Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Reflecting on Liberalism again 

Too much on our own internals – this campaign has gone on a week too long. So in the growing pause between activity and waiting for the result a few thoughts what others at other times have made of Liberal ideas and approaches.

Here are some snippets from the speech made by John F. Kennedy a couple of days after getting the Democratic Party nomination for US President in 1960, accepting the additional endorsement of the New York Liberal Party. Some of those present had campaigned strongly against JFK and so this is also an example of building up political alliances after a nominating struggle.

Kennedy had been attacked for being a ‘Liberal’ and he rejoiced in accepting the title

..”if by a ‘Liberal,’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people - their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties - someone who believes that we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say that I'm a "Liberal."

“ I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, and the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. It is, I believe, this faith in our fellow citizens as individuals and as people that lies at the heart of the liberal faith, for liberalism is not so much a party creed or a set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man's ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of Justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.”

“Our responsibility is not discharged by an announcement of virtuous ends. Our responsibility is to achieve these objectives with social invention, with political skill, and executive vigor. I believe for these reasons, that liberalism is our best and our only hope in the world today. For the liberal society is a free society, and it is at the same time and for that reason a strong society. Its strength is drawn from the will of free people committed to great ends and peacefully striving to meet them.”

We have come some way in inclusive language since then, but we know what he meant.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

For what its worth 

Over in the real world (where even political bloggers have to go occasionally) a small anecdote. Someone who knows my political orientation from seeing me perform in public came over to me in the streets on Sunday and said Hello! And have you voted yet? I said yes, for Chris Huhne. He looked really pleased and stuck up his thumb. I think this was a well-wishers gesture..

Meanwhile back in virtual electioneering some members who signed on for information from Ming are getting last minute phone calls I hear (no live experiences reported of other candidates efforts). Note to Ming's team – it may be a good idea to check you canvassers grasp of the scripts. When a member says they have already cast their ballot for someone else it means the paper is irredeemably in the post and it is pointless asking them if there is any chance they would change their minds.

But this really is the last chance to Get Out The Vote. I suspect that posting Ballot Papers on Tuesday morning will be cutting it quite fine. So if you haven’t voted yet why not make a mental picture of the Good Morning Knotted Trunk Elephant Graphic and get over to a reliable postbox… And please, if possible, first preference for Chris.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Ports are wide open actually... 

The immense row in the USA over the sale of several major ports to a Dubai management company raises several issues. Opponents of the President see it as a free gift in a continuing political fight. In Libdem Blogger links Colin Ross see it as a somewhat racist reaction as this report (subscription required for full text) from Rupert Cornwell in the Independent on Sunday also suggests.

Actually Ports Ownership is the least of the security worries. And it extends to European ports as well. Cornwell’s re-assuring note says that (for example) the US Coastguards have the right to intercept ships way out at sea to check them over. But this is a real needle in a haystack facility.

This was one of the themes discussed in the book on marine piracy I mentioned in an earlier post. By William Langewiesche "The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World's Oceans”.

The actual practice of the law of the sea means that ships get renamed, change identity, get new crews, turn up unexpectedly in port with unknown cargos. Literally ships pop up over the horizon many times a day making for major ports and nobody can be quite sure they are who they say they are. It is impossible to screen them all out at sea. If a terrorist group wanted to set of a ship-borne bomb it could very easily deliver this virtually anywhere, the ports ownership being what it may. London, Liverpool, Rotterdam… all vulnerable at this minute. Maybe we in Europe should look at this US uproar and make some better decisions on our own security…

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Trivia sidelights - maybe 

Sweating over the ballot paper, which goes in as soon as I have some feedback on the final hustings…

This is an education for many of us I suspect as we have to try to make up our minds on the basis of the kind of information a voter gets in a national election instead of being part of a pre-focussed team. Even those of us on a strong commitment for first preference may have to sweat over the second…

Small things may swing votes yet I suspect. I found myself in momentary confusion a few days ago over a newspaper headline saying ‘(Scottish name) calls for ( a policy position)’ and had to stop a moment to sort out my Campbells from my Camerons.

A thought – will this be even more confusing for apolitical voters paying only half-attention to the news? Not a reason for voting against Ming really, but a reminder that when we get past this inwards looking stage on March 2nd all sorts of small things will get added prominence, like grit does in trainers.

