» Liberal Democrats ¦ What You Can Get Away With

actors who haven't won oscarsAs I mentioned the nomination, it’s only fair to mention the result. I didn’t win Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year, which instead went to Jonathan Calder and Liberal England. That brought an end to Jonathan’s long run of being nominated for the award while never winning it, a phenomenon which had made him into the Liberal Democrat Leonardo DiCaprio. (Caron Lindsay, who now replaces him in the ‘most nominations without a win’ role, can choose who she wants to be instead of him)

Now he’s finally won the award, of course, we all wait to see if he follows the destiny of so many previous winners of it in choosing to quit blogging and/or the party. I hope not, because I’m not sure anyone else could quite replicate his contribution to blogging, not least his remarkable ability to continue to find items of interest to post and write about.

So, congratulations to Jonathan and all the other winners, and as I haven’t won I guess I better get on with finding some more topics to keep blogging about…

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(not taken during today's vote)

(not taken during today’s vote)

As I said before, I couldn’t make it to Liberal Democrat Conference this year, but thanks to BBC Parliament I’ve been able to watch the debates so far, and thanks to Twitter I’ve been able to have some contribution into ongoing debates and discussions. I’m glad to see that Conference agreed the ‘one member, one vote’ proposal but with Mark Pack’s amendment that means some work has to be done before it’s introduced.

It was an interesting debate to watch, though the amount of straw man arguments and false dichotomies being put forward was somewhat dizzying to watch. As far as I can tell, there are very few people in the party who oppose widening democracy within it, but there’s a wide range of views on how to do it and so Conference made the right decision. We’ve agreed that we want the principle of one member, one vote, but now we have to agree on how to implement that before it comes into force.

The question I’ve been asking for a while – and no one supporting the proposals gave an answer to in the debate – was how are members who can’t be at Conference going to be represented under any new system? We’ve heard lots of tales of people who want to come to Conference but can’t be conference representatives under the current system, but nothing to suggest that the views of those who can’t make it to Conference because of time, money, other commitments or any other reason have any importance.

That got me thinking – why are we fixated on voting at Conference? Sure, Conference is a great event for party members to go to, and political party conferences have been around for a long time, but are they necessarily the best way of deciding a political party’s policies in 2014? If we were creating a political party from scratch, would we insist that the only way they can decide on that party’s policies is if they can get to a certain city on a certain set of dates, while paying quite heavily for the privilege of doing so? Shouldn’t we be looking at a system that suits the way people, technology and politics work now, rather than patching up a system based on the technologies and politics of decades ago?

That’s why one suggestion in the debate chimed with what I’ve been thinking over the last week or so – we need a full review and rewrite of the party’s constitution to review everything about the way the party works. The party constitution wasn’t set out in stone, and lots of things have changed in the twenty-five years since it was first written. There’s a lot that has changed since then – not least the party actually being in Government – and it makes sense to me for us to review everything about how we work in the light of all that experience. If we want a party that really empowers all its members, and gives them all an equal voice in running it, then we need to be prepared to make some real reforms to it, not just bodging together something to try and fix it up again and again.

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Yesterday I discovered that I’d been nominated for Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year. It was a bit of a surprise – partly because I found out from the questions Lib Dem Voice – but an entirely welcome one.

Unfortunately, I can’t be in Glasgow for Conference this year, so I won’t be able to be at the awards ceremony which I’m sure will be as glittering as packed full of celebrities as it has been in previous years. I’d like to take this chance to thank everyone who nominated me, and encourage those of you who can and who haven’t done it yet to go and fill in the LDV survey. You can even vote for me if you like. (At this point, Leonard Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’, specifically ‘you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win’ fades up on the soundtrack.)

Mark Pack has a list of all the previous nominees and winners, and it’s an impressive list with an important pedigree of people who’ve quite blogging and/or the party after winning the award. It also confirms what we’ve all suspected for many years – that Jonathan Calder is the Liberal Democrat Leonardo DiCaprio.

I hope you all enjoy the awards, and whoever wins it’s just good to know that someone is reading all this and appreciates it. Thank you, and please keep reading (unless I win and have to follow the tradition, of course).

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key_conference_votingI won’t be at Conference this year (in short: didn’t know if I’d have the time, then when it looked like I did have the time, costs had gone up so much I didn’t have the money) so my contribution will be the occasional blog post and the odd bit of long distance heckling via Twitter. Even if I can’t be there, I can still hope to influence those of you who are there.

