Myleene Klass may be deeply confused about how the mansion tax will work in practice, but she probably isn’t the only one. As a supporter of land value taxation, it is no surprise that I think it is a flawed policy, but what’s really problematic is the way both Labour and the Lib Dems are attempting to sell it.
In many ways, Klass’s tustle with Ed Miliband sums up the problem. She seems to think that, as a tax which will only apply to properties worth £2m and over, that in parts of London that applies to garages. She’s wrong. The £2m figure was calculated to be as painless to as many people as possible. In fact, under Vince Cable’s original proposals in 2009, the tax was to apply to properties worth £1m and over. This was quickly adjusted following an outcry from Cable’s fellow South West London MPs who feared a backlash (and even £1m is a bit steep for a garage, Myleene).
The UK – and London in particular – has a real problem with rising house prices. Home ownership has reached extremely low levels compared to recent history and the fears of another housing price bubble, despite the views of fantasists like Danny Alexander, are very real. The UK ought to be having a very serious conversation about how it tackles this.
Instead, we try to kid ourselves that this is just a problem for the very rich. Hence the mansion tax’s £2m threshold. We ought to be having a national conversation about restructuring our economy to avoid property bubbles. We ought to be talking about a property tax which kicks in at much lower levels. But we’re too busy blaming everything on immigrants and the poor.
Meanwhile, our existing domestic property tax, the council tax, has not been revalued in England since 1991. If our politicians lack the courage to even do that, what hope is there for us to have a serious conversation about what’s needed.
Ironically, the Lib Dems in particular, are in a better place than they have been in years to make the case. 10 years ago, they were transfixed with the idea of scrapping all property taxes and making taxes on employment take up even more of the strain. Now they are making the case for more taxes on property and taking people out of income tax altogether. Yet there is no narrative connective tissue between the two. They aren’t making the case for a fairer society and stronger economy in which a hard day’s work is taxed less and wealth is taxed more.
Ignore policy for a minute, which is largely irrelevant these days in a world of coalition government. What a liberal party ought to be making the case for right now is a new economy with significantly different priorities. It can’t be done overnight, but it can be done over time, piecemeal. There can be a direction of travel. It can’t however be done by stealth; the public need to buy into it or it will fall apart after the first Daily Mail headline.
The mansion tax could be step one of a new economic plan; as it is, it’s a policy cul de sac. Assuming it eventually happens, it will probably suffer the same indignity as council tax, and never be touched again. Or worse, start going up by inflation to ensure that only a tiny minority ever pay it and its true revenue potential is never realised. It’s emblematic of the political malaise; instead of dealing with the big political issues of the day, we’re reduced to soundbites.
My ire was particularly roused yesterday by Owen Jones’s latest attack on Nick Clegg. Now, regular readers of this blog may be aware that Nick Clegg is not exactly my favourite person, I actually agree that Clegg is populist with little in the way of actual principles, and that this latest capitulation to crack down on virtually non-existent use of the UK welfare system by EU migrants is an apt if depressing example of this. But Jones’s analysis has one fatal flaw: he’s a member of the Labour Party.
You don’t have to agree with Martin Shapland’s equally flawed analysis that the fact that Labour have equally let down EU migrants and indeed the UK electorate that that somehow makes the Lib Dems’ own actions more acceptable to agree that Owen Jones and his cohorts are in no position to criticise.
If Clegg’s “scapegoating” of EU migrants (which is to ignore the fact that the Lib Dem position is far less coherent than simple scapegoating) is “unforgiveable”, then what does that make Yvette Cooper’s claim that the coalition are playing catch up behind Labour on this issue? Indeed, so behind the coalition were Labour on Tuesday that they set one of their lead attack dogs to smear Laszlo Andor, an EU commissioner who had the unmitigated gall to criticise the UK for adopting such a policy, wrongly claiming he was a fascist.
This isn’t the first time, and won’t be the last, that Clegg’s team has concluded that with Labour and the Tories united on an issue they might as well go along with it for fear of being singled out. It was the same reasoning that made Clegg so keen to not come out against the snooper’s charter. Clegg isn’t a liberal, although he wore that mask for a while, and his mission is to be seen to be in the centre of politics between Labour and the Tories, no matter where that centre happens to be (he’s only sticking with the party’s pro-EU stance because he knows that dropping it would lead to a split the party would not survive from). He’s pretty despicable. But does anyone really believe that is more despicable than the party leaders he is slavishly following? Miliband could have caused a split within the coalition by adopting a pro-migrant, and fact-based stance on immigration. Leaving aside his ethical and moral responsibilities, he had a responsibility to do so as the leader of the official opposition. Cringing in fear of how Lynton Crosby would respond, he chose not to.
I’m not suggesting the Lib Dems should be let off the hook, merely that they are irrelevant. Even if every single Lib Dem voted against these measures, the combined Labour-Conservative hegemony would get it through parliament. If Owen Jones truly had the principles he has pinned his professional career to, he would have chosen to lay into who is possibly the next prime minister for his cowardly stance, rather than the leader of a declining third party. Does anyone else see the irony in choosing to pull his punches on Miliband and ramp up the rhetoric on Clegg in an article denouncing the political practice of scapegoating? This is black propaganda indeed.
The Times’s interview with Jeremy Browne today (link to the Guardian because it doesn’t have a paywall and there’s nothing in the Times original that you’re missing) highlights for me the inherent contradiction of the Lib Dem right wing.
They’ve always veered between two modes. One is that the wicked left of the party have tainted the party with social democracy and the purity of liberalism. This was the general approach of the Orange Bookers and the narrative that Nick Clegg presented during his rise to prominence. The other is to denounce the left for wanting to be a party of protest in permanent opposition. Notoriously, this was the subject of a Nick Clegg speech earlier this year, but it was also the main tactic 15 years ago when the right (the majority of whom were the same people), were arguing that the Lib Dems ought to be repositioning for a permanent alliance with the Blairite New Labour.
