Tuesday 30 July 2013

Why is everyone so intently serious and sober?

The Liberal Democrats have always prided themselves on their belief in the value of education. The question is, what do we mean by ‘education’?

Do we mean earnest and studious reading in the university library? Or do we mean something that promotes more free thinking and a genuine spirit of enquiry?

It is a question raised in the Spectator by Rory Sutherland of the advertising company Ogilvy, in an article titled Why I’m hiring graduates with thirds this year. It is one of the most life-affirming articles I have ever read:
It’s hard to tell the difference between a university and a business school nowadays. Where are all the hippies, the potheads and the commies? And why is everyone so intently serious and sober all the time? ‘Oh, it’s simple,’ a friend explained. ‘If you don’t get a 2:1 or a first nowadays, employers won’t look at your CV.’
So, as a keen game-theorist, I struck on an idea. Recruiting next year’s graduate intake for Ogilvy would be easy. We could simply place ads in student newspapers: ‘Headed for a 2:2 or a third? Finish your joint and come and work for us.’
Let me explain. I have asked around, and nobody has any evidence to suggest that, for any given university, recruits with first-class degrees turn into better employees than those with thirds (if anything the correlation operates in reverse). There are some specialised fields which may demand spectacular mathematical ability, say, but these are relatively few.
So my game theoretic instincts suggest that if we confine our recruitment efforts to people in the lower half of the degree ladder we shall have an exclusive appeal to a large body of people no less valuable than anyone else. And such people will be far more loyal hires, since we won’t be competing for their attention with deep-pocketed pimps in investment banking.
What Sutherland calls “this credentialist arms-race” is getting us nowhere. I think he’s on to something.

Oh, and me? I spent most of my time at university buggering about in student politics or in the union bar. Still got a 2:1, though. Damn, damn, damn...

Monday 29 July 2013

Has Clegg had enough of his party?

There has been some debate lately about whether Nick Clegg will survive as Liberal Democrat leader until the next general election. But increasingly, it seems that whether the Liberal Democrats have had enough of Clegg is the wrong question. It’s more a matter of whether Clegg has had enough of his party.

Over the past year, a repeated theme of Clegg’s speeches has been the baseless accusation that many of his party’s members do not want to win or hold power, accompanied by the bogus claim that, until he became leader, the Liberal Democrats were merely a party of protest. (These claims were dismantled in previous posts here, here and here). Clegg even made these accusations in a speech at this June’s ALDC conference, to an audience of councillors (or ex-councillors who had lost their seats mainly due to him), who received his patronising lecture about ‘power’ in stony silence.

There is no evidence whatever for Clegg’s depiction of his party as people uninterested in power, and he has failed to produce any evidence. Never once has he named any such party member to back up his accusations. Team Clegg has obviously decided not to let the truth to get in the way of a good story, but has made further attacks on its own party. This time, the conduit is Isabel Hardman, writing in both the Telegraph and the Spectator. The spin is wearily familiar; the Telegraph’s headline could not be more loaded if it tried:
Airy-fairy Lib Dems must face life outside the goldfish bowl
Beneath this tendentious headline, we learn:
The Lib Dems currently have an official goldfish policy – one banning the sale of the creatures at fairs – which lingers as one of the clanking skeletons in the closet of a party still getting used to people paying it any attention at all. As the 2015 election approaches, though, Nick Clegg and his colleagues are trying their best to persuade activists to adopt a more grown-up approach to policymaking that is less about goldfish and more about government.
Mr Clegg knows there is still some work to do with party members before they can sign off a grown-up set of manifesto pledges. The Lib Dem leader recently warned his councillors that they must choose between “consigning ourselves to be 'the third party’ forever” and becoming a “firm party of government”. This week he reminded activists that there could be no promise to scrap or lower tuition fees in the 2015 manifesto. Backstage, strategists have used a series of meetings to tell MPs and their staff to cheer up and talk up the party’s achievements.
These regular warnings are part of a process of softening up the party rank and file, to get them onside ahead of this year’s autumn conference. When activists meet in Glasgow in September, they will discuss a “manifesto themes” document, as well as policy papers on tax, post-16 education, defence, Europe, “balanced working life” and zero carbon. The long-standing goldfish policy won’t get a look in.
This whole narrative is dishonest from beginning to end. For a start, there never was a policy on goldfish. But look at the repeated spin about being “grown-up” and the implication that the membership (unlike Clegg and his chums) is immature and not interested in power. Excuse me, but isn’t this the same membership that gave Clegg a North Korean-style majority in favour of coalition at the special conference in 2010? The same membership that, in the latest Liberal Democrat Voice poll, chose power over opposition by 87% to 13%?

