Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday 30 March 2013

The Majoritarian Muddle

There's an interesting piece from Dan Hodges yesterday in which he suggests that many Tories are so sick of having to govern in coalition with the Lib Dems that they may actually prefer to be in opposition.

This is a phenomenon that I witnessed first hand in the run up to the 2010 general election. At the time I was doing a lot of media and in one of my radio studio appearances I was chatting to a right-wing commentator who I knew from previous conversations was considering a potential future career as a Tory MP. The subject of electoral reform came up and he stated in blunt terms that if first-past-the-post was ever abandoned for Westminster he would quit politics. For him it was not enough to have power, it had to be absolute power for his party alone.

As a long-standing pluralist, I find this attitude hard to understand. Some might suggest that as a Lib Dem I would say that. But I thought this long before I joined the party. Compromising with colleagues is something that almost everybody does all the time in the "real world". Extending this across party boundaries within politics should not really be controversial and yet, somehow, it is. Well, in this country at least. Most other countries have political systems that ensure the most likely outcome is the sharing of power in various ways. Very few have such a brutal winner-takes-all system as the United Kingdom.

Even under first-past-the-post, it seems likely that the smaller parties will continue to eat away at the long-term vote share for the big two. Indeed, across the world the "Westminster model" is now usually returning hung parliaments. This could well lead to more opportunities for coalitions in the UK. If this is correct, Conservative and Labour MPs and activists are going to have to get used to sharing power. The sort of monumental strop that numerous backbench Tory MPs are now throwing will be utterly counterproductive.

The idea of working with one's political opponents has been anathema to the main parties for the last 60 years. The "winner" of the election gets a majority of seats and pushes through what they want. That has been the basis of our politics for so long that it is a genuine culture shock to find ourselves in a world where constant compromise is necessary. That is as true for the Lib Dems as for anyone else, which is perhaps surprising given they are the party of electoral reform - but that shows how deeply embedded our previous settlement was. We need to see a culture change in this country's body politic. Instead of compromise with political opponents being seen as weak, we need to accept it as an inevitable part of policy making. No one party has a monopoly on good ideas and our country can actually be strengthened by ensuring that more than one political philosophy and tradition has input into that process.

And if we can all accept this, then maybe next time we have a coalition the MPs that form the backbenches will have a slightly more realistic expectation of what can be achieved and perhaps be grateful for the opportunity to contribute, rather than equate compromise with betrayal of their principles.

This post was first published in the New Statesman online

Wednesday 27 March 2013

House of Comments - Episode 52 - The Meh Budget

Episode 52 of the House of Comments podcast "The Eastleigh Fallout" was recorded on Sunday and is out. This week myself and Emma Burnell were joined by former Ed Miliband adviser Sonia Sodha to discuss the budget, Leveson and blogs, Workfare and JSA targets and immigration bonds.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here (note - this is a new feed so if you used to subscribe to the old feed a couple of years ago you'll need to do so again).

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

If you are a political blogger and wish to be considered as a future guest please drop me an e-mail at

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us and especially to Audioboo's James O'Malley who has helped us out getting relaunched. James is also editor of The Pod Delusion podcast which is about "interesting things" and is well worth a listen too! We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

David Miliband sealed his fate in 2009

If he'd have had more courage, David Miliband could have been Prime Minister today. On 4th June 2009 when his close political ally James Purnell resigned as Culture Secretary Miliband senior could and should have gone over the top too. I know for a fact that Purnell and his advisers were expecting him to and were baffled when he did not. Had he done so and then gone to the country in the Autumn on the back of a bounce he could have had 5 years as PM. The fact that Cameron could not even scrape a majority against Brown makes it clear a new leader could have turned things around.

He didn't want to be seen as the Michael Heseltine of his generation fearing that he who wields the knife seldom wins the crown. But Brown was a busted flush. It was clear a year out from the general election that he could not win. Purnell's resignation along with in the preceding and succeeding days the resignations of some other senior (but just not quite senior enough) figures such as Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint was enough to wound Brown but not enough to kill.

That inaction made him more like another Tory Michael of an earlier generation. Michael Portillo. OK so he didn't put phone lines in but his various manouvers such as his article in The Guardian in July 2008 which tried to set out a vision for Labour and conspicuously did not even mention the then PM was a more subtle form of the same thing.

The indecision at a time when Labour really needed someone to step up and save the party from itself marked him down for me as an also-ran. Despite the fact that he started the 2010 leadership election as clear favourite I did not expect him to win. Indeed I actually expected his brother Ed to outshine him and ultimately take the crown as happened.

