Tag Archives: Lib Dems

The Lib Dems in London: two straws in the wind from @RuthDombey and @MzLashmore

In the shadow of events in Paris, the Liberal Democrats held their London conference last Saturday. For a party that most people think has ceased to exist, party members are in a surprising upbeat mood.  Held a university building in Brentford, well out of the centre, the conference was nevertheless well-attended, cheerful and lively. Even as I delivered the Treasurer’s report just after lunch, the dullest piece of business in the whole day, there were dozens in the audience. I survived unscathed, and live on to be Treasurer of the regional party for another year.

And yet detached outsiders  would not give much for the party’s prospects. The Mayoral and Assembly elections are in May 2016, and they are a critical test for the  party. As things stand even winning the deposit in the Mayoral race (lost last time, in 2012) and any representation in the Assembly (only narrowly achieved in 2012), both of which need 5% of the votes, will be a challenge. The party has sunk into irrelevance in most people’s minds. But the party polls about 8% nationally, the same level that it achieved in the General Election. A result on this level is surely realistic, but would amount to no more than what City traders used to call “dead cat bounce” – bumping along the bottom, in a less colourful metaphor.

But things could be much better. With the Conservatives riven by differences over Europe, the effect of Labour’s lurch to the left uncertain, and with the other minor parties, the Greens and Ukip, seemingly having peaked, a whole range of possibilities opens up. The party is aiming for more than 8%, and so it should. There was a buzz of ideas for promoting the Party’s lead candidate, Caroline Pidgeon, the experienced and capable group leader on the Assembly, who is standing for both Mayor and leads the Assembly list – elected by proportional representation. Policy positions are being developed on housing, policing and taxis.

But these depend on attracting the attentions s of a flighty electorate. Building a more solid base for the future will take a lot longer. On what basis can that be done? One idea doing the rounds is to make a conspicuous stand on touchstone liberal issues, like supporting immigration and human rights. It is estimated that about 30% of Londoners have liberal views on these subjects. The Conservative and Labour parties are still circumspect because they draw so much other support from the other 70%. The talk was of targeting that 30%, who tend to be young and professional.

That’s all very well, but I worry. Some activists were concerned about a strategy based on just talking to people like us, rather than trying to reach out more widely. And though getting a large chunk of that 30% would transform the party’s standing, where would that lead? In order to get anything actually done the party has to engage with the other 70%, either directly seeking their votes, or working in coalition with parties that do. The party’s experience over last five years, in coalition with the Conservatives, have shown how difficult that can be. The party gets accused of breaching its principles, and then appearing irrelevant. Surely the party must try to develop a broader appeal from the start, alongside the core liberal one.

Two speakers at the Brentford conference gave a hint of what that might be. One was Ruth Dombey, leader of Sutton council, the party’s last council stronghold in London. She described how the party has maintained its remarkable record of success there. It is through a process of genuine dialogue with residents, going as far as possible to make them feel included (which, to be clear, means actually including them…). This is completely opposite to the normal model of elected dictatorship that most British politicians confuse with democracy. It is not easy, but Sutton has managed it over many years.

Ruth is a professional and experienced politician, and it wasn’t surprising that her presentation was slick and forthright. A second speaker was edgier. Teena Lashmore, though very much a professional, is new to politics. She led a policy consultation on dealing with knife crime and reaching out to communities. She made two important points: the first, like Ruth, was that politicians must do things with communities and not for them. This is the beating heart of community politics. But it is something that metropolitan elites usually don’t understand, not just politicians. Speaking to her during the tea break, Teena gave me an example of a memorial for victims of knife crime in her area; nobody thought to ask local people what they wanted, with the result a proposal was made that they found insulting.

The second point was that we must find ways of making local economies grow and become more inclusive. Free enterprise is the key to inclusion because it is empowering. Entitlements and handouts are not. She gave the example of a troubled estate where the management contract was awarded to a local enterprise, and not to one of the usual stripped down outsource providers; this contractor then started employing the local young people as apprentices; money stayed in the local economy; antisocial behaviour fell. Now regular readers of this blog will know that I am supporter of developing local economies, following campaigner David Boyle. But it had not struck me until Teena’s presentation just how powerful this idea is for developing inclusion in London.

These are critical ideas. Britain’s main political parties are still in the culture of doing things for the people they represent, rather than with them. Our whole centralised Westminster-bubble culture promotes that. The working ethos of the Labour Party  is built on developing client communities that they dish out goodies to. Some Conservatives have toyed with something more inclusive, like David Cameron’s Big Society, but their thinking is more often driven by big business and trendy but narrow think tanks. Indeed, though the Lib Dems achieved much of their early successes in the 1980s and 1990s through community politics, success in Westminster seemed to be slowly corrupting them. And few Lib Dems really got the importance of developing local enterprise, and what this means for wider public policy, for example in commissioning and procurement.

Well now the Lib Dems have been largely ejected from the Westminster bubble. They must go back to the long, hard business of developing conversations with local communities. And it needs to start developing robust ideas for developing local, inclusive economies. That includes in London, and it is a promising basis for reaching out to communities of all ethnic dimensions, not excluding the more stressed white British ones.

It’s a long hard road, but the party has the culture and record to make it work. I hope it rises to the challenge.




The Lib Dems start the long journey back

2015-09-23 12.15.44I’m just back from Bournemouth where Britain’s Liberal Democrats have been having their Autumn Conference. This was the first conference after this year’s General Election completed five successive years of rout for the party, and the first under its new leader, Tim Farron. It went as well as the party could have hoped for.

The depth of the party’s defeat in May can barely be described, as it was reduced from 57 seats to just 8. This was most spectacular in the south west of England, which had been the party’s main stronghold, but where the party lost every single seat. The public were fed up with it, which had formed a coalition government with the Conservatives. Both the Conservatives and Labour were more interested in crushing the Lib Dems that in damaging each other, and neither could the party resist the SNP surge in Scotland. Meanwhile, on the ground, in most places, the party had exhausted itself, and could no longer mount the sort of strong grass-roots campaigns that had seen its rise to 63 seats in 2005. What had been a steady decline after this high point turned into a rout after the 2010 election, and the party’s period in coalition. Its base in local councils bled nearly to death; it fared very badly in Scottish Parliament elections in 2011, and a catastrophic near wipeout in the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, before this year’s humiliation. The party has not just suffered a temporary blip; it has been hollowed out.

But something rather strange has happened more recently. After the election the party experienced a surge in its membership – adding 20,000 in four months. My local party went from about 120 in January to nearly 320 now. Some of these new members are returnees, who dropped out in the coalition. But most are drawn from voters, especially younger professionals, drawn to what they understood of the party’s values over the coalition years. These new members signed up in record numbers to attend the conference in Bournemouth, making it one of the most successful ever in terms of membership attendance – though others, from media to advocacy organisations, shunned the party after its loss of influence.

