Today in “UK democracy”: government cuts funding for its opponents

From time to time the total inadequacy of our parliamentary democracy is brought starkly into view. Today is one of those occasions.

Can it possibly be anything other than deeply dangerous and anti-democratic for the ruling party to make decisions on the funding of opposition parties?

Yet that is exactly what George Osborne has just done. He is proposing to take away almost a fifth of taxpayer funding from Labour and other opposition parties.

Given Labour and the Lib Dems in particular rely heavily on so-called Short Money, this seems nakedly political, striking at the heart of the opposition’s ability to hold the executive to account.

From the Spending Review document, published earlier today by the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer:

The government has taken a series of steps to reduce the cost of politics, including cutting and freezing ministerial pay, abolishing pensions for councillors in England and legislating to reduce the size of the House of Commons. However, since 2010, there has been no contribution by political parties to tackling the deficit. Indeed, taxpayer-funded Short Money has risen year-on-year from £6.9 million in 2010-11 to £9.3 million in 2015-16. 108

Therefore, subject to confirmation by Parliament, the government proposes to reduce Short Money allocations by 19%, in line with the average savings made from unprotected Whitehall departments over this Spending Review. Allocations will then be frozen in cash terms for the rest of the Parliament, removing the automatic RPI indexation. Policy Development Grant allocations will also be reduced by a similar proportion, ensuring that political parties in receipt of taxpayer-funding contribute to the savings being asked of local and central government.

 

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British politics is now just a question of maths and time

I consider Matthew Parris to be the finest columnist in the UK, and today’s article on Labour is one of his best.

He suggests that Jeremy Corbyn’s victory is an opportunity – rather than a defeat – for the centre left: a “gift”. He paints a painfully accurate picture of what is likely to happen to the Labour Party now that Corbyn is in place:

The party may (as I suggest) go out with a bang. Equally likely, some residual instinct for self-preservation will kick in, they’ll defenestrate Corbyn, and replace him with a less astringent nonentity, capable of papering over the cracks.

In which case the party will go out with a whimper, on a long, gentle amble into that good night: drifting on towards the next election – and the next, and the next – never winning, forever compromising, softly losing support in a sort of quarter-century slow puncture…

Arguing that Labour is the same old beast it’s always been, and that three election victories under Tony Blair couldn’t reshape its identity, he pleads with Labour’s moderates to abandon the brand. There is a fairly strong hint at the end of the piece that he is suggesting they should either start a new party in the mould of the SDP or join another party.

Parris is a liberal Tory who, it is fairly clear, harbours some fairly warm feelings towards my own party and to whom the coalition government was probably close to the ideal blend of ideas and policies. So I think it’s quite clear which home he is envisaging for these liberal Labourites. In any case, the same argument is being made on a regular basis by senior Lib Dems too.

Unfortunately, it’s completely unrealistic.

Labour MPs bow to no one in their tribalism. Even now most Labour people – even the moderates – are still pretty pleased about what happened to the Liberal Democrats in the general election: this is despite the fact that if the Conservatives had not won seven seats as a result of Lib Dem voters switching to Labour, they would not have a majority in the Commons.

More importantly, it’s a simple question of mathematics. If to be in politics is to exercise power, then Labour moderates have two ways of doing so. One is to stay where they are, grit their teeth and hope for the best: that somehow, in two or three years, the tide of left-wing support will ebb as quickly as it flooded in, and their party will allow someone “sensible” to take over in time to avoid total destruction in 2020. The other is simply to join the Conservatives, on the basis that they are closer to people like George Osborne than to Jeremy Corbyn.

Neither scenario is at all plausible.

If there were a third party with, say, 50-60 MPs, around 20% of the vote and a relationship with the electorate that hadn’t entirely curdled into a poisonous mess, things might be different. But there isn’t.

For the UK opposition (which doesn’t include the SNP, a party so obsessed with its own nationalism that it may as well be given the opportunity to hang itself at this point), politics is now simply a waiting game. We must wait for the Conservatives to make some kind of mistake; to get so complacent that they try to do something so utterly insane that even voters who believe in their competence wake up to their fallibility.

It might take a very long time, and our country will almost certainly be a very different place – a poorer, harsher, more insular place – at the end of it.

