Friday, 29 October 2010

Is Barnet the most inept council in the land?

During my weekly cull of junk mail and freesheets that have come through the letterbox, I discovered this morning a copy of barnetfirst, a 16-page magazine distributed to homes by London Borough of Barnet. "Budget special. Give us your bright ideas," it naively proclaims on the cover, and inside there's news of a new website where residents can submit their money-saving suggestions.

Ignoring the rather obvious riposte that the magazine itself seems ripe for the chop, my first step would be to tighten up control on its distribution. You see, I don't live in Barnet. I'm two streets away, in Camden.

Such sloppy wasted effort should come as no surprise, really, from the council that has just revealed it is spending £1.5 million this year on setting up its supposedly money-saving 'easyCouncil' initiative, to bring in just £1.4 million of savings. You really couldn't make it up, could you?

I suppose there must be some pockets of efficiency and value-for-money services being delivered in Barnet, but from my perspective across the boundary of the unloved corner of the borough that is Cricklewood, I don't see them. Instead, I see more litter, less gritting, worse town planning and crazier parking rules in this Conservative-run borough than in neighbouring Camden and Brent, which both until recently enjoyed Lib Dem-led administrations.

Instead of voting themselves hugely controversial increases in allowances, the Conservative leadership in Barnet really needs to get a grip. Being complacent and out-of-touch is bad enough at the best of times, but when things are falling apart, it's a recipe for disaster.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Ed Miliband, Haverstock and me

I don't know Ed Miliband personally, but we both share connections to a place called Haverstock. If the universe of politics had ley lines, then to me Haverstock (named after the hill on which it stands) has all the signs of being one of the special places where they'd intersect.

My first encounter with Haverstock came in the council by-election of February 2003, when local community activist Jill Fraser won the formerly safe Labour seat for the Lib Dems on a 20 percent swing. That small, orange-coloured stake in the ground in the midst of Labour's Camden heartlands presaged the sweeping gains our party made in the 2006 full Council elections, when Lib Dems became the largest party in Camden and led the ruling administration for the next four years.

One of the pleasures of canvassing and leafletting in Haverstock ward is to glimpse a plaque in Maitland Park marking the spot where Karl Marx lived until his death in 1883. To know that the street where Marx lived when he was writing 'Das Kapital' is now in a Liberal Democrat-held ward speaks volumes for this party's claim to replace Labour as standard bearer for modern progressive politics. Much of Haverstock's heritage was wiped out by bombing in World War II (including the original house where Marx lived) and has been replaced by post-war social housing. But its cosmopolitan history as a thriving hub of London's working and aspiring classes still stands.

The Miliband brothers grew up in the family home in neighbouring Primrose Hill and attended the local comprehensive, Haverstock School, which sits within the ward of the same name. Both of them revisited the school during the Labour leadership campaign, David going to speak to pupils in June, while Ed addressed a supporters' rally there in September.

Haverstock School is on the same site where David and Ed Miliband were pupils, but the old Victorian buildings no longer exist. It was completely rebuilt in 2006 in a £21m PFI project and this May it served for the first time as the location for Camden's election night count. The parliamentary count ground on right through the night, finally delivering a bitter counterblow to our conviction that we could win Hampstead and Kilburn from Labour. After being up all night, we then had to endure counting that afternoon of the full Council results, where the higher general election turnout helped to turn our narrow victories over Labour in several wards in 2006 into equally narrow defeats in 2010. We ceded 10 of the 24 we'd won in 2006 or in later by-elections and, with other losses by the Tories and Greens, the result gave back control of the Council to Labour.

In a twist of cruel fate, the result in Haverstock ward was not declared that night because of the sad and sudden death during the campaign of one of our councillors seeking re-election. The deferred election, held three weeks later, saw Liberal Democrats retain all three seats, an early boost to party confidence in the wake of nervousness about the electoral impact of the coalition. The result was declared the night before another Haverstock ex-pupil, Oona King, chose the school as the venue to launch her failed bid to supplant Ken Livingstone as Labour's candidate for London Mayor. Perhaps she had hoped to celebrate the recapture of the ward by Labour, but Haverstock instead chose to cement its allegiance to the Liberal Democrat team.

