Lib Dems hope for a turning point

The Lib Dem conference at Brighton last weekend was a low key affair. There was enough space in the Metropole hotel to hold the whole thing, including the very limited fringe. All this is in contrast to the last spring conference I attended in 2011 in Sheffield, amid a huge police presence and shouting demonstrators. In 2011 the party was already over the edge of an abyss, though it took that year’s disastrous local elections for many to realise it. This year conference goers thought the outlook was better.

The immediate cause is not hard to see: the party’s victory in the Eastleigh by-election. Most of those there had helped in this election one way or another. The win may not look all that convincing to an outsider, but activists talked it up, as if it was a landslide. This was a reflection of solidarity under assault, from not just the usual suspects, but from the liberal media too, including the BBC. To have overcome those odds, people felt, was a triumph. Also it was a reflection that the campaign was impressively organised, and did not shy away from the party’s role in government, or Nick Clegg’s leadership – issues that many considered to be toxic.

Rather bizarrely the BBC, in its coverage on Friday and on Saturday morning, expected the activists to be a bit grumpy, full of questions about who knew what and when in the Rennard and Huhne affairs. But it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Eastleigh would overshadow all. In fact a nasty row over secret courts was the second story of the conference: the parliamentary party had backed the government’s plans, in spite of a passionate debate and motion against them at the Autumn conference. There were resignations. But this is not the sort of row the media feel comfortable about reporting, so it didn’t get much coverage. Huhne and Rennard hardly featured, though there were a regular compliments to Mr Huhne’s work on policy and as a minister, and not all from men (Shirley Williams started it). The party leadership chose to confront the Rennard affair frontally at a women’s day rally on Friday evening: and that was all that most people wanted to hear on that topic. There was a second row about government economic policy: an emergency motion on the topic wasn’t taken, as the result of a manoeuvre that most representatives thought was a bit dubious. But cabinet minister Vince Cable’s stirrings on the economy were some compensation: he gave a speech at one of the fringe meetings. The official business was low key. Uncontroversial motions and speeches by junior ministers. An emergency motion on secret courts was a bit of an exception.

The main point of the conference, if there was one, was to lay groundwork for the 2015 General Election. There was a stirring speech by Paddy Ashdown, who is chairing the campaign, as well as Mr Clegg’s leadership speech. There was also a rather low key consultative session on the manifesto. In each these, and on other occasions, the party aired its campaign theme: “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” (“enabling everyone to get on in life” if you have space to pad it out a bit). The plan is to keep repeating this line ad nauseam for the next two and a bit years.

The slogan has its critics. Its direct message is not distinctive: every other political party stands for the same things, even if they define the terms a bit differently. It makes no reference to liberal values. Both criticisms miss the point. The party must win by attracting mainstream voters, who are not particularly liberal, though not anti-liberal either. The slogan is meant to draw people in to two further messages: you can’t trust the Conservatives on “fairness”, and you can’t trust Labour on the economy. The calculation is that each of the two main parties has a severe weakness which the party can exploit, as the only sensible, mainstream party left standing.

Will this work? It might. The Conservatives really do seem to have a problem. David Cameron was never able to mould his party in the way that Tony Blair moulded Labour. Many of the party’s MPs are right wing fanatics, as are their grass roots supporters. Such people are convinced that they have caught the public mood, because their views are reflected in much of the press. But most voters are put off. Mr Cameron has a good instinct for the “centre ground”, or the public mainstream – but his party looks divided. The very bendable word “fairness” is a good as any word bring attention to this Conservative weakness. In policy terms it is cover for taxing the rich and preserving social insurance, such as social security and the health service.

And Labour has a problem too. Their situation is not unlike the one that they faced in the early 1990s under Neil Kinnock, which led them to lose the 1992 election against a lacklustre Conservative government under John Major. They were riding high in the opinion polls, and the economy was in a mess. But they were inclined to make promises to spend more public funds, and their leader wasn’t trusted. Right now Labour are drawing a lot of energy from activists (many of them public sector workers) who feel that government cuts are motivated by ideology rather than economics. They grasp at a Keynesian critique of current government policy to think that sorting the economy out is as easy as boosting public spending, which will sort the public finances out through the multiplier effect. But polling shows that the public does not share this view: they feel that public expenditure should be cut back. That leaves Ed Miliband with an unenviable choice. If he pushes ahead with a publicly credible economic policy, and says he will match the government’s public expenditure plans, subject one of two populist tweaks, he will anger his activists and trade union donors. If he fudges, his campaign is likely to break apart under pressure, as Neil Kinnock’s did in 1992. It doesn’t help that his economic spokesman, Ed Balls, is closely associated with Gordon Brown’s economic policies, which are widely viewed as disastrous. Mr Miliband’s own public standing is weak, as was Mr Kinnock’s, though for different reasons.

This could give the Lib Dems an opening, especially in seats where the party has plenty of activists to deliver the message, tack in local issues, and get out the vote. With fifty or so seats the party may be able to win a place in another coalition government. Buoyed up by Eastleigh, Lib Dem activists think they can do it, and that an important turning point has been reached.

