TIm Farron aspires to lead the political left. This is optimistic

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader saved the best until last. His speech to close the party conference in Brighton yesterday was a barnstormer. He was interrupted by standing ovations several times. It was up to the standard set in Bournemouth last year. How much substance lies behind the expansive rhetoric?

The speech was ambitious. Tim set out make the Lib Dems the main opposition to the Conservative government, accusing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party of abdicating the role. This is another example of the supreme, irrational optimism that, as former MP David Howarth pointed out in a fringe meeting, is the Lib Dems greatest strength and weakness.

Tim continues to use his big speeches to stake out the political ground for the party, on which we might hope for more substantial things to be built. The party’s policy motions at the conference failed to build anything much though. The many new members were no doubt delighted to meet up with so many like-minded people, and learn  about how politics works – but would have struggled to understand what the policy debates were for.

Tim places the party is the unambiguously on the left (or among the “progressives” in the favoured, rather misleading word), by defining it in opposition to the Tories. With the Conservatives hitched to Brexit, this is safer than it has been – but not as safe as trying to get the party to define its own, distinctive place in politics. Interestingly he made an appeal for the Lib Dems to be the party of business and free enterprise, and urged businesses to switch allegiance – and this went down quite well amongst the members. This is not the first time he has planted such hints, but I’m still unclear of what it will mean. Where I want it to go is a model of regional economic development not dependent of central state largesse. We shall see.

But the main policy fields sketched out were on Europe, health and social care, and education. The party is unambiguously pro EU, wishing to draw in Remain supporters. Tim advocates a referendum on whatever alternative to the EU the government eventually reaches. This may be cunning positioning, but I struggle with the idea as serious policy. The “destination” as he calls it probably will not be clear until Article 50 has been invoked and the bridges burnt. Hopes for some sort of middle way between hard Brexit (being outside the single market or a customs union) and full membership are fading. Still this is changing terrain and a more coherent pro-EU position may emerge. Nothing came out of the conference on the party’s vision for the EU itself, even though the institution is clearly in crisis. Where Tim was much stronger was in acknowledging the concerns of working class Brexit voters, referring to his own Lancashire working class roots. He is not trying to blame the voters, but to build bridges. This must be right, if not entirely consistent with some ideas of a “core vote” strategy.

He is much braver on health and social care. Tim, and his former leadership rival Norman Lamb, have identified that health and social care are in crisis. Norman, who remains highly respected in the party, is putting together a commission of experts to develop new vision – and one that will probably involve higher taxes. This is promising – it entails some thought leadership on an issue the public really cares about. With Labour bogged down in union vested interests, and the Tories lacking convincing policy, this development starts to answer the question “why the Liberal Democrats?”.

Alas there was much less thought leadership on education. The party’s instincts are sound enough, but I don’t think Tim, or many in the party, have quite caught up with where schools really are, rather than some rather lurid caricatures. But with the Conservatives veering off to the blind alley of school selection, the political opportunity remains for the party. Yet it would be good if it could develop more ambition. There is a policy working group on education (I applied but was not included) – but these groups tend to square off the party’s internal pressure groups, rather than try to develop a wider public debate – which the health initiative is clearly intended to do.

Tim also developed a general direction of travel for economic policy. He wants more for the regions outside London and the southeast – led by infrastructure investment. He said that these areas had been let down by both the Thatcher and Brown/Blair governments, who were seduced by the bankers, and under-invested in infrastructure and skills. There is something in this. And he did not walk into the leftist trap of employing abstract villains, such as neoliberalism or austerity. This is all sound, but not very distinctive. He could have been much stronger on green investment, but I think the party has sound instincts on that.

But what of my question of last week, about how the party is developing a narrative on coalition? It still wants to play both sides on this, and Tim talks about it as little as possible. He neither sells the coalition’s achievements, nor condemns it as a mistake. I attended a very interesting fringe with former ministers David Laws and Chris Huhne on the coalition years. They acknowledged errors – on tuition fees, benefit reform and NHS reform in particualr, but still enthused on what the coalition had achieved. Fine, but the party still has to explain how it can be of the left and at the same time prop up a government of the right. “That was then, and this is now” is about as good as it gets. The truth is that it very hard for the party. Some members expressed frustration that it does not make more of its achievements – others find many of the things the coalition did (notably on benefits and legal aid) a betrayal of the party’s principles. Expect the muddle to continue for a while. Personally I want the party to rethink its exclusive identification with the left, while seeking to identify areas of agreement with it. The party will help the left by becoming semi-detached – but in the right circumstances it will work with the right too.

