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Friday, 14 July 2017

Farron decided to quit before election

Tim Farron has revealed that he decided to resign as leader "about two weeks into the election campaign".

In an interview with Radio 5live, the outgoing party leader said he "put the issue to bed" early on. In relation to the conflict he felt between his religious faith and his secular position as leader of a liberal party, he said: "I thought there isn't a way forward out of this without me either compromising or just causing damage to the party in the long run."

This naturally raises questions and criticisms, but not necessarily those focused on whether he had deceived voters. After all, many party leaders in the past have decided to step down after elections in advance of polling day but wisely avoided making their intentions public. The Liberal Democrats, rightly or wrongly, adopted a campaign strategy of aspiring to become the new opposition to the Tories rather than focus on Tim's personal leadership qualities. It's also now become routine for leaders to step down after General Elections, so I see nothing here that Tim should apologise for.

If Tim had decided he couldn't continue in the job but was going to do everything he could to maximise Liberal Democrat successes in the election, that's fine with me.

However, there are a few things that I am uncomfortable about.

Firstly, if you've made up your mind several weeks in advance that you're going to step down, someone with Tim's gift for oratory could surely have prepared something better than the self-justifying, defensive, angry and clearly hastily arranged resignation speech. He managed to appear critical of the party ("I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society" sounded very much like an aside at particular, unnamed, persons) while also offending LGBT Christians and other progressive religious people with the claim that personal faith and political leadership are irreconcilable.

He also announced it on the day of the Grenfell disaster. Why? If this was a decision taken so far in advance without internal pressures, why then and not the day after the election - or even a few days later when he could have said a few carefully chosen words about how challenging the election had been for him on a personal level? Why, on the same day as a humanitarian tragedy? Why, when only hours beforehand he'd sent a positive e-mail to party members and had scheduled a live facebook chat?

There are four possible answers here. Either:
a) Tim is so emotionally unintelligent that he didn't see the insensitivity and inappropriateness of making that statement in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell,
b) he saw the media focus on Grenfell as providing an opportunity for burying what might have been a more damaging story if had been announced on a "slow news day",
c) he and his team are simply incompetent, or
d) he had no intention of stepping down immediately.
(these are listen in ascending order of probability - I very much doubt the first two scenarios. Tim is better than that.)

The admission that the decision was made weeks before the election simply doesn't tally with the content of the actual resignation speech, or the fact that news agencies were only informed minutes before the announcement was made. It wasn't a prepared speech but an angry and defiant assault on those perceived to have undermined his authority. Of course, it could well be the case that Tim had decided his long-term future and was simply bounced into making an announcement sooner that he'd planned. There is no reason why Brian Paddick and others would have known of his decision. What does seem strange is that someone already intent on stepping down would issue a statement suggesting they were being pushed.

Actually, the new revelation asks more questions that it answers. Far from proving the absence of a "conspiracy", it actually makes it more likely. Leaders who have already decided they will go do not make impromptu angry speeches at inappropriate moments. They either announce their resignation immediately with a few reflections on their achievements or they wait until the dust has settled.

The second issue is about the matter of faith. Why did Tim have to make it about faith at all if he is so concerned about "causing damage to the party"? The 5live interview, while stripped of the defiance and veiled attacks evident in the resignation speech, had Tim explaining: "I thought there isn't a way forward out of this without me either compromising or just causing damage to the party in the long run."

Now, why should that be? I don't accept that Tim believes personal faith is incompatible with political leadership because until now his life and political career tell a different story. He's never made a secret of his religious belief, yet that didn't stop him serving as party president for four years and then running for the leadership. He knew Charles Kennedy, another Christian, had no such struggle. So, if there is an authentic feeling on Tim's part that "to be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party - and to live as a committed Christian [is] impossible" then it's a relatively new discovery for him. For someone who prides themselves (if a little disingenuously) on not making theological pronouncements, why does he continue to make this all about his faith and insist on the reality of a premise that is not only denied by many liberals and Christians but which he also would have fiercely objected to until recently? Personally I suspect what was said in the resignation speech was a reaction to events rather than a deeply held philosophical belief, and it does damage to the many people of faith involved in politics when this argument is perpetuated.

If Tim is made his decision weeks ago, why did he feel the need to make this kind of justification? There were much easier ways of communicating the decision that would have been honest without being controversial. The whole saga has been deeply damaging and the latest contribution does nothing to reassure progressive Christians like myself that he understands where we are coming from.

The final question is what impact this decision may have had on the election itself. It would seem that Tim's decision was a personal one, but did it have some bearing on the rather lacklustre campaign? Did anyone else know about this decision and, if so, what effect did it have on strategy and messaging?

Whether Tim decided to resign in advance is, in once sense, largely irrelevant. The fact that he'd made a private, personal decision and perhaps shared it with a few key people would not in itself have prevented certain people from seeking to oust him. We still don't know what happened on 14th June, what words were said, what pressures were applied (and by whom) and why Tim felt the need to surrender so quickly and completely.


Friday, 23 June 2017

Gisela Stuart is right - this is not "good democracy"

It is Parliament that is responsible for the democratic mess
Gisela Stuart decries.
It's a rare occasion when I find myself agreeing with Gisela Stuart.

I left the Labour Party in 2009, but remained an associate member of the Fabian Society until last year - I decided enough was enough when it allowed Ms Stuart to use their once intellectually stimulating Fabian Review to communicate what can only be described as a UKIP-lite message. To say she isn't my favourite former Labour MP is not to do justice to the rather low regard in which I hold her.

However, I read in today's Independent that she has described the EU referendum as "an abuse of democratic process", criticised David Cameron for calling it, expressed discomfort at the "vacuous choice" expressed in the binary question that was asked, and complained that the campaigns were unaccountable. All this seems reasonable enough.

