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.

7 thoughts on “Can Vince Cable broaden the Lib Dems appeal?”

  1. Good article. I went to Vince’s Q&A session in Exeter this week and was very impressed by his thorough and detailed answers to all the questions.

    I read Deborah Orr’s article and was amazed she did not acknowledge at all the significant achievements of the Lib Dems in the Coalition re social justice e.g. raising the tax threshold and pupil premium. It’s clear that many people aren’t aware that we were responsible for these. In addition to promoting a wide range of policies we need to keep remind people of the good things we have done already.

  2. I doubt Vince Cable will be any match for Jeremy Corbyn when it comes to attracting the youth vote. But, that remains to be seen.

    On economic matters, the evidence is he does have a better understanding than most. 12 or so years ago he was warning about the dangers of relying on excessive levels consumer debt when the mainstream of the economics profession was quite blase about it all. Then , as now, the mainstream was only ever interested in how much the Govt was borrowing. He predicted quite correctly that there would have to be a reckoning as excessive private debt created asset bubbles which always have to burst in the end.

    So quite why he went along with George Osborne and David Cameron, in coalition, who were quite determined to make exactly the same kind of economic mistakes is less clear. Maybe he knew that it might just work well enough in the short term to win them the election. But not win him his election in Twickenham though!

    He’s recently returned to the same theme of the build -up of private debt. It hasn’t just built up since June 2016 though! So whatever economics problems it will cause will have happened anyway. Vince knows it but he isn’t saying it! He’ll want it all blamed on Brexit!

    It would be good if a politician were to say what he/she really believes. Jeremy Corbyn has shown that approach can win votes even from those who might take a different view, as on the EU, but respect the person enough to vote for them anyway.

    But I doubt we’ll hear that from Vince. When the housing bubble bursts , as it will, Vince will be heaping all the blame on Brexit for political purposes even though he well knows it was always going to happen anyway.

    1. There was a lot of tension in that coalition government, and Vince was trying to push back against Osborne, whereas the less economically literate Danny Alexander was happier to go along with it. Vince was quite happy with using monetary policy to help maintain demand – and fought quite hard against the Treasury har line against using public funds for investment. I think he calculated that he was better off on the inside fighting for a compromise, than outside and being a spectator.

      How far Vince will play the game of blaming everything that goes wrong on Brexit will be interesting to watch – but I suspect you are right. But he might surprise you.

  3. Until he started muttering about wealth tax, I expect there were a lof of angry conservatives who were interested, though there is always the danger that such an exodus might help Labour win yet more seats by splitting the Right vote.

    There is plenty of meat to gnaw on in the tax system, Vince hinting at treating capital gains as taxable income for instance. But a lot more stuff than that to clear out for tax fairness. Then there is citizens income to replace the complex benefits system and most of the reliefs on income tax including the tax allowance, which would also help students as they would get the adult rate.

    If you watch Corbyn being a typical politician and refusing to give a straight answer, contrast that with Vince who will actually answer questions it can only be a question of time before voters wise up.

  4. I do get the feeling that Vince is as changeable as the weather. Especially in his economic views. I can’t work out if he is or isn’t a neoliberal.

    If he wants to set out his stall he could perhaps make it it clear just what he feels about this appalling advice from Christine Lagarde. Superficially there would seem to be something in what she’s saying. I’ve said the same thing about the trade deficit myself. But we need to understand exactly what Christine Lagarde is advocating here, to further understand why following her advice would be a disaster for the UK economy. Let’s leave aside her comments about training workers. There’s no disagreement on that.

    In times past, Governments had a simpler view about trade deficits, or current account deficits if we want to include all the invisibles. They’d tweak the values of their currencies up and down to suit. If they wanted to have fewer imports and more exports they’d push their currencies down. If they wanted the opposite they’d let their currencies rise higher and maybe even increase interest rates to encourage that.

    In Christine Lagarde’s understanding this is currency manipulation or “protectionism” which she specifically dislikes. She doesn’t just mean the imposition of trading tariffs if I understand her correctly. Instead she encourages the process of “fiscal consolidation”. There is a good argument for saying the trade deficit isn’t a problem in any case, but if we must do something to reduce it this is the least favourable, or not to put too fine a point on it, the stupidest way possible.

