Liberal Democrats

Tuition Fees – A mess of our own making

And so the government has won the controversial tuition fees vote 323 to 302, giving them a majority of 21. While the Tories have escaped much of the spleen-venting over the issue (presumably people expect them to live up to their billing as ‘the Nasty Party’) the whole issue has torn the Liberal Democrats apart.

I have to admit to being fairly agnostic over the fees debate. I’d love to see a system where everyone could have a free university education, but equally I don’t think that the Coalition’s extension of (let’s not forget) Labour’s policy is the end of society as we know it. I don’t even blame my own party for making the concession during the frantic negotiations after the election in May – the Lib Dems didn’t win the election and therefore don’t get to have their own way within a coalition government.

Having said that, if you allow yourself to be photographed gurning over a signed pledge to vote against an increase, then vote against is what you must do when the time comes. And here (among other things) lies Nick Clegg’s problem. As long as people are able to stumble upon the photo above, the conclusion will be drawn that Clegg was more interested in the trappings of power than sticking to the clearest promise he made in the run up to the General Election. No matter what happens now, no matter if the Coalition turns out to be the finest government this country has ever seen (stick with me on this) Clegg will always have this image hanging round his neck.

Some good might come out of this. The Lib Dems will have learned a harsh lesson to “think hard before you pledge” – something that parties who are used to government have known for a long time. And I hope that those who have been so quick to condemn will recognise that many Lib Dem MPs (including my own, Dan Rogerson) did what they promised to do and voted against the government. But, try as I might, there’s no way I can spin this as anything other than a bad day for my party.

 

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Be afraid…

In 2004 the journalist Adam Curtis made an excellent series of films for the BBC called The Power Of Nightmares: The Rise Of The Politics Of Fear. In those films he made the point that, back in the 1950s, politicians ran for office with a positive agenda, promising to make our lives better through forward-thinking initiatives – by the 2000s the message had changed to a promise to protect us all from the dark and unquantifiable threat of international terrorism. This week’s terror alert has shown that, while the political colours in both the White House and Downing Street may be different from the Bush/Blair era Curtis talked about, the 21st century message of ‘be afraid, be very afraid’ is never too far from the surface.

In the wake of the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ voices have inevitably been raised in the UK and America, calling for tighter worldwide security measures and a heightened state of alert to protect against the global machinery of terror. Just as inevitably, there will soon be calls for more domestic legislation giving ever-greater powers to the organisation of government. Mercifully, so far, the governments on both sides of the Atlantic have shown a little restraint in their tone but, as Andrew Rawnsley wrote in this weekend’s Observer, how much pressure will it take from vested interests like the head of MI6 before the encouraging Lib Dem and Conservative noises in Opposition are brushed aside when it comes to decisions over, for example, the control orders regime? A sensible, informed debate about the balance between security and liberty would be most useful right now.

I don’t wish to belittle the very real danger that the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ presented. There can be little doubt that there are all manner of ‘terrorist cells’ trying their hardest to garner the worldwide publicity that a major atrocity would have afforded them. Where I struggle is with the suggestion that there is a highly organised global network of terror, masterminded by Osama Bin Laden, operating under the banner of ‘al-Qa’ida’.

I’m no natural enthusiast for the conspiracy theory. I’m certain that NASA landed on the Moon, that the death of Diana was a tragic accident and that Lee Harvey Oswald really was the man who pulled the trigger in Dallas on that November day in 1963. Similarly I don’t believe that the US government was complicit in the 9/11 outrage, other than through its incompetence.

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that the Bush administration used the fallout from the attack on the World Trade Center to unite the western world against a common enemy, in the same way Ronald Reagan painted the ‘Evil Empire’ myth of the Soviet Union. Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the global arms and oil corporations used this fear to push their hard-edged neo-conservative agenda. The damage, in Iraq and Afghanistan, was both massive and utterly counter-productive. The onus is now on politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that the climate of fear which led to those campaigns is not fostered again in pursuit of an enemy which bears no relation to the image painted by those whose motives are considerably less than pure.

 

Britain (and the BBC) discover the length, width and depth of the shaft

Gideon has spoken and the Coalition government has finally passed sentence on the public sector, outlining £81bn of spending cuts over four years. The Chancellor delivered his long-awaited (feared?) Comprehensive Spending Review to the Commons yesterday in a carefully crafted statement aimed at blunting Labour criticisms of the severity of the cuts. Announcing a 19% cut across departmental budgets, Osborne drew a contrast with Labour’s pre-election plans to halve the deficit which would still have involved reductions of 20% across the same areas. (The difference will be made up by an additional £7bn raid on the welfare budget, we are told.)

