Wednesday 28 August 2013

I have a dream

Fifty years ago today, on 28th August 1963, Martin Luther King delivered what is arguably the greatest political speech ever made: “I have a dream”.

The text of the speech (with a link to an MP3 audio file) is here.

You can watch a video of the speech here:

Listen and be reminded that politics is capable of a good deal more than today’s pedestrian offerings.

Friday 23 August 2013

Abolish spring conference? No thanks!

A working group, appointed by the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Executive (FE), has produced a consultation paper ‘Spring Federal Conference: Cost-Neutral Options for the future’ [pdf], which includes the option of curtailing or even abolishing the party’s spring conference.

I should say at the outset that, even though I’m a member of the party’s Federal Conference Committee (FCC), which organises the conference, I have had no inkling of these proposals until now because the working group has not presented its views to the FCC. We will have to comment in the same way as every other party member has a right to, so here are my initial views.

This is not the first time anyone has proposed to abolish the spring conference. There was a previous attempt under Charles Kennedy’s party leadership. The idea was scotched after it became clear there were many reasons not to abolish it, and that conference would not support the proposal, let alone provide the two-thirds majority required to amend the party’s constitution.

There are a number of reasons why curtailing or abolishing the spring conference is a bad idea. Here are the first five that spring immediately to mind.
  1. The move is presented as a financial necessity but is not due to be implemented until after 2015, by which time the difficulties caused by the sudden withdrawal of Short and Cranborne money in 2010 may or may not have abated.
  2. The value of spring conference cannot be measured in purely financial terms. We know that many members come to conference to take part in the extensive training programme, to help develop policy by attending debates or consultation sessions, or for other reasons such as networking (see page 4 of the consultation paper). The training programme, in particular, can be put together only through the arrangement of the weekend conference package with meeting rooms and hotels. Thus abolition or curtailment would be a false economy. The spring conference is not a loss-leader but a good opportunity to provide economies of scale, which is why the other parties, even without party democracy, also have weekend events.
  3. The ability of party members to hold the party to account would be diminished if abolition were to take place. To be precise, it would be halved.
  4. The ability of the party to make policy would be severely affected. Without a spring conference, the party would be unable to make policy more than once a year. There would also be less opportunity for consultative sessions. Only the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) would be able to fill the gap, yet it has not been consulted at all about the FE’s proposals. The net result would therefore be more policy-making on the hoof.
  5. One idea mooted in the FE’s paper is to reduce the spring conference to a one-day event, but has anyone actually thought what a one-day conference agenda might look like? For s start, it would not run from 9am to 6pm because people would not be able to arrive in time, no matter where the event is held. This would mean a loss of debating time in any case. But when you also allow time for the leader’s speech, the obligatory sessions for reports from various party bodies, and constitutional amendments (which must be debated), there would be hardly any time left for actual debate.
There is one silk purse that could be made from this particular pig’s ear. When abolition was last mooted, income from the spring conference rose significantly. It broke even in one year, as people worked harder to make the event pay. With next spring’s event in a new location likely to be popular (York), perhaps this will happen again.

This post was written by Gareth Epps, who is a member of the Liberator Collective and is also a directly-elected member of the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Conference Committee. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Has Nick Clegg lost the plot?

The detention of David Miranda at Heathrow Airport has turned into a major news story, and rightly so.

The story has revealed dangerous levels of state power, as the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger explains in an account of the assorted threats he received from “shadowy Whitehall figures”, culminating in a raid by GCHQ on his offices and the destruction of computer hard drives.

Also in the Guardian, columnist Simon Jenkins (who can hardly be dismissed as a dangerous lefty) explains how the term ‘terrorist’ is being applied loosely by the state to hoover up any person or data it wants, under the catch-all justification of the ‘war on terror’. Jenkins concludes, “It is simple harassment and intimidation”.

The question now for Liberal Democrats is why the reaction of their party has been muted, to put it mildly. After all, this is the sort of civil liberties issue that would normally unite the party from left to right.

On his blog, Mark Pack asks this very question. Mark bends over backwards to be fair but nevertheless finds the leadership’s muted response strange.

