Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Thanks but no Thanks Mr Fallon

I like to think I consider the options before I make a political decision, weighing up the pros and cons and assessing the benefits and problems.

One such issue is my Second Preference Vote for the London Mayoral Election this year. To explain, the voting system for choosing the London Mayor gives everyone two choices - in fact, the first preference is for the candidate and the second preference for the party.

The first count excludes all but the first two candidates and then the second preference votes for those two candidates are added to produce a winner. In 2008 and 2012, Boris Johnson got more second preference votes than Ken Livingstone and that got him home.

In 2012, I did not use my second preference vote - I did not think much of any of the other candidates so voted for Brian Paddick as my only preference (there's no point voting Liberal Democrat first AND second preference).

This time of course we have new Conservative and Labour candidates in Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan respectively and I was prepared to consider both candidates until Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, who has re-invented himself as a Tory bruiser, laid into Khan today claiming that past associations made him unfit to be London Mayor.

Well, my message for you, Mr Fallon is this:

1) I will now give my Second Preference to Sadiq Khan as Labour candidate in the hope he wins and becomes Mayor of London.

2) I would rather entrust my John Thomas to a psychopath with a rusty knife than I would entrust the defence of my home, family and country to an odious self-serving cretin like you. Do us all a favour and resign right now - we'll all be much better off without you.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

EU've Brought Me Back..

Yes, I know, it's been a while and a lot has happened.

Sometimes you just need time to think and sometimes you need an issue or a comment to galvanise you back into action.

On June 23rd, the people of Britain will be asked whether we wish to LEAVE the European Union (EU) or REMAIN in the EU. This was the result of a renegotiation carried out by Prime Minister David Cameron begun after his election victory last summer and concluded over the weekend.

The battle lines have been drawn and we now have 122 days of "the campaign" to enjoy/endure (delete as appropriate). It's going to be a long spring if the first 24 hours are any guide.

I'm a member of a party which supports and will campaign for REMAIN but I am increasingly considering voting LEAVE. Why ?

The Liberal Democrat policy on Europe isn't simply to stay in and be members - it's to stay in, take a leading role and work toward a fundamental reform of how the EU operates in terms of the roles of the Commission, the European Parliament and the flow of powers from national Parliaments as part of an overall package of devolution putting powers where they belong and where they are needed, not where it suits some countries and politicians.

As an example, pollution is a Europe-wide issue while trading hours are at best national and arguably a local matter. Workers should have the same rights and protection wherever they are in the EU and not be subject to the arbitrary whim of national Governments.

Cameron hasn't shown any interest in any of this in his renegotiation apart from protecting his allies in big business and the City. The hedge fund manager is more important to him and deserves more rights and protection than the person cleaning that manager's office. To be fair, the EU itself struggles with the notion of institutional reform but at a time of humanitarian crisis and pressure, it's probably not its highest priority.

But it should be.

The sclerotic, ambiguous and unaccountable Commission has too much power, the representative Parliament too little - we know this but it suits the heads of national Governments to maintain the current system.

The question then becomes - IF the EU is beyond reform or has no desire to reform to provide the devolution and accountability which should be the foundation of a fair political system, what's the point ?

The EU Referendum is already being covered as the war for the soul of the Conservative Party. Millions of people did not vote Conservative last May - far more didn't than did - but it seems they do not matter and all that matters is the Conservative Party and its internal wrangling. I've no love for the Tories and I note some important and respected figures on the Labour side such as Frank Field, Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey are advocating LEAVE.

Those who support the Liberal Democrats will be dismayed if Tim Farron becomes Cameron's sidekick on the REMAIN platform - it will remind too many people of the bad old days of the Coalition. It's possible to be internationalist and seek to work with other countries while at the same time recognising the inherent failings of some of these multi-lateral institutions.

Now we have the absurdity from both David Cameron (REMAIN) and Iain Duncan-Smith (LEAVE) that it's all about security. Both these cretins are as bad as each other claiming voting for the other side makes us more vulnerable to terrorism. Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of how this campaign will be conducted - as the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 showed, a little bit of Fear goes a long way and a lot of Fear even further. Neither LEAVE nor REMAIN has a terribly positive message to offer so both will spend an inordinate amount of time claiming effectively that the world will end if the other side wins.

