Saturday, 22 September 2018

Response to Vince Cable's 'Leading Change: Proposals to open up the party' paper

Here is my response to the consultation paper for proposed ‘reforms’ to the Liberal Democrats. The consultation paper can be found here.


Supporters’ Scheme:
   1.       Do you agree that the party should introduce a registered supporters’ scheme?
Yes. Many local parties already run informal supporters’ schemes locally, and it is a very good idea to broaden this out as a national scheme and open up the party to new voices and new ideas.

   2.       Do you support this paper’s proposals to give registered supporters a vote in future leadership elections, providing nomination rights are left with party members?
No. Absolutely not. The paper’s assumption that we are somehow immune from ‘entryism’ (malicious or otherwise) because ‘moderate’ is simply naive arrogance. For example, if Momentum decided to encourage Labour members to join the scheme and vote in the least good option (and less good or ‘controversial’ candidates can and do get put forward), they would easily outweigh the party membership with only a fraction of their numbers, and there is nothing we could then do about it. Have we learned nothing from Labour’s Corbyn experience? It also devalues the idea of party membership, and the concept of members being the ones who ultimately make decisions. This, I think, is an important principle – without it, there is no incentive for taking that extra step to becoming a member, and paying a membership fee (and money, perhaps sadly, does actually matter a great deal to the party at the moment). This idea is both unnecessary and extremely unwise.

   3.       Do you think the safeguards proposed in this section are sufficient to protect the party against abuse of the registered supporter scheme?
Absolutely nowhere near being remotely credible as ‘safeguards’, and no amount of ‘safeguards’ would sufficiently mitigate the dangers of giving ‘supporters’ decision-making powers over the party membership. It is wrong in principle, and a bad idea.

   4.       Do you have any further thoughts on implementing a registered supporter scheme, and the rights which might be offered to supporters?
What can and should be offered is a party of the policy development process – a formal and easy way in which they can put forward their own ideas, become involved in policy groups, give feedback on policy areas and ideas, and so on. A supporters’ group could be a very useful policy ‘think tank’ and ‘focus group’ for the party to call on, and a very good way for us to identify specific communities and groups (especially those not based on geographic location) that may be receptive to our message and/or receptive to particular policies and messages based on our ideals that could be tailored to them. Members at conference making the ultimate decisions and being sovereign on policy (and in leadership elections, of course) would be sufficient safeguard to prevent any kind of ‘entryist’ abuse.

Rules on standing for office:
   5.       Should the party remove the existing time barriers for standing for election, as outlined in this section?
I understand that the 12 month limit can be relaxed under certain circumstances, at least in some of our federal party jurisdictions. I have no real problem with reducing this time as standard, as long as the full parliamentary candidate approval process remain in place, and there is some time limit on any ‘licensed’ candidates that haven’t yet gone through that full process. We certainly do not ever want a situation where anybody can join the party and get our name placed next to them on a ballot paper the next day without further scrutiny, just because we need to find willing candidates to fill the slate in a more challenging area.

   6.       Do you have any further thoughts on the present barriers to standing for election?
Removing barriers generally is a good idea, but we absolutely have to remember that some of those ‘barriers’ exist for very good reasons – the protection of our party’s good name, and to stop us being used as a vehicle to get elected by personally ambitious, inappropriate or indeed malicious people who do not support our ideals and would ignore them once elected. Seeing the ‘supporters’ scheme’ as a ‘first step’ towards eventual candidacy, counting that time towards any time limit (or perhaps allowing ‘supporters’ to apply for and undertake the approval process, as long as they become members before they are allowed to stand for selection or election), would perhaps be a better idea than eliminating time limits altogether. As for other barriers, we also need to look at the current candidate approval systems to see whether they are reliable, robust, fair, open and available, and we need to do far more on the issue of ‘bias’, and especially ‘unconscious bias’ in our selection processes (for example, we should have good online training available, and be pointing ALL party members towards it, and be backing that up with additional materials in party mailshots for those who can’t/don’t have online access – it’s a huge issue, but inevitably one where those with the biggest problem are the least likely to turn up to training sessions on it).

Thankfully in Wales we have not adopted All Women Shortlists, but that is an issue the party needs to revisit too – a shortlist consisting of middle age, middle class, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, university educated women doesn’t really do very much to increase our actual or visible ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusivity’ as a party – it deals with one symptom while ignoring the wider problem. Adding the suggested All-BAME lists in other places doesn’t help much either – we need to find a permanent way to ensure that all shortlists are always genuinely diverse, and that all members understand the issues of ‘bias’ (unconscious or otherwise) in selection processes, and I think that is perfectly possible.

Electing a non-MP as leader:
   7.       Should the party remove the present restriction on who may stand for the party leadership, by permitting any party member with sufficient support in the nominations process to stand?
No. Absolutely not. Not ever. We surrender our position as a serious parliamentary political party if we go down that road, and I joined a parliamentary party not a mere protest pressure group. The leader of a political party absolutely has to be able to stand in the House of Commons and put questions to ministers and Prime Ministers – it is not only a fundamentally vital part of the role in itself, but also one of the significant ways in which media and public attention can be gained. The examples cited of other parties with ‘parliamentary group leaders’ are often quite obvious false equivalency – the leaders of those other parties are within the main parliamentary institutions that serve their countries, because that is where their focus lies and where they are most needed and useful. Our situation, as a Britain-wide party, is entirely different. The closest equivalent is the Green Party, and the reality of their situation is that their outside parliament leaders are virtually anonymous compared with their single MP. That should be a warning to us, as indeed should the difficulties experienced in public and media perception since we elected a non-elected leader in our own party in Wales. That situation was sadly forced on the party, but the reality is that it is really not an easy situation at all for the party of the leader, especially in terms of public recognition.

