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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nusconferenceIt’s NUS Conference week, which in my time as a student meant it was the time of year when thousands of students (accompanied by the contestants in the Britain’s Most Obscure Trotskyite Sect competition) descended on Blackpool for a week of increasingly bitter political debate, badly organised elections, heavy drinking, the making and breaking of friendships, and the cultivation of a ridiculously over-inflated sense of self-importance. Nowadays it’s all different, as it takes place in Liverpool (even NUS doesn’t rate Blackpool as a conference destination any more).

To mark Conference, NUS tweeted out an infographic with a bunch of factoids about NUS Conference over the years, including a list of MPs who’ve been to one. Unsurprisingly, most of those MPs are Labour (see this post of mine for some explanation why) but there are also a few Conservative MPs listed (one of whom is Rab Butler, which gives you an idea of how far back they had to go to find them) and three Liberal Democrat MPs. The first two on the list are quite well known – Tim Farron, who was President of Newcastle’s Union Society, and Lembit Opik, who was President of Bristol Union and also served on the NUS NEC – but the third is the much more obscure Ian Cunningham MP. Indeed, he’s so obscure that he never actually existed.

There’s never been a Liberal Democrat MP called Ian Cunningham. There wasn’t a Social Democrat one called Ian Cunningham, and from what I can tell there wasn’t a Liberal MP since 1922 (the year NUS was founded) called Ian Cunningham. There doesn’t even seem to be an MP with a name similar to ‘Ian Cunningham’ who NUS could have got confused with.

In normal times, this would be something to be joked about, an embarrassing slip where a bit of filler text didn’t get deleted. But this is a time when NUS are running a ‘Liar, Liar’ campaign targeted at Liberal Democrat MPs – and in their own publicity, they’ve just made up a Liberal Democrat MP! ‘His’ name is right next to a whole bunch of NUS Presidents who became Labour MPs – Charles Clarke, Jack Straw, Jim Murphy, Stephen Twigg, Lorna Fitzsimons – and then voted both to introduce fees and then increase them, in direct opposition to their party’s manifesto, but does NUS publicity mention them at all, let alone criticise them?

NUS can criticise people all they like, but until they start getting their own facts right, they shouldn’t expect people to take them seriously.

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The 2015 Why Vote books

After discovering that the University library had Biteback’s ‘Why Vote 2015′ books on the shelves, I thought they might be interesting to read to get an idea of the parties’ policies and presentation before the official manifestos come out. This plan was somewhat scuppered by the library not having a copy of the Green book (which seems to have been produced after the others, possibly when they started rising in the polls), and the UKIP book having already been checked out for the Easter vacation by someone else. Still, that left me with three books to look at, and the probability of UKIP’s policy remaining the same between the manifesto launch and election day, let alone between the book and the manifesto, being rather slim.

However, even amongst those three, there’s a question as to how much two of them actually represent the policy of the party they’re ostensibly about and how much they’re just about the author pushing his own agenda and settling some scores. This is the problem with entrusting a book like this to a single author: how much are they going to let their own views eclipse those of their party?

whyvotelabThe one that doesn’t fall into this trap is Why Vote Labour, where Dan Jarvis has written the introduction and conclusion, but in between has got various Labour people, including several Shadow Cabinet members, to contribute chapters on their areas of interest. This makes both for a longer book than the other two, and a more interesting one as it can actually go into more detail in some areas, and you’re confident that what’s being discussed actually is Labour policy.

