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What are the Lib Dems for?

By Editor
March 14th, 2015 at 12:12 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in conference, Liberal Democrats

HAT TIP:  In case you missed it Mark Littlewood (former Lib Dem spin doctor and co-founder of Liberal Vision) had an interesting article in the Telegraph yesterday, to coincide with the start of the Lib Dem Spring conference. Kind it is not. Accurate it is undoubtedly is.

The essence of Littlewood’s point is that the Lib Dems have no message to the voter – other than to promise to be less mean that the Conservatives and more financially hard-headed than Labour… “to water down the convictions and ideals of our main political opponents“. This is certainly borne out by speeches being made up and down the country by Lib Dem MPs, highlighting what the Lib Dems have stopped the Tories doing over the past five years and why Labour can be trusted to go it alone for the next five.

And that is the problem, he says, no one knows what the Lib Dems are for.

“Obviously, there is nothing intrinsically immoral or wicked about such a proposition, but it certainly doesn’t get the pulse racing. There simply aren’t going to be millions of voters trooping to polling stations in May because they are passionate about injecting just a dash more moderation into our government. On the big questions facing Britain, the LibDems don’t sound radical at all. Is the overall tax burden too high or too low? Does the state intervene too much or too little in our lives? Is our relationship with the EU too close or too loose? Very often, the Lib Dems seem to believe that we have the balance of everything more or less right and just need a very small tweak here or there.”

[Agreed. Whether you like them or hate them, you have to accept that the parties on the rise, UKIP, Greens, SNP have conviction and passion by the bucket-load and none of them are in any doubt that things need to change for one reason of another].

Littlewood suggests that even if 20 or 30 Liberal Democrat MPs do make it back to Westminster, and by some chance find themselves back in coalition “it is hard to be at all sure what on earth they would do with it”.

Quite. So, what is the point of voting for them? – it’s like ticking the “don’t know” box on a multiple choice question. Perhaps Liverpool will provide some answers.

You can read the full article here.

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Why I am leaving the Liberal Democrats

By Sara Scarlett
December 27th, 2014 at 12:00 pm | 17 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats

After over six years of strongly identifying as a LibDem – I can no longer do so in good conscience.

Certain issues have dominated my thoughts on the issue since August this year and this is not a decision I have taken lightly. However, the conclusion I have come to is that I would like to start the new year disassociated from the Liberal Democrats. Over the years, my direct debit to the party hasn’t always been perfectly constant – especially when I was living in America – but I’ve always thought that if I were to be a member of any UK political party I would still be a LibDem. For the following reasons that is no longer the case…

There is one predominant issue that I feel I can no longer overlook on the grounds of pure morality and humanity. Over the past two years the LibDems were tested and, in my humble opinion, they failed that test.

Liberalism is fundamentally a discussion about power.  When it came to light that an individual who had been given power by the Liberal Democrats had egregiously aggregated and then abused that power – the response was and continues to be breathtakingly disappointing. Too many questions remain unresolved. Why was this individual allowed to aggregate so much power? Why were there no checks on this individual’s power? Why was this individual both an employee of the party and an employer in the party? Why were the Liberal Democrats so reliant on one individual? Who were the individuals complicit in this individuals behaviour?

It’s not a surprise that this individual has got off scott free. He wrote the rule book for himself. However, now that the rule book has been found to be wanting  – what of the efforts to move forward and rewrite that rule book? For four months I have sat in hope that something positive will come of this. For all the talk amongst some of the more clued up members still nothing appears to have come about. The valiant efforts of the reformers remain unheeded but I am flabberghasted that some – even actual parliamentarians – don’t even think the rules or the party needs to change. This speaks volumes and says that this is not just the small matter of a single rouge individual. This speaks of a truly toxic, immoral and un-reformable culture within the party.

The main reason I am leaving the Liberal Democrats is because when it came to the big question of Liberalism – the uses and abuses of power at the heart of the party – they failed and continue to fail to come down on the right side.

The second big reason I feel compelled to disassociate myself with the LibDems, which is not unrelated to the first, is that volunteers are undervalued and sometimes mistreated in an organisation that relies almost entirely on volunteers.

