The morning after

Now that Britain’s general election is over I can resume my blog. I was too close to the heart of what could have been an important Lib Dem campaign to risk saying something that could be misused out of context, as well as not having the time. That isn’t a decision I regret, but I’m relieved that I can now be allowed to stand back from things a bit. So here are my first thoughts on the campaign and its result.

The Conservatives now have their biggest election victory since 1987. This gives them a clear mandate to complete Brexit as soon as it can, but there is plenty of trouble ahead. The party’s success derives from two things. First it took the battle to Labour’s heartlands in the Midlands, North England and Wales and won seats there in unthinkable numbers. These areas voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, and Labour’s support for a further referendum was the Tory battering ram. But I suspect they exploited a deeper disenchantment with Labour than Brexit, and demographic changes as old industries such as mining and manufacturing fade into memory. Second the Conservatives convinced most of their former supporters who voted Remain to stay with the party, in spite of its robust stance on Brexit and much else. Here they exploited a weariness with Brexit, and fear both of Labour and a hung parliament. Both of these successes were neatly encompassed by party’s slogan of “Get Brexit Done”.

Labour suffered its worst result since before the Second World War in seats won (1983 was worse for share of the vote). They had no answer to the Tory assault. The party mounted an effective ground operation, at least in London. Here they swept up a lot of Remain voters who had preferred the Lib Dems, skilfully exploiting the various tactical voting websites, and downplaying doubts about the party’s leader and manifesto (and doubtless helping to shore up the Tory vote as well). This ground game turned what might have been a catastrophe into a mere disaster. The far left are blaming the whole disaster on Brexit and on a vicious media campaign against its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But the party’s problems go much deeper. It went to the country with radical manifesto and a narrative that the country was yearning for fundamental change. This was enough to fire up an army of activists, and to secure its support in many traditional working class areas, such as the ethnically diverse council estates in London, which remained solidly behind the party. But it left most people at best unimpressed. Many Labour policies were popular, such as nationalising the railways, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts. It sounded too much like presents for everybody and somebody else pays. For me the party’s policies and leadership deserved to be much more unpopular than they were. Labour succeeded in crushing rival opposition parties outside Scotland, so its radicals doubtless think they will have more luck when the Conservatives get bogged down, as they inevitably will, without having to rethink their policy platform and narrative. But the real problem is that the party insists on trying to win by persuading a minority of people to support it, while rejecting everybody else as beyond the pale. They have no idea how to take the fight to the enemy heartlands in the way that Boris Johnson’s Tories have, and the party used under Tony Blair. Labour’s tribalism is leading it up a blind alley.

For the Lib Dems the result is just as disastrous, and poses equally tough questions. They started the campaign with high hopes of winning more than 40 seats, but steadily lost support as the campaign progressed, so that they ended up with just eleven, and the humiliation of Jo Swinson, the leader, losing her Scottish seat. In understanding this it is hard to disentangle the judgemental mistakes from the hindsight. Jo did not go down well with sceptical voters, and was repeatedly put on the defensive in radio and television interviews. But surely some of this is a reflection of the party’s broader weakness: their opponents and the media will always find something to put the party leader down with. In 2017 it was gay rights; this year if it hadn’t been the party’s Revoke policy on Brexit, it would have been “austerity” in the coalition years, or as emerged later in the campaign, transgender rights. Nobody was going to let the party explain its ideas on child poverty, for example, where the independent Resolution Foundation found its manifesto better than Labour’s. Still, I think the Revoke policy was an unforced error; it put a large number of people off, and was an easy way of soaking up valuable airtime.

But the Lib Dem problem goes much deeper. There is a paradox: the more the other parties go to extremes, the more the appeal of the party rises, and yet the harder it is to turn this into electoral success, as the fear factor takes over. People simply ask: “Whose side are you on?”. The party tried to say neither, and that their objective was to lead the next government, and not prop one of the other parties up. But that sounded impossibly hubristic, and the party had to drop it. And that simply fed the Labour tactical vote onslaught, and the Tory appeal to stop a hung parliament. The party increased its share of the vote, and the number of second places it holds. This could be a platform to take over from one of the the other parties in the distant future, but it is hard to see how the party can avoid the long, hard squeeze in the next election, which could now be five years away.

I have almost nothing to say on the election’s other winners, the Scottish Nationalist Party, as I am simply too far away from that country to say anything useful for now. However with Labour down to a single seat in Scotland again, it shows how that party’s London bias is leading to a weak message north of the border. I am disappointed that the Lib Dems did not do better, given its Scottish leader, though it least it picked up a seat to compensate for losing Jo’s, and the party fared better than the other UK-wide ones. Apparently the fact that Jo spent much of her time away from her seat in UK business didn’t help.

I will have much more to say on the lessons and impact of the election, after I have had more time to absorb what has happened and reflect. On the one hand I am disgusted that such an unprincipled leader as Boris Johnson has won so big, and I am disappointed that so many very able Lib Dem candidates lost out. On the other hand I am relieved that we aren’t relying on Mr Corbyn to navigate the country through a hung parliament. Unlike many of my Lib Dem friends, this election to me was about a lot more than Brexit, and I am glad that Mr Corbyn and his hard-left clique have done so badly. I will explain why in future posts.

And into the general election

MPs here in Britain have just agreed a General Election on 12 December. I will be much more closely involved in this election than normal, as I am agent for the Liberal Democrats in Battersea, a seat that has become highly winnable for the party. Since I do not use this blog to spout party propaganda, it will be very hard for me to post much of interest on this blog in the meantime. So there will be a period of silence.

Is an election the right thing? The government does not have a majority and it is hard to see it getting significant legislation through. This is one way of trying to resolve that, though it may not. Each party has approached the election decision with their short term advantage primarily in mind (and all four main parties played a role). There are two main reasons not to, apart from the inconvenience of the time of year. On the government side many reckoned it was feasible to push through Brexit legislation, now that many Labour MPs are softening, and this would turn an election into a victory parade. On the opposition side there was a chance that this legislation might be changed to allow a further Brexit referendum, which many feel would be desirable before an election. Depending on which of these arguments you accept or reject, the election makes Brexit more or less likely to go through. I have no opinion on this.

All three main parties in England (Scottish politics is very different, and I am much less informed; Wales follows broadly similar trends to England) plan to put Brexit at the centre of their campaigns, alongside other arguments, depending on who they are talking to. The Conservatives will say “Get Brexit Done” to Brexit supporters and “Stop Corbyn” to others. Labour will say “Labour is the only Remain option” to Remain supporters, as our local Labour MP is telling us here in Battersea, and “reject Austerity” to others. The Lib Dems will also lay claim to Remain supporters, with its less equivocal stance, while presenting themselves as the only sensible party left now that Labour and the Conservatives have veered off to idealistic extremes.

How will it play out? Many voters are utterly disgusted with both Labour and Tory leaderships, and will be tempted vote Lib Dem. That is why the party is, astonishingly, in contention in places like Battersea, after generations in the desert. Will they be ground down by a relentless focus on “the two main parties” in the media, as happened at the last election, in 2017? The party starts in a much stronger position, in polling, money and organisational strength than in 2017, or 2015, come to that, so it should do better. But it seeks a radical lift-off in its performance. That is harder. There is evidence that Labour have been making some headway with their pro-Remain message since the party conferences, eating into Lib Dem support. That will come at a cost, though, as anti-Brexit parties eat into Labour support, for which there is also evidence.

