What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

December 30, 2005

Jeb Bush – the missing link?

Two disturbing glimpses into the US psyche from from Taegan Goddard's ever excellent Political Wire:

"Yeah, but I don't think it should actually be part of the curriculum, to be honest with you. And people have different points of view and they can be discussed at school, but it does not need to be in the curriculum.'' - Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (Rep.), when asked by the Miami Herald whether he believes in Darwin's theory of evolution.
Well, I guess you’re not going to get a much stronger argument against evolution than the fact George Bush Snr sired Dubya.

From a new Harris Poll: "About 22% of U.S. adults believe Saddam Hussein helped plan 9/11, the poll shows, and 26% believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded. Another 24% believe several of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi."
(And before we all get smug, and "tsk" the stupidity of a nation which once (only) elected Jeb's bro' President, I wonder how many Brits assume Saddam's Iraq was responsible for 9/11?)

That Charles Kennedy petition…

Over at Liberal England, Jonathan Calder flags up the absurdity of the BBC News online report that 3,300 Lib Dem party members have signed a petition calling on Charles Kennedy to quit as leader.

Jonathan signed the petition as Mickey Mouse from Cheeseborough to show how easy it would be for anyone to fake their credentials.

I though I’d give it a go as CK himself - as the picture (just about) shows – giving my name as Charles Kennedy, my home town as Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy’s constituency), and my e-mail address as charles.kennedy@libdems.org.uk. I clicked on ‘Submit’, and – hey, presto! – The Liberal thanked Charles Kennedy for “registering your support for this petition”. There’s one turkey seemingly voting for Christmas.

Intriguingly, The Liberal’s editor, Ben Ramm (himself a Lib Dem member), claims the 3,300 includes two MPs. I’m delighted to have been able to add a third to his tally.

Now perhaps I’m being cynical, but all this is jolly good, free publicity for The Liberal, a magazine which has absolutely no affiliation to the Liberal Democrats. (The current issue, for instance, includes articles by such liberal scions as Roy Hattersley and Matthew Parris.)

And you might have thought that such an idea might also have occurred to the BBC News journalist responsible for this emetic piece of anonymous journalism. But rather than challenge Mr Ramm to verify his figures in any credible fashion, BBC News is quite happy to repeat them verbatim because it feeds the current anti-CK media agenda.

It is ironic that this tired bit of hackery dressed up as serious political journalism should be published on the day John Humphreys voiced his concern that the pressures of 24-hour news are inhibiting politicians. Because it sure as hell seems to be inhibiting the BBC News from doing its own job properly.

December 28, 2005

Awards of the Year 2005… Part I

'Tis the season of no news… I mean, c'mon on, the top three stories this week are: It's a bit chilly; shops sell cheap stuff; and fox-hunting, saboteurs, loopholes, blah blah. It's just dull.

So I'm afraid I'm not inspired to pen some trenchant opinion piece, crammed full of wise words, and laced with shrewd liberal acuity. Instead you're getting what every other newspaper is serving up as left-overs to tide their readers over with glad tidings. Yes, it's the inevitable Best/Worst Hits/Misses Treats/Turkeys [will this do? - Ed.] Awards of 2005, divided into two perfect halves for your reading relish.

* First up, we have the JONATHAN ROSS AWARD FOR UBIQUITY, given in recognition of the countless acts of self-promotion which this past year has witnessed.

There were many contenders for this prize, all (as you would expect) self-nominated. From the world of entertainment, both Catherine Tate and Little Britain were strong challengers, their repetitive catchphrases having won a devoted following in playgrounds and among sub-editors across the country. Did they triumph? "Computer says no." And I'm so not bovvered.

Dan Brown should, by rights, have won for his tome, The Da Vinci Code, a book which has now sold more copies than there are people able to read. (And yet still it tops the bestsellers lists: is there anyone left who wants a copy who's not yet read it? 'Cos if so, they can have mine.) Unfortunately, he was cruelly denied by a shadowy, undercover organisation, which goes by the nickname Good Taste, which has successfully perpetuated a canonical hierarchy which conceals from sight the worst excesses of bad writing.

