Friday, December 31, 2010

Kate and Anna McGarrigle - Talk to me of Mendocino

Had this blog been active at the time I would have written about the sad death of Kate McGarrigle in January. Latterly, she seemed to be more famous as the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, but with her sister Anna, she produced a remarkable body of work that deserves to be better known. This, one of her best songs, has a wistfulnessthat it perhaps appropriate for the ending of a year and the start of a new one.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

When Auberon Waugh backed the Liberal party

One of the New Statesman's halcyon periods was during the 1970s under the editorship of Anthony Howard, who sadly died just before Christmas. Among the more unlikely contributors Howard recruited was Auberon Waugh, who did some of his best writing for there , precisely because he was going against the grain of his readers' views.

Waugh died nearly ten years ago, but although he was probably the funniest journalist of his generation, newspaper and magazine scribblings have a short shelf-life and all the anthologies of his work published in his lifetime seem to be out of print. So it is good news that a new collection of his articles was published earlier this year, even those of us who own previous volumes and will no doubt find the same material repeated.

The reason Waugh was funny was because he didn't take politics and politicians seriously, which made him more successful at getting under the skin of leftists and liberals than if he had been a mere right-wing polemicist. He held Liberals and Lib Dems in particular disdain, leading the charge against Jeremy Thorpe in the 1970s and never forgiving Shirley Williams for her role in the comprehensivisation of secondary schools.

But in my meanderings through the historical archive of The Times I have found one occasion on which he specifically endorsed the Liberal party. Waugh was much exercised by the plight of the Biafrans in the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967-70 during which both the Labour government and the Conservative opposition supported the Nigerian Federal government.

In protest, Waugh threatened to stand as an independent pro-Biafran candidate in the 1970 Bridgwater by-election, but in the end withdrew, explaining in a letter to The Times on 20 January:

May I use the hospitality of your columns to urge those voters in Bridgwater who expressed their support for my candidature... to support instead the Liberal candidate, as representing the only political party which carried itself with honour throughout this disgusting episode in our nation's history?

Sadly, Waugh's endorsement didn't do the Liberals much good. The Liberal vote fell by 5% and the candidate only narrowly saved his deposit.

Struggling with the Staggers

I hesitated earlier this year before deciding to renew my subscription to the New Statesman, and the Christmas issue, which I have just got round to reading, makes me wonder if I shouldn't have hesitated a little longer.

The Staggers is of course a Labour-supporting paper, and never likely to see eye to eye with the Lib Dems even when we are not in coalition with the Tories. But at its best, it is broadminded, has contributors with a range of different viewpoints and so is a good read even for those who don't agree with its politics.

So while I never expected it to welcome the coalition government, I hoped at least that it would recognise that Labour had outstayed its welcome in power, and offer constructive opposition to the new administration rather than a full frontal assault. Sadly, it has very quickly lapsed into a variant on the unthinking dogmatism that it adopted in the early 1980s, the last time Labour lost power, which made it unreadable to anyone outside the left of the Labour party. Whenever a Labour government loses power without having created a new Jerusalem, the cry of betrayal goes up from the left - normally it's the right of the Labour party that gets the blame, this time the Lib Dems are an even better scapegoat.

The Staggers' political editor, Mehdi Hasan, appears to have a visceral dislike of the Lib Dems that was on display even before the election - taking the view that any criticism of us should be accepted unquestioningly and any possible defence not even considered. So it is no surprise that in the Christmas issue his article is entitled 'Coalition? This is a Tory government'.

It's a measure of Hasan's intellectual standards that the closest he gets to rational analysis and logical argument is a playgrount taunt: describing Danny Alexander as 'George Osborne's red-headed, red-faced bag carrier at the treasury' - a sort of playground taunt. The rest of the article consists of ignoring the late Labour government's more right-wing tendencies (crime policy, civil liberties, tuition fees, setting up the Browne review to consider higher tuition fees); refusing to acknowledge the more liberal elements of the coalition programme (closing the family unit at Yarl's Wood; increasing capital gains tax etc., the levy on banks, making the Browne recommendations more progressive) or else crediting the Tories (prisons, pupil premium). It concludes with a historically misleading reference to supposed previous Conservative-Liberal coalitions. In fact the Liberal Unionists in 1886 and Liberal Nationals in 1931 were breakaway organisations that had seceded from the main Liberal party and entered into an electoral alliance with the Tories.

This sort of thing would doubtless go down well as a piece of rhetoric to an audience of Labour activists, but is hardly to be taken seriously as political analysis. One could do a similar fisking exercise on the magazine's editorial in the same issue, which continues to exonerate Labour and blame the Lib Dems entirely for the failure of the two parties to agree a coalition in May. I have a theory that there is a positive correlation between the readibility of the New Statesman and the electability of the Labour party. If so, then regardless of the fate of the Lib Dems, Labour could be in for a long spell in opposition!!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Vince Cable agrees with me!

Thank you to Niklas Smith whose comment on my earlier post draws my attention to Vince Cable's comments on his recent difficulties. As the Richmond and Twickenham Times reports:

The Business Secretary said the Daily Telegraph's tactics had "completely undermined" the work of local MPs and he would need to be “more guarded” in the future.

What is most worrying is Vince's comment that:

I did preface what I was saying by saying if they want to have a conversation about a political matter as well as a personal matter it is confidential, and you do expect people to behave in a trustworthy way, which these people from the Daily Telegraph didn’t.

