Thursday, 28 March 2013

Cuckoos in the nest

There’s more than one cuckoo in my LibDem nest and I very much regret that Nick Clegg and cohorts, thought it reasonable or indeed 'liberal/Liberal', to whip his MPs into voting in favour of legislation that is nothing of the sort. I am, of course, referring to the Secret Courts fiasco.

I understand there were 'rebels' who did not take the same view as Nick Clegg - and happily, my father, Lord Avebury, founding member the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group was amongst them, along with 28 other Members of the Upper House.
However, whilst compromises may have been necessary in the exercise of power and co-operation within the Coalition, these should not include compromises of fundamental Liberal/liberal principles and values.
I do recognise that there have been LibDem successes in the Coalition, and yet we have done little to distinguish ourselves in the eyes of the general public, and at the same time, we are seriously in danger of asking our membership for one compromise too much.
Somewhere and somehow, our core values and principles appear to have become eroded, and our Parliamentarians are failing to hear the voices of its membership (and Conference).


As a Party, we should value our heritage as this surely tells us about our present and our future. Some of us can just about remember a time when our elected representatives were still admired and respected, including former leader, Jo Grimondunder whose tenure as MP for Orkney and Shetland the first post-war Liberal revival took place. The Party doubled the number of seats, and won a number of by-elections including that of my father, Eric, at Orpington in 1962.
According to the Liberal Democrat History Group, "Grimond's leadership of the Liberal Party from 1956-67 made a difference not just to the fortunes of his party but to British politics, helping to end the two-party mould into which Britain had seemed to settle".
This is the position we, as a Party, are again experiencing. So it is perhaps appropriate we should look back at our historical roots. Grimond was popular for speaking out, and raising issues that many politicians of  his day, did not. In his book, "The Liberal Challenge",
he addresses head on, the fundamental "philosophy and faith upon which Liberal policy is based", and the kind of society we might aspire to be. 
I am aware that, in order to win both the confidence and votes of the Electorate, our policies and purpose must be clear, credible and costed - as well as distinctly 'Liberal'. In striving to be popular and electable, it is the loss of such Liberal values that I fear. In coalition, it seems we are bound at the hip to the Tories, having to participate in the introduction of measures of necessity and austerity. But, I would argue, that doesn't mean we have to leave behind our principles and values at the door of No.10. 
There are some in our Party who accuse those of us concerned with these most fundamental principles of human rights, to be “fairweather’. It is true I have only been a Member of the Party a mere 37 years, and that I yearn to feel once again proud of being a Liberal. And I long for a Party leader who says: “We cannot vote in favour of this because it’s illiberal and is detrimental to our Society and our values”.  
As a Party with very limited funds at our disposal, ( beholden neither to corporate interests nor Union muscle), we have always had difficulty in communicating and explaining our policies and values to the electorate. And now, with a golden opportunity and platform to do so, we just keep screwing up - either because we are seen to be promoting a Tory agenda, or because the behaviour and ethics of some of our MPs and Peers is what attracts the media's attention.  
What I'd like to see is a 're-branding' our Party (with reformers at the helm). Maybe we should call ourselves 'The New Liberals' with a manifesto containing promises and policies that put our core values and philosophy at its heart. Of course, the last time we undertook such an exercise (remember the SDP/Alliance merger in 1989?) it ended pretty disastrously for the Party in my view. Although we did get the wonderful Shirley Williams as a result. But we are in a new century and our politics and policies must be ‘fit-for-purpose’, and the test is: Are our Parliamentarians successfully adhering to and promoting the soul of our Party?
I think, to return to our old friend, Jo Grimond, maybe what the Party needs right now is a true "reformer"; someone that can - and will - be successful in promoting the cause of democracy. Thus far, it seems to me that in Government we have mostly failed miserably on this count,  the AV Referendum and reform of the House of Lords come to mind.
And, of course, it's not just the issue of Secret Courts that concerns those of us who feel strongly about the maintenance, protection and promotion of human rights, and the direction of the Party. There is also the issue of legal aid, and a system of justice that is fair to all. 
We cannot expect or rely on a hostile media to explain our position on human rights. And results from the late-night horse-trading following the Leveson Inquiry are still to be tested. 
My loyalty to this Party is, I know, partially inherited, but I have always felt comfortable in this political space. I do not, however, wish to share my nest with a cuckoo! 


Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Who was Sir John Lubbock?


