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...

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