Sunday, November 28, 2010

Three Futures for the Liberal Democrats and Tuition Fees

There are of course more than three possible futures for the Liberal Democrats and their wretched pickle about tuition fees.

But here are three futures:

Future 1: "The best policy in the circumstances"

Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and several Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition Government vote in favour of the bill on tuition fees, having wrung a couple more concessions from the Conservatives, and having abstained on an artificially-created and largely symbolic Commons vote relating to the level of the cap. The rest of the ministers and a few backbench MPs abstain (as allowed by the Coalition Agreement). The majority of backbench MPs vote against. The bill goes through.

Some commentators and students eventually acknowledge the benefits of the policy over the current situation, and there is scepticism about the role of the NUS, but the failure to honour personal signed pledges overrides all. The whipping of MPs on a bill that goes against party policy enrages the party membership, but the Coalition continues, with the Liberal Democrat Party's credibility severely weakened. The AV referendum is lost in a petty anti-Clegg vote. Within the government, liberal values are crowded out by authoritarian influences.

Clegg is consequently ousted in 2012, but the 2015 general election ends in disaster with MPs in university constituencies wiped out, whether they kept their pledge or not, and despite the Liberal Democrats being the only party with a policy to abolish tuition fees. Under FPTP, Labour forms a majority government with 41% of the vote.

Future 2: "The price of stable government"

Pressure from the grassroots, backbenchers, and ministers in vulnerable seats leads to a collective decision to abstain on the bill. However nearly all backbench MPs vote against the bill, along with some ministers, who resign from the Coalition Government. The bill falls, leading to an immediate motion of No Confidence.

This fails, and crisis talks between David Cameron and Nick Clegg eventually result in an agreement to continue the Coalition Government, provided there are no more such rebellions. The AV referendum is won, and a liberal government makes good progress in relation to civil liberties, social justice and climate change. However Nick Clegg's standing within the party is severely damaged, resulting in a leadership challenge in 2012.

He survives, and in the 2015 General Election the Liberal Democrats are seen as the plucky terriers who stood up to the Tory rottweilers and won. Enough additional seats are won to form a LibLab Coalition.

Future 3: "For the good of the party..."

The grassroots get organised enough to threaten the deselection of MPs who fail to honour their pledges. This, combined with plunging opinion polls and a sense of duty to their voters, causes the parliamentary party to present Nick Clegg with the fact that they cannot in good conscience do other than vote against the bill. Clegg argues fiercely that a renegotiation of the Coalition Agreement is impossible, but an impasse is reached. Clegg resigns.

The interim leader, Simon Hughes, presents the party's view to the Prime Minister. David Cameron notes that it would be a breach of the Coalition Agreement for Liberal Democrat ministers to vote against the bill, and should any do so they must leave the Government. The party votes overwhelmingly against bill, with Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and a few ministers abstaining. The bill falls, and Cameron calls an immediate General Election.

The Liberal Democrats are portrayed in the campaign as weak, divided and lacking the maturity to govern. Since the AV Referendum has not been held, the FPTP system applies, and the Conservatives form a majority government with 38% of the votes.

Warning: I am notoriously unreliable when it comes to predictions. Nevertheless, I love making them, because they help test the strength of my understanding of current political circumstances and of the variability of the factors affecting the future. This does have the consequence that I'm wrong a lot of the time! And certainly less to be relied upon than analysts who make few predictions, or vaguer ones.

At this moment in time my gut reaction is that the three futures described above are in descending order of likelihood. But I'm interested in hearing about alternative futures.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen

The Doctor, Jamie (yay, I remember him from some random episode I must have caught once) and Victoria (I don't) land on the planet Telos, and join an archaeological expedition to the 500 year old tomb of the Cybermen. It turns out that a couple of the expedition are interested in more than just history...

The pace has picked up considerably in the three years since "The Aztecs". Although the story is still fairly slight, with plenty of plot-holes, the incidental music is not quite so jarring; the direction more ambitious and polished; and the dialogue and acting are not quite so theatrical. The futuristic elements combined with the theme of exploring history create more of a sense of mystery than the Aztecs, despite the still laughable sets and props.

