A progressive alliance would help the Tories not hurt them

Last week, I was still in shock from Theresa May’s announcement of a British General Election three years early on 8 June, and I predicted that the Conservatives would end up much where they had started. A few other Lib Dems were coming to similar conclusions (see this from Richard Morris)  But I closed with the thought that I might have underestimated Theresa May. A week later I think I did.

The campaign is taking shape. The Conservatives are dusting down their campaign from 2015 – portraying themselves up a stable government against a “coalition of chaos”. This message is being repeated relentlessly with discipline. Mrs May looks good at discipline. While the principal opposition party is Labour, this line of attack must surely resonate with the public. No government led by Labour in its current state can be anything other than chaotic. And all the other parties (bar the now irrelevant Ukip) have ruled out working with the Conservatives.

The Tories are making headway on three fronts. Firstly they have won back their direct defections to Ukip. Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP who defected to Ukip, has given up the ghost. Mrs May’s support for Brexit and turn against social and economic liberalism has satisfied them. This victory may look good in the polls but matters least where the Tories need it most: in the marginal seats. They had done a good job of squeezing Ukip there in 2015.

The second area of Tory success is picking up votes from Labour, even from Labour’s low point in 2015. A lot of these seem to be coming via Ukip. After former Labour voters rejected the party to support Ukip, they are ready to switch to the Conservatives this time – especially under Mrs May. And it isn’t hard for the BBC to find people in their vox pops who have defected directly from Labour ro the Tories. She has accomplished a significant detoxification of the Tory brand for older, working class voters at least. This will help the party make headway against Labour in England, and Wales (where local polls show the Tories with an unprecedented 10% lead over Labour). All this gives the Tories a high poll share in the mid 40s in the country as a whole, and the prospect of winning many seats from Labour.

The third area of Tory success is that the party is gaining ground in Scotland. It is now firmly established as the second party after the SNP, whose poll share is coming off the boil from its high point in 2015. It could be that the SNP’s policy of advocating for a second referendum on independence will push unionists in the direction of the Tories, allowing them to pick up many more seats than I thought (perhaps as many as 10). After the cataclysm of the 2015 election, who can say that there will not be some very sharp movements in some seats?

What to make of Labour? Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, looks to be in good form – confidently pitching to bands of his supporters as he did in the Labour leadership election. Even in 2017 a hard left campaign can develop momentum, as has just been shown in France by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, somebody whose political attitudes look quite close to Mr Corbyn’s. Still, he only achieved 20%, and the other left-wing candidate, Benoît Hamon, the official Socialist, failed to reach 7%. Mr Hamon was also a left-winger, and put forward a radical policy agenda, but was regarded as an irrelevance by the public. That looks closer to Mr Corbyn. Perhaps Mr Corbyn will attract a sympathy vote; perhaps local MPs can rely on a personal vote. But all this reminds me of the clutching at straws indulged in by Liberal Democrats before their disaster of 2015. The party is disorganised and disunited; Mr Corbyn’s spokespeople are very much a B team, if that. The Tories are content to let Labour make all the running in the media they want to  because, they are making the case to vote Tory better than the Tories themselves.The party is out of fashion and demoralised.  A rout looks a distinct possibility.

And the Lib Dems? They are in good heart. New members continue to flow in (my local party has grown by over 20% in a week).  They are getting plenty of media coverage after a period of being ignored. And they are well led. This week’s Economist said no less than three times in three separate articles that the party is suffering from weak leadership under Tim Farron, while otherwise being quite encouraging for the party. They offered no evidence for this assertion: so what can they mean? Tim is not highly regarded at Westminster; he has not made much impact on the public – his approval rating is negative. But as a party member I have seen somebody who understands campaigning much better than his predecessor, and has pushed through some very well-judged changes. First was preparing the party for a snap election last summer, by ensuring that all constituencies had selected candidates. Second was forcing through changes to selection procedures to ensure that more women and ethnic minority candidates would be selected in target seats. This will be critical to any rebranding of the party. He did take a little longer than he should have done to rule out a coalition with the Conservatives, after ruling out one with Labour – but he got there quickly enough. And now he is talking up the idea of the party being a the real opposition – so as to undermine efforts by the Tories to talk of a “coalition of chaos” – and move it on to not offering the Tories a blank cheque.

