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Friday, May 22, 2015

The unchecked illiberal instincts of top Tories continue to surface

David Cameron may well be seeking to pin the blame on the Liberal Democrats for spiralling immigration figures but it is hardly credible that a net influx of 318,000 people into our country can be laid entirely at the door of a Business Secretary determined to ensure that Universities are able to continue to recruit foreign students, that hospitals can get the skilled professionals they require and that business is able to fill the specialist roles it needs to generate wealth.

As the Liberal Democrat spokesperson says: “The Tories promised to cut net migration to tens of thousands and failed spectacularly.

"We told them their target was a stupid idea but they were more concerned about sounding tough than actually tackling illegal immigration.

"Their ideological zeal meant they actually tried to kick out foreign students and force landlords to act as border guards to meet their target, both of which we blocked.

"Instead of playing the blame game, Theresa May should admit she got it wrong and recognise the vast majority of immigrants actually contribute to our economy."

The latest incarnation of an unchecked Home Secretary however, has even her own colleagues recoiling at the way her proposals are infringing on hard-won freedoms.

As the Guardian reports, Theresa May's plan to introduce counter-extremism powers so as to vet British broadcasters’ programmes before they are transmitted has been attacked in the bluntest terms as a threat to freedom of speech by one of her own Conservative cabinet colleagues.

They say that Sajid Javid wrote to David Cameron, in a letter sent just before the start of the general election campaign to tell him that, as culture secretary, he was unable to support Theresa May’s proposal to give Ofcom the new powers to take pre-emptive action against programmes that included “extremist content":

Javid, who moved from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to become business secretary after the election, said the plan would move Ofcom from a regulator “into the role of a censor”. It would involve “a fundamental shift in the way UK broadcasting is regulated”, moving away from the current framework of post-transmission regulation which takes account of freedom of expression, he said.

The leaked memo from the then culture secretary came in response to a request made by May on 6 March to ministers on the cabinet’s home affairs committee and the national security committee. She was seeking clearance for publication of her extremism strategy, which included the broadcasters’ censorship proposal.

It is not clear exactly what the outcome was following Javid’s objection. Next week’s Queen’s speech is expected include loosely specified powers to “strengthen the role of Ofcom to take action against channels which broadcast extremist content” according to a statement released by Downing Street last week.

The last time anybody tried something like this it was Margaret Thatcher's ill-thought through idea of telling broadcasters to deny terrorists the “oxygen of publicity”. The ban on broadcasting interviews with proscribed organisations in Northern Ireland led to a full-scale row over a BBC decision to broadcast an extended interview with Martin McGuinness. That led to a journalists’ strike and, two years later, the resignation of the director general. And of course the broadcasters got around the ban by using actors to read out the lines.

Now that Sajid Javed no longer has the Culture brief it will be interesting to see who will stand in the way of May's proposals to censor our television broadcasts. Who would have thought that the Tories, unchecked by the Liberal Democrats for the first time in 5 years, would revert to type so quickly and start to undermine our democracy and our freedom of thought so drastically?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Have the Tories started to unravel over Europe already?

David Cameron's slim majority may well be enough to see him through the next five years, but it is doubtful that the path will be a smooth one.

Many Tories remember vividly the internecine fighting and plotting that marred the John Major government. The odds are that this new Conservative administration, elected with a clear manifesto pledge to hold an in-out referendum on Europe could go the same way.

Indeed, the Guardian is already publishing articles warning that Cameron could lose Cabinet members during the referendum campaign. They say that government sources believe Cameron would need to devise a mechanism to deal with highly Eurosceptic ministers if he wants to avoid a damaging split. That may involve allowing cabinet members to follow their conscience and campaign for a no vote in the EU referendum:

There are increasing suspicions among Eurosceptics that the prime minister is determined to keep Britain in the EU – and some cabinet figures are suggesting that he could allow ministers to resign from the government for the duration of the referendum.

This would give ministers the chance to campaign for a no vote but would allow the prime minister to say he was acting differently to Harold Wilson, who avoided a split in the Labour party by allowing ministers to campaign on either side in the 1975 EEC referendum.