If Vince is correct, then in future there can be no such thing as an off-the-record or informal conversation between politicians and journalists. If an MP or minister asks for something to be confidential then there can be no guarantee that journalists won't record or quote them anyway. And it is disappointing that those ministers who have been 'caught out' by the Telegraph have apologised and backed down rather than come out fighting.

I write this with some sadness. I grew up reading the Telegraph and continued reading it long after knowing I was out of sympathy with its politics, because there seemed to be integrity both to its reportage and editorial analysis. These days it is in the gutter and I wouldn't stoop to pick it up.

The Box of Delights - a case for child protection?

Once every few years I like to watch again the DVD of the classic 1984 BBC dramatisation of John Masefield's The box of delights. I am reassured to learn from Wikipedia that this is 'a nostalgic treat for followers of cult TV' rather than the equivalent of adults reading Harry Potter books.

If I understood rightly from the first episode, the main character, Kay Harker, who must be about ten years old, is allowed to walk back from town to his guardian's house which is out in the countryside after dark. The book was written in 1935 and appears to be set at that time too. These days I suppose there would be tabloid newspaper headlines and calls for intervention by social services.

Do you need to be interested in music to be a Radio 2 disc jockey?

I'm not proud of it, but last night I found myself watching ITV's Who wants to be a celebrity millionaire live. One of the contestants was Chris Evans, who despite being a famous Radio 2 disc jockey, was unable to answer a question about the lyrics to the Pogues' Fairytale of New York. As this is one of the best-known Christmas songs ever, it's a bit like Evans thinking that Bing Crosby dreamed of a purple Christmas.

It puts me in mind of the late John Peel writing of his shock at discovering that one of his fellow Radio 1 presenters did not actually own any records. Plus ça change and all that!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

So should elected representatives now assume that all conversations with members of the public may be recorded and used against us?

Vince Cable was foolish to speak to a relative stranger about a sensitive and quasi-judicial matter – the Murdoch/BskyB/Ofcom business. It’s hard to believe that he was so unwise – but then I am used to local government under Labour’s Standards Board reign of terror, where planning committee members had to guard against expressing views on planning applications before the matter was debated.

Former Lib Dem MP David Howarth has speculated on whether the Telegraph sting might have been illegal. There has been some hand-wringing in the media about the use of underhand methods, but media outlets have cheerfully recycled the Telegraph’s story.

Clearly elected representatives are never likely to earn much sympathy in crying foul about media unfairness, but in my view there is something destructive about the way the Telegraph obtained the story – an undermining of the basis on which politicians and their electors interact.

Perhaps the biggest frustration I have found over the years about being an elected representative is that, even as a lowly district councillor, one can no longer express purely personal opinions in public – blog postings, letters to newspapers etc. all have to be considered in the context of whether they might prove to be a faux pas that could be used against the party. And I imagine it’s the same only rather more so for parliamentarians and government ministers.

Yet one assumes there is some flexibility. As elected representatives when we speak on the record to journalists, or in formal public meetings, we know that our comments may be noted down, recorded or reported and quoted back at us, and we have to choose our words accordingly. By contrast in the privacy of home, or among close friends, we can perhaps sound off without fear of making a political gaffe.

Somewhere in the middle are conversations with constituents – on the street, over the telephone, canvassing on doorsteps, or as with Vince’s Telegraph encounter, at a surgery. When members of the public get in touch one wants to put them at their ease and converse with them informally – perhaps even to show that politicians too are human beings (well, almost). The conversation is not quite private, but not really public either. We may make off-the-cuff remarks or empathise with someone’s concerns and complaints without feeling that every comment we make is a formal statement of policy.

This is where the Telegraph story is destructive. The risk for anyone holding public office of being recorded by a journalist posing as a constituent may be low. But this episode establishes that the principle is all right. In which case, we are safest not to interact in a natural and informal way with members of the public who contact us. Instead, if we wish to avoid trouble, we are best off (to borrow a phrase from Queen Victorian’s description of Gladstone) speaking to constituents as if they are public meetings, answering questions only with carefully-thought-out, pre-prepared, on-message, formal statements, not the instinctive reactions of one human being talking to another.

Of course, the media being what it is, concerns about the integrity of the democratic process will hardly matter to journalists seeking a good story. But my fears might be valid just the same.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Oxbridge and free school meals

Atlhough Nick Clegg has (quite rightly) expressed frustration at the education system failing the least well off, I was disappointed to see that he did so by citing the proportion of free school meal recipients getting places at Oxford or Cambridge.

He is far from alone in doing this - remember the unseemly row earlier in the year between Ed Balls and Michael Gove on this very point. Not to mention the notorious Laura Spence affair some years ago.

Now I am all for children in receipt of free school meals going to Oxford or Cambridge if they want to study there. What bothers me is the implicit (perhaps unintentional) assumption made by Clegg, Balls and Gove that an Oxbridge place is the only possible measure of academic excellence and that anyone who does not achieve this has either failed in life or been let down by the education system.

However wonderful Oxford and Cambridge may be, they are not necessarily for everyone and students may actually choose to study elsewhere, because of a particular course, or the location or ethos of a particular institution. Some may even, for good reasons, choose not to go on to higher education, however excellent their A-level grades. Making sure that educational opportunities are available for everyone should not just be measured by the admission rates of those on low incomes to just two elite institutions.

Howard Flight's apology won't do

So, about-to-be Tory peer Howard Flight made an offensive remark about the poor, but he has now apologised and can have his peerage after all, so that's all right then?

