Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Despite talk of bringing down the political elite, the ConLabs may still have the last laugh

At the last general election in 2010, over a third of voters did not vote Conservative or Labour - two-thirds of whom voted Liberal Democrat.

Since that time, we have seen a decline in the Liberal Democrat vote, along with a rise in other parties - UKIP are propelling forwards constantly in the 15-20% mark, the Greens are making good progress overtaking the Lib Dems in some polls, and the SNP, despite a failed referendum campaign, are going from strength to strength in Scotland. Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru are still campaigning hard, and of course there are the parties from Northern Ireland. At the time of writing, there are 11 different parties with MPs in the House of Commons.

Polls show the combined ratings of the Conservative and Labour parties (the 'ConLabs') hover around the early 60s - the lowest for about 100 years.

This has caused much excitement in the circles of some political observers. There is talk of no party ever having a majority again, of multi-party politics, of coalitions with two or three parties becoming a permanent feature, of smaller groups talking about the balance of power.

However, there is a huge stumbling block. It is our old favourite - the electoral system - the most formidable protector of the two party consensus. While the ConLabs may fall even below 60%, it looks quite possible that their share of the seats will go above 90% for the first time since 1992.

Firstly, the Liberal Democrat decline. Predictions are that they will lose at least a third or even over half of their 57 seats won in 2010. Who will pick most of those up? That's right - the Conservative or Labour parties, with maybe a few to the SNP.

Secondly, UKIP. They have the famous problem that the old Liberal-SDP Alliance struggled with. How to turn votes into seats. Despite the two by election wins, hundreds of councillor victories, and a consistent poll showing in the high teens, latest indicators are that even Nigel Farage will struggle to get into parliament. It is quite possible, after a four week campaign of talk about the government, that UKIP will be squeezed in the classic smaller party tradition and come away with very little, if anything.

Thirdly, the Greens. They have the same problem on a much smaller scale. Their main targets are to hold Caroline Lucas's seat and taking Norwich South - but both are top targets for Labour, the latter will almost certainly go red.

It is quite possible that UKIP and the Greens will get over 20% of the vote between them without a single seat to show for it.

Finally, the SNP. They have an advantage in that, unlike UKIP and the Greens, their support is more concentrated. But you can be sure the general election campaign will focus on who is the UK government - Conservative or Labour. Many SNP supporters may vote Labour to keep the Conservatives out. Indications are that SNP will make some gains - but probably not as spectacular as some of the headlines say.

So the overall question is - will the number of Lib Dem losses exceed the SNP gains? If the answer is yes, then the likely consequence is to increase the number of seats held by the ConLabs.

There will still be a good spread of 'other' MPs of course, and whether there is a hung parliament will depend on how close the Conservative and Labour parties are to each other, but if one of them has a majority, and there is a substantial increase in the number of seats they hold, you can imagine the pleased and smug expressions from the politicians and the media at the re-assertion of the poltical establishment.

Sorry, small parties, they will all say. You have had your fun, but you can't beat the system. It's two party politics, old boy. Back to business as usual.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Letter to Sittingbourne News Extra - A Parliament For England

With the debate in Scotland over, the focus is rightly shifting onto England and already the Conservative MPs are discussing different ways to betray the voters of England. The latest proposal is for England's MPs to double up as a substitute Assembly which is not only unworkable but also ludicrous.

So Scotland and Wales would get elected assemblies. And England would get a large Commons Committee. Scotland and Wales get First Ministers. England gets jumped up MPs. And you can be sure that England's MPs will want extra reward for their doubled up role.
 
The only way for equal treatment for the voters of England would be to set up a separate directly elected English Parliament with the same powers and responsibilities of the other assemblies. And before the complaints about more politicians, I would say that, with four national bodies, you would not need so many MPs - so they could be reduced by 80% or so and discuss Union issues only.
 
Full equality for England should be just that - no more and no less - and without giving England what the other nations have, then equality and fairness will not be achieved.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Brief History Lesson

Can you name the time and place?


1. A country which has come through some tough times but beginning to recover

2. A section of society being singled out and blamed by some for the country's ills

3. Individuals concerned about their country's culture and traditions who feel they are being ignored

4. General disillusionment, distrust and, in some cases, absolute hatred, with the established political parties and individuals

5. Controversial posters going up focusing on a campaign of hate and fear

6. Overwhelming apathy with the democratic and political processes

7. Increasing support for a right wing party with a very able and charismatic leader possessing outstanding oratory skills


Got it yet? Yes, that's right.