It also opens us up to cheap and easy headlines about ‘Lib Dems prepare for parliamentary oblivion and losing all of their MPs’, ‘Lib Dems give up politics’ and the like – that is something we absolutely cannot afford. It also, of course, opens up the possibility of a party leader who is disconnected from parliament and the parliamentary group – that is a significant danger. Even worse, perhaps, is any notion that we could try to riding to power on the crest of a wave of someone else’s apparent fame and popularity with certain groups if we elect them as our party leader (there’s an obvious example that has been much cited since this idea raised its head – I’m sure I don’t need to name names!) – that would put us on a very slippery slope towards ‘personality cult’ politics, and that could be deeply destructive to the party.

This is a poor idea that has been poorly thought through – as much as we need to try new things and do things differently, we cannot deal in wishful thinking rather than political reality. As a serious parliamentary political party, we need to have our leader in parliament.

   8.       If the present restriction is removed, should the same nomination process apply both to MPs and to non-MPs wo put themselves forward?
The nomination procedures are irrelevant, and won’t protect us from the effects of doing it – the entire idea needs to be rejected.

   9.       In your view, would an open party leadership would necessitate providing party resources (salary, staff, office) to the successful candidate?
It would require resources that the party can’t really afford to throw away on such an unnecessary and potentially risky experiment. Let’s not waste our money.

   10.   Do you have any further thoughts on allowing any party member to run for the leadership?
If our party elects a leader who is not in parliament, we are no longer a serious parliamentary political party. I joined a political party, not a protest group. I joined to become involved in changing society through the political and democratic process, not to shout from the sidelines and hope someone listens (even if that ‘someone’ is a few MPs of ‘our own’, who may end up severely disconnected from a leader who isn’t in parliament with them anyway) – there are many alternative groups for that. That other role is an important role in any democracy, but it is not our role as a political party. If we try to become ‘all things to all people’ in such a way we could all too easily end up becoming nothing to anybody as we do nothing quite as well as others are doing the one thing they have become specialised in.  

Opening up the party:
   11.   What excites you about proposals to open up the Party and build a liberal movement?
A genuine and open consultation includes and effort to make the questions it asks balanced and non-prejudicial – the emotive wording of this question doesn’t really seem to be that, and that I find a little worrying. It sounds as if it is inviting a particular kind of response, while sending a subtle message that we should see these particular proposals as above all ‘exciting’. It smacks of a deliberate attempt to generate particular responses to be used in future debates on the proposals – how can you disappoint people who are so ‘excited’ by these proposals? That is really not the right way to go about consultation.

This is a ‘consultation’ that is being carried out after the big media launch of the ‘plan’, and after our social media and web outlets have portrayed (and advertised) it to the public as a plan that will be implemented (even if it says somewhere that it hasn’t quite yet been rubber stamped). This further compounds the feeling that the membership are being manipulated or ‘bounced’ into accepting the plan, because to reject it now would produce a whole heap of negative ‘undermined the leader’, ‘bitter in-fighting’, ‘party in chaos’ headlines, possibly right before a general election. ‘Support the plan or screw your own chances’, in effect – this is a situation that should never have happened in this party. This plan has been presented to the public, without consultation, cutting across existing party processes and consultations. In the process, it has potentially thrown a great big firecracker into the middle of ‘party unity’ unnecessarily. The handling of this has been extremely disrespectful to the party membership – this really wasn’t the right way to go about proposing major changes.

In the ‘The Process’ section, the document goes on to say:
‘These are important changes which deserve to be debated as widely as possible.’
That should have happened BEFORE the public media launch, and before being presented through social media, mass emails and advertising as fait accompli. That would have been the correct process. Clams have been made that this isn’t the case because the word ‘proposals’ is included on the webpage, but that is very clearly not the way the material the party has been putting out since the launch (which, on top of everything else party members couldn’t watch, so the media knew about these plans before the membership did). The intended implication is clear to the public, and equally clear to many members. The party belongs to the members, not to the leader and/or a small group of ‘party grandees’ gathered around him – they obviously need to be reminded of this.

   12.   What concerns you about the proposals?
See above.

Note the contrast in tone of the question from the previous – you may be ‘excited’, or you may just have some ‘concerns’. That doesn’t feel like an attempt to elicit a genuinely balanced set of views from those who may be for and against the plan, or parts of it – that’s ‘tell us in emotive terms how wonderful and fantastic you think it is’, followed by ‘let us know if you’re maybe a little bit worried about some little bit so we can reassure you’. That may seem like only a subtle bit of linguistic manipulation, but any attempt to prejudice consultation outcomes through such question construction should be noted (and shouldn’t be happening).

I’m deeply concerned that the whole thing seems to be based on a notion that we can wave a magic wand and sweep to power if we only do this simple thing, and supported by a number of false assumptions about us being in a similar situation to others, Canada being the most obvious example. We are not only relatively recently down in ‘third place’, for a start, and we are not being led by the exceptionally charismatic son of one of the most popular politicians in our country. Our situation is very different in many ways, and assuming that the same things will apply in anything like the same way to us as to them is simplistic wishful thinking.

