UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

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.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Targets... good or bad?

There was a quiet U-turn of sorts this week when Andrew Lansley decided to reintroduce targets to control hospital waiting times.  Why?  Because it turns out that more NHS patients are waiting longer than 18 weeks for treatment since the government scrapped targets in May last year.

Of the patients treated in September 2011, almost 18,000 more had to wait longer for treatment than in May last year.  In neurosurgery, there was an increase of 66% in patients who had to wait more than 18 weeks.

This raises interesting questions for a liberal blog, whose default position should be less central control, give power and responsibility to the doctors and nurses closest to the patients. 

In fact, Andrew Lansley has had to say that the Department for Health will now begin monitoring the numbers of patients waiting longer than 18 weeks.

You might draw the conclusion, as Labour is doing, that if you scrap the central targets then the quality of service goes down.  That their "top-down" approach, vilified by Tories and Lib Dems at the last election, does actually work.

For me, it sums up that you need to look beyond the rhetoric of "top-down versus bottom-up".  You can have a health service which delegates authority, responsibility and innovation to the lowest tier and still maintain central targets of an acceptable service.

Any business (public or private) delivering a service needs to measure itself against certain standards.  Setting those targets isn't a straitjacket that hinders innovation, since hospitals can always exceed the target or be named and shamed if they miss the target, just as a private business would be if it performed less well compared with its competitors.

I began reading Sir Michael Barber's book (he was Head of Tony Blair's "Delivery Unit") on what he calls "deliverology", what others call "top down targets".  It was hardgoing, but it convinced me that its central approach was a sensible one.  It's based firmly on the idea of reducing the layers of bureaucracy or chain of delivery between politicians saying what the service should look like and hospitals or schools delivering that service.

The coalition like Sir Michael's ideas enough to have exported him to try and sort out Pakistan's education system, something we're pumping tons of DFID money into.

And it seems to be wholly possible to have central targets, as long as there is freedom for service providers to have control of their own budgets and ideas to deliver that service as they see fit.  That's the important part of the "bottom-up" approach that we really need to get cracking with.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Direct democracy meets whips' clunking fist

Again, I'm coming to events pretty late after a long time out of blogging whilst I completed my notice from the civil service. I hope to begin blogging under my real name (and perhaps to a real audience, not just to myself) in the next few weeks in a re-launched format.

I'm just reflecting again how the Government might have handled the EU referendum issue better at the Commons vote a few weeks ago. There's no doubt that the timing was pretty odd, held as the eurozone was crumbling. But, I also feel strongly that the Lib Dems in particular were in entirely the wrong place on the issue and were sending out some pretty confusing signals.

First, this was a non-binding vote. So if MPs had voted to have a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, there wouldn't necessarily have been a referendum. It would have signalled what MPs thought, so it was heavy handed and unnecessary for the Coalition to force MPs to vote against it.

Second, this vote happened because more than 100,000 members of the public signed a petition for Parliament to debate the issue. The first time this has happened under a wheeze ostensibly designed to bring citizen and state together, and petitions - we're told -  are "a good thing". They will "make a difference".  They will chip away at the "old, discredited politics".  The petitions system is a form of direct democracy, beyond the 5 year lock-in a party's manifesto, where the public can (supposedly) shape and refine the Government's programme.

Let's be frank, the Lib Dems were nowhere in this argument. Yes, because the media turned the clock back to 1992 and enjoyed a Tory "rebellion" over Europe. But for a party which tore itself up over the Lisbon Treaty vote, where - back in 2007 - Nick Clegg ordered his MPs to abstain because they wanted not a referendum on Lisbon but on "in or out"... to be voting against an "in or out" referendum this time seemed bizarre to anyone who bothers to track how a party feels about an issue like Europe.

On Europe, the Lib Dems are looking illiberal and undemocratic, afraid of putting the positive case for Europe that they surely believe in to the public. You can't argue the toss over AV or PR on the grounds of fairness, if you want to deny a vote on Europe because you don't trust the public to make the right decision. Or is it that they, we, don't have the confidence to put the arguments across.

The excuse this time for ducking a referendum was that the Lib Dem manifesto promised a referendum only in the event of future treaty changes. I guess that's what the small print says, and it's what will happen if there are future treaty changes (both parties support it).   . 

But on a non-binding motion responding to a free public petition, it's a shame that the Government responded by whipping MPs to the party line.   And we don't just elect Members of Parliament to solidly defend their parties' manifesto.  Yes, the winning candidate for the winning party is elected to gather sufficient MPs in Parliament to win a mandate to deliver the most popular manifesto.  But we also elect our MPs on the basis of other things they say, who they are, what they stand for and because we put trust in their judgement to act on our behalf.  And now, so we thought, through petitioning we have a direct way of influencing their judgement beyond the electoral cycle.

What the Government (one we are told is "liberal" Conservative and "Liberal" Democrat) was effectively saying was, "thanks for your views submitted to our new grand, democratic scheme; but, actually, we don't care what you think... it's what our 2010 manifestos said ,that you may or may not have voted on, that counts". And, they said, it's more important for our MPs to be loyal to the whips, not think for themselves.

After this, why bother petitioning?  Reasonable or unreasonable (there's plenty of Clarkson for PM petitions out there) - if we continue this way, the most likely outcome is to be ignored.

Friday, 30 September 2011

A lurch to the left?

A brief post this morning on Ed Miliband's conference speech. Here's the main things I observed.
  • You really know you're luck's down as leader, a leader struggling to make an impact, when your conference speech loses transmission to the BBC, Sky and ITV all at once. I didn't see 7 minutes of Ed's speech. Blogger Iain Dale wondered whether David Miliband had pulled the plug. It was unfortunate, of course it wasn't his fault... but it didn't help and Labour aides will have been furious.
  • The "good" and "bad" businesses "proposal" sounded vague and almost impossible to implement. Fine, perhaps, as a broader philosophy... but Miliband will struggle to explain how civil servants would put this into practice. He talked about changing the "rules" to allow "good" and "bad" behaviour to be regulated. In doing so, he took Labour into a more statist stance, the state deciding and regulating good and bad business practice, than Blair or even Brown would have. It wasn't a liberal position, and I'd rather let businesses have the freedom to do what they think is right than be hamstrung by regulations established by Labour Ministers (none of the Shadow Cabinet has ever run a business, incidentally) and civil servants who know nothing about business. Let's not forget that businesses are the foundations of growth and jobs and that the vast majority are "good" - both small businesses and FTSE companies alike. It was a relatively small number of very, very large banks that caused the economic crisis, and Ed Miliband identifying a problem with all businesses seems heavy-handed and meddlesome at a time when the economy is flat-lining. Business know best how to run their own affairs, and interference from the state should be kept to a minimum.
  • The booing of Tony Blair was embarrassing. I know of course the unpopularity over Iraq and the feeling that Blair was a closet Tory. But it just made Labour sound as if they had settled back into Opposition again. With Brown's two Ed's in charge, it was a small thing that underlined the impression that the Labour party is moving away from the centre ground - a place where Ed M himself admitted they would need to be to win the Tory votes needed to win an election.
  • There was probably a bit too much apologising at the Conference. Voters say they like politicians to apologise, but in the end it sounds a bit incompetent. Admitting Labour got Fred Goodwin's pension wrong, OK. There was also an admission that Labour didn't do enough to reduce the gap between rich and poor (it widened). But saying you got something wrong, doesn't do wonders for persuading people to think you'd get things right now or in the future.
  • Delivery still suspect. Hague was no better. IDS was much, much worse. But the voice and the sometimes vacant look are troubling because Ed M just doesn't look like a PM in waiting, where Cameron and Clegg look the part. That Ed M isn't making more ground when the Coalition has made its core message one of cuts and austerity, and where it has a free run at Opposition without the Liberal Democrats as a second Opposition party, should be worrying for Labour.
Overall, a speech that will probably be forgotten - but it was unfortunately one that attempted a deep argument that was a bit confusing ("good" and "bad" businesses?), and most crucially will not have helped achieve Labour's No1 objective at the moment. Getting voters listening to Labour again.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Constituencies are about communities, not maths

I'm blogging a little after the event on the proposed boundary changes for England, which were announced a fortnight ago. The Government's objectives were to reduce the number of MPs by 50, to save £12m; and to equalise the number of voters in each constituency. For some Conservatives, this is their preferred flavour of electoral reform. They complain that it's unfair for the average size of a Labour seat's electorate to be 68,487 compared to 72,418 in the average Conservative seat.

