Jul 16 2016

A question for Theresa May

Why have you appointed a man as foreign secretary who has:

For ordinary working people a track record like this would send their CV to the bottom of the pile. Apparently things are different for a senior member of the Tory Party.

Jun 19 2016

The EU Referendum

The 2016 EU referendum is likely to be the most significant event in my adult lifetime, so it seems like a good idea to write something to remind me of how it all happened. I don’t expect many people to read this and I don’t expect anyone to change their mind as to whether we should Remain in the EU or Leave.

Really the EU referendum is all about the internal politics of the Tory party. Since the early 1990s there has been a fanatical eurosceptic rump, they took their party into the wilderness once and they’ve lined themselves up to do it all over again.

To cut to the chase, I’ve always been Remain.

My reasons for Remain are three fold:

Perhaps the most significant is economic, I’ve worked in a large company (Unilever), a small company (ScraperWiki) and I’m now at a medium sized company (GB Group). The first two of these are explicitly Remain. The third has expressed no corporate opinion but internally most of my co-workers appear to support Remain. The reason for this is that the EU is primarily a free trade area. This means that for all three companies we can make products and services which can be sold easily across the EU because they need only comply with one set of standard rules and they cannot face penalties with respect to local suppliers. Furthermore, in the EU we can bring in talent from where-ever it is needed – all three of these companies employed people from across the EU. Employing people within the EU is easy, from outside the EU it is a frustrating nightmare. And that’s not to mention my experiences as an academic where a large fraction of my colleagues and students have been from the EU and beyond.

More directly ScraperWiki benefitted enormously from EU research support from the Horizon 2020 programme, which simply wasn’t forthcoming from UK sources which seem to go to London and an “in crowd” first.

We are being asked to give this up for some fantasy trade deals and the cutting of “red-tape” which would appear to be mostly our employment rights.

The second theme is immigration and free movement. I’ve become used to wafting through Europe since the seventies with scarcely a glance at my passport on internal borders. It’s great. I know the pain of travelling for travellers from outside the EU, from China and from the former Yugoslavia, for whom every foreign trip was an uncertain and inconvenient with trips to London for visas. I don’t want my son growing up with that.

Immigration (and its bedfellow, xenophobia) has been the dirty secret of the Leave campaign. In times of economic stress it’ is easy to point to the foreigner and blame them for your troubles. But it’s a lie. Immigrants are the people who got on their bikes and looked for work, they’re predominately young. If these people are causing stress in the services in our country then it is our services that are the problem. If I build a factory, and a thousand UK workers turn up to work there then whose fault is it if the local schools and hospitals struggle with capacity? Nigel Farage’s latest Leave poster echoes directly the Nazi propaganda of the 1930s in citing a country at breaking point overwhelmed by the feckless foreigner. The UK is a strong, wealthy country which has benefitted from the gift of immigration for centuries.

And more personally, for me, when you abuse immigrants for your political ends you are abusing my friends and colleagues stretching back over a lifetime. Rashmi, Anja, Yann, Eugene, Ruedigger, Cecilia, Wen, Lian, Jyl, …

Finally there is democracy and influence. The most entertaining contributions to the debate for me have been members of the (unelected) House of Lords, complaining about the democratic legitimacy of the EU. In the UK we have an electoral system at local and parliamentary levels which is deeply deficit in representing the wishes of the people. We have a House of Lords which when it isn’t appointed is hereditary and a hereditary head of state. The EU, on the other hand, has a parliament of directly elected MEPs (I believe universally using proportional representation), a council of ministers appointed by the elected governments of the EU and a president appointed by those elected governments. Nobody is there by birthright, nobody is there because of their payments to party coffers.

In the EU we can speak for ourselves on the UN security council and other forums but we can also influence the voice of a bloc of 500 million people. And we have a strong voice in the EU when we chose to use it.

So that’s why I’m going to vote Remain.