Well not quite! In general I'm not one who thinks politicians should be hung out to dry for a gaffe, faux pas or slip of the tongue. But in this case, he said it, clearly meant it and it can't be unsaid. There are of course occasions when people do say things they don't mean: perhaps when we've had too much to drink, or in a fit of anger or when clearly speaking in jest. But he hasn't given any of these as a reason for saying what he did. So no matter how much he apologises and withdraws his remarks, we all know that what he said is is what he really thinks.

His attitude reveals him as having just the sort of attitudes that explains why David Cameron had to spend so long detoxifying the Tory brand, and if Cameron has any sense he will withdraw Flights peerage.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Clegg, Liberalism and Progressivism

In giving the Hugo Young lecture Nick Clegg (reprinted here on Comment is Free) contrasted the 'new progressive' outlook of the Liberal Democrats with Labour's 'old progressive' approach. The former 'focus on the power and freedom of citizens' while the latter 'are straightforwardly in favour of more state spending and activity'.

In doing so Clegg arouses the ire of Jonathan Calder: 'Nick Clegg should speak about liberalism not "progressivism"' who endorses the view of Contrasting Sounds that 'the word “progressive” should be taken outside of UK politics and shot. Or rather, restricted to its technical meaning in tax discussions.'

I don't disagree with Jonathan's conclusion that this is really about the 'contrast between liberalism and socialism. Yet the term progressive does have a meaning in British political tradition beyond a narrow one about the tax system. In the Edwardian era (and possibly before), Liberal politicians were in the habit of using the term 'party of progress' as a generic description for their own party and their Labour allies. This contrasted with the Conservatives whom they saw as the 'party of reaction'. On the London County Council after its creation in 1889, the Liberals worked within a broad grouping that included Labour and socialist elements which contested elections under the 'Progressive' label. And historians are in the habit of referring to the co-operation between the Liberals and Labour before the first world war as the 'Progressive Alliance'. (Although my brief online trawl of contemporary publications suggests that this term may not have been widely used at the time.

Whether in a historical or modern context, the word 'Progressive' is still a useful generic term to distinguish those who, regardless of party, see their political outlook as being about championing the poor, the excluded and the disempowered against the established order. So I suppose that in addressed a Guardianista audience, Clegg is referring to 'Progressivism' in order to make the case that Labour don't have a monopoly of such sentiments - we share them but have a different approach to achieving them.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The last Liberal MP to be ejected for corrupt practices

If the Woolas judgment is the first election result since 1911 to be overturned on the grounds of corrupt practice, then presumably the last one was the case of C.F.G. Masterman, whose victory at West Ham North in the December 1910 general election was overturned by an election court in June 1911.

In Masterman's case, the verdict turned on irregularities in the declaration of election expenses by his agent, including submitting a return over the permitted spending limit and failing to declare the cost of leaflets donated to the campaign, by the Free Trade Union and others. Remarkably, the counsel for the petitioners (i.e. the Conservative candidate was at pains to stress that 'no imputation was made on the honour, integrity, or conduct of Mr. Masterman in relation to such matters', a proposition endorsed by the judges.

However, Masterman appeared to have a bit of a problem in choosing election agents. He stated in the course of his evidence that he had had three different agents in his three contests in West Ham North. When he stood in 1903 at a by-election in Dulwich, he was also rather prickly in his dealings with Liberal party HQ over who he would and wouldn't have as agent. In general a rather highly-strung character, he might well have been difficult to work for.

For him, this triggered a series of events that would damage his political career. He was forced to find another seat at Bethnal Green South West, for which he was elected at a 1911 by-election. But when he was appointed to the cabinet in 1914, by the convention of the time he had to seek re-election at a by-election, which he duly lost. He then began an unsuccessful quest for an alternative seat, losing another by-election at Ipswich, before ultimately being forced to stand down from the cabinet.

Perhaps if he had employed a more competent agent at West Ham, he would have avoided all the later trouble.

Jonathan Calder at Liberal England has written extensively about Masterman here.

Will the Conservatives stand in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election?

Benedict Brogan on his Daily Telegraph blog raises the prospect of the Conservatives not contesting the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. I hope this is mere speculation (or, coming from the Telegraph, mischief-making), but the Lib Dem leadership should discourage any suggestion that the Conservatives should not contest the by-election. Otherwise, we start to move from the realms of coalition, which is a business agreement, to some form of electoral pact, which would compromise the Lib Dems' independence.

The Lib Dem strategy in the by-election will no doubt be to harness the votes of both coalition parties against Labour, but they should do this the hard way, by squeeze messages, bar charts etc. to minimise the vote for the Conservative candidate. You can be sure that the local Conservatives will want to contest the seat, and one hopes that the leadership won't dissuade them.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Thoughts on the Woolas verdict

It is tempting to crow about the Woolas verdict, but a more measured response is called for. No true democrat can welcome elections being determined by the courts rather than the voters.

Politics is a competitive activity and those of us actively engaged in local campaigning have to take the rough and tumble. Not a year goes by without one or more of our opponents in Watford complaining about Lib Dem literature that I have written, while I quietly seeth about theirs before deciding to calm down since it’s not worth making a fuss about. There is almost an unwritten rule that however bitter we may feel when things don’t go our way, it’s best to plan to get even rather than whinge.

