Lib Dem immigration policy: what I wanted to say

The Lib Dems just passed a very poor policy motion and paper on immigration. It has quite a lot of good policies, but overall the tone is one of moderate centrism rather than liberalism. It does very little to move the Overton Window back towards liberal democracy. The blizzard of five amendments passed with it only proved that it’s flawed far beyond what’s acceptable.

It gives me cause to resurrect this meme:

libdemmeme

I had hoped to speak in the debate but unfortunately it was oversubscribed, and I was probably too late putting my card in. For the record, here’s what I would have said:


Conference, Ed Davey and others proudly claim the motion and paper are the products of a political environment in which we have the freedom to be radical. I’m afraid I can’t agree.

The paper and motion are examples of the much-vaunted moderate political language all these new centrist parties claim to speak. There is a blizzard of positive policies. We’ve already heard them summarised. But there are serious problems.

This motion unequivocally supports a paper that places far too much emphasis on spurious concerns whipped up by cynical ideologues in other parties and the gutter press.

It talks about rebuilding trust in a system that the kind of people who would vote for us don’t think is broken, because people who wouldn’t ever vote for us think it is.

Most oddly of all, it goes out of its way to praise the current Conservative government for working constructively with partners. (6.15)

The irony of this motion’s approach is that it is harmful not just to immigrants, but to the people who mistakenly blame immigrants for bad government.

And when it does criticise the government, it does it on the basis of incompetence rather than values, confusing the issue further. This isn’t just a question of getting the Home Office sorted – attacks on immigrants in recent years have been by design, not by accident.

It is an insult to voters to pander to their ignorance and to fail to correct misconceptions.

The political context doesn’t just demand a loud Liberal voice. It is conducive to it. If we can’t have the courage of our convictions on 10% in the polls, when will we?

We are still being offered a moderate short back and sides for the worst of other parties’ policies. Trimming and tucking isn’t what we stand for. Leave that to the Blairs and Corbyns of the world.

A grab bag of good policies hidden inside moderate political language is far too small a step forward. We can and must demand better. For the first and only time in my life, I am urging you to send something back where it came from. Please vote to reject the motion.

Advertisements

Nick Clegg’s illiberalism should no longer be mistaken for pragmatism

Nick Clegg, former Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, is at it again. Yesterday he published an opinion piece in the Financial Times on the secret burning desire of EU leaders to address the ‘untouchable principle’ of freedom of movement. He tweeted it out to the world in this way:

I do not have time to deal with the article itself. As usual it is technocratic, moderate-sounding ‘inside baseball’ about the manoeuvres of EU member states on migration, making out as if it’s oh so reasonable to chip away some more at the only fundamental principle of the European Union that makes it truly different from any other capitalist trade project.

What I really want to say is this: if Nick Clegg really thinks that now is the time to make this argument, he is either not a liberal in any sense, or entirely ignorant about what the impact of his words will be.

Does he really think that no one in Europe is making the argument to curtail freedom of movement? It seems impossible that he does; for one thing, his own article suggests that literally everyone is already challenging the principle he claims is untouchable, even if only privately.

Does he really think no one in the UK is making the argument to curtail freedom of movement? Given he has been one of the leading pro-EU voices in the Brexit farrago throughout its tortured history, it seems impossible that he does.

In short, the ‘untouchable principle’ he invokes in his tweet is not just touchable: it’s already covered in the dirty fingerprints and nail gouges of the people who are driving the UK and other European nations rapidly away from liberal democracy.

The only explanation for his tweet and his article is therefore that he genuinely believes adding his own voice to the argument against freedom of movement is the most important thing he could do at this point in British and European political history.

A real liberal leader would not be giving any space whatsoever to the nativist, authoritarian forces that have risen up in the UK and Europe. Instead, they would be emphasising the popularity of freedom of movement within the EU, which is overwhelming and, if anything, increasing. Compare for example these two charts, from 2015 and 2018, both taken from regular Eurobarometer surveys of public opinion on the EU and its institutions.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A real liberal leader would be using the current moment to defend freedom of movement as an absolute red line in the European Union, advocating our continued membership of the EU on that basis, and instead seeking to expand the principle of freedom of movement globally.

I long for such a leader to arrive. Sadly, I no longer expect one to come from the ranks of the Liberal Democrats. Even though Clegg is no longer the party’s leader, his legacy and ongoing influence is clear, and the failure of the party and its current leader to counter this craven illiberalism brings shame on all of its members.

