Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 9 September 2016

Were the Lib Dems "useful idiots" in coalition?

Polly Toynbee seems to think so.

She wrote a piece yesterday using this exact phrase expressing her disgust with Nick Clegg and the legacy that she perceives he and his party have left behind following the coalition of 2010 - 2015. Some of her points are reasonable but amongst it all are many unfair claims and some of what she says is absolutely ridiculous.

I thought it was time for a good old fashioned fisking:

Can you forgive him? That depends on whether you think Nick Clegg venal or just a political idiot. Seeking power was no sin, as that’s the purpose of politics: he is to be judged by how he used it. In a rich crop of self-justifying politicians’ books this autumn, Clegg’s Politics: Between the Extremes is first to invite an assessment of how he did.
He might have been wiser to keep his head down and hope the country has a short memory. But that would be out of character, as his own account reminds us of one grave political misjudgment after another. Almost everything he colluded with in the Cameron government was an error, while almost all he achieved was piffling in comparison. His role now is as a warning beacon of what not to do in future coalitions.

It's not fair to say that almost everything Clegg did in government was an error although of course there were some big ones. But I would certainly agree with Polly that there is a lot that the Lib Dems did in government and the way they approached it that should be lessons for future putative junior coaltion partners. (For further reading on these lessons by the way I recommend this excellent piece by Former Lib Dem MP David Howarth).

How Icarus-like was his fall from the dizzy days of Cleggmania. Back in 2010 “I agree with Nick” was mirrored by opinion polling. For the record, this paper backed the Lib Dems in 2010, though its political columnists – myself included – wrote supporting Labour.
It took decades of local pavement-pounding for the Liberals to grow from a taxi-full of MPs into a 57-strong coach-load at Westminster. But after Clegg led them to a thrashing last year, they are now back in an eight-MP people carrier (with probably only four MPs after boundary changes) – and have few local councillors. They have deserved it.
Start back in that 2010 sunlit No 10 rose garden, with toe-curling smiles that look yet worse in retrospect. Clegg and his party had to make one big call: was the country indeed on the verge of Greek-style bankruptcy and in need of David Cameron and George Osborne’s emetic austerity medicine? They fell for the bait and called it wrong, as even the likes of Mervyn King, Bank of England governor at the time, now agree.

It's easy to forget now just how much turmoil the political and economic world was in in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 general election. The country hadn't had a peacetime coalition since before the Second World War and the financial crisis was still rumbling on. I agree with Polly that the Lib Dems were a bit too hasty to accept the need for the level of austerity that Osborne wanted but to pretend that this was somehow an easy and obvious call that they should have avoided is to play the game of hindsight. The press was going ballistic. The markets were all over the place. Had the politicians carried on much beyond the Tuesday with their coalition discussions God knows what would have happened.

Now I happen to think that this is ridiculous. There are countries all round the world that wait weeks or months for new governments to form and give their politicians plenty of time to thrash out the agreements needed to govern in coalition. But that is not what was happening here. Our body politic and the Fourth Estate are not used to this way of doing things. They expect the removal vans to be round the back of Downing Street the morning after an election result. The press were pushing very hard the narrative that Gordon Brown was "The Squatter in Downing Street" which was preposterous given that all he was doing was fulfilling his constitutional duty*. We needed a Prime Minister and a functioning government whilst the coalition talks were going on. But our press were unwilling to acknowledge that and hence there was massive pressure on the Lib Dems to cut a deal, any deal to get a "legitimate" government in place.

The Lib Dems swallowed the story that the country needed a boiling down of every function of the state to its bare bones. They were useful idiots for what was always an ideological project: Cameron and Osborne said within a short time that even once the deficit was down, there would be no restoring of cut-down public services.

I hear this "ideological" claim about the Tories and austerity all the time. I'll just say that up until the financial crisis of 2007 Cameron and Osborne were not contemplating anything like this. Their mantra was in fact "sharing the proceeds of growth". But of course by the time they came to power there was very little if any growth to share and the economy was in the toilet.

In accepting extreme cuts as an economic remedy, Clegg abandoned his party’s greatest thinker, Keynes, who would have gone for growth through government investment. But even if Clegg has been right on austerity, why did he let the axe fall on the most vulnerable? In policy after policy, the bottom half bore the brunt as VAT rose, while the top had an income tax cut and kept their many benefits: tax reliefs, and cuts to capital gains and corporation tax.

And here I would (at least partially) agree with Polly. The VAT rise, the cuts to capital gains and corporation tax as well as the reduction of the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% in the pound were all largely regressive and unwelcome measures.

The rightwing thinktank, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, showed how Osborne raised the lifetime tax-take from the bottom 20%, while tax for the top 20% fell. Even Clegg’s flagship raising of the income tax threshold was soon revealed by the Resolution Foundation to direct most of its huge £10bn cost to the benefit of the upper half while low earners gained little.