As I queued to collect my bag from the cloakroom in Haverstock School after the final Camden result had been declared in that marathon count of May 6 and 7, I happened to be standing in front of Frank Dobson, the re-elected Labour MP for Camden's other parliamentary seat, Holborn and St Pancras. The narrowness of the council results had left us with several councillors whose personal votes had helped them win the third seat of a three-member ward, including Camden Town with Primrose Hill, the ward that includes the Miliband's family home. I couldn't help overhearing the MP as he discussed the result with his companion. "It's a shame we've still got those odd Liberals dotted about here and there," I heard him say, or words to that effect.

For a second or two, I bristled at being spoken of so dismissively. But then I realised we should profit from such complacency. Liberal Democrats have established themselves as a permanent feature of the modern British political landscape, and Labour isn't going to shift us aside as easily as they hope. Ed Miliband's party need only look at his home turf for evidence of that.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

All Europeans now

British diplomatic sources seem to be oozing with pride at the fresh, more Euro-savvy side to Britain that the change of government has brought to our dealings with EU partners. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg astonished his Spanish hosts on an official visit last week by flying into Madrid on EasyJet, blogged Giles Paxman, our ambassador to Spain. Meanwhile, another British official gushed to BBC Europe editor Gavin Hewitt about environment secretary Caroline Spelman's "impressive" ability to speak fluent French and German.

Yet this is no more than thousands of Britons do every day of the week as they shuttle around the continent on business or pleasure. I've always taken the line that EasyJet and RyanAir (along with EuroStar, for those of us in central London) have done more to integrate Anglo-Saxons (and Celts) into Europe than anything achieved by the EU. Most business destinations are a very affordable £150 return fare away, and half that if I book carefully. The euro has done its bit too — for any trip I simply have to pick up my passport and my bag of euros and I'm off. Once I'm there, I can get by in English, but if I'm serious about doing business or absorbing the culture, I should learn the local language.

The fact that it's an unfamiliar sight for British government ministers to act like this is I think more of a reflection on how out-of-touch the last government was than anything specially Euro-friendly about the new one. We simply have a government that more accurately reflects how the British population interacts with Europe today. I often wonder what Euro-sceptics really mean when they fulminate about 'leaving Europe'. Are the millions of Britons who live, work or own business interests in European countries supposed to just uproot themselves and relocate back to the UK? How popular is that going to be? How helpful to the economy?

The truth of the matter is that all those holiday homes in France and Spain, all those business ventures in central and Eastern Europe, all those cross-border social ties and friendships, would be so much less accessible if it weren't for all that the EU has done to harmonize markets in Europe. How would today's globally connected, Internet-enabled young adults react if we went back to having to have our passports endorsed every time we changed currency, as I had to do for my first school exchange visit to France in the early 1970s? Such constraints on freedom of movement seem unthinkable in today's more open global society — but we risk revisiting them if we can't get the global economy in order.

As someone who does business in Europe, I want more integration, not less. Next week, I'm attending a conference in Luxembourg which I've helped to organise as a prime mover in EuroCloud, an industry group that is bringing together European providers of cloud computing. We want to see more harmonization so that businesses in our industry aren't constantly tripping over differences in national legislation relating to issues such as data privacy. In an industry that has to compete with US rivals, I want to know why we're handicapping our indigenous businesses with so many barriers to doing business cross-border, or why — here's a simple example — every individual European nation organizes its own trade missions to the US instead of pooling resources to show off the best of the European technology industry in a single, shock-and-awe display.

Of course we should still be sceptical about European institutions, and challenge them when they err towards excessive interventionism rather than working collaboratively with business and national or regional agencies. But the notion that Britons are somehow not native Europeans is belied by the evidence of social integration that's all around us. Once the civil service has caught up with the rest of us and overcome its amazement at how European we've all become, perhaps we can just get down to collectively making Europe a better place for all of us to live and work.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Making the case has never mattered more

After five days on tenterhooks, an involuntary smile surreptitiously curled around my lips late on Tuesday when I discovered that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg would become the UK's deputy prime minister — marking the first time in 65 years the party has participated in the British government.

It was even more uplifting to scan the list of policies achieved in the initial coalition agreement. To name but a few that caught my eye, there was the commitment to take low income earners out of tax, a referendum on PR and other reforms, a raft of green measures, a determination to devolve more autonomy to local government, an end to the scandal of children detained in immigration centres and — hooray! — "a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion."

