Sunday, 19 December 2010


‘We don’t do God’ Alistair Campbell famously quipped about New Labour’s approach to anything religious. It was a very pragmatic stance, given that Britain is largely a secular society these days, albeit with a still established Church of England. And it also helped keep Tony Blair’s somewhat messianic Christian views in check.

But what does the liberal-minded member of society who wishes to respect both believers and non-believers do about Christmas? There are some who don’t even want the term ‘Christmas’ to be used. I disagree – to me it’s a perfectly legitimate term, whether you choose to celebrate Christmas in a Christian or non-Christian way. But it does raise some interesting ethical questions.

For many who don’t regularly go to church but who find comfort in attending a church service at Christmas, what does ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’ actually mean? Is it just a ritualistic phrase that gets forgotten the moment one comes out of the church? Or does it indicate a willingness to be a bit more charitable towards fellow human beings?

I found myself wondering this in the light of the particularly vitriolic things people have been saying about the Liberal Democrats over recent weeks. There is a real anger in some of the comments that have been made – some of them by very eloquent and intelligent people – that it has made me wonder whether we have missed something.

I do think that the Lib Dems have picked up a lot of support over the years because we haven’t been in power nationally, so have never had to make ourselves unpopular with difficult decisions. Now we’re getting our hands dirty, people find it easy to see us as no different to the other two parties, and having hoped we were different, they get extra angry.

In addition, we have come to government at a time when some really heart-breaking decisions are necessary. To carry these through, often in the face of some serious personal abuse, requires a resilience that sometimes makes people think we don’t care. When administering some horrible medicine to a child, we accept the old adage ‘you have to be cruel to be kind’, yet we accept it less when applied to the national economy. The result is that those associated with power become the scapegoats.

Yet Liberal Democrats haven’t changed just because the party is in a coalition government. We still believe in promoting a fairer society, however many difficult cuts in finances we have had to sign up to. We still believe in looking after the weakest, in promoting an absence of discrimination, and working towards forms of governance that are rooted in cooperation rather than benign despotism.

As one of the many members of society who is uncomfortable with traditional religion but who thinks deeply about various aspects of spirituality, I find myself hoping people will invoke the spirit of Christmas to become a little more charitable towards a form of government that might yet prove to be the best thing for this country, especially at this time. I wish the coalition we Liberals have waited so long for had happened at a less daunting time economically, but you have to deal with what is, not what you’d have liked best.

That’s why I ask people who have been well disposed towards the Lib Dems, but who find their faith in us seriously challenged at present, to offer us a little goodwill this Christmas. It’s a steep learning curve for all of us, with some nasty decisions along the way. It may all go haywire, but even if it does, I hope people will recognise the good intent behind the political machinations. And if those with doubts are willing to hang with us for a while, there may be something at the end of the rainbow that’s worth a lot more than a fictitious pot of gold.

Do have a very happy Christmas, however you choose to celebrate it!

Sunday, 12 December 2010


Few people like to criticise their own profession, so it goes against the grain for me – as a journalist – to conclude that the media has behaved pretty despicably over its reporting of the tuition fees issue. But I feel no other conclusion is possible.

OK, so we as a political party haven’t covered ourselves in glory over this one either, but the blatant misinformation emanating from even some of the more respected political reporters doesn’t reflect well on them.

Too many have delighted in talking about the Lib Dems’ ‘U-turn’ (or ‘dramatic U-turn’ or ‘spectacular U-turn’ – why be happy with a slight misrepresentation when a melodramatic one will do?). A U-turn is when you change your mind, which to me isn’t a crime, but that’s beside the point because it’s not the case here – this is a concession to enable a coalition to be formed, but of course that doesn’t make for such a good story.

It’s all part of a vicious learning curve for us Lib Dems, who have enjoyed – in the words of our ex-cabinet minister David Laws – ‘the joys of easy opposition’ for too long. We’ve been in power at council level, much of it in coalition with Labour and the Conservatives, but now we’re in power (jointly) at national level, and taking all the flak for it.

The result is that people who voted Lib Dem at the general election because of our tuition fees stance feel betrayed by us, when actually they have achieved something with their vote.

Both Labour and the Tories went into the election advocating a fee-based university funding model, while we fought for the principle of no tuition fees for first degrees. Realistically, we were always going to have to compromise on that with just 23% of the vote, but we have used what leverage we got from our voters to argue for university education to remain free at the point of learning, and for the payback mechanism to kick in only at a graduate's salary of £21,000. That’s a major concession that wouldn’t have happened if the Conservatives (or Labour for that matter) had been governing on their own.

But that has barely been reported, with the result that children from lower-income families could be scared off from going to university. Don’t blame us for that – blame the media for a scare campaign perpetrated because they were happier taking cheap shots at the coalition than in reporting the issue accurately.

But by far the biggest omission from the media reporting is one that goes to the heart of why we are a progressive party.

When money is tight, you have to decide where to spend it and where not to. The same government department that deals with higher (university) education deals with further education, and there are a lot more of our youngsters who need help at 16 than at 18. Many who leave school at 16 have a reading age of 11, so further education is something of a safety net for them. The further education sector also embraces a lot more children from lower income families than the higher education sector.

So, after 13 years of watching the party that supposedly represents the least affluent presiding over the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, we now have a Liberal Democrat business secretary, Vince Cable, who has decided to put what little money he has for post-16 education into those who, by and large, need it more, and to ask those who, by and large, need it less to pay something back when they’re earning enough to do so.

Yet we’re taking stick for this, not just because of the media, but because the student body is eloquent and loud enough to make its case more powerfully than those who stand to benefit from further education at age 16. But that doesn’t mean what we’re doing is wrong.

I don’t like the package of higher education funding that was agreed in the fractious Commons vote, even though I’d have voted for it if I’d been an MP. I hate the way higher education is going to be ‘marketised’. But faced with the choices, I think the Lib Dems have pushed the government in a socially progressive direction, which is what our role in government should be.

Monday, 15 November 2010


You may have difficulty believing this, but I was actually pleased to see the students demonstrating on the streets of London. No, really. I wish they had been demonstrating about something slightly more altruistic, but it was encouraging to see them.

Call me a 1970s romantic, but to me the student generation needs to be on the streets more often. When I was at university, there were demonstrations every month, some of them quite small, but some massive – I was among 300,000 who turned out in Bonn in October 1981 to protest against the threat of nuclear missiles, and a similar number turned out in London two weeks later.

I said in the general election campaign that we must stop being a society that only values adults of working age. We dismiss the fresh ideas of children as much as writing off the wisdom of the grey-haired generation. And the student generation has a role to play in challenging the orthodoxy of the establishment – you can’t take everything the students say at face value, but if students aren’t challenging those with mortgages and those in power, who is going to? It’s a measure of a vibrant society.