Which left only one possible winner: Robert Kilroy-Slick. For one man with so little talent, so little charm, and so little clue to get elected under one political party's colours; attempt to become its leader; resign in a perma-tanned huff in order to self-start his own new, even smaller, party; which implodes within six months; prompting him to split from his own creation... Well, that all takes a special and peculiar kind of egotism. His love of bathing in the glare of publicity with all the self-knowing naivety of Icarus may just explain a tan known in the trade as Monkhouse-plus. His pale imitation of Oswald Mosley's messianism was drably, inevitably, hubristically pathetic, and proved (pace Churchill) that re-ratting does not take any kind of ingenuity.

* From the ridiculous to the subliminal. The second prize is the IDS AWARD FOR NONENTITY OF THE YEAR, bestowed on those Quiet Men who promised much but then kept that promise well hidden.

Turn the clock back a month, and the nation was girding its collective loin in readiness for a booze-fuelled conflagration of beered-up young people letting rip in our city centres following the introduction of new licensing laws. And yet, to date, the amount of binge being drunk has not resulted in the kind of apocalypse too many tabloid editors (and MPs from all parties) were gloomily prophesying. Of course, the British still have a huge drinking problem, our lives seemingly having no meaning unless an inhibition-shedding intoxicant is coursing round our bloodstreams so that we can wake up the next day with a cast-iron alibi of deniability: "Did I really do that? I must have been so wasted." But to think that every pub chucking out piss-heads onto our streets at the same time each night was any kind of answer to this problem is absurd. Our society's warped attitude to alcohol seems to expect the government to remove the speck from our own eyes, so that we don't have to worry about the beam which still blinds us.

Another dog which failed to bark was the G8 summit to make poverty history. For all Sir Bob Geldof's protestations that the world's leaders, under his tutelage, had committed themselves to a deal which would end want in a world of surplus, the truth at the end of the year couldn't be clearer: our politicians, and the voters they represent, are willing to help the developing world only so long as there is no negative impact on our own way of life. Proof of Europe's complicity in the obscene trade tariffs which cripple poorer countries arrived with the setting of this month's EU budget for 2007-13. In spite of Mr Blair's pleas, and the sacrifice of part of the infamous British rebate, the Common Agricultural Policy - which gobbles up 40% of Europe's entire €862bn expenditure by subsidising large, rich farmers - is intact for years to come. Africa's plight remains a scar on the conscience of the world: 2005 simply applied a band-aid.

But the trophy for the Quiet Man award must go to this third-term Labour Government. It is only 31 weeks since Mr Blair scored his historic hat-trick of election victories - albeit with the support of just 36% of those who voted - and with it a mandate to implement his hefty 112-page manifesto, Forward Not Back. And yet his Government's heart just does not seem to be in it. Those policies which are put forward - whether Ruth Kelly's education reforms, or Patricia Hewitt's health proposals - are met with either apathy or antipathy, even from their own back-benches. The reason is simple. Mr Blair has recognised that the only way to embed improvement in the public services is to create markets so that scarce resources can be prioritised. The problem is that his party (and all too often my own) baulk at the very notion of markets. It's far more comfortable instead simply to argue that more money is always needed; and to pretend that words like efficiency and productivity are evil right-wing euphemisms, rather than tools for getting value for taxpayers' money. The Labour Party, drugged by Mr Blair's success, is now being dragged by its leader in a direction they loathe. Prepare for the whiplash, prepare for the Whips' lash.

* BThe final prize of this half's entertainment is the BILL CLINTON AWARD FOR THE COMEBACK OF THE YEAR, given in honour of those born in Hope who have come full circle.

First up, are two fictional heroes whose resurrections were heartily cheered. Personally, I've always liked the idea of Dr Who more than the reality. It evokes in me a comfy nostalgia of Saturday nights in the early 1980s: a little boy keenly anticipating being scared while lying in front of the fire after my bath. But I've tried watching those episodes since, and their cardboard campery leave me bored. And I'm afraid not even Christopher Ecclestone's re-generation as the ninth Doctor did it for me. He seemed to me just too thespy, too try-hard, too keen to show that he was bigger and better than the show. But, on the strength of David Tennant's Christmas Day debut, I'm going to give it another go: the storyline was taut, the scripting sharp, and the acting superb. (Killed by a satsuma… Even better than Dirty Den's original 'Death by Daffodils'.)

