Tag Archives: Lib Dems

British politics is in stalemate

The British elections last Thursday were probably the most significant electoral test this parliament, with the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the London Mayor, and many English councils up for grabs. Everybody had the chance to vote for something. The outcome was underwhelming. Where does that leave the political scene?

The analogy is overblown, but I am reminded of the war that ravaged Europe 100 years ago. In 1916 huge efforts by the major combatants yielded little return on the ground. While the military men looked for breakthrough tactics, these yielded limited results, and in the end it was a matter of stamina and fundamentals.

The results pose uncomfortable questions for all the political parties that took part, major and minor. Most of the attention has focused on Labour. They suffered a further catastrophe in Scotland, falling behind the Conservatives to third place. In England they mainly held their ground, with an impressive victory in London’s Mayoral election. Supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hail this as vindication – but that only shows how low their expectations have sunk. There is no hint here of how the party can regain power in Westminster. The myth of a hidden bank of left wing voters waiting to be energised by Mr Corbyn has been shown to be just that. But neither is there a disaster enough to fuel Mr Corbyn’s opponents; the Scots meltdown predates his tenure and so had already been written off. The best guess is that the far left will continue to hollow the party out from within, but that the party’s outward status remains largely unchanged. Come the next general election the question is whether the party will implode or simply repeat its dismal performance last time. On this year’s evidence it will be the latter.

For the Conservatives the position looks considerably better. They drifted only gently backwards in English councils; their performance in London was reversion to type, after unexpected success under their Mayor Boris Johnson; and they achieved a remarkable breakthrough in Scotland. But to keep governing beyond 2020 they will need to deliver a killer blow to Labour, while containing any Lib Dem comeback. Can they do that when they are riven by divisions over Europe, will replace their leader with one who has much less public respect, and while their government programme keeps being derailed by backbench discontent? Meanwhile their tactics in London, where they tried to toxify Labour’s Sadiq Khan by associating him with Mr Corbyn and Muslim extremists, failed, and may have damaged the party’s brand.

The SNP maintained their grip on Scottish politics but lost their overall majority. They have completed an astonishing pivot to the left, allowing the Tories a bit more breathing space, and leaving Scots to wonder what the point of Labour is. It is hard to see how anybody is going to deliver a knockout blow, but more Scots will surely start to tire of them. The only way seems to be down.

Ukip cemented their status as a major UK party, with breakthroughs in the Welsh Parliament and London Assembly, and consolidation of their role as Labour’s main opposition in parts of the north of England. But they are a party of oddballs, and it is hard to see how they can maintain their coherence. As a party of local government in England, they won only 15% of the seats of the supposedly down and out Lib Dems; this is a weak grassroots base.

The Greens moved forwards in Scotland, and held their own in London, where they are established as the third party by popular vote. But in English council seats for every gained they lost a seat somewhere else, to end up with even fewer seats than Ukip. Their switch to the left, while downplaying their environmentalism, looks to have been a strategic error, with the wind taken out of their sails by the revival of the Labour left.

And my own Lib Dems? There were quite  a few successes; they gained more English council seats than any other party, and are approaching half the Conservative total. They comfortably retain their position as the third party of local government. There were striking constituency wins in Scotland and one in Wales. But all the Lib Dem successes boiled down to pockets of local strength, where they are deeply embedded into civic society. They have shown their ability to claw back ground from the Tories in particular, and even the SNP. But talk of a revival of fortunes belongs in the same category of optimism as the Labour left’s. The party was reduced to a single seat in both the Welsh parliament and London Assembly, and fell behind the Greens in Scotland. They struggle to reach 5% in proportionally elected contests, an irony for a party that is so in favour of this type of election. The party has not established clear political ground for itself and remains confused as to whether its coalition years were its finest hour or a terrible mistake. The party fights irrelevance in most of the land.

Plaid Cymru continued to move sideways. The politics of Wales remains quite different from that in Scotland, and the party seems quite unable to replicate the SNP’s success.

And nobody else made an impact. The Women’s Equality party was launched last year in a big media splash, and tried its luck in London, but got nowhere. The nativist Britain First is another new party, which has a big presence on social media, and it put in a performance that beat other competitors in its space (such as the British National Party), but still only managed a derisory result. For all the claimed discontent of the public with established politicians, there is not even a faint sign of an insurgency that could take off.

So British politics is in deadlock. The Conservatives have a narrow majority in the UK parliament but lack the discipline to govern decisively. There is no evidence as yet that they are going to break out of this. But neither is there any sign of a party or coalition of parties that can knock them off their perch.

There is a broad lesson here about British politics that is not given enough weight by most commentators. Political success requires a strong grassroots infrastructure and solid organisation, built up over many years, as well as being able to chime with some part of the zeitgeist.  Labour and the Conservatives have achieved this more or less across Britain, now that the former are rebuilding themselves in Scotland. Fear of losing this vital political infrastructure stops either party from breaking apart, in spite of huge political divisions. The SNP has this in Scotland and is consolidating. That the Lib Dems are in the fight at all after failing so spectacularly to hit the zeitgeist is testament to their pockets of grassroots strength and penetration of institutions like the House of Lords; they have something to work with. Ukip and the Greens have attempted to build their own infrastructure but are finding it desperately hard going. Nobody else stands a chance. There will be no unconventional uprising like Italy’s Five Star movement. It is also very hard for a nativist insurgency, such as that of Donald Trump in the US, or the Front National in France, to get traction – though Ukip has tried.

And so we are locked in stalemate. The biggest threat to this dynamic is if one or other of the major parties breaks up under the strain. The second possibility is that the Tories get their act together sufficiently to deliver a knock-out punch to a Labour Party that does not look interested in government. As yet there is no sign of either.

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Tim Farron sets about changing the Lib Dems

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Tim Farron is proving a decisive leader of the Liberal Democrats. The party is in a poor way. It languishes at about 6-8% in the opinion polls, and its doings are almost entirely ignored by mainstream media. Whether he is able to save the party remains to be seen; but he is certainly making his mark.

