Monday, July 30, 2007

Peter Preston tries to sell us Brown's Trapdoor

OK. Peter Preston has written about us in the Guardian today. Reactions so far have appeared over on the rather snappily named Barcharters Anonymous, and, of course, on Lib Dem Voice, courtesy of Mr. Tall. Apologies if I've missed someone, post me a comment. Now, plenty of attention has been given to the usual tired cut-and-paste attacks on Ming, and the unevidenced assertion that we have "No new faces, no new ideas", and that this is Ming's fault. We get that old classic about "how difficult it is for Lib Dems to define consistent national policies". So far, so much lifted straight out of the Ladybird book of Lazy Attacks on the Lib Dems.

But Preston, having bookended his article with this intellectual ordure, does manage to also convey a cogent, if wholly wrong, argument. That is the bit I really want to address here, so that is the bit I will quote. If you really want to read the rest, click on the link to CiF above.

Preston writes:

If there's one song all Lib Dems sing, it's the anthem of electoral reform. Give us PR and we're here to help. But they have it already in the Edinburgh and Cardiff parliaments and, this year, in voting for Scottish local councils. And what does proportional representation mean in practice? It involves no overall majority for anything and an imperative for the compromises that coalition requires. It compels an emollient honesty that first-past-the-post never needs. It's a non-English way of doing business.

Well, the Scottish Lib Dems did it for two terms under Kennedy and Campbell, keeping Labour in power at Holyrood and winning further traction over voting reform in the process. But did the voters thank them this spring for their efforts? They did not. You can, it seems, have too much compromise and coalition. There was no will for give-and-take as the victorious Nats were left to govern alone.

As for Wales, where Labour again needed help to survive, the deal that sustains them was done with Plaid Cymru - and the Lib Dems behaved just like any other old political gang, sticking points stuck in each others' backs. The system they espouse for all Britain made a new politics necessary, but the party that should have led the way fell back and let the nats do the job.

I think we are more than entitled to know where the hallowed theory of caring, sharing Liberalism leads? To Paddy Ashdown in Gordon's cabinet? To a role in England, Scotland and Wales where electoral reform makes Ming a natural partner in governments large and small? It would appear not, if Cardiff and Edinburgh show the way. To a PR system for Westminster that gives Ming a spot of power - say foreign secretary in the second Brown government - but still leaves him out of the Celtic power loop? To a coalition with Cameron in parliament and with Labour in Edinburgh if Alex Salmond falls?

The list of possible permutations is long, but information on possibilities is perilously short. Ming says he will only make a pact with Labour (except in Wales, where he hasn't). He won't hit the hustings laying out terms, because he still recites the mantra of a vote for a Lib Dem administration first and backstairs dealing later. Lib Dem attacks on the Tories are fiercer than ever: because Cameron's rather battered tanks are close to their lawn. But the Tories have become a much easier fix as Dave has edged towards central English territory. There's no reason in policy why an agreement to put Cameron into Downing Street and Ming into some adjacent ministry shouldn't work if that's what the electoral arithmetic indicates. But nobody says that out loud because the Lib Dem rank and file would grow vehement in outrage.

It's not that the Lib Dems are an irrelevance Britain can manage without: just the contrary. The middling, muddling politics we have needs men of principle and some probity who can take the voters into their confidence and do the deals that become necessary. A fresh way demands a fresh approach. If PR is the flag at the top of your pole, then you have to personify the winds of change by the positions you take and the courses you set. And you have to have that clear long before a conventional election when voters need such clarity.

OK. So at first glance, some of that seems to make some sense. Enough to make the eminently sensible Stephen Tall ask the readers of Lib Dem Voice "Do we think our answers are good enough?" Quite simply, I want to put the case that the answer to that question is "yes".

Preston's argument, as I understand it, seems to be that if we are to be the party of PR, and take the public with us on that point, we must take Gandhi's advice that "you must be the change you wish to see in the world". As such, he believes we should behave, now, in a more consensual and cooperative manner, much as we would expect parties to do under PR.

Which is a pretty strange idea. He is arguing that the best course for us, as a party, would be to conduct ourselves in ways which quite simply put a political party at a distinct disadvantage under first past the post. It is not in the nature of the current political landscape that we, or any party, should focus on making ourselves what Simon Jenkins called "a political subsidiary of another party" if we want to see ourselves moved closer to taking real political power and influence.

