Sunday, 10 July 2016

How do we solve the #Brexit divisions?



So the dust has settled to an extent on the Brexit vote, and we are where we are. Now that that referendum battle is over and the campaigns are no longer trying to push their points home in the same way, hopefully a somewhat clearer picture of what it all means, and the choices we now have, should be emerging for people.

What is clear is that a decision was made, but that it was not a clear decision about the way forward, and nor was it the kind of clear margin of victory that could be said to reflect the 'settled will' of a 'large majority' of people. It was a very close result - almost half of the people who voted did not vote for the declared result. That is creating huge divisions. Aside from it driving the kind of chaos we are seeing in the two largest political parties, it is also creating a situation where some parts of the different 'sides' are becoming entrenched and radicalised to resist each other almost at all costs. That is really not a healthy situation for us to be in as a democracy, and we really need to find a way of getting through this.

Either side telling the other to 'put up or shut up' is not the answer. Those saying that we should simply have a parliamentary vote to override the referendum result (without an election) are, I believe, wrong, but so equally, I think, are those saying 'we've had the vote now we must just do it'. We don't even know what the 'it' is that we are supposed to be doing - there were many competing Brexit visions, and many different reasons expressed for voting to leave the EU. The binary option offered did not actually make a decision about what the people felt that the future should look like. You cannot simply ignore 48% of the population and drag the country out of the EU against their will, particularly without even knowing what you are doing. It is far too large a majority to just ignore. At the same time, of course, you cannot ignore the 52% who voted to leave either. We can't pretend the referendum didn't happen, and nor can we just keep holding the same referendum until we get the 'correct' result.

We are now in a situation where the country is split pretty much down the middle, and we have to find a way of dealing with that. The only way, in my opinion, is to do so democratically, in a way that really gives the people a realistic choice of the alternative visions of the future. I have already, in a previous post, mentioned the need for a General Election, and my opinion on that still very much stands. We might well be better to go even further than that, though, now that the precedent has been set for this particular issue to be specifically decided by a referendum of the public.

There are three problems with the initial referendum, as I see it:
1. It only asked part of the question that needs to be answered.
2. The result is so close that it really doesn't demonstrate any kind of 'settled majority decision'.
3. The campaign was so confused, and riddled with half-truths and downright lies, that the public can't possibly be said to have all made an 'informed decision'.

In the wake of that (knowing what we know now, so to speak) aside from the entrenched groups each telling the other where to stick themselves, there are also some people who are changing their minds. We can't assume that they are all now deciding to change from 'Leave' to 'Remain', either - there are some remain voters saying we should now leave, and some of those might decide to change their vote accordingly in a future decision making process.

This is such a massive decision for the country, with such huge implications for the future, that we really can't afford to go steaming ahead on the basis of assumptions about what a single snapshot vote means in that context (and without knowing exactly what direction we are going to try to go in).

So, what else can we do? How can we heal this rift in society, and make a clear democratic decision about exactly what we are going to do, or at least what we are going to try to negotiate? Well, we do have the General Election option, of course, but that doesn't necessarily completely solve the problem either (especially since so much of our political world now seems to be in meltdown anyway). So we get to the idea of 'EU ref II' - that's an option I had really rejected, to be honest, since I don't think re-running the referendum until I get the result I want is either reasonable or democratic, and I don't see how re-running the referendum would help to either heal the division or solve the problems we've been left with.

However, having seen where we have got to, and thought about it further, I think there is a possibility. While I don't think that the first referendum didn't produce a definitive majority vote that denoted the 'settled will of the people', it did certainly prove that there is so much dissatisfaction with the EU that about half of the country is more than willing to at least strongly consider leaving (even if they have changed their personal decision as things have emerged since the vote). That is obviously extremely significant, even if it doesn't conclusively prove that 'most people really want to leave'. Now we really have to explore the decision further, I think, in a democratic way, and there is a way of doing that via a different kind of referendum that should produce a result that really defines a way forward, that gives all the different views an opportunity to be expressed, and that I think should allow a result that people will be much more able to accept as a firm democratic decision (even if they disagree with it).

That option is to hold a second referendum on a multiple option, preference-expressed basis. Rather than a binary Yes/No choice, a choice between the main different options for Leaving or Remaining, such that people could express their first preference, second preference, and so on, via some variety of STV-like (I don't want to define it too precisely, obviously). This, I think, should be done to determine a negotiating position before triggering Article 50, rather than simply be a post-negotiation 'do we accept this or not' scenario.

Without wishing to define the Leave position for them in advance, there could, for example, be several clear options offered, perhaps along the lines of:
1. Leave The EU, but remain within the Free Trade area (accepting costs and Free Movement).
2. Leave The EU and FT area, negotiating a separate broad agreement without Free Movement.
3. Leave The EU and Free Trade area, and negotiate any deals specifically and individually.

People could vote for the preferred option first, and so on. Obviously there could be other options, including the option to leave jurisdiction of the ECHR - those were just examples for illustration purposes (it doesn't have to be limited to 3 options).

There could also be different Remain visions offered, remembering that this is about choosing a negotiating position. For example:
1. Remain in the EU under the current terms.
2. Remain in the EU and join the Eurozone (unlikely to be popular, but let's answer the question!)
3. Remain in the EU ONLY on condition of certain reforms being agreed by the EU.

This could not only give us an initial choice of negotiating position via the usual system of 'knocking out' less popular options and going to 2nd preference votes until one reaches the threshold for success, but could also give us defined future 'fall back' negotiating positions (assuming the ballot results were all stored in detail, which should certainly be possible).

Let us say, for example, that Remain option 3 was the initial winner - the UK government would then go to the EU and say tell them that we had voted to remain on condition that you are prepared to negotiate out these particular kinds of reform (with specific regard to the UK at least). That would put the ball in in the EU's court, and leave them to decide just how much they want us to stay (with the added pressure of it having been the public who have spoken directly, rather than just the 'government of the day') - it might obviously be that others would be supportive of the kind of reforms we might be talking about anyway, and would see that as an opportunity both to gain the reform that they want and to head off their own Eurosceptic lobbies. It may be, however, that the EU isn't forthcoming about those reforms - at that point, that option being 'off the table' (and therefore 'knocked out' by default), then those votes would be re-allocated according to their next preferences.

Were that option to be offered, I strongly suspect that some would vote for it as a first option and have a second option of 'Leave', while others would vote for that as a first option but have a second option of 'Remain anyway' (so Remain option 1, as listed above). The balance of those votes, and re-allocation on that basis, would tell the government where they need to be going in the next part of their negotiation (obviously, subsequent preference results would have to remain 'secret' so that the EU wouldn't be faced with a request for reform negotiations knowing that the next step would be 'we will still stay anyway'!).

Of course, there is every likelihood that hardened 'Leavers' would vote for their favourite 'Leave' option, followed by their second favourite, and so on. Same with hardened 'Remainers'. In a way that is the point. If the original referendum campaign shows us anything, it is that many people are 'on the fence', and undecided about the best way forward. It's entirely possible that a number of people would have a first choice on one side and a second on the other, rather than being committed 'Remainers' or 'Leavers'. That is really important, and it is vital, I think, that that group is able to express their views in a way that isn't just a forced choice between two absolutes that they might not want to support 'no matter what'.

This might all seem a bit of a strange suggestion, of course - to have a referendum without a single, definitive result that is announced the following day and that doesn't ever change. Perhaps it is, but it does allow for the people to decide a very clear set of negotiating positions and guidelines that can be followed as a negotiating process. It prevents the need to have referendum upon referendum as negotiations produce different circumstances. It also allows for each option to have its own individual 'campaign' that puts forward its argument on a clear and consistently agreed basis, which should make the debate a whole lot clearer than the one we've just had, when it was clear that nobody on either side really agreed with anybody else's ultimate vision (even on the far more coherent 'Remain' side, there were different expressed angles on 'reform', but it's quite clear now that the 'Leave' side had all kinds of different competing visions of the future).

Perhaps most importantly it would, I think, allow a way forward for the country that is based on a democratically expressed variety of views that would be proportionally taken into account, and one after another as a process if they become unachievable. It would actually answer the question in a way that is far less divisive. For example, a 'Remainer' who believes in reform (and chose option 3) is less likely to find it hard to accept a decision to leave if their option has been explored and found impossible, even if, on balance, they still wanted to remain anyway. Likewise, a 'Leaver' might well find Remaining more palatable if it included a serious attempt at putting some real pressure on the EU for some serious reform. Of course, some will ultimately end up unhappy with the decision, as it always the case in a democracy, but this time it would be a real decision that sets the way forward on the basis of more than a simplistic (and potentially unrealistic) binary choice.

