Tag Archives: nick-clegg

My current reckons on Tim Farron and the Lib Dems

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.

Why the Lib Dems need to be saved from “true liberalism”

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:
Tom Brake endorsing Norman Lamb

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.

Thatcher: There is No Alternative

There was an alternative: three things the Lib Dems could have done differently

There are two post-election Lib Dem narratives doing the rounds. One is that the Lib Dems were doomed as soon as they entered coalition; that from 12 May 2010 until 7 May 2015, the party was stuck on railway tracks which inexorably lead to them going from 57 MPs to jut 8. The other is that while no-one believes the party would have come out of coalition looking popular, the party made a whole series of mistakes which would have mitigated the losses and resulted in the party still having dozens of seats rather than a handful.

I hold the latter view, but it does appear that fatalism has gripped an awful lot of people at the top of the party. Although I’m not a member and am not planning to rejoin, this troubles me because the last thing I want to see is the party simply go back to repeating history. There is a lot of talk about phoenixes (I’ve used the metaphor myself), but the important thing about the death and rebirth of the phoenix is that it is cyclical. Does the party really want to spend the next 20-40 years rebuilding only to make the same mistakes time and again? I don’t understand the point of a political party that doesn’t learn from its mistakes, and while I can understand why many aren’t really excited by the prospect of introspection right now, someone has to do it (far from it for me to suggest that no Lib Dems are having this debate; the Social Liberal Forum has published a whole series of articles exploring what went wrong, among other bloggers). The “keep buggering on” mindset arguably is as responsible for the scale of this defeat as anything else.

Here then are three specific examples where the Lib Dems could – and should – have done things differently.

Tuition Fees

I’m not going to rake over the coals of the repeated stand offs between Nick Clegg and conference over whether or not to keep the scrap tuition fees policy or the wisdom of parliamentary candidates, including Clegg himself, in signing those NUS pledges; nor am I going to claim that the Lib Dems were in a position where they could have argued for HE spending to have been protected in such a way that fees could have been kept at £3,000.

The crucial issue for me is the presentation of the policy itself. Specifically, why didn’t the party insist on replacing the fees system with a graduate tax. In many important respects the current system is a graduate tax in all but name. Vince Cable himself put it on the record that he was keen to explore this option as early as June 2010.

Why didn’t this happen? Well, the explanation has always been that the Tories wouldn’t let it. I’ve never bought that for several reasons. Firstly, Clegg, Alexander (and even Cable) were against scrapping fees and Clegg’s key advisor Richard Reeves was someone who was frequently antagonistic towards the left of the party. Secondly, the focus of that troika at the time was quite explicitly about hugging the Tories as closely as possible; their stated belief at time was that being seen to be united with the Conservatives trumped all other considerations. And thirdly, we were also told repeatedly that this was a flash in the pan issue, only of interest to the Lib Dem grassroots and student activists, and would be forgotten about by the time of the next election.

Clearly, the theory that there were few political consequences to breaking this particular election pledge has been tested to destruction, but at the time that looked pretty untenable as well. The 2009 expenses scandal had made trust a central political concern, so much so that Clegg himself had chosen to make it his core theme in the election campaign, with an election broadcast which began with the words “no student tuition fees“. The logic of the party’s own election campaign was that this sort of thing was unacceptable.

The Tories of course had good reasons for trying to undermine the credibility of the Lib Dems, but they had every interest in maintaining the stability of the government. If, as we are to believe, the option of a graduate tax really was pushed as hard as Clegg claims and he was rebuffed, then that in turn should have caused him to question the validity of the “hug them close” strategy (which he persisted with even after the AV referendum). It was simply a question of judgement and priorities for the senior Liberal Democrat team, and they made the wrong call.

The 2014 Annihilation

To the annoyance of a lot of my friends in Social Liberal Forum circles, I always believed that getting rid of Clegg and replacing him with someone else before the general election would have a limited impact, certainly if done too early. If Clegg had been replaced two or three years before the general election, as a number of people hoped, then his successor would have gone into the 2015 election almost as tainted and the party would have been open to the accusation of causing government instability in the name of self interest.

