Why I support opening up the Lib Dem leadership contest

I’m in York for the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference. The main job will be grandstanding the party’s position on Brexit. That is uncontroversial. For insiders there is a much more interesting debate about changing the rules for electing party leaders.

This has become much more pertinent because the current leader, Vince Cable, has decided to stand down in May, unless there is a new General Election. We will be choosing a new leader soon.

There are three key elements to Vince’s proposal to open up the process. The first is uncontentious: set up a registered supporters scheme to allow people a degree of participation without full membership. There is a lot of evidence that many would join, creating a wider pool of people to send appeals for money and other help. The problem is what else to offer them in order to give them an incentive to sign up and stay signed up.

Which brings us to the second element: allowing these supporters, subject to an extra payment, to vote on the party’s choice of leader. This worries many, especially after a similar scheme in the Labour Party led to the dysfunctional Jeremy Corbyn being selected. But there’s a further problem. Current rules restrict the choice of leader to MPs: and there are just 12 of them. Last time there was a vacancy only one person put themselves forward. Leadership contests are an opportunity to bring members and supporters together to decide what the party is about. A shortage of candidates undermines that process. So the third element is to open the leadership up to non-MPs. This is what other small parties do, like the Greens, the SNP and the DUP – though the latter two have devolved parliaments as an alternative base, at least in theory. This also worries a lot of members, who think that grown-up parties are always led by MPs.

If I was to judge by my Facebook feed, the conference will emphatically reject the second and third proposals. But this is highly unrepresentative of actual members and conference goers. The great and the good are lining up behind Vince.

What to make of the arguments against? I have two immediate reactions to the parallel with Labour. The first is “We should be so lucky”. Labour is not that far from actual power, which made it very interesting to entryists and others. I struggle to imagine that many people who don’t really support the party trying to sign up and influence the choice. Which leads to my second reaction: “It would be a nice problem to have”. For all my dislike of Mr Corbyn, his election energised his party and brought in lots of extra members and funds. If the Lib Dems aspire to national leadership it will need a similar influx. Anyway the party is in a different place to Labour. I can’t say that Mr Corbyn is any more dysfunctional than former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, who is regarded by the party as a success rather than a failure, and canonised after his tragic death.

And what of allowing non MPs to stand for the leadership? The arguments against look particularly thin. For example it is often said that the Greens’ practice of electing leaders outside parliament is a failure because the press does not beat a path to their door, and are much more interested in their lone MP, Caroline Lucas. But that is not true of the DUP, where Arlene Foster is their most visible representative in the media. It’s much more complex than that. Clearly there are many advantages to leading the party from within Parliament- but it won’t save the party from a poor leader. Surely the members and supporters can be the judge of this?

But is clear is that the party is stuck. Its policies, especially on Brexit, are quite popular and are not being taken up by the major parties, which are veering to extremes. But it is stuck at no more than 10% support in the polls. It needs momentum from somewhere to make it fashionable again. Opening up the leadership is one way of breaking out. It’s risky. And it may not work. But carrying on with the current ways looks more likely to condemn the party to the sidelines.

The ERG and Labour are the authors of Britain’s Brexit chaos

Britain’s Brexit drama rolls on to wards a destination that nobody knows. Anything from a dropping out without a deal (notwithstanding MPs trying to vote away the possibility) to a further referendum looks feasible, none of the many options looks probable.

Earlier this week I visited a small food manufacturing business that exports about half of its products around the world, but mainly to EU countries. While orders remain healthy the business’s managers are utterly perplexed by the state the country has got itself into. They cannot plan for Brexit because they don’t know what form it will take. Exit itself is not such a big deal for them. There will be more paperwork for exports to EU countries, but that doesn’t stop them from exports to non-EU countries. The problem is that they don’t know what form the paperwork will take, and what arrangements to make for VAT, etc. Doubtless this doesn’t just affect exports to EU countries either, but also those to countries with which the Union has trade agreements. What they’re angry about is not the decision to leave (though they are exasperated by how ignorant people were at the time of the vote, and largely still are), but how we have backed ourselves into such a corner about our arrangements for international trade. They think that there is a real prospect of supermarket shelves going empty for a while after exit.

This has helped put things in perspective. If the scare stories about no-deal look overdone, the denials that problems will amount to anything much by hard Brexiteers look even less credible. Why would anybody take Ian Duncan Smith seriously after the Universal Credit fiasco after all? The whole thing is a horrible mess. Who amongst our politicians comes out of it well?

Few people seem to have a good word for the Prime Minister, Theresa May. This is mostly unfair. She lacks emotional intelligence and should surely have done a better job of consolidating support before she negotiated the “final” deal last year. If we are going to leave the EU without economic chaos, and exacerbated political problems in Northern Ireland, this is as good as it gets. Mrs May’s claim that it is as close as we can get to the zeitgeist of the 2016 referendum result is perfectly defensible. The deal takes the country out of the union. It gives the government a much freer hand to regulate immigration, and we are out of the agriculture and fisheries regimes. The Northern Ireland backstop is undoubtedly awkward, but it is a tackles a hard problem. I don’t think that most people in Britain or Northern Ireland mind it that much. So what if we are stuck in a Customs Union? That doesn’t seem to bother the Turks very much. People who rubbish the deal haven’t presented convincing alternatives. The “Canada plus” idea doesn’t deal with the Irish problem, and messes up trade with the EU, which by sheer geography is our most important trading partner, never mind 40 years of historical integration. The “Norway Plus” option, which would put the country in Efta, like Norway and Iceland, does not deal with immigration, which most people agree was the biggest issue in the 2016 referendum.

So I don’t think that Mrs May and the Conservatives who have stood by her come out of the picture too badly. I also have some admiration for ardent Remainers in that party, like Kenneth Clarke, who have reluctantly backed her. This is grown-up politics.

