The Lib Dems after Chesham & Amersham: time to move to the centre

The Times operates a pay wall for its online content. I have been paying £10 a month to access it. So it was a bit upsetting when my email provider decided their newsletters were junk (while being happy with The Guardian and Financial Times). It was rather more upsetting that it took me over a month to notice. Still, I missed regular articles from some of my favourite columnists, especially Matthew Parris. I also regularly read Danny Finkelstein and David Aaronovitch. I sometimes read Melanie Phillips, who, rather alarmingly, I seem to be agreeing with more and more. You may note a distinctly conservative taste for somebody who tends to the left – but I have always believed that you should expose yourself to challenging views. In any case all three of these are liberals in the traditional sense, although that is a bit of a stretch for Ms Phillips.

I have been catching up, with especial interest on the response to the Lib Dems’ astonishing victory in the Chesham & Amersham by-election. Those from Mr Parris and Lord Finkelstein were especially striking. Both acknowledge that the result must give the Conservative leadership pause for thought, but suggest that the deeper questions posed by the result are for the Lib Dems. Lord Finkelstein’s view is made clear in the article’s title: There is no Point to the Liberal Democrats. Some context is helpful here. Like me, Lord Finkelstein’s first political commitment was to join the Social Democratic Party (SDP) when it was formed in 1981. Doubtless also like me he had been inclined to be Conservative beforehand, but he was a bit younger (born in 1962 to my 1958). Unlike me, he opposed the SDP’s merger with the Liberal Party in 1987 to form what eventually would be known as the Liberal Democrats. He limped on with the “continuing SDP” with former SDP leader David Owen until he joined the Conservatives in 1990, who made him a peer in 2013. This suggests that like Lord Owen, he has always had a loathing for the Liberals and its successor party, as the little people in British politics, though he hides it a bit better. (Lord Owen always finds some clever reason to oppose anything the Lib Dems support, most notably in the 2011 referendum on electoral reform). Still Lord Finkelstein’s arguments bear hearing out, however painful they are to read for somebody that has given so many years of their life to the party.

The essence of Lord Finkelstein’s argument is as follows:

Here are the problems of the Liberal Democrats. They don’t stand for anything, they don’t stand for anybody, they can’t win and even if they could it would be utterly pointless.

Danny Finkelstein, The Times 22 June 2021

He goes on to say that they are worse than pointless, as they are getting in the way of establishing a coherent opposition to the Conservative Party. Lib Dems like me may protest the party does stand for a clear set of liberal, internationalist and environmentalist values, and that this has become more coherent since the loose coalition assembled by former leaders Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy has fallen apart. He would counter that those same views are also held by many members of the Labour Party, and even the Conservatives, and are not distinctive. More seriously it is clear that local government does not exist in Lord Finkelstein’s world – which is revealing. But the Lib Dems aspire to being more than being a party of local councillors. He is onto something when he points out that the party collapsed when it went into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, its only exercise of real power. This makes it understandable that the party rules out coalition with the Conservatives. But that kills the party’s leverage, and poses the question of why members shouldn’t just join the Labour Party.

Ouch! There are many moments when I have wondered whether my support for the Lib Dems has been futile. I have made a lot of friends (and the party is how I met my wife) – and it has been one of the best ways to meet like-minded people. But I don’t join it as a social club. Sometimes I am simply left with the impact the party has had on other parties by competing with them. It is true that the spectacular by-election victories the party has scored from Orpington in the year of Lord Finkelstein’s birth to this one have led nowhere in the following general elections. But they have often had a big political impact, usually on the Conservatives. Other parties were simply in no position to deliver these shocks. The complacency of Conservatives prior to the latest Chesham & Amersham was quite astonishing, to read some of the things that their supporters had been writing beforehand.

And are we really in the way of forming a coherent opposition to the Tories? And should we really join Labour? I might ask why, if Lord Finkelstein thinks that the Conservatives so badly need such an opposition, and that if joining Labour is the only way to achieve it, why hasn’t he? I joined the SDP as soon as I realised that I wanted it to succeed. My reasons for not wanting to join Labour are probably pretty similar to his; my blood runs cold at the thought of it. I do not want to be a foot soldier in something distinctly ugly (and I would say the same for joining the Conservatives). The alternative for me to being part of the Lib Dems is leaving politics altogether. The reason that Labour can’t form an electorally convincing alternative to the Conservatives (coherence is easier…) lies mainly within that party, and not because it is missing a few more liberal members and activists. Sometimes competition works better than collaboration, even in politics. Would Tony Blair’s New Labour have happened without the SDP split?

Mr Parris’s article Tories need to start caring about the blue wall is ultimately more compelling, though almost as searing in its opinion of the Lib Dems. The article’s main focus is on the Conservatives, and how the current leadership is taking for granted a whole stratum of liberal conservative voters, of which he is one, and which is prominent in Chesham & Amersham. These are repelled by Boris Johnson’s party, and are ripe for the taking. Can the Lib Dems do this outside a fevered by election? Mr Parris is sceptical:

Liberal Democracy has a wonky wheel that, time and again when hard choices loom, wobbles them off the highway and into the ditch of localism, neighbourhood grumbles, government intervention and “whatever’s your gripe is ours too”

Beyond its orange bird, Lib-Demmery has a big yellow streak. Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws took the leap into real politics in coalition. But their party seems to have disowned that brave compromise. Are they ready for adult politics again? If they can learn to show steel, to say no to someone, something, anything, then Sarah Green, the new MP for Chesham & Amersham, may approach the next election with a fighting chance. If not, this will be one more by-election we shout about, then forget.

Matthew Parris, The Times 19 June 2021

I often disagree with Matthew Parris, but I think he has it this time. The party has changed since the days of anything-goes in the 2000s. But has it changed enough? How should the party present itself to the electorate, and how can it show that it is interested in adult politics again?

In my previous article I suggested that the by-election showed what the point of the Liberal Democrats was. It was to appeal to Conservative voters whom Labour and the Greens cannot reach, while holding to its liberal values. That means it must champion the centre ground of politics. Lib Dem activists bristle when it is suggested that theirs is a party of the centre, as it implies the party is rootless and defined by the ground that parties of left and right happen to inhabit. But while the core values of the party are not defined by the political centre, core values do not win elections – you have to broaden your appeal. Taking the centre is how the party must do this, and that is how they pulled off this coup. If they are to turn this one-off event into something more substantial, then the party has to stick to this line.

What does that mean, in practice? It means going back to the traditional values of public service that Mr Johnson’s followers (and many in the Labour Party) dismiss as elitist: fair play and tolerance; truth rather than grandstanding; saying sorry every so often. It also means being clear that international cooperation has a big role to play in solving many of the country’s problems – from trade to taxing companies to global security – in contrast to the Tory preference for tub-thumping and “buccaneering”. That’s the easy bit. The party needs to stand up for effective public service, without getting hung up on public ownership, but combining this with a degree of fiscal prudence. This means two things which will be hard. First is not to suggest that spending more public money is the solution to every problem: which means challenging Labour every so often when they do just that. And it means admitting that an ageing population and stronger public services mean higher taxes on everybody, and not just some soft underbelly of rich people and taxes. All these positions may be open to respectable challenge, but this is the approach that will earn credibility amongst centre-ground voters. Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party may adopt similar positions in the end, but the Lib Dems can do so with more credibility amongst Conservative voters.