One cabinet source said: “The party will obviously be split. Some will try and influence the negotiations; others will just wait for the referendum and be ready for the no campaign.”

It does not bode well for party management when the Prime Minister cannot rely on his cabinet colleagues to back him in his position on a key area of policy. No wonder Cameron was reluctant to serve a third term. He may be lucky to survive his second.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

UKIP at odds with itself

UKIP claim to be different to other parties. In reality they are not. However, if this newspaper article in  the Telegraph is to be believed they have invented a new form of in-fighting, one where the leader plots against himself.

The paper quotes the UK Independence Party's deputy chairman, Suzanne Evans, who has denied that she or others planned a coup for the party leadership. Instead she says that Farage was undermining himself. It is not clear as to whether he was aware of this at the time:

"The only person that's ever plotted against Nigel Farage's leadership is Nigel Farage himself, by offering to resign if he didn't win his Westminster seat," Miss Evans told the BBC on Wednesday.

Farage, himself continues to insist that his party is still united:

Mr Farage said: "What has happened in Ukip is since the election, after the pressure cooker atmosphere of the campaign office, one or two regrettable things were said and done by a very small number of people.

"I’ll tell you where this leaves Ukip going into this referendum campaign, unlike the other parties: united. 100 per cent united."

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We have for over 20 years fought hard to make the EU an issue, we were told we were the mad men from the hills for even considering whether Britain could have a future outside political union and we now have a referendum on the subject.
"We are united, the other parties are very, very divided."

Well if the activity we have all witnessed over the last two weeks amounts to a united party I need to get a new dictionary.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The strange death of coalition Britain

This article was first published on the IWA website yesterday:

For hose of us who have been in politics for a long time, May 7 was like Dejá Vu all over again.

In 1992 the country had been spooked by the thought of a coalition government and in the last few days had decided they would rather keep the devil they knew. On Thursday it seemed that the last minute rush for the safety of majority government happened in the final 24 hours and took all of us by surprise.

Personally, I had thought it would be very different. That was largely because I took comfort in the individual constituency polling conducted by Lord Ashcroft and my own party that suggested that the reputation of sitting MPs and tactical voting would help the Liberal Democrats survive with a reduced but still significant Parliamentary rump.

Although some had suggested that there would be a 1992-style surge to the Tories, my assumption had been that it would be very different. I reasoned that the country had now seen that coalitions could work, that despite many controversial issues and problems the Liberal Democrats had done a reasonable job in keeping the Tory right in check and had a good story to tell about what they had achieved.

It was my view that if there was a last minute surge then it would be to the Liberal Democrats, so as to ensure that in a no overall majority Parliament, there would be some consistency and stability in any future coalition.

Speaking to people afterwards, it seems that many agreed with me that the Liberal Democrats had been a restraining force for the good. Unfortunately, the uncertainty caused by polls that showed that a future government might have to consist of three or more parties, possibly including UKIP or the SNP, caused them to opt for the Tories in large numbers.

That decision was helped along by the huge amount of money being thrown at marginal constituencies by the Tories, including many held by the Liberal Democrats. People in these areas were receiving weekly missives from the Conservatives using paid for delivery, starting well before Christmas. That does not come cheaply.

In these circumstances the decision by the Liberal Democrats campaign team to start issuing negotiating red lines and to talk up future coalitions became self-defeating. We were no longer talking about our own values and policies, but about power and compromise. We were asking people to vote for us as second best to other parties. If anything that seems to have accelerated our demise at the polls.

The extraordinary surge in membership that the Liberal Democrats have experienced in the last few days shows that for many there is still a role for liberalism in this country. It is worth quoting from an article by one new member as to why he took the plunge and came back to the party:

'I have decided it is time to stand up. Stand up for a party that has done great things over the past five years. After the torrid election results we need to regroup, rethink, and refocus our collective efforts to pursue a fair, free and tolerant society. We need to learn some lessons from the past five years, admit what went wrong, yet fundamentally be proud for the principles that set us apart. Nick Clegg led the party to an immense surge in support. He and other MPs made some mistakes. We must admit that and move on.’