So, the Boundary Commission for England has spent months conducting a wonderful mathematical and cartographical exercise to equalise the constituencies. They took an electoral map of the UK and ch
opped it up so that every constituency is no smaller than 72,810 voters and no larger than 80,473. It's a plan with some serious flaws. Here's my main concern.

It's first past the post that's unfair, not constituency sizes. Before I go down this route, I know that the "Yes to AV" campaign lost in May. But the proposals to equalise constituency sizes run counter to the "No to AV" campaign's own arguments in favour of keeping FPTP that they trotted out just six months ago. It blows their key arguments out of the water, because the supporters of equal sized constituencies recongise the connection between votes in ballot boxes and fair outcomes. It confirms that they recognise the inherent unfairness of FPTP in ignoring the popular vote.

The "No" campaign argued that FPTP should stay because it was simple, all you needed was a clear winner - the winning candidate had to win more votes than his or her competitors in that constituency. If that argument's right, then it shouldn't matter if a candidate wins with 22,000 votes in a constituency with 60,000 electors or 14,000 votes in a constituency with 45,000 electors, because they argued that the beauty of FPTP was to elect MPs in a decisive way, in individual constituencies (not regions) where MPs would have a link with that community.

Arguing for equalising constituency sizes poses the same question that the "Yes" campaigners were asking in the AV referendum, namely that there is something unfair in how the popular vote translates into seats. The "No" campaigners and those in favour of equal sized constituencies both highlight the unfairness of Labour polling 8,609,527 votes at the last election and getting 257 seats and the Tories polling nearly 2 million more votes but getting only 50 more seats for those 2 million votes.

By focusing on the disconnect between votes in ballot boxes and the outcomes, further discrepancies emerge. The injustice, for example, of the Liberal Democrats polling around 2 million fewer votes than Labour, and Labour getting 201 more seats. As advocates of PR would put it, it's unfair and unlikely that voters will feel their vote counts, if 23% of the popular vote translates into only 8% of Parliamentary seats. If that also means the BNP would get MPs, let's have the debate - not have our electoral system cover up their current support.

So the real problem with the Boundary Commission's proposals is that they've been asked to make the system fairer in a system that can only ever deliver unfairness. FPTP isn't able to reflect the value of individual votes, because it is by its very nature not about vote numbers but about winning individual contests. As long as our electoral system focuses on individual constituency results, the wider intricacies of what the wider electorate thought will be ignored. Make constituencies the same size if you like, but it's not going to change the weakness in FPTP that the reformers want to fix - you'll still end up with a disconnect between the popular vote and how it translates into seats won.

So, these are pointless changes - made more pointless by these remaining weaknesses.
  • This is about saving £12 million, right? Personally, I'd rather keep 50 MPs and find savings elsewhere. The NHS, it emerged today, wasted £12 billion, messing up its computerisation. Can we really not save money elsewhere? Is this about saving money or delivering fairer votes? Because the changes don't really do either. In the grand scheme of government spending, this really is peanuts. It's certainly not worth carving up Parliament or our democratic map for.
  • We're emerging from a massive crisis in trust between MPs and the public. Creating a raft of new constituencies, carving up the links between communities, constituencies and MPs, seems to me to risk further alienating the public from their MPs. Orphan wards, seats crossing county boundaries - it might sound petty to oppose those sorts of changes, but consituencies need to be rooted in human connections in connected communities; not rooted in mathematics or cartography.
  • What happens when the number of electors in a constituency changes again? These changes can only ever be a snapshot. Does the Boundary Commission get its map and calculator out again?
  • The constituencies are worked out according to the number of registered voters. What about those who have not registered to vote, are under 18 and cannot vote but are still represented by their MP?
  • These are not small 'c' conservative proposals. Do the benefits of change really outweigh the downsides? If the changes don't pass that test, conservatives - small 'c' or otherwise - should reject them.
  • We had a referendum on AV. I believe these changes represent such a huge change to the democratic links between MPs and communities that they should be approved only by referendum.
I've never responded to a government consultation before. I might just do so with this one, because it feels like a botched policy answer to the wrong question. It risks further alienating voters from their democratic representatives, whilst delivering no fairer system for electing those representatives, in the name of saving very little money indeed.

To have your say, you can respond to the Boundary Commission's consultation here. There are 71 days left.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The 9/11 decade

I was watching Neighbours, a 22-year old student, when I switched channels and watched 9/11 unfold live on my TV screen. I felt angry and upset, but also a strange sense of pride. Proud that the monstrous minority responsible could and should never be allowed to hold the moral high ground. Pride and respect for the bravery of ordinary Americans whose lives had been torn apart but responded so stoically. Pride too in the way that so many countries rallied unreservedly in support of America.

I remember speaking to a friend that night, barely able to comprehend how many might eventually be dead, and hoping that the West would respond responsibly.

Here was an opportunity for the West, with unity and a high sense of the moral high ground, to punish those responsible but also to heal, over time and not as a knee-jerk concession of defeat, some of the grievances which had not justified or caused 9/11 but were running sores which we had a duty to try to resolve.

This was a line in the sand where we would not so much try to “re-order the world around us" as Tony Blair said on the evening of 9/11, but try to re-order the world around fairness, bringing to justice those responsible for the attacks, being as tough on Israel's defiance of UN resolutions as on Saddam or Mugabe. Above all, I remember being fearful about what would happen next and thinking that it would actually be the West's response, not the attack itself, that would really change the world.

9/11 was an attack different to any other seen before. The most colossal attack on a nation state by a non-state terrorist group. We were seeing buildings felled by groups of extremists, doing things that even in the dark days of the Cold War we thought nation states would never dare to do. They could have killed, and wanted to kill, many thousands more.

There was a sense that, horrific as it was, it could have been worse and could be worse next time. We now faced a threat from shadowy non-state actors that criss-crossed many countries, that were driven and led by ideology more diffuse and perhaps more dangerous than a single nation state or ideological leader. On 9/11, the notion that our greatest threats in a globalised world were no longer from nation states but from elusive, multiple groups of extremists, was the biggest wake-up call.

Here came the difficulty with the response. How to respond to an "act of war" that, this time, was perpetrated by a extremely small group of people, a minority. Bin Laden and Afghanistan were the logical targets to attack, given that Bin Laden was being sheltered there by the Taliban. In the West's reaction to 9/11, it was too quick to define a conflict (“war on terror”) and an opposition (“Al-Qaeda”) that was, and is, almost beyond definition.

The West, under George W Bush's leadership, did more to create the global brand of Al-Qaeda than Bin Laden could ever have hoped to himself. And with Iraq and our misguided attempts to nation-build in Afghanistan, a nation that barely exists as a nation beyond its tribal factions, the West created new grievances to recruit new members of a terrorist "group" that the West itself had created. It was the West that produced the recruitment campaign and the terms of reference for a new global jihadist club.

The reality on the ground was always more complicated than the labels of "war on terror" or "Al-Qaeda" suggested. A shocking event, simplistic in its horrific destruction, led to a simplistic response.

In 2003, America's foreign policy lashed out to Iraq - starting another recruitment campaign for Al-Qaeda in a war against a country with no link to 9/11 except in Saddam Hussein's hatred of Bin Laden and where a policy of containment turned out actually to have achieved its aims of eliminating Saddam's stockpiles of WMD. As we did so, we neglected Afghanistan. Over there, we started fighting the wrong enemy in the Taliban, becoming the latest interlopers in centuries of Afghan civil war, as the remnants of our real terrorist enemy escaped to Pakistan to cause chaos in an already fractious and failing, nuclear-armed state.