In Jeremy Browne’s flounce in the Times, he manages the double: the wicked left both want to be in permanent opposition and are not proper liberals. What’s interesting though is that it appears to be an open secret that the main reason he was sacked from the home office was because he was so comfortable with the Tories’ anti-immigration and increasingly authoritarian policies.
In theory, the one thing that unites Lib Dems across the spectrum is that they are liberal on social issues. The Orange Book narrative was always that the left, with its suspicious closeness to the Labour Party and love of the state and positive freedoms were the most susceptible to drifting into a “nanny state knows best” mindset. In practice however, it has consistently been the right which has ended up professing a love for Big Brother. Back when Mark Oaten was the right’s golden boy, he came up with the term “tough liberalism,” the only substantial application of which was support for ID cards.
Jeremy Browne can’t be entirely blamed for the Lib Dems’ tacit support for authoritarianism in government, even if it does appear to have accelerated since his promotion to the Home Office last year. It does appear however that the right in the party has a problem with definition. 10 years ago, the Orange Book launched on the premise that the right was economically liberal but still share the socially progressive goals the 20th century Liberal Party championed. Over the course of that decade, they have gone further back, increasingly ditching economic liberalism in favour of the classical liberalism of Gladstone where the only thing that mattered was unfettered markets. With the right’s poster child having now revealed his true disdain for basic liberal values such as civil liberties and the freedom of movement of people, you’ve got to ask yourself: what, aside from conservativism, do they have left?
Unlike a lot of disgruntled former Lib Dems (and, for that matter, disgruntled current Lib Dems), I still have a lot of time and sympathy for the party. I still think that joining the coalition was the right thing to do. I see the Lib Dems stopping Tory madness on a daily basis and anyone who doesn’t accept this must either deluded or plain dishonest. I oppose many of the welfare reforms, but recognise that with Labour offering virtually no opposition on the subject and public opinion very much in favour, there is not a whole lot they could really do.
And while I’m distinctly uneasy about George Osborne’s economic policies and the Lib Dems’ support for it, I will give him this: even if he wanted to adopt a dramatically different approach, the combined forces of Germany and the financial markets would make it exceedingly difficult for him to do so. And while it’s possible the recovery would have been swifter if we had borrowed more and cut less, I can’t honestly say that I know this to be true.
But much of my respect for the Lib Dems’ work in government is rooted in the fact that it was a responsible decision in the face of economic chaos. It stops right at the point where I think they start signing up to policies which are economically irresponsible. And that brings us to this “help to buy” scheme.
I am hardly the first person to point out that inflating house prices at this time to help people to take out mortgages in an untargeted way will simply help to increase property prices in an unsustainable way and price even more people out of the market altogether. I was alarmed to hear Danny Alexander on the radio this morning denying that the current rate of unaffordable house prices was even a problem and insist that all that was needed was easier access to mortgages. To hear him wistfully talk about how he got a 95% mortgage “25 years ago” (which meant he got his first mortgage when he was 16, incidentally), made it sound as if the Lib Dem policy was now simply a case of returning to the old housing boom fuelled economics of the last few decades and had lost all interest in learning from those excesses.
Housing was one of Labour’s greatest failures. More than anything, their failure to get Britain building during the noughties both heightened the boom and deepened the inevitable bust. And of course, the housing benefit bill would not have escalated in the way it has done. Yet, tellingly, this is one area of policy the coalition have failed to attack Labour on. In the case of the Conservative wing, the reason is fairly obvious: they are engaged in class warfare and very much see the retention of an economy in which the elite’s rent-based wealth is preserved. Historically, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats stood against that sort of thing, at least in the 20th century. Cynics like myself bemoan that Clegg and his former adviser Richard Reeves are part of a faction within the Lib Dems that consider the 20th century Liberals an aberration and see themselves as merely the heirs to Gladstone. It is hard to dispute that when you hear them talking about this issue.
The 2010 Lib Dem manifesto had this to say about the economy:
Fairness is an essential British value. It is at the centre of how the vast majority of British people live their lives, but it has been forgotten by those at the top. Instead, greed and self-interest have held sway over the government and parts of the economy in recent decades. They have forgotten that growth must be shared and sustainable if it is to last.
It would appear that in government, the Lib Dems themselves have forgotten that lesson very quickly indeed. Justifying your role in government as having to tackle the economic crisis is one thing; setting the foundations for the next economic crisis is quite another.
It was quite a surprise to see Chloe Smith resign last night, less than 48 hours before her team was due to carry the Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning, Trade Union Administration and Anything Else We Can Think Of Bill through the House of Commons report stage. I find it hard to believe that the two incidents can be a coincidence.
Over the last nine years I’ve had to follow the work of the various junior ministers in charge of constitutional reform or their equivalents and I can safely say that Smith was the least impressive one. She has the most obvious “tell” I’ve ever seen in a senior politician; whenever she knows she’s talking out of the top of her hat, she starts beaming like the Cheshire Cat, like it’s all a tremendous joke. It isn’t a terribly redeeming quality, and one which did her no favours at all at the dispatch box, where she often gave the impression that she wasn’t taking her job at all seriously.
She is leaving to spend more time with her constituency, and it is fair to say that she will struggle to hold onto her seat which was, after all, a by-election gain. She’ll be joining the ranks of a number of politicians who thought that the best way to get ahead was to be impeccably loyal and do all the dirty jobs that no one else wanted. The sad truth is that while prime ministers often find such pliancy useful, they seldom respect it and it is almost never rewarded.
But what of the bill she is walking away from? The Lib Dems are now claiming that all the problems with it have been solved. However, the same people also insisted, and still do, that there wasn’t a problem in the first place. The legion of charities, trade unions, voluntary sector organisations, lobbyists and backbenchers who have lined up against it are currently waiting to see what the government’s actual amendments say, no longer giving ministerial assurances any credence.
It is a strange debacle that a stronger minister in charge would surely have been able to prevent; indeed, the fact that the task of getting the bill through parliament was taken out of Smith’s hands and put into the hands of the similarly tarnished Andrew Lansley was a significant vote of no confidence in her. But it has to be said that this is a debacle largely of the Liberal Democrats’ making as well.
