It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

(Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five)

, , ,

Lib-Dem-logoWith depressing predictability, many people’s response to the concerns a lot of Liberal Democrat members have raised about the return of Chris Rennard to the Federal Executive has been ‘aren’t there more important things to worry about?’ It’s also interesting to note that ‘shut up and deliver leaflets‘ has now evolved into ‘go and do some phone canvassing’. This is of course mixed in with ‘don’t you know there’s a by-election on’ and ‘talking about this just gives us bad publicity’ to try and shut down any debate by blaming everyone else for the bad things.

It’s an interesting attempt at political judo: trying to make it look like it’s those people complaining about the Lords putting Chris Rennard on the FE are the ones in the wrong, rather than those who’ve actually made the decision. It feels to me very much like people who misunderstand free speech – yes, you have the right to say what you like, or elect whoever you choose, but that doesn’t free you from the consequences of your actions. Imagine if Tim Farron used his slot at Prime Minister’s Questions to ask Cameron if he could tell him who put the ram in the ram a lam a ding dong. He’s perfectly entitled to ask that, and as leader he can choose the subject of his questions, but he’d have to face the consequences of that choice.

This is the situation the Lords group – or, at least, the 40-odd of them who voted for Rennard – are in. They’ve made their decision according to the rules they have and in accordance with the power they have to appoint a member to the FE. Having seen the decision they’ve made, a large chunk of people in the rest of the party have pointed out that it’s a really bad decision and the response hasn’t been to try and explain why they think it’s a good decision, but to complain that people are daring to criticise it. Hiding behind ‘there are more important things you should be doing’ and ‘you’re making the party look bad, go and deliver leaflets as penance’ is quite a depressing way to try and avoid a debate and shift the blame for the effects of a decision onto those who didn’t make it.

Too many people forget that liberalism is about the freedom to make decisions and act, but that freedom comes with responsibility for the consequences of your actions. No one acts in a vacuum or makes decisions that are void of consequences and to assume that you can do whatever you want without facing criticism when you get it wrong is to demand to be removed from all consequences and be unaccountable in the way you exercise your power. Unaccountable power is something liberalism opposes, and it’s those who are trying to get everyone to move on and just accept it that are being illiberal here.

, , ,

House_of_Lords_chamber_-_toward_throneThere are some words you don’t want to see coming up on your Twitter feed because you know they’re invariably associated with bad news. When you’re a member of and follow a number of Liberal Democrats, “Rennard” is one of those words, as it normally means that everyone’s least-favourite former chief executive has done something silly again.

This time, it wasn’t just him being silly. Assisted by the votes of thirty-nine other members of the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords, he’s been elected as their representative on the party’s Federal Executive. I’m not sure what was going through the minds of these peers when they decided that someone cited as the principal reason why several prominent women have left the party was the best person to represent them on the FE, or why they think that raking up old arguments is the best way for the party to spend its time when its trying to rebuild. Some credit must be given for the twenty peers who voted for Tim Razzall to take the place instead, with questions being asked of the fifty or more who didn’t bother to vote.

What’s clear now, as it has been ever seen the allegations about him were first raised, is that there is a clear divide in the party over Rennard and that there are a number of people in senior positions in the party (particularly amongst the Lords group) who want to put him back into a prominent position because they believe the legend that he’s a political campaigner without equal, who can somehow magically restore the party’s electoral fortunes if he’s given the chance to. At best, this is somewhat overstating the ability one person could have on the party’s fortunes, but I’d argue that the supposed miracle-working powers of Rennardism ignore that he was principally a tactician and it was the party’s strategic positioning during the Ashdown and Kennedy years that created the real opportunity. (See here for my more detailed argument on that)

What we have here is a section of the party establishment deciding that standing up for their old mate is more important than giving the party the opportunity to rebuild and make a fresh start. Like Jennie, I want to see Tim Farron and Sal Brinton telling the Lib Dem Lords to think again, and I want to hear from the other members of the Federal Executive what they intend to do about it. Are they happy to see it being used to make the whole party look bad?

I’m sure it’s not their intention but the Lib Dem Lords are doing a very good job of showing just what the problems are with giving power to an unelected and unaccountable group. One of the outcomes of the party’s governance review has to be to remove any power over the democratic structures of the party from unaccountable groups like them.


Any excuse to drag out an old favourite.

Any excuse to drag out an old favourite.

George Monbiot in today’s Guardian brings us the news that David Cameron has been writing to the leader of Oxfordshire County Council to complain about the council’s reduction in services. Probably unsure if he had an actual letter from the Prime Minister or a very clever hoaxer, the leader replied with a careful explanation of how strapped for cash OCC is, as is much of local government thanks to the cumulative effect of funding changes since 2010.