And then there's Harry Potter, who scored a double whammy with the release of The Half Blood Prince (or Episode VI, as I like to think of it), followed by the fourth film, Goblet of Fire. Both were a return to form after disappointing predecessors, and I am now on unabashed tenterhooks for the final reckoning. Accio Episode VII!

Back in the real world of public affairs, two men were in serious contention for this Comeback Award. Jamie Oliver has transformed himself in the space of just two years from the annoyingly chirpy, cheeky, chippy Naked Chef, whose smug Sainsbury's ads ratcheted up the profits of Tesco, to being feted as the culinary world's answer to Sir Bob. First there was Fifteen, his daringly entrepreneurial effort to train up a group of young people plucked from disadvantaged backgrounds and empower them to make his restaurant a success. Then came his crusade against the appalling nutritional poverty of school meals - at least as much of an indictment of our parents, as it was the inadequacy of government funding - which spurred the Government to inject an extra £280m into the system before you could say 'turkey twizzler'. Now, to cap it all, he has given this nation the most precious gift that was in his power to bestow: his Flavour Shaker, which "crushes, grinds, blends, mixes and more!" How any of us have managed to prepare a meal without one is a mystery only future social historians will have sufficient objectivity to be able to answer.

The winner, though, is David Blunkett, whose brave homage to Peter Mandelson - a swift return to the Cabinet followed by an equally prompt dismissal - mixed tragedy with farce. His directorship of, and shareholdings in, DNA Bioscience were not criminal, nor were they breaches of the ministerial code of practice. But Mr Blunkett's decision during the middle of an election campaign to join the board of a company about to bid for government contracts without bothering to seek clearance from the relevant advisory committee showed such crashingly inept misjudgement that he had only himself to blame for his swift dispatch. The Comeback Kid will not come back again, and so it seems fitting that the Award should be his.

* Click back here again in the next few days to find out who are the runners and riders for the second and final batch of awards.

December 15, 2005

The Telegraph on Oxford: wrong, wrong, wrong

If you read the headline, 'Oxford caves in on state selection', emblazoned across today's front page of The Daily Telegraph, what might you imagine is the story?

Perhaps you would think that the University has buckled to the Labour Government's latest social engineering whim? That it has agreed to junk independent selection by tutors on the basis of students' academic ability in favour of a postcode lottery? And that it will now simply filter out the posh kids, no matter how bright, in favour of those from grotty state schools, no matter how thick? If you read the Telegraph this morning, that would be a reasonable inference to draw. Yet it would be utter rubbish.

The Telegraph (and its usually pretty sane education editor, John Clare) have a twin agenda: they wish to pummel Labour at every opportunity, and they wish to bait Oxford into sticking it to the Government, and declaring itself private. They are well entitled to hold both views. But what is quite wrong is to distort the facts to fit their agenda. That is what they rather grubbily decided to do today.

So how has Oxford 'caved in' on state selection? What is the Telegraph's justification for its sensationalist inaccuracies? Well, a report has been prepared by the University's admissions executive, chaired by the president of Corpus Christi College, Sir Tim Lankester. This proposes radical reform of Oxford's admissions policy.
Currently, Oxford's 30 undergraduate colleges are responsible for admitting students for the University's degree courses: tutors assess applicants through a combination of submitted written work and personal interviews (and, sometimes, aptitude testing). There is an obvious downside to this. Some colleges - usually the richer, famous ones, like Magdalen - are vastly over-subscribed. Likewise so are some subject courses - such as Medicine. To apply to Oxford to read Medicine at Magdalen is, therefore, one of the toughest gigs going (as Laura Spence discovered).

Yet there are also colleges and courses - I daren't name names - which are, relatively speaking, under-subscribed. This has two knock-on effects. First, some applicants who are 'in the know' play the system, applying to read an esoteric subject at a poorer college, so upping their chances of getting a place at Oxford. Secondly - and this is the fundamental problem the Lankester report is seeking to address - it means Oxford is turning away some strong candidates for over-subscribed colleges, while accepting some weaker candidates who were interviewed by a college with fewer applicants. For a world-class university such as Oxford, this is a fundamental admissions flaw which has to be addressed.

