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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One of the most interesting features of international treaties and conventions is the loophole clauses that state when they don’t apply. For instance, the Geneva Conventions don’t apply on alternate Thursdays between 7am and 9.30am and there’s a complex formula to determine when the Charter of the United Nations doesn’t apply to certain countries. Obviously, this means that they’re still in force for 99% of the time, so those times when they don’t apply don’t matter, and certainly aren’t used to accomplish all those nasty tasks that can’t be done when the rules are in place.

The previous paragraph is, of course, a complete pack of lies because treaties and conventions, like laws, need to be in place permanently, otherwise everyone who wants to break one of them will just wait until the time they can and go ahead with it. Once you concede that the law is a temporary construct that can be abrogated for convenience, you start to wander down a very dangerous road.

Which is why the idea of the UK temporarily leaving the Council of Europe and/or the European Convention on Human Rights (FT article, requires registration) to facilitate the extradition of Abu Qatada should be a concern to everyone. The purpose of the ECHR is to establish that no government is above the law, a vital principle established in the aftermath of the Second World War (and one that British lawyers were instrumental in implementing). To suddenly change that principle to one that no government is above the law, except on a few occasions when it feels it needs to be, is to make the ECHR useless. If the UK can ignore the ECHR and ‘temporarily withdraw’ when it wants to, then so can anyone else. Belarus could finally sign up to the ECHR, then claim it was ‘temporarily withdrawn’ from it at any time when human rights abuses are complained about there.

If your rights aren’t permanent, then they’re something that can easily be disposed of when it’s convenient for the Government. A temporary withdrawal from the ECHR is being presented as simply an administrative measure to enable one goal to be accomplished, when it’s actually knocking the first hole in the dam. Sure, it’s only one hole and not a very big one, but all the water can flow through it, given enough time. A temporary withdrawal is the government saying that ECHR rights are something we possess only while it’s convenient for the government, and that they can be disposed of whenever they feel like it.

This is why I’m concerned at the following section in the FT report:

An aide to Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, refused to rule out backing a temporary withdrawal but said it had not been proposed, dismissing it as a “complete hypothetical”. Mr Clegg said last year he would never support permanent withdrawal.

Yet again, we have one of Clegg’s aides saying something silly. There’s no compromise possible here, and Clegg should be completely ruling out the possibility of any withdrawal from the ECHR, whether it be temporary or permanent. Human rights are something that apply to everyone at all times, and that’s a principle the leader of the Liberal Democrats – and his aides – should be standing up for.

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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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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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An open letter to the British judicial system – From a cyclist, pointing out the ridiculously small sentences handed out to motorists who’ve killed or injured cyclists.
My reply to Nick Clegg’s civil liberties email today – Jo Shaw writes at Liberal Democrats against Secret Courts, asking Nick Clegg to live up to what he says and block the Government’s plans. (And if you’re a Lib Dem who hasn’t signed the petition against secret courts yet, why not?)
Nick Clegg needs to get crunchy again – Jonathan Calder has one of the best takes I’ve seen on Clegg’s recent ‘centre ground’ speech.
The gathering storm – Alex Marsh with a warning about future rises in homelessness.
UKIP are true libertarians – I’m still planning a post on libertarians and the Liberal Democrats at some point, but in the meantime, this is a good piece from Ed Rooksby in the Guardian, pointing out how UKIP are a great example of where the inherent selfishness of right-libertarianism takes you.

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Not a headline I was expecting to give to a blog post any time soon, but occasionally Nick Clegg does speak up in favour of Liberal Democrat party policy. Today he’s talking about drugs and becoming probably the most senior UK politician to make the argument that if you really want to be ‘anti-drugs’ and cut the number of people using drugs and the harm that’s caused, then you need to be in favour of reforming the current system. There’s coverage all over the place of his statements, but see here for an interview with the BBC (and a report of the same), and see here for Clegg talking about it in The Sun and not getting pilloried. Maybe things are changing.

The Sun also has some interesting poll results, which might have influenced the decision not to go after Clegg on this, which shows that 57% of people think government drug policy has worked fairly or very badly in reducing drug use, 60% of people want a Royal Commission to look into drug policy and more people want either decriminalisation (30%) or legalisation (19%) of drug use than those who want the current law to remain (43%).

I’m reminded of an American study I read about three years ago (blogged about by Mark Thompson here) which showed that while a majority of people were in favour of a more liberal policy on drugs, that same majority consistently thought that their view was a minority one. What makes Clegg’s announcement today interesting is that while many politicians have said that the ‘war on drugs’ is failing, they tend to say that when they’re out of office (Jacqui Smith is a recent example). That he’s made it now – and that The Sun has taken it as an exclusive, not as a ‘Batty Lib Dems soft on drugs’ headline – might indicate that the tide is turning. As people see the evidence from Portugal, from the US states that have legalised medical marijuana and more, the message might finally be sinking in that there are alternatives to the ‘war on drugs’ which like many wars is very good for the generals fighting it on both sides, but hell for those caught in the middle of it.