A Thousand Points of Light

Few people will know that the Prime Minister’s Office issues a daily Points of Light award. The awards are designed to reward exceptional acts of community service or volunteering. Some of the people granted awards certainly represent the very best of philanthropic achievement and endeavour.


The phrase “Points of Light” is a direct quote from George H. W. Bush (right), who first used it when accepting his nomination as the 1988 Republican presidential candidate. His speechwriters were attempting to capture the idea of the American community as

a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.

In the speech, this undeniably powerful image is immediately followed by a hard-edged passage on social policy, in which inter alia Bush issues his infamous pledge “read my lips: no new taxes”; sings the praises of capital punishment; and demands “zero tolerance” for drug dealers.

To me, the phrase has always seemed backward. Light itself is reliant on darkness in order to create a contrast. The use of the phrase in the speech makes that reliance explicit: these “points of light” are stars. To take the phrase literally, it suggests a predominantly dark environment.

In other words, Bush’s phrase – with its rhetorical intention to create a sense of hope – actually implied the opposite.


Bush went on to win the Presidency. He repeated the “thousand points of light” phrase in his inaugural address. He also wanted a “kinder and gentler nation” – a soundbite that quickly turned sour.

A month later, Neil Young performed a new song live for the first time. It was called “Rockin’ in the Free World”, and it was released on record in November 1989.**

A victim of circumstance, Young’s song would quickly become associated with the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union. But his poetry had a very different aim. The song was, and remains, a caustic assessment of Bush’s administration: its three verses seethe with ambivalence and anger about the state of American society and the country’s influence in the world – then at its absolute peak.

In the third verse, Young takes direct aim at the emptiness and hypocrisy of political rhetoric:

We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand

In two sentences Young demolishes Bush’s insubstantial posturing. The first contrasts the hopey-changey rhetoric of “a thousand points of light” with the darkness that consumes millions of lives. The second mocks “kinder, gentler” by raising the spectre of Bush’s own history as CIA head and Iran/Contra collaborator – not to mention the wider US foreign policy escapades which, in the first verse, had left Young singing “don’t feel like Satan – but I am to them”.

But Young doesn’t stop there. The third verse takes in the US citizen-as-consumer, decrying “department stores and toilet paper/styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer”. He then goes on:

Got a man of the people says keep hope alive

And here is the sting in the tail. “Keep hope alive” was Jesse Jackson’s campaign slogan when running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. The mocking tag “man of the people” shows just what Young thinks of it. Against a Republican candidate basing his campaign on shallow rhetoric, the American left in the late 1980s could muster nothing but equally vacuous slogans.


David Cameron’s “Big Society” was an attempt to find another way to say the same thing. Steve Hilton, for a while the Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy, used to be fond of wearing a tee-shirt that said “Big Society Not Big Government” (see example, right).

The idea presented to us was that as the bloated state got out of the way, it would be replaced by a more active and philanthropic civic society. But as this 2013 demolition of the policy’s pretended principles argued, it was a mere cipher, making room for the same traditional – and inadequate – paternalism.

No wonder it was quietly abandoned.

Nowadays, in the UK in 2015, the Conservative government so lacks ways to veil its continued campaign to unpick a comprehensive state-funded social security system that it is content simply to recycle Bush’s sloganeering. So it doles out daily Points of Light awards.

I do not suggest that the people receiving such awards are undeserving. Their work is valuable and, in many ways, increasingly so. But like the inexorable rise of food banks run by volunteers, the gaps opening up in our society are too wide for them to fill. They are sailors using tiny buckets to bail out a sinking ship as the icy ocean waters begin to freeze their blood.

Here is the nub of the matter: we live in dangerous times. We live in an era when the government is able to pass “reforms” to the social insurance system we have without a shred of opposition from, well, the official opposition. We live in a corrosive atmosphere where the foreigner is increasingly regarded not merely with suspicion but with outright hatred.

And the UK left is about to elect someone whose ability to hammer out an alternative is seriously questionable. In short, they’re going to elect a “man of the people” who says “keep hope alive”, but whose version of hope is as relevant as George H. W. Bush is now. A man who says on becoming leader he will apologise for a war that happened so long ago that the gap between it and today is already as long as the gap between it and the war that preceded it.

