Friday, 10 March 2017

A credible Labour Leader is in the Lib Dem interest

To state the blindingly obvious, Jeremy Corbyn is a car crash of a leader. He is now at the point where, even if he did suddenly start espousing credible policies, no one would listen on account of them coming out of his mouth. His credibility is nil.

In the short term, this allows Liberal Democrats to stretch the point about being the only credible opposition to the Government. Whilst it exaggerates our meagre Commons presence somewhat, it does carry a little more weight in relation to the arithmetic in the Lords and, of course, the Party is enjoying a string of fine local by-election results as well as a modest bounce in the national opinion polls. Tie in the fact that we are the only Brexit-opposing UK political party and we have a much needed short term unique selling point.

But it is only short term, and byelection success rarely translate into general election success.

As to how we position ourselves after the Brexit dust has settled is another matter. What then? What direction of travel do we adopt? This is for discussion another day, perhaps. In this post, I want to consider what a prolonged Corbyn Labour Leadership might mean for our electoral fortunes. Contrary to the views of many, I consider it to be bad news for Lib Dems.

In the context of our first past the post system, it is very much in our interests to have a more electable Labour Leader. If Corbyn is still in place for the 2020 election, this hands the Tories their most powerful campaigning weapon against us in those predominantly southern seats where we are their main challengers. The tried and tested 'if you vote Lib Dem, you'll get Corbyn' mantra will have real traction with voters. They may not love the Tories, but they love the prospect of a Corbyn government even less. History tells us that it is a message that works.

It is no coincidence that the Party enjoyed its largest Commons presence during the Blair era. Whatever you think of him, Blair was never perceived as a threat in the same way that Corbyn is. A more electable Labour Leader therefore blunts the 'vote Lib Dem, get Labour' message somewhat as the threat to the nation is not perceived to be as great. Those tempted to vote Liberal Democrat are therefore more likely to do so under such circumstances as they can live with a more 'mainstream' Labour government.

In the fairly modern era, Tory success is more attributable to Labour's unelectability rather than Tory popularity. Whether we like it or not, our prospects are entwined with those of Labour which is why we should secretly hope that Corbyn goes sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Wales' Pupil Deprivation Grant is too inflexible

Extra money for Welsh schools is great, but the Pupil Deprivation Grant doesn't seem to be all it is cracked up to be.

It targets those on free school meals, the rationale being that they are, typically, more likely to need additional learning support. Whilst I'm pragmatic enough to accept that its the best gauge we have for deprivation, it is the inflexibility in how the budget can be used that concerns me.

Equipment bought for FSM pupils, books and IT for instance, can ultimately be accessed by all pupils in a school, but any extra tuition or supplementary teaching time it pays for is reserved exclusively for FSM pupils. On this the Welsh Government's guidance is unequivocal. This is irrespective of their ability, and it also means that pupils who would benefit from this support, but not on FSMs, cannot access it.

It's crazy that an FSM pupil can receive one to one support, but those with an educational need deemed to not be 'poor enough' struggle to get the same support because of inflexible guidance and inflexible budget lines, and it makes life difficult for headteachers. Whilst I'm content for the Pupil Deprivation Grant to be allocated based on FSM numbers, schools need greater flexibility in how it is spent to support educational attainment across the board. The sad reality is that the majority of pupils to benefit will be FSM anyway.

You can argue that headteachers should look at how they can utilise other parts of their budget to provide one to one support for non FSM pupils that need it. The reality is that the rigidity and inflexibility of School budget lines makes this very challenging.

There are too many ring- fenced pots of money that tie schools' hands, much to the detriment of those pupils who need extra learning support, but who are ultimately denied it by Welsh Government bureaucracy.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

An e-mail to Guy Verhofstadt

Dear Guy,

I have been greatly encouraged by recent reports in the British Media that you are exploring options to offer Associate EU Citizenship to those UK citizens left disenfranchised by the catastrophic Brexit vote. I would like to add my voice to the thousands that you have recieved in support of such a measure.

Being European means so much more to me than being British, especially now that my Government is courting a dangerous US President, placing immigration control over cooperation and the Single Market, and undermining my intrinsic belief in social liberalism and internationalism.

