I don’t think I’ve ever been as appalled by UK politics as I am at this point. That the Leave campaign won the referendum on a pack of lies is a fact in this post-fact world that even its own leaders have implicitly acknowledged by their equivocations, downcast faces and vanishing acts. We are in the midst of undoubtedly the worst financial crisis since 2008, and the level of racist attacks appears to have skyrocketed, but the political and media class have locked themselves into Westminster to focus on their intrigues and petty rivalries. The journalists I follow on Twitter have never been more delighted by the Tory and Labour leadership crises, pigs in shit blithely ignoring the outside world as if it was an unwelcome distraction from the main event. Only Nicola Sturgeon and Tim Farron have shown a shred of political leadership since Friday. It has been gobsmacking to watch, and utterly repugnant.
While acknowledging that it is part of the problem, I don’t feel I have much to add in terms of analysis of the current state of the Conservative Party. A bunch of overgrown schoolboys have played around in politics as if it were nothing more than a game, and now appear to be waking up to the fact that the stakes were in fact very real. I don’t know how it will all play out for the simple fact that I have consistently underestimated Boris Johnson’s ability to survive from political crises of his own making. I don’t have any analysis of why this is; I’ve never understood his charms I’m willing to accept at this point that there are supernatural forces at play here and that only a beheading, stuffing the corpse with garlic and burying it at a crossroads has any chance of stopping him being elected and remaining Prime Minister for the next 50 years. I mean, he survived that Boris Bus debacle – how bad does it have to get?
On Labour, I have a little more to say. It has become painfully apparent over the referendum campaign that Jeremy Corbyn simply isn’t up to the job. He is incapable of commanding respect amongst the PLP, incapable of thinking strategically, incapable of making a good speech and incapable of seizing a political opportunity when it lands on his plate. The problem is, leaving aside the facts that a) there is no guarantee that they will end up with someone more capable, and b) the party has demonstrated it is incapable of any degree of unity for years now, I don’t think you can look at those results last Thursday and conclude that Corbyn is even Labour’s biggest problem. What we witnessed was a party that was incapable of reaching out to its own core communities outside of the major metropolitan areas scattered across England and Wales.
I’m grateful to John Harris’s reportage from around the country, showing the depth of alienation and utter contempt that people in the poorest and most deprived communities across the country have for Westminster politics. What we saw on Thursday, was those people flicking Westminster a massive V-sign. Yes, a minority have fallen for the Brexiteers’ lies and even turned to outright racism. But for the most part, it appears to have been as prosaic as the fact that if large swathes of the country aren’t seeing the (very real, very significant) economic benefits that the UK enjoys from immigration, free movement of people and its membership of EU, they are likely to see very little downside to voting to get rid of it all. They’re wrong, and I guarantee they will come to regret it as the economy tanks and Westminster opts to force them to bear the brunt, but I can understand the feeling all to well.
That it has come to this ought to be a wake up call. To his credit, it seems pretty clear to me that Jeremy Corbyn understands this, and understands that without a significant and meaningful redistribution of wealth the mood in those communities is only going to turn uglier. But it is equally clear that a significant number of Labour MPs don’t and see the solution lying purely in triangulation. It is plain to see that for an awful lot of Labour politicians, the solution lies now in adopting a string of anti-immigration and anti-free movement policies regardless of the bad economic case – just as long as they don’t look as punitive and nasty as UKIP. We’re in the scary situation right now where it is becoming apparent that the Tories are now busily building the case for a Norwegian-style relationship with the EU – where we accept free movement, the imposition of EU regulation and pay roughly the same as we do now but get none of the democratic rights we’ve taken for granted – while what noises we have coming from Labour is that free movement is unacceptable to them. With UKIP now a very real threat in their heartlands, the triangulators are prepared to make the Tories look like wishy-washy liberals when it comes to immigration – presumably in the full knowledge that this will only encourage UKIP and the Tories to push even further to the right.
Triangulation is not a new thing – when it comes to economic policy, it’s got us in a lot of the mess that we now find ourselves after all. But when it comes to immigration, it takes on an all new terrifying dynamic. We’ve already seen that a scary number of racist individuals and groups have seen the referendum result as a starting gun for a campaign of terror and intimidation (again, to be clear, I’m not saying all Leave voters are racist – just that all racists are Leave voters who now believe 52% of the country agrees with them). Imagine how bad that will get if we start seeing the sort of Dutch auction on immigration policy being proposed belligerently by the likes of John Mann and in more velvet tones by the likes of Tom Watson.
