On the Economist’s ‘endorsement’ of the Lib Dems and the ‘radical centre’

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There were varying degrees of excitement amongst Liberal Democrats that the Economist had recommended a vote for the party this Thursday. Some were ecstatic at the idea of any sort of publication that people have actually heard of endorsing the party, while others actually read the piece in question and saw that the endorsement was, at best, half-hearted:

No party passes with flying colours. But the closest is the Liberal Democrats. Brexit is the main task of the next government and they want membership of the single market and free movement. (Their second referendum would probably come to nothing, as most voters are reconciled to leaving the EU.) They are more honest than the Tories about the need to raise taxes for public services; and more sensible than Labour, spreading the burden rather than leaning only on high-earners. Unlike Labour they would reverse the Tories’ most regressive welfare cuts. They are on the right side of other issues: for devolution of power from London, reform of the voting system and the House of Lords, and regulation of markets for drugs and sex.
Like the other parties, they want to fiddle with markets by, say, giving tenants first dibs on buying their property. Their environmentalism is sometimes knee-jerk, as in their opposition to new runways and fracking. The true liberals in the party jostle with left-wingers, including Tim Farron, who is leading them to a dreadful result. But against a backward-looking Labour Party and an inward-looking Tory party about to compound its historic mistake over Brexit, they get our vote.

It’s not a vote for the Liberal Democrats as they are, more for some ideal version of the party and liberalism that exists in the head of an Economist leader writer. It’s the same thing that had people a couple of years ago claiming that Tim Farron isn’t a ‘strong liberal voice’ and is a shibboleth amongst certain people in and out of the party. The ‘true liberalism’ they speak of (and never trust anyone who claims they know what ‘true’ liberalism is, as thought the whole history of liberalism wasn’t a story of resisting absolute dogmas) is a vision that only appeals to a small number of people of whom a disproportionate number are writers for the Economist and newspaper comment sections. It’s a liberalism of ‘my life’s quite nice but not perfect, and I went to a same-sex marriage once, so why should I have to pay more taxes to help anyone else out?’ not one that wants to challenge or change the system.

Further, they’re not really asking people to vote for the Liberal Democrats, but rather vote against the Tories and Labour and in faovur of some new nebulous centre party:

We know that this year the Lib Dems are going nowhere. But the whirlwind unleashed by Brexit is unpredictable. Labour has been on the brink of breaking up since Mr Corbyn took over. If Mrs May polls badly or messes up Brexit, the Tories may split, too. Many moderate Conservative and Labour MPs could join a new liberal centre party—just as parts of the left and right have recently in France. So consider a vote for the Lib Dems as a down-payment for the future. Our hope is that they become one element of a party of the radical centre, essential for a thriving, prosperous Britain.

(As an aside, out of the many explanations of voting behaviour a vote as ‘a down-payment for the future’ is a new one on me)

Here, they’re doing what many others have wistfully done over the past couple of months in looking wistfully over the Channel towards Emmanuel Macron and thinking ‘if only…’ but if your plan for resurrecting the British centre is nothing more than hoping for a Macron then you don’t have a plan, you just have political fanfiction. They’re hoping for ‘a new liberal centre party’ or ‘a party of the radical centre’ to miraculously emerge and subsume the Liberal Democrats as ‘one element’ of it. They always put ‘radical’ in front of ‘centre’ when describing this type of hypothetical party, but it’s a doth-protest-too-much move as the vision is anything but radical as it’s about those who’ve always had power in some form or another – and for whom the Economist is the in-house journal – wanting to ensure that no one scares the horses or damages their position. What liberalism there is in there is entirely coincidental to the cause and described with the smallest ‘l’ possible. When proponents of this form of centrism look towards the Liberal Democrats it’s not with any misty-eyed fondness for the party’s radical past or with any acknowledgement that’s what now consensus had to be fought for and won, over and over again, but rather with the eye of a predator wondering which parts of the party can be cannibalised and repurposed into a quick-fit infrastructure for the new ‘radical centre’.

All votes count the same in the ballot box, of course, and no one can tell which were cast for this election and which were down-payments on a future, but even in a time when praise for the Liberal Democrats is rare, we should be wary of the motives behind some of it.

2017 General Election Diary day 6: Record breaking

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Two bits of ‘things not seen in many years’ news coming out today. First up, Liberal Democrat membership has passed 100,000 for the first time since 1994. The milestone was passed at some point today, and the 100,000th member has yet to be revealed, but it’s another example of the way the party’s membership hasn’t just bounced back after the coalition but rocketed on to levels no one was really expecting to see again. The record membership for the party was just a little over 100,000, so expect to see that record broken at some point in the next day or two as well.

