Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When did choice become a dirty word for Liberals?

This exchange (posting and comment) at Jo's Jottings highlights the (to me) strange reluctance of at least some Liberals to endorse the idea of choice in public services.

I joined the Liberal Party in 1985, as a result of reading Jo Grimond's journalism, which demonstrated a sophiticated understanding and critique of Thatcherism. I was a bit surprised to find that few of the Liberals I met agreed with Grimond and most seemed to share Labour's knee-jerk reaction against and refusal to engage with what was happening in British politics during the 1980s.

Troubled by this I asked my new 'Radical Liberal' friends what exactly it was that kept them out of the Labour party. Well, they explained, although we hate the Tories as much as Labour do, Labour are patrician, controlling and corporatist in their approach to public services. We want to empower the citizen and give them more control. They pointed to the way Liberals in Liverpool had encouraged self-build housing co-operatives and had worked with the voluntary sector to provide new homes. They contrasted this with Labour's attachment to monolithic council estates and their general wish to see people perpetually dependent on and grateful to the council.

Strangely, though, as soon as Labour began to embrace the voluntary sector, consultation, citizen engagement and the notion of choice in public services, some Liberals turned against and disowned such ideas and began to adopt Labour-style paternalism.

For that reason I found the re-launch of the Beveridge Group earlier this year a depressing event - because the speeches seemed more an uncritical defence of the public service ethic and public sector professionals than an attempt to empower citizens and give them more say in how services are delivered. In response to my (admittedly rather pointed) question asking whether the group was not a bit patrician and Fabian in its approach, Paul Holmes accused me of not wanting there to be a group promoting social liberalism in the party.

But his comment missed the point. My problem with the Beveridge Group and other 'anti-choice' Lib Dems is not that they support social liberalism, but that they don't.

Let me give you some advice

Following Nicholas Blincoe's unpleasant and unfunny attack on Chris Huhne, and the controversy over whether he is an advisor to Clegg, Jonathan Calder asks whether he can be considered a 'former volunteer adviser to Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy', having occasionally written jokes for them.

Goodness knows what qualifies someone to style themselves an 'adviser'. I remember that the journalist Paul Johnson often claimed to have 'advised Margaret Thatcher on trade union reform', as thought the two of them had crushed Arthur Scargill together, unaided. Yet Johnson is mentioned only once in Thatcher's memoirs, suggesting his role was not quite as great as he likes to think.

Most strange of all was the period when the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, then leader of the Lib Dem Peers, allowed himself to be described as an adviser to Tony Blair, who was then leader of the Labour party. So a parliamentary leader of one party was acting as adviser to the leader of another when the two organisations were not in alliance or coalition. A very odd business indeed.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Atkins, Irving and Griffin at the Oxford Freak Circus

It says it all about the Oxford Union's ridiculous 'debate' that one of the participants should be Mad Ann Atkins of Thought for the Day notoriety.

I recall Atkin's indulgent comments towards Irving on TFTD after his richly deserved (OK, I shouldn't believe people should go to gaol for Holocaust denial, but Irving had it coming to him) imprisonment in Austria.

Atkins' comments on Radio 4 just now were typically barmy, bizarrely accusing demonstrators of hypocrisy and saying they were more offensive than Irving.

Absurd woman, nasty man, great shame that Evan Harris dignified this freak show with his presence.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Deborah Lipstadt on the Oxford Union

Deborah Lipstadt, whose free speech David Irving so notoriously tried to suppress, explains why it is simplistic to imagine that either he or Nick Griffin will be 'crushed in debate' at the Oxford Union.

A pedant writes...

I can't resist correcting Martin Bright on a point of fact in the aformentioned interview with Huhne.

He writes that 'in the two elections held in the 1960s, the Liberal vote collapsed to around two million, and the Parliamentary party was almost wiped out.'

This just isn't so. In fact the two elections held in the 1960s, saw the Liberals increase their number of seats for the first time in a generation, from seven to nine in 1964 and then to 12 in 1966. The two million plus votes achieved in 1966 was considerably higher than in the elections of 1951, '55 or '59.