So the Lib Dems have momentum. And yet they have a mountain to climb. Taking back the seats that they lost last time to Labour and the Conservatives will be hard work. The new MPs are well entrenched – and the sheer scale of the Conservative popularity under Mrs May makes it an uphill battle. At every general election since 1997 the Lib Dems have failed to live up to my hopes and expectations. I am trying to keep them under control this time.

Furthermore some Lib Dems are being distracted by notions of an anti-Tory “progressive” alliance, by doing deals with Greens and Labour, up to the point of even withdrawing candidates. The Greens in particular are talking up the idea. While there may be virtue in some local arrangements (covering Brighton and Lewes perhaps?), and especially local non-aggression pacts, this looks like a very bad idea.

The main electoral task for the Lib Dems is to detach some of the 30% or so of Conservative voters (15% of the electorate) who think Brexit is a mistake. Being part of an alliance, especially with Labour, will make this task much harder and indeed plays right into the hands of the Conservatives’ “coalition of chaos” mantra.  Labour and the Greens are making no serious attempt to challenge for these voters – and yet any anti-Tory coalition is doomed without them. The first problem for the progressive alliance is that the Tories are too damn popular. The second problem is that any alliance is not credible as anything more than a temporary electoral arrangement.

Unlike some Lib Dems, I am not against electoral alliances in principle – indeed it may be the only way to beat the current electoral system. But any such alliance needs to have clear, agreed objectives, and momentum. Labour are so far away from agreeing to such an alliance (to many of them, Labour IS the progressive alliance) that there is hardly any point in talking about it. Labour still dreams of recreating on the left what Mrs May has achieved on the right.

Until and unless Labour sorts it self out, rids itself of the hard left, and starts to embrace the compromises required to win back voters from the Tories, the best hope for progressives is that the Lib Dems surpass Labour and can build an electoral alliance from a position of strength.

 

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Don’t underestimate Theresa May – but the Lib Dems will play a critical role in this election

Today Theresa May announced her intention to hold a General Election in Britain on 8 June. She is certain to get her way, notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Personally I’m not happy – this is an unwelcome distraction from other things I need to do – and my post on mental health has been swamped. Unable to concentrate on much else, I’m going to post again.

The first thing that strikes me is that British politics is littered with people that have underestimated our Prime Minister. This election was an almost total surprise. Rumours had circulated earlier in the year of a a General Election, but faded when it was clear it would not be on the first Thursday in May, which has now become the traditional date for elections in Britain. (A practice established by John Major in 1992, and only broken in 2001 because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. But before that Margaret Thatcher preferred June elections, a parallel that will no doubt please Mrs May). This surprise shows how tight a ship she runs compared to her ill-fated Labour predecessor Gordon Brown, whose career had otherwise had some striking parallels. Mr Brown’s reputation was destroyed because he let speculation about an early election get out of hand, and then lost his nerve.

The second striking thing is how unusual it is for us to have a snap election in the UK. Until now Prime Ministers have waited until the fourth or fifth year of parliament’s term. The date has been widely known well in advance (though in the case of the four year terms favoured by Tony Blair and Mrs Thatcher, not for certain), allowing for a lot of pre planning. We have to go back to 1974 for one like this one, unless you count 1979, when the Callaghan government was brought down by a vote of no confidence less than six months before its term had run. And even the 1974 parallels aren’t that strong. This is uncharted territory. The parties will be fighting with much less pre-planning. The campaign could be much more chaotic than the carefully choreographed ones we have been used to.