Some sections are more interesting than others, but I suspect each reader would have their own opinion on that. Personally, I found Stella Creasy’s chapter on people power and Steve Houghton on localism an interesting insight into the broader directions Labour might go in the future, while Rachel Reeves’ chapter on work was of her usual tenor in that one could imagine Iain Duncan Smith contributing a near-identical chapter in a Tory version of the book. The chapter titles – ‘An economy for all”, “Supporting modern families” and “Aspirational Britain: Empowering young people” amongst them – show the sort of studied slogan neutrality that mean they could just as easily be plastered on a podium from which David Cameron is speaking or a Lib Dem policy paper without change. There’s little in the book that’s too radical (assuming the claim that ‘Under Labour, our classrooms will be at the centre of a cultural revolution’ (p75) is a sign of someone not being up on their history of China) but it at least gives the reader an idea of Labour policy.

whyvotetoryBy contrast, Nick Herbert’s Why Vote Conservative is much more one person’s vision of what Tory policy should be. Herbert has been a Government minister during this Parliament – he was responsible for steering through Police and Crime Commissioners, amongst other things – but is now a backbencher, apparently because David Cameron didn’t share his view that he should be promoted to the Cabinet. According to Tim Montgomerie’s quote on the cover, it’s ‘a compelling reminder that the facts of economic, social and cultural life remain Conservative’ which only goes to show how easy it is to persuade him of anything. I found it more of a compelling reminder that for all Tories might talk about responsibility, they’re masters of whinging and blaming the problems of life on anything but themselves. Everything is either the fault of the previous Labour Government or occasionally, if the present one hasn’t achieved something, the Liberal Democrats, and it seems the Conservative Party only needs to take responsibility for good things.

The book is so dominated by blaming Labour for everything that you almost feel glad when he gets to a policy, except that policy is often just defined as ‘whatever Labour don’t do’ or appears to have been cut-and-pasted from a report by the Reform think tank Herbert used to run. What policy there is appears to be privatising anything that’s not nailed down then putting out a lucrative nail-removal tender before getting to the rest while stripping rights from everyone. Now, that may well turn out to be the Tory manifesto, but I suspect they’ll at least make a better job of presenting it than Herbert does here.

whyvoteldWhile Herbert is offering a slightly idiosyncratic take on Tory policy, his book at least bears some resemblance to the party’s actual policies. The same can’t be said for Jeremy Browne’s Why Vote Liberal Democrat. As Alex Marsh points out in his more detailed review of the book, Browne appears to be more interested in putting forward Coalition policies than Liberal Democrat ones, and the book feels more like an advocacy of voting National Liberal, but unfortunately published in a world where they no longer exist.

I’ve previously written about Browne’s Race Plan, and this is a better book than that but that’s mainly because it is – in the words of the old quote – both good and original. The parts that are good are pretty much Lib Dem boilerplate and could have been taken from hundreds of manifestos and party documents over the year, while the original parts are little more than Browne making the same points he does in Race Plan, with some added extra sneering at the Labour Party bolted on. As Alex puts it “the argument pretty much amounts to saying: scratch the surface of Ed Miliband and you’ll find Tony Benn underneath.”

The choice of Browne to write this book, and releasing it a long time in advance of a general election whose date has been known for some time, is one of the curious decisions that make these books a lot less useful than they could have been. As we know now, Browne’s not going to be an MP in the next Parliament, regardless of the result in Taunton Deane, and anyone reading his book isn’t going to find out much about what the party might want to do, or the range of opinions with it. Herbert’s still a backbencher, without much clamour heard for his return to Government, and these two books feel like they’ve failed to answer the question of their titles. It perhaps explains why Dan Jarvis is seen as a rising star of the Labour Party, in that he’s willing to work with others to deliver a vision, not assume that all people need to support his party is hear from him in more and more detail. If the others had followed that approach, then not only would their books have been more interesting, but their Governmental careers might have seen more success.

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Farron-hunting season continues: Vince brings a blunderbuss

Tim-Farron-007Good news everyone! Party HQ have dropped the ‘shut up and deliver leaflets’ instruction to anyone wanting to do something other than election campaigning and allowed a special dispensation. Yes, you’re now allowed to drop your laser-like focus on the election campaign and discuss a whole other topic. Unfortunately, the topic HQ appear to have chosen as the only other one suitable for discussion is ‘why Tim Farron should never be party leader’.

