Saturday, 1 July 2017

Paddy Ashdown: stranger than fiction

Paddy Ashdown's been at it again.

He has reportedly embarked on a new career writing fiction.  This, however, proves the old adage that truth is often stranger.  Not the reports of involvement in plotting to depose Tim Farron as leader (for more of that, subscribe to Liberator and read Radical Bulletin in the forthcoming issue).

The Federal Board was, to say the least, surprised to receive a paper from the former leader which had to be seen to be believed.  Putting aside his frequent Mark Twain quotation of not interfering - "don't speak to the helmsman, don't spit at the floor", the noble Lord railed at the party's democratic structures and its now one-member, one-vote Conference.  Scrap it all, he says - and replace it with a 38 Degrees-style direct democracy organisation, free of values in which anyone can join, free of charge, vote on a key matter and then not so much leave as merely log out.

In the interests of transparency, Liberator is publishing the text here, in full.

Unfortunately for Paddy, the Board did not like his proposal much.  Following the fiasco of his tenure of the 2015 "Wheelhouse" and his current stint as local party chair in Yeovil - seeing the return of a 15,000 Tory majority, last seen in 1979 - it may be that he heeds the advice of one member that "the Board thought a pile of horse manure would be a more cogent and realistic statement", and presses 'Delete'.  Or he might just send it to his friend Tony Blair instead.

Here is Ashdown’s second rule for the internet age: “If you see a business model that takes no account of the new technologies, you see a business model which is failing”.

This applies to most newspapers, some old fashioned businesses and nearly all political parties.

Conventional political parties remain immovably stuck in the 1870s.

They are vertical hierarchies, when the paradigm structure of our time is the network.

They are high overhead, narrow membership, high cost of entry, limited participation organisations, while successful social and commercial structures are based on a low overhead, mass membership, low (or no) cost of entry and instant participation model.

They are festooned with lumbering committees and a tangle of elections which pretend to provide accountability and transparency, but actually obscure both, when direct instant democratic participation is the rule for the most successful modern civil society movements and political structures (think Cinque Stella, Momentum, More United and En Marche).

In order to play a full part, today’s conventional political party requires its members to be obsessives prepared to spend evenings in damp village halls and bright September days when they could be on the beach, in stuffy conclaves at faded seaside resorts, passing obscure amendments to policies no-one will ever hear of again. But most ordinary people nowadays conduct their internet lives, not through consuming singular obsessions, but through multiple daily transactions which mix what they believe in, with earning a living and having fun.

Political Parties, as institutions are dying (except those who have in some form or another adopted the internet in their internal structures, like Momentum and Labour). This is one of the reasons why our politics seems so bewildering and senseless to ordinary people and voters.

Our Party is in an extremely hazardous condition. Unless we do something radical and different soon, our old members will become disheartened and our new members will fade away.

Here is my proposition. The Party Board should commission a study which would report in short order (but before the end of July) to investigate whether and if so how and in what time frame, the Lib Dems could be converted into a modern, internet based political organisation (, structured around a low overhead, low cost of entry, mass movement model in which a one person one vote internet enabled democracy, was the normal way of taking all our key decisions.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Are the Lib Dems conning the 48%?

The media and right-wing demagogues are attacking the independence of the judiciary - and, by extension, the rule of law.  An element among them appears to be suggesting vigilante action against Gina Miller and those seeking to uphold Parliamentary democracy.

What exactly is the Liberal Democrat leadership doing?

In the Witney by-election some activists claimed the party's pro-EU message was concealed from literature to all voters.  It certainly was kept off centre stage while used heavily in targeted mailings.    Anecdotally, this strategy was electorally successful.  Time will tell whether similar strategies work in the much more pro-Remain territory of Richmond Park.

But a Liberal party that seems finally to be agreed on the need for a core vote does not seem to be using this golden opportunity to seize that pro-EU territory.  Nick Clegg - still a divisive figure - now appears to support EU withdrawal if it means remaining in the single market.  Other Lib Dem MPs remain off-message, or would do if only the party were clear what message it had.

There has been some lip service paid to welcoming the High Court judgment - but nothing more.   No Liberal vision of what an Article 50 negotiating position- nor a critique that in fact no sustainable position is possible.  Perhaps that is because of the contradiction at the heart of that position.  While saying the Lib Dems are the 'party of remain', or saying 'the Lib Dems are the party that wants the softest Brexit possible' are both coherent positions, mixing them is not.

Surely the Liberal position is to trenchantly oppose mob rule?  That should mean both holding the Government to its commitment to respect the independence of the judiciary, and to remind all that incitement is a criminal offence - and that far-right extremists running papers or in the form of UKIP leaders who incite violence face jail.

