Sunday, 17 October 2010

One Liberal One Vote: Reforming party democracy

In a few weeks time Lib Dem grassroots will receive ballot papers to elect a new party president as Ros Scott steps down after her two-year term. However, there are other party elections going on right now which most members probably don't even know about.

These are the elections for the International Relations Committee, which works with our sister parties around the world; Conference Committee, which organises and runs conference; Federal Policy Committee, which administers our policymaking and the Federal Executive, which makes all the big decisions. We are also voting on who the Leader should nominate for the House of Lords when he next gets the chance and for something called the ELDR Delegation who are a group of eight people none of whom will ever be seen or heard from again. 

I say "we" because back in May I decided to go to the special conference in Birmingham Solihull and before I did so persuaded members of my local party to make me a voting rep. Federal voting reps get to elect the federal committees, hence my receiving ballot papers, and it's this distinction between Voting Reps and ordinary members of the party that is really starting to grate.

During the recent Labour leadership contest there was, rightly, a lot of commentary about the strange mechanism of the various electoral colleges and the end result in which a leader was elected without the support of either members or MPs. That could never happen in our party. Every conference season the point is made that only Liberal Democrats allow rank-and-file members to decide policy. We are rightly proud of our democratic structures. But are they good enough?

I have come to the conclusion that we simply do not need the institution of "conference reps." At one time this system was necessary to prevent a few active local parties from overwhelming the rest, but today when conferences see upwards of 2000 attendees from every corner of Britain and dormant areas are the exception rather than the rule, this is not the case. All this system does is to create extra administration for local party officers and Cowley Street staff and place a barrier between Lib Dem members and their right to decide party policy.

So I make three proposals: 

• Let every member vote for the party's committees at the same time as they elect the president. 

• Let any party member who registers for federal, state or regional conference vote at that conference. We don't need elections to pick out "the right sort of people."

• Host the candidates' manifestos online along with electronic voting to save sending out an entire tree to each voter. 

That last one's just something I thought of as I was typing and I surveyed they sheer tonnage of paper used for the manifesto booklets! There's a LOT of it!
Unlike most of the membership I'm not currently standing for anything, but I hope those who are eventually elected will take this all to heart, or at least give me a good reason why not.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Politics 101: Fees, poems and pledges

We live, worse luck, in interesting political times. Not just with the economic situation forcing everyone out of their "jam today and forever" comfort zone, but with the coalition muddling everyone up about what is party policy, what is government policy and who is speaking with which hat on and when. It seems to be no easier for those actually involved in the thing.

Mario Cuomo* famously compared the promises of an election with the realities of government by saying that politicians "campaign in poetry and govern in prose. I'd have to say that 26 years on the difference is probably even more stark; the 24 hour media cycle and the need for snappy soundbites and messaging has replaced the flowery political romance poetry of yesteryear with the snappy, efficient haikus that seem to make up political debate in what we can no longer call The Noughties.

And the Lib Dems have come a cropper on this one this week. Admittedly it was brought about by the carefully-positioned landmine of the Browne Report, timed by Labour to go off well after the election when they had a hunch it would have become someone else's problem, but nevertheless a cropper we did come.

I have long felt that the Lib Dem commitment to scrapping tuition fees was out of date or at best a political haiku. Student fees are no longer the pay-as-you-enter abomination they were when they first came in, when they genuinely were regressive and a disincentive for young people from poor families. Today's students were not even in school when Blair and Brown brought them in and so cannot argue as my generation could that the introduction of fees was a rug being pulled from under us. And also, although Labour never reached its planned and ridiculous target of sending 50% of all school-leavers to university, the numbers going into Higher Education mean that making courses free again is simply not a viable option.

Students suffer serious hardships and the whole system needs a radical overhaul, but the Lib Dem policy on fees - a great 14 syllable message as it may be in a campaign - seems to me simplistic and out of date. Many of the Browne Report's recommendations are moving in the right direction.

Having written all of the preceding, my next point may seem counterintuitive. When the Brown recommendations come before the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat MPs must vote against them.

