Sunday, 25 September 2011

Nick Clegg rolls out the clichés on his party’s long road to nowhere.

Anyone in the vicinity of the Liberal Democrat conference last week would have been able to put their ear to the ground and hear the rumble of a statement of the blindingly obvious approaching. Here it comes; leader Nick Clegg found the decision to raise university tuition fees ‘heart wrenching.’ Golly; who’d have thought it eh?

In his keynote speech to the party conference last Wednesday afternoon he went on to assure delegates just how ‘tough’ being in government had been over the past year. It had, he said, ‘brought tough decisions’ like that pesky problem of campaigning against a rise in tuition fees only to backtrack later for example, and he had seen the anger this generated amongst the electorate saying, ‘I felt it, I have learnt from it and I know how much damage it has done us as a party.;

Referring to the party’s tumultuous year in government Mr Clegg said ‘I suspect none of us predicted how tough it would be,’ he went on to say the Lib Dems had ‘lost support, we’ve lost councillors and we lost a referendum. I know how painful it has been to face anger and frustration on the doorstep.’

So not much of a year then eh Nick; but never mind because the party faithful can be assured their leader is committed to doing what it ‘right’ rather than what is simply ‘easy’; taking the long hard road that for all its trials leads if not to the sunlit uplands then at least to a better and happier place where clichés can roam free. In a neat little rhetorical question he asked ‘some of you may have wondered will it all be worth it in the end? It will be.’

As proof Nick Clegg pointed to the party’s success in winning concessions on Tory plans to reform the NHS and over human rights. There is, of course, some truth in this, Andrew Lansley did ‘pause’ in his plans to reform the NHS in deference to the junior partner in the coalition raising concerns; before carrying on pretty much as before.

The Liberal Democrats do deserve some praise for sticking to their non-negotiable commitment to protecting the Human Rights Act, which they, rightly, love and the more foam flecked wing of the Conservative Party hate with a passion. As Nick Clegg put it ‘Let me say something about the Human Rights Act; it is here to stay;’ quite so, but it may be transformed into a UK Bill of Rights and what position will his party take then? I fear more soul searching may follow.

As conference speeches go there was nothing remarkable about Nick Clegg’s performance, he didn’t use notes and spoke ‘in the round’, meaning at any one time he had his back to half the audience. Quite brave of him when you come to think about it since he is not well loved by his fellow Liberals just now.

It was all though just a little on the bland side; a bit meh, as the teenagers might put it. In fact you could say the same thing for the whole conference. There was none of the simmering resentment you can expect when Labour convene in Liverpool next week, nobody dropped a serious clanger; as I said, a bit meh really.

We did, I suppose learn a little more about Nick Clegg, he seems to be rather like a sort of needy university lecturer. Trying his hardest to be down with the kids, an authority figure but not a stuffed shirt; you can just imagine him calling his students ‘guys’ and them mocking him mercilessly once his back was turned.

There were, of course the usual attempts to be controversial that were, again as usual, utterly contrived. Vince Cable had a pop at the bankers; Energy Secretary Chris Huhne laid into greedy energy companies. Needless to say the delegates lapped it up, mostly because it must have seemed comfortingly like old times, the not too long ago golden days when they could shake their fists in righteous indignation safe in the knowledge they would never have to solve any of the country’s problems.

It was all rather sad really, there were no big policy announcements; they’ll all have been hoarded for the speeches David Cameron and George Osborne make to the Tory conference the week after next. Instead it seemed more like a dismal trade fair than a brave attempt by an embattled party to forge a distinct identity for itself.

If you were the hypothetical activist Nick Clegg imagined asking him or herself if it had all been worth it; the public animosity, the wholesale selling off of long held principles, the near certainty that the 2015 election will bring a return to political oblivion; the answer on the strength of this sad fandango of a conference would have to be that it hasn’t.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Liberal Democrats have to fight for more than just the 50 pence tax rate if they are to survive.

