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.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The politics of cheerfulness

I like to think that cheerfulness is a virtue: not only an emotional response to pleasant circumstances, but part of the disposition of someone willing to try to make a positive contribution to the world, even when times are hard.  As a character in Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass puts it, ‘We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we’ve got to study and think and work hard…’. 

Since the formation of the Coalition, and especially this week, I’ve been struck by how powerful the politics of anger is, across the political spectrum.  So many people in Britain seem to define their politics in terms of what they are against, rather than what they are for.  (And I should admit to having delivered thousands of leaflets over the years including messages such as ‘only x can beat y here’.  I probably wrote some of them, too…).  Yet political anger is too prone to become dissipated. For instance, reversing most of Margaret Thatcher’s more contentious policies just isn’t on the agenda.  That isn’t a good thing, but suggests that passionate anger can all too easily become steam rather than heat.  (A tangible attempt to challenge this is Don’t Hate Donate).
One of the attractive things about liberals, as opposed to much of the contemporary ‘consumer left’ (who hate Thatcher, hate Blair, hate Bush, hate Clegg etc etc),* is that on the whole I think our disposition revolves around some positives; valuing things such as liberty, mutuality, locality and diversity, rather than being defined by what we don’t like.  The labels ‘left’ and ‘right’ require their opposites for definition, but liberalism is more self-sufficient.
Of course I don’t claim that cheerfulness is exclusively liberal, nor that liberals agree on the nature of our values.  Really this is just a rather long-winded way of saying that I’ve added a ‘Reasons to stay’ (in the Liberal Democrats) box at the top of the blog.

* To tamper a little with the inspired Word of Monty Python’s Life of Brian...

Reg: Listen. If you wanted to join the P.F.J., you'd have to really hate the Romans.

Brian: I do!

Reg: Oh, yeah? How much?

Brian: A lot!

Reg: Right. You're in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Liberal Democrats.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Resignation round-up 1

This will be an occasional feature to keep track of resignations. See the Resignation log above for an attempt at a fuller list of statements, although it doesn't include defections to Labour or the Tories.  (Email to let me know about anyone who is missing!)

1) Greg Foxsmith, Islington councillor and lawyer, is yet another loss over the Secret Courts issue.  He becomes an independent councillor.  His statement encapsulates how the national party so often undermines local networks:
"I am acutely aware that the local party in Islington are united in not supporting the 'Justice and Security' Bill. I recall excellent Conference speeches from Bridget Fox and our MEP Sarah Ludford in Brighton which helped carry the motion that the Liberal Democrat Party would reject secret Courts.

I know their views have not changed, and they will argue that the best way to influence or change policy for the better is within the Party. For them, and many others, I believe that to be true, and I wish those who campaign within the Party every success. There are also other campaigns and values which can still be fought at National Level as a member as a Liberal Democrat member.

For me, however, civil liberties have always been a priority and something for which I have been associated personally and professionally."

2) Dave Smithson, a former Liverpool councillor, has let his party membership lapse.  As he puts it:  "I've just sponsored a guide dog puppy called Pluto - more rewarding use of £5pm than party membership!"

Yet another case of the Lib Dems' loss being civil society's gain.

It is worth noting the responses of local party representatives (Paula Keaveney in Liverpool and Terry Stacy in Islington): both characterised by sadness rather than anger.  It makes me wonder whether local parties should think about instituting 'ex membership secretaries' to keep in friendly touch with former members...

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