Have the Lib Dems reached a Battle of the Marne moment?

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Following the fortunes of Britain’s Liberal Democrats is a niche interest these days. So much so that this Lib Dem blog spends most of time commenting on other things. But the party conference in Bournemouth has just ended, and I was there. Something needs to be said.

The party’s fall from mainstream politics has been dramatic. It peaked when the party was in coalition, with four cabinet ministers, in 2010 to 2015. At that time the party was scarcely out of the news. This year the party’s autumn conference rates hardly a mention. In yesterday’s London Standard, on the day of the the leader’s closing speech, the party got no coverage in the news pages. Absolutely nothing. This is not especially surprising. The party has but 12 MPs, a a tiny scattering of council leaderships, and single-figure poll ratings. In much of the country it can’t even scrape together enough votes to retain its deposit. Still, its position is much stronger than other minor parties that have hit hard times: Ukip and the Greens.

Why is that? The party’s infrastructure is much diminished, but it still dwarfs that of the other minor parties. It has even seen a membership surge, meaning that the conference was well-attended and lively, even if all the lobbyists and sponsors were absent. The party has been here before and progressed – notably when I attended my first conference in 1990, when it polled at a similar level to the Greens, the continuing SDP and the continuing Liberals. Furthermore its team of MPs has more government experience than Labour’s entire front bench. And its ideological space, internationalist liberalism, is unchallenged in Britain’s political system. And yet it is very hard to deny the pessimistic conventional wisdom, nicely summed up in this Economist Bagehot column.

But the party’s leaders remain determinedly optimistic. Could this be a Battle of the Marne moment? This was the early turning point in the First World War, after the Germans had driven the French and British armies into headlong retreat, and the fall of Paris beckoned. The French general Ferdinand Foch was promoted to lead the fightback, and famously said: “My centre is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.” The tide was turned, and France saved. The wider point here is that retreat can bring opportunity. Your opponents become overstretched and exhausted; meanwhile your own communication lines are tighter, and you become more cohesive. There are at least some elements of this for the Lib Dems.

The party’s main opponents, the Conservative and Labour parties, do show signs of overstretch. The former are stuck with a mediocre leader because they can find nobody better; they are saddled with implementing Brexit, and with being on the wrong side of demographic trends. The easiest votes for Lib Dems to win these days are disillusioned Conservatives. Labour are in many ways in much better shape but remain a fragile coalition with incompatible views; I will write more of them after their conference next week. And the Lib Dems’ main competitor on the political fringe, the Greens, look in even worse shape. They made a serious strategic error to occupy more conventionally left-wing social justice territory, and have been crushed by Labour’s revival, after briefly threatening to eclipse the Lib Dems in the coalition years.

Also the party itself is more cohesive. It is not constantly undermined by the pleas that this or that policy line will upset this or that local community in a Cornish Lib Dem seat. Those conservative rural voters have now gone elsewhere. As have inner city voters. The party is now more tightly focused in Britain’s suburbs, allowing it to sharpen its appeal and take greater risks.

And the party has its General Foch too, under its new leader, Vince Cable. As even the Economist admits, he is easily the more intelligent that the main party leaders. That intelligence was on display in Bournemouth. There was practically no question thrown at him to which he did not have an intelligent answer. Unlike his predecessor, Tim Farron, he is no tub-thumper; you would not call his speeches rousing. But he is facing up to some of the most difficult issues that confront the party. The biggest of these is the party’s stance on funding higher education. Up to 2010, the party did well amongst students by promising to abolish tuition fees, including a dramatic pledge by almost all MPs not to vote for any increase. The party promptly ditched this in coalition, and Labour has exploited this ruthlessly ever since. Vince’s fingerprints were very much on the volte-face, unlike Tim. At the time he argued that the new policy was a graduate tax by another name, but to no avail. This demographic of younger voters will be vital to the party, and it fits well with its liberal-international outlook. It will hardly be easy to turn the corner and win them back, but at least Vince is tackling it head on.

