Monday, August 29, 2005
A lunatic fringe
Right-wingers and other assorted establishment figures in the Liberal Democrats are very fond of stigmatising their party conference in terms of being dominated by a "lunatic fringe" or "wacky ideas". But one wonders who the real fringe elements are when one sees the motion titled "Future of Europe" submitted by the party's Federal Policy Committee to the forthcoming conference in Blackpool. Although submitted in the name of the FPC, the text turns out to be the work of the party's ' Treasury Team' of Westminster parliamentary spokesmen.
Whatever one's views on the EU, a conference motion, especially one from an 'official' source, ought to get its facts right. And such a motion should be drafted in consultation with the party's MEPs and councillors who are involved with these issues and know what they are talking about. However, it seems that the Liberal Democrats' so-called 'shadow cabinet' took the view that such precautions need not apply.
But don't take my word for it. Read what one senior party figure has to say.
The following article (quoted here in full) has been written by Chris Davies MEP (group leader of the British Liberal Democrat MEPs, and a former MP and councillor) for publication in the ALDC's Grassroots Campaigner magazine. It deserves wider circulation.
STORM CLOUDS BREWINGI am reliably informed that the sentence in the motion calling for the "1% cap" is there on the express demand of Vincent Cable MP, the party's Treasury spokesman.
A senior Liberal Democrat MP, who incidentally has never been a councillor, once told the weekly meeting of the parliamentary party: "What do these councillors know about it anyway? This is a matter for parliamentarians." I forget the exact subject under discussion but it related to a local government responsibility. I do remember the dismissive tone of the remark.
It's not only MPs who are tempted to believe that they know best. I know of county councillors who don't think much of their district brethren, and of others who have no time at all for the views of parish councillors. European parliamentarians are not immune from the same infliction. We MEPs have a tendency to assume that our Westminster colleagues are completely out of touch with all things European. In turn, many MPs assume that their colleagues in Brussels have gone completely 'native' and discarded all political judgement.
I draw two conclusions. First, that all Liberal Democrat representatives should make greater efforts to give the views of our colleagues the benefits of the doubt. Second, that we really must improve dialogue and enhance our consultation procedures.
Party conference in Blackpool will be debating a motion on the Future of Europe submitted by the Federal Policy Committee. It includes a call for the "maintenance of the cap of 1% on the EU budget until radical reforms in the budget have been achieved."
Let's leave aside the poor wording and the fact that most people will have no idea what the reference to a "cap of 1%" actually means. Let's leave aside also the fact that it does not exist and so cannot be "maintained". Instead, let's assume that the idea of limiting EU spending and making "radical" but unspecified reforms has a superficial political appeal. But what would it mean in practice?
The motion ignores the fact that the EU has grown from 15 to 25 nations, with two more waiting in the wings. With future spending programmes on agriculture already agreed by Britain and its partners, and much money already committed, the only way in which the EU budget can now be limited to 1% of national GNPs is to make deep cuts in other programmes.
That may mean slashing the research programmes needed to give Europe the chance to keep up with the economies of the Far East. It may mean cuts in spending on measures to combat terrorism, improve security and fight organised crime. It may lead to overseas aid programmes being abandoned and the EU being unable to intervene militarily in crisis situations. If this motion is passed Liberal Democrats will be accused by environment NGOs from Greenpeace to the RSPB of undermining efforts to protect Europe's most environmentally precious areas and halt the reduction in biodiversity.
There is one way around the slash and burn approach that would still keep EU spending within a 1% national ceiling. It is to follow the lead of Gordon Brown and demand the 'repatriation' of EU spending on regional aid so that it becomes an entirely national responsibility. Not surprisingly this would be an approach opposed by all the poorer nations; one object of the EU programme is, after all, to address the economic imbalances and raise every part of Europe to a minimum standard. It would also be opposed by just about every Liberal Democrat councillor involved in the campaign to secure for Britain a fair allocation of regional aid in the next spending programme.
Liverpool councillor Flo Clucas has led for the Liberal Democrats in many of the cross-party debates. When I asked her what would be the consequences were the FPC motion to be approved she told me it would "cut the ground from under us. The effect would be major."
EU structural fund programmes allow councils to plan ahead for a 7-year period without fear of political change. Put the Treasury in charge and there would be no guarantees or security, just uncertainty and year by year negotiations. The Brussels principle of 'additionality' would struggle to survive. National support for structural fund projects is supposed to be in addition to normal expenditure, but left to its own devices many suspect that the Government would claim to be funding projects while in fact cutting the cash from normal budgets. Councillors tend to have more confidence in the fairness of Brussels bureaucrats than in that of Whitehall mandarins.
Guarantees for continued funding for Objective One areas would go, councils receiving Objective Two funding would be left uncertain, every local authority involved in InterReg programmes in partnership with bodies elsewhere in Europe would see the projects end. The efforts of Liberal Democrat councillors to build a cross-party consensus would be blown apart and all for what?
