Four more years

It's on a screen in Charter Hall, it must be official.
It’s on a screen in Charter Hall, it must be official.
As I get older, I’m definitely not as good at recovering from late nights as I used to be, and Thursday was a very late night. By the time I got home from the election count it was almost 7am and I’d only had to walk across Kings Meadow from Leisure World. I don’t envy those who had to drive home after the overnight count in there, nor those who had to be back a few hours later for the Police and Crime Commissioner count. For those of you who weren’t there, you can see the official result by clicking here, but the important part is that I was re-elected with 881 votes, which put me in first place for Castle Ward.

Two days later, though, and my head’s returned enough to normal to start thinking about the next four years, though I have to admit that this wasn’t a scenario I envisaged during the election. Sure, I’d daydreamed about being the one to come top of the poll, but I’d expected that would mean Bill Frame and Jo Hayes would fill the next two spots, not two Tories. I’d like to take this opportunity thank Bill and Jo for all their hard work as councillors for Castle ward over the past few years during which they’ve both accomplished a lot for it, often in the face of some very hostile and personalised opposition. I do have some feelings of guilt at having squeezed them out, but that’s just something that will motivate me to work harder so the work they’ve done won’t go to waste.

My priority is going to be working hard to help the residents of Castle ward, just as it was the last time I represented them as their councillor. I’ve already got meetings filling up my diary, and have been busy reporting problems I spotted during the campaign and in the last couple of days. I am away on holiday soon, but when I’m back from that, I will be back out on the doorsteps again to keep talking to residents and finding out what problems you have and how I and the rest of the Liberal Democrat team can help. I’ve already reactivated and updated my councillor Twitter and Facebook pages, so please follow and like me to keep up with what I’m doing.

Even though I am just one councillor in the ward, there is a team around me, and we’re always looking for more people to join us. We’re always looking for new people to help with campaigning, to come up with ideas for how to improve the local area, the town and the country, or just to donate cashto keep the party running. We’re not a party who get millions of pounds in donations from big business or trade unions – we rely on our members and we’re run by and for our members, right down to every one of us having exactly the same power to make and change party policy.

You don’t have to be a party member to help me out, though. You can help by letting me know what’s going on in your part of the ward or what needs to happen to make things better, and by letting me know if there are any events you’d like me to be at as your councillor. I can’t promise to make it to every one, but I’ll do my best. If you do have some spare time and want to help while getting a bit of exercise, we always need volunteers to help deliver our Focus leaflets around the ward.

One thing the election result has shown me is the utter ridiculousness of our electoral system. In Castle Ward, there were 2442 votes cast for Liberal Democrats and 2414 cast for Tories, yet they got two councillors elected to one of ours. I’m more convinced than ever that England needs to follow the example of Scotland and Northern Ireland and elect councillors using the Single Transferable Vote system. It was interesting to note how many people I spoke to during the campaign expressed a wish to list the various candidates in order of preference, not just have the blunt instrument of crosses in a box. Colchester’s results aren’t even amongst the most ridiculously skewed in the country by the voting system – just look at Manchester, where John Leech is now the sole opposition councillor to 95 Labour councillors or the many tales of rotten boroughs the Electoral Reform Society have collected.

But electoral reform is something for the future, as it’s highly unlikely to be delivered under this Government. For now, the main priority for me is to work hard for the residents of Castle Ward and repay the trust they showed in me by placing me first. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing, then you can follow my councillor account on Twitter, or like my Facebook page where I’ll be doing my best to keep you all updated. I’ll share my councillor email address as soon as I find out what it is!

Once again, I just want to thank everyone who voted for me and everyone who helped to get me elected this week. I’ve now got a lot of work to do to show you your trust in me was well placed.

Why the 2014 coup against Clegg was botched

liberator-2And as I complain about a lack of inspiration, the latest edition of Liberator comes out and gives me some. Specifically, Seth Thevoz’s article on the 2014 attempted coup to remove Nick Clegg as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I’m usually in agreement with much of what Seth writes, and I do agree with most of what he writes in the article. However, I do think he’s wrong in attributing all the blame for it not succeeding to MPs not stepping up to the plate and calling for Clegg to go. That was definitely an important factor, but it misses out that part of the reason they weren’t willing to step forward was because of the way the grassroots call for Clegg to go had become a damp squib.

