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Liberal Hero of the Week #72: Vince Cable

July 12, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

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Vince Cable

Lib Dem Business Secretary
Reason: For sticking up for the right of workers to go on strike.

There are many reasons over the couple of years the Liberal Heroes series has been running that Vince Cable could have been nominated – most notably, his battle against Conservative cabinet colleagues’ panicky attempts to cut immigration even at the cost of damaging the British economy.

But he gets the nod this week for a completely different issue, though one on which (coincidentally, I’m sure) he’s also at odds with the Conservative party: defending the right of workers to go on strike.

On Thursday this week, between half-a-million (Government estimate) and more than a million (trade union estimate) public sector workers went on strike in protest against the Coalition’s policies on pay, pensions and spending cuts. This triggered calls by David Cameron to make it harder for the unions to call strikes, perhaps by imposing a minimum turnout threshold in any strike ballot. Vince, rightly, was having none of it:

“We disagree with the Tories’ assertion that a small turnout in strike-action ballots undermines the basic legitimacy of the strike. If they want to look at minimum turnout, this would have major implications for other democratic turnouts and elections. Many MPs have been elected by well under 50% of their electorate, let alone police commissioners or MEPs. Why have a threshold in a ballot but not make our elected politicians or shareholders face the same hurdle?”

He’s quite right. And as Steven Toft (AKA blogger ‘Flip Chart Rick’) pointed out:

There is one other way in which parliamentary, mayoral and council elections are different from strike ballots, though, and it’s a much more important one than the argument about majorities.

Political elections are binding on everyone. Unless you decide to emigrate, you have to abide by the laws the new government makes, regardless of how small its percentage of the vote was.

Strike ballots, on the other hand, are binding on absolutely nobody. If your union votes to strike, you are perfectly free to ignore it, as lots of public sector workers did on Thursday. There is nothing the union or anyone else can do about it. Unions are prevented by law from disciplining members who refuse to go on strike. Yes, there may be some peer pressure but if that extends to intimidation, the perpetrators could find themselves facing criminal charges.

All a strike ballot does is make it legal for those that want to go on strike to do so. That’s all. Everyone else can ignore it.

Putting the threshold up to 50 percent would mean that all abstentions would be counted as no votes. An apathetic majority could therefore stop a committed minority from exercising their right to strike.

Liberals believe in freedom. The free movement of people, freedom of association, and the freedom of workers to withdraw their labour. For sticking up for those freedoms of the individual against the state, Vince Cable is this week’s Liberal Hero.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #71: The Financial Times

June 30, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

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Financial Times

Pink ‘un read by the people who own the country
Reason: For urging government adopt a more thoughtful approach to outsourcing.

Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: the Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; the The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.
(Jim Hacker, Yes Prime Minister)

One of the Thatcher / Major / Blair / Coalition governments’ great mistakes has been to assume that competition is the same as what the private sector does. Under the Conservatives nationalised monopolies were converted into private monopolies. Under Labour, and now the Coalition, outsourcing public services has become a way of life.

There are, of course, times when this makes sense. The Coalition’s privatisation of the Royal Mail and its sell-off of parts of the student loan book are two cases in point, controversial though both are in some quarters. But it isn’t always the case that ‘public = bad, private = good’, as this week’s Financial Times shrewdly pointed out:

The government must control its temptation to outsource on all fronts. The rush to outsource the probation service is a case in point.

In those areas where outsourcing is appropriate, government needs to be much smarter about monitoring and challenging poor performance. The growth of outsourcing has outstripped the capability of the civil service to keep providers on their toes. The government should equip officials with the skills commensurate to negotiate on equal terms with large providers and to hold them to account throughout the lifetime of the contracts. Elaborate monitoring systems dreamt up by consultants must be simplified.

Finally, trust needs to be restored to the entire outsourcing project. It must be shown as more than a ruse to push down wages and cut costs. Quality should be the clear aim – which will sometimes mean big is not best. Trust also requires more transparency, especially about performance against targets. Government needs to show there is sufficient competition during the tendering process and an ability to manage a change in provider, should the company be found to fall consistently short. Outsourcing has an important role to play, if implemented properly. A more thoughtful approach is needed.

