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Sunday, May 31, 2015

The price of hearing Tony Blair speak

For some reason the link to the article on the Sunday Times website is broken but here is a screenprint of the summary:

The paper says that plans for Tony Blair to give a speech at a conference to discuss how to tackle world hunger were abandoned when organisers refused to meet a demand for a £250,000 fee plus £80,000 expenses.

Is this the going rate for former British Prime Ministers now?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Labour leadership contenders flounder around looking for an identity

Whilst the Liberal Democrats are quietly getting on with our own leadership contest (and no I have no idea who I will be supporting yet), all the attention is being directed to Labour's own fight to elect a leader of the opposition.

Watching the Labour leadership candidates set out their stall I am increasingly getting the impression that I have entered an alternative universe. Candidates appear to have abandoned the battle for the heart and soul of the Labour party in favour of an unprecedented identity quest. Some of the pitches are so unorthodox that it is difficult to know who they are aiming them at.

For a start there is Liz Kendall who, according to the Guardian, is stressing her support for children from white working class backgrounds. She has praised one primary school for having an “aspirations week”, saying such programmes were needed to “teach girls and boys, particularly from white working class communities, about the chances in life they may not even know exist – like being an engineer, a chemist and even leader of the Labour party”.

Kendall has also mentioned the need to help white working-class communities, during a journalists’ gathering in Westminster last week, when she said Labour would still “be doing the best for kids, particularly in white-working class communities” in 2020.

It is a strange choice of words for somebody aspiring to lead a party, which in the past has aspired to help everybody step up the ladder, irrespective of their background.

Meanwhile, Andy Burnham is seeking to corner the Blairite vote within the Labour Party with his support for further welfare cuts, including government plans for a £23,000 cap on benefits if it has adequate safeguards. I am not sure what his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Labour group, who have been particularly vociferous in their opposition to such cuts, will have to say about that.

And for the sake of completeness, there is Yvette Cooper who, according to the New Statesman, is floundering a bit in her bid for the top job. They say that her campaign is distinctly lacking in pheromones:

It feels as if her aides were asked to dust off the Ed Miliband playbook, but instead of reenacting his successful bid for the party leadership have disinterred his disastrous pitch for the general election.
Just as with the Miliband operation, the campaign seems to be putting its faith in organisational innovation: a network of regional organisers will get out the vote at a local level and never mind the national press or burgeoning Labour blogosphere. 

But they don’t seem to have learnt the lesson from Miliband’s defeat: a well-organised ground game doesn’t help you if you have a product no-one wants to buy.

All-in-all it is not looking as if the Labour leadership campaign has got off to a good start.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Stacking the odds in the Tories' favour

For those who observed the deluge of paid for delivery literature from the Conservative Party which poured through letterboxes in their target seats, months before the General Election even got off the ground, it was little surprise that David Cameron's party did so well.

Speculation as to how much this ground war offensive cost can now be answered as new figures from the Electoral Commission reveal that the Conservatives banked more money from donations than all the other political parties put together during that period.

The Independent reports that the Tories were given £15.4m of the £30.6m received by all of the parties in the first three months of this year compared with £9.33m collected by Labour and £3m given to the Liberal Democrats. The Scottish National Party was given £1.05m and Ukip just under £1m.

The Prime Minister obviously believes that when he has an advantage he should drive it home with as much force as he can muster, otherwise why would he be introducing changes to trade union funding that will see Labour lose several million pounds a year?

As the paper says, this new legislation will require union members to “opt in” to its political fund rather than the current system of automatic enrolment unless they explicitly opt out. As Labour receives a significant proportion of its income from political funds then it is likely that this could cost the party heavily. Nearly two-thirds of Labour’s donations in the first quarter of 2015 came from unions, including £3.5m from Unite, £700,000 from the GMB and £570,000 from Unison.

The report adds that the £30.6m donated to Britain’s political parties over three months is the highest total on record, and is more than 50 per cent higher than the amount handed over in the equivalent period ahead of the 2010 election campaign.

It is little wonder that the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society wants to see urgent political reform of the party funding system. She told the Independent: “We can’t continue to have a race to spend the most, with parties increasingly relying on a small number of powerful wealthy backers – whether that’s big organisations or rich individuals.”

I think she is right.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Queen's speech highlights why the Liberal Democrats are needed more than ever.

Today's Guardian reports how an unshackled Home Secretary is looking to take advantage the absence of the Liberal Democrats from Government by promoting a “turbo-charged” version of the snooper’s charter that will extend the powers of the security services.

They say that the government is to introduce an investigatory powers bill far more wide-ranging than expected. The new legislation will include not only the expected snooper’s charter, enabling the tracking of everyone’s web and social media use, but also moves to strengthen the security services’ warranted powers for the bulk interception of the content of communications.

This is the sort of mass surveillance that the Liberal Democrats spent five years fighting against. It will undermine the rights of every citizen in the UK in an untargeted sweep of all our communications data, using up valuable resources that might be better concentrated on the warranted surveillance of genuine suspects.

