Let’s say you want to see the House of Lords replaced by an elected chamber. ‘Great!’ Someone tells you. ‘Then you’ll love my plan! I want the upper house to consist of three hundred senators, each one elected from a single constituency at each General Election with the same electoral system as MPs, will you support me?’ You say no, because that’s not the sort of upper house you want to see, but before you can talk about the flaws in that plan or explain a way to improve it, the proposer starts telling you that you’re clearly not interested in electing an upper house because if you were you’d support their idea whole-heartedly and then make any changes after it’s introduced.

It’s an odd example, but it’s how I feel after encountering the people who are proposing that the Liberal Democrats switch to ‘one member, one vote’ (no more local party representatives at party conference, and federal committees elected by all members not just conference reps). Various people – including me – who aren’t opposed to widening the electoral franchise or changing the way Conference works have pointed out that there are various flaws with the current proposals, and in return the response has come that we clearly don’t support the idea at all, and that if there are problems then we should support the proposal as it is and look to fix them afterwards.

The problem I have with the proposals is that they fall into a trap that’s common in British politics in assuming that democracy is about voting for things, so if we have more people able to vote for more things then we must be more democratic, right? This ignores the fact that democracy is a process, not an event, and to make something ‘more democratic’ is about more than just reforming voting procedures. Whoever the electorate is, they need to be engaged and informed about the process they’re part of, and there are no proposals to change that process.

At an electoral level, there’s no commitment to change or invest in the electoral process to ensure that members are actually able to make an informed choice about who they’re voting for. As it stands, we’re likely to get more manifestos that say effectively nothing and have to rely on individual members giving up a lot of their time to ensure there’s any scrutiny of people standing for election. If we want a more open and democratic process then effort has to be put into achieving it, not just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. (My proposal would be to publish manifestos and open campaigning three or four weeks before voting opens, giving proper time to campaign)

There are lots of other things that have been suggested (see the comments here for examples) but the point is that they should be introduced at the same time, not some add-ons to be potentially brought in at a later date. Over the years, I’ve seen too many packages of reforms in different fields that have introduced a first phase with a future second phase promised but never delivered (to go back to the beginning, look at House of Lords reforms) and I think just introducing ‘one member one vote’ without contemplating the wider implications of it is a mistake. I worry that people seem to think it’s a magic fix for everything they perceive as wrong with the party, and are assuming that ‘more democracy’ is automatically better without considering what ‘more democracy’ actually means.

, , ,

wpid-14054436933990Two important things happened in British politics this week: the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Act was rushed through in a week, and David Cameron reshuffled the Conservative side of the Cabinet. Some have seen the timing of the Cabinet reshuffle as a deliberate attempt to divert the attention of the political press away from reporting what was going on in Parliament in favour of instead covering the soap opera of who was up, who was down and was out of Government, but as most political journalists prefer doing the latter to the former for the rest of the year, the reshuffle wasn’t strictly necessary to distract them from Parliament.

I’m not going to repeat all the arguments over DRIP, but I think it’s a bad law that’s been rushed through Parliament and will likely prove yet again that when you legislate at haste, you repent at leisure. I’m incredibly disappointed that Liberal Democrat MPs (with the exception of John Hemming and Adrian Sanders) not only voted for it, but argued for it so vehemently, but on top of those erros they’ve made a long term tactical error as well.

The reshuffle wasn’t just about David Cameron rearranging ministers, but about him clearing the ground for a major assault on human rights legislation by removing ministers who’d raised objections to it. It’s quite clear that the remaining months of this Parliament and the Tory campaign in next year’s general election are going to feature a strong campaign to make Britain more like Belarus by withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. Yes, our political culture has now become so debased that the Prime Minister believes there are votes to be had in promising to take rights away from you, while large sections of the press will cheer him on and demand that he take more.

The Liberal Democrat response to this should be to start a campaign in defence of human rights, and it’s a perfect opportunity for the party to reassert its credentials as a truly liberal campaigning party, making the case about why rights are important and how the ECHR comes directly from the British legal tradition. It’d be the perfect opportunity for the party to draw together all those elements of civil society who care about human rights and rebuild the party’s support in time for the general election, thus ensuring that there are a large number of Liberal Democrat MPs in the next Parliament to protect us from an ECHR withdrawal.

It would be a perfect opportunity, if the Parliamentary Party hadn’t spent the last week alienating exactly those people by supporting DRIP. Just when we might need to build a coalition across civil society in defence of people’s rights, we’ve shown those same people that we’re willing to roll over and compromise those rights and to not cause a fuss when they come under attack. When rebel Conservative (David Davis) and Labour (Tom Watson) MPs are willing to join with Caroline Lucas to try and amend DRIP, but no Liberal Democrat was there with them, it make the party look incredibly weak in what should be its naturally strongest area.

