Tag Archive: Lib Dems


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The very nature of being a volunteer for a UK political Party in this day and age could be described as exploitative. Your time and labour are given freely to the service of the promotion of others – those you believe can best embody your shared ideals and values. We do it because we believe in the cause and we do it in the most part willingly and joyfully. Volunteering for a cause you believe in can be and should be a fulfilling experience.

As should working for and dedicating your life to that same cause. Choosing to go into politics – whether it be working for a Party or standing for election at any level – can be a daunting thing to do. The backroom jobs are frequently low paid and always highly stressful. When you work in such an organisation the intensity of the experience can and frequently does lead to a very distorted relationship with the party itself. A fierce loyalty to the thing to which you are dedicating so much of yourself to is only natural. A sense that the organisation - and it’s higher purpose – come first is completely natural. Belief in a cause or simply in the people you admire who lead you is an essential part of working for or volunteering for a political party.

But there are some people who will corrupt that loyalty and abuse it for their own ends. Who do not understand the boundaries of the exploitation of the free labour and abuse the wielding of their power over those with none. And all too often, they are allowed to do so because their talents and use to the Party is seen by many with the power to act as more important than the rights of the more vulnerable workers involved.

They are wrong.

By doing so they corrupt the values for which they believe they stand and forfeit the moral authority of the Organisation they seek to protect. Whether it be the SWP, Wikileaks or the Lib Dems, those whose instinct was to protect the alleged perpetrators at the expense of the alleged victims have harmed the reputation and moral authority of their leaders and their organisations. By looking the other way to avoid the harm of having to discipline their senior and powerful figures, they cause exponentially greater damage to those they should most seek to protect, to themselves and the ideals they believe the organisation stood for.

As the most mainstream of the Parties currently besieged by such accusations, it has been really sad to see how badly many Lib Dems have resp0nded to the crisis. The initial statement from Nick Clegg (issued several days after the allegations were first broadcast on Channel 4 News) was mealy-mouthed about the process and whiny about the press coverage. It attempted to make the Party and its leadership the victim. It also seems that there may have been significant inaccuracies in that statement as he has had to row back on a number of the details.

Some activists and journalists on Lib Dem sympathetic newspapers have also been vocal both in their diminishing of the importance of the allegations and again tried to make the Party the victim of malicious media coverage. it is worth saying that some other Lib Dems have not. Notably Stephen Tall who has been leading the call to make any inquiries independent.

I’m not a Lib Dem and I never will be. So why does it matter to me that they get this right? That all parties involved get justice and that the internal culture that allows and even tacitly supports this kind of behaviour is tackled? Because the macho, testosterone-fueled nature of politics that views volunteers and junior staff members as “fair game” doesn’t exist simply in the Lib Dems. It infects the whole of politics to a certain degree. When women like me complain about the “boys club” we know this affects the whole of the political arena from the feeder organisations (like think tanks and pressure groups) to the branches to the national offices. The invisibility of women and their marginalisation in public and political spaces create the conditions in which these kinds of abuses of power thrive.

One depressing aspect of this story has been the Labour voices counselling we be quiet about the Lib Dem scandals as we don’t want to expose our own skeletons.

They could not be more wrong.

Not because our own skeletons don’t exist. While I have been lucky not to experience too much of it directly (though there are MPs who couldn’t tell you the colour of my eyes after talking to my breasts for an hour) I have heard stories: the friend who had her neck licked by a former minister in Strangers Bar; the male employer at a left wing organisation who described to a male friend his new (quite senior) employee as “the teeth and tits”. These aren’t my stories to share beyond these anonymised versions, but be under no illusion that such things don’t happen.

It is because such things happen that we must speak up and speak out. We have to change the culture of the whole of politics. We must use the opportunity of the crisis in the Lib Dems to examine our own processes at every level and be confident that they are robust enough. We must protect young, ambitious women from being put off politics by abuse from men they thought they admired. We must ensure that there is never a culture of acceptance but of challenge to poor behaviour and welcome to all those who share our politics. We must never allow ourselves to cheapen politics or our Party by passing by and accepting them.

Monica Lewinsky was an ambitious and clearly extremely talented (I suspect internships at the White House are pretty competitive after all) young politico. She made some bad personal choices and had a sexual relationship with a man much more famous and powerful than herself. He remains a senior political icon. A figure of huge respect in his Party and internationally. She has no political career. Their sexual activity was mutually consensual, she was single, he was married. Why has the fallout for their careers been so disproportionate? Because she had neither the power nor the status to get the machinery to protect and continue to nurture her talent. He was too important to lose. We can’t allow ourselves to lose talented young women from politics because of a culture in which protects the predatory powerful at the expense of the careers of young women.