We don’t need an election – but a general defection

A week is a long time in politics. This has, I think, been the longest week I can remember. Rewind just seven days and we were waking up on that fateful polling day, with most Remain voters like me cautiously confident that we would pull through and that disaster would be averted.

Instead, political and economic chaos reigns. The Prime Minister has resigned and a Tory leadership election is well underway. All of the candidates would take the country to the right as well as out of the EU; the only question is whom you think would do it least horribly. Debating with Jeremy Cliffe of the Economist yesterday, he suggested that Theresa May would be better than Boris; Chris Terry, weighing in, advocated May’s ‘ruthless competence’ over Boris as an ‘unprincipled liar’.

I can’t personally look past May’s authoritarian record as Home Secretary (particularly on migration and surveillance), her obvious lack of interest in campaigning strongly for the Remain campaign, and her commitment to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Boris may have demonstrated that he is unprincipled, power-hungry and largely incompetent, but he should be made to lie in the bed of lies he helped create.

The benefit of a Boris leadership will be that two of the main Vote Leave figures – Johnson and Gove – are likely to be held responsible for whatever deal comes out of the Article 50 negotiations with the remaining 27 EU member states. As this deal now seems almost certain to be EEA membership with no concessions on freedom of movement, it is going to be disappointing in the extreme for large numbers of the 17 million Leave voters – probably the majority.

As I’ve written previously, the consequence of this will be a betrayal narrative whereby UKIP gains support, perhaps seizing a sizable chunk of those 17 million and adding to the nearly 4 million they won last year. The question will be whether they can turn this into electoral success. In this light, today’s news that Arron Banks – who has been Banksrolling both UKIP and Leave.EU – is considering setting up a new party is highly significant. UKIP’s problem so far has been spinning their growing, seething mass of resentment and protest into the pure green of Commons seats, and that’s largely because they’re incredibly ill-disciplined. It’s also because their one MP, Douglas Carswell, appears to disagree with Nigel Farage on everything other than EU membership itself.

Banks is wealthy enough and committed enough to see this transformation through, and when set against the referendum result, the rise in far-right activism (and racial abuse and violence), and the economic chaos that is going to envelop our country for years, the drumbeat of fascism is set to ring louder and louder in our ears.

So now we turn to look at the other casualty of the week just passed. The Labour Party is going through its death throes. Jeremy Corbyn and his small band of strong-willed acolytes appear to be hellbent on driving the party into the ground. It now seems clear that the leadership actively obstructed the Remain campaign, rather than simply soft-pedalling on its own activities. How complicit Corbyn himself was in this is unclear but he doesn’t seem to be able to control his own aides, particularly Seumas Milne. People talk about Corbyn having ‘delivered’ the Labour vote, but this has been contradicted by many senior Labour MPs including Sadiq Khan, who has said very clearly that in important areas Labour voters had no idea which way the party was facing.

Corbyn himself has since refused to resign even when 80% of his own MPs withdrew their support. When set against Cameron’s gracious and immediate resignation, this is an unprecedented, unjustified and deeply dishonourable decision. Meanwhile, he continues to put the support of Labour members – around 250,000 people – ahead of the voters who desperately need an effective opposition. And worst of all, his cabal appears to be threatening MPs with deselection in order to shore up his position.

But we can’t entirely let the Labour MPs off the hook. They acted quickly in the aftermath of the referendum campaign to try to jettison their leader. But they’ve somehow got into a situation where his position is untenable, but failed to identify a clear candidate to challenge him. It seems to me that this is because they know two things. Firstly, whoever challenges him may have an uphill battle to win over members. Secondly, even if they do win the leadership, they will have to try to reconcile the extreme disparity inherent in their party’s support.

In my view they are most likely to try to do this by moving on the migration issue – becoming even more anti-migration in an effort to keep their northern and Midlands heartlands from falling into UKIP’s lap. This fateful decision will make them unelectable in the more liberal constituencies; they may even find that their grip on London begins to loosen. Their unique selling point will have been lost both to UKIP, which will outflank them on rhetoric, and the Tories, who will continue to outflank them on competence.

It’s a gloomy story. Reading the commentary of pundits over the course of the past week, it’s also one for which very few people can see a happy ending. I will admit that I am more pessimistic about the state of British politics than I was even just last year, when my own party lost all but 8 of its 57 seats.