And on the subject of mob rule, the extremist-legitimising mindset of the broader media must be challenged. After all, the Liberal Democrats will hardly lose much coverage over such challenge.  For example, the party has for years taken a stance on the BBC that is inherently conservative - even Conservative; the party does not challenge broken British institutions, as a rule. Party figures have clamped down on any challenge to the established orthodoxy.  As the corporation has retrenched into being part of Britain's problem, it as with other failing institutions deserve robust challenge.

But back to the Lib Dems.  It is pretty much the worst of all possible worlds to pay lip service about being the voice of Remain voters while at the same time leaving open the possibility of voting to trigger Article 50.  The ordure heaped at Labour for its muddled position demonstrates that if you want to become politically active to fight EU withdrawal, it is not the party.  For the Lib Dems to do the same in that context is tactically stupid as well as politically wrong.

The idea that you can fight your way back onto the political map with only 8 MPs as part of a non-existent political orthodoxy is, to use a technical term, bollocks.  When fighting a must-win by-election against a plutocrat fraudulently portraying himself as an independent outsider, it is doubly bollocks.  Even some activists are threatening to take action to help the party hit this gaping open goal.  As nobody else will do it, it is up to Tim Farron to point out when this system is rigged.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Reflections on Witney

It is evident that the Lib Dem performance in Witney was an overwhelmingly positive occurrence.  The biggest swing in a Conservative-held seat since the freak Winchester by-election of 1997, the campaign was also remarkable for its positive and welcoming atmosphere.  The party has learned to have fun again; it has been a unifying experience.

To what extent, though, has it contributed to the party's recovery from the long-term damage sustained under Nick Clegg's leadership?  This is more debatable.

The starting base was a local party in decline for a decade: a track record of campaigning that was patchy but had covered most of the district at some point or another.  Only the unusual stronghold of Charlbury & Finstock ward could now be described as fertile territory; however, there was potential to grow support in a Remain-voting, affluent seat.  Local councillor Liz Leffman - who in May recorded the ninth-best council ward result in the UK, and whose partner is a former Red Guard Young Liberal - was quickly selected.

A good opportunity, then, for some campaigning innovation - especially with large numbers of activists old and new ready to descend on an easily-accessible location.  A well-located HQ and a notably friendlier team than that of by-elections past made a big difference; people wanted to come back.

While some innovation did take place, visitors did question whether more could have been done.  A seat with over 100 different settlements could have lent itself to this.  The campaign, however, did use a local issue (housing development) and localised strong stories about the NHS.  This was made easier as the candidate (one of an all-local shortlist) had a good campaigning track record on the issue, and more or less neutralised the damage done to the party’s reputation by the Health & Social Care Act.

The mood among the various pro-EU '48%' groups was channeled although reports of the kind of strong pro-Europe messages that made it onto literature - for the first time in decades – were mixed.  Apart from in the partly military community of Carterton this seemed to resonate.  Where it worked particularly well was in galvanising campaign support which came from outside the party as well as a significant quality from the post-Clegg membership.  This led to a particularly heavy blizzard of literature, questioned by some on the campaign.

Also questioned was the campaign’s stance on housing.  West Oxfordshire contains the first Community Land Trust in the country (set up in Stonesfield in the 1970s) and Lib Dems in the district had a good reputation in pushing for provision of affordable housing to enable local people to stay in the area.  The Tory Council had failed to renew its Local Plan, creating a free-for-all for developers, leading to NIMBY campaigning in an area with sky-high house prices.  As a pro-housing party, it was surprising to see campaigning take that NIMBY line, although it was undoubtedly effective.

The Tories tried to select a dull, play-it-safe candidate; a solidly pro-hunt and anti-EU local councillor.  What they didn't count on were some wooden hustings performances in a constituency where such things still mattered; a toxic combination for the largely soft and pro-EU Tory vote.

The result was a massive swing - bigger than Romsey or Bromley, but unfortunately the 2015 starting base left simply too much to do.  A vast number of stakeboards demonstrated momentum.  It is said that the notoriously poor by-election aftercare support will be ramped up.

Nonetheless the Labour vote held up; indeed it seems they increased their share in Witney town itself while it fell everywhere else.  Their candidate was also local and anti-Corbyn.  The Greens' local celebrity Larry Sanders ensured that the progressive anti-Tory vote was firmly split.  This should be a lesson for those seeking anti-Tory pacts.  Equally, it is a reminder that some will not forgive Lib Dems for Clegg.

Liberal Democrats should not get ahead of themselves.  In other local by-elections on the same day as Witney the party's vote remained as low as 3 percent.  In parts of the UK less sympathetic to a ‘drawbridgfe down’ pro-European agenda, the message may not be so well-received.  The Witney result will be ignored by most of the national media in its glee at the party’s fate.  It will take several Witneys and a few wins to make a difference.  But the party now knows it can happen, and it is getting its self-belief back.  It has – if not a strategy – a vision.  The next step is anticipated with some zeal.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

What more can be done to improve the EU after the referendum? The debate that we are not having.