I would quibble with this point though. I remember seeing these analyses at the time. What they did was highlight that the very poorest did not earn enough to benefit from the tax cut. But that ignores or at least misunderstands what the point of the raising of the threshold was meant to do. It was supposed to allow people who were previously earning not very much but still paying tax keep more of the money they had earned. Polly's is an argument for never raising the tax threshold at all as this will never benefit the very poorest, most of whom do not work. I'll leave it to the reader to decide if this would be fair.

Guardian readers need no reminding of the extreme severity of the benefit cuts – hitting children, mothers and people with disabilities hardest. Clegg had no need to fall in with the vindictive spirit of the bedroom tax, the sale of swaths more social housing, or the ever-tightening screw of work capability tests, as food banks opened everywhere. Labour supporters seeing the Lib Dems sitting on their hands and saying nothing may never forget. But then social justice was never the Lib Dems’ strong point: good on human rights and the environment, social equality is not in their DNA.

This is bullshit. I was a Lib Dem from 2008-2013. Many of my closest political friends are still in the party and I struggle to think of any of them who would wish for anything other than social equality and justice. In most cases they have spent decades fighting for just that. That their parliamentary representatives in government may have fallen short of this ideal is not a reason to besmirch the DNA of the entire party in this way.

In 2012 Andrew Lansley’s health and social care bill was stumbling in parliament, as it dawned on the Lords that this was a project to blow the NHS into fragments by setting up a market tendering every shard out to any bidder. “No top-down NHS reorganisation,” said the coalition agreement, and the Lib Dem grass roots rebelled. But they were soothed by Shirley Williams, and Clegg voted it through.
Why? Cameron was astonished not to lose the bill. So disastrously unworkable has it proved that it’s now being dismantled again, but deep, lasting damage was done to the NHS that Clegg could easily have stopped.

I keep hearing this. That the coalition "destroyed" the NHS. I have no idea what Polly and the people who say this are on about. I can still see my GP in exactly the same way as I could when Labour were in office for 13 years. I have also had cause to use hospitals numerous times in the last few years and again they are as accessible and free at the point of use as they always were. There is literally no difference at all in that respect. The changes were very complicated but essentially were attempting to allow the NHS to use facilities and services whether private or public where appropriate without dogma getting in the way. It is simply a small extension of what Labour had already done.

I think in fact what this episode tells us is that whatever the Tories do with the NHS when they're in office, however bland or minor it may be they will always, always be described as having "privatised" and "destroyed" it as well as trying to flog off its constituent parts to their mates. Especially by people like Polly Toynbee.

The charge list is long. The value of his pupil premium remains disputed, and he has suffered enough for his tuition fees debacle. He boasts of pushing through 5p plastic bag charges, but he should have stopped the banning of land-based wind turbines. He was treated as a minor irritant in the great Tory project – and that’s all he was.
In his book, Clegg observes Tory savagery on benefits and housing as if he were a non-participant; yet he had the power to stop or soften much of this. What makes him more of an idiot than a villain is his weak understanding of the power he had.
Take his failure to seize the one great prize his party sought for decades – proportional representation that would make such coalitions a fixture. His party would justify a pact with the devil to secure electoral reform. But out of sheer incompetence, Clegg blew that chance. He got his referendum, but only on AV: the weak “alternative vote” even his own side didn’t want. Fatally, he failed to force Cameron to pledge his party’s support. The same team of Tory liars who swung the Brexit vote ran the anti-AV campaign, preposterously claiming the tiny cost would deprive babies of NHS incubators and our boys in Afghanistan of kit. How Cameron’s crew laughed when Clegg lost.
Had he secured PR, the political landscape would be changed for the better, beyond all recognition. The Tory party would have split between pro- and anti-EU wings. Labour would split between Corbynites and social democrats. Ukip and the Greens would have their fair share of seats.
Above all, citizens could vote for a party closest to their views. At a time of turmoil and alienation, it’s never been more urgent to restore a closer link between what people want and what they get in Westminster. I can never forgive Clegg for bungling that once-in-a-generation mission so badly.

This is the part of Toynbee's piece that I most profoundly disagree with.

I am not happy with the legacy that the Lib Dems left behind. Indeed I left the party part way through their time in office disillusioned with what had been achieved and more specifically the lack of a difference in their approach to politics (I highlighted Clegg's very disappointing approach to PMQs when he deputised as an example of this). I myself wrote a pretty scathing piece late last year about Nick Clegg and how he hasn't been held properly accountable for his failings in government.

But the idea that Clegg somehow bungled the chance for PR is to misread reality so badly that I wonder just how well Polly even understands the dynamics of politics in this country.

The Tories are opposed to any change at all to the electoral system for the Commons. That is almost all of them. Certainly almost all of them in parliament. I could write a very long piece on the reasons for this but it is a bald fact.

Furthermore the Tories are absolutely implacably opposed to any change to a proportional system for the Commons.

