The Lib Dems must look beyond Brexit towards 21st Century liberalism

Last week I wrote about the strategic cul-de-sac that Britain’s Conservatives find themselves in. I will write of Labour, whose strategic grasp is well ahead of all the other parties, later. But we are coming up to the Lib Dem annual conference. What of them?

Alas the Lib Dems seem no better at political strategy than anybody else. They (I could also write we, as I am a party activist) had some real momentum at the start of 2017, with the strange quiescence of Jeremy Cobyn’s Labour party. But the general election in June changed all that. The party organised itself around a clear message on the main issue of the day – Britain and the European Union – but to very little effect. While the party held up reasonably well against the Tories, it folded wherever it came under any pressure from Labour. Where I live, in Battersea, the Lib Dem message could have been tailor made to succeed, and yet it was Labour that reaped the reward of locals’ anger at the Tory Brexit strategy – they took the seat with a lightweight campaign and an unknown candidate. I did not receive a single piece of Labour literature.

But was the party’s weakness merely tactical? People who suggest this say that Labour made irreconcilable promises to different groups of voters and will be found out. And the party’s advocacy of a second referendum on Europe was simply an idea ahead of its time. As Brexit rage rises (and pretty much anything that goes wrong can be blamed on Brexit), the public will look again at the party’s consistent line on the matter.

For a different perspective read former leader Paddy Ashdown. This is a pair of articles (I link directly to the second) moaning about the lack of direction in the party. Paddy is not particularly coherent (he doesn’t pretend to be), but I do think he is on to something. Here is the penultimate paragraph:

I have concluded that all this is so, not because we have really lost our intellectual curiosity, but because of the dead hand of Brexit. I admit second place to no-one when it comes to fighting for the best Brexit we can, and preferably no Brexit at all. I am proud of our Party’s clear position on this defining issue. But is our obsession with Brexit in danger of distracting us from what kind of country we want Britain to be, whether in the EU or out of it? For me the heart of liberalism is our crusade for the empowered citizen, not the powerful state. This is a radical disruptive and insurgent idea. But where is it? When did you last – at Conference or outside it – hear us arguing that case, debating new ideas to make it happen or proselytising it before the court of public opinion?

Liberal Democrats are united by an open view of people and cultures, and a suspicion of nationalism and strong state power. These values point to sympathy with the European Union, if you view it as a restraint on state power rather than an extension of it. But the EU is a pragmatic solution to the problem of European states needing to cooperate more closely. It is not an ideology – or a new nationalism. While I do feel a certain pride in European identity, it developed long before the UK joined the union, and it is not a nationalistic pride, that seeks to diminish Americans, Russians or Chinese. Campaigning over EU membership is a tactic and not a strategy – and this is something that Labour, whether by accident or design, have grasped more clearly than either the Conservatives or the Lib Dems.

So what is the point of the Lib Dems strategically? Are the party’s values best promoted by a separate political party, or by factions within larger political groupings, i.e. the Conservatives, Labour or the SNP in Scotland? Few liberals can see a future in the Conservatives these days. One Lib Dem I knew who moved to them a couple of years ago has dropped out, unable to take the strain. I don’t know the SNP well enough to comment on them – they have tempered their nationalistic defining theme with inclusiveness. The real problem for Lib Dems is Labour – because that is where most political active liberals are now going, especially the younger ones.

The critical issue here is the question of state power. The point that unites almost all successful Labour politicians, from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn, is that they view a centralised state, under democratic control, as the solution to most problems. This is one of the critical debates of our time. And liberals are not pulling their weight.

One the one side we have advocates of a strong state. The most important of these worldwide is the Chinese Communist Party – and they are picking up a substantial following throughout the world. Democracy is viewed with suspicion at best. On the other you have nationalists, who seek to create culturally homogeneous nations where individuals suffer minimal state interference – and the state’s main role is to keep the rest of the world at bay. Established political parties in the developed world, such as Britain’s Labour and the Lib Dems, belong to neither camp, but they are struggling to put forward a coherent alternative.

Paddy Ashdown does point towards the sort of places where liberals should be looking to develop a compelling vision for the 21st Century – centring on information and technology.  While I struggle to make sense of his “four dangerous ideas”, they are all attempts to push the debate on in this direction.

