Heathrow is a big test for David Cameron’s leadership

The election is done with, so now it is safe for the Airport Commission to report on options for expanding airport capacity in England’s South East. They have duly proposed that another runway be built at Heathrow airport.

Personally I was a bit surprised. I had expected the Commission to recommend expanding Gatwick. An article in the FT a while back led me to think that its Chair, Howard Davies, favoured the expansion of point to point services, which allow greater levels of competition, over the conventional arguments for the economies of hub airports, which favour big operators. But if he felt that way he was overwhelmed by conventional economic arguments that pointed to expanding the biggest airport, while skating lightly over the pollution and noise arguments that arise from this airport’s proximity to the main London conurbation.

I am emotionally very anti Heathrow airport. Living under its flightpath I find the noise of planes coming into land irksome, especially when they thunder over before 6am. I hate the way it ruins such beautiful places as Kew Gardens. I hate it as a passenger, as it is hard to get to by public transport or car, and when you arrive it is just too big. Every step in your journey before take-off or after touchdown takes longer than it should, and the whole enterprise is managed with the lack of imagination we expect from major corporate operators who know that you have no choice. Gatwick is a delight by comparison, especially since it was put under independent management. And I resent the history broken promises from the airport’s operators after each previous bid to expand. Which in turn undermines many of the promised safeguards proposed by the Commission. Heathrow’s lobbyists know how to dismantle such promises one at a time; their victory in this battle would give them immense sway.

But I have to admit that I’m not on top of the business arguments in favour of Heathrow’s expansion. And I have to question how much we can keep shooting ourselves in the foot, in conventional economic terms, while trying to maintain the tax base to support the level of public services and benefits as the population ages. Through gritted teeth I will admit that there may be case to be made for expanding this horrid airport.

But our Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his Chancellor George Osborne, should entertain none of these doubts. They have a conventional economic liberal approach to the economy. The Commission’s logic should make perfect sense to them, and it is exactly the sort of opportunity to invest for growth that the country badly needs in their world-view. It means the country is “open for business” in a commonly-used phrase. As such it is much more solidly based than the distinctly shaky HS2, the proposed high speed rail line from London to Birmingham and beyond. The only thing against it is the politics.

A number of their Conservative colleagues are passionately opposed to Heathrow expansion. These include the current London Mayor, Boris Johnson, and the prospective mayor Zac Goldsmith, who has threatened a by-election. These opponents all have seats in the west and southwest of London, where the party did well in May’s General Election. And in 2009 Mr Cameron himself said, “Ni ifs, no buts, no third runway.” But, as the FT’s columnist Janan Ganesh points out, Mr Cameron’s honeymoon is going to end soon anyway. Why not end it in a manner of his choosing, and on an issue that he feels is right? The quote was before a different election, and against a different proposal; and anyway he will be stepping down before the next election. The Lib Dems, who will oppose, have been reduced to a tiny rump in parliament; the Greens only have one MP. MPs from the the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Northern Irish parties are unlikely to show much interest either way. Massive lobbying by Heathrow’s backers will ensure that most of the Tory party stays true, and that any Labour opposition will be divided – indeed their first official response has been to support Heathrow expansion. This is something he can push through. If he acts decisively the whole thing will be a fait-accompli by the time of the General Election in 2020. Even in southwest London it will surely be trumped by other issues by then.

Will he have the nerve? Opponents of Heathrow expansion will hope he doesn’t.

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The European dream slowly unravels

I am one of nature’s political optimists. But 2015 is one of those years where it is all going wrong. The Lib Dem near wipe out in this year’s UK General Election, for one thing. The rise of Islamic State is another – along with the spread of vicious Islamophobia promoted by such outfits as Britain First. Meanwhile state after state in the Middle East and Africa is failing, with vicious dictatorships taking hold in other countries. This gives Israeli hardliners the cover they need advance their own brand of apartheid, and the ghettoisation of Gaza. Any attempt at finding a humane middle way is undermined by extremists of one sort or another, in country after country.

And now, as Gideon Rachman points out in yesterday’s FT, the European dream is dying before our eyes. The idea of ever closer European union was one of the formative ones in my own politics. In 1975 I was a 17-year old that was definitely ready to vote in that year’s British referendum on Europe. I’m not sure why it should have caught my imagination so – I grew up in postwar prosperity, where the World War was just an interesting piece of history. I suppose I found British society so staid and constricting that I wished for its institutions to be subsumed into something much more modern and exciting. I meet many people of my age that feel the same way though.

But apart from opening out British society and commerce, the EU represented a path towards civilised governance and prosperity for the undemocratic countries on its fringes. Greece was the first country to take the path of throwing off dictatorship and coming in to the mothership of Europe. 35 years on and the achievements look hollow. Greece took on the trappings of a well-managed European democracy but did not take it to heart. It remained run by a rich elite which did as it pleased, while bribing the rest of society with generous pensions and meaningless public sector jobs. They became artful in keeping that show on the road by extracting grants and loans from the rest of the union at the same time as disregarding rules they did not like. They even managed to join the Euro, reducing borrowing costs, and allowing the fiction of a properly functioning European state to continue. But sooner or later the music had to stop. And when it did the foundations of the European project looked shallow. There is an absence of trust and solidarity.

The Greeks themselves, or at least those that govern them, seem in denial about the sort of reforms that will be needed to get them on the path to prosperity. They claim to be victims, condemned as to doom-spiral of “austerity”, with many Anglo-Saxon economic commentators (Noble Laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz among them) cheering them on. But dig a bit deeper and we find that words such as “austerity” and “reform” have been abused so that a lot of the dialogue is at cross purposes. The Syriza government wants to reform some aspects of the Greek state, but sees no problem with those aspects that I have referred to as “bribery”: maintaining ineffective public sector jobs and unaffordable state benefits, such as pensions.This leads to the suspicion, especially amongst Germans, that all the Greek government want to do is to keep the old, failed way of running the state on the road, lurching from bailout to bailout, using moral blackmail each time.

The Germans, of course, are hardly blameless. Their banks kept the Greek show on the road, in the apparent anticipation that their government would bail them out if things went wrong. That expectation proved sound enough – most of the bailout money went to them, and practically nothing towards providing the investment the Greeks so badly need. The Greek government’s moral case is not entirely hollow – but their combative approach to negotiation is destroying trust. No wonder that British Eurosceptics urge the UK government to emulate such tactics in their dealings with the EU! Even now the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, suggests that a No vote in the forthcoming referendum is just a step in the negotiation, not a real moment of decision. Those European leaders who have been trying to fudge things to get a deal, like Claude Juncker, the President of the EU Commission, feel betrayed.

