Friday, 16 March 2018

Why are we sending election monitors to Russia?


By the time you read this the election for President will have happened in Russia. Writing in the middle of February we can all say exactly what will happen in the election and what the result will be. The election during the election period will be entirely free and fair – it will comply with domestic laws and international standards for elections (the latter is the phrasing that professional international observers actually use) and Vladimir Putin will be elected with an overwhelming majority over ‘rival’ candidates who mostly take care to praise the President during the election as well as after the result is declared. Those candidates include Grigory Yavlinsky leader of the Liberal ‘Yabloko’ party (apple) who is a genuine opponent. Alexei Navalny, outside of Russia the most well known Kremlin critic, is barred from standing by a dubious conviction.

On the 18 March Vladimir Putin could be rewarding himself with a glass of Imperial Russian stout, rather than Arthur Guinness’ black stuff.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the main international organisation doing election observation (election monitoring) in the ex Communist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as on a much smaller scale in Western Europe and North America. Britain is contributing 4 Long Term Observers (like regional coordinators who observe before and during the whole election period) and up to 40 Short Term Observers (who cover what actually happens on the ground in the days immediately before, during and after the election).

Why. What on earth is the point? The OSCE was set up at the end of the Cold War to facilitate relations between the former Cold War rivals and includes all of the former USSR, Europe, the USA and Canada. It came out of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, part of the Helsinki process during the period of détente in the mid-1970s. The OSCE works on political-military, economic and environmental and human rights issues (the human dimension). It is now best known for providing monitors of the war in south east Ukraine but does much work at intergovernmental level and European and national conferences and seminars and with political missions in places such as Macedonia, Georgia and Kosovo (and Central Asia). That work includes promoting professional policing, justice, anti-discrimination and protection of minorities, good governance and media freedom. Russia, as the most important former Soviet state is a core part of OSCE. Here you see the problem.

Whatever the faults of British, French, American foreign policy outside of Europe they have not directly engaged in the brutality that Russia has in Syria or its own former empire territory of Chechnya, nor have they or any other European countries engaged in war in Europe (Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia / Yugoslavia the exception). Russia has changed the de facto borders of a European state by force for the first time by a European state since World War 2, and is engaged in a nasty vicious entirely pointless bloody war in south East Ukraine where Russian soldiers kill their fellow slavs and ‘orthodox’ Christians. This by a country that pretends to stand for European (‘White’) Christian values. Yes, the clear majority of people in Crimea want to be part of Russia. Yes it was Russian territory longer than Ukrainian, as part of the Russian empire then USSR when taken from the Ottoman Empire. This is no excuse for military occupation. This is the illness of Putin, he could no doubt have achieved his aims peacefully but for a swaggering bully like that peace would not befit his macho image. Hence ten thousand people have been killed and two million people have been displaced by the war in Ukraine. (In 5% of the country). The economic damage has caused misery to millions more in Russia and Ukraine (and producers in countries affected by the sanctions and Russia’s retaliatory boycotts). All on the altar of Putin’s image and keeping his people inside the bubble with the spectacle of Russophobia and Russia standing against barbarians – this kleptocrat state’s version of bread and circuses.

At any stage Putin could have chosen peace, he has chosen brutal violence. London’s 2012 Olympics was a celebration of the UK with the World. Putin’s 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics could have been a bridge to the civilised world but was a display to Russia and the World before Putin’s regime’s military occupation and invasion of Ukraine.

The politics of OSCE election observation.

Several of my good friends are observers and they will do an excellent, professional, independent and impartial job. But it is a huge waste of public money and a huge waste of credibility for the OSCE to send an election mission. Russia is a leading member of the OSCE and its democracy and society development wing, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). ODIHR, headquartered in Warsaw, organises the election observation missions (EOMs). Where they go is based on a Needs Assessment Mission by experts, which makes recommendations. The 21 December report for Russia concluded “Most of the OSCE/ODIHR NAM interlocutors emphasized the value of an OSCE/ODIHR election observation activity for the presidential election. Many of them also stressed the importance of a long-term and regional presence to cover all aspects of the process.” All the work is subject to the fact that the OSCE is a diplomatic intergovernmental organisation, (yes of course nothing to do with the EU, though I erroneously thought it is related to the Council of Europe) that has its own Parliamentary Assembly of elected representatives of the member states.

Other international election monitor organisations include the Carter Center of former US President Jimmy Carter, and the American NDI (National Democratic Institute) and IRI (International Republican Institute) as well as African, Asian and other regional bodies. My experience of the former is that they operate in a highly professional independent manner, I haven’t worked outside of Europe so have no experience of the other bodies.

