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Posts Tagged ‘Liberal Democrats’

This climbdown is liberal, not Conservative

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order, Party politics, The Media on June 21, 2011 at 11:53 pm

David Weber

I respect Ken Clarke, as a politician and more importantly as a political thinker, but some of his reforms weren’t liberal, just as much as they weren’t Conservative. At the heart of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was a scandal, one which should have been obvious even underneath the noise and fury that erupted over Clarke’s ill-informed comments about rape, but has still gone largely uncommented on, which is deeply troubling. I refer to the damage that would have been done, to a fundamental principle of justice, by the proposal to cut sentences by as much as 50% in return for an early guilty plea.

This is precisely the proposal which the Guardian, in a typical bout of sheer missing the point, described as “a sensible move to relieve the pressure on Britain’s creaking courts”. The latter may be true, but the policy can only be described as sensible from a cold, bureaucratic, and morally corrupt perspective, the perspective of those who care nothing for justice and everything for money above all else.

Has the Guardian considered the stigma which is already attached to being falsely accused of a crime — particularly the most serious and horrifying of crimes? Has it occurred to the sadly anonymous writer of its editorial that there are already numerous incentives for the accused to plead guilty, not out of honesty, but as a gamble for the sake of an easier future? It should have, for such nightmares are frequently reported, and even more frequent in real life. Not only does plea bargaining already exist, but it actually goes far too far. In reducing the cost of justice it perverts the cause of justice, bargaining away the right to a fair trial. “Innocent until proven guilty” becomes “do you want to risk being proven guilty?” Far from it being “sensible” to increase plea bargaining, it would actually be “sensible” to abolish or at least reduce it — at least from a perspective of moral sensibility.

One would hope that it is for these principled, and most definitely liberal reasons, that David Cameron et al have decided to abandon this “reform”. One has to be sceptical, particularly given Ken Clarke’s reputation for liberalism, and the association of the Liberal Democrats with his agenda for reform in the Ministry of Justice. I suspect that if No. 10 had been motivated solely by liberal principles, it would have held back from interfering with Clarke’s agenda due to a mistaken association of liberalism with the Liberal Democrats. Additional policies announced at the same time, such as a new mandatory prison sentence for certain knife crimes, are distinctly conservative in nature.

More likely is that a tipping point of unpopularity with Conservative backbenchers, and with certain parts of the general public, has been reached; and that the rewriting of Clarke’s bill is a conciliatory gesture in the aftermath of the rewriting of Andrew Langsley’s NHS bill. It is certainly true that the bill had numerous “Conservative” objections to it, not least because the halving of sentences in some cases could have led to very short sentences indeed, for very serious crimes. But this merely demonstrates that conservatism and liberalism are not always mutually exclusive, and that liberals should not be associated with a policy just because conservatives are opposed.

But despite Downing Street’s arguably cynical motivations, the u-turn on this bill is something Liberals should be thankful for, not morose. Liberal Democrats should put their party’s ego (sorry, ‘influence in government’) to one side for a moment, and actually consider if, were they not in government, they would be supportive of or horrified by this particular proposal. Then they should put that response in front of any regrets they might have about their influence in the coalition, and whether the prevailing direction is conservative or liberal, because at the end of the day, it is more important. Real lives, real injustices, are always more important.

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Soapbox debates: The Alternative Vote

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Soapbox Debates on May 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Stephan Wan, polarii, David Weber, James Langford, Jack Blankley, Ronald Collinson

With the referendum on 5th May rapidly approaching, The Daily Soapbox has decided to help any remaining floating voters make up their minds about AV (the Alternative Vote), by using it for the first of our written debates, in which 6 of us give our views about AV, along with how we intend to vote in the referendum.

At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead’? Yes or no?

Stephan Wan: YES

This is not a perfect question. There is no doubt that in an ideal world, we would not be seeing just a choice between Alternative Vote (AV) and First Past The Post (FPTP), but also with other voting systems. However, this is not an ideal world, and ultimately we are faced with a simple choice. Is the AV system better than FPTP? The answer is yes. The AV system is both a more legitimate and more effective voting system, that has both fairer process and fairer outcomes.

Firstly, in what sense does AV involve fairer process? A good electoral system must seek to accommodate and realise the preferences of the electorate – the more a system takes into account the wishes of the voters, the better a system it is. AV allows exactly this – the system gives every voter the right to rank the candidates from the one they want the most, to the one they want the least. In comparison, FPTP allows no such choice – it does not reflect what views you have on other candidates, or your preference relations between them. This problem leads to the phenomena of tactical voting; currently, the voter may vote for a candidate other than the one they most support, in order to prevent another candidate from winning who they least support. AV eliminates tactical voting, by allowing these preferences to be shown on the ballot paper. AV is a better system for reflecting voter preferences.

AV graph

Secondly, in what sense does AV involve fairer outcomes? A good electoral system must also seek to result in the election of candidates who have the support of the majority of the electorate. The greater the correlation between the outcome of the election, and the preference of the electorate, the better the electoral system it is. FPTP has a poor record of correlation between outcome and preference – constituencies can have MPs elected on as little as 30% of the vote. AV will in theory work in a far better way – candidates must gain over 50% of the vote to win, either outright through gaining 50% of first preference votes, or through the reallocation of second and subsequent preferences. AV thus ensures that over 50% of the voters will have in some way chosen the winning candidate over all other candidates. This is more legitimate than FPTP – AV is a better system for fairer outcomes.

polarii: NO

Before laying out my case against AV on the issues of practicality – Ronnie and James will have much more to add in other respects – I shall briefly rebut some of Stephen’s points. He argues that tactical voting is a problem; why then, does he advocate a system that encourages it? In FPTP, when a ballot paper is marked, some electors do indeed consider the wider ramifications of voting, rather than just what they want. In AV, voters also consider the wider ramifications, but simply mark a second preference to indicate their ‘tactical’ choice. Instead of removing the problem, it legitimises it.

Furthermore, where preferences are not filled to the bottom of the ballot, there will be a significant number of ballots will be blank, which will be counted as ‘spoiled’ after round 1. So it is not necessarily true that MPs elected under AV will have 50% of votes cast.

AV is used in Australian, Fijian, and Papua New Guinean Parliamentary elections, and Irish and Indian Presidential elections. In Ireland, a major party is always returned to the presidency, and half the elections have been uncontested since 1980; the Congress Party has won every Indian election since its formation. Though both have had fewer hung parliaments than the UK, Australia and Fiji have only two main parties; PNG has only one. The ‘third party’ in Australia, the Greens, took 11% of the vote, yet received 1 seat of 150.In Fiji, only 4 MPs do not hail from the major parties; and unrepresented parties receive over 10% of the vote. However, in the UK, the highest party not to receive representation was UKIP at 3%. These statistics do not suggest that AV is more representative – in fact, it may even be less so.