The prospect of Greece dropping out of the Euro and then the EU is steadily growing. This would be a calamity for Greeks, and raises the prospect of yet another failed state. As more than one commentator has suggested, if the Greek ruling elites had what ti takes to run an independent monetary policy, they would not have got into this mess in the first place. It would mark a big moment for the EU too. Its first major defeat. But it has limited powers; it cannot make an unwilling partner reform itself.

And old Europhiles like me must wake up and acknowledge the truth behind that. Our dream cannot be fulfilled. The EU is a confederation, not a federal state. It cannot bind its members by force of arms, as the United Stares did when some of its members tried to secede over 150 years ago.

The question now is whether the EU can survive a Greek exit, or will it be the start of a general process of disintegration. Greece is not the only country to be a cause for concern. The other bailout cases -Spain, Portugal and Ireland – were always more serious about reform and integration, and I do not see these as being of immediate concern. Cyprus, with its cultural ties to Greece, may be different. But the future integration of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are far from secure.  At least they are not members of the Euro.

Greece seems to be the lesson that the EU learns by. After its entry to the Euro, the EU became much stricter about allowing further new members. After its flawed bailout, which let many private sector investors off the hook, it was much stricter with Cyprus.

But what is emerging is a different Europe. One where much less solidarity is expected. And one with an Exit door. It is a system of rules and standards that facilitate free trade, environmental cooperation and good governance – but one where it if you fail you are out. Integration is not necessarily in one direction. The union will no longer be ever closer.

Into this sad situation the British Prime Minister David Cameron enters with his attempt at British renegotiation, leading to a referendum. This may seem to be the last thing that Europe needs. But Mr Cameron’s negotiating skills are far more advanced than Mr Tsipras’s, and he is showing much more application than hitherto. This cloud offers a silver lining. It may define a looser union, but if the British public votes to stay in it will offer a counter-narrative to the slow disintegration that is happening elsewhere. Such is what is left of my European dream.

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Should I apologise for supporting the Euro?

The this week’s FT Janan Ganesh suggests that those who supported Britain’s entry to the Euro back in the late 1990s and early 2000s should own up to to their error and apologise for it. He feels that the arrogance of that generation of Europhiles is undermining the pro EU case as we face a referendum on membership. Well he won’t have me in mind. I am not a prominent politician; I wasn’t even blogging in those days. But I did have an opinion – and that was that that the country should be part of the Euro – though not at the exchange rate then on offer (about 65p per Euro). Should I hang my head in shame?

In fact this also seems to be a rather desperate line of attack by the Eurosceptics, who are at last realising to their horror that they are being out-manoeuvred. They want to discredit the whole pro-Europe cause. In today’s FT , one its other writers, Martin Sandbu, comes out with a robust defence of British entry to the Euro. He suggests that if the UK had been part of the Euro economic disaster would have been averted, because the European approach to fiscal and monetary policy would have been more pragmatically British. I have also heard a that idea suggested by a commentator from within the Euro zone, though I can’t remember who.

I’m not entirely convinced. But it at least raises the big question. It is treated as entirely self evident that the Euro is a disaster, and that British membership would have made things worse for the country. But both these are counterfactuals. We don’t know what would have happened if the Euro had never got off the ground, or if Britain had been a member.

Let’s consider the first of these. When the Euro was being formed the economies of Italy, Greece and Portugal were in real trouble. Their governments were losing the confidence of the markets; stagflation followed by hyperinflation beckoned. The Euro lifted these economies – before joining the governments were forced to bring fiscal policy under control; after joining interest rates fell dramatically. But these countries failed to deal with deeper seated problems, and eventually the chickens had to come home to roost. Membership of the Euro delayed the denouement rather than caused it. Indeed it gave these countries an opportunity to head off disaster which they failed to take. Contrast this, for example, to Belgium, also considered a bit of a basket case before the Euro, whose economy now prospers, relatively speaking at least. And for each of the other members of the  Euro that ran into trouble something similar can be said. Ireland suffered the consequences of a reckless expansion of its financial system not unlike that of Iceland, outside the zone. Iceland’s crash was at least as painful as Ireland’s. Their problems reflect underlying economic weaknesses that governments failed to tackle. The signs were there. Indeed no members inside the zone seem to want to return to life outside it, with the possible exception of Germany (and Finland perhaps).

The ambiguity of Germans is understandable. The interesting thing about that country though is that they were the only, or at least the first, country in the zone to understand the implications of membership for economic management. In the early days they realised they were uncompetitive, and embarked on a programme of “real” devaluation. This was a combination of holding pay rates down and economic reforms to improve productivity. The reluctance of other countries to embrace this style of economic management is the main failure of the Euro project.

And what of the second counterfactual? What if the UK had joined? Well the first thing to be said is that the country did not do so well out of the zone. The financial crash of 2008 was deeper, and the recovery slower, than the major Eurozone economies. Britain suffered a persistent current account deficit, supported by an unsustainable exchange rate. We were in a not dissimilar space to countries like Spain and Ireland, going through a financial boom offering the illusion of wealth while not enough was being done to fix the fundamentals. It is not so self-evident that things would have been worse inside the zone.

Or perhaps not. I would like to think inside the Euro the UK would have been locked into an exchange rate that suited exporting industries (like Germany after its reform/adjustment programme) and not so subject to financial shenanigans. That would have left the economy in a stronger position after the bust. But such an exchange rate wasSterling Euro X ratesnot on offer. The chart above shows the average exchange rate between the Euro and Sterling for each year of the currency (source: stastica.com). My view is (and was at the time) that the rate of 65p was high (or too low in terms of the graph). It was distorted by excessive government spending and a booming financial sector – there was a substantial current account deficit to show that it was unsustainable. It did not drop to a more realistic level until 2007-2008. That was too late. There was no chance that the government would have followed Germany’s example in conducting reforms to improve the real exchange rate – not while everything was rosy on the surface.

So If Britain had joined the Euro at its start or early in its existence, then the exchange rate would have been too high. Which would have made the adjustment period after the crash even more difficult. I’m not going to apologise for this because I understood that at the time (or that’s how I remember it!).

But there is a bigger issue that I will have to own up to. The design and operation of the Euro zone was flawed. There are two sustainable ways of running such a common currency area. One is part of an explicitly federal system of government, which allows substantial fiscal transfers between its members and a robust system of federal political control to match.  In this system members bail each other out if they get into trouble.To judge from most commentary, you would think that this is the only way to run the zone – and that because the European polity is not ready for such a federal system, then it will never work. But there is an alternative, where each member is not so tied to the others. Each country is left to run its affairs as it sees fit, and if it can’t pay its debts, it goes bust. It requires a sovereign insolvency regime. Nobody bails failing states out.