Politically the election is dominated by the weakness of the Labour Party. Already demolished by the SNP in Scotland, it shows no signs of recovery there, and looks very vulnerable everywhere else. Its opinion poll ratings are very low – about half the Conservative vote. I have not seen any analysis of what this means in terms of the party’s vulnerability in particular seats. It has a large number of very safe seats, so it might well hang on in lots of places, while doing catastrophically in Middle England.  The party has two huge problems. The first is that the political agenda is clearly on Brexit, where its message is weak – it will not be rewarded for reflecting the confusion that much of the voting public has on the topic. Much as it would like to move the debate on to austerity, where cuts are now looking quite alarming in places, this looks like a doomed enterprise. And that is because of their second major problem: a spectacularly inept leader in Jeremy Corbyn. By itself this ineptitude is not fatal – after all he has done well in Labour’s internal elections – but the public don’t see him as a prime minister in waiting. Time an again that has proved a fatal handicap at election time. Without that credibility Labour can’t change the agenda.

So the Conservatives are looking confident. It seems that their key electoral message is that Britain needs a strong government right now, regardless off what that government actually plans to do. But the messaging will not have been exhaustively tested, so we don’t know how this will actually play. It seems clear that they will be able to beat off any threat from Ukip, but they may find it harder to manage the Lib Dems.

The Lib Dems are in a very interesting position. Most people considered them wiped out after the last general election in 2015, when they were punished for having been in coalition with the Conservatives. But the Brexit referendum result has energised the party. It has now reliably retrieved third place in the opinion polls (though still only half of even Labour’s disastrous score), and its membership is booming. It has a clear position on Brexit. The Tory strategy in 2015 was mainly to destroy their coalition allies – on the principle that you should always go for the weakest opponent first. That meant they won many more seats from them than they did from Labour. But holding those seats could be tricky, since the messages that worked so well in 2015, which relied on a strong Labour threat, lack punch now -and the Tories are unlikely to have the same organisational strength, since this is a snap election.

So the Lib Dems could make a big comeback. Big enough to stop the Conservatives from getting a majority? Almost nobody would suggest that. The closer the party gets to achieving that aim, the more powerful the Conservative message about strong government will become. But after the last year we have started to expect the unexpected. The Tories will make little headway in Scotland (even though they now outpoll Labour there). They may find that taking many seats from Labour means going deep into their strongholds. Their high poll rating could simply mean piling up votes in seats they have already won.

So, much as I find this election personally unwelcome, it will be an interesting one to watch. My hunch is that the Conservatives will end the election in much the same place that they started it – but with fewer Labour seats and more Lib Dem ones on the opposition benches. But am I making the fatal sin of underestimating Theresa May?

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Mental health is about everybody

I want to agree with the Guardian’s Suzanne Moore in her recent article The lesson of Prince Harry’s grief? We need mental health services for all. And mostly I do. But I think she’s missed the most important thing about mental health.

The context of this article is in the headline. It Prince Harry’s recent interview in which he talked frankly about how he failed to deal with the grief caused by his mother’s death for a decade or more. He was bottling it all up with a stiff upper lip, with dire consequences for his life. He then sought help, and now feels able to talk about it. I applaud Prince Harry’s intervention. It is part of a general process of talking about mental health to make it less of a taboo topic. He is doing this in the best possible way: by sharing his experiences and not ramming any particular view down our throats. Mental health is one of the critical issues of our time and we need to talk about it more, and we need to be able to share more. But, alas, keeping the topic repressed for so long has left its legacy of muddled attitudes – even among the most liberal minded.

Ms Moore starts with a condemnation of the Royal Family’s lack of emotional intelligence at the time of Princess Diana’s death. In particular she feels that her two sons should not have been made to walk behind the coffin. She noticed that almost nobody showed personal warmth towards the pair during the service – so keen were they to show proper dignity and decorum. I think she’s only half right there. Some open warmth towards the boys during the service by their near relatives would certainly have been in order. But dignity and decorum have a useful purpose too. That long walk behind the coffin was not wrong in itself – it just needed to be balanced by something more intimate and informal.

Still, that isn’t the main problem I have with the article. This came as I read this:

Harry has rightly been praised for talking personally and thus destigmatising mental health issues. This is no doubt excellent. The normalising of mental health problems, which it is estimated will affect a quarter of us at one time or another, is necessary, but so too is funding. Mental health services are in a very poor state and it is almost impossible to get help. Many people in Harry’s situation would not get access to counselling and would be offered antidepressants and possibly a short course of cognitive behavioural therapy, as this is considered most cost-effective. In acute cases, people in a state of severe breakdown are now forced to go to hospitals far from their homes because there are no beds to be found nearby. This is a real crisis, and it is more visible by the day on our streets.