But my biggest trivia meditation is on my preferred candidates historic political hero. As an economist I presume Chris is familiar with Keynes’ great attack on the architects of the 1919 ‘Peace Settlement’ namely his pamphlet ‘The Economic Consequences of the Peace’. Keynes thought the Versailles treaty was a disaster setting Europe up for another war. He had a good line of invective of a kind we have rather toned down in modern times. President Wilson was characterised as a ‘Blind and deaf Don Quixote’, Clemenceau of France as having ‘one illusion – France and one disillusion –Mankind’ (no change in French political culture in recent years then). Lloyd George got this epitaph, cut from the first edition of the pamphlet but widely circulated thereafter:

‘This goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity’
Ouch. I wonder what Keynes would have made of Devolution? In the circumstances some credit to Lloyd-George for taking up Keynesian ideas in his later economic programmes.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Worra Worra and all that grey matter 

Discussions elsewhere have called up non-fond memories of the Steel-Pardoe leadership election way back in the 1970’s. Now there was some un-whispered catty commentating.

Most famously, Cyril Smith telling Steel that even if he (Steel) had a firecracker in each hand he still could not make a bang. Too boring, dull and grey to make an impact.

Steel himself hit out at Pardoe by retelling a tale from Winnie-the-Pooh. This is the arrival of Tigger, who comes into a room were the dining table is laid out for tea with lots of Honey. The tablecloth of course could be seen as a threat to civilisation as we know it ( why not?) and so Tigger sets out to defeat this enemy by rushing the table, pulling down the cloth sending all the crockery and food crashing, and rolling around on the floor wrapped in the tablecloth growling ‘Worra! Worra! Worra! Worra! Worra!’

And then poking his head out from the tangle to say ‘have I won?’

Steel of course was suggesting that we did not need to indulge in the ‘Worra Worra’ school of political action to get attention as a party, even if it was the opposite of boring. Implication of course being that Pardoe was a Tigger.

Fortunately we have a much higher standard of political debate and civility in this leadership election.

And it is the Conservatives who have to worry about being landed with a Worra Worra leader.

As for Labour they are getting Eeyore it seems… Or maybe –to step outside the Milne references- the boy in the nativity play who is kept waiting for his part so long that he blurts out all his lines at one go on his first cue.

Just to end on a note of fairness to past leadership contenders, after Steel won the leadership poll Pardoe backed him to the hilt, going out on a couple of occasions to read the riot act to some of his campaign supporters who threatened disruption.

On March 3rd we will have a leader who I will support, whoever wins. And we will all make a serious and principled political impact without the need for Worra! Worra!

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

On Fees and Quantum Security 

So my son yesterday made up his mind on which University offer to accept for October and like tens of thousands of other parents around the Non-Scottish parts of the UK I am today getting to grips with the hard details of actual costs to come over the next few years, including “top-up” tuition fees, and calculating the amount of debt he may be running into. Compounded in his case by taking a four-year course not a three year one. Ouch ouch and so on. This fees issue may have a bit of play in it yet, South of the Border.

He is so excited though and thrilled by the course options he can study. His new Physics Department has a scheme where selected undergraduates go on to a front-line research team right from day one and he has a good chance of working on his favourite problem, Quantum Computing. To hear his excited talk yesterday we are on the verge of serious breakthroughs on very very high speed computing; within the next ten years all current security systems, such as passwords, PINS, PGP encryption and so on will (he says) be useless. The whole basis for the technical integrity of online banking, online databases, e-mail security and these blogs will vanish into the great bitbucket in the sky. Woke this morning with the realisation that his name may go down in history as the man who destroyed the cyberworld and thought I had better post this while there is still time…

The databases behind our proposed ID cards and biometric passports would also of course be totally compromised… and as Tristram on "Liberal Alone" points out we don’t actually have to wait for my son’s epoch-making academic papers to see how creaky these safeguards are even today…

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Iraq and the real choices 

Iraq ‘withdrawal’ came up as a dividing theme in ‘Question Time’ and no doubt will pay out again in other Hustings. When candidates are so close on so many key issues the points of difference are in danger of getting inflated. I would like to suggest some careful thought before we hobble ourselves with unnecessary differences..

From the British perspective there is little difference between the ‘set a withdrawal date’ stance suggested by Chris and Simon and the ‘process to disengagement and withdrawal’ stance taken by Ming. We all know that we want UK troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. Each variation is risky, each subject to sabotage and overturning by unfriendly actions.