In many respects the statement was reminiscent of the Gordon Brown Budgets after 1997 – expectation lowered in the press in the lead-up to the announcement, final proposals that don’t seem too bad compared to what was feared, and a well-spun political presentation of the end result. Brown’s Budgets also had a knack of unravelling in the days after the announcement as those in the know started to probe the detail, but we’ll have to wait to see if Osborne’s statement goes the same way.

In spite of the spin, there will still be savage cuts. Police budgets will be cut by 16% over four years, councils will face cuts of nearly 30%, and the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice will see their budgets cut by 6% a year. And, regardless of Osborne’s wearying claim that “we’re all in this together”, it seems very clear that those most well off (including those – like Gideon – who live off £4m trust funds) will hardly see the same destructive effect on their lives as will surely be suffered by those at the other end of the income scale. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies is already highlighting the review’s harshest impact (surprise surprise) on the poorest in society.

Submerged in all the talk of spending cuts, the details of the Coalition’s shafting of the BBC also came to light this week, thereby completing the first part of the Conservative Party’s Faustian pact with Rupert Murdoch. As the Guardian outlines here the licence fee will be frozen for six years, which represents a real terms cut of 16%, and out of the reduced budget the BBC will have to divert money to the World Service (currently funded in part by the Foreign Office) and Welsh language broadcaster S4C. It’s perhaps quite telling that the BBC had privately feared far worse.

The second, and potentially even more alarming part of the Murdoch appeasement plan is still to come and relates to the media giant’s desire to assume complete control of BSkyB – a move which will be decided on by the Business Secretary (and erstwhile darling of, well, just about everybody) Vince Cable. As David Puttnam passionately argued in The Observer last month, the delicate balance of the British media and therefore the framing of debate in this country is under serious threat from this proposal.

These are pivotal moments for the future of the media in the UK. Commercial broadcasters have always complained about the dominance of the BBC, often with some justification, but the Murdoch approach is a rather different beast altogether. Not content with a simple wrecking ball approach to the Corporation (enthusiastically wielded by the Coalition) he also wishes to consolidate his grip on the British commercial media at a time when no one is really certain about how broadcasting or the press will evolve in an age when the internet continues to expand at an almost exponential rate.

As the FT’s Martin Wolf argues, Vince Cable has a golden opportunity to try to restore some semblance of ‘fairness’ to the Coalition’s already tarnished reputation. One can only hope that he puts a stop to the impression of the timidity of the Coalition (and indeed, every government since 1979) around the Murdoch empire. The government has showed its willingness to ‘fearlessly’ wield the axe on public services – an ounce of that determination should now be directed towards resisting Murdoch. The consequences of the cuts are not yet fully understood, but protecting the plurality of the British media surely has to be that rarest of bonuses for the Coalition: a relatively easy win.

The Lib Dems and what’s left of ‘The Left’

Much has been said and written about the current state of the Liberal Democrats, with seemingly desperate poll ratings and talk of a total sell-out to the Tories, and I realise a post like this gives free rein in the ‘Comments’ section to continue the kicking so willingly dished out by so many in the weeks and months since the General Election.

I am a Liberal Democrat, but that doesn’t mean I blindly love the Coalition and everything it does. Indeed, I could quite comfortably rattle off a list of government policies which, in my opinion, range from the ill-advised to the downright shameful. But equally, that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the nature of coalition politics and the, at times painful, compromises which need to be made in circumstances such as those delivered by the electorate in May of this year. Nor does it mean that I don’t think this government is putting forward some good policies. The civil liberties agenda, for example, suddenly looks in much better shape now that the New Labour experiment is over.

Having said that, I would very much have preferred a coalition agreement to have been reached with the ‘progressive left’ in Parliament. Such an arrangement could have realigned British politics for good and marginalised many of the malign influences on the way we are governed (Murdoch, Ashcroft, safe seats) but I fully accept that, due to issues of arithmetic, legitimacy and lack of will, this was never really a viable option. Nor was allowing the Tories to govern as a minority administration. Nick Clegg is right to make the point that, after generations of campaigning for coalition politics at Westminster, the Lib Dems could hardly duck out when the opportunity finally arose. I understand the gulf between my ‘ideal world’ view and the harsh reality of government, even if it leaves me feeling highly uncomfortable at times.

