Lords reform: the real loser is David Cameron’s project

Today Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, announced that Britain’s Coalition government would end its attempt to make the country’s upper house, The House of Lords, mostly elected.  It is a bitter blow for Lib Dems, but not unexpected.  What does this say about the state of British politics?

The problem was that the plans did not command sufficient support on the Conservative benches.  There were 90 or so rebels at an earlier vote, and this is enough to kill the bill if Labour oppose it.  Labour had supported the reforms in principle, but said that, as a constitutional measure, it needed more time for debate in the Commons, so opposed the critical timetable motion.  This argument is entirely specious.  Debate on the floor of the Commons is an exercise in farce; it has to be time-limited or else it degenerates into filibuster.  The cynicism of Labour’s position is made plain by the fact that they would not be drawn on the amount of time they thought the bill actually needed.  But there was in any case a more substantive argument from the Labour side: in their manifesto they had said that reform should be made subject to a referendum, which the government side did not want to do.  We can argue about the logic of Labour’s position on the referendum, but a manifesto is a manifesto.

So Mr Clegg was quite right to abandon his attempt at reform.  There was very little credit in the wider world to be had for a fight to the death on this issue.  While the public is broadly sympathetic to the idea, they don’t care very much about it.  Mos readily agree to the trump card argument of British constitutional conservatives: that there are more important things to be doing.

Just about the only way of getting the reform through would have been to accept a referendum.  Although the current polls are favourable, it would be  a difficult referendum to win – a bit like Australia becoming a republic.  Australians favour a republic in principle, but the never the particular structure of republic that is on offer.  It was easy to pick holes in the specifics of the proposals – but that would be true of any proposal born of attempts to create consensus.  The risk/reward ratio just didn’t stack.

Lib Dems are very bitter, since they see this as a breach of faith, as Andrew Rawnsley has explained in the Observer.  They have knuckled down to vote for a number of proposals that they really hated, such as tuition fees for universities (though to be fair some high-up Lib Dems secretly liked the idea), and elected police commissioners, as well as immigration limits.  Of course Tories have voted for Lib Dem policies too, but these are mostly quite popular in the country at large, such as raising tax thresholds.  Although the Tories let them have a referendum on AV, their campaign to oppose this modest and sensible reform was so vitriolic and irrational as to come over as a breach of faith, especially when they attacked Mr Clegg personally on the basis that you couldn’t trust him because he entered into coalition with them!

But the public indifference left Mr Clegg with a problem.  Why bring the government down over this, and not tuition fees, or many other things which are currently unpopular with the public at large?  So the breach is not enough to end the Coalition.  Instead Mr Clegg has decided to withdraw the party’s support to boundary changes to Westminster constituencies.  This reform would equalise their size, to the benefit, so the conventional wisdom goes, of the Tories.

Here it is Mr Clegg’s turn to be politically calculating.  I have heard his supporters make the argument that since there will be no elected upper chamber, we need to retain a bigger Commons – an argument that I struggle to understand.  To be fair Mr Clegg does not use this argument in his email to members – where it comes over as a more straightforward tit-for-tat.  The Tory sophists argue that the Coalition agreement did not actually say that they would vote for the Lords reforms – just to bring forward proposals.  But the same can be said of the boundary changes.

And as things have turned out, the boundary changes are a real problem for the Lib Dems.  In ordinary times they would have been much more relaxed, as they have shown an ability to move out of their strongholds in held seats to win over adjacent areas.  The London MP Sarah Teather won her seat in 2010 in spite of major changes to the boundaries.  But the Lib Dem activist base has suffered with the coalition, and the campaigning environment is much tougher.  They have shown an ability to hold on where the party and its candidates are locally well know, but not elsewhere.  There are no reserves with which to flood new areas.  The boundary changes are a major headache.  Neither are the changes partilcualry popular amongst the general public, whatever the intellectual case.  To get equally sized seats they have run roughshod over traditional local sensibilities.  In Wales the impact  is particularly severe.  Even may Tory MPs will be relieved if the reforms died a death.

But it will create an awkward moment in 2013 when the vote is due to take place, unless the proposal is abandoned.  To defeat the changes Lib Dem government ministers would have to vote against or abstain – this would be new territory for the government and could easily bring it down.

So who gains from this sorry saga?  The first winners are Labour, where their cynical manoeuvring have bought rich rewards.  First they have made the Coalition look weak and incompetent.  But best of all they should now be able to defeat the boundary changes, which they hate.  Ed Milliband’s leadership can chalk up another success after his inauspicious start.

The second winners are the grumpy Tory backbenchers.  They genuinely hated the Lords reform, and will be glad to kill it.  They are also pretty relaxed about idea of the coalition failing.  And as individuals the defeat of the boundary changes makes their lives easier.

For the Lib Dems the outcome is mixed.  It’s a policy failure but it is very clear who is to blame: the Tory backbenchers and the scheming Labour politicians – unlike the AV referendum.  This fiasco is out of the way a long time before the next election is due – and defeating the boundary changes will give their campaigners the best possible chance of hanging on to the 40-50 seats needed for the party to survive as a political force.

The big loser is the Tory leader and Prime Minister David Cameron, and his project of turning his party into a credible one of government.  For all the soft soap he puts into the Party’s manifesto, it is clear that he can’t carry his party with him.  He took on his backbenchers and came out second.  His party can unite around a right-wing Eurosceptic platform, but winning a General Election, especially on the old boundaries, looks impossible.  A centrist Tory manifesto will not be credible.  His plan to use the coalition with the Lib Dems to de-toxifiy the Tory brand has come completely unstuck.