And of course, it almost goes without saying that it is simply not the case that this is an automatic vote winner. The SNP haven’t hoovered up Labour support in Scotland by adopting an anti-immigrant position – quite the opposite. Where people do see the economic benefits of immigration, anti-immigrant sentiment is way down. It wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn who persuaded Islington, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, to support Remain by 75%; it was the daily experience of living in an area with high immigration.
If Jeremy Corbyn had spent the last two months going around the country calling for England’s more deprived communities to better reap the economic benefits of the EU and immigration than they do at present (which to be fair to him he did say, sotto voce), then there’s at least a chance he could have turned it around. But it wasn’t just him. It certainly wasn’t a position being championed by Labour In – dominated as it was by centrists in the party. And while Jeremy Corbyn voluntarily gave up his opportunity to share platforms with David Cameron and use it to press him on this matter, it was the position of all the candidates who stood in last year’s Labour leadership election to adopt the same self-defeating no-platform policy.
I’ve been talking about Labour, but to be frank, this is the Lib Dems’ failing as well. While they don’t have the same platform in deprived northern communities that Labour enjoys, they too should have made this case. And if Tim Farron’s welcome stance to stand in the next election on a position of remaining a member of the EU is to reach out beyond the party’s metropolitan base, he too needs to be making the case for redistribution of wealth. This policy will prove a mistake if it ultimately amounts to little more than a plea for business as usual; the City has to be made aware that there is a price that it needs to pay.
Where do we go now? I have no idea. The whole situation is a bloody mess and while I’m sceptical that the markets can wait as long as Labour and the Tories want to get their acts together, we at least have a period during which the rest of us can allow the referendum result to sink in. I don’t think the United Kingdom is going to survive this. I wouldn’t especially begrudge Scotland for leaving us, and the only thing stopping me from saying the same about Northern Ireland is the fear of what might happen if the unionist communities there feel they are being abandoned to their fate. My hope is that the political system of what country remains will be able to crawl out of the quagmire that it is in now, but I’m very scared that the situation is going to get much worse, and much more violent, before we finally turn a corner.
A week after being elected as the House of Lords Parliamentary Party’s representative to the Lib Dem Federal Executive, Chris Rennard has resigned – effectively forced out after Tim Farron publicly called for him to go. Farron’s statement itself followed a demand by more than 200 Lib Dem members for a special conference to debate the issue. I meant to blog about this a few days ago, so now I’m coming to the topic the storm appears to have passed, but I think there are wider implications worth reflecting on.
First of all, well done Tim Farron. Perhaps it is a low bar by which to compare him, but Nick Clegg in similar circumstances would almost certainly have shrugged his shoulders and sat on his hands.
Secondly, well done to the Rock the Boat team. I don’t think anyone really wanted a special conference to resolve this, but if it had not been threatened then I suspect there would have been far greater pressure on the leadership to just let it slide.
I’m not interested in revisiting the whole Rennard Saga here; suffice to say that several of the women who made allegations against him are my friends, I believe them and I knew about the allegations for years before they were made public. They kept quiet, in part out of loyalty to the party and, contrary to some of the allegations being made by some of Rennard’s supporters, had no motivation to go out and damage the party when they decided to go to the media about it. And, despite the attempts by some to present this as some kind of Benny Hill sketch, we were not talking about pinched bottoms here, but genitalia being groped in the most degrading manner. This is important to emphasise, because these are the allegations which Alastair Webster described as “broadly credible” and which Rennard himself semi-apologised for being an “inadvertent” encroachment of personal space.
The one thing that everyone involved appears to agree with is that the Alastair Webster investigation into these allegations was a botched affair, admittedly in no small part due to the absurd disciplinary rules which dictated that for action to be taken the allegations had to reach the criminal standard of proof, as opposed to the balance of probabilities. In this regard, we have seen no justice done. Rennard himself can hide behind Helena Morrissey’s comments about the case as much as he likes, but without a process anyone has any faith in, or even the tiniest degree of contrition on his part, he simply cannot expect people to let him off the hook. The women who made these allegations have now all resigned the party. If allegations of his nature had been found “broadly credible” by a formal investigation into my conduct, I would personally have been mortified and followed them.
