Tag Archives: UKIP

British politics is in stalemate

The British elections last Thursday were probably the most significant electoral test this parliament, with the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the London Mayor, and many English councils up for grabs. Everybody had the chance to vote for something. The outcome was underwhelming. Where does that leave the political scene?

The analogy is overblown, but I am reminded of the war that ravaged Europe 100 years ago. In 1916 huge efforts by the major combatants yielded little return on the ground. While the military men looked for breakthrough tactics, these yielded limited results, and in the end it was a matter of stamina and fundamentals.

The results pose uncomfortable questions for all the political parties that took part, major and minor. Most of the attention has focused on Labour. They suffered a further catastrophe in Scotland, falling behind the Conservatives to third place. In England they mainly held their ground, with an impressive victory in London’s Mayoral election. Supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hail this as vindication – but that only shows how low their expectations have sunk. There is no hint here of how the party can regain power in Westminster. The myth of a hidden bank of left wing voters waiting to be energised by Mr Corbyn has been shown to be just that. But neither is there a disaster enough to fuel Mr Corbyn’s opponents; the Scots meltdown predates his tenure and so had already been written off. The best guess is that the far left will continue to hollow the party out from within, but that the party’s outward status remains largely unchanged. Come the next general election the question is whether the party will implode or simply repeat its dismal performance last time. On this year’s evidence it will be the latter.

For the Conservatives the position looks considerably better. They drifted only gently backwards in English councils; their performance in London was reversion to type, after unexpected success under their Mayor Boris Johnson; and they achieved a remarkable breakthrough in Scotland. But to keep governing beyond 2020 they will need to deliver a killer blow to Labour, while containing any Lib Dem comeback. Can they do that when they are riven by divisions over Europe, will replace their leader with one who has much less public respect, and while their government programme keeps being derailed by backbench discontent? Meanwhile their tactics in London, where they tried to toxify Labour’s Sadiq Khan by associating him with Mr Corbyn and Muslim extremists, failed, and may have damaged the party’s brand.

The SNP maintained their grip on Scottish politics but lost their overall majority. They have completed an astonishing pivot to the left, allowing the Tories a bit more breathing space, and leaving Scots to wonder what the point of Labour is. It is hard to see how anybody is going to deliver a knockout blow, but more Scots will surely start to tire of them. The only way seems to be down.

Ukip cemented their status as a major UK party, with breakthroughs in the Welsh Parliament and London Assembly, and consolidation of their role as Labour’s main opposition in parts of the north of England. But they are a party of oddballs, and it is hard to see how they can maintain their coherence. As a party of local government in England, they won only 15% of the seats of the supposedly down and out Lib Dems; this is a weak grassroots base.

The Greens moved forwards in Scotland, and held their own in London, where they are established as the third party by popular vote. But in English council seats for every gained they lost a seat somewhere else, to end up with even fewer seats than Ukip. Their switch to the left, while downplaying their environmentalism, looks to have been a strategic error, with the wind taken out of their sails by the revival of the Labour left.

And my own Lib Dems? There were quite  a few successes; they gained more English council seats than any other party, and are approaching half the Conservative total. They comfortably retain their position as the third party of local government. There were striking constituency wins in Scotland and one in Wales. But all the Lib Dem successes boiled down to pockets of local strength, where they are deeply embedded into civic society. They have shown their ability to claw back ground from the Tories in particular, and even the SNP. But talk of a revival of fortunes belongs in the same category of optimism as the Labour left’s. The party was reduced to a single seat in both the Welsh parliament and London Assembly, and fell behind the Greens in Scotland. They struggle to reach 5% in proportionally elected contests, an irony for a party that is so in favour of this type of election. The party has not established clear political ground for itself and remains confused as to whether its coalition years were its finest hour or a terrible mistake. The party fights irrelevance in most of the land.

Plaid Cymru continued to move sideways. The politics of Wales remains quite different from that in Scotland, and the party seems quite unable to replicate the SNP’s success.

And nobody else made an impact. The Women’s Equality party was launched last year in a big media splash, and tried its luck in London, but got nowhere. The nativist Britain First is another new party, which has a big presence on social media, and it put in a performance that beat other competitors in its space (such as the British National Party), but still only managed a derisory result. For all the claimed discontent of the public with established politicians, there is not even a faint sign of an insurgency that could take off.

So British politics is in deadlock. The Conservatives have a narrow majority in the UK parliament but lack the discipline to govern decisively. There is no evidence as yet that they are going to break out of this. But neither is there any sign of a party or coalition of parties that can knock them off their perch.