Aside from the fact that Ms Stuart voted for a referendum to be held on the UK's membership of the EU on three separate occasions - she also once described the referendum as "defending democracy" - it is interesting that she has chosen to make this statement now, on the anniversary of the vote. Coming from Labour's most vocal cheerleader for Leave this is quite an admission. While it does nothing to change my view on Ms Stuart's hypocrisy (especially in relation to the rights of EU citizens residing in the UK), what she has done is identify some significant issues not only with the EU referendum itself but the UK constitution and the way our political system works.

She is of course right - this is not "good democracy". Mature democracies do not hold referenda that are merely advisory in nature. Many states do not hold referenda on constitutional questions without requiring either a special majority or something like the "40% rule" used in the Scottish devolution referendum of 1979*. Australia uses the "double lock" system, requiring both a majority of voters and a majority of states - imagine the implications if such a requirement applied in the UK, given the Scottish and Northern Irish Remain majorities. Similarly, strong democracies that make regular use of referenda not only have a clearly defined way of running them but also ensure that clear plans are in place to implement specified actions in the event of a particular outcome. None of this happened in the case of last year's EU referendum - a Prime Minister called a referendum he believed he wouldn't lose, "throwing his vacuous question in the air" to quote Ms Stuart, without considering either the economic, social or constitutional consequences.

However, it is not only Mr Cameron who is to blame. Of course, it was his hubris and misguided belief that he could use a referendum to finally unite his party and neutralise UKIP's threat that caused it to take place at all. But it was MPs of all parties other than the SNP (including the Liberal Democrats) who voted in support of holding a referendum. It was the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which made no provision for the result to be either binding or to lead to specified outcomes, that allowed for this outrageous travesty of democracy to take place. Where were the appeals to use thresholds, something that was advocated by some - including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kate Hoey - for the 2011 AV referendum? Where were the calls to identify and firmly establish what should happen in either eventuality? Where was the insistence on accountability, the absence of which led to a toxic and dishonest campaign? Why was a binary question allowed to go forward, when MPs of all parties would surely be aware that, whatever the outcome, the verdict of the electorate on the more complex issues of what either leaving or remaining would look like could not be discerned?

And what about the Electoral Commission, whose oversight of the process amounted to merely phrasing the question and announcing the result? The EC has been rendered relatively ineffective in recent years in any case, as underlined by the Tories' maximum fine of £70,000 for multiple breaches of electoral rules, but why was it not strengthened to ensure greater transparency and accountablility? How is it acceptable that even the barely adequate rules relating to UK elections did not apply to something constutitional, especially as serious as our future in the EU? How was it permissible that, the day after the referendum, the campaign groups were allowed simply to cease to exist? As Gisela Stuart explained today: "You had no bodies accountable for an outcome …This notion that you can create these campaigning groups that aren’t established political parties. Immediately after the referendum with Vote Leave, we resigned as directors and the whole thing was shut down. And that’s not good democracy." Quite.

This was no way to do democracy. I agree with Ms Stuart. What I will not do, however, is blame the then Prime Minister exclusively for the democratic mess that followed. Parliament could, and should, have been making these noises at the time. It should have ensured the outcome would be legally binding, and committed the government to specific actions in the event of both potential results. It is Parliament that should have required greater accountability of the part of the campaigns, and Parliament that should have at the very least discussed whether to apply thresholds. It is also Parliament that is to blame for the binary nature of the question, and for the inevitable ambiguity this created. Talk about a potential further referendum on the outcome of negotiations should have taken place in Parliament when the Bill was being formulated. It was Parliament that was negligent in allowing a poorly conceived bill to pass, undermining our democracy in the process. We are all the poorer for it, irrespective of how we voted on 23rd June last year.

The Liberal Democrats have, I believe, suffered electorally for advocating a referendum on the final outcome of negotations. That's not because it's an illogical or even a poor stance to take, but because of the way in which this shambolic referendum was treated as what it was not - as both politically binding and the ultimate, sovereign expression of the collective will of the British people. We were seen to be challenging the democratic verdict, rather than seeking to clarify it once some unknowns are determined. All this could have been avoided if Parliament had acted to ensure the inadequate, "vacuous", binary question was replaced with something that better reflected the complexity of the situation and provided some clarity.

Ms Stuart has correctly diagnosed the problem. She has, however, neither put forward solutions nor correctly apportioned responsibility. The failures she decries are the failures of Parliament.

If we want to be a mature democracy, perhaps it's time to follow Ireland's example and adopt a written constitution in which clear processes are outlined for the holding of referenda on constitutional issues? The alternative is not to learn from the mistakes that even Ms Stuart admits have been damaging.




* The outcome of this referendum was a 52-48% decision in favour of devolution but, as less than 40% of the total electorate had not supported the change, no further action was taken by the government of the day.

Friday, 16 June 2017

So there's a job vacancy - who will apply?

We want someone like Hugh Grant's character in
Love Actually. Only female.
Following Tim Farron's bizarre and poorly timed resignation speech on Wednesday evening, there is now a vacancy at the top of the federal party.

For the fourth time in eleven years, the Liberal Democrats are looking for a new leader. But what exactly are we looking for? And where might we find it?

We're a rather diverse party - a broad church if you allow for religious terminology (oh, you don't? Apologies) - and it's always going to be difficult to please everyone. But there are indications out there, among all the speculating tweets and facebook conversations, of the qualities the membership would like in whoever replaces Mr Farron. Let's take a look at what people are saying...

Obviously we don't want anyone religious. Oh no. But isn't that a bit, you know, illiberal? Hmm...on second thoughts maybe that's OK so long as they, you know, don't go on about it...like what Alistair Campbell used to say, we don't do God. Not anymore. What's that? Alistair Carmichael is an elder in the Church of Scotland? That rules him out surely.

And they've got to be pro-LGBT. That's a definite. Fortunately there are no worries there.

We also don't want someone old. You know, we learned with Ming. So we definitely don't want to go with Vince Cable. And Jamie Stone is over 60? Oh, he won't do either.