This legislation is a genuine threat to privacy, to free speech and to the right to protest. I believe that it will be used beyond the realm of terrorism to monitor those who disagree with and wish to organise peacefully and legally against the government. It is another step onto a very slippery slope indeed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

SNP seek to use EU referendum bill as back door to independence

The Independent reports on the view of the First Minister of Scotland that a vote to leave the European Union should only be valid if it is backed by each of the four nations which constitute the United Kingdom.

Nicola Sturgeon suggests that the SNP will try to amend the EU Referendum Bill to that effect when it comes before Parliament. It is an interesting suggestion but difficult to justify under our current constitution.

The UK may consist of four nations but politically it is one entity when it comes to matters of foreign policy and defence. I want to see all four of those nations vote to stay in the EU. It is in their and the UK's best interests for them to do so but no one part of the country can hold the rest to ransom. A majority is a majority, that is how democracy works.

This pushing at boundaries is a means to try and secure independence by the back door. Scotland is not yet independent, it is part of the UK and cannot opt out of or overrule majority decisions that affect the whole of the union.

Let us give the nations Home Rule but that does not mean that any constituent part of the UK should be able to exercise a veto on non-devolved matters.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Britain to end up in the slow lane of two speed Europe?

The news in today's Telegraph that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Francois Hollande, the French President, have reached an agreement to create a closer union within the bounds of existing EU treaties could leave Britain struggling to keep up.

The paper reports that the pact, which is due to be presented at an EU summit next month, could limit David Cameron's room for manoeuvre as he tries to claw back powers from Brussels ahead of a referendum on Britain's membership.

The danger is that as Cameron seeks to limit Britain's involvement in Europe, he will also reduce our influence and limit the benefits we get from the community. It is now looking increasingly likely that the European Community will develop a two speed economy in which the Eurozone countries will get more and more from closer working whilst the refusniks are left behind.

That is not an argument for the UK to join the Eurozone, but it is a reason why we need to work more closely with those who have chosen this route, rather than alienating them by threats and continuous renegotiations of our treaty obligations.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Rejecting the conclusions of the independent remuneration board

I have been away for the last four days at the Hay Festival and so have been largely out of touch with the real world. It is the first proper break I have had since Christmas.

Whilst I have been away it seems that another group of people have emerged as being out of touch with the real world. The Welsh Assembly's Remuneration Board is independent of Assembly Members, they have the power to make decisions on our pay, expenses and support staff without any reference to us or the Welsh electorate.

Whatever the justification for their decision to award Assembly Members an 18%, £10,000 a year pay rise, it is indefensible in the current climate. Many thousands of families have had to tighten their belts as a result of the economic downturn, many workers have had to take on extra responsibilities for no extra pay as their companies and public service employers lay off staff and many people have lost their jobs.

I met representatives of the board on a number of occasions and made clear my and my group's opposition to this rise. The Welsh Liberal Democrats group made similar representations. They were ignored.

What is interesting is some of the other detail of the determination of the remuneration board. They have quite rightly reduced the very generous pensions that Assembly Members enjoy but they have also changed the resources available to Assembly Groups. In the case of the Welsh Liberal Democrats that will mean that we will have £50,000 less to employ staff if we return with the same number of AMs after the 2016 elections.

The consequence of that will be that we will have less researchers to help us to prepare and properly scrutinise complex and important legislation. We might have to make staff redundant.

In all conscience I cannot accept this rise. Instead I will use the money to try and keep those staff in their job and to increase my support of local charities.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The unchecked illiberal instincts of top Tories continue to surface

David Cameron may well be seeking to pin the blame on the Liberal Democrats for spiralling immigration figures but it is hardly credible that a net influx of 318,000 people into our country can be laid entirely at the door of a Business Secretary determined to ensure that Universities are able to continue to recruit foreign students, that hospitals can get the skilled professionals they require and that business is able to fill the specialist roles it needs to generate wealth.

As the Liberal Democrat spokesperson says: “The Tories promised to cut net migration to tens of thousands and failed spectacularly.

"We told them their target was a stupid idea but they were more concerned about sounding tough than actually tackling illegal immigration.

"Their ideological zeal meant they actually tried to kick out foreign students and force landlords to act as border guards to meet their target, both of which we blocked.

"Instead of playing the blame game, Theresa May should admit she got it wrong and recognise the vast majority of immigrants actually contribute to our economy."

The latest incarnation of an unchecked Home Secretary however, has even her own colleagues recoiling at the way her proposals are infringing on hard-won freedoms.

As the Guardian reports, Theresa May's plan to introduce counter-extremism powers so as to vet British broadcasters’ programmes before they are transmitted has been attacked in the bluntest terms as a threat to freedom of speech by one of her own Conservative cabinet colleagues.

