Tuesday 8 November 2016

Are the Lib Dems conning the 48%?

The media and right-wing demagogues are attacking the independence of the judiciary - and, by extension, the rule of law.  An element among them appears to be suggesting vigilante action against Gina Miller and those seeking to uphold Parliamentary democracy.

What exactly is the Liberal Democrat leadership doing?

In the Witney by-election some activists claimed the party's pro-EU message was concealed from literature to all voters.  It certainly was kept off centre stage while used heavily in targeted mailings.    Anecdotally, this strategy was electorally successful.  Time will tell whether similar strategies work in the much more pro-Remain territory of Richmond Park.

But a Liberal party that seems finally to be agreed on the need for a core vote does not seem to be using this golden opportunity to seize that pro-EU territory.  Nick Clegg - still a divisive figure - now appears to support EU withdrawal if it means remaining in the single market.  Other Lib Dem MPs remain off-message, or would do if only the party were clear what message it had.

There has been some lip service paid to welcoming the High Court judgment - but nothing more.   No Liberal vision of what an Article 50 negotiating position- nor a critique that in fact no sustainable position is possible.  Perhaps that is because of the contradiction at the heart of that position.  While saying the Lib Dems are the 'party of remain', or saying 'the Lib Dems are the party that wants the softest Brexit possible' are both coherent positions, mixing them is not.

Surely the Liberal position is to trenchantly oppose mob rule?  That should mean both holding the Government to its commitment to respect the independence of the judiciary, and to remind all that incitement is a criminal offence - and that far-right extremists running papers or in the form of UKIP leaders who incite violence face jail.

And on the subject of mob rule, the extremist-legitimising mindset of the broader media must be challenged. After all, the Liberal Democrats will hardly lose much coverage over such challenge.  For example, the party has for years taken a stance on the BBC that is inherently conservative - even Conservative; the party does not challenge broken British institutions, as a rule. Party figures have clamped down on any challenge to the established orthodoxy.  As the corporation has retrenched into being part of Britain's problem, it as with other failing institutions deserve robust challenge.

But back to the Lib Dems.  It is pretty much the worst of all possible worlds to pay lip service about being the voice of Remain voters while at the same time leaving open the possibility of voting to trigger Article 50.  The ordure heaped at Labour for its muddled position demonstrates that if you want to become politically active to fight EU withdrawal, it is not the party.  For the Lib Dems to do the same in that context is tactically stupid as well as politically wrong.

The idea that you can fight your way back onto the political map with only 8 MPs as part of a non-existent political orthodoxy is, to use a technical term, bollocks.  When fighting a must-win by-election against a plutocrat fraudulently portraying himself as an independent outsider, it is doubly bollocks.  Even some activists are threatening to take action to help the party hit this gaping open goal.  As nobody else will do it, it is up to Tim Farron to point out when this system is rigged.

Monday 24 October 2016

Reflections on Witney

It is evident that the Lib Dem performance in Witney was an overwhelmingly positive occurrence.  The biggest swing in a Conservative-held seat since the freak Winchester by-election of 1997, the campaign was also remarkable for its positive and welcoming atmosphere.  The party has learned to have fun again; it has been a unifying experience.

To what extent, though, has it contributed to the party's recovery from the long-term damage sustained under Nick Clegg's leadership?  This is more debatable.

The starting base was a local party in decline for a decade: a track record of campaigning that was patchy but had covered most of the district at some point or another.  Only the unusual stronghold of Charlbury & Finstock ward could now be described as fertile territory; however, there was potential to grow support in a Remain-voting, affluent seat.  Local councillor Liz Leffman - who in May recorded the ninth-best council ward result in the UK, and whose partner is a former Red Guard Young Liberal - was quickly selected.

A good opportunity, then, for some campaigning innovation - especially with large numbers of activists old and new ready to descend on an easily-accessible location.  A well-located HQ and a notably friendlier team than that of by-elections past made a big difference; people wanted to come back.

While some innovation did take place, visitors did question whether more could have been done.  A seat with over 100 different settlements could have lent itself to this.  The campaign, however, did use a local issue (housing development) and localised strong stories about the NHS.  This was made easier as the candidate (one of an all-local shortlist) had a good campaigning track record on the issue, and more or less neutralised the damage done to the party’s reputation by the Health & Social Care Act.

The mood among the various pro-EU '48%' groups was channeled although reports of the kind of strong pro-Europe messages that made it onto literature - for the first time in decades – were mixed.  Apart from in the partly military community of Carterton this seemed to resonate.  Where it worked particularly well was in galvanising campaign support which came from outside the party as well as a significant quality from the post-Clegg membership.  This led to a particularly heavy blizzard of literature, questioned by some on the campaign.