The fact that Clegg himself could not be involved with anything to do with lobbying regulation was a strong reason for him to move to a different department in last years’ reshuffle. The lobbying register was the one political reform the Lib Dems had left to claim a victory over after the mess of the AV referendum and House of Lords reform.
It is also clear that much of the pressure to regulate non party campaigning came from the Lib Dem camp as well. The first hint anyone had that this legislation was being planned was in the publication of Lord Tyler’s attempt at cross party agreement on a party funding reform bill, published back in May. Overall, this is a very strong piece of work, proposing a way to introduce party funding while not actually increasing the overall cost of politics to the taxpayer. Yet, to hear Lord Tyler talk, it was clear that it was the non party campaigning section which got him the most excited and he was alarmingly quick to dismiss the criticisms being levelled at it.
Overall, this has been a farce from start to finish. Hopefully the House of Lords will be able to steer it in a more sensible direction. But the rushed through process itself ought go deeply concern any democrat. In the past, the Liberal Democrats were always the first to criticise governments for rushing through legislation without recourse to proper pre-legislative scrutiny or consultation; it has been truly shocking to see them become its greatest advocates over the past couple of months.
I was intrigued by last week’s list of 10 new Lib Dem appointments to the House of Lords. As longstanding readers of this blog will know, I was one of the people who helped develop the Lib Dem system of electing an “interim peers panel” from which the party leader gets to choose the majority of appointments. Every party leader has railed against the constraints of this system and tried to get around it wherever possible, but even I was surprised that only one out of ten new peers this time around was from the list.
So I decided to have a little look at what the current party policy on appointing peers is. Lib Dem Voice said that a report was due at the 2013 spring conference but I couldn’t find anything. But I did find the following in the Federal Executive report (pdf) published for the autumn conference taking place in Glasgow this autumn (emphasis mine):
Interim Peers Election Panel
At the beginning of the year, the FE also established a working group on Internal Democratic Reform, whose first task has been to look into a replacement for the Interim Peers’ Election Panel.
Last year, FE came to the conclusion that given (at the time), we were hoping for a more wholesale democratic reform of the Lords, and that the Peers List was not operating as well as might have been hoped, the existing list would stand until we could produce a more appropriate replacement. This replacement is intended to be in place for elections in autumn 2014.
Our group, chaired by Sue Doughty, is consulting widely on this process, and will be distributing a consultation paper and holding a fringe at Glasgow to ask for input from members. A final motion will then be brought to Conference in spring 2014. Given that we haven’t yet succeeded in convincing the other two parties of the need for democratic reform of the Lords, I hope that you will be engaging in this process with Sue to ensure that the process we end up with is a fair, free, and democratic as
our party always aspires to be.
All of that is fair enough; I’m the first to admit that the current system is not perfect. But it bears absolutely no resemblance to the list of appointments made last week. And however imperfect the current system may be, it is infinitely preferable to simply appointing whichever millionaire donor happens to want their ego stroked.
I’m amazed that the Lib Dems allow themselves to have the mickey taken out of them by their leader like this every time. No doubt the Federal Executive will shuffle its collective feed extremely vigourously over its authority being usurped once again – and then do nothing.
More than anything, the thing that made me want an elected second chamber was dealing with Lib Dem peers – especially over lobbying and Lords reform. Patronage is a poison that infects the brain of even the greatest democrat. It is a sad thing to see.
UPDATE: I should have worked out who is or isn’t on the list myself before posting. In fact, two of the peers appointed last week were on the interim peers panel: Brian Paddick (who was elected), and Ian Wrigglesworth (who was on it by dint of being a former MP). In my defence, it is a nuance between considering an elected person to be on the list and including the “ex-officio” members as well. It is indirectly linked to above, but the paper outlining the process can be found here. As far as I’m aware the party has not revised the process since then, but since it refuses to publish the rules then who can really say?
Let’s try that again. I’ve just updated the spreadsheet that I set up a few years ago. It turns out that Brian Paddick was elected in 2008, and so the four year rule means that technically he was no longer on the panel by summer 2013. A very generous interpretation of the rules could however be made that it was allowable on the basis that the party (after establishing that Lords reform wasn’t going to, um, happen), decided to not hold a ballot in 2012 – and thus the previous two lists (2008 and 2010) still apply. Ian Wrigglesworth most definitely is on the panel however – being a former MP is for life.
It appears the party has interpreted the rules regarding ex-MPs to include MSPs and AMs. That never was the case however, and you can see from the list of people who have got elected to the panel over the years that it includes former MEPs. If they aren’t eligible, why are MSPs and AMs?
As former, disgruntled party members go, I think it is fair to say that I’ve been remarkably discreet and reasonable. I’m not a huge believer in trashing my former colleagues (and still, in many cases, current friends) in some vanity exercise designed to justify my resignation ex post facto, and tend to distrust the judgement of people who feel the need to endlessly do so. Aside from a couple of blog posts, I’ve generally kept pretty schtum, and have very little time for those who denounce the Lib Dems as having sold out and failed to achieve anything in government, as if the position they were put into wasn’t fiendishly difficult or that the alternative – a Tory majority government – would be somehow better. Generally speaking, while I think they are getting the big picture pretty badly wrong, on a daily basis the Lib Dems are making a very real difference in government.
Well, aside from some tweaking to the pension rules, he didn’t get any wealth taxes this autumn. But you know what? The cuts are happening anyway. So much for “it is very simple”.
Unless, apparently, you are Stephen Tall: “It’s the kind of compromise that happens within a Coalition government.” Well, er, no. The “compromise” was that the Tories would get a cut in benefits and the Lib Dems would get a wealth tax. Spinning retrospectively that all that has happened was Cameron and Clegg split the difference is delusional. What actually happened is that Clegg made an opening gambit, Osborne called his bluff, Clegg blinked, and got a pity concession so he could at least pretend to have saved some face. Carry out your threats or don’t make them; you won’t get a second chance.