Or, to put it another way, Farron-hunting season is officially open, and now Vince Cable’s decided to bring a blunderbuss to it. The first salvo of attacks obviously didn’t have the desired effect of making us mere members spontaneously denounce the Farronite tendency and resolve to redouble our efforts to promote maximum loyalty to the leadership, so Vince has now scattered buckshot across the sky in an effort to bring down the dangerously popular Farron.

Ignoring his own advice that using negative tactics against someone who’s popular tends to be counter-productive and that there’s no need to talk about leadership elections because we already have a leader, he told Buzzfeed that Farron wouldn’t be ‘credible’ as leader because he’s “never been in government and has never had to make difficult decisions” which means that every Lib Dem leader before 2010 wasn’t credible, and neither were most of the members of the Cabinet Vince joined in 2010 (including himself). If ‘being in Government’ is a barrier to becoming a credible party leader, it also makes the leadership a bit of a self-perpetuating oligarchy, able to veto any new entrants by not bringing them into the Government, then claiming they don’t have the experience necessary because they’ve not been in Government.

It’s nice that they’re already rehearsing their lines for the leadership election that they’re sure isn’t going to happen, but maybe they could refrain from speaking them in public for a few weeks? Perhaps they should listen to the wisdom of a former Party President:

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Don’t expect Liberal Democrat poll ratings to go up during the election just because they always have

1992graph

The Lib Dems nearly always do better than their poll ratings said before a general election.

As David Boyle wrote in a recent post, anticipating that this will also be the case in 2015. (It’s not like David’s the first person to say that, and he likely won’t be the last, but he happened to say it on the day I felt like writing about the subject.)

It’s become a truism, often spoken by worried Liberal Democrat activists as a morale-booster to lift the hopes and the spirits as they see another set of polls recording the party in single figures and duelling for fourth place with the Greens. The election campaign will be starting soon, they eagerly say, and our poll rating always improves during the election campaign.

Unlike most political truisms, this one actually happens to be broadly true. If you look at the records of polling from 1970 onwards that are kept on UK Polling Report, there’s an uptick in Liberal/Alliance/Liberal Democrat voting intention in the last part of every graph, so it is true that Liberal Democrats have generally done better than the pre-election campaign polls suggest they would. And yes, I’m being careful to use the past tense there.

Two things worth remembering here:

  • Past trends do not indicate future performance
  • Trends in politics and other fields always continue applying right up until they don’t
  • At this point, I don’t know if the campaign will see a rise in Liberal Democrat support as happened in other general election campaigns, but given that there’s one major difference between this and those other campaigns, I think it’s misguided to just assume it will happen regardless.

    (I did have a look to see if I could find any academic studies on this, but couldn’t find any – please point me in the direction of any you know of)

    They key difference, of course, is that the Liberal Democrats have been in government for the last five years, something that wasn’t true at the time of any of the previous surges. Leaving aside issues of ‘party of protest’ votes, what this means is that the Liberal Democrats have been much more prominent in the media over the last five years than they have during previous Parliaments. Liberal Democrat members of the Cabinet and ministers are regularly in the news, and the party as a whole is getting much more coverage outside of election time than it ever has before. In short, voters are much more likely now to have much more information about the Liberal Democrats than they ever had before.

    One of these days I’m going to do a longer post explaining Zaller’s Receive-Accept-Sample model of public opinion, but for now it’s important just to note that one of the important determinants of how people vote is the amount of information they have about a party. In previous elections, most voters came into the election campaign knowing relatively little about the Liberal Democrats because the party’s dearth of mainstream media coverage didn’t give them the opportunity to receive much information about the party. So, when election time came around and the media started featuring Liberal Democrats more at a time when people’s awareness of political issues was heightened, it understandably affected their voting behaviour. Coupled with an ability to run a strong campaign (one of the few campaigns where this effect didn’t seem to happen was 1987, when the Alliance campaign was a mess), this meant that when voters made their decision, they had a number of positive thoughts about the Liberal Democrats.