We want a "people's leader". What does that mean? Well, you know, Corbyn's doing all right all of a sudden, so we need someone a bit like that who gets on with people and relates to them, without looking like a geography teacher. Someone who isn't too...posh! None of these flash business types. What about that nice Stephen Lloyd? Oh, he was a commodities broker and a business development consultant? Oh no, not remotely "peopley" enough...

You see, what we really want is someone a bit like the PM in Love Actually, played by Hugh Grant. But not male. Obviously. A shame, otherwise Tom Brake would have been perfect. But we really need a woman this time around. No doubt about it. We'll be so much more credible with a female leader.

We don't want anyone tainted by coalition either. Yes, we did well in coalition and did many things we should be proud of. And we were a moderating force on the Tories. It was the right thing to do...but we don't want any of those coalition ministers responsible taking our party forward. No way! Sorry, Mr Davey and Mr Lamb.

And the leader has to be unimpeachable this time round. We don't want any more drinkers (poor Charles Kennedy). And I remember something about Jo Swinson and some issue with her expenses. Didn't she claim for some cosmetics or something? Oh, I don't remember...but you know, mud sticks!

Our new leader can't have any connection with the nasty Tories. What's that? Wera Hobhouse used to be a member of the Conservative Party? Eurrrggghh!

We need someone who gets on well with Paddy Ashdown and the Lords. Hmm, might be a bit difficult. Wasn't Christine Jardine an advisor to Nick Clegg? Doesn't bode well for her, does it?

The leader needs to hate the SNP as well. Someone who can stand up to Nicola Sturgeon. What do you mean, stand up to her on what? Everything!

Oh yes, and we need someone with a comfortable majority to defend. And not really someone new to parliament. Yes, you're telling me that it wasn't a problem for Ruth Davidson, but I'm telling you we can't take a risk on Layla Moran!

And, finally, we want a leader who can lead a famously anarchic and unleadable party, with a penchant for stabbing its leaders in the back. Who's left? Any takers? Anybody? Anyone at all?

Perhaps the real question isn't what the membership want, but which of our MPs would be either brave or foolish enough to put themselves forward.


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Tim Farron resigns as party leader

In the last hour, Tim Farron has resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

In a statement made to staff, and also issued on the party's website, Mr Farron said: "This last two years have seen the Liberal Democrats recover since the devastation of the 2015 election. That recovery was never inevitable but we have seen the doubling of our party membership, growth in council elections, our first parliamentary by-election win for more than a decade, and most recently our growth at the 2017 general election...Against all the odds, the Liberal Democrats matter again.

"We can be proud of the progress we have made together, although there is much more we need to do. From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I've tried to answer with grace and patience. Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.

At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again - asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message. Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit. The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader. A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.

"To be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 - and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible's teaching, has felt impossible for me. I'm a liberal to my finger tips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.

"There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it - it's not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.

"Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society. That's why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats."

The first thing to say is to thank Tim for his efforts as leader during a particularly difficult time in our history. No Liberal leader has inherited a party in the immediate aftermath of such a devastating defeat, and Tim deserves credit for the way in which he rose to this challenge - helping to increase the party membership, being unafraid to formulate a strongly positive approach towards the EU and standing up for strong, liberal values. Much has been said about Tim, and some criticisms are deserved, but underpinning everything he says is a genuine humanity. He didn't raise the issue of Syrian refugees because it was a vote winner, but because he knows it to be right. The same was true when he hit out at the Chechen concentration camps for gay people. For Tim, much comes down to Liberal instinct and values.

He's sought to stand up for decency, tolerance and openness and in his own way he's led by example on that front. There are times when I've questioned some decisions, or when I've disagreed with one position or another, but I cannot fault Tim for the way in which he's committed himself to the cause and to communicating it positively. Perhaps most importantly, Tim's energy and irrepressible enthusiasm made us feel good about ourselves again. So, if you're reading this, thank you Tim.

But...and there is a but...those efforts didn't achieve what I know Tim hoped they would. Last Thursday's General Election will have been a disappointment to him. Yes, it wasn't a disaster. Yes, we increased our parliamentary representation (although from a low base, the lowest since 1970). Yes, we did slightly better than many polls were suggesting we should. Yes, we were squeezed by the binary narrative that focused on the two largest parties. But the "Lib Dem fightback" turned out to be not quite what a lot of us imagined it would be in the aftermath of Richmond Park victory - or even when the General Election was called a couple of months ago.

While excuses can be made, ultimately questions have to be asked of the campaign - particularly in relation to our targeting and messaging. None of this required the leader's resignation, just a review of our election strategy. But Tim will know that, in an election in which media opportunities were rare, one particular issue just wouldn't go away. I am sure that it will have cost us votes - even if it persuaded a few hundred voters in constituencies such as St Ives, Richmond Park, North East Fife and Ceredigion to vote against the Liberal Democrats then it cost us four seats. Unfortunately the question of what Tim did and did not think was sinful came to define him, and undermined public trust in his leadership and the party. I suspect it was not so much the issue itself, but his apparent evasiveness in dealing with it - he never looked convincing. But it was undeniably damaging.

This naturally brings me to Tim's resignation statement itself. The first thing to say is that it is an incredibly interesting statement - not resorting to the usual platitudes and admissions, but being surprisingly direct in its reasoning. Earlier this afternoon, Brian Paddick resigned as shadow Home Secretary over "the leader's views on various issues" - he didn't elaborate on what these issues were but the implication was obvious. The Liberal Democrats' most senior openly gay figure was effectively saying Tim's opinions made him unfit for leadership. Within hours Tim had gone.

In the past, I have been critical of the way in which Tim has expressed his faith at certain times. However, I don't believe there is any "impossibility" in holding religious views while simultaneously having a political career: it is simply a question of being able to separate one's faith from one's secular position. I am pleasantly surprised to see Tim accept that "sometimes [his] answers could have been wiser", and I think he genuinely has become better at expressing what he believes.