Under the proposed new system candidates will, as they do now, apply to the University. They will then be interviewed by academic tutors within the faculty to which they have applied, and ranked according to academic ability. Such a system already operates with great success in individual faculties, such as Law and Medicine. Those candidates who are successful will then be free to choose the college they would like to attend.

The proposal - which will doubtless face fierce testing at the University's ruling body, Congregation - is not without its difficulties; most notably that it breaks the link between college tutors choosing the students for whom they will be responsible for three years. There will be many who lament such a change. Personally, I think the charge is overdone. College tutors often teach students at their own college for no more than one term, depending on which course options the student chooses. Besides, school teachers do not personally choose the students they teach, yet most find no difficulty in discharging their duty of care, educating every young person to the best of their ability. Why should university tutors be different? Are we really suggesting they don't give a toss for a student's performance unless they can take the credit for that student's admission?

All of this is the usual stuff of internal university politics. The proposal has been put - one which seeks to improve selection solely on the basis of academic merit, but with some loss to college autonomy - and it will now be hotly contested, as such vital reforms should be within an academic community. There is no question that Oxford will do anything other than continue to defend staunchly its right to select on its own terms candidates with the talent and potential to achieve the highest academic goals. To compromise its academic integrity would irreparably damage the University's global reputation for excellence.

But what totally defeats me is why any of this should be felt worthy of the front page of a national newspaper. I can't help thinking the Telegraph will do anything to avoid making the Liberal Democrats the lead story.

December 14, 2005

If you've not got anything nice to say...

Like other Lib Dem bloggers, I'm fed up to the back teeth with reading in the media about authoritative, anonymous sources who have told Charles Kennedy to pull up his socks.

Do I think CK is perfect? No. Does he sometimes frustrate me with his fuzziness? Yes. Has he been a successful leader? Undoubtedly. Does he deserve a bit of loyalty from a party he has led to its best position since the days of Lloyd George? Of course. Has he got the stomach to stay on as leader 'til the next election? Perhaps not.

But let's allow him some time to decide that, and not indulge in some knee-jerk panic to the much-hyped Cameron honeymoon. We are widely regarded as a decent party committed to fairness. Now is the time to display some of those qualities.

My message to those MPs indulging in reckless media briefing against CK is simple: shut the fuck up, or else show some backbone, and say in public what you're whispering in private.

December 13, 2005

It's déjà blue all over again

The Tory Party is in a rather chipper mood. They're cock-a-hoop, over-the-moon, on cloud nine. For they have elected a new leader. A man who will usher in a new political dawn, who can take the fight to Mr Blair's Labour Party, and win the next election.

He has united the Conservatives, promised to lead the party from the centre, bested Mr Blair at Prime Minister's Questions, boosted party membership, wooed back disillusioned donors, gained the support of The Sun, and propelled the Tories into the lead in the opinion polls. The threat he poses has set Mr Brown and Mr Blair at each other's throats, while support for Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats is hemorrhaging to the resurgent Tories.

Such were the headlines being written two years ago, in late 2003, after Michael Howard became leader of Her Majesty's Opposition.

Let's have a canter through some of the stories published in the Tory Party's house journal, The Daily Telegraph, following Mr Howard's ascension after IDS was swept under the carpet of political history. And, as you are reading, you may, dear reader, wish to consider if there are any similarities between such reportage, and the rather breathless excitement Mr Cameron's election has inspired.

Where better to kick off than with 'Confident Tories begin fight back' (31st Oct, 2003): "Michael Howard launched the Tories on the 'hard climb' back to power yesterday with a promise to lead from the centre and reunite the party's factions…. a new mood of confidence and excitement gripped the Conservatives, reshaping the landscape at Westminster." This perhaps suggests that Mr Cameron was not the first Tory leader to set the pulses of Tory supporters rushing by caressing their centrist G-spot. As columnist Bruce Anderson wrote just two days later, on 2nd November, "Suddenly, Tories believe that they have everything to play for. This weekend, they are almost ready to rediscover the long lost pleasures of political optimism."

