Westminster: September 2009 Archives

Your lovebomb is a dud.

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Over the weekend we had the pleasure of watching Liberal leader Nick Clegg (pictured at Conference) trying to woo Green voters over to his brand of neoliberalism and "savage cuts". As you might imagine, this isn't an argument that holds a lot of appeal around here.

Taking it at face value, shouldn't he should be attacking Labour or the Tories instead? If you're claiming, however absurdly, to be as green as the Greens, those two parties have plenty of egregiously anti-environmental achievements to criticise first.

When the initial outrage at Clegg's approach faded, it reminded me of the old cliché: first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win. 

Are we in phase three already, from the Liberal perspective? The evidence around the world certainly is that Liberal parties (other than explicitly right-wing ones like the FDP) decline as Greens grow.

But of course it's not even about picking up actual Green voters. There's no-one out there who's decided to back the Greens but who somehow never considered voting for what a friend calls "the shark-infested custard". Those votes aren't coming back this side of some unimaginable Green implosion.

What this type of "lovebombing" really says is "I am more like them than you think". Clegg himself came under similar but more plausible pressure from Dave Cameron on the same day. As Jim Jay puts it, "should we then pick on someone smaller than us and attempt a similarly vacuous courtship?

In Cameron's case it's a good message because he knows the Liberals are, fairly or unfairly, seen as cleaner than the Tories. And here you will find me agreeing with Dave: there is indeed barely a cigarette paper between the Tories and the Liberals on many of the major issues he raises, so you can see why he's doing it. It's also a version of the irksome Lib Dem barchart-type squeeze on their votes.

In Clegg's case, he and Vince want to take the party to the right but don't want to pay the price for doing so. Appearing to cosy up to the Greens therefore shores up his left flank internally. It's those who might come over to the Greens over the next year he's really worried about, people who can't swallow the kind of Orange Book dogma that leads Vince to want to part-privatise Royal Mail.

If this kind of approach was a real attempt to squeeze other parties' votes, then the BNP would surely find themselves a prime target. All the other parties object to their vote growing, so they say, even if Labour and the Liberals apparently preferred to see Griffin win than see a Green MEP returned in the Northwest.

Imagine for a second any other party making an explicit appeal to BNP supporters in the same way, though. It won't happen, because the message it sends is "we're a bit more neo-Nazi than you think". Not even UKIP want to get down and dirty like that. Instead the three parties of the soggy Westminster consensus just give the infamous dog whistle an occasional blow, even the Liberals, sometimes

Incidentally, the BBC also got a failing mark during this weekend's shenanigans. Their web team posted an article saying "Green Leader Nick Clegg blah blah blah" (saved for posterity here, now updated here). 

No thanks. If he has a road-to-Damascus conversion to true Green politics, though, I'm sure my friends down south would be happy to take him as a member.
This morning Nick Clegg promised "savage cuts" to public spending, and by nightfall it was becoming clear they would fall at least partly on students. Well, it's not a cut to abandon a spending pledge, but it will certainly feel like one to students and would-be students.

Apparently the pledge would cost "billions every year". When Charlie Kennedy was promoting the idea, though, the price was just £700m a year. At least one Liberal leader is clearly lying here, unless the cost really has trebled since then. Thank goodness they worked with us and the Nats at Holyrood to abolish fees last year - just in time, it seems.

Seven months ago Clegg was on the record confirming their commitment to abolish fees in England and Wales. In February he said he knew "that young people will be hit hardest by the recession". What can have changed? 

The mood at Westminster is what. The big boys are having a discussion about cuts, so he's got to join in. They're equidistant from Labour and the Tories in principle, however contradictory that may be. If both those parties are tacking to the right and preparing to slash services for the poor, he'll have to be right in the middle of it all.

Despite today's foolish (and politically inept) decision, he went on to claim that they'll go into the next election with "the best, most progressive package for students of any mainstream party". What?!

