What would you do?

Here’s a game you can play at home. Imagine that you are Britain’s next prime minister. You’ve decided that you’re going to stay in power for five years. To begin with you have high hopes of changing everything for the better, but you quickly discover that there is so much work to be done to change even one single thing, and so many obstacles and vested interests, that you will only be able to five really big things — one a year. What would your five be?

Forget, for a moment, how you choose to implement them. If you could have five things, what five? I tried this one with some of my colleagues. Making the unemployed work was a popular choice, so was making people more honest (remember, I did say don’t worry about how to deliver it). One person said she wanted to plant lots of trees, and make sure there were lots of parties.

For the record, my five things would be:

    Restore trust in democracy
    End human trafficking world-wide
    Put a stop to predatory commerce (loan-sharks, scams, and those cash machines they put in deprived areas that charge you for your own money)
    Make Britain an environmentally sustainable economy
    Brand greed as a vice, not a virtue

This might strike you as an odd list for a Liberal Democrat. Why nothing about education, the health service, the arms race, child poverty? These are all important issues, but they’re also all issues which pretty much everyone agrees on. All parties are for health, against crime, against bloodshed, against poverty, for education. My five are things which either — generally — government shows little interest in, or problems to which no-one yet has an adequate answer. Things that are worth going down in history for, perhaps.

So, what are your five?

Are single issue parties the answer? Not exactly…

Next month’s European elections could see voters turning to small parties in record numbers, says the BBC

It’s time for the Euro elections, and England (particularly — other parts of the Union are better at this) has never quite made up its mind as to whether the Euro elections are to be taken more or less seriously than Eurovision. Single issue parties come and go. Remember the Referendum Party? The Common Good? Respect? (Whatever happened to them?) Perennial favourites are back, of course: UKIP and the Greens accounting for right-wing and left-wing, under the guise of being about something important. But our most popular single issue party, the Official Monster Raving Looney Party, seems to give Europe a miss. Maybe they don’t take Europe as seriously as the others do. This time we have some new ones — English Democrats, the Jury Team, No2EU, Fair Play Fair Trade Party, Libertas, Mebyon Kernow, Animals Count, the Alliance Party, the Pensioners party, the Roman Party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Socialist Labour Party, The Peace Party, Wai D, Yes 2 Europe, and the Christian Peoples Alliance.

That’s an awful lot of parties.

For a few years, we took a stand at the Greenbelt Festival with the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Generally speaking, we were there in a tent with about 100-200 organisations represented, all trying to have some impact through politics. They ranged from major charities through to one man bands. A few of them eyed us with suspicion, while others told us how hard it was to get the major parties to take them seriously. In some cases, they both eyed us with suspicion and told us the major parties wouldn’t take them seriously.

There are basically three kinds of single issue politics. One is temporary but important. One is well-meaning but fairly useless. One is dangerous and dishonest.

Joanna Lumley’s campaign for the Gurkhas is the most recent in a long line of highly focused campaigns on a single issue which attract cross-party support, achieve their goal, and then disappear. Lumley is not looking to form a Gurkha’s party, or to propel herself into parliament by this means. She identified an injustice which meant a lot to her (her father had fought alongside the Gurkhas), and invested her profile and talents working with the legitimate owners of the issue — the Gurkhas themselves. This is the first kind of single issue politics, and it plays an important role in British society. But, very, very rarely does such a cause form a party and stand at elections. Its strength is that it can work with the existing politicians for something which is evidently right.

Fair Play Fair Trade, Animals Count and the Peace Party are examples of the second kind. They raise a legitimate social issue. But, in fact, their involvement in the election does nothing to take their agenda forward. At best, they achieve nothing. At worst, they switch off the people who actually do get elected from doing anything about it. At the 2001 General Election, for example, I, as a very green first-time candidate, attended a meeting about asylum seeker rights — something about which I care passionately, though it’s not a popular issue with most people. It didn’t take long to realise that everyone else present was from one of the extremist parties, and the meeting had been organised to demonstrate that only they cared about asylum seekers. They did their best to make me welcome, but they didn’t conceal very successfully that the only reason they had invited me (and others, who did not attend) was in order to be able to say ‘we invited the main parties, but they weren’t interested’.

