farronforleaderIt feels odd to recall that the general election was just two weeks ago. It was a campaign where nothing seemed to happen, and then an election that pulled the rug out from under a lot of us and radically changed British politics. Two weeks ago, I was thinking that we’d be arguing over coalition wrangling right now, not a leadership election. Instead, we find ourselves with the party in the worst position its been in for at least four decades and the question we’re being asked is now a simple one of how do we survive this?

Leadership elections are often focused on issues of policy, tactics and organisation, because they can assume that the fundamental questions of party strategy and survival have been answered. The election has shown that we can’t assume that the Liberal Democrats will remain around just because we always have, but the result has shown that there is a greater need for liberalism in the UK, and if we don’t fight for it, then who will? Other parties may occasionally adopt the odd liberal policy, but that doesn’t make their cores any less authoritarian, and some may adopt liberal rhetoric to argue for illiberal ends, imagining that freedom can be reduced to nothing more than consumer choice but saying nothing about challenging unaccountable power.

The temptation at a time like this is to turn in on ourselves, contemplate our collective navel for the next year or two and then gingerly step back out onto the political stage with a suitably tweaked message and image. We could do that, and find that while we were away the Government has swept away the Human Rights Act, introduced mass surveillance of the entire population, slashed the welfare budget, put Britain on the path to an EU exit, privatised everything that’s not nailed down, and set in place the break up of the country. This is a time that liberalism needs to be bold and out there, defending rights, standing up for a fairer and more equal society and championing internationalism.

Whoever is the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, their main job for the next few years is to lead the fight for liberal values and build a liberal movement (not just a party) that can fight for those values. For me, the person who can do that better than anyone else in the party is Tim Farron. Watch his 2014 speech at party conference where he sets out the importance of liberal values in dealing with the issues we face now:

More than that, Tim understands that liberalism needs to be a proactive force, not just a reactive one. His call to build a new consensus is an important one and an understanding that politics shouldn’t just be about adapting to the current political situation and tacking from side to side within the current consensus, but seeking to redefine the tiny frame British politics is conducted within. If we’re serious about making liberalism relevant, the way forward isn’t to jump into the rapidly narrowing space between the other parties but to be proud and unashamed about making the case for truly liberal values.

Tim fits in with my vision of what liberalism should be and what it needs to be in the 21st century: an idea that stands up for people against unaccountable power in all its forms and an idea that challenges the assumptions of the political consensus, arguing for real change, and a better life for everyone. Liberalism should be out there challenging the status quo, insisting that there’s a better way, and building a wide movement to win that fight. As a party right now we need a leader who can campaign hard and push forward those liberal values.

Tim Farron is the right candidate at the right time for our party, and that’s why I’m supporting him to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.

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House_of_Lords_chamber_-_toward_throneMark Pack has news of a call for any Lib Dem appointments to the House of Lords to be used to bring more diversity to the Upper House.

However, I’m reminded of a suggestion I made a couple of years ago, and want to develop that further. What we should do as a party is quite simple: announce that we’re only appointing women to be Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords until we have parity in our group there. Obviously, I’d like to see the Lords abolished and replaced, but until such time (at least five years, as things stand) as that happens we should be taking steps to make our representation within there as representative.

I’d also suggest something else: our selected representatives should be people who’ve never been in Parliament before. Too much of the House of Lords consists of what’s little more than a comfy retirement home for ex-MPs (including those rejected by the electorate) and we should be casting our net much wider if we want to create a radical and diverse group in the Lords. Just putting more former MPs in there doesn’t do anything to promote a wider range of voices in the Lords, and we should be taking what few opportunities we have to do things differently.

Often debated here and elsewhere have been attempts to distill the nature of being a Liberal Democrat down into something simple and easy to understand. A couple of years ago, Alex Wilcock asked for suggestions to get it down to 150 words, but even that generated lots of different visions and visions.

