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Lib Dem disaster – you may as well blame the bird

By Angela Harbutt
May 28th, 2014 at 4:39 pm | 10 Comments | Posted in Europe, European Politics, Leadership, Liberal Democrats, Nannying

 

A lot has been said (and written) about why UKIP performed so well, and the Lib Dems so disastrously, last week. Much of the Lib Dem analysis has focused on the curse of coalition,  the thorny issue of Europe/migration (where the voters are merely misguided/stupid/plain wrong) and, more latterly, on playing the blame game -it wasn’t the message it was the messenger.

Sorry – it is none of the above. It is the simple fact that people don’t know what the Lib Dems are about …and don’t care about the things the party seems to care about, or simply disagree with them. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but people have had enough of bossy Europe, don’t want a nanny state that treats them like children and couldn’t give a toss about electoral reform.

In opposition, the LibDems were the party of protest – the “none of the above” party. With no one else on the block it had an easy ride.  It possibly didn’t matter that whilst some Lib Dem policies straddled the vast majority of its members – opposition to the Iraq war.. a stance against ID cards.. internationalism (although even there we all have our views on how to define that) – the rest of the policies were a mish-mash … a little bit liberal a little bit social democrat.  But no clarity. No one really knew what the Lib Dems stood for, (apart from “none of the above”) . To overcome this dog’s breakfast, each Lib Dem nuanced the message on any individual policy  to try to weave a cohesive message – inevitably sounding increasingly like political automatons than real people. The “curse of the coalition” has been simply to expose the fact that the Lib Dems don’t have a clear and simple proposition. (And no! asking the electorate to reward the party for making the ultimate sacrifice of going into coalition and/or for putting a stop on some Tory policies wont cut it)

Well now there is a new kid on the block. UKIP – which has an extra-ordinarily clear and simple message and (potentially devastating news for Lib Dems) it extends well beyond Europe and immigration.

Jeremy Brown summed it up pretty well on Question Time :

” …When it comes to globalisation our best prospects for being successful as a country are to be outward looking and internationalist, but I think there is a perfectly legitimate opposite view, and that is the view that UKIP put forward.

But that is not just what UKIP represent. And I think that the political classes and the media elite need to understand the state of mind of a lot of people, particularly beyond London, who are voting for UKIP… Now some of them may be racist or sexist. I am sure some of them are.

But I think some of them object to being told the whole time by that elite, what they should eat, what they should drink, what they should say, what they should believe in. And I think Nigel Farage for quite a lot of those people is just a big two fingers stuck up to what they feel is a hectoring out of touch elite. Now they may be unreasonable, they may be angry beyond the point they should be, but I think politicians in the other parties need to spend a little bit of time reflecting if there is a protest vote, why people are wanting to protest, and not just bandy all those people as being racist or what ever it might be.”

Actually I am not sure that UKIP opposes being “internationalist and outward looking” – they have a different solution. And to be honest I don’t agree that people are “angry beyond the point they should be” – I think the voters have a right to be bloody angry – and show it. But Jeremy is right that the UKIP rise much much more than being anti-EU.

Dig below the media caricature of UKIP and the message is plain and simple (and potentially rather attractive) – Return more power to an accountable Westminster – and deliver a Westminster that will interfere less. Of course there are some pretty unsavoury characters within UKIP and some rather unpleasant utterances from time to time. But the party is very young and voters (who are not as stupid as the elite seem to think) are willing to look past their mistakes in the belief that something exciting, clear and refreshingly straight-talking is being formed.

If the Lib Dems are to survive in any shape or form they need to stop being the party of “stop” or “none of the above” and find an equally clear, simple and human message that voters understand – and just to be clear …ideally one that a reasonable number of voters agree with and care about.

That is not a revelation. Many have been saying the same thing for some considerable time. The question is how to get to that point.

I think it is simple. For too long the Liberal Democrat party has been a party of fudge, priding itself on being a party of process, committees and sub-committees seemingly oblivious to the fact that this is the very heart of the problem. There are too many people with a slice of power but no accountability. Nick may be called leader – but he is in effect little more than the chief spokesperson – the face of the party – you may as well blame the bird as the leader for the disastrous results last week. As for conference… the party declares itself democratic but denies the vast majority of Lib Dem members the opportunity to vote on policy . That is not democratic that is elitist. You have to be one of the “in-crowd” to obtain a magical voting card – and have the means and opportunity to up-sticks and get to some far flung place to exercise that right.

