Monday, May 17, 2010

Into Coalition-my thoughts

It has been quite a month to be a Liberal Democrat-we find ourselves on a journey none of us predicted.

We can be proud of the campaign we fought both on the ground and in the air. We saw the birth of Cleggmania after Nick's superb performance in the televised debates which caught the public's attention and energised the campaign. I think that we all got caught up in the optimism of the moment which came with the spring sunshine. Liberal Democrat hopes and expectations soared. I even dusted my SDP "the time has come" mug! The Guardian urged readers to support this "Liberal moment".

The results came as a shock-the Liberal Democrats polled the most votes ever (6.8million), the highest share of the votes (23%) but just 57 seats-a net loss of 6. It was as diverse as it was unexpected. We held seats in the south west that the Tories had expected to win, but lost Oxford West and Abingdon; gained Redcar but not Watford; Eastbourne but not Islington South; gained Derby South but lost Rochdale. In Norfolk, Simon Wright ousted Charles Clarke in Norwich South, Norman Lamb increased his majority again in North Norfolk and our vote went up in every consituency in the county. Nationally we gained ground and new 2nd places in many seats and fell behind in others. I was especially pleased to see Naomi Long defeat Northern Ireland first minister, Peter Robinson, for the Alliance in Belfast East and old friend Stephen Twigg who was returned for Labour in Liverpool West Derby.

For the first time since 1974, the country found itself with a hung parliament-the Tories gained 90 odd seats but not given the overall majority they had expected months before; Labour lost 90 seats but avoided meltdown and showed resilience in London and the North. The BNP were destroyed in general election and locals.

My first thought was that a progressive alliance was the answer-the traffic light initiative which I dreamed of. However, there problems: the maths did not add up-any progressive alliance would be unstable; Labour in their hearts and minds were turning their attention to opposition and the election of a new leader. Then the big gamble happened-the Liberal Democrats began negotiations with the Conservative. A minority confidence and supply agreement would have left the Tories able to call a snap election when it suited them.

Instead, a full coalition agreement was agreed- including a referendum on AV (not ideal but better than FPTP), other constitutional reform measures; many of Lib Dem manifesto demands were accepted by the Conservatives-along with 5 cabinet and 15 other governmental posts offered.

For me, the special conference showed how united the party was in the face of this unexpected turn of events. It is an opportunity to step out of the comfort zone of opposition, to put Lib Dem policies into action-that is what I went into politics more. The Lib Dems can liberalise the Conservative agenda. It won't be easy but we need to make it work. Maybe the Liberal moment is here after all.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Nick Clegg's statement on the results of the election

Today Nick Clegg Leader of the Liberal Democrats said that the party with the greatest number of seats and the greatest number of votes was the one which had the mandate to try and form a government.

Last night was a disappointment for the Liberal Democrats. Even though more people voted for us than ever before, even though we had a higher proportion of the vote than ever before, it is of course a source of great regret to me that we have lost some really valued friends and colleagues and we have returned to Parliament with fewer MPs than before.

Many, many people during the election campaign were excited about the prospect of doing something different, but it seems that when they came to vote, many of them, in the end, decided to stick with what they knew best. And at a time of great economic uncertainty, I totally understand those feelings. But that’s not going to stop me from redoubling my efforts and our efforts to show that real change is the best reassurance that things can get better for people and their families, that it shouldn’t be something which unsettles people.

Now we’re in a very fluid political situation with no party enjoying an absolute majority. As I’ve said before, it seems to me in a situation like this, it’s vital that all political parties, all political leaders, act in the national interest, and not out of narrow party political advantage. I’ve also said that whichever party gets the most votes and the most seats, if not an absolute majority, has the first right to seek to govern, either on its own or by reaching out to other parties, and I stick to that view. It seems this morning that it’s the Conservative party that has more votes and more seats, though not an absolute majority, and that is why I think it is now for the Conservative party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest. At the same time, this election campaign has made it abundantly clear that our electoral system is broken, it simply doesn’t reflect the hopes and aspirations of the British people, so I repeat again my assurance, that whatever happens in the coming hours and days and weeks, I will continue to argue not only for the greater fairness in British society, not only the greater responsibility in economic policy making, but also for the extensive, real reforms that we need to fix our broken political system. Thank you very much.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Letter to a Young Activist

The frenetic campaigning is drawing to a close; tomorrow we do our democratic duty and as a community deliver our verdict so it seems a good time to pause and reflect. In my politics and ministry, I have always been challenged and encouraged by the following words of wisdom from Thomas Merton's LETTER TO A YOUNG ACTIVIST.

