He looked totally in control once.

He looked totally in control once.

One defining feature of Parliament for the last eighteen years has been the size of the Government’s majority: the massive majorities of Tony Blair’s first two terms followed by the smaller, but still easily workable, majorities of Labour’s third term and the coalition.

This Government, by contrast, has a majority of just 12. In theory, that should make everything much more difficult for it. As Alex Harrowell has pointed out, getting anything through in that situation requires a much more different style of whipping than anything we’ve seen since 1997. When your majority is decently sized, you don’t have to worry too much about little groups of rebels or more mundanely if one of your MPs spends too long at a reception and doesn’t make a vote. Your majority can soak up hundreds of little blows like that, and it can even be good party management to allow people to blow off steam by rebelling.

With a majority that’s only just above single figures, you’re in a different game altogether. Half a dozen organised rebels can sink an entire bill and suddenly the whips’ office finds itself having to keep track of three hundred MPs, making sure that ministers don’t get sent too far from Parliament when a big vote is looming, while making sure that backbenchers are staying in the precincts of Westminster instead of getting home for an early night. One of the most important parts of the Major Government was the work his Chief Whips (Richard Ryder and Alastair Goodlad) and their teams had to do to keep everything going.

Even with a strong whipping operation that does get things through in close votes, the narrative changes. At the moment, the Tories are trying to present themselves as a hegemonic force in British politics, pushing through a series of controversial changes to not just change the law but to frame the discussion around them in their terms. They’re not acting like a party with just 37% of the vote and a slender majority in Parliament, and when Labour sit on their hands (like they did on last night’s welfare reform vote) that framing is allowed to go unchallenged. What should be a story of how the Government could only just get its proposals passed instead becomes one of Opposition disarray.

Given the general willingness of Tory MPs to be lobby fodder, the Government isn’t going to be damaged by a single close vote or even a defeat, but its ability to define the terms of political conversation can be progressively undermined by consistent Parliamentary opposition. John Major – who started with a larger majority than this – was made to look weak not by a single vote, but by a long series of narrow victories and constant stories of emboldened Tory rebels having to be bought off with concessions to get anything through Parliament. The story stopped being about ‘the Government is going to do X’ but instead became ‘what concessions will the Government have to give to get something vaguely resembling X through Parliament?’

In a situation like this, the prime task of the Opposition – and this applies to all the parties within it, not just Labour – is to create that pressure on the Government so it has to fight to get every vote through. (And even if it does get through the Commons, the Lords offers another tough challenge given its current makeup) There are faultlines in the Tories on just about every issue they want to push through Parliament, and if their whips have to start looking at every bill knowing there are 300 votes against them on it, things start getting tough both for the whips and for the backbench MPs who find themselves continually listening out for the division bell knowing that missing just one vote will give them a big black mark on their record.

The Tories are nowhere near as dominant as they’re pretending to be. Concerted pressure from the Opposition parties working together can both show that and thwart Tory attempts to define the political narrative.

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farronforleaderYesterday was an odd day. I’d met up with some of the other people from the Tim Farron campaign at the Taproom in Islington, just over the road from the Assembly Hall where the new leader would make his first speech. We’d been told to expect the result to be announced online at some time after 4pm, but that came with just an announcement that the result would be arriving at 5pm.

So, we sat around outside the bar having a pint or two (and I definitely recommend the Taproom as a place for a drink) waiting for 5pm. I was idly checking Twitter on my phone when I noticed a Tweet saying ‘Tim Farron elected as new leader of the Liberal Democrats’. Unsure if it was a hoax or not, I clicked on the link, which took me to the party’s website (I know because I checked the address a few times to be sure) which had the news. Tim had won, and I got to be the one that told everyone around that table (including at least one senior party figure) that he had won. So that’s my tiny little footnote in the annals of important moments in Lib Dem history.

For me, and others, it was the first time I’d been on the winning side in a leadership election, so we weren’t quite sure how to react in this strange new land. To be honest, it didn’t feel entirely real until we went over the road, wound our way through the long queue to get in and finally got to hear Sal Brinton say ‘the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron.’

It’s a great speech and a great way to launch his leadership, but also makes the point that this isn’t the end, just one early punctuation point on a longer journey. As a party we only narrowly missed a full extinction level event in May, and we still can’t assume that survival – let alone recovery – is guaranteed. There’s a lot of work to be done to make that happen, and lots of internal debate that still needs to be had about the party’s direction.