Because the West got the original terms of reference for its “war” wrong, success and ultimately victory have never been measurable or achievable. The West created an expectation of success, of “mission accomplished” in a struggle that could never have a clear endpoint.

We need to recognise now in Afghanistan, that the war that the West started can only be ended when the West leaves. The West called it a war, so it ends when we declare our war is over. (The death of Bin Laden, clearly a key driver for the war, is helping the US here). We need to recognise when we have achieved our aims. And the reality is that our aim of denying terrorists the "space" to operate in Afghanistan has largely been achieved. The more significant threat is now in Pakistan; where there was one suicide bombing before 9/11 but since 9/11 thousands have been killed.

When we think about whether and how the world changed after 9/11, there's no doubt that it did. But I'd argue that much of that change was brought about by the West, rather than by extremists. These are fine arguments of cause and effect, so it's difficult to be absolute in that conclusion.

But if we're going to have a safer world, I think we need to think hard about the response and the effect that it had. And it is possible to make that argument whilst at the same time condemning absolutely those who have committed atrocities before, on and since 9/11. But to argue that extremists operate in a vacuum where our foreign policy choices have no influence seems a dangerous line to me.

We have to get these things right - and we got a lot of things wrong post 9/11. We had the moral high ground, and we lost it. We started a war in Iraq for the wrong reasons. We moved from international consensus to deeply divided unilateral action. We did things which subjugated international law and civil liberties, when we probably didn't need to. We became embroiled in a civil war in Afghanistan, ending up fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country long after our original objective was achieved. We ran an extremely effective advertising campaign for Al-Qaeda, reinforcing their brand and churning out regular recruitment material. Above all, we saw too much through our own prism of threats, rather than thinking about threats to others that were also threats to the West, doing little – for example - to help revive the Middle East peace process.

We got so many things wrong because the initial, despicable provocation was so unusual and unexpected. Ten years on, Bin Laden is now dead and the loose network which organised the 9/11 attacks is far weaker that it was. The Arab Spring is showing that people can achieve change through revolution rather than regime change or having the West "re-order the world around us", as Tony Blair suggested. It is the thing that should fill us with most confidence, more so than Bin Laden's largely symbolic death.

It is a glimpse, I think, of the future where the West intervenes more sparingly and subtly. Influencing debate and arguments rather than starting wars. Helping countries from the Middle East to India and Pakistan to resolve differences which threaten wider stability; having a hard-headed, not knee-jerk view of the threats we face (the scale of the current threat from Iran is a case in point); having the courage to do difficult things in new partnerships (trying to end the war in Afghanistan by talking to the Taliban and talking to Iran; facing up to the reality of a Chinese super-power).

The West has moved on a long way since 9/11. Hardly anyone still uses the phrase "war on terror". It's widely agreed that the Iraq War was a mistake. We are being careful in Libya and the wider Arab Spring to support but not to interfere too much. We should now step back in Libya; no more nation-building. US involvement there was significant, but hardly publicised. It's widely agreed that we need a political solution to get out of Afghanistan, but we need to get on with it much more quickly and with much wider participation.

The 9/11 decade's legacy provides many lessons to learn. We need to keep on learning the lessons, and make sure they - along with all those of all nations who have perished - are never forgotten.

On the basis that it's hardly fair to write a piece on 10 years of foreign policy with 20/20 hindsight and not offer detailed thoughts on the future.... in the next few weeks, I’m going to blog again to spell out in more detail the thoughts I have on the big foreign policy challenges of the next decade.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Libya - looking to the future

Just back from France, where I took a bit of a break from the news, only catching the odd snippet of what was going on in Libya. We had sattelite TV, but I pretty much restricted myself to enjoying the denouement to England's 4-0 thrashing of India. Only the sixth series whitewash in Test cricket history, you know.

So, Cameron and Sarkozy prevail. The rebels, who looked for a time unlikely to be able to make an impact against the superior firepower of Gaddafi's forces, swept to Tripoli after more and more ordinary Libyans realised the game was up, and support for Gaddafi collapsed.

There's been no rush to claim "mission accomplished" from NATO or Western leaders. Cameron has rightly said that this is an end, but also a beginning.

Libya's reconstruction will be a difficult process, but one which holds much promise. Libya has the natural resources to deliver prosperity. Over the next few months, great care needs to be taken to deliver a political process to deliver the stability that will help Libya realise its potential.

The National Transitional Council will now need to earn legitimacy. Libyans will need to think harder, and be given the chance to decide, the future they really want. They wanted Gaddafi gone, but what do they want instead? There's a need for reconciliation, which will be difficult. There will be Gaddafi loyalists who need to be given the chance to be part of Libya's future, a culture of revenge and retribution will only prolong Libya's trauma. The NTC has set out a sensible process for that to happen. Similarly, Libyan institutions that exist, however disfunctional now, must be carefully reformed and renewed, not disbanded.

As for Gaddafi himself, we need to take care. Algeria may give him shelter, but its regime risks becoming the next North African regime to fall if it puts itself on the wrong side of history. NATO must act within its mandate, to protect civilians and not to go for the Colonel. It will surely be in Libya's own interests if Gaddafi is dealt with fairly and properly by the International Criminal Court.

He must be found and justice must be done. The moral high ground must be defended.

Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama can afford to be quietly satisfied. But we can't afford to take our eye off the ball. The UN's representative to Libya, Ian Martin, has set out the scale of the challenge; "there's essentially no living memory of elections, there's no electoral machinery, there's no electoral commission, no history of political parties, no independent civil society, independent media are only beginning to emerge in the east in recent times. That's going to be quite a challenge, sort of organisationally, and it's clear that the NTC wish the UN to play a major role in that process."

Look what happened in Afghanistan when the West armedthe rebel mujahideen to fight an - at the time - expedient war against a greater evil. We, and they, won - and we left a vacuum which allowed the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to grow new threats.

We need to keep up our focus, getting the right balance between not interfering or muddying the Libyan's ownership of the process, but influencing and supporting the transitional process to ensure that the new Libya is a safe and stable one.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The big society broken record

My latest post on the riots has been published on Lib Dem Voices this morning.

You can read the full article here.

It's my second posting on Lib Dem Voices, here's my little space on their website.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The broken society runs amok

At points in last night's London riots, it seemed as if society itself was disintegrating before our eyes. Feral youths running amok in their thousands, outwitting police, torching homes and livelihoods, the violence spreading from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. The police seemed powerless to intervene in a battle where one side was breaking all the rules, and the other was bound to uphold those rules.

The Met were damned if they did and damned if they didn't, caught between rioters getting hurt at their hands and the risk of losing control.

Amid the chaos were heartbreaking tales of family, community businesses up in smoke and a lady, who by day earns an ungrumbling honest wage of merely nine pounds an hour, woken terrified to find masked rioter in her bedroom.

In the end, it was as much the Met's tactics as sheer force of numbers that saw things spiral out of control. They rightly didn’t want to provoke, but the lack of provocation sparked a wave of violence where word of mouth (or BlackBerry) strengthened the bored resolve of those who realised they could do whatever they liked. As the first CCTV images emerge from the Met today, they should suspend their reality no more. A lot of young people will go to prison.

With London alight, the Prime Minister did the right thing and returned to London. The recall of Parliament on Thursday will be an important occasion. We won't be able to fix or understand the causes of these riots quickly. But it will allow the elected representatives of an appalled British public to stand against the feral self-destruction of communities and to begin to explore the root causes.

Already last night, dangerous conclusions were being drawn - mentioning tuition fees or bankers bonuses in this context seemed like simplistic, knee-jerk partisanship (don't do it Ken, if you want to beat Boris).