Yes, mental health services are neglected and need to be given a higher priority. But this will not work unless we start to think about mental health differently. Ms Moore’s article perpetuates the idea that dealing with mental health is about dealing with mental illness – depression, anxiety and so forth, and that this illnesses only affect a minority of us (even if it is as high as one in four). But mental health “problems” affect everybody. If you don’t suffer from depression and anxiety in some form regularly you are not healthy at all. It is how you manage it that is the thing – and it is something we all need to learn. And as we learn how to manage our emotions and anxieties better – and learn how to help our friends, relatives and neighbours, then fewer people will be left with the unmanageable symptoms that we call “mental illness”. And when we do suffer from those symptoms, society as a whole will be better able to deal with it.

And here’s the thing: the real problem is pretending that everything is OK when it is not – and this comes through from Prince Harry’s interview. We all know that a bit of anguish is normal. We also know, intuitively, that continually talking about our own emotions is self-indulgent and can undermine relationships with others. We also know that seeking professional help is a drastic step that you only take after other avenues have been exhausted – and is as likely to be a method for avoiding deeper issues as it is for confronting them. So it is the most natural thing in the world to weather our own problems, and then to assume that we are coping with them rather than bottling them up. But equally thinking that all you need to do when you feel down is to pop a pill to make you happy, then you are in even more trouble.

It is actually very hard. So the temptation is to try make the whole thing the exclusive domain of experts, whom we consult as required. And by trying to divert Prince Harry’s intervention into a call for more funding for experts, Ms Moore falls straight into this trap. But mental health isn’t just for experts, it is for everybody. We all need to be able to sense issues in those around us, and have an idea of what is going to help – and, of course, learn how to be more honest with ourselves, and have ideas about how we handle our own problems, beyond externalising it to a professional.

Which is why the first response to the issues raised by Prince Harry is not to rush out and boost mental health services – it is to tackle school curriculums. Above all it is at school that we learn excessive stiff upper lip (incidentally I feel strongly that stiff upper lips have their place – but that is another story). Great advances have been made here, but often in spite of government initiatives instead of because of them. The government’s recent recognition of personal, social and health education (PSHE ) is a welcome change from the bizarre antics of the previous Education Secretary Michael Gove – who dismissed such stuff as a distraction form proper academic education. This incidentally recognises something very important – that there is a strong social dimension to managing mental health.

Mental health is a positive and it is for everybody. By talking about it only when it goes wrong, and talking about the negative, we can make things worse, not better. That is what I take away from Prince Harry’s welcome intervention.

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Where is the light for towns like Wakefield?

Last week I spent a few days in Wakefield, a small city to the east of Leeds in West Yorkshire. The economic fortunes of such small towns in Britain is one of the big issues in British public policy. I am still searching for the answers.

Wakefield goes back at least to that era which Britons refer to as the Dark Ages – after the Romans left and England was subject to invasion successively by Anglo-Saxons and Danes. The Normans proceeded to raze it to the ground in the Harrying of the North, after William the Conqueror took over in 1066. But its geographical location, at an important crossing of the River Calder, a navigable waterway, ensured its future. The Normans built two castles there. It prospered as a port serving the wool and tanning trades. This economic success continued into the industrial revolution, when its river connections were boosted by canals. It flourished as an agricultural trading centre. It diversified into textiles, coal (mined nearby) and glass, and became an important administrative centre. Its grand church (the tallest spire in Yorkshire) became a cathedral with its own bishop in 1888, and City status soon followed.