The main task at Bournemouth was to integrate this new blood with the old-timers, and to forge a renewed political movement. These disparate elements need to be inspired with a sense of common purpose and values. This is an inwardly focused business – the party has to sort itself out before it can seriously chase floating voters and win elections. And, my impression was, this went pretty well. The formal business was somewhat insipid, with very little controversial put up for debate. But this no doubt helped forge common purpose. And, of course, there was the training, the fringes and the socialising. The new member I spoke to on my journey home said the experience was inspiring, and much better than she had expected; and that seemed to be the view of others she had talked to.

The new leader played an important part in this. The leader has three big public performances: the rally speech on the first night, a question and answer session, and the closing speech. I saw the first and last of these. The rally speech was a nicely judged affair, where Tim (as I will call him – I will make no pretence of objective distance) showed his flair for public speaking. The effect was rather spoiled for me by an email follow-up that arrived to one of my mail boxes (one where the party’s database didn’t know I was already a member), attacking Labour, accusing them of not being a serious opposition to the Conservatives. This is more of the bubble-talk of which we have had far to much already. Labour are fired up by their hatred of the Conservatives. There are good reasons to think their opposition will fail, but  that failure has not happened yet. The Lib Dems can push Labour to take a stand on liberal issues, claiming to replace it is premature.

But the closing speech was a barnstormer – and the best leader’s speech I have heard for a very long time. It started a little slowly, and I thought it was going to disappoint at first – but that was just pacing. Three things stood out for me. The first was, as Roosevelt said in despair at emulating Churchill’s public speaking: “He rolls his own.” No doubt he was helped by speechwriters, but it sounded authentically his voice, with his characteristic humour and turn of phrase. This helps him sound authentic. The second thing was that the speech was rooted in the concrete. Leftist politicians have a habit of talking about abstract ideas (austerity, neoliberalism, progress, and so on). Tim avoided this; to make his point he concentrated on three issues: housing, refugees and Europe, and rooted these in real experiences, asking his audience to imagine the world from a different perspective. There was thankfully no talk of the abstract “centre ground”, so loved by his predecessor, Nick Clegg. And the third thing about Tim’s speech was its plain rhetorical firepower. He has a full range of gears from light and humorous up to full-blown, earnest passion. That full range was on display.

With the possible exception of Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader (whom I haven’t heard properly), this might make Tim the best public speaker of all the British party leaders. The contrast with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is quite striking. Mr Corbyn oozes authenticity, but he hasn’t got the rhetorical range.

So far, then, so good. The party has to do more inward work before it can really start challenging the other parties, though. That is conspicuous on policy. Tim tried attacking Labour for its irresponsible economics. This is pretty weak, until the party can develop its own distinctive economic narrative, that isn’t just a middle line between Labour and Tory. And the party got a glimpse of how hard this policy thing can be with the only controversial policy debate of the conference: on replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system.

On the one hand was offered a values-based line of getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether. On the other, more mainstream politicians, including the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh parties, wanted something a bit more fudged that would interfere less with fishing for floating voters. And the conference voted narrowly for this less inspiring course.

This blogger will try to make a modest contribution to this policy development, and in particular by suggesting ways forward on economic policy,  public service reform and political reform. More on that another time.

But meanwhile, I am encouraged that the party is gathering strength. I do not expect a major political impact on the wider scene for another year at least, though. The Conservatives, Labour and the SNP all have momentum right now, and it will be near impossible for the Liberal Democrats to break in with a distinctive voice. But the moment will come, and I hope the party will be ready when it does.


The political centre beckons for the Lib Dems

You might not think it to listen to them, but few, if any, politicians like the political centre. It is defined by others and inhabited by voters whose loyalty to any particular party is weak. Much more fun to consort with true believers. This is as true of Britain’s Liberal Democrats as it is of anybody else. And yet the party’s fortunes depend on its appeal to centrist voters. Can the party pitch for the political centre, while developing a clear, principled core values? I think it can – but it won’t be easy.

Following the party’s calamitous General Election results in May (which followed five years of calamitous results in local, European, and Scottish and Welsh elections) there was much talk by its activists of abandoning the previous leadership’s obsession with the centre. The whole idea was rubbished, in contrast to the idea of building up a “core” vote. The party now commands about 8% of the UK national vote (the same as in May), which, it is claimed, is lamentably small for a core vote. What is needed is to add to this core by principled campaigning that may not appeal to centrist voters, but will attract voters more likely to stick with the party.

The party’s failure is compared to the relative success of Ukip (who took 13% of the vote) and the Greens (who took 5%) – though the fact that neither of these parties managed more than a single seat in parliament shows weakness rather than strength.

Who are these potential core voters? Blogger Mark Pack and former Cambridge MP David Howarth produced a well-researched paper on this. They suggest the party fishes in a pool of about 30% of people whose outlook is open and tolerant on such issues as immigration. They suggest that the party might attract 20% of the vote that way. These voters tend to be on the left rather than the right. All this sounds quite sensible, and it is, as far as it goes. But the problem is that the party still has to compete for these voters, especially with Labour, the Greens and the SNP. Winning and holding on to such voters is going to be no easy business, even if the party’s credibility hadn’t been shot through by its perceived record in coalition, and by its poor electoral showing.

And a real spanner has been thrown into the works by the Labour Party, with its election as leader of Jeremy Corbyn. Labour, too, is fed up with the centre ground and wants to build on its core vote. And their prospective core overlaps with the one marked out by the Lib Dems. Indeed many Lib Dem activists hanker after the days when the Labour Party, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, aimed for the political centre, leaving them a clear run at discontented left-wingers. The party tried to stand out in a series of “principled” campaigns, opposing the Iraq War and abolishing student tuition fees, for example. And votes came, with the party’s best general election result in 2005. Whether this really was a principled stand based on liberal values, or an unprincipled and opportunist pitch for discontented voters, is one the questions the party has to ask itself. There were clear elements of both. But either way, coalition with the Conservatives was about the worst thing the party could have done. (Though I suspect that coalition with Labour would have ended up little better, even if it had been feasible -but through a different dynamic).

But Labour have slammed the door on a repeat of that idea. They are in a much stronger position to fish amongst these voters; they have more resources and, frankly, more credibility. But as that door slams shut, another opens. In the political centre, which the Conservatives are likely to abandon too, given that Labour is not competing for votes there. But capitalising on that opportunity is far from straightforward.

In fact the party will find it hard to bid for the political centre on many issues: Europe, immigration and refugees, reducing carbon emissions, and redistribution through the tax and benefits system, for example. These run close to what most of the party feels is its inner essence. And after all the “core vote” strategy is not dead – it is just that the pool of potential supporters has narrowed. The party needs to expand its core, and then pitch for centrist floating voters at election time.

So where should the party follow a distinctly centre line compared to Labour and the Conservatives? I think the answer is economic policy, public services and political reform.

On economics the party needs to stand for fiscal prudence, and step aside from all the left-wing rage over “austerity”. There’s a bad reason and a good reason for that. The bad reason is that it has public credibility, and fits in the slipstream of right-wing propaganda. This is bad because this credibility has been earned for largely the wrong reasons, leaning heavily on the “fallacy of composition” – that you run a state economy and a household economy in much the same way. The good reason is that demographics, the effects of technology change and changes to the world economy are all reducing the potential size of the money economy, and so the tax base. We have to find a better way to achieve the society we want than splurging public money everywhere. But this doesn’t mean we have to sign up to the Conservatives’ economic liberalism and reduce the size of the state in proportion to the economy as a whole.