It will be interesting to see how this new membership affects the party, given that now over half of the party has joined (or rejoined) since the 2015 General Election. Will these new members be active campaigning in their local parties? Will they all want to come along to the party conference and use their right to vote? Of course, this is only a modern record for the party, as the old Liberals had membership in the hundreds of thousands up until the 1960s, but as I explained in an earlier post on why people join political parties, a lot of that membership was strictly local and more based on wanting to use the facilities of the local Liberal Club than any political tendency.

(For fans of international comparisons, I believe this makes the Lib Dems the largest party within the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, but still behind the Canadian Liberals in the contest to be the largest in Liberal International)

Our second bit of record-breaking comes in Welsh polling news. (Yes, I know I ranted about obsessing over polls yesterday, but I’ve got space to fill and tenuous links to make) Just as Labour look set to head back to early 1906 in having no MPs at all in Scotland, so the Tories are looking to head back to the 1920s in Wales. Which is when they were the largest party. It’s starting to feel like as well as John Curtice for the psephology, the BBC’s election night coverage is going to need a team of historians to keep up with all the ‘first time since’ news that breaks during the night.

With most political commentary looking over the Channel and processing the French Presidential first round results (if you missed it, my take is here), there’s been a slightly muted quality to election campaigning today, which might explain why no one’s seen Theresa May out taking the arguments to the people at all in the last twenty four hours. However, this morning did give us the now traditional first election sighting of Michael Fallon saying that Labour will be bad for Britain’s security. The real challenge for interviewers now is seeing just how long they can keep him talking for before he lapses into that soundbite, though anything longer than a few seconds seems frankly impossible.

In ‘maybe this is the moment that finally collapses this reality back into the real timeline’ news, Ed Miliband has started following the Miliverse Twitter account, which tells us what would have happened in a world where he’d won the 2015 election. Spoiler alert: there’s a lot less Brexit and a lot more arguments over biscuits.

And finally, it’s time for the return of the regular feature that at least one person mentioned on Twitter in the last week so I can claim it’s by popular demand: Election Leaflet Of The Day! And when it comes to the General Election, that title is even more descriptive than usual because we have just one General Election leaflet on the Election Leaflets site – and it’s from Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Portsmouth South candidate for the Liberal Democrats. Unfortunately, Gerald made the classic error of being in such a rush to get the leaflet designed, printed and delivered that he forgot to include anything in it that makes for easy mockery from a blogger like me looking for cheap laughs. However, as the candidate of the first Election Leaflet Of The Day, he is now assured a place in a very, very, tiny footnote in the most meticulously detailed history of this election, should someone choose to write that.

And even though this isn’t a local elections blog, I do feel someone has to draw attention to this leaflet’s ‘we’ve paid for the stock footage of a magician, so yes, we’re using it, I don’t care how little it connects to the text’ aesthetic. I expect to see those principles applied to General Election publicity in the next few days, or I’ll start believing people aren’t really trying.

Worth Reading 185: Atherton in Johannesburg

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Get real, tomorrow is not going to happen. By Dan Hodges – “Because this is the Real World. Where Real Things Happen. In barely formulated tabloid-ish sentences that have somehow made their way into a broadsheet where they masquerade as incisive realism. With their no-nonsense tone. And their full-stops.”
The Okinawa missiles of October – Did the US nearly launch nuclear cruise missiles at the Soviet Union and other countries during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
An interactive guide to ambiguous grammar – Make sure you read it right to the end.
After the Paris Attacks: Live News Should Challenge Narratives, Not Desperately Try to Create Them – Too much media coverage is desperate speculation to fill air time, rather than reporting what’s happened.
The Rennard debacle: better to rock the boat than have the tail wag the dog – James Graham saves me from having to write another post on the conclusion of this.

And as a fictional bonus, try Andrew Hickey’s Ten Things You’ll Only Get If You Were A 50s Kid.

Worth Reading 181: Poisoning Ptolemy

With the dissertation over, I can get back to blogging some more. So here, have some links:

Not such a good idea: Why you should think twice about online voting – a good article setting out the flaws with online voting.
I work in PR – and we’re all terrible people – Also, water is wet. But this is an interesting insight.
Hard to be a god – An interesting essay from Ken Macleod on the intersections of SF and politics.
If the Hinkley C nuclear deal looks astonishing, that’s because it is – The strange economics of nuclear power are getting stranger.
My current reckons on Tim Farron and the Lib Dems – A good summing up of the current state of the party by James Graham.

