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.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Coalition Politics and Andrew Adonis in '5 Days in May'

Having read David Laws and Peter Mandelson on the topic, I decided to purchase Andrew Adonis’s book on the coalition negotiations ‘Five Days in May’. While this does not have the immediacy of the other books, it has the advantage of looking back from afar and assessing the author’s views of progress and what coalitions could mean if, as some might expect, they are to be a common feature of UK politics.
Formerly a Lib Dem, Adonis defected to Labour in 1995 and became a leading member of the New Labour project, serving as Head of the Policy Unit and then, after getting a peerage, as a government minister. He was a key part of Labour’s negotiation team with the Liberal Democrats in the aftermath of the 2010 general election.
The first section of the book was written in 2010 and consists of Adonis’s account of the days from polling day through to the formation of the Con-Lib Dem coalition. While differing in some aspects from other accounts, it is a rattling good read. One gets a good sense of the chaos and confusion of those hectic days.
Gordon Brown comes across as someone both desperate to stay in power but also an honourable and sympathetic figure. The account of his final evening in 10 Downing Street, as his final hopes of a deal with Nick Clegg were slipping away, is quite moving.
Throughout the account, Adonis’s view is that a Lab-Lib Dem coalition was possible. In my view, as I blogged on Tuesday 11 May 2010, this was not the case. I wrote ‘The election was clearly a rejection of Labour’s record and policies and to put together a Lab-Lib Dem government would be ridiculous, especially with Gordon Brown STILL running things’.
Three years later we forget how poor the image of Gordon Brown was, but his character was one of the main issues on the doorstep. Also he has always struck me as a ‘my way or the highway’ type of guy and might not have compromised as much as David Cameron has.
Above all there was the numbers issue. Labour plus the Liberal Democrats would have made 315 seats, short of the 326 seats needed for a majority; or rather 322 if one takes into account the absence of Sinn Fein and the non-voting speakers. The Labour negotiating team stated that the DUP hated the Tories and would never vote with them, a fact which the Lib Dems were not so sure of. The Lib Dems have been subsequently proved right – the DUP have voted with the Conservatives on a number of key issues.
Equally the nationalists could not be relied upon. We saw in 1979, the SNP’s willingness to commit suicide when bringing down the Callaghan government and putting Mrs Thatcher in power, a huge blunder which damaged Scotland and set the nationalist cause back by twenty years, but of which a repeat could not be ruled out. And we Lib Dems are not exactly best buddies with Plaid Cymru. 
While there is passing reference to Clegg’s concern of how the media would attack a Lab-Lib Dem coalition, especially if it resulted in a second unelected Labour Prime Minister, there is no mention of the expression which the media termed – ‘The Coalition of Losers’. This struck me as a damning and memorable phrase. A cartoon in the Daily Telegraph had three boys on an Olympic podium, those in 2nd and 3rd place placed higher in a state of jubilation while the winner stood lower, under the banner ‘Lib-Lab Sports Day’.

And of course there were many in the Labour party who, after 13 years of government and now exhausted, yearned for the comfort of opposition. David Blunkett, John Reid and Caroline Flint were amongst those pointing out that Labour had lost and should make a dignified exit. (Ironically there were no voices from Conservative backbenches opposed to the coalition – obviously biding their time to make the most mischief as subsequent events have proven).
In my view, these were the main reasons that a Lab-Lib Dem coalition would not have worked.
In the second section of the book, Adonis then moves to the present day. He discusses how the coalition is doing three years on and the lessons of coalitions overall. This section is well written and very interesting.
Adonis repeats his view that he thought a Lab-Lib Dem coalition would have worked and that the crucial decision was that of the Liberal Democrats, primarily Nick Clegg and David Laws to ‘veer right’. There may be some mileage in the latter view with the ‘Orange Bookers’ in control. David Cameron and Nick Clegg are two men of the same age with similar backgrounds so it is natural they would get on. And that as the Lib Dems moved right, and the Tories subsequently moved left, the two should meet somewhere.