"We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth"
JOHN LUBBOCK, The Pleasures of Life



Who was Sir John Lubbock? Firstly, he was my Great Grandfather, and in May this year, it will be 100 years since his death. He served as MP for Maidstone in Kent for 29 years. According to Wiki, he had "four main political agendas: promotion of the study of science in primary and secondary schools; the national debt, free trade, and related economic issues; protection of ancient monuments; securing of additional holidays and shorter working hours for the working classes.[1]
Although he undoubtedly had an incredibly broad range of interests and achievements, he is perhaps best known for The Bank Holidays Act of 1871 which, in their day, were known as "St Lubbock's Day". And yes, he was a banker. In this role, he  introduced a clearing system for provincial banks in 1858 and was the first President of The Institute of Bankers until his death in 1913. (I believe he even hoofed it over to Greece to help in an attempt to sort out the failing Greek economy.) Other legislation he successfully introduced and steered through Parliament (in a prolific way that could hardly be contemplated or attributable to a single individual MP these days) includes: 

Certificate of thanks to Sir John Lubbock from
the President of the Dental Reform Committee, August 1878
  • Shop Hours Act,
  • the Early Closing Act 1900 (to reduce the permitted hours of work in shops and offices)
  • the Open Spaces Act
  • Public Libraries Act
  • The Ancient Monuments Act 1882 which paved the way for the creation of English Heritage and the first legislation of its kind anywhere in the world. 
  • He also successfully worked towards the recognition of dental surgery as a profession for the first time in the Dentists Act 1878.
John Lubbock was also an amateur scientist, working closely with his neighbour in Downe, Kent, one Charles Darwin. I don't know if it it was his acknowledged 'corrections' of Darwin's statistics in Origin of the Species (they exchanged considerable correspondence on this matter), but he eventually reached the esteemed position of President of the Royal Statistical Society (1900 - 1902).In those heady days, it is clear that (admittedly, privileged) individuals could indulge their passions and interests in such a way as it is nigh-on impossible to find evidenced today. In 1865, he coined the terms  "Palaeolithic" and "Neolithic" and he is widely credited with the birth of Archaelogy as a recognised scientific discipline. Indeed, it was after the beautiful and enigmatic archeological treasure of Avebury in Wiltshire that Sir John took the title Lord Avebury in 1900.
And, one of my personal favourites - and the original inspiration for this blog, the founding in January 1884 of the Proportional Representation Society (which later became the Electoral Reform Society in 1958).
Unlike my brother, Lyulph (who is an expert on our family history), I rarely visit this family past in any depth, but perhaps on the occasion of my great grandfather's death 100 years ago, a little indulgent reflection may be understood and tolerated. What I do find a little disconcerting and surprising, is just quite how relevant his work and interests are to the politics and uncertainties of today - whether it'sthe use and function of public libraries, the protection of ancient monuments, working hours, dealing with the National Debt and debt defaults in the Eurozone, or the promotion of science in the curriculum. 

Plus ├ža change.


Reference sources:
The Royal Society - Avebury's Circle (March 2013)
The Royal Society - Election Card

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Grappling, groping and groaning

Another fantastic LibDem 'own goal' with the on-going Lord Rennard saga. I've never met him personally, but was shocked today when a friend of my mother's half-jokingly asked me if I'd ever been groped. I can honestly say the only LibDem groping I've had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of was at a  Party Conference in Blackpool way back in the 70s. It was entirely consensual and with another passionate Young Liberal who subsequently became a 'special friend'.

But on the subject of groping, I have been amazed at how poorly the party machinery seems to have reacted to these allegations, with one or two notable exceptions (Simon Hughes, Stephen Tall amongst them).

Debate within the party appears to be moving towards questioning the party's commitment to equal opportunities, and that surely will bring us right back to the issue of positive discrimination or selection of PPCs.

I have, on more than one occasion, considered putting myself through the Parliamentary candidate selection procedure, but having seen "Westminster Life" up close and personal, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have either the stamina - or indeed the necessary ambition - to subject myself and my family to such an experience. After all, I've not even succeeded in converting my beloved hubbie of 30 years who, like me, has his own 'Tribal loyalties' and only extended politically to supporting my term as an elected Councillor in Hackney in the 80s.

With the imminent Eastleigh by-election and once again, an anticipated plummet in the polls, I wonder how long it'll be before party members start to query Clegg's competence, and even if there isn't a move to replace Clegg before the next election, who's the alternative when the time does come?

As a party, we are in serious danger of sinking into obscurity unless someone quickly gets a grip and I do therefore seriously hope that one thing Chris Rennard might have achieved when he could have, is to train up and mentor a suitable "Election Campaigning Supremo", since his reputation in that respect remains untarnished.


Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Happy Days!