In the Spectator article, meanwhile, we are told:
The main conflict in the party at the moment, according to those pushing the grown-up line, is between pragmatists and idealists, rather than left and right.
So there we have it. The debate is being reduced to a matter of maturity. Clegg is “grown-up”, while anyone who disagrees is some sort of child or hopeless idealist. No real argument, no facts, just personal insults. It seems that Clegg and his aides are continuing to ratchet up the war against their own party members, exploiting the media template that was fixed in the 1980s, which continues to frame all internal party politics in terms of Labour’s battles with the Militant Tendency.

The problem of a leader who dislikes his own party is not unique to the Liberal Democrats. David Cameron’s aides have been repeatedly spinning against the Tory grassroots as the ‘Turnip Taliban’, revealing what is essentially a cultural divide between a metropolitan and cosmopolitan leadership, and a rural and suburban backwoods. In the Labour Party, meanwhile, Ed Miliband recently tried to pick a fight with the unions over the selection contest in Falkirk, in what appears to be more a public relations exercise intended to boost Miliband’s ‘strong man’ credentials than a genuine disciplinary issue.

Clegg’s war on his own members seems to be all of a piece with this trend. But the fact that his Tory and Labour counterparts are playing similar games doesn’t make it right. Indeed, when your membership has slumped to 42,500, it is extremely foolish to insult and alienate those few members who remain, especially when your accusations against them are false.

Foolish, that is, unless you imagine you can pursue a purely elite-based political strategy with no further need for grassroots involvement. That is the only logical explanation for Clegg’s campaign against his own party over the past year. Presumably he hopes this campaign will culminate in the ceremonial humiliation of the membership at September’s conference. If he succeeds, he will probably win more praise from the likes of Isabel Hardman in the Telegraph, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory because its practical effect will be to weaken the party by demotivating members.

So here’s a question for Nick Clegg. Do you really want to remain party leader? You have made it abundantly clear over the past year that you dislike your own party, so much so that you are prepared to travesty your members repeatedly, culminating in what you hope will be their final humiliation at this September’s party conference. Have you thought through the practical consequences for the party? And if punishing your members on false grounds is what you really want, ask yourself whether you are in the right job. A major part of a party leader’s duties is to enthuse and motivate the members, and build the party’s strength in the process. But if you actually couldn’t give a toss about your party, shouldn’t you resign and let someone else do the job?

It’s time to piss or get off the pot. If you like your party, show some leadership (and real leadership consists of inspiring not insulting your members). If you don’t like your party, fuck off. Either way, make up your mind, and the sooner the better.

Postscript: Read Alex Marsh’s analysis of Clegg’s antics (‘The need for “grown up” policy’) on the Social Liberal Forum website. Thoroughly recommended.

Friday 26 July 2013

Change the leader? Something else has to change first...

“Nick Clegg’s ratings get a boost” is the headline in a report on Liberal Democrat Voice of its latest readership survey. It suggests that the fall in support for the leader amongst party members has been reversed, at least for now.

Since the previous survey of members in March, Clegg’s positive ratings are up 10% to 58%, while his negative ratings are down 8% to 40%. We also learn that 55% want Clegg to remain as leader and fight the 2015 general election, compared with 38% who think he should resign before then.

So, an increase in approval, but 40% against is still a substantial hostile minority of members, which ought to worry any leader. This is particularly so when you consider that many of those on the positive side may simply be making a calculation about the wisdom of holding a leadership election before 2015 rather than expressing any wild enthusiasm for the current leader.

The problem with such popularity ratings is that they focus attention on the personality rather than the strategy, so the more important issue is neglected. No matter how bad members may think Clegg’s leadership is, there is no point getting rid of him unless his successor has a better strategy. If there is a leadership contest without a serious strategic choice, all we are left with is a vacuous personality contest.

