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.
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!

Friday, 14 May 2010

Constitution Reform (and communicating this)

Well, now that people are out on the streets demonstrating for constitutional reform and fair votes, it will take all our intelligence and resources to put the case for a system of proportional representation. It hasn't got off to a good start.

There is so much serious mis-understanding about what's been proposed relating to the dissolution of Parliament, it's hard to know where to begin. But here's a few facts and some ventured opinion:

  • We do not have a Constitution, written or otherwise, in the UK
  • A Vote of No Confidence is not the same as a call for the dissolution of Parliament
  • A vote of No Confidence would be won if a majority of MPs  ie 50% + one MP voted that way
  • Currently, only the Prime Minister may call on our Monarch to dissolve Parliament and at a time of his/her choosing
  • The agreement between the Tories and LibDems to go for a fixed, 5-year Parliament necessitates the need for a change in how Parliament may be dissolved
  • The proposed rule change puts more power, not less, in the hands of the executive (MPs)
  • Opposition parties may form their own coalition following a Vote of No Confidence in the existing administration and if so, it would run for the remainder of the term. If they were unable to reach a coalition, there would be, de facto, a general election.
  • The AV system of voting is not proportional (but is a move in the right direction (IMHO)
  • The depth and scale of our economic plight will not be properly dealt with if we do not commit to give it a decent and long-term go
  • We need a written Constitution with a built-in system of PR for voters
But how to get this across to the electorate? Rallies? Use of Digital media? Education of journalists and  perhaps particularly The Guardian's Vikram Dodd. (Do make sure you read the comments his readers have posted, and especially those of John Morrison). 

Most importantly, we need to put the facts and argue our case logically in front of the electorate.  Sadly, we don't seem to be doing so well at this, despite a campaign which has been running for the last 126 years. We know that print media will largely continue to misrepresent and distort. Traditional broadcast media isn't much better. We have to appeal to a new generation and use our digital skills and expertise. Oh yes, and we still need to get out onto the streets!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Coalition Day!

Well, didn't see this coming ...
 Coalition partners! Let's hope that five years in power will bring about a real and fundamental change to our electoral system, a step at a time ...

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

A rock and a hard place

Day 5 and tortuous negotiations between the LibDems, Conservatives and the Labour Party continue with little prospect of a satisfactory outcome - either for the country (National Interest) or for those of us that feel passionately about electoral reform. On offer, a Tory deal guaranteeing a referendum on AV (a system that is not proportionately representative, but may turn out to be the least worst option); or the Labour Party's offer to legislate without a referendum and which may not be deliverable anyway (aside from any criticism that such a move would create an unsustainable and unstable government (the maths simply don't add up).

In both of the main parties, the dogs are being unleashed (Dr John Reid, David Blunkett, Dr Liam Fox to name but three). Also ranged against the case for reform Nick Robinson of the BBC (who is being particularly partisan in this matter) and virtually all the national media in the UK which, no doubt, would have a field day slamming any such deal.

Whichever way the LibDems go, the traps will be sprung:
a) supporting a coalition of 'losers' (Lib-Lab)
b) creating a hugely unstable 'rainbow/progressive' coalition which is certain to lead to another General Election in the near future
b) supporting a minority government (Lib-Conservative), not given a mandate to govern by the British Electorate and whose policies on Europe, immigration, dealing with the national debt etc etc are anathema to all LibDem voters.

But the LibDems must stay firm in their call for a better electoral system or the country will continually be faced with a make-up of MPs that do not reflect the wishes of the people. And it is under our current system of electing MPs that we are in this position.

It is necessary to de-construct the arguments now being put forward against a reform of the system a reform of the system

A further demonstration is planned for Saturday 15th in Central London. And whatever the eventual outcome, the momentum for reform is growing and must be maintained if we are ever going to extricate ourselves from the current stupid First-Past-the-Post system.

In the National Interest, the deal that must be done is the one that most closely paves the way realistically to a system of PR.

Friday, 7 May 2010

People Power & voting for change

In 1884 a man called Sir John Lubbock, Liberal MP for Maidstone under Gladstone, "threw himself with tremendous enthusiasm" into a campaign for proportional representation and co-founded the Proportional Representation Society, (much) later to become the Electoral Reform Society.

Today, Friday 7th May 2010, we have a hung parliament for the first time since 1974 and the leader of the Liberal Democrats,  Nick Clegg occupies a position that enables him to bring about change to our voting system forever. He must not abandon or compromise his Liberal principles.

The City (and the Conservative Party) are running scared and their friends in the media mostly collude to deny the electorate the fundamental right to have each vote cast count. Cameron offers the prospect of talks about talks and committees while the non-elected Gordon Brown becomes a latter-day convert to electoral reform (in theory anyway)and a referendum on PR, promised by his party in 1997 has yet to materialise.

The Labour Party's commitment and record on reform is both fickle and feeble, but the electorate has spoken, and voted (where they have been able to ... in Hackney and numerous other polling stations up and down the country, voters have been disenfranchised through incompetence, but that's another story).

I have a book with the rather un-catchy title:  Science, Politics and Business in the Work of Sir John Lubbock - A Man of Universal Mind This illustrates how such a system might work and gets to the heart of how and why the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) cheats the voters. See also

For this cause, John Lubbock held extensive roadshows in 1884 and 1885 and as a "Twitterer" of his day, promoted the idea of PR at amazingly well-attendied public rallies - "Suffolk on 15th December, Machester 17th December, Leicester on 13th January, Nottingham 14th, Greenwich 20th, Lambeth 23rd, Islington 27th, St Pancras 29th, Liverpool 5th February ..." a brief respite for the birth of his new baby daughter, before resuming in Tower Hamlets, Norwich and Oxford.

Today, we have Flashmobs and the internet to perform that function; to rally and mobilise. The electorate is asking today what a select few with the vote then were asking for way back in 1884. Clegg has both opportunity and risk. He will be accused of trying to fiddle with the voting system for self-not-National-interest while Britain descends even further into a black financial abyss. But such change is desirable, inevitable and essential and Clegg must negotiate forcefully to get proportional representation in place before we have yet another farce of a General Election. And there may be one soon, so not a moment to waste.

It seems such opportunities only come round once every century. Funny how you wait for a bus then two come at once. So the Big Question is who will Nick get into bed with and who is most likely to deliver on a promise of electoral reform? It is in the National Interest to ensure that our chosen political representatives reflect the wishes of the electorate. Clearly, under our present system of First-Past-thePost (FPTP), the system has broken down and is in urgent need of repair and renewal, fit-for-purpose and the 21st century. The system we have now serves only to protect vested interests and is an affront to democracy.

If Nick Clegg achieves the legacy of PR he will be in a good company. As well as his campaigning for PR, John Lubbock's legacy includes the creation of Bank holidays (once known as St Lubbock's Day, public libraries, the ability to write a cheque and the protection of public monuments.