Which leads to public services. The watchword has to be getting better value for money through a programme of reform. This may be resisted by workers and managers within the services. It will be resisted by Labour, now the the unions seem to be in control. But the party should not accept slash-and-burn narrowly focused  and outsourcing . What we need is integration of public services so that issues that are related – mental health, crime, housing, work, for example – are handled in a coordinated way around the needs of actual people. Which means, in practice being led by a locally empowered case-workers with the authority to make things happen in all the various agencies. The party’s best brains need to be on this – and establishing local experiments where the party is able to. For what it is worth, this happens to be close to the party’s officially adopted policy.

And thirdly there is political reform. Left and right may talk about reforming the system, but they only want limited changes that would in practice consolidate power for themselves. The party needs to push for more local devolution, proportional representation (with the top priority being local elections), and a federal settlement for the United Kingdom that would , amongst other things, replace the House of Lords. All this would allow a more democratic, pluralistic and effective polity.

When describing these policies, something becomes clear. They are centrist in that they contrast with the stands of right and left. But they are also radical and based solidly on liberal principles. They should both appeal to core voters and provide a platform for appealing to less liberal centrist voters.

But it will be hard. The temptation will be for the party to jump on every leftist bandwagon going, and ending up with nothing coherent.To indulge the politics of protest, and not campaign for real change. Labour have stolen the march on that, and will do it better. Instead the party needs to be about achieving results for real people, not posturing in order to bring in a few extra votes for a short period of time (read David Boyle for more on this idea).

And on that basis the party must defend its record in coalition. It is often said what a mistake it was for Labour not to defend its economic record vigorously at the last election – something the left and Blairite wings of the party agree on. Likewise the Lib Dems can’t ignore such an important part of its recent history as the coalition. The question of future coalitions, and even electoral pacts, will need to be discussed in due course. But the party must be clearer about who it is and what it stands for first. It’s not about power, but what the party wants to achieve.

The party has its main annual conference in Bournemouth starting at the weekend. I am going, and I will be most interested to see how the party is shaping up to the massive challenge that confronts it. My sense so far from talking to the some of the many new, and younger, people that have been drawn to the party in the last year, is that they are more interesting in the constructive, radical centre than they are in the protest politics of the left. I hope that’s true of the wider party.



A Corbyn win would pose searching questions for the Lib Dems

Clearly the prospect that Jeremy Corbyn might win the Labour leadership election is the most exciting thing in British politics right now. So I will blog about it for the third successive post. This time I want to look at what all this means for the Lib Dems.

According to the rather lazy analysis you often see out there, such a development would be a bonanza for the party. Labour grandee Jack Straw has suggested as much, in a desperate attempt to persuade Labour activists to vote for somebody else. The logic goes something like this. If Mr Corbyn wins, centrist Labour types will be without a political home. They will not be able to bear the leftward lurch implied by an influx of new activists, and, perhaps more sinisterly, the growing influence of trade unions. So, the Lib Dems, being a left of centre party under its new leader, Tim Farron, is natural place to go. It is now exorcised of coalition with the hated Tories – and even that coalition might be seen in a kinder light, now the Tories are unrestrained in government. And this will create an appealing alternative to the Conservatives that would draw floating voters in.

So what would be the political scene if Mr Corbyn won? The left would be cock-a-hoop, and they would have that much-prized thing: momentum. Many people have doubts about the current conventional wisdoms about economic policy – so they might give this new Labour a hearing. This would be bad for the Lib Dems in the short term, as the party would be overshadowed. Disillusioned Labourites are not going to flock to the Lib Dems in the short term either; they will still be in grief for their own party, and may hope that Mr Corbyn can be ousted.

But could that momentum be maintained? The British press, which still sets the media agenda, would be fiercely critical, and it would not take them long to find policy issues that put the new Labour leadership in a bad light. Mr Corbyn has spent his entire political life in the fringes of politics, where saying silly things is rewarded rather than punished. That gives the press plenty of material to work with. Furthermore, there would be a certain amount of chaos in the Labour party, as it argues over a whole range of issues. There are bound to be many disgruntled MPs. Voters may or may not disagree with the party’s new policies, but the real danger is that it starts to look incoherent and incompetent. These voters will not be part of the internet echo-chamber where left-wing activists will convince themselves that they are riding a popular wave – and they may not see the danger until too late.

The Lib Dems would be quite well placed to exploit this, in principle. The Greens’ thunder will have been stolen by Labour’s new direction; Labour will have taken over most of the Greens’ populist agenda. Ukip have lost momentum, with their rather chaotic General Election performance.

But the Lib Dems have two big problems of their own. First the party is very weak. Second it remains divided over its recent history.

The most conspicuous sign of weakness for the Lib Dems is its mere eight MPs, the lowest number for generations. This does not get better on closer examination. There were very few second places in May’s general election, and many lost deposits. The local councillor base has been hollowed out. Ruthless targeting over many years (and from well before the 2010 General Election from when the serious trouble started) has hollowed the party out in the majority of the country. This weakness makes it much harder to exploit any bounce in the party’s wider support. It also undermines the party’s basic credibility. Disillusioned Labourites may be tempted to set up their own party rather than join a weak and flailing one.

This is compounded by the party’s confusion over what it stands for. Its core values are firm enough, but the party’s interpretation of recent history is not. Was Nick Clegg’s leadership, and coalition with the Conservatives, a betrayal of the party’s values that should be expunged, with a suitable purge of those responsible? Just read a few articles in Liberator magazine, or read online comments, and you will see that this is a popular view amongst many in the party, and those who have left the party and could rejoin. Or is that coalition the proudest moment in the party’s recent history, when the party put the country before its own interests, and marred only by a few tactical errors? This view too is widespread, especially amongst those that stuck with the party, and many who have recently joined it. Some kind of reconciliation between these opposing views (that I will call the rejectionists and the coalitionists as a convenient shorthand) has to be engineered or the party will look just as fractious as its Labour competitor.

Interestingly, the outcome of the Labour leadership contest does have some bearing on this contest. However much Lib Dem activists want the party to plough its own furrow, it inevitably moves into the cracks left by the others. A victory for Mr Corbyn would be bad for the rejectionists. It would steal their thunder, and undermine their efforts to turn the Lib Dems into a party of the radical left. To be sure there are big differences between the Lib Dem rejectionists and the Corbynistas. The former are much more wary of state power, and emphasise political reform, especially electoral reform to a much greater extent, rather than the political control of the levers of power. And yet they are both competitors for those who are impatient for change. Meanwhile, of course, a Corbyn victory would give a ready new audience for the coalitionists – for people who are more patient, pragmatic and common sensical about the progress.