But lest you think I am letting off the Tories on this, by far the most mendacious politicians in Britain are the Conservatives in the European Research Group, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, which seems to have enormous power in the wider Conservative movement, and is poised to take over its leadership. Mr Rees-Mogg’s claim that the deal is “Brexit in name only” is nonsensical, as is the claim that parliament is trying to subvert the will of the people. It is not clear what people actually voted for in 2016, and the result was close anyway. Leave campaigners did their best to muddy the waters as to what people were voting for, in order to assemble the widest possible voting coalition. If they want a more extreme version of Brexit then there are clear political processes that need to be followed to achieve that. You can’t hang it on the referendum result. Norway and Switzerland similarly rejected EU membership by popular vote, but are quite happy with intermediate arrangements that are closer to EU integration than Mrs May’s deal. Even on the Irish backstop, which is more of a legal obstacle than I thought, it wouldn’t be a problem if they really believed what they claim about the possibilities of alternative arrangements. And the terms of their opposition will only convince people in the Republic of Ireland that such a legal device is necessary.

The DUP I have a bit more sympathy with. They do not represent the opinions of a majority of the province, but they do seem true to their party values. However when their spokesmen offer the government negotiating advice, specifically to keep the no-deal option “on the table”, it makes me choke. This is the party whose obstinacy in their negotiations with Sinn Fein has left the province without a devolved government for over a year.

After the ERG, I think the most dishonest British politicians are the Labour leadership. They have no clear plan at all, and have been opposing the government simply for short term political advantage. Either they should back Mrs May’s deal, or they should clearly advocate putting it to a public vote against a Remain option. Instead they maintain a dishonest fiction that they can do a better Brexit deal. This has helped prolong the uncertainty that is slowly but surely undermining Britain’s commercial infrastructure. and it could well lead the country into a no-deal situation that most people accept will be catastrophic at least in the short-term. If they really wanted an exit with a customs union they should let the deal through, and then change things afterwards, once they have won a majority in parliament. The party did not advocate outright opposition to Brexit in their manifesto, and neither a further referendum. Given the national situation supporting the deal, or at least abstaining, but be perfectly consistent with the position they were elected on.

There are competent and reasonable Labour MPs, but they are mainly on the back benches. To hear Yvette Cooper on the radio is to wonder how much better life would be if she had won the party leadership in 2015, as I had hoped. She is engaging with reality rather than political slogans.

What of the others? My own Lib Dems are engaged in a risky strategy of total opposition until a new referendum is agreed. Whether or not that is responsible adult politics is one thing, but it least it is consistent with what they have been telling the public since 2016. The party has tried responsible adult politics in the coalition years of 2010-2015, and were slaughtered for it. My instinct is to be similarly understanding of the SNP. Given the way the Scots voted in the referendum it would be hard for them to roll over.

Personally I do hope that a delay and a new referendum emerges from the wreckage. This is only appropriate for a decision on this scale. But the government’s proposed deal is an honest attempt to square the circle. It is a pity that so few of the country’s politicians are interested in honest solutions.

Knife crime requires local action and resources, not national grandstanding

England is suffering a serious epidemic of knife crime, with a high proportion of teenagers amongst both the victims and perpetrators. A few months ago a teenager was a murder outside my local Tube station; some fresh flowers marked the spot as I walked past it this morning. Many others are similarly finding the epidemic is coming uncomfortably close to home. Two further murders over the weekend have provoked a national political kerfuffle. But much of it misses the point.

The biggest problem in English politics is that too many decisions are taken by the UK government in London, with a weak regional layer (comprising a few city regions based on large conurbations such as London and Manchester), and local government that lacks powers by comparison with any other large country. A striking aspect of this is that different public agencies, such as police, health services, schools, social workers and so on, do not cooperate as much as they should. Each of these agencies reports up to a politician in Westminster, who grandstands to national media agencies according to a news agenda that is set nationally. Leaders of local agencies don’t have the power or incentive to make local cooperation work, and they are liable to have their funding squeezed anyway to make way for for headline-making projects. Any yet so many problems are complex, and require just such local coordination.

It isn’t so bad in Scotland, which has devolved government and Scots-level media, though there are issues there with local government being hollowed out. Wales, which also has devolved government, doesn’t seem to be any better run than England. I don’t know enough about that country to know why, but my impression is that Welsh politicians are quite conservative, and have used their powers to resist reforms that have been taking place elsewhere in the country. But I think the Welsh are slowly learning the implications and responsibilities of devolution the hard way.

Knife crime has complex roots. A lot of it is related to youth gangs, many of which feed on the trade of illegal drugs. Too many teenagers are drawn into these gangs, apparently to make up for the lack of any other community to belong. Gangs find the use of knives is the most cost-effective way of asserting themselves. Many young people feel that they need to arm themselves for their own protection, as well as status. What lies behind this, and has led to the rise youth crime, after a long period when it fell, is, to my mind, the hollowing out of local public services. The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 pumped quite a lot of resources into local institutions, especially after its early austerity years. They did not really believe in local empowerment, and their efforts were clumsy and inefficient. Many of the resources went into the pockets of expensive but superficial management consultants; many agency managers spent time in interminable inter-agency meetings that were slow to take responsibility; anybody involved in public services had to wade through reams of waffle worth nothing more than an education in buzz words. Some reforms, such as those to the probation service, suffered hugely from political grandstanding. There was a tendency to nanny and lecture people rather than empower them.

But for all that a lot of good work was done, which, in some areas at least, achieved a lot. Schooling improved and its scope widened to early years and providing beyond the school day and term time; they were encouraged to work with other agencies. The police established neighbourhood policing teams, which gathered local intelligence, and had the time to deal with antisocial behaviour and work with other agencies. Youth crime fell sharply.