This struck me forcibly as I attended the party’s Spring conference in York last weekend. The most dramatic development there was the adoption of a motion on ensuring greater diversity amongst the party’s elected representatives. This has always lagged behind the party’s rhetoric. Dominance by white middle class males remains largely undisturbed after decades; even the Conservatives manage better. Some of the stories put about by female activists show the party in quite a shocking light, with discriminatory questions and petty harassment widespread (though I have to say that I haven’t seen it in cosmopolitan London – but maybe it isn’t the sort of thing I register). The only proven way of breaking this is positive discrimination, with the use of quotas or exclusive selection contests. This has been proposed many times in the party’s history, always to be knocked back by the conference as illiberal.

Tim meant to change that this time. He supported a motion that imposes all-women shortlists for replacing any MP that stands down, and at least one other more winnable seat in each region of the country. Local parties are mandated to apply all-women or all-disabled lists more widely. Positive discrimination for ethnic minorities is a lot harder legally, but the party is meant to push matters as far as it can. Having thrown his weight behind the idea, and, importantly, spent considerable effort in persuading key people in advance, he secured the change by an overwhelming majority, notwithstanding many eloquent speeches against.

That is quite an achievement. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that if the party has a moderately successful general election next time (say raising its tally of seats from the current  eight to twenty or so), it could become 50% female in one sweep. Tim has already shown he means business by having more than 50% female and 10% BAME in his shadow cabinet, if it can be conferred such a grand title. Whether you approve of it or not, this is decisive leadership.

On policy too there is an evident change, led from the top. He is following a “core vote” strategy by picking issues that are likely to motivate core supporters, rather than the general public. The leadership supported motions against fracking and in favour of legalising cannabis at the conference. In his closing speech Tim supported the accommodation of refugees, backed the junior doctors in their dispute with the government, and opposed laws designed to make life easier for the security services to gather personal information. This is all crowd-pleasing stuff for liberals that a party with ambitions to govern would struggle with.

A third element of Tim’s strategy is more strategic. He is promoting community politics – which means the party’s activists cultivating contacts with their local communities and facilitating solutions to local problems. Related to this he is trying to promote policies that support small, locally based businesses. The party at large likes this in theory, but often lacks the understanding or appetite to put these ideas into practice. It pushes political activists way out their comfort zone and forces them to deal with real peoples’ problems, rather simply sounding off amongst the like-minded – which is, of course, why it is such a powerful idea if it can get going.

As with all strong leadership, this is taking risks. The diversity ideas have put quite a few people’s backs up, and may hasten the departure of many older hands who run local organisations. As one such I always feel weak after being lectured by assorted conference speakers about how local parties need to be made to do this, that and the other – and I support them. That is no bad thing in itself, but will enough younger and more willing people come to take our places? The collapse of much of the party’s local organisation will no doubt be hastened. With the paid part of the organisation also in free fall, and with the regional layer dependent on a small number of usual suspects, this is going to be hard going. The party will need to develop online networks and non-geographical interest groups to compensate for the hollowing out of much of its organisation. The push on diversity is hardly the cause of this hollowing out, and one day it will even be part of the solution, but it will make things worse in the short run.

The liberal populism is also risky. Some of the ideas are probably ahead of their time, like more liberal drugs laws perhaps. The world will catch up and the party will get kudos. But others will look plain nuts to most people. It’s lovely to help refugees, but won’t it just encourage more to take to boats and get drowned? Or just divert developing world entrepreneurship towards people-smuggling? It tends to reinforce the public’s fear about liberals – nice but too soft to be given real power. I think a lot of the party’s ideas on privacy may be backward rather than forward-looking, too. All this risks leading the party up the same old blind alley which it took in Charles Kennedy’s (much less vigorous) leadership – which means that if it enters government it will be accused of betraying its principles. Tim ran into bumpy waters himself when he decided to support the government over bombing in Syria. He risks more of that sort of thing. A broader fear is that “core vote” in fact equates to “middle-class”, and the party cuts itself off from working class support.

Community politics should counter these problems. It is a very good way of involving and empowering working class people, as well as showing that the party can deal with, tough, practical problems. It is Tim’s strongest suit, after the idea has been systematically neglected by his three predecessors. The danger is that he finds himself unable to deliver on it, as activists prefer sounding off in blogs and social media to helping to create a thriving environment for local businesses.

But the party must take risks. I admire the way Tim is trying to take the party by the scruff of its neck. He is working out much better than I feared. The unpredictable world of British politics may yet throw the party the lifeline it needs to make a comeback. The progressive destruction of the Labour Party makes that look a distinct possibility. And if it does, the party will be a different thing to the one that embarked on coalition government in 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The speech I would have given at #ldconf

I wasn’t called to speak to speak at the economics debate. Only one speaker was picked to oppose the motion. That reflected d the balance of cards submitted, apparently. This is what I was planning to say:

What on on Earth am I doing? Vince Cable is one of my heroes! He is one of the few economically literate people in British politics. How can I oppose a motion that he has proposed so eloquently? And a motion with so many worthy sentiments in it. It’s like voting against motherhood.

Well maybe that’s the problem. The party at this point in the political cycle needs  a serious motion on economics to do one of two things.

First it could set out a clear but simple vision that shows what the party stands for and who we are. It could pick up themes such as green growth or local enterprise.

Or it spell out specific policies. Things that can be put in a manifesto, or, Heaven forbid, a coalition agreement.

But the motion has no clear organising theme. Vince’s speech helpfully offered us four. But not the motion we are being asked to adopt. As originally published it had 10 complaints about current government policy, and no less than 15 themes for Lib Dem policy.  From my Conference Daily I see that it has grown. It truly is no hobby horse left behind! Where on earth is the clarity and vision in that?

Amendment one does try to build a green theme, which improves the motion, and I support it. But it cannot save it.

And neither does it help create detailed policy. Each of those 15 proposals needs a debate of its own.

This motion is neither fish for fowl.

Conference, you could take the easy option. You can vote it through, and let it be instantly forgotten. For that is the only fate that can await it. But is that what you really want for the first motion under One Member One Vote? No. You can be brave. Throw it out and send a signal that this conference means business.