Vince’s speech yesterday was quite remarkable in another way. We see a lot of dumbing-down in modern politics. This was evident in the deliberate obfuscations and lies in the campaign to leave the European Union (not really made better by claims that the Remain side were hardly better…), and above all by the triumph of Donald Trump in the United States. And yet Vince Cable persists in treating his audiences as if they are intelligent human beings. Surely the politics of misleading sound-bites, fake news stories and hyping victimhood must play itself out? Vince is betting that it will.

Still, the challenges for the Lib Dems remain huge. They need to rebuilt the party’s base in local government – but with a new membership who so far are showing little interest in such patient and painstaking politics. The party’s internal organisation remains weak, and it is not clear that the new leadership know how to address this. And, of course, the other political parties’ commanding position is based on the ruthless logic of Britain’s first past the post voting system.

I can offer sceptical observers no hard evidence that the Lib Dems can change their fortunes. But I do know that I will continue to work for it.


Vince Cable and economics – what he says in Newswire

No time for a proper post from me this week. But I was intrigued by an article in Mark Pack’s Newswire (a Lib Dem newsletter), with an extensive quote from Vince Cable.

This shows how hard he is to pin down into conventional categories of economic thinking. But that’s for the best possible reason – he has studied and thought about the issues for a long time, and observed economic policy in practice in many different situations.

Here it is:

The roots of Vince Cable’s political beliefs

Placing Vince Cable on the left-right political spectrum never quite works because he combines both a passion for intervention to deal with market failures with a suspicion of the failings of big government. The roots of that combination are well illustrated in his excellent memoirs, Free Radical. They highlight how his work on development issues in Africa helped give him both those passions – seeing both the need for action and the consequences of government failure. Writing here exclusively for Lib Dem Newswire, Vince Cable sets out the roots of his political views in more detail.

My earliest political views were a reaction to the extremes I encountered growing up. My father was an upwardly mobile, working class, Tory who sought to inculcate some good values (hard work, thrift, respect for the law) and some bad ones (racism, which split the family when I married an East African Asian, my late wife Olympia). He died after contracting pneumonia delivering leaflets for Mrs Thatcher in the snow. My mother secretly voted Liberal, defying his instructions to vote Tory.

My best teenage friend was a card-carrying Communist like his father, a shop steward at York carriage works. His revolutionary zeal got him expelled from college, allegedly for arson. He tried to re-educate me in sound ideological principles but concluded that I was a ‘bourgeois liberal’ with Menshevik tendencies.

When I went to university I sampled both the Liberals, becoming their President, and also a student branch of the social democratic wing of the Labour party. Sensing that they were saying the same thing but using different language, I tried to achieve a merger. Both sides were outraged and the merger collapsed ignominiously, 20 years ahead of its time. I joined Labour, beguiled by Harold Wilson’s white-hot technological revolution.

As a young economist, educated by the disciples of Keynes, I was then exposed to real world economics as a Treasury official in Kenya. Experience of African development quickly taught me that textbook ideas of ‘planning’ – or Keynes for that matter – had little relevance. The state was usually a vehicle for predation and patronage. Wealth was created by farmers, especially by entrepreneurial African small-holders; by mainly Asian businessmen; and by professionally run multinationals. And then looted by politicians and civil servants

I moved on to Latin America where the fashionable nationalistic ideology of ‘self-reliance’ merely entrenched vested interests and reinforced extreme and often appalling inequalities. Much of my development writing would now be described as ‘neo-liberal’ but I think is right in that context.

The country which most influenced my thinking was India which I have visited many times over 50 years for family and professional reasons. I have seen India’s remarkable transformation, much of it based on the adage that ‘the economy grows at night, when the government goes to sleep’. I have always been torn between torn between my admiration for India’s democratic and dynamic ‘anarchy that works’ and my admiration for the technocratic revolution in modern China which has produced an economic, poverty reducing, miracle, albeit seriously illiberal.

