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

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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.

 

Vince Cable sets a bold course for the Liberal Democrats

In one episode of the masterly political comedy Yes Minister, the knowing civil servant advised his naive minster on the art of public presentation. It depends on how radical you are. The more radical that you want to be, the more sober the presentation needed to be, to reassure the wary. A contentless speech, on the other hand, needed to as glitzy as possible. On that basis the British Liberal Democrats’ leader Vince Cable’s speech yesterday to his party must have been radical indeed. Its presentation was as dull as ditch water, fluffing its one joke (something about erotic spasms). Its content was another matter.

Most commentators, inside and outside the party, have been unable to see past the superficial. They complained that it was dull, and lacked radical new ideas. They assumed that his appeal to reasonable, moderate voters, put off by the extremism of other parties, meant that his ideas were would be wishy-washy, and duly saw that both in what he said, and in the series of policy resolutions passed by the conference. But I have been listening to leader’s speeches for nearly 30 years. I’m tired of the presentational tricks, the crowd-pleasing jokes, the radical-sounding policy ideas that lead nowhere, and the personal stories injected by professional speechwriters to establish “authenticity”. What I actually heard was a series of direct answers to the hard political questions that the party faces; he never lost my attention. My first thought, as we got up to applaud it, was that it was the best leaders’ speech I had ever heard.

So what are these hard questions? The first was what actually do we say if the party succeeds in its quest to secure a referendum on the Brexit proposal, with an option to stay in the EU. This is something that most advocates of a referendum say little about. Vince recognises that most people that support Brexit have a real grievance, having been left out of whatever economic advance the country has made over the last generation. That needed to be addressed through public investment, and for public resources to reflect population increases more readily. He also recognised that the party needed to push for reform of the European Union itself. This is something most Remainers are silent about.

But this only poses deeper questions about what is wrong with Britain, that go far beyond Brexit. Vince took this on too. Part of his answer was a familiar liberal one: better education services, with a lifelong remit; he mentioned further education colleges in particular as a neglected sector that needed attention. He also supported Education spokesperson Layla Moran’s ideas for changes to schools. These are a little too crowd-pleasing for me (replacing Ofsted and reducing primary testing) but are generally going in the right direction. But he also had ideas, indeed firm policies, on the economy, often a Lib Dem weakness. He recognised the biggest problem: that too much money is being hoarded by the well-off. He wants to tackle this by taxing it harder. This is quite brave, since there is likely to be collateral damage amongst a swathe of older people (like me) who have made money from owning homes, and who (unlike me) want to pass on much of this wealth to their children (I don’t have any). This is surely part of the answer, but also I think it means being braver on government debt. But he hinted at this too – by loosening government rules on borrowing to invest, locally and nationally. My criticism in my previous post that the Lib Dems are weak on economic policy is being addressed.

He also wants to start thinking about how the impact of increased automation will affect our lives, and how public policy needs to change to reflect it. This will doubtless lead to a focus on empowering workers, as well as re-focusing regulation of digital platforms. Deputy Leader, and likely successor to Vince, Jo Swinson also talked about this.

But, of course, developing a policy platform that is relevant and radical is only part of the problem. The are small signs that the party’s fortunes are improving at the expense of Britain’s big parties, but far short of what is needed to turn the party into a major political force. The party isn’t speaking to the vast majority of the public, and media gives it little attention, almost none of it sympathetic. Amongst those who have some awareness of the party, it is considered to be well-meaning but ineffectual. It is unfashionable to support the party, and many people who might be supporters resort to sneering at it. There needs some kind of seismic shift, both in gathering supporters and, critically, money. Vince has launched a series of ideas for party reform in an attempt to do just that. I did not attend any of the consultations on these reforms, but I understand that attendees were giving them a sympathetic hearing, but were worried about some aspects, notably that the free supporters’ scheme might be subject to entryism. Many of the older hands are very sceptical, though. They way in which the leadership is trying to push the reforms through has ruffled quite a few feathers.

But the party doesn’t belong to these old hands, who include long time members like me, and more recent ones who joined in the 2000s, who consider themselves to be radical liberals. The party’s membership has exploded since 2015. The recent publicity of Vince’s reforms have drawn in thousands more. Nearly every other speaker claimed that it was their first time speaking at conference. By and large these were persuaded by the leadership line. A strong move by the old lags to derail a motion on immigration, recommending substantial reforms to Britain’s current system, but falling far short of making the country truly open, was easily defeated. The complainers were passionate, angry and numerous, but oddly unspecific. Against this most people were persuaded that the policy was a step in the right direction.

