Friday, 27 December 2013

A busy year: Lord Bonkers in 2013

As they year draws to its close, it is time to look back in Lord Bonkers' adventures in 2013.


In the February issue of Liberator, his lordship reported his experience of taking part in Call Clegg on LBC:
PRESENTER: Our next call is, er, Lord from Rutland. 
ME: What this I hear about you supporting secret courts, man? Have you taken leave of your senses? What the devil is behind this ridiculous idea? 
CLEGG: I can’t tell you that. 
ME: Why not? 
CLEGG: It’s a secret.

By the time of the April issue, an archaeological dig was taking place in the car park of the Bonkers' Arms:
"Having seen how well Leicester is doing out of Richard III, I have decided that we need to find a body of a king here in Rutland too ... I am saddened by this lack of progress, and a complicating factor is that we have to have everything put back by Friday because that is the day the Smithson & Greaves lorry comes. If it cannot make its deliveries, we shall all be reduced to drinking the dreadful gassy Dahrendorf lager."

In May there was a Liberator's blog exclusive as Jo Swinson visited the Hall. As the boys had gone off to try the vaulting horse they had just made, she addressed the girls:
I have to report that I am somewhat surprised by Jo’s approach. “Blimey,” she says to one girl, “you’ve been stirred in the ugly wok, haven’t you?” before describing another as “a bit of a munter”. Others are dismissed as “mingers”, “butters” and “complete double-baggers”. 
One wonders whether this is quite the way to attract the fairer sex into politics. I suspect the first Lady Bonkers would have clocked Jo one if she had addressed her like that.

June saw Lord Bonkers taking a party of tourists around the East End haunts of Violent Bonham-Carter:
I tell them of Bonham-Carter’s early struggles and patronage of Barbara Windsor (the black sheep of the royal family and, when they first met, a promising bantamweight) and take them for a drink at the Lame Deliverer – the very pub where Violent is said to have done away with the biscuit magnate Jack “The Hat” McVitie. 
The landlord, who witnessed this notorious incident whilst enjoying a ginger beer in short trousers, is quick to point out that McVitie was widely thought to be “getting lairy” and to be “well out of order” – it was, after all, Violent’s manor. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the affair, a good time is had by all and I depart for St Pancras with enough in tips to keep me in Auld Johnston for another year.

A month later and Lord Bonkers was posting a video of the Dalai Lama's monk blessing the turf at Lord's:
I generally ask the Elves of Rockingham Forest to do this here at the Hall. I forgot to pay them one year and it turned square before lunch on the first day.

In August he gave someone asylum:
Meadowcroft finds a youth, dishevelled and wet through, sleeping in his potting shed and hales him before me for judgment. 
“Please don’t send me back,” sobs the accused, “I have escaped from the Liberal Youth Activate weekend. I thought it would be fun, but all we got was endless canvassing drill and lectures on the perils of self-abuse.” 
I give him a hot bath, square meal, suit of clothes and ten bob for the train, but am left troubled. “What has happened to the Spirit of Liberalism, which was first brought to these shores by Joseph of Arimathea?” I ask.

A month later I made an exciting discovery: Earl Russell really did have a big band.

Also in September, Lord Bonkers contributed his usual foreword to the new Liberator Songbook:
Risselty-rosselty, hey, pomposity
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo. 
There is no denying it: the Scots have a way with a lyric.

In September Sir Alan Beith made an important discovery:
“Good heavens man! You’ve found the spirit of Liberalism. I shall have it cleaned and polished at once.” 
“I expect you will give it to Clegg when you have done that.”
I consider Beith for a moment and then reply: “No, old fellow. I think you had better look after it.”

Which book should ambitious young Liberal Democrats read? In November Lord Bonkers recommended  A Fortunate Life: The Autobiography of Paddy Ashdown - "which is by Paddy Ashdown, incidentally".
I know of no book that sets out half so clearly what is needed to win an election campaign. I don’t mean the chapter on "The Winning of Yeovil" that was made available free on the electric internet recently, excellent though it is In Its Way: no, I am thinking about the section on jungle warfare in Sarawak where Ashplant explains how to mount patrols, the best way to lay an ambush and how to treat an open wound using red ants. It was no surprise to me when, armed with this knowledge, we took control of South Somerset District Council.

Also late in the year, Lord Bonkers recounted his meetings with great philosophers, while I made an important archaeological discovery that casts light on his ancestry.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Carry On Conference?

News reaches Liberator that the Federal Executive tomorrow (Monday) is being asked to support a proposal to reduce the Liberal Democrats' Spring Federal Conference to - well, precisely what is not exactly clear.

The good news for those who responded to the Autumn consultation - including the Federal Conference and Policy Committees who responded in favour of the status quo - is that the FE is being asked to reject not just the scrapping of Spring Conference entirely, but the idea of a one-day conference in London. That particular idea came under criticism for removing such income as the Party gets for fringe meetings while forcing those living away from the capital to shell out for its notoriously expensive hotel rooms in order to take part in the conference.  Moreover, the amount of time spent on fixed agenda items such as party business and a speech or two would render serious policy debate nigh on impossible.

Instead, the FE is asked to adopt a sort of compromise: a conference not starting until Saturday lunchtime but still finishing on the Sunday in time for a nice roast lunch.  (Remember: this is supposed to be an exercise in cutting costs, so how a two-half-day Conference is supposed to achieve this is unclear too). Some lip service is finally paid to providing online access to some Conference sessions including consultative sessions (an idea rejected on grounds of cost a mere six months ago).

There is also no news on the security costs highlighted in Liberator 362; nor of the request to the Federal Appeals Panel to rule on what constitutes a weekend. And neither is there any sign of the actual results of the consultation.

The question is: will the FE back what has to be presumed to be the overwhelming will of the party, and support Spring Conference for the training, policymaking, party accountability and networking session on which no value can be put?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Sri Lankan Government repaid charity with slaughter.

After the 2004 Tsunami the UK public donated £390 million in charity to help victims. Over £100 million went to Sri Lanka without any discrimination about ethnicity. The Sri Lankan government just a few years after that engaged in horrific war crimes and slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians. Maybe even charity should be tied to human rights in the future - a Government should cut its military spending before it can be given aid, and armed groups lay down their arms. There was a great feeling of optimism that the disaster of the South Asian Boxing Day Tsunami might encourage an end to the bitter nasty conflict in Sri Lanka with atrocities committed by the Tamil Tigers and Government forces. The two sides might realise that helping people and living in peace to redevelop the whole island was a better way. That optimism was misplaced. Perhaps in the future Governments and opposing groups should have to demonstrate a commitment to peace and human rights before they can be given aid. And international aid agencies should not replace local and national authorities, or local organisations, but work with them directly - as much of the best of foreign aid does - to try and ensure aid cannot be abused to support sectarian or corrupt causes.

Sources on human rights abuses: ‘No Fire Zone’ Channel 4, UK, and any search of the BBC and reputable news sources.

Sources on charity donations:


DEC Tsunami relief fund - Reports back on three year spending plan, 19/12/2007

South Asia: Independent evaluation of the DEC tsunami crisis response, 31 December 2005

Monday, 2 December 2013

Don't let be beastly to the Germans

It's perhaps a strange manifesto that is written not to appeal to voters - who are unlikely to ever see it - but to avoid handing ammunition to opponents, who will.

That is what the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe did in London last weekend, preparing its manifesto for May's European Parliament elections, and an eye-opening process it was too.

I assume that in the fullness of time the manifesto will appear here. Meantime, to convey a flavour of the process we had a fairly short manifesto draft but then 187 amendments to get through.

Some were just textual (changing 'our European currency' to 'the European currency' for the benefit of non-euro members, for example), some were 'nice to have' additions that no-one would go to the wall over except on grounds of length.

The big rows came in three areas: eurobonds, rebates and the environment.

These required a combination of talks in rooms that would have been smoked filled were it not banned, contorted wordings and ultimately competitive votes.

Eurobonds were a major area of contention since Germany's FDP regards them as politically toxic, as  they would in effect see Germany pay for the eurozone's debts. For the same reason, parties from countries with large debts think they are a splendid idea. The Germans couldn't live with them in a manifesto, debtor countries couldn't live without them.

Lib Dem MEP Andrew Duff came up with a neat solution that stressed the need for financial discipline and fiscal stability and which avoided the eurobond problem by not mentioning them, thus leaving the whole subject open.

That though was not enough for the FDP, who right up to the end were threatening to oppose the entire manifesto, though they ultimately allowed their delegates to vote as they chose.

Rebates were major issue for the UK and certain other countries. The very economically right-wing Venstre, one of two Danish member parties, wanted them all scrapped. The Lib Dems could for obvious reasons hardly enter an election subscribing to a manifesto that made any such call. This again took convoluted wording but ended with the UK delegation getting its way.