The campaign has been pretty unedifying. The Leave campaign knows it can get away with essentially lying through its teeth. The “£350 million per week” going to Brussels is a case in point, this has been frequently debunked – the true figure is closer to £129million. But that isn’t really the point. Both of these figures amount to approximately 1% of the government so they’re pretty much insignificant. The important thing is their lie of a “big number” will likely be the only thing 75% of the voters will remember. They know this, and it is why they have never deviated from repeating the lie. The money the Leave camp has “saved” has been spent on spent again on subjects dear to our hearts such as the NHS, for which the Leave campaigners have little track record of support. There will be no comeback for them. The ASA washes it’s hands of accuracy in political advertising.

I have to say if I were a rational Leaver, I’d be looking around myself wondering how the hell I’d fallen in with my fellow Leave supports. It comes to something when Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are your most palatable fellow travellers. A crowd which includes Britain First (the neo-Nazi group), Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen (French National Front), probably Vladimir Putin (but the Russians are a bit too smart to come out) and Nigel Farage.

On the Remain side its difficult to find a foreign government which doesn’t support us remaining in the EU, its difficult to find an organisation that does not support Remain.

I think Leave will win on Thursday but it is by no means certain. As a Liberal Democrat and pragmatic supporter of AV I’m used to crushing electoral disappointment. A vote to Leave in my mind would be a defeat far more visceral than these, it will deeply effect the remainder of my working life, retirement and the life of my young son.

Erratum: I actually meant to write that I thought Remain would win! See how easy it is for a slip of the pen to mess these things up…

May 10 2016

Book review: Coalition by David Laws

Coalition: The Inside Story of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government by David Laws does exactly what it says on the tin. It is the story of the Coalition running from 2010-15 from the point of view of someone at the heart of the action on the Liberal Democrat side. David Laws was a member of the negotiating team which took the party into the Coalition and a regular attendee at meetings of the Quad (where differences between the Coalition parties were thrashed out). Later he was a secretary of state in Education.

Laws finishes the book by answering three questions which I list below and are a useful way of organising this review.

Did the coalition work as a form of government?

The Coalition lasted the full parliamentary term, contrary to what many people expected. Both parties in the Coalition implemented significant chunks of their manifesto, and there didn’t seem to be many great dramas over votes unexpectedly lost. The members of the coalition seemed to get on OK, there was a dispute resolution system involving the Quad (Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, David Cameron and George Osborne) and, in extremis, David Cameron and David Clegg alone. Laws appears a rather amiable chap and seemed to get along with many of his Coalition opposite numbers, particularly Oliver Letwin, Ken Clarke, George Osborne, even Michael Gove (whom he also found infuriating).

Laws writes quite a lot about his experiences in the Department for Education, and it becomes increasingly clear to me that the stories you see about chaos in government are typically an “inside job”. In this case Gove and his advisor Dominic Cummings briefing against the free school meals Laws championed. You can see Cummings hand in the briefings against Cameron now they are on opposite sides of the EU referendum debate. It follows from similar internecine struggles during the Blair and Brown years, and you can see it now in Corbyn’s Labour party. It is not absent in the Liberal Democrats, Laws highlights that part of the pain of tuition fees for the party was in the deep division within the party. Regardless of what had been achieved, half the party would remain unconvinced and if the party doesn’t believe then what hope persuading the public? Vince Cable’s frequent, contrary, interventions on the economy had a similar effect. And the polling done by his friend, Matthew Oakshott to undermine Nick Clegg. 

The accusation that senior Tories act very directly and explicitly in their own self-interest and that of their major donors is all the more damning coming from someone who clearly has a lot of time for them. Areas like the response to the Leveson enquiry are muted because of Tory Party enthusiasm for keeping papers on side. The proposed Mansion Tax is quashed to keep Tory party donors onside, it being raised by both Labour and Liberal Democrats is welcomed though. The Tories, particularly George Osborne, were repeatedly looking to cut the welfare bill (except for pensioners) largely because they didn’t see claimants as “their people”.

The “English Votes for English Laws” announcements made on the day of the Scottish referendum victory very much put a dampener on the result, and was done by Cameron for short-term gain.

After the 2015 election we can see that Liberal Democrats had a substantial restraining influence on the Tories in power, the distributional impact of changes for the budget is much more heavily skewed against lower income groups than it was under the Coalition (see here for the 2010-15 figures and here for the 2015-19). Legislation like the parliamentary boundary changes and the “Snooper’s Charter” are now going ahead, previously blocked by Liberal Democrats.  

