Friday, 18 September 2009

Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown fire blanks in Afghanistan

We are at a moment in time, according to the article by Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown in today's Guardian, where we have reached the last chance saloon in Afghanistan. I disagree. That moment in time passed by long ago.
Even so, having recognised this is the case, it may well be that the course of action they suggest is not implemented, and the consequence of that will be that the Liberal Democrats will then support a policy of withdrawing our troops sometime soon, maybe before the next general election.
As a policy change, that will be a big improvement, and another reason to vote Lib Dem.
Dealing with the situation as it is today, we need to consider the main drivers of Lib Dem policy.
Paddy Ashdown is held in very high regard by the party, and fully deserves to be. Not just for being leader of the party, taking over at a very difficult time just after the merger fiasco between the Liberals and the SDP. Much more significant was his remarkable success in Bosnia. What he acheived there was simply astonishing.
On the other hand, he also supported the British participation in the war in Iraq, probably the biggest foreign policy blunder in living memory. At a fringe meeting Ashdown did have the humility to admit that "we were right" and "he was wrong" on this issue. I have tremendous respect for the courage it took him to say that.
But did he learn the right lessons? It is true that at previous fringe meetings on Afghanistan Ashdown was very clear about the need to limit expectations about what can realistically be acheived in Afghanistan.
Yet the hubris is still there. By no means some grand neo-Conservative design, but the ability of Westerners to occupy a country that is culturally as different from us as can be, and yet "win the hearts and minds" of the people who live there is not only highly unlikely, it is not happening either.
The person who is speaking the most sense on Afghanistan is oddly enough a Tory. I would love to see a debate between Rory Stewart and Paddy Ashdown on Afghanistan. Rory makes his case very well in this video;
Paddy Ashdown has always been passionate about foreign policy, and that is entirely how it should be for a Liberal Democrat leader.
Nick Clegg has also been passionate on foreign policy, and made it a major part of his leader's speeches in the past. It is clear he agrees with Paddy Ashdown and it is fair enough that he draws on his advice given that is so. I for one would like to see a much higher profile from the Liberal Democrats on foreign policy than it does at present, although it would help if I agree with them first of course...
The question I would like to ask of course is why is it that Nick and Paddy are so determined that the British should continue to participate in this doomed policy?
Partly it is because with some reservations, the Lib Dems supported the war in Afghanistan in order to destroy Al-Qaeda. "Doing nothing" did not seem an option at the time, just after 911, and there is little to commend being a "fair weather friend". There is also a sense that we have a moral obligation to the Afghani people to marginalise Al-Qaeda, and most importantly of all there is huge concern about the knock on effects in the region, and Pakistan in particular. Finally it is the message that will be sent out to the region, the loss of power of the west to influence the region, a signal that being anti-West no longer has a price attached.
The problem with the first part; our support of the US to invade Afghanistan in the first place, is that we failed then to have our own foreign policy. The foreign policy of the UK was whatever the foreign policy of the US was. In fact this failure continues to this very day, regardless of whether the president of the US is Republican or Democrat. We simply agree with them.
The US does not expect to have to negotiate with it's allies what it's foreign policy should be, in which case we do not have to agree with them. We ought to insist that we have a clear set of objectives, a timeline for acheiving them and a plan B if the policy is doing more harm than good. Plan B might be simply to abandon the policy. There is no point in us being loyal to the US if it means being lumbered with a policy that is not working.
Ashdown and Clegg seem to think that the US/UK occupation is what is holding back the Taliban in Afganistan. Yet at the same time the momentum behind the Taliban is unstoppable. In fact a better explanation is that it is our occupation that is causing the support for the Taliban to increase. As Rory Stewart says, whatever moral obligations we have to the Afghani people, we are not morally obliged to deliver what we cannot acheive.
Likewise Ashdown has claimed that a victory for the Taliban in Afghanistan will mean that the government of Pakistan will inevitably fall. This of course is a nightmarish scenario given Pakistan is a nuclear power. There is a real danger that this could happen, but the question here is what would cause it? Again it is the occupation of Afghanistan that is driving the Taliban into Pakistan making it a more unstable country as a result. In other words the proposed solution is causing the problem to get worse.
Finally the message to the region cannot be avoided. The west is losing it's power in the world, especially after the collapse of the Washington Concensus (WC) economic order. It will be humiliating for the west to send that message, but we have no choice.
The new world order will be multipolar. The anglo-US model of economic development will diminish. Expectations behind foreign policy objectives will have to be reset.
To some extent that has already happened. Prior to the war in Iraq, the US/UK were fighting many wars. Since then, no new wars have been started by the west and noone expects us to get involved in any soon.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, what should we do? Rory Stewart points out that there are some parts that do not want to run by the Taliban. The Shias in the west and the Tajiks in the north are examples of that. Maybe a limited presence can help them, especially when you consider the Taliban never run the whole of the country before when they were in power. Even so, there is a danger of a civil war if we do that.
So we should withdraw from most of the country at least, and adjust of foreign policy objectives accordingly. It may well be the case that democracy in Pakistan will continue for the forseeable future, and it is important that will help them acheive that. At this moment in time it is not clear why a radical take over in that country would be inevitable if the Taliban take over in Afghanistan. There are other factors that might drive this eventuality as well, and we have to mitigate those. A just peace in Israel and a just settlement in Kashmir would be helpful for example, albeit hard to acheive.
It is disappointing the Lib Dems do not have a better policy on Afghanistan, and I would rather wait until after the next general election before I would want to press on this issue. The policy may improve of it's own accord anyway.
Lets hope so.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Nick Clegg makes tough choices.

