14 June 2011

In Praise of U-Turns

Governments have three options:

Option 1: Be a radical, reforming government, and plough on with the reforms you feel are right for the country even in the face of criticism and unpopularity at your ideas.

Option 2: Avoid any reforms that might be controversial to avoid deep unpopularity.

Option 3: Be a radical, reforming government, but be willing to change course to avoid making unpopular and flawed reforms.

Option 1 was clearly favoured by Thatcher, as espoused by her famous quote - "the lady's not for turning". The problem is that such a belligerent attitude is deeply divisive, and while you may win some praise for 'strong leadership', your reforms could create negative consequences that could be avoided if you'd listened to criticism.

Option 2 will no doubt avoid lots of negative press. But what's the point in getting into power, something you've worked for your entire life, only to not do anything with it? You also miss the chance to make changes for the better, simply out of timidity at making a decision.

Option 3 involves changing your mind, and therefore provides an easy opportunity to be attacked as being 'not in control', prone to 'U-Turns', and of 'weak leadership'. However the benefits are numerous - your more popular and less criticised reforms will get through and have a real impact, and the policies that change will end up being better for the country. While you may be painted as 'weak' as you change course, it is clearly stronger than not trying make changes in the first place, and it takes courage to alter your plans in the face of insults thrown from the opposition.

A U-Turning government is a more pragmatic government, a more courageous government, a more democratic government, and if we're to have any faith in democratic process at all, it should prove to be a more successful government.

So here's to listening, engaging, responding, reforming, and yes, U-Turns.

8 June 2011

Creating Opportunities In The Homelands Of Economic Migrants

If ambitious people in underdeveloped countries have no opportunities in their native country, they'll migrate to developed countries. If developed countries want to reduce migration, erecting border controls is not enough. There will still be ambitious people are still driven to improve themselves, and they'll cross borders illegally if that's what it takes.

So developed countries need to work with underdeveloped countries to create the conditions that will remove the need for the ambitious to be economic migrants, and instead gives them a chance of self-improvement in their homeland.

Take a look at this TED talk which describes a model to create cities that could perform this very function:

Free movement without borders is an end in itself for me, but to achieve this as a long term goal, the large numbers who fear large-scale immigration need to have their concerns addressed. Meanwhile, the government will only reduce net migration if it engaging in schemes like this.

6 June 2011

Facing Up To The Challenges Of The New Boundary Regime

It's time to dust the cobwebs off the blog, this time merely to suggest that the Liberal Democrats need to significantly reform the way we operate if we are to survive the upcoming national political climate.


The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 could have introduced two major changes to the way general elections. The voting system was subject to a referendum and subsequently rejected by voters, so only the constituency changes are now to go ahead. In summary, the changes are:

• Reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600;
• The electorate in each constituency will vary by no more than 5% (with a few exceptions for islands and sparsely populated areas of Scotland);
• The new boundaries are to be in place for the next general election and will be reviewed every 5 years (and with fixed term parliaments, that means boundary changes between every general election).

This is a big shake-up, and changes a lot about what we currently understand about what a parliamentary constituency actually is. To fit within the strict 5% variation limit, the Boundary Commission will need to radically change the nature of the political map, and change it regularly. Constituencies in your area could well be in a state of complete flux from election to election.


Article 4.3 of The Constitution of the Federal Party sets out how Local Parties must organise themselves. Basically each Local Party can be either a single parliamentary constituency, or a combination of multiple constituencies. Given these boundaries are liable to change every 5 years, our grassroots will need to reorganise itself every 5 years to fit to the ever changing boundaries.

This organisational problem is then compounded by research by Democratic Audit, which shows that the Lib Dems are likely to see the biggest proportion loss of MPs to the boundary changes. Unlike the Labour and the Conservatives who win swathes of neighbouring seats in their core territories, our seats are more isolated, so bringing in parts of other seats will generally hurt us harder. This effect is further strengthened when the focus of our campaigning is in our target seats at the expense of neighbouring no-hope seats.


So we need a more stable set of boundaries for our Local Parties can build up without having to frequently reorganise, and we need to spread our campaigning beyond the existing rigid constituency boundaries, with an eye on neighbouring wards that could be part of the battlefield for the next general election.

Article 3.3 of The Constitution of the English Party gives us a way forward. It additionally allows Local Parties in London to organise themselves along Borough lines rather than solely constituency lines. This should be extended to all district-level government.

This has numerous advantages: Local authority boundaries are far less fluid, saving a lot of time and energy when boundaries change. They give a reasonably well-established outline of existing communities around which to organise and campaign locally, and naturally give the boundary of a specific council for the Local Party to target at all times. More broadly, tying Local Parties to Local Authorities generally fits better with the Lib Dem commitment to localism, and could cause a small shift in culture away from national politics and towards local issues (not that I feel this is really a problem as things are).

There is one big disadvantage that needs tackling: Whereas constituencies are reasonably constant in size, districts vary massively - from the tiny Isles of Scilly with just a couple of thousand people, to huge Birmingham with a population over a million. There would need to be flexibility in any new rules to allow small districts to merge and large districts to split, but this should be done on other tiers of local authority boundaries.

Another problem is with electing the parliamentary candidate, but this could be the time when Local Parties organise themselves for the general election on the forthcoming election's boundaries, so that the membership is worked out and a candidate elected.

Needless to say there are multiple other issues that would need addressing were this to happen. But the cost of not adapting to the new landscape may mean a lack of coordination and self-inflicted defeat. It's time for the party to start planning ahead and ensure that it is fit for purpose in the future.

I feel this may be the time to draft my first conference motion... Eek!