Thursday 31 January 2013

Africa: we never learn

The current fighting in Mali is once again leading westerners to interpret events in simplistic terms: the global battle against Al Qaeda. But these blind and arrogant perceptions have a high cost. When on previous occasions western governments have intervened in northern Africa, their policies have proved counter-productive, fuelling a hatred and distrust of Europe and America, which in turn has massively helped the Islamist cause.

That is the analysis of TV documentary maker Adam Curtis, in this fascinating account of events over the past twenty years in Somalia and Algeria. It is a lengthy essay accompanied by clips from various TV documentaries, but repays patient study.

Curtis concludes:
...America’s intervention in Somalia had created the very thing it feared.
And the same thing is happening now all across the northern part of Africa. In Mali, in northern Nigeria with Boko Haram, and in Algeria with the remnants of the GIA. In every case what are local struggles for power are being simplified by Western politicians and commentators into part of a global battle against “Al Qaeda”.
It is true that there are extreme Islamists involved who proudly announce that they are joined together into a global movement. But the reality is that that kind of extreme Islamism has failed everywhere. Ever since Algeria in the early 1990s none of the extremist salafist-jihad groups have managed to take power and create the kind of society they yearn for. The reason for their failure is simple – the growing urban middle classes throughout the Arab world don’t want it. You only have to look at the battles now tearing Egypt apart to see that happening.
Instead our politicians and allied terror experts fall for the Islamists’ attempts to aggrandise themselves – and in the process become the Islamists’ PR agents. It means the western elites are helping to promote a failed revolutionary movement while ignoring the signs of what might be the future for Africa – the new systems of multi-party democracy being built from the grassroots in places like Somaliland. Without aid, and without the west imposing centralised forms of control.
This raises an interesting question. If our politicians, journalists, military and various think tank ‘experts’ persist in clinging to simplistic notions and repeating the same mistakes, why do we persist in taking them seriously?

Wednesday 30 January 2013

So you think you believe in evidence-based policy?

Try this for size.

Advice to any MP seeking to embezzle

“Libor Lies Revealed in Rigging of $300 Trillion Benchmark” is the startling headline in Bloomberg News, exposing what it calls:
...the biggest and longest-running scandal in banking history. Even in an era of financial deception -- of firms peddling bad mortgages, hedge-fund managers trading on inside information and banks laundering money for drug cartels and terrorists -- the manipulation of Libor stands out for its breadth and audacity.
In case anyone is in any doubt, financial scandals don’t get any bigger than this:
“We will never know the amounts of money involved, but it has to be the biggest financial fraud of all time,” says Adrian Blundell-Wignall, a special adviser to the secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.
However, it is unlikely any politician will hear this issue raised on the doorstep. If voters express any concern about financial corruption, it will probably be about the parliamentary expenses scandal, even though that is now history, and even though the amounts of money involved are dwarfed by the immense size of the Libor fraud.

Why is this? It’s not as if Libor doesn’t affect most people’s lives. It determines the interest people pay on their mortgages or receive from their savings accounts.

To begin with, most people don’t know what ‘Libor’ means. (Since you ask, it is an acronym for ‘London Interbank Offered Rate’, a daily reference rate based on the interest rates at which banks borrow unsecured funds. Is that clear?). But people do understand the terms ‘banker’ and ‘corruption’, so this doesn’t really explain the apparent lack of popular concern.

The reason is something else; it is that hardly anyone can imagine $300 trillion. Converting that to pounds (£190 trillion) doesn’t make it any easier. In the UK (as in the USA), a ‘trillion’ means a thousand billion. The annual GDP of the UK is only about one and a half trillion pounds, and most people can’t even get their heads round that amount. It’s like when astronomers talk about the distances to other galaxies; the sheer size of the numbers renders them practically meaningless.

If people cannot imagine the sums involved, the abuse of such sums cannot shock them. Fiddle your expenses to spend £800 on a wide-screen TV, however, and most people can imagine that all too easily.

So here’s the lesson for any politician contemplating embezzlement. If you’re going to commit fraud, make it either a very small amount or a very big one. Nick a biro from the office and no one will mind – everyone does that. Or trouser several trillion pounds and no one will understand what you’ve done. It’s the middling amounts that really upset people.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Stop whingeing about boundaries, Dave

In today’s House of Commons debate about constituency boundary changes (aka the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill), Tory MPs will doubtless whinge about how unfair the present boundaries are. But the facts don’t support their arguments. has today published statistics proving that the electoral system is not biased against the Tories. At the 2010 general election, it took an average of 34,940 votes to elect each Conservative MP compared with 33,370 for each Labour MP. The equivalent figure for Liberal Democrat MPs is 119,944.

As discussed in a previous post, any imbalance is mostly due to low turnouts in safe Labour seats. No amount of boundary changes can solve that problem.

To deal properly with unfairness, you would need a system of proportional representation and a serious voter registration drive in the inner cities. When the Tories support both those policies, then we’ll know how sincere they are about being fair.

POSTSCRIPT: The Tories lost the vote. No surprise there. But why are the Liberal Democrats still justifying voting against the boundary changes on the grounds that it is revenge for the loss of Lords reform? As this post points out, there are perfectly good arguments against the boundary changes that rely on neither vengeance nor petulance.

High-speed rail NIMBIs (Not In My Bucolic Idyll)

High-speed railways have spread throughout Europe over the past thirty years, starting with the opening of the first TGV line in France in 1981. Today, there are substantial networks of these lines throughout France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, with more lines under construction or planned.

In all cases, high-speed trains can operate both on dedicated high-speed track and at reduced speeds on conventional railway lines, enabling many destinations beyond the high-speed lines to be served.

The result has been not only faster journey times but also significant transfers of journeys away from other, less environmentally-friendly modes of transport (road and air).

So if there is a criticism to be made of yesterday’s government announcement about the route of the high-speed line, it is that these decisions should have been made at least thirty years ago. Blame Margaret Thatcher.

Instead of that criticism, we were treated to assorted Tory backbenchers from constituencies along the proposed route moaning about the effects on the environment. This new-found concern for the environment is dubious, since most of these Tory MPs are also climate change sceptics who hate wind farms and never complained about motorways being driven through their constituencies.

Other critics have depicted high-speed rail as “a train for the rich” or a service exclusively for business travellers. This will come as news to passengers in the rest of Europe, who can (and do) travel on high-speed trains at bargain fares. It will also be news to British passengers with cut-price tickets boarding Eurostar at London St Pancras.

But what the criticism reveals most is a very English whinge, from a world where the glass is always half empty and every technological advance is seen in terms of its downsides. The industrial revolution began in Britain and our country remains at the forefront of scientific discovery and technological advance – hell, we even invented railways! Yet the media coverage suggests that, rather than embrace visionary ideas or practical success, we prefer to wallow in stories of risks and failure. If the Daily Mail were to run a story claiming that high-speed trains cause cancer, that would find the G-spot of this pessimistic culture.

This sentiment can be traced to William Morris and the back-to-the-land movement, the late-nineteenth century backlash against industrialisation and urbanisation. It has led most English people to want to live in a house that looks like a country cottage, even though they actually live in a suburb. The irony is that this desire has done enormous environmental damage. The more that people want to go back to the land, the less land there is left to go back to. Detached houses and bungalows with gardens use up far more land space than the flats and town houses that most continental city dwellers inhabit. The resulting suburban sprawl also lengthens travel distances and increases people’s reliance on cars.

Most of the objections to high-speed rail are consequently part and parcel of a delusional need to maintain England as some sort of bucolic idyll, despite the fact that more than 80% of English people live in cities.

On the other hand, it could just be that southerners are soft. Up north, they see things differently. In Leeds, they are celebrating news of a planned high-speed rail station in the city centre, while in Nottingham and Sheffield they are complaining that the new stations won’t be closer to where they live. That’s more like it!

Monday 28 January 2013

Politics and the English Language

Everyone involved in politics should read George Orwell’s essay Politics and English Language (see Wikipedia’s summary and the full original text). It was written in 1946, in an era when fascists and communists had abused language with somewhat more serious consequences than the efforts of today’s spin doctors. But it remains just as relevant.

The essay articulates Orwell’s philosophy of good writing. His enemy was unclear prose, which hides the truth rather than expresses it. He argued that, when language is not clear, it usually indicates there is no clear thought behind it. He advocated using plain English and set out six rules to avoid poor writing. Print these rules and stick them next to your computer screen.

Having read Orwell’s essay, do listen to this morning’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week (part of a series of special programmes on Radio 4 commemorating Orwell). It was a thoroughly entertaining and intelligent debate about political writing and the legacy of Orwell’s essay. Amongst other things, we learned why today’s politicians feel compelled to use hackneyed phrases that would make Orwell shudder, such as ‘squeezed middle’ and ‘hard-working families’.

