Sunshine – The Best Disinfectant

This week has seen public discussion of various leaks associated with the Labour General Election inquest. Less publicly, the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Executive having discussed the key action points is due to discuss the full document at its next meeting.

Both will have had the opportunity to pick up on accounts of what made the Tory campaign quite so successful.  See this video from Lynton Crosby for an example..

Labour suffered from a lack of gravitas, partly due to having the wrong people in the wrong roles. None of the lessons from 2010 had been learned; so it was hamstrung on the economy and more importantly had lost much of its historic working-class support characterised by the immigration debate, but in reality going much deeper than that. The sort of uncoupling of the Labour vote that had benefited urban Lib Dems before 2010 was now helping other parties – or creating a vacuum.

In my time in Keighley for the General Election I saw at first hand Labour confidence in picking up this traditionally bellwether marginal seat evaporate. Their candidate was former Selby MP John Grogan, upbeat throughout the hustings. By the Sunday before polling day his mood had changed; we had a live hustings on the BBC Politics Show’s regional slot, filmed in the Stygian surroundings of the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway’s engine shed at Oxenhope. Freezing cold, John’s mood can’t have been helped by reports of his leader’s reaction to the infamous Edstone.

The Labour reviews will no doubt be used to confirm pro- or anti-Corbyn theories as Labour’s internal debate rages on.  (You may need a Scribd free app or account to read the whole thing). But at least they have published.

So what about the Liberal Democrats?

They have a problem in that their review remains totally shrouded in secrecy. It is highly unlikely that it will be published. The 2014 review was outrageously kept secret – I am told that even members of the Federal Executive were not trusted by party chief executive Tim Gordon with a copy. Yet someone – presumably Gordon – told the FE the lessons learned from that report had been implemented when they evidently were not. As a basic principle of accountability, the party should be told whether Gordon or others were responsible for that deceit – and if still in post, those responsible should be summarily removed.

I understand that in December the summary findings of the 2015 review were made available to FE members at the start of an awayday – but without any of them being able to retain a copy or make notes. Indications suggest that only selective parts of the report will be made available to members. If it says merely ‘Nick Clegg wasn’t popular’ it will be an utter waste of time. The party deserves to know in some detail what happened and what state (including financially) the party is now in.

We do know from the revelatory account by Nick Harvey (which I would urge you to read) published in Liberator magazine that the results of polling were ignored as part of the chaotic shambles that masqueraded as the Lib Dem election campaign. Some parts functioned relatively normally: the party’s campaigns department, barely treading water for a decade, produced bland and content-free literature templates that most of the 7 then-held seats I helped in followed. None of the literature would have persuaded anyone to change their vote – except in Leeds NW where Greg Mulholland tore up the rulebook and won.

Meanwhile the much-maligned and unaccountable ‘Wheelhouse’ with its six-figure PR professionals came up with the worst and least inspiring slogans on record – from ‘Look Right, Look Left… Then Cross’ to the sub-Fascist ‘Decency. Unity. Stability’. It evidently failed to see the oncoming Tory juggernaut and according to some reports threw good money after bad at hand-picked seats, particularly that of Clegg whose seat saw over ten times the expenditure of South West seats lost by a smaller amount.

I have written elsewhere about the dismal failings of the strategy and the now existential need for Tim Farron to find both strategy and vision that give the Liberal Democrats an identity and a point.  But without the facts – and honesty on just how bad a state the party’s finances are now in – then the Lib Dems will remain unfocused, disorganised and unelectable – with an orbit satellite trying fatuously to deny all reality and blame the election result on ‘leftists’.

Thanks to attention by Michael Crick the absence of a Lib Dem autopsy is now reaching a wider audience. Paddy Ashdown, true to form, has jumped in very quickly with a classic diversionary tactic; try and pre-empt the verdict by blaming an entirely irrelevant third party. Paddy of course has form on this note.