On the other hand a victory for for Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper would be a boost for the rejectionist Lib Dems. They would appeal to disillusioned Labour leftists outside the hard core, while more moderate Labourites would continue to place their hopes in Labour,rather than turning to the Lib Dems. Should a Corbyn leadership collapse, and be replaced by something more mainstream (Chukka Umunna is sometimes mentioned) then this dynamic might also come forward. On the other hand a Corbyn collapse followed by a charismatic new Labour leader (whether or not Mr Umunna fits that bill is debatable) could be the worst outcome for the Lib Dems of both camps.

The Lib Dem leader is treading a careful path between the rejectionists and the coalitionists. And many Lib Dems were perhaps hoping for a period below the media radar when the party could gather itself together and consolidate its identity. In the jargon, the party would rebuild its core, rather than bid for the political centre (i.e. floating voters). Too rapid a collapse of the Labour Party could place unbearable strains on the Lib Dems, both in terms of organisation and the party’s coherence.

But a slow motion Labour collapse could be an opportunity for the Lib Dems. Even so, it will be a major challenge for this badly wounded party to do it justice.



My hopes and fears for the Lib Dems under Tim Farron

A week ago Tim Farron became the new leader of the Liberal Tim_farron_2014Democrats, my political party here in Britain. When such important events occur I am torn between two impulses: to comment straight away, and so be topical, or to pause for reflection; I take the “thinking” bit of my blog’s title seriously after all.

The decision this time was quite easy. I was quite depressed by the news of Tim’s victory, as I had been backing the rival candidate, Norman Lamb. I needed a few days to recover from that low patch so that could be more upbeat about the whole thing. Now I am past that wobble, I feel better able to comment.

My first reflection is that I must try to be be a good loser. It’s no good my hoping that Tim will be anything other that what he promised to be. And to me that sounds like a distinct step in the “Social Liberal” direction, of supporting centralised state interventions using taxpayers’ money. Or, put slightly differently, going back to the “left of Labour” idea that gained traction under Charles Kennedy’s leadership. This will be good for hoovering up protest votes, but not so good for establishing a coherent new foundation for liberal policy – which I happen to think is the party’s most pressing task right now. I will have to bite my tongue and ride with it. I fear for the longer term consequences, but Tim faithfully reflects the way most of the party feels.

What makes this a lot easier is the knowledge that Tim understands community politics. This should make him quite sympathetic to the new thinking when it comes. More so, perhaps, than the previous leadership under Nick Clegg, or even Charles Kennedy was. And Tim is reliably liberal in his attitudes, and with that comes a healthy suspicion of an over-mighty state.

My second reflection is that Tim must play to his strengths. While not exactly having had what most people would recognise as a “real” job (he worked in higher education before becoming an MP in 2005), his career doesn’t follow the standard Westminster model. He wasn’t a researcher, PR person, charity worker or union rep (though he was part of the National Union of Students); nor was he based in the rarefied atmosphere of Westminster or Brussels – he was worked mainly in Lancashire. And neither did he engage in politcal networking at Oxford or Cambridge (he went to Newcastle University). This gives him something of the prized “authentic” flavour, which could be very useful in reaching out to the public. As somebody pointed out on the radio over the weekend, he’s a bit like Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip.  Mr Farage was for a long time England’s most successful retail politician, as he traded on his “authenticity” – though his career as a financial trader and European MP was hardly “real world” either. Tim’s rather raw quality will allow him to get away with the odd gaffe, as was the case with Mr Farage – indeed that will all be part of his “authenticity”. And Tim has an engaging turn of phrase.

A second strength is that Tim is able to preserve a degree of distance from the Lib Dems period of coalition. He did not serve in the government; he did not even breach the pledge on tuition fees. This will help the party rebrand. He needs to use this distance to his advantage.

All this will help him get noticed. As will his promise to support “spiky” policies – ones that aren’t necessarily popular, but which illustrate liberal values. If he’s brave these will include support for immigration and scepticism over nuclear weapons, especially Trident submarines. There really isn’t much to lose. The Lib Dems must become an insurgent party, making mischief while the Labour Party tries to carve out more conventional positions. This will draw attention to the party. But what will people find when they start to pay it more attention?

Tim needs to rally the party around coherent values and policies and attract the support of the many people who have liberal attitudes but who do not support the party. There is some baggage here that needs to be dealt with. Many in the party sat tight under Nick Clegg’s leadership, and coalition with the Conservatives, and now want to get revenge. However many people also joined the party because they liked and respected Nick’s leadership. Tim understands the nature of the balance that must be struck here, but the party must resist the temptation to tear itself apart, as its predecessor the SDP did in 1987/88, the party’s previous low point.

But this week’s political antics on the Conservative government’s proposed welfare changes shows just how difficult all this will be. Labour struggle to take a nuanced position, opposing some reforms but  accepting others. The Tim’s Lib Dems went for outright opposition. This is a role reversal from the last parliament, where the Lib Dems often defended Conservative changes that they had moderated, while Labour condemned the party as being complicit to an ideological attack on the poor. This reversal makes me feel queasy – though as it happens I think the Lib Dem stand is right one on this occasion. The public may just see rampant opportunism on both sides. Or a  cat fight amongst parties that aren’t serious about the responsibilities of government. But many Lib Dem activists will just love getting back into the politics of protest and paying back the insults that for years they endured from Labour- even if it plays into Conservative hands. They will enjoy this so much that they won’t notice where it is all leading.

What the Lib Dems need is an alternative critique of the government’s economic liberalism, that doesn’t take its inspiration from the way things were before Mrs Thatcher. The last leader to try this was Paddy Ashdown, who stepped down in 1998. Charles Kennedy went for a lazy oppositional-ism. Nick Clegg went for an economic-liberalism-lite. It does not particularly worry me that party turns away from Nick’s path, though I have supported much of it. It does worry me that Tim’s party will take after Kennedy’s rather than Paddy’s.

But the jury is out. Tim has the benefit of the doubt for now. And me? I want to put my main political energy into developing new ideas for the economy, public services and the way politics is conducted. What I won’t do is rallying the troops and knocking on doors for a new protest politics. Somebody else can do that.



Election issues: Scotland. Political chaos beckons. That could be a good thing.

I despair. My ambition was to do a weekly survey of important political issues relevant to this election. But after the economy and the NHS there seems to be little actual argument over policies. Housing and immigration do feature prominently in local hustings. But education, the EU, political reform: nobody seems interested. Instead the election news is dominated by Scotland. So that’s what I’ll cover this week.

The proximate cause of the fuss is the rise of the SNP. This surge was first evident in 2011 when they secured a majority in the Scottish Parliament, in spite of its proportional electoral system. But for some reason the Westminster parties did not appreciate the threat. The calculation may have been that unionists would easily win the referendum on Scottish independence which was to follow, and this would deflate the nationalist bubble. But the referendum caught the Scots’ imagination, and made the Westminster parties look flat-footed. The unonists won the referendum, but by a smaller margin than expected, and only through the use of negative tactics. The SNP bubble did not burst; new members flocked in, excited by its offer of hope and optimism.

