Lib-Dem-logoTim Farron’s given an interview to the Independent outlining more of his vision for the Liberal Democrats if he’s elected leader, the gist of which is in this quote:

“You need to motivate people. People vote for a political party because of what is in their wallet or issues that they weigh up in their head. But you join a political party because something gets you in your gut and it’s time we went out there and got people in their gut.”

It tied in with a thought I had reading this post by Alex Marsh earlier. The problem we’ve had – and it’s exemplified by the General Election manifesto – is that we’ve made liberalism look like a list of policy demands rather than an idea. That’s why the Economist can make the bizarre claim that the Tories have “swallowed much of the (Liberal Democrats’) ideology” when they’ve merely dropped their objection ot a few liberal social policies like same sex marriage, while remaining fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian.

When we identify liberalism as nothing more than a set of policies (whether those policies come from centrism or anywhere else) we make it easier for others to adopt a figleaf of liberalism by borrowing those policies while ignoring the ideas that drive them. David Boyle makes the point here that we’ve often chosen “an ecstacy of positioning rather than saying anything clearly at all”. If we let people think that liberalism means “whatever is in the centre ground at the moment” then we shouldn’t be surprised when people claim there’s little need for a liberal party when everyone else is fighting over the political centre. Indeed, we shouldn’t be surprised about our election performance when we define ourselves solely in terms of what other parties are and what we’re not.

That’s why what Tim Farron is proposing for the party is important, and why I’m supporting him for leader. We can’t just be a party that talks about individual policies, we have to be one that links those policies to a liberal vision and liberal values and that’s something Tim does brilliantly. A party that exists solely as a Parliamentary think tank that puts forward a few policies that may or may not be adopted be other parties isn’t one that’s going to have a long existence in the current climate. We might have survived like that when politics was less fragmented, but now there are plenty of other parties for people to choose from, and we have to be the party at the head of a liberal movement.

This will be a new direction for the party, because it’s not just in the last five years that we’ve often retreated to the comfort zone of talking about policy rather than pushing liberal values. If we’re going to recover and grow, we need to show that we’re not just promoting certain policies because they’re good ideas but because they’re linked to our liberal vision and ideology and so if they support one of our policies they’ll like the rest as well. If we don’t make the case for liberalism, no one else will, but they’ll happily brand some form of pseudo-liberalism as the the real thing and claim that real liberalism isn’t needed any more.

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Writing in the Guardian to argue for giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote in an EU referendum, Angus Robertson, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, also argues for what he calls a ‘double majority’ rule to apply to the result:

We will also seek to amend the legislation to ensure that no constituent part of the UK can be taken out of the EU against its will. We will propose a “double majority” rule, meaning that unless England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each vote to leave the EU, as well as the UK as a whole, Britain would remain a member state.

There’s a strong political and practical argument for a rule like this, as a close referendum is likely to bring up an interesting georgraphic array of results with some strongly in favour of staying while others are equally eager to leave.

However, setting all those arguments aside, one concern I would have about such a rule is the strategic effect it could have on voting. Assume that such a rule was passed as part of the referendum and that in the run-up to the vote, opinion polls were showing that Scotland was highly likely to vote to stay in, and Wales and Northern Ireland were too. Now consider that from the position of an English voter who’s still undecided in the campaign. However they vote, Britain as a whole won’t leave the EU, so they can effectively discount and ignore any information they’re given in the campaign about the negative effects of it. That leaves people free to cast a purely expressive vote without having to consider the consequences of it, because the effective veto from the other nations means that whether England votes to stay or go is irrelevant as the decision has effectively been made.

English voters would effectively be handed a free vote and given the chance to express a pure protest vote – a chance to vote against all the things they don’t like about the EU without having to weigh any of the positives from our membership. The question wouldn’t be ‘do you want to stay or leave?’ it would be ‘given that we’re staying, do you like the EU?’ and that, I think, would boost the No vote. Because England has the bulk of the UK vote, a vote to leave there could very easily dwarf any majority for staying from the rest of the UK, meaning that the overall result of the referendum would be the UK as a whole saying it wanted to leave, but staying in because of the ‘double majority’ rule. That’s a recipe for nationalistic rows to erupt across the whole country, even if the majority for leaving has only arisen because English voters ended up in their odd position.

Of course, this is just one of dozens of issues that are going to be raised during the passage of any Referendum Bill through the Commons (and the Redwoods and Bones of the Tory Party have been waiting for years for this to happen, so expect all sorts of fun) but it’s the sort of unintended consequence we could find ourselves facing at the end of the process, even before we get to discuss any of the actual issues of Britain’s EU membership.

I’m not going to make predictions about my own party’s leadership election, but I’m happy to guess the result of another’s four month before the result: Labour’s new team announced in September will be Liz Kendall as leader with Tom Watson as her deputy. I don’t have any solid psephological or political scientific grounds on which to make this call, but it’s a hunch that seems to fit with the facts at hand. Burnham and Cooper are increasingly portrayed as being part of the Miliband era which is now being routinely denounced as an aberration against the Party with all the fervour of a show trial, Mary Creagh likely won’t get the nominations to stand, and Kendall is being pushed as fresh, new, different and various other words used to avoid discussing any actual politics. (The Watson prediction is easier – Labour voters tend to balance across leader and deputy, and he’s the most obvious contrast to her. If I’m wrong and Andy Burnham wins, then Caroline Flint or Stella Creasy would likely be his deputy.)

The question this bring up for me is a simple one: where has she come from? The first time I can recall hearing her mentioned was back in February when one comment about private health care apparently made her a leading contender for the party leadership but I honestly can’t say I’d heard her name before then, and I’m someone who pays attention to politics. It feels as though she’s a Michael Rimmer or Harold Saxon-type character, where her leadership credentials appear to consist mostly of the media telling us about her leadership credentials which are that other people in the media think she’s a credible candidate for leader.