The key problem was the issue of timing. The 2014 election results had an odd electoral calendar because of the European elections. Voting took place on Thursday, but only local elections could be counted on the Thursday and Friday, with European votes not being counted and declared until Sunday, making political geeks glad that the Monday was a bank holiday. The problem was that for a lot of the country (especially areas with no local elections) this created an odd hiatus period over the weekend where votes had been cast in a national election, but results would have to wait for 72 hours. This, I believe, wasn’t a good time to begin the manoeuvres against Clegg. Yes, the local election results were bad, but people had expected that and were still hopeful that the European results for the ‘Party of In’ might be better.

So, when Lib Dems 4 Change was launched into that hiatus, people were reluctant to sign up to it, share it and discuss it because one crucial piece of information – how we’d do in the European elections – was missing. Now, it may have been meant to be a open letter and not a petition, but it was offering people the chance to add their names to it like a petition and people who might have been willing to sign it after the utter debacle of the European results weren’t going to do it before. (And once people make a political decision to do or not do something, it’s very hard to get them to change their minds in the short term)

What this meant was that not only was the grassroots pressure that would have backed the MPs looking a lot thinner than they might have hoped for, those who wanted to defend Clegg and keep in him position were given the opportunity to organise their fightback for the Sunday night and Monday morning. Yes, if the MPs had still come out and called for CLegg to go then, he might well have done, but they were expecting to be doing that on the back of strong grassroots support, which hadn’t been demonstrated over the weekend.

Things might have been different if the grassroots campaign had started after the European results, when people were genuinely angry with the leadership over a terrible result. Going off with it too early meant it never developed the momentum necessary to get potential rebel MPs onside, which led to the whole thing fizzling out. Yes, there was a failure of nerve, but it was also bad timing and poor planning that led to it failing.

Shortlisted

winninghereBack in November, I entered the Liberal Democrats’ Agenda 2020 essay competition. The aim was to write a short essay on ‘what does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today?’ and I posted my entry here on the blog as well.

The entries to it have now all been read, and mine is one of those that made it through onto the final shortlist. So you can now read mine as well as the other eight on the shortlist and decide on which one you think best captures the meaning of what it is to be a Liberal Democrat today. You can vote until February 12th, with the winner being announced at the next party conference in York in March. So, go read them and have your say.

Dreams of progressive alliances can’t ignore political baggage

PAFBSince I wrote about the possibility of ‘progressive’ electoral alliances last week, both James King and Andrew Hickey have explained why they think they wouldn’t work, and whoever is behind the Progressive Alliance UK campaign has taken to Facebook to tell us off for being negative.

Just for the record, I don’t think whoever’s behind the Progressive Alliance UK are “a group of party big whigs and donors” and I’m not sure where that impression came from. If anything, my reasoning that the project isn’t going to achieve much is precisely because the people pushing it aren’t at a high level in any of the parties you’d need to bring together to make such an alliance work. The closest we’ve come to any sort of alliance between parties of the centre-left came about because Ashdown and Blair wanted it to happen, often against the wishes of their members, not because they were forced into it.

It’s worth looking back at the circumstances that led to that agreement to see what obstacles are in the way to any formal alliance of parties. For a start, moves toward it began after 13 years of Tory rule (and four election defeats for variosu formations of the centre-left) and were kicked off with Paddy’s speech in Chard. However, John Smith wasn’t keen on any sort of agreement, and nothing really happened until Tony Blair became Labour leader. Any sort of agreement needs the party leaderships on side from the beginning, as they hold the key to getting the infrastructure of the parties on side.

What was also important was that the two leaders were close ideologically and could envisage themselves working together, even without drawing up any public common programme. It wasn’t just a case of them both being anti-Tory but actually having shared ideals and a common vision. This was something important for the electorate too, as it allowed them to switch their vote between the two parties with confidence, as there’d been enough signalling from them that they wanted the same thing.

The problem for any sort of agreement now is that the gap between Lib Dems and Labour is probably bigger than it’s ever been, both in terms of where the party leaderships are located and where the members and activists of the parties see each other. Consider the amount of flak Ashdown (especially) and Blair got from their memberships got for working together, and now imagine the apoplexy the right of the Lib Dems would have at working with ‘Corbynistas’ and the way the more excitable elements of the Labour membership would react to making a deal with ‘Tories in disguise’.