But the way Tim has focused on his faith in his resignation speech raises some questions. Firstly, if he has been pressured to stand aside by Paddick and others opposed to his supposed beliefs (I don't actually know what Tim believes and have no idea if anyone else does either, but that's another issue) then it's appalling timing at best - and at worst a shameful, opportunistic and unnecessary manoeuvre to oust a leader who's just achieved some moderate electoral success. What was needed was some time for sober reflection - not recriminations and internal battles.

Secondly, Tim's statement sounds as if he feels himself to be the victim of an illiberal, anti-Christian conspiracy. When Tim says "I have faced questions about my Christian faith...at the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again - asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message" I can understand how this must have impacted him. While his own answers to those questions didn't help it's hard not to feel some sympathy for someone being asked relentlessly the same, tired question on sin when you actually want to talk about the EU, or mental health, or the environment, or a host of other issues.

However, Tim didn't stop there. He added: "I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society." This is more disturbing. It's also patently untrue - there are plenty of other Christians in politics who "believe and who have faith in" the same God Tim Farron worships, including Brian Paddick. Tim clearly feels personally singled out, but is the attack on society as a whole merited? I must admit to feeling uncomfortable with the sense of victimhood; of the narrative of being hounded out for his Christian beliefs. He wasn't - while the questioning was inappropriate, Theresa May and Sadiq Khan were asked the same, and if he'd answered it more convincingly in the first instance the question would never have returned. He was not targeted for his religious faith, but for his perceived weakness on the question - it's what journalists do. Surely he understands this?

Thirdly, and I am speaking directly about Tim's faith here, Tim says that "liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me. There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it - it's not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel...To be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 - and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible's teaching, has felt impossible for me."

As a fellow person of faith, albeit a progressive Christian, I feel it is a shame that anyone in public life feels that they are unable to live in accordance with their faith. After all, we need people of all faiths and none in Parliament - it enriches our democracy. As Tim has occasionally made theological statements in the past I wonder about the degree to which he has made his own life more difficult than it needed to be - however, I can imagine how lonely and hurtful an experience he must have had in recent weeks. Personal intrusion is always difficult, especially when you have a relatively young family. That level of scrutiny under pressure is not something you'd wish on anyone, and must be unbearable when it's personally focused.

All this said, Tim's suggestion that Christianity isn't compatible with liberal perspectives towards same-sex relationships is plainly wrong. I appreciate that for some, especially evangelical, interpretations of Christianity it is a struggle to reconcile the two. But many of us are from different Christian traditions: if I had been asked the infamous "sin" question my answer would have been an unequivocal "no". It is a shame Tim's statement doesn't seem to recognise the reality that there is more than one way to be a Christian.

Ultimately, I have always agreed with Tim's assertion that liberalism requires standing up for the freedoms of those who see things differently. Tim's Christianity in itself has never been an issue for me - I only wish he'd been wiser in some of his statements. In terms of his principles, I have no doubt whatsoever that Tim has always been committed to standing up for everyone's freedom to live their lives as they wish. His generally positive voting record speaks for itself, if only people researched it rather than believed facebook memes.

Finally, I have to wonder why Tim felt the need to use his resignation speech to make these points. It seems too self-pitying to be effective. I won't speculate and indulge in armchair psychology, but it does appear strange that he didn't use the disappointing election result or the need for a new direction as a justification for his departure. While I don't want to put words into Tim's mouth, I suspect he's speaking into situations behind closed doors. The sense of victimhood and persecution expressed within the speech, so untypical of Tim, would appear to suggest this. It seems to be more than a rant at the media - unless of course he doesn't understand why that question wouldn't disappear and genuinely believes he's being religiously persecuted.

Certainly, the assertion that "to be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 - and to live as a committed Christian, has felt impossible for me" appears to point towards attitudes or individuals within the party forcing him out. I suspect there is more to this than is immediately obvious and that, to quote the Gospel of Luke,  "nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light." (Luke 8:17) I suspect when the facts are known we will see that religious beliefs are not the only, or even the principal, factor behind Tim's resignation.

I am saddened tonight - saddened by the way this appears to have been orchestrated, saddened by the fiercely defensive tone of Tim's statement with its sense of persecution, and saddened that the leadership of such a talented man has come to such an abrupt end. It's a tragedy that perhaps our party's most gifted communicator has found himself forced to resign because he's struggled to get his messages across and answer questions. I am sure that he will have a significant role to play in the revival of our party and wish him well in his future endeavours.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The General Election: what it told us and what happens next

(Photo: sigmalive.com)


Considering the various General Election campaigns I've lived through and been involved in, until Thursday night at 10pm I'd have said the 2017 election was the most dismal, unnecessary and polarising in living memory.

And then came THAT exit poll.

Just as in 2010 and 2015, my initial reaction was disbelief. But unlike those previous occasions this time the exit poll gave cause for real optimism. No doubt it came as a surprise to absolutely everyone, but as the results rolled in it became gradually more obvious that the widely-held belief in the inevitability of a large Conservative majority that had framed much of the thinking during campaigning - fuelled by opinion polls that a mere day earlier had suggested a Tory super-majority of over 120 - was based on nothing more than fallacy and supposition.

It became apparent that Theresa May had gambled and lost badly in her attempt to secure a large majority that she vainly believed would be a formality. It also became stunningly clear that the supposed liability of British politics - Jeremy Corbyn - is far from an unelectable irrelevance.

The Conservative Party

A couple of months ago Theresa May called a General Election she promised not to, to obtain a mandate she already had for an action she campaigned against. That in itself came as a surprise for many, who were convinced the Fixed Term Parliaments Act would effectively have ended the habit of Prime Ministers calling elections on a whim. But her decision was understandable, hoping to exploit Labour weakness and capitalise on support for her Brexit plans - even if it did point to the presence of certain insecurities on Mrs May's part.