The third problem was the environment. Some of the more right-wing parties are not very sympathetic anyway, but the word 'green' is a provocation in itself to parties in countries with effective Green parties, so amendments calling for 'green growth' - innocuous in the UK - caused difficulty and had to be worded differently.

All this led to a surprising number of contentious votes - a process not helped by the collapse of the electronic voting system.

The ALDE manifesto does not bind member parties, who can add to or subtract from it whatever they please. It is thus a sort of general steer to member parties' campaigns but not necessarily their actual manifesto. Discussions among British delegates were notable for concern about what 'the media' would make of some or other parts of it rather than any impact on voters.

Like Liberal International, ALDE Congresses (and this was my first) can seem a bit unreal at times with national delegations solemnly negotiating wording that hardly anyone in their country will read. The process is though always interesting, seeing the perspectives liberals in other countries have from their differing history and circumstances.

However, even if the way parties in the EU conduct themselves can seem cumbersome and faintly absurd, as the session chair reminded us outside it in Ukraine people were that weekend risking their lives to vote, electronically nor not.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Cross party to clear the packs

A guest posting by Baroness Tyler

Moving amendments to legislation in the Lords can often feel like an interesting and worthy - but ultimately pointless - activity as often nothing changes.

Not so this week!. I was one of the cross party group of peers who moved an amendment to the Children and Families Bill last week to introduce powers to bring in regulations on standard packaging for cigarettes. My fellow peers were Ilora Finlay (crossbench), Richard Faulkner (Labour), and Ian McColl (Conservative). In the Commons it has also been genuinely cross party endeavour, the campaign being led by MPs including Paul Burstow and Stephen Williams as well as Bob Blackman (Conservative) and Kevin Barron (Labour).

1 December, is the anniversary of the introduction of plain, standardised packaging of cigarettes in Australia. Ireland is going ahead next year as is Scotland, and the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Health Minister have all stated their support. I’m therefore delighted that the Government -finally and after much procrastination - has now decided to propose an amendment to the Children and Families Bill, to give the Secretary of State for Health powers to bring in regulations on standard packs to protect children's health.

I don’t really care that much whether it was all about Lynton Crosby or the fear of an imminent defeat in the House of Lords on our amendment. The fact is that the Government – and in particular No 10 - saw the light and changed its mind. The press coverage, predictably, is all about U turns rather than the substance of the change in the law and the undoubted health benefits to many children and young people both now and in the future.

Each year around 200,000 under 16year olds take up smoking , resulting for many in serious health problems in later life and, for some, premature death from smoking related diseases. Of current smokers, more than two thirds report that they started before they were 18 years old, and almost two fifths before they were 16.

The tobacco industry needs these new smokers, as its existing customers quit, become ill or die prematurely. The impact of standardised packs in Australia is already clear. They reduce the mistaken belief that some brands are safer than others, are less attractive to young people and have improved the effectiveness of health warnings. There is a reason why the tobacco lobby has been so incensed by the amendments to the Bill – they know that the design of cigarette packages is a very effective advertising tool.

Most worryingly, it is a tool that is particularly effective on young people. The groups that are most susceptible to the advertising ploys of tobacco manufacturers are also some of society’s most vulnerable; groups to whom the state has a duty of care including children in care. Teenage mothers are another group with a high incidence of smoking, being six times more likely than the average pregnant woman to smoke throughout their pregnancy.

We’re all familiar with the rhetoric of the tobacco lobby and the familiar accusation of the ‘nanny state’ from libertarians about the state poking their noses into the private lives of individuals. They tell us that people know the risks and make an informed choice regarding whether or not to smoke.

The problem is, though, that the choices made by young people aren’t always informed – I’m sure we all know from personal experience that being impressionable is an inescapable part of being young. I certainly remember going into a sweet shop when I was 15 and buying a particular brand of cigarettes simply because I thought it was the most elegant and glamorous! Sad but true.

Well, the tobacco industry knows that too. Industry documents released in the US show that cigarette packaging has been used by the industry for decades to appeal to young people, and even in today’s more highly regulated environment, cigarette producers are still bending the rules regarding packaging.

Yes, I would have preferred it if we could have moved immediately to legislation rather than having another review. But the one announced this week to be led by Sir Cyril Chantler will be short. It’s due to report by March 2014. And I get the impression that decisions will be taken very quickly after that.

In the meantime enabling legislation will be introduced giving the government regulation making powers to bring in regulations on standardised packs. We need to maintain the pressure both inside and outside of Parliament to ensure there is no slippage and that the legislation is on the statute book by the end of 2014 at the latest and plain packs on the shelves by 2015. So let’s not be too churlish about the way we have got to this stage.

This change in the law to introduce standardised packaging will be a landmark public health reform for this country and we should be pleased about that.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Nick Clegg's self-defeating move on Europe and immigration

I once heard Jim Wallace say that when your opponents start fighting on your chosen ground you should be pleased. It shows you are winning this debate.

He is right, which is why I do not think Nick Clegg's embrace of the Conservatives' anti-immigrant rhetoric will achieve its aim of curbing the threat from UKIP.

Imagine you are a UKIP voter - go on, try. If you here even the leader of the hated Liberal Democrats admitting that we are too soft on immigrants who come here to live off the state, that will confirm you in your view of the world. It will not make you question it and decide to vote Liberal Democrat instead.

I think there is a better approach and it is that advocated in the Commentary in the current issue of Liberator, which advocates the consistent third of the electorate that is pro-European:
That one third is a minority but it is a considerably larger one than that which has ever voted Liberal Democrat. It is the obvious pool in which the party should be fishing. 
The pro-European vote has effectively been abandoned in previous elections, perhaps on the assumption that it had nowhere much else to go. Not merely can that vote be awakened but it is essential that it is awakened ahead of any referendum eventually happening.
At present Nick Clegg is veering between this approach and one that seeks to appeal to everyone. When pursuing the latter he talks about the centre, but in the case of immigration at least, he locates that centre far to the right.

I  am not the most instinctive pro-European you have ever met. I recognise that being in coalition involves compromise. It is just that I do not think this latest Clegg initiative will work.

Mainstream politicians, by pandering to the Farages of this world, are feeding the very far-right public opinion they fear. I suspect that, once again, we are seeing an effect of the political class now being formed from such a narrow, privileged base.

This post first appeared on Liberal England.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Boiling blood and living wages

A guest post by Baroness Tyler.

The living standard is, I believe, perhaps the most pressing issue facing this country. Despite the recent and, of course, very welcome signs of economic recovery, real anxiety over the cost of living is the day-to-day reality of many British families, particularly people on low incomes.

The stark fact is that living standards have been stagnating for the past four years and households are spending an increased share of their incomes on ‘essentials’ such as food, fuel and housing.

The Which? Quarterly Consumer Report for October 2013 found that just 24% of people surveyed believed they were able to live comfortably on their earnings, and 52% in the lowest income group are still cutting back on essential spending.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has done important work in bringing to our attention the growing problem of in-work poverty, and in highlighting more generally the changing face of British poverty.

It is now the case that two-thirds of our poor children live in households where at least one adult works, forcing us to abandon for good the long-held prejudice that poverty is the preserve of the work-shy.

I want to recognise that the coalition government has a genuine commitment to easing the burden on low and middle earners and acknowledge the very welcome measures already taken, particularly the raising of the tax-free allowance to £10,000, the freezing of council tax and fuel duty, expanded free childcare and increasing the state pension.

These efforts to ease the pressure on household budgets are laudable, but more needs to be done – and quickly – if we are to tackle the looming cost-of-living crisis.

In common with most people in this country, the ever-rising price of energy – way above the rise in wholesale prices – makes my blood boil. It simply feels as if we are being held to ransom for a basic essential of life.

The antics of the Big Six energy companies – which as far as I can tell seem to operate as a price-fixing cartel – tell me that privatisation has created an energy market that is simply not working in the public interest. Otherwise why would prices be going up so sharply when wholesale prices – by far the biggest element of costs – are relatively stable? Anything that could feasibly and realistically bring down prices – and quickly – deserves further investigation to test its workability and impact. I hope that this doesn’t simply turn into political football – the stakes are simply too high with the winter approaching.

I strongly support shifting some of the cost of green levies from individual energy bills to general taxation, which is more progressive in nature. In simple terms, it prevents the cost of vitally important energy efficiency measures, such as insulation and new boilers for households in fuel poverty, from falling disproportionately on poor households.

Money is tight, but if the choice is between doing something to reduce energy bills and introducing tax breaks for married couples, it’s the former that gets my vote and I suspect the same could be said for many up and down the country.

Turning to low pay, the Living Wage has a valuable role to play in the fight to raise living standards. Encouraging employers to pay a wage that allows workers to attain an acceptable standard of living without recourse to benefits is not just about fairness, it also makes sound economic sense.

According to figures from the Resolution Foundation, savings of up to £3.6bn could be made by the Treasury if employers paid the Living Wage, ending the current situation whereby tax credits to low earners are used to top up wages – effectively subsiding some employers who could afford to pay better wages.