At the one day conference at the London School Of Economics earlier this year, Nick Clegg was proposing that we make radical cuts in public spending. He informed us that we will have to make "tough choices". Soon afterwards Steve Richards told us that politicians often talk about tough choices, without themselves making the tough choice of telling us what they are.
Since then those choices have been made. The first is that the party is no longer committed to a policy of "We-will-cut-current-public-spending-by-£20billion-and-reassign-some-of-it-to-our-existing-priorities-and-anything-left-will-be-tax-cuts", and now the party is no longer committed to replacing Trident. In other words there is not much scope for cuts, but we can cut Trident.
Both are good moves, and what I have argued for on this blog.
I can now look forward to the next general election with the same enthusiasm as I had at the last general election. Last time it was opposition to the Iraq war that made it worthwhile. This time it is opposition to Trident. If only we had not wasted all those years up until now on the wrong track. Now we have just 9 months to get our new message across.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Nick Clegg to give a townhall meeting in Hackney on Tuesday about Turkey and the EU.

In the UK the Turkish/Kurdish/Cypriot communities are the most politically intense I have met. Many are very good liberals and I am hoping they will get more involved in the British political scene. Historically most have supported Labour, but Labour's appalling foreign policy has disillusioned many, notably in relation to Iraq and Israel, and given that many also support Turkey's entry into the EU, with the intention of making the EU work (this latter point distinguishes the Lib Dems from the other parties), then there could not be a better time for the liberal wing of these communities to join the Lib Dems.
The Liberal Democrats Friends of Turkey (LDFoT) provide an excellent hinterland for liberal Turks. A chance to find out more about the party before deciding whether to join.
I have made some very good friends in LDFoT and so far every one I have met so far would make an excellent member of the party. Some already are.
On Tuesday Hackney Liberal Democrats and LDFoT have jointly organised a public meeting with Nick Clegg as the main speaker about "Turkey - our future in Europe". Also every bit as important our current MEP Sara Ludford, plus Jonathan Fryer who according to opinion polls will also get elected on 4th June will also be speaking at this event.
and where you can reserve your seat.
Maybe the tectonic plates are shifting, Labour in decline and the Lib Dems in the ascendency?
Well anything can happen in a public meeting. One thing I will predict, you will not have seen anything like it before in Hackney (and we have seen many things here!).

PS I removed my previous posting whilst I recheck my facts on what is going on in Turkey. It looks very complicated, more than I appreciated before. Thanks to Barry Stocker for pointing that out.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

