Sunday, 27 November 2011

ELDR news from Palermo

Here is my report back to Liberal Democrats who directly elected me (thank you!) to the party’s delegation to the European Liberal, Democratic and Reform Party (ELDR).
The second Council meeting of 2011 (there are two annually) and the annual Congress took place in Palermo, Sicily on 23-25 November at the invitation of the Italia dei Valori (Italy of Principles) Party.
There were resolutions and emergency resolutions proposed by member parties, too many to summarise here, of which the most significant was, I think, one from the UK Liberal Democrats on the prospect of war with Iran. The gist is that it expresses concern at military rhetoric, top-level consultations between military and political leaders and the stationing of military assets off the Iranian coast pointing to the possibility of pre-emptive attacks being launched by Israel and the USA against Iran., and it calls for steps to be taken in Europe to dissuade them. When the US military are still engaged in both Iraq and Afghanistan one might think that they would not contemplate such a thing, but the evidence is worrying. After the Iraq “dodgy dossier” saga we do not need another war based on dubious grounds.
The main theme resolution, emanating from the ELDR leadership, was on the EU budget. As amended and adopted, it is a long resolution but the gist is, I think, that it welcomes the European Commission’s proposals to reduce the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) support to 36.2% of the total budget for a new 2014-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and affirms that on the expenditure side it must continue to move away from price support and export subsidies for agricultural produce. It calls for inclusion of funding for alternative areas of expenditure with the common feature of being areas where the Union can deliver more than individual countries acting alone (“European added value”). Climate change, renewable energy, water management, biodiversity and innovation are such areas. Research and development co-operation, avoiding wasteful duplication of effort, is a specific example. On the income side, the theme resolution as finally adopted contains a passage welcoming debate on reform of EU revenues but specifically rejects the European Commission’s proposals for new own resources to include a financial transaction tax or an EU-level VAT. Delegates were obviously worried that this might increase the overall tax burden on member states although it would not necessarily do so. Against the background of financial crisis as the world struggles to cope with the near-collapse of the banks by austerity measures meaning hardship for entire populations, Congress was in no mood to approve an increase in taxation nor in the EU budget overall. In failing to include wording from the UK Liberal Democrats referring to a possible EU-level tax on carbon, Congress in my view threw out the baby with the bath water, but I trust that we will bring this back to the next Congress.
The Congress elected British MEP Sir Graham Watson unopposed as its new President. In a speech too meaty to summarise adequately here, Sir Graham made it known that his Presidency would be energetic and ambitious for liberalism in Europe. He expressed a vision of our troubled times in which crisis is opportunity. His analysis was that socialism is in terminal decline and old political élites are reeling from electoral punishment for having contributed to the financial crisis that is bringing hardships to the people, while climate change poses an existential threat. He argued that liberal principles and values had the solutions and retreat into nationalism did not. He announced his intention to welcome more Democratic and Reform parties into our grouping. His aim was so that the ALDE bloc of MEPs in the European Parliament grows while the EPP and Socialist blocs wane. He also intends to press for changes that increase democratic legitimacy including the direct election of MEPs by one European election rather than 27 national elections.
ELDR’s business between congresses is managed by a Bureau, and Congress elected to it five Vice-Presidents, four in normal course and one to fill the seat vacated by Sir Graham Watson on becoming President. I have to mention one of these Vice-Presidents: Leoluca Orlando, of the Italia Dei Valori party. He, while mayor of Palermo from 1985 to 1990 and 1993 to 2000, courageously took steps to decouple public procurement from Mafia-owned businesses by removing their companies from the list of those allowed to tender for new contracts.
At this momentous time for Italians, emerging from the long bad dream of Berlusconi’s premiership, Italy of Principles Party leader Antonio di Pietro MP told us that the Berlusconi era had left deep scars. It was the end of Berlusconi but not of Berlusconism: a nexus of privilege, selfishness and giving precedence to local and family interests. He spoke of the need for cultural restoration of legality, public ethics and civic consciousness, which are the basis of every market economy. He told us that Italy of Principles supported the new Monti government of technocrats. This involved some sacrifice in that, had the scheduled elections taken place, the party would have done well.
Consistently with the theme of European added value, Sir Graham Watson spoke of some big-picture inspiring projects for Europe ELDR activists to campaign for. One example he mentioned is the European electricity supergrid, a means of connecting up and distributing Europe’s renewable energy long-distance for use throughout the region. These ideas were explored at a fringe meeting on the renewables revolution and an electricity supergrid, at which the management of a “smart” grid, fed by sources of renewable energy including solar, wind, hydro, biomass and geothermal energy, was discussed. He acknowledges the science that points to dangerous climate chaos from burning fossil fuels, and he has taken up the cause of the electricity supergrid as part of a solution to that. He also sees it as an answer to the security threat posed by dependency on fossil fuels from outside countries, evidenced by the behaviour of governments who have in recent winters not hesitated to turn off the supply pipe to Europe when it suited them, leaving Europeans shivering without fuel. In addition to these factors there is the relentless rise in the price of oil and in Europe’s energy bill, because world supply is finite while demand is growing. For these reasons even climate change sceptics can scarcely deny that it is in Europe’s interests to invest in the supergrid. And the beauty of the supergrid proposal is that it deals with objections (mainly aimed at wind energy) that renewable energy sources that are intermittent are no good. Even if the wind is not blowing in your area, wind energy from elsewhere in Europe can be brought to you via the supergrid. As for solar energy, the sun doesn’t shine at night, but its heat can be stored for use at night. The fringe meeting speakers explained that energy storage is in practice not difficult, provided that legislative changes permit electricity grid companies to build and be owners of storage facilities (which currently is not allowed). As people across the EU begin to see the Internet-like potential for a diversity of sources to feed energy into the grid, I believe this proposal will be a winner.
The Council accepted a membership application from the Democratic Alliance Party of Greece, a new party led by Dora Bakoyannis who was expelled from the Nia Demokratia party last year for voting with the Socialist-led government in favour of the EU-IMF backed financial stability loan. If the crisis bringing home to Greeks the impossibility of continuing previous high-spending policies is an opportunity for realignment of political forces away from alternating Socialist and Conservative government, it could just be that this new party emerges as a significant player in the liberal centre.
ELDR now offers associate membership applications to individuals for 25 euros per annum. If you are interested in joining, visit www.eldr.eu/associate
The next Council will be in May 2012. The next Congress will be in Dublin in November 2012, and its theme will be the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It will be based on an excellent joint paper called “A Liberal Roadmap for Energy Transition” produced with ELDR backing by the UK Liberal Democrats, the Swedish Centerpartiet and the Netherlands D66 party. ELDR is doing good work.
And Palermo is a great place to visit!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Mendel, the great modest man, and his magnificent idea