Also questioned was the campaign’s stance on housing.  West Oxfordshire contains the first Community Land Trust in the country (set up in Stonesfield in the 1970s) and Lib Dems in the district had a good reputation in pushing for provision of affordable housing to enable local people to stay in the area.  The Tory Council had failed to renew its Local Plan, creating a free-for-all for developers, leading to NIMBY campaigning in an area with sky-high house prices.  As a pro-housing party, it was surprising to see campaigning take that NIMBY line, although it was undoubtedly effective.

The Tories tried to select a dull, play-it-safe candidate; a solidly pro-hunt and anti-EU local councillor.  What they didn't count on were some wooden hustings performances in a constituency where such things still mattered; a toxic combination for the largely soft and pro-EU Tory vote.

The result was a massive swing - bigger than Romsey or Bromley, but unfortunately the 2015 starting base left simply too much to do.  A vast number of stakeboards demonstrated momentum.  It is said that the notoriously poor by-election aftercare support will be ramped up.

Nonetheless the Labour vote held up; indeed it seems they increased their share in Witney town itself while it fell everywhere else.  Their candidate was also local and anti-Corbyn.  The Greens' local celebrity Larry Sanders ensured that the progressive anti-Tory vote was firmly split.  This should be a lesson for those seeking anti-Tory pacts.  Equally, it is a reminder that some will not forgive Lib Dems for Clegg.

Liberal Democrats should not get ahead of themselves.  In other local by-elections on the same day as Witney the party's vote remained as low as 3 percent.  In parts of the UK less sympathetic to a ‘drawbridgfe down’ pro-European agenda, the message may not be so well-received.  The Witney result will be ignored by most of the national media in its glee at the party’s fate.  It will take several Witneys and a few wins to make a difference.  But the party now knows it can happen, and it is getting its self-belief back.  It has – if not a strategy – a vision.  The next step is anticipated with some zeal.

Sunday 19 June 2016

What more can be done to improve the EU after the referendum? The debate that we are not having.

What more can be done to improve the EU after the referendum? This is the key debate that we should be having that we are not having. That remainers should be having with antis even now - we can disagree, they can vehemently oppose and want out of the EU but we can still find out what they don't like and try to change some of those things (any that are actually real and factual) for the better. This is the debate that Stronger IN and David Cameron have failed to have. SI because the political strategists are only focused on winning the referendum - not how or afterwards - and Cameron because he's hung by the split and hostility in his own party. I hope that after a winning vote David Cameron can be more reasonable with his Ministerial opponents - at least the less nasty ones - than he was with libertarian David Davis after his leadership win.  Conciliation will be needed but so is quick very quick action and results on reform. The campaign group Avaaz sent a survey to their members at the start of June about what more Avaaz could do, I think after the EU referendum to help in the UK on this issue. They are a great movement but they also missed the need for reform to take account of genuine concerns.

 The last question in the survey was:

 "5.  Here is a list of possible changes that could be beneficial to the EU. Tick the 3 boxes that you personally think would make the most difference."

 They listed 11 changes. I agreed with two of them, and ticked those two, I partly agreed with others and disagreed fully or partly with many.

 The problem is that Avaaz hasn't tried to include those who are sceptical about or anti-the EU project. There was nothing in the list to help win those people over. The list in the survey seemed to be about increasing the central coordinating role of the EU, not taking seriously the concerns of people who don't want this. Other measures might appeal to political geeks and those already active in working for NGOs etc. (voting for a President of the Commission, citizens' initiatives and registers of lobbyists and transcripts of meetings). I doubt they would appeal to many who were not already active or paid to work on these issues.

 The language of the Avaaz survey is, like that of Nils Röper in an article in The Conversation*, inherently in support not just of the current political project but further integration. I support the former to a large extent, and the latter a bit. However, the point I am arguing is that real concrete steps need to be taken to engage Antis to feel they have not been cheated by the EU 'project'. This passage by Roper is more helpful

 “Discourse should mean constructive dissent. .. The EU surely depends on grand visions and zealous europhiles, but the sacred pursuit of an ever closer union might have undermined the EU’s cause. Taking deviating voices more seriously and allowing for more skirmishes should be the motto of the future.”

 On Friday 3 June, interviewed on Bloomberg TV Europe 0850 UK, Günter Verheugen (a former Commissioner) concluded that regardless of an IN or OUT vote that significant reforms of the EU are needed that don't need treaty change. Eg more subsidiarity, transparency. Avaaz could usefully ask people for their ideas in support of reform and other improvements - even if some might reply based on misinformation, misunderstanding or lack of understanding, this can all help improve the EU. Avaaz and other independent or neutral organisations (like Change.org and 38 Degrees), Liberals, Trade Unionists, can all be having conversations about real reform -from a range of philosophies or ideologies. So could charities if they aren't banned by the Tories from talking about changing policies and 'politics'. But most of all if we have a statesmanlike Prime Minister this is a conversation that he or she should be leading - across Britain and beyond.

