Thursday, 30 July 2015

From the vaults—voices from Labour's past!

Traditionally, August time in Westminster village is known as the ‘silly season’ and it is by no coincidence that unexpected things happen during the summer period—when Parliament is not in session. Often it is due to bored politicians with nothing much to do in their time away from the day job, succumbing to the temptations of gossip and idleness, feeling ignored and sadly unimportant... In fact, we have recently experienced a bit of that with Lord Sewell and his frolics! I used to think that the press held back some of these stories especially for the summer break.

I am afraid that I have nothing as juicy as that in store for this post, but I am sure you will find what I have come across in my Vault rather humorous. Not having been involved seriously with politics for over two decades I don’t quite know what the current conventions and practices are regarding the evening entertainment at party conferences. It was always hilarious and irreverent during the 1980s—the Liberals had the Glee Club and the SDP something similar, but admittedly not quite as good. So when the parties merged it really was fun for everyone!
I recall a Liberal 'Liberator' songbook as well as an Alliance songbook in Wales—copies of which I still have. It includes hymns, gospel tunes and well known Liberal songs such as ‘The Land’, the ‘Pink Flag’ and ‘The Candidate’s Lament’. There were also other funny verses and poems sung to popular tunes such as 'Waltzing Matilda', 'Tip-toe Through the Tulips', 'Clementine', 'Wild Rover' and 'There’s a Hole in my Bucket'. Yes, they were great days. I often acted as a compère on these occasions—once selling for £50 a railway time-table offered by Andy Ellis at a fund raising auction (it covered the whole of the UK, mind!). Another event popular in the late 80s was the Lloyd George Society evening, which was chaired by its founder Winston Roddick, where both the late Tom Ellis and myself would deliver quite radical speeches.

Anyway, I digress. Quite early on in the life of the SDP in Wales I came across a young student called Mark Whitcutt. He was very thoughtful, silently spoken and always in control of himself. As I recall, his father would not be too far away when Mark was around—I think he was hoping that his son would make it in politics, but I cannot vouch for that. Anyway, in the evening when members were socialising, Mark would often make his conversational contributions in voices of various well-known political leaders of the time. It was very humorous indeed!

So at the Wales SDP Conference in Tenby 1985, I asked Mark how many political figures he could impersonate—just like Mike Yarwood used to do in the 70s and 80s  or Rory Bremner, another master of satire and impression, still does today.  Mark reeled off a list of names and I was so taken aback that I immediately realised he had a remarkable talent.
Be that as it may, towards the end of the conference night I arranged for him to showcase his talent to some 20 or so people who were still floating around in the bar area at 11pm. What more, I had highlighted earlier in the evening to the then BBC Wales news editor, Gareth Bowen (father of Jeremy Bowen, the TV journalist and BBC Middle East editor)—who was covering the SDP conference—that this event was well worth recording. So BBC Wales rigged-up and recorded the session...

On Sundays, back in those days, there was a BBC Radio Wales programme called ‘Meet for Lunch’ which covered the weekly happenings. I arrived home from the conference late Sunday morning just in time to listen to the programme and to my astonishment the main item was the recording made the night before. I immediately knew that some Welsh politicians and one in particular—a Newport MP—were not going to be best pleased. The phone calls I received were numerous that afternoon and a few Labour people in Wales were not happy.

There was no rehearsal and indeed I would have been a better interviewer had we done so.  The only aspect agreed in advance was the list of politicians to be imitated. The questioning was entirely spontaneous—so what you will hear is totally impromptu with no re-takes—a one-off. It was a truly remarkable and memorable performance and I can still visualise it! I did not see much of Mark after those days and the last I heard was that he had joined the Labour Party—as quite a few members did—after the merger of the SDP with the Liberals.

So the recording will cover Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Roy Hughes.

Hope you enjoy.

By way of interest I also include two short link features of Mike Yarwood impersonating Harold Wilson and an item on Ed Miliband by Rory Bremner.

Mike Yarwood/Harold Wilson

Rory Bremner/Ed Miliband

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Labour leadership contest so far...

Are we in the era of another re-alignment in the centre ground of UK politics? Will it be a case of 1981 revisited?

A month ago I wrote an article about a ghost that had re-emerged in Wales in the form of Leanne Wood and Plaid Cymru’s misjudgement over the rainbow Alliance in 2007. Well, lo and behold, quite unexpectedly another spirit has come back to haunt politics, but this time it’s a ghost of Labour’s past...

Forty years ago there were powerful elements within Labour determined to tilt the party in a clear hard-left direction. Anyone under 45 years of age probably does not have much of a memory of what took place. Even as Harold Wilson was Prime Minister—but with only a majority of three—the Labour party was increasingly being taken over by left-wing militants with a strong agenda that included opposition to continued membership of the Common Market (as it was called in those days), against nuclear weapons and for unilateral disarmament etc. Tony Benn was the de facto leader of the left, at the time, and his influence was growing. Michael Foot, a great radical politician, was more of an old fashion Liberal and did not have Benn’s cutting edge.
In March 1976 Wilson resigned unexpectedly and, of course, the right-wing press immediately ran stories that some potential scandals around him were about to be revealed—such as an affair with his long standing political secretary—and that MI5 had a dossier on him regarding connections with the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Everyone was taken aback since Harold was someone who was a master of his craft and loved being Prime Minister—and he was indeed very good at it! However, it later emerged that the actual reason for his standing down was because he was suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and that he had decided to finish before the symptoms started to reveal themselves more publicly. It must have been a very difficult time for Harold because he was noted for his memory and great attention to detail, fact and figures.

