Monday, May 31, 2010

Masu takes a back seat

In Estonia they are so familiar with the economic crisis, they have given it a nick-name: "Masu", which comes from Majandus Krisis- Economic Crisis. Headlines are full of the latest doings of this wayward creature: the latest fall in retail sales, the steady slowing of lending, the gradual deceleration of the economy. The Masu is developing its own personality: rather like a bear, damaging and clumsy though, rather than rapacious.

Today, however, the Masu is off the front pages and there is some better economic news: Estonia has joined the OECD, the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development.

"So what?" many will ask, not knowing what the OECD actually is.

The -now thirty-five member- body is essentially the club of wealthy and democratic states, committed to open government and open economies. For Estonia to be accepted as a member reflects a vote of confidence in the stability and prospects for the country. It also promotes them into a fairly exclusive club of Western markets that are automatically regarded as sound investments.

Mind you, several Estonian friends have said that they don't think it is such a great thing: after all, Greece was a founder member of the club. Certainly the Greek "Masu" seems to have much stronger claws than in Estonia. Nevertheless, even after a fall in numbers of about one third, there are still more Euro millionaires in Estonia than in Greece, which is ten times the population. Of course, that is simply according to the tax statistics.

I think that probably explains why Estonia's trajectory is so much more positive than that of Greece: there is simply a greater culture of honesty here. The Masu is beginning to look ever less threatening from the perspective of Tallinn- even with early Euro entry a prospect for next January.

In Athens, on the other hand...

Sunday, May 30, 2010

More in Anger than in Sorrow

I have known David Laws vaguely for several years. He has total integrity. He gave up a burgeoning career in finance because he had "already made enough money". For several years he worked for essentially no money to help craft a set of economically coherent policies for the Liberal Democrats. He has a forensic intelligence- a deeply impressive understanding of economic and financial context. He is a genuine star in a field where mediocrities are more usually the norm.

In the first few days of the new coalition he was already establishing himself as a key figure at the very heart of government, and was becoming not just respected but popular on both sides of the government.

David has always been intensely private about himself. Those who knew him best have generally assumed that he was gay, but if he chose not to discuss his private life then that was entirely his choice. To see the obvious personal distress that he is in as the result of the attacks against him in the press has filled me with a cold and furious contempt for those responsible.

Essentially no one can be safe from attack under the spurious label of expenses. David did not make a cent from these supposed abuses. It is incredible that such destructive cruelty can be unleashed in the name of "the public's right to know". Britain deserves better leaders: leaders with the quality of David Laws- but no one will put themselves forward in the future when any tiny mistake can become such a cause celebre: where no one in the public eye can defend themselves from a shredding at the hands of a criminally irresponsible media.

Make no mistake, what was done to David Laws was wicked.

Those responsible are evil- there is no other word for it.

It is time they were themselves held to account for their own vile hypocrisy.

UPDATE: I e-mailed a journalist friend as follows:

Following on from our discussion at lunch the other day, I must say the eventual outing of David Laws that we discussed as a possibility has really shown up the media in a truly horrid way.

I think what has been done to David is actually evil- I think the damage to our country that may come from his fall is appalling.

Those responsible- presumably the Barclay brothers- have behaved in a way that is simply monstrous. Every one of us- all of us- has something in their lives that could be read by the mind of evil doers in a bad light.

Quite frankly I hope that some one destroys the figures in the media that sponsored this with the same ferocious efficiency which has just been used to destroy the life of David Laws.

If he kills himself, they will all have blood on their hands.

Sorry- but I am absolutely incensed by this. The scandal is the media, not the minister.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The strange death of the Labour Party

So many things going on in the markets... and even as the North Korean regime tries to start a war, the Spanish banks fall to pieces, the Greek economy falls into smaller pieces, yet still the death throes of the Labour Party attract my attention.

Oooo... Please, please: choose a Miliband, no pur..lease!

I so want the Labour Party dead.

These are identikit professional politicians - bloodless, passionless and unprincipled, they represent why the Labour Party lost its soul the day they chose Tony Blair as its "leader". That discount Caudillo trampled any basic principle that the Socialist Party ever had (although as a fairly fierce anti-Socialist, I can't say he was exactly wrong). Now Labour want to choose either the clumsy Tweedledee of thoughtless me too-ism or the doltish Tweedledum of thoughtless opportunism. They think that the Coalition will eventually fold and that then they can sweep in triumph back to the power from which they have been temporarily excluded...

Err.. The Coalition has not simply put the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives into government, it has put the Liberal view of the constitution into power. This was something that only ever had to happen once. The accountability of greater freedom, the openness of a more powerful franchise: all of these are part of the programme that Her Majesty The Queen outlined today. The Labour Party has no answers. They think that the game is still the same.

But it is not.

Labour not only face the more than 60% of the population that voted for the coalition parties. They face a completely different political game.

Labour might retreat into populism: greater restrictions on immigration, more invasions against the free market, more anti-Europeanism, but the fact is that the balance that the coalition is striking is about right: Labour will either look extremist or, even worse, simply wrong. Even if they simply continue to plough the furrow of Blair-Brownism, the battle has moved to a different field.

So: the question emerges: How do they oppose?

Actually, the answer in those terms is simple: They should choose Diane Abbot. Only she has the popular touch. She has warmth and charm. She is bright and so clearly not a product of the political machine.

Such a total contrast to the bloodless Milibands.

But Labour won't touch her.

"Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad"

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tory Refuseniks emerge from the rubble

It does not take any particular genius to notice that the Conservatives are a fairly disparate and occasionally divided party. The battles of the "Nasty Party" (tm. our new Home Secretary), were mostly with each other, not with the other parties, which is why their electoral record became so poor. The Cameroons were, and are, a minority that is forced to do deals within a shifting pattern of allegiances. Nothing too unusual there: most parties are the same in that sense. What made the Conservatives divisions so painful was the incredible vehemence with which different sides held their views. Instead of the rather senior common room atmosphere of party debates amongst the Liberal Democrats, the Tories like to conduct their debates like a fight in the playground: no quarter is given. Any change in approach is examined for signs of weakness- and compromise by one's own side is regarded as the blackest betrayal. The Conservative debate on Europe, for example, degenerated into a shouting match of extreme ugliness.

Even now there are those who are very much in the Conservative tradition who are- shall we say- Dave-sceptics. The idea of liberal-Conservatives struck them, at best, as odd. Now, of course we have a Liberal-Conservative government. The shock of that outcome is only just beginning to subside. On the Liberal Democrat side, the special conference at least allowed the rank and file to vent some steam and pretend that they could at least negotiate with the Leadership and the Federal Executive of the Party. In the end the members of the party- even the dissenters- can feel that they have some ownership of the decision making which has led to the creation of the Coalition government. The Liberal Democrats are at peace with themselves.

The Tories, by contrast do not have such safety valves. There are a number of Dave-sceptics who were keeping quiet in the hope that the could gain more influence as part of a far more right-wing intake of Tory MPs. However, the luck of the draw, and the fact of the coalition means that the hopes for office that many of these had held have now been dashed. Enforced idleness is dangerous for dissenting minds, and we know that idle hands can become very mischievous.

So it is that the Prime Minister is seeking to gain control over the 1922 committee- one of the few sources of power in the Parliamentary party that could threaten him. It is an interesting historical artifact that the '22 was founded in order to remove the last Liberal-Conservative government from office and replace it with a single party Conservative one. Mr. Cameron does not want to take the risk of that happening again. I expect that he will either succeed entirely, or he will gain a de facto victory that will indeed remove the potential threat. The fact that the leadership of the '22 is now vacant certainly gives Mr. Cameron a golden opportunity to neuter the one group that has the legitimacy to remove him against his will.

Nevertheless, the fact is that the Conservatives are generally more uncertain about the coalition. I don't think that the latest stories being planted by the negotiating team that "Oliver Letwin outplayed the Lib Dems" are unconnected with the fact that a large number of the Conservatives think that it was the Lib Dems who outplayed Oliver Letwin. The coalition agreement- with the vexed question of Europe conveniently left aside as the result of the current crisis of the Euro- does indeed look like a series of victories for the Lib Dems- especially on constitutional reform. I expect we will hear more stories about how the Conservatives "really" won the negotiations.

However the Cameroons will be considering very carefully how that can maintain at least a semblance of party loyalty amongst a group of activists and MPs who have got used to the easy disloyalty they were permitted in opposition. Whereas once loyalty was the Conservatives' secret weapon, now their secret vice is plotting. A habit developed before the fall of Margaret Thatcher, perfected under John Major, then destroyed three Tory leaders in a row. It was thus 13 years before- however partially- David Cameron could return the party to office. There are many refuseniks amongst the Conservatives. I have little doubt that such figures as Iain Liddell-Grainger, John Redwood or Dan Hannan are still unconvinced by the current situation. The Cornerstone group of 40-odd socially conservative MPs could create trouble too- although their influence is lessening in the face of the antics of some of their members.

Yet the government is at least now in place. The Liberal Democrats and the liberal Conservatives have sufficient common ground to work closely together even though there remain large numbers of Tories who are pretty anti-coalition. The question now is whether they can pose a threat to the stability of the government. As Labour enters a long leadership campaign of introspection, the temptation for the dis-empowered Tory backbenchers might be to make trouble. The Prime Minister knows this, of course, but I can't help wondering if it might not be wiser to engage with the some of the refuseniks rather than to try to crush them.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister probably knows better than most how self-destructive some Conservatives can be. Perhaps the Coalition may give him the confidence to finally settle a few more old scores with those who have been most vehement in condemning his attempts to "modernise" his party. So, those who give in to temptation and speak out of turn may find themselves in deep trouble: as perhaps the '22 is already finding.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"A huge ******"

What kind of a prat calls his own brother "a huge talent"?

Probably the same kind of guy whose every single social grace is undermined by that most poisonous of things: ambition. David Miliband and his brother Edward are now apparently locked in a struggle for the soul of the "Labour movement". Identikit blandness that bares a strange likeness to those other Labour political siblings: Douglas and Wendy Alexander. It is not a struggle based on vision, or principles, or ideology: it is simple, naked political ambition. Yet onto this tabula rasa we are invited to project our deepest wishes for the future of the Labour Party, and by implication the future of the Left in Britain.

I am not sure that the left has actually got a future.

Yes I know, many of the most obdurate Socialists will laugh, they believe, as did David Cameron, that the mistakes of their political enemies will ultimately deliver them power upon the next swing of the political pendulum. Yet, as Mr. Cameron must now ruefully concede, politics is changing in unexpected ways: the rise of the Conservatives was supposed to wipe out the Liberal Democrats in 2010, but in fact in the heat and light of the result, it is easy to forget that the Lib Dems actually polled over 800,000 more votes than in 2005- their supposed high water mark.