And that takes us to a further question. How will the party work with other parties to get things done? It is all very well for Tim Farron to condemn Mr Corbyn’s leadership of Labour as an abdication, but what if Labour, under Mr Corbyn or otherwise, gets its act together? Tim did not rule out working with other parties, and there was plenty of talk at the conference of working with Labour and the Greens. I have bought a book, The Alternative, which tries to develop this – and I will report back when I have read it. For now it is far too easy for us Lib Dems to simply rule out working with Labour and dream to replace them, rather than wake up to the cold, hard realities of how little party is trusted. Working with Labour is about the only way  the party is going to achieve anything practical if it rules out working with the Conservatives again. It is fanciful to suggest that Labour will collapse and leave the field clear for the resurgence of the Lib Dems. But the party can still pick off Tory seats beyond Labour’s reach. Surely we are better off trying to get some form of constructive engagement?

What is clear to me is that the left needs to develop a new policy agenda which is capable of capturing the imagination of a sceptical public. The Lib Dems are engaging in this process. But, to put it at its kindest, it is far to early for the party to imagine that it can lead it.

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12 thoughts on “TIm Farron aspires to lead the political left. This is optimistic”

    1. I can’t comment on these by elections. I wasn’t there. Labour are clearly quite weak in places – and where we mount a strong campaign it has an impact. Round here (in London) we’ve barely left a scratch on Labour in our recent elections. We seem to be faring slightly better in picking votes off the Tories. If we start having more than localised successes against Labour, I might have to eat my words!

  1. ” And he did not walk into the leftist trap of employing abstract villains, such as neoliberalism or austerity. “

    Are these villains really so abstract?

    We can argue over just what neoliberalism actually means but the ‘conventional wisdom’ prior to 2008 was that everything in the economic world was hunky-dory and that governments world-wide had solved the problem of boom and bust. It wasn’t just Gordon Brown who though that. There was even a well known book written by someone whose name I have forgotten, but isn’t really worth looking up, called the “End of History”.

    The 2008 crash which was previously considered impossible should have alerted the Economics profession to a fundamental flaw in their mainstream or neoliberal theories.

    I don’t believe the explanation for the 2008 crash is that difficult if we consider the that ultimately it was caused by the build up of too much private debt in the economy. Prof Steve Keen makes the point that neoliberal economics doesn’t even recognise that private debt levels are a potential problem. It’s just passed off as a transfer of money from one economic entity to another.

    We still hear the argument that when the economy needs a stimulus, interest rates need to be reduced. To further increase levels of private debt! But they are now so low they can’t go any lower.

    Natureally, when the economy crashes people get scared and start saving. If everyone else is saving the government must be borrowing and its really not much of a surprise that the Govt’s deficit rose to 12% of GDP in the aftermath of the GFC. In those circumstances, to increase the rate of VAT to 20% , in line with notions of economic neo-liberalism wasn’t just austerity it was crass stupidity.

    How did the Lib Dems, the successors to the party of Keynes, ever come to go along with that?

    1. Peter if you are trying to prove that the ideas of “neoliberalism” and “austerity” are not abstract you’ve gone off in the wrong direction. The alleged consequences (and I think you vastly oversimplify) may be far from abstract but the concepts themselves are. Politicians trying to reach out to people should therefore avoid using the words, even if they still talk about those consequences and attribute blame.

      “How did the Lib Dems, the successors to the party of Keynes, ever come to go along with that?” Very easily, Peter, because the policies may seem crass to you and a number of others, but they did not to many at the time, including our highly intelligent and trained Treasury civil servants. Some of those people may have changed their minds afterwards with hindsight, but it looked different to them at the time.

      And a word of wisdom, if I may. Almost every time in history when one person accuses another of crass stupidity it is because they failed to understand the circumstances and limited knowledge that those people faced. You may feel that economics is governed by laws as certain as those of theoretical physics and ignoring them as stupidity – the rest of us have to make do doubt and uncertainty.

      1. “but it looked different to them at the time.”

        I find this hard to believe. How can it possibly have ever seemed a good idea to raise a tax like VAT in the middle of a recession?

        And we have to remember that “our highly intelligent and trained Treasury civil servants”, and no doubt other equally intelligent people in the so-called Office of Fiscal Responsibility, have produced various reports, usually just after an election, outlining how the government’s budget will “return to surplus” typically over a period of five years, which is in effect a fiscal plan for the new government’s period of office.