 * Why EU referendum voters are like disgruntled commuters in Nigeria, 1 June 2016.

 “According to Hirschman, the appeal of exit not only increases with the level of discontent about the organisation, but also with the creeping feeling you are unable to change it. In the UK we find both growing unease with the EU and a perception of impotency to change it.”

 “Considering the complexity of a system that accommodates 28 member states, EU law making has actually become laudably transparent and accessible.”

 “The nub of the matter for the UK-EU disconnect is an ill-informed public. Britain’s path to European detachment has been paved by a dismissive domestic media.”
 Nils Röper Why EU referendum voters are like disgruntled commuters in Nigeria
 June 1, 2016

 Postscript; what kind of changes in the European Union would I like to see. Really I want a change in emphasis. Less regulation, less law, less attempt to direct from the centre. At the same time it is utterly reasonable that countries can reserve benefits to their own citizens until residency and / or work criteria - timescales - have been met. I'd like Britain to take the work element seriously for its own long term unemployed as well but both of these should be for decision at UK level. I also want to see the EU abide by the principles it claims to be founded on in its foreign policy where they are often ignored in action - with neighbours and further afield. Of course this is hypocrisy of the Commission and the Member States - all our countries. (The much maligned Nick Clegg raised the need for the EU to actually stick to its values in dealing with the Middle East and North Africa countries in a speech in 2011 about the Arab Spring before the term had even been coined). Here is a flavour, what I said in feedback to Avaaz, on that change of emphasis. Avaaz survey responses.

 3. What do you think are the most negative aspects of the EU?

 A desire on the part of some in the centre to standardise unnecessarily and to look for an EU level rule or law when none is needed. Though no Governments say they support this many governments and ministers (or their civil servants) must tacitly do so for perceived economic or security reasons, or they fail to put a stop to sensible sounding but unnecessary standardisation. .. National parliaments could also use their consultative positions to put a stop to unnecessary legislation but they fail to scrutinise sufficiently and fail to do so.

 4. In order to support the EU more strongly, what kind of changes would you like to see?

 After hopefully Britain votes to stay in a clear statement by EU leaders, the European Parliament and especially the EU Commissioners that they will look at ways to reduce any real bureaucracy and unnecessary standardisation and to make clear concessions when so and efforts to engage with those in many countries who feel that the European Union centrally interferes in too much. Leaders of the EU engage people by cutting it back a bit. Show the antis that they are listening and acting by being conciliatory and acting. Give the antis something so they can say "we won that" "we got that".

Can Cameron Do it - Post the EU referendum? What is needed if Yes are Victors.

Not can Cameron win the EU referendum, if he loses then his, and the Tories' reckless gamble with our future will have failed, as it nearly did in Scotland. The official Yes campaign, Stronger IN, have been determined to repeat many if not all of the mistakes of the political campaigning and British establishment class from the Scottish referendum. If we lose, then many of us will be angry and in despair because Britain will not have voted to be the kind of country that we want it to be, it will not have voted for the shared cooperative European future that we want and believe in.

 But if the Remain campaign wins. Then hard work starts to pull the country together, to unite bitter wounds – among the people rather more importantly than among the Conservative Party (and Labour Party to lesser extent, as with the different views within the Greens and SNP also), to show antis and those who genuinely thought a better Britain lies out of the EU, that they are not ignored, that their views are listened to and acted upon, and for Cameron or whoever to achieve a better improved less centralised EU to try and avoid this rift continuing. Can Cameron do this? I'm not at all sure that he can, given his failure to present much vision in the referendum campaign, and given the bitter splits in his party so that if he wins his Eurosceptics will continue to put knives in his chest as they did with John Major. Only in a speech on security has Cameron put a principled and positive vision for Europe, one not based on the Stronger In political hack majority narrative of economics and fear.

 I'm not sure David Cameron can achieve this, but someone has to, and Liberals have to support them. We have to try. Many principled, progressive and educated modern young (ish) Britains from varied backgrounds have worked together on the ground and in the central campaign to keep Britain in the EU because they believe it is better for our future. Those people don't believe – like some of the EU elite appear to – that the EU is perfect, they want a better EU. We mustn't ignore on the anti side that there are reasonable disagreements with EU policies - different opinions - about the CAP or EU fisheries policy. There is no monolithic EU elite - the 'Left' use similar dismissive collective language to ignore anyone they don't like or want to blame - but there are some in positions of power and influence within the EU institutions who are genuinely out of touch and who should listen to ordinary people more.

