Tag Archives: Lib Dems

Heywood & Middleton: banging on about the NHS is not enough for Labour

There were two parliamentary by-elections in England last night. At Clacton Tory defector Douglas Carswell was re-elected under the Ukip banner with a massive vote. This is a very striking result, but one that was entirely expected. The Essex seaside town of Clacton has a unique concentration of the older, white blue-collar types that are Ukip’s best hunting ground, and not a few lower middle class older white Tory types that are also tempted to vote for the party. The more thought provoking result was in the other election in the Greater Manchester seat of Heywood & Middleton. Ukip came within a whisker of beating Labour.

The best place to see the result is on Wikipedia. After searching the BBC and the main newspapers, all give snippets and verbiage, but don’t present the result simply and clearly – which says much about the narcissism of modern news reporting. The Labour vote share held at 40%, and even increased by a small fraction, albeit on a reduced turnout. The Conservative and Lib Dem votes collapsed (though both parties retained their deposits, a relief for the latter party); the racist BNP did well in 2010 (7% of the vote) but did not stand this time. Ukip gathered voters from all these sources to move from 2.6% to just over 40%. Given that this was a very short campaign – Labour moved the writ before its former MP’s funeral – this is a very significant achievement.

Labour were taking some comfort from the way their vote share held up, while the Tory and Lib Dem votes fell. This pattern repeated across the country could gift them a number of Tory and Lib Dem seats. We should not be surprised that professional election strategists could take pride in winning a House of Commons majority with one of the worst popular votes in Labour’s history (as 2010’s was) – but what kind of a mandate would that give the party’s leaders? The truth is that Labour’s strategy has gone off the rails. The plan is to hang on to the hard core of voters that the party retained in 2010, and to take about half of the Lib Dem vote. That should have taken them well past 50% in this constituency. For every vote they won back off the Lib Dems (and Tories for that matter), they lost one of their core voters to Ukip. Worse: in seats were the Lib Dems are weaker, for every two votes Labour wins back from that party, another one or more goes to Labour’s main opponents. Labour’s appeal is simply to weak to win.

Labour’s campaign was one-dimensional. They banged on about saving the NHS, which they claim is being sold off to private companies. This seems to resonate with voters, even though its relationship to the truth is weak – and if Labour were in power they would not be able to help much with the NHS’s troubles. Ukip’s policies on the NHS are far from reassuring, so this seemed to be a safe strategy. So Labour did not talk about Ukip’s favoured issue: immigration. This strategy clearly failed. Labour’s core, working class voters clearly want to talk about immigration, and are feeling ignored. But Labour does not know what to say without putting off other voters, such as those from ethnic minorities and liberals, to say nothing of its activists.

The trouble is that Labour is a fragile coalition of people who are united only in their dislike of the Conservatives. As soon as Labour start to become clearer about what their programme for government actually is, the more this coalition will fragment. Worse still, their campaigning is a classic mix of dissembling, lies and the building up of false expectations. This cannot bridge the gap of trust that lies behind the rise of Ukip.

To bridge the trust gap politicians must do things that hurt – that are against the apparent interests of their party and electoral prospects. The Lib Dems seem to understand this, to give them credit – though the public is unlikely to appreciate this until after next May, and their leader, Nick Clegg, has moved on. Some Tories do too – though not their leader, who will seemingly say anything to achieve a short-term advantage. But Labour has no conception of this idea. To them bravery is simply folly.

In the highly unstable mix of British five-way politics (including the SNP), it is entirely possible that Labour will achieve an overall majority. It may turn out to be a victory they regret achieving.

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#ldconf Nick Clegg needs to be clearer on the “smart, liberal and enabling state”

The Liberal Democrat conference ended yesterday on its fifth day with the party leader, Nick Clegg, giving his speech. By then I was on the train home, wishing to save money on fares as well as arrive home at a decent hour – though I have read a text version of the speech, and seen the comments. It ended an uplifting conference for the party. While good for the spirits, has it answered doubts over the party and its leader? It is a step forward.

The doubts centre around the party clearly articulating what it stands for. To date it has been keen to identify itself as covering the “centre ground”, and to spend time justifying its role in the coalition government. The problem with defining yourself as being centrist is that that you are using other parties to define yourself. The party risks presenting itself as either or both of “Labour-Lite” or “Tory-Lite”. This is not a convincing rallying cry. Neither is a list of policy proposals; if they are popular, the other parties will steal them. The Conservatives are already “stealing” the raising of tax allowances, the Lib Dem signature policy of this parliament. Lib Dem whinging about this, and the Tories getting the credit for the economic recovery rather than them, is all rather pathetic and will win the party no credit with voters. The public does not give the party credit because they don’t know what it stands for – beyond winning the prestige that goes with being in government. The policies and the record of action are the supporting evidence for a proposition, not the proposition itself.

Lib Dem activists have a strong idea of what the party stands for: liberalism. This is not the economic liberalism of the 19th Century, but one where the state plays an active role in making sure everybody gets the opportunity to develop and fulfil their lives. That “everybody” is a central idea – it is not qualified by national, ethnic, class or other identity. This leads to clarity around a certain set of policies: human rights, written constitutions, distributed political power, strong social insurance and a degree of redistribution of wealth and income, to improve the chances of the less lucky. There is also a strong environmentalist steak.

