Georgian Nightmare: On ‘Foreign Agents’
March 8, 2023 § Leave a comment
Today, the front line between democracy and authoritarianism seems to be running through the centre of Tbilisi.
The new government-backed ‘foreign agents’ law has triggered a large new wave of protests, in the latest round of power consolidation by the governing party, Georgian Dream. Essentially, the law provides for a new legal labelling and status for civil society organisations that get a noticeable percentage of their funding (anything over 20%) from outside Georgia, and also provides for those groups to be subject to much greater potential arbitrary scrutiny from the government, with new reporting obligations and heavy fines for failure to pay. The bill particularly focuses on charitable NGOs and media organisations – in other words, the people who might hold the government to account on just about anything at all.
Georgia has had a democracy problem for some years now, ultimately largely stemming from the oligarch-centred nature of the government. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the money man behind Georgian Dream, still wields huge influence with no democratic mandate at all. His wealth also sets him apart: Ivanishvili is personally worth about a third of the country’s GDP, putting him in a sole dominant financial position that nobody else in Georgia has the resources to challenge. After Georgian Dream came to power with a peaceful election victory in 2012, Ivanishvili mostly pursued a policy of ambiguity towards Russia, publicly promising European integration to a Georgian public increasingly hungry for it while in practice doing little that would upset Vladimir Putin. There are likely large and undisclosed financial connections between Georgian Dream and the Russian state, with questions around how Ivanishvili was able to liquidate huge amounts of assets to fund his early political campaigns so effectively remaining unresolved. That ambiguity has however been dropping away in recent years, and European demands to reduce the potential oligarchic clout of Ivanishvili may have contributed to Georgian Dream deciding that they feel secure enough in power to ditch the pro-European rhetoric and take a more stridently anti-western position.
The opposition have largely remained centred on the United National Movement, who Ivanishvili defeated in 2012: their unpopularity at that time and some of the brutal crackdowns on protestors by the government of mercurial then-president Mikheil Saakashvili has been successfully leveraged by Georgian Dream ever since in a “vote for us, you don’t want those guys back” approach to politics. A constellation of smaller parties, mostly centrist and European such as Lelo, European Georgia, and winner of the “sounds more like a videogame than a political movement” award Strategy Builder, have mostly failed to break this duopoly. The Georgian media landscape is already heavily polarised, with the national television and several other stations quite firmly in government hands and government-backed stations having heavily reduced opposition coverage in the last half decade: reducing the clout of the international parts of the media is likely to be a major goal of the foreign agents bill.
The bill is certainly not the first trigger for anti-government, pro-western protests in recent years: there have been a lot, especially before and after the 2020 elections where arguments over electoral reforms and possible fraud and undue influence such as threats and vote-buying caused large rounds of regular protests. Arrests of opposition figures which were claimed to be politically motivated, most notably senior UNM figure Nika Melia who was arrested for organising violence after a 2019 protest forced its way toward the parliament building, contributed to major boycotts of parliament by the opposition, a tactic which has been ongoing. Police brutality was a real issue through these protests as well, with criticism for use of rubber bullets which caused very significant injuries to some protestors (rubber bullets are theoretically intended to be used with a bounce and at long range, and can cause huge damage if fired directly at close quarters which is what in fact happened). Use of water cannon and tear gas have also been common tactics, right up until the present point.
So having (very briefly and loosely) covered some of the backstory let’s return to the present bill and its impacts. As noted at the top, the current bill is largely related to monitoring foreign-funded organisations, but the addition of a separate legals status will make further crackdowns very likely and the powers to investigate can be used to harass organisations out of being able to function even if they’re not in theory ‘banned’ – simply piling on pressure until an organisation and its staff cannot function is quieter and just as horribly effective, the hallmark of the modern oligarchic toolbox. The choice of the term ‘foreign agent’ – which heavily implies spying & acting against national interests – is also very telling regarding how the government wants this action to be seen. Georgian Dream’s chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, and the Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, have sharpened their rhetoric in recent years painting all opposition forces as “radicals” backed by foreign powers in an increasingly conspiracist view of foreigners and their presence in the Georgian sphere.
It’s also worth noting that the bill only targets specific forms of international influence: this has been used to defend it by some, who claim for example that as it doesn’t directly target business investment it won’t cause any economic issues for Georgia. This is wrong on multiple counts. On the business side, European businesses will see a chilling effect for trying to operate in a country where they no longer have trusted non-governmental media information and partners, and which may become less safe for their clients and customers if additional free speech restrictions take place. Conversely, people who don’t care about anyone’s safety and just want to buy influence under the table or through pork-barrel infrastructure spending and ownership will not be inconvenienced by this bill at all – which is to say that Russian and Chinese operations in Georgia won’t be batting an eyelid, while donation-funded charities and academic collaborations with European universities will be at serious risk of targeting by the authorities. The idea that this bill actually tackles foreign influence in a meaningful way, or that it does so without harming Georgia’s economy and society, is unfortunately laughably nonsensical.
The other major consideration in the damage this will do to Georgia is geopolitical. European leaders (correctly) see the bill as the antithesis of the reforms they have listed to move the country towards EU candidate status. This is likely to have very significant knock-on impacts for Georgia: as the country is some distance from candidate status, the fact of its position on that issue may not have an immediate prima facie impact, but Georgia is deeply tied to Europe and trying to freeze out the European Union could have adverse effects in lots of other areas. Georgia’s large agreements with the EU include a deep free-trade Association Agreement (since ), and a visa-free regime (sine 2017). If Georgia becomes hostile for European organisations and NGOs to operate in, this could put those agreements under threat or force their renegotiation in the coming years, and will likely start shifting European governments against advising businesses and institutions to seek deeper ties in Georgia. The economic impact of any of those changing on Georgia could be significant, both making the country poorer and increasing its economic ties to and influence from other, less friendly neighbours.
The bill has indeed been a step too far for President Salome Zurabishvili, the French-Georgian former diplomat who serves as Georgia’s president, and she has both spoken in opposition to it and questioned its constitutionality due to the fact that Georgia’s constitution obliges the country to try and join the EU, something EU leaders have been very clear this bill reduces the chances of. Georgia’s parliament, however, has considerable power to overrule her and her opposition is unlikely to prevent the bill. She was backed by Georgian Dream in an independent presidential run in 2018, but has become more critical of them since 2020: Georgian Dream abolished direct presidential elections via an amendment in 2017, so next year the presidency will be solely in the gift of the ‘electoral college’ formed of serving politicians – which is to say, in the gift of Georgian Dream. It seems wildly unlikely, short of the government collapsing within the next year, that Zurabishvili will get a second term.
On a personal note, I’m particularly sad about the bill. Whilst on this blog I mostly write about liberal politics, my actual profession is as a historian of Georgia, and academic collaborations are likely to be one of the areas at serious risk of targeting under ‘foreign agent’ rules, as are creative collaborations which are also something very dear to my heart. My current job focuses on the preservation of academic output, historical research, and digital heritage in the Transcaucasus, and there’s a terrible irony that this opposition to supposed foreign influence could well make it much more difficult for us to protect and preserve the history of Georgia itself.
This, though, is always the way of those would be tyrants. For all the cries of foreign influence by Georgian Dream, what they seem to truly seek to label as foreign is any influence, past, present, and future, Georgian and European and international, that they cannot control and cannot enrich themselves or benefit from personally. They will cry stability and denigrate their opponents as radicals, and mean it, because for them ‘stable’ is a word that keeps themselves on top. There is little ideology behind Georgian Dream: they are a party of power, and increasingly their desire to preserve that power cannot be reconciled with democratic values. As Georgian Dream accrues more and more power and moves further away from democratic allies and towards its former colonial rulers’ sphere of influence, it mutates ever more into Georgia’s nightmare.
I wish the best of luck, safety from police violence, and greatest possible strength to the protestors in Tbilisi today. გამარჯვება ქართველების თავისუფლებისთვის.
The Lib Dem Internal Election Results 2022
December 17, 2022 § Leave a comment
As a follow-up to my post on how to read the Lib Dem election results, here’s a shorter post giving my own read on what happened.
Before we get going, I’d like to get the elephant in the room out of the way: I was fairly well short of being elected, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who did give me high preferences. It’s never nice losing, but if I wasn’t up for the possibility then I’d hardly have gone and joined the Liberal Democrats. It might be quite a meaningful change for me personally as I don’t have a lot of routes to engage with the party locally here in Austria, so it’s likely to result in me scaling back direct involvement for a while to come. Congratulations of course go to those who were elected.
With that out of the way – what happened?
The election was heavily defined by apathy: a turnout of only thirteen percent for the presidential race, and half that for the committees, probably led to a broadly older, habitual-voting electorate who tended to reward experience, local connections, and name recognition over ideological positioning, recent activism records, and the will to pull the party in a new direction. If there’s a story to take from the results then I think that’s the story in question. Defenders of the status quo have argued, not entirely without reason, that a drop-off in armchair members means little to the party’s success compared to the numbers of voters and activists which actually win elections. Nonetheless, though, the turnout was staggeringly low, and it may not be a good sign if even a lot of core Lib Dems don’t care enough about the party’s internal direction to seek to influence it.
So who had a good night? First and most obviously, party president Mark Pack. His re-election victory was by a solide margin, if not an eye-watering one: and whilst some may mutter (as I noted previously) that he was fortunate in his opponents, his win was far from fragile. But more importantly, the broader HQ and leadership loyalist lane around him had about as many things go their way as possible. Liz Webster came third – lower than Lucy Nethsinga who didn’t seriously campaign – which is a solid rebuke to the faction who were trying to coin #SackPack as a banner slogan on social media. This is a set of committees that will provide relatively little regular pushback to the Pack/Davey agenda, with few firebrands and a lot of people for whom the softly-spoken, ground campaign heavy strategy that has dominated the party for the last couple of years will come very naturally. That isn’t to say that there are no alternative voices: on issues like how the party deals with transphobia Federal Board members like Neil Fawcett, FCC chair Nick da Costa, and recently re-elected English Party chair Alison Rouse may push for a much firmer and more confrontational line, for example. A wholesale strategic rethink is nonetheless unlikely.
Similarly, the moderate/parochialist lane has a lot to feel happy about. One of the outcomes of low turnout was that local bases really mattered, and councillors tended to get very strong results indeed regardless of and indeed within their other internal political affiliations. The new Federal Council for example will find that its pro-trans voices will include people like Cllrs Hannah Perkin, Sally Povolotsky, and Clare Delderfield rather than prominent but non-Councillor LGBT campaigners like Fraser Graham or Charley Hasted. Councillor Hannah Kitching, who ran very heavily on improving the utility of conference to campaigners, ranked a fairly impressive fifth place in the FCC ballot. This is definitely a set of committees that overall cannot be said to be disconnected from doorstep and electoral politics – how well that works for the party will be borne out in the coming years.
