Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The 2015 UK election... Full of Sound and Fury

I have held off commenting on the UK general election in too much detail. Partly because I have found it so disappointingly provincial that it has been a challenge to sort between the electoral shallowness of each of the pitiful manifestos.

At a time when the UK faces existential challenges: the threat of another European war; a global economy whose life-support is fading by the day; a failing and spectacularly expensive public sector; and any of another thirty or forty serious problems, it is shocking how weak the response of the politicians has been. Yet in truth I do not blame the political talking heads themselves- in the end it is the ignorance of the voters that is driving the most dumbed-down election that I can ever remember. The sophistication of the parties' voter ID systems has already eliminated the most egregious points of debate, and 90% of the electoral resources of the political parties are now focused on the 20% of seats that will actually decide the outcome, and here the messages are in simple primary colours. The necessary nuances are lost to cheap populism and all the sophistication of a reality TV show.

Only the Liberal Democrats have put out a consistent and coherent manifesto, and their reasonable costed programme has been drowned out by Conservatives pitching to estate agents -allowing social housing tenants to sell their houses at a guaranteed profit to large corporations- or Labour economic illiteracy- imposing rent controls guaranteed to turn entire districts into slums. This and the creepy weirdness of UKIP is now unaccountably more popular than a grown up programme for Liberal government. 

In the face of the contempt of the media and the intolerance of the electorate it has been impressive, even moving to see so many Liberal Democrats carrying out the campaign with cheerful good humour, even in places where it is incredibly hard even to get a hearing.  Yet the polls have not moved too much, and the hoped-for recovery is still looking pretty elusive. Despite heroic efforts, the party is facing a very difficult election indeed.

One week out from the general election, and with many votes already cast, it remains to be seen what will happen. Yet one thing is now clear. The need for constitutional change is now more urgent than ever- again not a theme of the general election campaign, but then so far despite the crisis the UK faces, it seems that the voters want to talk about anything except the very real mess that they are in.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Election Choices

The achievements of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats in government have been remarkable. In the face of an economic crisis where many commentators were predicting the economic collapse of the UK, the coalition has taken decisions which have left the country in far better shape than they found it. Britain has performed better than almost all its peers, and there is little doubt, that in raising the tax threshold and defeating the SNP referendum to break up the UK, it has been Liberal Democrats who have been the first out of the trenches. Liberal Democrat ministers, from Ed Davey to Steve Webb, to David Laws, have proven to be better informed, better prepared and far more effective than their Conservative colleagues. From the point of view of managerial efficiency, the Liberal Democrats have undoubtedly proven that they have all the requisite skills and more to deliver effective government of this country.

So it is more than a little frustrating to see the party continue to languish at single figures in the opinion polls. Even more so when one considers the contrasting support for UKIP and the Greens. The astonishingly cavalier approach of UKIP MEPs shows a profound contempt for the voters who pay them. The number cases of outright corruption, even criminality that has afflicted UKIP suggests that the party is completely unqualified for elected office, and their major policy- withdrawal from the European Union- is now supported by an ever dwindling bunch of fruit cakes. As for the Greens, their declared anti-growth politics are simply Luddite and would lead to social and economic chaos- and wouldn't even achieve the protection of the environment that they say they want.

As for the Conservatives and Labour, the shouting match over such issues as the NHS is simply dishonest. The Health Service may well be entering a crisis, but it is not an issue of "Tory cuts", as Labour would have you believe: the crisis is structural and very long term. The solutions are not merely financial, they are highly complex and will involve taking difficult decisions- perhaps charging for hospital food, for example, or major restructuring of primary care- including changing the way we train GPs, to take another example. The campaign attempts at scaremongering so cheapens the debate as to make it irrelevant to the future of the NHS or anything else for that matter.

Meanwhile the elephant in the living room remains the urgent need to rearm in the face of the aggression of Putin's Russia. Not one politician has admitted the implications of Putin's war in Ukraine must include preparing to defend ourselves and our NATO allies from attack by the criminal in the Kremlin. The impact of this necessary- indeed critical- expenditure has been minimized or ignored completely- a truly appalling dereliction of duty, especially when in private all sides admit that there is a serious problem.

The tax crisis in the UK is also simply ignored- at a time when HMRC employs more people than our entire armed forces and when the costs of tax administration are approaching £50 billion, and when the rules are simply too complicated to be fairly enforced, it is absurd that the subject is not even being tackled. The whole catastrophic  situation is reduced to "scrounger vs tax dodger", and the real issues are ignored. The system is so broken that inevitably more and more are seeking to opt out- and this crisis of legitimacy will get worse. When even the HMRC itself uses tax sheltering schemes, you know the crisis has arrived.

So the election campaign has started in a cloud of delusion. The so-called leaders debates were irrelevant beauty contests, which have taken place so early in the campaign precisely in order to limit their impact. In any event it is hard to believe that such an over-rehearsed and stilted media event could have any impact at all. The politicians seem so scared of putting a foot wrong, that they lack all conviction.

Yet I know that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats- for all their now vaunted managerial efficiency- do not lack conviction. The conviction to continue to press for major constitutional reform remains at the heart of the party; the conviction to press for a fairer tax system, and the courage to face down Putin- all of this I know that Nick Clegg possesses. I just want to hear the Liberal Democrats articulate their distinctive vision of freedom and fairness in a way that connects- because the consequences of the eclipse of the Liberal Democrats will be far more serious for Britain than all but the most prescient commentators now suggest. 

So in my brief trip back to the UK over Easter I am now off to deliver some leaflets on behalf of Martin Horwood, and I hope that the British people can recover their faith in the Liberal Democrats sufficiently to recognize that they have been and remain a force for good in British politics.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Russia loses it

On a day when Vladimir Putin threatens nuclear war to try to break up NATO, the painful and unnecessary deaths of at least 54 Russian sailors just emphasizes how cheap human life is in a country where people are simply giving up hope.

It is a contemptible display from a government that is rapidly losing its grip on reality.

Meanwhile a small glimpse of the nature of Russian propaganda has been given by former workers in Russia's "Troll's House".

The struggles within the regime are now increasingly open: the Russian chauvinism of some significant elements in the FSB versus the corruption of the Chechens. Ostensibly this is a struggle that pits ethnic Russians versus non-ethnic Russians, but in reality it is a straight forward battle for power. Putin may have found a modus vivendi for the time being, but the army is increasingly unhappy about the Ukrainian adventure- which according to some sources has now cost nearly 6000 Russian soldiers their lives, with significant casualties on top of this. The Ukrainian army, despite deficits in both men an material has been able to create major problems for the Russian invaders, and international observers have been surprised by the poor Russian command tactics and equipment that the invasion has revealed. 

As Putin grows ever more shrill, there is almost a sense not of fear but of pity, even faint amusement. Any use of nuclear force is a gamble that could simply destroy the user. Although the threats were denied by Dimitri Peskov, Putin's grim-faced Goebbels, the fact is that there are more than sufficient witnesses to prove Peskov to be a liar, yet again.

I myself merely smiled when Peskov said that Putin still had "a bone crushing  handshake". I have actually shaken Putin's hand, and it was like shaking hands with a rather unpleasant fish. 

The dead Russian sailors in the Sea of Okhotsk and the dead Russian soldiers in Ukraine merely show how dangerous the Criminal in the Kremlin is... to the Russian people.