Thursday's debate shouldn't be a time to score cheap political points. This has happened on everyone's watch - as much on a coalition government imposing austerity as on a Labour party that saw the gap between richest and poorest widen. Thursday will be a time to think deeply about how we heal the deep wounds that will be inflicted on these communities. How we put right the mistrust, suspicion and resentment that these riots - of which we must hope we have seen the worst - will have caused. Above all, that will need people to talk to each other, not score points off each other.

Britain has come a long way since the Brixton riots. But we need to stop sweeping under the carpet the reality that there is a deep social underclass that - rightly or wrongly - feels that it has no stake in society. They were able to trash our high streets, because they felt no part in that society. It will require a radical rethink of rights and responsibilities across our society - amongst parents, police, politicians and community leaders - to put that right.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Black August

July saw a Westmister piranha feeding frenzy over phone hacking. It ended in anti-climax, with an unenlightening select committee appearance from the Murdochs and a wonderfully timed Commons statement from David Cameron. The PM arrived in the Commons just as the story had hit its peak of intrigue and was coming back down again. Even Ed Miliband had run out of blows to land on the Prime Minister, resorting to the tortuous detail of who knew what when over Coulson.

The hacking scandal has finally run dry. For now. Or at least until the Guardian's journos come back from their summer hols.

Hyperbole and hyperactivity over hacking in the media meant we heard little about a famine in East Africa; a full-blown financial crisis in Greece; deepening crises in Spain, Italy; and - most worryingly of all - the United States on the brink of debt default.

Barack Obama has succeeded in persuading Republicans to raise the US debt ceiling, avoiding a potentially disastrous default on its debt that would have triggered a fresh global economic crisis. But Obama couldn’t avoid America's dirty financial laundry being aired all over Washington and the world.

With the eurozone threatening to break up, with the contagion spreading into the much larger economies of Italy and Spain, and America on the verge of default, the markets are fearing that sovereign states, not just corporations, could go the same way as Lehman Brothers and become insolvent. The twin concerns of US and European debt default, and sluggish growth across America and Europe is fuelling fears of a double-dip recession.

Europe may be on holiday, but it won't be long before Europe will need to dig into its pocket again to boost Spain and Italy, to avoid two of the bigger beasts of the eurozone going under. Both are borrowing money at unsustainable rates, heading into Grecian territory. Something's going to have to give to avoid further trouble in the eurozone, just weeks after the Greek bailout deal was secured.

The markets rallied today, but it's clear that the world economy is going through another critical wobble… and the markets.

Back in the UK, a Tory consensus is building around cutting the 50p rate of tax for the highest earners by 5p, ostensibly to show that Britain is "open for business". Whilst Treasury figures show this could only cost around £750m, I can’t see how this is a priority. The UK economy is growing by the smallest of margins, we are on course to miss growth targets of 1.7%.

A tax cut on the richest earners seems a total irrelevance. The priorities are to boost demand, consumer confidence and consumer spending; and to help create the private sector jobs that are needed to absorb those being laid off in the public sector. Putting more money in the pockets of those on lower incomes, who will - we find out today - face massively increase gas and electricity bills, with EON announcing hikes of up to 18%. A cut in the rate of VAT would do more to boost the economy, by reviving the troubled High Street where the big names have been tumbling out of business over recent months.

So, forget about phone hacking (the multitude of enquiries won't report for years anyway)…it's all going to be about the economy this autumn. Saving the eurozone from breaking up and a subsequent collapse in market confidence. And finding a Plan A.2 for the UK economy to improve our worrying growth figures.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Murdoch - dead or alive?

The News International crisis has been a shocking, but welcome gift to Labour leader Ed Miliband.

It's tough being in Opposition. It's tough because there's basically very little to do. The Government - two parties, not just one - get on with exercising real power. When your power is reduced to opposing the Government's agenda, it takes a real cock-up by the Government or a real political scandal to really make yourself heard.

David Cameron, as Opposition leader, really began to make the political weather when Gordon Brown flunked the election that never was. Even Nick Clegg, as Lib Dem leader, had to find niche issues such as the Gurkhas to get noticed.

For Ed Miliband, having a "good" News International crisis was massively important. He has done so. Miliband has never been close to the media. He has the freedom to speak out against Murdoch's News International because he has nothing to lose. He doesn't have their support - Cameron was the one holding the Murdoch parcel when the music stopped. And, quite the opposite, he smelt in this crisis an opportunity to do serious damage to the Murdoch brand which has long been the bugbear of Labour Governments. No Labour politician has forgiven or forgotten the infamous "if Kinnock wins, will the last person turn out the lights?" Sun headline before the 1992 election that Labour blew.

Tony Blair flew halfway round the world to pay homage to Rupert Murdoch, as part of his strategy to win the Sun's support before the 1997. It's always been a fallacy to say that "it was the Sun wot won it". Politicians, the decisions they make and the policies they propes, win or lose elections. Murdoch has long tended to follow a winner where he's seen one - although Neil Kinnock was leading the polls in 1992 and Murdoch still (correctly) backed the Tories.

So Labour have long suffered at the hands of the conservative Murdoch dominated British press. Just as Tony Blair's strategy in 1997 was to court Murdoch, so Ed Miliband in 2011 has sensed a once in a lifetime opportunity to hammer home the News International crisis and do some serious damage to Rupert Murdoch's brand and the influence he has over politicians.

Miliband looks brave and triumphant this week. News Corps withdrew their bid for BSkyB, an important victory for supporters of media plurality in Britain. He has had David Cameron on the run - the Prime Minister has looked evasive and sluggish. He is in serious trouble over his hiring of Andy Coulson, who looks up to his neck and may well be prosecuted for the things he did as News of the World editor. Miliband is beginning to home in on the Metropolitan Police, who look to have been as cowed by News International as Cameron was, and with the same interest in the hacking scandal remaining under wraps.

But a media mogul as powerful as Murdoch may just be impossible to take down. MPs, led by Miliband, will want the inquiries promised by Cameron to limit the power of the Murdoch empire. But, as with MPs expenses and as with the banking crisis, old habits and old powers die hard.

Whilst we're on phone hacking, I'd just like to reflect on why the phone hacking story became a scandal. Back in January, the Government proudly announced restrictions to councils spying on residents. Around the same time, Andy Coulson left the Government. As I said in January on this blog, Parliament should at that stage have taken the phone hacking more seriously as a liberal cause. Everyone has the right not to have their messages hacked into. The hacking of Milly Dowler and other victims of serious crime or grief took this story across the line. Many true liberals, notably the Guardian newspaper, took up the cause. Perhaps more should have taken up the cause, and more loudly.

Let's not wonder over what might have been, but take this opportunity now to shape a free, fair and forensic press.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Strike One?

Well, I'm not going to do an Ed Miliband this week and shy away from the biggest public sector strikes for 5 years that took to the streets of London today.

It seemed a half-hearted affair to me. I was in Whitehall this morning, and I couldn't work out why more union members weren't on the picket lines putting their case across and making more of an impact. At the Ministry of Justice and DWP, there were probably no more than six or seven people. By 2.30pm, with the march over, pubs in Westminster were spilling over with union members who appeared to be done with the marching, thank you very much, and were tucking into the pints.

There's no doubt that the pensions deal for public sector workers represents a serious step back from the status quo. It's a worse deal.

Treasury Minister Justine Greening got into a bit of hot water on the Today programme yesterday as to whether the current public sector pensions bill was "unaffordable" or "untenable". She conceded that it wasn't unaffordable, but that the Government had decided they were untenable.

It's an important distinction, because it confirms the Government is doing this on the basis of fairness (or, more crudely: cuts) than because public sector pensions are inherently unsustainable. It represents a change in tack from the Government who previously ran the "we're all getting older, state is having to pay more" line. Hutton's report does actually show the cost of public sector pensions falling, not rising, as a proportion of GDP.

But I still believe this reform is, in a time where savings must be found to reduce the deficit, a necessary course correction. To close the gap between public and private sector pensions, given that the gap between average public and private sector earnings has also closed in recent years.

