Monday, 25 May 2015

What Liberal Democrats stand for

Way back in the 1980s, when the Social Democratic party was formed, I was at a joint meeting at which one of the SDP members asked what Liberals stood for.  I jotted some ideas  on the back of an envelope (I think I've still got it somewhere) and spoke briefly on the following lines -

LIBERTY comes at the top of our list of beliefs, with the John Stuart Mill constraint that we are free only to do what doesn’t harm others. This means that we value variety, welcome people with different cultures and religions and believe that diversity enriches society.  Where the preservation of liberty clashes with our other beliefs, such as equality, then we put liberty first.

EQUALITY AND SECURITY.  We believe that all individuals are equally valuable.  Hence we believe that the state has the dual function of both preventing some people becoming too rich (by progressive taxation) and providing a generous safety-net for the poor, so that all have the ability to participate fully in the norms of society.  We are proud that Welfare State was introduce by the Liberals Lloyd George (the People’s Budget, sick pay, retirement pensions) Winston Churchill (employment exchanges) and developed on the principles of William Beveridge (conquering the five giants of idleness, ignorance, squalor, sickness and want) and regulating the economy to achieve these aims using the economics of J M Keynes.

DEMOCRACY.  Liberals believe that people can be trusted. (Both Conservatives and Socialists believe at heart that we need to be coerced).  We want to see parliamentary reform, so that the people’s representatives have genuine control over the executive; reform of the electoral system by the introduction of proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies; an elected second chamber representative of the regions, to which power will have been devolved to regional governments; and vital local government.  All political power should be exercised at the lowest possible level.  We are devolvers, not centralisers.

WORKPLACE DEMOCRACY.  Our trust for individuals extends to the workplace, where we believe that workers should have a share in the decisions their firms make (which often have a bigger influence on their daily lives than the decisions of government.)  We have advocated and pioneered schemes of profit sharing (Taylor of Batley, for example), and industrial democracy.  Our belief in the value of variety means that we would not lay down a single pattern.  The concept of “Stakeholder” firms and, indeed, a “Stakeholder Society”, is essentially Liberal.

INTERNATIONALISM.  We believe that Liberal values should extend beyond the shores of this country.  We are the only British political party to have consistently supported full, enthusiastic and committed membership of the European Union, not simply because we feel that to stay outside, or semi-detached, condemns us to fourth rate political and economic significance, though that is probably true, but because we see the EU as a bold and exciting adventure. The more idealistic of us even see it as a step on the way to world government.  We believe that all international action should be taken through the United Nations, which should be reformed to reflect present day political realities.  We campaign consistently for Third World development through the cancellation of unpayable debt, the reform of the world trading system to end the exploitation of poorer and weaker economies, and  appropriate development aid from the rich to the poor countries.

SUSTAINABILITY.  We reject the concept that further continuous economic growth in the developed countries is the be-all and end-all of  politics and life .  A more equitable sharing of what we have is far more important, with consideration for the quality of the environment through the conservation of energy, the development of sustainable energy sources and economic processes, and emphasis on greater happiness thorough involvement in art, leisure and the community rather than the accumulation of further private material wealth.

EDUCATION is seen by Liberals as a major liberating experience. We reject the restrictive link between education and employment and believe that every individual should have access to and the opportunity to enjoy education for its own sake throughout their lives.

The 2015 election was fought not on great principles but a series of messy tit-bits which were effectively bribes To revive, and I'm sure we shall, we Liberal Democrats need to establish what sort of society we want, based I hope on the lines outlined above, and make it clear in our campaigning that we are not just pavement politicians who work "all the year round" but have values and beliefs which many people share

Friday, 22 May 2015

On to the Victorians

A friend has passed on to me a cutting from a ten yea old copy (21/01/2005) of the Guardian which reports the creation of a seven mile walk in York to celebrate the life and work of Joseph Rowntree (1836 - 1925).  Rowntree, a Quaker, established the famous cocoa and chocolate business and the article cites him as "one of Britain's greatest and most interesting philanthropists."  Rowntree was "far ahead of his time as a progressive employer, radical thinker and social innovator" who "was a pioneer in modern employment, from pension schemes to employee shareholding and works councils."

Apparently he lived a modest life, often walked to work and took quite family holidays in Scarborough  (where I spent VE Day: see earlier post).

