The Brecon and Radnorshire by-election on August 1 is likely to be the latest demonstration of the depths of electoral crisis the Labour Party finds itself in. It is a seat that is regularly portrayed as a close contest between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, but its electoral history is far more complex than that.
The 2017 election win for Conservative Chris Davies saw him increase
his 2015 majority of 5,102 to 8,038. That 2015 result was the largest since
1983. The intervening years were a story of variable electoral marginality.
However, it hasn’t always been a seat of Lib Dem strength. It has actually had
more Labour MPs than MPs of any other party – something which tells its own
story of Labour decline since it last won the seat in October 1974.
So, what of Labour now? What does it stand for? And what
does its positioning on Brexit and accompanying political messaging say in the context
of the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election?
Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson MP, has urged members to sign a public declaration calling for Labour to be ‘the party of remain’. The Welsh Labour Party’s leader Mark Drakeford AM has been clear on his pro-further referendum and pro-remain position. Yet those who proudly already identify as remain parties have coalesced around the Lib Dem candidate in a nascent remain alliance. Is the ‘party of remain’ also backing this remain alliance? Of course not. Labour’s tribal character hard-wires it against electoral co-operation and so it is running.
Meanwhile, in an election that will receive media coverage that will be as much national as it will be local, Corbyn continues his position of ‘constructive ambiguity’ or, as the New Statesman puts it, ‘destructive ambiguity’. The language is still of a ‘public vote’, still maintaining that a general election is preferable to a further referendum even when Labour is polling at its most disastrous level since polling began. There is no indication yet, despite increasingly frantic calls from Labour loyalists, that if they did secure a further referendum that Corbyn would campaign for remain. Instead, Labour’s either/or way forward risks further frustrating those that want a clear commitment to another referendum and remain, those who see a General Election as a route to uncertainty and/or annihilation, and those who want to see Labour deliver Brexit.
Some in Labour will indignantly protest that Labour is a
party of remain, but that it is also seized with dealing with the very real and
wide range of societal problems Tory austerity has caused. That is fair
comment, but think about that, and Labour’s Brexit positioning, in the context
of this by-election.
If Labour had stood down, co-operating with the Lib Dems, it
would have been a tacit admission that it was not capable of standing on its
own remain credentials. It would also demonstrate that the Lib Dems are the
party of remain for the purposes of this by-election, bolstering their
credibility in the first electoral test of a new Conservative Prime Minister, held
just days after that PM takes office.
As it is, Labour is running, possibly as a remain party (taking its cue from Drakeford and Watson), possibly not (taking its cue from the Milne, Murray, McClusky, Murphy tendency around Corbyn). Whatever, it is clearly not remain enough to back a remain alliance. So, when it gets electorally hammered, its irrelevance as a party of remain in a seat it has represented more than any other party will have been demonstrated – along with the fact that it cannot cope with the co-operative instincts of many Remainers.
What if Labour makes the case that there are more important things than Brexit, maintaining its position of constructive ambiguity, hoping to talk about other critical issues such as the impact of Tory austerity? That Brexit isn’t the all-defining issue the commentariat – or hated mainstream media – think it is? That is fine until the public votes along Brexit lines – for the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems – confirming that, in reality, Brexit is the issue that matters to them most.
In the end, the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election –
combined with the local elections and the European election – is likely to
demonstrate the catastrophic folly of predicating a strategic position on
Brexit on a tactical electoral position of constructive ambiguity, which is
necessarily limited in its ability to speak to the long-term and the much-sought
certainty that voters are desperate for.
The electorate are not stupid. They know that politics is about more than Brexit. But they are also realising that the defining battle-lines in the Brexit debate represent broader world views about society, the future, the past, and Britain’s position internationally. They then see that the party-political landscape, which informs and is informed by an electoral system, a media, and political institutions that service binary narratives, and which hitherto has entrenched the interests of Labour and the Conservatives, is shifting axes – and they are picking sides.
By failing to pick a side, Labour are in the process of rendering
There are increasing rumours that Jeremy Corbyn is about to come out in favour of a second referendum.
It is too little, too late.
Of course, Labour’s numbers are needed in Parliament to deliver the opportunity to go back to the people. However, A People’s Vote is not, for many of us, an end in and of itself. It is a means to an end, to remaining in the European Union. For many of us, too, Brexit is something else and more fundamental: it is a proxy for a debate about the kind of country we want to live in.
Do we want to live in a United Kingdom that is optimistic and tolerant, that is internationalist and a leader in the community of nations, that celebrates diversity, that champions small businesses and innovation? Do we want a country that wants to reform and strengthen our democratic institutions, and place tackling the climate and environmental challenges of our age and inter-generational fairness at the centre of our politics?
