Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for September, 2009

Brown’s Electoral Reform Package Is Too Little, Too Late

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th September, 2009

Gordon Brown 2In his speech to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton yesterday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a half-hearted attempt to seize the high ground on reforming Parliament by promising that if Labour is returned to power next year, it will organise a referendum to ask the public whether they want to stick with the present discredited first-past-the-post voting system for general elections, or switch to an Alternative Vote system (AV), such as that used in Australia.  But it would be wrong for electoral reformers to start popping the champagne corks. First, it is highly unlikely on present polling evidence that Labour will win the next election (at least with an outright majority), which makes the pledge worthless; if there is going to be a referendum held, it ought to be on the same day as the general election. Second, AV is not a huge advance on first-past-the-post. Yes, it gives voters a degree of preferential expression in constituencies in which no candidate gets over 50% of the vote. But it is still a majoritarian system, not a proportional one. And fair voting must be predominantly proportional.

So, what should we all do now? The first thing is to express disappointment at Mr Brown’s failure to tackle the problem of Britain’s political bankruptcy head-on. Then one can usefully sign up to the campaign being run by the NGO Unlock Democracy, which is calling for a citizens’ convention, which would give people the opportunity to help choose the electoral system they would like, rather than effectively imposing it from above (as New Labour loves to do). In the meantime, I shall be arguing for STV — the singe transferable vote, which gives electors a far greater chance of getting the elected representatives they want, as well as promoting greater diversity. If it’s good enough for the Irish — including the residents of Northern Ireland — why isn’t it good enough for mainland Britain’s general elections?


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Ireland Gets a Second Chance Referendum

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th September, 2009

Irish referendum posterWith just three days to go before Irish voters give their second verdict on the Lisbon Treaty in a national referendum, the polls are predicting a comfortable, if not landslide, victory for the Yes campaign. To the dismay of most of the political parties in Eire (though to the undisguised glee of UKIP and the Conservatives in Britain), the Irish voted No last year — a substantial proportion of them because they felt they didn’t know enough about the treaty. Some people, like millionaire Declan Ganley, were and still remain opposed in principle to the advancement of the European project. But many others were cajoled into voting No by being told (wrongly) that the Republic would have to allow abortion and a raft of other things which (rightly) in fact remain a matter of national, not European competence.

Irish referendum poster 2So why is a Yes vote much more likely this time? Partly it is because the other 26 member states have given Ireland a few concessions, notably guaranteeing that there will always be an Irish member of th European Commission. But mainly it is because people are better informed this time and they have been shaken by the economic and financial crisis that makes it perilous to be marginalised from the rest of Europe (a message that David Cameron and William Hague should take to heart). The Yes campaign has been much better this time, employing some strong, simple messages such as: the choice is between ruin and recovery; on October 2nd vote Yes — Put Ireland First. So despite the fact that Brian Cowen’s lacklustre government is currently deeply unpopular, and the bumptious Michael O’Leary of Ryanair has somewhat crassly offered one million free flights if there is a Yes vote, there is room for optimism that Ireland will now enable the European Union to make necessary reforms to move forward in confidence in a world in which greater European integration is needed more than ever.

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Where the FDP Did Best

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th September, 2009

Courtesy of the German Federal Government site (these Germans really are SO efficient!):

FDP results

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Germany’s Clear Election Result

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 27th September, 2009

Angela Merkel 2I was at the German Embassy in London this evening for an election night (or maybe one should more accurately say ‘election afternoon’) party; with typical Teutonic efficiency, the basic results were out in a matter of minutes after polls closed at 5pm London time. There had earlier been a sweepstake among guests about what the result would be; in my own prediction, I got the Conservative  Christian Democrat (CDU) and Liberal (FDP) tallies pretty close, but like most people I under-estimated the scale of the Socialist Social Democrats’ (SPD) collapse. The ‘grand coalition’ of CDU-SPD that has run Europe’s largest ecoomy for the past four years will cease and in its place a much more traditional Conservative-Liberal (CDU/CSU-FDP) formation will take over.

Guido WesterwelleFrau Merkel had every reason to be beaming on the instantaneous TV election analysis programme German leaders are obliged to take part in. But this was also very much Guido Westerwelle and the Liberals’ day. Only a few years ago, the FDP seemed to be on its last legs and it was not represented in the European Parliament for a while, as it failed to scale the five-per cent German election threshold. But its support has surged over the past 12 months and the party registered nearly 15 per cent today. Even though the FDP is well to the right of the British Liberal Democrats on economic matters (British newspaper journalists almost invariably refer to it as the ‘pro-business’ party), this is a good result for the European and global Liberal families, the ELDR and the Liberal International (LI), as well as yet another headache for Gordon Brown and the Socialist (‘Sad’) group to which the Labour Party belongs in Europe.