It's obviously too painful or strategically inadvisable for a Liberal politician ever to admit that the Greens and the Nats are mainstream parties. This is a stunt they pull with tiresome regularity, and I'm sure a hundred years ago they were doing it to Labour. Sometimes the media play along, as with this example on Trident

Again, neither the Greens nor even the elected Government of Scotland count as mainstream by this logic, despite Trident being based in Scotland. In another instance they even claim to be the only mainstream party consistently concerned with civil liberties

This mantra about being the only "mainstream party" to oppose Trident, the Iraq War (which was a particular lie), tuition fees, etc, etc, simply decodes as a claim that Labour and the Tories are equally dire on these issues. Is that really much to crow about? 

My absolute favourite is this, though. "At the same we are the only mainstream party which continues to put the environment at the front and centre of our political massage (sic)". Leaving aside the unintentional honesty there (which will probably be fixed shortly), the gall there is extraordinary.

While the rest of the UK hasn't been governed by the Liberals since Lloyd George knew your father, we did have Liberal Ministers from 1999 to 2007, Ministers who made some of the most egregious and anti-environmental decisions taken in Scotland since the 1960s. Their specialities included motorway building and GM crop planting, alongside other hypocrisies like tuition fee renaming and ID card abstention.

Their 2007 manifesto had ten pages dedicated to the environment, although three of them were full-page photos of grass and snow and stuff. Surely this greenest of all the mainstream parties would have some achievements to cheer about from eight years in power?

Not much. In all this verbiage ("They may be only the tip of the morbidity iceberg") there are just two references to any actual achievements in this area:
* £20 million invested in "public sector energy efficiency"
* "recycling rates have trebled under the Liberal Democrats" (although what they did to achieve this wonder isn't stated)

To be fair, they did a bit better on funding marine renewables than their SNP successors, too. But, unlike the Romans, that really is the lot.

Contrast these baby steps with the massive expansion of the motorway network Liberal Ministers forced through. It's in the manifesto, albeit disguised as a pledge to "implement the current planned road infrastructure investment". Presumably they wanted us to believe it was just some minor frippery they happened to inherit.

For years I met English friends who genuinely believed that the Liberals had abolished fees in Scotland, and that they were like a more organised version of the Greens. Plausible, perhaps, if you've never been governed by them, if you overlook their lust for privatisation.

It won't wash in Scotland, though. I almost hope the English have to put up with Liberal Ministers. Perhaps then we'd start to see more pieces like this: the New Statesman's great exposé of Vince Cable, which points out he was just as enthusiastic a deregulator as those he now criticises. And that he was happy to work for Shell in the mid-1990s during the period they were accused of complicity in the murder of Ogoni activists (Ken Saro-Wiwa pictured). Enough said.

Death to the swingometer.

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swingometer.jpgReading the political coverage in the UK press, it's the same old same old Labour versus Tory cage-fight, with a bit of Tory-lite or Labour-lite in third place depending on who's in power.

The election's always decided by a handful of floating voters in a handful of swing seats, they say, and right now the story is they're switching to the Tories. Except they're not.

Polls rarely tell you anything about the churn. If Labour are down 2 and the Tories up 2, what's actually happened? Perhaps that 2% moved straight over, but it's unlikely. Maybe 2% moved from Labour to the Liberals, while another 2% moved from the Liberals to the Tories. Some will certainly have joined the Labour column, even in times like this. 2% in that scenario is just a net loss, after all.

The closest you normally get to this is polls that ask about switches since the last election. Earlier this week Comres did just that, and the Independent reports the results here. More than a third of Labour's 2005 voters are now going to vote for another party, and of those, more are now voting Green than have gone Tory. 

It makes sense: the disillusioned are likely to be those who wanted Labour to renationalise the railways or to stay out of foreign wars, and why would they switch to the Tories? It matters, too. If Labour are losing more votes to us that they are to the Tories, shouldn't they change their right-wing approach on these issues, rather than trying to stick to Blairism at all costs?

But this is a bit too complicated for most commentators, and for election night coverage too. Stay tuned for discussions that still feature that tired old swingometer. It's easier than reporting a true multi-party system.

