Friday, 31 August 2012

£10bn more welfare cuts must be stopped

Yesterday the Guardian ran with the story of a leaked treasury memo making tentative plans for £10 billion worth of additional welfare cuts:
George Osborne is drawing up plans to announce up to £10bn of extra cuts in welfare spending next year, according to a leaked account of a briefing to senior civil servants
As Lib Dems we cannot let this happen. There's been speculation that there might be a deal for Clegg getting his wealth tax in exchange for the tories getting £10 billion of cuts to welfare but that had damn well better not happen. There is no equivalence between them. A multi-millionaire only being able to afford to buy one less yacht a year does not make up for, or equate to, a disabled person being left without enough money to buy food.

Welfare was hit disproportionately hard in the first round of cuts. And, because politicians and the DWP are too scared and too cowardly to touch pensions even slightly, which make up 42% of the welfare budget, and because stuff like fiddling with child tax credit pisses off middle class people who have voices to complain, the bulk of the cuts was passed almost entirely on to disabled people (12% of the welfare budget) and housing benefit simply because these were the groups of people too weak and too voiceless to put up a fight. It was an act of typically vile tory cowardice and spitefulness.

And if the DWP couldn't think of anything better to do than pick on the weakest and most vulnerable last time then why on Earth would they be any better this time? All they'll do is exactly the same thing and pass cuts disproportionately onto those with the narrowest shoulders to bear them.

Plus, to pass an additional £10 billion of cuts on to welfare, something which by definition helps the most vulnerable in society, when passing far smaller cuts on to absolutely everywhere else would be absolutely wrong. You cannot try and make the most vulnerable pay for the deficit and you cannot load those with the smallest shoulders up with the heaviest burden. You cannot do that because it is utterly immoral and wrong, and because it will end in disaster.

Already there are people starving or unable to afford to heat their homes as winter comes along. Already you have a record number of foodbanks and hundreds of thousands of some of the most vulnerable people imaginable already facing a daily struggle just to survive.

If these people, who are already barely managing, and failing in some cases, to keep their heads above water are hit with yet another blow then it will sink them with truly horrific human consequences. And when we have tragic stories of people pushed beyond all ability to cope flooding the newspapers then it will already be too late to undo the damage.

Liberal Democrats cannot allow the tories to make these additional cuts. To do so would be un-Christian, immoral, callous, cruel and plain old-fashioned wrong.

I don't believe for one second that we will allow these cuts to be made but, if somehow we do, then these cuts won't just push vulnerable people over the edge, they'll also push angry people over the edge. If Clegg thinks he has a rough time of it now with half of the party wanting him to go before 2015 let's see how he'll like it when people like me are infuriated to the extent that we're willing to speak out publicly and condemn him directly. Let's see how he likes it when people like me who have just about held our peace switch to publicly baying for his blood. And let's see how his loyalists in the party like it when we get virtually wiped out in 2014 and 2015.

Because, if we let these cuts pass then that's what's going to happen. We can weather and survive our current unpopularity but if we pour another gallon of petrol onto the fire by allowing the tories to well and truly take the boot to the poor, in violation of every principle our party was founded on, then, quite frankly, not only will we be unable to survive the storm but we'll also not deserve to survive it either.

I'm not kidding.

There are some red lines which you simply cannot cross if you believe in fairness and standing up for vulnerable people. And allowing these additional, disproportionate cuts is the biggest red line I've seen in my lifetime. Our party should cross it at its peril.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Welfare Mythbuster

Massive hat tip to Red Peppers here. They've compiled this handy mythbuster to tackle various myths about welfare which I'm reposting here - in particular I think the first three myths make for very interesting reading.

Welfare reform is almost inevitably contentious. Answering the question of who should receive how much financial support relies on often competing conceptions of fairness, with rival views about who needs, and who deserves, our help, not to mention the most just and efficient way of providing it. These issues are worth debating – but the current debate is being conducted on shoddy terms. Myths and stereotypes abound. These serve not only to unfairly stigmatise claimants, but to obscure the questions we might want to answer about how best the state can provide support to people who need it. 

Myth: There is a major problem of ‘families where generations have never worked’ 

Reality: The academics Paul Gregg and Lindsay MacMillan looked at the Labour Force Survey, the large-scale survey of households from which we get most of our statistics about who’s in work. In households with two or more generations of working age, there were only 0.3 per cent where neither generation had ever worked. In a third of these, the member of the younger generation had been out of work for less than a year. 

When they looked at longer-term data, they found that only 1 per cent of sons in the families they tracked had never worked by the time they were 29. What’s more, while sons whose fathers had experienced unemployment were more likely to be unemployed, this only applied where there were few jobs in the local labour market. So ‘inter-generational worklessness’ is much more likely to be explained by a lack of jobs than a lack of a ‘work ethic’. 

Myth: Most benefits spending goes to unemployed people of working age 

Reality: The largest element of social security expenditure (42 per cent) goes to pensioners. Housing benefit accounts for 20 per cent per cent (and about one fifth of these claimants are in work); 15 per cent goes on children, through child benefit and child tax credit; 8 per cent on disability living allowance, which helps disabled people (both in and out of work) with extra costs; 4 per cent on employment and support allowance to those who cannot work due to sickness or disability; 4 per cent on income support, mainly for single parents, carers and some disabled people; 3 per cent on jobseeker’s allowance; and 2 per cent on carer’s allowance and maternity pay, leaving 3 per cent on other benefits. 