And it is the elitism that permeates the very heart of the Lib Dems that sucks. We have bumbled along allowing too many elites on too many committees to exert power without any responsibility. They rejoice in getting one over on the leadership at conference- even when that message is out of kilter with the rest of the party, or indeed the wider voting public. And if they can get conference to pass a motion to form another panel or sub-committee to investigate x y or z policy, providing they can fill it with their buddies, they are in clover.

The Lib Dems has become a party run by smug middle classes who think they know best on everything. Better than the leadership, better than the constituents our MPs are supposed to serve.  If we allow the leadership to be batted from pillar to post and forced into pledges and promises they don’t agree with or cant deliver by countless numbers of committees and policy groups, voted through by a minority of activists at the seaside, we should not be surprised that the result is a disjointed message, political double-speak and a hopeless mass of contradictions. We are a party of freedom of speech but voted in favour of Leveson’s press restrictions (we hate Murdoch). We are the party who says “trust in people” but support the plain packaging of cigarettes and appear to want a fizzy drinks tax ( we only “trust in people” when they agree with us).  We want to champion “hard working” people – but heaven forbid that those people are sufficiently successful in their endeavours that they become rich because we will tax them to hell and back (basically we all work in the public sector).

While the Lib Dems play introspective sixth form politics, UKIP is getting on with the business of telling people what it stands for. Maybe that is because the smoking, drinking, straight-talking leader of UKIP is actually allowed to lead – not just be a figurehead. I am sure that Nick will say he has more power than that… perhaps… but not much.

Egos need to be crushed. Committees slashed. Decision making on policy and manifesto returned to those who are accountable. A camel is a horse designed by committee – and at the moment we are one sick-looking camel.

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Nick Clegg should say No Thank EU – UPDATE

By Angela Harbutt
August 8th, 2013 at 10:54 am | 7 Comments | Posted in EU, EU Politics, Europe, Uncategorized

So not only did Conservative MP Anna Soubry act in defiance of UK parliament when she hot-footed it over to Luxembourg to negotiate on behalf of the UK at a meeting of European ministers. We now know that her support for the European Commissions proposals at that meeting was decisive in giving the green light to the Tobacco Products Directive.

In a letter (dated July 31st) to Bill Cash MP (Chairman, House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee) Soubry says:

“The committee asked whether the UK’s support was vital to a General Approach being agreed” (at the Council of European health ministers meeting on 21st June)…..

“Four member states – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland and Romania were unable to offer their support, which meant that the UK’s support (of the Tobacco Products Directive) was decisive in forming a qualified majority” 

Given that we know Ms Soubry asked for, but was refused, a waiver from the relevant House of Commons committee, her statement should more accurately read :

Four member states – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland and Romania were unable to offer their support, which meant that my support  (of the Tobacco Products Directive), acting on my own and in defiance of UK parliament, was decisive in forming a qualified majority

Quite how one woman – sticking two fingers up to the UK democratic process – was able to waltz into a room and declare she was negotiating on behalf of the United Kingdom – when, in fact she clearly had no authority to do so whatsoever -  will be beyond most people’s comprehension.

That her role was then “decisive” in “forming a qualified majority” at the meeting will shock and infuriate in equal measure.

In her letter Soubry goes on to explain what she thought was likely to happen had the UK abstained at the meeting.

“The Committee asked me what I thought was likely to happen to the Directive (had UK not offered support).

Whilst this would not have immediately killed of the Directive, which I believe will bring important public health benefits to the UK, it would almost certainly have represented a serious set-back. It would have re-opened the debate across all aspects of the Directive…

It would also have made it very unlikely that the revised Directive would have been adopted by Council and the European Parliament within the terms of the current European Parliament and the European Commission.”

That’s it. If Soubry had abstained (surely the correct thing to do when the proposed European legislation in question is still under scrutiny by the UK parliament?), the Directive would have continued but at a slower pace. Given the complexities involved; and indeed the far reaching unintended consequences of  the proposals, a bit more time thinking and discussing before acting is almost certainly what’s needed.

It’s hard to know if Soubry was set up/hoodwinked/sweet-talked into taking the action she did  (junior ministers come and go but bureaucrats, it seems, go on forever) or if her own obsession with plain packaging/incompetence was the cause.