He was too cautious during the campaign too. He played it defensively and seemed genuinely irritated that his younger brother had had the temerity to run against him. Why on Earth he expected to have the field to himself in this way is baffling to me. Future PMs need to take on all comers.

So now David is standing down from parliament to take on an international charity role. I think we can interpret this as the end of his domestic political ambitions. There may be a role in Europe for him at some point in the future but stepping down as an MP is usually a clear signal that politicians are finished with the daily grind and the greasy pole.

David Miliband now stands as a warning to future politicians in the opposite way to Heseltine. When vying for the leadership and/or premiership of course they need to take into account the actions of Tarzan in 1990 and not be too bold. But they also need to not be too cautious. Otherwise the prize they most desire could just as easily slip from their grasp.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Clegg's Faulty Secret Courts Logic

I sat in the wrong place in the hall on Saturday for Nick Clegg's Q&A. I was about 2/3rds of the way back and despite thrusting my hand up every time he went back to the audience I didn't get picked for a question. Indeed he only really seemed to pick from about the first 6 rows which was all I think he could see.

But if he had have picked me I was going to highlight a particular bit of faulty logic in one of his comments about secret courts. In fact that's being generous. Sophistry would be a better word.

He claimed that there had been no point in Lib Dem MPs voting against Secret Courts as it still would have passed. According to Nick there was simply not a majority in the House of Commons to defeat the legislation. I'll put aside the fact that some commentators actually believe there could have been a majority against Secret Courts if the parliamentary Lib Dems with their liberal credentials had given a clear lead in opposing them.

Notwithstanding that Clegg's argument is ridiculous. If Charles Kennedy and the then Lib Dem leadership had followed that line of thinking in 2003 they would have voted for the invasion of Iraq. After all, there was not a majority in the House to defeat that either so they might as well have done according to the Deputy Prime Minister.

The fact that this argument seemed to form the backbone of his Secret Courts response demonstrates to me just how poor the thinking on this bill has been from our leadership.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

I'm backing the no all-male Panel Pledge - are you?

At Lib Dem conference this weekend I had a cunning plan. I had been challenged by my House of Comments co-host Emma that the next time I was at an all male panel at an event that I would question why there were no women to ask questions of from the floor. The idea being that the more this is highlighted, the more likely it is that organisers of events will eventually be embarrassed into ensuring panels have better gender balance.

I had had my attention drawn by Jennie Rigg to an event that was scheduled for the Friday night on social media which had a male chair and 4 male panelists. I turned up, parked myself on the front row and was all set to ask my killer question on International Women's Day of all days! It was going to be a real zinger! I was going to leave them floundering!

Then Olly Grender pulled up a chair at the end of the panel and sat down. My evil plan was torpedoed. I couldn't ask my question now that a woman had been included in the panel.

I was of course pleased that I wasn't forced to sit through yet another male only panel. Olly had some great insights into the use of social media from her perspective as a former Lib Dem communications supremo.

Mark Pack who was also one of the panelists had got wind of what I was planning due to some Twitter activity on the subject and the next day we had a chat about it. He suggested something that he has been considering for a while which had been resurrected in his mind by what had nearly happened the night before.

Mark wanted to make a pledge that he would refuse to appear on any panel he was asked onto at any future Lib Dem conferences unless there is at least one woman on the panel. We both agreed this is an excellent idea and I agreed I would also make the same pledge. Mark has written about this today for Lib Dem Voice.

We are both encouraging all male Lib Dems to make the same pledge. That you will not agree to sit on any panel where all the contributors are going to be male.

The more men we can get to agree to this, including MPs and Peers who are almost always in one of the slots on panels the more likely we are to ensure more gender balance in future. Who knows, if we're really successful by the time of the Autumn conference we may end up with no panel without at least one woman on. That has never happened before and is an excellent first to aim for.

So leave comments on here or on Mark's post pledging your commitment to the Panel Pledge. Write about it. Tweet about it. Blog about it. Talk about it.

We can make a real difference. We just need to exercise our right to say no to all male panels.

House of Comments - Episode 50 - I'm a liberal and I'm against this sort of thing

Episode 50 of the House of Comments podcast "I'm a liberal and I'm against this sort of thing" was recorded on Sunday and is out today. This week I could not make it but Emma Burnell was joined by Liberal Democrat Linda Jack and former Liberal Democrat Jo Shaw who had dramatically resigned from the party on the conference stage during a debate on Secret Courts on the day of recording. They discuss Secret Courts, party leaderships being out of touch with their members, the differences between Labour and the Lib Dems and how women in politics and public life are treated.

Please note that the sound quality on Jo's line was not great but you can hear what she says OK.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here (note - this is a new feed so if you used to subscribe to the old feed a couple of years ago you'll need to do so again).

