The Liberal Democrats: a rebirth not a fightback

Britain’s political system is in turmoil, and each political party faces distinct problems. For now the Conservatives seem to be weathering the crisis best; the referendum result was the right one for them, in party management terms at least. Labour’s crisis is looking terminal, “the reek of death” as this excellent article by Nick Cohen has it, describing the particular lunacy of the political far left. But what of the party that has already suffered death: the Liberal Democrats?

Death might sound a bit strong. It continues to bob along at 8% or so in the opinion polls, win the odd local election, and its membership is resurgent. But the party has regained little of the political traction it lost during its coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015. And so much of the human capital and community connections it built up in its growth years in the 1990s and early 2000s has gone. Locally I can’t get over the fact that the Lambeth party has lost all its councillors – I remember so well the process by which the party took de facto control of the council in 2002, a process that will now have to restart almost from scratch. The party is now almost completely ignored by the mainstream media. In David Cameron’s valedictory Prime Minster’s Questions last week the Speaker saw fit not to call any of the party’s MPs, in spite of the important role the party played in his premiership. Only Lib Dem activists noticed.

And yet new life is stirring. Last year, after the calamitous General Election, party membership surged, and the Autumn conference was one its best attended, though ignored by lobbyists and media. But that is as nothing compared to what has happened in the last month – after the referendum. Membership has surged again (my local party has grown by about 60% – this may be the strongest it has ever been), but it is very different from last year. In 2015 the members were sorry for the party; they were interested in it, but few were up for a fight. In 2016 they are boiling. Membership events are better attended than ever; new and recent members want to get involved. The party is benefiting from a general increase in political engagement, which is benefiting most other parties too.

What is happening? Last year the party celebrated the membership surge under the hashtag #libdemfightback. This made me cringe. The old party is dead. A new party is being born. Not enough of the party’s remaining old hands recognise the difference between a fightback and a rebirth. With the latter you are dealing with a new party.

I want to say something about what I suspect about the reborn party. This is unashamedly based on my local experience in this part of cosmopolitan London, plus reading the odd blog and social media comment. I may be proved wrong – this year’s party conference in Brighton will be an important test. But here goes anyway.

First the new party is cosmopolitan, well educated, and, as a generality, distinctly younger than the old one.  Many in the old party, including me, find the new members to be kindred spirits. But much of the old party was built through local campaigning, and drew in a distinctly less cosmopolitan crowd. Many female activists reported casual sexism that would be anathema to the new membership. The new party may find it harder to rebuild in its old rural strongholds than many suppose, but it should be less dominated by white male representatives.

Second, the new party is not very tribal by British political standards. The need for political alliances to achieve wider political ends is often mentioned. The wider political scene, and especially the promotion of cosmopolitan values, is more important than the party’s own fortunes. Old hands need to be conscious of this, though the party leader, Tim Farron, has clearly picked this up.

Third, the new party is distinctly more centrist than the old one. After the coalition with the Conservatives ended in 2015, many old hands thought they could put those years behind them, and recover the party’s old standing as part of the “radical” left, which peaked in 2005. The new members will give them a shock. They may cringe at the tuition fees debacle, but they do not regard the coalition government, and its austerity policies, as a betrayal. They are largely private sector in employment and outlook. The more left-wing types have joined Labour. Members of the old party who think the former leader Nick Clegg should be erased from the party’s history will not find a receptive audience.

So, those are the main elements of the new party that is taking shape. What about its political opportunity? So far there is little evidence of traction with the public at large; but with the Conservatives embracing Brexit and Labour showing suicidal tendencies, that could easily change. At this point I just want to posit one negative and two positives.

The negative is shared with the emerging Labour Party, which is undergoing its own rebirth, except that in their case the old party hasn’t died yet. The social base of its membership is narrow. It will be a huge challenge to broaden the party’s appeal to less cosmopolitan groups – and yet that is what the party must do to succeed. At least the Lib Dems, unlike Labour, who are victims an overblown sense of political entitlement, can have few illusions about the scale of the challenge.