If I believed in God, I would give thanks for the Election of Obama to a 2nd term of office at the Whitehouse. As it is, I shall revel in relief that it was not Mitt Romney that received the majority vote. His verbal assault on the rights of women, his religious extremism, his complete lack of understanding, empathy or desire to address the problems of those less well off than he etc etc; We can - and should - all give a great sigh of relief!

But the problems of the so-called 'free world' are far from over and there is so much still to be done to address inequality, poverty, abuses of human rights and dignities. Our politicians on this side of the Pond, are a pretty woeful bunch with a distinct dearth of inspiration, creativity, optimism, competence and little engagement with voters. Apathy will, no doubt, demonstrate itself again shortly with locally 'elected' Police and Crime Commissioners



Sunday, 29 May 2011

Mettle and muscles


A necessary period of reflection following the disastrous AV Referendum, albeit with the (very small) consolation prize of being a resident of Hackney which succeeded in securing the highest "Yes2AV" vote in the country. 

My own modest campaigning efforts which included a stint on a stall in Broadway Market, revealed the difficulty in explaining the intracacies of the proposed (inferior) AV system to voters, but also a disinct malaise amongst the electorate, many of whom seemed unmotivated and unmoved to even vote. Despite the best efforts of representatives from all main parties, the media succeeded in reducing the whole debate to an anti-Clegg issue - and that's without the dirty tricks, lies and confusion created by the No2AV campaign

However, as Dr Mark Park so eloquently puts it in his article, it's not time to abandon one our fundamental policies (one of four). We have been campaigning on electoral reform for an exceedingly long time (as this blog is testament to). The issue has never been one to light up the doorstep or letterbox with either interest or enthusiasm. We came so tantalisingly close to actually having a debate on our political system, but somehow we blew it. 

On a personal level, I never thought the slogan, "Make your MPs work harder" was any good - or even accurate in terms of its assertion. I have always believed LibDem MPs (and LibDem Peers) work incredibly hard. At the same time, it's a great shame that the media has been handed a "Golden Scoop" award for their stories on MPs Chris Huhne and David Laws.

As an issue of fairness and equality, electoral reform transcends traditional Party political boundaries and should therefore rightly be broadened out to beyond ownership and identification with any one individual party. As Unlock Democracy highlights in a recent article on the lessons to be learned from the referendum, a Citizen's movement is needed. The basis of any such movement already exists across the various entities that campaigned for a change to our voting system and other important constitutional reforms.

Meanwhile, the LibDems in Government have an ideal opportunity to continue pressing not just for constitutional reform, but on the other key platforms that formed the basis of coalition conditions and agreement. But we need to make it absolutely clear that we will not - and cannot - sacrifice our principles and policies where no such an agreement even exists. This is perhaps what Clegg means by "muscular libralism". 

Alongside any new 'flexing of muscles', I for one would like to see a whole new strategy and approach to our communications policy as a party. We need to be smarter, clearer and considerably more articulate in getting our messages and policies across to the electorate. We cannot rely on the traditional media to give us a fair hearing or to report without bias. And we must try to win back the younger electorate, many of whom feel so deeply disappointed and disillusioned with our stance on tuition fees (another policy that we failed to get across properly).

It is absolutely clear that electoral support for our traditional two-party system has diminished considerably in the post-war years - despite the considerable set-back in the recent local government elections. We have previously fought our way back from way back in the polls but it has always been from a position in opposition. We now have the opportunity to really demonstrate our mettle and our muscle! 

Saturday, 6 November 2010

On popularity (or lack of it!)

LibDem MP, Jeremy Browne, got a right drubbing in last week's BBC Question Time - and that was from the impartial chair of the panel, David Dimbleby, never mind the audience barracking. Admittedly, the venue was in Sheffield where many young voters are disgusted at the Lib Dem's broken manifesto pledge on tuition fees, and a failure to understand the Sheffield Forgemasters' issue.

The problem, as I see it, is that the electorate does not understand the nature of coalition, which is hardly surprising given the hostility of most of the media. The message, "but we didn't win the election, no-one did" - and by implication, 'there's not much we can do except limit Tory excesses' - is not one that is winning any friends. Coalition necessarily means compromise, but not abandon ones' principles and values. We are portrayed as having lost sight of both in favour of a wee taste of power - and some in the party feel that wee taste is laced with poison.

Now that the AV Campaign is underway, it's imperative that a clear, concise case is made to encourage a 'YES' response to the referendum. If, at the end of six months, people do not vote for a change (and improvement ) to our voting system, there a real danger that democracy in our country will take a retrograde step generally and for the LibDems specifically who will I fear once again be consigned to the wilderness of minority opposition, a position that is perhaps only marginally worse than that of 'Junior Coalition Partner'.

