Mixed messages

4604466137_65e4ae185d_nYesterday I had a meeting with someone about a thing. Before we got started my interlocutor looked at me rather accusingly and, apropos of nothing at all, said “Someone tells me you’re a member of the Liberal Democrats”. This was a decidedly unexpected turn of events.

I felt obliged to concede that, yes, I was a member. Indeed, not only am I a member I am a Federal Conference rep. Some might even suggest I’m a grassroots activist. Grassroots, certainly. But activist might be putting it a bit strongly.

I felt compelled to stutter and stumble that I’m not one of those “Liberal Democrats” that you hear so much about – the nasty yellow Tories. I’m one of the nice ones who still believe in the balancing liberty, equality and community; that no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity; and all that sort of thing. The ones who think that every good thing the party has done in Government has to be set alongside its enthusiastic support for Tory policies that are an affront not only to liberal democracy but also, all too frequently, to good sense and rational thought.

Alas, my plea of guilty to the charge of Liberal Democracy elicited a look from my accuser that mingled disappointment with disgust. However, politeness dictated it was quickly banished.

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Selling justice by the pound

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

                                                                      Magna Carta

Any country or Government which wants to proceed towards tyranny starts to undermine legal rights and undermine the law.

                                                               Margaret Thatcher

Word justice highlighted with a yellow markerWhen Chris Grayling was appointed Lord Chancellor in 2012 it raised a few eyebrows. He is the first non-lawyer to hold the post since the seventeenth century. His experience prior to becoming a member of Parliament involved television production, corporate communications and management consulting. It has been suggested that this was not perhaps the ideal background for someone occupying one of the most venerable Offices of State. It is an office that has, until now, been seen as carrying weighty responsibilities relating to the stewardship of key elements of Britain’s Constitution.

In retrospect placing Grayling in the role seems increasingly like a masterstroke, from the perspective of political expediency.

The current agenda entails the removal of access to justice for many through serious cuts in first civil and now criminal legal aid. It also encompasses the contracting out of various components of the justice system to private providers, including the bundling up of services into bigger contracts so they can be of greater benefit to larger corporations.

One might suggest that had we been blessed with a Lord Chancellor with any significant sense of, or respect for, the delicacies of the British Constitution, the English Legal System or the rule of the law, then this agenda might not be pursued with quite such vigour or relish. There would be a greater appreciation of the profound risks inherent in current policy directions. Whether the issue is Mr Grayling’s personal enthusiasm for the agenda or simply that he doesn’t have the sort of legal sensibility needed to repel overenthusiastic civil servants in the MoJ is a moot point.

Today the latest instalment in the agenda has been floated in the newspapers. [Read more...]

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Participatory inequality and the rise of populist politics

decision...It’s been a fascinating and frustrating few days in politics.

On Thursday lunchtime I discovered that Claus Offe, one of the world’s most famous political sociologists, as giving a lecture entitled Participatory inequality in the austerity state about a hundred metres from my office late on Thursday afternoon. I thought it would be interesting to trundle along.

As it turned out “austerity state” made for a good title but was not hugely central to the talk. The talk focused on two well-known problems.

First, participation in the institutions of liberal democracy is in decline across the western world. It isn’t just the proportion of the population who bother to vote that is in decline, seemingly inexorably. In fact, voting holds up better than most of the other indicators you might look at, such as political party membership or other more active forms of political engagement. Britain is not at all unusual in now recording less than 10% of the population as being political party members. That is now the norm. Political parties are now more likely to be guided by polling, focus groups and a rather desperate pursuit of the swing voter and the mythical middle ground than they are to represent a set of values to which millions of people actively subscribe.

Second, the decline in participation is not uniform. It is sharpest among the young, those on lower incomes, with fewer skills and lower levels of education. Hence Offe’s reference to participatory inequality.

The challenge is that the system is locked in to a self-reinforcing, path dependent process. At least that is how I’d describe what Offe was saying, even if he didn’t quite put it in those terms. As participation declines, it makes sense for politicians to offer policies that appeal to those who are still most inclined to vote – older, better-educated and better-off households. That in turn means that voters in other social locations – the poor and unskilled workers – perceive politics to be a game run primarily for the benefit of the rich, and hence disengage further from the process. [Read more...]

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Travels through Coalitionland: Notes of disquiet and dissent

CoalitionlandfpThe formation of a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was probably the only viable outcome of the General Election in May 2010. A coalition between two unnatural bedfellows in the public interest looked like the only plausible way forward.

Coalition was always going to be a journey that carried risks. It is rarely kind to the junior partner. The history of Tory-Liberal coalitions in Westminster is not an entirely happy one, especially for the Liberals.