What ever the reason, the fact that her role at the Council meeting of European Ministers was “decisive” in determining the outcome of that meeting is a very serious turn of events.   And whilst it is important to understand how and why we arrived at this sad and sorry place (if we are to avoid such catastrophic errors in the future) the real question is what will the UK coalition government, the European Commission and indeed MEPs themselves do to put all of this right?

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Anna Soubry: A one woman walking disaster

By Editor
July 22nd, 2013 at 5:50 pm | No Comments | Posted in EU, EU Politics, Europe, European Politics

Here’s a short (3 minute) video showing a few extracts from evidence Anna Soubry gave the HOC European Scrutiny Committee on 17 July 2013.

She was called to appear before the Committee because she went to the EU General Council of ministers on June 21st to agree the general approach on the EU Tobacco Products Directive. She did this, and negotiated the UK position having totally bypassed the statutory UK parliamentary processes.  That meant stifling any debate on ecigs in UK parliament. That is pretty serious. To then to appear confused (and wrong) about what she actually agreed on e-cigarettes is  truly astounding. Surely the UK must go back to the EU and say that Soubry has been sacked and the UK position on the Directive is yet to be decided.

If you are interested, you can see all of her evidence here.  It seems to confirm that this Directive has been rushed through solely on the grounds that some folks wanted to ensure it was done during the Irish presidency. Nice for the Irish President – looking for a personal legacy. Bad for everyone else.

 

 

 

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Giving the EU the red card

By Angela Harbutt
June 2nd, 2013 at 10:00 am | 2 Comments | Posted in EU, Europe

The EU seems to be a  topic of some interest here at the moment (see “Liberalising the European Union” from Barry Stocker and “EU- It really is getting sillier by the day” by Editor). Here is one more little item that may be of interest.

On Friday, Foreign Secretary William Hague was over in Germany calling for a “red card” scheme so individual nations can block laws unwanted and unnecessary EU legislation. This is, in effect, an extension of the current “yellow card” system under which parliaments in member states can force the European Commission to reconsider a law. The red card would go further by blocking legislation altogether, though, as with the current system, the proposal would need a minimum number of national parliaments to agree to have effect.

Mr Hague said it was time “to make the EU more democratically responsive” and that:

“We should explore whether the yellow card provision could be strengthened or extended to give our parliaments the right to ask the commission to start again where legislation is too intrusive, and fails the proportionality test” (read the full speech here)

Hague, it seems, is confident of securing backing for his proposals from other northern European countries, including Germany. And it looks like this proposal is set to attract cross-party support in the UK. Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander is reported to have said that the Labour party would also push for a mechanism ensuring national parliaments have a bigger say in EU laws. One assumes that the Lib Dems will likewise get behind such a policy – (I believe I heard Chris Davies MEP indicating his support for the red card system on the radio yesterday, but please correct me if I am wrong).

All in all this looks like a highly practical suggestion that seeks to call a halt to the regulatory bloat coming from unelected Brussels bureaucrats. As Hague says (and I agree), the EU is not “democratically sustainable” without a “decentralisation” of powers. The challenge is to see this policy implemented as soon as possible.

That in itself, of course, in not enough. The UK action (or, more accurately, lack of action) on the olive oil jug ban was lamentable and if we are to see true reform of the EU it will require the member states to ACT when presented with unnecessary legislation, not just stand by and watch.

 

 

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Europe: Clegg got it right..and then completely wrong…

By Angela Harbutt
December 12th, 2011 at 3:55 pm | 9 Comments | Posted in EU Politics, Europe, Liberal Democrats

Stephen Tall has a really good article over on LDV today on the subject of Europe and Cameron’s decision to reject the proposed ‘Merkozy’ EU treaty. In summary his view is that whilst he is not  going to shed any tears that the UK refused to sign-up to the deal, he says “it’s a crying shame that the UK isn’t trying to lead from within”.

Like Stephen, I consider myself an internationalist first and foremost and whilst I broadly support of the concept of the EU -  but I am not so blind that I can’t see just how fat, corrupt, protectionist and, frankly, undemocratic the EU has become.   Within that, the Euro-zone has become something of a joke – singularly inept at solving problems of its own making – flailing around coming up with one bad idea after another. The latest, (frankly laughable) idea was to introduce a Tobin tax (a tax on financial transactions) . This sought to raise many billions of euros, of which well over half would come from the Britain. Given how important the financial sector is to this country – and the likely outcome of any such move – it  was never going to be acceptable.