The critical factor will be how the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his team goes down with the public. His supporters point to a spectacular performance in 2017 once he hit the campaign trail. But that was in a very different situation. There are problems with Labour’s stance on Brexit if you start to press it, especially around their idea of renegotiating the exit deal, and then recommending its rejection in a referendum. But since the Lib Dems adopted their revoke without referendum policy (albeit only if they are in majority), Labour can present their policy as more moderate and democratic. I actually find Labour spokesmen a bit clearer on the details of their Brexit policy than Lib Dem ones.

But the main question about Labour is over the rest of their policy. Their manifesto is sure to be radical, though how many of the party’s preferred policies (like taking over private schools) make it there is uncertain. Personally I think current Labour policy is horrific, full of the worst ideas from the left. Their plans to nationalise railways and other industries, and roll back public sector outsourcing look like a sop to unions that will get bogged down very quickly. The idea of a “National Education Service” is doubtless meant to evince the warm glow that the National Health Service supposedly does, but in me it evokes the worst aspects of the NHS, politicisation, leaden management and useless user interfaces, for example, and not the good bits. And on top of that Labour’s leadership looks inexperienced on not up to executing such a radical platform successfully. If there were no Lib Dem option it I would sooner support the Conservatives, notwithstanding Brexit. But I am a creature of my class and age (I remember the 1970s); others could react very differently.

And what of the Conservatives’ non-Brexit stance? This mainly seems to be based on scaring people about Labour policies, but they are also trying to reassure people that they will provide more funding for popular public services, such as the police, the NHS and education. Clearly things have moved on from the period of uber-austerity from 2015 to 2018, but it is hard to trust them. That may not matter too much as the much of the public distrusts liberal public spending, unless it benefits them personally, which it mostly doesn’t. Arguments about Keynesian economic stimulus benefiting all tend not to cut ice, rightly or wrongly.

How will The Brexit Party do? TBP was rampant in the European elections in May, and present a tempting proposition to angry Brexiteers, of whom there are many. The usual view is that they will spit the anti-Brexit vote and impede the Conservatives. But the new Tory leadership under Boris Johnson, has done much to contain that threat. The fact that Mr Johnson has not kept his promise to implement Brexit on 31 October “do or die” may not help TBP as much as many thought. I expect few people believed him in the first place, and there are ready scapegoats. TBP might prove just as much a problem for Labour, and their very public leaning towards opposing Brexit.

And the Greens? They may benefit from an electoral pact with the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru, but it is hard to see them having a major impact. Labour has pretty much shot their fox. Environmental issues certainly have more traction than they used to, but politicians from all parties have noticed. Labour in particular are trying hard to scoop up the angry young environmentalists.

It is all very hard to predict. If Labour start to do well, Tory scare tactics will gain traction and the Lib Dems will suffer. If Labour get stuck, the reverse could happen. Most people think that the SNP will do well in Scotland at the expense of both Conservatives and Labour, though the Lib Dems could make some limited progress there. It will be interesting to see how well the Democratic Unionist Party will do in Northern Ireland, after their very prominent role in this parliament. The betting markets show a Conservative victory and a hung parliament as nearly equally probable at about 45%, with the former having an edge. I don’t disagree.

Jo Swinson channels Emmanuel Macron

The Liberal Democrats conference in Bournemouth was a heady affair. With a new leader, and new members flooding in, including six MPs from other parties, conference goers sensed they were on the verge of something thrilling. Jo Swinson, that new leader, got a standing ovation when she suggested that she was candidate for prime minister. What to make of it all?

The Times cartoonist showed the party bird emblem morphing into a flying pig. Scepticism is warranted, of course. I was particularly struck by this article from Financial Times political correspondent Robert Shrimsley, and in particular this comment:

If this moment does indeed offer a historic opportunity for the Lib Dems, they do not seem ready to grasp it. The strategy seems entirely short-termist, worrying about the rest once they’ve got a few more seats. Little suggests the birth of a credible new Macroniste third force.

It is easy to see now Mr Shrimsley came to this view. Brexit dominated the conference, and in particular the party’s promise to revoke the UK’s Article 50 notice to quit if it won a majority in a general election. Many commentators dismissed this as a gimmicky promise made because the party assumes it will never be in a position to implement it. A parallel was drawn with the party’s policy against university tuition fees in its 2010 manifesto, which it reversed in coalition, with disastrous consequences to the party’s standing. Indeed many members worry that this is the wrong way to overturn a referendum result; I myself voted to remove this from the relevant policy motion on Brexit, though it did not stop me from voting for the motion after this vote failed. When Ed Davey gave his Shadow Chancellor’s speech, he said a lot about stopping Brexit, but nothing about managing the country’s finances. He also spent time developing the Remainer trope that people voted for Brexit as a protest from left-behind places, and that public policy should therefore address their needs. The conclusion may be sound, but the premise is weak. The bulk of the Leave vote was from people who did not like Britain being part of the EU because they dislike the shared sovereignty it implies and because they are sceptical of the benefits of greater openness. And even the protest voters still want the result to be honoured as a mark of simple respect.

So a party that reduces everything to an argument over Brexit, and whose core Brexit policy is a promise that nobody thinks it will have to keep. I share some of these misgivings, but I disagree with Mr Shrimsley. There are three reasons: the leader, the members and the big idea.

First the leader. Jo should not be underestimated. She has brought a determination and focus to the role that many may not appreciate. She did not become Britain’s youngest MP in 2005 by accident, but through hard work, leadership and determination. Besides, busy working mothers don’t have time for shilly-shallying (if I can be permitted a sexist comment…). People who get in her way are pushed aside. Local parties are learning this as they select their candidates for the next general election – and the leadership manages the process to an unprecedented extent. She is not a Jeremy Corbyn, who became leader almost by accident. But she isn’t a Boris Johnson either; she is equally ambitious, but lacks his biddability of political beliefs. She has clear ideas about where she wants to take the country. In her closing speech, after the disposing of Brexit, she developed some of those ideas: tackling climate change, a focus on wellbeing rather than GDP (an area where I have helped her develop party policy), prioritising mental health, and tackling youth crime. She has thought through the Revoke policy and I am giving her the benefit of the doubt. It may upset political commentators but the party will not break out of its third party hell by conforming to the wishes and expectations of the chatterers. It has to play hard and that is what its leader is doing.

A further striking thing about the party is its membership. Overwhelmingly it has joined since the catastrophic general election of 2015, and especially since the referendum of 2016. These new members are replacing the old hands and shaping a fresher political party; many of its parliamentary candidates are now from this generation. Amongst the new members are, of course, three sitting MPs elected as Labour, and three elected as Conservative. Five of these six were prominent in Bournemouth. I saw three of them up close (the three ex-Labour ones, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Angela Smith). All were very impressive, and a cut about the defectors that the party has seen before. They were met with a wall of love. Chuka in particular sounded fully integrated as he urged members to get out on to the doorsteps. He and Luciana were clearly ambitious politicians in mid-career, with no thought of retiring quietly. What all the new members shared was the sense that they have found a new home where they felt comfortable. This influx does feel like the beginnings of a Macroniste movement, especially in the way that it is drawing strength from left and right.

