Monday, 14 March 2011

Labour are still the party of reactionism and authoritarianism

Despite Ed Miliband's efforts to rebrand the Labour Party, it is clear that they have not shaken off the New Labour 'tough on crime' obsession, as well as the fascination with pandering to the tabloid press. This week has once again shown it. Sadiq Khan has apparently faced a backlash from within the party after delivering the following comments during a speech to the Fabians:

"Reoffending rates are still too high, as is the prison population. I'm clear that this is one area where our scorecard in office would have said 'Could have done better'. Much better, in fact.

We became hesitant in talking about rehabilitation and the merits of investment in bringing down reoffending rates. It was almost as if we had to give off the impression we were even more tough on crime just to demonstrate we weren't soft on crime.

Playing tough in order not to look soft made it harder to focus on what is effective."
So while Ed, and seemingly Sadiq, attempt to make small steps toward a slightly more liberal Labour Party, vast sections of the party are refusing to comply. The New Statesman highlights the point with a series of quotes from various Labour insiders. According to the New Statesman, one shadow frontbencher said "if anyone thinks I'm following Ed Miliband or Ken Clarke's line on this stuff they can think again." Another insider complained about the inconsistency: "a couple of weeks a go we had Ed in the Sun piling into Cameron for being weak on crime. Now we've got Sadiq popping up saying he wants to hand half the prison population the key to their cells. We're just confusing people." While the insider is criticising the inconsistency, the language used shows clear contempt for the rather sensible comments made by Sadiq Khan.

It is also worth pointing out that Ed's liberal direction would certainly not be deemed liberal by most people's standards. However, it would seem that it is still far too liberal for Labour's reactionaries. In his first speech as leader, Ed conceded that mistakes had been made with regard to 90 days detention without trial and "the broad use of anti-terrorism measures for purposes for which they were not intended." However, he also said that these mistakes "undermined the important things we did like CCTV and DNA testing." Despite his talk of Labour being more liberal, he is proud of Labour's terrible record on surveillance and is also proud of the routine holding of the DNA of suspects, despite it being declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.

Contrast Labour's secretive policy making, as well as it's illiberal, punitive and authoritarian attitude to crime, with the open, democratic and liberal debate held by the Lib Dems in Sheffield on matters of crime and youth justice. It is clear to me which party is the real home of liberal progressives.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

First Past the Post: A Few Facts and Figures


The turnout in General Elections in the UK is lower than in most other established democracies. Most of the EU states with a lower turnout in their last election were post-communist countries in eastern and central Europe. Whilst turnout in 2010 rose slightly to 65.1%, the previous two elections had a turnout of around 60%, no other election since 1918 has had a turnout below 70%.

Votes per MP

Under the current FPTP system, the number of votes cast for a party per MP varies widely. Votes for the Conservatives and Labour translate efficiently into seats, where as votes for the Lib Dems and Greens are far less efficient.

During the 2010 election, the parties received the following amount of votes per MP:

Conservative Party - 34,995
Labour Party - 33,345
Liberal Democrats - 119,795
Green Party - 285,616

Seat share projections

The Electoral Reform Society has looked into how the 2010 election might have turned out had it been run under alternative voting methods. Whilst modeling of this nature requires a lot of assumptions, it nevertheless provides an interesting picture of how results might have been.

FPTP - Conservatives 307, Labour 258, Lib Dems 57
AV - Conservatives 282, Labour 264, Lib Dems 74
STV - Conservatives 254, Labour 195, Lib Dems 166

Yes to AV: Say Yes to Fairer Votes

The referendum on the voting system represents a fantastic opportunity to improve the way we hold elections and do politics in Britain.

The AV voting system offers us many positive changes
- Under AV, MPs would need a real mandate. This would require candidates to work harder to win and keep support.
- Under the AV system, the constituency link of FPTP is maintained and arguably strengthened as MPs need to appeal to the majority of voters.
- AV limits tactical voting, as supporters can vote for their preferred party in the knowledge their vote can still help to decide the winner.
- The AV system also limits the chances of divisive or extremist candidates, as they are very unlikely to gain the majority support necessary.
- AV encourages candidates to campaign positively as they are required to appeal to supporters of other parties.