They say that Sajid Javid wrote to David Cameron, in a letter sent just before the start of the general election campaign to tell him that, as culture secretary, he was unable to support Theresa May’s proposal to give Ofcom the new powers to take pre-emptive action against programmes that included “extremist content":

Javid, who moved from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to become business secretary after the election, said the plan would move Ofcom from a regulator “into the role of a censor”. It would involve “a fundamental shift in the way UK broadcasting is regulated”, moving away from the current framework of post-transmission regulation which takes account of freedom of expression, he said.

The leaked memo from the then culture secretary came in response to a request made by May on 6 March to ministers on the cabinet’s home affairs committee and the national security committee. She was seeking clearance for publication of her extremism strategy, which included the broadcasters’ censorship proposal.

It is not clear exactly what the outcome was following Javid’s objection. Next week’s Queen’s speech is expected include loosely specified powers to “strengthen the role of Ofcom to take action against channels which broadcast extremist content” according to a statement released by Downing Street last week.

The last time anybody tried something like this it was Margaret Thatcher's ill-thought through idea of telling broadcasters to deny terrorists the “oxygen of publicity”. The ban on broadcasting interviews with proscribed organisations in Northern Ireland led to a full-scale row over a BBC decision to broadcast an extended interview with Martin McGuinness. That led to a journalists’ strike and, two years later, the resignation of the director general. And of course the broadcasters got around the ban by using actors to read out the lines.

Now that Sajid Javed no longer has the Culture brief it will be interesting to see who will stand in the way of May's proposals to censor our television broadcasts. Who would have thought that the Tories, unchecked by the Liberal Democrats for the first time in 5 years, would revert to type so quickly and start to undermine our democracy and our freedom of thought so drastically?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Have the Tories started to unravel over Europe already?

David Cameron's slim majority may well be enough to see him through the next five years, but it is doubtful that the path will be a smooth one.

Many Tories remember vividly the internecine fighting and plotting that marred the John Major government. The odds are that this new Conservative administration, elected with a clear manifesto pledge to hold an in-out referendum on Europe could go the same way.

Indeed, the Guardian is already publishing articles warning that Cameron could lose Cabinet members during the referendum campaign. They say that government sources believe Cameron would need to devise a mechanism to deal with highly Eurosceptic ministers if he wants to avoid a damaging split. That may involve allowing cabinet members to follow their conscience and campaign for a no vote in the EU referendum:

There are increasing suspicions among Eurosceptics that the prime minister is determined to keep Britain in the EU – and some cabinet figures are suggesting that he could allow ministers to resign from the government for the duration of the referendum.

This would give ministers the chance to campaign for a no vote but would allow the prime minister to say he was acting differently to Harold Wilson, who avoided a split in the Labour party by allowing ministers to campaign on either side in the 1975 EEC referendum.

One cabinet source said: “The party will obviously be split. Some will try and influence the negotiations; others will just wait for the referendum and be ready for the no campaign.”

It does not bode well for party management when the Prime Minister cannot rely on his cabinet colleagues to back him in his position on a key area of policy. No wonder Cameron was reluctant to serve a third term. He may be lucky to survive his second.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

UKIP at odds with itself

UKIP claim to be different to other parties. In reality they are not. However, if this newspaper article in  the Telegraph is to be believed they have invented a new form of in-fighting, one where the leader plots against himself.

The paper quotes the UK Independence Party's deputy chairman, Suzanne Evans, who has denied that she or others planned a coup for the party leadership. Instead she says that Farage was undermining himself. It is not clear as to whether he was aware of this at the time:

"The only person that's ever plotted against Nigel Farage's leadership is Nigel Farage himself, by offering to resign if he didn't win his Westminster seat," Miss Evans told the BBC on Wednesday.

Farage, himself continues to insist that his party is still united:

Mr Farage said: "What has happened in Ukip is since the election, after the pressure cooker atmosphere of the campaign office, one or two regrettable things were said and done by a very small number of people.

"I’ll tell you where this leaves Ukip going into this referendum campaign, unlike the other parties: united. 100 per cent united."

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We have for over 20 years fought hard to make the EU an issue, we were told we were the mad men from the hills for even considering whether Britain could have a future outside political union and we now have a referendum on the subject.
"We are united, the other parties are very, very divided."

Well if the activity we have all witnessed over the last two weeks amounts to a united party I need to get a new dictionary.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The strange death of coalition Britain

This article was first published on the IWA website yesterday:

For hose of us who have been in politics for a long time, May 7 was like Dejá Vu all over again.

In 1992 the country had been spooked by the thought of a coalition government and in the last few days had decided they would rather keep the devil they knew. On Thursday it seemed that the last minute rush for the safety of majority government happened in the final 24 hours and took all of us by surprise.

Personally, I had thought it would be very different. That was largely because I took comfort in the individual constituency polling conducted by Lord Ashcroft and my own party that suggested that the reputation of sitting MPs and tactical voting would help the Liberal Democrats survive with a reduced but still significant Parliamentary rump.

