UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Confused: left, right and centre

It has been a long time since I posted or blogged anything - but inspired (ish) by the party conference season, I wrote this for Lib Dem Voice.

I was quite interested to see that it received about 30 comments in the first 24 hours, mostly from Lib Dems soul searching about whether they're of the left, right or the centre.

Positioning on the political spectrum is always a little futile - of course vision, values and persuading the electorate to your position matters too.

But I do think it's a big problem for the Lib Dems - and one compounded by coalition.  Not many knew where they stood.  Many voted tactically or as a protest vote.  Coalition has blurred them further - are they Tories in disguise.  So, it seems true to say that their urgent task is to define themselves in clearer terms.  They've been able to fudge it before as, in Nick Clegg's words, a "stop the world, I want to get off, party". 

But in 2015, they need a much clearer sense of what they stand for as an independenty party.   That seems to me unarguable.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Let Fred keep his knighthood - it's not just the bankers fault we're in a mess

Lots of talk at the moment about Sir Fred Goodwin's knighthood and whether he should be stripped of it or not.  This week, it was confirmed that a panel of civil servants (the so-called forfeiture committee) is looking into it and that he may have to defend his knighthood in front of the Financial Services Authority.

I can't help thinking what stripping Goodwin of his knighthood would actually achieve.  It may be technically possible to do it.  It may make people feel good.   It would certainly relieve some pressure on politicians who are desperate to show they are doing something about "immoral capitalism". But, in itself, it will do absolutely nothing whatsoever to correct unfairness or inequality. 

Select committee evidence this week found that Goodwin had been incompetent, but not guilty of "dishonesty or lack of integrity".  He gambled, and taxpayers lost.  It isn't fair or right.  But our time would be better spent making sure that never happens again, than in making ourselves feel better by taking away his knighthood.   Better spent ensuring that Goodwin's successor at RBS, Stephen Hester, receives a more modest bonus from taxpayers money than the reported £1.6m.

It reminds me, too, that for all the talk about "responsible capitalism", there is a key mechanism to deliver fairness and it's called taxation.  Politicians scratch around and tinker with their notion of "responsible capitalism", suggesting things like greater transparency on executive pay, but seem to forget that taxation is still as good an answer as any. 

I'm not sure that the Lib Dem's mansion tax is the way forward (it would surely penalise those who are property rich, but may be cash poor - who have inherited property which others either worked hard or benefited from fortuitous economic circumstances to bequeath). 

Better, instead, to target the vast loopholes in Capital Gains Tax on the biggest private equity deals.  It's private equity, not banking, that produces an even higher tier of the super-super rich:  those rich beyond the comparatively meagre earnings of Hester or the FTSE100 CEO's and whom the "responsible capitalism" debate hasn't yet touched. 

It's not just all about Fred and the bankers.  What about private equity?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Cameron is the biggest threat to the Union

Last week, the first shots were fired in the auldest battle - the battle for Scottish independence. With the SNP prevaricating over when it will hold its long promised referendum, David Cameron blundered in to tell Alex Salmond that Westminster would grant Holyrood the power to do so.  But the referendum would need to be held before 2013.  And, our English Prime Minister told the Scottish First Minister, he would prefer one question: Yes or No to independence.

This is an issue where there is quite a lot of process, much of it very legal and technical.  But it's clear enough that only the Westminster parliament can create and devolve the powers that would allow a referendum to happen.  But simply because that legal power resides in Westminster, doesn't mean that Westminster should dictate or excessively influence the timing and question put to the Scottish people. 

David Cameron's intervention was clumsy and cack-handed.  Cameron's refrain on the process is that Salmond is delaying the referendum for which he has spent his political life fighting, because he knows that if it were held any time soon he would lose it.  Support for outright independence is hovering around 35%.  But the reverse of Cameron's argument is also true, Cameron wants to have it now because he fears that Salmond might win it when the UK's Conservative led government - a party with minimal representation in Scotland of any kind - is desperately unpopular in 2014.

This focus on the process, and the impression Cameron has given of trying to fix the timing and question to be favourable to his Unionist stance, is itself a great threat to the Union.  Priority number one for the Unionist campaign must be to reverse (it's too late to avoid it now) any impression that England is fixing the referendum. 

Why?  Because this plays straight into Alex Salmond's hands.  When it comes to the substance of the debate, things like what currency Scotland will have (the euro as a new EU member state? Sounds unpopular), how much its public debt would be, the sustainability of its economy, its independent status in relation to armed forces and monarchy, are these the economic times to being going solo? On the real arguments, Salmond is much quieter.  Much better for him to play on emotions, on perceptions of English interference and dominance.

So Cameron should let go.  Have the discussions on process quietly and with a default position of letting the SNP take full responsibility for its timing and the question (including the option of "devolution plus" for which nearly 68% are thought to be supportive).  Don't let the SNP have any cause to rest their arguments on perceptions of unfairness.  Have the confidence to hold the referendum in 2014 and to unite across Unionist parties to make the arguments.  Let Scots lead the debate, Cameron and Osborne should take a back seat - let credible figures like Rifkind, Falconer, Darling, Kennedy, Campbell - even Gordon Brown - lead it.

He blundered in last week, but the PM is the biggest threat to the Union because of those tactics but also because he leads a distinctly English party.  The debate needs to be beyond parties, involving figures from outside politics completely.