And the party needs to be honest about where they want all this to go. That is taking part in a coalition government, if the coalition as a whole follows largely centrist principles. The party can rule out a coalition with the Conservatives under Boris Johnson, but not necessarily under another leader. But the most likely option is government with a Labour Party that has taken some steps towards a centrist programme itself.

Will the Lib Dems be able to pull this off, and win 30 to 40 seats at the next election? I understand the scepticism of people like Matthew Parris. But I am hoping he is wrong.

What is the meaning of the Chesham and Amersham by election?

What is the point of the Liberal Democrats? This question has been asked often since the party bet big on reversing the Brexit referendum result and lost. Languishing in single digit poll ratings, with only a handful of MPs, a weak brand and a leader who looks like just another white male middle-aged politician, the question was asked rhetorically. It was obvious that the answer was that there wasn’t any. The party would be replaced by some combination of a newly-moderate Labour Party and the Greens. On the eve of the by-election in the safe Conservative seat of Chesham and Amersham bookmakers were still offering odds of only 13-1 that the Lib Dems would win.

But the result showed a different answer to that question. It wasn’t even close. The Conservative vote crashed by 20%; Labour’s by 10% (they only had 11%); the Lib Dems ended up with a big majority. This shows that only the Lib Dems amongst “progressive” parties have a chance of challenging the Tories in their heartlands. Labour is still paying the price for its flirtation with radicalism under Jeremy Corbyn; the Greens do not have the strength and depth of ground organisation, and many Conservative voters find their brand offputting. It is now clear that if the Conservatives’ grip on the Westminster parliament is to be broken, the Lib Dems will have to play their part.

Why did the Conservatives do so badly, when nationally their stock is still riding high? The obvious answer is that the party is focusing on consolidating its hold on its newly won voters in northern England, the Midlands and Wales – the old “red wall”; this leaves the party’s traditional heartlands feeling neglected. By itslef this explanation doesn’t work. Under Boris Johnson’s leadership the party has a sunny “Have your cake and eat it” stance: doing well by the new voters is not meant to be at the expense of the old. After all that is what “levelling up”, the stated aim of their policy, is meant to mean. Something else is annoying the heartlands.

The first, I think, is resentment about Brexit. To old Remain supporters, many of whom were in this consituency, this is not going well, and the arguments made about the damage it would do, dismissed by Brexit supporters like Mr Johnson as “Project Fear”, are turning into facts. Combine this with the many missteps of the government’s response to covid, and there is little love and trust in the government.

There were to more specific issues that the Lib Dems hammered on, once they found they were resonnating. The first was the government’s new planning law proposals, designed to make it easier to build on greenbelt land. Suburban voters such as those in this constituency have a fear of development spoiling their green and pleasant environment. The Lib Dems also want more houses to be built, but suggest that the government’s plans will be a developers’ charter to build poor quality housing (in terms of environmental standards at least) where it is not needed, instead of “community-led” initiatives to build more good-quality affordable and social housing. The second issue was the new HS2 railway from London to Birmingham, which is being built through the area. The Lib Dems support HS2, so once again some political finesse was required. The candidate promised to uphold constituents’ interests in opposing what is seen as a brutal juggernaut not listening to local concerns.

Doubtless Tories will feel that this is more chicanery from the Lib Dems – but it is not as if their party does not delight in chicanery itself. If the roles were reversed they would have had no hesitation in doing the same. That is politics; there are no prizes for holding the high ground. For the Lib Dems a weak brand has its disadvantages: it doesn’t rile floating voters so much and gives more room for manoeuvre. Still the party is only a threat to the Conservatives if it has a local foothold, and that is only patchy. Besides its appeal is now largely restricted to better-educated voters, and the result does not provide evidence of a broadening of their appeal. But where the party already has a foothold, it will be re-energised. The party should also get more attention in the media for a while – after the embarassment of most outlets failing to spot what was happening here, in spite of ample evidence, while giving extensive coverage to the Batley and Spen by election, due on 1 July. The party now needs to make good use of this brief window of opportunity.

For the Conservatives it is a clear sign of danger, though their politcal position remains formidable. Success in British politcs depends to some extent on taking core support for granted while reaching out to more marginal voters. But this is a dangerous exercise, as Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, found in the 2017 election, when she tried to do just that far too blatently. The main point of worry for the government must be those planning reforms. They are going to need far more political skill on housing than they have shown hithertoo if they are to avoid further damage.

Labour’s predicament deserves a post of its own, but for them there is good and bad news. The collapse of their vote shows that their brand is now very weak – after a period when they had often done relatively well in Lib Dem strongholds. The Greens got more than twice as many votes. But there is no evidence that resurgent Lib Dems will undermine them in critical battleground seats, and it also shows that the Conservatives can be put on the defensive. An optimist might suggest that a weakening of the brand is a necessary precursor to de-toxification. The party still needs to be able to fire up its supporters, of course. Talk of a “progressive alliance” of non-Tory parties is premature, however. But Labour strategists will need to let the Lib Dems undermine the Conservative vote somehow.

For now though the Lib Dems can bask in the glory a bit. Their new MP, Sarah Green, is a strong addition to their parliamentary ranks. Remarkably, 8 of the party’s 12 MPs are now female. Quite a reversal from a party that used to be much derided for its failure to get female MPs elected.

All the main parties have opportunities and challenges

We now have nearly a complete body, so the post-mortem is more convincing. What the elections show is that politics has been changed decisively by Brexit and the takeover of the Conservatives by Boris Johnson and his supporters. This new world offers challenges and opportunities for each of the five main political parties – the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens.

One comment I am reading a lot of is how much these elections have been favourable to those in power, at least down to regional level. The Conservatives have done well in England, and in the Teesside and West Midlands mayoralties. Labour did well in Wales, Manchester and other big city mayoralties. The SNP did well in Scotland. Perhaps that is the influence of the covid-19 crisis. Perhaps that means that the winners are not as secure as some suggest. One aspect of this incumbency bonus is the naked way the Conservatives are using power in recently won seats in England to bring in local government spending. The voters have got the message, it appears, and don’t object; Labour complaints only draw attention to it.

The biggest winners are the Conservatives, who have consolidated their hold on formerly Labour areas in northern England and the Midlands, but not Wales. I have already written about this. It places the party in a formidable electoral position. The challenge has been well put by Matthew Parris in The Times. The party has been garnering support among people who see themselves as the rejected, society’s losers. Important though these people are, the policies they favour are not those that will be good for the country’s prosperity and wellbeing. They favour continuity and stability, if not pushing the clock back. Sooner or later this is going to create unbearable pressure at government level. They will either be unable to deliver on their promises to improve local conditions, in which case their voters will move on, or they succeed, in which case the politics of victimhood will play less well, and other parties will find the going easier. The two pronged attack that did for the Conservatives at the Euro elections in 2019 can do for them again – as both professionals and populists close in on either flank. For now the Prime Minister looks likely to bluff his way through this challenge, delivering cheery words but little in the way of substantive results. But the vulnerability remains. Meanwhile Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens were all able to chip away at the Tory hold in their southern heartlands where well-led locally.

