Monday, December 30, 2013

My Review of 2013 And A Look To 2014

This has been a relatively quiet year, hence my lack of blog entries, but has concluded with my election as Chair of the Swale Liberal Democrats for the important year of 2014 - important because of its lead-up to election year.

At the next general election, for the very first time, we have a record of government to defend. There is much we can be proud of. The tax threshold to £10,000, the pupil premium, the green bank, a million extra jobs in the private sector, improved childcare provisions, a free meal for primary school children and, above all, our part in providing a stable government after an indecisive election result to steer the country out of economic crisis and towards recovery. None of this would have happened without the Liberal Democrats.

There have been mistakes too, of course. I have said enough about tuition fees, but I remain concerned about the benefit cuts and the bedroom tax, the latter to me seems absolutely pointless, and the increase in the use of food banks shames the government. And although the decrease in unemployment is welcome, youth unemployment is still far too high. While we continue on to recovery, we must not forget those who might be left behind.

The main elections this year were the county council elections in May. UKIP did well in the election of 147 councillors across England but what is often overlooked is that the Lib Dems won 352 seats, over twice as many. Add to this the Eastleigh by-election, where, despite a huge media effort on behalf of the Tories, we held on to win, plus the increase of party membership of over 2,000, and clearly the Liberal Democrats are not finished yet.

Locally, for the Kent County Council elections, in Swale we decided to save our scarce resources and instead give our neighbours a hand in Maidstone. This was a great success where, not only did we hold our three county council seats in the town but we gained the fourth. In the constituency of Maidstone and the Weald, overall, we outpolled the Conservatives, so it is easy to see why it is a strategic target seat for 2015. A Lib Dem MP in the constituency next door can only be good for us.

At our AGM in November, yours truly was elected as the Chair for 2014. I see our main priorities as (i) the selection of two parliamentary candidates, (ii) developing and expanding our membership (which has also increased - I have to admit, to my surprise), (iii) fund-raising (as always!) and (iv) the development of a strategy for the 2015 Swale council elections. I have some ideas along these paths which I will be taking to our committee meetings, and hopefully increasing our activity.

We have no local elections in 2014 (by-elections permitting) but we must gain some momentum for 2015. And I hope that as we enter 2015, we have a local party in good shape for that very challenging election year.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Coalition Politics and Andrew Adonis in '5 Days in May'

Having read David Laws and Peter Mandelson on the topic, I decided to purchase Andrew Adonis’s book on the coalition negotiations ‘Five Days in May’. While this does not have the immediacy of the other books, it has the advantage of looking back from afar and assessing the author’s views of progress and what coalitions could mean if, as some might expect, they are to be a common feature of UK politics.
Formerly a Lib Dem, Adonis defected to Labour in 1995 and became a leading member of the New Labour project, serving as Head of the Policy Unit and then, after getting a peerage, as a government minister. He was a key part of Labour’s negotiation team with the Liberal Democrats in the aftermath of the 2010 general election.
The first section of the book was written in 2010 and consists of Adonis’s account of the days from polling day through to the formation of the Con-Lib Dem coalition. While differing in some aspects from other accounts, it is a rattling good read. One gets a good sense of the chaos and confusion of those hectic days.
Gordon Brown comes across as someone both desperate to stay in power but also an honourable and sympathetic figure. The account of his final evening in 10 Downing Street, as his final hopes of a deal with Nick Clegg were slipping away, is quite moving.
Throughout the account, Adonis’s view is that a Lab-Lib Dem coalition was possible. In my view, as I blogged on Tuesday 11 May 2010, this was not the case. I wrote ‘The election was clearly a rejection of Labour’s record and policies and to put together a Lab-Lib Dem government would be ridiculous, especially with Gordon Brown STILL running things’.
Three years later we forget how poor the image of Gordon Brown was, but his character was one of the main issues on the doorstep. Also he has always struck me as a ‘my way or the highway’ type of guy and might not have compromised as much as David Cameron has.
Above all there was the numbers issue. Labour plus the Liberal Democrats would have made 315 seats, short of the 326 seats needed for a majority; or rather 322 if one takes into account the absence of Sinn Fein and the non-voting speakers. The Labour negotiating team stated that the DUP hated the Tories and would never vote with them, a fact which the Lib Dems were not so sure of. The Lib Dems have been subsequently proved right – the DUP have voted with the Conservatives on a number of key issues.
Equally the nationalists could not be relied upon. We saw in 1979, the SNP’s willingness to commit suicide when bringing down the Callaghan government and putting Mrs Thatcher in power, a huge blunder which damaged Scotland and set the nationalist cause back by twenty years, but of which a repeat could not be ruled out. And we Lib Dems are not exactly best buddies with Plaid Cymru. 
While there is passing reference to Clegg’s concern of how the media would attack a Lab-Lib Dem coalition, especially if it resulted in a second unelected Labour Prime Minister, there is no mention of the expression which the media termed – ‘The Coalition of Losers’. This struck me as a damning and memorable phrase. A cartoon in the Daily Telegraph had three boys on an Olympic podium, those in 2nd and 3rd place placed higher in a state of jubilation while the winner stood lower, under the banner ‘Lib-Lab Sports Day’.

