Tag Archives: Lib Dems

The SNP are on manoeuvres. Westminster politicians should be afraid.

Scottish politics is an exercise in asymmetric warfare. The Scottish Nicola SturgeonNational Party (SNP) are steeped in the nation’s own political culture, and focus on their objective of obtaining its independence. The unionist parties are more concerned with the politics of UK as a whole, and push their policies concerning Scotland and the Union into the “too difficult” pile until too late. This has been stark in the last few years. The SNP won their referendum on independence (i.e. holding the referendum, rather than the outcome, which they lost). At first Westminster politicians did not take the campaign seriously, relying on comforting opinion polls. Then, as the No campaign went awry and they woke up to the implications, they panicked. The main party leaders made an ill-thought through pledge (referred to as “The Vow”) on devolving more powers. When the referendum was over, the main party leaders could only see the issue in terms of their own struggles for supremacy in Westminster. The Conservative sought to embarrass Labour with a call for “English votes for English laws”. Labour called for a Constitutional Convention to head this off, but offered no vision of how the thought the union should be run. The SNP are now about to make both parties pay dearly for their negligence.

The SNP lost their referendum, but far from being depressed and demoralised, they have treated the affair as a sort of reconnaissance in force preliminary to a longer campaign. They have made a sharp change in strategy. First their long-standing leader, and Scottish First Minister, Alec Salmond  stepped down, to be replaced by his very capable and popular deputy Nicola Sturgeon. Then Mr Salmond said that he would stand for the Westminster parliament in the May election, meaning that Westminster would have one of the party’s biggest hitters. Then yesterday Ms Sturgeon dropped a bombshell. She said that the SNP at Westminster would happily vote on the English NHS. Until now the SNP at Westminster have stayed clear on voting on matters, like the NHS, which have been devolved to the Scottish parliament. The reason offered is that Scotland’s funding formula (“the Barnett formula”) means that their funding might be affected by England’s health policies. There is practically no aspect of devolved policy that this argument could not be applied to. The SNP are now offering themselves as a fully fledged coalition partner to the Labour Party, should the latter fail to win an outright majority. The three main Westminster Parties hadn’t seen this coming, and they are in utter disarray.

For Labour this is unmitigated disaster. The SNP’s sudden interest in Westminster politics makes a large number of their MPs in Scottish seats vulnerable. The current polling is awful; the party could lose 30 seats. Labour has taken Scots voters for granted ever since the Conservatives’ Scottish presence collapsed under Mrs Thatcher. Their ineptitude was on full display during the No campaign. They have no idea how to construct a persuasive, coherent message and stick to it: their preferred method is just crude menace.  Their campaign message so far is to threaten Scots voters with another Tory-led government. “Don’t worry,” say the SNP “if you vote for us instead we can stop the Tories too.” Labour are left with just emptiness in return. They have no vision of Scotland’s place in the union beyond panicky responses to nationalist pressure.

Intelligent Tories (there are some) should be troubled too. The purpose behind the “English votes for English laws” idea was simply to embarrass Labour in England by pointing out how much they depended on blocks of Scots and Welsh MPs. There is no coherent, workable model of a well-functioning UK constitution behind it. But it carries the risk of destabilising the Union by stoking up English resentment without offering an answer. The SNP have just made that much worse. What about the fate of England’s NHS being dictated by SNP MPs? Conservatives (mainly) support the Union. Scottish independence would be seen as national humiliation and a bitter blow. And yet they are playing into the nationalists’ hands.

Things aren’t much better for the Liberal Democrats. Their main problem is political weakness, resulting from a backlash for going into coalition with the Conservatives. This is at least as strong in Scotland as it is elsewhere in the UK. The party has thought through its vision of the UK constitution more than the other parties, and its solutions are much more robust. But its softly-softly approach to devolution within England, and rejection of the idea of an English Parliament and government, look constructed for a gentler pace of politics than is in prospect if the SNP do well. Still there are some silver linings to the very dark clouds. Labour are retreating from seats they were hoping to take from the Lib Dems, in order to face off the SNP in their own backyard. And Christine Jardine, their feisty candidate in Gordon, the seat Mr Salmond hopes to win, will be no pushover, as she rallies the anti-SNP vote.

