Friday, May 30, 2014

We owe the younger generation more than bigotry and prejudice

Roger Helmer, UKIP's candidate at Newark, is 70 which means that he is from the youth wing of the Party. True Nigel Farage is only 50 but he has attitudes broadly similiar to that of my Father who would have been 98 this year. The Kippers live in the past. We all, of a certain age, do to some extent of course and I have my moments of Old Fartdom. But when I worry occasionally whether my Baby Boomer generation has left the right legacy for our children and theirs my doubts don't last for long. We are today infinitely more tolerant, more open, more outward looking, more international than listening to the UKIP mouthpieces would ever suggest.

Some 50% of Brits in their twenties today went to a University. Far, far higher than in my day. In further education you meet people different to you. You don't debate multicultarism, you live it. You don't question tolerance it's how you live. You take people as you find them and don't buy the prejudices that others would have you adopt. The pompous bigots of UKIP and their fellow travellers on the Right of the Conservative Party throw insular xenophobic rants at you and you ignore them. It doesn't mean that you become a political activist - though you may do this. But it does mean that you associate intolerance with a generation that offers you nothing.

The future isn't ours - we of the three score years and ten generation. The future is for those forty years and more younger than we are. The UKIP mob would have us hand over a future to these people with Britain returned back to the 1950s. Isolated. Unicultural. Cut off from Europe. A State to be seen as sadly clinging on to the wreckage of the past rather than optimistically working together to embrace the future. Ask a young British person whether he or she is European and you'll get a "Silly Question" look back. You not only can be British and European - you genetically are. It's in your DNA. Ask a person who at University probably studied and lived with students of a dozen or more nationalities whether they'd mind if a Romanian family moved in next door to you and they wouldn't understand the question and might suggest therapy to you.

In the recent elections the younger and better educated voters had no truck with UKIP. The future is theirs not ours. Time we cleared the way for them. 

What now is the point of the LibDems ?

The Party is called the Liberal Democrats. The "Democrats" bit comes from the SDP and so do, or did, many of its supporters and some of its leaders like Vince Cable and Shirley Williams. The SDP was Anti Conservative and only Anti Labour in regret. SDP had only one reason to exist - to promote Social Democratic values when it saw Labour as being too hard Left. Under Kinnock and especially Blair/Brown Labour moved to the centre Left and in effect became the SDP in all but name ! It still is. "Red Ed" is a preposterous inaccuracy. The Labour Party Miliband leads is Social Democratic rather than Socialist.

The LibDems in opposition were mostly "Labour Lite" - although on some issues they were actually a bit to the Left of Labour when the latter was in Government. Their opposition to the Blair wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was principled and got them a fair bit of support. In the 2010 General Election Nick Clegg ran a good campaign positioning himself as the energetic Left of Centre alternative to the exhausted Gordon Brown. If you didn't like the Conservatives, and you'd grown tired of Labour the LibDems were a rational alternative. Or so it seemed. Young (especially), softer Left and (especially as well) people with a good education voted LibDem in large numbers. The secured 23% of the vote (although "only" 57 or 6.5% of the seats in the House of Commons).

To enter into Coalition with Cameron's Conservatives ran contrary to LibDem values and history. The political spectrum in Britain ran, in 2010, from the Far Right (BNP/UKIP) through the Right and Centre Right (Conservatives) and then crossed the Right/Left divide into LibDem, Labour and Green Party territory. There was certainly a soft centre potential policy consensus embracing mainstream Conservatives, who under Cameron ran the Party, the LibDems and much of "New" Labour. But nevertheless there was a quite strong line down the middle dividing Left and Right. If there was to be a Coalition it seemed illogical to cross that line. Which meant, effectively, that the only Coalition option was a left of centre one - one that for old SDP members like me was the highly desirable realignment of the Left we had yearned for. A LibLab pact. A Coalition between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. It would, with only 315 seats to Cameron's 305, have probably struggled. But the ideological logic of it would have made sense and few voters from either of its constituent Parties would, I think, have objected.