That same day, political commentator Matthew d'Ancona dropped a bombshell: even Rupert Murdoch was tiring of the New Labour gloss: "Number 10 was deeply rattled by The Sun's glowing tributes to Mr Howard last week, having learned to depend deeply on the pro-Blair tabloid in the past six years. Suddenly, Mr Blair's officials scent in the wind that which they dread most: unpredictability."

And no wonder, for Mr Howard's was living up to his pledge to steer the Tory Party towards the mainstream, away from its preferred starboard lurch. The Telegraph's political editor, George Jones, reported on 6th November that "Michael Howard will launch his leadership of the Conservative Party today with a commitment to continue Iain Duncan Smith's efforts to show the party is committed to helping the disadvantaged. Mr Howard will make a decisive break with the 'uncaring' image acquired during the Thatcher years by demonstrating a new commitment to social justice and tackling poverty." Most laudable. And all of us can doubtless recall Mr Howard's determination to place social justice firmly right at the heart of the Tories' 2005 general election campaign. That and scapegoating refugees and gypsies.

Indeed, so popular was Mr Howard's caring initiative that, just the next day, the Telegraph gave due prominence to his parliamentary party's orgasmic raptures: "A new mood of unity and optimism swept through Conservative ranks at Westminster yesterday as Michael Howard was 'crowned' the party leader. In a sign that he intends to resist pressure to steer the Tories to the Right, Mr Howard described the party he would lead as 'broad and generous - broad in appeal and generous in outlook'… [Mr Howard] has impressed and worried Labour MPs. Suddenly they are faced with a competent Tory leader, who will be a match for Tony Blair, and can be presented as a credible prime minister-in-waiting."

As if his reformist, centrist, modernising policy agenda were not enough to get loyal Tories cheering, the new leader showed himself to be a bit of a dab hand at Prime Minister's Questions. His first joust with Mr Blair, on 12th November, buoyed the Party. The next day, George Jones enthused that Mr Howard had "lifted Tory morale yesterday when he demonstrated that he was the equal of Tony Blair during their first exchanges at Prime Minister's Questions." To top it all off, the following week Mr Howard was named Parliamentarian of the Year by The Spectator, edited by his old mucker, Boris Johnson.

But his Midas touch didn't stop there. Within a fortnight of his coronation, Mr Howard had single-handedly recruited 6,000 new members to the Party, declared Conservative Central Office: "The surge in membership was the biggest since the early days of Margaret Thatcher's government, they claimed," (23rd Nov, 2003).

No wonder that, in the face of this onslaught of popular appeal, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties wilted. 'Lib Dem collapse is the Tories' chance' the Telegraph reported, rather excitedly, on 28th November, 2003. The paper's YouGov poll gave the Tories 38%, Labour 36% and the Lib Dems 19%. As Professor Anthony King pithily predicted: "The Tories are back. Michael Howard has been Conservative leader for only three weeks but YouGov's latest monthly survey for The Telegraph suggests that he has already returned his party to the political mainstream." One can understand fully, therefore, why Tory supporters have greeted with such rhapsody Mr Cameron's first poll ratings, with this month's YouGov showing the Tories on 37%, Labour 35% and the Lib Dems 21%.

Now I have no wish to piss on the Tory Party's parade - perish the thought - but a sense of perspective is always a welcome quality. Conservatives have a quite endearing need to believe in their leader's Messianic ability to deliver them to the promised land of milk, honey and xenophobia. Once it was Mr Howard, now it is Mr Cameron. The media, for its part, simply wishes for some excitement, and so is quite happy to build up the latest challenger to Mr Blair's sustained domination of the political stage. Mr Cameron may just yet turn out to be the Tory Party's salvation. But nothing which has happened in the last two months is evidence of that. The proof lies in the future.

December 08, 2005

The media misses the mark

Look at today's front pages, and there's only one story in town: the virginal David Cameron's deflowering of Tony Blair leads almost every front page.

