Tag Archives: UK politics

#ldconf Nick Clegg needs to be clearer on the “smart, liberal and enabling state”

The Liberal Democrat conference ended yesterday on its fifth day with the party leader, Nick Clegg, giving his speech. By then I was on the train home, wishing to save money on fares as well as arrive home at a decent hour – though I have read a text version of the speech, and seen the comments. It ended an uplifting conference for the party. While good for the spirits, has it answered doubts over the party and its leader? It is a step forward.

The doubts centre around the party clearly articulating what it stands for. To date it has been keen to identify itself as covering the “centre ground”, and to spend time justifying its role in the coalition government. The problem with defining yourself as being centrist is that that you are using other parties to define yourself. The party risks presenting itself as either or both of “Labour-Lite” or “Tory-Lite”. This is not a convincing rallying cry. Neither is a list of policy proposals; if they are popular, the other parties will steal them. The Conservatives are already “stealing” the raising of tax allowances, the Lib Dem signature policy of this parliament. Lib Dem whinging about this, and the Tories getting the credit for the economic recovery rather than them, is all rather pathetic and will win the party no credit with voters. The public does not give the party credit because they don’t know what it stands for – beyond winning the prestige that goes with being in government. The policies and the record of action are the supporting evidence for a proposition, not the proposition itself.

Lib Dem activists have a strong idea of what the party stands for: liberalism. This is not the economic liberalism of the 19th Century, but one where the state plays an active role in making sure everybody gets the opportunity to develop and fulfil their lives. That “everybody” is a central idea – it is not qualified by national, ethnic, class or other identity. This leads to clarity around a certain set of policies: human rights, written constitutions, distributed political power, strong social insurance and a degree of redistribution of wealth and income, to improve the chances of the less lucky. There is also a strong environmentalist steak.

Amongst the general public, who do the Lib Dems need to convince? There are two main groups. First are those who are liberals, but who are more convinced by other parties – mainly Labour and the Greens, as the Conservatives seem to have given up on liberals. The second group are people who are drawn to non-liberal politics, being those of identity, individualistic self-interest, or a large centralised state, but might be convinced otherwise, perhaps as a second-best. A socialist may be convinced that liberalism is better than conservatism, if Labour are locally weak.

How did Mr Clegg and his party do? Better than before. Mr Clegg’s speech contained more about liberal values and why they make sense. He called for a “smart, liberal and enabling state”. The party made a clear stand against illiberal policies of their Conservative coalition partners. The signature policy Mr Clegg chose was parity for mental health with physical health in the NHS. If this is a bit tangential to liberalism (you don’t have to be liberal to support it), it will at least serve to draw attention. It showed the party capable of fresh thinking.

But it is only a start. I would like to hear more about the “smart, liberal and enabling state” – and in particular how it contrasts with Labour’s vision of the state. Indeed I think the party is being too soft on Labour, and needs to find some “wedge” issues that will pull liberals away from it. There is a bit of paradox in political presentation; you need to get over a strong positive message, but contrast is needed for visibility, which means that attacking other parties can be one of the most effective ways of defining your own. You need to say what you are not, and how you are different. The party is doing this with respect to the Tories, and the Tories themselves are lending a helping hand. But to a Labour sympathiser it opens the question of why the party is in coalition with the Tories, and thereby letting in a host of nasty Tory policies. It isn’t enough just say that the party stopped the worst ones, and put through one or two ideas of its own. The main reason the party ganged up with the Conservatives was the hopeless state of Labour – something that went further than their electoral failure.

Labour is a loose coalition of values and interests, albeit with a strong tribal solidarity. Liberals are an important part of this coalition, alongside public sector workers, state dependents, working class conservatives, left wing intellectuals and northern city council mafias. Lib Dems need to show that this Labour coalition is unable to produce coherent policies for government, still less implement serious liberal reforms. This means developing the vision of a “smart, liberal and agile” state, and showing how this is different from the Labour and Tory versions. At this conference the policy paper on public services presented some interesting new thinking on just that. That is only one piece of a jigsaw.

The Green Party is also worth a bit of attention in my view. It has moved on from a focus on environmental policies. In its current statement on values the first two of its three policy bullets are its opposition to austerity and to privatisation for public services – and only then does it cover climate change. This is no more coherent than Ukip’s policy stance. In Scotland the Greens supported independence in spite of the fact that the Yes campaign’s economic strategy depended on getting carbon out from under the sea and into the atmosphere as fast as physically possible. The party’s leader in England leader, Natalie Bennett, has also said that the party wants to avoid the responsibilities of government, and to limit any cooperation with a future government to case by case parliamentary support. All this is half-baked and could break up quite fast under scrutiny. Still I’m sure the professionals would urge that ignoring them is the best way of handling them. But they picked up a lot of liberal votes in my neighbourhood in the European elections this May.

But one thing is going for the Liberal Democrats. The main parties are concentrating on a core-vote strategy, leaving space on the centre ground. If the party can spell out its liberal vision more clearly, it can surely advance from the 7% support that it currently languishes at. It is gradually winning more respect, to judge by newspaper editorials. Its conference in Glasgow was a step forward.

 

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Ed Miliband is Labour’s John Major. Short term success presages long term disaster

Britain’s two big party conferences are over, setting out the battle lines for next year’s general election. I keep seeing parallels with the 1992 election, which the Conservatives won unexpectedly. In the past I have drawn direct parallels between the two main parties then and now. But in interesting ways the Labour party resembles the Conservatives in 1992: pulling off an unexpected victory, leading five years later to its worst ever defeat.

The Labour conference was shocking. This was supposed to be a party with its blood up, ready for a battle to crush those hated Tories and despised Lib Dems. Instead we witnessed a subdued Labour Party, simply hoping that the other side would lose. The plan is to win the General Election in May 2015 by default. There are three elements to this plan. First hang on to the hard core of voters that were loyal at their low point at the last election in 2010. Second, snaffle up an extra 5-10% of voters who voted Lib Dem last time and are fed up with that party. Third: allow Ukip to eat into the Tory vote. Labour strategists think that these three things will be enough to give Labour an overall majority. The party does not have to spell out a clear policy vision, just create some mood music by talking tough about the nation’s finances, and “saving” the NHS.