Some, including some inside the Liberal Democrats suggest that the failure of the Lib Dems to secure a "progressive coalition" with Labour was in some way a betrayal of the Radical tradition in British politics. I beg to differ: The betrayal was made early on in the Labour years when all the promises of electoral and political reform were shelved by the Labour government itself. For Labour "progressive politics" meant simply a bigger state. Yet the Liberal Democrats opposed these attempts by Labour to build a bigger state from the very beginning: ID cards, cuts to local power (and budgets), not to mention the disgrace of an unnecessary war and so on. Blair and Brown did not even pretend to be liberal, yet that word does indeed drop softly- if possibly insincerely- from David Cameron's lips. The proof of his sincerity comes in the very offer of coalition- and that offer has transformed British politics, perhaps for ever.

As each of the Labour contenders seeks to map out a course back to political power for the Labour Party, they must now concede that British politics may now have left the zig-zag of left-right governments and entered a new era of far less tribal thinking. The fact is that the left in power did not display the clarity of moral purpose that their rather preachy attitudes towards their opponents should imply. In fact the Blair-Brown years were political in the very worst sense: Mandelsonian spin and Campbellian dirty tricks. The Milbands, or Ed Balls may deny they are New Labour- but the very phrase "next Labour" must surely have come form the play book of the Dark Lord Mandelson himself. This is not new- it is the same old spin.

Meanwhile we are invited to admire the principles of the father of these two prodigies, the unrelentingly Marxist Ralph Miliband. My contempt and loathing of Soviet Socialists is about equal to my loathing and contempt for National Socialists. That the left can still not recognise that the Marxists amongst them were either deluded fellow travellers or accomplices to a murderous and evil regime is one of its least attractive features. I find the faintly affectionate tolerance for Stalinism amongst the Labour Party (Jack Straw: "I was never a Trotskyite. I was a "Tankie" i.e. he supported sending the tanks in to crush the Prague Spring) utterly repellent.

In many ways the idea of the Labour Party, that strong interventionist government is not only necessary but beneficent, is indeed a Marxist one. It suggests a faith in the state that over rides any other empowerment of communities or individuals: it is deeply hierarchical -even dare I say it "class" oriented, that the many should remove all privileges given to the few- no matter how acquired.

It is also increasingly obsolete. In a world of peer review and collaboration- of which the coalition itself is a good example- the Labour Party clings to Socialist hierarchy and centralisation. Ironically the only thing that comes between Labour and disaster is the unprincipled ambition of its leadership contenders. Yet unless the new leader of the Labour Party utterly rejects the idea of the big state and is able to replace it with some other more relevant ideology, the fact is that Labour could indeed come third at the next election, as it threatened to in 2010.

That truly would be a triumph for the "New Politics".

Monday, May 17, 2010

Founding the Tallinnban

An economically liberal friend of mine whose politics nevertheless tend to haver between the Conservatives and the SNP contacts me from an overseas trip. He says that he fears that the coalition will simply continue the economic policies of Gordon Brown. Although I point out that those policies can not be sustained anyway, he remains nervous. In fact I have little doubt that the budget now announced for June 22 will show some very nasty red ink indeed. The question will be how to create a policy response that walks the line between fiscal responsibility and economic recovery. Most importantly of all, there is the question of the essential investment in public infrastructure such as Crossrail and HS-2. Are these projects to be delayed or even sacrificed because we still do not have a coherent approach to social welfare?

The fiscal drag created by Gordon Brown- i.e.the administration cost of collecting taxation on the one hand, and paying out benefits such as child credits on the other- is clearly very high. How high, we are not permitted to know: it is essentially a state secret. Nevertheless the integration of tax and benefits is long overdue- and it is time to abolish the collection of National Insurance separately, and be up front about what it is: an enhanced form of income tax. The government needs to get serious about the fact that we are funding long term payments, such as pensions, directly from current expenditure. We have no National Insurance Fund. If we did, then by now the level of income tax would have been reduced to less than 20%, since the rest would be funded by the National Insurance Endowment, as David Lloyd George originally intended, when the state pension was introduced.

No post-Communist country has followed the UK in its pay-as-you-go pension policy, all have created an endowment fund structure for future pensions, and yes that has had a drastic impact on those who were already retired, or are about to be: the spectacle of elderly ladies trying to sell flowers in the middle of snowy nights is one of the saddest sights in wintry Tallinn, although in fact they do seem to manage to get by somehow. The crucial point is that the social sacrifice is being made by today's old folk in order to fund a better life for their children. In Britain the impact of scandalously early retirement has been a huge transfer of wealth from the young to the old. With the smash and grab raid that Mr. Brown made on private pensions, the fact is that the British pensions cupboard is bare: and that is a developing crisis. Meanwhile the idea that "relative poverty" can or should be alleviated by redistributive taxation is being tested to destruction. Welfare families are indeed a reality- and one increasingly bitterly resented by those of us bearing the brunt of increasing taxation. The failures of education and the poverty of aspiration has left a group of unemployed and unemployable people, dependent on benefits. That the work is there is obvious: how else could we have around half a million central and eastern Europeans working in our country? But the question that Mrs Duffy should have asked in the election is why so many British workers are either unwilling or unable to take on the kinds of jobs that are being done by Poles, Lithuanians or Slovaks.

In any event, we can not afford this welfare burden: despite the recognised social evil of too wide an income gap I do not think that we can fix it in the way that we have chosen. The average income gap in a corporation has risen from 5x to 22x in forty years, but punitive taxation is clearly not the answer. Relative poverty has not been alleviated by public handouts: the gap grows ever wider. The time has indeed come to think the unthinkable, but that may well mean some pretty tough love on welfare: no welfare without work is an obvious start.

I also still believe that the issue of illegal- as opposed to legal mostly eastern European- immigration can not be solved unless we address the tens of thousands who have now been resident in the UK for over ten years. I believe an amnesty should indeed be offered to those already here, and then the policing of new immigration could be stepped up as resources are transferred to this, rather than the useless, toothless waste of border agency officials pursuing those already here: we are not going to expel thousands of people who have already integrated well into our country- that really does make no sense. Making these people legal is another way to improve tax receipts too.