Then came the financial crisis and the push to make cuts to government resources. This went up a few gears with the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 to 2015. Incoming ministers rightly bridled against the inefficiency of Labour’s public services, and felt that they could do better with less. They drove through drastic cuts. At first this seemed to go quite well. There was indeed a lot of waste to be stripped out, and statistics, including those for crime, appeared sho little if any damage. But they too followed an over-centralised modus operandi. The Lib Dems did try to moderate this – and they helped the creation of city regions to better coordinate agencies in the bigger cities – but it hard not to be overwhelmed by the Westminster way. The cuts were driven from the top by the Treasury on national departmental ministers. Furthermore many ministers followed a flawed model of outsourcing to save money, which fragmented services further and focused them on inward looking performance targets. The big idea for many of the outsourcing agencies was to de-skill services, reducing their ability to deal with complex problems. Experienced, problem-solving professionals were replaced by junior box-tickers. They became unable to facilitate solutions by working with other agencies, so problems were passed on rather than solved. This became even worse after 2015 when the Conservatives governed on their own, and drove the fiscal squeeze though even further. Childrens Centres and youth facilities were closed down; neighbourhood policing was eviscerated; probation and prison services engaged in a battle for survival with little time to help solve society’s wider problems. The epidemic of youth crime followed.

At last England’s political class realises that there is a problem, and is starting to panic. But once again they are reaching for national solutions, or using the crisis to advance national beefs, like police powers. A popular solution is to create a knife-crime “czar”. Others call for a national strategy driven forward by the Prime Minister. All these are tried and tested approaches which rarely acheive more than short term gains on narrow criteria. What is depressing is that it isn’t just politicians that are calling for this sort of approach. One of the leading advocates is Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the former head of police in both London and Manchester. But people like Sir Bernard are part of the problem, not the solution. He was one of the leading advocates of the hollowing out of neighbourhood policing to make way for headline-grabbing specialised regional and national squads.

A few more perceptive commentators point to a more successful approach. Glasgow used to have a huge knife-crime problem – but a coordinated and devolved multi-agency approach reversed it. This is referred to a “public health” approach, to which some politicians are paying lip service. Whether or not this nomenclature is helpful I am not sure. But what needs to be done is to push resources into regional and local multi-agency teams, with the power to rebuild the local institutions that have been so callously swept away and make them work properly. Unfortunately this will not be quick, though it would help with a lot more than knife-crime. The problem was many years in the making and it will take many years to solve.

That is not to say that there are not national aspects to the problem that could do with a bit of a national shove. One of the developments are the “county lines” developed by city gangs going into small towns and rural areas, and connecting the problems in both. But even here we should note that it is in such small towns and rural areas that local institutions are at their weakest, where austerity and economic trends have combined to suck wealth out of local economies. The city gangs are pushing at an open door.

But our over-centralised way runs too deep. Even those who advocate a more decentralised approach rarely seem to understand its full implications. It will take more than this panic for people to understand just how dysfunctional our governing institutions have become.

Why Donald Trump is right about Syria

The US President Donald Trump doesn’t do complicated. That’s one of his biggest weaknesses, as well as a major strength. Most real problems are complicated; but simple is easy to communicate. And the idea that “elites” use the excuse of complexity to mask incompetence or worse has a powerful resonance with many people.

Take Mr Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea. It is a hard problem, though arguably not all that complicated, and it has defeated every US regime that has tried to tackle it. Mr Trump’s is no different, though he assumed that his genius could crack it. He hopes that he can tempt the country into rolling up its nuclear programme by offering the benefits of an open economy. But convincing the paranoid is hard work, especially when you want to appear tough yourself. At least Mr Trump didn’t fall for the something-for-nothing deal that his counterpart sought. Meanwhile he hopes that his theatrics, and the reduction in tension arising with nuclear and missile tests now done, will be result enough, and he sticks to this simple message. While the intelligentsia gabbles on about his failure, there is unlikely to be much damage to his reputation.

No foreign policy problem is more complicated than that of the Middle East, a place where your worst enemy can be your friend elsewhere in the neighbourhood. But is Mr Trump onto something by pushing for the withdrawal of US forces from Syria? Sometimes it requires a simple vision to cut through nonsense.

Mr Trump’s stance has caused despair amongst foreign policy professionals. Extracting the US from Syria will mean that the country loses influence, and it would mean that the country’s most reliable ally, the Kurds, will go over into the Syrian government/Russian camp. Years of diplomacy and relationship building will be trashed.

But the US and its European allies have achieved nothing of value in Syria since its civil war erupted in 2011. The Islamic State terrorist organisation has nearly been crushed there, it is true, but was it a real threat in the first place? And has the level of threat diminished? IS’s leaders promoted it as a base for attacks against western interests around the world, in deliberately provocative propaganda. But did we respond to those provocations in the right way? Was there much practical sustenance to terrorists arising from IS’s Syrian bases? Such attacks as there have been were perpetrated by lone wolves and small cells, with little direct connection to Syria. They are more likely to have been provoked by western military action rather than deterred by it. Security experts are now telling us how little the wiping out of IS’s bases in Syria and Iraq makes to the level of threat – though admittedly they would say that regardless. The western powers simply gave what IS’s attention-seekers what they craved, with a bit of martyrdom thrown in. In the end the Syrian government, with their Russian and Iranian allies, would doubtless have dealt with them anyway, or they would have collapsed from their own contradictions.

Meanwhile the continuing western presence is creating more
conflict, in particular with the Turkish government. The Turks are by no means
good guys, but then are the Iranians, Saudis and Russians? Turkey is a European
power as well as a Middle Eastern one: the war in Syria makes other aspects of
our difficult relationship with it harder to manage. It was the Turkish
president Recep Tayyip Erdogan that started Mr Trump down this course in the
first place.