Or do we want to live in a country that wants to subordinate the rule of law to a nebulous concept of the popular will, framed by a past that never was, that indulges the election of representatives with the vilest of views on a divisive platform of isolation and victim-hood? That doesn’t care about the internal inconsistencies of Farage’s behaviour with his words, or this new force’s inherent lack of internal democracy, where otherwise reasonable people support the most unreasonable and objectionable policies, in support of an incoherent and undefined objective?
This is about world views. This is not about process.
However, process seems to be the singular obsession for the Labour Party. Just as it is still debating a People’s Vote, it is expelling Alistair Campbell for in exasperation supporting a party that clearly wants one, Jeremy Corbyn’s media outriders explaining why this is in line with process (though curiously silent on other, more awkward examples). And it is embroiled in a shameful investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission into allegations of anti-Semitism about whether or not its processes were adequate and up to the job.
Just let that sink in. The EHCR has only investigated one other political party: the British National Party, the political repository for Britain’s fascists.
A People’s Vote, party expulsions, anti-Semitism failings, all of this shows a party that is so wrapped up in managing its internal contradictions that it has no energy left to focus on the absolute and immediate threat that the Brexit Party represents. Farage is propagating a world view, not simply a position on Brexit. He is framing a narrative of betrayal and victimhood, with Labour and the Conservative Party squarely in his sights.
This is the ugly, brutal war of identity politics that
no-one wants, but that everyone is going to have to fight. The local elections
and the European elections demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats are
One swallow doesn’t make a summer. Arguably, nor does two. However, these two sets of elections do bode well for a fundamental shift in the political weather for the Liberal Democrats, who are positioning themselves as the serious challenger to Farage’s world view. It is a stark contrast with a Labour Party that seems obsessed with the processes for managing its warring factions or containing – perhaps even defending – its more unpleasant tendencies.
We do not have time to let the mendacity of Farage take root and take hold of our politics. We do not have until the end of September for Labour to decide whether or not it backs a process to potentially enable a counter-view to Farage’s narrative to prevail. If Labour want to remain relevant, it needs to be the standard bearer for Remain’s world view now – not in four months’ time.
It needs to come out clearly and back not just a process, but a coherent view that can prevail over that of a party that is not seeking to negotiate or compromise with the rest of us, and that is appropriating the language of democracy in order to subvert it.
If Labour even had its hands on that standard, its broken fingers are being prised from the shaft by Remainers who are more than prepared to fight for the country they love – and the European identity that defines them – under the banner of the Liberal Democrats.
Tonight, we find out the results of the European Elections. Here in the UK, they will not be pretty.
Whilst we lumbered towards polling day, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party enduring daily humiliation on the national media as they alienated more and more of their base vote, Lewis Goodall spent time observing the phenomenon that is Nigel Farage and his political reincarnation as leader of the Brexit Party.
Goodall filmed his experiences, from the party’s inaugural rally
and throughout the campaign, for Sky News. It makes for chilling viewing and reveals
just how much our politics has changed, despite the fact that our two principal
protagonists have not. He revisited his arguments in this piece
for the Guardian:
Brexit now isn’t even his principal concern, its failure the mere embodiment of a wider malaise. Instead, the collapse of the Brexit process is proof of his new analysis: that British democracy does not work and does not even exist. Worse, that every organ of the state and political life, be it the parties, the media, the courts – parliamentary democracy itself – are malign and work against the interests of “the people”. Never before have we had a major political force that operates with that basic reflex.
I think he is right. This is a new politics and we ignore it at our peril.
“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
This Farage is angrier. His politics is darker.
He is conscious he has been a figure of ridicule and now he
It is not a single decision around Brexit that is motivating him, but the destruction of our current politics and, along with it, the institutions that ensure a functioning liberal democracy in which debate and reflection and consideration predominate. He is aided by the catastrophic failure of the two main parties to use our democratic institutions to deal with the consequences of the 2016 referendum.
Those of us who know Farage to be a liar, who call out his
hypocrisy, his abuse of public funds and his complicity in the breaking of
electoral law, simply reinforce his victimhood narrative of betrayal.
We would say that, wouldn’t we? After all, aren’t we are
part of the establishment that has failed to deliver Brexit and that has
Think about the origins of this new politics.
The 2016 referendum forced a binary choice on people. It demanded people pick a side. What was not properly understood at the time by Remain, yet exploited brilliantly by Leave, was how that choice could serve as a summary of political grievance. Neither group is homogeneous and yet that experience has created a more durable identity than traditional party loyalties.
