Monday 28 October 2013

Better all-woman shortlists than the Leadership Programme

Last year, I was in the audience for a panel discussion at a professional conference. Every single member of the panel was a balding middle-aged man. It was, as several members of the audience pointed out, cringe-making.

It has reached the stage where the low number of women in the Liberal Democrat group in the Commons strikes me the same way.

You can say in our defence that we do not have safe seats into which we can parachute female candidates. You can say we had plenty of women candidates in promising seats at the last election – but the problem is that we did not win them. You can say we are selecting plenty of women in seats that look promising next time around.

Now Nick Clegg, according to today’s Independent, is considering imposing all-woman shortlists on the party.

That, of course, is not in Nick’s gift. He would have to convince the party conference to support the measure.

And my heart is not in the idea. My ideal is still Liberal Democrat members selecting the best candidate for the seat, irrespective of sex, race or anything else.

But if you feel we have reached the point where Something Must Be Done, then I would much rather see all-woman shortlists than the Leadership Programme we have at present as the solution to this problem.

This is for two reasons. The first is that it involves the party establishment picking favourite sons and daughters who will then expect to be provided with agreeable seats to fight. This gives that establishment too much power, and I would rather see candidates fighting their way up from the bottom. There is also the point that some of those chosen, for the initial intake at least, seemed to be doing very well without any special help from the top.

More fundamentally, the Leadership Programme fails to challenge the party sufficiently. It says, in effect, that women candidates are not as good, but with the proper training they can be just as good as white men. What looks radical at the outset turns out to be deeply conservative.

When you set it against all those faults, it is hard to argue that all-woman shortlists would not be an improvement.

This post first appeared on Liberal England.

Saturday 19 October 2013

The Crazy World of Jeremy Browne

Having lost his ministerial job in last week’s reshuffle, Jeremy Browne was interviewed in Friday’s Times (£) – and it’s not a pretty sight.

What’s that? You won’t pay to enter the Times’s firewall? Quite right, so a copy of the story is provided at the end of this blog post. There are also summaries of the Times’s story in the Guardian, on Liberal Democrat Voice and at

The interview has fuelled speculation that Browne will eventually defect to the Tories, which his half-hearted denials do not entirely dispel.

Meanwhile in the Liberal Democrat blogosphere, Browne’s comments have earned a universal raspberry:
  • Naomi Smith (co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum) responds at the Huffington Post, accusing Browne of posing “a false dichotomy when he says the Party must choose whether to be a party of protest or of Government”.
  • In a must-read post, James Graham examines Browne’s behaviour in the context of the increasingly authoritarian drift of the Liberal Democrats’ right wing.
  • The Fact Collector argues that, if Jeremy Browne were to defect to the Tories, then strangely enough everybody would gain.
What has earned all this hostility? There is much in both the content and tone of the interview that has caused offence, but the essential problem is Browne’s apparent inability to distinguish between government and party.

Controversially, Browne wants the Liberal Democrats to run on a coalition ticket rather than a Liberal Democrat ticket:
Mr Clegg told delegates in Glasgow last month that he “hadn’t said enough” about what “Britain would look like today if the Tories had been alone in Whitehall for the last three years”.
By contrast Mr Browne urges his party to take responsibility, and credit, for the Government’s “central pillars”, including reducing the deficit, curbing immigration and crime and education reforms.
Curbing immigration?!

But the Browne quotation that will doubtless attract the most criticism from within the Liberal Democrats is this:
Comparing his party to a shopping trolley that “left to its own devices defaults to the left and to being the party of protest”, he says that he became exposed after years of trying to exert “corrective pressure”.
“I saw my role, and continue to do so, as doing everything I can to accelerate the Lib Dems’ journey from a party of protest to a party of government.”
This ‘party of protest’ thing is a tired old trope, already worn out by Nick Clegg over the past year. It is simply untrue that the party had no interest in power before the 2010 general election. This falsehood is linked to the suggestion that anyone in the Liberal Democrats who is critical of the coalition government is necessarily against being in power at all. Strangely, both Browne and Clegg never seem able to cite any specific examples of these power-averse party members, which suggests such members are straw men.

Why, then, does Clegg retain support within the party but Browne has virtually none? The reason is not Browne’s views on economics, even though these are about as right wing as they come within the Liberal Democrats. It is because of Browne’s views on civil liberties.

