Why Britain needs Labour to find its feet — fast

Why Britain needs Labour to find its feet — fast

Simon Hughes addresses parliamentary candidates, June 2010

Simon Hughes — a one man conscience of the coalition — addresses Lib Dem candidates.

BBC News – Will geeks inherit the earth?. Like it or not (and I don’t), our electoral system is locked into “us” and “them”. Government and official opposition. That’s how the system works and, though I believe it’s time to change it, as long as it is the system (to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force), we have to make it work.

Until three months ago, we had the luxury of two opposition parties. The system didn’t really cope with that particularly well, and the electoral framework creaked under the weight of it. But it meant that legislation, policy and rhetoric were put under powerful scrutiny.

Journalists, of course, argue that they are the real scrutiny on government, which is why freedom of the press is so essential to democracy. As an aside, the same newspapers which bleat longest about this tend to be the ones that exercise the maximum of power without responsibility, and complain the loudest at any attempts by the BBC to increase its journalistic reach. But that is an aside. Journalism does play an important role, but the very fact that journalists are not offering to form the next government limits that role severely: anyone can pundit (Michael Gove, when still a journalist, introduced himself and some of his colleagues to me once as “the punditing classes”), but, like an irritating teenage back seat driver, one tends to pay less attention if the critic has never actually put themselves forward for a driving test.

Which brings us back to our two-way / three-way system, which has suddenly become a one-way system. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining that Liberal Democrats are in government. We knew this would push us back down in the polls. We knew we would have to swallow some policies which we found unpalatable. But we also knew that to abrogate the responsibility, play no part in government, and limit ourselves to the role of endless back-seat motorist, would do the nation no good.

But, perhaps in this at least we were deceived: we imagined that Labour would quickly reinvent or at least reassert itself, find a leader to rally around, and start asking the questions of government which we would be asking if we weren’t in it. This is not a function of there being a leadership contest. David Cameron and David Davis made considerable use of their own leadership campaigns to get some substantial barbs into the then Blair government. In a certain sense, it gave the party a free shot at goal, because it would be committed to the point of view of only one of the contenders. One might imagine that by having five contenders, Labour would be able to launch a veritable broadside of witty, incisive and damaging attacks.

But they have not. We are all worried about cloned animals entering the British food chain, but with four identikit contenders and just one token ‘other’, Labour has taken political cloning to a beyond-GM level. Far better it would have been for just one Miliband, one person representing an entirely different perspective (old-fashioned left-winger, anyone? anyone?), Diane Abott, and no others. The public can’t really cope with five options, even if the Labour faithful can get all passionate about the benefits of one ex-Oxbridge ex-policy advisor with two or fewer children over three others of the same type.

I am not looking for a decent opposition in order to bring down the coalition. Far from it: I want the coalition to succeed, and Britain needs it to succeed. But it will succeed better if properly scrutinised by a considered, passionate and informed opposition that can command the public’s respect. At the moment — for all their policy credentials — the Labour gang of five cannot even command the public’s interest.

It is left to Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, party deputy leader, to carry on as a one man opposition within the government, a conscience for the party and the coalition.

This can be sustained — but only for a short while. We desperately, desperately need Labour to find its feet and fulfil its system-ordained purpose.

Political parties worry about being endlessly condemned to opposition. But that is not the worst place to be. Far worse for them, and Britain, to be self-condemned to offering no opposition.

Or none that serves any purpose.

“Stupid” goes to ethics committee

“Stupid” goes to ethics committee

Councillor John DixonLib Dem Cardiff Councillor John Dixon must have been surprised to be called to book over declaring that Scientology was “stupid”. The fact that he did it on Twitter was probably enough to raise this to a national news story. But it is disturbing that a councillor can face censure for a remark like this.

What Dixon actually tweeted was: “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.”

Harmless, one would think, albeit not especially amusing. But this kind of thing is really very mild compared to the polemic which has done Richard Dawkins very nicely in his books, and far less hurtful than the daily knockabout on the subject of religion that takes place on countless websites across the net.