It’s that issue of who gets to have a say that’s getting my attention first. On Saturday afternoon, Conference will be voting on an amendment that will radically alter the way the party works. It’s billed as ‘Expanding the democracy of our party with one member, one vote’ because, after all, what Lib Dem would want to say they’re against expanding democracy? Why, it’d be like declaring yourself to be against Shirley Williams!

The problem is that the principle behind the motion – giving all party members a say in policy and how the party’s run – is good and democratic, but the actual proposal doesn’t really deliver on that principle. As I’ve said before, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that democracy is just about voting for things, so therefore if more people have more chances to vote for more things, then everything must be more democratic. The assumption behind the OMOV proposals is that simply making it so that any member can vote at conference and any member can vote for party committees is intrinsically more democractic, regardless of how it’s implemented.

As Mark Pack and others have pointed out (disclaimer: I’ve seconded Mark’s amendment), the proposals that have been submitted to Conference are a mess in what they’re attempting to achieve, and don’t even address the wider issues of ensuring that the expanded electorate is an informed electorate. I don’t dispute the idea that giving more members a say in the process is a good one, or that there are some members effectively disenfranchised by the current system, but that doesn’t mean that any replacement system is necessarily better. Bringing in a dog’s breakfast of changes and crossing our fingers that there won’t be problems or that we’ll sort them out when they turn up is pretty much the same idea David Cameron has for dealing with constitutional reform.

The problem I see is that any real one-member-one-vote system isn’t actually compatible with the ‘Conference runs everything’ system we have at the moment. (For a simple example of this, imagine if every member wanted to attend Conference and use their vote if the new system comes in) At present most of those who can’t attend Conference – because they can’t afford it or because they don’t have the time – are represented there by representatives from their local party who they can influence. Change the system to the one being proposed, and how are those who can’t get to Conference going to be represented? They won’t be represented by anyone from their local party, and if they can’t get to Conference themselves, they’ve been completely disenfranchised.

The point is that just giving people the vote is only step one in the process, and no real plan is being put forward for step two and beyond. Passing the OMOV proposals in their current form doesn’t address the issue of making the party a genuine mass democracy, which would involve a lot more changes than most people want to consider.

If you’re genuinely interested in expanding the democracy of our party, then vote for Mark’s amendment or to refer back this motion so proposals that actually do that can be created. Democracy doesn’t just come about because we pass a motion and declare ourselves more democratic, and voting for this proposal as is would be to stumble forward into the dark in the hope we can make it happen.

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(Sal Brinton was the third to respond to the questions I posed in my earlier Presidential post, and here are her answers in full after the cut, which were originally left as a comment on the earlier post. You can, of course, ask any questions about her answers in the comments.)

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(Liz Lynne was the second to respond to the questions I posed in my earlier Presidential post, and here are her answers in full after the cut. I’ve formatted them as she had them in the Word document she sent but not edited them in any way, but please tell me if anything looks wrong. You can, of course, ask any questions about her answers in the comments.)

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Not being one of the privileged elite of Lib Dem bloggers, I didn’t get a review copy of Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan, so I waited until it turned up in the University library before reviewing it. It was worth waiting for it, as if I’d laid out money on actually buying a copy, I’d have felt extremely ripped off. It was obviously meant to be a provocative book that would force a debate within the Liberal Democrats and make people realise the correctness of Browne’s ‘authentic liberal’ views, but instead it’s just the same boilerplate ‘classical liberal’ pabulum one can read on blogs and think tank websites for free.

It feels like a book that was written in a hurry, and that shows in the lack of citations or justification for many of the claims Browne makes. There are many sections full of assertions that need some sort of explanation or evidence to back them up, but none comes. This is evident in the two central assertions of the book: that it’s “an authentic liberal plan to get Britain fit for ‘The Global Race'”.

Browne’s description of his ideas as ‘authentic liberalism’ isn’t based on any sort of discussion of liberal ideas or their relevance to the modern age but merely presented as self-evident truth. It assumes – like most who claim to be heralds of ‘classical liberalism’ – that there is some Platonic ideal form of liberalism and any versions that deviate from this are inauthentic or fake. It completely ignores the idea – as I discussed in my series of posts on Russell – that liberalism should be concerned with power, or that it can adapt to meet the times. It’s an assumption that liberalism was somehow perfected in the nineteenth century, and nothing needs to be added to it. Browne doesn’t have anything to say about power, except for expecting everyone to prostrate themselves in front of the power of the market and the ‘global race’.