Why the British can’t do Borgen

Last week, Nick Thornsby posed an interesting question on Liberal Democrat Voice: “Where is the British Borgen?” (echoing the “Where is the British West Wing?” questions we used to hear).

Meanwhile, James Graham asked a related question on his blog – “Borgen: how realistic is it?” – but ended up tackling Nick Thornsby’s question.

Borgen, as you probably know if you’re the sort of person who reads political blogs, is a Danish TV drama series set in the world of Danish politics. The second series is currently being broadcast in the UK on BBC4. It is well-written, well-acted and realistic without lapsing into documentary style.

Borgen’s strength is the blending of the political and the personal. The characters are rounded and shown as fallible human beings, wrestling with both the competing demands of their political and personal lives and the competing demands of their ideals and realpolitik.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their human failings, the characters retain our sympathy and, with one or two exceptions, are a good advertisement for the virtues of public service. Politics is not viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, though – far from it. It is shown as a messy business, which chews up people and spits them out. But the characters are mostly decent people struggling to do their best, and in that sense Borgen is a positive depiction of politics.

So where is the British Borgen? Before we go any further, we need a sense of proportion. Borgen’s UK audience is about 800,000. For a drama series about politics, broadcast on BBC4 in the original Danish with English subtitles, that’s pretty good going. But it’s not the sort of audience to give Simon Cowell sleepless nights. A British Borgen, no matter how good, would probably have limited appeal even if it starred Tess Daly and Keith Lemon.

We then need to ask whether the question of a British Borgen is a fair one. Some have claimed that there already are many British Borgens. In the past decade, we’ve had The Amazing Mrs Pritchard and Party Animals. Both series took a view of politics comparable to Borgen but both were ratings failures and are largely forgotten. Then there are series such as Edge of Darkness, GBH, House of Cards, Our Friends in the North and State of Play – all top-notch TV dramas but all were about political corruption or interference in politics by the military or security services. None had anything positive to say about politics.

For a true view of how the British merge politics and entertainment, one has to look instead at comedy – the sitcoms Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister, The New Statesman and The Thick of It, and the panel games Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week. In isolation, each of these shows is quality entertainment, but together they promote a thoroughly cynical view of politics. In fact, they are more than cynical; they are nihilistic, suggesting that the whole business of politics is risible and that no one in public life is trustworthy or competent. The problem isn’t that these programmes satirise individual politicians or specific types of behaviour but that they imply the whole enterprise is doomed.

Antony Jay, co-writer of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, admitted in an interview that he had a political agenda. He was an advocate of public choice theory, which holds that politicians and civil servants are motivated primarily by self-interest. Subsequent writers were probably not so high-minded but simply out for cheap laughs.

An anti-political attitude now prevails but where does it come from? It is tempting to blame the recent behaviour of corrupt politicians, but corruption is as old as the hills. The parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009/10 and the cash-for-questions affair of the 1990s were tame by historical standards and served only to reinforce existing popular attitudes.

Perhaps, then, the cause is Britain’s cynical culture? It is the most commonly cited reason for anti-political attitudes. While Britain has long been noted for its ironic humour, the other side of that coin is a corrosive cynicism. But that didn’t stop Britain making political TV dramas such as Bill Brand as late as the mid-1970s.

The key cultural change seems to have occurred during the 1970s, when cynicism became much more powerful. I strongly suspect it was when the culture of ‘cool’ moved from the counter-culture to the mainstream (a trend fully explored in the excellent book Cool Rules).

Precisely what is ‘cool’ changes continually, but a constant thread is an attitude of ironic detachment. Since ‘cool’ is about cynicism rather than doing anything positive, it follows that concepts such as a sense of public duty or caring passionately about a cause must be stigmatised as ‘uncool’. As these concepts are vital to political action, politics can never be ‘cool’.

We should also not forget that, in Britain, the TV industry, including most of the commissioning editors and TV critics, is based in London. Here, the culture of ‘cool’ is more intense, particularly in the incestuous world of the media. Imagine proposing an uncynical drama series about politics to a TV executive inhabiting that world. You would be on the receiving end of the most supercilious sneer in Hoxton.

The ‘uncool’ concepts of a sense of public duty and of caring passionately about a cause are central to Borgen. Despite this, Borgen was still shown on British TV, partly on the strength of the Danish detective series The Killing and also because Borgen is foreign and subtitled, so an art house aesthetic kicks in. This would have overcome any qualms about a positive depiction of politics, which ordinarily would have offended cool rules.

This culture isn’t going to change any time soon so, for now, we will have to carry on outsourcing serious political drama to foreign TV companies. At home, meanwhile, we will continue amusing ourselves to death.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Nice try, Theresa May, but I’m still British

Theresa May has rewritten the UK citizenship test to conform to Tory prejudices. And according to the Sunday Telegraph, the Life in the UK handbook for migrants taking the test has also had a makeover:
Out go politically correct sections on how to complain about being arrested and “mundane information about water meters”, and in come “the events and people who have helped make Britain a great place to live”, ministers said.
So I took the quiz included in the Telegraph’s report and scored 100%. That’s probably because I know slightly more about Admiral Nelson than water meters, which is obviously what matters in contemporary Britain.

No Liberal Democrat minister appears to have been on hand to offer a comment on this reform. In any case, there was no mention of Admiral Nelson or Stonehenge in the coalition agreement.

Meanwhile, the Mail on Sunday reveals that the new citizenship test includes questions about Monty Python. Does this mean the test has been drawn up not by the Home Office but the Ministry of Silly Walks?

Meanwhile, on Planet Tory...

“Tory Obama plots to oust the PM” is the sensationalist headline in today’s Mail on Sunday. MP and multi-millionaire Adam Afriyie is said to be behind a “secret bid for party leadership”.

What, you mean David Cameron’s speech on Europe was not enough to satisfy Tory backbenchers?

The Mail certainly thinks so. It assures us that, “News of the cloak-and-dagger moves rocked No.10”.

Actually, the chances of this ‘stalking horse’ rocking anything are rather slim. For all the Mail’s hype, the truth is revealed several paragraphs into the story:
Mr Afriyie... is said to be frustrated at failing to be appointed a Minister.
While his main supporter Mark Field...
...was sacked as a frontbencher by Mr Cameron.
As Cameron himself might say, “Calm down, dear.”

Saturday 26 January 2013

Why wasn’t a Lib Dem MP saying this?

It was good to hear Green MP Caroline Lucas making the case for land value taxation on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (listen online here – zap forward to 34:06).

A pity it wasn’t a Liberal Democrat MP making this case. After all, Liberals have supported this policy for rather a long time.

Friday 25 January 2013

Why pseudo-science threatens Liberal values

Hardly a day goes by without a report in the media claiming that some activity or other harms your health. Being smug liberal types, we assume these scare stories are the province of the Daily Mail (the subject of well-deserved satire here, here and here).

Actually, you are just as likely to find such health scares in the Guardian or the BBC. On the Spiked website, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick tackles the pseudo-scientific links lobby that produces these stories. The ‘science’ is usually an epidemiological study whose tentative findings or dubious claims enter straight into conventional wisdom without being subject to serious scrutiny.

Fitzpatrick observes that these scares often relate to an activity that is already the subject of social disapproval, such as drinking alcohol or eating fast food. This should make us immediately suspicious that science is being abused to support fashionable prejudices.

Once an allegation of risk enters the public realm via the media, it alters behaviour, but not necessarily in a good way. Irrespective of whether a scientific claim is valid, people react by seeking compensation or quack remedies. Worse, these scare stories can kill. For example, the claim (subsequently exposed as fraudulent) that the MMR vaccine causes autism led to the deaths of several children from measles.

Quite apart from the unnecessary distress and physical harm, Liberals should be concerned about pseudo-science for two important reasons.

First, the roots of Liberalism can be traced to the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment, when free thought and scientific discovery replaced superstition enforced by despots. Accordingly, we should reject the trendy sentimental belief that emotions and feelings trump rationality and logic, otherwise we are fostering a climate that allows superstition to resume its historical role.

Second, the depiction of the world as a place full of risks diminishes us as human beings. It says we are all helpless victims and denies our capacity to take responsibility for our actions. It even promotes victimhood as something to embrace as part of our identities. As a result, there is a thriving industry in quack remedies and quack therapists.

Yes, there are risks and dangers out there. But that is no excuse for confusing correlation with causation. Before we start to panic, any claim of causation should be subject to rigorous scientific enquiry. Stringent scientific standards should not be set aside just to satisfy a fashionable prejudice. Let’s reserve our disapproval for genuinely proven dangers.

