Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Liberal Democrats: We are not dead yet

As the rumbles of the Euro-massacre continue with mutinous mutterings across the Liberal Democrats, it is worth stepping back and thinking about where were could realistically recover to in the course of the next few weeks and months, and, post the general election election in May 2015, years 
Personally I think that the difficulties of changing leader are so large, and the probable benefits so marginal, because of the damage that it would cause, that it is simply not worth it.
So what should we do instead?
I agree we absolutely need to refocus and to change our way of doing things, but to be honest the false hope that people are investing in a coup de partie against Nick is arguably a substitute for dealing with the real problem of how we have failed to set the political weather at the outset of the coalition, especially because we were outplayed on AV and tuition fees, and how trashed the Party image now is. A civil war will make things much worse, not better.
Meanwhile, our belief in real constitutional reform in the UK is going to get very topical after the Scottish referendum, I think we should propose a British convention to address the corruption of safe seats, the democratic deficit, the nonsense of the House of Lords and all the rest, not to mention greater home rule for Scotland, Wales and of course speaking up for Home Rule for England in a new federal UK. In the eyes of the voters "politics as usual" is the problem, and few understand how radical we are in opposing that. It is pro-active, positive and principled to do this. More than that, it might even strike a chord with the jaded and volatile voting public. 

We need to attack the insane UK tax code, which at nearly 12,000 pages is one of the longest in the world and which mostly exists to reduce the burden on the rich and increase it on the poor. There is genuine anger at how unwieldy and expensive it is, even for the most basic tax payer, to comply with the rules. Radical tax reform is an idea whose time is overdue, and we can lead that rebellion.

Benefits reform- the integration of tax and benefits especially- should be part of the simplification and if the rules become more transparent, then again this can be a popular policy. Steve Webb's measures on pensions will ultimately have huge positive benefits, we should shout about it.

And by the way, these are policies we already have adopted in great detail. We just need to sell them!

The problem is that in trying to defend the coalition, we are fighting the battles of the past, not the future. We should spend the next year saying what we need to do next and barely mentioning the coalition at all. We need to talk about the future and why our ideas are not merely relevant, but essential.

We are not dead yet. But we might be, unless we look to the future.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Its not the Lib Dem leader that is the problem...

I am encouraged by some of the comments that people have been expressing about my early thoughts about the UK Liberal Democrats, post the Euro-massacre. I am rather less than encouraged by those self-indulgent folk who have decreed that the Liberal Democrats problems can be solved by an early change of leadership. Especially since it is self-evidently not the case.

I say self-indulgent because, actually, I think Nick Clegg has actually come very close to quitting. I think he has taken this defeat extremely personally. I would like to ask those who are open enough to front the #libdems4change what they hell they think they are going to gain by replacing Clegg with Cable?

Its not as if we have not been here before. The short-run sugar hit of the attention of a leadership change would soon lead to the media doing to Vince what they did to Ming Campbell under unfortunately similar circumstances. Change must come in time, but it has to be measured and intelligent, not the force majeure that allegedly perennial rent-a-critic Matthew Oakeshott and John Hemming seem to think is required. Incidentally, Hemming has clearly not consulted with Parliamentary colleagues, who would tell him in no uncertain terms that he is making a complete balls up of things.

So Clegg is safe, and probably rightly so. 

The problem is that this is now a very difficult chess game, and making decisions in the heat of the moment will bring about precisely the massacre that the #libdems4change say they want to avoid. The fault is in the image of the party at least as much as the image of the leader. So I earnestly entreat my friends and colleagues across the party to take a time out and reflect about the faults of the party as a whole and how we can re-establish our message based on our core values, rather than the tactics of short-run policy making or stabbing Nick Clegg in the back.

This is about portraying our values, creating trust, remaining true to Liberalism. 

It is not about the media narrative of leadership crisis, treachery and party splits.

So enough already, or we will be headed back to our constituencies and preparing for unemployment and a Britain which will be massively worse off as Liberalism is eclipsed for who knows how long. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

UK Liberal Democrat Euro Mess

OK, so it's the Euro elections, where the Liberal Democrats *usually* under perform. OK, so this does not mean that UKIP will form the next government, and OK, so the Tories, less so, and Labour, more so, face problems with the implications of the results too. Nevertheless there is no getting away from the fact that the 2014 European elections have been a thoroughgoing disaster for the UK Liberal Democrats. I feared, going in, that we would be down to three MEPs, in fact we only held one, and that by the skin of our teeth. So there is no easy way to gloss or spin this- it is a massive blow.