But the opportunity is palpable. The Conservatives are skewered by Brexit, as well tied to an outdated economic orthodoxy. Labour is riven by internecine struggles that are relegating many of its ablest people to the sidelines. Too many of its supporters indulge in tribal abuse as an alternative to building broad support for a radical policy programme. Its leader is failing to convince much of the public. A bit like the Lib Dems, he is seen as well-intentioned but ineffectual.

And meanwhile Brexit is hurtling towards us. Personally I still think that the Prime Minister Theresa May will succeed in getting a compromise deal with the EU through, allowing an exit from the union in March next year. The Lib Dems owe it to their supporters to try their damnedest to stop her. But its leader is looking at what the party has to do beyond that. That encourages me.

Is Vince Cable’s plan for the Lib Dems a gamble too far?

Last Friday the leader of the British Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, launched his plan for remaking his party into a broader liberal movement. Having been away, my reaction to this event has been slow. But before we launch into the party conference next weekend, here are my first thoughts.

Vince’s main idea is to create a supporters’ scheme which costs nothing to join. To give people extra incentive to sign up to this (and be bombarded with requests for help and donations, etc.) he suggests that these registered supporters have a vote to help choose party leaders – and a suggestion that non-MPs may be allowed to stand for the leadership. He also wants to make it easier for new members to become candidates for parliament – currently they must have a full year of membership. Vince said that the party needed to open itself up to become a movement for political moderation.

First reactions in my Facebook feed were very negative. If there’s one thing that annoys the more vocal people in this community it is referring to Lib Dems as “moderates”, or worse, aiming at the political centre. The party has being going through difficult times after its support collapsed in 2010 when it joined the Conservatives in coalition government. What has kept those of us who remain going, and motivated those who have joined since, is passion for its liberal and internationalist values, not moderation, and not being Mr In-Between. But political leaders know that they must do more than merely represent their supporters; they must broaden their movement’s appeal to people who do not currently support it actively. There are many people out there who are appalled by the idealistic extremism that is infecting both Labour and the Conservatives. Doubtless the use of the word “moderate” was based on at least some market research, though the party cannot afford much.

Apart from suspicion of the word “moderate”, members are wary of involving large numbers of newcomers with little experience or stake in the party. The Labour Party were the first down this route, when they opened up their leadership contest in 2015 to the public for just a £3 fee. In one sense this was enormously successful: hundreds of thousands were drawn in, and many became full-fledged members. The party how has about 600,000 members when the next three in size (the Conservatives, the Scottish Nationalists and the Lib Dems) have not much more than 100,000 each. But this influx of members helped a manifestly unsuitable candidate (Jeremy Corbyn) become elected to the leadership, and has been exploited to drive the party to left. I need to be careful here. Mr Corbyn has been badly underestimated by mainstream politicians and media, and the lurch to the left has involved some welcome fresh thinking. It may not turn out as bad as many outsiders, including me, are predicting. But what is unquestionable is that the process has been very uncomfortable for many of the people who had devoted their lives to the party before the influx changed things. And that’s what many Lib Dems fear will happen to their party if these changes actually succeed in drawing lots of new new people in. It’s all very well saying that these new supporters should share the party’s current values, but how do you ensure that this is the case?

What gives weight to this is the thought that the party might be able to draw in defectors from other parties, including MPs and big-hitters. Unhelpfully, former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair piped up on Friday too, expressing his fears over the turn that politics in Britain has taken. People won’t be slow to make the connection that “moderates” and “centre ground” include people like him. And to many of us, it is people like him who got the country into this mess in the first place, by pushing a series of ideas (often referred to as “neoliberalism”) that have created a whole class of left-behind people that are stoking up the anger.