But what is the big idea that is bringing all these people together? Opposing Brexit obviously, but why? A commitment to being open, fair and tolerant. Surely all parties say they are that? But both Labour and the Conservatives have gone in a different direction. In members’ eyes the Brexit campaign was led by narrow and intolerant politicians who wanted to roll the clock back, for a variety of dark motives, and the Lib Dems present the antidote. This might strike outsiders as being stretch. The “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan was still much in evidence – a very short step from “Bollocks” to 17.4 million people who voted to leave. And the sixth MP who was not at the conference (or who kept a low profile), Philip Lee, would have had a much more difficult time, due to the interpretation that some of the things he has said and done were homophobic. Some prominent activists resigned when he was accepted into the party; others were in no mood to even give him a hearing. [See further discussion in comments below on this issue – I was probably not being quite fair on Philip – and the angry activists were probably a small minority] Lib Dems might claim to be open and tolerant, but they only manage it up to a point. But with both main parties riven by deselection issues, and treating bullying as politics as usual, the Lib Dems are clearly cutting through to a lot of people as representing a new style of politics. Interestingly, this is what Mr Corbyn tried to do when he took on the Labour leadership, but he has clearly failed. The Lib Dems might fail too, but for now the floor is theirs.

And so there are parallels between what the Liberal Democrats are trying to do and the rise of Emmanuel Macron’s political movement in France: a mix of firm leadership, centrist policies and a fresh style of politics. Sceptics should stay sceptical – but they should also keep an open mind. The party is about a lot more then Brexit.

Is the Lib Dem investment in coalition government paying off?

Signed up as a Lib Dem supporter and donated. I cast my vote at age 18 for Ted Heath and every general since I have been a Conservative, often canvassing. I am done

Thus an email I saw this morning. Also this morning Justine Greening, long-time Conservative MP for my neighbouring constituency of Putney, resigned the Conservative whip. I have been predicting for a long time that Britain’s political system is breaking up. It has happened much more slowly than I had expected. But it is happening.

The change is being brought about by two groups of iconoclasts, fed up with the established ways of British politics. Right now it is those that have taken over the Conservative Party that are making the running. They are led by Boris Johnson, Britain’s un-mandated prime minister, but many spy an evil genius behind him: Dominic Cummings. Mr Cummings came to public attention as special adviser to Education Secretary Michael Gove in the coalition government of 2010. He fast developed a reputation as a nasty piece of work, despising most other members of the human race. The signature policy of these years was turning English state schools into independently-run academies. The initial idea for these schools being run by local parents and community groups in a bubbling up of local initiative was swiftly crushed, to be replaced by politically well-connected academy chains, whose most distinctive policy was high levels of executive pay. The policy ended up by achieving little more than the looting of public funds. Mr Cummings then moved on to run the official Leave campaign in the EU referendum, where his particular genius shone through. While it is commonplace to blame the referendum result on a lacklustre Remain campaign, it is not so easy to see exactly what it could have done against the trap that Mr Cummings set for it.

We now have a complete change of culture in the Conservatives. There are some parallels with the previous regime of Theresa May before she was laid low by the 2017 General election, with Nicholas Timothy taking the evil genius role of Mr Cummings. But Mrs May’s regime was introverted and comfortable in the civil-service dominated world of Whitehall, even though it despised parliamentary accountability. It was not radical at heart. The new government is much more a movement of a like-minded elite, and it wants to turn the complacent British government upside down. And it is approaching the political challenges like a wargame where the taking of risks is celebrated. They are happy to play fast and loose with Britain’s constitutional conventions; but more importantly they want to turn their party into something more single-minded and ideological, from the pragmatic broad church it used to be. Liberals are not welcome. Mass sacking of Conservative MPs are in prospect.

The other group of iconoclasts have taken over the Labour Party, with the accession to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. There are striking similarities with the new Tory regime. One of the more bizarre features of the current debate is the way this Labour group have suddenly decided that constitutional propriety and parliamentary sovereignty are sacred principles. They are seeking to hijack the outrage at the government’s latest manoeuvres with the slogan “stop the coup”. We should not take this change of heart any more seriously than the silly slogan.

Both groups’ main asset is each other. The Conservatives hope to bring back reluctant liberals and pragmatists with a fear of letting in Jeremy Corbyn. Some polls suggest that their fear of Mr Corbyn trumps even their loathing of Brexit. Labour activists hope for a repeat of the 2017 election, where they succeeded in polarising the debate as being a choice between themselves and the Tories, marginalising the Liberal Democrats, Ukip, and the Greens. They hope to harvest anger at “austerity” and how society is unfairly “rigged”, and combine it with a vague pro-Remain stance which is enough to haul in Remainers on the basis of its contrast with Tory extremism.

Such calculations dominate the threats of a general election on 14th October, before the Brexit Day of 31 October. This election will require the consent of both main parties. But polling suggests that both would start the campaign in a weak position. The Conservatives are polling in the low to mid 30s; Labour in the low to mid 20s. Who is taking the remaining 40% of the vote, and can they be squeezed?

In Scotland, the position of both parties looks hopeless. Mr Johnson’s accession has left Scotland’s Tories in total disarray, and its leader has resigned. The gains the party made there in 2017 look likely to be reversed. Labour too have failed to gain traction. The main beneficiary is the SNP, who look likely to regain their dominance. There may be consolation prizes for the Lib Dems too, who have chosen a Scottish MP, Jo Swinson, as their leader.

In England and Wales the running is mainly being made by Nigel Farage’s The Brexit Party, and by the Lib Dems, with the Greens showing strongly too. Conservatives and Labour have more reason to hope here. The Greens are challenging very few parliamentary seats, and their ground-level campaigning is weak. They usually get squeezed in general elections, and this looks likely again, with the Labour message designed to appeal to their voters. Mr Johnson is hoping that his line on Brexit will have shot TBP’s fox. That party is campaigning all-out for No-Deal, which is popular in quite large sections of the country. It is well-organised, but probably weak at constituency level. Labour’s mild Remain stance, backing a further referendum, may offer it an opportunity to block Labour’s recovery, but Tory Brexiteers are surely likely to rally back to the flag.

Which leaves the Lib Dems. This party’s activists (of whom I am one) like to see themselves as radicals who want to shake up the system. But now they find themselves cast as the party of pragmatism, tolerance, common sense and respect for constitutional convention, though that comes alongside a strong pro-Remain position. The party has a much stronger grassroots campaigning campaigning capability than the Greens or TBP. It comes close to matching that of the ageing Conservatives (though these may be energised by Mr Johnson), but is still way behind Labour’s. The Conservatives, on the other hand, look much better funded.

Can the Lib Dems capture the zeitgeist and hold their own alongside the two “main” parties? It is an opportunity, but not more than that. The years of coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015 nearly killed the party, but it now starts to look like an asset. Its leader has more government experience than Labour’s (and has been a minister for longer than even Mr Johnson, though not at cabinet level), and it shows the party to be pragmatic and politically moderate, even if that’s a description that many activists would shun. Perhaps now they will get the last laugh on the erstwhile coalition colleagues. And if their poll share (now a bit below 20%) holds up, it will be harder for Labour to get traction too.

