Nick Clegg

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.

 

The Alternative Vote – a step in the right direction

In an ideal world I don’t think I’d have much to do with the Alternative Vote method of electing MPs, the option which will be put forward in next year’s referendum on Electoral Reform. I’m a long-standing believer in Proportional Representation and, whatever the merits of AV, it is certainly not proportional.

Having said that, there are many advantages of this system over the current First Past The Post method of electing our MPs. (The following passage is taken from the Electoral Reform Society’s website.)

The case for AV

  • All MPs would have the support of a majority of their voters. Following the 2010 election 2/3 of MPs lacked majority support, the highest figure in British political history.
  • It retains the same constituencies, meaning no need to redraw boundaries, and no overt erosion of the constituency-MP link.
  • It penalises extremist parties, who are unlikely to gain many second-preference votes.
  • It eliminates the need for tactical voting. Electors can vote for their first-choice candidate without fear of wasting their vote.
  • It encourages candidates to chase second- and third-preferences, which lessens the need for negative campaigning (one doesn’t want to alienate the supporters of another candidate whose second preferences one wants) and rewards broad-church policies.

Additionally the AV system would reduce (although not eliminate) the number of safe seats in the British Parliament. It is no coincidence that the worst excesses of the MPs’ expenses scandal occurred in the safest parliamentary constituencies – security seemed to breed a lack of accountability, complacency and contempt for the electorate.

Those who argue against the fairer votes campaign will tell you that FPTP is a simple system which provides strong government. The first part of that argument is true – FPTP is a simple system. However, the inference is that AV is complicated. This is clearly not true. The arrogance of many behind the ‘No’ campaign is clearly demonstrated by their view that voters are somehow not bright enough to be able to number their electoral preferences 1, 2, 3 etc. As for the suggestion of strong government only being possible through FPTP one only has to look back to the Brown, Major and Callaghan governments to demonstrate that, in recent years, this is not a given.

There is bound to be a heated debate in the run-up to next year’s poll and a taste of what’s to come can be seen by the choice of figureheads for the ‘No’ campaign. A selection of dinosaurs seems set to be wheeled out to tell us all, in essence, to leave things as they are because they know best. By contrast the ‘Yes to fairer votes‘ campaign offers an optimistic view that it just might be possible to change politics for the better.

Nick Clegg once infamously described AV as “a miserable little compromise” and to a certain extent he was right. I would far sooner see a referendum option on the Single Transferable Vote but the simple fact is that no such choice will be on the ballot paper. Britain will have a choice on 5th May 2011 whether to persevere with a system which worked well a century or so ago, but which seems a poor fit in the modern multi-party political framework, or to at least take a step in the right direction by – finally – making sure everyone’s vote counts. And what could be simpler than that?

Desert Island Discs

Some time ago my good friend Edwin Squire posted this item on his blog, which was his stab at the thorny old dilemma of selecting eight records for a hypothetical appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I make no apologies for the self-indulgence of this post as I attempt to do the same.

These aren’t the eight records I listen to more than any others, rather a snapshot of the kind of choice I feel I would need if I were stranded on a rock somewhere for any length of time. I’ve made a point of choosing no more than one song from each artist/composer even though I could just as easily have chosen eight songs by Led Zeppelin. Feel free to launch a critical assault via the comments.

1. Echoes – Pink Floyd This 24 minute epic took up the whole of the second side of the 1970 Meddle album, and for me was the first move towards the seventies Floyd sound that many associate with the band. Prior to Echoes there was a sense that Floyd hadn’t really managed to find a defining sound after the departure (due to a greater interest in LSD) of frontman and creator-in-chief Syd Barrett. It’s fashionable (particularly since his death) to become overly nostalgic for the psychedelic Barrett-era Pink Floyd sound, but any sensible examination of the band’s back catalogue must surely confirm that their best work was done after Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, the only album Barrett recorded with Floyd. The band scratched around for a couple of years producing such oddities as Ummagumma, the soundtrack from the film ‘More’ and Atom Heart Mother, but it was the Meddle album where they seemed to nail the concept of producing something melodic, unhurried and beautifully crafted. This turned out to be the prelude to probably their most famous album of all: Dark Side Of The Moon, which is another great piece of work. But for me, Meddle will always have the edge.