What were it’s achievements?

The Liberal Democrat achievements in government have been summarised in Mark Pack’s rather fine infographic or the eponymous What the Hell Have the LibDems Done? website.

In summary:

  • Increased personal tax allowance to £10600 from £6475 in 2010;
  • Pupil premium / free school meals;
  • Pensions triple lock;
  • Overseas aid target;
  • Early years education entitlement;
  • Shared parental leave;
  • Pensions and benefit uprating in line with high inflation;
  • Equal marriage;
  • Mental health access standards;

The introduction of equal marriage was a surprise bonus, not in anyone’s manifesto but pushed through by Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone with the support of Theresa May despite continually opposition from backbench Tories and surprisingly, initial opposition from Labour and Stonewall.

Constitutional reform was the area where Liberal Democrats fell down, not getting either electoral reform or reform of the House of Lords. Neither of these are areas where the public shows any interest, and nor do they have the support of either Labour of Tory parties so perhaps failure was inevitable. In contrast to the EU referendum and the Scottish referendum there appears to be no call for a second referendum on AV.

What could Liberal Democrats have done better?

It was widely touted in the Liberal Democrats that coalition would be electorally damaging, given the experience of other smaller liberal parties in coalition in Europe and elsewhere. I think we gradually took this to heart as we lost councillors, then MEPs and finally all but eight of our MPs but none of us were really prepared for the final blow. Now following the first local and Scottish parliament elections after the end of the Coalition we are starting to win back seats and grow support.

Much of our loss in votes came pretty much immediately that we formed a coalition with the Tories, so one thing we could have done is not formed a coalition. I don’t support this idea, David Laws doesn’t support this idea, and he cites a whole load of other Liberal Democrats who don’t support this idea. The last 5 years have been the best time to be a Liberal Democrat at least since I joined the party in about 1990, our policies actually got implemented in government – which is the whole point of being a political party!

Inevitably attention will turn to the tuition fees vote, Laws’ first prescription for this is not to have made the promise to scrap tuition fees in the 2010 election. His second prescription, to have vetoed the idea is probably right in retrospect but didn’t happen because we were still trying to work out how to make coalition work and weren’t confident of our actions. As it stands the current tuition fee policy works, in the sense that enrolment in universities and enrolment from lower income groups continues to rise. It is a graduate tax in all but name with the advantage that you don’t avoid it by emigrating and it can be collected from EU students.

The NHS Bill is another idea which Liberal Democrats should have vetoed, largely in my view because it was unhelpful at a time when the NHS was supposed to be making large efficiency savings. It would also have helped the Tories in not damaging their fragile reputation over the NHS. Lansley was sacked as Secretary of State for Health for contaminating the brand of the Tories over the NHS, to be replaced by Jeremy Hunt(!).

From a more technical point of view Laws toys with the idea of going for more senior Secretary of State positions in the government rather than the more junior ministerial positions that were taken, Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg both held quite senior positions but they were someone else’s deputies. Our strength in Cabinet was propertional to our share of seats rather than our share of votes. Other Liberal Democrats such as Vince Cable held top positions but in less important departments.  

The style of the book is crisp, it rattles through around 50 short chapters. The quoted dialogue sounds incredibly wooden, I recommend not buying any fiction Laws’ might write! If you’re interested in politics then I thoroughly recommend this book, if nothing else it gives a clear insight into how coalition government can work in the UK. For Liberal Democrats it is an essential record of what we achieved in government. Whilst there may be more detached, historical reports in the future there is unlikely to be one better from the core of the action.

May 11 2015

Everyone is awesome, no one is to blame

The Liberal Democrats have members from all walks of life. I, for example, am a scientist and sometime software developer. To be honest I’m more of a manager than a developer. There are many tools for software management, one of them is the Agile framework. This is a relatively new innovation and the details are unimportant here but I think there are a couple of things we can learn from Agile. The first is the title of this blog post:

Everyone is awesome, no one is to blame

This mantra is something we bear in mind when we look back over a period or a particular event. The benefit of this approach is most apparent when you are faced with a situation where the mantra is left behind: “You messed up, you are to blame”. Under these circumstances the protagonists in the retrospective become entrenched in their positions and unwilling to open up as to why something happened. It becomes more important to defend your side and make sure someone else is to blame. This approach is unhelpful, and ultimately you have to go forward and continue working with those found to be to blame in a poisoned atmosphere.