In fact Labour are unlikely to go for a pre-Brexit election, though Mr Corbyn seems to want one. It complicates their message too much. But who knows where on earth the steady corrosion of British party politcs will take us?

The Lib Dems face the fight of their lives

It’s been a good few months to be a Lib Dem. In May success in local elections was followed by triumph in the European Parliament elections, when it beat both Labour and the Conservatives. The party’s support in the polls has surged. Other successes followed, including attracting two high-quality defectors from other parties in parliament and a by election win. And yet this success is fragile. A lot hangs on the next few months.

The party’s current poll share of about 20% is not normally mould-breaking territory. But both Labour and the Conservatives are polling relatively poorly and it is the gap that counts. Two things have created this situation. The first is the rise of Nigel Farage’s new vehicle: The Brexit Party, which has drawn votes from both big parties as well as helping to define the Lib Dems as their polar opposite, with the party’s unequivocal opposition to Brexit. The second is the abandonment of what might be called the “liberal centre” of politics by both parties. Labour were the first to do this under Jeremy Corbyn. The party has attacked “austerity”, meaning cuts to public spending, and promoted anti-capitalist policies, such as extensive nationalisation. Under Boris Johnson the Conservatives have abandoned the liberal centre too. Not only are they going full out for a hard Brexit, dismissing the dangers of No-Deal, but they are spraying spending promises everywhere and tearing up constitutional conventions. They are also banging the populist drum on immigration and crime and punishment. They look more like followers of Donald Trump than sensible conservatives.

So this leaves the Lib Dems with two political gaps that they can fill: being unequivocally anti-Brexit, and taking the liberal centre. Their first task has been to crush rival claims to this ground. This is what they succeeded in doing in May, as the nascent Independent Group collapsed. The Greens remain uncrushed, and are still important rivals in some places, but they are uninterested in the liberal centre. The next thing the party did was to select a new leader, Jo Swinson. She gives the party a fresh face, and looks more like the voters the party needs to attract. But the challenge now facing Jo is daunting. I think there are three main things she needs to do: navigating the Brexit end-game; establishing a post-Brexit profile; and consolidating the liberal centre. If the party fails in these tasks, the two party narrative of British politics will be re-established and the party will be squeezed out.

Firstly, and most immediately, is the Brexit end-game. The party’s clear resistance to Brexit has been its most important defining feature. It owes it to its supporters to fight as hard as it can to fend Brexit off. But this is looking decidedly tricky. Just how tricky was illustrated last week, when Labour launched its plan for a “caretaker” government under Mr Corbyn to postpone Brexit and the fight a general election. This wrong-footed Jo, who called it out as a cynical ploy too quickly, rather than being non-committal and voicing doubts (a position she has tried to adopt since). This allowed Labour followers to suggest that the party’s top priority was political advantage, not stopping Brexit by any means possible. Fortunately the damage not severe, as potential Tory rebels, essential to the exercise, took up the running. Indeed the move has ricocheted back onto Mr Corbyn, who is having to explain why he is a better choice to lead an interim government than a more neutral figure. It has also allowed Jo to garner extra publicity: many may not have noticed the party had a new leader. But this episode is an indication of the treacherous ground ahead.

The enterprise of stopping Brexit, or even the lesser goal of stopping a no-deal, is almost certainly doomed, however. Mr Johnson’s government views it as an existential crisis for their party, and is willing to play fast and loose with the conventions on which the country’s political processes depends. Mr Corbyn, as I discussed in my previous post, wants the same outcome, albeit without any of his fingerprints. So what happens to the Lib Dems after Brexit? Once out most people, in Britain and the EU, will surely want to move on. Getting back into the Union will be a generational project.

But after Brexit Europe will not drop off the political agenda, and especially after a no-deal. Smooth relations with the EU will be essential for many aspects of British life, including the economy, Northern Ireland and freedom to work and travel in EU countries. Such issues will dominate the British political agenda, forcing both sides back to negotiating a deal of some sort. The Lib Dems will have to move quickly from their “Stop Brexit” position to something new, that keeps the party in touch with the key issues, and which keeps the pressure up on the Conservatives and Labour to define their positions more clearly, and so expose their own divisions. Jo will have to do this on the hoof, as there will be no time to use the the party conference to forge it. The obvious choice would be to advocate a Norway plus plus position. This means being part of the Single Market, including freedom of movement, and a customs union. Fisheries would be excluded but some kind of deal will be needed on agriculture. Rural voters are not so important to the Lib Dems these days, but the party needs to keep up pressure on the Conservatives in rural areas. The idea should be to reopen EU markets for British agricultural produce, and to fend off imports from America and elsewhere. And if people say that all this would mean being a rule-taker, the party can simply say that Britain should rejoin as a full member in due course.

This is necessary, but not sufficient. Labour may end up by saying something similar. Many ex-Tory voters will be sceptical. Which is why occupying the liberal centre will be so important. What is it? Liberal for a start. That means embracing diversity, multiculturalism and tolerance. It also means courting younger voters, which in turn means embracing environmentalism, up to and including radical action to stop and even reverse climate change. All that is easy for Lib Dems, but does not particularly help define them against Labour or the Greens, or even more enlightened Tories, of whom there are more than many suppose.

So the “centre” element of the liberal centre is important. And that means a middle of the road economic policy. That in turn means taking fewer risks with public spending and borrowing, and being moderate with tax increases. That means being careful with spending promises for public services. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about whether this is in fact sensible public policy: many argue that this is in fact a good time to take risks with public spending, and that the burden of tax needs to be radically shifted. But that discussion misses the point. British voters have over the generations drawn the conclusion that governments need to be careful with finances, and they have reason to suspect that Labour will not be. Under Boris Johnson they may even be losing trust with the Tories. Somebody needs to make the case for a more cautious approach, and it makes sense for this to be the Lib Dems.

Moderate economics will not sit so easily with many Lib Dem activists, however. They are rightly wary of the party being branded as being centrist and so defined by what the other parties are up to. Many are wounded by Labour’s persistent demonisation of “austerity”, in which the Lib Dems are said to be complicit under the coalition years with the Conservatives. But while the anti-austerity rhetoric evinces passion in many people, I don’t think it is a popular in the country at large as many Labour people suppose. The Lib Dems built up a degree of credibility on economics with moderate Conservative voters during the coalition – and this group will be critical.

What is clear is that Lib Dems cannot rest on their laurels. The accession of Mr Johnson has given a lift to the Conservatives, and this threatens to restore the two-party dynamic that is the natural state of British politics. The Brexit Party is in retreat. The 2017 general election pattern, where the two main parties moved to over 40% each, can happen again. But the public has deep doubts about both parties, and both leaderships are adopting very risky political strategies. This could be the Lib Dem moment. The party has the fight of its life ahead of it.

Ed or Jo? The Lib Dem leadership race

While the race to become leader of the Conservative Party dominates the news, another leadership contest is running in parallel: that of the Liberal Democrats. Both parties are polling about 20% currently, but there are good reasons why the Lib Dem contest is not receiving anything like the same level of coverage. The new Tory leader is guaranteed to become Prime Minister, even if only for a few days; for the new Lib Dem leader to be Prime Minister it will take an unprecedented political upset at a general election that may not take place until 2022. But it isn’t just that: the Lib Dem contest is as dull as ditchwater. But it is important.