Ultimately the Lib Dems risk a failure of their much-vaunted accountability if the report into the party’s General Election catastrophe is hushed up to protect the guilty – with the party unable to hold those responsible to account. It would be hypocritical for the party of freedom of information to practice the opposite of what it preaches and operate what would only be seen as a cover-up.

Lib Dem Conference Loses A Day

As it has not been announced yet despite prompting, and people are booking travel and accommodation….

As part of a range of cuts imposed on the party’s conference, the Federal Conference Committee has had to decide to close Autumn Conference a day early, on the Tuesday afternoon rather than the Wednesday.
The precise timing has yet to be decided.

Assurances have been given that the conference will not lose debating time – important at a conference that will be dominated by grinding constitutional amendment debates to wrap up the party’s long-overdue governance review.

The Conference Committee was given a reduced budget and a range of options prepared by party HQ.  In the interests of transparency, others were:-

  • Scrapping the exhibition at Spring Conference.  After a predictable outcry by party bodies whose shop window this is, a lower-cost exhibition will now take place, taking up a suggestion I made.
  • Scrapping Spring Conference altogether. Given that this was rejected by the party very recently, Conference Committee rejected this outright.  Its reappearance says something about the determination of persons unknown (my educated guess is party chief exec Tim Gordon) to curtail party democracy.
  • Scrapping the crèche.  This has also proved unpopular but numbers using the subsidised facility are almost at zero.  It raises a much wider issue of access, especially for a party which has to debate its spectacular failure at electing anyone other than white men.
  • Further cuts to support for disabled people.  Given the equality impact I insisted that user consultation take place on this.  As a result this cut will not be going ahead.
  • A range of cuts to back office functions.

The budget for staging Federal Conferences has now been cut by half since around 2009.  Last summer a number of cuts were made without approval by the Conference Committee; on investigation it became clear that the bean counters of FFAC – the party’s finance committee – were not given information about cuts imposed in their name.  It highlights a gap in accountability in the party that leads to the top of the organisation at HQ to the detriment of hard-working party staff.  It is a cause, not a symptom of the mess the party is in.

2016: Still crucial work to do on the campaign to reform the pub trade

My Bank Holiday Monday was partly spent advising a friend who wanted to stop her local pub closing. At the same time I was lending a hand with another pub campaign.
2015 was genuinely an historic year for Britain’s pub trade. But licensees and consumers cheering the new legislation for England and Wales still have a job to do to ensure that the Fair Deal for your Local enshrined in law is actually delivered. And while Britain’s pubs are in the hands of asset-stripping vulture pub companies, there is still much work for the activist to do.  The first part of that job is responding to the Government consultation which has less than three weeks to run.

The helpful tweak to the Asset of Community Value designation made by then-Minister Stephen Williams has already proved hugely valuable in saving dozens of pubs and stopping the rush of pub-to-supermarket conversions. Though it needs to be written up in simpler language accessible to those who find their boozer under threat, there is now a list of helpful steps people can take. CAMRA’s major strategy review in 2016 will hopefully at last acknowledge that real ale no longer needs to be saved, but the place in which it is served – the pub – does as a top priority. And again, after a while, we’ve a Community Pubs Minister who is engaged, engaging and seems to be pro-pub. Marcus Jones will be tested more in 2016, though.

For those of us at the forefront of the campaign for pubco reform, we have a busy few months ahead as the Government finalises the detail of the Pubs Code.  What appeared to be an underhand attempt to weaken the Code was ripped apart in the House of Lords by Labour and Lib Dem peers, who in an unlikely move overturned the Government by amending the Enterprise Bill in order to see the Small Business Act strengthened – it was only granted Royal Assent in March!  The Minister has acknowledged the ‘genuine concerns’ and revised some of its original proposals; there are signs that some of the concerns are. Due more to cock-up than conspiracy.  Freedom of Information requests, though, have confirmed that the old BIS revolving door for pubco mouthpieces has been brought out of storage; mandarins are attempting to block other FoI requests that may uncover attempts by pubcos to undermine the rules.  Either way, we know the pubcos are still at it.