The Coalition runs counter to everything the SDP stood for. The economic Liberal wing of the LibDems - Clegg, Laws, Alexander and the rest wanted it. But many of us ordinary LibDem voters, especially like me with SDP previous, did not. The compromises the LibDems made to their "values" to be able to form and then sustain the Coalition made one wonder whether those values meant anything at all. The 2010 LibDem manifesto was largely ignored by them in government. Did they put checks on the wilder Rightist policy ambitions of the Tories? I doubt it. Danny Alexander, David Laws and Nick Clegg behaved like straight down the middle economic Conservatives. Vince Cable did little or nothing to suggest that he was anything but a free market Tory at heart, despite his long history in Labour and the SDP. The Coalition ministers like Cable took to the pleasures of Power as if to the manor born - they couldn't believe their luck!

I see no need for the LibDems any more. The Cleggites can make their home in the Conservative Party and we ex SDP folk can return happily to Labour. The protest vote element of the LibDems (always important) has gone to the vile bigots of UKIP - this may be Clegg's enduring legacy. In the run up to the 2015 General Election the Tories will claim that the "successes" of the Government are Conservative successes and the failures are entirely attributable to the shackles of Coalition. And the LibDems? Well you work it out...!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

You don't beat UKIP by agreeing with them


Between them Labour, the Conservatives, the LibDems and the Greens secured 64% of the UK-wide vote in the European elections. In other words the number of voters opposed to the UKIP message of prejudice and xenophobia far exceeded the 27.5% who bought it.

That UKIP topped the poll is scandalous and a condemnation of the failure of the major or respectable parties to present a universally attractive appeal. There are bigots out there for whom Mr Farage is some sort of saviour – and there are people for whom a fact-based pitch will fail. But UKIP is wrong on everything and can be shown to be so. Britain is far better as an active member of the European Union than we would be outside it. FACT. Immigration has been good for Britain both when measured empirically and when looked at from a social perspective. FACT. The main political parties are not led by self-interested, corrupt liars but by decent people who while they of course have personal ambition are mainly driven by honourable motives. FACT.

So what should the decent men and women of politics do to combat the UKIP threat? Well most importantly they should not try and adopt any of UKIP’s positions on anything. This is for two reasons. First UKIP is wrong. Secondly for one of the established Parties to lean in the UKIP direction would be counter-productive. It wouldn't gain any support back and it would to an extent legitimise UKIP’s position. Can you imagine Farage saying “Even David Cameron is now saying UKIP was right on….” !

So the right thing to do is to refute and challenge all of UKIP’s lies relentlessly. Marshall the facts and communicate well. Don't bash UKIP voters but UKIP’s leaders. Show them for the narrow, prejudiced, ignorant bigots they are. Not by insulting them personally but by revealing the extent of their lies. But that is not enough – grass roots action is necessary as well. The main parties must in their different ways convince their natural supporters that, as Tony Blair has put it:

 Britain's future lies in being "outward looking and open-minded", not "closed-minded, anti-EU and anti-immigrant".

"Attitudes that are closed-minded, anti-immigrant, anti-EU, 'stop the world I want to get off', those attitudes don't result in economic prosperity or power and influence in the world.

"There is a perfectly good, strong argument to be made - you have to go out and make it."

But that argument has to be made not (just) in the cerebral pages of “The Guardian” or “The Times” but by engaging directly with all of the people. It is not as big a task as it might seem. Lets say that around a quarter of the electorate is attracted by UKIP. Well you only need to recover half of those to reduce UKIPs influence and marginalise them as the extremists they are. 25% is approaching mainstream – 12% or less is on the fringe. We must drive UKIP back to the fringes from which they emerged. And we will only do this if we engage, speak in language that people understand and don't imply that we think UKIP voters are fools.

Monday, May 26, 2014

UKIP – a populist appeal by bigots that strikes a chord with many who may not be.


Although I believe the leadership of UKIP to be opportunistic bigots and beyond the pale that does not mean that I tar all those who voted for them with the same brush. Some undoubtedly will be – indeed as is often the case they may have Party members who are much more extreme than the leaders are. But in the main I think that UKIP’s recent election performance has been driven by ignorance and frustration – and a wish to find scapegoats.

The key positioning of UKIP is anti Europe, Anti immigration and Anti the current established political class. Nigel Farage has utter contempt for this political class - especially David Cameron who said his party was full of “loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists” .  Cameron may regret this remark – he shouldn't, it was broadly true. But it seems that the more the establishment points out that UKIP’s leaders are pretty much precisely as Cameron described them it doesn't affect UKIP’s rise one bit! Try that for a paradox.

On Twitter I had an exchange with a someone who thought that I was calling UKIP’s supporters “Far Right”. I wasn't, I was calling the Party that – an important distinction. But look at the exchange:


Note the final tweet

“[UKIP voters] are fed up with what is going on. If you lived in some of the areas in question you may have a different perspective.”

