Lib-Dem-logoAs part of the Agenda 2020 policy process, the party is holding an essay contest asking for 1000 words on ‘what does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today?’ This is my entry to it, written in a rush as the deadline came near, and you can see other people’s efforts on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Liberal Democrats want to give more freedom to everyone to enable them to live their own lives. However, we also know that freedom for individuals is not enough, and that it must be combined with breaking down the unaccountable powers of the state, in the economy and in society to enable individuals to fully use their freedom. We live in a world where there is more power to affect the lives of individuals than there ever has been, and by focusing on freeing people from historic controls we are cutting the strings and chains that tie them down, but ignoring the new ropes and cables that bind them even tighter.

To be a Liberal Democrat is to recognise that power has to exist, but that where it does exist it must be accountable. We are not opposed to the existence of power and recognise that it is needed to build, maintain and develop the society we live in, but we recognise that power needs to be controlled. Freedom is not simply removing a power over someone, freedom is giving people the ability to participate in power.

Liberals understand that power comes in many different forms and that the power of the state is just one of them. Indeed, it may be the weakest power of all because the concept of state power being accountable to those it affects is widely accepted, even if not regularly seen in practice. As liberals, we can spend far too much time getting upset about the minutiae of the use and misuse of state power while ignoring unaccountable power in society and the economy.

As Liberal Democrats we often eagerly point to how we believe that ‘no one should be enslaved by conformity’, but without focusing on how we make that happen in reality. We need to recognise that just saying oppression and enforced conformity is bad is not enough. Identifying it should be just the first step and we need to be prepared to discuss how we as Liberal Democrats are actually going to take on the unaccountable power and privilege that causes so much harm in our society, including within our own party. To be a Liberal Democrat today should be to understand that just telling someone they are free isn’t enough, it’s about standing with them to challenge the power and privilege that oppresses them.

Liberalism is internationalist at its heart, recognising that everyone deserves the same rights and respect no matter where they live, what language they use or who their parents were. People working together across national borders have achieved some of the greatest liberal successes of the last century, from eradicating diseases to ending apartheid, but we need to ensure liberal and internationalist values remain for the centuries to come. There is a great power in people acting together through global institutions and we need to ensure that power is accountable and effective to achieve future liberal goals across the planet, and even beyond it.

To be a Liberal Democrat today should also be to understand the danger of unaccountable economic power. We need to deal with the new concentrations of unaccountable power within the economy that have massive effects on people’s lives that they can do nothing about. Free trade was a means to an end, ensuring that the poorest in society would be able to afford to eat, but we have turned it into an end in itself, regardless of the effect it has on people. We talk of trade between nations and empowering individuals, ignoring the vast unaccountable powers of corporations and how they take away freedom and choice from individuals, concentrating economic power amongst an unaccountable elite.

Liberalism is about people and we need to create a world where the economy works for the benefit of the people, not one where people work for the benefit of the economy. We need to fight for education systems that develop people as individuals, not merely as future workers; for social security that concentrates on supporting people, not subsidising employers; and for an economy that liberates people to spend more time doing what they want, where everyone’s abilities and contributions to society are welcomed.

Beyond the state, society and the economy, there is a further power that we must address: our environment. This is a different order of power, where climate change is capable of destroying everything our society is based on, rendering liberalism and every other ideology meaningless. And yet, it is vital that we understand a liberal response to this crisis is necessary because only through liberalism and recognising the value of every life on this planet can we build a global response. Liberalism is international by instinct, seeing potential in every person, and that international instinct is also environmental, recognising that we need to protect our planet to ensure that it’s not just us who get the chance to live the lives we want, but all the generations still to come. Human survival is important, and we increase our chances of that survival by giving people reasons to believe in a better tomorrow.

To be a Liberal Democrat today is to recognise that liberals have made a start in tackling these unaccountable powers in the state, in society and in the economy but it is only a start and there is so much more work to be done. The fight for liberalism is not a new one: it has taken many forms and many different names over the years, but at its heart it has always sought to break up power, to make it accountable, and to give all the chance to live the life they wish. To be a Liberal Democrat is to want to take power from the unaccountable and let people use it for themselves because that’s the only way we can create a world for everyone.

