Author Archives: Chris Fauske

Referendums: Getting it right next time

No one needs any help demonstrating the problems with the current ad–hoc manner in which the UK conducts referendums.

But while it might be tempting to argue that the best solution is simply to stop having them, there are problems with that approach. 

First, I’m not at all sure it is politically sensible, or intellectually honest, to say that since lies, fraud, and gross misconduct constituted the bulk of the Brexit campaign the solution is simply to have no more referendums. There have been lies, fraud, and misconduct in political campaigns since electoral politics began. The solution has always been to find better ways to conduct the campaigns, not to scrap the practice.

The Liberal Democrats are a party fundamentally committed to opening up political discourse, and to doing so responsibly. Referendums are fraught with peril and, ironically, run the risk of being distinctly undemocratic, but that does not mean there cannot be a role for them as part of a broader expansion of legitimate political expression.

And as recent votes in Ireland have shown, to take one example, referendums can play a crucial role in securing progressive social gains.

As another example, here in Massachusetts, where I now live, voters last November defeated by an overwhelming majority an attempt by fundamentalist Christian groups to repeal a law designed to protect transgender people by allowing them to use the restroom of their choice in any building open to the public.

By permitting the question and conducting the referendum, voters had the opportunity to affirm the actions of their legislature and governor and stop in its tracks the type of hate and fear that festers when it can pretend to a legitimacy it does not possess.

Wary of referendums as I am, I’m not proposing a radical overhaul of the UK political system to allow for the types of confirmatory votes we hold here in Massachusetts, where we can also vote by referendum to instruct the legislature to introduce legislation.

Massachusetts, incidentally, makes it much harder to initiate a referendum question than do many U.S. states and, in many cases, and wisely so as the government problems caused in referendum-happy states such as California help demonstrate.

Referendums shouldn’t happen often.

They should only happen with good reason.

But there are times when they might well be appropriate.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , and | 21 Comments

The sudden death of Liberal England

I joined the Liberal Party the day of Margaret Thatcher’s first victory. I will be leaving its successor party the day after I return a spoiled ballot in the election for the next party leader.

As a party we have had our fights, our disagreements, and our debates. We have also proven that the strength of our shared commitments and ideals has been of a power that protects the very essence of what it means to be liberal and democratic.

One of my first committee appointments in the party offered the opportunity to work closely with Richard Wainwright, a devout Quaker. His faith guided him. At times, it made him uncomfortable. But, more often than not, his faith, which so few of us shared, offered him the impetus, the strength and, yes, the courage, to expect more of us than we often thought possible.

I worked in Liverpool on occasion with a Liberal city council that was helping re-shape that city. I was there the day of the Toxteth riots. Very soon thereafter, David Alton, our first MP from that city in so many years, and Eric Heffer, MP, sat down with Michael Heseltine and shape the only action plan I know of that caused Thatcher to have to admit that there was such a thing as society. Two of those men, Heffer and Alton, shared little. But they did share a faith and that faith shaped both of them in years of service that made the lives of so very many people so much better than it would otherwise have been.

Richard Wainwright and David Alton were not alone, but I worked with them well enough, and knew them well enough, to write what I did above with confidence.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 45 Comments

Referenda need not offer binary choices

It might well be that the United Kingdom, or its successor rump state of England and Wales, will be relying on the skills of the New Zealand’s trade negotiators to help shape the Brexit agreement with the EU. Amusingly, these might be the same people who are also representing  New Zealand and Australia in areas where those two countries collaborate to reach common terms with the post-EU British / English-Welsh state.

That’s a mouthful of a paragraph because it’s a mind-blowing idea, or should be.

But it would unlikely to have become reality had it been thought about before the Brexit referendum.

Unfortunately, we have somehow got it into our heads that referenda are binary, yes / no questions.

But they needn’t be.

And we could have learned that lesson from New Zealand before forcing many people to choose between the status quo and an option that was, really, many options, none even remotely defined.

Last year and this, New Zealanders voted in two referenda designed to address one issue: to keep the current flag or replace it with a different design.

In developing the question to be put to the electorate, prime Minister John Key, his advisors and the parliamentary committee tasked with establishing the rules under which the referendum would happen realised that a simple yes / no option along the lines of “would you like to replace the current flag of New Zealand with a new design?” might well have resulted in a yes vote. There would then have followed a lengthy period of bitter argument about what the resulting flag should look like, at the end of which a significant percentage of the population who had voted for change might well have ended up wishing after seeing the new flag that they had voted, instead, to keep the current one.

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Reclamation, not realignment

Regular readers of LDV  have recently been reminded of similarities between contemporary populist discontent and the 1930s. There is, however, one other aspect of the ‘30s which might be important to the Liberal Democrats today—and, it should go without saying—to the country as well.

And it’s not just the ‘30s. There are lessons, too, that should be learned from more recent events.

To the ‘30s first: These were deeply unstable times for British political parties and for parliament. These were the years of the National Government, of the splintering of the Liberal Party, of enormous division in the Labour Party that almost paralysed it. In retrospect, the Conservative Party was also much closer to permanent splintering than it perhaps appeared at the time.

Today, of those three parties it is the Liberal Democrats who look most likely to come through the next couple of years in best shape.

The single most important reason for that change is that it is clear, as it was not in the ‘30s, where the party stands on the most pressing issue of the day. And from a clear stance as to that main issue, positions on a variety of subsidiary issues also follow necessarily. However unsure as to the specific details, party members and the public at large can parse a variety of Lib Dem policy positions on immigration, human rights, internationalism and trade, among others, reasonably accurately based on the confident knowledge that the party is staunchly committed to the EU project.

Posted in News | Tagged | 30 Comments

Opinion: Principles before policies

Liberal Democrat Conference 2011Long ago, I stood at the podium of party assembly in Blackpool and asked our parliamentary spokesman on economic affairs, then Richard Wainwright, what he and his colleagues were doing to advance the party’s policy of zero economic growth. (Yes, we had such a policy once.)

I learned two things from that. One, ask my own darned questions not ones the organisation I represented (what was then the Union of Liberal Students) thought to ask. Two, try not to create an opportunity for deserved ridicule. This was 1981, and the next day The Guardian’s sketch writer had a fine time suggesting the answer should have been “We’ve succeeded. No growth. Mass unemployment. We’ve done it!  And then some.”

The point, of course, is that while policies matter they are tactical devices for delivering strategic results. I have no idea why we thought zero growth was an economic policy worth pursuing, and I’m willing to bet the parliamentary party thought the idea both quaint and highly irritating. But there we were spending our time on a policy that was of no possible consequence given the depredations being loosed upon the country and that could not possibly have helped advance any of the principles it might have been intended to address. All we did was provide easy fodder to a paper that didn’t need it and cause an honourable man to have to waste his time.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 15 Comments

Opinion: It was one week ago today but it feels like longer

We have been here before.

My last full time commitments with the party were the back-to-back by-elections of 1982 that saw us make significant gains on the Tories and beat one Anthony ‘Tony’ Blair into third place with a message of change and a better alternative, followed by the sting of an all-too-foreseeable but nonetheless devastating loss on a point of principal.

I don’t recall much about the Beaconsfield by-election.  But I do recall that in Mitcham and Morden I arrived exhausted from the previous campaign. We set up shop in what had been, I think, a grocer’s on one of the busier streets of Merton. Volunteers came from across the country to help save the seat of the one MP who had resigned when he left the Labour Party to join the SDP. Frankly, we never stood a chance, but that campaign helped solidify the very foundation upon which the Liberal Democrats were built – that principles matter.

I stayed in the campaign office during the count. I was too tired and too depressed to see the point of watching Angela Rumbold start her parliamentary career. When he returned to our office, Bruce Douglas-Mann thanked everyone. And then, off script, he told us that while ‘you can regret making a promise, you can never regret keeping one.’

Posted in News | 4 Comments
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