Rowntree left most of his fortune to various trusts and you can read about the scope of their work on

All this seems light years away from the short term profit maximising ethos which seems to dominate the thinking of the hard headed, grasping captains of  finance,commerce and industry today,  and I regret that things are likely to get even worse in the next five years.

In the meantime the broad left should be thinking how we can create an alternative ethos, of long term consideration not only for profit but also for people and the planet, for which we can campaign with confidence and enthusiasm at the next election.

What's left of we Liberal Democrats, with our long tradition of advocacy of profit sharing and employee participation, should take a leading role in this.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Labour anti-biusiness?

When she entered the contest for the Labour leadership two days ago Yvette Cooper apparently criticised Ed Miliband's campaign for being "anti-business."  The only appropriate response I can think of involves too many expletives which would need  to be deleted.

I haven't studied Miliband's comments on business in any detail, but, for heaven's sake, it is not being unfriendly to business to suggest that they should:
  • pay their taxes;
  • observe health and safety laws;
  • offer employment contracts which respect the needs of their employees as well as their own.
That seems to me to have been the gist of the Labour campaign.  Throughout this blog I have lamented sadly on Labour's crass failure to defend their economic record in government, and to allow the Tories' risible claim for economic competence to pass unchallenged.  If Labour is now so terrified of right-wing propaganda that they chicken out of demanding that  businesses  play a fair and constructive part in the society which sustains their activities then what is the use of it?

A letter from a former Cambridge professor, Roger Carpenter*, in last Saturday's Guardian asks: "[I]s it not time for those who care about creating a society that is fair, civilised, compassionate, and protected from the power of the big corporations . . ." to agree that [the Labour party] "be left to die" and "to start again."

Without being explicit the letter seems to favour a Rainbow Coalition of a reformed or replaced Labour party with the Greens and Liberals."who still believe in a decent society."

Whatever the solution that is something to think about and  prepare for during the next five years, as the Conservatives exercise unbridled their instincts as the "nasty party," pandering to the powerful and letting the weakest go to the wall. 

*Professor Carpenter also usefully defines "aspiration" as "greed and selfishness," also something worth thinking about.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Yet more lords

I see from today's paper that David Cameron has appointed an economist called Jim O'Neill, famous for coining the term BRICs to describe the large and increasingly influential economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, to be Commercial Secretary at the  Treasury.  I suspect a few of the  330 Conservative MPs, some of whom will have toiled hard and long to retain or win their seats, or get selected for a safe seat, will be a bit miffed  and feel that they could do the job just as well.   I feel some sympathy with them.

But personally I am made even more indignant that Cameron is perpetuating the daft system by which, as well as bringing an "outsider"  into the government (for which there can sometimes be a good reason) he also gives the lucky recipient a fancy title for life, the right for his children to call themselves Honourable, and at the current rate, £300 of our, taxpayers' money (in other context the Tories are very fond of making that point) for every day he chooses to "sign in."  (Less fortunate citizens receive £66.45 a week, yes, a week, of our taxpayers' money when they "sign on" for Job Seekers' Allowance (JSA), as unemployment benefit is now pointedly called.)  Oh, and under current proposals, or rather lack of them,  that £300 a day is for life too, though  the right to JSA runs out after 182 days.

For the life of me I cannot see why, when it is necessary to bring an "outsider" into the government, he or she can't be given the right to appear  before either House of Parliament, or any of their  committees, in order to make statements and respond to questions.  This could be achieved by a simple amendment to the rules and conventions until the expensive and undemocratic flummery of the House of Lords is ended and a democratic second chamber substituted.

Unfortunately such common sense reforms are not to be expected from this government and all we can do for the next five years is fume.

Will there also be "resignation honours" even though hardly anyone has actually resigned?

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Steel's six beefs

After praising Nick Clegg for his "dedication and skill" in keeping the coalition intact for the whole term  of the parliament, when many pundits confidently predicted it could not possibly last, our former leader David Steel, in an article yesterday, goes on to make six criticisms of Clegg's leadership.  In my view he misses out Clegg's two most crucial errors, but  first let's examine the Steel Six.

1.  Clegg promised that, in the event that no party had a majority he would talk first to the largest minority.  I don't see this as an error but think this was and is perfectly acceptable position.  It seems right that the largest party should have first crack of the whip, though there was no need for the discussions with the second party to  be vaguely clandestine.  I do agree that the idea, floated by panicking Tories in 2015,  that a coalition which excluded the largest party would somehow lack legitimacy, is a nonsense.