This is exactly the same argument as persuaded Ming, rightly, that accepting cabinet positions in a Brown government, or a joint candidate with the Tories for London mayor, would be a mistake.

Now, in addition, we have to think about the wider picture of political parties' behaviour, in our current situation (whereby in devolved bodies we have arms of our national parties fighting under at least approximate PR). The points to make are:

1. These are not perfect case studies for how parties would behave under genuine PR. The parties in Wales and Scotland take many decisions under significant influence from the national leadership of their party, and with a political worldview still half grounded in the FPTP system, because it is still the dominant order in the political psyche of the people of the UK, and in our national media's narrative. That isn't to say that these things shouldn't change, simply to say that it's not as simple as looking at our behaviour in Scotland and Wales, or anyone else's, and saying that's how we would behave in a straightforwardly PR world.

2. Apart from anything else, under a real PR regime, I personally believe it is highly debatable whether any of the parties that exist today would stay in their current forms. I would expect both Labour and the Tories to split into at least 2 parties each, and possibly the Lib Dems would even devolve themselves back into Liberal and SDP like parties, depending on how the other two parties' splinter groups fell. That's not to say we aren't a relatively unified party, by the way. Simply that FPTP politics is about building parties under one umbrella with a broad enough support base to win, whereas PR gives little incentive to do so, since it is more or less a given that coalition building happens after an election, not before it.

Which brings me back to the "political subsidiary" point. In FPTP terms, suggesting what we might do to in a given situation doesn't help the public identify us as a party in our own right, it weakens our identity and our ability to defend ourselves from the political shoving of the bigger parties, who resent our very existence, let alone our success. Under PR, we might like to be able to discuss our policy commonalities and differences freely. But it doesn't really work under FPTP.

And make no mistake about it; as a country, and therefore as a national party, we are still thoroughly FPTP in our thinking. It would be foolish of the Lib Dems to try to pretend otherwise, in a hope we could fool not only ourselves but also the British public. We face a predominantly hostile media with a vested interest in keeping alive the bipolar world they felt at home with, and therefore we would fail. Spectacularly. Which is exactly what Preston probably wants.

Friday, July 27, 2007

What a Lovely Story

Somewhat slow off the mark here, but this account from Josh Tyler over at Cinema Blend of going to see Michael Moore's recent film Sicko makes for interesting reading. A quick extract:
As I sat down, right behind me entered an obligatory, cowboy hat wearing redneck in his 50s. He announced his presence by shouting across the theater in a thick Texas drawl to his already seated wife “you owe me fer seein this!”

Sicko started; the stereotypical Texas guy sat down behind me and never stopped talking. He talked through the entire movie… and I listened. The first ten to twenty minutes of the film he spent badmouthing Moore to his wife and snorting in disgust whenever MM went into one of his trademark monologues. But as the movie wore on his protestations became quieter, less enthusiastic. Somewhere along the way, maybe at the half way point, right before my ears, Sicko changed this man’s mind. By the forty-five minute mark, he, along with the rest of the audience were breaking into spontaneous applause. He stopped pooh-poohing the movie and started shouting out “hell yeah!” at the screen. It was as if the whole world had been flipped upside down.
It's worth going and reading the whole thing, it only gets more extraordinary from there.

Hat-tip to Mike Malloy for alerting me to this article.

It's a shame the film didn't get a UK distributor. I know it wouldn't have attracted a huge audience, since we don't have to deal with the US's healthcare system, but all the same, it's nice to have a reminder that, whatever the faults of the NHS, it could be much worse. As it is, your best option is to torrent it, or something.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

My MP on Saudi Arabia (sigh)

Having subscribed to They Work For You's email service to let me know what my MP is up to in Parliament, I now regularly get emails featuring tantalising glimpses of the words of Mr. Daniel Kawczynski, and links for me to follow them up if I am so moved. Alas, I am seldom so moved, such is the ploddingly predictable and depressing nature of most of it. Mostly, it serves as the perfect daily reminder that I in no way feel represented by my MP, a problem I lay wholly not at his door, but at that of our electoral system.