Not that we’re calling for Plan B, you understand...

The headline in today’s Independent says “Lib Dems turn on Osborne over cuts”. The story beneath informs us:
Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers are worried that the Government is not doing enough to boost growth, and are privately pressing the Chancellor to speed up job-creating building projects in his March Budget.
Indeed, Nick Clegg is quoted being openly critical of cuts to capital spending:
In an interview with Parliament’s The House magazine published tomorrow, the Deputy Prime Minister admitted the Coalition made a mistake when it cut capital spending soon after it was formed in 2010. He said: “I think we’ve all realised that ... in order to foster a recovery you need to try and mobilise as much public and private capital into infrastructure as possible. So what we’ve done since then, in effect, is come up with various surrogate ways in getting working capital into infrastructure.”
But it is obvious that Clegg’s spin doctors don’t want you to get the wrong idea:
The Liberal Democrats are not calling for a Plan B, which would divide the Coalition on its central mission of tackling the deficit.
In their 2010 general election manifesto, the Liberal Democrats predicted that Tory austerity policies would be counter-productive. And with a triple-dip recession now likely, this prediction has proved correct.

So now we’re in the business of saving face. Coalition policy will be changed incrementally to enable everyone responsible to claim they were right all along.

Thursday 24 January 2013

The truth about Davos

Davos is here again – that’s Davos, a Swiss town that hosts the annual business leaders’ conference, not Davros, creator of the Daleks.

The Wall Street Journal is not normally the most anti-establishment of newspapers but it has published a revealing article about the conference and the organisation that hosts it, the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Some choice quotes:
The WEF says it is there to improve the world, but it is really there to exploit rich people’s need to feel important. It is driven not by achievement but by vanity.
Pride and ambition are monetized with equal brilliance on the revenue side. Simple membership for most Davos delegates is $50,000, plus a $19,000 conference fee. But that is only the first rung on the ladder. If you want to feel important even by Davos standards, you have to climb further. To gain access to industry peer events as an “industry associate,” $156,000 is the price. An “industry partnership,” which buys you two delegate spots, costs $263,000.
Scale those heights and another peak looms. Up in the thin air at Davos are the so-called “strategic partners,” who each pay $527,000. Strategic partners can send five participants—a CEO and his entourage, for instance.
Given that many top chief executives hold office for only three or four years, WEF membership is effectively a revolving door. By the time the novelty wears off and the CEO starts to see Davos as a very expensive cocktail party, he is out on his ear and replaced by a new guy who was frustrated for years about not being able to go.
Davos, in short, is magnificently seductive, a monument to man’s need for self-actualization. (And it is mostly men—women only make up 17% of the elite participants at Davos, though they are 60% of WEF staff.) But does it improve the state of the world? Hardly. When you consider the lifestyle of those taking part, starting with the private jets, it is really quite an achievement for them to keep their cognitive dissonance in check for the better part of a week.
Suddenly, those Liberal Democrat conference registration fees don’t seem so exorbitant. Come to think of it, Davros doesn’t seem so bad, either.

Cameron’s Euro-speech was rubbish – and here’s why

Yesterday, David Cameron finally ran out of excuses and got round to delivering his speech about the European Union.

It was rubbish. You probably know that already. But it’s important to understand why it was rubbish.

As Liberal Democrat MEP Bill Newton Dunn pointed out, some positive introductory remarks were nullified by a need to play to the eurosceptic gallery.

But the most important failing of Cameron’s speech is this: the mechanism he proposes for achieving what he wants is not practical. Worse, it is counter-productive. Worse still, it is impractical and counter-productive because the speech was more a PR stunt than anything else.

If Cameron were sincere about reforming the EU, he would have built an alliance within the EU to achieve his policy goals. He would have developed a practical long-term reform programme and persuaded other countries to join him.

Instead, Cameron took his party out of the EPP, the largest group of parties in the EU, which has isolated him from the influential centre-right parties that might otherwise have supplied the support he needs.

Since leaving the EPP, Cameron has done nothing constructive to win friends and influence people. Rather, he is holding a gun to the other EU members’ heads. The trouble is, it’s the sort of gun that circus clowns use. When you press the trigger, a banner unfurls that says “Bang!”

This is fitting, because it was also a circus clown’s speech – not because Cameron thinks Europe will be impressed by having a custard pie pushed in its face but because he knows it will amuse his antediluvian backbenchers.

The speech had little to do with Europe and everything to do with the internal politics of the Conservative Party. Cameron’s overriding needs are to maintain party unity and prevent elderly Daily Express-reading voters deserting to UKIP. Britain’s long-term political, economic and diplomatic interests are secondary.

The speech also suggests the Liberal Democrat ‘exit strategy’ for ending the coalition: we should run away from the circus to join the world.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Liberator on Twitter

You can now follow Liberator on Twitter: @Liberator_mag

You’ll receive regular updates of Liberator’s blog posts plus other news about the magazine.

There is also a Liberator group on Facebook (log-in required).

But nothing can beat subscribing to the actual magazine (you know the sort of thing, printed on paper with staples in the middle).

Tuesday 22 January 2013

How ‘sticky’ are Liberal Democrat MPs?

Liberal Democrat MPs are ‘sticky’ – and that’s official.

It has long been known that, once they are dug in, Liberal Democrat MPs are more difficult to dislodge. Newly-published academic research of general elections between 1983 and 2010 has now quantified this phenomenon.

The research, reported by, shows that Liberal Democrat MPs enjoy a large incumbency factor worth between 5% and 15% of the vote. Labour and Conservative MPs, by contrast, have incumbency advantages of only about 2% and 1% respectively. This Liberal Democrat ‘stickiness’ has changed the outcome in up to 25 seats at each general election, and probably prevented the Conservatives winning an overall majority in 2010.

Now that the Liberal Democrats are in a coalition government, we don’t know how strong the incumbency factor will be at the next general election. But the party’s performance since 2010 in local elections in Liberal Democrat-held constituencies suggests that our MPs have not lost their stickiness entirely.

Racial equality too dangerous to debate?

The Liberal Democrats’ Federal Conference Committee (FCC) has decided to reject a motion on racial equality for debate at the party’s spring conference.

This is not just any old motion, but a motion from the party’s Racial Equality Task Force, which was set up about a year ago by Nick Clegg in response to concerns that not enough was being done on race equality. The Task Force is chaired by Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, who was asked to examine the issue and come up with recommendations.

The Task Force took evidence from educationalists and other experts, and produced a 20,000-word report containing many recommendations. However, the report is critical of coalition government policy, pointing out in particular that the government has no coherent strategy, and that its Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill will weaken existing legislation and neuter the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Clegg has signalled that he is unhappy with the report and refused to add his name to it. That’s his privilege, but what is not right is that the FCC should kowtow and block debate of the report. The government and the party are not the same thing, and the conference should be able to hold debates without fear of upsetting the Conservatives.

In the meantime, there is one place where a debate will still be held. The Social Liberal Forum and Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats will jointly host a one-day conference on race equality in London on Saturday 16 February. There are more details on the SLF website and you can register here.

POSTSCRIPT: More news of the FCC’s decision not to accept the Racial Equality Task Force’s motion for debate at party conference. It turns out that opposition to the motion was led by Baroness Sal Brinton, who convinced the FCC that the party leader disapproved of the Task Force report. The FCC meeting was poorly attended because of the bad weather, and members unable to attend included those in a position to refute Brinton’s claims.

Nick Clegg is actually generally supportive of the Task Force and its report. There will be a meeting this Wednesday evening between leading members of the Task Force and some of Clegg’s staff, at which a few amendments to the report will be agreed, but none of these changes will be significant.

An appeal against the FCC decision is likely to be lodged, but its chances of success are currently unclear. If there is no debate at spring conference, the Task Force report will be left in limbo.

Meanwhile, Brinton’s hostility to the Task Force defies logic. It seems to date back to a dispute a year ago between Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) and those involved in the ‘Leadership Programme’ (an initiative ostensibly intended to support parliamentary candidates from under-represented groups but which actually seems to benefit mainly white middle-class women). Brinton is heavily involved in both the Leadership Programme and the Diversity Engagement Group based at party HQ. Perhaps she sees the Task Force as a threat to this fiefdom?

Monday 21 January 2013

Controversial Lib Dem peerage

Yesterday’s Sunday Times reported that one of the Liberal Democrat nominations on the forthcoming list of new life peers is millionaire businessman Rumi Verjee.

(The Sunday Times story is hidden behind a paywall but you can read a summary on the Indian news website

Of course, no one outside the leader’s office – not even Sunday Times journalists – knows who is on the list. The list may not yet have been finalised. But that has not stopped the criticism.