So Jim Callaghan took over, but he had a difficult period as Prime Minister—as did his Chancellor Denis Healey—from the left-wing Labour MPs and grass roots at party conferences. In fact, debates became quite acrimonious at times with the two struggling to hold back the leftward march. By March 1977, in order to remain in government, Callaghan had to rely initially on David Steel and the Liberals through the Lib/Lab pact which ended in September 1978. His remaining months in office, up to the general election of March 1979, relied on the support of the three Plaid MPs. During this period, Mrs Thatcher had displaced Heath as leader of the Tory party and the Labour Government was imposing pay restraint which subsequently led to the so called ‘winter of discontent’.
There were widespread strikes by public sector workers in the winter of 1978/9—the largest stoppage of labour since the 1926 General Strike—which was over the Government’s imposition of a 5% ceiling to public sector wage increases. (Note the seemingly endless pay freeze of the current decade...) With such unrest, an inevitable election defeat in March 1979 ensued. It is worth recording that all the opinion poll evidence at the time showed that if Callaghan had gone to the country in the autumn of 1978 he might very well have won, but he was at heart a cautious man. Indeed, there might never have been a Prime Minister called Margaret Thatcher! So as is taking place now, the old grass roots of the party were on the march with the hard-left becoming ever stronger and Tony Benn in the ascendancy.

I have chronicled before how the Social Democratic Party (SDP) came about and how over two dozen Labour MPs left the Labour party and followed Roy Jenkins to create the SDP in 1981. Just before then, in November 1980, Foot defeated Healey to become Labour’s leader winning by a very small margin—51.9% to 48.1%. By the way, it was hinted many times that some MPs who went on to form the SDP voted for Foot instead of Healey! There is no need to explain why they took that tactical decision when their natural home would have been with Denis Healey...
In November 1981, Tony Benn challenged Denis Healey for the deputy leadership of the party despite every attempt being made to urge him not to stand—as the SDP had only been formed a few months previously. Benn came within a whisker of winning with the margin being 50.4% to 49.6%. It has also been chronicled that Neil Kinnock had been instrumental in persuading some 30 or so soft-left MPs not to back Benn. Given the closeness of the race, these MPs tipped the balance in stopping Benn. One can only contemplate what would have happened to Labour with a Foot/Benn leadership and many gave Kinnock credit, at the time, for saving the party from possible oblivion. But I have no doubt that Neil had a wider agenda in sight—he saw an opportunity on the horizon because Foot was always going to be a one election candidate. Therefore, stopping Benn was crucial for him.

One pertinent point in relation to the 1981 Labour/SDP split which partly explains why there is increasing talk about whether Labour might split again. There were many Labour MPs—more than the two dozen or so who eventually left the party to form the SDP—extremely unhappy with the leftward march of the party and the policies it was espousing. When I was an MP the hard core ‘Jenkinsites’ as they were called numbered at least 60 MPs and there was another but smaller group of MPs who were followers of Tony Crosland. So there were some 100 MPs who were moderates in the Labour Party at the time, but only some two dozen of them moved to the SDP. I could name at least four Welsh MPs who pondered long and hard on whether they were going to join the SDP in addition to the three that did. Therefore, in reality, what happened in 1981 has remained until this day unfinished business.     
Labour lost the 1983 and 1987 elections badly with the SDP/Liberal Alliance almost pipping them for second place in the popular vote. Kinnock inevitably became leader and, like a political chameleon, turned himself from being what I termed back then ‘the  original militant’ of the 70s into a middle of the road Labour leader—gone was his opposition to the Common Market, the House of Lords, nuclear weapons, multi-lateral disarmament etc. But whatever one’s view is of his magical transformation and whether it was a genuine conversion or just expeditious to fend off the advance of the SDP and Mrs Thatcher, he did prove to be a good leader despite losing two elections! Neil’s problem was the same as Ed Miliband’s—both were never perceived to be Prime Ministerial material by the majority of the electorate. However, in fairness, he did pave the way for the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown era, although John Smith who died prematurely would have been as good a leader as Blair.   

Grassroots Labour members were so desperate to be in power once again that the left and their allies retreated into their shell. Blair eventually became dominant and together with Brown they governed like an SDP Mark 2—although, of course, titled ‘New Labour’. I have no doubt whatsoever that throughout the period 1997–2010 the real beating heart of Labour remained unhappy but felt helpless to argue against the man who was now delivering them power and electoral success. Consequently, the left-wing accepted that they had to go along with this ‘winning formula’ and were willing to bide their time, waiting for their opportunity—as it always presents eventually in politics. Indeed, this came in the guise of the Iraq war and the machinations of Brown to remove Blair from office. Also, quite unexpectedly, two years before the general election of 2010 the financial crash occurred. Like Callaghan before him in 1978, Gordon Brown delayed calling the general election for some months when an earlier election—with the opinion polls in a somewhat more favourable position—might have been won. Brown, like Callaghan, was a cautious individual by nature and both ultimately paid the price.
Ed Miliband’s election as leader was mired in controversy as a result of his unexpected victory over his brother David. All the attention was on the differences between the two brothers when it should really have been on the struggle for the Labour Party—David the ‘New Labour’ Blairite and Ed, at heart, still the traditional ‘old Labour’ politician and in position only by the grace of the Union barons.

What everyone missed all along was that the Labour left had not gone away, they were merely biding their time. In fact they are in a better position now within the party than the period before the 1980s. It is indeed ironic that the man at the centre of the current leadership campaign is none other than Jeremy Corbyn. Who is he? Oh, back in the late 1970s/early 80s he was with the Militants, becoming the MP for Islington North in 1983. It isn’t only the ‘Lord that moves in mysterious ways’ but seemingly politics does too!
Observing the leadership election from a distance, it has to be said that none of the contenders begin to match up to the charisma and personalities of Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown let alone the defeated Foot, Benn, Kinnock and the Miliband brothers. This is the first problem for the Labour Party—none of the four candidates look Prime Ministerial material.  Labour’s current weaknesses should worry party strategists. It has had the effect in Parliament of Cameron and Osborne behaving as if they have won a 100-seat majority.   

The two most experienced candidates are not making much of an impact nor are they discussing real policy issues. Andy Burnham looks far too much like a career politician, ducking and weaving—seemingly expressing opinions that suit the circumstances of the time. Yvette Cooper has a personal dilemma in talking about the Brown and Miliband era and conveying her true opinions. The fact that her husband Ed Balls was a prominent figure under the two leaders seemingly makes it awkward for her. In my opinion, it’s best that she ignores all that and starts behaving openly as her own person, telling Ed outright ‘look this is my election and this is how I view matters’.  So as things stand, the two experienced contenders are not making much of an impact, look too much like ‘same old same old’ and lamentably failing to motivate the Labour membership. They are giving no indication as to how they would change policies and where they truly stand on issues that matter to people today. Instead it’s safety first—being careful not to slip up—so as not to give the other candidate an advantage or accidently offend their core vote. What they actually think about, for example, proportional representation, the governance of the UK, EVEL, Welfare reform, HS2 and replacing Trident is not clear...  

