Monday 30 September 2013

Setting light to a bunch of £50s

I’ve long wondered who writes the weekly briefings to Liberal Democrat members from party chief executive Tim Gordon.

It’s unlikely he writes them himself, given that the mixture of policy detail and spin is not what one would expect from someone in an organisational role.

Whoever wrote last week’s briefing must have been stumped for a way to put a positive spin on the Public Accounts Committee’s savaging of the rural broadband programme. You can see its report here.

Amongst other cock-ups, it noted that DCMS had handed BT a publicly-subsidised monopoly; that the programme had ended up with BT committing £356m rather than the £563m expected, while local authorities must commit £730m against the £494m they were expected to pay; and that confidentiality clauses prevent councils comparing BT prices.

Labour’s Margaret Hodge might be the public face of this committee, but it has a clear coalition majority.

The Liberal Democrat members’ briefing said without elaboration that the PAC’s findings “are at odds with the findings of the National Audit Office. They found that the approach reduced the cost of the programme for taxpayers”.

Whoever wrote that was no doubt confident that few would bother to seek out whatever the NAO had said.

Happily, Liberator can help. This is what the NAO’s head Amyas Morse said: “The rural broadband project is moving forward late and without the benefit of strong competition to protect public value. For this we will have to rely on the Department’s active use of the controls it has negotiated and strong supervision by Ofcom.” The NAO report continued at some length in similar unflattering vein.

Two things flow from this. The first is that there is no point in trying desperately to spin away a balls-up when it can’t be spun away. How much better, not least for the reputation of politics, to admit it.

The second is that political activists of all kinds should keep an eye on PAC and NAO reports. They sound boring, but I have to look at many professionally and one becomes almost punch drunk with the tales of waste and mismanagement laid out there, in particular on defence procurement and government IT projects. The team behind Universal Credit recently chucking away £34m on a failed IT scheme was a classic example.

The horror stories are so relentless that one should be very wary of any politician of any party who claims they will pay for something by “cutting waste”. To judge from these reports, those responsible for large sections of Whitehall cannot even recognise wasted money, let alone control it, and in negotiations often have rings run round them by private sector suppliers.

Thursday 26 September 2013

How to stop conference being boring

Have a good conference, did you?

I was unable to join you this year but watched much of the proceedings on TV. And to be frank, it was thoroughly tedious. Most of the speeches were read from scripts in a flat monotone. Rarely did any debate come to life. Rarely did anyone enthuse or persuade.

And it occurred that, if an old hack like me can find the conference boring, how much more boring must it seem to a lay audience? Indeed, all of the party conferences have become a tedium-fest, and if Britain’s political parties are trying to accelerate their slow death, they are going the right way about it.

It is unlikely that BBC Parliament’s viewing figures will be troubling the audience ratings during the conference season. The only event that will remain in the average viewer’s memory is UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom’s altercation with Michael Crick.

I have been going to party conferences regularly since the Liberal Assembly in Llandudno in 1976. There have been some important changes in the intervening 37 years.

First, the action has gradually shifted from debates in the main auditorium to the fringe. Like the Edinburgh Festival, the fringe has outgrown the formal proceedings, so that there is more of interest to be found in fringe meetings and the informal politicking in the cafés, bars and stalls area. Media coverage rarely reflects this development, even though modern lightweight camera equipment makes it easy to do (unlike in the 1970s when TV cameras were huge, immobile things fixed to rostrums in front of the stage).

Second, the art of oratory has died because modern politics no longer calls for this skill. Public meetings were once a regular feature of political campaigning but if you held one now hardly anyone would turn up. At the same time, the huge growth in the number of TV and radio stations means that knowing how to do a broadcast interview is a more important skill. For evidence of the death of oratory, consider Danny Alexander’s lifeless speech at this year’s conference or the way Sarah Teather’s attempts at jokes fell flat at previous ones.

Third, genuine debate has been increasingly edged out by the need to find room on the agenda for set piece speeches and presentations. At least there remains some debate at Liberal Democrat conferences (despite the pressure from the leader’s office). At Labour and Conservative conferences, there is no democratic debate or decision-making at all.

Fourth, the professions of public relations and political advising, which scarcely existed until the 1980s, have grown like Topsy. In the 1970s, each MP’s staff comprised one secretary. Nowadays, backbenchers typically employ four staff while government ministers also have an army of special advisers (‘SpAds’). Such advisers specialise in leaving nothing to chance. The result is a growth in the culture of spin and the soundbite, the dominance of cynical media management, and the death of spontaneity.