Lord Rosebery's long shadow.

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It's a source of some despair to me that an increasing proportion of our news is just rehashed anniversaries. Nevertheless, I do want to mark a barnstorming speech given 100 years ago today in Glasgow by Lord Rosebery, the former Liberal Prime Minister. 

He addressed "the business men of the city", and I have a copy of the speech in pamphlet form. Apparently over 6,000 applied to attend, and he was warmly received. But they would say that, wouldn't they?


Rosebery had gradually become estranged from his former colleagues, and indeed told the assembled gathering: "I have long ceased to be in communion with the Liberal party".

This was no exaggeration - the purpose of his visit was a full-frontal assault on the "People's Budget" presented by his former colleague Lloyd George, and specifically a critique of the Land Value Tax and Inheritance Tax proposals contained in it.

His language is intemperate, even if Edwardian English sounds so polite, and his anger is clear. Land Value Tax is described as "the violent onslaught on land", presumably making income tax a violent onslaught on work, and so. 

He also claims that "almost all the value of land comes from what the owner does or spends on it", which is misleading in the extreme. It's presumably no coincidence that the richest person ever to be Prime Minister, the owner of twelve homes, would find much here to dislike. 

And this bitter assault was surely nothing more prinicipled than the resistance of a substantial landowner to anything approximating social justice in taxation. He talks about the "persecution of land", neatly conflating the owner and his property. Was the land itself really to be hunted and punished?

The Lords did vote the People's Budget down, leading to a constitutional crisis and an election at which Lloyd George was returned with a reduced majority. The Budget then went through, but without its land value tax element, and the powers of the House of Lords were trimmed by the first of the 20th century's Parliament Acts. Rosebery had done his bit, though, on land value tax.

A hundred years later and it's back on the agenda, with Compass and the IRRV both taking a look, although the Greens are now the only party to support a version of Lloyd George's proposals (with some notable exceptions, including Labour Land & Lib Dems ALTER). SNP MSP Rob Gibson is also a supporter

Sooner or later, the shade of Rosebery and his peers will have to be lifted. It's hard, however, to take too vehement a personal dislike to a man who can send this self-deprecating telegram to the pamphlet's publisher.


The elephant in the hold.

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madplane.jpgUK Ministers' Climate Change Committee, also the Scottish Government's advisors, have today published some maths which should make both lots of Ministers think again.

Both are committed to 80% emissions reductions by 2050, yet both support unsustainable increases in aviation. Both were told today that all other sectors must make 90% reductions if aviation is to be allowed to grow.

Apologists for limitless flying (typically former "lefties" of one sort or another) always say it's just 1% of UK emissions, even as they lobby for massive increases. The Committee says that, at this rate it is likely to become 15-20% of all emissions by 2050.

These same people also claim that saving the world is an attack on the poor, as if budget airlines are actually full of folk on the breadline. One study showed that the richest 24% of the population took 40% of budget flights, while the poorest 32% took less than 8% (nef, pdf, p.5).

The first thing that needs to happen is that both UK and Scottish Governments must abandon their plans for airport expansion. Heathrow's Runway 3 is the most totemic example, but the second National Planning Framework, nodded through by dozy opposition parties here, includes expansion plans for Edinburgh, Glasgow, Prestwick and Aberdeen airports. It also mentions scope to expand the airports in Dundee and Inverness.

Check out page 109 of that NPF2 document. At least it admits that there'll be a carbon impact. Normally when Scottish Ministers propose something spectacularly unsustainable, they jig the figures to claim it'll reduce emissions.

I'd settle for some honesty here, though, from Ministers. If they said "look, we don't care about emissions and climate change and we're going to continue flying", that'd be fine: we could contest the issue directly with them. Right now green-minded members of the public hear Ministers saying they care and they may assume they mean it. It's the raging, gargantuan hypocrisy in Victoria Quay and Whitehall that bugs me most.
farageflag.jpgThe soon-to-be ex-leader of UKIP announced last week that he would stand against Speaker Bercow in Buckingham, and the odds on him have been shortening ever since. 