Some groups had pretty neutral nights. True Centrists had little to cheer or boo in these elections, but can perhaps be heartened by the weak results for radicals: this isn’t a committee system that’s openly hostile to their aspirations. Whilst Liberal Reform didn’t get Callum Robertson a Federal Board seat, Orange Book style candidates didn’t hugely over- or under- perform.
Another par-for-the-course is probably the Social Conservatives. They got three explicit seats on the Federal Council (Alison Eden, Alison Jenner, and Zoe Hollowood) and may have a small handful more allies on there. They failed to reach any posts on the Federal Board (their most sympathetic voice on there may be Joyce Onstad, who performed much better than expected) and David Barnsdale failed to get elected to Federal Policy Committee, though they did get Alison Jenner onto the Federal Conference Committee. They’ve also had a lot to cheer regarding with the new party definition of transphobia, largely seen as a watering down of previous commitments – though the way in which the release was handled and the visceral levels of anger from a number of senior figures over it may suggest that this will only be a temporary victory for them, and reports from the new Federal Council suggest that they cannot obtain enough votes there to call in Federal Board decisions on their own. They also re-ran a number of failed candidates in the English Party elections (held among English Council rather than the wider membership) and were solidly defeated there.
It was, meanwhile, a rough night for some of the other paths for the party. A few prominent social liberals remain on Federal committees, but I think it remains true that as a lane they’re simply not throwing quite enough dice into the pool to get their preferred outcomes.
The ultra-Europeanists clearly have some problems in their approach. The one prominent person associated with this group who did get elected is Mark Johnston, who has been rapidly building his portfolio, having been elected to Federal Policy Committee (one of the highest vote-getters there with an impressive third place) and Federal Council and further gaining Federal Policy Committee’s crossover seat to Federal International Relations committee. One vote on every committee is not a winning prospect, however, and Johnston may need some big recalibrations to succeed. The extent to which Liz Webster’s campaign was seen as courting socially conservative Lib Dems may have driven a wedge of mistrust between some of the people in this faction and naturally hardline pro-Europeans in other factions. If this lane is to succeed, they will need to find rather than simply demand common cause across the party, and will need to learn the value of building wider bases of support and making connections. Ultimately this was one of the reasons why the Webster campaign failed so badly: it failed to appreciate both that liberalism is wider than pro-Europeanism, and that demanding a church broad enough to include transphobes is a deal-breaker for much of the rest of the party. As someone who would dearly like a more full throated European message for the party myself, it was deeply frustrating being told by ardent Webster supporters that the other Federal races didn’t matter and that any discussion of issues beyond Europe was an unwanted distraction. Whether this is something from which lessons will be learned could significantly affect how Lib Dem pro-Europeanism is expressed over the next ten years.
Finally, the Radicals: this was clearly a difficult night for us. That’s not to say that no radicals got elected: but in general those who did get positions were those with long-established records (Jennie Rigg on FCC for example) or those with strong local government records, and even they had rather weaker performances in the votes than one might normally expect. Some prominent radicals lost seats – no Federal Board seat for April Preston, and Joe Toovey no longer being on Federal Conference Committee. There are a mix of likely factors. Low turnout likely changed the game to some extent from 2019’s elections, favouring people with local bases or with a lot of money and time to build connections (the campaign may have had a zero spending limit, but for example Liberal Voice for Women have put a lot of money into postal-mailing councillors over the last year or two). The Radical Association’s relative lack of organisational capacity and finances by comparison can’t have helped. It’s also possible that radicals are among groups whose memberships have been lapsing at higher rates under Davey & Pack’s leadership, given the current leadership’s aversion to their policy and messaging preferences. Given the very low turnout the immediate diagnosis is likely to be organisational, but what comes of that remains to be seen.
So that’s the likely state of the party in the run-up to the next election. I’d expect to see some firming up of core messages, in particular around proportional representation which Davey seems willing to push on, though it’s hard to see the party getting leverage over what will probably be a substantial Labour majority at the next election. Nonetheless, those messages are likely to remain quite reticent on tax and spending issues in order to best fuel Davey’s “Blue Wall” tactics. Whether that succeeds or turns into another missed opportunity as Labour’s surge threatens to overwhelm the Lib Dem ground campaigns will be a major part of Davey and Pack’s legacy as leaders of the UK’s liberal movement.
The Lib Dem Internal Elections: Watching The Results
November 12, 2022 § Leave a comment
This is a commentary post on the Lib Dem internal elections. It’s a bit weird writing a somewhat journalistic piece on an election I’m actively running in, but I’m going to do my best to provide an even-handed view of things. We’re getting to late in the voting process, so the focus here is how to watch the results rather than how to vote (though if you can vote and haven’t done so yet, please do so this weekend: these elections do make a serious difference to what sort of party we’re going to be.
I’m broadly going to do this in three sections: the third, really the core here, will use an updated version of my ‘lanes’ theory of Lib Dem internal politics: this suggests that there are a range of different answers to the question “what are the Lib Dems for?” and that these answers can create some broad internal “lanes” which may or may not correspond (as we’ll see) to the party’s tiny internal factions and are often very mixed among its wider voting membership, but nonetheless roughly represent different levels of travel. But before we get onto that, I want to deal with an adjustment to the lanes thesis since the last time I posted some internal race previews, and then a look at the top-tier race in the internal elections, that for the presidency.
A new lane? Social conservatism in the Lib Dems
The first thing to note is that there’s pretty clearly a lane/faction in the race this time which I didn’t include in my previous discussions on this topic: a socially conservative lane. This is a group of people who tend to hold ‘gender critical’ anti trans rights views and more broadly think that social issues are entirely a matter of policy rather than values, meaning that breaking with the party’s views on them should be treated as an acceptable disagreement rather than as evidence of fundamental disagreement with the party’s aims and values. They tend to be most able to coexist with the hyper-Europeanist lane, who as the most single-issue part of the party are less likely to be strongly inspired by liberal social viewpoints, and with some social liberals who see social issues as a distraction from centre-left economics.
Key examples of groups close to this lane would be the non-party LGB Liberal Forum and Liberal Voice for Women bodies. These are very small bodies indeed, but their operation as a somewhat cohesive faction has been very noticeable in this election: a number of people with strong ties to the aforementioned organisations have stood for election, as we’ll see late. Additionally a lot of pro-LGBT inclusion candidates have conversely stood for election, including quite a few first-time candidates, which may be in part as a reaction to the prospect of a significant committee bloc from this group – among new pro-LGBT voices are for example the Federal Council runs by former LGBT+LD chair Gareth Shelton, Cllrs Alexandrine Kantor and Sally Povolotsky, or LGBT rights activist and lawyer Richard Wagenländer, among others. As a result, there may be few easy wins available for the social conservatives – having at least two candidates running for their Federal Board votes despite a slightly small initial lane, they may have spread their first-round votes too thin, and their general apparent preference for Liz Webster as a presidential candidate is at times an uneasy alliance that may have hurt their preferred candidate more than helped them (more on that in a moment).
There are multiple complex ties to other issues here. For example, some members and former members who do not personally hold transphobic views but also don’t view them as a deal-breaker tend to align with this group because of a shared dislike of the party’s disciplinary systems, with the party’s definition of transphobia coming under particularly heavy argumentative fire from the Gender Critical group and being the focus of various discussions of legal advice at present. Jo Hayes, a lawyer who had planned to run for party president but was prevented from doing so due to her expulsion from the party for disciplinary issues unrelated to transphobia, has also become something of a cause celebre for those who believe that incumbent president Mark Pack has been weaponising the disciplinary system against his opponents (something I am yet to see any clear evidence of).
So to sum up, I think this lane is one that says as its statement of direction “the Liberal Democrats are a party for unhindered free speech, internationalism, and reform, that has been hijacked by movements about niche social issues from which it must be rescued as the highest priority.” I, probably obviously, vehemently disagree with this outlook, and am far from happy at either the immense legal costs or the loss of good activists and friends from the party due to the antics of this faction in recent years – but more discussion of that will have to wait for another time.
The Presidential Race
With that note, onto the presidency. Mark Pack, the incumbent, is probably facing the stiffest challenge to an incumbent president in some years, but he may well have been lucky in his opponents. A relatively “backroom” president, Mark has focused on trying to reform aspects of Lib Dem campaigns, infrastructure, and constitutional systems. He will point to recent by-election successes as evidence of wins, and to his controversial but ultimately completed reforms of the Federal Board and Federal Council. He’s largely popular among Young Liberals for having helped them get guaranteed seats on more party committees, too. Conversely, the drop in membership in recent years and the party’s tepid performance in national polls despite the Tories’ catastrophes have been a major source of criticism of his presidency.
This might have been a good opening for an effective campaign by a public enough establishment figure, and unlike previous parliamentarian presidents Mark is probably more open to challenge – but the current Lib Dem leadership are, if nothing else fortunate, in their enemies, and Mark has not been an exception. Two candidates challenged him, and both just about managed to pull together the 200 signatures needed to get on the ballot: former MEP and leader of Cambridgeshire Council Lucy Nethsingha, and EU activist Liz Webster.
One of the difficulties of actually winning a presidential campaign is that it costs money and more importantly time and volunteers to do credibly, as Mark Valladares, the husband of one former president, noted in his recent comments on this race. Whilst I like Lucy Nethsingha a lot personally, she seems to have had neither ready to go when running. Her background would make her a very credible proposition for the job, but her campaign has been invisible to the point where I cannot name a single public outrider who’s been arguing her case. From what I hear she performed well at the hustings and her manifesto is credible, and in a two-horse race she might have got a credible forty percent or so solely by being not Mark – but in a three horse race she risks doing really quite badly. Given her heavy-duty council role she may simply have been overstretched, in which case her campaign may be a cautionary tale in future of exactly what is needed to win.
That brings us to the third candidate, the aforementioned Liz Webster, who unlike Lucy is undoubtedly actually trying very hard to win (she and Mark have both done postal mail-drops to some members). Her campaign is an exceptionally interesting test of the lanes and how the party sees them, because she’s really running to one interest group in the party – the pro-Europeanist one – very heavily indeed, with her message being that she can and will promote the party’s pro-European views and thereby rebuild the party membership. She’s been able to produce video content, has a number of passionate supporters, and has a very clear change-of-direction pitch focused on the drop in membership under Mark as president.
