Snatching irrelevancy from jaws of the moment
By John C. Dyer, UK Correspondent
13 March 2010. Unemployment among black youths in the UK rose from 28.8% to 55.9% over the last 3 years. Announced 9 March 2012, this should have dominated weekend headlines in light of the demonstrated relationship between the August 2011 London riots and the then less than 50% unemployment among black youths.
But it didn’t. The Liberal Democrats Spring Conference did, by snatching irrelevancy from the jaws of the moment.
Charles West, GP and former Liberal Democrat candidate for MP, tabled a motion calling on the Conference to disown the Coalition’s controversial NHS reform bill. As previously documented, this bill provides measures to force competition among health care providers. It also forces the NHS to contract with “any willing provider,” reserves up to 49% of NHS hospital beds for private patients. The "any willing provider" is widely viewed as “code” for forcing privatization. It would certainly push NHS trusts to contract with private for profit corporations if those corporations seek the work. Most health care providers (other than those directly benefiting) oppose this bill, largely drafted by benefiting private interests.
In the run up to the Convention it became clear to many observers that only a grass roots rebellion among Liberal Democrats could kill the bill. Dr. West gave the conference that opportunity.
West was not alone. The grass roots activists and some MPs supported him, including the outspoken MP from Cornwall, Andrew George.
High Theatre Maneuvering and Drama
Tabled motions must compete to actually make it to the floor. According to West (writing on Twitter) leadership (behind the scenes) directed MPs to vote to give priority to a motion on a different topic (Syria). If successful, this would have quashed West’s motion procedurally.
The effort failed. The Conference tabled both the Williams and the West motions for debate
In the meantime, advocates lit up Twitter in an effort to influence the vote. Dr. Eoin Clarke, well known for his well regarded (among Progressives) Labour-leaning blog, “The Green Benches,” initiated a Twitter campaign. Coinciding with the build up to the Conference, Clarke called on activists to tweet Liberal Democrat MPs. Tweeters should ask these MPs to support Labour MP Andy Burnham at the forthcoming 13 March 2012 Opposition Day Debate during which Burnham planned to debate and support a petition signed by 170,000 signatories which asks that the NHS bill be dropped. Papers from The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph to The Guardian ran stories and editorials. The tweets and the stories gained intensity as the Conference drew closer.
Dr. Clarke’s boiler plate tweet was brief and polite, but some tweets were not. However polite Dr. Clarke's tweets, and however an office holder must be prepared for the heat or get out of the kitchen, Liberal Democrat MPs reacted angrily, some blocking Tweeters for spam.
Shirley Williams came in for significant personal criticism. She reacted with uncharacteristic anger. She was understood to call the well-regarded Polly Toynbee a liar. Toynbee for her part corrected Williams' assertions. Williams also expressed bitter anger at Twitter.
Liberal Democrat leadership described the tweeters as “Lefty Trolls” and “Trotskyites,” echoing the characterizations offered by their Tory colleagues. No doubt in the heat of the moment the MPs momentarity lost democratic perspective, but their reactions of course only served to intensify the criticism.
How did the Conference resolve the tensions of this moment?
First, the Conference voted down Dr. West’s motion. The outrage on Twitter and in the media over the next 24 hours was predictable. But the very next day the Conference voted down Williams’ motion. An activist was heard to ask an MP, words to the effect, “so what is our policy, then?”
The media was johnny-on-the spot to help them out. According to Channel 4, the Conference members voted to oppose NHS Reform. Clarity. But according to The Independent, “team Clegg” narrowly averted disaster. According to The Daily Mail the Conference had been "thrown into turmoil" by grass roots opposition to the bill. According to The Guardian it was all about Nick. The Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister had been “dealt a blow”; he had become “isolated” by the controversy. Simon Hughes, a leader of the Liberal Democrats, spoke during the Opposition Day debate the 13th. He characterized the result as a non binding "wait and see" statement. The turntable kept spinning although the music had stopped. No one was dancing anyway.
The Twittersphere’s reaction was considerably less complicated. Some thanked and offered supportive sentiment to the rebels. Many directed lots of anger at the failure of “the man in the mirror” to conclude the debate with himself with a win.
Perhaps Andrew George had foreshadowed this outcome when he advised the Twittosphere in advance of the Conference that a way had to be found to let leadership "save face." He forecast that the real action would take place after the Conference. And indeed some action did. Coinciding with Labour's Opposition Day Debate 5 Liberal Democrat MPs tabled an amendment which called for the Coalition bill to be withdrawn and a summit convened.
But whatever the intentions, good or ill, the Liberal Democrats once again have managed to remain irrelevantly ambiguous in a historic moment that presented a historic opportunity to demonstrate real leadership. To make matters worse for Liberal Democratic professionals, the bill's Tory supporters must see the waffling as clearly as Progressive opponents of the bill.
Liberal Democrats were not alone in missing an opportunity presented by the moment
Andy Burnham visibly led Labour on the NHS issue. Ed Milliband was noticed largely missing in action. This was not confined to deferring to Burnham's leadership on the issue. Invited to a protest against the bill, Milliband explained he was too ill to attend, but the ever helpful Daily Mail let everyone know that Milliband was not too ill to attend a football game.
Milliband was also not too ill to offer an approach to the issue of sanctioning benefit recipients who refuse a job interview under the workfare programme. Whereas the Coalition denies benefits for up to a year, Miliband would deny benefits for 6 months. His announcement was dubbed a “caution” to benefits recipients. Welfare Advocates were not entirely inspired. Neither were the Progressives among Labour grass roots.