In Australia, the parties distribute leaflets showing people how they should use all their preferences for the maximum advantage of their preferred party.

Moreover, there is significant disengagement with the system. Turnout in Ireland is 47%. In Australia, 7% prefer a fine to voting; 5% spoil their ballots and 55% admit to following a party-issued card that says how to rank the candidates. This is indicative of serious problem; people are not really convinced in these countries that their vote will matter, or are very unsure about how to use their system. The system does nothing to solve any democratic deficit created by FPTP. In fact, it may even make it worse.

And who actually wants AV? Certainly not David Cameron, who is campaigning for FPTP. Certainly not Nick Clegg, who describes it as ‘miserable’. Maybe Ed Miliband, but he hasn’t said much about it. MPs report a complete absence of pleas from constituents advocating AV. Yet, it seems that if voting trends are the same, the Liberals will gain about 20 more seats – though it is not clear that UKIP will get one, for instance. This is the reason the Liberals are so eager to have it. And the people who run elections don’t want it either; elections will cost more, take longer, and be much harder to check.

In short, no benefit will come of AV. No-one will be satisfied by having it. And likely, fewer people will engage in democracy once we have it. FPTP is clear, popular and simple. There is no choice. FPTP receives not just my preference, but my vote.

David Weber: YES

What separates the Alternative Vote, in a bad way, from First Past the Post? This is the standard of proof those who oppose AV have to meet. It is no use complaining about the cost of the referendum, because it will happen anyway: our MPs have decreed it. So the ‘No’ campaign needs to demonstrate why we should reject AV in favour of the current system. It needs to demonstrate that AV is comparatively worse.

This is what polarii, in the previous speech, failed to do. His argument that AV is unrepresentative (backed up by an impressive array of statistics) is irrelevant. Both systems are unrepresentative, and for the same reason. In both, MPs represent a single constituency, including those who did not vote for them. This is what makes them unrepresentative, and neither can be criticised above the other because of it.

polarii also claims that AV ‘may even be less’ representative. Does he explain how? Does he corroborate it? The ubiquitous statistics are strangely silent on this point! In order to demonstrate this, he has to show that AV has additional problems, which he has failed to do. I invite you to re-read the previous speech if you wish, in case you don’t believe me.

A (hypothetical) AV ballot paper

A highly complex ballot paper

Nor do I think AV would increase disengagement with the system. It’s hard not to be derisive here; I find the idea that voters will be put off by having to number preferences both hilarious and outrageous. The slogan “it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3…” is possibly the only accurate campaign slogan in history. It really is as easy as 1, 2, 3. People are put off from voting for real reasons, not because they have to count in single digits.

So that’s why there’s no reason to reject AV in favour of the current system. Equally, why support AV over it? The answer, when it boils down to it, is actually very, very simple. If MPs do represent an entire constituency (including, as I pointed out earlier, people who did not vote for them) then they should have the support of as many of their constituents as possible.

The current system allows an MP to be elected even if a majority of the electorate vehemently opposes them. This is ludicrous. Representing people is not the same as winning a 100 metre sprint. It should not mean collecting supporters. It should mean seeking the support of as many you seek to represent as possible.

This is why no political party worth its salt uses FPTP. Labour uses AV to elect its leader. The Liberal Democrats also use it. The Conservatives use an almost identical system. It appears that there is consensus among all three parties in favour of AV for them — but not for us. I wonder why this is?

James Langford: NO


Firstly I would like to add my support to Mr Bagg for his excellent contribution into this debate. There are many strands of argument which I could hope to explore in this article but firstly I want to make some refutations to the proposition focusing in particular on comments made by Mr Weber. On a point of technicality Labour or the Conservatives do not fully use AV to elect their leaders – they have both invented their own electoral systems which incorporate procedure similar to that of AV. Moreover – he asks us why FPTP? Simply – it creates strong and accountable governments, gives us coalition at times of national uncertainty, works simply and efficiently during election periods with easily interpretable results, the list goes on…

Returning to my own argument I would firstly like to explore the background to this referendum. This referendum is a waste of money; it’s the voting system that no one really wants – people who want us to change our voting system, such as the Lib Dems, want fairer representation and representation for the smaller parties, but by switching to another majoritarian voting system neither of these aims can be realized. This is the wasted compromise. Those people need PR or STV – and if either of these voting systems had a solid base of national support or could mobilize such a base we would be having a referendum for one of those.

Now I want to bring us back to reality – the democratic idealists are proclaiming that ranking candidates is better but in this voting system safe seats will ignore rankings and tactical ranking will be widespread. Moreover in the marginal constituencies we will still see some MPs elected without 50% of the vote. In a voting system where two of the main principles of that system are not enshrined the average voter will be left confused. I’m not talking about the political nuts like ourselves but the ordinary people of this country, who may only ever engage with politics by voting once every five years. I’d also like to infer that given the increased complexity of this voting system and the lack of understanding behind the procedure, some will become disillusioned and give up voting altogether. In the pursuit of democracy we may damage our democracy.

Jack Blankley: YES

May I first say well done to all the contributions so far, they have been very interesting and this has been a very intelligent debate on a hotly contested issue.

First things first, I am not a supporter of the AV voting system. I believe it is a system which will not fully represent the British public and lead to only a slight improvement on the current system, which I believe is outdated and lacks sufficient representation of the population.

My main argument for supporting the change in the voting system is not so much about the empirical arguments against FPTP, which I believe are not fundamentally changed with the introduction of the AV system, but about wider politics in general. Over the past couple of years, are politicians have been riddled with scandals ranging from expenses claims to affairs, with the tabloid press coming up with imaginative names for our politicians, such as “2jag Prescott” and “Paddy Pantsdown”. A change in the way politics works in this country might help to bring people back into politics, which nowadays is seen as an elitist subject. This is the one thing politicians should be trying to avoid!

Even Mervin King, the governor of the Bank of England, says he’s surprised with the public reaction to the banking meltdown, saying people should be angrier. I believe nowadays people believe there is nothing they can do due to the British political system, and these views of “they’re only in it for themselves”, “greedy” and “out of touch” are comments regularly used in the tabloid press describing all 3 main parties. I know this arguement is hard to understand and even harder to try and write down! But this small change may be a way to reconnect with some lost voters showing that politicians are willing to change a system which the British people think is inherently flawed!

Finally the argument that the referendum is a waste of money is one I disagree with. A referendum is the fairest way to change constitutional practises and to suggest it a waste of money is to suggest that MPs decide how they are elected (which leads to a democratic deficit). The public should be directly involved in deciding on the voting system.