In Scotland the CGA Strategy study into the sector for the Holyrood Government will get under way in 2016. Given that we know that in 2013 Punch Taverns (Scotland’s biggest pubco) wrote letters to the UK Government consultation on behalf of its licensees, the outcome of this study will deserve close scrutiny. Either way, from May Scottish tied pubs will get a worse deal than those in the rest of the UK, with not only no statutory code of practice but any investment being concentrated south of the border as pubcos try and trade it off – one unfortunate consequence of a concession thrown by the Tories to their pubco mates.
So the long-term future of the British pub remains the subject of hot debate, with little sign of a thaw in relations between pubcos and campaigners many of whom would like to find ways of working together if only the pubcos had any interest in giving licensees and consumers a better deal.

At the fringes remain the tobacco lobby and a diminishing gaggle of idiots who support them, pretending that nothing has happened to the pub trade bar the smoking ban and that no other law needs to change (bar repeal of protection for pubs in planning law). Of course, the evidence of ever more successful community pub reopenings, the trail of destruction left by the pubco scam and the microbrewery explosion is unfortunate for them.

More relevant, and more dangerous is the anti-alcohol lobby whose campaigns discourage pub use at the most difficult time of the year for publicans – January. How ironic that these puritans end up promoting unsupervised drinking from supermarkets which by its nature is more likely to be drinking to excess, while actively damaging community facilities which provide places for otherwise lonely, often elderly people to socialise. The charities pushing such initiatives should be ashamed of themselves. Two great initiatives that promote a better way emerged during 2015. Anyone wanting to limit or quit drinking should back the excellent Club Soda campaign which is getting wider recognition. Those who don’t, should support Tryanuary and use the month as a celebration of Britain’s amazing diverse microbrewery scene.

(Tryanuary has earned the ultimate accolade – its slogan has been nicked by industry mouthpiece the Publican’s Morning Advertiser, which would rather we all drunk boring mass-produced booze instead.)

So see you down the pub in 2016.  To try something new.

Minimum alcohol pricing outlawed; what should replace it?

Few will shed a tear at today’s news that minimum alcohol pricing has been ruled illegal under European competition law.  While it was a legitimate attempt to deal with a serious problem of alcohol-related harm and cheap supermarket sales, it was a messy solution that would have caused as many problems as it would have solved.

However, there are other solutions needing to be discussed.  Some relatively unheralded research has taken place by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), highlighting some of the inconsistencies in taxation and suggesting solutions.  Their work isn’t perfect – in particular, it doesn’t seem to grasp the different challenges faced by the on- and off-trade.  But it is generally pointing in the right direction.

Among the key facts to be grasped are:-

  • Alcohol sales in the on-trade (pubs) have faced real-terms price inflation including tax over the last quarter century.  By contrast, off-trade sales, exacerbated by supermarket deregulation, have seen price reductions as well as the tax burden fall
  • Beer, a key product for the on-trade (and produced more by local or small-scale businesses, going through a renaissance at the moment), is taxed higher than other forms of alcohol (hence wine and spirits facing the brunt under minimum pricing)
  • Beer is the only drink to be taxed at a relatively steady amount per unit.

The IFS suggests reforming tax on wine and spirits to be by unit.  This would not affect the price of most products, particularly Scotch whisky, but (they think) would have a beneficial overall effect on excessive drinking.

There is something in what they are saying, if only they would address the disparity between on- and off-trade tax too. Alcohol consumed in a supervised environment (a pub) is less likely to lead to health or crime concerns, after all.  But the UK Treasury doesn’t understand that.

There is one last catch.  Just about any change to alcohol tax needs a change to EU law.  So why not not bite the bullet and deal with all these problems together?  Reform the tax system *and* reduce the tax disparity between the supermarket and the local, thus reducing harm and protecting jobs at a stroke.