There, unfortunately, the positive news ends, and we come back to the party’s other factions. Liz seems to have decided to run at the last minute – she has denied that Jo Hayes not running influenced her own decision at all, but Hayes has been a vocal supporter of Liz’s campaign, an alignment that did not endear Liz to the party establishment, who if nothing else were having to allocate thousands of pounds of legal fees to cases involving Hayes. Moreover, this meant that from the start, Liz was seen as the candidate of the social conservative faction, and whilst she was happy to confirm that her own views included that trans women are women, she has been cagey about whether she considers that this is a values issue and has been actively saying that the party should avoid talking about “niche issues” – recently citing disability rights as such a “niche issue”. This has gone down like a lead balloon falling into a cup of cold sick among the radical wing of the party, who might otherwise have considered looking at a pro-European, anti-party-establishment ticket and many of whom, from private conversations, I think have now given a numerical rank to Mark even when they wouldn’t otherwise have done because they consider Liz winning to be a materially worse outcome. Liz’s view seems to be that the most important thing is for the party to unite behind a pro-European message and that anything else is a distraction that needs to be ignored or papered over: this is likely to put a noticeable cap on her support in a party that has a rather broad range of interests and, as I’ve noted in the past, has as one of its core logics an explicit sense of being a “misfit coalition” of anti-centre, anti-status-quo, “niche issue” folks. Ignore them, in Lib Dem internal politics, at your peril.
So how do I think this will pan out? Don’t take this as anything other than me wildly picking numbers out of the air, but if forced to guess I’d say that Mark will probably win in the first count with a similar vote share to last time (58.6%): his opponents are less well known than Christine Jardine was and his formidable campaigning and emailing machine isn’t going to be matched by Liz’s having a large Twitter following. That said, having two of them will lower his vote ceiling, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he got under 50% and won on transfers from Lucy instead. Lucy’s vote will probably avoid falling too low because of radical-wingers who don’t want to reward Mark with a first preference and won’t vote for Liz, and people from the eastern region where she’s well known and which has areas of Lib Dem strength around councils like North Norfolk, Chelmsford, South Cambridgeshire, and several bits of southern Hertfordshire (sadly, we’ll never be able to confirm this one: geographic vote patterns in LD internal elections are not given or as far as I’m aware recorded).
But what about the rest of the elections? There are after all around 170 candidacies to well over fifty internal posts up for grabs, and whoever wins the presidential race will have to deal with all those elected to those bodies. Rather than going area by area, let’s finally get to analysing these according to what would make a good or bad night for each of…
A reminder that you can find the original explanation of this lane system from the post where I developed it a few years ago.
The rightmost economic wing of the party, centred on groups like Liberal Reform from a pressure-group perspective: it’s been a hard few years for the party’s economic right. The leadership’s keenness to be anti-tax as bait for Tory switch voters might have played well for them, but then the leadership’s weaker stances on infrastructure and housebuilding have doubtless frustrated them, and the Conservatives’ hammering of public services through Covid have probably tended to make the party even more concerned about market-driven public service solutions. Nonetheless there are a few candidates in these elections clearly aligned with Liberal Reform, the Orange Book factional body: Simon McGrath, Callum Robertson, and Oliver Jones-Lyons are all members of their board.
On a good night: Callum Robertson tops the Federal Board ballot or comes close to it. I don’t think this is highly likely, but I’d think of him as one of the four most formidable board candidates – as well as his Orange Book credentials he’s a public presence in the party, has strong experience, and long association with the Young Liberals may help boost his count. Simon McGrath and Oliver Jones-Lyons are both in with reasonable shouts for getting elected to their committees too.
On a bad night: The three aforementioned members lose, and stronger than expected results for social and radical liberals mean a much stronger tax-and-spend bloc on FPC that could pull the leadership leftwards.
It’s hard to be a centrist (here meaning someone who thinks the Lib Dems are there to moderate political extremes) in the Lib Dems post-2020: with Labour shifting hard to the centre and the Tories going beyond the pale even for the Orange Bookers and Social Conservatives. I honestly cannot think of anyone running in this explicit lane this election: probably their “on a good night” is to have as few radicals elected as possible to anything, and their bad night vice versa.
The notes above give most of my thoughts on this group: they’re probably the group with the most clearly identifiable candidates, with a slate helpfully posted on the Lib Dem Voice For Women website. Of particular note are Andrew Macgregor and Alison Eden running for Federal Board, and a wide slate running for Federal Council that includes Liberal Voice for Women chair Zoe Hollowood and LGB Liberal Forum steering group member Toby Keynes. The extent to which they emphasise this alignment in their manifestos varies more: Andrew Macgregor’s manifesto for example focuses on a member-led approach to Federal Board without significant mention of his views on sex and gender, whereas David Barnsdale, their FPC candidate, has a manifesto that puts his gender critical views front and centre.
On a good night: getting at least one Federal Board seat and Liz Webster as president is probably the high point aim of this group: they also have around ten Federal Council candidates, so getting 4 or 5 seats on there would be part of a satisfactory night for them.
On a bad night: wipeout and active rejection. There’s no guarantee that they’ll get any Federal Board seats, and with Andrew Macgregor and Alison Eden splitting their first-round Federal Board vote that may turn out to spread them too thinly. Federal Council has a wide array of candidates, and they’re unlikely to get zero seats, but two or fewer would be a horrible performance for them. Liz Webster coming third would also be a bad signal for this group, which has tended to back her campaign strongly.
The party establishment is perhaps a bit less cohesive than they were when I originally designed this system of lanes, but nonetheless there’s still a clear leadership line, focused around Ed Davey’s “blue wall strategy”, an operational plan to take a moderate policy approach and grind a number of Lib Dem second places into wins across the suburbs of southern England, and around incumbent president Mark Pack’s focus on local and ground campaigning. This operational system has delivered some crushingly large by-election swings, but at the same time the party has lost members and it’s a matter of debate whether the party needs a spikier and more radical narrative now Labour are so dominant in the polls. One big question this election is how the members really feel about the performance of the triumvirate of Mark, Ed, and CEO Mike Dixon at the top of the party.
On a good night: Mark Pack wins with over 2/3 of the vote. This is unlikely but it’s not impossible, and if it happened it could be taken as an endorsement of Pack’s leadership after the party’s by-election wins over the last year or two. Having transphobes and radicals both generally rejected from committees would probably also be good for HQ. Look for current committee chairs doing well to suggest a vote of confidence: vice-chair Jeremy Hargreaves getting a top-3 spot on the FPC ballot, or perhaps FCC chair Nick da Costa getting easy re-election (though da Costa is considered by most party insiders much less closely aligned with Pack and Davey as compared to Hargreaves). HQ would probably rather have campaign-focused people on most committees given their overall positioning, so people like Alex Wagner or Hannah Kitching might do well on the FCC ballot in this scenario.
On a bad night: The nightmare scenario for HQ is Mark Pack losing to Liz Webster: I can’t see it happening but I’ve been wrong before. This would both be a sharp rejection of party operations, and would saddle the party leadership with a president who isn’t pulling in the same direction on policy and may be more keen to leave the door open to keeping loose cannons in the party. Poor results for incumbent chairs and vice-chairs might also indicate discontent, or a higher than expected vote for Lucy Nethsingha as voters seek to give a mildly negative verdict on Pack without voting for Webster. There are other “bad night” scenarios, most notably a major radical sweep on committees like FCC, which HQ prefers to be able to influence towards fewer controversial debates and more easy access for parliamentarians’ motions to conference. In general, one probably suspects that HQ considers the social conservative more of a headache than the radicals right now, though – or at the very least a less litigious and expensive headache.
Moderates & Parochialists
A big bloc of the party’s base, and probably one of the ones that will really tend to decide internal elections even if their votes seem a bit random to onlookers. Mark Pack has a long history of local campaigning, and the party leadership has focused heavily on rebuilding in local government, so in this election the parochial/HQ alignment is closer than usual.
On a good night: lots of local councillors elected to things: the new Federal Council especially has a lot of people explicitly running on campaign and council experience and they may have a very good night on the back of their ability to bring local campaigners’ votes with them in a divided field. Mark Pack winning without going to a second count, or an overperformance for Lucy Nethsingha who’s actually in local government, could also be signs of a healthy outcome for this group. Campaign focused candidates and councillors will have diverse views –people like Terry Stacy, Hannah Perkin, Clare Delderfield, Tim Brett, Hannah Kitching and Steve Mason may vary considerably on policy, but all might be names to look for good performances from in terms of strong local thinking in the party.
On a bad night: a strong night for the hyper-Europeanists is probably a bad one for this wing (even though some of the names I listed above are very strongly pro-EU: the alignment of people and wing is complex here). Liz Webster could be a bad candidate for this group in terms of the presidency, because of her focus on nationalised campaign issues.
The #FBPE wing of the party is the very explicit base for Liz Webster’s campaign: it’s not as clear that her most ardent supporters have engaged with down-ballot races, I’ve not seen people I’d associate heavily with this lane discussing their preferred Federal Policy Committee candidates for example. There might therefore be a bit of a gap between a good outcome for the candidates this lane most seems to like, and the candidates actually likely to pull the party in the direction they prefer: it’s a pity there wasn’t more effort to engage on the down-ballot races for this group.
On a good night: Mark Pack loses the presidency. The very unlikely event of a Lucy Nethsingha win could be as good as a Liz Webster win if not better for actually achieving a workable pro-European line, though the most fervent members of this camp are unlikely to think so. On other committees, people like Duncan Brack or Mark Johnston known for their strongly pro-EU leanings might do well in this scenario, as might radicals who are more likely to be willing to stick their neck out in general, including on Europe, even if they’re unhappy about calls to drop other campaign issues in favour of EU campaigning.
On a bad night: An exceptionally good Mark Pack night (66%+) might be a rebuke to this wing, with both alternative presidential candidates representing a more actively pro-European path. A very HQ-parochialist committee set with few radicals or hardline pro-Europeanists would also be bad for this direction of travel, whether or not the most hardline supporters of this wing would notice being a little less clear.