It would be, of course, something of a radical departure from the way things are normally done in UK politics. We are where we are, though, and perhaps we need to look at some more radical ideas to get us out of the current situation of being a thoroughly divided country from top to bottom, with no real idea of where we are heading, or how to get there, or how to even begin to heal the divisions we've managed to produce over this whole debate.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

So.... #Brexit ...what happens now? A timetable.



The UK has voted to leave the European Union. I disagree with that decision, of course, but I am a democrat, and my democratic principles mean that I do not think that we should seek to overturn the result by any kind of undemocratic means. Quite the opposite - we should now engage in a democratic process to decide where we go from here.

The UK is currently in a difficult position, and is also putting the EU in a difficult position. It is quite clear that there was never any kind of agreed coherent Brexit plan on the table from the leave campaign - nothing the UK can go to its current partners with and say 'this is what we are intending to do now we have voted to leave'. We are also, as a result of this vote, in a position of political flux, in the two largest parties in particular, and in a state of financial instability due to uncertainty, and in a state of constitutional crisis, with various parties talking about a break up of the UK (and the different Brexit implications for the various different parts of the UK). We need to bring some clarity to all of this somehow, and quickly.

It seems to me that we have to set a clear, unambiguous timetable that allows differing views on Brexit (or not) to be put to the people via a democratic process. Some have talked of a second referendum, but personally I don't think that now is the time to re-run that divisive battle. It is clear that at least some people are changing their minds, and it is clear that some of the 'promises' and statements from the leave camp are unravelling, but the fact remains that the result is what it is, and we have to now move that process on. having had our 'In/Out referendum', we need to get beyond that simplistic vote and look at the details of what kind of Brexit we are ultimately going to try to have (based firmly in the reality of what kind of Brexit is actually possible, of course!). We need to get down to the nitty-gritty, and then let the people decide how to proceed from here.

Of course, that is made slightly more complicated in a sense by the two biggest parties having an unprecedented simultaneous leadership crisis. In another sense, though, that is an opportunity. The various candidates should have to plan and lay out their own Brexit visions as part of their internal party campaigns, and there is no doubt that that will be the big issue in their campaigns. They must put forward their ideas and plan, and let their parties decide which plan they want presented to the people. Other parties have to develop their detailed plans too, of course. We need a period for that to happen, and we need to make it clear to the EU, who are currently in the dark about what we propose as a country and when we are planning to trigger the Article 50 process to actually begin formal discussions to leave, that that is what we are doing.

So, by way of a timetable, I would propose something like this:

1. Over the summer, broadly in line with the timetable already set out by the Conservative Party over their leadership campaign, we have a period where all political parties can sit down, detail their plans, discuss and debate them internally, and choose new leaders to present them (and ultimately negotiate them with the EU) where they feel it necessary. By the end of the usual party conference season, all parties should have their own plans fully detailed, confirmed and in place, ready to present to the EU for negotiation when Article 50 is triggered, and ready to present to the people of the UK.

2. At that point, parliament should be dissolved, and a General Election should be held - perhaps in late October or early November. The date of that should be formally set now, so that there is no possible messing about later down the line. At that General Election, the various different Brexit plans will obviously form the basis of debate, and the people can choose between them at the ballot box. The people can then decide what vision of Brexit the UK is going to pursue with the EU through the 2 years of post Article 50 negotiation.

3. After that election, a new government can be formed according to the usual democratic process. After a brief pause to allow for the government to be fully formed, and for anything like coalition talks to take place, plans can then be moved forward. That government should then be the ones to begin the process of triggering Article 50 (or not, of course, if that is the platform that they have been elected on), and that government will then lead negotiations with the EU on the basis of the plans they have presented.

4. Given the timescales of the previous parts of the process, and to allow the new government to be firmly established and any necessary parliamentary processes to be followed to allow notification of the triggering of Article 50, it would then make sense to me to set a formal date of 31st of December 2016 for the formal triggering of Article 50, such that the UK would then formally leave the European Union on 1st January 2019. Those intended dates can be provided in advance to the EU, so they know exactly what is coming and when, allowing them to put in place any plans they need to for negotiations and so on (and to give a level of certainty for markets, other international partners, etc.).

Setting that timetable now would give clarity for everyone. Every party will know that they have a set amount of time to finalise their plans, and the people will know how and when they will be making their decision between them. The EU, and indeed the markets and so on, will also have clarity - they won't know what plans we are going to put forward until the end of that process, of course, but they will know when that will happen, and how it will happen. It would give everyone a measure of certainty that they just don't currently have in the UK's situation of apparent political meltdown. It will allow a little oil to be poured on the current troubled waters, so to speak, to just calm things down a little from the current level of general panic - not an end to the uncertainty about what will ultimately happen, but at least a measure of certainty about how and when the critical decisions will be made.

As a final note, the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has already stated that, in line with the long-standing pro-EU stance of the party, the Lib Dems will stand on a platform of not Brexiting (and in the context of the timetable outlined here, therefore presumably simply not trigger Article 50 at all if elected). That is something I fully support - while I would not support any kind of 'trickery' to block the referendum-expressed will of the people, I see no problem with giving them another democratic opportunity to decide that, having seen the full plans and what it will all mean (and that will inevitably have been stripped of some of the wilder rhetoric and confusion of the leave referendum campaign), they want to remain in the European Union.

This is such a huge decision for the people of the UK. It decides the whole context of the future of the country. They need to be absolutely sure that they want to do it, and if they do want to do it they have to decide how they want to do it before the politicians go ahead and get on with it. We all need some clarity amidst the current confusion, so that we all know exactly how and when that is all going to be dealt with. I think that is in the best interests of the country, and in the best interests of every voter and every party, whether they supported Leaving or Remaining.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

I want my country back. #wearethe48



You don't have to be a racist or an idiot to have voted leave, of course, you just have to have allowed yourself to be misled by those who are. That is, sadly, what has happened - people have been misled. Duped. Lied to.

The leave camp lies are already falling apart, and it is already clear that they have no plan whatsoever, and no clue about what's even maybe supposed to happen next. They never did. For many of them it was never supposed to really happen  - for the likes of Boris it was a Tory party power play ruse. For others it was all completely irrational 'make us Great again' pseudo-Imperial nonsense anyway (and then there were the actual racists - seeing the likes of Britain First, the BNP and the National Front heartily celebrating should be enough of a flashing early warning light to show that we've probably not done the right thing here).

This was always all about the internal conflict in the Tory party, and appeasing the hardline right wingers to keep them off Cameron's back, while keeping UKIP at bay electorally (and the Tory referendum promise itself was based on the polls-led assumption that the Tories weren't going to win a majority in 2015, so they'd never have to actually do it). Cameron gave the Farages of this world an apparent veneer of serious political legitimacy, and the perfect opportunity to mislead the public (particularly those who wanted to have a go at 'the establishment') into thinking they would be getting something that was never, ever going to be possible, and that was never, ever really on the table.
The problem with the racism angle, of course, is not that half of the UK is actually racist, but that the racists now believe that half of the UK agree with them, and are fully behind their agenda to 'send them all home'. They are both overjoyed and emboldened by the result, and we're only just seeing the beginnings of the manifestations of that. There are already widespread reports of immigrants, particularly brown-skinned and/or Muslim ones for some strange reason, being shouted at in the street and told to pack their bags and go home on the basis that 'we voted out'. That is what this has done, and what it was always going to do.

It is only going to get worse as those truly racist xenophobic types realise their new Whitey Utopia, Land of Plenty, 'Great again' Britain, free from the shackles of 'foreigners', and rich and wonderful for everyone (everyone truly' British') like it was in the good ole days (as if it ever was), was all a load of complete rubbish, and that what we are actually facing is just a deeply uncertain economic future, with less money to spend, a less beneficial international working relationships, and pretty much the same kind of immigration anyway (unless we leave the EEA, of course, which would be nothing short of an act of total economic suicide). The only really likely drop in immigration from Brexit will be caused by the lowering of pull factors on the basis of a crashed and screwed economy and the increased number of emboldened, open racists roaming the streets looking for 'the other' to abuse (or worse). I predict that they won't suddenly see the light when that realisation dawns, either - they'll just blame the EU for not giving us extra-extra-special preferential treatment and terms in the negotiations, and the 'immigrants' who haven't gone home yet when we've voted to tell them to (because that is what the racists think that everybody has done). 'Bloody foreigners'.

The warnings were being delivered right the way through the campaign. The evidence of what was likely to happen was there. Unfortunately, it was all just dismissed by many as 'scaremongering' and 'bias' (often just because 'stick it to Cameron, man'), while the outright lies of the leave campaign (already falling apart within hours of the result) were swallowed hook, line and sinker. Scotland is a great example - people said repeatedly that leaving the EU would mean Scotland leaving the UK. That was just 'scaremongering' because 'they already just had a referendum so they can't have another'...but now they are starting the legislative process to allow for a second referendum on it. That £350 million the remain campaign said didn't exist...turns out it didn't exist. That end to immigration that the remain people said wouldn't exist...nope, that doesn't exist either. 'Scaremongering'.