Nothing good ever comes from Nationalism, and History will testify to that. I deeply regret the path that my country is taking and the threat it is posing to more than 70 years of post-war stability. Believe me, we are not all like the detestable Farage and many of us would like to remain European, both in spirit and in practice.

Do not underestimate the spite of the Brexiteers who are likely to try to thwart any attempt to grant Associate Citizenship to UK residents. I hope that ways can be found to bypass their likely hostility.

I wish you well in your endeavours to secure the best deal for all Europeans during your negotiations with the UK Government, whether they are within the EU or exiled in the British Isles.

Yours sincerely,

Energlyn Churchill

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The angry railway commuter

My e-mail to Arriva Trains Wales Customer Relations Team:

Dear Arriva Trains Wales,

If someone were to provide you with a venue, a plentiful supply of drinks, a spectacular buffet and a guest list, I would still doubt your ability to throw a successful party. What's more, you are clearly very constipated indeed; why else would you find it difficult to give a shit?

Today marks one of the worst experiences I've ever encountered at the hands of your appalling train company.  From the moment that the 0725 was running late, I knew it was going to be one of those days. Not to worry, I thought, even a 15 minute delay means I'll still catch my connection. In light of your utterly abysmal customer service record I doubt very much that you have any ability to guess at how angry and frustrated I was when the delayed 0725 raced through the station without warning or apology. We were not even offered the courtesy of being told why the delayed train had failed to stop.

This information deficit is one of your specialities. Heaven forbid that you actually keep your passengers informed. No doubt you find it easier to keep us in the dark, like mushrooms, only occasionally feeding us shit when you feel as though you really have to to prevent platform riots from breaking out.

And so it came to pass that I had an hour and twenty minutes to kill at the next station before the 0921 service could convey me to my next connection.

Having arrived for my meetings over an hour and a half late, I was hopeful of a less painful return journey. I should have known better. As I write, I'm stuck waiting for the incoming train from up the line to pass us to allow us to progress in the other direction down the single track. Having already endured a 37 minute delay to the 16:42 service, what's another 20 minutes to your long suffering passengers, eh?

The hope of catching my connecting 17:40 service has long since faded into history and the prospect of another hour of my life tediously ebbing away at the next station beckons. At least I can enjoy a cup of overpriced mediocre coffee at the Starbucks, eh? With a little luck, I hope to be home in time to celebrate Christmas with my family, but I'm not hopeful.

You are to be congratulated on your unfailing ability to be so utterly crap. It takes a special talent to be so utterly useless. Your customer service is unrivalled in its mediocrity and your trains would make fine exhibits in the National Railway Museum. It has long searched for railway conveyances that pre-date The Rocket to add to its collection.

I fully expect that my email will raise the odd smile in your mis-named Customer Relations department before you ignore and delete it. It has, at least, provided me with some mild amusement as I endure your incompetence-enforced delay to my onward journey. I sincerely hope that, once the Wales and Borders Franchise is up for renewal, you are replaced by a company that is considerably less constipated than yourselves.

Yours sincerely,


Wednesday, 20 July 2016

My enemy's enemy isn't always my friend

I am a Social Liberal by conviction and a Liberal Democrat by choice. In the here and now, the Liberal Democrats best align with my principles and beliefs.

With Labour in meltdown and an increasingly fractured non-Tory (I hesitate to use progressive) grouping in British politics, there is much discussion about the realignment of the left and the creation of new political parties. However, my enemy's enemy is not necessarily my friend.

The cross party alliances forged during the 'Remain' campaign have generated traction for the idea of a so-called progressive alliance. Some fear that we are destined for perpetual Tory rule, unless the left comes together in common cause to defeat the common enemy.  The fundemental question that we should be asking is: 'is there enough common cause within the anti-Tory bloc to make a progressive alliance work?'

The answer is yes and no. If you are asking if there are enough individuals across different parties that could make common cause in a single political movement, then yes, there probably are, but common cause between parties is more problematic. There are clear differences in policy and approach that throw a large spanner in the works. As Vince Cable pointed out at last weekend's Social Liberal Forum Conference, the only real area of agreement seems to be making the case for electoral reform. That alone is not enough.