However to enact these policies we are going to need to challenge something that is currently being defended rather strongly: the culture of secrecy and lack of accountability in the British government. The temptation to keep things secret is a very strong one for both politicians and state officials, especially in a coalition. Yet it is very dangerous to remove accountability- in the darkness, incompetence and corruption flourish. Paradoxically it also means that the most important state information becomes far more vulnerable to loss or misuse.

I have always opposed ID cards in the UK. I have supported them in Estonia, and this has led some people to suggest that I am being inconsistent. Let me explain why not. The difference is in the relationship that the individual has with the state in Estonia. Firstly, the citizen is allowed to know all the information that the state holds about them. Secondly, the systems are extremely secure: there is no evidence of them ever being successfully penetrated, even when the Russians launched their cyber-war against Estonia three years ago. Finally, the individual is able to find out whenever a state institution accesses their data, and to know which individual did so and for what purpose. Essentially the Estonian state is transparent to its citizens: all government meetings are publicly documented. The only exception is in extremely limited issues of National Security- and all such instances take place under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence or the Kaitsepolitsei: that is it. By contrast the UK presumes that all information is secret and that the citizen has only limited rights to find out even fairly mundane information- even to challenge mistakes in the data. This is what has allowed corruption scandals in the Home Office to be essentially unreported. In any event the British Press is more interested in the cheap thrills of Page Three than the expensive slog of real reportage. (Before the Daily Telegraph gets too smug, I would just note that the expenses scandal story was sold to them- they did not discover it for themselves).

So, perhaps Liberal Democrats and those who sympathise with liberal ideas amongst our coalition partners should now be thinking not just in terms of the nuts and bolts compromises of daily legislation, but also in terms of the big picture: the need for genuine political openness, the need for radical welfare reform, the need to rebuild our national endowment capital. Those who support these genuinely Liberal ideas may be regarded by the Liberal Democrats on the front bench with a questioning eye, but as my friend says: this government will need some clear strategic thinking, and they may be too bound up in tactical battles to see the real goals they need to go for. A Radical Liberal voice could still make all the difference, so at his suggestion I propose a group of like minded liberals, even those amongst the Conservatives as well as the large number in the Liberal Democrats to continue to focus on the big picture, the long term story and the whole vision of Liberalism.

I even like his name for it: the Tallinnban.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Considering the virtues of a coalition with Norman Tebbit

The Rt Hon. The Lord Tebbit of Chingford C.H., a.k.a. the Chingford Strangler, or the "semi house-trained polecat" of Michael Foot's imagination, has been- I think it fair to say- slow to warm to the virtues of coalition. Nevertheless, even he is now prepared to reconsider some of his previous views. He is for the moment amongst the majority in the Conservatives who are, if only pragmatically, prepared to support the idea. There are, however, still a fair number of Conservatives who are- shall we say- ambivalent.

I would be lying if I said that it was all was sweetness and light amongst the Liberal Democrats. There are a number of people who could not support the Conservatives for any reason or at any price: several of them have left the party. There are a number of people who did not understand that the Liberal Democrats meant what they said about how the virtues of coalition and partnership in government could make a transformation to our political system. Equally, and more understandably, there are a number of true Liberal Democrats who regard the coalition as either a strategic or a tactical mistake. This last group may have a point, even if the first two groups can be safely ignored, if only for now. I can understand Nich Starling being disappointed and fearful for the future of the party, but if we are genuinely going to construct a new politics then we are going to have to give a certain amount of trust in order to be trusted.

It is a risk, but given the state of the country and the mathematics in the House of Commons, we must at least dare to take such a risk- for the benefits of more Liberal policies and a more open politics are significant- even necessary- advantages in our struggle to repair the damage to the British economy and society that has been left by Labour. If the Conservatives betray their word, it will be a public betrayal and they may be forced to take the consequences just as much as the Liberal Democrats would were we to fail to live up to the responsibilities given to us in government.

As I think the special conference will show: the party is at least 90% behind the leadership it its sincere attempts to promote the Liberal changes we believe in through this new coalition. In my view, the esteemed Lord Tebbit apart, I suspect that a good third of the Conservatives are actually in shocked denial about what has happened to them. That is a number that means that David Cameron has also has little choice: he too has been forced to take a risk, and if the coalition were to fall, he would certainly be swept away in the aftermath. As it stands, the coalition is a Mexican stand off: neither side can now shoot the other, for fear of being shot in return, yet, for the time being, neither side will relinquish its weapons. The media will -as usual- be trying to create the usual drama and conflict- but even still, I noticed the Daily Telegraph was able to find only a very few Liberal Democrat malcontents. For the time being, the party is prepared to give more than the 20 minute attention span of Sky News to consider the coalition for what it is. So, to my surprise, is Lord Tebbit.

So before some in my party make a fateful decision to leave, I ask them to consider this: we have always said we believed in working with any party in the National Interest. There was neither the means nor the will to construct a stable coalition in any other way. The British political system will continue to get more pluralist, not least through reform that we ourselves can now enact, not just of the House of Commons but also the House of Lords and local government- including more proportional systems than AV (which may in any event become simply a way mark on the road to STV anyway: the way you vote is the same, listing candidates in order of preference, it is only the number of candidates elected that is different: one under AV, more than one under STV). If we have to fight a referendum, so be it: I am a democrat and I am not afraid of putting the policies and principles I believe in to the people in a fair vote. I think we may be surprised to find not only Labour supporters, but also many Conservatives on our side of the referendum campaign.