By now the concept of liberal intervention should be dead. It was pioneered by Tony Blair, for use in the former Yugoslavia, and then picked up by the neoconservatives that surrounded George Bush Junior. The Balkans are part of Europe, and military intervention there was followed through with state-building by mainly European nations. It more-or-less worked. But such follow-through could never be replicated in Iraq, Libya or Syria. Instead all we have learnt is how alien these places are to our concept of society. Military intervention, unless contained within clear boundaries and part of a broad coalition, like the First Gulf War, is doomed because it has to be followed by the process of state-building, which Western countries cannot do.

So what is to be done instead? Military interventions may often be helpful to prevent civil wars from escalating, or to break a stalemate and bring peace – or even to bring down a murderous regime. But it needs to be led by local powers, with outsiders providing logistical or air support if appropriate. In Syria these local powers are Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. These regimes inspire no confidence: they are as likely to see civil wars as opportunities to develop their rivalries as crises to be fixed. But that is surely because the have become to used to the idea of superpower leadership. They are not used to taking leadership roles themselves. We in the west haven’t got used to that idea either. So many commentators, especially from the left, assume that all the problems in distant lands are the fault of western powers, and therefore it is our responsibility to fix them. They ascribe no agency to local actors. I call this way of thinking “post-colonialism” as it reminds me of the arrogance of the colonial era. Civil wars and state collapses do not benefit the neighbourhood. Sooner or later the local powers will learn how to manage them towards peaceful outcomes, even if this doesn’t look very pretty to our eyes. Mostly they are learning this the hard way (as Yemen shows – a civil breakdown that has been mainly left to the locals). But, for example in West Africa, there have been better examples. Western intervention doesn’t help. And if the Russians want to play superpower games, more fool them.

Mr Trump seems to get this better than most. The paradox of his ambition to “Make America Great Again” is that it means a retreat from global responsibility, and taking a narrower view of its interests: the opposite of greatness. But the colonial era is over; the Cold War has passed; and Pax Americana is now broken. It is about time the world joined Mr Trump and woke up to the consequences of that.

The Independent Group shows how all three main parties are narrowing their appeal

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Like many Lib Dems, I was underwhelmed by the formation of The Independent Group (TIG) of 11 defectors last week from both the Labour and Conservative parties. It had been a long time coming, and its members are undistinguished, except for the Conservative Sarah Wollaston and perhaps Labour’s Chuka Umunna. But now I am less sure.

This group isn’t the answer to British politics’ need for fresh ideas. But on reflection it poses challenging questions, and it already seems to have had some effect on the leaderships of both parties. For Labour, from which eight of the 11 come (plus a further defector, not part of the grouping), it challenges the party’s attitude to Brexit, and the way the party is now run.

Labour has been doing some determined fence-sitting on the issue that troubles Britons most. The leadership hopes that opportunities will arise out of the crisis, rather than doing anything to shape it. To their mind the acquisition of political power matters more, and the battle against “austerity”. And yet during the 2017 election, and especially in the part of London where I live, they courted votes on the basis that they would resist Brexit. Until these defections, and the threat of more, the leadership appeared not to care. Now they have been persuaded that a referendum of some sort should be held, if, as will surely be the case, the leadership’s favoured soft version of Brexit does not come about. This looks like too little, too late, but it is progress.

Admittedly this is a politically tricky area. Many of the party’s working class voters outside London support Brexit and would view a referendum as a betrayal. Still, if the party aspires to govern, it has to show more clarity on the issues people care about. And for most people that isn’t “austerity”.

The questions about how the party is run go deeper. It has been taken over by an ideological hardcore who speak only for a minority of voters. They are preparing to de-select MPs they feel are disloyal, and hounding them in the meantime. There has been a disturbing antisemitic edge to this. The antisemitism is by no means universal (I don’t think there’s much sign of it here in Wandsworth), and it is being played up by those not sympathetic to the party leadership – and yet many in the party say that the leadership doesn’t understand it, and is happy to let it go on. The attitudes of many Labour activists to the defections remind me of the sort of extremism that caused me to become involved with politic in the 1970s and 1980s. It is typical that such activists will say anything to voters in an election to shift them to their candidate (such as that it is the best way to stop Brexit – which is what they were saying here), and then to claim that all those votes were an endorsement of a manifesto that very few people actually read.

For Conservatives TIG also raises questions about Brexit and what the party is becoming. The party leadership has decided to own Brexit, and sees it mission to implement it regardless of what the public think. At least that isn’t sitting on the fence. But it means that the party is ceasing to be be the broad church of business-friendly middle classes that it used to be. What is left is a diminishing band of socially conservative older people, and an ideological fringe of libertarians, led by a Prime Minister with a deep bunker mentality.

And so a huge gap is opening up in the centre ground of British politics. A two party system, such as Britain’s in most of the country, works best when the principal parties are broad churches competing for overlapping spectra of the the public at large. The more ideological fringes provide edge and challenge, while the centre ground injects common sense and pragmatism. When the parties turn in on themselves, as both are now, and become ideological, most voters are left stranded.

But the establishment of TIG poses a huge question for the third of the main established parties: the Liberal Democrats. In spite of being liberal and broadly centrist, the TIGers haven’t given the Lib Dems more than a moment’s thought. The Lib Dem brand is weak and the party has been unable to exploit the gap at the centre of British politics. The party has seen its poll share creep up to 10%, but when offered the alternative of TIG, that share drops sharply.

Why are the Lib Dems so weak? The contradictions in the Lib Dem brand were exposed cruelly by its coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 to 2015. Before then its leaders thought that the party’s main weakness stemmed from the fact that the media paid the party little attention, and that it had little practical influence. The coalition solved both of these problems, but Labour inclined supporters saw it as betrayal, and then Conservative inclined ones saw the party as too weak to stop Labour.