British political parties are, of course, born out of necessity. In the world of first past the post elections only those parties that can muster broad coalitions of support can hope to win power. If that is true of voters, then it is also true of party membership. How else could Corbynites exist in the same party as Blairites, or why else would Ken Clarke co-exist in the same party as Liam Fox?

The Tories have a distinct advantage in this set up as they have something around which they will always unite: self interest and the preservation of their privileged position. It has always meant that their principles have been flexible, and explains why they have been the most successful of British political parties. The Tory leopard changes its spots to stay in power. Its a lesson that Blair drew upon when he invented 'New Labour'.

The not insignificant issue of principle complicates matters for other parties, and Labour's current divide is evidence enough to show what happens when your coalition gets too broad. What would stop the same scenario from happening in a new political party sooner or later?

The issue will never truly be resolved until we have an election system based on proportional representation. Only then will parties emerge with distinct world views that offer voters real choice, but no one is realistically going to vote for an alliance with only that ticket holding it together. That would be a broad church too far.

It is essentially a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't. We shouldn't forget that the Liberal Democrats are a broad church, either. We Social Liberals co-exist in uneasy alliance with the Cleggites, and if you throw in Social Democrats for good measure then we may be a broader coalition than most. We may appear united at present, but scratch the surface and the differences are there.

So, what should the Liberal Democrats do in the midst of these shifting sands? For me, the strategy is clear. Farron must carve out a distinctive and Social Liberal identity for the party that appeals to liberals in all parties and none. If those liberal-minded MPs decide that they've reached the end of the Labour road and wish to join us, then fine, but that should not come at the expense of our Liberal Identity.

And with Labour on the cusp of a likely collapse, we should stand ready to fill the void, just as Labour did when the Liberal Party tore itself apart in the First World War and its aftermath. In such circumstances we should work towards the goal set for the Liberal Party in November 1953 by Jo Grimond:

"Our long term objective is clear: to replace the Labour Party as the progressive wing of politics in this country".

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Education is central to our political identity

In a recent blog post I argued that the Welsh Liberal Democrats needed to develop an Assembly Election Strategy that placed more emphasis on winning regional seats. Of course, this on its own will not be enough to halt the decline. The more fundamental challenge is that the electorate doesn't really know what the Welsh Liberal Democrats stand for and we need to remedy this pretty quickly.

It is an issue keenly felt across the Federal Party as a whole. With the national media paying us little or no attention it is hard to convey any message other than that which we can put out through our campaigning literature and social media. Whatever the medium, the message has to be credible, resonating and uniquely ours. In Wales, the paucity of interest in the Welsh Liberal Democrats is even more acute. With a laughable Welsh Broadcast media that does little justice to coverage of Welsh politics and a poor Welsh press, carving our a Welsh Liberal Democrat identity is inevitably wrapped up in the Federal Party's attempts to do so.

Our persistent failure to articulate what Liberalism is cost us dearly in May. For too long we have chosen to define ourselves in terms of what we are not rather than what we are. The rise of UKIP and the tactical mistakes we made during the Coalition years mean that it is increasingly difficult for us to rely on protest & tactical votes,  popular local candidates and single issue time-limited campaigns. That was always the old way of doing things, and we must consign it to the past.

After last May's Welsh result, we face nothing less than an existential crisis that we can only hope to fend off by developing a compelling narrative of what the Welsh Liberal Democrats are for. That narrative needs to be underpinned and articulated through key policy areas that we make our own, and which bring Liberalism to life.

Our indistinct identity is partly down to our church being broader than most. Classical Liberals, Social Democrats, Orange Bookers and Social Liberals live in an uneasy alliance. At the moment it is Social Liberalism that seems to be in the ascendency and it is to that tradition that we should look to help forge our unique selling point. With Labour in meltdown and the Tories continuing their programme of social misery, Social Liberalism has the potential to fill the gaping void that currently exists within progressive British politics. So, if Social Liberalism is the raison d'ĂȘtre, what are the key policy areas that can bring it to life and make it real for the voting public?