Although some had suggested that there would be a 1992-style surge to the Tories, my assumption had been that it would be very different. I reasoned that the country had now seen that coalitions could work, that despite many controversial issues and problems the Liberal Democrats had done a reasonable job in keeping the Tory right in check and had a good story to tell about what they had achieved.

It was my view that if there was a last minute surge then it would be to the Liberal Democrats, so as to ensure that in a no overall majority Parliament, there would be some consistency and stability in any future coalition.

Speaking to people afterwards, it seems that many agreed with me that the Liberal Democrats had been a restraining force for the good. Unfortunately, the uncertainty caused by polls that showed that a future government might have to consist of three or more parties, possibly including UKIP or the SNP, caused them to opt for the Tories in large numbers.

That decision was helped along by the huge amount of money being thrown at marginal constituencies by the Tories, including many held by the Liberal Democrats. People in these areas were receiving weekly missives from the Conservatives using paid for delivery, starting well before Christmas. That does not come cheaply.

In these circumstances the decision by the Liberal Democrats campaign team to start issuing negotiating red lines and to talk up future coalitions became self-defeating. We were no longer talking about our own values and policies, but about power and compromise. We were asking people to vote for us as second best to other parties. If anything that seems to have accelerated our demise at the polls.

The extraordinary surge in membership that the Liberal Democrats have experienced in the last few days shows that for many there is still a role for liberalism in this country. It is worth quoting from an article by one new member as to why he took the plunge and came back to the party:

'I have decided it is time to stand up. Stand up for a party that has done great things over the past five years. After the torrid election results we need to regroup, rethink, and refocus our collective efforts to pursue a fair, free and tolerant society. We need to learn some lessons from the past five years, admit what went wrong, yet fundamentally be proud for the principles that set us apart. Nick Clegg led the party to an immense surge in support. He and other MPs made some mistakes. We must admit that and move on.’

That seems to reflect the views of many people who have now decided to take the plunge and join the Liberal Democrats. But where do we go from here? And what lessons do the Liberal Democrats need to draw from last Thursday’s debacle for the Assembly elections in 12 months’time?

The Welsh Liberal Democrats group in the Assembly has consistently hit above its weight. We are widely acknowledged to be effective and cohesive and with a leader who makes Ministers sit up and listen. We have negotiated to have government implement many Liberal Democrats policies including the pupil deprivation grant, reduced travel for 16 and 17 year olds and an extra 5,000 apprenticeships over the next five years. We have been instrumental in ensuring that Wales has stable government.

We have also used our opportunity in government in the UK to significantly advance the devolution agenda, paving the way for a new Wales Act and a funding floor that will guarantee fair funding for the future. That is a good message to sell in 2016.

We need to ensure that we formulate clear messages based on our values of social justice community and empowerment. And we need to get back out there now and start campaigning on those messages and on our record.

Thursday May 7th may have been a set-back for the Liberal Democrats, but we have been there before and we have rebuilt and come back before. The Assembly elections are an important staging post in that process. The party may have been dumped on its backside last week but we are already back on our feet and spoiling for the fight

Monday, May 18, 2015

Some practical questions about the Tories determination to repeal the Human Rights Act

Putting to one side the very strong moral and philosophical reasons why Britain needs to retain the Human Rights Act and stay signed up to the ECHR, today's Independent features more basic questions posed by former Tory Attorney General, Dominic Grieve.

Mr Grieve's main question is what exactly the Conservative Party is trying to achieve through its plan to replace the Human Rights Act with a new British Bill of Rights? He has urged a period of consultation ahead of a review before any changes are made and has warned that the reputational consequences for Britain would be “very considerable” if it were to abolish the Act:

The Tory MP also insisted there is no “quick fix” because the Act is “well embedded” in the constitutional settlements that underpin devolution, making it difficult to do anything against the wishes of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments. He told Sky News’ Murnaghan show yesterday that the Supreme Court is “already supreme” and suggested the Government was promising something that already exists. “It’s not at all clear as to what we are trying to achieve,” he said.

He also pointed out that leaving the European Convention on Human Rights would not make it easier to remove people from the UK, because the problems in doing so are often down to other countries refusing to take them.

In many ways these practical issues are our best hope of keeping the Act in situ. Sometimes in Goverrnment, it is not enough to just have a majority. You have to work to a sensible and deliverable agenda as well.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Unions poised to dominate Labour leadership race

After Jim Murphy's parting shot yesterday at Unite boss, Len McCluskey, the Sunday Times reports on claims that unions are trying to “hijack” the leadership election, bulldoze the Blairites out of the way and install their preferred candidate, Andy Burnham.