Between the travelling I got involved in British politics and became a Labour councillor, helping to run Glasgow. The establishment was pure Tammany Hall, so I moved to the Left where the idealistic and capable people were. I marched proudly down Sauchiehall Street alongside the charismatic Communist leader of the shipyard workers, Jimmy Reid and Tony Benn, and contributed to Gordon Brown’s Red Papers on Scotland.

I led a somewhat schizophrenic existence teaching students Adam Smith’s economics in the morning and practising municipal socialism in the afternoon. I found a more comfortable place campaigning for Britain to join the EU alongside Labour figures like John Smith, for whom I later worked as a Special Adviser, and Liberals like David Steel.

My Fabian, centre-left, eclectic, version of social democracy didn’t long survive a move to London where the Militant Tendency and assorted Trots, including today’s leadership, were in control of the Labour Party. In the civil war which followed, I joined the SDP, albeit after some heart-searching, unsuccessfully contesting my home town of York in the 1983, and then the dispiriting 1987, election.

In the long period in the political wilderness before becoming MP in Twickenham I had two other formative political experiences. One was spending several years working on global environmental issues in the late 1980’s: helping to write the Brundtland Report on Sustainable Development and then one of the first intergovernmental reports on climate change. The other was when Shell recruited me into their long-term scenario planning team, later to be Chief Economist. I found the management culture admirably professional and honest, albeit conservative, and I like to think I helped to steer them towards a future in emerging economies and to a greater sense of social and environmental responsibility.

For the rest, my record as a Lib Dem MP after 1997 is reasonably well known. As an economic spokesman, my approach initially reflected the social liberal consensus of the time. The financial crisis changed everything. My intellectually eclectic background in economics helped me to see ahead and better understand the nature of the crisis, to write coherently about it – in The Storm – and to advocate correct but controversial measures like nationalisation of the banks and the taxation of property wealth.

The Coalition was a classic head-heart dilemma. My head told me that joining the Coalition was right and that we had no alternative but to address the massive budget deficit which was the legacy of a crisis of financial capitalism. My heart was definitely not with the Tories. But I found a useful role as an interventionist Business Secretary promoting industrial strategy and state-led banking, German-style innovation and training policies and applying a pragmatic, problem solving, approach to government. In a sequel to The Storm After the Storm – I set out where I think we should be going as a country, now, in terms of economic policy.

There is one more important strand in my approach to politics. I have long been interested in, and worried about, the politics of identity. Bringing up a multiracial family and fighting racism; experience of the tangled web of religious sectarianism and incipient nationalism in the west of Scotland; immersed for over 50 years in the movement to anchor Britain in Europe: these have been major, often dominant, concerns. I wrote the first of two pamphlets for Demos in the mid-1990’s on identity politics and have seen its growing influence, culminating in the Brexit vote.

My first venture into fiction, the novel Open Arms – due out in a few weeks – involves the interplay of identity politics and personal relationships. And in the real world, I anticipate that the future of the UK and our party will be determined by whether national identity or a broader, more outward-looking, more European, view of the world dominate politics.


Can Vince Cable broaden the Lib Dems appeal?

Last week Vince Cable was elected unopposed as leader of the Liberal Democrats, following Tim Farron’s resignation. This is not a situation many Lib Dems expected to be in a month or so ago.  I don’t think I would have voted for him if the selection had been contested.  Yet I dare to hope.

Let’s start with my reservations. The first is his age at 74. This is the least serious. Age has different effects on all of us, and Vince has clearly been looking after himself, physically and mentally. He will have bitter memories of 2007, when he was advised not to run for the leadership vacated by Ming Campbell, who was only slightly older. Ming was widely bullied for being too old – I remember some vicious cartoons. And yet the reasons for his failure were clearly something else – age was just a convenient proxy, reflecting the prejudices of the time.  By picking the relatively youthful Nick Clegg, it is far from clear that the party was better off. Meanwhile there have been a number of successful older politicians – including Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump. Age does mean that Vince’s tenure is likely to be less than a decade. But that may not be a bad thing.