Ronald Collinson: NO

Mr Blankley’s post rounded off what has been a stimulating debate. Several of the supposed arguments in favour of AV have already been dealt with: against Mr Wan, Polarii and Mr Langford noted that it is simply untrue to say that candidates would require the assent of 50% of voters to be elected; against Mr Weber, Mr Langford noted that no major political party in fact uses AV to elect its leaders. Polarii also demonstrated the several respects in which AV may be less representative than FPTP.

It might be added that tactical voting remains possible under AV: the important question is which parties you want to make it into the final round; the order of elimination matters. It is therefore possible to model scenarios in which candidates might in fact be benefited if some of their supporters had given them second rather than first preferences, a clear violation of the principle that expressing second preferences should not harm first preferences. Of course, to exploit this system requires substantial local and national political knowledge – so tactical voting would not be eliminated, but made the preserve of precisely the political obsessives Mr Blankley railed against.

Mr Weber and Mr Blankley both claimed that changing the voting system would revitalise British politics. If that is so, the British people don’t seem to be aware of it: while the 2002 march in favour of the minority pursuit of fox hunting attracted more than 400,000 people, the electoral reform ‘rally’ in May attracted only 1,000; while even the deplorable Facebook group in support of police-killer Raoul Moat attracted over 38,000 members, the Electoral Reform Society has not even achieved 9,000. There is no evidence whatever to suggest that public malaise has anything to do with the electoral system.

Indeed, the aftermath of the expenses scandal was, if anything, a vindication of FPTP. Several MPs in supposedly ‘safe’ seats, like David Heathcoat-Amory and the ludicrous Lembit Opik, were duly unseated. There is substantial academic debate about how AV would change the distribution of safe seats, but there is clear consensus that it would not eliminate such seats. But the evidence of last May is that such seats are not in fact ‘safe’ against the force of local anger.

AV does not, then, reliably make electoral battles more competitive; it restricts tactical voting to the voting to the elite; it violates its own preferential principles; it does not require victors to have the support of a majority of voters. It is, additionally, a much more complex system, lacking the easy transparency of FPTP in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

On this question of ‘the most votes’, Mr Weber ambitiously attempted to draw a distinction between ‘collecting supporters’ and ‘seeking… support’, claiming that under FPTP a candidate can win against an ‘opposing majority.’ But what is the significance of an ‘opposing’ majority if its representative is contingent entirely on the order in which other candidates are eliminated? National politics isn’t like a student union election: there is no option to ‘re-open nominations’. Voters must align themselves by one programme for government or another – simply voting on the basis of ‘not you’, which is surely the ruling logic of the alternative vote, can hardly be considered satisfactory.

________________________________

This marks the end of our first written debate. If you are interested in participating in future debates we choose to hold, feel free to email David Weber at dingdongalistic (at) gmail (dot) com, or leave a comment underneath this post.

Ed, show us the alternative

In BBC Question Time, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on April 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

Audience responses on the BBC’s Question Time usually range from the mildly interesting to the banal, providing little more than an identification of which panel member the viewer most aligns with. However, once in a while, someone says something so original and yet so obvious that it merits serious consideration. Such a thing was said on last Thursday’s episode: a woman, chosen by David Dimbleby to speak, asked why Labour, if it’s so committed to the alternative, doesn’t pen a Shadow Budget to lay out their alternative deficit reduction plan.

The panelists response to this was painfully predictable. Diane Abbott, as the Labour representative, spluttered something about it being nonsensical four years before an election, whilst Mark Serwotka, the head of the PCS union, repeated his tenuous claim that there is no necessity for any spending cuts whatsoever. And yet this idea of a Shadow Budget, levelled by someone so lowly as to not be a professional economist or politician, is one that, I think, should be adopted by the Labour Party without hesitation.

The current debate on the economy, both national and global, has lined up between the two foremost schools of economic thought: neo-classicalism and Keynesianism. The neo-classicalists, inspired primarily by the 19th Century economist David Ricardo, see budget deficits as dangerous and immoral: according the Ricardian equivalency, any national deficit between income and spending (the UK’s being approximately 10% of GDP) is just taxation deferred for future generations. By radically cutting public spending to balance the deficit (‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, or, in Cameron’s terminology, ”rolling back the boundaries of the state”) neo-classicalists believe that the private sector will be freed from taxation and competition with the public sector to drive the economy back to prosperity. Keynesian thought, meanwhile, led the original response to the financial crisis, bailing out the banks and implementing fiscal stimuli to drive the economy quickly out of the recession. Now out of the immediate danger zone, Keynesians, such as Robert Skidelsky and Joseph Stiglitz, do not dispute the need for eventual deficit reduction, but are concerned that a premature fiscal contraction underestimates how much the private sector relies on the public sector, and so will drop the UK economy back into recession. Instead, Keynesians argue for fiscal policy based on growth and investment to stably harbour the economy, whilst slowly but steadily cutting the deficit.

This is the debate which, since the initial crisis response, has been mapped on to British party politics. Last May, both the Labour manifesto was based on the Keynesian response, whilst the Conservative one was neo-classicalist, and the Lib Dems in between but Keynesian-leaning. At least partially on these grounds, the majority of commentators predicted, before the election, a Lib-Lab coalition in the event of a hung parliament. And a hung parliament we had, except that the Lib Dem high command, vested with the choice of how to form the next British government, elevated David Cameron’s Tories over Gordon Brown’s Labour. Now in government, Clegg and his allies have apparently been won over to the neo-classicalist, and by extension George Osborne’s, fiscal plan: to entirely eliminate the deficit by the end of the parliament through a 73:27 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises.

All the evidence suggests that Osborne’s economic management so far has ranged from lacklustre to abysmal. The Office of Budget Responsibility, set up by the current government, has downgraded its growth forecasts from 3-3.5% to 2.6%. Unemployment is still rising, now at a 17-year high, with one-fifth of all young people unable to find a job. Inflation is at 4%, the highest in 20 years. The Consumer Confidence Index was last measured at -29, the biggest drop since 1994. Even the mainstream centre-Right newspapers, which had previously praised the Chancellor’s conviction, have now turned their attention more to the human costs of deficit reduction than the stability it will ostensibly bring. Osborne’s attempt to blame poor economic performance on heavy snowfall over December fooled no one: the US, German, French and even Spanish economies grew by over 0.5% in the last quarter of 2010, whilst ours shrunk by more than 0.5%. The problem is, what is the alternative?

Ed Miliband’s Labour, having dithered in the autumn months, has now settled on maintaining Alastair Darling’s plan of halving the deficit in a single parliament. With Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor, this position has now been confirmed. Labour has since busied itself with rebuking the Tory-led government on its choices for deficit reduction: the VAT rise to 20% (predicted to cost families with children £450 extra in 2011), the rise in higher education fees, and front-line cuts to public services have been particular targets of the Shadow Cabinet. But Labour has yet to commit to what it would cut, or which taxes it would rise, were it currently in government. Although exactly how much would have to be cut under Labour’s plan is unclear, Miliband and his colleagues have so far sidestepped the sticky issue of what their ‘alternative’ would actually entail. It is this, more than any other factor, which will cost them electoral support.