Critics of Verjee’s nomination have raised three issues. The first is one faced by any wealthy donor receiving an honour. Verjee (through his company Brompton Capital Limited) has made donations to the Liberal Democrats totalling £775,000 since May 2010, which has led to predictable if unfounded allegations by a Labour MP. Second, at the Labour Party’s request, the Electoral Commission is examining whether these donations are “impermissible”, although Verjee and the party are likely to be cleared of any wrongdoing. And third, it has been suggested that Verjee’s offshore business interests are at odds with recent statements by leading Liberal Democrat ministers critical of offshore operations.

Provided the Electoral Commission gives the all-clear, no laws have been broken, and much of the controversy is the product of Labour’s muckraking (in an area where a certain phrase about pots and kettles springs to mind). The question of policy on offshore interests is one for the leader to answer, not Verjee.

The fundamental problem is not Verjee’s wealth or business affairs. Rather, this sort of controversy, even if unfair, underlines the problem of having a legislature (the House of Lords) that is nominated rather than elected. If there is any fault, it belongs to the system of patronage and the politicians who uphold it.

Sunday 20 January 2013

No excuse for Euro-defeatism

A startling graph published by shows that public opinion on Europe is not where most politicians imagine it to be.

Voting intentions in a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU are changing. Successive opinion polls show that the proportion of people who would vote to stay is increasing, while the proportion who would vote to leave is decreasing.

That’s not all. A poll on voting intentions in the next European parliamentary elections shows that support for UKIP has fallen to fourth place behind the Liberal Democrats. And this is a poll by YouGov, which usually gives the lowest ratings for the Liberal Democrats.

We need to be cautious and see whether these trends continue. In any event, there is no cause for complacency – a referendum and the European elections still require a campaign. The point is that – for all the bullying by the eurosceptic press and for all the cowardice of pro-Europeans – euroscepticism is not as popular as we are led to believe.

And that means there is no excuse for the Liberal Democrats to run another defeatist European election campaign in 2014, as they did in 2004 and 2009. Both those campaigns were run on the assumption that it was more important to mollify Eurosceptic opinion than to enthuse the party’s more cosmopolitan base. Both campaigns were a failure, securing fourth place behind UKIP.

Say what you like about UKIP, but at least it campaigns for what it believes in. The Liberal Democrats should do the same – if they don’t, pro-European voters have nowhere else to turn.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Has the fall in party membership finally ended?

News reaches Liberator of the Liberal Democrat membership figures for 2012.

Membership of the federal party (i.e. the whole of the UK) was only 42,501 at the end of December 2012, down 9.2% from 46,810 at the end of December 2011 (and not 48,934 as the party’s annual report for 2011 originally claimed). The renewal rate has remained at about 75-80% throughout the year.

This drop is bad, but not as bad as in 2011, when membership fell by 25% over the year. That fall wiped out the gains from the 2010 election ‘Cleggmania’ – and then some.

However, the good news is that the month-on-month decline in membership appeared to end in the autumn. Membership fell to an all-time low of 41,925 in September 2012, but rose by a few hundred each month for the remainder of the year.

Membership of all political parties in Britain has been in slow decline since the high point of the 1950s. Following the merger of 1988, there was a catastrophic fall in membership for the ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’ (as the Liberal Democrats were then named), as many former Liberal and SDP members failed to renew. However, membership picked up during the 1992 general election campaign and peaked at about 102,000 that year. It has been in steady decline ever since, but never suffered such a sharp drop as it did in 2011.

2012’s figures, or at least those for the final quarter, suggest that the fall in membership is bottoming out. But the gains are modest so far and any claims of a ‘revival’ should be treated with suspicion.

The figures also suggest that the coalition has done its worst and that, if the party wants to rebuild membership, it must now tackle the longer-term issues of political disengagement, which were analysed by the Power Inquiry in 2006 (full report and executive summary).

Friday 18 January 2013

So you think you know what’s happening in Mali?

The current conflict in the West African country of Mali seems incomprehensible. And if you think you have a grasp of the situation, it is probably based on ill-informed and speculative reporting in the media, in which events are interpreted in terms of the stock narratives of the right (‘war on terror’) or left (‘French imperialism’).

If you know anything at all about Mali, it is probably because you are a fan of world music, in which Malian musicians such as Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré and the Tuareg band Tinariwen are prominent and have built a substantial fan base in Europe. Even then, Mali’s politics have probably passed you by.

So it is useful to read this short, clear, expert backgrounder, which debunks all the myths. It turns out that the conflict isn’t primarily about resources, neo-imperialism or religion. It’s about saving the Malian state:
At least 9 out of 10 Malians are Muslim, they are grateful for the French intervention, and they want no part of the intolerant, totalitarian project reserved for them by the coalition of Islamist groups now controlling Mali’s north.

Thursday 17 January 2013

What is wrong with the horse burger debate

A major news item in recent days has been the scandal about traces of horsemeat being found in beef burgers. The revealing thing, however, is not the news story itself but the reaction to it. What should have been a scandal about fraudulent trade and dishonest labelling has turned into a debate about the morality of eating horses.

The actual issue here is fraud. Food products purporting to consist of beef have been adulterated with other types of meat. It would have been just as much a scandal if the alien ingredient were chicken, lamb or pork. It is not a health and safety issue either, since these allegedly ‘contaminated’ burgers were perfectly safe to eat.

Why, then, did the issue rapidly turn into whether it is ethical to eat horsemeat? The reason, it seems, is the sentimentality and squeamishness of the British. “It’s feared we may have been eating horse meat for YEARS” screams today’s Daily Mirror. And indeed we have. Horsemeat was widely eaten in Britain until the 1950s, and remains commonplace in many continental countries. I have eaten it in Belgium. And since you ask, it tastes rather like a cross between beef and venison.

British sqeamishness about food shows the extent to which most of us have been cut off from our rural roots. We also tend to think of horses as pet animals (like cats or dogs). For the same reason, the British are turning away from eating rabbit. And the ‘Bambi’ factor puts many people off eating venison. Behind this trend is a growing tendency to anthropomorphise animals – for example, TV nature documentaries have an irritating habit of giving human names to individual wild animals and attributing human feelings to them.

The most absurd outcome of this sentimentality is the British rejection of veal. Veal is an inevitable byproduct of the dairy industry, which has no use for male calves (for obvious reasons). Instead of rearing these calves for veal, the animals are routinely slaughtered at one day old and their carcasses burnt, because there is no market for the meat.

We should stop kidding ourselves. This isn’t about the welfare of animals. It’s about us. The British inhabit a curious moral universe in which it is unethical to eat a horse that has been well cared for and dispatched humanely, but it’s fine to eat battery-reared chickens because they are cheap. We never stop to question the mysterious ‘meat’ topping crumbled on top of our pizzas. We are also happy to consume a well-known brand of hot dog sausage, where the label on the jar reveals the main ingredient as “39% mechanically recovered turkey”.

Bravo, then, to BBC2’s Newsnight, which arranged to cook horsemeat live on TV.

POSTSCRIPT: An interesting perspective from Jay Rayner in the Observer (Sunday 20 January), where we learn that contamination and fraud are an inevitable outcome of a flawed system in which a few big supermarkets can use their monopoly power to squeeze suppliers, who respond by cutting corners.

Closure of HMV even worse than it seems

Following the failure of music and DVD retail chain HMV, the Daily Mash has spotted a serious consequence that other media haven’t noticed.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Tory eurosceptics: less a fresh start, more a stale fart

Today’s big news is (or would have been, were it not for the helicopter crash in London) the publication of a manifesto by the ‘Fresh Start’ group of Tory backbench MPs.

This new eurosceptic faction is demanding “significant revisions” to EU treaties, with a substantial return of powers from the EU to the UK.

Just how, exactly?

The EU comprises 27 member states (soon to be 28 with the accession of Croatia). They proceed by agreement, which means negotiation and compromise. No single state can make unilateral changes to the treaties, not even a United Kingdom represented by politicians with imperial delusions.

It is not that reform of the EU is necessarily undesirable or that change is impossible. But negotiating to get what you want requires mutual respect, patient diplomacy, and the building of friendships and alliances. Instead, the Tories withdrew from the mainstream EPP group of centre-right parties and set up shop with a bunch of “nutters, anti-Semites and homophobes”. They now seek to destabilise the EU by making reckless demands they know cannot be met. And they are doing so at a time when Europe’s leaders have more important things on their plates than the internal politics of the Tory party. This is hardly the best way to make friends and influence people.

It is less a fresh start, more a stale fart. The Fresh Start group is simply grandstanding, partly to avert the electoral threat from UKIP and partly to twist David Cameron’s arm before his “long-awaited” keynote speech about Europe, which he will finally make on Friday in the Netherlands.