Successive governments have failed to grasp the nettle of public sector pension reform. Even if the status quo is affordable, the Government's proposals I think represent a balanced and fair way of delivering fairer and more balanced public sector pensions. They still give public sector workers a better deal than they would find in the private sector. In doing so, they still offer reward and recognition for public service - but in a less evangelical way than previously. Whilst public sector workers deliver so much for our communities, it's never been as simple as public sector (good), private sector (bad) - even with the banking crisis. The previous public sector pension deals frankly got the balance of fairness wrong as compared with the private sector.

So, the government will prevail. Mainly because public opinion will be with them on this one and not with the unions. Whilst everyone else is tightening their belts, and whilst the pension deal remains a better one than is available in the private sector - there's almost no argument beyond "this is a worse deal than we had before".

Credit to the coalition government for this brave course correction. Just don't lose your nerve again.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Broken prisons: who's guilty?

Another week, another U-turn from the Government - this week on sentencing reform. Ken Clarke's plans to cut prison sentences by 50% in return for early guilty pleas. Ken was chasing cuts. Cameron - late in the day - saw the dangers in being seen to be soft on crime.

You have to feel some sympathy for Ken Clarke. He has to find massive, 23% savings in his Department's budget. The prison population was allowed to get out of control under Labour - soaring to 85,000 from 40,000 when Clarke was Home Secretary in the 1990s.

And the cost? A whopping £45,000 per year per prison place. More than a year's fees at Eton.

The prison population has to be brought down somehow. Yes, because there's no money left to keep locking people up at the current rate. But, more importantly, because the prison system in England and Wales is - frankly - broken.

Consider this. 50% of all prisoners reoffend within a year of leaving prison. No wonder the numbers are unsustainable.

The real story today - more than U-turns - is how our prisons have got so out of control. Yes, Labour created a pack of new offences that meant more people ended up in jail. But once offenders get to prison, they're enrolling into a college of crime where up to half of them will commit more crime once they're out.

I can't see how the Prison Service is not to blame for this. Politicians rightly get it in the neck when things go wrong and it's right that Ministers should be ultimately accountable to Parliament. They formulate the policy and ask the public servants - the prison officers, the experts - to implement those policies and to get on and design and deliver the public service in the most efficient and effective way they can.

And yet prisoners are re-offending in shocking numbers - to say nothing of the 50% of prisoners who are on drugs in prison. There has been a systemic mismanagement of the prison system in England and Wales for a very long time for things to have got this bad. More crime. More victims. More expensive prison places. More crime. The cycle of crime goes on...

Clarke's plans this week propose sensible steps for dealing with this. Payment by results - paying private sector prison providers for the number of offenders they put back on the straight and narrow makes sense. Prisons must become places of work, rehabilitation and reform - too many prisoners sit around bored out of their skulls. These are long-term fixes that the Government is right to implement.

The U-turn on halving sentences for guilty pleas has grabbed the headlines. But the guilty party - the Prison Service public service managers who have so consistently mismanaged our prisons for years - have got away with it.

They need to be held accountable.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Snapshot: NHS reforms... behind the curve

Much of the press coverage of the revisions to the Health and Social Care Bill this week will focus on Tory U-turns and Lib Dems crowing at securing concessions. The draft Bill was Andrew Lansley's, crafted after years in Opposition. He should have done better - why he needed a 10-week consultation period with health professionals a year after announcing his policy and some years after he first thought of it really should prompt serious questions about Tory policy formulation and Cameron's hand's off leadership style. Cameron, it seems, only gets hands once the proverbial's hitting the fan.

And, though Nick Clegg claims victory - let's not forget that the Lib Dems went along with this policy lock stock and barrel when it was first announced, only applying the brakes once the Spring Conference asked Lib Dem Ministers to go away and have a re-think.

So, whilst Nick Clegg claims victory - it was a re-think forced on him rather than one of conviction.

If we're looking at the politics of all of this - forget the U-turns... why are Ministers so behind the curve?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

No... but a new start please

Unless voter turn out has a very unexpected effect on today's voting reform referendum, we should hear at some point tomorrow that the "No" campaign has prevailed and that voting reform in the UK has been put on hold for a long time indeed.

There's a small, slim chance that low turnout could help the "Yes" campaign. Whilst it's easier to persuade people against AV and stick with status quo, it's also harder to mobilise voters to come out and vote against something than it is to mobilise keen voting reform enthusiasts to take their once in a generation opportunity. But, ultimately, not enough people care about the intricacies of their voting system to make such a mobilisation of popular support likely.

So, it will be a "No". If it is, the "Yes" campaigners should listen to the voters, not sulk away to lick their wounds. You cannot fight a campaign to improve our democracy and then not listen to the democratic will of the people.

Nick Clegg's words tomorrow will be important. He may try and blame the coalition's unpopularity, that it was a "referendum on difficult decisions taken in the national interest". I expect him to say a lot about respecting a democratic result. Being not a fan of AV himself, having called it a "nasty little compromise" he may well blame it on the wrong form of proportional representation being put to the test.

Whatever he says, he must say it carefully. I don't believe those who will say that this is voting reform put to bed for a generation. With a strong likelihood of another hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party, I think there is a good chance of there being another voting reform referendum - held in happier times, when talking about voting reform doesn't seem irrelevant to people's daily lives - within the next decade.

What will begin tomorrow is a new kind of coalition. Chris Huhne has used the AV campaign to mark himself out as a Cabinet rebel and a potential future leader. Both him and Vince Cable could trigger a coalition crisis if they judge that the coalition is all pain and no gain for the Lib Dems.

But Nick Clegg should stay the course. Lib Dems quitting the coalition would seem petulant and self-obsessed. We didn't get our voting reform, so we leave? Or we want a significant portion of our manifesto implemented (not all of it, coalition compromises don't allow that), and we need to be grown up members of government, taking the tough decisions to do that.

Five years is a long time. The Lib Dems - and I mean the likes of Cable and Huhne - need to remember that they should strive to demonstrate that coalitions work... that the Lib Dems have made a valuable Lib Dem contribution in government.

That demands patience and maturity from the would-be rebels. And the start of a new phase for Clegg in which he stamps out an unmistakably Lib Dem identity at the heart of government. Not propping up the Tories. But Lib Dems, in government, getting things done, getting things that Lib Dem voters at the last election wanted to see done.

Breaking up the coalition, not losing the AV vote, is what will really end the voting reform debate for a generation.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Game changer: for Pakistan and Osama Bin Laden

The death of Osama Bin Laden, the world's most wanted man, is a game changer. Not in the fight against Al-Qaeda, as such - but in the United States and the West's relationship with one of its most troublesome and important allies: Pakistan.

Bin Laden's death is an important step in weakening the loose, vague network that we like to put in a box called "Al-Qaeda", but in truth was moulded by Osama Bin Laden's propaganda and charisma into a complex global Islamist extremist network, active from Luton to Lahore and far beyond. His death is a significant but not decisive blow to a network that only exists as a convenient shorthand to help us understand some of the threats that the West faces from global Islamist extremism.

In many ways, the real story and the real history being made today is for Pakistan's relationship with the West. For decades, Pakistan has played a double game. Conniving with the CIA in secretly funding the mujahideen's anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and continuing to fund Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan long after the Soviets had been overthrown and the CIA had withdrawn its own support, it's never quite been clear where Pakistan's loyalities and commitment to rooting out terror have lain.

In 2001, President Musharraf responded to George Bush's "with us or against us" call, and decided to side with the US. In reality, even then, elements in the Pakistani intelligence agencies continued to support attacks on NATO forces inside Afghanistan. This alongside nurturing the Kashmiri terrorists, Lashkar-e-Taiba who went on to murder hundreds in Mumbai as late as 2008.