As the Oxford Research Group Report I highlighted earlier says:

The debate on Iraq must not be confined to “stay the course” or “cut and run”.
Both paths are perilous. If the Coalition remains for years, we risk strengthening the most radical elements of the insurgency and helping them reshape the region in their own interest. Yet withdrawal, if precipitate rather than carefully planned, could risk chaos or civil war.

The crucial point is perceptions and commitments by others, those who are fighting Britain and the other ‘Coalition Forces’. It must be made very clear that Britain in fact does want and intends to withdraw – that any work of ‘establishing conditions for a draw-down of forces’ is not a cover for permanent occupation.

The Insurgencies very definitely play up to the idea that we and the USA are trying for long-term occupation and subsequent control of a client state; that talks of withdrawal are a sham. We are, as Chris Huhne said on Question time, seen as part of the problem not part of the solution. The UK need to break that perception. We need to change the storyline from ‘occupation’ to ‘Iraqi Liberation’ and changing that story needs unremitting honesty from the UK government, an admission of past errors, and a clear commitment to total withdrawal.

See the ORG report for a discussion of the many things that need to be done as part of a withdrawal strategy. Setting target dates is not a stretegy for just walking out regardless.

I am disappointed that Ming is playing this debate as if his leadership opponents are advocating cut-and-run. This is not a helpful stance either from the party or the national perspective. If we absorb the important perspectives offered by the ORG report we will find ourselves very much more in agreement on how to proceed.

Part of that honesty from the UK should include a greater awareness of the history of Iraq. The great siege of Fallujah in the 1920’s is a vital threads in Iraqi historic memory, the Dunkirk Moment where a shattering defeat defines national solidarity and determination, and it was against the colonial power of Britain that Iraqis of all faith and national communities united in those events in Fallujah. There is no way Britain can be seen as being the bearer of disinterested good offices in Iraq.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

On defence and so on 

Over on quaequem blog James posts without comment the responses by the Candidates to the questions set by the LD Peace and Security Group on Trident replacement, on the place of Conference in setting policy, and on the Meacher EDM on having a full public debate before any Trident decisions are taken by the government. I do have a few comments.

Ming’s contribution is long, balanced, has good stuff in it, and is in short quite an acceptable essay. But you do have to quarry it for the key points. This does reinforce my own feeling that Ming’s statesmanlike interventions are not always as effective as they might be. As we keep telling our FOCUS editors, we need to make our material punchy and target the things we want listeners and readers to remember.

Simon covers these points much more succinctly and directly, as you would expect from a past master of FOCUS campaigning. He leaves an impression of the problems we face without however adding much of substance to the arguments put forwards by Ming. He rather treats the third question as an afterthought.

Chris is sharp, focussed, and prepared to deal with what needs to be done now. Things are happening in the background to pre-empt any future decisions and we need to be up front preventing that pre-emption. Chris tells us some of those background developments and gives us, the ordinary party members, who will ultimately have a say on policy through Conference, the information we need to deal with this matter ourselves. And to understand what the parliamentary leadership may need to do NOW, literally this week, before formal party votes are taken. I have a sense of a party leader taking the membership into his confidence and calling on us for committed and responsible and informed action.

My bias (see my bloggers for Chris affiliation) is very clear of course. But I do ask you to do this short test. Read through the statements published over on quaequam and imagine yourself a member of the public with no LibDem commitments. Which of these statements is that uncommitted person most likely to remember and respond to?

Just a second thought. These questions are of course cautious explorations of some of the themes of the Great Defence Policy Implosion that put huge cracks into the SDP-Liberal Alliance. I do have just a slight feeling that both Ming and Simon feel the aches of old wounds from old battles on this, which constrains their statements today. While Chris, not having been a central figure in that uproar, has absorbed the lessons and moved on to fight with confidence on today’s ground.

As a Quaker I may well find there are defence and security issues on which I find myself on contrasting ground to the Party consensus, whoever is leader. As it stands I would be happiest dealing with these issues under a leadership showing the clarity and responsiveness of Chris Huhne.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Three Manifesto Sections 

So the ballot paper is with me, together with the official Candidates Manifesto booklet. I do already have a firm choice for first preference, undecided on second, so had a good look.