Alas this has fallen apart. The coal, glass and textiles industries were wiped out in the 1980s, usually blamed on the policies of Margaret Thatcher, but in fact the result of changes to technology, assisted by globalisation. It lost its bishop in 2014. The town looks rather sad today. There are plentiful vacant spaces used as car parks. Empty shops scar its streets. Benefits are claimed by about 18% of the population, compared to the English average of 13.5%. Unemployment is higher than average, though, according to the claimant count (4.3%), far from catastrophic. There are few immigrants living there – a sure sign of a weak economy (though our hotel cleaners were east European). We could buy about ten houses of the same size from the current value of our London home. Let’s not overdo this. It it did not appear to be a disaster area. It was easy to find nice places to eat in the town centre. But our hotel (part of a characterless budget chain) was the only central one we could find. There were other hotels on the outskirts: a bleak land of dual carriageways, roundabouts, retail parks and industrial estates, dominated by national chains, doing things as cheaply as possible, and sending the surplus elsewhere.

Quite a bit has been spent on redevelopment. The town centre has a smart shopping mall (albeit with quite a few empty shops), and the central square looks newly revamped. The cathedral has been very tastefully restored and modernised, with some lovely new furnishings, and is an uplifting space. Above all there is the Hepworth, which was why we visited. This is a modern gallery that celebrates Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor and artist, who was born and brought up in Wakefield. This is a lovely building on the town’s otherwise derelict riverside – and a world-class gallery, taking advantage of many years of collecting by its unprepossessing but imaginative predecessor, the Wakefield Art Gallery (converted from terraced houses) – and the generosity of local artists like Hepworth and Henry Moore, who was born and brought up in nearby Castleford. The dedication to art does not end there. A few miles from the town there is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) – an outstanding collection of sculpture and other art, in the setting of an old country park – and another reason for our visit.

But how far can you regenerate a town on art? There did not appear to be many jobs in it. No flourishing urban environment has developed around the Hepworth in the manner of London’s South Bank, in spite of its riverside location. The same can be said for the YSP, which barely keeps a couple of snack bars going, in spite of its many visitors – though a posh hotel and conference centre is under development. The nearby motorway service area on the M1 motorway may do more business than both of these facilities put together.

So Wakefield has achieved a sort of economic mediocrity. There are jobs, and not just in the usual services, but it is not prospering. One clear weakness is the lack of a university (unlike nearby Leeds, and even Huddersfield, another smaller town nearby). Education should be at the heart of a modern economy. There is a decent further education college – but this is a neglected sector in Britain’s education system, starved by government austerity even as schools and universities have prospered.

The town must aspire to better. The weakness of such towns drives much of the foul political mood in not just Britain. People there feel left behind and neglected by metropolitan types who promise much and deliver little (or so it appears to their residents). New jobs tend to be poor quality; capital sends its rewards to the big metropolises or to offshore tax havens. Surely there is untapped human capital here? How can local networks be revived to counter the giant national and global networks that will otherwise suck these places dry? Too many economists are sinking into pessimism. A recent article in the Economist compared the fate of less-skilled humans to that of horses, which became obsolete a century ago. Is the weakness of such centres an inevitable consequence of the march of automation and an obsession with productivity?

I’m not convinced. I see too many jobs that need doing that are being neglected – in education, health, social care and local services generally – and in the world’s large but hollow corporations and state agencies, who pass the buck rather than solve problems. The liberal market economy, so favoured by the conventional wisdom of the 1990s and 2000s is failing – just as the publicly directed command economy has failed before it. But what to do? Local currencies perhaps? This approach is favoured by new economy thinkers like David Boyle – and regular commenter to this blog Peter Martin. Perhaps it is worth a try, but I suspect that political power structures must be altered first. It is no accident that countries with a highly devolved political culture, like Switzerland and Germany, are faring better than centralised polities like Britain and France. Though that is not enough – as the fortunes of the highly devolved United States shows. You need a strong social safety net too.

If I was trying to make something of Wakefield, I would start with its further education college. It has failed in a bid to acquire university status – but Britain needs world-class technical training for less academic young people and adults. Surely building on neglected human capital must be a large part of any solution? But that needs a strong state to provide up front payment and carry risk – and the state is weakening.

So a larger state, but not one dominated by giant agencies with Key Performance Indicators and lacklustre management; local democracy that does not turn into cronyism and mediocrity; thriving businesses that recycle their surpluses locally rather than send them elsewhere. A big challenge, but the future of  liberalism depends on it.

 

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