  That EU elite includes in my experience some starry eyed Lib Dems and some of those with vested interests from the funding (from MEPs to academics – who want to keep their positions or keep the expansion of centralised influence going, needlessly). At the same time experienced Anti-EU membership voters do have a point. They never have been given a vote on the creation of the European Union or on the EU as a political project. Yes the European Community project has always been political. Yes they have had votes for Governments and parties (well not really, though they don't care about that), Yes many democrats are dubious about referendums, but the antis' point made by many older voters is perfectly valid that they voted for a Common Market, they didn't vote for this. As I  wrote months ago "If people feel after the referendum that they’ve not had a fair vote – like in Scotland, or in the previous referendum on membership of the European Economic Community, people feel somehow cheated – then there will be limited acceptance of the result and regular renewed calls for a new referendum leading to more instability in our national political debate of the kind that undermined John Major’s government and has bubbled as a hot and cold war in the Tory party under Cameron. People need to feel they are making a well informed positive choice." https://kironreid.co.uk/2016/02/14/what-the-in-campaign-is-doing-right-and-what-it-is-doing-wrong/
 It has been great to be a part of a non-party and all party campaign on a very important issue instead of the parochialism and self-interest of British local and national politics with its divisive confrontational party political style. Let us put that energy to supporting campaigns for a better Britain in a better European Union. If Cameron wins, if he can vanquish the Johnson Jabberwock, then he has a once in a lifetime chance to build wide support in Britain for working with a wide range of parties from across Europe – especially those in central and Eastern Europe who share concerns about too much central dictat – to make the European Union better. Just because it is this way it does not have to stay this way. Cameron achieved a few small concessions in his negotiations (hardly mentioned in the referendum campaign – the avoiding this hardly being very honest, hiding the issue of reform). If he can lead after 23 June then together a British led coalition can reform a better Europe. We can show the antis, the reasonable moderate Brexiters, that they have been listened to, and we will be Stronger In.

Friday 20 May 2016

A Zip for Europe....... in England

Recent arrivals to the Liberal Democrats might have thought that the conclusive vote at Federal Conference on remedying inequality in candidate selection had resolved things.  However, one of the party's less transparent bodies, the English Council, is debating a series of resolutions as to how the party's candidate selections in England will be run.

For the uninitiated, the English Council is a body of around 160 representatives, normally elected by regional parties [and the renamed Young Liberals].  The obscureness of the electoral procedure ensures that party bureaucrats are best placed to attend.  Nonetheless it takes decisions on substantial issues including membership and candidate selections.  Its next meeting is in early July.

The English Candidates' Committee has put forward proposals on candidate selection for Westminster and Europe.  The proposals for the latter reserve places in the top 2 of the lists for women and in the top 4 for BAME candidates, provided 'sufficient' candidates apply.  [No definition of 'sufficient' is given].  The motions don't take up the full range of measures passed in the York motion, which may give rise to some debate. News of the Welsh Party's position is awaited with interest given its historic opposition to any positive action measures.

One proposal that will attract significant opposition, however, has been tabled by Liberal Democrat Women chair Liz Leffman, Belinda Brooks-Gordon and Kirsten Johnson.  It proposes full 'zipping' for women candidates.  However, it proposes nothing to address other under-representations in the party addressed in the York motion, and merely asks that some provision be made.  It is also worded in a gender-specific manner.

The motion is very unlikely to be received well by those campaigning for the party to meet the non-representation of people with disabilities or from BAME communities, or for LGBT+ campaigners seeking to improve current representation levels; scathing comments from members of Ethnic Minority Lib Dems [EMLD] have already started to appear.  Its submitters have evidently not learned from the behind-the-scenes row between the movers of the York diversity motion and those from EMLD and others furious that the original motion effectively proposed positive action only for white middle-class women.  It seems some Liberal Democrats still think that equality doesn't apply to all protected characteristics.

The 'zipping' motion reads in full as follows:

The English Council notes:
1.       The passage of the Electing Diverse MPs Policy at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference 2016, and the agreement to adopt a range of measures to improve the diversity of our Parliamentary Party;
2.       The need to ensure the diversity of our candidates for the European Parliament elections in 2019;
3.       That the European Parliament has recently published draft legislation calling on member states to take all necessary measures to promote the principle of equality between men and women throughout the whole electoral process, emphasising in this connection the importance of gender-balanced electoral lists;
4.       That in the same draft legislation, member states are encouraged to take measures to promote adequate representation of minorities;
5.       That the Equality Act (2010) enables parties to take action to promote diversity.
Council believes:
1.       That the diversity of our current elected representatives at Parliamentary level is unacceptably low;
Council calls for
1.       All regional lists for the European Elections to be zipped, as in the 1999 European Elections, with the gender of the candidates alternating down the list.
2.       50% of regional lists for the European Elections to be topped by a female candidate, with regions paired with others of similar winnability to determine whether the list is topped with a man or a woman.

