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.