Yet there has to be a line somewhere, and perhaps Elwyn Watkins has done everyone a favour by taking this case to court and showing that ultimately you can’t just lie about your opponents and then dismiss it as robust political comment rather than an attack on their character. In this case, one of the key points at issue was Labour’s accusation that Elwyn Watkins failed to condemn death threats against Woolas. To say such a thing is clearly not just a political criticism, but an attack on Watkins’ personal character. Most citizens of this country would rightly condemn anyone who condoned (or even failed to condemn) threats of political violence. The more so if said person sought personal advantage from such threats.

It was a clear and surprising error of judgment by Ed Miliband to appoint Woolas to the shadow cabinet, when he will have known the background to the Oldham East and Saddleworth and could have reached a judgment on the ethics of that campaign even without waiting for the court to pronounce. But, however belatedly, Labour have now suspended Woolas from the party and according to Labour List will not be supporting his appeal. (There are also other thoughtful contributions on Labour List from Mark Ferguson and Emma Burnell, even if the former can’t resist a touch of whataboutery with a dig at Simon Hughes over the the Bermondsey by-election, which took place a mere 27 years ago.)

I don’t believe that this judgment will trigger a series of similar actions – legal action is simply too expensive and the results of re-run elections too uncertain. But if it reminds all of us in every party who are engaged in the political ground war that there are limits and the penalties for crossing them can be severe then perhaps this judgment will do some good.

The full judgment, which is available here, is well worth reading.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

What does The Apprentice tell us about modern business?

By my standards it's been a time of heavy TV watching. More through inertia than anything else I caught part of this evening's episode of The Apprentice, and wondered if it gives a clue as to what is wrong with British business.

I understand that each week "Lord" Sugar divides his contestants into two teams, each with a leader, to undertake a particular challenge. In the snippet I saw, one of the team leaders was trashing one of her subordinates for supposed mistakes. But surely in a business environment, the person in charge should take responsibility for their decisions and be accountable for the success or failure of their project.

Or perhaps not, if you consider either the history of the banking crisis, or the practice of ineffective senior managers getting massive golden handshakes for after taking disastrous decisions that caused people to lose their jobs. So in making her subordinate take the rap, our Apprentice contestant was perhaps just reflecting modern business mores!

Downton Abbey: an anorak writes...

The portrayal of politics in soap operas is a strange thing!

Older readers who also listen to Radio 4 will remember how Mark Hebden, first husband of Shula Lloyd (née Archer) was elected in the 1980s as an SDP councillor without ever having to put out Focus leaflets or attend meetings. Viewers of Coronation Street with political interests might puzzle over how an inner city ward in Greater Manchester seemed to elect a succession of independent councillors Alf then Audrey Roberts, then Curly Watts) when contests in such an area would certainly have been party political.

Similarly, the depiction of a by-election in Downton Abbey (last Sunday's episode) had a couple of faux pas. In the first place the returning officer is heard to read out the number of votes for a socialist candidate. But it is highly unlikely that either Labour or other socialist organisation would have stood a candidate in rural Yorkshire (the supposed constituency is clearly centred on Ripon) before the first world war. Nearby, Bradford West had a Labour MP from 1906 and the more overtly socialist Social Democratic Party (a different one from the 1980s Alliance days) contested Bradford East in the January 1910 election. But those were industrial constituencies and Labour had not by then reached out into rural England.

Later in the episode, the eldest daughter of the house later proclaims that although she is interested in politics, it is hard to get excited about by-elections when there is a hung parliament. However, no one really regarded the political situation in 1914 as a hung parliament. True, the ruling Liberal party, led by H.H. Asquith, lacked an overall majority. But it could pretty much depend on the support of the Irish parliamentary party and Labour, neither of which would be likely to ally themselves with the Conservatives. And if the term 'hung parliament' had been coined by 1914, it was not widely in use. Searching the online archive of The Times for the period, I can't find a single use of the phrase. More than this, a by-election is likely to be more interesting rather than less so if there is a hung parliament with delicate parliamentary arithmetic, so Lady Mary's dismissal of them is rather odd. Or maybe that bit of dialogue was a subtle way of showing the character's political ignorance.

Possibly I am being rather petty-minded in getting exercised by such things. But if so I am in good company. Consider the following lyric by Nigel Blackwell from Half Man Half Biscuit's song Surging out of convalescence, off their Achtung Bono album:

Darts in soap operas
Oh so wrong oh so wrong
No one scoring and there's
Too much chat between each throw

Worse than this though is when
Cheers are raised up for a bull
Granted, bull's a double and an out
But I know that they don't know
Therefore I propose no soap darts

For my part I propose no politics in soaps or serial dramas.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why Tim Farron is the best choice for party president

I am supporting Tim Farron in the election for a new president of the Liberal Democrats. This might seem a surprising choice, as I have not always been sympathetic to Tim's views on the party's policy direction and was very critical of his chapter in Reinventing the state. If it was simply a matter of voting for the candidate I am most likely to agree with on policy or general political outlook, I would probably support Susan Kramer.

There are a number of reasons, however, why at this point Tim will make a better president. In the first place, it is important that there is a broad spread of opinion in senior roles in the party. While we are in coalition with the Tories there need to be prominent voices from what for the sake of brevity we must call the left of the party in the upper reaches of the Lib Dems. This is necessary if the party is to emerge from the coalition broadly intact and united.