It is a campaign that can be won - now and in 2014.  But the tactics must change.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Next year

OK - some rapid predictions for next year....

  • Boris Johnson will win the London Mayoral elections, with a reduced majority
  • Ed Miliband will survive another indifferent year as Leader of the Opposition
  • Barack Obama will beat Mitt Romney in the US Presidential Elections
  • Southampton will be promoted to the Premier League
  • Francois Hollande will sneak the French Presidential elections
  • Chris Huhne will resign from the Cabinet, to be replaced by David Laws
  • William and Kate will announce that she is to have a baby
  • President Assad will be forced from power in Syria
  • England will be knocked out of Euro 2012 in the semi-finals
  • Andy Murray will win a Grand Slam, but probably not Wimbledon
  • Great Britain will win its biggest haul of medals in Olympic history
  • Increased sanctions, but no attack, on Iran
  • Imran Khan's star will rise in Pakistan, Zardari clings on for another year
  • Unemployment in the UK will rise, borrowing will rise further, the UK will lose its AAA credit rating, and Ed Balls' alternative economic strategy will gradually gain momentum as voters tire of cuts, flatlining growth and growing unemployment
And, with that, a very Happy New Year.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The year of protest - a world changing but not changed

I was struck, reading the Economist's Christmas edition, just how dominated this year has been by protests.  The obvious wave of protest is the Arab Spring, where one man burning himself to death in Tunisia sparked uprisings in Egypt, Libya and those being bloodily resisted in Syria.  London was ablaze for one night in August, with police powerless to respond to the scale of mass public disorder.  The 'Occupy' movement camped outside St Paul's Cathedral, throwing the established Church into confusion as to how it should respond.  The eurozone crisis saw huge public protests in Greece and elsewhere against austerity measures.  In Russia, people seemed to be waking up to the fact that their post Soviet 'democracy' was in need of an overhaul.

Precisely what's going on deserves serious thought.  Are we just in bad times, economically broke and therefore miserable?  Is there a collective crisis of confidence in our leaders, that the scale of the challenges is greater than their ability to resolve them?  Or are we realising the potential of people power, recognising our own power to change the world around us?

But I guess we need to look too at what is actually changing.  Qadhafi has gone, yes.  Mubarak went, but has been replaced by military rule dragging its feet on reform.  Bin Laden was captured, but the war we're fighting stopped having anything to do with him a long way back.  The Occupy movement's empty tents remain outside St Paul's, but their demands are unclear and unlikely to be acted on.  The UK vetoed a European treaty, but it concerned a single currency we had never been part of.  London burned and we were appalled, but life goes on.    The eurozone was close to collapse many times, but came back from many brinks.  There is no doubt, however, that it remains in deep crisis.

Protest may be great, but I think what we really learn is that our world has been changing this year but is not changed.  The Middle East and North Africa, where the change has been most "dramatic", is the perfect example of this.  Apart from Tunisia, the so-called revolutions are works in progress, to be generous.  More negatively, the eurozone has been collapsing but has not yet collapsed - no eurozone member has yet had to leave.

Perhaps it's facile to try to quantify change.  Perhaps by its very nature it is hard to discern an endpoint, change is a process not an event.  But this year, and those preceding it, have seen unshakeable notions called into question - big global economies, big unmoveable autocrats.  The common denominator that has called all of these into question has been people power.   And perhaps it has always been this way, revolutions led by the people shaking our body politic into action.  From the French Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But the thing I will be watching most of all next year is how the path that the Middle East and North Africa takes in its journey of change.  We intervened in Libya to protect civilians, but stood aside whilst 5,000 Syrians perished and continue to perish in Assad's civil war.

Probably the biggest mistake that we could make in reviewing 2011 is to think that the job anywhere is done.  Or that it can't get any worse.  It might, and probably will, just about everywhere.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The unfinished revolution

Over the weekend, the situation in Egypt has become ever more critical. The most sustained protests since President Mubarak was ousted in February. 13 people died and hundreds were injured in clashes between security forces and protesters, back in Tahrir Square.

The protesters are concerned that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt's interim government, is dragging its feet on elections and trying to cement its own position. This weekend's deaths seem certain to prolong the protests and lead to another occupation of Tahrir Square.

Before this, the military has put nearly 12,000 Egyptians in front of military tribunals, has been making policy on the hoof and is sticking to a plan to hold presidential elections a whole year from now. The military already stands accused of the deaths of 27 protesters in clashes with mostly Coptic Christians last month. Most prominently, bloggers and activists who the military have tried to silence through their tribunals have gone on hunger strikes. There are appalling stories of prisoner abuse in Egyptian jails, with one prisoner killed - allegedly tortured - after trying to smuggle a SIM card in.

Elections are due to take place next week. But the military hasn't yet confirmed any date for the transfer of power to civilians. Until they do, the elections will be unempowered. There is a political vaccum, and some analysts suggest the only choice is between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army.

Inevitably, the UK's Arab Spring focus has been on Libya. It's a hard balance for Western countries to encourage indigenous revolution rather than be seen to dictate ourselves. But we should surely be making it clear to Egypt's military rulers that they need to reassure Egyptians that they are there only on an interim basis, that civilian rule will follow swiftly, and to reject autocratic military tribunals that are bringing Egyptians onto the streets again. Perhaps the best hope is for Egypt's neighbour Tunisia to keep influencing change in Egypt. Tunisia's elections were swift, peaceful and effective. Egyptians deserve the same.