What strikes me most about Cameron’s letter, though, is the way it regurgitates the spin Eric Pickles used to spout about how councils can mitigate the effects of the cuts. Pickles’ time as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was particularly fruitful in prompting posts for this blog, but did very little for local government. Pickles came into office with a vision of local government as something bloated and inefficient that was nothing more than all the worst nightmares of Taxpayers Alliance propaganda come to life, where massive office complexes were heated by diversity officers burning stacks of £50 notes, their work overseen by council meetings that were fuelled by expensive teas flown in from China and hand-made golden biscuits. This fuelled his belief that cuts in council budgets would be easy to make, exemplified in his 50 money saving ideas for local government.

Cameron’s letter comes from the same place, completely divorced from the reality of councils (like most senior politicians, he has no experience in local government) but instead accepting the man in Whitehall (in this case, whichever SpAd at DCLG actually wrote the letter) knows best. That’s why we hear talk of how the council can find savings through efficiencies, cuts in the back office and joint working, completely ignoring the fact that these are all things that councils have already done and have been doing for years. I can recall being at the LGA Conference in 2008 and seeing a message on a comments board there saying ‘if efficiency savings were so easy, we’d be doing them already’ but it seems the impression at the heart of government still remains that councils are full of potential savings that they just can’t be bothered to make.

I’d hoped that the government’s attitude would change after Eric Pickles was found a nice sinecure well away from the Cabinet table, but Cameron’s letter shows his attitudes still remain there. Local government’s still seen as something that should get on with the job of doing what the centre tells it, not having any opinions of its own about what it might be able to achieve. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s busy believing his own spin, even when the reality is staring him in the face.

, ,

distinctionIt seems like ages ago that I finally handed in my dissertation but it’s only been two months. Two months of regularly checking my University email account for notifications while second-guessing everything I wrote in it, until today the maring was done, the exam board had met, and I got my final grade: a distinction for the dissertation, which meant an overall distinction for my MA, so those two years of studying and several thousand pounds of fees weren’t wasted in the end.

Anyway, this is just to say thanks to those of you who read and commented on the posts about my dissertation and other degree-related things as you did help me work through my thoughts and come up with ideas in a lot of areas, and all that helped me get to this point. The title – and the opportunity to flog the phrase ‘politics with distinction’ until it becomes devoid of all potential humour and meaning – is all mine though.

Right, time to start applying for next year’s PhD courses and funding…

, ,

Lib-Dem-logoAs part of the Agenda 2020 policy process, the party is holding an essay contest asking for 1000 words on ‘what does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today?’ This is my entry to it, written in a rush as the deadline came near, and you can see other people’s efforts on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Liberal Democrats want to give more freedom to everyone to enable them to live their own lives. However, we also know that freedom for individuals is not enough, and that it must be combined with breaking down the unaccountable powers of the state, in the economy and in society to enable individuals to fully use their freedom. We live in a world where there is more power to affect the lives of individuals than there ever has been, and by focusing on freeing people from historic controls we are cutting the strings and chains that tie them down, but ignoring the new ropes and cables that bind them even tighter.

To be a Liberal Democrat is to recognise that power has to exist, but that where it does exist it must be accountable. We are not opposed to the existence of power and recognise that it is needed to build, maintain and develop the society we live in, but we recognise that power needs to be controlled. Freedom is not simply removing a power over someone, freedom is giving people the ability to participate in power.

Liberals understand that power comes in many different forms and that the power of the state is just one of them. Indeed, it may be the weakest power of all because the concept of state power being accountable to those it affects is widely accepted, even if not regularly seen in practice. As liberals, we can spend far too much time getting upset about the minutiae of the use and misuse of state power while ignoring unaccountable power in society and the economy.

As Liberal Democrats we often eagerly point to how we believe that ‘no one should be enslaved by conformity’, but without focusing on how we make that happen in reality. We need to recognise that just saying oppression and enforced conformity is bad is not enough. Identifying it should be just the first step and we need to be prepared to discuss how we as Liberal Democrats are actually going to take on the unaccountable power and privilege that causes so much harm in our society, including within our own party. To be a Liberal Democrat today should be to understand that just telling someone they are free isn’t enough, it’s about standing with them to challenge the power and privilege that oppresses them.

Liberalism is internationalist at its heart, recognising that everyone deserves the same rights and respect no matter where they live, what language they use or who their parents were. People working together across national borders have achieved some of the greatest liberal successes of the last century, from eradicating diseases to ending apartheid, but we need to ensure liberal and internationalist values remain for the centuries to come. There is a great power in people acting together through global institutions and we need to ensure that power is accountable and effective to achieve future liberal goals across the planet, and even beyond it.

