Wednesday 30 September 2015

Building Progressive Alliances

In future I will be posting ‘guest opinions’- I may not however agree with the entire contents.This is the first one.

'No single political party has a monopoly on wisdom - we can all learn from each other'- Naomi Smith is Chair of the Social Liberal Forum

Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak on a panel at a fringe meeting in Brighton at the Labour Party conference. Organised by Compass, the theme was Building progressive alliances for a new economy. The main thrust of what I spoke about is below, but I thought it might make for an interesting blog post to share some of my thoughts about the conference and the mood in the room. 

As I pitched up in Brighton, it felt like any other Lib Dem conference I'd attended. There were lots of people walking around with lanyards, rushing to the next fringe meeting, or propping up the Metropole's bar. There were journalists, famous political faces from now and days gone by, and plenty of eager young charity execs trying to thrust flyers in to the hands of hungover delegates.

But I soon realised a difference in just how much bigger it was than a typical Lib Dem convention (despite our own membership boost since the General Election, it's notable that more people have joined Labour since Corbyn's victory than the entirety of the Lib Dem membership). As I wandered through the maze of corridors to find the room Compass had booked, I realised that the majority of the hotel is simply not opened up for the Lib Dems. Vast halls and rooms exist beyond the partition walls that enclose a Liberal Democrat conference, and in any fringe slot, there are dozens and dozens of simultaneous meetings going on
The second thing that struck me was a) how many young people were there and b) how many non-white people there were by comparison to our own conference. Our diversity is woeful. Atrocious! and Unacceptable!. We need to reconnect with voters, and we can't do that properly when the vast majority of our parliamentarians are white, middle aged, middle class, heterosexual, Christian, and male. 

I arrived at the fringe meeting about ten minutes early, and as the room started to fill up, it suddenly struck me, that I've never before been perceived as being the most 'right wing' person in the room! I got a few suspicious looks from some attendees but once we got under way, it of course became immediately evident that you could probably put a cigarette paper in the political gap separating me from people like the excellent Chair of Compass, Neal Lawson. What united everyone in the room, was the need for progressives to pull together on issues of common interest. 

It's not just a challenge for the UK. Only 8 out of 51 centre left parties are now in government across Europe. But those centre right and right wing parties in governments, aren't there with enormous democratic mandates. Few, if any political parties in Europe currently command more than 30% of the vote. This isn't the kind of democracy we should be proud of, and we need to figure out how to make pluralist politics work.

And that shared belief, is what made the fringe so uplifting. Lisa Nandy (the impressive new Shadow DECC Minister - and someone I think could succeed Jeremy Corbyn as leader one day) Caroline Lucas and Clive Lewis, all made the case for proportional representation, and more than once did I hear the phrase, 'no single political party has a monopoly on wisdom - we can all learn from each other'. There was a real appetite for collaboration in the room. Lisa reminded us to look to the cooperative movement for inspiration and said, 'the clue is in the name!'. Caroline encouraged us to build trust by working together on less contentious issues first to give us a more solid foundation for collaboration on the tougher stuff. And Clive took us on his journey from being against, to being in favour of electoral reform. He said, 'First past the post just pits the good guys against one another'. No one disagreed.

There were at least 20 questions at the end and I left buzzing. If we want to rise above the pathetic tribalism of some in our respective parties, we can. There are enough enlightened, talented and energised people with a will to collaborate. If we're clever, we really can stop the Tories at the next election.

Here's some of what I said at the fringe. (It's not exactly the same, because I only had speech points).

"In 1959, after Harold Macmillan won an unprecedented third consecutive Tory General Election victory, Jo Grimond the then Liberal leader, called for “A realignment of the Left.”
Many thought Grimond meant hooking up with the revisionist Gaitskellite wing of the Labour Party with its “Future of Socialism” agenda drawn up by Tony Crosland. But he didn’t. He meant joining forces with the likes of Sydney Silverman, a libertarian Socialist who had been mainly responsible for the abolition of the death penalty. Labour have done some pretty liberal stuff over the years.Others regarded him as a Fellow Traveller and as such perilously close to the Soviet Union. The Soviet slur was a calumny but it is interesting that Grimond’s instincts was to reject the sort of managerialist politics espoused by Crosland and the Gaitskellites.

The parallels with today’s political scene are obvious.  Jeremy Corbyn is vilified as being an ultra-Leftist, worse than Michael Foot, by the revisionist architects of New Labour (and I hasten to add by some former SDPers in the Lib Dem party), while he gathers support from a public that has grown weary of the vacuous mutterings of what’s left of the New Labour “narrative” and strongly reacts against the austerity politics of George Osborne. The SNP has thrived on exploiting this public mood in Scotland and Corbyn seems to be resonating in a similar way in England.

So where does this place the Lib Dems? Some argue that Corbyn has effectively seized the centre left ground, scuppering any aspirations on the part of social liberals. This has encouraged the Cleggite, Orange Book centrist element, whose approach proved such an electoral disaster for the Lib Dems last May. The problem with this line of thought is that the Centre is always defined by the other on either side of the divide and gives them most of the initiative. It’s neither politically appetising nor, more importantly, operational.

As my party flounders with a miniscule number of 8 MPs and an overblown number of Peers, shell-shocked and still largely in denial, some urge a re-vitalisation of ‘pavement politics’ in an attempt to garner grassroots support, while others seek a modernisation and restatement of liberal principles. Tim Farron offers a greater energy than Grimond was ever prepared to exert, but lacks the intellectual support Jo was able to mobilise. It’s very un-British to say so, but the problem with UK politics is essentially an intellectual one. The start must be to recognise how the nature of western democracy is changing, not least in the UK. The new populism and the increasing role of social media, are making for total change. And we, too, will have our Donald Trumps, Le Pens and others if we haven’t already got them.

