Archive for May, 2011

Local Party Website

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

The local party website has now been transferred and the new site layout decided. The site is WordPress based, using the Liberal Democrat Aqua theme.

There is also has a Facebook page and a Twitter feed.

Content is still lacking, as I’m waiting for photos and biographies. And progress will be a bit slow this week as I’m of the US for business, though I should manage a beer or two with my friends in Austin.

I may manage some updates while in the US (thanks to jet-lag), but major work will be on hold until I get back. In particuar, adding ward maps will have to wait.

Facebook Page

Monday, May 16th, 2011

I’ve just created a Facebook page for the North-West Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats.

I now need another 24 people to “Like” that page so I can get a proper URL.

Constituency Wards and Boundaries

Monday, May 16th, 2011

I spent a little while playing with Google Maps over the weekend and I’ve managed to overlay the ward boundaries for my constituency (North-West Cambridgeshire) onto a map. You should be able to click on a ward. In the pop-up, the name of the ward should send you to the map for that ward.

I’m quite pleased with myself! Next steps: properly integrate this into the constituency web site.

A Liberal Energy Policy

Friday, May 13th, 2011

A few days ago I said we must define policy in our own liberal terms. One areas where I think we can do this to great effect is energy. It is widely understood that we support “Green” energy proposals, but what I think has been missed is that by defining energy policy in liberal terms makes our energy policy truly distinctive and provides a solid justification for why it must be green.

Underlying many green proposals lie implicit life-style compromises, often expressed as a dislike for air travel and personal transport (cars). Most green advocates want increased use of public transport and want to change peoples’ behaviour, often desiring to restrict their freedoms. For example, by making fuel unaffordable or by restricting access to cities for cars. Take the Green Party as an example. They aim for the economy to “reduce its demand for energy to a sustainable minimum” with “measures to penalise the use of large engines in cars; measures to discourage private and encourage public transport”. Don’t get me wrong, many of their policy proposals are laudable (and we have similar policies) but they start with a fundamental premise that life-style must be compromised.

These compromises go largely unchallenged except by some of the climate change deniers. But one of the great changes that has happened in the last half century is that most people – whether rich or poor – can afford cars and can travel freely and cheaply around the world. This has widened peoples’ horizons, giving not only direct exposure to different cultures but also the ability to live remotely from work, often in nicer surroundings. I would hate it if, as a consequence of green policy, these things once more became luxuries only available to the rich.

So as liberals, our starting point must be that we don’t want to compromise life-style or force illiberal behavioural changes onto people. Instead, we must forge policy that is liberal and without such compromises. Note that I didn’t use the word “green”. However, it is clear that liberal principles dictate a “green” policy: if we continue to pour CO2 into the atmosphere at the current rate, our descendants will be forced to live in a world with diminishing biodiversity, rising sea levels and more extreme weather. This would restrict their freedoms in an illiberal and unacceptable manner. So personal liberalism alone forces an energy policy that addresses the issue of CO2 emissions (actually I think we must go further than just tackling emissions and should introduce bulk sequestration, but that is a post for another time!).

Fundamental to this must be a switch to zero-carbon energy sources (you can find my series of posts outlining that challenge here). This switch must cover not just electricity generation but also domestic heating and transportation and means that over the next fifty years we must more than double our generation capacity, building almost 200GW of GHG-free capacity.

I don’t want to revisit how this 200GW should be generated. Instead, I want to consider the domestic heating and transportation aspects. Here it is clear that merely generating electricity doesn’t solve the problem. We must also address how to turn this electricity into heat for houses and into fuel for cars. So a direct consequence of a liberal energy policy is that it demands significant innovation and research which in turn will lead to jobs and economic growth.

Part of our policy must also look at how we best use the energy we generate. One area that springs to mind here is the energy efficiency of our homes, where 62% of homes fall into the worst bands (E-G). So a liberal energy policy must also improve the efficiency of existing properties (by insulation, double glazing, etc) making them cheaper to heat.

So by thinking about energy policy in liberal terms results in an energy strategy that:

  • Preserves the freedom of people to own cars and have access to cheap air travel
  • Is “Green,” switching electricity generation, domestic heating and personal transportation to zero-GHG technologies
  • Improves our housing stock
  • Drives innovation and research
  • Creates jobs and drives economic growth

Is Libya near tipping point?