If we are voting on leaving NATO, I could understand security being raised as an issue and it would be an entirely legitimate area of concern but no one on the LEAVE side, as far as I know, wants us out of NATO and the EU, for all its many activities, isn't a military organisation. It's perfectly possible to be in NATO and outside the EU (we were from 1949 to 1973 and Turkey is now) and in any case the threat of terrorism is nothing to do with our membership of the EU in any way shape or form and our absence wouldn't make a scintilla of difference.

There are legitimate questions about migration and outside the EU we could apply the same scrutiny to EU citizens in terms of eligibility for entry as we currently can for non-EU citizens. We must encourage those with skills and those with something to contribute to see Britain as a place to do business and make money but not as a "soft touch" for those determined to live on charity (including Government charity in the form of benefits). The impact of large-scale migration on medical services in East London is obvious and the Poles and Romanians drinking themselves to death on our streets will be our mess to clear up.

LEAVE lacks a coherent vision - we will still need to have a relationship with the EU, ideally to preserve what is best about EU membership - health benefits, free trade but if the EU doesn't want to do that, we'll have to negotiate a new relationship possibly via a rejuvenated EFTA or similar.

That I find myself on this Sunday afternoon potentially agreeing with the obnoxious trio of Farage, Galloway and Boris nauseates me beyond measure but the truth is the EU is not an organisation designed to work for its citizens - if it works for anyone, it works for national Governments and bureaucracies. Yet it provides a measure of worker and employee protection and my only reason for voting REMAIN is I fear the trampling of rights to maternity and paternity leave, the right to appeal unjust dismissal and the right to fight workplace bullying if we are left to this majority Conservative Government.

The next four months won't be easy and they won't be pleasant - Conservatives may believe once this is over, it will be as if nothing had happened but life and politics don't work like that. Cameron has enjoyed a disproportionate share of luck in his political life but in ceding the referendum under pressure from UKIP, has made a monumental error of judgement.

If the result is as close as many think it will be, the issue won't be closed - it will continue to fester within the Conservative Party much as it did within Labour which split in 1981. There will be Conservatives who will want a second vote as a commitment in the 2020 election manifesto to head off the renewed rise of UKIP and whoever succeeds Cameron will have a job akin to all the King's horses and all the King's men.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Another Letter....

Dear Labour Party,

Yes, I know we haven't been on good terms for the past five years since the events of 2010. I know watching the Liberal Democrats go into Coalition with the Conservatives was very difficult but what else could we have done ? I mean, you weren't really serious about a deal and it wouldn't have lasted, we both know that.

Anyway, five years on and we're in the same place - shattered by election defeat and while yours hasn't been as traumatic in terms of seats lost, it still must have been a shock though it seems not as much a shock as seemed to be the case. Indeed, it now seems you knew you were in trouble and the public opinion polls weren't telling the whole story.

In my constituency in East London, Stephen Timms increased his majority polling over 77% of the vote and getting a 5% swing from the Conservatives. Had that been the case in rural and suburban England, who knows ?

The truth is that in England at any rate Labour voters didn't turn out in sufficient numbers - the undecided were coaxed back to the Conservatives by fear of a minority Labour Government being in hock to the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon who were perceived as being very much creatures of the Left.

With the prospect of such instability, the electorate recoiled because they wanted stability, security and continuity. The economic policy of the Coalition was working for those with mortgages in secure jobs - think about it, your mortgage interest rate is on the floor so you're quids ahead, inflation is near zero and your wages are rising 2%. Not quite the best of times but not the worst either. The prospect of ditching all that for the uncertainty and instability of a Labour/SNP Government wasn't that appealing and who can blame people for thinking that way ?

So what of the future ? Well, the first thing must be for you to accept that the post-2010 direction was a mistake. I appreciate that after Blair and to a lesser extent Brown there was a desire for something new but the problem for parties trying to re-invent themselves after long periods in office is that those who were part of the discredited and defeated Government are left to lead the Party in the initial stages of reconstruction and that doesn't work as they are too intellectually and politically associated with the ideals and mores of the administration that has been defeated.