Cameron’s speech, incidentally, is remarkable for the effects it has had before it has been delivered – and before anyone even knows what it says. It has turned into a diplomatic and public relations shambles before Cameron has uttered a word.

New Clegg media management tactic?

It seems Nick Clegg’s aides, according to the Daily Telegraph, have a new role model: the infamous character of Malcolm Tucker in BBC2’s (successful) satire of the Labour government, The Thick of It.

Responding to a journalist enquiring about a story that Nick Clegg had been unable to attend a Privy Council meeting, the paper reports:
“I can’t believe we are having this ------- conversation again,” an aide to the DPM emoted in a tirade worthy of Malcolm Tucker in the television series The Thick of It. “The ------ fact is he can’t ------- be everywhere, but I know you are going to go off and write that the DPM has ------- snubbed the Queen once a ------- gain.”

Leadership contest? Don’t bet on it reports that bookmaker Paddy Power has announced its odds on who will lead the Liberal Democrats into the next general election.

Not surprisingly, Nick Clegg is favourite at 8/15. His closest rival in the betting is Vince Cable at 7/2, followed by Tim Farron at 7/1.

These odds sound about right. A change of leadership is not impossible before the 2015 election but is very unlikely, for three reasons.

First, Clegg intends to maintain the coalition until the last minute. It is not clear what his exit strategy is, or even whether he has an exit strategy. But it is clear he does not want an extended period between the end of the coalition and the election, when the party can re-establish its independence. Without this space, it would be difficult for any rival to mount a challenge.

Second, who would mount a challenge anyway? If Clegg were to resign voluntarily, there would be no shortage of candidates. But if he doesn’t, it is hard to imagine any possible successors wanting to risk their chances by being seen as the assassin. Even without that risk, who would want to inherit the coalition-related opprobrium attached to Clegg? Any serious leadership contender would be better off waiting until after the next election.

Third, the only conceivable circumstances in which Clegg would depart before the election would be some sort of dramatic failure, but what would that be? The bad results in the May elections of 2011 and 2012 did not spark a revolt, so why would similar results in 2013 or 2014 be any different? The tuition fees debacle and NHS reforms did not undermine Clegg’s leadership, so what other policy issues would? Sure, there has been growing disillusionment in the party but different members have different tolerance thresholds – there is no united ‘line in the sand’.

A bad result in 2015 and no coalition afterwards, and Clegg would probably depart. But for now, a trip to the bookies is not warranted.

Meanwhile, the Independent reports that Clegg unveiled a plaque in London to commemorate the founding of the Liberal Party in 1859 – but mistakenly referred to it as a ‘memorial’.

Was this gaffe a Freudian slip? I sincerely hope not.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

It’s the turnout, stupid

In all the current debate about the proposed parliamentary boundary changes (which David Cameron still intends to push in the Commons, despite his defeat yesterday in the Lords), hardly anyone mentions the real reason for the supposed pro-Labour bias in the electoral system: turnout.

As Mike Smithson helpfully points out today on, while there is a small difference in the size of electorate between Conservative-held and Labour-held seats, there is a much bigger difference in the average turnout:
The average level in CON seats was 68.4% while in LAB seats it was 61.1%. It is this gap which is behind much of the distortion.
In Labour’s heartlands, where the outcome is not in doubt, far fewer people bother to vote. This is not something you can change with legislation.
Unless there’s a drastic change in voting patterns, which I very much doubt, there will still be a much higher vote threshold for the Tories to win an overall majority than Labour however much you bring average seat sizes into line.
A higher turnout (or even compulsory voting) wouldn’t solve this problem either. All it would do is pile up bigger majorities for Labour in its safe seats.

If Cameron wants to redress the balance, his only hope is proportional representation – and we already know what he thinks about that.

Why the Tea Party is breaking apart

On Three Worlds (the blog), Chris Rose reports an analysis by Pat Dade showing that America’s right-wing Tea Party (the Republican party-within-a-party) consists of two very different wings, libertarians and religious conservatives. Antagonism between these two groups is causing a sharp drop in support.

The two groups have very different values:
The Libertarians... scored highly on power, achievement, pleasure and self-direction, whereas the Religious Conservatives scored highly on benevolence, tradition, propriety and security.
What unites them is narrow: a rejection of fairness and universalism (a belief in the universality of the human experience and a consequent belief in human unity and solidarity). It is perverse that what unites them is opposition to values that are central to Christianity.

The Three Worlds post ends by noting that the differences between Britain’s two coalition parties are just as great, but this misses a more pertinent point: the division within the Conservative Party. Since the arrival of Margaret Thatcher, a more libertarian group primarily concerned with market forces and individualism has supplanted a more traditional group primarily concerned with upholding tradition and community. So much so that it is questionable whether the Conservative Party can any longer be accurately described as a ‘conservative’ party.

Monday 14 January 2013

What is the mood of Lib Dem activists?

Last night’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour took the temperature of the Liberal Democrats by assessing the mood of grassroots activists.

Party members interviewed included Liberator’s Gareth Epps.

You can listen to the report online here (it lasts about eight minutes).

Sunday 13 January 2013

Just when you thought it was safe to choose a PPC...

The corpse of Tory plans to revise parliamentary boundaries has sprung back to life.

The Telegraph reports that David Cameron plans to bring back his proposals for constituency boundary changes later this month, despite the refusal of the Liberal Democrats to support these changes in retaliation for the defeat of Lords reform. He will press ahead irrespective of the outcome of the vote in the House of Lords on Monday.

To overcome combined Labour and Liberal Democrat votes, the Tories will need the support of SNP and DUP MPs, and the Tories are reported to be negotiating with both parties.

Presumably Cameron thinks this gamble is worth the risk because his chances of winning the 2015 general election are otherwise very slim. It is more likely he will damage relationships with the Liberal Democrats without achieving his objective.

How not to win an EU referendum

Under the headline “Ken Clarke and Peter Mandelson join forces to fight Eurosceptics”, today’s Observer reports that “Tory and Labour grandees” are to join forces “to turn back the rising tide of Euroscepticism”.

This is precisely what the pro-EU cause doesn’t need. A major reason for euroscepticism is the popular perception that the EU is as an elite project. Putting political grandees (especially exhausted volcanoes like Clarke and Mandelson) at the head of the campaign serves only to reinforce that perception. The support of such politicians is not unwelcome but the campaign has to create the right overall impression.

An effective pro-EU campaign must counter the perception that it is elitist. A previous post suggested how this could be done. In any event, if the campaign is to succeed, it must learn from the experience of community politics – it should empower and enable, and mobilise the interests and voices of ‘people like us’. If the campaign consists of ‘grandees’ telling people what is good for them, it will fail.

Saturday 12 January 2013

“What are liberals so afraid of?”

Eric Idle advises us (in an article in the New Yorker) to embrace paranoia and the absence of evidence as ‘alternative scholarship’.

It is obvious that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays, he says, but no other famous author wrote their own works either (apart from Henry James, “because nobody else could be that boring”):
Mere lack of evidence, of course, is no reason to denounce a theory. Look at intelligent design. The fact that it is bollocks hasn’t stopped a good many people from believing in it. Darwinism itself is only supported by tons of evidence, which is a clear indication that Darwin didn’t write his books himself. They were most likely written by Jack the Ripper, who was probably King Edward VII, since all evidence concerning this has been destroyed.
Paranoia? Of course not. It’s alternative scholarship. What’s wrong with teaching alternative theories in our schools? What are liberals so afraid of? Can’t children make up their own minds about things like killing and carrying automatic weapons on the playground? Bush was right: no child left unarmed. Why this dictatorial approach to learning, anyway? What gives teachers the right to say what things are? Who’s to say that flat-earthers are wrong? Or that the Church wasn’t right to silence Galileo, with his absurd theory (actually written by his proctologist) that the earth moves around the sun. Citing “evidence” is so snobbish and élitist. I think we all know what lawyers can do with evidence. Look at Shakespeare. Poor bloke. Wrote thirty-seven plays, none of them his.

Spring conference to be abolished?

The Liberal Democrats’ Federal Executive (FE) has set up a working group to consider abolishing the party’s spring conference. It is not clear who will chair this working group; even the Federal Conference Committee’s officers have not yet been informed. In any event, this will not affect this year’s spring conference.

It is not the first time such a change has been mooted. The reasons this time are said to be financial but there may also be political motives, since the past two spring conferences have been embarrassing for the leadership.

The spring conference cannot be abolished without a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority vote of the Federal Conference. Clause 6.6 of the party constitution permits the FE to cancel a conference “in exceptional circumstances” (which in practice means coinciding with a general election) but the FE has no unilateral power to cancel conferences in perpetuity.