Today, however, I think Jennie Rigg has solved it in a couple of sentences of her post on Lib Dem Voice suggesting a reading list for new members. It’s buried right down in the footnotes, but I think it’s a perfect insight into the party’s culture:

If you go for candidate selection, one of the questions you will be asked is “is there any part of party policy with which you disagree, and if so why?” If your answer is “no, I agree with all of it” you will be looked upon with deep suspicion.

Jennie has an aversion to writing for Lib Dem Voice but it’s clear to me that this is a ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ issue. If she can so easily define the party with two sentences, how many other deep-rooted issues could she solve with a casual remark?

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It occurred to me yesterday that I’ve never spent any significant time in the constituency of any party leader – I’ve passed through a few, but not been in any for a meaningful time – but that will likely change, assuming that Tim Farron or Norman Lamb is the next Liberal Democrat leader.

As MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Tim gets to represent a large chunk of the Lake District where I’ve spent plenty of time and will be back on holiday later this year. A constituency that includes Ambleside, Coniston, Windermere and Grasmere must be high up there on the list of constituencies most visited by tourists, but my favourite part of it is likely Langdale:

Westmorland from the Langdale Pikes

Westmorland from the Langdale Pikes


However, I’ve also been to Norman’s North Norfolk constituency several times recently, which contains some of Britain’s best-looking beaches, particularly the fantastic wide expanses of Holkham:
Holkham on a clear and cold day

Holkham on a clear and cold day


Whichever of them wins, I don’t think either of them will have trouble having good shots of them at home for the papers, or getting people coming to visit them in their constituency.

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Lib-Dem-logoThis is a long post – the version in my head is even longer – but it’s been gestating in various forms for a while and I wanted to get it out there while we’re thinking about the future of the party. To make it slightly easier, I’ve divided it into three parts – the first about the decisions the party made about its political positioning before 2010, the second about the decisions made with coalition and the effects they had, and the third about where we go from here.

Part 1: How did we get here?

‘Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it.’ If we’re going to look at where the party should go from here, we need to look at the process that brought us here, and for me that starts in the mid-90s as the party abandoned equidistance in favour of working more closely with Labour. Up until that point, our positioning had been best known by Spitting Image‘s Ashdown catchphrase: ‘neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere in between.’

However, after the shock of the 1992 election and the travails of the Tory Government that followed it, Paddy Ashdown began the process of shifting the party into being part of the anti-Tory bloc. This was rewarded with lots of tactical voting that led to the big by-election gains from the Tories, and also the party’s gains at the 1997 and 2001 general elections, only one of which (Chesterfield in 2001) came from Labour.

Things shifted after 2003 and the Iraq War. The party had already begun picking up council seats and councils from Labour, while losing ones gained before 1997 back to the Tories, but this accelerated, particularly in the North, culminating in a number of gains from Labour (and losses to the Tories) at the 2005 general election, coupled with a failure of the ‘decapitation strategy’ against senior Tories whose seats were perceived as vulnerable. After this, and particularly once Clegg became leader, the party began to move back towards ‘equidistance’.

That’s a simplified version of the strategy – there were lots of other currents going on at the same time – but I want to talk about it in general terms instead of getting bogged down in the details.

There’s a concept in the academic study of party systems, introduced by the late Peter Mair, called the structure of competition for government, which underlies other issues of the party system within a country. Part of it covers the way parties work together even while competing with each other in the electoral system. For example, in Sweden there are clearly separate left and right blocs of parties who tend to alternate with each other in government but a party from one bloc will not go into government with the other, while in the Netherlands, there are no clearly defined blocs so shifting between parties in government after elections is more fluid.

Britain’s post-war structure of competition was seen as being a very closed one, with just two parties competing for Government, and power alternating between the two. It had wobbled in 1974 and through the Labour government that followed, but reasserted itself in 1979. However, it broke down again after the 2010 election result, and we took the opportunity of that change to enter Government and formed the coalition with the Conservatives.

