Sunday, May 17, 2015

Checks and Balances

Image: David Muir

I've chosen to remain silent for almost 3 years: Lib Dem strategists seemed oblivious to the alternatives to a disastrous 2015 election, and I didn't want to do anything to jeopardise the chances of Labour keeping the Tories out of power. In the event, Labour engineered their own 2015 disaster.

Many other writers have produced excellent analyses of what went wrong, and so I have no burning desire to reiterate the clear lessons to be learned. No doubt I will return to these lessons en passant in future posts. Nor is it especially productive for me to let off steam about my fury with the Lib Dem leadership, with Labour's dreadful Tory-lite offering, or with friends who voted Green or Red only to predictably let in Blue.

Nor is it necessary to outline the horrors that await our country thanks to the Tory's majority government. I think we're all too well aware.

No, I can return to all these topics more rationally once the heat has died down.

What I want to do is flag up a few key policy issues that I believe we're failing to address properly and that have something in common:

1. We haven't yet put much in place to forestall future economic collapse caused by incompetent banks and tax-dodging companies.

2. Overspending and other mismanagement by politicians is all too easy, given that a party can win power on 37% of the vote, and with a mandate from less than a quarter of the electorate.

3. Vital parts of our community infrastructure - such as hospitals, schools, post offices, libraries, youth centres, shelters, etc. - are vulnerable to closure when times get tough, despite intense local demand for alternatives to closure.

4. Defiance of human rights, snooping by the state, lack of access to the justice system, newspapers little better than propaganda press, and harassment of the innocent by the media all seem to be getting worse.

5. Perceptions of immigration being "out-of-control" and of an oppressive European bureaucracy are not being assuaged by trying to co-opt and moderate the swivel-eyed xenophobia of UKIP.

6. We are sleep-walking into climate catastrophe through the actions of polluters and the inactions of governments.

One thing I believe all these areas have in common is the lack of clearly identifiable checks and balances (in a broad sense) to restrain the power of governments, institutions and companies to cause harm, while at the same time minimising infringements on freedom.

Whether Left or Right, Green or Free-marketeer, liberal or conservative these are issues that should be very relevant to us all.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Simpsons are going to Hell

I think The Simpsons is a brilliant programme, and couldn't resist eagerly downloading "The Simpsons: Tapped Out" game for my mobile. The game is also very funny, but has a slightly disconcerting habit of making loud notification sounds when the game isn't running and the mobile is in your pocket with the screen off. Apparently there's no way of turning these sounds off within the game on my mobile, without muting all notifications.

Now, I was at the funeral of a family member this week.

I put the mobile on silent mode before entering the chapel. Of course I'd have done that anyway - I'm not an idiot - but I really didn't fancy Homer yelling out "WOOHOO! NEW BUILDING!" as I entered.

Then during the first hymn I remembered that occasionally my mobile "forgets" it's supposed to be on silent mode, as if it's bored of sitting quietly for so long. A terrifying vision flashed through my mind of the vicar solemnly paying tribute to the deceased's skills as a chef (she was a chef)... a reverent pause... then suddenly everyone hears Homer saying "MMMM... CROPS..."

I surreptitiously switched off my mobile, which is what I should have done in the first place. No respect.

But then while listening to the vicar I suddenly worried that the switch off hadn't worked. On a couple of occasions in the last few months I'd been startled by the mobile ringing after I thought it was off. Holding down the power button isn't enough: you then have to select "Power off" from an options menu.

However the only way to tell if the phone was off was to press the power button. And if the phone was already off, this would bring it to life with a cheery fanfare during prayers.

"Oh well. What's the worst that could happen?" I asked myself.

And then I realized what the worst would be. The curtains smoothly closing, the mourners inwardly bidding their final farewells, the coffin gently gliding towards the furnace... and Homer yells out "BETTER THEM THAN ME!"

I removed the mobile's battery.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Time to think

Image: Gabba Gabba Hey!
In my previous post, I draw attention to the immense (and potentially insuperable) situational challenges the Lib Dems are facing. In this blog I haven't been simply sitting on the sidelines carping about Lib Dem strategy. I've tried to be balanced in my reflections. I've balanced criticisms with acknowledgements of the limited room for manoeuvre and I've tried to do my best to devise some practical suggestions for improving narrative, strategy and the explanations that lie just one step removed from the soundbites.