But each of the main unionist parties need to take a step back, and form coherent ideas on how the constitution of the Union should look. It isn’t enough to call for a Constitutional Convention; each party must spell out a clear vision that looks sustainable in the face of mischief-making by the SNP. Even if such ideas have short-term political costs. The people of this United Kingdom deserve no less.

 

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Good and bad news about the Lib Dems NHS funding pledge

Today the Liberal Democrats announced and eye catching policy toNHS improve NHS funding by £8bn a year by 2020 (in England).  This matches the figure asked for by NHS England chief Simon Stevens – so it isn’t plucked from thin air.

How is this to be paid for? First £2bn extra is already planned and accepted by the other parties (Labour want to add another £0.5bn). A further £1bn comes from more taxes on the wealthy. The rest will be gradually added as the economy grows. The Lib Dems say that public expenditure should keep pace with national income.

There are good and bad things about this new policy. First the good thing. The £8bn funding figure is entirely credible, given the direction of demographics. Mr Stevens is no lefty. He knows that the NHS can be more efficient and has plans to make it so. But that only gets you so far. Any party that promises to keep the NHS within its current scope and free has to address this gap. This moves, or should move, the debate on the NHS out of the area of gimmicks and into serious choices.

Except that it doesn’t. They’ve made the whole thing look to easy. Tax some other people a bit more and the rest comes from growth. If it’s that easy the other parties can do it too. This is not different in substance to what Labour are offering. It is more of a challenge to the Tories who want to use the proceeds of growth to fund tax cuts.

And growth cannot be guaranteed. There are severe economic headwinds, from demographics, from changes to technology, from changes to world trade – to name but three. To say nothing of the legacy of piles of household and state debt.

To be distinctive, the Lib Dems needed to make it look harder. Which in practice means raising taxes – income tax, national insurance or VAT. Remember Paddy Ashdown’s promise of 1p income tax for education?  This would have made the promise more credible, and got a real debate going.  It would then be Labour who would be forced to mutter promises about future growth, which the public are likely to discount.

Instead this looks like another politician’s promise that is less than it seems. What a pity.

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The Lib dems – successful in government, unrewarded by the public

2015 is here at last. For British politicos this is the  endgame – the year of the General Election and the verdict on the politicking of the current parliament, elected in 2010. That election remains very open, but for the Liberal Democrats it is fair to say that things have gone disastrously off script.

The party languishes at 5-10% in the polls, compared to the over 20% it achieved in 2010. This has shown no sign of improving as the election approaches, and there have been plenty of real life elections to show that such dismal ratings are not just inaccurate polling.

This follows the party’s entry into coalition government in 2010, a ground-breaking event both for the party and for British politics. This government has been pretty successful all told. It inherited an utterly unsustainable government deficit that demanded cuts to both public services and benefits – “austerity”. It struck a fairly prudent course between extreme austerity, and using the relative ease of government borrowing to postpone the pain. For all the political sound and fury over the sense or otherwise of such austerity, there has been little difference between the main political parties on its scale.

There have been failures. Benefits had to be cut, but many of the reforms to the benefits system were misconceived.  The centrepiece reform of Universal Credit might be a nice idea in theory, but its dependence on unobtainable real-time data make its demise only a matter of time. Many attempts to sub-contract government services to the private sector have proved misconceived too. Reforms to the NHS were well-intentioned but it would surely have been more sensible to build on the previous government’s reforms incrementally. Reforms to immigration were popular but unhelpful to the nation’s economic and social health.

But there have been many sensible reforms along the way. A lot of bureaucratic over-engineering from the last government was dismantled. The management of schools is more sharply focused, with a welcome emphasis on the progress of pupils from more challenging backgrounds – and a search for performance measures that can be gamed less easily. Reforms to university finance have improved accountability and spread the financial burden more fairly. The burden of taxation has been shifted to a more progressive and redistributive pattern, not least with a spectacular crackdown on tax avoidance by the very rich. This has helped stem a rise in inequality – though I don’t think the statistics are conclusive as to whether inequality has actually been held in check. overall.

