What You Can Get Away With » Liberal Democrats

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.

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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.

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We could’ve been anything we wanted to be
But don’t it make your heart glad
That we decided, a fact we take pride in
We became the best at being bad

If you don’t know it, it’s from Bugsy Malone, but for me it sums up a lot of my feelings about the coalition. I know it seems hopelessly naive now, but there was optimism back in May 2010, and a feeling that this was a government that might do things differently. Instead, that optimism has been methodically dismantled, piece by piece, as the government’s revealed itself to be even more cynical and mean-spirited than its predecessors, and the Liberal Democrat leadership has collaborated in this rush to the bottom, eager to prove that it can be just as horrendous in Government as the Conservatives and Labour.

Clegg’s immigration speech on Friday was just the latest humiliation in this series. I’d say it shows him reaching the abject depths of political cynicism and triangulation, but there are so many times he’s gone and drawn deep and deeper from that well that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him going deeper on something else. LIke the immigration speech, it’ll no doubt start with a few paragraphs of boilerplate liberalism, then veer wildly into appeasing tabloid sensibilities and saying we must support invading Iran and introducing ID cards while removing all benefits from anyone Iain Duncan Smith doesn’t like the look of.

The one flash of a silver lining is that the mood in the party feels much more mutinous than it has done at any point in the last few years. The leadership have dumped so many petty humiliations on the membership in recent times, from secret courts to Clegg’s speech, that a lot of people seem to have finally felt the straw that broke their back. (For instance, see Stephen Tall’s post on LDV and the comments below it) Any residual goodwill from Eastleigh and the party conference has been dissipated, and perhaps the only thing preventing a full on howl of rage is that most activists have one eye on the fast-approaching local elections.

What we have to decide as Liberal Democrats is not just whether we as a party can take two more years of this, but whether the country can survive two more years of it. As I’ve stated before, we came into this government because we thought it was in the national interest to do so, but it’s now clear to me that we’re merely supporting a narrowly ideological administration that’s on the verge of condemning the country to years of economic stagnation while dismantling the social framework. I think it’s time to end the coalition, but I also think we’re now beyond the point where those in the party who want to continue it can just trot out the ‘we have to show coalitions work, that’s why we can’t leave before 2015′ line. You have to show what will actually be achieved in the next two years beyond getting to sit round the cabinet table and showing we can make ‘tough decisions’.

It’s also time to question whether we need to replace Nick Clegg as leader. He’s shown a complete disregard for the party and its opinions, and when his statements get reported as being party policy, despite them being the complete opposite, it drags us all down with him. The question we need to answer is whether we want a leader who’s at war with his party, and seems to want to replace it with another, more pliant, membership or one who wants to actually lead a liberal party and make the case for liberalism, instead of capitulating and triangulating in the face of any criticism.

To got back to the start, what kind of party do we want to be? A liberal party, making the liberal case or a party that ranks power over principle?

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I was challenged a while ago by Linda Jack as part of Alex Wilcock’s Lib Dem Values series. Never being one to respond to a prompt quickly, it’s stewed in my mind for a while, but now I think I’m ready to take a stab at it. In a truly liberal way, I’m going to ignore the rules and write about what I think the key areas and overall themes for the party should be, then see at the end if I can hone them into a coherent message.

Liberty – freedom and justice: This is the freedom to do what you want, as long as it harms no other, and the freedom from oppression and aggression by the state. We oppose authoritarianism, be it the security state or the nanny state. Liberty is the cornerstone of justice, and the law exists to protect freedom and liberty from those who would infringe upon it.
Democracy – power and equality: We believe the best way to control power is to divide it and share it around. That’s why Liberal Democrats support devolution and real localism, seeking to create a system where power flows from the bottom up, not the top down. We seek to give real and meaningful power to individuals, regardless of circumstance, giving them the power to control their own lives and a say in decisions by the wider community that affect them. We want to remove barriers that prevent people using that power.
Liberty and democracy are inextricably linked within our values, for they mean nothing without each other – no matter how much power might look like it has been devolved, proper democracy can’t exist if people don’t have real freedom to live lives of their choosing, and liberty needs the safeguards of democracy to prevent it from being corrupted and abused.

These two are the core values, from which others flow, but other important principles need to be stated to explain some practical implications.