And now, nearly ten years after 9/11, President Obama has the election winning gift of announcing that US forces have finally killed Osama Bin Laden. In Pakistan. Not in a freezing cold cave in the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But in a walled, luxury compound just 40 miles from the capital Islamabad. A compound eight times larger than any other in the city, with two high perimeter walls and within that walls up to four metres thick. A compound less than a kilometre from Pakistan's equivalent of Sandhurst. A garrison town, a hillside resort - a far cry from the desolate caves of Tora Bora where Bin Laden first fled in 2001.

This is a desperate embarrassment for Pakistan. The CIA's relations with Pakistan's intelligence agencies are at an all time low, following the major diplomatic row caused by CIA contractor Raymond Davis and his subsequent release after shooting dead two Pakistani's in Lahore.

That Bin Laden should be found in apparent luxury, close to the Pakistani capital - and for the operation to be carried out by the United States unilaterally without informing Pakistani intelligence, raises serious questions about exactly what Pakistan has been doing with Osama bin Laden these last few years. It seems beyond comprehension that an intelligence outfit as sophisticated as Pakistan's ISI would not have been able to wise up to the fact that Bin Laden was so close, so comfortable, so safe.

Today's real history lies in the fact that Pakistan's bluff has been called. That the CIA's most significant triumph in the war on terror has come when its relations with Pakistan's intelligence agencies are at such a low confirms that the US is more effective when it operates without Pakistani co-operation that it does with it. It confirms that the Pakistanis have been a hindrance rather than a help in the hunt for Bin Laden. It does not yet confirm that the Pakistanis have actively sheltered Bin Laden. But the cirumstances of his death hardly suggest a wholehearted effort on behalf of Pakistan in finding him.

David Cameron got into real trouble last summer, when he suggested that Pakistan "looks both ways on terrorism". But today's events, as both Afghanistan and India have been quick to claim vindication of their scepticism, suggest this might be true.

Cameron's remarks prompted outrage in Pakistan from both government and its people. The outrage was worse for appearing as though the UK was now parroting Indian and American suspicion of Pakistan. But - in the end - Cameron's comments (echoed by many US diplomats) were always as shadowy as the rogue elements in Pakistan's intelligence agencies that they denounced.

No longer. The United States has pulled off a significant coup in its relations with the intelligence agency - in reality a state within a state - it worked with to create today's problems in Afghanistan and that it needs to be reformed to solve Afghanistan. Elements within Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency have never quite given up their sponsorship for terrorism - whether it's insurgents in Afghanistan, Kashmiri terrorists or sheltering Osama Bin Laden.

But today, they have been caught red-handed - in the most blatant way possible - of at best inefficiency and at worst outright connivance with the world's most wanted terrorist.

Al Qaeda may be weakened following Osama Bin Laden's death. But the real game changer may well be in shocking Pakistan's intelligence agencies to stop their double dealing for good. And that may have as much impact on the so-called "war on terror" as any weakening of Al-Qaeda.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Worth a street party

My first blog was published this week at the Lib Dem Voice blog. You can read it here: Welcome to anyone visiting my blog for the first time. I've been blogging since just before the General Election (which I predicted to within one seat) - and I try to blog regularly on anything that I think liberals should care about.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

New Europe, old debates

This week, Portugal finally gave in. After nearly a year of speculation, Prime Minister José Socrates followed Greece and Ireland and requested a whopping EU bailout of £60bn.

Nick Clegg’s election campaign warned of “Greek style unrest” if the UK cut public services too hard. George Osborne this week turned that argument around. Britain will avoid the fate of Greece, Ireland and Portugal because “difficult decisions” have been taken to build “credibility and stability” in the UK economy.

But Portugal’s plight sparks more worry about the coalition’s European policy than it does its economic policy. The Treasury confirmed that Britain may have to contribute £4bn – of, incidentally, borrowed money – to bail out Portugal.

Conservatives are up in arms, claiming that Alistair Darling made Britain liable for eurozone debt at a summit held in the post-election stalemate, as Cameron and Clegg were thrashing out their coalition deal.

That Darling was to blame is, however, in dispute. Darling claims that he consulted Osborne who supported the decision to make Britain liable. Tory Freedom of Information requests for accounts of the discussions between the Chancellors have been stalled.

The information need to be released. This Tory-led government is holier than thou on transparency when it suits them, the former FOI bashers claiming this to be one of the most open administrations ever. Well, trasparency can't be selective: release the information when it's uncomfortable too.

At talks with Angela Merkel in May, the new Prime Minister decided to withdraw the UK from eurozone discussions on crucial issues like bailouts. The result? The UK remains liable to stump up cash for a bail out, but is shut out from the talks that decide the conditions and shape of any bail out.

Sounds familiar? The story of the UK’s involvement in Europe has always been one of sticking our head in the sand and muddling “influence” and “sovereignty”. Once again, a Conservative led government has squandered our influence in order to protect the more illusory goal of “sovereignty” – imagining sovereignty simply something to be “won” or “lost”, not something that can be more effective or less effective depending on how you use it.

Tory MPs cheered David Cameron on his return from the European Council last week, as he repeated the mantra that the UK “is not in the euro, and never will join the euro”.

When will we learn that safeguarding our sovereignty with Europe is not just about saying “no” or shutting ourselves out of debates, as we have done on countless occasions? On the eurozone bailout, we once again find ourselves picking up the bill but not sitting at the same table as the other diners.

George Osborne made it to the EU bailout summit in the end, and returned claiming that the UK will not bail out Portugal.

All rather disingenuous. Of course we won't bailout Portugal bilaterally as we did with Ireland, our nearest neighbour and key trading partner. Osborne knows that the UK most certainly will contribute money to the bail out multilaterally through the European Union.

Of course we need to be careful about liability. The UK did not join the euro and it is right that eurozone countries should shoulder a heavier responsibility in coming to Portugal's rescue. But let's not pretend that we can also let Portugal, and the eurozone, to its fate - almost as some kind of "we told you so" badge of honour to vindicate a policy of non-entry to the euro.

It is entirely right that we help out countries who matter to us economically. And it is in the UK's national interest to see the eurozone succeed. 70% of our trade is with the eurozone. Just as we bailed out Ireland because we were inextricably linked with Ireland through trade, so it is in our interests to make a contribution to seeing the eurozone stabilise.

So let's not let our European policy get stuck in the dogma of the past. Too often, debate on Europe drifts into being "for" or "against". It's not that simple. On matters like the eurozone bailout, let's talk more about our shared interests than about our bottom lines.

With the eurozone, in the Prime Minister's words, we're all in this together. Like it or not.

Monday, 21 March 2011

In it together

Once again, the UK is at war. Within a year of David Cameron's premiership, we see him delivering a sombre statement that confirms British troops are in action over foreign soil. All this whilst we are still figuring a way out of a near ten year old conflict in Afghanistan and where Iraq - invaded nearly eight years ago this month - is out of the headlines but has yet to fully stabilise.

It's clear that Gaddafi was brutalising his people. The rebel held city of Benghazi in eastern Libya was under severe threat of a house to house operation by Gaddafi's forces. After the wave of popular revolution swept - mostly peacefully - through Tunisia and Egypt, such a wave of revolution in Libya was always likely to meet an iron Gaddafi fist.

And so, after some weeks of delay whilst the US stood back and let the UK and those former cheese-eating French surrender monkeys lead the way, we have a UN resolution that authorises "all necessary steps" to deal with Gaddafi. Or, specifically, "all necessary steps" to protect civilians, freeze Gaddafi's assets and establish a no-fly zone over Libya. So far, so good, for the Arab League and for the Russians and Chinese who felt no need to wield their vetoes.

Resolution secured, David Cameron secured some deserved plaudits. He held firm, and dashed the doubters who scorned his flirtation with a no-fly zone in the face of American indifference. In truth, the United States have played a clever game. They've stood back, let other countries do the running, keen to avoid the perception of the United States once again deciding to meddle in an Arab nation's affairs.

But now the tough part starts. They may have held back diplomatically, but the bombs and missiles that began hitting Gaddafi targets over the weekend have, of course, been overwhelmingly from the United States. A spatter of European nations have joined in, including Britain, with a Tornado here and a Tomahawk missile there from Mediterranean submarines.