My problem with the recent demonstrations is not just the violence (that cannot be condoned, however much it generates news coverage), but the failure of the protesters to see the big picture. They are taking refuge in saying the Lib Dems have sold out on higher education, that they feel betrayed to have voted for us and now face higher tuition fees, and there is now an official NUS campaign aimed at ousting certain Lib Dem MPs.

When Lib Dem MPs vote for the package of measures that will see tuition fees remain in operation and at a potentially higher level than they are now, this will not be a betrayal. To see it as such is to fundamentally misunderstand coalition government.

Yes, the Lib Dems campaigned for the abolition of tuition fees for first degrees, to be brought in over six years. We did so because we believe strongly in the need for society to support a certain amount of learning beyond the age of 18. The problem was that we got 23% of the votes, so we couldn’t form a government.

Fortunately, neither of the other two parties – who said nothing about abolishing tuition fees – could form a government on their own. So we have gone into coalition with a party that got 37% of the votes. It wants to keep tuition fees and would have done so big-time if it had been in government on its own (as would Labour).

What we did was negotiate to take the edges off the package. Bolstered by the fact that lots of students voted for us, we secured three important concessions: a cap on tuition fees that was not recommended in Lord Browne’s report, a payback scheme that isn’t just a tax but goes to the university that did the student’s teaching, and a starting threshold for that payback scheme of £21,000 a year.

That is the reward for all those students who voted Lib Dem because of our promise to abolish tuition fees. With 23% of the votes, that’s quite an achievement, and it wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in government.

The waters have been slightly muddied by the fact that most Lib Dem candidates, me included, signed the NUS pledge saying we wouldn’t vote for tuition fees. The fact that those elected to parliament will now vote for the package that includes tuition fees has fuelled the ‘spectacular U-turn’ hyperbole of some journalists. But this isn’t fair.

In a mature democracy, you campaign on what you will do, and if you don’t get a majority, you form a coalition based on certain compromises. Voting for tuition fees is a Lib Dem compromise in the current coalition (and whether the Lib Dem leadership anticipated using this issue as a bargaining counter before the election is immaterial). Yes, Lib Dem MPs will hold their noses when they vote for tuition fees, but Tory MPs will hold their noses when they vote for the referendum on electoral reform. It’s all part of coalition government.

The problem is that we don’t exactly know what a majority Conservative or Labour government would have done, not just on tuition fees but on a range of other issues. That’s what people need to remember when they start blaming the Lib Dems for a whole load of things that weren’t in our manifesto.

Thursday, 21 October 2010


This has been a truly horrible week. Even those of us as fortunate as me, who are in a comfortable enough position to soak up much of the impact of the cuts, recognise the hardship that this week’s Spending Review will cause and the potential damage to the fabric of British society.

But rather than give another critique of the review (there are enough in circulation already), here instead are a few thoughts that go beyond the graphs, tables, claims and sound bites that have dominated this week’s crushing set of spending cuts.

• Every now and again I wonder ‘Are such deep cuts really necessary?’ And then something strikes me to hammer home that they are, such as the fact that the government has had to borrow an extra £400 million every day since May, because for every £300 coming in we are spending £400; or the fact that we’re spending £120 million a day on debt interest payments that could be used to build a school every hour or triple the number of doctors. We just can’t go on like this.

• When the Daily Mail goes on a rant, as it did the day after the Spending Review – lamenting the regional growth fund as ‘a sop to Vince Cable’, the national scholarship fund as ‘a blatant bribe to Liberal Democrat MPs not to cause trouble over university funding’, and blaming us for the rise in international development aid and the Green Bank – you know we’re acting as a useful counterbalance to Tory instincts.

• Has any think tank or other institution done a proposal for taxation and services based on starting from scratch? I mean, like saying ‘Right folks, we have 60 million people on this north-west European island, what services are we going to provide and how should we pay for them through taxes and charges?’ Might be a useful point of reference.

• Why do we continue to have such difficulty taking relatively small sums off the truly stinking rich and diverting them to socially justified projects? Given that a drop in the ocean for some of our wealthiest citizens would make a massive difference to some social initiatives, we must be missing a trick somewhere.

• At risk of criticising my party’s part in the coalition (I), I wish we would stop blaming Labour for the mess. Yes, Labour did make a mess of things (Gordon Brown will go down as a truly disastrous chancellor), but it wasn’t just Labour. The banks had a big part to play, and let’s face it, so did the rest of us by building up massive debts on credit cards because we wanted things we simply couldn’t afford.

• At risk of criticising my party’s part in the coalition (II), I wish rail travel hadn’t been made even more expensive compared with car driving than it is already. Fair taxes on motorists should be based on urban congestion charging (where there's some reasonable revenue to be earned), because that way the people you make pay are those who have the best alternatives to driving, and you respect the lack of choices for those in rural areas. But that option has been spurned in favour of further cuts to rail subsidies.

It will be horrendous to see the cuts become reality over the next few months, as we see things that have been built up over years struck down in months because the funding has run out. But failure to tackle the deficit won’t help our democracy in the long term, so reluctantly I have to accept that the cuts are necessary. I also believe they’re fair, though like everyone else, that hope will only be tested over time.

Thursday, 30 September 2010


I was obviously pleased, but also relieved, to hear Ed Miliband say he personally would be voting ‘Yes’ in the fairer votes referendum in May.

You could say he could ill have afforded not to, after the way he was elected. If you’d been rescued off a mountain top by a helicopter, it wouldn’t look good if you then railed against helicopters in your first statement after being rescued, would it! Or if you railed against your country’s diplomats after they’d got you out of jail in a tin-pot dictatorship.

Ed Miliband came second in most rounds of the Labour leadership election, but when all the second preferences were counted, he won, because he had the greater all-round support of the three constituencies that make up the Labour party: members, MPs and trade unions.

What would now be appropriate is for the new Labour leader to go beyond what he would do ‘personally’ and recommend a ‘Yes’ vote to his party. He has clearly made certain noises that distance himself from the New Labour years – including recognising what we have said all along about the Iraq war – but how modern is he really?

Is he willing to take the plunge and say a modern Labour prime minister either has to be elected by an absolute majority of the voters, or has to govern in coalition with another party? Because that’s what a truly modern party leader must surely now recognise.

This is why it doesn’t worry me whether Miliband takes Labour to the left or not (whatever ‘left’ means in this politically post-modern era). In fact I’d be quite happy if he did, and not for any reasons to do with electoral arithmetic.

To me – and I’m speaking more as a democrat than a Liberal Democrat here – a modern electoral system needs to have three main parties: a party fundamentally representing the haves, a party fighting for the have-nots, and a free-thinking party not beholden to any group of people which can bring ideas to the political table that the other two parties can’t. If there are a number of fringe parties contributing ideas (like the Greens and Ukip), fair enough, but the basic system revolves around those three entities.