Worth Reading 174: Gavaskar’s first World Cup innings

The Inside Story Of “The Crystal Maze”, The Most Epic Game Show Ever Made – Another of BuzzFeed’s looks behind the scenes at a classic TV show.
Pro-growth, anti-business – Being good for the economy and being good for business are not the same thing, argues Chris Dillow.
If David Miliband had won… – An interesting bit of counterfactual history to ponder on.
Marketing the Liberal Democrats should mean setting us free – Ewan Hoyle has some good points on how to approach the future of the party without messages being set down from on high.
If Michael Gove Listens To Daniel Hannan’s Honeyed Polemic On Human Rights He Really Will Get Into A Muddle – Barrister Blogger carefully dissects a pair of arguments to abolish the HRA, and shows they’re completely wrong.

2015 General Election Day 38: With the finish line in sight…

Election Polling Station SignA…it’s make your mind up time. Polling stations open around 12 hours after I’m writing this, and close 15 hours after that. Then Britain gets to make its real decision: BBC, ITV or Channel 4 for the election night coverage. Or you could even go for Sky News, the informational equivalent of a spoiled ballot paper.

But before then, there is another decision to be made, and here’s my view of the candidates in Colchester:

One can’t really say much about Ken Scrimshaw of the Christian People’s Alliance as he’s been nowhere to be seen for the past several weeks. As far as I’m aware, he’s not been at any of the hustings, and his knuckles have not rapped at my door or his leaflet landed upon my mat. However, from what I have seen of him and his party, I’m quite confident in saying that voting for someone who regards the Bible as infallible truth is not something I’m likely to do anytime in the near future.

Likewise, as I believe that being in the European Union is a positive for this country and immigration brings massive benefits to this country, there’s no chance of me voting for UKIP’s John Pitts. However, in a spirit of generosity I will say that I agree with Nigel Farage that we need electoral reform and the poisonous air a lot of our elections are carried out in is a result of the ridiculous electoral system we currently use. Beyond that, though, we have very little in common.

Green Party candidate Mark Goacher has impressed me during this campaign. He’s a thoughtful and intelligent man and at the hustings events I’ve seen, he’s engaged with the questions and given honest answers, not merely what people have wanted to hear. Unfortunately, while the Greens do have some very good policies, they also have some incredibly bad ones, to the point where I wonder if they have an overall aim of trying to balance their policy offering between eminently sensible and complete woo. Mark deserves to be congratulated on having a good election campaign, and I think his party’s best days are ahead of it, but for now I couldn’t justify voting for him.

During this election, my impression of Ed Miliband has improved to the point that I think he’s perfectly capable of being a good Prime Minister. He’s an obviously intelligent man who’s thought through issues in some depth and shows remarkable calm and resilience in the face of the attacks he’s undergone over the past four and a half years. If I was living in a different constituency where Labour could defeat the Tories, I would consider tactically voting for them (as I did in 1992). However, Colchester’s not that sort of constituency and Jordan Newell definitely isn’t that candidate. An on-message neo-Blairite robot is not the type of Labour candidate I would consider voting for.

In contrast to Ed Miliband, my opinion of David Cameron has fallen during this campaign. He’s run a campaign based on fear, lies and division, preferring to risk tearing the country and the continent apart if it means he gets to cling to power. Will Quince, his candidate in Colchester would be nothing more than a rubber stamp for Cameron’s dangerous policies, be it cutting billions from support for the worst off in society, risking our economy with an ill-conceived plan for an EU referendum or being prepared to discard our human rights. He wins the award for the most disingenuous bit of politico-speak I’ve seen in Colchester this election:

Which of your parties specific policies do you LEAST agree with?
I pledge to be an independent-minded MP and will always put my constituents first. If that means voting against my party, then so be it. There will always be difficult decisions to take but I will never forget that the people of Colchester are my boss.

For all the fine words about being ‘independent-minded’, he neglects to mention any issues he might be independent about or even mildly disagree with his party on. You can judge a man by the company he keeps, and whether it’s the glee with which the members of Colchester’s Tory group have suggested sacking hundreds of Council staff or the negative campaigning and dog-whistle politics of his party, both locally and nationally, it’s clear that the Tories remain the nasty party, and sending another Tory MP to Parliament would be a bad thing for both our town and our country.