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Most commentators agree that Libya is in stalemate. But when you examine the situation in detail, it feels to me as if it may be nearing a critical tipping point where things swing decisively in favour of the pro-democracy movement. There are four areas which give hope that this might be true:

  1. Near Ajdabiya, there is talk of a renewed offensive. The front appears stable between Ajdabiya and Brega and there appear to have been no significant moves against Ajdabiya by pro-Gadaffi forces for some time now; some who fled are even returning to the town. Watch for: a renewed assault on Brega.
  2. Around Misrata, it is clear the rebels are making progress. It now appears that some (how many is unclear) pro-Gaddafi forces are surrounded at the airport and that the rebels are advancing along the coast road towards Zlitan. Hopefully, the rebels can push south enough to prevent shelling of the port. Watch for: events at the port and airport, in Zlitan and in Al Khums.
  3. In the Nafusa mountain region, rebels appear to have secured control of the Tunisian border crossing and Gaddifi’s forces appear not to have been able to take any of the rebel held town such as Yafran or Zintan. Watch for: events in Gharyan.
  4. In and around Tripoli, there appears to be increased rebel activity. Particularly, there have been rumours of rebel flags flying in parts of the city and, significantly, above Mitiga air-force base. Watch for: well, any rebel activity really.

My guess is that, when things happen, they will happen quickly. What isn’t clear is when. It could be this week or it could be weeks or even months away. Let’s hope I’m right and that it’s soon.

Update 14:28: the BBC is now reporting that rebels have taken Misrata airport.

PS I have used the word “rebels” which may upset some Libyans. But it was too unwieldy to use “freedom fighters” or “pro-democracy forces”.

The Language of Identity

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

There has been much discussion in recent days about our identity. I think this is actually quite simple: we are Liberal Democrats. Liberal because we believe in the principles of personal, economic, political and social liberalism. Democrats because we believe that in a plural society with multiple viewpoints, these viewpoints should be represented proportionately in parliament.

The difficulty comes in understanding why this identity is not more widely understood. I think much of this is to do with the language we employ when describing policy. Often, we use the language of the left and talk of “social justice” and about how a particular policy is “progressive” or not. This defines us in our opponents terms and makes it hard for us to attract liberal minded people from either Labour or the Conservatives. With Labour, we have to fight a battle over who’s policy is more progressive; with the Conservatives, they are deterred by terms like “progressive” , which they see as code for socialism. Internally also, use of such terminology has led to self-identification with the left and has reinforced false ideas of a “progressive majority” – we should be neutral on what parties we would be willing to govern with.

Instead, I propose we use our own terminology, and talk about how liberal or illiberal a policy might be. Let me take two examples:

First, VAT. There was much argument about whether the increase in VAT to 20% was “progressive” or not. If we frame the question in liberal terms, the arguments are at least different:

  • VAT is a tax on consumption, but many essential purchases are either exempt or are taxed at a lower rate. So the rise in VAT is largely a tax on discretionary spending
  • Hence, it is personally liberal: you can chose not to be affected by not buying goods taxed at the higher rate (this is only partly true; for example, petrol is taxed at 20%)
  • It is also socially liberal: those who spend more, pay more tax and those on lower incomes are taxed proportionately less as a higher percentage of their spending falls into areas that are exempt or taxed at a lower rate
  • It is fair because it applies equally, affecting those who buy the goods regardless of who they are
  • A case can also be made that it is more economically liberal than raising income tax.

Second, those controversial tuition fees. Here I don’t remember much argument either way over the rights and wrongs of the change. Again, let me try to frame the issue in liberal terms:

  • Student loans are available to any that require them, and repayment of any loan is linked to future earnings above a threshold (£25,000 per annum)
  • Graduates expect to gain a significant income advantage over non-graduates, so attendance of university confers benefits on those that attend over those that do not and this should be paid for.
  • So, loans are personally liberal: you can chose whether or not to go to university and increase your earning power at the expense of a loan that may have to be repaid
  • They are also socially liberal: there is equality of opportunity to attend university based solely on academic qualifications not on ability to pay. Because universities must offer support to poorer students to balance increased fees, this further compensates for any residual advantage richer students may have
  • It is fair because: those that gain an income advantage pay for the privilege of having attended university; those who, for whatever reason, do not gain such an advantage do not have to pay. Not only that, but higher paid graduates are likely to pay back more than double the actual fees incurred.

Note: I’m not sure these are the best examples to use, but both provoked much discussion. Also, I’m not sure I’ve made the best liberal case for them. Nor do I think we’d propose them in other circumstances (e.g. without a deficit problem or in majority government).

So will using our own liberal terminology help to embed our identity into the consciousness of the media and the public? First, it removes an implicit association with the left. Second, it allows us to attract liberally minded people from both our main opponents without the need to overcome prejudices arising from terminology. Finally, it defines policy in our own terms and makes our principles explicit to the public.

Identity cannot be established overnight and will take time and seemingly endless repetition. So let’s start now, by talking about NHS reform in liberal terms. This means we must address not only decentralisation but competition as well. The NHS already has multiple providers and as liberals we should not fear competition so long as the principle of free at the point of use is maintained.

No Whining!

Friday, May 6th, 2011

Well, it is all over bar the shouting and inevitable punditry – which will undoubtedly consign us to oblivion. However I am not so down-hearted. I’m not going to cover the AV campaign where the “No” campaign was dirty but effective, whereas the “Yes” campaign was frankly bloody awful. Instead I’d prefer to focus on the local elections. I think there are two main reasons we have lost votes in these.