I believe Farron would like to fashion a Left-of-Centre stance. I would encourage him in that: there’s no point in paddling around in a boat being buffeted by the waves created by others. He must address the issues that both the SNP and Jeremy Corbyn have seized upon. First and foremost is inequality: inequality that stems from income, gender, ethnicity and, not least, regional differences. Unless the Lib Dems can come up with a relevant, convincing and distinctive set of policies on inequality, my party will be lucky to have 8 MPs in 2020.

Jo Grimond may have been 60 years too soon when he called for a realignment of the left, but he wasn’t wrong. There is much that unites progressive liberals in all parties (and yes there are even a few in the Tories!) and we must work together on issues such as Europe, the slash and burn of public spending and the egregious attack on the most vulnerable in our society by the now unbridled Tory party.

In the Lib Dems, we often say that the Tories are the opposition, and Labour are the competition. Well I come from a business background, and in business we’ve long cottoned on to the benefits of the collaborative economy. In the 21st century, collaboration is the new competition. And so it is incumbent upon us all, to go back to our constituencies, and prepare for collaboration."

Monday 28 September 2015

Reflections on England v Wales a Game to remember

Sometimes sport gives me greater satisfaction to comment on than politics, current affairs or world events. Saturday night was such a time.

Dan Biggar’s finest hour and Warren Gatland’s Welsh emotions

There has been international rugby matches between England and Wales since 1881 and remarkably the number of games won by either country are almost identical. Wales having won 57 and England 58 with 12 matches drawn. There have been however periods of supremacy for both countries – Wales in the 1970’s and England 2000-4.

I was born into an obsessive rugby orientated environment be it at my home, village, school or the surrounding areas of the Amman and Gwendraeth Valleys. The rivalry on the rugby field between so many these mining and working class villages was more often than not fierce and they were high quality second class teams playing in a West Wales League of some 25 teams. Winning the League or the West Wales Cup was the pinnacle every season. The same pattern of course existed in the mid-valleys and the east of Wales.

The best example I can give of the passion, seriousness and dedication that existed then was that on Christmas morning Tumble would play the neighbouring village of Pontyberem and I estimate there would be some two thousand or maybe more watching. I remember one occasion cycling from my home to Pontyberem as I was playing for Tumble then – that was a return journey 8-10 miles. Such large attendances were not unusual at these village matches from Saturday to Saturday.

To give some insight into the standard of play this is where Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies, Phil Bennett, Derek Quinnell, Terry Price, Ray Gravelle, Delme Thomas, Shane Williams and dozens of other Welsh internationals developed their playing skills.  In the 1950’s and 60’s the big teams were Amman United, Felinfoel, Kidwelly, Llandybie, Loughor,  Penclawdd, Pontardulais, Pontyberem, Seven Sisters, Tumble and Cefneithin. I played for the last two and the occasional first class outing with Llanelli and Maesteg. The first class teams in West Wales of that era were Aberavon, Llanelli, Neath and Swansea where the rivalry was immense and crowds of 15,000 – 30,000 would turn up. Sadly the introduction of the professional era has destroyed those great traditions.

In Wales the game was essentially based on a working class upbringing and so many of our great players of that period were miners, steel workers, policemen and teachers. In England rugby has always been more of a middle or even upper class game and that can best be illustrated by the educational upbringing of the current English World Cup squad. More than two-thirds of them attended private boarding schools where the fees range from £10k to £35K per year. Chris Robshaw, Haskell, Launchbury, the two Vunipola’s and the Young brothers being in that top category. There has of course been the odd Welsh example of which Sir Gareth Edwards is one.

The first England versus Wales game I can recall was in 1951 and it was played at St Helens.  In those days I would be sitting round the kitchen table with my father, uncle and grandfather listening to G V Wynne Jones or Rex Alston commentating. They were such ebullient and eloquent commentators you could imagine being there and then straight after the end of the game I would go on to the field outside the house and relive the game on my own. By the way if the ball had been punctured and the inner tube of no use I would stuff the leather ball with grass and hay! 

Times have moved on beyond all recognition and now it is wall to wall television coverage. So it was that a massive world-wide audience watched a compelling and tantalising game of rugby Saturday night. The two countries had played each twice before in World Cup tournaments. Wales’s most successful tournament was the one in 1987 when they beat Australia in the third place play-off match having defeated England on the way. Then in 2003 England defeated Wales in the quarter- finals. This time the game was not in some far and distant land but on British soil, at the home of rugby and more than ever so much depended on the outcome.   

The game didn’t have the flowing, open and attacking rugby of the period I referred to earlier – there was no Cliff Morgan, Bleddyn Williams, Barry John, Gerald Davies, Gareth Edwards or a Jeff Butterfield and David Duckham on the field. The game has changed beyond all recognition in style, pattern, intensity and physicality. Defences are so tight and strong, the physical contact and tackling fierce. Little wonder that there are so many long-term and serious injuries these days. It is a worrying trend and I do have concerns for the safety of players. These are massive men in height, weight, strength, speed and fitness levels. Without question certain aspects of the game will have to be reviewed. So it is that Wales have six or seven of its top players out of action for up to eight months.
The game was truly remarkable and either side could have won. In fact England having been 10 points in the lead twice during the match should have won. At half-time it very much looked like that because they were better at the scrum, lineout, general play and discipline. But gradually during the second half one could see the change taking place. Wales improved considerably in discipline, intensity, energy and consistency. Three of its key players were injured so in that final quarter no praise is high enough for the adaptability and skill levels of the team.