“A man who is used to acting in one way never changes; he must come to ruin when the times, in changing, no longer are in harmony with his ways.” ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
On reflection, this should come as no surprise to us.
Our institutions of representative democracy are designed for iterative decision-making. For compromise. They are not designed to service the implementation of an advisory referendum as some bastardised version of direct democracy.
In 2015, David Cameron’s Conservative Party traded a long history of mastering the politics of pragmatism for short-term fixes to appease its own internal Euro-theological insurgency. As a consequence, it now risks schism, unable to contain its once-broad church in a single political entity.
The Labour Party has a similarly potentially catastrophic
faultline, between Brexit-inclined socialists and pragmatic, internationalist
social democrats, both claiming the heritage of a rich and diverse Labour movement
as their own.
The divisions in both parties have been driven by their respective leaderships attempting to address the results of the 2016 referendum, conscious that Leave ‘won’, and terrified of alienating those Leave supporters for whom their new identity is a better shorthand for their politics than their traditional party loyalties. Our existing party duopoly is proving unable to adapt on its own terms to the brutality of this new politics of identity and, simultaneously, maintain a steady political course using the traditional levers of democracy.
Amid this collapse in confidence and the resultant vacuum of
leadership, the Brexit Party has arrived.
In six short weeks, it has capitalised on the inertia of the
main political parties, advancing an identity politics that is powerful enough
to attract support despite the myriad accusations that, if true, should be more
damning of the political hypocrisy of Farage and friends than even of Boris or
Do not think this is just luck or happenstance. It is a deliberate
play to capture the political mainstream.
Think about Sam Holloway’s brilliant investigation
of the Brexit Party’s candidates on Medium. Or think about Byline’s forensic
examination of Farage’s PayPal finances, even before considering the
friendly £450,000 bung
from Aaron Banks.
Surely anyone alarmed at the state of our democracy would
run a mile from such charlatans. And yet, those who see their political
identity wrapped up in Brexit, and specifically the ‘betrayal’ of Leave, can
subordinate any such critical reflection to enthusiasm for an entity that
encapsulates their identity in a new political force that is single-minded and
invigorated with ruthless organisation, money and American-style campaign techniques.
Remainers complain about Farage’s airtime. I know I have. In truth, though, he has been on the battlefield, whereas May and Corbyn left it. Remain voices are fragmented and spread across smaller parties and locked inside – but apart from the leadership of – the Conservatives and Labour. His rallies, his talk of flags, of betrayal, all fuelling a betrayal myth and a sense of victimhood that gives permission to his supporters to shout ‘traitor’, should terrify us with its implications. He is marrying an old narrative to new techniques taken from Trump and Italy’s Five Star Movement.
And we should not be surprised that politics is now so much
So many of the causes we, as liberals, have championed have been based on self-expression, on providing space for people – rightly – to be who they wish, love who they wish, and act how they wish. That has provided space for others who feel their own identity threatened to congregate behind those who, in the end, are crooks, liars and hypocrites looking for a political opportunity to exploit. They have been offered a more appealing story, one that resonates with their sense of identity, and whilst we might hate it, that story is succeeding where ours is failing.
Crucially, the narrative Farage is creating is based on negatives that need not be proved and cannot be disproved: he is not justifying what has been done, he is pointing out what hasn’t and turning that into a simple and powerful political message.
Where does this culture war between two political identities
It could lead to the replacement of the Conservative Party by Farage’s Brexit Party, or its fundamental remoulding in its image. Neither are edifying prospects. The Conservative leadership candidates seem almost wholly seized of the need to tack towards the winds on which Farage sails, pitching themselves according to their preferred constituency of interest, but not challenging the course. What will that leave them to say to their Remain voters, who are inevitably younger and politically agile?
For Labour, in some ways the situation is worse.
Deputy Leader Tom Watson fears
a wipe out if they cannot agree on a People’s Vote. But this is no longer
about process or, ultimately, even Brexit. It is about what Brexit represents,
for our nation’s future, our children’s prospects, and the kind of politics we
want to characterise our country. It is not just their failure to commit to a
People’s Vote that risks consigning Labour to the sidelines, and ultimately to
history, it is Labour’s failure to commit to Remain, to continue to deny that this
is a very different political battle, where its protagonists cannot rely on the
weight of historical forces, but must harness the energy and anger of now.