Many (or even most) of these sensible reforms have Liberal Democrat fingerprints on them. The party has proved good at the exigencies of being a governing party – including the discipline of its parliamentarians. A lot of small scale policies have been implemented that Lib Dems have spent years campaigning for (like being able to declare pubs as community assets). Previously characterised as being chaotic lightweights, Liberal Democrats have proved to be up to the job.

There have been major disappointments for Lib Dems in the area of political reform. A referendum on changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote just gave an opportunity for the rest of the political establishment to gang up on the party. Plans for an elected second chamber collapsed in the face of hostility and indifference from Conservative and Labour politicians. Ironically these disappointments may help the party’s fortunes. With the current state of public opinion AV might well have  helped the Conservatives and Labour more than the Lib Dems, allowing them to scoop up Ukip and Green votes. And the strong presence of Lib Dems in the House of Lords immeasurably adds to the party’s heft in any negotiations in a hung parliament – something the SNP, for example, cannot offer. In the PR elections the party wanted for the Lords (or rather, its replacement), it would almost certainly have been nearly wiped out, and surely behind Ukip, the SNP and perhaps even the Greens.

But Lib Dems had expected better rewards from the electorate. It is commonplace for governing parties to lose popularity in the middle of a parliament, but then they are meant to recover. The Liberal Democrats hoped to present themselves to the electorate as a credible coalition party, firmly rooted in the political centre – having put to rest any doubts that it was incapable of achieving practical political power.  Even as Labour and the Conservatives seem to be vacating the political centre, few centrist voters see the Lib Dems as a respectable alternative.

What went wrong? The first problem is that the party has disappointed many of its supporters. In 2010 (and earlier General Elections, come to that), the party set itself up as standing for a new brand of politics – and a break from the lies and cynicism of the other parties. But what the public saw was just another established party wheeler-dealing like the rest of them, and enjoying the prestige of ministerial office. Reforms to university finance may have been an elegant compromise in practice, but it involved reneging on a very categorical election pledge.

A further problem is that many of the party’s supporters were Labour defectors, who saw teaming up with the Conservatives as betrayal. The impact of austerity and reforms to the benefits system and the NHS hardly reassured these voters. That the party was in practice no worse than Labour wasn’t really the point; they hoped for better. The Tory brand remains as toxic as ever.

But all is not lost. The party has upped its game in the seats it holds, and constituency polls show that its candidates there are much more popular locally than the party itself. And their opponents are distracted by the need to keep Ukip, the SNP and the Greens at bay. The public may yet give the party more credit, especially if it gets its messaging right. The liberal centre is not close-fought territory – it is notable that activists have never found the alternative parties less appealing than now.

But a job needs to be done to define better what the party stands for, and communicate this to the public. The party is confident of its core liberal values, but these are not producing sharp, distinctive policies for the more practical issues that bother voters – the economy and the NHS in particular. That’s a shame because some interesting thinking has come up through the party’s policy making machinery – but these ideas need to be turned into something much sharper. This week has not been particularly encouraging. The party has joined in the excessively negative slagging off of other parties – as have all the other parties, mainstream and fringe. Wouldn’t it be better to set out a stall of distinctive policies, on the economy, taxation, the environment and public service – and damn the other parties with faint praise? The public get that small parties can make a difference in coalition – but they need a better idea of what that difference might be in the case of the Lib Dems.

The party has to go through the final act of its years in coalition, and endure the outcome. After that though, the party needs a period of deep reflection, whether or not it re-enters government. But the country does need a liberal party, and there are no others challenging for that space.

 

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Polly Toynbee is right – we need more honest debate on tax and spend

I don’t approve of Polly Toynbee. She’s so deep in the Guardian bunker that she rarely has anything useful to say. She writes polemic that will entertain the left, but not persuade anybody else . So I wasn’t expecting much from her article last week Economic dishonesty is the deadliest deficit of all. I was expecting her to repeat the Labour myth that the economic crisis was somebody else’s fault, and that austerity policies have strangled the British economy. But she was making a point of value. It was that the Conservatives and Labour have very different views of the future government finance – but they were both concealing their differences.  The Conservatives do not want to spell out the implications on services and benefits; Labour do not want to look irresponsible, or to be painted as the party of high taxes.