It's easy to say with the benefit of hindsight that the decision was the wrong one. I'm not so sure. If the Conservatives had played to their strengths and run a better campaign I believe that an improved majority would have been realised. Unfortunately for the Tories, from the outset their campaign was not only characterised by negativity and personal assaults on Labour's leader, it was also arrogant and complacent. How else can you explain the dreadful manifesto, the willingness to put foxhunting back on the agenda, the social care plans that alienated core supporters, and the refusal to attend debates or engage meaningfully with either the media or the public?

But even more fatal was the emphasis on the qualities of the leader. Few Prime Ministers have ever gone to the country simply to gain a larger majority; none has done so on the basis of their own popular appeal. True - Winston Churchill did something similar in 1945, with a manifesto entitled Mr Churchill's Declaration of Policy to the Voters, but that tactic made sense at the time even if it wasn't exactly successful. Mrs May, so convinced of the self-manufactured myth of her strength and political invincibility, opted for the highly personalised approach in making everything about her own fitness to lead - always risky but especially so in a leader lacking in personality. Even John Major would have had a better chance of convincing the electorate of "strength and stability".

She revelled in her reputation as "a bloody difficult woman", suggesting an adversarial approach towards EU negotiations. But, as it turned out, she was just "bloody difficult" to persuade to turn up to debates. Neither would she engage with "real people", or say anything other than "strong and stable", "coalition of chaos" or "strengthen my hand". Why would she need to when an easy victory was all but assured? In the final analysis, the opinion polling obscured the reality that the Emperor had no clothes - never before has a major political party gone into an election so intellectually naked.

Using a human tragedy to justify unmerited attacks on the Human Rights Act, while simultaneously trying to squirm away from tough questions about her counter-terrorist responsibilities as Home Secretary, underlined how out of touch the Prime Minister is.

So much more can be said about the Conservatives' abject campaign, but perhaps analysis pales into insignificance in comparison to Tory MP Nigel Evans' observation: "we shot ourselves in the head". A neater summary of the Tories' ineptitude would be difficult to find.

The Labour Party

Labour came into the election with very low expectations. Even the most loyal of Corbyn's supporters would have admitted holding what they had would have been an achievement. However, when all the odds appear to be stacked against you, it's often the case that caution is thrown to the wind: Labour chose to ignore not only the opinion polls but also the rhetoric of the press and Tory attempts to frame the debate on their own terms.

To his credit, Jeremy Corbyn avoided triumphalism (clearly learning from Kinnock) and showed something of the humanity May appeared to lack. He refused to engage with May's polarising "coalition of chaos" nonsense and dealt with some of the personal attacks directed towards him surprisingly convincingly. He always looked calm and unpressured - unlike some other members of his front-bench team. While Lib Dems may not want to admit it, he might also have got his "soft Brexit" pitch spot on. His response to the Manchester bombing was so much more empathetic and honest than the Prime Minister's, which I believe gave him personal credibility.

But there was also the Labour campaign, wisely focussing its attention on younger voters. It was, of course, risky to target the very group infamous for not turning out - but Labour did more than target. They reached out. They engaged. They listened. They inspired.

Of course, they fell short of victory. But the result will feel like a victory given the expectations. In winning seats like Canterbury for the first time ever they've showed they can win in unlikely places. It's undeniable that Labour has made progress - progress that seemed as likely as Greenock Morton's chances of winning the Champions League. No more can Corbyn be brushed aside, treated as an irrelevance and ridiculed as unelectable.

Journalists who were rubbing their hands with undisguised glee at the prospect of reporting on Jeremy Corbyn's resignation and Labour recriminations are having to tear up their script - this election was a very good one for Mr Corbyn and a very bad one for the Daily Mail.

The Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg lost in Sheffield Hallam
Our parliamentary representation increased from 9 to 12. So there's undeniably been progress made here too. However, it's impossible to escape the fact that this is our worst performance in terms of vote share since 1959 - when the Liberal Party only stood in 216 constituencies - and the "Lib Dem fightback", if happening at all, is going to take a lot longer than seemed likely in the aftermath of the Richmond Park by-election.

The problem for the Lib Dems is that we allowed ourselves to listen to the views of the print media and believed the opinion polls. The early weeks of the campaign were characterised by misguided attempts to paint ourselves as the real opposition - we took as granted Theresa May's supposed strength and Jeremy Corbyn's weakness and unelectability. Accepting these myths proved to be our undoing. Kicking off a campaign by stating the governing party is heading for a landslide is not clever.

The question of what Tim Farron thinks of same-sex intercourse (I won't use the terms "gay sex", as it's a form of bi-erasure) was damaging and wouldn't go away. I agree that the line of questioning was unfair; I also accept that, in the bigger scheme of things, what politicians consider to be "sin" is largely irrelevant. However, the issue was never dealt with convincingly and it eroded Tim's personal credibility. In politics, especially among leaders, personal trustworthiness matters far more than policy positions - and this saga only served to undermine it.

Farron's evasiveness on that question wasn't the only own goal we managed to score. In Ceredigion, leaflets misrepresenting Plaid Cymru's position on Brexit effectively cost our party our only Welsh MP. A combined total of just 463 votes cost us four additional seats - in Ceredigion, St Ives, NE Fife and Richmond Park.

That latter case showed another weakness of the Lib Dem campaign - in relation to how we appeal to tactical voters. Selling our horse races and making statements about who can or cannot win somewhere is not sufficient to convince supporters of other parties to lend their votes. The combative anti-Labour positioning in the early part of the campaign only served to alienate, and we offered little in the way of inclusive messaging. Simply expecting Labour voters to support our candidate is not only arrogant but self-defeating.

It was also extremely painful to lose Nick Clegg, and for Simon Hughes and Julian Huppert to fall well short in their quests for re-election. What happened there? Did we simply expect Labour not to come out fighting?

And while no-one expected instant progress, the statistic of 375 lost deposits speaks for itself. That's even worse than the 335 lost in 2015.

It is true that many of us are relieved (to say the least) that we grew our parliamentary representation, especially given the pessimistic polling in the run-up to polling day. However, if we're being honest, how many Lib Dem supporters and activists would have settled for that when the election was announced? While it's a decent outcome, especially in the face of binary media messages, it also represents a missed opportunity and highlights significant campaigning weaknesses.