In my view, two crucial points were (i) when during the campaign Clegg announced the Lib Dems would open discussions with whoever had the biggest mandate (which obviously was going to be the Conservatives) and (ii) even earlier, when the Conservatives had prepared a paper for discussion with common policies for agreement in the event of a hung parliament. Even though the polls had indicated an indecisive result was possible, Labour had done absolutely no preparatory work - did they really think they would win a majority in 2010? This fact gave the Conservatives a head start in the post-election manoeuvrings. 
After considering the events of the past three years, Adonis’s four lessons are:
  • Coalitions can work in Britain and can be as stable as single party governments (agreed) 
  • Coalition may be a serious option in a future hung parliament if all parties are prepared(agreed – one would hope all parties would be better organised in 2015 and that greater patience is exercised) 
  • Coalition is not a superior form of government to singe party majority government (obviously we would all like our own parties to govern alone – but it is the voters who should make that sort of decision)
  • ‘Nick Clegg went into government but not into coalition which is why Lib Dem influence is so weak’ 
On the last point, Adonis sticks to the Labour party line – that in coalition the Liberal Democrats are doing no more than prop up the Tories and have no influence whatsoever. Conservatives, of course, argue the opposite – that the Lib Dems have too much influence. Obviously both views are nonsense – the real picture probably being somewhere in between.
That is not to say the Liberal Democrats have not made many mistakes, and this is mostly due to the novelty of coalitions in this country. Indeed many in this country still struggle with the concept. A coalition has to compromise. The Conservatives wanted to repeal the Human Rights Act and their supporters fail to understand why they have not done so. And Lib Dems have been criticised for the cut in the top rate of income tax – which of course a Lib Dem government would not have done.
I would add one more lesson. That the coalition parties should learn to govern for mutual benefit - not to use the coalition as an excuse to kick each other. If we were now looking forward to an election under new boundaries as well as elections to the House of Lords, both parties would be happy. Instead, rebel Tories (with Labour’s help) blocked Lords reforms so, in retaliation, the Lib Dems blocked boundary changes – not an adult way for a government to behave.
With this in mind, the coalition party leaderships must exert total discipline on their own backbenches – an issue at which the Conservatives have failed completely with regular rebellions. 
As for future coalitions, Adonis argues four points:
  • The leader of the second party needs to head a major department in his/her own right 
  • There needs to be genuinely joint control of economic policy and the Treasury 
  • The second party needs to hold at least one Cabinet post in each of the three main sectors of government (foreign/defence – public services and welfare – environment/energy) 
  • There needs to be machinery for ongoing policy development and negotiation 
These are excellent arguments. Adonis makes the point, not unreasonably, that ‘hardly any Lib Dem ministers count’. I would argue that Danny Alexander, as Financial Secretary, counts very much – but most of the key department posts – home office, health, education, local government, foreign affairs – are firmly in Conservative hands.
In Europe, coalitions often result in smaller parties controlling certain departments in their entirety, instead of a spread of ministers as we have seen here. If, for example, Nick Clegg had become Home Secretary, and the departments of health, defence and climate change were controlled by Lib Dems, the government may have behaved very differently indeed. (This goes back to the discipline point earlier – as without doubt Conservative backbenches would have blocked any legislation or actions by Lib Dem departments). 
The machinery point is, in my view, very important. We are now at the stage where the government seems to be drifting with all minds on the next election two years away. A ‘Coalition Agreement 2’ with fresh ideas and re-emphasis on key policies would have given the government fresh impetus. 
The final point I would make is to point out that to win a majority in 2015, the Conservatives will have to gain over 20 seats – only once has a governing party done this in the last 50 years (1983) – and Labour will have to gain over 50 seats – which the party has only achieved in the landslides of 1945 and 1997. This, plus the fact that the rise of UKIP and other parties may make it impossible for any party to poll 40% ever again, make, in my view, a hung parliament the most likely result. Thus the thoughts of Adonis are worth considering as a contribution to the debate.
Overall, ‘Five Days In May: The Coalition and Beyond’ is recommended reading, both as an account from the Labour side of the immediate post-election events, and as a contributor towards discussion about the format of future coalitions in this country. I hope everyone takes the prospect of a hung parliament in 2015 and beyond very seriously, as coalitions and minority governments may well become the norm in this country.