Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Ed Miliband on Party Funding Reform

Credit due to The Independent for providing not one, not two but three articles covering Ed Miliband's proposed reforms to party funding and Labour's electoral structure. This is some of the first concrete proposals we the public have heard from the man (along with the confirmation that Labour is committed to the 50% Income Tax threshold), so its interesting to see what form it takes.

In funding terms, Mr Miliband appears to be arguing for a rather severe cap on donations, somewhere between £50,000 and £500. This would prevent - in theory - large donations from single sources being funnelled into a political party, with all that that implies. However, the offer isn't as generous as it might look: for whilst both Labour and the Conservatives would stand to lose their big donations, Labour appear to be pushing for the subscriptions of union members who pay the political levy to be counted as individual donations - thus leaving one significant Labour-specific revenue stream untouched. Naturally, Labour are also fiercely opposed to any modification so the way that the political levy is raised.

Then there's the obvious problem of what this sort of arrangement would necessitate: state funded political parties i.e. a political levy paid from the taxes of every British citizen. I don't consider that to be a fair alternative and it is unlikely to be popular with the public either. One serious problem is that it leaves control over party funding in the hands of the state, which would be administered by the same two and a half parties that constituted the major parties at present. How does a party qualify for support? What thresholds are set, what form does the support take? All this will be up to the government.

When the problem of large donations comes up, the Independent's citation of Barack Obama's success with micro-donations is telling. First, it doesn't give Obama deserved credit as a truly exceptional political campaigner. The fact that he can do it is not evidence that anyone can, by a long shot. Second, it fails to recognise that Obama managed what he did because of the very, very personal emphasis of US presidential campaigns. Not only does Ed Miliband (and indeed, most UK politicians) lack the personal charisma of Obama, but at least in my view an increasingly personal, presidential style is not something I want to see in British politics. So not only are Obama's micro-donation successes not easily applicable to the British political system, but they could also do great harm to that system if pursued.

Personally, I feel that Mr Miliband's second proposed reform exacerbates the problem the first is intended to solve: party funding. The proposal is that the Labour electoral college will be broken into four parts instead of three, with the new quartile being given to people willing to sign up as a 'supporter' of the party without actually joining.

Both the major parties have been having membership crises in recent times. A recent (and unlikely to be acted upon) set of proposals put forward for the Conservative Party consisted of creating more perks for members. Suggestions included things like passing powers back to branches, organising party AGMs and regional events and even allowing motions to be put forward and debated at party conferences. The entire proposal acknowledged the fact that a significant contributing factor to the decline in party membership has been that increased central stage-management has removed an awful lot of the old reasons to join: the opportunities to influence policy and the strong social networks of the old parties are mostly gone.

Labour appear to have been taken much more by the 'general de-politicisation of our age' approach, and have adopted an approach lifted from the US. Registered supporters will be able to vote on the party leader without having to pay a subscription fee or otherwise get involved. Which rather begs the question of what perks will actually be left to entice people to fork over a subscription fee to Labour in the future? People really need to be inveigled into becoming activists, one enjoyable meeting or outing at a time. The more distant they are from the process, the less likely they are to get involved; and instead of cultivating an active support base, Labour appears to be going down the centralist route of a large phantom membership of 'supporters' and a well-oiled central party machine, without much in the middle. Will Labour respond to the subsequent dearth of activists by demanding state-funded canvassers and phone-bank operators?

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Does a Liberal Democrat 'Nuclear Option' Exist?

One of the many unfortunate things Vince Cable recently revealed to undercover journalists recently was that he actually boasts of what he called the 'nuclear option'. By this, he meant bringing down the Coalition. Its true that the prospect of the Liberal Democrats being pushed too far and walking out has always been in the minds of the coalition's architects and enemies alike. But now the tuition fees vote has happened, is that at all likely to occur?

For a start, the tuition fees vote has gone. There's unlikely to be another bill that splits the party as dramatically as the fees hike. If the AV referendum goes against them then discontent amongst social-democratic LDs might see a marked increase, but that alone isn't enough for them to safely use the 'nuclear option'. Without a big, dramatic justification for their action, the Liberal Democrats will come across as a party chronically incapable of government. Furthermore, without an emotive issue to act as a trigger I'm not entirely sure that the LD left could take the LD right out of coalition.

The critical factor being that if the Liberal Democrats were to withdraw and bring the government down, there would have to be a General Election. And who exactly would be voting for the Liberal Democrats in that scenario? Their left-of-centre support has largely evaporated and is unlikely to flit back to them the moment they leave office - the legacy of fees and being part of the 'ConDem' government will be too fresh. And their remaining (perhaps right-of-centre) support, consisting of those who approve of the job the LDs are doing in government and like how they're handling coalition, will probably follow the Conservatives. After all, if nice collegiate Mr Cameron is viewed as having treated the Liberal Democrats fairly and they still left, then it will sour the image of the party and coalition government in general in the eyes of a substantial proportion of their main supporters. In short, they'll be seen to have betrayed both halves of their pre-government support base, and their electoral strength could evaporate.