She wrote her article before the Autumn Statement delivered by the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Ms Toynbee should be pleasantly surprised at how things turned out, though I doubt that she is. The British government’s future policies on taxation and public expenditure have taken centre stage, and important differences have emerged between the political parties.

It started with some rather excitable coverage on the BBC Radio Today programme, which pointed out that Tory party plans for future spending would take it back to being the lowest proportion of national income since the 1930s. The bare statistics were factual (inasmuch as future projections can be described as factual) – but a comparison with the 1930s is farcical. National income is incomparably bigger than then – so a similar ratio of spending to income will not produce destitution that is in any way comparable. For similar reasons, the economic crash of 2008-09 is no way comparable to that of the 1930s, in spite of some of the ratios to national income being similar. Mr Osborne rather publicly objected to the coverage, drawing attention to the whole issue. Up to that point Ms Toynbee’s forecast seemed to be coming true.

In turns out that though Labour and the Conservatives are aiming at the same date to eliminate the structural deficit in British spending (i.e. cyclically adjusted spending less taxes), beyond that the difference between Labour’s spending plans and the Conservatives’ is as high as £27bn per annum. Differences on this scale are significant.

The next act in this drama was an attack by Mr Osborne on his Liberal Democrat coalition partners that they had lost the plot on economic policy because their plans were closer to Labour’s than the Conservatives. Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury minister, made a robust response about the impossibility of Conservative spending plans. Ms Toynbee, in typical Guardian bunker style, had painted the Lib Dems as indistinguishable from the Tories, so she would have been less than pleased about this – but not too upset since she no doubt thinks that the Lib Dems are a political irrelevance these days.

It is to be hoped that these spats are the beginning of a serious political debate. Up until now we have experienced manufactured political rows over the immigration, the European Union and the NHS. Admittedly the Tory preparedness to take big risks with Britain’s membership of the EU is a serious political issue – but the row is more about tactics and competence than strategy. On the other issues the politicians have very little of practical value to say. But the gap between left and right on state spending (I refuse to call it “economic policy” as most commentators do) foreshadows very different visions for how the British state should work.

The right has an economically liberal view of the state, with both state services and benefits being pared back, leaving more space for private enterprise and consumer choice. The left does not seem to have such a clear vision – much of its energy is being devoted to keeping public services and benefits as they are and avoiding serious questions about the future. That is a pity, because shifts in both demographics and the distribution of economic power point to a larger role for the state.

The problem with the debate, though, is that none of the political parties is being clear about what they want to do. It is good that we are talking about broad numbers on the size of the state – but this needs to be brought down to specifics. The Conservatives need to be clearer about what they plan to cut, and how they want to reshape benefits. Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to do this too – because their plans also involve big cuts. But they also need to talk about taxes. The Tories are quite right that the only tax raising idea that they will talk about, the Mansion Tax, is small beer.

Britain, along with most of the developed world, needs to rethink tax, state benefits and public services. I do not believe that they can be shrunk in the way the right suggests. But neither are they sustainable in their current form, as the left seems to think. That, not immigration, exactly who delivers health services, or even membership of the EU, is one of the critical issues of our time.

The more politicians debate these issues, the better. But if they obfuscate, then Polly Toynbee’s angry rhetoric will for once be justified.

 

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The slow suicide of Britain’s two party system. Only AV might have saved it

Two-party politics used to be the norm for developed democracies. Most countries’ politics were divided between tribal blocks based on the urban working class and on the aspirant middle classes. But the dominance of these two blocks has faded in most countries. There are two interesting exceptions: the USA and Australia. Here in Britain two-party politics looked as if it would triumph with the demise of the Liberal Democrat,s and the No vote in the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) in 2011. But now the system is its death throes.