At this stage, you may be thinking it is wrong even to raise the issue of Clegg’s leadership. Since he is likely to remain leader until the next general election, there is nothing to gain by prolonging this discussion. Well, it doesn’t matter what you think, because Clegg has decided to raise the issue anyway.

On the Social Liberal Forum website, Gareth Epps reveals that, at this September’s Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, Clegg is planning to stage a series of ‘binary choice’ votes, intended not only to shift the party decisively to the right but also to stage a symbolic defeat of the grassroots. Predictions of a conference bust-up also appear in an article by Richard Morris on the New Statesman’s blog.

Gareth Epps’s article is the more revealing, since it explains what the thrust of Clegg’s argument will be. Clegg will say that the Liberal Democrats must go into the 2015 general election fighting the coalition’s corner rather than the party’s. Is this is what he actually means by moving to the ‘centre ground’?

No one can say they weren’t warned about this conflict. Over the past year, Clegg has made a series of speeches attacking party members who he alleges want to “turn back the clock”, create a “stop the world I want to get off” party, who are “looking in the rear view mirror”, who want to be “the third party forever”, who are calling for “an eternity in opposition” and “hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition”.

I analysed these attacks in a post here last month, pointing out that Clegg’s stereotype of party members simply doesn’t exist:
These are straw men. We know this because in none of these attacks does Clegg ever name his critics or supply specific references to the speeches or writings where they have expressed such views. These imaginary enemies are conjured up because Clegg needs a ‘defining other’, a pantomime villain against whom he can contrast his virtues. He’d like his audience to shout out, “they’re behind you!” They won’t because they do not share his illusion.
In the same blog post, I also quoted various other party members who had become tired of Clegg’s repeated travestying of his own members. Others have since commented along similar lines.

The latest party blogger to grow weary of Clegg’s fantasy enemies is Mark Pack. In a blog post on 25 July, he produces conclusive poll evidence that Clegg’s straw man is 87% straw. Meanwhile, in a more detailed analysis in his latest monthly Newswire, he observes that Clegg has jettisoned community politics:
Community Politics, never a favourite subject of Nick Clegg’s (and all but totally absent from his public utterances from his first day in the party), does not feature in the party’s message, despite Tim Farron’s calls for Community Politics to be a priority for the party.
It not only does not feature, but it is repeatedly implicitly rubbished as a result of what else Nick Clegg does regularly say. He and the party officially keep on hammering on about the importance of being in government in order to implement policies, without even a passing caveat about how people outside of political office can also achieve things. The idea that political parties should be all about winning political office as being the only way to bring about change is in a completely different political world from that of Community Politics with its emphasis on enabling people to take power over their own communities, working both within and outside the political system.
Mark Pack also takes apart Clegg’s timid strategy of being only “one step ahead”:
The politics of being one step ahead of the centre ground on its own is not enough to recruit and motivate an enthusiastic group of party activists, especially if you wish (as the party should) to have a core of activists who have something more than their dislike of potholes and their love of pointing in common.
What to do about this? We know that Clegg’s strategy is to soften up opinion before conference by travestying the membership as “not serious about power”, in contrast to his hard-headed and practical leadership. His strategy relies on establishing a narrative: “I'm competent, anyone who disagrees is a dilettante”.

The focus of any counterattack should be to bust that bogus narrative. Clegg has no right to a monopoly of the language of competence and experience, so he must be deprived of it. There are plenty of parliamentarians and councillors in the party who were exercising power when Clegg was still in short trousers, and they should take no patronising lectures from him about ‘power’.