These two facts conspired to make it impossible to get a proportional system during the 2010 coalition agreement. It was difficult enough for Cameron to get them to agree to a referendum on a pretty minor change to the electoral system (AV) that wouldn't have been proportional. The idea that Cameron could ever, ever, ever have got his party to vote for a referendum on a proportional system for the Commons is laughable.

With AV, the Tories would have been looking at maybe losing 10 or 20 seats that they would ordinarily win in an election. With a properly proportional system they'd lose 100 or more seats that they consider "rightly" theirs. I of course utterly disagree with them about this but that is what they think. They would consider it electoral suicide. Even a referendum on such a system would have been (and would still be) way, way beyond the pale for them because of the risk they might lose it.

They just about accepted the AV referendum thinking that they'd have a pretty good chance of winning it as it's difficult for those opposing the status quo in referenda and AV is a system that nobody is particularly enthusiastic about. But a fully proportional system whose benefits would be much easier to coherently argue for in a referendum? Over their cold dead bodies.

I am 100% certain that had Cameron tried to force this through we would have seen one of two things. Most likely the coalition agreement would have failed. The Tories would have governed alone for a few months doing all the easy things. There would have been no austerity during this time and they would have spent it spreading poison about how the Lib Dems had eschewed their chance at governing because they "selfishly" wanted to change the electoral system "massively in their favour" and away from our "stable" system that had "served us well" for "hundreds of years". And then gone to the country again in the autumn of 2010 and got a majority.

The second possibility is what happened with Lords reform. Which is that the Tories might have said they would do it but in practise when it came to a vote in the Commons loads of backbench MPs would have voted against it. And Labour would almost certainly have found a pretext to oppose it too in order to dish the Lib Dems (in exactly the same way they did when they had the same chance with Lords reform) and hence the referendum would not have got through. And that would have caused the government to fall with the same outcome as the previous paragraph, "selfish Lib Dems" etc. etc. etc. followed by a Tory majority.

To suggest that Clegg somehow fumbled an historic opportunity on PR is so far from the truth and what was possible that it actually makes me angry. Angry that Polly Toynbee would write it and angry that so many people in my country seem to also believe it.

Clegg did lots of things wrong in government but messing up his One Big Chance for PR was not one of them. Such a change at that time was simply politically impossible.

History may remember him as no worse than clueless. But one tragedy is that the country needs a strong unequivocal pro-European party, as the Lib Dems once were. Clegg’s miscalculation of everything has left behind only a tiny rump with too little heft to influence the battle ahead.

I would certainly agree that Clegg's miscalculations have left the Lib Dems as a small rump but to characterise this as "everything" he did in government is manifestly unfair and does not give him credit for the things he did manage to achieve in his five years as Deputy Prime Minister of this country.

It's worth mentioning as well that throughout the piece Toynbee falls into the trap that many people seem to of overestimating the leverage that the Lib Dems had in office. They had 57 MPs so despite the fact that they had 23% of the vote vs the Tories 37% (i.e. roughly 4 voters for every 6 the Tories had) they only had 1 MP for every 6 the Tories had. That put them in a fairly weak position in terms of being across issues in the government and certainly in terms of parliamentary firepower. A junior partner with a seventh of the MPs of a government simply cannot dictate terms on every single policy as her piece suggests they should have done.

Had the Lib Dems pushed it too far, eventually the coalition would have broken down. I used to talk about this and used to predict that were that to happen, all those Labour supporters cheering for the end of the coalition would be very sorry when we saw a majority Tory government. I was derided for talking such "nonsense" but of course in 2015 when the parliament ran out that's exactly what we saw. It's now pretty obvious in hindsight that that would have been the result had the election been earlier.

So in actual fact the Lib Dems ameliorated the worst Tory excesses, did some good things and some not so good things (as every party in government does) and staved off majority Tory rule for five years. In a just world they'd be thanked for "taking one for the team" instead of being pilloried and castigated by left wing columnists who don't appear to understand how politics actually even works.

*Indeed the depth of the lie of this "squatter" narrative is exposed by the fact that Brown actually wanted to resign and was persuaded not to by Clegg who begged for more time. In the end Brown resigned before the coalition agreement had been finalised and hence Cameron went to see The Queen unsure if the deal would be formally reached and if instead he would have to lead a minority government. That's just how wrong the narrative is and yet it still persists. Even now people talk about how Brown "squatted" in Downing Street. We truly live in a post-truth world now.

Friday, 1 July 2016

We are now seeing how the Tories prize loyalty above all else

Yesterday's manoeuvrings within the Tory party are some of the most bizarre I have ever witnessed in all my time following politics.