They say that Labour MPs have followed the example of the former Scottish Labouir leader and have broken cover to denounce the leadership rules as worthy of “a banana republic”. They have accused union allies in parliament of “bullying” MPs into backing Burnham rather than Blairite contender Liz Kendall:

Unite has launched a phone-bank drive to convince its members to become “affiliate members” of Labour so they can vote in the election.
John Mann, the MP for Bassetlaw, complained that the rules were “open to abuse” since union members did not have to personally pay £3 to become affiliates of the Labour party like those who signed up as registered supporters. Union bosses do not have to pass on the phone numbers of those they sign up but can use them to lobby for their chosen candidates.
“It is not a level playing field,” Mann said. “It is giving preferential access. This is in many ways worse than what they did with the Miliband election — when what they did was banana republic stuff.”
Barry Sheerman, the MP for Huddersfield, warned that new MPs were being intimidated. Last week he tweeted that “Unite heavies are leaning on MPs” to block Kendall. This weekend he said: “One new MP said, ‘What am I supposed to do when I am told that if I cross certain people it is the end of my career?’
“I did not join the Labour party for this sort of behaviour. This has got to be seen as an absolutely clean and open election. It has to be seen as an election that nobody can hijack.We don’t want to go through this whole process and then feel it was not a legitimate election.”
Alan Milburn, a former cabinet minister, said: “The Labour party ought to mobilise to ensure that the only new electors in this leadership election are not just those mobilised by the trade unions.”
Assem Allam, a big donor, said: “We don’t need people . . . supported by the unions. If you continue going to the country with your party as a maxi-trade union, forget it — you lose again.” 

Labour are starting to resemble an episode from Game of Thrones. It is all far more civilised in the Liberal Democrats!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Tory rebellion grows on reform of Human Rights Act

David Cameron's determination to repeal the Human Rights Act withdraw from the ECHR is not going to be without its difficulties. According to today's Guardian there is a growing rebellion amongst backbench Tory MPs against the proposal.

The paper says that Conservative MP David Davis, a prominent Eurosceptic, has threatened to rebel against any legislation that could lead to the UK withdrawing from the European court of human rights:

Davis’s reported comments are a sign of growing rebellion on the Tory backbenches as the complexity and political difficulties involved in seceding from the judicial authority of the Strasbourg court become increasingly apparent to the government.

The former justice minister Ken Clarke and former attorney general Dominic Grieve QC – both re-elected to the Commons last week – have in the past warned about the danger of defying decisions handed down by ECHR judges on the grounds that it would undermine respect for the rule of law across Europe.

Davis, the MP for Haltemprice and Howden, told his local paper, the Hull Daily Mail: “I’m afraid we will come into conflict with the European court and I don’t want us to leave it. If we leave, it’s an excuse for everyone else to leave. So I think that could be quite an interesting argument, come the day. I think it is more likely there will be an argument over that than over Europe.”

Like Clarke and Grieve, Davis says he is in favour of reform but opposes unilateral withdrawal from the ECHR – one of the likely consequences of the party’s draft bill of rights.

Separately, in an open letter to the prime minister the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute points out that Tory proposals for a British bill of rights will limit the application of human rights laws to the “most serious cases” and exclude those “who do not fulfil their responsibilities in society”. Their intervention adds to a growing list of rights groups opposing the move.

The Tories only have a majority of 12. I have a sense that this fight is winnable and that we can save the Human Rights Act, or at the very least keep Britain within the European Court.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Farage loses his grip

To be honest I really didn't want to write about UKIP for some time but it is unavoidable. We are all being drawn into watching the very public car crash that Nigel Farage's leadership is becoming.

Today's Times reports that the UKIP leader is now falling back on claims that he has “an astonishing level of support in the party” despite a plea from one of the party’s biggest donors for him to resign.

The paper says that Farage had earlier performed a rare climbdown, relinquishing two of his right-hand men in a day of turmoil after his campaign director branded him “snarling, thin-skinned [and] aggressive” in an interview with The Times:

Ukip officials began ringing MEPs and asking them to sign a letter of support for Mr Farage in what some described as the biggest implosion in the party’s 22-year history.

Stuart Wheeler, a spread-betting tycoon who has given £600,000 to Ukip, led calls for Mr Farage to resign. “I would like him to step down, at least for the moment,” Mr Wheeler said. “And if he wants to put himself up in an election, then he has every right to do so, though I personally would prefer somebody else now.”

Hugh Williams, the party’s co-treasurer, warned that Mr Farage’s leadership risked making the party look like a one-man band. “There has to come a time — and I think that time is probably now — when he has to let the party stand on its own two feet,” he said.

Personality-cults rarely work out in the long-run.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The campaign to save the Human Rights Act is underway

Over at the Western Mail, Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader, Kirsty Williams argues that the new UK Government’s desire to repeal the Human Rights Act could prompt the first constitutional crisis of the parliamentary term,.

She points out that the Act is embedded in Wales’ devolution settlement and it is unlikely that Assembly Members here will want to lose it:

“The new Conservative Government is trying to deprive Welsh people of their human rights. As things stand, elderly people who are in conflict with a local authority over the care they receive can use this legislation to fight their case.

“If the Conservatives got away with taking away these rights, we would be worse off.

“But because the Human Rights is embedded in the Government of Wales Act 2006, it is not so easy for them.