And where is it all going to lead? As a student, I remember defending Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq whilst the vast majority of my peers were marching in the streets of London. In favour of intervention then, perhaps I've learned a new scepticism on military action.

Libya in 2011 is not Iraq in 2003. But we still need to be sure we are getting this right. Dealing with maniac dictators isn't easy, and Gaddafi is right up there with the looniest. Once again, we've gone in without a clear idea of how we get out. Without a clear idea of whether we're up for regime change or whether we just want to keep the peace and get Gaddafi to back off for a bit. We've set off again without a clear sense of our objective.

Ministers are making confusing noises. Over the weekend, Liam Fox appeared to talk up the possibility that Gaddafi himself is a target, saying it would "potentially be a possibility" in very halting tones. Fox then clarified that "avoiding civilian casualties" would be the main consideration in that "possibility", not a view reflected by his Chief of Defence staff today who said clearly that it was "not allowed" under UN Resolution 1973.

This all reflections a confusion, once again, at the heart of another coalition set up to intervene in another Arab state as to what our goals are. We're only just getting them right in Afghanistan after ten years fighting. And once again, with Libya, we are clearer about the moral case for action that developing the action plan that will best deliver that moral cause. Getting the ethics right is a decision based on emotion, our hard planning for all outcomes is once again lacking. Protecting civilians is a short-term objective, we still need a long-term objective to deal with the effect of delivering that short-term objective. If we do bring security to civilians, what consequences - happy as they may be - does that security bring?

What do we do if there's a stalemate? If Gaddafi, after a week or so of uncomfortable bombing, backs off Benghazi and retreats. What do we do if Gaddafi concedes eastern Libya but hangs on in the west, effectively partitioning Libya? What do we do when (I say pessimistically) the civilian casualties reach a level that causes Arab countries to withdraw their support (the Arab League has already made sceptical noises about the military action being "different" to a no-fly zone), and perhaps even openly question our intervention... creating another running sore of Western military overstretch in another Arab nation?

The moral cause may be right, the UN Resolution may have been cleverly won - but noone really knows where we go from here. Minister don't even need to rule out the use of ground troops, because Gaddafi will know that no Western government will be up for that. The most likely outcome seems to be a rough equivalent to the air strikes against Saddam Hussein in the mid 1990s - Operation Desert Fox - an air campaign, the madman retreats, the West imposes sanctions, but the madman basically hangs on pretty effectively.

That is probably the best outcome we can hope for. But whatever happens, we've thrown our lot in decisively with the Libyan people. We'd better get it right, and learn the lessons of the past. And we'd better not create another recruitment video for Al-Qaeda.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

A bit simple

It's clear that, across the Middle East, we're seeing a wave of revolution on a scale similar to the 1989 collapse of the Soviet republics of Eastern Europe. Tunisia, then Egypt and now Libya. And the British Government has struggled to keep up.

The Libya crisis has tested the Government the most. The Foreign Office failed to see it coming, with diplomats reportedly saying - as President Mubarak of Egypt fell - that Gaddaffi would be safe. And the crisis coincided horribly with David Cameron popping up on a tour of the Middle East to sell arms (part of Britain's mercantilist foreign policy - trade missions to woo India here, selling arms to the Middle East there), when Colonel Gaddaffi began to point British-sold arms at his own people as they rallied against him and for their democratic rights.

Since then, Cameron and Hague have been floundering. Cameron was this week cut loose by the United States on the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya. Hawkish in a statement to Parliament on Monday, he was toning down any military rhetoric at PMQs on Wednesday. There are reportedly splits in the Cabinet, with Hague and Clegg having to fend off interventionist aspirations from Fox, Gove and Osborne. Cameron, meanwhile, is stuck in the middle.

All of this smacks of the Government having not quite become used to being a Government. Its handling of the crisis has consisted of statements one might expect of an Opposition, where it doesn't in the end bear responsibility. Talking up a no-fly zone without checking whether the United States was up for it was inept and damaging for British foreign policy. And the Government has seemed flat-footed on its recently completed strategic defence review - flirting with the idea of a no-fly zone in the same few weeks as decommissioning one of Britain's few aircraft carriers and laying off a hundred or so pilots in the middle of their training. They say that the UK's defence review doesn't need a rethink, that we're not cutting our Armed Forces too far and too fast.

I'm not sure I belive them. And here's why. The Libya handling reflects one of the most troubling aspects about the Government that Nick Clegg's Lib Dems have allied themselves too. It's all a bit simplistic. Economic policy is about cuts. Foreign policy is about trade and national security. Domestic policy is about... cuts and the Big Society, a good idea in dire need of some detail and leadership. The Government needs a deeper sense of what it is trying to do for Britain and where it is taking us. Simple messages are good, but not if the policies behind them are simplistic.

That, I believe, is the real issue that should worry Liberal Democrats worried about the Coalition Government that we have joined.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Cameron's "muscular liberalism"

David Cameron’s speech in Munich yesterday has grabbed headlines. The Prime Minister stating that the “state doctrine of multiculturalism” has “failed” provides a memorable and thought-provoking strap-line for his speech. It should provoke a lot of soul-searching.

Declaring multiculturalism as having failed would not always have been this easy. Tolerant Brits – and there are many of us – would have seen criticising multiculturalism as in itself some kind of attack on Britain, akin to bashing the NHS or the BBC. The multiculturalism that Cameron claims is now harming Britain, was once seen as a very British trait – of treading a careful and tolerant middle ground, not wishing to offend or be extreme.

Now, Cameron says this British trait is a threat to Britain. His remarks prioritised combating Islamist violent extremism as the driver for a re-think. But, in what was a short speech, the link between different cultures leading separate lives and extremists who threaten our national security was not sufficiently clear. Cameron said we should do more to tackle hate preachers. He said we should do more to tackle forced marriages, where the weakness of our challenge “reinforces a feeling that not enough is shared”.

It was a short speech in which Cameron dashed quickly across a political minefield. The basic summary of the speech – that we need to find a more cohesive approach to glue our society together – is right. And we probably do the “muscular liberalism” that he spoke of – arguing strongly for the liberal values that are part of British society.

This is still a problem in search of a solution. The most pressing need is for there to be a higher quality debate. Less polarised. Less defensive both within the Muslim community and outside it. But I can’t help feeling that arguing for greater community integration in the context of tackling violent Islamist extremism, will only make that task harder. It is broader than that. It involves isolating extremists on both sides – including the thousands of English Defence League activists who crowded the streets of Luton yesterday.

If “muscular liberalism” is to work, it cannot point the finger at one part of society. To do so risks entrenching separate communities further. They are defensive. They are polarised. We must criticise where criticism is necessary, but as Cameron says “we are all in this together”. So, Cameron’s approach of saying “to belong here is to believe in these things” needs to apply to everyone – including the dinner party Islamophobes identified by Baroness Warsi who polarise the debate further by failing to separate religion from political ideology.

And if we are to flex our liberal muscles more – it needs to be as much about what values we believe in, as the values we put into practice. It is no coincidence that the majority of areas in which there are racial tensions are deprived areas, where the fight for public services and jobs is more acute. We need a wide debate, but actions will be as important as words.

Monday, 31 January 2011

A positive step, but don't forget the hacking

The Home Secretary's announcement last week on counter-terrorism powers was a step in the right direction. It was also another step in the right direction for the Liberal Democrats as a serious party of government.

Of course they had pledged to get rid of control orders. And they haven't. Control orders have been re-badged - but they still remain. But they have been softened - and the government should be applauded for finding a middle ground between protecting the fundamental liberty of living in peace and security and finding a more liberal way of dealing with the small number of terrorist suspects who it is not possible to deal with through the normal procedures of the criminal justice system.