Putting benefits at the centre of a horsetrading negotiation is one thing. Failing to carry out threats is quite another. You can argue that the Lib Dems have conceded too much in this coalition, but tuition fees aside, they haven’t actually done that bad a job of over-reaching or making pledges they weren’t prepared to stand by. Clegg, to his credit, has carried out his threat to block boundary changes in exchange for the Tories’ betrayal over House of Lords reform (although the fact that the zombie boundary review lives on within the pages of the Mid Term Review speaks volumes about the weak leadership of both Cameron and Clegg). Things were looking up. Today’s capitulation however can’t be put down to naivety. What it suggests is that for Clegg there ultimately is no bottom line and no point at which he is prepared to walk away. What it tells Osborne is that he can merrily keep salami slicing the welfare bill, and the Lib Dem response will be the Stephen Tall “genius” move of “splitting the difference” each time. It would be comedy gold if it didn’t affect the lives of so many vulnerable people.
Speaking of comedy gold, it should not be forgotten that the Lib Dems communications department would very much like its parliamentary party to keep pushing the line that “The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fair society.” Based on today’s performance, it is manifest that that assertion is not true. Of course you can trust the Conservatives. They have an agenda and they doggedly stick to it. They might not want a fair society (although by their standards, and many voters’, they do), but they can damn well be trusted. That consistency counts for an awful lot in the electorate’s eyes.
It is Clegg, and all those who go along with him, who can’t be trusted. From a communications point of view, flip-flopping in this way is more damaging to the Lib Dem brand than any number of backbench MPs going off message. The Lib Dems’ communications problem isn’t non-entities saying the wrong thing; Clegg himself is the living embodiment of the Lib Dems’ fundamental communications problem. Focusing on anything else is just displacement activity.
Oh, and a final thing. I really don’t understand why it is that so many Lib Dems are so up in arms about Ken Clarke’s secret courts legislation, with talk of special conferences and all out war coming my way from numerous sources, while the best welfare gets is a shrug of the shoulders. It isn’t that I don’t think civil liberties are worth standing up for; it’s the lack of a sense of proportion. Enabling the government to hold secret trials, at most, might affect thousands of people. Benefit cuts stand to affect millions.
Even if you agree with these cuts, from a civil liberties perspective, surely last year’s legal aid cuts were more onerous than the secret courts? I just don’t understand why so many seem prepared to die in the ditch over a principle that affects a tiny minority, while don’t appear capable of doing anything more than shrug their shoulders over cuts which affect a whole segment of society. Again, it appears dangerously to resemble displacement activity; the wider cuts are too hard and too vast, so it is easier to focus on small measures and exaggerate their importance (see also: this utter preoccupation with Labour hypocrisy and opportunism as if that somehow justifies anything whatsoever).
90% of the criticism of the Lib Dems is at best unfair, at worse downright mendacious. But what I saw on Tuesday was a party that has ceased to have any kind of strategic nouse or moral compass whatsoever; that will doom them more than anything.
The main reason I’ve allowed this blog to fall into misuse over the past couple of years is that I stopped writing about politics. While my original concept behind this blog was always to write in the intersection between politics and geekery, at some point – specifically in May 2010 – I decided I could no longer really afford to vent my undiluted spleen about the state of the nation and had to start being a little more diplomatic and careful about what I say.
The problem is, I’m a little all-or-nothing and being careful quickly lead to me saying nothing at all. I figured it would get easier once the spotlight was off after the AV referendum; it didn’t. I figured I could be much less careful after I’d quit the party and thus my views became instantly irrelevant in the media’s eyes, but at that point I acquired a new problem: how can I write about politics without it either coming across as or actually being score settling following my resignation? I exchanged one set of anxieties for another and sclerosis quickly settled in once again.
And so, here I am, writing a blog about politics – which once again is really all about me. This is my problem in a nutshell. All I can do is plead for sympathy from you, dear reader: after 16 years, quitting a political party really is a big deal. It’s a wrench. It is no surprise at all that nearly eight months on I’m still a little defined by it. But at least you now know why it is that I’d much rather be writing about comics or, if you’ve seen my tumblr, even more esoteric things.
My article in September about quitting the Liberal Democrats had an interesting response. It was surprisingly positive, but I found it strange how so many people told me that they either loved or hated it but didn’t really engage with the issues at all. I had several Clegg loyalists tell me how much they loved it; curious given that I was not exactly nice about him. My favourite response was from a friend who told me that he agreed with “35% of it”. It was a strangely precise figure, yet he wouldn’t expand on what he actually meant by it.
Most of the negative feedback I did get from it, other than the abuse, centred around the accusation that I was being cynical and didn’t have anything constructive to say. I think the latter was fair comment and pretty much sums up where I am politically at the moment, but there is a difference between cynicism and nihilism. I don’t think I am cynical – indeed my decision to quit the party was about as far from cynical as it was possible to get. I took the decision to walk away rather that to stay on the inside and just feel bitter about things. The fact that I don’t have a fully worked out alternative to what the Lib Dems, and for that matter, politics more widely, doesn’t make me a cynic – it just makes me average.
But yes, I am a political nihilist at the moment, and as someone used to having a cause I can assure you that’s far more of a problem for me than it is for anybody else. All I have is a few scraps of ideas about what a possible way forward might look like, and they can be summed up as follows:
Triangulation is a doomed strategy for any political party – doubly so if you aren’t either Labour or the Conservatives. The people leading the political debate right now are the outliers who are working outside of the political mainstream but are successfully shifting the centre-ground to their direction simply by being well organised and disciplined. Right now, sadly, for the most part that means the weird axis of economic libertarians and social authoritarians who are exemplified by the Tea Party in the US but operate in different forms around the world. They aren’t succeeding electorally, but they don’t really need to. Everyone else is dancing to their tune.
Capitalism as we know it needs to die. Not trade, not commerce, but the system which commodifies and seeks to squeeze wealth from everything from people to ideas and natural resources is utterly anathema in terms of what humanity needs to do to survive the next millennium. That means critically reassessing what we regard as capital and property and thus what we believe can and cannot be owned. I feel I’ve just used a load of meaningless words there, but it makes sense to me. In terms of specific examples this means a fundamental shift from income and sales taxes onto things like land value taxation, and a massive global crackdown on the drift widening intellectual property laws to mean that every aspect of our culture ultimately becomes owned by a corporation out to make a quick buck.
