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 think your point on economic policy is crucial.
Not only do the LibDems need to spell out an economic philosophy, I think they need to work hard to make sure it is in some important ways distinct from Osborne’s approach. There’s still a knee-jerk tendency to focus on Labour, when it is mostly the Tories who hold the seats the LibDems will be targeting at the next election.