First the bankers, next the tax evaders

I joined "The other taxpayers alliance" on Facebook recently - a useful opposition force to that motley collection of very rich people in the Taxpayers Alliance who dont want to pay any tax.
They directed me to a meeting at the TUC congress house which I went to on Thursday. It was organised by Compass, the left of centre pressure group within the Labour party who are supporting John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and their main hope for rescuing the party from it's dead end neoliberal trajectory.
This was a significant meeting as Angela Eagle - a cabinet minister was there, mostly to listen although she did give a brief speech at the beginning.
The message of the meeting was clear, it is time to close in on the tax evaders and the tax avoiders. Although the number of rich people is small as a proportion of the population, they withhold far more of their capital than do those at the other end, the so-called "benefit scroungers".
The opinion poll evidence was clear, public opinion is now wanting the loopholes to be closed. The next budget is on Tuesday. Compass may well be pushing on an opening door.
I hope the Liberal Democrats take the opportunity to pre-empt them on this, this weekend. Vince Cable and Nick Clegg often refer to this injustice in their speeches - it is perfectly consistent with what they have said all along, unlike Labour who only now are thinking about it, and the Tories who have long been financed by tax evaders and dodgers for services rendered. At the meeting our attention was drawn to the activities of Micheal Ashcroft, one of the major Tory donors and still involved with banks in Belize and the Tory party.
I was impressed with the meeting for it's caution. The right wing position (supported by "New Labour" under the influence of Rupert Murdoch) of attacking benefits scroungers still wins votes for Labour/Tory and that was recognised - although not agreed with. A crude "attack the rich" position was not supported by the meeting, with the possible exception of a certain Richard Murphy, who urged us not to be timid.
Richard Murphy is the man who set up the Tax Justice Network (TJN). He is a passionate, colourful individual who knows a lot about his subject, but also has his foibles. The main one being his supersized ego. It is no surprise that he started this group - it is hard to imagine he would be able to join someone else's. It is hard to imagine the TJN can represent anything other than what Richard Murphy thinks at any particular time. Most of what he said fitted in well with what the audience wanted to hear, but he did acheive the remarkable feat of actually being heckled at a meeting organised and attended by people who expected to agree with him.
Well that is an aside for now.
The left have some grounds to be optimistic that public opinion will now support greater redistribution of wealth. Our main challenge is that that in itself will not prevent the rise of the far right, who may also seek to cash in on this, and who are likely to benefit most from the failures of neoliberal economic policy and for other reasons such as the threat of terrorism.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Maybe we will have nuclear disarmanent after all

The Liberal Democrats made a big mistake when they decided a while back not to take advantage of the new world order and adopt a policy of decomissioning our nuclear weapons. It was Ming Campbell, still fighting the internal battles of the 1980s (when the disarmers in the Liberal party had the upper hand) who insisted on the policy that we now have.
The SNP took full advantage in Scotland and showed beyond doubt that nuclear disarmanent is actually a vote winner, especially since we don't need the weapons.
But we can hope that although the opportunity was missed, maybe it does not matter so much anymore. The economic pressure on Russia, the US and the UK to disarm is so great, they might as well agree to "multilaterally disarm" at the earliest opportunity. With Obama now talking about disarmanent, we should bring forward the talks and agree as soon as possible.
Another military adventure we cannot afford is the war in Afghanistan. Obama said all along that he was going to intervene further in this conflict. He continues to propose this policy whilst wracking up even more debt in order to finance it, debt that neither the US or UK can afford.
Whilst wishing Obama well, the EU still has a responsibility to be a candid friend and tell the US to settle with the Taliban and get out of Afghanistan before it becomes another Iraq.
The US/UK cannot come to terms with their loss of power in the world, the harder they try to find it the more they diminish it even more. And the expense is great human tradegy.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Vince Cable lays into Libertarians

Early on in this Parliament I viewed the utterings of Vince cable with some alarm. He was then proposing that the Lib Dems support a "flat tax", which appeared to be very regressive, and he proposed ridding the party of it's very popular policy of taxing the rich at 50%.
The party very quickly dropped the flat tax idea (as did the Tories) when the German Christian Democrats nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in their general election, having proposed such a policy. However Vince succeeded in changing the 50% policy. At the time he argued that the new replacement policy was even more progressive - more revenue would be generated from Green taxes and these really would be progressive. On the other hand, Ming Campbell suggested another reason; he wanted the policy to "reward ambition" - the same logic you would expect from a Thatcherite.
So Vince Cable was identified with the right of the party, but listening to his speeches I was not so sure. He was coming up with many progessive ideas on taxation, and in my mind I repositioned him as "hard to categorise".
This of course was confirmed when he supported the nationalisation of Northern Rock as an emergency measure. I wonder if other LD MPs like David Laws and Jeremy Browne would have proposed such a policy? Yet the party was united on this, apart from a few fringe bloggers.
Recently Vince has somehow found time to write a book, and this of course gives an excellent opportunity to find out what he thinks, albeit in less than 160 pages.
I have read the book and would heartedly recommend it. I agree with most of it. Because it is short there are obvious gaps - the chapter on Malthus is rather short and inconclusive which is a shame as I for one think it ought to be the most important part.
However there is no doubt what he thinks about extreme Libertarians;
"(quote from Herbert Spencer) 'The ultimate result of shielding man from the efects of his folly is to people the world with fools' . This approach was influencial in the years of the Great Crash, and it helped inform the advice given to president Hoover by his treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon: to do nothing. '[Panic] will purge the rottenness out of the system ... People will work harder and live a more moral life ... enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.' Since Hoover and Mellon emerged as the fools who precipitated the Great Depression, their abstemiousness become seriously unfashionable", page 46, The Storm.