It seems a much more empowering and liberal approach if people could maintain or improve their standard of life through earning their own money, rather than through complicated tax credits whose take-up rate is only around 65%.

There will be those who will argue that this will lead to a loss of jobs; similar concerns were raised when the National Minimum Wage was introduced and simply didn’t materialise.

We must also tackle the costs and availability of childcare. Lack of access to affordable and good quality childcare is preventing many women from returning to work following childbirth, denying their skills and potential tax take to the economy, and is proving a major squeeze on household budgets of those that do. Indeed, the Institute of Fiscal Studies has shown female employment to be the key driver for increased income among low to middle income families in the last 50 years.

However, the cost of additional hours of care above the free entitlement has been rising rapidly and squeezing the living standards of working parents. That is why I am so pleased that Liberal Democrat party policy is to extend the number of free childcare hours on a stepped basis. In addition, measures to provide more flexible childcare arrangements that recognise that not all parents work the standard 9-5 day would help better meet the needs of many.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Liberator says something nice about Nick Clegg - honest!

Credit where it’s due, Nick Clegg’s “I’m In” campaign on Europe may finally see the Liberal Democrats campaigning on Europe during the course of a European parliamentary election.

That would be a welcome break with precedent. In previous euro elections, the party has acted as though it viewed the exercise as, at best, a chance to train its organisation in target seats by campaigning on purely local issues or, at worst, something it wished would go away.

National campaigns have been hesitant and embarrassed, a situation not helped by mistaken attempts to appeal to eurosceptics by making incautious promises about referendums.

How often does it need to be said that eurosceptics will vote UKIP or Tory? With at least two choices of the real thing on offer, they will not be impressed by the Liberal Democrats suddenly trying to pretend unconvincingly that they too are eurosceptics of some sort, obsessed by pointless referendums.

That tendency was at its worst in the last euro elections, with Clegg lending his weight to calls for a referendum on the spurious grounds that there hadn’t been one since 1975.

He now appears to have grasped something that has long been staring Liberal Democrat politicians in the face. Despite the weight of press hostility, emotional hysteria and nationalist bigotry on the eurosceptic side, there is a consistent one third or so of the population that is pro-European.

That one third is a minority but it is a considerably larger one than that which has ever voted Liberal Democrat. It is the obvious pool in which the party should be fishing.

The pro-European vote has effectively been abandoned in previous elections, perhaps on the assumption that it had nowhere much else to go. Not merely can that vote be awakened but it is essential that it is awakened ahead of any referendum eventually happening.

Through a combination of coalition legislation and political reality, the Liberal Democrats have ended up, possibly by accident, with a quite sound policy on Europe – that the party favours membership of the EU, is prepared to expound its benefits, and will tolerate a referendum only when there is something to have one about, by which it means some major proposed change in the UK’s relations with the EU.

This is where the party should have ended up years ago instead of wittering on about referendums in a vain attempt to placate people who will never vote Liberal Democrat. It gives next year’s euro candidates something to fight on and the party a reason to campaign. About time too.

This is the Commentary column from Liberator 362, which will be out next week. Also includes Felix Dodds and Simon Titley on How to be a Liberal minister, Greg Mulholland MP on why the pubcos should be tackled, and Rebecca Tinsley on how to give aid to Africa without lining the pockets of the corrupt... plus RB, reviews and Lord Bonkers.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Better all-woman shortlists than the Leadership Programme

Last year, I was in the audience for a panel discussion at a professional conference. Every single member of the panel was a balding middle-aged man. It was, as several members of the audience pointed out, cringe-making.

It has reached the stage where the low number of women in the Liberal Democrat group in the Commons strikes me the same way.

You can say in our defence that we do not have safe seats into which we can parachute female candidates. You can say we had plenty of women candidates in promising seats at the last election – but the problem is that we did not win them. You can say we are selecting plenty of women in seats that look promising next time around.

Now Nick Clegg, according to today’s Independent, is considering imposing all-woman shortlists on the party.

That, of course, is not in Nick’s gift. He would have to convince the party conference to support the measure.

And my heart is not in the idea. My ideal is still Liberal Democrat members selecting the best candidate for the seat, irrespective of sex, race or anything else.

But if you feel we have reached the point where Something Must Be Done, then I would much rather see all-woman shortlists than the Leadership Programme we have at present as the solution to this problem.

This is for two reasons. The first is that it involves the party establishment picking favourite sons and daughters who will then expect to be provided with agreeable seats to fight. This gives that establishment too much power, and I would rather see candidates fighting their way up from the bottom. There is also the point that some of those chosen, for the initial intake at least, seemed to be doing very well without any special help from the top.

More fundamentally, the Leadership Programme fails to challenge the party sufficiently. It says, in effect, that women candidates are not as good, but with the proper training they can be just as good as white men. What looks radical at the outset turns out to be deeply conservative.

When you set it against all those faults, it is hard to argue that all-woman shortlists would not be an improvement.

This post first appeared on Liberal England.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Crazy World of Jeremy Browne

Having lost his ministerial job in last week’s reshuffle, Jeremy Browne was interviewed in Friday’s Times (£) – and it’s not a pretty sight.

What’s that? You won’t pay to enter the Times’s firewall? Quite right, so a copy of the story is provided at the end of this blog post. There are also summaries of the Times’s story in the Guardian, on Liberal Democrat Voice and at

The interview has fuelled speculation that Browne will eventually defect to the Tories, which his half-hearted denials do not entirely dispel.

Meanwhile in the Liberal Democrat blogosphere, Browne’s comments have earned a universal raspberry:
  • Naomi Smith (co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum) responds at the Huffington Post, accusing Browne of posing “a false dichotomy when he says the Party must choose whether to be a party of protest or of Government”.
  • In a must-read post, James Graham examines Browne’s behaviour in the context of the increasingly authoritarian drift of the Liberal Democrats’ right wing.
  • The Fact Collector argues that, if Jeremy Browne were to defect to the Tories, then strangely enough everybody would gain.
What has earned all this hostility? There is much in both the content and tone of the interview that has caused offence, but the essential problem is Browne’s apparent inability to distinguish between government and party.

Controversially, Browne wants the Liberal Democrats to run on a coalition ticket rather than a Liberal Democrat ticket:
Mr Clegg told delegates in Glasgow last month that he “hadn’t said enough” about what “Britain would look like today if the Tories had been alone in Whitehall for the last three years”.
By contrast Mr Browne urges his party to take responsibility, and credit, for the Government’s “central pillars”, including reducing the deficit, curbing immigration and crime and education reforms.
Curbing immigration?!

But the Browne quotation that will doubtless attract the most criticism from within the Liberal Democrats is this:
Comparing his party to a shopping trolley that “left to its own devices defaults to the left and to being the party of protest”, he says that he became exposed after years of trying to exert “corrective pressure”.
“I saw my role, and continue to do so, as doing everything I can to accelerate the Lib Dems’ journey from a party of protest to a party of government.”
This ‘party of protest’ thing is a tired old trope, already worn out by Nick Clegg over the past year. It is simply untrue that the party had no interest in power before the 2010 general election. This falsehood is linked to the suggestion that anyone in the Liberal Democrats who is critical of the coalition government is necessarily against being in power at all. Strangely, both Browne and Clegg never seem able to cite any specific examples of these power-averse party members, which suggests such members are straw men.

Why, then, does Clegg retain support within the party but Browne has virtually none? The reason is not Browne’s views on economics, even though these are about as right wing as they come within the Liberal Democrats. It is because of Browne’s views on civil liberties.

If there is one thing that unites Liberals from left to right, it is support for civil liberties. Yet Browne seems to have a tin ear for this issue, so his move from the Foreign Office to the Home Office last year left him vulnerable.

His weakness on civil liberties was exposed at the end of July, when the Home Office sent advertising vans round several London boroughs advising illegal immigrants to turn themselves in. A few days later, it was revealed that the UK Borders Agency had been hanging out at Kensal Green tube station in London, randomly stopping non-white people supposedly in an effort to catch illegal immigrants.

Browne had not been consulted about these measures so could not be blamed for them. But once he had heard about them, he should have been quick off the mark. As Jonathan Calder and Caron Lindsay pointed out at the time, the silence was deafening. It is a poor state of affairs when Liberal Democrat ministers appear unconcerned that government officials are stopping citizens in the street at random and demanding to see their papers.

Browne’s ineffectiveness on such crucial Liberal issues is basically why he was fired and why no one in the party has come to his defence.

The Times’s interview with Browne will win him no new friends within the Liberal Democrats but simply confirm the perception of his semi-detached status. Disparaging one’s party having just been fired also makes Browne look churlish. But it is the association with authoritarian policies that has, in the end, proved fatal.