It is now popular amongst Lib Dem activists to suggest that the real problem was a failure to sustain a “core vote” of cosmopolitan, liberal supporters, and that the party should rectify this by developing a more ideologically coherent programme. The party has been following that advice, with a clear focus on opposing Brexit, which unites such liberal types (whether the EU is in fact such a liberal institution is a topic for another day). This seems to have left the party fishing for voters in too small a pool. Perhaps it is making the same mistake as the other parties in being too ideological. Indeed many activists dislike the idea that the party should be chasing the centre ground, and look down on the TIGers.

Still, the Lib Dems have a lot of things that TIG do not: a party machine, councillors, activists, a history, and even a sense of mission. There is an opportunity for the party here, but it needs to ask how it can broaden its appeal beyond a small band of middle class cosmopolitans.

There is no single answer to that question. New leadership will clearly help. But, if they are to become a success in the British political system the Lib Dems will have to become a broader church. This sits uneasily with the wish of many activists to focus on a core vote, and to be ideologically more coherent. But this isn’t either/or: politics is not an easy business. Has-beens and Blairites the TIGers may be, but until the the Lib Dems can absorb such as these, among others, they will not make progress.

Will Brexit be delayed?

Back in January I placed my first political bet: on Brexit happening on the due date of 29 March 2019. The odds had slipped to 5:1 against and I thought the combined chances of the government squeaking through a deal by then, or failing miserably and Britain crashing out on that date, were higher than that. Since then, the market has moved somewhat towards my view, and I have laid the bet at a modest profit. But what really are the chances?

I placed my bet just after the government’s first massive defeat on the “meaningful vote”, after which there have been two developments. First the government cobbled together an unstable majority for a deal without the Irish backstop. Second there have been moves towards a compromise with the Labour Party based on a customs union. It is hard to know what to make of either development. The Irish backstop is not going away, but winning the vote has allowed the government to press on based on Conservative and DUP votes, together with a few opposition MPs. It is hard to see this holding together, since anything the EU will offer will look like a climbdown for the hardliners, who don’t seem all that bothered by the thought of the UK crashing out without a deal. That was confirmed last week when the government lost on its fudged interim motion.

And Labour’s move? Well this does look like a bit of leadership at last from its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It could be the first stages of a bold move to secure a soft-Brexit deal, based on Labour, Conservative and maybe even DUP and SNP votes. But if the Prime Minister, Theresa May, pressed ahead on this, it really would be a Robert Peel moment that would shatter the Conservative Party. Peel did so in the 1840s by opposing the Corn Laws, a particularly egregious piece of law, which was designed to keep landowners in the money at the expense of everybody else, including Irish peasants starving as a result of potato blight. That some Tories, like Jacob Rees-Mogg view the episode (i.e. Peel’s splitting of the Tories) as a national disaster makes my blood run cold. But I think if Mrs May had the character to do a Peel (as I suggested she might last year) we’d have seen more sign of it by now. Besides there is the question about how serious Mr Corbyn is in executing such a brave move. Cynics suggest he was making an offer he knew the government could not accept.

All of which suggests that we are hurtling towards 29th March and a crash out. Or at best massive confusion as the government will be unable to enact the necessary legislation for deal if it succeeds at the 11th hour.

It seems clear that the only way to avoid a no-deal Brexit on 29 March is to postpone the exit date. This comes in two flavours. One is a three month delay – just enough to avoid Britain having to take part in European parliamentary elections, though probably too late for the EU to redistribute the country’s seats. The other is a long one, of twelve months, which would mean Britain having to join those Euro elections.

Why go for the shorter delay? If the government actually has managed to get a deal through parliament, then it gives them time to enact it. It would also give the country a chance to have a general election, if the government wants. It does seem to be preparing for an election, but perhaps only to keep the option on the table: it is hard to see what the party would gain, though Labour’s growing disarray may tempt them. (This disarray was added to yesterday by the resignation of seven MPs – though this is a tremor rather than an earthquake and I’m not getting excited about it yet). And it would allow both sides a bit better prepared for a no-deal crash. One thing does seem clear though: it isn’t enough time to forge and enact a new deal. Why would the EU side agree? Only to be better prepared for the crash when it comes – which might be enough.

So why go for a longer delay? This gives Britain the chance to take a deep breath and have another go, under a new leader. If Mrs May conceded this, she would doubtless resign, so much has she staked on 29 March. We would have time to replace the Conservative leader, have an election, and perhaps even have a referendum. There would, of course, be an incandescent reaction from Brexit supporters. These comprise at least a third of the population, and views amongst this third seem to hardening – with no-deal a popular option. Perhaps they would channel their anger by trying to get an extremist as the new Tory leader.

It is possible that the EU side will offer the UK a 12 month postponement and nothing shorter. If so Mrs May would have to choose between no-deal and an admission of complete failure: caught by her own brinkmanship. And who knows what she would do then?

The Euro at 20. Why is it so popular?

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It is 20 years since the most ambitious European integration project came into effect: the common currency, known as the Euro. Europhiles (and I am one) would do well to understand the successes and failures of this project, as they pose important challenges to the future of European integration.

British Europhiles, of course, have a wonderful way to distract themselves from such searching questions: Brexit. Most will admit that there are problems, and that changes need to be made, but then they swiftly move on to talk about the latest nonsense put about by supporters of Britain’s exit from the EU. But what happens when Britain eventually does leave? Or what happens if, against the odds, Brexit is stopped? The political initiative will swiftly move back to the Brexiteers, and they will pose hard questions about the way the EU works. Questions to which few Europhiles have convincing answers. We rightly accuse Eurosceptics (most of them) of harking back to a fictitious golden age. But Europhiles are becoming as bad: the years before the 2016 referendum are acquiring a rose-tinted glow. We should be able to do better than that.

Which is why we need to think about the Euro. It is central to the whole European project. Britain opted out: but that was an early sign the country’s fatally semi-detached status within the union. If Britain leaves and then wants to come back in, it is unlikely that the EU will let us opt out again. It will be a test of how serious we are.