For all that, we saw some great results: Vince Cable winning in Twickenham, Tom Brake retaining Carshalton, Jamie Stone winning in Caithness, Christine Jardine's fantastic victory in Edinburgh West and - the result of the night - Layla Moran's stunning win to take Oxford West and Abingdon. They were more than encouraging.

We simply have to be better at targeting and we need to be better in our messaging. This will always be a challenge when the media are focussed on the "main" parties, but Labour succeeded in reaching out to young people in the face of an openly hostile media. We need simple and clear messages, not to mention trust. It's also an inescapable statement of fact that our leader is not the asset many of us thought he might be.

Scotland

The picture in Scotland was very different to the rest of the UK. This is not remotely surprising, given that effectively there were two distinct campaigns taking place.

Jo Swinson secured a fine victory
in East Dunmartonshire
For the Liberal Democrats, there were deserved wins for Jo Swinson and Christine Jardine. Alistair Carmichael retained his seat - with an impressive majority. The surprise was in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, where former MSP Jamie Stone overturned Paul Monighan's near-4,000 majority. While the bigger picture isn't fantastic - the expected challenge in Argyll and Bute didn't materialise and to finish fourth in Gordon (which we held until 2015) shows the challenge ahead. But overall it was a good night.

It was also a decent night for Labour in Scotland, surprising everyone (including themselves) by winning seven seats. How much can be attribute to Kezia Dugdale is questionable, but at least Scottish Labour has shown it is (finally) moving forward after a series of ever-worsening election results.

Much analysis has focused on the SNP, and understandably so. The SNP lost 21 seats, many of them by the slimmest of margins. Their strategy came under fire and there are calls for Nicola Sturgeon to abandon her calls for a second independence referendum. However, the party still holds 35 of Scotland's 59 seats - their second best result ever - and is comfortably both the largest party and the dominant force in Scottish politics. Talk of the independence movement being dealt a fatal blow is both an exaggeration and somewhat premature, but I fully expect the First Minister to proceed more carefully. There was a definite public backlash against a second referendum and Ms Sturgeon appears to understand the need to reflect long and hard on this.

The SNP lost some senior figures - most obviously Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond. I do not grieve Mr Salmond's loss, but I find it hard to celebrate the Conservatives winning a seat we held for 32 years prior to the last General Election. The party will have expected some losses, but the result will no doubt have created some anxieties. The momentum is firmly with their opponents for the first time in over a decade.

The real story in Scotland is not about the SNP but the Tories. How can a party with whom the Scottish electorate has had such a difficult relationship with for over 20 years suddenly make such incredible gains? There are no easy answers, but much is surely down to Ruth Davidson's leadership. She did what Theresa May could not, replacing cheap soundbites with a credible message. She was a real vote-winner, even if the extreme Unionism and obsession with independence dominated her campaign. She was able to successfully project herself as a listening politician.

What does this mean for Scotland going forward? Clearly, the question of independence will not be disappearing any time soon. The idea that a revived Scottish Conservative party would be the effective king-makers in a UK-wide election would have been unthinkable only weeks ago. Underestimate Ruth Davidson at your peril - be assured that, whatever turns and twists lie ahead in the coming weeks, she will be an absolutely pivotal figure.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland should have been at the centre of this General Election given the ongoing difficulties there, but the media predictably took little notice. In spite of that, the prospective deal with the DUP suddenly has brought Ulster politics to the interest of the mainstream news outlets.

Aside from whether Theresa May should be negotiating any kind of arrangement with a party of homophobes, climate change deniers and anti-abortionists with historical connections to terrorism, it is concerning that the increasing polarisation we have seen in recent years in NI politics has become complete. The moderate SDLP and UUP no longer have any Westminster representation, having been eclipsed by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

With Stormont still suspended, this development has to be of concern. Even more worrying are Mrs May's overtures towards the DUP, which surely compromises the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to the British government's neutrality. Alienating not only the other Ulster parties but also the Catholic population of Northern Ireland for short-term "stability" would appear to be yet another stunningly naïve decision from the Prime Minister, and one with significant ramifications.

As Alliance Leader Naomi Long has said, this move endangers the talks process in Stormont:  "This arrangement, if it happens, appears to have been made along a very fine margin and I would not be surprised if it struggled to last any length of time It has also made the possibility of successful talks more remote – there is now no credibility for the Tory government to be an independent chair, putting the entire process in real danger of collapsing.

“This promises to be a real eye-opener for people in Britain who may have never encountered the DUP before. Their regressive policies, particularly in relation to social issues, murky relationship with active paramilitaries and a number of outstanding allegations around financial scandals will be unwelcome news to many, who will be surprised as to who the Conservatives have jumped into bed with. There is a severe risk in having the DUP unilaterally dictating the direction of travel on Brexit and controlling what, if any, special arrangements are put in place for Northern Ireland. This region only works on the basis of sharing and interdependence. That is made all the more difficult when one side of the two diametrically opposed parties here has untold influence over the government.”

Conservative-DUP talks

At the moment we're not precisely sure what's under discussion. But the fact that talks are taking place at all is disturbing enough. We should all be concerned at the prospect of the DUP being anywhere near the reins of power. A wiser Prime Minister may well have opted for minority government (as the SNP did in 2007) or even offered her opposition the opportunity to form a government.

There is unlikely to be a formal coalition, and I suspect that isn't what Theresa May wants. She wants something short-term, to guarantee her survival until next year at least. The real question isn't what is currently under discussion, but how Conservative MPs will react to it. I see no way May can convince even a majority of her MPs that a DUP deal is in the party's or the national interest, and I suspect this will prove her undoing as cannier Tory politicians than Mrs May will understand any relationship with the DUP will lose them support and votes. I could of course be wrong, but either way I imagine there will be a further election in the next 18 months. Whatever the DUP offers the Prime Minister, stability won't be part of the package.