The report in The Times (Friday 18 October 2013):

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

David Heath and Jeremy Browne were victims of an earlier reshuffle

I was pleased to see Norman Baker moved to the Home Office in the recent Lib Dem reshuffle. And I note that many of those poking fun at his book on the death of Dr David Kelly – step forward Jonathan Freedland and John Rentoul – are Blairite armchair warriors seeking to refight the invasion of Iraq.

But I do feel sorry for Jeremy Browne, who was sacked to make way for Norman Baker. Because in the previous reshuffle, which took place in September 2012, he was moved from the Foreign Office. And he had given every appearance of being at home there, which he never did at the Home Office.

And Jeremy Browne was not the only Lib Dem who was moved from a job where he was at home to one where he was not in that reshuffle and then sacked this week.

David Heath was by all accounts a success as deputy Leader of the House and, as ‘a good House of Commons man’, he certainly looked happy in the role. But in September of last year, he was moved to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Fair enough for a rural MP, you may say, but he was given the worst hospital pass of all time and was made the minister for shooting badgers. I don't think anyone could be happy in that role.

Now Dan Rogerson has been appointed to DEFRA in his place. I don’t know if he now has responsibilities for the badger cull – it is possible that they have moved the goalposts.

That September 2012 was not just a misfortune for these individual ministers: it was a misfortune for the Liberal Democrats as a whole. Because, despite everything, I like my party being in government and I was sorry to see us giving up any representation in important, grown-up departments like Defence and the Foreign Office.

Why did we do this? The theory heard most often is that Nick Clegg was so anxious to secure the return of David Laws that he was forced to concede a lot of ground in return.

I hope this is true. If Nick gave that ground of his own free will, we really should be worrying.

This post originally appeared on Liberal England.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Running out of old grandees

‘Two jobs’ Tom McNally has finally shed one of his roles, having resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

He has combined this since 2010 with being a justice minister, with the result that it is easy to find peers who believe the demands made of McNally mean that he did neither role effectively and had an obvious conflict of interest when peers objected to something the Ministry of Justice is doing.

This was illustrated by his having been probably the only person in the hall at last month’s party conference in Glasgow to vote against the emergency motion on legal aid cuts – the party was against MoJ policy and he was stuck with it.

Who will succeed him? McNally followed Shirley Williams, who followed Bill Rogers who followed Roy Jenkins, who was appointed at the merger.

Alert readers will have spotted that the qualification for being Lords leader is to have been a prominent SDP member and, apart from the appalling Ian Wrigglesworth, the House is running out of those. As a newly appointed peer, Wigglesworth probably also lacks the required seniority.

Those thought to be in the running include John Alderdice, the group’s convenor (and a suitably distinguished and trusted loyalist), and its deputy convenor, former party president Navnit Dholakia.

Update on 4 October – We now hear that Jim Wallace will be standing for Lords leader, despite breaking the unwritten rule of never having been in the SDP.

However, as a Scottish lawyer, it is unclear that Wallace could take McNally’s Ministry of Justice post, which presumably will have to wait for the reshuffle.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Setting light to a bunch of £50s

I’ve long wondered who writes the weekly briefings to Liberal Democrat members from party chief executive Tim Gordon.

It’s unlikely he writes them himself, given that the mixture of policy detail and spin is not what one would expect from someone in an organisational role.

Whoever wrote last week’s briefing must have been stumped for a way to put a positive spin on the Public Accounts Committee’s savaging of the rural broadband programme. You can see its report here.

Amongst other cock-ups, it noted that DCMS had handed BT a publicly-subsidised monopoly; that the programme had ended up with BT committing £356m rather than the £563m expected, while local authorities must commit £730m against the £494m they were expected to pay; and that confidentiality clauses prevent councils comparing BT prices.

Labour’s Margaret Hodge might be the public face of this committee, but it has a clear coalition majority.

The Liberal Democrat members’ briefing said without elaboration that the PAC’s findings “are at odds with the findings of the National Audit Office. They found that the approach reduced the cost of the programme for taxpayers”.

Whoever wrote that was no doubt confident that few would bother to seek out whatever the NAO had said.

Happily, Liberator can help. This is what the NAO’s head Amyas Morse said: “The rural broadband project is moving forward late and without the benefit of strong competition to protect public value. For this we will have to rely on the Department’s active use of the controls it has negotiated and strong supervision by Ofcom.” The NAO report continued at some length in similar unflattering vein.

Two things flow from this. The first is that there is no point in trying desperately to spin away a balls-up when it can’t be spun away. How much better, not least for the reputation of politics, to admit it.

The second is that political activists of all kinds should keep an eye on PAC and NAO reports. They sound boring, but I have to look at many professionally and one becomes almost punch drunk with the tales of waste and mismanagement laid out there, in particular on defence procurement and government IT projects. The team behind Universal Credit recently chucking away £34m on a failed IT scheme was a classic example.

The horror stories are so relentless that one should be very wary of any politician of any party who claims they will pay for something by “cutting waste”. To judge from these reports, those responsible for large sections of Whitehall cannot even recognise wasted money, let alone control it, and in negotiations often have rings run round them by private sector suppliers.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

How to stop conference being boring

Have a good conference, did you?

I was unable to join you this year but watched much of the proceedings on TV. And to be frank, it was thoroughly tedious. Most of the speeches were read from scripts in a flat monotone. Rarely did any debate come to life. Rarely did anyone enthuse or persuade.

And it occurred that, if an old hack like me can find the conference boring, how much more boring must it seem to a lay audience? Indeed, all of the party conferences have become a tedium-fest, and if Britain’s political parties are trying to accelerate their slow death, they are going the right way about it.

It is unlikely that BBC Parliament’s viewing figures will be troubling the audience ratings during the conference season. The only event that will remain in the average viewer’s memory is UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom’s altercation with Michael Crick.

I have been going to party conferences regularly since the Liberal Assembly in Llandudno in 1976. There have been some important changes in the intervening 37 years.

First, the action has gradually shifted from debates in the main auditorium to the fringe. Like the Edinburgh Festival, the fringe has outgrown the formal proceedings, so that there is more of interest to be found in fringe meetings and the informal politicking in the cafés, bars and stalls area. Media coverage rarely reflects this development, even though modern lightweight camera equipment makes it easy to do (unlike in the 1970s when TV cameras were huge, immobile things fixed to rostrums in front of the stage).

Second, the art of oratory has died because modern politics no longer calls for this skill. Public meetings were once a regular feature of political campaigning but if you held one now hardly anyone would turn up. At the same time, the huge growth in the number of TV and radio stations means that knowing how to do a broadcast interview is a more important skill. For evidence of the death of oratory, consider Danny Alexander’s lifeless speech at this year’s conference or the way Sarah Teather’s attempts at jokes fell flat at previous ones.

Third, genuine debate has been increasingly edged out by the need to find room on the agenda for set piece speeches and presentations. At least there remains some debate at Liberal Democrat conferences (despite the pressure from the leader’s office). At Labour and Conservative conferences, there is no democratic debate or decision-making at all.

Fourth, the professions of public relations and political advising, which scarcely existed until the 1980s, have grown like Topsy. In the 1970s, each MP’s staff comprised one secretary. Nowadays, backbenchers typically employ four staff while government ministers also have an army of special advisers (‘SpAds’). Such advisers specialise in leaving nothing to chance. The result is a growth in the culture of spin and the soundbite, the dominance of cynical media management, and the death of spontaneity.

And fifth, no conference these days is complete without an accordionist:

What can be done about this? Apart from getting rid of the accordions, obviously.

There is no quick fix but one remedy is to strip out of the formal agenda as much as possible of the non-spontaneous elements. That means getting rid of all the set piece speeches and presentations, apart from the leader’s speech at the end of the conference (and also the occasional guest speeches by visiting foreign liberal leaders).

If any government ministers want to deliver speeches, let them take their chances in the rough and tumble of debate. Or speak at a fringe meeting. Or do a TV interview outside the hall. Anything but clog up the agenda with the sheer tedium of their over-rehearsed speeches.

The belligerent youths in the leader’s office wouldn’t like it, of course. Were the Federal Conference Committee to carry out such a purge, one of these SpAds would doubtless turn up at the next meeting of the committee to demand a retraction of this policy. In which case the committee should respond with a short message about sex and travel.

Oh, and one other thing. A trapdoor should be installed under the speakers’ rostrum, controlled by a big lever next to the session chair. Either that, or wire up the rostrum to the mains.

Postscript: This blog post has won Liberal England’s Phrase of the Day award.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Not a case for Sherlock Holmes

Today’s Observer reports that Nick Clegg is to hold an investigation into whether members of his team briefed against Vince Cable before conference.

The matter in question is a briefing given that said that, in a debate on the Glasgow economy motion at an MPs’ awayday, the vote went 55-2 against Cable's unhappiness with it.