But there is more: the Liberal Democrats will now be able to promote such policies of fairness as the £10,000 income tax threshold from within the government. While we must accept that the Conservatives have won the great offices of state, nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats can legitimately say to their voters- for the first time- that every single Liberal Democrat vote has helped the party to put at least some of the economic, social and political agenda that they voted for into practice. It is worth noting that such Conservative mistakes, such as the raising of IHT will not now be enacted, while the likelihood of Parliamentary time being granted to waste further hot air on the hunting issue is now also very small.

We have always said that we wanted a positive agenda, so to retreat into small political ghettos because "We hate the Tories" is the antithesis of our real agenda and even more so our real interests and the interests of our country. It is time for us to act with maturity and to accept both the opportunities and the limitations of power. If we can make this government work, then the opportunity to demonstrate by real actions the virtues of our Liberal ideology is extremely significant. It can set out a whole new agenda and structure for politics in the United Kingdom.

I think we should be confident in our own values and if we are, then the absurd lazy stereotypes of bearded, muesli-chomping sandal wearers can finally be laid to rest. We have a party of openness, tolerance, decency and intelligence. I don't think those virtues should be unsullied by power, indeed I think without those virtues in government, the future of our country is bleak indeed. So, if I do not welcome this coalition with euphoria, I welcome it in a spirit of practical politics: we now have a real job to do. Let us roll up our sleeves and go to work to put Liberal principles into practice and Liberal policies into government.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Liberal Democrats face the challenge of government

It has been an interesting few days since Mr. Cameron made his first offer of a coalition to the Liberal Democrats. Now the coalition agreement is published and it is a thoughtful and quite well crafted document. Many will be unhappy that the Liberal Democrats have gone into coalition with the Conservatives, but to my mind there was neither the numbers nor the will for Labour to even come to the table. In the end we will have to place a degree of trust in Mr. Cameron's word: but it is trust which rests on the knowledge that any betrayal of the agreement would be seen as such and either side may be punished if they fail to follow through on their commitments.

The agreement includes a commitment to a fixed Parliament: so the next general election date should be already set for the first Thursday of May 2015: personally I would prefer an October electoral timetable, but May it will now have to be. It includes provisions for a referendum on AV for the House of Commons and to address the constitutional problems that Labour has left with its partial devolution set up. It contains detailed policy agendas for education and the economy.

It is only a start, but with Liberal Democrats not merely providing a critique, but actual and substantive proposals, it is also a challenge to the party: can the new more collaborative and open politics we propose actually function in practice?

The British people will be waiting to give a verdict, but it will be over the full five years that the judgement must be made, not the absurd hundred day timetables that the media likes to insist upon.

We must hope for the best and trust our new leaders- though perhaps only for as long as they can demonstrate that they deserve that trust.

And the winner is...

The 2010 general election has certainly had its twists and turns, culminating in a cliffhanger result. Now, however, it is clear what the shape of the new government will be: a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

It is not going to be an easy ride.

However, the impact of Liberal Democrat voices around the cabinet table could well be profound. In any event, the very nature of a coalition will mean a more open kind of politics. There is also the matter of electoral reform: a referendum has been conceded by the Conservatives as part of the government programme. There is now an agreed programme on education - where in truth the parties' policies were not that different. It is the economy that is now the most important focus, and with Vince Cable taking a senior role, we can at least hope for some coherence and forward thinking here.

The two exhausted negotiating teams should be congratulated on coming out with a detailed programme. Nick Clegg should be congratulated on sticking firm to his principles. David Cameron should be congratulated on becoming Prime Minister at so young an age.

We are in a new political world this morning. For the Liberal Democrats it is a step along the road towards a better political system, but it will be a tricky path to follow. Our country faces new challenges, but let us hope that with intelligence and good will we can face up to these challenges and build a country that more accurately reflects the will of its people and which can deliver better economic and social conditions for the whole nation.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Confrontation and Coalition

The vituperation falling upon the Liberal Democrats from the Conservative press is not a pretty sight.

The people have spoken, and now it is up to the politicians that they have elected to behave responsibly and calmly in order to create a government that will serve out the Parliament and establish a stable framework for the decisions that must now be taken to strengthen our economy and our politics.

The Conservatives have offered a coalition beyond a confidence and supply agreement, and that is -at least on the surface- a handsome gesture. Labour have removed their leader, knowing that the British public would not tolerate his return to office. However the mathematics of the new Parliament does not permit Labour to form anything but an unstable and fractious multi-party coalition. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have more in common in their approach to the economy too.

Nevertheless, certain figures within the Liberal Democrats, such as Sir Menzies Campbell and Baroness Williams remain deeply concerned about going into a coalition with David Cameron. I can understand their point of view, but I do not agree with it. The fact is that the only stable coalition that can be formed is Liberal Democrat and Conservative.

Nevertheless, there are two critical points that the Conservatives must understand. Without electoral reform, such a coalition would be enormously damaging to the Liberal Democrats: PR, at least for an elected House of Lords and local councils should be conceded, while the possibility of AV/AV+ reform of votes for the House of Commons must be put to referendum. This is the minimum that the Liberal Democrats must insist on. Furthermore, the programme for both economic and political change must be agreed for a minimum fixed term. There can be no early election until these measures are passed, and again this must be a red line. Ideally Mr. Cameron should set the date for the next general election as part of the coalition agreement.

Unless these measures can be agreed, then a coalition can probably not be constructed in the way that Mr. Cameron hopes. Nevertheless, despite the wishes of Sir Ming and Lady Williams, a coalition with Labour would not pass the triple lock within the Liberal Democrats. I for one could not support such a coalition.