Amongst the general public, who do the Lib Dems need to convince? There are two main groups. First are those who are liberals, but who are more convinced by other parties – mainly Labour and the Greens, as the Conservatives seem to have given up on liberals. The second group are people who are drawn to non-liberal politics, being those of identity, individualistic self-interest, or a large centralised state, but might be convinced otherwise, perhaps as a second-best. A socialist may be convinced that liberalism is better than conservatism, if Labour are locally weak.

How did Mr Clegg and his party do? Better than before. Mr Clegg’s speech contained more about liberal values and why they make sense. He called for a “smart, liberal and enabling state”. The party made a clear stand against illiberal policies of their Conservative coalition partners. The signature policy Mr Clegg chose was parity for mental health with physical health in the NHS. If this is a bit tangential to liberalism (you don’t have to be liberal to support it), it will at least serve to draw attention. It showed the party capable of fresh thinking.

But it is only a start. I would like to hear more about the “smart, liberal and enabling state” – and in particular how it contrasts with Labour’s vision of the state. Indeed I think the party is being too soft on Labour, and needs to find some “wedge” issues that will pull liberals away from it. There is a bit of paradox in political presentation; you need to get over a strong positive message, but contrast is needed for visibility, which means that attacking other parties can be one of the most effective ways of defining your own. You need to say what you are not, and how you are different. The party is doing this with respect to the Tories, and the Tories themselves are lending a helping hand. But to a Labour sympathiser it opens the question of why the party is in coalition with the Tories, and thereby letting in a host of nasty Tory policies. It isn’t enough just say that the party stopped the worst ones, and put through one or two ideas of its own. The main reason the party ganged up with the Conservatives was the hopeless state of Labour – something that went further than their electoral failure.

Labour is a loose coalition of values and interests, albeit with a strong tribal solidarity. Liberals are an important part of this coalition, alongside public sector workers, state dependents, working class conservatives, left wing intellectuals and northern city council mafias. Lib Dems need to show that this Labour coalition is unable to produce coherent policies for government, still less implement serious liberal reforms. This means developing the vision of a “smart, liberal and agile” state, and showing how this is different from the Labour and Tory versions. At this conference the policy paper on public services presented some interesting new thinking on just that. That is only one piece of a jigsaw.

The Green Party is also worth a bit of attention in my view. It has moved on from a focus on environmental policies. In its current statement on values the first two of its three policy bullets are its opposition to austerity and to privatisation for public services – and only then does it cover climate change. This is no more coherent than Ukip’s policy stance. In Scotland the Greens supported independence in spite of the fact that the Yes campaign’s economic strategy depended on getting carbon out from under the sea and into the atmosphere as fast as physically possible. The party’s leader in England leader, Natalie Bennett, has also said that the party wants to avoid the responsibilities of government, and to limit any cooperation with a future government to case by case parliamentary support. All this is half-baked and could break up quite fast under scrutiny. Still I’m sure the professionals would urge that ignoring them is the best way of handling them. But they picked up a lot of liberal votes in my neighbourhood in the European elections this May.

But one thing is going for the Liberal Democrats. The main parties are concentrating on a core-vote strategy, leaving space on the centre ground. If the party can spell out its liberal vision more clearly, it can surely advance from the 7% support that it currently languishes at. It is gradually winning more respect, to judge by newspaper editorials. Its conference in Glasgow was a step forward.

 

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#ldconf day 3. Cable and Clegg defend the coalition record with confidence

imageDay three of the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow and this 50-something attendee is getting a bit tired. The mood continues to be good, but the controversies are rather minor. I will offer a few highlights.

There were two important set-pieces. Vince Cable’s speech and the leader’s Q & A. Mr Cable’s contribution was more assured than Danny Alexander’s yesterday. It was largely a defence of the party’s record in government. In policy terms he stuck to the same line as Mr Alexander. A strict policy on the deficit to be softened significantly for investment in infrastructure, including housing. He claimed that the Tories were dead against this. This is welcome, and backed up by a recent research paper from the IMF. He readily got his standing ovation.

In the Q & A Mr Clegg showed off his grasp of detail. He criticised the Conservative and Labour parties for being uninterested in political reform beyond short term tactics. He may right. The question is whether they can be manoeuvred into something more fundamental by their promises to Scotland. I am not optimistic except that after the next election both parties may fall apart, opening up British politics.

Policy did not get my full attention. There was a motion on building more houses, which was worthy enough. At a fringe group Generation Rent and Crisis, housing pressure groups, urged us to present a more coherent strategy on housing and the rented sector in particular. They are right.

In the evening I attended a fringe on teaching science and maths, sponsored by the Royal Society. I spoke up to support the key role of primary schools. Interestingly a business lobbyist said that employers needed skills rather than knowledge. This is the opposite to what seems fashionable in Westminster, where they attack “soft” skills-based teaching in favour “hard” facts. Well maybe some teaching of skills is a bit soft, but this is ultimately what education is for. I was always taught that education was to teach you to think, not recite facts.

On Sunday evening, at a fringe on Liberal thinkers, veteran Scottish MP Malcolm Bruce said that he joined the party at one of its low points. It was the only way in which he could promote his liberal values. He was being urged that he had to take sides between the Tories and Labour- but he rejected this notion. Something like this idea drives the party now. It is deeply unfashionable. Many cannot forgive it for dealing with the devil in the current coalition. But these are the same old people who feel that there are only two important movements in politics and that ultimately you choose. But both the socialists and the conservatives are fundamentally wrong, and any deal with either is a matter of temporary pragmatism.

 

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#ldconf Day 2. Lib Dems steadily move to the left

In an election year you can’t expect too much excitement at a party conference. Not if things are going well. And day two of the Lib Dem conference was not terribly exciting. But for those who want to read between the lines there was plenty of interest.