But the party’s position is quite desperate, if it wants to live up to its ambitions to make it to the political big time (i.e. achieve power), rather than being an ideological fringe, like the Green Party. It is stuck at between 5-10% in national opinion polls (though at the upper end of the range at the moment) and has too few MPs (at 12) to have serious political clout. Andrew Rawnsley sums this up very well. And yet, as Mr Rawnsley also points out, the opportunity is palpable. The ideological fringes in both the major parties are making the running. And there are examples of successful mass movements led from the centre (he points to Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau in Canada, whose party has been advising Mr Cable). If the Lib Dems can’t do this all by themselves, it is hard to see it working without them. The party has nearly as many members as the Conservatives, and the organisational nous and cooperative culture that a brand new party would lack (one reason that the party has seen off Britain’s most successful new party of recent times: Ukip).

There are moments in life when you have to be courageous, and take big risks in order to get what you want. This is one such moment for the Lib Dems. All the risks pointed out by the plan’s critics have a basis in fact – but they can all be managed. The plan is not nearly enough by itself, but the point is to capitalise on opportunities as they arise. As such I am giving my support to it, though I have reservations about some of the plan. The secret weapon of liberalism is that it can be ideological and moderate at the same time, because it celebrates inclusion. Inclusion is what political moderation is all about.

To me, though, there remains a hole at the heart of this exercise, which will also afflict any new parties created out of fragments of Labour and the Conservatives. We know what they stand against, but what’s the plan? How do they propose to help the left-behind, and start to heal the rifts that are all too apparent in our not-so United Kingdom? At the heart of this has to be a new approach to economics. At the moment Labour understands this better than the Lib Dems, but they are ruining their good ideas by proposing to over-centralise power and supporting the deep conservatism of trade unions. But at least they realise that the cosy consensus that dominates the centre of British political establishment has to be challenged. And that is radical rather than moderate. Once liberals start to champion an agenda for radical economic reform, everything is possible.

Lib Dem English Council: why didn’t the turkeys vote for Christmas?

Warning: this post is about the internal workings of the British Liberal Democrats. To anybody not a party member this will be of no interest, unless you want to draw some general ideas on how, or how not, to manage a political party.

Yesterday the Liberal Democrat English Council (EC) rejected a motion to implement a new constitution for the Liberal Democrats English Party, which, among other things, would have abolished the EC. I am a member of the EC and voted against the proposed new constitution. This deserves some explanation..

What is the EC? It is a group of representatives from across the party in England. Each regional party is entitled to a number of representatives based on the size of its membership. These are supposedly elected by the members of the regions, but in fact there a generally fewer volunteers than places, so it is mostly self-selected. The gathering amounts to fewer than 100 people (about 70 on this occasion), meeting twice a year in London (by the choice of its members a few years ago) for a 5 hour session. Its job is to take reports from, and put questions to, the officers of the English party, and to approve the administrative rules by which the party runs itself. It does not deal with matters of public policy because there is no English Parliament. Another party body, the overarching Federal Party, through various directly elected committees, a twice annual conference and an executive arm of paid employees, handles English policy issues.

Why have an English Party at all? The party has Scottish and Welsh “State” parties, following a long tradition in the party and its Liberal forerunner of supporting devolution to these nations (and before that to Ireland, a much more divisive issue in its time). When that devolution happened, with Scottish and Welsh parliaments, autonomous organisations in the two nations made even more sense – these entities could take on serious policy issues too.  But that left an England-shaped hole in the party’s set-up, just as it does in the British constitution. The party, when it put together its constitution in the late 1980s, filled it with two levels of organisation: regional parties and the English party. The regional boundaries largely followed the arbitrary administrative concoctions the UK government used, which also became constituencies in the European Parliament. These convene twice-yearly conferences and elect executive committees. There is little policy work to do; only in London is there any kind of regional devolution to bodies that follow these regional boundaries. New “city regions” are emerging, but not in the sort of tidy way that can be used to carve up the country as a whole. The regions are of equivalent population size to Wales and Scotland (with London region being bigger, though more compact, than Scotland).

So why not give these English regions to the status of State Parties? Firstly because the Scottish and Welsh parties take great offence to the idea that English regions might have a similar status to their nations. Also because the administrative infrastructure required to keep regions on top of their responsibilities would be quite high. The Lib Dems cannot afford much in the way of professional administration staff, while the regulatory burden, from the Electoral Commission and data protection in particular, gets ever greater. And so we have the English State Party, which does things like set rules for candidate selection and disciplinary processes, and represents the English organisation in Federal Committees alongside the Scottish and Welsh parties.