Lest we forget, Scientology is not an officially recognised religion in the UK. But even if it were, most faith groups take a certain amount of ribald criticism within their stride. Dixon was not putting up satirical cartoons of the Prophet, nor was he running an ad campaign mocking the crucifixion. Sacred symbols were not being abused, sacred texts were not being criticised: no deities, real or imagined, were hurt during the making of his tweet.

If he is indeed censured for this (though, if they have any sense, the ethics committee will recognise this as a legitimate comment and let it go, before they themselves become a laughing stock) then we have gone far too far down a path of political correctness over freedom of speech. Was John Dixon inciting religious hatred? Hardly, since Scientology is not officially a recognised religion under UK law. But even if it were, would he be inciting it? I doubt that the term would constitute incitement.

During the General Election, the leader of Stratford on Avon’s ruling Conservative group labelled me and my views ‘stupid’ four times in less than thirty seconds, live on BBC Radio. I thought it was a bit rude. But why, as a recognised British citizen, should I enjoy less protection than an imported American organisation which is not even recognised for what it claims to be?

In a world where our every off-hand comment is now tabulated and Googled, we need to come to a new understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. There has to be an understanding that there is a hierarchy of off-handedness. A statement published in a book for which money is paid is of a different level from a remark in live interview broadcast on local radio, and this is again different from a brief Tweet or a FaceBook one-liner.

Dixon would not have faced this kind of censure if he had written an opinion piece in a published newspaper attacking Scientology.

He should not face it for a Tweet.

Decade of distrust reaches an end

The 2000s began with the end of Bill Clinton’s US presidency limping out of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They finished with the UK House of Commons facing a collapse of public trust which is set to result in 1/3-1/2 of MPs leaving or losing their seats in the 2010 General Election, and trust in politicians at an all time low of 13%, according to IPSOS Mori. We went into the decade with the taste of the sleaze of the John Major administration still in our mouths, and, as a reminder, Jeffrey Archer charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice, a charge which was to see the man who had been selected to be Conservative candidate for Mayor of London sent to Belmarsh prison in 2001. We came out of it with the threat of prosecution hanging over a growing number of parliamentarians.

Given that Major’s men were up to their tricks throughout the 1990s, and the current crop of Expenses-scandal-sleaze MPs had been doing what they did since either the 1990s, or whenever they got elected, where did politics go wrong?

It’s a common misconception (pushed forward by those who hope to survive the storm) that it was the system which made MPs claim expenses to which they were not entitled. But this is manifestly untrue. No system makes people act in a dishonest way. Nobody was forced to break the law by claiming for mortgages which did not exist, nobody was forced to break the explicit parliamentary rule that expenses should not be managed in order to render a profit at the tax-payer’s expense, and nobody was forced to use the expenses system to claim for excesses such as moat cleaning, duck houses, and limed oak toilet seats (even as I write this one, I’m forced to think ‘did this really happen?’ Apparently, it did).

Also, how is it that so many of them did it? It’s been pointed out (by me, among other people) that the majority of MPs were not engaged in these practices. But a sufficiently large minority from all three parties (including my own, though to a lesser degree) have done so that the entire class of MPs is not merely under suspicion, but under complete derision.

Political parties are now changing the way in which they assess and select parliamentary candidates. But it’s fair to say that, in the 1990s and 2000s, candidates were not being assessed on the trustworthiness, although (especially in the ‘spin’ years), parties have always been interested in credibility.
So, what’s the difference?
Credibility is whether or not you appear trustworthy to people. Politicians with no interest in football have been told to bone up on the off-side rule in order to appear more credible in urban constituencies. Politicians who live in London but are standing in far-flung rural areas (ie, anywhere outside the M25 that is not 90% urban) are photographed in Barbour jackets. People change their accents, go through teeth-whitening procedures (because people with whiter teeth tell fewer lies… right), and discover obscure ancestries which link them to the constituency. Every ‘parachute’ candidate rents a flat where they intend to stand. Credibility can be bought for the right price with the right advice. It doesn’t always work — we all remember William Hague’s reverse base-ball cap, and David Cameron being photographed cycling to work, followed by a van full of his papers. But, despite these minor mishaps, David Cameron at least has shed most of the Eton / Oxford exclusive dining club / millionaire image that he grew up with.