It is invidious to single out players but Farrell and Dan Biggar were impressive with their kicking, tackling, determination, courage and consistency. Biggar has played some 36 times for Wales but this was truly his finest hour and it was a masterclass of modern No10 play.

As the game was coming towards the end England still held the lead but then came a for me a moment of Deja vu when Lloyd Williams a No 9 but playing on the wing executed a cross field kick for Gareth Davies to pick it up at speed and score between the posts. I had seen something similar in 1953 when Wales played the mighty All Blacks of the 1950’s. New Zealand was leading then R.C.C. (Clem) Thomas hemmed in on the touchline and surrounded by All Black players made a speculative cross field kick for the flying wing Ken Jones to gather a high bouncing ball to score beneath the posts. I watched the match on a Bush 12” black and white screen at home - so times have truly changed.

The cross field kick that was often used in my playing days has to all intents and purposes disappeared from the game but it should be used more often as should J J Williams’s tactic of chipping ahead and regathering the ball when hemmed in on the wing. But modern players are taught to hold on to possession, play to the patterns that they have been coached rather than play what is in front of them. Having watched the two cross kicks there is little doubt that Saturday’s was the most skilful. Lloyd Williams’s kick was not as speculative but deliberate and Gareth Davies’s pick up of a low rolling ball was excellent – although in slow motion he almost dropped it!.

A word about the Welsh coach Warren Gatland. He has not often been my favourite mainly because of his player selections and the style of play he has been training the team to carry out over the years. Yet his record does speak for itself. When he was the coach of Ireland his winning rate was at 47%, with Wales it has been 52% and as British Lions coach 67%. His emotions and after match reactions yesterday makes me believe that a lot of the Welsh nation has entered his heart.

Gatland played 17 non-internationals for New Zealand but never won a cap.  I read somewhere that he had been a substitute to the great All Blacks captain and hooker Sean Fitzpatrick some 50 times but Fitzpatrick was never replaced during any game. Now I don’t know what to make of that I will leave you to surmise. Just one other ‘tit-bit’ of information Sean’s middle names are Brian Thomas – a great Welsh second-row forward’s name to conjure with.

Finally about the great talking point, Chris Robshaw’s crucial decision not to take the kick at goal in the dying minutes. I suppose one can argue both ways, personally I would have chosen to kick but one thing was clear having chosen not to then England had to score from the ensuing lineout. I am afraid it was all too predictable in its intent and the throw in to the front of the line was a bad tactical decision. It made it easier for the Welsh forwards in a concerted and determined move to push the English forwards into touch.

In life, sport and in politics I always believe in the former Labour Prime Ministers adage when talking of current affairs matters ‘a week is a long time’. This World Cup is not over yet for England and it is not a ‘given’ for Wales either.

Friday 18 September 2015

As the Liberal Democrats gather in Bournemouth it’s Time for explanations

The party can only move forward successfully by understanding precisely what went wrong, why it happened and what are the lessons for the future?

Local campaigning did not let us down - it was bad decision making, loss of identity, failure in strategic thinking, no exit strategy from the Coalition and finally wrong election messages.  

The challenges confronting the Liberal Democrats as they congregate in Bournemouth this weekend will be the greatest facing any party of what used to be termed the third force in British politics since 1970. Back then the Liberals only had six MPs, a 7.5% share of the vote and just 2.1 million people voting for the party.

When David Steel was leader the Liberals had 11 MPs after the October 1974 election, taking a 13.8% share of the vote with 4.3 million voting for the party. After thirty years and more of hard work the SDP/Liberal Alliance and then the Liberal Democrats had gone from 6 to 62 MPs, from around 1,500 Councillors to over 3,500, had 11 Euro MEPs and a membership of 100,000.

After May 2015 the party has only 8 MPs, having received 7% of the vote in the general election and with merely 2.1 million voting Liberal Democrat – very similar to 45 years ago. Forty eight seats were lost and 4.5 million voters turned their backs on us. Yet Nick Clegg in an interview after the election said ‘I haven’t destroyed the Liberal Democrats’, well maybe not but he came pretty close to it. No party in my lifetime has suffered such a calamitous and disastrous General Election result.

Presenting and maintaining a high profile at Westminster, as we have already discovered, will become increasingly difficult and with only eight MPs their absence from important debates will be noticed. Then some two-thirds of our party spokespeople reside in the Lords - rather incongruous for a party that bears a name like ours. 

Whereas it looked highly likely that Tim and his colleagues could make the running on issues such as welfare, housing, poverty, human rights, equality and democracy Jeremy Corbyns' Labour Party will seek to hijack those. Even on Europe he is already manoeuvering towards changing his position. Appointing someone to shadow Constitution Convention is more significant than has been yet realised.  I am sure it will be voting reform next because the TUC has opened the door this week at their conference in Brighton.