My delight was tempered by the knowledge that we have been dealt a tough hand, coming into power in circumstances I most feared, at a time when the government will have to make deeply unpopular economic decisions. But there is no point wringing our hands. Wishful thinking cannot change the arithmetic that would have made a 'left alliance' government unsustainable, even assuming the support of many in Labour's ranks who in fact were dead set against it.

The messages and positioning we adopt now are crucial. The old confrontational, first-past-the-post political system has left Liberal Democrats defining ourselves too often in terms of what we're not, asking for votes to stop Labour or stop Conservative instead of setting out the positive reasons for voting Lib Dem. For whatever reason almost 7 million people cast their vote for us in the general election, and those votes counted towards getting the Lib Dem policies that Nick Clegg and his team negotiated so well to include in the government's programme.

We had a strong hand because we had campaigned on a carefully prepared manifesto and four clear pledges. We must be equally explicit in all our campaigns. At other layers of government, where other parties are in power, we must continue to hold them to account and make the case for alternative views. But we can only do that with authority if we have been clear about what we stand for.

Now that we are in power nationally, the spotlight will stay on us and we must take every opportunity to emphasise what we can achieve as a partner in government. Writing on LibDemVoice, Kelvin MacDonald Fraser put it succinctly this week: "the people of this country will have a far more compassionate, open, and fair government as a result of this deal than would have been the case otherwise." We must keep reminding the people of what we're safeguarding and nurturing by our influence and actions.

Being in government doesn't mean we have to stop campaigning for the things we believe in and against those we oppose. On the contrary, it's even more crucial now for us to make the case for distinctive Liberal Democrat ideals and policies. It's the only way we'll persuade people to vote for us in future elections.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Great Britain: No Overall Control

Liberal Democrats party president Ros Scott has asked members to email her their views on how the leadership should handle the outcome of the general election, which leaves no single party in a position to form a government without the support of others. Those views will be taken into account when the Federal Executive meets this afternoon to discuss what to do next — a meeting that forms part of the party's clear democratic processes laid down for just this eventuality.

It is characteristic of Ros (I'm so pleased I voted for her, especially when I remember who the alternatives were in that election) and of the Lib Dems as a party to consult in this way. It's something of a novelty for the House of Commons to end up in 'No Overall Control' (John Major's government had no majority at the end of his term in the mid-1990s, but the last time a general election delivered this outcome was in 1974). But the experience is routine for local councils up and down the country, and so there is a wealth of skill and expertise in the party to draw upon on how to handle negotiations in such circumstances.

My own views are set out below:
  • As the party supporting electoral reform and thus the prospect of more hung parliaments in the future, we must try to make this work, and yes, of course that means working with other parties.
  • We were very clear about our four key pledges and we must play it straight. This is not the time to introduce new demands or to give undue priority to policies that were not emphasised during the campaign.
  • Our campaign was big on fairness. So let's not try and gainsay the result. It's absolutely clear which party won. Fairness demands that we make every effort to work with the Conservatives. It would (rightly) be seen as grossly unfair if we gave in to siren calls to plunge straight into a 'coalition of the left' as a ploy to deny the Conservatives power.
  • It's equally clear that it was not an outright win. The British public voted for qualified Conservative government, and are looking to the Liberal Democrats to ensure a moderate, inclusive, commonsense Conservative government. One that protects public services, ensures the wealthy bear a proportionate share of the economic burdens we're all going to endure and gives no ground to the party's loonier fringes.
  • Our negotiating position should start from the basis of votes cast, not seats won. We may only have 57 MPs compared to 306 Conservatives, but our MPs represent 23% of the popular vote compared to 36% for the Conservatives. In a coalition, those vote shares entitle the Liberal Democrats to two-fifths of seats in the cabinet. To get a deal that Cameron can sell to his MPs, we'll have to give some ground on that, but let's not forget where we're starting from.
  • This is our big opportunity to show the British public that having an election that results in no party having a majority can be a good thing. A long period of indecision, a lot of unintelligible horse-trading and an unstable government will do our cause no good at all.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The morning after

Well, that was not at all what we'd wished for. A truly deflating night, and yet we must remember the result is a lot better than the outcome most pundits were predicting for the Liberal Democrats a couple of months ago. Most extraordinary are the seemingly idiosyncratic swings, which delivered us several dramatic wins to offset the disappointments that other swings brought home. My home constituency of Hampstead & Kilburn proved to be balanced on a three-way knife-edge, with Ed Fordham just 799 votes adrift of a win, but the Tories coming even closer, to within 42 votes of dislodging Glenda Jackson as MP. It's the kind of narrow gap that always makes you wonder whether you could have done just that little bit more to make the difference.

