Thursday, 30 April 2009

Commons vote on the Ghurkas: Nick Clegg Finds His Voice

Yesterday’s Commons vote was a well-deserved victory for the Gurkhas. There was another winner: the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg. In his sixteen months as leader, the media has largely ignored Nick. He has struggled, for various reasons, to project a clear narrative explaining why people should vote Lib Dem. Consequently, if the polls are to be believed, most voters have remained either unaware or ambivalent about him.

The world may not have exactly shifted on its axis today but it sure looks a little kinder to Nick. Peter Riddell of The Times said that:

“Even the Major administration was never beaten on a Liberal Democrat motion: government backbenchers normally dislike voting with the Opposition on their chosen debates so the outcome is a real coup for Nick Clegg – and should boost his standing as a leader – since he has been pressing the issue for some time.”

The Independent’s Andrew Grice hailed “a double victory [and] a good day’s work for Clegg”. The Guardian made a similar observation.

Why the sudden rush to praise? Let’s start with the simple answers. Nick was pursuing a topical, highly emotive issue which was also being championed by a notable celebrity, Joanna Lumley. The treatment of the Gurkhas is a very personal story and we could see them outside the Commons on tv last night. And it all plays into the prevailing narrative about the Labour government –out of touch and on the way out of office.

All true, but there’s more to it. Nick’s soundbite from PMQs yesterday could hardly have framed it better:

"Can [the prime minister] not see that there is a simple moral principle at stake, and it is this: if someone is prepared to die for this country, surely they deserve to live in this country?"

Therein lies the real reason why he is getting a good press. Nick stood up for “a simple moral principle”. By pursuing for months the plight of the Gurkhas and taking action yesterday in the Commons, Nick embodied a liberal narrative.

Nick’s experience is very similar to those of previous Liberal Democrat leaders, who made their mark by upholding particular principles, usually based on the party’s humanist and internationalist values. By his own admission, Paddy Ashdown was not a success in his early months as leader. I was not living here at the time, but by all accounts he found his voice by taking a stand on the issue of passports for the Hong Kong Chinese. Paddy embodied his narrative and reinforced it when he took a stand over Bosnia and visited the country, as leader.

Fast forward to 2003 and Charles Kennedy’s decision to oppose the war in Iraq. The Liberal Democrats are not, and never have been, a pacifist party. But we do believe in the UN and the international rule of law.

The issues involved are not identical but they have two key things in common. First, the government of the day had fallen well short (catastrophically so over Iraq) and the official Opposition had failed to recognise what was at stake. Second, the Liberal Democrats were able to define ourselves, through our leaders, on what were essentially moral questions.

No, this is not about playing politics. Many people have now forgotten that Charles Kennedy’s stance over Iraq carried great political risks at the time. Some of us remember that Tories called him “Charlie Chamberlain” across the Commons, just as they once sneered at Paddy when he took a stand over the Balkans. And, as Peter Riddell noted, Nick has form on the way the Gurkhas have been treated. No one could doubt that his sense of outrage is genuine.

My point is that Nick is at last getting some positive recognition, in his own right, for the correct reasons. Voters, like the commentators quoted above, may be more inclined to give him a second look. Nor should we imagine that every issue in politics can or should be reduced to a “simple moral principle” and accepted as such.)

Above all, Nick’s championing of the Ghurkas, and the reaction to it, has given us a glimpse of another aspect of the Liberal Democrats’ real narrative; how others see us, as well as how we see ourselves. Without falling into the trap of being a “pious party”, or over-simplifying hard questions, we stand up for those who politics has left behind and demand that they should be fairly treated; and for fulfilling Britain’s moral obligations as a country. But, as Paddy and Charles both found, that’s just part of the story . . .

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Back to the future politics: the opportunities and challenges for the Lib Dems

At the end of the worst Budget week in decades, two especially grim images remain stuck in my mind. The first is the newspaper charts, courtesy of the indispensable IFS, showing that the public finances will be in a deep hole for the best part of a decade and that we face “two parliaments of pain” before public debt is brought back under control. The politics of the next decade will be defined by very tough choices on spending and taxes. 