The Social Liberal wing of the party have been struggling with a sort of risk of Pasokification in recent years: the Social Liberal Forum, their key organising body, had a rather dramatic and not entirely successful flirt with becoming a full-on think tank under the leadership of Ian Kearns. His departure, coupled with the SLF’s more ambiguous social stances compared to for example the Radical Association, has left the SLF arguably somewhat lacking in dynamism and largely run by long-standing veterans with little new blood. It also drew some mild criticism during the election campaign for sending out an endorsement post that only included current councilmembers. The Alliance of Liberal Democrat Trade Unionists had similar criticism for endorsing only their own members, leading to an endorsement of two candidates, Simon McGrath and David Barnsdale (yes, the same David Barnsdale running on a purely gender critical FPC platform) while skipping over other active trade unionists like Charley Hasted, Mohsin Khan, and James Bliss, the latter running for FPC on a very specifically pro-unions platform. That’s not to say that social liberalism is in any sense a less popular or key position in the party than it used to be – but there might be a bit of a gap between people closely associated with it as a movement and achieving its goals.
On a good night: SLF old hands like Gordon and Maggie Lishman being elected in their respective committee runs. For achieving maximal social-liberal goals, they’d probably need to be sitting alongside more radicals and labour-facing campaigners, so look for good results for people like myself, James Bliss or Philip Alexander on FPC.
On a bad night: there could easily be no SLF-aligned voices on major committees, and there aren’t necessarily perfect outcomes in any direction. A good night for HQ and the parochialist wing, given the relatively tax-shy positioning of the party over the last year or so, would probably be bad for the social liberals: but a sufficiently strong night for the Radicals, conversely, could indicate that this lane is starting to disintegrate under pressure from newer, largely younger, voices on the party’s left.
The party’s radicals have had their own problems in the last few years, with their organising body (the Radical Association) suffering from prominent LGBT+ members leaving over the party’s difficulty ejecting transphobes, and from leading activists having health problems. Unlike the social liberals, however, they’re heavily represented on the ballots for these elections, especially for conference committee where former or current RA activists like Olly Craven, Joe Toovey, Charley Hasted, Fraser Graham and Jennie Rigg are all running. This is the wing I most clearly fall into as a former RAssoc chair, as does Federal Board member and candidate April Preston who topped the 2019 Board ballot: she’s a former director of the Association.
On a good night: look for April placing highly again in the Federal Board election and a higher-than-expected vote for Cass Macdonald or Lisa-Maria Bornemann, myself or Richard Gadsden getting 10th or better in the FPC ballot, and at least three radicals being elected to FCC. Radicals rather lack an obvious horse in the presidential race, by contrast, with most of them not being happy with the cautious approach of Mark Pack but being put off by Liz Webster’s campaign at the same time.
On a bad night: radicals underperform compared to more establishment candidates: two or fewer radicals sit on FCC, none on FPC, and no Board seat. The real nightmare scenario for the radicals would be an exceptional night for the social conservatives where they gain 5+ Council seats and sit on every committee, which is an outcome that would almost certainly persuade some of their activists to leave the party or lapse in their activism.
When looking at results, remember that most candidates don’t make neat bellwethers for any particular lane, and indeed that includes a lot of the ones most likely to win – it’s good politics to be broadly acceptable to much of the party. Candy Piercy or Neil Fawcett, for example, may well be some of the strongest Federal Board candidates, precisely because they’re people that most of the wings of the party (excepting the social conservatives) can probably live with. For other committees, a lot of successful candidates run partly on their specific expertise or skills – think Christine Cheng for FPC and her formidable foreign policy credentials.
Equally, remember that these lanes represent directions, not blocs of the membership. Most members do not, it’s fair to say, spend as much time as I do thinking about the party’s internal politics, and it’s me not them who’s the weird one here. Whilst members often have opinions on big party issues, knowing how to use their vote to achieve them is genuinely difficult, turnout usually low, and any election only says so much as a result.
And finally, take all of the above with some care. I’m attempting to give as even-handed a look at these elections as I can, but I am a candidate in them and not an external impartial journalist: I’m giving you the issues and lanes as I perceive them, but there may well be other models to use, and I’m very far from covering every possible angle, especially on some less policy-partisan issues (like FCC debates on moving conference away from the south coast) or indeed some policy issues that haven’t played as strongly (Europe has been a centrepiece issue in these elections but UBI hasn’t – even though the outcome may affect the progress of the latter idea more than the former). I hope you found this useful, nonetheless.
I’ll see you all in a week or so for a (hopefully rather a lot shorter) results post. Until then!
Clarifications after posting: the original version of this post failed to mention in ALDTU’s defence that the decision they were criticised for was endorsing only those people who were members of their organisation, and that this was the underlying logic behind Simon and David being selected for endorsements: thanks to Simon McGrath for pointing this out. Additionally, it has been pointed out to me that Jo Hayes was expelled, rather than suspended as the original version said, from the party: thanks to Sheila Ritchie for the clarification.
On Interim Manifestos: A Fair Deal?
September 25, 2022 § 1 Comment
With Lib Dem autumn conference cancelled this year, the incumbent President, Mark Pack, decided to publish the interim manifesto paper, entitled A Fair Deal, as a piece on his blog: https://www.markpack.org.uk/169811/for-a-fair-deal-the-liberal-democrat-plan/
On Twitter, Mark heralded this as ‘a different, better, fairer way to change our country’ and noted that ‘something radical needs to change’ – sounding really rather more like me than he usually does, especially as he’s on public record as being rather down on calls for the party to be radical. It must be internal election season. In any case, the focus I want to bring here is on the document itself. (As I’ve highlighted Mark here in good humour, I should note in fairness that he isn’t on the manifesto group so the critiques that come shouldn’t be taken as issues for which he’s especially responsible, though he does sit on the Federal Policy Committee more widely. A Fair Deal – is it radical? And how well does it reflect Liberal Democrat policy?
We actually have a pretty good idea what conference might want out of an interim document, because it’s only twelve months since we passed the last one, a motion called A Fairer, Greener, More Caring Society, which you can find in that conference’s report. That’s somewhat concerning to begin with – do we need to be passing an interim manifesto document every year? If we decide that do, what role does the Federal Policy Committee really have between its own manifesto group on the one hand and Conference on the other? It also raises questions of the effective way to do such a thing – would an amendable, rolling interim manifesto make more sense than passing subtly different papers at different times?
And then we look at the document itself and find that the things Conference specifically asked for over its recent meetings are a little lacking, which is rather more worrying.
The most obvious item from a fiscal perspective missing is UBI. It was also missing from the original version of A Fairer, Greener, More Caring Society: conference voted to put it in with 78% voting in favour. The argument could be made that the report of the Fairer Society working group might affect that policy, but a wording could easilyhave been devised that encompassed all the major options on that paper. Moreover, the party’s commitment to abolition of benefit sanctions, which has existed since 2016 and which A Fairer, Greener, More Caring Society did make explicit, is absent here: the result is a considerably less radical approach to social security in our campaigning documents than we had a year ago, despite a considerably sharper crisis in household incomes.
Also absent? The core of our social liberties commitments. Legalisation of cannabis? Unmentioned. Decriminalisation of sex work? Nowhere to be found. Reduction in use of stop and search, which the paper a year ago did include? Likewise apparently evaporated. On LGBT rights, the ban on conversion therapy which was amended into last year’s paper did make it into this document, but proposed improvements to inclusive education and were missing.
Overall housing targets were also dropped, despite repeated back-and-forths with conference about their becoming party policy in which the pro-targets faction has repeatedly won. This does bring into question the point of bringing these sorts of motions to conference: why ask questions if one is going to ignore the answer? Or is the purpose simply to keep asking a question until conference ‘gets it right’? I would hope not, but it’s difficult not to see in these proposals a rather repeated avoidance of the things that make the Liberal Democrats distinctive – some of the things that, to quote Mark Pack’s demand in his post on radicalism linked above, symbolise something wider about the party. On this Mark and I absolutely agree – policies do need to speak to wider values. But they need to speak, not whisper and hint, and the serried ranks of well meaning tweaks and fixes to the Conservative mess that A Fair Deal mostly contains don’t come together effectively to answer the question of what a Liberal Democrat vision of Britain, as opposed to a Liberal Democrat rapid-repair job on a Conservative Britain, would look like.
Now, one typical rebuttal to my points here is that the manifesto papers do not stop the abovementioned things being policy, and not every part of our detailed policy makes it into a manifesto. That’s very true. However, there are three important reasons why this is a poor argument in the cases I’ve highlighted.
First, manifestos are there to give the argument and narrative for why people should vote Lib Dem. That means they need to contain the reasons why people would specifically vote for us as opposed to another centre-left party, and soft-pedalling our case for being the party of civil liberties is deeply unhelpful to that aim. Second, precisely because some things are still policy they can’t be ignored. UBI is a major reform which will come with significant relevant costs and changes: it’s not remotely credible that we should sweep that under the carpet. Cannabis legalisation is likewise a sufficiently fiscally important policy that we’d be absolutely barmy to leave it out given that we so urgently need to fund major spending commitments to improve the NHS, education, and social security. Finally, given that A Fairer, Greener, More Caring Society‘s motion took up around four pages to the new document’s forty, it really should be rather surprising when the latter document is more light on key policy areas.
The pre-manifesto is not something that would make the UK any worse, and indeed there are many good commitments in it. There is, however, rather little that directly speaks to why we need to have a liberal, rather than a moderate social-democratic, party at the heart of British politics – and Keir Starmer has a large advantage in structure and scale when it comes to squeezing us out of the latter niche.
We need – as I have always believed – a Liberal Democrat party because we need a more liberal country. I hope that the incoming set of federal committees are more prepared to grasp the nettle and have open discussions within and beyond the party about what that means and what we want to see.
I’m running (for Federal Policy Committee)
September 21, 2022 § Leave a comment
A short post to say more or less what the title says – as may have been obvious from my wanting to get my thoughts on policy process reform in order recently, I’m running to be a member of the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee. The FPC has fifteen directly elected members and a similar number of ex officio members, and it’s responsible for creating policy working groups, putting the manifesto together via its manifesto committee, and other key policy elements within the party.
I’m not going to go into a long pitch for why you should vote for me in this post, because that’s going to be developed on a set of static pages for the campaign – you can find the campaign’s core page here, and the information you need if you want to endorse me here. Suffice to say for now that I think the things I’ve always thought – that we need a more blue-skies thinking, more radical liberal force, and that as our economy and societ lurch from crisis to crisis it’s becoming ever more important to appreciate that liberalism is an unfinished project. Action to give people secure ground under their feet and thus to give people the freedom they need to be themselves and build their paths through life has never been a more necessary thing in politics. Being a member of FPC means I can push for us to think big and do different on what that action should be: you can’t turn up to a burning building with a sippy-cup of water to put a fire out, and you can’t turn up to a cost of living crisis like the one we have looming without being prepared to advocate for big, meaningful shifts in how we run our economy to ensure people can cope.