This latter arrangement is what the Germans wanted, and it is what most Britons that supported membership wanted too. But Euro-federalists in Brussels and the southern states saw the currency as a step towards federalism. The Germans didn’t help matters by insisting on  system of fiscal rules for members – the “Stability & Growth Pact” – which is only necessary if you are heading for a federal arrangement. The idea that the system was in fact of the federal type was implied by the fact that government bond rates for the different members were almost identical for much of the Euro’s life before the crisis. This was a bad sign – and yet most European leaders though it was a good one. When crisis approached European leaders were complacent. And when things went wrong, there was muddle and confusion. This problem is still not resolved.

And here I have to own up. While I saw some of the signs, I did not appreciate the full implications of this ambiguity. I thought it was a problem that could be solved by evolution from within.

I still believe that. But the politics of EU membership in Britain are toxic enough as it is. It is better that the country is not part of the tortuous politics of the Eurozone. That is why I accept the consensus that Britain probably never will be be part of  the Euro zone. Or not until firstly the zone finds a new and sustainable equilibrium, and secondly that Britain sinks into an economic mire that destroys its self-confidence as an independent nation. Both are possibilities.

Meanwhile I am not a fan of an independent Sterling. It has a way of distracting the political elite from dealing with deep-seated economic issues, like our current account deficit, our inefficient underlying economy and our over-dependence on volatile financial flows. But, it has to be admitted, that, with the exception of Germany, the Eurozone members were equally blind to the self-same issues. I apologise for not appreciating that enough.

 

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Taking community politics to the next level. Who should be the next Lib Dem leader?

2015-06-17 21.20.17Last Wednesday I attended the London hustings for the two candidates to be the next leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats. It was a well-attended event, with up to 800 people there (not 1,200 as some have reported, though – that was the number that registered in advance). As my life still hasn’t got back to normal after my return from holiday and having the builders in, I have delayed my considered response. But here it is at last!

The two candidates are Tim Farron, MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale since 2005, and Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk since 2001. Their similarities are quite striking. I find it convenient to consider most Lib Dems to be one of three camps – though all three have a strong set of shared attitudes and values, which allows constructive dialogue between them. First there are the Economic Liberals, sometimes referred to as Orange Bookers. They are part of the Westminster mainstream, with an inclination to market-based solutions, or maximising individual choice, as they might put it. This group includes the outgoing leader Nick Clegg, and it dominated the Liberal Democrat presence in the coalition government. Then there are the Social Liberals (not to be confused with social liberals, who are free and easy about other people’s private morality). These are also a mainstream strand, but they have more faith in centralised state-based initiatives, and centrally defined rights to access to state services and benefits. In the current environment this group tends to be quite conservative, objecting to most attempts to reform state spending. The former party leader, the late Charles Kennedy, can be thought of as part of this group. But both Tim and Norman are part of the third group: Community Politicians. These were important to the party’s early growth, but had been swept aside by the party as its presence in Westminster grew. They emphasise localism, and their mantra is empowering local people and communities. They see empowerment as giving people a say in decisions that affect them, rather than promoting market choice or legal rights. It is easy to see why those swept up by Westminster politics feel that this is tedious. Other Lib Dems took up local campaigning with enthusiasm, and spent a lot of time on constituency case work, referring to this as “community politics” – but they never grasped the empowerment part of the philosophy.

But it was clear from the hustings, and their track record, that both Tim and Norman are not amongst these superficial community politicians. That will make the next period of the party’s existence more interesting. But the philosophy has its limits. It isn’t well understood by the Westminster crowd of civil servants and media types – who keep trying to bring things back to nationally run services or nationally defined rights – things that leave Westminster in control. It is very hard to drive through national reforms to facilitate local empowerment. The party has not developed clear templates for doing so, nor for communicating its ideas, even to its own membership.

Also in many places Community Politics no longer provides an adequate way forward for the party electorally, if it ever did. That includes my part of London, where there is no meaningful local community to work with – or the communities that exist do not conform to electoral boundaries (i.e. people have a more dispersed and mobile circle of friends and colleagues).  Besides the party now has a bit of a credibility problem – it is seen as just another political party, out to get an advantage over its opponents rather than actually help people.

But there is a crying need for new approaches to economic management, to public services and to the conduct of politics. And I believe that Community Politics is the best to start in the search for these new ideas – its distance from standard Westminster thinking is a help. That makes the party well paced to lead the battle of ideas,  while Conservatives, Labour and Greens flog their respective dead horses. This is, after all, what the party has done before from a position of political weakness: think of Beveridge and Keynes in 1945 (much good that did the party electorally).  Also, it was the approach taken by former leader Jo Grimond to lift the party from an even deeper hole than its current one in the 1960s. At the hustings, both Tim and Norman called for the development of just such new thinking.

So how to tell them apart? Tim is younger and, I would say, more energetic. The strain on the campaign trail seemed to be telling a bit on Norman – he clutched a can of Red Bull. Tim is also a good performer; he is more rhetorical, and often comes up with a telling turn of phrase and a quick joke. At a time when the party needs to energise its grassroots, he looks more up for the job. It is no wonder that he is usually considered the favourite. And he has been working for much longer to build his profile across the party membership, as party President, and at Conference.

And yet I have my doubts. It may just be a sign of being in the party too long, but I find the rhetoric grates. I don’t want to be pumped for yet another futile charge at the barricades. I want hope. I want the confidence that we are not heading up the same old garden path. And here I worry. Tim seems to respond to his audience rather than thinking things through – somebody whose words will run ahead of his achievements. Indeed, he seems more interested in the quantity of new ideas, rather than their quality and consistency – he fizzes with them. I fear that he will drop into easy protest politics, rather than taking the much harder road of developing community politics into a convincing national narrative. He seems more interested in ideas as a means to achieve engagement, rather than actually changing the way we do things.

I have much more confidence in Norman on that score. He is much more considered and willing to think things through. As an effective health minister he has experience of ministerial office in the most challenging of public services. There he championed mental health and personal budgets – two themes that will be important in future public service reform. His policy of getting the police and mental health professionals to work together to deal with people that have mental health problems shows exactly the right approach to public policy – getting multiple public services to organise solutions based on the needs of actual people, rather than abstract symptoms. But will he be as good as Tim in the outreach to and energising of the membership?