It means the political system would always be open to Lab-Lib, Con-Lib and even Lab-Con coalitions (the latter a fairly unlikely scenario but the ultimate guard against the Lib Dems becoming too arrogant). It’s worked that way in numerous other developed nations, including some with economies much more successful than ours has been.

Will Ed Miliband be up to this modern role? His initial party conference speech suggests he might. His non-Labour political idols were all Liberals, and while he attacked the Lib Dems in the campaign, he declined to go for the cheap cheer of attacking us in his leader’s speech. It will be interesting to see how Labour develops under him.

On that subject, an afterthought. As the elder of two siblings, my heart genuinely feels for David Miliband, and I think he’s done the right thing by taking a break from front-line politics. But I don’t think he should go too far.

While I believe Labour has got the leader it really wanted (thanks to a voting system that allows for second preferences), I can’t help wondering whether, in 18 months, Ed will have run out of steam and become his party’s Iain Duncan Smith – a fundamentally decent and well motivated guy who just doesn’t connect with voters. It’s just a hunch, and I may be wrong, but we may not have seen the last of the elder Miliband in the Labour leadership.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


Labour supporters have a lot to think about at the moment, what with electing a new leader and trying to work out what their party stands for. Well, I’d like to give them something else to think about – what type of Labour supporter are they really?

To me there are two types of Labour supporters in the current British political landscape.

One is the ‘win at all costs’ person who wants to see Labour re-elected with a massive majority and doesn’t really care who gets trampled underfoot in the process. The other is a truly progressive person who is in it because they care about those members of society and the wider world who can least look after themselves.

Of course, those in the first category will lay claim to the motivation of the second category, but the distinction is important because it indicates how they view the Liberal Democrats and our role in the coalition government.

To the ‘win at all costs’ Labour supporter, our presence in government is a massive irritant. Without us, a pure Tory government would be much worse than the current government is, so the chances of its being so unpopular in 2015 that Labour gets back with a thumping majority are great.

To the genuinely progressive Labour supporter, having the Lib Dems in government is a good thing, because it means that Labour’s years in opposition – at least the first five of them – are spent without the extremes of Thatcherism that happened in the 1980s, which did so much to limit Labour’s room for manoeuvre when it finally got back in 1997.

A lot of people have made the point that the Lib Dems are much closer to Labour than the Conservatives, so a red-yellow coalition would have made more sense than the blue-yellow one we have now. Assuming we are indeed closer to Labour (and it is only an assumption, though probably largely correct), does it really mean a red-yellow coalition would be better?

Surely it is a lot more use to the progressive cause for the Lib Dems to act as a brake on a Conservative government than for us to coalesce with Labour? If we were in coalition with Labour, there would be a risk that we’d be seen as just another sub-section of the Labour party, a bit like the Fabians, or the Christian Socialists. I’m not saying we shouldn’t one day work with Labour, but there would be bigger issues of protecting our distinctive identity.

This is something that all people from the progressive wing of British politics should recognise. It’s why the truly progressive Labour supporter, who would rather we were in coalition with Labour than the Tories, needs to feel quietly grateful that there are Lib Dems in government. And why Labour-leaning Lib Dems should recognise that we are probably doing a more effective job pulling the Tories back from the right than if we were in coalition with ideologically more like-minded people.

For make no mistake, we are restraining the Conservatives from their natural instincts. There are plenty of Tories who loathe David Cameron because they see his deal with the Lib Dems as holding back pure Conservatism.

True, we’re having difficulty getting that message across, and in that respect it is an uncomfortable time to be a Lib Dem. But it doesn’t mean what we’re doing is wrong, or that we should allow our restraining influence to be belittled just because we’re the junior partners and therefore have to accept things we didn’t campaign for (many people forget that the Tories polled 37% while we polled 23%, so the Tory agenda will dominate).

No-one likes the cuts we’re seeing now, and it’s worrying to see certain aspects of them, especially those that hit poor people very hard. But the true progressives will recognise that having Lib Dems in government is of benefit to the country, and that doing the right thing is justified, even if there is an electoral price to pay. And it could be that doing the right thing means the electoral price won’t be as high as many fear at present.

Friday, 30 July 2010


There are a lot of stories doing the rounds about disquiet within the Liberal Democrats over the state of the coalition. The disquiet exists, but runs nowhere near as deep as is sometimes played up in the media. And it has to be set against some clear realities.

Reality check 1 – there was no choice for the Lib Dems after the general election

With the arithmetic produced by our crazy electoral system, there was really no choice but to accept David Cameron’s offer of a coalition. The maths wouldn’t have made a deal with Labour work (Labour didn’t want it anyway, whatever Gordon Brown may say), and if we’d sat tight in splendid opposition and let the Conservatives form a minority government, we’d be facing a second election this autumn which would almost certainly have delivered an overall Tory majority. Then we’d be no better off, and people would be wondering what the Lib Dems were for.

Reality check 2 – things would have been equally bad under a Labour government

Despite the collective amnesia engulfing Labour which convinces them that nothing bad happened before 7 May, Labour would have faced the same economic situation and would have had to take equally brutal measures. Ed Balls has even admitted that Labour’s election pledge to halve the national deficit in four years was unachievable. Any current boost to Labour is simply down to it not being the party that’s doing the dirty work.

Reality check 3 – the current government would have been a lot nastier without the Lib Dems as part of it

To Lib Dems, the government seems a Tory one that’s using our support and doing its own thing anyway. But many Conservatives feel the opposite – that the Lib Dems have too much influence. The reality is that it is a Tory-led government with Lib Dem influence, and that influence is measurable in several ways. We will achieve our aim of a £10,000 income tax threshold by 2015, we will get a referendum on a step towards a fairer voting system, we will get our ‘pupil premium’. There are fringe benefits too, like the renewal of Trident not being funded from general taxation, and the flowering of moderate Tories like Ken Clarke, whose liberal slant to his work as justice minister could never have happened if the Tories ruled alone.

Reality check 4 – all parties lose support when in government and gain it when in opposition

We have been in opposition for 65 years, during which time you pick up a number of supporters. But opposition is a lot easier than government, and when you’re responsible for issues rather than just commenting on them, you lose some of the people you picked up in opposition.

Reality check 5 – the Lib Dems (and previous incarnations) have been unpopular before and have always bounced back

We were unpopular during the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-78, we were hammered by the Greens in the 1989 European elections, and we were down to 11 per cent in the opinion polls three years ago. We always bounce back because there is always a place for a third force alongside the parties representing the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ – a place for imaginative ideas that aren’t beholden to an orthodox or proletarian ideology.

The next couple of years won’t be easy for the Liberal Democrats. I fear we’ll lose some very good councillors next year because of a backlash against our role in tackling the deficit.

