Ministry-of-sound-logoWhat happens if you subtract politics from itself? That might sound like a particularly difficult question from a Taoist political theory exam, but it’s something James Palumbo would like us to discover from the inside. (Yes, that’s Baron Palumbo of Southwark, appointed such for his important contribution to contributions)

Drawing on his experience of starting a business from scratch with only a large family trust fund and eight years experience working in the City behind him, he’s decided that we don’t need to be ruled by politicians any more (people with unelected seats for life in Parliament excepted, obviously). Apparently, based on his personal experience, Government only operates at ’30 per cent efficiency’ because politicians don’t know what they’re doing, and ‘experts’ would run everything better.

(Before you ask, don’t be silly, he doesn’t provide any evidence or quantification for his ’30 per cent efficiency’ idea, or any experts to back this up. You might think that this weakens his argument, but I couldn’t possibly comment.)

Yes, we don’t need democracy any more, because Palumbo’s invented ‘Democracy 2.0′ which would apparently ‘share many of the guiding principles to which our society holds dear’, though I’m not quite sure what they are as principles like choice, voting and the ability to remove a government don’t appear to be in there. Instead, ‘experts’ would run the country, and all of them would supposedly have some sort of qualification that would be mandatory before entering government. (Using qualifications as a barrier to stop people participating in the political process is something that would never be abused, of course)

Once in place, these experts would all then decide what was best for the country and make sure the country got it good and hard without having to rely on such outdated Democracy 1.0 ideas like elections, parliaments or accountability. Being experts, they would all naturally agree on what the country needed – which would be entirely in agreement with what James Palumbo wants – and be able to deliver it. Presumably, they all would be able to raise Palumbo’s perceived 30% efficiency level too using their magical powers of expertness.

From this viewpoint, Democracy 2.0 appears to have a lot in common with Technocracy 1.0 (and bears lots in resemblance with other people’s ‘upgrades’ of democracy) and suffers all the flaws common to technocratic dreams. Ironically, the biggest flaw of most wannabe technocrats is one they accuse democrats of: believing that there is only one way of doing things. It seems that in all his years, Palumbo hasn’t noticed that experts often disagree and there are many different ways to reach your goal, even assuming we can all agree on what the end goal is. You’d think someone in business might have noticed that there are are many different ways of doing things, or perhaps Palumbo thinks all clubs and record labels are run exactly like the Ministry of Sound. After all, I’m sure business experts agree there’s only one way to run a business, don’t they?

I’ve discussed this before, but Palumbo isn’t alone in his believe that democracy could be ‘improved’ by somehow removing all the democratic aspects from it. (For more on this concept, read Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy) Indeed, I suspect that if we get an inconclusive election result in May, we’ll likely hear calls for it increasing in volume and frequency, and it’s already an undertone in some of the calls for a grand coalition.

I have a rule that whenever someone says ‘let’s take the politics out of this’, what they’re really saying is nothing more than ‘let’s all agree with me’. Proposing to take politics out of politics is nothing more than James Palumbo believing he’s right about everything, and any potential impediments to the people being exposed to the full benefits of his rightness must be swept away. It’s an incredibly illiberal and undemocratic position for a supposedly Liberal Democrat peer to take, but I’m sure anyone calling for the party to take action over it will find themselves denounced as being illiberal and undemocratic. Maybe we’ll need to call in an expert to decide it.

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General Election facts: Forty years of Liberal gains

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It occurred to me today that the Liberals and Liberal Democrats have a long track record of having at least one bit of good news at general elections by making a gain from another party. Not necessarily gains overall, but at least one seat being picked up from another party.

A quick bit of research showed me that the last time it didnt happen was 1970, when the Liberal Party lost 6 seats, but gained none to replace them. Every general election since then saw at least one gain compared to the previous election.

