Saturday, 25 May 2013

Campaigning on the economy

Yesterday I received an email from Lib Dem HQ encouraging me to participate in a forthcoming national ‘campaign’* centred on jobs.    
Putting aside the question of how effective the Liberal Democrats in government are when it comes to employment, this prompted three thoughts:
1) In campaigning terms: this seems the wrong way around.  Liberal Democrats are doing (relatively) well in areas with strong local networks and personalities: that is what is sustaining support for the party nationally, rather than national messages supporting local networks.  So this feels like an attempt to hijack local networks, rather than empower them.
2) In liberal terms: a campaign about the economy that centres on national government doing things for localities seems odd.  There isn’t anything in the campaign materials about how local government (or businesses or civil society) can do things for themselves.   Which is strange because Liberal Democrats such as David Boyle have lots of really interesting things to say on the subject.
3) If the national party wants activists for a nationally-directed campaign on the economy, Spring Conference should have been allowed to debate the economy
So I’m puzzled by how the national party thinks this campaign will inspire liberals, let alone anyone else.
In contrast, plenty of people in the area where I live are motivated by a local (non-party-political) economic campaign.  This is in support of the Covered Market in Oxford.  Very briefly, this is a retail area whose tenants are mainly local businesses. The Labour-run City Council want to massively increase rents: they don’t realise or don’t care that this will simply result in local businesses being replaced by anonymous national chains (who will provide less satisfactory employment, and suck money out of the local economy, they may not even manage to pay their taxes).  The Council does have a challenge to balance the books, but don’t seem to be able to think creatively about supporting local retail businesses at all.  There is an element of ‘save this/save that’ to the campaign, but it is also articulating the value of local businesses, and catching a general mood of dissatisfaction with national retail chains – in other words a clear link between the local and the national.  This is the sort of economic campaign that liberal-minded people can get excited by.

*If a data gathering exercise with publicity stunts can really be called a campaign.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Resignation round-up 3

1) The Resignation log doesn’t include defections to the Labour party, but here are three recent examples: Andrew Duffield (Hexham cllr and parliamentary candidate);  Elizabeth Shenton (Staffordshire cllr, and parliamentary candidate in the 2008 Crewe and Nantwich by-election); and Rosie Jolly (Liverpool cllr).
They all offer fairly standard explanations. They criticise the national Liberal Democrats for the government’s failures in social justice and public services. Since 2010 many other Lib Dem-to-Labour defectors have made similar points.  That isn’t to belittle them.  On the economy, the NHS and social welfare, Lib Dems in government and parliament have certainly supported some unjust and ineffective measures, even within the narrow room for manoeuvre of a coalition. (And of course Lib Dem members haven’t been shy in saying so.)

But while I understand why people might leave the party on this basis, I’m bemused that they should switch to Labour.  The Labour Party hasn’t offered any distinctive alternatives, hasn’t even committed to reversing many of the measures they claim to reject.  And the Labour government was hardly just or sensible, or even very distinct from the Conservatives – especially with the Private Finance Initiative, their support for the house price bubble, and for the financial sector’s irresponsibility.  All this is even before we get on to wider issues: the Labour Party remains centralising and managerial, with a good dose of authoritarianism.  How can someone who’s been involved in the Liberal Democrats overcome these worries?
I’d like to understand rather than condemn, partly because I try to be a generous soul, but also because I don’t want to underestimate our opponents.

So, why might anyone move from the Lib Dems to Labour?

Ambition? Elizabeth Shenton acknowledges that she has national political ambitions, and Rosie Jolly had been deselected as a Lib Dem candidate, but I suppose will remain a councillor with Labour.  Ambition is a standard accusation against political defectors.  But (as someone who has no political ambitions myself) I don’t think it really works.  Ambition is an essential part of democratic political culture.  I’m glad that some liberals have personal political ambitions, or we’d have no councillors, MPs or MEPs.  Of course ambition on its own isn’t enough, it can always slide into selfishness or egoism.  But I can’t see it as a reason for condemning or dismissing defectors. 

