Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A LibDem narrative for 2015?

As Neil Stockley rightly reminds us frequently, we need compelling narratives in politics. If the LibDems can't make Nick Clegg the hero of its 2015 election narrative, it's difficult to see a way forward.

So what might such a narrative look like? Maybe a little overwrought, but here's an attempt...

At the last election, Nick Clegg was a star: providing clarity at a time of great doubt, idolised, a great shining hope. Of course, stars fall; they all do. The question is: then what?

Remember that in 2010, Nick Clegg alone lit up the hearts and minds of the country when he said firmly that the economy desperately needed sorting, that the banks shouldn't be allowed to get away with it, and that sleaze had to stop. "I agree with Nick" the leaders of Labour and the Conservatives had to admit. So much so, that when the people spoke on election day in 2010, David Cameron realized that he nee ded Nick's help. Nick Clegg's star was shining bright, in the country's dark economic times.

Then, in 2011, the star fell.

The dreadful deficit needed tough, unpopular decisions. It meant having to compromise with David Cameron on dearly held liberal policies like free university tuition. Nick won a deal that meant no fees until graduates were earning a decent wage. But people didn't care, because their star had fallen.

Nick ensured that schools in deprived areas got more, rather than less. He ensured a level playing field for cleaner, cheaper, safer energy. He built bridges with our allies abroad, instead of riling them up. But still people didn't care, because their star had fallen.

Coalition with the Conservatives meant constant tough negotiations, to make every bill more liberal, more fair, and more compassionate than it would otherwise have been. Everyone now acknowledges that it was only thanks to LibDem parliamentarians that the NHS changes originally planned never happened. Instead, the NHS is now protected from the excessive competition that Labour let in and that the Conservatives wanted more of. But people didn't care, because their star had fallen.

So now, in 2015, where is that star?

The economy is on the right path again, but the task is not finished. The country needs more jobs. We need to give more powers to our cities and counties to kickstart local economies, to sort out endemic housing issues, to take advantage of green opportunities, to support your hospitals and schools...

That remote, idolised star from 2010 is no more. But in 2015 Nick Clegg and the LibDems offer a guiding star. Lighting a way between cold hard corporatism on the one hand, and overweight statism on the other. Lighting a route to a healthy, growing, happy country.

The more LibDems in Parliament, the more powerful that liberal light.

Update 13 May 2012

I've since attempted a better narrative here.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A jumble of end-of-the-week thoughts on British political culture

Five-and-half related thoughts from this week about British political culture, and a joke at the end!

1. Lib Dem parliamentarians need to be more transparent

I complained a week ago about a need for better communications in relation to the Welfare Reform Bill (WRB). Elsewhere (too numerous to list) many Lib Dems have sought explanations about the Health and Social Care Bill (HSC), while the Tory attacks on subsidies for wind and solar power have filled a vacuum left by Chris Huhne's departure from the Energy Department.

But this week we've seen Tim Farron explain his reasoning on WRB, Jenny Willott make the case for the ESA changes, Shirley Williams offer balanced arguments about the HSC on BBC Question Time, and Ed Davey put down important markers on wind and solar power.

Even when I'm not entirely persuaded on some issues, such thoughtful explanations are vital for maintaining the spirit of a party committed to reasoned, evidence-based public discussion as the basis for policy. So well done Tim et al. Political parties the world over seem to find this spirit hard to maintain in government, and it certainly doesn't come naturally to British political culture, perhaps even more so when the government is a coalition rather than a one-man-band like the Blair, Brown and Thatcher regimes.

Yet if anything could save the Lib Dems from the long-anticipated mauling at the next General Election, it would be the public appeal of such a spirit. More opportunistically though, the narrative "We stopped the Tories doing worse things" needs a steady stream of good evidence, otherwise the public will wonder if a minority Tory administration would have resulted in fewer stupid laws. So to make this case we actually need there to be stupid proposals, but we also need to be seen stopping them.

Incidentally, I happen to believe that Parliament is the proper place for agreeing Coalition positions on bills. But I recognise that many sensible people think this is unrealistic.

2. It shouldn't be this hard for governments to back down

Talking of stupid laws, private polling on Liberal Democrat Voice has found that Lib Dem members are opposed to HSC by a 2-to-1-majority. I also thought Ed Miliband had an excellent Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, focusing calmly on the key arguments about the Bill and its opposing voices, and keeping PMQ's ritual exaggeration, over-simplification and immature jibes to a minimum.

The bill is less disastrous than before Liberal Democrats & the professional associations began pointing out the problems, but the Bill is still alive.

Nevertheless, watching PMQs it did strike me that our democracy doesn't make it easy for governments to back down from stupid proposals. Cameron needs to be prepared to lose a lot of face if he is to scrap the Bill. And in fact PMQs forced him to entrench his position rather than giving him a way out. He has a choice now between insisting on an unpopular Bill and major humiliation. This is great for Oppositions, but scarcely in the best interests of the country.