And of course there were many in the Labour party who, after 13 years of government and now exhausted, yearned for the comfort of opposition. David Blunkett, John Reid and Caroline Flint were amongst those pointing out that Labour had lost and should make a dignified exit. (Ironically there were no voices from Conservative backbenches opposed to the coalition – obviously biding their time to make the most mischief as subsequent events have proven).
In my view, these were the main reasons that a Lab-Lib Dem coalition would not have worked.
In the second section of the book, Adonis then moves to the present day. He discusses how the coalition is doing three years on and the lessons of coalitions overall. This section is well written and very interesting.
Adonis repeats his view that he thought a Lab-Lib Dem coalition would have worked and that the crucial decision was that of the Liberal Democrats, primarily Nick Clegg and David Laws to ‘veer right’. There may be some mileage in the latter view with the ‘Orange Bookers’ in control. David Cameron and Nick Clegg are two men of the same age with similar backgrounds so it is natural they would get on. And that as the Lib Dems moved right, and the Tories subsequently moved left, the two should meet somewhere.
In my view, two crucial points were (i) when during the campaign Clegg announced the Lib Dems would open discussions with whoever had the biggest mandate (which obviously was going to be the Conservatives) and (ii) even earlier, when the Conservatives had prepared a paper for discussion with common policies for agreement in the event of a hung parliament. Even though the polls had indicated an indecisive result was possible, Labour had done absolutely no preparatory work - did they really think they would win a majority in 2010? This fact gave the Conservatives a head start in the post-election manoeuvrings. 
After considering the events of the past three years, Adonis’s four lessons are:
  • Coalitions can work in Britain and can be as stable as single party governments (agreed) 
  • Coalition may be a serious option in a future hung parliament if all parties are prepared(agreed – one would hope all parties would be better organised in 2015 and that greater patience is exercised) 
  • Coalition is not a superior form of government to singe party majority government (obviously we would all like our own parties to govern alone – but it is the voters who should make that sort of decision)
  • ‘Nick Clegg went into government but not into coalition which is why Lib Dem influence is so weak’ 
On the last point, Adonis sticks to the Labour party line – that in coalition the Liberal Democrats are doing no more than prop up the Tories and have no influence whatsoever. Conservatives, of course, argue the opposite – that the Lib Dems have too much influence. Obviously both views are nonsense – the real picture probably being somewhere in between.
That is not to say the Liberal Democrats have not made many mistakes, and this is mostly due to the novelty of coalitions in this country. Indeed many in this country still struggle with the concept. A coalition has to compromise. The Conservatives wanted to repeal the Human Rights Act and their supporters fail to understand why they have not done so. And Lib Dems have been criticised for the cut in the top rate of income tax – which of course a Lib Dem government would not have done.
I would add one more lesson. That the coalition parties should learn to govern for mutual benefit - not to use the coalition as an excuse to kick each other. If we were now looking forward to an election under new boundaries as well as elections to the House of Lords, both parties would be happy. Instead, rebel Tories (with Labour’s help) blocked Lords reforms so, in retaliation, the Lib Dems blocked boundary changes – not an adult way for a government to behave.
With this in mind, the coalition party leaderships must exert total discipline on their own backbenches – an issue at which the Conservatives have failed completely with regular rebellions. 
As for future coalitions, Adonis argues four points:
  • The leader of the second party needs to head a major department in his/her own right 
  • There needs to be genuinely joint control of economic policy and the Treasury 
  • The second party needs to hold at least one Cabinet post in each of the three main sectors of government (foreign/defence – public services and welfare – environment/energy) 
  • There needs to be machinery for ongoing policy development and negotiation 
These are excellent arguments. Adonis makes the point, not unreasonably, that ‘hardly any Lib Dem ministers count’. I would argue that Danny Alexander, as Financial Secretary, counts very much – but most of the key department posts – home office, health, education, local government, foreign affairs – are firmly in Conservative hands.
In Europe, coalitions often result in smaller parties controlling certain departments in their entirety, instead of a spread of ministers as we have seen here. If, for example, Nick Clegg had become Home Secretary, and the departments of health, defence and climate change were controlled by Lib Dems, the government may have behaved very differently indeed. (This goes back to the discipline point earlier – as without doubt Conservative backbenches would have blocked any legislation or actions by Lib Dem departments). 
The machinery point is, in my view, very important. We are now at the stage where the government seems to be drifting with all minds on the next election two years away. A ‘Coalition Agreement 2’ with fresh ideas and re-emphasis on key policies would have given the government fresh impetus. 
The final point I would make is to point out that to win a majority in 2015, the Conservatives will have to gain over 20 seats – only once has a governing party done this in the last 50 years (1983) – and Labour will have to gain over 50 seats – which the party has only achieved in the landslides of 1945 and 1997. This, plus the fact that the rise of UKIP and other parties may make it impossible for any party to poll 40% ever again, make, in my view, a hung parliament the most likely result. Thus the thoughts of Adonis are worth considering as a contribution to the debate.
Overall, ‘Five Days In May: The Coalition and Beyond’ is recommended reading, both as an account from the Labour side of the immediate post-election events, and as a contributor towards discussion about the format of future coalitions in this country. I hope everyone takes the prospect of a hung parliament in 2015 and beyond very seriously, as coalitions and minority governments may well become the norm in this country.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