As it stands, Rennard has made it perfectly clear that he isn’t going anywhere. Without wishing to invoke Pyrrhus of Epirus, don’t rule out Rennard standing for the one-member-one-vote Federal Executive elections next year, and if he does then he will certainly be elected with substantially more than the 6.25% of the vote he will require to get a seat; I wouldn’t rule him out getting elected with the most first preference votes. As anyone who understands the single transferable vote system knows, that’s a pretty meaningless accolade – it wouldn’t make him any less the most hated candidate as well – but it is certainly something he will gleefully use to defend his position, and forcing him out will be substantially harder than it was this time. So while today’s resignation is a victory, it will possibly prove to be merely a reprieve.
As for the Lords Parliamentary Party more widely, I think the party is now waking up to a problem that may ultimately cause it even greater headaches in the long run. In short, the Lib Dem presence in the House of Lords is now 14 times larger than its presence in the House of Commons. The Commons team has little prospect of shifting a single vote this Parliament; the Lords team will enjoy a deciding role in every single vote. Their status and capacity will dwarf our MPs, and that’s a bad place psychologically for the party to be in.
What we saw last week was a power play; an attempt to put a leader, who they don’t especially like very much, squarely in his place. I suspect they were bolstered by the outcome of the tax credit vote a fortnight ago, in which the party was loudly cheering them on. It was crass, ineffectual and ultimately has made them all look very stupid (despite him winning his election by 2 votes to 1, not a single peer has come out and publicly defended their decision to back Rennard; although I understand that Tony Greaves has been making noises on Lib Dem forums), but don’t expect them to back down now.
I’ve always struggled with the mindset in the Lords. Its members always have the air of philanthropic paternalism, great eminences who have deigned to take an interest in mortal affairs. The fact that they are all there because of political patronage, is barely reflected upon. I’ve been involved in politics long enough to see the transformation, from loyal happy-clappy, nodding-dog committee tourist to grand independently minded (of course!) Lord of the realm, happen several times. The pomp and circumstance, the history and the chance to decide on important matters of legislation all contribute to entrench in them an almost messianic mindset.
This almost religious atmosphere is only shattered when they are forced to think of themselves in terms of real life. When I was on the Federal Executive, the Lords all-but downed tools over attempts to block them from working as multi-agency lobbyists and taking the Lib Dem whip. The common refrain was that they needed to work in public affairs because otherwise they’d be force to live a life in penury. By contrast, when the other big internal party of the day on whether to hold elections for Lib Dem peers was discussed, another refrain was that peers had to be independently wealthy to be able to afford to spend time in the Lords. Of course, as a matter of fact both claims were nonsense; pro-rata their daily allowances vastly exceeds the London median wage, and that’s before you take into account travel expenses.
What I’m suggesting here is that there is something fundamentally unhealthy about appointing people for life to sit in a legislative chamber. It inculcates a sense of entitlement and privilege which should have no place in our political system; it corrupts. As a party we ought to be wary of this.
Does it mean going as fair as the Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau has gone in Canada and withdraw the whip from them all? I can see some merit in that, but also a lot of risks – especially with the Commons party now so small. But I do think that our constitutional structures need to better reflect the fact that peers are unelected, and that that is a problem.
Personally, I’d like to see the appointees of the House of Lords PP to various internal committees as subject to a veto by the committee itself. If the Lords are going to play games like they did last week and attempt to impose someone who the leader has already stated he can’t work with, then we shouldn’t find ourselves in a constitutional crisis; the committee should simply tell them to think again. And this should apply to anyone, whether they are someone who has several allegations of sexual misconduct made against them, or simply someone who is a bit of an idiot. The purpose of the FE, Federal Policy Committee and others is to conduct party business in a professional manner; they don’t have time for stunts. Otherwise all that will happen is that those bodies will cease to be the ones where the real decisions get made, as we already see far too much is the case for the FE (in no small part, ironically enough, due to the way Chris Rennard conducted himself when he was the party’s chief executive).
The peers themselves vigorously opposed attempts to hold internal elections for Lib Dem appointments to the House of Lords; ironically, if they hadn’t done so, that would have increased their own political standing within the party. As it stands, while we should be grateful for their work in providing a bulwark against grotesque government legislation, we must be equally robust in opposing any further attempts by them for the tail to wag the dog. The alternative will be a party that continues to look out of touch and is more in love with being the whiggish occasional voice of calm within the establishment rather than a radical force for change.