2. Kashmir – Led Zeppelin As I mentioned above, I could quite easily have picked eight Led Zeppelin tracks and been done with it but, for the sake of this exercise, I’ve landed on just one. But what a performance it is. Jimmy Page’s beautifully constructed chord sequence (borrowed a thousand times since), Robert Plant at his very best on vocals, stunning use of the quirky old Mellotron by John Paul Jones and the amazing force of nature that was John Bonham on drums. One of those songs that just gets better every time you hear it – even after all these years.

3. Beethoven’s Ninth – Second Movement I can’t pretend to be a classical music “buff”, but I include this for the sake of variety and a rounded collection to listen to while stranded on my rock. It occurs to me that the Desert Island in question could just as easily be a windswept crag in the South Atlantic as a sunkissed collection of palm trees in the Pacific, so it’s probably just as well to have something a little bracing. This great work from one of the greatest composers of them all was immortalised in modern popular culture by Malcolm McDowell’s drooling, hypnotic reverence of its “gorgeousity” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange but, powerful as I find it, it has mercifully not had a similar effect on me.

4. Unfinished Sympathy – Massive Attack One of those songs that will always be synonymous with a time and a place for me, and that was Plymouth in the early nineties when I still used to force myself to go to nightclubs. I’ve never been a huge fan of the club scene – bad beer, bad music, doormen suffering from delusions of adequacy – but just once in a blue moon you’d get to hear a little pearl among the dross and this was one of them. Massive Attack became recognised as pioneers of the ‘trip hop’ genre in the nineties but, for me, this song is all about the massive voice of Shara Nelson. Beautiful.

5. No Surprises – Radiohead A difficult one this. Radiohead are another band I could comfortably have chosen half a dozen records from for this exercise, but I settled on this one for similar reasons to the last one – a time and a place. Thom Yorke’s lyric reminds me of 1997, a period of change in British politics which saw the demise of the eighteen-year Tory nightmare and its replacement with the fresh-faced Tony Blair. Such optimism, so misplaced. Yorke knew all along…

6. Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival Short but very sweet, a classic three chord trick. Jangly guitar and foreboding lyrics squeezed into 2 minutes and twenty seconds – marvellous. Brilliantly used as  part of the film soundtrack for An American Werewolf In London.

7. Southern Man – Neil Young I chose this for the lyric more than the performance. Neil Young’s a clever guy but I wouldn’t stretch so far as to call him a great singer. Nevertheless, Southern Man is a scathing attack on the deeply ingrained racism of America’s Deep South. “Don’t forget what your ‘Good Book’ said.”

8. Need Your Love So Bad – Fleetwood Mac Peter Green’s struggle with schizophrenia deprived popular music of one of the creative greats and, for all their mainstream highpoints and their position as the sound of Formula One, Fleetwood Mac were never the same band without him. The guitar part on this song is not intricate or showy – it’s just beautiful.

I’ve appalled myself with all the marvellous things I’ve left out of this list, and if you asked me again next week the list would probably be completely different, but here it is. As for the two items you can take on the hypothetical desert island, a book and a luxury item, I’ll go with a boat-building manual and a toolkit – I could never survive with only eight records.

(It’s only on finishing this post that I learn that Nick Clegg has appeared on Desert Island Discs this morning – haven’t checked his selection yet although I imagine it’s full of early promise but…)

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.

The Winning Formula?

With the entry of Diane Abbott into the Labour leadership race, the choice before party members suddenly appears to be a wider and more diverse one than before – the other declared names are David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, John McDonnell and Andy Burnham. The fact that there is a contest at all makes this a more different scenario from the 2007 ‘shoo-in’ of Gordon Brown, and Abbott’s candidacy brings a welcome shot of diversity to the equation.