It’s not even as if she’s offering anything that seems strikingly new to me, with her pitch being that the electorate is supposedly moving to the right (a claim at odds with the actual evidence) so Labour must apparently pursue the Tories out to the fringes because “winning is too important and we will do whatever it takes”. I don’t see anything in her vision for the Labour Party beyond it being merely about winning for the sake of winning, not because you might want to win power to do something with it.

So, I put this out as a question to any Labour members or supporters reading this: Is there something there that I’m missing? Has she been assiduously working behind the scenes to raise her profile amongst the party members and offering them a vision of the future? For those of you supporting her, why have you chosen her as your candidate and what do you think she gives that others don’t?

These are genuine questions – I’m genuinely trying to understand just why a candidate who seems to have been come from out of nowhere, prepared and presented entirely by the current political consensus is so appealing to Labour members, because it’s baffling me.

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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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johnsmithWith many parties in flux right now, it’s a prime time for everyone to offer them advice, especially those outside the party with little to now knowledge of it, yet are absolutely sure they know what the party ought to be doing next. So, Labour people should feel free to completely ignore this on the grounds that I likely don’t know what I’m talking about.

The Labour Party leadership election appears to be taking place under a giant Tony Blair-shaped shadow, with much of the debate seeming to float around which of the candidates is the most Blairite, post-Blairite, worthy of the mantle of Blair etc That’s entirely natural, as Blair remains the only Labour leader to have won an election in the past forty years, but I think it misses a crucial part of the rise of Tony Blair.

The narrative of how Blair ‘made Labour electable again’ often ignores that Blair was not the leader the party turned to after its defeat in 1992. It was John Smith who the party turned to, and he was elected almost by acclaim, defeating Brian Gould by 91% to 9%. It was during Smith’s time as Shadow Chancellor that Labour had started to regain ground on the Tories on economic competence, and when he became leader he chose Gordon Brown to carry on that work as his Shadow Chancellor. Because of that work, when the Tory Government saw a complete collapse of its reputation for economic competence on Black Wednesday in 1992, Labour took a lead in the opinion polls under Smith that that they wouldn’t lose for the rest of the Parliament.

846_bigIt was Smith’s death in 1994 that gave Blair the chance to stand for the party leadership – likely several years before he ever expected it – and go on to become Prime Minister, but the important fact here is that Blair inherited a Labour Party that was already well ahead in the polls and widely expected to form the next Government even if the next election was still as much as three years away. To imagine that it was merely the election of Blair that somehow made Labour electable again is to ignore everything that was done before both by Smith (and Neil Kinnock before him) to put the party into a place where it could be seen as a credible choice again.

Regardless of the qualities of the candidates for the leadership this time, just imagining that electing one of them can magically replicate the Blair effect is to ignore the situation Blair inherited when he became leader. What Labour need is a new John Smith to steady the ship and do the work that needs to be done to reorganise the party’s strategy and policy before handing it over to whoever might be the ‘new Blair’ (or the first Jarvis/Creasy/Kendall/Cooper etc). I would suggest that what Labour need to do with this leadership election is consciously decide that now is not the time to decide who’s going to lead them into the 2020 election but instead a choose someone who’ll lead the party until 2018 or 2019, and do the work to rebuild the party that’s needed while encouraging the potential next leaders to develop their skills and public profiles, but not while being the sole focus of media attention as party leader.

As we’ve seen with Ed Miliband, five years is a long time to be Leader of the Opposition, and plenty of time for the media to slowly roast you while you have very little opportunity to actually do anything. Rather than putting someone else through that pressure again, wouldn’t Labour be better off asking someone like Harriet Harman or Alan Johnson to take on the job as an explicitly interim leader? That way, they can conduct the serious process of rebuilding the party ready to hand it on to their 2020 candidate, instead of thinking that five years of the sort of media pressure that’s made Chuka Umunna quit the contest after a week would be a good thing for any new leader.

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election-590x288I’ve mentioned before how much I’ve been enjoying the University of Cambridge’s Election podcast over the last few months. The format of each podcast follows pretty much the same pattern – a discussion between host David Runciman with regular panellists Helen Thompson, Finbarr Livesey and Chris Brooke, an interview between Runciman and someone usually very interesting with an interesting take on politics, then a closing discussion, discussing some of the topics raised in the interview.

I’d recommend listening to all of them, as even if some of the discussion in the panels might now be out of date as they were very focused on May 7th, the interviews were covering much deeper subjects and had some very interesting perspectives.

This week’s interview guest was Chris Huhne, who Runciman admits was booked principally because they thought we’d be in the midst of coalition negotiations and his perspective having been part of the 2010 ones would be informative. As it was, that wasn’t the case, but Huhne still proves to be a very interesting interview with his perspective on the coalition and the Liberal Democrats, especially in the light of last week’s election result. Huhne talks about some of the issues he raised in the Guardian last year (and others raised before and since) about the party’s strategy, but also talks about his experience of working in coalition and the different approach the two parties took to matters. It’s definitely worth listening to (and fans of interviews with former Liberal Democrat MPs will enjoy the previous week’s edition with David Howarth too).

The team had promised that the podcasts would go on until Britain had a new Government ‘however long that takes’, so I was expecting this to be the final one. However, the realities of the new government have forced them to amend that pledge in the light of events, so there’ll still be a few more weeks of it, before they take a break and then return for the US elections and possibly European referendum next year. Well worth listening to, and I don’t even get commission for recommending them.

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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.