        Now we know if the government is in surplus that everyone else must be in deficit. There’s no just comparison to theoretical Physics which can be quite hard to understand. This is just arithmetic and is trivially simple by comparison. If you don’t agree take a look how mass affects the curvature of space-time and compare that to the idea of sectoral balances!

        Everyone else being in deficit includes our overseas trading partners. That means the UK has to become a net exporter! But there’s no policy directed towards reducing imports and increasing exports. Just some wishful thinking!

        Needless to say the reports and forecasts always turn out to be completely wrong. If the Met office was as bad there’d be questions in Parliament. But that doesn’t happen with treasury forecasts. There’s never any scrutiny of what went wrong. Why not?

        1. “There’s no just comparison to theoretical Physics “. I think that was my point. And it is not because it is easier, as you seem to be suggesting. Economics is constrained by some basic arithmetic but ultimately it amounts to predicting human behaviour. It is also subject to vast amounts of measurement error.

          I suspect that those Treasury types were just as sceptical on their forecasts as you are, but still found it a useful way to evaluate policy options. And to suggest that they are unaware of core economics is clear nonsense. They have a cultural assumption that a fiscal surplus is a good thing – which I think has as much to do with the politics of power as economic rationality, but I will bet you anything that they can give extremely elegant theoretical justifications, based on more economic knowledge than you or I can deploy. They may be wrong, but it is for much more subtle reasons than you think.

          1. ” to suggest that they are unaware of core economics is clear nonsense. ”

            Is it? Either ” our highly intelligent and trained Treasury civil servants” are unaware or they are deliberately lying about the possibility of a net importing country like the UK running a budget surplus except under very rare circumstances. That is when it is the private sector rather than the public sector which does the borrowing which has to be done by someone to support the current account deficit.

            The other of “our highly intelligent and trained” people who are either lying or don’t know how the financial system works, are those who work for the credit ratings agencies.

            https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jun/27/property-and-financial-shares-slide-as-referendum-fallout-hits-stock-markets

            What does a poor credit rating mean for a country like the UK? The pound is a monopoly of the UK government just as the dollar is a monopoly of the US government. Neither government can run out of their own currency. Yes, they can mismanage their economies to produce recession on the one hand or too much inflation on the other but they can never default. There is no credit risk. Ever.

            So what does anything less that the current AA+ really mean? That inflation is likely to be a problem? If so, why did they, in the past, give the UK a higher credit rating when inflation was higher and was much more likely to be a problem?

            So I would suggest that Tim Farron and anyone else who aspires to lead should figure out how to run the economy properly first. Once they’ve done that they’ll be in a much better position than anyone else.

          2. Hmm. Mightn’t the Treasury economists think that reducing the budget deficit will reduce the current account deficit? i.e. that the dis-saving it represents is sucking in imports, etc. You may disagree but that would be pretty textbook. It simply takes the same identities at the heart of your theory and drives them in a different direction. As I’ve said before, basing arguments on identities is not convincing – it just camouflages reasoning rather than elucidates it.
            I really find this very hard going. You clearly hold very strong views about the economy and view anybody who disagrees, however well qualified, and for however long they have spent studying the questions at hand, as just plain stupid. Knowledge tends to advance through dialogue. I can’t tell you how much I have learned from engaging with people I disagree with (even you!) – but that does require a certain flexibility of mind. By trying to think through the Treasury view and understand its intellectual underpinnings, you might not agree with it, but you would be much more persuasive. I find all your sneering (and that is what it is – looking down on people you consider to be intellectually beneath you) ultimately unconvincing.

          3. I didn’t say they were stupid. That was your word- not mine. But, there’s clearly something wrong somewhere!

            I would have to admit that if the Government cut hard enough and taxed hard enough that the Budget would have to balance. But how would it balance? It would balance because the economy would be pushed into a state of Depression. Mere recession wouldn’t be enough as past experience has shown.

            In this state of Depression the population, on average, would not be able to afford anywhere near so many imports and they wouldn’t have enough money to be able to save. Whichever way you cut it, the Govt’s budget deficit has to equal the trade imbalance plus net savings.

            For your information, I consider myself to be reasonably intelligent but I don’t consider that my intellectual abilities are anything out of the ordinary. I don’t sneer at those who might disagree, but I do challenge them to explain why they think they are right and also explain where I might have erred.

