» james graham ¦ What You Can Get Away With

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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Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013 – Mark Lynas explains how he moved from being anti-genetically modified food to being in favour of it. He makes an interesting point on how environmentalism can be extremely pro-science on issues of climate change, but then ignore it on others.
Obesity & ideology – Chris Dillow has an interesting take on how Labour’s inconsistent authoritarianism can be explained by managerialism.
Lib Dems, welfare and the art of negotiation – Very good piece by James Graham on the party’s current problems.
Lance Armstrong Wants To Tell Nation Something But Nation Has To Promise Not To Get Mad – From The Onion a couple of years ago, so yes, they’ve clearly been anticipating reality a long time before it happens.
Addressing the Daily Mail and James Delingpole’s ‘crazy climate change obsession’ article – The Met Office point out that James Delingpole is wrong much more often than they are.

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Jennie Rigg and James Graham have both written posts recently that have touched on issues that have been concerning me. To quote Jennie:

And because people are just generally pissed off with politicians, political media, and elections this feeds into the perception that there is a lack of meaningful choice – if all politicians are the same and they are all venal scumsucking money-grubbing bastards, why bother to try to choose between them? It won’t make any difference.

And James:

What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours

(Read the whole thing from both of them, of course)

We’re sleepwalking into a democratic crisis in this country. In fact, we may already be in the middle of the one. I know there’ll be lots of ‘whither democracy?’ articles floating around the ether after the PCC elections, but they were just a symptom of the ongoing issues that are affecting the country, not the cause of something in itself.

The problem is that in many people’s perceptions democracy has become conflated with ‘voting for things’. We forget that democracy is meant to be an ongoing process, not just something you turn up and do periodically and then forget about. To borrow from Michael Bywater’s Lost Worlds:

The core of democracy, for its inventors, was participation. You not only voted, you served in office when called upon. Now, perhaps, a gentleman might think it poor form to discuss politics; his Athenian forebears would think it idiotic not to. Literally idiotic: those who ‘kept out of politics’ were risible, contemptible, ‘The Selfers’, idiôtes, foolishly self-absorbed and out of the swim.

Now, this could be a rant about people not getting involved and not voting. How dare they sit at home when we’ve given them things to vote for! Why would they not want to take the time to have their say about whether they want someone as their PCC who’ll cut crime or someone who’ll priorities crime cutting instead? But that’s definitely not the issue: the problem isn’t that voters are idiots (under any definition of the word) but that the system insists on treating them like they are. People discuss politics and political issues, they do it often and in great depth – they just don’t feel any connection to the political systems that are supposed to deal with these issues. To quote from Jennie again:

The causes of this are many and complex, but a large part of it is the electoral system which forces there two be two big broad church parties of disparate people BEFORE an election rather than coalitions forming after; a large part of it is the media who love to take politicians down and misrepresent them for sensationalist reasons; some of it is a lack of education on politics and its processes; and some of it is the dishonesty of politicians in not admitting that actually, there is very little difference between any of the main parties precisely due to the above effects.

And as James points out, ideology is being slowly removed from British politics in favour of a form of competitive managerialism, where people don’t compete on vision and ideology but on who can best hit a set of ill-defined targets.

And the reaction to this disengagement between the political system and the public is to promise more disengagement. PCCs, like elected Mayors before them, come from the rather Mussolini-esque belief that too much democracy – lots of people discussing different views and coming to a joint conclusion – is horribly inefficient (and nothing’s worse for a managerialist than perceived inefficiency within a system) and we’d be better served by a single leader making all the decisions because – for reasons no one can quite explain, but seem to revolve around the ability to vote them out in several years if they choose to stand for re-election – that one person will be ‘accountable’. Again, this is managerialism in action, where you set one person a group of targets to meet and assess them on whether they make them or not. The problem here is that I’ve never met a voter who makes their decision based on that sort of criteria.

This is why I’m concerned about a democratic crisis in this country, as voters become more and more disengaged from the system, and the system responds in ways that only deepen the divide and invite contempt. As well as government, though, there’s a crisis of trust in many institutions in the country: the police after Hillsborough and other events, the BBC after Savile, the press after phone hacking, and so on. Add to that all the problems of the economy and austerity and we’ve got all the precursors for a complete collapse of confidence in all institutions in place.

My fear is that we’re in a position similar to Italy’s in the early 90s, and all we’re lacking is a Berlusconi to come along and take advantage of the situation. The main political parties are all seeing their membership dwindle and their capacity to engage the public be correspondingly reduced, and there’s a huge vacuum waiting to be filled. People want to be engaged in politics and political discussions, but they’re not getting that from the system at the moment. As I wrote a few months ago, the parties have reduced politics to a big game, and people want more from it than that. Given the right message, the right funding and the right figurehead, a British version of Forza Italia could bulldoze the other parties out of the way – and thanks to our electoral system could be swept into a huge majority and near-absolute power. We might be lucky and get a movement led by someone who wants to be a benign dictator in the style of De Gaulle, or we might be unlucky and find ourselves like Italy after the early 90s, finding we’ve got rid of one damaged system to replace it with one that’s worse.

That’s where my fear comes from – that this perfect storm of crises might be used by certain forces to bounce us into a system of government that’s a long way from where we are today. Scotland might be lucky enough to get away from it if that were to happen, but what of the rest of us?