And it is likely to still be there in the 20 or 30 years time when Britain might be ready to consider re-entry. One of the most important things we have learnt from the currency’s first 20 years is that it is a survivor. Anglo-Saxon economists have sneered at the Euro from when it was first mooted. First they said it would never happen, nearly up to the day that it did. Then they said it would fall apart: this reached a crescendo after the Greek crisis in 2010, when one after another fringe zone economy got into trouble. And yet not a single country has dropped out. We need to understand why it has proved so robust, especially when in almost every other way the currency has been a disappointment.

It is, of course, technically very difficult for a country to leave the common currency. You have to develop a brand new replacement currency. Difficult, but far from impossible; plenty of people have thought about it, and come up with various approaches. Countries could do it if there was the political will. But there isn’t, not even in Greece. The hard fact is that the common currency is popular amongst ordinary working people. Polls show that this popularity fluctuates (it is on a bit of a high right now), and it can be a bit of a political scapegoat. Populist politicians in both France and Italy have complained about it (with the full support of those Anglo-Saxon economists), but the closer they get to actual action the more their courage fails. Marine Le Pen in France has had to backtrack; those Italian leaders in the League and Five Star Movement are likely to make the same journey.

It’s not hard to see why. To ruling elites and economists a currency is a means to an end, rather than something in itself. They tend to have a “use it or lose it” attitude to it, and think a little bit of inflation is a jolly good thing. Nothing illustrates the patronising attitude of these elites towards the majority of those they serve better. To most people the currency is a sacred bond of trust between the state and the citizen. Since time immemorial, when kings used to put copper in gold coins to pay for wars and their own high living, this gap between the perceptions of the elite and working people has created resentment by the ruled of those than govern them. For most Europeans, especially those in weaker economies, the Euro is a much more secure store of value than any local currency that would replace it. Especially since the entire purpose of those populist politicians in ditching the currency is so that they can devalue it, and secure the supposed wider economic benefits that would flow from that. And for those that borrow money rather than save it, the interest rates for the Euro tend to be lower too, so even they win out. The relationship is more complex for northern economies, like Germany’s, that might see a currency of their own rise in value. Indeed in these countries the Euro is not so popular. But it helps drive an export-led economy and secure jobs. Interestingly, Britain is at the intersection of these two groups. It’s fair to say that most ordinary people would rather trust British institutions to run their currency than European ones. And neither do export industries play such a great role in providing stable jobs as they do in Germany or the Netherlands. Scepticism about the Euro is more understandable here.

We should be careful not to overstate the popularity of the Euro. Amongst younger workers, in Italy say, who are struggling to find stable employment and save money, the Euro is not popular. But savers form the political bedrock of most developed nations. And to them the stability of the currency is no small thing. The rise of Nazism in Germany is often attributed to the failure of democratic institutions to prevent hyperinflation; conservative monetary policies are still a given in that country. Perhaps after preventing foreign invasion and keeping the streets and homes safe from criminals, people see maintaining the currency is the most important duty of a government: even higher that producing a healthy economy, which, after all, is mostly down to individual work and enterprise, not governments.

The European institutions have fulfilled that duty with respect to the Euro, in many cases better than the national governments that preceded them. So the currency remains broadly popular, and ways will be found of ensuring its survival as long as it holds its value. But in many other ways those Anglo-Saxon economists have been proved right about the Euro. It has not delivered the other economic benefits promised on its creation. Indeed the robustness of the currency can be seen as a trap, or a prison, preventing political leaders from delivering prosperous economies. Why this should be, and what can be done about it, has become one of the top priorities for European leaders. That is a topic I will consider in a further article.

Is Labour crumbling on Brexit?

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What are we to make of last night’s votes on Brexit in the British parliament? Are we edging closer to a deal in time for 29 March? Or towards a crash out on the same date? Or towards a postponement? You can find advocates of each of these in this morning’s media coverage.

The official Conservative line is this: the victory of the Graham Brady amendment shows that there is majority for the government’s deal if only the Irish backstop can be made to go away. So the prime minister Theresa May will go back to Brussels, and the EU side will crack, in spite of all their protestations to the contrary, because they fear a no-deal, which will disrupt commerce, to say nothing of an advantageous legal settlement, and, not least, leave the Irish border in fog. Parliament will then endorse the revised deal, and scramble to enact the necessary legislation to ensure a smooth formal exit on 29 March.

This is straight out of the backseat driver’s guide to negotiations, beloved of the Tory Brexiteers, who have shown little skill at front seat driving, but remain experts in the backseat variety. I am very sceptical that the EU side is going to give anything like enough ground. The optimists are looking in the wrong place for potential progress. The key is not the EU officials based in Brussels, but the Irish ones in Dublin. If British Brexiteers show little understanding of EU politics, they are experts in it compared to their comprehension of Irish politics. I’m no expert in either brand of politics, and I had been expecting, even hoping for, signs of flexibility in Dublin, given the terrible impact a no-deal would have there. But there is absolutely no sign of it. I suspect that there is a deep-seated mistrust of British (and Northern Irish Unionist) politicians. The Irish seem to like the EU (in spite of the rough treatment meted out to them in the Euro crisis) because it is their best hope of reducing their dependence on their high-handed neighbour. What we are learning in the whole sorry Brexit business is that politics trumps economics. This is as true of Brexit supporters as it is of anybody else – but their leaders seem to think that what is true of them is not true of their Irish and other EU counterparts. But then again, they aren’t worried about a no-deal outcome either. They calculate that if there is severe disruption, public anger will turn on the EU institutions, which will consolidate the grip of hard Brexiteers on the British political system. They might be right.

So is Mrs May’s plan doomed to failure? Actually no. The deeper significance of last night’s votes is that, as the deadline advances, nerves are starting to fray. That is evident in the uncharacteristic unity of Conservative MPs. Only 8 voted against the Brady amendment, and nine abstained. But I think much more significantly there are signs of nerves amongst Labour MPs. Seven voted for Brady and six abstained. That is about double the size of previous Labour support for the government backed approach. Still not big numbers, but is it the growing trickle that suddenly turns to a flood? Furthermore the Labour leader appeared to offer an olive branch to Mrs May by suggesting a meeting, though we shouldn’t expect anything from this.