3. Let's stay friends and build a wishlist

The quid pro quo of "Lib Dem parliamentarians need to be more transparent" is that Lib Dem members need to keep the lines of communication going too. It's tempting to storm off when stupid bills that are not part of the Coalition Agreement become law. But that reduces the number of voices within the party objecting, and we need those voices to build up a wishlist of things we want to put right if we get the opportunity in the next Parliament.

It's also tempting when angry at stupid bills to slip into the language of "betrayal" that is a beloved strand of Labour tradition. But it doesn't actually help improve those bills (or help get rid of them entirely, if possible) if the motives of Lib Dem parliamentarians are regularly attacked. There's obviously an element of trust that Clegg et al. are securing the best compromises they can and are not being out-manoeuvred by those wily Tories. Clearly there are some measures that really stick in the craw, but then this is a coalition not a Lib Dem government. So there are times when we have to agree to disagree with the compromises that have been obtained. That doesn't mean we stop being passionate about wanting better.

There are also obviously things the Coalition is doing that many Conservatives don't like, such as keeping the 50p Tax Rate, the Green Investment Bank, postponing Trident, Fixed Term Parliaments, and ending Control Orders). And things we would like to do that circumstances don't allow us to do (Voting Reform, a Mansion Tax and the abolition of university tuition fees being big ones). We have the excuse that we are the junior partner in a Coalition, and so we have a growing wishlist to put to the electorate. Labour had absolute power for 13 years and has no such excuse.

4. Er, I thought we liked discussion?

I've been baffled by the derision and animosity meted out by some normally calm and reasonable Lib Dems in response to the founding of Liberal Left. I've tried asking a few people on Twitter for why they feel so strongly about this group, but perhaps boiling blood is blocking their hearing. There's a calmer case against, but I didn't really understand it.

Looking for the commonalities with Labour, the Greens, the SNP and the like is precisely what a party that will be seeking future coalition options should be doing. Of course the mainstreams of these other parties won't make that easy. But, as I've argued before, Liberal Democrat tribalism is the real danger to furthering liberal and social democratic agendas.

Delivering on our growing wishlist for the next Parliament might very well depend on our relations with these other parties. No-one is forced to belong to Liberal Left. It's just another group of people exploring alternative policies to the agenda of the Conservative - Liberal Democrat Coalition. I'd be worried if there weren't such a group.

5. Ken Livingstone is no homophobe, but that's not the point

I've blogged separately about this. But in essence... I'm troubled that Ken has been misinterpreted so virulently; and I worry that presuming the worst about people engaged in public discourse degrades that discourse and consequently our political culture. We need a more tolerant, generous spirit.

6. The composer of "A Windmill in Old Amsterdam" has died aged 83.

OK, I don't know why I think that's important to British political culture.

I could make something up about how it's interesting that the windmill - a technology that was vital to life in the Middle Ages - might turn out to be a vital component in our future energy needs.

I could pretend that the idea of happy mice just doing their own thing in Amsterdam, doing no harm to others, and living a fulfilled life in an adapted product of an earlier age somehow represents an authentic vision of liberalism.

But I think I just like the tune.

Mind you, he also composed "Right Said Fred" and that song has a huge amount to say about British political culture. :-)

A joke

I put this on Twitter, and got a paltry number of retweets. I was really proud of it!

Last week a lorryload of molasses spilt near Tiverton. Story here. Devon Police have promised to investigate properly & not to fudge it

Maybe it's the way I tell them...

Ken Livingstone is no homophobe, but that's not the point

I didn't want to have to write this blog post. I thought someone else was going to write something similar, and I could get on with more productive things. But I haven't seen it, and this issue is more important than what one man happened to say, so here goes.

I was horrified at the treatment on Twitter and in the blogosphere of Ken Livingstone's New Statesman interview. Not all of this was opportunistic faux-outrage by opponents. Some genuinely believe that Ken thinks that being lesbian or gay resulted in preferential treatment in the Blair government and that homosexuality is akin to a disease with which a political party can be "riddled".

But really.

Come on.

[The public] should be allowed to know everything, except the nature of private relationships - unless there is hypocrisy, like some Tory MP denouncing homosexuality while they are indulging in it.
Pressed by Khan about his use of "Tory MP", Ken responds:
Well, the Labour ones have all come out . . . As soon as Blair got in, if you came out as lesbian or gay you immediately got a job. It was wonderful . . . you just knew the Tory party was riddled with it like everywhere else is.
Surely he is saying here that being lesbian or gay was welcomed in Labour, whereas many lesbian or gay Conservatives were hypocritical in denouncing their own sexuality? I.e. the Conservative Party was riddled with hypocrisy.