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

If you are a political blogger and wish to be considered as a future guest please drop me an e-mail at

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us and especially to Audioboo's James O'Malley who has helped us out getting relaunched. James is also editor of The Pod Delusion podcast which is about "interesting things" and is well worth a listen too! We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Monday 11 March 2013

My Secret Courts Pledge

Well that was a very difficult weekend.

I enjoyed Lib Dem conference itself as usual. It was good to meet up with some old friends and some new ones.

But it was terribly dispiriting to see Nick Clegg's high-handed and frankly arrogant response during his Q&A to the questions about Secret Courts. It is clear that he thinks the membership is ill-informed on the issue and that he is absolutely fine with the fact that he, his ministers and the majority of his parliamentary party have voted for such an illiberal measure.

I was gutted to see Jo Shaw resign yesterday. However I totally understand her reasons for doing so. Between you and me I have considered doing so myself. But for now I have chosen to take a different path.

At election time I get bombarded with requests to come and help MPs and PPCs. Indeed in the run up to the Eastleigh by-election I was getting daily requests for this. I did go and help out down on the south coast one Saturday and in the 2010 election I went to numerous constituencies to help our candidates out.

So here is my pledge. I refuse to help get re-elected any of our MPs who voted for the Justice and Security Bill. I will not deliver leaflets or canvass (either in person or telephone) for any of them. For PPCs this is more tricky because they weren't in the House to vote but I will discuss the issue with any who ask me to help out and I will be happy to do so if they are clear they would have voted against.

I expect the motion at conference yesterday which for the second time has made clear the party's feelings on this issue will be ignored by the leadership. But this is a two-way street. The leadership cannot do what it likes and for there to be no consequences. At least that's how I see it and this is what I intend to do from my end.

Is anyone else with me?

Sunday 10 March 2013

Quote of the day

From former parliamentary candidate Jo Shaw delivered at the very end of her conference speech earlier today in Brighton paraphrasing Harry Willcock explaining why she was resigning from the Lib Dems on the issue of secret courts:

Because I am a liberal, and a democrat, and I am against this sort of thing.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Lib Dem conference voting reps: Please vote for the secret courts emergency motion #ldconf

My secret courts emergency motion I submitted on Tuesday has not been selected for the ballot for debate tomorrow morning. However the good news is that there was another motion on this subject submitted by Jo Shaw who has campaigned tirelessly on the issue. I am very pleased there there is a motion on this available and I strongly urge any Lib Dem conference voting reps reading this who are in Brighton today to please vote for it.

The ballot is preferential and although a 1 would be best, if you are supporting another motion please put the secret courts one second.

The ballot is open between 9am and 1pm today at conference.

Please help us ensure that we will be debating this issue of vital importance tomorrow morning.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Secret Courts emergency motion for Lib Dem Conference

Earlier today I submitted the following emergency motion relating to last night's Secret Courts vote for Lib Dem conference this weekend. There is a slot on Sunday morning where urgent issues can be debated.

There is also a motion that has been submitted by Jo Shaw who has been an outstanding campaigner on this issue for a long time.

I am very hopeful that one of these motions will be picked. My one is a bit more succinct and tries to make a broader point to the leadership but the important thing is we debate the issue as our internal democracy is currently under threat.

Conference believes that the way the party has recently voted with respect to the Justice and Security Bill has fallen short of the party's founding principles. Conference urges the party in government to take more account of the views of members and its founding principles when deciding policies to support within government. Conference acknowledges that it is difficult to strike a balance in a coalition but that there are certain precepts that should underpin any such negotiations.

Conference asserts that the preamble to the constitution is central to our reason for existence and therefore these key principles should be:

a)      Safeguarding a fair, free and open society.
b)      Balancing the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community.
c)       Ensuring that no-one shall be enslaved by, poverty ignorance or conformity.

Conference urges the party’s parliamentarians in the Commons and the Lords to vote in accordance with the principles that underpin the Liberal Democrats in any future votes on the Justice and Security Bill and other legislation.

The Lib Dem leadership are treading a dangerous path

I'm off down to Brighton on Friday.

I really like the Sussex seaside town and I am sure I will find plenty to do while I am there. There's the pier, the Laines, the beach, the Royal Pavilion and lots of nice restaurants.

While I'm down there I may pop into the Lib Dem conference which is on. That is ostensibly the reason I am actually going to be there to get involved in debates and vote on party policy. Although after last night's vote where the parliamentary Lib Dems were whipped to vote for the Secret Courts bill against the clear expressed will of the party membership in conference votes I am thinking it might well not be worth it. After all if our ministers in government can just completely ignore what its members think despite the fact that we are supposed to be a democratic party then why should I bother?