Myth: Benefit fraud is high and increasing 

Reality: The latest Department for Work and Pensions estimates show that in 2011/12 just 0.7 per cent of benefit expenditure was overpaid due to fraud, including a 2.8 per cent fraud rate for jobseeker’s allowance and a mere 0.3 per cent for incapacity benefits. Even if we put together fraud with ‘customer error’ – people who are not entitled to benefits but not deliberately defrauding the state – the rate of false claims is 3.4 per cent for JSA and 1.2 per cent for incapacity benefit. 

The claim that benefit fraud is increasing is similarly false. Because there have been changes in how fraud has been calculated over time, we have to look at combined fraud and ‘customer error’ for JSA and income support. This declined from 9.4 per cent to 4.8 per cent of spending from 1997/98 to 2004/05, and has since stayed roughly flat. 

Myth: Couples on benefits are better off if they split up 

Reality: This one has recently been comprehensively disproved by research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who concluded: ‘The simplest question that can be asked in testing the couple penalty is: does the benefits system provide a different proportion of a family’s daily living needs if they live together and if they live apart? The clear answer from the calculations in this paper is no. The benefits system provides very similar living standards to families living together and apart.’ 

Research in 2009 for the Department for Work and Pensions looked at whether different benefit systems had any impact on people’s decisions about whether to stay together or not. They concluded that ‘on balance, the reviewed literature shows that there is no consistent and robust evidence to support claims that the welfare system has a significant impact upon family structure’. 

Myth: The welfare bill has ballooned out of control 

Reality: The government has repeatedly claimed that welfare expenditure grew unsustainably under Labour. In fact, total expenditure on welfare was 11.6 per cent of GDP in 1996/97; under Labour it averaged 10.7 per cent up to the crash. Afterwards benefits for children and working age adults rose from an average 4.9 per cent of GDP up to 2007/08 to 6 per cent. This is what you would expect during a recession. 

Myth: Most benefit claims are long term 

Reality: The government persistently frames benefit claimants as ‘languishing in dependency’. So how much of the benefit caseload is long-term? It depends whether you count people at a single point in time or look at people moving on and off benefits over a period. The numbers paint a completely different picture. For example, in 2008, some 75 per cent of incapacity benefit claimants had been receiving the benefit for more than five years, and only 13 per cent for less than one year. But over the period 2003–8, only 37 per cent were long-term while 38 per cent were on benefit for less than a year. So if you count claimants at just one point in time, as government tends to do, you will overestimate how much of the caseload is long-term – and underestimate how many people move on and off benefits over time. 

Myth: Social security benefits are too generous 

Reality: Out of work benefit levels fall well below income standards based on detailed research into what ordinary people think should go into a minimum household budget. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that while pensioners do in fact receive 100 per cent of what people think they need, a single adult of working age receives 40 per cent of the weekly minimum income standard and a couple with two children receives 62 per cent of the weekly minimum. 

Myth: Most people who claim disability benefits could be working 

Reality: There are two main kinds of disability benefits: disability living allowance (to cover the extra costs of disability) and employment and support allowance (income replacement for those not in employment). The most basic misunderstanding is that the latter is only for people who are ‘completely incapable of work’. The welfare reformer Sidney Webb commented in 1914 – in the midst of one of many previous panics about ‘true disability’ – that the only people who could do no work at all were ‘literally unconscious or asleep’. The question is whether suitable jobs exist, and whether these people would be able to get them. 

Once we understand this, three problems face us. First, just because we’re living longer doesn’t mean we’re in better health; improved medical care means that many people born with impairments or suffering traumatic injuries are able to live longer. Second, jobs are in some ways worse than in the early 1990s: people have to work harder and have less control over their job, which makes it more difficult for people with health problems to stay in work. And while we now have anti-discrimination legislation, this only forces employers to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments; the evidence not only suggests these are often limited, but that employers are less willing to employ disabled people as a result. 

Finally, many of the people claiming incapacity benefits are people with low employability in areas of few jobs. These are the very employers that are less likely to make adjustments. Some people end up in a situation where they are not fit enough to do the jobs they can get, but can’t get the jobs they can do. 

Completely incapable of work? Not necessarily. Penalised for their disability by a labour market that has no place for them? Definitely. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Lib Dem Factions: the battle for influence

In a mini series of posts I've been looking at the various Lib Dem "factions" (more like schools of thought than anything else) and so far I've looked at the Orange Bookers, Liberal Left and the Social Liberals.

But now I'd like to have a brief look at how these factions interact with each other.

The first problem with doing this is that the Social Liberals are a particularly ill-defined and fluid group with many people in it overlapping with those from the other groups. The second problem is that, with each "faction" actually being collections of like minded people, there's no single or united view amongst any of them (something which also applies to any group of more than two Lib Dem members).

However, the primary dispute in the Lib Dems has always been one of positioning - does the party see itself as being a liberal, left of centre party which embraces its Social Democrat, as well as Liberal, heritage to argue for a decentralised liberal state to tackle inequality and to protect people from the unrestrained excesses of the market, or does it see itself as a party resolutely of the centre, more in touch with the economic liberal heritage of the party, proudly arguing for a radical remaking of the state to role back the inefficient hand of central government, bring in the efficiency of the market, and to remove state created obstacles to business and individual mobility.

The latter of these views can be held primarily as being an Orange Booker view and the former as a Social Liberal/Liberal Left joint view. However, I should point out that, as I subscribe to the philosophy of social liberalism, my characterisation of both of the above viewpoints could be slightly off or biased.