We have- had- extremely good and well respected MEPs, but in the end this election was not about Europe. Even as UKIP made major advances, the latest polls, for the first time in years, if not decades, show support for staying in the EU outstripping those who would leave. Most voters cheerfully accept that most if not all the UKIP MEPs are pretty useless, lazy and hypocritical. Some may even be fully fledged loonies, racists and fruit cakes, but that is not the point. It was "politics" in general that the punters were making a statement about, and UKIP has definitively stolen the Lib Dem clothes of being the anti-politics party.

The problem is not, as some of the so-called "Radical Liberals" have been unhelpfully declaring this evening, that the voters are rejecting "the Orange Bookers". Even if we had been able to join with Labour in 2010 and the Social Liberal agenda had gained a decisive advantage, I believe we would very likely be in a pretty similar position. I will not say that this is simply because some deus ex machina dictates that smaller coalition parties always get damaged, because I don't believe that to be true anyway. Rather, we have contaminated our brand, to use the unlovely language of marketing, because we have failed to articulate why we do what we do. The compromises of coalition, whether with right or left, are messy, but we have not explained our core values to the voters. Without that clarity, we have come to look opportunist and dishonest- only in it for the power, not for the principle.

To be fair Nick Clegg has tried to speak up for Liberal values, and often in a way I totally applaud. Nevertheless the failure of the AV campaign is now revealed as the precursor to disaster. Our failure to achieve even the first tiny step on the road to real constitutional change was the critical moment in the life of this government, and all the pupil premium, tax free rates and other policy wonk esoterica that have been our declared successes are, I am afraid,so much ash. We are a party that at its core believes that the UK needs complete reform, and if all we do- as I believe we do- is simply provide better administration, then we water down our core message to irrelevance. So-called Economic or or so-called Social Liberals were united by our commitment to Political and Constitutional Liberalism, and as it now seems by not too much else. 

The bitterest irony in all of this is that the anti politics wave of UKIP (and indeed the brief frisson of the prospective Clegg surge in the 2010 election campaign) shows that large number of voters share our determination that something radical must be done to shake up not merely the administration of government, but the fundamental mechanisms of politics. By taking on the messy compromises of government and yet failing to articulate our radical, reforming anti-Establishment agenda, we have ended up, in Bill Newton-Dunn's felicitous phrase, "talking complete bollocks".

So we have blundered into a disastrous trap.

Well first things first, this is not a good time to panic and it is an even worse time to go though a leadership election. So Ros Kayes, Lembit Opik et al- put a sock in it. Clegg made a balls up of the Farage debate, but otherwise his resilience is not far short of astonishing. On the Euro results we would be down to a handful of MPs and a generations work would have ended. However, the locals are- barely- a bit more encouraging: on those numbers we are in the 30-40 MP range, which is bad, but frankly in the 1970s and 1980s, we would have felt pretty chuffed. Critically, the vote for both the Tories or Labour may not be much above 33%, and the two parties will be evenly matched. Even if UKIP gain a few MPs, as now, for the first time, seems possible, that will only add to the pressure for electoral reform. In other words, it may be that we can get a second hung Parliament and most improbably, a second bite of the cherry. Obviously that has got to be the goal that we pursue relentlessly and that means that we need to hold our nerve for the next 12 months, despite the thumping we just received.

Nevertheless we need to back away from the minutiae of policy wonkdom and articulate a constitutional and political vision that is worthy of the party of Gladstone. The one encouraging thing about these results is the election of a UKIP MEP in Scotland- it is a poke in the eye for the SNP that reinforces the likely narrative of a No victory in the Scottish referendum. Yet that referendum should not be the end of a constitutional process- it should be the beginning. Lib Dems should be speaking up now for a British constitutional convention that addresses deep and unpopular problems, like the lack of an English Parliament or Parliaments, like the mess of weak and competing local governments, and -of course- the need for voting reform. These are core Liberal values and if we gain ownership of them now, then we can help to lead the debate, not- as we were in the AV vote- the victim of the debate.