So we have to consider whether any other outcome was ever really likely? The truth of the matter (and there is so much that we don’t know about what actually happened during the discussions) is that David Cameron was out-manoeuvred by the French (mainly) and the Germans. The French wanted a policy that would treat the symptoms (debt) not the cause (overspending) and wanted Britain to pay for it. If they couldn’t get that then isolating Britain was the next best option. That’s bad news for the UK – but I suspect even worse news for Europe. And whilst the British Euro-sceptics may be crowing and the French and Germans basking in self-righteous glory – the truth is it’s  a crying shame for everyone.

So what of the Lib Dem’s role in all of this? It seems clear that in the run up to the discussions, Nick did all he could to help facilitate the best possible deal for the UK. Good . That’s what you want the deputy PM to be doing putting the country’s interest first (as he did when he led the party into coalition).

Nick has also shown himself to be “in tune” with the Lib Dem membership. Nick is a Euro-realist. Likewise the Lib Dem members. In a recent poll of members, 51% rejected a move towards an even closer union with Europe.  Yes, we like the concept . No we don’t like what it has become. Here are some of the quotes from that survey….

“refuse closer union UNTIL such time as the EU has been restructured into a less bureaucratic and more Liberal form”

“The right to decide what sovereignty is pooled remains an important one and should sometimes be reversed. We do not for example still need a coal and steel community or agricultural policy”

“Closer union must come with increased accountability and reform”

“We should work towards reform of CAP. We should push for more democracy in EU decision making. We should make every effort to avoid too much legislation coming from Brussels”

“It seems that the UK is not really playing a proper role therefore we should step back and re-negotiate the pressing points, like money, Common Agricultural Policy”

So the idea that we are a party blindly committed to Europe no matter how illiberal, protectionist, bureaucratic and corrupt it becomes is just plain nonsense. Nick and the majority of the party would rather be in Europe than out of it- but recognise that Europe desperately needs reform. We recognise that it isn’t Europe “at all costs”.

Where Nick has made an error – and here I will bang on again about his PR and the party’s PR – is how he has managed the post-veto situation. On Friday Nick is seemingly behind Cameron’s dramatic veto (saying that Cameron’s demands had been ‘modest and reasonable’), and a dreaded “spokesman” confirming that Nick was ‘fully signed-up’ to the veto). Given that William Hague has also stated on the record that “The negotiating position that David Cameron took on Thursday night and Friday morning was agreed in advance with the Lib Dems in the coalition” – it seems reasonable to believe that it is true.

24 hours later Nick is “ bitterly disappointed” with the outcome in Brussels, that the outcome is “bad for Britainand could leave itisolated and marginalised.

Of course the two positions are not mutually exclusive.

UK’s demands probably were “reasonable” and Nick almost certainly would have agreed that Cameron should/could use the veto if all else failed (I can’t imagine that it would have been very plausible to ask David Cameron to “pop out of the room” every five minutes during the negotiations to check if his actions were OK with Nick). It is also true that the outcome was pretty miserable for everyone. What is frustrating it that Nick couldn’t have said all that on Friday in one (somewhat long) breath rather than starting out sounding supportive and getting increasingly angst-ridden about the outcome. This speaks yet again of Nick needing much better media advice that he himself trusts. This did not require a PR guru to get this right. It just required a bit of forward planning and a half decent PR brain. Neither are really much in evidence on this one.

Of course Nick has not been helped by the party grandees – and may indeed explain his faltering media stance… Talk of Vince resigning, coalition splits, even questions regarding Nick’s future as leader are unhelpful and show that we still have an awful long way to go if we want to convince the electorate that we are “fit to govern”. We have enough on our plate with the hysterical right wing press having a pop at Nick without our own doing the same. It’s odd that some Lib Dems complain at the Tories being only “half-in” Europe when some of them are only “half-in” the Lib Dems.

UPDATE:  Nick’s absence from parliament this afternoon has created a furore across the media. He says its because he did not want to be a distraction.  But in actual fact his absence seems to have created a much larger distraction. Further evidence that he needs better media advice?

FURTHER UPDATE: Watch BBC News at Ten and tell me that Nick staying away was a “good idea”

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