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'Having beaten Mr Heseltine, I intend to go on and on and on...'

‘Having beaten Mr Heseltine, I intend to go on and on and on…’

The Twitter account Majorsrise is currently marking the upcoming 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister by tweeting in real-time the various bits of news and political intrigue that led up to it. It’s a fascinating look back at a period that still seems recent to me, but is now very much a different time. It’s interesting to watch the events play out as what now seems inevitable to us clearly wasn’t at the time, and at this point – just a couple of weeks before her resignation – speculation was about when the next election would be, not who might be the Prime Minister at the end of the month.

Let’s assume for the purposes of discussion that she manages to survive the challenge of Michael Heseltine in the leadership election. There are a number of ways this could happen such as her appointing a better campaign manager than Peter Morrison, or Heseltine saying something ill-advised in the run-up to the vote that could leave her secure as party leader and Prime Minister, at least for the short term. (It’s worth remembering that she beat Heseltine in the vote, but fell short of the majority she needed to avoid a second ballot)

The Tories were already recovering from their polling lows under her leadership (see Anthony Wells’ graphs from the period) and there’s no reason to think that she wouldn’t have received a similar popularity boost to John Major’s after the First Gulf War was completed. Would she have had the courage to do what Major didn’t do and try to ride that wave of popularity into an election in April or May of 1991? We know now that the polling from that period was inaccurately overstating Labour support and underestimating Conservative support, so the potential would be there for her to win an unprecedented fourth successive election. However, whatever the result, what follows is interesting to consider:

A fourth Thatcher victory – military victory making voters ignore their problems with her – opens up a couple of possible outcomes, probably dependent on the size of the majority. Something like Major’s 1992 majority would probably force her to be more magnanimous in victory and bring Heseltine back into the Cabinet, possibly with a plan for her to step down in 1993 or 1994. A victory closer to the existing majority, however, could be seen as vindication heralding a swing to the right.

An election defeat – military victory not enough to overcome voters’ doubts about her and the Tories – not only brings Neil Kinnock to Downing Street, but makes things very different for the Tories in the future. Losing an election allows Heseltine to say ‘I told you so’ and take the leadership when she inevitably steps down but also neutralises the Thatcherite brand for a while as it’s proven to be fallible at the ballot box.

Finally, a hung Parliament likely gives Paddy Ashdown an ‘instrument of excruciating torture’ from the electorate nineteen years before Nick Clegg. Twenty or so Liberal Democrats are just as likely to be victims of electoral circumstance and find that they can only give stability to one party in Parliament, but could he lead his party into coalition with either Thatcher or Kinnock, and would gaining twenty MPs be enough of a boon to either to make them want to try?

What do you think would have happened if Thatcher had survived Heseltine’s challenge?

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From relative obscurity to Number 10 in three years.

From relative obscurity to Number 10 in three years.

Since David Cameron’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek a third term as Prime Minister, a lot of ink and electrons have been used to analyse everything any senior Tory politician does in the light of their upcoming leadership battle. This was particularly evident at the recent conference when journalists were lining up to proclaim the next leadership battle would be between George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Theresa May.

The history of Tory leaders, especially since they began to be elected rather than emerging from the ‘magic circle’ of party grandees, suggests that this might not be the case. We’re probably around three years or so away from that leadership election taking place and that gives plenty of times for new faces to rise. Indeed, looking at previous Tory leaders, very few of them would have expected to become leader or Prime Minister three years before it happened.

Edward Heath was the first Tory leader to be directly elected by MPs and while his defeat of Reginald Maudling was something of a shock, he had perhaps the highest profile of any Tory leader three years before election, sitting in the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal in charge of negotiations to join the EEC, having previously been Chief Whip.

Margaret Thatcher was also a member of the Cabinet three years before her election, serving as Secretary of State for Education but I think it’s fair to say that she wasn’t considered a possibility as a future leader, not least because ‘Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher’ was still fresh in people’s minds.

John Major’s rise was swift. Three years before he became leader, he’d just been appointed to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury but was generally overlooked in discussions of future Tory leaders, which looked more towards the big beasts both inside and outside the Cabinet.