One of the rituals of election post-mortems is commentators to have a go at the Labour Party, criticising it for not listening to its core supporters. Take this piece from Janice Turner in The Times again. And yes, I often join this chorus myself. But when most of these people accuse Labour of looking down on traditional supporters, they themselves look down on Labour’s core support, especially amongst “woke” public service professionals. It needs to be taken with salt. More interesting is the variation on the theme by John Harris in the Guardian, who accuses Labour of too often ignoring local community groups, to rebuild the civic infrastructure it lost when old industries went into decline. This is something that the party seemed to understand under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and certainly was important to his effective deputy, John McDonnell, but it is being abandoned by the current leadership.

Labour finds itself in a tricky position. It must extend its base beyond those public-sector professionals and the “new” urban working classes, without abandoning core ideas, like multiculturalism, that are central to its hold on that existing base. I’m sure that Mr Harris is right and that local community politics is part of the answer. But it isn’t easy, and in places they will find that the Lib Dems or Greens will have got there first. Tricky strategic decisions lie ahead, but their position is far from hopeless. The results are not as bad as many are making but, but they do show that the Tory hold on the old “Red Wall” remains tight, in England at least.

The SNP are the other big winners. The challenge for them is clear: navigating the drive towards independence for Scotland. The idea of independence is popular in Scotland, but the hard reality is likely to be less so. Perhaps the UK government’s best strategy is to move the debate onto the nitty gritty and let the SNP get bogged down; but to do that it has to concede a referendum, though not perhaps the referendum that the SNP want. See this interesting article by David Herdson on political betting.com. Losing the last referendum was the best thing to happen to the SNP; that will not be the case for another one. But if the government refuses to concede a referendum, then the SNP will continue to control the agenda.

For the Lib Dems the elections produced mixed results, but hopeful signs outweighed the discouraging ones. The party is making headway against the Conservatives where it has local strength. The Tory drive for the old Labour heartlands increases its vulnerability in its own backyard. But no earthquakes. It is not yet clear how the party breaks through into national scene. The party does not have a sharp brand; this can help in Britain’s electoral system, as a sharp brand deters as well as attracts voters. In Scotland the party held onto all its first-past-the-post seats, and challenged hard for a further one. But it won no seats on the proportional list system. This is ironic for a party that is so keen on proportional representation.

The advantages of a clear brand are shown by the Greens, who generally did well. If Labour starts to dilute its appeal to younger and environmentally conscious voters, the Greens are more likely to benefit now than the Lib Dems. The Greens easily beat the Lib Dems in London, as well as Scotland (where they contested no first-past-the post seats). Still, their claim to be the third party of national politics is overdone. Their predicament is the opposite to that of the Lib Dems – trying to turn a strong national brand into something that wins them councils and parliamentary seats.

Should the non-Tory parties work together to challenge the Conservatives, outside Scotland at least? This can only be on the basis of changes to the electoral system and perhaps other constitutional changes. This has been done in New Zealand. But for that to be viable there needs to be a broad understanding in the public that the system is broken and needs to be changed. For all the whinging I see little evidence of this. Beyond a little sotto voce staying out of each others’ way at the next general election I don’t think this idea will get anywhere.

So the landscaper has changed, but we are only beginning to see where this is leading.

Sir Keir Starmer must take tough decisions on personnel and policy

Recently I wrote that Boris Johnson is in a strong position politically, notwithstanding all his ms-steps on Covid-19. This was based on British success on the vaccine, and that, for most people, Brexit is not proving to be a disaster. This now seems to be accepted political wisdom. I didn’t talk about another reason he is in a strong position: the disarray of the opposition parties in his English heartlands.

This weekend’s papers are full of despair over Labour’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer; his honeymoon is well and truly over. It is even worse for the Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, who never had a honeymoon. Journalists want to see opposition led by charismatic leaders, and neither fit the bill. But I have a huge respect for both men: the main problem with each of them is the weakness their parties.

Ever since the 2010 General Election, Labour have been chasing a chimera: the “progressive majority”. This is the idea that most voters do not want to see a Conservative government. At first the idea was used to push cooperation between Labour and the Lib Dems. But under Ed Miliband, who took over in 2010, the idea was that Labour should harness this majority on its own, by crushing the Lib Dems and Greens; there was no need to chase marginal Conservative voters and so compromise “progressive” values. This strategy was carried forward by his successor, Jeremy Corbyn. They both managed to crush the Lib Dems and Greens, but this turned out to help the Conservatives more than their own party.

Sir Keir now accepts that he has to hone his party’s appeal to conservative voters. But after a decade of the party polishing its “progressive” credentials, it is far from clear that he is taking his party with him, or that he knows how to build the trust of these voters. His early strategy was to show that he is more competent and a stronger leader than the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. He may have succeeded, but it clearly isn’t enough. The commonplace complaints are that he lacks vision, and that his team is weak. Of these criticisms, the second is probably the most important for now. None of his front-bench colleagues has made much impression, either because they aren’t really up to it, or because Sir Keir isn’t giving them enough scope. The Conservatives have their weakest front bench for some time, but even they are doing better than Labour. They have Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and even the Health Secretary Matt Hancock is showing some grit. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, seems to be completely useless to professional types like me, but it would be dangerous to underestimate her appeal to conservative voters.

Sir Keir needs to take some decisive action on his team. But he also needs to set out some kind of a story on policy. Many are urging him to adopt reform to the British constitution (with an eye on the Scots), but this looks like a dead letter to me. The English grumble about this, but have no real appetite for change. Whatever he does has to be both conservative and painful. The pain – by which I mean upsetting a lot of his activists – is necessary, otherwise the public will not believe that anything has changed. The model for this is the way Tony Blair engineered a fight over Clause 4 to the Labour constitution in the 1990s. Accepting Brexit is not enough. A tough stand on immigration and jobs for working class Britons looks like one promising angle. He will probably have to shadow Tory policy on tax and spend too even if they privately think it’s nonsense. Complaints about “austerity” will have to be struct from the Labour lexicon.

What of the Lib Dems? Going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 exposed fatal weakness in the party’s core support, and both the other parties took advantage (roughly speaking, Labour took the votes and the Tories took the parliamentary seats). They then went all out to stop Brexit, which brought about a revival, but failure leaves them bereft. Many of their former supporters see no compelling reason to support the party rather than Sir Keir’s Labour. Alas the party will have to learn patience. They will only advance on the national scene if the other parties give them the space. If Labour follows my advice and takes a sharp turn to the right, something like the gap that the Lib Dems exploited in the 2000s will open up. Until they do, the party has to concentrate on local government to secure its political base.

There is an obvious further point to make. If both parties are weak, then it makes sense for them to work together. A formal pact is almost certainly a bad idea, but some kind of informal carve-up of seats (as per the 1997 general election) may have something going for it. If Labour adopt a more conservative policy stance, and the Lib Dems present themselves as a more progressive junior partner, they may just be able to get the best of both worlds. The Greens might be brought in to try and scoop up hard left votes.

