Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cambridge Hustings and My Dilemma

OK, think I'll stick to something nice and uncontroversial for the next few posts, at least. Just (well, a few hours ago) got back from Cambridge's very own hustings. All three candidates spoke well, and the most common response from people that I heard was "well I really don't know that that made the choice any clearer, they're all quite good".

However, I will attempt to draw something meaningful from it. Bear in mind that this is likely to be subjective, and affected by my support for Simon Hughes (though whether it would mean I'm kinder or harsher to him, I'm not sure).

Ming was first up for his "10" minute opening gambit. He stepped up, announced that "I did write a speech, but actually I'm not going to give it. It's on the website if you want to see it." An impressive manouvre, especially followed as it was by his stepping out from behind the podium and hence away from microphone assistance. He put quite a lot of passion (or at least that kind of shoutyness that politicians of all hues like to convince us is passion) in, and spoke at quite a high volume, having just made a few rather lame comments/jokes about his voice being bad (mainly targetted at the "I'm an everyman, I've been watching SPORTS! and shouting at my TV" agenda). He gave a speech mainly about campaigning, about how he'd fought for his seat, etc, and touching on all the typical things at the moment: localism, no to nuclear, etc.

Huhne was up next. It was immediately noticeable (and bear in mind I'm a student studying Natural Sciences, I have to follow two hours of not always that absorbing lectures a day) that he was holding my attention and, I suspect other people's, rather less effectively. He gave exactly the sort of speech I would expect from him, good on the content but (particularly after Ming) not so hot on the passion, or the broad vision. Still, many very intelligent things to say on the issues he covered, none of which would surprise you very much, all taken from more of an economic standpoint than the other two.

Hughes finished the opening statements with an equally unsurprising performance, talking about his usual set of issues, being a little bit more social about things than the other two, peppering it with details but also maintaining the thrust of what he was saying. Of course, being Simon, he did that terrible habit he has of trying to tell us in advance how many points he's about to make, starting of with number 1, and then never really bothering to continue down a list. He always says "finally" about three times in drawing to a close. Having said that, he's not all that much more waffly than the others, he just draws attention to his waffle more. He closed by making a bid for the "I can attract people from outside as well as sing to the choir" ground.

So far, not all that moved. Campbell made a pretty good and slightly surprising speech, though the spontenaiety of his speech was compromised slightly by his continued occasional glances at the notes he wasn't speaking from. The other two did very little surprising.

There followed the questions, one about schooling (they all oppose 11+), one about nuclear power (they all dislike it, Huhne because nobody is willing to pay since 3-mile island, etc), one about NHS funding mainly being for staff (they all think we need to cut down agency staff, and Ming perhaps surprisingly drew attention to his recent treatments). Really for the most part you couldn't find much of a gap between them on policy, other than on Iraq, of course, which Ming didn't pick nearly as much of an argument about as he did on Question Time.

At the end, a couple of quite nice questions to round off with. What is your one core ideal that needs to be communicated? Huhne: Localism, devolution of power, innovation, etc. Ming: PR, and his spiel about voting down a Queen's Speech that didn't include it. Hughes: Both, essentially, phrased as "power to the people". Which is fair enough, really, I guess. He did also say it partly to pick up on a comment earlier from a questioner who remarked that everyone seemed to believe roughly the same things and she felt she was in the right party.

So essentially, with little to pick between them on policy, I'm left with not a lot to go on other than style. At the end of the day, policy wise, they've all got it right, I think.


Ming started with a good speech. But it has to be said that occasionally he makes little slips in sentence construction if he gets carried away ("Britain should be the party of UN authority"?!). To be fair, there seemed to be a lot of little mistakes in speaking from all three, at one point Simon Hughes sounded, for some reason, as if he called Chris Huhne "Christmas Tree".... Nonetheless, the point remains. Ming gave a distinct impression of slight tiredness, he spent much of the second half sniffling into a hanky. Which is fair enough, but I wonder whether a General Election campaign might not start to get to him too. Of course, he might just genuinely have a cold.

Simon did well, though as always he can't resist little jokey comments (better than Ming's, usually) where they might be best not voiced. He seemed to me to have the balance of detail, broad vision and passion about right.