So Mrs May has reason to hope that, when she comes back from her renegotiation with no more than token concessions, enough Tory and Labour MPs who had previously voted against her deal will either change sides or abstain. There will need to be quite a few, though, as there is little chance of pleasing the Ulster Unionists.

If that doesn’t work, the only hope to avoid a no-deal is for the government to work with Labour on a new deal, moving to a softer Brexit, with a postponement of the leaving date until the summer. This doesn’t look very likely. Even less likely, based on last night, is that a cross-party group of backbenchers will be able to force a postponement of the evil day.

So my interpretation of last night’s votes is that both a deal, close to the existing one, and a no-deal crash, have become more likely, with an exit on 29 March. A postponement, either leading to a softer Brexit or to a referendum are both less likely. And the tension just ratchets up.

What would a new Brexit referendum look like?

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As we face another day of parliamentary chaos over Brexit, talk of a further referendum has subsided. Without Labour throwing its full weight behind it, there are nowhere near enough MPs to give the idea traction. And yet parliament is so split it offers one of the few ways forward if the country is to avoid a no-deal Brexit. So it is still worth giving the idea a bit more thought.

The first question is what should be put to voters? Never mind the exact wording for now, but what would voters be asked to choose between? Referendums are almost always binary affairs (indeed I can’t think of an example of a three way one). Official Lib Dem policy is for the choice to be between the government’s deal, and calling Brexit off altogether. It is hard to see that getting through. Many Brexit supporters won’t vote for the government’s deal because they want a stronger break with the union (i.e. a hard Brexit), and this may well be the view of most of those that voted for Brexit first time round. Excluding this way forward from proceedings would seem like a denial of democracy and make the idea even more poisonous amongst the public than it already is. However a two way referendum between a hard and a soft Brexit would not get the support of Remainers- which would be needed to get the proposal through. A three way referendum between hard, soft and no Brexit looks the best compromise. A more complex set of choices could be devised, but Parliament is more broken than even I think it is if it cannot limit the options to three. 

But what would the hard Brexit option be? The obvious one is leaving without a deal. This idea is gaining traction amongst the public at large, but many people think it is completely irresponsible to present it as a serious option. Even hard Brexit MPs like Boris Johnson advocate it as a negotiating tactic rather than as a coherent policy in itself. But these MPs also see the Irish backstop as an insuperable obstacle, and there looks little chance of the EU side taking it off the table – so no deal may be the only practical way of achieving hard Brexit in the shorter term. I find it very strange that hard Brexiteers on the one hand say that there are viable solutions to the Irish border issue outside the Single Market and/or customs union, and yet fear that the Irish backstop could make a customs union permanent. Still, they are calling the shots on this.

And what of what the of the soft Brexit option? If no-deal is to be put on the ballot paper, then the obvious candidate is the current deal on offer. Both options would then be capable of being implemented quickly (if implementation is the right word for a no-deal crash), and so we could resolve the whole thing by the summer, after which any delays cause a mounting political mess. Otherwise two yet to be finally negotiated options might be presented. Hard Brexit could be based on a Canada type long-term arrangement or no-deal if an acceptable deal could not be negotiated. Soft Brexit could be Norway plus or the current deal as fall back. This would clearly take time to sort out. It is exactly this sort of difficulty that has made many baulk at a referendum in the first place. But the easier ways out have no parliamentary majority. 

So after that has been decided the next question is how to resolve a three-way choice. The first option, used to choose our MPs, is misleadingly referred to as first past the post (FPTP) (there is in fact no winning post: it is all relative). Voters have a single vote, plump for one of the three choices and the one with most votes wins. But that means the winning option may command barely a third of voters, and may be thoroughly disliked by a large majority. It would probably favour the Remain option, as the Brexit vote would be split. So Remain could win while a substantial majority, say over 60%, picked one of the Brexits. The problem with that is obvious, though the British public seems quite happy with it as a way of choosing MPs. 

The obvious alternative is some variant of the Alternative Vote (AV). Voters would rank the options one, two and three (or actually one or two would be fine). If one option did not get 50% of first preferences, the votes of the third placed alternative would be redistributed to second preference. The problem with this method is that it disadvantages the compromise options that might be the least divisive. The compromise option, in this case Soft Brexit, is likely to come third. These voters would be forced to choose between two options each unpalatable to a majority. This method would give Hard Brexit its best chance. 

There is another way forward, which is known as the Condorcet method. Voters have to make three choices between the three pairs of options: Remain/Hard Brexit; Remain/Soft Brexit; Soft Brexit/Hard Brexit. The option picking up the most cumulative votes wins. In this case a form of weighted preferential voting would amount nearly the same thing. Voters choose first and second preferences, as per AV, but the first preference would get 2 votes and the second 1. If voters refuse to make a second preference then their choice only gets a single vote. This isn’t quite the same as Condorcet, where you can vote once for each of the three options, but surely much more accessible. This approach gives compromise options, which attract lots of second preference votes, a much better chance than AV or FPTP. I’m not aware of it ever being used in referendums or elections, though it is familiar in other contexts. It is especially useful for ranking several options in order of preference. 