For Michael Gove who had been seen as one of Boris Johnson's key allies and a likely future Chancellor under a Johnson premiership to suddenly abandon his colleague, denounce him and announce he would be standing himself was extraordinary to watch. Then Boris, showman to the end made a speech peppered with references to Julius Caesar's Brutus and where in its denouement he withdrew from the leadership race using the carefully calculated phrase we have seen repeated on all media outlets: " view of the circumstances in parliament that person cannot be me.".*

It is becoming clear that Gove is now himself a busted flush having first brought down David Cameron's premiership (along with Johnson) and then latterly turned on Johnson and brought down his leadership ambitions too. There are lots of Tory MPs shocked by this behaviour and although politics is a dirty business I think there are now simply too many who will not want to be seen to reward this sort of behaviour. It's possible now that Gove doesn't even make it to the final ballot of members. He may even, if reports today are accurate withdraw from the race and throw his weight behind Theresa May who is now the clear front-runner and very likely to be the next Prime Minister.

Nothing is certain but May is 4/11 with Betfair with Gove at 19/2. For the rest of this post I am going to assume that Theresa May will now win.

Because in reality that fits the pattern of almost all the Tory leadership campaigns that I have witnessed as an adult. Right through from the one that followed the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

In 1990 Geoffrey Howe dropped his bombshell as he resigned from Thatcher's cabinet and Michael Heseltine responded to his clarion call that "The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long." by challenging Thatcher for the leadership directly. As we all know his bid failed and instead the hitherto ultra-loyal John Major who had rapidly risen through the ranks to have recently become Chancellor of the Exchequer won the crown**. Heseltine was widely seen as having been punished for his disloyalty. This is despite the fact that the majority of Tory MPs knew that Thatcher was finished anyway, they did not want to reward Heseltine for having been the one to actually bring her down.

In 1997 after the Tories lost the general election the subsequent winner was William Hague. He had been very loyal to John Major all throughout his travails in the 1990s and was appointed to the cabinet after John Redwood had quit in 1995 order to challenge Major. He was seen as a trustworthy pair of hands to guide the Conservative Party through a difficult time. Redwood was eliminated in the second ballot, another victim of the Tory Party's dislike of disloyalty.

In 2001 the story was a little bit different and deviated from the norm in that the winner in the end was Iain Duncan Smith who himself had been a serial rebel in the 1990s against John Major's government. Duncan Smith was actually the beneficiary of the fact that he ended up in the final ballot against Ken Clarke who as a Europhile was wildly out of touch with the Tory membership who by now had the final say when the MPs had whittled the field down to two. This aberration however was short lived as the party rapidly realised they had made a mistake selecting Duncan Smith not least because it was very difficult for him to credibly demand loyalty from his parliamentary party after all the times he had failed to do the same thing himself under Major. So in 2003 without even a leadership election the Tories got rid of Duncan Smith through some back-room shenanigans and replaced him with Michael Howard the former Home Secretary who himself had been (publicly) loyal to Major in government thus ending the experiment of allowing a former rebel to lead them.

2005 saw another loyalist David Cameron push through the field to emerge victorious. Cameron in fact is the epitome of a loyal party member having devoted much of his life to working in the engine room of the Tory Party before he became an MP first in Central Office and then as a special adviser to Norman Lamont and Michael Howard. Indeed he and George Osborne used to help out prepping John Major for PMQs during the 1990s.

And so to the current leadership contest 11 years on. Given the history of how the Tory party selects its leaders and the disaster that befell it the one time it deviated from this norm and selected someone who was widely seen as disloyal it is looking like once again that rather than the showboating politicians and/or the ones who have been willing to publicly betray the party leadership it will be the quiet, unassuming but publicly loyal Theresa May who will win the ultimate prize.

There is almost certainly a lesson in here for future aspirant Tory leaders. Keep your head down, get on with the job and no matter what you might really think, always, always swear absolute loyalty to your leader.

It's the Tory way.

*As an aside this debacle shows how wrong I was when I wrote the other day that it was most likely to be Boris Johnson who won the leadership. I should have adhered more closely to what history tells us myself! I'll be more careful in future for sure.

**It's worth noting that Major was able to "have his cake and eat it" when it came to Thatcher's nomination for the first round of the leadership ballot. Thatcher's team had wanted Major's signature on her nomination papers as he was Chancellor and that would add weight to her bid. But Major did not sign her papers as at the time he was under anaesthetic having dental surgery. Hence he was able to both profess loyalty and simultaneously not dirty his hands by directly backing her. This contributed to his success in the second round and will perhaps go down as the luckiest dental problem in political history.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Why I have just joined the Labour Party. And why you should too. Seriously.

I have just joined the Labour Party.

Before long term readers of this blog start thinking I've gone peculiar let me assure you that there is method in this.

Firstly, I will state for the record that I certainly consider myself to support Labour's "aims and values" which is what you have to be able to do to be a member. As I've mentioned before I consider this a fairly vague thing to have to adhere to but in so far as I want to see social justice in this country I certainly think I have at least as much in common with those goals as e.g. someone like Peter Mandelson. Or Tony Blair. Both of whom as far as I know are still Labour members.

OK, that's the admin out of the way (in case the Labour Party "Compliance Unit" (seriously that's a thing) are reading this).