That seems to reflect the views of many people who have now decided to take the plunge and join the Liberal Democrats. But where do we go from here? And what lessons do the Liberal Democrats need to draw from last Thursday’s debacle for the Assembly elections in 12 months’time?

The Welsh Liberal Democrats group in the Assembly has consistently hit above its weight. We are widely acknowledged to be effective and cohesive and with a leader who makes Ministers sit up and listen. We have negotiated to have government implement many Liberal Democrats policies including the pupil deprivation grant, reduced travel for 16 and 17 year olds and an extra 5,000 apprenticeships over the next five years. We have been instrumental in ensuring that Wales has stable government.

We have also used our opportunity in government in the UK to significantly advance the devolution agenda, paving the way for a new Wales Act and a funding floor that will guarantee fair funding for the future. That is a good message to sell in 2016.

We need to ensure that we formulate clear messages based on our values of social justice community and empowerment. And we need to get back out there now and start campaigning on those messages and on our record.

Thursday May 7th may have been a set-back for the Liberal Democrats, but we have been there before and we have rebuilt and come back before. The Assembly elections are an important staging post in that process. The party may have been dumped on its backside last week but we are already back on our feet and spoiling for the fight

Monday, May 18, 2015

Some practical questions about the Tories determination to repeal the Human Rights Act

Putting to one side the very strong moral and philosophical reasons why Britain needs to retain the Human Rights Act and stay signed up to the ECHR, today's Independent features more basic questions posed by former Tory Attorney General, Dominic Grieve.

Mr Grieve's main question is what exactly the Conservative Party is trying to achieve through its plan to replace the Human Rights Act with a new British Bill of Rights? He has urged a period of consultation ahead of a review before any changes are made and has warned that the reputational consequences for Britain would be “very considerable” if it were to abolish the Act:

The Tory MP also insisted there is no “quick fix” because the Act is “well embedded” in the constitutional settlements that underpin devolution, making it difficult to do anything against the wishes of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments. He told Sky News’ Murnaghan show yesterday that the Supreme Court is “already supreme” and suggested the Government was promising something that already exists. “It’s not at all clear as to what we are trying to achieve,” he said.

He also pointed out that leaving the European Convention on Human Rights would not make it easier to remove people from the UK, because the problems in doing so are often down to other countries refusing to take them.

In many ways these practical issues are our best hope of keeping the Act in situ. Sometimes in Goverrnment, it is not enough to just have a majority. You have to work to a sensible and deliverable agenda as well.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Unions poised to dominate Labour leadership race

After Jim Murphy's parting shot yesterday at Unite boss, Len McCluskey, the Sunday Times reports on claims that unions are trying to “hijack” the leadership election, bulldoze the Blairites out of the way and install their preferred candidate, Andy Burnham.

They say that Labour MPs have followed the example of the former Scottish Labouir leader and have broken cover to denounce the leadership rules as worthy of “a banana republic”. They have accused union allies in parliament of “bullying” MPs into backing Burnham rather than Blairite contender Liz Kendall:

Unite has launched a phone-bank drive to convince its members to become “affiliate members” of Labour so they can vote in the election.
John Mann, the MP for Bassetlaw, complained that the rules were “open to abuse” since union members did not have to personally pay £3 to become affiliates of the Labour party like those who signed up as registered supporters. Union bosses do not have to pass on the phone numbers of those they sign up but can use them to lobby for their chosen candidates.
“It is not a level playing field,” Mann said. “It is giving preferential access. This is in many ways worse than what they did with the Miliband election — when what they did was banana republic stuff.”
Barry Sheerman, the MP for Huddersfield, warned that new MPs were being intimidated. Last week he tweeted that “Unite heavies are leaning on MPs” to block Kendall. This weekend he said: “One new MP said, ‘What am I supposed to do when I am told that if I cross certain people it is the end of my career?’
“I did not join the Labour party for this sort of behaviour. This has got to be seen as an absolutely clean and open election. It has to be seen as an election that nobody can hijack.We don’t want to go through this whole process and then feel it was not a legitimate election.”
Alan Milburn, a former cabinet minister, said: “The Labour party ought to mobilise to ensure that the only new electors in this leadership election are not just those mobilised by the trade unions.”
Assem Allam, a big donor, said: “We don’t need people . . . supported by the unions. If you continue going to the country with your party as a maxi-trade union, forget it — you lose again.” 