This is not to say that people who develop relationships within politics should be punished or discouraged from doing so. But if their power statuses are disproportionate, how do you protect the weaker party from being sidelined? A modern organisation needs to look at this kind of question arising from the fallout of consensual relationships as well as from abuse and harassment. Because both feed into the sidelining of potentially great and important political women.

The Lib Dems are going through a difficult time because they clearly put the interests of the powerful before the interests of the less powerful. Parties are insular creatures and their natural instinct is to do just that. I strongly suspect that there is someone senior at the Labour Party and within the Conservatives wondering about what is going to come out now that open season has been declared and what to do about it. I can’t speak for the Tories. I’ll never be one of them either. But if Labour are aware of anything they should be acting on, I urge them to do so, properly, now.

In the end it might well be the cover up that could end the careers of several senior Lib Dems. But it is the culture that encourages that cover up that is choking politics. And it must end.

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The curly sandwiches have all been eaten, the beer has all been drunk and everyone has a cold. It must be end of conference season. For the first time in my life, I attended all three Party conferences this year.  I met and spoke with friends from each Party, and I also took the time to just sit quietly in the throng and listen to what the delegates had to say when talking to each other. This – far more than the stage managed media focused messages from the stages – will tell you where a party is at.

Read more…

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Clegg’s Choice

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By Emma | One comment

Nick Clegg has a choice. He doesn’t have to lose his prized reform of the undemocratic House of Lords, but in order to not do so he will have to swallow a significant amount of pride.

Here’s what’s not going to happen: Tory MPs are not going to come back in the autumn ready to cave in on their objections. Autumn is conference season. The Tory leadership will be desperate for this not to become a further disturbing display of disunity. The rebels know they will be largely feted by the Tory membership for the stance they have taken. The Tory rebels are not going to change their minds, and their leadership know they will have to be more placatory to get through conference without significant incident.

But the votes to reform the House of Lords exist in Parliament, if Clegg can first persuade himself to work with Labour to make this Bill work (he will need to follow Labour’s lead and swallow a few of Labour’s desired amendments, particularly a referendum and perhaps changing the insane terms), and then persuade David Cameron to let that happen, significant Lords reform could still take place. In all the focus on the rebels this week, it is forgotten that this was a large and comfortably won vote once it had Labour’s support.

So what practical steps must be taken over the summer? Well first the Lib Dems must reach out to Labour. They won’t like this, but their dismissive and hateful attitude is – in part – what has brought us to this place. Their unwillingness to negotiate the Bill with Labour properly in the first place instead presenting a deeply flawed Bill with a “like it or lump it” attitude was largely why Labour said they would force a defeat on the timetable. Clegg must send a team Labour can work with (i.e. not David Laws) to negotiate behind the scenes and thrash our enough agreement to see a way of getting the Bill through the Commons allowing Labour to support closure motions when their amendments or those they support in improving this Bill have been accepted. If Labour and the Lib Dems can use the summer to productively produce agreement that both sides accept and fully understand, then this Bill can be rescued.

It is now clear that a referendum is a likely outcome of such negotiation. If Labour and the Lib Dems can get around the table to save reform, this appears to be a Labour sticking point. I can understand after the bruising experience of the AV vote why Clegg and Co would rather not go through this again, but if properly managed, this time should be different. For a start all three Party leaders would – at least formally – be on the side of change. But if this is to be a part of the process, it must be better managed and better organised than the Yes to AV campaign. It has significantly more going for it than AV, but the campaign must look to recruit from beyond the narrow world of constitutional and electoral reformers to those better able to truly speak to and for the people of Britain. Planning for this should take place immediately. It cannot be left to chance, hope and the usual suspects.

Lords reform is salvageable, but Clegg must stand firm with David Cameron, who has already indicated to the Tory backbenches that he is willing to undertake a significant climb down. While negotiating with Labour, Clegg must stand strong in the face of significant levels of persuasion and arm twisting from his Tory Government colleagues. This will be hard – especially when it will mean siding with Labour and against the Tories, something he is usually politically disinclined to do.

Nick Clegg must decide which he hates more, Labour or an unelected House of Lords. The signs are not great that he’ll make the right decision. But if he does, it opens up a new space where Labour and the Lib Dems can have a new and more productive dialogue. This doesn’t just have an impact on the reform of the House of Lords, but on the potential for the anger between the two parties to finally dissipate somewhat. I don’t know if Clegg wants that, I do know, that to achieve anything the Lib Dems set out to do in this Tory led Government, ultimately and ironically, it will be in building bridges with Labour that they have their only chance to do so.