I found myself stuffing leaflets through doors in the summer days of 2009 in Richmond Park. I was an unpaid intern and even paid my own expenses to get to work for the party at the same time the party were expressing their outrage at unpaid internships. My boss was an incompetent manchild and at no point did I feel valued, respected or was ever thanked for my time and effort. That is until a week after I’d resigned when my former manager left a begrudging voicemail on my phone with a handful of words which finally included ‘thanks for all your help.’ Too little; too late. No wonder that seat was lost…

The promise of proximity to power is a strong motivation for volunteers to stick at it in Labour and the Tories. Considering the Liberal Democrats don’t have that you’d think they’d be more careful, polite and grateful etc. but no…

The lack of value placed on volunteers is exposed perfectly whenever anyone defects. Someone on some blog somewhere will utter the textbook response – well, deep down they were always Labour/Green/Tory Scum anyway. But often I have seen people defect because they were maltreated, bullied, harassed or passed over for promotion on the whim of an inadequate superior. Now, most parties will trot out the “well, deep down they were always Labour/Green/Tory Scum anyway” line in public. Naturally. But behind the scenes the other parties do at the least pay some lip service to cutting the cancer out. They’ll ask themselves – hey, maybe that person shouldn’t have been maltreated, bullied, harassed or passed over for promotion on the whim of an inadequate superior? This lack of self-examination is especially unforgivable when we know now that party processes to deal with this type of behaviour have been woefully inadequate. The LibDems don’t cut the cancer out. Not even when the individuals are visible public servants.

Were Mike Hancock MP a Labour or Tory MP – ask yourself – would he be sitting on the front benches? Of course not.

Other minor gripes I have with the way the party works:

– The way the LibDems make policy isn’t remotely democratic. It’s decided by a small cabal at conference.  Why not use digital voting to reach all party members?

– Policy made in this way creates tension between the MPs, the voting delegates and the wider party members. Ministers seem to make up what policies they want anyway so why the charade at conferences anyway? There’s Vince Cable banging on about a Mansion Tax and there was me thinking the favoured form of property/land tax in the LibDems was LVT. What’s the point of voting if parliamentarians are going to make it up?

– The LibDems often have a complete lack of policy self-awareness and will happily hold two contradicting policies at once. E.g “Smoking is bad for you and should be banned.” And. “To prohibit marijuana is paternalistic and this legislation should be overturned immediately.” How one holds both these policy positions at the same time, I will never know, and yet many LibDem parliamentarians do. These contradictions matter to everyone these issues matter to and sooner or later supporters are alienated bit by bit.

– The LibDems are fundamentally small ‘c’ conservative in the way they run the party. Tony Blair let red blood flow to remake the Labour party into New Labour. The discipline showed by the Tories when David Cameron went about decontaminating the Tory brand was impressive. Were a moderniser to come along in the LibDems, I doubt he or she would get very far. I think most of the recent LibDem presidential elections prove that. The blood that needs to be let is never let and there’s a lot of bad blood.

Of course I was never a ‘typical’ LibDem and I understand that many will be happy to see the back of me. I have a folder on my desktop full of threatening emails, ad hominem attacks off LDV and screencaps of bullying comments, Tweets and Facebook posts to attest to that. But I thought for years that the LibDems would be the best vehicle for espousing these views. Now, I don’t think the party is a good vehicle for espousing f*ck all. All I have to show from my time as a LibDem is six years of disappointment and an awkward but interesting phone call from the Metropolitan Police.

However, I will say that my disassociation from the party is not down to anything ideological or any particular policy. I am, always have been and will remain a Classical Liberal/Contemporary Libertarian. My personal values have changed a great deal in the time I’ve been a Liberal Democrat, that’s simply the difference between 20 year old and 27 year old me, but my policy conclusions have not. Contemporary Libertarianism has no comfortable home in any political party. It exists as an intellectual and moral movement and often intellectual and moral movements influence public policy so I am an optimist. The general trend is towards freedom and progress and I am certain my talents and resources can forward these aims elsewhere.

I’m resigning from the LibDems because of the toxic internal party culture and the fact that there is seemingly no meaningful effort to reform said toxic party culture from where the change needs to come from. Indeed, great swathes of our parliamentarians have shown themselves to be either cowardly, immoral, chronically out of date or wedded to a regime that never worked. The functionality of the party has never been great, but now for the party to have  so spectacularly failed on the issue of the abuse of power is an unforgivable sin.