In the minds of many in the party, this was entirely natural decision. After all, we’d gone back to being equidistant between the parties, so we were free to choose whichever way we wanted to go, and there was no real way of forming a stable coalition with Labour. However, what I’d argue is that we catastrophically misjudged the mood of the public and their understanding of how the party system and structure worked. In their minds, we were still part of the anti-Tory bloc and so to line ourselves up with them was breaking our role in the system.

We’d convinced ourselves that returning to equidistance was right, but we’d failed to get that message over to the electorate – and indeed, our message to the electorate completely ignore that. In so many of our constituencies, we were fighting the Tories and putting out the message ‘vote for us to keep the Tories out’. Because the bulk of our seats were Tory-facing that’s the message the bulk of our voters got.

We also failed to notice that equidistant parties are incredibly rare in all political systems. People like to point at Germany’s FDP, but neglect to notice that they’ve only ever been in coalition with the SDP once, and that was over thirty years ago. The rise of the Greens as the SDP’s natural partner on the left since then made them a natural part of the CDU’s right bloc, not an equidistant party that can shift between the two of them.

There was a mismatch between the way we (especially the leadership) saw ourselves and the way our voters saw it. Joining coalition with the Tories exposed that rift.

Part 2: What the hell just happened?

It’s very easy to look back on May 2010 with 20/20 hindsight and imagine that everything that’s happened since then was entirely predictable. What we forget is that at the time nothing seemed predictable as the voters had delivered us into an entirely new political situation. Everyone was wandering in the dark and trying to guess the rules of this new political landscape, while the media – denied of the clear election result they expected – were howling at everyone to get on with it and give them something to report so they could move on to the next thing.

I still think the coalition was the least worst option available to us at the time and the other options on the table (confidence and supply, the rainbow coalition or just sitting it all out) would have led to a Tory majority government within 6 months to a year. However, I also think the process was ridiculously rushed and many parts of the decision-making process were made in the immediate post-election blur, rather than being discussed slowly and sensibly, giving much more time for a wider public discussion and a chance for us to assess the public mood.

The infamous Rose Garden press conference wasn’t a problem in itself. Indeed, it was probably a boon for the party in making Cameron and Clegg look like equals in the Government, and basic media management meant that they had to present a positive image at the start of the Government – imagine how bad it would have looked if they’d begun by looking like they could barely tolerate each other. The problem came with not seeing that as a temporary need at the time of establishing the new Government and instead taking that as the default mode for the party.

We completely messed up the politics of coalition. We were so determined to prove that coalition government worked that we let ourselves get caught up inside the machine and effectively went native. With a few exceptions, our ministers didn’t talk and look like liberals in government, but more like the government’s emissaries to the liberals. They decided their mission wasn’t to get as many of the wishes of the party and its voters into law, but instead to take what was decided by an increasingly remote government and attempt to persuade the party that that was it really wanted. Rather than justify compromises as the best we could get under the circumstances, we began talking about them as being somehow better than the position we started from and what we’d really wanted.

This led to the position of crowing about being ‘a party of government, not a party of protest’ which showed just how much wrong it was possible to combine into just nine words. The idea that these two ideas were polar opposites, the idea that the party was just about protest, the way it ignored the party’s role in local and devolved government over the decades, all combined to show that the leadership saw the party’s role as just another part of the beige consensus of the Governing Party of the elite consensus that dominates British politics.

All this led to the decision where we fought the election as a party of centrist managerialism, offering voters nothing more than the opportunity to split the difference between the two big parties. It’s not an inspiring vision, which can be seen by the way the slogans used to sell it kept changing. First ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ which then got ‘opportunity for all’ bolted onto it, which then was replaced by ‘Look Left, Look Right, Then Cross’ for the election broadcasts, which was then trumped by the ‘heart for the Tories, head for Labour’ gimmick which lasted till the final week of the decade when it was replaced by ‘Stability, Unity, Decency’ which sounded like the slogan of a dystopian dictatorship from Poundland.

