THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS ATTACK THE CONSERVATIVES

There have been some surprised comments about the suddenly vituperous tone taken by Nick Clegg and by some other leading Liberal Democrats as the date of the Alternative Vote referendum approaches.  Clegg has now accused Cameron of telling “lies” and Huhne is even threatening the Conservative led No campaign with legal action. 

Some construe these statements by the Liberal Democrats as part of a strategy to show to the electorate that they are not puppets of their Conservative coalition partners.  I disagree.  The attacks the Liberal Democrats are making on the Conservatives go far beyond what would be expected if they were the product of political calculation.  Indeed some of the comments are so extreme that I for one find it difficult to believe that they  will be quickly forgiven or forgotten.  Rather as they are bound to leave a bitter aftertaste and will put more strain on the coalition they could be said to be actually unwise. 

What these comments in my opinion reflect is the increasing fear on the part of the Liberal Democrat leadership that the vote for the Alternative Vote is going to be lost.  The latest opinion polls suggest that opinion may be hardening against it. If so as I discussed in my previous posts this has the potential to cause a serious crisis for Clegg’s leadership and within the Liberal Democrat party.  In a last effort to prevent this happening the Liberal Democrats are therefore pulling out all the stops. 

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TODAY IN RUSSIA

Following up on my previous comments about the liberals in Russia, today is the anniversary of Lenin’s birth, which used to be a public holiday in the USSR and which this year has come directly after an important speech that Putin gave to the Russian parliament in which he discussed the country’s economic position and its progress in relation to the plan for its economic and social development up to 2020 that was announced in 2008. These two events and their response to them provide a good opportunity to assess the state of the liberals in Russia and where they stand in relation to their own society.  In my opinion liberal discussion of these two events provides a good illustration of my earlier point that in Russia the liberals continue to misunderstand popular opinion and that this leads them down blind alleys and wrong turns.

To begin with the liberals have seriously misrepresented and/or misunderstood data on the subject of Lenin provided by recent opinion polls.  They claim for example that a recent opinion poll in Russia said that 62% of Russians want Lenin’s body removed from the mausoleum in Red Square and reburied in a cemetery.   Opinion polls in Russia are notoriously unreliable since they tend to be run by polling agencies, which were set up in the years of the liberal ascendancy of the 1990s and which continue to be closely affiliated to the liberals.  They tend therefore to have a strong pro liberal bias, which inevitably affects their work and distorts their results.  In any event in this case the opinion poll in question did not say what the liberals want to  believe it said.  On the contrary what it said was almost the exact opposite.  It said that 44% (not 62%) of Russians support Lenin’s reburial and that the majority of Russians (over 50%) currently oppose it.  The figure of 62% is only achieved by transferring from the column of those who oppose Lenin’s reburial to the column of those who support Lenin’s reburial the 18% of Russians who say that Lenin should only be reburied when all the people who admire him are dead.  That of course could turn out to be never.  Another opinion does in fact suggest that it that might actually turn out to be never (see below).

Whilst misrepresenting one opinion poll the liberals at least judging from their English language websites have preferred to ignore another opinion poll about Lenin that came out today details of which I found on the Russian Communist Party’s website and on the website of Levada Centre.  This was produced by the Levada Centre, which of all the opinion poll agencies in Russia is known to be the one most closely associated with the liberals.  This opinion poll shows that 58% of Russians assess Lenin positively as opposed to just 24% of Russians who assess him negatively.  Only 5% agreed with the view that he was a brutal dictator.

The Levada Centre has been conducting similar opinion polls on a regular basis since 1995.  The consistent trend in these polls is for positive views of Lenin to increase.  Thus in 1995 the Levada  Centre put the number of Russians with negative views of Lenin as high as 45% (as opposed to 24% now) whilst Lenin is now assessed positively by every Russian age group (including those under 25), whereas in 1995 Russians under 40 tended to assess him negatively.

It is undoubtedly true that as Lenin recedes into history Russians feel much less strongly about him than they once did.  Certainly they feel far less strongly about him than they do about Stalin who remains a contemporary rather than a historical figure.  This mirrors the way in the Nineteenth Century that the French tended to feel far more passionately about Napoleon than they did about say Robespierre. If the French example repeats itself then in time things will balance out. The point is that with the passage of time the number of Russians who share the liberals’ extreme hostility to Lenin and who by extension accept the liberal interpretation of Russian history is tending to get smaller not greater.