The party’s Federal Conference has been held twice a year ever since the merger in 1988, when this arrangement was enshrined in the new party’s constitution. The autumn conference in September is part of Britain’s traditional party conference season, and continues the practice of the pre-merger Liberal Party, which held an annual conference (the ‘Assembly’) each September. The spring conference in March, on the other hand, was a bastard child of the merger negotiations.

The pre-merger Liberals held only one Assembly a year but also had a body called the Party Council, which held a one-day meeting four times a year. This council had about 300 voting members. It had ‘interim’ policy-making powers (i.e. it could make party policy but could not overrule the Assembly), so its policy debates tended to be limited to topical or specialist issues. The council had a more valuable role, however, of holding the party’s officers and committees to account, which it did very thoroughly (unlike the cursory report-back sessions at today’s Liberal Democrat conferences). More informally, the council also provided a platform for unknowns to become known and rise through the ranks of the party, which was useful for members pursuing a career in party organisation rather than parliamentary ambitions.

The pre-merger SDP had a bizarre set-up, with one annual ‘roving’ conference, where a single conference would be held in three different towns in succession. The SDP conference had few powers, since the party’s leaders had been traumatised by battles with the far left in the Labour Party, to the extent that they did not trust even the SDP’s tame membership.

During the merger negotiations, the Liberals refused to accept the SDP’s roving conference because it was an expensive shambles. The SDP refused to accept the Liberals’ party council because it smacked of dangerous grassroots power. The spring conference was the compromise they agreed on, but neither party felt any enthusiasm for it.

The spring conference is just as much a Federal Conference as the autumn conference, with parity under the party constitution. In practice, the spring conference has less influence, since it is a shorter event and attracts little media coverage. It also attracts few if any commercial exhibitors, so struggles to make money.

If the spring conference loses money and embarrasses the leader, it is easy to see why some party bigwigs might be keen to get rid of it. The party’s members should offer them a trade-off. We’ll swap the spring conference for the restoration of a party council, where we will hold these bigwigs more thoroughly to account. Is that a deal?

Friday 11 January 2013

Young liberals undermine Muslim Brotherhood

If you think the British Liberal Democrats have a tough fight on their hands, consider our fellow liberals in the Arab world. The Arab Spring has provided much hope and reform, but has also been exploited by the Muslim Brotherhood to try and create strict Islamic states. Fortunately, local liberals are fighting back.

In an interview with the Dutch newspaper Metro (English translation here), Rabih Fakhreddine of the Lebanese party Future Movement (a member party of Liberal International) and Vice-President of IFLRY (International Federation of Liberal Youth) is interviewed about the engagement of young liberals in the democratisation processes following the Arab Spring.

In the interview, Fakhreddine says that, although there are many liberal parties throughout the Arab world, they have had little time to organise compared with the decades the Muslim Brotherhood has had. But they are not deterred. “When the voters will become disappointed in the Muslim Brotherhood, however, we will be there.”

He adds, “We maintain strong ties with liberal parties and leaders from around the world,” and the two Dutch liberal parties VVD and D66 have been prominent supporters. If you would like to add your support, contact Liberal International or IFLRY.

Three questions for Gérard Depardieu

French actor Gérard Depardieu is in trouble with Russian liberals for his planned move to Russia.

Vladimir Putin granted Russian citizenship to Depardieu last week, following Depardieu’s renunciation of his French citizenship in a dispute over France’s high taxes.

Depardieu plans to settle in the Russian Republic of Mordovia, where the republic’s head of government has offered him an apartment or a plot of land on which to build a house.

This move has earned a stern rebuke from the liberal party Yabloko (a member party of Liberal International). The chairman of Yabloko’s Mordovia branch has written an open letter to Depardieu with three questions to which he would like an answer.

Thursday 10 January 2013

The difference between David Laws and Nick Clegg

There is a narrative of current trends in the Liberal Democrats (repeated most recently in some of the comments here) that says David Laws and Nick Clegg are joined in some sort of conspiracy to move the party rightwards. It’s not as simple as that. There is an important philosophical difference between Laws, who is motivated by ideology, and Clegg, who is motivated by an idea of pragmatism.

Laws believes that Liberalism once existed in a pure form, the classical liberalism of the mid-nineteenth century. Since then, it became polluted by association with socialism and social democracy. The task is therefore to “reclaim liberalism” (as the cover of the Orange Book put it), purify the party and return it to an unsullied state – hence all the low tax, small state stuff. (This view is shared by Clegg’s former adviser Richard Reeves).

Clegg, on the other hand, believes in a notion of pragmatism (explored more fully in an earlier post). He is too young to have any adult memory of politics before the Berlin Wall fell, so has no recall of politics as a battle of ideas. He assumes that the basic ideological questions have been settled for good and sees himself as a post-ideological pragmatist (rather like Tony Blair and David Cameron – the coalition works in part because Clegg and Cameron share the creed of politics-as-management).

Clegg does in fact have an ideological standpoint (which is evident in the whole set of tacit assumptions he makes about moral questions concerning public policy) but he doesn’t see it that way, preferring to present his opinions as self-evident truths or incontestable facts. It’s only other people who have ideologies, which get in the way of what needs to be done. This is why Clegg turns impatient and tetchy with anyone in the party who disagrees with him. “Can’t you see?” he seems to be saying, “My way is the only possible way. If you disagree, you are living in the past, an immature and hopeless idealist who doesn’t recognise the realities of modern government.”

While Laws has a surfeit of imagination (so much that he believes he can restore an imaginary past), Clegg has a poverty of imagination (so little that he cannot imagine an alternative future). What they share is a denial of possibilities, which stifles debate about the sort of society we want to live in.

Laws and Clegg remain close allies because the former’s ideology happens to overlap with the latter’s idea of what is pragmatic. But when the orthodoxy about ‘what works’ changes (and it will), they will no longer see eye to eye.

The other national debt

It is not just the government that is in debt but also individuals. Collectively, the amount that individuals in the UK owe is almost as much as the country’s annual GDP.

Credit Action has just published the latest monthly statistics. The overall trend is that household debt continues to rise. While secured (mortgage) lending is rising, however, unsecured (consumer) lending is falling (following a rise in the autumn).

The average amount owed per UK adult (including mortgages) was £28,901 last November, around 117% of average earnings.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Those Lib Dem rebels in full

The New Statesman has published a helpful, detailed guide to the six Liberal Democrat MPs who rebelled yesterday against the government’s Welfare Uprating Bill.

Four MPs voted against the bill (Julian Huppert, John Leech, Sarah Teather and David Ward), while two others formally abstained (Andrew George and Charles Kennedy).

This being the Statesman, the spin is that four of the six rebel MPs represent Labour target seats.

POSTSCRIPT: The New Statesman omitted to mention Adrian Sanders, who abstained (but not formally), with a threat to rebel at the 3rd reading stage if amendments are not secured in the meantime.

What have we ever done for the Romans?

The prospect of a referendum on British membership of the European Union, in itself, does not fill me with trepidation. With the right campaign, the case for staying in can be won.

The fear is that the same sort of people who ballsed-up the AV referendum will be put in charge of the campaign.

EurActiv reports that both sides are already limbering up for a campaign and that both plan “to woo the country’s biggest swing demographic: those aged between 18 and 44” (although EurActiv’s description of such campaigns as “youth-focused” is rather generous to thirty- and forty-somethings).

This seems a bizarre strategy for UKIP and the ‘out’ campaign. A referendum will have a turnout no higher than about 30% (unless it is held on the same day as a general election, which is unlikely), so the result will hinge on differential turnout. The ‘out’ campaign has a built-in advantage because support for UKIP – and for euroscepticism in general – comes mainly from older voters, who turn out more reliably than younger voters.

If the ‘in’ campaign’s strategy is to woo younger voters, there is always a risk of the ‘dad at the disco’ syndrome. The idea that Sir Richard Branson would make the campaign look ‘hip’ is a case in point.

There has not been an effective pro-EU campaign in Britain since the 1975 referendum. Pro-European opinion has tended to rest on its laurels. When Europhiles do get off their backsides, they usually present their case in abstract or dry constitutional terms. Most people outside the political elite cannot relate to such arguments.

Even when the discussion turns to concrete benefits, the arguments are mainly of the ‘what the EU does for you’ variety. Well, yes, the EU does promote jobs and trade. But to achieve a more effective campaign, why not turn this argument on its head and ask what you can do for the EU?

To understand what this would mean, begin by asking yourself what you most admire about other EU countries. What sort of things make cultural and commercial exchanges so enriching? The chances are that these are things of quality, which are also a unique expression of those countries’ cultures. Belgium? Chocolate. Denmark? The Killing and Borgen. Spain? Rioja. Germany? Mercedes. Poland? Reliable plumbers.

