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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

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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Liberalism: Is the tide turning?

By Editor
June 1st, 2013 at 1:28 pm | 3 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Libertarians

An exciting couple days for all us liberals out there. Not one, but two hat tips:

First, the good news that “we are not alone”. Liberalism is not just alive in the UK, it is positively thriving. A major feature in the Economist, of all places, states “Britain’s youth are not just more liberal than their elders. They are also more liberal than any previous generation“.

Young Britons, it turns out, are classical liberals. The Economist reports:

“…as well as prizing social freedom, they believe in low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility. In America they would be called libertarians.”

This totally uplifting piece goes on to say

““Every successive generation is less collectivist than the last,” says Ben Page of Ipsos MORI, a pollster. All age groups

Graph courtesy of YouGov/Economist

Graph courtesy of YouGov / Economist

are becoming more socially and economically liberal. But the young are ahead of the general trend. They have a more sceptical view of state transfers, even allowing for the general shift in attitudes”

And it isn’t just IPSOS MORI saying this. The same article reports

“Polling by YouGov shows that those aged 18 to 24 are also more likely than older people to consider social problems the responsibility of individuals rather than government. They are deficit hawks.  They care about the environment, but are also keen on commerce: more supportive of the privatisation of utilities, more likely to reject government attempts to ban branding on cigarette packets and more likely to agree that Tesco, Britain’s supermarket giant, “has only become so large by offering customers what they want”.”

Do go read the article in full to get a warm fuzzy feeling all over.

But what to do about this?

Second: Mark Littlewood (who get’s a mention in the above Economist item as will be noted by conspiracy theorists everywhere) seems to have the answer. Writing in the Times [paywall] on Friday he suggests “The Lib Dems should try being real liberals“. In his hard hitting comment piece Littlewood (former spin doctor of the party and LV founder and blogger) points out the all-too-obvious malaise within the party:

“There is no acute leadership crisis, just a general sense that they are sinking. It is near impossible to discern what their recovery strategy is. Mr Clegg and his close advisers encourage the party faithful to “hold your nerve”…. But that sounds more like psychotherapy than a plan.”

Front Cover of the Economist : June 1st 2013

Front Cover of The Economist : June 1st 2013

Well said. But, this isn’t just a piece pointing out the parlous state of the party right now, he has a sensible, practical solution. Here are the key bits:

“First, they (Lib Dems) need to stop doing and saying things that have little resonance outside their declining base of party activists.”

“Second, the Lib Dems need to take a leaf out the books of many of their sister parties on the Continent. Many European politicians rightly view them as rather an odd, mixed bag with a left-leaning social democratic agenda. Not very liberal at all, in other words.”

“…the Lib Dems often come across as no more coherent than a confederation of residents’ associations. Few voters understand any driving philosophy behind their policy, merely that it is “middle of the road”.

“The party does have a strong commitment to civil liberties hardwired into its DNA, but on lifestyle issues, such as smoking, drinking or reading magazines with airbrushed photos of female models, it can’t resist the urge to agitate for greater state intrusion and control.” [see a previous post on LV “Norman Lamb: Doh!” for more on that one].

“…this actually makes a strategy of being a small state, pro-business party even more attractive — mainly because most Lib Dem MPs find themselves in close fights with the Tories”.

“A consistent, clear, genuinely liberal narrative, in which the State plays less of a role in our lives, and individuals have greater freedom to keep their own money, run their own affairs and make their own choices does not guarantee electoral success. But it surely offers a much better prospect for the Lib Dems than anchoring their ship somewhere in the centre of the ocean, as they slowly slip beneath the waves.”

Whether the appearance of his comment piece in the Times on Friday is coincidence, or deliberately timed to coincide with the Economist report, only Littlewood will know. But taking those two articles together we see not only that there is a real, and growing appetite, for classical liberalism in the UK, but there is a compelling case that Lib Dems should not just be spectators to this upswing, but capitalise on it. Britain looks ready to embrace a real liberal party – but is the party ready to be it?  Here’s hoping so.

(PS Young liberals out there might like to find out more about Liberty League and Freedom Week by clicking on the links.)

 

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Norman Lamb: Doh!

By Angela Harbutt

 

Only a short while ago Norman Lamb MP was one of our best. He stood up, and spoke out, on principle against needless government intrusion. A true poster boy for all those liberals amongst us who object to the nanny state telling adults how to live our lives.