 

Moving On From Rochester…

By Sara Scarlett
November 25th, 2014 at 1:30 am | 2 Comments | Posted in coalition, Government, Leadership, Liberal Democrats, UK Politics

Lord Unappealing is attempting to make himself relevant again by opining on something for which he does at least have historic expertise, by-elections.

His number crunching is no doubt correct, the slightly vacuous plea for better tactics could also no doubt have delivered a better result than 342 votes, the strategic insight though is entirely lacking.

The Liberal Democrat brand, outside areas where local quality outshines national performance is poison. This in no small part due to a series of self-inflicted disasters from casual flip-flopping on policy to covering up for undesirable characters. Something for which the Party’s former seat grabber is more than a little responsible.

It is an organisation which has a lot of very nice people in it, some with good ideas, but in which no one takes responsibility for anything. It has no clear sense of direction, or consistency. It displays no sign that it knows what to do about it.

That is a hard sell for a by-election where narrative matters as much as tactics.

Matters will improve for the Party after the next election. That is unless it is in Government again, in which case it is unlikely. They will improve when Nick Clegg has been replaced, most likely by Tim Farron. Nick’s stock is so low he could cure cancer and still attract headlines for failing to stop Ebola. Tim at least has a down to earth appeal and sense of integrity the Party badly needs.

Good tactics will help, but they’re icing not the cake. UKIP is amply demonstrating that you don’t need svengali election gurus to win. You do need a good story and motivated base. And I strongly suspect that has much more to do with the success of ‘Rennardism’ in the 90s, than the unhealthy myths he allowed to be built up around himself and the ‘campaign cult’.

The danger for the Party in the next 5 years is that it continues to live in an introverted little bubble of ancestor worship for past glory that has little relevance to the mire it is in today. It’s a very serious risk given the Party even now still divides between people who want to fight Thatcher and those that want to fight Brown, both long gone. It will have a Parliamentary group where an aging group of peers outnumber MPs by 3-4:1, and several of them still act in a way that revolts the new generation. The Commons group may be entirely pale and male.

The next Leader then faces a challenge. Build a story that matters to the public and people who might wish to support it. Or live in the past, and pander to it. You can’t though do both. The Party needs to move on from fighting the last by-election.

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

By Angela Harbutt
August 1st, 2013 at 11:52 am | 19 Comments | Posted in EU, EU Politics, European Politics, Liberal Democrats

A couple of days ago I re-read the “Liberal Democrat Manifesto for Europe”. On the summary page it says

“Liberal Democrats don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions. This is because Liberal Democrats believe that individual people, families and their communities know best about the things that affect them, so decision should be taken by them, not by distant politicians and bureaucrats in Westminster or Brussels.

That is why we insist that Europe does not act when national, regional or local action is more effective.”

I assume that is still the party position (given that the web site is still live).

I am sure that most Liberal Democrats agree that on matters of public health this is especially true.  Decision-making should wherever possible, be taken at national, regional or local level, not left to the whims of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.

I am also sure that the party will agree that if the UK parliament has been deliberately denied the opportunity to scrutinise any European legislation, (having refused to provide a waiver on scrutiny), then that legislation should not be allowed to proceed until such times as it has.

All that being the case I will be asking Nick, as Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, to take action on a rather scandalous state of affairs.

Back in June, Conservative MP and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, Anna Soubry was summoned, very hastily, to attend a General Council meeting in Luxembourg on 21st June. The purpose of the meeting was to agree, with other health ministers from around Europe, the “general approach” to be taken on the revised Tobacco Products Directive.

Soubry requested waivers from the scrutiny committees in both Houses. The Lords agreed but the Commons European soubry picScrutiny Committee said no on the grounds that there was insufficient time (less than two weeks) to examine the very many (and complex) issues involved. Soubry decided to over-ride the House of Commons scrutiny committee, and played a full and “crucial” role in the discussions on Europe-wide regulation at the June 21st meeting.

The Directive is now due to be voted on by MEPs in the first week of September. This vote too has been hastily forced up the agenda (scheduled for October, it has now been moved to early September).

Voters in Britain will rightly wonder what is going on. Why is Brussels in such a hurry to get this legislation rushed through? Why has UK parliament been denied the right to examine the proposed EU laws? Why are most of the public wholly unaware of the proposals and therefore prevented from expressing their views on the matter? Why indeed is Europe forcing through laws banning swathes of products that no UK government has sought fit to do?