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually as you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell you the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them, but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your even thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come, not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth; and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand . . .

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Values to guide voters

The Norfolk and Waveney Church Leaders have issued a joint statement on the values which they believe should guide voters in the General Election.

General Election - 6th May 2010

A Statement from the Church Leaders of Norfolk and Waveney

On 6th May the people of Norfolk and Waveney will choose our representatives in Parliament at the General Election. Five years ago almost four in ten of those registered to vote did not do so. As Church Leaders in this area we encourage everyone to exercise their right to vote and to do so with the wellbeing of all people in our communities in mind.

The Churches in our area have hosted some of the best attended hustings during this election campaign and have done so in service to the wider community. The same area’s tradition of hospitality is well reflected in this area’s notable history of welcoming people fleeing persecution elsewhere in Europe, sometimes on religious grounds. As Christian leaders in this generation we believe that living together with mutual respect remains the foundation of a civilised society. All human beings are created equally in the image of God. That is why racism is a sin. Christ calls us to love our neighbours as ourselves and in this forthcoming election we believe it is right to be vigilant about any party or individual candidate seeking to use people’s fears for their own wellbeing to stir racial or religious hatred.

Inevitably this is an election taking place when people are anxious about their jobs, finances and future. We pray that the best and most generous traditions of our national life will guide all voters on May 6th.

The Rt. Revd. Michael Evans, Bishop of East Anglia (Roman Catholic)
Major David Jackson, Divisional Commander, Anglia Division of the Salvation Army
The Rt. Revd. Graham James, Bishop of Norwich (Church of England)
The Revd. Richard Lewis, Regional Minister, Baptist Union of Great Britain
John Myhill, Norfolk Representative of the Society of Friends
The Revd. Graham Thompson, Chair, East Anglia District of the Methodist Church
The Revd. Paul Whittle, Moderator, Eastern Province, United Reformed Church

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Guardian is urging readers to vote for the Liberal Democrats on Thursday; reward for a fantastic and inspirational campaign led so well by Nick Clegg in the TV debates and on the ground with a strong team of candidates and growing band of helpers. The tide is turning.

2010 has a different feel to 1997. In 1997 the voters clearly wanted the Tories out but there was also huge positive momentum behind Tony Blair and New Labour. In 2010, the public wants change again, but there is not the same groundswell of support for David Cameron and his party which may use different words and images but underneath are the same old Tories. I can remember being at school, then a student and for a short while unemployed under the Conservatives and saw at first-hand the consequences of Thatcher's divisive and alienating policies-not the party you would trust to lead us out of recession.

2010 must be an election of real change. Not just replacing a tired Labour Government with an unimaginative Tory one and the same old politics; but real change-of our outdated political system-fair voting, a properly reformed House of Lords, fixed term parliaments, real freedom of information, real accountable localism not top down decree; principled foreign policy and striving for peace not illegal war; protecting welfare services and sound economic policy led by a trusted Chancellor.

The enemies of change from the right-wing press to those who claim a divine right to rule us may want to stop us and try to scare; but I for one will be proud to vote Liberal Democrat on Thursday.

Here is that Guardian leader in full:

General election 2010
The liberal moment has come

If the Guardian had a vote it would be cast enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats. But under our discredited electoral system some people may – hopefully for the last time – be forced to vote tactically

Citizens have votes. Newspapers do not. However, if the Guardian had a vote in the 2010 general election it would be cast enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats. It would be cast in the knowledge that not all the consequences are predictable, and that some in particular should be avoided. The vote would be cast with some important reservations and frustrations. Yet it would be cast for one great reason of principle above all.

After the campaign that the Liberal Democrats have waged over this past month, for which considerable personal credit goes to Nick Clegg, the election presents the British people with a huge opportunity: the reform of the electoral system itself. Though Labour has enjoyed a deathbed conversion to aspects of the cause of reform, it is the Liberal Democrats who have most consistently argued that cause in the round and who, after the exhaustion of the old politics, reflect and lead an overwhelming national mood for real change.

