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.

BBC praise for plans

Stephanie Flanders, BBC economics editor had this to say about the Lib Dem manifesto: “The Liberal Democrats may be only the third largest party at Westminster – but when it comes to tax plans, they punch above their weight. Their manifesto has a lot more numbers than either of the other parties. That deserves some credit. Their tax proposals are also by far the most ambitious we’ve seen this week. Whether they would do what the party says they would do is another matter.”

On Labour and the Tories, she was less kind: “The Labour and Conservative manifestos are very different. Labour’s was big on words – and detailed promises and commitments which we had heard before. It put government at the centre. The Conservative version is longer, but lighter. About a third of its 118 pages actually contains written text – the rest is made up of pictures, fun facts, and (yes) blank pages to give readers a rest. Their focus is on the private sector – and on individuals.

“But the two documents have one important thing in common: neither of them makes any further contribution to public understanding on how Britain’s £167bn budget deficit is going to be cut. And they both leave plenty out.”

The Lib Dem manifesto is about four key policies —

• Fair taxes that put money back in your pocket.
• A fair chance for every child.
• A fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener.
• A fair deal for you from politicians.

In the words of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats: “We’ve had 65 years of Labour and the Conservatives: the same parties taking turns and making the same mistakes, letting you down. It is time for something different. It is time for something better.”

The manifesto itself is a pretty hefty document — strengthened, as Stephanie Flanders points out, by pages and pages of detailed costings. This is not pie in the sky, these are workable plans which — if the situation did transpire that we were in government with members of other parties willing to work with us — would form the blueprint for economic recovery. Sustainable economic recovery that is, because, despite the promises of the last four chancellors (Lawson, Clarke, Brown, Darling) the Labour/Conservative or Labservative economics has done nothing but cycle us through boom and bust.

If the full document is more than you want to read right now, here are the key points in a bit more detail:
fair taxes
that put money back in your pocket
• The first £10,000 you earn tax-free: a tax cut of £700 for most people
• 3.6 million low earners and pensioners freed from income tax completely
• Paid for in full by closing loopholes that unfairly benefit the wealthy and polluters

a fair chance
for every child
• Ensure children get the individual attention they need by cutting class sizes
• Made possible by investing £2.5 billion in schools targeted to help struggling pupils
• Give schools the freedom to make the right choices for their pupils

a fair future
creating jobs by making Britain greener
• Break up the banks and get them lending again to protect real businesses
• Honesty about the tough choices needed to cut the deficit • Green growth and jobs that last by investing in infrastructure

a fair deal
by cleaning up politics
• Put trust back into politics by giving you the right to sack corrupt MPs
• Restore and protect hard-won British civil liberties with a Freedom Bill
• Overhaul Westminster completely: fair votes, an elected House of Lords, all politicians to pay full British taxes

Real Issues, number 2: Freedom and the Press

Freedom of the Press is a dearly bought and dearly held concept in British democracy. The internet age raises new questions, and, so far, the answers are not clear cut.

The three key issues which the online world raises are:

  • What is the status of ‘citizen journalists’?
  • What are our rights in terms of intrusion on privacy?
  • How should newspapers be able to recoup their costs?
  • 1 Citizen journalists
    Ten years ago, there were online magazines, campaign or issue sites, and bulletin boards. This site began as one of them. Five years ago these were all converging sharply into the world of blogging. Blogging isn’t so much about the technology, as being about citizen-journalist created content, published on the web. Some blogs are anonymous, others are very clearly the property of the writers. Already a number of people have very publicly lost their jobs because their blogs (allegedly) broke the terms and conditions of their employment. More worryingly, a number of people have lost their jobs because their anonymous blogs or online aliases were tracked down, and their employers took exception. Kimberly Swann was sacked for moaning on her Facebook page about her ‘totally boring job’, even though this was essentially a private section of the web which only a few people could see.
    Are bloggers citizen journalists, or are they just bored people making trouble online? What protections should they receive against snooping by their employers if they have taken the trouble to keep their thoughts anonymous? Equally, what recourse should there be for people who have been misrepresented on a blog, short of taking the blogger to court — if they can find them?

    These questions are inextricably linked with the next issue.

    2 Intrusion on privacy
    Traditional news is governed by the Press Complaints Commission Code. The code is sometimes considered very one-sided, giving journalists and editors the right to say almost whatever they want about you as long as they call it opinion, and giving you no more recourse than a tiny retraction on page 16 if the PCC rules in your favour. On the other hand, it is infinitely preferable to taking a newspaper to court which does little more than blazon whatever they have printed about you across the front page of every newspaper and magazine, assuming you are a celebrity. Newspapers accept the strictures of the PCC because they also recognise it as hugely preferable than the alternative — primary legislation limiting what they can write.
    But there is also an implicit assumption in traditional print which is based on the commercial considerations of how much it costs to produce the newspaper: private citizens do not generally get pursued, or, if they do, not for long. On the internet, if someone decides to have a go at you, unless you really are willing to take them to court, they can pursue you for as long as they want. We might assume that the rantings of a single blogger without backing will not do you much harm, and that a lash from the Daily Mail (for example) will sting much more. But the way the global internet community works is based not on status but on interest. An internet activist who can write interesting text — and vituperation can be especially interesting to many people — can get linked by all and sundry, and, as a story in itself, their campaign can make its way into mainstream media. A Robin Hood figure attacking the rich and powerful may well gain our sympathy, and we may wish to assure their protection. But what about someone who runs a vicious (but highly entertaining) online campaign against a local shop-keeper, whose business eventually fails as a result?

    3 Making a profit
    Newspapers will argue that their content is much more expensive to produce than blogs. They are almost certainly right. A number of my friends who are photographers or journalists have lost their jobs over the last two years as a result of the downsizing of the industry. This began long before the recession. Newspapers are finding it hard to compete, as their advertising revenues are going online, and the ‘pence per click’ is just as likely to go to a popular blogger as to their own authoritative and expensive pages. The Newspaper Licensing Agency — not, despite the name, an official body — is now trying to charge for the right to link content, on the rather specious ground that this is a breach of copyright. But the NLA was created by the newspaper industry initially to maximise the profits, but increasingly to shore up the losses, of the content they generate by collecting revenues on copyright materials.

    If we abandon newspapers to market forces, then we will head rapidly towards a world in which unreferenced and poorly sourced gossip is our one alternative to publicly funded news such as the BBC. I’m a big fan of the BBC website, and want it to continue. I regard it as more or less the best site on the internet. But we place ourselves in a parlous position if the only source of news which can pay its way is owned by the government, even at arms-length, through the license-fee payer.

    There are some very easy answers to all of these questions, and they’ve been around for some time. The trouble is, that all of the very easy answers, in their implementation, create much more complex situations and many unintended consequences. However, these matters will not wait long. To leave the questions unanswered is to provide an answer, of a sort. But it is unlikely to be an answer with consequences which we will like.

    The work of the next parliament must absolutely address these issues, albeit quietly, and without trumpets and drums.

    Back to Top