The Dissenter's Voice

The ocassional comments, opinions, rambling and rants of a liberal dissenter in New Labour's Britain

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

It´s choice, stupid!

We LibDems have long prided ourselves on our willingness to address uncomfortable truths, think new thoughts and challenge outdated consensus. Indeed, in most areas this is true, from Iraq, to the Environment, to civil liberties - it´s the Lib Dems who have set the pace with others running to catch up. However, there is one policy area where we have been woefully lacking in new thinking - choice in public services.

For many years, ever since the Alliance days in fact, we have allowed our thinking on public services to be dominated by the views of the professionals who run them, doctors, teacher etc, rather than the people who use them on a day to day basis. Don´t get me wrong this isn´t a criticism of their work - their ability to battle through the the long hours, bureaucracy and interference they face speaks for itself. No, my point isn´t about service providers at all, its about their consumers.

If you are poor in this country, you are likely to live in a council flat, receive your income from the government, have your children educated in the state school, use the NHS and rely on public transport to get around. You are in fact likely to be entirely dependent on the state. What do we as LibDems say to someone who lives in that situation? Well by and large we say vote LibDem and we will run the state better on your behalf. Use your vote every 4 years and leave it to us to sort it all out. That is not exactly a satisfactory stance for liberals to take, posing as managers of one size fits all public services.

It wouldn´t be fair to say that we haven´t done any thinking on this issue the Huhne Commission of a few years back attempted to look at what modern public services would look like in a Liberal Britain. It wouldn´t be unfair to sum up its conclusion as ´more local and more democratic´ - that is in effectthat more powers would be given to local councils, with responsibility for services such as the NHS and policing made directly accountable through them. I doubt there is a single LibDem who would disagree with that in as far as it goes. However, the idea that the sum total of our thinking on how to empower the powerless, or even the aspirational, through public services is to give Lambeth or Doncaster or Glasgow Councils more power and control over peoples lives is to say the least somewhat disappointing. review.

You might be forgiven for having forgotten that when last year we came up with our dramatic new tax policy we also had a major review of our other policies. The result was an extraordinarily limp document, which rather than challenging party orthodoxy and fundamentally rethinking our ideas simply tried to distill and clarify what had gone before, unsurprisingly it has been left on the shelf since the day it was passed. It barely addressed the issue of public services and how to give people more control over them, indeed it deliberately avoided discussing the issue of choice. At the time I was serving on the party´s Federal Policy Comittee, when the final draft came before us I asked why the section in particular on public services was so weak? The answer came from the Co-chair of the policy review group that this was indeed the weakest section of the review, because ´they had not had time´ to look at the issues properly in the 8 months of the review process. In short when we were looking at how best to make our future policies relevant to the electorate, reformng public services was the last priority, almost an afterthought for which there wasn´t enough time to examine the issue seriously. That is a pretty savage indictment not just of our policy making process but also of our priorities.

The leadership election provides us wth an opportunity to correct this mistake. Both canidates must address the issue of choice n public services. Why should someone be stuck with shoddy, second rate services which they can only influence every 4 years. Arguing that we will make these services more local will no longer do. One of the many reasons I´m voting for Nick Clegg is his willingness to address this issue and try and find a liberal way of squaring the circle and enable everyone, whoever they are the opportunity to choose the services they deserve. If his stance means that as a party we finally have a real debate about the role of the state and public services in the 21st Century then so much the better.

Friday, October 19, 2007

It has to be Clegg

Nick Clegg surprised no one by announcing today that he is the running to succeed Ming Campbell as Leader of the LibDems. Even before he was elected to Parliament two years ago he was being tipped as a future party leader.

Clegg, is young, bright, articulate and as the new Facebook group says ´more of a hottie than David Cameron´. However more important that youth and goodlooks, he combines the ability to challenge the party´s cosy assumptions (his announcement called for the LibDems to leave their comfort zone and be wary of excessive state interference) while unifying the party around a forward looking 21st Century liberalism.

It was a pleasant surprise yesterday morning that when the leading ´leftwing´ contender Steve Webb announced that he was not running himself, he did not chose the candidate who appeared to be closer to that wing of the party but instead backed Nick Clegg, the unabashed Orange Booker. Indeed he is not alone, Phil Willis, Mark Hunter and Paul Rowen, MPs who all along with Webb backed Simon Hughes last time out have already declared their support for Clegg.

What is it then about Clegg that can pull together such a wide coalition of support with Ed David, Juila Goldsworthy, Greg Mulholland and Sarah Teather also adding their backing? Well, Clegg speaks to a basic truth about British politics - it is liberalism that is the underlying theme of modern political discourse. Words like freedom, choice, diversity, and opportunity trip of the tongue of every Labour & Tory politician. However, although they have hijacked the language of liberalism they don´t truly understand it. It is the Liberal Democrats alone in British politics who are the true champions of this tradition, we just have to be brave enough to go back to our roots and rediscover that voice. That won´t happen by chance, we need to refresh and rethink our approach, we don´t need to change our values but we do need to find a new way of challenging ourselves and the country.

We need to can articulate a vision that speaks to the millions of voters who share our party´s values but have never previously thought of themselves as Liberal Democrats. We need to begin to call the Liberal Diaspora that spread across the political spectrum from the wreckage of the old Liberal Party back home. We need a party leader who can inspire and build a new liberal coalition that looks like the country we want to represent. We need someone with energy, intellect, charisma and determination.

Quite simply we need Nick Clegg - he gets my vote.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Sad for Ming, sad for the Lib Dems and sad for politics

I had intended to give up my blog, having taken up a new job that requires a degree of political impartiality, however yesterday's events are just too much for me to allow to pass without comment...

Ming has always been a real liberal, a decent man of integrity, everything he has said and done as Leader has shown that.

He was in many ways the right man at the wrong time. I was one of a number of people who repeatedly tried to convince Ming to stand in 1999 when Paddy resigned. He wavered and in the end decided to sit pout that contest, sometghing which he clearly regretted very much. When the chance for him to run again come along last year he finally went for it, however I didn’t vote for him. Not because my view of his abilities had changed but because the times had changed around him.

It’s a sad fact that British politics has been reduced to little more than stardust and sound bites but that doesn’t make it less true. The modern party political leader needs to be fit not just for the media age but the internet age, and sadly Ming just didn’t have the right image for the iPod generation. It wasn't just a question of age but of style, fluency and approach. All his undoubted ability just weren't enough to get the message across to the electorate.

Today is a sad day, sad for Ming, sad for the party and sad for politics. It’s time to pay tribute to a great liberal and good man and move on.

We can't afford pointless recriminations about whose fault it was, personally I think the genuine shock etched on the faces of the Parliamentary Party show that that this really was Ming's personal decision. That is very much to his credit, he has braved personal humiliation to put his party first. In the words of the old cliche says ‘nothing so became him as the manner of his parting…’