The call for a 1% of national GNP cap on EU spending has come from the party's Treasury team at Westminster. I am not aware that either our LGA representatives or the ALDC have been consulted. I can say categorically that no attention whatsoever has been paid to the views of the European parliamentary party. If this is an early example of the way in which policies are now to be fashioned then we should all assume that rough waters lie ahead.
It is hard to know which is worse; the MPs' arrogance or their ignorance. The contempt with which certain MPs have treated their party colleagues threatens to turn into a public row. I understand that, besides the party's MEPs, the ALDC and the party's LGA group are ranged against this motion.
The right-wing cabal in the Liberal Democrats' shadow cabinet has clearly got out of hand. It will be defeated and humiliated in Blackpool, and deservedly so.
Simon wrote: The right-wing cabal in the Liberal Democrats' shadow cabinet has clearly got out of hand.
I don't think that the terms used in the latter quote help particularly to achieve the aims expressed in the former.
That said, I think that there is indeed a very important point here. Policy has to be made on a consensual basis, not reflecting the interests of one group or another (though I am wary of the notion that MPs represent a distinct group from councillors or MEPs; many MPs and PPCs were formerly councillors, or some other permutation).
On the specific issue at hand... I can see the point that the MPs were trying to make. There is, I believe, a reasonable argument that, since Europe is the level of government furthest from the people, it should be limited in its actions. Lib Dem policy has, since time immemorial, been to bring power closer to the people via means such as devolution. A similar logic lies behind the "repatriation" argument. Chris Davies' argument against this is predicated on the assumption that budgetary control will be repatriated to Westminster. A more radical proposal would be to give councils far greater control over their own budgets and tax rates, giving local people the choice over how they want their council run and funded. It does seem somewhat contradictory to be simultaneously in favour of devolution and in favour of a system that centralises such spending controls at the highest possible level of government. However, I confess to a certain level of ignorance of the workings of the EU and I'm willing to hear a defence of how it operates, though my personal experience of EU "assistance" is not a positive one.
My biggest worry about this debate is the manner in which is being undertaken. In fact, calling it a "debate" might too generous. It shouldn't be a matter of two opposing sides fighting it out for control, but of the recognition of valid arguments from several quarters, with differing experiences informing those views. There are problems with the EU which must be resolved. Let's here some proper explanations of how this could be done, and decide on the way forward in a consensual manner.
If there were genuinely a "point that the MPs were trying to make", they could have argued for it in the consensual process for which you ostensibly argue. Instead, they chose quite deliberately to bypass any form of consultation.
If the debate has become "two opposing sides fighting it out for control", whose fault is that?
If the debate has become "two opposing sides fighting it out for control", whose fault is that?
Well actually probably a number of people, including yourself, who like to play up this left vs right, activist vs leadership battle. It means both that any attempt at new thinking within the party is immediately attacked as 'right-wing', while those within the parliamentary party who brief against conference and activists try to make out that the average Lib Dem outside parliament is some sort of unreconstructed trot.
The end result is that the Lib Dems risk becoming a thought-free zone and instead of genuine debate about the future of the party we have name-calling.
If you want a genuine example of illiberal nonsense, look at the front page of Lib Dem News Aug 19 where Lynne Featherstone and Don Foster appear as neo-temperance fanatics on the new Licensing Bill (a position I don't think has been agreed by conference). But since neither of them contributed to the Orange Book, they escape your censure.
There is also the resurfacing of the once-abandoned proposal for Royal Mail privatisation. The Conference main agenda looks likely to be interesting - for a change.
Further, I have never argued that "any attempt at new thinking within the party" is automatically 'right-wing'. It is that I don't believe right-wing thinking is necessarily "new". The Orange Book was not the breakthrough thinking its authors claimed but was, at best, a mixed bag and, on the whole, intellectually shoddy – for a more detailed view, refer to my review in Liberator 298 (September 2004).
Generally, your account of the cause of divisions in the party is a travesty. You imply that the Treasury Team's motion on the EU represents "new thinking" and so should not be criticised – I disagree but, either way, the proponents ought to have made the effort to consult the party's MEPs and councillors. Their failure to do so has provoked this row – don't try to blame me or anyone else for the consequent divisions.
Fair enough about licensing etc - humble pie duly swallowed.
But the sustained venom on your blog is reserved for Cable, Laws et al, who are at least trying to think about what Liberals should stand for above and beyond more FOCUS leaflets.
Your review of the Orange Book accused its authors of: 'an attempted putsch,', 'right wing plotting' and trying to 'provoke a civil war'.
That's quite inflammatory stuff. All they did was publish a book!!! At times the 'left' of the party appears to prefer abuse and conspiracy theory to debate. If there are divisions within the party they at least share the blame.
The sad thing is that I suspect the Orange Book contributors and at least some of the liberator collective have more in common than they would like to admit.