We as Liberal Democrats face this risk. I’ve been a member of the party since 1988, it was only after the 2010 general election that I realised that the Liberal Democrats had factions! In a former life I worked with a student from Yugoslavia, she had fled the country with her family at the time of the war. We talked about Yugoslavia and I asked her once whether she knew in her class at school who was a Serb and who a Croat. She said: “Of course not, we were all the same”. In Yugoslavia demagogues dredged up division where none previously existed.

I joined the Liberal Democrats because I wanted to be with people like me, not with some people like me and that other bunch who I couldn’t abide. Schism is for socialists ;-) We mustn’t let any dissection of what is coming to be known as “Cockroach Thursday” become an excuse for factionalism and finger pointing, other parties have tried that approach and it doesn’t work.

The second tool for analysis you might enjoy is “5 whys”. Parents of toddlers will know be somewhat familiar with this technique, used for establishing root causes. It’s very easy to jump to a cause for an event in one bound but it isn’t necessarily right. The “5 whys” method invites you to question the first cause you come up with repeatedly with further “whys”.

  1. Why did we lose? We broke our promise on tuition fees
  2. Why did we make our promise on tuition fees? Because the NUS presented us with a pledge to sign
  3. Why did we sign the pledge on tuition fees? We wanted the votes of students
  4. Why did we want the votes of students? Because we wanted to win parliamentary seats
  5. Why did we want to win parliamentary seats? So we could implement our policies which we feel are best for Britain.

The important point here is not my particular responses to the questions rather that I haven’t stopped at the first one, and each answer leads to further questions which we may return to later.

For my next post I will highlight the use of the Gedankenexperiment in the analysis of political problems.

May 08 2015

A cockroach emerges…

I’m a Liberal Democrat. Our party president, Tim Farron, once described us being like cockroaches in our indestructability.

Today the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party has dropped from 57 parliamentary seats to 8, slightly lower than was achieved by the Liberal Party in 1979. Since 2010 Liberal Democrat local councillors have experienced this level of defeat, as have the party’s Members in the European Parliament. It looked like things might be different for the parliamentary party, but they weren’t.

The writing was on the wall from the moment Nick Clegg and David Cameron stepped into the Downing Street rose garden in May 2010. Our opinion poll ratings plummeted from that moment, before we’d done anything else but form the Coalition.

Today, in May 2015 we lost seats to Labour because of the “Great Betrayal”, we lost seats to the Tories because people thought of the Coalition “I actually quite like this government” and then backed the lead partner, we lost votes to UKIP and the Greens because they are the new repository of the protest vote, we lost seats to the SNP because nationalism trumps all.

The night had virtually no redeeming features. I particularly feel the loss of MPs like Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson and Julian Huppert all of whom made significant contributions in parliament on equality, science and anti-authoritarianism. All of whom appeared to be popular local MPs, all of whom were swept aside by the national tide.

Nick Clegg retained his seat, for which I’m rather pleased. Outsiders don’t realise quite how dependent a Lib Dem leader is on their party. The things Nick Clegg took the blame for were the things we as Liberal Democrats had collectively decided. He has been the one that has born the brunt of outrage against the Liberal Democrats with good grace. He is the one, more than any of the three main party leaders, who has talked with the public.

The political landscape won’t remould itself, it won’t be remoulded by online petitions. It won’t be remoulded by the “progressive alliance” engaging in rounds of recrimination. It won’t be remoulded by endless venting on twitter, or invoking the apocalypse. It won’t be remoulded by the lion’s roar, or an idiot with a pair of trews.

It will be remoulded by people like me who spend their spare time doing local politics: sitting in interminable meetings in their evenings, posting leaflets through doors, standing for local elections, helping local people and breaking out once every 5 years or so to fight a General Election.

I’m still a Liberal Democrat. I’m proud of what we achieved in coalition in the last 5 years, it’s been the best time to be a Liberal Democrat since I joined the party in 1988.

I’m going to go back to trying to win seats at elections and making sure the liberal voice is heard.

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