Tuesday 28 January 2014

(Deputy) Leadership Coup?

News this evening of the surprise elevation of Malcolm Bruce to the Deputy Leadership of the Liberal Democrats in the Commons may prove more interesting than meets the eye.

It is being variously rumoured that:-
a) a margin of only 2 votes separated Malcolm from the widely-championed establishment candidate, Danny Alexander's PPS Lorely Burt;
b) factors at play included the championing of Burt by the party leadership, a reaction among certain MPs to this and additional backing from Scottish MPs (a significant constituency) for Malcolm's traditionally strident opposition to the SNP;
c) although 24 MPs reportedly nominated Lorely, not all of them voted for her;
d) it may also be the case that an MP known to be retiring in 2015 may be a better bet than one defending a wafer-thin majority.

Given that a bare majority of Liberal Democrat MPs enjoy the patronage of the Party leadership, though (whether through Ministerial salaries or honorary unpaid titles such as PPS or Whip), is rebellion afoot?

And is this a kick in the teeth for Nick Clegg and his advisors who in September were reportedly [http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/sep/22/vince-cable-dirty-tricks-campaign] to blame for inventing a Parliamentary Party meeting at which Vince Cable was fictitiously outvoted on the subject of the economy? Or has the Parliamentary Party had sight of the result of the much-anticipated investigation [http://liberalengland.blogspot.com/2013/12/how-is-nick-cleggs-inquiry-into.html]?

Sunday 26 January 2014

Another casualty from the Rennard controversy?

Quite apart from the impact on both his accusers and Lord Rennard himself, there could be wider casualty from the last week's events.

Just consider both Nick Clegg's bemoaning that party rules constrain him from acting as he would wish to, and media commentators condemning him as weak for being unable to simply throw Rennard out of the party by personal diktat.

The potential casualty is party democracy itself. There will be those who will point to the embarrassments caused and say that they would not have happened if the leader had been able to act 'decisively' unconstrained by the tiresome requirements of a democratic party.

Those ever ready with bleating demands for 'strong leadership', under which the Lib Dem membership would be reduced to a fan club - as are members of the other main parties - will be only too happy to point to these events and argue that they show a 'serious' party in power ought to dispense with its internal democracy.

No-one suggests that this was an outcome sought by the women who have made complaints, or indeed by Lord Rennard, but there is the danger of it being an unintended consequence.

Clegg has pointed out that he led a political party and "not a sect". He would though probably be less than human if he didn't fancy being able to solve party problems by simply issuing instructions.

This crisis may have presented those who would like that outcome with a golden opportunity. Be on guard.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Future Imperfect

(This is the Commentary from Liberator 363, now out)

There are two certainties and one conundrum coming in 2014. Barring some utter cataclysm, there will not be a general election, and the fevered speculation about “will the prime minister go early”, usually heard at this stage of previous parliaments, will be absent.

In May, there will be the European and local government elections. In the former, the Liberal Democrats have finally, and rightly, decided to fight an explicitly pro-European campaign (Liberator 362). The realisation has been a long time coming that a pro-European vote exists and that hardly anyone disposed to vote Liberal Democrat gives a toss about referendums on the EU.

Now that it has come, it will be interesting to see whether the ‘party of in’ holds its nerve in the campaign. If it does hold its nerve, this should embolden it to take other positions that may not be popular with a majority of voters but which are popular with as many of them as the party needs for a decent result. Green taxes, provision of land for house building and a trenchant defence of civil liberty, among other things, could all come into this category.

There are local elections around England but probably of most interest are those in London, where an oddity of timing means the Liberal Democrats have escaped the municipal carnage elsewhere, as the London boroughs have not been contested since the 2010 general election.

One possibility is that party campaigners in London, having not previously been through the anti-coalition fire, face a mauling. The other is that initial anger with the coalition has worn off and they will survive in rather better shape than in urban areas elsewhere. Inner London’s peculiar social mix of the rich and poor living side-by-side also makes predictions difficult.

The conundrum is the referendum on Scottish independence. So far, the ‘no’ campaign has exuded confidence that Scotland will stay in the UK and it has had polling evidence behind it. But people are seldom rational when they hear nationalist drums being banged (just look at UKIP supporters) and that could change.

While it is unlikely to be helpful to send large numbers of Liberal Democrats from England and Wales north of the border to tell Scots how to vote on their country’s future, Liberal Democrats elsewhere will surely wish the ‘no’ campaign well. This is because, despite Tory noises about saving the union, it is hard to think of anything more likely to benefit the Tory party than getting shot of Scotland, which is no doubt why David Cameron so readily agreed to a referendum there.

An independent Scotland would see the Tories lose one MP, the Liberal Democrats 11 and Labour dozens, radically changing the make up of the remaining UK parliament. Speculation about potential coalitions after 2015 rarely takes account of the possibility of an absent Scotland. Maybe it should, and Scottish Liberal Democrats should make clear what kind of assistance if any would be useful.

We can also be certain that 2014 will see the bulk of the work done on the Liberal Democrat manifesto for the 2015 general election.

As Paddy Ashdown argues elsewhere in this issue of Liberator, a manifesto will be rather pointless if the numbers all add up but to no purpose that voters can see. There is an obvious danger in boring voters with technocratic detail when they, not to mention party activists, need rather more than that to motivate them.