This is Germany in 1932. Did you think of somewhere else?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Go Back To Your Constituencies - And Prepare For Opposition!

There is one year to the next general election - and speculation will increase over the result, and the consequences.

As we enter the last year of the coalition government, there is much that we Liberal Democrats can look back on with pride.

We have made progress towards fairer taxation with tax cuts for millions, we have invested in education opportunities for those from less well-off backgrounds, we have protected the state pension, we have worked towards a greener government, we have introduced same sex marriage, perhaps the biggest and most permanent reform, and, above all, we have participated in a stable government which has reduced inflation, reduced unemployment, reduced the deficit, increased growth, increased business confidence and commenced the recovery. None of this would have happened without the Liberal Democrats.

And of course we have put the 'wasted vote' argument to bed for good. Never again can people describe us as being able to promise anything because we will never get in power - something we have all heard on the doorstep (but not since 2010!). We have proved to be capable and effective in government, and that we can produce good ministers and work well with those with whom we do not agree on most things.

Every government has its failures, and there have been some here too. Fixed terms were the only constitutional change we brought in. Voting reform, Lords reform, party political funding reform, lobbying reform, the right to recall - were all frustrated, mostly by the ConLab block vote. Labour can no longer say they are part of a progressive majority - if Labour had genuinely wanted an elected Lords, the elections would be taking place next year.

And in the interests of compromise, we have had to swallow some heavy medicine. The bedroom tax, the benefit cap, a hostile approach to the EU, and a cut in the top rate of tax are all things we have had to accept with the heaviest of hearts. And as for the tuition fees debacle, let's not go there!

2015 is general election year. And in my view we will move back into opposition. If there is a hung parliament with Labour as the biggest party, my feeling is that they will go it alone as a minority. And, let's face it, after their behaviour over the last few years, would we really want to work with them? Equally the Conservative party, having promised their MPs and their members a say, are also likely to veto any thought of a second coalition. There may be possibilities where either of them work with other parties. And if either of them forms a majority then coalition does not even arise.

So back in opposition, we will have to once again reinforce our message and campaign for what we believe in. What will the next five years mean for us? (In this scenario, I am using the assumption that Scotland votes no in September).

Obviously the first question will be the leadership. By autumn 2015 Nick Clegg will have been our leader for eight years - he will always be the first Lib Dem leader to take his party into government - and it will be time to step down. I think we will only really start to appreciate Nick's achievements once he is gone. Even the media might at last forgive him for entering government.

Nick may not want to go, so it may be a case of our party grandees, such as Paddy and Shirley, having a quiet word. It is hard to imagine Nick back in his old seat at PM's Question Time.

Who will be the next leader? Because of our government experience, there are a large number of good candidates to choose from, and we will no doubt have a party debate about the direction we should go. For example, a party led by Jeremy Browne or Danny Alexander will go a different way to one which is led by Tim Farron or Vince Cable. Or maybe a chance for others such as Jo Swinson or Ed Davey.

The position we should take in opposition will depend on what government results from the election. There may be areas in which we would agree. I'll discuss that in future articles

But I hope we keep to the basic principles we have always pursued. A strong economy, a fairer society, civil liberties and human rights, a positive proactive role in the EU, protection of the environment, local issues, and, the main area which the coalition government has largely failed, political reform and the modernisation of our politics.

Above all, our task back in opposition will be to continue to make ourselves heard. The media will doubtless revert to ignoring us - we may get even fewer appearances on BBC Question Time - so it will be up to us to shout loudly on the issues that are dear to us.

There are a few perks to being in opposition. We may regain some Councillors, party membership may increase, we will get back some Short money, and we can build on our government experience to improve our standing as an established professional party. Those members who left us at our greatest hour of need, will be replaced by more serious minded campaigners who will see the party as no longer a waste of time. After all, how many of us joined the Lib Dems just to run a few Councils. Would we not one day like to see a Liberal Democrat Prime Minister? That should be the (very) long term aim of this party.

It may be a case of going back to our roots. Active local campaigning on local issues and re-building the party up from the bottom.

In the next few articles, I will at look at the various scenarios that may come out of the 2015 general election, how they may develop, and what position we could take. But my overall message is that being back in opposition must not be something that we should fear.