The first positive is that the referendum has proved to a cataclysmic political event, that has helped erase memories of what went before it, or at least changed their perspective. This gives the Lib Dems the chance to move on from its recent traumas more speedily that otherwise.

The second positive is that the referendum result has changed the political dynamic in the party’s favour, just as the country embarks on a course that it thinks is profoundly wrong. Previously being against the EU was a central organising theme of anti-establishment politics.  All sorts of ills could be blamed on EU membership, and it was very hard to refute these claims. Now that dynamic is reversing. The country’s ills can plausibly be blamed on Brexit, and life in the EU can slowly be built into a sort of promised land. Being pro-EU and pro-immigration will become anti-establishment. That is a much easier dynamic for an up and coming political party to play with, whatever the justice of it.

The media will continue to treat the Lib Dems as if their party was dead. The survival of the reborn party is certainly not assured. But something interesting is happening.

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Why WTO-plus is better than EEA-minus as Britain negotiates Brexit

It’s still very wounding to think of the UK leaving the European Union. The Leave campaign was based largely on lies and wishful thinking; those who voted to leave fell well below 40% of the electorate, which might be a reasonable threshold for such a major change. But Theresa May, our new Prime Minister, has said “Brexit means Brexit”. This is surely the best way forward. Rather than try to undermine the referendum result, it is better in the long run to test it to destruction.

Calls to rerun the referendum are understandable but unrealistic. The Conservative Party is overwhelmingly Eurosceptic amongst its membership, if not amongst its MPs. The party must rally to that cause. Members and MPs who don’t like it should leave the party. Politically it needs to rebuild its appeal to the working and lower middle classes outside London, who overwhelming voted for Brexit. Mrs May stands a better chance of succeeding here that the duo of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Labour is in an impossible position. Though its MPs overwhelmingly support membership of the EU, most of them had large Leave majorities in their constituencies. They will be unable to ignore this. So with neither the Tories nor most of Labour ready to fight to overturn the referendum result, that leaves the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and an assortment of Northern Ireland MPs to take up the fight. They are impossibly outnumbered. Which does not mean that they should stop putting the case. But that fight is the first step in a very long road. It may be possible that the UK could limp back into the EU as its negotiating position collapses and it faces a deep economic crisis. This would leave a bitter legacy and it is not to be wished for.

That leaves the question of what Britain should aim for in its negotiations for exit. Many advocate something referred to as “EEA-minus”. EEA is the European Economic Area, which consists of the EU plus Norway and Iceland and one or more tiny statelets.  EEA members have access to the Single market, but must also abide by the three key freedoms of movement: goods, capital and labour. The idea behind EEA-minus is that the UK would negotiate exceptions to freedom of movement of labour – as immigration was easily the most successful argument used by Leave campaigners. It feels like a pragmatic compromise between the 48% who wanted continued membership and the 52% who wanted to do something about immigration. It would reduce economic disruption. But it is a shabby compromise that would please almost nobody. Leave supporters would still find the country bound by EU laws and courts, and making budget contributions, with the indignity of not being able to influence them. It is hard to argue that it isn’t a net backward step on practical sovereignty. Remain supporters would look at the whole exercise as being pointless. And any fudge on free movement of labour is guaranteed to disappoint.

Actually, there is a deeper problem. Free movement of labour goes to the heart of the EU’s sense of itself. It is precisely what excites most younger EU enthusiasts about the union. And it is hard to understand why the other EU governments would want to fudge it – the risks for them would be enormous. Any negotiation is practically bound to collapse or at least prove an enormous disappointment.

The opposite possibility is hard Brexit. This means that Britain would be unambiguously outside the EU, without an overarching treaty to bind it in at all.  Trade would be covered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) framework, guaranteeing some minimum standards. This is by no means as straightforward as many Brexit campaigners claimed in the referendum campaign – it actually requires significant amounts of negotiation in its own right (as the FT explains). But it is a robust baseline, and there is much merit in making this the main focus of the UK’s rather limited negotiating resources. The UK would then need to identify a series of priority issues to negotiate with the EU to add on top. Top amongst these are the rights of residence and labour market participation of EU citizens living in Britain, and vice versa. Also there is the passporting of financial services, though this is not an issue to die in the ditch over.

