The Greens. All that was wrong with the Lib Dems. On steroids.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

To me it was one of the surprises of 2010. As the Liberal DemocratsGreen_Party_of_England_and_Wales_logo.svg joined the Conservatives in coalition, and their popular support promptly crashed, why didn’t the Green Party benefit? Surely large numbers of the rather leftist, protest voters that were disillusioned with the Lib Dems would migrate there? But Green support hardly moved, while Labour surged. But now many more people are asking themselves whether they should vote Green in the forthcoming General Election. Should they?

The Greens have not been idle since 2010. Perhaps they too were surprised about their failure to draw in ex-Lib Dems. To people from a relative distance two changes are conspicuous. First they reformed their leadership structure so that they elected a single leader – rather than the confusing collective leadership they previously had; that leader is Natalie Bennett. Second they changed tack on policy to push their environmentalism back in favour of “social justice” – a concern about the distribution of wealth, the workings of capitalism, and so on. Now of the three main policy stances on their (English) website “Vote for real change” only one, and the third in the sequence, refers to environmental sustainability. The first is opposition to austerity, and the second is opposition to the privatization of public services. They have become more like a mainstream political party in sharpness of leadership and messaging.

Whether or not it is a result of these changes, the party’s fortunes have improved dramatically. Now they regularly poll more than the Lib Dems, whom they beat in the European elections in 2014. They received a boost when the Prime Minister, David Cameron, insisted that they be included in the proposed leaders’ debates at the General Election. That boosted publicity and their membership has surged to 50,000, more than the Lib Dems. Their support amongst younger voters is striking.

This attention has not been entirely welcome. Their policy of a Citizens Income came under particular scrutiny and promptly fell apart, when it appeared to hit the poorest hardest. Incidentally that link (to the Guardian) has my favorite picture of the new Green  party – which I haven’t published on this page because of copyright.

It is very tempting for members of other political parties to sneer at the Greens. Their chaotic policies; Ms Bennett’s Antipodean accent; the alleged misfortunes Brighton council, which they control. That would be a mistake. As a Lib Dem  I have endured a life-time of sneering and it hasn’t changed my mind. The Greens attract support from those disillusioned with modern politics – sneering from the sidelines just reinforces that disillusionment. But voting should be a serious business; we should expect anybody asking for our vote to make sense. and here I struggle with the Greens.

Two experiences over the last year have turned me against them. The first was a computer graphic of an election poster. Unfortunately I didn’t bookmark it, and I can’t find it, so I can’t reproduce it here. It promised everything. Growth; reversal of austerity; sustainability – and more things besides. There was no inkling of hard choices. The second was hearing a radio interview with Ms Bennett. She dripped with smugness; she had pat answers to everything. When asked if the Greens would go into coalition, she said no. They weren’t interested in ministerial cars; they would enter a confidence and supply agreement. This, of course, was an attack on the Lib Dems’ readiness to enter a coalition. It’s also utter nonsense. The British government has huge executive powers, and parliamentary controls aren’t strong. The Greens would have far more scope to change things if they had ministers. Ms Bennett clearly didn’t want the responsibility that would entail.

So what? That poster disappeared without trace. Ms Bennett is just one person. The Greens’ MP, Caroline Lucas, is much more impressive. But these things foreshadow something bigger, and a visit to the Greens’ website does not reassure me. The party just doesn’t seem to be interested in making serious choices. They just want a good whinge.

To illustrate let’s look at their “mini manifesto” Real Choices. After the introductory page it starts off well enough with a page on the environment and climate change. It firmly states a commitment to reducing the use fossil fuels, rejection of nuclear power and replacement with renewables – plus some stuff about protecting the environment more generally. This is what most people think the Greens are about. Some may say it as impractical – especially the rejection of nuclear power – but I  forgive them for that. If you feel strongly that climate change is the biggest challenge facing man on this planet, then this is a perfectly respectable line to take. And so is scepticism of nuclear power. But it involves hard choices.