And there is an opportunity for the Lib Dems here. While Labour is picking up some of the 21st Century agenda (not least in the way it organises itself, especially its party-within-a-party Momentum), much of it either has a statist mindset, like the Chinese Communists, or harks back to the 20th Century and its swathe of secure jobs in manufacturing and administration.  I have not heard much from Labour on critical issues of privacy, ownership of data and ways that state power might be restrained.

If the Lib Dems can win the race to develop ideas for a 21st Century state that is truly liberal and democratic, then the party will have a clear purpose. But if all it does is bang on about Europe, it will, eventually, vanish.

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Lib Dems hope for a turning point

The Lib Dem conference at Brighton last weekend was a low key affair. There was enough space in the Metropole hotel to hold the whole thing, including the very limited fringe. All this is in contrast to the last spring conference I attended in 2011 in Sheffield, amid a huge police presence and shouting demonstrators. In 2011 the party was already over the edge of an abyss, though it took that year’s disastrous local elections for many to realise it. This year conference goers thought the outlook was better.

The immediate cause is not hard to see: the party’s victory in the Eastleigh by-election. Most of those there had helped in this election one way or another. The win may not look all that convincing to an outsider, but activists talked it up, as if it was a landslide. This was a reflection of solidarity under assault, from not just the usual suspects, but from the liberal media too, including the BBC. To have overcome those odds, people felt, was a triumph. Also it was a reflection that the campaign was impressively organised, and did not shy away from the party’s role in government, or Nick Clegg’s leadership – issues that many considered to be toxic.

Rather bizarrely the BBC, in its coverage on Friday and on Saturday morning, expected the activists to be a bit grumpy, full of questions about who knew what and when in the Rennard and Huhne affairs. But it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Eastleigh would overshadow all. In fact a nasty row over secret courts was the second story of the conference: the parliamentary party had backed the government’s plans, in spite of a passionate debate and motion against them at the Autumn conference. There were resignations. But this is not the sort of row the media feel comfortable about reporting, so it didn’t get much coverage. Huhne and Rennard hardly featured, though there were a regular compliments to Mr Huhne’s work on policy and as a minister, and not all from men (Shirley Williams started it). The party leadership chose to confront the Rennard affair frontally at a women’s day rally on Friday evening: and that was all that most people wanted to hear on that topic. There was a second row about government economic policy: an emergency motion on the topic wasn’t taken, as the result of a manoeuvre that most representatives thought was a bit dubious. But cabinet minister Vince Cable’s stirrings on the economy were some compensation: he gave a speech at one of the fringe meetings. The official business was low key. Uncontroversial motions and speeches by junior ministers. An emergency motion on secret courts was a bit of an exception.

The main point of the conference, if there was one, was to lay groundwork for the 2015 General Election. There was a stirring speech by Paddy Ashdown, who is chairing the campaign, as well as Mr Clegg’s leadership speech. There was also a rather low key consultative session on the manifesto. In each these, and on other occasions, the party aired its campaign theme: “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” (“enabling everyone to get on in life” if you have space to pad it out a bit). The plan is to keep repeating this line ad nauseam for the next two and a bit years.

The slogan has its critics. Its direct message is not distinctive: every other political party stands for the same things, even if they define the terms a bit differently. It makes no reference to liberal values. Both criticisms miss the point. The party must win by attracting mainstream voters, who are not particularly liberal, though not anti-liberal either. The slogan is meant to draw people in to two further messages: you can’t trust the Conservatives on “fairness”, and you can’t trust Labour on the economy. The calculation is that each of the two main parties has a severe weakness which the party can exploit, as the only sensible, mainstream party left standing.

Will this work? It might. The Conservatives really do seem to have a problem. David Cameron was never able to mould his party in the way that Tony Blair moulded Labour. Many of the party’s MPs are right wing fanatics, as are their grass roots supporters. Such people are convinced that they have caught the public mood, because their views are reflected in much of the press. But most voters are put off. Mr Cameron has a good instinct for the “centre ground”, or the public mainstream – but his party looks divided. The very bendable word “fairness” is a good as any word bring attention to this Conservative weakness. In policy terms it is cover for taxing the rich and preserving social insurance, such as social security and the health service.