The entire leave campaign was lies. I've seen some spin and twisted truth and so on in politics over the years, but never anything at all remotely on the scale of the leave campaign. It was total, blatant dishonesty from beginning to end. There are elements within the Remain campaign who have to take their share of responsibility too, of course - there were some things that were over-emphasised, some figures that were dubiously interpreted, and some things that were spun and twisted, as is sadly all too common in modern politics. The official Remain campaign was not a good campaign, and petty nonsense like the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition refusing to share any platform with anyone else, putting his domestic party politics above the future of the country, certainly didn't help. Still, this was not on the scale of what the leave lot were up to.

As much as leave voters would like to tell themselves that they've done it for really sound reasons and it will all probably work out in the end if we all shut up and get on with it, I'm sorry, but it won't. People should have listened to the experts, and looked at the evidence. There was no sound, logical, reasoned, evidence-based reason for doing something as drastic as leaving the EU. No reason that stood up to any kind of scrutiny, or held water. None whatsoever - not a single argument put forward by the leave campaign made any sense at all as a sensible reason to leave the European Union. Of course, though, we're all 'fed up with experts'.

And as for that 'well the decision's made so put up with it and pull together' kind of stuff going around towards anybody who is complaining in any way at the result...whatever reasons they thought they had despite all the warnings and information that they were given (and there's lots of 'but why weren't we told this before' flying about from regretful leave voters - you were, you just refused to listen), these people have screwed my country, and they have screwed the future for my children. While I will certainly never, ever sink to the level of some of the worst elements of those celebrating the result with their vile personal (and other) abuse (and worse), I'm not going to sit back, shrug my shoulders, and say nothing about it either. I'm going to be silent about what has happened, what is happening, and what is now likely to happen as a result, and I will be actively involved in trying to salvage something from the situation we've been left in, and I would urge anyone else (even those who don't normally 'get involved' in things like 'politics') to do the same.

In that context,  I am overjoyed at the speed with which my party leader, the leader of the only united UK-wide openly pro-EU party, has reacted to confirm that the party will be standing on an openly pro-EU platform at the next general election (whenever that might be):

"The Liberal Democrats will fight the next general election with a pledge to take Britain back into the EU, claiming the referendum result was secured on a campaign of lies.

Voters backed Brexit in a “howl of anger” at out-of-touch politicians, but must be given the chance to rethink the decision, according to the Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron.

The cheap slogans of Ukip’s Nigel Farage and Tories Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are unravelling, and the public will feel betrayed when promises on the NHS and immigration are not delivered, the party said.

Since the shock referendum result, the Lib Dems have recorded thousands of voters signing up to become members."

 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/26/lib-dems-pledge-british-return-eu-next-general-election

I would obviously be concerned, as a democrat, if we were seeking to simply ignore the referendum vote and try to block leaving the EU on an undemocratic basis, but standing at a general election on a pro-EU platform in order to secure a democratic mandate for retaining the UK's membership of the EU is absolutely the right thing to do. When all around are losing their heads, and the two main UK-wide parties are imploding into their own private civil wars, Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats are providing the kind of solid, decisive, united leadership that the country, and the 48%, so desperately need.

This is the time when the 48% have to stand together, and stand together with those who have been duped by the outrageous lies of the leave campaign. If you are one of those people, whatever vote you cast in the referendum, who now believes that the people have made the wrong decision, and that we should fight to preserve our future within the European Union, even if you are not normally a 'joiner' and don't normally do politics', now is the time to take a stand and join us (as over 2,000 people have already done since the referendum was announced):

https://libdems.secure.force.com/LiberalDemocrats/NewMemberRegistration


Saturday, 25 June 2016

For those complaining about people being still unhappy at the EU referendum result.



For those who are complaining about people being still unhappy at the result of the referendum.

The emergence of rampant anti-intellectualism probably worries me more deeply than anything else, when it comes down to it. There's always a level of it in society, of course, but now many people have been persuaded that it's somehow a righteous and noble way to go about making important decisions. A population will swallow almost anything if it is persuaded to act purely on knee-jerk emotion instead of stopping to think, or listen to advice from experts, or look at the evidence. It's what allows the utterly irrational to be become 'common sense' (the politics of 'yes but we all know' - the favourite debating tactic of Farage and Boris, funnily enough). That's why it has been such an important part of so many dictatorial takeovers (it's no accident that things like book burning and attacks on 'weak and subversive academics' are such a common early feature of extremist revolution). If people stop to listen and think, it's not at all hard for them to understand that 'foreign' people are actually just the same as us, for example, and that we can't really turn the clock back to the 1950s, and that the 1950s wasn't actually as great as some seem to think anyway.

If people only take a moment to look into it, they would, for example, have realised immediately that there was no '£350 million a week' to spend on the NHS (as the leave campaigners began to admit within hours of the result) - that the money didn't exist, and that it was an outright lie (even though it was painted on the side of a bus, posters, etc. - it was a shameless, barefaced lie). The only reason they got away with it was that they kept repeating it over and over so that it sunk in as 'yes but everyone knows', and kept telling people that listening to experts was a bad thing (and effectively that they were being both 'unpatriotic' and 'cowardly' if they didn't listen to the leave campaign, and the leave campaign alone). The leave campaign was entirely build on lies, but enough people were persuaded not to question them that it was able to succeed. Even the TV media, in it's attempts to remain 'balanced', failed to adequately call them out on such constantly repeated lies.

When people are persuaded that stopping and thinking and listening are a bad way to go about things, that's a really, really serious problem.

To illustrate it with a simple quote from a well known film, 'So that is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause'. That is how it always happens.

The people of the UK (well, about 52% of them, and that's enough to have a majority) have been sold nothing more than a series of lies. Normally a country like the UK, with a free press, decent education standards, etc., would wake up to that quite quickly (before it happens, in fact), but with the growth of the anti-intellectualism element there's a really good chance that not only will they not, but that they will be easily persuaded to blame 'foreigners' and 'subversive elements' for anything that might appear to change between the leave campaign promises and the reality that emerges.

These are very, very dark and dangerous times. I make no apologies whatsoever for still being very, very concerned about our future.


Saturday, 18 June 2016

Rhetoric has consequences, and we cannot stand by and do nothing.

 
 
The last few days have been truly horrible in so many ways. It has been one thing after another. The horrific events in Orlando, followed by the tragic murder of one of the UK's elected Members of Parliament, who was going about her normal daily business of serving constituents, as so many MPs, Assembly Members, Councillors and others do on a daily basis. 

I didn't know Jo Cox, but I know several MPs and other elected officials. It could so easily have been any of them. Staff and party activists, too - those who are out talking to people in the street, or knocking doors, or working in MP offices, or assisting or waiting at MP surgeries. I've met and chatted with many, from many parties, many times. It could so easily have been someone I've met. It could so easily have been one of my friends. It could so easily have been me, for that matter. All it might have taken would be to knock on the wrong door, on the wrong day, with the wrong message - that is a risk that all of us who are engaged in political campaigning take every day.

This is where the ever increasing rhetoric of hatred towards 'politicians' and the 'elite', and the 'political class' from the extreme fringes of politics has now brought us. On both sides - let's not pretend that this particular thing is entirely restricted to the right - look at what has been happening recently on the leftmost fringes, too, with the rhetoric being aimed towards the 'political elite' of the 'establishment'. Not just political disagreement, openly and even robustly expressed in a democracy (between human beings who can then go and have a chat/pint together, despite their different political views), but real, demonising hatred towards the whole group, regardless of the individual - that is what our public discourse has increasingly started to become. The language of hate. The language of uprising and revolution. The language of dehumanisation towards any who stand in the path of our ultimate victory, even if that is not what those using it really intend.

It seems that the attacker was mentally ill, but that's the thing with the rhetoric of hate, wherever it is aimed - it influences people who might not be able to see it as mere rhetoric and hyperbole, and not to be acted upon 'in real life'. That is why we always need to be so careful about such things.
A family is now without a wife and mother. Until this moment, though, and the sudden realisation of humanity that it has brought, to so many people she would just have been one of those 'politicians' from that 'elite' 'political class' - those people who are so often so hated.

Think about that.

As Alex Brooker pointed out last night on The Last Leg, we often moderate what we say in front of children, because we know they are vulnerable. In other words, we know they might take what we say as mere rhetoric far more literally than we intend it. We have to consider that there are also vulnerable adults in the world with, for example, mental health problems (and apparently the perpetrator in this tragic case is one such, though we don't know any details of what those were or how they might have effected their judgement) - those who might take what we say very literally, and consider it appropriate to act upon them in a way that we had not intended.