It could work. This kind of strategy reminds me a lot of John Major’s strategy for the Conservative Party that he led from 1990 to 1997: visionless, and relying on its opponents’ weaknesses. This led Mr Major to that spectacular and unexpected victory in the 1992 election, followed by the Tory party’s worst ever defeat in 1997. Something like the same fate awaits Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. At Labour’s conference he failed to address doubts about his leadership. His speech was a disaster. It was an overlong, rambling, whinge-fest, full of speechmaking clichés. His act of not using a script and teleprompt drew much praise the last time he tried it. This time it meant that he forgot to include some vital messages on the deficit and immigration, passages that it is hardly surprising his subconscious suppressed.

Over the four years or so of Mr Miliband’s leadership, the Labour Party has proved remarkably united, and in London at least, its local organisation looks in good shape. After three terms in power, this is a remarkable achievement, considering what happened to the Tories after they finally ended 18 years of power in 1997. But this achievement looks more like Mr Major’s clinging on to power after Margaret Thatcher was ousted in 1990. It comes at cost of not resolving conflicts within the party. In particular much, if not most, of the party’s grassroots thinks that austerity is the malicious pursuit of class warfare by the rich, and that capitalism is an utter failure. They are egged on by a collection of intellectuals untroubled by the responsibilities of ever having run anything. But the party’s leaders, who have genuine ambitions to govern, realise that this is mainly nonsense. Though they have been clear about this in their speeches (when they remember to mention it), there is no sign that their followers have actually taken it on board, such is their detestation of the current government.

And that’s not Labour’s only faultline. Labour are under attack in their working class strongholds. Ukip are taking votes from the party in northern towns, where the party is not used to being challenged. The SNP made a very successful appeal to the working class voters in Labour’s stronghold in Glasgow in Scotland’s referendum. Labour’s leaders are being urged to respond to this by sounding “tougher” on such touchstone issues as immigration and human rights, which is taken as meaning undeserved privileges to migrants, terrorists and criminals. Labour have made some mealy mouthed concessions, especially on immigration. In particular they suggest that the Labour government was mistaken in allowing free immigration of east European migrants after their countries entered the EU. This is very muddled. The tension between liberals and working class conservatives is palpable.

For now Labour are papering over the cracks. Even if they hold together until the election, there is sure to be an explosion after it. If they win, a Labour government will be utterly unable to reconcile the conflicting ideas of their supporters. They will simply pick up where the last, deeply unpopular, Labour government left off. If they lose, their supporters will be unable to understand why, given what they see as the self-evident failures of the coalition years. And if the party is forced into a coalition with the Lib Dems (if that party does better than expected), or a grand coalition with the Conservatives, the reactions of Labour’s supporters can only be guessed at.

Meanwhile the Conservatives are sharpening their knives. This party’s divisions are even greater than those that Labour is troubled with. But their leader, David Cameron, delivered a strong conference speech, setting out a very clear strategy for undermining Labour’s passive electoral hopes. This is the familiar “two-horse race” theme, so that Mr Cameron’s leadership skills can be compared favourably with Mr Miliband’s. And then there is tax. Labour’s ambivalence over reforming the public sector and benefits can be linked to the prospect of higher taxes for the majority.  Interestingly the Conservatives are making no attempt to woo middle of the road liberals, attacking the Lib Dems for stopping their illiberal ideas on civil liberties. This is no doubt part of their strategy to woo back Ukip defectors. But they may also calculate that raising the liberal credentials of their coalition partners may help the Lib Dems win back some of their defectors to Labour. This vigorous Conservative attack on Labour will put the latter under severe strain – though it is difficult to see how the Tories can win outright.

The outlook looks dire for Labour. Things are no better for the Tories. It is difficult not to think that Britain’s traditional two party politics is on its last legs.

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So: who will lead the Con-Lab Grand Coalition that will be formed in May 2015?

Things aren’t going well for the Westminster political machine. Their short-term, focus-group and opinion poll led campaigning has missed or ignored the changing mood of voters. Things were bad enough with the rise of Ukip; they got a lot worse with the Yes-surge among former Labour supporters in Scotland. At this week’s Labour conference the party is desperately trying to get the political agenda back to familiar territory. It is failing, and in doing so it is losing the political initiative. In this unfamiliar political territory I want to indulge in a bit a bit of political fantasy. But ask yourself: just how unrealistic is it?

Roll forward to May 8, 2015, the day after Britain’s General Election. The Westminster parties lost control of the election agenda. In England Ukip have surged forward to take 30 seats, taking votes from all sides. In Scotland, angry and unreconciled Yes voters have moved in behind the SNP, who take another 30 seats. The Lib Dems, through a lot of hard local campaigning, luck with voter splits, and a dead-cat bounce, are relieved to end up with another 30 seats (a bit over half their 2010 tally). The Greens do well in national polling, though only pick up a small handful of seats. The Tories are the main victim of the changed situation in England, losing seats directly to Ukip, but also to Labour. They fall back by 40 seats to between 260 and 270. But Labour’s gains in England are partly neutralised by the advance of the SNP in Scotland. They end up with a very similar number of teats to the Conservatives, with a net 15-20 gains.

Both main parties are badly bruised: their share of votes has fallen; they are not in control of the political agenda. Only the inherent electoral bias towards incumbency has left them with so many seats. Both feel as if they have lost. And the parliamentary arithmetic is horrid. To form any kind of stable coalition government with smaller parties they will need to round up two of the Lib Dems, Ukip and SNP. For different reasons none of these parties want to play ball. For the Lib Dems it is a moment of reckoning, with open revolt against the party leadership, and a desperate feeling amongst the membership that they need to rebuild in opposition. Ukip are too toxic for the main parties, and their terms of engagement are too high. The SNP have no interest in the governance of the UK as a whole. If there is no natural governing majority, there is a comfortable and motivated opposition majority against any government led by one of the two main parties.