The time was when the Liberal Democrat conference was the political equivalent of the band of the Salvation Army playing before the FA Cup final, an amusing anachronism designed to entertain people as they took their seats for the real contest. This year though it really means something; what it means is that this is the year when the Liberal Democrats have to decide what the want to fight for and how much of a price they are willing to pay to win.

What leader Nick Clegg wants to fight for, despite the best efforts of the Chancellor and his friends in the city to persuade the voting public that it doesn’t work, is retention of the fifty pence tax rate for higher earners. A tax cut for the ‘very, very, rich’, he said in an interview given to the Independent on the eve of the party conference in Birmingham this week wouldn’t happen ‘until there is significant progress on giving tax breaks to those on lower and middle incomes.’

The progress in question means in practice replacing the fifty pence tax rate with something like the ‘mansion tax’ that got the Lib Dems into so much trouble at their last conference but one. It’s a nice idea and one that plays well with the public, at least it does if the technicalities are worked out more convincingly this time round; but it will surely founder on the rocks of a Treasury that quivers with terror whenever the financial big beasts roar that they’re going to take their businesses elsewhere if they don’t get their way.

Nick Clegg also commented with disarming understatement on the fortunes of his party over the past year, saying things had been ‘really tough’ and that ‘some people who used to support us don’t now.’ You can say that again, in the May local elections the Liberal Democrats lost 747 seats in councils across the country and implication in the party’s handbrake turn over university tuition fees and the disastrous campaign in support of AV mean that these days NOBODY agrees with Nick.

He went on to say that the Liberal Democrats had come into government under ‘obviously controversial circumstances because we were governing with our sworn enemies the Conservative Party and, even more controversially having to make very, very difficult and in some cases unpopular decisions.’ It would be naive on the party supporters to have expected a seat at the top table not to have come with a number of compromises attached, but the Lib Dems seem to have been peculiarly adept over the past year or so at shooting themselves in both feet.

Given the turn taken by their fortunes it is something of an achievement that the Liberal Democrats are having a conference at all, and heartening that delegates will get to debate motions on issues such as reforming the House of Lords, the phone hacking scandal and welfare policy. In the lexicon of modern politics letting party members debate an issue doesn’t mean the same thing as letting the result influence party policy, but it certainly sounds a lot more lively than the decaffeinated trade fair the Labour Party are planning to hold in a couple of weeks time.

The economy is stumbling, unemployment is rising and the public sector is about to be hacked to ribbons; most worryingly of all the government in which they are a junior partner has no Plan B and is led by a man who seems to think this is a virtue not a sign of impending disaster. What, delegates should be asking themselves, is Nick Clegg going to do about that? As Deputy Prime Minister he should surely have some input into whether or not we find an alternative course or simply sail blithely on towards the rocks.

The Liberal Democrats also need to consider the deeper problems affecting British society, problems that will not go away if and when the economy picks up. This week a UNESCO report listed children in the UK being amongst the least happy in the developed world, supplied with expensive gadgets by their harassed parents but starved of the ‘family time’ that is key to maintaining their wellbeing.

For the Tories things have always been simple, their ideology can be written on the back of a postage stamp because it amounts to helping rich people keep hold of more of their money and encouraging ambitious ones to make as much money as they can and damn the consequences for wider society. Things can never be that simple for the Lib Dems, as their name suggests they are a party that exists to fight for values that aren’t linked to protecting capital and realising short term profits.

To date they haven’t done any too well at using the opportunity presented by being part of a coalition to fight for those values, letting themselves instead become a punch bag for a public that is angry about a deficit reduction agenda that is far more ideologically driven than anything bellowed from the platform at the TUC conference last week.

Speaking to the BBC on the eve of the conference Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the party, said along with the by now ritual denial that the has any ambitions to be party leader one day (he does and you can see it shining from him like the halo of a saint in a medieval icon) that the difference between the Liberal Democrats and their Tory partners was ‘we concentrate on people at the bottom of the economic scale and spend less time looking after people who have done very well, thank you.’