The real problem is not 'the right' but those who don't think about policy at all and are driven by the latest media fad (e.g. binge drinking) or cosying up to interest groups (BMA, NUT) and therefore prevent the Lib Dems from articulating a coherent worldview whether left or right.
While you're leafing through your collection of back issues, re-read some of my articles (and indeed some of blog postings). You'll find that I have been a sustained critic of the party's lack of thinking, mindless campaigning and fads such as smoking bans.
I am critical of the party's right-wing for justifiable reasons:
First, full marks for bothering to publish a book, but I don't believe a return to an imagined pure state of nineteenth century classical liberalism represents "new thinking".
Second, I oppose all economistic political theories. I don't believe that producing and consuming are the most important things that human beings do and I do not believe that any economic system, market or otherwise, is sacrosanct.
Third, I oppose the underhand methods being employed by some on the right of the party to advance their cause. It would be naive of me to expect there to be politics without plotting. It would be naive of you to expect no-one to expose or criticise this behaviour.
Fourth, I resent the attempt by the party's right-wing to frame the debate by claiming that their beliefs = "new thinking" and that anyone who disagrees is a 1945-vintage social democrat. This deliberate attempt to exclude any other possibility is misrepresenting the issues and inhibiting debate.
Following this May's election results, which heavily reinforced a trend towards a more urban, educated and cosmopolitan base of support, it would be completely bonkers.
Britain already has two conservative parties. Why do some Liberal Democrats imagine we need a third?
About as useful as the Treasury team saying that we already have a social democratic party- why do we need a second one?
Isn't the key characteristic of New Labour that it chose to continue in a broadly similar direction to the preceding Tory administrations (devolution notwithstanding)?
I am not sure of your comparison with Attlee, but the disparity in wealth in Britain is even wider today than it was in the 80s.
If you use the Google search facility in the top left-hand corner of this blog, you will find that David Laws has been mentioned only twice in this blog, both times in passing, neither of which could be described as venomous. If you then search for Vincent Cable, you will find only three mentions, again none of them venomous; one in this posting (above), one in passing and one that is actually complementary.
I don't mind people challenging my views (which is part of the function of this blog) but I do object to unfounded allegations.
But I'll rise to the bait, partly because it certainly wasn't my intention to misrepresent your views. I am sorry if it seemed so.
You omit the 'et al' in quoting my reference to 'Cable, Laws et al'. In this case by 'al' I meant the Orange Book, its contributors, and catch-all phrases such as 'right-wingers', 'clique of MPs' etc - I think we all know who you have in mind. A browse through the blog would, I suspect, reveal a fair few such references.
My impression is that one of the recurring themes of your blog is opposing what you see as the 'right-wing' of the party, its opinions and tactics, often in robust language.
And if you believe that right-wingers are promoting a 'putsch', wouldn't sustained venom be an appropriate response?
I enjoy the blog, but am occasionally provoked by your provocative thoughts!
Let us not forget the reason for this original posting. It was to highlight an example of just such plotting. The grievance was originally raised by no less a person than the leader of our party's MEPs, not me! Since I wrote the original post, I have discovered that the Treasury Team not only failed to consult the MEPs and relevant councillors; they didn't even tell Nick Clegg (the party's parliamentary spokesman on Europe) what they were up to!
No wonder many people in the party suspect this conference motion is the long-anticipated, stage-managed 'Clause 4 moment' - an attempt to slay a symbolic dragon.
Under the circumstances, robust language is entirely appropriate. I resent the term 'venom', which implies purely personal malice as opposed to political criticism.
Much of what the 'right-wingers' advocate strikes me as very similar to the views Jonathan Calder expresses on his blog and in Lib Dem News.
It seems to me less a conspiracy than an attempt to put forward a particular view of how the Liberal Democrats should develop. One of the problems is the complete failure of the 'left' of the party to put forward any coherent alternative. Should the 'right' shut up simply because the 'left' has nothing to say?
You have claimed that the 'right-wingers' (or whatever they should be called) were (a) simply putting forward a particular view, and (b) advancing 'new thinking'. I don't believe they should shut up - they are entitled to their view. But they ought to treat their party colleagues with more courtesy.
One has to ask why (a) the Treasury Team has put forward a motion on the party's European policy (not strictly part of its remit) without consulting the parliamentary spokesman, the MEPs or the relevant councillors; and (b) why the motion, as Chris Davies pointed out, contains false assumptions and factual inaccuracies.
People who were doing nothing more than advancing a particular view would have had the courage of their convictions to consult their colleagues. People claiming authority on a subject and claiming the mantle of 'new thinking' might at least get their facts right.
You don't like the Treasury Team's arrogant behaviour being described as a "conspiracy" but what else are we to make of it?
Like you, I despair of those in the party whose thinking has not moved on from Butskellism. But I fail to see how this EU motion can in any way be described as "coherent thinking" or as any sort of advance.
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