On this central issue of what position the party takes, of whether the Lib Dems are to be first and foremost an economically liberal party of the centre or a radical social liberal party of the centre-left, generally (though not always) the majority of members seem to back the social liberal view.

The strength of the support for this position has weakened somewhat in this party - primarily through some centre-right people joining the party as a result of the coalition at the same time that some people on the centre-left have been leaving the party because of the coalition. This has obviously shifted the numbers in favour of the Orange Bookers somewhat.

Exactly how far the numbers have shifted is another question and one which it will be very difficult to answer until the party elects the new Federal Policy Committee and we see the manifesto it drafts for 2015. Because, perhaps more than anything else, it is the manifesto and the policies in it which indicate the collective mindset of the party as the policies and people chosen by the party members themselves are, more than anything else, what influences the party's manifestos.

In 2010, the Lib Dem manifesto was arguably a very social liberal one - a sign of the influence of the Social Liberals and their position as the group which, when coupled with the Left Liberals, makes up the majority of the Liberal Democrat members.

On the other hand, the Orange Bookers, while I have defined them as being a minority group in the party, still have large numbers on their side coupled with the fact that a lot of the people who I put in the poorly measured Social Liberal group are often people who don't fit neatly in any particular philosophical niche and who will agree with the Orange Bookers on quite a number of specific issues.

And this is why, despite being in a theoretical minority, the Orange Bookers have had a significant role in passing economically liberal policies - such as the increase in the tax threshold to £10,000 which, while eye-catching, jars somewhat with the social liberal preference for redistributive taxes.

Additionally, the Orange Book itself, while written jointly by many authors and being far from a bible for the economic liberal group labelled the Orange Bookers, does provide enough of an ideological underpinning that members of this group, even if they've no interest in the Orange Book themselves, are certain about what they think and have more confidence about where they want themselves and the party to be heading than members of the other groups within the party.

Couple this with a leadership at the very bottom of the party (that's how I like to see it anyway) who currently tend towards the economic liberal side of things and who, by nature of being in government, have to make policy on the go, and the Orange Bookers are pretty much evenly matched with the Social Liberals (and Liberal Left who are essentially a more left wing version of the Social Liberals) in the struggle to influence party policy despite their numerical disadvantage.

However, this, in many ways, is a consequence of the unique set of circumstances of being in a coalition with the Tories at a time of austerity and economic turmoil - all of which create a sort of perfect storm for Orange Booker influence. Whether this will last is something I doubt as it's my suspicion that the role of the Social Liberal Forum in providing a more coherent vision for the Social Liberals, coupled with numerical superiority amongst the members and a reaction to current Orange Booker influence, might well swing the pendulum back again at the next internal party elections (which will influence the 2015 manifesto).

Of course, this is all speculation, assumptions and guess work on my part. The only realistic guide towards where the party currently sees itself will be the 2015 manifesto itself - coupled with who is chosen to be Nick Clegg's successor when the time comes for him to go. But until then my guess is that the big debate over where and what the party should be is currently a tie between the Orange Bookers and the Social Liberals - with the Social Liberals perhaps starting to gain an edge.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Rape: Or why I am now a feminist

I just got back from holiday and I know that I promised quite a few days ago that I'd finish writing my series on the various Lib Dem "factions" but instead something else has come up. Which is why I'd like to talk about rape. TRIGGER WARNING.

You see, over the past few days, the case about Julian Assage and his alleged rape of two women in Sweden has caused a bountiful tide of sexism, misogyny and rape apologism to rear its ugly head.

Before we go any further, let's quickly establish some facts:

Firstly, I like Wikileaks. I think it's done incredible and amazing things that have shone a much needed spotlight onto the actions of governments across the world.

Secondly, Assange's own lawyer admits that he had sex with one woman while she slept (making her incapable of consenting) and that he physically held another woman down, forced her legs apart and tried to have sex with her. Assange and his lawyer can continue claiming all they like that that's not rape but the law of pretty much every non-dark age country would define that as rape.

Thirdly, anyone with an opinion on this subject should probably read the brilliant New Statesman article which outlines several myths about the Assange case. Seriously, go have a read of it - especially if you're planning on posting a comment below.

Now, as a consequence of Assange being wanted for arrest for rape charges, lots of people, generally on the left, have been rushing to defend him and to trivialise the accusations against him. We've had George Galloway MP say that forcibly attempting to penetrate a woman while she resists you isn't rape, it's just "bad sexual etiquette".

We've had Craig Murray, supposed human rights activist disclosing the names of one of the women involved live on Newsnight - when I sent him an email expressing my disgust he used the excuse that, as other people had already disclosed her name online it was okay for him to disclose her name live on television. Apparently not understanding, or not caring, that it's commonplace for rape victims to suffer disbelief and outright abuse and death threats simply for reporting their rape in the first place, let alone when it's an internationally known case with the alleged perpetrator having a devoted and fanatical following.

We've also had an American congressman, Todd Akin, come out and promote the myth that pregnancy doesn't happen in "legitimate rape" cases - the implication being that anyone who does get pregnant from rape wasn't the victim of "legitimate rape". This was then followed up by a Republican radio host interviewing Todd Akin saying that rape gave us some "great people", which apparently makes everything okay and the views of the rape victim concerned about what she wants to do with her own body aren't worth a damn.

And, of course, we have Assange and co arguing that if a woman has consented to sex with someone once then she no longer has the right to refuse consent at any point in the future.

Aong with all of this we've had lots of incredibly ugly, and usually well-hidden, misogyny come to surface absolutely everywhere where these events are being discussed - hundreds, thousands, of vile comments repeating utterly bonkers rape myths and denigrating and abusing rape victims.