So, in the next few hours we can either agree a common programme with Mr. Cameron or agree that he goes it alone. Any deal with the SNP would be a catastrophe, and any deal with Labour would be in my view unacceptable to the majority of the British electorate, including many of those that voted for the Liberal Democrats. Labour lost more than the Conservatives did and the fair play of the British would take their return to office very ill indeed.

In the end, we have to trust to the fair dealing of the negotiating team. It is fair- even essential- to consider all options, but the reality is that there is on one coalition that works, and however reluctantly and subject to the points I make above, this is the one that we are trying to construct.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Liberal Democrats: the red lines with the Conservatives

I was only campaigning for the General Election during the last week, but staying up for nearly thirty hours on election day left me slightly groggy. Meanwhile after the utter exhaustion of months of campaigning- David Cameron apparently solidly for the last two days- our political leaders have been plunged into a process that requires acute political judgement. David Laws looks like he has lost about 15 kilos- I suspect that none of the figures now being forced to discuss the formation of the next government are in particularly great shape.

Nevertheless the Liberal Democrats have a particular responsibility. Even though the result looks disappointing compared to the polls during the campaign, it still led to many thousands more people voting Liberal Democrat compared to 2005. The same number of votes, differently distributed could have given 10 more seats or 10 less- the electoral system does not reflect the democratic will: it is a lottery. It must be changed.

The question is whether David Cameron fully understood that when he made his offer of a coalition to the Liberal Democrats. Without electoral reform, the Liberal Democrats as a party can not enter into any arrangement with any other party. If David Cameron does not accept this, then he can not rely on the support of the Liberal Democrats. The Labour Party- leaderless and defeated is not the ideal party for the Liberal Democrats to work with. The numbers, even with Nationalist and Green support, are pretty poor, but immediate legislation to reform the voting system is a real prospect.

Nevertheless, in my judgement it was and is right to give the right to form a government to Mr. Cameron, particularly when it was obvious that Gordon Brown should not stay on as Prime Minister. Even though a Rainbow coalition of Labour-Liberal Democrat-Green-Nationalist-Aliiance-SDLP etc. is a theoretical possibility, it is a practical nightmare. The Conservatives are prepared to form a common platform on economic issues, and there is a clear agenda to do this.

However the sticking point remains: electoral reform. polling nearly a quarter of the vote but getting less than 10% of the seats is a travesty, and the Liberal Democrats can not accept the status quo.

Can Mr. Cameron bring his party with him on electoral reform? Does he even want to?

We will know within a couple of days I guess.

Friday, May 07, 2010

FPTP- RIP?

A long night at the count for Gordon, where Malcolm Bruce was able to hold his seat in fine style: a tribute to a fine local MP. Equally Sir Robert Smith held West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine in the face of a determined challenge.

However, across the country, though the people may have spoken, what they are saying has been ignored.

The Liberal Democrats won many thousand more votes than last time, but we must content ourselves with a smaller Parliamentary representation. The defence of the First Past the Post electoral system is that is is supposed to deliver more stable governments, albeit at the expense of the democratic will. Now, it is difficult to establish what should happen. The fact is that the country must now face considerable uncertainty in the face of such a distorted result. The difference between the Liberal Democrats holding 55 seats and holding more than 70 seats is a bare few hundred votes.

This makes a farce of our democracy. Without electoral reform, Britain can no longer claim that its government reflects the will of the people in anything more than an approximation. Both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Brown should now reflect on the new reality. It is clear that Labour can not hold on to power- and any attempt to do so would lead to disaster. Mr. Cameron has more votes and -barely- more seats. He has a mandate, however imperfectly, to try to form a government. In the face of the the economic crisis, David Cameron must now take on the responsibility to form a government in the national interest.

If David Cameron does want to form a stable government, he must now consider not just the policies the UK needs to tackle the economic crisis, but also the political crisis: and that must include recognition that the electoral system does not reflect how people voted: it has distorted it.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Early Morning

Arisen early in order to deliver Good Morning leaflets across the constituency. With a possible pause for a famed Lib Dem Bacon Roll around 11 (and a snooze in the late afternoon) I guess it will be solid all the way through until the count tonight.

I will be in the Aberdeen Conference Centre, which is also in the constituency, acting as a polling agent. So I hope to see, not merely the re-election of Malcolm Bruce and Sir Robert Smith, but also the election of many new Liberal Democrat MPs too.

It has been a long campaign- after all it really began when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister- Yet this may prove to be not the culmination of such a long period, but the beginning of a new era of British politics.

The Russians have an expression: "we hoped for the best, but it turned out like always". For the Liberal Democrats and the Liberals before that has been the story of successive elections. This time the campaign has been different: the success of Nick Clegg has done more than raise morale: it has reminded all the voters that they can- if they choose- make a profound difference.

I don't know the result, no one does, but I think that the Liberal Democrats are on course for the best election result for the Liberal interest in over 100 years. We should be proud of our campaign, proud of our principles, proud of our leaders.

Now, on polling day itself, we must play the mechanics of the electoral process: leaflets, knock-ups and the rest of it. I wish an enjoyable day to all participants, and the best of success to my Liberal Democrat colleagues.

Good Luck Dad!

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The election of 2010

No one knows what will happen in the general election tomorrow- not the pollsters, not the politicians, and probably not the voters.

There is an opportunity to make a radical change in the way our country is run. There is an opportunity to turn away from the destructive political culture, rooted in the vested interests of the two party system. There is an opportunity to create a more open political system which can look more widely for talent to tackle the problems that we face- experts with real experience well beyond the political bubble.