No wonder Euro-scepticism is on the rise. No wonder at least half of the adult population believe that the UK would be better off outside of the EU if this is how legislation is introduced.

The scrutiny committee has already summoned Soubry to explain herself (and a very sad and sorry affair it was too). The chair (Bill Cash MP) has stated :

“We consider that insufficient information was made available to the committee to enable it to scrutinise the Commission’s proposals”

“Negotiations on the draft Directive appear to have proceeded at unwarranted haste given its far-reaching implications”

“The draft Directive remains under scrutiny”

That begs the question how on earth can MEPs vote on the Directive proposals in early September when the Directive is still under scrutiny in the UK Parliament?

I will be asking Nick to take action. This is a cast-iron chance to make the words in the manifesto count; make it clear that EU laws that by-pass proper scrutiny in Westminster will not be tolerated.

I will be asking Nick to:

  1. 1. Work with others (including Lib Dem MEPs) to ensure that the EU delay any vote on this Directive (which has been rushed through faster than a high-speed train) until such times as Westminster has been given sufficient time to examine the proposals contained in the Directive. There is no good reason to force this through in September when, for want of a few weeks or so, the ministers can re-convene and discuss this proposal with the benefit of more time, consideration and proper parliamentary scrutiny. Then, and only then should MEPs be given the opportunity to vote on the proposals.
  2. 2. Ensure that decision-making on UK public health remains with elected politicians here in the UK, not Brussels bureaucrats.

Earlier this week the smokers’ group Forest launched a new campaign No Thank EU seeking to give the British people a voice on this piece of desperately hurried and deeply flawed EU legislation.road-sign-logo6

But it should not be left to Forest to bang on doors demanding  that the EU be made to pause whilst elected politicians here in the UK (and elsewhere I have no doubt) are actually given sufficient time to review carefully what is proposed.  Nor should it be Forest’s job to fight to ensure that decision-making on matters of UK public health remains in the UK.

This is an ideal opportunity for Nick in particular, and the party more generally, to demonstrate to voters that being Pro-European does not mean remaining silent when Brussels gets it wrong. To show that liberals are willing and able to stand up to Europe when UK parliamentary processes are circumvented or when the Commission moves beyond its remit.

I understand that smoking is a controversial topic and that some Liberal Democrats believe that any measures that may reduce smoking rates should be embraced. But this view is deeply flawed if they are willing to allow proper process to be casually caste aside in the process. Those who are passionate about the need for yet more smoking legislation and support the EU measures proposed should lobby for their inclusion in the Liberal Democrat manifesto – not hide behind Brussels bureaucrats. That is how democracy works, surely?

I have listed the key EU proposals below. I know that Lib Dem MEPs are already deeply concerned about the proposals on e-cigarettes contained in this Directive and have spoken out about it publicly on several occasions. But speaking out about some aspects of the Directive, or seeking amendments come the September vote, doesn’t go far enough.

It’s like agreeing to play a game of football knowing that the hosts of the game have changed all the rules and given themselves a 3 goal advantage. To play the game legitimises the new rules. That won’t help the 1.3 million+ vapers or 10 million+ smokers and it will outrage many ordinary voters who will wonder what on earth the EU will be allowed to railroad through next.

This is bad legislation, rushed through to avoid proper scrutiny. I am asking Liberal Democrats individually and collectively, and the leader specifically, to make a stand.

Signing the petition would be helpful so please do go ahead and sign. But I am also asking the party to show that when necessary it is willing to stand up to the EU, and to coalition ministers who have chosen to play fast and loose with parliamentary process.

What the EU proposes and Westminster hasn’t been allowed to examine:

As well as forcing all e-cigarettes to become classified as medicinal products Europe-wide, the EU Tobacco Products Directive proposes:

  • A  ban on menthol and ‘slim’ cigarettes throughout Europe.
  • Larger health warnings on packs and pouches covering  75 per cent of the front and back.
  • Standardisation of cigarette pack size and shape
  • A ban on packs of ten cigarettes
  • A ban on all smaller pouches of roll your own tobacco

For more information on these proposals, visit “What’s at Stake” on the campaign website.

For additional reading on the Tobacco Products Directive see this article “A dog’s breakfast” by Clive Bates (former director of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health).

Angela Harbutt is Campaigns Manager for No Thank EU (www.NoThankEU.com), launched on July 29.

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