And so how to ensure appropriate scrutiny of English Party officers, and represent English regions and local parties in big decisions? The regions and the Federal Party were already holding conferences twice a year, and besides such conferences often do a poor job in that sort of technical function. What is needed is something more like a local government scrutiny committee. The EC was the solution hit upon.

This leaves the party with an administrative structure that few members understand. The English party structure (and the English regions) are useless as a vehicle for promoting a serious political career, and so are left to backroom types with skills in administration but not salesmanship and explaining themselves. Every so often these structures come under criticism for being opaque and unaccountable. Following the calamity of the 2015 General Election, it was decided to review the whole thing, following an extensive consultation exercise with members. This job fell on the usual worthy suspects who did their best.

What was the aim of the review? Beyond being an expression of angst, this was never very clear. We had the usual sweet nothings about having something simpler and clearer which would allow activists to spend more time on campaigning. The proposal was to abolish the EC and its executive and replace them with committees composed mainly of regional officers, and an annual or twice-annual annual conference open to all members lasting about an hour, held in close proximity to the Federal Conference. This amounted to a gutting of the English Party and its powers being taken over by the Federal Party and the regions.

How did this look to EC members like me? It looked as if its sole purpose was to abolish the EC as an end in itself rather than to achieve any wider goal. It was very hard to see how the regions would be empowered as a result, and easy to see how the officers of the Federal Party would be. The ability of the committees and the new conference to act as scrutineers looked laughable compared to the admittedly flawed EC. So lots of people spoke against the proposal; people from further-flung regional parties (in the north and west) sounded particularly aggrieved – even those who had been part of the consultation process. The new constitution’s supporters offered no serious arguments in support of it, beyond it being a bit embarrassing if the thing was voted down. The motion needed a two-thirds majority, and it failed even to get a majority. No effort had been made in advance to sell the new constitution, or wheel in respected names to support it, or indeed to provide any supporting speakers beyond the proposer and seconder. It was a study in political ineptitude.

In that it was pretty typical of the Lib Dem English party. Nobody important in the party takes it seriously, and so it is left to hard-working but worthy types, with limited political skill. This is surely an inevitability. I personally think that the current constitution is the least bad of the options in the circumstances, and that a proper case had not been made for the new one. With constitutions it is best to be conservative, and weight towards the status quo. If that leaves the structure messy and opaque, we might reflect that in politics only dictatorships are clear and tidy.

Which does not mean that things can’t be improved. The disciplinary processes in particular need some careful thought. The working of the party as a whole could do with rethinking. But I don’t think the intermediate structures are a major part of the problem. It is dealing with the weaknesses of many struggling local parties in an unforgiving regulatory environment; and it is trying to improve the accountability of the Federal Party, while still giving it some room for manoeuvre. The former problem is the more urgent. The Federal structures have been overhauled recently, and it is too early to write them off.

Meanwhile learn this. If you want the turkeys to vote for Christmas, you had best give them a good reason.

Life in the tunnel. Being a Liberal Democrat

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I just want to ask: when will the party face up to the fact that whatever it is doing isn’t working even in the slightest?

This was from Lib Dem blogger Nick Tyrone before the recent local elections, after a London opinion poll showed weak figures for the Liberal Democrats. The party’s appeal to Remain voters had pretty much failed, he thought, with the party lagging even the Conservatives in this group, never mind Labour.

Then came last week’s local election results. If you are going to take a cold, hard look at them in the round, they were nothing to shout about. They were perfectly consistent with that poll. In equivalent vote share they even marked a slight fall from the rather dismal 2017. And yet. Look at the London results (as a Londoner, I have an excuse for being London-centred – though my story works just as well outside it). The two most spectacular results for any party on the night were the Lib Dem gain of 25 seats from in Richmond, and 21 seats in Kingston, mostly at the expense of a Tory party that collapsed to a rump in both boroughs. And at last the party started to win seats from Labour, gaining seven in Haringey, for example. And the party had its Wandsworth moment too, fending off a sustained and confident campaign by Conservatives in the one borough it controlled in Sutton. Minds aren’t swayed by dry statistics but by stories – stories that show what is possible. In London, and across the country, the Lib Dems had plenty of good stories to encourage them. That made them a much better set of results than the party has had for a long time, even in 2017 when the equivalent poll share was higher.