'You were the future once' gibes The Daily Telegraph, picking up on Mr Cameron's slighting of the Prime Minister. It's a measure of our low and falling expectations of the British political media that its obsession with yesterday's theatrical detrita should seem so unremarkable. For sure, Mr Cameron done good. He looked reasonably confident, read out his questions just fine, and remembered a couple of the ad libs he'd prepped. But that he and Mr Blair were debating reform of our schools was a triviality apparently beneath the reporting dignity of Fleet Street's finest.

Lest we forget, the issue was the admissions policy of this country's secondary schools. The Tories want all schools to be free to set their own criteria: a de facto return to selection, most likely according to academic ability. This is a policy vigorously opposed by Labour, and by the Lib Dems, both of which reject any suggestion that the 11-plus should be exhumed. It's a big political debate, the outcome of which will affect all current or prospective parents with school-age kids.

Which is what makes the abject and pathetic coverage by our media of yesterday's PMQs so depressing. Did they subject the statements of either Mr Blair or Mr Cameron to any critical analysis? Did they tease out what their positions meant for their parties' respective education policies? Did they assess what effect such policies would have on the lives of our children, parents or teachers? Of course not. Because that would be hard. And it might be boring. Then people would switch off.

This is perhaps why Charles Kennedy's crucial questions to the Prime Minister have been under-reported. Mr Kennedy put Mr Blair on-the-spot about the USA's seemingly routine deployment of so-called 'extraordinary renditions' - transporting suspected terrorists from the US to a third country for further questioning, interrogation and (the widespread fear is) torture in covert CIA prisons.

Once such accusations might have been dismissed as European paranoiac fantasy. But the scandalous abuses perpetrated at Guantánamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib lend credence to these disturbing allegations. Mr Blair blandly reassured the House of Commons that, "The practice of rendition as described by [US] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been American policy for many years…. However, it must be applied in accordance with international conventions, and I accept entirely Secretary of State Rice's assurance that it has been."

When Mr Kennedy then followed-up - to ask if, and when, Mr Blair was told about the 400 rendition flights through 18 British airports which has been documented by the Mail on Sunday - the PM dissembled bafflement: "In respect of airports, I do not know what the Right Honorable Gentleman is referring to."

This was a sneaky lie, glibly told in order to dodge a tricky question about a fundamental issue of human rights. As this week's Economist punchily notes: "snatching people off a foreign country's streets and holding them incommunicado in an undisclosed place without charge for months, even years, without even their families' knowledge, is unlawful, whether or not torture is involved." Yet Mr Blair stayed silent, and the media stayed schtum - because concentrating on gladiatorial personality politics is just so much easier than having to place three syllable words like 'rendition' within the context of international law.

Indeed, the media might - if they had been feeling at all interested in thinking hard - have asked the new Tory leader his opinion of the US's practice of rendition. For, as Jonathan Freedland noted in yesterday's Guardian, Mr Cameron and his Notting Hill henchmen, George Osborne, Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey, are all vigorous cheerleaders of the invasion of Iraq, and fully signed-up to the neo-con agenda of forcibly exporting democracy. Yet the media are so in love with their own love-in that they have chosen deliberately to ignore Mr Cameron's policy weaknesses. It simply doesn't fit with their current agenda, which is to project the image of a messianic leader capable of socking it to New Labour, and injecting a bit of dynamic competition back into politics now they've tired of Mr Blair's decade of dominance.

Writing in the Financial Times Magazine last week-end, its former editor John Lloyd proposed a five-point plan to rescue the media from its present pitifully parlous predicament. Though a bit of a curate's egg, his last paragraph at least struck me as bang-on-the-money:

"[Journalists] should always be aware - and seek to make readers, listeners and viewers aware - of complexity. Few things in public life are easy to solve, to reform or to conclude. The debates we have as a nation are always made cruder by being simplified, and though it's hard to keep that in mind and also keep an audience, we have to be true to that if we're being true to our profession."
It's a noble clarion call to his colleagues, all of whom will turn a deaf ear to its plea, content instead to plaster their front pages, or pollute the airwaves, with schlock-fest politicking.

December 04, 2005

Time to develop a liberal choice agenda

British political life currently inhabits a strangely unreal world. Events are moving fast, so fast they appear to be static. This Wednesday, the new leader of the Conservatives – let’s call him David Cameron – will take on the old leader of New Labour, Tony Blair, at Prime Minister’s Questions.