My real concern is where Clegg intends to take the party philosophically over the coming years. I joined the party because its policies chimed with what I believe: freedom, fairness, support for the less well off, radical constitutional reform and so on. I viewed the party as less right-wing than the Labour Party and refreshingly free of the Tory/Labour need to tailor its message to the Murdoch press. I still believe that this is where the party stands. The difference, of course, is that the party is now in government for the first time in its brief history.

In interviews with The Independent and The Guardian over the weekend, Clegg made clear that he doesn’t see the Liberal Democrats as a comfortable home for those of the disaffected left in the coming years. This should probably come as no surprise since the ‘Orange Book‘ tendency have been been in the ascendant since the demise of Charles Kennedy, at least at the ‘top’ of the party. But, as Andrew Grice’s piece for The Independent portrays, the broader rank-and-file membership still sits to the left of British politics and this is something the party’s leadership would be foolish to ignore.

Since I joined the Lib Dems in 2005 I’ve always identified myself as belonging to the ‘social democrat’ wing, and I’ve always understood that this places me to the left of the party. I have no problem with that as the party is and always has been a comfortable place for a person with my views. It is my hope that this will continue to be the case. I have already been invited to defect by members of other parties but I have no intention of doing so. I’m more than happy to stay a Liberal Democrat because it is still the philosophy which most closely matches my own.

No thinking member of any political party will ever agree with every policy their movement puts forward, and there must always be a place for the sceptical supporter to advance a minority viewpoint from within. The Liberal Democrats will continue to be attacked from those disappointed with the decision to join the Tories in government – indeed, it seems that many on the left are concentrating their fire more against the Lib Dems than the Tories – and we will continue to hear the boring, unimaginative ‘Condem’ nonsense being bandied around, mostly by the same people who used to (quite rightly) find all the ‘Nu Lie-bore’ stuff so tiresome.

Regardless of this I will still hope that the Coalition proves successful, in spite of the many mistakes it has already made and in spite of the fact a deal with the Tories would have been just about my last preference. But it will not stop me, and many others within the Liberal Democrats, criticising when we feel a deeply-held principle has been surrendered or when the government too closely reflects the view of its resounding Tory majority. And I will still be happy to be a member of a party which makes the dissenting voice feel quite at home.

Philip Hollobone – Heroic Prophet or Complete Idiot?

Brace yourself for the outrage (it’s already off to a flier in the ‘comments’ section of the Daily Mail’s online content). Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP for Kettering, has been warned that he may fall foul of the Equality Act as a result of his claim that he will refuse to meet constituents who wear a burqa or a niqab. You can be reasonably sure that the Little Englanders and self-righteous warriors against ‘political correctness’ will have a field day defending this objectionable little toad’s ‘right’ to create division and enforce lazy stereotypes in the name of protecting Britain’s national culture.

This often tends to be the culture of ‘freedom’ and ‘tolerance’ which Hollobone and his ilk like to boast about when they puff their chests out and become all dewy-eyed when the Union Flag is waved around at Tory conference time, but it appears you should only be free and tolerated if you’re white and Christian – anything that differs from the formula must be treated with suspicion and thinly-veiled (no pun intended) hate.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, has already voiced his concerns about breathing the same political air as the ‘toxic’ Tories, and it isn’t difficult to see why when an idiot like Hollobone crawls out of the woodwork. For all the work David Cameron has done trying to portray his party as modern and liberal, there is always the suspicion that you don’t have to look too far to find an army of Hollobones lurking on the Tory benches, foaming at the mouth about family values, tradition and ‘uncontrolled’ immigration.

And of course, immigration is what this issue is all about. Hollobone’s prejudices tap into deeply held suspicions whipped up by the tabloid press that foreigners are coming ‘over here’ and taking all our jobs while selling our British, Christian identity down the river as they ruthlessly construct their Islamic state. This analysis coveniently avoids any discussion of what the British ‘identity’ really is, of course. No mention here of the historical influx of Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Romans, Normans and the like – perhaps the BNP should persuade their friends in the press to have a crack at this ‘menace’ while they’re doing such sterling work on burkas.

Hollobone isn’t the first idiot to emerge from the Tory backbenches and he certainly won’t be the last. While some of the Conservative grassroots understand the concept of appealing to the centre ground of politics, there are just as many who believe the Richard Littlejohns of this world are the straight-talking prophets who warn of Britain’s impending doom at the hands of the foreigners and queers who secretly plot the overthrow of everything they hold dear. Now, in Philip Hollobone, it seems they may have stumbled upon a new hero.