Meanwhile the liberals have reacted very negatively to Putin’s speech to the Russian parliament, which they claim somehow contradicts Medvedev’s “modernisation project”.  Having read the speech carefully I cannot for the life of me see how it does.  In saying this I should say that I do think Medvedev is making a serious mistake when he talks about Russia’s need for “modernisation”.  This is a nebulous concept at best and one that has the disadvantage of lending force to the common claim that Russia is somehow a “backward” as opposed to a relatively poor country, which by most parameters it is not.  However Putin was hardly opposed to “modernisation” as such (what politician ever is?) and his speech on the contrary discussed at length questions about how productivity and innovation in the economy and society should be increased.  This has led some liberals to say that Putin is promoting a policy of “innovation” in rivalry to Medvedev’s policy of “modernisation”, which frankly I think is ridiculous.

The main liberal critique of Putin’s speech is that the programme he discussed is “paternalist”.  Extreme believers in free markets such as the liberals in Russia always refer to government involvement in the economy as “paternalist” and always use that word to criticise welfare policies and social spending.  Those of us who do not share these beliefs do not use this term or share in the criticism it implies.  One liberal commentator has complained that in his speech Putin showed “no understanding of a post industrial society”.  If so I say Amen to that!  I would also say that if Putin does not not understand a “post industrial society” it is probably because no such thing exists. To my mind the single most bizarre criticism that some liberals have made of the speech is that Putin devoted too much time in the speech to a discussion of agricultural questions.  I do not understand this criticism at all, which to my mind merely shows how detached from reality Putin’s liberal critics are. 

In all of this criticism the liberals however miss the fundamental point, which that the things Putin said in his speech that he plans to do and which they most vehemently criticise him for are precisely those things that every opinion poll and election that has happened in Russia shows will make him more popular.  Every survey of opinion shows that Russians strongly support generous social and welfare spending and take it as axiomatic that the state should provide it.  Criticising Putin for saying he plans to increase social and welfare spending will make the liberals less popular not more.  Calling for a return to the sort of unadulterated free market policies that in Putin in his speech expressly repudiated merely reminds Russians of the 1990s when precisely such policies were tried with disastrous results and gives  Russians yet one more reason for not wanting the liberals back.  One liberal critic complained bitterly that Putin’s policy had a real prospect of success because “half” (only half?) the population would support it.  He did not explain why in that case he is the “democrat” and Putin is not.

In the meantime all liberal hopes in Russia seem to be pinned on a falling out between Putin and Medvedev.  Some sections of the liberal media in Russia seem to be working flat out to try to provoke such a split.  Often this involves seriously misrepresenting things Medvedev and Putin say about each other.  For example certain totally innocuous words Medvedev said about Putin to a Chinese journalist were misrepresented by liberal commentators to suggest a serious disagreement between the two about which one of them would run for the Presidency in the election next year.  I happened to have read this interview before I was aware of the liberal spin on it.  Not only did I see nothing in the interview that supported the interpretation the liberals are trying to foist on it but I found the interview so uncontroversial as to be frankly uninteresting.

This tactic of trying to foment a split between Medvedev and Putin is of course no more than another example of the same tactic the liberals in Russia always follow, which is to try to gain power through the backdoor by pursuing intrigues and by manipulating those in power.  In this case there is no possibility that this will work. Firstly it appears to be based on the assumption that Medvedev is somehow on their side.  I see no evidence for this at all.  Yet having convinced themselves that this is the case the liberals are now busy egging Medvedev on to stand in the Presidential elections next year on an anti Putin platform and even to run against Putin if Putin decides to stand himself.