To the method.

We have just had the most politically revolutionary event in this country since the second world war. All the pieces have been thrown up in the air and they will be falling down and settling over the next few months and years. The Tories are about start a contest to elect their new leader and hence Prime Minister. As I outlined earlier today that is very likely to lead in short order to a general election.

Let's face it, it's going to be Boris Johnson.

In the meantime as I am writing this 8 shadow cabinet ministers have either been sacked or have resigned in order to try and force a leadership contest to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as leader. I think Corbyn, although a very nice man is simply out of his depth as leader and hence would lead the party to a serious defeat at the coming election. If you thought it was bad for Ed Miliband (who actually didn't really have much of a track-record for the Tories to attack) just imagine what it is going to be like for a man with Corbyn's history and all the platforms he has shared with... Well, you've all seen the pictures. You know what I'm talking about and what will happen. He'll be thrashed.

It is costing me £3.92 per month to be a member of the Labour Party. That is a small price to pay if like me, you do not want to see a demagogic charlatan like Boris Johnson have such an easy run at hugely increasing his majority in a few months time. If you agree then you should also join so you have a say in choosing the next leader who after Johnson is likely to be the most significant politician in the country.

These are serious times and it simply cannot be left to the left wing activists who flocked to Labour last year to get to choose who this person should be. They had their chance last year and they have utterly failed. So please, if you can afford a few quid a month join Labour in order to make sure you have a vote in the contest to ensure there is a stronger opposition to one of the worst politicians I can imagine becoming Prime Minister.

You don't have to remain a member in the long term. I may do, I may not. That's not my concern right now. I'm simply looking at trying to make sure that Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition can do a proper job during the biggest political crisis of my lifetime.

Will you join me?

Why (and how) there will be a general election very soon

So as a country we've voted for Brexit.

I didn't of course, I voted for Remain. But we are where we are.

One thing that I have been certain of since the moment it started to become clear that Leave were likely to win on Thursday evening is that there will certainly be an early general election, likely very early. It was obvious Cameron would have to resign and therefore that there would be a new Prime Minister within a few months.

Boris Johnson is favourite to be that new PM but even if he isn't the new leader will face a number of pressures the inexorable logic of which will lead to them having to go to the country sooner rather than later.

Firstly there will be the fact that the manifesto that was voted on in 2015 and the mandate that Cameron had has been utterly eclipsed by this referendum result. It is simply not tenable for a new leader to piggy-back off Cameron's win and ride things out until 2020 when everything has changed so fundamentally.

Secondly, Boris's (or A. N. Other leader's) majority will be wafer thin. Given the incredibly difficult task the new PM will have navigating a course through negotiations with the EU trying to execute a tricky and trap-laden divorce settlement will frankly be impossible when a tiny back-bench rebellion on any one vote could bring the whole house of cards crashing down. They will need a decent working majority as a bare minimum.

Thirdly, more pragmatically the recent precedents are not good for leaders who take over and do not win an election of their own within fairly short order. Gordon Brown bottled it in 2007 and his Premiership was dogged by "The Election that never Was". Jim Callaghan also refused to go to the country in 1978 at a time that was likely much more propitious than waiting it out until a vote of no confidence sunk him less than a year later and issued in The Age of Thatcher. By contrast John Major who had the good fortune to be able to eke out the fag end of Thatcher's third term from the end of 1990 through to early 1992 while he was still relatively popular won a huge mandate of his own.

Fourthly, if it is Boris then it is preposterous to expect that someone who has been banging on for months and months about us being lorded over by "Unelected Brussels Bureaucrats" can expect to remain in office for long unelected. He'll need the mandate to have any real credibility given all his on the record statements on this subject.

But, but, but I hear you splutter. What about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011? Doesn't that mean that we can't have another general election until 2020?

Well technically yes. Unless one of two things happen, both of which are quite possible.

One is that two thirds of the Commons votes for a dissolution of parliament. So effectively that would require both the Tories and Labour to vote for one. That is perhaps the most likely way it will happen. Because I simply cannot see politically how Labour refuses a general election no matter how frit they might be of the consequences (especially if Corbyn is still leader). Can you imagine the utter derision that will be poured on them if they deny the public the opportunity of a fresh election given how fundamentally the tectonic plates of UK politics have now shifted?

But if Labour make that dreadful miscalculation then all the new PM has to do is call a vote of no confidence in him or herself, bring down his/her own government and then wait two weeks. When no stable alternative government can be formed (which of course with the current parliamentary numbers would be impossible) then an election is triggered by default. A bit more messy but would get us to the same place. You could certainly imagine a politician with the sheer chutzpah of Boris Johnson delighting in the opportunity to use a mechanism like this. To bring down his own government in order to rise phoenix-like from the flames in an even more powerful position.