That is for two reasons. Firstly the government does not have a majority, and a number Conservative MPs are being driven to rebellion. A chaotic phase of parliamentary proceedings is about to start, and the Lib Dems 12 MPs could be decisive. And secondly the Lib Dems are on the up, and could do well in the next general election, which may well produce a hung parliament in which the party plays a decisive role.

The contenders are Jo Swinson and Ed Davey. There is little to choose between them on what they are saying to party members. Both want to make the party the natural home for liberal-minded voters; both want to raise the profile of environmental policy; and both want to rebalance the economy in favour of the left-behind. Jo is supposed to be more sympathetic to working with other parties to achieve liberal aims, but what difference this actually makes in the real hard world of politics is very hard to tell from what they have said. That leaves us with judgements on personal qualities.

Unlike previous Lib Dem leadership contests I have worked directly with both candidates. I know Ed the better. I first saw him in action in the mid-1980s when, alongside Chris Huhne, he led a seminar for the SDP on economic policy. He stood out as one of a small number of people in the party that were economically literate, amid the lawyers, teachers and social workers. He then moved into my constituency, Putney, when I was a party officer (alternating Chair and Treasurer). I remember arranging to meet him for a drink at the party’s Harrogate conference in 1992, but having to cancel because it was Black Wednesday, and he was advising the then leader Paddy Ashdown on economic matters. We both stood as paper candidates in Southfields ward in 1994 (when I was agent); I actually outpolled him in spite of the slight alphabetic disadvantage, as the surname “Green” seemed to confer a slight advantage, perhaps from people supporting the Green party. Not long afterwards I was called on the give a Chair’s reference as part of his approval process for becoming a parliamentary candidate. He was shortly adopted by Kingston and Surbiton, which he won by 56 votes in 1997, in spite of it not being one of the party’s primary targets (though I did deliver a few leaflets for him). Much later, after he lost his seat in 2015 I worked with him on the London Assembly campaign for 2016, where he was lead fundraiser (his wife Emily was second on the party list for assembly seats) and I was London Treasurer.

What stands out from all this is that I have found that his views very closely matched mine. He joined the SDP, but with the merger embraced the new party’s Liberal traditions. Nowadays I consider myself more Liberal than Social Democrat. He is interested in economics, and is a passionate pro-European. He loves politics and politicking, embracing doorstep politics as well as international deal-making. But he is also open and transparent: what you see is what you get. His biggest political achievement was a Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the Coalition, when he successfully pushed forward the country’s drive into renewable energy. There is plenty of controversy about his record here, and some hard Greens regard him as a disastrous sell-out. In particular he was prepared to embrace nuclear energy at a high cost. This hasn’t attracted any comment that I have seen in the leadership contest, though. To me it shows his pragmatic side, and how he prioritised getting results over taking the moral high ground.

I know Jo much less well. Though we have met a number of times, I don’t get any more than a “I know that face from somewhere” look from her. I first met her shortly after she was first elected in 2005 as Britain’s youngest MP, and she (along with another newly-elected Scottish MP Danny Alexander) was a guest speaker at a Burns Night dinner, and I sat opposite her. She was part of the policy working group in 2011-2012 on wellbeing, on which I served. I also applied for a job as her parliamentary researcher not long afterwards, and was interviewed by her. I didn’t get the job, but I don’t hold that against her: my memory is that I did a lacklustre job of selling myself. I find her more reserved than Ed, and more likely to lapse into formulaic answers to questions (something which shows in some of her interviews). But she has a strong record in grassroots campaigning (like Ed, but unlike too many Lib Dem leaders), and is a believer in wellbeing economics, as I am (Ed is less clear on this). She was a junior minister in the Coalition, when her main achievement was in developing parental leave. While she is unsurprisingly keen on developing women’s rights, she has the imagination to see this from the male perspective, and has been careful to promote male rights too (in parental leave, in particular). Ed, incidentally, was an early “New Man” and has been a model in promoting and encouraging diversity in his local party.

Jo has three things going for her. First she is female. For all the party’s embrace of feminism, its record in taking women through to senior positions is weak. It would also be good to leave Labour as the only major political party (or even minor one, come to that) not to have had a female leader, not counting the brand-new The Brexit Party. Second is her relative youth: she is 39 to Ed’s 53. She symbolises a fresh start for the party, and its embrace of younger voters. Thirdly she is Scottish, representing a Scottish seat. English politicians are in perpetual danger of underestimating the Scottish dimension to British politics, and its importance is growing. Also in the last two elections Labour and Conservatives have targeted the Lib Dem leader’s seat, causing resources to be diverted and other seats to be lost. This tactic will be much harder if the party leader has a Scottish seat.

For all that I will be voting for Ed. I feel he is kindred spirit somehow, and I like his grasp of detail, where Jo tends to drop into generalities. But there really isn’t much in it.

The Lib Dems earn their zeitgeist moment

The results of the European Parliament elections in mainland Britain are nearly all in. Excited politicos are over-interpreting them like mad, with the politicians predictably interpreting them to suit their own political preconceptions, in which they will doubtless be followed by most of the public.

For my party, the Lib Dems, the result is a high that is almost unbelievable. The party came second overall, beating both Labour and the Conservatives. It took over 20% of the vote and is predicted to take 16 seats (15 in the bag, with one more predicted for Scotland). The electoral system is a strange hybrid of proportional representation and first past the post. In the previous election in 2014 the party suffered the loss of all but one seat, and took even fewer than its dismal poll share deserved. This time the party had lucky breaks (like its third MEP in London) as well as narrow misses, to end up with something like the right share overall. Of all the parties the Lib Dems most believe in the function of the European Parliament, and its candidates really want to be MEPs, which gives this result a note of extra joy. Whether their terms will end in October or 2024 remains unclear, but this is a happy moment.

Of course it is easy to over-interpret the results. In national terms 20% support isn’t that great, and most of the voters it gained were consciously “lending” the party their vote on a strictly short-term basis. The early wisdom, repeated by supposedly impartial commentators as well as more interested parties, is that most of these temporary switchers were from Labour voters. There were clearly a lot of these, but a lot came from the Conservatives too. Many of the Labour switchers may actually have gone to the Greens, who also had a good election. We should await more data on this.

What can we say? Firstly the good result for the Lib Dems was not an inevitability. The party has repeatedly talked a good game and then disappointed. The party mobilised as soon as it became clear that these elections were likely, and more quickly than any other party save Nigel Farage’s personal vehicle, The Brexit Party (TBP), which out-polled the other parties, allowing lazy journalists to say that they “won”. The Lib Dems mobilised around a simple, clear message, that of stopping Brexit from happening. I saw a lot of this at first hand, with my (voluntary) role in the party’s organisation structure. The mobilisation and teamwork was impressive to watch; from top to bottom the party’s activists understood that this was a moment that the party had to take risks. As regional treasurer in London, where the party topped the poll, I played my small part in this. (Many others worked harder, though my work is not yet done).

