Monday, March 26, 2007

LDYS: Return Of The Readership

A funny thing happened to this blog last October, as reader numbers soared for three particular entries about the state of LDYS following its Autumn Conference in Colchester. In the spirit of giving the people what they want, I shall hope to provide the same service for LDYS Spring Conference 2007, held in Bristol on the weekend.

In terms of the actual business of the weekend, we had a diverse range of speakers, including Stephen Williams MP, Tony Vickers (ALTER), John Bridges (ALDC) and Martin Tod (Wired Group), plus a Manifesto consultation session with Steve Webb MP (who, perhaps scarily, recognises me from Facebook…)

The policy debates were fruitful, the headline being a commitment to Land Value Taxation as a replacement for Council Tax (and yes, Tony Vickers did speak immediately before that motion was discussed but that was entirely coincidental!). Topical motions denouncing Robert Mugabe, Gordon Brown and Rupert Murdoch were also carried; indeed, the only motion to fail was a proposal for short-term renationalisation of train operating companies to facilitate future systemic reforms (and I’m sure regular readers will have no trouble working out who wrote that motion ;)

At this point, I’m painfully aware of the now-legendary warning LDYS once received from Lord Shutt of Greetland, namely “beware those who use constitutions as a substitute for sex”. Nevertheless, the most important piece of news from conference is that LDYS adopted a new constitution. But while we must savour the joy of passing a motion that includes the section;

Conference Resolves:
1. To delete the Standing Orders
2. To delete the Constitution and replace

The true importance of this constitution is not what it is, but what it is not…

To explain, at Spring Conference 2006 LDYS’s executive brought proposals, with essentially zero notice, to reform the constitutional amendment procedure so as to facilitate a complete review. Although the measure succeeded, the plan on which it was based (which included calling two special conferences to occur consecutively on the same day!) failed to materialise.

At Autumn Conference 2006, another proposal was brought at no notice, this time by way of a policy motion giving a mandate to the Executive to investigate and execute certain changes to LDYS’s systems and strategy. Although that motion failed, a desire to effect substantial change was clearly stated.

Soon after, LDYS VP Adam Killeya noticed that, having changed our procedures, the only difference between the Constitution and the Standing Orders was their name. As one of the most experienced users of the document, he embarked on a complete rewrite, to combine the two and tighten the package as a whole. A team including Merryn Pearce, Chris Nelson and myself weighed in, and the new document was published for consultation in January and passed nem con at Bristol.

None of that delivers the structural reform that many are calling for. But until we have firm proposals from them, nothing can deliver those. I understand that there are some valid reasons for that at this stage, and I’m sure those involved are acting in good faith, but I think two comments must be placed on record. First, governing is done by those who show up; if things fail to happen, the credibility of the reform efforts will be shot to hell.

More importantly, however, the proposals must be concrete. My experience of LDYS has very much been that there is a cultural fear of professionalism and of organisation; those elected to lead seem very much to want to be given carte blanche to do fluffy things and be trusted to do them. I have no objection to people wanting to do fluffy things, but I also want a guarantee that those functions that LDYS is duty-bound to fulfil are being fulfilled.

Ultimately, LDYS is a significant component in both membership and finances of the Federal Party and has responsibilities with significant legal repercussions to the Federal Party; you cannot manage an organisation of that size from the back of a fag packet. I want to see reform, I want to see us improve, but that has to be done in a manageable, accountable fashion. I truly hope that the process that is to follow will be thorough and inclusive, as we have been let down too often in the past.

PS As I’m certain it will appear nowhere else on the web, I’d like to give credit to those who did so much to deliver conference. At the host end, Nigel Smith, Jon Massey, Dan Aylen, Matt Wilkes and many other whose names I forget; from the LDYS office, Paul Pettinger; and from Conference and Steering Committees, Amanda Crane, Mark Mills, Adam Killeya, Merryn Pearce and the legend that is Simon Drage.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Another Day In Dacreland

So, I was having this row with my girlfriend...

Bad territory for the blog to open on, I’m sure, but bear with me. The row in question, on a Sunday night wandering back to her place from the cinema, was on the possibility of applying pressure on the chain chemists to publicly back legalisation of cannabis (on the basis that they are the most likely candidates for the “government regulated centres” we all talk about and it’s probably only worth a few billion pounds a year to them)

It’s worth noting at this stage that my dear girlfriend is a Politics undergraduate. This is not something that facilitates harmonious discussion of policy between us, given my tendency towards technocracy. Having no background in political theory or existentialist philosophy (something a girlfriend with a mild Sartre obsession finds abnormally important), I am deemed insufficiently skilled in the arts of rhetoric and, which is worse, insufficiently grounded in the realpolitik.