When people see that this “man of the people” is nothing more than a decent human being trapped in a vice of his own devising, slowly squeezed to death by a combination of a totally idealistic left and a resistant right, they will turn elsewhere. They will look for other populist movements. They will look for other plain talkers. And most of all, they will want someone whose politics match their fears.

Meanwhile those same fears will be amplified, by degrees and by stealth, by the government, which will chart a course that, by comparison, seems all moderation and good sense.

Got fuel to burn. Got roads to drive.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world.*


*The total usurpation of this song was completed recently by Donald Trump’s unauthorised decision to use it when announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. The wheel turns.

**The performance Neil Young gave of RITFW on Saturday Night Live in 1989 is justly regarded as one of the greatest live TV performances of all time. He worked himself into a frenzy backstage in order to mimic the feeling of performing an encore after a full two hour set. And it shows.

Social Liberal Forum Conference, 2015

Yesterday I went to the Social Liberal Forum conference, held at the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch.

It’s the first time I’ve attended an SLF event, and to be honest I was slightly apprehensive that it would be like a more extreme version of Lib Dem conference.

I needn’t have worried. Although as usual I was initially paralysed by my tendency to shyness, as people arrived things quickly warmed up and conversation began to flow. It was particularly good to meet people with whom I’ve previously enjoyed useful and insightful interaction on Twitter or via blogs, such as Nick Barlow and Kelly-Marie Blundell.

Charles Kennedy and Claire Tyler

The day began with a tribute to Charles Kennedy by Naomi Smith, chair of SLF. Unusually, but appropriately, we were encouraged to express our appreciation for Charles through a round of applause, rather than silence. It was a very moving moment and I could see several people in tears – I was on the verge myself.

This was followed by an interesting Beveridge lecture by Baroness Claire Tyler. She argued for wellbeing as the hook on which we should renew our attempts to tackle the “five great evils”, although she readily acknowledged that the terms Beveridge had used – particularly “idleness” and “squalor” were no longer appropriate for today’s political lexicon.

While very sympathetic to the idea of moving beyond GDP as the measure of political failure or success, which has always seemed entirely inadequate to me, I remain unconvinced that “wellbeing” (or indeed “happiness”) is the right concept to build that idea around. Aside from sounding static, it seems too subjective to sustain hard-edged or challenging policy ideas.

Arguing for Liberty

The conference then broke into several different sessions. It was very difficult to choose between the various topics on offer but I eventually settled for the discussion on liberty, philosophy, policy and the campaign. Speaking were Julian Huppert and, at the last minute, Kelly-Marie, although you wouldn’t have known as she seemed thoroughly prepared and assured.

The discussion ranged across many areas but it became focused in the end upon precisely how liberal arguments could, or should, be made. Huppert eloquently insisted that we should marshal a wide range of arguments – especially those that are not important to us, but will chime with other people’s priorities. He gave the example of same-sex marriage and how, in Coalition, Nick Clegg and Lynne Featherstone had argued for the policy on the basis that it would create more marriages in sum – knowing that this would appeal to David Cameron. (Incidentally, according to Julian, this was also why equalising civil partnerships was not allowed through – because it would have a negative impact on the total number of marriages!)

This led to interesting debate, with some people expressing some reservations about the extent to which we should be pragmatic. Huppert also emphasised the need, alongside this kind of messaging, to take radical stands in order to shift the Overton Window and make space for new policies to become mainstream.

I wanted to ask a question about how a party so reduced in voice could achieve this, and whether new outside organisations such as think tanks would be necessary or helpful in doing so – looking to the considerable influence of institutions such as Policy Exchange and Respublica over David Cameron’s tenure as Conservative leader. Unfortunately some questions and interventions in that session were so long that I didn’t have the opportunity!

Reforming Government and Political Pluralism

After the lunch break I particularly enjoyed a fascinating session on “reforming government”. I felt that the title was rather ambitious given the election result, but the insights from Chris Nicholson and especially Daisy Cooper were compelling.

Chris spoke mainly of his experience as a special adviser to Ed Davey at DECC. He occasionally strayed onto controversial ground, at one point suggesting that too rigid a commitment to evidence-based policy could act as a block on action, as it was used as an excuse to push things into the long grass through endless piloting and rethinking. He also seemed to imply that the back bench committees set up by the party during the coalition had been too focused on holding Lib Dem ministers to account, rather than bringing new and neglected policies to their attention.