There is a broad lesson here about British politics that is not given enough weight by most commentators. Political success requires a strong grassroots infrastructure and solid organisation, built up over many years, as well as being able to chime with some part of the zeitgeist.  Labour and the Conservatives have achieved this more or less across Britain, now that the former are rebuilding themselves in Scotland. Fear of losing this vital political infrastructure stops either party from breaking apart, in spite of huge political divisions. The SNP has this in Scotland and is consolidating. That the Lib Dems are in the fight at all after failing so spectacularly to hit the zeitgeist is testament to their pockets of grassroots strength and penetration of institutions like the House of Lords; they have something to work with. Ukip and the Greens have attempted to build their own infrastructure but are finding it desperately hard going. Nobody else stands a chance. There will be no unconventional uprising like Italy’s Five Star movement. It is also very hard for a nativist insurgency, such as that of Donald Trump in the US, or the Front National in France, to get traction – though Ukip has tried.

And so we are locked in stalemate. The biggest threat to this dynamic is if one or other of the major parties breaks up under the strain. The second possibility is that the Tories get their act together sufficiently to deliver a knock-out punch to a Labour Party that does not look interested in government. As yet there is no sign of either.

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Success in Oldham deepens denial among Labour left

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Last week BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Aloud ran a piece on research showing how people assume that most other people think like them. This is, apparently, particularly strong at the political extremes. We don’t need academics to tell us this, of course – it explains many of history’s major political misjudgements.  Prime candidates at the moment are supporters of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who are in deep denial about how difficult it will be for their party to win elections. In this, if nothing else, they resemble the supporters of Donald Trump in the US.

Of course, being in denial is something that, as a Liberal Democrat supporter, I know something about. Throughout the Coalition years we were told that our party faced oblivion at the next election. We refused to accept this, but alas we were wrong. Denial is always easier to see in others. The main problem on the Labour left is that they assume that most Britons share their view that the Conservatives are out only to line the pockets of the rich, and that “austerity” is evil. Now I’ve written before that this outlook will doom the Labour Party to failure, and that one of the first tests of the Corbyn leadership would be the Oldham by election. Well that election was last week, and it was a triumph for Labour. They increased their percentage share of the vote, though with less votes overall. A challenge from Ukip failed to materialise: they increased their vote (by 3%), but by much less than the Conservative vote fell (over 9%). Is this vindication for the Corbynistas?

Up to a point it is. It shows that all the chatter that Labour’s lurch to the left has affected the party’s electoral standing is just that. There is little decent data on this result, analysing who did and didn’t support each party, so we can’t say for certain what happened. But as Alistair Meeks points out in politicalbetting,com, the result is completely consistent with previous by elections in the area. Nothing much has changed. There is much for Labour supporters to take heart from here.

The first point is that Ukip look like a busted flush.  The party was supposed to be picking up disillusioned white working class votes, and presenting a major threat to Labour in the north of England. They nearly won one of those previous nearby by elections. If Mr Corbyn did not play well on Oldham’s doorsteps, as the chatter suggested, Ukip’s Nigel Farage played no better. He used to be a media star, and regarded as “authentic”, but he seems to have lost his credibility. The Ukip result in the May General Election was disappointing, as they were mugged by the ruthless Tory election machine. Mr Farage’s shenanigans over whether he was resigning as leader may have had the same sort of effect on his public standing as Nick Clegg’s U-turn on university tuition fees. The party needs to dump him, but probably won’t. The transition from a Tory breakaway in the shires to being a party of working class protest is too much for it.

The second cheering point for Labour is that their challengers to the left are thoroughly neutralised. The Greens achieved barely 1% of the vote. The Lib Dems put in a major effort and still lost their deposit, and tried, unconvincingly, to draw comfort from the fact that their vote did not actually fall from a mere 3.7%. In this environment at least, these parties are treated as a complete irrelevance. In living memory the Lib Dems were capable of pulling off a stunning wins almost anywhere. There are some signs in local by elections of a Lib Dem bounce back, but it is highly localised and bypassed Oldham.

All this bodes well for Labour’s prospects in May 2016, the next big local polling date, when there are also elections to the Scots and Welsh parliaments, and London’s Mayor. Labour’s candidate for London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has every chance of wresting the position back from the Conservatives. In Scotland, though, prospects look dire for Labour as the SNP machine looks dominant. It is even possible that the party will drop to third place behind the Conservatives. But London’s political class seems to have written Scotland off.

So why am I suggesting that Labour activists are in denial? Because May’s result in the General Election was terrible for them and there is not the faintest sign of it getting better – only that it is not getting worse. Their prospects in Scotland are not the sort of irrelevance that Londoners seem to assume. Scotland is one of the most important battlegrounds in British politics; it has been for at least five years. If Labour can’t engineer a recovery there, they will be locked out of politics in Westminster. Interestingly, the success of the SNP was a key piece of evidence for the Corbynista thesis – that the public was really angry about austerity, and Labour’s big mistake was not to be angry enough.  But Scots voters turned on Labour because they thought they were incompetent, and did not stick up for Scotland. Mr Corbyn’s election does not improve their standing on either count, to put it generously.

