Thursday, September 25, 2003

Do the Liberal Democrats really want to be in the arena?

Listening to the Liberal Democrat conference on and off this week, I’ve been surprised at the dislike I have been able to summon up for a group of patently decent and well-meaning people.

Partially it has been the constant repetition by the delegates themselves of their decency and well-meaningness. Speaker after speaker has stirred themselves to say “We are the party of decency, of honesty, of straight-speaking”. I find this objectionable, I suspect, because it is not related to any policy aim. The Tories can say we are the party of economic realism, of lower taxes, of rolling back the state (what a losing battle the last has been, by the way).

My own party can say we are the party of social justice, of equality, of (perhaps) redistribution. We sometimes stray into self-regarding, suggesting that our beliefs require a greater sympathy for the human condition than Tories have. Well, that’s unfair, but at least grounded in ideology and belief.

Charles Kennedy today again proclaimed that the Liberal Democrats where the party of fairness and decency.

But what do they mean by this decency?

Is it refraining from deceptive political attacks? Can’t be that, as the Liberal Democrats are as partial to that as any political party in the UK.

Is it telling the truth about the consequences of policy? Well, again, can’t be that. The Liberal Democrats have repeatedly been willing (like every other political party) to pretend that their policies add up financially when they plainly don’t.

Is it refusing to pander to sectional interests? Can’t be that, as the Liberal Democrats appeal to different political prejudices in different areas. More Euro-Sceptic in the South-West, more pro-tax increases in the inner city, more pro cutting red tape in the shires.

No, what it appears to be, is simply an assertion of their own virtue, unsullied by the grubby compromises needed to govern.

I’m with Teddy Roosevelt on this.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds;"

The Liberal Democrats are in an odd position, both desperately wanting to be in the arena and standing on the side of it, eternal substitutes. This is not their fault, but for one hungry to take that place, their language rankles.

I say it would be more decent to temper their lofty declamations about failure and trust with the recognition that if called to take the same role they too would err, would falter, would be forced to compromise, balance and disavow, in the service of their greater cause.

In the end, decency is more than endless assertions of your own goodness. It is about the admission of the uncomfortable realities that serve you no purpose. To proclaim that everyone else has failed, that only you would be able to perform to the highest levels leaves you as nothing more that the substitute telling all who would listen that if they had been picked, no pass would have gone astray, no goals would have been conceded and the team would have won a famous victory.

God knows this is not a sin restricted to Liberals. I know there are many occassions when every party has fallen into the trap of always being correct on the opposition benches. It is more objectionable from the Liberals because it seems there is no prospect of them ever being called to account for their folly.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2003

The Tories want me to have kids

Oh it's too easy. Please, just stop it. David Willetts thinks that Britain needs more sprogs. I happily volunteer for any of the onerous duties involved in taking this proposal from conception to fruition.

Hold on though. I thought our glorious homeland was "dangerously overcrowded" with Asylum seekers, snatching homes, kincking babies, sponging off the state, looking at our women etc etc . Which is it, oh Right Wingers? (To be fair to Mr Willetts, the press release issued by CCO does make passing reference to the idea of increasing immigration to solve the demographic issue.)

Of course, the bonus with immigrants is we don't have to pay for their education and they get here now- so can start paying taxes as soon as they get jobs (which unsurprisingly, most of them want to do). Why not just get in a few thousand more of them, and not wait the 18 years it would take for the Willetts generation to start contributing to the economy- before which, the mewling infants will cost the likes of me a fortune?

Could the Daily Mail please let us know what the line is?

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Fees, Glorious Fees.

Will an anti-fees Labour leftie please answer this point? I've never seen it done,

"According to Nicholas Barr of the London School of Economics, last year only 15% of children from poor families went to university, compared with 81% of the children of professionals. Meanwhile in the US, land of eye-watering college debts, 43% of those from the bottom quarter of income distribution go on to higher education." Read More.

I've never quite understood why it is a bench-mark of leftwing orthodoxy to subsidise the privileged for the final three years of their education at the cost of supporting the poor through the whole of their education.

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Sun slams Chat show Charlie

I wonder what the reaction is in Brighton to this article. (which will now appear, in revised form, every election leaflet produced by the Tory party?)