So anyway, there we were going back and forth on the relative effects on shareholder opinion of media reaction and cold, hard cash when it occurred to me that the argument she was making was really just the dominant political argument of the last thirty years, namely;

“We can’t do that! What would the Daily Mail say?”

I know that the characterisation is not exactly fair; after all, the Daily Express would be just as bad if they didn’t have Princess Di to be obsessed about…

The question stands though, and has become steadily more relevant, not least since ITV abandoned serious journalism in favour of becoming the televisual arm of the Mail (and while we’re on that bit of allusion, let’s give thought to how much better the service would be if Mark Austin actually did wear a balaclava and hold an AK47 throughout each broadcast…) Hateful as the whole idea is, however, I don’t actually resent having to deal with it; the state of play is the state of play.

What I object to is the idea that the problems are the first thing I have to deal with. There is a massive logical difference between deciding your position and adapting it to political reality, and deciding what is politically feasible and adapting it to your theoretical position. New Labour crossed that line in 1994 and it is the thing that has killed them ever since; David Cameron led the Tories across last year and it will kill them too.

I mention all this because I’m so delighted by We Can Cut Crime, just as a reminder that we still do policy the right way, by deciding what needs to be done and seeing how to do it. We will be attacked for it, undoubtedly, but by people who in their subconscious will be deeply jealous that we are able to.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What Do We Want? Erm…

And lo it came to pass that the legislators of the land came together in the House of the People and decided that they didn’t have a ******* clue what they wanted. Songs are unlikely to be sung about it…

I’ve been trying not to write about constitutional reform, for three reasons. In the first instance, it’s far too introvertedly Lib Demmic for its own good; in the second, my ideas on the subject are radical to the extent that they make Chris Davies seem positively sane. But fundamentally there’s very little point getting into a debate about reform when most of the participants are resolutely stuck in the past.

Because when it comes down to it, all the work done on the subject by Parliament is based on the idea that the ancient primacy of the House of Commons is a sacred tradition that must be preserved. Which is fine, but it fails to pass my “Single Sarcastic Sentence” test, as in this example;

“An elected second chamber might challenge the power of the Commons? Well someone ******* has to!”

That any parliamentarian seriously thinks a watered-down elected second chamber is acceptable is nothing short of insulting to a country that has lived through ten years of New Labour execuslation. But as ever, veneration for our decrepit constitution defeats any chance of actual good governance.

Ming had it absolutely spot-on when discussing the effects of devolution last year; you cannot change individual elements in a constitution and hope it will sort itself out. The approach must be holistic, and we as a party must ensure that we have a holistic solution when the time comes.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Principles ± 3%

One of the things that continues to fascinate me about the Dear Leader is his continual insistence that nothing he has done in government constitutes an abandonment of Labour principles. As with so many of the Rev. A.R.P. Blair’s mantras, it has been accepted with religious fervour by the party faithful. Which in itself is no bad thing, except that you get the feeling that in this case, Tony actually believes his own hype, a trait that is usually catastrophic for a politician.

There is a justification for it. That the politicians haven’t yet picked it up and slung it back at him is understandable, since the justification is not political, it is statistical. That I have picked it up is understandable, since I’m a scientist, not a politician. And that calling it rubbish is an insult to garbage everywhere goes without saying…

Amongst the trees of policy it’s easy to miss the woods of society, this being just one of the reasons joined-up government remains a myth. The “genius” of statecraft is that it reverses the equation, and merely asks what the endpoint for society as a whole looks like. With Mrs. Thatcher this was largely irrelevant,both because she never hid her use of statecraft and never cared about society.

But Blair does care, if only because being quasi-Catholic has to result in an overwhelming sense of guilt sooner or later. This is a problem when your sole ambition in life is to keep the Labour party in power by whatever means possible (retaining power and making a positive difference being mutually exclusive goals in an era when anyone named Dacre is running a national news organisation).

The answer, however, is also within statecraft. If you consider your political belief system as a whole and add it all up, there has to be an endgame, a sum total of what your principles are meant to achieve. That then sets a target for your government to achieve. In statecraft you’re pretty much not allowed to act on the basis of any of your principles, so you potter along doing what appears to work.

The trick is that, if the sum total of what you do looks even ever so slightly like the target of your principles, even if you have to tilt your head and squint to make it happen, you can claim that your principles have not been abandoned. In statecraft, the means do not matter, only the ends.

So when Blair opens up on the achievements spiel, as he does at least twice in every Prime Minister’s Questions, it is vital that we stop getting caught in its headlights. Yes, New Labour have achieved some things in the last ten years, but that’s like saying England did well making 157-7 chasing Australia’s 290-3. To win the battle we must ask the question the public want answered;

“You were a Labour Prime Minister elected twice with three-figure majorities, this is what we expected you to deliver; why did you fail so miserably?”