Then there are the parties that put forward a single issue, but are actually about something entirely different. I grew up believing that the Green party was a party of environmentalists. It was only when I started meeting them that I discovered they (at least in Britain) are actually an extreme socialist party that attracts attention and votes by flying the Green flag, but are closed to any form of environmentalism which does not tally with their underlying philosophy. If you want to save the planet, join Friends of the Earth instead. A number of the ‘save the NHS’ parties are run by people who had no previous contact with the NHS, except as patients, until they decided that the closure of a local hospital was an ideal issue on which to sell their party. Some of these are more honest than others. I believe that the Greens do care about the environment. On the other hand, every piece of literature I’ve ever seen from the BNP attempts to present a single issue, such as law and order, as their real concern. You have to read a long way down many of their pieces before you discover what they are really about.

Single issue campaigns are part of the warp and woof of British democracy. Single issue parties are the electoral equivalent of dithering: when it’s too hard to choose, perhaps because of a crisis of the kind we have seen over MP expenses, many people opt for them because they feel they have a duty to vote, and want to vote for something else, anything else.

But when these single issue parties have been elected, as with UKIP and the Greens at the last Euro elections, and as with the BNP and Respect on some councils, and, for George Galloway, in parliament, their record is depressing. Aside from going on Big Brother, it’s very hard to spot anything that Galloway has actually done since being elected as a Respect MP. UKIP lost their party leader swiftly, and lost another MEP to a benefits-fraud conviction, and have probably the worst voting record of any party in any European country. The Greens have not engaged in any positive dialogue which has generated any change that would not have happened if they had not been there. Although the BNP have failed to secure seats in any of our parliaments, their European cousins, Vlaams Blok in Belgium and LPF in the Netherlands, actually gained enough seats to form governments. But their governments quickly collapsed, because they lacked the consensus to put into practice their underlying racist policies, and they had no other policies on which to base an administration.

Hand wringing is all very well. No one can deny that many of our mainstream politicians have let us down badly, not just over the last couple of weeks, but over the five, ten or twenty years since they were first elected. But, like it or not, real politicians in real parties are in it for the long haul, and when all the bluster of scandal and election are over, they sit down together and work out — often across party boundaries — how to get the best deal for the public who elected them. They certainly don’t always get it right. But their record is infinitely better than the hand wringing or single-cynicism parties that surface especially at Euro elections.

Poor Gordon’s perfect storm — and heeding the lesson of history

Poor Gordon Brown. The truth about him is that he is personally a very upright individual. In a time when the honesty of almost every politician is being questioned, no mud has stuck to Gordon, nor is any likely to.

But — once the now almost inevitable leadership challenge has prematurely ended his premiership — his legacy will have been the perfect storm of crisis in Westminster, economic meltdown, and environmental collapse.

Brown waited ten years for the best job in politics, and within two years almost every shred of authority has fallen from him.

We are, of course, nowhere near the position of Germany in the 1930s. Confidence in our democracy has not collapsed to that extent, and our economy — though in poor shape — is not remotely like that of the Weimar republic.

Nonetheless — even accepting that our position, though appalling, is not desperate as theirs was — we must learn something. The extremist parties are already rushing to cash in on the combination of economics and crisis of trust. UKIP have lost an MEP to the criminal justice system as a result of benefit fraud, and yet they are attempting to make capital out of the ‘dishonesty’ of the MPs of the mainstream parties. Other groups, more extreme, widely exposed in the media for what they really are, are flooding the streets of susceptible areas with their promises to clean up politics.

Politics must be cleaned up, but the extremist parties are not the ones to do it. Great Britain must hold its nerve through this crisis. Electing someone just because they are ‘different’ is no sound basis for the future.

Gordon Brown’s tragedy is a personal one. He longed to serve his country, but the times were not right. We must not allow his to become our national tragedy. We are in danger of electing the most right wing set of MEPs in our European history, and in danger of doing the same thing at Westminster when the General Election comes.

Reactionary, right wing politics is no more likely to lead to upright, honest politicians than any other random stab in the dark. It is terribly hard, but Britain must rally round the core of centre politicians who have not been tarnished (except by rhetoric) in this scandal.