Today, however, the email showed not some latest piece of posturing on the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, or on Shropshire's proposed unitary council, but instead a contribution to a debate on Saudi Arabia. With some resignation I clicked on the link to see what he'd said. I was expecting some pretty odious double standards from a Tory on the need to ignore what he continually euphemistically refers to as "unfortunate incidents" and "regrettable matters" in the interest of playing a part in the "business culture" of Saudi Arabia. I did not quite expect to see a virtually identical view from the Labour contributors at the debate (indeed, that "business culture" quote is actually from a Labour MP).

Halfway through the debate, we hear the first contribution from a Liberal Democrat, Mark Hunter. Curiously enough (despite at this point having heard from Jim Sheridan (L), Mark Pritchard (C), Jim Devine (L) and Daniel Kawczynski (C)), this coincides almost exactly with the first mention by anybody of the words "human rights". Indeed, later on, David Lidington is so loathe to use the words that he instead uses the tortuous phrase "developments of the sort to which he referred"!

It is worth pointing out at this point that Saudi Arabia is not just average in terms of human rights abuse in a region which doesn't exactly cover itself in glory on that front, it is one of the very worst offenders on such points as treatment of women. And yet all we hear from Kawczynski in response to these concerns are feeble debating points such as:
The hon. Gentleman mentions capital punishment in Saudi Arabia. We have many more debates on the United States in this Chamber than on Saudi Arabia, yet I have never known any hon. Member to criticise the Americans for having capital punishment. For some reason, however, when middle eastern countries are mentioned, capital punishment is always referred to. It is disingenuous of us to treat Saudi Arabia differently from the United States.
or the pathetically partisan:
I suspected that the Liberal Democrats would try to rake up the problems of BAE Systems again and I regret that the hon. Gentleman has done so. When we consider all the problems that our constituents are facing in this country—for example, with housing, floods and other issues—for the Liberal Democrats to use one of their Opposition days to debate a probe into BAE Systems was shocking, appalling and a gross abuse of the priorities of the House. I hope that he will move on and concentrate on the positive side of our relations and the vital importance of trade, rather than raking up such regrettable matters.
(Of course, the most recent Lib Dem sponsored debate took place on 16th July, and took place between 4.18pm and 7.01pm, followed by about half an hour of divisions as MPs lined up to tell the Lib Dems to sit down and shut up on this issue. So in total, we ensured that about 3 hours of the house's time was dedicated to the issue. On the same day, we also moved a debate on taxation of the wealthy. The most recent Tory Opposition Day, by contrast, featured debates on the penal system and global poverty, so no sign of simply banging the party drums there, then!)

I thought it was supposed to be conservatives who bemoaned "moral relativism"? And yet, according the the New Tory Labour cosy consensus we see here, apparently such an approach is more than justified by the opportunity to take part in the "business culture" of one of the world's leading human rights abusers.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

House of Lords Bill

Sometimes you need someone with an untenable position to be able to see their way through an argument which is clouded for others by vested interests. Such an occasion occurred yesterday, when the Lords gave Lord Steel's House of Lords Bill its second reading.

A general, smug consensus had been building throughout most of the contributions that Jack Straw was being terribly naive, and that appointment was the way to go. We even saw Lord Campbell (Con) ask: "What about affinity with the monarch? That has at all costs to be retained, albeit reset constitutionally from time to time. Nobody seems to say anything about it. " (Column 510) .

The whole thing was getting so terribly depressing as I sat watching it this morning on BBC Parliament. Of course, I knew I could hold out for Lord McNally's (LD) thoughts (Column 529), but before that arrived, reassurance came from an altogether more unexpected corner of the house. Up stood the Earl of Onslow (Con), one of the 92 remaining hereditaries, to make the following storming speech (Column 517), which I have reproduced in its entirety:
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I start by reminding your Lordships of Macaulay’s comment on the Plantagenets. He said that the Plantagenet kings were restrained by a powerful and hereditary aristocracy. The hereditary aristocracy was there not because of heredity but to stop an appointed House. Macaulay and the Norman barons were right, but I understand that the whole House is arguing for appointment. In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, “They would, wouldn’t they?”

