Tag Archives: Liberal Democrats

4 liberal themes on economics and public services: my contribution to Lib Dem Agenda 2020

Agenda 2020 is the consultation exercise being carried out by the Liberal Democrats to set the framework of policy in the period up to 2020, when we next expect parliamentary elections. At this stage the idea is to keep the thinking at quite a high level. This is always quite hard for political activists. We somehow got onto VAT on tampons in the consultation exercise in Bournemouth. Then again, I’m always saying that political types on the left are too abstract. I haven’t submitted the following contribution yet, but the idea is to be strong on general direction, with only a few pointers on the detail. I’m afraid that it’s still a bit longer than my normal posts.

Economics, public services and wider Liberal Democrat policy

Economics and public services should be at the heart of any political narrative. Too often in the Liberal Democrats both topics have been neglected. The party has opted for a simple middle ground between the Conservatives and Labour. The 2015 General Election was no exception, at least as far as the headlines went. The time has come for a much more robust narrative. Here are some ideas on what this might look like.

The story so far

After 1945 the great Liberal thinkers Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge founded a post war consensus on economic management and public services. This was based on the state taking responsibility for managing the business cycle through fiscal policy, and a greatly expanded set of state services, funded by much higher taxes (compared to pre-war levels), to fulfil a series of new entitlements, designed to ensure that everybody obtained a basic level of wellbeing. These ideas were taken on by the Labour and Conservative Parties, and developed into an overbearing state, which also took over a series of failing businesses, from railways, to steel, to even aero engines.

By the 1970s the state had lost control of its finances and the country was heading for towards economic collapse. Public services had been captured by vested interests, with very little regard for their users. In reaction to this emerged a new conventional wisdom, initiated by Margaret Thatcher and expanded by Tony Blair. This new thinking was again based on liberal principles, and it is often referred to as “neoliberalism”.  The idea was that citizens should be empowered as buyers in a market economy, with the state stepping back to provide only basic services and a basic safety net. Much of the regulation of the business cycle would be taken up by monetary policy, so as to reduce the role of the state. Marginal rates of tax on income were cut, though overall levels of tax increased, if anything.

Probably not coincidentally, this change to public policy was accompanied by dramatic shifts in technology and global trade. Society changed substantially, mostly for the better. Living standards advanced, life expectancy improved, and pollution was cut. But now the country, in common with the rest of the developed world, seems stuck. Most economic growth just benefits a rich elite; businesses hoard excess earnings rather than invest or pay their workers more; property prices escalate. The number of badly paid jobs rises; most younger people are shut out of decent jobs and decent homes. Demand for health and care services grows, while public resources do not keep pace. And prosperity is restricted to a small number better-off areas, especially in the south east of England.

Liberals should worry. Power is being concentrated among a wealthy elite of people connected to big businesses. This trend Is abetted by a highly centralised national government that would rather deal with these large businesses, or else large public agencies like the NHS, than directly with the public. The power of the markets works for many people, but it is failing many more. Many people have inadequate leverage in the markets for jobs and homes in particular, leaving an unequal power balance in both domains. This state of affairs breeds fear and insecurity, which in turn leads to the rise of the political extremes of right and left, which threaten social cohesion.

In the meantime thinking on economic policy has not caught up with these profound changes. Most economists still think of the economy in a highly centralised way, in terms of aggregates across the whole economy, rather than the fate of its component parts. And thinking about productivity is stuck with ideas appropriate to manufacturing industry and economies of scale – and not to the efficient use of the human resources the country actually has to hand, in an economy increasingly dominated by personal services. The left rails against a series of pantomime villains, but resists any serious progressive reform of public services. This old thinking simply concentrates more power and wealth into the hands of a well-connected elite. Public services are dominated by functional silos based on political empires, not people’s actual needs.

We need fresh thinking, and my suggestion is to organise this around four liberal themes.

Liberal theme 1: green growth

Green growth means the advancement of human wellbeing while reducing the consumption of physical resources, especially non-renewable energy. The twin objectives are to ensure that everybody has the chance to live a healthy and fulfilling life in a comfortable environment, while easing the stress on the local and global environment.  There are two aspects to this: developing and implementing technologies that are more environmentally efficient, and breaking the idea that ever increasing consumption is the path to improved wellbeing. This requires a profound change in outlook – though one that is already taking place.

Green growth may or may not entail economic growth as currently measured. That depends on how advanced wellbeing is reflected in the monetary economy. In the short to medium term it entails a substantial level of investment, in more efficient homes, power infrastructure and transport infrastructure, as well as research and development. If properly carried out these investments will entail improved economic growth. Longer term growth requires the harnessing of human resources more effectively. This means a wider distribution of information management and decision making, or:

Liberal theme 2: small is beautiful

Large organisations, be they businesses or government agencies, are one of the main threats to green growth and liberal values. They concentrate power in the hands of the elites that control them, leaving the majority of their employees disempowered, and unable to react most effectively to the world as they find it. The elites are geographically concentrated, leading to geographic concentrations of power and wealth, and the hollowing out of communities elsewhere. This hollowing out leads to a waste of human resources, which must be tapped if green growth is to take root. Furthermore, large commercial organisations have a tendency to hoard surplus earnings (often abroad) rather than invest them, acting as a further drag on the economy.

Of course large organisations also play a vital role in any efficient economy; they are the best organisational form to take on some functions. But these are not as many as often supposed. A liberal government must change the legal and regulatory environment so that it favours large organisations less. This will include reforms to political structures, banking and taxes.

It will also entail a substantial reform of public services:

Liberal theme 3: public services that solve problems

It should be obvious that the main reason that public services are inefficient is that they do not work together to solve people’s problems. Housing, mental health, addiction, crime and poor physical health are very often bound together in one person’s feeding on each other – and yet we persist in trying to deal with each of these issues separately, in separate chains of command all the way to Cabinet. Often the key is making all the relevant services work together in such a way that the user moves to a better way of life, with less call on the public purse. Usually what happens is that the relevant agencies work against each other.

Public services should be organised to meet the needs of people, and solve problems rather than playing pass the parcel. This should be the foremost area for the development of policy, based on best existing practice. There may be a number of possible approaches.  Some of things are clear, however:

  • Changes will be easier to implement if responsibility for public services is more localised and more integrated.
  • Some form of empowered professional intermediary will usually be required to assess the users’s needs, to coordinate the different agencies and, where needed, to negotiate the compliance of the user. Empowerment will mean some form of budgetary control. This means a step back from the current tendency to disempower and de-skill such intermediaries, like social workers and probation officers.
  • Large scale functional outsourcing will usually take services in the wrong direction. Repeated tendering also leads to a dumbing down, a tendency to gloss over more complex issues. The greater use of local social enterprises may well be a better approach in a framework that ensures proper accountability.

Public services should help with some of the most difficult problems relating to poverty; but this has to be in a wider context wealth and income distriubtion. We also need:

Liberal theme 4: redistribution to correct imbalances

A well-ordered, liberal society might not require the redistribution of income and wealth. And liberals dislike redistribution for its own sake – different levels of wealth may simply reflect freely made choices over how to balance accumulating money with other things life has to offer. But in our society imbalances of wealth and income pose a threat. The less well-off are denied the opportunities that should be theirs. Excessive wealth can be used to buy political influence and monopoly power, reducing choices for others. The accumulation of wealth may also lead to excess savings and economic stagnation. Liberals must embrace redistribution, albeit warily.

Redistribution needs to work at two distinct levels: personal and geographical. The wealthy must be taxed on both income and assets (land, in particular), and the worse off must be compensated through access to benefits and rights to state services, especially housing. Children must be a particular focus of redistribution as early years are critical to life chances.

Also funds must be redistributed from wealthy regions and districts to those less well off, to offset the negative network effects of clusters of wealth.

At both levels redistribution arrangements must be designed so as not to create dependency. Those less well-off should be encouraged to improve their lot – but at the same time the level of redistribution must fall as the need for it falls. Systems of redistribution based on universal rights (like the state pension) have their place, but have limits too. Truly liberal systems of redistribution will require careful design.

A policy programme to match

At this stage the idea is to sketch out broad political priorities, and not detailed policy programmes. I do not believe that in most cases a radical departure is needed from adopted Liberal Democrat policy. The high level emphasis will need to be rethought, however.

The main policy implications of taking forward the four liberal themes are:

  1. Political reform, and especially the devolution of power to regions and districts. This is essential to create the right political environment. This may be combined with a new federal settlement for the UK and reform of the House of Lords. Electoral reform is important to ensure a plurality of power – but the priority must be to implement proportional voting systems at local level rather than at Westminster. A further important strand of political reform should be restricting the influence of wealthy individuals and organisations, especially through political donations.
  2. A programme of green investments must be instituted, including high quality social housing.
  3. With public service reform the emphasis should be on bottom-up initiatives – but national funding structures will have to be reviewed to facilitate this.
  4. The tax and benefits system will need to be re-examined. The Lib Dem commitment to increasing personal allowances must be rethought, as it is inefficient as a redistribution policy. Restoring tax credits is a higher priority. Taxation of land in some shape or form makes sense, though we may get no further than reforming Council Tax.
  5. On overall fiscal policy it is best to manage down expectations of additional government spending – though the principle that the government (including local governments) can borrow to invest must be clear.
  6. The banking system must be reformed to allow new, locally-based lenders to come into play. Investment in the “real economy” should be encouraged to create new assets, While avoiding a merry-go-round of existing assets.
  7. The UK should act internationally through the EU to curb tax avoidance, especially by large corporations. Trade agreements and relations with the EU should be viewed through the prism of promoting smaller businesses, and not simply advancing the interests of large multinationals.

Of course there are many more important policies that have a bearing on the economy and public services – not least reducing the level of carbon emissions. But overall such a policy platform should be quite distinctive from the orthodoxies of right and left, and yet fully in tune with modern times.

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The political isolation of Britain’s working class: liberals should reach out

Conservative Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget last week, his first without the need to negotiate with the Liberal Democrats, was widely hailed as a feat of political brilliance. It has put the opposition Labour Party into disarray. At its centre was a direct attack on Britain’s working poor. Nothing could demonstrate that group’s political weakness better.

Part of the political acuity was the spread of confusion over where the budget pain was to be felt. Mr Osborne, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had earlier set out their intention of wooing working class voters to their party. Huge cuts to tax credits, the Budget’s centrepiece, were camouflaged by rises to the minimum wage, to be renamed “living wage”, by more than even Labour had been proposing before the election.

Britain’s tax credit system was implemented by Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown. It is designed to top up the wages of those not earning enough to meet basic needs, in particular the costs of bringing up children.  Various arguments were used to justify this. It was said that companies were paying workers less because they were anticipating the effect of tax credits. The system was created by Labour so as to create a bank of dependent voters. Aspersions were cast on claimants as being shirkers, or feckless, especially poorer people who dare to have larger families (one proposal is to stop support for children after the second). It would be better to pay people more, and to tax them less, than to hand out state aid.

None of this really bears up to scrutiny. The minimum wage and higher tax thresholds are pinpricks on the wider problem for low pay. There was no sign that the public sector, for example, was going to be any more generous in its treatment of lower paid workers, many of which it pays for, directly or indirectly (through outsourcing contracts). Academic research does not support the idea that tax credits lead to lower pay – or at least, not by much. Claimants for tax credits are already working; they are very clearly not part of the army of shirkers, who, so far as they actually exist, claim direct state benefits. With an ageing population it is far from clear that the country needs fewer children with working parents – and poverty can adversely affect the progress of those children, reducing their chances of playing a full and active part in the economy.

This was nicely illustrated the Economist’s Bagehot column this week. He (Jeremy Cliffe) visited a local estate in south London (not all that far from where I live, as it happens), and talked to some of Mr Osborne’s proposed victims. He found a number of working women, with a diverse range of heritages, facing up to a difficult predicament with dignity. At the school where I am governor, such families demand increasing levels of support if their children are to keep pace with those from more fortunate families. We are lucky that the proportion of such families is manageable: but their needs will grow; our funding will not.

What our society is confronting is one of the most important issues it faces. It is the disappearance of mid-level blue and white collar jobs, and their replacement by less secure and less well-paid ones. These new jobs are overwhelmingly in service industries – carers, cleaners, call centre operatives, security guards, and so on.  This change is overwhelmingly due to new technology – but it has been helped along the way by globalisation. These new jobs often do not pay enough to allow their workers to fully participate in society – especially if they have children.

But it is not at all clear what the solution is. Two traditional answers do not look promising. The first is to improve productivity. And yet in these jobs it hard to see how this can be done without increasing general alienation. In any economy some jobs lend themselves to advances in productivity (think factories) and other don’t (think hairdressers). As the former become more productive, the proportion of workers in the second group increases. This is a phenomenon known as “Baumol’s disease” by economists – and it is a large part of what is going on here. The economy is stratifying between a small number of highly productive jobs, and a large number of relatively unproductive ones.  The former can lift up general levels of pay for everybody – but only so far. Improving productivity may simply help an elite of better off workers, without doing much for everybody else.

The second traditional answer is to increase job protection to improve the bargaining power of those in poorly paid jobs. This is the route favoured in such countries as France. It tends to lead to either or both of two things: higher unemployment or a growing army of temporary workers with fewer rights.

We are left with three routes that look inadequate, but must still be pursued. The first is redistribution through tax, benefits and freely available public services. Our tax credit system is a key element of this. The fact that its cost has escalated well beyond the scale originally envisaged simply shows that the problem it is trying to fix has grown. The answer is as surely to be higher taxes and not reduced benefits. The second route is universal education, and initiatives to ensure that children from poorer backgrounds get more support. This gives more people access to better paid jobs, and makes the job market less easy to stratify. Progress has been made on this, but it remains under pressure from lack of finance. The reduction of tax credits associated with children will be a step in the wrong direction.

And third is the strengthening of local communities and local economies. This may not make the economy much more productive in the traditional economic sense of creating more goods and services to consume, but it serves to humanise society and to tackle the exclusion that is the biggest cost of poverty. Tax credits have no role to play in this. They are a giant, soulless centralised system controlled by rules made by bureaucrats and politicians far, far away. They only help by improving incentives to work, and participate in communities that way, rather than dependency on straight benefits – which is corrosive of communities. But nothing the current government is doing, or the political elite is thinking about, is advancing this third, important approach. It does not follow from grand initiatives that make big political careers.

And the sad thing is to see how politically marginalised the modern working class has become. Our old picture is of white men, working in factories and belonging to unions. But this strata of working class is disappearing. Instead we have a growing army of male and female workers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They are not unionised, and split into multiple communities. They often do not vote. The Labour Party, the traditional sponsors of the working classes, is now more interested in chasing their more engaged and better off cousins in what is left of the traditional working classes and in the middle classes (“Middle England” as I have called it). Middle England is not very sympathetic to the plight of the new working class. This has weakened the party’s opposition to Mr Osborne’s budget – though thankfully three of the four prospective leaders see that their stop-gap leader Harriet Harman has gone too far in suggesting that Labour will not oppose the cuts to tax credits.

Liberals, I believe, must stand firm behind tax credits, accepting tax rises to support them if need be. We should also support education policies to ensure the full participation of children from poorer families. But the real hope lies in reinvigorating local communities. We should remember that this is not just a middle class thing. The Liberal Democrats in particular have been forced back into a middle class ghetto, and I suspect that many find this a comfortable, if small, place to be. But the real need for liberal solutions is amongst the country’s new working class, and that is an important area for outreach, based on community politics.

 

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To build a core vote the Lib Dems will need to change culture.

After a series of catastrophic election results, the Liberal Democrats 80-20
are indulging in some deep thinking about the party’s future. The one silver lining from the party’s disasters is that it is left with the nearest it will ever get to a blank slate on which to rewrite what the party is.

Into this debate comes an important pamphlet. The 20% strategy: building a core vote for the Liberal Democrats by former Cambridge MP David Howarth, and inveterate blogger Mark Pack. I would urge anybody interested in the party’s future direction to read it. The jumping-off point is familiar to anybody that has followed the party’s internal debates. Critics of the party’s leadership (especially under Nick Clegg) suggest that the party neglected the build-up of a core of loyal supporters who would vote for the party come what may. This core now stands at something like 5%, and is much lower than that enjoyed by the Conservatives and Labour, or the SNP in Scotland, and is being challenged by the Greens. Instead the party chased the floating voters of the “centre ground”. But instead of articles sounding off in Liberator magazine, this pamphlet is altogether more serious. It starts with a real attempt to look at evidence, and moves on to a concrete set of proposals.

The authors believe that the party is held together by shared values, rather than class identity or nationalism. These values are shared by about 35% of the country – those who display openness, tolerance and internationalism. That 35% figure comes from a polling answer to a question about immigration. From this the authors reckon that a 20% core vote is feasible. There is some interesting analysis of that 35%. It leans left, tends to be female and is ethnically diverse. It isn’t hard to see how the party’s appearance of being white, male and in coalition with the Conservatives got in the way of building that vote.

So what to do? I would urge readers to read the paper – there are many facets to their action plan. They want the party to formally adopt a core-vote strategy, and to establish a national campaigning infrastructure to focus on this, to complement efforts to build the local government base, and winning parliamentary seats. This national level of campaigning, led by an elected Deputy Leader, would build up the party’s vote for proportional voting elections, of increasing importance to the party, and provide a home for supporters not lucky enough to live in one of the areas where the party is active locally. This national campaigning would focus on issues that demonstrate the party’s values – go to places that other parties cannot. Paddy Ashdown’s stand on Hong Kong and Yugoslavia are quoted as past examples of such campaigning.

I can see this paper and its proposals being very popular in the party. They make a lot of sense. There is something for everybody. I particularly like its realistic assessment of local parties in areas where the party is weak. So often the party’s campaigners have glib answers to the challenges. “Just set up a target ward and grow from there,” they say. I am happy to support the paper myself.

But it is all too easy. The authors point out that a core vote strategy is hard, and that the party has failed in its many past attempts. That tells me that something big has to change; a lot of received wisdom has to be put on the scrapheap, and a lot people in the party are not going to like it. It is not just a matter of adding another strand of campaigning, and then tweaking the party’s internal processes here and there. The danger is that everybody will assume that all the changes in behaviour apply to other people, and they will continue to do what they have always done, with a bit of judicious relabelling.

But succeed in cultural change such a big change you need to have a flaming row, and annoy some people a lot. If need be such a row has to be provoked artificially. The one successful political transformation achieved in recent times in Britain was by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson to the Labour Party in the 1990s. They theatrically replaced Clause 4 of the Party’s constitution to show they were serious – rather than just ignoring it. Contrast this with David Cameron’s attempt to transform the Conservatives, where he was careful to avoid such rows – with the result that the party never really changed (or not not in the direction he favoured).  Only now are there signs that he and George Osborne are ready to make  genuine cultural change for the party, towards economic liberalism, with EU referendum being the chosen field of conflict. Even worse was Ed Miliband’s attempt to move the Labour Party to the left while maintaining party unity, which left the party in a terminal muddle. So if a cultural change requires a degree of conflict, where will conflict need to be invited if the Lib Dems are to make a success of a core vote strategy?

The first place is in what the pamphlet calls the three pillars of campaigning: local, parliamentary and national-core vote. In their vision these three happily coexist. But they also compete. In the Kennedy years the party brilliantly built up its parliamentary base – but at the expense of brave national campaigns to demonstrate core values. The exception was the the party’s stand on the Iraq War; but Charles Kennedy had to push for that in teeth of advice that rocking the boat would not be good for the party. Parliamentary and local government campaigns depend on winning over floating and tactical voters (“It’s a two horse race” and a bar chart are almost compulsory in Lib Dem election literature). Strong national campaigning is likely to upset those voters and the activists trying to woo them. The party is obsessed with winning electoral contests; that obsession must be loosened if a core vote strategy is to take root. It must recognise the idea of good losers – candidates who did not come first but built up members and long term voters.  This concept is so alien to the party’s campaigners that they will not take it seriously. This is why the idea of these values campaigns being led by an elected official with a separate mandate (whether or not Deputy Leader) is a critical element of the overall plan.

So campaigning is likely to provoke conflict, but it is not an easy place to have a theatrical row to demonstrate that the party really has changed its spots. That may arise from political strategy. Political strategy is about how the party intends to use its assets, especially seats in various representative bodies, to further its aims. For a liberal party that must mean working with other parties – rather than throwing rotten tomatoes from the fringes. To date such political strategy has been left to the leadership, and not spelled out clearly to electors and debated amongst the wider membership. At parliamentary level the declared policy is to work with the largest of the main parties to form a coalition in a hung parliament. But it matters a lot to voters and members which party or parties the the Lib Dems choose to work with. That is one reason why their vote tends to drain away in election campaigns when a hung parliament looks likely. In this year’s election the party’s stand contrasted with the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, all of whom said the would not work with the Conservatives.

But the party’s campaigners hate to take sides – they see that it will upset groups of voters they are wooing, and so make winning marginal seats that much more difficult. When the question was put to the two leadership contenders at the London hustings, neither said that the party should change its position of working with either of the main parties. That surely has to change. It makes the party look opportunistic and transactional – only interested in the status of power, rather than principles. This was the most wounding criticism of the party while it was in coalition. The party, after debate and consultation with members, will need to say that it will not work with a Conservative-led government (the party may accept Tories as junior partners…). In due course we might contemplate electoral pacts in order to promote an agreed programme of political reform. Labour is the competition; the Tories are the enemy. And I say that as somebody from the right of the party that loathes the Labour party, and has more sympathy with the Conservatives than most.

I do want the Liberal Democrats to want to be a clear and effective political voice for the 30% of so of the electorate that is open, tolerant and internationalist. I also want it to champion reforms to politics, public services and economic management that place sustainability and wellbeing at their heart, rather than money and  vested interests. David Howarth and Mark Pack point to some useful next steps. Necessary, perhaps, but not sufficient.

 

 

 

 

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Taking community politics to the next level. Who should be the next Lib Dem leader?

2015-06-17 21.20.17Last Wednesday I attended the London hustings for the two candidates to be the next leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats. It was a well-attended event, with up to 800 people there (not 1,200 as some have reported, though – that was the number that registered in advance). As my life still hasn’t got back to normal after my return from holiday and having the builders in, I have delayed my considered response. But here it is at last!

The two candidates are Tim Farron, MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale since 2005, and Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk since 2001. Their similarities are quite striking. I find it convenient to consider most Lib Dems to be one of three camps – though all three have a strong set of shared attitudes and values, which allows constructive dialogue between them. First there are the Economic Liberals, sometimes referred to as Orange Bookers. They are part of the Westminster mainstream, with an inclination to market-based solutions, or maximising individual choice, as they might put it. This group includes the outgoing leader Nick Clegg, and it dominated the Liberal Democrat presence in the coalition government. Then there are the Social Liberals (not to be confused with social liberals, who are free and easy about other people’s private morality). These are also a mainstream strand, but they have more faith in centralised state-based initiatives, and centrally defined rights to access to state services and benefits. In the current environment this group tends to be quite conservative, objecting to most attempts to reform state spending. The former party leader, the late Charles Kennedy, can be thought of as part of this group. But both Tim and Norman are part of the third group: Community Politicians. These were important to the party’s early growth, but had been swept aside by the party as its presence in Westminster grew. They emphasise localism, and their mantra is empowering local people and communities. They see empowerment as giving people a say in decisions that affect them, rather than promoting market choice or legal rights. It is easy to see why those swept up by Westminster politics feel that this is tedious. Other Lib Dems took up local campaigning with enthusiasm, and spent a lot of time on constituency case work, referring to this as “community politics” – but they never grasped the empowerment part of the philosophy.

But it was clear from the hustings, and their track record, that both Tim and Norman are not amongst these superficial community politicians. That will make the next period of the party’s existence more interesting. But the philosophy has its limits. It isn’t well understood by the Westminster crowd of civil servants and media types – who keep trying to bring things back to nationally run services or nationally defined rights – things that leave Westminster in control. It is very hard to drive through national reforms to facilitate local empowerment. The party has not developed clear templates for doing so, nor for communicating its ideas, even to its own membership.

Also in many places Community Politics no longer provides an adequate way forward for the party electorally, if it ever did. That includes my part of London, where there is no meaningful local community to work with – or the communities that exist do not conform to electoral boundaries (i.e. people have a more dispersed and mobile circle of friends and colleagues).  Besides the party now has a bit of a credibility problem – it is seen as just another political party, out to get an advantage over its opponents rather than actually help people.

But there is a crying need for new approaches to economic management, to public services and to the conduct of politics. And I believe that Community Politics is the best to start in the search for these new ideas – its distance from standard Westminster thinking is a help. That makes the party well paced to lead the battle of ideas,  while Conservatives, Labour and Greens flog their respective dead horses. This is, after all, what the party has done before from a position of political weakness: think of Beveridge and Keynes in 1945 (much good that did the party electorally).  Also, it was the approach taken by former leader Jo Grimond to lift the party from an even deeper hole than its current one in the 1960s. At the hustings, both Tim and Norman called for the development of just such new thinking.

So how to tell them apart? Tim is younger and, I would say, more energetic. The strain on the campaign trail seemed to be telling a bit on Norman – he clutched a can of Red Bull. Tim is also a good performer; he is more rhetorical, and often comes up with a telling turn of phrase and a quick joke. At a time when the party needs to energise its grassroots, he looks more up for the job. It is no wonder that he is usually considered the favourite. And he has been working for much longer to build his profile across the party membership, as party President, and at Conference.

And yet I have my doubts. It may just be a sign of being in the party too long, but I find the rhetoric grates. I don’t want to be pumped for yet another futile charge at the barricades. I want hope. I want the confidence that we are not heading up the same old garden path. And here I worry. Tim seems to respond to his audience rather than thinking things through – somebody whose words will run ahead of his achievements. Indeed, he seems more interested in the quantity of new ideas, rather than their quality and consistency – he fizzes with them. I fear that he will drop into easy protest politics, rather than taking the much harder road of developing community politics into a convincing national narrative. He seems more interested in ideas as a means to achieve engagement, rather than actually changing the way we do things.

I have much more confidence in Norman on that score. He is much more considered and willing to think things through. As an effective health minister he has experience of ministerial office in the most challenging of public services. There he championed mental health and personal budgets – two themes that will be important in future public service reform. His policy of getting the police and mental health professionals to work together to deal with people that have mental health problems shows exactly the right approach to public policy – getting multiple public services to organise solutions based on the needs of actual people, rather than abstract symptoms. But will he be as good as Tim in the outreach to and energising of the membership?

There are two red herrings in the chatter about leadership. First, which was a theme in the hustings, is that Norman was a loyal member of the  coalition government, voting for policies that Liberal Democrats disagreed with. This compares with Tim Farron’s more rebellious record, which included voting against the increase in tuition fees (which I respect him for, incidentally). I don’t think this says anything useful about either candidate. Some say that Norman is tainted by the coalition – especially when you add that Norman was Nick Clegg’s Parliamentary Private Secretary at one point. And yet Tim is quick to praise the party’s achievements in coalition and Nick’s moving speech defending his record on the day after the election. You can’t have it both ways.

The second red herring is some rather nasty chattering about the fact that Tim is a practising Christian, and that this has given him some awkwardness on such iconic social liberal issues as gay marriage and abortion. I really am worried about this secular puritanism that is present in the membership. The party must embrace cosmopolitanism – and that means taking a more understanding attitude over such dilemmas. You don’t have to be a bigot to have doubts about gay marriage – even if it helps. Tim is a liberal to his core and he will not impose his rather different perspectives on social liberal issues on the rest of us. End of story.

At the moment I am backing Norman. I think he has a better chance of promoting the new thinking on public policy that is the party’s most important task. But I would please ask his activists to back off from emphasizing his record on issues of personal conscience. This is not the right way to improve the party’s diversity.

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Community politics, Orange Book, Social Liberalism. Time for the Lib Dems to move on.

After its electoral catastrophe followed by a surge of mostly younger members, the Liberal Democrats are struggling to create a new future. The immediate focus is on selecting a new party leader. I’m not going to comment on that further today. I think it is more constructive to think about the sort of party the Liberal Democrats should become. It has something like a clean slate to work with – which makes it an excellent moment to put the past into perspective and move on.

As ever it is easier to see what should be left behind than the shape of the future. Let’s start with “Centrism”. The party’s outgoing leader, Nick Clegg, was fond of saying that the party was “anchored to the centre ground of British politics”. The meant that the party was pitching for voters convinced by neither the left nor the right. Centrism is not an ideological anchor, though, it is an electoral tactic. It is arguably a necessary one in order to break through in Britain’s electoral system, though its deployment this year as the basis for the party’s national campaign seems to have had little impact. The party actually needed to mobilise voters of the left and right to vote tactically – so it was wide of the mark. Centrism may return, but defining yourself in reference to others is not a good place to start.

The next idea worth mentioning is Community Politics. This was an idea developed by Liberals before they merged with the SDP to form the Lib Dems in 1988. This is a very locally based form of politics, which involved the party inserting itself into local communities, and encouraging these communities to take more responsibility for their own affairs. It showed the practical power of liberal values: openness, readiness to talk with others of different views, and self-help, rather than waiting for the government to sort your problems out. When it worked it could draw in a wide diversity of people, and establish the party at the centre of a local community. It was how the party managed to extablish its local government base.

But there are two problems with it. First is that few people have the patience for it. Local communities are weakening in our more mobile and connected world. Certainly where I live there is nothing to work with. Local communities invoke nostalgia, and coming together in a crisis, but not the everyday practice of politics. Doubtless there are exceptions – and we should not accept the weakening of local communities as inevitable and irreversible – but it is much harder to practice it these days. The second problem is deeper – it sits ill with national politics. The party’s spell in national coalition devastated its local government base. There is a widespread view nowadays that for community politicians a party label is a disadvantage. You have more credibility as an independent.

The next idea to leave behind is Orange Bookery. What is it? You probably won’t get much idea from reading the Orange Book itself, published ten years ago, if you can find I copy. It drew a wide variety of contributors from many strands of thinking. It came to stand for what could be called Westminster liberalism. The sort of liberal ideas popular amongst the elites in Westminster – a lighter touch from government, and the empowerment of individuals through private choice in public markets. There is strong emphasis on education to give all people an equal start. This strand of thinking (close to my own) never really took hold amongst grass roots activists, but it heavily influenced the sort of people who were able to win parliamentary selections, and hence become MPs – it dominated the party’s national leadership. These included Mr Clegg. They were heavily criticised. For some they were simply too right-wing; others felt they were too distant from activists; yet others felt that they were corrupted by being paid-up members of the Westminster political class – at ease amongst civil servants and lobbyists.

For Orange Bookers the entry into coalition with the Conservatives was a triumph. They could work with the more reasonable Tories easily enough. Entering coalition was for them the ultimate political goal, as the best way of putting their thinking into practice. The disaster inflicted on the party in the election was a severe blow. This strand of the party is likely to lose its prominence. Though I share a lots of its instincts, it was not really on board for the sort of reshaping of the country’s economics and politics that I think is now called for.

And then come the Social Liberals. Who are they? They are in fact a rather diverse group of people, united mainly by their distrust of Orange Bookers – but who had not got involved in Community Politics either. They draw from both the party’s Liberal and SDP wings. The coalition helped consolidate the group, leading to the formation of the Social Liberal Forum (SLF). It would a mistake to infer ideological coherence on this group. There is a strong left-wing strand, with more emphasis on government action, taxation and benefits than you will see from Orange Bookers. But what seems to dominate its thinking is a sort of conservatism – notwithstanding ritual calls for radical new ideas. Pretty much any suggested reform of public services or benefits is opposed. “We want change, but not this change,” seems to be the motto. Some show a nostalgia for pre-Thatcher Britain, which I find rather bizarre. There are younger and fresher members of the SLF too – but for me it is too tainted with the narrow conservatism of older members.

And this is above all what the party needs to leave behind. The sort of liberalism the party stands for is optimistic and inclusive. It appeals to younger people, and draws its main energy from them. And the party retains its appeal amongst the young. True, the party was way behind Labour and the Greens in attracting younger voters – but the party fared no worse here than amongst older voters. The rather youthful profile of new members shows that is values remain resonant. Labour remains heavily attached social control and conformity, and the Greens seem tempted by these ideas too. The Conservatives and Ukip are too interested in socially conservative older voters. There is a chance of building a strong appeal, based on younger people, that then extends across all age groups.

What I want to see is a generational shift in the party. Us oldies have an important role to play – but our first job is to persuade our younger colleagues that our ideas have validity. It will mean that many old ways – Community Politics, Orange Bookery, and social Liberalism – will pass into history. But fresher ideas will emerge to replace them.

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The question at the heart of Liberal Democrat strategy. The party must seek a wider alliance

The Liberal Democrat catastrophe in last week’s British General Election (57 seat to just 8), has a rather bewildering sequal. A membership surge. More than 10,000 new members have joined since the election, as the total  membership shot past the 50,000 mark. In my not very active local party some 95 joined. We only had about 120 to begin with.

I haven’t met any of these new members yet. Some are old ones rejoining; most are not, apparently. These membership surges seem to be something of a feature of modern British politics. This surge is dwarfed by the one the SNP had after last year’s Scottish independence referendum; but more similar to one the Green Party had earlier this year. It seems to be a matter of the party’s current voters choosing the moment to rally round – rather than floating voters suddenly being persuaded.

Encouraging though this is, it must not stop the party asking hard questions about itself. Now is the best time to have a far reaching debate. Labour’s failure to take on such a debate after 2010 was one of the reasons it failed this time. And for me the biggest question is how the party seeks to influence national politics.

Until now our strategy has been this: establish a base in local politics, based on very localised campaigning, preferably using the idea of community politics. The party then selects a parliamentary candidate who builds on these roots, makes extensive local contacts, and then wins based on being a “good chap” (and somehow it usually is a chap, and a white middle class one at that) working hard for the local community. The weaker of the two main parties would first be overhauled, and then their supporters ruthlessly rounded up on the basis that it was a “two horse race”. The bar chart supporting this at the top corner of every leaflet became an institution.

Sooner or later this builds up into being a decent block of MPs, who achieve national influence by entering a coalition government. One day the party might lead such a coalition. and then govern on its very own as a majority. This strategy has been called winning Liberalism one ward at a time.

The flaw in this approach has been exposed brutally. At the General Election the question that most voters want to determine is who leads the national government. This trumps the “good chap” card. In Bermondsey voters told the party that they loved Simon Hughes but did not want to risk another Tory government, even one moderated by coalition with the Lib Dems. In Kingston they said that they liked Ed Davey, but that they wanted to stop a Labour government over which the SNP could exert a stranglehold. The trouble is that the party has drawn in a lot of voters only loosely aligned to the party’s core values, many on a purely tactical basis to stop whichever major party they disliked most. And the party drew such support from both Conservative and Labour inclined voters. After coalition with the Conservatives, Labour inclined voters felt betrayed and deserted the party. The Tories then moved in on the weakened party and mugged it. The same would have happened the other way around if the party had formed a coalition with Labour. And if the party had stood aside? Then what was the point of electing those MPs?  Both major parties would have attacked on the basis of it being useless flotsam.

So what to do? One idea that has been doing the rounds is to build the party’s core vote. That means clearly articulating the party’s core beliefs and drawing in much more loyal support on that basis. This is contrasted with the much weaker “centre ground” strategy of defining the party on the basis that it is in between the other two. Well, yes. The party needs a core of motivated activists – and there is a clear set of values around which the party can base itself. But how wide is the appeal of those values? The party’s standing is now about 8% of those who voted (or 5% of the whole electorate). In the Netherlands, which has a more diverse and plural polity, the party’s closest equivalent, D66, gets about this level of support. Can the core be expanded much beyond this? The party still needs to persuade those less convinced of the party’s core values to vote for it – which brings it back to local action and the centre ground (i.e. being everybody’s favourite second preference). Building the core is not wrong – it just doesn’t help much.

The key point is this. The party cannot go into an election without a clear position on who it wants to lead the next government – perhaps stated in the negative (i.e. which of the main parties it is against). Simply saying that the party will wait and see won’t cut it. It’s abdicating from a decision that most voters want a say in. That brings with it a host of further questions and problems. It would surely limit the party’s electoral appeal in marginal seats. It ushers in questions about pre-electoral pacts. But avoiding the question invites doom.

And I think this leads to a second question. How much to we want political reform? Electoral reform to institute a proportional voting system and more pluralistic politics; some kind of federal system to place the the nations and regions of Britain on a stabler constitutional footing; more devolution of power to local and regional level; making it harder for big donors to influence politics; a directly or indirectly elected upper chamber. Such reforms used to be at the core of the party’s pitch to voters – especially under Paddy Ashdown’s leadership in the 1990s. Subsequent leaders felt that such reform attracted too little public interest, and that the party should focus more attention on “bread and butter” issues, like education and taxes. The party did have a problem in those days: political reform was focused on electoral reform, and the party’s position looked self-serving.

Nowadays people profess a greater disillusionment with politics (though participation in General Elections seems to be creeping upwards) and this might be channelled into political reform. But a reform programme stands a better chance if it has cross party and non party support. If the party wants political reform it must place it back at the top of its agenda, and make it the basis of any alliances or pacts it makes with other political parties. If it doesn’t, and it has to be admitted that the British public is still quite sceptical about reform, then the party needs to find another defining issue around which to make its relationships with other political parties clear.

The big game is this: the party needs an electoral pact with one or other of the two major parties. Or with a breakaway from one or other of these parties. At the moment that looks a distant prospect. But we have time. Something like the breakthrough needed happened in 1981 when the SDP was formed and then allied with the Liberal party. That peaked too soon and failed. But it showed that new ideas can catch the public’s imagination and turn the system upside down. The SNP has achieved this in Scotland, albeit by a different route.  It is possible for hope to trump fear.

But what the party mustn’t do is go round the same old merry-go-round again.

 

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Middle England speaks. The Left must move out of its dream world

After last week’s earthquake it is tempting firstly to debate party strategy for the Liberal Democrats, and then to gloat a bit over Labour’s ineptitude. But such an inward focus on the political left and centre-left is one of the reasons why these parties got into such trouble. I want to think about that key group of voters that I will call Middle England. These are the voters that plumped for the Conservatives, and won them the election.

What I will develop is a bit of an archetype. It is not based on scientific evidence – though anecdotal evidence from the campaign trail forms part of the picture. What I am creating therefore is a bit of a myth. But I think it will help to think about politics in a different way – and the validity of any new thinking that flows from it can then be tested to proper evidence in due course.

The Middle England voter is predominantly suburban and middle class, but includes much of  the established working class too – by which I do not mean those struggling on the margins of poverty and state benefits, which is what some seem to understand by the term “working class”. These voters exist in large stretches of Wales as well as England. I read that Scottish voters are much more similar to English ones than  is popularly realised – so similar voters must exist north of the border too in large numbers too. But their voting behaviour was different, and should be considered on a different occasion.

What do we know about such voters?

  1. The Tory brand is not toxic to them. This makes them stand apart from most of the urban middle classes with whom I associate, and the more tribal working classes. Middle England does not regard itself as dependent on the state, and its sense of wellbeing is affected by taxes. This gives the Conservatives an opening, and make Middle England voters particularly suspicious of parties that are profligate with state spending.
  2. But they are open to voting for other parties. This makes them a critical political group – they are swing voters. They voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour; large numbers voted Liberal Democrat between 1997 and 2010. Ukip has fished in these waters too. They like great British institutions like the NHS, state schools and the old age pension. They accept that they must pay taxes to fund these things. They are distrustful of the political and business elites.
  3. They mainly work in the private sector. This is perhaps the critical point, and one that separates them from the modern political class – who build their careers within, or on the margins of, government and the public sector. Middle England voters are  used to the rough world of competitive markets and to the disciplines that flow from it, such as constant performance appraisal and being forced to rethink the way you work. They face many insecurities, and their life depends on the health of the economy – but they do not think that these things depend on government spending and regulation, in the way that much of the political class seems to.

It would be easy to build up this characterisation further, and speculate on property ownership, newspaper readership and other things. But I think that this is enough for now.

What seems to have happened is this: Middle England largely backed Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1980s, but deserted her as her government seemed bent on taking apart precious British institutions. In 1992 they were persuaded to stick with the Conservatives under John Major, in a campaign with a striking similarity to this year’s. But Tony Blair offered them what they were looking for, and they switched en masse for his party in 1997. In many parts of the country they favoured the Lib Dems, as being a sensible party of the political centre. In 2010 Gordon Brown’s Labour lost them. The economic crash of 2008 swept away Labour’s reputation for economic competence and strong management of the state’s finances. And they were getting grumpy over the government’s tendency to nag and nanny them. But by and large they stuck with the Lib Dems. And Middle England does not appear to have been too upset with the coalition that followed – though doubts grew about the junior party.

This year the Conservatives secured the Middle England vote in a ruthless campaign that reached under the media’s radar. The Lib Dems were already weakened by the loss of votes to Labour (the party’s other key constituency of left wing sympathisers disillusioned with New Labour), and their seeming irrelevance in seats outside their areas of strength. Middle England voters in areas of Lib Dem strength were the main focus of the Conservative campaign. Their weapon was fear of a Labour government, particularly one dependent on the SNP – who were seen as being after English taxpayers’ money.

Labour played into Tory hands. They made no serious attempt to recover the Middle England vote. They didn’t think they needed it. Their appeal was to public sector dependants, younger idealists fired up by ideas of “social justice”, and poorer people in urban areas affected by benefit reforms (especially here in London). All they needed to do, they thought, was to hang on to their core support and sweep up defectors from the Lib Dems. Labour took some care not to appear profligate, and claimed that their plans could be financed by cheap borrowing and taxes on people too rich to be considered Middle England. They assumed that everybody knew that “austerity” had failed. But this sounded suspiciously like empty political words. It was particularly damaging when Ed Miliband refused to seriously criticise Labour’s previous economic record, notably on the Question Time TV show. It didn’t help Labour that the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon banged on about fighting austerity at every opportunity. “Austerity” is a bit of a political class jargon, but the public soon started to understand that it was synonymous with what they understood as prudent financial management.

Labour and the Lib Dems clearly also hoped that the Tories would be fatally wounded by the rise of Ukip. But where it mattered the same ruthless Tory campaign was able to limit the damage here. So the Tories swept away the Lib Dems and contained any Labour advance in England and Wales.

Now Labour and the Lib Dems must confront the damage done. They can’t rely on a Tory implosion over the next five years – though that is a possibility. Unless they can reduce the fears of Middle England neither party will win back power. Labour leadership candidates at least seem to understand this. But whether they can drag along their activists and trade union supporters in a single parliament remains open to question. I will return to the Labour predicament in a future blog.

The problem for the Lib Dems looks even worse. Their electoral strategy of local do-gooding and scooping up tactical votes  is incompatible with coalition government, and a core values appeal does not look able to secure anything like enough votes in enough constituencies. I will blog about that in future too.

But what we need to contemplate is a complete change to the political landscape. The idea of a natural “progressive” (or left-leaning) majority in England is well and truly dead. If you add Ukip’s vote to the Conservative one in England you get 55%.  To appeal to these voters you cannot throw public money at all your favourite causes,  bang on about about “social justice”, or whinge about austerity. The left has been living in a dream world for the last five years, and ignoring the worries of Middle England.

But all is not lost. The Conservatives won’t have it easy either. Their tendency to attack sacred British institutions remains. By all accounts many of their voters are reluctant ones. What politicians of the left must recognise is that this is the key electoral battleground – and not the politics of protest and chatter amongst people who share your own outlook. Long live democracy!

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The Liberal Democrats are knocked back to the 1970s

It often seems that the political left here in Britain wants to take Britain back to the 1970s, with its nationalised industries, high taxes and free ways with government money. In one respect they will have their wish after yesterday’s General Election.  The Liberal Democrats have been more or less destroyed as a political force – reduced to their state in the 1970s, leaving English and Welsh politics mainly a battle between the Conservative and Labour parties. That the left were still trounced, even with the Lib Dems disposed of, may give leftists pause for reflection, though. They should not take much comfort from the triumph of the Nationalists in Scotland, based on a leftist manifesto.

I want to take some time to reflect on the Lib Dem catastrophe, and on the remarkable results of yesterday’s election. But in this day and age quick commentary is valued more than considered analysis, and this blog makes some attempt to bow to that demand. So here are my first thoughts.

First: it hurts. Really hurts. I have supported the party’s leadership.  Four defeats I feel acutely. Simon Hughes in Bermondsey – whom I helped yesterday. There can be no MP with a similar record of local service. I also helped Ed Davey in Kingston & Surbiton in the campaign. He achieved his seat after requiring a Chair’s reference from me! I had high hopes of two younger candidates, whom I had the privilege to serve as agent in the last five years when they were part of the party in Wandsworth: Layla Moran (Oxford West & Abingdon) and Lisa Smart (Hazel Grove). All were swamped by the anti-Lib Dem tide. There are plenty more tragic losses.

A number of my Facebook friends have criticised the leadership in their first thoughts. The “neoliberal” policy outlook which made coalition with the Tories so much easier (in this context the term means going along with austerity policies, and some mildly market based reforms of public services); the decision to play for the centre ground in electoral appeal; keeping Nick Clegg on as leader after he became politically toxic. By and large these criticisms come from team players in he party, whom I respect. They have been holding back for years in the name of party loyalty. So I can’t begrudge them voicing their frustrations now. But I supported the leadership on each of these issues. I am not sure that the party could have avoided an equally bad fate by doing things differently, after the hospital pass of the 2010 election result.

If the party hadn’t entered coalition with the Conservatives, it would have invited the question of what the party was for. No alternative coalition was on offer. The party helped soften austerity policies, which were simply a recognition of economic and political facts – the size of Britain’s state was unsustainable. The pitch for the centre is a fact of life in our current electoral system. Parties who made a sharper appeal to values, the Greens and Ukip, fared disastrously -and Labour’s more value-driven appeal left voters cold. Changing Nick Clegg as leader would have destabilised the party’s achievements in government. If I have a serious criticism of the the party leadership, it is that it dropped political reform from its central platform – a process started by Charles Kennedy, but continued by Mr Clegg. Whether that would have made much difference is another matter.

Let me draw further reflections on this wreckage:

  1. The national political story trumps the local one. One favourite Lib Dem myth is that the party can achieve power one ward at time: in other words based on local record of campaigning and action. But in elections in each of the last four years Lib Dems have been swept away at all levels of government, based largely on the party’s national popularity. The party is nothing without its local record – but that is not sufficient.
  2. The party can be rebuilt. But it must focus on a vision of tomorrow, and not recovering its glory days. The party must draw in younger supporters and let its agenda be guided by them. And especially its representatives must be a more diverse bunch.  All this points to different styles of campaigning. Us oldsters are facilitators now, not leaders.
  3. One thing we can learn from the past is that the misfortunes of Labour and the Conservatives can give the party strength. Both these parties are fragile coalitions. If one of them fractures, as Labour did in 1981, something with real political momentum can be created. But to benefit the Lib Dems must be able to reach out to those formerly belonging to other parties.
  4. This election reminds of 1992. I will reflect on the striking parallels in a future blog (though I have been saying this for years). That election created a crisis of confidence on the political left.  We must remember the sequel though. The Conservatives won against expectations, only to crash to their worst ever defeat in the following election, which was a triumph for both Labour and the Lib Dems. The Tories are riven by similar divisions over Europe. Something similar may happen again.

With the Conservatives in power, political reform will not be high on the agenda, except to extend central executive power yet further – though I do hope they start thinking more creatively on a new settlement with Scotland. And yet I think there is no more important issue for Britain.

And that’s enough for now.  I will now have to endure the gloating of Lib Dem critics. And after that being treated as a political irrelevance. It seems that my political commitments bring almost nothing but pain. But I keep hoping for better. This blog will go on.

 

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Two-party politics is making a come-back even if people don’t want it.

There is now less than a week to go before Britain’s General Election (Thursday 7 May).The tension mounts amongst those that follow these things. So far the opinion polls swing this way and that, but on average remain nearly static. In the BBC Poll of Polls the parties haven’t wavered more than 1% from 34% each for Conservatives and Labour, 14% for Ukip, 8% for the Liberal Democrats and 5% for the Greens. But things could change significantly in the last week.

Much of the important movement remains invisible. It is in 100 or so competitive seats (I’m  excluding Scotland from my commentary for now). Significant movements here do not show in the polls. The Conservative and Labour parties, easily the best resourced, are cranking their campaigns up a gear. And their main targets are voters who are supporting the smaller parties: the Lib Dems, Ukip and the Greens, and no doubt Plaid Cymru too in Wales. In Labour-Tory marginals these voters are relentlessly being told that a vote for their preferred party is wasted: the real choice is between the big boys: and you don’t want the other side to win, do you? In seats where these other parties are in contention (and especially the 46 English and Welsh seats held by the Liberal Democrats) the effort is no less relentless. The Conservative leader led an attack on the Lib Dem seats in the southwest this week; Labour are no less determined to capture seats from the Lib Dems. The single Green seat of Brighton is under fierce attack by Labour. There is a massive battle in seats such as Thanet South where Ukip are in contention.

The smaller parties’ voters seem a softer target than trying to pick off voters directly from the other main party. We don’t know how successful this push by the big parties will be. But the Lib Dems are widely expected to lose over 30 of their 57 seats; the Greens could lose their only seat; Ukip might be left only with their by-election win of Clacton South. Of course I hope that the Lib Dems will do better than that (and more than hope – I will be stepping up my personal contribution to their efforts). But there is a strong prospect that the two big parties will win all but 25 of the 573 seats up for grabs in England and Wales. Two-party politics will have triumphed, even if the other parties win a more likely 35.

That is worth a little reflection. The conventional wisdom has been that two-party politics is over, The major parties cannot to get beyond 68% of the total vote between them (it used to be in the 90s). The BBC election logos show many colours; we had our first seven-way party leaders’ debate on the television. But once the results are in, you can bet that this will be tossed aside. There will be no real pressure for electoral reform, and the normal service will resume. Insiders in the main parties, the media and the civil service will heave a sigh of relief. The interval of coalition government involving the Liberal Democrats will be just a bad dream.

Except of course there is Scotland. This has been bit of a one-party system, with Labour dominating parliamentary seats. It still looks like being one-party system – but this time with the SNP in charge.  Their success may well mean that the two big parties still cannot dominate the UK parliament as they once did. But that only goes to emphasise just how much the country’s electoral system dominates politics. It is a winner-takes-all system, where the aim is to destroy your opponent, not to promote your positive values. The electoral reform proposed in 2011, the Alternative Vote, probably wouldn’t have changed this.

The parliament may be very unrepresentative. Many supporters of other parties may feel disenfranchised. But the people in the system just don’t care. All they think about is the potential prize of winning big and the vast bonanza of power and patronage that can bring. And to win big your party doesn’t have to be popular: you can do so if the other party is weak. And there always tempting fissures to exploit.

In the self-view of the main party supporters (including the SNP in this case), there is no particular problem about this. They haven’t really accepted the right of other parties to exist. In yesterday’s Question Time show the Labour leader Ed Miliband thought it was fine to suggest he would try to implement the Labour election manifesto unmodified whether or not he had a full electoral mandate. He seemed to have no notion that this might be undemocratic. When the Liberal Democrats joined the Conservatives in coalition this was seen as treachery by Labour supporters. The major parties would prefer a one-party state best of all – a situation they have sometimes achieved at local level. To them this would simply be a natural affirmation that they are in the right. They may concede that the world has to be divided into tribes of left and right but that is as far as they will go (though for the SNP haven’t got beyond the one-party state idea). Since these are the people who control what happens in our political system, is there any chance it will change? Should it change?

This will be among the big questions we English (and the Welsh) will need to face after the election. About a third of people vote for parties other than the big two. This would surely be more if the pressure to vote for one of the big two wasn’t so great. Politicians’ standing in the public eye is not high. This should be a good moment to promote electoral and other political reform.

It could happen: it did in New Zealand in 1996. But to do so the Labour and Conservative parties have to come under existential threat – the sort of threat of implosion that both have suffered in turn in Scotland. This is possible. If Labour end up in government, as still seems most likely, they will be riven by divisions and disappointed expectations. The Conservatives could be fatally divided by their attitudes to Europe.

Personally I think that the Liberal Democrats should put political reform at the heart of their agenda after the election. It used to under Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s, but subsequent leaders diluted it. They then need to assemble a coalition for reform, perhaps linking up with the Greens (though Ukip might be a step too far!) – and any splinters that the other parties might produce. But the battle will be an uphill one. The party has its own tendency to the winner-takes-all idea. But at 8% in the polls and its former electoral strategy in ruins, some fresh thinking is called for.

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British election: tactics have triumphed over strategy. The result is deadlock and danger.

To make sense of the opinion polls in Britain’s general election it is best to look at the BBC poll of polls.

BBC Poll of Polls

There just isn’t much going on. When each poll comes out there is a breathless headline, as the votes seem to shift from the last time the poll was taken – and this is usually expressed in terms of the gap between the top two parties. For example yesterday the Ashcroft poll showed a 4% Conservative lead rising from zero the previous time; and ICM showed the Conservative lead dropping by 2% to 2%. But all that is happening is random variation around something quite stable: Conservatives and Labour both on 34%; Ukip on 14%; the Lib Dems on 8%; and the Greens on 5%. Perhaps the Conservatives and Lib Dems have edged up slightly at the expense of Labour and Ukip in the last few days – but it is too early to tell. The big picture is remarkable stability.

The Conservatives seem to be the most perplexed by this. The party had a plan, the best possible professional advice, carefully tested on samples of voters, and everything had been working well. Good economic statistics have been coming out each week; they easily outmanoeuvred Labour in the Budget; the press mobilised and they have plenty of money. But they are stuck.

Their plan was to scare voters with the prospect of a Labour victory, both by demonising Labour’s leader Ed Miliband, and raising the prospect of higher tax or borrowing under Labour. Against the minor parties luring voters away, they created the phrase “coalition of chaos” to tap into general scepticism that coalitions mean broken promises.  With this, they had clearly calculated, they could bring in an election winning score, with the upper 30s in poll ratings and a lead over Labour of 6% or more. This was more about hauling voters in from Ukip and the Lib Dems, and abstainers, than actually converting Labour voters from 2010.

But the Tory approach to this election has proved to be all tactics and no strategy. Those professional advisers call themselves “strategists”, but they their brains carry no strategic thoughts. This is how the modern political class thinks: and so they are blaming failure on poor tactics. Much has been made of Mr Miliband doing well on television and so exceeding the low expectations. There is some evidence for this (his ratings seem to be a bit less dismal). But his performances cringe-worthy as ever – full of abstract ideas and only token connection with real people. The real problem is that the Tories are fighting against two very damaged brands. First their own, as the “nasty party”, on the side of the rich. Second the general brand of mainstream politicians as slippery so-and-sos out for themselves. And their problem is that strategically the party has gone backwards in the last five years. No clever tactics can cover for that.

Things had been picking up for the Conservatives when David Cameron took over in 2005. He worked hard to detoxify the Tory brand by associating it with softer policies and softer images. This had been working very well until shaken by the twin shocks of economic crisis and the MPs expenses scandal. Still, going into coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010 was an excellent strategic move. It gave substance to the detoxification process. But thereafter it collapsed. It turned out that detoxification was a tactic for the 2010 election, not a strategy. Out came all the vile Tory instincts: obsessive anti-Europeanism; bashing the disadvantaged; scepticism of environmental policies; and so on. This was mainly driven by the party’s backbenchers – but Mr Cameron lifted not a finger to stop it. A low point came in 2011 with the party’s campaign against implementing the Alternative Vote  (AV) electoral system, when they not only deployed a series of spurious arguments, but they launched a particularly nasty attack on the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg. Funnily enough, supporting AV would have been a good strategic move for the Tories – as this system tends to reinforce two party politics; advantages to the Lib Dems would have been short-lived. Since then the Tories have compounded their strategic errors – notably by neglecting Scotland and stirring up English suspicions of the Scottish. I will allow Mr Cameron credit for two positive strategic moves: support for gay marriage (which has helped detoxify the brand amongst gays, in spite of interanl opposition within the party) and the renegotiate-and-referendum policy on Europe. The latter is often viewed as a tactical concession to Ukip pressure – but there is real strategic value for the Conservatives in it – though a referendum campaign could kill the party, it is often strategically necessary to embrace risk.

Labour are no better. Their “strategists” conjured up a cunning tactical plan to win them the 2015 election: the 35% strategy. The idea was not so much compete to for the  Conservative vote, but to hang on to their core vote and scoop up a large chunk of the ex-Lib Dem vote. This equates roughly to 35%, and would ordinarily be enough to win under the country’s electoral system, if the Tories remain undermined by Ukip.  This fantastic graphic from YouGov shows that this has largely been working (hat-tip Mike Smithson of Political Betting, on of the best places to go for objective news on polling).

Where they wentLabour have been boosted by a large slug of ex-Lib Dem votes (though the Greens have scooped up a lot of these too – I suspect this is mainly in safe Labour seats). Meanwhile a large slug of the Tory vote has gone to Ukip.

Of course there’s a major flaw in Labour’s plan. Scotland. Labour’s relentless focus on political tactics rather than strategy meant that they didn’t see the SNP juggernaut approaching, in spite of its clear visibility ever since the Scottish assembly elections of 2011. It looks likely that the SNP will sweep Labour out of Scotland, along with the Lib Dems. Labour weren’t ready for this, and have had no effective tactics for handling it. They wasted a lot of energy on trying to tell their voters that a vote for the SNP would let the Tories in. The SNP have had little trouble in torpedoing this notion.

And this is the sort of thing that happens if you systematically neglect strategy, and focus on short-term advantage. You are vulnerable not just to getting stuck in a rut, like the Tories, but to sudden collapses in support. Look at the Lib Dems. The party had been relentlessly tactical in building its support base, especially under the watch of Charles Kennedy, its leader from 1999 to 2006. Nick Clegg, the current leader (since 2007), is more strategic but could not undo the party’s vulnerability; he completely misread the danger from promising not to raise student tuition fees in particular.  The result was that the party’s support collapsed as soon as they entered coalition with the Conservatives – even though this was a correct strategic decision. It was viewed as betrayal by many of the party’s voters and the party’s brand has been badly damaged. Though it is saying many sensible things in the campaign, and much that a lot of people would agree with, most people just aren’t listening – and its new pledges invite a sceptical response. It now relies on popular candidates to maintain its place in parliament. The party has some hard strategic choices to make after the election.

The only party that looks truly strategic is the SNP. They have had an easy hand to play, admittedly – simply to exploit the neglect of Scotland by Britain’s political class. But you can see them thinking two moves or more ahead all the time, allowing them to capitalise on their gains. They are now executing a tricky manoeuvre from the political right to the left without incurring any real damage.

But for Britain’s main parties strategy is much harder. To gain strategic advantage they have to sacrifice tactical benefits, and to take tactical risks. They need to address the generally bad reputation of politicians by being less negative and less aggressive towards their opponents; they need to embrace political reforms (on party funding and electoral systems) that may cause them short-term setbacks; they need to have open rows within their own ranks about what their parties stand for. For the Tories it looked as if Mr Cameron might embrace this agenda, but he lacked the courage. For Labour, David Miliband might have done so, but the party opted for his younger brother.

The highly professionalised and tactical focus of Britain’s political class has led to the current electoral impasse.  After the election it could lead to the breakup of the Union and the country’s departure from the EU. Does the country’s political class understand the danger it is in? Will the right leaders emerge to make the difficult political decisions needed? I’m not counting on it.

 

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