So, there has to be a strong chance that one side in this culture war will be represented by either the Brexit Party or a Conservative Party that eventually adapts in an isolationist, nationalistic direction to survive. At the same time, Labour, obsessed with process, and riven by conflicts over ideological purity versus pragmatic politics, its factions determined to prove they are the genuine torchbearer of the Labour movement even at the risk of even greater disconnect with a tired and angry electorate, could find itself increasingly distrusted, irrelevant and incapable of representing the other.
Naturally, both Labour and the Conservatives will take their lessons from tonight’s results.
McDonnell began expectation management on Sophie Ridge this morning, acknowledging they were going to take a drubbing but that their approach was the right one, of appealing to both sides. That is to misunderstand the unpleasant dynamic of this political battle. It is a conflict between two different world views. One must prevail before healing and reconciliation can begin. To pretend it is not there is to patronise and disrespect an electorate that cares so much about it that voters are prepared to abandon long-held political identities to give voice to their view.
The Conservatives, similarly, have been managing expectations, talking up the possibility of being wiped out in these elections. Theresa May having failed to introduce the politics of compromise to a charged and binary debate, the Tories are now embroiled in a leadership contest which will see them tugged further and further to the right, desperate not to cede the mantle of Union Jack patriotism and the language of national self-determination to the cyan arrows of the Brexit Party.
“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.” ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
Whatever the results prove to be, Liberal Democrats – and our
new leader, whoever that is – face a very difficult choice.
Our politics eschews the dangerous fundamentalism of
identity, whilst at the same time respecting the individual and the role of
community. We want to see a coming together, just at a point when our politics
has been framed as its most divisive. We prefer the rational politics of
discussion, negotiation and compromise to a language that uses the metaphors of
Despite my own instincts, I am coming around to the view
that we need to accept this new framing and not fight it, not in the short
term. Instead, if Labour and the Conservatives are so paralysed by their
inability to manage the complex competing interests within, the Liberal
Democrats must articulate the counter narrative in a simple way, whatever the
devastating effect on the traditional structure of our party politics.
The fact that our historic bases of support have been
destroyed is possibly – and ironically – our greatest asset. We cannot rest on
our laurels. They are being remade, in the local elections and the European
elections, in a fundamentally different way – not geographic, not rural or
urban, but amongst those who see Remain as a better expression of their
political values. Where there is latent support, in parts of the country that
retain a historic loyalty, it should bolster our reinvention, not define it.
“Some people seem to look at the issue the wrong way round –
they seem to think the first question is leave or remain, as if that is an end
in itself. I think they’re wrong. The first question is what kind of society do
we want to be?”
People are not
stupid. They have already asked themselves that question.
They have listened to politicians of all parties and they have
chosen the box that most accurately summarises their political identity. The
Conservative and Labour leaderships have accepted the result of the 2016
referendum unquestioningly. They have seen Brexit (whatever that is) as a
political destiny that must be fulfilled whatever the cost, whatever the
challenge. Then, in their failure to make clear offers to the 94% who have adopted
the labels of Leave and Remain, they have reaffirmed those labels as more
reliable political identities.
Of course, some have since reconsidered and feel they were lied to, or that the conduct since has been disrespectful to the result, so they have moved from one box into the other. But those boxes are there and remain strong – and perhaps even stronger than the way in which people previously shorthanded their politics.
Corbyn’s mistake is to believe he can simply disregard the
choices people have made and appeal above their heads in a way that enables him
to ignore the deep divisions in his own party and hope to move the agenda on.
He cannot. Because in doing so, he is not listening to and respecting the views
of people who are defining themselves by labels that represent fundamentally
different outlooks on the sort of country and world they wish to live in.
If the Liberal Democrats want to break open those boxes, as
our fundamental philosophical values dictate, if we want to bring our country
together, to return to a more rational and liberal public discourse, we need to
put ourselves in a position to drive that change.
That means not fighting the next General Election as if it is the previous one, as we sometimes do. It means not re-fighting the 2016 referendum. And it means not fighting the General Election we would like to fight, on a platform of complex, positive messages that seek compromise and healing, if that does not address the way voters see themselves.
It means fighting the next election for the election it is almost certain to be, on the appalling battlefield of binary identity politics. It means completing our transformation into being the ruthless opposition to Farage and becoming the point of congregation for all those whose values are best summarised by the identity of Remain. It means looking to the same techniques as those adopted by the Five Star Movement and even Trump, at least in terms of how to propagate a message and organise to win, if not content.
In doing so, it means working within a political framework
that reinforces binary politics. A House of Commons that services a government
and opposition, not a fragmentation on either side. A media that, schooled in such
parliamentary politics, struggles with anything more complicated than a discussion
between ‘for’ and ‘against’ without resorting to crass
and inadequate vox pops.