Which leaves us with Sir Bob Russell, MP for Colchester for 18 years and a man you may or may not be surprised to learn I’ve had many arguments with during my eight years as a councillor, but who I will still be voting for tomorrow. I don’t agree with Bob on everything, and over the past few years, I’ve disagreed with many of the things he and other Liberal Democrats in Parliament have voted for. However, no matter how much we like to talk about Doctor Who within the party, we don’t possess time travel and we can’t go back and do it all again with knowledge of how it will all turn out, but we can do the best to make the future a better place. I don’t agree with Bob with Bob on everything but I trust him to represent Colchester in Parliament far better than any of the other candidates. He’ll continue to infuriate me on a regular basis, but I would far rather be infuriated by him than by any of the other options. The Liberal Democrat manifesto (and party leadership) may have plunged down the road to centrist managerialism, but it still contains more good idea than any of the others and a heart and humanity that are sorely lacking in most of the other parties.

Aside from telling you how I’m intending to vote here, I’m not going to make any recommendations or endorsements, though I would ask you to sign this petition for electoral reform so the issue doesn’t get forgotten about as soon as the election’s done. I have been looking through some of 2010 election blogging and found this that I write about who or what to vote for, which I think stands the test of time:

You have a choice today when you go to vote. It’s a simple one: do you choose hope or fear? Do you vote because you’re scared of what the Daily Mail predicts, scared of all those nasty foreign people, scared of changing things that people say have worked for them for so long, scared of your neighbours, scared of those young people with nothing to do, scared of everything somehow going wrong unless the media’s designated strong government in waiting is allowed absolute power to tell you they’re dealing with all these problems while spending your money on finding new ways to terrify you? Or do you choose something else?

And so that brings 38 days of election blogging to an end, which has felt like a particularly nasty route march at times, but has generally been fun and interesting to do again. Now I get to shift to results blogging, then interminable government-formation negotiation blogging until we finally find ourselves with a new Government and I can get on with boring you about my Masters dissertation. I’d like to thank all of you who’ve been reading these posts, all the parties who are standing, especially those who were my minor party of the day, and all the people who’ve uploaded things to Election Leaflets to allow me to point and laugh at them. Please make sure you get out and vote tomorrow, even if it’s just to spoil your ballot paper, and let’s just hope we don’t have to do it all again later this year.

Just like last time, whatever happens:

2015 General Election Day 17: The Illuminati did not compel me to write this post

We’re two and a half weeks into the Campaign That Never Ends and we’ve finally got the manifestos from the five main parties all published. As I’ve said before, given that the election date was known a long time ago, there’s no real reason why they couldn’t have been released before now, but I’m not a well-paid political consultant who’ll have explained to the party leaderships exactly why it was a good idea to wait this long before releasing their plans for the next five years to the public.

The combined manifestos come to nearly 500 pages in total but the biggest of them by far is the Liberal Democrat one. While the others are all somewhere around 80 pages in different font sizes and designs, this drops in at a quite massive 158 pages, and it’s not using a large font size to achieve that feat. Unfortunately, while it has got lots of good ideas in there, it only gets a Lightfoot Test score of 1 from me, because the policies on the cover annoy me. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of extra spending on schools and mental health, as well as the idea of paying less tax – after all, who doesn’t like a government that promises to spend more and tax less? – but when those are coupled with balancing the budget, you’re straying towards the La La Land section of Flip Chart Rick‘s Venn diagram of public spending. Saying ‘cut less than the Conservatives’ shouldn’t be a boast, it’s the minimum commitment for a party that doesn’t want to dismember the state, and these front cover priorities would see other areas cut well beyond the bone to deliver them.

Despite the size, I find myself in the same camp as David Boyle and Ian Dunt in finding it a disappointment. It’s a manifesto of centrist managerialism rather than a liberalism with vision and purpose. The sheer number of policies is impressive – it feels like someone’s trawled through every policy Conference has ever passed – but there’s no vision to link them all together. As David says:

It is a document written to be used in coalition negotiations, and as such it works very well. But it is so hard-headed a document that people may not feel like spending too long in the company of the party which drafted it, for fear that they will start spouting statistics at them.