Secondly, there is the danger that the Lib Dems' identity is blurred in the public mind because of the coalition, and that we stop campaigning. Tim is nothing if not an effective campaigner and will help to keep the party outside parliament focused on fighting and winning elections. Thirdly, even those like myself who support the coalition know that it will be a bumpy ride, with constant attacks from the left and difficult compromises to swallow. If there are to be difficult times ahead for the party, Tim will help to cheer activists up and maintain morale.

Had Susan Kramer retained her parliamentary seat, she would have been a strong candidate for ministerial, even cabinet office. She would no doubt have done an excellent job. But for the reasons stated above, I think Tim is a better choice for party president.

I note from Tim's website that my dear wife is also supporting him, which makes for happy harmony in our household.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Helen Lynch wins Central ward by-election

Congratulations to my new council colleague Helen Lynch who won a tightly-fought by-election in Watford's Central ward last night (see here for details). This has historically been a Lib Dem versus Labour marginal ward and any by-election caused by the resignation of a Lib Dem councillor is going to be tricky. Nonetheless after a hard and at times bitterly-contested campaign, we came through, however, narrowly, making this five by-election wins on the trot for Watford Lib Dems over eight years (and more wins and years if you include the wards of Three Rivers District that are in the Watford constituency).

The morning after polling day is not perhaps the moment for detailed reflections on the election campaign, the final week of which took place against the backdrop of a national row over tuition fees. However, one point is immediately apparent. All governments suffer periods of unpopularity, those that have to take difficult decisions about public spending more so, and left-of-centre parties taking said difficult public spending decisions more so still. Therefore over the next few years at local government level we will stand or fall on our local reputation.

In this case, we have a positive story to tell at council level, we had an excellent local candidate with a strong track record and a vigorous local campaign, yet it still wasn't easy. For those of us fighting the ground war, in the next few years winning elections is going to be tough. But not perhaps impossible.

Friday, October 08, 2010

A 'Staggers' article praising free schools - wonders will never cease

The New Statesman has been rather painful reading for Lib Dem coalition supporters over the last few months. So there was at least a crumb of comfort to be had in Rachel Cooke's TV review in last week's issue, in which she offered a qualified defence of free schools. (Although she was less sympathetic to free school promoter Toby Young, protagonist of the programme she was reviewing).

Cooke comments:

I was fascinated by the way the NUT's local representative, Nick Grant, oozed only envy at the thought of Young and others like him. Clearly the idea that some free schools might turn out to be quite good fills him with horror.

I wonder why. It seems odd for someone in education to regard collective failure as preferable to any kind of success at all.

Had I been quicker off the mark in reading the magazine I might have posted this while the programme 'Start your own school' was still available on iPlayer. But I rather fear that Toby Young's advocacy of free schools might actually put waverers off the idea.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Scotland's heroic 2-1 win over Liechtenstein

I'm giving the Spectator a wide berth at the moment for reasons stated here. But Alex Massie's blog post pretty much sums up my feelings after a painful Tuesday evening spent watching Scotland play football.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Coalitions in British politics

Channel hopping a week or so ago, I felt as though I had suddenly been transported back to undergraduate days as I heard the familiar tones of Dr Stuart Ball from Leicester University talking about the Churchill wartime coalition government.

It turned out that this was part of a seminar held in Portcullis House, Westminster in June on Coalitions in British Politics, which was being broadcast by BBC Parliament. In addition to Dr Ball on the 1940-45 government it included presentations by Professor Martin Pugh on the Lloyd George Coalition and Professor David Dutton on the 1931-40 National Government.

For readers who are interested there are a few days left to watch the programme again on BBC iPlayer here. The best and most relevant advice for Liberal Democrat seems to be to follow the example of the Labour party in both wartime coalitions by continuing to campaign at constituency level no matter what is happening nationally. But perhaps we know that already.

Friday, September 03, 2010

I will support amendment on free schools

There has been a lively debate at Liberal Democrat Voice on Niklas Smith's defence of free schools. This is in response to a motion due to be debated at the Lib Dem conference later this month effectively calling on Lib Dems to oppose at local level any attempts to set up free schools.

Niklas is promoting an amendment to the motion, asking delegates to endorse a more positive view of free schools and I am happy to support this. While I have my reservations about the free school idea, particularly that they may undermine local education authorities (LEAs), my view is that the pros outweigh the cons. While some may see free schools as part of a right-wing agenda, I see them as in the Liberal community politics tradition of giving power back to the people. It means that if people really are dissatisfied with the schools in their area they can actually do something themselves to change things. And in fact LEAs now have very little power over the management of schools, which can lead to all power being invested in the headteacher with a compliant governing body providing little effective scrutiny of how public money is being spent. Precisely because free schools will be the product of grassroots community iniative they may be more democratic and accountable than LEA schools.

So the idea needs to be given a chance and in my view it would be short-sighted and wrong for conference to reject free schools out of hand.

Blairism: when Labour were happy to support a centre-right government

The publicity around Tony Blair's memoirs reminds us of just how alien he was from many of the Labour party's traditions and perhaps helps to explain why the Liberal Democrats have been so united and robust in responding to criticism from Labour supporters over the coalition.

This week's New Statesman editorial praises his early achievements in office and believes he went off the rails towards the end of his first term.

In fact, the key to the New Labour project, starting with the period of opposition before 1997, was moving political discourse several notches to the right, particularly on crime and taxation, in a way that was anything but progressive. Blair discarded socialism in order to position Labour as a centre-right Christian Democratic party rather than a liberal one.