However, Tim has had one stroke of luck in the timing of his election. The Tories are showing their true colours now they’re in power on their own, and Labour have completely dropped the ball on opposing them and look likely to be indulging in increasingly bitter feuding as their leadership election stretches on until September. I’ve seen several jealous comments from Labour activists about both the pace of our leadership election, the quality of the candidates and the quality of the debate within it.

farronjoinusThere’s a window of opportunity from now until early September for the party to get out there and grab space in the national consciousness. Tim needs to be at the forefront of that, but the other MPs, MSPs, AMs, councillors and others all have a role to play. There’s an opportunity to set out a liberal vision and make clear that the Liberal Democrats still have an important role to play in British politics. It’s not just about building support for next year’s elections, but building a wider liberal movement across the country and letting people know what we stand for.

I’m reminded of the message Kurt Vonnegut said many people need to hear:

I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.

We’re in a time when politics has become a field of despair, a battle to see who can demonise and belittle the most people while promoting visions of the future that seem only a few steps away from dystopia. Even amongst this, there are people out there who want better, who want to see some hope, to feel that the future is going to be better than the past and that we can make it that way. We need to reach out to those people and let them know that they’re not alone, and we’ve now got the perfect opportunity to do that. Let’s take it.

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We did it!

I’m standing in a very hot Islington Assembly Hall right now, awaiting the arrival of our new leader on stage. There’ll be a proper blog post on this tomorrow but I just wanted to say that I’m very happy right now and very proud of everyone I’ve worked with in Team Tim over the past couple of months.

It’s the first time I’ve been involved in a successful party leadership campaign, and I’m still processing the fact that we got Tim elected and that I got to break the news to a lot of the team as I was the one who refreshed Twitter at the right time.

It’s been a great campaign, and it’s  been interesting to see the way Labour people have been jealous of both the manner and speed of it. For now though, it’s time to listen to Tim’s first speech as leader, then celebrate the victory.

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Lib-Dem-logoIt’s rare that events line up to give you neat examples and ways to make a point, but that’s what’s happened today. In Cardiff, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams was making a speech setting out her vision for the future of the party in Wales and beyond, while somewhere in the aether between the Highlands and London, a piece by Danny Alexander on a similar subject was heading to the New Statesman. Even if they weren’t planned to appear on the same day, they provide a quite stark example of how much some people have learned from reflecting on the past five years in the two months since the election, and how little others have.

Kirsty Williams understands just what happened:

During the General Election, it became clear to me that people might have known what we stopped, but not what we achieved.
Yes, over those five years we did restrain some of their worst narrow-interest, anti Europe, anti green, nasty party instincts.
But I didn’t come into politics to mitigate the Tories. When I was growing up in Llanelli my political awakening didn’t coincide with thinking “if only someone could give Margaret Thatcher a bit more heart”.
I didn’t campaign for devolution and home rule because those Tory Governor Generals they kept sending over the bridge were just a little misplaced.
And I’m proud to be a foot soldier in the long battle between radicals and Tories that’s been fought in Powys in particular for generations.
Those differences and debates still matter. And we need to make that clear, and to win our case.
But we will have to persuade before we can prevail. And that needs a clear, distinctive and coherent message.

Meanwhile, Danny Alexander is busily praising George Osborne’s budget, and warning the party against becoming ‘a soggy Syriza in sandals’ and agreeing with Harriet Harman on not opposing cuts in tax credits:

I don’t like some of the welfare reforms in the Budget, but to make it the political dividing line is to fail to recognise the views of most people.

The most worrying thing about reading Alexander’s article is remembering that it was the instincts he displays here which were supposedly holding back the Tories during the last Government. He sounds like a man who’s swallowed the Tory mantra whole, even claiming that this budget is closer to his own ‘Yellow Budget’ and doesn’t see any lurch to the right in it. His conclusion is effectively that the party should be not much more than a vaguely liberal voice on the centre-right, embracing Tory economics while trying to make a case for civil liberties, the environment and the EU. It’s the sort of contribution that makes you realise why no one is lamenting his absence from the leadership election.

Kirsty Williams, on the other hand, is offering a much more invigorating vision of a party that’s free to go out and be unashamedly liberal again. She understands that while we can’t pretend the coalition didn’t happen, that doesn’t mean we have to pretend it was the greatest thing ever and no mistakes were made. She understands that if the party is to survive, in Wales or anywhere, we need a clear vision that marks us out as different. The only sogginess on display here is coming from Danny Alexander, happy to subsume the party in an undistinguished centrist mush. Williams is the only one making a case for the future of the party and liberalism as a force in British politics.

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In defence of factions

First, thanks to everyone who shared my previous post on splits that don’t exist within the Liberal Democrats (but still apparently live on in the conventional wisdom of political reporters).