Many will be disappointed. Liberty accused the Government of "bottling it" on control orders. Maybe. But the Government actually deserves real credit here for marking a step change since the Labour days of complacently trampling over civil liberties. There was never a need to detain suspects before charge for in excess of forty days. The previous control orders regime was excessively restrictive. And in doing so, they created a grievance that is felt as much on the streets of Afghanistan and Pakistan as it is in the UK.

The Home Secretary's announcement was an important step in Britain moving in a more liberal direction. During the same week, we also saw more politicians and celebrities come out and say that they believed their voicemails had been hacked into by the News of the World. During the same week that the Government made it harder for councils to spy on ordinary people. But the News of the World investigation has focussed too much on issues of personality and vanity around Andy Coulson. Guilty or not guilty of knowing what was going on under his editorship, I don't think the liberal argument against the phone hacking scandal has been vociferous enough. It is completely unacceptable for there to have been any phone hacking by a major tabloid newspaper. Celebrities are not fair game. It is not okay.

And, call me an "establishment" liberal, but I have far less confidence in a tabloid newspaper wielding that power than I do over the difficult decisions that sometimes have to be made to restrict the liberties of a terrorist suspect (where, let's be honest, there is often considerable inadmissible evidence) in favour of protecting the freedom of a majority to live in peace and security.

And this is precisely the kind of liberal journey that the Liberal Democrats need to - and, to their great credit, are going on - in Government. A brave week. More progress. The coalition has taken a significant step in moving Britain in a more liberal direction than Labour had ever thought possible.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Two Ed's better than one?

So, Ed Balls is the new Shadow Chancellor. There appear to be rather sad personal reasons behind Alan Johnson's hasty departure. But whatever the reasons, it allows Ed Miliband the opportunity for a bit of a re-launch and a bit of a re-think. He desperately needs one. His first hundred days, always scrutinised by the pundits, were uninspiring and very forgettable. The media is labelling Ed as a man with nothing to say - there were brutally funny cartoons of Ed surrounded by students waving placards. Tellingly, Ed's placard was blank.

And this has been the mark of Ed's first few month's as leader. Labour has struggled to define itself as the coalition has charged around with reforms on welfare, health and education and the sheer scale of the cuts outlined in October's comprehensive spending review. But it really is about the economy, stupid, and Labour's position on the deficit and on spending cuts was fatally weakened by Alan Johnson's nice guy approach - he was a nice guy, but failed to land any blows on George Osborne because it was clear he didn't really do the numbers.

Ed Balls will surely be different. He has one of the most formidable ecomomic brains in Parliament today. For too long in this Parliament, Labour has struggled to be a credible and effective opposition. Balls, like Brown in his wait for the Premiership, has waited a long time for this. He wanted to be Chancellor of course, and lost out to Alistair Darling. He wanted to be Shadow Chancellor and was disappointed to be appointed Shadow Home Secretary. Whilst Ed Miliband has placed Balls in his own office and under his own media team, we can expect Ed Balls to bring much greater clarity to Labour's attacks on the economy. Ed Miliband has a chance to beef up his Opposition with Ball's talent deployed where it can make a real difference.

The first task will be to figure out a strategy to blunt Tory attacks that Labour are "deficit deniers". Balls and Miliband will need to craft a more credible line than they have so far where Labour went wrong on the economy. Of course, the bank bail-outs triggered a huge rise in borrowing. But Labour will need to be more honest about the role it played in the banks getting to that stage in the first place. When it comes to the economy, it's all about trust - and the Tory line that Labour are in denial is one that is sticking and needs to be addressed.

A further task will be for Labour to ensure that two Ed's really are better than one. There is great potential here for Ed Balls to undermine and overshadow Ed Miliband who has, thus far, been uninspiring. Ed Balls ran a superb leadership campaign over the summer - he has softened his image and shows great capacity for re-inventing himself. He reminds me of Michael Portillo, the Thatcherite villain of the left, who came back as Shadow Chancellor under William Hague's leadership and took the party in a bold direction, reversing - for example - Tory opposition to the minimum wage. Ed Balls has the capacity to make the same kind of break with Labour's past and, in doing so, escape the Brownite villain status that still hangs round his neck.

He's been waiting for this for so long - you have to expect Ed Balls to make the most of his chance. And if he does well and Miliband continues to falter, he may just have an eye on the leadership too.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Change that works for you?

The Lib Dems began 2011 with a dreadful poll. Just one poll admittedly, but it was the worst poll rating for the party since it was formed. Just 8% in a YouGov tracker poll for 2011. Another snapshot poll put them at 11%.

Whichever way you look at it, the Lib Dems are facing probably their most testing year since they were formed in 1988. They campaigned in the 2010 General Election with the slogan "Change that Works for You". Well, the country certainly got change. 2010 brought about the most dramatic change in British politics since the Second World War. A full coalition government; not the half-way house of the Lib-Lab pact in the 1970s.

Doing things radically differently in politics opens politicians open to huge political risk. That risk is harder to manage if the risk has, essentially, never been tried before. Britain's unfair electoral system delivers governments that make the public unused to parties working in partnership together. And with that lack of understanding comes the risk that the junior partner is seen as an annex to a larger party, irrelevant in its own status and purpose.

I don't think it is overdramatic to say that in 2011, the Liberal Democrats face a battle for survival. It is one they may well emerge from successfully, but the battle is there nonetheless. Nick Clegg took a gamble - and it's not yet clear whether the "Change that Works for You" that Nick Clegg has delivered for his own party will indeed be a change that works for the Lib Dems. Has he delivered his party into a fatal bear hug from David Cameron, in which the Conservatives can simply swallow up the Liberal Democrats? Would it matter if Cameron does swallow up the Lib Dems - can the Conservative Party safeguard the values that the Liberal Democrats have fought for since their formation in 1988 and in their various iterations before that? I believe it does matter that the Lib Dems survive.

I am in favour of the Lib Dems being serious partners in full coalition government. Nick Clegg promised on his first day as leader that he would be driven by a desire for "ambition and change". He has delivered both of those. Under his leadership, the party has grown in ambition and seriousness. The 2010 manifesto - notwithstanding a foolish promise on tuition fees - was the party's most credible manifesto promoted by a credible leader (gone were the wooly press conferences of the Charles Kennedy era when he struggled through a hangover to explain a local income tax).

Joining the coalition government was a necessary step in proving the value of three party politics in Britain. But the trouble with it is that three party politics does not exist yet. Britain still has a voting system that delivers two strong parties and leaves the smaller parties with a share of Westminster seats that barely does justice to their national support (how is it right that a party with 25% of the vote receives less than 10% of the seats in Parliament?). Clegg has gambled that he can create three party politics and win the voting reforms needed to make the Lib Dems more relevant and more powerful in the long term, by adopting a strategy which risks making the Lib Dems more irrelevant in the short term.

There are ways in which the risk can be managed. Supporting tuition fees was the right thing to do; it was wrong to have courted the student vote so transparently when it appears Lib Dem Ministers were always more open-minded than they suggested on the campaign trail. But they can't afford many more compromises - the decision on control orders, for example, needs to decide against them as a result of Lib Dem influence. It is, alongside tuition fees, one of the totemic Lib Dem policies that they need to be seen to deliver on in government. Otherwise, Lib Dem Ministers really are just window-dressing. Nick Clegg cannot afford another defeat on a core Lib Dem policy. Noone will vote for more pluralist voting systems if the coalition governments they produce are seen to be indistinguishable from a government where one party was in power.

But Clegg should also be given credit for what the Lib Dems have achieved, and tell that story more effectively. Many parts of the Lib Dem manifesto got into the Coalition Agreement and are now being implemented. But who knows how much of it? 65% of it is, and that should be part of the core narrative of the Lib Dems in government - otherwise they will keep being bashed for the compromises they will inevitably have to make rather than taking credit for steering the Tories in a more liberal direction in many cases.

In short, 2011 needs to be the year that the Lib Dems make this change work for them. Bold in standing up for core Lib Dem beliefs. Bold in telling a proud story of Lib Dems delivering and influencing change as a credible part of government.