But if Sir Keir continues to dodge tough questions on personnel and policy, he will do enough to keep the Lib Dems and Greens on the floor, but will be quite unable to challenge the Conservatives for power. Mr Johnson has some big difficulties ahead, not least Scotland and Northern Ireland, but England looks his for now.

The Lib Dems search for a new strategy

To be a Liberal Democrat in Britain is to experience long spells in the political wilderness, interspersed with short intervals of relevance. After passing through most of 2019 in one of those intervals of relevance, the party is well and truly in the wilderness now. What should it do?

It is worth asking what is the party for. It provides a political home for those who want a party which has liberal values at its core, rather than a peripheral part of a wider coalition (as is the case for Conservatives and Labour, and indeed Scottish Nationalists or Greens). It then seeks to advance those values, either by winning elections and taking political office, or by forcing other parties to compete for liberal votes, and so making them more liberal in their exercise of power. What are those liberal values? It is about individuals taking control of their lives as far as possible, regardless ethnic or national origin, or sex or sexual orientation. That’s how liberals are classically defined, and it matters in the current world because many prefer a political narrative that elevates the nation-state into something close to sacred, rather than a mere means to an end, and there is a widespread belief that multiculturalism has failed. But modern liberals have attached other beliefs to this classical core. One is a strong belief on the need to intervene to protect the environment, and another is the need for the state to play a very active part in the management of the economy, through the welfare state, public services, redistribution of wealth and regulation of private business. There is a further belief that political power should be distributed amongst international bodies, national government and local government. That makes them in favour of such bodies as the United Nations and the European Union, as well as much stronger regional and local government. Liberals (or at least those that the Lib Dems seek to represent) think that too much power is concentrated in Westminster, where often it is captive to an out of touch elite, even if that elite is often liberal in its instincts.

But there are people who believe in all of this who are members of the Conservative and Labour parties. The problem is that in these parties liberal ideas have to compete with others. Among the Tories the nationalist narrative plays very strongly; they overlook the unbalanced distribution of wealth and power; and they are reluctant to take on corporate vested interests for environmental protection, amongst other things. Labour is less concerned with individual empowerment and have a tendency to see the answer to all problems as being concentrating more power in national government. This was taken to extreme lengths under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. But it is perhaps a measure of success for the Lib Dems that both major parties are making a pitch for the liberal vote, and that many voters struggle to see the need for another political party. Answering that question lis at the heart of any Lib Dem strategy.

Which is why it matters so much to Lib Dem strategy what the other parties are doing. There are some in the party who think that the party should ignore the other parties to go full on with the promotion of liberal values, and so build a loyal core vote. Alas this can only be one strand in a larger strategy, and not the most important. For now Lib Dems are much happier defining themselves against the Conservatives than Labour. The Tories are controlled by radical ideologues, more interested in wrecking things that they dislike than in governing competently.

Labour is the conundrum. Its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has resisted defining a clear ideological path, concentrating his fire on government incompetence. The ideological legacy of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, is slowly being pushed into the background. This creates a blank canvass onto which voters, including liberal ones, can project their hopes. This is not unlike Sir Keir’s most successful predecessor, Tony Blair. How do the Lib Dems compete?

The answer I most often hear is to this is locally. To win the next election Labour must climb a huge mountain. That journey would be slightly easier if they decided to ignore the Lib Dems in a few critical geographical areas and let them challenge the Conservatives there. And if Labour thought that the Lib Dems were picking off Tory votes that they would be unable to reach, then this semi-cooperative strategy looks more attractive. But at the same time Labour does not want to leak votes to the Lib Dems, and would prefer the party not to exist. There are something like 30 seats where Lib Dems are first or second placed and able to mount a credible challenge (they are second-placed in about 60 more – but so far behind that this hardly matters). In their current state the Lib Dems would happily settle for that.

That is all very well, but the party needs a degree of national strength and purpose if it is to present a convincing local challenge anywhere. To do so it needs to champion causes that the Conservatives and Labour are ignoring, but which are both popular and highlight the party’s values. Two lines of advance are often advocated. The first is to continue the party’s strident pro-Europe stance by proposing to rejoin the EU as soon as practical. Labour are anxious to win back Brexit-supporting voters, and so are making their Brexit challenge about competence and not principle. The trouble is that most people are thoroughly fed up with the politics of Brexit, and accept that the Brexit side won. Meanwhile the Conservatives are anxious to promote a narrative that the country is being undermined by Remainers who have not accepted the democratic verdict of the people. So a pro-EU strategy risks either flopping because it is too out of touch with the national mood, or, if it gets traction, of supporting the Tory narrative and distracting attention from government incompetence.

The second possible line of attack is to attract leftists disillusioned by Sir Keir’s prevarications. The party is already adopting a mild version of this strategy, through adopting a robust environmental agenda and talking up such ideas as universal basic income. And yet the party’s most promising constituency is soft Tory voters who find left-wing radicalism suspect.

So the party is not doing much of anything. That will do for now. Tory-inclined liberals are throughly disgusted with Boris Johnson’s government. Many voters are thoroughly suspicious of Labour. Sir Keir will have to break cover on economic and environmental issues; when he does so opportunities will open up for the Lib Dems.

The key is to find issues that show how liberal values favour ordinary people. To discover what these might be the party needs to listen more, as its new leader Ed Davey is doing. There are some straws in the wind. The Black Lives matter movement has shown how disappointed and frustrated people from ethnic minorities are that so much prejudice remains. The government’s struggles with covid testing and tracing are showing how nationally centralised systems are often ineffective, and that local centres should be given more scope to find their own ways and mobilise local resources. Grand government schemes to soften the blow of lockdowns are all very well, but far too many people, especially self-employed, are falling through the cracks. Can a narrative of diverse local communities working together to overcome local challenges be developed, to compete with the Conservative and Labour ones focused on winning national power?

The wilderness period will continue for a while yet for the Lib Dems, but there is always hope.

The Liberal Democrats need a new vision, not a new constitution

The British Liberal Democrats suffered a poor election result last December, and it will have to bear the consequences for up to four more years. The party has commissioned a review to ask what went wrong, and to help it set a new course, which was published recently. Now it needs to take on board the report’s recommendations, and the first one above all:

Based on the lives of ordinary people in the country today, create an inspiring, over-arching and compelling vision which can guide the entire Liberal Democrats organisation for the duration of a parliament, ideally longer

The review was chaired by Dorothy Thornhill, former mayor of Watford, and the party’s most successful and effective politician, now retired, alas. Her skills were much in evidence. It is a good read, and the complete report was sent to all members, rather than a select few, with an edited version released publicly much later, as has been the case before. It does not name names, neither does it try to second guess the decision to expedite the election in the first place, where the party played a critical role. And yet it doesn’t pull its punches, describing the election as a “high speed car crash”.

