Tag Archive: liberal democrats

Sep 10 2011

Don’t call me scum*

Scum. Goodbye NHS. Goodbye Lib Dems. RT @skynewsbreak: MPs vote in favour of NHS reforms by a majority of 65

This was retweeted on timeline by a number of people on twitter on Wednesday last. As a Liberal Democrat this upsets me, I take it personally. According to Ben Goldacre, Evan Harris is okay, “good scum” presumably – the rest of us have obtained no exemption.

At roughly the same time my twitter feed was full of people decrying Ken Clarke for describing the rioters as a “feral underclass”, not so many were bothered about me being referred to as scum. Clarke had a point but he made it poorly. His point was that what we should be concerned that 75% of the rioters were already known to the police, our justice system had failed to rehabilitate them. It’s a useful example though: if you use language which offends you’ll find people will ignore your argument, assuming you simply don’t have one.

Interestingly Tony Blair was on the radio this morning, a man that lied in order to take us into war in Iraq and stood by as the country disintegrated, unwilling to persuade the US of the critical need for a post-war recovery plan. People on my timeline were upset but no one called him scum.

*It’s a reference to that fine film, Barb Wire.

Jul 23 2011

Book review: “The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism”

Orange_BookI suspect most people will see me as an "Orange Book" Liberal Democrat, so I thought I should read the eponymous "The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism" edited by Paul Marshall and David Laws.

The Orange Book was first published in 2004, when Charles Kennedy was leader of the Liberal Democrats. He contributes a foreword which is fully supportive of the Liberal inheritance but a little guarded on the policies proposed. The book was written at a time when Labour had been in government for 7 years, the start of the Iraq War was one year past and the economic outlook was fair.

The contributors include Nick Clegg (an MEP at the time), Vince Cable, David Laws, Ed Davey, Chris Huhne, Susan Kramer, Mark Oaten, Steve Webb, Jo Holland and Paul Marshall. The essays cover Liberalism, localism, Europe, global governance, economics and social justice, the environment, the health service, crime, family policy and pension reform.

The value of the essay over a news presentation of policy is that the proposals are preceded with some sort of background indicating how they were motivated; as a consequence I found The Orange Book rather more interesting reading than I was expecting.

The book starts with an essay by David Laws on the Liberal inheritance; decomposing it into the personal (to do with individual freedoms), political (devolution and Europe), economic (free trade and controlling state as well as private monopolies), social liberalism (welfare and health by consumer power). Along with Paul Marshall in the introduction he has some harsh words for socialism.

Ed Davey’s piece on localism and Nick Clegg’s on Europe fit well together: envisaging respectively dissociation of power from Westminster to local councils and Europe. I commented after the election that an accommodation with the Tories over Europe was not as surprising as many people had thought; the seeds of this can be seen in Nick Clegg’s chapter where he advocates abolition of the Common Agricultural Policy and repatriation of the powers that led to the social chapter and much of the regional support mechanism leaving behind only those components that provide inter-country benefits and support for regions whose governments could not provide support themselves. Somewhat less comfortable an idea for Tories will be more foreign and immigration and asylum policy being handled at the European level. Clegg also provides a catchy headline to keep the EU in proportion: it has a budget of 1% of European GDP and a civil service the size of Birmingham City Council.

Ed Davey’s piece on localism (devolving power to local councils) is well-established Liberal Democrat policy, and looks to more control by local democratic institutions rather than central government. A benefit of this approach is that services can be crafted to local needs rather than a central blueprint, furthermore it allows for more experimentation at smaller scale as to how to best deliver services. To enable this shift there needs to be improvement in the accountability of local councils, with the ending of local one-party states through fairer votes.

For reasons I can’t quite fathom the chapters on global governance, liberal economics and social justice, and the environment passed me by without making a great deal of impact.

Mark Oaten’s headline of Tough Liberalism regarding crime seems a little out of place since the emphasis of his piece is on education within the prison system and seeing the process of release of prisoners into the community at the end of their sentences as a “settlement” not “re-settlement” since many prisoners have never had settled lives to return to.

David Laws’ second chapter is on the health service: it outlines the flaws of the NHS, what the goals should be for the health service and proposes a solution. He sees a scheme of simply boosting funding through the current mechanism as being a short-term solution – easily susceptible to future unravelling. Perhaps it will be a surprise to many that he sees one of the problems with the NHS that its cost control is too effective, referencing the phenomenally high bed occupancy rate which leads to longer waiting times. His proposal is for a National Health Insurance Scheme with the NHS as one potential supplier of care with providers only able to offer non-clinical services as top-up to the national insurance specified clinical services. This scheme is based on those found in other European countries.