Politics is a game of imperfections, but I think I’m someone well placed to help ensure that we have the best available version of the Liberal Democrats fighting for those values. I hope you – and other Lib Dem members – will agree.
On Building Better Policy Processes
September 19, 2022 § 1 Comment
Over the last few years, I’ve been able to see the Lib Dem policy process from a number of different angles. As a policy activist, I’ve pushed through changes to our platform, including writing our proposal to remove limitations on spousal income and social security support for migrants, our policy to promote funding for and routes to restorative justice that don’t always require police referrals, and perhaps most prominently co-writing the motion through which we endorsed Universal Basic Income. I’ve also been on two of the party’s formal policy working groups, detailing policy on UBI and a Fairer Society, and worked extensively with a third, on the Nature of Public Debate where I helped improve the technical work on social media policies. Finally – and importantly – as an ordinary member, social media and communications handler, and door-knocker, I’ve seen people’s often muted reactions because most people don’t know what our policies are, and a lot of the things I’ve been doing in the first two roles are all too easily swept under a rug at election time.
And one conclusion I have from all of that? Our policy systems could be better.
I think there are currently two major areas where the Lib Dem policy process breaks down. First, the relationship betwen policy working groups (hereafter PWGs) and the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) is simply not run effectively: whilst this isn’t immediately visible to most ordinary party members, it can lead to badly written and rushed papers and perhaps more importantly it leads to highly stressful and difficult environments for the members of PWGs who often have to struggle with low numbers of available people, poor guidelines on their roles and operating parameters, and vacillations from FPC about plans for their outputs. I have seen clearly defined questions to FPC met with no answer but with some other randomly selected requests or changes of the goalposts. FPC’s members on the working groups seem to feel as powerless as anyone else to get their committee to commit to what it wants, and too many members of FPC do not seem to have realised that their role involves a lot of volunteer management which comes with ethical obligations to those people being asked to produce policy documents.
The second area is the link between completed policy (in the form of passed policy motions) and published policy (in the form of the party’s manifesto or any other available policy documents). When I was contacting Lib Dem candidates during the 2019 election to ask them to sign a document in favour of minimum income trials, some were surprised to learn that it was party policy, because it had been missed out of the manifesto and short of trawling through past conference documents they had little way of finding it out. Between elections when we have no manifesto this is even worse as an issue, leaving council groups and parliamentary spokespeople facing the public to cross their fingers and hope that there haven’t been any significant changes in policy between the last policy handbook and the present. Going onto the members’ area of the website gets one a list of policy papers and their motions, with the papers never having been changed to reflect any amendments made to the motions, and without any motions mentioned that did not come with policy papers, which is to say about half of Lib Dem policy. Alternatively one can go to conference papers, at which point one can start piecing together from about five different PDFs what was actually passed at a particular conference. Neither can be described as transparent or efficient.
The party’s record on getting its actual manifesto aligned with its own policy documents is far from unblemished: in 2019 the party leadership introduced a Help to Rent scheme that funnelled government money into paying often-extortionate deposits into the housing section of the manifesto – whilst quietly failing to include a policy to scrap no-fault S21 evictions passed just months earlier. Dropped, too, were a 2018 proposal to cap tenancy deposits and a pledge to increase the minimum notice required for landlords to give their tenants in ongoing contracts from two months to six. Whilst nobody expects literally every pledge to make it into the manifesto, this was a collection of failures that all pointed the same way and ended up significantly understating the party’s pledges to help tenants, in an election where we were trying to fight a number of seats in central London for the first time in some years. This is linked to the policy working groups issue – how can the party persuade expert members to give years of time and advice in highly pressurised circumstances, for free, when it also treats its own passed and signed-off policies as more or less optional?
However, this wouldn’t be a very useful post if I was simply here to make complaints. What needs to be done?
I’ll start with the issues with FPC and its working groups. These groups end up producing about half the party’s policy, and as mentioned above there are some quite real issues with their handling. I want to stress to start with that I think these are system problems – this isn’t directed at any particular issue or person, and I know many people on staff, on FPC and on the working groups regularly do absolutely superhuman work to get the party’s policy into shape. But sometimes, when people are regularly being asked to be superhuman, it’s wise to ask what we could do to make things humanly possible again.
I think the first and most obvious shift that needs to take place is simply in how FPC sees itself. Part of its job is to handle policy working groups: that is a volunteer management problem, whereas FPC meetings and feedback often seem to see interactions with working groups as purely about giving policy nudges and ideas rather than providing a clear framework for the groups to make policy effectively. I think part of that is to delegate better: the current system of FPC meetings providing vague and random feedback rather than specifics, and then relying on a tiny overworked core of senior members and party staff clearly isn’t working. One option is for FPC to take a much more sharply focused approach to these problems: if that isn’t possible, delegating more ability to the FPC reps on committees to agree between themselves on issues like clarifications to the group’s remit and simply inform FPC thereafter could be helpful in ensuring those decisions are made by people who can see clearly what’s going on. Any significant remit changes and expansions made by FPC, conversely, should be seen more as a negotiation with the working group that involves reassessment of whether they have the relevant skills, time, and people to handle the remit change.
I think working groups also need better clarity on what’s going on with their papers. This could for example include clarifying and separating the work of FPC and the work of the paper’s authors, and moving away from the current system where everything is assumed to be ‘FPC’s work’. FPC should of course have 1-2 reads and rounds of suggestions for a paper, and these are generally taken – but the committee should be willing to put PWGs in the driving seat, and where it disagrees strongly with their recommendations there is no particular reason why it shouldn’t make that case to conference through amending the working group’s paper, rather than taking a year’s worth of volunteer time and shuffling the results into a convenient nearby cupboard (this being as opposed to issues with the paper’s clarity, for which time extensions and a remit reassessment might be needed). Treating PWGs as simply a sub-system of FPC is clearly a fiction, and it’s a fiction that makes PWGs far less attractive to be on, especially for (for example) younger academics, young people generally, and policy thinkers for whom being able to point to the resulting publication might be one of the few tangible benefits they get from the process. As noted above, the nominal quid pro quo of being able to hold greater influence over party policy isn’t especially helpful, since the number of steps of filtration between any ordinary PWG member and a manifesto are rather significant.
This leads us onto the fact that we need to ensure working groups stop running out of people, too. Any working group that’s getting under ten members at its meetings should be a real source for concern from FPC and a reason to urgently try and get more volunteers in. Backup lists of people who did not get onto a working group at application stage should be directly made available to working groups’ chairs, and chairs also need to be given a fairly free hand to re-advertise or make calls for specific skills where possible.
Some shifts have been taking place for other reasons, most notably increased online working. This should, I think, keep happening – we have to resist any attempt to push back to systems that would make working groups more London/SE centric again – and further thought should be given to accessibility, ideally with some resources prepared for chairs on effective online working. Relying on weekday evening working group slots may be the best worst option, but it can be difficult for parents with young children, and we do need to be thinking about ensuring that diverse and expert opinions are available in a party that is far older, whiter, and more middle-class than the average of people affected by the policies we write. We can use digital tools to considerable effect in tackling these issues, if we’re pro-active in doing it: and standard ways of doing so would be helpful. On both of my working groups, for example, I set up and ran the digital workspaces for the group and helped members access them, and having notes available to standardise that process rather than hoping every group has people sufficiently tech-savvy to set them up would be strongly desirable.
As a final note, we should also have some level of guidance to working group members and chairs when it comes to handling what can sometimes be difficult areas and people working under very varying conditions. Especially in zoom meetings and online working where communication between members can be minimal outside meetings of a working group, it’s important to involve some proactivity in ensuring people are alright after highly charged meetings and discussions, something that’s currently left rather out of the picture of how working groups are run. This is especially bad for getting people with lived experience of particular social issues onto working groups where the emotional work of describing those difficulties is often somewhat undervalued.
The short summary of all this is that FPC and its members need to more fully embrace their role in setting clear remits, guidelines, and support for working groups, as well as just providing direct policy feedback which too often seems to be the only role members think of themselves as inhabiting. I don’t think the above are the only possible set of solutions to the current issues, but solutions need to be found, or we’ll end up burning people out and failing to get and retain the expertise we need – and I hope this is a discussion we can all have through the coming weeks.
What to do about the dissemination of policy is perhaps a thornier issue, and I don’t propose to tackle it in full here: there’s always going to be a grey area in politics between the platform of a party and its messaging, with the ideal being the latter effectively communicating the right details of the former to show people what the party stands for in a way that persuades them to cast a ballot the right way on polling day. That isn’t simple!
What is simpler, I think, is a recognition that values come before policy which comes before elections. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try and win elections, on the contrary – it means that policy is the reason why it is important to win elections. An election is one of the primary operational theatres in which the party attempts to achieve its strategic objectives – the actual strategic-level objective being to create a country that better reflects the values and ideas for which the party stands. Failing to appreciate this makes all the tasks in that pipeline harder in the long run as it leads to a party that, if incredibly tactically streamlined for winning an individual seat here or there, struggles to reach beyond a very transactional pool of voters and explain to voters why, in the long run, it should exist.
In short, I think we have the direction wrong sometimes, especially at the moment. An over-focus on tactics over strategy at the upper echelons of the Lib Dems has left us with some of the senior positions whose role it could be to represent values and policy being filled by people who tend to see policy from the tactical level as a tool rather than from the strategic level as an objective. That’s not something against those people – but I do worry that it leads to manifestos built in far too limited a space where the ultimate aims of the party can be lost and voices close to the manifesto group members find it easy to drown out the more distant voices of members and activists who do most of the party’s campaigning.
The other problem is simply that it’s hard to work out what current policy is. That’s especially a problem if one needs to write a manifesto fast (per 2019) or run any sort of policy-driven activism outside election time (which we should be doing, especially with a view to attracting younger members). It’s also a more fixable problem: the two biggest requirements are a move to actually doing paper redrafts based on conference amendments, and having an online member-accessible bank of conference motions as passed. There have been various nods verbally towards these happening over the years, but we’re yet to see them and they should be a priority for FPC moving forwards.
I don’t think all these shifts will (or perhaps even should) happen overnight, and the above should be taken very much as an attempt to start a conversation on how to improve this system rather than a concrete set of finalised proposals. There have been enough frustrations in the process – papers getting batted back to committee by conference, dissonances between leadership and official policy lines, papers stalling in the process because they directly contradict recently passed policy – that it’s time to accept that the usual order of business needs to change, something always best done sooner rather than later and now rather than risking any current cracks in our procedural against the ice-fields of an election. On a personal level, too, the difficulties of these systems have been very clear to me on a direct personal level in the last two years. Whether or not you agree with me on the abstract end of how policy should work and function, the basic bottom line that we need to look after our people within the policy process is paramount and isn’t getting enough attention.