Which is where we run into problems. The next two pages “Building a fairer society” and “Health and education – free for everyone” move into the party’s new agenda. No to austerity – investing in a low carbon future instead; raising the minimum wage; more affordable housing; more welfare spending; bash bankers some more; stop outsourcing health services; scrap university tuition fees;protect pay and conditions of health and education professionals; stop the Academy programme for schools.  Leave aside the “oppose austerity” bit and individually there is something to be said for each of these policies; some even look sensible (the bit on affordable housing, and a low carbon future). But together they are comically incoherent. The “oppose austerity” says it all. You might think that an environmentalist party would understand that resources are limited. If there is to be a serious drive to invest in low carbon projects, while also preserving bloat in the health and education services so as not to upset their employees, then surely something, somewhere has to give. There is going to be austerity somewhere. Austerity is about ensuring that the state is financially sustainable. Pah! say the Greens.

The next couple of pages carry on in the same vein. Energy – permanently lower bills. Here the party tries to show that its energy policies won’t mean higher bills – insulation will square the circle.  And Transport – cheaper and cleaner. Apparently by nationalizing public transport and cancelling the HS2 railway project, public transport is going to be cleaner and better.

All this leads me to a very painful reflection. I am reminded of something by this incoherent set of protest responses. The Liberal Democrats. Especially the Lib Dems under its previous leader, Charles Kennedy, and its manifesto for the 2005 General Election, the party’s most successful. The present leader, Nick Clegg, reined things in a bit, but was left with policies like the abolition of tuition fees. This proved successful politics for a while, but in 2010 the party bumped into a glass ceiling. Early in that campaign the Lib Dems surged. And then the voters looked a bit harder. And they saw a party of protest and not one of government. The surge collapsed.

Ironically the public was wrong. Against expectations the Lib Dems entered government and proved more than ready for it. But they had to ditch the protest policies and the protest voters, and added to a public disillusionment with politicians.

The Green Party now is the old Lib Dems on steroids, but without the underlying ability to deliver effective government policies. As a voter that should give you pause.

#ldconf Nick Clegg needs to be clearer on the “smart, liberal and enabling state”

The Liberal Democrat conference ended yesterday on its fifth day with the party leader, Nick Clegg, giving his speech. By then I was on the train home, wishing to save money on fares as well as arrive home at a decent hour – though I have read a text version of the speech, and seen the comments. It ended an uplifting conference for the party. While good for the spirits, has it answered doubts over the party and its leader? It is a step forward.

The doubts centre around the party clearly articulating what it stands for. To date it has been keen to identify itself as covering the “centre ground”, and to spend time justifying its role in the coalition government. The problem with defining yourself as being centrist is that that you are using other parties to define yourself. The party risks presenting itself as either or both of “Labour-Lite” or “Tory-Lite”. This is not a convincing rallying cry. Neither is a list of policy proposals; if they are popular, the other parties will steal them. The Conservatives are already “stealing” the raising of tax allowances, the Lib Dem signature policy of this parliament. Lib Dem whinging about this, and the Tories getting the credit for the economic recovery rather than them, is all rather pathetic and will win the party no credit with voters. The public does not give the party credit because they don’t know what it stands for – beyond winning the prestige that goes with being in government. The policies and the record of action are the supporting evidence for a proposition, not the proposition itself.

Lib Dem activists have a strong idea of what the party stands for: liberalism. This is not the economic liberalism of the 19th Century, but one where the state plays an active role in making sure everybody gets the opportunity to develop and fulfil their lives. That “everybody” is a central idea – it is not qualified by national, ethnic, class or other identity. This leads to clarity around a certain set of policies: human rights, written constitutions, distributed political power, strong social insurance and a degree of redistribution of wealth and income, to improve the chances of the less lucky. There is also a strong environmentalist steak.