There are three advantages to a “WTO plus” approach, over “EEA minus”. First is that it presents a tough negotiating position, which will help to win concessions on critical issues. Second is that it follows the picture painted by Leave campaigners most closely; in the long run it is critical to call their bluff – they are either right in their optimism – in which case the EU needs to rethink itself – or they are wrong, in which case they will be undermined as the major political force they have become. And third it helps get the bad news out of the way quickly. There remains a lot of denial about the impact of leaving the EU; the announcement of WTO-plus would administer a second shock to the system, causing further losses to the pound and inward investment. But then it should hit bottom, and the momentum might be back upwards. This would be healthier in the long run than a drawn out series of disappointments that would erode confidence in the British economy and make it look the sick man of Europe. Getting the bad news over with is something the Americans usually do much better than Europeans – and we should learn from them.

And for us EU supporters, we need to understand that freedom of movement of people is at the very heart of what we want, and we must recognise that we have, for now, lost the argument. But we must rebuild the case, using the traumas of Brexit as evidence. Meanwhile we must think about the sort of EU that we want. We are now witnessing an unholy mess as the Italian government and the EU Commission wrangle about rescuing Italy’s banks. The EU’s rules on state aid look much too restrictive.  The EU will survive, and one day Britain will rejoin it. But it will be a different Britain and a different EU. We must work to change both.

 

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Subjecting MPs to party membership votes is not democratic

Yesterday the Conservative leadership election resolved itself as the final Brexit-supporting candidate’s campaign imploded, leaving Theresa May unchallenged. Labour MPs look on with envy, as their own leadership election officially got started on the same day, as Angela Eagle formally challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the job.

What both these contests had  in common is that party rules give the deciding say to a vote of party members. It is the same for all Britain’s political parties. Back in the 1970s, when I came to political consciousness, such contests would be decided by party MPs alone. The Liberal Democrats (or its predecessor parties – I can’t quite remember how this evolved) were the first to move to an all membership vote. In their case, the parliamentary party was very small, and the party outside parliament relatively much more important. Participation in the party’s policymaking and leadership processes were designed to encourage people to join. Lib Dem activists describe this membership participation as “democratic”.

As membership of all political parties went into steep decline in the 1990s and 2000s, the other parties followed suit. Labour has done this with particular enthusiasm. Not only do they now put the leadership election to a full membership vote, but they allow the public to join as temporary members to take part. This extends the franchise to hundreds of thousands of people. The result last year was that Mr Corbyn was selected in a surge of enthusiasm from party members, charmed by the apparent freshness of his approach. This was described by his supporters as “democratic”. They still do. On the radio I recently heard one of his supporters use the words “democratic” or “democracy” in pretty much every sentence.

But Mr Corbyn never had much support in the parliamentary party, and he has not succeeded in winning Labour MPs to his cause. They have rejected him in an overwhelming vote of no confidence. And yet he clings on as leader, claiming that his “democratic” mandate trumps the views of MPs. This use of the work “democracy” to assert the primacy of party memberships is an abuse.

At the heart of any democratic system is the participation the public, or rather, a public. This public is not defined by personal preferences, such as voluntary memberships, but by some involuntary common factor – such as where they live. Excluding people undermines democracy. This makes it a messy, rough and tumble process. Without some kind of preselection process, there will be disagreements on most things. Unanimity is near impossible on large populations. Party memberships do not fulfil any reasonable definition of being “a public”. People join voluntarily, according to some understanding of shared values; they are essentially self-selecting. They may use democratic procedures to make decisions, but that does not make them democratic. The Labour selectorate is of an impressive size compared to other political parties, but it is still tiny compared to the population at large, and in no manner representative of that population.