Meanwhile the fiscal deficit and the national debt remain large. The financial markets are jittery, which puts the financing of the deficit in question. The pound takes a tumble. With its yawning current account deficit Britain needs foreign financing. But this in turn requires a strong government able to keep the fiscal deficit in hand. The fragile recovery is in jeopardy, as investment is drying up, and property prices start to fall, as foreign investors take fright. The Treasury civil servants are worried and quickly set to work on their political contacts.

There is an obvious solution. One that has been tried in Germany, Austria and Greece. A Grand Coalition between the Conservatives and Labour. It slowly dawns on the senior figures in these parties that this is the only way out.

What would be the organising principle of the new Coalition? As Labour realises that it is no longer practical to use its Scottish MPs to ram through reforms of English public services, they are at last able to contemplate some form of new federal settlement for the UK. They also accept that the UK’s relationship with the European Union needs to be reset. Both sides agree to a Constitutional Convention. The idea is that this will come up with one or more referendum propositions in Autumn 2017, after which the country will move towards a new General Election. All this will secure the Conservative participation in the government. In return Labour will insist on a choice selection of its core policies: halting “privatisation” of the NHS (though not wholesale unpicking of the previous coalition’s reforms); perhaps the freeze on energy prices and reform of energy markets; maybe further rises tot he minimum wage; surely the reinstatement, in some form, of the 50p top tax rate and termination of the “bedroom tax”. Their proposed Mansion Tax is unlikely to make it though – such a significant change to the tax system hardly seems appropriate in a time of constitutional transition. Both sides will agree to something tokenistic on immigration.

But who will lead this government? Both Party leaders will face revolts from their own side. Mr Cameron will surely find his position untenable. Mr Miliband may even have lost his seat to the surging Ukip. The natural thing would be for the Prime Minister to come from whichever party is a nose in front in parliamentary seats. The popular vote can be used as a tie-breaker. The other party will no doubt insist on the Treasury.

On the Tory side, the obvious choice would have been William Hague. But he is stepping down at the next election. Other senior figures are: Theresa May, George Osborne or Boris Johnson. Ms May stands the best chance of these, though she does not come across as a particularly gifted politician. The other two are surely too blatantly political to be trusted enough by Labour. Another idea is to summon up a former senior figure from the back benches; Malcolm Rifkind would be an obvious candidate.

It is even harder to think of Labour candidates with the appropriate stature. Harriet Harman has the seniority, but I can’t see her as having enough clout. I’m not even sure if Margaret Beckett will be standing, and she is a bit old at 71 – though since this is something of a caretaker role, that is less of an obstacle than it might be. The existing front bench all seem to be lacking to some degree. Gordon Brown’s reputation may have been enhanced by his intervention in the referendum campaign, but there is no way that he can lead a coalition. Meanwhile Alistair Darling’s reputation has been diminished.

Is there a serious point to this fantastical speculation? Yes. As we see the rise of anti-politics, of political parties who are only interested in causing trouble, and not solving problems, then we must get used to the idea that previously bitter opponents will have to cooperate in government. The current coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats may be foreshadowing the future of politics in ways that the current political chattering classes don’t yet understand.

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UK constitution: Westminster’s elite still doesn’t get it

“Nor do the English seem to want any kind of devolution for themselves”. Thus does this week’s Economist dismiss any chance of far-reaching constitutional reform for England and the UK as a whole. It offers a couple of tepid ideas as “promising” ways forward to relieve the tension. A committee of English MPs to vet legislation in parliament; devolving more powers to city regions in England. An English parliament or giving English regions equivalent powers to those mooted for Scotland, if it votes No, are dismissed as too difficult, in the absence of a serious clamour from the voters. I have every reason to believe that the thinking expressed in this article is typical of Westminster politicians in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. If something doesn’t feature amongst the top issues that voters highlight as concerns to pollsters, it’s not worth worrying about.

This, of course, is exactly the type of short-term thinking that got them into a mess with Scotland – which may very well vote to separate from the UK this week. The politicians checked the opinion polls, and there didn’t seem to be too much to worry about. They did not have the imagination to see that the separatists would cash in on the national disillusionment with politics. They cannot understand that the current national mood gives politics an inherent instability that the normal polling will not help them with. As the public yearns for leadership, all they get is followership.

It reminds me of those doomed companies, who once ruled their world, and who thought that product development was a matter of following market research. Nokia, Blackberry or  Kodak, for example (there are plenty of non high tech examples – but it is difficult even to recall their names now). Like these doomed businesses Westminster politicians (and their many hangers on) do not want to do anything that might upset their existing ecosystem too much. Or to put the business parallel in better perspective, if Apple had followed market research, it would never have invented the iPod or the iPhone. Or IBM had to pull its existing business apart in order to survive and prosper as the world changed. Unfortunately the professionalization of politics does not make politicians immune from the same sort of progressive entombment that overcomes big businesses from time to time. There are times when it pays to be visionary and move ahead of public opinion.

Britain is lurching from one constitutional crisis to another. If it isn’t Scotland leaving the Union, it will be the UK leaving the EU. Quite possibly it will be both. The Westminster machine is quite likely to get bogged down in years of negotiation to unpick highly complex constitutional, financial and trading arrangements, which will advance solutions to the substantive problems of the economy, public services and national security not at all. By avoiding proper constitutional reform because voters don’t mention it to pollsters, they may in fact find their lives dominated by constitutional problems as a result of referendums conceded too easily.

Britain needs a new constitutional settlement to distribute political power to its most appropriate level. This means more than devolution. The word conjures the picture of a superior power throwing scraps to the lower orders. We should think of  power residing with the people, and delegated upwards to the most appropriate level – and not devolved downwards. When a US city wants to build a metro system, it just goes ahead and does it, subject only to its power to raise taxes, fees and loans. If a British city tries, it has to grovel to several central government departments for permission, with the all-powerful Treasury liable to squash the whole thing with a shrug. Westminster is prepared to tweak this system a bit, but not to change the balance of power fundamentally. When they do offer concessions for devolution, these are so feeble that they fail to command popular support.

It is time to stop the sleepwalking, and for our leaders to wake up and see what is happening to our beloved country. The English may not be agitating for constitutional reform, but if they don’t get it the country will progressively come apart.