Today, or what's left of it, is Gregor Mendel's 189th birthday, and as he is one of my heroes, I feel the need to shout about it. Mendel was one of those people who led a modest life, saw and observed the same world as the rest of us, but did it so much better, more insightfully, more thoughtfully, and came up with an idea that is so simple, profound and right that the rest of us will spend the rest of time thinking: how come no one had thought of that before? In his case, it was a few rows of peas (round, wrinkled, etc) sown annually and the produce patiently counted and re-sown, plus maths, that revealed the solution to the bit Charles Darwin hadn't solved: how, from generation to generation, did heredity happen? The nuts and bolts of it? Nowadays we witter on about genes, DNA and all the rest of it, as though these ideas had always been there, but in Mendel's time hardly anyone had so much as a clue, and then Mendel wrote a clue. Some say he tweaked the maths, but even if he did, his clue was magnificent. Actually he sent a copy of his paper about peas and heredity to Darwin, but it was found in Darwin's library with the pages still uncut, so he never got round to reading it. Ships that pass in the night. So sad. Happy birthday.

On blogging (and grammarians)

The Hansard report on bloggers a week or so ago got me thinking why I don't blog that often. Someone intimated that I did it all wrong, I didn't react quickly to events and it wasn't a proper blog unless it was a weblog, a daily (or more frequent) diary. So I was duly put down, until I asked myself: who are these people who set themselves up as experts on how blogging should be done? Like 6th century Latin grammarians. Good grief, it's only just been invented. So I will go on doing it the way I like, when a posting has ripened enough to be a fruit that someone somewhere might think worth picking.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The dystopia that awaits us all?