Daisy, by contrast, chose to focus her comments on how we could argue for reform better. Her central thesis that arguing effectively for change should be based on pointing out how it gives people more power was appropriately powerful, especially when listing the number of areas of society and economy where power is concentrated in the hands of a very few – the big two political parties mirrored by the big four supermarkets, the big six energy firms, the big four audit firms, and more.

This session was followed by a return to plenary. A panel on political pluralism was chiefly memorable for David Howarth’s rather depressing assessment of the likelihood of any kind of progressive majority developing. (Clue: it probably isn’t ever going to happen, mainly because of the inbuilt tensions that dominate the Labour Party, which are being played out in their leadership election.)

Leadership Hustings

The final portion of the day was allocated to a showdown between the two leadership candidates, Tim Farron and Norman Lamb. I declared my support for Tim a long while ago in a rather overlong post on this blog, but I was interested to see the two men set out their stalls live.

I was unsurprised by the divergence in style and content between Norman and Tim. I felt that Norman was trying hard to inject some passion and charisma into his pitch, leaning hard on his background as a campaigning employment lawyer, as well as his family’s liberal history. But ultimately his speech sounded pretty safe, and didn’t seem to differ at all from the others I’ve read during the campaign.

Tim obviously did the same to an extent, but was more keen to be topical. In particular he drew out some specific and strong liberal positions on recent news stories including the migrant situation at Calais and George Osborne’s announcement on inheritance tax. This felt fresh and relevant in a way that Norman’s pitch had not.

I wasn’t able to stay for all the questions, unfortunately, but the way that both candidates listened and responded to the ones put to them gave me confidence that whoever is the new leader will be keen to hear the views of the whole membership.

Conclusion

This was a really positive day and I’m really glad I made it along. As with many new things, I was a bit daunted at first, especially given the large turnout. But the atmosphere was welcoming and positive, and certainly not factional in any way – I heard a real range of views over the day, and everyone was listened to with respect (sometimes too much, if anything!).

I’d definitely recommend the experience to new members, even if you aren’t sure whether you align yourself with the SLF or any other group. It’s a great way to understand what’s important to different people within the Lib Dems and to benefit from the wisdom and experience of people who have been a force for positive, liberal change in society through their activism and campaigning.

The whole day left me more positive about the future of the party and keen to play a small part myself. If my experience is any indication, the SLF should consider yesterday a job very well done.

Some Thoughts on Charles Kennedy

I could hardly say that I knew Charles Kennedy well. I’ve wanted to wait a few days to let the sadness of his passing sink in, and to process just what it is that I loved about the man.

In fact, we only met on a few occasions, and then only briefly, when I was working as a researcher in Parliament. My time in the Palace of Westminster was generally happy, mainly because I was one of the fortunate souls to have a boss that genuinely cared about his staff, and treated them as human beings. Observing other MPs going about their business, I’m afraid to say that many of them simply considered themselves too important to waste time on respecting junior members of staff – often young people – such as me. But on the other side of that coin, they are elected representatives attempting to weigh and reflect the views of tens of thousands of constituents; they are some of the busiest people working in our country. I was forced to recognise that even the apparently lazy ones, such as the MP in whose constituency I had grown up – the safest of Conservative safe seats – were quick to respond to real problems and attempt to deal with them.

Nonetheless, MPs who were at least civil enough to acknowledge your existence were notable by their scarcity. MPs who were kind enough to feign an interest in you, at least for the short period of time you might be in the same lift, or walking side by side through the airy colonnade that connects Portcullis House and the Palace and is effectively Parliament’s pedestrian motorway. Wait there long enough and you’ll see anyone and everyone.

MPs such as Charles Kennedy, who took a genuine interest in you, were – if you’ll pardon the Lib Demmery – gold dust. He made you feel that he had time for you, and he even remembered you subsequently, even if it just meant a small, wry smile as you passed. He was kind. How many people in the public eye could you say that about, with confidence?

Charles Kennedy - h/t Liberal DemocratsI’d call that an unusual mixture of humility and humanity. He had humility enough to remember and honour the value of all human beings. Others pay lip service to that notion; he lived and breathed it.