So we are left with the two candidates who, at least, are endeavouring to talk about what they believe in. Liz Kendall, often referred to as a ‘Blairite’, seems to use little of the rhetoric that brought Labour to power nearly 20 years ago now. She has much of the political style and policy platforms that made Labour electable in 1997, but I doubt whether the Labour membership is in the mood to listen to that anymore. Moreover, as someone said the other day, when Blair was campaigning to become Prime Minister he offered a vision of a Britain in which ‘your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed and helpless is my friend, your neighbour, my neighbour.’ Liz Kendall needs to pick up on that sort of message because so much of real politics and the responsibilities of public office is about hope, care and understanding.

Jeremy Corbyn has been making most of the running during the campaign and is receiving the majority of the media’s attention. It is ironic that Corbyn owes his presence on the ballot paper to the generous help given him by Andy Burnham’s supporters to achieve the necessary number of MP nominations to allow him to stand for the leadership. His nomination, it was argued, would ensure a wider choice for the Labour membership between the differing wings of the party—left/soft left/centre-right. Maybe my description is a crude one, but it is not too far off reality.

The fact that he has made an impact is in no doubt. Corbyn’s supporters argue that he is the only one offering an alternative, the one who is against austerity and, more tellingly, that he is ‘the only true Labour candidate’.  Hitherto most opinion polls and social media comment etc certainly bear all that out. In fact, I have seen surveys that show Corbyn is more in tune with public opinion on some ten major areas of policy including the renationalisation of the railways and the welfare cuts agenda than the other three candidates. His two potential weak points concern his role in Militant at the end of the 1970s/early 80s and his unclear remarks as to how he would vote in the forthcoming referendum on the European Union. Along with quite a few of the left of the Labour Party, he probably still remains broadly an anti-European Union political figure. 

Furthermore YouGov and Guardian polls have revealed interesting results that are quite favourable to Corbyn. Unsurprisingly, they have resulted in quite frenzied and, at times, highly personal press and party comments in a manner that suggests the end of the Labour party is nigh! Even Blair has been pushed into entering the fray whilst others on the soft-left are urging Lord Kinnock to make the anti-Corbyn case as well. So Corbyn is having quite an unexpected impact on the leadership election. The polls referred to are included as links at the end of this article.

Whichever gloss is put on Labour’s present weak and ineffective state of play the evidence of decline is real. Recently, a report from the Labour-leaning Smith Institute concluded that if the decline was to continue then Labour’s prospects of competing as a party of government will steadily diminish (see link below). Throughout its history there is a belief within the party that it will always bounce back. Even in 1910 Keir Hardie concluded that ‘the Labour party had ceased to count’ but in 1924, Labour formed its first government. Then after the formation of the SDP and the poor election results of 1983 there were other purveyors of doom and gloom, but yet there existed optimism over the future. This was based upon relief in the fact that the election result had not been worse and that the SDP had failed to finish Labour off.  There was also relief that the vast majority of moderate Labour MPs had stayed within the fold. Again, after the 1992 election there were predictions of Labour’s demise but within five years, in 1997, it won one of its largest ever electoral victories and the coalition of differing strands within the party were holding together.
So what will be the fall-out following the 2015 general election defeat? Will the 35 year coalition and compromise that is the modern Labour Party hold? Some will argue that maybe, just maybe, that the left-wing have had enough and they now want the real Labour Party back after all this time. The very real prospect of Corbyn becoming the next leader poses a profound moment of choice for the Labour party, signalling that the period of compromise politics years is coming to an end. Maybe the left are not going to buy into any more arrangements and dumbing down of policies just to build alliances within the party in order to win an election and form a government in 2020.

Furthermore, the way the party is behaving and performing over recent times will inevitably lead people to increasingly ask ‘what indeed is the point of Labour?’ So questions as to Labour’s future are surfacing again and these arguments are becoming personal—are we indeed on the verge of another re-alignment in the centre ground of UK politics? In a year or so time, will it be a case of 1981 revisited? Indeed, as I conclude this blog, two articles have appeared this morning that lend credence to my question.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Signposts to the Senedd elections of May 2016—using Kirsty’s 'Road Map'

Article written before new leader announced.

Last week, Kirsty Williams, Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, made a very good contribution towards analysing what went wrong in coalition with the Tories—an analysis with which I fully concur, as expanded upon in my last blog.
In essence, she stated that the party struggled to locate a compass to navigate its way through the five years in coalition with its values unscathed.  Party workers were told time and time again on the doorsteps of past supporters that the Liberal Democrats had lost its way.

The central component of the speech was an outline of what she termed the ‘Road Map’ for the Senedd elections 2016 which I repeat below:

‘We will strengthen our identity. The Welsh Liberal Democrats feel strong sense of national identity - we must communicate that. We have the deepest roots of any Welsh political party; yet unlike other parties, we embrace the Wales of today and we will speak for all of Wales, no matter who you are or where you live.

We will fight for the underdog. You have to be brave to be a liberal, but it's our liberal values that set us out from all the rest.  The Human Rights Act, the Green Agenda, mental health - we've proven that we lead on the issues that no-one else will. 

There is nothing progressive about poor public services. Over the coming months, the Welsh Liberal Democrats will be unveiling people focused policies - ones that show we are on the side of the pupil, the parent, the patients.

We will focus on opportunity. Our Pupil Premium, our extra investment in our schools, shows our commitment to fairness and equal opportunity. Over the coming months, we’ll build on this, unveiling a pro-enterprise vision that strengthens our economy and creates wealth’

Sadly, after five years in coalition, the road back is going to be a long and tortuous one—gone are the days of 20% plus support for the Liberal Democrats in Wales. However, the key point is that such levels of support once existed.