We cannot assume that waving a magic wand is going to sweep us to power. It isn’t. This is the same simplistic, muddled reasoning that created ‘More United’, an organisation created by one of our own members which endorsed and funded opponents to our candidates, in some cases even before we had candidates in place for the snap general election (for which that member was never, as far as I know, disciplined by the party). It failed to make any significant headway in politics or society, though, because it was a bad, simplistic, and poorly thought through idea of ‘social movement’ based around an essentially nineteenth century view of society, politics and ‘mass social movements’. The idea that because of its failure we should turn the whole party into ‘More United II’ in the hope that the few MPs we have (who could then even become an afterthought in our ‘party’ structure anyway) will suddenly dramatically increase is something we should reject utterly.

This is a massive and unnecessary distraction from what we should be doing – things like modernising our methods and structures and revolutionising the way we operate and campaign in order to reach out to ‘communities’ in the non-geographically based context of the way they increasingly now exist in the modern world of mass free communication. Developing tailored policies and messages that actually speak to individuals and communities – it’s not all about the ‘big stuff’ (the NHS, and so on, though we have to talk about them too). We have to remember the principles of ‘community politics’ – ‘most people’ don’t care about a big pothole on a street in Sheffield, for example, but those who care really care, and we can attract those people by speaking to them over their burning issue. Likewise, ‘most people’ don’t care about lots of little things that modern ‘interest-based communities’ care about, but those communities really care. ‘Community politics’ much as we did back when people lived, worked and played together in the new world in small areas, discussing the local potholes across the garden walls and in the street, but for the 21st century communities based on shared interests and social media communication.

It’s not all about ‘message testing’ and ‘polls’ that demonstrate particular policies and messages have a level of apparent ‘mass popularity’. Or at least ‘mass not being put off by’ – we should be very careful not to confuse those very different concepts, for such is the route to maximum meaningless bland that positively attracts nobody at all. That issue worries me about the party at the moment too – just when you thought there could be nothing more bland, non-distinctive and meaningless than ‘Stronger Economy, Fairer Society…’ (so non-distinctive to us that the Conservatives have stolen it) along comes ‘Demand Better’. I understand some of the deeper reasoning behind it (and its potential usefulness as a way of describing ‘issues’), but we shouldn’t be completely seduced by that kind of stuff when it comes to creating our primary slogan for the public to latch on to - it really hasn’t served us well in recent elections. A modern ‘movement’ for us is about gaining an accumulation of support from lots of different ‘communities’ (as we have always done), each with their own particular ‘burning issues’ that we are talking about to them, as well as broadly making sense to them on the ‘big issues’ – it’s not about suddenly gaining ‘mass support’ from nowhere because nobody really dislikes our meaningless slogan.

There is no magic shortcut – we won’t succeed by trying to ride on unicorns, and we risk just destroying ourselves and our influence in the process of trying to find the right ticket to the unicorn riding. There is huge opportunity for us out there to do things that other parties can’t and won’t do, but distracting ourselves from that over proposals that won’t help us anyway, and have been presented and proposed in exactly the wrong way, won’t help us at all.

   13.   Are there any other proposals you think the party could implement which would open up the party?
Have a supporters’ scheme. Talk to them, and listen to them. Use them as a resource, and provide them the benefits of getting involved. This is a great idea. ‘Opening up the party’ to entryism, easy ridicule and the risk of ultimate defeat of ending our tradition as a serious voice in parliament is not.

This is far from the end of the reforms I believe we need to make as a party, and it isn’t just about ‘opening up the party’ either. Through discussions on these proposals, there have been some somewhat offensive suggestions that those objecting to them are effectively ‘stuck in the past’, ‘resistant to change’, and so on – this is, for myself and many others, completely untrue, and I hope that such accusations will not cloud this debate. We need to change. We need to reform. We also need to avoid the disastrous mistake of thinking ‘we need change, this is change, and therefore we need this’.

In that spirit and the spirit of ‘consultation’, I present a few personal (not associated with any party organisation or group) ideas for ‘counter-proposals’ of radical reforms for discussion and debate (and they are up for debate – I don’t claim to have all the answers or to have reached a perfect plan to move us forward, and that isn’t how such discussions should work anyway):

1.       Supporters’ Scheme
A scheme that brings together the current ‘local’ schemes, opens up the party to new ideas, involves its members in more than just ‘social activities’, campaigning and donating money, and creates a resource for the party. Free to join, and with engagement and deep involvement (see below), and even high-level representation within party structures (an elected (by them, and only them) ‘Supporters’ Representative’ on the Federal Board, for example) but just with no vote on the leader. If people want to vote for the leader, they should join the party – that is, and should remain, one of the benefits of membership, and is also a way to help persuade people to take that extra little step. If you want to have a vote, you have to join.

As well as involvement in policy making (as noted below), we could invite them to attend conference (at the usual costs, of course). Come to conference, go to training, go to fringes, watch the speeches and debates, meet people, get involved, and enjoy. That’s a benefit of being a registered supporter, and a benefit to the party in opening up our conference to new ideas and new people. If you want to speak in debates or have a vote, though, you need to take that extra little step and become a member – there’s that ‘voting incentive’ again. Luckily, you can sign up while you are at conference and receive your new Member voting pass within minutes – as a supporter you can attend conference, but you can also get actively involved in policy debates and votes if you just take that extra little step.