We ALL have a responsibility for this - not just 'politicians' and the media, but all of us who discuss these issues, comment on social media, and so on. The 'keyboard warriors' (and I don't exclude myself from that - I spend a great deal of time doing 'online' things as well as more 'active' things 'in the real world') have to understand that what they are doing is not some isolated little thing that disappears into the ether, not to be taken seriously, and not to be seen by people who might misunderstand or take things too literally.

We need, as a country, to do better by our 'politicians'. We need to remember that they are human beings, even if they are human beings that we disagree with vehemently. That is down to all of us, and includes not only 'keyboard warriors' and the like, but our media, and our politicians themselves - they can't absolve themselves from the responsibility for the type of rhetoric that they have been using against each other. It all has an influence.

Of course, it's not just the 'anti-political' rhetoric that we've seen on the rise recently - it's the more and more radical and angry poison that has been pouring out as we draw near to such an important decision about the future of the United Kingdom. It is the language of hate towards 'the other' that has become increasingly a part of our 'mainstream' political discourse. It's a spiral of rhetoric being whipped up deliberately by certain politicians and media outlets to further their campaign. This very week we have Farage's already infamous 'Breaking Point' poster being proudly unveiled - an almost carbon copy of German Nazi party propaganda images that has now been reported to the police for inciting racial hatred. This is the kind of tactic that some of our politicians at the fringes are using to further their aims, but those 'fringes' have somehow now been accepted as 'mainstream' and 'acceptable', and have opened a can of worms that even they are not able to control.

Alex Massie puts it very well in his Spectator blog:

"When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’

When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.

Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen."

This morning the accused gave his name in court as 'Death to traitors, freedom for Britain'.
 
Think about that.
 
This is where our current political discourse has now brought us. Perhaps we are, in a sense, at 'breaking point', or at least at a turning point. A turning point that will decide the future direction of the country, and that is a future that worries me deeply, particularly as someone who has spent some time studying history. As I have said previously, in particular in my 'Refugee Language - A Warning From History' post, if we do not understand history we are doomed to repeat it. Ask yourself this question:

How did a cultured, civilised nation like Germany elect a group like Hitler's Nazis?

Personally, I cannot answer it better than with the words of Michael Rosen

"I sometimes fear that 
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress 
worn by grotesques and monsters 
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. 

Fascism arrives as your friend. 
It will restore your honour, 
make you feel proud, 
protect your house, 
give you a job, 
clean up the neighbourhood, 
remind you of how great you once were, 
clear out the venal and the corrupt, 
remove anything you feel is unlike you...

It doesn't walk in saying, 
"Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

Think about those words. 
 
Then think about these words, from Hermann Goring:

"...the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
 
Really think about them - in the context of where we are in the UK today, and in the context of what some of our politicians are saying and the kind of tactics they are employing, and in the context of the kind of rhetoric that they are using to attract the popular vote from those who feel disenfranchised, worried and fearful about their futures (mostly those who have suffered most from the economic hardships of recent years). "It works the same way in any country." We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that we are somehow 'different' and 'better' than the German people were in the 1930s. We are not. We can have our emotions manipulated in the same way, and we can start down the same political path as a country. We need to be aware of that.

I have, I confess, spent parts of the last few days thinking 'what's the point?', and I know I'm not the only one. Indeed, I have asked myself whether I have reached a 'breaking point' where I feel I can do no more, as what I believe in gets more and more submerged beneath the apparent tsunami of fear and hatred. All around me I see the UK descending into something that I thought, or hoped, that I'd never see. All around I see a rise in extremism from the political fringes - a return to the mainstream of the kind of opinion and rhetoric that had previously long since disappeared to the very fringes of our politics, where it was derided and laughed at, and treated as an irrelevance. A hateful kind of politics, where fear is something to be positively exploited for votes - be it fear of  'the other', or the fear of the 'elite', or fear of 'disaster', and where the political ends seem to justify any means whatsoever. This is not something that I think has been entirely limited to one side of recent debates, even though the fear being promoted by one side has such particularly dark and and hateful elements and potential connotations. 

There is a point, though. There is always a point, and it probably best explained in simple terms by this quote from John Stuart Mill:

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing."
 
It is very important that even this should be qualified in the current context, I think. It isn't about 'bad men' - humanity is not so simple that there are 'good people' and 'bad people'. It is about bad things happening to the world if we stand by and let them happen without trying to intervene. It's about human beings who may be misguided, or who may be wrong, but who are not 'inhuman' or 'subhuman', and who don't deserve to be treated as such, no matter how wrong or dangerous we believe their ideas might be. It is all too easy to respond to hate with hate, and we have to avoid doing that. We now know the possible consequences all too well.
 
Even if we ultimately fail in our endeavours, we cannot just stand by and do nothing. We cannot, so to speak, fiddle away while Rome burns (I'll leave out the questions of historical accuracy of that specific 'event' - you know what I mean, I'm sure). We must stand up to hate, and we must stand up to the promotion of fear as a political device, and we must at every opportunity point out what is wrong with what they are doing and saying, but we must do so in the full realisation that those we oppose are also human beings who must be treated as such - to do otherwise would be to give in to the very thing that we are trying to defeat. We must stand up to lies with truth, and we must stand up to emotive and reactionary rhetoric with a calm presentation of evidence. We must continue do so, even if nobody listens or finds our message emotionally attractive, and even if we always feel like we are swimming against the tide. 
 
As Diane Grant put it, "It's better to walk alone than with a crowd going in the wrong direction." I do feel like the UK is currently going in a very, very wrong direction politically at the moment via the politics of fear and hate, and I will continue to stand, as calmly and rationally as I can, against that, even if I am doing so alone, and even if nobody is listening, and even if I am doing so ultimately in vain. I know that I'm not quite alone even if it feels like the opposition are much stronger at the moment, and I hope that ultimately it will not be in vain - only time will tell, though.

I can do no better than to finish with a few words from Brendan cox, the husband of the tragically murdered MP Jo Cox, in his moving tribute to his wife and mother of his children:
 
"...that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn't have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous."
 
 

Monday, 13 June 2016

The EU, The Referendum, And Beyond.



I thought I'd take a few moments to set out exactly where I am on this whole question of membership of the EU. Now, I've never considered myself to be among the most ardently 'pro-European' (in the sense of the EU 'project') of Liberals. I know there are even some (a minority, I suspect) who would even go so far as to want to see an end to the idea of 'nation states', and to have a single European, or even world, 'state' for all people. I'm certainly not among their number, or even close. Indeed, I'm not even a great believer in further integration in many ways, and I do have reservations about some of the things that the EU currently does and the way in which it does them. Having said that, I've yet to find anybody who thinks that the EU is 'perfect' anyway. I'm still very much on the 'Remain' side, though, so I thought I'd spell out why.

Firstly, let's briefly (as briefly as I ever do anything, anyway!) address that whole 'nation state' thing - what are they, and why do we have them, and what are the implications for Europe? They are actually largely a relatively recent invention, stemming from the rise in 'nationalism' during the nineteenth century. People tend to forget how 'young' states like Germany and Italy really are as unified administrative structures centred broadly around the geographical limits of a 'nation', occupying areas previously administered by smaller essentially 'feudal' aristocratic holdings. That brings up the question of the difference between 'state' (administrative unit) and 'nation' (people with a broadly common cultural/historical identity, often (but not always) occupying a particular geographical area), which is important to understand. The idea of 'nations' ruling themselves is an obvious one that comes with the idea of 'democracy' - 'the people' are sovereign, and so it makes sense to base the unit of sovereignty around the geographical areas that similar people occupy.

Of course, there's a potentially negative element of that 'nationalism' idea that we need to be very wary about - the idea that 'my nation' is somehow 'better' than 'your nation'. It's an all too common mistake for people to make when thinking about 'culture' (and/or language) and 'identity'. It's not necessary to believe that your own 'nation' and 'culture' is in any any way 'superior' in order to be comfortable with being part of it, or indeed in order to think that it's a fairly logical way to base an administrative unit. The mistake happens sometimes on both 'sides' - not only the assumption of 'superiority' on one 'side', but that assumption that any recognition of 'nation' is somehow based in that idea of 'superiority', rather than simple a recognition that something of a broad common cultural and linguistic context among a large part of the population in a geographical area is a reasonably good basis for forming a 'state' and taking democratic decisions (at least as good as any other basis, certainly), or indeed simply a matter of enjoying a distinct cultural heritage into which context you were born (or indeed moved).

Of course, it should be noted that there is nothing 'homogeneous' about 'nationality' - it doesn't mean that everyone is alike, or that anybody should have to conform to anything, or that new people with different ideas shouldn't be accepted, or that the context can't freely evolve. It doesn't mean a person shouldn't pick and choose what bits of  'their own' or anybody else's culture and heritage they want to enjoy and celebrate. It just simply means that the overall common background situation gives a large part of the population some common points of reference, which is useful in a democratic 'state', as is something of a sense of 'belonging' and 'fellowship' (as long as, as previously noted, it doesn't go beyond that into any thoughts of  'superiority', or even 'separation' from fellow man of other nations).