After the defeat in the 1979 general election, the late Tony Benn wrote in his diary that he enjoys being in opposition because of the campaigning opportunities. For an active campaigning party such as ours, there are opportunities which we should take and may even look forward to.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Clegg-Farage Debates: It Was Nick Wot Lost It

One point was lost amongst all the debates about the Clegg-Farage outcome. The number of Conservative and UKIP supporters, as well as anti-Clegg Labourites, far outweighs the number of Liberal Democrat supporters. Given this fact, it would be virtually impossible for Nick Clegg to win any sort of opinion poll over Nigel Farage.

Having said that, in my view, the first debate was a low scoring draw, where neither impressed. But no such doubt with the second debate. Farage found a strong finish to bring home the bacon. Not a 'wipe the floor' victory that the media have been telling you about, and will doubtless continue to build up as such, but a victory nonetheless.

I felt it was more of a case of Nick losing rather than Nigel winning. We have seen Nigel Farage wilt under fire on television and perhaps Nick, buoyed by his 2010 success, and the fact that he can take on 500 hostile MPs in one go, took Nigel too lightly. But to me the mistake was to play the man and not the ball.

What I wanted to see was Nick calmly and professionally list the reasons why it is in the UK's interests to stay in the European Union. No-one says the EU's institutions are perfect, far from it, but there are positive reasons - jobs, business, trade, opportunities to travel, live and study. Nigel can then list, in his opinion, the reasons why the UK would be 'better off out'. Each can then counter the others' points and the viewers, most of whom are undecided, will then be better informed to make up his or her own mind.

Instead Nick decided to directly attack Farage and UKIP. This would be effective if the debate was between two parties, but it is irrelevant to the overall issue of whether we should be in or out. Farage may be an admirer of Vladimir Putin, that point is noted, but waving old UKIP leaflets around was irrelevant to the discussion.

To counter this, Nigel did not directly attack Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, but instead attacked 'the political class', a far more effective tool by including Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems as part of the political establishment, at a time when the reputation of politicians is at an all-time low.

Of course the political establishment consists of the Conservative and Labour parties, who will join forces to defend the status quo to the death. I have previously argued that the Lib Dems and UKIP are actually on the same side as the 'others', those on the outside who want political reform, and whom the ConLabs wish to keep out. But Farage was able to disregard UKIP's own misdemeanours and skilfully portray himself as the leader of the 'anti-politician's faction.

Nick overdid the facts and stats. Do 7% of laws come from the EU or is it 75% or is it somewhere in between? The EU is such a bureaucratic mess that I doubt if anyone knows, but let's just leave it that some laws do. And if one has done one's homework, any case study and examples on one side can be countered by case studies and examples on the other.

And I outwardly groaned when, to the question of how the EU would look ten years from now, Nick said 'much the same as it is now.' That's the last thing we want!

Nigel had his poor moments. In the first debate he was surprisingly very nervous. In the second, he almost fell apart at the start under Clegg's attack over the Ukraine, but once on more familiar territory regained his composure and, as I said, had a strong finish.

Immigration is, of course, UKIP's trump card, which is why they talk of little else, and Nigel played it well. The positive side of the freedom of movement of people - including the opportunities for UK citizens - was completely disregarded.

David Cameron has, in my opinion, come up with some interesting ideas for future expansion - very unusual for a Conservative party leader. Clegg could have praised Cameron in his efforts here, which would have had the happy side-effect of stoking the Conservative civil war.

Overall, my assessment is that Nigel did not win the debates but Nick lost them through the wrong tactics and arguments. Anyone who was undecided and hoping to be better educated to make their own decision will be little the wiser.

Far be it for me to advise Nick Clegg on debating, and it is highly unlikely that one day I will be on TV debating the EU, but I think I would have taken a different approach. I am not here to defend the European Union but the reasons we should stay in are A, B and C, our membership has achieved D, E and F while we would like to see changes such as X, Y and Z.

And the EU ten years from now will NOT be the bureaucratic monster that you see at present, but hopefully an efficient streamlined democratic free trade body that we can be proud to be an active part of. (It is very unlikely to be like that ten years from now - but that's a better answer!).

In the 1975 referendum, as to whether we should stay in the EU, two years after we joined, a tactic used by the 'In' camp was to portray the 'Out' leaders as slightly unhinged - which, when you consider Michael Foot, Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, became an effective tool. For the next referendum (which is inevitable one day) this tactic might be repeated, as the 'out' camp is seriously short of credible leadership.