Now think about similar British things that other Europeans might admire and want (and which have nothing to do with stereotypical images of bowler hats and red double-decker buses).

Fortunately, a recent trend has provided many such things for Britain to offer its European neighbours. Over the past decade, there has been a renewal of pride in local identity, and a revival of interest in local heritage and craftsmanship. The shame in Britishness and especially Englishness that was fashionable in the right-on era of the 1980s has been ditched. Last year’s Olympic opening ceremony marked the point when the British finally kicked the habit of national self-flagellation. Instead, they are celebrating their local cultures – in particular, there has been a boom throughout the country in locally-produced food and drink.

A pro-European referendum campaign that presented the EU as a bigger stage on which British people can promote themselves and their local cultures would be much more effective than dreary talk of treaties and constitutions. For example, British supermarkets sell French cheese, Italian ham, German sausages and Spanish wine. Imagine a campaign that aimed to stock supermarkets elsewhere in the EU with English ales and ciders, Bury black puddings, Lincolnshire sausages, Cornish clotted cream, Welsh lamb and Scottish beef. Imagine a campaign that aimed to force shops in France and Spain to declare how much of their fresh seafood actually comes from Cornwall or the Hebrides. Imagine a campaign that aimed to make a fish and chip shop as common a sight in Italy as a takeaway pizza joint is in Britain.

It’s not just about food and drink. Imagine a campaign that aimed to help young British people pursue careers elsewhere in the EU. Imagine a campaign that aimed to sell more effectively our tourist attractions to other Europeans. Imagine a campaign that aimed to make BBC TV and radio programmes more easily available throughout the EU.

A ‘what you can do in Europe’ campaign would be more ‘real’ for most people than a traditional campaign. It would also involve more people because it is about enabling anyone with pride in something, and because so many local interests have something they want to brag about.

And the real beauty of such a campaign is the way it would put Euroscepticism on the back foot. Euroscepticism starts from the assumption that local identities and the EU are incompatible and therefore antagonistic. This campaign would redefine that relationship as symbiotic. Conversely, Euroscepticism would be redefined as a force that limits the scope of local identities and prevents them taking wing.

But if we seriously want to win this referendum, before we do anything else, we must first make sure that no one puts the usual tossers in charge of the campaign.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world

Sometimes it seems that our economy is being run from a parallel universe.

For example, you might think that the big banks that have been mired in scandal would make a bad investment. You would be wrong.

Today’s Financial Times reports on how bank shares performed last year:
In several cases 2012 share price performances were seemingly driven by some bizarre inverse correlation with lenders’ misdeeds. Among the best performers were three of the big UK banks – Barclays, which was fined $450m over Libor and lost its chairman and chief executive; HSBC, which was fined $1.9bn over Mexican money laundering and Iranian sanctions breaches; and Lloyds, whose PPI mis-selling has cost it £5.3bn. Barclays and HSBC shares were both up about 50 per cent, while Lloyds’ investors doubled their money.
The sad thing is that this news will be treated within the banking world as a vindication. The necessary reforms will become even less likely – until the inevitable next crisis.

[The FT’s website requires (free) registration; if you are unable to register, search for the headline “Bank shares buoyed on a sea of scandal” on Google News.]

Laws scrapes home

The Liberal Democrats’ Federal Policy Committee (FPC) last night voted by 14 to 8 to accept Nick Clegg’s nomination of David Laws to chair the working group that will draft the next general election manifesto. (See this blog’s previous reports here and here).

This decision was not a ringing endorsement. Clegg and Laws won the vote but lost the argument, with some of the 14 who voted for Laws nevertheless openly critical of his nomination. They reluctantly accepted Laws only after it was made clear that the working group would remain subordinate to the FPC.

This is not a good start to the manifesto drafting process. Laws does not have the full confidence of the FPC and, given his habit of making provocative statements, the working relationship is likely to deteriorate.

There is also a more fundamental problem. Leadership is about keeping the party together, not fracturing it still further. When you consider Clegg’s nomination of Laws together with his refusal to budge over the issue of secret courts, it seems that our leader thinks he has nothing to lose by arrogantly driving through his own agenda.

This hubris will be Clegg’s undoing. In British politics, leaders are never bigger than their party – as even Margaret Thatcher found to her cost.

POSTSCRIPT: A post on Liberal Democrat Voice disputes this version of events:
A motion from Gareth Epps saying the Manifesto Working Group shouldn’t be approved until a full process and remit was agreed was defeated 14-8. However, David’s position as chair was unanimously approved, 22-0.
We have checked with our sources. What Gareth Epps’s motion actually proposed was to decline to endorse all of the nominations for the working group, not just David Laws. It called for a hearing session with the chair of the working group to ensure that he accepted the primacy of mainstream thinking in the party. It also called for terms of engagement, and most of the debate at the FPC meeting was about that. This motion was rejected by 14 votes to 8. Separately, there was also a vote to add Lord John Shipley to the working group. There was no unanimous 22-0 vote to approve Laws’s position as chair.

Monday 7 January 2013

Corporate bullshit

Imagine a world without clichés. Politicians would be forced to say what they really mean, in plain English.

Politicians who talk in clichés probably think in clichés. Their hand-me-down phrases and worn-out metaphors are a symptom of a deeper malaise, the hollowing-out of politics, where substance (distinctive values and a clear vision) has been replaced by the superficial (managerialism and spin). The resulting insincere language is a major reason why politicians have lost public respect.

Waging war on clichés is good for a laugh but there’s a more important purpose. Taking apart empty language is a form of reverse engineering, which exposes the absence of thought behind it.

The same applies in the world of business. In today’s Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway presents her annual ‘Golden Flannel Awards’ [registration (free) required; to bypass this, go to Google News and enter “The first word in mangled meanings” in the search box].

“2012 turned out to be yet another bumper year for guff, cliché, euphemism and verbal stupidity,” says Kellaway. Her discoveries include a company called Record, which actually makes folding aluminium doors but describes itself as a supplier of “entrance solutions”. She also exposes Citibank, which tried to hide the fact that it was axing 1,100 employees in a press release that talked of “optimizing the customer footprint across geographies”.

I am sorry to report that the clichés used in today’s coalition relaunch are nowhere near as bad as that, though David Cameron made a half-hearted attempt with “full steam ahead”, while Nick Clegg responded with “hard-working families”.

A word of advice to our coalition leaders. If you are going to use bullshit, do it properly or not at all.

Is your bishop gay?

The results of the 2011 census for England and Wales, reported recently, made depressing news for the church. There was a sharp drop in the number of people describing themselves as ‘Christian’. The Church of England’s latest pronouncement on gay bishops is unlikely to reverse that trend.

The basic cause of the collapse in religious belief, religious observance and religious affiliation is not church policy on gay bishops. But the church’s ability to tie itself in knots over such issues shows how far removed from society it has become, and provides a clue to why it is seen as out of touch and irrelevant.

Most people (apart from elderly UKIP voters) have simply moved on from the issue of whether anybody is gay, bishop or not. A church that opposed homosexuality under any circumstances would win little favour but would at least be morally consistent. A church that believes that what matters is whether people love one another, and did not prescribe how they expressed that love, would both win favour and be morally consistent.

But it is hard to understand a moral position that says a bishop may be gay so long as he remains celibate. What is the moral difference between a homosexual priest having sex and a homosexual bishop having sex? What is the moral difference between a heterosexual bishop having sex and a homosexual bishop having sex? Is it OK for a homosexual bishop to have heterosexual sex? And if the church relents and allows female bishops, where does that leave lesbian bishops? In any case, how does the church propose to enforce its arcane rulings? Your guess is as good as mine.

While we are waiting for the C of E to clarify its new policy, Victoria Wright in the Independent has produced this helpful list of dos and don’ts for gay bishops.

What this controversy reveals is a church obsessed with the mechanics of sex (i.e. which dangly bit may be inserted in which orifice) rather than whether people love one another. It is a completely abstract doctrinal view of life, which makes little or no sense to the rest of society.

The Church of England’s self-imposed moral torture reminds me of this old limerick:
There was an old dyke from Khartoum,
Who took a young girl to her room,
But they argued all night,
About who had the right,
To do what, and with which, and to whom.

Sunday 6 January 2013

More about David Laws and the manifesto

Yesterday, this blog reported the rumour that David Laws was to be put in charge of drafting the Liberal Democrats’ 2015 general election manifesto.

We can now confirm this story. Nick Clegg has nominated a manifesto working group and Laws is the proposed chair. Clegg’s nominations will be discussed by the party’s Federal Policy Committee (FPC) tomorrow (Monday) evening.