The government rhetoric about the House of Lords’ threat to derail their cherished plan to cut tax credits has been extraordinary over the last few days. To believe it, you would have to think that we are in the deadlocked position Parliament found itself between 1909 and 1911, when the then Liberal government attempted to force through David Lloyd George’s so-called “People’s Budget,” which established the foundations of the modern welfare state and, less successfully, sought to introduce a new system of taxation based on land values. It resulted in a constitutional showdown and eventually the Parliament Act 1911, which limited the powers of the Lords and sought to eventually replace it with a chamber “constituted on a popular basis”.
Then, the landed gentry clubbed together in the Lords to thwart a popular mandate for a more caring system of welfare for the working poor. Now, the Conservative government (which includes a number of members of the landed gentry) are throwing a hissy fit because our semi-reformed House of Lords is threatening to block an attempt to penalise the working poor. We aren’t talking about legislation here, which the Parliament Act prevents the House of Lords from being able to block, but an unamendable and thus unscrutinisable statutory instrument, which the government could retable the very next day if it wished to. In the past, governments have got extremely frustrated by the parliamentary ping-pong which has necessitated when the House of Lords and House of Commons disagree. Here, the government is losing its shit before the first serving volley has been fired.
I suspect this rather shrill reaction has more to do with George Osborne’s insecurities – possibly related to him seeing his future Prime Ministerial career retreating into the sunset – than it has to do with any true constitutional outrage. It was therefore extraordinary to hear this morning that Corbyn’s Labour have already capitulated. Of course, it is reasonable for Labour and the Lib Dems to have a fall back position to support if the crossbenchers are not prepared to support the fatal motion to kill the SI; but to go one step further and adopt the Tory position on constitutional sclerosis is bizarre. This puts Jeremy Corbyn in the odd position of a man who won’t bend the knee before the Queen but is all too eager to prostrate himself before the Prime Minister.
It should not be too hard to see that the Tory position on this is all bluff and bluster. The Tories can’t unilaterally suspend the Lords, as they were suggesting a few days ago. To change the powers of the Lords would require a new Parliament Act and re-open the can of worms on Lords reform, which they insisted was not a priority three years ago. To stuff the Lords with Tory peers would be an act of political suicide; it would make democratic reform of the Lords almost inevitable and make Cameron and the Tories look like the most corrupt administration in parliamentary history; don’t forget that even the Liberal threat to do the same in 1911 was part of an electoral pledge in the face of an overwhelming majority of flagrantly self-serving hereditary peers sitting in the Lords. Even Cameron cannot believe he is in the same position, not matter how great his powers of wishful thinking might be.
If this is their threat, I say bring it on. Fortunately, so does Tim Farron. I’m baffled that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t similarly energised at the prospect; just what is the point of him?
This week marks the 20th anniversary of my joining the Liberal Democrats, an anniversary somewhat marred by the fact that I ceased to be a member between March 2012 and July this year. I rejoined following Tim Farron’s election as party leader, but I haven’t exactly bounced back into things. I’m still not over my political depression; my head says I should get back involved, but my heart still isn’t in it.
Farron has had a pretty low profile over the summer, but that’s fairly understandable given a) the need for a bit of post-election recuperation and b) the Corbyn phenomenon. And much has been written speculating about whether Corbyn represents a problem or an opportunity for Farron, who was widely perceived as wanting to shift the Lib Dems over to the left.
I didn’t go to Lib Dem conference this year, or watch it from afar especially closely. It seemed like a fairly typical post-election conference, focused mainly on housekeeping (adopting one member one vote, rejecting the “leader’s veto” on policy) as opposed to policy. The only substantial policy announcement I picked up on was Norman Lamb’s proposal for local authorities to have the power to raise taxes for local healthcare, which sounds potentially interesting but I’d need to see more detail.
I did however decide to watch Tim Farron’s speech. It was as accomplished as I expected it to be. I’ve seen people describe it as the best Lib Dem leader’s speech ever, or at least in “50 conferences” and I don’t think that’s far off the mark. Whatever other challenges the Lib Dems face, I think they have the best rhetorician of all the other UK party leaders right now.