The main threat to the party, as insiders saw it, came from the new party, Change UK. This party seemed to be well-funded. It actually outspent all the other parties other than Labour in Facebook advertising, according to the Economist. But the European elections, which it had seen as an opportunity, because it does not demand much local organisation, came too early for it. TBP, also a new party, was able to respond because of its near fascistic command and control organisation. Change UK is a vehicle for a group of independent-minded MPs; coherence and organisation were never going to be its strong-points. Big party disdain for the Lib Dems, inherited from many of its MPs (most publicly Labour’s Clive Lewis) surely led them to underestimate the challenge posed by Lib Dems too. There was no time to organise a joint pro-Remain ticket, which would have been hobbled by Britain’s electoral laws, so the parties were doomed to compete.

The Lib Dems plan was to use local election results in early May to establish the party’s claim to be the standard bearer for opposition to Brexit. I have seen many such clever and plausible plans come to nought over the years; this time it worked. That reflects organisational strength and discipline. But the decisive factor is what I call “zeitgeist” – being in tune with popular feeling, or a substantial strand of it. The party’s last zeitgeist moment was in the 2010 general election, when its leader, Nick Clegg, did unexpectedly well in the television leader’s debate. Since then the party has been out of it. During its coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 to 2015 there was a positive anti-Lib Dem zeitgeist; no self-respecting public figure could afford to have their names linked to the party. I felt particularly bitter about the comedian Sandi Toksvig, who had supported the party, but quickly turned to making cheap and nasty jokes at the party’s expense (if the humour had been good, like the late Jeremy Hardie’s, then I might have been more forgiving). She then co-founded the new Women’s Equality party and said how much she felt that British politics had become to personal and nasty; she was an exemplar of the problem but saw no reason to apologise. The anti-Lib Dem phase in the zeitgeist passed, and collapsed into indifference. Many assumed the party was dead.

But the signs the party was not dead were there for all to see. There was an upward trend in membership and a continuing presence in local government. And now it has proved the point with an organisationally strong response to the European elections which at last hit the zeitgeist again.

Where next for the Lib Dems? The party’s future is far from assured, but it has opportunities. Both Labour and the Conservatives have organisational resilience that will allow them to bounce back from this electoral setback. But both face a strong and unfamiliar challenge that they will have to meet or they will wither.

In by far the worse mess are the Conservatives. Their game plan is to put Brexit behind them and change the conversation to tax and spend, stoking up fear as to what a Labour Party might do if it is elected. But the question now is how to get through that first bit. The obvious solution to many Tories is to countenance a no-deal Brexit, and to manoeuvre it through, notwithstanding parliament, hoping that the EU side will wobble and soften the blow. If it doesn’t do this, the well-organised TBP presents an existential threat. But if it does, many of its supporters will desert it, as they did in the European elections.

Life should be easier for Labour. If they swing behind the anti-Brexit position, they will have little difficulty in fending off the challenge posed by the Lib Dems and the Greens, though less so the SNP. But they will leak voters to TBP, and winning a parliamentary majority looks a tough call. If they continue to try and play both sides, however, they cannot rely on their anti-austerity clarion call to work.

And what should the Lib Dems do? The main electoral opportunity comes from feeding on the carcass that is the Tory party, and providing a strong challenge to it in its heartlands. But it needs to make its peace with Change UK. I would go further and say that it should do the same with the Greens. The party shares much with the Greens, but it is also very different. Political reform and environmental action should be enough of a basis for common ground, though. If the party can find arrangements with these two other parties, it can, with them, claim to be part of a “new politics”, rather than being clearly linked to the old, as it is now.

The next business for the party is to select a new leader. This is a good moment to do it, now that some optimism has broken out. The party has earned its moment of joy.

The two party system takes a blow – but what about a general election?

It is a good moment to be a Liberal Democrat, after the party’s strong showing in last week’s local elections. The party were unequivocal winners, while both the the big parties fell back. After years of being ignored and told that the party was broken forever, it is good to be back.

But it is better than that. What the results show is that the party is rebuilding its grassroots strength, and with it a base in local government. This has been the party’s secret weapon, little understood by the Westminster chatterers – local government was how the party built its strength in the 1990s, before it became a significant parliamentary force in 1997. This is the result of hard work by activists working at local level across the country. It wasn’t just the Lib Dems. What surprised the political commentators even more than the success of the Lib Dems, which was as the upper end of expectations, was the relative success of the Greens and local independents. This too required grassroots activism.

Meanwhile the Conservatives, who had the most to lose this time, did very badly, losing over 1,300 seats, at the top end of expectations. The seats were last fought on a relative high for the party in 2015, so some loss was expected. They did worst in areas with a high Remain vote in 2016. What really surprised commentators was how Labour failed to capitalise on this. The party gained seats in some places, but lost in others, with a small net loss of seats overall. Nobody was expecting a spectacular performance, but if the Tories were doing very badly, they were expected to pick up some of the pieces. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour fared worse in high Leave supporting areas.

The retreat of the main parties comes as a surprise to many politicos. Two party politics had been in decline for since the 1980s, with the rise of first the Lib Dems (and their predecessor parties) and then Ukip. But in the 2017 general election both the Lib Dems and Ukip were crushed. This was a huge relief to both Conservatives and Labour, and to many Westminster journalists too. Two party politics seemed to them the natural way of being, and allowed most politicians to focus on their internal party jockeying, rather than having to talk to voters much. Life became much simpler.

But that collective sigh of relief was a huge mistake, as both major parties turned inwards. The Conservatives tore themselves up over Brexit. To be sure this was an important issue, but they assumed that whenever they went to the country they could rally the voters around an anti-Labour message, and get away with it. First they managed to upset their supporters who voted Remain, only to disappoint the Leavers by failing to agree on how to implement Brexit on the target date of 29 March. The indecision is worse than choosing the wrong strategy: now Remainers who had been persuaded to buckle down in the name of democracy are starting to question that logic, as so many Brexiteers try to move the goalposts towards something much more extreme than they advocated in 2016.

Labour, meanwhile tore itself up over an internal power struggle, as the left saw its chance to take a radical left wing programme to the country by consolidating their power within the party. If the Tories cared too much about Brexit, Labour did not care enough. They assumed that the Tories would make such a mess that they would clean up at the next election. That left them with little to say on the big issue of the day. Labour Brexiteers are annoyed at the party’s role in delaying Brexit; meanwhile the party is unable to pick up disillusioned Remainers from the Conservatives.

That meant a poor performance at these English locals for both big parties, which each picked up a 28% vote share, the lowest combined total for many years. There is likely to be an even worse performance at the forthcoming elections for the European parliament, though they should be able to shrug these off, as they have in the past.

The key question is how much this matters at a general election. The electoral system makes it hard for smaller parties to break through. Both the big parties have some reason to hope that it will be business as usual. That would be complacent.

Firstly neither party looks well placed to roll back the threat from the SNP in Scotland, which will be critical to Labour’s chances in particular, but also important to the Tories. Up to 50 seats may be unavailable. The Lib Dems will doubtless hope that they can get a dozen or more additional seats, with the Conservatives looking the most vulnerable. The Greens look stronger than they were, but can only mount a challenge in a handful of seats.