Amongst the general public, who do the Lib Dems need to convince? There are two main groups. First are those who are liberals, but who are more convinced by other parties – mainly Labour and the Greens, as the Conservatives seem to have given up on liberals. The second group are people who are drawn to non-liberal politics, being those of identity, individualistic self-interest, or a large centralised state, but might be convinced otherwise, perhaps as a second-best. A socialist may be convinced that liberalism is better than conservatism, if Labour are locally weak.

How did Mr Clegg and his party do? Better than before. Mr Clegg’s speech contained more about liberal values and why they make sense. He called for a “smart, liberal and enabling state”. The party made a clear stand against illiberal policies of their Conservative coalition partners. The signature policy Mr Clegg chose was parity for mental health with physical health in the NHS. If this is a bit tangential to liberalism (you don’t have to be liberal to support it), it will at least serve to draw attention. It showed the party capable of fresh thinking.

But it is only a start. I would like to hear more about the “smart, liberal and enabling state” – and in particular how it contrasts with Labour’s vision of the state. Indeed I think the party is being too soft on Labour, and needs to find some “wedge” issues that will pull liberals away from it. There is a bit of paradox in political presentation; you need to get over a strong positive message, but contrast is needed for visibility, which means that attacking other parties can be one of the most effective ways of defining your own. You need to say what you are not, and how you are different. The party is doing this with respect to the Tories, and the Tories themselves are lending a helping hand. But to a Labour sympathiser it opens the question of why the party is in coalition with the Tories, and thereby letting in a host of nasty Tory policies. It isn’t enough just say that the party stopped the worst ones, and put through one or two ideas of its own. The main reason the party ganged up with the Conservatives was the hopeless state of Labour – something that went further than their electoral failure.

Labour is a loose coalition of values and interests, albeit with a strong tribal solidarity. Liberals are an important part of this coalition, alongside public sector workers, state dependents, working class conservatives, left wing intellectuals and northern city council mafias. Lib Dems need to show that this Labour coalition is unable to produce coherent policies for government, still less implement serious liberal reforms. This means developing the vision of a “smart, liberal and agile” state, and showing how this is different from the Labour and Tory versions. At this conference the policy paper on public services presented some interesting new thinking on just that. That is only one piece of a jigsaw.

The Green Party is also worth a bit of attention in my view. It has moved on from a focus on environmental policies. In its current statement on values the first two of its three policy bullets are its opposition to austerity and to privatisation for public services – and only then does it cover climate change. This is no more coherent than Ukip’s policy stance. In Scotland the Greens supported independence in spite of the fact that the Yes campaign’s economic strategy depended on getting carbon out from under the sea and into the atmosphere as fast as physically possible. The party’s leader in England leader, Natalie Bennett, has also said that the party wants to avoid the responsibilities of government, and to limit any cooperation with a future government to case by case parliamentary support. All this is half-baked and could break up quite fast under scrutiny. Still I’m sure the professionals would urge that ignoring them is the best way of handling them. But they picked up a lot of liberal votes in my neighbourhood in the European elections this May.

But one thing is going for the Liberal Democrats. The main parties are concentrating on a core-vote strategy, leaving space on the centre ground. If the party can spell out its liberal vision more clearly, it can surely advance from the 7% support that it currently languishes at. It is gradually winning more respect, to judge by newspaper editorials. Its conference in Glasgow was a step forward.


How would AV change UK politics?

In my post last week I explained why I am supporting the Alternative Vote (AV) in the forthcoming UK referendum.  This case was based on principle.  We have a system of single member constituencies.  First past the post (FPTP) carries a high risk of unrepresentative candidates being elected.  Of the various systems in use around the world to counter the weaknesses of FPTP (primary elections in the US, run-off elections in France, AV in Australia), AV seems to fit the British situation best.  I avoided asking what the impact of any change would be: just that the system is more democratic.  But there are pragmatic types out there for whom the likely impact of the changes is more important than first principles.  Today’s post is for them.  It will help show them why it is best to think about principles.

