Friday, May 21, 2010

Praise in the USA 

Over in the US SALON online service, Glenn Greenwald likes what the Coalition is doing to restore civil liberies in Britain.

"I don't want to idealize what's taking place in Britain: it still remains to be seen how serious these commitments are and how genuine of an investigation into the torture regime will be conducted. But clearly, what was once a fringe position there has now become the mainstream platform of their new Government: that it's imperative to ensure that their country is not "a place where our children grow up so used to their liberty being infringed that they accept it without question."

On the other hand it is a pessimistic survey of US developments...

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Gotterdammerung of the Gentleman from Whitehall? 

So are we seeing a decisive shift towards a more bottom-up, evolutionary way of working out what we want to do in Britain?

It is instructive to look back on how our over-centralised state put down its roots in the late 1940’s and a great account of this is in David Kynaston’s remarkable book about ‘Austerity Britain’.

There is a notorious quotation – not an urban legend but a real quote - that ‘The Gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people do themselves’. This rather sums up an attitude Liberals instinctively reject. It comes from a book published in 1937 by Douglas Jay, a prominent Labour politician. Who added that economic freedom is ‘a secondary freedom often approaching a luxury’.(1)

But Liberals cannot be too smug on this history. The over-centralisation of the NHS right from its early days (ensuring that ‘a bedpan dropped in Tredegar Hospital would resound through the corridors of Whitehall’) was an unintended consequence of the plans drawn up by the Liberal Beveridge

Kynaston says:

There was also once again the whole question of the local and the national. The historian David Vincent has convincingly argued that
“Beveridge’s greatest achievement may have been not to convert the Tories to the welfare state, but Labour to state welfare",
given that historically Labour had tended to look to local authorities rather than the state for the relief of poverty’.

The practical consequences of the wholesale shift in attitudes to the state as a result of the war was ‘an extensive indifference to the dangers of a system in which every official … was controlled from Whitehall… a huge new bureaucracy answerable to its clients only through ministerial responsibility’.

Kynaston concludes that passage by saying

‘ A somewhat Kafkaesque trial – endured mainly by those least able to complain – was only just beginning.’ (2)

And he also notes an attitude that people could be manipulated without serious resistance:
Mass Observation (an early polling operation) produced a report finding that the overwhelming majority of ‘working people’ wanted houses or bungalows with some kind of small garden. The planners thought otherwise. Kynaston notes:

…as the People’ Homes report … wryly concluded about working-class people and such apparently firm preferences, ‘happily for the planners, they will make the best of a bad lot, or a good little’

Will the coalition enable the evolution of processes leading to something better than ‘a good little? One of our challenges perhaps.

I really recommend all Kynaston’s books on modern Britain published so far. He will take his series up to 1979 and the start of the Thatcher upheaval.

David Kynaston (2007) Austerity Britain 1945-51 Bloomsbury(1) Kynaston p136 (2) Kynaston pp 149-150 citing Vincent (1991) “Poor Citizens” (3) Kynaston p53 citing the Mass Observation report “Peoples’ Homes”

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Long memories and the Llandudno club 

Probably my last ever Party Conference, so a quick 50 minutes trip on the train from MK to the NEC on Sunday. Not a voting delegate, but it did give me an experience to add to some historic memories.

How many others attending were also at the Liberal assemblies where David Steel moved the old Liberal Party towards wider co-operation? The first (was it at Llandudno –cant remember) was the late 1970’s Assembly where his proposals triggered a noisy placard-waving conference floor protest demonstration by the Young Liberals. I remember his recently defeated leadership rival John Pardoe sitting beside him on the platform giving firm and vocal support for the leader throughout.

And a later Assembly – definitely at Llandudno – where the SDP-Liberal alliance became possible, and so eventually the emergence of the Liberal Democrats. I remember the ‘biggest fringe meeting in the history of the party’ (was it 2000 people present?) and David Steel’s now notorious ‘go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’ leadership speech.

So for some of us older party activists the stresses and strains of current events are not all new.

There were at least two other members of the ‘Llandudno Club’ at the NEC, who both spoke at Sundays debate Tony Greaves of course And also Richard Moore, as upright, combative and passionate as ever. I suspect that Richard in particular has not necessarily been in full agreement with every stance the party has taken over the last thirty-odd years, and I certainly I have not myself always been in agreement with him. But he has contributed to our debates and development through his fortrightness and integrity. Whatever our particular positions we could do worse than take inspiration from this today.

Any other Llandudno Club veterans online with memories to share?

Anyone remember Giant Haystacks? What became of him?

I had thought of mocking old stereotypes by turning up at the NEC in beard, sandals and a badge saying ‘I had muesli for breakfast’ but the speed of the negotiations left me with no time to grow a beard so I put on shoes and socks and had bacon and eggs.

More on Sunday later perhaps.