Harold Wilson, someone I knew very well, once said as Prime Minister—‘a week is a long time in politics’. That is undoubtedly true because the twists and turns of politics are often sudden and unexpected. The key factor is to be ready to benefit and capitalise on unexpected developments when they happen.

Now, on the surface, all looks bleak but the discerning observer can envisage more twists and turns ahead than the conventional wisdom assumes. At present, the opinion polls—about which I blogged recently—continue to indicate that the Tories and UKIP will do well next May, with Labour and Plaid Cymru stagnating, if not regressing, and the Welsh Liberal Democrats nowhere—indeed, threatened with extinction in the Senedd.

I accept that is how it looks today, but picture this...

The Tory honeymoon period will soon come to an end when the reality of the budget begins to kick-in by mid to late autumn 2015. Their unwarranted attack on the young, underprivileged, low earners struggling to make a living, public service workers and those on welfare will probably mean that it won’t be a case of ‘glad glorious morning’ for them by the beginning of next year!

UKIP has yet to be tested as to their Welsh credentials and policies. I can foresee a direct assault on them coming from all directions. They benefited considerably from the prevailing public mood of disillusionment and disenchantment that had manifested itself with a vengeance at the General Election. When Wales’s future in Europe will be a greater focus and the realisation that UKIP puts at risk the benefits Wales currently receives, then matters can soon change. There will be a bigger test for UKIP in a Senedd ‘focused’ election. 

However, the level of support for UKIP in Wales has to be taken seriously, but it can be dismantled. I don’t have a feeling that such a party sits comfortably in the heart and soul of Wales. They have appeared at a time when, across Wales, middle and lower wage earners as well as the unwaged, in particular, don’t feel Labour listens anymore and, quite frankly, does not represent them. The old industrial areas and the valley communities probably feel this the most...

My view is that Labour will have to be extremely careful in how it responds to the election campaign and the Tory agenda. It faces a real dilemma—left, centre or centre/right. As a party, it is in danger of being asked—as I posed recently—‘What is the point of Labour?’ In addition, I have a feeling that none of their four candidates will emerge as Prime Ministerial material and they will be stuck with the Foot/Kinnock/Miliband scenario once again. 

For reasons best known to it, Plaid Cymru too has stagnated for more than two decades. Firstly, when the opportunity came calling to have their own First Minister in the Senedd during 2007, they spurned it. Plaid has lost its way even more so by now, and has an image of being further to the left than Labour in its attempt to be seen as more socialist. Now, it is perfectly possible that Leanne Wood is comfortable in that scene—but are all the traditional party supporters?

To me, the main point about Plaid is that it is no longer anywhere close to having the ideals and vision that Gwynfor Evans once created for them and the Welsh people. I genuinely feel more of a ‘nationalist’ now than most people in Plaid Cymru—and most certainly more so than its current leader. I have had a feeling, for quite some years now, that having secured a Senedd the party is broadly happy to play politics in that limited arena. Now, of course, that is only my perception but I don’t think I am too far off the mark... 

Finally, the Liberal Democrats, which in the eyes of many people has lost the plot—not to mention its vision. For me the only way back is to be that radical movement once again. Certainly, that is where I am happiest. The party also needs to start speaking more plainly and without fear. The two leadership candidates are of a similar frame of mind, but I do believe that Tim Farron would be the best choice to meet the challenges ahead..

It has been my view for quite some time now that politics in Wales has been too cosy—and the only way back for the Liberal Democrats is to stop being part of that ‘softly, softly approach’ in the Senedd community.
In her speech, Kirsty said:

‘far too often it seems that Welsh solutions at best lack impact, but at worst often exacerbate, Welsh problems and no amount of made in Wales strategies, statements or summits are seen to be providing answers’. That is absolutely correct.


‘Even when a Welsh government keeps tuition fees low – there is still a huge gap in educational attainment between our less well-off communities and our richer neighbourhoods’.
Again, that is correct but it is a much wider, deeper and bigger concern than that. Improvements in Welsh education provision are insufficient—with standards and the performance of our schools nowhere near good enough. This will be a topic of a future blog after my 18 years experience of inspecting schools.

Two other points made by Kirsty: 
‘Although prescriptions are free – you can’t afford to fall ill on the weekend, or be in need of a speedy ambulance response’. Then she went on ‘even as the Welsh Government just this week attacked the UK Government for redefining child poverty, nobody seriously expects them to meet their own target to abolish child poverty by 2020’.

For me the trouble with the Senedd and the Welsh Government is its complacency and how easily pleased the AMs are with mediocrity and lack of any ‘real’ action.  
Plans, proposals and initiatives are forever been talked about. These give the impression of action. There are endless apologies over poor delivery in the public services; Health ministers are having to try and explain why there has been mismanagement in the NHS or there has been a lack of proper care in residential homes and the community; some other Minister having to explain why public funds are not properly handled and controlled—frankly the list goes on and on.

The central question is what is being done to remedy these matters? Are things changing and are people being held to account? All I hear is the often repeated standard statement that ‘lessons are being learnt’.  It really is time for a shake up.
So, I begin to see signposts on the road map becoming clearer. And although there’s a long way to go, my advice is to never write off the Liberal Democrats—its roots are stronger in Wales than many other parties. 

Click here to see speech by Kirsty Williams

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Liberal Democrats can only move forward successfully by being able to understand what went wrong and why ...

Note that this blog was written before announcement of the new leader.

It will not serve our new leader well if matters are swept under the carpet and allowed to fester.

Kirsty Williams in a thoughtful speech last Wednesday, 15th July, delivered her views on the Liberal Democrats and the coalition years, along with what she termed the ‘Road Map’ to the 2016 Senedd elections in Wales. The ‘Road Map’ will be the topic of my next blog.

During the coalition years I was an observer of what was taking place, being kept up to date through various media channels. I was far from happy about developments and said at the outset to a group of school inspector colleagues—at the time of the joint announcement—that ‘no good will come’ of this coalition with the Tories for the Liberal Democrats.

I am firmly of the view that the party can only move forward successfully by understanding what went wrong, why it happened and what are the lessons for the future?