Apart from 1945 and those were unique circumstances, Labour has only won power twice - once under the technocratic pragmatist Harold Wilson and of course under Tony Blair. Blair benefited from the political divisions and collapse over Europe (take note) which afflicted the Major Government after 1992. However, he also went back to the three cornerstones of election success - stability, security and continuity. He was able to convince millions of ex-Conservative voters that not only was the Labour party he led a non-socialist party of the centre or centre-left but that most of the fundamental tenets of Conservative economic policy and especially the spending commitments of Ken Clarke would be retained.

In truth, Labour in 2020 will have to promise not to change too much of the Cameron agenda but must offer to be able to manage it better along with Britain's relationship with the EU post-referendum and England's relationship with Scotland. The Cameron Government will have its midterm by 2017 or soon after and disillusioned Conservatives will start looking round for other options.

What they won't want is a radical Labour party which will tear up everything and go back to high tax and high spending. What they will support is a Labour party which clearly and unequivocally backs the aspirational in society and will maintain the living standards of the majority.

Remember the key words are stability, security and continuity.

Above all, pick a leader who will best communicate this reassurance to the wider electorate - don't pick the person who just appeals to your members and supporters because that's a sure route to another defeat.

And you don't want that, do you ?

All the Best


Saturday, 9 May 2015

Time to Write Some Letters (Part the First)

Dear Liberal Democrats,

This isn't an easy letter to write in the circumstances. I know it hurts – I’m hurting too. I've been a member since 1981 and this is the darkest period in the history of the Party since the 1970 debacle. Indeed, I’d go as far as to argue that phase of the Party’s journey which began in the aftermath of that defeat has come to an end.

That journey had many ups and downs from the hope of breakthrough with the coming of the SDP to the long frustrating Thatcher years to the local and national breakthroughs of the 1990s leading to the election of 46 MP's in 1997. Of that cohort, I’m delighted to see my old friend, Tom Brake, who once took coffee in my living room, survive, but am saddened by the loss of so many fine politicians, fine people and good liberals including Charles Kennedy, who endured the vitriol of the media for daring to question the invasion of Iraq, a stance unanimously and sadly vindicated by events.

Now, the Parliamentary Party has been decimated, the Councillor base is down over 60% from the high water mark of the mid 1990s and in many ways it’s Stunde Null or Year Zero.

And yet, in a perverse way, the clearing of the decks provides a golden opportunity, much as it did after 1970, to rethink the business of politics and the business of being Liberal Democrats from the ground up. Nick Clegg, who took the Party into Coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, has gone – the Orange Bookers are eclipsed, those more amenable to Labour likewise gone and the survivors are left to contemplate what seems an impossible future.

The Party responded to the eclipse of 1970 by developing and strengthening Community Politics which would in time serve us so well.

Yet my feeling is that since 1997 we have struggled with some fundamental questions around our identity and purpose.  During the long Thatcher years we identified ourselves and came to be part of the opposition to the Blessed Margaret - indeed, we flirted with New Labour right up to the brink of the 1997 result. The Blair years were ultimately frustrating and disappointing – centralisation  heaped on authoritarianism in the name of security and order as though it had been liberals who had attacked the Twin Towers.

After 2005, the Conservatives chose David Cameron and we had no answer to this young, telegenic, liberal-sounding Conservative who “love bombed” us and strode onto our policy areas. In the end, our response was to argue that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery and so Nick Clegg, even younger and more telegenic, took over and liberal conservatism seemed set to merge with conservative liberalism and thus the Coalition was born.

Yet, if history has taught Liberals anything, it should be that Coalition is akin to the fly feeling the embrace of the spider. Labour used Coalition to destroy the Liberals in the 1920s and the Conservatives have done the same in the 2010s. The duopoly has never been stronger, we have rarely been weaker.

And yet, the opportunity of which I spoke earlier has now presented itself.  I envy the young Liberal Democrat of 2015 who can now shape and mold the Party in a new, exciting image, develop new methods of campaigning and reaching back out to those groups which have been neglected.