The chapter by Steve Webb and Jo Holland on family policy seems a little more interventionist than might be considered Liberal with an apparent enthusiasm for encouraging marriage rather than partnership. However, one welcome idea is to scrap a target for getting 70% of single parents into work. This attitude has always struck me as a bit jarring: that work is so important that the State will encourage you to work whilst paying someone else for the work of raising your children.

The book finishes with a chapter on pensions, a subject close to my heart at the moment. Liberals have been at the heart of pensions from their inception in the UK with Lloyd George and later in the Beveridge Report implemented by Labour in the post-war government. The problem with pensions is that since Beveridge, in the 1940s, things have changed a lot. The original pension scheme is pay-as-you-go: current payers of National Insurance pay for current claimants. No-one is contributing to their own state pension. At the time of its foundation in 1948 this scheme was relatively inexpensive (only £4billion per year in current terms), currently the state pension costs £40billion per year – due to a larger retired population relative to those working. For this reason the value of the state pension has fallen over the years since there is not the political will to lift current contributions to match the original commitment. Marshall proposes a compulsory funded pension to supplement the current system. The funding system at least forces the government to be explicit about their liabilities in pensions. Over the next 20 years or so the pensions problem will become more acute: currently the dependency ratio (the ratio of those in retirement to those in work) is 0.3 by 2030 it will be 0.4.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the policies presented this is the type of policy discussion I expect to see taking place in my party. The "Orange Book" label feels more like an attempt to personalise a division between old-style Liberals and social democrats, and to cut off the Liberals from a Liberal past rather than any useful description of political thought. It also has the air of being more about Coalition with the Tories rather than any differences in policy.

May 15 2011

“Progressive Alliance”

I keep hearing about the “Progressive Alliance”, and it never fails to irritate me. In the UK “progressive” is taken to mean “Everyone except the Tories and UKIP1”. Progressivism is defined (in wikipedia) as:

…a political attitude favouring or advocating changes or reform through governmental action. Progressivism is often viewed in opposition to conservative or reactionary ideologies.

This seems to me a definition sufficiently broad as to be largely useless, Tories could claim the progressive mantle through any legislation they care to enact and liberals could lose it through their opposition to authoritarian measures such as the ID card scheme, and for economic liberalisation.

The problem I’m having here is that Labour only start getting interested in “progressive alliances” when they’ve lost an election, whilst in power they ignore other progressive parties. Labour will only form a “progressive alliance” if they are electorally forced to do so, and otherwise seek Liberal Democrat annihilation.

Since the General Election there’s been a great deal of effort spent by Labour in trying to split the party into Good Liberal Democrats (Social Democrats, who they wish to absorb) and Bad Liberal Democrats (Orange Bookers, who they think the Tories should absorb). The “progressive alliance” is part of this – we should not be playing to this narrative. The truth is that Labour and Tory only get into government when they’ve convinced the electorate that they are close enough to the Liberal Democrat centre ground so as not to be scary.

Ed Miliband can frequently be found “reaching out” to Liberal Democrats but this reaching out is solely about recruitment to the Labour Party and the planned extinction of the Liberal Democrats. I’m a pluralist, as such I value the existence of other political parties – but I see little sign of this respect for the existence of others in the Labour Party.

In opposition their key strategy has been to attack the Liberal Democrats and their policies, rather than the Tories, who they claim lead the Coalition. Labour consistently opposed the passing of the AV referendum bill. Indeed they spent more energy opposing the AV referendum bill than any other government measure2. Their campaign for the Yes vote was fatally flawed in that it was largely seen as a platform to attack Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats: every outing of “Labour Yes” involved a ritual statement of how venial the Liberal Democrats were and, if Ed Miliband was involved, a discussion as to why he would not share a platform with Nick Clegg. It looks like Labour are summing themselves up to oppose Lords’ reform as well – both this, and the AV campaign, are “progressive” goals.

There are a number of Liberal Democrats who are keen on the “progressive alliance”, and since I’m an open-minded sort of chap I’m assuming they’re not deranged, but can you tell me – why are you engaged in this? I don’t rule out discussions between our parties but those engaged in such discussion need to be clear what the benefit to us is, because at the moment all we’re getting is another forum in which Labour can abuse us and attempt to divide us3.

Footnotes

  1. Technically I should probably put the BNP in here but they’re not a serious political party.
  2. At this point Labour normally complain that the bill also contained “gerrymandering” measures regarding the work of the Boundary Commission. However, the current system gives them a 90 seat advantage for parity of votes with the Tories, so it’s substantially “gerrymandered” in Labours favour already. The chances are that boundary fiddling will do little to address this and really the only solution to such problems is to go for some form of proportional representation, neither of the two main parties has the honesty to recognise this.
  3. None of this is to say that the Tories are not trying to destroy us as well!