The Second Doctor is more playful since his regeneration, but still often seems to know more than he is letting on. He is always very manipulative in the way he assists the expedition. In a wistful moment, consoling Victoria at the recent death of her father, the Doctor says that his memories of his family are still alive when he wants them to be. He says he is 450 years old.

Audience reaction 2010

One youngster accompanied this viewing - probably better to say "endured"! - but she enjoyed making sardonic comments on the dated production values. In particular we both found the strong-and-loyal-but-dumb black manservant rather racist by 21st century standards, and the blatant sexism rather less than futuristic.

The subject of companions loomed large, with Susan, Barbara and Ian gone, replaced with Jamie and Victoria. My own companion noted how refreshing it was to have companions from different centuries (Jamie the 18th century, Victoria the 19th century) and locations (e.g. Jamie being from Scotland) rather than from 20th/21st London, as she noted seems to have become the norm. She was astounded when I let slip that companions have come from other planets too...

Watching The Sarah Jane Adventures recently, we noted the lovely reference to Barbara and Ian, that they had married each other, become Cambridge professors, and have not aged since the 1960s. This kind of reference really enhances our enjoyment of both old and new episodes!

Although not the least bit scary, one aspect of this episode that my companion noticed was the similarity between the scene here in which the members of the expedition try to escape from the Cybermen and a scene from the modern era which takes place with the Cybermen in Torchwood Tower. "And that was scary!"

Next up in this Doctor Who education enterprise are two more stories from the Second Doctor era. I suspect that the youngsters might prefer just selected moments rather than sitting through hours of this.

Idle questions
  • Presumably the Doctor assisted the expedition out of curiosity and a concern to assess the threat posed by the sleeping Cybermen. And presumably it was for compassionate reasons that he returned the Cybermen to their slumber rather than destroying them. Did he not worry though that the security he put in place would be too limited to prevent further archaeological expeditions? Is he somehow relying on the TARDIS to take him to points in the universe at which his assistance is needed?
For an alternative view...
  • John Bensalhia at Shadowlocked has a sometimes hilarious take on this story.
  • A fair review also is available at

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Rethinking what the tuition fees issue is about

Unlike, it sometimes feels, 99.9% of the politically active people I come across, I don't have particularly strong views on university funding.

I've been following the arguments for the last 10-15 years and can see good arguments on all sides. I'm pleased that everyone is concerned about potential students from poorer families, about sustainable funding, and about part-time students. But beyond that I'm still open to persuasion that either 100% taxpayer funding or some variant of the Browne proposals is the way forward.

However, for LibDem members like me I wonder if there is an even bigger issue at stake than the one of how to fund undergraduate degrees.

In short: I'm concerned that the U-turn by LibDem ministers is of a different order of magnitude to normal U-turns.

As we all know, voting for these tuition fee proposals would not just breach party policy; and not just breach a Manifesto commitment made just a few months ago; and not just breach the expectations of parliamentarians and members when they backed the Coalition Agreement; but most of all these proposals would breach a personal pledge by every LibDem MP, signed before the election.

This we know. For the purposes of this post, let's set aside the reasons why Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have changed their minds; and also set aside why Clegg and Cable believe these breaches to be necessary

And also, for now, let's set aside worries about the consequential election losses over the next few years. Set aside questions about lack of mandate. Set aside the vitriolic "lying" and "betrayal" narratives themselves. Others have more to say about these matters than I care to. I want to focus on just one aspect here.

It is possible, I believe, that the magnitude of this breach of trust is such that serious damage, possibly generational, has been done to the capacity of the Liberal Democrat Party to nudge our society in the direction of the social, liberal, democratic rational values that the party cherishes.

For example, respect for science, an understanding of the urgency for action on climate change, the campaign for electoral reform, the internationalism that helped us make the right call on Iraq, the drive to reduce social unfairness... all these and more need LibDem support at every level of politics.

And while there will be insufficient numbers of LibDems, MPs, MEPs, councillors, activists, members, and voters to support these values, it is much worse than that: this question of trust will permeate every policy discussion, every doorstep encounter, every debate, every columnist's analysis... so that LibDem influence in those discussions will diminish.

If I am right about the seriousness of this breach of trust (I might be wrong) then it is incumbent on members of the party to consider whether the long-term interests of liberal democracy might be best served by calling a halt to the plan of Nick Clegg and Vince Cable to whip the parliamentary party to vote for these tuition fee proposals.