This was reported by the media, plainly as the result of an official briefing, though was later the subject of a limited retraction by the BBC’s Nick Robinson, who said:
I am now told that no vote was held after a debate about economic policy at the Lib Dem parliamentary meeting a few weeks ago. However, sources close to both Vince Cable and Nick Clegg agree that the Business Secretary did urge the party to be prepared to relax fiscal policy if the recovery wasn’t sustained. Mr Cable is said to have had the support of just one other Lib Dem MP. Mr Clegg persuaded all the others. So, it was 55 versus 2.
There are several reasons why it is clear that Robinson and his colleagues were misled in a way designed to damage Cable, an idiotic course of action by whoever was responsible since Cable is a major party asset and a public figure in his own right.

The most obvious is that, with David Ward suspended from the party whip over his comments on the Middle East, and Mike Hancock having had the whip removed over matters we need not enter into here, there could not have been 57 MPs present.

Even if there had been, anyone who spoke to a few MPs at conference would be perfectly well aware that a lot more than two prefer Cable’s position to Clegg’s.

Indeed, one MP said the meeting in question had no formal vote but he kept a scorecard of speakers’ sentiments that came out 2:1 in Clegg’s favour – a much more believable ratio and, as one MP put it, “many of those on Clegg’s side were those who still retain ambitions”.

The Observer did not say who was to conduct this inquiry, or what would happen to anyone found to have misbehaved.

Given the frequency with which one name was mentioned at conference, the inquiry may not have very much inquiring to do.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Will the last delegate to leave please turn out the lights?

Leaving aside the issue of defence, what was striking about the vote on the amendment to today’s defence motion at the Liberal Democrat conference was the numbers.

228 voted for the amendment and 322 voted against, a total of 550 voting representatives. Given the importance of this vote, it is a fair bet that most voting reps present in Glasgow took part. This suggests that it is unlikely the total number of voting reps present in Glasgow exceeds 600.

Yes, holding the conference in Glasgow when most party members live in southern England deters attendance. Yes, many members attending are observers rather than voting reps. Even allowing for these factors, the low total is a sign of serious problems with membership numbers.

Party membership fell from about 65,000 at the time of the 2010 general election to only about 42,500 by the end of 2012. How much worse are things now?

Inability to count

Word reaches Liberator of an altercation at yesterday’s parliamentary party meeting over briefing by those associated with Nick Clegg, to the effect that the unamended motion on the economy (debated by party conference yesterday morning) was supported 55-2 at a pre-conference awayday of MPs.

We hear that this greatly displeased Vince Cable, on the grounds that no such vote took place at the event concerned and that, even if it had, not all 57 MPs were present so the figures could not have been correct.

The implication was that Cable was among the two and therefore that his position on the economy enjoyed only minor support among MPs. This is believed to be a terminological inexactitude.

Liberator would be grateful for any further details of what transpired at the meeting, our usual discretion assured. Oh, and the 224-220 vote yesterday in favour of a 45p top tax rate, rather than 50p, was, it should be noted, made possible only a by frantic late whipping in of ‘payroll’ MPs, to the wry amusement of those on the 50p side.

At least 220 people understand the important political symbolism in being a party that thinks some burdens should fall on the rich, even if the leader doesn’t.

Monday, 16 September 2013

A Pyrrhic victory?

The outcome of this morning’s Liberal Democrat conference debate on the economy was a mixed bag for social liberals.

At the Huffington Post, Liberator’s Gareth Epps has just posted his assessment of the debate.

Meanwhile, there is another consequence of this debate. After prostituting himself to support the establishment line on the economy for the second year running, party president Tim Farron MP can kiss goodbye to the party left’s backing for his leadership ambitions.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Why Monday’s debate on economics is crucial

Monday morning’s debate on economics at the Liberal Democrat conference is the most significant of the conference.

It is significant because it is effectively the first time that the party has ever been consulted about Orange Book editors David Laws and Paul Marshall’s plan to convert the Liberal Democrats to neoliberalism.

The key votes will come on the Social Liberal Forum’s amendments. If these amendments succeed, members will know that the Orange Book project has finally been defeated. If they fail, it will be a Pyrrhic victory for the right, because the party will haemorrhage active members.

I’ve provided further arguments on Liberal Democrat Voice.

No comment...

In Saturday’s Conference Daily (the daily bulletin distributed to delegates at the Liberal Democrat conference):

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The sound of gunfire?

Today is the 50th anniversary of Jo Grimond’s famous ‘Gunfire’ speech to the Liberal Assembly (the Liberal Party’s annual conference) on 14 September 1963.

That speech had a remarkable effect at the time, inspiring a generation of Liberals. One effect was that the Young Liberals started a magazine called Gunfire. It was the end of that magazine in 1970 that prompted the creation of Liberator magazine, still with us 43 years later.

At my suggestion, David Boyle blogged yesterday about the anniversary of Grimond’s speech. He is generous to the present leadership but I do not share his generosity.

In 1963, Grimond sought to inspire his members. Nick Clegg has spent the past year slagging them off. It will take more than 5p on plastic bags to inspire them again.

Monday, 9 September 2013

A party bigger than its leader

One might have thought that a leader who has presided over a catastrophic slump in his party’s membership would have better things to do than insult those who remain.

Yet the media were being briefed assiduously over the summer that the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow is the event at which Nick Clegg would confront his party over whether it accepted ‘grown-up’ politics. Translated into English, that means, “will it do what I tell it to?”

Having evaded any real debate on the economy for the past two years – helped by the fiasco over two competing amendments last September – the party leadership has now gone to the other extreme and staged an economy debate that Clegg himself will sum up.

The motion he will commend to conference is a recitation of things the coalition has done, together with some rather uncontentious ideas for limited improvements. This, as the movers well know, faces the party with the choice of publicly repudiating its leader or endorsing the economic record of the coalition, which has seen three years of recession, followed by a tiny upturn in growth paraded as though it were a miracle.

In this situation, Clegg may well get his victory, but it won’t be worth having. Does anyone in his bunker seriously believe that the party will be enthused by, or voters impressed by, a policy that says, “You’ve just been through the longest recession on record; we were right and everyone who disagreed was wrong; now please vote for us and, if we have a coalition again, we’ll knock a few more rough edges off the Tories’ more lunatic ideas”?

When not discussing being ‘grown-up’, Clegg’s usual line is to accuse his Liberal Democrat critics of being uninterested in power and preferring opposition. Entire armies of straw men have been lined up by Clegg to be demolished like this. Who are these people, and why has no-one except Clegg ever met any of them?

The people that Clegg alleges are not ‘grown-up’ or ‘serious’ are the remnants of those who gave him a majority in favour of coalition in 2010 so large that even he described it as ‘North Korean’.

Those who disagree with Clegg do not, with rare exceptions, object to being in coalition at all. They object to the conduct of this one; to Clegg’s failure to use his influence well; to Clegg being too close to David Cameron; to Clegg permitting policy disasters like the Health Act and bedroom tax (which will return to haunt the party’s candidates); and to Clegg appearing altogether far too comfortable in working with the Conservatives.

Clegg would appear to wish to fight the next election on the platform of “didn’t we do well?” A few conversations with most of his MPs, and some pretty senior ones at that, ought to convince him that fighting the next election by offering more of the same is likely to prove inimical to his prospects of continuing as deputy prime minister, because there will be too few Liberal Democrat MPs to sustain a coalition. But then perhaps he thinks his own MPs are not serious.

There is also a hard message for those of Clegg’s critics who have given up and left the party in disgust at something or other the coalition has done. What did you expect? You joined a political party that seeks power and, unless you believed the Liberal Democrats were going to vault from third place to first, it was inevitable that a coalition would arise at some point were the party ever to exercise power.

Undoubtedly, most party members would have preferred Labour as a coalition partner, and things would have been less problematic on economic policy. But since suspicion of civil liberty is part of Labour’s DNA, such a coalition would likely have caused equal if different anguish. Probably a mirror image of those who have left because of this coalition would have left because of one with Labour.

Each social liberal who leaves the party makes life easier for Clegg and the clique of economic liberal extremists around him, and harder for those social liberals who remain. The least helpful of all are those who have left the Liberal Democrats but say they might be back “when it turns into a social liberal party”. By their own actions, they make such an outcome less likely. If the party is to be rescued for social liberalism, it needs social liberals in it. Each of those who leaves does Clegg’s work for him.

No coalition was ever going to be easy. Even a majority Liberal Democrat government would have created its share of anger and disappointments. But the only people with good reason to leave the party are those who have undergone a genuine intellectual conversion to a rival cause.

For lapsed members who remain social liberals, the choice is simple. The party is bigger than Nick Clegg and will be there when he has gone, and it is worth saving. Clegg wants you to leave, which should be reason enough to stay. Or rejoin.

This is the Commentary column from Liberator #361 (September 2013 edition), just sent to subscribers.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

And they’re off!