Elections would mean that a very large number of noble Lords would be on their bikes, so, not surprisingly, that may influence their thinking. We all love it here, but I am afraid that there is no modern justification for exercising power and bossing your fellow subjects about other than by popular election of one sort or another. This was what my great-grandfather talked to Salisbury about; it was said in the 1911 Act; and it was said in 1999. With regard to privy counsellors, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, said that we should stay here until the House was democratically elected, but since when has privy counsellors’ honour been subject to a statute of limitations? I did not think that it ever had been.

I am here not because my forebear got tight with Pitt or because one of my great-grandmothers slept with Charles II—she did but it had nothing to do with a peerage; that was another one—or because one of my forebears was Chancellor of the Exchequer to Walpole; I am here to ensure that the promises of an elected House are delivered. I am essentially a totally ridiculous character in that context. I may try to make up for it in other ways but, essentially, I am a ridiculous character in the modern world, and I am here to remind your Lordships of promises unfulfilled. I look around me and see lots of very able people, all of whom contribute in the way that has been described. But, in a modern world, we cannot have power exercised other than by popular vote.

Much is made of the supremacy of the House of Commons. In 1340-something-or-other, this House said that it would not have anything to do with tax. This House is restrained by the Parliament Act; another place’s votes apply. Under those circumstances, this House is already, and has been for a very long time, subordinate to the House of Commons. Therefore, the argument about gridlock is relatively feeble. As a democrat and as someone who loves the concept of parliament, I am afraid that I see nothing wrong in gridlock from time to time. Can we honestly say that every single Act of Parliament, every clause, every subsection and every statutory instrument passed over the past 20 years will go down in history as immutable and unchangeable and that it will be quoted as being as perfect as the law of the Medes and the Persians? That is self-evident rubbish. We should resist the parts of the Bill that make it easier for us all to stay here and feel self-satisfied about the benefits of an appointed position.
I suppose when one feels like something of an outsider to the rest of the house anyway, it is much easier to go in all guns blazing in this fashion. I do hope that, when one day we do achieve an elected second chamber, we manage to elect a house similarly peppered with mavericks. Of course, there is no reason why we shouldn't - the commons seems to manage quite well for "characters" of its own.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Lord Levy's Relief

Just been watching Channel 4 News's coverage of today's news that the CPS has decided not to bring any charges against Lord Levy or indeed anyone else.

Am I the only one who thought that the massive grin across Levy's face, combined with his expressions not of satisafaction at being proven innocent but primarily of "relief", came across rather badly? This did not look to me like the demeanor of a man who has been exonerated of crimes of which he always knew he was innocent. It looks rather more to me like someone who is feeling very lucky to have got off so lightly.

We also now hear that Scotland Yard are really not at all happy with the outcome; the Guardian (and others) today reporting:

"Senior Scotland Yard figures were said to strongly disagree with the CPS decision [...]"

The investigators evidently felt that they did have a case, and that the CPS have bottled it. Of course, I don't know what the evidence was, and I could be wrong about my reading of Levy's facial expression.

But I think it's safe to say that Michael Portillo's reading of the situation on 'This Week' last night was pretty accurate: If this had just been left as a political scandal, it could have been moderately damaging. As it is, at SNP MP Angus MacNeil's request, the police were set the nigh-on impossible task of finding evidence capable of actually proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to a jury, that the allegations were true. The CPS have decided that they did not succeed in this; not a huge surprise. In setting this chain of events in motion, the SNP have ultimately handed Blair and Levy a (figurative) Get Out Of Jail Free card, wherein they can simply say that "the CPS did not prosecute anyone after an extensive Scotland Yard enquiry".

The fact remains that the whole thing looks pretty fishy. It's all very well to say "this is the way things have always been, they are political appointees after all", but to most people that's no excuse. If that's the way the system works, the system needs to go. The case for Lords reform has never been more urgent. So why has the government kicked it into the long grass?