Why? Simple. Because they said they would.

Interesting times. Governing in prose. We're all in this together. Maybe so, but the other political haiku circling around the coalition is one of Nick Clegg's own - the New Politics.

Much like New Labour, the Big Society or British Jobs for British Workers, the New Politics is deliberately a sufficiently vague phrase that is can encapsulate a whole raft of ideas and yet definitively mean very little. It's been used to refer to electoral reform and electing the Upper House, to the cross-party approach of coalition government and any number of other things, but the one thing the New Politics is meant to be about is a renewed relationship of trust between politicians and the electorate.
That's where the whole thing was born, remember? After the expenses scandal, phone tapping, Cash for Honours, Lobbying Lords and The Duck House Parliament we were promised a new start and politics we could trust and the man who made himself the face of that was Nick Clegg.

There are bound to be practicalities - Lib Dem ministers might have to be "unwell" or find themselves inexplicably stuck on the Jubilee Line during the vote to avoid breaking cabinet rules, but backbench Lib Dem MPs must fulfill the promise they made to the voters which helped many of them win their seats in May.

All 57 Lib Dems promised the voters they would oppose a rise in student fees. There is nothing more important in politics - new or old - than that.

* Google says it was him. As ever, I'm open to other bids.

What the Woolas?

When Phil Woolas went up against Joanna Lumley on live national television over Labour's refusal to recognise Gurkha rights I knew damn well whose side I was on. Even if the man had never surfaced in the public eye again I would stand by my choice.

Woolas was Labour candidate in what commentators at the time called "the dirtiest by-election in history" and has been MP for Oldham East since 1997. In that time he and his divisive political tactics have contributed to the 2001 Oldham race riots, the borough becoming for a time one of the BNP's strongest areas in the country and a legacy of ethnic tension and segregation that is still being carefully unravelled by Oldham's now-Lib Dem administration. His 2010 election campaign in which he suggested his Liberal Democrat opponent was in the pay of extremist Islam and which had an intended strategy of "making white folks angry" has now landed him in court and could well result in him being thrown out of office next month. 

So what on earth is this man doing back on the Labour front bench - and in a role shadowing the Home Office to boot?
As if it wasn't enough that Labour's new shadow Home Secretary is Ed Balls, one of the most right-wing ministers in the last government, we now have a man who might as well be campaigning for the BNP as his wingman. 

If Ed Miliband is really serious about the mood music he used in his conference speech, that seemed to be aimed squarely at winning back voters who have switched to the Lib Dems over issues like Iraq or civil liberties, he'll have to do better than this.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Ban This Filth!!

All the proper bloggers are presumably offering their pennyworth on the election of “The Emissary from the Planet Fuck” as the new Labour leader. Maybe I'll take a swing at that later on, but frankly I just can't do it justice without first reading a few Greek myths and most of the Old Testament for all the literary references and Freudian overtones of the whole thing.

I'm also staying with family out of London, so what other topic to turn to but an intricate consultation currently being run by Hackney Borough Council. Now that may sound boring, but this particular consultation is about... sex!

Now, seeing as sex is dirty and wrong, the good folk of the Mare Street People's Republic have decided to do something about it. They want to ban all forms of licensed sex establishment from the borough – sex shops, sex cinemas and “erotic dancing venues.”

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I am not a patron of any “sex cinema” and even if I did find myself in receipt of a lapdance, I ain't buying what she's selling. Of course, like anyone who has ever wanted to buy an embarrassing gift for a friend to opened in front of his mother, I have been to a sex shop, but not on a regular basis. This is important to note, because I am blogging here to say that I am utterly opposed to Hackney's “nil policy.”

Firstly, these businesses are legal enterprises. They provide legal goods or services for which there is a market. The claim that “We don't want them here” flies in the face of the fact that the few such premises that exist in the borough evidently turn a profit. Someone obviously wants them and those people should be free to do so.