The Lib Dems in Scotland had long been braced for bad things. Their association with the toxic Tories in Westminster turned a lot of their Scottish supporters off. But a collapse in the Labour vote took that party by surprise. They have offered nothing but negative campaigning and institutional inertia; it should have been no surprise – and it was certainly well-deserved. As a result the SNP seem certain to sweep Scotland on May 7, leaving Westminster with a problem. The party will surely hold the balance of power. and they have said that there is no way that they can support a Conservative government.

A flailing Conservative campaign has seized on this. It is stoking up English (and Welsh) voters with the idea a Labour government would be propped up by the SNP in a “coalition of chaos”. To stop this they are appealing to floating voters, especially those bending towards Ukip, to support the Conservatives to give them an outright majority and show the Scots who’s boss (they don’t actually articulate that last bit). Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major offered the English offered the country a stern warning.

So: what to make of this? My first reaction is exasperation at the Tories. They, more than anybody, and Mr Major, as much as any other leader, have created the situation where Scots and English and Welsh voters have diverged. Margaret Thatcher started it, with no comprehension of Scottish sensitivities. Mrs Thatcher “stole” the North Sea oil to prop up shaky English finances, and then dismantled much of Scotland’s old industry, creating mass unemployment. Well that’s how many Scots saw it, and still do, though whether Scotland would have been better off without her is another matter entirely. The final straw was piloting the hated “Poll Tax” in Scotland with no democratic mandate. Neither she, nor Mr Major, were interested in taking forward constitutional reforms that might give Scottish voters a greater say in their own government. Mr Major was quite passionate about this – he saw devolution as the start of a slippery slope. Well he wasn’t so wrong about that – but I hate to think what the state of Scottish politics would have been without devolution. The fact is that neither he nor Mrs Thatcher understood what was going on north of the border, and still less had any constructive solution. If the Tory brand was less toxic north of the border, the party would be much less isolated now, and the whole situation much more manageable. And if they truly believe in a democratic union, and the legitimacy of Britain’s electoral system (both core Tory beliefs), then they must allow that the SNP’s right to influence the British government is legitimate.

But the Tories are pointing to a real problem. The SNP have been setting out their stall on the UK-wide policies they would support. They want less “austerity” – i.e. more public expenditure unsupported by tax rises. They oppose Britain’s nuclear deterrent. They are also happy to vote on issues in the UK parliament that apply to England only – and in particular the NHS. Their justification for this is that Scottish public funding is based on the so-called “Barnett formula“, which ties it to levels of expenditure in England. The continued use of this formula represents a major strategic failure by the Westminster establishment. Unfortunately the three main Westminster political parties very publicly re-committed to it during the referendum campaign in a panicky “vow” in the last weeks. This gives cover for SNP MPs to make mischief. If only the Westminster politicians had thought about the matter more deeply, they could have found an escape route under the guise of giving Scotland more autonomy. But instead they simply put the matter on the “too difficult” pile, in classic Westminster style.

But how would a Labour-SNP partnership at UK level work out? The first point to make is not to underestimate the SNP leadership. Unlike the Westminster parties, they think strategically. They are unlikely to follow the playbook forecast by Mr Major, of demanding impossible things and storming off. A deal on economic policy is well within reach – the SNP vision actually sounds remarkably similar to Labour’s (bring the deficit down gradually; slowly reduce the level of national debt). A vote on the nuclear deterrent could well be engineered. SNP votes on selected English matters might well give the government a bit of stability. But two wider problems beckon.

The first is holding the Labour Party together. Many of the SNP demands will be popular with English and Welsh Labour supporters and MPs. This will exacerbate tension between Labour’s pragmatic leadership and its angry grassroots, its trade union backers, and its local mafias in key strongholds. To make matters worse, the party will be desperate to recover its standing in Scotland, and to fight back against the SNP. This is a toxic mix.

The second is just how SNP influence will play with the English public. The malign British press stand waiting to stoke up resentment. A backlash favouring both Conservatives and Ukip could well arise. This would be a lot worse if Labour has fewer MPs than the Conservatives, and yet are still able to form a minority government, because nobody will work with the Conservatives.

There are two ways that Labour might head off the problem, though. The first they will not like at all: and that is to form a minority coalition with the Liberal Democrats, so that they can securely outgun the Tories, and reduce their dependence on the SNP. They might then dare the SNP to bring this government down – along with some token concessions. This approach has the added advantage of a big block of Lib Dems in the House of Lords – which could be a key battleground for a minority government, but where the SNP are weak.

The second (and not incompatible) way is to quickly form a UK constitutional convention, to promote a package of political reforms for the UK. This is official Labour policy, though it ranks alongside their commitment in 2010 to introduce the Alternative Vote and reform of the House of Lords, both of which they torpedoed subsequently. It is official Labour policy to play for time – but they could start taking it seriously and giving it real political heft. This could, and should, provide cover to replace the Barnett formula, as well as portraying any partnership with the SNP as a stopgap while these bigger issues are dealt with in a properly democratic way.

Both solutions require rather more strategic insight than the Labour leadership has shown to date, however. But personally, I rather prefer the idea of a chaotic period of British parliamentary politics to a period of majority Conservative government. It might at last hasten the political reforms the country badly needs north and south of the border.


The Lib Dem 2015 Manifesto. A Liberal future one policy at a time.

Yesterday I went to the launch of the Liberal Democrat 2015 Manifesto, 2015 Manifestowhich sets out the party’s policies for the forthcoming British General Election. It is not a ringing declaration of liberal values designed to strike fear into the party’s opponents. It is a triumph of practical politics.

The first thing to notice is that it is quite small – A5 format rather than the showy A4 of former versions. But that is not because it lacks content. It has 151 pages plus an index, and these are typically densely written in a small script. Almost nobody is going to read the whole thing. I have only picked at it. In the past I have slipped a copy of the manifesto through voters’ letterboxes after a request. This time I will just offer the link (above, incidentally).

The document succeeds in following the election strapline of “Stonger Economy, Fairer Society, Opportunity for All”. Five key pledges grace its front cover:

  • Balance the budget fairly and invest to build a high-skill, low-carbon economy
  • Guarantee education funding from nursery to 19 and qualified teachers in every class
  • Cut taxes by an additional £400 by raising the Personal Allowance to £12,500
  • Protect nature and fight climate change with five green laws (specified elsewhere)
  • Invest £8 billion to improve our NHS and guarantee equal care for mental health

Beyond this there are eleven chapters, chock-full of policy proposals. These comprise a lot of sensible ideas, some interesting ones, some gimmicks. Plenty of these originate from the two policy groups that I have been a part of (Quality of Life and Sustainable Growth). One may be said to have my fingerprints on it – putting Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) into a slimmed down core national curriculum. There are some disappointing gaps. In the education section, for example, I can’t find any reference to changing the measurement of school performance by the progress that all children make – as opposed to the number that pass a particular threshold. This has been promoted by Lib Dems in government, and could dramatically improve the way many schools are run. Also a defence might have been made of the government’s health reforms – moving to a doctor-led system with proper local accountability, in place of the pantomime accountability of the Secretary of State. But these are details in a document that few will read in full.