As it happens I do not think that Putin is going to stand for the Presidency next year.  I believe that the present arrangement of Medvedev as President and of Putin as Prime Minister and leader of the majority party in the Parliament will continue.  It has worked well until now and I see no reason why either man would want to change it. Putin spoke in his speech about the overriding need to maintain political stability, which to my mind is the clearest possible indication that he wants things to stay as they are.  Apart from a recent short spat over Libya, hardly a serious issue in Russian political terms and one where Medvedev anyway has since fallen into line with Putin, I see no difference on policy issues between the two men.  Putin is more emotional and outspoken and makes no effort to conceal his contempt and dislike of the liberals and of certain politicians in the west whilst Medvedev tends to be more circumspect but that to my mind is as far as it goes.  As for the social and welfare programmes that the liberals find so objectionable and which they condemn as “paternalist”, when Putin was President Medvedev was in charge of them and largely authored them so it is difficult to see why he would object to them now.  Nor has Medvedev said anything that suggests a fanatical belief in free markets, which would anyway be odd coming from someone who was formerly the government’s representative on the board of Gazprom.  As for the idea that Medvedev would want to stand for the Presidency on an anti Putin platform a glance at any opinion poll would show why that would be an act of political suicide.  The idea is actually crazy and once again shows just how detached from reality the liberals have become.

Rather than speculate on a split between Medvedev and Putin that will almost certainly not happen the liberals would be far better advised to make a credible pitch to Russian voters on issues that Russians genuinely care about.  That is the policy of the Russian Communist Party, the only opposition party in Russia that has shown an ability to win elections and to harvest millions of votes, which has shown no interest in the subject of the supposed split between Medvedev and Putin but which instead campaigns equally against both between whom it refuses to distinguish whilst promoting its own platform and policies.  The result is that unlike the liberals the Communist Party remains a genuine political force in Russia and at local level is even in places a serious contender for power.

If the liberals were to re examine their stance and were to try to connect with Russian society as it genuinely is as opposed to how they want it to be they might with hard work find that they were achieving some positive results.  Russia needs a strong liberal movement.  Authoritarian (as opposed to “autocratic”) tendencies do exist in Russian society as they do in all societies everywhere.  Russia however lacks a credible liberal movement to counter them. There is a strong need for example for a feminist movement that would address the difficult situations (including rampant domestic violence) that so many Russian women face in their everyday lives. There are serious questions about the brutal treatment of people who are regarded in Russian society as social deviants such as gay people and others who are in some way nonconformists.  There are the dreadful conditions in Russian prisons and the way in which the Russian authorities routinely imprison people (especially young people) for trivial offences causing Russia to have a prison population proportionately as great as the one it had in the 1930s and second only in size to that of the United States.  There is the growing and increasingly reactionary influence of the Orthodox Church, which is trying to impose its patriarchal notions on questions of social policy even though only a small minority of Russians actively identify with it.    These and numerous other such issues would benefit from an effective and campaigning liberal movement prepared to take a stand.  The liberals in Russia instead  show almost no interest in these questions, which they neglected when they were in power in the 1990s.  Instead they remain obsessed with questions of political power for themselves, which they combine with a rigid and even fanatical commitment to free market economic policies and pro western foreign policies that in Russia are unpopular and discredited. 

MORE ON THE POLITICS OF THE ALTERNATIVE VOTE REFERENDUM

There have been some interesting articles about the way in which the Alternative Vote referendum is going with Cameron being criticised by Conservative columnists like Bruce Anderson for his muddled message and his failure to give a clear lead to the no campaign and with The Times criticising Ed Milliband for being lacklustre in his leadership of the yes campaign.  Both criticisms are justified.  What the commentators who make these criticisms miss is the reason why Cameron and Milliband are being so unconvincing.  I explained the reason in an earlier post.  This is that in each case Cameron’s and Milliband’s respective interests are best served by the opposite result to the one they have to appear to want so that Cameron’s chances of remaining Prime Minister are greater if there is a yes vote and Milliband’s chances of becoming Prime Minister are greater if there is a no vote.

THE NEO KEYNESIANS AND THE POSSIBLE DOWNGRADE OF THE US

I have just been reading the comments of a neo Keynesian economist called Stephen Galbraith of the University of Texas who has laughed off the announcement of the rating agency Standard & Poor that because of the US’s failure to rein in its deficit the US risks a downgrade in its credit rating.  Galbraith’s response to this is that it is “impossible” for the US to default on debt denominated in its own currency, by which I take him to mean that if the US were to experience repayment problems on its debt it could solve them by simply printing more dollars.