‘Bollocks to Brexit’ is an encouraging start.
Some have decried it as vulgar, a contribution to the coarsening
of our politics. However, it is everything that statement stands for that
matters. Its adoption by people who would not normally use such language, but
who fear a world that is positive, internationalist, respects and protects the institutions
of liberal democracy, is determined to combat climate change, is
intergenerationally fair, and thrives on technological innovation and
small-scale entrepreneurship rather than corporate behemoths, is under serious
Our challenge will be ensuring that, in leading with such a
sharp edge, the messaging head does not become detached from the body of values
behind. We should never resort to the lies of Farage. We should also show a
measure of respect for the supporters of our opponents that we can expect not
to be returned.
However, it also means prosecuting the case on behalf of
those millions of people who believe in a positive, open future for Britain without
apology or equivocation, confidently, and knowing that the only way to rebuild
our political system is to use this moment to own it and subvert it.
We need to harness the anger and fear of Remain to drive a positive vision of the United Kingdom, that tells an exciting story about who we are. A story that, ironically, is more in touch with our historic values than anything offered by Farage and that might just signpost a way to a kinder, gentler politics.
The growing clamour for Remain parties to work together to maximise the number of Remain MEPs elected in any European elections is almost too late. The Greens and The Independent Group, preparing to stand candidates as Change UK – The Independent Group, have already rejected approaches from the Liberal Democrats for such an alliance.
Why is cooperation so important?
Voting in the European elections is conducted under the D’Hondt system. If you are looking for a good primer on how it works, the European Parliament’s Liaison Office in the United Kingdom has one here.
It is a broadly proportionate system, but it is not truly
proportionate. It favours
broad coalitions of small parties at the expense of small parties
standing as single entities.
I have no idea why the Greens and Change UK have rejected working together. Perhaps it is out of a cynical determination to preserve party identity or perhaps it is because they don’t understand that this election doesn’t confer the benefits of a preferential voting system like the Single Transferable Vote, where every vote really does count.
In the end, it doesn’t matter.
The Electoral Commission deadlines for establishing a formal electoral arrangement have passed. The Greens and Change UK are refusing to cooperate informally to maximise the number of Remain MEPs elected.
Pause here for a moment to think about the sudden and
meteoric rise of the Brexit Party.
The reason they are in such an electorally strong position is that they can treat any European election as a further referendum. They have their message in their branding. They have a capable, populist leader who has achieved success in previous European elections. And, as is apparent from recent polls, they are basically an electoral coalition. They are harvesting disaffected Tories, embarrassed former UKIPers, probably some Labour #Lexiters, and even those on the left, like George Galloway.
So, what is the answer for Remainers?
Well, if sending a message on Brexit is truly the priority for Remainers, and if they can stomach electing Remain MEPs above their traditional party loyalties, one option would be for Remain voters to ruthlessly game D’Hondt and go around the bickering parties.
When you go to the polling station, you will be given the opportunity to place one ‘X’ next to the party you want to win. You do not get to vote for the individual parties’ candidates (the only candidates you can vote for are independents without party affiliation). You do not get to offer a preference. You cannot put more than one ‘X’, even if, for example, you want to support both Change UK and the Greens, as you will spoil your ballot paper.
Your ballot paper will look something like this:
The only way to maximise the number of Remain MEPs is to ensure that Remainers vote for the strongest Remain party in each region – and only that party – to avoid splitting the vote and ending up in situation where, potentially, none get elected.
So how could we do this?
Decide who the Remain parties are. My view is that Remainers should abandon Labour. They are negotiating to facilitate a disastrous Tory Brexit. Despite Labour’s Remain membership, leading spokespeople like Barry Gardiner insist they are not a party of remaining in the EU. If this election is about sending a message, Remainers must be ruthless in designating Remain parties, in just the same way that Leavers are ruthlessly abandoning the Tories for the Brexit Party. Unless Labour takes a pro-Remain position, and offers unequivocal support for a further referendum, Remainers should not put their ‘X’ by Labour. That means we are looking – in England – at the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Change UK, who are working with Renew. (I accept others will make the case to include Labour and perhaps Labour is included in regions where clear Remain Labour candidates top the lists, strengthening the case for facilitating candidate sign-ups to a Remain banner – see below.)
Create an authoritative Remain banner that candidates from these parties can sign up to. We can’t rely on organisations like the People’s Vote campaign or Best for Britain to do this, as they will be restricted on how they can campaign in any European elections. But it needs to become an authoritative stamp of Remain credentials. This should be a clear commitment to a People’s Vote and campaigning to remain in the EU.
