Monday, July 25, 2011

Liberals - NOT defined as centrists

Someone recently described the Liberal Democrats as a centrist party. Here's what I thought of that in 2005 and it's still true.

What’s left ?

During the [2005] general election various journalists with self-satisfied smirks, indicating that they thought they were doing something clever, would ask a Liberal Democrat, “Are you left of Labour ?” as if the question meant something. As well ask, “ Are you against sin ? Are you for motherhood and virginity ? (perhaps not in that order)”. Why don’t they do something useful instead, like delivering some focuses or, God forbid, writing some ? They would ask it as if the categories of twentieth or even nineteenth century debate were still meaningful, as if the terms “Left” and “Right” conveyed the same meaning to the speaker and all the listeners. The BBC website even had a page supposed to help the anxious enquirer in resolving the question.

How many of these scribblers, quibblers and mediacrats know that the terms “Left” and “Right” were coined before the arrival of socialism, before Karl Marx was a gleam in his mother’s eye (My favourite story about Karl was what his mother said when he was working on his magnum opus, “Why doesn’t he stop writing about it and make some ?” Just what my mother would have said.) As all Liberator readers know and could tell Jeremy Paxman, the terms derive from the 1791 Legislative Assembly during the French Revolution, where the monarchists sat on the right and the Jacobins on the left. Hence the general idea that the left favours change and the right opposes it. It is in that broad sense that Kremlinologists after 1989 described communists as right wing and free-market-reformers as left wing. And what of the Thatcher years in Britain? Who favoured change and who opposed it ?

In the twentieth century, socialism was seen as progressive and therefore left-wing and the right wing as defined by Wikipedia (the online encyclopaedia) referred “...with no particular precision to the segment of the political spectrum in opposition to left-wing politics”. The party regarded as the most right wing was of course the German National Socialists. OK, let’s not be pedantic. We know that language wanders about but there comes a point where it is actually off the map. The cause of this confusion lies deeper than historical meandering. The attempt to reduce all political dialogue to “Left” and “Right” presumes one axis of debate, an axis which is itself always shifting. To imagine that all social concerns can be expressed along one axis is as daft as the Brobdignagian struggle over the correct end at which to open an egg. Even to imagine that most issues fit on one axis, with the occasional exceptions subject to a free vote, is to stifle and limit discussion not to widen and encourage it.

Those who want to defend the use of “Left” and “Right” will characterise the first as being about state ownership, equality and the interests of the working class and the second about private enterprise, liberty and the interests of the middle class. These seemingly opposed ingredients have long been blended into a fusion of school dinners that would make Jamie Oliver throw up. In most industrialised societies we expect levels of taxation and public services unimagined by “Left” and “Right” of years gone by and mixtures of public and private ownership; our class systems are not bipolar and most people consider other aspects of their existence more important than their class; material equality is no longer expected and liberty is undervalued and taken for granted despite the depredations of David Blunkett and Charles Clarke. The British political parties do not fight on these grounds any more but offer different presentations of much the same mixtures. They try to attract the electorate not by solid principle but by the superficial and cosmetic. Like nouvelle cuisine, some of the policies look interesting but the meal is unsatisfying (and overpriced).

All right, you say, we’ve got it. “Left” and “Right” are old hat and should be removed from all lexicons, school books and road signs. But what, you continue in your insidious way, do you propose instead ? Enough negative campaigning, eh ? Well, just one more negative. I don’t propose that giddy (or Giddeny) goulash of nonsense Mr. Blair’s friend at the London School of Economics (and now the House of Lords) chose to call “the Third Way” as if there were no more than two to start with. I do, however, look to one of the LSE’s more interesting directors, Ralf Dahrendorf. In his book, “Class and class conflict in industrial society” (1959), he suggested a new model of class based on the distinction between those who exert authority over others (the command class) and those who are subject to authority but exercise none themselves (the obey class). Here is a model that a Liberal understands instinctively. In 1979, he proposed the idea of “life chances”, a combination of the range of choices available to an individual (options) and the social connections in that individual’s life (ligatures). In 1974 in the Reith lectures he suggested changing the subject of history, away from the debate about the role of the state in the economy. The real issues are about control not ownership, accountability to the public rather than the stock exchange or the treasury. Politics, based upon people’s needs and wants rather than their jobs or investments, requires more than one axis.

We can make a small advance by considering two axes. Make no mistake, this is still a model. The map is not the territory, but it helps you work out where you’re going. In 1954 H.L.Eysenck in “The Psychology of Politics” demonstrated a two-axis model with Radical----Conservative on the x axis and Authoritarian-----Democratic on the y axis. If you looked at the usual Left-Right x axis, the Liberals were in the middle. If you changed the subject of history and looked at the y axis, the Liberals were on the democratic end and everyone else was between the middle and the authoritarian end. A similar and more developed analysis is available in modern form on the website with a questionnaire which places you on a two-dimensional graph. The website which monitors voting in the House of Commons has produced a graph by cluster analysis which looks very like the same pattern, with Liberal Democrat MPs’ votes grouped in the middle of the first axis but up one end of the second one. I offer these references for further research and do not attempt further summary. They can provide a thoughtful answer to the tedious “Are you to the left of Labour ?” but not one that even Lembit Opik could condense into a soundbite.