But I went into politics to try to change things for the better. At the election we got 23 per cent and the Tories 37 per cent. If we go into government with them, we have to play the junior role, but we’re still achieving things. That’s why we need to hold our nerve – and leave a dignified return open for those people who are leaving us now.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


It takes a fair bit for me to scream at the television (yes really, I gather some people do it constantly), but I found myself yelling at Ed Miliband on Question Time the other week.

He was commenting on the coalition’s spending cuts, which is all fine and good – that’s his constitutional job, after all. But what got me yelling ‘That’s disgraceful!’ at the set was his comment ‘and the British people will show what they think of these cuts at next year’s council elections’.

If ever there was a case of bringing democracy into disrepute, this is it. The contempt he has for local government encapsulated in such a brief statement is breathtaking.

Next May’s local council elections have nothing, repeat nothing, to do with national politics. They are a vote on who runs your local council, in our case Wealden District Council. Is the council well run financially? Is it well run democratically? What is one party offering by way of a local programme for the next four years? How does that compare with what another party is offering? These are the questions that should take centre stage at council elections.

OK, a bit of realism here. I know there are a lot of people who vote in council elections on the basis of national politics. A lot of people don’t know who runs their local council, indeed many don’t know the name of their council – it’s easier just to blame everything on ‘the council’. Many even think the MP is the leader of the local council.

This situation isn’t helped by the demise of local media. Because of financial pressures, local newspapers are often run these days with one news reporter, who’s looking for the granny-rescued-by-the-fire-brigade story rather than scrutinising the local council. But that’s no excuse to encourage local elections to be run on national issues.

There are some brilliant councillors – of all parties – who put in four years of hard work, stand for re-election, and are then unceremoniously dumped because their party nationally isn’t flavour of the month. This is a tragedy for good local decision-making – a tragedy that’s being fed by Ed Miliband’s cavalier attitude, just because it suits his purpose to attack the coalition for doing the dirty work it has to do.

There could be a second ulterior motive to Miliband’s skulduggery. Next May’s council elections will probably feature another vote, the eagerly awaited referendum on changing our voting system.

Could it be that Miliband the Younger is trying to get people to protest about the coalition through voting against the move to a fairer voting system? After all, the chances of his party getting an overall majority would be somewhat reduced under the Alternative Vote system, but deep down he – like every other Labour and Tory politician – knows there is no moral defence of the current first-past-the-post method.

Any government formed after the 6 May election would have had to take the harsh decisions the coalition is taking. And yes, it will be unpopular for a time. But if anyone uses that as an excuse to sacrifice hard-working local councillors working on local issues, and a long overdue tentative first step at reforming the voting system, they will be guilty of the most disgraceful opportunism.

Thursday, 20 May 2010


It was a relief to find that the ‘new coalition’ was eventually supplanted by other stories at the top of news bulletins. I wish it hadn’t been the violence in Thailand, as that’s a truly awful situation which is tearing apart a wonderful country, but that then made way for Lord Triesman’s demise at the Football Association.

Some people laugh at the Triesman fiasco, but I don’t, and it has nothing to do with football. In fact it has a lot to do with the coalition.

There was a lot of talk at the election (much of it from me!) about the need for a new politics. And I find it great that we have a form of government that no-one had thought would come about. But for it to work, you need some valves in the system that release the pressure, as well as space to think creatively.

Much releasing of pent-up tension and resentment, and much creative thinking, come in quiet discussions where you can think the unthinkable and speak the unspeakable. Some know it as brainstorming, but the name isn’t important. What’s important is that you can say what you want, so that what you eventually say in public is measured and reasonable.

We’ve all done it. We’ve let off steam privately about a boss or colleague, even a member of our family with whom we have to get on but who privately drives us up the wall, only to moderate our stance in public. Or we’ve said to a friend or relation ‘This is probably a mad idea, but …’ And it often is a mad idea, but occasionally it proves to be inspired.

All this is fine and dandy as long as these conversations remain private. But what happens when they become public? There are two ways to go – either you clam up and say nothing to anyone, or you get the world to recognise that the conversation was private and don’t give the person who has made it public the satisfaction of having embarrassed you.

This is why I’m worried that David Triesman had to resign after being betrayed (there really is no other word for it) by his dinner companion. I have never met the man and have no idea whether he holds some weird views or has alienated people in his entourage, so I don’t know about any underlying motives.

But what I do know is that his conversation with Melissa Jacobs was private and should have remained so. As head of the FA’s bid to bring the 2018 world cup to England, Triesman had to think around all elements of the bid, including elements he would never have dreamed of expressing publicly. If he hadn’t wondered about vote trading or even influencing referees, he wouldn’t have been the right man for the job.

That’s why the Mail on Sunday should never have published the story. Once it had, the FA was in an awful position – it should really have stood by its man, but it knew that would have virtually killed off England’s bid.

You can be sure that there are conversations going on now in Lib Dem and Tory circles which involve a lot of letting-off of steam and thinking the unthinkable. These conversations really are vital, and if we make them impossible to have because of the fear that they will get out, then we really will make this country ungovernable.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010


It became clear on Saturday that the result of Thursday’s general election had changed the nature of the Liberal Democrats for good.

For years we have struggled to gain a degree of influence, developing policies that we felt were right for Britain – in the sense of being socially just and environmentally geared to the future. And we knew that when we got a hung parliament, that would be our chance.

To build up to that, we developed a broad voter base, effectively made up of three groups of people: pure Lib Dems who support us for what we stand for, Tory sympathisers who will vote Lib Dem but never Labour, and Labour supporters who will vote Lib Dem but never Conservative.

From the moment we got into the situation where we had to choose between a deal with the Conservatives, a deal with Labour, or remaining in opposition – a situation we had longed for – one of those three groups was going to be seriously cheesed off.

Over the weekend I got lots of emails from Labour supporters saying ‘Don’t do it’. On Monday night when we heard the Lib Dems were talking to Labour, I got some from Conservative supporters saying ‘Don’t do it’. And yes, I got one from a lifelong Liberal saying we should remain in opposition – I guess that confirms the view of some historians that liberalism is a movement rooted in opposition that finds government difficult.

I don’t subscribe to that view. I believe we are in this game to improve people’s lives, and this was our chance. Nick Clegg and the rest of us campaigned for a package of policies, highlighted by four headline aims (fairer taxes, ‘green’ jobs, more money for education, and cleaner politics), and was unremitting in his insistence that people should vote for what we stood for, not who our possible partners in government might be.

The Con-Lib deal that has been agreed as the basis for the new coalition has concessions on all four fronts. The biggest is a Conservative commitment to raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, albeit phased over the next few years. That is a genuinely Lib Dem initiative that would never have happened with a majority Tory government – nor even with a majority Labour government, despite it being something I believe Labour should have been advocating.

