Thoughts on the Lib Dem decision to revoke Article 50

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I was glad to be one of the many conference attendees voting to revoke article 50.
Suppose we had removed the lines committing to revoking Article 50? A majority Lib Dem government would then hold a new referendum and if the vote was leave, carry it out. How could a passionately Remain, party which considers any form of leave damaging to the country do this? It’s nonsense.
What would happen to the party if it did? The Conservative party is a Remain party which felt obliged to provide some form of Brexit. Brexit has ripped the party apart. Worse, it has emasculated the government and is increasingly damaging the country. We are fully justified in refusing to follow the Conservative party into this maelstrom. We must to make it clear that if people want to leave the EU the Lib Dems will not assist them. They need to vote for somebody else.
What is the point of the party obtaining a majority only to be forced to do something it believes to be wrong?
The people who voted Leave in the referendum were encouraged to believe that just by doing so they could have a result that would please all of them. But to alter a forty years’ old economic and political relationship requires a party committed to that project. Not a reluctant party which is instructed, but one that already has a policy and will implement it.
In 2017 the electorate was offered such a party, the UK Independence Party. The electorate rejected that party. If the majority failed to get the result for which they voted the fault lies with political parties which promised to implement something they disagreed with and thought would damage the country. It was inevitable that they would make a mess of it and so they have.
The Lib Dems must not be such a party.

Towards a Programme for Remain

Towards a Programme for Remain

If there is another referendum, then what will “Remain” offer? The original remain campaign was negative and defensive. It is not surprising that Nigel Farrage, in his debate with Nick Clegg has been described as “pushing on an open door”. Is all we can offer negatives – there is no European Army – there is no federal state – Turkey is not going to become a member – when all of these things are clearly definite possibilities?

And we will be told that to offer “Remain in the EU as we were before” would be to ignore the previous result; to betray the people’s vote, to disillusion the country and cast doubt on Democracy itself.

The Remain side were shocked at the result. Many have said that had the result been the other way it would have been a call to arms to address the situation. That urge has been submerged in the fight to Remain and the collapse of the moral foundation of the Leave vote hasn’t helped us to remember its strength, despite its shortcomings.

Can we offer a new package which clebrates the EU but acknowledges the previous result, and seeks to address Leave concerns, ?

I suggest a new settlement– reforms of our own political and social system and reform of the EU. I submit that the Leave vote shows that both are in need of reform. Obviously, these details can’t be exact or promised absolutely but this is a campaign programme, not a manifesto.

These proposals are for discussion. Some are well rehearsed, especially to this audience but they may prove more attractive presented in the Brexit context. Not all my details will be correct or perhaps even possible; I am not an expert and I expect to be corrected on detail. In addition there is an element of appeasement which won’t be welcome to some. But if we are to get anywhere with “leave” people, appeasement will have to be part of the package.

To start off, we need our own bus: We should quantify the EU dividend, additional wealth that being in the EU and the single market brings into the country, preferably using an independent estimate. This will be speculative, but a quantifiable sum could be arrived at if we assume a situation where our trade with the EU remained constant but businesses had to do customs clearance, pay VAT upfront, pay the balance of tariffs given an average trade balance, cost of customs and inspection delays, the cost of running our own regulators where EU is now the only one, cost of diplomatic and trade negotiators, international driving licences – I’m sure there’s lots I’ve missed out.

Of course, not being in the EU would mean less trade with the EU and possibly more trade elsewhere, but this gives us a sum for the dividend we have now.

Reforms in the UK to address Leave Concerns

These are a few of the reforms which might address “Leave” concerns.

  1. Regional representation: The current system is weighted towards London and the South East. We need to establish regional assemblies or authorities which will have at least the right to control their own spending, especially the “EU dividend” (see the last instalment) and to scrutinise government ministers. Perhaps a representative of each assembly should sit in a reformed House of Lords.

  1. Additional democratic input to the UK system: We should allow MPs to be recalled subject to stringent limitations. In addition MPs should be subject to questioning by their regional or devolved assemblies.

  1. Education: we have allowed our population to become ignorant of our political system, including the relations between our devolved parliaments, our National parliament and the EU. We must educate the electorate (perhaps with a term long “Civics” course in schools) as to the structure of the EU, our national state, of the devolved administrations, and of the rights and duties of each tier of government. It should be obligatory for MEPs to run regular surgeries and/or appear before regional assembly scrutiny boards.

  1. Removal of of in-work benefits: The Leave campaign has emphasised the belief that EU citizens come here to access our benefits system. EU citizens have to work here before they can access non-work benefits but receive in-work benefits immediately. We need to remove benefits such as tax credits and increase non-work benefits to compensate. Whatever our view, many of the population consider that support for the family and the poor should be limited to those who are born in the country and/or have contributed to it. As a result EU nationals should not be allowed to access UK benefits until they have worked here for at least one year (as per access to employment rights) and this should include subsidised housing and child benefit.