If only that were enough. In terms of substance, I think the speech was fine. Excellent in places but lacking in theme and fairly dire in others. It showed potential, but it also highlighted some dangers. For what it’s worth, here are my “reckons” about the state of the Lib Dems right now:
Corbyn is the great unknown
I simply don’t know how the Corbyn phenomenon is going to play out. Like most people, I didn’t see it coming, although I understand all too well what has motivated it. A significant part of me really wants Corbyn to succeed. I technically had a vote in the Labour elections having registered as a union supporter (I felt entitled to vote given that I voted Labour in the General Election), but I didn’t cast it as I subsequently joined the Lib Dems and didn’t feel it was appropriate to vote in another party’s elections. If I had done so, to the consternation of my Labour family members, I’d have had to vote Corbyn 1, Kendall 2, Cooper 3. He was without question the most able to lead given the choice, but the choice was so limited – a fact that the anti-Corbynites within Labour seem incapable of accepting, let alone understanding the implications of. I agree with much of what he’s had to say, especially on economics.
I don’t think he’s going to succeed, and strongly doubt he will fight the next general election as leader however. Part of this, depressingly, is because the media and political class just won’t allow it. Some of that, however, he can simply shrug off. I suspect that the attacks on his republicanism, atheism and, gah, alleged lack of patriotism, will ultimately bounce off him and have the positive effect of opening up the amount of political space available to republicanism. But while I think the media’s capacity to destroy him is often overstated, the attacks from within his own party will be harder to deflect. I just don’t see him surviving in an environment where loyalty is so thin on the ground. Some of that is his own fault, but much of it is rooted in pure spite from his enemies within the party.
But the other major factor is the hard left which elevated him in the first place. I can’t see a large body of people who pride themselves on their unyielding inability to compromise as capable of finding any accommodation for people within Labour whose views are not identical, let alone moderate their own platform in the interest of finding common cause with floating voters. And that’s the ones actually in Labour; in my own social network I know of far more vocal Corbyn supporters who are actually Green Party members – and have no intention of even voting Labour let alone joining – than I know of ones who have actually decided to back him up from inside of the party.
In the long term, I have high hopes that a new generation of “soft left” Labour activists and politicians will emerge from this current situation who will be capable of steering their party back to principled electability. Over the next couple of years (at least) however, we are likely to see the hard left and Blairite hard right tear themselves to pieces.
What this represents to Farron is a headache, and a much more complex one than the simplistic media analysis that Corbynite Labour will cost the Lib Dems in left-leaning voters. Labour faces years of instability and until it has settled, settling on a Lib Dem approach to Labour – regardless of what is should be – will be futile. In short, Farron currently faces his own Kissinger Question: if he wants to talk to Labour, who does he call?
Farron should own the coalition – up to a point
The leftwing media has made a lot out of the fact that Farron failed to disown the coalition in his speech, with some even claiming it amounted to a u-turn. This is of course nonsense on stilts. In his ownership of the coalition years, Farron’s position on Wednesday was precisely the same position he adopted before the election and during the leadership contest.
He didn’t list all the things the Lib Dems in coalition did wrong, partly because it would have been dull, partly because – as a rebel in several key votes – it was redundant (not for nothing did a “senior” Lib Dem describe him as a “sanctimonious, god-bothering, treacherous little shit”), and partly because it would have resolved nothing except invite pious members of the commentariat to write endless screeds about the Lib Dems’ failure in government.
Ed Miliband has rightly been criticised for failing to stick up for Labour’s record in government and Farron has almost certainly learned from this. But there is actually an even stronger imperative for the Lib Dems to stick up for themselves here. In short, the Tories’ are doing much of the Lib Dems’ job on detoxification for them. Every time the Conservative government does something heartless and cruel – which let’s face it happens almost daily – the Lib Dem response is that they spent five years stopping precisely this sort of thing.
I say all this despite the fact that personally I found many of the Lib Dems’ actions in coalition to be unacceptable and driven by Clegg’s own ideological zeal rather than the need for compromise. That problem has mainly been nipped in the bud by the fact that however much Farron might personally like Clegg, he is a very different person. He does however need to engage at some point about some of the strategic failures of the Lib Dems in coalition, and make it clear that any future period as a junior partner in government won’t lead to the same mistakes being made. Clegg’s insistence on strict collective responsibility in areas beyond the scope of the coalition agreement, and the ceding of key decision making to the so-called quartet were particularly problematic. Farron should of course be open to coalitions in the future, but should rule out a return to the Rose Garden.