Perhaps they're not very good suggestions. I don't know. But I think I've largely failed to get through to fellow Lib Dems: Over the last few years I've been getting gratifying numbers of readers, but very few links or responses on other blogs.

It's time for me to reflect on whether there might be better ways to engage social democratic liberals across parties. I have to think about whether I can do better than I'm doing, to bumble on, to try more oblique approaches, or to just stop.

Is the Lib Dem "core vote" circling the plughole?

Stephen Tall's article "Do the Lib Dems have a core vote, and can we grow it?" has stimulated a very interesting discussion on LDV.
Image: Nicoze

Stephen identifies three reasons why the Liberal Democrats have historically lacked a "core vote":

"1) liberalism tends towards rational scepticism which rarely equates to core votes, which tend to be any or all of the following: class-based / ideological / tribal;

2) liberalism, at least in the UK, is generally centrist in terms of the key issue for most voters, the economy. As a result, our party’s ‘Venn diagram’ overlap with the Conservatives/Labour means liberal voters are less oppositional by nature, and more likely to move between us and one of our two opponents;

3) liberalism’s disdain for vested interests means it’s harder to coalesce an interest group. We don’t do favours for trade unions or big business: that’s fundamental to who we are. But it means we don’t have powerful lobbies campaigning on our behalf — still less the news media — persuading the public their future will be rosier under the Lib Dems."

The article and the subsequent comments are perceptive, and well worth reading. Some excellent points are made, on all sides of the arguments. It's also worth reading Simon Titley's 2008 article arguing that "The Lib Dem vote is like a bath with the taps left on and the plug left out."

I would venture that three groups of voters who have traditionally come out strongly for the Lib Dems can no longer be taken for granted:

1. With the advent of the Coalition, many of those in England who used to vote Lib Dem as a protest against the prevailing Lab-Con duopoly might well switch to smaller parties - Greens or UKIP, one supposes - or not vote.

2. Lib Dem strengths in the so-called "Celtic fringe" are likely to be severely disrupted by the presence of Lib Dems in a Tory-led coalition, by the SNP having a majority in Scotland, and by long-term adjustments in Welsh politics as a consequence of the growing importance of the Welsh Assembly.

3. Young, independent-minded, largely middle-class graduates who do not have strong political affiliations (and so assess the arguments of the parties on merit) will be much less likely to vote Lib Dem, as a consequence of (i) perceived broken trust; (ii) NHS changes; (iii) austerity measures; and (iv) a possible return to "We need to keep X out" thinking, because of the Coalition and the rejection of AV.
Image: Vaidotas MiĊĦeikis
Furthermore, at the next general election Labour might well be revitalised by being back in its comfort zone of opposition to public service cuts. The Conservatives might well be revitalised by being back in their comfort zone of enforcing economic discipline. If the economy is seen to be recovering well, the Conservatives will be the likely beneficiaries. If austerity is seen to be causing unemployment, stagnation and plummeting public services, Labour will likely benefit. There are no obvious scenarios in which the Lib Dems can expect credit for their role in fostering economic recovery or protecting public services.

So commentators who predict a "perfect storm" for the Liberal Democrats at the next general election are, in my view, on the money.

Moreover, the signs are not looking good that Lib Dem strategists know what to do about this. I'm not convinced that suddenly acquiring a "core vote" is plausible; I doubt that focusing all energies on retaining current seats would work either; there are no indications that lessons have been learned from 2005, 2010, or the AV campaign; some seem to think it's just a matter of crafting a compelling enough message in a couple of years time to motivate voters who tend to liberalism or to attract or persuade other voters; current policy development lacks drive; narratives are confused; and not much seems to be happening to improve rebuttal, persuasion and projection.

And if strategists are playing a subtle, behind-the-scenes game that I wouldn't be able to see, the outcome measures look poor: the public continues to see Clegg as compromised; the Lib Dems are repeatedly out-manoeuvred by Labour and the Conservatives in the Commons; leading commentators rarely have good things to say about the Lib Dems these days; and British political culture remains inimical to liberal, pluralist politics [1, 2]

I'm a natural optimist (How could I be otherwise, being a long-time member of the Lib Dems?!) and I think the Lib Dems have the best agenda for the country and a talented leader. But the situation is not looking good.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What's wrong with Nick Clegg?