May 08 2011

Post-election Reflection 2011

A year into the Coalition and in the aftermath of some rather poor electoral results for the Liberal Democrats I thought I should write down some thoughts from the perspective of a Liberal Democrat of 20 years.

On May 5th the LibDems lost nearly 700 local councillors from an original population of 1751 and 9 of 19 councils, 12 of 17 seats were lost in the Scottish parliament and there was an emphatic “No to AV” in the referendum. At a personal level, I was involved in the campaign for the Cheshire West and Cheshire council, where ultimately we polled 12% of the votes and got 1.3% of the seats. This is a reduction from 4 seats to 1, although in a reconfigured council.

Why did this happen?

The LibDems were in a relatively good position based on the last occasion these council seats were contested, having steadily picked up seats from Labour through the years of Labour government 1997-2010, in particular from 2001 onwards. Our previous standing reflected a popular vote of around 23%, currently our opinion poll standings are around 15%.

In this sense it should not be seen as “electorate punishing LibDems for coalition” rather “former Labour supporters returning to Labour now it’s out of power”, similarly talk of LibDems being human shields for the Tories is not a particularly useful analysis. Tories and LibDems have different electorates, the Tory electorate is clearly happy with the Coalition, the LibDem electorate less so. Looking at the overall results with the Tories on 38% of the vote, Labour on 37% and LibDems 17%, we’re actually above the top end of our current opinion poll ratings with a share of the vote between our 1997 and 2001 general election result.

Also popular in the news is the idea that Nick Clegg must go as leader of the Liberal Democrats, if you rummage around amongst several hundred rather bruised (ex-)local councillors you are bound to find a few who’ll agree with this but it is idiocy for several reasons:

  • Nick Clegg got strong party backing for going into the Coalition from MPs, the federal executive and a special conference. We all stand with Nick, the idea that he has led the party off at the head of an Orange Book clique is a fantasy built by Labour, familiar with this type of internal schism.
  • Our drop in the opinion polls was pretty much inevitable as soon as the Coalition agreement was signed, regardless of anything any leader could have done: we dropped 2 points from the 23% showing at the election almost immediately, and then by mid-late summer were down to 18% even before the tuition fees issue had really hit.
  • A new leader at this point would continue to take the blame for simply being in coalition and leave us in no better position at the next general election.

The no to AV result was a disappointment, not because of the rejection of AV itself but because it likely rules out electoral reform for years to come. I thought Nick Clegg struck the best note on this, close to the end of the campaign when he said this was just a small change. I found Ed Miliband’s refusal to share a platform with Nick Clegg in support of the Yes campaign deeply unhelpful, listening to him try to justify this having just explained to John Humphries how AV forced politicians to reach out to other parties was entertaining; as was his jaw-dropping hypocrisy in justifying Labour’s failure to implement AV in 13 years of government as being because they’d won a 170 seat majority under first-past-the-post – remember this when he bleats about the “progressive majority”.

I note that over on ConHome the Tories are trying to claim that Labour made them make Nick Clegg the target for the No campaign. This seems to me a rather spineless statement – they funded the No to AV campaign, they could have called the shots. They should realise how massively they have pissed off a large chunk of pro-Coalition LibDems, and that there will be consequences for this. Going forward we should be looking at each item we have on the Coalition Agreement and asking ourselves: can we trust the Tories to support implementation of this? If the answer is “no” then we should be looking to bargain with something in the coalition agreement that they hold dear and not let it pass until our target has been achieved.

Obviously another election brings another crude pass at Liberal Democrat ministers by Ed Miliband, like a creepy uncle at a wedding party. This is entirely for his own supporters and has nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats, as Ed has said before – he seeks our extinction. We should all bear this in mind when he talks about “progressive alliances”.

I don’t see the point in believing that we can now go to the Tories for concessions because we have lost some elections, it seems needy and unnecessary to me. Similarly I don’t see much mileage in fiddling around with the infantile “getting into bed with” and “marriage” metaphors. Vince Cable and Chris Huhne have prototyped the “cooperating but sulkily” look and, to be frank, it is unedifying.

Liberal Democrats have succeeded in getting policy implemented over the past year in Coalition: in getting the income tax threshold raised, in linking pensions to earnings, in providing some protection to the poorest students through the Pupil Premium, in reducing the 28 days detention without charge to 14 days, in reducing dramatically, (if not entirely eliminating) child detention for failed immigration claimants. There is some interesting analysis by the University of Essex on how much of the Liberal Democrat manifesto got into the Coalition agreement. If you want to see a more detailed comparison here is a document on the Guardian Datablog which analyses, in detail the Coalition agreement. Or there is a document produced by the Party here.