Brexit

Of course, this was the Brexit election. So, what happens now?

Theresa May sought a mandate for her Brexit programme - clearly, she didn't obtain this. What is clear is that, contrary to what Theresa May wanted us to believe, there is no real popular consensus on Brexit. So where does that leave us?  Given the electorate rejected her "hard Brexit", and that even her new friends in the DUP are opposed to it. surely she now has to abandon this destructive idea altogether? It is unlikely that political uncertainty will put Brexit talks at risk entirely, but certainly a rethink on the Tories' position on the single market and customs union is not only possible but probable.

What is now glaringly obvious is that, contrary to the line Theresa May has been spinning for months, "the people" are far from united in what they want - and indeed expect - from Brexit negotiations. There is no clearly discernible popular will. But what the election has shown is that the Prime Minister has not been sufficiently trusted to act in the national interest. May's EU plan has completely unravelled.

And what's the alternative? A soft Brexit? EFTA membership? The referendum on the final deal as proposed by the Greens and Lib Dems? Just like Theresa May's future, it's impossible to know with certainty...

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Some thoughts on the Manchester tragedy

Like many people, I woke up to hear the news of the awful tragedy in Manchester.

I was first alerted to the news by notifications on facebook telling me that some of my friends were OK. Which led to me then turning on the TV news and discovering what had happened at 10.35pm yesterday.

I took my daughter to school this morning feeling rather fortunate to be able to do this, when other parents were still agonising about where their own children were.

It was a terrible shock, and made all the more so when I discovered a friend has been trying to make contact with one of his own friends who was at the concert last night - but has so far had no success.

There are few words I can use to express my own feelings about the tragedy. It is a tragic and unnecessary waste of life, and whatever we discover in time about the motivations of the perpetrator there can be no excusing the deliberate targeting of a concert, where most of the spectators were innocent young people.

As far as I am aware, this is the highest death toll from a terrorist-related attack in mainland Britain outside of London. It is tragic that it happened in Manchester - a city I know well and in which I am currently a parliamentary candidate (Bury South). Why should this wonderfully multicultural city be the victim of such a mindless and pointless atrocity?

It is dreadful that, already, the predictable anti-Islamic and even anti-Semitic voices have reared their ugly heads, seeking to capitalise on a human tragedy of immense proportions. While the country stands in unity, and in grief, with the people of Manchester so too must we stand together against the intolerance that feeds off such a disaster and fuels division.

Today, for the second time in a year, all political activity has been suspended - and rightly so. I hope we can all agree that this is not a time for party politics or making political statements.

And when the political discourse begins in earnest again, I hope that rather than propagate the kinds of easy answers that only create division, we instead reflect (as a society) on how we can produce a more peaceful and more tolerant world.

I don't wish to say much more, other than to express my deep condolences to all those who are grieving today. I'll leave the final word to fellow blogger Jennie Rigg, who made this observation:

"The arsehole who blew himself up with an IED full of nuts and bolts at a concert full of little girls was one man.

"The people who immediately took to the streets with bottles of water and cups of tea? The people who opened their homes to strangers for a sit down or a phone charger or a phone? The taxi drivers who offered free rides home when the trains were cancelled, the hotels who offered free rooms and respite and drinks to those affected, and the absolute heroes of the emergency services? Those people are legion. Those people are the ones who we need to talk about. Those people are the peak of humanity.

"Love, not hate. Helping, not hurting."

Thursday, 18 May 2017

What is the point of the Electoral Commission?

Image result for electoral commisionWe all know what the Electoral Commission (EC) does. In its own words, it "supports well-run elections and referendums in the UK, offering support and guidance to those involved", maintains registers of political parties and acts as a regulator of party finances. In regards this latter objective, the EC states that it "work[s] to make sure people understand the rules around political party finance.  Alongside this work, we also take action when the rules are broken and publish information on political finance."

Which, on the face of it, sounds pretty useful.

However, events in the last few years have shown the EC to be anything but. Indeed, it is completely unfit for purpose in modern political Britain. Admittedly, much if this isn't its own fault, but that of a failure of legislation to catch up with developing reality - but there can be little escaping that what once seemed a good idea is no longer able to fulfil the remit for which it was designed. Even Betamax video recorders were functional once.

If a week in politics is a long time, then 16 years is an eternity. The EC was established in 2001, with perfectly good intentions, under the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The EC's mandate included increasing public participation in democracy and regulating political donations, later extended to include security arrangements for postal voting (2006) and a number of investigatory responsibilities (2009).

The shortcomings of the EC were made obvious following the General Election of 2010. In what was described by The Independent as "one of the most chaotic general elections in recent memory", the inadequacies of a body charged with increasing public participation in the democratic process were revealed, ironically, on the back of high turnout. Unprecedented claims of electoral fraud, voters being turned away from polling stations and a failure to print sufficient ballot forms underlined the need for a review of how the EC worked.

Nothing, however, was done. The next test for the EC came with the Scottish independence referendum. Legally speaking, the referendum was advisory and non-binding - a product of the UK's constitutional position on referenda for which the EC can hardly be blamed. However, as the EC's responsibilities include "working to ensure voters know everything they need to know about the process" questions may reasonably be asked about the lack of guidance from the EC about the legal status of the referendum.

More crucially, what the EC did and didn't do during the referendum campaign spoke volumes about the nature of the organisation. It revised the proposed question from "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" to "Should Scotland be an independent country?" It produced guidelines on spending limits. It registered the official campaigns. It certified and announced the result. Significantly, it produced a report into the referendum - the most interesting sections of which consisted of proposals on how to run future referenda successfully. Unfortunately, these recommendations are no more than advisory and no action was taken to ensure the EU referendum conformed to these recommendations (most obviously in relation to votes for 16 and 17 year olds, and restrictions on government advertising to promote a particular outcome).