But the big unknown is how well two brand new parties will perform. The most significant is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. This has made an impressive start. It looks well organised and well funded. It is sure to do well at the European Parliament elections, which play to its strengths. It is mainly an air war election, and Mr Farage has no difficulty in getting the attention of mainstream media, much to the annoyance of other smaller parties, who are routinely ignored by the BBC among others. The party has also managed to distribute some centrally organised literature. It will doubtless try to make mischief on social media, a successful medium for populist parties not interested in proposing any constructive policy programme. But, though the party attracts interest and volunteers, it has no grassroots organisation. This is not one of Mr Farage’s strengths, and it is a vital ingredient to success at general elections. Mr Farage himself might be a successful spoiler candidate (he is rumoured to be mulling a challenge to Boris Johnson, widely thought to be the the most likely next Conservative leader), but the party may turn out to be no more than a nuisance.

The second new party is the former Independent Group, Change UK. This party appears weak organisationally, and it is unclear what it actually stands for. It is trying its hand at the Euro elections, but even if it does well there (which I am not expecting), it is hard to see where that will lead. Building a grassroots organisation is very hard work, and it is far from clear whether they are up for it. Cannibalising Lib Dem support, a strategy which many in the party clearly wanted to attempt, now looks a lot harder. There are plenty of places where the Lib Dems are weak, though. Will they try to do something there?

So things don’t look so bad for the big parties when it comes to parliamentary elections. But they do have a problem: Brexit. The country could continue to muddle on trying and failing to leave; it could leave with a deal, which will not be unlike the one the government has already negotiated; there could be a crash out with no deal; or there might be a further referendum which halts Brexit altogether, or else leads to exit with or without a deal. Each of these outcomes will cause major problems for both the Conservatives and Labour. Dramatic upsets can happen (for example the rise of the SNP in Scotland in 2015, or the election of Emmanuel Macron in France). It would be foolish to rule such an earthquake out.

What should the progressive smaller parties do? Some kind of an arrangement to stay out of each others’ way looks sensible for the Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK, whether or not an electoral pact is feasible or desirable. Meanwhile, each of these three needs to think of ways that it can capture the imagination of a public that is fed up with politics as usual. If these parties could agree on a broad programme of political reform, radical action on the environment, and revitalising left-behind parts of the country, perhaps that would do the trick.

Beyond Brexit: Vince Cable’s valedictory

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As we left the Liberal Democrats conference in York we were handed a small book: Beyond Brexit: Liberal politics for the age of identity, by the party leader Vince Cable. Vince had already announced his imminent departure as leader. This was his parting shot. Good and bad, it is a fitting verdict on his leadership.

Beyond Brexit is not a difficult read. It is a series of short essays, a few pages apiece, which flow well enough. Alas that is not entirely good news. Vince is a careful and studious politician. In his essays he likes to analyse what is going wrong. Along the way he also has another agenda: to defend the record of Liberal Democrats in the coalition government of 2010 to 2015. Both of these tasks are important. Too often the left dismisses current problems as being some combination of “austerity” and “capitalism”, assuming that this is obvious; the populist right similarly assume that problems arise from departing from the ways of the 1940s and 1950s. Likewise the Lib Dem record in government is dismissed as a big mistake on the basis that it was electorally disastrous for the party without bothering to understand what it actually achieved.

But the trouble is that this doesn’t leave much space to develop solutions. Too often these seem to amount to “maybe a bit of this, may be a bit of that”. The hope seems to be that we should trust somebody with wise insights about what is wrong to come up with good answers, without being very specific about what they are. No individual proposals seem particularly radical. No sweeping away of fiscal discipline; no universal basic income or job guarantee; no Green New Deal. Taken as a package, however, Vince’s ideas would be a radical alternative to the various paths proposed by the conservative right, the neoliberal right or the radical left. Whether it amounts to a radical departure from the social democratic left depends on how seriously we take his ideas on devolving power. Too often politicians drop such ideas when going gets rough, as it inevitably does; social democrats have no real patience for devolution.

Of course this lack of headline radicalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I tire of activists on the left who demand “radical” solutions. Such ideas have two flaws: almost by definition they go well beyond any evidence for what works (using the argument that everything else has failed…), and politically support for them tends to be narrow, so implementation requires some sort of mechanism to bypass consent. Most activists assume that the people are behind them, and that popular frustration with the system will lead to support for their form of radicalism – and it isn’t too hard to sneak such ideas through in a manifesto few people read. When they eventually collide with political reality, things are apt to get ugly. There is something to be said for a steady but gradual approach.

But political ideas don’t just need to be right, they need to hit the political zeitgeist. That is as much a matter of timing as it is of content. Mrs Thatcher seemed right in 1979; and her polar opposite, stylistically, John Major in 1990. Unfortunately now is not the hour for Vince’s understated intelligence and good-natured engagement. If his policy programme is right, it needs to be sold in a radically different way.

How? The most important step is to identify a single organising idea, with maybe a couple more to be held in support. This is plainly lacking in this book. It ends with a chapter on “My Roadmap to a Better Britain”, with ten points. All worthy, but these need to be organised around as few deeper themes as possible. Up until now the single organising idea for the Lib Dems has been opposition to Brexit. In the title of his book Vince rightly understands that the party has to move on from this: both because the issue will, eventually, recede one way or another, and also because it has become very tribal. Labour have such a theme: opposition to austerity. So do the Greens: radical action to reverse climate change. From Vince’s book there are a number of candidates for a Lib Dem theme, of which the main ones are education, environment (or the “Green Economy”) and political reform. There is also something he calls the “Entrepreneurial State” and housing.

Personally I think that political reform is the most important theme. The country’s politics is too centralised, while dominated by big parties that can be taken over by extremists. Fix this and the problem of disenfranchisement and the left-behind can be solved. But it suffers from two fatal drawbacks. First the British public is very conservative on political structures: we learnt this from the referendum on the Alternative Vote in 2011. They may agree that politics is broken, but they think that it is the politicians that need replacing, rather than the system that needs fixing. They are easily persuaded that any change will at best be a waste of time and money, and at worst make things worse. Brexit may be an exception, but that was sold on the basis of membership of the EU being a constitutional reform that had gone wrong or overreached – and being as unspecific as possible about what would replace it. And on that last point the country has become quite stuck, between conservatives who want to take the country back to 1970, and conservatives that want to leave things as they were in 2016. Secondly, when reform is about devolving power and improving democracy, it usually has the effect of giving sustenance to your political opponents. Proportional representation has helped conservative populists gain traction; local power centres are often conservative (as experience the highly devolved countries like Switzerland and Austria shows). To me this is a necessary part of the journey, but for most politicians it is simply self-harm.

The Green Economy, or Green Growth, has a lot going for it, as it combines popular concern for the environment with an answer to the challenge that it will make working people worse off. But both Labour and the Greens are likely to pick up something like a Green New Deal: a programme of top-down investments and regulations designed to have a rapid impact. While the Lib Dems may get away with camouflaging its more bottom-up approach with that name, it will be hard to make an impact in such contested space – which makes it a useful supporting theme, rather than the main line of attack (much as Labour will use it).

So maybe education is the best place to find an organising theme. There is no chapter on it in Vince’s book, but it comes up in several places. Fourth in his roadmap is “The best education in the world”. In particular Vince wants to develop vocational and lifelong education, especially through FE colleges. This is promising. Also the way in which the Conservatives have let loose the Treasury cynics on Britain’s schools is both damaging and unpopular. While some schools are not as financially well-run as they could be (though many are), this drive points to a narrowing of the curriculum and tossing difficult cases out of the system. This is desperately short-sighted. So education will resonate as an issue with a lot of voters.