Provide an easy and visual way, via a website, that shows two things: a.) who the Remain parties and candidates are in each region; and b.) how those parties are polling in each region. The latter polling point is crucial. It needs to aggregate and interpret the very best and most recent regional polling data to give the clearest view as to which party is leading in each European Election region. When it comes to election day, the party at the head of the Remain queue in each region is the one that Remainers should vote for, whichever party it is. You abandon your party loyalties, hold your nose and vote Remain.
Create a mechanism on the website for individuals to vote match, so they can find solidarity with someone in a different region who is voting for someone they wouldn’t ordinarily (e.g. a Green voter voting for a Lib Dem) and a way to say why. This doesn’t have the same effect as tactical vote-matching in a First Past the Post election, but is about creating a sense of movement, of solidarity across party lines to deliver the message.
This is only one idea. It is
fraught with complications.
Can Remainers organise quickly
and effectively enough? Can they get a single, authoritative banner together
that will encourage candidates to sign-up and drive competition amongst the
parties to push up their campaigning and polling and become the lead party in a
region? Will Remainers really abandon their party loyalties and vote for
parties they may resent over issues like Coalition?
But the truth is, in the absence of parties working together to establish lead Remain parties in each region, Remainers need creative solutions to force an outcome on them and present a serious, UK-wide Remain challenge to the Brexit Party’s simple, hard-hitting Leave position.
In usual Guardian preachy style, Arthur offers up a scorecard. At least, he calls it a scorecard but there are no scores on it – merely a commentary. One or two of his observations bear closer scrutiny.
On scrapping ID cards, he offers the following bizarre criticism of the commitment in the Conservative manifesto, failing to even acknowledge that it was also in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto:
‘There were no ID cards to scrap. No national ID register was set up.’
‘The use of RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) by councils to spy on people was forestalled to some extent, but the coalition tried to introduce an extensive surveillance act in July 2014 – leaning on RIPA – that outraged privacy campaigners, especially in the light of the Snowden revelations over surveillance by GCHQ and the NSA of internet communications.’
Arthur misrepresents what actually made it to the statute book, using the weaselly form of words ‘tried to introduce’, whilst failing to report any of the safeguards that were secured by the Liberal Democrats and reported in – guess where? – The Guardian on 10 July 2014:
Those measures that could prove crucial in the longer term include:
• The “tip to toe” review of Ripa, the foundation stone of the surveillance state, to be completed by 2016, could prove particularly potent in ensuring that such state snooping in the name of counter-terrorism and serious crime is brought strictly under control. Debate is still going on whether it should be an “expert review” led by David Anderson, the counter-terror law watchdog, or a joint committee of peers and MPs.
It will issue an interim report before the general election on whether there are sufficient privacy safeguards in the post-Snowden age and whether there should be a major shakeup of the oversight regime for the security services.
• The creation of a US-style privacy and civil liberties board to ensure that civil liberties are a foundation stone of counter-terrorism legislation, rather than an afterthought. Bolstered by annual transparency reports from the state agencies, it could be the alarm system that the current oversight regime has failed to provide. It will effectively be a major expansion of the current one-man role of David Anderson.
• The appointment of a senior diplomat to lead discussions with the US government and companies to establish a new international agreement for sharing data across boundaries is also significant. This would smooth the way where US wiretap laws conflict with UK Ripa laws but also could provide a way of expanding the existing mutual legal assistance treaty rather than a “snooper’s charter” that sees British ministers issuing demands that US companies hand over ever more personal data on UK citizens.
This is a major package, albeit rushed, that will shape how we live and work in the digital world. It may just “safeguard the existing position” – these powers have been in use in Britain since 2009 – but it also provides an opportunity to introduce some civil liberties elements that up until now were missing.
Funny how there is no mention of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board by Arthur, perhaps one of the most significant legislative developments as far as surveillance goes. This is the body that The Guardian itself described on 16 October 2014 as one of ‘several embryonic cautiously hopeful signs’ in the wake of the Snowden affair – and was duly legislated for this year. A more constructive use of column inches might have been to challenge the next government to put those provisions into action.
In specific criticism of the Liberal Democrats Arthur claims there was no Freedoms Bill – omitting entirely to visit the Protection of Freedoms Act from 2010-12. If you care to look at the Act and Arthur’s criticisms, you will see that a substantial number are addressed.
Ros Taylor, former editor of guardian.co.uk/law described the Protection of Freedoms Act as a ‘a small but significant piece of legislation’:
‘This assortment of measures was intended to allay fears about DNA retention, CCTV, police and local authority powers and a number of other infringements of individual liberty (including, and very laudably, the right of men convicted of buggery to have their conviction disregarded).’