Thankfully there are early signs of recovery. Membership has increased some 15,000 since the general election and is approaching 65,000. Since the General Election the Liberal Democrats have won 19 local council elections with 10 of them gains from other parties. There have been a string of notable and encouraging local government by- election victories in areas such as Falmouth, Brecon, Lancing, Mole Valley, Richmond, Rother, Winsford, Wrexham and Pontypridd with good performances in a number of other areas such as Tunbridge Wells, West Oxford, Camborne and Maidstone. Significantly we've been gaining seats from the Conservatives, Labour and UKIP. However the party continues to be static at around 8 -10% in the UK opinion polls and it is that wider profile that will require addressing.. 

I am firmly of the view that the party can only move forward successfully by facing up to precisely what went wrong, why it happened and what are the lessons for the future? In essence let there be no cover up.

It will not serve Tim Farron nor the party and our members any good at all to sweep things under the carpet and allow matters to fester. This Saturday afternoon, if I have read the agenda correctly, there will be an opportunity to discuss why last May came about. That will be the appropriate time to discuss openly and in a constructive spirit the causes of the party’s disastrous performance. It is nowhere near acceptable enough for the Liberal Democrats to follow the former deputy Prime Minister's line, stating that we won’t apologise for the coalition years—explaining that we put ‘country before party’ and even suggesting that he would do the same again!

So let the debate on Saturday be something akin to a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ session to ‘clear the air’ and to allow all the negative feelings and disappointments to be laid to rest. Whether it will be about the issues that will be mentioned in this article, the manifesto, style of campaigning, the messages we were conveying to the electorate or whatever else. It will make for a cleaner and clearer break with the coalition years, facilitate a fresher start under Tim Farron’s leadership and enable us to return to being that party of fairness, equality, justice, compassion, reform and progress. A line will have been drawn in the sand.

Kirsty Williams the Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader has voiced her opinions on the coalition years and they are very well made. They are ones that I totally agree with. In summary she says:

‘We lost a colossal amount of trust over tuition fees.  Not only did we break our pledge … it’s worse than that, it never even looked like we fought to keep it…it was a mistake of the highest order and one for which we were never forgiven…Details no longer mattered, people simply stopped listening’.

‘The Tories, frankly, were better prepared back in 2010, constructed a more potent narrative, and were brilliant at assimilating Lib Dem policies and boxing us in. Critically, they owned the economic narrative and made the political weather. We got the grief when things went wrong and never the credit for the good stuff’.
‘Let us be in no doubt, although we were dealt a difficult hand, we could have handled it better. Obsessed with showing that coalition could work and that we could take ‘tough decisions’ we lost our own focus, our own identity, forgot to take ownership of our achievements until it was too late … From the Rose Garden on, we were swallowed up’. 
‘We appeared to the electorate to leap from a firm and hard fought anchorage in one part of UK politics to another without so much as a by-your-leave’
‘Saying that it was disorienting for those who had supported us when we formed the coalition with the Tories for five years is perhaps one of the great understatements of the last parliament. Sometimes, even from within, it felt like we were struggling to locate a compass to navigate our way through with our values unscathed’. 
It is difficult to argue with the points made above. On Saturday someone needs to explain what on earth went on and why didn’t the corporate body of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster and the various committees of the party put a stop to what was going on? Kirsty’s summary indicates to me that there was something radically wrong with the way the party was operating.
The outcome of the 2010 General Election presented the Liberal Democrats with a difficult decision and in the end it was a defining moment in the history of the Liberal Democrats. I concede that it was not one of Nick Clegg’s choosing, but it needed to be considered in the context of achieving the best outcome for the good of the Liberal Democrats in the longer-term. That had to be a key part of the equation. We all understood that the country was in a dire financial situation and that a government had to be formed, but it is my view that a more sensitive, sensible and astute leader would have turned always in the first instance for advice and guidance from his four predecessors. After all, David Steel had experience of a Lib/Lab pact in action during the late 1970s. 

Nick Clegg was very much a ‘new kid on the block’ in 2010 with only five years’ experience of Westminster politics. He became an MP in 2005 and leader in 2007, so surely his first port of call for advice should have been his four predecessors as well as more senior Liberal Democrat MPs'—many of whom had been in Parliament since the 1980's. It appears that this did not happen, which I find beyond any understanding—other than wondering whether there was an arrogant conviction present and a pre-determined mind set of the course he was about to embark upon.

Evidently the negotiating team set up to negotiate with the Tories and, then later, with Labour comprised younger and the newer MPs as well as advisers. That, to me, fits the scenario well as he most probably knew that he could dictate comfortably to them the desired outcome.
Again, Nick Clegg seemed to be in a hurry to come to an agreement and form a coalition government. His haste tends to reaffirm my view that he had firmed-up his position immediately after the election in favour of working with the Tories.

As a pure outsider, observing matters from a distance, I wonder whether his background, style and persona made him feel better suited to deal with the Cameron’s of this world? It is true that the media were rushing the agenda and pressing for an end to the uncertainty—which is always the way of the media circus—but he should have taken his time and been more considered.