On criminal justice, where Labour and Liberals might have once made common cause in favour of humane policies, Blair and New Labour started trying to outflank the Tories on the right, in the process attacking the Lib Dems for being 'soft on crime', maintaining such attacks through to 2010. Having disavowed any intention of increasing income tax, in a bid to win over Conservative voters, Labour began attacking the Lib Dems for being 'high on taxes', despite our proposed 1% income tax increase being relatively modest. Such triangulation to the right continued through Labour's time in office, Gordon Brown's abolition of the 10% tax band being part of a bid to offer bonbons to those on middle incomes. Likewise, Labour's new positioning on crime was not just a rhetorical flourish to secure victory in 1997, but continued throughout their time in office, with hundreds of new criminal offences created, together with constant attempts to portray opponents who questioned government policy as 'soft on crime'.

I remember thinking back at the start of the New Labour project that all those old socialists and those of a more liberal-left persuasion in the Labour party would never tolerate this kind of thing. But in fact they were more than happy to campaign as a low tax, tough on law and order party and to support their leaders in carrying this agenda into government. Indeed throughout late Labour government's existence, any civil libertarian sentiment that might exist in the Labour party was noticeable if not by its complete absence then by its muted tones.

The point is that all those who supported Labour through the Blair years made their own accommodation with a right-wing agenda (did I mention the Iraq war?), prioritising tribal loyalty over any attempt to form a progressive consensus. This is why I find it hard to have sympathy with Guardianistas, New Statesmanites etc. who see the Lib Dems joining a coalition with the Tories as a betrayal of progressivism. They already made their 'pact with the devil' or acceptance of political reality in supporting Blairism. What the Blair and Brown years meant was that we could no longer regard Labour as a broadly progressive party and the Conservatives as a reactionary one. Instead both parties include both liberal and authoritarian, progressive and reactionary elements. In the circumstances it made sense to work with the one that offered the best chance of providing stable government and implementing some Lib Dem policy.

CODA: Blair's apparent endorsement of the coalition's budget policies prompts me to the following piece of counterfactual speculation. Had he chosen to face down Gordon Brown and his allies in 2006/07, declared his intention to lead the Labour party into a further general election and gone on to win it, Blair might now be leading a New Labour government pursuing exactly the same policies as the coalition is doing. In such circumstances, Labour supporters who now condemn the budget cuts would no doubt have tutted and harrumphed a bit, but still accepted and defended the policies they are now so quick to condemn.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Surely Sion Jenkins is either innocent or he isn't

The BBC website reports that Sion Jenkins, who was convicted, in 1998 of the murder of his stepdaughter, but later acquitted after two successive retrial juries failed to reach a verdict, has been refused compensation.

I can't profess to any knowledge of the legalities of this, but morally it seems a highly questionable decision. Surely if his conviction has been overturned then he ought to be regarded in the eyes of the law as as innocent of the crime.

Before his arrest he enjoyed a successful professional career (he had just been appointed head teacher of a secondary school) and good standing in the local community. To be arrested, convicted, spend several years in prison for a crime of which he is now deemed not guilty is by any standards personally catastrophic. The state that inflicted such a catastrophe on him surely has some duty to compensate him. Not to do so leaves a sense that his innocence is a mere technicality and he is somehow "guilty really" .

From what I have seen of Jenkins (largely gleaned from watching a documentary about the case) he doesn't come across as a particularly warm or sympathetic character. Perhaps he doesn't really need the compenstion money. Doubtless some people still believe him to be guilty. But that shouldn't matter. Either the state regards him as guilty or it doesn't. And if it doesn't it owes him some reparation for having wrongly convicted and incarcerated him, depriving him of his good name, professional career and family life in the process.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

RIP Ben Keith

Neil Young's steel, guitarist who was part of Young's distinctive 'Harvest' sound, but who also played with Patsy Cline died yesterday. The link is to a performance of Neil Young of the song 'Too Far Gone', which perhaps seems appropriate for the moment. Obituary here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

So was there an alternative?

It would have been nice if Liberal Democrat participation in government had led to us being feted in the country and a massive surge in our popularity.

But no one should really be surprised if there has been a dip in Lib Dem support according to the opinion polls, although how far this is the case has been disputed.

While the Lib Dems aim to transcend class-based two-party politics, it is hard to do so completely. The Labour versus Conservative struggle remains a reality, and those people who voted for us, but who defined themselves as 'anti-Tory' were never going to be happy. Likewise, back in the 1980s I can remember canvassing people who has voted Liberal in 1974 but who said they would never vote for us again because we kept the politically bankrupt Callaghan government in power through the Lib-Lab pact.

It is of course sad to find with some friends, loved ones and work colleagues that conversations about politics are now distincly awkward because of the coalition. What is particularly frustrating is to find all attempts at argument based on the post-election arithmetic/need for stable government/number of Lib Dem policies in coalition agreement greeted with 'But you shouldn't have done a deal with the Tories' as if that single sentiment trumps any attempt at reasoning.

Which brings me to last nights interesting but essentially superficial documentary by Nick Robinson, which I imagine will be available for a few days here. Lord Adonis argued that the parliamentary arithmetic was a mere alibi for the Lib Dems who had already decided to to a deal with the Tories. [Mean-spirited aside - It's a bit hard to take Lord Adonis getting all sanctimonious about Lib Dem behaviour when he is a turncoat who quit the Lib Dems in a rather-too-obvious search for high office under Labour.]