All credit to Labour for that but, realistically, the chances are that the next leader of their party is going to be called either ‘Ed’ or ‘Miliband’ or both, thus conforming to the current major party trend of electing a fresh-faced (perhaps not in Balls’ case) forty-something white male leader, with a full head of hair and an easy television manner. This is perhaps Tony Blair’s most lasting legacy to the political landscape of Britain.

When John Smith died so suddenly in 1994 politics was a very different place to the ‘New Politics’ of 2010. It was a post-Thatcher world where John Major had played the ‘safe pair of hands’ card and won the 1992 General Election in the process, Smith had used his substance and intellect to win the Labour leadership, and the fledgling Lib Dems were headed by the flamboyant Paddy Ashdown. 1994 changed everything. While most of the outside world assumed Gordon Brown would be next in line, Peter Mandelson and the New Labour Focus-Groupies had other ideas. Tony Blair won the – post-Granita – leadership election by a landslide (as a member of the party at that time, I must confess that I voted for him) and things were never the same again.

Blair was fresh-faced, energetic and non-threatening to Middle England. He looked like the sort of chap your average ‘soft Tory’ would be happy for their daughter to bring home. In policy terms, the programme was so light there was very little risk in ‘giving the guy a chance’, and the staged battle over Clause Four showed a man very much in charge of, what had previously seemed, an unleadable party. An historic landslide victory at the 1997 General Election confirmed the new leadership model as a winner.

There have been numerous exceptions to this trend of ‘natural’ selection, of course: William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith & Michael Howard for the Tories, Ming Campbell for the Lib Dems, and indeed, Gordon Brown for the Labour Party. Unfortunately the one common strand between these party leaders is that they were all deemed to be failures. Contrast their fortunes with those of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the Daddy of them all, Tony Blair, and it starts to look like there really is a winning formula for the selection of a leader: as long as the policies (where they exist) don’t frighten the horses, go for the young-looking guy with the nice suit.

I’m not saying that any of these men are idiots. To lead a major political party you need intelligence, determination and an extremely thick skin, and all the successful leaders have had these qualities in abundance. Indeed, I’ve often thought that history will be kinder to Tony Blair than any of his contemporaries were. I believe that, despite his many policy failures, he will come to be seen as the great politician of his era, a communicator without equal in the early part of the 21st century. I just think that there may well be women, ethnic minority politicians and people over 60 who have all of these qualities and more.

Will a woman lead a major political party again any time soon? Will the job fall to anyone over 60? Will the chances of any baldies (like me) be forever ruined by association with Hague, Duncan Smith and Kinnock? And what chance have we of following America’s inspirational presidential lead and electing a black Prime Minister? The ‘New Politics’ is all very well, but perhaps there are still a few things to be learned from the old.

And so the deal is done

Details have been published today of the coalition agreement reached between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. In short this looks (on paper at least) to be an arrangement which should lead to a stable five-year government with an agenda that represents a good mixture of the two policy positions.

I can’t deny that I’ve done an awful lot of soul-searching over the last twenty-four hours or so. Regular visitors to this site will know that I have no great love for the Tories, and the prospect of putting together a deal with them was something I was instinctively, viscerally opposed to. My natural inclination would have always been to seek an arrangement with parliamentary parties ‘of the left’, but the stark electoral arithmetic (not to mention Labour’s understandable reluctance to stay in government) meant that this was always merely an outside possibility.

With a “Progressive Alliance” effectively ruled out there were then only two options left to the Lib Dems. Firstly, they had the choice of doing a deal with no one, thereby allowing a minority Tory administration to be formed. This would hardly have been an advertisement for the Lib Dem commitment to stable government. After years of campaigning for a ‘balanced’ parliament, how ridiculous would Nick Clegg have looked if his party had backed out when the golden opportunity finally arose? The other drawback would have been the likelihood of David Cameron seeking a second General Election within a matter of months. Only the Tories would have been well-resourced enough to be able to afford this, and a majority Conservative government by the end of the year would have had no reason to take on board many of the Lib Dem policy objectives that now form part of the programme of government.