More than that, Clegg has no right to monopolise this language because of his own record of incompetence:
  • The number of Liberal Democrat MPs actually fell at the last general election. The people who Clegg put in charge of the election campaign had insufficient experience of political campaigning, as demonstrated by the campaign’s complete inability to exploit ‘Cleggmania’. The opportunity for a coalition came about more as a result of the accident of the parliamentary arithmetic than any carefully crafted strategy on Clegg’s part.
  • Liberal Democrat poll ratings have been stuck at about 10% since the autumn of 2010, and local election results have been abysmal. Clegg has no idea how to reverse this trend.
  • The party’s membership has fallen by over a third since 2010, and many of those members who’ve stayed have scaled back their activities. Clegg’s repeated attacks on his own members suggest that he thinks this doesn’t matter. He seems to have no idea how to, in Mark Pack’s words, “recruit and motivate an enthusiastic group of party activists”.
  • Clegg believes that most voters congregate in an imaginary ‘middle’, and that politics is therefore about competing with the other parties for these same voters. But talk of the ‘centre ground’ is psephological nonsense – in practice, it means competing with the Tories and Labour for the sort of voters who never vote Liberal Democrat anyway, while alienating the party’s natural constituency (explained in more detail in an earlier post). Clegg does not understand his party’s core vote or what makes it tick – indeed, he actually seems to hold this core vote in contempt, mistakenly dismissing it as a ‘protest vote’ that can be safely dispensed with.
  • As Mark Pack said in his Newswire quoted above, Clegg’s strategy effectively repudiates community politics. Clegg seems to think that success resides in becoming more conventional, when all the signs are that the patience of the public with conventional politics is coming to an end. Furthermore, Clegg’s approach makes his party more indistinguishable from the Tories and Labour, which deprives voters of any good reason to vote Liberal Democrat.
  • The economic orthodoxy of the 1980s continues to dominate Tory and Labour thinking, even though that ideology has been living on borrowed time since the great crash of 2008-9. Future success depends on moving beyond those redundant ideas. Clegg’s belief that his party must align more closely with the old orthodoxy is nothing short of disastrous.
Clegg’s strategy is failing and, long term, it will doom the party to irrelevance. He wants to convert the Liberal Democrats from a radical campaigning party to a right-of-centre, conventional party of government. But this strategy deprives the party of a USP and, with nothing distinctive to offer, it loses votes and members, and demotivates those members who remain.

If Clegg wants to monopolise the language of competence and experience, he must demonstrate his superiority as a strategist and manager. His practical failures and the absurdities of his arguments suggest he has no right to monopolise this language. The trick is therefore to deny him this monopoly and thus force him to stop talking in clichés.

But to return to the question originally raised at the beginning of this post, the strategy should not be to demand Clegg’s resignation. It’s not worth removing him unless there is a credible replacement with a coherent alternative strategy. Sadly, no such Liberal Democrat MP currently exists.

Meanwhile, in other news of attempted internal coups, Alex Marsh reports the latest wheeze of Mark Littlewood and his right-wing libertarian chums. A forthcoming summer school will include discussions about how they can take over the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 general election. I’m not saying these fruitcakes and their fantasies should be ignored entirely, but we should focus on winning this year’s battle before we fight the next.

Postscript: Oh dear. It seems that the final paragraph has offended some right-wing libertarians, who responded with comments that will not be published because they were anonymous (and if they’d bothered to read our comments policy, they would have realised that). However, the gist of their complaints is that their summer school is not “forthcoming” but has already happened, and that their debate about taking over the Liberal Democrats was merely “a joke”. Well, I’m glad that’s settled. As long as they’re preoccupied with obsessing about how many angels can dance on a pinhead, the rest of us can get on with the serious business of politics.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Are Lib Dem ministers happy with a “wogs go home” message?

Yesterday came news of the government’s latest wheeze to reduce illegal immigration. The Home Office is planning to send large billboards round six London boroughs on the back of advertising vans, carrying the slogan “Go home or face arrest”.

For the full sordid details, read Caron Lindsay’s report on Liberal Democrat Voice, the report in last night’s London Evening Standard, and a statement issued by Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather, which is worth quoting in full:
This is the latest in a string of Home Office announcements that are designed to make the Government look tough on immigration. But I fear that the only impact this deeply divisive form of politics will have will be to create tension and mistrust towards anyone who looks and sounds foreign.
Instead of trying to grab cheap headlines, the Government would be much better advised to tackle the real issues that undermine confidence in the immigration system. Home Office statistics show that decision making by officials is extremely poor and leads to a quarter of initial decisions to refuse asylum being overturned on appeal. And many of those people who the Government are targeting with these policies are either those whose case has been mishandled by the Home Office, or who Ministers acknowledge cannot be sent home because they wouldn’t be safe.
Vulnerable individuals who are fleeing persecution and violence are treated with disbelief and a complete lack of compassion in a rigid and inhumane system. But rather than tackling these problems head on, Ministers are choosing to once more crank up the anti-migrant rhetoric.
These adverts are nothing less than straight forward intimidation and can only have bad consequences for communities like those I represent in Brent, where people from all faiths and races have mixed for decades. We will all be much poorer for it.
Well said, Sarah. The question is why there have been no similar utterances by any Liberal Democrat minister. After all, this is not merely some mildly unpleasant concession the Liberal Democrats have made as part and parcel of the coalition agreement. This is a fundamental issue of principle, where the Tories are indulging in blatantly racist and provocative tactics. It’s not even a practical policy; these billboards will have no impact on immigration but they will help increase racial tension. Any self-respecting Liberal should publicly disown this policy. Instead, not a word.