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Standing up for Phil Maxwell

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 24th September, 2009

There was an interesting political line-up at Toynbee Hall in East London this evening, when I (representing the Liberal Democrats) spoke alongside Peter Tatchell (Green Party candidate for Oxford East), Cllr Peter Golds (Leader of the Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council) and a member of staff from local Respect MP George Galloway’s office, at a meeting chaired by UNISON’s John McLoughlin. A Labour councillor was expected to attend, but apparently got sat on by his party before the event, which is maybe not surprising as the subject was the shabby treatment meted out by the Labour-run Council to Phil Maxwell, the officer who has for the past decade been running its award-winning waste education project in schools. The Council is now set to privatise the operation — in which Phil Maxwell will be the only person transferred out — and has awarded the contract to the multinational corporation Veolia, reportedly without putting the contract out to competitive tender, as it is obliged to do under European law.

That in itself would be fishy enough, but Phil Maxwell (who is also an acclaimed photographer and film-maker, as well as a former Labour councillor) is convinced that the Council wants to get rid of him, not only because of his union activism but also because he is gay. The Council does of course have a full equalities commitment, but the question there is whether the fine declarations of intent hide a less savoury reality. Phil Maxwell says his request for a detailed internal inquiry into the matter was brushed aside. It is a tribute to his work and character that so many colleagues, friends and well-wishers from across the political spectrum rallied around him this evening, almost filling the main Toynbee Hall. All this adds more spice to what look like being extremely interesting local elections next May, in a London borough that recently ousted (at great cost) its Chief Executive and has seen a whole raft of inter-party defections and candidate deselections.


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A Changing China in a Changing World

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd September, 2009

Fu YingAmbassador Fu Ying became the first Communist Chinese head of mission to address Liberal Democrats at their autumn conference in Bournemouth this lunchtime, at a crowded fringe meeting on ‘A Changing China in a Changing World’, alongside LibDem Lords Tom McNally and Tim Clement-Jones, foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey MP  and Professor Hugo de Burgh, Director of the Chinese Media Centre at the University of Westminster. Ambassador Fu is both rather glamorous (more silver-haired than in her official photograph) and very impressive; the days of baggy Mao suits among Chinese diplomats have long gone. Having studied in England and served as Ambassador to Australia, she is used to dealing robustly with critical questioning, of which, as one might expect, there was quite a lot at this meeting. Among issues of concern raised by party members were China’s continued use of the death penalty for a very wide range of offences and the continued imprisonment of Tiananmen protestors from 20 years ago.

Tianmen SquareOn 1 October, the People’s Republic will be celebrating its 60th anniversary. Interestingly, the Ambassador said that this has prompted many older Chinese to look back nostalgically at the advances made. It is easy to forget just how underdeveloped and strife-ridden the country was in 1949. Unquestionably, China has made huge strides, as well as some mistakes (the biggest of all being the Cultural Revolution). As New China enters its seventh decade, it is playing a role on the international stage more in keeping with its size and power. The 19th century was in some ways a British century, the 20th even more so an American one. History will judge whether the 21st turns out to be China’s.

Ambassador Fu ended the fringe meeting with a pertinent comment which reflected what I have been told recently by several of my Chinese students at SOAS, namely that while there are aspects of China which sometimes give it a negative image in the West, similarly aspects of countries like Britain sometimes generate a negative image in China too. So any work on image improvement needs to be a two-way process.

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The LibDems’ Secret Bestseller

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd September, 2009

Paddy AshdownShirley WilliamsWhat should have been the (free) bestseller event of the Bournemouth Liberal Democrat conference fringe this afternoon attracted just three dozen blessed souls instead of the three hundred the room could have accommodated, because someone forgot/failed to put the event into the conference directory. Whoops. The party’s leader in the House of Lords, Tom McNally, chaired a panel of the LibDems’ three top-selling authors, Paddy Ashdown, Vince Cable and Shirley Williams. Undeterred by rows of empty seats, great troopers that they are, they put on a bravura performance, providing tempting tasters of their tomes, their lives and the world (including one or two anecdotes thought not quite appropriate to put into print).

Vince CableIt was all hugely enjoyable and a good few books were sold. But how sad that what should have been a tremendous event was to a certain extent a damp squib.

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Time to Take Tea with the Taliban

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st September, 2009

Ed DaveyEd Davey, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman (or Shadow Foreign Secretary, as he is termed in keeping with the party’s rather grandiose way of refering to its frontbench team) gave by far his best speech to an autumn conference yesterday, with a tour d’horizon of prime foreign affairs issues. Most noteworthy was his signalling of a shift in emphasis in the party’s policy towards Afghanistan, including the deliberately catchy statement that it is ‘time to take tea with the Taliban’. In other words, it is no longer a viable strategy to rely entirely on military action. The Western forces in Afghanistan need to sit down and talk with the people fighting against the current government in Kabul and foreign troops. As Ed rightly said, under the term ‘Taliban’ are bunched a motley crew ranging from genuine religious extremists who would like to see the return of the ghastly pre-2001 Taliban regime, to Pashtun nationalists and ‘ten dollar Taliban’ — essentially mercenaries who will support whichever side pays them a local living wage.