I particularly liked the Charles Kennedy as bottle of whisky motif. As subtle as ever.

"THE Sun today exposes Lib Dem boss Charles Kennedy as a loony leftie who would SELL Britain out to Brussels, DESTROY the fabric of society and WRECK industry." Read more

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Monday, September 22, 2003

They lost me at "If"- Thoughts on Compass.

Chris B wrote a rather well argued defence of new super group thinktank Compass in my "Digested" post. Go and have a read. I decided not to respond immediately because I wanted to see what would happen to Compass in the days after its launch. However, the site hasn't been updated, so I thought I better not wait any longer.

I had a very negative reaction to Compass from the first. My initial negative reaction was not based on a cool assessment of their ideas, but on a visceral dislike of intellectual bandwagon jumping. The authors were almost all keen supporters of Blair in 1997, and now, when the going is tougher, they accuse him, and his government of lacking the will to reform society. Frankly, if these think-tankers couldn't provide an intellectually coherent programme for New Labour over the last ten years, when they've had pretty much every bit of access they could hope for, on what basis do they lecture the government? Where was the critique of New Labour when it would have been unpopular, tough, useful- and career limiting?

"There have been policy achievements, but they have been diminished by ideological timidity and by poor judgement. The Government appears to have lost its way."

But where exactly have Labour gone wrong?

The introduction lists many of the perceived faults.

" an obsession with structural change.... modernisation measures.... have been poorly introduced.... The pursuit of economic efficiency is right, but not without an understanding of the role of the state in reforming and constraining global capital.... ......bends to the demands of big business..
....ideological timidity .....political misjudgement. Despite economic successes, public trust in Labour has declined.... ...policies such as foundation hospitals and top-up fees generate unnecessary damaging conflict... Tens of thousands of members have left the Labour Party"

Well, OK, but these are not ideological differences. They are political/tactical concerns. In this list of complaints, I don't see anywhere a critique of New Labour is Trying to do- just in the way and style in which it is doing it.

The "Central claim" of Compass is :

"the richness of human potential in today's society requires both pluralism and egalitarianism to be embraced and combined in radical, distinctive ways by democratic left politics. If each person has equal worth, the limitations on their achievement and contribution must be systematically broken down. This requires public action and investment. But the uniqueness of this potential makes social diversity, openness and freedom equally important."

I wouldn't disagree. But neither would any moderate Labour figure. So where is the bite?

Actually, there is one, major issue here that I disagree with. It's the IF. This radical document retreats from the certainties of the American constitution, and merely suggests that all people may be of equal worth. I guess I'm attacking their intellectual timidity. Gosh.

The entire paper is about a critique of New Labour's lack of a big idea. But you seek in vain for a big idea of their own. Capitalism must be "managed for the benefit of the least well off" but at the same time "Our vision must therefore be more than just managing the current system better". The good society is one in which "the values of the public realm and public culture find full expression" and "diversity of culture and lifestyle and pluralism of values is compatible with social solidarity, trust and collective responsibility". Whoop de doo.

But how about this? "the logical public policy conclusion is to redistribute wealth to where the difference it can make to well-being is greatest, to those with least" Well, there is a real issue here, After all, hasn't the Prime Minister said that he know longer cares about redistribution. Yup, he sure has. But then again, Minimum wage, increased low income benefits, Minimum income guarantee, Working families Tax credit, NI increases. Redistributive all of them- and as Compass themselves say "even though huge income inequalities remain and may be getting wider" but "New Labour made a bold commitment to eliminate child poverty in 20 years. It has made some progress and been more redistributive than most previous governments." (I'd be interested to know which government's have been more redistributive. 1906? 1945?)

You see, the issue here is that the critique being made by Compass poses as a radical call for change, but is a tactical call for more, better, now.

Let me try and demonstrate. In the body of the Compass document, I searched for specific proposals, to give me a flavour of what the Compass vision might entail on a monifesto commitment level. I ended up with the following list.