Finally if the new PM wants to short-circuit all of that they could simply invoke emergency legislation to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. That only requires a bare majority in the Commons and I doubt the Lords would do anything to stop it given the current circumstances. Then they would be free to call an election whenever they wanted, old-school style.

So three different ways to achieve the ends required. I would guess number one will happen but even if it has to be one of the other ways I am certain we will have an election within the next 12 months, quite possibly later this year.

In fact as Thursday evening bled into Friday morning and I became more and more convinced that Brexit was going to win I put some money on with the only remaining online bookies who were still taking bets on this market backing a general election in 2016 and covering one in 2017 too. About 30 minutes after I placed this bet the online site took the market down. I got odds of 10-1 for both bets.

I put my money where my mouth is. Mark my words, we'll be going to the polls again before very long.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

An open letter to a Leave voter

Dear <**LEAVE_VOTER**>

So here we are. I voted Remain, you voted Leave. You won. It was narrow but clear. 52% to 48%.

I fear that a lot of what the Remain campaign said would happen will now come to pass. I hope I am wrong but I think it is very likely that there will be various negative short and long term consequences of the vote we've just had.

Members of Leave have already started to back-track on the pledges made during the campaign. Nigel Farage for example has said that the pledge emblazoned on the side of the Leave battle bus was "a mistake" and that there will not be £350 million extra per week for the NHS. Daniel Hannan said on Newsnight last night that migration will not be curbed to any significant degree.

I don't know if you voted Leave for either of those reasons but if you did I think you'd be justified in feeling pretty annoyed today.

But it is very difficult to hold the Leave campaign to account. They were made up of politicians of different parties and now the campaign is over they have scattered to the wind.

Except that some of the leading lights in that campaign are likely to be part of the next government of the (currently United) Kingdom. Michael Gove for example is quite likely to be a senior cabinet minister. And Boris Johnson (who is most readily identified with that battle bus with the £350 million emblazoned on the side) is odds on to be our next Prime Minister.

I suspect that if (when) Boris becomes Prime Minister he will feel duty bound to call a snap general election in order to give himself the mandate to move forward with his negotiation plans with the EU.

When this happens I urge you to think very carefully about what has just happened. How quickly the Leave campaign has backed away from its promises.

If you are suffering from "buyer's remorse" right now. If you are one of the growing band of Regrexiteers who feel they've been sold a pup don't think there isn't anything you can do about it.

We have a representative democracy in this country and the chances are good that you will be able to send another message via the ballot box quite soon.

Please do not waste this chance. You need to speak to the politicians who will be in a position to do something about it in a language they understand.

All the best


Wednesday, 6 April 2016

If Cameron knew his inheritance was from tax haven money he must resign

What a pickle Cameron is in now.

With the leak of the papers from Panama based Mossack Fonseca it has been revealed that the Prime Minister's late father, Ian used their services and was able to ensure a company that he ran (Blairmore Holdings) was able to appear as if it was run offshore. This was done using various methods including Ian Cameron regularly flying to board meetings that were held abroad even though the bulk of the company's business was done in the UK.

Before I start, I should make clear that it seems pretty certain that neither Cameron's father, nor Cameron himself have done anything illegal.

However, David Cameron has benefited hugely from the schemes his father used. He has inherited a large amount of money from his father's estate and it looks very likely indeed that some UK tax was not paid on profits made by the company that may have provided that money in a way that is morally dubious to say the least.

Now you may argue firstly that as nothing illegal was done here there is nothing to see and we should move on as some are doing. I am afraid I profoundly disagree. Cameron has been banging on and on about tax avoidance (see here, here and here for examples from last year) for years now accusing those who engage in it of "morally wrong" behaviour. See here for his comments when comedian Jimmy Carr was caught out:

So the Prime Minister's position on this before this latest scandal blew up was crystal clear. People who are involved in avoiding UK tax by using clever schemes like making it seem like companies are based offshore when by any reasonable measure they are actually based in the UK are engaging in immoral behaviour and should pay their UK taxes. Indeed the pressure that comments he made above put on Carr forced him to pay more tax on his money and to stop the practise that was allowing him to avoid it.

That brings us to what should happen now.

Cameron's line so far has been variously to claim that this is a "family matter" and also that he has no shares nor any money held abroad. He made comments yesterday where he told us he simply has his PM's salary, some savings from which he gets some interest and one house in London that he rents out while he is in Downing Street (although this appears to ignore the house he has in his Oxfordshire constituency but let's let that one slide as to be fair he only has that because he is an MP).

Neither of these defences are good enough I'm afraid. It is not a "family matter" whether our Prime Minister has personally benefited from tax avoidance schemes that he has been campaigning and legislating against. It is very much our business. And his comments about his current finances ignore the history of where his "savings" came from in the first place. A classic politician's way of answering the question.

I am sure Cameron, who has a notoriously hot temper and has previously invoked his father as a huge influence on his life is furious about how this is all being reported. What he needs to do now to cauterize this is quite simple. If he knew nothing about the tax avoidance schemes his father's company used then he needs to work out how much tax would and should have been paid on what he inherited had those schemes not been used and write a cheque out to HMRC.