It will be a long road and a hard road but it begins with the rebuilding of the local base and the re-engaging of members in policy development. It means ideas and debate of which there has been too little in recent times. It also means coming out of the political Comfort Zone.

It also means re-defining working with other parties – pluralism isn't a cover word for a one-sided abusive relationship. To our own selves, we must be true and if that means problems for and with a prospective governing partner, so be it. No longer can liberals troop through the lobbies to vote through fundamentally illiberal measures in the name of Coalition.

But we need to get there which means getting back into those constituencies which have been lost, fighting every Council by-election going and making the most of every opportunity. History tells us incumbent Conservative governments don’t stay popular for long and this one will have its midterm as all administrations do and that will be our opportunity to regain those Council seats and rebuild our strength.

However, it’s not enough to simply be a vehicle for other people’s protests. That was the trap we fell into and we became comfortable being the repository for those who either couldn't vote Labour or couldn't vote Conservative. Yes, I’m sure some people voted Conservative last Thursday because of fears of a Labour Government propped up by the SNP but that doesn't explain the Conservative victory. Rural and suburban England voted Conservative because they wanted to – because the Conservative Party represented their values and mores.

We need to provide a viable alternative prospectus based on liberal principles of individual freedom and responsibility, tolerance and devolution. We need to explain why the EU works and is of benefit to us and why helping the poor through an adequate welfare provision helps us all. Conservatives are by and large decent, sympathetic people and they are open to ideas and challenges and they may become more receptive if and when Cameron’s Government runs into trouble over Europe, immigration and a host of other issues, large and small.

It’s easy this weekend to be pessimistic and to want to give up but as the saying goes; it’s always darkest before the dawn. In many ways, it’s an exciting time to be a Liberal Democrat again, free of the burdens of Coalition and able to shape the future and the destiny of the Party.

Let’s go to it.

Yours Sincerely


Friday, 26 September 2014

Tyranny, Like Hell, IS Not Easily Conquered.

I've been reminded of this famous quote from Thomas Paine during today's Parliamentary debate on whether to authorise air strikes against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq.

Had I been a Member of Parliament, I would have opposed today's motion even if it possesses the legality that last year's motion on Syria lacked and even though it enjoys broad cross-party support.

Let me explain why..

I'm no apologist for IS and I don't need Nick Clegg repeating ad infinitum how "vile and barbaric" IS has become in order to appreciate they aren't nice people. To be fair, they aren't the first group of bad people and they won't be the last.

Does IS pose an immediate threat to Britain ? If we are talking about IS troops marching down Piccadilly, hardly. If we are talking about IS supporters forming a terorist cell and launching suicide attacks, then yes, conceivably. But I'm a Londoner - I've lived my entire adult life under the shadow of terror whether it be from the IRA or Al-Qaeda. I was travelling on the Tube on July 7th 2005.

I see IS as nothing different from Al-Qaeda and a combination of personal and collective vigilance which has been in place since 2005 needs to be re-emphasised. Beyond that, what's changed here ? In my view, very little.

IS have emerged from the destabilising shambles of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Syrian Civil War so in a sense we are responsible for our own terror as we were with Al-Qaeda and arguably the IRA as well.

The military success of IS stands in contrast to that anarchy - IS have filled a vacuum and provided a murderous stability across a wide swathe of Iraq and Syria. Before the first American and French airstrikes a couple of months ago, IS forces were threatening Baghdad itself (though it's highly unlikely they could have captured the city) as well as the Kurdish capital of Kirkuk (again, highly unlikely they could have captured the city). In Syria, on the other hand, they have been held by Assad's army and have never seriously threatened Damascus so while they are a military force to consider, they aren't invincible.

And yet..

The objective in the West seems to be to "eradicate" or "destroy" IS by the use of air power but if history tells me anything, it's that strategy won't work. It didn't work with Nazi Germany for example. Tyrannies aren't easy to conquer and there are only two ways to overcome a tyranny - internal change or physical conquest.