 

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As Scotland debates, what about England?

The referendum in Scotland is the most interesting thing to hit British politics for a long time. Last night the unionist side wheeled in former Prime Minster Gordon Brown. Mr Brown vindicated my judgement of him last week as being a cut above our current, mediocre political leaders. But how is this drama playing down here in England? After all the outcome involves us too.

The first point is that we are bit late on the game. The Scots have been arguing about the matter intensely for many months. The English, taking their cue from their politicians and media, have largely treated the matter as a foregone conclusion for the union. Only now is the terrible truth dawning. That lack of debate has left thinking very underdeveloped. But I have detected some new trends, at least in the rather non-typical, liberal circles that I inhabit.

Firstly there is envy. People in Scotland are having a real debate and vote on something that clearly matters. If they vote Yes it will make a real difference to the ruling political elite. Usually all that seems to be at stake is the recycling of the same group of usual suspects. Scottish people are talking about the country they want to be. It’s no wonder people are registering to vote and a high turnout is expected. We aren’t getting that here. And the thought of giving that elite, not just the politicians but the media pack, civil servants and lobbyists that cling to them, a bloody nose is distinctly tempting. It becomes rather less tempting when you think that it empowers an Edinburgh political elite, who, to say the least, do not look a trustworthy bunch. But that’s another matter.

The next thing is a common hope. Surely, after a Yes vote, or the near-death experience of a narrow No vote, a shake-up will follow in England? This referendum could be good for all of us. But that will only be true if a grassroots movement, from outside the Westminster elite, demands it. That is possible, though I see no sign of it yet. That movement needs something to ask for – some sort of constitutional change – but I see no evidence of the English developing enthusiasm for that. Without a grassroots movement, Westminster will simply drop back into its usual complacency.

A further response is a rather depressing one. Without the Scottish MPs the House of Commons will be weighted much more towards the Conservatives. There is a much greater chance of a referendum on Britain’s future in the EU. For many this is just the sort of constitutional change that will shake things up – even though its outcome will be to concentrate more power amongst the Westminster elite, rather than take them down a peg. The odds of the country leaving the EU will surely rise. Actually we should be a little careful here. The environment after a Scottish Yes vote will be so different that we cannot make predictions about how political attitudes will shift. The Conservatives may not find it so easy to win in the rump UK.

But what if Scotland stays in the union? The Westminster leaders are already promising the country a greater level devolution on our behalf. But they are silent about how this will affect the rest of us in England. That is no doubt because they are hoping people won’t care enough create much of a fuss. But it leaves us with the English Question. This is referred in Westminster pompously as the “West Lothian Question”, after the very pompous former MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell. This is no doubt their way of trying to minimise its significance and I refuse to accept this nomenclature.

The English Question is this. If Westminster has devolved powers to Scotland, along with Wales and Northern Ireland, it means that Scottish MPs can vote on a whole range of important questions of English policy, without English MPs being able to influence the same issues in Scotland (or Wales or Northern Ireland). It is a very awkward conundrum for Westminster types, because it is difficult to deal with without undermining their own power. Their typical reaction, when it is posed, it to mutter something about it being very difficult, and then to change the subject.

How might the English question be solved? There are three lines of attack The first is to somehow stop non-English MPs from voting on English matters. This is invariably the way Westminster politicians think of solving it. But it gets very messy. How do you, precisely, differentiate between English and British affairs without an explicitly federal constitution? What if the British PM does not command a majority in England? The second appraoch is to devolve powers to local governments in England. But, to be anything like equivalent to the Scots or Welsh devolution, there would need to be some kind of regional level of government. This only exists for London, though other metropolitan areas are inching towards such structures. The regions defined for European elections and statistical purposes have no resonance with public identity and are not fit for this purpose.

The third approach it to set up a separate English parliament, and English government, leaving a federal government to govern the residual issues of the UK itself. To me this looks the most promising way forward. But it raises many questions.

But the most important point for now is that there is no consensus in England about the right way forward, and the issues have not been aired enough. The next step, surely, is to convene a constitutional convention to develop proposals, which can then be put to the whole country in a further referendum or referendums. This convention could be convened either at the English level, or for the whole of the UK. The latter, of course, is the only way of dealing adequately with how a federal level of government could work, and what to do with such institutions as the House of Lords. But the big requirement is political momentum – and it may be easier to get this at the English level, and to deal with the wider consequences later. After all this whole process was set in motion by a Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1990s.

It is, of course, unutterably depressing that our political leaders, including the Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg, who should know better, are not calling for such a convention. But we English should be demanding it.

 

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We need a UK Constitutional Convention and a Federal government

What happens when your normal existence comes under threat? We seem to alternate between two extremes. One is paranoia. We see this now with Jihadi extremists, where many Britons see the threat of terrorism everywhere, and are happy to vastly expand the surveillance powers of the state so that any plot can be intercepted before execution. I remember a similar paranoia over Soviet Communism in my youth, in the 1970s. But the more common response is denial. We keep going with our ordinary daily lives without thinking about it, dismissing the threat with half-baked arguments that don’t stand up to scrutiny. We see that with the threat posed by rampant global carbon emissions.

Perhaps to the  English the possibility that the United Kingdom breaks up, with Scotland ploughing its own furrow, does not have the sort of existential quality of global meltdown, communist takeover or even terrorist attack. That may be so, but we underestimate its significance at our peril. If nothing else, if the Scots vote Yes in their referendum in September, the negotiations over separation will dominate the political agenda for at least four years. The Union is so deeply embedded into our governance that separating the countries will have a host of unforeseen complications. And the complications that are clearly visible are bad enough: membership of the EU and NATO; Britain’s nuclear weapons; managing the currency; spitting the national debt; splitting oil revenues; and so on. Our governing classes will scarcely have time to do anything else, while the publics on both sides of the border will be inflamed by populists claiming that their country is getting the rough end of the deal. And at the end of it all England will be dominate nonsense of a country that can’t convincingly even lay claim to its traditional names of “United Kingdom” or “Great Britain”. It will be left with a tangle of Imperial era commitments, from membership of the UN Security Council, to responsibility for the Falkland Islands, without the joint enterprise of Scotland and the other British nations that brought these about. The loss of international prestige would be incalculable. It is often said that the loss of Ireland was the first step in the break up of Britain’s empire – the point at which Britain’s sense of confidence and authority fatally started to ebb away. The departure of Scotland would end aspirations to be even a second-rank world power, and no doubt poison the country’s politics for generations to come.