I suspect plenty of others will be wondering this today. I also suspect in the light of the Eastleigh by-election result that many will be questioning whether it is worth campaigning so hard for the party in future too. Thousands of activists poured into the seat in the last few weeks in order to help us secure the by-election victory. Now as it happens Mike Thornton had not been sworn in in time for the division last night so he couldn't vote. I'll be generous to Mike and assume there is a good reason for this. Although I will say that if I had been elected MP for Eastleigh last week I'd have made damn sure I was sworn in in time and then voted against the bill along with the 7 other Lib Dem "rebels" who actually voted the way the party membership wants. But it is a real kick in the face for all of those activists who fought so hard to deliver the "stunning victory" that has so boosted Clegg in recent days. I was one of them and I have to say that I will not be as keen to go out and fight for our party on the doorsteps in future if we don't see a real change in how our internal democracy is accounted for in government.

What's even more infuriating about this is that it appears the timing of the vote was scheduled precisely to avoid an "embarrassing" vote at conference that would put further pressure on Clegg and our ministers to vote against this bill. So our leadership has connived with the Tories to deny its own membership on this key piece of legislation.

I understand it is difficult for Lib Dem ministers to get their way on things all the time but liberty is a fundamental precept of our party. Secret Courts are diametrically opposite to what we should be doing. We need an urgent review into how to fix our broken democracy. This weekend's conference is the place to do it.

And if we don't then perhaps next time conference is in Brighton all the other attractions may prove too tempting for me. Let's face it, wandering around the Laines and the Pavilion may be time better spent if our votes on key issues like this count for nothing.

House of Comments - Episode 49 - The Eastleigh Fallout

Episode 49 of the House of Comments podcast "The Eastleigh Fallout" was recorded on Sunday and is out today. This week myself and Emma Burnell were joined by Rafael Behr the political editor of the New Statesman to discuss the fallout from Eastleigh including the UKIP surge, John O'Farrell's comments about candidate "scrutiny" and murmurs from the Conservative Party about rowing back on human rights legislation.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here (note - this is a new feed so if you used to subscribe to the old feed a couple of years ago you'll need to do so again).

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

If you are a political blogger and wish to be considered as a future guest please drop me an e-mail at

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us and especially to Audioboo's James O'Malley who has helped us out getting relaunched. James is also editor of The Pod Delusion podcast which is about "interesting things" and is well worth a listen too! We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Saturday 2 March 2013

Is Toby Young really as naive as he seems?

I mean he can't be? Can he?

I've noticed this before but generally just assumed I'd misunderstood him or something. After all he's Oxbridge educated, had pieces published all over the place, used to be a columnist read by millions and is a successful author.

Surely someone that successful can't be totally naive can they?

Well three things I have seen/heard from him in the last 24 hours make me think he is.

Firstly there was this piece for the Telegraph yesterday where he seems to honestly think that the Conservative Party are going to come to some sort of arrangement with UKIP in individual seats in order to prevent the "vote on the right" from being split in future. Now aside from the fact that it is hopelessly simplistic to think that all who vote for UKIP are naturally inclined Conservative voters (the evidence from Eastleigh proves that is not true by any stretch) the idea that the two parties are going to do some secret handshake based deal is completely unrealistic. For so many reasons. Farage would never do it for a start. He's riding the crest of an anti-establishment insurgency wave. The last thing he is going to do is make a deal with the biggest party currently in government. And the Cameroons have made their views about UKIP perfectly clear. Also if in individual seats UKIP were given a free run (quite apart from how disenfranchising this is and would be see to be) what happens to all the Conservative members and activists in those seats? Are they just going to sit back and happily allow the work they have done over the years to count for naught. Cameron would be risking massive leakage to the upstart party.

The other instances came in quick succession today when I was listening to the repeat of last night's Any Questions (where Young was a guest) in the car. I only actually caught about 5 minutes of it on the way to the supermarket but in that short time he managed to demonstrate a complete lack of appreciation of people without his privileges and also a fundamental misunderstanding of how democracy is supposed to operate.

The privilege point came in response to a question about whether school governors should be paid. He has some experience in this area having set up a free school in London. His response was to say that he wouldn't want governors to be paid because they should be doing it for free for the sake of the school. He then went on to explain how he has been working 40 - 60 hours a week for his school for free since 2009. Now I think there is a genuine argument to be had about whether governors are paid but Young's attempt at oneupmanship by underlining how hard he has worked *for free* is just silly. All I can say is that if he can spare that much time during his week for no pay then he must have substantial financial resources to fall back on. Having been a successful (and presumably well paid) journalist and author for many years that's bully for him. The vast majority of people who would want to help out with something like this would also have to work 40 - 60 hours per week on another full time job and/or look after families etc. His response demonstrated no understanding of how lucky he is to be able to do what he has done and is not an argument against paying governors at all. It's the answer to a different question along the lines of "Toby, please tell us why you are so great.". Maybe that's the prism through which he filters all his questions. It would explain a lot.