I for one hope they take it.

This post first appeared on Labour List

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So I’ve done the inevitable London postmortem, and got the worst news out of the way (I will do a final piece tomorrow on turnout, which is the biggest fly in the Labour ointment). London is stuck with Boris for a while longer. But so is David Cameron, which is better news.

Boris continues to be extremely popular among the Conservative grass roots, but polling (which come with heavy caveats) suggests that Boris may be just a bit more “Marmite” than Cameron, and therefore not an overall vote winner.

But Cameron is deeply unpopular with his backbenchers, and not just the usual headbangers like Nadine Dorries. The Tory right have taken the opportunity of electoral battering to loudly promote a more traditionally Tory policy platform, and some indications show it may be working, as gay marriage and Lords reform seem set for the very long grass.

Of course, Cameron’s popularity doesn’t – for the moment – mean there will be an actual leadership challenge. There isn’t an obvious challenger, and because of this, Dorries is likely to fail in her mission to replace Dave. But that doesn’t mean that Cameron’s leadership won’t be challenged, regularly, loudly and increasingly angrily from many quarters of the Tory party and their supportive press. And this matters deeply to George Osborne, widely seen as the man behind Cameron’s modernisation strategy. The more the Tories are seen to fail politically, as his nearest rival Boris soars from strength to strength, the worse it gets for Osborne.

Last year’s election results were a mixed bag not because of the Labour performance, which in England and Wales was excellent, but because of the performance of Tories and the collapse in Scotland. This year neither of those things happened.

The Tories suffered at the worst end of their predictions and also failed to properly dampen Labour victory. Their expectation management prior to the elections were trying to push Labour as having to get 700 seats and that Glasgow and London were the ones to watch. In the end, Labour got well over 800 seats, an overall majority in Glasgow and increased our grip on the London Assembly, despite losing the Mayoralty. And no one is blaming Labour or Ed Miliband for a loss widely attributed to Ken.

This inability to understand the game of expectation management is just one symptom of a malaise that should be much more troubling to the Tories. It is becoming increasingly obvious that from around the time of the unravelling of the Veto that never was the Tory leadership significantly lost their ability to do politics well.

Forget the individually bad polices for a moment, forget even the meta-narratives building up that the Tories are both incompetent and out of touch, forget the omnishambles, forget Jeremy Hunt, forget all the individual difficulties that are assailing the Tories. The fact is, that if the Tories had decent political instincts, the individual mistakes and unpopular policies would not be allowed to build up into the narratives, and the narratives would not be allowed to be so sustained in the public imagination, until they are close to defining this government. But the Tory strategists, led by George Osborne, have been like rabbits caught in the headlights. They’ve had simply no understanding of how to manage a narrative in challenging times.

Perhaps they had it too easy for too long and got lazy, got complacent or got out of practice. From the 2010 election campaign onwards, I’ve often said that I thought David Cameron was lazy and either unwilling or unable to do the heavy lifting. But he has surrounded himself not by people who can fill the gaps, but by those who reflect his best and worst qualities back at him. He’s surrounded by people like him, who are not necessarily the people he needs to help him reach the whole of the country.

This matters to Osborne, who wants to be seen as Cameron’s natural successor. If he can’t turn the tide on the Tory omnishambles; if he can’t shift the blame for that narrative from his disastrous budget and the subsequent handling of it; if he can’t lose the narrative that the Tories biggest problem is that they are “out of touch” he will never lead his Party.

The next big narrative that is building up around the Government is based around the 2015 election. Ever since Alexander signed the Lib Dems up to committing to cuts in their next manifesto live on Newsnight talk of a potential electoral pact between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats has intensified. Cameron chucked a giant can of gasoline on that fire when in an interview for the Evening Standard last week he said of the 2015 election “When it comes to the next election, do you want a Conservative-led Government…”, indicating that he may not be planing to attempt an outright Conservative victory at the next election.

I never used to believe that the Lib Dems would go for either a coupon election or a permanent pact. I thought the worst they would go for would be to prop up a minority Tory Party using a deviation of their standard branch of twisted electoral math.