And yet the British establishment is taking this threat very calmly. People talk about the referendum here in England, but with little sense of its implications. And when conversation moves to next year’s General Election, the impact of the referendum on our politics is quickly forgotten. The half-baked argument used to dismiss such thoughts is that a Yes vote looks unlikely. But the Yes campaign has all the momentum. The No campaign depends on narrow, conservative arguments, put forward by second-rank politicians. Even if the Noes win, the threat of breakup remains. Supporters of the Union, on both sides of the border, need to recover the initiative. There is no more important issue in British politics.

Let us try to understand were the threat is coming from. It started in the 1970s as North Sea oil was discovered, and gave the Scots a sense that their country could be economically prosperous, even as industrial decline blighted it, along the rest of the UK outside the southern counties of England. The establishment response was Devolution: the setting up of a separate Scots parliament, to which progressively more power has been given. This may have delayed the crisis, but it has not solved it. In devolved Scottish politics the Nationalists field their best politicians against those of the unionist parties of second and third rank. An ambitious Scots politician who belongs to the Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative parties seeks to get elected to the Westminster parliament to make his or (less commonly) her career there. Here they happily take a hand in running England’s affairs. Gradually the Nationalists have come to dominate local politics in Scotland.  Meanwhile at Westminster one of two situations occurs: a Conservative led government is elected that the Scots did not vote for, or a Labour government which does not have a majority of English MPs. This inflames politics, especially north of the border when there is a Conservative government.

At the heart of the problem is the way in which the ruling Westminster elite sees itself. The British Parliament, with especial reference to the House of Commons, is sovereign. It secures the consent of the people at General Elections, but in between times its authority should be unchallenged. It is an evolution of the medieval and Renaissance idea that kings should be absolute rulers. Our elite becomes troubled when authority seeps away to institutions such as the European Union under treaty obligations. But it would rather not think about the idea that Parliament itself lacks the popular consent that its sovereign status implies. The Scots challenge this legitimacy openly, but increasing other British people feel it too, even if they articulate it less well.

There is an obvious solution: federalism. In a federal structure sovereignty is shared between the different levels of government. The higher levels are not self-evidently more “sovereign” than lower ones. The best known example is, of course, the United States of America. There the states are not the artificial creations of the national government, only allowed to do what the national government says. In theory it is the opposite, though in practice it is a jockeying match, arbitrated by a written constitution and the Supreme Court.

In Britain this means that you would have a federal, UK government, with a number of state governments below it. What would those states be? Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, obviously. But what about England? Many people, when first considering the problem, want to establish a series of new regional states in England, of approximately the same size as Scotland, in population terms. But this really doesn’t fly. That is not how the English view themselves; such localised identities could emerge in time. The great conurbations of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Bristol show some signs of developing such identities. But what of the rest? Cornwall, though rather small in size, has a sharp (and non-English) identity and has a strong claim for statehood. But elsewhere it means drawing arbitrary boundaries which, even if they follow ancient identities like Wessex, Mercia or Northumbria, really won’t work. That is not how modern England is.

The English state would have to be England itself, with maybe only Cornwall separate. That presents some big problems of its own, of course, but I think these are more soluble than muddling on as we currently are. I will only say that the critical thing is for the seats Federal and English parliaments should be located in different cities. Only then will the separation between the two be properly credible.

There are two main ways in which such a system might be implemented. The best is for the current British Parliament to become the new English Parliament, with a new Federal Assembly located outside London, operating within a new, written Federal Constitution. But such a step is too revolutionary for our country, that likes to evolve its constitution in small steps. I suspect the number of minor legal complications that would follow would be almost as bad as those that would flow from a Scottish breakaway. I would still vote for it if offered the chance – but grumpy as the British electorate is, I don’t think they are in such a revolutionary mood.

So the other way forward is for the British Parliament to downsize and become the new Federal legislature. The House of Lords might be replaced by a Senate with members appointed by the state legislatures (which would need to incorporate sub-state governments in the case of England, perhaps). A new English parliament and English First Minister would be established, located outside London. The whole thing would be constitutionally protected by a British Bill of Rights, which might, for good measure, establish the limits of European authority, in the way that Germany’s Basic Law does. That is revolutionary enough. But I can’t see any middle way between this and the current muddle.

And how to implement such a radical proposal? The first step must be to call a Constitutional Convention in the wake of the Scottish referendum result if there is the expected No result. And perhaps even if there is a Yes and a backlash as the difficulties emerge (although if that happens, only the first of my two solutions would be viable). That is what English politicians should be calling for.

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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.

 

 

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Rethinking Liberalism 4: taxing the wealthy

There is a growing view that”inequality is one of the main problems confronting the modern world. This is quite a change. Distribution of income or wealth (or indeed the difference between the two) was not a major concern in the previously dominant neoclassical economic world view. But now that the benefits of growth in the developed world go almost exclusively to a tiny elite, while median incomes stagnate, this view has become complacent. And the work of the French economist Thomas Piketty has drawn attention to the potential power of the very wealthy. This presents a major challenge for liberals.

The problem is that liberals should have no particular problem with inequality of income and wealth in their own right. We believe in individual responsibility and free choices. We have unequal economic outcomes because people want and choose different things. So what? In fact inequality is cover for a series of issues which liberals should care about. Today I am writing about one of them: the wealthy elite.

The problem is known colloquially as the “1%”, because a disproportionate share of developed world income is going to the top 1% (or 10%; or 0.1% depending on how you want to present the figures). Rather than providing evidence for this assertion, and how it specifically might apply to Britain (perhaps less than in some countries), I will take it as a given, and look at some of the issues of principle that it uncovers.