Labour may be standing up well enough in the north of England, in spite of a cheeky challenge by the Conservatives to win back support there, but there is no sign that Labour can win back those politically sceptical middle-England voters that they progressively lost after Tony Blair stepped down as party leader.  To do that Labour activists must break free of the notion that most people share their political outlook, deep down. Meanwhile a dangerous rift between the parliamentary party and the leadership reinforce a general air of incompetence, the most fatal thing in politics.

I have heard a number of people suggest that the real winners of Oldham are the Conservatives. It is hard to disagree.

 

 

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Can any of Britain’s political parties break the deadlock?

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The rise of fringe parties takes British politics into a whole new era. and yet the outcome of the election due on 7 May 2015 seems strangely predictable. The parties seem to be stuck in a deadlock where none can win. What are the chances of one of them breaking free?

Britain’s electoral system (misleadingly referred to as “first past the post”) is capable of producing dramatic swings in the balance between the parties. But a plethora of constituency polls allows pundits to make some quite stable predictions this time. The main features are these: the Liberal Democrats will lose up to 30 seats of their current 57. The Scottish Nationalists (the SNP) will pick up a similar number, or perhaps more, giving them 30-40 seats overall. The new insurgent parties, Ukip and the Greens, will only pick up a handful of seats, and the latter maybe none at all. Overall Labour will advance, and the Conservatives will fall back. The main debate is whether Labour will be able to overhaul the Conservatives to become the largest party. Interestingly, the fortunes of both major parties will be largely determined by how well they do against the smaller parties rather than each other. But neither party will win enough seats to form a government with one of the smaller parties; they will need to do a deal with each other to form a stable government. This is the outcome nobody (except the SNP perhaps) wants.

Can any of the parties break out of this stalemate? Sudden changes of fortune can happen. Two stand out in recent history. The first was in 1992, when John Major’s Conservative government suddenly overhauled Labour in the last week of the election campaign to win a comfortable majority, under the slogan “Labour’s Tax Bombshell”. The second was Cleggmania in 2010, when the Liberal Democrats surged forward after the performance of their leader, Nick Clegg, in the first of the television leadership debates. The surge faded, but the party avoided the drubbing they were heading for, defending their record result in 2005.

Such sudden surges are entirely possible this time. No political leader dominates the scene as Margaret Thatcher  did in the elections of 1983 and 1987 or Tony Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005. As in 1992 and 2010, political leadership is weak, and so things can be more fluid. Public frustration with politics is high.

To understand that we only have to look at Scotland, where the SNP have surged forward after last year’s referendum on independence (or, more precisely, they are consolidating their spectacular gains in the Scottish Parliament in 2011). Labour, who are defending 40-odd seats at the election are in serious trouble. That surge, however, is already built in to the forecasts. The surprise might be if the anti-SNP vote rallies and votes tactically. That’s a real possibility, though – and it would mainly benefit Labour (whose majorities are generally big), and might stem some of the Lib Dems’ anticipated losses. It would be particularly satisfying if the Lib Dem candidate Christine Jardine is able to hold off former SNP leader Alec Salmond.

What of the English insurgents, Ukip? They won the European Parliament elections as recently as last year. But their support has sunk to 15% (less than the Lib Dems achieved last time) and it is too thinly spread. Their novelty is wearing thin, and there is quite a strong anti-Ukip reaction, visible in their leader’s negative approval ratings in polls. The press, who often set the news agenda, found it convenient to boost them, but they  are now poking fun at them. Yet they are well-funded and in some regions (along the south and east coasts especially) they might yet hit the zeitgeist, and pick up a few more seats than the pundits expect. There is a more remote possibility that they do well in northern urban Labour strongholds – but this looks too high a hurdle for them this year.

How about the other insurgents, the Greens? They have done well in the polls this year, catching up with the poor old Lib Dems quite often. They have picked up the “none of the above” vote that dislikes Ukip. They have the possibility of repeating Cleggmania and advancing into teens of %age of votes, if not better. But they could suffer if they come under scrutiny. They have a rather mad collection of policies and their leader, Natalie Bennett, struggles to break out of fringe appeal. There is a challenge for the party. If they could dump Ms Bennett as their figurehead and replace her with their only MP, the impressive Caroline Lucas, and if they ditch most of their silly policies as “aspirations”, with a more mainstream manifesto – then they might be in business. It would be a big moment of growing up – but, my sense is that they can’t. Too many activists would see such a move as a betrayal. A further difficulty is translating an advance in the polls into seats, as their vote is thinly based. They seem to do well where Labour are already strong – and they lack the time and organisation to marshal a stronger vote in particular seats.