Once upon a time the Liberal Democrats were an eccentric sideshow to the political circus, understandably when the opportunity came to step up into the major league they took it. Where once we indulged the sometimes silly things they said because they had little influence we now judge them on their actions because they do.

If the Liberal Democrats are to survive as a distinct political party and use their position to make real changes to the way our society operates then the most important thing Nick Clegg is going to have to do once the conference season is over and the business of government starts again is learn to say ‘no’ more often and more forcefully to the Tories than he has up to now.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Not repeating the mistakes of the past decade is the best way to remember the victims of 9/11.

Each generation has its collection of ‘where were you?’ moments. For mine they run like this: ‘where were you when the Berlin Wall came down; where were you when Princess Diana died and, most of all; where were you on 9/11.

The attack on the World trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11th September 2001 was, even for those of us living far away on the other side of the world, the moment when everything changed. When the world we thought was safe and permanent turned out to be fragile and threatened.

My own small memories of that awful day consist of walking into a room in the place where I worked at the time and being momentarily surprised by the horrified looks on the faces of my colleagues. Then I heard coming from a radio set on a shelf somewhere behind the door a shocked announcer interrupting the programme to say that what had at first seemed to be a terrible accident had turned into a terrifying attack.

Before 9/11 it seemed that people in the west lived for the most part in a bubble of wealth and good fortune. Bad things happened, just as they always had; but they happened to other people living in places that were far away. Afterwards we seemed to inhabit a world that has grown more paranoid and fearful with each passing year.

In offices and shops on both sides of the Atlantic people solemnly rehearse bomb drills, even though as the footage of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks shows the best laid plans tend to crumble when exposed to chaos. A single rumour on a possible attack can ground flights for days and turn airport security into an Orwellian farce.

At the time of the attacks there was a lot of talk about this being an event that would snap the west out of its post Cold War complacency; in fact quite the reverse happened. Our delusions about the world we inhabit became more firmly entrenched.

Britain and the United States entered into two wars that could not be won. One in Afghanistan motivated by the understandable desire to catch the man responsible for ordering the outrages committed on 9/11; almost a decade later when justice finally caught up with Osama Bin Laden he was hiding in a small town in Pakistan and had probably been there since before the attacks. The other, in Iraq, was launched on the basis of information about weapons of mass destruction that later proved to have been ‘sexed up’. Blood, treasure and national credibility were expended for no appreciable return.

At home we allowed an already reckless capitalist system to become even more so in the process widening inequalities that encouraged extremism at home and abroad. Remember the perpetrators of the London bombings in July 2005 were all born and raised in Britain but had become alienated from a culture that seemed to them to be shallow and greedy.

It is right to remember and mourn the lives lost in New York on 9/11 along with those lost in Madrid, Bali and London in the years since then; it is also right to honour the bravery of the fire fighters who ran into the burning wreck of the Twin Towers because they saw their own lives as a price worth paying to save those of people they had never met and in doing so demonstrated the true meaning of heroism. Commemoration though must, to have any real meaning, be matched by a demonstrable learning of hard lessons.

Ten years of intervention in the Middle East have achieved nothing, where change has come thanks to the ‘Arab Spring’ it has been achieved largely without the help of the west, which tended to turn a blind eye to the activities of despots so long as the oil kept flowing. We need to look at the sorry state of our own society before attempting to bring about regime change in other countries.

The involvement of the UK government in extreme rendition and using information extracted through the use of torture, more details of which are emerging thanks to the uprising in Libya demonstrates that Britain needs the ‘ethical foreign policy’ Tony Blair talked grandly about establishing during his salad days. No diplomatic or economic advantage should be allowed to trump defending basic human rights.

At home we need to build a society where freedom and strong communities are just as important as free trade and fluid markets; we need to be citizens working in a shared cause as much as consumers gratifying our individual desires. Most of all we need to recognise that the best defence against extremism either in its political or religious form is the banishing of inequality at home and abroad.