The removal of tax credits will be no loss. The tax credit system, like the 18th century “Speenhamland system” that preceded it appears logical but has led to employers offering lower wages.

  1. No right to stay in the country without work: EU nationals should not be allowed to remain the UK after three months unless they have employment or can show they have means of support. There will also be restrictions on non-EU immigration. It may be that this will mean the adoption of an ID card system, anathema to Liberals but maybe a necessary measure at this time.

  1. Reform of employment law: Competition for employment has been a major grievance of Leave campaigners. Whether or not EU nationals contribute more to the tax yield and the economy than they take out, they are seen as beating down wages and competing for employment in a number of sectors. We should propose an increase in the minimum wage to prevent wages being forced down. At the same time we should promise a reform of the employment system to regulate self-employment and limit the use of the self-employed to replace full time workers.

  1. Finally (since it is an old song but one that might sound sweeter in this context) Participation: We must adopt a system of representation which allows all strains of opinion a voice. Our present system has allowed a major strand of opinion to grow up without any representation in the governing system. Outside the light of criticism it has grown crooked and diseased. UKIP received 14% of the vote in the last election but was represented in Parliament by one MP. And this is not the only outrage to common sense. The SNP was able to chase the Labour party practically out of Scotland with only 50% of the vote.

If votes do not count then their voters will take to other ways and means. We need a system of proportional representation so that every vote counts.

In respect of the EU

  1. A constitution for the EU: Let’s describe it as what it is – a Federal state but one where the competence of the Federal administration is limited to commercial matters and the social legislation which follows directly from those. The current system as laid down by the treaties needs to be simplified so that it’s understandable and can be stated more briefly.

  1. Increasing democracy in the EU: We should support the extension of the powers of the EU parliament as originally proposed by Jaques Delors. In addition the UK’s commissioner should not be appointed by the Commission President in consultation with our government but voted into office by the UK parliament. The commissioner would be subject to recall and would have to make themselves available for questioning by parliament and by the regional assemblies and devolved administrations at least quarterly.

  1. Initiation or repeal of legislation: We would propose that Parliament regularly considers (perhaps through a select committee) petitioning the EU Commission to make alter or repeal specific legislation. The commission already has systems for individuals and stakeholders to propose legislation. We could propose the formal use of the national parliaments as a major additional initiator of legislation, perhaps through an inter-parliamentary group.

  1. Let’s recognise the “European Project”: and its role as jump starting the EU but emphasise that it will only move as fast as the member nations and their citizens will allow. Let us accept that the ECJ has expanded its remit and jurisdiction into matters that might have better remained the province of the individual nations. We need to limit the ability of the ECJ to extend EU rules without political backing i.e.: a constitutional amendment for which we will need a mechanism. We will do so with a bill of rights for the individual nations to place a limit on what extensions the ECJ can implement.

  1. We should recognise and support an EU army: It was, after all, a large part of the UN army that fought in Korea (even Luxembourg sent a division) and what else is the European contingent in NATO? It should be established by a standardisation of organisation and equipment (already part of NATO) and a joint chain of command to provide the possibility of efficient joint action against an aggressor. But the remit of the force and its implementation will be subject to the decisions of the individual nation states and we should construct a legal protocol for its deployment.

  1. A joint immigration, aid and trade policy: It is clear that uncontrolled immigration is a major concern across the continent so it is essential that we have a joint immigration policy linked to a cooperative aid programme and trade rules to build up and support the economies of those regions where immigration pressure is building up. If “excessive” immigration is seen as a problem then we must convince Leave voters that it is better that it is addressed at the border of Europe rather than at our own borders.

The European powers have traditionally been colonial powers: and often those powers were brutal. It is now time to look at a new form of cooperative engagement with the developing world to promote social and international justice and reduce the pressures of poverty.

None of these proposals are new and they are certainly not exhaustive. I hope that they might provide a basis for discussion because if we hope to achieve a Remain result in any further referendum and certainly if we hope to achieve a result that will “stick” then “Remain, all Remain and nothing but Remain” is not, in my opinion, an option.

1968

scan_pic0506In 1968 I was very cold.

I was sleeping on the floor of my university administration block which had been occupied by us students. The administration had turned off the heating. Why was I there? I was seventeen and had had very little political education or leanings. My motivation was probably similar to that of George Orwell who arriving in Catalonia with, he said, a similar lack of political education, just felt that the revolution was something he wanted to participate in. Given that Orwell went to the front in a shooting war, my experience might be described as two or three octaves down the scale.