The big item in the morning was a motion on welfare. The progenitors of the motion were from the left of the party, or at any rate those who have been resisting the party’s flirtation with “neoliberalism”, as many on the left like to call it. I missed the debate, but apparently it faced no serious resistance. This no doubt partly reflects careful wording by the movers, but one of them told me that two years ago the leadership would have resisted a motion like this.

The morning session (technically afternoon) ended with a speech from Steve Webb, the Pensions minister, and one of the most successful ministerial appointments from any party in this government. It wasn’t very exciting and the reception was a bit muted. This was a bit of an achievement in a way. Mr Webb doesn’t do political grandstanding and the reforms he has pushed through are both radical and liberal, and yet have somehow achieved something close to political consensus. Which makes it difficult to make political capital. But it’s liberal politics at its best. It Is achievements like this that make Lib Dems feel that they handle government well – and are so much more than the chaotic protest party that it used to be portrayed as.

After lunch came the Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, who had played a big role in the Scottish referendum campaign. He dressed casually and seemed tired. He delivered his lines flatly, failing to pause properly for dramatic effect. And yet his speech had stature. First he kept faith with his Scots co-nationals, and was determined to build on the referendum campaign, and not quietly bury it, as one suspects that many English politicians want to do. On Treasury matters he had quite a simple message. The deficit needed to be reduced to zero, importantly excluding investment. The overall national debt must be brought down. But this must be done with a “fair” sharing of the burden. By this he meant that the tax and benefit system had to retain its strongly redistributive character. In stark contrast to Conservative proposals. I agree though my reasoning may be a bit different from his. I think the days of steady economic growth may be over. In which case deficits and debt will not be as sustainable as previously assumed. But borrowing for investment is an important exception, and I hope he sticks to that in the face of Treasury scepticism. And redistribution is economically efficient in an age where the winners seem to be taking everything. Mr Alexander got a standing ovation that the speech itself probably did not deserve.

The next act was a long motion on reforming public services, following a policy paper. The scope of this may have been too ambitious, and yet the thinking behind it was at the same time radical and pragmatic. We have to move on from an over centralised and compartmentalised approach to public services. We need to solve problems rather than manage throughput. This means more devolution and local problem solving. This was the thinking behind the motion, though it was easy to be lost in the detail. A wholesale rejection of the purchaser provider split in the NHS was rejected, but an amendment that facilitated radical changes at local level was allowed. While the right continues to believe in more throughput management using private sector outsourcers, the Lib Dems are moving in a different direction.

Apart from a rather stricter view of government borrowing than many on the left think is appropriate, this all amounts to a shift leftward for the party. The social liberals are slowly winning the argument. And, as somebody who has tended to side with the right in the past, I have to admit that this looks the right way to go.

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#ldconf Day one: clear vision and constitional confusion

The Liberal Democrats gather in Glasgow again for their annual conference, as we did in2013. This is not as interesting as it might have been if Scotland had voted Yes in the referendum. But Glasgow is a city that I like, for all that healthy eating seems a bit of a mystery to the locals. On the first day we were treated with a clear mission and a muddle.

The clear mission came through at the conference rally in the evening. It was greatly aided by the Conservative party’s lurch to the right, with its promise of unfunded tax cuts and attacks on human rights laws. They are avoiding a centre ground strategy, and instead they are looking for “wedge” issues that will peal away Labour’s more conservative supporters and push back Ukip at the same time. With Labour unwilling to stake out a clear ideological vision, Lib Dem activists can readily believe that their country needs them. There is clear ideological space for a liberal party. The process of rallying supporters is therefore straightforward. Whether this is enough to overcome the public’s scepticism of the party remains to be seen.

The muddle came from an attempt to reform the party’s internal voting system so that all members have a right to vote at conference and on internal committees, rather that representatives coming through a supposed election process from local parties. This was styled as “one member one vote”. This is rather overdoing it. To vote you still have to turn up at conference. It is a sensible idea because, with the weak state of local party organisation, the selection of representatives is chaotic, and largely boils down to self selection and luck. It is a far cry from democracy. The proposed system is more practical In principle. Also there is a misunderstanding about the role conference plays in the policy process. It isn’t a deliberative parliament designed carefully represent the membership, but a test run for new policies on people sympathetic to the party’s principles. Exactly who the people are in the conference hall isn’t so important. No doubt the new system will bring problems in its wake, but it is hard to believe that they will be worse than the present arrangements.

So what’s the muddle? The principle is simple but its implementation is complex. The proposed amendment was drafted in too much of a hurry and left many gaps. So we ended up approving a rather confusing motion whose impact is unclear. It’s going to take quite a it of sorting out – not ideal in a big election year. Perhaps it is a fitting verdict on modern politics. Lots of vision and sharp communication, but short of the patient detail needed to make anything actually work.

Still, with a clear mission spirits are high.

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Ed Miliband is Labour’s John Major. Short term success presages long term disaster

Britain’s two big party conferences are over, setting out the battle lines for next year’s general election. I keep seeing parallels with the 1992 election, which the Conservatives won unexpectedly. In the past I have drawn direct parallels between the two main parties then and now. But in interesting ways the Labour party resembles the Conservatives in 1992: pulling off an unexpected victory, leading five years later to its worst ever defeat.