So, I wondered when the similar points were for the other parties:

For the Conservatives it’s 1997, unsurprisingly.
Labour’s last time was 2005, as they did gain some seats in 2010.
2010 is the last time for all the main Northern Irish parties except Alliance. None of the DUP,  UUP, SDLP or Sinn Fein gained a seat, though both the DUP and UUP lost one.
Perhaps surprisingly, given what’s happened to them since, the SNP didn’t gain in 2010 either.
2010 also saw no gains for Respect and UKIP (who’ve never won a seat at a general election, of course) though both do now have MPs.
For other parties now in Parliament, 2005 was the last election without gains for Plaid Cymru and the Greens.

However, the best run of gains after Liberals/Liberal Democrats belongs to Independents, where we have to go back to 1992 to find the last time we didn’t have an independent gaining a seat. There’s been one independent gain (Martin Bell, Richard Taylor, Peter Law and Sylvia Hermon) at every election since then, but I’m not sure where they might make one this time.

In that light, the Liberal run of ten elections with gains at each does seem pretty impressive. Suggestions for the seat or seats that might make it 11 will be happily received…

"A letterbox without a leaflet in it is a wasted opportunity"

“A letterbox without a leaflet in it is a wasted opportunity”

One thing I’ve said repeatedly in recent years is that no one gets involved in politics because they really, really enjoy delivering leaflets. I thought that was a really obvious thing to say, but now I’ve had a comment that makes me question that. Apparently, I shouldn’t waste time writing posts on my blog about things that interest me and instead ‘just get out and deliver some leaflets’. (There’s also an appeal to ‘Mark’ to limit the topics that get written about, which makes me wonder if some people think Mark Pack is now the literal God of Liberal Democrat blogging, casting down thunderbolts at those who displease him)

This isn’t a new thing – Liberator magazine has spent years complaining at how the ideas of community politics have been turned into a leaflet delivery cult – and with an election coming one would inevitable expect to see the calls to stop thinking and start delivering increase in number. It’s not even a specifically Liberal Democrat thing – sure, that’s where my experience is, but it’s easy to spot the calls to campaign more and discuss less in other parties, even if they don’t have quite the same fetishistic devotion to shoving pieces of paper through letterboxes.

There are several problems with the ‘shut up and deliver leaflets’ message, not least the fact that it’s bloody rude, but for me they all come down to a misunderstanding of why some people get involved in politics. They rely on the belief that politics is essentially a game, and that it’s about ensuring that your team does the best it can, in the hopes that it can defeat the other teams. In this view, any of us mere bloggers are just average players in the game, not required to think about strategy or tactics, just required to get out there and follow orders. Deliver those leaflets, knock on those doors and do as the party’s high command tell you. Ours not to reason why, ours just to deliver then go back to HQ and ask for more, like a good Stakhanovite.

In that vision, a blog is just another campaign tool. While it’s probably not as good as delivering leaflets – for nothing is as good as delivering leaflets – it probably has some use as a cheerleading tool, telling everyone just how wonderful everything is, and how much more wonderful it would be if they’d just go out and deliver leaflets. That this and other blogs steadfastly refuse to take that approach means that we’re obviously in the wrong.

Unless you look at politics from a different perspective, and see ideas as important or just enjoy talking about general political issues, institutions, and history. What got me into politics was talking about things and considering ways that the world could be different, where the campaigning was a means to an end, not an end in itself. Sure, people like that might be a minority in modern politics (which tells a sad enough tale in itself) but telling us to ‘just go and deliver leaflets’ rather than have an interesting discussion or discover new ideas is not going to motivate. If anything, it’s going to demotivate us, because it tears down another bit of the facade and insists that everything is just about the game, where winning is the only thing of importance, not what you do with the prize after you’ve won.