But I’m increasingly believing it will be possible. It explains Clegg’s continued relaxation about his failure to differentiate his Party from the Tories. It follows the Lib Dems ever-increasing willingness to trade nominal power for their few MPs for their local electoral base, for their principle and for the prospects of their long-tern survival.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the ways in which the Lib Dems were and weren’t proving that coalition works. If they allow themselves to be seduced into a coupon election or an electoral pact in 2015 for their short-term gain, they will regret it immensely in the long term. It will be the end of their democratic values. It will see them hemorrhage support in the North and it will ultimately prove to everyone watching once and for all, that coalition doesn’t work. That doesn’t seem like a price worth paying, but it is a price I can see Nick Clegg easily sacrificing. His Party can and must stop him for thier own good.

Labour had a good win on Thursday electorally. People with newly elected Labour representatives have people on their side against the Government, ready to do what they can to help. This is the main prize. But the exposure of the political weakness of the Tories, and the continuing exposure of the Lib Dems to the reality of their Faustian electoral pact is not to be dismissed.

It is a truism that oppositions don’t win elections, Government’s lose them. I don’t believe this. Labour still have a lot of work to do, a fact rightly recognised by Ed Miliband. But the Tories are being exposed not just for the inept government, but for the increasingly obvious fact that they have little strategic ability, and less understanding of how to do politics in tough times. Long may that continue.

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Below is an exchange of letters with Mark Thompson. It has also been published on his blog Mark Reckons.

Dear Emma

I recently read Alex Hilton’s recent piece on LabourList “Losing Faith” which strongly criticised the approach of the Labour Party and given our previous conversations about internal party democracy regarding Lib Dems and Labour, I was interested in your views.

 As an active member of the Lib Dems, one of the things I find most satisfying is knowing that my views and my vote as a voting rep at conference can and does have an effect on party policy and of course more recently on government policy.

 One of the most striking comments from Alex’s piece about Labour for me was this:

 ”We’re an illiberal elitist capitalist party with no taste for democracy and a misplaced belief that the masses are better off in our care than that of other parties.”

 I only became active in politics a few years ago despite having been interested in (some would say obsessed with) it for nearly 20 years. I could not have considered joining the Labour Party though, not just because of the policies it was pursuing that I profoundly disagreed with but because the members of the party no longer get to make its policy so I’d have no chance of changing this. When Alex says the party has no taste for democracy I suspect this is one of the things to which he is referring.

 I understand why Tony Blair wanted to wrest control of his party from its members. I recall watching Labour conferences in the years before he became leader and I can appreciate that to some it would have appeared unedifyingly divided. But that is the price of democracy. The Tories have always been a very top-down party. The tragedy is that Labour have followed them down this road, rather than reforming its internal democracy in a way which could have allowed its members to still have a big say in its direction and policy.

 Instead we have had the even more unedifying sight of policies being announced that have clearly been scribbled on the back of a fag packet by a junior SpAd 30 minutes before the leader’s speech to conference on far too many occasions (Gordon Brown’s supervised communal houses for teenage mums anyone?).

 Ed Miliband’s “Refounding Labour” project appears to have petered out to very little effect and one of his “boldest” moves was actually to further reduce internal democracy by ceasing elections to shadow cabinet.

 If I was again looking to join a political party I could still not contemplate making it Labour even if I agreed with lots of its current policies.

 I think that should worry dedicated and committed members of the party such as yourself.

 Best regards,

 Mark.

 

Dear Mark,

 I too read Alex’s piece on LabourList, though with more sorrow than recognition.

 I am sorry Alex has worked himself up into this state, but his characterisation of both Ed’s leadership, and the changes to the processes of the Labour Party are unrecognisable to me. I fear both yourself and Alex are looking for a “big bang” in a Party that has long accepted a gradualist approach to our evolution.

 Some of the changes in Refounding Labour will make an enormous difference to Labour in the long term, without having an immediate effect the day the ink dried on the document.

 There are real changes to the nature of the relationship between the central and local Parties. Empowering Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to organise in the way that works for them locally will ensure better engagement with our power and decision making structures from all CLPs including those in areas that don’t have a Labour MP, and will give them better resources to organise themselves. These may seem small, but over time, will change the culture of the Party.

 Equally, the Shadow Cabinet elections are a complete red herring. They aren’t elected by the Party, but by the tiny electorate of MPsThe Leader is democratically elected though our agreed internal processes (the only process of any Party which brings in those outside the Party, by giving the vote to individual union members). He has far more of a mandate to shape the Party, including who he wants to take each issue forward, than the tiny electorate of MPs.

 Refounding Labour has finished the aspects that looked at Party organisation, but continues to look at our policy making processes. Opening these up more to Party members and strengthening the role of the National Policy Forum were both agreed by Refounding Labour, but the more complex details of how are being consulted on now.