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Neither fish nor fowl, why I will oppose the economics motion at #ldconf

This weekend the Liberal Democrats meet for their Spring Conference. To most observers of the political scene, this is an irrelevance. But with the growing gap between Labour members and the general voting public,  and the Conservative Party riven by splits on Europe, who knows what opportunities might arrise for the party? I still care about it, anyway.

The party is rebuilding itself after the five year car crash of coalition government ended last year with it being reduced to near irrelevance in the House of Commons. And that followed five years of rather gentler decline after its peak year of 2005. The party conferences are an opportunity for members and leaders to decide what the revitalised party stands for.

One complaint after last year’s meltdown was that the party was weak on economic policy, and so let others set the agenda. No doubt that motivated the submission of a motion on the economy as the first item of policy business on Saturday with just an hour’s debate. Alas the motion plumbs the depths of awfulness.

I can’t find a neat link to it, so I will reproduce it here in full below, so you can judge for yourself. But with its 10 whinges about the current situation, and 15 proposals, I’m not sure I would recommend a close read. It is mostly unobjectionable. It has some worthy ideas, and some airy aspirations. Item 11 od the 15 reads: “Addressing inequality through a renewed commitment across Government and society to analyse and address Beveridge’s Five Giants in modern society.”

In some contexts a list of 15 rather disconnected policy ideas is not a bad idea for a policy motion – for example if the party was planning to negotiate a coalition programme from a position of strength. This is hardly the context now, and even then it fails. Just what would you do with a commitment to tackle the Five Giants in a coalition negotiation? Instead all such a long list of vague ideas serves is to offend people whose own hobby horses are left out of the 15, or are underrepresented, or given too low a prominence.

What the party actually needs from a debate on economics at this stage in the political cycle either of two things.

The first thing it could do is set out a very limited number of general themes, around which to hang more detailed policies. These need to display a bit of vision, and show  what the party is all about. I suggested a few last year: green growth, small is beautiful (or greater diversity and innovation, if you will), problem-solving public services and addressing inequalities and imbalances. It would not be hard to do better than that, and any debate would say something about the party’s values and campaigning priorities. I can find no such clear general themes in the motion. Worse, I am rather shocked to see so few references to environmental sustainability in a party that used to pride itself on environmental consciousness – that alone is reason enough to vote the motion down.

The second thing it could do is develop a particular economic idea or solution to a specific economic problem. There are plenty of places where this needs to be done: investing for green growth; tackling the housing crisis; free but fair trade; taxing businesses. Or the role of fiscal policy in economic management, though the chances of getting a rational debate on that area in a left of centre political party are slim. This is actually where the heavy lifting needs to be done, and where the Lib Dems can make a substantive contribution to the wider political debate on economics.  The real world of democratic politics is evolutionary; revolutions fail. What is needed is a series of practical changes, each of which will works on its own merits, and which collectively will amount to radical change. The motion does point to some specifics, but each of its 15 proposals needs to be picked apart in a debate of its own. Instead we have a series of vague and useless commitments.

And as a result the motion is a complete waste of time. Much hope seems to be being placed on amendments. But unless these are allowed to replace the motion with an entirely new one, which would be an abuse of process, I can’t see how it can either be turned into a general vision or a specific economic proposal. It is neither fish nor fowl.  The best thing to do with it is to throw it out and start again.

Conference re-asserts the Liberal Democrats’ continuing commitment to sound public finances, social justice, an open economy in an open society, and the principle of free markets whenever possible with intervention where necessary by an enabling state.

Conference notes:

a) The Liberal Democrats’ effective record in Government in stabilising the public finances and major contributions in the fields of apprenticeships, banking regulation, the British Business Bank, the Green Investment Bank and the promotion of innovation through the Catapult network.

b) The fragile nature of economic recovery following the 2008 crash, evidenced by interest rates which are historically low and continued Eurozone uncertainty.

c) The growth of house prices carrying the threat of a price bubble and subsequent crash.

d) The Chancellor’s unhelpful and arbitrary re-definition of the deficit, doubling the total by including capital spending, in his attempt to justify Tory spending cuts.

e) The medium-term risk to the UK economy posed by increasing and unsustainable private and household debt.

f) The threats to the UK economic prospects posed by Conservative approaches to UK membership of the European Union and immigration.

g) The International Monetary Fund’s advice to reduce debt through growth not cuts.

h) The UK economy’s over-dependence on London and the South-East.

i) The UK’s bad record in allowing the growth of an increasing number of young people with low levels of education, training and aspiration.

j) Growing inequalities in wealth and income, coupled with unfair and regressive action against the poorest people in the country, now exacerbated by the assault on welfare spending.

Conference calls for effective measures to support and grow the UK economy, including by many established Liberal Democrat policies:

1. Increased investment, both directly by Government financed by public borrowing, and stimulated by Government, particularly in affordable housing including social housing and infrastructure to support balanced growth throughout the UK.

2. Support for planning reform, institutional lending to small builders and action by local authorities for planned development, including assembling land for auction.

3. Further measures to improve and regulate banking services by promoting efficient lending, particularly to small and medium-sized enterprises, encouragement of challenger banks and increased personal accountability.

4. Strengthening takeover legislation to protect the country’s science base.

5. Reversing cuts in the development of green energy and promoting investment in green business initiatives.

6. Further development of the Government’s industrial strategy, promoting co-operation and supply chain development in key sectors for the long-term.

7. Re-balancing the economy towards manufacturing industry and regions, based on the coherent and substantial devolution of political and financial power.

8. Further reform of corporate governance to encourage ‘long-termism’ and to discipline executive pay, including an employee role in determining executive pay.

9. Renewed emphasis on vocational education and training, particularly through effective apprenticeships and especially higher-degree level and engineering and construction apprenticeships.

10. Coherent efforts across Government Departments to address the needs of young people who are excluded from the labour market and participation in wider society.

11. Addressing inequality through a renewed commitment across Government and society to analyse and address Beveridge’s Five Giants in modern society.