There are two red herrings in the chatter about leadership. First, which was a theme in the hustings, is that Norman was a loyal member of the  coalition government, voting for policies that Liberal Democrats disagreed with. This compares with Tim Farron’s more rebellious record, which included voting against the increase in tuition fees (which I respect him for, incidentally). I don’t think this says anything useful about either candidate. Some say that Norman is tainted by the coalition – especially when you add that Norman was Nick Clegg’s Parliamentary Private Secretary at one point. And yet Tim is quick to praise the party’s achievements in coalition and Nick’s moving speech defending his record on the day after the election. You can’t have it both ways.

The second red herring is some rather nasty chattering about the fact that Tim is a practising Christian, and that this has given him some awkwardness on such iconic social liberal issues as gay marriage and abortion. I really am worried about this secular puritanism that is present in the membership. The party must embrace cosmopolitanism – and that means taking a more understanding attitude over such dilemmas. You don’t have to be a bigot to have doubts about gay marriage – even if it helps. Tim is a liberal to his core and he will not impose his rather different perspectives on social liberal issues on the rest of us. End of story.

At the moment I am backing Norman. I think he has a better chance of promoting the new thinking on public policy that is the party’s most important task. But I would please ask his activists to back off from emphasizing his record on issues of personal conscience. This is not the right way to improve the party’s diversity.

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Charles Kennedy’s difficult legacy for Liberal Democrats

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Charles Kennedy’s tragic death occurred while I was on holiday. Charles_Kennedy_2009That was reason enough for my silence on this blog. But also, I wanted to pen a more critical appraisal of his time as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Such was the esteem in which he was held, and such the shock of his death, that any hint of criticism, especially from within the Lib Dem family, would not have gone down the right way. I hope that things are now a bit more settled.

But first I must pay my own tribute to Charles Kennedy. What impresses me most about his politics, looking back on it, is the absence of tribal rancour. When the SDP was formed in 1981, part of its idealism was the wish to move beyond the tribal nature of British politics. tribalism means the imperative of politicians to paint their opponents as evil and corrupted. Of course this tribal hatred serves to cover weaknesses and divisions in your own side. It stifles true political debate. Our party generally has failed to live up to this ideal – but Charles was an exception. And that was one the reasons that he was so widely liked, across the political spectrum and by the general public. For this achievement, I hold his memory in huge respect. I also enjoyed his quick, self-deprecating humour, and the firmness of his core political convictions.

And on another issue I feel the need to speak out. Charles’s critics on the left have suggested that his stand on the Iraq War was reluctant, and in one case “fraudulent”. And indeed to many anti-war campaigners, he did appear reluctant initially. But such campaigners have little idea of the pressures put on the man by the mainstream political establishment at the time. His advisers were pointing to some kind of meaningless triangulation which would allow him to be on both sides at once. And when he did finally make his stand, criticism from within the establishment was fierce – for a respectable political party not to be fully behind the troops in a war was considered the height of bad form. Charles deserves all the credit he is given on the issue.

My issue with Charles was with his leadership, from 1999 to early 2006. This may seem a bit strange. The two elections he fought in 2001 and 2005 were successful for the party – increasing its number of MPs. We know that this is not to be taken for granted. I had two issues. The first was that he seemed a bit “lazy” – not as active engaging with the party’s activists as he should have been. This may have been related to his illness, of course. But amongst many activists he was seen as “one of them” – part of the the out of touch and cosy Westminster establishment, seen by some as overly compliant to corporate lobbying. Nick Clegg, his effective successor (the intervening leadership of Ming Campbell did not last long) was much better on this score, though he got little credit from the activists.

But a much greater problem for me was the way the party’s policies evolved, especially at general elections, on his watch. This has been characterised as “being to the left of Labour” – and indeed one left-wing Labour MP, Brian Sedgemoor, did defect to the party. As Tony Blair’s New Labour adopted a series of policies described as “neoliberal” or “centrist”, depending on your point of view, there was a gap in the political market amongst former Labour supporters. Charles Kennedy’s Lib Dems benefited a lot from this. But to me the policies appeared not so much left-wing, but muddled and incoherent. It seemed to be wish list of things designed to appeal to these new supporters. We started offering lots of “free” things – university education, personal care for the elderly. Policies that were designed to address real gaps in the way the country was run, local income tax or political reform generally, were progressively downplayed. I actually though the party’s 2005 election manifesto was a disgrace. The impression was not unlike that of the Green Party in this year’s election. The Greens seem to have lost interest in global warming and the environment, in order to bang on about the evils of austerity, and offer free everything from the state. That too has done their initial electoral standing no harm.

This proved popular for a time, but led to the question of what it was, exactly, that the Liberal Democrats were for. For Charles’s predecessor, Paddy Ashdown, the party stood for political reform firstly, and improving education after that. He saw that the way to do this was to work with Labour, preferably in coalition. But to Charles such a stance got in the way of picking up Labour voters. He quickly dropped Paddy’s regular meetings with Labour – though these were hardly popular from most of the Labour side. And the party picked up a ragbag of policies that would be nearly impossible to accomplish in coalition, with Labour or anybody else.

The problems became apparent in 2010 when the party had the opportunity to form coalition with the Conservatives, without the real choice of working with Labour. Such a coalition looked like treachery to these newer Lib Dem supporters, and they quickly deserted the party. And although Nick Clegg had made the party’s policies much more coalition-friendly, he had not succeeded in dropping the policy on free university tuition. Indeed a pledge not to increase tuition fees was the centrepiece of many constituency campaigns in 2010, encouraged by the central campaigns department. Such a pledge could not survive coalition, and the party’s reversal came to symbolise its insincerity in its bid for political influence. No doubt Charles foresaw these outcomes of his own legacy – and he opposed the coalition with the Conservatives. A coalition with Labour, had it been feasible, would hardly have been easier, though.

Which only takes the question back to what, on earth, is the party for? If it can’t actually achieve political power, what is the point? The party must wrestle with that question now.  But the temptation will be to sidestep it. The prospect of power seems so distant now that many will like the idea of returning to Charles’s protest politics. I think that fails on two counts. Firstly it risks taking the party through the same old cycle. And secondly the Greens have stolen a march on it, and don’t have the party’s newly acquired baggage.