Other concessions include the ‘pupil premium’ we’ve been pushing for, and an environmental boost to the economy – for those of us dubious about David Cameron’s ‘green’ credentials and worried he might abandon the environment once in power, our presence could well mean something. And there will be political reform, even if it may not go as far as some of us in the Lib Dems want.

So am I happy with this deal? – not totally. Am I happy to accept it? – yes. Is that a contradiction? – I don’t think so.

As a child getting the hang of politics, I knew I was not a Conservative before I knew whether I was pro-Labour or pro-Liberal. I still feel that way, to the point where I am uncomfortable doing a deal with the Conservatives. I suspect Cameron is a moderately decent guy, but George Osborne leaves me cold, as do plenty of others in the Tory ranks, from grandees to young Turks. To that extent I fully understand the feelings of those who oscillate between Labour and Lib Dem who feel let down by this deal (even if I wish some of those who had written to me to express their views had been a little less abusive).

But what was the alternative? The parliamentary arithmetic meant a Lab-Lib deal could only happen as part of a ‘rainbow alliance’ that would have been messy and could have faltered the moment an MP or two fell ill. And would we have gained by staying in opposition under a minority government or a grand coalition? – people would have said we just couldn’t decide, and would have wondered what the point of the Lib Dems was.

There are those who have accused Nick Clegg of being duplicitous over the negotiations, most notably Malcolm Rifkind, who said Nick’s negotiating has been straight out of the Robert Mugabe school of government. I met Rifkind when he was transport secretary and found him a gentle and level-headed man, but he’s gone off the deep end here.

His remarks are grossly unfair. Nick always said the party with the biggest mandate had to have first go at forming a government, but once it became clear negotiations with us had got bogged down, he had to talk to Labour. Failure to do so would have led to a longer period of post-election instability that would have led to uncertainty on the currency and stock markets.

More importantly, the fact that the Lib Dems talked to Labour and found a deal couldn’t be done should make the coalition we’ve got more palatable for everyone. Of course some Labour spin doctors will try to say we’ve abandoned socially progressive politics, but that is just a self-serving way of trying to swell Labour ranks with disaffected Lib Dem supporters.

I don’t know how it’s going to end, and yes, I am apprehensive about it. But I entered politics in the hope of improving not just the society that has served me personally so well, but also the mechanisms by which we do business. That inevitably means cooperation, a word I used a lot in my election campaigning, and the Con-Lib deal is the first exercise in that cooperation.

No-one would bat an eyelid if we had a war on and formed a coalition. Because the threat is economic and environmental rather than military, the need for a coalition seems less clear-cut. But it’s a massive threat and, following Thursday’s vote, this seems the best and most optimistic way of proceeding.

All I would ask is that people who have been well-disposed towards the Lib Dems give it a chance before rushing to judgement.

Monday, 10 May 2010


First up, a massive caveat: I know no more than anyone else about what’s going on in the Conservative/Lib Dem negotiations. I may be a candidate – or ex-candidate – but I have no more information than the 50 million other people who are following developments through the media.

What I can say is that I’ve had a number of comments from people who voted for me who are very angry about the possibility that the Lib Dems will do a deal with the Conservatives. As I have an email address for the specific purpose of passing on comments to the party’s high command, I have been able to report the broad sentiments, and I can say the Lib Dem negotiating team is well aware of the strength of feeling among party members and Lib Dem voters.

But like most things of political importance, it isn’t quite as simple as it may seem. And there are two things that are central to this.

Firstly, I hope people can now see why Nick Clegg and all of us who stood for the Lib Dems were so reluctant to answer the question “Which party will you side with in the event of a hung Parliament?”

The answer we gave constantly was “Please vote for our policies, not for a possible coalition.” I dressed this up differently. On several occasions I told people “It’s like meeting a new person and instead of saying ‘Who are you? – tell me something about yourself’ you say ‘Tell me who your friends are, or might be?’”

We stood on our four main platforms – fair taxes, a better deal for education, a boost to the economy through creating ‘green jobs’, and cleaning up politics – on the basis that, if there was a hung Parliament, we would use those four issues as our bargaining counters so Lib Dem votes turn into real action. That is what is happening in the current negotiations, and if people want politicians to do what they say they’d do, no-one can hold the current negotiations against us.

Of course the big question is: what can we reasonably get from the Conservatives? To me, and to many other Lib Dem voters, a fundamental issue is meaningful electoral reform, but can the Conservatives deliver it? I suspect David Cameron would be willing, as I sense he sees it as part of bringing his party into the 21st century. But could he take his party with him? Probably not.

Which could then throw us into discussions with Labour, and also the Scottish, Welsh and Ulster parties, given that ‘Lab + Lib Dem = minority’. After all, Gordon Brown is promising an immediate referendum on electoral reform, albeit with the discredited Alternative Vote system.

But – and this is my second central issue – could Labour deliver meaningful electoral reform? There are plenty of Labour MPs who are no keener on ditching the first-past-the-post voting system than the dinosaurs we know inhabit the Tory ranks. Given that a Lab/Lib/nationalists alliance would only just have a majority, it would only take a handful of rebel Labour MPs to kill off proportional representation.

I am desperate to see PR happen. I remember the discussions in the 1970s about it, and want Nick Clegg to use all his current power to get PR. But some of the media commentators are assuming his power is greater than it might be.

That’s why the best thing everyone – Lib Dem voters, sympathisers, and party members – can do is to be patient and trust the negotiating process. It’s not a nice feeling, but it’s the best and most respectful thing we can do in the circumstances.

[Written at 10.30am, Monday 10 May 2010]

Friday, 30 April 2010


It’s fair game to have a go at politicians at present. You can criticise them for everything from MPs’ expenses to not giving full and honest answers. But there’s a missing element in all this.

The public needs to play its part too. If it wants honest politics, it must be willing to recognise it when it sees it, and give it its due.

Nowhere has this been more clearly on display than over the role immigration is playing in this election.

We in the Liberal Democrats have been aware for a long time about people’s concerns about immigration. I personally don’t feel it’s as much of a threat as others do, and I feel some of the sensationalist media have whipped up a frenzy about foreigners claiming excessive benefits that bears little relation to reality. But sometimes the perception is as important as the reality, so it was something that had to be tackled.

So we tackled it. We set out to assess the current situation, to find out what the extent of the black market – some of it controlled by extremely nasty gangs – really is, and to work out a policy that is fair and makes sense.

What we’ve come up with is a proposal to be stricter with our border controls, and to make permission to come to this country conditional on whether the skills an immigrant can offer are needed in the area he/she wants to work in.

That has gone down very well, but the message has been distorted by how another aspect of our policy has been hijacked by those looking to score cheap points and discredit our ideas. I’m talking about what’s become known as our proposed ‘amnesty’.