The public’s foul politcal mood: symptom or disease?

Is depression an illness? It can be. Many people suffer depression that is so severe that it overwhelms them. They need help and we categorise it as mental illness: a condition with a life of its own, where medical intervention is recommended.

But for most of us, most of the time depression is just part of the ordinary fabric of living. It is a necessary step in the way the mind adapts to new realities in the world around it, especially changes that are unexpected or unwelcome. We don’t understand why the human mind has evolved in this way, but it clearly is not a malfunction. We must accept it and work through it. This common wisdom is summarised in popular models such as the Kübler Ross model of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).

We can compare this personal mental phenomenon to current public attitudes to politics, especially here in Britain, but elsewhere too. This is partly a simple metaphor; but also some of the same psychological forces are at work. The public mood with politics is foul. Is this a disease, or merely a symptom of an inevitable change that is taking place in our society, that we simply have to come to terms with? And how should politicians respond?

The latest evidence for the public’s mood comes from the recent Eastleigh by-election. The main established parties locally, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, both lost votes, and much of their support was grudging, based on keeping somebody else out. The grumpy anti-establishment protest party Ukip jumped from nowhere into second place. The official opposition, Labour, made no headway. And, in more classic depressive behaviour, turnout fell significantly from the General Election in spite of an extremely intense campaign, where voters were getting daily leaflet drops and their phones did not stop ringing.

If this is an inevitable response a changed reality, we don’t have to look very far for a culprit. In the 15 years from 1992 to 2007 Britain has enjoyed steady economic growth. If the benefits of this growth have gone disproportionately to the rich, they have neverthless been spread widely. Pay-rises regularly beat inflation. The benign effects were reinforced by easy money which supported both consumption and rising property values. This didn’t seem like a golden age at the time (though there was a brief note of euphoria at the turn of the Millennium), but it served to set some fairly stable and benign expectations. Politicians squabbled of the extra things they could do with “the proceeds of growth”.

But this collapsed in 2007, when the financial crisis started, with a sharp economic contraction in 2008-09. Worse, in 2013 there seems no sign of things getting any better. While politicians on the left and right argue that growth can be restored, the public remains entirely unconvinced. You have to be a real optimist to think that Keynesian stimulus would offer more than temporary alleviation; and it could make things worse in the long run by taking the national debt sky high. The right wing’s supply side revolution would make things worse for most people in the short term, and probably only better for the already wealthy after that. Monetary loosening seems to involve sucking life out of the Pound, and so making things like energy, cars and foreign holidays yet more expensive – probably with only share and bond prices showing any benefit.

What on earth has happened? The public suspects that something has changed about the economy and society which means that the benign years before 2007 will not return. This builds on the natural human tendency to project current circumstances into the future. It so happens that I feel that this public instinct is well grounded. Slow growth is here to stay. Much of the growth before 2007 was a mirage.

This need not be a bad thing in itself. There is plenty enough resources to ensure a decent standard of living for everybody. But the political priorities in a low growth world are very different from what they used to be. Distribution of wealth becomes a top political issue. Government must learn to be frugal. We must focus on improving wellbeing rather than monetary wealth. But these changed priorities require a big psychological adjustment, so it is no wonder that there is anger, frustration and depression amongst the public.

If that is all, then the bad mood is simply a symptom of the changing times, and politicians should see through it to focus on the changed priorities. Politicians need to show empathy with the public, but not be panicked into populist policies. Aided and abetted by an unhelpful press, much public anger is directed at such things as immigration, the European Union, health and safety legislation, and human rights. But politicians should not be fooled by this anger; the public is in fact deeply ambiguous about all of these things. Deep down they sense they are necessary to the way we want to live our lives, the odd silly excess notwithstanding. Instead politicians should focus on reform to the tax and benefits system, improving public services, developing a housing strategy, securing energy supplies and fixing the still-broken financial system.

But many thoughtful observers, Paddy Ashdown for example, are convinced that the bad public mood is much deeper than this. Its beginnings predate the financial crisis of 2007 after all. There is a deeper feeling of disenfranchisement that will not go away. This needs more direct intervention. While I am not apocalyptic as Lord Ashdown, I think he has a point. British politics is not corrupt, but it is conducted by an elite class that does all it can to avoid being held to account. Reforming this will be hard work though. Devolving more power to local level is surely part of it – though fraught with danger. Whether the current government’s localism reforms have achieved anything useful is open to doubt – though the growing number of City Deals are more promising. Taxation powers are the critical issue, and nobody shows signs of grasping this particular nettle. The opportunities to re-enfranchise voters are surely mainly at the local level – but that means the delegation real power, and responsibility for real trade-offs – rather than the one-sided lobbying of the centre that currently dominates local politics.

The public mood is both a symptom of change that is running through our economic system, and also a deeper problem in its own right. Both call for honest liberal reforms, and not the sour populism that it immediately encourages. Let us hope that the public, through its anger and frustration, recognises this. They often do, if any politician has the courage put the case to them.