For all that the media will big-up the occasion, this will be merely the opening skirmish of a ‘phoney war’. Mr Blair is increasingly a lame duck leader and we are all awaiting the arrival of the rival, Gordon Brown, at some undefined future point in this Parliament. In the interim, it seems, the public and politicians are content to put their feet up, and put politics to one side, until such time as the parties have got their own houses in order. All of which rather begs the question for the Liberal Democrats: what do we do while we’re waiting?

On the face of it, the party should be satisfied with its position. With 62 MPs, the Lib Dems are the largest third party force since 1929. The opinion polls have us at a steady state 20 per cent in spite of the media’s Tory lurve-fest since Mr Cameron’s ‘rise without trace’. And yet there is a creeping sense of nervousness: suddenly, all the old certainties are gone.

First, our infamous ‘decapitation’ election targeting strategy imploded. This was a bit of a shock to the system. We have become so used to smash ‘n’ grab by-election victories, and to the public’s residual disdain for the Tory party, that we assumed we could knock out such luminaries as Oliver Letwin, David Davis (remember him?) and Theresa May with one more heave. We were wrong.

Then came autumn’s Blackpool party conference, when the media - rather tediously - focused on Charles Kennedy’s chairmanship/leadership. For what it’s worth, let me state my views on this side-issue in five easy-to-digest points:
* Mr Kennedy is an under-estimated leader whose collegial, laid-back, informal style fits our party snugly.
* He has called some of the big decisions, notably Iraq, pretty much right.
* His carefully cultured anti-politician normality has worked well for the party in an age of geek-wonkery, and has helped give us a firm foot-hold in the Celtic regions.
* However, he is still frustratingly waffly in interviews, and has yet to project a resonant narrative for the party.
* He is safe from a leadership challenge as there is no obvious successor. (Simon Hughes is much more sharply intelligent than he is sometimes credited, but is too excitably gaffe-prone; Mark Oaten is too polarising; Ming Campbell is too clearly a caretaker-leader; and Nick Clegg is too promising to be thrust into pole position prematurely.)

The bigger conference debate - which the media largely ignored because it concerned policy, and so made their heads hurt – centred on our political direction. This continues to be portrayed within and without the party (much to my visceral dislike) as a straight ‘left versus right’ battle for the soul of the Liberal Democrats. This is, of course, a crashingly one-dimensional reductio ad absurdum.

Occasionally, it is elevated to a more historical level, and pitched as a battle between nineteenth-century ‘economic liberals’ (who believe in a minimal state and free markets) and twentieth-century ‘New Liberals’ (who believe in big government and state intervention). This still seems to me to be an unhelpfully antiquated approach, and one which ignores the realities and complexities of our globalised market economy.

But, praise be, the Lib Dems are now thinking seriously about economic issues, recognising that, in the real world, robust financial planning must be at the heart of our decision-making. It is not necessarily that voters expect today’s party to be tomorrow’s government. However, they do expect the Lib Dems, which may well hold the balance of power by 2009, to have an affordable, prioritised programme. The current hiatus in the political maelstrom gives us the opportunity to work out what our direction should be, and how that will map across to our next election manifesto.

Any pair of binary ideological labels is, of course, open to the charge of over-simplification. But I hope my party sees itself as being firmly on the side of the consumer, the individual; even when this sets the Lib Dems in opposition to the interests of the producer, whether state or private. Such definitions are designedly vague, so let me be a little more explicit:
* The best, most effective way of delivering public services is via markets where the consumer has free and fair choice between competing providers.
* Market failure is inevitable: both/either because consumers lack purchasing power to be able to buy into a particular market; and/or because producers operate restrictive trading practices which skew the market.
* Such market failure is best corrected by ensuring every consumer has access to those markets which are essential for them to realise their potential; and by ensuring all producers can compete on a level playing field.