I first awoke to the fact that I considered myself a Liberal Democrat under Charles Kennedy’s leadership. I had always followed politics with interest but, as I suspect many people continue to do throughout their lives, I always considered it a straight fight between Tories and Labour, certainly throughout the 1990s. I was a fairly well-read child, even in terms of current affairs, but I was only dimly aware of the Liberal Democrats at that time, and even then they were only represented in my mind by the towering but tarnished figure of Paddy Ashdown. I doubt I could have named another Lib Dem besides him until Charles Kennedy’s rise to prominence in the lead-up to the Iraq War.

I marched against that war – the only public protests I have been unequivocal about joining. Given the number of people who were there (perhaps 2 million over two weekends) and the breadth of their backgrounds, the same must have been true of hundreds of thousands of others. For a brief moment, Charles Kennedy’s Lib Dems were the only real opposition to the establishment; it’s often forgotten just how strongly the Conservatives were insisting on a military solution at the time. The Guardian leader reporting on the Parliamentary vote noted this specific curiosity:

A few may even read yesterday’s debate in order to attempt to explain the otherwise inexplicable fact that the Conservative party of 2003 appeared more concerned at such a time to attack the Liberal Democrats than the Labour government.

The fact that Blair was forced to hold a vote at all was largely due to the British people, of course, but it could also be ascribed partly to the courage of Kennedy, as well as the bravery of figures such as Robin Cook. Both men have now died untimely deaths, having spent significant amounts of their adult lives in Parliament.

It should never be forgotten that Charles and the Lib Dems were on the right side of that debate. It is still the defining moment of my political life, the most disastrous foreign policy decision made by a government in my memory, and, perhaps above all, a permanent monument to the failings of a political system that favours patronage, party loyalty and “stable government” over truth, honesty and wisdom.

The impact of the Iraq war still reverberates today in all sorts of ways. It defines UK foreign policy, which has become parochial, insular and tentative. We no longer wield the power and influence we used to wield. We would prefer to debate Trident from the point of view of its narrowly political relevance than from the point of view of international relations and military might.

Standing for freedom, wisdom and sceptical internationalism, and against political triangulation, vested interests and deceit: that is what drew me to Charles Kennedy’s Lib Dems.


I didn’t really know him, but I know the impact he had on me. He taught me that politicians could be really human and really brave; that you could be a leader and still come across as a warm, intelligent, curious person, with real flaws; that liberalism had a part to play in real decisions that had a major impact on real people.

At the top of this post I said that I wanted to process what it was I loved about the man. If it’s anything, it’s this: that he was real.

Political & Constitutional Reform Committee: Another Early Victim of the Great Liberal Defeat, 2015

The news has just broken that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has been abolished, following meetings between the party whips.

The Committee was established in 2010, mainly in order to scrutinise the work of the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who had responsibility for a host of reforms – so many, in fact, that he infamously suggested we’d get “the biggest shake-up in our democracy since 1832“.

As it turned out, of course, most of these reforms either failed to materialise, or were rejected. The only one that has remained in place that I can think of is the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and one can envisage a situation where even that is under threat.

This is not the point, though.

The Committee got through a prodigious amount of work between 2010 and 2015. It was arguably one of the most active and conscientious committees in Parliament.

Now it is being abolished, in the face of an obvious need to retain Parliament’s ability to scrutinise matters of political and constitutional reform. Perhaps the whips from the Conservatives and Labour don’t think it’s worth having such a body in place in order to deal with – oh, I don’t know – Scottish devolution, an EU referendum, and constituency boundary changes to name but three.

The argument might run that these issues would be better dealt with by other Committees. There is a Scottish Affairs Committee, for instance, that will be doing work on devo max and full fiscal autonomy. The Foreign Affairs Committee, too, might suggest it is well placed on European issues.

But the reality is that a committee dedicated to thinking about and suggesting alterations to the fine detail of political and constitutional reform – which will inevitably eventuate from these processes, whether or not we see the seismic shifts that are possible were we to leave the EU – is a very sensible idea.

Moreover, I tend to the view that the more bodies available to challenge government policy and suggest improvements, the better.

The reality seems to be that this is yet another early casualty of the Lib Dems’ lack of Parliamentary representation. How many more times will we have to point to a lack of liberalism within the House of Commons over the next decade?

EDIT: The other thing about this is that it is a direct slap in the face for the 477,000 who signed the Electoral Reform Society petition on voting reform, which was only delivered to Downing Street on Monday, supported by the Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP and others.