It is worth considering the architecture of two party politics for a moment. Electoral politics is dominated by two political parties, each of which may govern on its own, without the need for support from smaller parties in coalitions or pacts. Each of these parties has a tribal character, defining themselves as much in opposition to the other as by their own core values. But there is an undeniable class base two. This divides the country into heartlands, where one or other of the parties dominates to the exclusion of all others, and marginal territory, contested by both parties, where elections are won and loss. Many, if not most, politicians build their own careers in the heartlands, where advancement depends on internal party politics, rather than winning over marginal voters. This leads to the system’s major flaw – the political classes are more worried about their own backyard and internal politics than in appealing to the electorate at large. Or they worry about marginal voters to the exclusion of the heartlands. Distance between voters and politicians grows.

The breakdown of this system follows the weakening of class loyalties from the 1960s onwards. New parties have emerged, from the liberal centre, from populist anti-political movements, from environmentalists, and from parties based on regional identity. In much of Europe coalitions became commonplace. Electoral systems played an important role. Those with proportional representation (PR) were the first to find that one party could not govern on its own. But in countries with single member constituencies one party could still aspire to win on its own. France’s two-round system promoted pacts and alliances between parties, and the major blocks split into separate parties – before the whole system started to be challenged by the populist Front National. Countries with First Past the Post (FPTP) systems have placed a greater role on party solidarity. But in New Zealand disillusion with two-party politics led to the introduction of PR; in Canada each of the two party blocks suffered existential crises that allowed more modern alternatives to replace them, at least in part. Australia’s AV system seems to have entrenched the two party system there, however. I will come back to that.

In the biggest and oldest developed-world democracy of them all, however, the two party system remains completely dominant. In the USA there is no alternative to the Republicans or Democrats, although the occasional challenge comes and goes – even as more and more voters self-describe as Independent. But the US system of democracy is unique. Apart from the widespread use of FPTP (some states use a two round system – which is why the Louisiana Senate race is not yet over after this month’s nationwide election), I think there are three, inter-related factors: primary elections, decentralised  power, and direct executive elections. Each party’s candidates are selected using primary elections which include much more than official party members. Such elections are part of the formal, state electoral process. Voters may register as Democrat or Republican. This allows them to take part in publicly-run primaries; in some states primaries are open – any voter can take part. That makes heartland elections competitive – and not a matter of manipulating small groups of insiders to secure your party’s nomination. It helps that each party’s national leadership is weak – so wheeler-dealing in Washington will not help a political career by much. This is a function of a system where much of the power is wielded at state level. One of the factors that keeps party functionaries weak is the prominence of direct executive elections, notably for President and state governors. In these cases personality often matters more than tribal allegiance.

It is an interesting paradox – for the two party system to be robust, the party leaderships must not be too strong. This allows the primary system to flourish, and gives outsiders a chance to break into politics. But party solidarity is important enough for those in power to rig the system to provide incumbent politicians with electorally safe seats through the gerrymandering of boundaries. A diminishing proportion of seats in the House of Representatives are competitive between the two blocks. A large proportion of the important politics is now in the tribal heartlands, and not in marginal territory. As a result of this, it would not be right to describe the state of politics in the USA as healthy. There is increasing polarisation, which is causing deadlock and the prospect of extremist policies. Most Americans seem fed up with the state of politics in their country, though not necessarily with the system itself.

Another case study in the survival of two-party politics is Australia. Politics is divided between two long-standing political blocks: Labor and the Liberal party, though the latter is a coalition of state parties (some of which refer to themselves as National or Country). There have been challenges to this duopoly over the years, but these have not made headway. No doubt there a number of factors that have contributed to this – but I think one factor is critical. And this is the AV electoral system. The legislature comprises single-member constituencies, and there is a single election day. Voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate does not achieve more than 50% of the votes casts, the lower ranking candidates are eliminated and their votes redistributed. This is a bit like the French two round run-off system, except that with a single election day there is little scope for political deal making over second preferences. It is so important for candidates to maximise first preferences that it best not to talk too much about second preferences.