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Including two from the Telegraph, in what’s probably a first:

Drug laws and evidence-based policy: it’s time to start doing experiments on the British people – One day, someone at the Telegraph is going to sack Tom Chivers for injecting sense into their website.
The secret US lobbyists behind Police and Crime Commissioner election – Interesting news from Lincolnshire. (Update: It turns out that this story was based on incorrect information – I suggest following the links in the next few Worth Reading lists for more)
Clegg has quietly resigned from the lightning conductor role – which is to his advantage, but another problem for Cameron – Alistair Campbell’s take. I don’t agree with all of it, but a perspective worth looking at.
An open reply to a self-published author – “So here’s your choice: you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because you haven’t plugged it enough, and as such you can use every channel of desperate huckterdom that the internet provides (and, by heaven, there are dozens more than you’ve yet discovered), you can do anything other than writing more and better in an attempt to shift that product, and you can send more emails like this one hoping for someone to tell you the magic answer to your problem, so long as that answer isn’t “well, you know, maybe your book just wasn’t actually very good?”, and you can spend the rest of your life blaming the unfair world for failing to recognise your genius, despite all the effort you put into telling people that you had it. Or you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because it’s just not as good as its competition in the market.”
Police the police – Liam Pennington makes some good points about the pointlessness of police commissioner elections. However, see also this piece by Chris Williams on the history of municipal policing in Britain for some interesting context.

And as a bonus, not something to read, but look at: how ‘skeptics’ and realists view climate data.

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One of the distinguishing traits of a senior politician is to be in possession of a circle of loquacious friends, always ready to talk to the press about things they don’t feel ready to talk about personally in public. Michael Gove’s friends have been talkative this weekend, telling the Daily Mail all about his views on the European Union.

It’s pretty much just Gove throwing a bone to the Tory Right, of course, saying he’d vote for the UK to leave to the EU, coupled with complaints about how those horrible human rights laws stop him from doing exactly what he wants. This helps us to show us how Gove suffers from two of the problems that befall many of the anti-EU brigade: first, the inability to understand the difference between the European Union, the Council of Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European court; and second, the odd way in which conservatives who talk about limiting state power have an aversion to human rights conventions that protect the power of the citizen against an over-mighty state.

This is just Gove trying to shift the Overton window a few more inches to the right, rather than some major shift in Tory policy – after all, if he was serious about this he’d have said it himself at the Tory conference last week rather than leaving it to some anonymous friends to talk to the Daily Mail. However, the question we should ask if it’s all right for senior Tories to talk about ending our membership of the European Union, why is it so wrong for senior Liberal Democrats to talk about the possibility of ending the coalition?

As I talked about a few weeks ago, the party’s negotiating position in any internal Government discussions is weakened by the insistence that the Coalition must not be allowed to end early:

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.

In the same way that Gove doesn’t state his anti-EU views publicly, we don’t need Clegg giving regular speeches about bringing the coalition down. However, the response to something like Gove’s comments should be senior party figures (other than Lord Oakeshott) pointing out that the natural response to any Tory moves to quit the EU would be the Liberal Democrats quitting the coalition. Both domestically and internationally, the Tories are willing to do their negotiations in public, and Liberal Democrats need to be willing to do that.

If Clegg won’t do it himself, then others need to be given a licence to do so. It’s the role Vince Cable’s carried out at some times, and Chris Huhne did too, but too many other party figures seem to be too tightly wedded to the policy of not rocking the boat. As we’re seeing now over policies like rights for shares, that polite acquiescence is letting dangerous and illiberal policies head towards the statute book, and the party should be willing to fight fire with fire and match the Tory strategy. Otherwise, all the public associates us with is meekly rolling over for whatever the Tories want, unable to walk at any no matter what. The public need to know what the red lines are, and Liberal Democrat silence on them gives the impression they don’t exist.

There’s little else to learn from Michael Gove, but sometimes he’s a useful example.

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As Jonathan Calder thought earlier, when you get an email from someone with the subject ‘There’s no easy way to say this’ you normally expect the body of it to include some form of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’.

However, the video this email from Nick Clegg linked to didn’t include that, but it was on the same lines, even if it didn’t end with him leaving. The problem I have with it is that all he actually apologises for is the pledge on tuition fees, not the policy itself. A lot of people are putting out the ‘but Labour never apologised for bringing in top-up fees after saying they wouldn’t in their manifesto’, but under the Clegg formulation, all they have to apologise for is putting it in their manifesto, not for the vote itself.

The bigger problem I see is that for years we’ve been telling people that Liberal Democrats care about education at all levels and see it as a public good that the Government should be spending money on. Right back to Paddy Ashdown talking about 1p on income tax for education and beyond, the party has consistently stood up for education. The pledge candidates signed wasn’t just some random electoral gimmick, it was something that had a long history in the party and had remained a core policy – voted for by Conference – despite the leadership trying to water it down or abandon it. We stuck with it – as well as committing the party to other high-profile educational policies like the Pupil Premium – because access to education for all is an important liberal principle.

Politicians are known for saying one thing and doing another, but the issue here is that education – and particularly higher education – was seen as a key Liberal Democrat issue, so a sudden volte face on that hurt the Liberal Democrats a lot more than changes on other issues might. This wasn’t the usual trading of policies and compromise that’s an inevitable part of coalition, but abandoning what the public – if not Clegg himself – saw as a fundamental part of what the Liberal Democrats were about. Saying that the pledge was the problem and claiming it wasn’t affordable, despite the party’s manifesto clearly showing that it was, is to try to turn this into a story of political process, when it should be one of political principle.

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