The University union was run by a selection of elected officers, generally left wing but also pragmatic, often focussing on the sabbatical that the president received and on the catering and entertaining requirements of the student body. The turnout in the student elections was generally low. But that year, revolutionary enthusiasm had gripped campuses across the land. The mechanism employed to mobilise this enthusiasm was the extraordinary general meeting (EGM), which according to the student union constitution, could be called if a certain number of people could be gathered to propose it. An EGM is nothing exceptional. It is a standard feature of many constitutions and almost always in those of public and private commercial companies (now just referred to in company legislation as a General Meeting). An EGM was called and it authorised the occupation.

As the days went on opponents to the direct action mobilised and called their own EGMs and more and more students became involved and many more voted than had ever done so in the regular annual elections, and support for the occupation increased. At the last meeting the students filled the main hall of the university.

Then the administration  implied that it could no longer carry on university business. It would suspend lectures and would not award degrees. A further EGM was called. So many attended that it had to be held outside and the numbers were counted by passing through arches. The vote went against the militants, the occupation was called off and, in that context, 1968 was over.

I think this episode throws some light on Brexit because a referendum is a form of EGM for UK PLC. But the authority of the EGM depends on the ability of those affected to call it. Without that, all you have is a snapshot of opinion at one point in time. If we have no mechanism for calling another referendum, then what does that say about the authority of the original? If only parliament can call a referendum then how can that referendum have any authority independent of it ?

I obviously hope that just as in 1968, at some stage the reality principle will kick in and we will think again. And, however big a majority may be, there can always be a bigger. But I don’t think we have reached the stage for our second EGM yet. I think we may reach it at some point. The “will of the people”, after all, is a moveable feast.

I don’t regret joining in the occupation. It’s core demand was that students should have a say in the composition of their studies and the principle that those involved should have a participatory role in their government at the most immediate level is one I still hold. I hold it locally as a member of the Patient Participation Committee championing co-production in the running of my local NHS, and nationally as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, themselves the champion of localism in politics in the UK generally.

I think the photo is of Gerald Hitman who was a leading figure in the occupation. He later became a controversial property developer and died in 2009.

2011 revisited – the Coalition, the Deficit and the Debt.

A piece published by Hackney Liberal Democrat Councillors in N16 magazine, 2011.

The Hackney Lib Dem councillors have made it clear that for them it is “Hackney First” and Lib Dems are as worried as anybody that the impact of the cuts should not fall disproportionately on Hackney. That is why, for example, we have joined with the majority party to call for the retention of the Educational Maintenance Allowance.

But since some people feel that our party has gone back on our principles by joining the coalition it is time to say something about why we did it, what we gave up, and what we have achieved.

Labour gave us identity cards, DNA databases, imprisonment without charge, detention camps for children, overbearing scrutiny of private and public lives, erosion of civil liberties. It waged illegal war in Iraq, created massive civilian casualties and costed our soldiers’ lives. It embarked on a massive increase in public spending, building up an unsustainable deficit for which we are now paying. We could not easily join with such a party. In any case, the figures did not add up – and they did not want it.

Alternatively we could plunge the country into anarchy or allow a weak conservative government to continue alone during the worse financial crisis for generations. Or we could join and influence the coalition even if it meant giving up some of our own policies. We chose to join.

The public arena is now dominated by the need to reduce public expenditure – the cuts. This will inevitably hurt the poor most. Are the cuts really necessary?

Imagine a family which for years spent £5 for every £4 earned and borrowed to make up the difference.  It is the £1 which is the deficit,  a deficit leading to a debt. That is our situation in the UK. It is not just having the debt – it is the ball and chain of interest payments which go with it. For every £1 we spend on the NHS, we spend another 42p to service debt.

The debt is not wholly Labour’s fault; the deficit is. The debt can only be managed if the deficit is reduced. That is why we support the cuts.

But not blindly. We are determined the cuts will be as fair, and to achieve as many of our manifesto promises, as possible. We are now yoked to a very different party. We believe in liberty, the Conservatives in authority; we believe in equality, they in differentials; we believe in society, they think there is no such thing. But we have caught the Conservative party at its most liberal and, before it starts to swing back to the far right we can work with it to produce good results, even at this fraught time. What have we achieved ?

We have taken 880,000 low earners out of the tax system and this number will go up each year. We have invested £9 million in stopping tax evasion, raised capital gains tax to equal income tax, restored the link between pensions and earnings and scrapped the compulsory retirement age, introduced a banking levy, set up a Green investment bank and scrapped the ID card programme. There will be no replacement for Trident this parliament. There will be a judicial enquiry into rendition and torture. We have ended child detention. Gay men, for that alone, will no longer have a criminal record.