The three conditions are simple enough (if complex to implement): 1) Competition during tendering, 2) Transparency and accountability of performance expectations, and 3) An available contract exit route. If all three conditions can be met, then outsourcing can and should be considered. If they can’t then approach with caution.

I believe in competition as a great driver-upper of standards. But we cannot simply assume competition and improved delivery will automatically result from awarding a public service contract to the private sector. Hopefully the people who do run the country will listen to the paper read by the people who own the country.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #70: Lord (Alex) Carlile

June 23, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

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Lord (Alex) Carlile

Lib Dem peer
Reason: For proposing that children who have committed minor crimes, but have stopped breaking the law, should have their record cleared when they turn 18.

Lord Carlile – as plain Alex Carlile he was Lib Dem MP for Montgomeryshire before Lembit Opik turned it Tory – is not always the most popular peer among party activists.

As the independent reviewer of anti-terrorist laws from 2005-11 he often seemed more concerned with defending the Blair/Brown governments’ authoritarianism than he did British citizens liberties. And his hectoring defence of his friend Lord Rennard, recently forced to apologise following allegations of sexual impropriety against him by four women, did nothing to redeem his reputation.

Set against these transgressions, Lord Carlile has often been a liberal hero – for example, his opposition to some of the most egregious cuts to Legal Aid implemented by this Coalition Government. Worth noting, too, that he was the first elected British politician to campaign for the rights of transexual people, when in the mid-1990s he brought forward a Private Members’ Bill proposing a means to correct transsexual people’s birth certificates and status.

This week Lord Carlile acted the liberal hero again when – as chair of a review panel of a cross-party group of MPs and members of the House of Lords – he argued publicly that children who have committed minor crimes, but have stopped breaking the law, should have their record cleared when they turn 18:

“What we find is that people whose lives have been reformed – they’ve graduated, they’ve maybe become teachers or lawyers or accountants – are inhibited at obtaining work because CRB checks and other records checks show that they have committed an offence, for example robbery of a mobile phone, when they were 16 years old,” Lord Carlile told the BBC.

“And it’s held against them for a very long time. So we think that if people have been through a good criminal justice system, they should be able to wipe the slate clean when they become an adult.” However, he said a “decent time lapse” should be in place when under-18s commit serious offences.

Yes, the criminal justice system is there to punish those who do wrong. But, more importantly, it is there to rehabilitate – and when rehabilitation takes place, it should be recognised.

In a week when MPs from the Conservative and Labour benches united in support of mandatory jail terms for any adult convicted in England or Wales of a second offence involving a knife – leaving judges with no discretion, no matter what the extenuating circumstances – it is good to see liberal-minded politicians prepared to make a grown-up case for earned second chances.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #69: Anna Lo

May 30, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

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Anna Lo

Alliance Party member for Belfast South in the Northern Ireland Assembly
Reason: For championing non-sectarian tolerance.

Now what we in the mainland euphemistically referred to as ‘The Troubles’ are over (ish), Northern Ireland rarely gets a look-in in UK politics. That changed this week, though, when Alliance Party MLA Anna Lo dramatically announced she was quitting politics – and possibly leaving the country she’s made her home for the past three decades – following comments made by First Minister Peter Robinson in support of a controversial pastor who denounced Islam.

Defending Pastor James McConnell of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast, who described Islam as “heathen” and “satanic”, Robinson told the Irish News newspaper he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or who fully subscribed to Sharia law, but that he would “trust them to go to the shops” for him. Though seemingly oblivious to the condescension of his remark, Robinson has at least issued the traditional non-apology apology for any hurt caused: “if anyone interpreted them that way of course I would apologise.”

Anna Lo was unimpressed: “To support a lunatic who makes remarks like that is adding fuel to the flames in Northern Ireland. In the last few weeks there have been two to three racist incidents per day in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland.”