Trustworthiness is something quite different. Self-evidently, many of the people we trusted were not worthy of our trust.

So, where do we go from here?

If we really want trustworthy politicians, we need to start voting for them. I think it’s fair to say that the big political parties have not got the message. There has not been a flurry to find candidates who are more honest than those of previous generations. The all-women, all-ethnic minority shortlist talk is not about increasing trustworthiness, but about increasing the overall credibility of the party that shortlists them. Actually, a desire to increase credibility without a search for honesty is a mark of the deepest untrustworthiness. Or bad faith, as we used to call it. But the big parties are counting on the public voting on party, political or tribal lines, not lines of trust. They believe that, after we’ve had our rant, we will still lump all politicians together as necessary evils, and get on with voting for the ones we would have voted for anyway. Therefore, we need to disappoint them, and severely.

But, given that every politician will be coming to us at the election with the claim that they are more trustworthy than the others, and given that the richest and best connected will be able to have the best advice and be able to buy the best services, how can we tell?

Here are my thoughts:
1) What did they do before politics?
People who have served the public, perhaps in charities, in the armed forces, in the muckier bits of the public sector, have a very different track record from those who made a killing in the city or played around with inherited wealth before being given a safe-seat. That doesn’t mean that people who work in the city are not trustworthy, or that inherited wealth makes people liars, but a track record of service in the past goes a long way towards underlining a promise that they will serve us in the future.

2) How hard did they have to work to get here?
The vast majority of expenses-scandal MPs have been in what are generally termed ‘safe-seats’. Check out someone’s political track-record. Have they faced disappointment and defeat in the past, or have they been handed easy victories? Easy victories don’t make someone untrustworthy, but the majority of those who cheated did have big majorities to shore them up.

3) Where does their money come from?
People whose every working hour is given to becoming richer are unlikely to give up the habit when they get elected. More importantly, there are some ways to get rich, or, get by, which are in the public interest, and some which are predatory in nature. Someone who trades on other people’s greed, weakness or ignorance in order to gain their money is unlikely to be trustworthy in parliament.

4) For sitting MPs, what have they done?
The ideal MP works hard, claims only reasonable expenses, and arranges their affairs so that there is not even a suggestion that they may be profiting at the public expense. If your MP is seldom in the House of Commons, has claimed extravagantly, or has made a fortune through publicly-funded property speculation, then there is very little reason to believe that they will change their ways in the next parliament.

5) What’s their position on second jobs?
Will your candidate be dedicating his or her paid time exclusively to the House of Commons, or will that time be shared with company directorships, business dealings, lobbying firms and lucrative contracts? The rules, it appears, will not be changing to ensure that they do not, so it’s a good indicator of just how trustworthy they really are. For sitting MPs, you can easily check the register. For candidates, you can write to them or ask them at a public meeting whether they will be retaining any of these income streams, and whether they can guarantee to make the House of Commons their sole source of income. Taking a second job does not make someone necessarily untrustworthy, but, if someone is promising to dedicate their life to serving you in the next parliament, you can legitimately question how much time that will leave them for other things.

6) How do they respond to criticism?
No-one likes being criticised, but it’s instructive to see how people behave when they are accused of an impropriety. Some people flare up, some people become very sad, some people become very earnest. All of these are normal reactions. But some people demonstrate consummate skill in deflecting the criticism. This isn’t necessarily a sign that they are untrustworthy, but, taken with the other indicators, it can reenforce what you already know. Jack Straw, who isn’t from my party, always gets very agitated when people criticise him on Radio 4. A friend of mine who worked with him tells me that he is, in person, very trustworthy. Peter Mandelson, from that same party, is always very smooth in the face of criticism. Partly that’s his job, but, equally, the word is that he is not necessarily the first person you would want to trust.