Martin Bright may be thinking of the 1970 election, when the party did indeed see its vote share and number of seats collapse. But to regard 1970 as being part of the 1960s would be a different order of pedantry.

Chris Huhne in the New Statesman

The Staggers' political editor Martin Bright interviews Chris Huhne in this week's issue.

One curiousity is the statement that Huhne 'has been a New Statesman reader all his adult life'.

If true, this means that he managed to read the magazine between 1978 (after Anthony Howard resigned as editor) and the late 1980s, during which time it was pretty much unreadable. The magazine was obsessed by politics, peddled a very narrow leftist line and was devoid of humour (the saintly Arthur Marshall was sacked as a columnist). I remember finding it a battle to read even a single article, never mind the whole magazine.

So if Huhne managed to read the New Statesmen throughout the 1980s, this feat demonstrates reserves of fortitute and stamina that will certainly serve him well if he does become Lib Dem leader.

On a different tack, I think his line that 'I'm very pleased Nick's now aligned with me', is disingenuous and cheap.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Now I can vote for Clegg with enthusiasm and confidence

I came away from the St Albans hustings reassured and impressed by Nick Clegg, so that I can now vote for him with enthusiasm and confidence.

Unsurprisingly, what clinched it for me was the replies the candidates gave to my own question. This ran something like as follows:

Some Liberal Democrats appear to regard the idea of choice in public services as a stalking horse for neo-Thatcherism. Do we really have to choose between more power for local councils or more power for individuals or can we support both.

The question reflects my own frustration about the party’s internal debate on public services. On the one hand we have Paul Holmes and the Beveridge Group who seem more concerned with defending public sector professionals than articulating a liberal vision (whether social, radical or economic) for improving public services. On the other, the likes of David Laws and Jeremy Browne appear to want to by-pass local democratic structures altogether, advocating an approach that sounds liberating but which will in practice be centralist and unaccountable.

(I didn’t take verbatim notes, am paraphrasing the answers from memory, so apologise in advance if I get any of this wrong.)

Huhne’s answer was to say that although choice should never be a dirty word for Liberal Democrats, there were areas of public service where the market was not appropriate and the idea of choice sometimes an illusion – for example secondary transfer in London in the light of the Greenwich judgment. Once again he praised Denmark and said that although a small country it had decentralised public services. It would then be up to local decision-makers to decide how services would be delivered – for example whether to involve private sector providers.

Clegg said that he wanted to put the word choice to one side, because it had become tainted. He then said that the party must be unambiguously dentralising, devolving decision-making down to local level and there was no doubt about his commitment to that. However, he stressed that we must be on the side of the people accessing the services. For them bureaucrats in town halls can appear much the same as Whitehall bureaucrats, so there was no point in decentralising power unless people felt that something had changed for them, that services were more responsive and people were more in control. He cited the example from Wigan mentioned on Question Time about giving a parent control over their disabled child’s travel to school budget.

For me, while neither response contained anything that I would actually disagree with, Chris’s answer was B+, but Nick’s a straight ‘A’. It showed an awareness that decentralisation is not just about processes, but about outcomes and that fundamentally we must be on the side of the people. It reinforces my view of Nick’s intellectual confidence in Liberalism as an ideology. To be fair to Huhne, starting out as the underdog, he has had to put some ideological distance between himself and Clegg. Although Charles Anglin is right that Huhne’s campaign has at times appeared to ‘pander to every statist hobby horse it could find’, I am sure that Huhne is closer to Clegg than to Paul Holmes. I will be more than happy to support Chris if he wins.

However, it would be perverse if I didn’t vote for the candidate who most clearly articulates my view of Liberalism. I had cause to doubt because of my concern over Nick’s performance on Question Time and disappointment with elements of his campaign. Of course a hustings meeting cannot assuage those particular doubts. But it can and has, especially when considered alongside the bloggers’ breakfast’‘ reports convinced me that Clegg’s political approach, his commitment and passion are simply too good an opportunity to miss. Huhne might in some ways be a safer choice, but Clegg has the potential not just to win more seats for the party but to lead a Liberal political and intellectual renaissance in Britain. How can I not vote for that?