What more can be done to improve the EU after the referendum? This is the key debate that we should be having that we are not having. That remainers should be having with antis even now - we can disagree, they can vehemently oppose and want out of the EU but we can still find out what they don't like and try to change some of those things (any that are actually real and factual) for the better. This is the debate that Stronger IN and David Cameron have failed to have. SI because the political strategists are only focused on winning the referendum - not how or afterwards - and Cameron because he's hung by the split and hostility in his own party. I hope that after a winning vote David Cameron can be more reasonable with his Ministerial opponents - at least the less nasty ones - than he was with libertarian David Davis after his leadership win.  Conciliation will be needed but so is quick very quick action and results on reform. The campaign group Avaaz sent a survey to their members at the start of June about what more Avaaz could do, I think after the EU referendum to help in the UK on this issue. They are a great movement but they also missed the need for reform to take account of genuine concerns.

 The last question in the survey was:

 "5.  Here is a list of possible changes that could be beneficial to the EU. Tick the 3 boxes that you personally think would make the most difference."

 They listed 11 changes. I agreed with two of them, and ticked those two, I partly agreed with others and disagreed fully or partly with many.

 The problem is that Avaaz hasn't tried to include those who are sceptical about or anti-the EU project. There was nothing in the list to help win those people over. The list in the survey seemed to be about increasing the central coordinating role of the EU, not taking seriously the concerns of people who don't want this. Other measures might appeal to political geeks and those already active in working for NGOs etc. (voting for a President of the Commission, citizens' initiatives and registers of lobbyists and transcripts of meetings). I doubt they would appeal to many who were not already active or paid to work on these issues.

 The language of the Avaaz survey is, like that of Nils Röper in an article in The Conversation*, inherently in support not just of the current political project but further integration. I support the former to a large extent, and the latter a bit. However, the point I am arguing is that real concrete steps need to be taken to engage Antis to feel they have not been cheated by the EU 'project'. This passage by Roper is more helpful

 “Discourse should mean constructive dissent. .. The EU surely depends on grand visions and zealous europhiles, but the sacred pursuit of an ever closer union might have undermined the EU’s cause. Taking deviating voices more seriously and allowing for more skirmishes should be the motto of the future.”

 On Friday 3 June, interviewed on Bloomberg TV Europe 0850 UK, Günter Verheugen (a former Commissioner) concluded that regardless of an IN or OUT vote that significant reforms of the EU are needed that don't need treaty change. Eg more subsidiarity, transparency. Avaaz could usefully ask people for their ideas in support of reform and other improvements - even if some might reply based on misinformation, misunderstanding or lack of understanding, this can all help improve the EU. Avaaz and other independent or neutral organisations (like and 38 Degrees), Liberals, Trade Unionists, can all be having conversations about real reform -from a range of philosophies or ideologies. So could charities if they aren't banned by the Tories from talking about changing policies and 'politics'. But most of all if we have a statesmanlike Prime Minister this is a conversation that he or she should be leading - across Britain and beyond.

 * Why EU referendum voters are like disgruntled commuters in Nigeria, 1 June 2016.

 “According to Hirschman, the appeal of exit not only increases with the level of discontent about the organisation, but also with the creeping feeling you are unable to change it. In the UK we find both growing unease with the EU and a perception of impotency to change it.”

 “Considering the complexity of a system that accommodates 28 member states, EU law making has actually become laudably transparent and accessible.”

 “The nub of the matter for the UK-EU disconnect is an ill-informed public. Britain’s path to European detachment has been paved by a dismissive domestic media.”
 Nils Röper Why EU referendum voters are like disgruntled commuters in Nigeria
 June 1, 2016

 Postscript; what kind of changes in the European Union would I like to see. Really I want a change in emphasis. Less regulation, less law, less attempt to direct from the centre. At the same time it is utterly reasonable that countries can reserve benefits to their own citizens until residency and / or work criteria - timescales - have been met. I'd like Britain to take the work element seriously for its own long term unemployed as well but both of these should be for decision at UK level. I also want to see the EU abide by the principles it claims to be founded on in its foreign policy where they are often ignored in action - with neighbours and further afield. Of course this is hypocrisy of the Commission and the Member States - all our countries. (The much maligned Nick Clegg raised the need for the EU to actually stick to its values in dealing with the Middle East and North Africa countries in a speech in 2011 about the Arab Spring before the term had even been coined). Here is a flavour, what I said in feedback to Avaaz, on that change of emphasis. Avaaz survey responses.