Just to note that ‘possibly my last-ever conference’ is because I am finding large gatherings increasingly difficult to participate I as my hearing fails even more. Not a political withdrawal. The NEC echoes were particularly frustrating.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Preparing for cultural shock 

Those of us at Birmingham today will face a bit of a cultural shock.
Getting close to our MPs (at least the ministerial variety) will be rather harder than before. In crowded public places they will be moving with a more or less discrete police screen. Given that a lot of our strength as a party has come from good informal discussions at conferences and suchlike this has implications for the future. Even getting photographed with a senior figure for FOCUS usage will be a bit more of a hassle, I expect.

Cultural Shock in general is something we all need to watch for in the next few months.

The classic form strikes people who go to live and work (rather than just have a holiday) in another country. The first stage is a kind of elevated semi-euphoria, with a tendency to notice the positive aspects of the situation. This comes from the need to justify to oneself the benefits of having taken a really big decision. The next stage however is a substantial downer, with niggles petty or otherwise really hurting . And memories of life previously get the golden nostalgia treatment. Then, if things work out reasonably, a kind of balance emerges.

It will happen to us. Let’s be prepared for this and realise it would happen in some way even if we won an absolute majority on our own and were working through the consequences.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Watching the rhetoric from Nick 

Nick may just be carried away slightly in some of his recent statements.

I am thinking in particular of this:
"So, given that the people told us, explicitly, that they didn’t want just one party in charge, we had a duty to find a way for more than one party to govern effectively."

Perhaps we should take deep breath.

Our position on the current electoral system is that it grinds through a lottery to produce a result.

People have made a number of judgements in this last election and the lottery result has given us the position we have. We can't say the voters explicity chose it, surely.

We can go forwards to act within the result more assuredly than most other parties because we are committed to altering the sytem when we can so that peoples' explicit choices more nearly reflect the consequences of those choices.

It might be helpful if Nick had a think about this rhetorical florish...

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Some extra reading for busy people 

Any of our new ministers in need of some extra bedtime reading (and indeed anyone involved in politics who wants to keep hold of their critical facilities) should have a look at the book 'Irrationality' by Stuart Sutherland.

Especially the chapters "In-Groups and out-Groups" and "Overconfidence". In fact read them before the special conference on Sunday.

Having a better understanding of how ordinary people like us have got into tangles and walked into disasters in predictable ways will help us sort out our inevitable mistakes over the next few years. There will be mistakes however good our beginning and intentions.

Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science has this review snippet:
"Superb! The thinking man's self help book; it left me infinitely wiser, but I know it won't change my behaviour one tiny bit."

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The 55 percent Republic 

The establishment of fixed-term Parliaments is a very very serious constitutional amendment for the UK.
It is right that this be tested out as vigorously as possible before legislation is introduced.

It will remove some of the most serious political powers supposedly still vested in the Royal Prerogative and hand them over to the elected representatives of the people of the UK. In a real sense it is a step towards a kind of Republic (with a Monarch as ceremonial head even more divorced from politics than now)..

The so-called prerogatives are, under the present constitutional understandings, actually manipulated by the Prime Minister of the day.

The fixed term, and the new exceptional dissolution powers suggested for Parliament, take powers away from the Prime Minister and for the first time vests them in the House.

There are all sorts of ramifications to this apparently simple step of fixing the Parliamentary term..

It is possible that those proposing this step have not yet sorted out all the consequences. It would be helpful if some of the distinguished lawyers friendly to the new coalition could provide an analysis of the knock-on effects so that our debates can be conducted in a calmer manner.

The proposers of this change will benefit from hearing constructive criticism and may well feel that some variations are needed in the final legislation.

Just by the way and as an example I think five years is too long for a fixed term and would be happy to argue this..

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Paying up 

Is it pressure of work? Or the usual policy? The special conference online booking form does not allow for debit card payments so I cant book online. On principle dont have a credit card.
If anyone with clout is reading this could they pass it on?

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The psychology of how people feel after decisions 

Well a rather important decision has been made.
And studies of people who have made such decisions (or had it made for them) suggest we are going through a well-known psychological process.

If you have ever had to make choices in your personal life – say about who to marry (or with whom to initiate a parallel emotional arrangement) you may recognise this process. Likewise people who have agonised about what job opportunity to select. Possible members of a controlling Council group may have allied experiences.

When such a decision has been made there is a strong need to assert to oneself (and others) the rightness of the decision, and to downgrade the merits of the past alternatives. This is of great comfort in getting down to living with the results of the decision, but psychological studies suggest that the strength of these feelings is not necessarily proportionate to the merits of the case. It is something that happens more or less regardless.

It might be helpful to think of this at the time of the Special Assembly this weekend, the better to understand what is going on.

For my part I recall the aphorism coined by my old boss in the Open Business School that in life we need to exploit the strengths that come from our weaknesses and guard against the weaknesses that are part and parcel of or strengths.

We were faced with a certain pattern of strengths and weaknesses. This has changed to a different pattern. And we need to think about this soberly. This sobriety should include a recognition that we need to redouble our commitment to ourselves if we are really to bring extra life to the Liberal cause.