What Kind of Leader Do the Liberal Democrats Need?

How We Got Here

This is a fairly long summary of the Clegg leadership of the Liberal Democrats, 2007-2015. If you want to skip to where we are now, and the real answer to the question posed at the top of this post, then scroll down to “Where We Should Go”.

I wasn’t around for the last Lib Dem leadership election, in 2007. At that point I was still at university and had shied away from student politics. I am reliably informed that it was a very close race between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, one that famously turned on the failings of the Royal Mail. Clegg and Huhne

I still believe that the choice the Lib Dems made at that election was the right one, regardless of what subsequently happened to Chris Huhne. On balance, Nick Clegg led the party with decency and endeavour, and succeeded in what was clearly his main goal – putting the party in a position to enter government.

Perhaps that sentence reveals the problem with his leadership, though. At its heart, Clegg’s leadership always felt responsive, if not reactive. The only time it felt like he was truly setting the agenda was in 2010, at the height of Cleggmania. But even then, the Lib Dems’ campaign felt strangely weightless, and defined the party largely by comparing it favourably to others – most of all by claiming the moral high ground and emphasising that there would be “no more broken promises“. The failure to set out a convincingly liberal case, promoting the party on its own terms, may have been one of the reasons that the “surge” fell away on polling day – although there were any number of other factors, including a traditional third party squeeze as the desire to force Gordon Brown out of office, or keep him there, took its toll.

Fast forward five years, and the circumstances were very different – on the surface. We had spent five years “enabling” the Tories to form a government, although Lib Dems, and increasingly others, recognise that much of the substance of the coalition came from our side. Unfortunately, the strategic choice to treat coalition as an end in itself – mainly by defending and “owning” all the policies decided upon by the whole government – was decisively wrong, and again, strangely negative. It would inevitably undermine our independence as a campaigning party, even without the obvious tactical errors that so badly tarnished our trustworthiness and integrity in the eyes of the voters.

Clearly, the 2015 campaign was far more focused on positioning the party to enter government for a second time. This was a catastrophic error, which played into the hands of squeeze messages from the two big parties, especially the Conservatives. Others have already analysed the movement of former Lib Dem voters, which seems to have been mainly towards the Tories in key seats. When the question being asked is “security” vs “change”, trying to position yourself as a little bit of both was always doomed to fail.

This failure was compounded by an even more insubstantial policy platform than had been the case in 2010. Our policies this time around appeared designed to appeal either to the Tories or to the Labour Party in the event of coalition negotiations. This was made worse by Nick Clegg’s insistence during the campaign on speculating on the constitutional intricacies of the potential result. The campaign was almost entirely negative, and based on a self-defeating and depressing centrism.

A final point is that Nick Clegg’s approach to leadership was characterised, in my opinion, by too ready a tendency to surround himself with like-minded people. This is something Michael Dugher criticised Ed Miliband for in an interview in the New Statesman today. But my perception is that it was just as true of Nick, whose advisers were generally young, personable and keen, but may have lacked the kind of campaigning experience and political nous we needed. The same could be said of his approach to coalition negotiations: the team in 2010 was Laws, Alexander, Huhne and Stunell. The reluctance to draw on the experience of older, wiser heads – such as Vince Cable, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy – was palpable, and continued into government, with the marginalisation of Vince at the 2013 party conference particularly egregious.

And that’s a quickish summary of how the Liberal Democrats ended up where we are today: reduced to a rump of 8 MPs, with a combined majority of fewer than 25,000 votes, and continuing to see our local councillor base eroded. Notwithstanding the vast number of new members being added daily since the general election result became painfully obvious, we remain a party that has lost its way.

Where We Should Go

It seems abundantly clear to me that the party needs a fresh start. David Howarth has written eloquently on Social Liberal Forum about the need to clarify our values:

Clarify our values – We are a party of values or we are nothing. An effective party of values, however, needs to do certain things. The most important is to achieve clarity about its values… Some of our values are clear –  internationalism, protecting individuality and non-conformity, hating bullying and the abuse of power,  promoting environmentalism, protecting civil liberties and a love of democracy… But some of our values are not clear. Most significantly, what is our view of economic inequality?