Arthur also states that ‘Fingerprinting of children continues, but parents can opt out of having their children take part.’ Our manifesto commitment – which he quotes just before – said ‘stop children being fingerprinted at school without their parents’ permission’. I struggle to see how what we did is inconsistent with what we committed to.
I am proud of what my own party, which has civil liberties at its core, achieved during five years of government with less than 60 MPs out of 650. Critics should remember: we were in coalition with a party that isn’t known first and foremost for its whole-hearted embrace of civil liberties, following thirteen years of a Labour government that had no regard for personal freedom and made us one of the most surveilled countries in the western world.
I have no problem when someone wishes to challenge the record of parties in government. I have no problem with someone who wishes to challenge me as a Liberal Democrat on my party’s record.
However, when readers rely on ‘quality’ newspapers to be informed, there is no excuse for such shoddy and misleading journalism in a paper that proudly boasts to the world that it won the Pulitzer prize for journalism in 2014.
The election was little more than two weeks ago, though, in truth, the astonishing developments of recent days make it feel like half a lifetime has passed.
This weekend is the first since before the start of the campaign that I have had a moment to catch breath and reflect on the incredible and exhausting roller-coaster of emotions that has carried me through the last few weeks. I am still struggling to get my head around a moment in history that has taken the party to which I have devoted most of my adult life from being the second party of opposition, fighting against media expectations of annihilation, through the incredible highs of Nick Clegg’s performances in the television debates, to the shock and dismay as we lost seats, and, finally, after careful and determined negotiations, on an extraordinary journey into government. Not at any moment had I envisaged the highs and lows of the last seventeen days, nor the conflict of emotion, loyalty and reason that has tested me and many, many party members.
As regular readers of my blog will know, I have never been backward in offering up frank criticisms of the Conservative Party. At the risk of offending “socialist” colleagues (I use the term advisedly these days), I have long mischievously regarded the Labour Party as merely a hundred-year anachronism that, hugely significant in its impact on the politics of the twentieth century, is merely the upstart younger brother of a progressive Liberal tradition that has a far longer and richer history as a counter-weight to the political and societal inhibitions of Conservatism. With that as my starting point, the idea of a coalition with the Conservative Party was never something I had entertained, instead attaching my instincts in terms of coalition in a balanced parliament situation to the romantic notion of a realignment of the left and a partnership with a Labour Party looking to rediscover its sense of purpose.
I use the term ‘romantic’ quite deliberately. That sense that Labour were the natural partner of the Liberal Democrats paid scant regard to the illiberal and authoritarian reality of thirteen years of Labour government, but owed more to my admiration for the integrity of leaders such as Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell who sought the prize of a realignment of the left in order to usher in a new era of liberal reforms. That emotional detachment from political reality governed many of my initial reactions to the General Election result and the truly baffling parliamentary arithmetic delivered by a cynical, angry public to the political class.
Despite an illegal war (yes, it was illegal), huge incursions by the state into our private lives, the threat to traditional British rights such as trial by jury, repeated failure to deliver on reform of the Lords and our electoral system (even though these were manifesto promises), the running down of our rural communities and the ruin of our agricultural industry, the bankrupting of the nation’s finances, and complicity in the ruin of confidence in our Parliament, Labour somehow still felt a more appropriate partner for government. However, listing these abject failures, just as I did in the pause for thought that was created by Nick Clegg’s commitment to allow the party with the greatest mandate to seek to form a government first, forced me to recognise that the political instincts of the Labour Party, still nominally progressive, are as far from my own and my understanding of my party’s as are those of the Conservative Party. More importantly, from the point of view of attempting to come to terms with the political and economic reality of 2010, the Labour Party is exhausted and broken, uncertain of what it believes or what sort of party it should become.
By contrast, the Conservative Party revealed a confident capacity to subordinate expectation, objectives and tradition to the practical necessity of negotiating with its erstwhile political opponent – qualities that had clearly escaped the observations of many commentators who saw minority government as its only route to power. If I am being completely honest, they are qualities that had escaped me, also, my ready preference to hide behind (well-founded!) tribal prejudices proving that I did not know the party I had been campaigning against as well as I liked to believe.
The outcome, a Coalition Agreement and a Coalition Government which sees Liberal Democrats at every ministerial level, is a genuinely radical attempt to confront the challenges facing the country and, in its composition, demonstrates a commitment from both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party to making this arrangement work.