1. The minimum wage must become a living wage
2. Capital assets, savings, shares and home ownership should be brought within the reach of all citizens
3. Universal childcare
4. Government must learn to govern less
5. Regional government must have meaningful powers
6. Adopt trade policies that do not favour the North, cancel debt and increase aid and managed foreign investment.
7. Global capitalism needs more management, not less, particularly in the regulation of finance and labour markets
8. Enhance the minimum wage, stronger employee rights and protections, measures to promote better work/rest-of-life balance, and further reform of corporate governance and pension schemes

Well, it's not a bad agenda, but it's hardly a radical restructuring of New Labour ideology, is it?

Of these proposals, Labour has obviously made significant progress on 1,2,3, 6 and 7.

5 is true in Scotland and Wales, less so in London and being done as far as it is wanted in the rest of the country.

I'm not sure what they mean by 4, since all of the policies they propose would involve more governing, but I sense they mean decentralize administration and implementation of objectives. Well, notso hotso, but can you imagine trying to reform education and at the same time handing power back to councils.

So what has gone wrong then? Simply this- not enough has been done, and the doing of it has alienated some. Well, frankly that is just not good enough. If the authors have ideas about how to reform Public services without upsetting Unions, lets hear them. If the authors have ideaÂ’s about how tax take could be increased and reditributed without losig middle England support, IÂ’m all ears. These are important issues. But they are fundamentally about the howss of politics. Not the Why.

If Compass wishes to criticise New Labour for not going far enough, it should address the limitations on New Labour, limitations on electability, Political relations, delivery efficacy, not airily assert that it is down to a failure of will and Ideology.

At heart, Compass is critical of New Labour for it's achievements, not for it's agenda. Compass poses a tactical critique as an ideological one. I can only assume the authors do so because of a sense of disappointment. As a result, they demand delivery of more, without offering a coherent argument for how to do so, tactically or ideologically.

And frankly, that seems to me to be dishonest and self serving.

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The politics of.. ermm stupidity

How can a politcal party be so smart and so stupid?

The Lib-dems can run the most intensive, agressive, vivious and focussed by-election campaign in British politics. They win a stunning triumph.

So they've known for three days that the media, and by extension the public, were gagging for a major statement on what the Lib-Dems stood for, who they were, why they were different. It's their chance to sieze the political agenda on their first day of conference - to make sure that Liberal Democrat issues are in the ones they want to here more on..

So they debate abolishing the Monarchy.

Arse, please meet my good friend Elbow. Oh, sorry, I''ve got that the wrong way round.

No offense to Vivienne, or other Lib-Dem republicans, but on the first day of conference after a stuning victory, wasn't there anything else the Lib Dems wanted to say. Didn't they think that this motion might be a bit distracting. Couldn't they have scheuled it for another time (like 3am)? I mean it's not as if the conference speakers and agenda aren't fixed.*

Still, so far the Lib-Dems have decided to raise taxes, support the European constitution as it is and reform the monarchy. Explain it to me again, why exactly are those soft Tory voters going to go over to the Lib Dems?

*the fix is in the submission in writing of what you want to talk about. This gives the platform the choice of speakers. The Tories do the same. Labour, i think have a different method, but no serious political party wants to let frothing at the mouth loonies be their face on the evening news.

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Good news for Hoon!

According to the FT, only a third of voters want him to quit. Which means two thirds either don't care or want him to stay. Considering only 25% of the public vote Labour, Hoon is clearly at least as popular as the rest of the government.

Ok, of course he isn't, but really what kind of conclusions are we supposed to draw from a question like that. Any you like, really. still, the topline Poll numbers are very comforting from those of bruised by the Brent East debacle- Labour are up three points to 41, Tories anre down three to 31 and Libdems flatline at 21.

Oh, and the Mirror has said that Steve Byers is lined up to replace Hoon. Now, whether this story is true or not I don't care right now. How can anyone know?

What intrigues is the source. If it turns out to be the first David Hill plant, then the choice of the Mirror (and not the Times or the Sun) is a sign of a new style.

If it's not true then it's a sign that the Mirror's political editor is a gullible idiot*.

Re-reading the quote, it doesn't sound like Hill. More a cabinet member.

PS: I would dearly like to publish a definition of the terms used to describe sources- for example, what qualifies as a "senior" source how many of them are there, who qualifies as "Whitehall" and so on. Anyone who knows the details, please let me know.

*but again, I said labour would win the Brent east election and the Mirror got it right, so who the hell am I to criticise.

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