For me personally, it is all about the 'four Es' - Europe, Education, Environment and Economy. Tim Farron has used unfortunate recent events to punch through the Liberal Democrat 'media blackout' to make the case for Europe to great effect: 16,000 new members and counting. But this single issue alone is not enough to set out our stall. For me, Liberalism always has been, and always will be, about education, whether it be academic, vocational or social. Yes, it's about personal freedom, but  freedom is pretty useless on its own unless you are empowered to take full advantage of it. If it is for the state to level the playing field and make sure that everyone has the chance to access the opportunity to release their potential, then Liberalism and education go hand in hand. It is the primary tool to use if we are to be true to the preamble of our Party Constitution and strive to ensure that no one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity.

Welsh Liberal Democrats now have a unique and unexpected opportunity to forge a clear Education policy identity. Kirsty Williams' unexpected, but broadly welcomed, appointment as Minister for Education provides us with the perfect opportunity to rebrand ourselves as the Party of Education in Wales. There is obvious political territory to be gained. Kirsty's role can help us to maintain relevance at a time when we should be, quite frankly, irrelevant. The distinctive Liberal flavour of the Education Portfolio will be the barometer of Kirsty's success or failure. It is absolutely essential that she 'owns' the education portfolio and uses her platform to convey an unashamedly Liberal message on education that both makes a difference and builds a distinctive identify for our Party.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Regional seats are crucial to a Welsh Lib Dem revival

Welsh Assembly seats are a mix of regions and traditional constituencies, but our last Assembly campaign focused too much on constituency battles. The decision to focus on the 'big four' of Brecon & Radnorshire, Ceredigion, Cardiff Central and Montgomeryshire essentially meant that other constituencies were left to their own devices, with very limited financial and human support.

The loss of four list seats brutally illustrates the tactical flaw in this approach and points to a pressing need for a greater regional focus as we attempt to rebuild both the Party and a core vote. In every Assembly election since 1999 Welsh Lib Dems have relied on the erroneous wisdom that, if we fail to win in the constituency - but come a decent second - then there will be enough list votes to grab a list seat when 'residual' votes from non-target constituencies are counted.

To adopt this approach in an election where we faced residual unpopularity following coalition and the rise of UKIP was, on reflection, fairly suicidal given the already challenging circumstances. Outside target constituencies our vote collapsed, and the list vote by constituency was lower than that cast for constituency candidates. The latter has always been the case, so this should not have come as a surprise.

Our future recovery depends on adopting a new strategy that values and prioritises regional list seats, particularly in those regions without a target constituency. Building a core vote across a region doesn't require as much 'geographic concentration' to win a seat, just as long as there is enough support to deliver at least one regional AM.

In pursuing a regional strategy, we must also address the shortcomings in our regional structures as they are currently not fit for purpose. The sole function of Assembly Electoral Regional Committees (AERCs) seems to be electing regional candidates. Their role in coordinating regional campaigning seems minimal to me, and they lie dormant for years at a time, only waking from their slumber to run regional candidate selections.

Within each region several local parties each do their own thing without any common campaigning or fundraising strategy. In my region we had the ridiculous situation where the lead regional candidate asked members to financially support her campaign while my local party was doing exactly the same to cover constituency candidate costs and deposits. Such terrible planning not only causes tensions between regional and local candidates, it also annoys members who are left wondering why they are being asked to dip into their pockets twice.

We need to put parochialism aside. If we are to rebuild our Party, maintain a credible presence, and fight credible Assembly election campaigns, we need regional structures that can provide strategic direction and a campaigning focus. Whilst I personally believe that we should merge existing local parties into larger regional ones to achieve this, I'm pragmatic enough to know that this is unlikely to be favoured by the majority of members. At the very least we need to give AERCs a strong mandate for running and planning long term regional campaigning, enshrined in the Party Constitution if necessary. This mandate should include the power to set the regional campaign strategy and determine regional campaign themes, working with local parties to identify target wards and, where appropriate, target constituencies.

In summary, we need to start valuing regional seats more than we currently do. Prior to May, at least half of our Assembly presence was dependent on regional AMs. That reality needs to be reflected better in our strategic thinking.