So no, I won’t stop writing about things I find interesting in favour of delivering leaflets and if anything, I think one thing we need less of in politics generally is campaigning. The general election campaign has been running for several weeks now – whether we wanted it or not – and I’m pretty sure that time might have been better spent by dropping down the level of campaigning and actually trying to get more people to think and talk about issues instead of parroting soundbites and talking points at each other. But then, I would say that, and while I’ve been writing this post I could have been getting my fingers trapped in countless letterboxes.

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An opportunity for everyone to use the same slogan

We should be glad that having decided to emphasise something other than ‘Stronger Economy, Fairer Society’, the Liberal Democrat message of ‘opportunity for everyone’ is something clear and distinct that no other leader would ever use…
blairopportunity

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(Blair headline here, Major picture from here)

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Nick-Clegg-004(First, a disclaimer: this is not a prediction of anything that might happen at the general election. I’ve got no idea what will happen in Sheffield Hallam or any other seat in May, and I’m not making any predictions about what might happen in the election, nationally or locally.)

As ever, when actually asked to explain how the systems of British politics works, and not just repeat some juicy gossip, Britain’s political columnists have come up short. They can read the constituency polls that say Nick Clegg might lost his seat at the election, but when asked to think what that might mean, they have no idea. Sometimes, it feels that having knowledge of how things work is rapidly disappearing from our media, because it’s all too complicated to have to remember facts.

What’s most frustrating about a lot of the ‘nobody knows what might happen’ is that the Liberal Democrats have twice found themselves unexpectedly leaderless in the past decade, though both of those were because of sudden resignations rather than the actions of the electorate. The procedure established by the party in these circumstances is quite clear, even if it’s not in the party’s Constitution: the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party becomes acting leader until such time as a new leader is elected by the party’s regular processes.

So, that’s perfectly clear, except for one small problem. The current deputy leader of the parliamentary party is Sir Malcolm Bruce, who’s not standing at the election, but appears to be holding on to his position until then, which means it will be vacant at the start of the next Parliament. It is important to note that while this role is often referred to as the party’s deputy leader, it is technically only deputy leader of the party in Parliament and as such is only elected by the party’s MPs.

So, if Clegg was to lose his seat in May, there’d be no one to replace him, and there’d clearly be chaos, right? Well, yes and no. Despite the party being full of many people who love nothing more than arguing over a constitutional clause for hours on end (and if you’re that sort of person, you too could become a member of English Council and do it to your heart’s content) I think all but the most stubborn would recognise that this is a case where force majeure applies.

It’s established that the Deputy Leader becomes acting leader when there’s an unexpected vacancy, and that the deputy leader is elected by the party’s MPs. While there may be an established procedure for electing a deputy leader, I can’t see anyone reasonably objecting to the remianing MPs following a very truncated process as soon as they’re able to meet, with their decision then further authorised by the party’s Federal Executive as soon as it meets. In that situation, I would expect the parliamentary party to meet as soon as possible on the Friday (the deciding factor on meeting time may be the timetable for flights from Orkney to London) and the FE to meet on Saturday morning. How urgent the process needs to be would likely be determined by the rest of the result – very rushed if it looks like the party will be taking part in coalition negotiations, somewhat more leisurely if a party has got an overall majority in the Commons.

Who might that interim leader be? I have no idea – I’m not making those sort of predictions, remember? All I know is that there is a simple way for the party to choose an interim leader if the current leader isn’t returned to Parliament, and it’d likely be a herald of some interesting political times if it had to be used.

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libdemblogsAs three of my fellow Liberal Democrat bloggers (Mark Valladares, Alex Marsh and Jonathan Calder) have tackled this subject without using the most obvious of headlines for it, I decided to wait no longer and throw my tuppence of opinion in before someone else realised it was available.

Despite the headline, I think a lot of the decline in political blogging isn’t just limited to the Liberal Democrats. Sure, there’s now a smaller pool to draw from, and previously high-profile names like James Graham aren’t Liberal Democrats anymore, but to me, there don’t seem to be as many political bloggers as there used to be, or if there are they’re now much more congregated into sites with multiple authors rather than individual blogs.