Thinking how I would vote if I only had the information in the booklet raised some interesting reflections.

Each presentation has strengths and weaknesses, and for a seasoned LibDem some hidden messages. Comments in the order as on the ballot paper:

Ming Campbell. An interesting prospectus. We are taught in writing literature for electors out there to pass the ‘three second test’ – the amount of time we have to grab the attention of a potential reader between picking up the leaflet and passing the waste-paper basket. Good bold picture and lead-in in the Campbell section would serve well in meeting this test. Perhaps not quite as important with a committed electorate though and it takes up a quarter of the space. Nearly a third of space taken up with endorsements, including a section which is just a small grey blur of ‘supporters also include’. This last for me is just a waste of space. I could have done with some more strong statements from Ming himself in his own words in the space that could be freed by axing this. Best bit for me – ‘no time for the media-driven view that we must either lurch to the left or lunge to the right’. But oh dear the grey colour scheme…

Simon Hughes. Clearly shows the influence of lessons learnt (and not learnt) from campaigning literature in googols of elections. Good bright pages with nicely contrasting presentations. The montage of photos of Simon show him in action and relating to people, giving a sense of motion. A section on endorsements gives a much more lively feel than on the Campbell page. Subtle positive quoting of Charles Kennedy suggests a particular claim without actually making one – good subliminal positioning. However the use of quotes and bar charts grates – the quotes are ‘horserace’ comments right from the opening shots of the campaign and we need to know what is what now. As to the bar chart this is only as good as the poll and I think the word is pretty well out that the ICM poll measured nothing very useful except name recognition before the campaign. So I feel it is not an useful addition for this manifesto. For me again wasted space.

Chris Huhne. This offering goes for the clean professional prospectus approach, with professional design and fashionable white spaces. It would not be out of place at a business launch. Press comments are on his basic qualities not on ‘horse race’ matters. Content highlights his areas of experience and specific policy target areas. Much more included in terms of policy specifics and focus than in the other two efforts. Has NO ‘endorsements’ section at all. Two photos – one participating in the Anti-Iraq-war march shows him quite relaxed and very human. The main photo is beautifully staged and has plusses and (for me in this context) minuses. A more positive picture (better, a couple of pictures) would have shown him interacting with people face to face. That might have boosted a sense of how he would act on a campaign occasion with the public, something that Ming partially and Simon very definitely work to get across.

So – assessment? On this I may show more of my bias, so be warned.

Well single most effective bit is Simon’s human interaction sequence linked to his action experience. Worse bit is Simon’s cluttering the page with outdated graphics. Suggest to me that Simon at his campaigning best can hit real heights, at other times things may slightly trip up. Ming could have done with more of chance to show himself, especially his humour, with more direct speech, bringing himself much more forwards from teh background of his supporters. Chris sets out his strong points well but could have done more to examine the stereotypes of ‘coolness’ that his non-supporters are suggesting and presenting some items to challenge this. Maybe more colour would have helped and some tales of direct campaign experience.

Nobody is perfect and neither is any particular campaign document. I am rather glad I have more information than this to guide my choice. Still thinking...

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Social Enterprise for a Liberal Society 

I am delighted that Chris Huhne today (Friday 3rd Feb) launched his leadership manifesto at a Social Economy Organisation. I talked about this kind of organisation in an earlier post hoping to stimulate some thought in the party on how this kind of initiative fits in with modern Liberalism. Chris has taken all this several steps further. If I had been hesitant about my first preference vote, Chris would have swung it for me this morning. Great leadership here.

For too long the idea of ‘enterpreneurship’ has been annexed by the ideological right. Lets liberate it and see what all this new energy can do for our people and communities. And this movement, these initiatives, are growing now, not at the end of some bridge over in future years. We need to work here and now to learn from this field, to encourage it, and to grow with it.

It could also be a key battleground with the Conservatives so we need to have a leadership on the ball on this.

Way to go, Chris!

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Arma Virumque Cano 

Yes, Iraq, of Arms and the Man, ‘what is what’, and what should be done about ‘what is what’. As the most considerable Parliamentary political organisation originally opposed to the Iraq adventure we have a responsibility to carry forwards the debate in dangerous times. And new decisions have to be made urgently.

The UN Mandate for coalition forces in Iraq come up for renewal in June 2006. What, as a party, will we recommend? This will be a key early decision for our new leadership team. Not surprisingly, the issue as emerged in our leadership election. We need to help our emerging leadership, all parts of it, find a constructive path.