Back in 2008, when the the Labour government suggested hiding cigarettes behind shutters in shops, Norman was one of the first to speak out. As Shadow Health Minister he rightly stated :

“This is the nanny state going too far.”

And he didn’t stop there. He also said

“This will hit small businesses with added costs while there is no clear evidence that it will actually reduce the number of young people smoking.”

And indeed he said this:

“The Government is obsessed with headline-grabbing gimmicks instead of tackling the real problems. Buying tobacco for children must be made a criminal offence. Ministers also need to clamp down on the shockingly high amount of tobacco that is smuggled illegally into this country.”

Where is that man we wonder? Roll on to 2013 and, when in a position to actually have an impact on the excesses of the nanny state, low and behold he pops up in the Guardian saying:

“As a liberal I would always defend someone’s right to smoke, if that’s what they choose to do. But, given we’re dealing here with a product that kills between 80,000 and 100,000 people a year, I think it’s legitimate for government to seek to control the marketing of that deadly product…”

 

Well, Norman, nothing has changed since 2008. Cigarettes are bad for you. Sure. But no more than they were in 2008, when you were against the display ban. Adults should be treated as adults – even when you are in power.

If ever there was a policy that was nothing more than a “headline-grabbing gimmick” (your words), banning coloured boxes must surely be it? What happened to your concern about the impact of policy gimmicks on small businesses? And why choose this point to ignore the 500,000 voters who registered their opposition to this policy during the consultation? Back in 2008 your concern was rightly focused on the black-market and proxy purchasing. Why, when in power, choose to support a policy that will make it actually easier and cheaper for organised crime to counterfeit cigarettes? You were against the tobacco display ban – but it was introduced anyway – why not at least wait to measure the effectiveness of that policy (and the ban on tobacco vending machines) before arguing for yet more legislation?

Picture courtesy of "Hands Off Our Packs"

Picture courtesy of “Hands Off Our Packs”

You say that:

“I think it would be a legacy for this government to have legislated on something which would be a landmark public health reform and to be out there in front in Europe.”

Great. If that’s the case [or indeed if it is, as it seems, just the usual politician's desire to be "seen" to be doing something]  here are a few policies that may assist you in leaving a health legacy you can actually be proud of.

 

1. Clear the path for e-cigarettes. This revolution is leaving you behind. Hundreds of thousands are electing to choose this product – yet you waste your time on ruling what colour of boxes you think adults should look at – a campaign gimmick that is untried, untested and unwanted. If you want to be “out there in front of Europe” then let’s get as many e-cigarettes out there as possible. If you hadn’t noticed – they are working – unlike the tired, unimaginative and dangerous “more of the same” policies coming from those in tobacco control. Note that Chris Davies [Libdem] MEP seems to be way ahead of you [see “Politics at it should be done“]

2. Introduce a ban on proxy purchasing (your idea from 2008). Smoking is an adult pursuit. If your concern is children, then make it illegal to purchase cigarettes on behalf of minors.

3. And while you are at it, increase the penalties on those caught selling cigarettes to kids.

4. Act on counterfeiting. Fake cigarettes sell at half the price of UK duty paid cigarettes. Quite attractive to cash strapped youngsters don’t you think? They are sold to minors at school gates, car book sales and markets. They don’t ask for ID, and they don’t care who they sell to. Why not introduce some serious penalties for smuggling and counterfeiting?

That is just four for starters – and they really do start to look like a liberal legacy we can all be proud of.

PS: With great relief we note that education minister, David Laws, and the Home Office minister, Jeremy Browne are reported to remain firmly against this policy.

Seen elsewhere on this topic: “Norman Lamb:Perfect Example of the Genre” and “Open Minded?

Angela Harbutt is currently campaigning against the introduction of plain packaging of tobacco.

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Thoughts on UKIP

By Sara Scarlett
May 3rd, 2013 at 6:47 pm | 8 Comments | Posted in Election, Liberal Democrats, UK Politics

Screen shot 2013-05-03 at 18.48.21

The rapid rise of the UKIP vote and collapse of the LD vote does, I think, put the relative value of narrative and campaign tactics into sharp relief. Does anyone, for example, think UKIP activists out-worked or out-delivered the LDs in the last four years? Or even came close to doing so? I think not…

Similarly some of the big historic Liberal Democrat by-election wins begin to look more about capturing the protest Zeitgeist than out-leafleting opponents.



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