 So for me the picture of internal Labour Party democracy is neither as settled nor as bleak as you or Alex makes out.

 Balancing competing democratic mandates in these situations is not clear cut, as your Party is discovering to its cost on issue after issue. Post Refounding Labour, we are improving, if gradually, where other Parties are not, and in fact are reneging on the things, in the past, activists like you have been so proud of.

 You and I are in very different political parties because we have very different political priorities. I am happy to accept that sometimes liberal outcomes come from enforced means. You seem happier to accept unequal outcomes as long as the means are ostensibly fair. I think that’s probably true of our approaches to internal democracy. I want something that will have an obvious and claimable output in Government. You seem happy to set policies for a Party that will never, ever enact them, despite being in Government.

Kind regards,

 Emma.

 

Dear Emma

 I admire your faith in the processes set in train by Refounding Labour but I fear that without a solid democratic process underpinning it (e.g. reps voting on policy at conference) then it will be all too easy for the party leadership to ride roughshod over what members such as yourself want.

 You are correct in your assertion that we have very different political priorities. For me and most fellow Lib Dems, liberty is a fundamental part of my political philosophy.

 I find your final comment rather strange: “You seem happy to set policies for a Party that will never, ever enact them, despite being in Government”. This is difficult for me to reconcile with the facts. Research by the BBC last year showed that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto is included in the government programme as opposed to 60% from the Conservatives. Lots of policies voted on by myself and my fellow Lib Dem members are now being implemented and making a difference to people’s lives.

 Where I agree with you is that it is a difficult call to determine what gets priority and that is one thing that I very much think needs reform within the Lib Dems. We need an agreed mechanism for communicating which policies are most important to the members to ensure they end up being the “red lines” in any future negotiations. This won’t be straightforward as showing your hand early makes negotiating harder but who said politics was easy?!

 Labour had 13 years of untrammelled power with large majorities and was able to implement its programme in full. The Lib Dems only have about a sixth of the MPs in government and hence have to compromise. It’s in the nature of coalition. I think sometimes Labour activists and politicians such as yourself (perhaps sometimes willfully) forget this with calls of “betrayal” and “selling out”. The logical conclusion of those saying that is the Lib Dems should never be in government unless governing alone. And of course had the party eschewed the opportunity in May 2010 those same people would be deriding them as a “wasted vote” and not a party serious about power.

 It’s almost as if we can’t ever win!

 Best regards,

 Mark.

 

Dear Mark,

 The Labour Party does have a process whereby elected representatives discuss and produce policy on a year round basis. It’s called the National Policy Forum (NPF). It has representative elected from all the different sections of the broad Labour family, including members, MEPs, MPs, Socialist Societies and the unions. While sometimes this body doesn’t work as well as it might, it does come into its own during the manifesto process which is negotiated through this body. Policy papers proposed by the NPF are also ratified by a vote at conference. It is this process that is continuing to be strengthened in the last remaining part of the Refounding Labour process.

 Sometimes, it’s not about “winning” but about doing the right thing and being honest. And you aren’t being honest – I suspect even to yourself.

 The research you refer to is incredibly flawed. In practically every piece of legislation ever enacted there are good and bad things. There is even some good in the appalling Health and Social Care Bill, though not nearly enough to make it worthwhile or to convince me it shouldn’t be dropped. You managed to get some fairly innocuous measures into what are otherwise terrible bills. Equally, counted as part of these figures is the AV referendum: A classic example of claiming a victory while changing precisely nothing. Next stop, Lords reform.

 You claim a democratic mandate from your members to the Government – or at the least the MPs and Peers who represent your Party. Tell that to the delegates to your conference who voted overwhelmingly to protect ESA who have had their “faith shattered” and are wondering whatever happened to democracy in the Lib Dems.

 Equally, you also told voters one thing and then did another when elected. This is where you miss the point on “betrayal”. You haven’t betrayed Labour – you’ve betrayed your voters.  

 As Labour struggle towards improving our internal processes for the 21st century, yours are  crumbling under the new strain of Government. Unless that is recognised and dealt with now, you will lose for good any sense that activists have a say that makes a difference.

 Labour isn’t perfect on this score. We have a long way to go. But of the two parties, I’m confident that we’re the one moving in the right direction.

 Kind regards,

 Emma.