3.       Provision to be made for candidates from under-represented groups (those with disabilities, BAME, LGBT+) to ensure adequate representation.

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Liberal Democrats to scrap Nationbuilder?

Note: posts on this blog are published by a small team. Therefore the name listed as the author of the post is not necessarily the person who wrote it, but rather is the person who was responsible for publishing it.

Sources inform Liberator that Liberal Democrat HQ has decided to scrap its arrangement with Nationbuilder at the end of the year.

Nationbuilder is an American company which provides campaign websites for organisations like political parties which include features such as mass emails, event management, volunteer recruitment and online donations. The national Lib Dem website and the SNP national website, for instance, are both built with Nationbuilder.

In place of Nationbuilder, LDHQ apparently intends to build its own in-house replacement with the help of volunteers. How well this goes will remain to be seen - not least given the disastrous experience of previous in-house projects like the membership system.

While this will no doubt come as an annoying disappointment to the local parties and activists who have spent a lot of time and money setting up Nationbuilder websites and learning how to use them, one key an upside to an in-house website system is that it will actually be able to talk to the party’s Connect election software and its Salesforce membership database. This was one of the big drawbacks of Nationbuilder which is a major rival of the company behind Connect.

Of course, the real reason for this decision might just be cost. The off-the-shelf price of Nationbuilder for an organisation wanting to store and use up to 81,000 email addresses is almost $1,000 a month - with an additional charge of $20 a month for every extra 2,000 email addresses. While this is quite steep even for the cash strapped Liberal Democrats with a large national email database it’s even steeper considering that this same monthly charge was also applied to every single local party with a Nationbuilder website.

So is this a case of common sense cost-saving coupled with a new willingness to use tools that actually meet the party’s need rather than the latest slick, high-price American product?


It’s worth noting that the company Prater Raines, which was set up by Liberal Democrats for Liberal Democrats in 2002 to provide affordable websites, has long provided a service which, if not quite as slick as Nationbuilder, is significantly cheaper and can do most of the same things that Nationbuilder can and a few it can’t, such as checking whether someone is a paid up member of the party or not.

Indeed, it’s telling that the party leader, Tim Farron, uses Prater Raines for his constituency website rather than Nationbuilder. Some might wonder if, rather than creating something new from scratch, HQ might be better off working with Prater Raines to improve what’s already available.

Nonetheless, scrapping an expensive system far too sophisticated for most local party’s needs and replacing it with a system that actually talks to the party’s other systems is in itself a promising step. Whether this change of approach will actually last is something which can only remain to be seen.

UPDATE: While we have no reason to doubt the truthfulness of our sources, Jake Holland from Lib Dem HQ has made the following statement in response to this post on facebook:

"Contract is up for renewal later this year, but there is no plan to ditch it. It's still the best platform out there for local parties. 

We are looking at how we can build a platform for volunteers to develop new tools and apps on, that is true, but so far we are looking at building out a set of (for the technical out there) APIs. For example, we worked with a few volunteers (thank you Fred Fisher) to build a telling app, which we'll be looking to test out soon, based on an API we made available."

Monday 18 April 2016

What chance of a radical welfare policy?

Sources who’ve had sight of documents for the Lib Dem working group developing welfare policy report real cause for concern to Liberator.
After Tim Farron’s oft-repeated comment that the party shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for what it believes in, even if it makes 75% of the population hate them, as long as it makes the other 25% love them, there had been hope that policymaking would break from recent trends and seriously consider radical ideas.  Alas, this appears to have been a hope too far according to our sources.
With the draft policy paper due by the end of the month, the agendas for the Social Security Working Group, chaired by Jenny Willott, are dedicated to multiple examinations in detail at specific areas of the current welfare system to consider how best to manage things.
Rather than consider a big idea as to what a Liberal welfare state would look like, the working group seems destined towards making many small suggestions on how to improve different benefits. But, while proposals to tinker with childcare provision and eligibility requirements for JSA might be worthy, they will inevitably be so detailed that no one will pay any attention to them. Once again, Liberal Democrat welfare policy will be without a big idea capable of grabbing attention.
Apparently big ideas such as Negative Income Tax, Basic Income and a Social Insurance system were considered at earlier meetings. However, no concrete decisions were made either way and all subsequent meetings have focused on tinkering with the existing system.
This is particularly concerning given the substantial levels of support in some sections of the Liberal Democrats for the concept of Negative Income Tax/Basic Income - one of the few issues that people on both the left and the right of the party can agree on. And certainly the concept of giving every citizen a minimum level of income with no strings attached is a radical one which would meet the “big idea” criteria.
Given the idea’s popularity it would be an absolute travesty if the party conference didn’t at least get a chance to discuss the concept or not. Unfortunately, however, given the working group’s current direction of travel it seems very unlikely to feature in the policy paper. If so conference won’t even have the option of discussing it.
Of course, in pre-coalition days one solution to this kind of issue where opinions were divided was for a working group to present two policy papers to the Federal Policy Committee so that the membership could make a genuine choice between two options. While this practice was largely abandoned under Clegg’s leadership in favour of insisting on a single, uncontroversial report from working groups, it is ripe for being revived.
If the working group were to do so then they may well be able to present party members with a choice between the tinkering-around-the-edges approach it seems to be on the verge of recommending and a radical, ‘big idea’ on welfare reform. That would certainly be best in terms of democratic policy making and escaping the old working group problem of only producing policy recommendations acceptable to their most small-c conservative members.
Whether this actually happens or not remains to be seen. But given the current schedule of meetings for the working group we wouldn’t hold our breath.