So, in the context of the EU debate, where does that leave the UK? Well firstly, it is vitally important to realise that the UK is not a 'nation state' anyway - it is not a state based around a single 'nation', but a state constructed around a political union of several distinct nations (each with their own historical and cultural 'identity', and even to an extent language). Despite efforts over the years to impose a sense of 'Britishness' from above, the English, Scots, Welsh, etc. still maintain their separate 'national identities'. That's fine - it doesn't have to stop us existing together in a single administrative entity, even if that entity hasn't always worked very well for everyone. Whether we remain together is a question of whether it is in our best interests to do so.

That brief (!) discussion of what the UK is does become important in the EU question, and that final sentence is absolutely critical. What administrative and bureaucratic entity we are a part of should depend on what is in our best interests. It shouldn't be about 'superiority', 'sovereignty' or 'identity', as the EU debate is all too often framed, it should be about things like security (financial and otherwise), and real benefit for the people.

This is where I come to the EU specifically - the question for me is one of balancing potential benefits and disadvantages of being 'in' or 'out'. It's about looking at the evidence, the expert analysis and opinions about what the future is likely to bring, and so on. It's about what is best for the people - which situation will benefit us (the people of  both the 'nation' and the 'state') the most in practical ways, and which will make our lives better or worse, or harder or easier. Without going into all of the details here, there is no doubt in my mind from looking at all of that that the UK and Wales are both materially far better off remaining inside the EU. The 'Leave' campaign is very much based around 'sovereignty' and 'identity' (and sometimes seemingly even 'superiority'), not just in terms of the EU itself but in terms of the 'threat' of immigration (somewhat ironic, I feel, from the point of view of an island (or islands) occupied by several identifiable 'nations', populated and 'cultured' largely as a result of waves of immigration and international contacts throughout its history!) - I don't buy any of that. It's entirely the wrong way to frame the debate to me, and entirely the wrong thing to be concerned about, even if the emotional appeal to some people seems quite obvious.

There's a very simple issue of political ideology here for me - as a Liberal I believe very strongly in both 'internationalism' and 'localism'. We should work together at all levels, and take decisions on issues at the most appropriate level. Sometimes that is best done very close to the people (should we spend money on putting in a new bench in the park?), and sometimes it is very much more international (how do we address climate change and global terrorism?) - those things are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. Some things are best done, I think, at a local level, some at a 'national' level (Wales, specifically, in my case), some at a wider UK state level, some at a more European (EU) level, and some more internationally even than that (and it should be noted that we have rightly 'surrendered' bits of our 'sovereignty' to organisations like the UN and NATO for that reason).

The issue of 'sovereignty' is, for me, an entirely outdated concept - we no longer live in a world where the primary question of government is one of which guy (the sovereign, obviously) has 'absolute power' in a certain geographical area, and thankfully so. It's not about us as a state (or nation) having 'control' over everything at all, but about making sensible decisions about which level is best to have a level of 'control' over which particular issues. Do we exercise our collective democratic 'control' to deal with certain things within our local community, or as a whole across a continent? The answer to that question should depend on the issue being discussed, in my opinion, and how it is beast dealt with. Indeed, as I have posted previously, I don't think it's only a matter of the issue area, but of the specific question being asked within that area - that comes down to that issue of 'localism' and 'internationalism' being able to compliment each other in the decision-making process.

There are, I think, some legitimate concerns about the EU taking more decisions at is level than it needs to be doing, but equally there are similar concerns about it not being able to take some of the decisions that really would be best made at that level because 'state' governments are unwilling to allow it the responsibility for doing so. That's a question of pushing for, and leading, reform, though, and not throwing out the baby with the bath water - just because it doesn't get everything right at the moment doesn't mean that it can't improve, and doesn't mean that it is getting everything wrong. Indeed, it has done, and continues to do, many good things, and it continues to reform and improve (if sometimes frustratingly slowly!). There are also issues surrounding whether all of its mechanisms are currently fit for purpose. Again, though, the answer to that is to reform, not to cut ourselves off, surrender the very real benefits that it brings, or pretend that we'd somehow be better of without it altogether (or indeed that losing the benefits of it would be a 'price worth paying' for our 'sovereignty'). I think it's quite clear that we wouldn't be better off, and even if we were to leave it would still very much exist, and we would still very much be tied to it and its rules, but we would no longer have any voice in the way that it works or the way it reforms. I think that's a really bad idea.

So, what if we do end up voting to leave? Well, aside from the potential for economic damage and so on, it's going to have significant implications for the UK as a 'state' unit, partly because of its own international nature. We have recently had a referendum on independence in Scotland, and the Scots would, in my opinion, be entirely justified in claiming that the UK leaving the EU has changed the context of the specific question that was asked entirely. The choice was one of a UK within the EU or a Scotland seeking to join the EU, but it would have become a choice of UK or EU (and I don't doubt for a second that, while there would be new things for Scotland to have to accept as 'new' members, the EU would do everything possible to 'fast track' Scotland's membership). As much as I would be against an 'Indyref II' any time soon under other circumstances, I for one would fully support that choice being given to the people of Scotland in the form of another referendum should the UK vote to leave the EU.

Indeed, there will, I have no doubt, be voices calling for the people of Wales to have a similar choice, and not just among the traditional voices of Welsh political 'nationalism' (and mine might very well be one of them). The issue comes down to a choice about the most appropriate avenues for doing things at the 'international' level, and whether Wales and its people would be better off in the UK but outside the EU, or in the EU but outside the UK. My preferred option would by within both, obviously, but if that choice is no longer possible the context changes, the question changes, and my answer to the question of Wales seceding from the UK may well also change (especially if Scotland decides to leave, and even more so if there is some prospect of a loose 'Celtic' cooperation of mutual benefit with Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, within the EU). Wales in particular has long had a pretty raw deal in terms of 'need' from the UK, whereas the EU has taken the issue of under-investment and poverty in Wales far more seriously. If the choice becomes one or the other, I will be thinking very, very carefully about which serves the interests of Wales best, and I know I'm not the only one. And that isn't even touching on the whole can of worms that could be Northern Ireland in the event of a 'Brexit', of course.

If the UK leaves the EU I think it very likely that it will bring an end to the UK in its current form. I suspect many people in some parts of the current UK will feel that the UK has become a 'state' entity that is no longer necessary or useful - it would no longer represent any kind of 'internationalism' - quite the opposite. That is not something that I want to see, and is not something that I think is in our best interests, but if the UK were to leave the EU I think some kind of move away from the UK entity for some parts of its current territory will become inevitable. I see the best interests of Wales firmly as being within the UK, though I am very much a 'Federalist' rather than a 'Unionist' in that context - UK reform is as important, if not more so, than EU reform to me. If the UK no longer serves the best interests of Wales through choosing a path of isolation outside the EU, that changes the equation. I confess that, as I see things currently, I would be far more concerned about a future within the UK but outside the EU than I would be about a future within the EU but outside the UK. That is not a choice I want to have to make, and I don't think it is in the interests of anyone in any part of the UK for anyone to have to make it.

What it comes down to for me is a practical, evidence-based consideration of whether the interests of the UK and its people are best served by remaining in the UK, or by leaving. I really don't give a damn about 'sovereignty' (perhaps partly because my own 'nation' is not used to having it anyway!), and not do I give a damn about 'identity' and that kind of nonsense. It isn't relevant to government, and it isn't relevant to the question of what will bring most benefit to all of our lives. For that reason, I am fully in favour of the UK remaining a full and leading member of the EU. Yes, we need to reform the EU, and we need to reform the UK even more, but that to me doesn't mean that it isn't in our best interests to remain within both of those entities. I don't see that it is worth chasing an outdated, rose-tinted dream of the wonders of 'sovereignty' at the expense of what is actually in our best interests.

So that is where I stand. there is a huge amount of information, and mis-information, and emotion-playing nonsense (it's a kind of 'we can create more fear than you' battle going on, which I think is distinctly unhelpful!) coming out from the various campaigns and organisations on all sides, but I don't want to fall into the trap of repeating and/or dismissing those in any detail. People should do their research, cut through the nonsense, and make their own decision. My decision is clear, though.

Stronger Society, Fairer Economy, and Something Else Meaningless and Bland.



This is is an issue that has concerned me for some time, and one that has now been highlighted by Prof Roger Scully of Cardiff University in his excellent blog post Not Waving but Drowning. It relates to those soundbite slogans we Lib Dems, and all of the other parties, invent at election time to emblazon across all of our literature and media output. Remember 'Stronger Economy, Fairer Society' (and something about opportunity that we sometimes add on but not even we can really remember the wording of)? How about 'Look Left, Look Right, Then Cross', or that frankly weird thing about 'Unity' and something that suddenly appeared from nowhere?