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Now as regular readers will know, I don’t always have the greatest amount of time and respect for the Liberal Democrats. I didn’t before the coalition and little that has happened since has changed my mind (more reinforced in steel what I always believed to be true). I say this because what I am discussing below could easily be seen as my putting a partisan gloss on an issue. There are certainly good reasons both in terms of the fairness and the electoral effect of the boundary proposals to make it a clear Labour priority to scupper the Bill by any means possible (and you know, all it really takes is one Scarlet Standard blog post to bring the establishment, trembling, to their knees *ahem*). But actually I hope this is a bit more of a thoughtful blog about the rock and the hard place the Lib Dems find themselves over this issue.

So here’s the problem:

The Lib Dems are – in all likelihood – going to be completely shafted by the boundary review. There are mutterings that several might vote against it. Labour will vote against it. If enough Lib Dem and Tory rebels can be found the Bill could be defeated. Defeat of the Bill suits the Lib Dems in terms of immediate parliamentary arithmetic.

The problem is that they made a very public agreement to support the boundary changes in return for the AV referendum. As Lady Bracknell might have said: “to break one high-profile promise is unfortunate…”. Additionally, this promise is one that the right-wing press is absolutely behind. While Nick Clegg may have passed into popular culture as Britain’s most well known liar (and you just have to look at the recent Shameless trailer to see how pervasive this is) it is not quite yet seen as endemic to the Party. If they go against the Government on boundary changes, you can guarantee that the press goes after Tim Farron and Simon Hughes, after the Lib Dems who might have a chance at giving them a post-coalition future. It will be open warfare on all the Lying Lib Dems. If you think it’s been bad up to now….

Now those of us who were imploring the Lib Dems to split the Bill and make these issues less reliant on each other last year can look on at the car crash that is coming with a certain sense of “I told you so” style satisfaction. And of course, part of me is doing that, because this bind the Lib Dems in is entirely of their own making. The continually slapdash approach of the Lib Dem team to strategy is astonishing by a Party at the level they have reached. But having backed themselves once again into a lose/lose corner, it is impossible not to feel a stirring of pity for them.

Just a tiny bit mind.

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Something has changed

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By Emma | No comments yet.

It is far too early to tell what effect the News International scandal is going to have on the future of the British media. It is even too early to tell what effect it will have on the premiership of David Cameron and the fate of the Tories.

But something was different this week. The narrative shifted. The opposition reported in the press was all Labour. The Lib Dems have been nowhere to be seen. No longer was the story “coalition splits” but about the tireless campaign of two Labour backbenchers Tom Watson and Chris Bryant and the effective dissection of Cameron by Ed Miliband at PMQs and in the media since.

Will this be permanent? Probably not. Splits are an interesting story. Lib Dems complain that the media don’t understand coalition when they report on splits, but frankly this is for show. The fact is they are desperate to burnish their oppositional credentials and being the opposition within is a perfect way both of doing so and of cutting Labour out of the picture. Those who complain about it now will miss it if – as I predict – it slowly ebbs away.

It’s possible the Govenrment will decide not to oppose Labour’s motion on Wednesday. That they will play a statesmanlike “not every party has the monopoly on wisdom” role, and minimise their defeat by being seen as colluding in the right decision. This kind of tactical U-turn is hardly unheard of from David Cameron. But from all we’ve heard so far that doesn’t seem likely. Some of the key parts of the Conservative family are already on the offensive. It does not feel like a coincidence that the day we learn that senior News International journalists have threatened to make it personal about Ed in retailiation for his rightly attacking the position of Rebekah Brooks, Conservative Home have started to attack Ed’s spinner Tom Baldwin. How neatly coordinated.

What Cameron will have to decide is whether to swallow a humiliating defeat with his party on the wrong side of public opinion in the belief that the  News International empire will rise again. And rise with enough clout to have been worthy of all this pain and of the humiliation the Prime Minister is taking now. Will rise and support him and annihilate his enemies. It’s not totally unlikely. As I posted on Thursday, Nothing solid has changed yet. The banks remain unregulated and unrepentent, the press may well do so too.

Wednesday’s opposition day debate will be a test for the Lib Dems. However, it is one I and most others expect them to pass. We all know that were it not for Vince’s unfortunate premature articulation in front of a giggly blonde that he would have been trying his damndest to put the knackers on the BSkyB deal. We know it’s what the Lib Dems want. What Clegg and his party have to decide is do they want it enough to defeat the Government?