Into the first category fall Communist Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989-90 and Wilhelmine Germany in 1918. Neither were physically invaded but both collapsed due to a combination of external pressure and internal contradiction.

Into the second category fall the likes of Nazi Germany, Bonaparte's France, Amin's Uganda, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Each of these tyrannical regimes was eventually ended by physical invasion and conquest.

IS will fall the same way - it will either fall apart externally or be conquered externally. The question then becomes if you believe IS can change from within - that seems unlikely and from that the only conclusion is that IS will only be ended by physical invasion and conquest of its territories.

Who will achieve this ? The Kurds can defend their own regions perfectly well but the performance of the Iraqi Army has been poor even with American air support. Holding their own lines is not the same as recapturing lost ground and that's what will be needed.

Today's motion in the Commons is further limited by the fact that it restricts air strikes to Iraq and doesn't include Syria. The logic of this escapes me completely. IS will simply be able to withdraw across the border into Syria IF they are forced from Iraq. On Syrian territory, they will be able to regroup while we (or whoever) will have to garrison the Iraq-Syria border ad infinitum let alone the potential threat to Jordan.

So we're back to the key issue - who will battle IS on the ground and expel them from Iraq ? Who will then destroy them in Syria ? The former requires either a transformation of the Iraqi Army or the presence of other forces which will inevitably raise the issue of American or British troops getting involved. I would oppose that and I suspect most of the British public would too and it would be politically suicidal for David Cameron so close to a General Election.

The latter is even more problematic - the logical approach would be to arm the Free Syrian Army or even Assad's forces to enable them to destroy IS on Syrian soil but the former may not have the means and the latter aren't known for their subtlety so a
gain what's the conclusion ? Do we authorise troops to chase IS into Syria and, if so, what happens if they meet Assad's forces ?

So much of this seems, to me, to be poorly thought through. I'm of the view that the only strategy available is one of containment. For all David Cameron's hyperbolic warnings of a "Caliphate on the Med", the truth is that IS doesn't have much room for manoeuvre. It's bordered by Turkey to the north, a NATO member. To the East is the Shia controlled Iran, a powerful and hostile regional power. To the south are Kuwait and Saudi Arabia whose security is guaranteed by the United States and the protection of whose oil is a primary tenet of western foreign and defence policy.

To the south west is Jordan which then borders Israel. Jordan is protected by US guarantee and of course Israel is more than capable of defending itself. That leaves Syria which is a huge country. The capital, Damascus, is much nearer Israel than the Iraqi border and while Aleppo remains a battleground in the Syrian Civil War, an IS takeover of the whole country seems improbable to me at present. Even if IS can control large parts of Syria, there remain in Lebanon and Israel large hostile forces to contest IS forces.

One thing would be clear - peace and stability would be a long way off in the whole region.

The only real answer of course is diplomatic - working with Turkey, Israel, Iran and other powers in the region to confine, control and contain IS is the real answer rather than airstrikes. It won't be easy for us to work with Iran given our history but that's realpolitik for you. As for Syria, I don't know - it would be nice to see both Assad and IS gone but realistically an internationally-brokered deal involving Assad and the FSA looks the best option perhaps involving a de facto partition of the current country.

There are only two ways to wage war - all or nothing. Anything in between risks failure or compromise. I can live with nothing but that has a risk. I could live with all but that means ground troops and that also means Syria and that also comes with a risk.

What I can't live with is a half-hearted or half-measured response and that is, I believe, what is on offer with this motion. I believe we will live to regret today's short-term political expediency driven, as it has been, by a hyperbolic media more interested in generating fear than asking the difficult questions.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Backing on more than YES or NO

Just two hours to go...

Indyref (see previous) has been a huge betting opportunity - millions of pounds have been staked and not just on the outcome itself. The straightforward YES/NO bet has seen substantial sums wagered on NO being the outcome and this, combined with polls, has seen NO consistently long odds-on with YES at much longer odds.

A typical market would be NO at 1/6 and YES at 9/2 (not symmetrical of course as bookies have to make money as well).