Let’s try and decode this tweet. He may be referring to areas of high unemployment where people are frustrated by  perceived political failures. But I don't think that’s what he means. I think that he is referring to areas with a high concentration of non White Britons – British Asians for example. This is dodgy territory but remember Nigel Farage’s views on multiculturalism:

“We are rejecting the doctrine of a divided, multicultural society and telling ourselves and the world that we are really proud to be British”

he said in September 2012. Now there is a subtle but crucial difference between immigration and multiculturalism but all too often remarks like Farage’s reveal that there is deliberate confusion. So for Farage being Anti immigration, which of course he is, will be interpreted as being anti-multiculturalism, which he also is as it happens! 

Back to our UKIP voter. There may be many reasons to put your X against the UKIP candidate and obviously and especially in the EU elections being anti the UK in the EU is one of the main ones. But look at that tweet again. It probably means that he thinks if I lived in a multicultural area I may “have a different perspective”.  So Vote UKIP because their leader doesn't like multiculturalism, wants to stop immigration and perhaps can do something about that fact that I don't recognise my home town any more what with the Mosque and the Halal butcher and the… I am speculating here of course but doesn't it have the ring of truth about it?

So are the anti multicultural UKIP supporters racist  or just ignorant? As BNP support has fallen UKIP support has risen. The “closet racist” now has a respectable home to go to. Not all UKIP supporters are racist and I don't directly charge the UKIP leadership with being so. But you do wonder….

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Nick Clegg formed a coalition with the Conservatives without realising that in the UK we have no coalition tradition.

Nick Clegg is half Dutch and no doubt understands the electoral system in The Netherlands well. It is the purest form of Proportional Representation you can have. In the House of Representatives there are 150 seats and each Party gets seats directly proportional to the number of votes they receive in a General Election. The graphic above shows the current situation. A Party needs to command the support of MPs in the House - 75 seats - which means unless there is a landslide a coalition will be necessary. The present coalition is between the VVD (liberal Conservatives) and the PvdA (broadly equivalent to Britain's Labour Party) - the two largest Parties with 79 seats between them. The Dutch therefore, like the Germans, currently have a Grand Coalition. 

Where in Europe PR is used then coalition government usually follows. The point about this is that the electorate understands this when they vote. They know that every vote will count so they can follow their consciences and their beliefs. There is no need to vote tactically. The electorate also knows that after an election there will be a period of horse trading as (usually) the Party with the most seats seeks one or more Coslition partners. Compromises are necessary. In The Netherlands the VVD "won" the last election with a broadly Conservative platform just beating the Social Democrats of the PvdA into second place. Then the negotiations began during a period called the "Formatie" - the "Formation" in English. A Blue/Red coalition was the outcome. A VVD voter who doesn't like socialism, or a PvdA voter who hates Conservatives might have felt aggrieved but in the main they will have accepted the situation. The reaching of consensus across all policy issues is what the Eutch system always requires in the Formatie period.

In 2010 in Britain Nick Clegg and David Cameron had a brief period of "Formatie" on the Dutch model (sort of!) but this only lasted a few days before a Coalition agreement was reached. In The Netherlands the Formatie generally takes weeks - sometimes months! Looking back at May 2010 it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the British Coalition agreement was a rush job. This is because we have no tradition of coalition Government and no processes and procedures exist. They were making it up as they went along. Perhaps the key mistake was to declare that the Coalition would last five years - we would introduce fixed term Parliaments, of which this coalition would be the first. Of course technically the Coalition could be dissolved at any time, it was a constitutional change but not one that overrode the Head of State's right to dissolve the Government at any time and precipitate an Election. But in practice a key element of the Coalition agreement was that it would last five years.

In his speech to the Conservatiive Home conference in London on 24th May the Chancellor of the Exchequer  spoke of the Goverment's achievements (as he saw them) of the last four years. These were all, as George Osborne characterised them, Conservative achievements! Indeed the Chancellor did not once mention his Coalition partners, nor the fact that there had been and still was a coalition with the LibDems. Many of the Government's Tory ministers got a name check from Mr Osborne, but not  one of the LibDem ministers! 

