Thursday, May 29, 2008

The invisible hand in political finances

As it is revealed that the Labour Party could be up to 24 million Pounds in debt, and that the senior officers of the party could be personally liable. It begins to look like the slow erosion of the Labour Party might end up being something a lot more dramatic. Could this be the free market's revenge against Socialism?

However, when I hear Conservatives trying to claim ownership of the ideas of the free market, I do get a bit irritated. Why? Because one of the biggest rigged markets of all is the political market, and Conservatives seem determined to preserve this rigged market in all its steam-age, Victorian glory.

The absence of transparency and accountability limits consumer -i.e. voter- decision making power. Meanwhile the barriers to entry are so high that over the past century only three parties have ever held office at Westminster. Of course, it is not strictly true to say that the two party system has continued unchanged- the Liberal party, in 1906 crushingly triumphant, was reduced by splits and defections to near annihilation. It is true that the politics of the twenties saw many Conservatives back both a Liberal and even a Labour Prime Minister. However despite anomalies, British political parties have had a remarkable endurance all the same.

I believe in a free market in politics- that political openness and pluralism offer the same benefits to a society as consumer free choice does in the economic sphere. This is why I believe that the rigged electoral system should be changed- so that the results of elections reflect what people vote for, rather than what some power elite thinks should be the result. I also believe in far greater accountability and transparency in political decision making, including returning far more decisions to the individual or the level closest to the individual.

Of course it means that one party alone is unlikely to gain a majority unless that is what the voters actually elect. However the current party political system merely disguises the process of coalition building. Labour is a fusion of many different political strands, and so are the Conservatives. It would be more open if the liberal Conservatives stood as liberal Conservatives, while the Cornerstone, socially right wing Conservatives stood as themselves too. That way the electorate would have more information and more choice about which candidates should represent them. Frankly I find it cringe-making and frankly dishonest when politicians from the same party, who clearly profoundly disagree (and who probably loathe each other) try to make nice. Even the broad coalitions of the current party system struggle to gain much more than a third of the vote although our political system may still hand over 100% of the power to one or another of them.

It is hard to believe that Labour, as the party of government, could actually go bankrupt. The financial Armageddon would surely be followed by political nemesis. However, even assuming that Labour deals with this crisis, all will be far from well. Since the fiasco over the appointment of the new general secretary, it is clear that the party will struggle for some time- it will simply not be able to compete with the Conservatives' Ashcroft millions. Meanwhile the morale of the party, already damaged by the missteps of Gordon Brown is plummeting still further. In High Wycombe, my Labour opponent has recently defected to the Liberal Democrats- a course I suggested to her on the hustings in 2005. Other defections are sure to follow.

I have long believed that the intellectual death of Socialist ideology should be followed by the end of even nominally Socialist political parties. Although I suspect that Labour will survive this particular crisis without a meltdown, I also think that Blairism will, in hindsight, be seem as the Labour Party's last hurrah. The Party with an ideology vacuum found itself led by a charismatic but unprincipled Prime Minister, but upon his departure the political market began to notice that the Labour Emperor has no clothes.

It would be a final-but inevitable- irony if the historic reconciliation of Labour with the free market- exemplified by the end of Clause 4- resulted in "the project" killing the Party.

And I believe that-ultimately- it will.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Diversity training?

One interesting thing about the vast industry of social work is that the social workers seem to be extremely unaware of the cynical reaction with which their ideas are generally greeted.

The latest -rather naive- initiative is the response to the news that prison officers are uneasy about dealing with Muslim prisoners.

While, speak the diversity trainers, the prison officers "need more diversity training".

The poor things literally do not understand the gales of laughter that this response evokes- and not only from the generally pretty hard boiled prison officers themselves.

There is a role for trainers and those who would create better social interaction, but the fact is that it is these very people who often find it hardest to understand how their actions, based as they often are on the best of motives, nonetheless come across as irrelevant and self serving.

After all, more diversity training means more income for diversity trainers.