We keep coming up with this stuff, as do all the other parties, but none of it means anything, and none of it actually tells anybody anything about what we stand for. Mostly it could mean virtually anything, and could be interpreted by any party as being what they stand for (and it uses the kind of 'politician language' that immediately makes people suspicious - we might as well have used 'Seasonally Adjusted, And In Real Terms'!). Even when it doesn't mean absolutely anything that any party might want to lay on top of it as an interpretation for their own agenda, as in the case of the 'Look' slogan, it still doesn't tell the public anything about or beliefs (and in that particular case, only serves as a target for people to quite rightly remind us that those who just walk down the middle of the road tend to get run over!). Even the above-pictured 'Working For You' - do we really believe that other parties wouldn't say that they are working for the electorate (even if we know that they very often aren't, or not in the way that we would be, at least)?

Why do we keep doing this? Well clearly someone somewhere has decided that it works. I've never been sure of that at all, though, and I do wonder about methodology that underpins that belief - are we taking the result of 'study groups' and the like and reading too much into them, or looking at them the wrong way? Are we showing people a slogan and asking them if they like it (and if it would help make them vote for a party that uses it), and then taking that to mean that it's a good slogan for us to use? I don't know - that's mere speculation on my part as to what lies behind it all. If we are, though, I think we've missed something - what we need to be asking is whether it actually tells them anything useful about the party and what we stand for, and whether it is specific enough that it separates us out clearly from what other parties are about.

We know that we have a perception problem in the Liberal Democrats - people don't know what we are for. They don't know what we stand for, or what we believe in, and we've spent so much time in the past emphasising that we're 'Not One, and Not The Other', and 'In The Middle' that most people don't think we really stand for anything (and will happily abandon anything we have said, because we don't really have any strong principles or convictions anyway). The common assumption for many years was that we were, in effect, a kind of wishy-washy 'Labour-lite' - that is something that hit us particularly badly when it came to announcing a coalition deal with the Conservatives - how could 'Labour-lite' ever contemplate such a thing? We'd never done enough to dispel that sort of myth, largely, I suspect, because of short-termism in our campaigning - it was winning us a few votes (particularly in seats where the main opponent was a Conservative), so we let it slide. It's understandable, of course, but in the longer term, that decision has has some pretty severe consequences. We need now to consider the longer term - we need to tell people who we are, what we believe in, and what we are for.

We can't afford to keep doing the bland thing in the hope of maximising our vote 'this time around' by being as inoffensive as we can to everyone in the hope that they'll consider us. In effect, we need to offend people who don't agree with what we stand for, or at least to not be afraid to do so. This is a simple democratic principle - the whole point is to stand up for what you believe in, try to persuade people that you are right, and try to persuade them to vote for your ideas. It shouldn't be about trying to be 'all things to all men' in order to get elected - I'm not suggesting that we've ever abandoned our principles, but just that we seem to have to many because they never knew what they were. We were too afraid to tell them in case it lost us their vote, so they made up their own interpretation, and had their own expectations that we then didn't meet. Much of that is down to this ongoing soundbite issue (although it isn't the only issue, it is, I think, a massively important one).

To return to Prof Scully, he has been looking at survey results from the recent Welsh election to see what was happening in terms of the public identifying which party belonged to which slogan. The results for the Welsh Lib Dem slogan, 'A Wales That Works For You’, were that only 3% of people realised that it was ours. That compares with 13% who thought it was a Labour slogan, 7% who thought it came from Plaid, and 5% who thought it came from the Conservatives (and 69% who didn't know who it came from). This is very clearly, I think, a very significant problem. I would suggest that it is clear proof that these slogans do not work. They do not capture the public imagination, and they do not help the public to identify the party and what it stands for.

The results are fairly similar for the slogans of every party - it's not just a Lib Dem problem. It's not surprising when you look at all of these different party election slogans together:

‘Together for Wales’
 ‘Securing Real Change for Wales’
 ‘The Change Wales Needs’
 ‘A Wales That Works For You’
 ‘A Strong Voice for Wales’
 ‘Shake Up the Senedd’

Now just ask yourself what any of that means? What does any of it say about anything? Can you identify one from another? I'm pretty involved and clued up when it comes to Welsh politics, and the positions and beliefs of all of the parties, but I admit that wouldn't have a clue. Indeed, after watching the election very closely and being involved in campaigning in it myself, I don't have a clue - I couldn't identify which party was saying which slogan, apart from my own (and I had to think about that one too!).

I'm going to put this in very blunt terms here - all of these slogans are meaningless bollocks.

Politics in the UK is obsessed with generating these kinds of slogans. They say nothing, they mean nothing, the public don't identify with them, they don't tell the public anything about policies or ideologies or what parties stand for, and they clearly don't actually work very well in an electoral context (even if some study somewhere has found that some people find a particular slogan to be 'quite nice' or something) because almost nobody knows who is saying them. 

It's much, much more serious even than that, though. Ever heard members of the electorate saying 'they are all the same'? Take a look through those Welsh election slogans above - can you blame them? We actually are all the same, or at least we are all constantly falling over ourselves to appear to be the same. We're all spending our election campaigns emphasising something utterly pointless and meaningless that could be equally applied to any other party. We are all giving every appearance of being engaged in a race to the bottom, seeking to attain a state of ultimate blandness so that everyone votes for us on the grounds that we haven't actually offended them in any way at all. And then we wonder why there's a general problem with political disengagement!

So how do we address this issue? Well the first thing is to accept that we have a problem, obviously, and that we need to give up our addiction to such bland and meaningless nonsense. We need to be democrats - we need to stop being afraid to lose the votes of those who shouldn't be voting for us because they don't remotely believe in what we stand for. We need to stop being so afraid to offend people. If people are opposed to everything we believe, we should be offending them at every opportunity - that is how we can attract those who do agree with us, and that is what we need to be doing, morally as democrats as well as electorally. If we are going to use any form of 'slogan' it should be clear an unambiguous - it should say what we believe, and be identifiably unique to us and our core beliefs.

Another thing we should do, I think, is stop being afraid to treat the electorate as having the attention span and memory of the proverbial goldfish (although, as a side note, the rumours about goldfish are apparently not true at all). We can use more than 4 words when we speak and write to them - they really aren't that stupid! Of course, if we use more words some people won't read them, but then since we know that they don't remember the snappy, meaningless soundbites (and they don't say anything useful anyway) even if they have read them we are hardly losing anything there. We do, as a party, have some quite nice statements about what we stand for - yes, they can always be open to a certain amount of interpretation, of course, but they are certainly a hell of a lot clearer and more meaningful than 'Stronger Economy, Fairer Society' (or what it 'Stronger Society, Fairer Economy'?!). We shouldn't be worried about whether they read and remember the words we are saying - we should be thinking about whether what they are reading and hearing actually enhances their understanding of the party and what it stands for.

As a former school history teacher once taught me, the important thing is understanding the issues involved, not just learning the dates parrot fashion - if you want to learn the dates, you can quickly and easily look them up in a book. The same principle, I think, should be applied to our political 'slogans' - the intention should be for people to gain understanding of who we are and what we believe, not for them to be able to recite the slogan itself - if they want to remind themselves of the exact wording, they can look it up easily enough on one of our leaflets, our website, or whatever. The main point of it is to carry real meaning, not just be appealing and memorable.

With this in mind, my personal suggestion would be to use one sentence on all of our literature and media output, as we do with our election slogans, but not just election time. One sentence that actually tells people who we are. We have such a sentence right at the start of the preamble to our constitution (it's even printed on membership cards):

"The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."

It's clear, and it says something, and it is unique to us. some may not read it, of course, but as I said we aren't going to be losing anything overall there. Some certainly will, and while the words might not stick in their minds the impression of what those words say might well do. Indeed, I would go further - while that is a great sentence to use on shorter leaflets and the like, when it comes to stuff where we have a bit more space to play with I would even include the rest of the paragraph, to read thus:

"The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives."

That is even more clear, and should give them an even more clear picture of who the Liberal Democrats are. It's not that long, and it's not that hard, but it actually tells people what we are about, so let's stop being afraid of printing something that a world of mythical parrot-goldfish won't be able to repeat back to us. Let's stop being so bland, and so afraid of offending someone who shouldn't be voting for us, and tell people what we are actually for. Let's treat the electorate like they are real, intelligent, capable, thinking people - that is not only the best thing to do and the right thing to do, but it is also the Liberal thing to do. It is for other parties and ideologies to think of 'the people' as something to be fooled, resisted and controlled - it is for other parties to think of the electorate as an amorphous beast that needs to be spoon-fed its politics. We should be the ones doing something different - crediting each individual elector with the intelligence to understand more than a few meaningless words of bland drivel.