AV is already used in various elections
- It is used by both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to elect their leaders.
- It is used by MPs to elect the Speaker, Select Committee Chairs and other officials.
- It is used by various unions and professional bodies.
- It is used in private elections, such as for Chancellor of Oxford University.

Voting using AV
Opponents of the AV system try to make it seem like a confusing method of voting. The reality is different. Instead of placing a 'X' on the ballot paper, voters will instead use numbers to rank the candidates in order of preference. You put a '1' by your favourite candidate, a '2' by your second favourite, and so on. There is no obligation to rank all the available candidates. Voters can rank as many candidates as they like. In fact, you can back just one candidate if you like.

How AV works
First of all, 'first preferences' are counted. If a candidate has 50% of the votes, they win. If not, the last placed candidate is eliminated and their supporters second preferences are transferred to the others. This process continues until one of the candidates gains 50% of the vote.

For more information on the YES! to Fairer Votes campaign, visit:

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Labour Authoritarianism/Lib Dem Achievements in Government

I am absolutely astounded by how quickly some people seem to have forgiven the Labour Party for their incredibly disappointing time in government. They are still the party that took us into war with Iraq, that wanted to introduce ID cards, that pandered to the tabloids on criminal justice and immigration, that led Britain to being monitored by more CCTV cameras than anywhere else in Europe, that attempted to detain terror suspects for 90 and 42 days without trial, that introduced Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection, that introduced control orders, that tried to abolish the 10p tax rate, that introduced child detention, that introduced tuition fees and top-up fees, that continued and expanded PFI, that failed to reform the House of Lords, that failed to regulate the banks... the list goes on and on.

Labour's record on social issues and civil liberties, in particular, is absolutely dreadful. In 2007, Privacy International, a "watchdog on surveillance and privacy invasions by governments and corporations", deemed the UK to be an "endemic surveillance society". They gave the UK the worst ranking in the EU, as well as joint-fourth worst internationally, with only Russia, China and Malaysia with poorer scores.

Labour may have a new leader, but it remains, almost instinctively, an authoritarian party. In his first speech as leader, Ed conceded that mistakes had been made with regard to 90 days detention without trial and "the broad use of anti-terrorism measures for purposes for which they were not intended." However, he also said that these mistakes "undermined the important things we did like CCTV and DNA testing." This suggests to me that he is proud of Labour's terrible record on surveillance and is also proud of the routine holding of DNA of suspects, despite it being declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights. These do not sound like the words of a liberal and I am yet to be convinced that Labour will make any real efforts to reclaim the tradition of liberty, as Miliband claims he wants.

We should not forget that Ed Miliband also returned Phil Woolas to the frontbench, as Home Office minister no less, despite the furore over his disgraceful election campaign. Ed Balls also remains a dominant figure in the party and is certainly not liberal. In fact, he is widely expected to attack Ken Clarke from the right. His comments on immigration back in June are also strikingly illiberal and populist. Jack Straw, whilst perhaps not a key figure any longer, also wrote a scathing attack on Ken Clarke and his prison policies in the Daily Mail back in June. There are also the likes of Blunkett and Reid. To be taken seriously as having changed, Labour needs to distance itself from these illiberal authoritarians.

As John Kampfner recently pointed out in the Financial Times, the Lib Dems "have a once-in-a-generation chance to put a liberal stamp on public policy. After three decades of relentless authoritarianism under Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Mr Clegg would have been foolhardy to have forsaken the opportunity. He is right to disparage the purity of opposition." This is a chance that we are taking.

Just seven months into the coalition, a lot has already been achieved with regard to reversing Labour's illiberal and authoritarian policies. ID cards have been scrapped, child detention will soon be stopped, prisons are to be reformed, pre-trial custody for terror suspects looks to be reduced to 14 days, Trident renewal has been delayed, the yes to AV campaign has a reasonable chance of success, civil liberties are to be reinforced, the ContactPoint database was switched off in August, the House of Lords looks set to be reformed, and more is set to come.