Knowing how many of my fellow party members share my instinct, I am proud at the way the Liberal Democrats both locally and nationally have responded to the challenge set by the electorate. That there was such considered acclaim for the agreement at the special conference convened to provide an opportunity for members to discuss the Coalition Agreement does not detract from the hard questions the party asked itself. We fully recognise that a new and tough challenge will be to promote ourselves as a party of government, making clear the very real impact that having Liberal Democrats in government will have on people’s lives.
Of course the proof of the pudding will be in its eating at the end of this Parliament and the extent to which the Coalition has delivered on its clear commitments. However, the ambition is tremendous and a high benchmark that has the potential to reconnect the public with politicians and provide a real opportunity to break open the old ways of doing things. The list on which this Coalition is determined to deliver includes things I never seriously believed I would see in the programme of a single government: fixed term parliaments to end the game-playing of sitting prime ministers; an opportunity for the country to decide on voting reform, jemmying the crowbar of preferential voting into our creaking and unrepresentative electoral system; reform of the House of Lords; an ambitious plan to green our economy; a Freedom Bill to roll back the powers of the state; huge investment in the schooling of the country’s poorest pupils; and the raising of the income tax threshold to help those on the lowest incomes.
Most of all, this Parliament provides a uniquely important opportunity for all those supporters of electoral reform: to demonstrate that pluralist politics can work and that the national interest is served by a strong and distinctly Liberal voice in government.
Despite the colourful, passionate and necessary rhetoric of the election, my own emerging understanding of this unprecedented situation is that coalition cannot be founded on our deeply-held prejudices as politicians, but instead has to be grounded in an objective assessment of how best to serve the national interest in all its iterations, however personally troubling the accompanying journey might be. I believe Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats and David Cameron’s Conservative Party have made just that assessment, setting aside instinctive and fundamental differences to establish a coincidence of interests to best serve a tired, cynical, yet hopeful public.
I wish them – us – every success.
And I look forward to pressing the case for Liberal Democrat achievements in Government against robust challenges from both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in five years’ time.
You can read the Coalition Agreement, approved by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party 11th May 2010, here:
Most of you will be familiar with the ubiquitous Lolcats. Well, I presume the same enterprising group of students that have taken to spending their afternoons defacing Tory posters on the Rage Against The Election photo wall have put together a website devoted to… Lolcleggz.
If you like Nick Clegg and like the Lolcats humour, there are dozens of Nick Clegg pictures for you to chuckle over at lolcleggz.com.
Below is a pictorial representation of the projected share of the vote, based on the latest You Gov polling data for 2nd May (34% Tories [blue], 28% Labour [red], 29% Lib Dems [yellow], 9% others [green]):
Below is a pictorial representation of the number of seats that these percentages would translate into, using the BBC’s seat projector:
That’s 264 Conservative MPs [blue], 267 Labour MPs [red], 90 Liberal Democrat MPs [yellow] and 29 others [green].
Look carefully at those two charts and those two sets of figures.
More British citizens could vote for the Liberal Democrats than for the Labour Party. More British citizens could decide they would rather see Nick Clegg leading the country than Gordon Brown. Yet, when it comes to the translation of votes into seats, the Labour Party could receive almost three times as many seats – all because of the vagaries of our electoral system.
Can you imagine if this were The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent?
Would we sit quietly by and accept that we could all cast our votes but the final result could bear no relation to how those votes were cast? Of course not. The switchboards would be jammed. The internet would be crashing. The tabloids would be screaming about fixes and fiddles.
This isn’t The X-Factor. This isn’t Britain’s Got Talent. It’s far more important.
This is the future of our country. Those who are elected will make the laws that determine how we live our lives. Our electoral system fiddles the result.
“The unpublished poll showed that if people believed the Lib Dems had a significant chance of winning the election they would get 49 per cent of the vote, compared to 25 per cent for the Tories and 19 per cent for Labour.”
i see this as an obvious challenge to Liberal Democrats and their Rage supporters the length and breadth of the country.
Get yourself to a seat with serious Lib Dem prospects, campaign yourself into the ground until polls close on May 6th – and show the electorate exactly how serious Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are about securing fundamental and lasting change.
And in the process thoroughly enjoy watching the Barclays-Murdoch-Rothermere press froth and foam and howl as ordinary people reclaim their election from what Bibi van der Zee describes as “a small collection of white middle-aged men in bunkers in London…”
The Daily Mail has been caught out by sharp-eyed web-watchers, rigging its online debate poll against Nick Clegg. It appears that as the Mail’s debate poll was showing a colossal lead for Nick Clegg, someone took the decision to pull it and start over.
Check out this blog post here for a more detailed account. Pay particular attention to the screen shots and remember you can never trust a word you read in the papers of these desperate men…