There also doesn’t feel to me that there’s the same level of networking being political bloggers that there used to be. Again, this is personal perception, but I rarely see (or write) posts like this one, where they’re written as a response to something another blogger posted. Back in the Good Old Days of blogging, many posts seemed to be ‘in response to X, who was enraged by Y’s post about Z’s statement’ but now that kind of post is rare, and the self-contained post more common.

I think there are two main reasons for this change. First, there’s been a decline in blog aggregators and readers, the most notable of which to disappear was Google Reader, though I still lament the disappearance of the UK Political Blog Feeds page most of all. It feels to me that what tools of this sort that do exist generally tend to favour aggregating content from a single site or platform. WordPress will aggregate content from WordPress blogs, Blogger from its users and Tumblr from its, but people are less likely to range across platforms than they were. (For those of you who miss Google Reader, I do recommend The Old Reader, though) It’s much harder for a new blog to get noticed and find readers than it used to be, especially if you don’t have access to large number of social media contacts to promote yourself to. (One thing I have just realised – Lib Dem Voice doesn’t appear to have done a ‘welcome to the new bloggers’ post in a while)

Perhaps more importantly, though, the rise of social media has changed the way people use the web and stolen a lot of the niches that were previously only filled by blogs. Short points, sharing links and conversations are much better done on Twitter than blogs, and it’s much easier for a councillor to keep in touch with residents through a Facebook page than a blog – primarily because much more of the population use Facebook regularly than read blogs. It used to be that the answer to a lot of ‘how do I do X online?’ questions was ‘set up a blog’, but now it’s the answer to a much smaller set of questions. Even if you just want to expound your opinion on things, there are enough group blogs looking for content that you don’t need to set your own up and post regularly.

I don’t think blogging – even Liberal Democrat blogging – is dying, just evolving as the web and political ecosystems it sits within change. I would like to see more blogs and bloggers, especially from people who like discussing ideas in depth, but who knows how things might change after May?

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For an affordable increase in your gruel ration, vote!

For an affordable increase in your gruel ration, vote!

I don’t always like being proved right. When I wrote about hope earlier this week, there was still a little part of me that thought I might be proved wrong and things might turn around. Our politicians might all have suddenly been infected by a desire to spell out positive visions for the future, but sadly the virus that does that doesn’t exist in our universe as yet, and all we get is the drab and the banal.

Yet again, we got more slogans to add to what sounds like an attempt by a particularly uninspired management training weekend to come up with the most generic slogans possible, things that are too bland to be included in mission statements. ‘Finish the job and finish it fairly’ is the latest attempt at non-differentiation from people who’d advertise tea by claiming it was less caffeine than coffee, but more taste than water. If all you can do to distinguish yourself is claiming ‘slightly different than X and Y, but not by too much!’ then is it any wonder no one wants to pay attention to you?

That’s why we end up with headlines like this. Look, I know the Important And Serious People who write newspaper columns and hang around the Westminster lobby like nothing more than to talk about the deficit and the minutiae of post-election taxation rates, but “Lib Dems propose £8bn in tax rises to reduce deficit” is not a message to excite or motivate anyone. Rather than promising a better nation, it’s merely asking people to work as though they were in the early days of a better budget strategy. It’s expecting people to be somehow inspired by the rhetoric of managerialism, despite all the evidence suggesting that it’s the last thing that inspires people. People like to leave work behind at the end of the day, and a politics that represents all the worst of it isn’t going to inspire anyone.

I’m not going to claim that previous Lib Dem general election campaigns were examples of unalloyed genius in political campaigning, but they at least gave people something positive to latch on to as a promise of better days to come. Now, there’s no one doing that, and instead the election is threatening to turn into a series of dull people reading out PowerPoint slides comprised entirely of the dullest buzzwords possible, then wondering why all the audience has slipped out to go to the pub.

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