And fifth, no conference these days is complete without an accordionist:

What can be done about this? Apart from getting rid of the accordions, obviously.

There is no quick fix but one remedy is to strip out of the formal agenda as much as possible of the non-spontaneous elements. That means getting rid of all the set piece speeches and presentations, apart from the leader’s speech at the end of the conference (and also the occasional guest speeches by visiting foreign liberal leaders).

If any government ministers want to deliver speeches, let them take their chances in the rough and tumble of debate. Or speak at a fringe meeting. Or do a TV interview outside the hall. Anything but clog up the agenda with the sheer tedium of their over-rehearsed speeches.

The belligerent youths in the leader’s office wouldn’t like it, of course. Were the Federal Conference Committee to carry out such a purge, one of these SpAds would doubtless turn up at the next meeting of the committee to demand a retraction of this policy. In which case the committee should respond with a short message about sex and travel.

Oh, and one other thing. A trapdoor should be installed under the speakers’ rostrum, controlled by a big lever next to the session chair. Either that, or wire up the rostrum to the mains.

Postscript: This blog post has won Liberal England’s Phrase of the Day award.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Not a case for Sherlock Holmes

Today’s Observer reports that Nick Clegg is to hold an investigation into whether members of his team briefed against Vince Cable before conference.

The matter in question is a briefing given that said that, in a debate on the Glasgow economy motion at an MPs’ awayday, the vote went 55-2 against Cable's unhappiness with it.

This was reported by the media, plainly as the result of an official briefing, though was later the subject of a limited retraction by the BBC’s Nick Robinson, who said:
I am now told that no vote was held after a debate about economic policy at the Lib Dem parliamentary meeting a few weeks ago. However, sources close to both Vince Cable and Nick Clegg agree that the Business Secretary did urge the party to be prepared to relax fiscal policy if the recovery wasn’t sustained. Mr Cable is said to have had the support of just one other Lib Dem MP. Mr Clegg persuaded all the others. So, it was 55 versus 2.
There are several reasons why it is clear that Robinson and his colleagues were misled in a way designed to damage Cable, an idiotic course of action by whoever was responsible since Cable is a major party asset and a public figure in his own right.

The most obvious is that, with David Ward suspended from the party whip over his comments on the Middle East, and Mike Hancock having had the whip removed over matters we need not enter into here, there could not have been 57 MPs present.

Even if there had been, anyone who spoke to a few MPs at conference would be perfectly well aware that a lot more than two prefer Cable’s position to Clegg’s.

Indeed, one MP said the meeting in question had no formal vote but he kept a scorecard of speakers’ sentiments that came out 2:1 in Clegg’s favour – a much more believable ratio and, as one MP put it, “many of those on Clegg’s side were those who still retain ambitions”.

The Observer did not say who was to conduct this inquiry, or what would happen to anyone found to have misbehaved.

Given the frequency with which one name was mentioned at conference, the inquiry may not have very much inquiring to do.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Will the last delegate to leave please turn out the lights?

Leaving aside the issue of defence, what was striking about the vote on the amendment to today’s defence motion at the Liberal Democrat conference was the numbers.

228 voted for the amendment and 322 voted against, a total of 550 voting representatives. Given the importance of this vote, it is a fair bet that most voting reps present in Glasgow took part. This suggests that it is unlikely the total number of voting reps present in Glasgow exceeds 600.

Yes, holding the conference in Glasgow when most party members live in southern England deters attendance. Yes, many members attending are observers rather than voting reps. Even allowing for these factors, the low total is a sign of serious problems with membership numbers.

Party membership fell from about 65,000 at the time of the 2010 general election to only about 42,500 by the end of 2012. How much worse are things now?

Inability to count

Word reaches Liberator of an altercation at yesterday’s parliamentary party meeting over briefing by those associated with Nick Clegg, to the effect that the unamended motion on the economy (debated by party conference yesterday morning) was supported 55-2 at a pre-conference awayday of MPs.

We hear that this greatly displeased Vince Cable, on the grounds that no such vote took place at the event concerned and that, even if it had, not all 57 MPs were present so the figures could not have been correct.

The implication was that Cable was among the two and therefore that his position on the economy enjoyed only minor support among MPs. This is believed to be a terminological inexactitude.

Liberator would be grateful for any further details of what transpired at the meeting, our usual discretion assured. Oh, and the 224-220 vote yesterday in favour of a 45p top tax rate, rather than 50p, was, it should be noted, made possible only a by frantic late whipping in of ‘payroll’ MPs, to the wry amusement of those on the 50p side.