My next reservation is more serious. It is that Vince is not known for grassroots campaigning. His constituency organisation in his Twickenham seat was notoriously weak between elections – and that ultimately lost him his seat in 2015. In the jargon, Vince is a man of the air war, not the ground war. That is a worry because the Lib Dems weakness in ground organisation is one of the bigger issues that the party has to face. Tim Farron, by contrast, was much stronger on the ground activity. But am I worrying too much? Vince’s constituency campaign this year was one of the better organised – and the result was spectacular. Tim came within a hair’s breadth of losing his seat, which had been the “safest” in the country (there’s no such thing as a safe Lib Dem seat). For all Tim’s enthusiasm for grassroots campaigning, he did not strike me as a gifted organiser. We may be no worse off.

And finally there is policy. I have advocated fresh thinking on economic policy for the party, in particular to unlock under-used potential in poorer areas. I am also deeply suspicious of monetary policy as a method of managing aggregate demand. Vince is much more of a traditional economist – he seems more interested in using neoliberal ideas more effectively than looking for the next revolution in economic thinkin. Again, I am probably making too much of this. He has a lot of common sense, and does not strike me as a man that pushes policies that aren’t working because he thinks they work in theory. And innovation needs to be small-scale at first if it is to win public confidence.

Against my reservations, though, I am finding quite a lot to like. He is very impressive when being interviewed on the radio. He answers the questions being asked, and confidently, displaying a great deal of expertise and honesty. He has enormous credibility, built up over many years – not least his five years as a senior cabinet minister. He can overdo the honesty and get himself into trouble – but this is a net benefit. Former London Mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have learnt to pull this trick – being a bit too honest – off very successfully (though Mr Johnson’s shine has now worn off), as has the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. When it works it is a priceless gift. Vince has much more impact on the media scene than did Tim Farron. He makes headlines effortlessly – and not by making gaffes.

And Vince’s evident experience and expertise puts him ahead of almost every other front bench politician in the country – especially since Labour have been forced to promote inexperienced MPs into front line roles. This makes the Lib Dems look like a player in the grown-up game of politics, which hasn’t been the case since the party’s catastrophic defeat at the 2015 general election. Especially since there is now a back up team of experienced politicians in Norman Lamb, Ed Davey and Jo Swinson. This is important, because if the major parties do start to break up under the pressure of divisions over Brexit, the Lib Dems are starting to look like a credible alternative for refugees – or at least a vital alliance partner for any new grouping.

So that is why I dare to hope. But meanwhile the party is very weak. Many of the sixty or so parliamentary seats where the party used to be in close contention now look gone for good. It is not clear how the party is to replace them with new ones. The party might have some success in tapping angry Conservatives, but it is remains pretty hopeless against Labour in the pitch for younger voters. I am seeing quite a lot of manufactured kerfuffle about how Labour is supposedly breaking promises on student debt. Any Lib Dem who thinks that the party is going to make traction with that line of attack should think again. It’s best hope against Labour remains its firm position against Brexit – but as yet Labour remains coated with Teflon on the topic.

Recently I read an article in the Guardian by Deborah Orr that lambasted the party as a waste of time. What is striking is that this liberal, well-informed journalist only ever thought the party stood for electoral reform – and so the party’s failure on that in coalition leads her to claim that it “lost all it stood for”. That shows how much work the party has to do. Most people think that the party stands for very little – they associate it with a single policy, like electoral reform, or, before 2010, free university tuition. When the party fails to deliver on this policy, it is reduced to emptiness in their eyes and it has start all over again. Meanwhile the Conservatives and Labour can chop and change policies at will, because they are seen to stand for something much broader. At the moment the big policy for the Lib Dems is opposing Brexit, with legalising marijuana as a second string. This is far too narrow.