My question, therefore, is whether anyone has actually articulated a coherent argument as to how this Progressive wet dream of a Labour-Lib Dem-SNP-Plaid Cymru-SDLP-Alliance-Lady Sylvia Hermon might have actually have worked in practice and delivered stable, reforming, cuddly, spending-cuts-and-VAT-increase-free, electoral reforming with full STV government in practice? Even if Nick Clegg and David Cameron do both talk a bit posh, wear brogues and comb their hair in a similar way, that doesn't mean that Nick wanted a Lib-Con coalition all along.

With the Labour party having been in power for thirteen years and having lost its overall majority and holding fewer seats than the Conservatives, it was always going to be a high hurdle for the Lib Dems to put Labour back in power - really to be justified only if we could achieve full proportional representation. Given that a Lib-Lab coalition would not have had a majority, that many Labour MPs clearly didn't support such a deal, while others were not prepared to work with the SNP (whose support would be needed to sustain the coalition) it really is impossible to see how such a government could have lasted more than a few months before collapsing ignominiously with no achievements to his name. This seems to me a pretty convincing argument and by no means a mere alibi. So has anyone on the left put forward a serious response to it other than 'I don't care, you shouldn't have done a deal with the Tories'?

Staggers Lee

The New Statesman arriving on a Friday is now a mixed blessing, given the unflinchingly hostile line it has taken to the coalition from day 1. The only way is seems able to treat the new government is with retro 80s-style anti-Thatcherite rhetoric.

The theme of this week's issue is 'Politics and comedy' and includes an article on arts funding by alleged comedian Stewart Lee. Deploring the likelihood of cuts in state arts budgets, he comments: 'Artists are sensitive souls who may feel compromised by sponsorship' (article not available online so far as I can tell). But in that case might they not also feel compromised by taking state funds provided by a government that the Staggers editiorial describes (not wholly in jest, I fear) as 'dismembering the country'. One wonders whether artists might not also feel tainted by guilt by association through accepting the dismemberers' shilling.

Despite all this, I don't quite yet share Stephen Tall's gloomy conclusion that: 'I've given up on the Staggers. The book reviews are good but the politics are too formulaicly dull.' I like reading a weekly magazine and there is still good stuff in there: Peter Wilby, Rachel Cooke, Nicholas Lezard and so forth. And if the Staggers is frustrating reading for a Liberal just now, at least it's nowhere near as bad as the Spectator, which is going through a deeply unpleasant phase at the moment, dominated, as Jonathan Calder says, by 'right-wing American nutjobbery'.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I nearly forgot to mention...

What's the good of a blog if one can't use it to blow one's own trumpet?

So I should mention that while this blog was on sabbatical my first full-length research article was published in the journal Parliamentary History. Entitled 'Empire, Patriotism and the Working-Class Electorate: The 1900 General Election in the Battersea Constituency', it is intended as a contribution to the debate on how important a factor the South African war was in the Conservative/Unionist victory in that election. Broadly speaking, it concludes that it was indeed important, and disagrees with those historians who have sought to play down its significance.

This is in many ways an uncomfortable argument to make for someone of my Liberal, cosmopolitan and pacific view. But then, as Liberal Democrats are being all too forcefully reminded in the present day, political realities are often not as one would ideally like them to be.

Sadly, for those readers who can barely contain their excitement, the full text is not available online, or at least not without paying for it. But the printed journal will be available in academic (and perhaps some public) libraries and can also be accessed via the Academic Search Complete database, which many libraries subscribe to. Alternatively, I have a couple of remaining offprints that I could send you on a first-come, first-served basis - but don't get trampled underfoot in the rush!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

In praise of Peter Wilby

Sticking with a Leicester University connection I'm pleased to see that it has chosen to honour the journalist Peter Wilby, a native of Leicestershire, with an honorary degree.

Wilby can be credited with having made the New Statesman readable again in his seven years as editor between 1998 and 2005. His weekly column remains the best thing in the magazine. As a columnist, he avoids the Polly Toynbee-ish vice of writing as if senior members of the government are or should be hanging on their every word, so never mind the poor readers.

As an old fashioned leftist, Wilby always writes with a resigned wistfulness that seems to accept that his views will never be mainstream, but which can find some comfort in finding unusual, thought-provoking arguments that stimulate and entertain the reader. This puts him in a noble tradition of left-of-centre columnists that includes Cassandra (Bill Connor), Keith Waterhouse and Alan Watkins.

Less than sterling architecture

Catching up with the weekend papers: I confess to not having been aware that the Stirling Prize for Architecture, the shortlist for which was announced last week even existed.

No doubt Sir James Stirling was an important architect, a great man etc., but my own close encounter with his architecture - walking past the internationally-renowned engineering building at Leicester University during my time as an undergraduate there - left me as rather less than a fan.

None of the engineering students had a good word for the building as a space to work in, and it didn't strike me as more obviously distinguished than the other two rather nasty towers on the Leicester campus.

Perhaps Stirling's best-known British building is the History Faculty Library at Cambridge University, which Wikipedia describes thus:

Although the building was admired by students of architecture it is less well regarded by those who have to work in it. Expensive modifications were necessary to render to usable, and in 1984 the university came close to pulling the whole thing down.[4]

I seem to remember it being parodied in Tom Sharpe's book Ancestral Vices as requiring the heating to remain on right through the summer and the air conditioning through the winter to keep it at a reasonable temperature - although I can't find my copy of the book to check.

Let's hope that the buildings shortlisted for the Stirling Prize are more practical and less brilliant than those of Stirling himself.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Good for Nick!