Beyond the simple bet (and the movements on the exchanges which allow positions to be traded and cashed out in advance of the actual result) are a range of other bets such as on turnout, the area with the largest YES vote, the one with the largest NO vote, the time the final outcome will be announced.

So what do I think will happen ?

The polls COULD be wrong - they have been wrong before but they would have to be very wrong for YES to squeak a victory. On the other hand, those on sites like politicalbetting arguing for a result of 60-40 in favour of NO also seem to be wide of the mark.

My gut feeling is NO will win by roughly three points - 51.5 to 48.5  on a turnout just shy of 90%.

As with many close results, this will only mark the start of the next series of battles to be fought across Scotland and at Westminster too.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

So What Should Be Said on Friday Morning ?

Another day, another burst of vitriolic comment on Indyref (see my previous) across social media, the printed media and the blogosphere. The so-called historian Andrew Roberts is wheeled out by the Daily Mail to try to create an outlandish dystopic post-independence Scotland and the growing anti-Scottish hysteria and vitriol from some in England and Wales shows no sign of diminishing.

As is so often the case in politics, reason and understanding have been superseded by innuendo, waspish jibes and downright hysterical abuse.

Given we already know the world won't end IF Scotland votes YES on Thursday, what should the political response be ?

No doubt whatever the result, forums such as politicalbetting will be replete with gloating "winners" and indignant "losers" but again what should our leaders do ?

Whether it's YES or NO, Friday will need to see the return of some elements we've not seen for a few days - reason, compassion, generosity, understanding etc.

That requires David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage (and let's see if he's a real politician instead of a vacuous populist and opportunist) to stand together on Friday morning (even if not physically).

Let's try some words for the aforementioned Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage if it's a YES vote:

"We recognise and accept the vote for independence and the expressed will of the Scottish people. We recognise it is in the interests of all the peoples of the United Kingdom for an independent Scottish nation to come into being in an atmosphere of understanding, security, peace and above all hope.

We call on those who voted NO to rally behind Alex Salmond and other Scottish political leaders as they begin the huge task of building a new nation which we will support and assist. We call on those businesses who threatened to leave to reconsider - the new Scottish nation will be open for business and needs the custom of the rest of the United Kingdom to build business, maintain jobs and continue prosperity and growth.

The pound sterling is and continues to be the currency of Scotland until independence. We encourage all businesses, both in Scotland and elsewhere, to continue to accept Scottish banknotes as these are and remain legal tender supported by the Bank of England.

Finally, we call on those who have threatened to leave Scotland to reconsider. The new Scottish nation will be open, free and democratic and you have a chance to shape that at the first Scottish General Election. Our parties will be fighting hard as no doubt will Mr Salmond's and others and all of us have a share and a say in the new Scotland which will enjoy a strong and comprehensive relationship with England, Wales and Northern Ireland."

All right, let's try some words for NO:

"We recognise and accept the will of the Scottish people expressed through the ballot box and are naturally delighted they have chosen to remain part of our historic and successful Union.

However, we cannot go on as before. The demands for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament have been heard and the granting of these new powers, which enjoy full cross-party support, will be the priority of the forthcoming session of Parliament.

Business and individuals can continue to invest and lead growth in Scotland knowing it remains an integral part of the Union.

Yet we cannot ignore the calls from within England, Wales and Northern Ireland for greater local powers and accountability. For too long, the great communities of our nation have not enjoyed the benefits of true control and accountability. Therefore, in the next session of Parliament, we will be promulgating new legislation with cross-party support which will cede important powers to County, District and Borough Councils as a way of re-invigorating our communities and local democracy and, in a very real sense, returning power to the people"

I can but hope. The fear is that a narrow YES or NO vote will create new bitterness and resentment. If YES wins, how will those in for example the Borders (which will likely vote strongly NO) react ? Will we see some hotheads go down a very bad route or will we see a flight of Borders residents south of the Border ?

What if it's a narrow win for NO ? Will those in the city tenements of Glasgow and Edinburgh react well to the continuation of what they may see as foreign rule ? The political impact of the vote on the fortunes of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish Nationalist Parties ? That's a subject for a future contribution but there's a long way to go before Friday morning and at 51-49 all to play for.