Huhne was great on the detail, but as I mentioned, it is not unfair to say that he is not as engaging a speaker as the other two. He did mention a lot of greenyness, though, which gets him marks from me.

So overall, none of it changed my opinion of Simon Hughes, which is that he's by far the best of the three, but that he may not be the best at appealing to all possible swing voters. But then, I don't know who is. Huhne appeals to the people Hughes doesn't, Ming is quite broad in his appeal but less strongly appealing. None is ideal. At the end of the day, then, I simply want to vote for the one I agree with the most. Which is Simon.

But my question to you (those who've held out to the end!) is, which order to put the other two in? I was hoping to find the answer to this question this evening. As it is, I don't think I'm any the wiser. So come on folks: Why should I vote Ming or Huhne as my second choice? (since presumably, you all think my second vote will end up being important!) I await persuasion...

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Liberalism - Does it have to apply to everything?

Just been reading Femme de Resistance's post, and the reaction it has attracted,
in particular the comment:
It is all about priorities. If you support both economic and personal liberalism, think that free markets are best for the whole society, but also think, that the state shouldn't have a say to what consenting adults may do in the bedroom,then you have to choose which is the most important to you.
To me, this sticks out as somewhat incongruous, as do LibertyCat's assertions that
Liberals are not socialists

Socialists reject economic liberalism. They believe that economic competition inevitably leads to the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. Socialist ideas of equality tend to deal with equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity, and with equality between groups rather than between individuals. Most socialists reject political liberalism, believing that a strong centralised state is needed to counteract the economic power of the capitalist class.
To read this, I would probably get the impression that I was a socialist if I didn't (think I) know better.

I agree that socialists tend to focus on equality of outcome instead of equality of opportunity. I think they're wrong in that. But I don't think that they're wrong about unfettered economic competition bringing with it the likelihood of simply creating self-reinforcing inequalities, of opportunity as much as of outcome.

I also agree that the centralised state is the wrong tool to solve such problems, in the shape of the traditional Labour vision of government. But I do see a role for strong regulation and limits on competition, in order to ensure a level playing field. Ultimately, it comes down to the same point that MPH and Oxfam and all that lot make about free trade: It's not the same thing as fair trade.

When you're formulating an ideology, it's important to know who you want to benefit from your actions. I want people to have the opportunity to live better lives, the lives they want to, with as little interference from outside as possible. Note the word outside there. I didn't say government. The way I see it, with the world going in the direction it's going, we're simply going to replace the 20th century's spectre of limits on freedoms (the state/socialism) with the 21st's (corporate force of will expressed through financial power).

To me as a Lib Dem, the word Democrat is at least as important to my reasons for joining the party as the word Liberal. If we're in this to protect people's freedoms and uphold democratic principles of representation, as locally as possible, then that takes in opposition to corporate power just as much as it does state power. People with more money being able to have more say than people who don't, and the oft-made argument that people are in some way excercising a "democratic right" by not buying the goods of a company they dislike, say, overlook the fact that this is a vision of democracy with the idea that people's sway in a vote goes in direct proportion to their wealth.

To subscribe to unreconstructed economic liberalism is in my view a very unhealthy move, and it perturbs me to see quite so many people seemingly making this argument that Lib Dems are people who believe in liberalism both personally and economically, but see the personal bit as more important. In my case, it is precisely because I believe in personal liberties that I oppose economic liberalism in its uglier forms.

If that makes me more of a New Socialist in some sense, and not a Liberal, then that's fair enough. But what I am also is a Liberal Democrat, and I suspect I'm not the only one who thinks along these lines.

So am I in the wrong party? I certainly don't see myself as a Tory, since I am opposed to both personal illiberalism and economic liberalism (in its purest form - I of course recognise the invisible hand of the free market as a powerful organisational tool). The Tories are pretty much the opposite of all I believe, in their traditional form. Now? Cameron, if he actually believed what he projects, would probably be closer to my views than some of the people I see calling themselves Liberals in our party.

And I'm not really a socialist, since I still don't believe that the way around my reservations with the free market is to take it all into the hands of the state. What is needed is simply a greater willingness of the state to set a few ground rules and enforce them in the private sector, not more public sector (But there is of course still a big role for the state in health, education and social security that simply has to be funded if not run from as high a level as possible (to protect it from the vagaries of the economy as much as possible)). Labour ideas are closer to my own, I suppose, in terms of the outcomes they want, but not in how they think we can achieve them.