However, just because the image of a party irredeemably riven by a split between classical liberals and social democrats is incorrect, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t factions within the party, it’s just that characterising them in terms of the merger – and assuming they’ve persisted unchanged since 1988 – is the wrong way of going about looking at them.

This post isn’t about me listing factions, but rather a defence of the existence of factions which are often maligned as nefarious influences within parties, but in my view are part and parcel of trying to be a party that attempts to have an appeal to anyone outside of a small coterie. The actual task of identifying and classifying the factions within the Liberal Democrats I leave to someone with a thicker skin than mine.

Perhaps because of the party’s origins in a merger, there is a tendency to decry factionalism in the Liberal Democrats. This can be an honourable and idealistic – ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ – position to take, but it can also become quite stifling, imposing a passive conformism on people who try to dissent. Factions are seen as representing divisions within the party, divided parties are bad, and therefore factions and factionalism are bad and must be stamped out.

I take a different view, and see the party as being under-factionalised (a position put forward by Richard Grayson a few years ago) and in need of actually expressing its internal differences more openly. Factions are often part of a political irregular verb – I encourage healthy debate, you spend too much time talking to people who agree with you, they’ve factionalised the party – and get depicted as negative forces, but they exist in just about every political party (and the ones they don’t exist in are too small for us to be concerned with). The Tories range from the Tory Reform Group and Bright Blue through to Cornerstone and Better Off Out, while Labour have Tribune, the Campaign Group, Progress, Compass and plenty of other groups within them. If a party is going to be successful in attracting members and voters, it has to cover a wide ideological space and can’t expect all of its members to hold the exact same position on every issue. Parties expect members to support the general principles and aims of the party, but politics and ideology are not exact sciences, and people will naturally interpret those in different ways.

It’s entirely natural for people who feel a certain way about issues to come together and work to spread their ideas. After all, that’s one reason they joined a political party in the first place. Factions are just the way this process gets carried out, allowing people to organise and promote themselves, instead of letting things happen in hidden undercurrents and coded language. Political parties have their own internal politics, and calling for an end to factions is the making the same argument as ‘let’s take the politics out of this’: what they’re really asking for is for everyone to stop arguing and agree with them.

Like most things, if you let factionalism go too far it can become unhealthy, and there are examples where the parties themselves have become effectively empty shells that factions fight to control, or where the factions separate into new parties. Those are rare occurences, and shouldn’t prevent the development of healthy and organised internal debate within a party. As Liberal Democrats we generally Mill’s notion that ideas need to be tested, challenged and discussed to improve and strengthen them. Factions allow for different strands and interpretations of liberalism to discuss and put forward their ideas in an organised and open way, rather than having to almost surreptitiously do so. Proper and lasting consensus can’t be imposed by a diktat from above seeking to depoliticise debate, but from an open process where people express and accept difference.

That’s why even if the media perception of what our factions are is wrong, we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that they do exist. Pretending they’re not there leads to a lot more trouble than accepting them does, as acceptance allows us to establish proper norms of how to interact and debate with each other, rather than concealed sniping from under cover.

Lib-Dem-logoDavid Howarth and Mark Pack have produced a pamphlet on how the Liberal Democrats need to adopt a core vote strategy, and what that strategy could be. There’s a lot of good thinking in there, and Matthew Green’s response to it is also worth reading, so I only have a couple of points to add.

First up, I think any change in strategy like this needs to ensure it brings in the local parties from the start. One big problem the party has had over the past few years is that far too much campaign strategy has been decided from the centre, with local parties expected to simply fall in line. This reached its bewildering peak in the election campaign, with local campaigners having no idea what the party’s main slogan would be the next day as HQ cycled through ideas at an increasingly rapid pace.

For the party centrally to suddenly declare ‘right, we’re switching to a core votes strategy’ and expect everyone to fall in line would be a disaster. I don’t think HQ would be silly enough to try that, but as Matthew Green points out, if it was simple to switch the party’s strategy in such a fundamental way, we’d have done it already. There needs to be some proper thinking about the tactics needed to implement this, or any other, strategy – and how it links local and national campaigning – and it shouldn’t be rushed out and dictated from above.

I think the idea for a Deputy Leader/campaign chair fits in with that process of getting people to buy in locally to the idea of a change. I think the idea of opening up the position of Deputy Leader to a much wider field than MPs (and giving it a campaigning focus) is a good idea, but the process of bringing in the new role should draw in a lot of people from the start so people know the change is coming and there’s plenty of time for people to consider if they want to stand for deputy leader, and what they’d do for the role. Adopting and electing the new position should be party of the process of change, drawing people into it and thinking about what it will mean for them and their activity in the party. We need to be careful it’s not another change that people who pay attention to constitutional amendments at Conference know all about, while it passes right by everyone else.