The Labour conference was shocking. This was supposed to be a party with its blood up, ready for a battle to crush those hated Tories and despised Lib Dems. Instead we witnessed a subdued Labour Party, simply hoping that the other side would lose. The plan is to win the General Election in May 2015 by default. There are three elements to this plan. First hang on to the hard core of voters that were loyal at their low point at the last election in 2010. Second, snaffle up an extra 5-10% of voters who voted Lib Dem last time and are fed up with that party. Third: allow Ukip to eat into the Tory vote. Labour strategists think that these three things will be enough to give Labour an overall majority. The party does not have to spell out a clear policy vision, just create some mood music by talking tough about the nation’s finances, and “saving” the NHS.

It could work. This kind of strategy reminds me a lot of John Major’s strategy for the Conservative Party that he led from 1990 to 1997: visionless, and relying on its opponents’ weaknesses. This led Mr Major to that spectacular and unexpected victory in the 1992 election, followed by the Tory party’s worst ever defeat in 1997. Something like the same fate awaits Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. At Labour’s conference he failed to address doubts about his leadership. His speech was a disaster. It was an overlong, rambling, whinge-fest, full of speechmaking clichés. His act of not using a script and teleprompt drew much praise the last time he tried it. This time it meant that he forgot to include some vital messages on the deficit and immigration, passages that it is hardly surprising his subconscious suppressed.

Over the four years or so of Mr Miliband’s leadership, the Labour Party has proved remarkably united, and in London at least, its local organisation looks in good shape. After three terms in power, this is a remarkable achievement, considering what happened to the Tories after they finally ended 18 years of power in 1997. But this achievement looks more like Mr Major’s clinging on to power after Margaret Thatcher was ousted in 1990. It comes at cost of not resolving conflicts within the party. In particular much, if not most, of the party’s grassroots thinks that austerity is the malicious pursuit of class warfare by the rich, and that capitalism is an utter failure. They are egged on by a collection of intellectuals untroubled by the responsibilities of ever having run anything. But the party’s leaders, who have genuine ambitions to govern, realise that this is mainly nonsense. Though they have been clear about this in their speeches (when they remember to mention it), there is no sign that their followers have actually taken it on board, such is their detestation of the current government.

And that’s not Labour’s only faultline. Labour are under attack in their working class strongholds. Ukip are taking votes from the party in northern towns, where the party is not used to being challenged. The SNP made a very successful appeal to the working class voters in Labour’s stronghold in Glasgow in Scotland’s referendum. Labour’s leaders are being urged to respond to this by sounding “tougher” on such touchstone issues as immigration and human rights, which is taken as meaning undeserved privileges to migrants, terrorists and criminals. Labour have made some mealy mouthed concessions, especially on immigration. In particular they suggest that the Labour government was mistaken in allowing free immigration of east European migrants after their countries entered the EU. This is very muddled. The tension between liberals and working class conservatives is palpable.

For now Labour are papering over the cracks. Even if they hold together until the election, there is sure to be an explosion after it. If they win, a Labour government will be utterly unable to reconcile the conflicting ideas of their supporters. They will simply pick up where the last, deeply unpopular, Labour government left off. If they lose, their supporters will be unable to understand why, given what they see as the self-evident failures of the coalition years. And if the party is forced into a coalition with the Lib Dems (if that party does better than expected), or a grand coalition with the Conservatives, the reactions of Labour’s supporters can only be guessed at.

Meanwhile the Conservatives are sharpening their knives. This party’s divisions are even greater than those that Labour is troubled with. But their leader, David Cameron, delivered a strong conference speech, setting out a very clear strategy for undermining Labour’s passive electoral hopes. This is the familiar “two-horse race” theme, so that Mr Cameron’s leadership skills can be compared favourably with Mr Miliband’s. And then there is tax. Labour’s ambivalence over reforming the public sector and benefits can be linked to the prospect of higher taxes for the majority.  Interestingly the Conservatives are making no attempt to woo middle of the road liberals, attacking the Lib Dems for stopping their illiberal ideas on civil liberties. This is no doubt part of their strategy to woo back Ukip defectors. But they may also calculate that raising the liberal credentials of their coalition partners may help the Lib Dems win back some of their defectors to Labour. This vigorous Conservative attack on Labour will put the latter under severe strain – though it is difficult to see how the Tories can win outright.

The outlook looks dire for Labour. Things are no better for the Tories. It is difficult not to think that Britain’s traditional two party politics is on its last legs.

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Would a Miliband victory be good for the Lib Dems?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Here’s a paradox. Britain’s political party leaders are the most mediocre, as a set, that I can remember. At least in 2010 we had Gordon Brown: a disastrous prime minister, but one who at least had the moral authority to help lead the world from economic disaster in 2009. But next year’s General Election looks to be the most interesting contest for a very long time. The shame for Liberal Democrats like myself is that we are bit part players, hoping to hang on to most of our parliamentary seats, but without playing much part in the national debate. But the rise of Ukip means that three-party dynamics remains potent. But perhaps the Lib Dems longer term prospects are better?

To start with, we have an unknown effect from the Scottish referendum later this month. Whatever the result, this will surely change dynamics north of the border in ways that it is difficult to predict. The Westminster elite hardly dare confront the possibility of a Yes vote, though the race is tightening and this is a real possibility. They have contented themselves with promising extra devolution for the Scots, without addressing the implications for England. If the Yes result comes, the Westminster politicians will have nobody but themselves to blame.

The constitution of the UK (note this not a “Scots question” – it affects us all) remains the most important issue hanging over our politics, including next year’s election. But for a moment I want to join the Westminster chatterers and put this to one side (the chatteres’ favourite website politicalbetting.com seems to think that the forthcoming Clacton by-election is more important than the referendum), and consider other dynamics.