The other is the tv clips of Britain in the 1970s, the last time an embattled Labour government faced an economic crisis and was forced to put the brakes on government spending. The country’s economic situation is not exactly the same now as it was then and neither are Alistair Darling’s remedies. The ’seventies can be too easily caricatured as one long bad hair day. Yet those grainy images of trade union demonstrations and mounting economic woes are as potent a symbol as any that this country has. The British habit of explaining politics through the use of historical myths and symbols has struck again. The “crisis” frame is set up and the political narrative of a new national decline is set to roll. You’ve had the pleasure, now pay the bills. You’ve had the party, now for the hangover. The morality tale is clear.

Barring a miracle, Labour is on course for a huge defeat at the next general election. Looking at those IFS charts, it looks as if the more valid historical parallel for Britain in the 2010s will be with the early/mid-1990s: a Conservative government presiding over cash-starved schools and health services, along with under-investment in essential infrastructure. I can't see what other conclusion that we can draw from George Osborne’s public statements so far. [click here and here]

Despite the growing expectations that the Conservatives will win the next general election and have to make the tough choices, they still have offered very few specifics about how they would make them. But they are still not being placed under any real pressure. (See this FT article though)  Martin Kettle made this point very well in Friday’s Guardian and other commentators are picking up on it too. 

The Liberal Democrats have a new opportunity: to make sure that the Tories are placed under as much scrutiny on public spending as Labour. There are some signs that party leaders are playing this version of the traditional Lib Dem tune - “a plague on both your houses”. Writing in Friday’s Independent, Vince Cable had this to say:

“Mr Cameron has had a few hours fun enjoying his party's revenge for the humiliation of Black Wednesday. But he will now have his feet held to the fire for the next year as we compete with him to replace a failed government on economic credibility and hard policy choices. Unless he tells us what the Tories would cut he is no more credible than the government front bench. Labour seem to have given up – so now it's up to the Liberal Democrats to take on the Tories and expose their subterfuge.”

With this opportunity comes a new challenge for the Liberal Democrats. One is obvious: to be more credible and robust than the Conservatives on matters of public spending. As Vince argued:

“The only way forward is to identify, explicitly, areas of government activity which will have to be cut right back.”

He offered several specific suggestions, all which I agree with, and posed some valid questions for future debate. Still, there is a bigger context, a tougher question: how the Liberal Democrats believe that a reformed (that is, decentralised) state should deliver its social policy objectives and principally, a more equal spread of opportunities. The issues involved, which have never been straightforward, will be more difficult in the new age of austerity. 

“a national debate about what the state can and cannot afford in the future, not Whitehall salami slicing today. That is the responsible way—the honest way—to reduce spending in the years ahead and avoid painful higher taxes.”

I can't see how anyone can disagree, but then George Osborne also says he wants this sort of discussion. Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems need to say what they will bring to a national debate on the role of the state. Better still, we should lead it, otherwise a big opportunity will be lost. 

So, where does Nick want to take the great debate on the role of the state? And will the party follow?

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

On Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. There are thousands of events happening around the world to raise environmental awareness. Whilst I don’t want to knock the efforts of NGOs, community groups and schools to get people thinking and acting “green”, Earth Day has sometimes looked to me like a free pass for some corporates and celebrities.

The US energy secretary, Dr Stephen Chu, had a point when he said:
“I would say that from here on in, every day has to be Earth Day.”
The first Earth Day was held in the US, way back in 1970. It led to the enactment of two landmark pieces of federal environmental legislation, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. [For some background, click here] Other countries followed suit.

Nearly four decades on, however, the notion of a single “Earth Day” each year now seems somewhat vague and inadequate alongside the magnitude of environmental and human crises that the world now faces.

We could have, for instance, a “planetary emergency day” (designed to spur action to mitigate climate change), a “water day”, a “conserve nature day”, a “clean air day”, a “clean energy” day, a “zero waste” day, an “Earth Charter” Day, an “environmental justice day”, an “environmental peace day” . . . the list of possibilities is almost endless.