What will the Lib Dems in Government do? What will their backbenchers do? This feels like it should be a simple question. There’s nothing in the coalition agreement to force them to vote for Murdoch. If they don’t they can prove their mettle and their plaintive cry of being a seperate party. If all the Lib Dems – from Clegg on down vote against, the Tories can be defeated on this issue. But there will be hell to pay for the Lib Dems. They can kiss goodbye to any – even slight – chance they had of Lords reform, for example. I also predict they won’t gain much in the polls either, their invisibility on the issue mean that the public see this as Labour’s thing. Labour have rightly won this issue. Will doing the right thing be worth the political pain for the Lib Dems? I hope so.

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Ed needs to be careful

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By Emma | 3 comments

First and foremost a massive congratulations to the 800 new Labour councillors. You have a tough job to do and this government is going to make it harder and harder. Just keep remembering who elected you and why and you’ll be fine.

However, despite a provably decent result in England and Wales, knives that were never fully sheathed are out and slashing away at the leadership. Suddenly the Labour right wing have remembered about the existence of Scotland. Ed’s under attack and he needs to be really careful in how he responds.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again: Labour are not going to rerun the leadership elections. We’re just not that suicidal. But if Ed doesn’t calm some of the frayed nerves in the Party, we’ll continue to fight each other rather than the Tories. It will all be done in the name of helping the Party back to victory of course, but will remain a tactic of division and derision to squash those of us who don’t think a neoliberal economic agenda is the best route to either electoral or governing success.

At the moment the air battle in Labour’s internal division is being fought over which voters we are trying to attract – former Labour to Lib Dem switchers or current soft Tory voters. There are dangers in appealing too strongly to one at the expense of the other, but also dangers in trying too much to be all things to all people, leaving a sense of a lack of definition. We need to keep appealing to both but with quite different, but complimentary messages. The Labour leavers have largely – to the extent that they are largely going to be – been convinced to leave their current Lib Dem affiliation (this post is true only in England. I don’t know Scottish politics well enough to comment on the very different issues there). Not all of them have been attracted to Labour, but that is because (rightly) we do not yet have a full policy offering with which to attract them. What we have not yet managed with real numbers is to convince those who are soft Tories to abandon them in any large numbers. The Tories are not yet disastrous enough and memories of disastrous Labour are just too fresh in the minds of these voters. Knocking the legs out from the electoral credibility of the Lib Dems was important for the first group of people. Now the Eds need to keep a focus on the “Too far too fast” message – which polling indicates is taking hold – but start to highlight the damages this is doing as it takes hold – not just the potential for damage people don’t yet see. So I’d like – now the Lib Dems are proved to be something of an irrelevance as an electoral force – a laser-like focus on the Tories. Their errors forced and unforced and the pernicious effects of their policies on most levels of society.

I’ve seen the same polling Ed has and I recognise the dangers of appealing to a Centre-right audience through centre right policies at the risk of alienating the large groups of people who left New Labour over just such triangulation. But you can take the fight to the right without tacking to the right. Labour can talk about the economy without bowing to unpopular corporatism and about crime without bowing to unpopular statism. We have solutions we believe in, that we can fight for on solid ground against the Tories. We won’t beat them by saying “yeah, your mostly right, but we’re nicer because we aren’t Tories”. We have to be more aggressive in taking the fight to them and sidelining the Lib Dems.

Having said all this, I understand but don’t really share the frustration of Dan Hodges and his anonymous backbencher when they stand aghast at Ed choosing to go after the Lib Dems in this Sunday’s Observer. At first glance the message does seem to be unbalanced, too Lib Dem focused at a time when Ed really does need to be taking the fight to the Tories. I think though that in his own way, that’s just what Ed is doing. He’s playing coalition politics and making sure that if the Lib Dems bring down Tory policy, Ed and our Party get our fair Lion’s share of the credit. But Ed has now got to turn his fire more continually on the Tories. But having set that up, Ed must now recognise that if it ever went away, two party politics is back and we have to play accordingly. Also rather more galling, Ed is going to have to be more strategic with how he treats his dissenters inside the Party (probably sometimes at the expense of actually achieving external victories, but sadly, that’s the nature of Party politics). Giving them some of what they’re seeking, but going on a full frontal attack on the Tories might just be the right thing to do for both strategies – internal and external.

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Ok, let’s get it out of the way. Scotland was a disaster. I don’t know enough about Scottish politics, but looking at the statistics, while our vote held up, unlike in England, those leaving other parties weren’t attracted to Labour at all. Not one bit. That’s an enormous worry for Labour in Scotland. There will need to be real questions asked and we need to be ready for uncomfortable answers. As I said, I don’t know the arena well enough to have any clue what those answers are. Ed has already announced a full root and branch investigation and I hope the activists in Scotland hold him hard to that. The harder part will be implementation of the recommendations. Especially if they show answers that would make the English and UK wide Party uncomfortable. That will be a tricky set of negotiations for someone and for once I’m glad that someone won’t be me!