    The situation this year is completely different as time in government means the Liberal Democrats are no longer an unknown and fresh party to voters. While the party will obviously get good amounts of coverage in the election campaign, this will not be received by voters in the same way it was before as they now already have a bank of opinions about the party to weigh any new considerations against. People seeing Nick Clegg aren’t seeing the effectively new person voters saw in 2010, they’re seeing the man who’s been Deputy Prime Minister and regularly on the news for the last five years with all the connotations that brings. In previous elections, voters were open to receiving campaign messages from the Liberal Democrats because they didn’t have many pre-existing views about the party, but now they do, and we don’t know how those will affect voters’ decisions.

    The idea that voters in 2015 are going to react the same way to exposure to Liberal Democrats that voters in previous elections did completely misses out that the party is in a fundamentally different position going in to this election than it was in any of the previous ones where the ‘Liberal surge’ occurred. Expecting things to happen just as they did before when fundamental conditions have changed is nothing more than wishful thinking.

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    I wasn’t at Liberal Democrat Conference last weekend, because I had a much more relaxing and stress-relieving weekend away booked instead, but it seems that the Conference was used to make a major declaration: we’re now in Farron season. Yes, those who’ve been waiting for months, even years, to begin having a go at the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale have been given official sanction to do so by Paddy Ashdown.

    (And yes, in a week where the media’s been filled with the elder statesman of Top Gear being suspended for punching someone, it seems it’s still all right for former Marine commandos to threaten volunteers with violence if we say it’s only joking)

    Farron season allows for threats on all fronts, so as well as being criticised for being too popular and too honest, he also finds ‘senior party insiders’ are briefing against him in the Times. Here he’s come up against the magician’s choice of politics, where whatever choice he’d made would be criticised on spurious grounds. Having weekly briefings as part of his Foreign Affairs brief apparently makes him ‘like Sarah Palin’, whereas if he didn’t have them he’d be attacked for being either uninformed or too arrogant to want them. In the same way, during the campaign he’ll either be criticised for ignoring his constituency and spending too much time helping others, or spending too much time worrying about his own majority while others are struggling.

    It is interesting to see that despite the leadership’s claims that all is well and the party is heading towards inevitable Cleggite triumph at the election, whatever the polls say, there does seem to be a concerted attempt to amplify the Stop Farron messaging. It suggests to me that some people aren’t quite as confident about Clegg remaining leader after the election as he seems to be, and have realised that they need to be getting ready for the next fight. I suspect there are quite a few people currently in the leadership coterie who would be likely to not be so close to power if Tim Farron was in the role, but would remain there if someone else got the job, and they’re the sort of ‘senior party insiders’ who don’t get told to shut up and deliver leaflets instead of briefing the Times.

    All in all, it seems to me that Tim Farron’s the one getting on with his job with the same candour he usually does it with, while others are skulking in the shadows, laying the ground for the fight after the election. It’s just another level of intrigue to add to an election campaign that’s turning into a giant policy-free soap.

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    A tale of two conferences and cricket championships #ldconf

    One of my abiding memories of the Liberal Democrat special conference that approved the coalition deal was the journey back from it. My phone had only a small amount of charge left and I was desperately trying to eke it out as I sat on the train while also trying to keep as up to date as I could with the final of the ICC World Twenty20 championship.

    The battery lasted just long enough to get to the end of the game, as England cruised past Australia’s total to win. After years of failing to make a breakthrough and actually win a world championship in any form of the sport, England had finally achieved it. A new era beckoned, one where the long stored up potential would finally be unleashed.

    And now here we are five years later, with all that promise of 2010 long gone, and today the final Liberal Democrat conference of the Parliament starts on the same day that England limp out of the Cricket World Cup after one of their most ignoble performances, capping off several years of progressively worse disappointments.

    Never mind, the management have promised to go and look at that data, and I’m sure they’ll find what they need to justify themselves there.

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