The first impression is overwhelming and underwhelming both at once. Overwhelming in its volume. Underwhelming in its lack of stirring themes  -the party’s strapline is hardly going to put fire in the belly after all – all parties will say they are doing it. But on reflection I think it is rather wonderful. The party has learned much from its spell in government.

The first point is that political progress rarely results from revolutions. The Greens call for a peaceful revolution, turning the whole way British government works upside down. In the past, I have wanted to do the same. Tear the whole system down and start again. Of course, revolutionary change has its place. Forming the NHS in the 1940s was a bit of a revolution, for example. But mostly revolutions bog down or get diverted by power struggles. The wonder of human life evolved through a process of incremental evolution (or so I believe); that makes it a bit illogical and random, but the advance from single-cell organism remains astonishing. So it must be in politics.

And the second point follows swiftly behind this. The Lib Dems are not a majority party, and probably never will be. We will never have a mandate to implement our vision in one bold step. (And neither will the Greens, which renders their policy platform pointless and laughable). We make change by persuading other people that our policies are the best ones, one at a time.

And the people we must persuade are people who belong to other parties. The voters are not interested in the ins and outs of individual policies; they delegate that to politicians. Our policies get implemented in three ways: other parties may adopt them as their own (“stealing” it is sometimes called by insiders); or they may be forced to implement them as part of a deal to pass parliamentary legislation; or the party can implement the policies directly through a coalition government. The last is the most powerful, as those doing the implementation have the true vision.

The Manifesto is designed to be basis for the Lib Dem share of any coalition government. None of the polices are so radical that no other party will ever agree to implement them – least of all the five headline pledges. The last manifesto lacked the requisite detail. Taken together the policies would up to an important liberal shift in the way the country is governed.

There’s something else. The manifesto proposals are clearly drawn from the party’s deliberative policy making processes, to which many members have contributed, and on which many more have voted at party conferences. These aren’t the bright ideas of a select elite dropped from a great height, or crafted by campaign “strategists” based on focus groups (or not most of them anyway). This ensures a basic level of thinking through – compare that the Conservatives’ muddled policies on the right to buy housing association properties, which starred in their own manifesto. It also gives some point to joining the party as a member, rather than just being used as a footsoldier in somebody else’s career.

Of course we need to do the inspiring vision thing too. We need to recruit new people to be the party’s core supporters and activists, and keep those we have in fighting spirit. But that’s a different time and a different place.

But what’s on display here is liberalism’s secret weapon. It may only be a minority creed, but its cosmopolitanism gives it a hearing in many audiences. People may not make a liberal society as their first choice, but as a second choice it has a very wide appeal. That’s a basis on which you can negotiate. And liberals are often ahead of the trend too; their ideas become common wisdom in time. Our country is a much more liberal place than 50 years ago. It really is possible to reach a liberal future one policy at a time.


Election issues: the NHS. None of the parties are credible on funding. Labour would create more chaos.

After the economy the biggest issue in Britain’s General Election is the NHS. This comes top, or near to the top, of most voters’ lists of concerns. Labour want to make the most of these worries, while the Conservatives want to muddy the waters.

Two things seem to worry voters in particular. The first is pressure on Accident & Emergency services, which is knocking on to other parts of the system. This gives a general sense of the system failing. The second is the effect of NHS reorganisations of local services. This is often associated with outsourcing. Whether the public is as incensed about this “privatisation” as people on the left think is an interesting question – but they are suspicious of any threat to familiar local services.

That the NHS is under stress should be no surprise. As the proportion of older people in the population rises, so does the workload – but not the tax base from which it is funded. Furthermore many new treatments tend to be expensive; technological change does not improve productivity – but simply increases demand as new treatments are found.

There is political consensus around the free-at-the-point of use principle of the NHS. This has both flaws and strengths, but the NHS does quite well in international comparisons, though more for value for money than keeping people alive. Given this there are two important issues for the politicians to tackle. The first is organisational architecture, and the second is funding. They are related, of course, since the efficiency with which the service uses its funding depends on the architecture of the service. But it helps to keep the two separate for now.

First let’s consider this organisational architecture. The NHS has evolved since a chaotic mix of institutions was nationalised in the 1940s. Two ideas have always competed: a Soviet-style command and control model, with clear accountability to the politician at the top of the system; or a demand led organisation where users create demand and the service is forced to follow it. The Left tends to focus on the first, which is slow to react to change, and beset by tribal organisational silos. The Right prefers the latter, which suffers from a lack of reliable information about the true level of demand, and creates organisational instability.

What we have is a compromise between the two approaches. The service is divided between commissioners, who identify what services are needed and make choices as what to prioritise with the available money. And providers, such as hospitals, who actually deliver services based on the identified demand, a small proprtion of which is outsourced to the private sector. In addition there are other organisations charged with making it all work, including regulators of various sorts. This includes NICE, which rules on what treatments provide acceptable value for money. This basic architecture was established by the last Labour government, and remains largely unchallenged by the parties – though it is disliked by many health professionals.

But the details of Labour’s system were flawed. It was designed by management consultants in less stringent times. At its heart was  an over-engineered monster called World Class Commissioning, with commissioning being spread out amongst a large number of Primary Care Trusts – which were bureaucratic, with little clinical input and token local accountability. The Coalition rightly attacked this structure, and set about redesigning it – with commissioning now being given to a combination of national specialist bodies and local commissioning groups, run by general practitioners. This succeeded both in bringing in more clinical input and improved local accountability. But it was a massive and distracting exercise (in spite of a Tory promise of “no top-down reorganisations”, enshrined in the coalition agreement). This was a serious mistake which has left much muddle in its wake. It was perfectly possible to achieve much the same ends on an evolutionary basis – piloting different approaches in different regions. The reorganisation has created a huge amount of bad blood, and not a little paranoia amongst health professionals. It has been accompanied by a steady process of outsourcing elements of the service, though no private or third sector organisation will take on the major hospitals that are at the system’s heart.

Alongside this reorganisation has been steadily increasing demand, which has run ahead of funding. The combination has resulted in huge organisational stress. The way in which the service started to cope with the extra demand, and the need for greater efficiency, was classic top-down and Labour-inspired. It was called the “Nicholson challenge” after the then Chief Executive of England’s NHS. Funds were ratcheted down gradually each year on all parts of the system, with a bullying “just-do-it” approach. This did not unlock enough of the creative thinking and deeper re-engineering that the service required. Much of the result was mindless cutting and hoping for the best. Under a new Chief Executive (with reduced job scope), Simon Stevens, a more intelligent approach is being adopted – but the wreckage remains.

Given this history, surely the best idea is to work on the current structure on an evolutionary basis. This is what the coalition parties propose to do. The main work-in-progress is something called “integration”. This means getting social care, run by local authorities, to run jointly with the NHS. Awkwardly, this cuts across many of the bureaucratic structures currently in place, especially when it comes to parcelling up the money. It is far from straightforward, and it makes sense to proceed by means of locally run pilot schemes. It runs alongside greater devolution of responsibilities, as exemplified by the recent deal regarding Greater Manchester. The wider the scope of a service, the more localised the organisation has to be in order to prevent unmanageable complexity and stasis.