Environment: This could, perhaps, be up with liberty and democracy as a core value, as a healthy environment is necessary for liberty and democracy to flourish. One can harm others indirectly by polluting the environment, and the threat of climate change is a massive external threat to liberty that will need individuals to work together to combat and adapt to.
Internationalism: We believe that liberty, democracy and the rights that go with them are universal, applying to everyone. A free world is a safer world, and we seek to encourage the spread of liberal values. Decisions need to be taken at the level where they’re most appropriate, which can range from the individual to the global and to enable this to happen in a liberal and democratic fashion we will engage with multi-national and super-national bodies to encourage transparency, openness and democracy.
Society and economy: We seek to create a society where everyone can fulfill their potential, removing barriers to participation and encouraging access to education and training for all throughout their lives. We want to see a diverse economy that supports a diverse, tolerant and open society.
Science and education: We believe politics should be evidence-based and would seek to make policy based on fact and evidence, not belief and prejudice. Education and understanding is vital for a thriving democracy, but that education has to be about developing the individual, not forcing them into moulds to fit the world. To protect the environment and create a developed economy that’s vital for protecting liberty and democracy, we will invest heavily in scientific research and development.

Not sure how much of that is values, and how much comes across more as the introduction to a manifesto, but that’s my initial thoughts which, as ever, are subject to change, clarification and expansion as and when I have egregious errors and omissions in them pointed out. They key test, though, is whether I can get the important information from that into Alex’s target of 150 words that explains what the Liberal Democrats are for. Here’s my attempt:

We believe in a society that works to maximise the happiness and potential of every individual, one that works to give everyone the opportunity to live their life as they want, providing they do not harm others. We seek to create an open, liberal and democratic world, where power is spread around, people have a real say in decisions that affect them and fair and impartial justice is available to all. A liberal society should protect the environment, promote education, create opportunity, reward enterprise and encourage innovation. Everyone should be free to participate in society and we seek to both tear down the barriers that restrict them and help people to overcome circumstances that limit them. In a liberal society everyone should be free to live their lives, free of restraint by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

It’s still rough, and no doubt needs editing and tweaking, but what I’ve tried to do is make it a statement about liberal values and principles, rather than specifics. I’ve also tried to emphasise the importance of creating a liberal society as a key value, and so haven’t made much reference to economics. I think we often get too bogged down in talking about economic issues (though it’s not too surprising, given the moment of history we’re in) as though they’re an end in themselves rather than as a means to create a liberal society. I joined the party because I wanted to work for a liberal society, and I think we often underestimate the potential power there is in the vision of that society. Our values and principles shouldn’t echo the ‘we’ll tweak the current system better than them’ managerialism of the other parties, but should emphasise how and why we’re different. There is a strong radical strand running through the history of the party that we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace and promote.

So that’s my statement of Liberal Democrat values, what’s yours? I’m not going to tag anyone, but if this piques your interest, then feel free to chip in with your vision.

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David Steel should have been the warning. His conversion from young liberal firebrand to eager defender of the status quo in the House of Lords ought to have shown us that it’s very easy to go into power with grand intentions of reforming it, and then end up defending all the things you used to complain about. You can call it going native, being captured by the establishment or whatever you want, but there’s no denying that it happens. The rebel gets co-opted by the system, and then works to defend it isn’t much of an original plot, anyway.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that I shouldn’t be surprised that a huge chunk of the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party appears to have been captured by the establishment and now happily repeats their propaganda. I’m waiting for the week when we get the message from someone high up that we have to support ID cards now, because if we don’t the terrorist paedophiles will have won and anyway, we shouldn’t complain, because they’re entirely in line with liberal principles. If you squint a bit. OK, a lot, and don’t notice that the book of liberal principles you thought you were reading from has been replaced with the Big Book of Security Theatre Justifications.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this, as we all know that power seduces and corrupts, but it still hurts to watch. I used to have a very rough analogy/theory of British party politics which held that Tories were bullies who were happy to keep the system they same so they could carry on bullying; Labour were people who had been bullied, who now wanted to turn the system upside down so they could bully their old bullies; and Liberal Democrats wanted to create a system where no was doing any bullying. Unfortunately, it seems that the party’s current leadership see their role as being the kid who’s so pleased to not be bullied for once that they’ll hold the bully’s coat for them while someone else gets abused. To borrow from Orwell “Who wields power is not important, providing that the hierarchical structure always remains the same.” The party in government has become (to borrow a phrase from Michael Franti) a shining example of the system it set out to destroy.

In the midst of writing this, I’ve just read Mark Steel’s account of the current problems in the SWP which has this great line “cults aren’t circles of people who took too much acid and dance naked in the woods, they’re people who took one small decision to forego independence of thought for the defence of their group, and once they started couldn’t stop.” Going back to my post from earlier in the week, it does feel sometimes – especially in the comments and the forum at LDV – that there are some people who want the party to behave in that cult-like way, to cheer on every capitulation and herald it as a victory and above all, to stop being so damned liberal about things.