In Support Of Marriage - ALL Marriage

There have been many Liberal Democrat successes in this coalition government – for example, the £10k tax threshold, the pupil premium, fixed term parliaments – but these and others can be overturned or altered by subsequent governments. However, we are near a success on an issue which will be a permanent step – a genuine positive reform that the coalition government will always be remembered for.

I talk, of course, of same sex marriage, or gay marriage, which, at the time of writing, has passed the second reading in the Lords. Still some distance to go but it looks hopeful. Of course, a future government could overturn this and ban same sex marriages, but that is as unlikely as overturning the legislation which allowed women to vote.

We must of course give David Cameron a great deal of credit – no other Conservative party leader would have endorsed it to the extent that he has. Equally, had Cameron been leading a ‘Conservative-only’ government, nothing would have happened – he needed the Liberal Democrats’ liberal and reforming zeal, as well as the contribution of people like Lynne Featherstone, to get this legislation put together.

The subject is one of three topics on which there has been a substantial rebellion on the Conservative back benches – with the EU and Lords reform being the other topics. What is remarkable is that, generally speaking, it is the same people rebelling each time!! Do those who want to leave the EU also want to protect the Lords and oppose same sex marriage? What a co-incidence! Or is it, more likely, that it is the ‘awkward’ bunch of Tory MPs firmly opposed to the coalition government and to Cameron personally that just like causing trouble?

There have been some bizarre arguments made against the legislation. From Norman Tebbit’s ‘lesbian-queen-test-tube-baby’ scenario through to classroom plays and comparisons with the blind. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who you would think would be concerned about the church being seen as irrelevant and out-of-touch, spoke of polygamy!

It is probably the fact that much of the opposition springs from those who simply do not like gay people! They would rather ignore their existence.

The only counter point which I can give the time of day to is those who argue that marriage should be for the procreation of children. I can respect that argument. However, it is a fact that half of all children in the UK are born outside of marriage. This would have been scandalous only a few decades ago but now no-one is too bothered. It is a fact that society has decided that marriage and childbirth are not linked, and so this argument is weakened.

My view is simple. I think marriage is a wonderful institution – I have been happily married for ten years. It is a public commitment by two people to love and take care of each other for the rest of their days. If more people were married, the world would be a happier place. Thus, it should be open and encouraged to all.