2.       A new and open approach to policy-making
Involving both our party membership and our new ‘supporters’ directly, and utilising modern communication technologies to move away from our outdated and pedestrian method of creating policy. We need to be able to create individual policies for individual ‘communities’ in the non-geographical proximity way that they now exist. We need to encourage new ideas for such policy to come from individuals for discussion and eventual adoption without the cumbersome and old-fashioned idea of committees, getting enough members and/or local parties to formally propose, holding long discussions at conference, and so on. This is an area where we can embrace new technology for debate and all-party/supporter ballots, but without removing the ability of conference to make the final decision.

We can create an official party online ‘Policy Discussion Forum’ (using forum software rather than social media and Facebook Groups – it is better suited to complicated and detailed discussion) where policy ideas can be proposed and debated, based on any forum member (so party member or ‘supporter’ – this is direct involvement in policy making for our new ‘supporters’) putting forward a ‘motion’ (or even an ‘idea’ for someone else to turn into a ‘motion’). That can be discussed (including by party spokespeople, who can and should directly engage with members and supporters and their ideas), debated, amended and improved until its poster decides to formally ‘move’ it via a simple forum poll (even if it’s quite specific and ‘niche’, and not of interest to many – in a sense that’s kind of the point!). If it passes that stage, it can then be taken to a more formal email poll of all members and supporters. We could be creating lots of ‘little’ policies to aim at different communities this way, and could end up with a ‘monthly policy polls’ email going out for people to vote on several motions at once.  Much of the discussion stage is already gone through informally, of course, and it shouldn’t cost a great deal to formalise that process so that more of these policy suggestions actually make it through to the end of the process to becoming party policy.

Having gone through that process (and passed, obviously), it is assumed to become a policy motion for conference, but to be either accepted or rejected by conference without debate on the floor being necessary (because debate has already happened). We hold a session at conference for these motions, vote on each in turn either to Accept (in which case it becomes party policy) or to Reject (in which case it doesn’t, but is in effect an automatic ‘refer back’ to the originator, since there is nothing stopping them from proposing an amended version on the ‘Policy Discussion Forum’ and starting again). There could be the option of voting to have a ‘mini debate’, too, so that any issues can be aired at conference. Repeats of almost the same unacceptable motion should be avoided by the pre-conference double-polling system anyway.

This would enhance rather than replace our current processes, particularly on the major issues of wide public importance, which is more suited to a process of committee or working party, expert evidence, and so on. Party members and local parties would still be able to submit motions for consideration according to the usual procedures (so there is no threat of people who do not have internet access losing their ability to propose policy). It could, however, provide a streamlined approach to conference that allows us to pass more policy, and in particular more ‘community-tailored’ (what some might perhaps call ‘niche’) policy for 21st century communities, and doing so while fully embracing and involving party ‘supporters’.

3.       A new approach to ‘national’ campaigning
We need to recognise that the changing nature of ‘community’ in the modern world means that ‘community politics’ is no longer something that we can just leave to be done by local parties – they can’t cover this kind of ground. Communities are increasingly nationwide and beyond, and our approach to talking to communities and doing ‘Community Politics’ now has to be nationwide too.

That requires a complete rethink in the way that we develop policy and messages (and the way we use and read ‘message testing’ – it shifts the emphasis to attracting the potentially sympathetic on their issues, not seeing what ‘big messages’ have ‘mass not unpopularity’), the way that we target particular messages at particular groups, and the way that we structure our online materials and campaigning activities in particular. Our restructured website would become far more our campaigning ‘front line’, rather than a relative afterthought somewhere below leaflets, and could even include ‘suggest a policy motion’ and ‘support this idea’ kind of stuff to be relayed directly to our official ‘Policy Discussion Forum’ in the way that 38 Degrees has its ‘set up a petition of your own’.

Think about that for a moment – not just ‘contact us with your ideas’ (that disappear into the ether, never to be seen again!), but allowing the public to go to our website and ‘lobby’ us directly and publicly about any policy they like in a way that is directly taken forward to our own policy discussions for possible adoption as party policy for a parliamentary political party. That would be a real and visible change in the way ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ do business, and really open us up for modern community involvement. Of course, the criticism will no doubt come back ‘but that means our opponents will come on to our website and propose (and/or support) malicious ‘policies’ such as backing Brexit’, and of course that is true. It won’t dictate actual policy at all, though, because the policy process is still very much in the hands of supporters and ultimately members at conference. If ‘opponents’ and ‘doubters’ are doing that kind of thing, they are coming to our website, engaging with it, seeing our messages, and almost certainly raising their awareness of who we are and what we believe in (and perhaps, even if sharing it in opposition to us, sharing our website content) – in our current situation of near zero media coverage, that in itself could be a huge bonus. Some of them or their friends might even end up agreeing with us on some things, and beginning their journey from opposition or indifference to interest and eventual support.

We need to build our support by leading people individually on a journey from ‘they are talking about my burning issues – I thought nobody cared’ through ‘I like these other things they say too’ and ‘I now understand the background to why they are saying these things I agree with’ to eventual ‘they believe what I believe’ and ‘I support them’ (and that is again partly a structural issue for the website, and the way it leads people along a path from a policy, through wider policies, and to their ideological underpinning). Just saying ‘we support the NHS’ and checking our ‘big issue’ messages aren’t unpopular via polling isn’t enough in the modern world of increasingly diverse and distributed communities – everyone is talking about the same issues in similar-sounding ways, and many people assume that it’s mostly political platitudes anyway before they get as far as examining the details. We still have to say nice things about the NHS, and come up with real policies for improving the NHS, but the stark reality is it probably isn’t going to motivate many voters to vote for us over the other parties who seem on the surface to be saying much the same kind of nice things.