This is one of the paradoxes of large-scale democracy. Political parties are essential to a healthy democracy, but they are not themselves democratic. They can only claim democratic legitimacy when they subject their candidates to a public vote. And that creates a tension for publicly elected representatives between the party that nominated them and the electors that voted for them. That tension is as old as political parties. It is a tension that has to be managed rather than resolved one way or the other. If a representative (an MP, say) ignores his party, then he is disregarding one of the most important things the public knows about him. But if he ignores the broader electorate, he is holding them in even deeper contempt.

The tension comes to a head when it comes to selecting the party leader, a position of enormous privilege in our political system. The MPs have a proper democratic mandate, and their cooperation is required in order for a leader to be effective. But in order to secure the commitment of party members, also very important for an effective political party, they must be given a say. Labour’s system for selecting its leader (courtesy largely of Mr Corbyn’s predecessor, the well-intentioned but lightweight thinker Ed Miliband) is based on wishful thinking rather than hard political calculation.

To most observers, it is quite clear that Mr Corbyn should step down, as a loss of confidence amongst MPs is fatal. The Deputy Leader should take over temporarily, while an open leadership contest takes place. Instead Mr Corbyn seems to view his MPs as traitors to the political movement he represents, and is clinging on, with every reason to expect that he will see off the challenge. There is some question as to whether he should only be allowed to re-stand if he fails to find 51 MPs or MEPs supporting him. But if he does not stand, there will be a huge rift in the party at large. As it is many MPs face de-selection.

The Labour Party is in enough trouble as it is. It somehow needs to reconcile three constituencies: middle-class public and third sector workers; white working class voters; and ethnic minority working classes. The white working classes in particular were strong supporters of Brexit, and feel alienated by the other two groups. And the party’s collapse in Scotland shows that its continued strength is not an inevitable fact of politics, as it used to think. But instead of confronting this existential crisis the party will indulge in a narcissistic battle of abstract nouns (austerity, inequality, democracy, etc.). They should be engaging in the hard graft of rebuilding community relations; listening rather than shouting. The prospects for the movement do not look good.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, seem to have a much stronger grasp of political reality. There was no nonsensical talk of “democracy” concerning the abortive final vote by party members. Their parliamentary party retains formidable powers in the selection of the leader (they whittle the field down to two candidates) and in holding the leader to account (they can eject the leader in a vote of no confidence). They will be very tempted to find a way of holding an early general election to complete Labour’s rout.

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The same arrogance that created disaster in Iraq is behind Brexit

It is a very British piece of political theatre. Yesterday Sir John Chilcot published the results of his enquiry into the Iraq. It is exhaustive, scrupulous, but examines events that are now ancient political history. Historians will find it useful, but in the big picture it tells us little we did not know already. It will have changed no minds. No currently active political career is affected. The US State Department spokesman sounded very puzzled over the attention the affair is getting, given the pressing challenges facing the world. No doubt that puzzlement is felt by other foreign observers. What was the point?

All I can say to that is that it is just the British way. We like to produce weighty reports that achieve little. Some people find it cathartic. It is much easier to reflect on the mistakes of the past than to consider a very messy present. I particularly enjoyed this reflection by an anti-war leftist in the New Statesman (Thank you Martha Zantides). I have always felt that moral certainties are evasions; my views on Iraq have always been ambiguous, notwithstanding the clear stand made by my party, the Liberal Democrats.

But I think it is a good moment to reflect on the nature of political power and decision-making. The immediate concern of Chilcot is Britain’s role in Iraq. And the main point here is how the moral certainty of Tony Blair, our then Prime Minister, managed to subvert the checks and balances of institutional decision-making to throw the country behind an American project, over which British leaders had very little influence. In Mr Blair’s eyes Saddam Hussein was a vicious dictator and a threat to world peace, and needed to be removed. He encouraged the Americans to work to that end, and backed them when they took the project on. After that he and the British were helpless passengers. British military resources, also committed to Afghanistan, were overstretched and forced into ignominious retreat – a small fraction of the continuing catastrophe that enveloped Iraq. Could this sort of thing happen again? Certainly; our institutions still favour the executive – though our capacity to act, and willingness to embroil ourselves in foreign adventures, are now much diminished.