There are always compromises in government. Most times we argue our case, sigh if we lose, and trust that the leaders we choose know what they are doing. We do not always get our own way. We often have to defend unpopular decisions that we have reluctantly concluded are in the best interests of the country. We sometimes get things wrong and have to make U-turns.

But here, in this case, it is not that the members are not getting their own way; it is that the MPs themselves pledged that they would vote one way and are now expected to vote another. The facts of the case have not changed. We knew how bad the finances were; we knew what Browne was likely to say; we knew that a hung parliament was likely. People interpret this as a blatant personal betrayal by MPs.

What compounds the sense of betrayal is that Nick Clegg's campaign emphasised "No more broken promises" and "A new kind of politics". This sense of betrayal is likely to have quite serious repercussions.

What I am trying to suggest is that - for once - the merits of the particular proposals themselves are actually not that important. What is important is the consequential damage of MPs breaking their personal pledges for the future of liberal democrat values for some time to come.

Update 15 Nov 10:

I was in two minds on Saturday night about posting my views above. I don't want my view confused with those LibDem supporters who oppose the Coalition, or with certain Labour supporters who are whipping up anti-Clegg hysteria wherever they can. But in the fading light of a frosty Monday afternoon I think I was right to do it. I do not want to be accused of acquiescing - through inaction - to the broken pledges.

This comment by Andy Darley spurred me to write the post, in particular:
"... it’s not a question of whether Lib Dem MPs will break their promise to vote against tuition fee increases, it’s actually a question of which out of two contradictory and equally binding promises they will choose to break.

"Promise one was to vote against a rise. Promise two, in the coalition agreement, was to abstain.

"... One thing the [Liberal Democrat Voice members] survey is clear about – more than 90 per cent of respondents expect them to keep one or the other of the two promises. And at the moment the leadership is marching them towards breaking both."
I would also like to quote Keith Day who wrote...
"... the point about the tuition fees pledge... has nothing to do with coalition compromises and which party got how many seats. It was a personal promise by a candidate to their voters. It doesn't matter which party won or is in coalition with which other party. Our MPs said to their voters 'If I win I will do this'. The promise was not conditional on which party won, or if there was a hung parliament or not.
Those MPs who will vote in favour of increasing fees will betray those voters who believed that promise and all those of us who believed that Lib Dems stood for something better than the sordid, selfish, self-aggrandizing politics of recent years.
Clegg’s betrayal is that he is going to whip his MPs into breaking a promise, forcing those who stand by their principles of honesty and honour to be 'rebels'."
Update #2 15 Nov 2010:

The whole of the above post could probably be replaced by Ming Campbell's simple statement:
"My credibility would be shot to pieces if I did anything other than to stick to the promise I made."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Is the Woolas judgement an attack on free speech?

The news that former Labour immigration minister Phil Woolas has been found guilty of knowingly making false statements about his general election rival in campaign literature sounds good.

In the past I've found Mr Woolas's views and manner very disagreeable, and the false statements in his campaign literature similarly: particularly that his rival had attempted to woo Muslims who advocated violence against Mr Woolas.

It turns out then that Woolas' leaflet is not only disagreeable but also falls foul of section 106 of the Representation of the People Act (1983) which sets out sanctions against anyone involved in an election who "makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate's personal character or conduct" unless they can show "reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, that statement to be true".

Mr Woolas responded to the judgement saying that it "raised fundamental issues about the freedom to question politicians":
"Those who stand for election can participate in the democratic process must be prepared to have their political conduct and motives subjected to searching, scrutiny and inquiry. They must accept that their political character and conduct will be attacked. It is vital to our democracy that those who make statements about the political character and conduct of election candidates are not deterred from speaking freely for fear that they may be found in breach of election laws."
This judgement, he said, would "chill political speech".

You might argue that this is humbug from a scoundrel who has been rightly punished. Or that it is about time something was done about this culture of political smear in which election leaflets and partial newspapers too often delight.

More coolly, you might argue that it is fine to scrutinise the conduct and motives of candidates so long as you do not knowingly lie about them.