While most Prison Officers could well benefit from such training, the average "screw" will continue to be very cynical about the cons and general villains that they deal with. I somehow think it could take a lot of diversity training to overcome that level of mistrust.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Red & Blue

As I am in Tallinn, I am not quite sure why I stayed up so late to watch the European Champions League Final- for a start, the time difference meant that I did not get to bed until 2.30. Furthermore, it is not as if I was that interested in the outcome- I am not too interested in English Football, indeed my interest overall is confined to a rather half hearted interest in the results from Pittodrie, and as another half-hearted season comes to an end for Aberdeen, I doubt that I will miss football too much over the summer break.

Even still, it was a tense and intense match- and as the 1-1 result showed, very evenly matched. In the end, by the narrowest of margins, the Red corner prevailed.

In Crewe & Nantwich later on, it seems unlikely that a Red victory will be repeated. Reports from the by-election seem to show that Gordon Brown is just too personally unpopular to save the seat. The Conservatives seem to be celebrating already, and after the victory of Boris Johnson in London, they are already pointing to a sea change in British politics. They also talk of the squeeze on the Liberal Democrats and the return of two party politics.

Just one small detail: another sea change has been happening, the recovery of the Liberal Democrats poll numbers to the kind of level that they gained in the 2005 general election. As the decay of Labour becomes more entrenched, there is the distinct possibility of the Liberal Democrats moving into second place in the polls. Some have even tipped the Liberal Democrats for a rather unlikely second place in tonight's by-election.

So, the growing sense that the economic problems of the UK can not be turned round with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, may lead not to a squeeze on the third party, but rather a squeeze on those most involved in the problem: the ruling Labour Party.

Although I am uneasy at the Tory Triumphalism, an exceptionally poor result for Labour tonight could put many pieces of the British political system into play.

Mind you, I will not be staying up to watch it- especially after the truly awful local elections coverage of the BBC a few weeks ago. Besides the declaration would not be until about 5 AM in Tallinn, and I need what I insist on calling- in defiance of certain obvious facts- my beauty sleep.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

10 famous... Estonians

As I am off to Tallinn once more, here is the latest in my series of 10 heroes from each country. Much harder to choose than usual...

1. Paul Keres- one of the greatest chess players- "unlucky, like my country"
2. Jaan Tonisson- Moral political figure in the foundation of Estonia & a great Liberal.
3. Arvo Part- Innovative and hypnotic composer.
4. Kristjan Paljusalu- Double Olympic Wrestling Gold Medalist.
5. Jaan Kross- Elegiac and powerful novelist
6. Jaan Kaaplinski- Poet of brevity and unusual imagery
7. Neeme Jarvi- Internationally renowned conductor
8. Lennart Meri- film maker, writer and President
9. Alfons Rebane- Patriot and the model for John Le Carre's General Vladimir in Smileys People
10. Ernst Opik- Astronomer & co-discover of the Oort-Opik cloud (and Lembit's grandfather)

Big Brother

It seems almost inconceivable, but it might actually be true, The Home Office is proposing the creation of a gigantic database that would log every phone call, every e-mail and every website that is visited from Britain.

The nominal excuse- as usual- is "to combat terrorism". However it represents a truly vast invasion of the privacy of British Citizens. It reflects a culture amongst some key elements of the security agencies and law enforcement officers that people are all guilty until proven innocent.

This is the mindset that has already made the UK the most spied on free society in the world- 4.2 million cameras, which represents a staggering one camera for every 14 people. Yet a series of investigations have shown essentially no impact on crime figures from the use of CC cameras at all.

These same agencies are those that support the use of ID cards- a further invasion of privacy- and yet can not guarantee the security of the data that is collected at almost any level.

It is not enough to speak out about civil rights. The time has come to respond to the co-ordinated position of these individuals with a joined-up response of our own. In my opinion a legal right to privacy needs to be adequately defined- preferably with constitutional force. Strict limits need to be set as to what the State is and is not allowed to hold on individuals, and that the individual should have the right to know and to challenge the information held on them in government information systems. A genuine freedom of information act, based on full transparency, must now be established.

Accountability is at the heart of the democratic system- the secretive and closed state that has been created in recent years has no business holding so much information on individuals and in the end it may prove to be a more than hypothetical restriction on our freedoms.