In a bad relationship (to return to analogy) each partner is so busy second-guessing the other that they forget to bring themselves to the action. They are reduced and constrained. One sign of a good relationship is that each feels able to assert their own identity and build on that even where disagreements arise.

I think that we need to look at the weaknesses and strengths of our situation to make sure that, over the lifetime of this National Agreement, Liberalism is asserted, developed and popularised. This will help our LibDem representatives in cabinet or associated positions in turn to assert themselves and guard against the development of closed-circle groupthink.

How we foster this constructive assertion is our business from now on.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Practical politics and by-elections 

Way back in March 1977 there was a by-election in progress in Birmingham Stetchford, the (then Labour) MP Roy Jenkins having resigned his seat to go to the European Commission.
Our predecessor Liberal Party was of course hammering the Labour government in its leaflets.

A week before polling day the minority Labour government did a support deal with the Liberal Party in Parliament that started the Lib-Lab pact and restored its working majority.. .

At a by-election press conference next day the Liberal candidate was asked if he was pleased with the deal.

“I have to be pleased don’t I” was his poker-faced response.

Which comment the local press interpreted as wry humour and found refreshingly honest.

I will reserve final judgement on yesterdays extraordinary events until I see the full report. However it is not too early to start thinking about how we are going to manage some practical politics over the next five years. Such as how do we fight by-elections?

It would have been helpful if there was an interim measure on the books saying at all Parliamentary by-elections in this fixed-term period should be conducted under the Alternative Vote, In short an arrangement for this Parliament only. The next General Election to be fought on a system to be separately decided during this Parliament (that is the interim AV arrangements would NOT apply to the next General Election).

Given the electoral system status quo, by-elections are going to be a horrible mess and gifts to the opposition campaigns.

We will start to see the difficulties in the upcoming special election in Yorkshire, delayed from the General Election because the UKIP candidate died.

Our Lib Dem candidate and team there need huge national attention and support immediately, not least to formulate a credible campaigning approach in these very nearly unprecedented circumstances. ‘I have to be pleased don’t I’ would not be a good enough response now.

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Saturday, May 08, 2010

Some local cheer in MK 

I am finding reports of local election successes from ‘elsewhere’ a good way of getting awake on this unsettling morning. So just in case this interest others…

In Milton Keynes we faced an election with the retiring council split 21 LD to 20 Tories, with 9 Labour and 1 independent. Elections are by thirds. A number of our senior councillors were stepping down having done very long service and wanting to move on. That included Euan and Irene Henderson, who each had huge personal votes in their respective Newport Pagnell wards. The Tories were looking to become the largest party and take the lead in the Cabinet.

The outcome?

We held all our defended seats which means we now have new and dynamic younger councillors in several core wards who can build up their own personal votes.

A very experienced former councillor is back on the council so we still have the benefit of lessons learnt in the past.

We gained THREE seats from the Conservatives ( all again with dynamic new candidates) which the Tories certainly were not expecting!

We did not take our target off Labour. It was a tall order against someone with a strong personal vote but our great campaign gives us a good platform for next year.

It was no surprise that the Tories did not take their much touted target seat off Labour as they failed to nominate a candidate! Short version of events. A Tory activist signed the Green Party nomination papers as well as the Tory ones. The Greens put in their papers several days before the close of nominations. The Tory agent (with 25 years experience) turned up with all her papers 90 minutes before nominations closed….

Current balance of council

LibDem 24
Con 17
Lab 9
Ind 1

I am particularly pleased at the result in my own patch of Walton Park ward where Subhan Shafiq ousted the Tory who slipped in back in the Cameron euphoria year of 2006.

Council still counts as NOC but we are already planning for a Big Gold moment in 2011…


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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Avoiding a festival of constipation and cold clotted porridge 

Just imagine this election campaign with only Brown and Cameron in the spotlight.
No life, no hope, no vision. The national mood would now be sour, depressed and despairing, with press excitement concentrated on whether various extreme factions would cause upsets.

Imagine the Parliament we are about to elect so constructed that Cameron and Brown manage to re-impose the pretence that they (or their successors) are the only legitimate political forces.

After the life of the campaign, once more political constipation.

After the real fresh foods of real and relevant issues breaking onto the menu, once more the cold porridge of the exhausted establishment.

The national mood will swiftly become sour and despairing.

As Prime Minister? Cameron? Well, on the surface he can seem very very deep, but deep deep down he is shallow.

Or Brown? (or more likely a emergency successor though). In alleged command of a zombie party of frustrated and frightened bullies.

Another thing. If we largely hold our seats and make the gains possible we may well be the only truly ‘National Party’ in the UK context. So the future of the United Kingdom as such may depend on our nerve and example.

To combat this we need as many LibDem MPs as possible from all parts of the country, backed by as big a LibDem vote as possible again from all parts of the country.

Damn tactical voting. Keep our politics alive and vote for Freedom with the Liberal Democrats. Everywhere.

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