But more important than that, liberals really believe in education. It is mass education, above all, that has spread liberal ideas. And a liberal education is probably the most compelling liberal idea, as it is a surer path to personal development than the rote-learning preferred by conservatives. The biggest weakness of populism is that it stands for a reversal of gender-fairness, and a rejection of diversity of race, culture and sexual orientation. This horrifies most younger people – which is clearly a function of improved education. In countries where education is weak younger people are as susceptible to populists as other age groups. There are pitfalls: too much open propaganda for liberal values in schools can, paradoxically, look intolerant (look at the problems sex and relationships education can have). Faith schools are a particularly ticklish issue. And neoliberals have too readily assumed that improving education is a substitute for other policies that address personal and regional inequalities. High quality universal education is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a fairer society.

But I suspect that Vince, ever the economist, thinks that his economic ideas should be the key theme: the first two ideas in his roadmap are “Strong public services and honest tax” and “An entrepreneurial state”. And yet I can’t see how that can be turned into a rousing organising theme to tackle the challenge of identity politics.

Such will be Vince’s legacy. I feel that he was the right man at the wrong time. I hope the party can find a replacement who is both capable of developing a strong policy programme and selling it to the public at large.

Lib Dem economic policy takes a step leftwards

Last Monday the Liberal Democrats passed a policy paper on economic reforms, Good Jobs, Better Businesses, Stronger Communities. This covers economic policy outside fiscal and tax reform, and fits in with the party leadership’s wish to address the challenges of what is often called the fourth industrial revolution. Does it measure up to the challenge?

Sometimes it is hard not to agree with fellow Lib Dem blogger David Boyle that liberals don’t take economic policy seriously enough. There was little excitement about this motion, or another two which tackled taxation. I only attended two of the three debates myself and spoke in neither. But the party leader Vince Cable takes economics seriously (he was a professional economist after all), and the party does find itself well-provided with official policy, even if most of its members might struggle to know what it is. The party should be doing more to promote internal debate.

The Good Jobs motion, and the paper behind it, demonstrate one of the problems. They are very densely packed with ideas and policies. So much so that they are hard to read and harder to condense into something clear and ringing. There seem to be two problems here. First the scope was probably too large. You could easily produce a worthwhile motion on workplace rights, for example, rather than tucking it away in this much bigger motion. And then there is the desire to establish consensus. This boils down to including something for everybody: I’ll let your hobbyhorse through if you’ll do the same for mine. How much this dynamic came from the policy working group itself, and how much from outsiders I don’t know. It must be admitted that there are some advantages to this approach. The Labour manifesto last year seems to have been produced by a similar process, and it collected together enough hobbyhorses to make it a good tool for roping in disparate groups of special interests. I remember one online commenter disparaging the Lib Dem manifesto because, unlike Labour’s, it had no policy on puppy farms. It was an electoral success, notwithstanding major holes in, for example, university finance. Secondly, if your party actually does get into government, it helps to have a bank of small-ish policy ideas ready. This gives ministers something to do, and helps them set their own agenda, rather than being swept along by their departments and issues of the moment. So the policy paper should do valuable work, even if it failed to the party at large on fire.

My main beef is that it pays homage to the idea that the country has a serious productivity problem, and that this is something politicians should worry about. But this is such a consensus view that I guess they had little choice. I don’t particularly object to the polices that this gives rise to. Indeed many of its ideas would no doubt dent measured productivity in the short term (more regulation, tougher environmental focus, and so on), so it is probably politically wise to have some policies specifically focused on raising productivity. Labour does something similar.

So what, for me, are the key issues? The first is that too much money in the economy is being either retained by businesses, or distributed to shareholders, or paid to senior employees. Quite apart from the corrosive effect this has on people’s sense of fairness, too much of this money is idle, causing a phenomenon called secular stagnation. One of the symptoms is low interest rates and too much private debt. This tendency started in the 1980s and  technological changes aren’t making it any easier. In order to address this, broadly two sorts of reform are suggested. First there is attacking monopoly capitalism. This is David Boyle’s big theme: he wants to rescue the old liberal concept of free trade as a liberator, after it has been hijacked by neoliberals to mean staying out big business’s way. The second is to redress the balance of power between workers and bosses. I think this latter is probably more important – I am less convinced than David that modern monopoly capitalism is quite as harmful as it was in old economy days of oil, phones and steel – though I do think he is onto something over excessive protections for intellectual property. The Lib Dem paper embraces both approaches, though not intellectual property, which requires a policy paper all to itself. It opens the door to supporting unions. Having heard a very sensible presentation by a representative of the union Prospect at the party conference, I am changing my mind about the role of trade unions. One of my formative political beliefs (from the 1970s) was that unions were a baleful influence on the economy. But empowering unions sounds much more likely to redress the palpable power imbalabce than more shared ownership of businesses, a typical Lib Dem suggestion (though not advocated as radically as the left are starting to).

The second issue is that the economy needs to be pushed towards environmental sustainability. Not only does this mean unlocking renewable energy and leaving coal and oil buried in the ground, but it also means producing and consuming less stuff. The sustainable economy will be based on services, not manufacturing. This needs a change of mindset, and the policy paper does give it a big shove in the right direction.

A third issue is getting a more even geographical spread of economic success. It is a pity that economists are not giving this more thought. Certain economic processes seem to benefit from accelerating returns – returns that rise with concentration. The idea of accelerating returns sounds good, but it isn’t, because it leads to success being concentrated, and increases inequality (unlike the alternative concept of diminishing returns, the more conventional assumption in economic modelling). This seems to be because of network effects among personal relationships, that work better in geographical proximity. This is not particularly well understood, but needs to be. I am convinced that government structure is part of the story. More devolved political power helps – but exactly how and why is less clear. The policy paper duly pushes for this, both in government and in the purchasing of public agencies. That is helpful. But whether more devolved government will help Boston, Margate or Merthyr Tydfil enough is doubtless open to scepticism. The centralised political culture runs deep in Britain.

And a fourth issue is human fulfilment. We have reached the point in our economic evolution when economists need to consider this explicitly, rather than simply trying to give people more money to spend. This fits in with worker empowerment, but there needs to be more. The paper’s advocacy of lifelong education and individual learning accounts is helpful here. But I want to see the greater availability of counselling for people between jobs, or unsatisfied with their jobs, as a part of this. Simply giving people spending power is not enough, and can be dehumanising – one of the reasons that I am suspicious of universal basic income, a very fashionable idea on the left that the Lib Dems are sensibly steering clear of.

So, overall, this policy paper fits well enough with the economic agenda that I support. But standing back it leads me to a striking thought. There is a growing overlap between current liberal thinking and new socialist thinking (which isn’t just a throwback to the 1970s as its opponents claim), and a step away from the neoliberal thinking that still dominates the centre-right. Perhaps there will be enough common ground for a future coalition, once Labour sees beyond its internal struggles and overcomes its more extreme tribalism. Alas that day is some way off. But a coalition with Conservatives once the Brexit hoo ha has settled looks even less wise than it was in 2010.