That isn’t really how we have succeeded in the past anyway – our MPs haven’t won seats by us just saying such things that supposedly interest everyone, they have won by them and their supporters knocking on doors, offering help, asking people about their own specific local ‘community’ issues and helping to get them resolved (or at least making people feel like we’re interested in their concerns). We need to keep doing all of that and more to win individual seats, of course, but if we are going to build up our national vote share and challenge in more seats that’s how we need to be operating on a national basis too – talking to individuals about those issues that they don’t think any ‘politicians’ care about, and being ‘on their side’. Building support through ‘Community Politics’, but in the kind of ‘communities’ that now exist in our modern, connected world.

Technology has changed society and how it operates for people almost completely. It is no longer about ‘mass movements’ of large, similar groups in the way that it was a century ago when the Labour party grew – we won’t repeat that kind of ‘movement’ in politics in the same way, but neither does our evidence-based policy approach produce the kind of easy ‘mass’ emotive appeal that produced the ‘Corbyn surge’ in Labour’s membership (and it should be noted that that hasn’t produced sweeping public popularity or electoral success anyway!). It’s a massive mistake to think of organisations like 38 Degrees in that kind of essentially 19th century ‘mass movement’ way – they haven’t succeeded in growing so far and fast as a whole because they are a ‘mass movement’ at all – quite the opposite. They have succeeded because they are able to talk to each individual community and person about what is of specific interest to them through allowing them a platform, even if it is only of interest to relatively few other people. Such a mass movement today isn’t formed by masses of people with a single shared goal unifying around it, but by bringing together large numbers of smaller groups under one roof and gradually leading them along a path to awareness of other issues that they might also find interesting. That is the big lesson we need to learn as a party.

4.       Renaming and rebranding the party
Whether we think it is justified or not, we do have a hangover in the minds of the public from the coalition. We shouldn’t try to disown that period and our achievements in government entirely, but we do need to recognise the issues and demonstrate a ‘new dawn’ for the party in some way. In the current political context, we also need specifically to attract ‘Social Democrats’ from the Labour Party, and emphasising our heritage and origins in the SDP would be a good way to do that. Claiming to be ‘the party of in the middle’ has not served us well (Look Left, Look Right….), and to be ‘moderate’ is to be merely ‘bland’ and ‘inoffensive’ – it might not lose us many votes, but it won’t enthuse people in order to gain us many either. The public want an alternative to the problems of the recent past, but ‘the party of not believing strongly in anything much really’ doesn’t offer them that. Many members have talked in recent days about being ‘Liberals’ rather than just ‘moderates’ (myself included), and rightly so, but forgetting to also be clear and proud ‘Social Democrats’ as a party at the moment would be missing a huge opportunity (as well as disrespecting our own party history).

I propose, therefore, to abandon the shortened name ‘Liberal Democrats’ and revert to the previous ‘Social & Liberal Democrats’ (SLD), at the same time creating a lasting ‘tagline’ that reflects our values distinctively and can last long enough to actually be noticed and remembered by the public: ‘Liberty, Equality, Community’, or perhaps ‘Liberty, Equality, Society’ to further emphasise that Social Democrat element and provide some obvious ‘clear yellow water’ between us and Thatcherite Conservatism. In addition, we should completely overhaul the look of all of the party branding, incorporating some echoes to the SDP past in terms of lettering and colour schemes (that might be an issue for some of our good ole 2 colour printing processes, but that’s not a good reason to not use more colours when colour printing!) – certainly not abandon ‘Libby’ entirely, but create a new logo format that makes it clear that we are a party that has now moved forward from that which entered a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 (and we are a changed party, of course, given the percentage of our members that have joined since 2015). We might not like to admit it, but our current Lib Dem brand is toxic to many who might otherwise support us, and we do need to visibly move on from it. We need to do so in a way that doesn’t look like the party just trying desperately to ‘hide’ under a brand new ‘non-descript’ or ‘moderate’ label too, and ‘Social & Liberal Democrats’ could provide a solution to that problem.

There is, I’m sure, much more we can and should do. I must once again warn of the dangers of thinking ‘we need change, this is change, therefore we need this’. We do indeed desperately need change, but it needs to be the right kind of change to move us in the right direction as a party. We can change. We should change. We MUST change. All of that is true, but we must make sure that the change is moving us in the right direction, not consigning us to political oblivion – that would be a tragedy for the country.

(Note: The image at the top is just a bit of fun produced with reference to the text above - it's not a serious attempt at creating a new party logo or branding!)

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Best Albums of 2017

So here it is - my annual January countdown of my favourite albums of the previous year (2017 in this case, obviously!). Don't complain - it's just my personal opinion about what new albums I've enjoyed most from the previous year. As things grow on me, or I get fed up of them, things may change, but here's the list as it stands today:

 20. Motionless In White - Graveyard Shift
 19. The Acacia Strain - Gravebloom
 18. Oceano - Revelation
 17. Procul Harum - Novum
 16. Thy Art Is Murder - Dear Desolation
 15. Manran - An Da La - The Two Days
 14. While She Sleeps - You Are We
 13. Hawkwind - Into The Woods
 12. Motorpsycho - The Tower
 11. Caligula's Horse - In Contact
 10. Loathe - The Cold Sun
 9. Cara Dillon - Wanderer
 8. Mastodon - Emperor of Sand
 7. Ne Obliviscaris - Urn
 6. Uneven Structure - La Partition
 5. Sikth - The Future In Whose Eyes?
 4. August Burns Red - Phantom Anthem
 3. The Contortionist - Clairvoyant
 2. Northlane - Mesmer
 1. Ayreon - The Source

And here's a spotify list with a song from each album:

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Are we now in the endgame of a 'Period of History'?