Farage's party may be filled with corrupt homophobic anti-foreigner climate change deniers in clubhouse blazers, but this is a tactical master-stroke.

Although UKIP only got 3% last time in the seat, this will effectively be a one-on-one cage match, no Labour, no Liberals, and only a disowned Tory to take on. 

I think Farage will win, too, because Bercow's base is now the Parliamentary Labour Party, who don't have much influence in Buckingham. Here's who that'll be bad for.

1. The Tories. They don't realise it yet, but UKIP are to them as we are to the Liberals - why have the diet Tory version when you can have the full-fat UKIP? As soon as they win a seat at Westminster, they become much more credible and they start eating the Tories' lunch. LibCon has a series of links which illustrates how their hatred for Bercow has blinded them to the tactical cost of losing this seat to Farage.

2. Labour. They thought they'd installed a nice sympathetic Speaker as part of their legacy. Now it looks like Opposition could be a lot more uncomfortable. The consolation here is longer term - a divided right works in their favour: could this push against their most recent briefings in favour of AV?

3. The Liberals. It's a lesser problem for them, not least because they won't lose many votes to UKIP outside the south west of England. However, an interesting small party story like this reduces the benefit to them of the broadcasters' substantial pro-Liberal bias during election time. 

4. Greens. See the Liberals - plus until now the media had been convinced that the only party to make the Westminster breakthrough next time would be us, via Caroline Lucas's candidacy in Brighton Pavilion. While our colleagues there more than doubled the Green vote to 22% in 2005, that's still a tough three-way fight with Labour and the Tories. 

5. The BNP. Here's some actual silver lining. They fish in the same extraordinarily crowded right-wing pool down south, and more UKIP may mean less of your actual fash. However, having someone as generally smooth as Farage making BNP-lite talking points is probably bad news even here in the long run.

Oh, and John Bercow himself. Spare a thought for him. He's just got through a bruising election to become Speaker, and one of the perks of the job is normally not having to fight elections (yes, I know the Nats fought Glasgow North East). Now he's got a tough job to hold his seat. I'm not sure Buckingham folks will think it's clearly the best thing for them to have the Speaker represent them. 

If it's any consolation, though, he's already sure not to be the shortest-serving Speaker in history. John Cheyne served just eight days, apparently, in 1399.

Left hand, right hand.

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megrahiheld.jpgThe elder of the Miliband brothers gave an interview to Today this morning (iPlayer, from about 1:50) about the Megrahi affair, and his line was very different from that used by Labour in the Scottish Parliament. If they'd been listening, you would probably have heard their palms slapping their foreheads. 

The Foreign Secretary has bigger worries than this morning's debate at Holyrood - notably, can we stay friends with the Americans and the Libyans and fend off Dave Cameron? The best way to do that is to be resolute that this was a decision for the Scottish Government, UK Ministers have clearly decided. In doing so, though, he went quite a bit further than that:

"There was no way for us to control Megrahi's fate, we had to live with the decision but we didn't have to make the decision. The decision to make was for the Scottish Government, and they have done so in a way which we respect, but which is absolutely according to the constitution of this country."

Subsequently, he went on to say:

"Was the Scottish administration doing its constitutional duty in the right way? Point one: yes. Secondly, were they interfered with by the British Government in any way? No. Thirdly, was there a public or private dissonance between what we were saying about the administration of justice in Britain to the Libyans or to the Americans or to the Scots? No. And that is very very important."

Labour's view here in Holyrood is radically opposed, not least because, unlike UK Ministers, they care only about beating the Nats in 2011. They only agree that it was a decision for Scottish Ministers. I give you the first line of Richard Baker's repetitive and relentlessly critical amendment to be debated today. That Parliament...

"believes that the process of making this crucial decision was mishandled by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice"

It's not even that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand's doing. It's like neither hand even cares that the other one exists. Does Labour actually speak to itself any more?

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Westminster category from September 2009.

Westminster: July 2009 is the previous archive.

Westminster: October 2009 is the next archive.