Joseph Romm of Climate Progress has argued (mostly tongue in cheek, I think) for April 22 to be rebranded, so as to encourage more people to be aware of the damage we are doing to the planet. He has a range of suggestions and then concludes:

“What the day — indeed, the whole year — should be about is not creating misery upon misery for our children and their children and their children, and on and on for generations. Ultimately, stopping climate change is not about preserving the earth or creation but about preserving ourselves. Yes, we can’t preserve ourselves if we don’t preserve a livable climate, and we can’t preserve a livable climate if we don’t preserve the earth. But the focus needs to stay on the health and well-being of billions of humans because, ultimately, humans are the ones who will experience the most prolonged suffering. And if enough people come to see it that way, we have a chance of avoiding the worst.”

Dr Chu said he would observe Earth Day. He was speaking in one of those “one minute interview” formats, so he did not fully develop the argument. Joseph Romm was being partly serious, partly humorous.

Yet both their comments about Earth Day touch on a bigger, more important point: the urgent need to go beyond 1970s-style politics when it comes to facing up to the ways in which people are harming the planet -- and ourselves. That means reframing the crises and opportunities that are still too easily pigeon-holed as “the environment” into a cause that is more all-encompassing, more human, more personal and that matters the all of us all the time. That sounds looks like one for every day of the year.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Movie Review: In the Loop (Contains Spoilers)

You should go and see Armando Iannucci's new film, In the Loop. It may not quite be up there with Dr Strangelove but the film is good political satire all the same, with some great lines and sharp teeth. The question is, who gets bitten? As Charlotte Gore says:

“In the Loop . . . delivers on the comedy - but you’re left wondering whether, by laughing, the joke is actually on you.”

The obvious targets of this satire are the people who got Britain into the disaster that was the Iraq war. Yet liberals and others who opposed the war shouldn’t expect any kind of morality tale from this film. The bad guys, in the form of John Bolton-esque Linton Barwick and the PM’s bullying thug of a press secretary “Malcolm Tucker” get their war in the end, by doctoring documents, covering up committees and manipulating the media. For this reason, the film acquires a near-tragic edge.
I agree with James Graham that, towards the end of the film, Linton dumps all over Tucker but, to me, the latter is neither “emasculated” or “broken”. He is too well established as a dominant character by this stage. Even after he has been outwitted, Tucker gets his way, on his own British turf at least, by making cold calculations, getting his tactics together swiftly and executing them with ruthless efficiency. All the things he does best.

I have a couple of suggestions as to why In the Loop, satirical and very funny though it is, may put ants in a few pants. One concerns the allusions to tragic political events that were wrapped up with the Iraq war [click here].

Just as significantly, the butt of the joke is what some people call the British political class. Tucker prevails because he knows what he wants and he goes for it, by any means necessary. We shudder accordingly. But compare Tucker to his colleagues in government. The film’s international development minister, Simon Foster, has good intentions, in a vague and hapless sort of way. Foster is also quite clueless and his shallow, inexperienced special adviser offers almost nothing useful. The department’s head of comms is detached, ambivalent and not a little shifty. All three are unguided by moral compasses or firm beliefs. They switch allegiances, make up their principles as they go along and think of themselves and their own careers before anything else.
The satire bites by showing the British characters, Tucker included, as craving the approval and affection of the US administration; and worse still, they don’t even seem to realise this, let alone question it. So we get a satire on power and how it works, not a tale of morality.

In the Loop’s Americans may be, at various times, comical, ingenuous, arrogant and weird, but they usually give the impression of knowing where they stand and how they think. In their own ruthless ways, both the “hawks” (for all their vileness) and the “doves” are true believers and behave accordingly. This seems natural in many ways, because the true power in the film resides in Washington DC and what happens there really counts. OK, the dove-ish General Miller / Tony Soprano doesn’t resign in the end, reasoning - if that’s the word - that if there is going to be a war, he should be around to make sure that it’s fought properly. (This produces one of the film’s best lines.) We laugh and we cringe at the same time, but then Miller is a satirical version of a professional soldier. Just like Malcolm Tucker.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Everyone loves clean energy. Now to pay for it.

It's hard to find anyone who doesn't like the idea of clean, sustainable, renewable energy. We need a lot more of it, to help turn Britain into a low carbon economy and to make the country less dependent on imported supplies of gas.