This makes it very hard for challengers to win seats. First their first preferences have to overhaul one or other of the two main parties. But to do so they cannot say “vote for me to keep the other guy out”, because that is an argument for second preference votes, not first. Second preference votes are useless without sufficient first preferences. And then, of course, you must have sufficient first and second preference votes to get a majority. In marginal seats challengers will be beaten by the lack of first preferences; in heartland seats there will be lack of second preference votes. As a result almost all seats go to one or other of the blocks. In 2013 in order to turn out a lacklustre Labor government, voters opted for a Liberal one that is now pushing forward a series of extremist policies on the environment and immigration.

So what of Britain? For a long time the main challenge to the two party system came from the Liberal Democrats, based in the liberal centre. It was skilful in winning seats under FPTP by establishing a local base, and then winning tactical votes from the weaker of the two blocks. This allowed it to win a substantial block of parliamentary seats in 1997, but not the balance of power until 2010. It then entered coalition with the Conservatives. And then disaster struck – the transition from a protest party to one of government was too much for the voters, and its poll ratings collapsed. Labour and Tory politicians breathed a sigh of relief – normal two-party politics could be resumed.

Ironically, in view of the Australian experience, the Lib Dems placed some hope by proposing to change Britain’s FPTP system to AV. This would have helped the party in the short term, where it had built up a sufficient local base to win second place in first preference votes. Both major parties agreed with the Lib Dem analysis, and for that reason opposed the change (Labour through faint praise rather than explicit opposition). In a referendum on the change in 2011 an overwhelming majority opposed AV. This seemed to secure the future of two-party politics.

But unlike the US, Britain’s politics is highly centralised. Party managers in Westminster like to keep a tight grip on their parties. And, again unlike the US, executives are elected indirectly, and candidates must master the internal politics of their own party in order to progress to high office. The idea of primary elections has not been allowed to gain traction. The Tories have moved small steps towards it, but without being able to harness state resources. The public has no way to channel its disillusion with politics than to vote for insurgent parties – since they are denied a role in the main party elections. And this they have been doing by supporting the populist Ukip in England and the SNP in Scotland.

Unlike the Lib Dem challenge, these insurgencies have affected the main parties’ heartland voters. They are creating unbearable pressures with both party blocks. The Conservative and Labour leaders try both to fend off the insurgent challenge, and to retain the political centre – and as a result both appear weak, driven by events rather than leading them. This is creating unbearable strains and it seems likely both will fracture, especially if they have to endure the pressures of being in government. Labour face calamity in Scotland, as the SNP overturn their heartlands. In England Labour are a fragile coalition of public sector unions, liberal centrists and heartland machine politicians; each’s expectations of the party seems completely incompatible. The Tories look likely to fracture over Europe.

Ironically, if both parties had embraced AV, they would have been in a stronger position to fend off the insurgents and maintain party solidarity. And yet this is just another face of a bigger problem that both party’s face. their obsession with winning the next election has meant a loss of strategic focus. The demise of the two party system looks alarming, as fringe parties gain prominence. But in the long term it is to be welcomed. As the USA and Australia shows, a two-party system is too easily captured by political extremes.

 

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Sliced bread, beer and politics. We must embrace pluralism

mothers prideSometimes I still hear the expression “the best thing since sliced bread”. This refers to the 1960s revolution in bread production, whose leading brand was Mothers Pride (missing apostrophes were another aspect of 1960s modernity). This was not just a matter of slicing the bread, but the invention of new baking processes that made the bread last longer. What was not to like about the new, modern stuff? It lasted longer and you did not have the hassle of cutting it. Sandwiches and toast became a doddle; the daily trip to the baker was no longer needed. And it was much cheaper, being mass produced in big factories. The new bread swept all before it, and traditional high street bakers disappeared.

But my mother hated the stuff, which she referred to as “cotton wool”. Mothers Pride was banned from the Green household. Eventually we resorted to baking our own bread. But in this, as in so many other things, hers was a lonely voice, to be sniggered at behind her back. But she was right. Bread consumption started to fall, and then to collapse. The new invention had solved many problems, but it had compromised its core values – taste and texture. Bread became pointless. Eventually craft bakeries sprang up as the middle classes, at least, were prepared to pay extra for something like the old product.