The question is will the British people make the leap and seize the opportunity. They could turn to David Cameron- a product of the system to his finger tips. They could stick with Gordon Brown- a Prime Minister with a list of failed polices that is now long indeed.

The political class is in confusion. It is a confusion caused by the Liberal Democrats. There is something new on offer: and it is the wisdom of Liberal economics rooted in the politics of openness. Holding our leaders to account, changing the electoral system to allow the real voice of the people to be heard, reordering our system so the people, not the political class control our country.

After a day in drizzle in Huntly, Tarves, Oldmeldrum and Inverurie I will be up early tomorrow to deliver the last leaflet in Huntly. I will be at the count in Aberdeen. I hope, as the numbers come through, that the voters of Gordon will re-elect Malcolm Bruce, the voters of West Aberdeenshire will vote for Sir Robert Smith and that John Sleigh will take Aberdeen South and Kristian Chapman will take Aberdeen North for the Liberal Democrats.

It has been a long campaign. I am proud of the impact that our party has made. We have made our case in a way that has persuaded millions of people to vote for us- many for the first time.

It is up to the people of the North East, the people of Scotland and the whole United Kingdom to finally seize the opportunity - but it will not be the end of the process, but only the beginning.

The definition of Pyrrhic

As the campaign enters its last hours we continue to canvass and leaflet on the ground, slightly oblivious to the air war going on in the media. At the end of each day we have returned home late and absorbed the impact of such news as there is. The Tory press are in overdrive: spinning so wildly for their chosen party that it is almost comic. The latest earth shattering news is that Simon Cowell has- apparently- endorsed the Conservatives.

Hmm... So a perma-tanned multi-millionaire who has built his rather questionable reputation on the most tawdry and manipulative television supports the Tories. I am sure a nation will mourn.

In fact the press has practically become a joke- quite often they no longer even bother with facts. Their stock is not only misinformation- the spreading of half-truths and distortions- but disinformation- complete fabrication. I was once told that politicians complaining about the press is like the rest of us complaining about the weather- I suppose it is true, but I will have sharp words to say to my friends in the media after this election nevertheless. Their profession has, in general, behaved contemptibly.

Is it working? Is the Conservative Party set for power? Well the answer I think is maybe and maybe. However the three Chinese curses are "May you live in interesting times", "May you come to the attention of the authorities" and worst of all "May you obtain what you wish for".

The mathematics of the absurd electoral system we use in the UK makes the prospect of a "majority" on 36% of the vote possible but extremely iffy. It will depend exactly on the precise splits of the vote in any given constituency. Even on the same overall national percentages, the Conservatives could hit a majority of about 15 or be short by over fifty seats. So despite the spinning of the press that Mr. Cameron is on course to be the Prime Minister, it is not- even now- a done deal. The voters have yet to speak, and as has been proven in the past, it is very dangerous to take them for granted.

The Conservatives seem to think that the endorsement of a self-satisfied creep like Cowell gives them momentum. It will carry them over the line and they can then start work on their government programme.

Firstly, I don't think that Sinitta's ex is that popular.

Secondly, with the Conservative vote even down in many places compared to what they gained in 2005, it is laughable for the Tories to speak of victory - it is a terrible result from an awful campaign.

Finally, the people have not yet spoken, and they have a history of punishing arrogance. Even if the Tories can claim some kind of a mandate from the vote tomorrow, it would be a tawdry victory indeed. A Cameron government resting on such a low vote would face a fire storm from the very beginning: its very legitimacy would be in question. It would take a leader with far better skills than Mr. Cameron has so far demonstrated to face the consequences of such a victory.

It would be the antithesis of the Blair victory of 1997- instead of a wave of relief and euphoric
enthusiasm, the mood would be sullen and resentful. Any honeymoon would be measured in days rather than months. As the economic crisis closes in, I think it would not be long before the word "hapless" is used quite freely to describe Mr. Cameron and Mr. Osborne. If the Tories seek to govern alone on such a dubious basis, then they must take the consequences. As the Governor of the Bank of England is said to have remarked: "whichever party wins will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be".

There must be many leading Tories privately praying to avoid such a Pyrrhic victory.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Waiting for the Earthquake

In recent weeks a serious of Earth tremors in California have reminded people there that the state is still waiting for "the Big One"- a move on a major fault line, like the famed San Andreas fault, that would cause a once-in-a-century massive Earthquake. It was 1906 when the last major 'quake took place, causing the near-destruction of the City of San Francisco, and such 'quakes have historically taken place roughly once every 90 years: after 104 years we are still waiting, and the underground pressures are building up to ever higher levels. When the fault ruptures, the size of the earthquake could indeed be a real monster.

Nor is California alone. In Japan, the roughly 60 year cycle of major quakes in the Tokyo bay area has also been broken: the last 'quake was the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which also caused massive destruction to the Japanese capital. Istanbul is also waiting for an overdue earthquake. The point is that these events could take place tomorrow, of they may yet slumber for some decades. However, the longer the delay, the more the tectonic pressures will create an even larger movement of the Earth's crust. When- not if- the 'quakes occur, they will be dramatic and devastating events. They will dominate the news cycle.

Meanwhile in Britain we too await our own earthquake- albeit a political one. This election has seen a tired Labour government look lacklustre. The Conservatives had hoped to seize the moment to take power themselves simply because the voters desired "change". That hope may prove vain. The Tories are getting little more support than they did when Michael Howard was leader. Though Conservative Central Office still hopes that the distortions of the voting system may still deliver more than 50% of the seats and 100% of the power, even on not much more than 34% of those who vote (and less than 20% of those eligible), the fact is that the Conservatives too have looked pretty pedestrian in this campaign.