Furthermore, if as discussed above the social democrats try the 'nuclear option' without some compelling justification, there is a chance that some of their leaders might not follow them out. The likes of Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws would have precious little incentive to follow their party out of the coalition in such circumstances, where they would be condemned to irrelevance-in-perpetuity within a permanently left-aligned party even if they didn't lose their seats outright. They could well see the logic in continuing in government, in coalition with the Conservatives.

From there, they could either do three things. They could become Conservatives, although this would probably lead to Danny Alexander not joining them and put Clegg's chances of holding Hallam in serious jeopardy. The second option would be to stand as independents with a non-compete deal with the Conservatives at the next election. The third would be to form a National Liberal style party/organisation that would remain distinct from the Conservative Party while continuing to be willing to ally with it whilst providing a home for other Orange Bookers and Liberals who might be uncomfortable in a solidly leftwing Liberal Democrat party.

Finally, one should not forget that Cable's stock has fallen hugely during the Coalition's time in office. Unlike 'Saint Vince' of those distant pre-coalition days, I personally doubt that Cable still has the personal pull to rip the Coalition apart and lead the Liberal Democrat left into the abyss I've outlined above.

If this happened, the Liberal Democrats would enter the subsequent General Election shorn of both credibility as a party and of any members who have earned any by distinguishing themselves in government. It would be a complete disaster. The left of the party is far better holding on for the full five years and trying to take credit for anything 'nice' the Coalition does, casting the Conservatives as the nasty lot. For these reasons, I think that Cable's talk of bringing down the coalition was egotistical bluster and not much more.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

A Liberal Democrat on Welsh

Just an interesting article seen elsewhere: "The Cost of Bilingualism". I went into the potential costs of bilingualism more extensively in my open letter to Nick Bourne, and his response (whilst evading some of the issues) is informative.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Where Will the Liberal Democrats Go?

Yup, I know that I've done it before, but with the Liberal Democrats embarking on yet another agonising crisis of identity/conscience, I think the topic deserves a fresh look. Talking to most of my Liberal Democrats friends in the last few weeks has been an illuminating experience. Most of the left-leaning ones have chosen to openly condemn their own party and the fees, attending the various rallies the protestariat has held in the last couple of days. Right-of-centre LDs have been rather more muted, agonising over whether or not they should support the fees or maintain party unity. All this raises the question of what will happen to the Liberal Democrats in the coming years, and I've been mulling over some of the options.

Note: All of this analysis will obviously change if the the Yes vote wins the AV referendum. But this blogger doesn't think they will on current evidence, so until that changes the arguments below assume we still have the Simple Plurality voting system come the next election, with no room for second-preference campaigning.

1) Reassertion of Leftwingedness: Richard Grayson over on Comment is Free argues that the Liberal Democrats should begin preparing - right now - for a coalition with the Labour Party and the Greens after the next election. From the Labour perspective, Jackie Ashley argues for what looks like the same thing.
This line of argument was also in evidence before and just after before the election, usually from Labour supporters using the language of the "progressive/anti-Conservative majority" - for example, Polly Toynbee asking why the Liberal Democrats were putting any effort into the north*, as surely they should be maximising the progressive vote in the south. Whilst this might happen, I think that pursuit of this policy would be a bad move on behalf of the LDs. Why?

First, leftwing LDs should be very careful to consider the difference between a genuinely pluralistic Labour Party (which would be an incredible volte-face) and a Labour Party attempting to wreak as much havoc on Coalition morale as possible with conciliatory siren songs. Labour weren't keen on cooperating with anyone else before they lost the election, and in my view are unlikely to be keen on sharing power if they think they can win the next one. So Liberal Democrats like Grayson should be wary of how much of their considered view that cooperation with Labour should be planned for now is based on a genuine understanding of Labour's intention, and how much on wishful thinking.

Furthermore, re-aligning to the Left could spell electoral doom for the party, despite what the impressions of current polling may be. Because all those 'betrayed' voters who the Liberal Democrats have shed since the General Election are their left-wing voters. The remaining Liberal Democrat support (and the support they'll find easier to win back whilst they're in coalition with the Conservatives) is their right-of-centre base, largely in the South. Tacking to the left will cost the party much of that support (which could easily flit back to the Conservatives) with the risk of not making much headway amongst their once bitten, twice shy left-wing support (which will find it much easier to support Labour, especially after that party has had five years under the Halo of Opposition where they don't need to be accountable or make any unpopular decisions.

Not only will shifting left cost them what right-of-centre support they have presently held on to, but it also risks costing them the right-of-centre Liberal Democrats (i.e. a lot of the present LD 'big names' in the government) along with it. Because its one thing to be right-wing in a leftish party which you know might well go into coalition with Labour, but its quite another to remain as a rightwinger in a party that has proven itself incapable of going into coalition with the Conservatives, the only viable right-of-centre option out there. This risks many of the Liberal Democrat's most recognisable figures either schisming into a pro-Conservative 21st Century National Liberal Party, or joining the Conservatives outright, taking a lot of 'Liberal' LDs with them to further encroach upon Liberal Democrat support in the country and weakening further the less electable, extremist branch of Toryism.