Nick Clegg has taken the unusual step of deciding to sum up in the debate on the economy motion at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow next week, in which he will attempt to convince the party and country that the coalition’s economic policy has been a howling success and needs only minor tweaks. Or not as the case may be.

But who will draw the short straw of having to propose this nonsense? Liberator’s bookmakers suggest the following:
  • Duncan Hames: 2-1. Wide-eyed young colt, keen to impress. But he is Clegg’s PPS, so may not get a choice.
  • Stephen Gilbert: 6-1. Economic right-wing MP needing to raise his profile.
  • Jo Swinson: 100-30. Heavily promoted by Clegg; Not renowned for substance and moving this motion will hardly help in that cause.
  • Danny Alexander: 8-1. Do they actually want to win...?
  • Mike Thornton: 4-1. Still glowing from the spotlight of being a Liberal Democrat who got elected in 2013, but low profile since.
  • Lorely Burt: 8-1. Guaranteed to keep the sign language interpreters busy.
  • Stephen Williams: 16-1. But he would love to do it.
  • Shirley Williams: 20-1. Another abuse of her name in a motion would surely result in a suit for defamation of character by association with Clegg, after the debacle last year over the ‘Shirley Williams’ health motion.
  • Paddy Ashdown: 3-1. Would even Ashdown approve of the tactic of facing down bloody-minded activists in a debate, with a party to enthuse ahead of a general election? A speech would be enough, though.
  • Jeremy Browne: 12-1. Plausible after promoting Tory policies in the Home Office but, let’s face it, Jeremy Thorpe would be more likely to go down well at conference.
  • Tim Farron: 25-1. Believes in divine intervention, and might just get his wish.
  • A Leadership Programme Candidate Who Nobody Has Ever Heard Of: evens. Guaranteed to deliver any old rubbish he/she has been given with starry-eyed, uncritical zeal, exactly as trained to do in the programme.
  • Floella Benjamin: 15-1. Guaranteed wholesome fun.
  • Vince Cable: 1000-1.
Latest news:  A late entrant to the field - Steve Webb. 2-1. He thinks God made him do it. But he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty minister.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Liberator in the Sunday Times

From the Atticus column in the Sunday Times (1st September) (and behind its paywall):
You’ll find this difficult to believe, I know, but for many Lib Dems the highlight of the party’s autumn conference is not Nick Clegg’s speech (“tough times . . . bold decisions . . . making a difference”). It is the Glee Club singalong. 
Every year Liberator magazine provides a song book, with topical ballads. So in a fortnight, to mark our non-intervention in the Middle East, we might expect to hear Danny Alexander’s clear and pleasing treble trilling We’re Gonna Wait for a UN Mandate Before Hanging Out Our Washing on the Siegfried Line. If you can think of other suitable songs, send them to
Or, if you can write the whole song, send it to us.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

I have a dream

Fifty years ago today, on 28th August 1963, Martin Luther King delivered what is arguably the greatest political speech ever made: “I have a dream”.

The text of the speech (with a link to an MP3 audio file) is here.

You can watch a video of the speech here:

Listen and be reminded that politics is capable of a good deal more than today’s pedestrian offerings.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Abolish spring conference? No thanks!

A working group, appointed by the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Executive (FE), has produced a consultation paper ‘Spring Federal Conference: Cost-Neutral Options for the future’ [pdf], which includes the option of curtailing or even abolishing the party’s spring conference.

I should say at the outset that, even though I’m a member of the party’s Federal Conference Committee (FCC), which organises the conference, I have had no inkling of these proposals until now because the working group has not presented its views to the FCC. We will have to comment in the same way as every other party member has a right to, so here are my initial views.

This is not the first time anyone has proposed to abolish the spring conference. There was a previous attempt under Charles Kennedy’s party leadership. The idea was scotched after it became clear there were many reasons not to abolish it, and that conference would not support the proposal, let alone provide the two-thirds majority required to amend the party’s constitution.

There are a number of reasons why curtailing or abolishing the spring conference is a bad idea. Here are the first five that spring immediately to mind.
  1. The move is presented as a financial necessity but is not due to be implemented until after 2015, by which time the difficulties caused by the sudden withdrawal of Short and Cranborne money in 2010 may or may not have abated.
  2. The value of spring conference cannot be measured in purely financial terms. We know that many members come to conference to take part in the extensive training programme, to help develop policy by attending debates or consultation sessions, or for other reasons such as networking (see page 4 of the consultation paper). The training programme, in particular, can be put together only through the arrangement of the weekend conference package with meeting rooms and hotels. Thus abolition or curtailment would be a false economy. The spring conference is not a loss-leader but a good opportunity to provide economies of scale, which is why the other parties, even without party democracy, also have weekend events.
  3. The ability of party members to hold the party to account would be diminished if abolition were to take place. To be precise, it would be halved.
  4. The ability of the party to make policy would be severely affected. Without a spring conference, the party would be unable to make policy more than once a year. There would also be less opportunity for consultative sessions. Only the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) would be able to fill the gap, yet it has not been consulted at all about the FE’s proposals. The net result would therefore be more policy-making on the hoof.
  5. One idea mooted in the FE’s paper is to reduce the spring conference to a one-day event, but has anyone actually thought what a one-day conference agenda might look like? For s start, it would not run from 9am to 6pm because people would not be able to arrive in time, no matter where the event is held. This would mean a loss of debating time in any case. But when you also allow time for the leader’s speech, the obligatory sessions for reports from various party bodies, and constitutional amendments (which must be debated), there would be hardly any time left for actual debate.
There is one silk purse that could be made from this particular pig’s ear. When abolition was last mooted, income from the spring conference rose significantly. It broke even in one year, as people worked harder to make the event pay. With next spring’s event in a new location likely to be popular (York), perhaps this will happen again.

This post was written by Gareth Epps, who is a member of the Liberator Collective and is also a directly-elected member of the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Conference Committee. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Has Nick Clegg lost the plot?

The detention of David Miranda at Heathrow Airport has turned into a major news story, and rightly so.

The story has revealed dangerous levels of state power, as the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger explains in an account of the assorted threats he received from “shadowy Whitehall figures”, culminating in a raid by GCHQ on his offices and the destruction of computer hard drives.

Also in the Guardian, columnist Simon Jenkins (who can hardly be dismissed as a dangerous lefty) explains how the term ‘terrorist’ is being applied loosely by the state to hoover up any person or data it wants, under the catch-all justification of the ‘war on terror’. Jenkins concludes, “It is simple harassment and intimidation”.

The question now for Liberal Democrats is why the reaction of their party has been muted, to put it mildly. After all, this is the sort of civil liberties issue that would normally unite the party from left to right.

On his blog, Mark Pack asks this very question. Mark bends over backwards to be fair but nevertheless finds the leadership’s muted response strange.

The likeliest explanation is that this non-response is all of a piece with the narrative Nick Clegg has constructed about being ‘grown up’ and his repeated (and unfounded) attacks on party members as allergic to power, which Alex Marsh analysed on his blog and I analysed here. After all, if civil liberties were considered a ‘grown up’ issue, Clegg would have been quick to take a stand. But if raising such concerns does not fit with Clegg’s tendentious definition of political maturity, then he will steer clear. We should not forget that Clegg is building up to a series of stage-managed confrontations with the membership at next month’s party conference, and events must be considered in this context.

If you find that analysis unconvincing, consider a report in today’s Independent, where the remarks of one anonymous ‘ally’ of Clegg are reported:
One said there were now some “totally irrational people” in the party who would not accept another coalition with the Tories under any circumstances.
The leader’s overriding consideration appears to be a desire to maintain a coalition with the Tories after the next general election. Abandoning the party’s traditional concerns for civil liberties can therefore be justified in terms of a muscular pragmatism. But maybe Clegg or Jeremy Browne could surprise everyone by remembering why our party exists, condemn the tactics of the police state, and prove me wrong?

In the meantime, Sarah Ludford MEP has just announced on Twitter (@SarahLudfordMEP) that she is gathering support for an emergency motion at September’s party conference.

Postscript: More on this topic from Jonathan Calder.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Ending the obsession with deficit reduction

Most politicians are economically illiterate, preferring homespun wisdom to intelligent macroeconomic analysis.