So let me just say something:

Rape destroys lives.

Rape leaves people traumatised and feeling worthless. It leaves them feeling like their own body isn't theirs any more, that it doesn't matter what they want as anyone can just come along and take away their most fundamental rights. It's about power and control and fear. And unless you've been through it yourself, you can't comprehend or imagine what it feels like. I'm better informed about rape than most people and even I know that I can't begin to imagine what a rape victim goes through.

And the fact is that something like 1 in 3 women get raped in their lives. (CORRECTION: after some checking the actual figure from a randomised survey of women raped in their lives is 1 in 5) Many, many more get sexually assaulted or suffer attempted rape or sexual assault.

So out of my three female cousins on my mother's side of the family the odds tell me that one of them is likely to be raped at some point. I pray and hope that this doesn't happen and there's no reason to think that it's likely to happen to them but those are the odds that women have to live with every day of their lives.

As a man, I don't experience that, because the chances of me being raped are much, much lower. Male rape victims do exist, and often suffer problems of disbelief and isolation much worse then female rape victims, but  the odds of any individual man being rape are incredibly small. It's not something I have to worry about. If I walk home in the dark I might get worried about getting mugged but I don't have to be worried about rape or to have to worry about it every time I'm left alone in a lift with a leery member of opposite sex.

Rape victims are incredibly common. And the anguish they go through often haunts them all their lives, it's something it's pretty much impossible to escape from. That's the reality of rape. So imagine how it feels to them when thousands take to twitter and facebook and the airwaves to denigrate rape victims and to apologise for rapists.

And this is what people don't realise: when rape victims see so many people, often including those they'd liked, respected or thought of as friends, it's like a massive slap in the face. It feels like thousands of people are saying that what they experienced, the anguish they've been through, doesn't matter. It makes them relive what they've been through and makes them feel worthless and like no one believes them. It reminds them of all the times that they've been called a whore or a slut for getting rapes. So, to spell out what so many people seem determined to deliberately ignore:  BEING A RAPE APOLOGIST ACTIVELY HURTS PEOPLE.

So what I'm trying to say is that I know how utterly depressing and hurtful this all must seem to rape victims and women's rights campaigners. However, I want to let them all know that the work they do, the challenging of bigotry, the writing, the campaigning, it does make a difference.

I know this because I am now, for the first time in my life calling myself a feminist. I wouldn't have done even six months ago but I do now. My attitudes have utterly changed in the space of two years and especially in the last year. When I think back to what I might have said and, more importantly, what I thought two years ago I feel ashamed. I had a lot of misconceptions about sexual equality and rape and I believed a whole load of myths. I thought that rape was bad but I also bought into a head deskingly large amount of victim blaming bullshit. I'm really not proud of it at all.

But, thanks various people who kept on drawing attention to the reality of rape and to the reality of gender inequality, I do now consider myself a feminist. In particular I'd like to thank Jennie Rigg for consistently linking to valuable different sources of facts about rape and the realities that rape victims experience via her blog.

However, the big push which really moved me from being a feminist in all but name (e.g. believing in gender equality and recognising that their is a significant amount of entrenched sexism left in our society) to now being happy to use the label is actually the current events around Assange. Because when an MP denies a fundamental concept about rape and insists that a woman's consent is not always needed in order for it not to be rape, when a so-called human rights activist broadcasts the name of a rape victim on television, and when thousands of people pour out victim blaming, misogynistic crap on twitter and in comment threads, it's pretty damn obvious that feminism is still needed and that it needs more people to be proud to use that label.

So I am now a feminist. And I owe it all to the people who keep on fighting, keep on campaigning and keep on confronting people with the ugly realities of prejudice no matter how discouraging and dispiriting. What they're doing does make a difference. And I'm proud to consider myself living proof of that.

P.S. GO AND READ THIS - it's long, but very important.

P.P.S. Any comment I see where someone discloses an alleged rape victim's name or uses the term "Feminazi" non-ironically will be deleted.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

#BearsForBelarus

Yesterday evening I finally got round to taking part in Liberal Youth's Bears for Belarus campaign. I'm quite pleased about this as it is rather an important cause.

You see, Belarus is the last dictatorship in Europe - run by Andrie Lukashenko who still calls his security forces the KGB and who is imprisons and tortures democracy campaigners (including members of Belarus' equivalent of Liberal Youth).

So a few weeks ago a small Swedish PR firm flew a plane into Belarus and parachuted teddy bears holding pro-democracy placards into Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

A week later two journalism students in Belarus were arrested for taking pictures of themselves with a soft toy.

You see, that's the kind of man Lukashenko is - he imprisons people over small cuddly toys.

So Liberal Youth has organised the Bears for Belarus campaign where people take pictures of  themselves with soft toys to show solidarity with journalists and freedom campaigners in Belarus.

The website for the campaign can be found here and it's be really great if all of you could get involved - apparently there's been an absolutely amazing response so far.

And, for what it's worth, here's a picture of me with my teddy bear:


Long live freedom and long live democracy - may they come to Belarus soon.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Lib Dem Factions: The Social Liberals

This is the third post in my series looking at the various factions within the Lib Dems. In my last post I looked at Liberal Left (not the formal group itself but a wider group within the party that shares several views). As with my previous two posts, the same provisos apply with regards to this post: the term "factions" is somewhat misleading as the actual factions are more like overlapping schools of thought, and the Lib Dems have far greater party unity than Labour or the Tories to boot, and lots of people within the party don't consider themselves part of any faction at all.