Whatever we might have done, though, the fates of our candidates ultimately lay in the lap of the voting public, and a final surge in voting decisions that had not been prefigured by the opinion polls. Voters were genuinely engaged with this election in a way that we haven't seen for many years and thought carefully about how to cast their votes. They wanted change and many considered voting for the Liberal Democrats as a catalyst of change. But what seems to have happened in the final analysis is that voters backed off from taking a chance on what many still felt was an unknown quantity. Instead, they decided overwhelmingly to stay with the 'devil they knew,' even if the change it offered was less radical. That sentiment denied the Lib Dems their hoped-for breakthrough, and firmed up the Labour and Conservative totals, as don't knows came home to the party they trusted the most (or distrusted the least).

Unfortunately for those who like their election results to be decisive, the public did not all lean emphatically in a single direction. This presents a problem for our political leaders, because they are well aware that the public wants change, but there is no clear mandate that spells out what that change must be. Such circumstances call for consensual, inclusive leadership, but I'm not at all confident that Conservatives understand that there's a difference between decisive leadership and autocratic decision-making.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

What will tonight bring?

The polls have closed and at last I'm free to launch this blog on what will prove to be either the most portentous or the most deflating of election nights in modern times. For the past few years, Raw Liberal has been prowling around inside my head, raging against the authoritarian complacency of the Blair-Brown government. Now that it is finally out of its cage, what new world will greet it?

Although I may regret writing this when I look back on it tomorrow afternoon with the benefit of hindsight, it looks as though the Lib Dem tally of MPs will end up somewhere in the range 80-140. A total either higher or lower is also possible, but less likely. I'm attending the count in Camden tonight, where the results will show which end of that range we're heading. If we end up with below 80 MPs then Ed Fordham's result in Hampstead & Kilburn is going to be on a three-way knife-edge (if you'll excuse the unsightly metaphor). If on the other hand we're heading towards 140, then Holborn & St Pancras comes within reach for Jo Shaw.

My dream scenario (in both the 'Mmmm, nice' and 'In your dreams' senses) sees us winning enough seats to become either the largest party (and form a government) or at least usurp Labour as second largest in the House of Commons and thus the official opposition to a Conservative minority government. While this seems an outlandish hope, it would merely replicate on a national scale what we achieved four years ago in Camden, coming from third place to squeak in as largest party through a highly effective targetting strategy (we have since consolidated our position and have high hopes of winning outright control in today's elections).

All the other scenarios are nightmarish to a greater or lesser degree. Unfortunately (and despite the Lib Dems' heroic efforts), we'll probably see a discredited Labour party cling on to many more seats than its tally of votes will justify. Much has been written about the ill effects should Labour retain enough seats to form a government, but it will be just as bad in my view to have a deadweight Labour rump holding the formal role of official opposition while tearing itself apart instead of doing a proper job of holding a Conservative government to account.

As Vince Cable recently pointed out, a Conservative overall majority is unlikely to have enough electoral support behind it to give a strong mandate for the necessary harsh economic decisions that the incoming government will have to take. A minority Conservative government, perhaps propped up by Unionists and Nationalists, will simply defer tough action and instead attempt to bribe the electorate while positioning itself to call an early second election in the hope of consolidating its hold on government.

For the good of the country, I must therefore hope that both the old parties will fall far short of winning a majority, leaving them no choice but to enter into negotiations to form a coalition government with a clear mandate to govern. For Liberal Democrats, however, it may prove a poison chalice. As Michael Parris wrote in an astute article a few days ago, the public, though eager for its politicians to tell them the truth about our economic circumstances, is angrily poised to punish them for making them suffer the consequences. Past transitions from boy wonder to elder statesman or from Stalin to Mr Bean will seem glacial in comparison to the meteoric plunge from heady resurgence to electoral perdition that could face us.

No wonder Liberal Democrats are watching and waiting tonight with nervous trepidation. We dare not believe that we may be about to witness the breaking of the British electoral mould for which we've striven so long. And we have every reason to be careful what we wish for.