So the Lib Dems need to be seen as standing for a broader range of ideas, and not tied to a single headline policy. There may be an opportunity for this. Most left-inclined liberals still think Labour stands for them – but Mr Corbyn and his allies want to take their party somewhere different. And many Conservative supporters think that their party stands for pragmatic liberal economics – but Brexit ideologues in cabinet don’t seem to care what happens next as long as it is Brexit. If anybody can convince these people to look, or to look again, at the Lib Dems, it is Vince Cable.


Murchoch and BSkyB: Hunt isn’t the issue. It’s Cameron

The Culture Secretary is in a tight political spot.  He showed overt political support for Rupert Murdoch’s News International media empire, and especially its attempt to consolidate its hold in the highly successful British satellite broadcasting business BSkyB.  Today was supposed to be his moment of truth, in front of the Leveson inquiry.  There is much speculation that he will be forced to resign.  That may be so, but based on today’s evidence I don’t think he’s the main culprit in a shabby episode.

The story so far.  Back in 2010 Murdoch launched his bid on BSkyB, which his empire controlled but did not fully own.  Because of its wider implications this was referred to the government, which was required to act in a quasi-judicial capacity – that it acts with the same impartiality and fairness of process as a court of law.  The minister given responsibility for this was the Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable.  But Dr Cable (as he likes to be known) made some rather rash comments about the Murdoch empire to undercover reporters working for the Daily Telegraph (which ironically opposed the bid).  As soon as these became public, Murdoch objected that he did not have the necessary degree of impartiality for a quasi-judicial role.  Within hours the job was given to Mr Hunt instead.

But Mr Hunt, it now turns out, was the subject of intense lobbying by the Murdochs (mostly via their respective minions), and had been lobbying the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in their support.  The awkward issue is that if Dr Cable was unfit for the job because he was biased one way, then Mr Hunt was equally unfit because he was unbiased the other way.  As the closeness of the relationship between Mr Hunt and the Murdoch empire became clear, there were calls on him to resign.  These were strong enough for his special adviser, Adam Smith, to fall on his sword.

The logic of this is that Mr Hunt should have refused the job.  But the nature of his relationship with the Murdochs, and his views of the bid, were certainly known to Mr Cameron.  Surely the bigger problem was the Mr Cameron appointed him to do the job in the first place.  The communications between Mr Hunt and Downing Street (actually with George Osborne rather than the PM directly) seem to show this.

Mr Hunt’s defence is that once he got the job, he created a robust decision-making process that transcended his prior inclinations – and that the decisions he did make showed no bias (before the bid was overwhelmed by the phone hacking scandal that engulfed the Murdoch empire).  The trouble is that exactly the same defence is available to Dr Cable, who was much more scrupulous about showing distance.  Indeed I suspect that Dr Cable would have been driven to approve the bid since the main objections to bid did not form a substantial barrier legally.  To Dr Cable passing this particular baton over was a silver lining to the very dark cloud that this embarrassing affair comprised.

It was Mr Cameron that acted inappropriately.  If he accepts Mr Hunt’s defence, he should not have stripped Dr Cable of the job, and made the same defence of him.  If he was worried about open bias, he should have found somebody other than Mr Hunt to replace him – and that is what he should have done.

That won’t help Mr Hunt.  Just as Adam Smith’s resignation was meant to protect his master, Mr Hunt may need to take the rap for his boss.  The whole Murdoch episode is toxic to Mr Cameron.  He badly needs to make it go away.



Is Vince Cable right about AV?

The AV referendum campaign is hotting up.  The No campaign are throwing a lot at it, and seem to have captured the initiative.  By and large they are deploying the same old arguments (e.g. “save one person, one vote”), which are nonsense to those that know about the system, but which still serve to muddy the waters.  What has changed is the weight of campaigning.  David Cameron is taking a very high profile; it looks like the full Tory machine is distributing literature.  The Tory friends in the press, like the Evening Standard here in London, are throwing their weight in.  Opinion polling seems to show this is paying off.

