Monday 5 December 2016

Stick that in your pitch-fork and smoke it!

Last week saw a remarkable British by-election where the Liberal Democrats over turned a 23,000 majority and their previous near death experience to win a spectacular victory in Richmond Park.

The dominant issue was Brexit and the continuing fall out from Britain’s EU Referendum and a summer of political trauma.  The Liberal Democrats remain Britain’s most consistently pro EU political party and have campaigned passionately in support of the EU both before and after the referendum.  They are currently campaigning for parliament to scrutinise the Brexit proposition as it emerges and for there to be a second referendum to ratify any deal on the grounds that the terms of what Brexit meant were never specified in the original referendum.

This has been challenged as controversial and potentially undemocratic by leading political inquisitors such as Andrew Neil and the pitchfork wielding Julia Hartley-Brewer.
Are the peasants revolting? Is it the alt-right establishment twitching in defence of a tyranny of the majority?  Is it simply that parliament was silent on how Brexit would proceed should we vote to leave, either in terms of process or vision?

I think the issue about a second vote is therefore about having a vote on any future Brexit deal. There are so many moving parts to consider.  This is not just be about single market or not - or even whether we have access to the single market in some form.  How much do we pay in; what control can we exert over immigration; what level of political control do we exercise over our national destiny; what other areas of inter-European co-operation are we to participate in going forward and on what terms?  It is about all these things and more and we are only at the beginning.

My current preference would be to find, after exploring the Brexit options, that being part of the EU on the sort of terms we already had was the best deal and that we therefore exercise the option of staying.  Failing that, I’d like us to establish as close a cooperative and connected relationship with rest of Europe as possible. Whatever we do I’d like to do it with our eyes open.

Whatever we decide, it has to be done democratically since we have had a referendum.  We voted to leave and we are proceeding with that. For there to be any deviation from that or significant qualification after seeing the options, there needs to be a democratic process.

The problem the Leavers have, in my opinion, is that this was always a referendum to deal with an issue that has split the Conservative Party for a generation. It's not really been done with any vision about where we are trying to get to, let alone any detailed proposition behind it. And then the leaders of Leave seemed to step back and run away when they won. Now that’s a bit of a school-boy error from them.

In fact, we are seeing this right now in the Supreme Court.  The legislation around creating the referendum was poor and was silent on too much.

The referendum means we have decided to leave and that has to be delivered now. And this has to be delivered through parliamentary processes with proper scrutiny. Politics does not stop with a referendum and certainly not one where the population is so evenly split.

What Richmond Park does is to remind us is there are significant numbers of Remain minded people and some of their concerns need taken account of as we move forward to our new foreign policy. It is important to avoid a tyranny of the majority.

It also gives voice to a significant liberal - progressive section of our electorate - a section feeling under-represented with the void in the centre and centre-left of British politics.  This is a section of our people that look to politics that is open, tolerant and united.  A section that looks to a very long tradition of British liberalism that we need now more than ever.

Stick that in your pitch-fork and smoke it.

Friday 1 July 2016

Let's bring down our whole rotten political system

While I'm interested in any Scottish solutions with regards to stopping an EU Brexit I think they are a distraction from the priority.  The Scottish dimension is not really about Europe it is about Independence.  For the Scottish Government see everything - absolutely everything - through the prism of Independence. For me the priority is for Britain to remain within or as close we can to the EU; and to be clear, for me, the EU has always been far more than just a free trade area.

There can't be a Second Referendum on the EU.  That would be undemocratic and we cannot call for one when we rightly call out Scot Nats for demanding Indyref2 barely two years after the first - and a clear decision to boot.

But referenda are not the only way. They are not even particularly good at deciding very technical issues like on the EU. And they are so final if the change option wins. This makes them inflexible and somewhat undemocratic in that sense. As a result of last week's EU referendum we have handed a blank cheque to I'm not entirely sure who, to do I'm not entirely sure what.

When we voted we had no idea what Leave would look like. There was no white paper, no model, no roadmap - nothing. And this is without addressing the apparent fact that two of the central claims of the winning Leave campaign appear to be ones that there was no intention, or knowingly no possibility, of delivering. That is to say paying '£350m a week into NHS' and ending free movement of people. This is also without addressing that some (not all) Leave voters were voting on misconceptions as evidenced by attitude surveys during the campaign.

I want us to stay in the EU or salvage the best we can out of our broken relationship with Europe and vote on it in the traditional way via a general election. That's perfectly democratic. Now this requires real Labour to have the balls to stand up for that. It also requires pro EU Conservatives to stop trying to hold power for power's sake. The pro EU ones are meant to be in the majority in parliament. This may all require pro EU candidates and groups to cooperate in a one-off pro-EU coupon election.

But failing all this I want the Labour Party to be strong again - they need to jettison their foolish People's Popular Front sect of malevolents and romantics. In the Conservatives I want to see the Brexiters and thinly veiled anti-Europeans (such as May) defeated and something constructive regarding Europe emerge. Most of all I feel we need outward looking British liberalism to start doing well across all the parties again.