And the country remains stuck with an antiquated system of government that increasingly loses the respect of both the public and the world at large.  The public is paying a big price for its indifference.

The Tories are living up to their “Stupid Party” label.

As I posted yesterday, the recent local elections were bad for the Liberal Democrats, the party for whom I am an activist.  But if there’s any cheer to be had, it comes from looking at the behaviour of the other parties.

Labour have reason to be cheerful, but the results contain a trap.  Their party has lurched to the left, going back on Tony Blair’s legacy.  They want more spending, and more taxes to pay for them.  This is a good line for motivating activists, many incandescent over the Coalition’s cuts, which they consider to be unnecessary and ideologically motivated.  This is great for getting the turnout up in local elections.  But it’s not enough for them to win in 2015 – and the weakness was evident in their failure to capture the mayoralty in an essentially Labour London.  Liberal Democrats must hope that they keep reading their Polly Toynbee and let their anger trump their strategic sense.

But what is even more remarkable is the response of the Tories, to judge from the weekend’s press and backbenchers popping up on the radio.  It echoes my advice yesterday to the Lib Dems in London yesterday – to shore up their core vote.  They think the party will fail because it isn’t right wing enough, and that they should go back to being “the Nasty Party” to fit the nation’s sour mood.  This is sheer panic, and befits the party’s other nickname: “the Stupid Party”.

They do have a problem, and one that I predicted over a year ago before the referendum on the Alternative Vote.  There is a resurgent UK Independence Party (UKIP) chipping away at their core vote, while the Lib Dems find it easier to convince soft Tories to vote for them than soft Labour voters – and so they are going after them.  That is why they should have supported a Yes vote in the referendum last year – or at least not fought too hard for a No vote.  The more they go after the UKIP vote, the easier the Lib Dems wll find it to pick their centrist supporters off; the more they shore up the centre, the easier it is for UKIP to continue their progress.

But the correct answer to this problem is “don’t panic”.  They should endure a few difficulties in local council elections and the Euro elections in 2014 – because the real prize they are aiming for is outright victory in the General Election in 2015.  In this election they should have no difficulty in crushing UKIP, by painting the real enemy as Labour and the Lib Dems.  They will then use Labour’s lurch to the left to scare Lib Dem inclined voters into supporting them too, while reassuring them that they are quite nice and liberal really.  It’s the latter task that is by far the trickiest, so they shouldn’t jeopardise it by lurching to the right.

David Cameron knows this perfectly well, and his continued leadership represents the party’s best chance of outright victory in 2015.  But if the right openly rebels, the party will  both make itself look divided, and retoxify the Tory brand.  The rebels should shut up and wait for 2015 – much as the Labour left did before 1997, and indeed 2001, before that party lurched to the left with its big spending expansion of government in the 2000s.

Labour lurching to the left.  The Tories to the right.  This makes life a lot easier for us beleaguered Lib Dems.  Please let it continue.

London elections – the Libs Dems need to rally the base

After the Lib Dems shocked the world by going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, plenty of commentators threatened the party with oblivion.  At first glance this week’s results in the local and London elections show this prediction to be comfortably on course.  In fact the Lib Dem vote held up well in the party’s strongholds (including in their vilified  leader Nick Clegg’s Sheffield constituency), so extinction is not beckoning.  Some very challenging questions are being posed for the party’s leaders and campaigners, though, especially here in London.

The London results look particularly bad.  Brian Paddick, the mayoral candidate, managed a deposit-losing 4%, and was behind Jenny Jones of the Green party, and only just beat the independent Siobhan Benita, advocating a new runway for Heathrow.  In the Assembly the party mustered a mere 6.8%, leaving it with just two Assembly seats: the peerless Caroline Pidgeon and newcomer Stephen Knight.  These results represent a big fall in the results achieved in 2008, which was already a very bad year for the party.

But it gets worse.  This time the party had the best funded and best organised campaign it had ever put up across the capital.  The results acheived did not match the Greens, who who were barely funded and organised at all, having a much smaller base of activists and donors to draw from.  It wasn’t that the Greens did particularly well – the Lib Dems did very badly.  A repeat performance would mean that the party will lose its London MEP at the Euro elections in 2014.

The London elections are an awkward challenge for the party.  It’s entire campaigning wisdom is based on going after floating voters to win first past the post elections.  This already makes the party vulnerable in proportional representation systems, such as that used for the Assembly.  And yet the attention of the electorate is drawn to the parallel mayoral race (rightly, in view of the office’s powers), which is (near enough) first past the post.  This draws the party in a floating voter campaign for Mayor, that fails either to attract floating voters (because the party is not amongst the front runners) or to rally the core vote, the “base” in political jargon.  The party gave a lot of prominence to tough-sounding slogans like “you break, you fix” to reassure the floaters about the party’s stance on crime, but this left more liberal voters (like me) cold.  The party’s literature consisted of a lot of tabloid newspapers which neither worked as sources of local news to draw people in, nor to rally wavering loyalists.

And the base seems to be disappearing.  Surely metropolitan London is the most liberal part of the country?  And yet the overall results must be amongst the worst in the country.

So the lesson for the party must be to spend more time rallying the base.  It needs to be spell out what the party stands for, liberal values above all, and less defensively justifying the coalition, and not trying to appeal floating voters in areas where the party isn’t strong anyway.  The requires a completely new mindset from the party’s campaigners.  Even when they promise to do this (I remember last time’s Euros particularly well), they tend to get the same old rubbishy tabloids, positioned messages, and so so on.  The next Euros will be an important test.  I’m not holding my breath.