In England, the story is a lot better. Labour look set to gain over 750 seats, one year after our worst General Election defeat in 20 years. Which as this analysisfrom Luke Akehurst shows is actually a pretty good result, if not the fireworks some of us were dreaming of. It’s a great start and will give us some really strong councils to build towards victory on. It’s not a glide straight through the door of number 10. But on the other hand it’s a good, big first step in the right direction. For the first time in a while.

There is – rightly – going to be a lot of concern that the Tory vote has not collapsed at all. In fact they have made some gains though at the Lib Dems expense, not ours. The Tory vote remains strong and motivated to get out. How much the referendum was a factor in that motivation I don’t know. I felt it was right for the first year to keep the focus on the Lib Dems. These were admittedly the easy pickings, but I feel that we will be better able to take on the Tories from now on with the base that eliminating the threat of the Lib Dems has given us. But now it’s time to assign the Lib Dems the percentage of our focus they and their electoral standing deserves and focus solely on the Tories and beating them first in London and council elections not encumbered by a referendum, and of course ultimately in 2015.

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Liberalism and Politics

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Last night I had a fascinating discussion with an old friend about the current tensions between classical and social  liberalism. We weren’t discussing this in the context of the crisis of the Lib Dems which is different but related, but the implications for policy implementation. It was an interesting discussion about the kind of liberalism we would both want to see a Labour government implement and what the tensions were between freedoms, protections and responsibilities – both of individuals and of the state towards its citizens.

We discussed topics as diverse as the prevalence and necessity of CCTV, ID cards, mental heath provision and intervention, state education and healthcare. We didn’t always agree on where the limits of the state should or shouldn’t be, but it was an interesting and illuminating discussion.

The problem with our discussion – as we both acknowledged – is that it existed entirely on the Authoritarian/Libertarian axis and frankly that’s not where most people live. We are both women with a relatively comfortable lifestyle, but both of us raised financial concerns throughout the other conversations we had that evening. We both voted labour in the election based on economic factors. My friend is far less tribal than I am, and weighed up voting Lib Dem, but didn’t.

Most people don’t care about or vote on issues on the Libertarian/Authoritarian spectrum. We vote on economic issues. We vote according to our understanding and interpretation of the world and its daily influence on our lives and those of the people we care about. Unless you are at a point where the level of your wealth does not affect your daily life, these are the issues that are going to affect you. Are you and your family safe? Are you all warm and well fed? Are you protected in case of harm? Do you have work? These are the real electoral battlegrounds, and only one of these areas areas (safety) would be affected by policies on the lib/auth scale (though there are arguments to be had about which way threats to safety lie).

There are excellent arguments to be had about the balance between security and civil liberties. I don’t believe any of those reasons are about electoral advantage or democratic representation. We can see this in the fact that The Lib Dems core vote has proved to be so small as have seen their collapse in the polls and authoritarian parties have had even less success. Their contributions to the coalition – such as they are – have nearly all been on Lib/Auth issues, and on economic issues, the classical liberalism that gels their right wing with the Tories has held sway. If the oft cited argument of Lib Dems that they are above the Left/Right axis were true, their support would not have failed to anything liek the extent that it is doing. It also would not have been a financial issue that became the emblematic token of that failure, but a failure on their own axis.

I regularly advocate for Labour to be more liberal on issues around crime and justice and related issues like terror laws and drug laws. I believe this is a matter of values and that Labour should be socially liberal while rejecting classical liberalism as largely anathema to equality which must be our highest value. I am frequently shouted down by those who believe that authoritarianism is a better reflection of the value of protection of communities that is also a part of our core beliefs. I accept those arguments and that tension. Those debates need to be had to find the right balance.

I believe that a more liberal Labour party would not lose votes. I don’t believe it would gain us many (we could probably gain a few disaffected Lib Dems but might lose a few soft Tories), but it wouldn’t lose us votes either. I also believe that the corollary is true. Very few people really vote for parties on civil liberties/security issues unless they genuinely feel at threat. While this has been a factor in recent elections, it was only when people felt economically threatened that they changed their voting patterns in meaningful ways. So when Labour talk about this issue, we need to do so in the reality that we neither side are raising electoral advantage but competing visions of state activism. If we can do so, we would have a much better and more productive debate.

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