7) How hard do they try to be credible?
Finally — and for this you need to really meet them and look them in the eye — how hard are they trying to be credible? You probably won’t be able to tell if they’ve had their teeth whitened (some people have naturally white teeth), but, when you talk to them, if you move off the usual subjects, you can get a fairly good impression about whether they are happy to talk about anything, or always want to move the conversation back to them, their credibility, the uncredibility of other candidates, the sins of other parties. Anyone who is too desperate to have you trust them — like a car salesman who keeps saying “I’ll be honest with you” — is probably not someone you should be trusting. Again, some people are naturally eager to make friends. But, generally, those people are more natural at it.

I don’t want to suggest that everyone who fails these tests is a liar, and, I’m sure, there are people even now coaching would-be MPs about how to pass these tests, or others like them. But, if we have no tests, then we are left only with what the candidates tell us about themselves. With their credibility, not their trustworthiness. If you don’t like these, then write down what things would make you trust or distrust someone. But do it, and then vote on it.

Otherwise, as we enter the 2010s, rather than the government we really want, we will once again elect the government we deserve.

Many people will wish to point out that the decade ends at the end of 2010, and the new decade begins in 2011. I do agree with them. However, the arbitrary decade beginning with the year 2000, which was celebrated (somewhat bizarrely), as the Millennium (bizarrely because, notwithstanding questions about year 0, nothing in particular happened in the Year 1000 for us to commemorate) has reached an end, and it is that decade which I am describing.

Peace and Goodwill

Peace and Goodwill

At twilight, a frog rests on wet tarmac between the cliff and the Avon, Marlcliff

Believing is not in fashion. I have, during the last ten years, sat in countless meetings where people have tried to hammer home their point that it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you don’t act on it. But, at the end of a decade of doubt, it turns out that we did want our politicians to act out of principle rather than greed, and that Americans, if no-one else, were prepared to vote for the hope of change, rather than more of the same cynicism.

You can read the Christmas story in different ways. I read it (and I will argue with anyone, any time, pretty much anywhere that this is the correct way) as a record of events which happened, at a particular point in time, and a particular place in space.

But if you’re not prepared to engage with it in that way, there is still a lot to be read, and understood. Shepherds on the hillside choose to believe, rather than to doubt. But their belief is exercised not in remaining on the hillside saying “that’s great, now we believe — there’s no point going to look”, but rather in going to the stable. Equally, the wise men, astrologers from the East, people whose own belief-system was almost certainly at odds with the nation they were visiting. They believed, and they went. Angels in the sky, announcing a new deal: “peace and good will”.

I expect the usual flurry of emails telling me that the effect of Christianity over the centuries has not always been peace and goodwill. Again, if you want to pick the time and the place, I’m happy to have the discussion with you. But it’s fair to say that, in all of our best endeavours, we only achieve a part of what we seek.

Nonetheless, the belief which puts itself into action, getting to grips with the peace and goodwill, in all of the messy, three steps forwards and two steps back, complicated, difficult and fractious world in which we live, is infinitely preferable to the cynicism which says: “I always knew they were all crooks — why bother anyway?” or “it probably won’t happen in my life time. Why change my ways now?”

Over the past ten years, and more likely the last forty, we have increasingly put our faith in doubt. We would prefer to not believe and not be disappointed, than to believe and act on that belief. I could add a list of all the social ills that stem from that, but you can probably make up your own list, and not have to put up with mine.

I want to wish everyone who reads these pages peace and goodwill this Christmas. But my wish for you — for everyone — is that we can begin to put aside our faith in doubt, and start on the active belief that leads us to change our world. Because it does need to change.

Peace and goodwill, then.

And a happy Christmas.

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