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 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.