If there is one thing that unites Liberals from left to right, it is support for civil liberties. Yet Browne seems to have a tin ear for this issue, so his move from the Foreign Office to the Home Office last year left him vulnerable.

His weakness on civil liberties was exposed at the end of July, when the Home Office sent advertising vans round several London boroughs advising illegal immigrants to turn themselves in. A few days later, it was revealed that the UK Borders Agency had been hanging out at Kensal Green tube station in London, randomly stopping non-white people supposedly in an effort to catch illegal immigrants.

Browne had not been consulted about these measures so could not be blamed for them. But once he had heard about them, he should have been quick off the mark. As Jonathan Calder and Caron Lindsay pointed out at the time, the silence was deafening. It is a poor state of affairs when Liberal Democrat ministers appear unconcerned that government officials are stopping citizens in the street at random and demanding to see their papers.

Browne’s ineffectiveness on such crucial Liberal issues is basically why he was fired and why no one in the party has come to his defence.

The Times’s interview with Browne will win him no new friends within the Liberal Democrats but simply confirm the perception of his semi-detached status. Disparaging one’s party having just been fired also makes Browne look churlish. But it is the association with authoritarian policies that has, in the end, proved fatal.

The report in The Times (Friday 18 October 2013):

Tuesday 15 October 2013

David Heath and Jeremy Browne were victims of an earlier reshuffle

I was pleased to see Norman Baker moved to the Home Office in the recent Lib Dem reshuffle. And I note that many of those poking fun at his book on the death of Dr David Kelly – step forward Jonathan Freedland and John Rentoul – are Blairite armchair warriors seeking to refight the invasion of Iraq.

But I do feel sorry for Jeremy Browne, who was sacked to make way for Norman Baker. Because in the previous reshuffle, which took place in September 2012, he was moved from the Foreign Office. And he had given every appearance of being at home there, which he never did at the Home Office.

And Jeremy Browne was not the only Lib Dem who was moved from a job where he was at home to one where he was not in that reshuffle and then sacked this week.

David Heath was by all accounts a success as deputy Leader of the House and, as ‘a good House of Commons man’, he certainly looked happy in the role. But in September of last year, he was moved to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Fair enough for a rural MP, you may say, but he was given the worst hospital pass of all time and was made the minister for shooting badgers. I don't think anyone could be happy in that role.

Now Dan Rogerson has been appointed to DEFRA in his place. I don’t know if he now has responsibilities for the badger cull – it is possible that they have moved the goalposts.

That September 2012 was not just a misfortune for these individual ministers: it was a misfortune for the Liberal Democrats as a whole. Because, despite everything, I like my party being in government and I was sorry to see us giving up any representation in important, grown-up departments like Defence and the Foreign Office.

Why did we do this? The theory heard most often is that Nick Clegg was so anxious to secure the return of David Laws that he was forced to concede a lot of ground in return.

I hope this is true. If Nick gave that ground of his own free will, we really should be worrying.

This post originally appeared on Liberal England.

Thursday 3 October 2013

Running out of old grandees

‘Two jobs’ Tom McNally has finally shed one of his roles, having resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

He has combined this since 2010 with being a justice minister, with the result that it is easy to find peers who believe the demands made of McNally mean that he did neither role effectively and had an obvious conflict of interest when peers objected to something the Ministry of Justice is doing.

This was illustrated by his having been probably the only person in the hall at last month’s party conference in Glasgow to vote against the emergency motion on legal aid cuts – the party was against MoJ policy and he was stuck with it.

Who will succeed him? McNally followed Shirley Williams, who followed Bill Rogers who followed Roy Jenkins, who was appointed at the merger.

Alert readers will have spotted that the qualification for being Lords leader is to have been a prominent SDP member and, apart from the appalling Ian Wrigglesworth, the House is running out of those. As a newly appointed peer, Wigglesworth probably also lacks the required seniority.

Those thought to be in the running include John Alderdice, the group’s convenor (and a suitably distinguished and trusted loyalist), and its deputy convenor, former party president Navnit Dholakia.

Update on 4 October – We now hear that Jim Wallace will be standing for Lords leader, despite breaking the unwritten rule of never having been in the SDP.

However, as a Scottish lawyer, it is unclear that Wallace could take McNally’s Ministry of Justice post, which presumably will have to wait for the reshuffle.