She was almost one of those statistics, she told The Guardian, after being followed by a loyalist mob when leaving an east Belfast shopping centre during the European election campaign: “They started hurling abuse at me and I decided to get out of Connswater shopping centre as quickly as possible. About three or four individuals then followed me to the car park but I kept ahead of them walking as quickly as I could. Even when I got inside my car there was a young girl who climbed out of the wound-down window of a parked car and started shouting vile things at me. If I hadn’t decided to act quickly and get out of there I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

This is the price Anna Lo has paid for her championing of non-sectarian tolerance and respect in a country that has been riven by discord. Here, for example, is what she told her party’s conference last month:

I make no apologies for highlighting that Alliance is a party which champions and cherishes diversity. What saddens me is that the focus on my comments reflects that there are those, with their orange and green lenses, who are incapable of seeing beyond sectarianism. They either can’t grasp the concept of a cross-community party, or they won’t, because cross-community politics threatens their position. Tackling that narrow-mindedness is this party’s responsibility. But it is also our privilege – as a forward thinking and progressive party we will have the privilege of delivering Northern Ireland from the shadows of the past and showing the world all we have to be proud of.

For her courage and determination, in taking a positive stand by trying to unite people, Anna Lo is a Liberal Hero.

Honourable mentions…

I’m playing catch-up here, with some nominations I haven’t had chance to blog about but deserve recognition:

Theresa May (Home Secretary): for her courageous speech to the Police Federation bluntly setting out the reforms it needs to make in order to regain public trust.

Mark Carney (Bank of England governor): for warning of the dangers to the British economy of our failure to build enough houses and the likely need to scale back the Coalition’s Help to Buy scheme that’s further stoking the market.

Eric Schmidt (Google’s executive chairman): for highlighting the risks that the European Court of Justice’s ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling will harm the public’s right to know, with public figures seeking to restrict access to publicly available information.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #68: Allan Bell, Chief Minister of the Isle of Man

May 10, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

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Allan Bell

Chief Minister of the Isle of Man
Reason: For encouraging an evidence-based – and local – approach to the ‘war on drugs’.

Two liberal hobby-horses of mine collided this week – but in a good way. I’ll tell you what they are in a minute, but first this report from The Independent explains the context:

The Chief Minister of the Isle of Man has said wants to widen the debate on drugs, by considering decriminalising cannabis on the island. Allan Bell’s comments follow a presentation on the island given by former Westminster drugs adviser Professor David Nutt, who was sacked under Labour after he criticised stricter laws on cannabis. Most recently, Professor Nutt said the number of deaths from so-called legal highs are overestimated, arguing that drugs are often wrongly classified or already outlawed in the UK. During his speech, Professor Nutt suggested that by relaxing laws, the self-governing Crown dependency could become a research hub for exploring the medical benefits of drugs, the Isle of Man Examiner reported.

Accepting the link between cannabis and mental health problems, Mr Bell told reporters it was also important to consider evidence which suggests that it has positive effects on a range of medical conditions. … Mr Bell added: “I’m not saying it should be legalised but that there should be a different approach. I’ve an open mind on this – chanting the long-established mantra that “drugs are bad” is not going to resolve this issue at all. There needs to be fresh debate on how we deal with drug use, including possible decriminalisation. I think we have to consider every approach to take criminality out of drug use. The vast majority of people who do drugs do it recreationally and should not be considered criminals,” he added.

So what are my two hobby-horses? First, a more evidence-driven approach to public policy-making, including on drugs. This means being clear and transparent about the relative harm caused both by drugs that are currently legal (eg, caffeine and alcohol) and illegal (eg, cannabis and heroin) – and some combination of legalisation, regulation and medicalisation applied to how each is licensed.