Could the Conservatives repeat their feat of 1992, and break through to an overall majority? They have an impressively disciplined campaign. They could even repeat the tax bombshell line of 1992 line with some justice (Labour’s instincts are free-spending); and Labour’s leadership is seen as not up to it, again as in 1992. Their leader, David Cameron, may not as impressive as Mr Blair or Mrs Thatcher, but he is more convincing than John Major was. But. But. I just think that the Conservatives are on the wrong side of history and will find it impossible to extend their appeal enough. Back in the 1980s they were the party that broke the unions (which most people saw as a good thing) and made the country self-confident again. Mass affluence broke out – even if a lot of it was through the false wealth of rising property values.  Now we seem stuck; the rich do well, but few others. Even increasing property values are seen as double-edged, forcing youngsters from even affluent families back onto “the bank of Mum and Dad”. In the 2000s the Tory brand became toxic; they haven’t done enough to reverse that.  Tactically they are in a bind too. They need to win back Ukippers with sour policies on Britain’s international role and immigrants – while at the same time as appealing to more optimistic, liberal voters. I just can’t see a breakout. Their only hope of a breakthrough comes from the collective weakness of everybody else – which remains possible.

How about Labour? They have the opposite problem. They are much more in tune with the popular zeitgeist. They understand a lot of what people feel is wrong about society. But their narrative is chaotic. They look like a coalition of grumpy protest groups rather than a coherent government in waiting. I am reminded a little of Labour under Jim Callaghan in 1979: when they try to make a clear stand on a policy, one of their number undermines it. Tough on immigration? Protests from London MPs. Stop any serious reform of the NHS (which they call “saving” it) – yes one moment, no the next. The current awkwardness is on a promise to reduce university tuition fees. They want a headline policy to whack the coalition with (especially to consolidate former Lib Dem voters) – but how to do so without damaging universities or giving a gift just to the richer students? It seems as if the party has lost the discipline of the New Labour era. But the party does have some strengths – in particular an army of younger canvassers, especially in London, and probably the strongest central organisation of any UK political party.

Like the Tories, the main hope for Labour seems to be the weakness of others: the Lib Dems, the Greens, Ukip and the SNP. On the other hand, it is easier to foresee some sort of implosion by Labour than it is for the Tories. A public rift on economic policy could be the cause: the tension between their trade union backers and the more realistic parliamentarians is palpable. There is rather strange paradox here. Ed Miliband has kept the party together much better than expected over the last four years. But this has been achieved by placating rather than resolving the tensions within it. Which makes the unity and discipline less easy to achieve when it is most needed.

Which leaves the Lib Dems, in my review. Their fall has been dramatic. They commonly show up with a poll rating of just 7%, compared with the 23% they achieved in 2010. In many places they would do well to get 2-3%. But they have strongholds, and a strongly focused constituency-led campaign strategy is helping to limit the damage. They are helped by Ukip undermining the Conservative vote, though they seem to have fewer defences in the minority of seats where Labour is their main opponent. In terms of popular vote it is difficult to see the party falling much further – but there is a risk that their constituency-led strategy falls apart, and they are left with very few seats indeed. But they do have upside potential. Their hope is to be seen as a sensible, liberal party, with none of the extremist politics of Ukip or the Greens. The more Labour and the Conservatives move to the extremes to face the threat of Ukip in particular, the more appealing the Lib Dems might look. There is reason for them to hope that their poll ratings will rise – though this may make surprisingly little difference in terms of the number of seats that they lose. Indeed a surge in the polls might undermine the party discipline needed to make the constituency strategy work.

All of which leaves British politics in a predicament. An electoral system that used to practically guarantee a succession of stable single party governments, is now moving towards one that simultaneously disenfranchises most voters (by stranding them in seats where their vote makes no difference), while delivering a result from which it is hard to form a governing majority. And yet such is the conservatism of Britain’s politicians and public, that it is difficult to see any successful move to change it.

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David Cameron is winning the race to the bottom. Is he the Michael Foot of the right?

The British electorate is being offered a choice between bad leadership and weak leadership, if they choose between the two biggest parties at the General Election in May 2015.  This is a turn-up for Labour’s Ed Miliband. While he still appears weak, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, had been seen as a sensible and competent leader. But Mr Cameron is now putting that at risk.