The biggest problem it identifies was a lack of coherence and realism about the party’s aims, and especially muddling whether the party was trying to stop Brexit or win the maximum number of seats. Instead of resolving this, the leadership became entranced by the idea that the party could massively increase its parliamentary representation, resulting in the severe wastage of effort and resources. This was because of some encouraging polling in the summer 2019, after its spectacular performance in elections to the European Parliament. In fact the party’s strategic position became very difficult as soon as Labour came down unequivocally for a Brexit referendum in the autumn. The review is clear that there were in fact only limited opportunities for the party to advance. Fifty or more seats was never on, but increasing representation to twenty seats from twelve maybe was; instead it ended up with just eleven.

Within the “car crash” a lot of organisational dysfunction was on display, of a type seen in the two previous elections in 2015 and 2017. Nobody was sure who was in charge and different parts of the party pushed in different directions, getting in the way of each other. This dysfunction is spelt out in quite a lot of detail in the second section of the report “Summary of Findings”, after initial “Review” section which sets out a clear narrative (the narrative style did upset some people, but it adds a lot to the report’s impact).

So what next? The review after the 2017 election said a lot of the same things, but was sidelined by organisational wrangles. This time it helps a lot that there is a new President (Mark Pack) and Chief Executive (Mike Dixon – an outsider to the party), while a new Leader will be elected with the review already published. The wrangles at the party’s Federal Board, its ruling council, do not seem to be being repeated this time.

Nevertheless there is a powerful temptation for the party use the organisational dysfunction as a jumping off point for a restructure, and in particular for changing the constitution. There have already been some calls for this. There are plenty of obvious targets: the absurd size of the Federal Board, the overlapping remits the various ruling committees, the Polyfilla construction that is the English Party, and so on. But Dorothy in person is very clear that it is the organisational culture that most needs changing, not the structure. People obsess with organisation structure as a displacement activity for dealing with harder problems; I know because I have made this mistake too often myself.

And the report gives pride of place to what that much harder problem is: developing the party’s vision so that it is grounded in the way non-political people live (I dislike the term “ordinary people”; there are no ordinary people in my book). The party talks to itself too much, and has used the idea of a “core vote” strategy to provide camouflage for this. The result has been that the party has limited appeal beyond well-off professionals, at a time when all the other significant parties (Conservatives, Labour and SNP) have succeeded in broadening their appeal across social class. Alongside a core vote strategy the party must develop a powerful appeal for more sceptical voters for on an election by election basis.

One prominent finding of the report is that the party failed to develop its appeal to ethnic minorities. This is true, but the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush makes a good point that the report oversimplifies this. There is no “BAME” community; there are many communities and the other parties have made progress by recognising this and developing appeals to particular minority communities. That is true, but in the case of the Lib Dems I think the BAME issue is part of a wider problem: its neglect of working class communities. Of course the persistent problems of unconscious bias mean that all parties must keep up scrutiny of their performance among BAME communities at all times – so it is right to give it prominence.

Vision is for the party leader to set, and I hope the candidates will duly focus on this, as it is not an easy problem to solve. It needs to combine a powerful appeal to members and core voters based on what the party stands for, and a more triangulated approach that will capitalise on gaps in the political market, which will involve compromises.

I don’t think the party is in too bad a shape on the first part of this. I can be hard to articulate it sometimes, but the common ground among the party’s core support is clear. The main challenge is to make it more inclusive. There is no reason that people from ethnic minorities or working classes shouldn’t feel welcome in this group: liberal values are transcendent. But what of the compromises required to broaden the party’s appeal beyond the core?

First we must talk about Europe. The party has bet so heavily on membership of the European Union that a U-turn would destroy it. It has to say that rejoining the union is an aspiration. But not now. People in the UK want to move on; so do people in the EU. The party needs to stand for a close trading relationship, even if it means compromising on “the level playing field”, though the party might want to take a tougher line on fisheries, with conservation in mind. The case for being closer to the EU needs to be based on the idea that the world is becoming an increasingly hostile place. The United States owes Britain no favours and will always extract a very high price for free trade; China is no less easy; both have developed a tendency to bully weaker powers. Elsewhere the opportunities for trading and political alliances are no less tricky.

Another tricky issue is law and order, human rights and privacy. The party has got up on its high horse about this in the past, but has often failed to make its case to “ordinary” people. The party needs to be more pragmatic, and focus on making sure that criminal justice institutions work effectively and fairly. “Fairness’ has a stronger appeal than “rights”. That leaves plenty of scope to critique the other parties.

But the party must also take risks. The Black Lives Matter campaign may be an example. While Labour under Keir Starmer triangulates fearing the white working class backlash, the Lib Dems can be a lot more robust. Ethnic minority working class people understand very well the need for multiculturalism, and are desperate for Britain’s institutions to be fairer; Lib Dems can be strong on both. I think the party needs to start a period of outreach to ethnic minority working class people; that will require financial incentives from the central party to local parties, who would otherwise gravitate to easier, more middle class places.

What of the conservative white working classes and rural middle classes? There is a big gap in political outlook, clearly, but the party must try avoid the gratuitous insults, which the anti-Brexit campaigning all too often led to.

Well these are some random thoughts. I haven’t offered anything coherent about what I think the new Lib Dem vision should be. Developing it will be hard, and I will keep coming back to the topic. But for now the key message for the party is that it must embrace the hard choices now, and avoid the temptation to spend too much energy on rearranging its internal affairs.

The Coalition at 10: keeping nationalism at bay

In hindsight the most important trend in politics over the last decade has been the rise of nationalism – and the backlash against internationalist liberals, inevitably styled an “elite”, as if all political movements were not led by elites. In Britain did the Coalition stood firmly against this trend.

In this third article of three reviewing the Coalition, I will look at its record on the business of politics itself. In the first article I looked at the record on the economy, in the second I looked at public service reform. In my choice of three topics I am leaving quite a lot out. On the environment and energy, the Coalition made a decisive move towards renewable energy, perhaps its biggest single achievement; on civil liberties it rolled back, slightly, the heavy-handed approach of its predecessor; a notable achievement was the implementation of gay marriage; in foreign affairs there was an intervention in Libya alongside the French which met its short-term aims but left a mess; apprenticeships were given a major lift, but further education colleges (i.e. not universities) suffered neglect. There was a rather pointless reform of policing, though whether this, and austerity measures, led, eventually, to a rise in crime is a moot point. I would rather blame the dismantling of so much civic infrastructure run by local authorities, which the Coalition started, but which its successor doubled down on. A rather mixed record then, but perhaps not too bad by the standards of five-year terms.

But what of political reform? How much were we aware in 2010 of the rising tide of populism and nationalism? In 2009 the political establishment was rocked by a scandal over MPs’ expenses. This distilled a growing disillusionment with the way politics was run, after the wave of enthusiasm that greeted the “New Labour” victory in 1997. Politics seemed to be run by an out-of-touch elite of professionals, whose competence was thrown into question by the global financial crisis, which struck Britain particularly hard, and whose rotten moral compass was now exposed.