I wrote last year, that it’s time to end the coalition and I stand by that. Indeed, I suspect if I was to repost that now, I’d not only have plenty more reasons for doing it, but would get even more positive reaction. However, on top of the fact that it’s been bad for the country and bad for the economy, a more selfish reason is that I want us to begin rebuilding the party, learning the lessons from government to make the party less susceptible to the system if there’s a next time.

I’ll be honest and say that there are times over the last year or so when I’ve considered quitting the party, but I’ve always stayed because no matter what problems the party has at the moment, and even though we’re being led down a dangerous track by the current leadership, I think the party remains the only one in Britain that can make the case for liberalism and the liberal values that other parties just don’t place as too high a priority. Even if the leadership has let us down on those values, the reaction of the membership recently has shown me that they are still important to the bulk of the party.

That’s not to say that taking back the party and moving it forward would be an easy process, or a quick one, but it’s something I think is possible and worthwhile. I can understand why people have left the party – especially those who’ve quite over secret courts in the last week – but I think the aim should be to create a party that they, and others like them, would be willing to come back and rejoin, to take up the fight again. Because if we don’t fight for liberalism, who will?

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A bit of Brecht for a Tuesday.

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

I saw that quoted elsewhere as reaction to the recent mass resignations from the SWP. However, in the light of the resignations from the Liberal Democrats over the weekend (Rose, Shaw, Sands, Doctorow), the continued haemorrhage of members since 2010 and the proclamations of Richard Reeves et al that social liberals should leave the party, is it perhaps a description of Clegg’s ambitions for the party?

As Gareth Epps points out, the real split in the party at the moment is between the leadership and the activists. Perhaps the only problem with Gareth’s analysis is to assume that the leadership want to close that gap, when their actions indicate otherwise. Clegg’s attitude in his Q&A on Saturday to members who raised concerns about the secret courts legislation was – as Alex Marsh points out – pretty contemptuous, and one common feature of this and other issues is just how much of a tin ear Clegg has towards the concerns of the membership. It feels as though he’s happy to talk at the membership, but not to talk with them.

It often feels that the perspective of the leadership is that the party membership are merely there to do as they’re told and clap at the appropriate times when the leadership congratulate themselves in public. This centralism might be how it’s done in other parties, but people don’t normally join the Liberal Democrats to be told how to think. The raison d’etre of the party is to campaign for liberalism and liberal values, so the membership obviously expect the party to be run on those principles. And while leaders complaining about the actions of the membership have been commonplace throughout the history of the party, those arguments felt like passing spats within a generally respectful relationship of equals, whereas now the members are being expected to keep quiet and clap louder, or else coalition Tinkerbell will die.

The introduction of accreditation kept several strong liberal voices away from Conference, others have left the party and the leadership’s response to Conference’s democratically expressed position on several issues has been to completely ignore them. Is the hope that eventually people will just give up and let the leadership have its way and that a new, more malleable, membership will take their place?

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I went to help out in the Eastleigh by-election yesterday, and it turned out to be a day when Nick Clegg came down to campaign as well. At the end of the day, with a lot of volunteers gathered back at Lib Dem campaign HQ, Nick and our candidate, Mike Thornton, spoke to those who’d gathered. As I had my bright and shiny new phone with me, I decided to record some of it. Unfortunately, I only realised when I’d finished that I should have been holding the phone on its side for the better picture.

If you want to go down and help or donate, you can find more details on the local party’s website.

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Chris Huhne did something that was wrong and stupid, and now he has to take the punishment for it. It’s a shame that a career that promised so much has to end this way, but if he’d taken the care to actually drive sensibly in the first place, he wouldn’t be in this position. As it is, error was then piled upon error, got mixed into a sea of malice, and we find ourselves where we are today. As someone who campaigned for him in two leadership elections, I’m obviously disappointed.

However, one thing I would note is that I’ve been told by several sources that the ‘if ballots delayed in the Christmas post had been counted, he’d have been leader and Deputy Prime Minister now’ story may well not be true. Some have told me that those ballots were never even looked at, let alone counted, and others have said that even those that were looked at may have leaned more towards Huhne than Clegg, they weren’t enough to actually win the election. Added to that, my years of talking about alternate histories and what-ifs show the knock-on effects of a Huhne leadership would make the situation now very different.