2014 however marked a new low for the party, where it had been annihilated in both the local and European Parliamentary elections. In London, it was quite shocking watching the party get wiped out overnight. Lord Oakeshott had commissioned a number of polls which showed that Clegg was a liability to the party and attempted a rather ham-fisted coup on the back of them; but you didn’t need those polling figures to tell you the blindingly obvious. Clegg was a busted flush. A new leader, punctuating a new direction for the party, would almost certainly have made a difference.

The party’s decision not to go down that route was highly depressing to watch. The reason it went into government was an admirable case of putting the national-interest above the interests of the party. The reason it didn’t ditch Clegg was focused more out of loyalty for the individual than anything else. That was neither in the party or the national interest, as the electoral consequences have now shown. Being told by Clegg on a weekly basis that “there is no alternative” had lead to a dangerous level of groupthink.

Of course, a coup would have been risky. But once again, it was in Clegg’s gift to do the right thing.

The 2015 Election Campaign

I don’t really know where to begin with the general election campaign itself. One of the things it had been impossible to avoid as a friend of several Liberal Democrats was that for the past two years they had been told that the secret to the party’s success was to stay on message, and that that message was to be “a stronger economy in a fairer society, allowing everyone to get on in life”. So it was a surprise to see that messaging get ditched at the start of the campaign in favour of “look left, look right, then cross” – a phrase which was as naff as it was meaningless. If I want slogans reminiscent of 1970s road safety campaigns, I visit Scarfolk; I don’t expect serious election campaigns to use them.

But the messaging was to get increasingly worse. First, we had the odd Wizard of Oz references to giving Labour a brain and the Tories a heart; cute, but again essentially meaningless. As the election date loomed and anxiety over the Scottish wipeout intensified, the focus on the Tories and Labour was relaxed in favour of dire warnings about what would happen if the SNP or UKIP have any influence over government. Then it was if someone had suddenly realised that the party had spent four weeks talking about everybody apart from themselves, so a new slogan was concocted, which was possibly the worst yet – “stability, unity and decency” – which managed to sound as crypto-fascist as it was uninspiring.

Clegg’s resignation speech lamented how the politics of fear had won the election. What he failed to mention is that he had spent the past couple of months stoking fear himself. The election broadcasts consisted of night-time road users cautiously attempting to cross roads in the face of speeding incoming traffic. The symbolism is simple enough to follow; a vote for anything other than the Lib Dems will have pant-wettingly terrifying consequences. But nowhere is there a real answer. We know we’re meant to think that the Lib Dems are the only good choice, but we aren’t told why.

Mark Pack has lamented how the ghost of 1992 and the endless talk of coalitions was revived in this election campaign. What I don’t understand is why Paddy Ashdown, leader in 1992 and election supremo in 2015, though it was a good idea. All the Lib Dem campaign did was to reinforce the Tories own messaging about the dangers of a government which Labour and the SNP have influence over. If you tell people to vote for the devil they know, don’t be surprised if they end up voting for the senior coalition partner.

All things being equal, it is very possible that even the best judged election messaging would have made very marginal difference to the election result, but by playing up the unrelenting doom, the Lib Dems were simply curling up and dying. Worse, the party has seen the dangers of appearing too establishment in the past; I’m thinking the 2007 Scottish elections and numerous council elections where the party has been in control as an example. I simply don’t understand why took the conscious decision to spend an entire election campaign trying to sound as uninspired and insidery as possible.

There is a very real risk right now that the Lib Dems simply “keep calm and carry on”. If they do, their hopes of revival are extremely limited. The question I have for the leadership election candidates is: which of the two of you is capable of taking control of your own destiny? Nick Clegg was extremely capable of presenting all his decisions as simply the only logical course of action, that any deviation from the road would lead to chaos and instant death. He surrounded himself with advisors that told him what he wanted to hear, presented every policy choice he took as effectively out of his control, presented every compromise he made as inevitable. In that respect, he could not be more illiberal: his politics was one in which agency had no part to play. It was summed up in his election campaign: straight ahead, with no deviation, in the face of everything which said it was time to turn.

The question Lib Dem members have to ask themselves as they decide which candidate to vote for is: does this man believe that the road back to power is a straight one of “obvious” choices, or a winding one with a series of crossroads. If they know what’s good for them, they won’t go for another leader who believes it is the former.