I think Paddy had it right. The party stands for liberal values (which, incidentally, Charles did care a lot about) in a way that the other parties do not. The party wants to change the political system in a liberal direction, especially with more devolution of political power, and more checks on the executive. I also think that the party should be at the forefront of developing new ideas of economics and public services based on more distributed power. We need to develop and sell implementable policies on these issues. And we need to work with Labour and the Greens where we can.  I am not clear on where the SNP or Plaid Cymru fit into the picture, though. The party needs to channel frustration with the political system, and the slowness of Labour to embrace genuine political and economic reform.

Charles Kennedy was a great man, and his loss is indescribably sad. We should remember the many lovely things he brought to British politics. But the Liberal Democrats should not attempt to repeat his political strategy.

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Community politics, Orange Book, Social Liberalism. Time for the Lib Dems to move on.

After its electoral catastrophe followed by a surge of mostly younger members, the Liberal Democrats are struggling to create a new future. The immediate focus is on selecting a new party leader. I’m not going to comment on that further today. I think it is more constructive to think about the sort of party the Liberal Democrats should become. It has something like a clean slate to work with – which makes it an excellent moment to put the past into perspective and move on.

As ever it is easier to see what should be left behind than the shape of the future. Let’s start with “Centrism”. The party’s outgoing leader, Nick Clegg, was fond of saying that the party was “anchored to the centre ground of British politics”. The meant that the party was pitching for voters convinced by neither the left nor the right. Centrism is not an ideological anchor, though, it is an electoral tactic. It is arguably a necessary one in order to break through in Britain’s electoral system, though its deployment this year as the basis for the party’s national campaign seems to have had little impact. The party actually needed to mobilise voters of the left and right to vote tactically – so it was wide of the mark. Centrism may return, but defining yourself in reference to others is not a good place to start.

The next idea worth mentioning is Community Politics. This was an idea developed by Liberals before they merged with the SDP to form the Lib Dems in 1988. This is a very locally based form of politics, which involved the party inserting itself into local communities, and encouraging these communities to take more responsibility for their own affairs. It showed the practical power of liberal values: openness, readiness to talk with others of different views, and self-help, rather than waiting for the government to sort your problems out. When it worked it could draw in a wide diversity of people, and establish the party at the centre of a local community. It was how the party managed to extablish its local government base.

But there are two problems with it. First is that few people have the patience for it. Local communities are weakening in our more mobile and connected world. Certainly where I live there is nothing to work with. Local communities invoke nostalgia, and coming together in a crisis, but not the everyday practice of politics. Doubtless there are exceptions – and we should not accept the weakening of local communities as inevitable and irreversible – but it is much harder to practice it these days. The second problem is deeper – it sits ill with national politics. The party’s spell in national coalition devastated its local government base. There is a widespread view nowadays that for community politicians a party label is a disadvantage. You have more credibility as an independent.

The next idea to leave behind is Orange Bookery. What is it? You probably won’t get much idea from reading the Orange Book itself, published ten years ago, if you can find I copy. It drew a wide variety of contributors from many strands of thinking. It came to stand for what could be called Westminster liberalism. The sort of liberal ideas popular amongst the elites in Westminster – a lighter touch from government, and the empowerment of individuals through private choice in public markets. There is strong emphasis on education to give all people an equal start. This strand of thinking (close to my own) never really took hold amongst grass roots activists, but it heavily influenced the sort of people who were able to win parliamentary selections, and hence become MPs – it dominated the party’s national leadership. These included Mr Clegg. They were heavily criticised. For some they were simply too right-wing; others felt they were too distant from activists; yet others felt that they were corrupted by being paid-up members of the Westminster political class – at ease amongst civil servants and lobbyists.

For Orange Bookers the entry into coalition with the Conservatives was a triumph. They could work with the more reasonable Tories easily enough. Entering coalition was for them the ultimate political goal, as the best way of putting their thinking into practice. The disaster inflicted on the party in the election was a severe blow. This strand of the party is likely to lose its prominence. Though I share a lots of its instincts, it was not really on board for the sort of reshaping of the country’s economics and politics that I think is now called for.

And then come the Social Liberals. Who are they? They are in fact a rather diverse group of people, united mainly by their distrust of Orange Bookers – but who had not got involved in Community Politics either. They draw from both the party’s Liberal and SDP wings. The coalition helped consolidate the group, leading to the formation of the Social Liberal Forum (SLF). It would a mistake to infer ideological coherence on this group. There is a strong left-wing strand, with more emphasis on government action, taxation and benefits than you will see from Orange Bookers. But what seems to dominate its thinking is a sort of conservatism – notwithstanding ritual calls for radical new ideas. Pretty much any suggested reform of public services or benefits is opposed. “We want change, but not this change,” seems to be the motto. Some show a nostalgia for pre-Thatcher Britain, which I find rather bizarre. There are younger and fresher members of the SLF too – but for me it is too tainted with the narrow conservatism of older members.

And this is above all what the party needs to leave behind. The sort of liberalism the party stands for is optimistic and inclusive. It appeals to younger people, and draws its main energy from them. And the party retains its appeal amongst the young. True, the party was way behind Labour and the Greens in attracting younger voters – but the party fared no worse here than amongst older voters. The rather youthful profile of new members shows that is values remain resonant. Labour remains heavily attached social control and conformity, and the Greens seem tempted by these ideas too. The Conservatives and Ukip are too interested in socially conservative older voters. There is a chance of building a strong appeal, based on younger people, that then extends across all age groups.

What I want to see is a generational shift in the party. Us oldies have an important role to play – but our first job is to persuade our younger colleagues that our ideas have validity. It will mean that many old ways – Community Politics, Orange Bookery, and social Liberalism – will pass into history. But fresher ideas will emerge to replace them.

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Will the Conservatives trip up?

In my survey of the changed political landscape after Britain’s General Election it is time to look at the unexpected winners of that election, the Conservatives. Just as a pall of doom hangs over the defeated Labour Party, and an even darker one over the Liberal Democrats, a bright glow surrounds the Conservatives, who now have an aura of invincibility, to judge by the commentary. We form our opinions in such ephemeral ways.

How well is this aura deserved? The Conservative majority is a narrow one. There is a huge gulf between them and the second-largest party, Labour, but if they lose thirty seats or so, a rainbow coalition of some sort could replace them, incorporating Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems. Perhaps sensing this, the Tory leader, David Cameron, is making a bid for working class voters, especially those in northern England, to consolidate his hold on what I have called Middle England. These are voters employed by the private sector who view left-wing rhetoric about extending the state with scepticism. This is backed up by the Chancellor George Osborne’s “northern powerhouse” idea of restoring the fortunes of northern England through devolution of power and infrastructure investment. If this plan succeeds Labour could retreat yet further. Labour is badly shaken and is uncertain about what to do next; it can’t simply rely on mid-term government unpopularity to sweep itself forward: it badly needs a better narrative of its own. Meanwhile the Lib Dems have now lost the huge benefit they had of incumbency, and may be laid low for a very long time.