In politics as anywhere, how a thing happens can have significant effects on what happens: and if the precise details of these systems seem to be inward-looking thoughts, well, there’s no use in rushing to put a fire out if one doesn’t actually have the capacity ready to do so. That’s doubly true for smaller parties, where a significant part of our contribution has to be to the national debate and to opening up the bluer-skies thought that the UK, a country struggling with feelings of stagnation, high living costs, and a sense of vulnerable lack of stable anchors, so much needs right now. Whilst one always needs to focus on that strategic end, ensuring we have the tools and processes to do the job we’re here for is a vital part of building a better future.
On History and Analogy
August 28, 2022 § Leave a comment
Recently opinion writer Noah Smith published a substack post in which he attempts to poke some holes at the discipline of history as it is practised in relation to politics. His primary claim is that historians’ use of analogies when discussing current events (e.g. “this guy is acting like X historical figure” or “our current situation should be viewed as similar to X past society’s process”) create implicit general hypotheses. He secondly claims that to be useful, such a hypothesis needs to be testable on a data level. He looks at the case of ‘tyrants pressing for or giving up power’, and a claim by Bret Deveraux that the ancient Greek case was analogous to the modern issues of the American republic: Smith’s view is that this produces a general historical theory that should be testable across past societies in general, presumably via some sort of Database of Historical Tyranny from which one could make some nice graphs. The final point worth noting in his argument is that all of this is necessary because, in his view, historians hold a particularly sizeable weight in modern political discourse as a result of easier access to public platforms via the internet.
It is fair to say that I am very far from being against the idea that one should model past societies computationally in various ways: how to best structure databases and data on historical persons forms the core of my work and is something that I have published and taught on. For precisely that reason, I think it’s useful to go through some of the misconceptions that underpin Smith’s article. I will also note from the start that I’m a political-cultural historian of the middle ages, so I’m not going to be talking as much about Smith’s discussion of modern (C19th onwards) economic history: that’s outside my methodological area and I have no doubt that others will have more useful thoughts.
Some historians have attempted to rebut his claim by simply saying that history isn’t predictive, and that there is thus no case to answer: I think that’s broadly true, but also quite unsatisfying unless one digs into it a little more closely to see what people mean by that. In my view, one of the single biggest differences between historical and social-science methodologies (which do overlap significantly, though more so in modern history for reasons we’re about to see) is the extent to which the latter methods tend to assume generalisation and be focused on things that can be generalised from data. The trouble with doing this for anything pre-modern is, in short, that we don’t have the data: and even for a lot of modern contexts, the data aren’t sufficient to model the complexities of human systems. Sometimes a historical meeting the conclusions of which changed the course of a state was only comprised of two people, and understanding how that situation happened is a matter of specifics not statistics. One could try to filter every moment of those people’s lives into a multivariate analysis, but since nobody else had that meeting in that place in that context, there would be nothing to meaningfully compare it to.
In the world of some hypothesis-testing-absolutists, the above admission is an admission of failure. That makes it no less true, however, and moreover it makes the study of history no less important: as a society we are in constant dialogue with our past, and making sure that dialogue is a healthy one is crucial whether we like it or not. What many historical methods offer, then, is an alternative route to trying to understand situations and societies, by building up a web of contexts and specifics, frequently involving non-quantifiable pieces of information and with far too many variables to build into a generalised model. Across much of human history, even the categories of ‘a society’ or ‘a state’ as a unit that could be worked into a data-set like Smith’s imagined tyrants model are somewhat suspect: where we do construct categorisations of data on historical societies, those are often very contextually specific. Many assumptions about comparability at a data level in other fields rely on the idea that there are consistently similar dynamics at work that can be modelled, not only contextually specific instances of similarity, and we cannot reasonably make that claim when it comes to our knowledge of the detail of past societies.
The use of a historical analogy, then, is not necessarily amenable to or pointing towards a generalised model, not because it makes no claims at all, but because the claim is being made on the basis of a comparison of highly specific sets of circumstances and not the construction of a general law. This is a useful thing that humans do all the time: we don’t recognise other people’s faces by the construction of a general face data set out of which we can filter the information, but by knowing a set of extremely detailed specifics about that person’s face that allows us to recognise it in another context. This is, I think, in general what fellow historians mean when they say their proposed analogies are “not predictive” – the fact that a number of aspects of modern America seem to Bret Deveraux to fit a picture of ancient Greek poleis does not mean that a randomly selected and categorised medieval society would fit that picture, or that modern China would.
This does not mean that history is or should be done by anecdote and comparisons of anecdotes, which is the charge that Smith essentially levies in his piece – claiming that historians will simply use their ‘personal judgement – or their personal politics’ to make analogy claims and that such claims should therefore be dismissed as punditry. This is a somewhat unserious view of how historical evidence-gathering actually works. For example, my own current project covering the elites of the 12th century Caucasus involves a database of some hundreds of people and how they connect together via events and their relationship to around two hundred geolocated places in the data-set. If I were to make a modern analogy based on my data, it would of course be on some level on the basis of my judgement, but the basis of my judgement that a wide range of relevant features allowed a specific person, or event, or sequence of events to be analogised, based on an understanding of the social and cultural networks, contemporary beliefs, written culture influences, geography, familial ties, and so on and so forth that went into such a situation. Detailed contextual evidence is not the same as an arbitrarily selected anecdote any more than a single brushstroke is the same as a Caravaggio or a Monet or a Pirosmani. The personal judgement of a specialist who has spent decades accruing information and publishing syntheses thereof on a topic is prima facie worth listening to, and can always be judged against the wider historical field of publications in just the same way as would be true for a social scientist.
Indeed, let’s now turn this on its head a little. Smith notes how historical claims are like social science claims, but then assumes that the bias of ‘personal judgement’ is a problem specific to the humanities scholar free to use their personal judgement and can be solved by the empiricist rigour of the testable hypothesis or model. But in either case, bias and problems in presentation and argumentation are equally likely. One cannot sanity-check the outputs of a testable model without a reasonable degree of data literacy, and one cannot sanity-check the claims of a historian without a reasonable degree of historical literacy and context. Smith trains his fire on the NHC for not using enough social science and claim testing, but seems not to be aware of the semi-regular rolling wheel of non-historians getting publications out of what can gently be described as garbage for making a claim about history and failing to engage with the contextual historical reading of the source material needed to properly understand what they were looking at. Readings of data (and correlation), whatever the source type and method, then need to be followed by conclusions of mechanism (and causation) which are interpretative and open to a wide range of issues regardless of the initial method and information source being drawn upon.
Despite all the above, I am not going to say one should blanket refuse to produce models as part of history – indeed people will do so regardless. Such models are increasingly important, indeed, not least in the sheer number of computer game titles that effectively run historical or pseudohistorical simulations that encode arguments about the past into their code base. However, I think we need to accept that such models are not very useful for many of the things people actually want to use history for. The cultural and human specificities of different polities by and large falter under attempts to produce broad historical generalisation or statistical testing, with rare exceptions such as climatic history, disease history, or areas with exception archaeology or record survival (all of which historians make good use of). Culture and political history are things we want to understand, regardless: we will have narratives about them whether we like it or not, and so we turn to historians who can contextualise, interpret, and create specific models of what information we have in order to understand it as well as we can do.
As a final note, I’m not sure all of this matters quite as much as people tend to think. I don’t think there is any good evidence for Smith’s claim that historians are now uniquely, or more so than previously, privileged in their access to the public. A very small number of historians have significant public profiles, but that’s nothing new: and compared to, for example, economists, historians have vastly less impact on areas like public policy. How many politicians hire an economics advisor versus the number who hire a historical advisor? As such, I think the claim that “historians have become a sort of priestly order that we rely on to tell us about where our politics are headed and how we should think about our sense of nationhood” is well wide of the mark. Most of the people weighing in, in places anyone actually reads and watches, on these issues are actual regular pundits: the fact that some historians are very Twitter active, or that there are a tiny number who occasionally get to write pieces for newspapers, hardly maketh a priestly caste. Couple that with dismissive attitudes that historians are un-rigorous or mere pundits (and here Smith is far from lacking in company), or the large number of people who have irrational blanket mistrusts of the profession because of confused half-truths about common theoretical frameworks, or the huge cuts to history programmes across the Anglosphere, and history rather quickly starts looking rather unlike any kind of well embedded priestly order I’ve ever been familiar with. To go back to where this started, under a quarter of Americans use Twitter, and a quarter of those are responsible for 97% of the site’s activity. Overstating historians’ direct public impact given that wouldn’t, surely, be the empiricist thing to do.
2022 Election Results: New Liberal Opportunities?
May 8, 2022 § 2 Comments
So, the 2022 election results were very pleasing from a Lib Dem perspective. We took control of a number of new and old councils – Somerset, Westmorland, Hull, Woking, and Gosport – and knocked the Tories out of control in several more, including Tunbridge Wells and West Oxfordshire. We also heavily consolidated a number of existing council wins, including in South Cambridgeshire, St Albans, and Richmond Park, where we moved from already controlling the council to a state where the Tories were almost entirely routed.
A good night, however, is not a good time to avoid asking questions. Just as we need to understand why losses happen, it would be a foolish leader who failed to try and understand which factors were important in a win, whether we could have done better, and what this might mean for strategy going forwards. I’ve no doubt that such discussions will be happening internally, but here’s my take on the results.
The first question to ask is what predicted Lib Dem success. One of the key answers to this is “where were we already winning?” – this was a set of results that consolidated and advanced gains where we had strong local parties able to take advantage, and conversely one that saw relatively few breakthroughs and even the occasional loss where we didn’t. This is in line with how the party has been working since 2019, with a very heavy focus on ground campaigns and a tendency to retain quite a narrow targeting focus. We did somewhat better this year, not least because the government is more unpopular. In councils demographically similar to and indeed neighbouring ones where we did well, however, breakthroughs were not evident: Reigate & Banstead, Tandridge, Hart, Maidstone, and Fareham for example are all part of the ‘blue wall’ south of London and saw minimal progress, while nearby places which already had a good deal of strength were doing much better.