While I didn’t agree with everything David wrote in that article, this point is absolutely vital for the party to grasp. We cannot go on fighting from election to election on the basis of what other parties decide to know.

We must instead understand the values that are fundamental to the party’s existence. This is the only way we can create a compelling story to tell voters – one that isn’t reliant on a position of negative moderation.

To me, that should include a commitment to freedom at the core of everything we do. And yes, that should include maximal economic freedom for every citizen. I haven’t yet fully thought through what this might look like, but I think starting from the point of view of individuals is vital in order to counteract the deadening influence of today’s political discourse. We need to get much more acute in describing what we imagine will be the impact of policies: this requires creative thinking. Perhaps a start would be to identify a few party members of wildly different backgrounds and tell each of their stories under a Lib Dem government.

And yes, it’s also time we started talking about a Lib Dem government again. The purpose of campaigning is not to give in to the assumed outcome. Even if you are expecting a hung parliament, the best negotiating position is to have a set of strong, majoritarian policy positions from which to start.

This doesn’t mean trashing our record in coalition. But it does mean reappraising it and telling the truth about where we succeeded and where we didn’t. We had some great victories and some appalling defeats. We need to say so, and when we do, we also need to make sure that it doesn’t sound defensive, but is part of the new story we are telling.

Who Will Take Us There

The new influx of members is truly exciting. A lot of work will need to be done to understand where these people are coming from, and what their reasons are for joining. A mass survey should probably be commissioned as soon as possible in order to hear their views properly and learn from their decisions. My guess is that it will be a real mixture – perhaps mostly entirely new members, but some returners; some who were waiting for Clegg to resign, and others who feel he and the party were hard done by; some who have simply realised too late the need for a liberal party in the UK, and are worried about the Tories governing unfettered and what it means.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that there is a bigger constituency of those who have remained with the party, often reluctantly (or in my case intermittently), through the pain, frustration and, yes, anger, of the past few years. These were the people who were trying to maintain the party’s independence through the lean years of government, when even their own party leadership failed to heed their warnings on touchstone liberal issues, and ignored the much-vaunted internal democracy that is generally cherished.

And we have to recognise, too, that there remains a large number (although perhaps a minority) of members who feel the approach in government was broadly right, and do not want the Lib Dems to “revert” – as they might see it – to a party of protest for protest’s sake.

A new leader must be capable, somehow, of uniting these disparate strands behind a new vision for the Liberal Democrats. They must therefore be someone who understands the Lib Dem membership deeply, ideally through direct contact with the grassroots over a number of years – particularly during coalition. They must also be someone who has not been tarnished in the eyes of voters or members through being too close to the mistakes we made in government. More importantly still, they need to be someone who is capable of galvanising the party into action. This means they need to be a person with energy, character and charisma.

Norman Lamb is a good man who has used his time as a minister to make significant improvements to the lives of many people. He’s also clearly able and a decent communicator. It is clear that he’s a valuable asset to the party, and I’m glad that he is standing and providing us with a proper leadership race, rather than a coronation. But he is also Nick Clegg’s former adviser, someone who voted for higher tuition fees, and closely involved in the coalition project. My impression of him, perhaps unfairly, is also that he is relatively technocratic, a calming rather than an energising presence. If you’ll forgive the simile, coming from the party of drug reform, we need something rather more akin to amphetamines than tranquilisers.

It will come as no surprise that I believe, instead, that Tim Farron is the leader the Lib Dems now need. During the years of coalition he acted as a critical friend – praising its achievements and maintaining an attitude of loyalty, but also speaking out on issues where the party was losing its way. Some people will think he was too critical, others too loyal; that probably shows that he got it about right, most of the time. He was also an exemplary party President who must have been in contact with more Lib Dem members than anyone else. His responsiveness, enthusiasm and generosity are legendary.

But all of this would mean nothing if Tim were not also capable, in my eyes, of taking control of the party and helping us to create a new identity for ourselves. He is a passionate liberal who is better able than anyone else to articulate sometimes complicated political beliefs in simple language. He might come across at times as a bit folksy, but each time I’ve pointed people outside the party towards his speeches, they’ve both enjoyed his style and been impressed by the substance of what he has said.

As good an example as any of his ability as a speaker was his speech at last autumn’s party conference. If you’re unconvinced by Tim as a potential leader I’d encourage you to watch it.