There have also been achievements in relation to economic policies. The tax threshold has been raised by £1,000, a crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion has been announced, Capital Gains Tax has been increased to 28% for higher rate payers, the link between pensions and earnings has been restored, an independent commission has been set up to look into separating investment and retail banking, a banking levy has been introduced, the pupil premium has been introduced, plans have been announced for 150,000 new affordable homes over the next four years, and so on.

These are just a selection of achievements. For a more detailed and comprehensive look into Liberal Democrat achievements in government, visit

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Internal Party Democracy/Retaining a Distinctive Identity

Another issue that has been highlighted by the tuition fees situation, is how internal party democracy will function in a coalition. One of the things that we pride ourselves on, in the Liberal Democrats, is the democratic nature in which our party operates, especially in creating and debating policy.

Twice a year, in spring and autumn, elected representatives from local parties gather at party conference to establish party policy. Every two years, conference representatives elect a Federal Policy Committee which is responsible for the production of the policy papers that are debated by Conference. Party members discuss policy papers in local and regional meetings, and their representatives then debate and vote on policy motions and papers at Conference. Conference also debates motions submitted by local parties and conference representatives.

Therefore, we as a party decide policies by a democratic process. The elected Federal Policy Committee draw up policy papers that are then debated and voted on. If policies prove to be unpopular with the party, they can be voted against at conference and stopped.

However, quite a few members have raised concerns about the current accountability of the leadership, and their ability to challenge coalition policies. Last week, for example, we all had to wrestle with the incredibly difficult situation of choosing between abandoning an iconic Lib Dem policy, or reluctantly supporting the coalition. It is a concern to many that the 'coalition agreement trumps all' argument, seems to leave internal party democracy relatively impotent. It feels as though we can debate issues internally, but no matter how we vote at conference, there is very little hope of us changing coalition policies. Even publicly raising concerns has drawn criticism from some, as they believe it undermines the coalition. The debate and vote on free schools at the last autumn conference, for example, has done very little to change the policy, despite clear opposition.

Tuition fees, again, examplifies the difficult situation we are in. Party policy remains committed to gradually removing tuition fees, but it is highly unlikely that people will take us seriously on this issue anymore. Tim Farron recently made the point that it is quite likely that the policy will remain in the next Lib Dem manifesto. This was, perhaps unsurprisngly, met by derision and cynicism from the vast majority of people who read the article.

The position that we find ourselves in at the moment is especially difficult because we are trying to achieve several things at once, things which are often contradictory. Firstly, we need to ensure that we gain as much influence on policy as is possible. This point is relatively obvious, and the main reason why we entered into the coalition in the first place. However, we also need to make sure that we can show the public that coalition governments work and can provide stable governments. Selling the idea of coalition governments is especially important in our campaign to win the referendum on AV, and for our ultimate aim of introducing proportional representation. Lastly, we need to ensure that we retain our distinctive voice and identity.

Thus far, as David Hall-Matthews recently pointed out in an article in Renewal, "it has been accepted (perhaps too readily) that the principle of collective responsibility applies fully in a coalition, so decisions must be supported once made." We need to find a way to make our positions clear on issues, whilst not unnecessarily endangering the coalition. David Hall-Matthews suggests, as an example, that we present our position on issues before coalition policies are presented to the public. This would enable the public to see which battles we have won and lost, and perhaps allow us to gain credit for our currently, insufficiently visible efforts. It would, of course, also create problems such as presenting our own policy and then having to support a very different, possibly contradictory, policy as part of the coalition. Despite potential problems, I think it is very important that we as a party investigate all of our options on this matter.