It’s too bloody easy to blame the politicians. Our politico-economic system and media have infantilised the public, but as information technology spreads so does the onus on individuals to accept responsibility for the health of their democracy and culture. We have the tools to create a much better world, yet most people just sit there like good little consumers waiting for someone else to do it for them, and consider passively shrugging about it to be the mature response for when they don’t.
Beyond that? I’m lost. I have no idea about how you take those notions and turn them into something tangible which has any chance of being implemented. But I’m thinking about it – a lot. And perhaps I should write about it here a bit more often.
The fact that Lib Dem conference is rapidly approaching means that I have a semi-anniversary of my own to mark. It’s now been just over six months since I left the Lib Dems.
Life after party politics
How do I feel? I’ve had a tough, and at times frustrating half year: negotiating the fineries of coalition politics when your full time job is focused on delivering democratic reform is not easy. But I can honestly say that I’ve been happier in myself during that period than I have been for pretty much any period in the last 12 years.
People who follow my blog, my twitter feed or my Facebook account will probably have noticed I’ve been exploring my non-political interests with far more gusto than I had before that period (and yes, I will finish my A-Z of Judge Dredd soon). Although I’ve never had much in the way of personal political ambitions, there has always been a tiny shiny suited version of myself in my head screaming at me to only ever present the world with a cookie-cutter version of myself. I’ve always been a geek and been quite open about it, but these days I feel I can let it all hang out a bit more: it’s heavenly.
Fundamentally though, I’ve felt less guilty. In fact, I’ve felt so much less guilty that I feel a little guilty about that in itself. There’s a significantly louder voice in my head that believes that it is important to feel the weight of the world and to do your bit to stop it from sliding into chaos, and that it is better to have tried and have got it wrong than to have not tried at all. But it would be a total lie for me to deny that the feeling of not coming home from a hard day’s work to angst about all the other awful things happen and what I can do to sort them out is anything less than bliss.
I know this feeling is temporary and that at some point I’m not going to resist getting back into the thick of things. But I’m less inclined to believe that will mean returning to the Lib Dem fold any time soon than I did back in March. Party politics feels so broken for me at the moment that while I am enormously grateful that there are still people working from inside the system, I can’t really imagine myself doing the same.
My quitting the party was a long time in coming. I haven’t been a shiny faced new believer since my disastrous party job in Leeds, which ended more than 10 years ago. Since then, things like party conferences have mostly been a chore for me: a place where there is work to do, and where some of my closest friends could be found, but something which I would escape from every evening at the very first opportunity I got. To truly love the Liberal Democrats in all its idiosyncrasies is to love Glee Club, and I haven’t been able to stomach that rather grotesque and self-congratulatory tradition for years.
I can think of no better way to sum up my six month “holiday” than to refer you to the lyrics of Blue Lagoon by Laurie Anderson (sorry, I did say I was letting my geeky side hang out more). Nonetheless, as it has been a while since I wrote about any of this and since we are about to enter the conference season, I did think it would be a good time to type up my thoughts on the party, its future and the state of politics in general. This has been somewhat precipitated by two things this afternoon: Richard Reeves’ new article in the New Statesman and Nick Clegg’s now seemingly ubiquitous apology:
On the apology, I think it fair enough, not too badly expressed and is relatively heartfelt. It’s long overdue. For whatever reason, the tuition fees incident is a running sore that has come to dominate pretty much everything the party has done in coalition since and it is hard to see how the party can move on without somehow getting over this incident. I’m not saying that Clegg’s apology will achieve that, but it will do more good than harm even if the short term effect has been to open up some slowly healing old wounds for some people.
There is a problem with it though, which is that Clegg is apologising for making a promise he was never in a position to keep. That’s not entirely true. He could have made it a dealbreaker for the coalition. I’m not saying that he should have done, in fact I think it would have been downright foolish, but he had a choice and made it. For the past couple of years, Clegg has been altogether too much in love with claiming there is no alternative to what he and the coalition have undertaken to do – as if he is some unwilling victim being buffeted along by events. If you listen to his speeches, you will rarely see him take responsibility for anything: everything is expressed as being either obvious or inevitable. It gets to the heart of his weakness as a politician, and why people find it so hard to like him any more.
So let’s have a short reminder of why he is very much the architect of his own destruction. Throughout his time in opposition, Clegg made no secret of his hatred of the Lib Dems’ policy on tuition fees. On two occasions he attempted to win a vote on the conference floor to scrap the policy; on two occasions he lost the vote. Anyone with any sense at all within the party could see that he was never going to be able to win that fight, and that there was little point in wasting his political capital in fighting that fight.
As an opponent of the policy, what he should have done is attempt to de-prioritise the policy and make it a negotiable add on to the manifesto rather than a core goal. In fact, in terms of the manifesto, he more or less achieved that and he probably could have gone further if he hadn’t raised so many people’s hackles (even a number of tuition fee supporters ended up turning on him in the end and his failure to respect the party’s wishes). The problem is, by exhausting so much energy in attempting to scrap the policy he caused a backlash. A number of parliamentary candidates, not to mention the campaigns department itself, was so determined to alleviate concerns that the party couldn’t be trusted on the policy that they ramped up its status in their campaign literature and their personal statements. Just to make things even crazier, Clegg ultimately went along with it, agreeing to be photographed signing the NUS pledge.