Crucially, I want to see the Liberal Democrats, who have taken a far heavier electoral toll than they ever deserved, returning to strength.  We desperately need them in our political mix with a loud and vibrant voice.

These are turbulent times in British politics and all this may not be possible.  The stable of contenders for the Conservative leadership does not fill me with hope. Our continuing creaking democracy based on an 18th century system never designed for party politics let alone the multiple and changing choices we have today continues to depress me.  Not least when it begins to threaten our stability with embedded tribal loyalties and exaggerated regional differences with their ludicrous over representations.  This is an unresponsive democracy whose senses to real opinion are dulled, especially when they deliver absolute majorities on not much more than a third of the vote and on tiny shifts in support.

But there is many a twist and turn in the road ahead before we are done with these turbulent times.  Whatever happens I do not want to see a return to our political system as we have known it.  The realignment of the 1980s did not quite come off.  This time the fault lines of opinion have truly shifted.

This time I want to see real realignment and with it an end to our whole rotten political system.

Sunday 19 June 2016

We need Britiah liberalism now more than ever

On 8 May 2015 Nick Clegg made a powerful speech resigning his leadership of the Liberal Democrats.  He spoke of how we need British liberalism now more than ever.  I believe the events of the last days of this EU referendum campaign show that to be true.  I'm speaking of a liberalism that goes across several parties and across people of none, but the Liberal Democrats, of which I am a member, are a key part of bringing that to the fore.  A key passage of that speech was particularly relevant.  I thought I would paraphrase the argument in the context of today.

Liberalism is not faring well against the politics of fear.  Years of hardship after the recession and insecurities in the face of globalisation have led to people reaching out for new certainties.  The politics of identity, of nationalism, of us versus them are on the rise.  It is to be hoped that our leaders realise that this brings us to a point where grievance and fear threaten to combine to drive different communities apart. We must be aware of the potentially disastrous consequences to our way of life and the threat to the integrity of our United Kingdom, if we continue to appeal to grievance rather than generosity and fear rather than hope. It's no exaggeration to say that in the absence of strong and statesmanlike leadership, Britain's place in Europe and the world, and the continued existence of our United Kingdom itself is in jeopardy. And the cruelest irony is that it is exactly at this time that British liberalism, that noble tradition that believes we are stronger together and weaker apart, is more needed now than ever before. There is no path to a fairer, greener, freer Britain  without British liberalism showing the way.

You can view the full speech here:

EU - let's remember the good things too

Over the last few of days I have spoken to a couple of people who, while previously sitting on the fence, have decided to vote for Britain to remain in the EU.  In each case they have expressed a general cynicism about Europe but have decided on balance it is better for Britain to be In rather than Out, principally because of the economic case.

I think we can do better than that.  I think it's important to remember the good things about the EU too.

I think it's important to remember good things like: being a key part of the permanent structure of peace post WW2; cross border cooperation on crime and climate change; scientific and cultural exchange; and technological and business openess - in addition to the single market.

There is an important place for a close knit supra-national community of nations - particularly in Europe with our history.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

General Election 2015 - what really happened?

It is now just over three months since the General Election result and the political landscape has been transformed.  From a position of a virtual dead heat the Conservatives are now the dominant force in British politics with no serious opposition, the Labour Party are disintegrating, the LibDems have been reduced to a pile of rubble, no-one quite knows where UKIP are, and Scotland is virtually a one party state.  

In these last few months I have had time to read a lot, think about what has happened and look at the stats.  Not least, I have had a look at some of the things the British Election Study has identified about the motivations of the electorate.  Before the myths and legends of election 2015 take root I wanted to jot down a few things I believe to be true in understanding the drivers for the electorate at this election and where I think our politics are at.

A crucial thing to understand about General Election 2015 is that the Conservative Party did not see a significant increase in their support and there was not a return to 2 party politics.  Nor was there a significant reduction in Labour support from 2010 over the country as a whole.

The key dynamics were in fact the disintegration of LibDem support, the SNP landslide in Scotland and a large anti politics UKIP vote, although to negligible electoral effect. The Greens also had a larger vote than in previous elections, although less than they might have hoped.

 Source: Electoralcalculus

The Labour result was in fact a disaster saved only by defecting Liberal Democrats. This was made worse by the realisation that they were the opposition to not altogether popular government after five years of austerity in a financial crisis struck world.

One of the main features of election 2015 was the SNP tidal wave in Scotland where they won nearly all the seats and 50% of the vote.  The 2010 Labour voters who went over to the SNP were the most concerned by cuts in public spending, the least convinced about the need for deficit reduction, and felt that if we did have to address public spending it needed to be by tax rises and not cuts.

For left of centre inclined voters, the most effective thing to do in terms of electoral positioning was to be apparently centrist, anti-austerity, and economically competent.  This worked well for the SNP.  For Labour on the other hand, having a position which seemed to be austerity-lite did not work.  They probably needed to appear anti-austerity while economically competent to be more successful. 