Lastly, we need to ensure that we put pressure on the leadership of the party to ensure that they try and influence policy in accordance with what the party believes and decides, even if it is a policy agreed to in the coalition agreement. Yes, we agreed to join the coalition, but that does not mean that we cannot, and should not, try and influence policy when we have concerns about it. Retaining a distinctive identity is important, but we also need to show the public that we are trying our hardest to influence and gain concessions on Tory policies.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Tuition Fees

What an incredibly difficult time it has been for Liberal Democrats right across the party. The tuition fees debate has been a real test of strength and character for individual members, government ministers, backbench MPs, the wider party and the Coalition. I have found myself feeling a real mixture of emotions during the last week and often conflicting emotions. Whilst I do not support raising the cap to £9,000, and was incredibly frustrated during the debate and vote, I can acknowledge just how difficult a position our MPs were in. Do we follow our instincts and back the pledge and our manifesto, or do we support the government as set out in the coalition agreement? Effectively, a choice between backing a rise in fees that the majority of our members and voters do not support, and causing a potentially fatal split within the Coalition.

We as Liberal Democrats support electoral reform, plural politics and coalitions, and so we know better than most that coalitions involve compromise and difficult decisions. If we become angry every time policies that are not our own are put through parliament, the coalition will be in big trouble. We cannot expect the Tories to back our policies, if we do not back theirs. It can be incredibly hard to stomach at times, but that is the nature of coalition governments, especially when you are the junior partner. That is why I can sympathise with those that abstained or voted for the policy. If anything, I am frustrated that the negotiation team did not fight harder for more of a compromise than an opportunity to abstain on the vote, and that the party leadership did not handle the subject much better in public. I think, in hindsight, the Tories did much better in the coalition negotiations that we initially realised. Putting Vince Cable in charge, and only giving us the right to abstain really has put us in a very difficult position on a policy issue that is very iconic to the Lib Dems.

However, despite the criticisms, I think it is only fair that we acknowledge that had we not been involved with the policy it could, and probably would, have been much worse than it was. The most recent report by the IFS has argued that it is fairer than both the current system and the proposals put forward in the Browne review. As Evan Harris pointed out in the Guardian: "An unadulterated Tory (or Labour or Lord Browne) policy would have been one with no cap, fewer progressive repayments, total fee variability and a free market, no national bursary system, nothing for part-time students and less generous maintenance grants."

The key issue that the tuition fees debate has highlighted is that coalitions involve compromise and are only accountable to their agreed programmes. People are entitled to expect that pledges are kept to when a party wins an outright majority. However, they need to understand that a coalition government can only be held to account on what is in the agreed coalition programme, and not on what is pledged in individual manifestos, hustings etc. Nick Clegg has not betrayed students. Had we won an outright majority and then tripled fees, it would have been a betrayal. The worst charge that Nick should receive is that himself and the negotiation team should have done more to gain a better compromise during the negotiations or that we should not have entered the coalition in the first place. Our party voted to accept the coalition programme knowing that all it included was a right to abstain on a fees vote.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Labour Dithering, Denial and Hypocrisy

The Labour Party under it's new leader, Ed Miliband, seems to be undergoing something of an identity crisis. Usually, when a new leader takes charge of an organisation they are quick to implement their own ideas, vision and team to define a new era. Ed Miliband, on the other hand, doesn't seem to know what to do. He may have appointed a few new faces (the term is used loosely), but that's about as much as he has achieved. There has been no masterful leadership or a clear change of direction shown by Ed. In fact, there have been no new policies or ideas at all.

The Labour Party's behaviour with regard to university fees, in particular, has been outrageous. Labour are guilty of unbelievable hypocrisy on this subject. This is the same Labour Party that said they had no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education in 1997, only to implement them a year later. Also, when Labour were re-elected in 2001, their manifesto included a pledge stating that they "will not introduce top-up fees and has legislated against them." Nevertheless, less than two years after pledging not to introduce top-up fees, Labour published a white paper setting out proposals allowing universities to set their own tuition fees up to a cap of £3,000 a year. Labour made these decisions when it had a large majority and the economy was booming, as opposed to the compromises of coalition government and desperate national finances. It is also worth pointing out that Labour currently has no policy on tuition fees other than seemingly fanning the flames of student anger for political gain. Ed Miliband has endorsed a graduate tax and yet his shadow chancellor claims that it would be unworkable.

The only thing the Labour Party has offered of late is opposition to absolutely everything, whilst offering no alternatives, ideas or policies. Once again, it seems the Labour Party is drifting back into complacency and denial.