We live in 'interesting' times - I'm sure you've noticed! The politics of the Western World seems to have taken some pretty big leaps of late, and it's showing no signs of stopping. History often gets divided up into different 'periods' or 'cycles' - times where things seem to be moving in one direction, defined and punctuated by changes of direction. The fascinating thing, of course, is that you never know exactly where you are within or between such 'periods' while you're actually living through it - such definitions come much later. Different historians will have different opinions on the 'periods', what really happened and why, what the start and end points were and why, and so on. In some ways it's just a matter of administrative convenience for historians themselves to have such definitions in order to limit their particular studies (or just a shorthand to make vague points to each other), and I'm certainly not about to claim any great insight into such things. These are just a few vague thoughts of my own about the longer term picture of where we have been and where we may going.

So let's start by going back a bit - to the general period known as the 'Industrial Revolution'. Of course, within that there are many different things going on, and many different little 'sub-periods' where particular trends were developing. Any 'period' can be seen an any number of ways, obviously - did the 'English Civil War period' end at Worcester in 1651, or in London in 1660 (or perhaps 1688), or at Culloden in 1746? Depends how you want to look at it, of course. You can speculate about the 'Industrial Revolution'  really beginning in the 'Agricultural Revolution', and exactly where and why its precise end came, but for my purposes here, I'm just going to think of it in terms of some of the great social and political changes. In short, Britain went from being a largely agricultural and rural society to being a largely industrial and urban society. Within that process came another - the gradual development, from small beginnings, of ideas like 'Human Rights' and 'Workers Rights', and even 'Equality'.

Obviously you can't look at those things in isolation - there were many movements and circumstances that brought these things about, and there were many differences across Europe and the Wider World, in technology, philosophy, politics and even art. All these things were tied together, influencing one another in various ways. It's also important to understand that, though there may appear to be definite changes between the period and the periods before and after, they didn't happen overnight, and as they were happening nobody knew what the future would really bring -in no way could someone at the time have looked at a single event or moment and said 'here endeth...', and in no way could we make any such a definitive statement now. I think we can speculate about a few aspects, though.

So where did the 'Industrial Revolution' period end - well I don't think it unreasonable to look at a fairly commonly used punctuation point of the First World War, and the great social changes brought about by what could, perhaps, be defined as the ultimate expression of the 'industrialism' that had developed - Industrial Warfare, on a truly industrial scale of mechanised slaughter. Of course, there were other factors - the 'old order' of established aristocratic power and money had been under threat from 'new money' industrial ideas for a while, and the awakening of ideas about human beings being worthy of consideration as human beings were already bringing about changes in government thinking with 'People's Budgets' and the like (and expanding the electorate was always going to make those kinds of things irreversible). The war itself, and all of its human and financial costs, brought the whole thing pretty spectacularly crashing down in many ways in quite a short period, though, even though what happened socially and politically as a result may well have been almost inevitable anyway.

Much has been written by many about the great changes that happened next socially, alongside the continuance of 'total war' into the next great global conflict just decades later - I'm not about to go into detail about all that here. At what point did that next 'post Industrial Revolution' period really stop, though? Looking back I think there's a natural tendency to see the two World Wars as convenient bookends of a 'period', with the social changes of the 1960's (Note: Would that be the 'long 1960s' or the 'short 1960s'? Aargh!) being the start of a whole new phase. In a sense that's fair enough, but in the further future will historians be commonly using that, or will they say more commonly that we are now really still within that same 'period', and still really fighting those same kind of battles around 'rights' and 'society', in much the same way (socially and politically) as we have been for the last century.

You could say that the 20th century, and the early part of the 21st, in much of the developed world at least, has (socially) been very much about the development and implementation of the idea of 'Human Rights'. By that I mean those in more senior positions throughout society going from seeing people as mere 'minions' and 'fodder' towards seeing them (or being forced to see them, perhaps) as 'of equal worth' as human beings even if they are currently 'lower' positions within society. It's gone from the very basic 'they still need and deserve money if they're sick, or they'll die' kind of moral argument to the details of ideas like paid parental leave, holiday pay, health and safety rules, and so. Alongside that has, increasingly over the 'period', developed the idea of 'people' meaning 'everyone', rather than 'straight white men from respectable backgrounds'. Now it would be foolish to claim that that idea is now universal, even in the most developed nations, but it's very much what society has been pushing towards. Importantly for where we are now, it's the kind of idea that many of those who are now 'young adults' have effectively grown up with as both a universal principle that should apply and a virtue for all to aspire to.

Alongside that has come something of a move away from the kind of 'nationalism' that developed in the nineteenth century in Europe. Really, you could perhaps argue that that long, slow process really began in the Great War - the futility of war between nations, for little more than supposed 'national glory' (and even 'purity'), certainly became apparent to some involved quite quickly. Unfortunately, it was inevitably somewhat stunted in the early part of the twentieth century by the wars themselves, and the (sometimes understandable) need to push 'patriotism' among the public as part of the required motivational process to actually win those wars. After the guns had stopped firing, both in 1918 and 1945/6, a gradual move towards greater international cooperation began (clearly post 1918 it wasn't exactly overwhelming in its success by any measure, but it did happen). This has accelerate with technology, and the ever increasing ability to quickly and easily communicate with the world and move around the world. People in every part of society are now far more 'international' than they ever were, and our younger adults have again grown up in this world - a 'world' (at least in their proximity) where those old barriers of isolated nationality and borders are really beginning to be seen as something strange and unwelcome, and from the past.