I am utterly unconvinced by suggestions that the adult entertainment industry and pornography in particular causes violence against women or sexual abuse. If every man who enjoyed porn went on to beat his partner, women would have risen up centuries ago and wiped us chaps from the face of the Earth with a fiery vengeance. Violence against women is abhorrent, but it is caused by men behaving like idiots, not by men watching porn. I've also heard unsubstantiated rumours (whisper it!) that women enjoy sex and even occasionally watch porn too!
Equally, most legitimate adult film studios take great care to respect their performers precisely because it is a legal industry operating in the open with the free participation of its actors. Like any form of prohibition, making the porn industry “illicit” would merely result in worse conditions for porn actors, the mainstreaming of coercion and abuse and put money in the hands of criminals.

Secondly, while I personally don't see the appeal to men in suits of watching a gyrating woman surrounded by other men in suits, the fact that these clubs operate legally and can be regulated means that there is some control over what goes on there. People trafficking is a real problem in the UK and a great deal of it is linked to the sex industry, but it is utterly foolish to think that the (mainly) women trapped in this modern-day slave trade are working in licensed clubs with neon signs outside. They are working in the underground brothels and sex clubs that operate outside the law, trapped by the very laws that prohibitionists think protect them. Yes we must do something urgently to redouble the war on human trafficking, but putting yet more areas of the sex industry beyond the reach of the law is not the way forward.

Thirdly, a nil policy for Hackney is a huge abdication of responsibility by our councillors. There are clearly some areas where a sex establishment would be utterly inappropriate and any licence application would rightly be thrown out. Equally there are places where such a licence could be granted without causing problems or disruption. We elect councillors and our council runs a Planning Department to make those judgements. To adopt a blanket policy across all 19 wards means refusing to do that job of assessing each application on its merits, instead deciding the outcome of an application before it is even submitted. That cannot be right.

Finally, I object to the whole tone of the consultation. It is framed in the usual insulting weasel words about Hackney being a diverse borough with many different cultures – all of which is fantastic, of course, but what bearing does that have on the wisdom of this policy? Do people from other cultures not like sex? Judging from how many people live abroad, I'd say they do. There's billions of them!

Either Hackney's Labour administration is trying to curry favour with some of the borough's more conservative religious groups by hanging everyone else's freedom out to dry – which is inexcusable – or worse, they have now taken to hiding any old authoritarian nonsense they cook up behind the diversity agenda to try and stop anyone from voicing objections. And that, apart from being totally cynical and dishonest, is the first foot in the door for extremism; something Hackney has thus far mercifully kept out.

If you live in Hackney and want to see the sex industry legal, regulated and fairly dealt with, please respond to the council's consultation: HERE and tweet with the hashtag #dontbansex

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

(Tower) Hamlet - or Something Rotten in the State of Labour

After a summer of by-electioneering in Earl's Court (congrats to new K&C Lib Dem councillor Linda Wade) and in Manor House (thank you to all 61 people who voted for me!) it's now time for something a bit meatier in the form of the inaugural election of an executive mayor in Tower Hamlets.

Being possessed of an Oyster card, a 254 bus and some spare time, I headed down there this evening to the Lib Dem campaign HQ in Bethnal Green. Tower Hamlets is somewhere desperately in need of Lib Dem success, having been ruled, like most of East London, by cliquish Labour Party administrations for most of its recent history.

Our candidate John Griffiths is a former local councillor who has previously exposed fraudulent use of regeneration funds in the Town Hall and is involved in social housing and green transport bodies. His CV is impressive but I'm much more taken with the fact that, unlike a lot of candidates I've seen - including some from my own party - he is totally willing to get out delivering his own leaflets and doing the grunt work. Bravo that man.

Meanwhile on the other side of politics, I would imagine Tower Hamlets Labour are pulping more leaflets than they are delivering, the party NEC having just nullified their choice of candidate. After a court battle to be allowed to stand, Cllr Lutfur Rahman was originally selected and even endorsed by the local branch of RESPECT. Yesterday we hear he has been removed and a replacement candidate installed. Whether this is the final outcome of the Labour selection, who can say? What makes it more interesting is the suggestion that RESPECT may now nominate their own candidate after all, either Rahman or ex-MP George Galloway - both of whom may end up standing as Independents if not as official candidates.