Image: Marie Jenkins
Nick Clegg came to Exeter on Friday. In a room normally used for training Flybe cabin crew, he faced questions from a public audience for an hour. And then he mingled in a room full of LibDem activists.

This summer he's doing similar events all over the country: The "Feel the Hatred" Tour, some wags have dubbed it.

All credit to him. No stage management. No specially-selected audience (there were a couple of Labour councillors at the Exeter event). No speeches. No vetting of questions. Just him on the receiving end of a sceptical public.

  • Why we are giving so much in foreign aid when care costs for the elderly are under pressure?
  • Why is the dole so cushy when we're desperate to recruit a sous-chef?
  • Why do you want to deport me when my local area is desperate for my dentistry skills?
  • The Lib Dems were running Exeter City Council a few years ago. Now they're down to just 5 councillors. Doesn't that tell you something?
  • What next for Lords Reform?
  • Why not channel money from "quantitative easing" to over-stretched workers rather than to greedy bankers?
  • Why is the council supporting my tenants when they refuse to leave my house at the end of their tenancy?
  • Isn't it a problem that you and Cameron are so similar in looks and background?
  • Are you going to waste the next three years, like Labour wasted its first three years?
  • Why is it fair that, because I work, I don't get a carers allowance for my child who's got Downs Syndrome?
  • If you give tourism a boost by lowering VAT where there's matched funding, the Government will end up with a net profit. Why don't you do that?
  • I'm working hard towards my GCSEs. Are they now going to be seen as worthless thanks to Michael Gove?
Clegg engaged thoughtfully, put issues in the wider context of the problems faced by many people, addressed questions directly, gave a good account of what was being done and why, and offered to follow up personal circumstances when relevant.

Then he mingled with local Lib Dems: the ex-councillors who lost their elections thanks to the Government's austerity; the activists whose local organising is being undermined by loss of trust over tuition fees and the NHS; and the many quiet but committed members who are uncomfortable about political communications failures, climate change, free schools, internet snooping, welfare changes, economic stagnation, threats to Lords reform, and so on.

And again, Clegg did a great job of acknowledging concerns, providing a fuller context, and indicating sensible strategies.

I'm biased, but I think public and members alike were generally impressed with his answers, his engaging manner, his grasp of detail and arguments, and his passion to tackle unfairness, disadvantage and unaccountable power.

I sense that people don't quite warm to him like they did Charles Kennedy; he's not got Ming Campbell's gravitas; and he's not at the same level of Paddy Ashdown in terms of rhetoric and steeliness.

But, almost more than any contemporary politician, he has Tony Blair's exceptional linguistic ability to set out the arguments clearly and persuasively. He is operating, though, in a political culture that appears to pathologically despise error, inconsistency, compromise, inaction or long-term solutions.

My view, then, is that Nick Clegg's problem is not personal, and not even that much about policy. The challenge for him is twofold: (i) to avoid the continuing tactical errors that reduce his standing in the eyes of the commentators; and (ii) to develop the 2015 narrative (see also here). Unless Clegg gets better advisors quickly, journalists' predictions of Lib Dem wipe-out are likely to come true.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Top blog posts 2012 Q2

Following the example of Alex Marsh (one of my new favourite blogs, by the way: do check it out), I've identified the five posts published on HopingForMoreThanSlogans between April and June that recorded the most hits:
  1. Exeter Elections, May 2012 - the results (4 May)
  2. What do Liberal Democrats want? (14 May)
  3. Hunt and BSkyB: What is Labour up to? And what is Cameron hiding? (2 June)
  4. Exeter Elections, May 2012 - the issues (17 April)
  5. Sack Paxman (27 June)
It turns out that number 1 in this list is also the all-time most read post on the blog. Meanwhile number 2 is one of the blog posts of which I'm most proud. So it's great that it's being read.

And I must also include a special mention for "Reflections on The Prestige": Despite being published a year ago, this post racked up a large number of hits when Christopher Nolan's intriguing film was shown on television last month.