That applies especially to London.  The party still needs to hang on to its MPs and councils, which takes relentless floating voter persuasion – but the party surely can’t afford to disappear into nothingness outside its bastions.  The party needs activists, donors and the moral authority that come with a genuine nationwide base.

 

 

The Coalition – there’s a narrative, but the right doesn’t like it. Time for Lib Dems to make the case.

Since the budget in March, the British Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition government has been having a rough ride in the media.  This is showing up in its poll ratings, with Labour romping ahead.  Mostly this is Westminster bubble nonsense, but Liberal Democrats, in particular, need to ponder what is happening – and do more to lift the government’s PR performance.

The list of issues that the government is said to have handled badly grows.  It started with taxing pensioners, takeaway food, and charitable donations, which arose from the Budget.  This week the issues have been queues at Immigration at airports, poor GDP figures for the British economy, and revelations that the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was a bit to close to Rupert Murdoch’s News International media group.

Mostly these are either non-stories stoked up by the opposition, or quite sensible policy decisions that are attracting opposition from vested interests.  The Jeremy Hunt problem is the only one that looks a bit more serious, but it is part of a much more complex story that sits rather outside the government’s main purpose.  The GDP figures do relate to an important issue, the economy, but were of little significance in their own right, and told us nothing that was actually new.

So why can’t the Government get on the front foot and just swat this stuff away?  There is some nostalgia for “big hitter” government spokesmen that previous governments have been able to trot out to do just that: Labour’s John Reid, or the Conservatives’ Ken Clarke (in another era – he’s older and off-message now).  There was a rather interesting discussion on BBC Radio 4 yesterday morning on this, featuring Mr Reid and Norman Tebbit, who has also performed such a role.  These spokesmen blamed the government’s lack of narrative.  Lord Tebbit scoffed at Lords Reform and gay marriage as ideas too small to make a compelling story.  Both added that the fact that the government is a coalition made this very difficult.  These creatures of the old politics would say that of course, but it’s worth trying to tackle the argument rather than the man on this one.

First there’s the rather complacent point that all governments suffer from mid-term blues, and can get bogged with apparently trivial news issues at round about this time.  It’s not clear that the big hitters helped much this.  Things get better in the natural cycle.

Secondly the lack of a clear narrative is hardly new either.  Mrs Thatcher was clear enough – though that did not stop very poor mid-term poll ratings.  And as for John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown – none of these governments had a clear mission, beyond being competent managers.  Mr Major was lampooned for his “cones hotline” as being his biggest idea – beside which gay marriage and House of Lords are clearly a big deal.  But Mr Blair’s main thrust in the 1990s boiled down to “the same, only different”.  He was elected in 1997 with a huge majority and little mandate beyond introducing devolution in Scotland and Wales, ideas that were evidently forced on him from outside.  Mr Brown’s lack of clear narrative is the stuff of legend.  This is what modern managerial politics has become.

But actually there IS a perfectly good narrative, if only you look for it.  First is the economy: Labour left a horrible mess, which went beyond trashed government finances to a highly unbalanced economy.  The Labour economy was built on massively unsustainable levels of government expenditure, both for services and benefits.  Painful though this is, they have to be cut back, and there’s never a good time to do that.  But it wasn’t just the government being too big, there were too many of the wrong sorts of services, and not enough things we can export.  All this means that you can’t just stimulate the economy back to growth – because as soon as the stimulus ends the economy sinks back to where it was before, with even more debt.  This is a long haul – let’s be thankful that unemployment is at lower levels than in earlier recessions.  What is really needed to get us moving is more investment by business – but that’s difficult in the current world climate.  Now just what is it in the message “this is a long haul” that do you not understand when carping about 0.2% in GDP figures that are going to be revised in a month or so’s time?

But the narrative has to go further – Lord Tebbit conceded that there was a reasonably clear narrative on the economy.  And this is the Big Society/Localism/Community Politics agenda.  We need to make central government smaller so that people can be empowered locally to change things to the way they want them.  That means reforming the whole shape of government – including the NHS.  We’ve been so addicted to the old centralist ways that it is bound to take time for these things to work themselves out and there will a lot of protest on the way.  And finally we need to clean up politics.  This involves tightening up the electoral system (equal constituencies) and reducing the number of MPs.  It means tackling that out of control and ineffective patronage factory called the House of Lords.  Of course people are squealing.  There are no omelettes without broken eggs.

I could go on to bring in Europe (not the time for radical changes in the UK relationship with the economy so delicate), and immigration (this is something most of the electorate agreed on at the last election and the Lib Dems promised to grit their teeth).  This narrative is surely no worse that Tony Blair’s government that got re-elected twice.

The first problem is that the government is not clearly articulating this narrative.  They are doing quite well on the economy, though could do better.  But not the bigger picture.  The problem is lack of narrative itself, it is that the Tory right, and their friends in the press, don’t like it.

Of course there are tensions in the government – between parties and within them. But that’s not new. Mrs Thatcher had her “wets” on the Tory left.  Mr Blair had both the Labour left, who felt utterly betrayed, and the brooding presence of Mr Brown to deal with.

There’s no excuse for the government not to be trying harder to present a more coherent case for what it is doing.  The Prime Minister David cameron should be leading from the front here, but seems strangely absent.  But I think the Liberal Democrats should be doing more too.