If however he did know what his father's company was doing and knowingly inherited a large amount of money where UK tax had not been paid in a "morally wrong" way (to use his own words) and then sat on it for years then his situation is much more stark.

I know others will take a different view but on manifest hypocrisy about finances I take a hard line. Under those circumstances he will have shown himself unfit for office and he must resign as Prime Minister.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Labour have forfeited any right to complain about boundary changes

So the (evil natch) Tories have got themselves a majority and are now going to press ahead with boundary reform. They intend to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and also to even up the number of voters in constituencies to within about a 5% margin. This is in contrast to the situation at the moment where there can be huge disparities between numbers of voters with some constituencies being 4 or 5 times the size of others.

Now before I get into how Labour have no right to whine about this let me just reiterate my long held position on our electoral system. I think First Past the Post is not fit for purpose. I think it hugely distorts results, forces parties to focus on a tiny number of swing voters in marginal seats and prevents new parties from getting a foothold hence allowing our atrophied and sclerotic politics to perpetuate.

But Labour don't agree with this. Since the Second World War they have been in power cumulatively for 30 years, most recently the 13 years from 1997 to 2010. In all those long years, and especially when Blair had his big majorities between 1997 and 2005 they could easily have put through a change to the electoral system to make it more proportional (or what I would call "fairer"). Indeed after the Jenkins Commission (set up by the new Labour government) reported in 1998 and recommended we change to a system of Alternative Vote Plus (a preferential system topped up to add proportionality) they would have had the perfect political opportunity. But they chose not to do this. The system that had served them so well and given them a huge majority was deemed fine and dandy. Blair has subsequently admitted as much.

The boundaries have long favoured Labour because of their vote distribution and the constituency sizes. Until the night of the long sgian dubhs they could expect to get significantly more seats than the Tories even if their vote share had been the same. It's questionable whether this is still the case following their rout in Scotland but nevertheless this held for many, many years.

So what we essentially had was an electoral system that was strongly bent in favour of the two main parties, Labour and the Tories, and then within that bending, it was bent a little further in favour of Labour than the Tories. Labour were fine with the massive bending towards the two main parties, and of course the extra bending towards them in favour of the Tories.

Unsurprisingly the Tories, while happy with the overall massive bending towards the two main parties were not happy with this extra bias towards Labour. They saw an opportunity to "fix" this problematic (for them) part of the system by evening up the constituency sizes and reducing their number. They were (and are) able to use the cover of "making the system fairer" even though the effect will be to bend things more in their favour. Analysis suggests it may give them another 20 or so seats compared to what they would get at the moment. It's not an exact science but most observers agree it will be to their benefit.

And of course Labour are not happy with this change. There are cries of "foul" and "gerrymandering". But they've brought this on entirely themselves. A rotten system that was bent in favour of red/blue hegemony but slightly more towards red will now be a rotten system that will be bent a little more towards blue. But the Tory argument that evening up the constituency sizes will be fairer is very hard to rebut. It is unfair that there is such disparity in the system and Labour could get more seats than the Tories for the same vote. If you accept the premise that FPTP is the best system (as Labour clearly have every time they achieve power) then you simply don't have a leg to stand on trying to claim what the Tories are doing is unfair.

I'd scrap the whole lot and change it to multi-member constituencies using a preferential voting system. But Labour have never done anything like that for Westminster and there are no signs they want that now. Maybe after another 15 years of opposition (which is looking increasingly likely with the Corbyn/McDonnell nexus) they'll change their mind again. Although even if they do I'd have no confidence in them actually changing things were they ever to fluke back into power again.

But in the meantime the best thing they can do about the incipient Tory changes is pipe down.

They long ago forfeited any right to complain about "unfairness" in our electoral system.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The unaccountability of Nick Clegg

Something that has been bubbling under for a while with me is a niggling feeling that Nick Clegg hasn't really been held to account for the utter devastation that the Lib Dems suffered back in May. Sure he resigned and is now just a lowly backbench MP. And indeed he is now in the somewhat excruciating position of not being able to step down as any subsequent by-election under current circumstances would probably lose the Lib Dems another seat that they can ill afford to squander.

So perhaps that combination is enough. And yet I feel that somehow it is not.

I was a Lib Dem from 2008 to 2013 and I still very much consider myself a fellow traveller at least with the membership if not the leadership in the latter years of the coalition. I was excited by the vibrancy of the party in the run up to 2010 and after the coalition was formed I was genuinely optimistic about the possibility of real political reform and a strong liberal flavour to the government that would play out over the following 5 years.

Sadly it was not really to be. At least not in any meaningful and sustainable way. Despite the promises the only political reform we got were fixed term parliaments which were only really instituted to protect the Lib Dems from their larger coalition partner and they were set at 5 years rather than the more accountable and liberal 4 years that most campaigners for this change wanted to see. Apart from that, electoral reform at Westminster, Lords reform and other measures people like me wanted to see fell by the wayside.