So we can't return to coalition as usual, and no, we can't start bickering with the Tories, because that would look manufactured. We can -must- start talking about the things we would do differently, and that is not policy details, but political vision. We need to sell the big picture, the visionary narrative and show the determination to change the political system, not merely administer the current system more effectively.

Can we do that?

I don't know, but I do know that negativity and bickering is for losers. We are now so few that we know most members of the party by sight. The other parties are in barely better shape. We have to consider a whole new way of doing things, but I believe that Liberal vision, properly articulated, can be inspiring to a new generation of supporters, and to be honest, what have we got to lose now?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Curate's Egg... So Far

Well, let's not kid ourselves, it was another pretty gruesome night for the Liberal Democrats. 

Yet although losses in Kingston, Cambridge, Portsmouth, and Haringey are all painful (with, doubtless more to come, as I write), the fact is that the Lib Dems actually do have a few gleams of comfort amongst the ash. Although these gleams come not so much in the results, but in the implications of the results. 

The surge in UKIP support this time is creating problems across the board for both Labour and the Conservatives. In fact Labour must be deeply concerned that they are not hitting as many of their targets as they did in the last round of voting. So although a pretty horrible night for so many Lib Dems, the fact is that in relative terms our pain is not so severe as it has been.  So far, based on these results, we can begin to see the floor of Lib Dem support, and that floor may yet allow the party to defy predictions and play king-maker again in 2015. There is still the prospect of a no-overall-control Parliament, and with a bloc of 40+ seats, the party may yet have a decisive role to play- which has certainly not been the view for some time now.

I firmly believe that a fair minded analysis will reveal that the Liberal Democrats have played a genuinely positive role in government, and do not deserve the vituperation that has come at them from the media and their political opponents. However, we still have to get through the European count before we know the full level of the damage this time round. We are braced for a wipeout, and even a good result would still see the party lose half of its MEPs. I will write further on where the party can go from here, once all the results are finally in on Sunday or Monday.    

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Plus ca change...

After a prolonged hiatus, I have decided to resurrect this blog.

The same battles are still being fought. We still do not know how the challenge of Russian neo-fascism will be met. We still do not know how the European Union can maintain liberty and democracy in the face of the economic complexities that it has created. We still do not know if the UK can meet the challenge of Scottish separatism. We still do not know how Liberty can be protected in the face of the multiple challenges of technology, fear and greed.

In Britain, tonight is the eve of the European and some local elections, in some of the rest of the EU, the vote is already taking place, although for most the official polling day is on 25th May. Normally I would be out canvassing or delivering for the Liberal Democrats, but a thousand miles away, in Estonia, the challenge of UKIP seems more absurd than threatening. Doubtless the UK media who have been unearthing the ancient scandals of lazy, stupid or incompetent (not to mention racist and not a little dotty) UKIP MEPs during the campaign- well done the Tory attack dogs there- will revert to "government in crisis as UKIP surge" once the results are in. I for my part have already voted- on line of course- in the Estonian EU elections. I wish I could vote for one of the excellent British Liberal Democrat MEPs that are in danger of being ousted by drastically inferior competitors. However, as a permanent resident of Estonia, I have chosen to make a difference here.

In a way the Euro campaign reflects the reality of British politics as a whole. The train wreck of Ed Miliband trying to bluff and bullshit his way out of a trap on BBC Radio Wiltshire was cringe-making and hilarious at the same time. The circus of UKIP has come under sustained attack and Farage too has been revealed as a lying bullshitter. Meanwhile the coalition hunkers down- Cameron hoping to hold his ground and Clegg- who had the nous, but not, alas, the killer instinct, to challenge Farage first- will be hoping to avoid another evening of outright catastrophe. The Liberal Democrats have become the blame hound of British politics, but as I watch honourable and decent candidates stand up for the Liberal vision I feel a certain frustration that the shallow ignorance of the British political discourse is trashing Lib Dem support for mistakes that are more obvious and outrageous in the other parties- not least the nasty and pointless UKIP. The fact is that it is Labour for their incompetence and UKIP for their triviality and greed that should be being punished at these elections.

So, I wish my Liberal Democrat  friends and colleagues the best of luck. I think we can limit the damage somewhat this time, and if we do, then I hope that the next few months will see a fairer assessment of the considerable achievements of Liberal Democrats in government.

And anyway, after all, it is never over until the return officer clears his throat!