A variation on the journalists’ question is the one confronting the 62 Liberal Democrat MPs, “How should the party position itself ?”. I hope this question will also be considered by the party as a whole even though Charles Kennedy has now joined David Steel in his contempt for the Party Conference, which he characterises as “... a brief desultory debate in a largely empty hall” as opposed, I imagine, to a completely packed kitchen cabinet. Many, bruised and battered by the election campaign, will seek a psephological answer. My calculations show Liberal Democrats now in second place in 105 Labour seats and 83 Conservative seats, but in the 23 seats needing less than a 5% swing, the balance is different: 14 Conservative and 9 Labour. The 62 MPs already elected may pay more attention to the parties challenging them; 44 face a Conservative challenge, 17 a Labour one and one a challenge from Plaid Cymru. At first glance, the maths suggests that the competition is for Conservative votes, but it isn’t that simple. The Conservative vote is much more solid than the Labour one as we found out in the election and many Liberal Democrats depend more upon squeezing the Labour vote than they do upon picking up Conservative votes. In the end, the decision should not depend upon these numbers because it is impossible as well as unprincipled to seek a position, defined by its relationship to other parties’ positions, which are themselves changing.

It would be a foolish and dispiriting experience for the party to spend the next few years agonising over the left-right argument. It would also be self-defeating because that debate ignores our Liberal heritage and defines us instead in other people’s terms. Nor should we seek some new and magical middle ground. Remember, that’s one-axis thinking. It is not enough to say we believe in social progress and reform, a phrase that echoed round the leadership hustings a few years ago. Both the state and the market can serve the needs of the individual but neither is the solution to all problems. Both can concentrate power in the hands of the few and ignore the wishes of the many, both can deny diversity and reduce freedom. New Labour’s combination of private provision of public services and micro-managed Treasury targets combines the disadvantages of state and market and loses the benefits of each. We should build on our traditional emphasis on choice for all, on the value of diversity. To revert to the French Revolution, the Tories are still the Right, Labour are the centralising Jacobins and we are the Girondins with a firm faith in decentralised government. As the Conservatives cast around desperate for new ideas, don’t let them steal ours because, in the end, Liberalism is what’s left.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Aloha! Could Obama have become Prime Minister ?

Good question for a pub quiz : Which American state flies the British flag (Union flag, only a jack when flown on a ship)? Hawaii. Listening to Radio 4's Excess Baggage on Saturday morning, I learned that at one point Hawaii could have become British. You have to wonder what chance would Obama have had of becoming Prime Minister ! Not much is my guess.

So farewell, Amy Winehouse

Guess what ! There's more important things going on than Amy Winehouse dying. Nobody invaded her house, bombed it or shot her. I'm sorry for her, of course, but why don't we praise the rock stars who manage their artistic lives without substance abuse or wrecked relationships ? Now that would be a role model.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Custard pie moment eclipses Murdoch's replies

The picture shows Jonathan May-Bowles (allegedly) in a check shirt attacking Rupert Murdoch with a custard pie. Wendy Murdoch (dark hair and red dress back to camera) is about to get up and clout May-Bowles, who apparently tweets as JohnnyMarbles.

According to Lord Bonkers, Molesworth blamed the pie on Peason. Bonkers also avers that he twittersphere suggests that Rupert Murdoch's defence is that he has never heard of the News of the World. Someone also commented that Murdoch has also denied all knowledge of the custard pie.

Shock new witness on hacking

So what will the committee be asking Pamella Bordes ?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

I think we should be told.

Has anyone notice the remarkable resemblance between Rebekah Brookes and Judge Jefferies ? Of course the difference is that one of them took bribes...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Daily Mail, stop writing crap !

The European Parliament's Culture and Education Committee debated a motion on the European dimension in sport this week, UKIP salivated and the Daily Mail and the Daily Express foamed at the mouth.

Here's the idea that shocked our great patriotic newspapers:
"The European Parliament...
26. Proposes that the European flag should be flown at major sports events held on EU territory and suggests that it should be displayed on the clothing of athletes from Member States; "

Here's how the Daily Mail reported it:
Brussels bureaucrats will today make a desperate bid to shore up their plans for a European superstate by forcing British sports players to wear the EU flag on their strips.
The shock plans will demand that all of the country's national heroes in sports such as football, rugby and cricket, display the blue and yellow flag - or face hefty fines of thousands of pounds.

Here's the boring truth. This is a draft report at committee stage. It's not even draft legislation as the European Parliament has no power to initiate legislation. The suggestion was the 26th item in a report which even UKIP acknowledged was a good report. The European Parliament are not Brussels bureaucrats, they are elected politicians and the actual bureaucrats, the European Commission,merely wait to receive the report. Would the Mail call MPs Westminster bureaucrats ? Nothing in the report calls for fines.