I marched, carrying a Labour Party banner, alongside up to half-a-million others in London two weeks ago. And yet, will Labour’s reticence to commit to a specific deficit reduction plan, I am losing faith that there is a credible alternative to the government’s plan, however badly executed. A YouGov poll conducted on the same day found that the majority of the population, 52%, now supports the campaign against public sector spending cuts. But Labour should not fool itself that, just because it happens to be in opposition to an unpopular government, it will automatically gain the support of the electorate. This was the mistake made, in the last two decades, by both Kinnock and Cameron; 1992 resulting in a narrow Tory victory, and 2010 in a hung parliament. Labour should pen a Shadow Budget, laying out exactly which cuts and tax rises it would make. Ed Miliband has rightly sounded the death knell of New Labour and embarked on a holistic policy review, refusing to make manifesto commitments before the cuts have really started to affect the nation. But reconstructing its economic credibility needs to be the party’s top priority, and Miliband cannot afford to be haunted by the ghost of Gordon Brown any longer.

Coalition: the free marketplace of ideas

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Celebrating 100 posts

David Weber

It is ironic, that a country so associated with the development of a free marketplace as our own, should find itself so paranoid of the notion of freedom of political ideas. I am being slightly cheeky here: I do not refer to political freedom with a capital P: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement or freedom of entry into political parties. All such things are long established, and do credit to our political system. I refer to freedom of ideas within the political discourse.

The terms ‘freedom of ideas’, or ‘marketplace of ideas’ are often misunderstood as only applicable in a binary, “1st Amendment/Police State” sort of way, where the only barriers to freedom to focus on are legal restrictions and the threat of violence. Such concerns are, of course, tremendously important, so important that it is easy to understand why they dominate conversation about freedom. But they are the skeleton, without which the structure would not stand, rather than the flesh. What determines whether freedom flourishes is just as much the complex, multi-layered cultural climate that surrounds it, as it is the legal rules which govern it.

Just as if you pump carbon dioxide into the climate unsustainably, you risk turning the climate into a hostile, unfriendly place; if the climate for freedom of ideas is not right, the marketplace will suffer. It is such concerns which are fuelling debate about such diverse subjects as copyright law and patents; libel; privacy law; media ownership; party funding; cuts to the arts and humanities, subsidies to STEM subjects and Tuition Fees; Parliamentary Privilege; Electoral Reform; Devolution; Question Time; and Nick Clegg.

And I find these discussions just as fascinating, if not more so, than the adrenaline-fuelling outrage stories such as that of Paul Clarke’s Shotgun last year, or the Twitter joke trial. Those were undoubtedly the more exciting, more thrilling stories to ponder and agonise over, but they lack the infinite depth and complexity that some of the others engineer. Indeed, that is why outrage stories are more thrilling, because a bare-faced, unbelievable simplicity has been violated, whether freedom of speech, innocent until proven guilty, or any other principle of decency. But one’s mind chews over the detail of a thorny problem much longer than the simplicity of an obvious one. Consider it a contrast between the headline of a newspaper and the quality of its crossword. Though the headline might be why you buy the paper, it is often the crossword which dictates how much time you devote to it.

In case you think I am joking by making an example of Nick Clegg (and I certainly was by making one of Question Time), think again. Nick Clegg, along with David Cameron, David Laws and collected others from their parties, have done more to further the interests of the free marketplace of ideas than any other politicians have this year. Although this may be a small order of merit compared to the champions of libel reform, and the heroes who fight bad laws in court, it is still an important one, and one which is quietly having a beneficial effect in freedom’s favour.

In case you think this is a political defence of the Coalition’s agenda, do not worry yourself. Feel free to hate the Coalition with as much passion as you can muster for what it intends to do. My interest is purely in what it is, for many of its members, unintentionally doing. It cannot be intentional for most of the Conservatives in government to fight against the collected traditions of cabinet government down the ages in stifling freedom of information, diversity of ideas and honesty of opinion. Nor can it be pleasing for the Liberal Democrats to have to expose the divisions in their own party, the limits of its honesty, its crimes of opportunism, and its members’ addiction to doing things together, like mythical lemmings.

Nevertheless, the Coalition is quietly but systematically dismantling much of what is wrong with British politics. It is testing the boundaries of what collective responsibility can censor. It is practically writing a textbook about the limitations of our political system for honouring promises, representing public opinion and giving people a democratic voice. And this is good, because it aids the truth. Britain does not have a particularly democratic system of government. It does not represent its people well. And promises are rarely kept in politics, they are merely normally managed better. There is a long and ignoble tradition of parties spinning their way out of promises, and it is refreshing to see some more bald-faced confessions.

The irony is that until the election, many would have spun these traditions as good things. Evasiveness and dishonesty lead to Collective Responsibility (with a capital C and R). Single-party and undeserved winners lead to strong government. Honouring manifesto pledges in letter but not in spirit is an example of a peculiar marriage between delegate and representative traditions, with MPs making fine independent judgements whilst scattering breadcrumbs of honesty to their constituents. Such is the balanced way in which the British constitution works, it would be argued, long has it functioned and long may it continue to.

Such arguments convey an inability to cope with uncomfortable truths. If what we are experiencing now is an example of constitutional imbalance, then I say we could all do with a continued dose of it. It seems to me ridiculous to assume that the average citizen will worry about the niceties of Constitution whilst being unable to cope with the occasional expression of honest ministerial opinion. It is equally ridiculous to think that people cannot prefer honest confession of broken promises to spin and obfuscation. And the very idea of coalitions automatically leading to instability and stagnation is already almost extinct after nearly 8 months of good practice.

But of course, the truth is that my opening premise works both ways. Coalition in the United Kingdom is being shown to work because the climate is already supportive of it. Radicalism is low, common sense in reasonable supply and if anything, our problem of apathy works to its advantage. If  you compared to Italy, you would find that it has historically failed to cope well with Coalition not because of PR, but because of a climate which has dominated its politics for decades. But even then, Coalition can arguably be used as a solution to division and extremism as well as being a freedom which mature nations qualify for, and benefit from. Part of Italy’s problem probably stems from choice of coalition. Whereas the strength of the Northern Irish system, as I argued in my previous article, is the lack of any such choice, and the democratic structure of the legal requirement, which automatically requires the largest two parties take part in government, and entitles smaller ones to cabinet seats. Of course, such a system would not have worked had Northern Ireland not been at a stage where, in general, it wanted it to.