The likeliest explanation is that this non-response is all of a piece with the narrative Nick Clegg has constructed about being ‘grown up’ and his repeated (and unfounded) attacks on party members as allergic to power, which Alex Marsh analysed on his blog and I analysed here. After all, if civil liberties were considered a ‘grown up’ issue, Clegg would have been quick to take a stand. But if raising such concerns does not fit with Clegg’s tendentious definition of political maturity, then he will steer clear. We should not forget that Clegg is building up to a series of stage-managed confrontations with the membership at next month’s party conference, and events must be considered in this context.

If you find that analysis unconvincing, consider a report in today’s Independent, where the remarks of one anonymous ‘ally’ of Clegg are reported:
One said there were now some “totally irrational people” in the party who would not accept another coalition with the Tories under any circumstances.
The leader’s overriding consideration appears to be a desire to maintain a coalition with the Tories after the next general election. Abandoning the party’s traditional concerns for civil liberties can therefore be justified in terms of a muscular pragmatism. But maybe Clegg or Jeremy Browne could surprise everyone by remembering why our party exists, condemn the tactics of the police state, and prove me wrong?

In the meantime, Sarah Ludford MEP has just announced on Twitter (@SarahLudfordMEP) that she is gathering support for an emergency motion at September’s party conference.

Postscript: More on this topic from Jonathan Calder.

Monday 12 August 2013

Ending the obsession with deficit reduction

Most politicians are economically illiterate, preferring homespun wisdom to intelligent macroeconomic analysis.

Thanks to Liberator Collective member Gareth Epps, who (via Mark Pack) spotted an article by Professor Simon Wren-Lewis on his blog mainly macro. Wren-Lewis explains why Nick Clegg’s economics motion at this September’s Liberal Democrat conference is wrong-headed. He summarises the motion as asserting that:
...the best thing that has happened to the UK economy recently has been that the deficit has come down. The message seems clear: reduction of the budget deficit is the number one priority and all else has to be subsumed to that.
Now you might in Clegg’s defense say that he has to put it this way, as he has been part of a government which has made deficit reduction the overriding priority. I think that is simply wrong. He could say instead that the focus on deficit reduction was appropriate given all the uncertainty as the Eurozone crisis broke. However now it is clear that this was a crisis specific to the Eurozone, and with interest rates on UK borrowing really low and likely to stay there, the UK can make reducing unemployment the priority, while still of course operating a prudent fiscal policy in the longer term. In other words, he could begin to de-prioritise deficit reduction. The fact that he chooses to do the complete opposite suggests he is content to see fiscal policy as an extension of household financial management. We will see in September whether the Party as a whole is happy to follow its leader in ignoring 80 years of macroeconomic analysis.
So the conference will be faced with a choice between Clegg’s Tory-lite folk wisdom or intelligent macroeconomic analysis. If ever there were a case for delivering a humiliating defeat to the leader, this is it.

Thursday 1 August 2013

At last... those new peerages

Finally, after several false starts, the list of new life peerages has been announced. There are ten new Liberal Democrat peers. How does this list compare with Liberator’s predictions on 16th June?

Well, we correctly predicted that there would be ten new peers and we correctly predicted seven of them:
  • Olly Grender
  • Christine Humphreys
  • Brian Paddick
  • James Palumbo
  • Alison Suttie
  • Rumi Verjee
  • Sir Ian Wrigglesworth
We also predicted an unnamed Scottish Liberal Democrat, who turned out to be:
  • Jeremy Purvis
We failed to predict two:
  • Cathy Bakewell
  • Zahida Manzoor
Meanwhile, two of our predictions went away empty-handed:
  • Liz Lynne
  • Julie Smith
In any event, there is an equal number of men and women on the Liberal Democrat list. But the list is heavily biased to people resident in London (even if they came from somewhere else originally).

The practice of ennobling former MPs seems to have come to an end. Only one of the nominees is a former MP (Sir Ian Wrigglesworth), and he lost his seat in 1987. His nomination probably had more to do with his subsequent services to the party than his time as an MP.

How many of today’s new peers were elected to the party’s Interim Peers Panel? The answer is just two; Brian Paddick, who was elected to the panel in 2008 (and, strictly speaking, his membership of the panel expired in 2012), and Olly Grender, who was elected to the 2006 panel (which expired in 2010).

Only one person from the most recent list (elected in 2010) has so far been made a peer: Sal Brinton. Only three from the 2008 list have previously been ennobled: Jonathan Marks, Monroe Palmer and Ben Stoneham. It is probably safe to assume that Mr Clegg does not have much time for the Interim Peers Panel.