But the campaign looks more Tory by the day.  So perhaps it is natural for Vince Cable to hit back to suggest that first past the post (FPTP) is a Tory plot to win power against “the progressive majority” of Labour, Lib Dem and (not usually mentioned, but relevant) Green voters.  What helps this argument is that the Conservatives clearly seem to believe it.  They are so vehemently opposed because they think it kills their chances of ever winning a majority.  One of the Tory papers (the Mail, I think) suggested with horror that Mrs Thatcher could never have won under AV.  Mr Cable clearly thinks that Tory voters are beyond hope, but that the Yes campaign may be able to do a better job of mobilising Labour voters.  Given that the Conservatives seem to command about 40% of the vote, and that many Labour activists and older voters are sceptical, this looks like a bit of a gamble.  But how solid is his argument?  Just because the Conservatives believe it doesn’t make it true after all.

The “progressive majority” is an old idea, hatched in the 1990s (if not before) when the Conservatives were last in power.  It is founded on the observation that if you add Labour and Lib Dem votes together they pretty consistently get a 3:2 advantage over the Conservatives.  Certainly, it is difficult to see that small-state Conservative policies (much lower taxes, much lower benefits abd public spending), beloved of the Tory right, will ever command majority support.  There is an anti-right-wing-Tory majority.  But to call this majority “progressive” is a stretch.  Much of the opposition to such a right-wing agenda is conservative – something that characterises large parts of the Labour party (and dare I suggest some Lib Dems?).  Remember Tony Blair railing against “conservatism” in his own party?  It may be truer to suggest that there is an inbuilt conservative majority that opposes radical ideas, left or right.

Semantics, perhaps.  Would AV permanently stop the Tories?  It wouldn’t have stopped Mrs Thatcher.  The SDP-Liberal Alliance would have picked up some more seats from the Conservatives, no doubt.  But the Labour party of the time was so distrusted that they would not have picked up enough second preferences to take enough further seats off the Conservatives; they may even have lost one or two more seats to them.  AV is good for a political party with momentum (which sways second as well as first preferences) – and Mrs Thatcher had that.  She won because the Labour Party was strong enough to block the SDP-Liberal Alliance, but too weak to be a credible alternative to the Conservatives.  This dynamic would have been almost as deadly under AV as it would under FPTP.

But the Labour Party is a much superior political machine now, that knows it has to win votes at the centre.  For the Conservatives to beat them under FPTP and get a full majority they need other parties to undermine Labour, be they Lib Dems, Greens, or a future left-wing threat.  Meanwhile they need to hang on to at least 40% or so of the vote themselves.  This is a tall order if the Tory right was in the ascendant…but it would be more difficult for them to pull this off under AV, provided that the Labour Party made some attempt to attract middle ground voters.   Strategically Vince is mainly right.

Tactically – by which I mean up to the next election – the picture is much less clear.  As I have observed before, the Conservatives will be under attack from left and right simultaneously.  UKIP are showing real resilience and are gradually earning the right to be seen as a proper political party (like the Greens, but unlike the chaotic BNP).  The Lib Dems will want to make the best of their coalition nightmare with the voters by appealing to softer Tories.  The more Mr Cameron tries to appease one group, the more he will put off the other.  AV would make this situation much easier to manage.  So far he is keeping this nightmare at bay quite successfully – but there’s a long way to go.

AV will help stop a radical party on either side of politics take exclusive power without  genuine near-majority support.  Mr Cable is right about that.  But there is no progressive majority.  And the effect of AV (or FPTP) on the next General Election is much too hard to call.  The best reason for voting Yes is that AV is a fairer system that preserves the essence of the present one (single member constituencies; likely one party government).  Voting Yes or No because it will be good for the party you support is the road to disappointment.  For all three main parties.