Now is a bloody awful time to be in government, there is no money to spend on cherished schemes, rather an absolute need to cut pretty much the largest deficit in the world, left behind by a Labour government desperately trying to spend it’s way to salvation but we’re getting on and doing it. It’s worth remembering that at this point Labour would have been making 7/8ths of the cuts currently being made by the Coalition (under the Darling plan) – difficult to believe given their current statements.

Despite all of this, it is still the best time it has ever been to be a Liberal Democrat since I joined the party in 1991.

Jan 13 2011

Book Review: The Third Man by Peter Mandelson

TheThirdManA little bit of politics for this book review: “The Third Man: Life at the heart of New Labour” by Peter Mandelson. It’s been a while since I’ve read much politics; I did go through a spell of reading various diaries and biographies (Alan Clark, Tony Benn, John Major, Churchill) a number of years ago but gave up largely because the diarists and autobiographies seemed unwilling to accept they were wrong on anything, and I had a nasty experience with the biography of Gladstone.

I’m sort of fond of Peter Mandelson, I never really bought the Prince of the Dark Arts thing and he seems to be one of the more coalition minded senior Labour figures.

The book covers briefly Mandelson’s early life but the main focus of the book is the personal relationship between Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown from the late eighties all the way through to the 2010 election. Peripherally it is also the story of New Labour: firstly, a switch to a more professional presentational style, followed by the scrapping of Clause IV then it seems to go a bit vague in terms of a guiding policy theme. Mandelson states the central vision of New Labour being of fairness and social justice: but these are ideals I’m sure the Liberal Democrats would cleave to and the Tories would claim the same. Ultimately ideology is not helpful in discriminating between parties rather implementation of policy and no-one is really grasping the nettle of going for excellent implementation.

I’d always assumed that poor press for Labour ministers was as a result of biased media and some mysterious influence from the Tories that I hadn’t entirely thought through. Mandelson makes it pretty clear that the worst press for Labour came from Labour ministers and their hangers-on briefing against each other!

The central theme of the book was how awful the relationship between Brown and Blair was, lasting for many years and seriously hampering a New Labour programme for reform. The origin of this poor relationship is in the leadership struggle which took place following the death of John Smith in 1994. Communication between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor was poor, and they often seemed to be working largely to block each other. This makes hard reading, it’s like the story of a couple trapped in a loveless marriage “for the sake of the kids”. In some ways I find this disturbing: New Labour effectively provided it’s own opposition whilst in government in the sense that it limited their ability to make policy and enforce change on public services. What happens when the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are working to the same agenda?

Clearly as a Liberal Democrat I’m interested in what he has to say about us, the truth is: not much. There seems to be a degree to which Mandelson and Blair held key early members such as Roy Jenkins in high regard, seeing them as something of a lost tribe who had left the Labour party in the early eighties believing it to be un-reformable. He also describes the talk toward involving the Liberal Democrats in government following the 1997 election, eventually floundering because ultimately there was no need to give anything to the Liberal Democrats. It does seem that there was some quiet local arrangements where Labour or Liberal Democrats agreed not to fight too hard against each other at general elections. I suspect things have changed in both parties now, Liberal Democrats and Labour members of my generation and younger joined well after the split so for us the “progressive alliance” is something of an old man’s tale.

What also comes through for me is how grateful Labour should be for our electoral system, in the 1983 election when Labour polled 27.6% and the SDP-Alliance polled 25.4% they still gained 209 seats as opposed to the meagre 23 that the SDP-Alliance achieved. Similarly at the 2010 election, the Conservatives lead Labour by 7.1% in votes but only 48 seats whilst in 2005 Labour led Tory by just 2.8% but gained a 157 seat lead over the Conservatives giving them a firm majority.

Mandelson’s description of the Coalition negotiations following the May 2010 General Election are consistent with the Laws and Wilson books which I reviewed previously. Labour had not made any pre-election plans for coalition, which I still find odd since Peter Mandelson clearly saw the possibility of a hung parliament; the Labour party was split on whether they should make the attempt and ultimately there was a recognition that the parliamentary arithmetic did not add up.

It’s clear that the current theme of “no cuts” from Labour is a continuation of the Brown policy pre-election, Alastair Darling appears to have made considerable efforts to reach a budget which made at least some effort to start addressing the deficit in the final days of the previous government, in the teeth of enormous opposition from Gordon Brown whilst other members of the team such as Ed Balls were keen to make further spending commitments. Brown’s great fear seemed to have been being labelled a “tax-and-spend” Chancellor, who seems to have ended up a “spend” Chancellor and in the long term that does not add up.

Is this a good book to read? It is if you want to know about the personal relationship at the core of the book, and if want to know more about Peter Mandelson. I’m tempted to read Andrew Rawnsley’s “The End of the Party” for a more detached view.

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