2. The formation of the coalition over a weekend was too rushed. Agreed.  I suggest a minimum a three weeks, which would give the parties time to study the "small print" and recognise the pitfalls (eg in 2010 that a Tory agreement  to "bring forward proposals  for electoral reform" did not mean that they would vote for them.) *

3. In both he coalition negotiations and in government little use was made of experienced senior people  (Ming Campbell et al). Instead jobs given to inexperienced young Turks.  Agreed, and so  in the coalition negotiations in particular the Tories ran rings round us. Also neglected were the Liberal Democrat council leaders who had already had experience of negotiating successful coalitions at local government level.

4.  Tuition fees.  Yes, the issue is not the tuition fees themselves, but the dramatic loss of trust in our reputation for  credibility and honesty which, painstakingly built up over the years, was our major asset.  Thanks, young Turks.

5.  The constitutional reforms (AV referendum and House of Lords proposals) were ill thought out and introduced too hastily.  I would be more inclined to accept that the proposals were the best that could be obtained in a coalition compromise. Electoral reform failed because the Tories misled us (see above), the campaign against was disreputable and the campaign for feeble.  Lords reform failed because of Labour's duplicity (they voted for the reform but not for the parliamentary time to implement the legislation).

6.  The debate with Farage. I don't see this as an error.  By taking part Clegg enhanced our pro-EU credentials and I  fully expected him to win the day with may plaudits.  Sometimes, alas, over-confident bluster triumphs over reasoned argument, but this was not to be anticipated.

The two major errors which Steel does not mention are:

1.  Clegg's early declaration, made in the era of the misguided "rose garden" hubris, that we could not pick and choose, but must "own" everything the coalition did.    Rather we should have, in the coalition negotiations, defined:
i.  those issues on which we agreed and on which we  would argue and vote together;
ii.  those issues on which we, as the minor party, took a different  view, but on which we would give "confidence and supply" support;
iii.  those issues on which we would reserve the right to campaign for an alternative and to abstain in on any vote in parliament;
iv. issues on which we would reserve the right to campaign and vote independently.

This taxonomy, or something similar, should be noted and argued for if and when we got the chance to be part of another coalition government.

2.  The craven support of a misguided, vindictive, unnecessary and counter-productive economic policy way outside the traditions of the party, heir of that of Keynes and Beveridge.  One if my worst political memories is that of Nick Clegg  patting with approval the shoulders of George Osborne after his first and highly illiberal budget, which reversed the economic recovery already under way.  On this issue we should have at least taken option (ii) above, explained that the Tories had over 300 MPs, we had only 57, so we couldn't stop them, but were the numbers reversed we should do things very differently.

A minor irritation rather than a personal error (lots of Liberals are equally guilty) was Clegg's repeated claim of occupying the "centre ground."  He and others have been told repeatedly that that definition allows others to define our position.  We are a distinctive party with a distinctive position; on liberty, the rule of law, democracy, internationalism, compassion, the responsibility of the government to attempt to regulate the economy in the interest of all etc.  We define ourselves and don't and won't allow anyone else to do so.

* Comments below claim, and I accept, that it was always clear that the Conservatives would campaign against.

Monday, 11 May 2015

What's hapened to altruism?

The first phase of the Labour party's inquest on their election defeat  has unearthed the view that their campaign concentrated too much on those at the bottom of the pile - the unemployed, social security recipients, those on zero-hours contracts - and neglected to appeal to  "middle England" - the aspirational middle classes.  In the words of Chuka Umunna, already the bookies' 2 to1 favourite in the race for the Labour leadership:

"Our vision as a party must start with the aspirations of voters: to get on and up in the world, to see their children and grandchildren do better than they did, to get that better job, to move from renting to owning, to take the family on holiday, to move from that flat to a house with a garden."*

Well, apart from he mention of holidays that vision of society doesn't do much to inspire me, and the emphasis on going "up in the world" and "children and grandchildren [doing] better than they did" envisages a hierarchical society which has little to do with socialism and is the very antithesis of liberalism.

Surely the comfortable middle classes, of which I am one, are not totally devoid of altruism, decency, "doing unto others as you would they would do unto you"  (however you like to put it).   I want to live in a society which cares for those who, for one reason or another (and often through no fault of their own, as with the disabled) need help.

Or, as the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution puts it, a society: "in which no one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."

