What You Can Get Away With » jennie rigg

Too much democracy? Time for 21st century democracy. – An introduction by Martin Smith and Dave Richards to some of the themes of their book Institutional Crisis in 21st Century Britain, which I’m working through at the moment.
Forget quotas for women MPs – time to limit the number of men – Rainbow Murray flips the debate on representation.
Making policy for the policy invariant – How do you make policy if the people don’t care what the results of that policy are?
Public Statement on the Readmittance of Lord Rennard to the Liberal Democrats – Jennie Rigg says exactly what I would say.
Do political parties make any difference? – Alex Marsh with details of some new academic research that’s relevant to my interests, and also contains some information on the party’s stance on immigration that’ll be of interest to activists.

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Where Are All the Female Bloggers: a Series of Questions that require answers – something discovered during my trawl through the blogging archives. A post by Jennie Rigg from three years ago, but still very relevant.
What next for the Liberal Democrats? – An interesting perspective on the party’s situation from Irish blogger Jason O’Mahony.
Let more women report how the country is run – Mary Ann Sieghart in the Independent points out that political reporting is just as male-dominated as politics itself.
Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax – A very bizarre story about a star American college football player and the story of his dead girlfriend who appears to have been entirely fictional. (via)
Why are Local Parties important? – From a Lib Dem perspective, but an interesting nugget in terms of people’s engagement in politics. (via)

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Jennie’s already beaten me to it, but I thought I’d share some thoughts on Ad Lib magazine, the party’s replacement for Liberal Democrat News, as it arrived in the post this morning. (I would advise reading Jennie’s post as well, of course – her points about the gender balance of contributors are very important)

To start off, it turns out that what was advertised as a magazine…isn’t. For me, magazine has certain connotations, and they tend to revolve around it being A4 size, and if it’s smaller than that it’s pretty big and sturdy. This is A5 and 40 pages, so I’m not sure it’s much more than a pamphlet. The point about Liberal Democrat News was that you could conceive of it appearing in a newsagents – this doesn’t give that impression.

As for the title, I suppose it’s better than going for something like ‘Coalicious’ or some focus group inspired ‘inspirational’ title, but is something that means ‘making it up as you go along’ really the impression the party wants to give? According to the ‘message from the editor’ inside, the answer is that it ‘is an appropriate tone for the magazine to strike’. That’s not an inspirational start, though it might explain what we find inside.

We start with an interview with Shirley Williams. Well, it’s billed as an interview, but it feels more like ‘a quick chat about the SDP’. There’s nothing new in there, and I can’t see any reason for it to be in there other than someone deciding ‘people like Shirley, so let’s put her in’. Following that, we get three pages of by-election news which read like the same story written four times. Why not just concentrate on one by-election (and perhaps even one where we didn’t win?) and tell a story, give us a feel for the area and what the Lib Dems are doing there, rather than giving us four pieces that could come from anywhere?

There’s a page on shared parental leave that really feels like it should be more – how did we achieve this? What were the challenges? What will the effects be? – but it’s just a page that reads like a press release. This is a problem that keeps occurring – everything in the magazine feels too shallow. The Nick Clegg interview that follows is the same – it should be an in-depth talk with John Kampfner, but instead it just floats over a lot of the usual topics and then ends. (Though it is the only article in the magazine to mention the Corby by-election – or indeed, any election other than council ones)

Desert Island (picture of a disc) – as Jennie says, BBC copyright lawyers ahoy! – tells us Tessa Munt’s eight favourite songs. Great, but whenever I’ve listened to the radio programme I’m sure they didn’t take the title and format from, the music is only part of the story. It’s a hook to ask the person involved more about them and what drives them, here it’s just filler for another page.

The Guardian does an interesting thing in its Saturday edition where they get two people on opposite sides of an issue to talk about it, debating points back and forth. That’s often interesting to read and brings out interesting points, whereas the simplistic ‘Should we ban page 3? Yes or no’ ‘debate’ in Ad Lib doesn’t do anything other than rehash the same old points with no actual interaction.

The rest of the magazine’s the same – articles that could be interesting just peter out into nothing. There’s an article about how a Lib Dem councillor led the process to boost recycling in Conwy council which is a subject that would interest a lot of people, but after a few paragraphs talking about that goes on to discuss elections and campaigning. The article about the American election descends into a lot of process chatter about election strategy and rather than talk about the content of Nick Clegg’s conference speech, we get an article about how it was written.

There’s some interesting content in there – Alison McInnes’ article on improving conditions in women’s prisons stands out – but the rest of it just feels hollow, far too reliant on running off to the Lib Dem safe zone of talking about leaflets and door-knocking instead of discussing actual politics or policy. Why is there a page given over to cooking? Why does the upcoming events page only detail events taking place yesterday, today and tomorrow? Even if the magazine had come out a week ago, that would still be far too short a notice for many people to make plans for.