Mr Cameron, over the last month or so has put his name to a series highly unstatesmanlike moves. Let’s list them:

  1. He offered the public about £8bn of tax cuts in the next parliament, while at the same time closing the budget deficit. The only way this works is through savage cuts to benefits and public services. Most observers think it is completely infeasible. He has also through in the prospect of cutting Inheritance Tax, a tax which must be one of the most economically efficient.
  2. He, or rather his party, launched an attack on the Human Rights Act, which amongst other things, makes decisions by British courts and Parliament open to challenge by the European Court on Human Rights. This is more headline grabbing, and an attack on a perfectly sensible piece of legislation. This was supported by a suggestion that the basic human rights set out in the European Declaration were subject to some unspecified “responsibilities” – which shows a complete failure to understand what this declaration is trying to do.  Many Conservatives were horrified.
  3. As soon as the referendum on Scottish independence was declared, he launch a bid for “English Votes for English Laws”, a suggestion that there was some sort of quick fix that would prevent Scottish MPs from voting on matters that affected just England. This was another stunt, designed to deflect calls for a more considered approach to UK’s fraying constitution, through a constitutional convention. Many serious commentators feel that this direction of travel could only lead to the breakup of the UK.
  4. More recently Mr Cameron has suggested that he can renegotiate the country’s membership of the European Union so as to limit the level of immigration from EU countries into the UK. This means unpicking the core treaties that form the EU, and implementation would surely mean referendums in other EU countries and opening a Pandora’s Box. It is far from clear that excessive immigration from other EU countries is a serious problem for the UK – though there are abuses, which are open to less drastic solutions. This looks like another undeliverable promise, which takes the country one step closer to leaving the EU.

What do these ideas have in common, apart from being reckless political stunts? They play well to the agenda promoted by right-wing tabloid newspapers, like the working-class Sun and the middle-class Daily Mail. And they also play well amongst voters who are tempted to vote for Ukip, the insurgent populist party that is polling so well currently. Ukip have taken one seat off the Tories, Clacton, in a by-election following a defection, with an overwhelming margin. The Tories face a much tighter contest from another defector in Rochester and Strood – where polls still put Ukip in the lead.

So Mr Cameron is facing up to the clear threat from Ukip by appeasing their sympathisers. This stands in clear contrast to Mr Miliband and Labour. Labour have their own problems from Ukip, who are popular amongst white blue-collar voters, that used be part of Labour’s bedrock. Indeed the party came within a whisker of losing their own by-election to Ukip in Heywood & Middleton, in Greater Manchester. Their response to each of the four challenges by Mr Cameron has been muted. But they have stood firm – and not followed Mr Cameron’s race to the bottom. Labour politicians even offered some robust defence of the Human Rights Act. Perhaps they sense an opportunity. Labour are not exactly squaring up to Ukip, but they aren’t appeasing them either, apart from offering an  apology for allowing Polish migrants in in the early , which is at best insincere and at worst economically illiterate.

Over the past couple of years Ukip have hijacked the political agenda, with a constant focus on immigration and the EU in the news media. They have had a good run, topping the poll in May’s elections to the European Parliament, held under proportional representation. But this may be provoking a backlash. Polls tracking whether Britons would vote to leave the EU in a referendum have showing a growing proportion of people preferring to stay in, and they are now a comfortable majority. Perhaps people will tire too of the arguments over immigration, as they start to appreciate its complexities. The Economist published an interesting article suggesting that Ukip’s credibility is weak. Amongst other evidence it published a poll showing that more than 50% of people agreeing with the statement that “Ukip are a protest party with no realistic policies”, while 20% disagreed. Mr Cameron is fishing in a smaller pool than many in the press suppose.

If Labour spy an opportunity, it is that the public remains concerned about the standard of public services, and especially about the NHS. It could be that the Conservative promise of tax cuts will come back to haunt them. Today Simon Stevens, the new chief executive of NHS England, said that the NHS needed an extra £8bn of funding on top of inflation. Now Mr Stevens is no trade-union appointee, and is promoting radical reform of the NHS, including the openness to private and third sector providers that is being viciously attacked by the left. His plea for more funding is surely incompatible with the Tory promise on tax cuts. And yet it looks like the sensible centre, not the usual left wing ranting.

And here is the Conservative weakness. They are abandoning the political centre for a strain of populism that does not stand up to close scrutiny. Protest politics is not a viable route to power. As sensible, politically uncommitted commentators point out the flaws in Conservative plans, opinion-formers will turn against the party. And then some of its own members will voice doubts. Those of us with long memories remember something like this happening to the Labour Party in 1983. Its then leader, Michael Foot, pandered to a surge of left-wing populism in his party. Its manifesto in the election of that year was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”, and resulted in the party’s worst election performance in living memory. Are the Conservatives going down the same path?