Let's have the courage of our ideological convictions in the way that we treat the electorate.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Addressing the 'Targeting' Problem



Following on from my previous post about the issues we Lib Dems have inadvertently created for ourselves through previous targeting strategies, I wanted to throw in a few suggestions about practical things we could be looking at as a party (as opposed to local strategies that our local parties can employ to improve things, though we need to look at the specifics of them too). I think it's important to reiterate that this isn't about criticising the past, or indeed about 'having a whinge' post-election when it hasn't gone well for us (and in Wales it clearly hasn't, though I think the issue is a more general one that doesn't stop at our border, despite some apparent relative success in recent council elections - we need to be careful that such success isn't 'masking the truth' about where we really are). Indeed, I certainly don't claim any great wisdom of foresight that would have meant that I would have done anything differently - I think we can probably all now identify things that haven't worked out quite as we hoped or anticipated over the past couple of years in particular, but hindsight is obviously always 20/20.

Paddy's hat moment has to give us pause for thought about where we have been going wrong as a party, and it's clear that it has done. Having another set of important elections in Wales in particular has obviously, and probably rightly, been something of a distraction from that process. All of us, though, really have to start thinking about where we can do things better 'on the ground', and at all levels within the party - we can't just fall back on the easy excuse of blaming the former leadership of the party for their mistakes, and pretending that everything else is just tickety-boo. It isn't. The General Election result has not only been a significant blow in itself in all kinds of ways, but its effect robs us of the public exposure we used to try to rely on in those areas where we weren't getting to people directly.

The reason I brought up Lord Ashdown's millinery consumption habits specifically is an issue I think we need to be more aware of - the effect of polling and poll results on the perception of the electorate. The big mistake I think he made, and indeed I think we all made, was to assume too much about the lack of direct relevance of broader polling because of local factors and seat targeting. Obviously our 'national' polling is lower than our polling in particular seats we are targeting, as it is going to be for all parties, but we shouldn't therefore assume that the broader picture is meaningless - people do see and hear poll results, and it does have an effect on how they view the party. It has an effect on the way the media are reporting the party - if we are 'down in the polls', the questioning becomes all about 'but you're dead in the water, aren't you?', and that kind of constant questioning, inference and assertion from all sides isn't going to help to persuade the electorate that we are a realistic prospect worth them giving their vote to (even if they are in a 'target seat' and getting lots of stuff directly from us - don't underestimate the power of the 'well they would say that wouldn't they' factor). No amount of clever Lib Dem bar charting will actually overcome a strong feeling fostered through media bombardment, and everything said by everyone else, that we are a 'spent force' (especially when, through technology and social media, people increasingly discuss such issues personally across constituency boundaries, and with others who might not be in 'targets' and might not be getting our leaflets at all).

So, having again emphasised the importance of building up our previously less targeted (and worse) areas, how do we begin to address that? Well before going any further I should again say that I fully recognise the financial issues that the party now has, and indeed the staffing issues, and so on. I know this isn't going to be easy, but I think we still have to try to begin the process of doing what we can by identifying some practical steps we can take (and then, perhaps, trying to raise funds specifically for individual parts of the 'project').

The first thing we need to do is identify where the problem areas are. In Wales we've just lost a bunch of deposits, but that's not necessarily the whole picture of which local parties need our help most. I think party membership is quite a good factor to use as a guide - not only are the smallest local parties the ones with the least resources and least activists, but because of the relative lack of local activity (and the implications of that for recruitment) I suspect they are also very likely to be the ones with the most ageing groups and the least percentage of members who are actually 'active' in the sense of being able to go our delivering, door knocking, and so on. Of course, some former local branches have combined due to falling membership in the past, and cover more than one constituency - that makes it even harder for them. So, without specifying a particular number (or indeed ever revealing it, since there may be implications that lead people to think that shedding, or not growing, membership would be advantageous to their local party, which would be a very bad thing indeed!), I think one important factor to look at is the number of local party members per constituency covered (it might not be the only factor, but it's a good place to start). I think we could broadly define local parties as 'low activity', 'medium activity' and 'high activity', with obviously the first of those being the one most in need of help from outside to begin to build them up. Again, this is about giving local parties practical help to allow them the opportunity to improve things over time, not about punishing them as 'the undeserving poor', or about 'taking them over from on high', or even about 'solving all their problems for them'. It's about the good Liberal principle of 'opportunity'.

Those practical things we should do, then (a few examples - I'm sure others can come up with some more):

1. 'Out' leaflets. This might seem an odd place to start, but I think this could be a really useful thing in several ways. We could 'centrally' (in Wales - other places could do so 'nationally' or 'regionally') get printed some good quality 'out' (by which I obviously mean 'called to see you today' things given whether a door is answered or not) leaflets. These are really important items for getting the message across that a door has been knocked (rather than a leaflet delivered) that not everybody, especially in our 'Lower Activity' places necessarily uses all of the time. A big reason for that is simply one of resources - they may not have easy access to printing facilities, or the money for printing good quality leaflets (or any leaflets, for that matter!), or local leaflet design resources (and that's not always just a matter of 'training'), or in Wales there may even be the issue of translation (not having a Welsh speaker to do it, but knowing that people will react badly to English-only literature in some places). They might be fully aware of the usefulness of such things, but just not be in a position to have them - that may in itself be a discouragement for them to go out door knocking rather than just delivering, since they may feel that it's not having the impact that it could.

Also, one of the issues we have as a party is that we have tended to lose the essence of 'core beliefs' in our policy messaging - we know about this issue - we know that people don't know what we really 'stand for'. This is partly an inevitable result of 'electioneering' (I don't mean that in a negative way - I just mean fighting elections) over policy, but having a 'standard' 'out' leaflet that is intended to be non-localised and non-time (or election) specific is an opportunity to begin to address that gradually at the local level, form the ground up. What I am saying is that we should have a standard Welsh party 'Your local Liberal Democrats called to see you today' leaflet, with pictures of  (and perhaps quotes from) Mark Williams (now the Welsh Lib Dem leader, of course, as well as being our sole MP), Tim Farron and Kirsty Williams (our only remaining AM, and also currently the most recognisable Lib Dem face in Wales). In that leaflet we should talk about 'ideology' rather than 'policy' - not in a dull, purist, off-putting way, but simply talking about the basics of what the party stands for (Rights and Equality, Opportunity, Localism, etc. - starting with 'The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard...' ) rather than setting out how we are currently proposing to achieve it through specific policies. Remember, non-time specific - there's a reason for that. It needs to be something that can be used next year as well as next week.

We order in a bulk load of decent quality printed leaflets, with a 'bulk buy' option for our 'High Activity' seats, and after initial distribution we keep a stock centrally (and once the stock runs out, we can review the design for any tweaking needed, and buy more in). Since the elected representatives of our current held seats for Westminster and Cardiff would be included anyway, there shouldn't be a need for them to be 'localised' further, although they will probably want to use something different at election times, which is fine - they should have the resources to print or buy something else for that. We should try to imprint these leaflets so that other local parties can still use them at election time if they need to. Having defined our levels of local party, we treat them slightly differently to help the most challenged of them. 'High Activity' seats can buy as many of them as they are likely to want/need in directly (they will need the most anyway, because they do the most door knocking). 'Medium activity' seats get the first 1,000 free, and then buy further supplies from the central store (at cost). The 'Low Activity' seats get 1,000 free, and once they have used them apply to the central store for another 1,000 - the central party supplying them free to those local parties that have the least ability to buy in their own, in order to invest in them keeping their activity levels increasing.

Of course, every local party can 'localise' their own version quite easily, in effect - by simply handing over an additional leaflet, Focus or insert along with it. That can be done at different levels by different levels of local party - a 'High Activity' party might have a whole A3 Focus to go with it, whereas a smaller party might include something like a black and white, one-sided, quarter page insert of a local activist, or potential future councillor, or some local party contact details, or a particular current local campaign - the kind of thing that could be produced at little cost (or expertise) at home on a home printer. It would be a rubbish thing to deliver on its own, clearly, but tucked in to a glossy party 'out' leaflet it would work perfectly well.

The reasoning behind this idea is fairly simple - obviously I am aware that this has a cost, but it is a cost that local parties don't have the resources to meet and the central (Welsh in Wales) party can more easily provide and source, because it has some fundraising opportunities at this kind of level that the 'Low Activity' local parties really don't (either by going to specific larger donors and saying 'we need £xxx for this, or by wider 'crowdsourcing'). The costs of it overall, in the grand scheme of what we do as a party, is actually relatively small, but the potential benefits are quite large. By giving these 'Low Activity' groups good quality literature to use when door knocking (and these aren't leaflets that can be just delivered, of course) we encourage them to do more door knocking and data collection to help themselves. We have occasionally done similar things in buying in a load of printed leaflets on specific issues and giving some to everyone for free, but if we direct that into encouraging and assisting with 'contacts' then that starts to encourage activity (especially outside of election periods, which is important). It also allows the party to keep in a small stock of 'out' leaflets that can be used anywhere, which could be really useful when it comes to organising Action Days centrally in low activity places - we're not then reliant on local parties producing suitable literature to use when they may not have the ability.