A further factor is that the Conservatives could redraw constituency boundaries to secure themselves another dozen or so seats. There was a big kerfuffle about this in the last parliament – when the scheme was also part of a plan to reduce the size of the House of Commons – as it still should be, according to the Conservative manifesto. But British politics may be more fluid than the politicos think. Labour was supposed to have an inbuilt advantage on current electoral boundaries – but if I have understood the psephologist John Curtice correctly, this vanished in this year’s election. Since blatant, American-style gerrymandering cannot be done here, it could well be that redrawing the boundaries will have little actual effect on the balance, or even an adverse on on the Conservatives.

Still, I think three things could upset the Tory bandwagon. The first, and most obvious, is Europe. Membership of the European Union (i.e. opposition to it) has been something of an obsession for many Tory activists for a generation. And yet the leadership clearly favours staying in the EU, fearing the uncertainties that would follow a withdrawal. The party has been close to tearing itself apart, and divisions contributed to its fallow period from 1992 (shortly after their victory in that year’s general election) until Mr Cameron assumed the leadership in 2005. Mr Cameron’s strategy is to lance the boil with an in-out referendum in this parliament. Will this referendum allow the party to bury the hatchet? Or will it cause civil war and either a Eurosceptic coup, or mass desertions of rank and file and even MPs? Mr Cameron’s victory gives him a lot of political capital in the party, and his views on Europe probably match those of Middle England very well. He may yet pull this off.

Secondly there is the economy. It was economic policy that did for John Major’s Tories, when he was forced into a humiliating U-turn in September 1992 on the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Divisions on Europe, and a revived Labour Party under Tony Blair simply finished things off. The British economy is not as strong as the government claims. It is too dependent on private sector debt and consumption, resulting in a substantial current account deficit. Moreover the standard econometric models, still used by almost everybody, including the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), do not account for many of the headwinds a modern developed economy now faces. The government has no answer to weak productivity, which underlies Britain’s mediocre economic performance and the failure of wages to advance. The fact is that economic performance is simply not in any government’s gift, and the outlook is cloudy.

Not that any economic crisis, like that of 1992 looms. A new banking crisis cannot be ruled out, but the country does not look as vulnerable as it was in 2008. But slow growth, and even relapse to recession, is distinctly possible. This matters because the government’s financial plans depend on relatively optimistic predictions provided by those econometric models. If this is not forthcoming the government will either have to cut spending more deeply, or raise taxes, or borrow more. Each of these would be particularly difficult for a government that has set so much store by its “long-term economic plan”. It will be particularly poisonous if the government is forced to raise one of the tax trio of income tax, National Insurance or VAT – there was an election promise to enact a law against raising these. But what if the alternative was to renege on its funding pledge to the NHS? Such an invidious choice could well confront the government. And, of course, this problem could come together with the European one (as it did for John Major). If the country votes to leave the EU, or if it looks as if this is a strong possibility, then the adverse effects on the economy, in the short term at least, could be severe.

The third threat to the Conservatives is more speculative. It is that the Tories are very old-politics when a sea-change could be coming. They favour minimal constitutional change – and such change as they do offer seems to be about handing more power to the executive. They look to older voters more than the young. They use classic old-style fear campaigns ruthlessly. This old, Westminster-centred politics was in bad odour before the election, and that the bad odour has gone away. Tory strength reflects their opponents’ weaknesses. Labour and the Lib Dems are just as tainted in electors’ eyes. Ukip’s foray into the politics old- fogeydom disqualifies them in the eyes of many. The Greens’ fantastical economics and obsession with abstract nouns (austerity, inequality, neoliberalism, etc) limits their appeal. Perhaps this general negativity reflects the national mood well, but the party should take heed of what happened to Labour in Scotland. The SNP’s success is not jut based on a nasty, narrow nationalism, though that is part of their formula. It also draws strength from an inclusive, bottom-up politics, that is not so heavily managed by spin-doctors and narrow calculations of electoral advantage. They have managed to ignite hope – and in the face of hope the old-politics world had no answer.

Can the politics of hope be ignited in England? It should not be ruled out. Perhaps a breakaway faction from Labour or the Conservatives can set it off it, much as the SDP did in 1981. Perhaps a future Labour leader will have the vision to be part of an electoral alliance including  the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru, and based political reform, including a federal constitution and proportional representation at its heart. Such a brave and unexpected move could capture voters’ imagination, especially if the Tory reputation for sound economic management is wearing thin.

It may well take another crushing defeat for Labour before they are ready to embrace such radical thinking. Whether the SNP might play ball I have no notion. But  these are strange political times and we must dare to think the unthinkable. There is no inevitability about another Conservative victory.

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Competence not policies are the key to political success

Yesterday Britain’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) published a poll exploring the public’s attitudes to the Labour Party. The press release’s headline, “New poll has no easy answers for Labour but trust and competence key”, does not invite much interest. A poll that found easy answers, or which suggested that competence and trust could be taken lightly – now that would be interesting!

There were one or two eye-catching findings though:

  • Over 55s overwhelmingly picked the Conservatives over Labour by 47% to 24%. Labour did better amongst younger voters, but not overwhelmingly so.
  • The survey identified 13% of floating voters that considered Labour but voted for another party (Conservative 35%, Lib Dem 23%, Ukip 17%, Green 14%). This group were much more worried about Labour overspending and the SNP – few mentioned Labour’s lack of sympathy for aspiration and success. This seems to run counter to the Blairite narrative, which drops in the word “aspiration” at any opportunity.
  • The Conservatives were perceived to win on competence, while Labour were closer to ordinary people.  The former was more important. The Conservative record in government was considered more competent than Labour’s. This is a tough message for Labour supporters, who, often passionately, believe the exact opposite. No doubt they will blame media bias.
  • People tended to think that Labour was too soft on big business rather than too hard. This again seems to contradict the Blairite narrative that the party should cosy up to business again.
  • Overwhelmingly people wanted Labour to be “tougher” on immigration and welfare. A hard message for not just Labour supporters but liberals of all parties.
  • Perhaps it is not so surprising that voters preferred by 77 to 15 “concrete plans for sensible change” over “big vision for radical change”. Another place where political activists seem distant from the public.