TalibanPersonally, I have always doubted the wisdom of the West’s engagement in Afghanistan. History has shown repeatedly the folly of believing that Afghans (in all their rich diversity and legendary tenaciousness) can somehow be subjugated to the will of an outside power. Victorian Britons discovered this was not the case, as did Soviet Russians. So how come NATO member states, led by Washington, believed they could be different?

Yes, it is time to change our Afghan policy. And taking tea with the Taliban could well be a good place to start.

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Why Is the LibDem Conference Still So Hideously White?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th September, 2009

Floella BenjaminLast night’s opening rally at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth was a far slicker affair than usual and was held in the main hall for once, which meant that at last there was enough room for everyone. Introduced by party president (Baroness) Ros Scott and compered by Sarah Teather MP (who made some pretty near-the-bone jokes about her outgoing colleague Mark Oaten), the event featured not only the current leader Nick Clegg but also his predecessor-but-one Charles Kennedy plus two strong black women: the TV presenter Floella Benjamin (a LibDem supporter in Streatham) and the feisty PPC for the target seat of Birmingham Perry Bar, Karen Hamilton. So big ticks for the party giving prominence not just to women but Afro-Caribbeans as well.

bournemouth_international_centreHowever, it cannot have escaped the notice of Floella and Karen that they were talking to a great sea of (albeit appreciative) white faces, with only a tiny scattering of other ethnicities represented among delegates. To borrow the famous phrase that Greg Dyke used about the BBC, the LibDem Conference is still hideously white. If the LibDems are ever to be a credible party of government, that has got  to change.

Sarah TeatherThe leadership is well aware of the problem and there are groups such as Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) who are tackling it head on. In London and some of the other major cities, there have been real successes in recruiting BME members and indeed getting them to stand successfully as councillors. A whole raft of parliamentary candidates in predominantly urban areas are now Asian or black. But somehow local parties don’t seem to have managed to ensure that their delegates to conference are as diverse as the communities they come from. Perhaps some ethnic minority members feel conference somehow isn’t for them. The party cannot afford to let any such impression persist.

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Israel Is Stupid to Rubbish Richard Goldstone

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th September, 2009

Richard GoldstoneThe Israeli government has blown a giant raspberry at the UN report into the hostilities in and around Gaza earlier this year, in which an estimated 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died. The 575-page document was put together by a small team headed by the eminent South African judge Richard Goldstone. The Israeli authorities refused to allow the team into Israel or the occupied West Bank to carry out their work, but the investigators did go to Gaza and interviewed Israelis in Geneva (the UN’s European headquarters). Israel’s excuse for not cooperating with the investigation was that it was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council which, Tel Aviv says, is biased against it. To mark the appearance of the report, Israeli embassies round the world put out a strong press release rubbishing it (and Judge Goldstone).

Gilad ShalitThey should not have done. The report bends over backwards to be impartial. It slams Gaza’s Hamas rulers — rightly — for the rocket attacks on Israel which did not distinguish between military and vivilian targets, caused terror among Israeli citizens and therefore ‘would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.’ Similarly, the report rebukes Gaza’s security forces for carrying out extraditional executions and the arbitrary arrest, detention and ill-treatment of political opponents. It also calls for the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been in captivity for over three years and who should, the report argues, be released on humanitarian grounds.

Gaza conflictAlas, the Israeli government has chosen instead to smart at the stern reproaches the report gives over Israel’s conduct of the Gaza offensive, which it describes as a ‘deliberately disproportionate attack, designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population.’ It says that Israeli troops used Palestinians as human shields — a war crime — and that Israeli forces committed ‘grave breaches of the fourth Geneva Convention, which gave rise to ‘individual criminal responsiblity.’ In other words, individual soldiers could find themselves the subject of prosecuton. Moreover, the Golstone team opined, Israels’ blockade of Gaza in the years before the hostilities amounted to intentional collective punishment. And Israeli actions depriving Gazans of their means of subsistence, employment, housing and water, as wellas denying their freedom of movement, ‘could lead a competent court to find that the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, had been committed.’

These are grave charges, but justified ones. The question now is whether the international community — including Britain and other EU member states — is prepared not just to acknowledge this but to enforce the loigcal consequences — in other words the arrest of certain individuals when they are travelling, and/or appropriate sanctions. In the meantnime, the Israeli propaganda machine is doing everything it can to denigrate Judge Goldstone, a man of immense integrity and experience. The irony is that Richard Goldstone is Jewish and has always considered himself to be a friend of Israel. But this is Israeli government, like its predecessor, has an uncany knack of alienating its friends.

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