Many see the Lib Dems as the expression of some sort of messy compromise of SDP and Liberal ideals. To me, what the Lib Dems represent is a surprisingly consistent manifestation of the views set out above: that ultimately this is all about people and their lives. There is no conflict between Liberalism, as I see it, and opposition to economic liberalism.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Question Time - What did it change?

To be honest, not much. All three candidates did a fairly good job of staying on message.

Chris Huhne coming across as particularly consistent with his performance on the regular programme last week, again repeating the phrase "part of the problem, not the solution" and putting his alternatives to taxation message across.

Hughes did look nervous, but made most of his points fairly well, and came across strongly as a man with a sense of pride in his values. I felt it was slightly unfair of Dimbleby to cut him off just before he got to what Dimbleby must have known would be the "price on his head" story. It was a relevant answer to the question asked, and exactly the reason people like me have no problem seeing him as a trustworthy man of integrity.

Ming Campbell was much the same, although what came across to me for the first time was his very firm distancing of himself from the withdrawal of troops option. It helped him, I think, defining him as the more pragmatic, perhaps, of them all. People who are thinking primarily about credibility, I guess, would have liked this.

So has it changed my views? No, I still like Hughes, I think his heart is most clearly in the right place. Ming Campbell as foreign affairs and Huhne as shadow chancellor or something would be cracking, I think. Huhne and Campbell are both good on their own turf, but stray much from those areas and they fall into simply spouting the party lines. Hughes, as his page in the manifesto booklet points out, has wide experience of all sorts of departments.

For all Huhne's "there are other ways to tax" stuff, Hughes's statement that the income tax is the "fairest tax there is" holds true. Yes, eco-taxes need to be used, but a Liberal Democrat party that tried to tax anything it disapproved of would, to my mind, cease to be a liberal party. Eco-tax is different. Eco-taxes are needed because we must preserve our world from our consumerist and distorted current system of economics. But to use taxes like a press release in the same way Labour does legislation would be a move in the wrong direction.

One of the things that originally attracted me to the Lib Dems in 1997 was their position of honesty on how they could provide the services people want. The straightforwardness of saying to people: "You want these services? 1p in the pound, bang, there you go!" seemed so refreshing against the backdrop of the other two parties trying to pretend it's all about management, that you can have improvements to services on the same spending as the Tories.

Of course, since then, taxes all over the place from Gordon Brown have kept an appearance of this, whilst anyone who looks at the figures can see instantly that Labour have presided over a big increase in public spending. But this system is unfair. In taxing by stealth, you lose the accuracy with which you can target the people who, fairly, should be paying.

And Ming? I think, following his practical approach to Iraq, that some of Hughes's characterisation of him as overly cautious will stick. And he's right. We as a party need to be strident and uncompromising on our principles. That's not mutually exclusive from being a credible government; one of the most ideological and uncompromising governments in living memory was the Thatcher government - one that didn't seem to have much trouble getting elected (albeit with some help from Labour being a bit shabby).

So my real dilemma, with my voting form in front of me, is what order to place Huhne and Campbell in after Hughes on my ballot. Comments are welcome. Frankly, all three are pretty good candidates, and much more the type of politician I can vote for than the Labour/Tory "grand coalition" (as Huhne might have it). I could quite happily campaign for any of them over the other parties, though perhaps not as happily as I could for Hughes!

Saturday, February 04, 2006


OK. Well, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say from the outset that I am a Hughes supporter, and that if you go to his campaign website you will in fact see my name in the list of supporters.

That said, what I want to explore is why I have arrived at this decision. The place to start for a look at this contest is, I would say, a look at the party's position. We have come out of the last election with a strong but simmultaneously disappointing position. The Lib Dems won extra votes for their opposition to the Iraq war, an issue which anyone with much judgement at the time could see would drag on for a while. They won approval for their leader, Charles Kennedy, though some uncharitably criticised him for his slip on tax policy at an early morning press conference. They won probably the same degree of approval they normally have for the rest of their actual policies. Now they have publically exorcised Kennedy, they are left with their basic position mainly the way it always has been, and the likelihood that (through force of American opinion) the Iraq war will have been handed over to the Iraqis to fight among themselves by the next election.