It’s clear now that our rights are going to come under even greater attack over the next twelve months and beyond, and someone is going to need to lead the fight to defend them. Liberal Democrats should be out there leading that fight and making the case, but our capitulation over DRIP means no one is going to take us seriously if we try.

,

russellliberalismAs those of you who follow me on Twitter will have already seen, I’ve recently re-read Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. It was originally published in 1999 as part of a series of ‘Intelligent Person’s Guide To…’, though they now seem to be out of print and are hard to find. I found it a fascinating read, and as it is so hard to find, I thought I’d try and provide a summary of it, which will hopefully prompt some other thoughts.

Read the rest of this entry

,

If you fancy the prospect of working with me, Sir Bob Russell MP and other Liberal Democrats in Colchester, then you might want to look at this job advert for a new organiser and parliamentary assistant.

Just a short post to let people know that Colchester Liberal Democrats now have our own page on Facebook, which should have plenty of updates and discussion from our council group. If you want to like it and get updates from us, then click here and don’t forget there are also pages for Sir Bob Russell and a certain Cllr Nick Barlow.

,

YouGov have done a survey asking people their opinions about Doctor Who and what characteristics they want to see in the next Doctor. As politics and Doctor Who are two of this blog’s continuing obsessions, I couldn’t resist writing about it – and this post becomes even more ‘my entire blogging history in one post’ if I tell you I’m doing it while I wait for the highlights of the Criterium du Dauphine cycling to come on TV.

(Insert your standard disclaimer here about polling not necessarily being accurate, margins of error, just a bit of fun etc)

It’s perhaps not surprising that Lib Dem voters are more likely to be Who fans than supporters of other parties (see Alex Wilcock’s ‘How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal‘ or my take on it here) but it’s nice to see it statistically confirmed – 41% of Lib Dem supporters are interested in the series, compared to 34% of Labour, 29% of Tories and just 26% of UKIP supporters.

I’m actually surprised to see David Tennant topping the ‘favourite Doctor’ part of the survey by quite a convincing margin – 43% to Tom Baker’s 16% and Matt Smith’s 14%. He won a similar DWM poll while he was the Doctor, but he’s now three years out of the role, which does indicate that he may well have replaced Tom Baker as the public’s image of the Doctor. (He is one of my favourites, but if I’d have been polled, I’d have doubled Patrick Troughton’s support amongst Lib Dems.) However, fun confirmation of stereotypes comes with Jon Pertwee getting his highest ratings from UKIP and Tory voters, but absolutely no support from Lib Dems. It’s possibly because he’s the most ‘establishment’ of all the Doctors – no other Doctor spent so much time hanging around the military – though one could also argue that the Pertwee era was full of images of a proudly independent Britain with its own space programme and big energy projects. As soon as he went, Tom Baker’s first story saw international sovereignty being pooled to protect nuclear codes in ‘Robot’ and the English countryside, if it was real at all, was depicted as being full of androids.

There’s also interest in the questions about what characteristics the new Doctor should have. Even without the breakdown by party, I’m surprised to see that the population of Britain are relatively open to the idea of a different Doctor. The only characteristics that get bare majority support are British (54%) and male (52%) – and male only gets about 40% support from Labour and Lib Dem voters. That gives me hope that when – and I believe it is a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’, even if it’s not this time – we get a female Doctor, the general populace will be much more inclined to accept it and see how it goes than certain Who fans believe they will be.

Other figures almost look as though they were created by the stereotype-o-matic such as 50% of UKIP voters thinking it’s important the Doctor is white, compared to 5% of Lib Dems, though I’m confused by a couple of spikes (which might just be statistical noise because of small sample size) – Tories are more likely to want the Doctor to be attractive, while Labour voters are more likely to want the actor to already be a household name.

My general position is that I want the next Doctor to be played by someone interesting – I’ve not been the biggest fan of the last three years of the series, but I think Matt Smith’s done a good job with some weak material and has been very good when he gets a good script – and most of the actors who I’ve thought could be interesting Doctors have been different from the norm. (That said, I do edge towards the ‘I’d like a woman Doctor, but not one written by Steven Moffat‘ position) If it was up to me, I’d be trying to persuade one of Adrian Lester, Maxine Peake, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris or Ben Whishaw to take the role – but it’s not up to me, so I just get to wait, watch and see what comes next. Hopefully, I’ll still be around for the 100th anniversary, when all this speculation will seem as quaint and irrelevant as ‘can you really get another completely different actor to play the Doctor?’ was in 1966.