Labour are starting to resemble an episode from Game of Thrones. It is all far more civilised in the Liberal Democrats!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Tory rebellion grows on reform of Human Rights Act

David Cameron's determination to repeal the Human Rights Act withdraw from the ECHR is not going to be without its difficulties. According to today's Guardian there is a growing rebellion amongst backbench Tory MPs against the proposal.

The paper says that Conservative MP David Davis, a prominent Eurosceptic, has threatened to rebel against any legislation that could lead to the UK withdrawing from the European court of human rights:

Davis’s reported comments are a sign of growing rebellion on the Tory backbenches as the complexity and political difficulties involved in seceding from the judicial authority of the Strasbourg court become increasingly apparent to the government.

The former justice minister Ken Clarke and former attorney general Dominic Grieve QC – both re-elected to the Commons last week – have in the past warned about the danger of defying decisions handed down by ECHR judges on the grounds that it would undermine respect for the rule of law across Europe.

Davis, the MP for Haltemprice and Howden, told his local paper, the Hull Daily Mail: “I’m afraid we will come into conflict with the European court and I don’t want us to leave it. If we leave, it’s an excuse for everyone else to leave. So I think that could be quite an interesting argument, come the day. I think it is more likely there will be an argument over that than over Europe.”

Like Clarke and Grieve, Davis says he is in favour of reform but opposes unilateral withdrawal from the ECHR – one of the likely consequences of the party’s draft bill of rights.

Separately, in an open letter to the prime minister the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute points out that Tory proposals for a British bill of rights will limit the application of human rights laws to the “most serious cases” and exclude those “who do not fulfil their responsibilities in society”. Their intervention adds to a growing list of rights groups opposing the move.

The Tories only have a majority of 12. I have a sense that this fight is winnable and that we can save the Human Rights Act, or at the very least keep Britain within the European Court.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Farage loses his grip

To be honest I really didn't want to write about UKIP for some time but it is unavoidable. We are all being drawn into watching the very public car crash that Nigel Farage's leadership is becoming.

Today's Times reports that the UKIP leader is now falling back on claims that he has “an astonishing level of support in the party” despite a plea from one of the party’s biggest donors for him to resign.

The paper says that Farage had earlier performed a rare climbdown, relinquishing two of his right-hand men in a day of turmoil after his campaign director branded him “snarling, thin-skinned [and] aggressive” in an interview with The Times:

Ukip officials began ringing MEPs and asking them to sign a letter of support for Mr Farage in what some described as the biggest implosion in the party’s 22-year history.

Stuart Wheeler, a spread-betting tycoon who has given £600,000 to Ukip, led calls for Mr Farage to resign. “I would like him to step down, at least for the moment,” Mr Wheeler said. “And if he wants to put himself up in an election, then he has every right to do so, though I personally would prefer somebody else now.”

Hugh Williams, the party’s co-treasurer, warned that Mr Farage’s leadership risked making the party look like a one-man band. “There has to come a time — and I think that time is probably now — when he has to let the party stand on its own two feet,” he said.

Personality-cults rarely work out in the long-run.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The campaign to save the Human Rights Act is underway

Over at the Western Mail, Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader, Kirsty Williams argues that the new UK Government’s desire to repeal the Human Rights Act could prompt the first constitutional crisis of the parliamentary term,.

She points out that the Act is embedded in Wales’ devolution settlement and it is unlikely that Assembly Members here will want to lose it:

“The new Conservative Government is trying to deprive Welsh people of their human rights. As things stand, elderly people who are in conflict with a local authority over the care they receive can use this legislation to fight their case.