This seems fanciful. After all politics is much more professional these days, based on extensive polling, and carefully chosen “wedge” issues. And Mr Cameron’s core stance on Europe remains a popular one – those polls showing increased support for the EU do not undermine what he is trying to do there. But the real reason that Mr Cameron is veering off to the populist right is because that is what most of his own party wants. It isn’t a careful piece of political triangulation, it is force of political circumstance. To do anything else would cause a fatal backlash in his own ranks. That is a predicament he shares with Michael Foot in 1983.

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The Westminster elite aren’t criminals and they do listen – but they could sharpen up

Ukip supporters are rampant in Essex, in Kent, in Greater Manchester, and in many other places too. They turn up in vox-pops and in blog comments. And what comes through is a vitriolic hatred of the “Westminster elite”, by which they seem to mean any MP belonging to the Conservatives, Labour or the Lib Dems, plus anybody associated with them. “They aren’t listening”, or if the they are listening, “they aren’t hearing”. Any politician that does not agree that immigration is the root of the country’s troubles, and should be curbed drastically, is regarded as corrupt and useless. I have gone on about the Westminster elite myself, but these sentiments are nonsense.

Some members of the elite, for example Labour’s Simon Danczuk (whose seat neighbours the one Ukip nearly took in a by-election last week) and many Tories, are jumping onto the bandwagon – to try and show that they are “listening”. Yesterday David Cameron, the Prime Minister, promised that putting curbs on intra-EU migration would be part of his renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership. He seems to be talking about something much more drastic than curbing benefit claimants, which is about all that Labour (and Lib Dems) are offering.

To the angry, white, older blue-collar voters who seem to be the Ukip bedrock, “listening” means “agreeing and acting on”. Their anger is based on a series of half-truths or untruths, but they will not engage in any attempt at dialogue.

Westminster politicians are finding it very hard to engage with people who think this way. But let’s be clear about what the Westminster elite are and aren’t. They are not corrupt. Many campaigners think they are too open to big business lobbyists, and I suspect they are right. But the issues here are nuclear energy, weapons, environmental protection, GM crops, and so on, to which most of the angry voters are indifferent. And even so, politicians have proved far from a pushover. Also the Westminster elite do listen to “ordinary” people. They intensively study focus groups and opinion polls. Quite a few knock on doors; most do constituency surgeries. And as a result politicians have been talking non-stop about immigration and the EU since before the 2010 election. I have a deep suspicion that the voters complaining that politicians don’t listen are the ones that refuse to talk to them when they call.

The problem is that politicians are also wrestling with other problems, such as how to keep public services going, state pensions affordable, wages up, and people in employment. And they know only one way that works, which is through a healthy economy. This requires a degree of economic liberalism, though there is much argument about how much. That includes free movement of labour. Without EU migrants from Poland and elsewhere in the early 2000s, the British economy would have run into the buffers long before 2007. It is dishonest or ignorant of current Labour politicians to suggest that letting them in was a mistake; without them they may not have won the 2005 election.The economy is still in a hole now, but limiting EU migration would be a shot aimed straight at the foot, as limiting non-EU immigration is proving. The economy is held back by bottlenecks, skill shortages and a reluctance by some to do certain jobs, like fruit-picking; we need workers of all skills levels to tackle these gaps to get and keep the economy moving. Trying to second guess where these shortages are through ingenious bureaucracy is at best an inefficient remedy. Most of the Westminster elite recognise this, so they do not respond aggressively to public pressure for immigration curbs.

Still, the Westminster elite could help themselves by doing a number of things better. First they should be more sincere. That means not sticking to pre-prepared sound-bites and evasive answers to questions; it means exposing themselves to more risks. As an example, both Labour and Conservative managers want to neuter the television leaders debates at the next general election, because they have too many unknowns that might make their leaders look bad – still less do they want embrace new, more anarchic social media formats. And yet these debates are a priceless way of engaging the public. More sincerity means more gaffes and more rough edges – that is the price of honesty. You only have to look at the remarkable political success of gaffe-prone Boris Johnson to understand this. And if that means standing your ground on unpopular issues, so be it.

Next they need to think harder about the causes of pain rather than just its symptoms. The angst about immigration looks like a displacement of other ills. We can speculate what they might be: over-centralised political power, fewer opportunities to get a decent job, and so on. These aren’t easy to fix, and some problems aren’t even capable of being fixed – but there can be more creativity as to how to soften the pain.

Finally, they should get out more. Politicians that make regular, face-to-face contacts with their electors do much better than others. It reduces the sense of disenfranchisement. Douglas Carswell, the Tory defector to Ukip who won the Clacton by-election, seems to have realised this – and there are other examples in all parties. The MP’s job is to be interface between the public and political power. Too many focus just on the workings of power itself.