The nature of the Coalition’s political agenda became apparent fairly soon after it was formed. Criticism and protest swiftly developed in response. My response was to engage with the agenda online. I have been blogging about political developments under the Coalition since 2010. [Read more...]

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A wake up call from Bradford West

George Galloway’s historic victory in Bradford West apparently snuck up on everyone while the inhabitants of the Westminster village were squabbling over their pasty consumption or creating mayhem over the supply of petrol. But for more acute observers – who’d actually been paying attention to the way the campaign in Bradford was evolving – it was less of a surprise. Galloway is in many ways an objectionable character, but he is the consummate politician, an outstanding orator, and can clearly mount an effective local political campaign.

There has already been plenty of comment on what this result means. No doubt that will continue across the weekend papers. The result could be profoundly significant in the long run. [Read more...]

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The car crash Coalition and the corrosion of democracy

Is this Government corrupt? It depends on how you define corrupt. If the focus is upon demonstrable criminality then the answer would have to be no. More pertinently, is it corrupting?

Recent events should concern anyone who believes that healthy democratic practice is important for a healthy society. I wrote several months ago that the Government already had a Fin de siecle feel to it. If anything the evidence of sharp practice is arriving ever more frequently. [Read more...]

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Public service reform and liberal democracy

[Originally posted at LSE British Politics and Policy, 01/03/12]

Last week on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, Will Tanner argued that the government needs to change direction on public service reform. Tanner makes three points that flow from his frustration with progress. Mainly, he claims the government is being too cautious and it is placing an undesirable emphasis upon fostering mutual and not-for-profit alternatives to conventional public provision.

Tanner argues that “meaningful” reform needs to be faster and it needs to happen on a larger scale. This point resonates with KPMG’s 2010 paper Payment For Success, which sets out many of the measures you’ll find in the coalition’s Open Public Services white paper. The KPMG argument is that change needs to be rapid so it can more easily override objections and overwhelm resistance. Tanner thinks that new business models are not being embraced as extensively as they should. Rather, they are being restricted to specific policy areas. Finally, if we want to see public services dismantled more comprehensively then we need to reduce “barriers to entry” such as annoyingly inflexible and generous public sector pension arrangements. [Read more...]

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A malign influence

Lobbying is corrosive. The lobbying industry adds nothing of genuine value to society. It is insidious because it undermines citizens’ belief that democracy is transparent and that politics seeks to serve the public interest. It fosters the impression, if not the also the reality, that policy is being made for the benefit of the few rather than the many.

One of the most welcome commitments the Government made in the May 2010 Coalition agreement was that:

We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.

Oliver Letwin published the consultation paper Introducing a statutory register of lobbyists last week. It was shortly followed by the Guardian article on The Chemistry Club, which reinforced – if such reinforcement were necessary – just how pernicious lobbying is.

Liberal democrats have a long and noble track record of championing the cause of open government. Transparency is vital to liberal democracy. Many will therefore have a close interest in this consultation. They should have. Because the Government’s proposals are lousy. [Read more...]

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The media and the subversion of democracy

The media, both old and new, is currently under intense scrutiny. Last week James Murdoch was back before the Media Select Committee, making his bid for the title of least inquisitive Chief Executive in corporate history. On Monday we witnessed a fascinating encounter between the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Privacy and Injunctions and four high profile members of the blogging community. The bloggers adopted more or less abrasive approaches when responding to the Committee’s questions. The aim was to explore the ways in which privacy issues are handled online. I suspect that not all the bloggers’ answers would reassure the Committee that the bloggers’ power, such as it is, will be exercised responsibly. Perhaps more worrying was the fact that several members of the committee did not appear to have a strong feel for the relevant law (as discussed by one of the four bloggers, David Allen Green, here). The Committee had an even shakier grasp of what this “blogging” lark was all about. That didn’t stop dark mutterings about the need for greater regulation, the practicalities of which were not explored.

But the biggest and, in the end, most important show in town is the Leveson Inquiry. [Read more...]

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Democratic deficits

Liberal democracy faces profound challenges. Radically different future trajectories present themselves. We are living through momentous times.

In Britain the media has spent the last fortnight preoccupied with the Hackgate scandal. Incremental, and ongoing, revelations have exposed the inner workings of the nexus between Westminster politicians and the tabloid media. What we witness is the political class showing an alarming level of deference to powerful economic interests. The alleged intimate connection between sections of the Metropolitan police and the tabloids raises equally urgent questions about the prevailing culture and ethics at the heart of a core social institution.

The British media has been preoccupied with this evolving soap opera involving many of its own. And the scandal has certainly opened up a welcome window of opportunity to reform relationships vital to a healthy democracy. But events unwinding elsewhere are likely to play a bigger role in shaping economic and political trajectories in the short and medium term. [Read more...]

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