Of course this tells us as much about how issues should be framed as it does about what is likely to change voter behaviour. Voters may want parties to be tough on big business, but constant battle with business would probably undermine any idea of economic competence. If you have a big vision for radical change, it is clearly important to present it as if it a concrete plan for sensible change. That Politics 101, as the Americans might say.

The bigger message is that the idea of competence is critical for any political party that aspires to government, rather than merely protest. This isn’t a new idea, Mark Pack, the Lib Dem uber-blogger, has made this point recently. He rather spoils it by using the jargon word “valence” to describe it, a word that is conjures up the idea of atoms and chemical bonds in my brain. It is important because many political “strategists” tend to focus on policies instead. They see their job as identifying a set of popular policies through polling and focus groups, and then using these to win votes. Labour certainly seemed to think this way, and so did the Lib Dems. The Lib Dem post-election survey had this idea hard-wired into it. What policies would have made a difference, it asked (or something similar). That was irrelevant, was my answer. The Conservative election maestro, Lynton Crosby, did not make this mistake. Their campaign was based on the juxtaposition of competence with chaos.

So political campaigners need to think hard about how the public develops its judgement of competence. Actual competence is not enough. By and large the Lib Dems record in coalition was highly competent – but the public gave the party little credit for this. The tuition fees fiasco seemed to loom larger. Maybe that isn’t quite fair and the party was more damaged by the fact that it could not lead the next government, nor would it state is preference of which party it would team up with.

For the Labour left though, the competence problem is a big one. It is very hard to be a party of competence and a party of protest at the same time. Almost certainly the public associates free spending and higher taxes with a lack of competence. Tony Blair (another politician that grasped the dominance of competence over policy) understood this clearly. Labour has to embrace at least some aspects of what it calls “austerity” in order to build trust. And they need to find ways of doing this that aren’t just hot air. Their leader has to show that they can face down internal opposition and embrace party division in order to push such polices through.

So the prime requirement for Labour’s next leader is bloody-mindedness, and an ability to push through policies that trade union backers and many activists will dislike. On this score Yvette Cooper looks the best bet. Her chief rival, Andy Burnham, looks too flexible. The potential third candidate, Liz Kendall, is the one I personally find the most attractive – but she has much less of a track record, and their must be doubts as to how much clout she would have if she won.

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Labour: a return will be hard but it is not hopeless

After a bit of introspection on the sorry state of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, I am moving on to consider the not quite so sorry state of the Labour Party. The party was all but wiped out by the SNP in Scotland, experiencing some of the most spectacular swings ever seen in British politics. In England and Wales the party completed the Conservative demolition of the Lib Dems, picked up George Galloway’s Respect seat, but made little headway against the Conservatives, even losing some seats. And that from a historic low point in 2010. It was its worst result in seats in the post war era. What to make of this?

This bad result has led to not a few doom-laden pronouncements from party insiders and columnists, about how the party could be out of power forever unless it sorts itself out. My first reaction is to remember the quote from Macbeth: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. I remember similar pronouncements after the 1992 election… before a turn of events that led to Labour’s biggest ever victory in 1997. The Conservative majority is narrow, and that party is riven by its own divisions, notably over Europe. In England Labour has convincingly seen off its main rival, the Lib Dems. Another rival, the Greens, and Plaid Cymru, its main rival in Wales, failed to advance. Ukip, its last important rival, looks in complete disarray.

But it won’t do just to blame Labour’s defeat on tactical mistakes by its leader Ed Miliband, who resigned after the result. It was clear enough what direction Mr Miliband was going to take when he stood for the leadership in 2010, and overall he delivered it with a great deal of competence. Most Labour insiders were, as Mr Miliband memorably said of the Lib Dem association with Tory policies in coalition, complicit. He, and most of the party, wanted Labour to bounce back quickly, with a smart step towards its roots on the political left, but without having any major internal political bust ups on policy. They were relying on the coalition parties to lose the election, rather than get onto the front foot themselves. We must remember that in those early coalition years, with the scale of government cuts becoming evident, that there was outrage. Those on the left saw what was happening as an evil attack by the privileged Tories on wider society. Those of a more centrist viewpoint were persuaded by Keynesian economists that the government was making a catastrophic error. The two factions could unite in their condemnation of the government without having to agree on the optimal size of the state, or how to lift economic productivity.

By the time it was clear that the economy was not going to take a downward spiral, whether through the government’s sound judgement or through sheer good luck, it was too late to have these searching conversations. Labour’s criticisms of the  government’s economic record resonated with the public, but the party was unclear on how it was going to do any better. It developed a few eye-catching policies, on energy prices and the minimum wage for example, which were individually popular, but did not add up to an economic strategy. This left the party with little traction against the Conservatives, even as it was clearly scoring against the Lib Dems. They seemed to think that would be enough, with what was dubbed the “35% strategy”. It turned out this was not enough – they hadn’t reckoned on a number of things: that the  Tory squeeze on the Lib Dems would be just as effective as their own, and that there would be significant leakage to the Greens and Ukip.

But the real disaster, that most Labour insiders had not foreseen, was the meltdown in Scotland – even after the SNP’s sweeping victory in the 2011 Scottish elections. This seems a wilful failure to face up to realities that were too awful to contemplate. Labour’s political representation is based on a bedrock of support in the old industrial centres where the party is virtually unchallenged, especially in opposition. Scotland was a large part of this. There was (and is) a sort of grand bargain. These areas provide safe seats for Labour’s Westminster elite, allowing them to concentrate on their careers in the capital without connecting much with local voters; meanwhile local party bosses had a pretty free hand to run their fiefdoms using the good old-fashioned politics of patronage and menace.  Local voters  were unhappy with this, but where else could they go? In Scotland the SNP patiently built up a position as a clear alternative – and then pushed the whole rotten structure down. Labour’s crass handling of the referendum on Scottish independence did not help their cause, but the roots of their problem lie in generations-old institutional failure.

And those failed party institutions live on in Labour’s heartlands in England and Wales. They are vulnerable to a similar collapse – though its source is unclear. Ukip now seem to be a clear challenger – but they will need more organisational nous to develop that threat. Some Conservatives aspire to mount a challenge, but they have a lot of class baggage to overcome. The Greens are middle-class lefts who fume at abstract nouns (“austerity”, “the Market”, and so on), and not the sort of gritty campaigners needed for this sort of work. The Lib Dems blew their credibility with the coalition and it will take a long time to rebuild it, if they ever can. So matters look safe for now – but the party should beware of taking its regional base for granted.

So the party has a difficult manoeuvre to undertake. It must become more Tory to win back voters from that party. It must rebuild in Scotland, providing a compelling critique of the SNP’s record in Scottish government. And yet it must reassure its core voters.