The very basis of our liberty is not "those that have nothing to hide have nothing to fear" but that that we are all "innocent until proven guilty". Our surveillance society is not safer and neither does it adequately protect the data it holds.

It should be dismantled.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The sinister grip of Michael Ashcroft

In politics, as in love and war, most things are generally considered to be "all fair".

Over the years political campaigns, based on increasingly sophisticated information systems, have become ever more targeted on the swing voters in the swing constituencies. As in the US, this has made a small number of swing voters exceptionally valuable.

The result is large amounts of money are being focused by all the parties on their target areas. During the 2005 general election it became very clear that the Conservatives had developed exceptionally sophisticated information systems that could generate probabilities of voting Conservative based on a relatively small number of socio-economic indicators. These systems require large- and expensive- proprietary data bases and highly targeted literature. This literature can practically by addressed personally. As a result we no longer see armies of Conservative canvassers- since the information systems are already at least as good as most canvass data, and is often better. In other words the Conservatives already have usable 100% canvass information. Neither - at general elections- do Conservative activists deliver many leaflets- these is left in the hands of paid for deliverers. The Conservative Party has outsourced much of the traditional functions of a political party.

Naturally these more effective systems cost money, but the Conservatives has their own personal piggy bank in the shape of the Belizean billionaire, Michael Ashcroft, ennobled by the Conservative Party as Lord Ashcroft. This week, The Economist published an article that sheds some light upon the rather opaque business dealings of Ashcroft's operations.

In my view, the power that Michael Ashcroft has over the Conservative Party and over the British political system is so concentrated that it is potentially extremely dangerous. The fact that the Tories are now so beholden to one single individual seems set to give that individual the same kind of influence over Britain that he has already achieved over tiny Belize. His business dealings are by no means transparent- indeed even his citizenship and residency are by no means clear.

It used to be said that "Tory scandals are about sex, Labour's about money"- probably because that was what each party was short of. The advent of Ashcroft millions is having a material effect on political campaigning- in the arms race of politics, it is the equivalent of possessing a nuclear weapon.

However, I wonder whether the Conservatives may have been driven into a Faustian bargain that they may later deeply regret.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Its the Economy...stupid

Now the air truly is dark with chickens coming home to roost for Gordon Brown.

It is now clear that the Governor of the Bank of England is going to be writing a lot of letters explaining how he has missed the inflation target. The newspapers are full of columns on the coming economic disaster. The dreaded "R word" - recession- is now being coupled with inflation and comparisons are being drawn with the stagflation decade of the 1970s.

Thus, the fact that many comparisons are being made between Gordon Brown today and the Major government after 1995, is even worse for Gordon Brown than it appears- Major, after all was presiding over a substantial improvement in the economy, ironically enough largely caused by the collapse of the long term Conservative strategy of targeting a stable currency rate for Sterling against the D-Mark, rather than targeting inflation directly.

Inflation targeting is now facing its first serious test- a challenge for the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King- but equally a test of the commitment of the government to maintain the independence of the Central Bank. There will be growing temptation to intervene.

However, such temptation rests on the fact that Gordan Brown promised "an end to boom and bust". What he really meant was and end to bust, of course, since no government would try to end a boom, unless they were prepared to commit political suicide. Unfortunately for Mr. Brown, the bust seems to be well underway, and there is now precious little he can do about it.

If division was poisonous for John Major's Conservatives in bad times, how much worse will the fall of Labour be, in the face of the first downturn in a decade and a half, and a downturn that could well turn out to be severe and prolonged?

In six months all of Mr. Brown's hopes have turned to ash- yet the voters remain fickle. The Conservatives may be growing in confidence, but there is precious little trust on offer from a cynical and fearful electorate. The re-emergence of the hunting ban as a political football- the sub-text being, of course that David Cameron and his cronies are pro-hunting toffs- is a rather crude attempt by the Labour spin machine to fight back.

However- as the economic gloom continues to grow, Gordon Brown seems set to be hoisted by his own petard- the economy, of which he has been the steward throughout the Labour government, will be what he is judged on- and the electorate seems set to convict.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Stands Scotland where it did?