Nevertheless, I think that the different views within the party can broadly speaking be grouped into various "factions" and that's what this series of posts is looking at. Today I will be looking at the Social Liberals.

The Social Liberals

As a declaration of interest, I consider myself to be a Social Liberal inasmuch as I consider myself to be part of any 'faction' - I'll try to keep any personal bias out of this post though.

This is perhaps the only faction name that isn't actually a misnomer - Social Liberals essentially are followers of the philosophy of social liberalism. That being said, 'social liberal' is such a broad term that many people in the Lib Dems would call themselves a social liberal even though they might belong to another faction. So when I use the term Social Liberals I am referrign to a particular school of thought within the party rather than just everyone who might be happy with the label social liberal.

This is a group who supported the decision to enter coalition with the conservative (though grudgingly in a lot of cases) but who aren't entirely happy with the way the coalition government has turned out. Members of this faction generally disagree fundamentally with the coalition on at least one or two big issues - tuition fees, the NHS reforms and the welfare reforms are normally major bugbears in particular. They are most likely to consider themselves critical supporters of the coalition - supporting the coalition due to the lack of an alternative rather than enthusiastically supporting it for its own sake.

This is partly due to the fact that these are the people who consider themselves and the Liberal Democrats to be a left of centre party and who draw upon the traditions of the economist Keynes and  of Lloyd-George's People's Budget. They are also, in a lot of cases, influenced by the SDP as many social liberals of the appropriate age were grassroots members of that party prior to the merger which formed the Liberal Democrats. In addition, the might often feel that the party has drifted rightwards under the Clegg leadership.

The main difference between the Social Liberals and, for example, the Orange Bookers, is that the Social Liberals are much more in favour of public action to tackle issues, including state intervention, as opposed to a hands-off approach.

This means that they support maintaining, or even slightly increasing, levels of state spending, often through a rebalancing of the tax and welfare system that eases the burden on the poorest while increasing the burden on the wealthiest. Perhaps one of their most defining characteristics in this regard is that they favour active steps to reduce inequality as a higher priority than steps to reduce inequality of opportunity.

As a general rule, they view the state as a tool which can be used positively to build a fairer society rather than an impediment which needs to be pruned back in order to allow a fairer society to flourish. Therefore they are likely to first consider public action in the form of state intervention or regulation to resolve problems before looking at alternatives, rather than the other way round.

Because of all of the above, this is a group which is likely to have reservations about the current direction of the party and what they might consider to be the undue influence of the Orange Bookers. In particular, they are likely to think that Nick Clegg appeared to be too close to the conservatives in the initial years of the coalition and are in favour of a strategy of much stronger differentiation from the tories.

In terms of their size, they can probably best be estimated as being aproximately the same people who support "Plan A+" on the economy - broadly maintaining the same focus on reducing the deficit but also wanting much greater use of stimulus in the form of infrastructure projects and investment in green technology in order to boost the economy.

Now, in the last Lib Dem Voice survery on economic issues, 54% of respondents agreed with the following statement:
While it is right that we cut the deficit and I broadly support the government’s austerity measures, the frailty of Europe’s economies requires a new approach – we should take advantage of low interest rates to increase borrowing for capital investment to try and boost growth now.
As this is pretty much the defining economic view of the Social Liberals compared to the other factions, this leads me to estimate that they account for just over half (or 50 to 60%) of the party.

This assessment would make them by far the largest faction in the party but only barely a majority. And my personal experience would seem to back this up as votes on policy at conference generally tend to produce that proportion of representatives voting in favour of those motions which are distinctly Social Liberal positions.

In terms of influence in the party, the cohesiveness of this faction has been strengthened significantly since the foundation of the Social Liberal Forum in 2008 in response to the perceived rightwards lean of the leadership on taxation. Since the creation of the coalition the SLF has shifted slightly to the aim of promoting social liberal policies within the Lib Dems and has actually had considerable success in getting social liberal policies past conference and generally helping social liberals in the party to join forces with each other after a period where many of them felt they were being sidelined.

The most prominent victory of the SLF was when at Sheffield conference they mobilised to turn a policy motion supportive of the NHS reforms into a policy motion highly critical of the NHS reforms. So, when it comes to influencing party policy, they wield a lot of clout - in part due to the large numbers of voting representatives who are members of the SLF.

In addition, the Social Liberals have a prominent voice in the form of Evan Harris who is known for being outspoken in his criticism of coalition policies that he and other Social Liberals consider illiberal. They have another prominent voice in the form of Vince Cable who, despite not being a member of any particular faction (much like most Lib Dem MPs in that regard), often advocates policy positions very similar to those promoted by the Social Liberals. In particular, the Plan A+ economic strategy he recommends is highly similar to the economic strategy promoted by the SLF.

However, despite this, the leadership of the party is generally speaking not especially identified with the Social Liberal faction which restricts the Social Liberals' influence to passing policy at conference and getting people elected to internal party structures such as the Federal Policy Committee.

So, to summarise, this is a faction which represents (just about) the majority of Lib Dem members and has commensurate clout on everything which involves the membership directly such as Lib Dem policy making and internal elections. In this field it probably punches just above its weight. When it comes to influencing coalition policy, however, things are a much more mixed bag with the Social Liberals probably punching below their weight due to Orange Bookers punching above their weight. That, however, is something which relates to the interaction between the different factions - and that's something I'll look at in my next post.