Electoral geography was also an important consideration. In the run up to 1997, most of the seats had either Conservatives and Labour in first and second place, or Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. There were very few seats that were Lib Dem-Labour battles, or where other parties got into those top two. That’s not the case now, and what’s more, there are very few seats where Lib Dems are in the top two at all. An agreement in 1997 made strong strategic sense for both parties as there were very few places they were in direct competition. (They’d also both had much stronger results in the 1992 election than they had in 2015)

The point is that it’s easy to talk about how a ‘Progressive Alliance’ would magically make everything better, but the path from where we are now to actually creating one isn’t clear. Trying to get people to jump straight into a formal electoral alliance is a bit like telling a couple who aren’t speaking to each other after an acrimonious break up that they should get married. It might be true that they’re better together, but that doesn’t mean you can just pretend all their baggage no longer exists.

A ‘progressive alliance’ needs a lot more than wishful thinking to happen

PAFBExploding onto the scene with all the impact of a sodden paper bag landing in a puddle, someone has launched Progressive Alliance UK, seeking “to build a broad alliance of progressives from across the centre and left of British politics to end Conservative rule”. The aim is to somehow bring together everyone vaguely nice progressive into one big electoral alliance that will enable the Tories to be defeated at the next election and allow for everyone to receive their very own unicorn.

I mock, but the idea does appear to be driven mostly by wishful thinking, imagining that ‘progressives’ will be able to overcome their differences thanks to a call for pragmatism and sweep to victory over the Tories. That there doesn’t seem to be much of a desire for pragmatism and co-operation from many of the supposed progressives right now isn’t acknowledged, with an assumption that all everyone needs to do is realise that this is is the only way to beat the Tories and come together to achieve it.

Trying to bring together the British centre-left/left/progressive/anti-Tory (delete as preferred) forces into one electoral alliance isn’t anything new, of course. The Liberal-Labour split has been lamented almost continually by some in the century or more since it happened. Realigning British politics to either unite the ‘progressive’ parties or creating a new party to achieve the same aim has been the dream of many politicians, though with at best limited success. Indeed, as I’ve written about somewhat extensively, the most successful anti-Tory alliance was perhaps the informal one of Blair and Ashdown in the 90s, rather than any formal arrangement.

This flags up what the problem would be for any ‘Progressive Alliance’ now. Blair and Ashdown not only got on well personally, they were close politically, which made working together a much easier prospect, even if they couldn’t persuade their parties to go for a formal alliance. Trying to put together any sort of alliance now would require Tim Farron and Jeremy Corbyn to suddenly discover a lot of common ground that doesn’t seem too evident in Farron’s latest call to Labour members to come and join the Liberal Democrats. And if you thought the problems of getting two parties into an electoral alliance were too easy to resolve, then the Progressive Alliance have a great challenge for you, as you’ll need to find a way to bring in the Greens and the SNP as well (poor Plaid Cymru don’t get a mention). I’m not quite sure who’s going to bridge that massive gap, if it even can be bridged, but it’ll take more than hopeful words on the internet to manage it.

Martin Hunt

martin.jpg-pwrt3It’s been a sad Christmas for me because it started with the news that my friend and former Colchester Council colleague Martin Hunt died on Christmas Eve.

I’d known Martin for around ten years, going back to when I was first a candidate for the council. I can remember him at a meeting where we were discussing our potential election manifesto and he was criticising it from two grounds that defined his career. First, there were the strong liberal principles that drove his politics, and second, the desire for clear and understandable language that came from his career as a journalist and sub-editor. He could sometimes be annoying in the way he’d speak up for one or both of those values, but he’d rarely be wrong when he did.

Martin was both the first and last Liberal Democrat group leader I served under during my time on the Council, taking over the role in 2007 when the group was at a low ebb, having shrunk down to just 19 councillors. Thanks to his leadership, we were able to refocus ourselves and make the gains at the next set of council elections which allowed us to move from opposition back into power. I think he was as surprised as anyone that we did make those gains, and he hadn’t considered that we might move into power after his first set of elections as leader.

It was coming into power which gave Martin the responsibility of completing the Firstsite project, the problems with which had provided some of the reasons for us winning so many council seats. It seems odd to remember it now, but when we came into power, the prospect of Firstsite being completed and opened seemed very remote. It’s a tribute to Martin’s tenacity and diplomacy that he was able to negotiate between the many funders, builders, project managers, architects and others to get work on the building restarted and then to see it through to completion and opening. It’s rare for councillors to leave behind lasting physical reminders of their time in office, but Martin has two of his. As well as Firstsite, he was also – before I lived in Colchester – chair of the committee that built Leisure World, an experience that helped him with getting Firstsite completed twenty years later.