One wouldn’t want to spend much time in the company of today’s other manifesto, mainly because you’d get very weary of every conversation being steered towards the European Union, regardless of where it started. Yes, it’s the UKIP manifesto, and you’ll not be surprised to find it too scores 1 on the Lightfoot Test, regardless of where you choose to define it as starting to talk about policy. Every page of it is littered with something either stupid or offensive – Paul Nuttall’s photoshopped library on page 28 is a particular favourite in the silly stakes – but I think the most interesting part of UKIP will be watching their reaction after the election. A large number of supporters will be spinning conspiracy theories about how the election was fixed to keep them from winning, while the party’s various factions will finally have the space to coalesce and turn on each other. It’s particularly interesting to note that neither Douglas Carswell nor Mark Reckless were at the manifesto launch today.

Still, there are elements in the manifesto for political theorists to get excited about. The slogan ‘Believe in Britain’ prompts discussion of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and asks if the country goes away if we stop believing it. Meanwhile, their proposed question for a Brexit referendum – Do you wish Britain to be a free, independent, sovereign democracy? – could spawn thousands and thousands of words attempting to define the concepts of freedom, independence, sovereignty and democracy in Britain, the world and the 21st century.

Today’s amusing candidate found on Election Leaflets is South Dorset’s Andy Kirkwood, standing for the Movement for Active Democracy. He’s keen to overthrow the modern system of corporate feudalism, and the large number of pyramid images on his leaflet suggests he’s an Illuminati conspiracy theorist. Or maybe he’s actually an Illuminati agent using his slightly odd leaflet with it’s not-quite Comic Sans typeface to discredit those standing against Illuminati control of the world.

As ever, I’ve had a good idea far too late, but maybe for 2020 (or a second election this year) we can form a Discordian Party who won’t actually stand candidates, but merely declare themselves to be MPs in the style of Emperor Norton. ‘We’ve Already Voted For You’ might make a decent slogan, or distributing leaflets with just the word ‘fnord‘ on them and nothing else.

This time tomorrow General Election Leadershout 2 will be coming to an end, and I might have found an answer to the most pressing question: we all know why Cameron’s avoided it, but what does Clegg gain from not being there?

Worth Reading 167: Starting backgammon

Grayling: the Lord Chancellor who told the High Court to disregard the Rule of Law – Jack of Kent on the latest decision of Chris Grayling’s to be overturned by the courts. This time, he believes that because he makes the law, he can ignore it.
Why Henry George had a point – When the Economist is praising the idea of a land value tax, you begin to wonder if things might be shifting somewhat.
The many faces of Tatiana Maslany – Interesting interview/profile of the Orphan Black star and her acting process.
Tales from the Trenches: I was SWATed – And now the supposed ‘ethics in gaming journalism’ arseholes of Gamergate are trying to get police SWAT teams called out on people who criticise them.
The Lib Dems’ big problem: and how to solve it – Liberal Democrats need to build a vision based on social liberalism if the party is going to grow in the future.

Worth Reading 166: War with the Parthians, before and after

A Brief History Of The Yemen Clusterf*ck – A useful primer and historical background to help you make sage and expert comments about the latest flashpoint.
The deficit: It’s a productivity thing – Failing to acknowledge lower productivity in the British economy isn’t helping economic debate make any more sense.
My Lib Dem ambivalence – James Graham explains his current issues with the party.
Floating voters: How living on a houseboat meant I didn’t officially ‘exist’ – Beyond the issues with registering to vote, there are some very interesting facts in this story about the number of people living in ‘alternative arrangements’.
Dan Hannan isn’t even wrong on the history of poverty – Left Outside on “around 900 words of nonsense from Dan Hannan. He’s a politician, I am sure of that because he definitely can’t be a historian.”

Worth Reading 134: Offences not specifically mentioned in this chapter

It’s federal election time! – Probably only of interest to Lib Dems, but Jennie Rigg will be doing questions for federal committee candidates again, and wants your input on what to ask them.
Utter scumbags – “What I cannot accept, however, is the properly grotesque argument which this contemptible, reckless, immoral and intellectually bust Conservative Party is running to justify and explain its human rights plans. In Grayling’s thumping rhetoric to the grinning faithful in Birmingham, you do not see a meaningful and serious-minded parliamentary deliberation on the contested understandings of human rights, but an abject and irresponsible failure to engage in any intellectual or morally credible way with fundamental rights ideas.”
So The Lib Dems Have A Glee Club Where They Sing A Rude Song About Tony Blair – Buzzfeed are, I think, the first media outlet to actually understand Glee Club, and not use it to prove some agenda or other is correct.
In Spain, Politics via Reddit – Interesting look at the way Podemos is using the internet to transition from movement to party.
Understanding UKIP: Identity, Social Change and the Left Behind – The authors of Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin have a new paper on UKIP’s voters and supporters.