And Labour has a problem too. Their situation is not unlike the one that they faced in the early 1990s under Neil Kinnock, which led them to lose the 1992 election against a lacklustre Conservative government under John Major. They were riding high in the opinion polls, and the economy was in a mess. But they were inclined to make promises to spend more public funds, and their leader wasn’t trusted. Right now Labour are drawing a lot of energy from activists (many of them public sector workers) who feel that government cuts are motivated by ideology rather than economics. They grasp at a Keynesian critique of current government policy to think that sorting the economy out is as easy as boosting public spending, which will sort the public finances out through the multiplier effect. But polling shows that the public does not share this view: they feel that public expenditure should be cut back. That leaves Ed Miliband with an unenviable choice. If he pushes ahead with a publicly credible economic policy, and says he will match the government’s public expenditure plans, subject one of two populist tweaks, he will anger his activists and trade union donors. If he fudges, his campaign is likely to break apart under pressure, as Neil Kinnock’s did in 1992. It doesn’t help that his economic spokesman, Ed Balls, is closely associated with Gordon Brown’s economic policies, which are widely viewed as disastrous. Mr Miliband’s own public standing is weak, as was Mr Kinnock’s, though for different reasons.

This could give the Lib Dems an opening, especially in seats where the party has plenty of activists to deliver the message, tack in local issues, and get out the vote. With fifty or so seats the party may be able to win a place in another coalition government. Buoyed up by Eastleigh, Lib Dem activists think they can do it, and that an important turning point has been reached.

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The public’s foul politcal mood: symptom or disease?

Is depression an illness? It can be. Many people suffer depression that is so severe that it overwhelms them. They need help and we categorise it as mental illness: a condition with a life of its own, where medical intervention is recommended.

But for most of us, most of the time depression is just part of the ordinary fabric of living. It is a necessary step in the way the mind adapts to new realities in the world around it, especially changes that are unexpected or unwelcome. We don’t understand why the human mind has evolved in this way, but it clearly is not a malfunction. We must accept it and work through it. This common wisdom is summarised in popular models such as the Kübler Ross model of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).

We can compare this personal mental phenomenon to current public attitudes to politics, especially here in Britain, but elsewhere too. This is partly a simple metaphor; but also some of the same psychological forces are at work. The public mood with politics is foul. Is this a disease, or merely a symptom of an inevitable change that is taking place in our society, that we simply have to come to terms with? And how should politicians respond?

The latest evidence for the public’s mood comes from the recent Eastleigh by-election. The main established parties locally, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, both lost votes, and much of their support was grudging, based on keeping somebody else out. The grumpy anti-establishment protest party Ukip jumped from nowhere into second place. The official opposition, Labour, made no headway. And, in more classic depressive behaviour, turnout fell significantly from the General Election in spite of an extremely intense campaign, where voters were getting daily leaflet drops and their phones did not stop ringing.

If this is an inevitable response a changed reality, we don’t have to look very far for a culprit. In the 15 years from 1992 to 2007 Britain has enjoyed steady economic growth. If the benefits of this growth have gone disproportionately to the rich, they have neverthless been spread widely. Pay-rises regularly beat inflation. The benign effects were reinforced by easy money which supported both consumption and rising property values. This didn’t seem like a golden age at the time (though there was a brief note of euphoria at the turn of the Millennium), but it served to set some fairly stable and benign expectations. Politicians squabbled of the extra things they could do with “the proceeds of growth”.

But this collapsed in 2007, when the financial crisis started, with a sharp economic contraction in 2008-09. Worse, in 2013 there seems no sign of things getting any better. While politicians on the left and right argue that growth can be restored, the public remains entirely unconvinced. You have to be a real optimist to think that Keynesian stimulus would offer more than temporary alleviation; and it could make things worse in the long run by taking the national debt sky high. The right wing’s supply side revolution would make things worse for most people in the short term, and probably only better for the already wealthy after that. Monetary loosening seems to involve sucking life out of the Pound, and so making things like energy, cars and foreign holidays yet more expensive – probably with only share and bond prices showing any benefit.

What on earth has happened? The public suspects that something has changed about the economy and society which means that the benign years before 2007 will not return. This builds on the natural human tendency to project current circumstances into the future. It so happens that I feel that this public instinct is well grounded. Slow growth is here to stay. Much of the growth before 2007 was a mirage.

This need not be a bad thing in itself. There is plenty enough resources to ensure a decent standard of living for everybody. But the political priorities in a low growth world are very different from what they used to be. Distribution of wealth becomes a top political issue. Government must learn to be frugal. We must focus on improving wellbeing rather than monetary wealth. But these changed priorities require a big psychological adjustment, so it is no wonder that there is anger, frustration and depression amongst the public.