I am concerned by the recent trends away from marriage, and how fewer couples are tying the knot. Statistics show that married people live longer, healthier and happier lives. This legislation would be a positive move to encourage and show support for the institution. Far from weakening it, this will strengthen marriage - and hopefully bring it back into fashion.

In some ways, I agree with those Conservatives who say that marriage should be encouraged and recognised within the tax system. My preference would be to restore the marriage tax allowance by which married people start paying tax at a higher threshold. That way, all married couples would benefit whereas a transferable tax allowance only benefits a few.

I end by coining a phrase – what would Jesus do? If Jesus was here, what would he think? Would he welcome everyone into his church regardless of sexual orientation? Would he love everyone? Or would he firmly and resolutely deny gay people from showing their love and commitment to each other? I think we know the answer.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

My Free Televised Sport For All Bill

Here’s a good dinner party question. Imagine you are an MP. You put your name into the ballot to introduce a private member’s bill and, joy of joys, you have won! You get first shot at introducing a bill on a subject of your choice, and plenty of time to do it. This is a chance for you to make a difference! Even if your bill does not make it into law, it is still a chance to bring an important issue to public attention. What would you do?
This year’s ballot was won by James Wharton MP and he has decided to introduce a bill … on a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU! This is something which has been discussed ad infinitum, has been voted on, has been promised by the Prime Minister, and, frankly, an in-out referendum one day is inevitable. This strikes me as a waste of an opportunity. Many would argue it is an attempt to commit David Cameron so he can’t get out of it at a later date, but if Conservative MPs can’t trust their own leader, it does make it hard for others to do so. And surely there is a specific issue which is close to Mr Wharton's heart.
But I digress, the point of this entry is to imagine that I am in the Commons and I have won the ballot. This gives me the chance to introduce a bill on a topic which particularly annoys me – The Free Televised Sport For All Bill.
In this country we love our sport – we are keen followers of football, cricket, rugby, even darts and snooker. Our Olympics was a massive success.
But televised sport is dominated by the paid TV market, especially Sky, and you could find yourself having to fork out beyond £50 a month just to watch sport on TV.
For example, I learnt the rules of cricket by watching the test series between England and West Indies in 1976 on the BBC. But now a generation of children are growing up and, unless they have Sky, they will have no idea what cricket is - such is the dominance of Sky's hold on the game. By 2025, our test team will consist entirely of people who had Sky in their youth.
Let’s look at the facts. What do we have on free-to-view TV?
-No live Premiership football
-No live Football League or League Cup football
-Some (not all) England internationals, very few from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
-No domestic cricket, not even highlights
-Only highlights of England home cricket matches, nothing at all from overseas
-No boxing
-Only half of the Formula One Grand Prix shown live – shared with Sky
-Half of one major darts tournament – shared with ESPN
-Only one major golf tournament – The Open – with occasional highlights of others
BT Sport are launching a new channel soon – and much has been made of the fact that it is free with BT Broadband – but not everyone has computers.
To its credit, ITV is the only channel seeking to provide free-to-view sport. It has some FA Cup, some Champions League and Europa League games, French Open tennis and other bits and pieces. BBC have no interest in major sports (Sports Personality of the Year is often dominated by people who are never on the channel) and Channels 4 and 5 are too small.
There are some sports which are protected – Wimbledon, the Boat Race, the Grand National, the World Cup, the Olympics, the Six Nations – but can we really trust our politicians and TV companies not to hive these off at some future date?
So my Bill would not only protect our televised sport, but would expand it so that we can enjoy and support our top sportsmen and everyone can watch for free!
The rights for the following will only be sold to someone who commits to putting them on a free-to-view channel:
-At least one Premiership football package (presently 26 games live)
-Live coverage of all competitive matches by the Home Nations
-Live coverage of all England home cricket test matches
-Live coverage of domestic cricket one day finals
-Live coverage of all rugby internationals involving British teams (including the Lions)
-All world boxing title fights involving a British boxer
-The Ryder Cup
-Live coverage of all Formula One races
-Both the PDC and BDO World Darts Championships
That would be a start and would be under constant review.
These are the sort of things that were on when we only had three or four channels – in the era of multi-channel TV there would be plenty of room for all these. My Bill would not stop Sky, BT or anyone else bidding for these rights – but if they did so, they would have to make the event available on a free-to-air channel.
Of course, this Bill would have no chance of becoming law. Not by accident is Rupert Murdoch the most powerful man in British politics. The vested interests of Sky and others have huge influence over our MPs and they will be queuing up for favours to talk the Bill out. But it would bring to the surface the issue of British sport which is becoming more and more denied to the eyes of our people, unless they have deep pockets in tough times.
And the more people see sport, the more they will get behind our sports people, the more we will see encouragement and development of our younger sportsmen, and we will see the result in hopefully future British sporting success.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Why UKIP's Success Could Be Good For The Liberal Democrats