Byelections results

Well, results are in from both byelections:

Sedgefield was a Labour hold, no surprises there, and as predicted, a large increase in the Lib Dem vote. Interesting to look at the change between 2005 and now, here:


Tony Blair (Lab): 24,421, 58.9%
Al Lockwood (C): 5,972, 14.4%
Robert Browne (LD): 4,935 11.9%
Reg Keys (Ind): 4,252 10.3%


Phil Wilson (Lab): 12,528, 44.77%
Greg Stone (LD): 5,572, 19.91%
Graham Robb (C): 4,082, 14.59%
Andrew Spence (BNP): 2,494, 8.91%

Apart from registering my discomfort at the introduction of a sizeable BNP vote, the thing to note here is that, looking at the percentages (since the difference in turnout makes a numerical comparison easy to misread), we seem to have picked off a fair amount of Labour support. This is significant because people had been saying we might leapfrog the Tories simply by picking up Reg Keys' anti war vote. The question is, did we pick only those voters up after all, leaving Labour's majority slashed simply because their voters were staying at home?

I don't want to diminish the achievement of Greg Stone at all here, and I think what we can clearly see is that it is not dishonest of us at all to suggest that the real challenge in the North does not come from the Tories, who have failed to pick up much momentum at all here. Nevertheless, it would be possible to over-egg our success here.

Anyway, on to Ealing Southall. Again, it's worth comparing between the last election and tonight:


Piara Khabra (Lab): 22,937, 49%
Nigel Bakhai (LD): 11,497, 24%
Mark Nicholson (C): 10,147, 22%
Sarah Edwards (Green): 2,175, 5%


Virendra Sharma (Lab): 15188, 41%
Nigel Bakhai (LD): 10118, 28%
Tony Lit (C): 8230, 22%
Sarah Edwards (Green): 1135, 3%

Personally, I have to admit to more than a little schadenfreude over the Tories performance here, seeing as David Cameron has quite so much invested in this one, and seeing as how they've fought a pretty unpleasant media war all the way through this. But enough of that, what does this mean for us?

Well, I think Ming is safe. Which is to say, I think that there is little here that should make us worried about Ming's leadership. Any momentum that gets going behind a Ming Must Go campaign now is motivated elsewhere. As objectively as I can look at this, I don't think tonight amounts to an indictment of Ming.

We must remember that, much as we hoped it would backfire on Labour, they set the three week timetable for these elections for a good reason. From the other side, we have the incredible high-level investment from the Tory party in this one. Lib Dems may be by-election experts, but this was a tough one, and all the parties knew it.

The BBC are now busy trying to drive a wedge in everywhere they can find an opening (I have News 24 sat on my screen as I type), but fundamentally, the only story to be found here is that for all their energy, "David Cameron's Conservatives" have increased their share of the vote by a pitiful amount, and that Labour's share has been slashed, most notably by a Lib Dem swing.

Curiously, the BBC are now busily telling me that the Tories and the Lib Dems are in much the same boat, and little has changed for either. I wonder why?

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Right-Wing Blogosphere Tamed?

There has been plenty of chatter on the Lib Dem blogs lately about Iain Dale and his increasing tendency to allow his credibility to be compromised in the service of carrying CCHQ's agenda for the day forward a bit. I mean, come on; this is one by-election (for the Tories at any rate; they don't stand a chance in Sedgefield). I know that, with the Brown Bounce and the none-too-rapturous reception their most recent policy announcement received, the Tories are desperate to show that the wheels haven't come off their return to power. But really, is this a suitably impressive looking altar for Iain to sacrifice his credibility on?

The only reason I can think of for this bizarrely irrational behaviour is a belief that the result of the Ealing Southall byelection genuinely could unseat Ming (which I don't think it could), and that if he was deposed, we would suffer hugely from it (which I don't think we would - we have several great candidates for leader in the wings). Perhaps he thinks that a new leader wouldn't have the time to bed in before a snap election if one were called. But if that is the case, he forgets that we fought and won the Dunfermline by-election with no leader at all.

Meanwhile, Guido has now similarly started to ditch the ostensibly independent-but-right-of-centre position that he has affected for as long as I have read his site. A little while back, Mr. Staines threw his weight behind Ireland's Progressive Democrats in the Irish elections. In the last couple of days, however, he has fallen in line behind Boris Johnson's campaign for mayor. Admittedly, not behind the Tory party per se (and we should acknowledge that he gave the Tory e-campaigning expert the reaction he deserved recently), just behind Boris. But one can detect a certain shift in tone towards Boris from, say, a month ago to now.

Last but not least, we hear of a Cameronite "balance" to ConHome in the pipeline.

Is it just me, or has the Tory blogosphere taken a distinct turn for the tedious lately?