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Last week saw the regular spectacle of various people cooing over a list of ‘the most influential Liberal Democrats’ compiled by someone who has nothing to do with the party and seemed to be little more than a list of ‘Liberal Democrats I’ve heard of’ coupled to a random number generator. While the sensible reaction to that would be to draw up an alternative list with a properly defined ranking system that’s open to scrutiny and challenge, it would also be the time-consuming one, so I chose to do something silly instead.

And thus, I present to you the five people who could potentially have the most influence on the Liberal Democrats if the stars were to align the right way, it was a slow news day and/or our understanding of the way the world works turns out to be a bit flawed. So, without further ado:

Read the rest of this entry

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Earlier this week, I linked to James Graham’s piece on Clegg and the coalition, in which he mentioned my post on ending the coalition. This isn’t just incestuous blogging back-patting – James made some points about my post which I promised to think over and respond to. He wrote:

But Lib Dems who imagine that there is some dividend to be earned by leaving the coalition early are simply misguided. The public won’t thank them – they’ll simply conclude the Lib Dems are even more of a waste of time. By contrast, there is a historic, long term gain to be earned by simply allowing this coalition to last a full five years.

The electorate has a short collective memory; I’ve lost count of the number of people who hated the Labour government but now look back on it with rose-tinted spectacles. No matter how painful this coalition feels at the moment, or what damage it does, the fact is that if it lasts the full five years it will be seen as a success for coalition politics while if it falls apart it will be seen as a loss.

If the Lib Dems ever want to return to power again, persuading the country that coalition is not the scary thing that both Labour and the Conservatives insisted it was during the last election will have to be a priority. Adding another footnote to the argument that all coalitions fall apart after a couple of years will slow any chance of a Lib Dem recovery for the simple reason that people will see a vote for the Lib Dems to be a vote for chaos and weak government.

The proposition being put forward here – and James isn’t the only one to have put it forward – is that there’s a duty on the Liberal Democrats to prove that coalition government can work at a national level in the UK. If we break – or are perceived as breaking – the coalition, then we (and possibly all other small parties) will be damned for all time (or at least a few electoral cycles) by the electorate.

It’s a strong argument, and the public can have curiously long memories. Bringing down the coalition now would be a major step, and there is a strong possibility that it would poison the well for many years and that ‘coalitions don’t work in the UK’ could become part of the conventional wisdom. So, I don’t think this is a step to be taken lightly.

However, I don’t think it’s right to completely rule out ending the coalition in all but the most extreme circumstances. From my perspective – and I do have some local experience of working within one – one of the features of a coalition is an ongoing negotiation between the parties. (In the current Government, this is represented by the meetings of the Quad) The problem with the ‘we have to show that coalitions work’ argument is that it only applies to one side in the negotiations. The Tories aren’t working under that condition, which gives them an advantage in negotiations beyond the inbuilt one of being the largest party.

By saying – explicitly or implicitly – that nothing short of Cameron falling under the proverbial bus or it’s equivalent will make the Liberal Democrats walk away from the negotiating table, the party is drastically weakening its hand in any discussion. It emboldens the Tories to push further to the right, as there’s no counterforce to draw them to the centre if the Liberal Democrats have hidden their most powerful weapon in negotiations. Leaving aside my position that it should end now, I’m not saying that Clegg and Alexander should be threatening to walk out over everything, but if their counterparts don’t believe it’s possible that they will, then they’re dangerously weakened in negotiations.

Yes, there’s a significant risk of long-term damage in bringing the coalition down now, however that has to be weighed against the potential benefits that would be brought about by it ending. There is a strong argument that the Liberal Democrats need to prove a national-level coalition can work, but there’s also the counter that to make coalition work, there needs to be some desire to do so on both sides. It’s entirely right to leave a negotiation if one side is acting in bad faith – the problem then would be to explain the reasons why to the public afterwards.

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Take a number – Outside magazine reports on some of the deaths to have occurred amongst people climbing Everest this year. (via)
Policing The Land – in honour of #ldconf – Sarah Brown rewrites The Land to make it fit the brave new world of accreditation and security theatre.
Clegg and coalition six months on – James Graham looks at what’s happened in the Lib Dems six months after he left. Long, but well worth reading.
Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math – A couple of months old, but I’ve only just seen it. Some figures and projections in there that will keep you up at night.
One big rule if you’re writing about politics – Andrew Hickey has a simple rule to work out who’s worth reading and who’s not.

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Warning: contains a double dose of tactical nuclear bastard.

The 24 types of Libertarian – Cut out and use as a game of bingo in certain comments threads. (via)
Liberal – but not so democratic in the Lords – James Graham looks at why Lib Dem peers seem so reluctant to abolish their cushy, well-rewarded sinecures and proposes a radical suggestion.
My ‘yes’ campaign hell – I’m thinking of compiling a book featuring all the post-referendum reports from Yes To Fairer Votes staffers, entitled How Not To Run A Campaign. This is James Graham’s chapter.
Illiberal conference: Blog post roundup and things you can do – Zoe O’Connell on the way the party has acquiesced in allowing police vetting of delegates to Conference, and how to protest about it.
Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors – Lots of useful tips in there, even if some of them are contradictory. (via)

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