This is a pattern that repeats in the modern world. Another exampleHeineken is beer. Traditional beer is tricky to produce. But our industrial behemoths succeeded in creating bland, gassy and cheaper products. And then they set their marketers and advertisers onto the task of selling the stuff (a process that also happened to bread). There was more resistance at first. But the advertisers won through with lager. Clever, funny advertisements, like those for Heineken (“refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach”) hit the zeitgeist, and traditionally made beers fell into rapid decline. Advertisers loved lager. They regarded it is a pure marketing product. It sold only through the strength of marketing, which had nothing to do with how it tasted. Indeed, researchers found that the blander it tasted, the faster, and more, people drank. The brewers adjusted their products accordingly.

And now the brewers are in crisis, in developed markets anyway. Beer drinking is in decline. All the momentum is with craft brewers, who produce small quantities of the stuff using more traditional methods – and which taste of something.

And so to politics. Politics used to be a labour intensive business. Political party membership would run to millions, and it was an essential part of social fabric. You won elections by knocking on doors, putting on public meetings and other events. Election literature was mainly a local affair. But the professionals got hold of this. They wanted something much more productive, with a wider impact. They pulled apart campaign messages and reconstructed something better crafted to the process of winning elections, using mass media to promote it (mainly a politically aligned press in Britain). This strategy, in essence, was to demonise the opposition with negative campaigning, while toning down your own offer to cause minimum offence. And persuasive effort was focused on a minority of swing voters. The message to more reliable supporters was was simply: I know you aren’t keen on a lot of what we are saying, but please come out and vote to stop the other lot. This required lots of money, but fewer people. These modern techniques worked. No modern mainstream political party would be without its professional advisers, armed with polling, focus groups, target voter analysis, and an array of modern marketing techniques.

And sure enough, public engagement in politics has declined. Voter turnout has steadily fallen. This bothered the professionals little, apart from some token public handwringing. What mattered was winning elections, after all. But now the political equivalent of craft breweries are on the rise. Smaller, tightly focused but distinctly unprofessional political parties. In Britain the winning political party would usually get over 40% of the votes cast (and in the 1950s about 50%). Now polling shows both main parties bobbing along at about 30%, even as the third mainstream party, the Liberal Democrats, languishes at about 7% when it used to reach two to three times that level at this point in the cycle. At the European elections earlier this year, the only national elections held under proportional representation, voters were confronted with a bewildering array of political parties, many brand-new. Few of these make much headway, but three “craft brewer” parties are making seeing success: Ukip, who won that election,  the Greens, who won more seats than the Lib Dems, and the SNP are sweeping all before them in Scotland (and who I would not accuse of being “distinctly unprofessional”).

This phenomenon is not unique to Britain. In America there are few in the way of craft parties – but there are distinct craft elements within the main parties, especially the Republican Tea Party groups. In Europe an array of fringe parties are doing well, as establishment parties take a diminishing share of the vote.

Can this decline of mainstream parties be reversed? Occasionally a charismatic leader can reverse the fortunes of mainstream parties. Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe in Japan; Tony Blair in Britain; Matteo Renzi, perhaps, in Italy. There is an interesting common feature in with all these politicians. They set themselves up as taking on their own party’s establishment, and picked fights with the conservatives on their own side. But the instincts of Britain’s current main party leaders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, are to paper over the cracks in their parties and not to pick fights. Perhaps, unlike Japan and Italy, there is not enough wrong in the British establishment to make such a battle credible. Tony Blair’s fight with the Labour left was spectacular, but his electoral platform reached new heights in blandness.

What to do? Personally I think that the fragmentation of British politics is a good thing, and that our electoral systems should be changed to facilitate it. This would turn politics into a squabble between smaller parties. In due course something more coherent would emerge. The idea that a single political party can encompass enough of a national consensus to have a mandate to govern belongs to the past. The choice of bread and beer in Britain is steadily improving now that the big businesses have been pushed back. It is perhaps the best it has ever been. Pluralism is not failure.

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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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