12. Investigating sustainable ways of funding universal services, including a cross-party, cross-society settlement on funding health and social care.

13. A new commitment to taxing unearned wealth, including Land Value Taxation.

14. Measures to dampen the growth of asset bubbles in opposition to Conservative approaches which tend to increase that growth.

15. Support for more diverse ownership models including worker ownership, social enterprise, mutuality and co-operation.

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@markpack ‘s 20% strategy is not enough. The Liberal Democrats must develop a clear political strategy.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Mark Pack and David Howarth have published a second version 80-20their 20% Strategy, originally published last summer. In the preface the authors bemoan the lack of controversy over their proposals, which signal that their implications have not been fully internalised. This is exactly what I predicted in my reaction to the document at the time. I stand by my suggestion then that the party must work on a political strategy too.

The document is well worth a read if you haven’t already. If you read the first edition, I’m not sure the second version says much that is different. I must admit that I just skimmed through it. What struck me this time was that there was a bit of a diversity paradox in it. In one sense a core vote strategy is a step away from diversity in order to secure greater cohesion. In principle that is based on a sharper focus on liberal values, but it can easily stray from that. The document suggests that the party concentrate its messaging on more educated people, as they are more likely to be liberal. On the other hand their research suggests that the potential core vote has a great deal of ethnic diversity, which is not reflected in the party’s membership. There is also a bias towards women, which suggests that the male dominance of the party’s upper echelons is an issue too.

That’s a worth a bit more reflection – but I have to admit that I am struggling to think through how to promote diversity in a liberal organisation. Some attempts to promote diversity end up by reinforcing a sense of difference between different groups, and collective victimhood amongst some of them – when it is what we have in common that is most important, and victimhood gets in the way of personal empowerment and agency, which are keys to the liberal vision. A further concern (and not unrelated) is that a “core vote” strategy will too easily become a “middle class comfort zone” strategy. I think the party would benefit from a stronger diversity across social classes – which would help make the party sharper and more politically relevant.

But for now I want to come back to the issue of what I am calling “political strategy”. If the party’s values describe the “What?” and, perhaps, the “Who?”, political strategy addresses the “How?”. And in particular, how the party proposes to advance the liberal policies for which it is fighting. In my piece last summer, I suggested that the party needed to talk about this to create a bit of the controversy that is needed for the party to sharpen its collective thinking.

But in fact it goes deeper than that, because as well as “How?” it addresses “Why?”. In order to attract core supporters it is not enough simply to say things that they agree with. The party needs to explain how support for the party will actually have a positive effect in the Britain’s political system.

It is here that the party is weakest, because its strategy up to 2010 has completely collapsed, unless you think that 5 years as a junior coalition partner in national government every 50 years or so is enough. The party’s strategy had two main elements: to build up strength in local government, and use this to win parliamentary seats. And second to use its parliamentary presence to join coalition governments as a junior partner, and maybe one day as a senior partner. The Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby has exposed the hollowness of this strategy in his 2015 election campaign.

The trouble is that it matters who leads a coalition government. Labour supporters cannot forgive the Lib Dems for being part of a Tory-led government, however much Lib Dems claim that they moderated it. Likewise Tory voters were worried that the Lib Dems might switch sides and support Labour (and the SNP). Mr Crosby showed that that fear trumped all the excellent local knowledge and case work that so many Lib Dem MPs offered. So, it matters whose side are on (or at any rate whose side you are not on), and ultimately national politics trumps local politics.

What to do about this? I think the party has to be public about its preferences between Britain’s two main parties. The obvious way to do this is simply be to spell out its preferences. So the party could (like the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru) rule out a coalition with the Conservatives. Mark and David’s research shows clearly that the potential core vote inclines left rather than right, so that is the way it has to be (much to my personal disappointment). There is an extra complication, in that the current Labour Party is becoming politically toxic amongst the party’s potential supporters. For now it would be necessary to rule out a coalition with them too. But the party can say that this view would change if Labour moves back towards the centre.

An alternative approach would be transactional. The party might make a series of core demands, and insist that it will only enter coalition with parties that sign up to these demands. But the party’s activists are likely to set the bar too high, in which case the party either becomes irrelevant, or it is forced to break its promises. To judge by the way the Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, handled the vote to intervene in Syria, such a stand would have very little credibility. He set a number of stern conditions for his support, only to bend them to beyond breaking so that he could vote with the government.

A second strategic question the party needs to think about is the idea of electoral pacts. Britain does not have a pluralistic, proportional voting system. Our electoral system is essentially a binary one, and without preferential voting, or run-offs, parties agreeing not to run candidates against each other is the only realistic way of forming alliances. The basis of an alliance might be to change the electoral system itself – although it is far from clear that the British public would support this. Whether or not electoral reform is the subject, any pact needs to have a clearly understood common goal. Electoral pacts do not need to be universal. They can apply to different levels of election (local or national), and to only a limited number of seats. Thus Labour might withdraw candidates in a number of south western marginals, while the Lib Dems do so in Labour ones elsewhere. Such pacts have a long history within the British political system, before dying out in the 1950s (or even early 1960s?).

Preferred coalition partners and electoral pacts: these must be  elements in any future political strategy for the Liberal Democrats. Unlike the 20% Strategy, such ideas would be controversial. Good.

 

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Core voters are always shafted. Politics is made in the centre. Bad news for Lib Dems

Democracy and idealism do not sit well together. Idealists have the motivation to form political parties and keep them going. But in order to win power the party must bring on board people and, policies, that the idealists disagree with, in order to win round those less committed to politics. And these floating voters come to matter more to the party’s managers than the the idealists. Because the idealists have nowhere else to go.

In Britain, the latest challenge to this process comes from Britain’s Labour Party; in America the Republicans seem to be doing something similar. This all seems to be part of the great cycle of politics. A party’s core supporters, those that are ideologically committed, get fed up with being taken for granted and rebel. They struggle to accept that a majority of voters disagree with them – following a natural human bias that most people think as we do. They may also be enticed by the idea that they can win by accident – through their opponents’ mistakes. Sometimes such ideological parties do win an election that way – it has just happened in Poland, for example. It rarely ends well.

I know more about the Labour phenomenon than the Republican one. Labour members elected the ideological Jeremy Corbyn after the party’s general election failure last year. These members remain as fervent as ever, and indeed new members have flocked in. This burst of enthusiasm has convinced them that they have started a new and better form of politics. As they see it, the compromises used to chase the centre ground, as uncommitted voters are usually referred to, have disillusioned people with politics. Now Labour will create a sharper narrative that will go down a storm with the electorate. They equate their own disillusionment with the compromises of their party with the widespread political apathy of the population at large.

But is this is an illusion. This week Britain’s polling organisations published a report into why they called the 2015 election wrongly. They overestimated Labour support and underestimated the Conservatives’. They found this was mainly because their samples were biased towards Labour. And that was because they were biased towards the politically committed, who were much easier to reach. This is a vulnerability of the quota sampling technique that the pollsters use. The less committed, or more apathetic, voters were much more likely to vote Tory.

This leaves more thoughtful Labourites with two headaches. The first is that current polls show the Labour vote holding up compared to  the general election – so that electing Mr Corbyn at least hasn’t made things worse. But if the polling bias remains (and it seems to be, based on how the samples remember they voted in 2015), then in fact the Tory lead has grown. The second headache is that the army of the apathetic non-voters is more sympathetic to the Tories than many suppose.

Which leads to an inevitable conclusion. In order for Labour to win an election they need to convert people who voted Conservative last time, or who did not vote, but lean to the Conservatives. In other words, Labour must appeal to the centre ground.

Such thoughts cut no ice with Labour’s new members. When pushed they even suggest that winning is not that important. That leaves Labour in a terrible position, and the Conservatives thinking that they have the next election in the bag. Some hope that the European referendum will split the Tories. But the prospect of whacking Labour really hard if they hold together is the best possible incentive to hold the party together.

Labour’s prospects against the SNP in Scotland are no better; the SNP have cornered the middle ground in Scotland as masterfully as the Conservatives in England, while still retaining  a substantial core vote. This conjuring trick will eventually come apart – but an ideological Labour Party will not be the instrument of the SNP’s demise.

Meanwhile, sitting on the sidelines are the Lib Dems. A number of people have suggested to me that Labour’s woes present the party with a golden opportunity. But the political dynamics or the core and centre are not working the party’s favour.

The party thought that the usual rules of politics would apply to them when they went into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. They shafted their core voters, but surely they had nowhere else to go? And meanwhile the party’s record in government would appeal to the centre ground. But a large part of what the Lib Dems thought was their core vote felt they did have an alternative: Labour. That weakened the party, and weakness is a big turn-off for centrist voters. The Conservative campaign exploited this ruthlessly, and the result was catastrophe, as the Lib Dem vote fell by two thirds, and their political clout even further.

So, somehow, the Lib Dems need to rebuild their core vote. The place to look is amongst Labour inclined voters who do not buy Labour’s new sense of direction. But the party also needs to win votes back centrist voters from the Conservatives if they are to win the all-important parliamentary seats. And that means the party must show distance from the Labour Party. So how does the party face the prospect of another coalition with the Conservatives? If they rule it out, they will lose the middle ground by giving tacit support to the ideological Labour Party. If they don’t, those Labour inclined “core” voters will think that the party has learned nothing from the coalition debacle, and leave the party alone.

This may not matter too much to the party at the next election, especially if it looks as if the Tories will win handsomely. There will be no danger of a coalition, so that awkward question can be ducked. The Lib Dems might be able to make a modest recovery based on local strength. But the strategic dilemma remains.

Probably the best thing for the party is to recognise that it is essentially of the left, and rule out any future coalition with the Conservatives. That will help the party rebuild its core. It then needs to apply thought to under what conditions it could work with Labour. But it will have to be a very different Labour Party from the one emerging under Mr Corbyn’s leadership.

Which would leave the middle ground in British politics to the Conservatives and the SNP. Which in turn means that political power will rest with them.  A grim prospect indeed.

 

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What will 2016 bring? Remain will win and the Tories will stay together

New year predictions are not something this blogger has indulged in before – but it seems to be a universal obligation for the first blog of the year. There is little to be said for it at face value: predictions are either banal continuations of current trends, or depend too heavily on events that are unpredictable. Still, they may reveal something interesting about the way the blogger sees the world- so here goes.

The most important event of 2016 in British politics (and that will be my main focus) will be a referendum on UK membership of the European Union. This is not certain for 2016, but nevertheless looks more than likely. I predict a comfortable majority (in the region 60-40) for the Remain campaign – I am not joining the crowd who suggest that it will be very close, or that Leave will win.

Unlike fellow Lib Dem blogger David Boyle, I don’t think the referendum campaign will be a repeat of Scotland’s independence campaign. Not because I think that the status quo supporters will be any more inspiring or less negative.  There are routine calls for Remain supporters not to repeat the “mistake” of Scotland’s No campaign, which failed to make a positive case for the Union. This rather overlooks the fact that No won in Scotland, in spite of a brilliant Yes campaign. There were signs of ineptitude on the No side – but that more applies to the minor tactics, which were dictated by a Scottish Labour Party whose lack of political skill was shown to all in this year’s General Election, when they were reduced to a single seat. I expect the Remain campaign will manage things better.

But the main reason why the EU referendum will not be like the Scottish one, is that their is no equivalent of the SNP-organised Yes campaign. They managed to motivate their supporters through a very positive, inclusive message, which appealed to young people. There are people in the Leave EU campaign that think that life outside the EU is a fantastic and positive opportunity for Britain, but they look very unlike the Scots Nationalists. For a start many of these are businessmen who think that leaving the EU means deregulation, so that they can screw their employees, customers and the environment even harder. They are fundamentally unconvincing when they suggest that this will make more than few people better off – there is no economic card equivalent to Scotland’s oil.

But a deeper problem for the Leave side is that most of their supporters are of the stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off type. To them the EU represents the intrusion of the modern, globalising world, and leaving it will enable the country to put up stronger barriers to the world. Especially when it comes to the free movement of people. This is a striking contrast to the Scotland Yes campaign. The Leave campaign are (mostly) convinced that immigration is their trump card – and many Remain supporters agree, and are duly worried. Most people outside London are convinced that immigration is too high and one of the main problems that Britain faces. But I don’t think this will be as easy a card to play for Leave. First I doubt whether the public quite has the courage of its convictions on the issue – on the same principle that most voters talk about how much they distrust established politicians, but then keep electing them anyway. Second, the referendum will not change Britain’s political class, and the public doubts its will to deliver lower immigration, even outside the EU. Perhaps these two points two sides of the same coin.

So Remain will win. What will that do to British politics? The conventional wisdom, which I have supported, is that this will tear the Conservative Party apart. But I have changed my mind on this. Europe has been a defining issue for many Tory activists, and they will be upset that the referendum was lost. But we must remember two things about the Tories. First: their party is not “democratic”, by which I mean that its members don’t control things through electoral processes, as they do in the Lib Dems and Labour (sort of, in both cases). The controlling elite has huge power over party direction and can weather the odd storm. Second, the party has the prospect of political power before it. They are in power, and the opposition is weak; too many people, with too much money, will not want to throw away the opportunity to hang on to that power. The example of Ukip, now a chaotic, busted flush, is not encouraging to rebels. The main threat to the Tories comes from who they choose to succeed David Cameron as leader. But this is quite tightly controlled by the parliamentary party, who have an instinct for survival. No equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn is in the wings.

What other predictions? Jeremy Corbyn will remain leader of Labour, and consolidate his power. Labour’s Sadiq Khan will win London’s Mayoral election. Labour “moderates” will bide their time; setting up a rival party is unrealistic on so many levels. And the Lib Dems? They will achieve some local successes, which will be enough to convince insiders that they are making a comeback, but nobody else. The SNP dominance of Scotland will continue in the Scottish parliamentary elections, but I will be surprised if the Conservatives manage to overtake Labour.

And the economy? I think that trouble will strike before 2020; the economy looks too much like its old self in the days of Blair and Brown.  How will it come about? Britain is vulnerable to events elsewhere in the global economy. Perhaps foreigners will start pulling out of the London property market, causing developers to get into trouble, and then whoever is lending them money. This could spark off a long term decline on Britain’s property values, quite opposite to the conventional wisdom that prices are driven by excessive demand, rather than excessive finance. And yes, that process could start in 2016.

What about elsewhere in the world? Perhaps 2016 will produce an unexpected drama in the US elections, but I expect the winner to be a Democrat. Hillary Clinton looks a shoo-in, but could she be derailed by something in her back history?

And Syria? The civil war looks like a stalemate until Saudi Arabia and Iran decide that they need a rapprochement. Continued low oil prices could force that. A coup within Islamic State to produce a new regime that seeks alliances with other actors should not be ruled out. – and less sponsorship of outside terrorism. But terrorism will go on.

Of course the last three paragraphs have enough escape clauses to not count as serious predictions. But that will have to do for now!

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The left is failing. It must confront reality

Pity the French Socialists. Last weekend they managed to stall the Front National at regional elections – but only by supporting the centre-right Republicans. The collapse of the left and centre-left in France offers lessons to the British left – in the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties. But they are not listening.

Now remember that only three years ago the French Socialists were triumphant. François Hollande won the presidency, and parliamentary elections confirmed the party’s ascendancy, along with left wing allies, including the French Greens. France was in an anti-capitalist mood; this was no victory of the centre ground. The Socialists promised tax hikes on the very rich, and the reversal of many of the centre-right’s reforms on public services. It is probably as close as we will see in Europe to a triumph of the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn – right down to a leader that did not follow the conventions of personal charisma.

But the Socialists lost their way almost immediately. They put through a few token left wing changes, but have been following the political centre ever since. The left wing programme proved unworkable. The electorate could not see the point of the party. Working class voters defected to the Front National, offering another mix of un-keepable promises, alongside its defining xenophobia. That France’s fractious centre-right was able to recover and provide the main challenge to the FN completed the humiliation of the left.

The problem for the left is that it is happier protesting and airing their “values” rather than governing. And a lot of its protest turns out to be very conservative. Many on the left seem to see their mission, not as improving the lot of the disadvantaged, but as protecting (“defending”) this or that public institution from attempts to reform them. Alongside this they protest at “injustice”.  But there is no clear and consistent picture of how to make things better. There is an idea that you can raise taxes harmlessly by aiming at the wealthy, and then using the money to pump up public services and benefits without asking whether they are doing the job they are meant to be doing.  And as for foreign affairs, it seem to be largely making a noise about various victim groups, and then doing practically nothing about it.

One example of political failure is dealing with racism. Look at this article from Kehinde Andrews in the Guardian. He is commenting on the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act. He points out how some forms of racism have been driven back in the 50 years, but then points at the racial minorities still suffer discrimination, and are disadvantaged on a wide variety of measures. The failure is clear, but what to do? All Mr Andrews can say is this: “Britain must acknowledge the uncomfortable history and reality of racial discrimination and be prepared to consider solutions that transform the conditions faced by oppressed groups”. Note that he has moved to language of victimhood and oppression. And the complete absence of thinking about how on earth to solve this intractable problem. To be fair, Mr Andrews is not a politician. But I hear all too often the language of victimhood and difference amongst leftist politicians who address ethnic minority issues. Everything is always somebody else’s fault.

As Tony Blair put it in a recent article in the Spectator:

Right now we’re in danger of not asking the right questions never mind failing to get the right answers. All of it is about applying values with an open mind; not boasting of our values as a way of avoiding the hard thinking the changing world insists upon

This leaves the left with two big problems. First is trying to present themselves as a convincing party of government. This is what Labour failed to do in this year’s General Election. But the French Socialists showed that you can still win, if your opponents are even more distrusted than you are. Then comes the second problem: what do you do when the left achieves power.  Does it “stay true to its principles” and push through a populist left-wing programme, attacking independent businesses, and cosseting public sector workers, including an expanded nationalised industry. Recent examples of this approach are Argentina under the Kirchners, Brazil under Dilma Rousseff, and Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. In the end the government cannot escape economic reality, and the economy turns sour. Interestingly this approach seems to be much more difficult in Europe than in South America. No doubt European institutions are stronger – making wilful suicide much harder. France cannot print its own currency, for example. The other choice is simply to U-turn, as the French did, and implement policies that most people cannot distinguish from those of the centre-right. This leads to an existential crisis for the governing party.

In Britain we can see that with the second party of the left, the Liberal Democrats. They entered coalition with the centre-right, the Conservatives, in 2010. Activists and members fled; the party felt as if it was imploding. It was vilified from across the political spectrum for selling out. Mostly this was because they dared to face up to the compromises of government – although it was also tangled with the toxicity of working with the Conservatives.

Rather than confront the realities of government, the left indulges itself with the language of protest, usually constructed in abstract terms (“austerity”, etc.) that means little to people they are supposed to be helping. And that leads to two problems. The first is losing working class voters to the populist right. British leftists have had some luck here. Ukip is the only credible party fishing in these waters, and they are not adept. But the popularity of movements like Britain First shows that there is a ready group of white working class (and not a few middle class) voters who are ready to take this direction. The second threat is the centre-right. If this group has an organising philosophy, it is economic liberalism, using a conventional wisdom that has built up since the 1980s. It is well past its sell-by date, and yet it is more credible than the non-offering of the left.

To reverse this, I think the left will need to do three things:

  1. Develop a new policy framework that addresses the challenges of the current world. That is the main focus of this blog, so readers should have some idea of what I mean. It needs to focus on sustainability, local networks and public services coordinated around the needs of users, not providers.
  2. Develop a better language with which to frame its ideas to those currently disillusioned with politics. I suspect this is better done through local, community politics than clever brand building by Westminster operatives.
  3. Develop alliances across the parties of the left, and move away from destructive tribalism. This will need to be underpinned by political reforms that make such collaboration easier (proportional representation, for example). There are some good ideas bubbling up across all the parties, alongside the nonsense.

There is, alas, almost no sign of progress on any of these three lines. But I will not give up hope.

 

 

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Tim Farron comes of age as Lib Dem leader

The honeymoon is over. For the last few months Liberal Democrats have been able to project their hopeful expectations onto Tim Farron, their new leader. And he skilfully avoided disappointing them. But his decision to back the government in last night’s vote to involve British forces in attacks on Islamic State in Syria has changed all that. Now, alongside the traumas of the Labour Party, we are asking what political parties are for, and how politics should work.

I was surprised at Tim’s decision. As my last posting shows, I was personally inching towards that view – but I consider myself to be something of an outlier in Lib Dem circles. The party at large is clearly against intervention, as a recent online poll showed. My Facebook timeline showed strong opinions against. And he had given himself plenty of cover. He had set five tests against which to judge any proposal to intervene. This is usually a political tactic to oppose something. And, to put it kindly, it is stretch to say that all five tests have been met – though it is also true that there has been movement in the right direction.

My doubts over intervention were not helped by David Cameron, the Prime Minister in today’s parliamentary debate. First he suggested that the attacks were needed to prevent IS activity in Britain. They will make very little difference; that is just not how these things work. Then he tried to suggest that there were about 70,000 “moderate” fighters who might act as the ground spearhead to defeat IS, without invoking the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. Even if the numbers are right, they do not form a coherent fighting force with the military skill to take on the highly effective IS army. And thirdly, it came out that he had smeared some of his opponents as terrorist sympathisers. That was the previous night in a “private” meeting with his party’s MPs – and it alludes to some of the new Labour leadership’s apparent sympathy for “freedom struggles” in the past. He might have graciously apologised, but he did not. As Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, said, it diminishes the office of Prime Minister. But it is a foretaste of Conservative tactics against the new model Labour party.

Mr Corbyn, on the other hand, was a model of dignity. There was no high-flown rhetoric, but at least what he said was clearly true. And if it was also beside the point, the same can be said of Mr Cameron. The reason why there is a momentum in favour of intervention, at least in parliament, is that there is s strong public mood to “do something” after the Paris attacks, that a gesture of solidarity with France will have diplomatic benefits, and that with Syria creating a massive refugee crisis, it is not a political topic we can turn our back on. Inaction seems to pose just as big problems as action. If it is good enough for the Germans, whose government is planning to commit forces to the same campaign, almost without precedent, that surely it is good enough for the UK? The fact that the proposed British contribution is small scale is actually in its favour – a lot of diplomatic bang for quite a small buck. Iraq this is not.

This is what politics is about. Weighty issues for which there are no obvious solutions, and where messy compromises are needed. It is about politicians from across the country and different political persuasions, working out what the country as a whole should do. The trouble is that there seems to be a new politics about, where political representatives are seen as figureheads for wider movements of like-minded people, for whom compromise is betraying your principles. The Labour Party is being overwhelmed by this conception of politics. Labour activists oppose intervention in Syria, and have turned it into a totem issue. They have been harassing any MPs and their staffs who take a different view. Some talk of rooting them out as “scum”.

Such are the death throws of a party that once aspired to govern. After being hammered for entering coalition, the Lib Dems can safely put such aspirations to one side. The behaviour of their MPs is more of a puzzle – though Tim’s leadership opponent Norman Lamb, and one other of the eight MPs voted against. Many of the party’s members have similar views to those Labour activists, though standards of behaviour and language are infinitely better. There has been much talk of rebuilding a core vote – which seems to be code for ignoring messy compromises and attracting the support of more motivated, middle class liberals.  But Tim Farron and his fellow MPs seem to have an older view of what MPs are for. They seem to have considered the vote on its merits, rather on any wider political impact. (I will say the same for Norman, incidentally. The differences between the two men are a complete reversal of what was said about them in the leadership contest, when Tim was portrayed as being to Norman’s left).

That wider political impact is hard to judge. Coming out in favour of intervention is the sort of thing that will play well with floating voters. But it will be hard for the party to get any credit for it. They famously opposed the Iraq war, so people will expect them to oppose all military interventions. They will just get confused when they do something different. And the party’s members and activists will not be happy. Some could leave, others just drift away.

It may too much to hope that the party will take this as a lesson on what successful politics must look like. Political representatives are responsible to their voters first, and party membership second. It is not “democratic” for a bunch of self selected activists to agree something using voting procedures, and then impose this on people elected in proper, public elections. Getting things done means compromise and lending support to policies that are second best or worse.  This is why we use a system of representative democracy. Political movements not prepared to engage fully with the real business politics ultimately get nowhere. – or if they do get somewhere, end up by forcing their views on others and suffocating political debate.

Unlike what the Labour Party is becoming (and, it has to be said, a lot of what it was of old, for different reasons), the SNP or the Greens I hope the Liberal Democrats will understand this and give their leader some slack. But this will prove a painful coming of age for him.

 

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The Lib Dems in London: two straws in the wind from @RuthDombey and @MzLashmore

In the shadow of events in Paris, the Liberal Democrats held their London conference last Saturday. For a party that most people think has ceased to exist, party members are in a surprising upbeat mood.  Held a university building in Brentford, well out of the centre, the conference was nevertheless well-attended, cheerful and lively. Even as I delivered the Treasurer’s report just after lunch, the dullest piece of business in the whole day, there were dozens in the audience. I survived unscathed, and live on to be Treasurer of the regional party for another year.

And yet detached outsiders  would not give much for the party’s prospects. The Mayoral and Assembly elections are in May 2016, and they are a critical test for the  party. As things stand even winning the deposit in the Mayoral race (lost last time, in 2012) and any representation in the Assembly (only narrowly achieved in 2012), both of which need 5% of the votes, will be a challenge. The party has sunk into irrelevance in most people’s minds. But the party polls about 8% nationally, the same level that it achieved in the General Election. A result on this level is surely realistic, but would amount to no more than what City traders used to call “dead cat bounce” – bumping along the bottom, in a less colourful metaphor.

But things could be much better. With the Conservatives riven by differences over Europe, the effect of Labour’s lurch to the left uncertain, and with the other minor parties, the Greens and Ukip, seemingly having peaked, a whole range of possibilities opens up. The party is aiming for more than 8%, and so it should. There was a buzz of ideas for promoting the Party’s lead candidate, Caroline Pidgeon, the experienced and capable group leader on the Assembly, who is standing for both Mayor and leads the Assembly list – elected by proportional representation. Policy positions are being developed on housing, policing and taxis.

But these depend on attracting the attentions s of a flighty electorate. Building a more solid base for the future will take a lot longer. On what basis can that be done? One idea doing the rounds is to make a conspicuous stand on touchstone liberal issues, like supporting immigration and human rights. It is estimated that about 30% of Londoners have liberal views on these subjects. The Conservative and Labour parties are still circumspect because they draw so much other support from the other 70%. The talk was of targeting that 30%, who tend to be young and professional.

That’s all very well, but I worry. Some activists were concerned about a strategy based on just talking to people like us, rather than trying to reach out more widely. And though getting a large chunk of that 30% would transform the party’s standing, where would that lead? In order to get anything actually done the party has to engage with the other 70%, either directly seeking their votes, or working in coalition with parties that do. The party’s experience over last five years, in coalition with the Conservatives, have shown how difficult that can be. The party gets accused of breaching its principles, and then appearing irrelevant. Surely the party must try to develop a broader appeal from the start, alongside the core liberal one.

Two speakers at the Brentford conference gave a hint of what that might be. One was Ruth Dombey, leader of Sutton council, the party’s last council stronghold in London. She described how the party has maintained its remarkable record of success there. It is through a process of genuine dialogue with residents, going as far as possible to make them feel included (which, to be clear, means actually including them…). This is completely opposite to the normal model of elected dictatorship that most British politicians confuse with democracy. It is not easy, but Sutton has managed it over many years.

Ruth is a professional and experienced politician, and it wasn’t surprising that her presentation was slick and forthright. A second speaker was edgier. Teena Lashmore, though very much a professional, is new to politics. She led a policy consultation on dealing with knife crime and reaching out to communities. She made two important points: the first, like Ruth, was that politicians must do things with communities and not for them. This is the beating heart of community politics. But it is something that metropolitan elites usually don’t understand, not just politicians. Speaking to her during the tea break, Teena gave me an example of a memorial for victims of knife crime in her area; nobody thought to ask local people what they wanted, with the result a proposal was made that they found insulting.

The second point was that we must find ways of making local economies grow and become more inclusive. Free enterprise is the key to inclusion because it is empowering. Entitlements and handouts are not. She gave the example of a troubled estate where the management contract was awarded to a local enterprise, and not to one of the usual stripped down outsource providers; this contractor then started employing the local young people as apprentices; money stayed in the local economy; antisocial behaviour fell. Now regular readers of this blog will know that I am supporter of developing local economies, following campaigner David Boyle. But it had not struck me until Teena’s presentation just how powerful this idea is for developing inclusion in London.

These are critical ideas. Britain’s main political parties are still in the culture of doing things for the people they represent, rather than with them. Our whole centralised Westminster-bubble culture promotes that. The working ethos of the Labour Party  is built on developing client communities that they dish out goodies to. Some Conservatives have toyed with something more inclusive, like David Cameron’s Big Society, but their thinking is more often driven by big business and trendy but narrow think tanks. Indeed, though the Lib Dems achieved much of their early successes in the 1980s and 1990s through community politics, success in Westminster seemed to be slowly corrupting them. And few Lib Dems really got the importance of developing local enterprise, and what this means for wider public policy, for example in commissioning and procurement.

Well now the Lib Dems have been largely ejected from the Westminster bubble. They must go back to the long, hard business of developing conversations with local communities. And it needs to start developing robust ideas for developing local, inclusive economies. That includes in London, and it is a promising basis for reaching out to communities of all ethnic dimensions, not excluding the more stressed white British ones.

It’s a long hard road, but the party has the culture and record to make it work. I hope it rises to the challenge.

 

 

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