To get an idea of the effects of the different methods, consider the case of an electorate of 100 voters. 45 want Remain, with Soft Brexit as second preference. 40 want Hard Brexit with Soft Brexit as second preference. And 15 want Soft Brexit with Hard Brexit as second choice. Under FPTP, Remain wins with 45 votes compared to Hard Brexit’s 40 and Soft’s 15. Under AV Soft Brexit’s 15 votes are redistributed to Hard Brexit, bringing them up to be winners with 55 votes. With the Condorcet/weighted preference system Remain gets 90 votes (2 from each of the Remainers, and none from elsewhere). Hard Brexit gets 80 votes from first preferences and another 15 from seconds: making 95. Soft Brexit gets just 30 from first preferences, but 45 second preference votes from Remainers and 40 from Hard Brexiteers, giving it a winning total of 115. Everybody has voted for it as first or second preference, making it a good  compromise proposal. 

Given the divisive nature of the Brexit debate, the weighted preference system looks the most appropriate. Alas AV would be much more likely. Traditionalists who might favour FPTP tend to be Brexiteers and they will not agree to anything that might favour Remain. Remainers tend to dislike FPTP anyway, and recognise that a victory would look illegitimate if it failed to secure 50%. The weighted preference system, on the other hand, looks way too innovative for us Brits. 

The closer you look at the referendum idea, the messier it gets. But the strongest case for it is that it is a last resort, with parliament rejecting a no-deal, but not even close to agreeing any alternative. What a mess we are in!

Britain’s political parties are stronger than MPs: that’s why no-deal is still likely

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I remain one of the few who predict that, following parliament’s spectacular rejection of the government’s deal to leave the EU, Britain will crash out on 29 March. Most MPs oppose such a no-deal, but until they can coalesce around an alternative, no-deal it is. And would the EU agree to an open-ended postponement of the Article 50 date? And as long as Theresa May leads the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn leads Labour, no such convergence will take place. Britain’s politics has become dysfunctional. How did we get into this mess?

This week’s Bagehot column in The Economist suggests that Britain might be about to undergo a great realignment, equivalent to that in the 1850s, following the Corn Laws, a free trade measure. Such great figures as William Gladstone changed sides, as believers in free trade were no longer welcome amongst the Tories. And yet people have been talking about realignment since 2015, when Mr Corbyn became Labour leader against the wishes of most Labour MPs. But since then not a single MP has changed allegiance. Instead MPs who can bear their party no longer quietly retire from politics. A new “centre” party has been plotted by MPs for a year at least. I was told by an insider that it would emerge last Autumn. But nothing. MPs feel strongly about Brexit but the chance of this leading to a serious realignment is negligible. At most a couple of dozen will resign from their parties and stand down at the next election. 

The parallel with the 1850s is misleading. The Bagehot columnist suggests that before the realignment politics was split between the Conservatives and the Liberals. And yet neither party was established until after the realignment, partly to consolidate it and partly to bring in more of the public as the electoral franchise was being progressively widened. Instead there were two loose tribes: the Tories and the Whigs. That is a critical difference. In those days party organisations mattered little. Now they matter more than anything. 

Parties bring many advantages. The first is organisation: the foot soldiers and donor networks that are the raw materials of political action. These days this includes data on voters gathered by canvassers and protected by ever stricter data protection laws. This is often critical. When Zac Goldsmith resigned temporarily from the Conservatives to fight a by-election (over Heathrow airport expansion), he was at a decisive disadvantage against the Liberal Democrats, even though he had the not so tacit support of the local Conservatives and was defending a huge majority. He was not allowed to have the Conservative data and he lost, only to regain his seat at the following general election when he had rejoined the party. A second advantage is a national brand, which reduces the need to explain to voters who you are and why they should vote for you. In modern politics this is even more important as the spending limits on national propaganda are much looser than those for individual candidates: even when this propaganda consists of individually addressed mailings just delivered to marginal seats. A further advantage is tribal loyalty. Political parties, especially those that are close to power, are fractious affairs, riven by bitter rivalries. And yet come an election, differences are sunk and all pull together. The far left Labour group Momentum sent its members to sympathetic and unsympathetic candidates alike in the 2017 election, judged solely by how close the contest was with the other parties. 

All these things are very hard to build from scratch. In my part of London a new “centre” party was formed last year to capitalise on disillusionment with the established parties. Not only did it perform dismally in the local elections that year, but afterwards it collapsed into rival factions. The most successful new party has been Ukip, and yet the more successful it was, the more fractious it became; it has now collapsed into farce.  

Add to this picture something else. Political parties are by nature voluntary organisations. For them to work you have to offer members and supporters something. Gone are the days when the simple honour and excitement of working alongside senior politicians was enough. So modern parties offer participation rights: a say in policy and, especially, the selection of candidates. Misleadingly the parties call this participation “democracy”; the form may be democratic but there is nothing democratic about decisions taken by a self-selected group of the more or less like-minded. Political parties were once controlled by their MPs and other senior elected representatives. That is no longer true, though the Conservatives have not gone as far down this route as far as the others – but then they have a membership crisis. 

So realignments led by MPs are very hard to do. You either go through the long hard and uncertain process of setting up a new party, or you join another one. But those tribal loyalties make the latter difficult too.

And that is why it is very hard for MPs to take control of Brexit. Mrs May and Mr Corbyn are about as unstatesmanlike as you can get, but they both place a very high priority on keeping their respective parties together. That is why neither will make a decisive move towards either a referendum or a soft Brexit, the two most viable ways of avoiding a no-deal, though Mrs May got as close to the latter as she thought she could. 

Mrs May feels she has to stick to a series of “red lines” that her party has unified around. These preclude any viable resolution to the crisis. Mr Corbyn fears (not without reason) that any decisive move in any direction would weaken his party, so he simply wants to get through the process and blame the mess on the Tories. To make matters worse, this focus on party rather than the interests of the country is not just a British thing. It affects how Irish leaders are dealing, or not, with the risk of a no-deal. Other European leaders are also showing inflexibility.

Party leaders take the view that what is good for their party is good for their country. For them a catastrophe is not the worst outcome – provided somebody else can be blamed, and that their own party isn’t split asunder. That is no basis for working though a crisis that splits the big parties so badly. Don’t expect our MPs to get us out of this mess.