In Scotland, Labour particularly lost out on not seeming anti austerity enough and the nationalist / anti politics sentiment grew.  

A paradox in Scotland that sealed the SNP rout of unionist parties was that a segment of Independence Referendum No voters voted SNP to take their popular vote to an unprecedented 50%.  This crucial group were partly looking for an anti-austerity proposal and were particularly beguiled by the prospect of a Labour minority administration given what they perceived as back-bone by the SNP. A smaller group were disappointed as they perceived there were not enough new powers for Scotland on offer when in fact significant powers had been brought forward and precisely according to the timetable promised.

In the election campaign there were a mass of contradictory claims, seemingly badly costed, confusing and complex.  Therefore, it was impossible to discern what the best deal was.  When the voting public is hit by conflicting claims of an unclear message they fall back on other simpler things to make up their minds. This means their view on the party leaders.  This was crucial.

The view of party leaders in comparison with Ed Miliband helped David Cameron.  It was also another factor which helped the SNP. 

What the LibDems were offering or what they were even for had become unclear and people had stopped listening to their leader some time before election.

The Greens fell back from a promising pre-election position because of this compounded by credibility of economic competence which unravelled somewhat for them during the campaign.

The Conservatives stuck very narrowly to a mantra of having a long term economic plan.  Economic competence, at least in contrast to Labour and their leader being relatively well thought of, again in comparison with Labour helped the Conservatives maintain and very slightly increase their 2010 support.  While this was not that impressive given 2010 was a disappointing result for the Conservatives as they failed to gain a majority after 13 years of Labour and an economic crisis, it was impressive given the rise of UKIP collecting anti politics support to their right.

The Conservatives were able to tactically cannibalise LibDem seats and squeeze enough LibDem voters and UKIP voters in key seats to win a majority under our First past the Post system.

The British Election Study found limited evidence of a fear of a Labour-SNP coalition driving votes to them.  However, both the Conservatives – who operated some very sophisticated voter modelling – and the LibDems found movement at the end of the campaign in LibDem seats to the Conservatives on this very fear tipping key seats into the Conservative column and ensuring the LibDem meltdown.

Interestingly, the Conservatives had some success moving UKIP supporters their way in key seats.  This did not happen in the north where UKIP were Labour facing.  However, this meant that while UKIP did well they only won one seat even though nearly 4 million voted for them.

So in short, an election where Labour lost on perception of economic competence and their leader but also for positioning themselves as austerity lite.  An election where the Conservatives won no ringing endorsement but won a majority under our system by a narrow message of competence or at least having a plan and a very effective tactical squeeze of LibDems and UKIPers in key seats.

But overall an election where the key dynamics were actually the destruction of the LibDems and the irresistible rise of the SNP.

I leave you with a question.  Is there a parallel between Scottish Nationalists and the Irish Nationalists of 1874 who came from nowhere to get 60 seats and it never went back?

Tuesday 7 July 2015

The SNP's double paradox

    It has been interesting to see those celebrating the Greek vote on their financial crisis are a mixture of various nationalists, and the hard left and Greens.

    This highlights a paradox as far as the SNP are concerned.

    The SNP are not a hard left party and their anti-austerity line has been no different than social democrats'.  In fact their anti-austerity line has been more talk than action.

    There is also a paradox with regards to Europe.  As nationalists maybe their belief in Europe is more convenience than conviction.  The thinking of many of the supporters of the SNP is muddled at least.

EVEL is a terrible idea

My gut instinct is that David Cameron is foolish on devolution and that EVEL (English Votes for English laws)  is a terrible idea.

Ever since he made that ill judged speech on the morning of 19 September 2014 he has been playing fast and loose with Britain.  I like devolution.  I think decentralisation is good and that Britain is particularly well suited to it.  It is the natural order of things.

Indeed the natural conclusion of all this is devolution in some shape or form throughout the UK with Westminster becoming the national parliament.  The federal parliament if you like.

Some sort of devolution or decentralisation within England would be best for this to work and to be sustainable otherwise we just become England with some semi-detached add-ons like Scotland or Northern Ireland.  

Yes - EVEL creates 2 tiers of MPs and it makes it unlikely that a Scot or Welshman could ever be PM or a senior minister.  It turns Westminster into the English Parliament, which it is not.  And all this increases the chances of independence.

What then is the way forward?  I accept that the development of a full federal structure will not happen overnight but there are already some ideas on parliament, to work with as an interim step, within the Mackay Commission.   Developing wider decentralisation within England probably has to start with developing localism, regional structures like 'Northern Powerhouse' and empowering county authorities.  But that is so British.  Quirky and organic developments.

The Smith Commission and the Scotland Bill making its way through parliament gives us a strong devolved Scotland. Stronger even than German Lander and very much as promised during the Referendum campaign, however the nationalists try to spin it.  

The key for devolution to work within the United Kingdom is getting the UK level right and getting devolution right for England.  But EVEL is a terrible idea and the Conservatives are clueless about how the union and further devolution can work together.