Over the course of the last 25 years Scottish politics has altered substantially, and in doing so it has diverged markedly from the rest of the United Kingdom. The next five years will determine whether Scotland will continue to diverge to the point of separation or whether a new United Kingdom can be forged based on more federal lines.

In 1979 the Conservative Party in Scotland gained 916,155 votes votes in Scotland and elected 22 MPs. Labour gained 1,211,455 votes and elected 44 MPs, while the Liberals got 262,224 votes votes, electing three MPs while the SNP gained 504,259 votes but were only able to elect 2 MPs. That year showed the real impact of the "first past the post" electoral system on Scottish politics, with a small fall in the SNP vote reducing their parliamentary Party substantially and relatively minor differences in the vote bring big differences in the outcomes for Labour and the Conservatives.

Over the course of the past three decades, Scottish politics became focused on the debacle of the referendum on devolution - the fact that, although the majority had voted in favour of this significant constitutional change, no Scottish Assembly had been created became the fulcrum of Scottish politics. It was an issue that split both Labour and the Conservatives, but in the end, under the influence of john Smith, the Labour Party became determined "Home Rulers", the Conservatives, despite their own divisions, became the party of adamant opposition to any change in the constitutional status of Scotland whatsoever: the die-hard Unionists.

Yet in the end, this position was untenable, simply because it was wrong: Scots Law was the only legal system in the world without a true legislature and the failure of Conservatives to engage with the debate is ultimately- at least as much as the unpopularity of Margaret Thatcher- the cause of the demise of the Conservatives; and demise it has truly been. reduced to the status of fourth party in Scotland, wiped out entirely in 1997, even now they posses only one Westminster seat and across Scotland, even in their former heartlands, they are but a shadow of themselves. The collapse of the Conservatives north of the border has been dramatic, but even the resurgence of the Conservatives in recent weeks has found no echo in Scotland- the destruction of the Scottish Tories, though not complete, still seems irrevocable.

Where Scottish Politics is drawing parallels with the rest of the UK is, however, in the gathering weakness of Labour. The creation of the Scottish Parliament with a fairer voting system has shown two things in sharp relief- firstly the overweening arrogance and complacency of Scottish Labour, and their inability to tackle the economic and social challenges that Scotland faces. The death of Donald Dewar created a vacuum at the heart of the party which has yet to be satisfactorily filled- the hapless Henry MacLeish replaced by the cocksure arrogance of Jack McConnell. The new leader of Scottish Labour, Wendy Alexander continues the murky dynastic traditions of the West of Scotland apparatchiks. Having dealt with her brother at Uni, I am unsurprised neither at her ineptness of touch nor her relentless and unprincipled ambition.

The counter to the collapse of the Conservatives in Scotland has been the rise of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the SNP. The Liberal Democrats have become well entrenched in the North and East of Scotland and have gained substantially in MPs- now holding eleven seats. In the first two Scottish Parliaments they were able to wield considerable power- especially given the prolonged leadership problems of Labour that meant that Jim Wallace found his role as Deputy First Minister was more than ornamental.

The SNP could only hold six Westminster seats in 2005, but the sea change that has taken place in recent years has been the election of the SNP as a minority government in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP doubled their number of MSPs and was able to form an administration under their wily and politically ruthless leader, Alex Salmond.

However, the crisis of Labour in Scotland is extremely dangerous: the dramatic fall of Labour over the past six months opens up the possibility of a major constitutional rift which works to the short run political interests of Alex Salmond and David Cameron but which ultimately leads to the end of our country in its current form. The irony is that much of Salmond's support is precisely the same people who were once die-hard Unionists: that is to say from Conservatives.

As under Margaret Thatcher, the debate is being framed as a zero-sum game between Scottish independence and the United Kingdom. Yet now, as then, there is another way: Scottish autonomy as part of a Federal United Kingdom. Indeed both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd were intended to be only the first steps in a settlement with Northern Ireland and England too. Sure enough, Northern Ireland, eventually, seems to have been able to grasp the chance for a settlement. In England though, the message has been lost. The other day I heard John Redwood suggest that Westminster should sit partly as the Parliament of the UK and partly as the Parliament of England- I can not imagine much that would destroy the UK quicker than such ill thought out nonsense. Apart from the fact that it would still leave 50 million in non-local units, it would be bound to create a schizophrenia amongst the English members of parliament.