“Under the Sewel Convention, the UK Government should ask the Assembly’s permission to remove the Human Rights Act from the Government of Wales Act.

“I’m sure the majority of AMs would not agree to that.”

I am sure Scotland is as equally determined.

In the Independent, Shami Chakrabarti makes a very powerful argument as to why we need to fight tooth and nail to keep this legislation. She says that the so-called “British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” is an incredibly dangerous confidence trick:

The omission of “human” and addition of “British” suggests this isn’t about “injecting common sense”. At best, it’s empty pandering to xenophobia.

It undermines the universality of human rights, which earlier generations paid for with their lives, and allows any government to pick when they apply, and to whom.

She adds that the pledge to stop those who pose a national security risk or have entered the UK illegally from relying on “questionable human rights claims” is a headline-grabber that will turn us into a country happy to deliver other humans, however detestable, into the hands of torturers. It is a pledge that will ignore innocent British children’s rights when considering deporting their parents:

The Bill will also limit the use of human rights laws to the “most serious cases”, with “trivial cases” excluded. Rosa Parks refuses to go to the back of the bus; your dying mum waits hours to be helped to the toilet in her care home. Should politicians decide what is a “trivial case”? I think not.

The obvious and menacing conclusion is this: if the Council of Europe doesn’t agree the Bill is a legitimate way of applying the Convention, the Government will pull out of that too. Churchill’s post-war legacy, drafted by great Conservative legal minds, tossed to the wind.

Repercussions for our shakily united kingdom will be seismic, as the HRA underpins the Good Friday Agreement and the Scotland Act. But the aftershocks will be global; despots in eastern Europe and beyond must be rubbing their hands in glee. If the UK doesn’t care about fundamental rights, why should they?

Human rights are for everyone and must be protected with the law at home and abroad. Because what politics gives, it can also take away.

It is no good asking whether the Tories have thought this through, they clearly have not. The bigger question is how we have ended up with a government that does not understand the basic concept of human rights nor the historical context in which the European Convention works.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

UKIP fight over the spoils

I am always astonished at how quickly we settle back into familiar political patterns of behaviour once a General Election is out of the way. This is especially true of UKIP who apparently cannot help themselves.

The Times reports that a furious row has broken out at UKIP over the party’s plans for millions of pounds of public money secured after its record election result.  They say that Douglas Carswell, the party’s only MP, has said that UKIP should not take the full £650,000-a-year windfall that it is entitled to after winning 3.9 million votes:

Party officials, however, argue that they have a duty to represent the millions of people who voted for the party and should make the use of all available resources to do so.

They are said to have taken a proposal to Mr Carswell yesterday to hire 15 members of staff to perform research and conduct administrative work.

He has sought to block the proposal. The MP told The Times: “I am not a senator, for goodness’ sake. I don’t need 15 staff.”

He has said that Ukip should accept just £350,000, arguing that it would be hypocritical for the anti-establishment party to “get on the gravy train”.

The public funding, known as Short Money, is granted by Commons authorities to help opposition parties with their parliamentary work.

Tensions between Mr Carswell, a former Conservative MP, and his new party have reached new lows in recent days since the resignation and subsequent reinstatement of Nigel Farage as party leader.

Following Mr Farage’s resignation from the role last week after he failed to win his own South Thanet seat, the MP for Clacton made clear that he thought the party should make a fresh start under a new leader.

He said that Ukip was “not a one-man show” and that the party members “need to reflect”.

He was informed of Monday’s decision by the Ukip national executive to return Mr Farage to the helm by a journalist, and was furious that no one in the party had told him.

Of course as Mr Carswell is the party's only MP he has an advantage in the latest row. Were he to become so furious with his new party that he chose to become an independent or defect to another party, Ukip would no longer be eligible for the money. This could become interesting.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Standing up for Liberalism

I was actually asleep when Nick Clegg gave his resignation speech and had not watched it until today. What prompted me to look it up on You Tube was a substantial donation to the local party received in my office today along with a note from the donor saying that it was the most inspiring and moving speech they had seen from a politician.

Having now watched it I agree with that assessment. It is little wonder that our membership is growing on the back of that speech. Watch it for yourself below and come to your own judgement:

Monday, May 11, 2015

Iain Duncan Smith is back and unchecked by the Liberal Democrats

I woke up this morning to the news that David Cameron has reappointed Iain Duncan Smith to the job of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. It is not good news.

Whatever people may think about the last Government's record on benefits (and it wasn't always pretty) it could have been a lot worse. There were many cuts that the Liberal Democrats vetoed. Now it seems that the Tories have a free hand.

The Independent sets out 11 reasons why the poor should be worried. These include lowering the benefits cap further, scrapping housing benefit for those under the age of 21, extending the bedroom tax, abolishing statutory maternity pay and cuts to the access to work fund.

Danny Alexander, the former Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, leaked a memo to the press a week before the election revealing a ‘secret’ plan by Mr Duncan Smith to make swingeing cuts to child benefits and child tax credits to slice £8 billion from the welfare budget. The Liberal Democrats blocked that scheme. Will we see that plan put in place now?