Over the summer the Conservatives had looked quietly confident, and I shared that confidence on their behalf. They faced a strong challenge from Ukip, whose message appeals to many of their activists, but they seemed ready for that. David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU is highly credible, and it is good bone to throw to potential Ukip defectors. Meanwhile they can promote scare stories about letting Labour in, and also blame the government’s more unpopular policies (to the right) on their coalition partners, the Lib Dems. The Euro election results in May seemed to support this confidence; Ukip were rampant, but Labour’s performance outside London looked lacklustre. Ukip were as much a problem for Labour as the Tories, and Labour’s message to Ukip supporters was (and remains) confused, unlike the Tory one.

Alas for the Conservatives their plan seems to be falling apart. The Tory MP for Clacton, Douglas Carswell, defected to Ukip, resigned his seat, and has caused a by election which he intends to contest under his new party’s banner. Clacton is a stronghold of the disaffected, white, aging, excluded working classes that is Ukip’s core constituency; a victory for Ukip looks certain. This gives Ukip real momentum. But, worse, it emphasises the divisions within Tory ranks between the more sensible moderate types represented by David Cameron, and what liberals regard as a lunatic fringe, whose strength has grown. This will encourage Tory voters to defect to Ukip, and discipline within the party to break down. That could scare off donors. Add this to the fact that the electoral system is weighted against the Conservatives, and they party’s challenge is looking steep indeed.

Which shifts the focus to Labour. That party has a clear hope that it will win the 2015 election by default. They have swept up a lot of former Lib Dem voters, and it seems certain that they will hang on to them. If the Tory vote sags because it is undermined by Ukip it looks good for the party. Labour faces its own challenge against Ukip, but generally in areas where they have very large majorities. There is an excellent article in today’s FT by Matthew Goodwin, who has been following Ukip’s rise closely. He may well be right that Ukip poses a severe long-term challenge to Labour in its northern heartlands, where its organisation is weak. But even he admits that this is more of a problem for 2020 than 2015.

So Ed Miliband’s Labour party could secure an outright majority after next election. And then his problems will really start. He is bound to disappoint his left wing supporters, including those Lib Dem defectors. The British economy remains fundamentally weak and unable to support the size of public sector that these supporters seem to feel is their birthright. There are no quick answers to this underlying weakness, and many of Mr Miliband’s  ideas will make things worse, not better. Neither will he please the grumpy working class voters to whom Ukip is appealing. There will be a sense of betrayal among one group of their supporters, and panic amongst the Labour machine politicians in northern towns, who have taken their power base for granted. And the question of Scottish devolution’s affect on England will need to be faced, or, worse, the impact of Scottish independence. The party would surely be overwhelmed, rather like the Conservatives were after 1992.

But the Conservatives will not be much better off. They will remain divided between pragmatists, who lean towards EU membership, and idealists for whom the EU represents all that is bad. The party is likely either to lurch to the right or fall apart. Ukip, feeding off disillusioned Labour voters, will rise relentlessly.

You could hardly define more propitious circumstances for the Liberal Democrats, provided they stay away from any temptation to form a coalition with Labour. Labour will end up by prolonging many hated coalition policies, vindicating the party’s record in coalition. Meanwhile the rise of Ukip will create a strong anti-Ukip political backlash. As the Tories fail to contain their right, and Labour panics over its loss of working class votes to Ukip – this backlash will present a real opportunity for the Lib Dems, in a highly dynamic four-party play. This opportunity would be best exploited by a new leader. It would be ideal if this was a commonsense, well-grounded female – a Birgitte Nyborg. Alas I cannot see such a choice being available (my preference, Dorothy Thornhill, Mayor for Watford, is unlikely to be in contention). But the opportunity for a comeback is palpable.

What should the Lib Dems do now though? It has little choice but to stick to its guns in the coalition, and concentrate on winning any parliamentary seat where local strength is sufficient to make it winnable. This will mainly be about denying seats to the Conservatives. If things go very badly for the Tories, they may start to pick up some centrist voters from them generally – though that’s a long shot. But they must remember: the opportunities will be after 2015, they should do nothing that will make that comeback harder.

Interesting times indeed!

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Rethinking Liberalism 6: reinventing the state

So far in my series of essays my conclusions have been quite conventional, if a little left of centre. We need to keep capitalism in a mixed economy; the state will need to get bigger to cope with the demographic challenge; we will have to tax the rich more as middle incomes are squeezed. There’s nothing here that would upset the denizens of Whitehall unduly, notwithstanding the economic liberal tendencies of some. But I think we are badly let down by our system of government. It will have to change radically – and yet the complacency of the Westminster elite is overwhelming. Liberals must rally to challenge it.

Unfortunately one of the best examples of this establishment complacency comes from our own Liberal Democrats. Back in the 1990s I was inspired by anti-establishment rhetoric from our then leader, Paddy Ashdown. The whole system was rotten, he said; we were the outsiders and only we could change it. Then, in 1997 the party arrived as a serious force in Westminster politics.  But, somehow, under the leaderships of Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg (or the brief leadership of Ming Campbell, come to that) this radicalism came to be toned down. In spite of some radical language from both of these leaders, policy was more about trimming the Westminster policy agenda here and there without counting too much controversy. Ideas, such as a local income tax, which might have meant a decisive break from the Westminster-centred way of the world, were quietly buried. By the time Lib Dems took up cabinet jobs in the current coalition, they looked very comfortable in their new Westminster ministries, with the possible exception of Vince cable, the industry minister.