But here’s the rub. Having a clean energy future depends on stable targets and credible policies. It also needs money, and lots of it. A lot of energy companies, big and small, will need to invest in wind farms, tidal power, photovoltaics and other clean energy sources. Now the banking crisis and the recession are hitting the clean energy sector hard.

The EU Renewable Energy Directive gives the UK a target for 15 per cent of energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. The commercial and technology reality is that electricity, rather than heat or transport, will have to account for most of the new renewable energy. So the UK has a de facto target for about 35 per cent of electricity to come from renewables by 2020, compared to 5 per cent now. That figure has always looked daunting, not least because the government’s Renewables Advisory Board estimates that £100 billion worth of capital investment will be needed over the next decade to achieve the 2020 target.

But new investment in renewable energy seems to be grinding to a halt. The Renewable Energy Association has just published a new survey showing that more than three quarters of Britain's green energy companies are facing major financial difficulties in gaining access to loans and investment money.

This is just the latest bit of grim news. Last year, BP opted out of the British renewables market because it anticipated low returns and said it was going to concentrate its alternative energy business on wind and solar in the US. Royal Dutch Shell pulled out of the London Array, a £3 billion wind-farm in the Thames estuary. In March, Shell announced that it will no longer invest in renewable technologies such as wind, solar and hydropower “because they are not economic." And Iberdrola Renewables, the world’s biggest investor in wind power, decided to cut its investment in Britain by £300 million (more than 40 per cent). Big energy companies like Centrica and EDF are looking again at their British renewables projects. The UK’s renewable energy targets look harder to achieve than ever.

An article in this week’s Economist picks up the main reasons why investors are getting out of renewables: lower oil and gas prices, sagging demand for energy and a shortage of credit, as well as particular problems in Britain, not least the falling pound. It goes on:

“Convinced that these are short-term problems, fans of renewables want government cash to see projects through the tough times. But there are longer term reasons for Britain’s comparative sluggishness.”

These include the “unwieldy” subsidy regime (the Renewables Obligation) and local opposition that often bogs windfarm projects down in the planning pipeline.

What the article doesn’t explain is hoqthese longer-term issues can be addressed. The subsidy regime can be improved by the use of feed-in tariffs, which offer a simple fixed payment for every unit of renewable energy generated. This solution was pioneered in Germany, which has now over 10 times the wind energy capacity of the UK. After a lot of parliamentary pressure (including from the Liberal Democrats), the government agreed last year to bring in feed-in tariffs, for small-scale renewables. Planning law reform is politically harder yet further changes may be unavoidable if we are serious about meeting the clean electricity target.

Moreover, there is a case for using a government-funded “green stimulus” package, for instance to help bridge the gap between the ending of current support measures – like the Low Carbon Building Programme and the introduction of feed-in tariffs (expected in 2010). The REA, for instance, puts the figure for short term measures at £625m.

Just don’t hold your breath. Despite all its rhetoric, the government has, so far, devoted just 7 per cent of its fiscal stimulus measures to environmental solutions, according to HSBC. This is one of the lowest levels in the developed world. There is now a huge hole in the UK public finances, meaning that we are unlikely to see the sort of stimulus package needed to keep up with other countries. And other low-carbon solutions, such as energy efficiency measures, have a claim that is at least as strong as that of the renewables sector [see here, for further details].

The other big question, also glossed over by The Economist, is about how to finance renewable energy developments. Neither the level of public borrowing nor the “longer-term issues” absolve the Labour government of its responsibilities in this regard. Gordon Brown and co could follow the example of their Irish counterparts, who have required each bank that they have recapitalised to introduce a €100m fund to support environment friendly investment and innovations in clean energy.

Other interesting new ideas are emerging. One such comes from James Cameron, of Climate Change Capital, who has called on the government to issue "climate bonds", similar to the war bonds used during WW2. These could be ring-fenced for green solutions, or linked to specific energy projects.

The government needs to take these suggestions further, and quickly. But their record on clean energy is not encouraging. The Economist quotes Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation as suggesting that the Labour government has simply lost interest in renewable energy – at the same time as falling in love with nuclear. Sadly, that may prove to be correct.