I’m in the odd situation of having a vote in the Labour leadership elections via my union, but having much more interest in the Lib Dem contest (and no vote). A lot of this is because I know the players individually, but at least part of it is because the debate isn’t being framed in the depressing and soul-destroying way the Labour one is. Are they really going to spend the next three months arguing about Tony Blair, how much they hate poor people and how much they love rich people? Save me.
The Lib Dem discussion is much more positive. Up to a point. Thus far, I’ve seen them obsessing too much over policy, which isn’t going to be decided in this election, and largely ignoring strategy, which is the main issue that will be decided. I’ve heard much more about strategy from Farron than Lamb, and that’s to his credit. But he hasn’t fully addressed my concerns from four years ago about his take on organisation (he has to some extent with his talk of learning lessons from groups from 38 Degrees); and significantly, his grand vision of reviving community politics didn’t actually come to much, and I’d like to hear him account for that as well.
But at least he’s talking about it. I’ve heard significantly less about organisation from Norman Lamb, and that’s troubling because the party he hopes to take over is going to have some crucial organisational tasks ahead of it.
There’s been a subtle but persistent campaign from Lamb supporters to attack Tim Farron on policy grounds. They like to post articles on their social media pages about how you can’t trust him because he abstained in certain votes in the House of Commons on same sex marriage, and his wobbliness on assisted dying. All of this is wrapped in a crucifix-shaped bow. Because, ahem, you know, he’s a Christian (nudge nudge, wink wink). Speaking as a pretty anti-clerical atheist, I find that somewhat distasteful.
This goes hand in hand with an emphasis on what a great, or indeed true liberal Norman Lamb is:
The term “true liberal” brings me out in hives. There is of course the implication that Tim Farron fails some kind of purity test; attacking a Christian for failing to have the right values is almost too ironic for words. But there is also the sense that this is a continuation of the ruinous direction the Lib Dems have gone over the past 8 years.
People have rightly been praising Charles Kennedy’s legacy over the past week. It’s refreshing to hear, because under Nick Clegg’s leadership, we had a steady trickle of articles and comments implying that Kennedy had achieved nothing but corrupt the Lib Dems from its true purpose. Indeed, Richard Reeves famously called on social democrats and social liberals to leave the party and join Labour; far from distancing himself from this proposal, Clegg would go on to make him his Director of Strategy for the first two years as Deputy Prime Minister.
For years the senior party line informed us the history of Lib Dem philosophical thought was this: a century of unbroken tradition in the vein of Mill and Gladstone; something something welfare state (shrug); 20 years of social democrat muddle and confusion following the party merger in 1987; a return to our liberal roots with Nick Clegg’s election in 2007.
In fact, the intellectual schism happened almost a century earlier; whatever your views on Gladstone, he would never have had any truck with the 1908 People’s Budget. As the Liberals struggled with how to respond to the rise of Labour, they went on to spend decades locked in ideological debates between the “new” (social) liberals and classical liberals (who, to make things more confusing, are often regarded these days as “neoliberals” or describe themselves as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative”; so much for terminology). This sort of, kind of ended when the National Liberals split in 1931 and slowly merged into the Conservative Party. Obviously, you can’t sum up the entirety of Liberal history in a sentence, but the attempt to paint “social democracy”, which all too often was used as code for our proud social liberal heritage, as an alien and recent intrusion was one of the more disturbing aspects of the Clegg era.
When I see talk of “true liberalism,” I see a continuation of this trend. Liberalism is a broad and messy philosophy, in which often there is no absolute right answer. A “true liberal” appears to work on the premise that this isn’t the case. I’ve learned to deeply distrust “true liberals”. In saying this, I’m aware that I’m open to charges of hypocrisy, given that I’ve argued in the past that the Lib Dems have cast the ideological net too wide in embracing classical liberals alongside social liberals; but it is because I accept that it is a broad philosophy that I reject the notion that there can be such a thing as “true liberalism”. By all means argue that the party should have a narrower ideological base, but doing it from the position of there being only “one true way” is just going to get you into inward-facing ideological rows.
This isn’t just a philosophical debate; it goes to the heart of the direction the party is likely to take. Farron apparently fails the purity test when it comes to same sex marriage. I have to admit that I too probably fail this test. I’d have almost certainly voted for it – just look at who was against it – but I’m ambivalent about state-institutionalised marriage in general (which doesn’t seem very liberal to me) and I’m very alert to a disquiet amongst some of my queer friends about the presumption that the only way their relationships can be viewed as equal is if they adopt a hetero-normative standard. But the biggest reason why I feel a little ambivalent about this policy, which Lib Dems are keen to trumpet as one of their achievements in government, is that prior to the draft bill being published, a senior Lib Dem told me that the party’s support for Tory benefit cuts was part of a deal, with them getting same sex marriage in exchange.