Elections are shortly being held for the role of President of the Liberal Democrats. My vote will be given to whoever I think can best help re-establish Lib Dem credibility with the electorate as well as our unique and radical identity. And the electorate will need to be reminded that the MPs expenses scandal is just one example that should convince us of the need for greater accountability and better representation.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Austerity Coupling: factions and frictions

I have been quiet for some time, reflecting (for this is my personality trait) on the proposed referendum on a change to our antiquated 'first-past-the-post' (FPTP) voting system. The AV referendum is hardly ideal, and does not offer a truly proportionately representative alternative. It is simply a step along the way - and arguably the best deal that could be extracted by the LibDem leadership after the election,  a deal with the Labour Party never having been a serious proposition.

But now that the LibDems are in the position they are, many other equally pressing matters of State are calling for attention: the economy, the NHS, Education, Defence etc etc. As junior partners in this  "Austerity Coupling", the LibDem leadership has had to adapt to pragmatic politics, tempering excesses where possible. If the right wing of today's Conservative Party were to have its way, the British people would undoubtedly suffer even more.

Facing all kinds of navigational hazard, splintering apart as a party is not an attractive option. Instead, uniting with passion, purpose and determination is the LibDems' best bet. Of course many grassroots members - as well as first-time LibDem voters - may be anxious about what's being delivered, but there is little evidence to suggest mass (or even individual defections a la Labour's mischief-making over Charles Kennedy).

And the role of the LibDem leadership must remain getting our agenda onn the political agenda, influencing, implementing or changing as necessary . So where are we now?

Human Rights
Another clear example of how important it is for LibDems to influence the coalition. Our own record is strong and our human rights policies would certainly create a more equal balance - both internationally and at home.
Civil Liberties
Fantastic - the dumping of the compulsory ID card scheme, and a reduction in excessive and intrusive surveillance. Happily, this is something we have in common with the Tories. However, a reduction in the interventions of the State will not alone guarantee our freedoms.
The Economy
Yes, the austerity measures are painful but necessary if we are not to saddle our successors and children with huge burdens of debt. Someone has to pay back for past over-spending that we now cannot afford (Remember to factor in the lives lost and cost of the wars the taxpayer is required to finance). The looming pensions crisis affects all those who follow, and already many older people are affected. But a link between earnings and the state pension as been restored. And another good LIbDem policy has been the promise and delivery of the £10,000 earnings tax threshold. Plus Vince Cable MP is looking at reform of the banking sector.
Education
The Pupil Premium is being introduced, to assist disadvantaged children. That is a good achievement, but, as the old cliche goes, "there's still room for improvement".  And I fear that Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education, is not the most sympathetic partner. I am also terribly concerned about the existence, influence and state funding of faith schools, now representing one in the three of the schools educating our primary age children.
Does it matter that the LibDems are unpopular?
I feel that Liberal Democrats are failing to get across many positive and welcome policies that contribute to the LIbDem agenda. Nick Clegg is tarnished and branded as a stooge and foil for the Tories. Sadly, we lost the talented and intelligent David Laws MP. Our Defence policies and unlikely to yield much influence with the Conservative Party (Abolish Trident? I don't think so!)

Yes, unpopular decisions have had to be taken. Ultimately, Liberal Democrats will be judged at election time by the electors (whenever within the next five years that proves to be). A recent LibDem survey asked its  Members' views on whether or not the Party should seek to reach an understanding on contesting seats at the next election. I have always believed that we should offer the electorate a proper choice and that we should contest seats on our party's policies.

Under our existing FPTP system, Liberal Democrats are naturally disadvantaged, and so actually is the electorate. One vote does not equal fair representation. Those who can be bothered to vote should understand what's at stake. There is considerable hostility to overcome (the media, political opponents, some voters). The case for AV will need to be clear and voters treated respectfully and intelligently.

Musician and political activist, Brian Eno, says he was motivated to join the LibDems because "they had the courage to take 'unpopular decisions' - out of principle rather than from electoral calculation. He goes on to highlight that under the last Labour government, the electorate was "governed by a party which received just 22 per cent of the eligible vote, but took 55 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons".

I have been re-reading a little book entitled: Why Vote LibDem, (written before the coalition was formed). Particularly interesting is Danny Alexander's preface. We may have moved outside the old red-blue, blue-red system to a new blue-orangey/yellow-kind-of-colour. The point, however, is does the party's position live up to its policy and commitments?  The Jury's  out although there's time in hand before judgement is delivered. One thing is certain; we have to work hard to make sure that there is a proper reform of our voting system and if that means taking an AV step forward, we will have to content ourselves with that - for the time being and Keep demonstrating!