The main challenge for Conservatives is their approach to outsourcing. There is nothing wrong with outsourcing elements of the NHS. It can bring in fresh ideas and fresh management. It can be used to bring in new ownership structures, like cooperatives and social enterprises, to replace the hierarchical empires that the current NHS fosters. But the way it has worked out is dysfunctional. The tendering process can be so complicated that only behemoth suppliers need apply. These behemoths can afford slick tenders put together by professional marketers and priced at whatever level it takes to win. Once they win they are free to break their promises and a general period of mindless hollowing out follows. Sometimes this is what is needed; usually not. Many Conservatives just don’t get this.

The challenge to Labour is a bigger one. They want to respond to the anger over the last reorganisation and reverse parts of it. Does this imply another chaotic reorganisation? Will it kill the good elements of reforms along with the bad? Do they think integration should be enforced top-down from the centre? Or will they follow the path of devolving political responsibilities? Does their idea of in-house NHS services being given preference mean less value for money and slower innovation? Will their idea of capping the profits of the outsources prove to be yet more bureaucracy that favours the heartless behemoths rather than the innovative social enterprises? Will Labour revert to the top-down, bullying style of management of old? And will they need SNP votes to get their reforms to the English system through? More uncertainty and chaos beckons.

The Lib Dems have a rather interesting take on NHS policy. They want to prioritise mental health services. As I have written elsewhere, I think this approach is inspired, and one of the better reasons for voting for the party. They stand for intelligent continuity.

And so we come to funding. Britons do not spend a particularly high level of money on health services (much less proportionately than the Americans), and there is no economic reason why the country shouldn’t spend a lot more than it does. There is no evidence that the overall level of demand is excessive because the service is free; people really want the services, and would pay a lot for it them if they had to. The problem is the opposite: funding is constrained by the need to pay for the service through taxes, where it competes with a whole lot of other things, like schools and policemen. And the government isn’t raising anything like enough tax to pay for it all.

Last year Mr Stevens produced a plan which showed that the service will need an extra £8bn per annum in five years’ time, even after a lot of efficiency savings. Will the political parties follow his plan? The problem is that its affordability depends on how well the economy and the tax base does – which is unknowable. The gaps between the parties come down to the different ways in which they are handling these forecasting uncertainties. The Conservatives are the most optimistic, Labour the least, and the Lib Dems somewhere in between. None of them are committing to sufficient tax rises if a growing economy does not deliver the extra tax revenue. Both Labour and the Lib Dems are offering some tax gimmicks to help close the gap, but none are offering the increases to Income Tax, VAT or National Insurance that will be required if the economists get their growth projections wrong (yet again). Labours plans are obscured by their issues of NHS organisation; they will not sign up to Mr Stevens’s plan for that reason.

If the NHS is starved of funds more people will go private, social solidarity will fade and a death spiral will be put in motion. Something very like this has happened to NHS dentistry. If we want to keep the NHS in its current format, with few charges, then this means extra tax, and not just the somebody-else-is-paying sort. It really is quite simple. It is very disappointing that our politicians (and Ukip, the Greens and the SNP are as bad as the others, or worse) will not face up to this. I find it impossible to choose between the parties based on their funding proposals.

Which leaves organisation as being the decisive issue. The coalition managed one step forward and one back. Labour’s attitude to organisation threatens another step or two backwards. The Conservatives are suspect on outsourcing and the most suspect on funding. The Lib Dems offer intelligent continuity, but, sadly, even in coalition they are unlikely to be given enough scope to put their way forward into practice.






Election issues: the economy

The quality of debate in Britain’s General Election campaign is predictably awful. Arguments are reduced to simple sound bites. And parties try to muddy the waters on their opponents’ key issues rather than engage with them properly. Many issues are hardly discussed at all. In a doubtless futile mission to raise the level of debate I will look at a number of issues from rather more objective perspective, and handle the arguments on an altogether deeper level. I am not, of course, an objective observer: I will generally make the case for voting for the Liberal Democrats.

Let’s start with the issue the Conservatives most want to talk about: the economy, and which party is best placed to manage it. Their argument runs something like this: Labour cannot be trusted with the economy because they presided over the economic crash in 2008 and haven’t admitted their culpability. The Conservatives have a “long-term plan” that is yielding results without getting the country into too much debt.

Labour are more reticent. They don’t accept that their party was responsible for the crash (or no more responsible than anybody else). They are severely critical of the coalition’s economic record, which, they say, swung to much to “austerity” (i.e. too many spending cuts, benefits savings and a rise in VAT), which choked off and delayed the recovery. They point out that Tory plans for the next few years imply vicious cuts to welfare. They also point to stagnant living standards for most people. Their plans for the next parliament involve significantly more public borrowing, supposedly supported by higher levels of investment.

Arguments over the records of both sides over the last two parliaments are interesting enough. I mostly support the narrative of the coalition partners – but Labour can call on the support of many independent economists with real heft. But past record only counts to the extent it tells us about the future – and in this case it doesn’t tell us much at all. Both sides are placing more faith in the robustness of the British, European and world economies than is prudent.

Many economists and politicians assume that there is a natural rate of growth of about 2% per annum, based on improvements to productivity, that the economy can be guided towards by governments with sensible macroeconomic policies. This seemed to be true before 2008, but it is surely questionable now. Demographic changes, with the proportion of working age people falling, are only the most obvious reason for scepticism; there are plenty of others, about which I have written often. That leaves us with two critical problems. How would the parties cope with the likely possibility of continued economic stagnation? How might they reduce the risks of such stagnation by making the best of any opportunities the country does have for growth?

In the first case prolonged stagnation points to renewed austerity. In order to keep the national debt under control expenditure will have to be cut, or tax increased, or both. The deficit between taxes and spending is still high, and deficits are much harder to sustain if growth is low, even if, as now, interest rates are also low. Japan has managed to get away with prolonged deficits in spite of stagnation, it is true, but that is because they have trade surpluses and accordingly are less dependent on foreign borrowing. What will happen if Britain fails to get to grips with government finances? That is hard to say. In the modern, globalised economy, inflation looks much less of a risk, unlike the last time this situation arose, in the 1970s. Instead stagnation may become more entrenched, and unemployment rise, until there is a financial crisis and our banks start failing again.

If there is renewed austerity the question arises as to how much of the strain is to be taken by tax rises and how much by public spending cuts. As a nation, we have higher expectations of our public services and benefits than most: the NHS, schools, social care and pensions in particular. I cannot see how such expectations can be met without raising taxes. And here there is a big snag.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have ruled out any increase to Income Tax, National Insurance or VAT. These are the main taxes that the general public pays, and account for some two thirds of all taxes. Tax rises without touching these three mean, generally, that somebody else is paying. The trouble is that the “somebody else” idea is wearing thin indeed. Tax breaks for the rich have been steadily pared back (most recently on pension contributions), making our tax laws more complex and draconian in the process. Company taxes are considered off the agenda because that threatens investment (this may not be right – but treating company taxes as a football is clearly bad for investment). The wealthy are already paying for a large part of the services which they never use. Apart from practicality, we are threatening the idea that everybody should pay something towards public services, in order to maintain solidarity and consent. No party is facing up to this issue.