Just how it is going to do all of these things is unclear, but the task is not impossible. I believe that the key is for the party is to embrace devolution of power to regions and districts. This solves a number of problems at once:

  1. It provides a long-term framework for Scotland’s role in the UK
  2. It delivers something to Labour’s neglected heartlands away from the capital.
  3. It is also one of the more promising directions to revive the country’s lacklustre economy.

Alas such devolution runs counter to the party’s instincts. Its reaction to the coalition’s devolution deal for the NHS to Greater Manchester was revealing. Andy Burnham, its then health spokesman and now a front-runner in the leadership stakes, trotted out all the old tropes against devolution, and damned the concept with faint praise. Still, Mr Burnham has proved flexible in his beliefs before now, and he may yet get it.

The party’s priority for now, though, is to pick a leader capable of leading the party through this minefield. As the FT’s Janan Ganesh points out, this isn’t a matter of providing a clear vision. It is a matter of solid political judgement, and the strength to weather internal controversy. The jury is still out on the various contenders, and I wouldn’t write any of them off for now.

 

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The question at the heart of Liberal Democrat strategy. The party must seek a wider alliance

The Liberal Democrat catastrophe in last week’s British General Election (57 seat to just 8), has a rather bewildering sequal. A membership surge. More than 10,000 new members have joined since the election, as the total  membership shot past the 50,000 mark. In my not very active local party some 95 joined. We only had about 120 to begin with.

I haven’t met any of these new members yet. Some are old ones rejoining; most are not, apparently. These membership surges seem to be something of a feature of modern British politics. This surge is dwarfed by the one the SNP had after last year’s Scottish independence referendum; but more similar to one the Green Party had earlier this year. It seems to be a matter of the party’s current voters choosing the moment to rally round – rather than floating voters suddenly being persuaded.

Encouraging though this is, it must not stop the party asking hard questions about itself. Now is the best time to have a far reaching debate. Labour’s failure to take on such a debate after 2010 was one of the reasons it failed this time. And for me the biggest question is how the party seeks to influence national politics.

Until now our strategy has been this: establish a base in local politics, based on very localised campaigning, preferably using the idea of community politics. The party then selects a parliamentary candidate who builds on these roots, makes extensive local contacts, and then wins based on being a “good chap” (and somehow it usually is a chap, and a white middle class one at that) working hard for the local community. The weaker of the two main parties would first be overhauled, and then their supporters ruthlessly rounded up on the basis that it was a “two horse race”. The bar chart supporting this at the top corner of every leaflet became an institution.

Sooner or later this builds up into being a decent block of MPs, who achieve national influence by entering a coalition government. One day the party might lead such a coalition. and then govern on its very own as a majority. This strategy has been called winning Liberalism one ward at a time.

The flaw in this approach has been exposed brutally. At the General Election the question that most voters want to determine is who leads the national government. This trumps the “good chap” card. In Bermondsey voters told the party that they loved Simon Hughes but did not want to risk another Tory government, even one moderated by coalition with the Lib Dems. In Kingston they said that they liked Ed Davey, but that they wanted to stop a Labour government over which the SNP could exert a stranglehold. The trouble is that the party has drawn in a lot of voters only loosely aligned to the party’s core values, many on a purely tactical basis to stop whichever major party they disliked most. And the party drew such support from both Conservative and Labour inclined voters. After coalition with the Conservatives, Labour inclined voters felt betrayed and deserted the party. The Tories then moved in on the weakened party and mugged it. The same would have happened the other way around if the party had formed a coalition with Labour. And if the party had stood aside? Then what was the point of electing those MPs?  Both major parties would have attacked on the basis of it being useless flotsam.

So what to do? One idea that has been doing the rounds is to build the party’s core vote. That means clearly articulating the party’s core beliefs and drawing in much more loyal support on that basis. This is contrasted with the much weaker “centre ground” strategy of defining the party on the basis that it is in between the other two. Well, yes. The party needs a core of motivated activists – and there is a clear set of values around which the party can base itself. But how wide is the appeal of those values? The party’s standing is now about 8% of those who voted (or 5% of the whole electorate). In the Netherlands, which has a more diverse and plural polity, the party’s closest equivalent, D66, gets about this level of support. Can the core be expanded much beyond this? The party still needs to persuade those less convinced of the party’s core values to vote for it – which brings it back to local action and the centre ground (i.e. being everybody’s favourite second preference). Building the core is not wrong – it just doesn’t help much.

The key point is this. The party cannot go into an election without a clear position on who it wants to lead the next government – perhaps stated in the negative (i.e. which of the main parties it is against). Simply saying that the party will wait and see won’t cut it. It’s abdicating from a decision that most voters want a say in. That brings with it a host of further questions and problems. It would surely limit the party’s electoral appeal in marginal seats. It ushers in questions about pre-electoral pacts. But avoiding the question invites doom.

And I think this leads to a second question. How much to we want political reform? Electoral reform to institute a proportional voting system and more pluralistic politics; some kind of federal system to place the the nations and regions of Britain on a stabler constitutional footing; more devolution of power to local and regional level; making it harder for big donors to influence politics; a directly or indirectly elected upper chamber. Such reforms used to be at the core of the party’s pitch to voters – especially under Paddy Ashdown’s leadership in the 1990s. Subsequent leaders felt that such reform attracted too little public interest, and that the party should focus more attention on “bread and butter” issues, like education and taxes. The party did have a problem in those days: political reform was focused on electoral reform, and the party’s position looked self-serving.

Nowadays people profess a greater disillusionment with politics (though participation in General Elections seems to be creeping upwards) and this might be channelled into political reform. But a reform programme stands a better chance if it has cross party and non party support. If the party wants political reform it must place it back at the top of its agenda, and make it the basis of any alliances or pacts it makes with other political parties. If it doesn’t, and it has to be admitted that the British public is still quite sceptical about reform, then the party needs to find another defining issue around which to make its relationships with other political parties clear.

The big game is this: the party needs an electoral pact with one or other of the two major parties. Or with a breakaway from one or other of these parties. At the moment that looks a distant prospect. But we have time. Something like the breakthrough needed happened in 1981 when the SDP was formed and then allied with the Liberal party. That peaked too soon and failed. But it showed that new ideas can catch the public’s imagination and turn the system upside down. The SNP has achieved this in Scotland, albeit by a different route.  It is possible for hope to trump fear.

But what the party mustn’t do is go round the same old merry-go-round again.

 

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