The other proposed members of the group are the leader himself, the party president (Tim Farron MP), the four officers of the FPC (chair Duncan Hames MP and vice-chairs Duncan Brack, Julian Huppert MP and Julie Smith), Baroness Sal Brinton, Jo Swinson MP (representing Scotland), Jenny Willott MP (representing Wales) and Sharon Bowles MEP. Only two of these nominees (Duncan Brack and Julie Smith) are not parliamentarians.

On the face of it, there appears to be no particular ideological imbalance. The significant thing about the majority of these nominees is not their ideology but their loyalty to Clegg.

The controversy centres on the nomination of Laws as chair. There would have been little or no objection to Laws as one member of a balanced team, but putting him in charge of drafting the manifesto is a highly provocative act – and Clegg knows it. Indeed, several members of the FPC have told Liberator that they see this appointment as a “declaration of war” and Monday evening’s discussion is likely to be a full and frank exchange.

In case anyone wonders why Laws is such a controversial choice, the 2010 expenses scandal is the least of people’s concerns. The problems are Laws’s ideological views on economics (which are well to the right of most of the party) and his general contempt for party policy. And Laws is only too ready to broadcast his contempt:
  • The shared responsibility for the laughable slogan ‘Alarm Clock Britain’, revealed in the Daily Telegraph (11 January 2011) – “Alarm Clock Britain: David Laws to lead policy team”.
  • The smearing as ‘grumpy’ of any Liberal Democrat not expressing unalloyed joy about the coalition, reported in the Sun (16 September 2011) – “Lib Dem David Laws in ‘grumpy’ warning to party”.
  • The astonishing statement “George Osborne is proving to be a very strong chancellor who gets the big decisions right,” in an article in the Guardian (21 February 2012).
  • A call for further and permanent spending cuts (via the market fundamentalist think tank IEA), reported on Conservative Home (25 June 2012) – “David Laws battles for classical liberalism in the Lib Dems”.
  • A declaration that “All Lib Dems have ‘collective responsibility’ for breaking tuition fee promise,” reported in the Daily Telegraph (20 September 2012).
One enduring mystery is why Clegg repeatedly goes so far out on a limb to promote Laws. When Laws was brought back into government in last year’s ministerial reshuffle, David Cameron extracted a heavy price from Clegg (including the sacking of Nick Harvey from the Ministry of Defence). Laws may be intelligent and able, but no individual – no matter how talented – justifies Clegg’s continuing (and reckless) expenditure of political capital.

POSTSCRIPT: An update reporting the decision of the FPC is here.

Mid-Term Review – What’s all that about, then?

Today’s media are full of Sunday-for-Monday stories about tomorrow’s launch of the coalition government’s ‘Mid-Term Review’ (MTR) – see for example the BBC, Express, Independent, Sun.

The MTR is intended to relaunch the coalition but is unlikely to justify the hype. In fact, the ambitions for this exercise have been scaled down considerably compared with what was originally planned.

The MTR started life in 2010 as ‘Coalition Phase 2’, a policy planning operation based on the assumption that everything in the original coalition agreement would have been implemented by the middle of 2012, and that a comprehensive second agreement would be needed to cover the second half of the 2010-2015 parliament. Even by the middle of 2011, however, leading members of both coalition parties were getting cold feet about the whole idea. What we will see tomorrow is merely the residue of a much grander scheme.

The following report, which originally appeared in the Radical Bulletin column in Liberator 355 (September 2012), provides a fuller history:
Have pity on members of the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Policy Committee (FPC). At their meeting on 15 May [2012], they were handed an inch-thick pile of documents from the ‘Mid-Term Review’ of coalition government policy.
Party members may be excused for feeling confused about any such policy review, since there seem to be so many of them.
Back in the heady days of 2010, it was assumed that the coalition agreement would provide only enough policy to last for the first half of the parliament. By the middle of 2012, the reasoning went, all the ‘difficult things’ would have been accomplished and the coalition would need another agreement supplying a second batch of policies to fill the remaining time.
To this end, two joint Tory-Liberal Democrat initiatives were launched in the autumn of 2010, one official and one semi-official. The official one was called ‘Coalition Phase 2’ and was jointly led by Danny Alexander for the Liberal Democrats and Oliver Letwin for the Tories. Its main task was to produce a ‘second programme for government’, which would concentrate on issues that are “easier for the coalition to absorb” and would be less “heroic”.
The semi-official initiative, separate from Coalition Phase 2, was called ‘Coalition 2.0’. It was set up under the auspices of the think tank CentreForum and intended to plan coalition policy for the 2012-15 period. Alarms went off immediately since, with the exception of Chris Huhne, all the Liberal Democrat participants came from the right-wing free market fringe of the party (see Radical Bulletin, Liberator 344 [February 2011]). Nothing has been publicly seen or heard of this group since its launch.
Then there was a third initiative, this time confined to the Liberal Democrats. The FPC deputed a group under its then-chair Norman Lamb to produce a ‘policy development agenda’. Its recommendations, titled Facing the Future, were published in August 2011 and debated at the following month’s party conference. This turned out to be a disappointingly timid document and earned a riposte in the form of an alternative report by David Boyle and Simon Titley, Really Facing the Future (available here).
By the middle of 2011, however, both coalition parties were getting cold feet about the idea of a second coalition agreement, with senior figures in both parties reluctant to open a can of worms. By January 2012, at a meeting of the FPC, Danny Alexander went out of his way to play down the significance of Coalition Phase 2, saying that it was now merely fleshing out the original coalition agreement, but he promised a report later in the year.
The Mid-Term Review (MTR) is consequently the residue of Alexander and Letwin’s Coalition Phase 2. A thick pile of MTR documents was presented to the FPC’s meeting in May [2012] by Julian Astle (former Director of CentreForum, now employed as an adviser to Nick Clegg), deputising for an absent Alexander. The documents are the basic information on which the MTR is based: an ‘audit’ of the original coalition agreement, intended to identify policies that have been achieved, policies only partially achieved where more action is needed, policies where nothing has yet happened – and whether to press for action or not.
Unlike Coalition Phase 2, the MTR will not put forward any new policies; the original coalition agreement remains sacrosanct and will not be re-opened. And because the MTR is merely an audit, the FPC and Federal Conference Committee have made a dubious decision that no conference debate or formal approval is required, which is why this September’s [2012] conference is getting nothing more than a Q&A session with Alexander.
Both coalition parties are conducting separate MTR exercises, then the results of both audits will be submitted to Alexander and Letwin, who will agree a joint set of recommendations for priority action by the government in the next two years (Astle told the FPC that the purpose of the Liberal Democrat half of the MTR is to provide ‘guidance’ to Alexander when he negotiates with Letwin). Anything that Alexander and Letwin cannot agree will be resolved by the ‘Quad’ (Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Alexander).
Some things remain unclear. What about government policies that were not part of the coalition agreement, such as academies and NHS reforms – and will the MTR prevent further instances? Will either or both of the Liberal Democrat and Tory MTR recommendations be made public? (Although the FPC’s report to party conference promises that the MTR “will be published in Autumn 2012”, it isn’t clear whether this means the party’s recommendations or the final agreement between the parties).
In the meantime, the scope of the MTR can be judged by the papers given to the FPC. They vary in length and thoroughness, and include, in no particular order, overall priorities, fixing the deficit and securing growth, family friendly policies, ‘Greenest Government Ever’, diversifying provision of public services, civil liberties and political reform (the longest paper at 35 pages), pensions, immigration, housing, social mobility, educational underachievement, reform of the welfare and tax system, crime and punishment, and international affairs (the shortest paper at less than a page).
The document titled ‘Fix the deficit and secure strong, sustainable and balanced growth’ is the most revealing. It skates over the fact that the government’s economic strategy is not going to plan and does not confront the elephant in the room: the failure of orthodox economic doctrine. An ideologically-driven policy is failing, just as the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 manifesto said it would. This is fundamental to the coalition government’s underperformance – all else is secondary.
It is inconceivable that the Tories would even consider a basic re-assessment of economic policy, which is presumably why the Liberal Democrat half of the MTR has decided to dodge the issue, which in turn prevents the party establishing any real ‘differentiation’. But sooner or later, the Liberal Democrats will need to repudiate neoliberal economic ideology if they intend to escape from the coalition alive. Just don’t expect the MTR to deliver the necessary exit strategy.
If the spin in today’s media reports is anything to go by, the main message of tomorrow’s MTR launch can be summed up as, “We’re not just about austerity, you know.” The trouble is, so long as the government remains wedded to a failed economic dogma, nothing besides austerity is likely to win much attention.