We recognise that there are several hundred thousand people in this country who arrived illegally and are working in a shady underworld, often being paid by gangs, frequently in poor and threatening conditions. We’re saying that any of those who have been here for 10 years, speak good English and have no criminal record can apply to become legalised. Even then they wouldn’t have access to benefits for two years. That would mean we find out who a lot of these people are, and they'd start paying tax and contributing to the community.

I share the reservations of many that we’re retrospectively condoning something that was illegal – yes, that goes against the grain. But we have to start from where we are, not where we’d like to be, and our proposals are fair, constructive and make sense.

But now we have people screaming it’s an ‘amnesty’, that it’ll increase our rate of immigration (this has happened in some countries where they have had similar ‘amnesties’ but wouldn’t happen here because of our stricter border controls), and that we’re not listening to people. Instead, people are falling for David Cameron’s unspecified and unrealistic ‘cap’ on immigration, and the threats by both parties to deport immigrants. How can they deport people when they don’t even know where many of them are!

People must make up their own minds about which party best reflects what they stand for. But anyone pining for a better politics must also be willing to accept common sense solutions when presented to them, and not take refuge in a few carefully crafted sound bites that appeal to the heart but have little or no bearing on reality.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


It was Harold Wilson who said 'A week is a long time in politics'. How out of date that now sounds - 90 minutes is the new record after Nick Clegg's performance on Thursday night turned our traditional two-party democracy into a true three-party system.

In her analysis in the Sussex Express of 9 April, Susan King predicted that, of the six constituencies in the Express circulation area, five are likely to return an MP of the same party as last time, with only Eastbourne hanging in the balance. That was a reasonably fair assessment before last Thursday's first televised debate, but it's now looking a little less certain.

This was always a difficult election to call, because no-one could be quite sure how the MPs' expenses and cash for lobbying scandals would play out with the public. With the TV debate having firmly established three-party politics in this country, 'safe' seats are suddenly no longer so safe.

What irritated me about Susan King's otherwise fair analysis of the likely outcomes is that it carried an implicit overtone that it’s not worth voting unless you live in Eastbourne. (Credit incidentally to the Express for printing my complaint in this week's paper when they could have hidden behind a pre-election curfew on candidates' letters.)

But that's missing a very obvious point. Just as Manchester United would start at 0-0 in a cup tie against lowly opposition, so all the candidates in all the constituencies start at zero votes, and a rush of apathy or a last-minute reason to switch allegiance could yet produce some shock results.

With Nick Clegg's performance in the TV debate having changed the nature of the whole campaign, that indicates that, even if Charles Hendry represents Manchester United in our analogy of the Wealden constituency, the Lib Dems aren't a League Two side but from the Championship or even Premier League. And the thought of Wealden having a Lib Dem MP isn't quite so far-fetched as it was at 8.30pm last Thursday.

It would still be a major shock if we won this seat, but the Conservatives are no longer a shoo-in for victory. I have met people who have been very impressed with Nick's performance and who are voting Lib Dem having not originally expected to be. A few thousand of those and we really will have a shock result.

I'm also encouraged by Charles Hendry's own slogan 'Vote for Change'. I hope the Wealden voters take him literally, and vote to change the Wealden MP!

But even for those who believe Wealden won't change this time, there is more reason to vote Lib Dem than normal. The overall popular vote – the total votes cast for each party nationally – could have a strong moral role to play if no single party has an overall majority, so even in the supposedly ‘safe’ seats, there is more reason than usual to vote.

And after all, it’s only our corrupt voting system that renders so many votes apparently worthless in the first place. Hopefully this will be the last general election at which we use this discredited system, so there can never be an excuse again that voting Lib Dem - or any other party for that matter - is a wasted vote.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


This business about Labour’s proposed increase in national insurance contributions, the Conservatives’ ‘promise’ to abolish it, and the ‘support’ of a couple of dozen business leaders for the Tory position is really doing my head in.

And if this is a sign of how the election is going to be fought, then one of the most exciting elections in living memory will soon turn into a tawdry round of bitching over empty promises and shabby tactics.

Let’s get one thing absolutely clear: the Conservatives’ sums don’t add up. All the political commentators agree this, it’s why Vince Cable was able to land that powerful blow on George Osborne in the ‘Ask the Chancellors’ debate last week, and even Tories themselves don’t believe it.

Look back through the records and they’re doing exactly what they said they’d never do – making promises they couldn’t keep. How do they hope to fund the abolition of the rise in national insurance? Through ‘efficiency savings’. But they haven’t identified these savings – it’s just a case of relying on the moanings of a couple of retired civil servants, who say there are various ways of cutting costs. Well there may be, but no-one has worked out how much.

It’s absolutely clear what’s going on. The Conservatives are making a mad dash for a policy that they hope people won’t see through in the four weeks left before the election.

But if that’s shoddy enough, what’s even shoddier is the way a couple of dozen chief executives and a handful of leaders of business associations jumped on a carefully staged bandwagon to ‘support’ the Conservatives’ plans to avoid the NI 1% rise.

It’s clear what happened. They decided they wanted to see a Tory government, and worked out a cunning plan for how to help sway the opinion polls. They waited for Alistair Darling’s budget, picked on something that would make a few headlines, and coordinated their attack to follow on the heels of the Conservatives’ absurd finance.

Frankly it’s gutter politics, and in the days since then, I have looked at the likes of Sainsbury’s, M&S and other names whose chief executives signed up to the letter to The Times in a different light. I’m not sure how quickly I’ll be through the door of those shops in future.

As it happens, my view is to oppose the national insurance increase, but for totally different reasons than any so far cited.

My years of experience in the environmental movement have told me that the best way to attack pollution, climate change and general wastage of resources is to tax those activities and lower the cost of employing people. In other words, you put the tax on polluting transport and unrenewable energy, and reduce employers’ national insurance contributions.

You’d have thought at least one of the chief executives might have seen that, wouldn’t you! They could then have claimed the moral high ground, bolstered David Cameron’s fragile, skin-deep claim to be ‘green’, and looked a little statesmanlike. But that’s the problem with dirty tricks – they get so dirty that you lose sight of what you’re working for, which ought to be a better society.

One of the Liberal Democrats’ four central policies at this election is a revived economy based on taxing the worst activity and releasing the constraints on employment. It’s known in modern shorthand as ‘green jobs’. That’s the reason why the national insurance rise is misguided, and it’s miles removed from George Osborne’s risible faux finances.

Thursday, 1 April 2010


It was the percentage that struck me. Twenty-eight people, who had been arrested by Sussex Police but were later found to have committed no crime, applied for their DNA to be expunged from the police database. Only one request was granted, a rate of 3.6% that put Sussex Police bottom of a national league table of police forces.

So I wrote to the chief constable, asking for an explanation. I made it clear I wasn’t seeking to undermine the great job the police do, but that there were civil liberties at stake and I found the statistic alarming.