To be a Liberal Democrat today should also be to understand the danger of unaccountable economic power. We need to deal with the new concentrations of unaccountable power within the economy that have massive effects on people’s lives that they can do nothing about. Free trade was a means to an end, ensuring that the poorest in society would be able to afford to eat, but we have turned it into an end in itself, regardless of the effect it has on people. We talk of trade between nations and empowering individuals, ignoring the vast unaccountable powers of corporations and how they take away freedom and choice from individuals, concentrating economic power amongst an unaccountable elite.

Liberalism is about people and we need to create a world where the economy works for the benefit of the people, not one where people work for the benefit of the economy. We need to fight for education systems that develop people as individuals, not merely as future workers; for social security that concentrates on supporting people, not subsidising employers; and for an economy that liberates people to spend more time doing what they want, where everyone’s abilities and contributions to society are welcomed.

Beyond the state, society and the economy, there is a further power that we must address: our environment. This is a different order of power, where climate change is capable of destroying everything our society is based on, rendering liberalism and every other ideology meaningless. And yet, it is vital that we understand a liberal response to this crisis is necessary because only through liberalism and recognising the value of every life on this planet can we build a global response. Liberalism is international by instinct, seeing potential in every person, and that international instinct is also environmental, recognising that we need to protect our planet to ensure that it’s not just us who get the chance to live the lives we want, but all the generations still to come. Human survival is important, and we increase our chances of that survival by giving people reasons to believe in a better tomorrow.

To be a Liberal Democrat today is to recognise that liberals have made a start in tackling these unaccountable powers in the state, in society and in the economy but it is only a start and there is so much more work to be done. The fight for liberalism is not a new one: it has taken many forms and many different names over the years, but at its heart it has always sought to break up power, to make it accountable, and to give all the chance to live the life they wish. To be a Liberal Democrat is to want to take power from the unaccountable and let people use it for themselves because that’s the only way we can create a world for everyone.

, ,

'Having beaten Mr Heseltine, I intend to go on and on and on...'

‘Having beaten Mr Heseltine, I intend to go on and on and on…’

The Twitter account Majorsrise is currently marking the upcoming 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister by tweeting in real-time the various bits of news and political intrigue that led up to it. It’s a fascinating look back at a period that still seems recent to me, but is now very much a different time. It’s interesting to watch the events play out as what now seems inevitable to us clearly wasn’t at the time, and at this point – just a couple of weeks before her resignation – speculation was about when the next election would be, not who might be the Prime Minister at the end of the month.

Let’s assume for the purposes of discussion that she manages to survive the challenge of Michael Heseltine in the leadership election. There are a number of ways this could happen such as her appointing a better campaign manager than Peter Morrison, or Heseltine saying something ill-advised in the run-up to the vote that could leave her secure as party leader and Prime Minister, at least for the short term. (It’s worth remembering that she beat Heseltine in the vote, but fell short of the majority she needed to avoid a second ballot)

The Tories were already recovering from their polling lows under her leadership (see Anthony Wells’ graphs from the period) and there’s no reason to think that she wouldn’t have received a similar popularity boost to John Major’s after the First Gulf War was completed. Would she have had the courage to do what Major didn’t do and try to ride that wave of popularity into an election in April or May of 1991? We know now that the polling from that period was inaccurately overstating Labour support and underestimating Conservative support, so the potential would be there for her to win an unprecedented fourth successive election. However, whatever the result, what follows is interesting to consider:

A fourth Thatcher victory – military victory making voters ignore their problems with her – opens up a couple of possible outcomes, probably dependent on the size of the majority. Something like Major’s 1992 majority would probably force her to be more magnanimous in victory and bring Heseltine back into the Cabinet, possibly with a plan for her to step down in 1993 or 1994. A victory closer to the existing majority, however, could be seen as vindication heralding a swing to the right.

An election defeat – military victory not enough to overcome voters’ doubts about her and the Tories – not only brings Neil Kinnock to Downing Street, but makes things very different for the Tories in the future. Losing an election allows Heseltine to say ‘I told you so’ and take the leadership when she inevitably steps down but also neutralises the Thatcherite brand for a while as it’s proven to be fallible at the ballot box.

Finally, a hung Parliament likely gives Paddy Ashdown an ‘instrument of excruciating torture’ from the electorate nineteen years before Nick Clegg. Twenty or so Liberal Democrats are just as likely to be victims of electoral circumstance and find that they can only give stability to one party in Parliament, but could he lead his party into coalition with either Thatcher or Kinnock, and would gaining twenty MPs be enough of a boon to either to make them want to try?

What do you think would have happened if Thatcher had survived Heseltine’s challenge?

, , , ,