Not that you would have guessed this from the media coverage. Even in its later coverage (when the Kingston result was known, giving resonance to the Richmond story) the BBC chose to highlight the relative failure of Labour in Wandsworth to the spectacular écrasement of the Conservatives in two neighbouring boroughs, which went unmentioned. Why were the non-events in Wandsworth and Westminster more important? Because, apparently, they are a “flagship” boroughs. Actually I think the Wandsworth result is an important story, but this prioritisation is an interesting window into the current journalist mindset, even at the politically balanced BBC. This may not be bias; it may just be a bid to cover up the humiliation of the editorial team of not getting the story right in advance, and sending its big guns to the wrong places. News is made on expectations, not real events.

Which, I think, is the issue at the heart of Nick Tyrone’s critique. Whatever the party does, nobody in the media, mainstream or otherwise, is listening. The only stories that are of interest are the sorts of stories that Ukip still manages to pick up: ones that point to the parties final, humiliating death spiral. I don’t think it is fair to blame that on the party’s leadership or messaging.

Life as a Liberal Democrat supporter is like being in a long, dark tunnel. Things are miserable; nobody can see you; and too often any small flickers of light vanish, rather than grow into that light at the end. But last week’s small chink of light just could be what we hope it is.

The point is this: the problem isn’t the message, it is getting people to listen to it in the first place. It is nearly hopeless achieving this through the media. It is just possible that a moment of genius or massive good luck suddenly does the job. But waiting for such a moment does not amount to a strategy. The other way to get noticed is to go out and talk to people directly – through door-to-door canvassing and attractive literature pushed through letterboxes, and with videos promoted through paid-for advertising. This is inevitably very localised, and it tends to happen in the run-up to elections, when people have a good reason to take notice. The good news is that when the party was able to do this, it, by and large, raised its share of the vote. And sometime spectacularly – in Remain-voting Richmond and South Cambs, in Leave-voting Kingston-upon-Hull, and in the somewhere-in-between Kingston-upon-Thames. That suggests that Nick Tyrone is wrong. What the party is doing is working at least a bit more than the slightest.

And the hope is that if the party keeps going, the general public, and the media that follows it, will start to notice. Even now, the BBC must start to question its policy of giving the party so little coverage compared to Ukip, which has now virtually ceased to exist.

But why soldier on in the cold, dark place, where hope is but fleeting? Because we believe in our liberal message. That humanity is more important than the nations and religions that divide it. That all humankind benefits when we listen to different points of view with respect. And that we should look at facts and evidence rather than let our prejudices run riot. No other party is doing that as much as the Liberal Democrats in British politics. It is worth pushing on through the tunnel.

The Budget shows that the Tories are in a political cul-de-sac

I will break my self-imposed silence because yesterday’s British Budget is one of those great set-piece occasions which can be used as a moment of reflection. Predictably, most in the news media squander this in a silly game of speculation about the short-term prospects of political leaders. But the Budget poses more profound questions.

The government faces two profound economic problems, which it must either learn to live with or expend political capital to solve. These are low productivity and housing. There are other big problems, of course: Brexit, austerity, regional disparities and income inequalities, for example. But Brexit is more about means than ends; austerity is symptom of the productivity problem; and the other problems are not so high on political agenda right now, though they are important to both housing and productivity. Broadly speaking, the government is being forced to embrace the productivity problem, and is doing its best to confront aspects of the housing problem, without being able to do enough.

Let’s look at productivity first. This is about production and income per hour worked. Since unemployment is now low, and immigration is looking less attractive, increasing productivity is the key to raising incomes, and, above that in my view, to raising taxes. Weak tax revenues lie behind austerity – the cutting of public spending to levels which are now unsustainably low. The government is forced each year to spend extra money to fix some crisis or other brought about by austerity. This time it was Universal Credit and the NHS. Next year it will be police and prisons, after that it will be schools and student loans. And so it goes on – this is no way to build for the future. The government could try to raise taxes, but this is so politically unpopular that not even the Labour Party is talking about it – they persist in thinking that there is easy money to be raised from big business, rich people and confronting tax evasion. So growth it must be, and productivity must rise. But productivity is stuck in a rut. The big news for this Budget is that at long last the Office for Budget Responsibility has given up hoping that there will be a bounce back, and so reduced its forecasts of income growth, which are used to set tax and borrowing assumptions. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, talked about fixing this, as all politicians do, but in practice has done very little about it. Labour, for all their huffing and puffing, are no better. Both parties propose a number of sensible small things, like increasing public investment and education, but nothing that gets to the heart of the issue.