The only realistic option left was to form a coalition government with the only party that had enough seats to make the arrangement work: the Conservatives. There are many bitter pills to be swallowed (Cameron in Number Ten, Tory policies on Europe, Trident and immigration, and George Osborne anywhere near government) but there are also many areas where Liberal Democrats can be happy with what has occurred. A principled, though theoretical, place in opposition would not have delivered the fairer tax agenda, banking reform, a real advance on environmental issues, fixed-term parliaments and at least the start of political reform. Nor would we have had the chance to have Liberal Democrats in government, making decisions.

In an ideal world I would prefer there to be no Tories in government, but the electorate delivered their verdict and the politicians now have a duty to behave responsibly and get on with it. I fully respect Labour’s decision to take to the Opposition benches – they will come back stronger for rest and renewal – and I believe that there is much they can be proud of from their thirteen-year period in office. I am also encouraged by the Conservatives’ willingness to listen and compromise (even if it’ll be a long time before I trust them). The next five years will not be easy for either of the coalition partners, but I take the view that it is better to have Liberal Democrats in the government than in the opposition. Perhaps this is the start of a different way of doing things.

Thanks Gordon, but it’s time to go

Judging from the invective-specialists in the press and the comments of a number of the more strident people I come across, it would appear that I’m one of the few non-Labour people who doesn’t feel a little bit of sick rise whenever Gordon Brown’s name is mentioned.

I happen to think that he is an individual of no small intellect, and I applaud many of the difficult decisions he took on the economy when the banking crisis hit (regardless of where one thinks the blame for that state of affairs should be apportioned). I tend to think that Brown has been treated rather poorly by the media, the Conservatives and even some within his own party over the past two or three years. But the sad fact is that the only thing that can save us from the Tories now is if he goes, and goes quickly.

The first thing to say is that Gordon Brown’s observation of the constitutional position, largely unwritten as it is, has been impeccable. He has provided stability in the uncertain days following Thursday’s election and given Civil Service support to other political parties as they attempt to thrash out a deal to replace him.

But he and his advisers must surely come to recognise that the only clear message the electorate gave on Thursday was that they weren’t really sure who should be running the country, but they knew it shouldn’t be Gordon Brown.

Because the Labour Party is not the Tory Party, and ruthlessly butchering their leaders is not their preferred way of responding to electoral setbacks, there have so far only been three backbench Labour MPs willing to go on record and call for Brown to go. Perhaps the others know something we don’t. Perhaps a succession plan is in place and Gordon will go of his own volition within the next day or two.

But the longer he stays, the longer Labour will be excluded from coalition talks with the other parties, and the more distant the prospect of a “Progressive Alliance” will become. Brown is the stumbling block that currently makes the Tories look like the only show in town. His alleged angry phone rant at Nick Clegg the other night is probably neither here nor there, the real problem for Clegg is Brown’s electoral toxicity. The Lib Dem Leader knows full well that if he comes to any kind of arrangement with Gordon Brown a bit of the Prime Minister’s three-year bad luck curse is likely to rub off on him.

I don’t know how realistic the speculation about a “Progressive Alliance” is (a minority Conservative administration still looks most likely when the Tory and Lib Dem negotiators realise with horror what their counterparts are actually supposed to believe in) but I know it has no chance at all as long as Brown is the man at the top. It may be that Labour would simply prefer to go into Opposition and rebuild while the Tories are doing all the nasty stuff. But if they do want to stay engaged and be part of what could be one of the great reforming eras in British political history then Gordon will have to go.

David Miliband, his brother Ed, Alan Johnson, Harriet Harman – all of these are names thrown about as a successor. Labour’s choice of Leader is none of my business, but some sort of change will be necessary if they genuinely want to rescue that last, faint hope of genuine reform, as opposed to the ushering in of a new age of intolerance (whether moderated by the Lib Dems or not) if the Tories grasp power once again.

So I hope that Gordon Brown is making the most of a quiet weekend with his family, and that he will reflect on his options and decide to leave now, on his own terms. The longer he stays the harder it will be for parliament to grab the once-in-a-generation opportunity that lies before it.