Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

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.

Sunday 13 December 2015

How the Labour party will now be slowly destroyed by our electoral system

Here we go again. Mark banging on about electoral reform.

Well guilty as charged. However I really do feel it is going to play a substantial, probably pivotal role in the evolving disintegration of the Labour Party.

Before I lay out my thesis I should make it clear that despite my obvious opposition to New Labour's more authoritarian aspects and also to the sheer opportunism of the party in opposition between 2010 and 2015 I certainly do not wish to see its demise as a serious political force. Most of my family were Labour supporters when I was growing up. I was delighted with Blair's victory in 1997 and indeed enthusiastically voted for the party in both 1997 and 2001. If I was going to have to choose between 20 years of hegemony from Labour or the Tories I would choose Labour. They are closer to my own political philosophy than the Conservative Party for sure.

But it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that the Labour Party as it is currently constituted will not be here within a decade or two. We have seen a confluence of factors that now militate against its long term survival.

Firstly the membership has changed beyond all recognition from even 6 months ago, let alone 6 years ago. The extraordinary rise of Jeremy Corbyn who only squeaked into the ballot due to acts of charity by several Labour MPs who would never have dreamed he could win and certainly would never have done so had they realised this has triggered an influx of hundreds of thousands of new members, both full and "supporter" level, but all of whom have a vote in leadership elections. Many of these new members are what we used to refer to as "hard left" or even if they don't recognise themselves as such are certainly fellow travellers with much of what the hard left stands for.

Secondly Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and their acolytes now have their hands firmly on the levers of power within the party. And despite their denials it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Momentum group set up to support Corbyn's aims is organising at a grassroots level and will eventually either through confrontation or attrition start to replace more moderate Labour MPs with candidates who are "one of them" to adapt one of Thatcher's most famous phrases.

Thirdly, the mere fact that Corbyn is the leader and groups like Momentum are now so active is leading to more and more people who were previously members of Trotskyist groups and other parties like the SWP etc. joining or in some cases re-joining the Labour Party. They feel like they have got their party back and are swelling the numbers.

A combination of these factors make it almost impossible for Corbyn to be dislodged. He won in the first round with 59.5% of the vote. This is a crushing victory. Burnham only managed 20%. And by way of comparison Blair only got 57% when he stood and won in 1994. Corbyn is master of all he surveys within the party. And the fact that if anything the membership now compared to a few months ago is likely to be even more Corbynite makes it even more difficult to imagine him being successfully challenged.

It is worth bearing in mind as well that if Corbyn is challenged, then according to the Labour Party rules he is on the ballot by default. This means he would no longer need the nominations of 35 Labour MPs to be a candidate in any future election.

The only way I can see the hard left cabal being ousted in the forseeable future would be if Corbyn himself decided to stand down. I wouldn't completely rule this out. It is possible that over the course of the coming months and perhaps couple of years he gets so worn down by the constant attacks from both inside and outside his party and from the media that he eventually chooses to throw in the towel. I have to say though that at the moment this seems pretty unlikely. He appears to be enjoying the job more and more and I doubt he will eschew the chance to remake the party in his own image.

And even if Corbyn did stand down I am certain another left winger, probably McDonnell or someone similar would stand for the leadership. And although the 35 MP threshold would kick in, given how hugely the membership has changed this year I would imagine there would be huge pressure on MPs to at least allow a left winger onto the ballot (who would then of course win). If MPs prevented this I would predict out and out civil war between the membership and the PLP with dozens of deselections happening in short order. Momentum might be largely keeping their powder dry for now but they would definitely not stand for that and they know they have the power to hold the MPs to ransom.

Perhaps the most important question arising from all of this though is why is it happening at all? How can we have a membership of a party that is so at odds with the vast majority of its own MPs? Why is someone like Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell even in the same party as say Peter Mandelson or Tristram Hunt or Liz Kendall? It doesn't really make much sense. Those people should really be in a completely different party to each other. Their aims and political anchors are in completely different places.

It's because of the electoral system stupid.