Because we have, unlike the Dutch, no real tradition of peacetime coalitions in a Britain in Central government the public is unfamiliar with them. So this Government has been criticised by grass roots supporters of both partners. The Tories in the country blame the LibDems for holding the Government back - especially on European policy and on spending cuts. The LibDem activists believe that key parts of the LibDem manifesto were compromised by coalition - University tuition fees for example. It has been a difficult alliance and, as we can see from the recent local election results, both coalition parties have suffered from it electorally. Some of the more pure and Right Wing Conservative voters have decamped to UKIP. Many of the left-leaning LibDem voters have gone to Labour. And it is the LibDems who have suffered most.

To vote Liberal Democrat was for many voters a protest against the two main Parties. Some liberal Conservatives voted LibDem because they believed that the current Tory Party was too Right wing. Some social democrats voted LibDem because they thought that Labour was too Red. But after four years of a Conservative-led government the situation has dramatically changed. The only credible left of centre option is now Labour - the LibDem participation in a Centre Right government has destroyed their credibility as a serious player on the Left. At the same time the protest vote imperative has passed from the LibDems to UKIP. If "None of the above" is your choice you have now to go to UKIP because the Conervatives and the LibDems are part of the establishment in government. And no doubt some of those who though at heart were natural Conservatives and were tempted by Mr Clegg have now returned to the Tory fold. 

The LibDems are between a rock and a hard place. There is no logical reason to vote for them any more - they do not have a proposition that appeals. Liberally minded Conservatives can hardly be too unhappy with Mr Cameron. Left-leaning LibDem voters will have been turned off by the Coalition and will find in Labour a comfortable home. Meanwhile some hard line previous Conservative voters defect to UKIP - to be joined by the "Stuff the lot of you" brigade! 

Nick Clegg perhaps thought that Britain was slowly moving towards a more European coalition model - something that the adoption of the Alternative Vote (AV) voting system would have helped. But Clegg  and the other AV supporters were soundly defeated in the referendum in May 2011 and this, as it turns out, was the end, for the time being anyway, of the creation of circumstances under which a coalition Government   would be the most likely outcome of any General Election. As we saw in 2010 "First Past the Post" (FPP) can deliver a hung Parliament but it is rare and unlikely to happen again in 2015. By then the LibDems may have recovered a bit from their current low position in the polls. Or they could have disappeared as a force to be reckoned with almost entirely. When the story of the LibDems comes to be told it may well be that Nick Clegg was the leader who drove them out of existence!

Sunday, May 04, 2014

We are a decent people–don't let the extremists persuade you not to be


The toughest peacetime era in Britain in modern times was surely the immediate post war years - and yet it was probably the time of greatest unity and achievement. The population demanded change in the vote of confidence they gave to Clement Attlee and Labour in 1945. The creation of the Welfare State was an astonishing victory over vested interests - the doctors, the mine owners and the like. And on the foreign stage the withdrawal from Empire was kicked off at this time, starting of course with India. Whilst there was opposition in Parliament from the Conservatives to this revolution, and to some extent in the Shires, in the main there was an acceptance that Labour was doing what they had said they would do and for which they had a mandate.

Roll forward to today and the situation could not be more different. Living standards are immeasurably higher than they were 60 years ago and virtually ever indicator shows that life is better for most people. We live longer, have better healthcare, better and longer holidays, safer work environments, greater equality and tolerance of those who are different - and so on. The privations that most Britons had to face in those post war years - rationing, shortages and real austerity would be unthinkable today. And yet today the disillusionment with political leaders and with what are commonly seen as defective governance processes has never been higher. And this leads to a seeking for scapegoats that would have been alien to the post war generation.

Have we become selfish and greedy, incapable of accepting comparatively minor changes for the common good? Have we become so reliant on "entitlements" that when they are reduced or removed we complain whether it actually affects our way of life much or not? Has the Welfare State actually to some extent disincentivised us so that we look for others to provide solutions rather than accepting responsibility to find them ourselves? Have we lost the capability to work together, retreated to the silos of our family lives and withdrawn from collective voluntary actions? To some extent all these charges are true and all of these things, and more, do contribute to a palpable feeling of disconnection from political processes and to alienation.

That there are problems in modern society is of course true, but the safety net to protect the weak and the disadvantaged remains strong. So when you see the strident calls for governance changes which dominate our airwaves what are the real drivers of these calls? Why is the independence movement in Scotland so strong at a time when the actual lives of the Scottish people have arguably never been better. Why does the Anti-Europe and Anti-Immigration platform of UKIP appeal to so many? Why do a very large number of Conservatives not support a Conservative Prime Minister and a Tory-led Government - including many of their own MPs?