The misunderstanding about politics came in response to something Evan Harris on the panel had said about preferring schools to have democratic accountability to local education authorities and councils who can of course be voted out if they get things wrong. Young took exception to this and then tried to use the example of Chris Huhne to prove that democratic accountability doesn't work properly. I'm paraphrasing but his argument was that Huhne tried to pervert the course of justice and yet the Lib Dems still managed to retain the seat, hence somehow proving his point. What an utterly, utterly bizarre thing to say. Nobody else in the party knew that he was guilty of this until a few weeks ago when he suddenly stood down. He did not perform these actions on behalf of the party, he did them as Chris Huhne and he will take the consequences as Chris Huhne. The idea that it is a travesty of democracy for the Lib Dems to then retain the seat in a by-election with a completely different candidate and that this somehow "proves" that democracy does not work is utterly wrong-headed. It's like how you would expect a child to understand politics working.

Until very recently Toby Young was the main political columnist for The Sun on Sunday. All I can say on the basis of my experiences of his lazy and illogical thinking in the last 24 hours is it is no wonder he no longer enjoys that position.

After Eastleigh UKIP are a serious threat

It's typical of the mainstream press as they have done since Mike Thornton's victory in Eastleigh on Thursday to focus on the fact that UKIP came second and the Conservatives came third. You'd hardly know that the Lib Dem candidate had won judging from the front page coverage since then.

It goes without saying that I am very pleased Mike won. He fought a good campaign and I was one of the thousands of activists who poured into the constituency to help him. It is a deserved victory.

However we should not get over excited. Mike got 32% of the vote which in some elections would not be enough to win. One of the main reasons this was sufficient to claim victory this time is because of the large vote that UKIP got: 28%. With the Conservatives getting 25% this made it a three way marginal.

After Eastleigh the political establishment and activists need to start taking UKIP much more seriously. I have seen some comment about how there are no prizes for second place and highlighting that the fact that they have few councillors and have never had an MP.

I think there is a real risk of complacency here. The party was only founded less than 20 years ago and already it has 11 MEPs. In our first past the post electoral system for Westminster it is almost impossible for an upstart party to break through. That's how it is designed, to make the barrier to entry so high that the status quo is maintained. And yet UKIP came within 4 percentage points of having just one of those breakthroughs.

The consequences of this will reverberate through our body politic for a long time. Most importantly UKIP are now no longer a fringe party. To come so close in a key by-election (perhaps the most important one for a decade or more) will linger in the memory. The next time UKIP are fighting somewhere and the other parties try to squeeze their vote by saying they "cannot win" it will not gain as much traction. They very nearly did win in Eastleigh and people know it.

It is also very interesting to note that one of the key aspects of how they fought this by-election was to focus on local issues. For a long time they have only really been associated with EU withdrawal, reducing immigration and one or two other key national policies. But as Lib Dems we know that it is local that can often win the day. UKIP are learning that lesson focusing on things like plans for an incinerator. It is a sign that they are maturing as a political party. As Lib Dems we cannot complain about this, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It also means that if they continue with this pattern they are likely to be much more competitive at a council level where they are currently very weak. They could now quite quickly start to build up a more substantial local elected base perhaps starting with the May elections this year.

My final point to note is that they managed to achieve their close run second place with a candidate that nobody had heard of. When Nigel Farage announced his intention not to stand, in the back of my mind I thought that UKIP were not taking the election very seriously. After all Farage had stood in the by-election there in 1994 and he seemed like an obvious choice. But instead they went for Diane James who was from outside the constituency and had no national profile at all. It turned out that she is an excellent campaigner who impressed a number of Lib Dems I have spoken to (not about her policies of course but about her campaigning techniques). This is important because for UKIP to be a credible party they cannot be a one man band. Too often in the past it has seemed like Farage is really their only visible member. Having good candidates like Diane who now does have a national profile is vital if they are going to achieve their long awaited breakthrough.

I have confidence that the Lib Dems can take on UKIP and win the argument where they are challenging us. But we need to stop seeing them as a fringe also-ran party in domestic elections. Eastleigh has put paid to that notion.

UKIP are a serious threat. We need to treat that threat with the respect it deserves.