Why does it matter? To some it is a simple matter of social justice. Inequality is one thing, but the justification for these extremes is another. There is more than a suspicion that the lucky few are winning because of unfair advantages, rather than just ordinary luck and talent. But regardless of this is a further problem. This wealthy elite has the chance to consolidate its advantages with political influence, so as to rig the economy in its favour. The growing influence of big money in politics, and the enormous lobby industry in places like Washington DC, points in this direction. There is an economic problem too: excess wealth is deadweight. The wealthy do not consume as high a proportion of their income as poorer people. And only a small proportion of their savings get channelled into constructive investment  (paying people to build things) rather than various forms of speculation in pre-existing assets.

Why is the problem growing? It seems to be a case of a weakening middle. In other words it is not a question of rising poverty, but a hollowing out of the middle class. It is easy to see the culprits: technologies that automate medium-skilled jobs, and globalisation that weakens local bargaining power. Thus we have the problem: the economy becomes more productive, but the benefits do not go to most workers. Can this trend be reversed? That is a central challenge for progressive policymakers, and it is a question I will return to.

But if we take the trend as a given, which I fear we must, then what can be done about it? The answer is clear: redistribution via taxation, public services and transfers. This issue divides politics like no other. On the right, we have “economic liberals”, who think that lower taxes and smaller government will unleash economic growth that will benefit all of society. On the right we have what I will call progressives (not all liberal), who appreciate that with today’s skewed power structures such growth will only benefit an elite, and will in any case be undermined by the deadweight effect of excessive wealth. Like most Liberals, I am in the progressive camp here.

Apart from the deep flaws in the economic liberal logic, progressive thinkers can see something else. The state has no choice but to grow. We have signed up to a society which seeks to (more or less) guarantee minimum levels of access to health care and old-age pensions.  The aging of developed world populations will increase the burden of these. And much of the investment needed to keep a modern economy growing, from education to roads and bridges, requires some level of state support. Meanwhile the ability of the middle classes to fund their own needs through savings is under pressure – both because their own incomes are not keeping pace with inflation, and because returns on saving are diminishing, a little appreciated aspect of the “hollowing out” process – with the exception of those able to own property in prosperous parts of the country.

So this comes back a stark truth. Taxes on the rich must rise. This serves to recycle wealth that would otherwise drop out of productive economic flows, and it helps fund the basics the state has to provide. So how to do this? There are broadly three directions: income, assets and capital gains.

Until now, most of the argument has been over income taxes, and in particular the best top rate of tax. When I started my first accountancy job in 1976, the top rate of tax was 83%, which rose to 98% for investment income. Conventional wisdom turned against the wisdom of such high rates. They dropped to 60% and then to 40% in the UK, before rising to 50% in 2010, and then being clipped to 45%. Economists are less sure about the wisdom of cutting such high rates. They did think that cutting tax rates would mean that rates of pay (for the elite) would fall, as it was cheaper to provide the same net salary. In fact the opposite has happened. This seems to point to senior salaries being more about power politics than market forces. Companies paid their executives more because they could; they did not do so when tax rates were high, because they did not like to see so much of the extra money disappearing in tax.

I can see no harm in reinstituting the 50% top rate of tax, though experience suggests that this won’t bring in a huge amount of extra revenue. Such high rates create a tax avoidance industry. There is a problem with very high rates of income tax though: they tend to entrench a wealthy elite, because they make it more difficult for outsiders to join them. The way to become wealthy becomes to to inherit rather than earn. This was the rather interesting conclusion of a quite wonderful contemporary study of the British tax system of the 1970s by Mervyn King and John Kay – which was recommended as a model piece of economic writing 30 years later by the UCL Economics department.

So should we not look at taxing wealth? This is the recommendation of Mr Piketty, who worries that the rate of return on the elite’s assets is too high, and entrenches their dominance. Such a tax would probably be about 1 or 2% per annum – which may not sound much, but is enough to dent annual returns significantly. Such a tax exists in the Netherlands, hardly as basket-case economy. A variation on this general idea is just to tax land – an idea (Land Value Tax) that has an ancient history in the Liberal movement. I personally have a difficulty with taxing a theoretical value of an asset, rather than a realised one – given that the reliability of asset valuations is weakening. But I have to admit the idea is growing on me, especially the land-only version.

A further way of taxing assets is at death. This is theoretically very sound, but too easy to avoid in practice. The rates here can be very high. In order to make this more watertight such taxes should no doubt be applied to large gifts as well. This used to be the case in the UK. But taxing legacies and gifts seems to attract a particular political opprobrium, and we have to tread carefully.

Finally we should mention capital gains: where assets and incomes meet. These are the commonest loopholes in tax systems. Aligning such taxes with income tax seems the best way of dealing with this. But this may undermine the case for an asset tax: the Netherlands does not tax capital gains.

But in discussing such details we must not miss two big and interrelated issues. The first is that our elites tend to be globally mobile. Taxing them will require growing levels of transnational cooperation. And indeed the need to tax such mobile elites puts greater importance on such transnational cooperation. The EU’s tax dimension should grow. Such bodies as the G20 need to focus on the matter too. It is not particularly surprising that so many rich businessmen are in favour of the UK leaving the European Union.

Which brings me to the second issue: politics. The rich seem to be of an economically liberal mindset (which is actually a recent development, as this article in the New Yorker observes). They increasing fund political movements with an economically liberal agenda. This is already poisoning the politics of the USA. It will make taxing the wealthy harder. But not impossible. If the public understands that the alternative is to cut basic pension and health systems the economic liberals will lose. But whereas we used to think that politics in the developed world was getting dull, this growing clash of economic interests will inject real conflict into it. Class war is back.

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The search for a new Liberal narrative

There is a basic human need to understand the world in terms of simple stories. This is as true of politics as it is for other parts of life. Something that explains how we have got to where we are – and guides us towards what to do next.  These are referred to as “narratives” in the jargon of political marketing. A narrative is a critical part of the political “brand”, another useful piece of political marketing jargon, which refers to what the public understands to be the core elements of a political party or movement. And liberals the world over, but especially here in Britain, are adrift. Here it is brought on by the spectacular collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats since they entered coalition government in 2010, and the way the other parties are veering away from liberal policies. In the European elections only about 2.5% of the British electorate voted for the only avowedly liberal party on offer.