And the public could sense this. My heating engineer, classic old-school lower middle-class, told me that the Lib Dems had sacrificed their principles to get their hands on the prestige of power. Mr Clegg looked as if he was enjoying themselves too much. This feels very unfair, of course. There was a national crisis in 2010, and the compromises of coalition were needed for the country’s sake. And the Liberal Democrats have stopped the Conservatives doing a lot of silly things, like cutting Inheritance Tax. But there’s a grain of truth in the accusation; what about the promise to really shake-up British politics? It’s not clear that senior Lib Dems ever wanted to do more than change the standard Westminster priorities a bit, by pushing education and redistribution up the agenda and making the odd stand on behalf of civil liberties, unless real heat got applied. If there has been any reinventing of government, it is mainly Tory ideas that are driving it. And they are about keeping the basic Westminster architecture in place, but diversifying the delivery (more private contractors and Quangos in place of top-down state hierarchies). The attempt to devolve more power to democratically accountable local bodies has been a particular disappointment. Each step forward is accompanied by at least one step back. The malign orthodoxy of the Treasury, with its insistence on a highly centralised model of power, remains unchallenged by key Liberal Democrats – or so it appears.

Why does this matter? Firstly because the pressures caused by the demographic shift have only started. I have already written about pensions. Health costs will rise too as the ratio of older people increases. And then economic growth will continue to stagnate, for a variety of reasons, including the increasing number of people entering retirement, but for other reasons too. Meanwhile the twin (and related) economic deficits of government finances and trade are unsustainable in the long run. The government has to tax more and spend less. It has to become much more efficient and effective.

The country’s direction of travel is not encouraging. Government cuts have been very painful, and the public is tiring of them. Endless privatisations are affecting the quality of service. The fiscal deficit creeps down, but it is still very large, and he trade deficit is getting worse. This shows that the underlying economy remains weak, and that growth is hardly more sustainable than it was under the last Labour government. No sooner does the economy grow, than does Sterling appreciate to undermine all the rebalancing. Meanwhile the country is sleepwalking into the breakup of the United Kingdom (even if Scotland votes No in September) and exit from the European Union, as political dissatisfaction with the status quo grows. Pulling all the usual levers of power in Westminster seems to be doing not much good.

What have liberals to say about this advancing gloom? The first point is that we want people to have as much power as possible over their own lives. That means we dislike people being dependent on the state. It is here that we differ from the socialist left, who don’t mind if the public has a permanent client relationship to state agencies, as this creates a political constituency both amongst the dependents and the employees who serve them. Liberals should recognise that in a modern society the state must play a very big role – but we also need to push back on dependency. The state should fix problems so that demand for state services reduces.

The second point is that we believe that as far as possible state structures should be fully and democratically accountable to the people they serve. The state does not devolve power to citizens, but citizens delegate power to the various levels of government. This too is difficult in the modern world. Many problems are complex and must be solved at a national and international level – and the further up power is delegated, the weaker accountability becomes.

Have we delegated too much power to transnational bodies like the European Union and the World Trade Organisation – with the threat of more as part of a transatlantic trade deal? I don’t think so – these structures merely recognise the transnational nature of problems and the need to agree international standards and laws. Countries that opt out of these structures don’t seem conspicuously better off as a result. Is Australia, for example, really a better and happier place than Britain? Its recent economic success is as much down to the luck of geography and natural resources as anything else. Does having to dig up vast amounts of prime farmland to get at the coal beneath, while poisoning the great natural wonder of the Barrier Reef, really look like freedom?

No. I think the main problem is that we have delegated too much power to Westminster, and that the Westminster elite is protecting itself rather than solving the countries’ problems. It has created a series of administrative silos that perpetuate problems rather than solving them. To tackle this we need to do three things.

  1. Establish a federal system for United Kingdom, by creating a new English parliament and English government, based outside London, and taking to itself the same set of administrative responsibilities as the Scottish government has.
  2. Radically reform the way public services are commissioned to ensure that solving problems for their clients becomes their prime driving force. This will entail a radically increased role for locally accountable agencies.
  3. Reform the country’s tax system to follow this radical redistribution of responsibilities so that every level of government controls more of its own revenues – alongside a system of transfers to ensure a fair distribution of resources.

Each of these three depends on the others. Federalism is required to break up Westminster complacency; public services will only be properly remodelled if it is not controlled from Westminster; power cannot be decentralised unless tax is decentralised too. I will pick up each of these themes in future essays.

 

 

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The Orange Book 10 years on: is this the way to reclaim liberalism?

Orange book conferenceToday I attended a conference organised by CentreForum to mark the tenth anniversary of its publication of The Orange Book. Viewed in hindsight, the Orange Book was an important political event, that did much to set the tone of the following decade. But does its version of liberalism have what it takes to drive political ideas in the next ten years? On today’s form the answer to that question is no.

The Orange Book was edited by David Laws, currently education minister, and briefly in the Coalition cabinet; other contributors were Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Ed Davey and Nick Clegg – who are or were all members of the Coalition cabinet, along with a number of other people who became ministers – an event that none would have foreseen at the time. While it took on a broad definition of liberalism, it was its espousal of economic liberalism that caught attention. It was not favoured by the Liberal Democrats’ then management, as a General Election beckoned in 2005. But after Nick Clegg took on the party leadership it came to define the party’s official policy line. It can plausibly claim to frame the guiding principles of the Coalition government itself, and not just the Liberal Democrat element. To the book’s supporters this was a victory of a coherent political philosophy over the mushy protest politics and left-wing opportunism that preceded it. To its opponents the Orange Book’s success was the triumph of a “neoliberal” elite over the party’s core values.