The report also included a recommendation that "for each future referendum...a role in regulating the campaign arguments is inappropriate for the Commission, or any other organisation tasked with regulating the referendum." This is understandable from the EC's perspective, but begs the question: if not the EC, then who should regulate the arguments? And so, when another non-binding advisory referendum was announced on the UK's membership of the EU, it should have been predictable what the campaign would look like. With no real legal framework for legislating the campaigns, the referendum itself having no legal status and the body responsible for referendum responsibilities washing its hands of any duty to keep campaigns honest there was a certain inevitability to what followed.

As in Scotland, the EC was able to agonise over the precise wording of the question and decide which of the various campaigns should be declared "official" but could do nothing to prevent the dishonesty and blatant untruths that came to characterise the political conversation in the lead-up to the referendum. While admittedly the failure to bring the Representation of the People Act up to date is hardly the EC's responsibility, when Nigel Farage is able to use the same kind of inflammatory tactics that cost Phil Woolas his political career questions have to be asked about why law surrounding General Elections doesn't seem to apply to referenda. In terms of ensuring democratic standards were maintained, the EC proved completely ineffective - something made self-evident by the appearance of Vote Leave Campaign Director Dominic Cummings at a meeting of the House of Commons Treasury Committee.

In its own report into the EU referendum, the EC stated: "a robust regulatory regime should aim to promote fairness and transparency, and reduce opportunities for circumventing these fundamental principles; part of this relies on the effective deterrent of proportionate sanctions.  Currently, the Commission is only able to levy a maximum fine of £20,000." It recommended increasing this but, like the recommendations made following the independence referendum, it is likely simply to be ignored. Astonishingly, the EC's other recommendations make no reference at all to the dishonesty, such as the £350 million claim, or the xenophobic campaigning of Leave.EU in particular. Essentially, the EC seems happy for campaigners to say what they like with little regard for the truth, so long as leaflets contain an appropriate imprint.

The EC has evolved into what it is largely by historical accident. As already stated, its responsibilities are framed by legislation that is itself unfit for purpose and an unwritten constitution in which referenda have no legal status. However, when we continue to hear a narrow 51.9 - 48.1% margin of support for leaving the EU - expressed through what is, legally speaking, no more than a glorified opinion poll - as an unequivocal statement of the "will of the people" then there is clearly a need for referenda to be more effectively governed. If referenda are here to stay (and, regrettably, it seems they are) then legislation must be updated defining the scope of referenda in the same ways as other mature democracies do. Existing electoral legislation should also be revisited and strengthened. It will also require a body to oversee the governance of both elections and referenda - something the EC seems incapable of doing.

If the EC exists to "support well-run...referendums" then the EU referendum should be counted as yet another failure. It was anything but "well-run". Other than financially, the EC couldn't guarantee any kinds of standards of transparency and accountability during the EU referendum. This may sound like praise for the EC's performance on regulating donations, but it isn't. In fact, the EC's lack of power to enforce the rules should be of concern to everyone.

Take the recent example of the EC's investigation into Conservative Party election expenses in 2015. Thanks largely to Channel 4 News, the EC was made aware of various irregularities. It looked into these and found a great deal of evidence to confirm the party's returns were incomplete. The punishment? A fine of £70,000 - the maximum the EC can impose.

The EC also reported matters to the police - that it was difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that people had knowingly acted dishonestly is perhaps unsurprising. But rules were broken - and the financial benefits of doing so (intentionally or otherwise) far exceeded the paltry £70,000 fine. Aside from delivering relatively meaningless slaps on the wrist, what then is the point of the EC? This episode points to a terrifying reality - that rules themselves are meaningless if you are the Conservative Party and have the money to pay the fines. And who can change the rules? Ah yes, the Conservative government. I won't put any money on anything changing anytime soon.

Money talks in British political life as never before. In 1992, a certain tabloid boasted "it was The S*n wot won it". Of course the media still retains huge influence over public opinion-forming, especially Paul Dacre's Daily Mail. But we've seen, with Arron Banks and Tim Martin as two examples, that there's a new power now very much in the foreground - multi-millionaires seeking to buy political results.

Wealthy donors have always been a political reality. But they have largely remained silent, simply bankrolling the political entity they feel best represents their views. All this has changed. This month another multimillionaire, Jeremy Hosking, proudly declared that he's going to use his wealth to pack the House of Commons with as many pro-Brexit MPs as possible. That, in the 21st century, is democracy.

Of course there will be debate about what should and shouldn't be allowed, and some of that is healthy. But the existing system and the funding rules, which find as their embodiment the EC, go beyond merely allowing such democratic injustice. They are complicit in it. The feeble and outdated rules, as well as the organisation that supposedly enforces them, actually enable the advancement of this kind of "anti-democracy".

The Guardian reported on this yesterday that the rules relating specifically to Northern Ireland - which allow secrecy of donations - were being misused by the DUP to enable what effectively amounts to electoral money laundering. Carole Cadwalladr, writing in the Observer, makes a comprehensive and credible argument that British democracy has been hijacked by US billionaires. She makes the claim that they played a significant part in the EU referendum. The EC are now investigating - something I doubt that Robert Mercer and his friends will fear. There are no penalties to act as a serious deterrent, and whatever the EC concludes it remains powerless to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

The EC has also failed consistently to address corporate interests and the effect they have on democratic outcomes.

Is this what democracy looks like? It shouldn't be, but where is the resistance? Certainly not from the EC, which looks increasingly like yet another body struggling to enforce the spirit of well-intended but outdated legislation while enforcing the letter of such laws in a depressingly ineffective and self-defeating way. It is simply ensuring, to misquote Burns, that we're "bought and sold for right-wing gold". Sic a parcel of rogues, indeed.

Not all of this is the fault of the EC, of course. But we need to ask what kind of democracy we want, and how we want to EC to function. If it is to do more than simply rephrase questions, check for imprints and apply nominal fines for wrongdoing that actually encourage future misdemeanours then it needs empowering and equipping to do so. Currently it serves little discernible purpose, which represents a democratic tragedy.