But the new kids on the block thought they could get beyond that by deposing the old Labour regime and its nannying ways. Liberal Democrats were especially hopeful that the experience of coalition politics would demonstrate a new, more transparent politics, that would help build confidence. Politics was indeed more transparent, but nobody thanked them for it. Indeed the Lib Dems’ entry into government to most people showed the unaccountable elite at work; the Lib Dems seemed to be enjoying their time at the top table too much, feeding the narrative that they were putting their careers before the country. The ambiguities in the electoral coalition that brought the Lib Dems their substantial presence in parliament were exposed cruelly. The party’s popularity was in free fall before a spectacular U-turn on student tuition fees dealt the party a blow from which it still hasn’t recovered.

The weakness of the Lib Dems did for most of the constitutional reforms that the party had hoped to push through. A referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote for parliamentary elections was lost heavily as their Conservative coalition partners mobilised against it, doing long-term damage to the whole prospect of electoral reform. Reform of the House of Lords disappeared as the political establishment cold-shouldered it. The Lib Dems extracted limited revenge by stymying a Conservative project to equalise constituencies to their advantage. This left the Fixed Term Parliament Act, implemented mainly to stabilise the coalition, in which it was mainly successful. This legislation has few friends these days, but it is still there. It’s value was shown last year when it briefly empowered parliament against a mandate-less government.

More positively the Coalition progressed the development of City regions, taking on more devolved powers, and coordinating local councils. This project was led by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, and Conservative minister Greg Clark. This was a process started by Labour – but the government limited council’s ability to raise revenue or borrow, which are the key tests for meaningful devolution.

In broader politics Labour started its long journey down the far-left anti-austerity rabbit hole, leaving the field clear for the two most important developments: the rise of Scottish nationalism, and theBrexit movement, led by Ukip. Both would dominate politics for the rest of the decade. The Coalition found itself on the defensive on both counts, but kept both at bay.

In Scotland the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) surged to victory in the Scottish elections of 2011. The Coalition accepted this as a mandate for a referendum on Scottish independence. Was this a mistake? It did not help to heal the rift between Scotland and England. I suspect Coalition leaders accepted the SNP government’s moral case; neither party had any appetite for a prolonged battle over whether such a referendum should take place, and in the event the main victim was in fact Labour. The referendum took place in 2014, and the unionists won. But the battle energised the SNP, whose dominance of Scottish politics continues to this day. Many see Scottish independence as an inevitability. I am not so sure, but coherent opposition to the SNP seems to be a long way off.

In due course the battles over Scottish independence would be dwarfed by the Brexit movement. This movement successfully channelled dissatisfaction with the Coalition and its liberal leadership in a way Labour could not, as the previous Labour government was seen as part of the problem. The battle was fought on two fronts. First was within the Conservative Party. While its leader, the prime minister David Cameron, had a strong grip on the parliamentary party (helped by the presence of Lib Dems in coalition), the Brexit movement gathered strength at grassroots level. Second was the rise of Nigel Farage’s Ukip. This quickly replaced the Lib Dems as Britain’s third party in opinion polls, and gnawed away at the Conservatives’ local base. The only way that Mr Cameron had found to keep the movement in check was the promise of an EU referendum, knowing that he could rely on the Lib Dems to veto it. At the same time his chief electoral strategy was to destroy the Lib Dems at the next election. The 2016 referendum was where this strategy ended up.

Looked at with hindsight the Coalition’s battles with nationalism look like a moderately successful rearguard action. They succeeded in delaying their enemies but without any ideas on how to stop them. What if Mr Cameron had narrowly won that referendum in 2016? It is hard to think that British politics would be anything other than very ugly.

Liberals have now developed a much better understanding of the problem: the pressures on small towns and the countryside, of economic growth that bypasses most people. But answers? We have made little progress since Coalition days, having preferred to rally around opposing Brexit. With the nationalist takeover of the Tory party now floundering, and with the old-fashioned leftism of Jeremy Corbyn defeated, this is surely the moment to do better than that. But new liberals will not look back on the Coalition government of 2010 to 2015 as a template.

Boris Johnson should be very worried by Keir Starmer

In the middle of a pandemic, Sir Keir Starmer’s start as leader of the British Labour Party has been inevitably muted. The news is dominated by the epidemic and the government’s response. There isn’t much time for any opposition party. But in these early days the portents look very good for Labour. Its members have made a very good choice.

Most of the attention has been drawn to Sir Keir’s performance at the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). In the first two weeks the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was ill and could not attend. But instead of handing over to his deputy, as previous leaders have done, Sir Kier took it on himself. This was an interesting side-stepping of the usual parliamentary protocol games. And then when Mr Johnson did become available, he easily overwhelmed the prime minister. His style was quiet but focused. “Forensic” was the description universally used, referencing Sir Keir’s former job as QC and Director of Public Prosecutions. It is a style to which a bluffer like Mr Johnson partially ill-matched.

How much does PMQs matter in the great scheme of things? The public barely notices. But it damages the morale of Conservative backbenchers, and the pressure on an immature government team could lead to it to make silly errors. The idea floated by the government that all MPs should return to Westminster, so that the boisterous atmosphere of PMQs might be restored, and so make things look a bit less bad, looks to be just such a silly error.

A second portent comes from Sir Keir’s cleaning out of the front bench team. His predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, valued loyalty over competence and the front bench was full of weak performers. Sir Keir’s team looks much stronger, though the parliamentary Labour Party is not as strong as it once was, so choice is constrained. But Mr Johnson is also a loyalty over competence operator, and his own front bench looks particularly weak. Which for a “no-details” style of leadership is a big problem. Sir Keir’s aim is to challenge the government’s competence by contrasting it with his own.

A third, and highly significant portent comes from Sir Keir’s refusal to challenge the government on the Brexit transition. Many are saying that the transition period should be extended, not least because of the virus, as there is not enough time to negotiate a trade deal by the end of the year. It’s a fair line of attack, but Sir Keir’s failure to take it up shows that he is the first Labour leader since Tony Blair to have a clear sense of political strategy.

As opposition leader, Mr Blair was very careful to pick his fights with John Major’s Conservative government only on a very limited range of issues. His aim was to take the fight to the Conservatives and win over their former supporters. To that end he projected similar policies but superiority in style and competence. The next Labour opposition leaders were Ed Miliband and Mr Corbyn. Neither were prepared to take the challenge to the Tories. Instead they hoped to win by rounding up a “progressive majority” from Lib Dem and Green voters, and from people who had previously not voted. Anybody who supported the Tories was suspect, and the party did not want to make the compromises needed to win them over. Instead they challenged the government on a very broad front, portraying them as something close to evil. This motivated the activists. They succeeded in winning over many Lib Dems and Greens, and even (especially in 2017) bringing out previous non voters. But these were neutralised by people put off by their perceived extremism, who moved over to the Tories.

By showing restraint in his attacks on the Conservatives, on Brexit, and indeed on the Coronavirus crisis, Sir Keir shows that he has grasped this. The priority is to win power, and this can only be done by persuading former Conservative voters to come over. And it is particularly important not to put off people who support Brexit.

Let’s look ahead to see how this strategy might play out. The most likely scenario is that Mr Johnson’s government will muddle through the crisis, and intervene enough to limit the damage to the economy. In this event Sir Keir’s message will be “the same, only different”. He will pursue the government on issues of competence rather than policy. Mr Johnson looks very vulnerable here, and with a little luck his government could go into free fall like Mr Major’s, and never recover.