In addition to that a number of measures that most liberals would never have wanted to see on the statute books were rammed through in the teeth of party opposition. Secret courts were a resignation issue for some, most notably Jo Shaw who made the best political speech I have ever seen in person from the podium at the 2013 Lib Dem conference. I nearly left myself at that point but stayed on in hope only to drift away disillusioned later that same year. There were other things as well, tuition fees, 45p tax rate etc. etc. etc. I don't need to go through the list. Most people reading this will know them all by rote.

But politics is tough and it certainly wouldn't be fair to blame Clegg for all of those, although he was complicit.

There are some things though for which the blame squarely falls on his shoulders. I'll highlight just three here although there are more.

Firstly the complete lack of any attempt to change the way PMQs was practised at all. Clegg stood in for Cameron at PMQs many, many times. And instead of using the opportunity to do it differently, perhaps taking a more emollient tone and not constantly bashing anyone who criticised the government he did the exact opposite. He used the bully pulpit to attack the opposition over and over again. In many respects he was worse than Cameron. It made him look like Just Another Tory. Indeed after he resigned as leader he cited "sitting next to the Prime Minister" at PMQs as one of his biggest mistakes because of the "optics". He is right about that but it is much much worse than he states because of the way he himself carried out the same duties.

I asked Clegg about this very subject when I interviewed him in September 2012 and he claimed that he would have liked to change PMQs but when he had made slight attempts to move in this direction he had been branded as "ineffective and weak" and hence he had had no choice but to stick to the bearpit style. But this just simply is not good enough. What was the point of having a Lib Dem Deputy PM taking PMQs if when he deputised for the PM he made no difference to how it was practised and more importantly gave no inkling of how a liberal PM could do it? He had a responsibility to show how liberals in general and Lib Dems in particular were not happy with the current system and would change things. On this particular point he completely and totally failed.

Secondly cleaving far too closely to the Conservatives in the early years of the coalition. The "Rose Garden" press conference was clearly a misstep but it was indicative of a wider problem about how the party presented themselves. On the media and in parliament they went on and on and on about how there was a strong Lib Dem flavour to the government. They pounced on research that suggested 75% of their manifesto had ended up in government trumpeting this from the highest rooftops. But all this just made the Lib Dems look like they were crypto-Tories; when the cuts started kicking in, the tuition fees were raised, the NHS reforms were announced and all the other policies that were anathema to 2/3rds of the voters who backed Clegg in 2010 they "owned" the entire lot. There was no serious attempt to distance the party from these policies in government from the top level. Indeed Clegg seemed to revel in what he was doing, at one point light heartedly quoting Blair saying "It's worse than you think, I actually believe in the policies.". By the time the "differentiation" strategy kicked in in the last year or so of the parliament it was far, far too late.

The final one I want to focus on is how totally misguided Clegg's long term political strategy was. He seemed totally convinced that there were a huge swathe of liberal leaning voters out there who had previously gone for the Tories but now the Lib Dems had demonstrated they could do government they would come flocking to the yellow banner. And that these voters would replace all the lefties who had previously backed the party. Time and again at conference we members were all assured that the leadership knew exactly what it was doing and it would all come good. After the wipeouts in local elections and in 2014 losing all but one MEP (a devastating result for "The Party of Europe) the members were urged to keep the faith.

It was all wishful thinking. In May this year the electorate delivered their verdict. The Lib Dems lost 83% of their seats. They are now down to 8 MPs. There are some projections (that I take seriously) that suggest that in 2020 after the boundary changes they could be down to 4 MPs. They are a shadow of their former selves and are likely to be a political irrelevance for a generation or more.

I'm not saying there were any easy answers after the 2010 general election. There weren't. As I have argued many many times Clegg took the only option for stable government for 5 years and his party have paid in my view a disproportionate price for effectively putting the country before party.

But Clegg and his aides were complicit in a large number of tactical and strategic mistakes that made the ultimate result 5 years later even worse than it needed to be. They didn't listen to the many many voices from both inside and outside the party urging them to change tack. Clegg refused to stand down in June 2014 after the Euro elections when it was obvious to almost all political observers that he was a busted electoral flush.

I have no specific recipe for what sort of "punishment" Clegg should now undergo. Indeed it is unrealistic and probably even churlish to think there is one. But the party, its current and future leaderships and its members should think very carefully before pursuing the line that Clegg was very brave to do what he did and that the party in any way owes him a debt of gratitude. They should also all do their best to try and make sure he does not ultimately become a well respected and loved grandee of the party (like say Paddy Ashdown) who is listened to and has great influence in the future direction of the party.

He made some major errors that have cost both the party and ultimately the country in terms of much reduced liberal influence in parliament for many years to come.

At the very least he should be held accountable for that.