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Ralph Bancroft

It is with great sadness that we share news of the passing of our friend Ralph Bancroft: head of the Liberal Whips' office during the Lib-Lab Pact, member of staff for the party in local government for many years, member of the Liberator Collective and Liberal Revue team, for many years compère of the Glee Club and above all an instinctive Liberal.  Ralph was in his mid-sixties.

Based in Harrow for many years, Ralph was a Young Liberal and went to Sussex University before being employed in Parliament, in the heady days of there being 14 Liberal MPs.  He rose to work in the Whips' Office during the 1977-8 Lib-Lab Pact.  He subsequently used his considerable political acumen to advise Liberals and Liberal Democrats in council administrations, and was particularly proud to become Head of Office of Andrew Wiseman's administration in Harrow in the 1990s.  Ralph was also a champion on online engagement and of the cix online conferencing system that was an integral part of party activity at that time.

Together with his good friend the late Liz Rorison, Ralph and his ever-present pipe were also for many years the linchpin of the Glee Club as it transformed from an informal gathering around a hotel piano to the unique event it is today.  He also appeared in many memorable sketches at the Liberal Revue.

In recent years Ralph had suffered from ill health and in particular severe visual impairment.  Friends and colleagues had asked: 'How is Ralph?'.  The answer was that he was spending time listening to Radio 4 and keeping pace with current events.  Thanks to Liberator colleague John Bryant, Ralph had been able to join Liberator Collective members from time to time at social events and relished talking about politics with friends over a pint of ale.  The most recent occasion was barely a fortnight ago.

Funeral arrangments will be advised later by the family.

Thursday 11 February 2016

Jim Gave The Land To The Landlords

Land reform and support for the rights of crofters and tenant farmers has for over a century been a keystone Liberal value; a symbol of what the party has stood for.  "The Land" with its clarion call for reform is the anthem of Liberalism.  Since the days of Gladstone, the party has stood up against landowner vested interests, backed invariably by the Tories.

Until now.  This week in a Scottish Parliament committee on the Land Reform Bill, Jim Hume MSP for the Liberal Democrats voted with the Tories against enhanced protection for tenant farmers.  As Scottish commentator Lesley Riddoch put it, "shameful for the party that introduced land rights for crofters in 1886".

Hume has form, having recently voted against introducing Marine Protection Areas.

But what this serves to emphasise is not only the disastrous decline of the Lib Dems in Scotland and in particular rural Scotland; but the party's total lack of vision and direction.

Since at least the 2014 referendum, the battle of ideas in Scottish politics has been vacated by Labour and the Lib Dems.  Astonishing in a country with a proud history of radicalism, the work of groups like the Liberal Futures group is sadly ignored by too many.  Radical politics is alive and well; but exclusively on the pro-independence side of the divide through groups like Common Weal.  As Riddoch points outthe opportunity even exists for Scotland to deliver the Liberal holy grail of a Land Value Tax; it was one of three options set out by a cross-party commission on local taxation which reported in late 2015, alongside a local income tax.  The Scottish Lib Dems have been silent on the subject.

With only tentative steps taken towards the reform of Scotland's land laws (the land is in the ownership of fewer people than in any country in the developed world) under the Lib-Lab government in Holyrood from 1999-2007, the Nationalists have moved from inertia to strengthening legislation.  It appears this political territory has been entirely ceded by the Lib Dems, in spite of the party's consistently strong support in rural Scotland through the darkest days of the last century and until the recent SNP landslides.

Liberals have since last May's catastrophe talked (though not always acted) about clarifying and defining Liberal values in order to give the Liberal Democrats an identity and detoxify the party from association with hated Tory policies.  In Scotland where the party alienated 45% of the population by identifying itself as 'unionist' and where the Tories are hated even more, learning from past mistakes is at least as important.

Instead - and with the right wing political market crowded and a relatively popular Scottish Tory leader in Ruth Davidson, the mistakes are being compounded and repeated.