The value of party politics? Perhaps it is better to be in a national party than none at all.  I’m sympathetic to this.  Not being a member of a major party can seem like ‘opting out’ of serious political participation.  It is all too easy to be right all the time, and cultivate a sense of smug moral superiority, if one isn’t part of a national political project.  Similar criticisms can be made of joining a tiny group such as the Liberal Party or National Health Action.  But even here, the Green Party seems much more satisfactory than Labour for someone with liberal instincts.  (Not that I advocate joining them, by the way, as I’ve explained before!)   

Being part of a club?  Politics isn’t just about national positions, especially for local councillors.  It can good to be part of a local club, and being a lone independent councillor must be pretty isolating, especially for someone elected in a party campaign.  If Labour offers the most welcolming club on the council, that must be a temptation.  Lib Dems have certainly benefitted from this over the years, too.    

Either/or culture?  Labour and the Tories define themselves by not being each other.  Many people in Britain define their politics as anti-Tory before anything else.  This politics of anger seems rooted in popular culture as much as specific policies or philosophy. (I’ve devoted more energy than most to defeating Conservative election candidates, but still don’t really get it.)  Liberals have done a lot to challenge either/or political attitudes, but perhaps defectors to Labour have been sucked into it.  It seems a pity they don’t have more confidence in being liberals, but then they’ve not been helped by our national leadership –  not only policy decisions since 2010, but in the failure to cultivate a core constituency for the Liberal Democrats (as Simon Titley and others have said for a long time).  

Hmmm… so perhaps joining Labour shows a certain lack of imagination in a former Liberal Democrat, but I’m still puzzled…

2) Fred Carver (a former Camden councillor) has also resigned from the Lib Dems, although may continue to vote for us.  He explains on his blog:
So I suppose this is my letter of resignation from the Liberal Democrats. It is not really. I’ve read a fair few letters of resignation from Lib Dems over the last few years and artistically they have been disappointing…’

He doesn’t disappoint at all, in an insightful and very funny analysis of the Liberal Democrats’ culture, and British political life more generally.  Some of it might seem rather too close to the bone (‘Fact: most normal people don’t know what a Riso is. Most Liberal Democrats have a thorough understanding of how to maintain and repair an RA4200’). It’s already received a lot of attention among Lib Dem blogs, but worth having a look if you haven’t already.  My one observation, though, is that it is a little London-centric.  For him Brent East may be part of the founding myth, but down my way Newbury still has a certain resonance…

3)  For consistency’s sake I should also note a new member of the Liberal Democrats: Aberdeenshire councillor Fergus Hood has joined from the SNP.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Liberals & civil society 2

Launching a civil society initiative on local election day might not be the best way to grab the attention of the party political, so I thought I’d mention the Fair Deal for Your Local campaign by CAMRA and other groups.
This is essentially an opportunity to contribute to the government’s consultation on Pubco reform (filling in the online survey doesn’t take long at all); although there are also other elements to the campaign – yesterday there was a demonstration yesterday outside a pub in Witney where the landlord is threatened with eviction.

Pubs at their best are based on face-to-face local communities, where commercial transactions are embedded in a wider social framework.*  However, the big Pubcos have consistently undermined this, taking an unfair slice of their licencees’ revenues by their arrangements for selling beer, and the rents they charge.
The Pubcos rely on an uneven distribution of profits between the local productive economy (pub landlords and their staff) and an anonymous exploitative financial sector – so they encapsulates many of the wider problems of our economy and society.

I find this a refreshing campaign (in every sense), because it goes beyond a reactive demand to ‘Save this’ or ‘Defend that!’, and make some practical proposals:
“We support the principle that a tied licensee should be no worse off than a free-of-tie licensee, join us in calling for:

 Market Rent Only (free of tie option) and Guest Beer Options for licensees of large Pubcos

 A powerful Code and Adjudicator to monitor large Pubcos and end abuses

The fundamental problem is that the large pub companies are taking more than is reasonable from the profits of each pub. A fair deal will result in the average tied pub being £4,000 better off annually.”
The campaign isn’t party political, but it has a liberal feel to it.  The government’s consultation itself is a result of Lib Dem influence.  And it is worth noting  two of the liberals  involved in the campaign: Greg Mulholland MP (Chair of the Parliamentary Save the Pub Group) and Gareth Epps (who is also Co-Chair of the Social Liberal Forum).