It isn’t that I’m some naive fool who was unaware that the coalition partners did policy deals while in power; it’s the nature of this particular deal. Was that really an exchange in which liberalism was the victor? Gay rights are important, but more so than the poorest and most vulnerable in society? More to the point, some of the most vulnerable people living on the poverty line are young queer people. Was it right to limit access to benefits for poor, vulnerable queer people in exchange for expanding the rights of (all things being equal), more affluent, middle class queer people?
The honest answer to that is, “I don’t know”. It’s complicated; not least of all because the symbolism of the same sex marriage legislation was so significant. My reason for mentioning this anecdote is less about the decision itself, which was almost certainly more complicated than just “cuts versus same sex marriage” in reality, but the cut and dried answer I got from the aforementioned senior Lib Dem. For him, it was simple. For many Lib Dems, it is equally black and white. It’s pretty clear to me that that isn’t the case with Tim Farron; is it with Norman Lamb?
Clegg had a simple answer to every problem. He couldn’t have adopted the phrase “there is no alternative” as his personal mantra more if he had had it tattooed on his forehead. If he was ever burdened with self-doubt, he was excellent at getting over it lightning fast. He surrounded himself with people who shared his world view and he confidently strode forward, completely assured that he was wholly and completely right. And yet it turned out he was wrong. Repeatedly.
Norman Lamb seems keen to present himself in the same mould and to be fair it is likely to be popular, especially in the Lib Dems who, if you’ve ever been to a party conference, you can attest love their heroes. But I wonder if that combination of narrow ideological purity and “steady as she goes” self-confidence is really what the party needs right now.
None of this is to suggest that Norman Lamb as leader would turn out that way; he doesn’t strike me as Nick Clegg Mark Two at all personally. That’s part of the reason why I find his campaign so alienating. As the party’s champion of mental health issues, he surely understands better than most how self-doubt shouldn’t be treated as weakness; to live with depression and anxiety is to live with one big ideological grey area – “true liberals” need not apply. I’m confident that there’s a less self-righteous candidate lurking under his campaign’s veneer; I just wish he showed it a little more.
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.
I’ve just come out of the Lib Dem Conference debate on Community Politics. Like most of the speakers, I’m pleased it was debated and support the motion, but am wary of the idea that passing the motion in and of itself has actually achieved anything.
We’ve actually been somewhere similar in the recent past. When Ed Davey became the Chair of the Campaigns and Communications Committee (the committee which oversees the party’s electoral strategy), he made a big thing about the need to rediscover community politics to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the Community Politics strategy motion passed by the then Liberal Assembly and the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Theory and Practice of Community Politics. I was flattered to be asked to write an essay for ALDC’s anniversary “update” of the Theory and Practice, which I went on to republish on this blog. But then nothing happened and the agenda moved on once again.
Why did it all fall apart then? Well, it is possible that the CCC Chair was not the right person to do it, whereas an ambitious and democratically accountable president has both more of an opportunity and more on the line to push the agenda forward, so there is reason to be optimistic.
But I worry that the other reason it tends to fall apart is that there is an inherent contradiction. And that contradiction Tim Farron entirely sidestepped in his speech today.
Gordon Lishman and Bernard Greaves were emphatic: “Community Politics is not a technique for the winning of Loca1 government elections.” This is the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first section of the Theory and Practice. Tim stated that this was the only point on which he demurred from the essay, and yet my reading of it is that is the main point Lishman and Greaves wanted to make. The essay as a whole has the air of exasperation, of two people who had come to realised they had helped create a monster and were desperately – futilely – attempting to put it back in its box.
What was that monster? It was the idea that you could take the ideas behind community politics, distil them, and turn them into a toolkit for winning elections. This warning was roundly ignored because that is precisely what the Lib Dems did. Labour, the Conservatives and even the BNP then copied them, and now we find ourselves in a position where those techniques are delivering ever decreasing returns on investment. Yet, at the same time, without anything else to do, they’ve been duplicated ad nauseum. Even Chris Huhne’s “report back” being handed out at this conference has stuck slavishly to the Focus template (it actually calls itself a Focus), complete with “Working all-year-round for you” and cheesy clipart “what the papers say” style boxes.
What the party does in by-elections has everything to do with this formula and nothing to do with actual community politics, as I outlined in my 2006 essay.
If our response to Tim’s call to arms today is to merely have another round of spreading new best practice on how to produce effective campaign literature, then it will ultimately be futile. We are in an ever-accelerating arms-race and the institutionalised resistance that Labour and the Tories used to have to such techniques when I first got involved in the party no longer applies. Simply stated: anything we come up with that works will be pinched within a matter of months.