That led to me having a meeting with two of the force’s most senior community police officers (I won’t give their names given how close we are to a general election), which just happened to take place the same day the government published its proposed revised guidance on holding DNA samples.

A bit of history here. The government currently allows the police to take DNA samples from anyone they arrest or caution, and to keep those samples ad infinitum. The ad infinitum part has been ruled inadmissible by the European Court for Human Rights, which said – rightly in my view – that the DNA of innocent people could not be kept indefinitely.

So the government now has to propose revised rules, and it’s done so. It wants to keep innocent people’s DNA for six years. To me that’s excessive, and it was described by the Lib Dems’ Home Affairs spokesperson in the Lords, Sally Hamwee, as ‘excessive and potentially illegal’. Another legal challenge could well be in the offing.

In the meantime, what is a poor police force to do? Sussex Police have taken the view that, until the guidance is revised and such guidance is accepted, it will continue to hold DNA samples unless it’s absolutely clear that a person was arrested with no connection to the crime under investigation or any other crime.

This explains the 3.6% – and here’s the rub.

If we want the police to do a job, we need to give them all reasonable means to do it. That includes DNA, and also fingerprinting which seems less emotive but in most respects has the same status as DNA. If you have a case where, say, police are called to a domestic disturbance, there’s a suggestion of violence so they arrest a suspect but no charges are pressed, it’s probably right for that person’s DNA to stay on the record books for a reasonable period of time.

But what happens when you get a case like the Crowborough businessman Sal Miah, who was arrested and later given a caution after attempting to protect his restaurant from youths who tried to break in? The police later apologised and a senior officer said the caution has been revoked and the DNA and fingerprints are being destroyed. But because Mr Miah was cautioned, it isn’t a simple case of destroying the DNA, and until the full process has run its course, his details remain on a database along with convicted criminals.

That’s the bit that doesn’t feel right, but I don’t think we should turn our fire on the police but on the government. They need to give us a workable Crime and Security Bill that allows police to keep the DNA of reasonable suspects for a reasonable time, so the police can do their job and civil liberties can be ensured.

I trust the police. They’re professional, motivated by a desire to solve crime, and while there are occasional cases of police malpractice, they’re the exception, not the rule (they’re newsworthy because they’re so rare). And the vast majority of police officers respect the need for civil liberties to be protected – that’s why sensible government guidelines are a potential win/win in this highly emotive issue.

Saturday, 20 March 2010


I was in Brussels last weekend, celebrating the 20th birthday of an environmental organisation I helped to set up in 1990. Chatting with the various people from a couple of dozen different countries, one thing became very clear – almost all of them come from countries where more than one party is currently in government.

Contrast that with the situation in this country where some sections of society are getting hysterical about the prospect that we could on 7 May have a hung Parliament. What is normal in most other countries appears to be a recipe for national disaster here.

So what’s the difference?

The difference is that we’re not used to different parties cooperating in government. This is not strange, when you think we haven’t had a formal coalition since 1945, or a peacetime coalition since the late 1930s. We had some cooperation between Labour and the Liberals in 1977-78, a short-lived arrangement that served the country well, even if it was disastrous for Liberal fortunes at the polls.

But it’s strange in another way. We have never had a government elected by a majority of those who voted! Maragaret Thatcher’s thumping majority of 144 seats in 1983 was achieved with 44% of the votes. Labour got in in 1997 with a 179-seat majority on 43% of the votes, and won last time with a majority of 66 on under 37% of the votes. This is the true scandal that needs to end.

With the polls suggesting neither Labour nor Conservative will have an overall majority this time, much speculation is put on us as to which party we would support. This question totally misses the point.

The point is that we tell the electorate what we stand for, and then, if there’s a hung Parliament, we look at the maths and see if a majority can be formed involving us and a party that is willing to embrace our four core policies: fair taxes, a greener economy, reform of education, and a new political system.

Yes, I want a hung Parliament, but not because it will help the Liberal Democrats – I’m not entirely sure that it would help us. I want a hung Parliament because it will be best for democracy and may lead us to a new era of cooperative government rather than the elective dictatorship we have now.

Yes, the City and the markets may go into panic mode the morning after an election that offers up no single-party winner. But that will focus the various minds, not just on the need to cooperate, but on our need for a properly written constitution so we have a stronger framework in which to work.

No wonder the latest opinion polls are saying there is popular support for a hung Parliament. The people appear to have a better sense of how the country should be run than the vested interests in the City whose concept of ‘a clear mandate for government’ is very different to mine.

Friday, 5 March 2010


I’ve never listened to either 6 Music or the Asian Network, so if they’re axed I can’t say I’ll miss them. But I’m very angry about their impending demise.

The BBC is clearly keen to show it can cut back, which is good. I’m not going to argue the case for those two stations, because I don’t know the full picture, but it angers me that stations are being axed when the BBC is failing to deal with its core problem: the amount it pays on executive salaries and expenses.

The recent report into BBC pay showed 137 BBC executives are on £100,000 or more. That strikes me as a remarkably top-heavy organisation. The money being paid for ‘celebrity talent’ is another worry, though I won’t go down the Jonathan Ross road as I think even the BBC have realised that £6 million a year is too much.

And the expenses that are paid within the BBC are a scandal. I don’t know if the report that Alan Hansen is paid a taxi each way from his home in the north-west to London to be on ‘Match of the Day’ is true, but the trouble is it’s believable.

It would be wrong to have a go at the BBC alone. Bankers and Premiership footballers are on the kind of silly money that makes them lose touch with the real world. A former colleague of mine, writing in the Daily Telegraph, recently told of a meeting with the chairman of a prominent football club suffering financial woes. When asked why the club had got into such trouble, the chairman said he really wasn’t sure because they weren’t paying their players more than £12,000 a week. That’s well over £600,000 a year! If he thought this was prudent, no wonder he’s not sure why his club’s in difficulties.

There’s a section of society that has simply lost its connection with what it costs to live – and it’s dragging the rest of us down with it.

The average salary in this county is £30,000, and there are plenty who have to live on that. Of course we all want a bit more, and for most of us, hitting £50,000 by the time we’re 50 is a sign that we’re doing reasonably well. Unless you have an exceptional amount of responsibilities, £50,000 is the kind of salary we can all live on, with a couple of luxuries thrown in.

If some businesses can justify paying much more than that, then fine. But it must be justified! The problem is that pay increases have gone up in the good times and not come down in the bad. It has led to a situation where people’s salary is not what their job warrants but what they think they’re worth, which are two totally different things.

We need to stop, take stock, decide what is a reasonable salary for people in responsible jobs, and say that anything more than that has to be justified in terms of money they can bring in. If we fail to do that, we’ll never get properly out of recession, whatever the economic indicators say.