I have to say that the campaigns department was extremely foolish to put the party in this position – not for the first time it behaved like it controlled the party and knew better than the people in charge of the manifesto, the Federal Policy Committee (I still find it frustrating that the 2005 manifesto was essentially usurped by a 10-point pledge which had little resonance and was completely useless to those of us fighting seats in Scotland at the time). But Clegg went along with it. He bottled it. He made a calculation that he could get away with signing his name to a policy which he was personally hostile to. That doesn’t just represent weak leadership and poor judgement, but an outlook on life that raises serious questions about a fitness to hold public office. It reveals the inner core of a politician who, if you look at his track record, has never had to fight particularly hard for anything at all, and has always depended on political patronage (thanks to Leon Brittan who discovered him in the European Commission, Paddy Ashdown who championed his bid to become an MEP, Richard Allen who bequeathed his Sheffield Hallam constituency to him and Ming Campbell who kept the leadership chair warm while he got himself ready) and never really had to fight for anything. It is one of the reasons why I find his constant talking up of social mobility at the expense of tackling all other forms of inequality so empty and galling; I really do think he has fooled himself into believing that he’s got where he is today through his own effort and thinks that everyone else would have the same life chances if only they had a slightly better school.
But since I have been defaming Clegg, I will say this: whatever you think of his apology, at least he has apologised. You won’t hear anything even close to an apology coming from the lips of his fiercest critics on the left. And the left really do have a lot to be sorry about.
I actually think the new higher education policy marks a real step forward compared to the policy we had before that. Most students will end up paying less but over a longer timescale. It has been poorly presented, but it represents a tax on the relatively affluent which is not being paid out of poorer people’s income taxes. But even if it was the worst system imaginable, there is a real question of priorities. Why is it that the left, particularly the far left and those engaged with student politics, have been far more exercised about this single policy than they have ever demonstrated in terms of the NHS, welfare or Educational Maintenance Allowance?
Oh, and if you’re a lefty reading this, yes I’m quite sure you believe those things were equally if not more important. But you simply didn’t get the numbers out on the streets for those campaigns did you? The NHS reforms in particular were in a particularly vulnerable state in 2011 – yet the only people doing the running in terms of stopping that policy were Liberal Democrats – mostly the Winchester local party and the Social Liberal Forum. If even a proportion of the numbers who turned out for the student funding marches turned out for the NHS, it would have been a dead reform. Instead, they mostly sat on their hands.
The collective failure of the left to get its priorities even marginally correct during this period of economic uncertainty is going to be something academics will be scratching their heads about for years to come. I have no easy answers: all I hope is that a few more people would act (and speak/tweet/blog etc.) with a little more humility and responsibility than they do.
So much for Nick Clegg and the left; back to Richard Reeves. His article previewing the party conference is utterly bizarre, but manages to sum up both his success and his abysmal failure.
In terms of success, Reeves and his fellow “Orange Bookers'” greatest victory has been to frame the debate in the Liberal Democrats as a struggle between noble Liberals seeking to defend the tradition of Gladstone with sinister entryist Social Democrats. There is an irony there of course because it was entryism within Labour that the Social Democrat Party was in part a reaction against. But of course it is utter bollocks, not merely because it essentially writes off the entire Liberal Party history from 1900-1950 – including the party’s proudest moments in terms of establishing the welfare state – as an aberration. It also blithely ignores the fact that many Orange Bookers come from the Social Democrat wing of the party themselves – Richard Reeves himself was a Blairite loyalist (as he himself alludes to in his assessment that Clegg exists to fill “a Blair-shaped hole in British politics”).
It is very notable that in his rather long and rambling article, Reeves seems incapable of defining what he means by “liberalism” other than say that it is neither Conservativism or Labour. What Reeves calls “radical liberal[ism] of the political centre” emerges as little more than the triangulation of Clinton and Blair: take two extremes and position yourself between them. By sheer, breathtaking coincidence, this is the same triangulation of Cameron – and even though many of his leftwing supporters would prefer otherwise, of Ed Miliband. In short, Reeves’ answer to the Lib Dems’ ills is to simply continue obsessively pursuing the same agenda which has dominated Anglo-Saxon politics for well over two decades now and has lead to a disengagement with politics the like of which we have never seen.
For all my mocking, there aren’t any easy answers. What I can tell you is that the last thing the Lib Dems can afford to do is to take Reeves’s advice and doggedly resume the politics of the centre ground. Nye Bevan’s warning of what happens to people who stand in the middle of the road applies doubly to third parties attempting to recover from a mortally wounding coalition. The fight for this tiny bit of political real estate has already reached its logical conclusion, with three virtually interchangeable parties finding themselves completely at the mercy of global, cultural and economic forces.
To talk with most party politicians, you would think this was the only game in town and in a sense they are correct. It is simply undeniable that to win a majority under any electoral system you need to be able to win over those undecided swing voters. Their mistake is to massively overestimate what you can achieve once you get there if you have done nothing whatsoever to prepare the groundwork for what you actually want to achieve. In short, unless you can answer how you can widen the Overton window onto your territory, you really are wasting your time.
Regardless of my earlier criticisms, at least the relatively sensible members far left get this. The purpose of UK Uncut and later Occupy was not to foist revolution on our doorsteps but to alert people to the possibility of change. While people are often quick to dismiss the anti-Iraq demonstrations as a failure, the fact that Bush and Blair were prevented from their headlong rush into attacking Iran was at least in part due to the enormous cost the protest movement forced them to pay in toppling Saddam.
The far right definitely get this: the Tea Party may be making Mitt Romney unelectable at the moment, but they’re successfully chipping away at issues which the left long presumed had been won such as abortion rights – and they have done a terrific job at putting the Democrats on the defensive on the economy despite the Republican’s own dire record. Obama’s own options in office have been limited precisely because the right have made it almost impossible to get any of his agenda through Congress without paying a blood price.
Thatcher, and the people behind Thatcher got this – and that it would take them decades to achieve. Every lobbyist worth their fee understands this. Yet, for some reason, it is a lesson which mainstream party politicians stubbornly refuse to learn – possibly because mainstream party politics is dominated by people who only seek power for themselves.