After takeoff, as the aircraft gained height, Metro Manila gradually came into view: a grey jumble of human habitation punctuated by clustered skyscrapers, intersected by meanders of a noxious-looking, mustard-coloured river, sprawling across an enormous plain bounded on the west side by the sea and in other directions not at all, further than the eye could see, eventually obscured by pollution haze and clouds.

Making life bearable in this monster megacity is just one aspect of the problems faced by President Aquino's government. Already it is home to upwards of 15 million people and it is growing all the time as the burgeoning Filipino population drifts to the cities in hope of making a living. As it grows, so do the problems.

Is Metro Manila a premonition of things to come for our species? If global population growth proceeds as forecast, then yes. Population growth threatens to render all our efforts to tackle individual basic needs – food, water, housing, air fit to breathe, disease control – futile, and threatens to relegate our hope of improving quality of life for our species and conserving other species to mere pipe-dreams. Yet when I raised the issue of global population growth on the UK Liberal Democrats' Federal Policy Committee I was shut up: it has become politically incorrect to talk about it.

A shift in the spectrum of public debate has been engineered largely by the US extreme religious Right, whose support George W Bush courted during his presidency. Opposing contraception and abortion are key parts of their continuing agenda. And by silence, we are complicit in this shift taking place. Some think silence is the best policy, but it cedes this territory to the Right. Since when has not talking been an effective way to win a debate on anything? The territory of those issues needs to be fought over by vigorous debate. PC should not stand for political correctness, but for population concern.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Thoughts from Manila about remarkable people

Even to me, a foreigner, here in Manila the significance of President “Noynoy” Aquino’s government having made today a national holiday to mark the 150th anniversary of Jos√© Rizal’s birth is obvious. Rizal was a man of many talents and republican convictions who opposed colonial rule until executed by Spanish firing squad in 1896. The current President’s father Benigno (“Ninoy”) Aquino was the Liberal Party leader who returned from exile in 1983 to oppose US-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos, only to be assassinated as he arrived at Manila airport. I suspect that for ordinary Filipinos both murdered men have hero status bearing comparison with President John F Kennedy for Americans.

The current President took a little time off from affairs of state to welcome Liberal delegates from around the world to his palace last Saturday and give the keynote speech of Liberal International Congress. He seemed to me an unassuming man, and my impression is reinforced by reading that when asked what he would wear at his inauguration he is said to have replied: old glasses and a watch, a new fountain pen, a new barong [type of knife], old pants, decent underwear. But the words of his speech on Saturday were steely. He reaffirmed his intention to follow the “straight path” and to root out the Philippines’ notorious corruption. Not just words: news reports here during my short visit have daily confirmed that Aquino appointees are investigating scandals surrounding powerful figures during his predecessor Gloria Arroyo’s presidency, and recommending prosecutions.

He needs all his resolve. As popular uprisings plunge the Middle East into uncertainty, I am reminded that the first “people power” revolution – certainly the first in recent times – was in the Philippines. In 1986 millions of unarmed people poured into the streets and with courage and faith stayed there, facing down the army, until the rapacious and hated Marcos was forced to flee into exile. The murdered Ninoy Aquino’s widow, Corazon (“Cory”), was elected President and brought in a new constitution. But the interests that supported Marcos were still there, subsequent presidencies have been scandal-ridden, and currently the country is looking to Noynoy Aquino for real change. He was swept to power by popular vote; the first anniversary of his inauguration comes up on 30th June.