I’m sure the team behind it are doing their best to put the magazine out while having to do a hundred other things, but that this is how the party chooses to communicate with its members speaks volumes about how the leadership sees us. Some effort and investment could have produced a magazine that people might want to read, or think about passing on to non-Lib Dem friends to show them something of interest. Compare Ad Lib to the magazine I get regularly as an Amnesty member, or the communications organisations like the Woodland Trust send out to their members, and it looks terrible. Did anyone look at other magazines before putting the basic idea of this together? I subscribe to New Humanist magazine, which can’t have that huge a subscriber base, but they manage to put together a vibrant and interesting magazine that gets read, noticed and talked about. Ad Lib feels like something that’s not going to hang about long on the journey from letterbox to recycling.

The idea of having to pay an extra £35 a year to get this sent to me monthly is something I’m not contemplating. If members are going to get two issues a year automatically, that’s asking for £3.50 an issue which doesn’t feel anything like value for money, especially when a year of Liberator‘s just £25.

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The Problem With Liberal Democrats In Government – That sound you hear? Jennie Rigg hitting a nail perfectly on the head.
Let’s end this Christmas Psalms Race – Jim Jepps has some entirely reasonable suggestions for keeping Christmas entirely within December.
Welcome to Pyongyang – Simon Titley discusses Liberal Democrat internal democracy on Liberator’s blog.
The rise of UKIP: what does it all mean? – Analysis from Dr Rob Ford on Political Betting.
Is politics impossible for ordinary people? – “Can an ordinary person sustain the disdain bordering on hatred directed at politicians (of all parties) mixed with the irrational and overly emotional expectations of modern voters?”

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Why was turnout so abysmal in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections?? – Great post by Jennie Rigg looking at the reasons.
Spoilt Ballots in the PCC Elections: What Do the Numbers Tell Us? – And following that, some data on just how many ballots were spoilt, and for what reasons.
Don Jimmy Gambino OBE – Archie Valparaiso on how Jimmy Savile’s activities in the 50s seem more like those of a mob boss than a DJ
The Lib Dem Activist Blues – Jennie Rigg sets them to music.
The curious question of Tory nationalism – Simon Titley writes for the new Liberator blog. “Yet here we are, 56 years after Suez, and most of the Conservative Party (along with UKIP) continues under the delusion that Britain is still a superpower. It is expressed in terms of a go-it-alone braggadocio, with a corresponding disdain for Johnny Foreigner. It is the politics of the gut, not the brain. And it is completely and utterly counter-productive.”

And as a special bonus, a fun quote from here: ‘the ideal Labour supporter’s article now consists of the words ‘One Nation” repeated several hundred times, with an occasional “audacious“, “Ed Miliband“, “transformational” and ‘details need to be explored further” leavening the one nation pudding.’

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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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The results from the Liberal Democrat federal internal elections came out this morning, and you can see the results here (for a list of who was elected) and here (for the full voting breakdown).

Various people on blogs (see Jennie and Andy, for example) and Twitter have been discussing the results and the way we run elections before and after the results were declared, and I wanted to jot down some thoughts I’ve had before I forget.

How many party members read Lib Dem blogs? And how many of those are voting reps?

There was a lot of discussion about these elections on various blogs and Twitter, but how many of the relevant people were actually reading them? I noticed that many people who I expected to do well in the elections because of their prominence as bloggers did pretty poorly.

So the question has to be whether the debates we have on Lib Dem blogs (up to and including those on Lib Dem Voice) are actually being seen by much of the party membership. And even if blogs do reach lots of people, are they the same people who vote in these elections? (Have there been demographic analyses of how elected conference reps compare to the membership of the party and the population of the country?)

One other thought – why not just call them ‘Federal representatives’ and ‘Regional representatives’ and not mention Conference? Would that encourage more people to take on the role, if it’s not thought of as being just about going to Conference?

And one last point – the people who get to vote in the 2014 internal elections will actually be getting elected as voting reps in about twelve months time. People planning campaigns for then perhaps should be getting organised a lot sooner than they think they should.

Should the party be encouraging more internal debate?

We pride ourselves on being a democratic and open party, so we shouldn’t be afraid of debating openly amongst ourselves. Indeed, the fact that so many candidates wanted to stand for the different committees shows that there is an urge for that to happen. However, is that debate best accomplished by giving each candidate one sheet of A5 to set out what they want? (And then only letting most people see that if they’re a voting rep) Should the party be encouraging candidates to supply more information online and enabling virtual hustings and debates?

(Jennie pointed at the Pirate Party’s system this morning, which makes a distinction between a campaigning period and a voting period – that could be something worth considering)

Andy makes a good suggestion in the LDV comments:

If there were a dedicated website, a really useful feature would be for it to ennable an online hustings system, where anyone can submit a question to all candidates, subscribe to replies to a question they or someone else have asked, etc. A kind of clearing-house for questions. If it was a reasonably formal part of the way the election was run, then it would avoid the issue of some candidates not supplying their contact details, making it difficult for people like Jennie Rigg and myself to step up to ask questions and broadcast the replies. When you look at each candidate’s details on this website, it could then show not only their original election statement, but also their replies to any questions they’ve been asked.