At least 220 people understand the important political symbolism in being a party that thinks some burdens should fall on the rich, even if the leader doesn’t.

Monday 16 September 2013

A Pyrrhic victory?

The outcome of this morning’s Liberal Democrat conference debate on the economy was a mixed bag for social liberals.

At the Huffington Post, Liberator’s Gareth Epps has just posted his assessment of the debate.

Meanwhile, there is another consequence of this debate. After prostituting himself to support the establishment line on the economy for the second year running, party president Tim Farron MP can kiss goodbye to the party left’s backing for his leadership ambitions.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Why Monday’s debate on economics is crucial

Monday morning’s debate on economics at the Liberal Democrat conference is the most significant of the conference.

It is significant because it is effectively the first time that the party has ever been consulted about Orange Book editors David Laws and Paul Marshall’s plan to convert the Liberal Democrats to neoliberalism.

The key votes will come on the Social Liberal Forum’s amendments. If these amendments succeed, members will know that the Orange Book project has finally been defeated. If they fail, it will be a Pyrrhic victory for the right, because the party will haemorrhage active members.

I’ve provided further arguments on Liberal Democrat Voice.

No comment...

In Saturday’s Conference Daily (the daily bulletin distributed to delegates at the Liberal Democrat conference):

Saturday 14 September 2013

The sound of gunfire?

Today is the 50th anniversary of Jo Grimond’s famous ‘Gunfire’ speech to the Liberal Assembly (the Liberal Party’s annual conference) on 14 September 1963.

That speech had a remarkable effect at the time, inspiring a generation of Liberals. One effect was that the Young Liberals started a magazine called Gunfire. It was the end of that magazine in 1970 that prompted the creation of Liberator magazine, still with us 43 years later.

At my suggestion, David Boyle blogged yesterday about the anniversary of Grimond’s speech. He is generous to the present leadership but I do not share his generosity.

In 1963, Grimond sought to inspire his members. Nick Clegg has spent the past year slagging them off. It will take more than 5p on plastic bags to inspire them again.

Monday 9 September 2013

A party bigger than its leader

One might have thought that a leader who has presided over a catastrophic slump in his party’s membership would have better things to do than insult those who remain.

Yet the media were being briefed assiduously over the summer that the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow is the event at which Nick Clegg would confront his party over whether it accepted ‘grown-up’ politics. Translated into English, that means, “will it do what I tell it to?”

Having evaded any real debate on the economy for the past two years – helped by the fiasco over two competing amendments last September – the party leadership has now gone to the other extreme and staged an economy debate that Clegg himself will sum up.

The motion he will commend to conference is a recitation of things the coalition has done, together with some rather uncontentious ideas for limited improvements. This, as the movers well know, faces the party with the choice of publicly repudiating its leader or endorsing the economic record of the coalition, which has seen three years of recession, followed by a tiny upturn in growth paraded as though it were a miracle.

In this situation, Clegg may well get his victory, but it won’t be worth having. Does anyone in his bunker seriously believe that the party will be enthused by, or voters impressed by, a policy that says, “You’ve just been through the longest recession on record; we were right and everyone who disagreed was wrong; now please vote for us and, if we have a coalition again, we’ll knock a few more rough edges off the Tories’ more lunatic ideas”?

When not discussing being ‘grown-up’, Clegg’s usual line is to accuse his Liberal Democrat critics of being uninterested in power and preferring opposition. Entire armies of straw men have been lined up by Clegg to be demolished like this. Who are these people, and why has no-one except Clegg ever met any of them?

The people that Clegg alleges are not ‘grown-up’ or ‘serious’ are the remnants of those who gave him a majority in favour of coalition in 2010 so large that even he described it as ‘North Korean’.

Those who disagree with Clegg do not, with rare exceptions, object to being in coalition at all. They object to the conduct of this one; to Clegg’s failure to use his influence well; to Clegg being too close to David Cameron; to Clegg permitting policy disasters like the Health Act and bedroom tax (which will return to haunt the party’s candidates); and to Clegg appearing altogether far too comfortable in working with the Conservatives.

Clegg would appear to wish to fight the next election on the platform of “didn’t we do well?” A few conversations with most of his MPs, and some pretty senior ones at that, ought to convince him that fighting the next election by offering more of the same is likely to prove inimical to his prospects of continuing as deputy prime minister, because there will be too few Liberal Democrat MPs to sustain a coalition. But then perhaps he thinks his own MPs are not serious.