So, on the face of things, it doesn't look good. The next election, they will almost certainly (barring Alien abduction or somesuch unforseen circumstance) be up against Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Cameron has made a spirited play for the Lib Dems' voters. I don't see this getting too far, though. It a fair assumption that most Lib Dems would rather see a Labour than a Tory government, backed up by many polls showing that the party members see themselves as more the left than the right. Unless Cameron is spectacularly credible on issues close to our hearts (the environment is uppermost in my mind here), Lib Dems are not going to be abandoning ship in his direction in a big way. The loss of support for them in the wake of current media hype would seem to support this theory. It has largely contributed to a Labour bounce, not a Tory one.

Remember, Lib Dem voters are generally quite well informed. They will look into Cameron's claims with some scrutiny, and my belief is that by the time the small fight in the Conservative party has resolved itself, it is fairly inevitable that Cameron's agenda will have conceded a little ground to the Tebbit school of thought. Environmentally sensitive taxes are sure not to be top of the agenda, and it would seem that, quietly, the Tories are already sticking the knife into the very idea that directors of companies should be answerable to the public on what they do to the environment. I don't think that, played right at the election, the Lib Dems campaign should suffer much from the Tories.

What is much more of a problem is the classic "Do you want to wake up with a Tory MP?" scare from Labour. With the Tories resurgent the Lib Dems are far more likely to be squeezed that way. Of course, the great argument to that is that a strong third party in a political landscape of fairly evenly matched (Cameron is no Blair, neither is Brown) main parties, the third party, even outside of the oft-touted hung parliament, has a fair amount of weight to it. It only takes a few rebellious MPs on either side (especially if we're still in a Labour majority) to turn the situation into one where the Lib Dems can seriously affect the vote, and thus wield influence over the government on what comes before the house to be voted on.

Nonetheless, I would say that opposing the current government should remain the focus of the Lib Dems, whilst trumpeting loudly their actions where they go beyond the Tories' in the areas that Cameron is trying to move in on. I don't believe it is incompatible with stealing Tory and Labour seats to do this. If handled well, the Lib Dems could even conduct a campaign of painting the Tories as turning themselves into watered down Lib Dems (a nice turning of the tables from the days when we were accused of being cuddly Tories). We need to stop trying to lure Tories on the same reasons that they might vote Tory, and instead convince them that the things we focus on are more important.

In fact, that brings me to one of the central problems in perception the Lib Dems face. For a long time, they have suffered under an image of dithering and ill-definedness in their policies. It is an easy and lazy smear to throw in our direction to call us woolly, to accuse of being all things to all men. Even when we clearly had policies at the last election that weren't to everybody's taste, now that the election is out of people's memories, this is the line used to marginalise us. A consent around this idea has been manufactured by the other two parties, aided and abetted by a media for whom political impartiality is much easier when the public (and therefore they) only think in one political dimension.

As you may notice, my last post was a graph of my own political position. It shows politics in two separate dimensions, related but not fixed to each other. It is quite possible to be economically left or right wing, and for that to have little or no bearing on your sense of authoritarianism/libertarianism. The Lib Dems need to communicate this new way to evaluate politics to the country, at least sufficiently to get it on the radar in some sense. For too long, we have laboured under the old left-right line, when it is no longer the focus of our arguments.

When even the Tories are happy using the word 'redistribution', and when the last election at one point devolved into an argument over whether you can call pledging to increase spending by less than someone else a 'cut', you know we've more or less reached a consensus on that line. That's why the political pundits you get on TV and in the papers will tell you that the parties are all in a big smush in the middle of the spectrum, and yet you still get some quite heated debates between them on occasion. They're looking at the wrong spectrum. Sure we've all snuggled up together in the same band on the left right axis, but we sure as hell haven't on the authoritarian/liberal one.

Look at the arguments going on right now: Freedom of speech in the religious hatred bill in the UK, in America they're about the government's illegal wiretap scandal. The "war on terror"'s pressures on our civil liberties have brought these issues to the fore, but even before that, this is where the real action is. But the two other parties have a vested interest in stopping people thinking on this axis, because as soon as you think about it, it becomes clear that actually what we have in this country is not a centre-left, a right wing and a wooly fudge party, but we have two centre-authoritarian parties and one liberal one. As soon as people see this axis, they will both see the party for what we are, and vote to correct the imbalance.