And so we come to our second consideration, which is how success tallied with strategy. In one important respect, the high internal focus on ground campaigns, success did indeed tally with strategy, in that the strategy was “get” – though, as noted, this doesn’t seem to have reached weaker local parties well. One critique we should be considering in the coming months is whether these results might have been further improved if some of the strongest local parties had been better encouraged to spend more time in neighbouring areas, perhaps lessening the iron grips we’ve ended up with in St Albans or Richmond Park but producing stronger performances in places like Welwyn Hatfield or Elmbridge. There’s a significant medium term net positive to “seeding” smaller but functional non-target local parties near to target areas: them being able to put up a fight prevents our opponents focusing their resources as effectively on our targets, whilst also building up groups of activists some of whom can refocus their efforts onto the target seats come general elections. Some areas with very weak opposition groups can also be proportionally softer targets where we can make surprising breakthroughs, due to the ‘Glasgow Effect’ (so named for Labour’s loss of the city to the SNP) where an incumbent party’s campaign infrastructure tends to weaken after too many years in power. The results we’ve got, in any case, suggest that we’ve done well on supporting ground campaigning but have been overtargeting our areas of existing strength and that’s something we could improve on.
In another respect, the strategy clearly has a problem. The party’s nominal strategic goal for a while has been to focus on the “blue wall”, a band of affluent, liberal-leaning seats around London and the Home Counties where, it is imagined, long-standing Conservative voters who dislike high taxes but aren’t exceedingly socially conservative and maybe voted Remain in 2016 will flock to the Liberal Democrats because they dislike the fact that the Prime Minister is an obvious law-breaker with no respect for the dignity of his office. Various variants on this suburb & leafy posh shire strategy have floated around the Lib Dems for some years, with a few breakthroughs and held seats but little wide-scale breakthrough to show. So it remains, as noted above: the Lib Dems have nail-scraped a lot of second places, and there is no question that this is where many of the party’s targets now lie, but the progress is far from even and tends to correlate better with liberal elbow grease than voter demography.
It is important to note that from the perspective of internal strategic discussions, the Blue Wall is a very southeastern phenomenon plus a few leafy suburbs in the north (Cheadle, for example). The reason it is important to recognise this is that when it comes to policy and messaging, it is these voters, not other groups of Conservative voters, who get brought up as the necessary focus: in policy working groups, for example, the pressure tends to be e.g. “can we avoid raising taxes on people in Woking and St Albans earning in the eighth and ninth deciles” rather than “what do we need to do to appeal to voters in the numerous council wards in Somerset that are in the bottom fifth nationally for social deprivation”. Both of these sets of areas are Conservative/Liberal swing areas – only the former is occupying the minds of senior party figures with any reliability.
These results show that that’s a problem, because our opportunities actually may not be where we thought they were. As noted, large swathes of the classic Blue Wall remain unmoved by Sir Ed Davey’s appeals to good governance and modest taxation: and yet, here come the Liberal Democrats to break through in Labour-facing Hull, and across the rolling hills of Somerset and Westmorland. These are not the wealthy suburbs the party’s messaging strategy keeps imagining, and indeed these are probably successes despite, rather than resulting from, that messaging. The Lib Dems in Hull include a number of the party’s most vocal supporters of Universal Basic Income, officially party policy but at present rarely mentioned by the leadership for fear of the tax implications. The Somerset win shows that the party once again has serious potential in the South West, much of which is badly off, badly connected, very rural, and increasingly sick of a lack of support from the centre.
If the party’s future lies as much in Kingston-upon-Hull and Yeovil as it does in Esher & Walton and Tunbridge Wells, this poses a quandary that must be answered. Is the party’s messaging to the affluent centre going to cut the mustard in a general election where we need to be considering the former areas in our targeting? Personally, I suspect not. Re-centring a more vigorous localism, being less afraid of tax if it’s needed to solve cost of living crises, and taking a somewhat punchier stance towards the institutions of a central government that is letting people down, rather than posing as the upholders of their dignity, may all be needed. The Misfit Coalition of voters, defined by their shared inherent issues with and demands against centralisation and authoritarianism, that were so important to Lib Dem success before 2010 might not be as buried in the past as some party strategists had hitherto believed.
The 2022 election results are a real, and major, success for the Lib Dems. But they also tell us some things about how we’re doing that might be difficult for the party to take on board: if we can do so and we can better link up messaging with our new target possibilities, there are serious electoral opportunities to increase our parliamentary and local representation. But for that, we have to realise what those opportunities mean and that, come a general election, we’ll need to ensure we support our local activists with a strategic and messaging perspective that speaks to the people on the doorsteps they’re visiting.
Restorative Justice: time to talk it over?
March 10, 2022 § Leave a comment
So, this weekend at Liberal Democrat conference I’ll be putting forward an amendment to a policy motion that reaffirms and, more importantly, significantly extends the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to restorative justice policies – it’s a severely under-discussed area with immense potential to be a flagship part of how liberalising justice systems could work, and this post is here to tell you more about why and how.
For those who haven’t come across the concept before, restorative justice stands in contrast to procedural justice. The latter – which is the justice system you all know and probably have mixed feelings about – basically stipulates that justice comprises specific breaches of a legal code that have penalties attached to them. We therefore have police, who both directly enforce the law and , and a court system, which determines how people are penalised. Restorative justice is conversely justice as a system of mediation and restorative action between those causing and those on the recieving end of harm (who in some cases can, indeed, be the same people). The role of the professional facilitating the process is to provide a framework in which those discussions can take place, with the aim of providing both acceptable restitution for wrongs that have been done and of integrating those causing harm back into communities more effectively. Meetings can build, discuss, and put in place individualised plans for restorative action which can give victims and offenders a stronger voice in the outcomes of the process and their own futures than the procedural justice system allows.
Government research demonstrates that restorative justice provides an 85% victim satisfaction rate, and a 14% reduction in the frequency of reoffending. ”UK Restorative Justice Council
We use restorative processes already in the UK justice system, albeit that they’re often severely under-utilised: whilst in theory it should be offered to all victims of crime, in practice this only happens in a shockingly low five percent of cases. But where they’re used, they work: reoffending rates are cut, victims of crime express higher satisfaction.
We use restorative justice in the UK, however, essentially only as something to run alongside procedural systems, and only as something accessible through police services, and that limits some of its potential. Offering the possibility of restorative justice as a more complete alternative system has been tried more in the US, where it has been developed from indigenous models and has had some notable success stories. This is partly because it significantly changes the incentive structure for offenders: the traditional legal system encourages offenders to deny everything until the latest possible moment, creating more pain for victims and a far lengthier and more expensive process for everyone involved. Accessing restorative services in place of the courtroom, especially if routes can be found that don’t always involve the police directly, may also help people in communities with low levels of police engagement and trust find effective justice and decrease other social problems.
Restorative justice isn’t a catch-all to solve every problem, and changing mindsets to get it into widespread use will take time and investment. It’s also important to stress that this is a system and a service that needs to be built, not something that will flower on its own: the role of a restorative justice facilitator is a difficult, serious professional task, and needs to be supported by additional staffing ideally at a local government level where councils may have the local knowledge needed to apply relevant resources effectively. The focus for using restorative justice in its own right should probably initially be towards non-violent and property related crimes where it is easiest for the public to envisage restitutive actions, though its use elsewhere suggests the long term possibilities are wider.
Liberals in the UK have traditionally been at the forefront of progressive thinking on policing and justice reform, from tackling heavy-handed policing to campaigning for rehabilitative prison services, and now is an important moment to embrace some of the possibilities offered by a more wholeheated endorsement of wider restorative justice use in its own right. As we focus on the high costs and lack of access to courtroom justice that have plagued that system in recent years, it would be wrong to fail to consider alternatives as well as fixes, and bad politics to pass on the chance for an approach that more effectively demonstrates our values.
That’s why this weekend, Liberal Democrat conference will get to debate an amendment I wrote on the motion ‘Swift Access to Justice’ which moves our position forwards on this in two important ways. First, it accepts clearly for the first time in party policy that restorative justice has the potential to be used in place of procedural justice, rather than as an addendum to the procedural system as at present. Second, it explicitly calls for routes to be made available to access restorative justice facilitation that do not always rely upon already overstretched police forces. These changes provide a stronger commitment to restorative justice, and demonstrate our values: taking an evidence-based approach to policy, tackling problems at the level of and in conversation with the affected communities, providing justice whilst seeing the value and needs of victims and offenders alike. My view is that it would make sense to redirect part of the funding that our previous manifesto committed to raising police numbers in order to provide this uplift at council level, though given that manifesto financial commitments change and the money spent is fungible, this isn’t specifically included in the amendment text. If conference commits to this policy, in any case, we’ll be heading down a significant new route that offers some very exciting possibilities for us as a party and more importantly for the public debate and the future of policy in this area more widely.
Restorative justice won’t work in all cases: like any policy solution, it’s not a magic wand. It is, however, something that we know works, that brings the values of liberty, equality, and community clearly to the forefront of how we approach justice, and on which we have a clear route forward to start arguing our case. We can’t just be hide-bound by looking at how to fix the procedural justice system – moving forwards will take thinking outside the box and seriously considering alternatives to procedural justice. This Saturday, the Lib Dems will have the chance to do just that.
On Fighting Fascist Memories: Ukraine, Russia, the US and the UN
February 17, 2022 § Leave a comment
One feature of posting about the Ukraine-Russia crisis that occasionally comes across my social media feeds is that of left-wing, pro-Russian bloggers and thinkers attacking Ukraine and its independence on a number of grounds. In particular, the claim or implication made is frequently that Ukraine is an aggressive nationalist-fascist state, backed by America for selfish geopolitical reasons to do with their opposition to Russia. Russia, in turn, is seen as the wounded party, being “surrounded” by NATO such that they have no option but to defend themselves via, apparently, militarily posturing on the Ukrainian border. This perspective, to my eyes, feels utterly divorced from reality and in particular fails to accept or read Russia as what it is – a former colonial power suffering from an extreme sense of entitlement towards a former colony. The fact that America and Britain could certainly at times be justly accused of similar senses of entitlement doesn’t somehow mean that Russia is immune to such sentiment simply because it is a geopolitical rival of theirs: the failure to analyse Russia as a colonial power, with all that this implies about the sentiments expressed by the Kremlin towards formerly and currenly colonised peoples from eastern Europe to Siberia, and all that this implies about Russian policy, is a grave one on the part of many western progressives and leftists.
In any case, this post isn’t about the general issues (for which there are better people to listen to) but the specific: specifically, one claim made in the service of the pro-Russia left is that the US and Ukraine voted against or blocked motions at the UN that condemn the glorification of Nazism: an example is shown below. I’ve seen this crop up a few times on my Twitter feeds, and decided that I wanted to understand more about what was going on here. Was it really true that the entirety of Europe decided to neutrally shrug when it came to the glorification of Nazism?