For the Lib Dems the position is rather intriguing.  The party took a huge hit in the Coalition’s first year, while the Tory standing increased, if anything.  Now it is the Tories that are taking the main pounding.  But there is little comfort for the Lib Dems here.  They may not be heading for the opt-predicted wipe-out.  But for them to advance beyond their current reduced poll ratings, the Government as a whole has to be seen to do better.  And if the party fails to advance from its current standing, it will not play a major part in the next government, even if there is a hung parliament.  The first lesson for the Lib Dems from the Coalition was to show differentiation.  Now they must understand that it has limits.

 

Earthquake in Bradford. Not many dead.

“The most sensational by election victory in history”.  For once it is difficult to argue with George Galloway’s comment on his stunning win over Labour in yesterday’s Bradford West by election.  But as the dust settles, has anything changed?

The Coalition parties did badly in this election, but can be forgiven for having a chuckle.  Labour’s loss was spectacular, and it has been a tough week for the government.  For whatever reason, the media had turned on them over a series quite sensible moves (pensioners’ tax allowances, VAT on takeaway food, preparing for a potential strike by tanker drivers), which were admittedly exacerbated by some presentational gaffes.  Labour had been taking some undeserved credit for this; and now they’ve been shown to be as out of touch with the real world as they allege the coalition parties to have been.

But Labour’s big problem is that they are seen as a party of government rather than one of protest.  This leaves them vulnerable in by elections like this to candidates that seem to embody anger and frustration more.  But it is a good thing if they actually want to win a General Election.  In the narcissistic game of trivia played out by politicians and political correspondents this is a reverse.  But no reason to panic.

Mr Galloway’s Respect party is a personal vehicle, not a convincing political movement.  It attempts the feat of allying left-wing (“Old Labour”) ideas with cultivating the Muslim vote; this difficult reconciliation seems only to be feasible through Mr Galloway’s self-obsessed personality.  He has tried and failed to broaden his appeal.

For the Lib Dems (not so implicated in the week’s gaffes, but having to share responsibility) the result is not a big deal either.  They lost their deposit in a seat where they were already weak; the decline in vote was not quite as spectacular as for Labour and the Conservatives, and they comfortably saw off the Greens and UKIP.  But it offers no particular hope of the party digging its way out of its poor standing in most of northern England, to say nothing of elsewhere.

By far the most interesting feature of this election has been the behaviour of the Muslim community – which seems to have been the main factor behind Mr Galloway’s success, harnessed by some very astute campaigning.  According to Nasser Butt, a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in Tooting, who spent the last week in Bradford, the charge was led by younger members of the community, who persuaded their elders to rebel.  This was reversal of the normally paternalistic way that politics is done in these communities.

This is an exciting development, even if it causes liberals some angst.  Muslim communities (in this case mainly Pakistani derived) have a strong sense of grievance.  This seems to be shaped by two things: the West’s ill-judged military campaigns in the War on Terror, and the generally liberal ways of the society that they inhabit, which runs roughshod over their conservative sensibilities.  The latter’s flashpoints are the toleration of gays, perceived insults to their religion from a free-speaking public, and the modesty of women’s dress.

If the Bradford dynamic can be repeated elsewhere, it means that the Muslim vote is much more in play, instead of being stitched up with elders in little local deals, or not voting at all.  The liberal fear is that it will put pressure on politicians in the wrong direction on issues like  gay rights and freedom of speech.  Maybe so, but I think it is a price worth paying.  As the communities become more involved in mainstream politics, they will come to understand the need for compromise and building coalitions.  And they will feel listened too.  They may also come to understand that liberal views are held with passion and principle, and are not merely the signs of decadent society.  In the long run this is good.

Meanwhile yesterday also saw a local by election in Southfields, in Wandsworth.  There was no earthquake here.  The Tories held off a strong Labour campaign, taking nearly half the votes cast.  The Lib Dems, who did not put in a major effort, were pushed back to under 6%, but beat the Greens (under 3%) – something that did not usually happen in Wandsworth before 2010.  Unlike last year’s Thamesfield by election, when the Lib Dems fought at full throttle to get 17%, Labour can’t blame their defeat on them this time.  The Tory one-party state moves on unruffled.  There was a Muslim independent candidate, but he made little impact, with 38 votes (1%), two less than UKIP.

What can Lib Dems learn from the NHS debacle?

The NHS is proving a political nightmare for the Lib Dems.  This reflects a failure to develop a clear vision for the service before the election.

The NHS is now a toxic issue for the Lib Dems.  This is not because the voters are turning against the party on the issue, as they did for student loans.  In the overheated rhetoric surrounding the issue there have been many claims that the public will abandon the party over this latest betrayal.  But the public judges parties on what actually happens to the NHS, not on the speculations of excited activists and commentators.  And so far as front line services are concerned, nothing much has changed, and probably not a huge amount will as a result of the reforms… a major difference with the student fees issue.

No, the damage is being wrought within the party’s activists and members, as this summary of blogs after the Gateshead Conference shows.  Many feel an acute sense of betrayal by the leadership, and a number have left the party; more may follow.  This weakness is being cleverly exploited by Labour; but they didn’t start it.  Lib Dem activists themselves have not required outside assistance.

The party is all over the place.  The outcome of the Gateshead conference last weekend (which I was unable to attend) merely added to the confusion.  The emergency motion to abandon the Bill was not called, the representatives voting for a compromise motion supported by Shirley Williams – but a key paragraph was taken out of this motion by a narrow vote, leaving it saying not much at all.  This has given rebels in parliament cover to break the whip, but not placed serious pressure on the leadership and those not inclined to rebel, who do not see it as a worthwhile expenditure of political capital in the coalition, compared to tax policy, say.

This confusion has deep roots.  What on earth do the Lib Dems want with the NHS?  There is no clarity whatsoever.  I can count four distinct factions.  Currently most the most vocal strand are social democrats (like Shirley Williams, a living saint to many members) – who want a strong, nationally controlled monopoly service, which is able to provide a uniform standard right through the country (England in this case – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been allowed to get away).  They are relaxed about centralisation, and indeed all the amendments made to the bill over the last year at their behest point to a highly centralised provision.  Next come the economic liberals, with whom the party leadership tend to sympathise.  While this group has not developed any clear vision, they like the idea of what economist John Kay calls “disciplined pluralism” – in other words preserving a choice of providers wherever possible, so long as they are properly accountable.  These people are very relaxed about whether the NHS uses direct employees, third sector organisations, or, indeed, private companies to deliver its service.  A third group consists of NHS insiders – who basically resist any change in practice if not in theory, and who mainly argue for allocating more taxpayer funding through existing structures, whatever they happen to be at the time.  This group was led by Dr Graham Winyard of Winchester (and a former NHS high-up), who has now left the party.  And lastly (because this group is now largely drowned out), we have community politicians.  These want to see much more devolution to local politicians, and a bigger role for local authorities in particular; this group is relaxed about the  “postcode lottery”, so long as it is balanced by postcode accountability.  This group is close to the heart of traditional post-War Liberalism, and closest to my personal views (in spite of my Social Democrat provenance).

The original Bill was essentially a product of the economic liberals and community politicians (amongst whom we should count Paul Burstow, the Lib Dem health minister) within the party, working with Tory Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, whose attitude is quite close to Lib Dem economic liberals.  The resistance was started up by NHS insiders like Graham Winyard, and quickly swept in social democrats.  This alliance overwhelmed the party leadership at last March’s Sheffield conference.  There followed the “pause” in the reforms, and a raft of amendments that took the reforms in a highly social democratic direction, leaving economic liberals and community politicians disenchanted but hoping something could be retrieved from the wreckage.  But then the NHS insiders dug their heels in, as one professional body after another advised killing the whole reform.  This fractured the whole process and left the party with a set of reforms that nobody is very keen on, and to which many are vehemently opposed.

The wider membership, and most activists, are pragmatists, who can’t be pigeon-holed into any of the four groups that have shaped the debate.  Their confusion and general scepticism is understandable .  But this reflects a vacuum at the party’s idealogical heart.  We can agree on liberal social values, internationalism and inclusiveness – but the party seems to have no settled views on how to run the state.

The party should not get too worked up about this of itself.  It shares this confusion with the other main political parties (just try to make sense of the Labour position), and I’m sure the minor parties too if they could ever be forced into making a stand.  All successful political parties are coalitions of one kind or another.  But the party failed to hammer out its own internal compromise before the election, in the way that Vince Cable managed to for tax policy.  Formation of policy at conference was too much a matter of seeking consensus.  There were some quite radical elements of official, conference approved policy (like abolishing Strategic Health Authorities), but little awareness amongst members of the implications of official policy.  The original Bill was probably quite a well crafted compromise between our official policy and Andrew Lansley’s ideas (Paul Burstow certainly thought so).  But as soon as the heat was applied, official Lib Dem policy counted for nothing – it had not been engrained on members’ and activists’ consciences.

So where next?  The first point is that Liberal Democrats must realise that they either hang together with the Tories, or else the two parties will be hung separately on the NHS.  The Tories will curb their privatising zeal; the Lib Dems need to stop being so destructive.  There is no future in the parties scoring points off each other on this issue -they both need to show that all the apocalyptic talk is hot air.  I expect this means that we’ll have to find some extra funding before 2015.

And Liberal Democrats need to forge their own vision for the NHS, hopefully in time for 2015.  In doing so each of the various interest groups will have to compromise.  The best way of doing this is to have some controversial debates and votes at conference – like we did with tax policy.  Much better to have the arguments before the policy is agreed than after we try to implement it.

The battle for ideas in the Liberal Democrats

The launch of two new policy focused groups within the Lib Dems in the last couple of weeks has drawn a bit of comment in the party.  But the striking thing to me is what all this says about how the party has evolved since it was formed by a merger between the Liberal Party and the SDP.

The first new group, and the one that has drawn most comment, is the Liberal Left.  This group’s raison d’etre is opposition to the coalition with the Tories, now or ever.  It is social democratic in policy instinct, and sceptical of economic austerity policies; it rails against that convenient abstract noun “neoliberalism”.  The second group is Liberal Reform.  I am rather less clear what this one is really about; it says it is about promoting “four cornered freedom – personal, political, social and economic liberalism”.  I think it for people who think in an economically liberal way, and are inclined to support the coalition and the general thrust of government economic policy, but also have strong social liberal instincts – people like me, in fact.

These are distinct from two other groups: the very successful Social Liberal Forum, set up to counterbalance some of the economically liberal conventional wisdom amongst Lib Dem ministers and their entourages – it has struck a chord with the grumbles of many activists.  Then there is Liberal Vision, much more of a minority interest, economically liberal and seemingly a fellow traveller with Germany’s Free Democrats, distinctly to the right of that country’s political spectrum.  All these group build, perhaps, on the trail blazed by the Green Liberal Democrats, from whom one hears rather little these days…but which in its day was prominent in the promotion of environmentalism.

One Lib Dem on Twitter is dismayed.  He left the Labour party because of its factionalism, and now look what happening to the Lib Dems!  Political factionalism is very much a personal rivalry game.  The different factions are relatively tight networks of individuals with patronage powers, who partly define themselves by loathing of rival groups.  I don’t quite detect that with these groups, which tend to overlap with each other.  This, at least to this outsider, looks more like a battle of ideas, and is not unhealthy.  I worry that the Liberal Left (and the SLF) are more against things than they are for them, but that’s probably unfair.  And there have been a few insults traded across the social media, e.g. suggesting that the Liberal Left are just unreconstructed oppositionalists.  Plus the all those references to “neoliberalism” from the other side. That is just a dimension of debate, though – there’s a lot more reasonable discussion going on too.

But taking a step back, there are some rather striking things about the phenomenon.  First is the emergence of the word “Liberal” to describe the party and what it stands for.  The “Democrat” bit, a token gesture to the old SDP as it merged with the Liberal Party in 1987, is slowly dying out.  But old Liberals can’t take any comfort from this, since the defining features of the 1980s Liberals, community politics and environmentalism, get very little mention.  Instead we have various visions of social democracy (a strong state standing for fairness) and economic liberalism (a greater faith in appropriately regulated market solutions), both more characteristic of the old SDP.

Community politics is increasingly forgotten.  What was it?  It was politicians getting things done by taking a leadership role in their local communities – talking, listening, cajoling, organising to make things better, while still standing firm on core liberal values.  To the modern politico this is so yesterday.  Much more fun to discuss grand policies, new laws, political strategies, market positioning and so forth.  Perhaps this is an inevitable result in the decline of local communities, especially in poorer areas – part of the alienation of the modern quest for efficiency.  Pockets of community politics persist (the highly successful Sutton Lib Dems for example) and hopefully will keep the flame burning.  But while most activists will pay token homage to the idea, it isn’t what keeps them awake at night.

Since the merger (disclosure – I was a founder member of the SDP), genuine liberalism (an emphasis on personal freedom and internationalism) has come to define the party much more clearly than it ever did in the old SDP.  But other than that I have to say that the new party is growing more like the old SDP than the old Liberals.  I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.  The old Liberal ways had grown on me.

Why the Coalition should not last beyond 2015

Some Tories are talking up the idea that the Coalition between their party and the Lib Dems should continue for a second term.  This doesn’t sound realistic.  And I think it would be a bad idea too.

Some pundits have claimed that Britain’s major parties (aside – I am thinking particularly of the three UK parties here, but there are similar dynamics with the SNP too) have become more alike and simply compete on competence (I often tread this in the Economist, for example).  This may be true so far as they way that they each reach out to a group of critical floating voters, but in fact each has a very different view of the world.  And it makes a difference which one of them is in government.

That was why it was such a surprise that the Liberal Democrats went into Coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, and why it has been, and remains, so painful for them.  To the Lib Dems, the Tories are on the wrong side of a great historical struggle that still shapes our politics.  The Tories stand for the rich, cleverly roping in those who aspire to be rich, and social conservatives and nationalists in a coalition of nastiness. The stakes in this battle are rising, since, for whatever reason, the rich have been doing very well over the last couple of decades, and have a lot to protect.  Redistribution, in some shape or form, should be high on the political agenda.

The Lib Dems are essentially liberal; they have some fellow feeling with the aspirant well off (or should do), but have historically been the other side of the rich-poor divide – and find social conservatives and nationalists anathema.

But in 2010 the party had little choice.  In its own way Labour was on the wrong side of history too.  Labour is the party of big government, and its core constituency is public sector managers and workers, the quangocracy and the many organisations that feed off tax funding.  The unions are heavily associated with these same interest groups, so its historical alliance with them does not cause undue strain.  And just as the Tories marshal social conservatives to keep the show on the road, so Labour marshal those who depend on state handouts, without any real interest in curing them of their dependency.

The first decade of this century proved a happy time for Labour.  The economy grew steadily, increasing the tax take, allowing the government payroll, direct and indirect, to expand, as well as the net for all sorts of benefits.  To many within the party it must have seemed that they were on an unstoppable march to solving the country’s problems through government action.

But it was a castle being built on sand.  Economic growth was not built on substantial advances in productivity, but on a combination of debt and good luck.  We should note that most of the debt in question was in the private sector, but it is also true that government debt expanded more than was prudent.  The good luck (consciously exploited Labour’s leaders) was the expansion of China and India, and the gains from trade that followed as costs of manufactured goods in particular advanced at well below the general inflation rate.  In addition immigration from Poland and other central and east European countries stopped the British labour market from breaking down, and expanded the overall tax take, if not income per head (a matter of some controversy).  All this has come to an abrupt halt, so that we are being forced to unpick many of Labour’s advances.

The shock to Labour supporters of finding that their dreams were built on air has been enormous.  In 2012 they still mostly don’t really seem to believe it; in 2010 they  were in such deep denial they were absolutely unfit to be in government, even in coalition.  There was no basis to work with the Lib Dems, whose general world view is somewhat closer to them than the Tories.  Given the financial crisis, a coalition with the Tories was easily the best option available to the Lib Dems, with the added benefit of the party learning how to take part in government.

How will things look in 2015, when the next General Election is due?  It is still a long way off, but another hung parliament looks quite likely.  Labour’s problem is not just that they are on the wrong side of history, it’s that most of the electorate realise it.  They instinctively know that Labour’s aspirations cannot be afforded, and that they have no real idea how genuine economic growth can be found, so their support is stuck.  But they should still advance from their lows in 2010, making a Tory outright win very difficult to pull off.

And what of the Lib Dems?  The general betting is that the party will fall back.  A near wipe-out is certainly within the range of possibility, but more likely is a significant loss of seats to, say, 30 or so (from the current 57).  The situation in Scotland, source of many Lib Dem seats, looks dire.  The consequence of this is that being part of a coalition is very difficult to make work.  It’s difficult enough with the current balance between the parties.  Could you really have a Deputy PM with just 30 seats? Offered a coalition by the Tories, the party would be wise to turn it down and let them make their way as best they could as a minority.  The financial crisis should not be anything like as severe as in 2010, so this will look a more realistic prospect.  Coalition with the Tories, especially with reduced moral and actual authority arising from a loss of parliamentary seats, is simply too toxic to continue.

And coalition with Labour?  It’s difficult to see how that would work in 2015 too.  There would need to be a change in party leader, and not just because he is a hate figure in Labour circles.  To the public changing sides without changing leader would stink to much of ducking and weaving just to maintain office; he would need to have pulled off a really good election result to be able to stay.  Changing leader is best done while not in government.  And the problem of not having enough MPs would still hold.

But what if the Lib Dems should do unexpectedly well in the 2015 election, maintaining or even increasing their representation?  This would certainly give the party a new moral authority after all they have been through.  But the toxicity of the Tories remains; they are simply on the wrong side of history.  With an increased representation, the party may well have the choice of partners, and if so, it should try to strike a deal with Labour, and one that gives the party increased overall clout in government.

But if Labour had done so badly that a coalition with them is not feasible?  This would be the Lib Dem opportunity to show that they are the true opposition to the Tories.  The party should offer the Tories terms that they are unlikely to accept, and then let them stagger on as a minority.  A tricky stunt to pull off, but surely better than five more years in government with the Tories, giving Labour yet another opportunity to recover?

 

Occupy: a difficult bandwagon to ride

There was a strained moment at last night’s dinner at the National Liberal Club for the London Liberal Democrats, when the party was challenged by a member over the Occupy protests at the City of London.  Both the guest speaker, Paddy Ashdown, and the Mayoral candidate, Brian Paddick, said that the act of protesting was a wonderful, liberal thing to do, and that the party should engage with the protesters (and indeed has), but that there was too little in  the way of constructive proposals for the party to take on.  Given that the anger that drives the protests is shared widely across the population, this seems a rather inadequate response.  But politicians of all stripes struggle to say much more.

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has tried to ride the bandwagon.  It chimes well with his appeal for greater morality in commercial life.  This line seems to play quite well with policy wonks and political professionals, but just seems to underline Mr Miliband’s lack of grounding in the gritty “real” world – a lack which, of course, he shares with most politicians of all parties.  His ideas share with David Cameron’s “Big Society” a complete inadequacy when faced with the big issues highlighted by the protesters.

It is easy enough to accept the core of what the protests are about.  There has been a lot of irresponsible behaviour in world finance which has helped bring about the current economic crisis; these financiers still seem to be attracting outrageous levels of pay; and taxpayers still underwrite the whole show.  After this, however, practical politicians have to deal with four difficult facts in the search for policies.

First: world finance may have failed, but capitalism hasn’t.  To many of the protesters world finance is simply the purest form of capitalism and its failure represents the failure of the whole capitalist system.  Well greed and profit seeking, familiar parts of the capitalist way, had a lot to do with it – but as much of the problem was uncapitalist politics.  Governments borrowing too much money to develop public services; interfering with the market to extend home ownership (especially in the US); China’s distinctly uncapitalist but de-stabilising trade policies, to name but three factors.  The real problem was politicians trying to tilt capitalism to their own ends, even if these ends were quite laudable.  There is in fact no substitute for capitalism if we are to maintain the living standards in the developed world, and to roll back poverty in the devloping world.  Interfering with the workings of free markets is likely to make matters worse, not better.

Mention of politicians brings in the second awkward fact.  The public (especially in the developed world) is at least as much to blame for the economic crisis as the bankers.  Excessive borrowing was widespread, as was pressure on politicians to ride the boom and expand government.  It wasn’t only the bankers that were being greedy.  It is natural enough to blame the bankers, saying like children, “It wasn’t my fault, he made me do it!” – but this isn’t very helpful in the search for solutions.

And a third awkward fact is that banking and finance, apart from the greed and the excess, carry out a vital world function.  The process of linking savers to borrowers, which is essentially what finance does, is vital for economies to develop and poverty to be fought.  It is absolutely no coincidence that the growth in world finance in the last couple of decades happened at the same time as the biggest progress against world poverty that we have ever seen.  And the beneficial effects of world trade that finance facilitated completely dwarf the well well-intentioned works of government aid and charities.  The problem is that the bankers simply creamed off too much of the benefit for themselves.

Which leads naturally to the fourth, and awkwardest fact of all: the bankers are holding a lot of hostages.  We need bank lending to keep productive industries going.  Governments needs finance to keep public services going.  In the UK, and especially London, world finance includes many perfectly productive jobs which we can ill afford to lose.  Vindictive policies will hurt us all.

But finance does need to be tamed.  But doing so is a slow process which requires a great deal of patience.  There are two key sets of reforms, neither of which are quick:

  1. Separate investment banking from utility banking.  There are many abuses in utility banking, but the really dangerous stuff is in investment banking, and allowing investment bankers to run utility banks is a recipe for total disaster.  The Vickers Commission’s reforms are an excellent start here – and seem to be leading the way globally.  The investment bankers are patiently trying to undermine them – but politicians and the public need to stay on their case.
  2. Make investment banking much less profitable.  It is the profits that drive the excessive pay – and policy needs to focus on the causes of the disease rather than wasting time on the symptoms.  There are two main causes of excess profits: lack of competition and the failure of organisations to bear public costs (for example of the public’s underwriting of the banking system).  In investment banking, it is the second of these that is the most important (in retail banking it is the first…), and the most effective way forward is raising capital requirements.  This is being done, and banking profits are duly under a lot of pressure.  At first it will be the shareholders who feel the pain – but in due course it will be bankers pay, as shareholders get fed up with their overpaid servants.

Actually progress is rather good.  We don’t need gimmicks like the “Tobin Tax”.  we need vigilance and patience.  I am proud of the way the Liberal Democrat ministers have been keeping the pressure up (Vince Cable is the star, but Nick Clegg is clearly on side).  The bankers are waiting for the Occupy bandwagon to move on.  It will, but I hope and trust that the Liberal Democrats will still be on their case.

Lib Dems and the Quality of Life

One of the more entertaining episodes of the last Lib Dem conference was the debate on the party’s new Quality of Life policy paper.  This paper had wended a long but largely uncontroversial path through the policy formation process, including extensive consultation, before reaching the conference – and I was a member of the working group – interest declared.  And generally policy that has followed this path gets more or less nodded through.  Not this time.  The motion and paper got the backs up of many representatives, and there were a number of well-delivered and entertaining speeches against.  For a flavour of this ire see Alex Wilcock’s blog – scroll down past the Dr Who stuff to 20 September.  If you click through to the comments page, you will find Alex describing yours truly as “not so much a thinking liberal as a sneering one”!  The paper was passed, but the margin was quite narrow by the usual standards of these things.

And that’s a bit of a problem.  This is policy that stands behind other policy – important not so much for its direct recommendations as its influence on subsequent policy.  I hesitate to call it philosophical – since it does not attempt to develop the core values of the party, but rather to apply them in a new way.  But if it is considered contentious, it may get ignored.  And for all that it is official policy, this would be quite easy.

What’s the fuss about?  The starting point of the paper is that public policy is too dependent on “hard” economic statistics, such as income and economic growth, to measure success.  But these are only intermediate measures – in other words we like them because they lead to good things, rather than being good of themselves.  That is because of the difficulty of measuring success in itself – the hitherto rather woolly concepts of wellbeing and quality of life.  But social science has been advancing rapidly and it is now possible to measure wellbeing in a rigorous way – mainly through asking people to make subjective judgements on their state of mind.

What the paper recommends is to make wellbeing an explicit policy goal, alongside the traditional economic measures.  To ensure this is done rigorously, it recommended that a National Institute of Wellbeing is established to promote standards. Various other devices (a cabinet champion, for example) were recommended to get it embedded into the business of government.

So far, so good, perhaps – but for liberals some loud alarm bells should be ringing by now.  This could be a charter for highly paternalistic government.  And especially when you come up against the evidence that many people seem to have a poor understanding of what is good for their wellbeing.  So the beating heart of this policy paper is the insight that individual autonomy (“agency” in wonks’ jargon) is central to wellbeing.  The idea is to help people help themselves, and not bullying and cajoling them into making better choices.

Education is central.  And, to make a small digression, this takes you in a very interesting direction.  A lot more is understood about life skills – emotional intelligence, resilience, and such – and the wellbeing insight gives these a much higher priority at all levels of education.

Fortunately there is a wealth of evidence to support the liberal view.  There one further thing – the measurement mechanism of choice for social sciencists, self-reported wellbeing, is a thoroughly liberal idea.  Wellbeing is what the population says it is, and not an arbitrary idea imposed by policymakers.  It’s like voting.

What were people objecting to?  One faction distrusted anything with so little in the way of concrete recommendations – especially when those few recommendations sounded like more bureaucracy and a new quango.  At best they interpreted it as harmless, and so a cost-free policy to rebel against; at worst they thought it was opening the party up to being criticised for being irrelevant in times of widespread economic hardship.  Others, Alex was amongst these though he was not called to speak, understood how dangerous the the quality of life idea could be in the wrong hands, and felt that it was too toxic to touch.  Or, possibly, that the detail of the policy paper did not live up to its liberal intent. At any rate that is my reading of what they were saying.

All this put the promoters of the motion in a bit of a difficulty – it is really quite difficult to push abstract ideas in this kind of debate.  In a short speech you don’t really have much opportunity to say more than “I think this is a good idea” rather than why you think it is good – at least not in a way that will connect to more than a minority of the audience.

Does it matter?  The problem is that the wellbeing agenda is slowly but surely infiltrating itself into the public policy process already.  The word (or “well-being”, the spell-check compliant variant which I don’t like) and quality of life come up with increasing frequency in all kinds of public policy contexts, and especially in health.  The concepts, if not the measurements, lay behind so much of the last government’s meddling in people’s lives.  And David Cameron is an enthusiast too, though with an entirely different agenda -but no doubt paternalist in  a different way.  Liberals need to get into this debate and push back hard against paternalism – but using the language of wellbeing, and not just pronouncing the plague on all its works.

And there is something else, even more important in my view, which the paper doesn’t really touch.  And this is the usefulness of the idea in promoting a more environmentally sustainable economy.  It is important to break through the tyranny of current economic measurements to show that a more sustainable way of life does not equate to poverty – and indeed that it can be better for everybody.  This is why the New Economics Foundation is so interested in wellbeing.  I particularly like their paper on Measuring our Progress.

So we need to keep pushing.  As one of the motion’s supporters said to me afterwards “Who remembers how close Nick Clegg’s margin of victory was for the party leadership?”.  Still, we that understand and support the policy have a selling job on our hands.