Labour is particularly vulnerable. Their spending plans are more generous than the Conservatives’, as they hope to borrow more against infrastructure investment. Their plan to cut university tuition fees is particularly foolish. The SNP and the Greens are even worse. The Tories are more realistic, if you take their formal plans, laid out in this year’s Budget, with a pinch of salt. These envisage an unrealistically vicious attack on benefits in the first two or three years, followed by a relaxation. This is likely to be smoothed out in practice. But the party gives the impression that they would squeeze public services and working-age benefits rather than raise taxes. This probably is not what most people want.

So, if the parties would rather not contemplate stagnation, how would they create the growth in productivity that would head this fate off? How might this be done? The traditional formula is so-called “supply-side” reforms – deregulation for the most part. The trouble is that these tend to benefit the lucky few, both in terms of skills and income, and geographical location, largely London and the south east of England, where property prices are already through the roof. So the most promising idea is to promote growth in the regions of England, and also Wales (Scotland is the one region of the UK has seems to have bucked the gravitational pull of the South East). There is no sign that any party wants to relax planning controls that might allow this swing to the prosperous areas to occur more smoothly. There is a growing realisation that more balanced growth can only be done through the devolution of political power, and the release of funds for infrastructure investment between and within the regional centres. The Coalition has been feeling the way forward with its City Deals, with Greater Manchester being the flagship.

Once again, the main parties are disappointing. The Conservatives seems to place too much faith in deregulation – and their hostility to the EU and immigration represent roadblocks to future growth. Labour shows an alarming impracticality when it comes regulating and taxing businesses – and tackling such issues as low pay and insecure temporary contracts. While both parties are starting to talk the game on regional devolution, there is reason to doubt their commitment. Labour’s attack on the decentralisation of the NHS to Greater Manchester was particularly revealing. On both sides there is a lack of fresh thinking. The Greens, SNP and Ukip, in their different ways, are worse.

What of the Lib Dems? They are silent on raising tax rates – which undermines their commitment to funding the NHS, for example. They are closer to the fresh thinking needed for regional growth – with a real understanding of what devolution means. They also have interesting ideas on developing a more diverse banking system and promoting alternative business ownership structures. But these ideas aren’t fully formed. They are the best of a bunch that ranges from weak to hopeless.


Are the Tories winning the air war and losing the ground war?

Britain’s electorate does not choose a Prime Minister in May’s General Election. It chooses a local MP. And enough of them have already made up their mind in England and Wales to make that choice a foregone conclusion in most places, so that the real fight is occurring in a limited number of marginal seats. Has the Conservative Party forgotten this basic architecture of British politics?

That might explain something that is rather puzzling about the election campaign. The Conservatives are having a good “air war” in the expression made famous by Bill Clinton. That means coverage on general media on a largely national level. Labour’s strategy seems to be that government’s lose elections rather than oppositions win them. They have not spelled out a clear alternative vision for the country – preferring to keep party unity intact by concentrating on complaining about the coalition government.

Thus Labour have surrendered the initiative in the air war. The Tories have exploited this brilliantly with “bait and switch” tactics. They fly a kite about some policy or other (public expenditure is the biggest; VAT is this week’s example). Labour duly attack, only for the Conservatives to move in a different direction. And they have undermined Labour’s attempt to create sound-bite policies. For example Labour promised to cut student tuition fees by removing a tax break for pension contributions for the wealthier; the coalition duly  removed the tax break and baked it into the budget baseline. Meanwhile previous Labour attacks, on Keynesian economic management, on unemployment and on energy prices have been undermined by events. The Tory leader, David Cameron, seems at ease and in control – even his supposed gaffe over not wanting to serve more than two terms plays to that impression. In contrast Labour’s Ed Miliband has turned into Britain’s whingemaster general – without giving any impression that he would do any better himself. The Conservatives are well organised; they have powerful allies in the press, which still seem to set the agenda for broadcast media, especially the BBC. Labour are being routed.

But here’s the puzzle: it seems to be having little effect on their poll ratings. Both parties have been edging up slightly, at the expense of the insurgent Ukip. The Conservatives cannot establish the lead they need to overcome the awkward distribution of their vote under the country’s electoral system. Notwithstanding Labour’s impending disaster in Scotland (where, unlike England and Wales, most seats could change hands) the Conservatives do not look as if they will even be the largest party in parliament, still less win outright. Party HQ reassures the nervous footsoldiers that things will turn good in the last weeks. Maybe.

But things are worse than that. A recent survey by the Ashcroft organisation of key Labour-Tory marginals showed that Labour was ahead in all but one. Constituency polls also show the Tory coalition partners the Liberal Democrats confounding their dismal national poll rating in Tory-facing marginal seats. The Lib Dem position grows stronger the more voters are reminded that they are voting for their local MP, and not the national leader. And this poses the question: are the Conservatives losing the “ground war”? The process of direct voter contact by doorstep, phone, social media and locally tailored literature – which is focused on those marginal seats.

The Tories seem to have a weakness here. They don’t attract many younger supporters these days (in striking contrast to Labour), and their policies don’t seem designed to engage with that group anyway. Many of their older activists have defected to Ukip, are demotivated, or are, well, just getting too old. Money can help. One marginal reports literature being delivered at full cost by the Royal Mail. Hired help can make up some of the gap on literature delivery. But it is much less effective in direct voter contact – canvassing – and useless in social media interaction. Direct mail, a past Tory favourite, seems to be losing its value for money.

Labour, meanwhile, have upped their game. They are well organised, disciplined and, in many cases, downright cunning. Here in Battersea – which they lost in 2010 and which many had assumed was out reach this time – they have been using camouflaged front campaigns on the NHS and something called Women of Wandsworth (WoW) Mums. They also seem to be outgunning their opponents on literature. The Lib Dems have always been quite good at the ground war, and are targeting their efforts ruthlessly to make up for their reduced number of activists.

So ground war may be trumping the air war. This runs counter to the conventional wisdom of British politcos, who almost always attribute the success of past Labour or Tory campaigns to the air war (though not those of the other parties). This may always have been overdone. It may be that the parties’ ground war campaigns have cancelled each other out better in the past. But it may also be that British electors make their choices differently these days. The coalition may have damaged the Lib Dems’ appeal, but it has planted the idea that smaller parties matter. Cynicism over national politics has always run ahead of the standing of local MPs – from whom people expect more, even as opinions of politicians in general sink. Besides, national news media may be being crowded out by web and social media (even if their content is overwhelmingly non-political).

It may even prove a mistake for the Conservatives to have torpedoed the leader debates, whose original structure supported their two-party narrative and could have drawn more people into the air war.

Or maybe, as Tory politicians hope, people will come to their senses in the coming weeks: something which both Labour and Lib Dem politicians also hope in their different ways. But my betting is that the game has changed and politicians need to catch up.