Finding those £12 billion of cuts in the welfare budget could make life a lot harder for many vulnerable people.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Has May 7th signalled the beginning of a new progressive alliance?

A consolation of no longer being in government is that I feel that I am able to read the Guardian again. And tucked away at the bottom of this article about the need to reclaim the Liberal Democrats for the progressive left is a tantalising proposal that is well-worth further discussion.

Although I associate myself with the progressive left of my own party I do not necessarily agree with the analysis that says that Clegg and his fellow Ministers led the party down a 'centrist blind alley'. The discipline of government and the difficulties of coalition meant that we inevitably had to compromise on many of our policies.

The mistake was not going into coalition, and after all many of those criticising Clegg now voted for that coalition, but the way we conducted ourselves in the crucial first few years. Liberal Democrat Ministers failed to understand the constituency that had put them there in the first place and allowed the office to put a distance between themselves and voters. So instead of having clear red lines in negotiations, and understanding that tuition fees had to be one of those, we went with the flow and lost the trust of our supporters.

I think that Meral Hussein-Ece is absolutely right when she says that presenting ourselves as a coalition party rather than setting out our values and where we come from was a serious mistake.

How we come back from this is a matter up for discussion, but I am intrigued by the suggestion of Caroline Lucas, that in the absence of a fair voting system we need to co-operate on the progressive left as we have never done so before. She says:

“The system is wrong and we should have electoral reform, but that could be some time coming. So we need other ways to work together in a progressive alliance. Where it is appropriate, only one progressive candidate could stand in a seat – a sort of electoral pact. Cooperation during the EU referendum campaign could be the start of it.”

If we can form a genuine cross-party pro-Europe coalition to fight the in-out referendum then that really could be the start of something bigger. My one caveat is that if we do it and if we succeed then the first priority of that progressive left government must be to change the voting system for ever so that we can ensure that in the future the way people vote is reflected in the result.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Will the Tories re-open the hunting debate?

A Tory majority government, no longer constrained by the Liberal Democrats will undoubtedly be revisiting some of the issues that are dearest to it and its supporters. According to the Independent, one such issue may be hunting.

I am heartened therefore that the same paper reports that anti-fox hunting campaigners are planning to work with anti-hunt Conservative MPs to sink any such attempt.  They say that
a number of Conservative MPs, organised around the ‘Conservatives Against Fox Hunting’ campaign group, have previously spoken out against the practice.

Anti-hunt Conservatives returned to parliament at the general election include Simon Kirby, the MP for Brighton Kemptown, and Sir Roger Gale, who represents North Thanet in Kent. I would hope that the majority of the Liberal Democrats eight MPs are also opposed to hunting.

The League Against Cruel Sports claims 80% of the public and 70% of Conservative supporters support the current law, which is enshrined in the Hunting Act. We now need to mobilise that group to put pressure on their MPs to keep the law unchanged.

Friday, May 08, 2015

A Tory majority government starts to throw off Liberal Democrats restraint

The voters have spoken and their verdict must be respected, but now that the Conservatives are no longer being restrained and moderated by the Liberal Democrats, how will they behave?

The first clues come in two pieces in today's Independent. In the first, the paper reports that the long-delayed "Snooper's Charter" allowing increased interception of communications by the security services and the police is set to be introduced at last. Theresa May, the reappointed Home Secretary wants to give the security services more freedom to intercept Britons' communications data.

In fact the Communications Data Bill has been awaiting introduction in various forms ever since 2008, when it was announced by Gordon Brown, who as Labour Prime Minister enjoyed a much stronger majority (66 seats) than Mr Cameron has won. Nonetheless the Snoopers' Charter didn't make it onto the statute books then.

It didn't make it onto the statue books under the last government either due to the Liberal Democrats concern for civil liberties. The fact that it has been promoted by both Labour and Conservative shows once more that the real political division in Britain today is between liberals and authoritarians. Yesterday, voters gave those who want to trammel on our individual freedoms and privacy their best chance yet to put their scheme into effect.

In the second article the paper reports that the Department of Work and Pensions is looking at cutting a scheme that helps disabled people into work. Despite Labour's demonisation of the Liberal Democrats as allowing ruthless cuts in support for the vulnerable and disabled, in fact we have acted as a restraint on Tory excesses.

Now that this check is not in place, it emerges that officials are looking at capping the £108m Access to Work fund. The fund helps people and employers cover costs of disabilities that might be a barrier to work. The biggest single users of the fund are people who have difficulty seeing and people who have difficulty hearing.

This is the first real test of whether Conservative Ministers understand whether or not they should temper spending restraints by concern and compassion for those worse off than themselves.