Proportional representation – while not a panacea – would at last give this country what it has lacked for so long: a parliament that is a true mirror of this pluralist nation, not an increasingly unrepresentative two-party distortion of it. The Guardian has supported proportional representation for more than a century. In all that time there has never been a better opportunity than now to put this subject firmly among the nation's priorities. Only the Liberal Democrats grasp this fully, and only they can be trusted to keep up the pressure to deliver, though others in all parties, large and small, do and should support the cause. That has been true in past elections too, of course. But this time is different. The conjuncture in 2010 of a Labour party that has lost so much public confidence and a Conservative party that has not yet won it has enabled Mr Clegg to take his party close to the threshold of real influence for the first time in nearly 90 years.

This time – with the important caveat set out below – the more people who vote Liberal Democrat on 6 May, the greater the chance that this will be Britain's last general election under a first-past-the-post electoral system which is wholly unsuited to the political needs of a grown-up 21st-century democracy.

Tactical option

The pragmatic caveat concerns the danger that, under the existing electoral system, switching to the Liberal Democrats in Labour-Conservative marginal constituencies might let in an anti-reform Tory party. So, voters who share this principled enthusiasm for securing the largest possible number of Liberal Democrat MPs next Thursday must, in many constituencies, weigh the tactical option of supporting Labour to prevent a Conservative win.

Hopefully, if this really is the last election under the old system, such dilemmas between head and heart will apply less in future. For now, however, the cause of reform is overwhelmingly more likely to be achieved by a Lib Dem partnership of principle with Labour than by a Lib Dem marriage of convenience with a Tory party which is explicitly hostile to the cause and which currently plans to redraw the political map for its own advantage. The momentum for change would be fatally undermined should the Conservatives win an overall majority. The Liberal Democrats and Labour should, of course, have explored much earlier and more explicitly how they might co-operate to reform the electoral system. During the campaign, and especially since the final leaders' debate, the appetite for co-operation has clearly increased and is increasing still. Mr Clegg's Guardian interview today underscores the potential for more productive engagement with Labour and is matched by fresh, untribal thinking from his potential partners.

This election is about serious choices between three main parties which all have something to offer. David Cameron has done what none of his immediate predecessors has understood or tried to do: he has confronted the Conservative party with the fact that it was out of step with the country. He has forced the party to become more diverse and to engage with centre-ground opinion. He has explicitly aligned himself with the liberal Conservative tradition which the Thatcherites so despised during their long domination of the party. He has promoted modern thinking on civil liberty, the environment and aspects of social policy.

Mr Cameron offers a new and welcome Toryism, quite different from what Michael Howard offered five years ago. His difficulty is not that he is the "same old Tory". He isn't. The problem is that his revolution has not translated adequately into detailed policies, and remains highly contradictory. He embraces liberal Britain yet protests that Britain is broken because of liberal values. He is eloquent about the overmighty state but proposes to rip up the Human Rights Act which is the surest weapon against it. He talks about a Britain that will play a constructive role in Europe while aligning the Tories in the European parliament with some of the continent's wackier xenophobes. Behind the party leader's own engagement with green issues there stands a significant section of his party that still regards global warming as a liberal conspiracy.

The Tories have zigzagged through the financial crisis to an alarming degree, austerity here, spending pledges there. At times they have argued, against all reason, that Britain's economic malaise is down to overblown government, as opposed to the ravages of the market. Though the Conservatives are not uniquely evasive on the deficit, a large inheritance-tax cut for the very wealthy is the reverse of a serious "united and equal" approach to taxation. Small wonder that the Cameronisation of the Conservative party sometimes seems more palace coup than cultural revolution. A Cameron government might not be as destructive to Britain as the worst Tory regimes of the past. But it is not the right course for Britain.

If this election were a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives – which it absolutely is not – the country would be safer in the hands of Labour than of the Tories. Faced in 2008 with a financial crisis unprecedented in modern times, whose destructive potential can hardly be exaggerated, the Labour government made some absolutely vital calls at a time which exposed the Conservatives as neoliberals, not novices. Whether Labour has truly learned the right lessons itself is doubtful. Labour is, after all, the party that nurtured the deregulatory systems which contributed to the implosion of the financial sector, on which the entire economy was too reliant. How, and even whether, British capitalism can be directed towards a better balance between industry and finance is a question which remains work in progress for Labour, as for us all. At the highest levels of the party, timidity and audacity remain in conflict. Nevertheless, Labour, and notably Alistair Darling, a palpably honest chancellor who has had to play the most difficult hand of any holder of his office in modern times, deserves respect for proving equal to the hour. Only the most churlish would deny the prime minister some credit for his role in the handling of the crisis.