The trouble with most analysis of this in the UK is that it is based on looking at past FPTP results, supported by some opinion polls on second preferences, and then predicting how the outcome would have been with AV.  This runs into two problems.  First is that the next election is going to be quite unlike the last few, if for no other reason than that the current government is a coalition.  The next problem is that AV will change voting behaviours, and the campaign pitches of the political parties.  The usual conclusion is that the Lib Dems will benefit quite a bit, Labour marginally, and the Conservatives would lose out.  None of these effects would have been enough to change the outcome of elections except maybe the last one.  Extra seats for Lib Dems and Labour might have made the current coalition impossible, and even a Labour-Lib Dem one on the cards.  That’s enough for most Conservatives.  If we had had AV last time, Gordon Brown might still be PM.

The Lib Dems should benefit.  About time many will say – since the party is badly under-represented in parliament.  More pragmatic types worry that this would give a smaller party too much influence in the choice of coalition partners.  But the Lib Dems do face a problem.  In order to benefit their first preference votes need to get past either the Labour or Conservative candidates (in England – it’s more complicated in Scotland and Wales).  They might then attract second preference votes from whichever of these parties gets knocked out.  And yet the classic Lib Dem campaign technique is to persuade voters to vote for them because one or other of the major parties doesn’t stand a chance; this argument has much less resonance under AV.  Voters will say that they will simply give the Lib Dems a second preference, and give their first preference to their most preferred party.  As a result Conservative or Labour candidates currently in third place might sneak into second, knocking the Lib Dems out.  The Littleborough & Saddleworth seat at the last election was a Labour seat that people count as vulnerable to the Lib Dems under AV; but the Conservative vote was strong and under AV they might well have pushed past the Lib Dems into second place, which would, in fact, have made the seat safer for Labour.  This could be a big help to the Labour Party in the South West.  In Australia the two party system is entrenched (one of the “parties” being a coalition in an electoral pact).  The Lib Dems will be desperate for first preference votes under AV, and in the long term it cannot be taken for granted that the party would flourish.

Labour has less to fear.  It might help them pick up in areas where they are in third place – now great swathes of England.  They may not do so well from picking up second preferences from Lib Dem voters next time – but only because they will have done such a good job of persuading them to vote Labour as first preference.  They get some insurance against those voters drifting back.  It is a moment of truth for Labour supporters who believe that there is a “progressive majority” – a majority of voters for whom the Conservative Party is toxic.  If so the system ensures that the Conservatives never get a majority.

And that is the challenge for the Conservatives.  It will be much more difficult for them to sneak in a majority government against the votes of the a majority of the electorate.  But many Conservatives believe in something like a “silent majority” – the opposite of the progressive majority.  There are lot of people sympathetic to their policies that do not say so, and will not give them a first preference vote.  If so, they may pick up a lot of second preferences.  This could be particularly helpful to them at the next election, when both UKIP and the Lib Dems will be trying to pick off their voters.  If Labour succeeds in pulling past the Lib Dems in South Western seats, then this will make a few seats a bit safer for them, since they will get more second preferences from Lib Dem voters than Labour ones.

For the smaller parties AV is ambiguous.  It is difficult to see that extremist parties, like the BNP, will make any headway, since other voters will gang up against them.  Their best hope of an MP is under FPTP in a split seat.  But UKIP and the Greens may well think they can pick up a majority in favoured seats by scooping up enough second preference votes.  In the UKIP case they need to push past the Conservatives, either in what would now be very safe Conservative seats, or in Lib Dem held seats where they can hope to scoop up some Labour voters too.  For the Greens the game is to push past the Lib Dems, and scoop up enough of their votes to push past Labour (or the other way round), to mount a challenge on the Tories.  In both cases these are long shots, but you need a deal of optimism in politics.

In sum, the impact of AV is very uncertain in the UK.  The Lib Dems could assert themselves with a permanently larger block of seats, alongside a scattering of seats for the greens and perhaps UKIP.  Or the two party system could reassert itself, with the other parties finding it more difficult to pick up enough first preference votes.  But the outcome is uncertain for a good reason: electoral politics will be more competitive.  Who knows what voters would do?