William Hague hadn’t even made it to the Cabinet three years before he became leader, still serving as a Minister of State in the Department of Social Security. He’d become Secretary of State for Wales in 1995 after John Redwood’s resignation, but even when he stood for the leadership, the focus was on other candidates.

Iain Duncan Smith had been a rebellious backbencher during the Major government, but was brought into Hague’s shadow cabinet. Three years before he became leader, he was shadow social security secretary, but future leadership attention was focused on characters like Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo (both of whom he’d defeat in 2001).

Michael Howard had been considered a future leader before but three years before he actually got the job he wasn’t in the front line of politics, having returned to the backbenches from the shadow cabinet in 1999.

Finally, David Cameron jumped from backbencher to party leader in three years. In 2002, he was part of the Home Affairs Select Committee and discussing drug decriminalisation still a good few months away from being given a frontbench role and two years away from his first seat at the shadow cabinet table.

As I’ve noted before, all political trends have a tendency to be great predictors of the future right up until the moment they fail spectacularly (ask anyone who was sure Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t win) and this could be the Tory leadership election that breaks the trend of relative outsiders defeating the more established candidates. However, the Tories do seem to go to outsider or rapidly rising candidates much more than the other parties have in the past, and it’s entirely possible that the same may apply when their next leadership contest comes around. Consider that the current leading candidates will all be under intense scrutiny while trying to maximise their exposure, which could well lead to both MPs and party members becoming weary at the sight of them, let alone the prospect of them leading the party for several years.

A candidate who can present themselves as a relative outsider or newcomer but with some experience at the top could, with the right timing, develop a real momentum heading into the election that could take them past their overly-exposed senior colleagues. Who it might be, I don’t know, and there’s the possibility that a fluke could propel someone to prominence at the right time, but I’d look at some of those in the lower=profile Cabinet positions or just making their way up the ranks as Ministers of State. History suggests one of them is more likely to make it to the top than someone currently high profile.

The House of Lords needs to go, but it still has a job to do while it’s here

eyelordsThat image is from the latest Private Eye, but it’s echoing something that’s been all over the right wing of the internet in the last few days, as a harrumph of commentators and keyboard warriors have declared themselves to be shocked beyond all measure that members of the House of Lords have voted against the Government. Suddenly, people who not so long ago were defending the hereditary principle in Lords appointments are now solemnly proclaiming that members of the Lords daring to have opinions is the gravest of constitutional crises. Peak silliness comes in this article by William Hague in which he presents himself as some great scholar of the British constitution while completely forgetting that he was Tory leader at the time Lord Strathclyde declared convention dead and claimed the right for the Lords to vote down statutory instruments.

(On an aside, it’s interesting how rarely countries that actually have written constitutions tend to have constitutional crises, compared to how often they’re threatened in Britain…)

The other common theme in this week’s torrent of bloviation – and features in both Private Eye and Hague’s column – is the implication that there’s something especially illegitimate about Liberal Democrat lords daring to have opinions counter to the government’s. (For all the resistance some people have to electing the Lords, the zeal they occasionally show for the representatives in there to reflect the results of an election is odd) What gets neglected in this – and in the Eye’s quote especially – is any mention of what happened in 2012. There’s a reason Farron’s quote comes from then: it’s because that’s when the Liberal Democrats in government were trying to reform the House of Lords to make it elected. However, thanks to the mutual ambivalence of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the House of Lords Reform Bill died in the Commons. If Cameron and the Conservatives had shown the same desire for Lords reform then as they do now, we probably wouldn’t be facing the situation we’re in now.

To be frank, I think there are too many Liberal Democrat Lords in Parliament. There are also too many Tory, Labour, UKIP, Green, Plaid Cymru, UUP, DUP and crossbench Lords as well because in my view, any number of unelected Lords sitting in Parliament greater than zero is wrong. That’s why I don’t want to reform the Lords, I want to abolish it and replace it with a much better upper house/Senate. As far as I’m aware, that view – or variations on it to similar ends – is held by most members of the Liberal Democrats.