These are manifesto pledges we have carried out. Equally important is reform of the bureaucratic and over-regulated state that Labour and the Tories have left us. Power is returning to local bodies, the pupil premium will go directly to schools and we are simplifying the early years foundation stage and the national curriculum.

We wanted to reduce the cost of University education. That has failed. We have, after all, 57 out of 650 MPs. But we have capped the fees at £9,000 when our partners wanted no cap at all.

The financial situation and the extent of the cuts mean that many people will be hard hit and most of them will have a good case to complain . We must listen to them and do everything we can to assist with problems. But cuts must come, sooner or later, and we also have to say, “if not from you, then from whom? If not now, when?”

Traffic on Lordship Park

A number of Manor Road and Lordship Park residents met up with Cllr Rosemary Sales and officers to consider parking and speed problems on their roads

What did the Lib Dems achieve in the coalition?

My Adventures in the EU (Referendum 3)

2016-06-02 15.00.51I just came back from Wales.

What struck me on the motorway was the number of European lorries carrying stuff, lots of stuff, up and down. It seems pretty clear that whatever we do, Europe is always going to be our major trading partner.

I have spent my life mostly working for and running SMEs, small and medium enterprises. These are the concerns that are often said to be least in favour of the EU and to be looking forward to less “Red Tape”. How does the EU actually affect us? How has it affected me?

Lets take Joe. Joe is an antique dealer. He sells a van load of antiques to a dealer in France to be delivered to his shop. The bill of sale gives the address. When he gets there the customer says, unload half here and take the rest to my other shop on the other side of town. No problem. But Joe is stopped by the police, the address he’s going to is not on the bill of sale. He is operating a commercial vehicle in France without licence or any documentation. Joe’s van is impounded. OK, this was told to me. I’ve never met Joe. In my opinion Joe may be an urban legend. But lots of stuff like this, perhaps on a smaller scale, used to happen and can’t happen now. Perhaps its no concern of yours if Joe loses his van, or is too frightened to trade into Europe or loses his livelihood or is just poorer, but there are quite a few Joes and Joe may be your customer, your relative or your friend.

In the seventies I worked on rock festivals. Legal wasn’t my field but I knew from colleagues that getting documentation for visiting musicians from the states was a nightmare. I don’t know how bad it is today but it would be a serious setback for entertainers if those rules were applied to Europe.

http://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/Home/News/2016/Apr/MU-position-on-Europe

In the eighties I worked for a company importing chairs from Spain. The chairs had to be bought by container. They had to go to Rotterdam first and used to get stuck there. We needed a customs agent at Felixstowe. Nowadays stuff like that comes in smaller quantities, in a van to the door. We pay by cheque or BACS.

Let’s think about K. They are a company that designs and sells furniture (I spent fifteen years running a furniture shop). K used a factory in Poland to make their furniture. One day the factory decided it could sell the furniture itself. In business you try to protect yourself against this sort of thing but it’s not always possible. K could have given up but they went to Poland, bought their own factory and filled their orders. It was a difficult time but most of their customers (including me) stuck with them and they survived. They mght have been able to do the same without EU rules but probably not quickly enough.

How about Shirley. Shirley’s parents split up and her siblings live in the UK. Shirley is very attached to her family and wants to join them here. She finds an employer and gets a work permit. Her employer knows she is a unique employee, will be an asset to their business and the Home Office agrees. But a junior diplomat in the embassy with a quota to make refuses her a visa. The employer appeals and wins but it’s a year later and Shirley has started a career in her own country. This is a real story, “Shirley” is a real person and is an American citizen. I was the employer. If Shirley’s mother had moved to the EU rather than the USA she would be here with her family now. You may think this is a good thing, that an English person should have that job and in any case we’re full up but I have never filled that position.

Later, one of my colleagues spent three years supervising a team of mental health workers in northern Germany. They would visit them every one or two months and do the rest on Skype. Apart from earning money this gave us some insight into Germany’s social care and mental health system and allowed us to spread ways of working that are not much appreciated in this country. EU rules allowed us to do this.

So I’m fairly positive about the EU but I realise there’s a cost for it. If people and vehicles and goods are to move freely than they have to pass similar driving tests, similar MOTs and the goods have to be of similar quality. And that means usually to the most strict standards applied by any member state. If you buy a German mattress for example, it will be made to British fire safety standards even though Germany never had these standards before and fought hard against having them imposed. If you have free movement of professionals then they have to be trained and regulated to a similar standard, maybe a standard that is alien to your own traditions. And all of that makes life more expensive. This, it seems to me is one of the “legs” on which the Brexit argument stands. And its a real argument. The problem is that if Europe is always going to be our major trading partner then we need a lot of this regulation to sell to them anyway. And other trading partners will and do impose their own requirements – but you have heard all this already if you’re interested in argument.

Next: A motorcyclist looks at the EU