 3. What do you think are the most negative aspects of the EU?

 A desire on the part of some in the centre to standardise unnecessarily and to look for an EU level rule or law when none is needed. Though no Governments say they support this many governments and ministers (or their civil servants) must tacitly do so for perceived economic or security reasons, or they fail to put a stop to sensible sounding but unnecessary standardisation. .. National parliaments could also use their consultative positions to put a stop to unnecessary legislation but they fail to scrutinise sufficiently and fail to do so.

 4. In order to support the EU more strongly, what kind of changes would you like to see?

 After hopefully Britain votes to stay in a clear statement by EU leaders, the European Parliament and especially the EU Commissioners that they will look at ways to reduce any real bureaucracy and unnecessary standardisation and to make clear concessions when so and efforts to engage with those in many countries who feel that the European Union centrally interferes in too much. Leaders of the EU engage people by cutting it back a bit. Show the antis that they are listening and acting by being conciliatory and acting. Give the antis something so they can say "we won that" "we got that".

Can Cameron Do it - Post the EU referendum? What is needed if Yes are Victors.

Not can Cameron win the EU referendum, if he loses then his, and the Tories' reckless gamble with our future will have failed, as it nearly did in Scotland. The official Yes campaign, Stronger IN, have been determined to repeat many if not all of the mistakes of the political campaigning and British establishment class from the Scottish referendum. If we lose, then many of us will be angry and in despair because Britain will not have voted to be the kind of country that we want it to be, it will not have voted for the shared cooperative European future that we want and believe in.

 But if the Remain campaign wins. Then hard work starts to pull the country together, to unite bitter wounds – among the people rather more importantly than among the Conservative Party (and Labour Party to lesser extent, as with the different views within the Greens and SNP also), to show antis and those who genuinely thought a better Britain lies out of the EU, that they are not ignored, that their views are listened to and acted upon, and for Cameron or whoever to achieve a better improved less centralised EU to try and avoid this rift continuing. Can Cameron do this? I'm not at all sure that he can, given his failure to present much vision in the referendum campaign, and given the bitter splits in his party so that if he wins his Eurosceptics will continue to put knives in his chest as they did with John Major. Only in a speech on security has Cameron put a principled and positive vision for Europe, one not based on the Stronger In political hack majority narrative of economics and fear.

 I'm not sure David Cameron can achieve this, but someone has to, and Liberals have to support them. We have to try. Many principled, progressive and educated modern young (ish) Britains from varied backgrounds have worked together on the ground and in the central campaign to keep Britain in the EU because they believe it is better for our future. Those people don't believe – like some of the EU elite appear to – that the EU is perfect, they want a better EU. We mustn't ignore on the anti side that there are reasonable disagreements with EU policies - different opinions - about the CAP or EU fisheries policy. There is no monolithic EU elite - the 'Left' use similar dismissive collective language to ignore anyone they don't like or want to blame - but there are some in positions of power and influence within the EU institutions who are genuinely out of touch and who should listen to ordinary people more.

  That EU elite includes in my experience some starry eyed Lib Dems and some of those with vested interests from the funding (from MEPs to academics – who want to keep their positions or keep the expansion of centralised influence going, needlessly). At the same time experienced Anti-EU membership voters do have a point. They never have been given a vote on the creation of the European Union or on the EU as a political project. Yes the European Community project has always been political. Yes they have had votes for Governments and parties (well not really, though they don't care about that), Yes many democrats are dubious about referendums, but the antis' point made by many older voters is perfectly valid that they voted for a Common Market, they didn't vote for this. As I  wrote months ago "If people feel after the referendum that they’ve not had a fair vote – like in Scotland, or in the previous referendum on membership of the European Economic Community, people feel somehow cheated – then there will be limited acceptance of the result and regular renewed calls for a new referendum leading to more instability in our national political debate of the kind that undermined John Major’s government and has bubbled as a hot and cold war in the Tory party under Cameron. People need to feel they are making a well informed positive choice."
 It has been great to be a part of a non-party and all party campaign on a very important issue instead of the parochialism and self-interest of British local and national politics with its divisive confrontational party political style. Let us put that energy to supporting campaigns for a better Britain in a better European Union. If Cameron wins, if he can vanquish the Johnson Jabberwock, then he has a once in a lifetime chance to build wide support in Britain for working with a wide range of parties from across Europe – especially those in central and Eastern Europe who share concerns about too much central dictat – to make the European Union better. Just because it is this way it does not have to stay this way. Cameron achieved a few small concessions in his negotiations (hardly mentioned in the referendum campaign – the avoiding this hardly being very honest, hiding the issue of reform). If he can lead after 23 June then together a British led coalition can reform a better Europe. We can show the antis, the reasonable moderate Brexiters, that they have been listened to, and we will be Stronger In.