But the British dimension was a sideshow. The real disaster in Iraq reflects the US political process. This firstly led to a reckless drive towards war, and, more culpably, a massive mis-judgement of how to deal with the aftermath. Driving these disastrous decisions was group of officials and politicians with a clear, driving vision. The most notorious was the Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; there was also Vice President Dick Cheney (who brought shadowy commercial interests into the picture) , and the highly influential Paul Wolfowitz, a real ideologue. Collectively these were known as the Neo-Conservatives, or Neocons.

The Neocons had a clear vision of the world and America’s role in it. They wished to push over dictatorships using US military power, and let the grateful people set up democracies and unregulated market economies in their place. They dismissed the legions of diplomatic and military types who made practical objections as being hidebound by old norms. They seized on small scraps of evidence that supported their case, and dismissed anything else. This was exploited by a group of Iraqi exiles, notably Ahmed Chalabi, who had no real political base, but told the Neocons what they wanted to hear about the country’s readiness to embrace American ways. This process, whereby an arrogant, visionary clique creates a simplified world view in the teeth of the evidence has been given a name: “groupthink”.  There are plenty of examples down through history. There are notable parallels within the ruling elites of Germany and Austria-Hungary before the First World War, for example. Democracies should not be as vulnerable as autocracies, as there should be more pluralism of thought, but Iraq showed that the US and British systems are not immune.

And in Britain we are now in the middle of another catastrophe brought about by groupthink – Brexit – though thankfully not one so threatening to human life. Amongst the supporters of Brexit in the British establishment we see the same ideological zeal, and the same unwillingness to get involved in the practical details. Chief amongst these is the Justice Secretary Michael Gove. This man is full of visionary zeal, but he seems unwilling to listen to experts. Indeed he publicly dismissed the usefulness of experts in the referendum campaign. This was evident in his stint as Education Secretary, when he dismissed the educational establishment as “the Blob”. Experts often lose the wood for the trees, and so must be open the challenge. But the answer is not to drive a bulldozer through them. Mr Gove’s term at Education achieved some good things, but was mainly a colossal waste of effort, which we are still picking up the pieces from.

Alongside Mr Gove sit, or sat, political opportunists like Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom, and anti-intellectual populists like Ukip’s Nigel Farage. And behind them there are a coterie of Brexit backers, a group of businessmen, financiers, think-tankers and retired officials who provide intellectual heft. These are united by a loathing of European Union institutions (admittedly not an inspiring edifice). These have created a construct of Britain outside the EU that is not dissimilar from the Neocon vision of Iraq after the US invasion. Hopelessly optimistic, and dismissive of the practical difficulties of achievement. These people are still popping up on Radio 4 to tell us all will be well after the first wobbles have been overcome. They have no concept of the pain that Brexit is inflicting on our very sense of self. It’s question of puling ourselves together and getting on with it. And if disaster ensues, it will be somebody else’s fault. Just like the Neocons in Iraq (and Tony Blair) who blame Iraq’s collapse on bad people, over whom they hold no sway.

Meaningful progress does not arrive through a visionary, revolutionary process imposed by a tiny elite. Neither does it emerge from a vacuum – the removal of the forces of order so that a new , more efficient system will emerge by market forces. It happens through a hard process of evolution, comprising a dialogue of bottom-up and top-down processes. It’s hard work and requires patience. Alas we have once more fallen victim to the impatient, who will walk away to leave others to clear up the mess.

 

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Remain supporters won’t get over Brexit but we must move on

“I feel that part of my identity has been taken away,” said one of our members in a local Liberal Democrat meeting last week. The local party, in a cosmopolitan part of London that voted 75% Remain, has grown its membership by 50% since the referendum result. I have never known members to be more motivated. Shock is turning to anger, though not yet to coherent action.

It turns out that party members are not alone, at least here in London. Psychotherapist Susie Orbach describes in the Guardian how her patients (mostly Remainers) will talk of little other than Brexit. Many had not been politically engaged, and hadn’t thought they were particularly worked up about the issue, but now find themselves in profound psychological shock. Interestingly this does not present itself as anger at the majority of Brexit voters, understood as being as those left behind by globalisation. I found that at our members’ meeting too.