So Coalition cannot always work, but the situations where it can are varied and diverse. It is a political freedom which requires maturity and a beneficial climate, but wherever it can work it has the potential to improve not only the freedom of political ideas, but the use to which such freedom can be put. Honesty has proved empowering. The Coalition is considering a faster pace of reform than single-party government has given us for a decade. You may disagree intently with what that is resulting in, but freedom is not defined by whether you like the use it is put to, apart from perhaps the consideration of its own long-term future.

It may yet prove that such freedom in political ideas without democratic reform to accompany it, and force it into greater accountability, is dangerous. But the indications are favourable, indeed, for democratic reform itself. The Coalition has a short-term rather than a long-term vision of reforming the House of Lords; a long overdue alternative form of representation, which will hopefully complement the purpose of the House of Commons rather than replacing it. It intends to introduce the Alternative Vote if the public vote in favour, which is a small but crucial reform for polite discourse during elections. At present, the system makes parties all too happy to turn their opponents against each other, which is a malicious and cruel incentive. And above all, the one way in which freedom of ideas is destined to flourish is the utter inability of the Prime Minister to habitually shuffle individuals between jobs like a pack of cards. His is truly the primus inter pares, not just technically.

I would also like to raise a glass to the Coalition for setting yet another example in the Daily Soapbox’s favour, of professional collaboration, courteous disagreement, and “an independent community, recognising that we all think better when people of different views express them clearly”. This is our 100th Post. Here’s to the future.

This is the second in a series of posts considering the nuances of democracy, intended as something of a response to polarii’s epic summer trilogy. Do take a read of that as well, if you have a spare week.

What to protest?

In Education, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on November 18, 2010 at 2:32 pm

David Weber

To those watching the news last Wednesday, the question of what to protest, and who should protest, was a key one. Those towards the right might wonder what the point is of protesting higher tuition fees, given that poorer graduates will be better protected and universities forced to ensure wider social access. Those further to the left might also wonder what the point is of forcing such a small issue so high up the agenda, when far worse cuts are around the corner. Both will have different priorities, and both will wonder why their are not the issues being protested.

I identify with both these sentiments. Indeed, I see little difference, bar the emphasis on different lines of appeal, between the two positions. They can be complementary. It is their attitude to other questions which sets them apart, not their attitude toward this one. I personally agree with the goal of deficit reduction, provided it attempts to protect the poorest. I also do not instinctively support every cut made in the name of deficit reduction, and I think some of the “smaller” cuts can actually be more harmful.

I think my attitude towards the student protests in London was cemented by a picture I saw recently of an old school acquaintance with a group of friends. Two of them had placards protesting the fees rise. But another had a placard saying “Save EMA”. My view is that if you can’t see the competing values here, you’re in need of some educating.

The fact is that people weren’t marching against the abolition of EMA. They were marching against tuition fees and university cuts. If you thought EMA was more important, you should have stayed away from that march. Also, the sheer lack of prioritisation annoys me. You think supporting university students is important? Supporting core schooling is far more important. That generally determines whether or not you go to University to begin with.

Not only that, but EMA, perhaps unlike quite a lot of University spending, was efficiently spent. It provided a hard-nosed set of incentives so that pupils attended lessons, worked hard and met their target grades. It should be a model for government spending. Instead, it’s being scrapped, and most university students don’t seem to have noticed.

Generally, unless you genuinely think that no cuts to public spending should take place, students should shut up about tuition fees. The settlement has been more generous than people dared hope when the Browne review came out, and the fact is that, to again quote Polly Toynbee, students are fairly low down the pecking order. In terms of upfront support and the ability to make ends meet, they are significantly better supported today than they were in the 1990s, before tuition fees were even introduced. The march against tuition fees might encapsulate student anger, but more than anything it encapsulates mismatched priorities.

Even worse is the rush with which some students have defended the property damage at Millbank. Students have been quick to use excuses such as “the democratic process isn’t working” as a blanket defence for all action “taken against the state”. But the action wasn’t “taken against the State”. It was taken against a private party with links to the ruling politicians, and even then, it was hardly affected. 95% of those affected did not work for the Conservative party. So the vast majority of people affected were ordinary, non-affiliated workers. There’s a less than flattering label aimed at those who disrupt those lives in the name of fighting a battle against the State.

I’m not one to exaggerate, so I won’t use it. But I will say to those telling us to “pick a side” — do you know what that implies? War. Do you know what war involves? Generally a surplus of death and suffering. So unless you can tell me what side I am on — a student from a middle income background, receiving a full maitenance grant, and getting into more debt than the average student — and convince me of it, stop comparing this to a war. It isn’t one. Most of us do not, and will never divide easily into “sides”.

One final note: I agree with people that the Liberal Democrats could actually have done more than they have achieved on this issue. My position is perhaps not the obvious one: I don’t think they could have reasonably kept fees much lower. But I do think they could have committed the coalition to a timetable for bringing fees back down as the public finances improve. I can understand why they don’t want to, however, and it gives me hope for their essential nobility: I’d say any extra money floating around is probably much better to spend on the real losers of public spending cuts, not students.

Constitutional Reform, Labour’s “record”, and “direction”

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on August 6, 2010 at 7:25 pm

David Weber

There’s a surplus of inverted commas in today’s title, but not entirely without reason. I feel compelled to write a response to what is otherwise a very entertaining leader on Lib Dem Voice.  The issue is some ill-chosen words describing Labour’s record on Constitutional Reform.

I’m inclined to be sympathetic of damning indictments of the previous Labour government’s record — certainly it’s last two terms — on certain issues, which I won’t distract myself with here. But generally the one thing I felt Labour to be almost continually strong on was its approach to Constitutional reform. After all, any subject that Tony Blair describes as “boring” is bound to flourish far better outside of his interest.

It is possibly for this reason that Constitutional Reform stands as a refreshing contrast to public service reform, which seemed more than a little confused — enough so to have led to a policy, academies, being altenately lauded and derided simply based on which schools it was being applied to. So much for stability.

But it appears from the reading of Nick Lane’s article that this is precisely his problem with Constitutional Reform. He terms it “directionless”, and “minor”. I suspect that a Lawyer specialising in human rights cases might disagree. As would anyone living in Scotland and Wales, and I suspect virtually every other academic studying the constitution.

The last 13 years, in fact, have been a period of unprecedented constitutional change, with implications resounding so deep that it threatened to be politically unsustainable. Just witness the attitude of the Conservative party, who even up till May this year favoured watering down the Human Rights Act, a document far more modest than most constitutional protections of rights.

But perhaps this is a case which is unique to Britain. Perhaps by international standards, this is still far too weak. But even when I think of this argument, I believe I see an easy, and chilling counter-argument. It merely requires a cursory look at some of the less careful, and as a result far more damaging legislation of the last decade and so.