Labour's failings

But this election is more than a verdict on the response to a single trauma, immense though it was. It is also a verdict on the lengthening years of Labour government and the three years of Gordon Brown's premiership. More than that, any election is also a judgment about the future as well as a verdict on the past. A year ago, the Guardian argued that Labour should persuade its leader to step down. Shortly afterwards, in spite of polling an abject 15.7% in the European elections, and with four cabinet ministers departing, Labour chose to hug Mr Brown close. It was the wrong decision then, and it is clear, not least after his humiliation in Rochdale this week, that it is the wrong decision now. The Guardian said a year ago that Mr Brown had failed to articulate a vision, a plan, or an argument for the future. We said that he had become incapable of leading the necessary revolution against the political system that the expenses scandal had triggered. Labour thought differently. It failed to act. It thereby lost the opportunity to renew itself, and is now facing the consequences.

Invited to embrace five more years of a Labour government, and of Gordon Brown as prime minister, it is hard to feel enthusiasm. Labour's kneejerk critics can sometimes sound like the People's Front of Judea asking what the Romans have ever done for us. The salvation of the health service, major renovation of schools, the minimum wage, civil partnerships and the extension of protection for minority groups are heroic, not small achievements.

Yet, even among those who wish Labour well, the reservations constantly press in. Massive, necessary and in some cases transformational investment in public services insufficiently matched by calm and principled reform, sometimes needlessly entangled with the private sector. Recognition of gathering generational storms on pensions, public debt, housing and – until very recently – climate change not addressed by clear strategies and openness with the public about the consequences. The inadequately planned pursuit of two wars. A supposedly strong and morally focused foreign policy which remains trapped in the great-power, nuclear-weapon mentality, blindly uncritical of the United States, mealy-mouthed about Europe and tarnished by the shame of Iraq – still not apologised for. Allegations of British embroilment in torture answered with little more than a world-weary sigh. Large talk about constitutional change matched by an addiction to centralisation. Easy talk about liberty and "British values" while Britain repeatedly ratchets up the criminal justice system, repeatedly encroaches on civil liberties, undermines legal aid and spends like there is no tomorrow on police and prisons. Apparent outrage against the old politics subverted by delay, caution and timid compromise.

There are reservations too, though of a different order and on different subjects, about the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats are a very large party now, with support across the spectrum. But they remain in some respects a party of the middle and lower middle classes. Labour's record on poverty remains unmatched, and its link to the poor remains umbilical. Vince Cable, so admirable and exemplary on the banks, nevertheless remains a deficit hawk, committed to tax cuts which could imply an even deeper slashing of public services. Though the party has good policies on equality, it has not prioritised the promotion and selection of women and ethnic minority candidates.

Matched priorities

Surveying the wider agenda and the experience of the past decade, however, there is little doubt that in many areas of policy and tone, the Liberal Democrats have for some time most closely matched our own priorities and instincts. On political and constitutional change, they articulate and represent the change which is now so widely wanted. On civil liberty and criminal justice, they have remained true to liberal values and human rights in ways that the other parties, Labour more than the Tories in some respects, have not. They are less tied to reactionary and sectional class interests than either of the other parties.

The Liberal Democrats were green before the other parties and remain so. Their commitment to education is bred in the bone. So is their comfort with a European project which, for all its flaws, remains central to this country's destiny. They are willing to contemplate a British defence policy without Trident renewal. They were right about Iraq, the biggest foreign policy judgment call of the past half-century, when Labour and the Tories were both catastrophically and stupidly wrong. They have resisted the rush to the overmighty centralised state when others have not. At key moments, when tough issues of press freedom have been at stake, they have been the first to rally in support. Above all, they believe in and stand for full, not semi-skimmed, electoral reform. And they have had a revelatory campaign. Trapped in the arid, name-calling two-party politics of the House of Commons, Nick Clegg has seldom had the chance to shine. Released into the daylight of equal debate, he has given the other two parties the fright of their lives.

A newspaper that is proudly rooted in the liberal as well as the labour tradition – and whose advocacy of constitutional reform stretches back to the debates of 1831-32 – cannot ignore such a record. If not now, when? The answer is clear and proud. Now.