What we have is a growing new generation across the Western World, who are mostly accustomed to thinking, in effect, of 'all humanity as one' in a much more instinctive way than ever before in human history (although in a sense you could also say that it is partly a rolling back of those stricter nineteenth century ideas of 'nationalism'). Many will have visited different countries (often several of them), and even more will be aware of what's going on there through both 24 hour rolling news and the personal contact of social media, and instinctively aware of various 'cultural' aspects of many nations through television. The increasingly free movement of people (not just through EU rules, but simply through transport technology and cultural readiness to travel) has not only brought them personal contact with people of from many nations (not just European), but also regular contact with their culture through food and so on. Younger generations have really not known any different. To put it simply, for the new generation, many foreign countries, at least within the sphere of the Western World, are almost no longer 'foreign' at all. Certainly not in the way that they once quite recently were, and that generational difference is key to what is happening now (as we know from voting demographic statistics).

This growing 'internationalism' is something that some will argue is inevitable with communication and travel technology, and what they would also probably suggest is inevitable from that in the sense of the 'globalisation' of trade. On the other hand, some others seem to be fighting against it, trying to bring back those nineteenth century ideas of nationalism, national pride, and 'hard' national borders. This is a process that's been gradually growing since the beginning of the twentieth century, and the battle against it is the same - in a way we can see the worst of what that opposition did between the wars in Germany, but let's not pretend that it was in any way unique. It often wasn't just a fight for 'national pride' and 'national purity' either, but a fight against rights and freedoms of the individual. An irony, perhaps, is that it manifested itself most notably in opposition to what some might see as the ultimate expression of 'rights for all', Communism, just at the same time as practical Communism as a system was proving itself to be anything but that anyway.

None of this 'nationalistic' stuff has really ever gone away, and neither has the idea of 'individual selfishness' that essentially underpins the desire to rail against people being considered 'equal' and worthy of 'human rights' - they've been 'defeated in battle' several times, and been gradually rolled back within society, but they've still been hanging around there in the background. Indeed, I think it's fair to say that most of us have been somewhat complacent about their apparent diminishing to a tiny little rump of scattered 'radicals'. Each time they have raised their head over the last century, there has been, I suspect, a genuine desire to bring them to an end among some, but not among enough of society for it to actually happen once and for all. Today, though, I think we might really be in the final battle - the endgame in this 'period' of our history.

Before going any further, I think it's vital to remind ourselves that the generational differences are in no way 'universal' - they are 'statistical trends', but there are people of all ages on all 'sides'. I think those trends are themselves significant, though - what happens in terms of major shifts within society is very much a 'numbers game', and right at this moment in history we are at a critical point of reasonably balanced numbers that could lead us in either direction. There's nothing to be complacent about at all here - if this is indeed the endgame for the period we have been in for the last century or so, the fact that the numbers seem to be trending in one particular direction at the moment among the next generation certainly doesn't mean that they must stay that way.

What we have seen through the new rise of the nationalism agenda, notably (but not solely) with Brexit, is something of a generational divide (not in any way universal, I repeat), and either current generation could yet 'win' in the end. The reasons for that are complicated - education may be one factor, with often an increased emphasis in more recent times on things like 'assessing evidence' and 'critical thinking', as opposed to the usually more 'shut up, listen and repeat' approaches of the past. Some might call that 'indoctrination', I guess (it's a term some throw around about why so many relative 'youngsters' disagree with them), while others may call it a kind of 'enlightenment' in giving people the tools to think for themselves rather than simply accepting what they are told at face value. It may be significant that those in power suddenly seem so keen on 'traditional values' in education, though, and at this point there is still time for them to change our future direction by teaching a yet younger generation to accept their 'wisdom' without question.

It's not just that, though, and that might not even be the most significant issue. Statistically, this is the first generation in a very long time to have never really experienced war first hand. There have been a few distant conflicts, but we've not been 'at war' with another 'nation' for a long time. The defensive and 'patriotic' mindset that 'national' war inevitably creates is well beyond the experience of the new generations. While for the generation most likely to be supporting the likes of Brexit (and Trump, as another example of the same kind of thing, and supporters of one often seem to be supporters of the other) it was something very recent, and something they grew up with as a shadow looming over them - a close shadow that they personally reacted to 'first hand'. For most people under the age of 40 or so it's something that happened a couple of generations or so. It is interesting that, as I understand it, the generation who actually fought in the last war tended to be rather pro-EU, for example - it is their children's generation that perhaps grew up with the 'idea' of war between nations, and its hangover of all those 'patriotic' films and so on, but not so much of the direct experience of the reality of it who are mostly falling on the side of nationalism now.

That same kind of age divide (yet again I say not universal - it's really important to remember that individuals are not just 'statistics') coincides with not only the post war internationalist political consensus that has brought us the EU, but with the technological advancements that have brought different peoples so much closer in such a practical, everyday way. In order to defeat that trend, those who favour a return to the deeply nation-based thinking of the past have to overcome the fact that it really isn't the experience of most younger people. We can see the attempts to do that all around us, and at least some of it has been imported to the UK from the US. The revering of militarism, the use of political terminology, the increase in 'flag-waving' - these are all things that had largely disappeared from the UK, really before my generation of the now middle-aged came along.