What does such economic theorising mean in reality? Well, for a start it means the Lib Dems should junk their knocking of the ‘choice agenda’ for public services simply because it’s being sponsored by Mr Blair. It is too glib simply to say we believe “there should be ‘choice for all’”, as Mr Kennedy did in a keynote speech this summer. Certainly the Prime Minister’s attempts to direct reform from the centre are to be decried. But his Brighton conference speech spelled out, simply and clearly, what should (bar the references to Labour) be the liberal choice agenda for public services:
“The truth is, command public services today are no more acceptable than a command economy. The 21st century's expectations in public services are a world away from those of 1945. People demand quality, choice, high standards. Why? Because in every other walk of life they demand them. And they are paying their taxes, so they feel they are entitled to them.… There's a great myth here, which is that we don't have a market in services now; we do. It's called private schools and private healthcare. But it's only open to the well-off. There is another myth: choice is a New Labour invention. Wrong. Choice is what wealthy people have exercised for centuries. The Tories have always been comfortable with that. But for Labour, choice is too important to be the monopoly of the wealthy.”

To date the Lib Dems have too often appeared to be in denial about the existence of markets in education and health-care. Our approach to public services has been simply to say: more taxes, more devolution. Undoubtedly, proper funding and local power are both essential if we are to have better schools and hospitals. But we would be naïve to assume that they are a panacea. There will never be enough money, and local decision-makers will sometimes make mistakes. We must, therefore, address seriously how we can develop a market in our public services which allocates scarce resources fairly and efficiently, which holds local decision-makers accountable, and in which the consumer has the power to exercise effective choice.

The arrival of Mr Cameron may make our job harder. If, as he self-proclaims, he intends to lead a moderate, modern Conservative Party – one which prioritises the environment, localism, and choice in public services – the so-called centre ground of British politics is going to become more crowded. But that does not mean we should politely vacate our liberal pitch in order to give Mr Cameron some room. We should instead plant our liberal flag firmly in the ground, and proudly state: we were here first.

December 01, 2005

A wet centrist, me?

Thank you The Apollo Project for featuring my most recent post - about internal Lib Dem left/right name-calling - on your latest Top 10 Lib Dem blog posts. It appears to have attracted the ire of one of my readers. I don't normally respond to comments through a separate posting, but decided to make an exception this time:

Anonymous said...

Stephen this is a pathetic letter. The debate between the left and right of the party matters quite a great deal in respect of which future liberal voters or otherwise we will be able to attact.

The right of the party believe that the best coalition is of social and economic liberals, that tends to include a lot of left-wing Tories and disgruntled centrists who currently vote for Labour. The left of the party belivee the best is one of social liberals, social democrats and liberal socialists, broadly a coalition of the left or charitably a progressive coalition. What you can't have though is a sort of catch-all spanning the lot. socialists and eocnomic liberals are opponents on most tax and spend matters.

They can agree tactically on civil liberties, but that's rather small beer in the policy portfolio of a future government compared to doing a budget.

In fact it's wet centrists like you sitting there whining passively about why we can't just all get along, rather than taking difficult decisions is precisely why we are in this situation today. The leader being the worst offender.

Oxford Liberal (aka Stephen Tall) says...

Good lord, it's a long time since I've been called a wet centrist! I'll remember that next time someone takes me to task for supporting the
legalisation of drugs or the necessity of university top-up fees.

Your comment makes my point for me. No-where have I said, or would I say, that we should avoid a debate which requires difficult decisions (tip: read my article).

What I do want is a debate on our own liberal terms. By unwrapping the useless and unhelpful terms, 'left' and 'right', you've indicated the kind of debate we should be having. (Though I'd suggest ditching the word 'pathetic' and not posting anonymously might be a yet more grown-up approach.)

But that is not the debate which is raging on the letters page of Lib Dem News right now. There the argument is (I paraphrase only slightly): we need to be more left/right-wing to win over Labour/Tory voters. That kind of simplistic logic is what made me despair, and prompted my letter.

Finally... to imagine, as you appear to, that there is no common ground between 'economic liberals' and ' socialist liberals' - other than civil liberties - is a mistake. Opening up markets to competition, and enabling the poorest to take advantage of those markets, are two concepts which can co-exist happily. There are many instances of co-operative societies and not-for-profit trusts where these find practical expression, and unite those with differing ideologies.

You don't always need to pick a fight to win an argument.