Rather makes you fearful of what they'd be like actually running the borough - or at least understanding or how badly is is already run!

The Tories on the other hand do have a candidate in place, but he is not mentioned on their local party website (which also seems to think there's an apostrophe in the name of the borough) so I've no idea what they're up to.

Either way, the maps on the wall and stacks of leaflets at the campaign HQ tell me that John and his team will be taking the Lib Dem campaign to all corners of Tower Hamlets - so good luck to him.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Reasons to be Cheerful - May 2010 edition

God, I'm depressed!

Having spent the last four months of my life campaigning full time and a pretty big chunk of my time before that, the election is now over. The Clegg bounce sort of flopped, several amazing Lib Dem MPs and candidates failed to be returned to the Commons and we ended up with only 57 MPs to our name.

If politics counts as faith then I don't mind telling you I'm on the edge of a crisis of it.

So here goes trying to cheer things up. You won't necessarily agree with everything but at least try to play along...

The Big Ones:

1 - The Tories didn't get a majority!
There's still hope. Even after spending millions in marginal seats and being duplicitous in almost every way, David Cameron fell well short of the 326 seats he needs to hold an absolute majority. If Ashcroft and Murdoch couldn't win it for him you have to wonder if a single party will ever win an election outright again.

2 - More people voted!
29.7 million people voted in the general election - that's over 65% - well up on 2005. When I registered to vote in Hackney there was a queue and it was overwhelmingly young.

3 - Lots more people voted Lib Dem!
6,827,938 people (23% of the vote) voted for a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in 2010. That's about 900,000 more than last time and an extra 1% share.

4 - Nobody got shot, beheaded, blinded, dispossessed or otherwise harmed or intimidated for taking part in an election!
For all the postal vote irregularities, leaflet avalanches and smarmy candidates we Brits have to endure, voters and candidates in many other parts of the world have it way worse.

The Small Victories:

1 - Naomi Long, East Belfast (APNI).
Naomi Long of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is the first representative of a cross-community non-sectarian party the Province has sent to Westminster since 1974 (and even then it was a defector). This is even more fantastic given that the DUP candidate she defeated was Peter Robinson, the First Minister, a man about whom much could be written, all of it negative, little of it libelous.

2 - Sylvia Hermon, North Down (Ind).
If you're going to try and merge your party with another, it's probably a good idea to discuss it with your one sitting MP first. The Ulster Unionists didn't. They formed an electoral alliance with the Tories and Lady Hermon stood and won as a centre-left Independent.

3 - Caroline Lucas, Brighton Pavilion (Green).
Now this is probably contentious, but whether you generally agree with them or not, the Green Party previously had no representation whatsoever but this time managed to win a seat despite all the gross inequalities of First Past the Post. Can't we all just be happy about that?

4 - Ian Swales, Redcar (Lib Dem).
This was Mo Mowlam's old seat - continuing the earlier Northern Irish theme - and was supposed to be rock solid. A 21.8 ... let me repeat that ... a 21.8% swing to the Liberal Democrats put paid to that.

5 - Karen Buck, Westminster North (Lab).
It's always nice to see a deserving underdog win and even better when they defeat someone who deserves it. I had the good fortune to be in the room when Karen Buck learned she had held on to her seat and when her Tory opponent Joanne Cash found out too. Karen looked shellshocked; Joanne may have been sucking on a particularly sour gobstopper at the time but I don't think so! For once it was Casework 1 - Cashcroft Nil.