A second possibility is that the Conservatives will lurch to the right. After a hard Brexit, the government tries to roll back the extension to government seen as the crisis has developed, in the hope of creative destruction from which a leaner, healthier economy emerges in time for the next election. There are undoubtedly some Conservatives who want to go down this route. But it would be highly unpopular in the country at large. If this develops, then Sir Keir will broaden his attack to favour stronger public services as well as competence.

A third possibility is that the stress of the Coronavirus crisis causes the government to completely unravel, leading to a Conservative rebellion which results in a National Unity government involving Labour. This is after all what happened in both the world wars in the last century, when the prime minister (Asquith then Chamberlain) was perceived to be out of his depth. There is no Lloyd George or Churchill in the wings, though, so this does look rather unlikely. If this happens it will provide Sir Keir an opportunity to demonstrate fitness for government, while doubtless the Conservatives would tear themselves apart.

Should Labour leftists feel betrayal? Certainly they will see their wilder causes sidelined or squashed. Sir Keir has signalled a tough line on antisemitism; this covers those who criticise Israel obsessively while taking an indulgent approach to countries like Russia and Venezuela. But they should stay calm. Once in power it will be quite easy to tilt policy in a socialist direction in the aftermath of this crisis. Getting power is the main thing, and then consolidating it. Mr Blair and Gordon Brown showed the way. It is not widely appreciated on the left just how far Mr Brown in particular advanced the boundaries of the state and the cause of practical socialism.

How should Lib Dems react? it is commonplace to hear the thought that the party flourishes if Labour leadership is moderate, after the party failed to make much impression when Mr Corbyn was in charge. This is clutching at straws. If Sir Kei8r’s leadership develops as I expect, the Lib Dems’ only chance is if Sir Keir is indulgent towards the party because he thinks it could be useful. He might if he thinks that it could keep the Conservatives out of 20 or more seats that Labour would struggle to win themselves. He would certainly much rather deal with the party in a hung parliament than the Scottish Nationalists. The Lib Dems might get some political space around immigration, since Sir Keir will not want to open up too big a gap the Tories there. Brexit will be a more troublesome issue for the Lib Dems. Otherwise there will be little open space.

What you will not see is Sir Keir taking up electoral reform. He might duck and weave, as Mr Blair did, or he might rule it out. He will not want to distract attention from his core message that the Tories are not fit to govern.

Of course, in the early days of a new leader it is very easy to project your expectations onto him or her. Perhaps that is what I am doing here. But this is my working hypothesis, and Mr Johnson should be very afraid.

How do the achievements of the Coalition look ten years on?

Ten years ago, in May 2010, a new government was formed from a coalition of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. It lasted the full five year term, but it is usually regarded as a political failure, especially for its junior partner, who have been marginalised ever since. If coalitions don’t work for all parties than they are unlikely to be repeated. I don’t want to go over that well-trodden ground, though, but to ask whether the coalition served the country well. Its leaders thought that however unpopular they were at the time, they would be vindicated by history. How is that working out?

I had envisaged doing that in a single post, but on reflection I could not do the topic justice. I will attempt it in three. In this post I will look at the Coalition’s handling of the economy, and in particular the controversy around austerity. In the second I will look at the attempt to reform public services. And finally I will look at its record on the country’s governance, where the most important event was the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

The Coalition’s record on the economy usually gets a bad press, except from confirmed Conservative supporters. The government inherited the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis, and in particular a budget deficit of an eye-watering 11% (though we may soon learn to regard this as being a bit tame). All parties in the 2010 election promised to eliminate this deficit to bring the national finances back to order. The trajectory offered by the Conservatives was the steepest, and this was the target adopted by the coalition. It involved some tax rises (especially raising VAT), but most of the strain was taken through expenditure cuts. The scale of such cuts was spectacular. Only the NHS and education were spared, and, with demand on the NHS rising through an ageing population, even the NHS budget amounted to a real-terms cut. The cuts were less spectacular in execution than planned, and the government’s targets for the deficit were missed repeatedly. The actual outturn was strikingly similar to that promised by both Labour and the Lib Dems in the election.

These cuts provoked a massive depth of anger from the left. “Austerity” has been turned into a totem of hate, alongside the nebulous idea of “neoliberalism”. For all this anger, or perhaps because of it, it is hard to take this seriously. Rational debate has become impossible. All cuts are always evil, in this way of looking at life. There is no such thing as wasted public spending (though some might debate spending on weaponry, trade union allies quickly close that thought down). In the country at large this is a minority view though. One of the critical truths grasped by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair before their victory of 1997 was that until Labour showed that it could embrace austerity if necessary, not enough people would ever believe that the party was fit for government. That is probably still true.

But the criticism of the Coalition’s austerity policies goes much wider than the angry left. Most neutral economists join in. In fact I don’t think I know of a respectable academic economist who has been prepared to defend it. The argument here is that as the country was in recession, there was massive spare capacity, and the country needed fiscal stimulus to put this capacity back into use, and reduce long-term damage. Instead government cuts prolonged the recession and stunted the subsequent recovery. Few defenders of austerity bother to respond to this criticism. Instead they suggest that national debt was out of control and it was vital to bring it down to calm financial markets so that the government could finance itself. This thought was clearly on the minds of coalition ministers in 2010. It was the time of the Greek debt crisis, and nerves were jangled. The Treasury undoubtedly played the risks up – fiscal conservatism is in their DNA. The academics respond that as the UK had its own currency, the government could always pay its debts; anyway interest rates on government debt did not suggest market panic.

This is an interesting line of debate. The complication in the case of the UK is that it has a large and persistent current account deficit, and so is dependent on foreign finance, unlike Japan, another major economy with a floating currency and big debts. There is strength on both sides of the argument here. Ten years on the academics look closer to the mark than the Treasury types. But there is some strong hindsight there.

I am much more interested in taking on the academics’ core case against austerity though, which is that there was a lot of spare capacity in the economy in 2010. This view arises from an idea that economies have a natural rate of growth, arising from steady productivity growth, in turn arising from improved technology and more sophisticated management methods. In the 2000s they thought this rate for developed economies was about 2% a year. If GDP fell below the level suggested by this “trend rate” than that suggested spare capacity. This meant not only that the gap was bigger than it first appeared in 2010, but that with the slow rate of growth once the economy started to recover, that gap was never closed.

That line of reasoning suggests that all was well with the British economy in 2008 when it was hit by the financial crash. But that was far from true. A closer inspection of the country’s productivity growth in the years before the crisis shows that it was entirely based on two sectors: finance and business services. The crash proved that in the case of finance this growth was a work of fiction – a product of stoking up risk and optimistic accounting. It was scarcely better in business services, which was riding the bubble. There are plenty of good reasons for thinking that the idea of a natural rate of growth is out of date – this is a favourite topic in this blog. The truth is that growth in the UK since 2000 was driven by the expansion of a financial bubble, the import of cheap products and services from Asia, and massive immigration from Central and Eastern Europe, all fuelled by fiscal and monetary policy that was surely too loose. By 2010 the financial bubble had burst, cheap Asian imports had run their course, and although immigration was continuing, it had slowed and the general view was that it was causing excessive social strains. It was not a question of quickly trying to recreate the pre-crash economy, but the much slower job of building a more sustainable replacement. Fiscal stimulus would simply have led to a flood of imports, not new and better jobs.