I do not take seriously anything any of the big credit agencies say.  I suspect that the reason for the warning from Standard & Poor is that it is preparing a downgrade of certain European countries with better debt to GDP ratios than the US and does not want to be exposed to charges of bias.  Having said this I have to say that I find the casual way in which some extreme neo Keynesians like Galbraith treat the issue of the US’s deficit and debt to be both frivolous and reckless.  If the US government can pay its debt by simply printing more dollars why can it not pay for all its spending that way?  Why in fact does it in that case need to borrow money or raise taxes at all?

The growth of the US deficit or to be precise the growth of the US’s trade and budget deficits and the steady deterioration of the US’s fiscal and trade position, which has been getting steadily worse since at least as far back as the mid 1960s, is a very serious problem that lies at the heart of the global imbalances that have caused the world financial and economic crisis.  It is legitimate to discuss what the right solutions to this problem are and as it happens I am firmly of the view that cutting social, education and health care spending as opposed to defence spending is the wrong solution.  However to deny or pretend that the problem does not exist is delusional.

THE MAU MAU "REVELATIONS"

Anybody who tries to keep up with the way British history is written sooner or later will experience a sense of deja vu.  This comes from the way the British every so often rediscover something about themselves that has in fact been known about all along.

The latest Mau Mau revelations are a case in point.  Anybody with even the slightest knowledge of British colonial history in Africa will have known about the brutal way in which the British suppressed the Mau Mau revolt in the 1950s and how this was covered up at the time.  There were in fact courageous British MPs and journalists who were telling the truth about the Mau Mau revolt as it was actually taking place.  The brutal nature of its suppression has been universally accepted amongst academic historians of the late colonial period since at least the 1970s.  The latest revelations drawn from formerly secret Foreign Office files provide some new details but they do not in any way change the overall picture.  I am therefore at something of a loss to understand all the excitement and I suspect that quite a few of those who write professionally about the subject are as well.   

LIBERALISM AND DEMOCRACY IN RUSSIA IN 1991 AND MIKHAIL GORBACHEV

Someone who has read my post on the Russian liberals and who knows Russia well has made a point that I want quickly to touch on.  Her point is that Gorbachev has lost most of his popularity in 1991.  I presume this point was made in response to my comment that the parliamentary elections to the USSR and Russian Parliaments of 1989 and 1990 were on the basis of the number of votes counted won by the Communist Party and its supporters.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I fully accept that Gorbachev had lost most of his popularity in 1991.  In fact opinion polls showed that he had become massively unpopular.  By 1991 things appeared to be falling apart with a bitter “war of laws” underway between the USSR and Russian Parliaments, a mounting economic crisis and escalating unrest in the Caucasus, the Baltic States and elsewhere.  Inevitably as the person in charge Gorbachev was blamed for these problems and there is no doubt that he made his position worse by a succession of serious political mistakes.

The reason I mentioned Gorbachev in connection with the elections in 1989 and 1990 was that I did not want my comment that the majority of votes in those elections went to members of the Communist Party and its supporters to be misunderstood as my saying that in those elections the majority of Russians cast their votes for Stalinism and for dictatorship.  During his talk last Tuesday Martin Sixmith on several occasions came very close to saying and on one occasionally even appeared actually to say that Russians have a cultural and political predisposition to prefer dictatorship (or “one man rule” or “autocracy”) to democracy.  I did not want my comments about the elections of 1989 and 1990 in my previous post to be read as giving support to this thesis, which I happen to think is nonsense.

The elections that took place in the USSR and in Russia in 1989 and 1990 were the result of a powerful democratic impulse that has very deep roots in Russian culture and society and which in 1989 and 1990 was one that was shared by most Russians who would at that time have defined themselves as Communists.  I happen to believe that the revolution that took place in 1917 in both of its manifestations of February and October was also a result of that impulse.  In 1989 and 1990 Gorbachev embodied that impulse and it is right therefore to associate his name with it.  The point is that though that impulse was and is democratic it is not liberal as every election that has ever been held in Russia on anything remotely approximating a free and fair basis has consistently shown.       