            But so far all you’ve come up with are phrases like ” it is for much more subtle reasons than you think.”

            You might not think so, but I can do subtle too! Give me a try. Explain these subtle reasons!

          4. Apologies Peter. It’s just how I react to some of the things you write, especially the way you put things like “highly intelligent” in quotation marks. Yes things may have gone wrong, but it is important to understand how and why.

            As for the subtle arguments, I have to confess that I haven’t talked to a Treasury economist – and that’s one of my reasons for vagueness (apart from subtlety being the enemy of succinctness). My conceptions are based on what other people have said about them. One characteristic is that they rarely condescend to explain themselves fully, and just try to get their way by bullying. But, from what I hear, they give as good as they get when the intellectual level is raised.
            From what I understand, Treasury types deploy two sorts of argument against loose fiscal policy. One is that they money is often wasted, so does not deliver any productivity growth. Its effect is purely the short-term fiscal one of aggregate demand management. The second type of argument is empirical studies that show (apparently) the measurable Keynesian multiplier effect of fiscal policy is quite small (about 0.5 according to an article I read in today’s FT). That carries the danger of unmanageable debt and ultimately inflation. As an example, perhaps, it is hard to detect much effect from Labour’s temporary VAT cuts after the crash. After these arguments there is also one about the manageability of government debt. I think they view this as a non-linear thing. A government’s creditworthiness doesn’t decline gradually; it collapses suddenly when you find debt auctions failing, etc. They are terrified of that sudden, out of the blue, failure – especially in the world of non-linear events which was the financial world of 2007 and on. They are also worried about the inflationary effects of the central bank simply funding government deficits – this is how interwar Germany and Austria came a cropper after all – and (I think) the inflation of the 1970s. Japan has strong net saving, so is fundamentally less vulnerable. Finally of course, there was a faith that monetary policy could be used to manage aggregate demand, without the risks that loose fiscal policy entails.

            Of course each of these arguments is being picked apart through new evidence. But even scientists often wait for the new evidence to be overwhelming before ditching a paradigm. And even though you can make a case for new paradigm, we don’t have evidence for its limits. That is why there is so much talk about using investment in infrastructure at the heart of looser fiscal policy – that should increase future tax revenues as well helping to regulate demand. But as somebody who has had to present and evaluate investment business cases (in a corporate context – not government) I can understand a certain wariness by the Treasury on this. We advised proposers never to use the word “strategic” because it was almost guaranteed to represent bullshit.

  2. Hi Matthew, I never got around to replying to your previous post, thanks for the mention.

    Personally I think we have the double-edge sword of being a party of both the centre-left and of the centre-right. This is because we are shaped by the other two parties, whether we like this or not. For whatever reason,both parties tend to tack away from the centre, and this has given us opportunities in both: eg currently we are bringing in both disillusioned Labour supporters and Ivan Massow.

    The challenge is that although it is useful in the short-term to be both – such as in by-elections, and at local level – it is difficult for national /London-list type elections as people need emotional clarity to endorse a top choice party. How can we resolve this?

    Moving back to your post of last week, I think we have a good story to tell of the Coalition, if we want to. Certainly this can play well in Witney, but also in those more left-wing seats where, now the tale of the Coalition has ended and we lasted five years, we can show we really meant it and we have shown, posthumously, we are different to the Tories. People won’t forget tuition fees anyway, so in my view, it has to be worth the risk.

    The question is whether we / Farron like Coalition enough ourselves to tell the tale.

  3. We are not , and nor should we be , of the left. We are and should be, in the radical centre and moderate centre left. Not the moderate centre and radical centre left ! There is a for many of us a very important difference.

    The moderate centre is centrism. The radical centre left is leftist radicalism. The radical centre and moderate centre left is Liberalism ! At least now and in Britain . At other times and in other countries the pitch or stance changed and changes. That is in itself a Liberal trait.

    Even Liberal International, containing as it does ,many parties of the centre, centre left and centre right, use the word progressive.
    We can define as progressive. The word had its greatest use in the USA of the Teddy Roosevelt era, and has been revived in recent years amongst the two main parties in the USA, mainly because they foolishly use liberal too often to mean left wing .

    Liberalism has nothing in it that is automatically left wing as we define that today. It is what you make it. I make it what is mine , another , what is his or hers. Why ? Because it is the philosophy of the individual in politics , aware of ,and working with, and concerned about,other individuals.

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