Today, though, we’re not going down the path of what-iffery, but the neighbouring line of what-mightery instead. What might happen at the Eastleigh by-election that Huhne’s resignation now triggers? I’m going to stick my head out here and say that if the party gets the candidate selection right, then it will be a Lib Dem hold. There are several reasons for this:

First, Eastleigh is a Lib Dem stronghold in local elections – out of 44 seats on the local council, the Lib Dems hold 40, the Tories 4. From what I am told, there’s a strong local campaigning and activist network, and several high-profile people locally besides Chris Huhne. I would expect one of them to be the candidate.

Second, the Tories are the nominal challengers from the last general election, but their national poll ratings have also dropped since then, and in a high-profile by-election like this, they’ll be very vulnerable to the UKIP factor, especially if Nigel Farage is the UKIP candidate. They don’t appear to have a big local base to rely on, and what motivation is there for a Tory voter to campaign to replace one coalition MP with another?

Third, Labour should benefit from being the main opposition in a by-election, but I think they’re starting from too far back. They had just 9.6% of the vote in 2010, in a constituency where they only got around 27% in the 1994 by-election and 1997 anyway, and in my opinion they’re starting from just too far back. It would need a swing of over 20% to even put them in contention (and that would require UKIP stealing a lot of the Tory vote too) and while such swings were common in the mid-90s by-elections, they’re not being made at the moment. (At least, not by the major parties)

As my recent series of retro-post has shown, my track record of predictions has not been too accurate, but I think I’ve set out a decent argument as to why this could well be a Lib Dem hold. That’s not to say that events could get in the way and derail it – poor campaigning, bad candidate selection, a senior Lib Dem doing something even more stupid than usual – but as things stand, I think a Lib Dem hold is the most likely outcome.

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Following some of the links from the Lib Dem Voice Golden Dozen, I found this post by Richard Morris suggesting names for potential new Lib Dem members of the House of Lords.

As I’ve stated many times before, I’d like to see the House of Lords replaced with an elected chamber – it’s the 21st century, I think we’re in a position where the British people should elect their own Parliament – but as reactionaries and opportunists in other parties happily conspire to prevent that from happening, we remain with a house of patronage. As a result, it looks like Nick Clegg will get to name fifteen people to the Lords (and for this post, I’m not going to open up the can of worms that’s the party’s Interim Peers Panel)

However, I noticed something in Richard’s post that of the 14 potential new peers he suggests, only three are women. This isn’t to single out Richard – I’m sure most Lib Dems when asked to come up with a similar list would come up with a similarly male list of the great, good, worthy and safely uncontroversial – but if there’s one thing the benches in the Lords aren’t short of at the moment, it’s men. Looking at the list of peers on the party website, there are 94 Lib Dem peers, of whom 66 are men and 28 are women (those figures do include Jenny Tonge). In terms of representing women, that’s slightly better than Have I Got News For You, but still pretty poor when compared to reality.

Assuming that Clegg doesn’t take the attitude that the best way to win the game of House of Lords appointments is to not play and appoint no new peers, why not take a bold approach and announce a list of fifteen women? It would still leave the party’s representation in the Lords well short of equality – but another list of fifteen would bring that close – but it would be a statement that if we do have to have an unelected chamber, the party is committed to making it representative. I could quite easily come up with a list of fifteen Lib Dem women who’d all make very good peers, so surely it’s not beyond the ability of Nick Clegg and his advisers to come up with one?

Doing that would be a way of making the statement that the Liberal Democrats are still committed to doing politics differently, and I expect it would serve as a way of making us look very different from the sort of list that Cameron and Miliband are likely to propose for their parties. And for anyone complaining about positive discrimination, it’s quite clear from the list of existing Lib Dem peers that there’s clearly been discrimination in favour of men over the years, and this is a chance to show that we’re not going to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done.


I’ve just read a pretty

major policy announcements … were announced …without even recourse to the party’s Federal Policy Committee
declaration … to end the party’s system of policy making by conference
The Federal Executive has become an even less meaningful body, with all significant strategic and administrative decisions being taken by a small, partly anonymous, cabal.
(the Parliamentary Party) largely feel left out as well
The party’s formal decision making structures need to be reasserted and their composition needs to be reviewed.

The wheels were already beginning to look as if they were coming off last year, and yet the signals from the top have been “business as usual”. This isn’t acceptable. It isn’t just leaders who become tired and intolerant of new ideas. We need fresh blood at strategic points across the party who are not afraid to sacrifice even the most sacred of cows.

Shocking, isn’t it? Such an accurate picture of the problems we’re facing. So, who penned this oh-so-accurate report?

James Graham, a little over seven years ago, just after Charles Kennedy had resigned. (discovered as part of my trawl through the blog archives for my ten year anniversary posts)

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