If that is all, then the bad mood is simply a symptom of the changing times, and politicians should see through it to focus on the changed priorities. Politicians need to show empathy with the public, but not be panicked into populist policies. Aided and abetted by an unhelpful press, much public anger is directed at such things as immigration, the European Union, health and safety legislation, and human rights. But politicians should not be fooled by this anger; the public is in fact deeply ambiguous about all of these things. Deep down they sense they are necessary to the way we want to live our lives, the odd silly excess notwithstanding. Instead politicians should focus on reform to the tax and benefits system, improving public services, developing a housing strategy, securing energy supplies and fixing the still-broken financial system.

But many thoughtful observers, Paddy Ashdown for example, are convinced that the bad public mood is much deeper than this. Its beginnings predate the financial crisis of 2007 after all. There is a deeper feeling of disenfranchisement that will not go away. This needs more direct intervention. While I am not apocalyptic as Lord Ashdown, I think he has a point. British politics is not corrupt, but it is conducted by an elite class that does all it can to avoid being held to account. Reforming this will be hard work though. Devolving more power to local level is surely part of it – though fraught with danger. Whether the current government’s localism reforms have achieved anything useful is open to doubt – though the growing number of City Deals are more promising. Taxation powers are the critical issue, and nobody shows signs of grasping this particular nettle. The opportunities to re-enfranchise voters are surely mainly at the local level – but that means the delegation real power, and responsibility for real trade-offs – rather than the one-sided lobbying of the centre that currently dominates local politics.

The public mood is both a symptom of change that is running through our economic system, and also a deeper problem in its own right. Both call for honest liberal reforms, and not the sour populism that it immediately encourages. Let us hope that the public, through its anger and frustration, recognises this. They often do, if any politician has the courage put the case to them.

 

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The strange cohesion of the Liberal Democrats

I was at the Liberal Democrat conference in Sheffield last weekend.  The most striking thing about it was how upbeat it was.  Disagreements were downplayed; discussion was civilised; people didn’t seem to be spooked by the polls, still less the demonstrators outside the conference hall.  And yet the party has lost half its popular support, performed atrociously at the Barnsley by-election, and comes under daily attack for supporting what are seen as vicious Tory policies. “You’re shafted,” a (perfectly friendly) local member of the public told me when I was walking between venues.  What’s all this about?

The obvious explanations don’t seem to be strong enough.  The novelty of being in government has certainly not worn off; and attack, especially of the vitriolic sort we saw on display by the demonstrators, tends to induce solidarity.  But a lot of members and activists are genuinely unhappy about the policies of the coalition government; it is often said that policy has been captured by an unrepresentative rightwing clique surrounding Nick Clegg.

The party’s democratic constitution helps.  To many political pros no doubt these processes look like weakness, conceded to encourage people to join and stay as members.  But they give countless opportunities for members and activists to feel consulted and involved.

The party’s leadership deserves some real credit here.  The party’s internal machinery for policy making has been generally respected, in contrast to Paddy Ashdown’s leadership in the 1990s.  Many critics have been co-opted in the policy formation process.  Predictions that party conference would quickly be made irrelevant have proved unfounded (I remember Mark Littlewood, former director of communications, almost gloating about this in the coalition’s early days).

The leadership’s sensitivity to criticism, and wish to avoid needless confrontation from within the party was on display at Sheffield.  The biggest issue faced by the conference was the NHS reforms.  These are radical, controversial, and seem to go well beyond the coalition agreement.  A rather defensive motion was put before the conference by the leadership, and an amendment submitted that was highly critical of the direction of government policy.  The leadership quickly conceded defeat.  Previously Paul Burstow, the health minister, who proposed the main motion, had been highly supportive of coalition policy.  But he quickly said that he was in listening mode and accepted the amendment.  At an earlier consultative session, Norman Lamb, part of Nick Clegg’s inner circle, appeared to admit that mistakes had been made over health policy, among other things.  What the consequences of all this are for coalition policy in health and elsewhere is unclear, but we are expecting changes.

The leadership’s basic narrative is not seriously contested.  The Liberal Democrats had no alternative to the coalition that would not have done even more damage.  If they had declined the opportunity, the party would have “bottled it” and suffered disastrously at a rapidly called second election that the Tories would have won outright.  And the Lib Dems have won a lot of concessions, and are managing to turn a lot of party policy into law.  You only have to look at what the Tory right is saying.  All this is difficult to translate into a clear message for the public, but it helps instill a degree of confidence among activists.  The feeling is palpable that things will turn the party’s way in due course, and party’s critics will be confounded.  Again.

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