Thanks to Liberator Collective member Gareth Epps, who (via Mark Pack) spotted an article by Professor Simon Wren-Lewis on his blog mainly macro. Wren-Lewis explains why Nick Clegg’s economics motion at this September’s Liberal Democrat conference is wrong-headed. He summarises the motion as asserting that:
...the best thing that has happened to the UK economy recently has been that the deficit has come down. The message seems clear: reduction of the budget deficit is the number one priority and all else has to be subsumed to that.
Now you might in Clegg’s defense say that he has to put it this way, as he has been part of a government which has made deficit reduction the overriding priority. I think that is simply wrong. He could say instead that the focus on deficit reduction was appropriate given all the uncertainty as the Eurozone crisis broke. However now it is clear that this was a crisis specific to the Eurozone, and with interest rates on UK borrowing really low and likely to stay there, the UK can make reducing unemployment the priority, while still of course operating a prudent fiscal policy in the longer term. In other words, he could begin to de-prioritise deficit reduction. The fact that he chooses to do the complete opposite suggests he is content to see fiscal policy as an extension of household financial management. We will see in September whether the Party as a whole is happy to follow its leader in ignoring 80 years of macroeconomic analysis.
So the conference will be faced with a choice between Clegg’s Tory-lite folk wisdom or intelligent macroeconomic analysis. If ever there were a case for delivering a humiliating defeat to the leader, this is it.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

At last... those new peerages

Finally, after several false starts, the list of new life peerages has been announced. There are ten new Liberal Democrat peers. How does this list compare with Liberator’s predictions on 16th June?

Well, we correctly predicted that there would be ten new peers and we correctly predicted seven of them:
  • Olly Grender
  • Christine Humphreys
  • Brian Paddick
  • James Palumbo
  • Alison Suttie
  • Rumi Verjee
  • Sir Ian Wrigglesworth
We also predicted an unnamed Scottish Liberal Democrat, who turned out to be:
  • Jeremy Purvis
We failed to predict two:
  • Cathy Bakewell
  • Zahida Manzoor
Meanwhile, two of our predictions went away empty-handed:
  • Liz Lynne
  • Julie Smith
In any event, there is an equal number of men and women on the Liberal Democrat list. But the list is heavily biased to people resident in London (even if they came from somewhere else originally).

The practice of ennobling former MPs seems to have come to an end. Only one of the nominees is a former MP (Sir Ian Wrigglesworth), and he lost his seat in 1987. His nomination probably had more to do with his subsequent services to the party than his time as an MP.

How many of today’s new peers were elected to the party’s Interim Peers Panel? The answer is just two; Brian Paddick, who was elected to the panel in 2008 (and, strictly speaking, his membership of the panel expired in 2012), and Olly Grender, who was elected to the 2006 panel (which expired in 2010).

Only one person from the most recent list (elected in 2010) has so far been made a peer: Sal Brinton. Only three from the 2008 list have previously been ennobled: Jonathan Marks, Monroe Palmer and Ben Stoneham. It is probably safe to assume that Mr Clegg does not have much time for the Interim Peers Panel.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Why is everyone so intently serious and sober?

The Liberal Democrats have always prided themselves on their belief in the value of education. The question is, what do we mean by ‘education’?

Do we mean earnest and studious reading in the university library? Or do we mean something that promotes more free thinking and a genuine spirit of enquiry?

It is a question raised in the Spectator by Rory Sutherland of the advertising company Ogilvy, in an article titled Why I’m hiring graduates with thirds this year. It is one of the most life-affirming articles I have ever read:
It’s hard to tell the difference between a university and a business school nowadays. Where are all the hippies, the potheads and the commies? And why is everyone so intently serious and sober all the time? ‘Oh, it’s simple,’ a friend explained. ‘If you don’t get a 2:1 or a first nowadays, employers won’t look at your CV.’
So, as a keen game-theorist, I struck on an idea. Recruiting next year’s graduate intake for Ogilvy would be easy. We could simply place ads in student newspapers: ‘Headed for a 2:2 or a third? Finish your joint and come and work for us.’
Let me explain. I have asked around, and nobody has any evidence to suggest that, for any given university, recruits with first-class degrees turn into better employees than those with thirds (if anything the correlation operates in reverse). There are some specialised fields which may demand spectacular mathematical ability, say, but these are relatively few.
So my game theoretic instincts suggest that if we confine our recruitment efforts to people in the lower half of the degree ladder we shall have an exclusive appeal to a large body of people no less valuable than anyone else. And such people will be far more loyal hires, since we won’t be competing for their attention with deep-pocketed pimps in investment banking.
What Sutherland calls “this credentialist arms-race” is getting us nowhere. I think he’s on to something.

Oh, and me? I spent most of my time at university buggering about in student politics or in the union bar. Still got a 2:1, though. Damn, damn, damn...

Monday, 29 July 2013

Has Clegg had enough of his party?

There has been some debate lately about whether Nick Clegg will survive as Liberal Democrat leader until the next general election. But increasingly, it seems that whether the Liberal Democrats have had enough of Clegg is the wrong question. It’s more a matter of whether Clegg has had enough of his party.

Over the past year, a repeated theme of Clegg’s speeches has been the baseless accusation that many of his party’s members do not want to win or hold power, accompanied by the bogus claim that, until he became leader, the Liberal Democrats were merely a party of protest. (These claims were dismantled in previous posts here, here and here). Clegg even made these accusations in a speech at this June’s ALDC conference, to an audience of councillors (or ex-councillors who had lost their seats mainly due to him), who received his patronising lecture about ‘power’ in stony silence.

There is no evidence whatever for Clegg’s depiction of his party as people uninterested in power, and he has failed to produce any evidence. Never once has he named any such party member to back up his accusations. Team Clegg has obviously decided not to let the truth to get in the way of a good story, but has made further attacks on its own party. This time, the conduit is Isabel Hardman, writing in both the Telegraph and the Spectator. The spin is wearily familiar; the Telegraph’s headline could not be more loaded if it tried:
Airy-fairy Lib Dems must face life outside the goldfish bowl
Beneath this tendentious headline, we learn:
The Lib Dems currently have an official goldfish policy – one banning the sale of the creatures at fairs – which lingers as one of the clanking skeletons in the closet of a party still getting used to people paying it any attention at all. As the 2015 election approaches, though, Nick Clegg and his colleagues are trying their best to persuade activists to adopt a more grown-up approach to policymaking that is less about goldfish and more about government.
Mr Clegg knows there is still some work to do with party members before they can sign off a grown-up set of manifesto pledges. The Lib Dem leader recently warned his councillors that they must choose between “consigning ourselves to be 'the third party’ forever” and becoming a “firm party of government”. This week he reminded activists that there could be no promise to scrap or lower tuition fees in the 2015 manifesto. Backstage, strategists have used a series of meetings to tell MPs and their staff to cheer up and talk up the party’s achievements.
These regular warnings are part of a process of softening up the party rank and file, to get them onside ahead of this year’s autumn conference. When activists meet in Glasgow in September, they will discuss a “manifesto themes” document, as well as policy papers on tax, post-16 education, defence, Europe, “balanced working life” and zero carbon. The long-standing goldfish policy won’t get a look in.
This whole narrative is dishonest from beginning to end. For a start, there never was a policy on goldfish. But look at the repeated spin about being “grown-up” and the implication that the membership (unlike Clegg and his chums) is immature and not interested in power. Excuse me, but isn’t this the same membership that gave Clegg a North Korean-style majority in favour of coalition at the special conference in 2010? The same membership that, in the latest Liberal Democrat Voice poll, chose power over opposition by 87% to 13%?

In the Spectator article, meanwhile, we are told:
The main conflict in the party at the moment, according to those pushing the grown-up line, is between pragmatists and idealists, rather than left and right.
So there we have it. The debate is being reduced to a matter of maturity. Clegg is “grown-up”, while anyone who disagrees is some sort of child or hopeless idealist. No real argument, no facts, just personal insults. It seems that Clegg and his aides are continuing to ratchet up the war against their own party members, exploiting the media template that was fixed in the 1980s, which continues to frame all internal party politics in terms of Labour’s battles with the Militant Tendency.

The problem of a leader who dislikes his own party is not unique to the Liberal Democrats. David Cameron’s aides have been repeatedly spinning against the Tory grassroots as the ‘Turnip Taliban’, revealing what is essentially a cultural divide between a metropolitan and cosmopolitan leadership, and a rural and suburban backwoods. In the Labour Party, meanwhile, Ed Miliband recently tried to pick a fight with the unions over the selection contest in Falkirk, in what appears to be more a public relations exercise intended to boost Miliband’s ‘strong man’ credentials than a genuine disciplinary issue.

Clegg’s war on his own members seems to be all of a piece with this trend. But the fact that his Tory and Labour counterparts are playing similar games doesn’t make it right. Indeed, when your membership has slumped to 42,500, it is extremely foolish to insult and alienate those few members who remain, especially when your accusations against them are false.

Foolish, that is, unless you imagine you can pursue a purely elite-based political strategy with no further need for grassroots involvement. That is the only logical explanation for Clegg’s campaign against his own party over the past year. Presumably he hopes this campaign will culminate in the ceremonial humiliation of the membership at September’s conference. If he succeeds, he will probably win more praise from the likes of Isabel Hardman in the Telegraph, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory because its practical effect will be to weaken the party by demotivating members.

