We don’t need an election – but a general defection

A week is a long time in politics. This has, I think, been the longest week I can remember. Rewind just seven days and we were waking up on that fateful polling day, with most Remain voters like me cautiously confident that we would pull through and that disaster would be averted.

Instead, political and economic chaos reigns. The Prime Minister has resigned and a Tory leadership election is well underway. All of the candidates would take the country to the right as well as out of the EU; the only question is whom you think would do it least horribly. Debating with Jeremy Cliffe of the Economist yesterday, he suggested that Theresa May would be better than Boris; Chris Terry, weighing in, advocated May’s ‘ruthless competence’ over Boris as an ‘unprincipled liar’.

I can’t personally look past May’s authoritarian record as Home Secretary (particularly on migration and surveillance), her obvious lack of interest in campaigning strongly for the Remain campaign, and her commitment to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Boris may have demonstrated that he is unprincipled, power-hungry and largely incompetent, but he should be made to lie in the bed of lies he helped create.

The benefit of a Boris leadership will be that two of the main Vote Leave figures – Johnson and Gove – are likely to be held responsible for whatever deal comes out of the Article 50 negotiations with the remaining 27 EU member states. As this deal now seems almost certain to be EEA membership with no concessions on freedom of movement, it is going to be disappointing in the extreme for large numbers of the 17 million Leave voters – probably the majority.

As I’ve written previously, the consequence of this will be a betrayal narrative whereby UKIP gains support, perhaps seizing a sizable chunk of those 17 million and adding to the nearly 4 million they won last year. The question will be whether they can turn this into electoral success. In this light, today’s news that Arron Banks – who has been Banksrolling both UKIP and Leave.EU – is considering setting up a new party is highly significant. UKIP’s problem so far has been spinning their growing, seething mass of resentment and protest into the pure green of Commons seats, and that’s largely because they’re incredibly ill-disciplined. It’s also because their one MP, Douglas Carswell, appears to disagree with Nigel Farage on everything other than EU membership itself.

Banks is wealthy enough and committed enough to see this transformation through, and when set against the referendum result, the rise in far-right activism (and racial abuse and violence), and the economic chaos that is going to envelop our country for years, the drumbeat of fascism is set to ring louder and louder in our ears.

So now we turn to look at the other casualty of the week just passed. The Labour Party is going through its death throes. Jeremy Corbyn and his small band of strong-willed acolytes appear to be hellbent on driving the party into the ground. It now seems clear that the leadership actively obstructed the Remain campaign, rather than simply soft-pedalling on its own activities. How complicit Corbyn himself was in this is unclear but he doesn’t seem to be able to control his own aides, particularly Seumas Milne. People talk about Corbyn having ‘delivered’ the Labour vote, but this has been contradicted by many senior Labour MPs including Sadiq Khan, who has said very clearly that in important areas Labour voters had no idea which way the party was facing.

Corbyn himself has since refused to resign even when 80% of his own MPs withdrew their support. When set against Cameron’s gracious and immediate resignation, this is an unprecedented, unjustified and deeply dishonourable decision. Meanwhile, he continues to put the support of Labour members – around 250,000 people – ahead of the voters who desperately need an effective opposition. And worst of all, his cabal appears to be threatening MPs with deselection in order to shore up his position.

But we can’t entirely let the Labour MPs off the hook. They acted quickly in the aftermath of the referendum campaign to try to jettison their leader. But they’ve somehow got into a situation where his position is untenable, but failed to identify a clear candidate to challenge him. It seems to me that this is because they know two things. Firstly, whoever challenges him may have an uphill battle to win over members. Secondly, even if they do win the leadership, they will have to try to reconcile the extreme disparity inherent in their party’s support.

In my view they are most likely to try to do this by moving on the migration issue – becoming even more anti-migration in an effort to keep their northern and Midlands heartlands from falling into UKIP’s lap. This fateful decision will make them unelectable in the more liberal constituencies; they may even find that their grip on London begins to loosen. Their unique selling point will have been lost both to UKIP, which will outflank them on rhetoric, and the Tories, who will continue to outflank them on competence.

It’s a gloomy story. Reading the commentary of pundits over the course of the past week, it’s also one for which very few people can see a happy ending. I will admit that I am more pessimistic about the state of British politics than I was even just last year, when my own party lost all but 8 of its 57 seats.

But there is a way back. And it isn’t through a hasty second referendum or a snap general election. People will need breathing space to think through the simplest way forward: the way that will allow a genuine opposition to develop, one that opposes both a national and international settlement characterised by insularity, fear and protectionism, but also promotes genuine cooperation, targeted redistribution of wealth, and a fair deal for local communities. Most of all, this opposition has to have a clear, coherent message to fight the resurgent racist nationalism that is currently enjoying open season.