Shameful, wrong and nothing to do with free speech

Sometimes the cleverest people can also in their own way be the stupidest. I suppose that it the lesson to be learned from the childish and irresponsible decision of the members of the Oxford Union to invite the author and holocaust denier David Irving and BNP leader Nick Griffin to speak in a Union debate.

Let’s be clear from the start, this is not a question of free speech. Griffin and Irving are entitled to express their views within the laws of the land. The point is whether an organisation such as the Oxford Union should be giving them a platform to do so. Oxford is one of Britain’s elite universities, and although I confess to ignorance of its precise constitutional position, the Oxford Union is linked in most people’s minds with the university. It is also Britain’s best-known student debating chamber. There must be some assumption, therefore, that those invited to address its debates have things to say that are worth hearing, that will somehow stimulate the intellects of our supposedly best and brightest young people. It is ludicrous to imagine that this is the case with either Irving or Griffin, absurd to imagine that they have something useful to contribute to a debate about free speech.

Among Irving’s best-known recent activities was an attempt to prevent a legitimate scholar from exercising her right to free speech. He is a proven liar and charlatan, who adopts the trappings of genuine scholarship to falsify the historical record in order to promote his own hateful and anti-semitic views. As for Griffin, he is the leader of a political party which, whatever its attempts to appear respectable, promotes a doctrine of hate, exists on the fringes of criminality and which would deny the human rights of, including the right to free speech of a substantial proportion of our fellow citizens.

In short, on top of being purveyors of deeply unpleasant opinions, neither have any mark of intellectual or public distinction that might render their views of interest to decent people. While they are entitled to free speech, an organisation such as the Oxford Union has no business inviting them and is being irresponsible in giving them this opportunity for publicity and the credibility of addressing a supposedly intellectually respectable institution.

It is disappointing that at least two Lib Dem bloggers (here and here) do not see this and have defended the Oxford Union decision. Does this mean they would be happy to see Griffin or Irving addressing fringe meeting at a Lib Dem conference or a Centre Forum seminar or Liberal Democrat History Group meeting? The logic of their comments is that they should be – indeed that such invitations are a necessary part of defending free speech. But I, for one, would not want to be a member of any organisation that extended invitations to speak to Irving or Griffin and I like to think most Liberals would agree.

No doubt when the event takes place, there will be a big demonstration outside the meeting, Griffin and Irving will try to occupy the moral high ground, as TV cameras show them appearing statesmanlike (while barely supressing smirks), as the police protect them from an angry and potentially violent mob. I can only hope this doesn’t come to pass.

Instead, I would like to think that people who are in the future invited to speak to the Oxford Union consider whether they wish to be regarded in the same company as Griffin and Irving, and if not then they should favour some other worthy body with the benefit of their views on whatever topic is under discussion. Doubtless the membership of the Oxford Union will find other ways of attracting publicity by getting nasty people to address their ‘debates’. Perhaps for their next trick they will ask Ian Brady or Ian Huntley to discuss child protection policies, for example. But genuine scholars and mainstream politicians should give their meetings a wide berth.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Can Clegg raise his game?

Tonight I am off to the St Albans hustings, which I hope will enable me to reach a firm decision as to who to vote for.

At the start of the campaign, I thought it almost unimaginable that I wouldn’t vote for Clegg. But events since then have given cause for serious doubts, and I would certainly be more than happy to have Huhne as leader.

The Clegg campaign has been very poor indeed, which gives cause for doubt about Nick’s choice of acolytes. There has been an impression that his organisers, fancying their man to be the equivalent of 1–0 ahead in a football match, have tried to grind out a win, with little attempt to inspire or enthuse or to confront the difficult issues that the party faces. So I can only hope that he will have the strength of character to avoid rewarding his undeserving campaign team with top jobs, thus creating a bunker mentality from the start.