So here’s a question for Nick Clegg. Do you really want to remain party leader? You have made it abundantly clear over the past year that you dislike your own party, so much so that you are prepared to travesty your members repeatedly, culminating in what you hope will be their final humiliation at this September’s party conference. Have you thought through the practical consequences for the party? And if punishing your members on false grounds is what you really want, ask yourself whether you are in the right job. A major part of a party leader’s duties is to enthuse and motivate the members, and build the party’s strength in the process. But if you actually couldn’t give a toss about your party, shouldn’t you resign and let someone else do the job?

It’s time to piss or get off the pot. If you like your party, show some leadership (and real leadership consists of inspiring not insulting your members). If you don’t like your party, fuck off. Either way, make up your mind, and the sooner the better.

Postscript: Read Alex Marsh’s analysis of Clegg’s antics (‘The need for “grown up” policy’) on the Social Liberal Forum website. Thoroughly recommended.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Change the leader? Something else has to change first...

“Nick Clegg’s ratings get a boost” is the headline in a report on Liberal Democrat Voice of its latest readership survey. It suggests that the fall in support for the leader amongst party members has been reversed, at least for now.

Since the previous survey of members in March, Clegg’s positive ratings are up 10% to 58%, while his negative ratings are down 8% to 40%. We also learn that 55% want Clegg to remain as leader and fight the 2015 general election, compared with 38% who think he should resign before then.

So, an increase in approval, but 40% against is still a substantial hostile minority of members, which ought to worry any leader. This is particularly so when you consider that many of those on the positive side may simply be making a calculation about the wisdom of holding a leadership election before 2015 rather than expressing any wild enthusiasm for the current leader.

The problem with such popularity ratings is that they focus attention on the personality rather than the strategy, so the more important issue is neglected. No matter how bad members may think Clegg’s leadership is, there is no point getting rid of him unless his successor has a better strategy. If there is a leadership contest without a serious strategic choice, all we are left with is a vacuous personality contest.

At this stage, you may be thinking it is wrong even to raise the issue of Clegg’s leadership. Since he is likely to remain leader until the next general election, there is nothing to gain by prolonging this discussion. Well, it doesn’t matter what you think, because Clegg has decided to raise the issue anyway.

On the Social Liberal Forum website, Gareth Epps reveals that, at this September’s Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, Clegg is planning to stage a series of ‘binary choice’ votes, intended not only to shift the party decisively to the right but also to stage a symbolic defeat of the grassroots. Predictions of a conference bust-up also appear in an article by Richard Morris on the New Statesman’s blog.

Gareth Epps’s article is the more revealing, since it explains what the thrust of Clegg’s argument will be. Clegg will say that the Liberal Democrats must go into the 2015 general election fighting the coalition’s corner rather than the party’s. Is this is what he actually means by moving to the ‘centre ground’?

No one can say they weren’t warned about this conflict. Over the past year, Clegg has made a series of speeches attacking party members who he alleges want to “turn back the clock”, create a “stop the world I want to get off” party, who are “looking in the rear view mirror”, who want to be “the third party forever”, who are calling for “an eternity in opposition” and “hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition”.

I analysed these attacks in a post here last month, pointing out that Clegg’s stereotype of party members simply doesn’t exist:
These are straw men. We know this because in none of these attacks does Clegg ever name his critics or supply specific references to the speeches or writings where they have expressed such views. These imaginary enemies are conjured up because Clegg needs a ‘defining other’, a pantomime villain against whom he can contrast his virtues. He’d like his audience to shout out, “they’re behind you!” They won’t because they do not share his illusion.
In the same blog post, I also quoted various other party members who had become tired of Clegg’s repeated travestying of his own members. Others have since commented along similar lines.

The latest party blogger to grow weary of Clegg’s fantasy enemies is Mark Pack. In a blog post on 25 July, he produces conclusive poll evidence that Clegg’s straw man is 87% straw. Meanwhile, in a more detailed analysis in his latest monthly Newswire, he observes that Clegg has jettisoned community politics:
Community Politics, never a favourite subject of Nick Clegg’s (and all but totally absent from his public utterances from his first day in the party), does not feature in the party’s message, despite Tim Farron’s calls for Community Politics to be a priority for the party.
It not only does not feature, but it is repeatedly implicitly rubbished as a result of what else Nick Clegg does regularly say. He and the party officially keep on hammering on about the importance of being in government in order to implement policies, without even a passing caveat about how people outside of political office can also achieve things. The idea that political parties should be all about winning political office as being the only way to bring about change is in a completely different political world from that of Community Politics with its emphasis on enabling people to take power over their own communities, working both within and outside the political system.
Mark Pack also takes apart Clegg’s timid strategy of being only “one step ahead”:
The politics of being one step ahead of the centre ground on its own is not enough to recruit and motivate an enthusiastic group of party activists, especially if you wish (as the party should) to have a core of activists who have something more than their dislike of potholes and their love of pointing in common.
What to do about this? We know that Clegg’s strategy is to soften up opinion before conference by travestying the membership as “not serious about power”, in contrast to his hard-headed and practical leadership. His strategy relies on establishing a narrative: “I'm competent, anyone who disagrees is a dilettante”.

The focus of any counterattack should be to bust that bogus narrative. Clegg has no right to a monopoly of the language of competence and experience, so he must be deprived of it. There are plenty of parliamentarians and councillors in the party who were exercising power when Clegg was still in short trousers, and they should take no patronising lectures from him about ‘power’.

More than that, Clegg has no right to monopolise this language because of his own record of incompetence:
  • The number of Liberal Democrat MPs actually fell at the last general election. The people who Clegg put in charge of the election campaign had insufficient experience of political campaigning, as demonstrated by the campaign’s complete inability to exploit ‘Cleggmania’. The opportunity for a coalition came about more as a result of the accident of the parliamentary arithmetic than any carefully crafted strategy on Clegg’s part.
  • Liberal Democrat poll ratings have been stuck at about 10% since the autumn of 2010, and local election results have been abysmal. Clegg has no idea how to reverse this trend.
  • The party’s membership has fallen by over a third since 2010, and many of those members who’ve stayed have scaled back their activities. Clegg’s repeated attacks on his own members suggest that he thinks this doesn’t matter. He seems to have no idea how to, in Mark Pack’s words, “recruit and motivate an enthusiastic group of party activists”.
  • Clegg believes that most voters congregate in an imaginary ‘middle’, and that politics is therefore about competing with the other parties for these same voters. But talk of the ‘centre ground’ is psephological nonsense – in practice, it means competing with the Tories and Labour for the sort of voters who never vote Liberal Democrat anyway, while alienating the party’s natural constituency (explained in more detail in an earlier post). Clegg does not understand his party’s core vote or what makes it tick – indeed, he actually seems to hold this core vote in contempt, mistakenly dismissing it as a ‘protest vote’ that can be safely dispensed with.
  • As Mark Pack said in his Newswire quoted above, Clegg’s strategy effectively repudiates community politics. Clegg seems to think that success resides in becoming more conventional, when all the signs are that the patience of the public with conventional politics is coming to an end. Furthermore, Clegg’s approach makes his party more indistinguishable from the Tories and Labour, which deprives voters of any good reason to vote Liberal Democrat.
  • The economic orthodoxy of the 1980s continues to dominate Tory and Labour thinking, even though that ideology has been living on borrowed time since the great crash of 2008-9. Future success depends on moving beyond those redundant ideas. Clegg’s belief that his party must align more closely with the old orthodoxy is nothing short of disastrous.
Clegg’s strategy is failing and, long term, it will doom the party to irrelevance. He wants to convert the Liberal Democrats from a radical campaigning party to a right-of-centre, conventional party of government. But this strategy deprives the party of a USP and, with nothing distinctive to offer, it loses votes and members, and demotivates those members who remain.

If Clegg wants to monopolise the language of competence and experience, he must demonstrate his superiority as a strategist and manager. His practical failures and the absurdities of his arguments suggest he has no right to monopolise this language. The trick is therefore to deny him this monopoly and thus force him to stop talking in clichés.

But to return to the question originally raised at the beginning of this post, the strategy should not be to demand Clegg’s resignation. It’s not worth removing him unless there is a credible replacement with a coherent alternative strategy. Sadly, no such Liberal Democrat MP currently exists.

Meanwhile, in other news of attempted internal coups, Alex Marsh reports the latest wheeze of Mark Littlewood and his right-wing libertarian chums. A forthcoming summer school will include discussions about how they can take over the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 general election. I’m not saying these fruitcakes and their fantasies should be ignored entirely, but we should focus on winning this year’s battle before we fight the next.

Postscript: Oh dear. It seems that the final paragraph has offended some right-wing libertarians, who responded with comments that will not be published because they were anonymous (and if they’d bothered to read our comments policy, they would have realised that). However, the gist of their complaints is that their summer school is not “forthcoming” but has already happened, and that their debate about taking over the Liberal Democrats was merely “a joke”. Well, I’m glad that’s settled. As long as they’re preoccupied with obsessing about how many angels can dance on a pinhead, the rest of us can get on with the serious business of politics.