Might this be the explanation? In yesterday’s Guardian, John Harris noted how all the proud talk of Britain’s diversity we heard during last year’s London Olympics has been dropped by the government. He reported:
Ten days ago, the former Lib Dem education minster Sarah Teather broke cover, and talked not only about initial Tory intentions to restrict the bringing-in of non-European spouses to people earning £40,000 a year or more, but a new subcommittee of government called the Inter Ministerial Group on Migrants’ Access to Benefits and Public Services. No cabinet ministers attends its meetings, but it apparently includes such figures as the Lib Dem education minister David Laws and the Tory immigration minister Mark Harper, and its fingerprints are all over many of the proposals above.
What on earth is David Laws doing participating in such an exercise? Did he consult Liberal Democrat colleagues before agreeing to these racist policies? The man is a complete and utter disgrace to the party.

And why has Nick Clegg failed to respond to criticisms from within his party? In this instance, he would be well advised not to resort to his usual tactic, which is to patronise internal critics as naive children who don’t understand the practicalities of government. Party members already understand perfectly well what nasty game the Tories are playing – the question is, does Clegg?

Postscript: See Liberal Democrat Councillor Lester Holloway’s blog post: “Theresa May and her ministers and officials know full well the impact of this billboard will be on multicultural communities in general rather than the odd illegal immigrant who might be passing by. It reads like a message to the whole community, an attempt to divide communities and harvest the racist vote from UKIP.”

Monday 22 July 2013

Politicians and pornography

In politics, appearing to do something is often more important than actually doing anything. This is especially so when tackling global phenomena over which individual governments have little or no control.

In an appropriate spirit of impotent rage, Prime Minister David Cameron announced today that the British government was going to do something about online pornography:
Most households in the UK will have pornography blocked by their internet provider unless they choose to receive it, David Cameron has announced.
Two other reports suggest that this policy is not all it’s cracked up to be. The first is the row between the government and the ISPs that preceded this announcement, which demonstrates that the government has simply not thought through the practicalities of its policy. The second is that the Daily Mail is claiming all the credit for this “crackdown on web filth” (despite the Mail’s hypocrisy, demonstrated by the links to various salacious stories down the right-hand column of its report).

But even if this policy were better conceived, it would still be doomed. Several years ago, Scott Adams (creator of the Dilbert strip cartoon) invited us to ponder the futility of such measures by asking us to imagine which was the more powerful force in the world: the combined brains of all the world’s greatest computer experts, or the combined libidos of all the world’s teenage boys.

Was the First World War a just war?

Well we all know the answer to that question, don’t we? We’ve all watched Blackadder Goes Forth so we know it was a futile conflict and a criminal waste of human life. “Lions led by donkeys” and all that.

Historian Professor Gary Sheffield begs to differ. In History Today, he argues that it was a just war. He reminds us that the war was started by the aggressive and expansionary policies of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Had Britain not intervened, the Central Powers would have defeated France and Russia, and achieved complete hegemony over continental Europe.