And secondly, smarter use of trials of public policy to pilot new ideas, including on drugs. Reformers and anti-reformers will always cherry-pick the examples that suit their case. In truth, we don’t know how some of legalisation, regulation and medicalisation of currently illegal drugs would work in the UK. Obviously we can look to those countries where such measures have been tried already and be guided by their experiences. But that doesn’t mean their experiences will automatically translate lock, stock and barrel. Yet all too often public policy is introduced in a hurry and on a whim.

In reality, most public policy is introduced with scant attention to evidence and rolled-out without first being tested. For liberals, rational-scepticism and localism should be natural bedfellows. Let’s look at the evidence and let’s let local areas develop their own evidence-based approaches adapted to their contexts. Good luck to Allan Bell and the Isle of Man in this venture.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #67: Theresa May

May 3, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

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Theresa May

Conservative home secretary
Reason: for announcing plans to reform police stop-and-search in England and Wales.

Home Secretary Theresa May has featured in this series twice before: once as a Hero (for her decision not to extradite Gary McKinnon to the US) and once as a Villain (for supporting minimum alcohol pricing).

The balance has tipped in favour of Hero status this week thanks to her plans to reform police stop-and-search in England and Wales, and her announcement that officers who fail to use their powers properly will face disciplinary action or retraining.

She has good reason to do so. The findings of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) show that 27% of the stop-and-search records it examined did not contain reasonable grounds to search people, even though many of these records had been endorsed by supervising officers. That suggests more than one-quarter of the million-plus stops carried out under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 in 2013 could have been illegal. Unsurprisingly, but still depressingly, those who are black or from a minority ethnic background are up to six times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police.

If this activity yielded significant results perhaps it could be justified. But in reality just nine per cent of stops result in arrest, mostly for possession of small amounts of cannabis. As Diane Abbott pointed out in response:

No single issue has done more to poison relationships between young people in inner cities and the police. Unless you have a young male family member who is repeatedly stopped and searched, it is difficult to appreciate the bitterness it causes.

To her credit – and apparently against the opposition of some Conservatives in Downing Street – Theresa May has recognised the issue. Here’s how she concluded her Commons statement on Wednesday:

I want to make myself absolutely clear: if the numbers do not come down, if stop-and-search does not become more targeted, if those stop-to-arrest ratios do not improve considerably, the Government will return with primary legislation to make those things happen, because nobody wins when stop-and-search is misapplied. It is a waste of police time. It is unfair, especially to young, black men. It is bad for public confidence in the police. That is why these are the right reforms and why I commend this statement to the House.

And that’s why she’s commended here this week.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #66: Brexit Prize-winning Iain Mansfield

April 11, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

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Iain Mansfield

Winner of the IEA’s Brexit Prize 2014 (and Director of Trade and Investment at the UK’s embassy in the Philippines)
Reason: for a serious analysis of how Britain can remain an outward, open, ambitious, entrepreneurial, democratic, trading nation state even if we leave the EU

I approached Iain Mansfield’s essay outlining a blueprint for ‘Britain after the EU’ with some trepidation. I half-expected a Ukip-style turn-the-clocks-back digression into right-wing isolationism. I was wrong.

Iain’s 20,000-word essay, A Blueprint for Britain: Openness not Isolation, sticks to the brief set by the Institute of Economic Affairs: to outline, in the event of a the British people voting to leave the European Union, the measures the Government of the day would need “to take in the following two years, domestically (within the UK), vis-a-vis the remaining EU and internationally, in order to promote a free and prosperous economy”.

Those last seven words are the key. Because what Iain’s essay focuses on is how Britain would continue to promote a free and prosperous economy from outside the EU. That, he makes clear, depends on securing free trade agreements between Britain and its European neighbours (probably through joining the European Free Trade Area, like Switzerland) and with as many other trading partners as possible.

I’ve tended to be suspicious of the Swiss option – all the benefits of the EU’s negotiating power and of free trade within the EU, few of the disbenefits – but Iain is more optimistic:

… the advantages of being unconstrained by the concerns of more protectionist EU Member States and of a streamlined negotiating process should more than outweigh the disadvantages of reduced bargaining power. The UK could therefore enjoy a more favourable position than it enjoys within the EU, which to date has FTAs with not one of the BRIC countries.