Click here to fill in the government’s consultation, it only takes a few minutes.

*Rather than the social sphere being subordinated to the financial, as market fundamentalists prefer, or the commercial being regarded as inherently alien to the social, as many on the left would have it.

Friday, 3 May 2013

I can't resist adding...

I can’t resist adding that I was delighted to help re-elect my councillor Jean Fooks, and to run the committee room for Roz Smith (against a strong Labour campaign), and that the splendid Neil Fawcett and John Howson have been elected to Oxfordshire County Council, too.  But I realise that many good councillors have lost their seats today, through no fault of their own. Perhaps our new slogan should be ‘Where we work (and the national leadership doesn’t undermine us) we win’?

Nick Clegg’s suggestion that this is somehow an inevitable result of a process of maturing towards being a ‘party of government’ is unpersuasive, and makes me worry that he really doesn’t mind the party’s base being damaged.

How did the ex-Lib Dems do?

In the cascade of local election analysis, here are some initial results from candidates who have left the Liberal Democrats since 2010.  (But, as usual, I’m not concerned with those who’ve joined Labour or the Tories).* 

Green Party Allan Weeks lost his seat on Hampshire County Council to UKIP (he came third, the Liberal Democrats were fourth); while Clive Smith lost  his seat on Worcestershire County Council to the Tories (he came third, the Lib Dems were fifth).   
In general, the poor Green showing is notable: only 22 councillors were elected nationally, a gain of 5.  Even their share of the vote is not being picked up on national projections, and as of this morning it seemed their average vote was down 3% to 7% in seats where they stood.  I find it puzzling that they have not been able to attract many more former Lib Dems (amongst others).  After all, UKIP show that ‘outsider’ parties can do well…  It may be of some solace to the Greens that by growing networks slowly they won’t be as fractious as UKIP is (and I’m sure will continue to be), but they should still be doing much better.

Independents: Stuart Parsons, (Independent, Save the Friarage) was elected for Richmond, North Yorks.  He wasn’t standing against a Liberal Democrat opponent.  Derek Giles and Steven van der Kerkhove were elected to a two-member division in Cambridgeshire (beating Tories, UKIP, Lab, Lib Dem, Green, in that order).
Mebyon Kernow: Derek Collins was elected to his town council, but came in third place for St Austell Poltair on Cornwall Council, which Jackie Bull won for the Liberal Democrats(!). Former County Councillor Tamsin Williams, who moved from the Lib Dems to MK in September 2012, did not seek to defend her seat.

Liberal Party: I’ve not seen any post-2010 Lib Dems standing for the Liberal Party, so haven’t looked systematically for their results (although I notice Fran Oborski was elected to Worcestershire County Council, and they secured two seats in North Yorks).  But there continues to be no sign that the party is moving beyond its scattered cores, or offering an attractive home for any but a handful of former Liberal Democrats.
* This is bound to be incomplete.  Add a comment to tell me about more!



Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Not the local elections

I’m fortunate to live in an area with a strong Liberal Democrat presence so (although I’ve not had a lot of time), I can have the satisfaction of helping some splendid county council candidates with a serious chance of getting (re-)elected.  
But for many thousands of party members this isn’t possible.  They live in areas where we have little or no chance of retaining or winning seats this time around, still less of having a major say in the council chamber.   And this year more members than ever won’t even have the opportunity to cast a vote for a Liberal Democrat candidate.   All credit to our candidates and activists battling away against the odds.  Even being a paper candidate, getting the nomination papers signed in an unhopeful ward, flies a little flag for liberalism (and for democratic politics in general).  But this can’t be very satisfying in itself.
Partly this encapsulates a general feature of British politics: as the Electoral Reform Society’s Rotten Boroughs campaign shows (and Strange Thoughts provides a case study).  ERS’s policy solution – extending STV for local government from Scotland to England and Wales – is clearly sensible, but it doesn’t answer the immediate question for the Liberal Democrats.