And look, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to claim that the Lib Dems know exactly who they are. What I'm saying is that the reason we're seen as ill-defined is because we define ourselves on the axis that nobody else defines themselves on. Labour and Conservative define themselves in the left-right direction. So people who wish to identify themselves on that axis join one or the other, regardless of their positioning on the liberal-authoritarian axis. People who wish to define themselves as liberal join the Lib Dems, regardless of their position on the left-right axis. As a result, Labour and Conservatives alike are just as fuzzy on the liberal-authoritarian axis as the Lib Dems are on the left-right line.

So into all this, we see three (now) leadership candidates step into the fray. All of them, obviously, have pretty good liberal credentials, but there are differences on the left-right axis. Hughes is tradtionally the more leftwing, but to be honest I simply see him as the more honest about his thoughts. But what we have to accept, for the moment, is that the thinking is not going to change. People are going to think on the left-right axis, and they are going to see Hughes as leftish, Huhne and Campbell as centre right.

So why pick Hughes? Because, as ever, Labour have a large group of members who are not content with their actual party. A proper signal that the so-called "orange book" tendency is in the minority, like they wish it was in their own party, might have the best chance of attracting the Labour votes the party needs. Anyone who really is ideologically a Tory will never vote for a party who believe in fair taxation and real steps to help the environment that won't benefit business. Some people who simply vote Tory out of tribal opposition to Labour might come join us, but that is frankly a bonus. As we saw in the 2005 election, to base a strategy around bringing down Tory seats is a non-starter.

So the clearest message to the voters we need to attract to the party would be to pick Hughes. Happily enough, I also happen to think that, talented communicator as he is, he's the best person to then try to get the idea across to the electorate that we need to move on from the left-right mypoia that we currently suffer from. On top of that, Campbell is quite well placed where he is, as an elder statesman who speaks very well on foreign policy. Huhne may well be useful to the party as a now better known face, but in all honesty I don't think he's well known enough to be leader, and a vote for him as leader would simply suggest to most people that we are an irrelevance, happy to be led by someone they've not even heard of.

I don't subscribe to the idea that Ming Campbell is too old, but I do wonder whether he is perhaps a little inexperienced in having to think in the slightly juvenile ways a party leader has to, on occasion, to avoid embarrassment. As was so evident from his first PMQs as acting leader, he is quite able to shoot himself in the foot with a question that a more savvy man might have seen was a bad idea. Leave him where he is, as the respected advocate of liberal internationalism that he is, out of the glare of too much presentational scrutiny. He works for a Newsnight audience (and frequently proves it), but for the public, too easily distracted by irrelevancies, he is not the man to carry our torch.

So having talked down Hughes's opponents, why do I think he's up to it? Obviously, I couldn't disccuss this topic without at least mentioning his recent problems. To be honest, I don't think it's as damaging as people would like to think, and as evidenced by the poll taken by ICM it's clear that actually people take to him the best overall. As far as the stain on his record it supposedly represents, I think several things need to be said. Firstly, that this view is generally put across by partisan commentators. Second, I think people understand why one might lie about this kind of thing, because really the sort of non-committal answers he gave the question before were getting him nowhere.

Lastly, I think, as Johann Hari pointed out, that a far greater reflection on Hughes's character is given by his brave actions in relation to the murder of a constituent, which led to a price of £10,000 being put on his head. The man is, in his public life, a passionate and principled advocate for his view of the world. Privately, he may have had any number of reasons to keep his sexuality hidden. I don't think it's an excuse, but I do think consideration should be given to his point that it's harder for MPs still around from the era when gay MPs did have to hide their sexuality to be electable to suddenly switch policy and come out than it is for MPs who've just arrived to simply be open about it.

And lastly, one small point: HE'S BISEXUAL, NOT GAY! The continual refusal of so many people to take on this important distinction is maddening and frankly offensive. It speaks to an attitude of 'once a poof always a poof', and suggests that these people really don't care about the details of his life one bit, but simply want to focus on the supposed 'scandal'. One expects this sort of behaviour from the Sun, but I don't want to see such attitudes reflected by the rest of the, more sane, media.

Well, I'll stop there. You're probably quite bored by now, to be honest. Vote Hughes!