If we don’t do these things, many of which will be difficult in the short term, we might come to see the frightening decade we have just passed through as marking only the beginning of our troubles.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Ask Ed- just don’t expect much in the way of an answer.

In the latest wheeze to emerge from its ‘Refounding Labour’ consultation document members of the public are to be invited to take part in a series of policy workshops taking place at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool later this month followed by a Q and A session with leader Ed Milliband. This will be paired, bizarrely, with a talent contest for sixteen to twenty four year olds with skills in music, acting, filmmaking or with an idea for a new business or invention where the prize is a paid work placement.

The open day, claimed by party insiders to be the first of its kind staged by a British political party, will cover three topics, youth opportunity, the cost of living and economic growth and building stronger communities. All worthy stuff no doubt, but hardly the sort of thing that will have people queuing around the block for tickets.

As for the talent show aspect of proceedings, that, said a party spokesperson, was designed to ‘celebrate the potential of young people;’ again this is all very worthy and a definite change from the vilification of the young as obese, benefits scroungers with an inflated sense of entitlement that has been a staple of the media coverage of the riots and their aftermath.

Earlier this week the wing of the Labour Party that still longs for Tony Blair to make a comeback was said to be ‘dismayed’ by Ed Milliband’s plan to attack David Cameron as an old style Tory grandee with little idea about how ordinary Britons live. This, they seemed to think, was evidence that Ed really was a red and any day now would be donning a donkey jacket and calling for Trident to be scrapped.

On one level you can see why the party might have been concerned by their leader’s analysis of the man he wants to replace as Prime Minister. Elections aren’t won by stating the obvious; but on the whole it seems the boys and girls in the New Labour bubble have nothing to worry about. Ed isn’t red; he’s barely even pink.

If you need evidence of this then look no further than the plan described above. Let’s just count the ways in which it can be shown to be damaging nonsense.

For a start even though he might not like to admit it Ed Milliband is the leader of a political party, an organisation that depends for its survival on having a strong grassroots membership who feel they have a stake in what their party stands for. A key part of that is being involved in making the policies they will have to go out and sell to the public on the doorstep. Inviting people with no link to the Labour Party and who might not even vote for it at the next election to take part in the process makes a mockery of the commitment shown by ordinary members without whom there wouldn’t be a party for Ed Millibad to lead.

It is also far from clear what real impact these chit-chats will actually have on policy. Participation will be so tightly controlled by the party’s full time organisers, a paranoid bunch at the best of times, that anyone with anything remotely controversial to say will be ruthlessly weeded out. All that will be produced will be a pile of spoilt flip charts and a neatly ticked box marked ‘engagement’, allowing the party to scamper on down the road to disaster in the way it had been planning to all along.

There is also something deeply patronising about the fact that it is deemed necessary to include a spurious talent show element in proceedings. It is almost as if the hierarchy of what used to be the people’s party now think the people will only pay attention to things if they are a bit like the X Factor.

Worst of all this whole sorry performance will bring us no clearer to understanding what the Labour Party stands for. Have lessons been learnt from their defeat in May 2010 and the slow crumbling of its core support that has taken place over the preceding two decades?

The one thing it does tell us is what a Labour government led by if not Ed then by one of the members of the shadow cabinet waiting patiently for him to slip off the narrow ledge over a bottomless pit that is leadership of a political party in its first term out of office would be like. It would be the same sorry New Labour story, all focus groups and spin; endless initiatives and targets hiding a deep dislike of the party membership and a patronising approach towards the wider voting public that we came to know so well and like so little from 1997 onwards.

If the best Ed Milliband and his shadow cabinet can come up with after almost a year spent gazing into their collective navels is to turn the party conference, a body that should be about giving grassroots members a voice in the making of its policies, into a tawdry talent show; then perhaps it is time the membership responded in kind by not voting them through to the next round.