In fact “rebalancing” was widely spoken of as a necessary thing at the time, though most people fondly thought of this as a return of old-fashioned manufacturing. Looked at it a bit more closely, and much of the academic criticism of the coalition actually reflects this. They bemoan not the cuts to services and benefits that so angered the left, but the lack of public investment. There is some justice to this, but investing public money wisely is much harder than it looks. Usually the money ends up wasted in vanity projects. Some of the suggested ideas, such as the expansion of Heathrow airport don’t look so good in hindsight. Others: better interconnecting rail links between northern cities, look a better idea, and the coalition could have done much better there. A failure to support green energy projects was a constant complaint by some Lib Dem ministers.

As it happened, the economy did rebalance, and quite quickly. Unemployment was never as serious as the GDP figures suggested it should be, and the employment statistics became very healthy. The problem was that this rebalancing was towards a new and rather ugly economic model, with insecure gig workers at its base. Inequality did not get worse in the Coalition years, but it didn’t improve by much either. The generation gap, with younger people in insecure jobs and rented homes, their elders with nice pensions and property wealth, has got worse. The coalition did little for regional inequalities either. And yet none of these problems was easy to solve, and the government’s main priority was to dig its way out of the financial crisis.

Overall my verdict on the Coalition economic record is good, but not that good. Damning with faint praise, perhaps. But the country was in the grip of wider economic forces: catch up by China reducing the flow of cheap goods; the spread of the gig economy; the saturation of the “stuff” economy. The glib criticism of macroeconomists does not do justice to these forces.

Lib Dems will always argue that the worst aspects of austerity on public services came in the following Conservative majority government, which doubled down on the cuts. There is some justice to this, but we can’t let the party off that easily. The Coalition’s record on public services is about more than austerity, as I will discuss next time.

Strategy and tactics in British politics

In any longer term competitive activity it is useful to distinguish between strategy and tactics. This as true of politics as it is of anything else. It is surprising how few British political activists grasp the difference.

The current usage of the two words derives from the development of military theory in the 19th Century. Strategy focuses on long-term aims and how to achieve them. Tactics focuses on the here and now. Strategy guides your choice of which battles to fight; tactics help you win those battles. In politics strategy is mainly about identifying the coalition of voters you need to win and retain power. You then develop tactics to secure that coalition.

In British politics it is the Conservatives that grasp the usefulness of the distinction best. After 2005, its leader put into action a new strategy, which was to woo liberal-minded middle class voters to join the party’s existing base of conservative suburban and rural middle classes. This allowed it to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and then to win an outright majority by crushing that party in 2015, completely outmanoeuvring Labour. But to hold this shaky coalition together he had to promise a referendum on EU membership, which he lost, causing the collapse of his strategy. He sensibly bowed out. After Brexit the Conservatives, led by Theresa May, developed a new strategy. This was to bolster the rural and suburban core vote with Brexit-supporting lower middle-class and working class voters in the North, Midlands and Wales. The metropolitan middle classes would then be bullied into voting Tory by fear of Labour. This strategy seemed to be working in 2017, but Mrs May’s lousy tactical handling of the election in 2017 ended in failure. This election was a very good demonstration of the difference between strategy and tactics. Sound strategy was let down by bad tactics. When Boris Johnson took over from Mrs May last year, he retained her political strategy, but added much sharper tactical management to it. Aided by Labour’s strategic ineptitude, he was rewarded with a landslide last December.

Labour’s Tony Blair grasped the need for strategy very well. His strategy for Labour was to appeal to middle class voters while retaining its working class base. When he left the leadership in 2007, this strategy was getting stale, but his successor, Gordon Brown, had no clear alternative. Labour leaked metropolitan middle class votes both to the Tories and Lib Dems and lost. Since then Labour has shown little grasp of strategy and has preferred to focus on tactics instead. Ed Miliband’s strategy, inasmuch as there was one, seems to have been based on the idea of a “progressive majority”. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote, he reasoned, would be enough secure a winning coalition without the need to chase more conservative voters, as Mr Blair had. But the Lib Dem collapse favoured the Tories, not Labour, while in Scotland Labour was helpless facing the rise of the SNP. Under Jeremy Corbyn the party’s strategy was based more on hope than evidence; he assumed most voters were fed up with Tory austerity and angry about the way the rich seemed to be getting away with so much. There was also a hope that the party could bring in people who hadn’t voted before, especially younger voters. Alas for them they interpreted the relatively good result in 2017 as evidence of sound strategy. Labour instead strategised on what they would do if they won power – an area where Mr Blair was weak, as indeed have been most Conservative leaders. Political strategy and government strategy are different things.

Just how bad things are in Labour was illustrated by a remark of leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey. In her defence of Mr Corbyn’s record she said that the loss of the 2019 election was due to poor strategy. That’s a bit like saying that the result was down to weak leadership, and not the leader. Actually it is clear she actually meant “tactics” rather than “strategy”. Party activists, even senior officials, muddle the two up. It doesn’t help that most advisers on political tactics call themselves “strategists”.

The Lib Dems are no better than Labour on this. Nick Clegg, its leader in the 2010 election did seem to have some sort of strategy, which was to appeal to liberal-minded voters, and use coalition government to establish the party’s credentials as a serious political force, and so expand its voter base. This strategy collapsed on contact with reality after 2010, though poor tactical handling of the early coalition government didn’t help. By the 2015 election, the Lib Dems were reduced to fighting 30 seats as if they were by elections, so empty was their strategic appeal. Since then the party has remained consumed by tactical rather than strategic thinking, in particular with its focus on Brexit. But as the third party in a winner-takes-all electoral system, the party starts from a point of strategic weakness, so perhaps this is understandable.

A wider point needs to be made. The way I write about it suggests that political strategy is a matter of clever choices by senior party leaders, allowing them to lead a willing “army” to victory, rather as military strategy is a lot of the time. But political strategy involves compromises and pain. It is about identifying disparate coalitions of voters – but what you promise one part of the coalition will displease other parts. Mr Blair’s strategy so annoyed core metropolitan Labour support that he remains regarded as a traitor within the party. Mr Cameron’s coalition required the EU referendum to satisfy its core supporters, which came at a huge political cost. Tension within the new Tory coalition is obvious, especially over such matters as immigration policy.

The problem for Labour is that it has been, and probably still is, unable to face up to the compromises required to secure a winning coalition. Nothing very clear is coming from the leadership candidates. Lisa Nandy is best at articulating the problems, but is less clear on the painful choices Labour will need to make. Ms Long-Bailey still seems to hope that all Labour needs is sharper tactics. Kier Starmer says as little as he can about what he would actually do.

And the Lib Dems? What they do in large measure depends on the choices that the new Labour leadership does or does not make. Such is the lot of a third party.