It will not serve the new leader, the party and our members any good at all to sweep things under the carpet and allow matters to fester. The Federal Executive is conducting a review of the last general election and consulting widely with the membership—with view to presenting a report at the forthcoming annual conference in   Bournemouth. That will be the appropriate time to discuss openly and in a constructive spirit the causes of the party’s disastrous performance. It is nowhere near acceptable enough for the Liberal Democrats to follow Nick Clegg’s line, stating that we won’t apologise for the coalition years—explaining that we put ‘country before party’ and suggesting that some would do the same again!

A great movement for change and reform has been decimated after thirty years and more of hard work that saw the party climbing from 6 to 57 MPs, around 1,500 Councillors to over 3,500, and from having over 100,000 members for much to have gone. Thankfully and quite remarkably, membership has increased some 14,000 since the general election to 63,000—which speaks volumes about the residue of concern and affection people have for the Liberal Democrats.  So it has to be laid to rest, a line drawn in the sand. However, we do need something akin to a short ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ period to ‘clear the air’ and to allow all the negative feelings and disappointments to lay rest. It will make for a cleaner and clearer break with the coalition years, facilitate a fresh start with a new leader and enable us to return to being that party of fairness, equality, justice, compassion, change and reform. Well, at least, that is my view as I am eager to move on after the ‘air has been cleared’ and will do all in my power to support the new leader. It could well be the case that history will be kinder to Nick Clegg than the electorate—but as one well-known economist once quipped ‘in the long term, we’re all dead’.  

Kirsty Williams the Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader has been near the action throughout the period and has indicated her opinions on the coalition years and they are very well made. They are ones that I totally agree with. In summary she says:

‘We lost a colossal amount of trust over tuition fees.  Not only did we break our pledge … it’s worse than that, it never even looked like we fought to keep it…it was a mistake of the highest order and one for which we were never forgiven…Details no longer mattered, people simply stopped listening’. 

‘The Tories, frankly, were better prepared back in 2010, constructed a more potent narrative, and were brilliant at assimilating Lib Dem policies and boxing us in. Critically, they owned the economic narrative and made the political weather. We got the grief when things went wrong and never the credit for the good stuff’.

‘let us be in no doubt, although we were dealt a difficult hand, we could have handled it better. Obsessed with showing that coalition could work and that we could take ‘tough decisions’ we lost our own focus, our own identity, forgot to take ownership of our achievements until it was too late … From the Rose Garden on, we were swallowed up’. 

‘more than that – and maybe in the end this was the biggest self-inflicted wound – we appeared to the electorate to leap from a firm and hard fought anchorage in one part of UK politics to another without so much as a by-your-leave’

‘Saying that it was disorienting for those who had supported us when we formed the coalition with the Tories for five years is perhaps one of the great understatements of the last parliament. Sometimes, even from within, it felt like we were struggling to locate a compass to navigate our way through with our values unscathed’. 

It is difficult to argue with the points made above. So what on earth happened and why didn’t the corporate body of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster and across the country put a stop to what was going on? Her summary indicates to me that there was something wrong with the way the party was operating. My view is that the party seemed doomed from the outset of the coalition and most definitely by the time of the election campaign. All the evidence points towards one conclusion—the only deal in town for Nick Clegg was one with the Tories.

He had made it clear several times before the election that in the event of a hung parliament he would talk first to whichever party held the largest number of seats—more often than not, at the time, the opinion polls were continually favouring the Tories as the likely largest party. The long standing constitutional practice in our country of the incumbent Prime Minister being allowed to have the first opportunity of forming a government was put to one side.

Therefore, was no-one advising Nick Clegg about UK convention or was he just not the listening type—and that his mind had already been made up about dealing with Labour?  Those of us that follow events closely will recall seeing Vernon Bogdanor on televisiona highly respected constitutional expert—explaining how convention worked in UK politics. It was not the case that Gordon Brown had lost ‘legitimacy’ to govern and had no right to form a minority Labour government.

I just do not understand why Steel, Ashdown, Kennedy and Campbell, did not carry sway with Nick Clegg. In the immediate aftermath of the election, David Steel accepted his share of the blame and I find it quite staggering what he had to say—‘I really did not know Clegg and indeed recall having met him only once. Not very substantial excuses, I admit. So I take my share of blame.’

David Steel has argued correctly that Clegg should have gone to see the incumbent PM firstly and explore seriously the possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition. He explained that such a coalition would be ‘one more in tune with what the voters had understood of our consistent Liberal ideology under all six leaders since Jo Grimond. The arithmetic might still have prevented it, but he would have probably got a better deal out of Cameron’.

This was a defining moment in the history of the Liberal Democrats. Obviously I concede that it was not one of Nick Clegg’s choosing, but needed to be considered in the context of achieving the best outcome for the good of the Liberal Democrats in the longer-term. That had to be a key part of the equation. We all understood that the country was in a dire financial situation and that a government had to be formed, but it is my view that a more sensitive, sensible and astute leader would have turned always in the first instance for advice and guidance from his four predecessors. After all, David Steel had experience of a Lib/Lab pact in action during the late 1970s. Seemingly none of that happened and, to me, Nick Clegg appeared to be on a mission. So I will keep on returning to my belief that his favoured position, some time before the election, was to deal with the Tories—and he probably knew that his four predecessors would have argued differently.

It is important to also remember that Nick Clegg was very much a ‘new kid on the block’ at the time with only five years experience in Westminster. He became an MP in 2005 and leader in 2007, hence his first port of call for advice should have been his four predecessors as well as more senior Liberal Democrat MPs—many of whom had been in Parliament since the 1980s. It appears that this did not happen, which I find beyond any sense of understanding—other than wondering whether there was an arrogant conviction present and a pre-determined mind set of the course he was about to embark upon.

Evidently the negotiating team set up to negotiate with the Tories and, then later, with Labour comprised younger and the newer MPs as well as advisers. That, to me, fits the scenario well as he most probably knew that he could dictate comfortably to them the desired outcome. However, be that as it may, I still do not happily accept the Pontius Pilate approach adopted at Westminster and within the rest of the party at the time. It was in everyone’s interests to secure the best outcome for the Liberal Democrats with the next general election in mind. It should have been a corporate responsibility from the very outset and the party leader should have been challenged more forcibly. If the Members of Parliament and their Peer colleagues were oblivious to the likely impact— within their constituencies—of a coalition with the Tories then that is a major worry.