Equidistance should end – but when?
My and many others’ support for the coalition with the Conservatives was very much predicated on one thing: that it was a one-off. It was unique because we found ourselves in a position whereby coalition with Labour was both arithmetically and politically impossible at a time of heightened economic uncertainty. It was assumed that Labour wouldn’t go on to collapse so completely that the Tories would go on to not only gain seats at the next election but form a majority (back in May I thought that Labour’s inability to challenge the Tories meant that with the benefit of hindsight the coalition had been a mistake; now, with Labour facing even more instability for the foreseeable future, I’m not so sure).
A case can be made that going into an election promising to prop up a defeated and deflated Labour government in 2010 would have been a major mistake; somehow however this has mutated into a position of permanent equidistance. Nick Barlow has explained in detail why this would be a mistake and that from a purely pragmatic perspective, an anti-Tory strategy is far more likely to deliver electoral success. I have to admit that the sooner the Lib Dems end up back in this position, the happier I will be.
The question however, is timing, and the reason for that is again Jeremy Corbyn. We do not yet know whether Corbyn is to be an acrimonious flash in the pan or has real staying power. If Farron had announced the end of equidistance on Wednesday, it would have been grossly premature and signalled such a massive change in direction that it would quite possibly backfire. Corbyn needs to be able to demonstrate he has the capacity to lead a major political party, or be replaced by someone who can, before the Lib Dems can seriously consider ending equidistance; and Farron needs to pick his moment well. It was after all three years between the Chard speech and the Lib Dems’ formal adoption of the position.
Being pro-Europe is not enough
The weakest sections in Farron’s speech were the ones where he attacked Corbyn directly. That’s not because I don’t think he should criticise the leader of the Labour party but because they were ineffectual. These criticisms centred around his Euro-scepticism and his economic policy.
On Europe, Farron defined the Lib Dems as the “No ifs, no buts” pro-European party, and there’s nothing wrong with being pro-European in principle. In practice however, regardless of the upcoming UK referendum on whether to remain in it, the EU is currently tearing itself apart. While Corbyn might be coming from an anti-EU position, his proposal that Labour should not accept the debate around EU reform on the Tories’ terms is not a bad one, and reform is coming regardless of what David Cameron wants – whether it is due to countries such as Greece straining at the policies being imposed at is, or the hundreds of thousands of people currently marching through the Schengen agreement and the EU’s complacent position on immigration and supposedly sharing the burden of humanitarian aid. The EU is currently not a thing to be especially proud of; a bit of ambivalence about the EU right now is not only looking awfully sensible and patriotic, but the pro-European position to take.
It was a missed opportunity for Tim Farron not to reflect on that in preference to a couple of jibes at Corbyn’s expense. And in this respect, he is very much Continuity Clegg, who never looked more like a fully signed up member of the establishment when he took on Nigel Farage in 2014 defending the status quo instead of articulating what a liberal vision of the EU looks like.
The urgent need for an economic policy
On a similar note, Farron’s main charge against Corbyn was that he indulges in “fantasy economics”. In doing so, he legitimises the current economic status quo. David Boyle has more to say on this and I’ll try to repeat him here.
The initial hug-them-close strategy of the Lib Dems in coalition had devolved by the halfway mark into a more businesslike arrangement, but at its heart, Clegg and Alexander insisted, was an acceptance of Osbornomics. The idea was that the Lib Dems would share the credit for the economic recovery.
The problem was of course, that it was nonsense. Faced with a choice between the authors of the economic policy and its cheerleaders, voters quite reasonably opted for the real deal. All Clegg achieved by insisting that there was no alternative was to argue his colleagues out of their seats.
Describing Corbyn’s position as fantasy is a luxury a party lacking an economic policy of its own cannot afford to do. If, hope against hope, the party goes onto adopt an economic policy of its own, any similarity to Labour’s position risks being portrayed as at best a u-turn, at worst, the very fantasy that Farron himself had been condemning up until that point.
By all means, I’d love to hear a Lib Dem critique of Corbynomics, but so far all we’ve heard is insults. The truth is that the Lib Dems have survived for decades without a meaningful economic policy of its own, other than a bit of fiscal jiggery-pokery. For Farron, it needs to be the number one priority if he truly believes in the social justice he has staked his leadership on.
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.