The party in Scotland has an opportunity to partially redeem itself in March by voting the right way.  However, the obituary for its abject performance in May's election and possible wipeout could be written now.  It urgently needs to present a coherent picture of what it stands for.

Wednesday 10 February 2016

What the In campaign is doing right and what it is doing wrong.

The pro-staying in EU campaign has avoided some key mistakes from the AV and Scottish referendums but is still making some significant errors.

What it is doing right.

1) It is not fronted by politicians.
2) It is not only talking about economics.
3) It is talking about issues that people care about.
4) It is talking in language that people understand.
5) It appears united, as much as it is so far getting any coverage or is visible.

What the In Campaign is doing wrong.

1) It is not talking about ideas, positive ideals, principles or vision but almost entirely about economics.
2) It is being negative – in some if thankfully not most of its literature.
3) It does not say who they are.
4) It does not say who is funding the campaign or where their money comes from.
5) It is talking mostly about money and cost-benefit, if not the directly the economy and jobs.

What it is doing right.

1) It is not fronted by politicians. This was a blunder of the pro-AV campaign (which would have been a pretty insignificant voting reform in any event), and a blunder of the Better Together campaign to prevent an artificial break up of the United Kingdom.

Britain Stronger in Europe is headed by the former boss of Marks & Spencer, Stuart Rose. He is a genuine successful businessman who has been head of a thoroughly British company (founded by Jewish immigrants). Karren Brady the football manager and business woman is also a key figure. The agent is Will Straw, son of Labour minister Jack Straw and one of the current generation of Labour Party dynastic scions. But it makes sense to have an experienced campaigner running the campaign. Though the ones running the AV and Scottish referendum anti-breakaway campaigns were pretty hopeless. The populist nasty right wing press and politicians, and populist anti-political establishment Scottish nationalist establishment politicians ran rings round them.

Lord Stuart Rose does look like another old man in a suit, but nothing like as badly as the old Tory politician who is a figurehead for the antis. I don't dismiss the experience of age but here is where I would have preferred some populist celebrity culture.

2) It is not only talking about economics. The campaign is also talking about Britain's role in Europe (the visionary part of its message), security, about opportunity and sometimes about the environment, about peace. The http://www.strongerin.co.uk/ website has the headline “Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe than we would be on our own.” “More jobs and opportunities” and these key phrases repeated “The benefits of being in—a stronger economy, stronger security and stronger leadership on the world stage”. If you click on the Menu button it only has those tags along with “A Stronger Britain”. I happen to agree; and maybe these key slogans will convince the undecided or some antis that Yes, in reality, is the right answer. But they are also the same slogans that the Leave campaign will be using, and their brainwashed recipients of Daily Mail and Daily Express propaganda (and many Labour supporters and figures believe it too) are likely to agree with them deployed by the antis because they say what they want to hear.

3) It is talking about issues that people care about. Jobs, mostly jobs, prices, and security and sometimes the environment. Its emails include the slogan “Thank you for being a part of the campaign to keep Britain stronger, safer and better off.” Sir Hugh Orde, the former top police chief, argues that the EU is good for security. By contrast, the pro-AV campaign both failed to explain what the proposed reform was for and greatly exaggerated the possible benefits. They sloganised and failed to explain either the detail or get across why a change to the vote system was relevant.

4) It is talking in language that people understand. The recent newspaper that was distributed around the country was well put together and clearly written, with a variety of stories on different relevant issues affecting people. (The Guardian reports that 10M newspapers were to be delivered – presumably paid delivery by the Royal Mail. I know copies went out in London, and city centre and suburban Liverpool).

5) It appears united, as much as it is so far getting any coverage or is visible. The anti-EU campaign meanwhile is split and arguing amongst itself over who or which faction is top dog. I don't believe in unity being needed for the sake of unity. The press, party leaders, and opponents are obsessed with that – genuine disagreement and debate is normal in any group. The antis however seem to like fighting amongst themselves almost as much as they like hating the EU, presumably because they are such a coalition of people with completely different ideas about what they believe in, and only agree on what they are against. Hopefully the In campaign can put a positive vision of a modern, pluralist, tolerant, thriving country that plays a key part in Europe and on the World stage. The best of Britain, not the best of mythical 1950s Britain.

What the In Campaign is doing wrong.

1) It is not talking about ideas, positive ideals, principles or vision but almost entirely about economics. It is almost entirely talking about jobs – rational arguments about the cost to people of leaving the EU and the financial benefits of being in. But making almost the same mistake that the Better Together campaign made of leaving the idealistic, principled, visionary side to the breakaway campaign. True it will be hard to make creating a pro-reformed European Union a romantic vision, unlike the wilful nostalgia and rose tinted glasses of the antis, or the 'all things to all people' Independence campaign, but for some of us the vision of a peaceful united Europe is a romantic vision we would like to see. Living life in peace. Instead of the anti-vision of constant conflict (albeit not literal conflict thankfully).