And in December, the US and Ukraine were the only countries to vote against a UN bill that condemns “the glorification of Nazism and Neo-Nazism.”— Alan MacLeod (@AlanRMacLeod) February 16, 2022
Germany, along with most of Europe, abstained.
Explaining their decision, the US called the UN bill “Russian disinformation.” pic.twitter.com/84ugEZNyvw
So, I want to make a couple of things clear before I embark on a slightly longer look at this: first, I am not trying to make any general defence of how any particular country votes at the UN. The preceding tweets in MacLeod’s original thread, for example, quoted above document a couple of other votes by the USA on rights of children and food rights, against the vast majority in opposing the overall UN motion in both cases. I haven’t looked into those cases and won’t be commenting on them, but precisely because of that I don’t mean this post to suggest that the US isn’t often flat out wrong on international issues when there’s often evidence to the contrary. I’m not even going to defend this specific vote – I certainly wouldn’t have voted the same way the US did – though I am going to discuss why it’s a bit more complicated than at first glance. The second point to make is that I’m a historian and activist, not a UN-watcher or a lawyer, so others may well have a better understanding of the chicanery behind how United Nations resolutions are put together.
So, onto the vote itself: the UN is pretty good at recording votes, and the notes for this one can be found here. The US didn’t “block” the vote, which passed the assembly, but it and Ukraine did indeed vote against: the map above is accurate in that regard. One feature is however interesting: a number of states were not present to vote, making them de facto abstainers. These included Iran, the Congo and DR Congo, Mozambique, and some small nations like Tuvalu and Palau. We (definitionally) don’t know how non-voters would vote, but excluding them makes the map visually isolate the Europe/US block more clearly and thus underlines the implied point: it’s worth considering that a map can be entirely accurate but how it’s presented can still make a difference to how the outcome sticks in the reader’s head.
The other document worth looking at, though it does a frankly rather shoddy job of actually providing a clear explanation, is the US Mission’s record of why it voted No, which you can find here. I’ve checked the Ukraine Mission’s statements folder, but it appears they didn’t give a public English explainer on their 2021 vote. A factor that complicates reading both resolutions and explanations in such votes is that they often interlock, and a further complicating factor is that the UN has rather little power: resolutions are statements of shared intent, not laws that can be enforced. As we see from the tweet we started with, countries can vote yes, no, or abstain: the latter doesn’t prevent a motion passing, but suggests that there are some problems with the motion that prevent a member from wholeheartedly endorsing it.
So, let’s start with the US explanation. The first thing to point out here which starts making the “the US voted to be OK with Nazis” argument look a bit flimsy is that most of what’s here is very much attacking Nazism. This is a more important point than one might think, in that of course it’s possible for someone to say one thing and do another, but as we’ve noted, all UN motions really do most of the time is make a statement of intent. So it’s not a question of saying one thing and doing another, but of seemingly contradictory public statements… unless, of course, the US has some other reason that isn’t “being pro-Nazi” to vote against this motion. And they do raise two points on this front, though they don’t explain them at all well and one is pretty terrible.
First, they accuse the motion of fostering “thinly veiled attempts to legitimize Russian disinformation campaigns denigrating neighboring nations and promoting the distorted Soviet narrative of much of contemporary European history“. In other words, the US say they believed that voting for the motion would have been tantamount to slapping Hitler by endorsing Stalin, and therefore endorsing the USSR’s control of much of eastern Europe, something that the US under many leaders has a pretty long record of opposing. So, indeed, do most of the countries that abstained on the motion.
Second, they cite “the constitutional right to freedom of speech and the rights of peaceful assembly and association, including by avowed Nazis, whose hatred and xenophobia are vile and widely scorned by the American people“. In other words, the US officially has such a hard line on being in favour of free speech that it doesn’t think one should ban Nazis from speaking. As a British liberal, I think the US is frankly nuts on this point – it whacks into Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance like a high speed train – but it’s important to note it here. I think this is the point that comes closest to justifying attacking the US for this vote: the US position explicitly was that banning Nazis from expressing their views was something they couldn’t support.
Are these concerns justified by the text? I’m going to focus on the first of the two points, about the commemoration or not of the USSR, not because I think it’s per se more important but because I think the US is more isolated on its bizarre free speech point (Germany and Austria for example have very clear provisions not allowing avowed Nazis a right to assembly or association, but still abstained). It is pretty clear that the resolution clashes with the US’ free speech at all costs standpoint, for example in point fourteen where it “Emphasizes once more the recommendation of the Special Rapporteur that any commemorative celebration of the Nazi regime, its allies and related organizations, whether official or unofficial, should be prohibited by States” and later in point where it reiterates the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination Article 4 saying signatories “Shall declare illegal and prohibit organizations, and also organized and all other propaganda activities, which promote and incite racial discrimination“.
Most of the motion, it’s important to note, should be pretty unobjectionable. A lot of it is loosely worded to “emphasise” or “encourage” or “recall the importance of” its points, rather than to actually resolve to do very much, but most of what it asks, regarding everything from combating Nazi commemorations to general anti-hate-speech work, is perfectly worthy. It’s worth considering that numerous states which did vote yes are pretty clearly doing things which breach the generically anti-discrimination parts of the text or are run by people who don’t observe them. This includes Brazil, whose leader once said that some Black Brazilians “do not serve for anything, not even to procreate” but whose government still signed up to this resolution that “condemns without reservation” incitement or harassment on the basis of ethnic origin or religious belief. China’s well-documented human rights abuses against its Muslim Uyghur minority, including the destruction of ancient mosques, also didn’t stop it signing: nor did Azerbaijan’s attempts to erase Armenian Christian heritage in their southwestern regions, or Israel’s citizenship laws which explicitly discriminate against those of Palestinian heritage. This should mainly serve as a reminder that how a country votes at the UN is not very well connected to how they act in practice.
An interesting phrase does crop up in the text pretty early on – the “anti-Hitler coalition”, which it uses consistently for those who fought against the German Nazi state. This isn’t per se a wrong statement to use, but it does two bits of work which don’t necessarily serve for good drafting: first, it zones the motion in pretty strongly on mid C20th German Nazism. Its somewhat loose wording otherwise can be read to include or exclude a lot of other fascist and discriminatory tendencies, dotting between sections containing very general reference to “extremist parties” or to racism in a general sense (eg sections 33 and 35) and sections that are solely focused on the Second World War and Nazi crimes and do not mention any other fascist movements or genocides (e.g. sections 11 and 14). As a resolution it thus shifts focus wildly from paragraph to paragraph, and risks creating the unfortunate implication in its wording that extremism, racism, fascism and Nazism are purely interchangeable terms. That’s a problem because it lets the resolution’s titular “other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” go unmentioned in any concrete way and the motion side-steps much consideration of what modern neo-Nazis do, commemorate, or look like beyond the easy stereotype of using 1940s German Nazi symbolism, which is still used by many such movements but is far from the only symbol or event they seek to claim. This in turn reduces the effective pressure the motion puts on states to combat fascism by taking a limited, frozen picture of how such an ideology relates to historical memory. It also may let people exonerate modern totalitarian governments who are happy to vote against the commemoration of Hitler whilst committing their own daily atrocities, letting them pose under the general anti-Nazi stance of the motion whilst not having the motion actually call out their specific fascisms. Both a motion against the specific movement and symbolism of Nazism and a motion against fascism and extremism worldwide are worthwhile aims: trying to bolt the latter onto the former without accounting for other fascisms effectively weakens both aims.
Second, and this is the most important bit, the “anti-Hitler coalition” focus means that the motion consistently equates all of the anti-Nazi forces as generically good – the enemy of my enemy being herein my friend. For example, see para 17 where the motion “welcomes efforts by Member States to preserve historical truth, including through constructing and preserving monuments and memorials dedicated to those who fought in the ranks of the anti-Hitler coalition“. This could be taken innocuously, but for states that subsequently suffered under Red Army occupations it is equally possible to see why a blanket positive memorialisation of the USSR forces might be unwelcome. Monuments are a horribly poor form of preserving historical truth: they are about celebrating, not informing, first and foremost, and the fact that they are singled out here is decidedly curious in that regard.
Section 29 is even more important in understanding Ukraine’s opposition in particular, where the text “expresses serious concern regarding attempts to prohibit, at the legislative level, symbols associated in States with the victory over Nazism;” – Ukraine explicitly bans Soviet symbolism and has had a fairly extreme ban in place since 2015, though it also bans Nazi symbolism. Other eastern European countries that suffered under USSR rule also have partial bans on certain Soviet symbolism, including Georgia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Whether or not one agrees with them, it’s pretty hard to read Section 29 as anything other than a very explicit rebuke of these policies, and therefore as singling out those particular countries. Russia is known to have strenuously objected to other countries adopting such policies, and the presence of this clause seems very likely to be on their initiative. This is, I think, by far the most likely explanation for Ukraine and much of the EU voting “no” despite their own bans on Nazi symbolism – whilst the US might want to retain the right to hear Nazis out, EU member states and their allies want to retain the right to not hear Stalinists out.
This is, of course, where we come full circle and back to Kremlinophile-leftist bits of Twitter, whose framings of the issues around this motion tend to stop at the title. This neatly absolves them from having to discuss any awkward questions about the memorialisation of the USSR’s imperialism in Eastern Europe, whilst conveniently bolstering pro-Putin leftists’ claims that Ukraine is an uncomplicated ultranationalist villain that needs to be cut down to size to protect Russian speakers in the country’s east. As with so many things in the world, though, the reality is a lot more complex, and voting on a poorly drafted seventy-four point long UN resolution is not as simple as voting yes or no on the idea of the title. The reasons for particular states’ votes seem to have been messy: the US’ free-speech absolutism and Ukraine’s presumed defence of its anti-Soviet-propaganda policies are not actually coming from entirely the same angle. Were I a government, I would probably have considered abstaining, but for reasons not related to either no vote: I strongly disagree with the US position on protecting Nazi speech, don’t necessarily think banning Soviet symbols is a net good (though it’s not my place to tell Ukraine how to deal with that by a long shot), but personally have quite a lot of concerns about the extent to which the world allows its ideas of what fascism must look like to still be dominated by the symbolism of eighty years ago. Either way, absurdist suggestions or implications that this is a simple way to sort the pro-fascists from the anti-fascists among world governments belong firmly in the fireplace. Accurate information without effective context can mislead every bit as much as misinformation, at times.
The truth, as ever, is a messy thing, made up of a thousand little realities: fear that fact, and cherish it, in equal measure.