And the final and most serious problem with this course? It makes a joke out of the very argument that the Liberal Democrats have based themselves around: that coalitions work and that compromise is good. Undermining the coalition, let alone making a habit of voting against it, will despoil more utterly than any anti-AV propaganda the image of coalition politics in the minds of the British electorate. Because if sections of the membership, let alone the parliamentary party, start openly disowning their party's leadership and calling for a coalition with the other side against both parliamentary arithmetic and considered negotiation, it will do great damage to the ability of the party to be able to claim to be a genuinely independent third force. Instead of being the party that would work with either party (as argued in the now legendary PPB featuring John Cleese), the Liberal Democrats would become an addendum to the Labour Party. And if they do that, what is the point of operating separately at all?

2) The Formal Split/Split by Decay: Personally, I think the former is rather unlikely. Nevertheless, if the opposition of some elements of the party to the coalition continues to intensify despite tuition fees now being out of the way, there's some prospect of a formal division of the party occurring unless the rebels can find a cause convincing enough to bring the government loyalists out of the coalition with them.

The hardest thing to envision about this scenario is what form the parties would take after the split. If the left-wing LDs voted to leave the coalition and the loyalists subsequently defied that to support it, then you'd see the return of a left-wing protest-vote Liberal Democrat party. As for the loyalists, you'd see either the emergence of a truly independent but utterly doomed right-of-centre Liberal party, the emergence of a Conservative-dependent Liberal Party (similar to the situation in Australia), or the absorption of the remaining Liberal loyalists into the Conservatives outright. If the loyalists retained control of the party and the rebels split, then either the rebels cross straight to Labour or attempt to re-found the SDP while the Liberal Democrats try to find their footing as an outright right-of-centre political force.

More likely (if less exciting) is the 'split by decay' - essentially a drip-feed of disgruntled leftwingers resigning the whip or crossing to Labour, without anything so dramatic as a split. This scenario is certainly easier on the government, as they're likely to see less defections than a mass walkout might elicit. Its likely effect on the Liberal Democrats would be a relative strengthening of the Orange Bookers without expunging a more leftist element of the party - essentially changing its nature without properly resolving the underlying issue. Provided that it didn't get too close to costing the government its majority, the Liberal Democrats would probably survive this, albeit in a reduced state. But both of these scenarios entail a de facto return to two-party politics, with either one or two post-Liberal Democrat parties beholden to one side or the other.

3) The Coalition Holds: Given that the coalition is unlikely to face again a topic as divisive for the Liberal Democrats as tuition fees, there's a good chance in my mind that the Coalition will pull through from this particular incident and last the planned five years in office. After all, the Liberal Democrats are getting policy through for the first time... well, ever. Clegg's tax break for low earners will help those who need it most, and the concessions wrung from the conservatives over the fee model demonstrate the advantages of being in government. Furthermore, at least the leadership know that if they screw up this golden opportunity to demonstrate how awesome coalitions are, they're unlikely to have another shot at being a relevant party for decades.

Where this will put the party at the next general election is hardest to judge, dependent as it is on at least four more years of tough decisions and random events, so this section of the article is shortest despite it being in my view the most probable. But whether or not the LD's go into the next election vying for a Labour coalition or a Conservative one, with high poll ratings or low, sticking with the coalition is unlikely to put them in as poor a position of either non-existence or irrelevance as the alternative courses of action.

*Can't find it, but not kidding.

UPDATE: Liberal Vision carries a related Ashcroft study here.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Up for Air - Why Don't We Integrate Overseas Territories?

So, with a small one-evening break built into my work-schedule before Thursday, I've been drawn to venture a blog post by this piece of news. For those disinclined to read the whole thing, it basically describes the governmental woes of the Turks and Caicos Islands, one of Britain's remaining Overseas Territories, and the hands-off approach being taken by the Westminster government (both pre- and post-election) in dealing with the crisis.

The position of overseas territories has long puzzled me. Like Mr Rosindell, the Conservative MP who raised the issue in the house, I believe that "The people of the Turks and Caicos are British too". But is this the position of the British government?

Contrast our approach with that of France. With the honourable exception of the Falklands War (and the less-honourable exception of the flotation of the Governorship of Bermuda during the vote on 48 day detention), Britain tends to hold her Overseas Territories at arms length and try to forget about them. On the other hand, France integrates her Overseas Regions. Places such as RĂ©union and French Guiana are fully integrated into the French Republic. A more direct parallel with the British Overseas Territories would be French Polynesia, a territory that has a local government with a broad remit yet still returns two deputies to the National Assembly and a Senator.

If the case for full integration is too extreme, what about adopting some measure of it into the reform of the upper house? If the House of Lords is reformed into an elected body, then give the Overseas Territories representation within it. This measure will not only reaffirm our links with the Overseas Territories, but will also allow their quarter-million inhabitants some say in the government that is responsible for significant areas of policies within those territories (such as defence).