My view is that the party was doomed from the outset of the coalition and most definitely well before half way through the coalition government period.
All the evidence points towards only one conclusion which is that after the 2010 General Election the only deal in town for the then Liberal Democrats leader was one with the Tories. He had made it clear several times before the election that in the event of a hung parliament he would talk first to whichever party held the largest number of seats—more often than not, at the time, the opinion polls were continually favouring the Tories as the likely largest party.
The long standing constitutional practice in our country of the incumbent Prime Minister being allowed to have the first opportunity of forming a government in the event of an inconclusive election result was for some reason put to one side. For those with a long memory that is precisely what happened in February 1974 when the incumbent Prime Minister Ted Heath lost by a few seats but yet was allowed to attempt to form a government by a seeking a coalition or working arrangement with Jeremy Thorpe and the Liberal Party whilst Harold Wilson remained patiently in the wings. Wilson had 301 MPs to Heath's 297 MPs and there were 14 Liberal MPs.
Therefore, was no-one advising Nick Clegg about our UK convention or was it a case that he just is not the listening type—and that his mind had already been made up about dealing with Labour?  Certainly it was not the case that Gordon Brown had no right to try and form a minority Labour government. David Steel has argued correctly that Clegg should have gone to see the incumbent PM firstly and explore seriously the possibility of a LibDem-Lab coalition. He explained that such a coalition would be ‘one more in tune with what the voters had understood of our consistent Liberal ideology under all six leaders since Jo Grimond. The arithmetic might still have prevented it, but he would have probably got a better deal out of Cameron’.

I genuinely fail to understand why Steel, Ashdown, Kennedy and Campbell, did not carry sway with Nick Clegg. In the immediate aftermath of the election, David Steel accepted his share of the blame and I find it quite staggering what he had to say—‘I really did not know Clegg and indeed recall having met him only once. Not very substantial excuses, I admit. So I take my share of blame.’

Liberal Democrat members invariably turn to the good things that were achieved in Government, including decisions affecting income tax thresholds and pension reforms etc. Unfortunately, those things got swallowed up in the hurly burly of coalition politics. It was clear that the Tories had a much better publicity machine. As Kirsty Williams points out ‘we took ownership of our achievements too late’. It really was too late to make an attempt at highlighting these achievements finally in the heat of a general election campaign. Again I return to the corporate responsibility of the MPs and Peers—where were the open ‘rows’ in Parliament to indicate unhappiness? More importantly to convey to the electorate that although we might be in coalition with the Tories, but that we remain different from them and can actually disagree publicly on many key issues!  It all appeared too cosy—and ultimately we paid a heavy price with significant consequences for the future.

Many political and tactical misjudgements were made. The timing of the AV referendum and the attempt at reforming the House of Lords were two of the most high profile. Electoral reform has been a long standing party aspiration but AV was certainly not party policy. A referendum should have been delayed, not only until a proper policy had been agreed, but until a more opportune time presented—not arranged in the midst of an economic crisis with austerity measures in full flow. It all made no sense and the level of mismanagement is truly mind boggling. This was followed by the House of Lords reform bill which ignored the party’s long standing policy on the matter and, just like the AV referendum, was always destined to fail as it eventually did. 

The real fiasco involved student fees which meant that Nick Clegg and the party lost credibility with one fell swoop very early in the life of the coalition government. From then on, the leader was damaged goods and it soon became obvious to me that there would be no way back at the next general election. A coalition with the Tories was bad enough, but the leader’s betrayal of the students meant that whatever achievements the party secured in government would not be sufficient to overcome the main perception that Nick Clegg was not a man to be trusted.
Again as David Steel pointed out in his post-election analysis—‘at a stroke, we had lost trust as a party, one of the few tangible assets we had especially after the Kennedy/Campbell decision to oppose the invasion of Iraq. The pledge was not just only in our manifesto but every candidate, including Clegg, had campaigned vigorously on the issue’.

Lately an issue has arisen that was reported on around September 10th that the former Deputy Prime Minister was offered a ‘pass’ on a rise in tuition fees by George Osborne in view of its sensitive and crucial importance to the Liberal Democrats but he apparently turned the offer down. It is claimed that in his heart he did not agree with the party’s policy as stated in the election manifesto. That account has also been confirmed to me by a source that had that very same said to him by Clegg in 2012. This story has been on Facebook and Twitter and I asked openly for him to disown that assertion but hitherto nothing has been forthcoming. If true it was a despicable act. The party has a right to learn the truth because the heart and soul of our movement was not his to play with around with. 

How often have politicians heard voters say to them that ‘you are all the same’ and also ‘you all say one thing in opposition and do something different in government’. So along came an inexperienced Westminster political leader—glibly casting that sort of ‘feedback’ aside—promptly breaking a very public and solemn promise. Well we certainly discovered what happens to leaders and parties that espouse such a highly publicised and solemn promise during an election campaign and then, very soon after in government, do the opposite.

Late on Nick Clegg apparently offered to resign and Paddy Ashdown said that Nick was in the ‘darkest of the dark nights of the soul’. I don’t find that surprising at all. What was surprising was that the Parliamentary Party did not accept his resignation. He was damaged goods. It was of little use a senior Liberal Democrats just telling him ‘ you don’t have the luxury – this is your burden ‘ or let’s ‘stick with the captain who has done nothing to deserve this’ Really ‘done nothing’? To me the insightful revelation came when Paddy Ashdown saying how it was ‘astonishing the speed from which he (Nick) moved from the darkest hour of the dark nights to utterly on form’. That doesn’t surprise me either.  
Before concluding I have to turn to the Nigel Farage fiasco and the matter of Nick Clegg’s mind-set and judgement over holding a television debate on Europe. This was an ill-thought-out strategy and one that held no clear advantage to the deputy Prime Minister. I repeat the misgivings I always have had over the leader’s judgement and leadership in political matters. I can only assume that he must have concluded that this was going to be his road back to popularity and maybe even ‘forgiveness’ from the electorate for what he had done in 2010. But firstly, the debates were going to be on the  wrong topics—Europe and immigration. The opinion polls should have alerted him to the dangers he faced on these issues. From that moment on the deputy Prime Minister, his party cabinet colleagues, ministers in the Government and MPs were viewed as being on the same level as the leader of a party that then had no Members of Parliament. Once again I return to the matter of corporate responsibility. Was there not someone older, wiser and more experienced around to put a stop to this fiasco?