The future of the Liberal Democrats lies not in obsessively worrying about mainstream acceptance and chasing the centre ground, but in winning the argument across the country. That means that any future Liberal Democrat party is going to have to agree pretty darn quickly about what it wants to achieve. It is hard to see what the Orange Bookers achieve by remaining in the party when the best chance for implementing their policies lie in the Conservatives and Labour. If post-coalition Liberal Democrat politics is dominated by the same fissure which came to dominate the party over the past eight years, then annihilation will be all but inevitable. If by contrast it can rally relatively quickly around a clear vision of society that it wants to achieve, then it will be in a position to make a slow and painful recovery – and if it acts smartly it will see the political ground shift in its direction long before it gets another sniff of power.
Clegg and coalition
There are two questions which I suspect will dominate the late night conversations at the Lib Dem conference next week: when Clegg needs to go and when the coalition needs to end. One of the reasons why I’m better off out of it is that my head and my heart tell me completely different things in answer to both.
I’ve come to loathe Clegg and his style of leadership with a passion. At the heart of his leadership bid was a dishonest failure to come clean about his agenda; something which he attempted to impose on the party indecently soon after his narrow victory. One of the reasons the coalition has been quite the failure it has been is that Clegg negotiated a deal which he and his narrow base of allies in the party felt relatively comfortable with, knowing full well that at the same time they got to junk all the policies they never supported in the first place. During the first few months of the coalition, it was very clear that Clegg was enjoying the fact that he’d managed to get one over the party enormously (and we should admit at this point that the left of the party failed prevent this and must bear heavy responsibility as well). He didn’t govern as the leader of the party but as its usurper and it was only once he had been made painfully aware of quite how unpopular his own policies truly were that he suddenly rediscovered the “progressive” concern which he normally reserved for bluffing his way through elections.
So yeah, I’d quite like to see him out on his rear. I’d like to see that quite a lot. My big problem though is that I’m pretty non-plussed by leadership at the best of times and find the choices on offer to the party to be remarkably poor.
Dismissing out of hand the option of the Lib Dems selecting a rightwinger like David Laws or Jeremy Browne as Clegg’s successor (I suppose it could happen; suffice to say it would be political suicide), there appear to be two real choices available:
Vince Cable: despite stumbling over tuition fees and then being stripped of his media regulation powers by indiscreetly claiming to be at war with the Murdochs, Cable has had quite a good couple of years. He’s made little secret of his disdain for the coalition or for George Osborne’s economic policies in particular. The problem with Cable though is that he is very much his own man. A vote for Vince Cable is a vote for the party going down the Conservative Party route of having all party policy decided by the leadership – this in spite of the fact that Cable’s attempts at autonomous policy development have consistently ended in disaster. The man is simply not collegiate and has an ego the size of a planet. And let’s not forget the fact that he was fully signed up to Clegg’s project; it is only Clegg’s unpopularity and Cable’s own unpopularity within the Conservatives which has lead him to reinvent himself since joining government. There has been a lot of reinvention going on which he has largely got away with – such indulgence will end the second he becomes leader.
Tim Farron: Tim is charismatic and charming, and decisively leftwing. He’s a contemporary of mine, which makes his rise particularly interesting on a personal level. My problem with Tim is threefold: firstly, he has a notorious tendency to speak before thinking and to rhetorically overreach in a way that is veritably Clegg-like – he hasn’t come a cropper in the same way that Clegg regularly does, but I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t simply because he is subject to less scrutiny at the moment. Secondly, he consistently wobbles on cultural liberal issues, whether it is regarding homeopathy or his links with gay cure supporting CARE organisation. And finally, there is the fact that I simply haven’t been very impressed with his time as party president. I can see very little evidence that his crusade to bring back community politics (but without all the “it’s worth doing for its own sake” nonsense) has come to anything; similarly his membership pledge has come to nothing. What I see in Tim is a lot of dynamism, a lot of charm and heaps of rhetoric – but very little substance.
The only other person who I can conceive could take the mantle is Steve Webb. But while Steve has, by all accounts, done a great job at keeping in touch with the parliamentary party, he has been all but invisible to those of us outside the Westminster bubble. He appears to have done a competent job in terms of pensions reform inside the Department of Work and Pensions, but it simply isn’t clear how great an extent he takes responsibility for many of the more controversial welfare reforms being lead on by Iain Duncan Smith. So as a leadership contender he would have to deal with both his disappearance from the public gaze and serious questions about his own complicity: even if he tackled himself well in both respects, I somehow doubt he’d get a look in.
In short, I don’t think the Lib Dems have all that much in the way of talent on their benches, and that makes getting rid of Clegg an especially risky premise. The fundamental problems pre-date Nick Clegg, which is why the last leadership election in 2007 was fought by two former MEPs who had only taken their seats in 2005. Sadly, this dearth of talent is a natural outcome of an electoral strategy which has focused so much on casework and community work at the expense of vision and clear strategic thinking.
The other issue is when the coalition should end. Many would like it to end tomorrow, or even sooner – as articulated by Nick Barlow. I find it hard to argue against Nick’s charges against the coalition: to call it fundamentally dysfunctional would be generous.
But Lib Dems who imagine that there is some dividend to be earned by leaving the coalition early are simply misguided. The public won’t thank them – they’ll simply conclude the Lib Dems are even more of a waste of time. By contrast, there is a historic, long term gain to be earned by simply allowing this coalition to last a full five years.
The electorate has a short collective memory; I’ve lost count of the number of people who hated the Labour government but now look back on it with rose-tinted spectacles. No matter how painful this coalition feels at the moment, or what damage it does, the fact is that if it lasts the full five years it will be seen as a success for coalition politics while if it falls apart it will be seen as a loss.
If the Lib Dems ever want to return to power again, persuading the country that coalition is not the scary thing that both Labour and the Conservatives insisted it was during the last election will have to be a priority. Adding another footnote to the argument that all coalitions fall apart after a couple of years will slow any chance of a Lib Dem recovery for the simple reason that people will see a vote for the Lib Dems to be a vote for chaos and weak government.
None of this is pleasant to say and the counter-argument that this coalition is so uniquely awful that it simply can’t be allowed to continue carries a lot of weight. But again, the question needs to be asked about how effective the alternative would be. A majority Conservative government is still just about conceivable if an election were called tomorrow: the Tory argument that they need a mandate to finish the job, and that Labour aren’t fit for office will carry substantially more weight than the polls suggest. Such a government would be an utter disaster.