Meanwhile, the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper wrote an article for the new Murdoch paper, The Sunday Sun. She opined Labour had lost its support because its base became fed up with the party for ignoring the interests of the working man (who actually works). Just what was Yvette Cooper doing announcing such a view in a paper which, along with other Murdoch papers in the News International stable, faces potential criminal charges not only in the UK but also the US, and, if advocates have their way, in Australia?
Just the 13th the Met announced the arrest of the former Sun and News International boss Rebecca Wade Brooks and her husband on charges of perverting the cause of justice. Was this New Labour renewing an old love affair? Someone personally courting the revolving door? The Sun rewarded Ms. Cooper and the Labour Party the same day, praising her in a separate piece for her stands on crime. However unfair, a Cooper oops, if this was one, also colours the perception of her husband, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, and therefore 2 of Labour's big 5. Progressives among the Labour base were, one again, less than enthusiastically impressed.
A deepening political malaise grips the UK
As the Liberal Democrats debated with themselves and lost and Labour demonstrated its capacity for "Me too, a split hair different," YouGov released the Sunday Times Poll. The headline statistics were: 37% Tory, 42% Labour, and 9% Liberal Democrat, across those who had decided to vote. Importantly, 22% of voters had either decided not to vote (7%) or had not decided whether or for whom to vote (15%). Of the 7% who had decided not to vote, 5/7ths had voted Liberal Democrat at the last general election. Of the 15% undecided, 19% had voted Liberal Democrat at the last general election. Only 28% of the surveyed voters approved of the government’s record to date. 55% disapproved.
At a time when the public seems to have moved beyond indecision into rejecting the Coalition’s direction, Liberal Democrats equivocate and Labour narrows the policy distinctions between them and the Coalition.
No doubt some may disagree with this interpretation. No doubt nuances are hidden in the gross figures. Some may point out I am not a dispassionate or unbiased observer. But my general view of the statistics seems consistent with what I have seen while observing the public debate at large, especially on BBC Question Time. in the media, and on Twitter.
The impression is, while the political elite of all parties do talk with their constituents, they take on board only the opinions of each other (and the cacophony of sometimes self appointed experts, interest groups, media, and donors). The result is that a significant percentage of the public are disaffected with the choices the elite present.
The Opposition Day Debate may restore some credibility to Labour and those Liberal Democrats, Green and SNP MPs who supported Labour. Labour, led by Andrew Burnham and supported by David Milliband, Ed Milliband's brother and sometimes rival for leadership, pressed their motion vigorously. Ed Balls was present although he did not speak. Ed Milliband was again conspicuously absent. But the overall impression was one of engagement (if eventually descending into partisanship). For the Liberal Democrats, rebel Liberal Democrats, led by Andrew George, Greg Mulholland, and the uncompromisingly eloquent John Pugh, introduced their own amendment in Mulholland's name. Andrew Burnham offered his advance support in a soon to evaporate show of cross party solidarity.
But in arguing for the amendment, George also recognized that the bill would not be defeated that day. He pointed out Liberal Democrat ministers and MPs were bound to vote for the bill. George instead argued the Coalition should withdraw the bill, hold a summit, and revise the bill. He bemoaned what he perceived as "tribal" politics from Labour.
As predicted, both motions failed. The government comfortably survived both challenges. The historic moment had again eluded Progressives. As predictable as the failure of the motions was the intensity of the reaction which followed. I have no doubt that anger and blame will fill the airways tonight and the days ahead.
It seems to me Parliament's ultimately ineffectual but intensely emotional debate will end up simply fueling the sense of a disconnect between the political elite and the electorate on the issues that really matter to the electorate.
The disconnect matters.
It matters to Liberal Democrats because these statistics highlight extraordinary weakness in the Liberal Democratic base. It matters to Labour because it evidences a disconnect between Labour and its base (a "softening" of the base reflected also in a prior poll among undecideds).
It matters more to Britain, especially because of the headline that should have dominated the headlines the weekend of the Liberal Democratic Conference- the unemployment levels among black youths. I am not of course arguing that the failure to stop the government's NHS reform bill causes unemployment among the youth or contributes to their sense of alienation. But I am arguing that their perception that the system offers them nothing is only one example of the destabilizing affects of a disconnect between a political elite and the experience of the electorate.
The disaffected who cannot obtain satisfaction through the political process do not give up. They turn to other forms of resistance. Some seek to break away (as with Scotland). Others move to civil disobedience (as with the Occupy Movement). Others turn to darker actions (Wikileaks and Anonymous hackers). In cases of extreme disaffection without satisfactory outlet, as in the rioters, they turn to violence.
The US is familiar with this disconnect between the political elite and the electorate . It birthed the “angry white man,” the Tea Party, the SDS, and the Watts riots. It never brings helpful and constructive consensus.
But long before such extremes, a disconnected political elite undermines the basic credibility of the institutions of a democracy and democracy itself, paving the way to something much worse. I fear that the UK may be backing into such a state of weakened trust in the democratic process. I sometimes see myself as if in one of those nightmares where I am watching an out-of-control express train careening at high speed toward a helpless family in a stalled vehicle. The scene proceeds in slow motion. In slow motion I see myself reaching out my arms, moaning a long “Noooooo.” I can sense myself vainly pushing my body forward, as a dreamer does during such a dream.
But the train keeps coming.