The UK Coalition Government was by no means perfect. Mistakes were made and some policies were implemented that should not have been. But throughout it the Liberal Democrats acted as the conscience of the government and ensured that the demands of right wing Tories were not met. Now that the Tories have a majority, that does not apply. That will become much clearer as the new government settles into its role.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Today is the day

Top economist puts Plaid Cymru in their place

Plaid Cymru's claim that Wales should have another £1.2 billion to achieve parity of funding with Scotland has always been absurd. Yes, we would like the additional money to spend on public services, but we know that we will not get it because the idea is a conceit buried in a fantasy.

The comparison is at least useful in highlighting the inequity of the funding formula used to determine Wales' budget, but it is a cop-out because it avoids the key issue, which is that Scotland is over-funded and should be assessed on the basis of need, as do all the other nations and regions of the UK.

It is a cop-out too in that the claim abandons Plaid Cymru's previous support for the reform of the Barnett formula so as that it reflects need rather than an arbitrary population-based apportionment. Instead we are being asked to get involved in a bidding war with other parts of the UK for a larger slice of the cake. The danger of that of course is that once you abandon any formula, no matter how flawed, then your slice of the cake can fall as well.

In today's Western Mail, top economist Gerry Holtham, who wrote the book (literally) on the unfairness of the Barnett formula is scathing about Plaid Cymru's claims. He makes it clear that it is very possible that his report, which identified a funding gap of around £300 million for Wales, may now have been overtaken by events:

He said: “Since then public expenditure in Wales relative to that in England has risen and it is not at all clear that we are still underfunded or not at least to the same extent.

“Scotland is of course very over-funded relative to English regions so asking for parity with them is no longer asking for fairness it is asking for special treatment – to get more than the English give themselves, even adjusted for need.

“That seems a strange demand from a party that ultimately wants independence.

“A more defensible demand would be to remove the £4 billion over-funding the Scots get, if that were redistributed around the UK on an equitable basis, Wales would get at least £200 million a year more.

“There is no identity of interest between Scotland and Wales. Plaid’s naive hero-worship of the SNP is preventing them standing up for Wales’ interests as they should. Wales can get more, fairly, only if Scotland gets less."

Plaid Cymru say that their claims are gaining traction amongst the voters, and it is true that people want to see fairness in the way that Wales is funded, but Plaid are misleading everybody about the nature of the problem and are avoiding the main issue that if they achieved their goal of independence then Wales would be billions of pounds worse off.

Update: Over at the Syniadau blog a strong nationalist voice makes similar points to me about Plaid Cymru's position on funding Wales.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Keep taking the tablets

Over on the Guido Fawkes blog there is an extract from Labour campaign supremo, Lucy Powell, in which she lands her leader in some significantly hot water:

'Asked on 5Live this morning whether having to carve their pledges into stone was a sign the public didn’t trust them, Labour’s election chief inexplicably replied:
I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the fact that he’s carved them into stone means, you know, means that he will absolutely, you know, not going to break them or anything like that.”'

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis recounts how the sacrifice of Aslan on a stone altar is reversed by deep magic that protects the innocent. The stone altar is shattered as the Witch's magic is neutered.

Has Lucy Powell just shattered the magic glue that was keeping the increasingly precarious Labour campaign together?

Monday, May 04, 2015

Liberal Democrats Women's manifesto

The Liberal Democrats respond to Labour's pink bus for women:

Clegg and Miliband go head to head on YouTube

Only one of the two party leaders featured below has approved this message:

Sunday, May 03, 2015

A monolith too far - Labour finally jump the shark

Just when we thought this election could not get any more bizarre the Observer reports that Ed Miliband has commissioned a giant stone inscription bearing Labour’s six election pledges that is set to be installed in the Downing Street Rose Garden if he becomes prime minister.

They say that the 8ft 6in-high limestone structure is intended to underline his commitment to keep his promises by having them literally “carved in stone” and visible from the offices inside No 10.

The stone will be unveiled on Sunday with Labour sources saying it will either be placed in the Rose Garden or at Labour’s central London headquarters if the party wins on Thursday. What happens to it if Labour loses is less clear.

This is the first indication that the Labour leader might have a Moses' complex. For his next trick he will no doubt part the English Channel to take us to the promised European land.

On the other hand this monolith could spark rumours of alien influence on the Labour Party Leader. After all a similar structure featured in Arthur C. Clarke's '2001: A Space Odyssey', placed there by outside forces to guide and shape the human race.

Maybe we should explore the dark side of the moon to see if Labour have also placed a similar structure there.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Labour cannot escape SNP's embrace if it is to form a government

Ed Miliband is desperate to put some distance between his party and the SNP but has been undermined by his own shadow cabinet, some of whom have made it clear that this is unrealistic if they are to form a government.

Now the Telegraph has published internal SNP documents setting out how they will broker a deal with Labour and where they share common ground.

This is all very sensible of course and I am sure the Liberal Democrats have done the same. Indeed we have already set out red lines for coalition talks.

This is the reality we may be facing this time next week. However, what the actual outcome is will depend on the voters.

Friday, May 01, 2015

A campaigning interlude

I am off out campaigning all day so here is what we got up to last Saturday in Swansea:

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