AHEAD OF THE REFERENDUM THE POLITICS OF THE ALTERNATIVE VOTE

I have been reading a great deal about the forthcoming Alternative Vote referendum.  I am not going to discuss the merits of the Alternative Vote about which I have not yet come to a view.  I do however want to challenge one piece of wisdom that is floatng around, which I think is wrong.

Several commentators are saying that a vote for the Alternative Vote would do more harm to Cameron that a rejection would do to Clegg.  The grounds for saying this are some rather wild comments that have appeared in certain articles by some right wing commentators writing in the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and on the internet.  These comments are fiercely critical of the Alternative Vote and of David Cameron for agreeing to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote.  They reflect the standard view of the Conservative Party, which is to oppose the Alternative Vote and to stick with first past the post, though they express it with extreme vehemence.  These comments have been seized on by some centre left commentators who support electoral reform and the Alternative Vote and who are using these comments to suggest that Cameron would  be in serious trouble if the referendum result were to be a yes vote for the Alternative Vote.

The analysis is wrong.  I think it comes from a natural desire on the part of these centre left commentators to overcome the reluctance of Labour voters to vote for something wanted by Clegg.  Cameron would not be in any serious trouble if the referendum for the Alternative Vote were to go in its favour.  The right wing commentators who write the articles dislike Cameron anyway.  Though they undoubtedly do reflect a current of opinion within the Conservative Party whilst the Liberal Democrats stick with the Coalition Cameron has nothing to fear from them.  However angry they may be with Cameron no faction within the Conservative Party will move against Cameron if by doing so the existence of the Government is put at risk.  If a right wing faction within the Conservative Party were to oust Cameron then the Government would immediately fall since it is inconceivable that the Liberal Democrats would stick with the Coalition if Cameron were no longer heading it.  There would be a General Election, which the Conservatives having exposed their divisions would lose.  No Conservative however angry he or she may be with Cameron would want to trigger such a course of events, which could only end with Labour being returned to power probably with a big majority.

Cameron therefore has nothing to fear from a vote for the Alternative Vote.  On the contrary since a vote for the Alternative Vote would strengthen Clegg and would secure the existence of the Coalition, Cameron has everything to gain by it.

By contrast Clegg would be in serious trouble if the Alternative Vote were to be rejected.  One of the main selling points of the Coalition to the Liberal Democrats is that it provides at least the possibility of electoral reform.  If the Alternative Vote is rejected and there is no electoral reform then the Liberal Democrats will be faced with a future in which the next General Election and probably all other General Elections for the foreseeable future will continue to be fought under the existing rules.  In that case and given the hostile attitude to the Coalition on the part of many centre left voters who have in the recent past voted or considered voting for the Liberal Democrats there is a serious risk that at the next General Election the Liberal Democrats might be wiped out.  Even if they were not the overwhelming probability is that one or other of the two main parties would secure a majority in which case the Liberal Democrats would be right back where they started and once again in the wilderness.  Given this prospect and the feelings of anger and dismay many Liberal Democrats would undoubtedly feel if the Alternative Vote were rejected a challenge to Clegg’s leadership would surely come measurably closer.  What after all would the Liberal Democrats as a party (as opposed to individual MPs) have to lose?  Since they would be faced with the certainty of defeat and loss of power at the next General Election anyway many Liberal Democrats might calculate that getting rid of Clegg and ending the Coalition as quickly possible might be their best chance of rebuilding their support amongst centre left voters.  Is it in fact too much to suggest that some such positioning is already going on and that Vince Cable’s public disagreements with Cameron on the subject of immigration are being made with precisely such calculations in mind?

If this analysis is correct then we have the curious situation of a referendum in which the leaders of the two big parties are publicly taking positions, which may be the opposite of the ones they hold in private.  Cameron in order to appease his supporters has to pretend to oppose the Alternative Vote even though he probably wants the referendum to go in its favour.  Milliband in order to please his supporters has to pretend to support the Alternative Vote when he probably would prefer to see it rejected.  I would suggest that it is precisely because of this ambiguity in the positions of the leaders of the two big parties that the campaign for the Alternative Vote referendum has so far failed to take off.