Gareth Epps a member of two party Federal Committees wrote towards the end of June a very revealing account of the coalition years and as an insider he probably knew a lot about what went on. This quote is sufficient for me to understand exactly and it coheres with my suspicions about the former leader ‘the party’s internal apparatus failed or was not allowed to do its job to hold leaders to account.  From 2011-14 Nick Clegg attended the Federal Policy Committee only once, suggesting as he has said since that he did not hold this body with very much respect.  Party secrecy rules were ramped up so members of Federal Committees, elected by the party, were forbidden from communicating what they were doing or even discussing’. 

So it wasn’t just the parliamentary party that was dysfunctional from very early on in the five year period. Most crucially, no one had figured out an exit-strategy—carrying on in coalition until the end of Parliament was suicidal. We should have walked out of Government some 12 months before the election and let the Tories govern as a minority government. We needed time to re-establish our identity and try to recoup some trust and support. It could have been planned and orchestrated over a period of months with ministers resigning and Members of Parliament openly rebelling—with Peers and the Federal Executive and Policy committees playing their part as well.

It was obvious that something drastic had to happen for the Liberal Democrats to have any hope of avoiding decimation at the general election. There was no need to apply rocket science to that conclusion - opinion polls local government elections and the Euro election of 2014 had been flashing the warning signals for years. It would have been perfectly feasible to have sold to the public that after some three and a half years of doing our duty towards the country and that we had seen it through the worst times we were now going to return to our true radical tradition. What troubles me is that when I was at Westminster last week attending a meeting on voting reform I was told by two Conservatives members that they had been giving the very same such advice to Clegg. So what was holding him back? Was it the allure of being deputy Prime Minister? Until the end.

That the party has sufficient resilience and determination to fightback and renew itself is in no doubt but it will take time. This ‘politics of fear’ demeans the body politic. It is an issue that is clear Tim Farron will address head on. The party must stand up for the less well off in society as well as those who cannot help or care for themselves. Clearly show that we are on the side of those desperately trying to get onto the ladder of success and gain a modicum of prosperity whether unemployed through no fault of their own, a student, low wage earner or a public service worker who is being asked to accept a 1% annual pay rise for another four years.

Then, of course, there are the big issues over Britain’s future in Europe, the replacing Trident, our role in the world, a range of environmental and humanitarian matters and the ever widening spectre of international conflicts. In all these, the new leader will need to be radical and not afraid to tell people that Britain is nowhere near being a world power any longer and that we should stop pretending. The ever increasing reality is that the world is dominated by the USA, China and, to some extent, Russia, with Brazil, India and others quickly following behind. Of course, Germany is hugely influential in the European context. At best we are a middle ranking world power—lacking real military might and now international influence. In short, we are a European power and that is where our destiny lies—unless of course you fancy just being an isolated island in the Atlantic, as UKIP and the right wing of the Tories dream.

Remarkably Jeremy Corbyn has arrived on the scene as Labour's leader and we will be well advised not to underestimate the threat his style of politics poses the Liberal Democrats. His first poll ratings may not look clever but there are major challenges ahead for us and soon in Scotland and Wales.  

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Corbyn is Changing Politics Before our very eyes

No more will we hear  ‘your all the same’: ‘dress alike’ : ‘behave alike’

Prime Minister's Question (PMQ) time was certainly very different as Jeremy Corbyn said it would be. His opening statement was brilliant he laid down the ground rules of he proposed to proceed to ensure that rational debate and discussions should be held at question time rather than yaboo politics. Cameron was clearly taken aback and had to agree with Corbyn even saying it had been his desire for a long time for those type of PMQ.

I was in the Commons in the 1970s and from then till now PMQs has been a free for all in essence a stand up fight between two gladiators with the crowd behind on either side baying for blood! People thought with the televising of Parliament things would be better in fact it got worse decade after decade.

So here was probably the most rational, reasonable and orderly PMQ time in recorded history. The Speaker did not have to intervene once in fact it was like being in church or chapel. Watching on television I could see the expressions on the faces of Conservative MPs' they just could not work out what was going on.

Cameron kept his cool fair play for some ten minutes but the question from the leader of the SNP finally cracked him and the old Cameron was back in action. But the response to him was classic just asking what had happened to his earlier desire for orderly debate. Cameron was quickly brought to heel. Corbyn has established some ground rules mind it’s another question whether they will survive the baying hordes once they realise that he is limiting their entertainment.

The only advice I would give Jeremy Corbyn is that if he is allowed six questions then he just uses three questions from members of the public and follow up Cameron’s answers to each one with his own rebuttal or response. The general public, backbench MPs' and his supporters in the country will want to hear more from him.

I was watching the BBC2 Daily Politics show before question time and out came all the negatives. After the event the opinions mellowed a bit because Corbyn had taken them aback by his composure. However no doubt other sections of the media will see what took place quite differently and will say some unkind things I have no doubt about that. Corbyn is changing the ground rules in relation to them as well. They always like the gladiators’ show, the rows and controversy – it’s the stuff of publicity. Makes television more interesting from their point of view.