6 - John Bercow, Buckingham (Speaker).
The right wing hates him because he had the temerity to become less of a despicable Tory as he got older. The cheek of it. Not only that, but... whisper it... He's a Jew! Not that I would ever suggest that had any bearing on the low regard the Tory press and establishment has for him.
Anyway, the serried ranks of Torydom lined up behind UKIP MEP Nigel Farage in almost open rebellion. Farage lost. Not only did he lose to Mr Bercow, but he came third behind former Thames Valley MEP John Stevens, founder of the Pro-Euro Conservatives and an ex-Lib Dem.

7 - Margaret Hodge, Barking (Labour).
I don't particularly like her, in fact I think she's pretty daft. Let's forget about her and instead just share a little joke I heard recently.

What's the difference between Nick Griffin and a bicycle?

The bicycle has more seats.

I thank you.

Personal Triumphs:

1 - 701 People voted for me!
In Tachbrook ward, Westminster we went from 3rd place to 2nd and got about twice as many votes as in 2006 (Yes I know it was a higher turnout, don't burst my bubble!)

2 - Only 574 people voted for Paul!
You may not know him but I well and truly beat him! We were both, however, the lowest polling Lib Dems in our wards.

3 - We more than trebled our vote in our target ward!
Go Team Churchill.

4 - I'm still alive!
I consider this an achievement.


I don't know if you bothered reading this far but I feel a bit more motivated having written this so maybe so do you for having read it. If not, sorry!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

That Cameron Gaffe - It's what he said, not how he said it

David Cameron's made a bit of a Twit of himself. Pause for laughter.

In an interview on Absolute Radio - the station which overthrew Constitutional Radio in a bloody coup six months ago - Cameron was asked why he hadn't joined the serried ranks of MPs and public figures using Twitter to keep in touch with the public. His reply was covered by almost all media, but for all the wrong reasons:

"I'm not on Twitter. I think that; politicians, we have to think about what we say and I think the trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it, is that I think too many twits might make a twat."

Now there has been lots of commentary on all this and most of it just goes to show how bland our politics has become that the most interesting thing the press can say about David Cameron is that he said a swear.

But I think this whole episode says a lot about the "new" Tories.

Firstly - they've obviously learned and almost perfected the New Labour cynical manipulation of the media. Cameron went on a "yoof" radio station and accidentally used bad language because, you see, he's just such a man of the people that he couldn't help "connecting" with the young audience and being "relevant".
Well excuse me! It's possible that Call-me-Dave is, in fact, a rapier-witted wordsmith of uncanny verbal dexterity - but his weekly paint-by-numbers exploits at PMQs suggest otherwise. He can talk in full sentences, walk upright and knows which fork to use but Oscar Wilde he ain't.
"Too many twits make a twat" is such a great line and so perfect for the audience that there's no way he came up with it on the spur of the moment - he might as well have refered to "a .22 mind in a .357 magnum world." By just expressing outrage, the nation's media were being played like a cheap fiddle - and they didn't even know it.

Secondly - The defence from "aides" is one of the most conservative you could ever wish to hear. Saying "twat" isn't offensive, says Camp David, because Ofcom, the media regulator has published an official list of swearwords that are offensive and "twat" isn't on there. Ipso Facto!
Now, I find the whole Offence Industry vaguely and ironically offensive in the first place - I don't understand when and how saying something meaningful (the only way to never offend anyone is to never mean anything) became something to be avoided - but this is surely worse. The Conservative Party say that you cannot possibly have been offended by something because the State has provided a list of offensive things and he didn't do anything wrong.

Thirdly - and most damning - listen to what he says just before the T-word crops up. He doesn't like the instantness of Twitter. Presumably he wants to be able to hide away, like so many politicians past, behind briefings and lobby correspondents and press releases and spin. Having a direct line of communication with the voters and vice versa would threaten this cosy little arrangement - which is of course, why I and other liberals like it so much and why Lib Dem MPs were the first on Facebook and the biggest contingent on Twitter too.
Cameron doesn't want to have to change anything he doesn't have to about the old ways of getting things done in Westminster and he certainly doesn't want the uppity little voters @replying every time he does something bad. Let's all remember that next time he comes along with his open collar and bambi eyes and pontificates about being the party of "change".