As Julia Gillard told the Murdoch press, so I say to the Mail and the Express: Stop writing crap ! Time to listen again to the great Dan and Dan's Daily Mail song.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sleeping with the enemy

Whilst I sympathise with anyone whose privacy has been violated by the Murdoch press, my condolence with Gordon Brown is attenuated by the consideration that he and his colleagues were in bed with the digger for years. I recall that one of Gordon's first foreign jaunts at our expense was to call upon Murdoch at his ranch. Nor in thirteen years of government did New Labour make any attempt to regulate or weaken the concentration of ownership of the media and the undemocratic power that it confers.

It's a bit late to complain now, Gordon.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Murdoch blames the workers !

So Murdoch has closed The News of the World. So what ! The website The SunonSunday has just been registered. The same old rubbish will be churned out under a different title and as long as people buy it, the advertisers will come back.

Come on, coalition ! Legislate to restrict concentration of media ownership now. Don't waste a good crisis.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

What are you doing about it, Vince ?

Last night BBC's File-on-4 explained some of the games bankers play. Finally I understood what a naked Credit Default Swap (CDS) is. You take out insurance against your investment in a government bond (or whatever) failing because the borrower defaults. However, unlike the insurance that you or I take out on our homes, cars, lives, you can sell the CDS to someone else, who does not hold the original investment. The CDS is now naked and it's owner has an interest in the original investment failing, as Greece is now finding out. The European Parliament is trying to outlaw some of these naked CDSs, but is running into opposition led by one member-state - the UK !

Over a year ago I asked Vince Cable what role he saw for the EU in financial regulation. He ducked the question, more or less suggesting that the UK could act without the EU. Come on, Vince ! I know you're Eurosceptic but I heard your attack on the bankers at the Social Liberal Forum. How about putting your money - or your supposed ministerial clout - where your mouth is ?

They're having a laugh !

Rarely does the Today programme make me laugh out loud. Simon Greenberg, Director of Corporate Affairs at News International managed it this morning. This satrap of the Murdoch empire opined to Jim Naughtie, "You're reaching a judgement without knowing all the facts. That's speculation. I can't comment until the facts are in."

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Midsummer in Copenhagen

What a glorious weekend we had in Somerset ! The gravel beaches were full of white blobby bodies turning red. I walked up Glastonbury Tor in the sunshine where there was so little breeze I could light my pipe with a match.

Not so glorious in Copenhagen. This film shows dramatic flooding in the streets of the Danish capital. Note how the Danes drive, cycle and walk through the floods with characteristic Scandinavian phlegm. I bet even the trains worked whereas the British train operators came up with a new excuse recently - railway tracks too hot. That's three seasonal excuses for railway failure: Summer - hot tracks, Autumn - leaves on line, Winter - wrong kind of snow. They just need some new excuse for the Spring. Any ideas ?

Monday, July 04, 2011

"Their Lordships die in the dark"

So wrote George Dangerfield in the Strange Death of Liberal England*, but their house lives on. In the opening words of the Parliament Act 1911, it is written: "...whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation..."

Mark Pack writes about the concessions behind the Act in Total Politics blog. What a pity one of them was not bringing in a Land Tax. A hundred years later let's abolish the house of the undead AND introduce Land Tax. Now that would be new politics, Nick.

(*Now the name of a an experimental/folk/indie group from Southsea.)

Friday, July 01, 2011

How many will be excluded from our conference ?

I asked Andrew Wiseman, Chair of the Liberal Democrat Conference Committee about exclusion of representatives from conference.He replied that "Conference Standing Orders allow us to exclude someone from conference. It is not something we would do lightly. As I have said given that the threshold of likely to cause a serious risk of harm to those attending conference or conference it is highly unlikely that any legitimate conference rep would be excluded."(My emphasis).

There are a number of problems with this reply. Firstly, Standing Orders do NOT empower anyone to exclude anyone. They only provide for an appeal from exclusion by the Chief Steward, a power which they do not confer on him. If he does exclude anyone, it can only be under Public Order legislation for behaviour during the conference, not because of some advance vetting procedure. Secondly, Andrew only says that it's highly unlikely that a "legitimate" rep would be excluded. Who decides who's legitimate ? Why should a legitimate rep be excluded at all ?

Zoe O'Connell asked Greater Manchester Police how many were excluded from last year's Labour Party Conference. Here's the answer: 11,988 people were vetted for the Labour Party Autumn Conference in 2010, 24 failed. (0.2%). Of course, the Labour Party wasn't even in power then, but we all know how much safer Jack Straw feels if anyone who shouts "rubbish" at him can be excluded using anti-terrorist legislation, don't we ?

I give the last word to the wonderful Dilly Keane and Fascinating Aida. I don't think the rozzers would let her in.