Of course you might not interpret it like that. The "it" is ambiguous. Perhaps "it" refers to "homosexuality".

In that case surely the obvious interpretation is that Ken's voice is dripping with irony. He's saying something along the lines of "With Labour, if you came out, the Prime Minister would come up to you at once and give you a job on a plate, regardless of whether you deserved it." I.e. actually meaning something like "We went out of our way to celebrate diversity: We broke with the past and refused to discriminate against lesbian and gay people; we treated them fairly. You might almost have grounds for thinking (haha!) we gave them preferential treatment, but of course we didn't; I'm just exaggerating for comic effect to show how much we celebrated diversity."

The wonderful thing about human communication is that all of that can be communicated with a certain tone and a twinkle in the eye.

In the same tone and twinkle he goes on to say something akin to "For all the denunciations of homosexuality by these Tory MPs, their party must have been just as riddled with homosexuality as anywhere." I've put "riddled" in italics. Italics are fairly inadequate for conveying sarcasm in print, but in this interpretation such a response is actually signifying something like "The private lives of these Tory MPs were fair game because they were being such hypocrites. They thought homosexuality was like a disease rather than a completely normal part of life, and yet many of them must have been lesbian or gay themselves. In their bigoted terminology, the Tory Party must have been 'riddled' with homosexuality."

If you know Ken, you know he uses that tone and that twinkle a great deal, so maybe this latter interpretation is more likely than the first. You also know that the idea that his transcribed words might be misinterpreted as homophobic would never have occurred to him, because advocacy of LGBT rights is innate to his political core.

Personally, I think you're only going to interpret his responses in the interview as homophobic if you're predisposed to be anti-Ken, or if you've been on the receiving end of a huge amount of homophobia in the past, or if you assume that pretty much every politician has a protective layer of ideology hiding an inner core of bigotry.

I also defended Diane Abbott when she was attacked for racism. Just like Ken, so many people (including Ed Miliband and many Labour supporters) preferred a negative interpretation of Diane's comments, ignoring both the context and the limitations of the medium.

I'm not a big Labour fan right now (Iraq, civil liberties, centralism, the economy, blah blah blah), and I don't happen to agree with Ken's point about how much the public have a right to know about politicians' private lives.

But that's not the point. Presuming the worst about people engaged in public discourse degrades that discourse and consequently our political culture. It inevitably results in the diminution in the rich panoply of ways people have of expressing themselves. We end up with bland politicians mouthing the platitudes, simplistic soundbites, long-winded evasions and empty rhetoric that cause so many citizens to disengage from the country's political processes.

And this is more than about eloquent politicians such as Ken and Diane, who delight in colourful, attractive language to make their points, and who occasionally trip up. Very few of us are classically-trained orators, delivering unambiguous set-piece speeches from on high, and therefore we shouldn't expect our politicians to be like that either. I thought we had grown out of expecting this when John Prescott became Deputy Prime Minister.

We need a political culture that encourages diversity, that accepts we all "misspeak" at times, and that understands how hard it is to develop language to grapple with complex and evolving social problems. This culture needs a generosity of spirit if our minds are not to become prisoners of safe sentences.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

What's the point of the parliamentary sketch?


Maybe it's just me. I read a few words of Ann Treneman's sketch in The Times, or Simon Carr's sketch in The Independent, or Simon Hoggart's sketch in The Guardian, and then quickly move on.

It's probably the same with Quentin Letts's sketch in the Daily Mail. Goodness knows. I can't read beyond more than a paragraph before wanting to throw up.

I don't get the parliamentary sketch.

Who is it for? How many read it? Is it the highlight of some readers' lives? Do they laugh? Or hoot? Or guffaw? Nod thoughtfully? What do they get out of reading it?

We have news channels, newspaper columns, topical comedy shows, online video, Twitter, blogs... What precisely is the gap that the parliamentary sketch uniquely fills in our national life?

But if there's one thing that I keep wondering more than anything else about the parliamentary sketch, it's this: These are clever writers; why are they wasting their talents on such a pointless art form?

It's rude. It's patronizing. It mocks what politicians look like, their faces, their clothes, their hair. It mocks their mannerisms, their stumbles, their gestures, their clich├ęs. It focuses on the quirky, the silly, the moments of pomposity or vaudeville.  It assumes politicians are ridiculous, venal, lying hypocrites of varying stupidity and incompetence. It compares them with fictional buffoons and farmyard animals. It speculates on their home lives, their relationships, their sexual predilections. And it casts aspersions on the parentage of their children.

But, most of all, it pays as little attention as it can to the content of what politicians are actually saying. It lampoons politicians but without the promise of insight into policy and power.

It is unedifying. It demeans our politics.

Besides, we've got Twitter for the funny stuff. And Twitter does it better.

So what's the point of the parliamentary sketch?