Again, Nick Clegg seemed to be in a hurry to come to an agreement and form a coalition government. This was odd, since it was contrary to how he would have observed European ‘coalition politics’ in action—where they often take weeks to form coalitions but in the interim, the business of government continues. His haste tends to reaffirm my view that he had firmed-up his position immediately after the election in favour of working with the Tories. As a pure outsider, observing matters from a distance, I wonder whether his background, style and persona is better suited to dealing with the Camerons’ of this world? It is true that the media were rushing the agenda and pressing for an end to the uncertainty—which is always the way of the media circus—but he should have taken his time and been more considered. The government would still have carried on with the business of governing in the interim...

Liberal Democrat members invariably turn to the good things that were achieved in Government, including decisions affecting income tax thresholds and pension reforms etc. Unfortunately, those things got swallowed up in the hurly burly of coalition politics. It was clear that the Tories had a much better publicity machine. As Kirsty Williams points out ‘we took ownership of our achievements too late’. It really was too late to make an attempt at highlighting these achievements finally in the heat of a general election campaign. Again I return to the corporate responsibility of the MPs and Peers—where were the open ‘rows’ in Parliament to indicate unhappiness? More importantly to convey to the electorate that we might be in coalition with the Tories, but not only are we different from them but we still actually disagree on many key issues!  It all appeared too cosy—and ultimately we paid a heavy price with significant consequences for the future.

Many political and tactical misjudgements were made. The timing of the AV referendum and the attempt at reforming the House of Lords were two of the most high profile. Electoral reform has been a long standing party aspiration but AV was certainly not party policy. A referendum should have been delayed, not only until a proper policy had been agreed, but until a more opportune time presented—not arranged in the midst of an economic crisis with austerity measures in full flow. It all made no sense and the level of mismanagement is truly mind boggling. This was followed by the House of Lords reform bill which ignored the party’s long standing policy on the matter and, just like the AV referendum, was always destined to fail as it eventually did. 

The real fiasco involved student fees which meant that Nick Clegg and the party lost credibility with one fell swoop very early in the life of the coalition government. From then on, the leader was damaged goods and it soon became obvious to me that there would be no way back at the next general election. The leaking of members, the substantial losses in local and European elections as well as the incessant devastating opinion poll ratings indicated clearly that the writing was on the wall even in 2011. A coalition with the Tories was bad enough, but the leader’s betrayal of the students meant that whatever achievements the party secured in government would not be sufficient to overcome the main perception that Nick Clegg was not a man to be trusted.

Again as David Steel pointed out in his post-election analysis—‘at a stroke, we had lost trust as a party, one of the few tangible assets we had especially after the Kennedy/Campbell decision to oppose the invasion of Iraq. The pledge was not just only in our manifesto – every candidate, including Clegg, had campaigned on the issue’.

How often have politicians heard voters say to them that ‘you are all the same’ and also ‘you all say one thing in opposition and do something different in government’. So along came an inexperienced Westminster political leader—glibly casting that sort of ‘feedback’ aside—promptly breaking a very public and solemn promise. Well we certainly discovered what happens to leaders and parties that espouse such a highly publicised and clear promise during an election campaign and then, very soon after in government, do the opposite. Maybe in European politics that is possible and frankly, it happens in France and Italy regularly, but not here!

Before concluding I have to turn to the Nigel Farage fiasco and the matter of Nick Clegg’s mind-set and judgement over holding a television debate on Europe. This was an ill-thought-out strategy and one that held no clear advantage to the deputy Prime Minister. I repeat the misgivings I always have had over the leader’s judgement and leadership in political matters. I can only assume that he must have concluded that this was going to be his road back to popularity and maybe even ‘forgiveness’ from the electorate for what he had done in 2010. But firstly, it was the wrong topic—Europe and immigration. The opinion polls should have alerted him to the dangers he faced on this issue. From that moment on the deputy Prime Minister, his party cabinet colleagues, ministers in the Government and MPs were viewed as being on the same level as the leader of a party that then had no Members of Parliament. Once again I return to the matter of corporate responsibility. Was there not someone older, wiser and more experienced around to put a stop to this fiasco?

To me, it appears as if the parliamentary party was dysfunctional from very early on in the five year period. Most crucially, no one had figured out an exit-strategy—carrying on in coalition until the end of Parliament was suicidal. We should have walked out of Government some 15-18 months before the election and let the Tories govern as a minority government. We needed time to re-establish our identity and try to recoup some trust and support. It could have been planned and orchestrated over a period of months with ministers resigning and Members of Parliament openly rebelling—with Peers and the Federal Executive and Policy committees playing their part as well. It would have been perfectly feasible to have told the public that after some three and a half years of doing our duty towards the country we had seen it through the worst times and were going to return to our true radical tradition.

It was obvious that something drastic had to happen for the Liberal Democrats to have any hope of avoiding decimation at the general election. There was no need to apply rocket science—opinion polls had been flashing the warning signals for years. Yet I am told on good authority that the only MP who kept on pressing—in parliamentary party meetings—the need for an exit strategy was Charles Kennedy, but he was not listened to. Well unfortunately 49 MPs discovered what the exit strategy was in a most unfortunate way imaginable...

That the party has sufficient resilience and determination to fightback and renew itself is in no doubt...but it will take time. Truly the last five years have come at a terrible and unacceptable price.

Friday, 17 July 2015

New Liberal Democrat Leader—Tim Farron

Two good candidates but the right man won for the right time

Tim Farron and I have only exchanged messages and tweets, but somehow I have the sense of him being a kindred spirit. He is the sort of political figure I like and, believe me, there are very few of his type around—certainly ones that have gone on to become a leader of a political party. Tim is radical, compassionate, caring, straight talking, never afraid to speak his mind and is a reformer. Those are rare qualities in today’s politicians—there’s nothing safety first about him! 

At the turn of the year my interest in politics was switched on again fully as the general election loomed. The obvious inevitability of the impending disaster, as took place on 7th May, troubled me greatly having been present from the outset of the great venture between the SDP and the Liberals in 1981. Many, apparently, were moved to tears by Nick Clegg’s resignation speech. I am sorry to say that only served to compound my anger and will be the subject of a future blog.