And a Labour government wouldn’t be much better. Labour simply do not have an economic policy at the moment and under Ed Balls it seems inconceivable that they will want to adopt one. A Labour government would probably spend a bit more, and have somewhat better priorities, but it would be a mistake to think that they would be drastically different in terms of the coalition. So destroying a long term gain (not just for the Lib Dems, but for pluralist politics as a whole) in favour of a short term highly marginal improvement simply doesn’t appear very enticing to me.
Finally, there is the question of confidence and supply. Many coalition supporters cling to this as if it would be the answers to all their problems: yet all it would mean is that the Tories would be able to speed up their spending cuts with the Lib Dems voting their budgets through. And even disregarding how votes in the Commons would be likely to go, the damage a solely Conservative government would do would be immense.
I simply don’t see an easy way out; merely a long, painful haul. Having made this bed (which I have to accept some personal responsibility for), the party is going to just have to lie in it. Instead of worrying too much about the next couple of years, the Lib Dems ought to be thinking bigger, and what they will be doing during their wilderness years. Fundamentally, they need to get over their obsession with winning parliamentary seats and start thinking much more about the sort of society they want to see. Ultimately, the problems are far bigger than simply Nick Clegg’s own incompetence and dishonesty.
On 1 November 2011, I announced on the Social Liberal Forum that I was “returning to the fold“. On 5 March 2012, I announced I was leaving the party – and thus my role in the SLF (constitutionally, only Lib Dem members can be members of the SLF). So what happened in the four months in between?
Tangibly speaking, not a lot – and that’s what forced the issue. I had a lot of good intentions, but I found myself doing only a small portion of them. The SLF needed someone who would take on the role of looking at its broader strategy and public affairs brief. I had broad idea of what I needed to do; but none of it actually happened. And in the process, I was very aware that I was starting to alienate a growing number of colleagues who felt that I was coasting off their work; mainly because I was.
It was trying to understand why someone like me who normally is quite enthusiastic about taking on such a role could make such a bodge of it that lead me to this point. In the end, I came to the conclusion there were two reasons.
Firstly, my day job. I’ve taken on wider responsibilities within the organisation at a time when the work of the organisation has become much more challenging (I work at Unlock Democracy if you don’t know). Influencing a coalition government is significantly different to influencing a single party government, particularly when your focus is on democratic reform. Every issue goes through the prism of which party “owns” it and therefore which party would be “gaining” if that policy were to be prioritised, even issues such as House of Lords reform where both parties had a manifesto commitments. It’s challenging and tough, and doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else. Coming home from a long day to do more political work was quite hard mentally.
But while that’s a good reason to scale back my activities, it only works so far. Most political activists will be able to tell you that the main thing they need to keep going is not really time but enthusiasm. The latter does a remarkably good job at stretching the former as and when it is required. If you feel that what you’re doing is making a difference, however marginally, you keep going.
It isn’t always 100% evidence based either. In the first by-election I ever took part in (in Rochdale in 1995), we won by about 10 votes and I personally managed to get at least double that many people out of the door to vote. That’s tangible. But most of the time, you work on the basis that what you’re doing is helping in much more abstract and amorphous ways; even losing a debate can sometimes lead your opponent to shift their position in order to defeat you, for example – that’s often how it works in politics. You’re never quite sure to what degree you are actually changing things or to what degree they wouldn’t reach that position without your intervention. However much you might rationalise it, most of the time you depend on instinct and faith to keep you going.
And I, quite frankly, have lost that faith (and yes, you do have permission to laugh at the atheist’s expense for writing that). I can’t get it out of my head that the Lib Dems’ fate for the next few years has already been sealed, based on a number of very crucial decisions that were made early in the lifetime of the coalition (and a number beforehand). Changing the course of that is beyond my meagre abilities. But at the same time, I’m not a spectator, and I’m not willing to just sit there and watch things happen.
When Lib Dem Voice announced I was leaving, Lord Greaves lampooned the fact that I said I might eventually return to the party in his characteristically generous and affable way: “when the rest of you have dug in and beavered away with time and energy to sort out the problems”.
He has a point. What I’d say in my defence is that I’d be doing that if I merely quit my roles in the party and just became a passive member for a couple of years. I’d also question the underlying assumption behind it, which is that the simple act of doing stuff is effective. Indeed, one of my problems with the Lib Dems is precisely this attitude towards activism, what Simon Titley regularly critiques in Liberator as “Maoism” (pdf).
I’m not going to cease being a political activist – my day job wouldn’t allow it apart from anything else. But I am going to have a very serious think about what form that political activism should take. I could try, to use that most Churchillian of phrases, to “keep buggering on” but my big fear is that all that will mean in effect is focusing on narrower and narrower parts of the agenda and not really thinking about the bigger picture. The problem is ultimately much, much bigger than the Lib Dems. We have a horrendous political culture in this country which the party has traditionally claimed to not be a part of but which now is in danger of consuming it whole. But at the same time, that culture itself is starting to fall apart, with the banking crisis, the expenses scandal and the media hacking scandal. Something very scary but potentially wonderful is happening out there but the Lib Dems are stuck in a bubble effectively propping up the status quo – at best gently reforming it on the inside but all too often being changed by it. I worry that so much energy is being put into keeping the good ship Liberal Democrat afloat at the precise moment that a new generation is experimenting with flight.
None of which is to say that I can honestly tell you that there are better alternatives to parties as a means of democratic participation. But if you content yourself with being a member of the “least worst” party working within the “least worst” system then I contend you aren’t ever going to achieve very much to be proud of. I need to think about alternatives for a bit and if I can’t find something better I might at least be able to come up with some ideas and approaches that the Lib Dems might adopt.
All of this must come across as horribly abstract but, as I say, I didn’t leave because of policy X or Y; it’s been an accumulation of things. I’ll no doubt return a few times to what specific problems I have with the Lib Dems at the moment but for now this will have to suffice.