I particularly like this article, The not so strange death of Liberal England, by Simon Radford in Left Foot Forward. I think he articulates very clearly what many liberals are currently thinking, especially those on in the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties. I will draw shamelessly from it as I develop my own narrative of how liberals and Liberals have reached the current dark patch.

Mr Radford suggests that Liberalism (as I will call the political movement which started with the Liberal Party) started in the 19th Century when the key political battle was between landowners and tenants. The state was tilted heavily in favour of the landowners, both terms of trade (particularly the lack of free trade of food) and taxation (little or no income tax). Liberalism was the movement that took the side of the tenants, and free trade was its central organising principle. To this were added the ideas of social insurance, and the birth of the welfare state. It was a long struggle, but the Liberals won, led by Asquith, Lloyd-George and Churchill, before war struck in 1914.

But the game had already moved on. The central drama was now the battle between the capitalists and workers. Liberal policies of free trade did not address this conflict. Instead the Labour movement arose, based on organising workers and forcing capitalists to give up a more equal share of the wealth – through better wages, workers’ rights, taxation and an expanded welfare state. The Liberals faded into irrelevance between the two wars.

Then came what many mistakenly regard as a golden age, after the Second World War. The forces of technology and demographics combined to give steady growth in which the wealth of all advanced. Social democracy was the prevailing wisdom, with a large role given to labour unions. Labour had a strong enough hand to ensure that they a decent share of the gains went to the workers. Liberalism had little to add, although liberal instincts accorded well the optimistic and more tolerant ethos of the times. Many in the Conservative and Labour parties described themselves as liberals.

Then came the 1980s, when capitalists advanced and labour retreated. Some on the left see this as the result of a sinister coup, masterminded by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, to corrupt a system that was already working well. But the social democratic system was by then collapsing under its own weight, and it did not need much of a push to send it crashing to the ground. The old liberal ideas of free markets and trade came to the fore, and brought forward economic growth, but the process was not led by liberals; state services were neglected and taxes cut. By the 1990s new technology and globalisation were adding to the mix. The hope was that the benefits of growth would spread to all.

But the public weren’t happy with the political leadership. Labour were not trusted because they were associated with the collapse of the social democratic system, in  welter of industrial disputes and stymied productivity, in the 1970s. And yet they disliked Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives, and their rejection of social solidarity and neglect of public services. Liberalism started to revive. It offered a kinder version of the capitalist system. Tony Blair’s Labour Party managed to capture much of this liberal enthusiasm (calling his ideas a “Third Way”), which, allied with traditional Labour supporters gave him a ruling coalition which lasted from 1997 to 2010 (though he himself had been turned out by then). Although Mr Blair’s “New Labour” was the main beneficiary, the Liberal Democrats prospered too, establishing themselves as a credible third force, in a way that would have seemed unimaginable in the 1950s, 60s or 70s. And it seemed to work; the country enjoyed steady economic growth, the benefits of which were distributed widely – inequality of income may not have been reduced, but it didn’t increased either.

But then came the bust of 20008-2009. It turned out that the growth enjoyed in the Labour years was built on air. They had expanded government ahead of what the economy could sustain, and much of its new infrastructure had to be dismantled. Living standards fell, hurting especially for those on low or middle incomes, while those on very high incomes still seemed to prosper. Worse, the quality of work seemed to fall for the majority, especially for most young people entering the job market. Steady, if mindless, factory jobs were swapped for rootless service ones, often badly paid. Meanwhile the low interest rates required by the sagging economy hit the country’s growing army of pensioners, as bank deposits yielded less and annuities became more expensive. A sour political mood has resulted.

Populist, conservative narratives are taking hold. Globalisation is seen as the problem, and especially two obvious elements: immigration and the country’s membership of the European Union, which is blamed for loss of control over immigration, bad laws and regulations, and excessive subsidies to foreigners. This narrative is incoherent, but it is not my purpose to pick it apart. The problem is that liberals have lost confidence in their own narrative.

Capitalism is not working for all. A minority is raking off profits and amassing wealth, while most of the rest are having to put up with increasing insecurity. But how to replace capitalism, since the usual alternative, state ownership and direction, has proved such a spectacular failure under Communism? The left say that increased state power is the answer. The Labour party has come up with various ideas for forcing capitalist enterprises to behave better. But these are hardly liberal. Liberals dislike the idea of putting peoples’ fates in the hands of wise bureaucrats. And also Labour’s ideas are pessimistic. It’s all about stopping people from inflicting harm, and little about allowing people to better themselves (as this week’s Economist Bagehot column points out).

Liberals are optimistic about human nature. They want to help people to help themselves, and allow them to make their own choices. I think there is an optimistic narrative to be found. It is about taking on both big government and big corporations. Working internationally to curb multinational businesses. Developing more sustainable lifestyles which are more locally based. It means ditching an obsession with economic growth for a broader understanding of well-being.

I aim to develop these ideas further. But it is clear that such a narrative implies some hard choices. It may mean that liberals are unable to accept the compromises entailed in coalition government. But if there are no hard choices there is no credibility.

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Why you should vote Liberal Democrat on 22 May

Britain, along with the rest of the EU, faces a very interesting set of elections this week, for the European Parliament. Our polling day is Thursday 22 May, when there are also local elections in many parts of the country, including London, where I live. I am not an impartial observer of these elections, but I do try to express my views dispassionately, and set aside the pure propaganda. Here is what I think of the various contenders.

Let’s clear the decks a bit. I am thinking mainly about England; my knowledge of the politics of other parts of the UK is better than that of most English people, but that is a low bar indeed. In Northern Ireland I have a strong inclination towards the Alliance Party, because of its non-sectarian ethos. I dislike the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) mainly because I am a unionist. But I will say for its politicians that they put Scottish politics above Westminster politics; SNP politicians do not aspire to a place in the British cabinet. Still, this is less relevant to the European Parliament than elsewhere. I have rather more sympathy with Welsh Plaid Cymru, who tend to set out a clear social democratic, reformist agenda. But Welsh politics is messy, and I don’t feel confident talking about it.