Finally, I’d also suggest that if campaigning will be explicitly the role of the Deputy Leader, then we need to understand how that changes the role of the Party President. There’s always been a certain about of nebulousness about the role of the president, with successive holders defining it differently, and there needs to be some thought given to how to structure the role so it doesn’t overlap and clash with the Leader and Deputy Leader. My suggestion would be that we look at making it much more of an organisational role with perhaps a lower public profile than it has had so far. However, for someone to be able to have a real impact on the party organisation, I think the term needs to be longer than the current two years – indeed, I’d suggest looking at making it a post with a five-year term, elected close to the start of a new Parliament and running across that entire cycle.

Anyway, that’s just my 2p’s worth, and I’m sure lots of people will have lots of ideas after reading the pamphlet, not least our new leader when he takes office on Friday.

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sdpliberalQuick question: Which of the two Liberal Democrat leadership candidates was a member of the SDP? The correct answer is, of course, Norman Lamb who was a member of both the Liberal Party and the SDP (membership of both parties was allowed) while Tim Farron was only ever a member of the Liberal Party pre-merger.

I bring this up because in their endorsement of Norman Lamb for leader, the Economist makes the claim that Tim Farron is a ‘traditional social democrat’ while Norman Lamb is a ‘classical liberal’. (They also shockingly use ‘shoe-in’ rather than ‘shoo-in‘, making me wonder how far their subbing standards have fallen)

The idea that the Liberal Democrats are divided between two factions with pure unadulterated classical liberals locked in a life-or-death struggle with soggy social democrats is one common across many pundits and politicos. It’s based on the solid fact that the party was formed out of a merger between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, so naturally one would expect the factions in the party to reflect those divisions. It’s a fine supposition, weakened only by the fact that it’s utter bollocks. On a simple matter numbers I suspect that even before the post-election surge, most of the party’s members (including me) joined after the merger, and a large chunk of them now were likely not even born when it happened.

The narrative also ignores the actual history of and ideology of the two parties pre-merger. The Liberal Party was not stuck in the rut of holding the same policies it had held in Victorian times, and was certainly not a ‘classical liberal’ party. Under Grimond, the party had turned away from electoral pacts with the Conservatives in favour of seeking ‘realignment of the left’; under Thorpe the party had adopted the principles of community politics and the radical ideas of the ‘Red Guard’ of the Young Liberals began moving into the mainstream of the party; and Steel negotiated the Lib-Lab pact, then looked to work with Jenkins to realign the left. The dominant ideas in the Liberals from the late 50s to the end of the party were in the tradition of the New Liberalism of the early twentieth century, not the ‘classical’ liberalism of the nineteenth.

Meanwhile, the SDP was not especially committed to the principles of social democracy as it’s commonly understood – indeed, most actual social democrats remained in the Labour Party and helped draw it back towards the centre. The SDP’s aims were more around creating a party of the centre and realigning British politics (remember that this was after the 70s, when the old institutions of Britsh politics and the two-party system had begun to show their first cracks). Under both Jenkins and Owen, the party was much more about centrism and balancing extremes of left and right than it was about promoting even the mildest form of socialism. If anything, the party’s most symbolic issue under Owen was one of Britain retaining Trident rather than anything to do with economics or society. By the end of its life – and especially in its post-merger rebirth, SDP-ism had become little more than proclaiming the greatness of David Owen and complaining about how all the radical ideas of the Liberals needed to be reined in. The lack of any overriding identity for the SDP other than centrism can be seen in how its members scattered to the political winds – some to the Lib Dems, some to New Labour, others following Owen towards the Tories (and often going further than him in actually joining them).

If there’s any lingering tension within the Liberal Democrats that can be traced back to the two different parties it’s not a fight between right and left but rather one between centrists and radicals (though that was present to some extent in both predecessor parties, and exists in other parties too). Centrism is there in Roy Jenkins and his ‘great crusade to change everything just a little bit’, Owen’s defense of the elite consensus on nuclear weapons, Spitting Image’s early Ashdown ‘neither one thing nor the other but somewhere in between’ and this year’s ‘look left, look right, then cross’ rhetoric. It’s the sort of thing the in-house magazines of the establishment like The Economist love because it’s not about rocking the boat, just presenting a slightly liberal-tinged version of what the great and the good all agree on that doesn’t challenge any existing power. Radicals, on the other hand, are looking to change the system and cause a fundamental shift in the distribution of power, following in the footsteps of many Liberals before. That, I think, is a more fruitful way of looking at any differences within the party, rather than looking for divisions based on irrelevant squabbles from thirty years ago.

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