Eastleigh: a blow for the Westminster bubble

My first reaction to the overnight result of the Eastleigh parliamentary by election was, as a loyal Lib Dem, relief. For once the party isn’t having to explain away a lost deposit. A more considered reaction is that it shows just how out of touch with ordinary people the Westminster bubble is – I nearly wrote “has become”, but I think it has always been thus. Will they will be chastened by the experience? Alas, there is no chance of that.

By “the Westminster bubble” I mean that community of London-based politicians, journalists, lobbyists and their hangers-on, who control the main levers of political power, but who talk chiefly amongst themselves. There are plenty of enthusiastic Lib Dem bubble-types, but the Lib Dems are better grounded than most. They mainly responded to the Eastleigh challenge by actually going there and talking to the voters, rather than just trying to influence the media coverage in classic bubble fashion. The by election has been a sobering experience for the party, along with the joy of victory. First the Lib Dem vote share fell sharply, and the voters showed no great enthusiasm for the party. Second, the experience has shown just how much the party is disliked by most inhabitants of the bubble. This is hardly a surprise when it comes to Labour and Conservative politicians – but that it includes most supposedly objective news journalists, including at the BBC, is a little disappointing.

Exhibit A in this case is the Chris Rennard sexual harassment scandal. Almost all the news media have been giving huge prominence to some rather old accusations about sexual harassment by the former Lib Dem chief executive. I can do no better than refer readers to the Guardian’s fair-minded Michael White on this. The media coverage has everything to do with trying to influence the Eastleigh result against the Lib Dems, and little to do with the merits of the story. I will give a partial exemption to the BBC’s Martha Kearney on the World at One on this. She has given the story very heavy coverage – but does seem to have been genuinely interested in exploring the social issues the story raises about the behaviour of men to women. For all its flaws it sounded like good journalism to me. But the glee shown by BBC’s Today presenters about the possible effect of the story on the election was entirely another matter. The BBC should be ashamed of itself.

But the voters of Eastleigh just weren’t interested. Mild and old accusations of sexual harassment against somebody that has never held elected office was not the same thing as MPs overclaiming expenses. Neither did the other Lib Dem scandal, that of Chris Huhne’s confession of getting his wife to take his speeding points, seem to have played all that heavily. That issue was at least a legitimate issue for the by election, since Mr Huhne had been their MP, and his resignation is what triggered it. The Westminster bubble’s inhabitants seem incapable of understanding the voters’ lack of interest.

Meanwhile the bubble seems equally incapable of comprehending the extraordinary performance of Ukip, who stormed from nowhere into second place, and came  close to winning the seat. This seems to vindicate the stand of some right-wing bubblies, exemplified by Daily Mail journalists, on Europe and other issues, but Ukip themselves are complete outsiders – more so than even the Lib Dems. They have been trying to link the party’s rise to Westminster’s own obsession with the country’s relationship to the EU, and whether or not to hold a referendum. But it seems highly implausible that this had much to do with it. It seems much more likely their rise is a reflection of an anti-politics mood: a bit like the success of Beppo Grillo in Italy. Of course the journalists in the bubble are doing much to stoke the anti-politics mood, in order to help their own standing within the bubble. But this is turning out to be a highly destructive game. No doubt the journalists calculate that what they have built up, in the rise of Ukip, they can just as easily destroy when it presents a real threat. But politics as a whole is being degraded.

Instead of reflecting on this, the bubble journalists are emphasising the humiliation to the Conservative and Labour parties and their respective leaders. But for these parties the election should be seen as a useful reality check, and no more.

My politically objective advice to David Cameron is: don’t panic. The election says nothing about his recent policy move on an EU renegotiation and referendum. I think this is a brilliant move: but it is part of the groundwork for the 2015 General Election, and will show few benefits before then. The election also shows that the Lib Dems will be no pushover, even though many bubblies think the party will vanish without trace in 2015. Ukip are a challenge, but their weaknesses are poor organisation and lack of media friends. There is plenty of time for them to burn out, and the time for pricking their bubble is after the 2014 European Parliament elections, and not before. Tories might reflect that if the by election had been held under the Alternative Vote (the system that they so vehemently rejected in 2011), they they might well have won. Though, to be fair, Ukip would have been more likely victors on this occasion.

For Labour, the result is pretty unsurprising, but it may help their more enthusiastic supporters to confront reality. The public does not share their view of the economy: that austerity policies are laying criminal waste to the British economy. And it will be hard work for them to make progress outside their diminishing working class heartlands. The leadership probably realise this already, even if Polly Toynbee followers don’t. But the time to fix this is not necessarily now.

And for the Lib Dems? It’s difficult not to see this as a small, but positive step forward. The party is earning a place as part of the political establishment: a party that is capable of progressing even when the media is against it. The party can’t pretend, as it liked to, that they are super-clean, and new kids on the block. The public see all the human frailties they see in other parties. But Labour and the Conservatives have succeeded in spite this. In the end people like to vote for respectable, establishment parties when the stakes are high. Instead of trying to promote themselves as a new kind of political force, they need to focus on promoting policies and competence. For all the noise, that is happening.