In actual monetary terms the cost of Britain contributing to a large EOM like Russia is relatively low – flights, and fairly generous expenses but no payment for STOs and a token payment only for LTOs. British contingents on missions have reduced compared with a few years ago. Then the UK commonly contributed 10% of observers, now it is often half the former number. (The UK also continues to send a small number of observers on the smaller European Union election observation missions that support democratic elections in Africa, Asia and Central and Latin America). Where Britain sends observers now seems to be clearly dependent on internal Foreign Office politics, determined by the priorities of each Embassy and affected by budget. Entirely understandable but not necessarily consistent or principled, unless the principles on which observers are deployed is made clear. The UK, however, contributes to many missions, Russia now sends observers only when it appears strategically of use for Russia. Montenegrin elections when Russia hoped and failed to get a more favourable government; Moldova where it fared better, and Ukraine when it elected President Petro Poroshenko who proved a far less compliant leader than Viktor Yanukovych. These are among the recent examples. Obviously Russian monitors might be shy in the neighbouring countries it has gone to war with, and its money (reduced with oil prices) is being spent on wars. It is telling though that Russia sends monitors only in its geo-strategic interests. Usually, not always, directly from the Foreign Ministry (as with many European countries, not the UK) and often ex-FSB.

Isn’t it time to call a spade a spade and to call Russia out. You can’t be a member of club promoting Enlightenment progressive human values if your State activity in and outside of Europe is entirely turned to destroying and subverting those values. Russia’s military supplied the missile launcher used to murder the 300 European and Asian passengers and crew of MH17. The rest of Europe should have acted decisively then. It must be time for this dancing around the issue to end. It is a shame for the hard work done in the OSCE by all the people who work hard to make the World a better place. If the structure falls apart because Russia is thrown out (and perhaps the dictators of the former Russian empire may walk as well) then it may make reconciliation in the future more difficult. Putin, the dictators and his far right fans like Orban thrive on never having consequences, on the double standards of ‘the West’, by dividing Europe, by exploiting hypocrisy (like the words of Boris Johnson versus his actions which have fundamentally undermined security and stability in Europe, same for Liam Fox). Britain should not be wasting taxpayers money in Russia and nor should we let the cosy pretence continue that Russia can remain a member of a club for civilised nations.


The writer. Kiron Reid has been an OSCE LTO election observer in Ukraine, Georgia and Macedonia. He is an honorary volunteer professor at Zaporizhzhia National University in south east Ukraine (visiting Ukraine five times since 2014) and a member of the Liberator collective.

March 16 note. The poisoning in Salisbury of Sergei Skripal in March 2018 makes no difference, whether Russia is blamed (the UK Government line) or we should await for the outcome of a full investigation to establish the facts (the Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Opposition, Labour Party, line). The Russian State had passed beyond the pale a long time ago. The only thing the poisoning and outrage might do, along with the impact of fact based drama like ‘McMafia’ is lead to the British Government finally tightening up on Russian (and other dodgy) money stashed in London.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Lib Dem leadership stifles debate on Europe - and U-turns on a promise?

After 400+ party members signed a petition to trigger a special conference to debate a Stop Brexit policy, the powers that be in the Liberal Democrats agreed to a compromise where they would enable the policy to be debated at autumn conference in Bournemouth in exchange for the petition being withdrawn.

But now, at the last minute, it seems that the party’s Federal Conference Committee (FCC) has broken a promise to remain neutral in a crucial conference vote this Saturday and will now oppose the attempt to suspend standing orders to allow a Stop Brexit policy motion to be debated in place of a scheduled “consultation” session on Brexit.

In a blogpost, Andrew Hickey, one of the organisers of the special conference petition, has detailed how the organisers reluctantly agreed to cancel the demand for a special conference (in order to save the party the estimated £15,000 cost of holding it) after the FCC proposed the standing orders vote as a potential solution.

In an email to the organisers, Andrew Wiseman, Chair of the FCC, promised that:
“FCC has said it will not oppose the suspension of standing orders. Some members are in favour and other are against, but as a committee it has said it will not oppose and will be neutral. When I speak to the FCC report I will make it clear that FCC do not oppose this.”

After the organisers reluctantly agreed to this compromise, nothing further was heard until last week when someone in the higher levels of the party briefed against the Stop Brexit policy motion to that well-known organ of Liberal opinion the Daily Mirror.

Then, on Saturday, FCC voted to oppose the suspension of standing orders in a 5-4 vote – with at least one FCC member claiming they had not been told that Andrew Wiseman had promised the petition organisers that FCC would remain neutral on the issue.

FCC also voted for a wrecking amendment to be debated alongside the Stop Brexit policy motion (should said debate take place) which would replace the heart of the motion with a policy of wanting a second referendum to accept or reject the government’s Brexit deal – the same policy that saw the Liberal Democrats score their lowest post-World War II vote share in this year’s general election.  Wrecking amendments cannot be taken for debate according to Conference Standing Orders.

Liberator Collective member George Potter, a supporter of the motion, tells us that:
"Once again it seems that, rather than risk members democratically deciding whether the party’s policy should be principled opposition to Brexit completely or just calling for a second referendum, the Liberal Democrat leadership would rather use underhand and deceitful tactics to stop the debate from even taking place.

If they are successful, not only will the party’s members have been robbed of their say on one of the most important issues of the time, but the party won’t have another chance to decide a Brexit policy until the end of 2018, less than six months before the UK is due to leave the EU."

All of which will be a new test for Cable's new chief of staff Sarah Olney, who as a post-2015 member is unlikely to have seen any proper Conference rows (until now).  Did she encourage FCC leadership drones into this U-turn - or was she given lessons by those who led the party into its Coalition-era car-crash on the NHS Bill?

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.

TheLibDems.org

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 (LibDems.org), 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.