The conference consisted of two panel sessions, with three speakers each, in the morning, a keynote speech by David Laws at midday, with a response by economics journalist Anatole Kaletsky, with a final panel session after lunch.

The first panel consisted of Mark Littlewood, currently of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a right-wing think tank, but also a former Lib Dem functionary; Tim Montgomerie, a Conservative agitator who founded ConservativeHome; and Vicky Pryce, formerly a government economist and Lib Dem member.

Mr Littlewood led with a lightweight defence of economic liberalism: a formula of smaller government and lower taxes, which, he claimed would lead to stronger economic growth, whose benefits he did not bother to spell out. He felt that the country’s governing philosophy was still social democracy, and that economic liberalism had not been given a true opportunity to show what it could do.

Mr Montgomerie was much more interesting. He pointed out that economic liberals needed to confront two issues which threatened to undermine their system. The first was “social capital”, the family and community structures and the value system without which a liberal economy could not flourish. The second was inequality, of which the most important aspect was the division between those who owned their own houses and those that didn’t. His take on both, and especially the first, had a conservative slant – but the challenge was good. He made the excellent point that the best way of reducing the size of government was reducing demand for it, through a stronger society. This is a point that few in the political elite grasp: the objective of most public services is to reduce demand for them – one reason that they have less to learn from the private sector than may think.

I found Ms Pryce rather less memorable. She made a call for stronger leadership and coherence in government. Our current system was too subject the a “do something” culture, responding to whatever the Daily Mail happened to be beefing about, with individual ministers acting without reference to each other.

The second panel session was meant to focus on public services. It consisted of Paul Marshall, who founded CentreForum and effectively funded the Orange Book; Greg Clark MP, a Conservative minister in the Cabinet Office; and Norman Lamb MP, the Lib Dem Health minister. They never really got to grips with the issue public services, confining themselves to generalities.

Mr Marshall is a hedge fund manager, who also founded ARK, a chain that runs Academy schools. He showed himself to be an economic liberal extremist, which he claimed was necessary for social liberal ends. He promoted the myth (as did Mr Clark) that it was the government’s policy of supporting independent academies that had caused a substantial advance in school standards, especially in London. This is a rather annoying rewrite of history: credit for London schools lies mainly lies is forcing proper accountability on local authorities and established schools, as well a degree of state assistance and support. For Mr Marshall education pointed the way for other services, such as health – that advances could be made through using a diversity of providers. He was right, however, in his passionate denunciation of the complacency within the educational establishment.

Mr Clark proved an interesting speaker. His big idea was decentralisation from Whitehall, on which he claimed a lot of progress had been made with the City Deals that he had worked on with Mr Clegg. Unlike some, he clearly understood the implications of this: that it meant breaking away from the idea that everything had to be done the same way across the country. He did not refer to the Coalition Communities’ Secretary, Eric Pickles, who recently decided to regulate the way in which local governments managed their parking enforcement.

Mr Lamb broadly agreed with this, but seemed a bit wearied by the political difficulties of executing reforms. He felt that our highly centralised government was the wrong way of going about public policy, as the many failures of the NHS had demonstrated.

Mr Laws offered a rather complacent speech, celebrating the success of the Orange Book, while barely acknowledging the challenges to it, such as rising inequality. Mr Kaletsky’s was much more interesting. He understood that the world had changed and that conventional liberal economics was not up to the task. Fiscal policy had to be restored as a policy instrument alongside monetary policy; inequality was not just a matter of social justice but economic efficiency; government would have to both to take up less expenditure and extend its regulatory reach; public pensions and the health service would have to be curbed. While I find this analysis is flawed, it at least challenged the complacency.

In the afternoon the final session had James Cameron, Chairman of Climate Change Capital, Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of Quilliam, and Jeremy Browne MP, a former Lib Dem minister, notorious for his robust economic liberal views. This session raised the issue of sticking to liberal values in an international context. Mr Nawaz said that liberals had to emphasise the global nature of liberal values, and not soften them for cross-cultural sensitivities. Liberals should appeal to individual members of ethnic minority groups, and not approach them via their paternalistic community leaders. Mr Browne put to much emphasis on global competition for my taste – but he did make the point that the Lib Dems were potentially missing an appeal to a younger generation who were both economically and socially liberal. While all speakers emphasised that challenges were increasingly international, and the cross-cultural nature of liberal values, none made the obvious progression that liberals should organise themselves internationally, rather than being stuck on national lines.

Overall impressions? To me this conference showed that the Orange Bookers are nearly out of road in the Liberal Democrats. All the most challenging speakers came from outside the party. The world, and Britain in particular, faces major challenges. The rich are taking too big a slice of the economy, which is slowly throttling overall growth. Everybody else is finding life increasingly precarious. Meanwhile the demographic challenge is threatening to overwhelm what taxpayer funded services can provide and climate catastrophe beckons. These developments are not the result of too large a government and an excess of social democratic policies. They result, at least in part, from the application economic liberalism. The Lib Dems will either sink back into the mushy world of protest politics that it inhabited in 2005, or develop challenging new ideas to confront the problems of now. The Orange Bookers seem to be doing neither, and are in danger of irrelevance.