But there is a way back. And it isn’t through a hasty second referendum or a snap general election. People will need breathing space to think through the simplest way forward: the way that will allow a genuine opposition to develop, one that opposes both a national and international settlement characterised by insularity, fear and protectionism, but also promotes genuine cooperation, targeted redistribution of wealth, and a fair deal for local communities. Most of all, this opposition has to have a clear, coherent message to fight the resurgent racist nationalism that is currently enjoying open season.

This opposition can only be created within one party while the electoral system we have continues. And the only party currently capable of providing such an opposition is the Liberal Democrats. We are the only party that stands across the United Kingdom; the only party that has a clear policy on continuing EU membership; the only party with a leader who is not in the process of resigning.

So it is now incumbent on any MP (or indeed any member or activist) in any party who considers themselves generally humanitarian, internationalist, open to the world, pro-immigration, pro-trade, in favour of progressive taxation, moderate, anti-fascist – in short, liberal – to consider defecting to the Liberal Democrats. Ask yourself this question: what am I realistically going to achieve if I stay where I am?

If you’re in the Tories, your party is about to be captured – irrevocably – by either a crazy-haired clown who hides his racism and thuggery behind jaunty classicisms and changes his views more often than I change my socks, or a ruthless person who has used her years in the Home Office to make life hell for millions of workers and students and to threaten our way of life by insisting that we should all be monitored by a surveillance state so all-encompassing that it could teach the Stasi some new tricks. Neither of them appear to have any interest in Britain’s place in the world whatsoever.

If you’re in Labour it’s even worse. You’re led by the ultimate lame duck, someone whose authority is now so denuded that your party’s status as the official opposition was officially challenged today by the Scot Nats. He doesn’t appear to believe in politics at all and is forcing your MPs to hammer their heads and hearts repeatedly against a brick wall to no discernible purpose.

Now think about what it would say if you did make the switch. I know we are a very small party right now. But the benefits are very clear:

  1. It will give you a renewed, distinctive platform to articulate more clearly your views on the referendum and the negotiations that must now take place;
  2. It will give the Liberal Democrats another powerful and authoritative voice. At the moment we lack a large number of voices to make the case and our leader Tim Farron can only do so much;
  3. It will help to shift the conversation away from the current chaos engulfing your current parties, giving them time to regroup and ensuring that we do not miss the chance to nip racism and fascism in the bud;
  4. It will strike an important note of consensus and collaboration in a political system currently defined by division, suspicion and mistrust;
  5. Most of all, it will be a place of optimism and hope where you are welcomed, rather than a party dominated by suspicion, cruelty and often outright hostility between supposed colleagues.
We don’t need a general election straight away and in any case it now seems clear that one will not be called. Instead, we need a general defection, so that when the time comes – and it will, perhaps sooner than we think – we are prepared and able to stand up for the values that didn’t just define our political parties, but our country, for generations.

Elite athletes should be able to take whatever performance-enhancing drugs they want

Usain Bolt has just deservedly won the 100m World Championship for a third time, having beaten Justin Gatlin on the line by a thousandth of a second. It was a superb race, full of needle and bite.

Bolt showed himself to be every inch the legend he is by overcoming Gatlin’s far superior form and his own shaky performance in the qualifying rounds, epitomised by this morning’s semi-final in which he basically had to start again about 35 metres in after coming close to falling.

Unfortunately a great race between two supreme competitors was marred by commentators’ insistence on making it about the reputation of the sport. Gatlin is very much the pantomime villain in the eyes of the athletics community, having come back from a four-year ban for taking testosterone.

Steve Cram’s ludicrously overblown commentary on the final epitomised this. As Bolt crossed the finish line and began to cavort as is his wont, Cram went so far as to say that the Jamaican “may have saved his sport”.

My own view on this is likely to be unpopular. But it seems fairly clear to me that one race – however cathartic the result – does nothing to address the fundamental issue here. The problem is that once you introduce prohibition, people will inevitably seek ways around that prohibition. It is what human beings do.

In the world of elite athletics, where sportspeople are focused on doing everything they can to gain a tiny competitive advantage, it is little wonder that every so often -probably more often than anyone cares to admit, and certainly more often than the authorities are able to spot – someone finds a new way to cheat.

The answer is to recognise that “performance enhancement” is the essence of what it means to be an elite athlete. The Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” – faster, higher, stronger – is the simplest formulation of that credo.