Westminster should remain the Parliament for the whole Kingdom. In my view, there is a model in Spain, where one large Spanish area dominates the smaller nationalities such as the Basques, Gellegans and the Catalans in the same way as England dominates the rest of the UK. In Spain, different parts of the country have been offered different levels of autonomy- alot for the national areas, but also for those areas of Castilian speakers, like Andalucia, where there was demand for it. The units vary from single counties, such as La Rioja, Murcia or Asturias, to much larger groups of counties, like Castilla La Mancha and Castilla i Leon. The choice was left to locals. I could easily see a Cornish Assembly or an East Anglian one of Norfolk and Suffolk, or both Sussex-es being quite popular- and since it is based on traditional boundaries, I suspect the argument about "an extra layer bureaucracy" is removed too.

As in Spain too, I suspect that, though the SNP may continue to do well in Scottish elections, it will struggle to gain the majority of UK mandates in Scotland, as the PNV or CiU equally struggle to do in Catalonia and the Basque country for the Spanish Cortes. Nevertheless there is a trial of strength in the offing- and the real risk that a single mis-step could undermine our country- Gordon Brown and David Cameron would do well to listen to the Liberal Democrat answer to the "West Lothian question": Home rule all round.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Ray Michie

In 1987 I was campaigning in Gordon, and after the long campaign our group of Liberals adjourned to watch the results.

Of all the results, the one that gave the most pleasure was the election of Ray Michie in Argyll. Ray represented in her family and herself the embodiment of the tradition of Scottish Liberalism. That John Bannerman's daughter could be elected when he could not, seemed to be the harbinger of a further revival in the fortunes of Liberalism in Scotland and across the UK, as so it proved.

That Ray proved to be a doughty fighter for her constituency was no surprise to those who knew her equally passionate commitment to Gaelic culture and to the cultural idea of Scotland, not to mention to Scottish Rugby, where her father in his day was indeed a fine player in the national team.

To her very fingertips Ray represented the feisty, independent tradition of Scottish Liberalism- plain spoken, determined, and a true beleiver in the Liberal idea of freedom. She stood up for the cause of the individual against corporate behemoths and the unfettered state equally, and her integrity was an adamant.

Ray was one of those who always made me proud to belong to the long tradition of Scottish Liberalism- as I sat with some well known Scottish Liberals last week, discussing what she meant, there was respect and admiration, and for all of us the sweet memory of the day Ray Michie took Argyll & Bute from her Ministerial opponent.

Hallaig (fragment)

Tha iad fhathast ann a Hallaig,
Clann Ghill-Eain ’s Clann MhicLeòid,
na bh’ ann ri linn Mhic Ghille Chaluim:
chunnacas na mairbh beò.
Na fir ’nan laighe air an lèanaigaig ceann gach taighe a bh’ ann,
na h-igheanan ’nan coille bheithe,
dìreach an druim, crom an ceann.
Eadar an Leac is na Feàrnaibhtha ’n rathad mòr fo chòinnich chiùin,
’s na h-igheanan ’nam badan sàmhacha’ dol a Chlachan mar o thùs.
Agus a’ tilleadh às a’ Chlachan,
à Suidhisnis ’s à tir nam beò;
a chuile tè òg uallachgun bhristeadh cridhe an sgeòil.
O Allt na Feàrnaibh gus an fhaoilinntha soilleir an dìomhaireachd
nam beannchan eil ach coitheanal nan nigheana’ cumail na coiseachd gun cheann.
A’ tilleadh a Hallaig anns an fheasgar,anns a’ chamhanaich bhalbh bheò,
a’ lìonadh nan leathadan casa,
an gàireachdaich ’nam chluais ’na ceò,
’s am bòidhche ’na sgleò air mo chridhemun
tig an ciaradh air na caoil,’s nuair theàrnas grian air cùl
Dhùn Canathig peilear dian à gunna Ghaoil;
’s buailear am fiadh a tha ’na thuaineala’ snòtach nan làraichean feòir;
thig reothadh air a shùil sa choille:chan fhaighear lorg air fhuil rim bheò.