For a long time, Liberals and Liberal Democrats have believed that the root of many of the problems of the UK lies in the distorted electoral system that frustrates transparency and smothers accountability. In some ways the evasion of responsibility that is routine amongst British politicians is justified- they rarely know, still less understand, the details of the brief for which they are nominally responsible. We have created a political system based on secrecy and dotted lines, where political leaders are far more in the power of unelected civil servants than the other way round. Meanwhile the scandal of "safe seats" has created a class of MP who is happy to help themselves- knowing that the ability of the voters to punish them is severely hampered by the voting system. For years, even decades, the contradictions and anomalies of the British political system have grown. Yet the tectonic pressure for reform has grown too.

The Liberal Democrat analysis of the problems in the political system is now being echoed far more widely than ever. As the economic crisis has grown, so the incestuous links between the lobbyists for vested interests and the political class have been revealed. The attacks on the Liberal Democrats by the Murdoch Press have been revealed as little more than a campaign to protect the power of these vested interest by media figures who are paid to support their proprietor's line. This election has seen a further step in the decline of the idea of the press as an independent check on the political system: the media is so completely compromised by its direct involvement.

Yet the Lib Dems have also been in the vanguard of an insurrection against the entrenched interests of newspaper proprietors: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube all have more users by far than the old fashioned press. It is here that the Lib Dems have made dramatic progress indeed. Millions of voters have now seen directly what the principles, ideas and policies can offer them, and despite the unrelenting media hostility- including flat lies being published- many are liking what they see.

Over long years the Liberals and Liberal Democrats have hoped to see the political earthquake in Britain that can allow greater transparency and accountability to come to our politics. For years we have thought that such change would come soon- and each election we have been disappointed, and even though we have often made progress it has not been enough.

Now I see the pre-tremors that seem to herald "the Big One": the failure of Labour to govern, the failure of the Conservatives to inspire, is more than matched by the enthusiasm we have seen at every meeting where Nick Clegg has spoken. The determination and positive vision of Liberal Democrats is now being recognised by the voters. As we enter the last days of this campaign, even though the media are trying to reduce each party to a one line cliche, I see things that I never thought to see even in my wildest hopes. It is clear that the Liberal Democrats have won the campaign in fine style: despite being the poorest party, despite the twisted agenda of self-interested media barons, and despite the determination of the establishment that the broken two-party system should remain unchanged.

As the rumble grows louder, I feel the fault lines of British politics stirring into life after being long dormant. The British people are preparing to make a radical change- not the mere cosmetic changes proposed by Lab/Con. As I think of the many Liberals I have known over the decades who would have loved to have seen these days but who did not live long enough, I reflect that the battle is still far from over. In many ways the Earthquake is only half the story: next will come the slow construction of a new, more open political system based on more solid economics and on much fairer political and social foundations.

The Earthquake we are seeing is that the Liberal Democrat voice is being heard, and respected, and voted for, in numbers not seen in a century.

Now: back to the doorsteps... we have only two days left to make the earthquake a reality.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Alex Salmond: pantomime villain

In the four-seasons-in-one-day weather of the Aberdeenshire coast I get into the rhythm of the election campaign. The mechanics of leafleting, avoiding the problems that dogs and tight letter boxes may bring. My mind wanders as the repetition of gate opening, walking to the door with folded leaflet ready, posting and returning builds up. First tens, then twenties, odds, evens, side streets, all build up into a pattern. Then walk one, walk two, walk three; the slight tiredness of being in the open air, the wind, the sun, the occasional spits and spots of rain. Thus leafleting. With canvassing, the organisation of the clipboard, the check of the name, the confident walk to the door- more external than internal- the knock on the door, of the ringing of the bell. "I'm calling on behalf"... "can we rely on your support this time"... "Do you think?" "Thank you for your time". Blue doors, red doors, different men, different women, and the responses: "Dad's not in", "never vote your way" "Always support..."

Thus the campaign unfolds on the ground.

Meanwhile I reflect on last nights leaders debate here in Scotland. It was a shockingly amateurish affair, the way it was broadcast reminded me of the "Good Old Days"- an old time variety show on television in the 1970s. Alex Salmond- now a bloated and jowly figure- continues his slightly sinister bullying tactics. At one point, as the Moderator yet again defers to "The First Minister" I reflect how pointless the SNP is becoming. Salmond himself is not standing for the Westminster Parliament, and although he has taken a duel salary for several years he claims to have donated his Westminster income "to charity". However, since that "charity" seems to focus entirely on Mr. Salmond's Scottish Parliamentary constituency, it looks uncomfortably like bribing the electorate of Gordon with their own money. It is hard for Alex Salmond to grasp that his time may already be past: he seems to spend much of his time trying to boost the Liberal Democrats. It is only when Salmond mentions them that the moderator takes any notice of Alastair Carmichael- serious and highland lilting. Indeed the three national parties have sent actual Westminster candidates and all of them debate the issues. However the Scottish media have a vested interest in promoting the SNP- and sure enough some of Mr. Salmonds more egregious "mis-speakings" are not picked up, still less challenged- even when the other contenders raise the various issues where the SNP is vulnerable.

The SNP has sent Salmond- which they think is a trump card- but increasingly his bluster is not applauded by the audience. He has no answers to the big questions of this campaign. He had forced the BBC to take him and no other SNP representative, even though he is not a candidate in this election. It is a bit like some heckler at a meeting- a lot of noise and attention, but essentially not part of the debate. Indeed, by forcing himself forward into centre stage he exposes the essential vacuity of his arguments.

He thought he would be Prince Charming. He looks more like King Rat.