2. Phone Numbers (and VPBs). Many of these 'Low Activity' parties will these days be using Connect (and if they aren't, that's something else we really need to look at helping with and encouraging centrally!), and obviously one of the best ways to help them 'from afar' with building up a base level of data across their area, and especially if they have council by-elections and the like, is to set up Virtual Phone Banks for other volunteers elsewhere to call (a massive advantage of the system). At the moment, though, they may only have a few phone numbers in the system, mostly of people they already know (with perhaps a few gathered from central petitions and the like). Larger and more 'target' places will have bought in phone numbers in bulk, but there is no way that many smaller parties will have the resources to do that. It's a massively useful investment in allowing them to expand their knowledge and ultimately their membership and activity levels, but they simply can't afford it. We need to help with that - we need to find the money and buy them in for them so that they can use them. It's one of the biggest things the party could do to give them practical help.

I know that the party doesn't have deep pockets to just go and reach into for such a project, of course, but again it is something that they could try to raise specific money to do. They can do that in a way that the local parties themselves are unlikely to be able to do - they just don't have the local donors to do it. We often hear in training sessions (quite rightly) that it's a good thing to go to potential donors with a 'shopping list' of specific things they can donate for, and a long term investment in the overall health of Liberalism and the party through something like this seems to me something we could possibly use in that way. It needs to be a wider 'investment project' that people can be persuaded to contribute towards specifically. Obviously that is likely to take time, and isn't going to happen all at once, but every batch of phone numbers we can fund for those parties who have virtually none gives them a whole new avenue to use (and gives us a whole new avenue to use to help them from outside).

Of course, there are obviously implications of training, setting up virtual phone banks, and so on - those are the easy things to fix, relatively speaking. There's also the issue of organising some kind of central, ongoing 'out of election period' VPB that volunteers from busier areas can be encouraged to spend a few minutes helping out their colleagues with. Actually I think that could be quite successful if it's kept alive with reminders - there are people who will help out with 'remote canvassing' for specific by-elections, and I suspect some would be more than willing to do a little of this kind of thing when they have a bit of free time - of course, it also encourages people (including in 'Low activity' parties) into a habit of regular phone canvassing, and that all helps when it comes to election time, and directing that effort towards 'target seats' (remember, I'm not talking at all about not targeting winnable seats, just about helping other places too, especially outside election periods - building up activity and activists in other places could really help our target seats in the long run too).

4. Action Days. As I mentioned in my previous post, the local parties with the lowest activity will really struggle to organise Action Days in all kinds of ways - providing literature (see point 1 above!), contacting willing participants, organising lists, 'leading' the canvass sessions, and so on. We need to start a program of Action Days to kick-start local campaigning in areas where it isn't happening, or is barely happening. There is, I think, no better way to help and encourage people to start knocking more doors on their own (as a local party), especially out of election periods (which is really important), than coming along with a group that includes some experienced and knowledgeable campaigners that they can learn from, work alongside, and really get a proper feel of what they need to do and how they need to do it. Remember, these are often the people least likely to be willing and able to come to training sessions, but training sessions are no substitute for real experience anyway. Methods have changed a great deal over the years, I suspect, but I also suspect (and my suspicion has been confirmed by comments from someone who recently worked with such a party) that some of these 'Low Activity' parties have become isolated from that, and are simply not carrying out their doorstep canvassing in the most effective way. Again we have to be clear that that isn't their fault, and they should be helped to improve in such practical ways, not simply ignored, or blamed, or told to change from afar. 

5. Regular Two-Way Contact. Following on from that previous point about canvassing approaches, part of the problem that we have is local parties that have become isolated and disconnected from the party as a whole, and from its central core. Localism is a great thing, but parochialism is very, very dangerous. We need to address this, and it won't happen by expecting them or telling them to just sort it out themselves - they won't - that's the point of where we are. We have to see it from their point of view - years and years of no help and being told to 'get on with it' that can easily become resented as 'management by cattle-prod' and/or 'not relevant to local situations' ('that's not how we do it here'). Of course we need to recognise the need to adapt things to local factors, and take the lead from those on the ground in that (to an extent - sometimes we might need to be a little more firm at first, until they realise that we really are on their side and trying to help them do the best they can), but the level of isolation that has developed has got to the point that anything coming from the wider party 'machine' (either 'Cardiff' or 'London') can often be rejected out of hand. The communication is all too often 'one way' - an email from HQ that goes pretty much straight into the 'Deleted Items' folder. Much of that rejection isn't entirely irrational and without justification, of course, because we have tended too much to consider what we are doing in terms of 'targets' and 'High activity' areas, and inadvertently assume that everyone else should just somehow catch up, so to speak (which they haven't and won't). We have to recognise that issue and begin to deal with it better and on a more consistent basis, and part of that is regular personal contact so that both 'sides' can actually begin to rebuild a level of understanding for each others' issues and difficulties.

There are several ways we can do this - a formal 'mentoring' scheme (Note: My spell-checker tried to change 'mentoring' to 'tormenting' - hopefully we can do the former rather than the latter!), having an experienced campaigner (and/or possibly CCC/NEC member) from outside turn up as a regular 'guest' to local party meetings, and so on - the point is that the communication has to be regular, friendly, helpful and mutual, rather than being 'from above'. We have to listen to what such parties are saying about their difficulties, not simply dictate to them how they can address them without helping them or hearing them. I know this issue hasn't developed in any kind of deliberate way from either 'side', and that people do have a willingness to communicate (and have tried in various ways to do so), but we need to understand that it is something we need to learn to deal with in a different way from what we have been doing, because with the best will in the world it hasn't worked. Again, I want to stress that I'm not trying to attribute 'blame' of any kind - I understand both that both 'sides' have had their own issues and difficulties to deal with - the point is that we all need to try to develop a better level of understanding for each other within different parts of the party.

6. Money. Obviously as tricky as it is obvious! 'Low Activity' local parties have no money to do things, and so can't do the things that they would need to in order to get more money. We have to turn that around somehow, to at least some extent, so that they can start on the road to become more financially able to look after themselves (and so that, for example, having to find election deposits for the several constituencies that they might cover doesn't simply mean local party bankruptcy or hoping that one of their local pensioners isn't too hard up this month to pay it for them - as a party we shouldn't be treating our members like that). Now obviously the obvious problem is that the wider party is also skint - I do fully understand that. The costs of doing it, though, compared with what we have to do as a party as a whole are relatively small. To put it in perspective, the cost of one glossy leaflet being printed for hand delivered by the volunteers of a high activity party could mean a few years of financial stability, with enhanced ability to do things (so that at the end of that few years they will be in a better place, with more members contributing), for a Low activity party. Again, this is something that the wider party has a far better opportunity to achieve as a fundraising project than those smaller parties will be able to do by themselves. Again, it is an 'investment project' in the long term future of the party - I'm not suggesting that the wider party takes on responsibility for ongoing fundraising efforts for those who don't do it for themselves, but simply that an initial boost is given to the funds of struggling smaller local parties to give them the realistic opportunity (alongside other measures) to improve their situation in the longer term. I do know that that isn't as simple as it sounds, and I am aware of the financial situation the party as a whole is likely to be in - that doesn't mean we shouldn't identify it as something that would be very useful and important to try to do when we can, though.

None of this is about suddenly winning seats we've never won before. That's not going to happen. It's about recognising that we are on a slow decline in many areas, with our 'Low Activity' areas gradually increasing and our ability to target even council wards gradually decreasing. It's only going to get worse if we do nothing to address it. It's not about solving that problem overnight, either. It is just about gradually turning that slow but steady decline into a slow but steady growth - not something that will win us lots of council seats next year, or lots of seats in parliament in a few years time, but just building a slow, steady, spreading movement in the right direction to improve the overall health of the party, and level of support for the party, over the years. Obviously it will take many years before seats with almost no activity will get to the point of having a good spread of canvass data across their area, an increasing local membership, and an increasing level of activity to the point where they can be mounting any kind of serious challenge to increase council seats and so on, but if we don't start addressing that long term need we will simply continue to watch the party as a whole go steadily downhill. That's not going to help us win seats even in those areas where we can and do mount a serious challenge - if we don't address the problem, we're going to ultimately end up with fewer and fewer of those, and with each having less and less of a realistic chance of success.