Stronger In fails to adequately promote the successes, and extreme present necessity of European countries to all work together in a grown up way. Further it fails to promote reform or the need for reform. Sure this referendum cannot deliver reform but the Yes side cannot ignore the flaws of the EU and the areas where reform is badly needed. The tabloid anti-European Parliament and bloated Brussels bureaucrats may be completely awful myths but some of the criticism is fair. There is nothing on the In website answering lies about the EU or misinformation. Where are people likely to look to fact check? Where can they? – there aren't even links here. Yet the campaign is already failing to be completely truthful, by overegging the pudding. The newspaper and website cite the EU abolishing mobile phone roaming charges but it hasn't abolished them yet, as customers obviously know if they travel abroad. Why on Earth didn't they just tell the truth – the very good truth that the EU has massively cut mobile phone roaming costs and is going to abolish them. I think it was MEPs who did most on this (but it may have been the Commission).

There is a Mythbusters page in the newspaper, but it is a list of simplistic generalisations. A list of 6 'UKIP MYTH' statements with typical statements like those UKIP and their parrots come out with, but no answer to real specific anti-EU myths. The criticism and bad reputation of the EU is most undeserved but partly deserved – failure to acknowledge the latter being a key problem of official pro-EU material. (There's no search facility, making the website of limited use).

2) It is being negative – in some if thankfully not most of its literature. The advert on Facebook is negative – immediately apt to be designated as 'scaremongering' by the antis. “What would leaving Europe mean for YOU and YOUR family?” “there will be pain”. It exposes the negative possible consequences identified by leading Leave EU figures, but it simply seems negative. Negative arguably worked for anti-AV, and for the anti-England, Wales, Scotland, NI split, but it is unlikely to convince the stuck in a 1950s idealised Britain older generation, and ignorant anti-difference younger people, that there is something good to vote for. The website does promote more positive messages. While I am no fan of NUS it is good to see the NUS President represented as the EU has been great for generations of students having more opportunity to widen their horizons than ever before. Many others on the Facebook group have called for more positives in the campaign.

3) It does not say who they are. The campaign newspaper does not say who the people behind the campaign are – to that extent, a glossy newspaper, it looks like party political or marketing PR. They miss a trick by failing to mention prominent supporters, although some business people and ordinary people are included. It looked like glossy political marketing even if the content was quite good. There is no human touch to encourage you to get involved. There is nothing about who set up the campaign (because presumably it was mostly actually lead by party political activists, as well as a few pro-Europe activists). Whereas the antis will eagerly roll out their populist figureheads. Worse, the website fails to include this information where there is no excuse for a lack of information and lack of openness. The Facebook group under 'About' is a blank. There's also no address. Ok, it's online and points you to the website but it would take seconds to put up the information.

4) It does not say who is funding the campaign or where their money comes from. Neither the newspaper or the website includes this information. There is nothing about where the money to fund the campaign came from or comes from. Sure, failure of the anti-electoral reform funders to out themselves as rich Tory donors, corporate raiders and newspapers barons didn't harm the campaign because the public believed the drivel they spouted. But the pro-EU campaign has to be totally above board – because of the bad reputation of the EU, and because the antis will show their nasty anti-social tendencies. Articles in the FT, on the BBC, and on Sky inform that it has received large amounts of money from big financial institutions and banks.

5) It is talking mostly about money and cost-benefit, if not the directly the economy and jobs. See (1) above. A case about economics is not going to win people over in hearts and minds. If people feel after the referendum that they've not had a fair vote – like in Scotland or in the previous referendum on membership of the European Economic Community, people feel somehow cheated – then there will be limited acceptance of the result and regular renewed calls for a new referendum leading to more instability in our national political debate of the kind that undermined John Major's government and has bubbled as a hot and cold war in the Tory party under Cameron. People need to feel they are making a well informed positive choice. The evidence on prices is important. I'm entirely convinced that prices in real terms for most things now are cheaper than at any time in my lifetime because of our membership of the EU. But is that enough to get people out to vote For?

I entirely agree with the reforms that David Cameron is trying to negotiate. I think his recent agreement announced by Donald Tusk is a good place to start for a fairer, more cost effective, improved EU. Maybe when (I hope) Cameron achieves a better deal, some real wins, the In campaign will at least promote these reforms as a victory for Britain and for reformers and genuine pro-Europeans everywhere. After all, Mrs. Thatcher's win on Britain's rebate helped her and the Tory's image for years. Concessions from those who do not want to relinquish excessive EU level standardisation may be the defining achievement of David Cameron's Prime Ministership, just as Tony Blair's sealing the peace in Northern Ireland was his most important positive historic legacy.

I will reproduce this post on my website with a few extra notes, omitted here.