This argument matters today for two reasons. First, next year marks the centenary of the start of the war, and the beginning of four years of official commemorations. As Professor Sheffield points out, the British government was set to travesty the conflict by adopting a neutral stance:
As it stands, the Government’s position of neutrality regarding the meaning of the war denies the commemorations the context necessary to make sense of them. The UK’s leading historian of the First World War, Professor Sir Hew Strachan, who is a member of the Government’s own advisory committee, early on described official plans for the commemoration as ‘conceptually empty’. Strachan’s criticisms remain valid. The Government has explicitly disavowed trying to create any particular ‘narrative’, but by refusing to set the commemorations into the context of the origins of the war and the aggression of the Central Powers, this is exactly what it has done. Merely commemorating the sacrifice of British troops without explaining why they died tacitly gives support to the dominant popular view that the war was futile and the deaths meaningless. So does the fact that the original programme of official commemorations included defeats such as Gallipoli and the First Day on the Somme, but omitted the great victories of 1918 that won the war, such as Amiens and the breaking of the Hindenburg Line.
The second reason this matters is important for Liberals. A consensus has developed that Britain entered the war only because of the incompetence of the Liberal government and in particular the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. Again, this is a travesty of history. True, Britain has had better foreign secretaries than Grey, but even he cannot be blamed for the aggression of the Central Powers.

There are legitimate arguments to be had about whether the conduct of the war was optimal. A stubborn adherence to trench warfare led to a horrendous death toll. A more effective and less costly military strategy was doubtless possible. It always is – 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing.

No one is arguing that the centennial commemorations should be turned into an orgy of jingoistic German-bashing. But there is no case for travestying history and no need for Liberals to beat themselves up over what the British government did in 1914. Had Britain stood aside in 1914, the same critics would have been castigating the Liberal government for throwing Belgium and France to the wolves.

Blackadder is one of the finest TV sitcoms ever made but it should not inform next year’s official commemorations, and nor should Liberal guilt complexes.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Mel Smith on the Conservative Party

As a tribute to the comedian Mel Smith, who died yesterday, here is his Conservative Party Political Broadcast from Not the Nine O’Clock News:

Wednesday 17 July 2013

How the ‘bedroom tax’ hits disabled people

What are disabled people cutting back on as a result of the ‘bedroom tax’?

Thanks to the Same Difference blog (via the Liberal Democrat Disability Association) for this very stark illustration:

More information is available from the Papworth Trust, which explains why the government’s Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) are not providing adequate compensation to disabled people.

Monday 15 July 2013

Sarah Teather: the revolution starts here?

Last Saturday’s Guardian included a remarkable interview with Sarah Teather MP about the coalition government’s immigration policy.

The interview is remarkable because no Liberal Democrat MP, not even the usual suspects, has previously made such a trenchant public criticism of government policy. Moreover, Sarah Teather has never had a reputation as a radical but has generally been regarded as a loyalist (although she has been increasingly critical since losing her ministerial job last year). If such fierce criticisms are coming from such a normally moderate source, it makes you wonder how much more dissent is bubbling under the surface of the parliamentary party.

In the interview, Teather explains at some length why the government’s new immigration policy is unworkable, even if you accept its dubious objectives. But then she gets to the heart of the matter:
The idea that these policies will save money is “patently nonsense”, she argues, looking torn between dismay and incredulity. “So what are we trying to do? To drive down the total number of immigrants, irrespective of what’s good for Britain. Everything is about getting the net immigration numbers down. That’s what’s driving this, nothing else. Even though it’s obvious that a lot of these people are not a burden on the taxpayer.”
When the spousal visa proposal came before the home affairs cabinet committee, she reveals that Tory members strongly argued for the minimum income threshold to be £40,000. “That would put you in the top 15% of national income!” Part of the problem, she concedes, is the gulf between the life experience of her coalition colleagues, and the reality of the lives they are legislating for.
During discussions to increase the delay in benefits eligibility for the newly unemployed from three to seven days, “there was a general idea that people would have their redundancy payments to get them through”. She allows a dry chuckle. “I’m not sure that my constituents coming out of short-term, low-paid work are getting big redundancy packages.” But she doesn’t believe that ignorance born of privilege is the real problem. “No. I think it’s more nakedly political than that. It’s about short-term tactics – and I’m deeply uncomfortable with a type of politics that is deliberately using people who are already relatively vulnerable, as outsiders, as a tool to demonstrate how tough we are. I don’t like that type of politics.”
If the problem were merely Tory ignorance, she says that would be relatively easy to solve. “What alarms me is that the immigration proposals feel as if they’re hewn from the same rock as welfare earlier in the year, where a lot of that again was about setting up political dividing lines, and trying to create and define an enemy. It’s got to a stage where it’s almost unacceptable to say anything else, and it bothers me that there is a consensus among the three party leaders that they are all making, well not quite the same speech – there are differences, significant differences – but there’s a consensus. It’s stifling the rest of the debate, making people afraid to speak. If you get to a stage where there is no alternative voice, eventually democracy’s just going to break down.”
The coalition’s flagship benefit cap has nothing to do with getting people back to work, she maintains. “It’s populist. It’s a headline. Just look at the evidence. You’ve got first the overall universal benefit cap, then you’ve got a 1% welfare cap, and then you’ve got the big macro welfare cap. So they’ve found something, a message that works in polling, it’s called a benefit cap. And then they’ve invented policy around it three times.”
This government policy reveals two fundamental problems. First, the subordination of policy to short-term public relations objectives, where unworkable and unethical policies are pursued to mollify popular prejudices irrespective of the financial or human costs. And second, the competition between all three main party leaders to mollify the same set of popular prejudices.