So the political class have chosen to embrace slow productivity, by their actions if not their words. They are right, though they need to think through the consequences. My take on the productivity puzzle is different from pretty much everybody else I have read. I think that the primary cause is what economists call the Baumol Effect. The problem is not the failure of British businesses to embrace improvements, but the limited demand for goods and services that are susceptible to advances in productivity, such as manufacturing. There are things that can be done to raise such demand, but these mainly have to do with increasing incomes for those on low incomes – people with high incomes consume less as a proportion of income, and spend more on low-productivity items that confer status. Also if demand for exports could be raised, and imports diminished, that would help – international trade is mainly about high productivity goods. But nobody really has much idea how to deal with these problems beyond tinkering at the edges with minimum wage adjustments and such.

So what of housing? What, exactly, is this about? It is about high costs to both buy housing and to rent it. This is a very complex problem with deep roots. Most analysis is superficial, but this article in the FT by Jonathan Eley is a good one. Among a number of interesting points he makes is that the low number of new housing units being built in recent decades compared to earlier ones is a bit misleading. In those earlier decades a lot of housing was being destroyed: slums and temporary housing for victims of bombing in the war. It is not necessarily true to suggest that the problem is that too few houses are being built. In fact there are deep structural problems with the housing market. One is that private borrowing has been made too easy; another is that changes to housing benefit has subsidised demand for private rental accommodation. The result of this and a number of other things has forced up the price of land relative to the housing  built on it, and made trading in land central to economics of private sector developers.

The upshot of this is that it is hard to see any solution to the housing problem without a substantial intervention by the state to directly commission house building, and social housing in particular. Another issue is building on greenbelt land outside cities, which is now forcing suburbs to turn business premises into housing, and turning suburbs into an unhealthy housing monoculture. Caution on greenbelt building is warranted, of course, as suburban sprawl, as demonstrated in so many countries in the world, is not desirable either. Mr Hammond did practically nothing on either of these critical issues. He did try to tackle the housing problem, but mainly through the private sector and private markets which are structurally incapable of making things better for the growing proportion of the population weighed down by excessive housing costs.

That is entirely unsurprising. Solving the crisis, especially in an environment of low economic growth, means that current levels of house prices and rents have to fall. That is a direct attack on the sense of wellbeing of the Conservatives’ core constituency: older and better off voters. And if that isn’t enough, property developers and others with a vested interest in the current system are showering the Conservatives with money. A politically weak government is no shape to take this on.

And that, I think, is the most important political fact in modern Britain. Housing costs are not an intractable problem that we must learn to live with, like productivity. One day it will solve itself in an immense period of pain as land prices, and much of the financial system, collapses. The sooner it is tackled the less the pain will be. Labour may be useless on productivity, but they are much stronger on housing. They have a much better prospect of doing something useful. That does not mean they will win the next election – the forces of darkness on the right should not be underestimated. But it does mean that Labour is looking to be the lesser of two evils.

For my party, the Lib Dems, this is important. It means its stance of equidistance between Labour and the Tories needs to be modified. The turning point, in hindsight, should have been that moment in coalition with the Tories when the then Chancellor George Osborne said that he could not support the building of more council houses because that meant more Labour voters. The coalition should have been ended then and there. Just as in the 1990s when the Lib Dems leaned towards Labour, the party needs to accomplish the same feat now. It is much harder because Labour has abandoned the centre ground. But that is where the country is at.

Have the Lib Dems reached a Battle of the Marne moment?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Following the fortunes of Britain’s Liberal Democrats is a niche interest these days. So much so that this Lib Dem blog spends most of time commenting on other things. But the party conference in Bournemouth has just ended, and I was there. Something needs to be said.

The party’s fall from mainstream politics has been dramatic. It peaked when the party was in coalition, with four cabinet ministers, in 2010 to 2015. At that time the party was scarcely out of the news. This year the party’s autumn conference rates hardly a mention. In yesterday’s London Standard, on the day of the the leader’s closing speech, the party got no coverage in the news pages. Absolutely nothing. This is not especially surprising. The party has but 12 MPs, a a tiny scattering of council leaderships, and single-figure poll ratings. In much of the country it can’t even scrape together enough votes to retain its deposit. Still, its position is much stronger than other minor parties that have hit hard times: Ukip and the Greens.