I have a view that the BBC and other television outlets have not been balanced in their reporting of Corbyn. There always seem to be negative remarks, innuendos and trying to catch him at awkward moments. Even being referred to as the ' left wing Leader of the Opposition'.  Alright the description is correct but balance it with the 'right wing Prime Minister'   

The media will be relentless I'm afraid. That is why they have gone on about his dress code – well he surprised them there too today he looked the part. But no dark suites or pin stripe ones. He is not going to dress the same as so many leaders of the past. 

In the media’s desperation to pin something on him which will be a daily sport for quite a while I fear this morning was about not singing ‘God Save the Queen’. Well I am not sure it needed the front pages that it got. I don’t think I have ever sung it. I have my own National Anthem which is ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’/’Land of my Fathers’. There are four nations in the UK and I bet quite a few millions have never sung ‘God Save the Queen’.

In any case my view is that England should start thinking of an anthem that glorifies their nation and people not a person. It is a song of adulation of the Queen and whilst some may see it as somehow representative of the sacrifice made by servicemen it doesn't follow that everyone sees it as such. Because where in the anthem does it mention anything about those that fought and lost their lives in the battle of Britain?. The Tories must take care not to politicise the anthem either.

But be that as it may my advice to Jeremy Corbyn is just sing it in future if that will keep the media happy. Small point at the end of the day – how pathetic is it all becoming.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