We are all a mixture of rational man and emotional man - the two sides of our brains. The anti-establishment imperative across our nation is almost entirely emotion driven. I'm not defending Mr Cameron nor his Government but I don't think he is so incompetent that there should be protests in the streets. Nor do I think that the measures introduced by the Coalition - in the NHS, welfare and education for example - are particularly revolutionary. I don't think that Ed Miliband is a particularly inspirational or impressive leader - he has none of the personal bravery of a Clem Attlee for example. Nor the cleverness or popular appeal of pre Iraq War Blair. But he is an intelligent and decent man and a political professional.

The opprobrium thrown at Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and the rest of the traditional party leaders it has created the open door through which Nigel Farage and his Right Wing fellow-travellers are now walking. Writing about the rise of the Right in the inter-war years in parts of continental Europe Eric Hobsbawm said

“What gave them their chance after the First World War, was the collapse of the old regimes and, with them, of the old ruling classes and their machinery of power, influence and hegemony. Where these remained in good working order, there was no need for fascism. It made no progress in Britain..the traditional Conservative Right remained in control”

Today whilst the Far Right has made some progress in some parts of Europe it is only in Britain that it is a real and present threat. Current indications are that UKIP will get at least a third of the UK’s seats in the European Parliament at the upcoming election. Much of that will be attributable to “the traditional Conservative Right” no longer being “in control”.

Whilst much of UKIP’s growth in support has been from the semi-skilled and unskilled working class cohort it remains in its leadership middle class and in its policies indistinguishable from those of the large group of Right Wingers  who have remained loyal to the Conservatives. These policies are nationalist, populist and many would say borderline racist. In other words very similar to those of the Right Wing parties that came to power in Germany, Italy and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s. There is a similar scapegoating going on as well – for Hitler it was communists and Jews – for Farage it is the EU and immigration. The nationalism is overt and simplistic

and its goals clear. As Orwell put it:

“Nationalism…is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

This is the UKIP pitch in a nutshell, though the absence of any reliable and sensible supporters at the top of his party does mean that Farage has to promote himself as the party’s face and only “credible” character (It’s relative!).

If we return to the “Rational man” / “Emotional man” argument we can see its relevance to our current dilemmas and an explainer of UKIP’s seeming success. UKIP’s populism and nationalism is, of course, an appeal to the emotions. Britain's membership of the EU is supported by all three main Party leaders, most economic analysts and overwhelmingly by the business community.  Similarly the benefits of past immigration are quantifiable and overwhelmingly positive. Rational man must reject UKIP’s blame culture and the scapegoats they have chosen – even if he shares to some extent their disaffection with the current political class! But that is not enough. But, as the psychologist Peter Noel Murray put it:

“Most people believe that the choices they make result from a rational analysis of available alternatives. In reality, however, emotions greatly influence and, in many cases, even determine our decisions.”

So what UKIP is doing with their poster campaign is to provide the “truth” (the “reason to believe” in brand terms) and at the same time pointing the finger at the political establishment who they claim is lying to you:

This type of propaganda is difficult to counter – and it’s happened before:

The Nazi newspaper “Der Sturmer” told what they claimed to be the truth whilst the vested interests, rich and powerful Jews in this case, lied to you.

It was no more true that the Jews ran Germany in 1930 than it is true that the EU runs Britain today. But, as Churchill put it:

“A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”

Things in Britain are nowhere nearly as bad as UKIP (and for that matter the Labour Party!) would like us to think they are. The positioning of Labour in the run up to the 2015 election is far from as Socialist as the Conservatives would wish to convince us it is. The social-democratic consensus is under strain, but it is far from broken and no sensible politician wants to break it. We are, and will remain, a mixed economy. We should stay a member of the EU and continue to benefit from this membership. We should remain a tolerant and pluralistic society recognising differences and not discriminating or seeking scapegoats. And whilst we may bemoan our problems – some imaginary rather than real – we should at the same time celebrate our freedoms and our mostly civilised way of life. It would not be true to say that “We've never had it so good” – though in many aspects of the way we live this is true as I said at the beginning of this piece. But let’s not let emotions rule all that we do. We are a decent people – let’s not buy the snake oil from the extremists. And for heavens sake lets get out and vote. Because they will: