Tag Archives: Nick Clegg

No health without mental health. The genius of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems.

2015-03-15 10.36.55What is the point of Britain’s Liberal Democrats? Most Lib Dems would point to the party’s liberal values. And yet these are shared by members of other parties. The same can be said for the party’s attachment to the political centre. Others will talk of community politics – but it is plain that many modern Lib Dems, including its leader Nick Clegg, aren’t really interested in this political strategy beyond a few local campaigns. Many outside the party would simply suggest that there is no point to the Lib Dems. The party is destined to be just a footnote in British politics.

But attending the party’s Spring conference in Liverpool in the run up to May’s General Election, the penny at last dropped. The party is the grit in the oyster of British politics, from which great pearls are produced. It is a serious political party that aspires to govern, not just to protest and complain. It stops Britain’s two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, from having that ground entirely to themselves. And so it can introduce new ideas to a debate that would otherwise be contrived and stale, confined to a few carefully selected issues, based on focus groups and private polling.

What has given me this insight? It is the party’s campaign on mental health. It is pure genius from a party that looked beaten and irrelevant. The party is demanding “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health, and is in the process of securing serious extra resources for mental health support. It is trying to persuade politicians and the public to talk about the issue more. It is an idea whose time has come.

Consider three things. First is that mental health has an important bearing on just about every aspect of public policy – starting with the NHS, but quickly moving on to crime, employment, social services and onwards – and even defence when we consider the state of veterans returning from active service. And yet almost nowhere is it being adequately addressed. It sums up the dysfunctional element of public service provision better than any other single problem. The failure to handle mental health properly causes untold misery and a huge waste of public resources.

Second: it touches people personally. Most of us will know of people who have had serious mental health problems – depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and so on. And increasingly we are aware  that we ourselves are vulnerable, given the stresses of modern life. And people are readier and readier to talk about it.

And third: it’s hard. The reason why dealing with mental health is done so badly is because there are few quick fixes. it goes to the very heart of the centralised and functionalised way in which we organise our state (and much else), our tendency to standardise and dehumanise in the name of efficiency, and our reluctance to consider broader philosophical questions about how we manage ourselves. If politicians and the public now want to take the issue seriously, it is just the beginning of a long, long journey. And yet it is one that could transform the state and the way we live our lives. As an idea, it has huge potential.

This is not a particularly new idea for the Lib Dems. Mr Clegg claims to have brought the matter to Prime Ministers’ Questions very early in his leadership – to the bafflement of mainstream politicians. The policy initiative No Health Without Mental Health, which kicked matters off, came very early in the Coalition government, with Mr Clegg’s imprimatur clearly on it.  But it is only recently that it has shot to serious prominence, promoted by the Lib Dem Care Minister, Norman Lamb. Mr Clegg has made it central to the party’s overall policy presentation, giving it a mjor place in his last two conference speeches.

The interesting thing about this is that there is nothing uniquely Lib Dem in the insight that mental health is central to public policy. The first prominent person to promote the idea was Richard Layard, the Labour peer and a close adviser to to Tony Blair. His efforts saw the promotion of talking therapies, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Lord Layard’s journey is an interesting one. It started with the idea that the promotion of happiness and wellbeing should be the primary aim of public policy, in place of monetary income – he is an economist. Now promotion of mental health is his big idea. This is a journey that I too have followed. But Labour were unwilling to take on the wider policy implications. It is all very well rolling out yet another highly centralised initiative on CBT, but rethinking mental health education and provision from top to bottom would challenge too many vested interests. It wasn’t an issue that the public were bringing up in the polls and focus groups, after all.

For the Conservatives, David Cameron took the first steps on the journey, by taking on the idea of wellbeing as a direct policy goal, But he hasn’t followed the idea through. But, it must of course be recognised,  he and his Tory colleagues could see enough merit in the idea to allow the Lib Dems to run with it in coalition. That is part of its genius. Its implications may be radical, but everybody can agree that something needs to be done.

Nick Clegg deserves enormous credit for promoting mental health. While the right obsesses about Europe, sovereignty and human rights, and the left with the demon of neoliberalism and the failures of capitalism, the Lib Dems have found an issue that is concrete, and yet whose implications are profound. It moves us on from the stale old debates.This is disruptive political innovation at its best – something that a mainstream third party is well-placed to do.

Whether or not it helps improve the party’s fortunes in a difficult General Election, it has given the party a meaningful mission in British politics. A political pearl indeed.

 

Share

The post-referendum Hall of Shame: Cameron, Salmond, Farage, Miliband

Normal politics has been on hold for the last weeks of the Scottish referendum, as nobody from south of the border wanted to rock the boat. But that phoney war is well and truly over, as the party leaders and their followers have pitched in with a free-for-all on the previously little discussed subject of the UK constitution. It is a pretty unedifying spectacle, which demonstrates why politicians in Westminster (and Holyrood for that matter) aren’t trusted by the public. But some are behaving much worse than others.

First place in my Hall of Shame goes to our Prime Minister, the Conservative leader David Cameron. The ballot papers had not been fully counted before he launched into a manoeuvre designed with little other purpose than to embarrass the Labour party, and to protect the more controversial parts of the Coalition government’s reforms. He, along with the other party leaders, has committed to the rapid transfer of powers to the Scottish parliament – having been arm-twisted into doing so by his predecessor as PM, Gordon Brown – who was the star of the No campaign. He then suggested that that the English should get the same rights as the Scots, on the same timetable.

There are three ways in which this is mendacious. Firstly he does not mean giving English people the same rights as the Scots. That would mean a separate English parliament and executive (or perhaps a number of regional ones). It turns out what he means is stopping Scottish MPs from voting on laws in the UK Parliament that only affect England. This may be a good idea in itself, but it falls far short of any idea of devolution of power, or, as I prefer to look at it, the empowerment of voters and intermediate levels of government. Secondly, it is well-known that this is not as simple as it sounds. There is no recognised constitutional distinction between English laws and UK ones, something which becomes particularly difficult when it comes to financing. Which taxes are English, and which are general? This problem has defeated many great minds, so any attempt to ram changes through on a tight timetable is going to end badly. Thirdly, what the Scots have been afforded is many years of deliberation, and a number of referendums, about the sort of government that they want, leading up to the independence referendum, which secured a very high level of political engagement. Mr Cameron has no intention of offering the English any equivalent level of engagement. It’s just a stunt.

What Mr Cameron is trying to do is to highlight Labour’s plan to use their Scottish (and Welsh) MPs to unpick a number of Coalition reforms on English public services, most notably the NHS. That really is all he seems to care about. We should expect more from the holder of such a high and responsible office. But with a bit of luck he will be sabotaged by his own backbenchers, who, on the whole, are more principled, even though they generally scare me.

Second place in my Hall of Shame must go to another holder of an important public office: the Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond. He has announced that he is stepping down, but he as eschewed this opportunity to show any kind of statesmanship. He has accused the Westminster political leaders of backsliding on their promise to devolve more powers to Scotland. This is a very tendentious reading of a very proper argument between the Conservative and Labour leaders over English devolution and the wider UK constitution. Neither have suggested that Scots devolution should be delayed – there is just a concern that these wider issues might delay things. During the campaign Mr Salmond had suggested that if the Scots had voted for independence, then the English political leaders would accept the result with good grace, and enter negotiations with a spirit of peace and light. If that’s what he expects of them, he should apply that standard to his own conduct. It is right an proper that politicians from other parts of the UK should ask how extra Scots devolution affects them. And, indeed, Scottish political leaders should take an active interest in how the UK constitution as a whole works. Scotland is a fully participating member of the UK, and not some foreign power. The First Minister should show some concern that over-hasty constitutional change will affect Scottish interests, and should be demanding a seat at the table – and not acting as if all that mattered was a few extra powers for his government. But, of course, he has no interest in a stable UK constitution, and just wants to exploit the situation to keep discontent amongst Scottish voters bubbling away.

Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond are by some distance the worst culprits. They have responsible public offices and yet are acting like immature student politicians. My next entrant in the Hall of Shame is Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader. He wants to make mischief by stoking up discontent and resentment in England over the role of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament. After a highly divisive referendum, responsible politicians should be promoting reconciliation, and not stoking up resentment. But to his credit Mr Farage is at least advocating the correct way forward, unlike Messrs Cameron and Salmond, which is a UK-wide constitutional convention to promote a measure of agreement on the the shape of the constitution.

To his credit, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is also promoting a constitutional convention, and one with a wide enough scope to tackle broader issues, like the House of Lords. But he needs to overcome a huge legacy of cynicism when it comes to Labour’s record on constitutional reform. In this parliament Mr Miliband talked the talk on reform of the electoral system and the House of Lords, but behind the scenes he has sabotaged both initiatives based on short-term politics. Voters may well feel that he has no more interest in promoting a fair constitutional settlement for the UK than Vladimir Putin has in promoting peace and reconciliation in Ukraine. To bridge this gap of trust he needs to give a clearer picture of the reforms Labour want, and to go along with shorter term initiatives to deal with the question of Scottish MPs. He should call Mr Cameron’s bluff, and not just try to kick the whole issue into the long grass.

But above all Mr Miliband needs to give a clear timetable for his proposed convention, and  promise a referendum on its outcome by a specific date. He must make a promise that would be hard to quietly bury. But instead he wants to change the subject and hope that all this talk of constitutional change will blow over. The Labour Party is intent on pushing ahead with the media plan that accompanies its party conference, evidently planned before its Westminster elite had an inkling that the Scottish referendum might set the political agenda. Therefore he enters the Hall of Shame behind Mr Farage.

And so we come to the last of the main party leaders, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister. I have been highly critical of his record to date on constitutional matters, which been misjudged and piecemeal. He has now set out his views on the Constitution. And they are very creditable. He makes it clear, as Mr Cameron does not, that dealing with wider constitutional matters should not be tangled with the issue of further Scottish devolution: it should be a parallel track, with reforms not dependent on each other. On the matter of Scottish MPs he sensibly suggests following the McKay report, which the Coalition commissioned earlier in the government, only for it to be kicked into the long grass. He correctly points out that devolution in England means devolution from Westminster – and suggests a bottom up process for achieving this (by giving local councils the right to demand powers). Finally, and greatly to my relief, he agrees with the idea of a constitutional convention – which should secure directly public participation as far as it can – he suggests a citizen’s jury. This points to an credible way forward: allowing progress on the most urgent issues, while not losing sight of the big picture. So putting him in my Hall of Shame at all would be harsh. If he belongs there it is for not being clearer about all this a lot earlier. Alas, his real problem is a lack of political clout, though. The Libs Dems are facing a number of years in the political wilderness, though I firmly believe that they will be back.

The referendum on Scotland was a near-death experience for the UK. It would be becoming for the politicians from Britain’s mainstream parties to come together with a plan for updating Britain’s constitution, and consulting its citizens as it does so. Instead the Tories are being blatantly opportunist and Labour is pretending that nothing has changed. Only the darker forces of British politics, Ukip and the SNP in particular, will benefit from this.

Share

Rethinking Liberalism 6: reinventing the state

So far in my series of essays my conclusions have been quite conventional, if a little left of centre. We need to keep capitalism in a mixed economy; the state will need to get bigger to cope with the demographic challenge; we will have to tax the rich more as middle incomes are squeezed. There’s nothing here that would upset the denizens of Whitehall unduly, notwithstanding the economic liberal tendencies of some. But I think we are badly let down by our system of government. It will have to change radically – and yet the complacency of the Westminster elite is overwhelming. Liberals must rally to challenge it.

Unfortunately one of the best examples of this establishment complacency comes from our own Liberal Democrats. Back in the 1990s I was inspired by anti-establishment rhetoric from our then leader, Paddy Ashdown. The whole system was rotten, he said; we were the outsiders and only we could change it. Then, in 1997 the party arrived as a serious force in Westminster politics.  But, somehow, under the leaderships of Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg (or the brief leadership of Ming Campbell, come to that) this radicalism came to be toned down. In spite of some radical language from both of these leaders, policy was more about trimming the Westminster policy agenda here and there without counting too much controversy. Ideas, such as a local income tax, which might have meant a decisive break from the Westminster-centred way of the world, were quietly buried. By the time Lib Dems took up cabinet jobs in the current coalition, they looked very comfortable in their new Westminster ministries, with the possible exception of Vince cable, the industry minister.

And the public could sense this. My heating engineer, classic old-school lower middle-class, told me that the Lib Dems had sacrificed their principles to get their hands on the prestige of power. Mr Clegg looked as if he was enjoying themselves too much. This feels very unfair, of course. There was a national crisis in 2010, and the compromises of coalition were needed for the country’s sake. And the Liberal Democrats have stopped the Conservatives doing a lot of silly things, like cutting Inheritance Tax. But there’s a grain of truth in the accusation; what about the promise to really shake-up British politics? It’s not clear that senior Lib Dems ever wanted to do more than change the standard Westminster priorities a bit, by pushing education and redistribution up the agenda and making the odd stand on behalf of civil liberties, unless real heat got applied. If there has been any reinventing of government, it is mainly Tory ideas that are driving it. And they are about keeping the basic Westminster architecture in place, but diversifying the delivery (more private contractors and Quangos in place of top-down state hierarchies). The attempt to devolve more power to democratically accountable local bodies has been a particular disappointment. Each step forward is accompanied by at least one step back. The malign orthodoxy of the Treasury, with its insistence on a highly centralised model of power, remains unchallenged by key Liberal Democrats – or so it appears.

Why does this matter? Firstly because the pressures caused by the demographic shift have only started. I have already written about pensions. Health costs will rise too as the ratio of older people increases. And then economic growth will continue to stagnate, for a variety of reasons, including the increasing number of people entering retirement, but for other reasons too. Meanwhile the twin (and related) economic deficits of government finances and trade are unsustainable in the long run. The government has to tax more and spend less. It has to become much more efficient and effective.

The country’s direction of travel is not encouraging. Government cuts have been very painful, and the public is tiring of them. Endless privatisations are affecting the quality of service. The fiscal deficit creeps down, but it is still very large, and he trade deficit is getting worse. This shows that the underlying economy remains weak, and that growth is hardly more sustainable than it was under the last Labour government. No sooner does the economy grow, than does Sterling appreciate to undermine all the rebalancing. Meanwhile the country is sleepwalking into the breakup of the United Kingdom (even if Scotland votes No in September) and exit from the European Union, as political dissatisfaction with the status quo grows. Pulling all the usual levers of power in Westminster seems to be doing not much good.

What have liberals to say about this advancing gloom? The first point is that we want people to have as much power as possible over their own lives. That means we dislike people being dependent on the state. It is here that we differ from the socialist left, who don’t mind if the public has a permanent client relationship to state agencies, as this creates a political constituency both amongst the dependents and the employees who serve them. Liberals should recognise that in a modern society the state must play a very big role – but we also need to push back on dependency. The state should fix problems so that demand for state services reduces.

The second point is that we believe that as far as possible state structures should be fully and democratically accountable to the people they serve. The state does not devolve power to citizens, but citizens delegate power to the various levels of government. This too is difficult in the modern world. Many problems are complex and must be solved at a national and international level – and the further up power is delegated, the weaker accountability becomes.

Have we delegated too much power to transnational bodies like the European Union and the World Trade Organisation – with the threat of more as part of a transatlantic trade deal? I don’t think so – these structures merely recognise the transnational nature of problems and the need to agree international standards and laws. Countries that opt out of these structures don’t seem conspicuously better off as a result. Is Australia, for example, really a better and happier place than Britain? Its recent economic success is as much down to the luck of geography and natural resources as anything else. Does having to dig up vast amounts of prime farmland to get at the coal beneath, while poisoning the great natural wonder of the Barrier Reef, really look like freedom?

No. I think the main problem is that we have delegated too much power to Westminster, and that the Westminster elite is protecting itself rather than solving the countries’ problems. It has created a series of administrative silos that perpetuate problems rather than solving them. To tackle this we need to do three things.

  1. Establish a federal system for United Kingdom, by creating a new English parliament and English government, based outside London, and taking to itself the same set of administrative responsibilities as the Scottish government has.
  2. Radically reform the way public services are commissioned to ensure that solving problems for their clients becomes their prime driving force. This will entail a radically increased role for locally accountable agencies.
  3. Reform the country’s tax system to follow this radical redistribution of responsibilities so that every level of government controls more of its own revenues – alongside a system of transfers to ensure a fair distribution of resources.

Each of these three depends on the others. Federalism is required to break up Westminster complacency; public services will only be properly remodelled if it is not controlled from Westminster; power cannot be decentralised unless tax is decentralised too. I will pick up each of these themes in future essays.

 

 

Share

The Orange Book 10 years on: is this the way to reclaim liberalism?

Orange book conferenceToday I attended a conference organised by CentreForum to mark the tenth anniversary of its publication of The Orange Book. Viewed in hindsight, the Orange Book was an important political event, that did much to set the tone of the following decade. But does its version of liberalism have what it takes to drive political ideas in the next ten years? On today’s form the answer to that question is no.

The Orange Book was edited by David Laws, currently education minister, and briefly in the Coalition cabinet; other contributors were Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Ed Davey and Nick Clegg – who are or were all members of the Coalition cabinet, along with a number of other people who became ministers – an event that none would have foreseen at the time. While it took on a broad definition of liberalism, it was its espousal of economic liberalism that caught attention. It was not favoured by the Liberal Democrats’ then management, as a General Election beckoned in 2005. But after Nick Clegg took on the party leadership it came to define the party’s official policy line. It can plausibly claim to frame the guiding principles of the Coalition government itself, and not just the Liberal Democrat element. To the book’s supporters this was a victory of a coherent political philosophy over the mushy protest politics and left-wing opportunism that preceded it. To its opponents the Orange Book’s success was the triumph of a “neoliberal” elite over the party’s core values.

The conference consisted of two panel sessions, with three speakers each, in the morning, a keynote speech by David Laws at midday, with a response by economics journalist Anatole Kaletsky, with a final panel session after lunch.

The first panel consisted of Mark Littlewood, currently of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a right-wing think tank, but also a former Lib Dem functionary; Tim Montgomerie, a Conservative agitator who founded ConservativeHome; and Vicky Pryce, formerly a government economist and Lib Dem member.

Mr Littlewood led with a lightweight defence of economic liberalism: a formula of smaller government and lower taxes, which, he claimed would lead to stronger economic growth, whose benefits he did not bother to spell out. He felt that the country’s governing philosophy was still social democracy, and that economic liberalism had not been given a true opportunity to show what it could do.

Mr Montgomerie was much more interesting. He pointed out that economic liberals needed to confront two issues which threatened to undermine their system. The first was “social capital”, the family and community structures and the value system without which a liberal economy could not flourish. The second was inequality, of which the most important aspect was the division between those who owned their own houses and those that didn’t. His take on both, and especially the first, had a conservative slant – but the challenge was good. He made the excellent point that the best way of reducing the size of government was reducing demand for it, through a stronger society. This is a point that few in the political elite grasp: the objective of most public services is to reduce demand for them – one reason that they have less to learn from the private sector than may think.

I found Ms Pryce rather less memorable. She made a call for stronger leadership and coherence in government. Our current system was too subject the a “do something” culture, responding to whatever the Daily Mail happened to be beefing about, with individual ministers acting without reference to each other.

The second panel session was meant to focus on public services. It consisted of Paul Marshall, who founded CentreForum and effectively funded the Orange Book; Greg Clark MP, a Conservative minister in the Cabinet Office; and Norman Lamb MP, the Lib Dem Health minister. They never really got to grips with the issue public services, confining themselves to generalities.

Mr Marshall is a hedge fund manager, who also founded ARK, a chain that runs Academy schools. He showed himself to be an economic liberal extremist, which he claimed was necessary for social liberal ends. He promoted the myth (as did Mr Clark) that it was the government’s policy of supporting independent academies that had caused a substantial advance in school standards, especially in London. This is a rather annoying rewrite of history: credit for London schools lies mainly lies is forcing proper accountability on local authorities and established schools, as well a degree of state assistance and support. For Mr Marshall education pointed the way for other services, such as health – that advances could be made through using a diversity of providers. He was right, however, in his passionate denunciation of the complacency within the educational establishment.

Mr Clark proved an interesting speaker. His big idea was decentralisation from Whitehall, on which he claimed a lot of progress had been made with the City Deals that he had worked on with Mr Clegg. Unlike some, he clearly understood the implications of this: that it meant breaking away from the idea that everything had to be done the same way across the country. He did not refer to the Coalition Communities’ Secretary, Eric Pickles, who recently decided to regulate the way in which local governments managed their parking enforcement.

Mr Lamb broadly agreed with this, but seemed a bit wearied by the political difficulties of executing reforms. He felt that our highly centralised government was the wrong way of going about public policy, as the many failures of the NHS had demonstrated.

Mr Laws offered a rather complacent speech, celebrating the success of the Orange Book, while barely acknowledging the challenges to it, such as rising inequality. Mr Kaletsky’s was much more interesting. He understood that the world had changed and that conventional liberal economics was not up to the task. Fiscal policy had to be restored as a policy instrument alongside monetary policy; inequality was not just a matter of social justice but economic efficiency; government would have to both to take up less expenditure and extend its regulatory reach; public pensions and the health service would have to be curbed. While I find this analysis is flawed, it at least challenged the complacency.

In the afternoon the final session had James Cameron, Chairman of Climate Change Capital, Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of Quilliam, and Jeremy Browne MP, a former Lib Dem minister, notorious for his robust economic liberal views. This session raised the issue of sticking to liberal values in an international context. Mr Nawaz said that liberals had to emphasise the global nature of liberal values, and not soften them for cross-cultural sensitivities. Liberals should appeal to individual members of ethnic minority groups, and not approach them via their paternalistic community leaders. Mr Browne put to much emphasis on global competition for my taste – but he did make the point that the Lib Dems were potentially missing an appeal to a younger generation who were both economically and socially liberal. While all speakers emphasised that challenges were increasingly international, and the cross-cultural nature of liberal values, none made the obvious progression that liberals should organise themselves internationally, rather than being stuck on national lines.

Overall impressions? To me this conference showed that the Orange Bookers are nearly out of road in the Liberal Democrats. All the most challenging speakers came from outside the party. The world, and Britain in particular, faces major challenges. The rich are taking too big a slice of the economy, which is slowly throttling overall growth. Everybody else is finding life increasingly precarious. Meanwhile the demographic challenge is threatening to overwhelm what taxpayer funded services can provide and climate catastrophe beckons. These developments are not the result of too large a government and an excess of social democratic policies. They result, at least in part, from the application economic liberalism. The Lib Dems will either sink back into the mushy world of protest politics that it inhabited in 2005, or develop challenging new ideas to confront the problems of now. The Orange Bookers seem to be doing neither, and are in danger of irrelevance.

Share

The end of an era. Now for the renewal

Rock bottom. That’s how it feels to be a Lib Dem right now. The loss of all but one our Euro MPs, including class acts like Graham Watson, Sarah Ludford and Andrew Duff, – on top of a number of wipe-outs in the London locals – is a bitter pill indeed. Only our MPs now have to face the wrath of the post 2010 electorate.

There is something else that I feel acutely, especially here in London. It’s the end of an era. That era started for me with the Lib Dem fight against Lambeth Labour council. The party came from nowhere in the 1990s to leadership of the council. There were similar dramatic successes in Islington, Southwark, Brent, Haringey and Camden. Longer established strongholds of Richmond, Sutton and Kingston also advanced to power. Now only Sutton acts as a beacon. Small groups hang on in Southwark and Haringey, and the party remains a force, albeit diminished, in Kingston and Richmond – but the rest is almost complete wipe-out. I know many excellent councillors, devoted to serving their electors, who have now been turned out for, mainly, faceless Labour party hacks. and the loss of Sarah Ludford completes the awful picture.

There are two things that strike me from a survey of this wreckage.

The first is the failure of the party’s European election strategy, to promote itself as the only strongly pro EU party, in contrast with Ukip. This was a core vote strategy, and I strongly endorsed it as the right way to approach elections held under proportional representation. Indeed the party closely followed the advice set out by this blog a year ago – after the calamity of its confused London Assembly campaign in 2012. The result was strikingly similar to that earlier disaster. Actually support for keeping the country in the EU has risen, according to the opinion polls. It wasn’t a case of the party losing the argument over membership. But pro-EU voters did not accept that as a reason for voting for the Lib Dems. They seem to have voted for Labour and the Greens (who have mollified their previous Eurosceptic stance), and even the Conservatives. It was not enough to overcome the perceived toxicity or irrelevance of the party’s brand. Optimists in the party, including me, have assumed that the party’s unpopularity was a mid-term thing that governing parties always endure. Well it is clearly much deeper.

The second thing as that the party’s decline is not uniform. In some areas the party made a powerful showing in the local elections. Sutton in London; also Eastleigh, Cheltenham, Oxford and Watford – as well as up in Cumbria. In most of the places where the party did badly, it had the air of an exhausted old guard trying to fend off newly invigorated opponents. The Labour Party in many areas, notably Islington and Lambeth, has renewed itself, learning many lessons from earlier Lib Dem campaigning. Meanwhile the Lib Dem organisation was weakening. The councillors were spending too much energy being good councillors, and no enough rebuilding the hinterland. They hoped that being good councillors was enough to ensure being re-elected; ordinarily it might be, but not against a well-organised and well-funded opposition, especially when the national tide is out. The places that succeeded had engaged heavily in renewal. They maintained dense social networks, and had strong local leadership. Sometimes (I think Cambridge would be an example) the party did all these things and it was not enough – but without them failure was certain.

So what next? Ironically the election results show that the country needs a party espousing liberal, internationalist values more than ever. Ukip is the anti-liberal party, and the Conservative and Labour parties are now being urged to ape its views on Europe and immigration to win back lost ground. Neither party was strong on liberal values in the first place, and they will now be worse. The Greens’ record on liberal values is somewhat untested – they do have some illiberal strands of opinion – but they have failed to advance beyond the margins. They don’t have the organisational oomph, and have failed to deliver popular appeal. So Liberal Democrats do not need to doubt their party’s reason to exist.

Top of the agenda for the party now should be long-term renewal. This means recruiting motivated activists and donors. The party should hone its liberal identity to show that it is the only political movement that properly stands up for modern, liberal, internationalist values, with a priority for sustainability and humanity, rather than national and class identity and gross national income. It also means concentrating remaining organisational resources on this – and especially on recruiting and sustaining supporters in the areas where it has a weak local base. A positive online presence and organisation will be key; to much is left to moribund local organisations.

There is one more act to play in the party’s coalition ordeal: next year’s general election. The party needs to hang on to as many of its parliamentary seats as it can. Local MPs often provide the local leadership that helps the party to sustain itself. But hanging on to MPs and plotting the next coalition government should cease to be the leadership’s obsession. Rebuilding the party comes ahead of that.

And what of the leadership of Nick Clegg? Many say that he has become toxic to the party’s image – representing all that they dislike about the party. He enjoys being in power too much, and, so the public thinks, he compromises too much so that he can enjoy that pleasure. He is identified with too many coalition compromises that supporters hate (on benefit reform, legal aid, NHS reform, to name a few). He does not have a deep enough understanding of the local leadership and community politics that will be required to rebuild the party. This may be so, but somehow ditching him now seems to be the wrong thing to do. It reeks of panic. There is no obvious replacement in the wings. The party needs to rethink what it is, and what it stands for, and to choose its leader accordingly. That debate can start now, but the sensible time to conclude it will be after the 2015 election. I am not supporting calls for his resignation.

I feel very bruised. But I also feel that the country needs the Liberal Democrats to be there. We can renew and rebuild the party. And in a funny sort of way, I am even looking forward to the task ahead. I want to help.

Share

Politics is not about policies. Why the politicians are failing.

Today the FT’s excellent Janan Ganesh writes on how the British Conservatives are failing to get the ethnic minority vote (£). Also this morning two opinion polls showed that the Labour Party had lost its poll lead to the Conservatives. We can add the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to the list of underperforming political parties in Britain, leaving the field clear for the insurgent Ukip. Mr Ganesh points to a reason for the Conservatives’ failure, that applies just as much to others (except the Greens perhaps).

Mr Ganesh says that the problem is that politicians “…think politics is about policy.” And yet voters hardly know what policies the particular parties stand for. The Conservatives note that conservative values and fear of immigration are at least as prevalent in ethnic minorities as elsewhere. So they freely talk about immigration being excessive and about the need for stronger controls. And yet all this heightens voters’ suspicions that the party is not inclusive. The Conservatives have been here before. In the 2001 election they went down to a catastrophic defeat after pushing policies (on Europe in particular, as well as immigration) that seemed to play well with voters, and yet heightened their reputation as the most toxic brand in politics. They fared little better in 2005, when they tried similar “dog whistle” tactics. Their fortunes only changed when David Cameron went to prodigious efforts to de-toxify the Tory brand by advocating policies (environmentalism, gay marriage, and so on) that could distinguish the party from their former selves. Unfortunately for them, this change did not go deep enough into the party’s inner being, and it is wearing thin.

Labour seem to be in a similar fix. They have used a lot of clever researchers to fix on a series of populist policies. These include fixing energy prices and controlling private rents. All these policies, apparently, play well with focus groups. Also they have chosen “the cost of living crisis” as their overarching theme – since many voters feel hard done by in the aftermath of the recent economic crisis. And yet their poll ratings are fading. The policies are popular but they are damaging the Labour brand – or at least doing nothing to strengthen it.

The Lib Dems find themselves in a not dissimilar predicament. Most people seem to think that their influence on the coalition government is for the good. They are associated with some popular policies, such as raising tax thresholds. And yet their poll ratings languish around the 10% mark. They are perceived as politicians no different from the others in moral fibre, who enjoy being in power a bit too much.

The paradox is that British politics has never had more sophisticated advice. Each party leader is surrounded by clever people with access to the latest evidence-based theories. and yet they are all failing – and the height of ambition seems to be to fail at a slower pace than the others. What is needed is a bit more old-fashioned nous.

The last really successful party leader in this country was Labour’s Tony Blair. He employed a lot of sophistication as well, but the secret of his success was that he understood political brand building. The rise of Labour in the 1990s under his leadership was nearly a policy-free zone. So much so that when he won in 1997, his government lacked momentum because it did not have a clear idea about what to do.

What Mr Blair realised is that to build voters’ trust you have to do things that are hard. In Mr Blair’s case, he took on the Labour left, overturning all their sacred policy shibboleths, and changing Clause 4 of the party’s constitution. It was a process of destroying polices, rather than making them. To be fair on Mr Cameron, his rebuilding of the Tory brand involved some hard things – but he chose not to be quite as radical, and left the conservatives in his party silent but undefeated.

For the Liberal Democrats, their time in government might in time come to be seen as courageous rather than self-indulgent. Their leader Nick Clegg’s firm stand on Europe is a clear step in the right direction – though as yet there is no sign of a poll boost. Petulant rows within the coalition, such as this weekend’s on schools, are probably not helpful though. Proper rebuilding of their party’s brand will have come after next year’s General Election.

That applies to Labour too. It is too late for Ed Miliband to resolve the tensions within his party, and so give voters a clear picture of what the party stands for, beyond its headline grabbling policies and slogans. For all party’s difficulties with ethnic minorities, it is perhaps the Conservatives that have least reason for discomfort, once the European elections next week are out of the way. They are failing more slowly than the others, and if they don’t panic they will recover a lot of the ground they have lost to Ukip, unlike Labour. It probably won’t be enough to win them a majority, because they failed to reform the electoral system in their favour, in spite of clear opportunity having been presented – through a combination of the Alternative Vote and boundary changes.

So here’s what I predict for 2015. The Conservatives gain some seats but fall short of a majority. The Lib Dems lose 10-20 seats, but still leaving a substantial voting block in Parliament. Labour make few advances. Ukip will pile up 10% or more of the vote, perhaps surpassing the Lib Dems,but get one seat at most – they will take most of their votes from Labour. The Conservatives will attempt a minority government.

Share

The rise of Ukip. What should the Lib Dems do?

My heating engineer is voting for Ukip, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the reactionary insurgent English political party. This party has hit the zeitgeist, even here in cosmopolitan London. Political activists from other parties seem to have no idea how to handle this.  This should give us pause, especially in the Liberal Democrats. The party needs to rediscover its anti-establishment roots.

The typical reaction to Ukip from political insiders is annoyance. This party breaks almost every rule of political correctness. My Facebook account is bombarded by posts pointing out the various unsavoury views held by Ukip candidates, and denouncing them a as a bunch of idiots.  All this is true but irrelevant.

The perception by many voters is that the country is run by a political establishment that makes life easy for themselves and their friends. They are not interested in listening to what the public wants. My engineer says that it has always been that way, and nothing is changing. Voting for Ukip is the only way he can see of mounting an effective protest. Besides, some of their policies, like a vote on the EU, strike a chord. This feeling is especially strong amongst the white working class. This group accounts for a lower proportion of the population here in London, so maybe Ukip will do less well here. But the disillusion with politics is not confined to white working class people. Last weekend an Indian-born gentleman told me that he expected bad behaviour from Indian politicians, but he had expected better from British ones.

Meanwhile the professional politicos, and their army of hangers-on, whether or not politically affiliated, attack Ukip as if they were normal politicians. They criticise their candidates and their policies. But they do not address the disillusion from which Ukip support springs. Indeed, the more they protest, the more disillusioned voters appreciate that voting for Ukip will annoy the establishment.

This is hard for a Lib Dem. In one sense Ukip’s rise shouldn’t bother us too much. Lib Dem core voters are the least likely to defect to Ukip, since they are anti-liberal. Indeed the Lib Dem strategy of talking up Ukip for the European elections later this month is quite a sound one – as this election depends on rallying the core vote. But we used to be able to pick up the disillusioned too. We were the party locked out of the establishment, with the least stake in it, and whose mission was to shake it up. The party leader Nick Clegg conveyed this message forcefully in the General Election campaign of 2010.

But coalition government changed all that. Now the party is part of the establishment, and they seem to relish it. And the record on political reform is weak. The voting system is the same; the House of Lords is still there; the balance of powers between the local and the central does not appear to have changed radically. A U-turn on student tuition fees shows that Labour and  Conservative politicians aren’t the only ones that break promises. Lib Dems might argue this unfair: there is only so much they can do when both Labour and the Conservatives won more votes and parliamentary seats. The riposte to that, though, is: just what is the point of the Lib Dems then?

The answer to that is that lasting political change tends to happen slowly. Revolutions can happen, but they always disappoint. The Lib Dems have in fact forced some significant changes while in government, and blocked a number of illiberal moves. Even my heating engineer admits that you can’t expect people to campaign to get elected and then to refuse a share of power. So what do the Lib Dems do? I think they need to focus on three things.

First they need to consolidate their core. This means liberal internationalists, who seek a fair distribution of society’s wealth, and limits to state power. This may be rather vaguely defined, but there are clear values around which the party can rally. Without this core, nothing else is possible. The party compromises on key issues, such as Europe or human rights, at its peril.

But it is a minority pursuit. Most people aren’t liberal or internationalist by instinct. They prefer the values of identity and keeping everybody else at bay. So the second thing is that Lib Dems must keep reaching out people beyond their core. The relationship here is inevitably more transactional: specific issues and promises. The long term aim should be to listen and to build trust.

If that sounds wishy-washy it shouldn’t. It has a name and it is called Community Politics. Some Lib Dems practice it very effectively, look at Sutton in London. Most sitting Lib Dem MPs try something along these lines. For all that the implications seem to escape most modern political insiders, including younger Lib Dems. They prefer social media and clever communication strategies. Community politics is about looking people in the eye, and helping them when you can, but also explaining that you can’t compromise your core beliefs. It’s not about clever graphics, it’s about human engagement.

But a strong core and community politics is not enough for the party to progress. The party needs to convince voters that it feels their pain, and advocate real changes to the political system. In the past the party has thought too much in terms of national political reforms, and especially the electoral system. But to voters this sounds like juggling the same old rules in favour of the party, rather than promoting fundamental change. Most are sure to think that the disastrous AV referendum in 2011 should put that matter to rest for the time being.

Instead the party should focus its attention more on devolving power from Whitehall to a local level. The Coalition trumpeted localism, but lacked a clear vision of what was required. Many in the political establishment are against it, in practice, if not in theory. But there is a prospect of building up alliances across political parties. “Power to the People” is a corny slogan, but something like it needs to be the rallying cry. It has to hurt. It means confronting thorny issues like local taxation and finance, and it needs to mean job losses in Westminster ministries. It also means allowing groups of local authorities to combine to take on more responsibilities. STV for local elections should also be part of the mix, but the main deal should be about power.

Rally a liberal core. Reach out through community politics. Advocate radical devolution of power from Westminster. These will do nothing to fend of Ukip in 2014 – but in the long run they could show the voters that the Lib Dems really are different.

Share

Why Labour are losing the election in 2015

According to press chatter, there is mounting worry amongst those that surround Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party. I don’t know anybody in this elite circle, and I can’t offer an opinion on whether this is true. What I can say is that it should be. After ducking hard choices when the going was good, he is now in real trouble.

The immediate cause of the Labour wobble, if that is what it was, was the poll bounce for the Conservatives after the recent Budget by the Chancellor, George Osborne. The previously secure Labour lead simply vanished. This poll bounce disappeared as quickly as it came. Clever charts showing that it was part of a longer-term trend look premature. But it did show that Labour support is not solid, and that the Tories are not quite as terminally unpopular as many suggested.

But what really convinces me that Labour are in deep trouble is this exclusive piece in yesterday’s Independent, highlighting an article Mr Miliband had written for the paper. Here’s the first paragraph:

Ed Miliband has promised to rescue Britain’s struggling middle classes by boosting their living standards as he warns that the “cost-of-living crisis” will last for at least another five years.

This seems to be part of a bid by Mr Miliband to rebuild his electoral standing; today he is launching a policy about devolving more power to “super-City” regions, building on a policy developed by the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, as he will not say.

This political drive builds on two themes that Mr Miliband has been developing. The first is “the squeezed middle” – a deliberately vague reference to people who feel they are neither favoured by government handouts, nor part of the rich elite. It is interesting that this seems to have migrated to “the struggling middle classes”, when it might just as easily refer to working classes (if you get beyond the bureaucrats’ tendency to use the term “working class” to refer to people who are not working, and entitled to state support, as an alternative to the word “poor”). The second idea is “the cost of living crisis”, referring to the fact that for most people incomes have not increased as fast as prices over the course of the last government.

No doubt Labour’s polling shows that these ideas cover a large swathe of generally unhappy people, who might therefore be sceptical of the government’s record. The problem is how to appeal to them. Almost by definition, these people are out of the scope of state benefits. In fact they tend to resent the size of the state benefits bill, apart from the old age pension, whose cost they tend to underestimate. They are not employees of the state, a separate and distinct constituency, even if they share some of the same problems). So how to address their standard of living? There are two ways: tax cuts and a stronger private sector economy. On both counts Labour’s credibility is behind that of the Coalition.

The best sort of tax cut to reach the squeezed middle is a cut to personal allowances, i.e. the point at which people start to pay tax (including its National Insurance equivalent, something all parties seem happy to ignore). But the Coalition has already been increasing this quite aggressively, mainly at the expense of higher rate tax payers, some of whom are now claiming to be part of the squeezed middle too. Worse, it is one of the few policies that is closely identified by the public with the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition, which Labour is extremely keen to denigrate – they have picked up a lot of ex Lib Dem voters. They have floated the idea of a 10% tax band, which is just a less efficient way of delivering the same policy – and has uncomfortable echoes with one of the last Labour government’s policy mistakes.

There is an even bigger problem with taxes. Labour has to convince voters that it will not put taxes up to pay for an expanded state. That means signing up to a series of things, like a cap on benefits expenditure, that will be unpopular with core Labour voters, and not even particularly sensible from the point of view of economic management.

But tax cuts are a fairly minor palliative. What would really cheer voters up is the prospect of incomes rising in the private sector. The trouble is that Labour has done nothing to dispel its reputation for being anti-business. Quite the opposite. Mr Miliband’s view is that there are good businesses (“producers”) and bad ones (“predators”). Wages are being squeezed by the predators to benefit their top managers and shareholders. So his anti-business policies are directed at these predators (banks and energy companies to the fore), while helping the producers. This argument is not entirely without merit, but it is a tough sell. And in practice it is pretty much impossible to create policies that discriminate successfully between the two classes of business, and all those that inhabit the grey zones in between. The result is that Labour’s policies designed to address this problem, such as the devolution to the cities, don’t look as if they will deliver much of a boost to wages in the short term – even if they are perfectly sensible. And sensible policies are liable to get matched or pinched by the coalition parties anyway.

The Conservative counterattack to Labour will point to the fragility of the current economic recovery, and say “Don’t put all this at risk”. Of course one thing that could put the fragile recovery at risk is the Conservative plan for a referendum on the EU. But does Labour want to go out with all guns blazing on that issue? Perhaps I underestimate Mr Miliband, and that is his plan. But so far he is happy for Mr Clegg to take the lead on the issue. In fact you could not  inaccurately describe Labour’s emerging strategy as “I agree with Nick”. A liberal, centre-ground stance that wants more devolution from Westminster, but with a strong attachment to the EU.

So Labour is embarking on an impossible task to convince the electorate that it can out-do the coalition parties at their own policies. This won’t work. But what it will do is to de-motivate their core constituencies of public sector workers and the squeezed bottom, as I might call the voters suffering from benefits cuts.

The trouble is that Labour hoped to get the best of both worlds after Mr Miliband was elected. That they could adopt a “Blair-lite” strategy that allowed an appeal to the centre ground, while at the same time harnessing the wave of anger from their core voters at the government’s austerity policies, which, incidentally, allowed them to harvest a lot of Lib Dem voters. But Blair-lite lacked credibility as soon as the economy started to revive. There was a choice to be made for either Blair II, an unashamed dash for the middle ground, including an apology for the record of the last government’s economic policies (though that would have been too much for Mr Blair himself). Or they could have gone for unashamed social democracy, making a case for higher taxes, a bigger state, and less aggression on cutting the deficit (isn’t going for a balanced budget just willy-waving after all?).  The first of these two choices might well have destroyed the party, given the depth of anger over “The Cuts” – but the second choice was never properly debated or confronted. It would have been perfectly respectable and courageous – even if expanding the state back to the size it was in 2008, or even 2010, would have taken a very long time.

The Conservative General Election campaign has not got started yet. They will allow Ukip their moment of glory in this year’s Euro elections, then quietly mug their voters by stoking up fears of Labour. Labour’s credibility will fall apart, and they will have increasing trouble fending off Tory attacks and keeping their core supporters loyal.

If I was advising Ed Miliband, I would be worried.

 

 

Share

The European elections are a victory for proportional representation

They look like a colossal waste of effort. Elections to the European Parliament take place every five years, and turnout in Britain, as in much of the rest of Europe, is dismal. Few understand what the European Parliament is for. But last night’s debate between Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Ukip’s Nigel Farage shows that things are going in an interesting direction. These elections are contributing more and more to the wider process of politics in this country.

The most important thing about theses elections is that they are held using proportional representation (PR). Parties in practice need to get over 10% of the vote in a particular region to get represented – but that still gives parties with a broad but thinly spread appeal a much better chance than parliamentary and even local council elections. The vote share won by the two parties that dominate conventional elections, the Conservatives and Labour, is dismal. This is adding a new dimension to the political debate because it offers voters a greater choice.

The conventional way of politics in the UK is to tell the voters that the real choice is between just two parties. Which two varies depending on where the election is being held, but mostly it is between Labour and the Conservatives (though Scotland is a big outlier here). This serves to close down political debate to a few carefully chosen swing issues that appeal to marginal voters in marginal constituencies. Minority views are dismissed as being irrelevant. But this line of campaigning does not work with PR. And the European elections are the only ones held under PR for most English electors (Scottish, Welsh, Northern Ireland and London Parliament/Assembly elections are held under PR).

The most obvious beneficiaries of this have been to the Lib Dems, the Greens, and, above all, Ukip. Ukip is a right wing insurgent party that represent political views that are as far away from mine as you can get while still being a respectable political party (unlike the openly racist BNP, for example). But it speaks for an important minority of mainly English voters who feel oppressed by the current political system, and ignored by the main parties. The EU is an important focus of that discontent, as is what is seen as excessive immigration. As an aside it often draws its strongest support from areas that are relatively unaffected by immigration – but that does not stop it being a popular scapegoat. The issues are linked: free movement of people is a vital plank of the EU project.

The Conservative and Labour parties would rather these issues were suppressed. They represent inconvenient divisions within their own ranks and put their internal cohesion under stress. And that led to last night’s debate. Ukip and the Lib Dems take clear sides, and are quite happy to slug it out in public. And the public gets to hear a proper debate. That is a very important part of the democratic process. Floating voters may not have learnt much from the verbal slugging match, which I judged to be a score draw (with plenty to please both sides), but it at least would have drawn them into the issues.

Where is this heading? In the great scheme of things I don’t think the direct European Parliament elections are a great success in closing Europe’s democratic deficit. I think its original configuration as a forum for delegations from national parliaments was a better one. But for as long as it is the only national election held under PR, it is serving a useful purpose. The right answer is to use PR for national parliamentary elections, but alas that aim remains very distant. PR for local elections may be a more realistic intermediate step.

Meanwhile it will be very interesting to see if the interest stirred by these debates will affect turnout at the elections. But even if they do not (I will only believe it when I see it) they are doing something to close Britain’s democratic deficit.

Share

Liberal Democrats: pragmatic policies – small steps to a liberal future

We ended the Liberal Democrat conference today on a high note. Ni2014-03-09 12.45.53-2ck Clegg gave one of his best conference speeches, in confident form. We are now learning what this “centre ground” strategy means in practice. Mr Clegg did not utter the dread words in his speech at all. Instead he talked freely about Britishness and liberal, inclusive values. He painted an optimistic, happy picture, to contrast with the sour, pessimistic one that dominates so much of politics now. This went down predictably well with the faithful, but it is a sensible strategy in the wider political debate too. It answers the question “What is the point of the Liberal Democrats”.

The centre ground bit came in the policy programme. In yesterday’s immigration debate, the party talked inclusive, but toned down official policy – for example dropping the idea of a path to legality for illegal immigrants. On the constitution we talked about the Single Transferable Vote, and job shares for MPs. Sweeping reform, including top-down devolution to the English regions, was dropped. The party no doubt still believes in the bigger ideas, but it realises they have to be achieved in small steps. We don’t call it centrist – we call it small steps to more liberal future. But centrist is what it actually is.

So the party’s rhetoric is firmly liberal and optimistic. It helps that Ukip has come on the scene to help define what the party is not. The idea that the real political battle in Britain (well, England) is between the liberal, optimistic Lib Dems and the fearful, pessimistic Ukip is, of course, fanciful – though not on the critical issue of Britain’s place in the wider world. But it helps give the party definition. The majority of Britons may not be liberals, but neither do they feel threatened by them; they are a good second choice. And since democratic politics is largely about compromise and coalition, second choice often comes out on top.

It is a long, long road to return to electoral success for the party. In May in reality it more a question of trying to stave off disaster. The party’s previous tendency to protest, and being all things to all people has lost it a lot of credibility, especially amongst working class voters. The media remains dominated by Labour and Conservative allies. But it is a start, and party activists left york in good heart.

Share