Electoral reform would help, though it is not a panacea. Many countries with different electoral systems have similar problems to Britain. But the whole attitude of mind that revolves around the idea of safe seats is surely toxic.

But really, for all its faults, the Westminster elite isn’t that bad.

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Heywood & Middleton: banging on about the NHS is not enough for Labour

There were two parliamentary by-elections in England last night. At Clacton Tory defector Douglas Carswell was re-elected under the Ukip banner with a massive vote. This is a very striking result, but one that was entirely expected. The Essex seaside town of Clacton has a unique concentration of the older, white blue-collar types that are Ukip’s best hunting ground, and not a few lower middle class older white Tory types that are also tempted to vote for the party. The more thought provoking result was in the other election in the Greater Manchester seat of Heywood & Middleton. Ukip came within a whisker of beating Labour.

The best place to see the result is on Wikipedia. After searching the BBC and the main newspapers, all give snippets and verbiage, but don’t present the result simply and clearly – which says much about the narcissism of modern news reporting. The Labour vote share held at 40%, and even increased by a small fraction, albeit on a reduced turnout. The Conservative and Lib Dem votes collapsed (though both parties retained their deposits, a relief for the latter party); the racist BNP did well in 2010 (7% of the vote) but did not stand this time. Ukip gathered voters from all these sources to move from 2.6% to just over 40%. Given that this was a very short campaign – Labour moved the writ before its former MP’s funeral – this is a very significant achievement.

Labour were taking some comfort from the way their vote share held up, while the Tory and Lib Dem votes fell. This pattern repeated across the country could gift them a number of Tory and Lib Dem seats. We should not be surprised that professional election strategists could take pride in winning a House of Commons majority with one of the worst popular votes in Labour’s history (as 2010’s was) – but what kind of a mandate would that give the party’s leaders? The truth is that Labour’s strategy has gone off the rails. The plan is to hang on to the hard core of voters that the party retained in 2010, and to take about half of the Lib Dem vote. That should have taken them well past 50% in this constituency. For every vote they won back off the Lib Dems (and Tories for that matter), they lost one of their core voters to Ukip. Worse: in seats were the Lib Dems are weaker, for every two votes Labour wins back from that party, another one or more goes to Labour’s main opponents. Labour’s appeal is simply to weak to win.

Labour’s campaign was one-dimensional. They banged on about saving the NHS, which they claim is being sold off to private companies. This seems to resonate with voters, even though its relationship to the truth is weak – and if Labour were in power they would not be able to help much with the NHS’s troubles. Ukip’s policies on the NHS are far from reassuring, so this seemed to be a safe strategy. So Labour did not talk about Ukip’s favoured issue: immigration. This strategy clearly failed. Labour’s core, working class voters clearly want to talk about immigration, and are feeling ignored. But Labour does not know what to say without putting off other voters, such as those from ethnic minorities and liberals, to say nothing of its activists.

The trouble is that Labour is a fragile coalition of people who are united only in their dislike of the Conservatives. As soon as Labour start to become clearer about what their programme for government actually is, the more this coalition will fragment. Worse still, their campaigning is a classic mix of dissembling, lies and the building up of false expectations. This cannot bridge the gap of trust that lies behind the rise of Ukip.

To bridge the trust gap politicians must do things that hurt – that are against the apparent interests of their party and electoral prospects. The Lib Dems seem to understand this, to give them credit – though the public is unlikely to appreciate this until after next May, and their leader, Nick Clegg, has moved on. Some Tories do too – though not their leader, who will seemingly say anything to achieve a short-term advantage. But Labour has no conception of this idea. To them bravery is simply folly.

In the highly unstable mix of British five-way politics (including the SNP), it is entirely possible that Labour will achieve an overall majority. It may turn out to be a victory they regret achieving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Would a Miliband victory be good for the Lib Dems?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Here’s a paradox. Britain’s political party leaders are the most mediocre, as a set, that I can remember. At least in 2010 we had Gordon Brown: a disastrous prime minister, but one who at least had the moral authority to help lead the world from economic disaster in 2009. But next year’s General Election looks to be the most interesting contest for a very long time. The shame for Liberal Democrats like myself is that we are bit part players, hoping to hang on to most of our parliamentary seats, but without playing much part in the national debate. But the rise of Ukip means that three-party dynamics remains potent. But perhaps the Lib Dems longer term prospects are better?