(Translation from the Gaelic)

They are still in Hallaig,
MacLeans and MacLeods,
all who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim:
the dead have been seen alive.
The men lying on the greenat the end of every house that was,
the girls a wood of birches,
straight their backs, bent their heads.
Between the Leac and Fearnsthe road is under mild moss
and the girls in silent bandsgo to Clachan as in the beginning,
and return from Clachan,
from Suisnish and the land of the living;
each one young and light-stepping,
without the heartbreak of the tale.
From the Burn of Fearns to the raised beach
that is clear in the mystery of the hills,
there is only the congregation of the girls
keeping up the endless walk,
coming back to Hallaig in the evening,
in the dumb living twilight,
filling the steep slopes,
their laughter a mist in my ears,
and their beauty a film on my heart
before the dimness comes on the kyles,
and when the sun goes down behind
Dun Canaa vehement bullet will come from the gun of Love;
and will strike the deer that goes dizzily,
sniffing at the grass-grown ruined homes;
his eye will freeze in the wood,
his blood will not be traced while I live.

Somhairle MacGill-Eain
Sorley Maclean

The Final Tally.

The last three weeks have been amongst the most interesting and critical in British politics in a generation, but inevitably, I have been so busy that blogging has been very sparse indeed.

In fact I think we have indeed seen one of the fabled tipping points in British Politics that seems to come once in a generation. many will say that the catastrophic defeats inflicted on the Labour Party in the local elections are simply the mark of the swing of the political pendulum. The Conservatives having avoided their own meltdown are now poised to recover. However, I think that this actually understates the chaos in the Labour Party. It is not just in the marginal areas that labour are going down- though the numbers are truly appalling from the Labour perspective. It is in the very heartland of Labour that they are losing their strength. In Wales, they lost control of Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil, Flintshire, Newport and Torfaen, leaving them in control of just two councils in the Principality. In the English Cities, Labour no longer control Wolverhampton, Hartlepool, Reading, and of course lost in London too.

Undeniably the Conservatives are triumphant- gains across the board with some very few crucial exceptions. Those exceptions, interestingly include many places with Liberal Democrat MPs: Colchester, Eastleigh, Cambridge, Purbeck (which covers Mid Dorset), Portsmouth South, Cheltenham, South Lakeland. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats took control in St Albans (admittedly by a fluke of the electoral system), Burnley, Hull and Sheffield and also did well in Rochdale, Oldham and Stockport- these last four also places with Liberal Democrat MPs. Liverpool was a weaker result, but the party retains control with the defection of an independent. Overall, with the exception of Romsey and the seats in South West London, owing the rather unique circumstances of the London election, the Liberal Democrats have managed to secure their position, where they needed to win.

However, the situation for Labour is bleak indeed. In Scotland- of which much more in a later blog- they seem poised to follow the Conservatives towards destruction. In Wales, they face real challenges for the first time. In the Northern Cities they face pressure from an emerging anti-Labour axis. So, the political atmosphere is now full of Conservative hope, and Labour fear.

Yet this may not be the swing of the pendulum- it may be that the long overdue complete realignment of British politics is underway. Labour have long ago lost their intellectual foundation, and in time the New Labour renaissance may prove to have been the dying fall.

The loss of the charismatic and controversial Tony Blair now draws attention to the fact that Labour are rudderless. The government founded on managerialism is bereft of new ideas and has let the Conservatives take the high ground even in the key areas that Labour thought it owned: the issues of poverty and inequality.

These elections are indeed the beginning of the end for Labour. The question is what can Labour do to avoid not merely defeat, but destruction?

This creates a question to strike fear into the hearts of the Milbank set, but a real quandary for the Liberal Democrats. If the Liberal Democrats can avoid the squeeze, and retain a significant body of MPs, then the platform to change the structure and not merely the political inclination of British politics becomes more open. The question for the Liberal Democrats now is how to articulate the need not only to change the party of government, but also the system of government.