And this reveals Nick Clegg’s main failing as Liberal Democrat party leader: his fallacious belief that most voters basically agree with one another, therefore that the party’s strategy should be to compete with the Conservatives and Labour for this imaginary ‘centre ground’.

But there is no such thing as the ‘centre ground’, no opinion that “most people think”, no mass in the middle you can mollify to win power. Yes, every poll result shows an average, but an average is not necessarily normal or typical. As Brian of Nazareth famously declared, “You’re all individuals!” Every Liberal should know that.

To understand why Clegg’s belief in the ‘centre ground’ is so utterly, catastrophically wrong, it is worth studying the Cultural Dynamics system of mapping of people’s different values. Basically, people divide into three broad categories: ‘Settler’, ‘Prospector’ and ‘Pioneer’, each sub-divided into four ‘values modes’, 12 in all. Take the test here to see where you fit.

The Liberal Democrat heartland is among ‘Pioneers’, and in good times expands into ‘Prospector’ territory. Support is negligible among ‘Settlers’, even when the party’s poll ratings are high. The voters who are nervous about immigration are concentrated in the ‘Settler’ group and never vote Liberal Democrat anyway, so why on earth does Clegg imagine he has to mollify such people when he has no chance whatever of winning their support? It can only be because he imagines that the electorate is essentially homogeneous, hence his repeated references to the ‘centre ground’. It cannot be overstated what a disastrous illusion that is. It explains why Clegg is alienating the party’s natural base while predictably failing to encroach on UKIP’s territory, hence Liberal Democrat poll ratings remain stuck at 10%.

Despite Sarah Teather’s warnings, the party will probably have to learn the hard way why Clegg’s ‘centre ground’ strategy is so disastrous. Even then, will there be enough party activists left after 2015 to rebuild support among ‘Pioneers’?

Postscript: In a blog post for the Centre for European Reform titled Don’t let England’s poujadists kill London’s golden goose, Simon Tilford argues why pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment is wrong. Since anti-immigrant sentiment is concentrated among older people who never vote Liberal Democrat anyway, the Liberal Democrats have nothing to lose by attacking their ignorance and bigotry.

Friday 12 July 2013

The ignorance of the Great British Public

A poll has just been produced by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London, which reveals a high level of ignorance among the British public about various social statistics.

But before you read the results and get too smug, take this test published by the Guardian to check your own level of knowledge. (I managed ten out of ten, but only by guessing on the basis of choosing the opposite of likely tabloid newspaper prejudices).

IPSOS Mori’s results reveal a shocking level of ignorance among the Great British Public:
  • On average, the public thinks that teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates.
  • 58% of people do not believe that crime is falling, even though it has been falling for many years.
  • 29% of people think we spend more on Jobseeker’s Allowance than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions.
  • 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top two or three items of government expenditure, when it actually comprised only 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year. More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education (£51.5bn).
  • People estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates. On average, the public thinks that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of 70p per £100.
  • On average, the public thinks that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figure is 13%.
Since I am writing this blog and you are reading it, it is safe to assume we share membership of a minority with an interest in public policy issues. Most people do not share our level of interest and cannot reasonably be expected to have a detailed knowledge. So the issue here is not ‘ignorance’ so much as the fact that perceptions vary so wildly from reality, and that this variance distorts the political climate in which decisions are made.