According to reports, Noynoy Aquino campaigned - wearing a trademark yellow shirt, which will resonate with UK Liberal Democrats - on the pledge “no corruption, no poverty”, mixing with the poor and listening to them. The painful memory of his father’s fate on the airport tarmac in 1983, as well as the torture and injustice suffered by friends and colleagues at the hands of Marcos cronies, are surely the motivation for the President’s decision to follow his father and mother into public life, although he is wealthy enough to live in comfort and safety. I admire his resolve, and wish him all the very best with the two enormous tasks of tackling corruption and poverty.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

This is a time when it's right to get angry

What’s the real story of the past year in a nutshell?
The country had had enough of Labour. Tired, bereft of ideas and saddled with an unpopular leader who had been in charge as the country blundered into the debt crisis, Labour was out of the picture.
So the Tories and Lib Dems did the responsible thing – did a deal on what they could agree on, to get a workable stable government and avoid financial meltdown for this debt-laden country.
If the country does not have good governance, all politicking over this or that policy is futile.
But our opponents don’t want people to think about this. They are talking constantly the language of Lib Dem “betrayal”. They would say that, wouldn’t they?
Labour wouldn’t say their party had gullibly let the City do whatever it liked under “light touch regulation”, spent public funds like there’s no tomorrow, and then left a note for the new chancellor saying there’s no money left, would they? But that’s what really happened. Labour betrayed the country.
The Tories wouldn’t say it was they who had persuaded our leadership to compromise on policies with big price tags such as higher education funding, in order to get a deal with our leadership on the fundamentals – dealing with the debt crisis and getting the real economy going in a sustainable way – and then turned round and stabbed our leadership in the back, would they? But that’s what they did, and that’s betrayal.
Of course they wouldn’t. Our opponents love repeating the words “Liberal Democrats” and “betrayal” in the same breath. Words that injure.
Most people have short memories for factual details, but they do remember how they feel about people. Do they like them? Can they trust them and rely on them? We need to go out fighting and challenge that mindset every time. I mean EVERY time. That means challenging the words.
I don’t do betrayal, and my party doesn’t either. Sometimes it is right to get angry, and now is one of those times.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Browne Report - where to go from here

Dear Nick,
I believe that tertiary education should be available to everyone in the UK, rich or poor, especially poor, who can benefit from it.
But I have never supported scrapping tuition fees. That would involve using State taxation powers to compel the lower-paid, who are less likely to have benefited from tertiary education, to subsidise the higher-paid who are more likely. I don’t think John Stuart Mill would have approved.
People with degrees get paid more. It is only fair that a person who gets the benefit and is able without hardship to contribute to the cost, should do so.
In view of the huge expansion in tertiary education, I believe scrapping tuition fees is unaffordable. It was unaffordable before the banking crisis. It is even less affordable now that the country is burdened with a huge deficit caused by bailing out the banks.
That is my personal view but current Lib Dem policy, made democratically by vote at Conference, is otherwise. Scrapping tuition fees is party policy.
It is, however, not a fundamental value. Policies can change, values don’t.
So what’s to be done?
I have looked at the Browne Report, which is readily available for download by anyone with internet access. It states that allowing students to defer payment of fees is critical to takeup.
The Browne recommendations allow for this by making nothing payable by students for fees. Nothing is repayable unless they graduate and begin to earn a good income. If anything is repayable, it is related to their ability to pay.
That seems fair to me.
The Browne Report states that making funds available for maintenance by deferred loans is also critical to takeup.
That seems fair to me too. It is better than a grant system based on family income because it frees students from family circumstances.
The Browne recommendations propose the same provision for part-time students for the first time.
That seems fair to me as well. Currently they have to pay up front, which is a hardship.
The Browne Report states that the percentage of young people in tertiary education in the UK has risen from 6% in 1960 to 45% today. This is a huge number of people. The cost has rocketed. I don’t see how free tertiary education can be paid for.
People who want to learn, who want that qualification, will welcome the opportunity offered by the Browne proposals.
In May’s General Election the party campaigned on a policy of scrapping tuition fees but the party did not win a majority. It got only 57 seats. The policy is still party policy, but we cannot implement it.
So where do we go from here?
The fact that some MPs have promised on the record – whether in writing or not does not matter - to support scrapping tuition fees puts them in a dilemma. The promise cannot be unmade. But to vote that way would be futile in the sense that whether they do or not, scrapping tuition fees is not going to happen. The arithmetic of democracy has made sure of that.
I am not convinced that the obligation to keep their personal promises entitles them to give right-wing Tories a precedent for rebelling in future over other issues which may be even more important.
The arithmetic of democracy has given the MPs power but it rules them too.