A truly liberal solution to the problem of drugs in sport would simply be to treat athletes like adults. They take risks with their own bodies all the time in an effort to improve themselves. The wonders of biomedical science are brought to bear on them; in many ways they are lab rats masquerading as entertainers. So why are we so squeamish about what they choose to put in their bodies?

Clearly there should be safeguards, particularly for athletes on the cusp of adulthood who may be put under too much pressure. No one wants a return to an era when hundreds of athletes were routinely and indiscriminately doped for the glory of the Soviet state. So you might have to tighten competition rules to prevent the occasional precocious teenager from having too great an incentive to take too big a risk.

Some might also say that it would give too great an advantage to the wealthier nations or athletes, who are able to access and develop more expensive treatments and drugs. But let’s get real. If that’s a problem, it already exists. If you’re at the top of a sport it means you have the best of everything – nutrition, training, accommodation, and the rest. It seems unlikely to me that in a World Championship final such as the one run today, there is a major difference between the financial support each athlete in the race receives.

The only other objection that I can see is moral. It’s in the semantics of the debate, this, and probably the biggest barrier to my suggestion ever becoming a reality. People love to throw around words like “clean”, “pure”, “unimpeachable”, and the rest. The response to the race today sounded more like a Daily Mail article than anything else – pious and moralistic, damning of an athlete in Gatlin whose only current crime is to have had the guts to return to the sport, as he is perfectly entitled to do under current rules.

But if you’re not going to open up athletics completely to all of the technological and biomedical innovation and ingenuity humanity can muster, and you’re not going to ban people for life when they take drugs, you should probably stop whinging or suggesting that the whole sport is somehow under threat when an athlete of Gatlin’s calibre comes close to winning a major championship.

It’s time to treat athletes and sports fans alike as adults.

Social Liberal Forum Conference, 2015

Yesterday I went to the Social Liberal Forum conference, held at the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch.

It’s the first time I’ve attended an SLF event, and to be honest I was slightly apprehensive that it would be like a more extreme version of Lib Dem conference.

I needn’t have worried. Although as usual I was initially paralysed by my tendency to shyness, as people arrived things quickly warmed up and conversation began to flow. It was particularly good to meet people with whom I’ve previously enjoyed useful and insightful interaction on Twitter or via blogs, such as Nick Barlow and Kelly-Marie Blundell.

Charles Kennedy and Claire Tyler

The day began with a tribute to Charles Kennedy by Naomi Smith, chair of SLF. Unusually, but appropriately, we were encouraged to express our appreciation for Charles through a round of applause, rather than silence. It was a very moving moment and I could see several people in tears – I was on the verge myself.

This was followed by an interesting Beveridge lecture by Baroness Claire Tyler. She argued for wellbeing as the hook on which we should renew our attempts to tackle the “five great evils”, although she readily acknowledged that the terms Beveridge had used – particularly “idleness” and “squalor” were no longer appropriate for today’s political lexicon.

While very sympathetic to the idea of moving beyond GDP as the measure of political failure or success, which has always seemed entirely inadequate to me, I remain unconvinced that “wellbeing” (or indeed “happiness”) is the right concept to build that idea around. Aside from sounding static, it seems too subjective to sustain hard-edged or challenging policy ideas.

Arguing for Liberty

The conference then broke into several different sessions. It was very difficult to choose between the various topics on offer but I eventually settled for the discussion on liberty, philosophy, policy and the campaign. Speaking were Julian Huppert and, at the last minute, Kelly-Marie, although you wouldn’t have known as she seemed thoroughly prepared and assured.

The discussion ranged across many areas but it became focused in the end upon precisely how liberal arguments could, or should, be made. Huppert eloquently insisted that we should marshal a wide range of arguments – especially those that are not important to us, but will chime with other people’s priorities. He gave the example of same-sex marriage and how, in Coalition, Nick Clegg and Lynne Featherstone had argued for the policy on the basis that it would create more marriages in sum – knowing that this would appeal to David Cameron. (Incidentally, according to Julian, this was also why equalising civil partnerships was not allowed through – because it would have a negative impact on the total number of marriages!)

This led to interesting debate, with some people expressing some reservations about the extent to which we should be pragmatic. Huppert also emphasised the need, alongside this kind of messaging, to take radical stands in order to shift the Overton Window and make space for new policies to become mainstream.

I wanted to ask a question about how a party so reduced in voice could achieve this, and whether new outside organisations such as think tanks would be necessary or helpful in doing so – looking to the considerable influence of institutions such as Policy Exchange and Respublica over David Cameron’s tenure as Conservative leader. Unfortunately some questions and interventions in that session were so long that I didn’t have the opportunity!