The Guardian’s analysis reports that the Royal Statistical Society cites three main reasons for popular misconceptions:
  1. Political spin – Politicians tend to twist numbers for their own ends rather than discussing statistics even-handedly.
  2. Tabloid journalism – The researchers argue “the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues, rather than use statistics to sensationalise”.
  3. Data literacy – If statistics were taught differently in UK schools, the public would have a better ability to critically assess evidence for themselves.
Politicians’ dishonesty, sensationalist journalism, poor education or merely popular indifference? All play their part but the most important question appears in the least likely of sources.

Of all the daily newspapers, you might expect the Daily Express to defend popular prejudices most but, to be fair, the Express’s report is even-handed. It quotes Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, who poses the key question:
Our data poses real challenges for policymakers. How can you develop good policy when public perceptions can be so out of kilter with the evidence?
This question reveals the risk, or rather two risks; two (small ‘c’) conservative responses.

The populist response – which is more likely in an age of followership – is for politicians to adopt policies intended to mollify popular prejudices irrespective of the evidence, for example by demonising welfare recipients. But why must public policy genuflect to popular ignorance? Yes, we live in a democracy and government should reflect the will of the people, but that does not absolve politicians of respect for the truth or responsible leadership. If an opinion poll says that a majority believes that 2 + 2 = 5, it remains the duty of politicians to remind people that it equals 4. To do otherwise is to abdicate all responsibility. After all, it’s not as if rank populism has succeeded in raising popular respect for politicians.

The elitist response is expressed by Alex Massie in the Spectator. He seems to suggest that popular ignorance can justify ignoring the public and concentrating power still further. His message seems to be, “leave it to the grown-ups”:
The public mood matters – and measuring it is important – but when it comes to the detail of actual government policy the public is, generally speaking, clueless.
Massie adds:
...the next time you find yourself outraged by some politician’s witless stupidity you might pause to remember the clay with which they have to work. It’s not a pretty business.
No, it’s not a pretty business, but we seem to have forgotten what true political leadership entails. It is neither the craven populism of “give ’em what they want” nor is it Massie’s contemptuous elitism. It is about standing up for truth and justice, even at the risk of short-term unpopularity.

As everyone involved in politics knows to their cost, the age of deference has gone. The Great British Public has no fear of challenging any politician. But what poll-fixated politician would risk reciprocating by telling the Great British Public when they are talking demonstrable bollocks? Paradoxically, such brutal honesty might earn more popular respect. Challenging popular falsehoods treats the falsehood not the believer with contempt. Repeating popular fallacies to curry favour with the public treats the believer with contempt, and is why such rank populism has contributed to the decline in popular respect for politics and politicians.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

The Dalai Lama’s Gyuto Monks bless the turf at Lord’s

Lord Bonkers writes exclusively for Liberator:
I generally ask the Elves of Rockingham Forest to do this here at the Hall. I forgot to pay them one year and it turned square before lunch on the first day.

Thursday 4 July 2013

A very Egyptian coup

Liberals applauding a military coup? OK, it happened in Portugal in 1974, but that ousted a dictator, not an elected president.

Yet the people with whom most liberals would most readily identify in Egypt seem to be the ones on the streets hailing what in plain English is a military coup.

The reasons for this curious turn of events lie in the deep suspicion in which secular Egyptians hold political Islamists.

I recall meeting Egyptian liberals at Liberal International congresses. They were members of opposition parties tolerated in the Mubarak era so long as they remained unthreatening to the regime and of limited effect.

They wanted to see democracy in Egypt but were worried that, as the only organised political force of any significance, the Muslim Brotherood would win, and would need only to ‘win once’, before imposing a religious regime that would allow even less opposition than did Mubarak.

Indeed, on grounds of free speech, religious freedom and women’s rights, I well remember Egyptian liberals saying they would prefer the Mubarak regime any day to a Brotherhood government.

Therefore the problem arises of how both these substantial currents of opinion can be accommodated within one democracy when each believes the other to be a mortal threat to its interests and well-being.

Tunisia seems slightly more successful in ushering in democracy after the Arab spring, and in Morocco the king has resolved to be a constitutional monarch.

In Egypt, the army may end up holding the ring for longer than it planned.