For what it's worth, here or my views on the reasons for the failure of the Labour campaign:

  • they failed criminally even to try to defend their record of reasonable economic competence in government, allowing the Tories to get away with placing the cause of the world economic crash on Labour, whilst making a risible claim to their own economic competence:
  • they were unable either  in opposition or the campaign to challenge effectively most of the errors of the Tories because Labour itself had introduced the neo-liberal and authoritarian policies against which they should have been campaigning (privatisation of the NHS, PFIs, 42 days detention  without charge etc. - see previous post).  New Labour was and is a hindrance to a truly progressive society, not a pattern to be followed.
A fundamental problem is that both Tories and Labour are parties whose philosophy and existence are based on the economic relationship: they will act primarily in the interests of capital and the comfortable (the Tories) or in the interests of those whom the economic system,  given the chance,  will exploit.  Given this dichotomy on interests, neither of these two parties can create a society in which  we are genuinely "all in it together."

When I began the formal study of politics way back in the 1950s my first lecturer, a Mr Chekanovski (I may have spelt that wrongly) actually included "the British  sense of fair play" as one of the unwritten aspects of our constitution.  I doubt if anyone would make that claim today.

What Britain lacks is a party that can combine competence with fairness.  That is the gap which, out of our own introspections, the Liberal Democrats must try to fill.

* quoted from today's Guardian

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Moving on

A friend of mine with far more experience than I of so-called "senior management" in British secondary schools tells me that, whenever he wanted a discussion of the causes of some debacle or other the response was inevitably : " Never mind that, George (and assumed name): we must put it behind us and move on." So the causes of errors never received adequate examination and the team continued its merry way to the next omnishambles.

It seems to me that both the Liberal Democrats and Labour are in danger of making the same mistake, with the rushed resignations of the leaders precipitating  the participants' engagement and the media's speculation on the next stage - the new leadership.  Tim Farron has already been tipped as the Liberal Democrat favourite, Alan Johnson has already declared that his hat will not be in the Labour ring.  So we are encouraged to pant with excitement about the next contest instead of pausing to reflect on why we lost the last and far more crucial one  so spectacularly.

Both parties, indeed all the "broad left," need to  take a long hard look as to why the Conservatives were able to win an election on the basis of a false claim for their own economic competence, the equally false  claim of Labour's economic incompetence, actual bribes (borrowing from we over 65s  at 4% when they could have borrowed on the markets for a fraction of that rate), and potential bribes (housing association stock built with taxpayer subsidies to be sold off at a discount to the lucky occupiers whilst there is a a critical shortage of affordable housing), and many more misrepresentations and obfuscations

Was it he fault of  the media: the overwhelmingly hostile press, largely foreign owned or by non-doms and tax exiles?  Was the print media, in an age of twitter and other digital forms of communication, significant, and if so what should be done about it?  Rules to break up ownership?  Full implementation of Leveson?

What about election spending?  We shall receive the precise details in a few weeks, but can safely assume that the Tories outspent Labour by a factor of three and the Liberal Democrats by a factor of umpteen. How can we convey the unfairness of this?  How limit it in the future?

And what about spending between election?   Someone (a PhD student?) needs to be commissioned to assess the effect of Lord  Ashcroft's (once again a tax exile?) spending in key marginals the Tories hoped to gain.  Was the swing to the Tories greater in these, and if so how do we combat it in the future?

There will clearly, as is normal, be much talk of electoral reform.  And, as normal, interest will evaporate after a fortnight or so. What can be done to keep it alive, and what can be done to secure agreement between the broad left parties on a revised system to be introduced when we next get the chance?

The above affect all the parties, and I'm sure there are many others.

Here's one specific to the Liberal Democrats: that of honesty.  I'm not sure but I think it was Professor John Curtice who said in a radio interview yesterday that, in his view, the Conservatives won the election on the day the Liberal Democrats reneged on our pledge and failed to vote against the tripling of university tuition fees.  His reasoning was that, in that moment, we lost our credibility and reputation for direct dealing and our support in Liberal/Tory marginals (of which there are, or rather were,  more than Liberal/Labour marginals) promptly switched to the Tories.  And no amount of huffing and puffing about what a good job we were doing in the coalition could win it back

Never again should we make any pledge or promise that we don't intend to do our best to keep.

Media-generated excitement about who are and are not to be the next leaders should not detract us from a thorough inquest in our flawed performances in 2015