We grew up seeing the poppy, for example, as a symbol of remembrance, sorrow, and, by virtue of the futility of war, of peace. Now, though, there has been a strong push by the nationalistic forces to see it as a symbol of 'national pride', and of 'patriotism' and of 'victory'. And it is working - you can see it in the very different way that 'society' as a whole seems to treat such things. It's no accident that this push has come at the same time as Brexit, and at the same time as a lurch towards nationalism (on the right and left of politics, to an extent - there's little of the old language of 'international brotherhood' being heard at the forefront of the modern 'socialist' movement now, and much more about the 'legitimate concerns on immigration' and the like). There is a concerted push towards nationalism (and associated ideas of universal Equality and 'Human Rights' being a negative thing) happening, and we're kidding ourselves if we think that it isn't working, for the moment at least. They are trying to win over the population, or at least the vast majority of it, in order to reverse the internationalist trend, and they have been succeeding.

So who are the 'they' behind this - the ones who have been coordinating the campaign and driving it forwards? That's a question well worth asking, I think. It's not just about those who have been persuaded, of course, but about those who are persuading them. In some cases, they are the same old suspects who have been trying to do the same for the last century - those groups who hailed certain European regimes as they rose and pushed us towards the last global war. In some cases, it is those who see that the inevitable consequence of ever closer international cooperation is the loss of their ability to control their own little 'pond' for their own personal benefit, while also losing their ability to use differences between different international jurisdictions to make money without having to pay their tax dues to anyone.

They like, of course, to spread the accusation of the 'Liberal Elite' alongside the accusations of 'unpatriotic' and 'traitors' and so on, but the reality is quite different. It is not the more recent relatively 'Liberal' forces that are the 'elite' - it is the rise of those forces that threatens the personal positions of power, influence and wealth of the real 'elite'. Their move to create a 'nationalist coup' across the western world is driven by nothing more than a fear of losing their own position of privileged. In a sense, this goes back to the very beginnings of this 'period of history' - the time when the 'old order' apparently collapsed. Understanding that is key to understanding what is happening now. Yes, the old aristocratic structure of power and position did 'collapse', but that doesn't mean it disappeared altogether - it just changed from 'birth' to 'wealth' as the last remnants of 'old money' and the cream of the 'new money' that had helped bring about their downfall effectively joined forces to preserve their wealth and power.

It's important to note that they didn't entirely succeed - while they maintained much of their wealth and continued to exert a certain amount of control and influence, they were no longer able to control actual governments in quite the same way. They could no longer guarantee governments that would help them preserve their considerable wealth and income against taxation by and for 'the people', for example, and had to become far more aggressive about hiding it elsewhere (and now the end of that is apparent on the horizon for them). They could be challenged, and you could perhaps say that the story of the rise of rights, equality and internationalism over the last hundred years has been the story of that challenge - the challenge of the people, through democracy and increasingly across borders, against the iron fist of the 'elite' who have kept hanging on. That challenge hasn't been entirely successful either, of course. Yet. Maybe this is the moment where it might be, and maybe that is why they are driving those forces of nationalism so hard now.

We can't pretend that the forces of democracy, in their attempts at fighting off that old 'elite', have been entirely successful in bringing people with them, or in treating people with the kind of 'Human Rights' and 'Equality' respect that they should have done. One of the things that has opened the door is the very real feeling that this brave new international world has 'left people behind' that while some have been given the opportunity to embrace this new world of international travel and communication, others have found themselves watching from the sidelines as they see their own world left to crumble around them. Is it any wonder that they think that maybe this new international world isn't really the great thing that they have been told, or that these universal 'Human Rights' and 'Equalities' are really happening at their expense, or even that they think fondly back to a time when things were simpler for them in terms of knowing who 'the enemy' was? We who oppose the forces of nationalism have to recognise and address this, without condemning those who have been drawn in by the alluring promises offered by the forces of nationalism. We have to understand that it is our own failure to move everyone forward with us that has opened the door for those who now seek to undo what we have spent the last century moving towards.

This might well be their very last chance, though, and that is why I think this may be the endgame of the period we have been living through over the last century. Fail to change the recent direction of travel completely now, when the generational balance is as good for them as it ever would be if things go on as they have been, and their ideas of nationalistic divisions between the people of this planet might be on a gradual, terminal downward spiral. This might well really be their last hurrah - if they lose this time, there may well not be enough people who share their instincts to ever seriously challenge the direction of human progress again (or at least not for many decades to come - circumstances can always change, especially with something like climate change, and all that could mean for things like food production, looming on the horizon). And if they don't succeed, and their ideas are finally dismissed from being taken seriously, the change in direction of society could be a decisive turn towards true internationalism and true equality in a way that humanity is yet to experience - we could be on the cusp of a genuinely a new period of history.

Things could go either way from here, though, especially in view of the fact that the power is now in the hands of the forces of nationalism in several internationally critical countries (most notably the UK and USA, but there are others). The next period of history could be one of increased internationalism, cooperation, rights and equalities spreading around the world, or it could be one of increased nationalism, entrenchment, separation, suspicion, and perhaps ultimately large scale war. Everyone will have their own view of which is better and what the positive and negative effects on society and the world might be, of course, as I have mine, but the tipping point between them does seem in many ways to be upon us in our immediate future, and what we do now could set the direction we travel as a society for the next hundred years or more. These social and political battles that we are engaged in today could very well be that important to the future for generations to come, and that is obviously why it is so vitally important for us to win them, and win them decisively.