EDIT: It's been suggested to me that I might have over estimated the size of this faction as the economic views of it also overlap with the economic views of both Liberal Left and several Orange Bookers. My instinct and personal experience would tell me that the Social Liberals do probably make up the majority of the membership though it's possible that I'm wrong on that. However, I'm pretty much certain that, even if they don't make up the majority of members, the Social Liberals are by far the largest minority.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Lib Dem Factions: Liberal Left

This is the second in my series looking at the various factions within the Lib Dems. Yesterday I looked at the Orange Bookers. As then, the same provisos apply with regards to this post: the term "factions" is somewhat misleading as the actual factions are more like overlapping schools of thought, and the Lib Dems have far greater party unity than Labour or the Tories to boot, and lots of people within the party don't consider themselves part of any faction at all.

Nevertheless, I think that the different views within the party can broadly speaking be grouped into various "factions" and that's what this series of posts is looking at. Today I will be looking at 'Liberal Left'.

Liberal Left/Old School Social Democrats

I should say right off the bat that this is a very misleading name. The shot-hand name I'm using for this faction is that of a recently founded internal party group, Liberal Left, which is dedicated to opposing the Lib Dems being in coalition with the tories and to promoting working with left wing parties such as the Greens and Labour as they consider the Lib Dems to be a fundamentally left wing party as well.

However, Liberal Left as a group itself is fairly small but I'm appropriating the name, for a lack of a better term, to describe a larger group within the party who share many views with Liberal Left. Another way of labelling them would be as old school social democrats.

So, as above, what I would call the Liberal Left 'faction' consists of those who think that the Lib Dems should pull out of the coalition as they feel it is doing more harm than good, both for the party and for the country, and because they are deeply unhappy with the policies that the government is implementing. They are also, for obvious reasons, opposed to Nick Clegg remaining leader of the Lib Dems and think he should either step down immediately or be ousted by party members through a previously never used clause of the party constitution.

Politically, these are the people who, broadly speaking, probably identify themselves most strongly with the social liberal traditions of the old Liberal party and with the what-it-says-on-the-tin school of social democrats. Their vision of the Liberal Democrats is as a party is probably as one which is both to the left of, and more liberal than, (New) Labour.

As such, they are also the ones who are most likely to disagree with the fundamentals of the government's economic strategy and are likely to advocate borrowing more to boost the economy into growth now even if it means a much slower process of deficit reduction. However, because the defining feature of this group is their opposition to remaining in the coalition, it probably contains quite a wide spread of economic views.

That being said, on things like tuition fees and the NHS reforms and free schools these are the people most likely to disagree strongly with the government's record of action and view the legislation on these issues as being dangerous steps on the road to privatising vital public services.

As for their size within the party, in the most recent Lib Dem Voice survey on economic issues, 17% agreed with the statement:
The government’s spending cuts and tax rises are hurting the economy. It should cut public spending less severely and less fast because trying to stimulate growth now is essential, even if that means we go on borrowing more for longer and adding to our national debt.
Additionally, in the previous survey, 15% of members said that they were "very dissatisfied" with how Nick Clegg was performing as leader..

Now, as I said earlier, Liberal Left is a fairly fluid and ill-defined group but I'm relatively confident in saying that the majority of people who in the party who completely reject the governments's economic strategy and are very unhappy with Nick Clegg are the ones who broadly fit the Liberal Left label - even though relatively few of them might associate themselves with that name. So, my guess would be that somewhere between 15 and 20% of the party match this description even though this group has quite a wide range of views and overlaps significantly with the faction I'll look at tomorrow, the Social Liberals.

In terms of influence, this probably isn't a very influential faction for two reasons. The first is that their size limits their ability to change the party's direction to little more than vocally disagreeing with the leadership - their numbers prevent them from having much more impact than that. They are also somewhat hamstrung by the fact that the more likely someone is to be in this group the more likely they are to give up on the party entirely and fail to renew their membership. Additionally, I would hazard that, while one or two MPs might sympathise with them, their positions prevent them from being able to openly express their views without causing considerable damage to the party (unlike the constant spouting off of tory backbenchers, Lib Dem MPs tend to be fairly careful about trying not to actively undermine the leadership) and, as such, the most prominent Liberal Left member is probably the peer Jenny Tonge who, due to her fairly strident views on things like Palestine, isn't necessarily viewed with a great deal of affection by the leadership or by the majority of party members. The main voice of this faction, in so much as there is one, is probably Linda Jack.

So, that's Liberal Left covered and in tomorrow's post I'll be looking at the Social Liberals.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Lib Dem factions: the Orange Bookers

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

The modern Liberal Democrats are a fairly odd fusion of quite a few variants of the liberal tradition and two brands of social democracy. Couple this with a democratic party structure where anyone and everyone has an equal ability to speak, make policy and vote for the leader and what you end up with is quite a few factions within the party. So I've decided to do a series of posts looking at the various factions in order to do an overview of each of them and their influence within the party.

However, I should preface this by saying that, despite my talk of factions, the party as a whole is remarkable well united - especially compared to the stark divides in the Conservatives between Cameron 'modernisers' and traditional Thatcherites and in Labour between the socialists and the successors of the Blairites. In fact, the factions within the Lib Dems are probably more accurately described as overlapping but different schools of thought but, despite that, I'm going to continue to use the word factions for the sake of convenience.

In estimating the size of the factions I'm going to look at Lib Dem Voice surveys of party members - which tend to be broadly accurate as a reflection of the mood of the party and what the members are thinking. In particular I'm going to look at questions on economic issues as it's economics which tends to be the most divisive issue in the party - pretty much everyone is broadly unanimous when it comes to things like personal freedoms and civil liberties.

