly recommended.

Saturday, 10 November 2012


Welcome to Liberator’s blog. This is the place where the Liberator Collective will post comments on various political issues between editions of the magazine.