The party forgot what it was for and the leadership tried to mutate it into something else during our time in government. The decision was made to let the necessities and limited possibilities of government define what our values would be rather than allowing our values to define what we would try and do in government. The message became a defensive one of managerialism and moderating other parties, rather than one of talking about what we wanted to do and what we stood for. We swallowed the managerialist mantra that the only thing people want from a political party is some form of nebulous competence, rather than making a liberal case for a liberal party.

Part 3: Where do we go from here?

I said on Friday morning that the election had been an extinction-level event. On reflection, it wasn’t quite that bad, but it would be easy to stumble on into extinction from this position. Centrist managerialism has been tested to destruction as a strategy and it has utterly failed. We’ve not just seen our number of MPs shattered, we’ve lost councillors across the country, slipped back to the fringes in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd, and gone down to just one MEP.

It’s the worst position the party’s been in since the 50s and 60s, and back then we were able to grow in a gradual way because we faced almost no competition as the old voting behaviours broke down. There were no Greens and no UKIP, and the nationalist parties were only beginning to gain a toehold in by-elections. Now, we’re in an intensely competitive electoral battle, and hoping to gradually accumulate while we sit in the middle being neither one thing nor the other is not going to work. We have to stand for something, and be seen to stand for something – we have to make liberalism mean something to the people again.

I’ve banged on repeatedly for the past year (because Conrad Russell’s not here to do it) about how we as liberals need to understand that liberalism is fundamentally about power, and specifically about challenging unaccountable power and putting that power back in the hands of the people. In his resignation speech, Nick Clegg talked entirely rightly about how we risk losing the argument to ‘the politics of fear’, and one of the things that drive that fear is the utter powerlessness people feel, which causes them to lash out and blame innocent others.

thorpetakepowerOur first big post-war breakthrough came in 1974 with the message ‘Take power. Vote Liberal.’ and we need something like that as our core message, but not just a crude libertarian understanding of power that sees it only as something that comes from that state. We need to show that we’re about helping people take power over every aspect of their lives, in the economy and in society, not pretending that government is the only problem. The best way to counter fears is to give people the power to confront them and realise that they’re not a threat, and we have to be the party that will help people take that power back.

Coupled with that, we need to be the party of hope, optimism and positivity about the future. That means being a party that gives people reason to believe that the future will be better than today for them and their families, not just somewhere with more gadgets to fill their increasingly small houses in the diminishing free time they have from their precarious employment. We need to be the party that talks about how science and technology can transform and change society, bring real opportunity to everyone to live the lives they want, and not be afraid of offering people a radically different vision of society. Let’s not be afraid to bring out all those old radical ideas to the public – land value taxation, basic income, drug legalisation and all the rest – and not just offer a vaguely liberal tinge to the current consensus.

To deliver this, we need to review everything about the way the party works. The structures we have now are essentially those laid down in the late 80s, a period when the idea of mass membership parties hadn’t quite died and the communications revolution driven by the internet hadn’t begun. Starting from a blank slate we need to ask ourselves the question ‘if we were setting up a liberal political party in 2015, what would it look like, and how would it work?’ There needs to be flexibility in the way the party works, coupled with a structure that trusts members to do the right thing and doesn’t just regard them as foot soldiers to be directed from the centre.

With just eight MPs, we’re going to need new ways of working. Already, the media are barely mentioning us and we can’t assume that making worthy speeches in the Commons is going to change that. We need to be a force outside of Parliament, building alliances and being part of campaigns that champion liberal values against a Government that’s going to ride roughshod over them. However, we also need to recognise that we can’t do this on our own, and will have to work with others – we’ve shown coalitions in government are possible, so we should be willing to push them in opposition. When we’re in agreement with others, we shouldn’t let tribalism get in the way of doing so, and perhaps we should be considering that we’re going to need to consider electoral alliances if we want to achieve the reforms we want.