Connect offers only a limited response: one can help with telephone canvassing anywhere.  But this doesn’t provide the satisfaction of participating in the life of the community where one lives (and I suspect is really appealing only to fairly experienced campaigners).  There are some very good national party groups/campaigns (such as Liberal Democrats Against Secret Courts), but again these offer something different to engaging in a local project.

If party membership doesn’t offer a tangible way to participate in the local community, and the national leadership is relentlessly disappointing, then what is a liberal to do?  Perhaps the answer is not to centre local party activity on elections.  (Of course this isn’t anything new: as Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman put it in The Theory and Practice of Community Politics, ‘If elections and the holding of elected office become the sole or even the major part of our politics we will have become corrupted by the very system of government and administration that community politics sets out to challenge.’)

There are dangers here, though.  I’m not advocating encroaching on the non-party-political nature of civil society groups.  I’ve seen Labour and the Greens and leftist sects try to hijack local organisations, and it isn’t pretty.  The Liberal Democrats I’ve known have been scrupulous in avoiding this, but that re-opens the question of why a liberal should be involved in the party at all, rather than an active local civil society group. 

Another danger is the limitation of ‘Save our X’ campaigns.  These might be worthwhile in particular circumstances, but ultimately are purely reactive, part of the politics of anger rather than the politics of cheerfulness.  (Although sometimes they can generate more positive projects, as with Suffolk libraries).

What a local Liberal Democrat non-electoral project might look like would depend on individual circumstances.  A fairly common but very modest example is having a party presence at a Pride event.  Another possibility: there are plenty of party members who are school governors.  It would certainly be undesirable to make parent governor elections party political, but perhaps Liberal Democrat governors in given city or constituency might meet a couple of times a year (with any other interested party member, including school pupils!) to think about their tasks in liberal terms? Something beyond a ‘pizza and politics’ event on schools, which also entailed practical action.  I’d certainly be interested in going along to something like that.  But then I suppose then I should I try to organise it myself…


Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Resignation round-up 2

1) Francesca Montemaggi, former Cardiff councillor and blogger, has resigned.  The last straw for her was Nick Clegg’s recent anti-immigration rhetoric, although she is unhappy about a range of other issues, too.  For her, ‘The Liberal Democrats have failed to be the voice of liberalism.’  I’ve added her thoughtful blog to the list; she also contributes to Open Democracy.
I wonder if in retrospect this resignation, together with those left over the secret courts bill, will seem to be a watershed.   Earlier resignations have centred on ‘social justice’ (university fees, the NHS, welfare etc).  These resignations centre on much more distinctively liberal – and Liberal Democrat – strengths.  If the national leadership is alienating members over the administration of justice and attitudes toward immigration, then what are ‘core’ issues are left for them to rally the party around?

Two members with resonant names in twentieth-century liberal politics have also resigned:

2) Susan Penhaligon (via Liberal England), actress and cousin of David Penhaligon, has resigned from the Liberal Democrats, and endorsed a Mebyon Kernow local election candidate in Penzance.  Like many others, her concerns include the NHS and the ‘bedroom tax’. (I’ll return to MK in a future post). 

3) Lady Russell-Johnston, the widow of Russell Johnston, has also resigned, after joining the party in 1964.  Russell Johnston was MP for Inverness (in various permutations of constituency name) between 1964 and 1997, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats (1988-1992), and clearly an inspiring and sympathetic figure to many good liberals.  (I’ve enjoyed reading some things by him, although am too young to have been inspired at the time…).

This resignation is rather different from the norm.  Lady Russell-Johnston opposes Liberal Democrat support for equal marriage, which conflicts with her Christian understanding of the term.  Like almost every member of the party I know (including Christians from various denominations), I’m delighted by our role in this legislation, and by the changing cultural attitudes which have made it possible.  Liberalism isn’t static, and Lady Russell-Johnston is now outside the liberal consensus, so – although I don’t want to sound vindictive – I’d rather that she does resign if this issue is fundamental to her politics.  But support for equal marriage won’t be nearly enough – politically or intellectually – to stop the continued stream of departures from the Liberal Democrats over other issues.