That would be very useful, and having that in one official location would make it easy to direct people to, while allowing others to campaign and promote people based on what’s being said there.

Following on from Andy’s thought, it occurs to me that if you were to build a system that enabled people to contact candidates, ask questions and receive public replies, there’d be uses for it outside of internal elections. Imagine at the next General Election if, rather than just having their bio on the party website, people could pose questions to parliamentary candidates through it? (It could even be extended to be available for local council candidates, if they wanted to use it) If the party was to start working on a system like that now, then the internal elections in two years time could be the test bed for it – and you could increase participation in the debate and questioning by telling people this is a test of an important part of the General Election campaign – and then it could be rolled out publicly a few months later for the General Election.

That’s all for now, but I reserve the right to bore you all with more thoughts about this at another time.

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I mentioned the other day about Jennie Rigg’s plan to gather questions together for candidates in the Liberal Democrats’ internal elections. Unlike when I come up with a grand plan and then neglect to follow through, Jennie’s a woman of action, and not only has she collected together a list of eleven questions for candidates for both Federal Policy Committee and Federal Executive Committee, she’s managed to send it out to most of the candidates.

So, if you’re a candidate and you haven’t received any questions yet, now you can go and find them, and if you’re a party member wanting to know more about what people want to do if they’re elected, you can go and find out. The answers are being collated here as they come in, and they make for very interesting reading so far, giving you a much greater insight into what they stand for than a side of A5 in the manifesto booklet ever could. Indeed, it occurs to me that this sort of public forum, with the opportunity to question and debate the points made is something the party should be encouraging for a healthier internal democracy. I’ve noticed previously that Labour Party members are often debating their NEC and Policy Forum (I think that’s the right name) elections, and it seems odd that ours up to now have almost been conducted in secrecy.

There’s a few other thoughts I’ve had about internal party democracy from reading those responses, but I’ll save them for another post. Until then, get over to Jennie’s blog and read what they’ve got to say!

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My, is it really two years since the last set of internal elections in the Liberal Democrats? Obviously yes, because the Lib Dem Twitterverse and blogosphere is at something-that-might-be-a-fever-or-might-be-the-result-of-sitting-too-close-to-the-radiator-pitch about it, but this time we may get more discussion of them because the rules have finally been relaxed to allow it.

Given that the deadline has passed, it’s probably too late to point candidates towards my suggestions for what to say and not say in their manifestos from last time, but I would say that they’re important things to remember when campaigning in these elections. They are important, and the committees will have some important decisions to make about the future direction of the party as we approach the next election.

With that in mind, I’d like to point people towards Jennie’s plan to gather together questions for FPC and FCC candidates – if you’re not standing, it’s your chance to get a question to a lot of candidates, and if you are standing then when she’s gathered together her list of questions, answering them is a way to get your views seen by a lot of people. Hopefully, it’ll mean we can get a proper debate going, and give me a chance to really think over who gets my 63rd preference for Policy Committee this time.

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I left a comment last week on Jennie Rigg’s post about potential leaders of the Liberal Democrats that I wanted to expand on.

Jennie was looking at the potential candidates for next leader of the Liberal Democrats, and one thing that comes up from her survey is that the party isn’t exactly overwhelmed with leadership contenders. What I wonder is if this is a result of what the party expects from Parliamentary candidates and MPs, effectively limiting the pool of leadership candidates by preventing potential candidates from even jumping the first hurdle – being an MP – long before any of the others come in to play.

I’m not going to name names (because that would probably start a whole other discussion) but at many party events, conferences etc, I’ve been struck by the talent and abilities of people in the party who aren’t MPs, and clearly aren’t planning to become one. It’s my opinion that many of these people would not just make great MPs, they’d be assets in senior leadership positions. However, because they’re not going to be in Parliament, those talents rarely get seen beyond a small area. Why is it, though, that these people don’t choose to go for Parliament?

As I said on Jennie’s post, one major problem is that to become a Parliamentary candidate for the party – particularly in a winnable seat – you are expected to put in a large amount of time and effort across a number of areas. As has been pointed out by the Campaign for Gender Balance and others, this is huge disincentive to stand for many people. Unless you get lucky and win selection in one of the party’s very small (and probably reducing) number of safe seats, then you effectively have to give up whatever career you already have to devote yourself to trying to get elected. While there are some exceptions who have given up almost everything and gone for it, I think others prefer taking an easier path. That’s not to say that their decision is wrong, but in the overall scheme of things, it could go towards explaining why Jennie’s survey comes up with so few candidates.

(And this post isn’t special pleading – I’ve got no desire to become an MP, as hooting like an idiot in the House of Commons isn’t my idea of a rewarding career)

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