And neither will I talk about the local elections. These should be determined by local issue and the local politicians’ records – and not the subject of a sweeping blog post like this one.

In England there are five contenders for your vote: the Conservatives, Labour, Ukip, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Voting for any other party is a wasted vote, even under our proportional system – since there is no system of transferable votes outside Northern Ireland. There are many other parties contesting these elections, but they simply don’t have enough traction to get up to the level needed win a seat. This is to be welcomed in the case of the BNP, who did manage to win a couple of seats last time, in 2009.

The party everybody is talking about is Ukip. The main reason offered by people for voting for them is that they are political outsiders, and that supporting them will give Britain’s established political elite a well deserved black eye. This is about the only good reason for voting for the party. They are chaotic and ill-disciplined, and they don’t take the work of the European Parliament seriously, and so their presence will damages the national interest. Inasmuch as you can detect clear views, they tend to be illiberal. If you are a Eurosceptic, there are other parties you can vote for who will do a better job of representing you and the country in this forum, which has significant political power, whether or not you accept that is a good thing.

But do our political elite deserve such a kicking? Many of the voters I have met on the streets think so; they feel let down. This is not just our newspapers stoking things up, with the rest of our media in tow. Politics has become too professional, and not enough politicians genuinely engage with voters. Focus groups and polling might be quite useful for informing politicians about what people are thinking, but they don’t help people feel involved. But will the shock of voters defecting to Ukip, or not voting at all, make them change their behaviour? There is little sign of this. I am not sure the problem is entirely soluble in a modern, developed society. But to make things better we need political reforms, not protests. These reforms need to make politicians more responsive to voters. This means changing our electoral system, and it means devolving more power to local levels where it is much easier to involve people in decisions.

The trouble is that Ukip stands for a sort of conservatism. They want political reforms, but focusing on the European level, not at the national level, where they are most needed. This sort of conservatism tends to reject useful reforms, as we saw in the debate on the Alternative Vote system (which would have been a small step in the right direction), and the soft spot so many people seem to have for our appointed House of Lords. It’s not the right kind of kicking, and it is the wrong election to do the kicking at.

Most Eurosceptics would be better served by the Conservative Party. The Conservatives have a clear view on Europe: renegotiation and a referendum. This is surely the most sensible way forward if you believe that being part if the EU is bad for the country. The European Parliament cannot deliver on this agenda – but Conservative MEPs will be taken much more seriously in Brussels than Ukip ones, and will thus do a better job of representing the country – though they would have had much more influence if they had not left the parliament’s Christian Democrat grouping.

But is a referendum right for the country? Like many supporters of the European project I dither on this. I don’t think it is a good idea for the UK to leave the EU. This is mainly because emotionally I feel a strong European identity (maybe because I have lived a short while outside Europe). But more practically, our obligations within the Union are forced on us by our economic circumstances, and leaving it would make little difference. It would be a colossal waste of political effort that should be devoted to other issues. Meanwhile the uncertainty it would create, as so many things of commercial importance are renegotiated, would blight the country exactly where it can least afford it. Many of the same arguments apply to just having a referendum on the issue – never mind actually leaving. The main argument for a referendum is that it would lance the boil and let the country move forward. I would sooner wait until the EU is forced to undertake more significant structural reform that anything the UK can force on its own.

And so to the Labour Party. Their campaign for the European Parliament is focused on the “cost of living crisis”. Regardless of the merits of this, it is exactly the sort of irrelevant focus-group based politics that has given politicians such a bad name. Their election literature mentions practically nothing about Europe or the European Parliament. This kind of cynical campaigning should be rejected. Politicians should be courageous; currently Labour only want to play safe. I can respect David Cameron for his referendum strategy on Europe, which required quite a bit of courage. Labour are running from the fight.

And the Greens? They deserve respect: their literature (at least here in London) at least talks about what they would do in the European Parliament. They don’t talk about Britain in Europe, but about the sort of Europe they want. That is what these elections should be about. I am just less than convinced about their vision. For me it is too anti-business. Good intent is no substitute for knowhow. We should be pushing Europe towards an environmentally sustainable future – but we have to take the public with us. We have to challenge big business vested interests – but also allow big business to keep people in jobs, and provide that element of economic stability people crave. I don’t think the Greens have a clear idea of how to get that balance right.

Which leaves the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems are the most Europhile of the parties (though quite a few Europhiles inhabit the Labour Party and the Greens). This has one particular advantage: it means that they part in the European Parliament’s processes with more enthusiasm, and so are much more influential than they would be otherwise. Liberal Democrats have held some very influential positions (such as Sharon Bowles’s chairing of the Economic & Monetary Affairs Committee). In this work they do a good job of standing up for British interests – and can actually talk about their track record in the Parliament with pride. They have also shown a lot more courage in standing up for a pro EU position – unlike the Labour Party – and unlike the party has done in previous elections to the European Parliament. You may not think all of their pro EU arguments are convincing (though the same can be said of most of the anti EU arguments), but they have done the campaign a service by talking about it.

Right through the country’s history Britain, and England before it, has never been sure about the role it should take in Europe. There have been times when the country has successfully pursued a global agenda while retaining minimal involvement in European affairs, such as in the mid to later 18th and 19th Centuries. At other times the country has been a fully fledged player, such as Waterloo in 1815 and the First and Second World Wars in the 20th Century. Right now the country’s dependence on trade leaves it no option but to be heavily involved in its European connections, whether or not the country stays in the EU. I believe that means that the country’s leaders should try to shape the EU from within. Others feel that by leaving the EU, it will be easier for the country to find the best path in the world. If you share my view, then the Liberal Democrats are the party for you. If you don’t, then you might still consider voting for the party as highly effective operators in the parliament. Otherwise think of voting Conservative or Green. Don’t vote for Labour or Ukip, whose campaigns are taking British politics in entirely opposite but wrong directions.

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