    If anyone thinks more saving is the solution they might want to look up the Paradox of Thrift. “Fiscal Consolidation” means the Government cuts its spending and raises taxes to force the budget to balance. The economy is then thrown into deep recession. We end up with Depression era levels of unemployment. The end result is that we can’t afford to buy imports any longer and UK industry, that is the part that survives, has to export to find a profitable market.

    This kind of neoliberal stupidity defies belief. Is Christine Lagarde lacking in foresight or is she blinded by ideological motivations? How can we ask if Vince too goes along with all this nonsense?

    1. I’m afraid I’m not clear on exactly what Vince is advocating in the overall macroeconomics – and he certainly hasn’t rejected neoliberalism – but then neoliberalism isn’t all bad in my books.

      I’m a bit puzzled by your suggestion that countries could adjust their trade deficit by tweaking currencies. In a world of open capital, that’s not so easy. In fact surely isn’t the best way to look at it with sectoral balances? If the trade deficit is to come down then there must be some combination of increased private saving or increased government saving. These are what is required to lower the exchange rate and address the balance. Trying to manipulate the currency without doing one or other of these things will fail, surely? Unless you are suggesting capital controls? The IMF suggests addressing the trade deficit by increased government saving, no doubt on the basis that this is much easier to do than manipulating private saving. This won’t necessarily lead to a recession – it depends on what else is going on.

      But I do agree with you that the IMF’s argument that the trade deficit must be tackled looks a bit weak. It gives the main reason as heading off protectionism, but a clumsy reduction of the budget deficit might well make things worse on that front than better. Trade deficits aren’t necessarily bad – that depends on the context.

  5. Steve Keen, who’s views I generally respect, and of course Keynes too, are/were of the opinion that countries shouldn’t have large trade imbalances for extended periods. So there’s arguments either way on whether our 4.5% deficit is excessive. It does lead to foreign governments acquiring ever increasing amounts of sterling denominated financial assets. That’s OK providing we aren’t constantly worried about what they might do with them. This manifests itself in the “we have to maintain investor confidence” argument.

    There are ways, and I’ve made my own suggestions , of dealing with this but they’d be controversial to say the least. So that does bring us back to the argument that we’d be better off balancing our trade.

    I can’t see the problem with nudging the pound down if that’s what we do decide to do. It’s by far the least damaging option. Lots of countries do this. Denmark for one. Denmark’s Nationalbank will sell as many Krone as anyone wishes to buy for Euro 0.13 each. The BoE could do the same with the pound at whatever was considered to be a desirable exchange rate.

    It’s easy enough to keep the pound cheap. Much more difficult to keep it expensive as the Tory government discovered on Black Wednesday.

  6. In industrial policy matters, I would take Vince at his word: that he believes in tackling market imperfections. In training, this is chiefly the obvious point that a firm may invest in training an individual, only to lose the benefit when the individual concerned moves to another employer. In technology support, the market imperfection lies party in short termism, risk aversion and herd-like behaviour in the capital markets. But Vince’s attitude to industrial policy does not seem to me entirely consistent with neo-liberalism, if this is indeed his attitude to macro-economic issues. .

    I was interested in the original blog’s theme of broadening the Lib Dems appeal. A bit back I heard – and was impressed by – a remark by Alastair Campbell that political success lay in a party’s finding policies which reflected its values while corresponding to the priorities of the electorate. With a bigger space opening up in the political centre and nationalism on the loose, it seems to me that there should be more scope for finding policies which both make a difference on things important to the electorate, and correspond to liberal values. But the bundle of policies does need to be coherent to make an impact.

    As an example, in my view, one liberal theme should be that we attach priority to people, and enabling them to lead the sort of lives they want to. A priority for a lot of families and their offspring at present is that of securing adequate housing at an affordable price, particularly in London. Should we be prepared to sacrifice some bits of nondescript agricultural land within London’s Greenbelt for the priority of providing people with houses, despite this going against the environmental instincts of some in the Party? I would say yes, if our priority is people .

    However let’s see what Vince brings – I have a great deal of respect for his strategic judgement; he showed adaptability in improving his constituency act for the recent election; and, of all the leading Lib Dems from the Coalition years, he probably succeeded most in distancing himself from Conservative policies which have now developed problems, – a good platform from which to lead part of the non-conservative opposition.

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