I strongly recommend all party members read a report published in December 2005 by the Oxford Research Group entitled ‘Iraqi Liberation? Towards an Integrated Strategy’. Our own Lord Tim Garden co-authored the forward welcoming this study, saying:

The crisis in Iraq continues to burn. In spite of the best efforts of many, the
violence does not subside. The UK must examine the extent to which Coalition forces, despite their mission to guarantee security, in fact contribute by their presence to the gathering instability.

The report summary says

The debate on Iraq must not be confined to “stay the course” or “cut and run”.
Both paths are perilous. If the Coalition remains for years, we risk strengthening the most radical elements of the insurgency and helping them reshape the region in their own interest. Yet withdrawal, if precipitate rather than carefully planned, could risk chaos or civil war.

Calls for a withdrawal timetable have come in recent weeks from the USA and the Iraqi national dialogue conference in Cairo. The Coalition’s current policy is to establish conditions which will make draw-down of forces possible. It is steadfastly refusing to set timetables, on the basis that they can be manipulated and taken advantage of by the enemy. But conditions, once set, are equally open to abuse - especially where a broadly-accepted popular story of illegitimate occupation helps the insurgency to thrive and unite.
The stark fact is that replacing the ‘narrative of occupation’ by a ‘narrative of Iraqi liberation’ is impossible while the ‘coalition’ regime endures. We need to prepare a framework for major troop withdrawals and a different regime in 2006.

The report sets out in detail seven key elements for a policy moving from occupation to liberation.

1 Build legitimacy in the Iraqi political process
2 Support from honest brokers in the International community
3 Iraqi assumption of security responsibilities and the counter-insurgency lead
4 Coalition Forces withdrawals
5 Economic development and diversification
6 Rebuilding human security
7 International security guarantees and footprints

Coalition force withdrawals, in more detail implies the need to:

a Publish a transparent ‘contract’ between Iraq, the UN and the Coalition, circumscribing the
latter’s role, clarifying US and UK intentions, and codifying Iraqi oversight.
b Rapidly agree and implement a framework for force withdrawals to erode the narrative of
occupation: milestone-driven, conditions-responsive, pursued in a decentralised fashion, and
ultimately to be complete.

The report is available for download here, in a PDF file. LibDems interested in initiatives for peace-building in international affairs will find other parts of the Oxford Research Group’s work of great interest.

So – how is this playing out in our leadership stakes..? Troop withdrawals in a constructive context seems to be Chris Huhne's position. How do these ideas play out in the context of the ORG arguments?

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Europe and local 

It is clear that Chris Huhne is tuned in to current debates on Europe, in Europe, and has a strategy for campaigning realistically in Britain.

The problem is often that national politicians blame the EU when laws are controversial or unpopular. They act as if they had nothing to do with drafting or approving the new rules, while claiming credit for popular acts and playing down EU involvement. This is disastrous for the democratic legitimacy of Europe and constipates more local decision making at all levels.

For others debates on this see (for example) the comments on the German situation by Bernd Hüttemann, Secretary-General of the ‘European Movement Germany’.

Broadly Hüttemann says European decisions have not been “presented as relevant for domestic policies…. Politicians, parties and ‘incompetent elites’ in general have failed to convey the importance of the EU.” The German solution seems to be to set up what Hüttemann calls an ‘alliance of bureaucracies’ in Germany “in order to improve the dialogue with civil society” and questions whether this will really lead to less bureaucracy and more public engagement.

Chris Huhne I think shares the view that National and local governments in Europe (at least in west European countries) tend to blame the EU for anything that goes amiss regardless of who is responsible, but is seeking a politics of engagement to highlight real accountability and local responsibilities. So his Europe-wide and local action themes in ‘leading the party’ are both crucial.

Meanwhile Ming is meeting the Euro-MPs in Brussels on Thursday 2nd February. Excellent move. I hope the emphasis of his visit is on the overall Party and national strategy, coming on to the ground partially explored by Chris, and perhaps extending it. And I also hope and trust that the visit is not just a finger-counting exercise on MEP support for this or that candidate. Relevant though endorsement tallies are, I am more interested in engagement in the issues.

I have looked for contributions from Simon on these various European themes and very much hope someone can point me to them.

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