In fact, I will look at merely one example. What would constitutional reform look like if it were not considered “boring”, and if change was considered directionless if it did not take a leap into the dark? Very likely there would be far more legislation like the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, which allowed for the denial of jury trial for the first time in hundreds of years. This is an example of careless reform which has so much direction it drives a fundamentally important part of the constitution straight off of a cliff.

Simply put, arguing for politicians to be less careful and more radical assumes that they have both the principles and the understanding to make a good job of it. I am far from convinced that this is the case. In looking for consensus, Labour may have occasionally erred on the side of caution. But just imagine how much worse things would have been if it had erred on the other side.

One final point. Nick claims that Labour could “easily” have won a referendum on PR. What leads him to draw this conclusion? You cannot merely point to Labour’s long-lasting stay in government. This stay, at least up until 2003, was based on shrewd assessment of the mood of the electorate, and careful avoidance of unnecessary controversy. Had Labour behaved differently it might have had a very different recent history. The easiest thing to do is to look for modern comparisons, such as Australia and the USA, where governments have swept into power on a wave of popularity but enjoyed less sustained success. In politics, without consensus there is little evidence of anything being an easy victory.

So now our new masters have managed the *impossible*. Now it is time for them to *manage* the impossible.

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight on May 15, 2010 at 4:06 pm

David Weber

…Not the most pithy of titles, perhaps, but it sums up my feelings. I never did seriously believe that the outcome of the election would be a coalition between the Liberals and the Conservatives, although I did view it as a far more likely scenario than a coalition between the Liberals and Labour. I grin did momentarily play on my face today, though, as I remembered the incredulous reaction I suffered when, two years ago, at the height of the ten pence tax row, I declared that a Liberal-Conservative coalition was now a more realistic probability than a Liberal-Labour one. Not once did I seriously believe it, though.

The fact that it has become a reality can be mainly attributed to something I never expected; Cameron’s commitment to finding a majority. My expectation was that Cameron, in line with the tone of the Conservative campaign, would be bold and attempt to go it alone, winning votes on a case-by-case basis as the SNP in Scotland have done, perhaps with a supply and confidence deal with the Lib Dems. The Tory campaign seemed to back this assumption up; to the end combative and as sure of the Liberals’ wrongness as it was its own rightness, it made ideas of a coalition seem far away.

In retrospect, a large part of this was perhaps due to fright at the Lib Dems’ performance at the leaders’ debates, and worries that an election in which they came second might lead to a Labour-Liberal majority, or even a Labour plurality. But the attitude of the Conservatives in opposition was troublesome for considered, collective decision-making even before this; the party has behaved infamously in the practice of making up policy “on the hop”. Though the Lib Dems are not innocent of this, it at least tended to provoke reactions from their grassroots, whereas idiotic commitments from the Conservatives such as cutting the number of MPs and a 4 year mandatory sentence for knife criminals went largely unnoticed or uncared about. Only the imposition of female candidates sparked anger from the grassroots, which speaks of perhaps skewed priorities.

So the commitment with which Cameron pushed for this coalition speaks volumes to his credit, particularly after a 4 year opposition strategy undermined his reputation with those like me who feel policy and government should be matters of caution as well as boldness. The Conservatives’ continual press releases with instant policy recommendation, as impotent as they were frequent, was a matter of serious irritation to me, as was the Osborne “pulling a tax rabbit out of the hat” act at Conservative party conferences, even if I realised that this was more politically necessary. Cameron’s first bold act of government, using the coalition as an excuse to ditch many, if not most of the politically expedient but unwise policies out of his manifesto, is a work of political genius, far more meaningful and improving than Tony Blair’s “clause four moment” ever was.

The second person to congratulate is Clegg. Equidistance has paid off volumes, as the approach now allows him to sell a Con-Lib deal as legitimate to his party and indeed his voters, where it would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago. The Liberal Democrats are no longer seen as an alternative left fringe party, but as a very serious party of political reality. Clegg has also played the hung parliament well, managing to secure a truly joint policy agreement, even if he did edge dangerously close to the line of using Brown’s predicament unkindly towards the end. Still, he can hardly be blamed for attempting to maximise his party’s advantage in negotiations.

The joint policy deal, which I have skimmed, effectively removes the least important and most unwise parts of each party’s manifestos. Gone is the IHT cut, in return for the mansion tax plan biting the dust. The Liberal Democrat’s income tax proposals are being gradually implemented, presumably in return for their agreement not to kick up a stink over a married tax allowance. An immigration cap will be adopted, an acceptable (and likely self-defeating) price to pay for the ending of the shocking detention of children for immigration purposes.

This is real progressive politics. Not the constant glancing over the shoulder at the tabloids when even the smallest redistributive measure is considered, but the hard-nosed negotiation for full-blooded reforms in specific areas. And the beauty of coalition is that, in the next election, both side can spread the blame around and allocate each others a more generous share in the credit than they really deserve. Risk is pooled.

Of course, it could always go badly wrong. And this is where my header comes in. In coming to this agreement, strong though it is initially, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have only managed to do what was thought impossible. But now they have to manage, continually, to do the even harder business of hammering out the details in government. The process of continual negotiation, as it were, will be difficult, despite the comprehensive policy agreement. The latter is, in effect, political theory, whereas the former is political reality. And will prove far more difficult.

As such, their early efforts to make this coalition stable should be applauded, not sneered at. And the now controversial idea of a 55% threshold for dissolution should be counted as such. Contrary to what some people believe, it is not to protect the Liberal Democrats from the Tories! The Tories could not muster dissolution alone – they have 47% of the seats, and would need backing from Labour, Nationalist or Liberal Democrat MPs. The whole point is to protect the Tories from the Liberal Democrats, who with only a 50%+1 threshold for dissolution could easily break away and form a pact with the opposition at a time which looked politically expedient. Though they might be punished at the ballot box for doing such a thing, this is no guarantee.

What protects the Liberal Democrats is the historic transfer of the dissolution power, in the first place, away from the Prime Minister. And this is very important. It is a far bigger transfer of power back to Parliament than the super-threshold is a constraint of its powers. And as the architects of this policy point out, dissolution is not the same as confidence. The House of Commons could theoretically vote for a change of government mid-term, but not dissolution.

There is one danger in the legislation – that the House of Commons would be able to do the unthinkable, IE force a Prime Ministerial resignation but to refuse to put forward an alternative candidate. In this case, there could theoretically – very theoretically – be the risk of a government shutdown, similar to that of Bill Clinton’s administration in 1995. This must be avoided, and could easily be done so by the insertion of a safety clause to provide for emergency elections in the event of such a situation developing. The emergency elections could only hold valid for the remainder of the previous parliamentary term, thus creating an incentive against any party seeking to engineer one.