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The search for a new Liberal narrative

There is a basic human need to understand the world in terms of simple stories. This is as true of politics as it is for other parts of life. Something that explains how we have got to where we are – and guides us towards what to do next.  These are referred to as “narratives” in the jargon of political marketing. A narrative is a critical part of the political “brand”, another useful piece of political marketing jargon, which refers to what the public understands to be the core elements of a political party or movement. And liberals the world over, but especially here in Britain, are adrift. Here it is brought on by the spectacular collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats since they entered coalition government in 2010, and the way the other parties are veering away from liberal policies. In the European elections only about 2.5% of the British electorate voted for the only avowedly liberal party on offer.

I particularly like this article, The not so strange death of Liberal England, by Simon Radford in Left Foot Forward. I think he articulates very clearly what many liberals are currently thinking, especially those on in the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties. I will draw shamelessly from it as I develop my own narrative of how liberals and Liberals have reached the current dark patch.

Mr Radford suggests that Liberalism (as I will call the political movement which started with the Liberal Party) started in the 19th Century when the key political battle was between landowners and tenants. The state was tilted heavily in favour of the landowners, both terms of trade (particularly the lack of free trade of food) and taxation (little or no income tax). Liberalism was the movement that took the side of the tenants, and free trade was its central organising principle. To this were added the ideas of social insurance, and the birth of the welfare state. It was a long struggle, but the Liberals won, led by Asquith, Lloyd-George and Churchill, before war struck in 1914.

But the game had already moved on. The central drama was now the battle between the capitalists and workers. Liberal policies of free trade did not address this conflict. Instead the Labour movement arose, based on organising workers and forcing capitalists to give up a more equal share of the wealth – through better wages, workers’ rights, taxation and an expanded welfare state. The Liberals faded into irrelevance between the two wars.

Then came what many mistakenly regard as a golden age, after the Second World War. The forces of technology and demographics combined to give steady growth in which the wealth of all advanced. Social democracy was the prevailing wisdom, with a large role given to labour unions. Labour had a strong enough hand to ensure that they a decent share of the gains went to the workers. Liberalism had little to add, although liberal instincts accorded well the optimistic and more tolerant ethos of the times. Many in the Conservative and Labour parties described themselves as liberals.

Then came the 1980s, when capitalists advanced and labour retreated. Some on the left see this as the result of a sinister coup, masterminded by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, to corrupt a system that was already working well. But the social democratic system was by then collapsing under its own weight, and it did not need much of a push to send it crashing to the ground. The old liberal ideas of free markets and trade came to the fore, and brought forward economic growth, but the process was not led by liberals; state services were neglected and taxes cut. By the 1990s new technology and globalisation were adding to the mix. The hope was that the benefits of growth would spread to all.

But the public weren’t happy with the political leadership. Labour were not trusted because they were associated with the collapse of the social democratic system, in  welter of industrial disputes and stymied productivity, in the 1970s. And yet they disliked Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives, and their rejection of social solidarity and neglect of public services. Liberalism started to revive. It offered a kinder version of the capitalist system. Tony Blair’s Labour Party managed to capture much of this liberal enthusiasm (calling his ideas a “Third Way”), which, allied with traditional Labour supporters gave him a ruling coalition which lasted from 1997 to 2010 (though he himself had been turned out by then). Although Mr Blair’s “New Labour” was the main beneficiary, the Liberal Democrats prospered too, establishing themselves as a credible third force, in a way that would have seemed unimaginable in the 1950s, 60s or 70s. And it seemed to work; the country enjoyed steady economic growth, the benefits of which were distributed widely – inequality of income may not have been reduced, but it didn’t increased either.

But then came the bust of 20008-2009. It turned out that the growth enjoyed in the Labour years was built on air. They had expanded government ahead of what the economy could sustain, and much of its new infrastructure had to be dismantled. Living standards fell, hurting especially for those on low or middle incomes, while those on very high incomes still seemed to prosper. Worse, the quality of work seemed to fall for the majority, especially for most young people entering the job market. Steady, if mindless, factory jobs were swapped for rootless service ones, often badly paid. Meanwhile the low interest rates required by the sagging economy hit the country’s growing army of pensioners, as bank deposits yielded less and annuities became more expensive. A sour political mood has resulted.

Populist, conservative narratives are taking hold. Globalisation is seen as the problem, and especially two obvious elements: immigration and the country’s membership of the European Union, which is blamed for loss of control over immigration, bad laws and regulations, and excessive subsidies to foreigners. This narrative is incoherent, but it is not my purpose to pick it apart. The problem is that liberals have lost confidence in their own narrative.

Capitalism is not working for all. A minority is raking off profits and amassing wealth, while most of the rest are having to put up with increasing insecurity. But how to replace capitalism, since the usual alternative, state ownership and direction, has proved such a spectacular failure under Communism? The left say that increased state power is the answer. The Labour party has come up with various ideas for forcing capitalist enterprises to behave better. But these are hardly liberal. Liberals dislike the idea of putting peoples’ fates in the hands of wise bureaucrats. And also Labour’s ideas are pessimistic. It’s all about stopping people from inflicting harm, and little about allowing people to better themselves (as this week’s Economist Bagehot column points out).

Liberals are optimistic about human nature. They want to help people to help themselves, and allow them to make their own choices. I think there is an optimistic narrative to be found. It is about taking on both big government and big corporations. Working internationally to curb multinational businesses. Developing more sustainable lifestyles which are more locally based. It means ditching an obsession with economic growth for a broader understanding of well-being.

I aim to develop these ideas further. But it is clear that such a narrative implies some hard choices. It may mean that liberals are unable to accept the compromises entailed in coalition government. But if there are no hard choices there is no credibility.

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