This depth of feeling is surprising. I have been told many times that Britons had not accepted European-ness as part of their identity. Unlike those from other countries, they viewed the EU as a transaction which they weighed up in cold pragmatic terms. This has never been true of me personally, but I supposed that I was in a tiny minority. Us British-Europeans are still in a minority – but not as tiny as previously thought. For me feeling European was something to do with the stultifying claustrophobia of Englishness, and a strong feeling of not being American. For others, perhaps many years of foreign travel, and of European work colleagues and neighbours, have crept up on them without their realising it. Their horizons have just been narrowed. Freedom of movement, at the heart of Leave voters’ concerns, is closely linked to Remain supporters’ sense of who they are.

So there’s a gulf of understanding between us and that part of the political and economic elite that supports Brexit. This was evident from Sunday morning’s Point of View on Radio 4, by philosopher John Gray. He told Remainers to get over it and move on. To him the EU is a failing international project that Britain is well out of, and that Britain would be the first country to exit of many. He differed from many commentators in not seeing the British as exceptional from other Europeans, but he still saw the EU as essentially transactional – a power play by a shadowy group of politicians and bureaucrats. He was quite perceptive in many ways, though I think he made some factual errors. It is not right to call the EU strongly protectionist against countries outside it, except in agricultural products, where it has plenty of company, such as the USA and most emerging markets. The European expansion was not an exercise by the European elite to grow and deepen the EU, but something of a plot by Eurosceptics to make deepening impossible. The imposition of austerity policies on many European countries is not those same elites desperately trying to keep the union together – but a number of better off countries in the Union putting boundaries on its powers to deploy their taxpayers’ funds. These errors reveal a lack of understanding, though they do not directly undermine his conclusion.

But what Mr Gray has missed is how bound up the EU has become in people’s sense of identity. This happens in the same way as identity has become bound up with the nation-state. Why on Earth should the English feel a sense of belonging to the British state after all? We just do, and it grew over a 1,000 years; in 1066 the English state was controlled by alien Normans. On the way Englishness and Britishness have become entangled. Many English Brexit voters, incidentally, seem only loosely tied to the idea of Britishness, never mind European-ness. Identification with the EU varies from country to country, and is genuinely weaker in England (and Wales and Cornwall and Unionist Ulster) than in most other European countries. I sense it is also weak in Austria, for example, but strong in Germany and France. Identification should not be confused with satisfaction. The English are dissatisfied with the British state, but they don’t want to leave it so set their own governments in Yorkshire, Somerset or wherever. The sense of identity of so many of its citizens gives the EU a much better chance of surviving than Mr Gray thinks. He is far from the first of Britain’s intellectual elite to underestimate the EU’s capacity for progress and survival. I remember being assured by most of the Britons I met in the 1990s that European monetary union was utterly impossible. In the mid 1950s British thought the idea on the union laughable.

So, much as the Brexit leaders tell us Remainers to get over it, we won’t; there is a complete gulf of comprehension. Much like opponents of EU membership could not get over the last referendum, in 1975. As a nation we are utterly divided.

But us Europeans will have to move on, even if we cannot accept the result in our souls. The referendum result could be reversed – but only after a prolonged period of disillusionment and failure to get a satisfactory new way of being – and even then it would be hard. Our project to return to the European family could take another 40 years. It will happen as people’s outlook becomes more cosmopolitan; as the current 20-somethings move into their retirement; and as the bedrock of anti-European identity literally dies out. The central demand will be to restore the freedom to move, work and settle.

Meanwhile we must take on other political projects, to help create a less divided Britain and a less divided Europe. That means taking the Brexit slogan of “Take Control” seriously. The Brexit leaders have no intention of implementing this idea beyond the Westminster political establishment, and perhaps in boardrooms. We must look at the communities who voted to leave, and ask ourselves how to make the people living there less powerless. We may regard the Brexit leaders as traitors, but the bulk of people that voted for them are our sisters and brothers.

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