Saturday, 20 February 2010


It warmed the cockles of my heart, it did! I took my daughter to the ‘Fun & Safety’ event at Hailsham Children’s Centre during this half-term week, and there for all the kids to help themselves was a table full of fresh fruit: apples, bananas, melon and pineapple, all cut up into bite-size pieces.

So many of our society’s problems can be put down to children eating junk. Sure, a few sweets and chocolates are part of childhood, and the odd meal of processed food won’t do any harm.

But a range of ills from hyperactivity and short attention spans to early-onset diabetes are fed by the habit we have got into as a nation of giving our youngest citizens the worst start in life in terms of their diet.

That’s why it was so reassuring to see the fruit table, the contents of which had been provided by Waitrose. Kids love fruit – that was obvious from the way they devoured it, especially the boys. Of course most would prefer sweets if you offered the choice, and yes, there were a few mums who had brought sweets to hand to their offspring, but for most it wasn’t necessary.

The next trick is to get the fruit to be all fairly traded. That may sound like trying to gild the lily, but it’s a legitimate aspiration that’s being taken very seriously in Uckfield and Crowborough over the next fortnight.

‘Fairtrade Fortnight’ is the kind of thing that will pass most people by, largely because every week of the year is some cause’s week. But fair trade ought to be thought of as a sign of a civilised society every bit as much as having a public health service to protect us all in our hour of need.

Several years ago I researched, wrote and presented some newspaper articles and a short programme on the BBC World Service on the ethics of sports goods manufacture. I was shocked to find that a pair of branded trainers selling for $80 had earned the guy in Asia who’d made them less than $1. In other words, the other $79 was all middlemen, marketing and profits. OK, so $1 will buy a lot more in Malaysia or the Philippines than it does in America, but it was still a paltry fee.

That shouldn’t happen, and that’s what the fair trade system sets out to tackle. It’s not a perfect system, because the minimum wage in some countries can be pitifully low as governments strive to attract first-world investment. But it’s the best system we have, and it’s a lot better than leaving everything to unregulated markets.

Uckfield and Crowborough are both ‘fair trade towns’. That’s no idle designation – there are minimum levels of free trade products that have to be offered, so they can lose their status if they don’t keep up the required levels. That’s why it’s vital that people shopping in Uckfield and Crowborough ask for free trade products – it’s both morally right, and the sign of a civilised society.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010


Don’t you just hate those bankers? They’re the parasites of our society, the folks who get bailed out by the government and then pay themselves massive bonuses. Aren’t they?

Well it’s not quite as simple as that. True, the banking world has played a big part in the mess we’re in by its reckless lending and paying out of obscene bonuses. And of course it’s galling when banks that were bailed out with public money are found to be still paying big bonuses just a few months after receiving state help.

But there’s a simple truth in all this – if bashing the banks were straight forward, you can be sure the government would have done it long ago.

The problem is that taxes from banking make such a sizeable contribution to the money governments have to spend – one estimate I read put it at 12 per cent – that if we bash the banks, we will find there’s less money available for many of the things we take for granted that the state currently funds.

So how do we get round the problem? The task is to find a solution that keeps the banks contributing to the economy without them enjoying a position where they effectively hold the government to ransom.

Labour’s approach has been to introduce a tax on bonuses. That sounds all very reasonable, except it doesn’t work as there are so many ways round it.

We’re not exactly sure what the Conservatives would do if they got into government. I can understand David Cameron keeping his cards close to his chest, but it does mean he’s asking voters to take a leap of faith in supporting his party, and given the close links between Conservatives and bankers, I have no confidence that any action a Tory government would take would amount to more than tokenism.

The Lib Dem approach is to concentrate on taxing bank profits, not bank bonuses. That way the overall operations of a bank get taxed rather than just bonuses. Apart from being fairer, it would have the additional benefit that we’d avoid discriminating against people working at the lower end of the banking industry who get a large part of their modest pay in bonuses.

We have other finance policies too that are relevant to the bank issue, such as breaking up the banks that are in state ownership so they don’t become massive units that can’t respond to changing conditions; insisting that state ownership should mean an obligation to lend to solid British companies; and closing tax loopholes for the very rich so everyone pays the amount of tax they should be paying.

Despite the understandable public anger, dealing with the banks is a balancing act. What the Liberal Democrats have is a policy that aims to build a banking system of the future that is viable for the country as well as the banks themselves. That is more constructive than policies that offer a sop to popular anger, or offer nothing of substance at all.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010


The great tennis champion Steffi Graf once told me she had difficulty making friends. It wasn’t that there weren’t people wanting to be her friend – the trouble was working out who were genuine and who were just in it for the reflected glory.

I sympathised then, and I sympathise even more now. As Liberal Democrats, it seems everyone currently wants to be our friend, but there are two very different types of suitor.

The first are those who are attracted to what we stand for, who recognise that while Labour and Conservatives may cramp the centre ground of British politics, the Lib Dems do have something different to offer, something ‘radical’ in the true sense of the word (changing from the roots).

The second are those who think they might need our support after the general election, as a ‘hung Parliament’ looks a distinct possibility. Both David Cameron and Gordon Brown are making noises about how there isn’t really that much that divides the Lib Dems from the main parties, which most people rightly see as little more than a charm offensive in the hope that they can woo post-election Lib Dem support.

As a result, journalists are now desperate to know who the Lib Dems would support – whether in formal coalition or just in Commons votes – if there was a hung Parliament. The question is even seen as reasonable, especially by those whose primary motivation is to see Brown jettisoned as prime minister or Cameron never make it to No 10.

Well it isn’t reasonable, in fact it shows a lamentable failure to understand anything other than a two-party system.

The majority of European countries have coalition governments, and the feature of them is that, in the run-up to an election, all parties campaign as if they are going to form a government. Only after the election do they start doing the sums and seeing what arrangements can be made. Failure to do it that way means parties lose their identity.

That’s why Nick Clegg is quite right not to be falling for the political interviewers’ bait. He and the rest of us want to see a Lib Dem government. We’re realistic enough to know that it probably won’t happen after this election, and may take a generation or two to happen at all. But we believe in our policies to provide the kind of government Britain needs, and we’re not going to be knocked off track by those who want to know whether we’re more blue or more red.

We stand for fairer taxation, reform of the banking system, a better deal for primary school children, reducing the burden on small businesses, and making Britain carbon-neutral by 2050. In my view, that would make a very good government programme – and it’s neither blue nor red but gold!

If we have a hung Parliament, then the sums will be done to work out what alliances would create a working majority. If we hold the balance of power, we will see how other parties have fared, notably who the biggest party is.

But that’s for then. For now, we are asking for voters to vote for a Lib Dem government. That’s why the only friends we value are those who share our view of a socially, economically and environmentally fairer Britain.