I have known at close hand every leader and many senior politicians in the Labour Party, Liberals, SDP and Liberal Democrats from the early 1960s to 1992, and I can honestly say that it is rare to have come across someone like Tim Farron. His passion, care for others who are less fortunate and campaigning zeal are inspiring—and his principles, values and beliefs are motivational. Indeed, a true liberal and a proud Liberal Democrat.

To me, Tim combines the three values that define the Liberal Democrats—a classic and social liberal as well as a social democrat. As I have intimated in earlier blogs, that is the tradition I am happy to espouse—having been brought up in a Lab/Lib environment and argued for the principles of social democracy even when a Labour MP.

So the fightback and renewal has started, although it actually begun as 17,000 people joined (or maybe re-joined) the party. It was further nurtured by the very open, generous and fulsome leadership contest. Here I have to mention Norman Lamb, whom I have never come across, but through various channels kept in touch with his campaign. He is clearly a person of conviction, humanity and compassion too.

There is obvious excitement in the party, which is truly remarkable bearing in mind what has happened in the last five years and where we ended up on 7th May. That excitement, to a good part, can be attributed to the character of Tim Farron because we all know that the ‘shackles’ have now been broken—not just the ones that tied us down in the coalition period, but also the constraints present for some years about shouting loudly and clearly what the Liberal Democrats stand for. Everyone knows that Tim will be the true voice of our principles and values.

There is much hard work facing us all under Tim’s leadership and we must rebuild the party’s base and organisation at community, constituency, regional and UK levels.  Things can change quite quickly in politics, and although it will be a hard long road back—it will happen, because for decades the British people have naturally been on the side of liberal and social democratic values. They have been yearning for things to change and desperate for their voices to be heard. They know that there is an urgent need for a better and fairer democracy with more equality.

Harold Wilson, someone I knew very well, once said as Prime Minister—‘a week is a long time in politics’. That is undoubtedly true because the twists and turns of politics are often sudden and unexpected. On the surface, all looks bleak but the discerning observer can envisage more twists and turns ahead than the conventional wisdom assumes. The Tory honeymoon period will soon come to an end when the reality of the budget begins to kick-in by mid to late autumn 2015.

There is a road back and we are on it right now. The signposts are clear for how best to arrive at our destination...

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

From the vaults: Tomorrow the Liberal Democrats will have a new leader—some advice from the past...

Social & Liberal Democrats Conference 1988 with Paddy Ashdown as new leader.

The challenges confronting the new leader of the Liberal Democrats will be the greatest facing any leader of what used to be the third force in British politics since 1970. Then the Liberals won six seats, had 7.5% share of the vote with 2.1 million people voting for the party.

When David Steel took over the leadership in 1976 there had already been some recovery. The Liberals had 11 MPs after the October 1974 election, taking a 13.8% share of the vote with 4.3 million voting for the party. Our new leader this week will be presented with a monumental task, requiring a massive effort from all concerned to ensure the party’s renewal. Today we only have 8 MPs, having received 7% of the vote in May’s general election, with just 2.1 million voting Liberal Democrat. Somewhat ironically for a democratic movement, the party has over 100 peers and they will now need to play a major role at Westminster.

Revisiting my speech of that time I find it, on the one hand, intriguing but, on the other hand, disappointing that the issues I identified just over 25 years ago are still very much with us today. Among the great concerns of 2015 are included the prospects for our young people, the level of welfare and care support for the poorest and weakest, the future of a free National Health Service and issues around fairness, equality, freedom and human rights.

In the 1980s, Maggie Thatcher seemed to question  what on earth society stood for and was once quoted as saying—although it was later denied—that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Her vision for progress was one of individual freedom, responsibility and advancement—placing oneself first, looking after ‘number one’. During the same period, Norman Tebbit suggested to the unemployed that they should ‘get on your bike’ and look for work. Now whether it is palatable or not to many in our country, Mrs T laid the foundation for a society not based on community spirit, but one of  individual self-interest and greed—the ‘I’m alright Jack’ view of life. Such an attitude still prevails today...

Our politics is dominated and played out in an environment of individual self-interest—what is in it for me or what will it mean to me? The last budget was immediately analysed in such terms where it was quickly found not to be as fair as initially propounded—yes, it talked about a ‘living wage’ but in fact it was a highly regressive budget developed along the lines of ‘to those that have shall be given’ and ‘to those that have not’ it shall be taken.

What is becoming sadder by the year is how the Labour Party is increasingly fearful of being seen on the side of the poor, less well-off and the underprivileged. Although he and I never saw eye to eye on many things at all, I still remember Neil Kinnock’s eve of the poll speech in 1987 (I believe)—warning people not to be old, not to be ill and so on. Not much of that is heard from Labour anymore.

This ‘politics of fear’ demeans the body politic. It is an issue that the new leader of the Liberal Democrats must address head on. Yes, the party will stand up for the less well off in society as well as those who cannot help or care for themselves. And on the side of those desperately trying to get onto the ladder of success and gain a modicum of prosperity whether unemployed through no fault of their own, a student, low wage earner or a public service worker who is being asked to accept a 1% annual pay rise for another four years...

Then, of course, there are the big issues over Britain’s future in Europe, our role in the world, a range of environmental and humanitarian matters and the ever widening spectre of international conflicts. In all these, the new leader will need to be radical and not afraid to tell people that Britain is nowhere near being a world power any longer and that we should stop pretending. This world is dominated by the USA, China and, to some extent, Russia, with Brazil, India and others quickly following behind. Of course, Germany is hugely influential in the European context. At best we are a middle ranking world power—lacking real military might and international influence. In short, we are a European power and that is where our destiny lies—unless of course you fancy just being an isolated island in the Atlantic, as UKIP and the right wing of the Tories dream.

One of the reasons I suppose I never quite ‘got on’ in politics was that I was considered ‘too radical’ at times and often thought of as ‘a maverick’ as one newspaper called me when contesting Hereford in 1992. But the views I held and the speeches I made during the 1970s are still valid today on matters such as democracy, fairness, freedom, equality, community, environment, internationalism, Europe as well as constitutional and electoral reform. They could probably be repeated word for word—even the one I made in 1974 calling for a ‘social democratic’ Labour Party!