We owe it to ourselves.

Clean up politics — but you are not the man to do it, Mr Cameron

BBC NEWS | Wales | ‘Mend broken politics’ – Cameron

David Cameron has made a speech in which he bewails the lack of trust the nation places in politics and politicians. He is right to do so. He wants to ‘Mend broken politics’. A noble ambition. But he is the wrong person to do it. David Cameron, who will not come clean on his misuse of drugs as a student, who caused a photograph of himself at the head of a pack of drunken diners in Oxford to be withdrawn from circulation because of the image it painted of him (an accurate one), who engaged in nothing more than the politics of the playground in Tony Blair’s last months, who has demanded the toughest penalties for unproven allegations against Labour members, but dithered for 24-hours before withdrawing the whip from Derek Conway when there was no doubt about the case – this David Cameron is in no position to lecture the nation on mending broken politics.

This is the David Cameron who bewails Labour’s spin, but decided to have himself photographed cycling to work to save the environment, while a van drove behind him with his files inside (we should recall that the van was not supposed to appear in the photographs). This is the David Cameron who, in his work on an earlier Tory manifesto, was a man of the right wing, who now poses as a liberal, a centrist, a green, clean and friendly neighbourhood handy-man, ready with a hammer, some nails and a lick of fresh (green) paint to fix the fences that naughty Labour have broken down.

I’m no fan of Labour. I’m no fan of their centralising vision of government, their arbitrary imposition of the will of the towns onto the countryside, and their failure to take responsibility for the mess of half-truths and half-baked ideas that took us into Iraq.

But the corrosive style of politics that we have seen persistently erode public confidence in public figures is more a result of Cameron and his predecessors, Messrs Howard, Duncan-Smith and Hague. Cameron is strong only in sniping and jeering. We have yet to see a coherent set of policies for how he would run the nation. More importantly, we have yet to see any coherence between the values he claims to have now, and the values he appeared to live by before he was in the public eye. Yes, of course he is careful now. If he were not careful, he would never have been elected as Tory leader. But in the years when other people were volunteering to work at the Oxford night shelter, or counselling other students, or going off to work for charities and unpaid voluntary organisations, what was Cameron doing?

In an interview with Channel 4, David Cameron is recorded to have said that he had not taken Class A drugs since being elected to Parliament in 2001. This is extraordinary. Is this the best that he can possibly say for himself?

Pressed on drug use on Question Time, he is recorded to have said “I’m allowed to have had a private life before politics in which we make mistakes and we do things that we should not and we are all human and we err and stray.” Yes, quite possibly. We all did things as small children which we are ashamed of. But Cameron was punished at Eton for cannabis use. If he had been brought up in the area where I was brought up, and his parents had not had the power to protect him, he might quite conceivably have gone to prison for this. Legally speaking, it is clear that he engaged in criminal behaviour. Should we simply gloss over this? Perhaps. But the evidence is that he continued to use drugs at Oxford. Should we gloss over that? Not to my mind. I don’t ever recall meeting David Cameron at Oxford – I’m fairly sure he wasn’t a member of the Christian Union! I wonder if I ever saw him drunk in the streets with his dining club pals. At this distance, it is hard to tell. But I do recall absolutely that at Oxford, in those years, we considered ourselves to be adults, responsible for our own actions. That responsibility does not fade with time. But if the best that he can claim is that he has not used Class A drugs since 2001, and he made that claim in 2005, then all he has really said is that he has been clean for four years.

It is absolutely essential that politics in Britain is cleaned up. In fact, I am firmly of the opinion that a whole generation of MPs of the ilk of Derek Conway have to go. A Tory councillor recently confided in me that there were many more such as he, he merely had the misfortune to be caught. Giving those MPs a lick of paint, and parcelling them off to the back benches is insufficient. One of those MPs who should go is David Cameron. Perhaps with regret, perhaps with a sense of irony for a man who could have been much more if he had lived a law-abiding life from the days of his ‘wake-up call’ at Eton. But if Mr Cameron really wishes to mend broken politics, then his greatest contribution will be to leave it.

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