, , ,

Earlier this week, I was interviewed by the Colchester Gazette in my new role as group leader. Unfortunately, they didn’t put the article online, but as I own a copy of the paper, a pair of scissors and a scanner, here it is:
img015
You can click on the image to see it in a readable size. The headline wasn’t exactly something I said, but otherwise I think it generally reflects the conversation I had with James.

, ,

As the Gazette is reporting it, it must be official – I’m the new leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Colchester Borough Council.

First, the thanks – thanks to the group for backing me and selecting me as their leader, and thanks to my predecessor as group leader, Councillor Paul Smith, for the work he did during his time in the role. It’s a big role to take on, and I’m glad that they see me as the best person to do the job and take the group forward.

As leader, I want to change and improve the way we communicate with the people of Colchester. The election results from last week – and especially the low turnouts – are a message to all politicians of all parties that we need to do much better at listening to people. This means us getting out on the doorstep even more than we do now, but also expanding the way we use other methods of communications. I’ll be continuing to use this blog, my existing Twitter accounts and my Facebook page, but look out for more of that coming along over the coming months.

This isn’t about us coming out to tell you how wonderful we are, but about finding out what needs fixing in your street or in your neighbourhood, and how you want to see the borough developing in the next five, ten or twenty years. I want to show that our liberal values and principles can deliver the Colchester that people want to see, that we’ve got a vision for the future of the borough that people share.

Hopefully, I’ll have many more posts on these themes over the next few months, looking for your views on various areas, but if you’ve got any questions for me, then ask them here, on twitter or facebook, or by email, and I’ll answer them as best I can. And if you feel like coming along on the journey with me, you can always join us…

,

I have been accused by some of being far too negative about our party leader to which my response has been that when he does do something right, I’ll be positive about him. Which is why it was good to see Nick Clegg unequivocally blocking the “snoopers’ charter” yesterday. The proposals were the usual Home Office power grab, attempting to expand the power of the state to monitor people while shouting ‘Look! Over there! Terrorists and paedophiles!’ when anyone raised an objection. I hope this is the start of Clegg exercising his vetoing muscles more often and not attempting to make compromises when the Tories have begun the debate with an intentionally extreme position.

As Jonathan Calder points out, one lesson from this is that the price of British liberty is eternal vigilance about what the Home Office is doing. Like many of her predecessors as Home Secretary, Theresa May has gone native and has happily adopted the securocrats’ line on how the state needs more powers to combat the ever-present threat of Bad People doing or thinking about Bad Things. Julian Huppert is doing sterling work on the Home Affairs Select Committee, supported by the massed ranks of the party membership, but do we as a party need a more structured plan for breaking up the power of the Home Office bureaucracy rather than just shooting down individual proposals as they come out?

One lesson we need to learn from the coalition is that there are deep structures of power in Britain – and not just the civil service – that need to be tackled and reformed if we’re ever to create a truly liberal society. Stopping the Snoopers’ Charter is great, but we need to tackle the source of these ideas, not just the ideas themselves.

, ,

I’m wondering if somewhere in Nick Clegg’s office, there’s a giant Wheel Of Fortune-style spinner, with all the party’s principles, policies and promises written on it. Every so often – around once a month or so – when he gets bored, the wheel gets spun, and whatever comes up is determined as the next big liberal idea to be jettisoned overboard.

The wheel has spun again, and this time it’s libel reform that’s being gutted, because liberty demands that we stand up for the right of big business to silence those who criticise them. No, sorry, that’s not the reason being given for it, as that would involve someone pretending to have a principle, even if it was insane. The stated reason is:

“Unfortunately we are in a Coalition and this was one of those areas where we could not get our Conservative colleagues to agree with us”

In English, that translates as: ‘The Tories wouldn’t budge on this, so we had to’ an idea so crazily flawed, it’s hard to know where to start. As I pointed out last year (here and here) the party has a seriously weakened position in coalition negotiations because the leadership have bound themselves to the ‘we have to show coalitions work’ argument. With the Tories not operating under the same assumptions, the party leadership are continually giving way instead of standing their ground and saying no.

Of course there’s give and take within coalition, but both sides are meant to be doing it, not just one giving and the other taking. Supporting libel reform was featured in the party’s 2010 manifesto, and as there’s no mention of anything like the proposal the MPs are supposedly going to be voting for in the Coalition Agreement, there’s no reason the leadership can’t say ‘sorry, we’re not voting for this.’ It’s not a bill that affects any other part of the Government’s programme, and the party’s MPs should be being urged to support the Defamation Bill, not gut it before it reaches the statute book.

To borrow a metaphor from Geoffrey Howe, the current situation feels like the party leadership have broken their own bats before walking out to the crease, and are then congratulating the bowlers on what a splendid job they’ve done in getting them out.

, ,