Reforming Government and Political Pluralism

After the lunch break I particularly enjoyed a fascinating session on “reforming government”. I felt that the title was rather ambitious given the election result, but the insights from Chris Nicholson and especially Daisy Cooper were compelling.

Chris spoke mainly of his experience as a special adviser to Ed Davey at DECC. He occasionally strayed onto controversial ground, at one point suggesting that too rigid a commitment to evidence-based policy could act as a block on action, as it was used as an excuse to push things into the long grass through endless piloting and rethinking. He also seemed to imply that the back bench committees set up by the party during the coalition had been too focused on holding Lib Dem ministers to account, rather than bringing new and neglected policies to their attention.

Daisy, by contrast, chose to focus her comments on how we could argue for reform better. Her central thesis that arguing effectively for change should be based on pointing out how it gives people more power was appropriately powerful, especially when listing the number of areas of society and economy where power is concentrated in the hands of a very few – the big two political parties mirrored by the big four supermarkets, the big six energy firms, the big four audit firms, and more.

This session was followed by a return to plenary. A panel on political pluralism was chiefly memorable for David Howarth’s rather depressing assessment of the likelihood of any kind of progressive majority developing. (Clue: it probably isn’t ever going to happen, mainly because of the inbuilt tensions that dominate the Labour Party, which are being played out in their leadership election.)

Leadership Hustings

The final portion of the day was allocated to a showdown between the two leadership candidates, Tim Farron and Norman Lamb. I declared my support for Tim a long while ago in a rather overlong post on this blog, but I was interested to see the two men set out their stalls live.

I was unsurprised by the divergence in style and content between Norman and Tim. I felt that Norman was trying hard to inject some passion and charisma into his pitch, leaning hard on his background as a campaigning employment lawyer, as well as his family’s liberal history. But ultimately his speech sounded pretty safe, and didn’t seem to differ at all from the others I’ve read during the campaign.

Tim obviously did the same to an extent, but was more keen to be topical. In particular he drew out some specific and strong liberal positions on recent news stories including the migrant situation at Calais and George Osborne’s announcement on inheritance tax. This felt fresh and relevant in a way that Norman’s pitch had not.

I wasn’t able to stay for all the questions, unfortunately, but the way that both candidates listened and responded to the ones put to them gave me confidence that whoever is the new leader will be keen to hear the views of the whole membership.

Conclusion

This was a really positive day and I’m really glad I made it along. As with many new things, I was a bit daunted at first, especially given the large turnout. But the atmosphere was welcoming and positive, and certainly not factional in any way – I heard a real range of views over the day, and everyone was listened to with respect (sometimes too much, if anything!).

I’d definitely recommend the experience to new members, even if you aren’t sure whether you align yourself with the SLF or any other group. It’s a great way to understand what’s important to different people within the Lib Dems and to benefit from the wisdom and experience of people who have been a force for positive, liberal change in society through their activism and campaigning.

The whole day left me more positive about the future of the party and keen to play a small part myself. If my experience is any indication, the SLF should consider yesterday a job very well done.

“Centrism” is Not a Thing

A lot of Lib Dems have been defining the party and themselves as “centrists” over the past few years. Nick Clegg has frequently referred to us as the party of the “radical centre”. The whole election strategy was based on taking up a defensive position between Labour and the Conservatives: “look left, look right, then cross”.

The purpose of political parties is precisely not to define themselves based on the existing political landscape. By choosing the word “centrist”, that is what we did. In the UK’s political environment, after 30 years of Thatcher and Blair, the political “centre” shifted markedly to the right. Voters instinctively recognise this.

Instead it is the job of political parties to change the political landscape. We do this by defining what it is we believe, and then crafting policies that turn those beliefs into tangible change. It is really a very simple process. It’s made simpler if your party is founded on the basis that you will protect certain interests, as the Conservatives and Labour Party were.

For the Liberal Democrats it’s slightly more complicated, because what we believe in is more abstract. Fundamentally, we believe in the protection and extension of freedom – liberty – for all individuals in society. The problem with that is that abstract concepts are more difficult to communicate and more difficult to translate into tangible change. But that is the problem we must overcome if we are to renew the party and restore its place in UK politics.

So let’s hear no more of “centrism”, please. You can’t build anything lasting on shifting sands.