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The BBC, Murdoch and the Tories

Jeremy Hunt’s recent statement on the BBC Licence Fee represents the coalition government’s opening salvo in what threatens to be a highly unedifying assault on the Corporation. In all probability (in spite of all the government’s noises, backed up by their cheerleaders in the right-wing press) this will have very little to do with fairness, funding or the quality of programming. It represents the first time in thirteen years that the favourite sport of ‘Beeb-bashing’ is spiced up with the addition of sharp teeth to Tory prejudice in the form of ministerial office.

Hunt said, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, that:

“there is a moment when elected politicians have an opportunity to influence the BBC and it happens every five years. It is when the licence fee is renewed.

“That will be happening next year. That will be the moment when I use my electoral mandate [sic] to say to the BBC now, going forward for the next five years, these are what we think your priorities need to be and there are huge numbers of things that need to be changed at the BBC. They need to demonstrate the very constrained financial situation we are now in.”

There will, of course, be a strong argument for tackling executive pay (although the Tories don’t seem quite so keen to deal with this issue in too many other sectors) but any cuts forced on the BBC will almost inevitably have the effect of impacting on output. Love or loathe the Licence Fee, the Corporation produces some of the very best programming in the world of television and radio, has one of the best web resources available, and produces arguably the most trusted news output in the world. The BBC is also one of the world’s top brand names and does not make a loss.

Of course, the real driver behind the government’s assault on the BBC is the Tory Party’s perceived dependence on the Murdoch Press. Like Tony Blair before him, David Cameron was keen to court the approval of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper prior to this year’s General Election and it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that the debt is now being called in. James Murdoch (Rupert’s representative on Earth) has been complaining for some time about what he sees as the anti-competitive effect the BBC has on the media marketplace, and particularly on the web. This last aspect is especially of concern to an organisation which has just placed The Times’ online content behind a paywall in an attempt to forge a new income stream to replace the diminishing returns of the ‘Dead Tree’ press.

The Licence Fee is the easy stick with which to beat the BBC, but it is also the mechanism which enables the Corporation to maintain the quality it does while also catering for unfashionable areas (such as culture) which commercial broadcasters won’t touch with a bargepole. Murdoch dreams of a world in which Fox News (Fair and Balanced™) is the model for how news is provided in every country in the western world, but as long as the BBC produce an alternative which is trusted by many more than depend on commercial alternatives, domination of the British media market will have to wait.

All of this chimes with a Tory Party which instinctively wants to fillet a BBC which they see as a hotbed of subversion and anti-establishment intrigue. Once again it falls to the Liberal Democrats within the coalition government to curb the mouth-foaming excesses of its senior partner. Let’s hope they can summon the strength and the will to protect, what I believe, is an organisation Licence Fee payers should be rightly proud of.

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Nope, still can’t muster any love for the Tories

I’ve noticed a trend among some Liberal Democrats lately of assuming that, because the party is in coalition with the Tories, they should say nice things about the Great Blue Evil and even defend Conservative Ministers when the inevitable (and probably not unreasonable) accusations of madness and megalomania are levelled against them. Sorry to opt out of this love-in, but a Tory is a Tory is a Tory.

Let’s not forget the people we’re dealing with here: George Osborne, who simply couldn’t wait to crank VAT up to 20% and start slashing public services; Michael Gove, who has wasted no time in making a complete lash up of the schools rebuilding programme; Iain Duncan Smith, who brought back not-so-fond memories of his Chingford predecessor Norman Tebbit with his reworded ‘on yer bike’ solution to unemployment; Eric Pickles, who plans to fillet local government and bring back a good dose of Christian values to public life (except the one about bare-faced grasping, of course).

And then there’s Cameron himself, the craftiest and most slippery of them all, a man who – as far as I can tell – believes nothing at all and is more than willing to let the idealogues around him get on with their dirty business.

The Tories, lest we forget, are only in this for one thing: looking after the small minority of the population who hold most of the wealth. Much wind has already been expelled about the cost of benefit fraud, for example, but there seems to be little interest in tackling tax evasion which is estimated to cost the Treasury fifteen times more. No, far easier to leave your party donors alone and get your mates in the right-wing press to stick the boot in to the less well-off on your behalf instead. It’s like the eighties all over again – the Tories will never change because they have no concept of what the word means.

Yes, I know there’s a coalition here and that compromise is part and parcel of the deal and yes, I know some people from my party signed up to it. I also accept that the party leadership didn’t have too many options considering the parliamentary arithmetic and the need to prove that a hung parliament needn’t be a recipe for instability.

But I curse, pretty much on a daily basis, that the Tories were the only show in town. And whatever the arrangements, however much the coalition is supposedly a vehicle for worthy Lib Dem policies, I’m never going to be able to muster any love for the Tories.


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