To start with, we have an unknown effect from the Scottish referendum later this month. Whatever the result, this will surely change dynamics north of the border in ways that it is difficult to predict. The Westminster elite hardly dare confront the possibility of a Yes vote, though the race is tightening and this is a real possibility. They have contented themselves with promising extra devolution for the Scots, without addressing the implications for England. If the Yes result comes, the Westminster politicians will have nobody but themselves to blame.

The constitution of the UK (note this not a “Scots question” – it affects us all) remains the most important issue hanging over our politics, including next year’s election. But for a moment I want to join the Westminster chatterers and put this to one side (the chatteres’ favourite website politicalbetting.com seems to think that the forthcoming Clacton by-election is more important than the referendum), and consider other dynamics.

Over the summer the Conservatives had looked quietly confident, and I shared that confidence on their behalf. They faced a strong challenge from Ukip, whose message appeals to many of their activists, but they seemed ready for that. David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU is highly credible, and it is good bone to throw to potential Ukip defectors. Meanwhile they can promote scare stories about letting Labour in, and also blame the government’s more unpopular policies (to the right) on their coalition partners, the Lib Dems. The Euro election results in May seemed to support this confidence; Ukip were rampant, but Labour’s performance outside London looked lacklustre. Ukip were as much a problem for Labour as the Tories, and Labour’s message to Ukip supporters was (and remains) confused, unlike the Tory one.

Alas for the Conservatives their plan seems to be falling apart. The Tory MP for Clacton, Douglas Carswell, defected to Ukip, resigned his seat, and has caused a by election which he intends to contest under his new party’s banner. Clacton is a stronghold of the disaffected, white, aging, excluded working classes that is Ukip’s core constituency; a victory for Ukip looks certain. This gives Ukip real momentum. But, worse, it emphasises the divisions within Tory ranks between the more sensible moderate types represented by David Cameron, and what liberals regard as a lunatic fringe, whose strength has grown. This will encourage Tory voters to defect to Ukip, and discipline within the party to break down. That could scare off donors. Add this to the fact that the electoral system is weighted against the Conservatives, and they party’s challenge is looking steep indeed.

Which shifts the focus to Labour. That party has a clear hope that it will win the 2015 election by default. They have swept up a lot of former Lib Dem voters, and it seems certain that they will hang on to them. If the Tory vote sags because it is undermined by Ukip it looks good for the party. Labour faces its own challenge against Ukip, but generally in areas where they have very large majorities. There is an excellent article in today’s FT by Matthew Goodwin, who has been following Ukip’s rise closely. He may well be right that Ukip poses a severe long-term challenge to Labour in its northern heartlands, where its organisation is weak. But even he admits that this is more of a problem for 2020 than 2015.

So Ed Miliband’s Labour party could secure an outright majority after next election. And then his problems will really start. He is bound to disappoint his left wing supporters, including those Lib Dem defectors. The British economy remains fundamentally weak and unable to support the size of public sector that these supporters seem to feel is their birthright. There are no quick answers to this underlying weakness, and many of Mr Miliband’s  ideas will make things worse, not better. Neither will he please the grumpy working class voters to whom Ukip is appealing. There will be a sense of betrayal among one group of their supporters, and panic amongst the Labour machine politicians in northern towns, who have taken their power base for granted. And the question of Scottish devolution’s affect on England will need to be faced, or, worse, the impact of Scottish independence. The party would surely be overwhelmed, rather like the Conservatives were after 1992.

But the Conservatives will not be much better off. They will remain divided between pragmatists, who lean towards EU membership, and idealists for whom the EU represents all that is bad. The party is likely either to lurch to the right or fall apart. Ukip, feeding off disillusioned Labour voters, will rise relentlessly.

You could hardly define more propitious circumstances for the Liberal Democrats, provided they stay away from any temptation to form a coalition with Labour. Labour will end up by prolonging many hated coalition policies, vindicating the party’s record in coalition. Meanwhile the rise of Ukip will create a strong anti-Ukip political backlash. As the Tories fail to contain their right, and Labour panics over its loss of working class votes to Ukip – this backlash will present a real opportunity for the Lib Dems, in a highly dynamic four-party play. This opportunity would be best exploited by a new leader. It would be ideal if this was a commonsense, well-grounded female – a Birgitte Nyborg. Alas I cannot see such a choice being available (my preference, Dorothy Thornhill, Mayor for Watford, is unlikely to be in contention). But the opportunity for a comeback is palpable.

What should the Lib Dems do now though? It has little choice but to stick to its guns in the coalition, and concentrate on winning any parliamentary seat where local strength is sufficient to make it winnable. This will mainly be about denying seats to the Conservatives. If things go very badly for the Tories, they may start to pick up some centrist voters from them generally – though that’s a long shot. But they must remember: the opportunities will be after 2015, they should do nothing that will make that comeback harder.

Interesting times indeed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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