There is also a hard message for those of Clegg’s critics who have given up and left the party in disgust at something or other the coalition has done. What did you expect? You joined a political party that seeks power and, unless you believed the Liberal Democrats were going to vault from third place to first, it was inevitable that a coalition would arise at some point were the party ever to exercise power.

Undoubtedly, most party members would have preferred Labour as a coalition partner, and things would have been less problematic on economic policy. But since suspicion of civil liberty is part of Labour’s DNA, such a coalition would likely have caused equal if different anguish. Probably a mirror image of those who have left because of this coalition would have left because of one with Labour.

Each social liberal who leaves the party makes life easier for Clegg and the clique of economic liberal extremists around him, and harder for those social liberals who remain. The least helpful of all are those who have left the Liberal Democrats but say they might be back “when it turns into a social liberal party”. By their own actions, they make such an outcome less likely. If the party is to be rescued for social liberalism, it needs social liberals in it. Each of those who leaves does Clegg’s work for him.

No coalition was ever going to be easy. Even a majority Liberal Democrat government would have created its share of anger and disappointments. But the only people with good reason to leave the party are those who have undergone a genuine intellectual conversion to a rival cause.

For lapsed members who remain social liberals, the choice is simple. The party is bigger than Nick Clegg and will be there when he has gone, and it is worth saving. Clegg wants you to leave, which should be reason enough to stay. Or rejoin.

This is the Commentary column from Liberator #361 (September 2013 edition), just sent to subscribers.

Saturday 7 September 2013

And they’re off!

Nick Clegg has taken the unusual step of deciding to sum up in the debate on the economy motion at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow next week, in which he will attempt to convince the party and country that the coalition’s economic policy has been a howling success and needs only minor tweaks. Or not as the case may be.

But who will draw the short straw of having to propose this nonsense? Liberator’s bookmakers suggest the following:
  • Duncan Hames: 2-1. Wide-eyed young colt, keen to impress. But he is Clegg’s PPS, so may not get a choice.
  • Stephen Gilbert: 6-1. Economic right-wing MP needing to raise his profile.
  • Jo Swinson: 100-30. Heavily promoted by Clegg; Not renowned for substance and moving this motion will hardly help in that cause.
  • Danny Alexander: 8-1. Do they actually want to win...?
  • Mike Thornton: 4-1. Still glowing from the spotlight of being a Liberal Democrat who got elected in 2013, but low profile since.
  • Lorely Burt: 8-1. Guaranteed to keep the sign language interpreters busy.
  • Stephen Williams: 16-1. But he would love to do it.
  • Shirley Williams: 20-1. Another abuse of her name in a motion would surely result in a suit for defamation of character by association with Clegg, after the debacle last year over the ‘Shirley Williams’ health motion.
  • Paddy Ashdown: 3-1. Would even Ashdown approve of the tactic of facing down bloody-minded activists in a debate, with a party to enthuse ahead of a general election? A speech would be enough, though.
  • Jeremy Browne: 12-1. Plausible after promoting Tory policies in the Home Office but, let’s face it, Jeremy Thorpe would be more likely to go down well at conference.
  • Tim Farron: 25-1. Believes in divine intervention, and might just get his wish.
  • A Leadership Programme Candidate Who Nobody Has Ever Heard Of: evens. Guaranteed to deliver any old rubbish he/she has been given with starry-eyed, uncritical zeal, exactly as trained to do in the programme.
  • Floella Benjamin: 15-1. Guaranteed wholesome fun.
  • Vince Cable: 1000-1.
Latest news:  A late entrant to the field - Steve Webb. 2-1. He thinks God made him do it. But he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty minister.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Liberator in the Sunday Times

From the Atticus column in the Sunday Times (1st September) (and behind its paywall):
You’ll find this difficult to believe, I know, but for many Lib Dems the highlight of the party’s autumn conference is not Nick Clegg’s speech (“tough times . . . bold decisions . . . making a difference”). It is the Glee Club singalong. 
Every year Liberator magazine provides a song book, with topical ballads. So in a fortnight, to mark our non-intervention in the Middle East, we might expect to hear Danny Alexander’s clear and pleasing treble trilling We’re Gonna Wait for a UN Mandate Before Hanging Out Our Washing on the Siegfried Line. If you can think of other suitable songs, send them to
Or, if you can write the whole song, send it to us.