“If the Conservatives got away with taking away these rights, we would be worse off.

“But because the Human Rights is embedded in the Government of Wales Act 2006, it is not so easy for them.

“Under the Sewel Convention, the UK Government should ask the Assembly’s permission to remove the Human Rights Act from the Government of Wales Act.

“I’m sure the majority of AMs would not agree to that.”

I am sure Scotland is as equally determined.

In the Independent, Shami Chakrabarti makes a very powerful argument as to why we need to fight tooth and nail to keep this legislation. She says that the so-called “British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” is an incredibly dangerous confidence trick:

The omission of “human” and addition of “British” suggests this isn’t about “injecting common sense”. At best, it’s empty pandering to xenophobia.

It undermines the universality of human rights, which earlier generations paid for with their lives, and allows any government to pick when they apply, and to whom.

She adds that the pledge to stop those who pose a national security risk or have entered the UK illegally from relying on “questionable human rights claims” is a headline-grabber that will turn us into a country happy to deliver other humans, however detestable, into the hands of torturers. It is a pledge that will ignore innocent British children’s rights when considering deporting their parents:

The Bill will also limit the use of human rights laws to the “most serious cases”, with “trivial cases” excluded. Rosa Parks refuses to go to the back of the bus; your dying mum waits hours to be helped to the toilet in her care home. Should politicians decide what is a “trivial case”? I think not.

The obvious and menacing conclusion is this: if the Council of Europe doesn’t agree the Bill is a legitimate way of applying the Convention, the Government will pull out of that too. Churchill’s post-war legacy, drafted by great Conservative legal minds, tossed to the wind.

Repercussions for our shakily united kingdom will be seismic, as the HRA underpins the Good Friday Agreement and the Scotland Act. But the aftershocks will be global; despots in eastern Europe and beyond must be rubbing their hands in glee. If the UK doesn’t care about fundamental rights, why should they?

Human rights are for everyone and must be protected with the law at home and abroad. Because what politics gives, it can also take away.

It is no good asking whether the Tories have thought this through, they clearly have not. The bigger question is how we have ended up with a government that does not understand the basic concept of human rights nor the historical context in which the European Convention works.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

UKIP fight over the spoils

I am always astonished at how quickly we settle back into familiar political patterns of behaviour once a General Election is out of the way. This is especially true of UKIP who apparently cannot help themselves.

The Times reports that a furious row has broken out at UKIP over the party’s plans for millions of pounds of public money secured after its record election result.  They say that Douglas Carswell, the party’s only MP, has said that UKIP should not take the full £650,000-a-year windfall that it is entitled to after winning 3.9 million votes:

Party officials, however, argue that they have a duty to represent the millions of people who voted for the party and should make the use of all available resources to do so.

They are said to have taken a proposal to Mr Carswell yesterday to hire 15 members of staff to perform research and conduct administrative work.

He has sought to block the proposal. The MP told The Times: “I am not a senator, for goodness’ sake. I don’t need 15 staff.”

He has said that Ukip should accept just £350,000, arguing that it would be hypocritical for the anti-establishment party to “get on the gravy train”.

The public funding, known as Short Money, is granted by Commons authorities to help opposition parties with their parliamentary work.

Tensions between Mr Carswell, a former Conservative MP, and his new party have reached new lows in recent days since the resignation and subsequent reinstatement of Nigel Farage as party leader.

Following Mr Farage’s resignation from the role last week after he failed to win his own South Thanet seat, the MP for Clacton made clear that he thought the party should make a fresh start under a new leader.

He said that Ukip was “not a one-man show” and that the party members “need to reflect”.

He was informed of Monday’s decision by the Ukip national executive to return Mr Farage to the helm by a journalist, and was furious that no one in the party had told him.

Of course as Mr Carswell is the party's only MP he has an advantage in the latest row. Were he to become so furious with his new party that he chose to become an independent or defect to another party, Ukip would no longer be eligible for the money. This could become interesting.

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