The economic crises we face today has resulted from the policy mistakes of those who believed in the philosophy of "setting business free". The business lobby is a formidably powerful lobby and has persuaded even nominally socialist politicians to buy into this philosophy. We are where we are today because of the failure of "light touch" regulation. However even if you persuade the politicians the policy still has to work, and instead it has failed, big time. The backlash is now well under way, and libertarians will be one of the foremost causalities.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Nick Clegg still in a tangle over tax

I went to the one day Lib Dem conference today at the LSE. It was an excellent forum, but once again the issue of taxation was raised and the answers were not forthcoming.
Nick Clegg spoke about "tough choices" - a favourite phrase of Tony Blair from years gone by.
Steve Richards, who chaired the next event has heard it all before. He reckoned that it was a complete myth that the Liberal Democrats will find £20Billion public expenditure cuts (albeit cuts that will be reallocated to expenditure elsewhere, plus tax cuts if anything is left over), and he warned about politicians who talk about tough choices and then not say what they are.
Of course student tuition fees - which the LDs plan to scrap but the leadership intend otherwise - is an example of the kind of cuts we will have to make.
Danny Alexander had to respond to that, but instead of talking about hard choices, he downplayed the prospects, saying that a lot of the cuts had already been accounted for (scrapping ID cards for example), and that 3% of overall spending is not very much.
Well come on then, are there tough choices or aren't there?
The question I wanted to ask was a) how much of the £20Billion cuts has already been accounted for and what are they, and where of the remaining £xBillion are the rest of the cuts going to come from? Students tuition? NHS? Scrapping and not replacing Trident? Afghanistan troop withdrawal?
Will we get a say in these cuts, or will they appear rabbit from a hat just before the next general election?
These tax cuts are the remnents of the ideas proposed by parts of the Orange book, an emblem of free-market economics of the kind that we do not need just right now.
However the marketisation of public services has fallen short. Private companies cannot be trusted anymore than the public sector. I am sure that the original idea of tax cuts was related to streamlining public services, but how it has turned out the Liberal Democrats are simply resorting to cutting budgets. This is what Danny Finkelstein calls "Punk Tax Cuts". Cuts not made possible by public services being run more "efficiently", but by simply being cut.
Of course I have my own suggestions; scrap Trident and don't replace it, and withdraw from Afghanistan (as well as Iraq), but I am sure I will not be taken up.
The issue of student tuition fees has not gone away. Despite a change in policy having been rejected on the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) by a massive 14-5, it looks like the matter will be discussed in our Harrogate conference coming up soon. The FPC vote indicates that the party is not ready to make these tough choices, although I would submit that without seeking to change our policy on Trident and Afghanistan, then the same is true of the leadership as well.
All the more absurd that we passed this policy on taxation in Bournemouth in the first place.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Nick Clegg calls for an end to supplying arms to Israel

The fastest ever Facebook group I ever set up can be found here;
I am delighted at the overwhelming response from fellow Liberal Democrats to joining this group. Even more impressive when you consider that both the Labour and Tory parties would not dare suggest we stop selling arms to Israel.
Yet this is a matter of regret rather than triumph. The USA has made Israel the most powerful country militarily in the Middle East. In comparison to the Palestinians, most Israelis live comfortably. They have no reason to seriously negotiate with the Palestinians, they have the power to impose their own preferred solution on the conflict and they have the miliary force to do it.
Barack Obama is unlikely to change that. Even if he were so inclined - and there is no evidence that he is - his Democrat party will not allow it.
So what are we to do? There are some things we can do. As Nick points out, stop selling arms to them. Maybe stop trading with them altogether.
On the other hand if we are too confrontational, would we be able to play a diplomatic role as the Norweigans did some time ago?
It is a devil of a problem, and the US has made it almost impossible.