For the Liberal Democrats to recover they have to be that radical force just described. To quote from the 1988 speech linked as a video below ‘it is not the name that matters, my friends, but who we are and what we stand for’. It is all to do with the road that our new leader chooses to travel and, more importantly, the set destination.  For me, the aim remains as in 1981 ‘To replace Labour, defeat the Tories and be in Government—no deals, no pacts’. 

That is why the last five years saw the Liberal Democrats falter and fail miserably—the vision, goal and destination got blurred and the voters neither understood nor subsequently forgave the party.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Two leaderless parties meant Osborne got an easier ride than he should have as he announced a ‘Regressive’ Budget.

As is always the case with Budgets that seem reasonable and popular at the time of announcement—they often look rather different a few days later...

So it was this time. The headline 'grabbers' were of course the so-called ‘living wage’—£9 an hour by 2020—but note only for the over 25-year olds; raising the personal tax allowances; restricting child tax credits in future to the first two children; reducing the total amount of benefit per household; and changes on inheritance tax arrangements. They were all carefully targeted to achieve popular appeal and, indeed, Osborne was the ‘hero’ of the moment. Initial polling indicated that 42% of people thought that the budget was ‘fair’ and only 27% ‘not fair’, with 31% registering that they ‘didn’t know’. Also when asked about their own family circumstances, the opinion was that 20% considered themselves ‘better off’, 17% ‘worse off’ and a massive 53% thought that they would not see any changes.

However, a few days later those last three figures adjusted significantly, particularly in terms of those that were now of the view that they would be 'worse off.' So the respective figures altered to 30% ‘better off’, 37% ‘worse off’ and only 19% ‘not affected’. That began to put a different gloss on this 'popular' budget. 

As the dust settled, two of the budget measures were found to be very unpopular. Limiting public sector pay rises to 1% for the next four years was opposed by 51% of the people and most alarming of all was the abolition of student maintenance grants—with only 24% supporting the measure. In addition, eventually the realisation dawned that the Chancellor had announced a measure that would, in effect, reduce benefits for people who are actually in work but on low wages.  There was a 3 to 1 opposition to this proposal with 45% of the view that too little is spent on those people who are on low wages and making good efforts to better their personal circumstances. So all of a sudden the old adage that ‘we are all in this together’ started to ring rather hollow indeed. Those on middle to higher incomes and the retired were palpably going to be better off, whilst those on benefits and/or working but on low wages along with the young and students would be hit the hardest.  

The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that the poorest 10% of families would be worse off to the tune of £800 a year because of this budget by 2019. The next poorest 10% would be worse off by £1,100 a year.  The four year freeze on working age benefits is estimated to cost some 13 million families £260 a year each. One graph in their report is staggering—it outlines the difference the budget effect has on the lowest 40% of household incomes compared to the top 40% of household incomes ... I leave it to you to look at the link above and draw conclusions.

But leaving aside the unfairness and the imbalances of the budget, what has been most glaring over the past week has been the weakness of the two opposition parties at Parliament in challenging it. Currently the Tories are having an easy ride when that should clearly not be the case. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are in the midst of leadership elections and UKIP, despite its 4 million votes, only has one Member of Parliament.  That just leaves the SNP and, to be fair, they are almost daily putting up a strong fight against the government, presenting themselves as a coherent and well organised force. 

The irony and travesty of the situation is that Cameron and his party do not have a true mandate from the people of the United Kingdom. Only 33% voted for the Conservatives at the General Election and even worse, only some 24% of those entitled to vote supported the current government. Yet they secured 330 MPs—which implies a thoroughly discredited voting system. 76% of the United Kingdom's people did not support the Conservatives yet they are going to inflict a lot of hurt and damage on hundreds of thousands of families.

True to present form, Labour seems to be at sixes and sevens. Harriet Harman stated that the party will not oppose much of the welfare changes—which I must say was a surprise to me coming from her. But that immediately and quite predictably caused a furore in her party with three of the four leadership candidates disowning her statement!

The interview she gave seemed to concede that the agenda set by the Tories regarding the need for more austerity, reducing the deficit and getting into surplus by 2020 is one that is generally popular. So her argument was that Labour had better listen to people’s concerns, especially about the welfare bill. This is a party 'shocked to its core' without a doubt—where has the natural movement of the working class, the underprivileged and the deprived gone?  Has it lost its soul?  Is it afraid to be a radical force any longer? If so, unless it is careful, the people will soon be asking ‘what is the point of the Labour party?’

Sadly, the Liberal Democrats have been decimated and are now a pale shadow of the force they once were. They paid a heavy price for being in coalition with the Tories and matters should not have been allowed to get to that desperate point by 2015. Many in the party console themselves with the grand view that ‘we did it for the good of the country’ which is true—but there was no need to have stuck it out with the Tories for the whole five years.  The party should have walked away some eighteen months previously and let the Tories govern as a minority government. On any assessment of fairness and 'working for the common good', the Liberal Democrats—at great sacrifice to themselves—had done their ‘duty’ by mid-2014.

The road back will be a hard one and I can only hope that either one of Tim Farron or Norman Lamb will turn out to be radical leader. Going by the evidence coming from the leadership hustings debates, I do believe they will. But with only 8 MPs, not much can be achieved in Parliament—so whichever is elected, the main fight will need to be taken to the country, speaking directly with the people. It can be done. It was done when the SDP and Liberal parties merged in 1988. Paddy Ashdown took over after a gruelling divisive year for the two parties regarding the issue of merger. Good people were lost along the way but many of us went round the country speaking ... and gradually the recovery came. However, those difficulties were nothing like the present challenges facing the new leader of the Liberal Democrats from Thursday onwards.

His role will be to forge alliances even outside the traditional party structures—someone has to speak-up for the young, the students, the poorest in our country, the underprivileged and those in need of care and support. Someone has to stand up and say the public sector workers have suffered for long enough—another 1% annual rise for 4 years is blatantly unfair.
Yes, someone has to lead the campaign for a more open, just and democratic country ...