He has appeared too afraid of being painted into the right-wing corner and therefore seems to have kept his comments on public services as anodyne as possible. For example, while I can understand (and agree with) his ruling out of vouchers and continental-style health insurance, I would have liked to hear a clearer willingness to take on the ‘Liberals against choice’ and ‘experts know best’ brigade, who have effectively stifled party debate on public service reform in recent years.

Clegg’s apparent flakiness under attack has also been a problem and he will have to do something it about quickly. It is the lot of third party leaders to be subjected to ridicule by the media and he will have to learn to be more resilient and phlegmatic.

In short, I wanted to be inspired and enthused by the Clegg campaign, but have been disappointed. The ‘bloggers' breakfast' session, as reported by James Graham, provides quite a bit of reassurance. But again the situation was within the Clegg comfort zone – thinking aloud among friends, with the opportunity to be discursive. It’s not the same as being snapped at by Paxman or Humphrys.

Yet I keep hoping that Clegg will come good. Of all the national politicians I have come across, he is the one who combines most clearly both an instinctive and intellectual commitment to Liberalism, which he is capable of not just of articulating as abstract principle, but actually of applying to specific policy areas.

So, come on Nick. Show us tonight that the campaign so far has been an aberration and that you are not merely just a likeable chap and a good liberal, but really have what it takes to be leader.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Huhne ahead on Question Time

Last night’s Question Time was my first real opportunity to take notice of the leadership election campaign. We moved house a week ago, so during the last fortnight all spare time has been spent packing, moving and unpacking endless cardboard boxes. Debates about Trident replacements and alternatives, school vouchers etc. have passed me by.

Before commenting on the debate, I should perhaps mention the political baggage that I carry in assessing the merits of the candidates. I want the Liberal Democrats to be a party of the libertarian centre-left, a contrast with the Conservatives and with Labour’s patrician, top-down instincts. We should combine a clear social conscience and commitment to social justice with a belief in decentralisation of power and support for personal liberty.

Over the years, my biggest frustration with the Lib Dems has been the disjunction between the our professed abstract principles, which include an emphasis on individual choice and freedom, and the detailed policy prescriptions we arrive at, which often seem every bit as nannyish as those of New Labour. This stops us from developing a clear political narrative because there is no obvious connection between what we say we stand for and how we respond to the issues of the day.

To me Nick Clegg seems to understand this problem better than Huhne. He strikes me as a thoroughgoing Liberal, sufficiently confident in his own ideological principles to reject the kind of ‘intellectual cringe’ towards socialism that many Lib Dems seem to indulge in for fear being thought right-wing. Although there is much I agree with Chris Huhne about, and I would be more than happy to have him as leader, there seems to be a touch of the Toynbees, a whiff of patrician Fabianism, about him.

So my default position is to vote for Clegg because he is more in tune with my political instincts and beliefs. I have chosen not to sign up as a Clegg supporter, because I want to see how the candidates perform before reaching a final decision. But it would take something dramatic to convince me to vote for Huhne.

Last night, therefore, I was rooting for Clegg. So it is with some disappointment, that I say that Huhne came across as the stronger candidate, with a clearer worldview, which he articulated confidently. He was also the first to mention the importance of localism in our approach to public services, and gave a clearer sense of how we are different from the other parties.

Although Clegg was generally engaging and articulate, he foundered badly on the question about his criticisms of Huhne in the last leadership election. Had he been on the Today programme in a one-to-one interview, he would have been shredded for his answer that ‘this was in a totally different context’ and ‘of course I don’t believe that now because I haven’t said it again’. Far better to say that he was offering a genuine view about Chris’s last leadership campaign and that there is a danger in producing eye-catching policies that give hostages to fortune.

It makes me fear that because of Clegg’s attractive quality of appearing to be thinking out loud rather than sticking to a script, he has been given an armchair ride by the media so far. On the evidence of last night, there is a danger that he will come unstuck when pinned down by an aggressive interviewer, as he would be if he becomes leader.

I hope to attend a hustings before making my mind up. It would still seem rather perverse not to vote for Clegg given how strongly I agree with his political outlook. Last night did not to enough to make me change my voting intention, but it certainly sowed the seeds of doubt.