This post will look at the "Orange Booker" faction.

The Orange Bookers

Now, the name of this group is definitely something of a misnomer. The Orange Book itself, a book co-written by several people and dedicated to 'reclaiming liberalism', is fairly divorced from the faction as a whole. For one thing, most people who use the term Orange Booker have never actually read the book. For another, at least one of the contributors to the Orange Book (Vince Cable) considers himself a social democrat and therefore, despite supporting restrictions on the size of the state, by most definitions doesn't really fit into the concept of the Orange Bookers.

With that caveat about the name in place, the Orange Bookers are essentially a mix of libertarians and Gladstonian liberals - people who are very fond of the free market, competition, scaling back the state, free enterprise, lower taxes, etc. They essentially take the view that their should be high amounts of economic freedom and that people are best served by removing the burdens of taxes and the influence of the state over their lives. The exact size of the state and the limits placed on its power and responsibilities is, however, very much up for debate within this faction. It's probably fair to say though that they all want it significantly smaller than it currently is.

Politically, these are the people who are highly supportive of the Clegg leadership, of the Lib Dem role and record in the government and, to take two particularly divisive issues within the party, happy with the decision to back the NHS reforms and with the decision not to vote against higher tuition fees - on the latter because many of them think that the policy of scrapping tuition fees was unrealistic in the first place and that the system brought in by the coalition is much better. They are also highly supportive of the governemnt's current economic strategy and are, if anything, likely to argue that greater steps (such as additional cuts) need to be taken to reduce the deficit as quickly as possible.

EDIT: it's been pointed out to me that a lot of Orange Bookers opposed the NHS reforms and said they should be dropped because they didn't bring enough competition into the health service - though in my experience Orange Bookers were more likely to tolerate the reforms for the sake of government unity even if they weren't particularly happy with them.

Now, the size of this faction is hard to estimate but I'm going to have a stab at it using the most recent question on economic strategy from the latest Lib Dem Voice survey. In it 23% agreed with the statement:
Borrowing more at a time when we already owe so much will simply make matters worse, as the country will have to pay back even more money in the longer term. We have to bring the debt and the deficit under control even if it has some painful effects for the economy in the short term.
This was a change of -4 points from the last survey. So, as a very rough estimate, I'd guess that approximately a quarter to a third of the party can broadly be described as being Orange Bookers.

However, this isn't the whole picture as one leading Orange Booker, Danny Alexander, wrote the last Lib Dem manifesto and is a quarter of the influential 'Quad' which is the ultimate maker of policy decisions in the coalition government. Additionally, there has been a recent and noticeable influx of young and vocal Orange Bookers, many of whom tend to be much more stricter Gladstonian liberals/libertarians than the rest of the faction as a whole - recently founding the Liberal Reform group within the party to promote 'four cornered liberalism'.

Additionally, one of the oldest liberal think tanks, Centre Forum, tends to be broadly aligned with mainstream Orange Booker views, and Nick Clegg, though probably not really part of any faction, is probably closer to the Orange Bookers than he is to any other faction.

As such, this is a faction which can be deemed to be punching well above its weight within the party in terms of its influence on policy and its media profile.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

#ToryTantrums: Or why Andrew Lilico is a muppet

Andrew Lilico is one of ConservativeHome's favourite columnists. That is to say, they regularly call upon him to write the kind of ill-informed, inaccurate drivel that makes up the bulk of thought within the tory party.

And yesterday's article by him is no exception. In it he rants and raves about the evil liberals (that's people like me by the way) who are being "disingenuous" and who are "welching" on the coalition agreement by saying that, because tories won't support Lords reform, they won't for changing the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies.

Now, just to quickly recap, Lords reform is a treasured Lib Dem policy because we don't think it's right that lawmakers in the upper house should be able to sit their for life at the taxpayers expense without anyone having ever elected them. And changing the parliamentary boundaries is a favoured tory policy because, in addition to equalising the size of constituencies, they also want to reduce the number of MPs by 50 as this would reduce the in built bias which lets Labour win a majority in parliament with fewer votes than are needed for a tory majority.

So, moving on, Andrew Lilico comes out with this gem:

But let's be clear, here. There was no Coalition agreement to introduce a Bill for a PR-elected Lords, but there was a specific commitment in the Coalition agreement to introduce a bill to reduce the number of MPs and have more equal-sized constituencies. The boundary review is, in the Coalition agreement, specifically tied to the referendum on AV which was duly held. The Conservatives have not broken any commitment in the Coalition agreement by not passing a PR-elected Lords Bill. But the Lib Dems are breaking such a commitment if they do not pass the boundary review.
Now aside from the fact that "but let's be clear" is normally political code for "let's obfuscate and twist the truth" the simple fact is that Andrew Lilico undermines the entirety of his argument in the first sentence of his argument. Yes, there was no explicit commitment in the Coalition agreement to introduce a bill to reform the House of Lords. And yes there was a commitment to bring forwards a bill  on changing the parliamentary constituency boundaries.

But "bring forwards a bill" does not mean "and  then we will vote for it". All it commits the coalition to doing is bringing a bill before parliament. Well, there is such a bill before parliament. And Lib Dem MPs and peers voted for it in order to bring it before parliament. However, there is no commitment in the coalition agreement for them to actually vote for the boundary changes proposed by the electoral commission when they're presented to parliament. End of.