First, we have been defined more by what we are not than by what we are. What do I mean by this? Consider our share of the vote in the general election: ~23%. In contrast we got (probably; the full numbers aren’t in yet) about 15% in the local elections and the votes that we lost seem largely to have gone to Labour. The reason: I strongly suspect those voters were disaffected with Labour but could never bring themselves to vote Tory (note the term; regular readers will know I usually use the neutral term “Conservatives”); hence they voted for us.

But once we entered government with those same hated Tories, these voters returned to Labour.

Second, there is a perception we have broken promises and failed to fulfil manifesto promises. This I believe is a communications failure: we had a manifesto with promises A, B, C, D, and E. Sadly, as junior partners in the coalition we were unable to deliver all of these (we are delivering 75% of them!). But we never said this was likely to happen or how we would make decisions about which to deliver.

So how do we move forward? The two issues are related. Taking the second (communications) issue first, we need to talk about how we go about making decisions in government: whatever government – whether coalition or not.

In any government, we will face unpalatable decisions and will have to make hard choices. For example, if we had formed a majority government this time, there would still have been less money than expected, and unpalatable decisions on cuts (and fees) would still have had to be made. But we need to communicate that we make these hard decisions based on our liberal principles.

Take the most controversial one: tuition fees. Yes, Nick made a U-turn (I personally think his commitment was unsustainable in the first place and should never have been made, but that is a different story). However, it was a U-turn made on principle: the issue is that there should be equal opportunity to attend university regardless of background. Fees do not affect this: any applicant can get the requisite student loans. And those that attend and graduate improve their earning capacity significantly thanks to an opportunity that those who don’t attend, don’t receive. So the principle that they should pay for that (if their earning exceed a certain threshold) is not illiberal.

It is the principles behind the decisions that we will be forced to take, in any government, that we need to communicate and that trade-offs are inevitable. If we do this, then we not only address the issue of broken promises, but these very principles will form the foundation of a stronger core vote.

Oh, and while I’m ranting, we are not a single issue party. Why on earth did we think voting reform could ever engage your average voter? In many ways, they really don’t care whether they mark an “X” or rank candidates 1, 2, 3. This stuff only matters to party dweebs. And let’s not whine about some proportional House of Lords – nobody cares except us. If we do focus on this as some consolation prize it will reinforce the belief that all we care about is (self-serving) electroal reform.

Rant over. But bottom line, we must not whine: it was not “those nasty Tories” fault; nor was it “Labour lies”. If we whine, we’ll lose further support.

At the heart of this decline are our own failures to communicate sensibly. So let’s all sit back, take a deep breath and think about how to communicate our vision and principles. If we succeed, then we will emerge stronger with a proven track record in government.

Personally, I think this is our low point. The voters have had a chance to punish us for entering a coalition with the Tories. We now have the chance to show we are mature enough to take it on the chin, carry on, and provide good government. If we do, then we gain respect and votes.

Can we emerge as the party of principle?

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

It seems to me that the Conservatives and particularly Labour are mired in the class-warfare of the last century. Labour still think of “entitlements” and the Conservatives still preserve the interests of the rich and powerful. Worse, both parties seek wedge issues and nakedly grub for votes, running lowest common denominator campaigns seeking to bribe the voters.

With the rise of home ownership, consumerism and the increased aspirations of everyone, this class-based politics feels increasingly dated. In particular, voters are sick of the grubby bickering, and want politicians to work together to provide good government. So I think they want to understand what motivates policy and why such-and-such a policy is a good thing.

With our long Liberal tradition based on the fundamental principle that everyone should be as free as possible (so long as you don’t impinge on others freedoms) and the four pillars of individual, economic, political and social liberalism flow that from this, we are in a great position to frame policy in terms of principle. Consider some our current goals within the coalition:

  • Addressing the deficit. To not do so would impinge on the freedom of our successors: if our legacy was a mountain of debt, they would struggle to merely pay the interest leaving little room for spending choice.
  • Promoting localism. Decisions about policy should be made as close to those affected as possible, with those affected having a say.
  • Increasing the tax thresholds and reforming benefits. If you are poor, and worse, trapped in poverty by a benefit system where there is a disincentive to work, it is difficult to improve your lifestyle and enjoy the other freedoms we espouse.
  • The same motivation – enabling people to make the most of their abilities and to enjoy their freedoms – lies behind our policies on education; to make sure everyone has equal opportunity in education – whether vocational or academic – so they can earn to the best of their abilities and better enjoy their freedoms.
  • Climate change. Again, to not tackle this impinges on the freedoms of our descendants. They would live in a world subject to more extreme weather with rising sea-levels and a worse environment.

In summary, I think we can show what motivates all our policies and that they flow from principle rather than being mere grubbing for votes. Such an approach has the potential to change us from a party of protest where we are defined by what we are not into one with a strong identity and growing core support.