So yes, Liberal Democrats want to see the House of Lords reformed or replaced, and will happily work with others to make that happen if they want it. However, we’ve been waiting a hundred years or more to see that elected upper house come about and while abstentionism may work as a tactic for some, most conventional political parties seek to work within the systems as they are currently constituted, with most people understanding that working within a system doesn’t mean that you can’t also seek to change that system. All governments need to be challenged and scrutinised, and while the House of Lords might not be the best way of achieving that, it’s what exists within the system at present.

At the moment, the Conservative complaints are sounding very much like ‘we were promised an elective dictatorship, how dare you try and stop us!’ and the Strathclyde review (with irony not yet being dead, the man who declared the convention on statutory instruments dead is the natural choice to lead it) appears to be designed to try and strip away some more of what few brakes on executive authority there are in the current system. I want to see a system where we have two elected chambers in Parliament that are both capable of holding the Government to account in different ways, but until such time as we get to that point, there’s no nobility in refusing to act because the current system isn’t perfect.

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Another week in Parliament which means another week where our “independent-minded” MP has steadfastly agreed with whatever the whips tell him to do. This included Monday’s vote on the “Tampon Tax” (removing VAT from women’s sanitary products), but he’s provided a detailed explanation as to why he didn’t vote for it (original Facebook post here).

It’s a long post that meanders around making digs at the EU, claims that the content of the motion wasn’t deliverable and praise for the minister involved, and it all sounds like a reasoned and well-meaning way to explain his vote, until you look at the actual motion he voted against. It reads:

“(1) Within three months of the passing of this Act, the Chancellor of the Exchequer shall lay before both Houses of Parliament a statement on his strategy to negotiate with the European Union institutions an exemption from value added tax for women’s sanitary protection products.

(2) A Minister of the Crown must lay before Parliament a report on progress at achieving an exemption from value added tax for women’s sanitary protection products within European Union law by 1 April 2016.”

That’s it (you can see it here). It doesn’t mandate any actual change in Britain’s laws, but merely asks that the Chancellor explain his strategy for negotiating an exemption and for a minister to make a statement on it sometime in the next six months. So, when Quince writes:

However, this amendment was not deliverable. Parliament cannot make the change on its own. We need all EU states to agree to this change. Why vote for something that is non-deliverable? I think it diminishes respect for Parliamentary votes.

He’s either misunderstood or is misrepresenting the content of the motion he voted against. The motion doesn’t ask Parliament to make the change, it merely requests that the Chancellor include the issue in his negotiations with the EU and report back to Parliament on how that negotiation is progressing. He then tells us:

In responding to the amendment, the Finance Minister (David Gauke MP) made it clear to the House of Commons that he would be taking this issue to the European Commission and other member states to make the case for zero rating. When we have the same goal, why tie the hands of our Ministers and restrict their ability to achieve what we are all aiming for?

He doesn’t bother to explain how the motion would have tied the hands of any ministers, unless he believes that the basic level of accountability involved in telling Parliament how things are going is a hugely onerous burden. Indeed, if the Minister really is sincere in saying that he’ll be making the case, why were the Government whipping their MPs to vote against this motion which merely asks them to do what they’re already doing?

Where's Will this week?

Where’s Will this week?

It seems our MP has yet again forgotten that being “independent-minded” doesn’t mean anything unless you’re prepared to act on it, not do as you’re told then try to explain you way out of it when you’re called on it. But he got to be on TV behind David Cameron again this week, so I’m sure he’s happy.


House_of_Lords_chamber_-_toward_throneAs madcap, back-of-an-envelope schemes to reform the Lords are all the rage right now, I thought I’d use the opportunity to set out how I’d reform it. I may have done that before on this blog, but why not set it out once more just because I can.

Quite simply, I’d get rid of it and replace it with a Senate. This new Senate would have around 300 members, each elected to a single 12-year term and then barred from seeking re-election to it. 100 members would be elected every four years, giving us a chamber that’s constantly being renewed but still possesses experience. Elections would be conducted by STV in constituencies based on nations, regions or counties that would elect at least three members at each election. STV and constituencies that size would hopefully encourage a wider range of representation and people being elected as individuals, rather than from a party list.