So, I hate to break it to Mr Lilico, but his entire argument is completely wrong. You see, if you're going to make arguments based on the literal interpretation of words and a legalistic look at things then it does rather help if you've actually got your facts right. Which Mr Lilico hasn't. Which all the other tories throwing tantrums about the nasty Lib Dems haven't.

But, since, as we all know, the conservative party as a whole isn't exactly blessed with an ability to see reality if it dances right in front of their face, I think I'm just going to sit back with some popcorn and watch the show. If there's one thing I truly love about this coalition it's its glorious ability to piss off the kind of right wing troglodytes who write for and comment on ConservativeHome.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Things that happened yesterday

So yesterday the Lords reforms were dropped. Though it's an utter kick in the teeth that we Lib Dems have voted through plenty of fairly nasty tory policies and not got anything in return, at least Clegg finally seems to have woken up to the fact that the tories can't be trusted - something which much more experienced people in the party have been trying to tell him all along.

So, in return we've killed the boundary changes and reduction in the number of seats - partly for tit for tat to remind the tories why they shouldn't go breaking the coalition agreement and partly because without a more democratic House of Lords to scrutinise the government better then reducing the number of MPs just increases the proportion of MPs who are employed by the government and are therefore obligated to always vote with it which is obviously less democratic.

There have been, and will be, lots of articles about this so I'm not really going to talk about it. However, what I will talk about are the other notable things that happened yesterday:

  • Team GB continued to win lots of medals.
  • A young Lib Dem friend of mine from Scotland called Alex proposed the idea of slash fiction of Nick Clegg and myself (if you don't know what slash fiction is and you're of a sensitive disposition then please don't look it up) while another of my friends offered to write it. Ew.
  • I got told to "pipe down" on twitter by Labour MP Tom Watson after I reminded him of Labour's role in blocking Lords reform - and, after a lengthy twitter conversation, he offered to give me a back massage. Double ew. Though on the plus side, it does give me something to cross off on my politics bingo card.
  • The twitter account for the Mars Curiosity rover demonstrated a penchant for swearing.
  • Tories threw major tantrums about Lib Dems following the letter of the coalition agreement and only bringing forward a bill on boundary changes rather than voting for it.

So, all in all, I suppose yesterday wasn't too bad :)

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Modern Lib Dem heroes: Lord Bonkers

This is the second in my fairly randomly spaced series of articles about people who I consider to be modern day heroes of the Lib Dems. And today I'm talking about Lord Bonkers, Liberal MP for Rutland South-West between 1906 and 1910, and sole survivor of the 1906 landslide which swept the Liberal party into power.


Lord Bonkers of Bonkers Hall

Lord Bonkers is also, sadly, fictional and was invented by Jonathan Calder. The noble lord's main job is as the diarist for the radical liberal periodical the Liberator but is also notable for running against Bill Rodgers to be leader of the Lib Dems in the House of Lords under the memorable slogan of "Don't be plonkers, vote for Bonkers."


The reason why he's a Liberal hero of mine, despite not being real, is because he represents something that the Lib Dems do better than anyone else in politics - having a sense of humour and being willing to make fun of ourselves. To that end, the remainder of this article will consist of  three of my favourite quotes from the noble lord.
On Labour: “By all means let us talk with the New Party where we agree with it; where we do not let us continue to indulge in acts of random violence.” 
On Europe: “People ask me if I believe in Europe. Believe in it? I've been there!"
On Lib Dem peers: “Shirley Williams is a very popular politician. In fact she must be the most popular politician to be defeated in three consecutive general elections. And Tom McNally used to be Jim Callaghan's adviser. When you remember what happened to his government you realise what good advice it must have been.”
He is also the author of the following books:

An End to War (1914),The Coming Propserity (1929), Edward the Great: Our New King (1936), An End to War - second edition (1939), The Death of Socialism (1944), The Death of Conservatism (1950), Jo Grimond: Our Next Prime Minister (1963), Jeremy Thorpe: Our Next Prime Minister (1969), David Steel (1982), Paddy Ashplant: Our Next Prime Minister (1996), Charles Kennedy: Our Next Prime Minister (2001)

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

This should be compulsory viewing

On Monday two brilliant documentaries were aired - one by Dispatches and one by Panorama - which I think should be compulsory watching for anyone who's ever expressed any kind of opinion about disability benefits or who has read a tabloid headline about scroungers.

Both documentaries looked at the controversial Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which determine whether sick and disabled people are entitled to receive benefits or not. Panorama was a broad investigation while Dispatches, on the other hand, managed to find out that WCA medical assessors are threatened with having their work reviewed if they declare more than 14% of claimants to be fit for work - despite the fact that people at the top of the DWP insist that there are no targets set within the WCA.

The two documentaries are still available on iplayer and 4OD so please go and watch them while you still can.

Panorama : http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006t14n

Dispatches http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/4od#3388055

One of the things revealed in the documentaries was that Malcolm Harrington, the man responsible for reviewing and reforming the WCAs to make them fit for purpose will be leaving his post in 2013 after three years in the post. Given the speculation as to why he's leaving (was he pushed, etc.) I think I should point out that I have incredibly reliable information that Harrington does not feel that he is being forced to leave or that there is anything sinister behind it.

Also, something else that came to light this week was that Chris Grayling, the DWP minister who keeps on spouting off about "scroungers" has himself claimed £100,000 from the taxpayer to renovate a flat in London, increasing it's value, which he doesn't use very often due to having three other flats within the M25. You can draw your own conclusions about his level of integrity from that and whether a disabled person getting £92 a week is a bigger scrounger than a government minister claiming £100,000 in addition to his salary.