What needs to be rethought is how our local, state and federal parties (and yes, as Jonathan Davies pointed out in his speech, Associated Organisations) actually engage with the public. That means, I would suggest, rethinking membership, rethinking candidate selection and rethinking policy development. It means looking at what our local parties can do to skill people. I’m quite serious when I tell people we ought to be taking a page out of the Alpha Course, and developing a ten week training course to teach people the basics of campaigning in their communities. We ought to be looking at what London Citizens have been achieving, and we ought to be going back to the source and looking at the community organiser movement in the States from whence came, among others, one Barack Obama.
In short, there has been about 30 years of development of community politics ideas which the Lib Dems, through our complacency and arrogance, have chosen to ignore because we didn’t invent it and because they weren’t by any stretch of the imagination about winning elections. If we learn those lessons, and its clear that many within Labour – lead by David Miliband – want their party to (although it appears to have come up against a lot of internal resistance), then I think we have a hope for survival. If we merely kid ourselves that it is about little more than using a different colour on our risographs then we might as well call the whole thing off, even if that does help mitigate a total meltdown in the short term.
I have to admit to coming out of the Lib Dem debate on 5-19 education feeling somewhat perplexed. After a complicated series of four amendments wrangling over the same bunch of lines, what the party has come up with seemed to be little more than a state commissioned figleaf scheme. Let me explain.
The motion as originally worded (negotiated on the Federal Policy Committee by, among others, Evan Harris MP) allowed faith schools but banned selection on the basis of faith. The amendment which was passed replaced this with the following commitment:
Requiring all existing state-funded faith schools to come forward within five years with plans to demonstrate the inclusiveness of their intakes, with local authorities empowered to oversee and approve the delivery of these plans, and to withdraw state-funded status where inclusiveness cannot be demonstrated.
As I snarked on the way out of the auditorium, what this amounts to is faith schools being free to discriminate, but will have their funding withdrawn if they discriminate.
In fact, however, it’s actually worse. Never mind the abstract debate, for me the acid test is the couple I know whose humanist wedding I attended who currently attend their local church every Sunday (along with their Orthodox Jewish neighbours) in order to ensure that their children are let into the local primary school. What would this motion, as amended, do about this closely observed hypocrisy? Absolutely nothing. My friends could stop going to church, not be able to send their children to the local school, be able to demonstrate the school is non-inclusive and have the school’s funding scrapped (in so doing, harming the education of lots of other children). Or they can keep quiet, go to church and act as a figleaf for the school’s “inclusive” policy when the inspection comes. Stick your head above the parapet, and you might be able to claim revenge eventually. But it is in your child’s interest to keep your head down and be a part of the lie.
What is most crazy about all this is that many of the best faith schools out there don’t have exclusive selection policies; ending discrimination on the basis of faith only affects a hardcore. Yet speaker after speaker in the debate claimed that the motion unamended was an attempt to scrap faith schools by the backdoor. It was a grotesque libel perpetuated by, among others, Vince Cable and Tim Farron. What did they hope to achieve by making such ridiculous claims?
I strongly agree that schools need an ethos, and a religious one is better than none at all. A total ban on faith schools while broadening the range of organisations which can help run schools would mean that the National Secular Society and even Microsoft could sponsor a school while the Quakers could not. There are much worse organisations than religions that could end up running English schools under this policy.
But here’s the thing: I’m constantly hearing religious people out there banging on about the Golden Rule these days, that “heart” common to all religions which we are to believe makes them vital and moral things. Yet when you go along with all that, and merely ask for the ethic of reciprocity to extend to, well, everyone, all that nice, woolly tolerance suddenly vanishes. Suddenly asking them to not discriminate is an unacceptable position. Suddenly, far from the Golden Rule, the core of religion they want to preserve is the right to shut people out. And they dress this neat little package of discrimination up in talk about the need for “inclusiveness.”
It is no wonder that the supporters of the second amendment, which called for all faith schools to be phased out, are not prepared to take them at their word. The movers of this amendment repeatedly raised the issue of homophobia in schools and how difficult it is to grow up as a homosexual in a faith school, yet this issue wasn’t addressed. Rather than deal with this fearsomely important point, in an act of supreme irony the movers of the amendment were branded extemists.
As I’ve said before, I would rather ally with a liberal person of faith than an illiberal atheist. But liberals don’t condone intolerance. The message I got from the supporters of faith schools on Saturday was that intolerance is an integral part of religion without which faith schools would not be worthy of the name. Keep saying nutty things like that and I’ll join the barricades alongside Laurence Boyce.