An interesting blog post and discussion from the BBC's Mark D'Arcy about Nick Clegg's first appearance at prime minister's question time, particularly regarding the 'illegal invasion of Iraq' comment.

There is going to be a fine balance to be struck over the next two years and beyond between having a stable government without constant bickering between the coalition partners and ensuring that the two parties maintain their separate identities.

I am sure most Lib Dems (and many of the party's supporters) will welcome Nick's timely reminder of the party's distinctive position within the coalition.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Is Labour heading for a Clause 4 moment in reverse?

Austerity drive will hand billions to private sector cried the Guardian on Saturday. I'm not sure the story quite justifies the headline, and wonder about the retro language used: 'Rubbish disposal is one of the services under threat of outsourcing' as if we were back to the 1980s. But I was more struck by the comment of Labour's shadow health secretary Andy Burnham that:

Some private operators are going to have a field day, making a fortune from a system which will offer less public accountability

It's as if he has forgotten that neutrality on the question of outsourcing versus direct provision of public services was a key part of the New Labour agenda. As part of its 'Best Value' programme, New Labour insisted that local government should 'consult, compare, challenge, compete' (the four C's) in deciding how to provide services - we were not simply to assume that the in-house team did it best. Likewise in education through the academies programme and in health too, Labour embraced the role of private sector providers.

Is Andy Burnham's comment a sign of Labour re-embracing Clause 4 and rejecting the nasty private sector outright outright? If so, Labour may be looking to a similarly long spell in opposition to that which they enjoyed between 1979 and 1997. But I suspect that it is just rhetoric designed to court union votes in the leadership election.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Richard Grayson, Nick Clegg and 'small-state Liberalism'

There has been much discussion in the Lib Dem blogosphere about Richard Grayson's new pamphlet for the Compass think tank The Liberal Democrat journey to a coalition and where next? Jonathan Calder, David Boyle and Lib Dem Voice, among others, have all had their say. Richard has also been kind enough to draw my attention to the fact that I am briefly mentioned in the pamphlet.

It is a good thing that someone with Richard's knowledge and insight has engaged with the ideoligical issues surrounding the coalition and I very much welcome his triggering a useful debate. Yet I find myself out of sympathy with much of his argument, although in the interests of time and brevity, I will just engage with one of his core contentions, namely that the origins of the coalition:

can be found in the dominance of centre-right small state liberalism in the leadership of the Liberal Democrats

Richard of course will know the leading Lib Dem figures in the coalition better than I do and what makes them tick. But I don't get a sense that Clegg et al are wedded to small state Liberalism. Rather I suspect that they have been driven by political circumstances (the longest ever period of Labour government in Britain) to think about how the Lib Dems differ from Labour and how we would do things differently.

It is perhaps worth noting that in 1979, after Labour had been in power for 11 of the previous 15 years, the Liberal manifesto stated:

Liberals are concerned to simplify the personal tax system and reduce its burden to create a tax structure which encourages initiative and promotes a wider distribution of wealth, and above all to establish principles for a stable tax system which can command the respect of the electorate as a whole: wealthy, poor and average earners.

specifically 'a major switch from taxes on income to taxes on wealth and expenditure'. This has strong echoes of our stance in 2010. Yet, whatever the then Liberal leader, David Steel, few would label him as a 'small state liberal'. (Although John Pardoe, who was no doubt the author of the 1979 tax proposals is probably more a Laws than a Grayson Liberal.)

The Liberal critiques of Labour and Conservative governments are always likely to be different. I doubt very much whether Clegg would have supported a coalition with the Conservatives in 1997 nor felt uncomfortably with the party's call at the time for greater investment in public services. But once Labour had flooded the public sector with money, yet everything in the garden was still not rosy, it was hardly credible for the Lib Dems to say 'We still want just that little bit more public spending than New Labour', because it would have given us a political narrative of 'We're just like Labour only more so'.

Therefore the party needed to think through how it differed from the Labour government, with the Huhne Commission which Richard rightly praises being the start of this. We had to think ideologically and could hardly put forward a viable alternative view of how public services should be delivered if it was predicated on a non-negotiable assumption that the Lib Dems must always support a public sector at least as big as that proposed by Labour.

For what it's worth I think we should be bold and confident enough to put forward our own Liberal agenda without intellectual cap-doffing to Labour, old or new. There are many things Labour spend public money on that we don't agree with at all: Identity cards, the security agenda, the multifarious inspection regimes for local government. Likewise, it's hard to see their rhetoric on crime, drugs and civil liberties as in any way progressive. Equally, I see the Coalition's support for localism as more progressive, liberal, left-wing or whatever you want to call it than Labour's track record. Even free schools (of which I'm admittedly not a huge fan) are the sort of idea that might once have been put forward by the party's radical community politics wing.

It is important that we do have a continuing debate about the future of the Lib Dems. But I fear that social liberals will be heading up a dead end if the root of their argument is about matching the size of Labour's public sector.

I've missed all the fun

A general election campaign, the historic coalition agreement between the Lib Dems and Conservatives, its controversial first budget, the re-election of my dear wife as Mayor of Watford and the disappointment of Sal Brinton not winning the parliamentary seat are all things that I have missed the chance to comment on while this blog has been on hiatus.

Over the past fifteen months such spare time as I have has been taken up working on a long-term project (of which more anon) and maintaining this blog would have been mere work avoidance. To restart it with the intention of making regular posts is a triumph of hope over experience, but let's give it a bash.