But that doesn’t mean there are no risks, not least in assuming that our European neighbours will happily agree the same terms we already enjoy:

… whilst it is in no-one’s rational economic interests to erect trade barriers, the EU could afford a trade war far better than the UK could. Some EU nations would see leaving as a betrayal of the European project and may wish to ensure that a sufficient example is made of the UK to deter others; others will not want to ‘reward’ leaving. … Throughout the negotiations it must be remembered that the UK is in the weaker position: in the case of no agreement, the UK would face the full trade barriers that any external nation does.

The only way that will be achieved is through an extensive commitment of time and energy: of British officials, but also of Government ministers and the Prime Minister. In effect, they would be able to do little else for the two years of re-negotiation. And they will need to make concessions along the way, such as tapering off budget contributions to the EU rather than immediately ending them, retaining some EU regulations to ensure continuing access to markets.

Iain Mansfield’s essay sets out three scenarios – best, most likely, and worst – for a British exit from the EU. Here’s the middle option:

Domestically, one would expect to see a nation of less and simpler regulation and a lower budget deficit, but that remained a beacon for foreign investment, albeit with rather more investors from North America and Asia and rather less from Western Europe. Its character, that of a global nation open to the world, would be unchanged. Overall, the UK would probably be neither significantly richer nor poorer: there is no recorded correlation between EU membership and GDP growth. The fundamental assets of the country, its population, global connections, infrastructure and knowledge base mean that the long-term growth, balance of trade and economic outlook should remain strong.

It all sounds like an awful lot of effort to achieve very little: “the UK would probably be neither significantly richer nor poorer”. This has been challenged by John McDermott in the Financial Times:

I am not a trade economist but I worry that by comparing an abstract future with a concrete present, Mansfield underestimates the strength of the ties between the EU and the UK – and therefore he underestimates the costs of exit. There is no magic number for the economic benefits to the EU but repeated studies show that the single market has brought net gains to the UK – and further service liberalisation within the EU could bring much more.

And indeed Iain Mansfield himself notes that economics are only one part of the decision-making process: “Ultimately, whether or not the UK exits from the EU is a political, not an economic decision.”

In that spirit, it’s worth noting that Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne has also written about Britain’s membership of the EU in his book, Race Plan, published this week. The strongest chapter in it focuses on international relations, in which he vigorously defends the Government’s decision in 2004 to allow people from the new EU states in eastern Europe, including Poland, to work in Britain:

Britain held the line against the Soviet Union in the Cold War because we believed all people should benefit from liberal freedoms and be spared from communist oppression. That we were able to achieve that objective and share our success with people in countries like Poland is a genuine historical achievement. We did not tear down the Berlin Wall only to erect a new barrier between the people of Western and Eastern Europe.

Why do I think Iain Mansfield deserves to be a Liberal Hero this week? Three reasons:

1) Too many of those who are anti-EU fail to acknowledge the complexity of a Brexit. It is not simply a case that Britain can simultaneously leave the EU but demand to retain all the things we like and discard all the things we don’t. That’s not a serious proposition. For a grounded, realistic assessment of the benefits and costs of exiting the EU Iain Mansfield deserves recognition.

2) The debate has become charged and polarised. This isn’t surprising. When you have Ukip pushing the isolationist anti-EU agenda, it’s small wonder that internationalist pro-Europeans like Nick Clegg take umbrage. But this leaves those of us who recognise there are both positives and negatives that come with EU membership with no natural home. Iain Mansfield’s rigorous analysis might just create space for a more nuanced debate.

3) Too many liberals seem to see Britain’s membership of the EU as an end in itself. It is not. It’s a means to an end: that Britain should be an outward, open, ambitious, entrepreneurial, democratic, trading nation state that can lead internationally by domestic example. Iain Mansfield’s contribution to the debate brings us back to the core principles of those outcomes.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

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