Why is that? The party’s infrastructure is much diminished, but it still dwarfs that of the other minor parties. It has even seen a membership surge, meaning that the conference was well-attended and lively, even if all the lobbyists and sponsors were absent. The party has been here before and progressed – notably when I attended my first conference in 1990, when it polled at a similar level to the Greens, the continuing SDP and the continuing Liberals. Furthermore its team of MPs has more government experience than Labour’s entire front bench. And its ideological space, internationalist liberalism, is unchallenged in Britain’s political system. And yet it is very hard to deny the pessimistic conventional wisdom, nicely summed up in this Economist Bagehot column.

But the party’s leaders remain determinedly optimistic. Could this be a Battle of the Marne moment? This was the early turning point in the First World War, after the Germans had driven the French and British armies into headlong retreat, and the fall of Paris beckoned. The French general Ferdinand Foch was promoted to lead the fightback, and famously said: “My centre is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.” The tide was turned, and France saved. The wider point here is that retreat can bring opportunity. Your opponents become overstretched and exhausted; meanwhile your own communication lines are tighter, and you become more cohesive. There are at least some elements of this for the Lib Dems.

The party’s main opponents, the Conservative and Labour parties, do show signs of overstretch. The former are stuck with a mediocre leader because they can find nobody better; they are saddled with implementing Brexit, and with being on the wrong side of demographic trends. The easiest votes for Lib Dems to win these days are disillusioned Conservatives. Labour are in many ways in much better shape but remain a fragile coalition with incompatible views; I will write more of them after their conference next week. And the Lib Dems’ main competitor on the political fringe, the Greens, look in even worse shape. They made a serious strategic error to occupy more conventionally left-wing social justice territory, and have been crushed by Labour’s revival, after briefly threatening to eclipse the Lib Dems in the coalition years.

Also the party itself is more cohesive. It is not constantly undermined by the pleas that this or that policy line will upset this or that local community in a Cornish Lib Dem seat. Those conservative rural voters have now gone elsewhere. As have inner city voters. The party is now more tightly focused in Britain’s suburbs, allowing it to sharpen its appeal and take greater risks.

And the party has its General Foch too, under its new leader, Vince Cable. As even the Economist admits, he is easily the more intelligent that the main party leaders. That intelligence was on display in Bournemouth. There was practically no question thrown at him to which he did not have an intelligent answer. Unlike his predecessor, Tim Farron, he is no tub-thumper; you would not call his speeches rousing. But he is facing up to some of the most difficult issues that confront the party. The biggest of these is the party’s stance on funding higher education. Up to 2010, the party did well amongst students by promising to abolish tuition fees, including a dramatic pledge by almost all MPs not to vote for any increase. The party promptly ditched this in coalition, and Labour has exploited this ruthlessly ever since. Vince’s fingerprints were very much on the volte-face, unlike Tim. At the time he argued that the new policy was a graduate tax by another name, but to no avail. This demographic of younger voters will be vital to the party, and it fits well with its liberal-international outlook. It will hardly be easy to turn the corner and win them back, but at least Vince is tackling it head on.

Vince’s speech yesterday was quite remarkable in another way. We see a lot of dumbing-down in modern politics. This was evident in the deliberate obfuscations and lies in the campaign to leave the European Union (not really made better by claims that the Remain side were hardly better…), and above all by the triumph of Donald Trump in the United States. And yet Vince Cable persists in treating his audiences as if they are intelligent human beings. Surely the politics of misleading sound-bites, fake news stories and hyping victimhood must play itself out? Vince is betting that it will.

Still, the challenges for the Lib Dems remain huge. They need to rebuilt the party’s base in local government – but with a new membership who so far are showing little interest in such patient and painstaking politics. The party’s internal organisation remains weak, and it is not clear that the new leadership know how to address this. And, of course, the other political parties’ commanding position is based on the ruthless logic of Britain’s first past the post voting system.

I can offer sceptical observers no hard evidence that the Lib Dems can change their fortunes. But I do know that I will continue to work for it.