Indeed, Ashdown takes credit for adding the words “enabling everyone to get on in life” to the “stronger economy, fairer society” message, his idea being that the Liberal Democrats want to bring people the freedom to live their lives as they want, not as conformity demands.

It seems Ashdown at least does not want to play safe by having a manifesto that seeks to offend nobody and which persists with the mistaken belief that everyone is a potential Liberal Democrat voter. But as the time draws closer to it being completed, expect any number of grave warnings about “you can’t say X in the manifesto in case it offends Y”. If Y is not likely to vote Liberal Democrat anyway, there is no earthly reason to avoid giving offence to them, since saying something that does so could secure the allegiance of those much more favourably disposed to the party.

The ‘party of in’ approach to the European elections recognises this idea, and the party should not be deflected from fighting on what it believes in – rather than what it thinks a majority of voters want – even if the European results are poor.

Voters do not treat European elections very seriously and they are an unreliable guide to general elections. The danger, though, is that the party leadership only half believes this and is quite capable of the next minute boasting of being ‘in the centre’.

We all know what happens there – you end up splitting the difference between other parties who define your position for you, offending no one and inspiring no one either.

Monday 13 January 2014

Be an ambassador for a night

That's right, rub shoulders with the London diplomatic corp but just don't pretend you represent some obscure country, as they all know each other!

Seriously, Liberal International British Group's annual diplomats' reception is an unusual opportunity to mix with a wide range of people stationed at embassies in London.

The event is also attended by Lib Dem MPs and peers interested in international affairs and is hosted this year by Simon Hughes.

My haul of business cards last year included officials of Albania, Bolivia, Honduras, the UAE and Japan, and there are always some representatives present of pretty controversial places, who can be chatted to over a drink.

The event is at the National Liberal Club on Tuesday 25 February from 6-8.30pm. Its only £25 to attend, including wine and canapes.

Since LIBG isn't set up for e-commerce, and we can't be seen scuttling around in front of diplomats collecting cash, anyone wishing to attend should pay the old fashioned way by cheque made out to LIBG to: Wendy Kyrle-Pope, 1 Brook Gardens, London SW13 0LY.

Sunday 12 January 2014

Lightening my historical baggage

It is said one can learn from history, and if any readers out there would like to learn from back issues of Liberator about what went on in liberal politics not so long ago, I have a number available.

In the interests of recovering my front room from a tidal surge of paper I am about to sling out a lot of duplicate back issues of Liberator, mostly from the last 15 years, not needed as file copies. If anyone wants the whole lot please contact me below but I can't wade through them to find specific issues. There are about 100. Ideally, they need to be collected from me in north London.

If there are no takers they will count towards the London Borough of Hackney's recycling target!

I also have duplicate copies of these booklets published, or in some cases just sold, by Liberator and mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. I'm prepared to post these to those who want any of them.

Please contact me at: mark.smulian@virgin.net

Liberalism and the Left (Michael Meadowcroft) x4
Liberalism and the Right (Michael Meadowcroft) x3
Social Democracy Barrier or Bridge (Michael Meadowcroft) x3
Liberator Songbook 18th edition 
Passports to Liberty 5 (Bernard Salmon and Jonathan Calder) x9
Stamping Out Freedom: The Tories' Assault on Civil Liberties (Janice Turner)
Wasted Rainforests (Jeremy Hargreaves) x5
Liberal Values for a New Decade (Michael Meadowcroft) x3

Sunday 5 January 2014

Ashdown speaks out

The next issue of Liberator will be out next week and eyebrows may be raised by the presence of an article by Paddy Ashdown on the upcoming Lib Dem general election campaign.

Perhaps it's not that surprising - Ashdown was the party leader with whom Liberator and the best relationship since however critical we were (in particular after the 1997 election when he was still flirting with Blair) he recognised that dissidents in a party were a sign of life and strength rather than something to be ignored or suppressed, unlike his predecessors and successors.

The article arose from a meeting between Ashdown and Liberator held at his request (and in full public view) at the Glasgow conference.

We were a little puzzled as to why he wanted this meeting but it became clear that, while Ashdown wants a manifesto where the numbers add up, he doesn't want a manifesto that only does that and was looking both for the sort of ideas that would inspire voters and activists and for backing for his own efforts to ensure that the campaign emphasises these.

Many will disagree with his bullish assessment of the Coalition's record but its becoming clear what sort of campaign Ashdown, as general election co-ordinator, wants to fight.

You'll have to wait for the full article, but here is a sample:
"We will be judged on how we have governed. It will be absolutely fundamental to how most people decide their vote. We cannot hope that a strong record of local action and a passionate declamation of liberalism will be enough to push us first over the finish line.

So my challenge to you, no matter how fed up you may be about some of the actions of this government, is to think hard about how our party has married our long-cherished belief in enabling citizens to the realities of governing in both a coalition and in an economic downturn.

Because if you cannot speak passionately and eloquently about what we have achieved in difficult circumstances – and more importantly, why we have achieved it – it will make it very difficult to persuade the average voter to put a cross next to the bird in 2015. Starting a doorstep conversation with an apology for being a Liberal Democrat will rarely win a floating voter over. Put simply, if you cannot convince yourselves of the merits of having our party in government, you will not be able to convince others."