(There’d be 100 new senators elected at the first election, with 200 of the existing Lords making up the balance of the chamber, with 100 of them stepping down after the second wave of Senate elections and the final 100 being replaced after the third completed the first Senate election cycle. How those remaining Lords are selected is something parties and Lords can agree amongst themselves – existing Lords would also be eligible to stand for election to the Senate.)

The Senate itself would keep the current Lords role of scrutinising the Government and revising legislation, but I’d also like to see it take up the role of long-term reviews of different subjects, structured to take the four years between elections. Subjects for reviews would be chosen when the new senators arrive, with detailed reports and conclusions given at the end of a proper process of investigation, review and deliberation.

One complaint about moving to an all-elected upper house is the supposed loss of expertise caused by removing the crossbench peers. I have some sympathy for this view, but I also don’t think there’s such a thing as a general purpose expert. We have far too many examples of people who are experts in one field making a fool of themselves when they venture into others (we could call it the Dawkins Effect, perhaps) to think that appointing someone to have a view on everything because they’re experts at one thing is a good idea.

That said, I do think there is a role for bringing in experts on specific subjects to improve the quality of debate and scrutiny. I would propose that every committee and long-term review of the Senate would have the power to co-opt a number of expert members. These would be full members of the committees or reviews of which they’re part, with the same rights as any other member within that committee but they would not be full members of the Senate itself. I would suggest that they have the full rights to speak and participate in the debates of the main chamber but without any voting rights there. I’d suggest that they would be appointed to four-year terms, with consideration needing to be given as to whether they could be reappointed after that, and if they’d then be eligible to stand for election to the Senate as a full member if they wish.

The way I see it, we do need a second chamber in Parliament but that chamber needs to have a defined role, be clearly a secondary chamber but also have the legitimacy of being elected. I think this proposal achieves that, which means the likelihood of it ever coming to pass is slim.


One thought that occurred to me after writing yesterday’s post – and clarified by a discussion about it on Facebook – was how depoliticizing something connects to structures of power. I ended up circling around the issue rather than addressing it directly, and I think it’s important to highlight it as we often avoid talking directly about power when we discuss politics.

As I discussed yesterday, ‘taking the politics out’ of a discussion or decision is to pretend it can be removed from the wider context it takes place in. Effectively, it’s saying that we need to accept the status quo and not challenge any of the assumptions we’re operating in. The status quo is presented as ‘just the way things are’ and almost objective facts rather than being subjective and the creation of a political process. By calling to take the politics out of just one thing, whole swathes of subjects are actually being placed out of the reach of political action and discussion.

It’s why attempts at depoliticising things are usually the tool of those already in power, as it’s a great way to load the argument in their favour. They’re just trying to discuss things reasonably, they claim, it’s everyone that’s challenging them who’s politicising the issue. At the extreme end of the scale, it’s why dictatorships implement one-party (or sometimes no-party) states because that allows them to strictly contain the boundaries of what’s political. Limited to only that desired by the party and conducted under its auspices, it assures that the political is kept within a small range and everything else remains unchallenged.

Although not on the same scale, a similar principle applies in our system. Consider that when someone challenges something that’s normally been an accepted part of the consensus, they’re usually then accused of politicising it, as though this is something terrible. All they’re doing, in fact, is putting forward an alternative view and demonstrating that something is political and has always been political. However, the more you can get people to believe that something isn’t political, that it’s part of the fabric of things and doesn’t need to be thought away – don’t look at the entrenched power structures behind the curtain! – the more you can protect that which gives you power: it’s not political, it’s just the way things are.

The key, I think, to understanding British politics is that there are a hueg number of things that have been taken out of the political arena, some recently, some for centuries. It’s the process Peter Mair talks about in Ruling the Void but it’s not a new phenomenon. Our electoral system, the way Parliament works, the Civil Service, the ownership of land and much more: all of these are issues that decide who wields the power in Britain, yet there’s massive attempts to keep them depoliticised and restrict politics to just a small area that doesn’t change too much of importance. Sure, the names at the top change but who wields power is not important, providing that the hierarchical structure always remains the same. Politics is about power, and taking the politics out of something is to remove any attempts to challenge the way power works.