The only issue with 55% is that it is too low. It means that the Coalition as a whole can effectively vote for an early election if it believes it will do well. In reality, to have proper fixed-term parliaments, the threshold needs to be higher, as it is in the Scottish Parliament. So far from this being undemocratic, it actually safeguards the right of the House of Parliament to be superior to government – the representative body standing tall over the practical, but unrepresentative one.

A Level Playing Field is Essential

In The Media on March 31, 2010 at 9:45 am

David Weber

A lot has been made about the TV debates this election, that one would almost think that it is a new thing in British politics to have leaders debates. But it is not. A leaders panel debate occurred in 2005.

This was called “Question Time”, and it was an election special. Now, I have a lot of respect for Question Time, despite sniffy comments that often come from the left-wing blogosphere. It represents a quintessentially true representation of the Parliamentary system, where parties field different representatives each week (or rather the BBC invite different representatives each week), thus countering the increasing presidentialism of the party system.

It is for this reason that I am concerned about the “leaders debates” events. I think it’s a nonsense in a Parliamentary system: encouraging the idea that leaders are competing with each other for election. Nothing could be further from the truth: their competitors will be inside the party, or inside the constituency. At most, leaders should participate in a panel debate: the nature of Question Time is that the audience dictate the agenda, quite unlike an organised debate on policy in which each candidate is not allowed to address the other personally.

I’m all for seeing the QT model extended, with other channels doing similar things. But trying to copy presidential debates is a corruption and perversion of a system which is fraught enough as it is. However, the debates seem to be getting one thing right, in giving Nick Clegg equal exposure. Alarmingly, the is at the same time that Question Time is getting this question badly wrong, and dropping the Liberal Democrats with regularity.

Other people have tackled the disastrous timing of these LD-free panels, so I’m going to skip that question. Suffice it to say that to ignore the Lib Dems’ most famous policy stand was never going to be a good decision. No, my point is more fundamental. The BBC claims that the Liberal Democrat, as the third party, do not qualify for as much representation in media. This is a catastrophic failure to understand the role of media in democratic choice.

A level playing field is essential for a good democratic fight. It is, in fact, analogous to the market, and problems of over-large companies. If one company gets too big a share in the market, it is counter-productive to the interests of choice and competition.

The parties do not, in fact, have a huge share of the democratic market, which makes things worse. They are over-represented in Parliament: whether this is a problem is a whole bigger debate. But the parties, in terms of a proportion of the votes cast, all round far closer than election results would have us believe.

This is how a question time panel is divided, whether by accident or design: One representative for the three parties, and two representatives outside of this sphere. The latter represent 40% of the panel; by accident or design this is the percentage of the electorate which does not vote in general elections at the moment. Occasionally minority parties are given a voice, such as the SNP in Scotland, and UKIP in England. Given this, the main parties’ representation can be weighed by the proportion of real votes they get: Labour being roughly 60% of 38% at the moment (<24%), Conservatives being a little under, probably around 20%, and the Liberal Democrats being around 13-14%. As such, the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the “big two” is far less than commonly imagined.

But this is immaterial, anyway. The simple fact is that for the electorate to be presented a serious choice, the main parties must be treated as equals. In an ideal world, this would benefit more than just three parties, but given the politics we have, it is patently clear that the main three parties, which are in most elections far ahead of the others, should be given equal exposure. Otherwise not only does the electoral system conspire against underdog, but the media does as well.

A lot has been made about the TV debates this election, that one would almost think that it is a new thing in British politics to have leaders debates. But it is not. A leaders panel debate occurred in 2005.This was called “Question Time”, and it was an election special. Now, I have a lot of respect for Question Time, despite sniffy comments that often come from the left-wing blogosphere. It represents a quintessentially true representation of the Parliamentary system, where parties field different representatives each week (or rather the BBC invite different representatives each week), thus countering the increasing presidentialism of the party system.

It is for this reason that I am concerned about the “leaders debates” events. I think it’s a nonsense in a Parliamentary system: encouraging the idea that leaders are competing with each other for election. Nothing could be further from the truth: their competitors will be inside the party, or inside the constituency. At most, leaders should participate in a panel debate: the nature of Question Time is that the audience dictate the agenda, quite unlike an organised debate on policy in which each candidate is not allowed to address the other personally.

I’m all for seeing the QT model extended, with other channels doing similar things. But trying to copy presidential debates is a corruption and perversion of a system which is fraught enough as it is. However, the debates seem to be getting one thing right, in giving Nick Clegg equal exposure. Alarmingly, the is at the same time that Question Time is getting this question badly wrong, and dropping the Liberal Democrats with regularity.

Other people have tackled the disastrous timing of these LD-free panels, so I’m going to skip that question. Suffice it to say that to ignore the Lib Dems’ most famous policy stand was never going to be a good decision. No, my point is more fundamental. The BBC claims that the Liberal Democrat, as the third party, do not qualify for as much representation in media. This is a catastrophic failure to understand the role of media in democratic choice.

A level playing field is essential for a good democratic fight. It is, in fact, analogous to the market, and problems of over-large companies. If one company gets too big a share in the market, it is counter-productive to the interests of choice and competition.

The parties do not, in fact, have a huge share of the democratic market, which makes things worse. They are over-represented: whether this is a problem is a whole bigger debate. But the parties, in terms of a proportion of the votes cast, all round together.

This is how a question time panel is divided, whether by accident or design: One representative for the three parties, and two representatives outside of this sphere. The latter represent 40% of the panel, the percentage of the electorate which does not vote, but sometimes minority parties are given a voice, such as the SNP in Scotland, and UKIP in England. Given this, the former can be weighed by the proportion of real votes they get: Labour being roughly 60% of 38% at the moment (<24%), Conservatives being a little under, probably around 20%, and the Liberal Democrats being around 13-14%. As such, the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the “big two” is far less than commonly imagined.

But this is immaterial, anyway. The simple fact is that for the electorate to be presented a serious choice, the main parties must be treated as equals. In an ideal world, this would benefit more than just three parties, but given the politics we have, it is patently clear that the main three parties, which are in most elections far ahead of the others, should be given equal exposure. Otherwise not only does the electoral system conspire against underdog, but the media does as well.

The Liberal Democrats are the most interesting of the big three by a mile. So why are they doing their best to disguise it?

In Uncategorized on March 12, 2010 at 10:35 pm

David Weber

Well, why are they? Over the last decade, the Liberal Democrats have built up their reputation for unique policies. During the early boom years, they were the only party to support a 50% tax on the rich. Along with this, they are the only party to have previously committed to policies as radical as a negative income tax (only cosmetically different to the Greens’ infamous “Citizen’s wage”), the only party to argue for a complete overhaul of council tax, the only party to argue for real devolution of policy in health and education, and the only party to commit to a huge rise in the income tax allowance. They’re the only party to (wrongly!) commit to abolishing tuition fees, too.

