Friday, 21 November 2014

The Kippers and the Corpse

In terms of the dog/man/buttocks interface, the return of Mark Reckless in the name of the Farage hardly creates a ripple.  Nick Clegg, however, should have the odious Nigel on his Christmas card list, as the unravelling of the political scene renders the decline of the Liberal Democrats as peripheral to the principal drama of Dave's dalliance with the lunatic fringe.  The Tory/UKIP tango has the merits of a family quarrel on the right, so the inexorable death of the one party that supposedly articulated libertarian values is a sideshow.

From the "I agree with Nick" fiasco to "Who he?" in four years is quite an achievement, perhaps only equalled by the decline of the Liberals from 1929 to 1935, when the party split three ways during a period of similar economic and social turmoil - and it took forty years for even a partial recovery in party fortunes to play through.  As a leader, Clegg has sacrificed a great deal for Westminster power, including the activist, councillor and devolved nation base, while presiding over a party losing its way through a lack of focus on policy, apathy and, in many cases,  anger at the assumption that a centre-right position is a legitimate target when the ground is already being contested by three other UK parties.

Clegg's acolytes increasingly resemble the Bennite left in the Labour Party of the 1980s, always arguing that a tack to the more extreme would unlock the keys to the kingdom.  When Jeremy Browne, soon to be unlamented and presumably coining it in elsewhere, attacks the proposals for higher tax on high-value properties, which both Labour and Liberals endorse, it is clear that the party has been captured by the kind of metropolitan elite that would turn Emily Thornberry into a raving egalitarian.  For the vast majority of people who live outside the centre of London, taxation of £2m properties is a matter of principle rather than personal inconvenience.

For those of us who used to support the Liberal position on the basis of compassionate individualism, and the belief in a strong basis for social inclusion, there is no obvious home now politics are polarised - at least not within England.  Clegg has allowed the party to become a captive punchball and has not articulated what Liberals believe in, nor how odious the Tories have become.  A leader should at this stage be working to define a lifeboat that does not despatch Liberalism into another 40-year cul-de-sac, through saving what is left of the party, and through tacking away from power as a panacea.

One very much doubts that there is either the appetite or the capability to do this, and the party's dismal performance in by-elections suggests that the only approach is to retreat to the local redoubts, hang on like grim death, and hope that the wider view of the electorate is sufficiently discerning to derail the rightist bandwagon.  Clegg should not be cheerleading - he is now assimilated and part of the problem rather than the solution.  After thirty years as a Liberal, my subscription to the party has fallen due for renewal and, not for the first time this is causing soul-searching.  This time round, however, there may be better destinations for money and support.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Winchester and Barnet - rotten to the core

The problem about democracy is that occasionally politicians find themselves accountable to their electorates.  For those of us who are connoisseurs of planning matters, two recent stories have caught my eye.  The eagle-eyed will note that these follow up authorities (and in one case a story) that has appeared in Private Eye.

This is an intriguing example of Tory doublespeak.  In this case, a Tory councillor is insisting that a development that has had all its compliance with the City Council's own development policies fished out in order to make a profit for the developers is thrown out - using the judicial review route available only to the rich or supremely confident.  So how does this undermine democracy?  If it undermines anything, it undermines the ability of Councillors and officers to get away with diluting their now policies.

The second story emerged from a London Borough whose Tories are so rotten that they would probably give themselves planning approval for a cesspit as it would represent a substantial upgrading on their current mire of incompetence, perceived sleaze and arrogance.

What this story does not mention is that the planning service in Barnet is outsourced through a front-veneer of respectability to the well-known outsourcers and moral guardians Capita.  Is there something so congenitally incompetent about local Tory ability to run contracts?  Any commercial business would have extracted indemnities against the errors and omissions made by an outsourced service, and if there was compensation payable for Capita's cock-ups then they should have deducted it from the amount that the taxpayer pays them.

In both cases, there are half-cocked Tories making half-cocked assertions - and further undermining both their own credibility, and, more critically, that of the planning process.  Whoever was responsible for drawing up the Barnet Capita contract deserves both public humiliation and to compensate, personally,  the innocent victims of maladministration.  In Winchester, the Tories ought to go back to consider who the City is run for - residents or developers.

In the meantime, is there a case for new twinning arrangements?  Or could both authorities be merged into Tower Hamlets?

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Miliband bind

Labour must be wishing that they had spin doctors of the calibre that pushed Blair into Downing Street.  This week, the Tories have unravelled in the face of trying to act like fascist Kipper fools, and the entire edifice of venal idiocy should be tottering in the face of the Reckless onslaught in Rochester.  Instead there is continued speculation about whether Labour are fit to govern and more personal attacks on their leader.  This is not all the consequence of Lynton Crosby, but a wilful misreading of the political landscape by Mister Ed and his coterie.

From the dozy rhetoric you would be forgiven for thinking that the political landscape is a simple bipartisan plane - where Labour and the Tories are tussling it out for the right to govern, and where the lesser, non-engaged classes are passive spectators.  Labour have fallen into the delusion that the 2010 election was an aberration, joining their Tory soulmates in dismissing the section of the electorate that does not buy into this cosy duopoly.  Both parties are peddling the myth that they have absolute legitimacy through securing the allegiance of one third of those who bother to vote.

Miliband should be pondering the consequences of the shifting polity.  The Tories do not have a narrative that needs to accommodate pluralism - the use of electoral politics to the current paradigms of May, Osborne and Cameron is not about legitimacy but manipulation to perpetuate a cronyist oligarchy.  The squirming performance of Theresa May in failing to defend European-led law-and-order benefits demonstrates quite how far they will go to betray their own declared principles for a little bit of short-term electoral advantage.

Simple mathematical computation suggests that no single party in the current political landscape can claim legitimacy - even if it secures a majority in the Commons.  The regional and national disparities demonstrated most tellingly by the Scottish referendum, echoing local government and electoral contests outside the South-East of England, suggest that there is no way in which single-party rule can claim either to represent the settled will of the electorate or of a clear mandate to implement policy.

Labour's secular decline is clearly not worrying party strategists - but it should be.  Much as the Tories are not regenerating as their doddery membership goes to meet its maker (it's warm down there) or settles for the devil on earth in yellow trousers, Labour has not recognised the decline in its support base.  

With the election fast approaching, Miliband needs to pursue a dual strategy.  The first is to articulate a left-wing platform that does not bend over forward to appease the bankers, CBI and the other parasite groups who have a vested interest in keeping a neo-Thatcherite debate fuelled.  The second is to demonstrate why Labour are the major, but not overarching, force within a centre-left consensus that reaches out to the nationalist parties, Liberals and Greens - respecting the differences and creating a debate that would provide a sensible basis for post-election government.  Admitting that Labour are striving to "win" under the current system, but recognising that this is a second-best to a genuine pluralism might recreate a tactical environment where an anti-Tory (and if necessary anti-Orange Book Liberal Democrat) majority can be created and exploited, much as it was in 1997.

Miliband has little to lose.  The country has a great deal more.