But even this more moderate position worries me. Let me give you an example from a political leaflet that came through my door this week. It's not an election leaflet, granted, but is not dissimilar. It's from Labour (Ben Bradshaw in Exeter), but that's because it's what came to hand rather than because the other parties never do exactly the same things.

The leaflet asks "Do the cuts affect you?", declaiming inter alia that child benefit is being restricted, that free prescriptions for people with long-term conditions are being axed, and that cuts to the police budget put safety at risk.

The leaflet goes on to say "REMEMBER: The Tories and LibDems had a choice. They chose this." They "made the wrong decision. Their savage cuts are a massive gamble with our economy, and a reckless attack on our jobs, growth and services." It says it is "shameful that Lib Dem MPs... are now supporting this vandalism."

Now I don't think there's a legal problem with any of this. Opposing parties would disagree with it all; the claims clearly fail to tell the whole story; and it's a shame that political discourse has to dumbed down in such a fashion. But it's all quite ordinary as political leaflets go.

However, what if instead of generalised references to "Lib Dem MPs" or "the Tories" or "the Government" or "cuts", this were an election leaflet that said "Candidate X says he loves the NHS, but he supports the axing of free prescriptions for people with long-term conditions", or "Candidate X is happy to see law-and-order put at risk by cutting 20% from the police budget", or "Candidate X wants to hit the poorest hardest by unfair welfare reforms".

Again, I think this is dumbed-down discourse that harms our political culture, and would be far from an extraordinary leaflet. But does it fall foul of the law? It's not clear to me. It could be tested in the courts, but surely whether such statements are false should be the stuff of the election, rather than the courts? Following the Woolas judgement, angry candidates with deep pockets might be willing to pursue such cases, although I'm sure the mainstream parties would be disinclined to do anything that risked tumbling into costly tit-for-tat legal battles across hundreds of constituencies.

No, my worry is here is not that there will be huge numbers of court cases, but that election literature becomes more generalised and less focused on the individual candidates' views and record than it should be.

In that sense, the Woolas verdict would inhibit free speech in quite a serious way.

Of course this could go another way: rather than simply dropping the smears against opposing candidates while continuing with tribal nastiness, selective omission, spurious bar charts and misleading ambiguity, candidates could calmly and rationally set out their best arguments for preferring their policies to their opponents' policies.

Nah. Can't see that happening. Can you?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Doctor Who: The Aztecs

The TARDIS arrives in 15th Century Mexico, and gets trapped in a tomb. Barbara is mistaken for a reincarnation of the high priest Yetaxa. She attempts to end the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, while Ian and the Doctor try to find a way back to the Tardis.

That this second post in the series of reports on my education in the Doctor Who classics is so tardy is less to do with laziness or deadlines, than because of sudden cold feet about the whole enterprise.

In short, The Aztecs is some fans' favourite of the early stories, and yet I almost entirely failed to see its attractions.

In part, of course, this might be a consequence of familiarity with the modern era: The painted backdrops, papier-mâché stones, crude incidental music, antiquated camerawork, lack of special effects, and so on are hurdles for the suspension of disbelief by modern audiences. It is not just the technical aspects: The stagey direction, hammy acting, wordy yet unsubtle dialogue, simplistic story, and laughable cliff-hangers are major hurdles too.

Is it fair to judge 1960s television production values by the standards of 2010? Probably not, but it is hard to set aside modern expectations. I did my best by treating it as a televised play, but still found the plot uninteresting.

There is one exchange that raises interesting questions. The Doctor attempts to dissuade Barbara from stopping the Aztec practice of human sacrifice by saying "But you can’t re-write history! Not one line!" Is it impossible for time-travellers to change history? Or is it that they shouldn't? Aren't they changing it by being there?

Audience reaction 2010

The youngsters who are part of my Doctor Who education had endured all the episodes of An Unearthly Child, but could only cope with one-and-half episodes of The Aztecs. These youngsters do not have gnat-sized attention spans and are far from bored by history: They found on the DVD the 1970 Blue Peter account of Cortez and Montezuma and lapped it up, asking many questions and wanting more. But they were unable to engage in the drama.

The problem now is that it will be difficult to persuade them back to this Doctor Who education until the quality of the story makes up for the production values.

Idle questions
  • Why can't you change history?
For an alternative view...