You may not agree with these. I certainly don’t agree with the detail of many of them. But you can’t deny that they show genuine differences, and far more consistently so than the policies of the big two. When the Tories talk about localism, they hedge their bets, paying lip-service to it one moment (helped on by Caroline Spelman’s lovely belief that it’s ok to trust councils now, because “We control over three times as many councils as our rivals put together”), and talking of freezing council taxes the next. The Tories talk about freeing education in one breath, by adopting Swedish policies, and talk about cutting funding for all teacher trainees with thirds. In an age characterised increasingly by (sometimes erroneous) claims that politicians are “all the same”, and “elections don’t change anything”, the Liberal Democrats have done their fair best to buck the (media invented) trend in recent years. So why has no-one noticed?

It could be demonstrated, rather aptly, by their election slogan, released today. It could be used as a textbook slogan in the future of How Not to do These Things:

“Change that works for you. Building a fairer Britain”

Let’s start with the full stop. Bad idea. The Tories election poster was derided for featuring a comma inbetween the first half, which had the word “cut” and the second, which had the word “NHS”, the idea being that people wouldn’t bother to read past the comma and would only notice “NHS” out of the second half. But at least they didn’t use a full stop. The full stop transforms what should be a snappy slogan into what appears as two separate and distinct pieces of information — a chunky slogan, to say the least.

So now let’s go further, and look at the two pieces of information contained therein. The first is: “Change that works for you.” What does this remind you of? It reminds me very strongly of two things. The first is Barak Obama: “Change we can believe in”. Which was all very well for him, but a) he was running in America, rather than the UK, and b) He might as well have been running here given how much his slogan was heard. Both of which count against the already dubious notion of it’s having a second round of success. I am sure that before long people will be utterly sick of the word “change”.

…given how much the Conservative have been using it. “Vote for Change”, “Year for change”, “Now for change”, have all punctuated headlines with the Conservatives in. In picking a slogan only cosmetically different to those used by David Cameron and Barak Obama, Clegg is almost asking to become invisible. The only way he could make it worse is by adopting — sorry, adapting — Labour’s slogan for the second half of his slogan…

“Building a fairer Britain”. Sound familiar? That’s because it is: “A Future Fair for all” was Labour’s recently released slogan. But at least that had the benefit of palendromic alliteration (I was dying to say that). I’m also pretty certain that “Building Britain’s Future” was a slogan coined by Labour for some initiative or other a year ago. Clegg can certainly earn big brownie points for being green here, as the amount of recycling is impressive.

But the Liberal Democrats really will not gain from this type of nonsense. I remember my History teacher talking about the party some years back; he argued that all it did was to sit in the House of Commons lambasting either side without offering anything new. Views like his are probably more commonplace than the party would care to admit, so why are they doing their level best to encourage them? If the Lib Dems want to be seen as credible king-makers, they need to convince people they are a real alternative, rather than simply more of the same.

Clegg may have been told this slogan would strike a chord by convincing the public that he offered a perfected version of the imperfect promises made by both parties. If so, his PR advice must count as slightly worse than David Cameron’s adman.

Without cold-hearted pragmatists to improve bad laws, we would be in a far worse place.

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2010 at 7:25 pm

David Weber

The House of Lords is no place for Grandstanding. Neither is it a good place for a party to boycott if it wishes to have any legislative impact, being the only chamber to have anything approaching a proportionate balance of members, and no party with overall control, and more importantly, doing the bulk of important legislative revision.

It is the House of Lords where the fight for the moderation of the government’s alarmingly ill-defined and thus illiberal anti-hatred legislation has met with most success, inserting key amendments to protect freedom of speech, both in the earlier Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2006, and the later Coroners and Justice Bill 2009. Given that there have been cases of frivolous interpretation of the existing legislation, even with the Amendements forced by the house of Lords, at cost of money and of time to the police; I do not think this is a trivial concern. A functioning revising chamber is of interest to us all, no matter how tedious the issues may seem.

Indeed, the fact that the House of Lords is not representative in the conventional sense (with members not holding responsibility towards constituents) strikes me as a good thing here, as the public indisputably does not always prioritise issues where necessary. The Digital Britain bill is – stay tuned for more discussion on this topic – a niche interest, which probably only a minority of people are even aware of, and fewer still have a detailed understanding of it. I must confess my own understanding to be woefully inadequate. But it is one of the most important legislative matters before Parliament.

Yet James Graham not only appears to suggest, in his latest column in the Guardian, that the Liberal Democrats should not contribute Peers to the House of Lords at all, but also that the amendment to Digital Britain jointly sponsored by the Liberal Democrats and Tories was pointless, for attempting that deeply ignoble aim of making “bad less awful”. He concludes that “forcing us to choose between judges and lawyers having to interpret a bad law and ministers making it up as they go along is no choice at all.”

…why? is my instinctive reaction? Why, yet again, do those in a position to actually do something rather than merely grandstand, get lambasted for doing so? Preferably, of course, one should do both; and of course there are occasionally times when it is better to deliberately shun engagement to make a point. This is not one of them. Not only would boycotting the legislative process be an utterly impotent stand, as the constitutional system in the United Kingdom currently makes any chance of the Lib Dems achieving anything through forcing a binary choice between the status quo and full change, but the Lib Dems would actually be boycotting the one place where they arguably have very real influence on the legislative process. Moreover, the Digital Britain bill, as James Graham points out, can be over-exaggerated. Though a very dodgy piece of legislation which is almost certainly a step in the wrong direction, it is no longer a full enabling bill. It is no longer a watershed moment in the civil liberties fight. And this is perhaps, to give credit where it’s due, because of the actions of hard-working, cold-blooded pragmatists in the House of Lords, many of which reside on the Lib Dem benches. This is no “No choice”, this is a very real and important choice at all.

Contrast this to the alternative of no engagement, “no reform”: the argument of revolutionaries everywhere, that we need to confront more pain in order to bring about the necessary radical change. Hardly, I would have thought, the most liberal argument, and definitely not one which will work over an issue which currently inspires pathetically little widspread public feeling.

And at the end of the day, I simply don’t see this being the sort of issue James Graham thinks it to be. He mentions the prevaricating of the Liberal Democrats in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and I have seen him mention that before on his blog. But I have only ever come across it there. Though I do not doubt the truth of it, it is necessary to put it into context: the most that most people will be able to tell you about the Liberal Democrats’ stance on the Iraq War is that they opposed it. Hardly anyone, if anyone, outside of the party will be able to give you the minutae of their internal debate in the build-up to that decision.

So I say hats off to the cold-hearted Liberal Democrat peers that reside within the House of Lords. It takes boldness to grandstand, but it takes real fire to swallow your principles and do a deal with the Tories in order to stave off the forces of hell.

My apologies to all Tories. I don’t really hate you.