Bye Felipe

Liberals will know that there are few sights more pathetic and tiresome than the manufactured faux outrage of the political right, most commonly seen in the existence or output of the Daily Mail.Certain so-called ‘economic liberals’ choose to sully the name of their colleagues by seeking to manufacture the equivalent in political debate.
Last week saw the departure from the Lib Dems of one such person, a Darren Grimes. He appeared from nowhere as a particularly strident online cheerleader for Norman Lamb, a genuine liberal who deserved better than the vituperation of opponents that was Grimes’ stock trade. His leaving statement showed Grimes was anti-Europe, anti-immigration and in favour of the Tories’ cuts to support for the most vulnerable. Most Liberal Democrats noted that he had joined the wrong party, had remedied this error by joining the Tories and issued begrudging good wishes for the future.

Then a bunch of Darren Grimes’ mates suddenly appeared on various online discussion forums at the same time as if from nowhere to scream faux outrage at how badly Grimes was being treated, and how those with his views should be made to feel more welcome in the party. Asked to cite evidence of the conspiracy against these ‘classical Liberals’, they responded with personal abuse towards anyone who took issue – which has persisted ever since, personally targeting certain individuals.  It has resulted in a number of people, including me, stepping back from social media altogether.

The debate has reached new heights of surrealism with this blog asking why economic liberals should have to keep justifying membership of a political party. The article is cogent and reasonable enough – were it posing a question that actually existed.  The author while describing himself as an economic liberal is in fact not one of the strident and aggressive ones described in this piece; his blog is on the face of it entirely reasonable, but suffers simply from his central premise being illusory.  In fact, the answer to the non-question he poses is glaringly obvious; all of those subscribe to Liberal values have to keep justifying their membership equally, at renewal time.   I am doing so now.

There is no conspiracy against economic liberals (unless you count the result of the 2015 General Election as such). By the same token, however, there is a vast amount of abuse by those same self-professed ‘classical liberals’ against social liberals varyingly described on social media as “self-pitying”, “divisive” and “damaging [to] the party”. What the authors of those statements are indulging in is not only paranoid nonsense but the very factional infighting that they decry in others. It is faux outrage of the type that should be kept to the pages of the Daily Mail.  And – surprise, surprise – the manufacturers of the faux outrage don’t like being called out for it.

The Liberal Democrats have been most successful when as under Charles Kennedy, wittingly or not, they managed to appeal to liberals of all kind. The party is currently undergoing a sensible and good-humoured policy review with an essay competition open to all which has seen many well-written statements of Liberal values.  On some policy areas such as housing there is even an increasing policy consensus.  Therefore the internal debate of the party should not use the arrogant and divisive language of former party staffers describing defeated colleagues and volunteers as ‘fuckwits’. (Incidentally, am I the only person to see the irony in a recently-resigned head of membership for the Lib Dems framing such a crude attack on a large wing of current and former members as a plea for politeness and unity?). 

Of course, a similar phenomenon afflicts most if not all parties – a sad reflection on politics in general.  The more self-aware of my acquaintances in the Labour and Conservative parties can see the pattern across all parties. By all accounts, a bitter and hostile factional debate both online and in person with new members and a group who don’t feel they need to accept the party’s fundamental values, Militant-style. Then, systematic, highly personal and at times potentially orchestrated harassment and bullying. At times, people elected to oversee the party’s disciplinary procedures who daily break the rules and refuse to accept verdicts decided by an impartial panel. The depressing thing about British politics is, this is probably true of all parties. I could happily give names of those to whom this applies in the Liberal Democrats. Especially of the person elected to the body with a say over disciplinary procedures who daily indulges in obsessively nasty behaviour – a party member for four decades or so.

The last word I will leave to Grimes himself and his fellow-traveller who (currently) is a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate on the cesspit of political debate, tw*tter – a means I still refuse to engage in. It was posted publicly barely a fortnight ago. Note the casual sexism added to spice up the double standards.

Season’s greeting to all readers.