The year the Political and Governing Establishments finally cracked

Corbyn will surprise everyone including the media and Cameron – he’s not going to be a pushover
What a 12 months it has been. The Westminster establishment and the political parties have been shaken to the core, business as usual and normality will never return. First came the result of the Scottish Independence referendum and the strength of the ‘Yes’ vote. Fearing a possible victory for the ‘yes’ campaign panic descended upon the Westminster party establishment. Hence in the last few days of the campaign the three party leaders – Cameron, Miliband and Clegg promised what was more or less ‘home rule’ to Scotland. By today only Cameron of the three leaders remains in office and he is currently wriggling for all he’s worth on the commitment that was made back then. Therein lies the seeds of a continuing threat to the survival of the Union and in addition the proposals for English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) only add to this bubbling cauldron.
This was followed by annihilation of Labour in Scotland at the General Election with the SNP winning 56 out of the 59 Westminster seats. Their arrival in the Commons has certainly woken the place up and as a group of people they have already made a considerable impact and there will be much more to come from them in the coming year. I have met a handful of their MPs and I am impressed by their confidence, skill and determination. They have a clear sense of purpose and a vision of why they have been sent in their dozens by the Scottish people to Westminster. There’s been a bit of a lull over the summer break and not much has been heard from the SNP but don’t be fooled by their relative silence. .
At the same May General Election the Liberal Democrats came close to being wiped out losing 48 MPs and their vote declined by 4.5 million.  After the debacle the party circulated a detailed and lengthy questionnaire for members to complete as to what happened last May and why. Indeed it is to be discussed at the party conference in Bournemouth this coming Saturday,
My response was quite brief because it was a clear to me by 2012 what would occur come the election in 2015. Throughout the years the party lost around 2,000 councillors, and even at the 2014 European Parliament elections it lost 10 of its 11 Euro MPs. Going into coalition with the Tories baffled many who had voted for the party in 2010 and in fact more or less from that moment millions of them deserted the party as opinion polls showed throughout the years of the coalition.  Then came with it the student fees betrayal and Clegg was doomed from that very moment. Credibility and trust had gone – never to return.
In earlier blogs I have outlined the series of poor miscalculations that took place including those on voting reform and the reform of the House of Lords both key and long standing Liberal Democrat issues. Unbelievable that Clegg presented proposals that were not even Liberal Democrat policies. However the final nail in the coffin was that an exit strategy from the coalition had not been put in place some nine to twelve months before the General Election.  
After the SNP in Scotland the next winners of the May election was UKIP not in parliamentary representation but in their level of support in the country – 4 million. If any party should be campaigning hard now for electoral reform it has to be them. Trouble is Farage is obsessed with Europe and immigration. At the election UKIP ended up being the third largest party in England and Wales and hurting Labour quite badly in some of its heartland areas in England and most worryingly for Labour and Plaid Cymru even in the South Wales Valleys.  There were several seats in South Wales where they came a strong second - a party that is essentially English in character breaking through in Wales’s heartlands!
Within twenty four hours Miliband and Clegg had resigned as their respective party’s leaders. Miliband was visibly shell shocked and Clegg, whatever gloss is put on it, looked a broken man and had indeed lost pretty much everything. I know he has his group of loyal supporters inside the party but quite honestly for the good of the Liberal Democrats he is best forgotten. Notice how the Labour Party hardly mention Ed’s name well the Liberal Democrats need to do the same regarding Nick.
So the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats set about choosing new leaders. There was a very good leadership campaign between Farron and Lamb and the former deservedly won through. Over the summer the party also benefited from a substantial surge in membership. Tim is ideally suited to lead the party to where the Liberal Democrats need to go which is to quickly return to its progressive, reforming and radical inheritance. No more talk of the soft, middle and centre ground that was so much a feature of the Clegg years.   
The Labour party leadership campaign has been something else. Firstly Miliband left the party with a new voting system that would widen democracy inside the party and indeed resulted in some 600,000 people being able to participate in the election of the party leader. That in itself was a major change to the way the party leader was to be chosen, even bigger than Blair’s ending of the Trade Union block vote. However I think Miliband’s reform was the correct one because enhancing people’s participation in the democratic process is a positive and necessary happening for all parties.
I doubt if the description ‘historical’ is sufficient to begin to describe the outcome of and the impact a Jeremy Corbyn victory has already made. It is monumental in its consequences for the Labour Party and certainly life changing for Corbyn himself. I don’t think in his wildest dreams he ever thought he would end up one day being Leader of the Labour party and so did no one else – certainly not Mandelson, Kinnock, Blair and Brown.
I think it was Andy Burnham who ‘lent’ some of his MP supporters to Corbyn to enable the latter to even get on to the ballot paper in the first place. Party grandees clearly thought that it would be a good idea to have all ‘wings’ of the party on the ballot so as to give the membership as wide a choice as was possible to choose from. Of course the thinking was that Corbyn would be way down at the bottom of the poll so he was not going to be much of a problem!  What is more it would show how weak was the support for the ‘hard left’ inside the party. Even the bookies agreed with that thinking for when the betting opened Corbyn was at 500-1 some people I reckon put speculative bets on because quickly the odds rapidly dropped throughout the campaign.
Corbyn’s landslide victory has devastated the ruling Labour Party grandees and establishment. All the dire warnings they issued during the campaign of the consequences for the party of a Corbyn victory probably made matters much worse for Andy, Yvette and Liz. Just as in the Scottish referendum the right wing press joined in the scare mongering and they also hounded Corbyn and his family. In fact everything but the ‘kitchen sink’ was thrown in his direction.
It is indeed quite remarkable that the man who was seen by the powerful ruling classes as having little hope, someone with ‘unsafe’ views, that had kept company with ‘dangerous’ people, had been thought to have supported ‘extreme’ movements and was in their eyes a bit of a joke broke has smashed all the political conventions.
I have commented in detail on the reasons in earlier blogs but in essence after 30 years and more of compromise politics the grassroots that had been kept squashed by Kinnock and kept at bay in the Blair and Brown years had reached the end of the road. They really had tolerated enough and with a much greater democratic voting system rate it was never going to be ‘same old same old’ this time.
The Labour Party has always been a very broad coalition of views and has only been able to be kept together through compromise politics. Since the days of the SDP and Mrs Thatcher the centre/right held sway and eventually came the ‘New Labour’ project. Well after last Saturday all that is no more and what is quite astounding is the realisation that it only took a few minutes to kill off New Labour.
All the talk that went on over the weekend about the consequences of senior people not willing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, that Labour Members of Parliament will rebel and that indeed he won’t be leader for long is frankly now immaterial. Just imagine what would happen to a Labour MP brave enough to go back to his or her constituency soon and say ‘I am going to campaign to topple Corbyn’
Jeremy Corbyn has been given a democratic and popular mandate to lead that no other leader has ever been given and that has provided him with almost total authority within the party. But he will exercise that power in a subtle, clever and inclusive way. He has had plenty of time to mellow and also has had to accept many times over defeat and rebuttal so he will not be fazed by setbacks and opposition. He will not deal with such matters in conventional ways.  
Yes a few notables have refused to serve under his leadership but as I keep on saying ‘the graveyard of British politics is full of indispensable people’. Within hours  MPs’ that did not vote for him and indeed who warned of the dangers of a Corbyn victory such as the Shadow Welsh Secretary and Rhondda’s Chris Bryant are now on board. Surprisingly Wales’s First Minister has also uttered favourable comments.
The way Jeremy Corbyn has built his Shadow Cabinet says a lot about him and his close advisers. Firstly he has had plenty of time to think about the appointments since given the scale of the victory he must have known for at least a couple of weeks what was likely to happen.
His shadow cabinet contains plenty of able people from across the wide spectrum of opinions within the party and it is worth recording that it is the the first time that a shadow cabinet has more women than men. Not only did he have time to decide who to choose but also but also the portfolios they have been given. Five stand out firstly a Woman First Secretary of State reminiscent of when Barbara Castle held such a role when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, Chris Bryant as Leader of the House, Lord Falconer as Shadow Justice Secretary, a Shadow Minister for Mental Health and finally the appointment to shadow Constitutional Convention. The latter is a significant and far seeing appointment and I welcome it wholeheartedly.  
Shadow cabinet meetingOf course there are going to be hurdles along the way for Corbyn. There will be a hostile press and media because he will refuse to play it by their rules of the last fifty years and their attacks on him will be remorseless. He will continue to disturb all the norms and conventions of Westminster politics. Then issues such as Europe, the replacement of Trident, EVEL and the economic policy he and John McDonell will pursue will loom large over the coming months. Also he will have to be able to face up to Cameron but my hunch is he will have a few surprises up his sleeve on that one. Remember Jeremy Corbyn has been around a long time and he is certainly battle–hardened to have survived so long in New Labour for a start.
Without doubt in the short term he is a potential threat to four parties. Corbyn will speak the same language as Tim Farron on a number of social justice, fairness, human rights and welfare issues. He will be a threat to Plaid Cymru’s support in the South Wales Valleys; to UKIP also because many of the disgruntled and disaffected former Labour voters will return to the fold and that could well go for maybe Scotland too.
Only time will tell of course but the 2016 elections in Scotland and Wales will be Corbyn’s real test and an indicator as to how long he will remain Labour leader. Mind with such overwhelming grassroots support it is difficult to see how he can be replaced unless of course the Labour Party will have another 1981 moment.

Improving on Labour’s past performance and doing better in those 2016 elections will be his initial goal. He is certainly not to be taken lightly and Liberal Democrat politicians will do well not to over attack him as some have in recent days. The party lost over 4.5 million voters at the General Election we will be in a contest to win them back that is for sure.