April saw my 100th post on the blog. Because of the Exeter local elections, May's pageviews hit an all-time high (3651). June saw my 10,000th tweet.

There were 535 unique visitors during the first quarter of 2012; and 1947 unique visitors during the second quarter.

Thanks for reading.

Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Ed Yourdon

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sack Paxman

Last night Twitter was abuzz with the "car crash" interview of Treasury minister Chloe Smith. People were still tweeting and blogging about it this afternoon. With my usual excellent timing, by now there will be no-one left on the planet with even the vaguest interest in clicking through to yet more comment on that interview.

So well done on making it this far. And here goes...

I agree entirely with Richard Morris' succinct review of why Chloe Smith had no excuse.However, I want to focus on Jeremy Paxman. I've blogged previously about why I no longer watch Newsnight when he's presenting. But I would now go further than that. I think he deserves to be sacked.

Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by englishpen
Not for this interview in particular. It was quite legitimate for him to be asking when the decision to delay the fuel duty rise was taken, why Smith appeared to have changed her mind about the issue, how the measure would be funded, and why this measure took priority over reducing the deficit.

And not because of his bullying approach per se. His technique last night was no worse than Paxman has deployed many times before; and although I detest the default attitude to politicians of "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?", it is sometimes necessary to deploy an aggressive approach to try to cut through obfuscation about very serious matters.

No, I think he should be sacked because he is incompetent. And this interview illustrates this perfectly.

Before the interview, we already knew that the decision was a last-minute one. We also knew that it would mostly be funded by departmental under-spends, but that it wasn't yet clear how much would be taken from each department.

So what could a good journalist realistically hope to achieve in this interview? I would suggest that the five key things we would have liked to have found out are:
  1. What are the justifications for the Government changing its mind?
  2. At a particular moment when tax receipts are sharply down and borrowing sharply up, why wouldn't the money be better spent reducing the deficit?
  3. How does this decision square with the Prime Minister's boast that his will be "the greenest government ever"?
  4. Why was the decision so last-minute?
  5. When will it be known which departments are to experience budget cuts as a consequence of this decision?
A smart interviewer - such as Jon Snow, Robin Lustig or Andrew Neil - might well have started with questions that a Treasury minister should be able to answer, following up with thoughtful questions that attempt to tease out ambiguities and gaps in the logic. It's true that there might be times when an interviewee can be unsettled by a relentless, aggressive, opening attack; but overusing such a technique means that future interviewees will be resolute in sticking rigidly to their talking points.

Instead, sensing the weakness of the Government's position on the decision, Paxman set out to entertain the audience with the ritual humiliation of a minister:
  • He asked Smith about 10 times "When were you told about the decision?" (or words to that effect)
  • He repeatedly shouted, hectored and interrupted Smith.
  • He asked an excessive number of questions phrased in such a way as to humiliate rather than to elicit serious responses, including:
    • "Is it hard for you to defend a decision you don't agree with?"
    • "Is this some sort of joke?"
    • "Did you get the sums wrong?"
    • "Do you ever wake up in the morning and think 'My God, what am I going to be told today? '"
    • "Do you ever think you're incompetent?"
To be fair, Smith could have made a much better fist of responding. After all, a decision to delay a tax rise is hardly the most difficult position to defend in politics. She needed to keep pivoting back to "Hard-working people and businesses aren’t interested in the process. They're interested in the outcome, which is the Government listening to how badly people have been harmed by Labour's deficit, and so we're taking the right decision to ameliorate Labour's taxes. This will help people who commute to work, people who travel because of their jobs, people who live in the country..." Of course that's easy for me to say. It's not so easy to do it under the hot lights and the sneer of a boorish interviewer. But that's her job, so I'm not overly concerned about that. And she'd already been through one interview earlier in the evening, so she knew what questions were very likely to come up!

So how well did Paxman do? Of the "five key things we would have liked to have found out" I identified earlier, how many did we gain information about?

And this interview isn't an isolated case.

If it turns out that BBC News is actually a subdivision of BBC Entertainment, then Paxman's bosses should be rightly proud of his continuing ability to attract attention. On the other hand, Nick Clarke, Vincent Hanna and Charles Wheeler will be turning in their graves.

What mark would you give Paxman?