Throughout UKIP’s campaign in recent months, much has been said about the ‘ConLibLab’ consensus, and how they are aiming to break through. And there is no denying that UKIP have achieved spectacular results in this week’s county council elections.
But, as I argued in a previous article (‘The War of Two Coalitions’ – 8 July 2012), if there is a political ‘consensus’, surely it is the two-party coalition between the Conservatives and Labour which has existed since 1945 with the mutual desire of both parties to resist any genuine political change and reforms. Surely we too should aim at bringing this down?
True, at present, the Liberal Democrats are in a national coalition with the Conservatives, but this is a temporary five year deal. At the end of the day, the Conservatives will always side with Labour and vice versa, and resist Lib Dems, UKIP or anyone interfering with their game.
In what ways are the Liberal Democrats closer to those sharing our aim of breaking this consensus?
Voting reform: both the Conservatives and Labour parties have resisted any change to our voting system. In 1979, Labour went back on their promise of PR for European elections in return for the Lib-Lab pact. Granted, the Conservatives allowed a referendum for AV in 2011, but then used their vast resources to shoot it down. Ed Miliband’s support was half-hearted at best. Most of Labour will have remembered that Labour won a healthy majority in 2005 with only 35% of the votes.
On the other hand, both the Lib Dems and UKIP support a campaign for fair votes. Both parties support voting reform, albeit through different methods, they both favour the principle of a PR based system to make a fairer reflection of people’s votes.  Whereas the big two will defend First-Past-The-Post to the death.
Lords reform: Labour decided to backtrack on their previous promises and collude with Tory rebels to block any change to the Lords. Can we trust a future Labour government to reform this retirement home for politicians? Of course not. UKIP, on the other hand, have supported an 80-20 split, similar to previous plans.
Party funding: the Conservative party have vast unlimited resources. Labour, maybe not to the same extent, also has immense wealth. Lib Dems and UKIP, on the other hand, both raise money with car boot sales and quiz nights. I don’t know UKIP’s views on party political funding but I imagine they would be open to change.
Written constitution: both parties have floated the idea of a written constitution to establish the rights of the individual and the powers and limitations of the legislative and executive bodies. This is something which could be worked on.
Right to recall: both parties support the right to recall MPs for misconduct, for example, over expenses, something the big two have always resisted.
These are just a few examples, and a browse through UKIP’s constitutional policy document is interesting reading, but it is clear that, when it comes to changing the system, and the ‘political consensus’, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP are both in favour of drastic changes to the status quo, and have much more in common with each other than either do with the Conservatives or Labour.
But what about policies, I hear you say? Yes, it is true that on EU membership, immigration and the environment, the two parties are far apart – but there may be elements where we can work together – the basic tax rate for example where both support taking the minimum wage out of tax. We have proved we can work with the Conservatives, despite the large policy gaps that are there and still exist.
And we are not talking about a formal coalition or agreement. What I would like to see is the Liberal Democrats and UKIP working together on political and constitutional reform alongside liked-minded people from other parties to finally bring our politics into the 21st century (it has barely made it to the 20th).
The point is: both parties will remain on the long-term fringes of British politics unless we see genuine political change in this country.
Already some Conservatives are talking about Con-UKIP council administrations to 'bring UKIP back'. Many Conservatives see UKIP as a temporary group of ex-Tories all waiting to dash back home once we are out of the EU. Then, before we know it, we will be back to the world of Con-Lab majority governments – ‘back to normal’ as the media would have it.
It depends on whether UKIP genuinely want to become a long-term political party in their own right. And whether they would join those of us who cry out for modernisation and political reform.
But, for now, I cannot be sorry to see more votes go to UKIP and away from the Con-Labs. Every success for UKIP is a success for those of us who genuinely want to break down the ‘political consensus’ and, with that in mind, UKIP successes could be good for the Liberal Democrats - so perhaps we should wish them well.