Of course in an ideal world Corbyn and Kendall would be in totally different parties. It was clear during the leadership campaign that they agreed on very little substantively. The problem is that if the hard left or the moderates wanted to split off and form another party the electoral system would punish both sides for doing this. In safe Labour seats where the Tory vote is very weak the left would probably be OK and the Labour Party and Splitters Party could fight each other for those constituencies. But in the vast swathe of marginals and semi-marginals against the Tories or other seats where e.g. UKIP or the Greens or the Lib Dems can run a united Labour Party close a split Labour Party would be a disaster for the left. In dozens, perhaps well over a hundred seats we would see the Tories primarily and perhaps other parties more marginally reap the rewards. Not because these other parties have necessarily done anything to deserve winning these seats but because Labour had split and First Past the Post awards seats to the largest plurality. In simple terms if Labour hold a seat with 50% of the vote where the Tories last time got 30% and Labour splits into two parties where each split party gets 25% of the vote the Tories win even if they still only get 30%.

Of course Labour knows all of this. If they have any doubt they just need to look to recent history and see what happened when Labour split during the 1980s when the Gang of Four formed the SDP. In the following two general elections both Labour and the SDP were hugely punished for being separate parties and the result was 16 more years of Tory government.

If we had a different electoral system based on some form of proportionality a decision to split would be much easier as even if the vote split down the middle (or more likely say the hard left got 10% of the vote and the moderates got 20% or 25% of the vote) then they would get seats allocated in roughly those proportions. And then following an election it's possible that those parties, perhaps in conjunction with others could form a government. But their respective electoral strengths would be clear and the coalition would be formed after an election rather than being forced to cram a load of people who loath and barely even understand each other's politics into the same party before an election.

But we don't have a system like this. And this is why by far and away the most likely scenario is that the Labour Party does not split and instead remains one single party. And slowly but surely that one single party is in the process of destroying itself. The constant off (and increasingly on) the record briefings against each other, the incredulity of many Labour MPs at the behaviour of the leadership (just look at the video of Tom Watson's face when McDonnell recently pulled out Mao's Little Red Book at the despatch box for this in microcosm), the grassroots organising to punish MPs who deviate from the Corbynite line. And eventually, inevitably the proof that Corbyn is unelectable in 2020. But even when this happens that won't stop the hard left. They simply will never accept that their programme is unpopular. They will blame anything but themselves and will instead carry on with their purity drive.

They will eventually after years of this be a hollowed out force with MPs fallen by the wayside replaced with true believers.

This could have been avoided or at least mitigated if the party had been able to separate into the more natural political groupings that common sense would dictate. But that can't happen. Our electoral system simply will not allow it.

It would be easy for someone like me who has campaigned for electoral reform for a long time often in the teeth of opposition from dinosaurs on the Labour benches to find this highly amusing. It is only 4 years since we had the chance to make a change to AV that could have helped facilitate a much better situation for the current Labour Party. But many within Labour fought tooth and nail to prevent this relatively minor but important progressive change to our system and they won. So they will now reap what they sowed.

But I do not find this situation amusing. It is deadly serious. Because the consequence will be probably 20 years at least of Tory governments. A Tory party who knew very well what they were doing when they blocked any chance of a proportional system during the 2010 Lib Dem coalition negotiations and a Tory party who pulled out all the stops (in alliance with those Labour dinosaurs) to prevent AV in 2011.

I suspect eventually Labour will come to see how they have shafted themselves in the long term through their refusal to countenance a more progressive electoral system.

But it will be too late by then. They won't have enough MPs to make any difference any more.

Friday 11 December 2015

My radio show - 09/12/2015 - Professional Poker Playing and Radio Presenting

I do these most weeks between 8:30pm and 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings. You can listen to the station live here.

This week I talk to professional poker player Neil Channing about his life at the felt and how he fell into this rather unusual line of work and to DJ Rick Edwards about his career behind the mic.

I have put an edited (sans music) version of the show on the House of Comments podcast feed so if you subscribe you should get it automatically.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast.