Can Britain afford to abandon austerity? Maybe

Perhaps only Brexit is a more important political issue in Britain than austerity – the policy of restraint in public spending that is causing acute stress in parts of the public sector. It might surprising, therefore, that the quality of debate is so low as to be nonsensical. But then again, when things get important, truth is the first casualty. So let me attempt a dispassionate overview.

First let’s look at the case made by government supporters in favour of continued austerity. This runs at the level of household accounting. The government is outspending the revenue it collects. This means it is piling up debts which future generations must pay. How irresponsible! “There is no magic money tree,” says the Prime Minister, Theresa May. But one of the first things you learn in economics is that running a government budget is nothing like a household one. And the government does have a magic money tree – it’s called the Bank of England. It is perfectly safe for a government to create money to pay its own bills, in the right economic circumstances. Japan has being doing this for a couple of decades. Plus spending government money in the right way may generate the means to pay it back – through bringing spare capacity into the economy, or through investing in projects that generate a return. Or even both at the same time. The case made by government ministers is simply irrelevant. But that doesn’t make them wrong.

The case made by the left has more economic sophistication – and it is even nominally supported by authoritative economists like Joe Stiglitz, an American Nobel Laureate (who wrote a useful textbook on public economics). The main argument they make is often referred to as “Keynesianism” after the great Liberal economist Maynard Keynes, who offered it a the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Keynes pointed out that if there is spare capacity in the economy, such as during a recession, extra public spending will not displace other activity, and it will (or should) therefore cause the economy to grow, and pay for itself. But this argument is made by left-wingers regardless of the economic climate. Find me a trade unionist that has ever, ever said that because the economy is overheating, government spending restraint is required. It’s like finding a businessman who says, in any given economic conditions, that interest rates should go up. They are like barristers making a case, no matter how ridiculous. What should judge and jury think?

Two pieces of evidence may be offered in favour of Keynesian expansion now. First is that economic growth since the great financial crisis of 2007-2009 has been lacklustre, and behind many of Britain’s peer economies. Surely it needs a kick up the backside? Second is that inflation is low and looks stuck. Actually, inflation has been creeping up a bit, but that is due to the pound falling. Pay inflation – surely the critical point in this case – remains low. In classical economics high inflation is the surest sign of an overheating economy.

But two pieces of evidence can be offered against Keynesian expansion. First is that unemployment is at near record lows for recent times, and overall employment is very high (unlike in the USA, there don’t appear to be a lot of people who have dropped out of the labour market and so not treated as unemployed). Second is that Britain has a high current account deficit – at 3.1% of income it is one of the highest in the developed world, though it has been coming down since the pound fell. That means that Britain needs foreigners to pay it in its own currency, or Britons need to acquire foreign currency to finance foreign debts. This means that the country depends on “the kindness of strangers” as the Chairman of the Bank of England put it. Among other things that takes some of the magic out of the money tree owned by the Bank – and is a contrast with money-plucking Japan, which tends to run big surpluses. Money trees need net savings (or current account surpluses) to nurture them, or else their fruit turns bad, as many a horror story from South America will attest.

So there should be public debate around what these pieces of contradictory evidence mean. Unemployment is low, but the quality of many jobs is low – so would people work more productively under the right pressure? Britain has a trade deficit, but most debt (including government debt) is still denominated in Sterling, reducing risks substantially. There is much to explore, but few take the trouble. Easing austerity could simply raise growth; it could cause us to borrow in currencies that the Bank of England can’t print; it could cause inflation; it could simply stimulate more low paid immigration; or nothing much might happen at all.

The important message, though, is that it matters how any extra government money is spent. This rather goes against the flow of the usual macroeconomic debate, which likes to deal in quantities rather than qualities. But if you read carefully you will see that trained economists brought into oppose austerity policies are quite careful about the type of extra spending they advocate. They want more investment. If the government invests in things that generate financial returns by making the economy more efficient and productive, then the question of whether or not the economy is running at full capacity is side-stepped. The Labour manifesto at the general election offered this line of reasoning, and that is doubtless why the likes of Mr Stiglitz felt able to endorse it. Labour also wanted to put taxes up albeit mainly on the rich – which, nominally, at least, should reduce excess demand.

Unfortunately this can lead simply to politicians labelling all public expenditure as “investment” – a favorite trick of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. We need to look at matters case by case. What if the government gave NHS employees a pay rise, which some say they are due after years of pay restraint? Some of the extra money would come straight back in taxes; some would be spent creating demand which might help local economies to grow. But some might be spent in businesses that will just put their prices up; some might simply be saved (which has no short-term economic impact) or spent on things like foreign holidays that just add to the current account deficit. Unless balanced at least some extent by tax rises the economic case for this looks unconvincing (where those tax rises should fall is not a simple question either…). But there are other benefits to increasing pay. Would it make it easier to recruit and retain top quality staff that would make the service more efficient? That mean the service could run on fewer temporary staff and make cost savings by heading off medical complications? Well that’s the key, and it depends on strong management. These benefits don’t just happen.

But what of devoting more money to public health? If done properly, this will head off demand for health services, and reduce the costs of poor health elsewhere in the economy. The case for funding this from borrowing is much easier to make. A similar case can be made for schools funding – though again this depends on good management (though personally I am more confident of that in schools than in hospitals, if only because the former are much simpler to run).

There is a lot of extremely interesting debate to be had around the economic implications of different sorts of public spending. Would forgiving student debt be a financial catastrophe? Or might it provide an economic boost in exactly the right places? We need some dispassionate analysis.

Instead we have a Conservative Party that will not engage in arguments of any economic sophistication, and is allowing some of its cost savings to do lasting damage to society. And though the Labour Party understands this, it seems uninterested in the discipline that will be needed to ensure that extra government spending and borrowing does not drag the economy down, rather than boost it. Each party is sponsored by advocacy groups who think that the overall outcome for the country is somebody else’s problem. Such is modern British politics.

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Modern liberals have a religion problem

Shortly after the General Election Tim Farron resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats. He said that it was impossible to maintain his Christian faith and be party leader. He was echoing a complaint from many practising Christians that they feel excluded from the party and in wider liberal circles. Muslims feel exclusion too, though often from different people. Is this true? And if it is, does it matter?

Opposition to discrimination is one of the defining principles of liberals. This started with religion, and in particular, in England, discrimination against Catholics and various non-conformist sects, such as the Quakers. It then moved on to issues of sex, race and sexual orientation. Now the problem seems to be between secularists and those practising religions with a universal claim to truth, such as Christianity and Islam.

At the heart of this is a genuine problem. Many adherents of these faiths claim that their faith requires discrimination against sex and sexual orientation, and opposition to such modern practices as abortion. These are important battlegrounds for liberals. Christians who believe that the state should discriminate in these fields clearly can’t be liberals. But how far should liberals lay claim to private beliefs? It is quite common for people to say that they don’t believe in abortion personally, but that they do believe that the state should permit it – that it should be a matter of personal conscience.

It is over such issues that Tim Farron tripped up. He was seen to prevaricate. Famously he tried to evade a question about whether gay sex was a sin, with the statement that “we are all sinners”. I have some sympathy with him over that one. I have a church upbringing, and though I am no theologian, I know enough to tell that what Christians mean by sin is quite a complicated thing. The point is not to avoid being a sinner, but to forgive sins. I could add that many Christians feel that hetorosexual sex is a sin – or at least taking pleasure in it is – although this has softened in recent times. Tim was trying to say that it was the wrong question. Much later he clarified to say that he didn’t think gay sex was a sin, but the damage had been done. To many “sin” meant “wrong” and that he therefore could not be trusted to uphold liberal values. The party’s opponents made useful weather of this (unofficially, of course). It did real harm to the party.

That makes me very uncomfortable. It seems to exclude a large number of religious people from the movement. It draws the line in the wrong place. Liberalism is becoming equated with aggressive secularism. The response of many people (such as the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee) is evasion. Religion was not the reason that Tim resigned, they say, but political ineptitude. Well there are plenty of reasons for saying that Tim was not up to the job (including his evasive response to that interview question – and his rambling email when he resigned), but this type of reaction reminds me a lot of the ways that people try to escape accusations of race or sex discrimination by pointing to other reasons for their views.  It’s the “I’m not racist but…” position.

Tim is hardly the first person to claim that liberals discriminated against him for his religious faith. It strikes me that secularists have no idea when they are being discriminatory. Again there are parallels with race and sex discrimination. Workplaces that accept women as equal provided they behave in exactly the same boorish way as the men are discriminating against women. I found advancing sex equality when I was working in the City of Londonwas really hard work in many roles, especially senior ones, as many men had no idea what the problem was. They did not see that a whole range of behaviours and assumptions were discriminatory. The Lib Dems themselves are wrestling with why so few women advance to elected office, and why so few people from ethnic minorities join it. I think there is a similar problem with religious faith amongst liberals, but it is worse because it is unacknowledged.

This is exacerbated by a certain intellectual arrogance amongst aggressive atheists, who form an important minority amongst liberals – people like Richard Dawkins who are apt to talk of prayer as “talking to your imaginary friend”. This stems from a rather old-fashioned logical-positivist outlook. They say that you should only believe things if there is sufficient evidence for them. But you have to have a nul hypothesis – you have to have a working assumption that you hold to until something with more evidence comes up. The battles of religion can be seen as asking what shape that nul hypothesis should take, and how much it should be based on handed down wisdom and shared understandings. To more thoughtful religious people, the classic aggressive-atheist viewpoint is an incomplete, like trying to drive a car through the rear-view mirror, and it is often device to evade discussion of important spiritual and moral issues. The point here is not to have debate on the virtues of religion, but suggest that many atheists suffer from arrogance and could do with a bit more intellectual humility.

Which would a good place to start when working out how to treat religious people in politics. So I want to make a number of points:

  1. Political movements should be about changing public life, and not private beliefs. There is much that liberals want to change, and to protect, in public life. It hurts that political cause if you exclude potential allies because of differences in private faith. This is happening with people of religious faith, and liberals need to be more tolerant.
  2. Being a liberal may still be quite challenging for many in particular religious traditions, especially those that set store by traditional teaching and interpretations of texts. Liberals need to give such people more space – without compromising on liberal public values. I don’t think they did with Tim Farron, or others like the former Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather.
  3. Liberals also need to be careful about promoting their own religious interpretations in the political sphere. This is a particular issue for Christianity. People like me who were brought up in the faith have strong views about some religious traditions. Pushing these views should not be part of political discourse – though, of course, that doesn’t mean that those views should not be aired. I might think that there is no serious theological objection to women priests – but I need to be careful about where and how I air that view, especially since I am no longer a practising Christian.

It strikes me that there are two things going on here. The first is that we should be more conscious of our religious or anti-religious biases, which could lead to discrimination in public life The second is that is important to bring people into the liberal political movement even where their religious faith creates tension.

So we should be worried that Tim Farron’s religious faith proved such an obstacle to being part of the liberal movement. And we shouldn’t pretend that it wasn’t.

 

 

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The Brexit fiasco shows how Britian is being let down by its political class

More than a year has passed since the shocking result of Britain’s referendum on leaving the EU. Pessimism about a very messy break is growing. This is typified by this article by Gideon Rachman in this week’s FT, which suggests that whatever happens there will be humiliation for Britain. Are we really in such a mess?

Mr Rachman suggests three forms of humiliation. One is that Britain is forced into a deal by which it subscribes to most of the substantive terms of membership (including cash contributions and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice) in order to stave off severe economic disruption. This is sometimes called Soft Brexit. A second is that Britain drops out of the EU without a complete deal, and is subject years of confusion and disruption, resulting, inter alia, in economic hardship. The third is that exit does not happen at all, and Britain crawls back in, its attempt at exit having failed, like the German Fleet returning to port after the Battle of Jutland.

This analysis is based on a simple idea. There is just not enough time before the exit becomes legal, on 29 March 2019, in order to arrange alternative structures outside the EU Single Market or Customs Union. And that such a failure would result in chaos from air travel to the manufacture of Guinness (brewed in Dublin, bottled in Belfast). There may elegant solutions to each of the problems thrown up, but we simply don’t have the time and resources to decide what is best, and still less to put in place any of the new infrastructure required.

One reaction is simply anger: to blame the shadowy EU powers for creating such an unreasonably short departure window. And yet a longer interval would not have been acceptable to the Brexiteers. Some chafe that two years is too long. The interval is a reflection of the politics; it is up to ingenuity and negotiation to find solutions to the problems it throws up. The puzzle is why that does not seem to be happening.

And it really isn’t very hard to see what that solution is. It is a phased withdrawal, whereby full membership expires on the treaty date, but other aspects of membership do not. In particular that means prolonging the single market membership (including financial contributions) well beyond that date – three to five years, say. Single market membership along the lines of Norway should be a relatively simple thing to put in place, because it leaves so much of the existing apparatus intact. It is a soft Brexit followed by a properly thought through and prepared hard Brexit. It is a much less risky enterprise. It is also more democratic. Membership of the EU is a very complex thing, and a simple referendum result does not tell you what people actually want; indeed, how could people know? A prolonged period over which the details are discussed and subject to the normal democratic process is much better than being railroaded into a solution advocated by some faction of the ruling political elite. Deliberation is a critical element of the democratic process – and we saw precious little of that in the run-up to the referendum.

I have suspected that this, an orderly phased withdrawal, is what Theresa May’s government has been planning all along. But recent statements by members of the government have shaken my faith in this. They have been ruling out being part of the single market after 29 March 2019 – on the grounds that there would be a big backlash from the Brexit supporting public if they did. This is unconvincing until you substitute “Tory MPs” for “the public”. The public shows signs of weariness over Brexit, and most would surely accept a well-argued case for a transition. But many Tory MPs are Eurosceptic to the point of insanity. Maybe it’s all tactics and those government spokespeople plan to unveil more realistic transitional plans later.

And a properly prepared hard Brexit may not be quite the nightmare many Remain supporters think it would be. Modern technology and fresh thinking could provide innovative solutions to many of the logistical problems involved – not least for trade and immigration. The country could move to some form of associate status with the EU (perhaps alongside Ukraine and even Turkey?) to provide a framework for political cooperation. But there is no sign of any such coherent vision being put together by our political leaders. Instead the Conservative government has what the Auditor General, Amyas Morse, has called a chocolate orange strategy – something that falls apart on contact. Meanwhile Labour are content to play a game of obstruction, with no attempt to create an alternative vision; for them the prospect of seizing the levers of power amid the chaos trumps all other considerations. The country doesn’t just lack time – it lacks the leadership.

The truth is that the country is being let down by the poor quality of its governing class, who can’t work complex problems through. That is how we got into this mess in the first place: a referendum on EU membership simply to settle an internal party feud was a terrible idea. If the government had been clear in its wish to leave, and presented a prospectus for departure (as the Scottish government did on the independence referendum in 2014), that would have been an entirely different matter. And now the politicians seem incapable of getting us out. The joke that the British are behaving like the family cat, which mews like mad to be let out into the garden, only to simply sit on the threshold when the door is opened, remains as funny now as it was last year.

Why are we being let down? One argument runs that it is a recent thing. Politics no longer attracts big beasts with worldly experience  – and instead is dominated by shallow types who have devoted themselves to a political career from their early 20s. This idea was developed by the columnist Peter Oborne in his book The Triumph of the Political Class. A less familiar argument is made by the FT’s John Gapper, which is that it has always been this way. Britain’s ruling class has long favoured dilletantes with humanities degrees, who shy away from technicalities and details, and instead make clever debating points, like barristers who will move on to another case tomorrow (and many of them are barristers…). He quotes a lecture in 1959 by the novellist and scientist CP Snow. This rings true. The most obvious example is Boris Johnson, the country’s embarassing Foreign Secretary – but it applies just as much to David Cameron and Michael Gove. It applies less obviously to Mrs May or the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But there is a worrying narrowness to Mrs May – exemplified by an obsession with the ECJ and an evidently weak grasp of economics. Mr Corbyn’s lack of patience with detail is legendary – though he may have improved a bit recently.

This is in stark contrast to the way most other countries do it. France’s leaders are educated in elite institutions that prize deep analysis; Germans value technical expertise; Russians admire chess players; the Chinese like to be led by engineers. And so on, with the important exception of the United States – but even they do not fall for clever dilletantes like Mr Johnson – they prefer authenticity to the superficial cleverness so beloved by the British. And it was not always that way in Britain. Gladstone, the great British 19th Century prime minister, started his ministerial career sorting out railway timetables, and sealed his reputation overhauling the country’s tax system in minute detail.

How we could do with a Gladstone now. Alas national humiliation is the price we will pay or picking such weak leaders as we now have.

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Grenfell Tower shows the poor state of British democracy

I have made passing references to the Grenfell Tower disaster – the tower block fire in a social housing estate in London’s North Kensington district on the evening of 14 June, in which at least 80 people are thought to have been killed. It has been a highly significant event in British politics, but its implications are as yet unclear. To me it marks a failure of British democratic institutions. Alas it is in the nature of those institutions to divert attention to other issues raised by the episode, and a few that aren’t.

The tragedy got wall-to-wall coverage very quickly. It was conveniently located in central London, and it produced some spectacular television footage. BBC TV news set up their anchor with a smouldering building in the background. Although the published death toll in those early days was modest, the coverage was proportionate to the scale of the event. There is a curiously about this. Nobody in the mainstream media wanted to speculate on the number of deaths, but there was an unspoken understanding that it must be high. The estimate doing the rounds amongst those who knew a bit about the block was apparently in the region of 100. Those who felt that the authorities were trying to minimise the scale of the disaster apparently estimated the figure was 200 (the block housed over 300). But there are standard protocols about reporting casualties, so the BBC and others were probably being responsible in not reporting such estimates – though they would have helped public understanding if they had.

The main story in the days following the tragedy was the failure of the official response. There was a din of complaints from those close to the scene that was eagerly reported. I don’t know how justified these complaints were – and how much they were affected by the anger that such a disaster could be allowed to happen in 2017. But both local and national politicians showed a failure to grasp the political implications. Theresa May failed to talk to victims in her first visit, which nearly cost her job. It is easy to understand why she was advised not to – she was going to be on the receiving end of abuse, and there would have been public order issues that would have diverted resources from the relief effort. But savvy leaders understand that you have to allow people to vent when things go badly wrong. Other politicians, such as the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and the London Mayor Sadiq Khan, had a much easier job, but did it well enough. The media, meanwhile, seemed uninterested in deciphering the cacophony.

The government’s overall response is damage limitation. Firstly that means a properly resourced relief effort – it took them longer than perhaps it should to wake up to the need for it, but they did get there. They also set up a public enquiry and commissioned safety tests on other blocks of flats. And they promptly moved the goal posts on the standards to which cladding, clearly a factor in the fire, should be tested – causing widespread (if not universal) failure of materials that had previously been considered safe. But there is something missing from all of this. It is being treated as a technical failure, to which technical solutions should be sought. There is no attempt at real dialogue with social housing tenants. The victims feel short-changed.

But one of the big issues arising from the disaster is that concerns over fire safety raised by residents were ignored. The management of the block was  delegated by the council to a Tenants’ Management Organisation (TMO). This is a classic piece of government decentralisation of a type that is characteristic of government in the last thirty years or so. Decision-making is pushed down to a body with technical powers but no  democratic mandate of it own, and no revenue-raising powers. The TMO had to negotiate its budget with the council, so the critical decisions ended up by being the council’s anyway. Governments claim that they are pushing decision-making closer to the users of services, but in practice this has very little meaning – the important powers are retained in the centre, and no meaningful consultation with users or local communities occurs.

The Labour opposition are picking up on this democratic deficit – or rather, they are trying to exploit it. Labour politicians have been trying to relay, and in some cases even stoke up, local anger. A lot of this is legitimate democratic politics. But it has been taken to absurd levels. A low point was reached last week when objections were raised by some victim groups to the judge appointed to head the enquiry. Now I have no idea whether this was a sensible appointment, but the objections raised initially by victims’ groups were hard to take seriously at face value. They wanted somebody who had experienced the deprivations of social housing and tower-block living, and who would share their anger. In other words they did not want an impartial inquiry, and the wider benefits that would flow from it. Two Labour spokespeople who were interviewed on the radio, including the newly-elected local MP, simply endorsed this view at face value. One, a front bench spokesperson (I forget who – alas that is rather the state of Labour’s front bench), then went on to deliver a tirade about private sector profiteering. Now of the many failings exposed by the disaster, profiteering is not among them. The failings mainly arose from public sector stinginess – the normal Labour bugbear of “austerity” would have been closer to the mark, though still not quite on point. This bespeaks politicians who are not really interested in the lessons arising from the crisis, but simply want to exploit it for short-term gain.

But surely there is a major political failure that neither the government nor the opposition want to do much about. The victims for now have their moment in the spotlight, and an unaccustomed moment of actual political power. But they know it is transitory. The failures of public administration that led to the tragedy grew out of the powerlessness of local communities, and of social housing tenants in particular. That is characteristic of the British way of politics. The local council, Kensington and Chelsea, is politically uncompetitive, with a large Conservative majority. Political power is concentrated in a clique of the ruling party. Most council wards, where councillors are elected, are safe for one party or another, so little dialogue takes place between the electors and their councillors. Any such dialogue arises from a sense of duty from councillors (who are only paid meagre allowances, except for the most senior), not political necessity. And councils themselves are highly constrained by central government in their powers – especially over funding, which has been severely cut since the financial crisis of 2009.

Politicians of all parties talk about more devolution of power from the centre, but mostly they don’t mean it. They want to devolve blame and not real power. That TMO is the model. So they will insist that the problems are down to inadequate rules, incompetence of some intermediate level of administration, or poor funding decisions at the centre, or some combination. Giving voice to the voiceless does not seem to be on the agenda.

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Why the Lib Dems must keep going

As a Liberal Democrat I started the General Election full of optimism. Labour looked down and out; people would surely want another alternative to an uncompromising Tory leadership? Those hopes soon vanished, as the party failed to spark, and ended up with even fewer votes overall than in 2015. Existential questions arise. If two party politics is here to stay, is there any point to the party?

There was a silver lining to the gloom. The party has increased its number of MPs from 8 (or 9 counting the by-election win in Richmond Park) to 12. And not just that; the new parliamentary team looks a lot stronger. Three former ministers (including two at cabinet level) return, for the loss of Nick Clegg, who, for all his virtues, does have a bit of baggage. One third of the MPs are now female (none were in 2015), redressing a long imbalance. And I took an extraordinary amount of vicarious pleasure in the election of Layla Moran in Oxford West and Abington. She first stood for parliament here in Battersea in 2010, when I was her agent. That brings to two the number of MPs that know who I am (the other is Ed Davey, whom I’ve known, though not well, since 1990). From a motley collection of surviving old hands in 2015, we now have something much more diverse and dynamic.

But three of the gains resulted from the peculiar shifting of multi-party politics in Scotland. In most of England and Wales, the party failed, losing five out of its eight seats, even if they regained another five. In particular, the party was unable to handle the rise of Labour amongst younger voters, except in Bath and Oxford. There is bitter disappointment. The party had been showing momentum in local elections, and even in an ongoing by election in Manchester, until the election was called. Its membership has grown massively, and it could call on a much larger army of enthusiastic activists than the demoralised bunch in 2015.

What went wrong? Some commentators have blamed the party’s policy of a second referendum on Europe, once the exit terms are known. Most electors weren’t interested in this, but it was critical to the party keeping faith with its core vote, especially those new members, who mainly came from a Brexit rebound. The Lib Dems have done enough betraying of its core support in coalition. And I don’t think the policy actually put many potential voters off – nobody expected the party to be able to actually implement its policies, after all. The problem was that the party had little else to say. It claimed to be the only opposition to the Tories and hard Brexit. As Labour surged, that proved nonsense – Labour had no difficulty in winning votes from people supporting a soft Brexit or even no Brexit at all. The Lib Dem manifesto was quite a decent stab at a programme for government – but it looked like an undistinctive split-the-difference programme when compared to the others. Labour went uncompromisingly for the protest vote, in a way the Lib Dems used to, and found that it worked – perhaps because nobody expected them to win either.

On one issue in particular did Labour manage to skewer the Lib Dems: student finance. By promising free university education, Labour picked up a policy that was popular with younger voters, and which had been a Lib Dem flagship until 2010. The Lib Dem reversal on this in coalition continues to haunt the party, and Labour’s policy was the most dramatic possible demonstration of this. That this policy presents major headaches for any government trying to implement it (Labour’s manifesto is comically vague on this) is beside the point when nobody expects you to win. Digging their way out of that hole will be a major headache for the Lib Dems.

The party’s leader, Tim Farron, did not help. He lacked gravitas – he was prone to overblown rhetoric and did not look like a cabinet minister in waiting – even compared to the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Labour campaigners successfully employed distraction tactics over his religious beliefs, and how these might or might not affect his views on gays and abortion. Tim has now resigned as leader – based on the issues around his faith. It was the right decision for the wrong reason – and I will come back to the issue of liberals and religion in a future post. Tim had a solid grasp of the party’s long term strategic priorities (core votes, more women and ethnic minority MPs, community campaigning and so on) but he had too many other weaknesses.

A further problem was weak organisation. There are honorable exceptions, but there were many horror stories from the campaign trail about disorganisation and opportunities lost. For example in more than one seat inexperienced campaign managers exhausted themselves organising the Royal Mail free delivery at the start of the campaign, while neglecting the advance organisation required for polling day, which they then became too tired to do properly. It is likely that organisational errors like this, and gaps in communication between local and national campaigning, cost the party as many as four seats (including seats in Wales and Cornwall, which would have given the party a better geographical spread). This is particularly disappointing given that the party had a head start on candidate selection. This points to serious organisational weakness in the party that successive leaders have failed to address. It has is an out-of-touch national management, chaotic local management and weak middle management, all reinforcing each other’s ineffectiveness. I exaggerate – there are  islands of brilliance – but strong organisational leadership needs to be a priority.

But is it worth it? Does the party contribute value to British political life? I still think it does because the party has two historic functions that the election has not changed.

The first is as a beacon for liberalism and democracy. Both major parties are taking these for granted. They are fragmented coalitions only interested in seizing a parliamentary majority by whatever means, and then using it to impose a divisive policy agenda. The Conservatives have taken pragmatism past the point of bankruptcy. They continue to peddle failed ideas because they know no better. Labour have collapsed completely into a party of protest, pretending that hard choices do not have to be made.

The second historic function of the Liberal Democrats is to bridge the tribal divide between the two main camps, and attract support from both. It looks as if neither of the major parties can establish a decent governing majority – they are just cancelling each other out. The deadlock can only be broken by a third party. This is what happened in 2010 with the coalition government. Disastrous as that was for the Lib Dems, rebuilding a new coalition is probably the only way that Britain will achieve a government that is “strong and stable” in the language of the Conservative election campaign. That poses a major strategic problem for the Lib Dems – but that is surely the party’s destiny. By the time the party is next given the chance – perhaps after Labour attempts a minority administration – public attitudes may have moved on.

There is a further possibility – that the party becomes part of a new movement that governs without Labour or the Conservatives – in the manner of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement. That was my hope when I joined the predecessor party, the SDP, in 1981. It failed then, but who knows?

Meanwhile the party needs to pick itself up and move on. It must continue to fly the banner for Remain, and tap the growing anger over Brexit – even if the end game is unclear. But the party also badly needs to move on to explain what it is for beyond Brexit. With problems for Britain piling up in all directions, the voters surely need to be offered liberal solutions.

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Was Grenfell Tower Theresa May’s Black Tuesday?

Britain’s Conservatives are in an extraordinarily deep mess. Their catastrophic their election failure was followed quickly by the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which to many showed the bankruptcy of Tory policy. A union representative at recent meeting I attended confidently predicted that Labour would be in power in six months. That looks implausible, but the Tories could limp on like John Major’s government after Black Tuesday in 1992, before it went down to the Tories’ worst ever defeat in 1997.

It’s a bit shocking to think back to last April, when Theresa May called the election. It looked like a stroke of genius. Labour had some of their worst ever poll ratings and looked hollowed out after their internal struggles. But it wasn’t just that. It also looked clever to go to the electorate then, because the next few years were going to be rough going for the government. Brexit was looking very messy, and the short term economic outlook looked dire – especially if the government stuck to the fiscal conservatism that has been their hallmark. Now the party has lost its parliamentary majority, tarnished its brand, and rescued Labour from oblivion. And prospects for Brexit and the economy look just as difficult as before – worse.  I can only guess at the trauma Tory supporters must be feeling.

There has been some predictable lashing out. Tories cannot bear to give Labour’s leadership credit for anything, so they blame their own side for the calamity. Mrs May is regarded as a dire leader; the campaign is written off as the most dismal in history. And yet they won 43% of the vote, the highest since 1987, and their poll ratings were remarkably stable through the campaign. Still, many of the decisions taken by the Conservatives during the campaign look ill-advised in hindsight. A lot of the problem was that the calling of the election was so sudden. There was no time to put together the type of campaign infrastructure that was in place 2015. They lacked good quality campaign intelligence, and failed to see how the battleground was moving. The political environment, after Brexit and Corbyn, is radically different from that of 2015, and yet the Tory campaign theme – “strong and stable” versus “coalition of chaos” – was much the same. This points to a deeper weakness: the party lacks a strong army of volunteers to fight a ground campaign. So it badly needs the advantages that money and a long lead time can buy – and they need to identify the right constituencies and voters to target. It’s clear they were focusing their efforts on the wrong people time.

I have made a comparison before between Theresa May and John Major. Mr Major was a lacklustre leader, who experienced an initial honeymoon when he took over in 1990. He did not call a snap election, but pulled off a narrow but unexpected victory in 1992, after a dismal campaign. He had a bit of a second honeymoon, but it all came tumbling down on 16 September 1992, Black Tuesday, when Sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, shattering Mr Major’s economic strategy. It made no difference that he kept going for over 4 years more with a pretty decent economic record – he and his party’s credibility was shot, and the country was only waiting for somebody to put them out of their misery.

Does the Grenfell Tower fire provide a similar, seminal moment, to follow the failed election itself? There are clear signs of government failure, and Mrs May’s slow reaction showed a massive lack of political judgment by her and her advisers. The official neglect that led to a tragedy on this scale goes back much longer than when Conservative austerity started in 2010, but many of the things Conservatives have been saying about cutting public services and regulation resonate badly.

But, like John Major, I suspect the government will be quite successful at limping on. Only Labour currently wants another election, and they do not have enough parliamentary muscle to force one, nor sufficient political skill to engineer one. Also Mrs May herself looks quite secure for now; each of her potential replacements brings problems with them. Personally I think that the Chancellor Philip Hammond would do a much better job, but he would be distrusted as a more open Europhile. If there had been a strong field of potential leaders, Mrs May would not have walked into her job so easily. Just as nobody could replace Mr Major.

But the Conservatives are vulnerable. Brexit makes the short-term economic prospects look weak – undermining their reputation for economic competence. The lower pound is squeezing what people have to spend; business investment is blighted by uncertainty. A good moment for higher public investment in infrastructure and public services? But that would require the import of a lot of foreign skilled workers (and no doubt quite a few unskilled ones) just as Brexit makes life uncertain for the most readily available people. It may or may not be fair to put a faltering economy down to Brexit (it may have been coming anyway), but it is hard for the government to blame anything else, when the most plausible alternative is their own incompetence. And public services, such as education and health (to say nothing of social housing) are becoming stretched to the point of being politically toxic.

But for the Conservatives to be beaten, it takes somebody to deliver the blow. In 1997 that was Tony Blair, who built up the most ruthlessly effective political machine Britain has ever seen. Labour are confident that the spirit of hope and optimism spelt out in their manifesto will convince enough extra voters to give them a try this time. They have plenty of enthusiastic young supporters to give them an army of foot soldiers. But they are very unlike Mr Blair’s Labour. Mr Blair moved Labour towards the Conservatives in policy terms, in a strategy that I have called “the same, only different”, and picked up many Tory voters. For Mr Corbyn’s  party, their motivation comes from a visceral hatred of the Conservatives and all they stand for. Their policy programme is full of contradictions, not least on Brexit, and would wilt under close scrutiny. This time they succeeded because nobody thought they could win. I can’t believe they will be able to deliver a knock-out blow. Challenges built on populist anger can gain momentum (look at Donald Trump and Brexit), but they provoke opposition, and it is very hard for them to get enough votes to secure more than a narrow victory in a parliamentary election. And the electoral system does not favour Labour either.

The alternative is that a new political force is able to grow and deliver the blow, as Emmanuel Macron has in France, drawing support from both right and left. The Liberal Democrats hope to be that force, but at best they can only be part of it. This new force needs defections from both the big parties, and some people new to politics too. And there needs to be a leader. Is there anybody of the right stature around to lead it?  Maybe somebody will emerge, as Tony Blair did. I can’t help thinking of David Miliband. Vince Cable, who looks likely to be the next Lib Dem leader, has a better chance than the current leader, Tim Farron, of drawing support across party lines.

But for that to happen, Labour will have to start falling apart. This is possible. The hard left looks is continuing its takeover of the party machinery. Mr Corbyn has made no gestures of reconciliation to his party’s centrists. But it will take more than driving out a few tainted centrists to break Labour’s momentum – something has to puncture the enthusiasm of Labour’s activist base, who now have a taste for successful campaigning. Perhaps only power will puncture Mr Corbyn’s bubble. Labour might be too weak to beat the Conservatives, even when they are vulnerable. But they may yet be too strong to allow anybody else to.

And that is the best hope for Conservatives. British politics is volatile. Their luck could yet turn.

 

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Hubris wrecked Theresa May. Will it do for Jeremy Corbyn too?

Labour did not win Britain’s General Election. Indeed Jeremy Corbyn’s party did no better than Gordon Brown’s in 2010. And yet Mr Corbyn has every right to be pleased with himself. His party burst through all expectations and is now within shouting distance of power. They did this with an innovative campaign that has changed the face of British politics. And yet their hold remains fragile.

I still have to pinch myself that Labour have done as well as they have. I really did not believe that they could take back the seat of Battersea, where I live,  from the Tories. Their campaign was weak, and their candidate locally unknown; they put in a fraction of the effort they did in 2015. As a resident the only party I heard from was, in fact, the Liberal Democrats (whose vote increased quite respectably) – as well as the independent candidate.

In my last post I attributed Labour success to three things: pushing back the Lib Dems and Greens; taking votes from Ukip; and drawing in new voters, especially younger ones. Subsequent evidence suggest I may have overdone the Ukip component – but that quite a few older, Tory voters stayed at home. The point is that Labour did everything except tackling the middle-England voters who voted Tory in 2015, and whom people like me said were the party’s only route back to success. And that, ultimately, was why Labour still lost.

The most positive thing about Labour’s campaign was the successful way they drew in younger voters who had previously not voted, right up to people in their 40s. This clearly had a powerful political effect, to the detriment of both the Conservatives (including in Battersea) and the Lib Dems (in seats like Nick Clegg’s Sheffield seat). Politicians have too easily neglected this segment of the population, while lavishing benefits on older voters, who turn out in greater numbers. The hope is that once people have been drawn it to vote once, they will repeat the experience – especially since their intervention made a difference this time. This needs to be qualified in two ways. First: older voters are as powerful as ever. It was the Conservatives that tried to challenge this group, and that proved costly, even decisive. Labour pandered to both ends of the spectrum. The second is that Labour’s most eye-catching policy to appeal to younger voters was the abolition of university tuition fees. It will be very hard for them to wriggle out of that policy in future. But it will have all sorts of adverse consequences, from diverting resources from poorer people (both services and benefits) to restricting the funding and independence of universities.

A second positive thing was that finally the stranglehold of the tabloid press seems to have been broken.  In 1992 The Sun newspaper took credit for an unexpected Conservative victory, following a campaign of vilification of Labour’s then leader, Neil Kinnock – and few disagreed. Although newspaper readership is falling, it is striking how mainstream television news often takes a lead from the press. This is very evident from the often bizarre prioritisation of news stories on BBC Radio 4, for example. But many people now get their news from elsewhere, and are used to challenging the line put out by the “mainstream media”. The press is responsible for a whole series of myths and lies about politics (the scale of foreign aid, the impact of immigrants, and so on), so this is positive. Unfortunately its diminishment is not in itself a blow for truth. For example I heard people suggesting the Mr Corbyn was much readier to mix with the public than Mrs May, and yet Mr Corbyn’s audiences were almost as controlled. The left sustains its own fictional world.

Perhaps what surprised me most of all was the success of Labour’s manifesto. I dismissed it as an incoherent set of policies designed to please a series of vocal interest groups. It was not a serious programme for government, and was not economically credible (even if you accept that the government can run a much bigger budget deficit that most people currently think). And yet many voters were happy to find something they liked in it, and put an optimistic gloss on the rest. To me the most remarkable endorsement came from the economist Joseph Stiglitz. Mr Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate and wrote the textbook I used when studying public economics. Having read the manifesto itself, I can see that I was being less than fair. I wasn’t actually wrong in my comments, but I underrated its positive narrative. People were able to project their hopes onto it. They were able to seize on a few things they liked, and take the rest on trust. One striking feature was that it left very little money to reverse Tory benefits cuts, or even for them to keep pace with inflation. But nobody really believed that Mr Corbyn would let claimants down so thoroughly.

But it does seem that British voters don’t like tough choices. The best way to win votes is to make undeliverable promises, such as the one made by Brexit campaigners that leaving the EU would be costless. By contrast Mrs May’s more challenging manifesto was a failure; there were a lot of nasty things in it, but that isn’t what really cost her the votes – it was her attempt to limit the state’s largess to older voters, something that will have to be tackled eventually. This is a less positive development for British politics.

More positive, is that it looks as if televised leaders’ debates are here to stay. By steering clear of such debates, Mrs May was only following standard professional advice that such debates are simply a risk to front-runners. But Mr Corbyn’s last minute move to join the debate with all party leaders was a masterstroke, and one that I suspect lost the election for Mrs May – it badly damaged her already fading brand, which was the central focus of the Conservative campaign. Failure to attend such a debate suggests that a party leader is not up to the job. Now that two-party politics has returned (in the conventional wisdom, if not in fact), we might even get a two leader face-off in future as a permanent fixture. These debates may be theatrical nonsense, but they are a good way of securing public engagement in the electoral process and so a positive thing.

Now that Mrs May seems to be coming unstuck, after placing such a massive bet on her own personal brand, Labour are within striking distance of power. They have already taken a poll lead. But they should beware for three reasons.

First is that, as my last post pointed out, the world of two-party politics is no easier than the multi-party one. Labour now needs to get into the upper 40s of vote-share to win (the electoral system is tilted against them). That means appealing to voters who voted Conservative last time, something they have studiously avoided trying to do until now.

Second is that their manifesto will prove a problem as a template for government. It does too much for some interest groups (e.g. students) and not enough for others (benefit claimants). Labour successfully appealed to both sides of the Brexit argument at once. . it is based on an economic idea that growth is based purely on the quantity of investment, and independent of the ease of doing business. Resources are always limited, and choices always have to be made; Labour shows no preparedness for that eventuality.

And third, doubts about Mr Corbyn’s leadership remain. He had a good campaign, doing things we already knew he does well – it is how he got to be Labour leader, after all. And yet his grasp of man-management and administration has been shown to be weak. These weaknesses are bound to re-emerge, as will power struggles within the Labour Party, which he has been unable to handle.

None of this will necessarily stop Mr Corbyn from winning another election, given the disarray of the Tories, and the lack of challenge from elsewhere. After all Francois Hollande won the French presidency in 2012 on a similar basis. But that led to the collapse of his party. Labour supporters should remember that not long ago Theresa May looked unassailable, but that hubris undid her. Now I see some of that some hubris coming from Mr Corbyn’s side. They should beware.

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The Conservatives and Labour are not finding life easy in the world of two-party politics

First, an apology. For the last two weeks I have been on holiday, and taking a break from blogging. So an incredible two weeks, featuring not just the election, but a terrorist attack in a place that I frequent, and the Grenfell Tower disaster, has passed without comment. Never mind the continued ascent of Emmanuel Macron in France and the scarcely believable goings on in America. I like my blog to be reflective rather than provide an instant reaction, but this has been taking it a bit far! I must start the catch-up by taking a first look at that British election.

The Conservative campaign was constructed, initially anyway, by their adviser Lynton Crosby, who achieved hero status after the unexpected success of his campaign in 2015. It was a plan based heavily on what has happened in previous elections, and, doubtless, informed about current voter feelings through focus groups and opinion polls. In the usual modern language, this was very “evidence-based”. People expected it to do very well based on two bits of received wisdom. First was that most people have already made up their minds at the start of a campaign, so the Tory lead of over 20% in the opinion polls would not change that much. Second was that perceptions of party leaders heavily influence election outcomes: and Theresa May showed an apparently unassailable leader over Jeremy Corbyn. What could possibly go wrong? It looked a perfectly sound decision to me.

Both of those bits of wisdom, for all the evidence backing them up, proved wrong. And so Mr Crosby’s reputation  has probably been trashed. The more reflective will point out that this is jumping to conclusions. The Tory campaign secured a huge Conservative vote – 42% on an increased turnout, a figure that barely moved as the campaign progressed. The problem was that they failed to contain Labour. And that was not all Mr Crosby’s fault.

How did Labour do so well? They increased their share of the vote by about 15% as the campaign progressed to reach an astonishing 40%. This increase seems to have had three sources, of roughly equal importance. First was from Lib Dem and Green voters, who took a strong dislike to the Conservative campaign, and saw voting Labour as the best way of stopping them. Second was Ukip voters; Ukip collapsed by about 11% since 2015. The early evidence, from local elections in May in particular, was that this was overwhelmingly in favour of the Tories. That may have been the case initially, but as the campaign progressed, Labour seems to have picked up a sizable chunk of that vote too (perhaps 5% of the 11% in the end). And the third factor was that Labour brought out a sizeable number of new, younger voters. All three of these factors was unexpected at the start of the campaign – not least by me.

Labour were rewarded for breaking with conventional wisdom, and putting together a genuinely innovative campaign. They were helped by two Tory miscalculations. One was at the heart of Mr Crosby’s strategy, which was to give Labour all the rope it needed to hang itself. They did not want to demean the Conservative brand, and Mrs May’s personal one, by tangling too closely with Labour. In particular they stood back from the leadership debates. They wanted to contrast the “strong and stable” government with the “coalition of chaos” opposing them. This seemed to be working when Labour Home Affairs lead, Diane Abbott, showed a complete lack of grip on her portfolio early in the campaign. But Labour were able to shake themselves free of that and move the campaign onto the issues they wanted to talk about – which was anything except Brexit.

The second miscalculation was the Conservative manifesto; this one cannot be put down to Mr Crosby, but to Mrs May herself, and her close cabal of advisers. They made the fatal mistake of believing their own propaganda, as published faithfully by supportive newspapers like the Daily Mail. The manifesto was a challenging one, designed to let Mrs May exploit her expected majority to maximum effect, to put her stamp permanently on British society. Notoriously this included rowing back on automatic increases to the state pension (the “triple lock”), including homes in the wealth assessments for personal care costs (referred to by opponents as “dementia tax”), and means-testing winter fuel payment to the elderly. There were minor concessions on schools funding, but there were a series of other ideas, hateful to liberals, such as the return of academic selection for state schools, and undoing advances in electoral reform (that one particularly annoyed me). And behind this was talking up the prospects of Brexit, with the bizarre slogan that “no deal would be better than a bad deal”. Remain voters are slowly coming round to Brexit, but rubbing their noses in the humiliation of it all is not sensible politics. I suspect that this manifesto was so tough because its authors felt that Tony Blair, the previous prime minister who was blessed with landslide victories, did not ask for enough, and that this hobbled his programme of public service reform. But the result was a small, but probably decisive, loss of support from older voters. This may have helped to push Ukip voters to Labour, for example; other potential Conservative voters may have stayed at home. And, of course, it helped rally opponents to back the one party that seemed capable of warding off the awful prospect of a big Conservative majority.

There is more I want to say about Labour’s successful campaign, which has really changed things. But for now I want to reflect on the remarkable return of two-party politics. In 2010 Labour and the Conservatives managed 65% of the vote between them; the share was similar in 2015, as though the Lib Dem vote collapsed, Ukip, SNP and the Greens rose. But this time the two big parties took over 82% between them. Many politicians from the main parties, and many others too in the media and in the establishment generally, have lamented the rise of third parties, complicating the choices presented to people. And yet Labour and the Conservatives are finding that it makes life no easier. In 2015 Labour’s big idea was to destroy the Lib Dems and win a majority with just 35% of the vote. But as they succeeded with the first part of this aim, other Lib Dem voters flocked to the Tories in horror. Something like that seems to have happened to Ukip voters this time. Pushing out the third parties just raises the bar to parliamentary success higher, making it yet harder to put together a winning coalition of voters.

Not so long ago the idea of two-party politics looked fragile. Both the Conservatives and Labour looked about to fall apart. Those tensions will surely re-emerge. But right now it does not look as if either the Lib Dems will revive soon, nor that a new political force will arise, as it has in France. That will probably take a national disaster. But it is easy enough to predict what that national disaster might be: Brexit. But that’s another story.

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Is Theresa May the new John Major?

Well if I was ever under the illusion that I had any special insights into Britain’s general election campaign, it is now banished. Last week I described the improvement in Labour’s poll ratings as a “dead cat bounce”. It is clearly much more than that. As the election goes into its last lap, it is going to be a lot more interesting.

So what happened? The truth is that we don’t quite know. After the pause caused by the Manchester outrage, we now have a series of new opinion polls, confirming an improvement in Labour’s position. It has advanced to an average of 35% according to Wikipedia, a remarkable achievement when you consider they started the campaign at 25%. Where has this come from? The Conservative poll share has eased by a couple of points to about 44%, but it is still better than where they started, before they mugged Ukip. The position of both the Lib Dems and the Greens has fallen back, as has the SNP in Scotland, though Ukip has struck bottom now. The headline figures are easy enough to see, but what really lies behind the shifts is much harder to say, as is their impact on individual races for seats.

But confidence in the Conservative campaign has been shaken, and Labour is being given more credit. It is particularly striking that Manchester has not helped Theresa May, as most campaigners from both sides thought it would. Indeed the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seized the initiative on Friday by pointing to the alleged failure of British foreign policy to make the world safer, and how police cuts have made things worse. Both points are spurious. Jihadi terrorism has struck Germany and Belgium, countries with a notably more pacific foreign policy than Britain’s. Britain’s interventions are an excuse for the terrorists, and not the real reason – which is hatred for the godless western way of life and a liberal attitude to women. And the security services have been lavished with funds – it is friendly neighbourhood policing that has been hammered – and the effect of that on terrorism is unclear. Never mind; Mr Corbyn delivered his speech in a measured, sober fashion (prime ministerial, I am tempted to say), and both arguments resonated with the public, who are not inclined to trust the political establishment. The Tory response was unmemorable.

This points to an important weakness in the Tory campaign. It is completely and utterly centred on the person of Mrs May, who they then proceed to shield from public interaction. While Mr Corbyn was delivering his speech, Mrs May was hobnobbing with world leaders at a couple of world summits. In itself this sort of distraction is considered to be a positive by campaigners, a chance to look like a world leader in power, but she had nobody of stature left on the home front. And the media were not inclined to give her party an easy ride.

That has to do with a second weakness. Mrs May is not a collegiate leader. Her pronouncements emerge from a small cabal of trusted advisers, without the ground being prepared amongst her colleagues and their media contacts. So it doesn’t take much for the grumbling to start, and this makes good copy. And the grumbling is in full flow. One columnist said that Mrs May had the charisma of an Indesit fridge-freezer. More than one has suggested that this is the most dismal Tory election campaign ever.

I wouldn’t say that. To me that record is held by John Major, both in 1992 (which won unexpectedly) and 1997 (the worst Tory defeat in history). The 1992 election is the better comparison to now. Mr Major was an uncharismatic sort, and he tried to make a virtue of it. He was never able to stamp his authority on his party. I remember thinking in the early stages of the 1992 campaign that the Tories did not look as if they even wanted to win. They were saved by events. The first was a triumphalist rally in Sheffield by the Labour leader Neil Kinnock, which was a disastrous misreading of the zeitgeist. And second was combative last minute switch in the Conservative campaign based on “Labour’s tax bombshell”, one of the most effective general election moves I can remember – which stops me rating the campaign as a whole the direst in Tory history (1997 takes that prize).

That gives two clues as to how the Conservatives can pull the campaign back to the massive landslide we expected at the start. First is the public not liking the prospect of Labour as a government rather than as a protest vote. Mr Kinnock was not considered Prime Ministerial. Second, is through a well-designed and aggressive drive by the Conservatives and their media allies against Labour weaknesses, perhaps on economics or perhaps on national security, in the remaining ten days.

We’ll see. Things could go well for Labour if we see a repeat of the anti-establishment mood evident in the Brexit referendum last year, or in Donald Trump’s victory in the US. “Strong and stable” could have been a campaign slogan for Hillary Clinton – but Mr Trump was able to project enough of an aura of competence to persuade enough people to give him a try – based on his supposed success as a businessman, and his success in getting to be the Republican nominee. Mr Corbyn is exceeding expectations in his campaigning skill, and he comes over as the more straightforward and honest politician compared to Mrs May. So you never know…

And what of my party, the Liberal Democrats? There is good an bad news. The good news is that knocking the shine off Mrs May helps in contests against the Conservatives. The bad news is that in the general polling the party has faded, and the gap between it and the Conservatives is as large as ever. The idea that the party is a more credible opposition than Labour has gained no traction. A good election for Jeremy Corbyn may be good for the Lib Dems strategically, but a failure to progress will pose some very challenging questions for the party.

Meanwhile I will be scouring the media for any evidence I can find as to how the election is developing. I have not got a clear picture yet. But if Theresa May fails to get a convincing majority, she will have nowhere to hide, and her authority would be damaged irreparably. And deservedly so.

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What is the meaning of Theresa May’s wobble?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Last night 22 people were killed in Manchester Arena in a terrorist attack. The attack was on people attending a concert popular with young girls, and many children were victims. I am in shock , like most of my countrymen. As ever, we have few facts, but the news media must make these go a long way, as they endlessly recite the same reports, along with vacuous speculation, to the exclusion of all else. Nobody is thinking about the election. For anybody that wants a little relief from the awfulness of the news, and the emptiness of news coverage, I offer the following. I had mostly written this article on yesterday’s political events already, and so I decided to finish it and publish anyway. But I expect most readers will not be very interested, as we cannot stop thinking about those families caught up in last night’s horror.

At first I thought it was a sign of strength. The Conservative manifesto launched last week was everything Labour’s was not. It challenged the party’s supporters, and suggested that the Conservatives had the toughness to take on difficult decisions, where Labour were behaving like Father Christmas. It confronted some of the more difficult questions facing our society with something a bit more substantive than empty slogans and goodies all round. But then yesterday the Tory leader, Theresa May, backtracked. It was a very clear wobble. What are we to make of it?

The proximate cause of the wobble seemed to be a sharp narrowing of the gap between the two big parties in the opinion polls after the Conservative manifesto launch – Labour moved up into the low thirties while the Tories dipped from the upper-forties to the mid-forties. Labour (echoed by the Lib Dems) were trying to make hay from the Conservative manifesto. There were quite a few items they picked up on, including cuts to school lunches, and the softening of the policy on annual increases to the state pensions. But the main fury was devoted to the proposed policy on paying for social care.

The plan was to make people liable for the full cost of nursing care if, for example they suffered from dementia, down to the last £100,000 of personal wealth, and including the value of people’s homes – though the idea is that the home would not have to be sold before death. Two things upset people. The policy wonks in particular were alarmed at the lack of a cap to these costs after which the state would pay (the current policy has a cap set at £72,000). This meant that there was no attempt to spread the risk, which might allow an insurance market to be established. Relatives faced the prospect of massive inheritances disappearing in the event that their loved ones suffer a slow departure rather than sudden death. But the critics mainly focused on forcing people to sell their houses. Suddenly previously leftish politicians discovered the sacred right of people to pass their wealth on to their children. The Lib Dems’ Tim Farron has been spitting fury.

More reflective types, including me, thought that there was something in the government proposal. The money has to be found from somewhere, and assets at death look easily the best place. We might like the idea of spreading the risk (e.g. by increasing inheritance taxes on everybody), but there is little evidence that the public has the stomach for that. This proposal exposes rich people the most, and at least confronts the issue honestly. Never mind. Tories were branded as the nasty party, preying on people’s inheritances.

I think Mrs May night have weathered this storm except that she had not developed the policy in consultation with her own side. The manifesto was imposed on the party by a tiny band of trusted confidantes – Mrs May does not do open consultation. Conservative ranks were visible fraying. So the wobble. Mrs May said that the proposals would be put out to consultation, and that there would be a cap after all. And that means significant costs being picked up by the state, to be paid for in some unspecified way.

What are the implications of this? The central theme of the Conservative campaign has been competence. This has been damaged a bit, but not in a way that enhances the standing of the opposition parties. These are still intent on hoovering up a protest vote, rather than setting out a credible programme for government.

As a Lib Dem I know what this means. My party has made the harvesting protest votes a core skill; the trouble was that support evaporated as soon as people thought they might take a share in power. And it was even worse when the party actually did so in 2010 as it could not meet so many conflcting expectations. Labour might have been testing the same self-destructive dynamic if their attacks on the Tory manifesto had gained traction.

There are, in fact, much more worrying aspects to Conservative policy. First is the drive to reduce immigration. The weapon of choice is to add to the burden of red tape on businesses. Those business people who supported Brexit so that it would reduce bureaucracy are going to get a rude awakening. Second is a refocusing of funding for early years education and support. The neediest families will suffer the most from changes to schools and local authority funding. The longer term consequences of this are likely to be dreadful. Britain’s lower crime rates are in large measure due to a reduction in rates of youth crime. This is surely related to increased levels of early years intervention put in place by the Labour government before 2010, and now being dismantled at an accelerating pace. And then there is a move to increase the number of secondary schools selecting children on an academic basis. When the main challenge to the system is to raise the educational attainment of the less academic, this looks like a costly distraction.

But however harmful these policies look, together with an alarming vagueness from Mrs May on the biggest job her government faces, negotiating exit from the European Union, would we trust a Labour-led government? Though the party has adopted the Blairite slogan “for the many, not the few” their policies nevertheless add up to a massive concentration of power to an elite in central government, whose competence is open to question. It looks distinctly Venezuelan.

But the Manchester attack puts all this on hold. Campaigning will be suspended, perhaps until the weekend, as we all take in the shock of what has just occurred. This will act as a bit of a reset button. When politics resumes, it will not be in the same place as before. But speculation on its impact at the moment serves no useful purpose.

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