I’ve gone on for long enough here, and this is just part of starting the debate about where we go from here. From my perspective, if we’re going to survive and thrive we have to be a radically-minded party that’s willing to be different and challenge the consensus. Liberals shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, and we’ll have to take plenty of them if we’re going to make this country a better place.

(If you’re still looking for things to read about the future of the party after that, I’d recommend David Howarth, Alix Mortimer and Jennie Rigg, but there’s plenty of thoughts out there right now)

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One of these days I’m going to start believing exit polls. I thought the 2010 one was wrong as there was no way we’d lose seats, and when tonight’s came out I joined in the chorus of people who thought there was no way it could be the correct result. If anything, it now seems to have underestimated the number of Tory seats,

I’m doing an exam about public opinion and polling a week on Monday. Might be time to shred a whole bunch of my notes and just scrawl ‘nobody knows anything’ across the paper, as that seems to be the message. Something happened that the polls completely missed, but I have no idea what that factor might be.

At the moment, there are just six Liberal Democrat MPs, a number we last had after the 1970 election, but was pretty much our default number during most of the 50s and 60s. We’ve still got local election results to come tomorrow, and given the absolute slaughter of our general election vote, we’re likely to face another long day of terrible news from around the country. And as I write this, the Colchester result has come through, and Bob Russell’s lost by over 5,500 votes. This is a potential extinction level event for the party.

But we can’t let it be that. The country’s now going to get to see just what we spent five years holding back as the Tories have their bare majority, and David Cameron has to govern while keeping the right wing fringes of his party happy. Watch in awe as the Human Rights Act goes, as welfare budgets are slashed, as housing associations are plundered and most of all, as we spend the next two years obsessing over Europe and wondering just why no one wants to renegotiate our EU membership. The Tory campaign has whipped up fear and division across the country, and now they’re going reap what they’ve sown with more than 50 SNP MPs sitting in Westminster, just waiting for the opportunity to make Scotland independent.

The country needs a strong liberal voice, and we need to make sure that we are still that voice, no matter how small the platform we have to shout it from. However, we first need to gather ourselves, to talk and think for a while and not rush into any decisions about the future, and that includes a leadership election.

To be clear, the responsibility for this catastrophe does lie heavily with Clegg and all those in the leadership who decided we needed to be a party of centrist managerialism, offering the public little more than an offer to moderate the bad things the other parties would do. But if you break something, it’s your responsibility to stay around and help with the clean up. Clegg can’t stay on as leader, but the last thing we need right now is to be plunged straight into a leadership election. He needs to stay on as effectively an interim leader to give us the space to have the reviews, the analysis and the discussions we need. This was not a conventional defeat, and we can’t respond to it in a conventional way. We cannot turn in on ourselves and fight over what little remains, we need to get ourselves together before we can work out where we’re going.

This isn’t the end, but we need to work harder than ever to get out of this hole.

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You may recall that when I started regular blogging last year, the spur for that was writing about Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. The key to Russell’s liberalism is that it is a creed that always challenges and seeks to break down unaccountable forms of power. The other side to that coin – and a key difference of liberalism and libertarianism – is the recognition that power isn’t solely the preserve of the state, and can be exerted on us by a number of unaccountable forces.

One of the main sources of unaccountable power in Britain is the nexus of it that exists in the City of London, where the City’s own cloistered system of government reflects the corporate and banking power that is exerted from there over all of us. It’s the sort of unaccountable power that needs to be confronted and challenged to make it accountable to the people whose lives it dominates, and yet much of British politics exists in its thrall, scared to offend it in any way. Which leads to this:

Not a challenge to the power of the City, the ‘markets’ or big business, but a capitulation to them, using their fears as a motivation to get people to vote. It’d be a weak message for the Tories to use, but for liberals to just roll over and willingly spread the message of an unaccountable few is just wrong.

We’re supposed to be a party that challenges power, that breaks it down and takes it back to the people. Instead we’re dancing to someone else’s tune in the hopes of a few crumbs from their table. We need to do better than this.

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