However, Britain's membership of the European Union is one of the most, if not the most, important topics out there. Although we lost this debate, raising the profile of the topic can only be good. I hope we see more debates but which focus on the issues and not on the individuals.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Benefits to the UK of the European Union - Letter to Sittingbourne News Extra

The Eurosceptic cause has been well argued for lately, but has anyone considered the other viewpoint? There are two sides to every argument. No-one says the European Union is perfect, but there are considerable benefits to the UK's membership.

Any British business has access to a market across 28 states of 500 million people, plenty of scope for growth. Businesses from outside the EU will locate in Britain to enjoy this access - resulting in investment and jobs. This trade has no tariffs or barriers, sets out an equal paying field of rules and regulations, and enables free trade to an area larger than the USA. Competition opens up markets for UK companies to expand into. And we get far more beneficial terms trading as part of the EU with China, Brazil, the USA etc than we would on our own with a begging bowl.

Of course, we could have access to the free market from outside the EU, which is what Norway does. What you don't hear is that Norway pays a substantial price for this access - far more to the EU per head than the UK - and with no say in its organisation.

We always hear about the free movement of peoples, but it is easy to forget it works both ways. Any British citizen can live, work, travel or study in any EU country without the need for any permit. Two million British already do so - there are British students in Holland, British residents in Germany, and British retired in Spain. All have access to free emergency healthcare. Holiday makers are free to shop without being charged excise duties. Remember having to pay a hefty sum when you came back to Britain through customs!

We cannot work against dangers such as terrorism, drugs, the environment and organised crime in the UK alone - but by co-operation across the content, we can work together on a multinational basis. Remember when British villains would live in comfort on Spain's beaches!

Of course the European Union has many faults - it is over-bureaucratic, inefficient and expensive - and these are the things we should be campaigning to change - but a UK departure will not change this, and would deny us the benefits mentioned, as well as harm the fragile recovery, which still has a long way to go.

I hope soon we can see a national referendum, so that those of us who believe our membership is a great asset to the UK, can put our case, and we can have a national debate upon this very important subject. Once the people of the UK confirm our commitment, as I hope and believe they will, we can then fight for the type of Europe that we want to see.

Monday, December 30, 2013

My Review of 2013 And A Look To 2014

This has been a relatively quiet year, hence my lack of blog entries, but has concluded with my election as Chair of the Swale Liberal Democrats for the important year of 2014 - important because of its lead-up to election year.

At the next general election, for the very first time, we have a record of government to defend. There is much we can be proud of. The tax threshold to £10,000, the pupil premium, the green bank, a million extra jobs in the private sector, improved childcare provisions, a free meal for primary school children and, above all, our part in providing a stable government after an indecisive election result to steer the country out of economic crisis and towards recovery. None of this would have happened without the Liberal Democrats.

There have been mistakes too, of course. I have said enough about tuition fees, but I remain concerned about the benefit cuts and the bedroom tax, the latter to me seems absolutely pointless, and the increase in the use of food banks shames the government. And although the decrease in unemployment is welcome, youth unemployment is still far too high. While we continue on to recovery, we must not forget those who might be left behind.

The main elections this year were the county council elections in May. UKIP did well in the election of 147 councillors across England but what is often overlooked is that the Lib Dems won 352 seats, over twice as many. Add to this the Eastleigh by-election, where, despite a huge media effort on behalf of the Tories, we held on to win, plus the increase of party membership of over 2,000, and clearly the Liberal Democrats are not finished yet.

Locally, for the Kent County Council elections, in Swale we decided to save our scarce resources and instead give our neighbours a hand in Maidstone. This was a great success where, not only did we hold our three county council seats in the town but we gained the fourth. In the constituency of Maidstone and the Weald, overall, we outpolled the Conservatives, so it is easy to see why it is a strategic target seat for 2015. A Lib Dem MP in the constituency next door can only be good for us.

At our AGM in November, yours truly was elected as the Chair for 2014. I see our main priorities as (i) the selection of two parliamentary candidates, (ii) developing and expanding our membership (which has also increased - I have to admit, to my surprise), (iii) fund-raising (as always!) and (iv) the development of a strategy for the 2015 Swale council elections. I have some ideas along these paths which I will be taking to our committee meetings, and hopefully increasing our activity.

We have no local elections in 2014 (by-elections permitting) but we must gain some momentum for 2015. And I hope that as we enter 2015, we have a local party in good shape for that very challenging election year.