This opposition can only be created within one party while the electoral system we have continues. And the only party currently capable of providing such an opposition is the Liberal Democrats. We are the only party that stands across the United Kingdom; the only party that has a clear policy on continuing EU membership; the only party with a leader who is not in the process of resigning.

So it is now incumbent on any MP (or indeed any member or activist) in any party who considers themselves generally humanitarian, internationalist, open to the world, pro-immigration, pro-trade, in favour of progressive taxation, moderate, anti-fascist – in short, liberal – to consider defecting to the Liberal Democrats. Ask yourself this question: what am I realistically going to achieve if I stay where I am?

If you’re in the Tories, your party is about to be captured – irrevocably – by either a crazy-haired clown who hides his racism and thuggery behind jaunty classicisms and changes his views more often than I change my socks, or a ruthless person who has used her years in the Home Office to make life hell for millions of workers and students and to threaten our way of life by insisting that we should all be monitored by a surveillance state so all-encompassing that it could teach the Stasi some new tricks. Neither of them appear to have any interest in Britain’s place in the world whatsoever.

If you’re in Labour it’s even worse. You’re led by the ultimate lame duck, someone whose authority is now so denuded that your party’s status as the official opposition was officially challenged today by the Scot Nats. He doesn’t appear to believe in politics at all and is forcing your MPs to hammer their heads and hearts repeatedly against a brick wall to no discernible purpose.

Now think about what it would say if you did make the switch. I know we are a very small party right now. But the benefits are very clear:

  1. It will give you a renewed, distinctive platform to articulate more clearly your views on the referendum and the negotiations that must now take place;
  2. It will give the Liberal Democrats another powerful and authoritative voice. At the moment we lack a large number of voices to make the case and our leader Tim Farron can only do so much;
  3. It will help to shift the conversation away from the current chaos engulfing your current parties, giving them time to regroup and ensuring that we do not miss the chance to nip racism and fascism in the bud;
  4. It will strike an important note of consensus and collaboration in a political system currently defined by division, suspicion and mistrust;
  5. Most of all, it will be a place of optimism and hope where you are welcomed, rather than a party dominated by suspicion, cruelty and often outright hostility between supposed colleagues.
We don’t need a general election straight away and in any case it now seems clear that one will not be called. Instead, we need a general defection, so that when the time comes – and it will, perhaps sooner than we think – we are prepared and able to stand up for the values that didn’t just define our political parties, but our country, for generations.

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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.

Andy Burnham and the Myth of Competence

No, that’s not the title of a new Harry Potter knock-off – although Andy Burnham has the makings of a put-upon junior wizard with numerous chips on his narrow shoulders. Rather, it’s a response to Burnham’s latest contribution to the moribund Labour leadership battle, replicated below for your viewing pleasure:

Now, there are a number of problems with this. Burnham is clearly making a pointed comment about the attempts of other candidates – particularly Liz Kendall, who he probably sees as his main rival – to move Labour back to a position which could be loosely described as “Blairite”.

As an aside, I personally think that with Kendall leading Labour and Tim Farron leading the Lib Dems, the latter party would have vast acres of space to be a real, vote-winning opposition. Tony Blair’s success is often considered solely due to his brilliance as a winner of elections. But this is a hopelessly simplistic view of history, and one that ignores the fact that a donkey in a red rosette – not a proverbial donkey, a literal donkey – could have won in 1997 given the mess that the Conservatives were then in. So it shouldn’t be taken as axiomatic that moving Labour to the centre and to the authoritarian makes the party more electable.

I digress. Burnham, of course, has also rejected that analysis, although in a number of important ways he has indicated that he does want to move the party to what might be considered more Blair-like positions – if only in their tactical ingenuity rather than in their substance. On immigration and Europe, for example, he is tacking close to the Tories, which I suspect Blair might consider good politics if not good policy.

But the line he is trying to hammer in this tweet is silly. And it’s silly because it actually does exactly the thing he claims to want to avoid. The first statement criticises Kendall for “copying the Tories”. But the second line suggests that the measure of a political party’s success is to be “better” than the Tories.

Without further explication, this is a troubling idea – that the viability or the electoral success of a political party is based purely on competence. I have to say that competence is one of the attributes I look for last in a politician. I tend to think that integrity, compassion and a coherent set of beliefs are far more important. With those attributes in place, I would feel relatively relaxed about entrusting the delivery and implementation of policies based upon them to the apparatus of the state.

The myth of competence, though, has infected the whole of our political culture. The irony of Burnham’s statement is that it is a Tory invention – that politics is primarily about management. The genius of it is that by forcing others to fight on the basis of competence, the Tories ensure that everyone is clustered on their natural territory at all times. I’m not talking about political left and right here; it’s far more about semantics and semiotics than anything else.

I haven’t got time to go further into why this is such a damaging concept this evening – perhaps another time – but Andy Burnham really should give some more thought to the matter. His attempt to paint his rivals as soft Tories would be more successful if he didn’t back himself into the same corner in the process.

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.