The ‘global race’ is the second of Browne’s major assumptions, and again he doesn’t seek to justify this concept, just assumes it to be the case. For those of you who forgot, the ‘global race’ was the centrepiece of a David Cameron Tory Party conference speech and like many big political ideas before it, wasn’t one that became part of the national vocabulary. Browne, however, latches onto it with all the vigour of a Conservative Central Office intern looking to get in the leader’s good books, but doesn’t stop to explain why he thinks it’s a good idea, or even if in a globalised world the idea of a race between nation-states makes any sense. It feels like international relations by Sellar and Yeatman: Britain must be Top Nation again, then history can come to an end.

Browne’s inability to question his assumptions, and the generally rushed nature of the book mean his proposals aren’t original and rest on some very weak evidence. He talks about school vouchers as though they’re a thrilling new idea, not something that have been a feature of seemingly every right-wing screed on education since the 90s, and assumes they will work because competition. No, that’s pretty much the argument – school vouchers bring in competition and competition always makes things better, thus school vouchers will make things better. Mind you, this comes after an argument where he purports that the single biggest reason for the relative success of independent schools compared to state schools is parental choice. Not increased levels of funding and the ability to spend more on teachers and facilities, just choice.

Later, we’re told that London needs a new airport because ‘a global hub city needs a global hub airport’ without giving any meaningful definition of what either of those things are, making the whole argument a frustratingly circular one. Like much of the book, it feels like nothing more than Browne pushing his personal desires and assuming that they need no evidence to back them up. It betrays the idea that his ideas aren’t radical, but have been floating around on the right for years to such an extent that that the true believers don’t need proof or evidence to assert them as true.

In this vein, he asserts that the size of the state should be between 35 and 38% of GDP, based on a discussion of a handful of countries and Britain’s experience between 1997 and 2001 (though I think the figure he uses excludes all the off-the-books PFI spending, which would weaken his argument even more). It feels like a figure plucked from the air, and just when you would expect him to bring out some form of evidence to back it up, there’s absolutely nothing. It’s just put out there as something Browne believes to be true, and used to justify a whole load of lazy man-in-the-pub bloviating about supposed government waste. Browne seems to believe that running a government is just like running a supermarket, again parroting the prevailing view on the right that everything can be reduced to businesses and markets.

It amuses (but also slightly scares) me to see people thinking that this book makes Browne a deep thinker or a radical. The ideas in it aren’t original or radical, and the thinking behind them is wearyingly shallow. Browne’s style is akin to that of Thomas Friedman, firing multiple factoids and wows at the reader, hoping to hide the lack of a detailed argument. For instance, Browne often waxes lyrical (well, semi-lyrical, his writing rarely rises to any great heights) about Chinese skyscrapers and other infrastructure, comparing them to Britain’s Victorian engineering triumphs, but neglects to think about how these things there were built. The human cost of this building, and the vast armies of poorly paid labour without any rights that build them isn’t mentioned at all.

Likewise, as he urges us to work harder so we can be part of the ‘Asian Century’, he handwaves away any mention of climate change and its potential effects. This is something that’s going to dominate the century in a much more fundamental way than anything Browne focuses on, but the few mentions of any potential environmental problems assume they can be simply solved, and nothing will get in the way of the irresistible growth of the economy. Browne trumpets his experience as a Foreign Office minister, but the overview he gives of foreign affairs doesn’t reveal any particular depths and I worry if the Foreign Office’s work isn’t focusing on the potential global risks climate change creates.

I’ll be honest and say that from all the descriptions and reviews I’d read of it, I didn’t expect to agree with this book, and I generally didn’t. What I didn’t expect, though, was for the arguments in it to be so weak and resting on so little. It’s a testament to the paucity of debate and thinking within a lot of the party that something argued as weakly as this can be seen as being a bold challenge. What disappoints me most of all is that it has nothing to say about power, and how people can get that power back from globalisation. Instead, he merely envisages a capitulation and surrender to the prevailing mood in the name of competing in the ‘global race’, when what we need is a liberal challenge and a vision of how things could be done differently. A truly radical and liberal plan for the twenty-first century would challenge the orthodoxy, but Browne’s plan is just for more of the same, dressed up in supposedly liberal clothes.

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