Throughout our time on the council, Martin’s experience and knowledge made him a great source of advice and wisdom to be and others. His twenty-nine years as a councillor meant he had great experience of what had happened before, but he also understood that things changed and moved on in local government, as in everything else, and he understood the importance of learning from the past while not believing it was a golden age that should be repeated uncritically.

One thing obvious to anyone who knew Martin was how much he loved his family, and my thoughts are with them as they deal with his death. He would speak of them often, with an obvious pride for all they accomplished and a delight at getting to be a grandfather. Family business was always much more important to him than Council business, and I recall several meetings ending very promptly in order for him to be with them.

Accepting the fact of any death is always a long and hard process, and I still can’t quite believe that Martin won’t be with us any more. I’ll remember so many thing about him, from his ability to be heard with respect from all sides in the council chamber to the fact that he and Nick Cope made up what must be one of the tallest ward teams in council history, but most of all I’ll remember that he was an excellent person, and we’re all worse off without him.

Tories show why skipping democratic reform was New Labour’s big mistake

Today’s Observer has articles from Peter Hyman and Andrew Rawnsley that possess an interesting joint theme, even if one of them is unaware of it. Hyman’s critique of Corbyn’s Labour through defence of New Labour and Rawnsley’s warning about the Tory attempts to stictch up democracy help to expose where New Labour went wrong. By failing to reform the way our democracry works, New Labour missed the opportunity to lock in a permanent change to the system, leaving all its work open to removal by a Tory government.

Much of Hyman’s article is a long list of New Labour policy achievements under Tony Blair and an admonishment of the party for failing to continue that process. However, what he failed to acknowledge was these were all policy changes, and that New Labour did very little to change the way in which the political system works. New Labour came into office with a great zeal for reform, and those first two years in office did deliver some lasting changes: the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, the Freedom of Information Act, removal of hereditary peers from the Lords, and the Human Rights Act amongst them. However, after that initial flurry, the drive for change came to a rapid halt. The Jenkins Commission on the electoral system reported and went nowhere, further Lords reform was allowed to fester in Parliament, local government reform stalled after mayors and cabinets were introduced, and regional devolution was being backed away from even before the North East referendum happened.

The problem was that the two landslide victories of 1997 and 2001 had convinced Blair and the heart of New Labour that there was no need for any widespread reform of Britain’s democratic system because it worked well enough to give them two convincing majorities. An anti-Tory majority in the country, willing to vote tactically between the Lib Dems and Labour to keep the Tories out, proved to some minds that our electoral system could be made to work. Failing to account for a time when Tory fortunes would rise and Labour’s fall, Blair brushed aside any idea that there should be more checks on the power of his Government, failing to take the long view and understand that there’d come a time when the Tories would come back to power.

This is where Rawnsley’s article is important as it explains how the Tories are doing what New Labour failed to do and using their current time in power to fix the system in their favour and ensure they keep everyone else out of power for as long as possible. They’re removing checks to executive power in the House of Lords, introducing boundary reviews that will drastically reduce the number of potential Labour seats, bringing in trade union reforms that will drastically cut Labour’s funding (on top of Osborne’s cuts to Short Money), and gradually squeezing the accountability from local government and making it dance to the Treasury’s tune. It’s a comprehensive effort to tilt the electoral playing field in their favour, while proposed reforms to the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information Act will drastically shift power away from the individual and towards the already powerful.

Prioritising short-term policy victories over kong-term systemic reform wasn’t unique to New Labour, as it’s the same problem Nick Clegg had in the coalition, trumpeting tax credits and the Pupil Premium as major achievements while failing to deliver any deeper change to the democratic system. In both instances, it’s a case of a badly missed opportunity to deliver a fundamental change, and the Tories are now showing that while the centre and the left might miss those opportunities when they come up, they don’t.

Basic Income is the key to creating a liberal society

mphbasicMark Pack has written about his thoughts on whether Basic Income (or Citizen’s Income, as it was called when it was party policy in the 90s) should be Liberal Democrat policy again. He’s going off the idea of it, because he thinks you can achieve the same aims in welfare terms with modifications to Universal Credit, but I think he’s missing the wider implications of basic income and why I, and others, think it is the best option for creating a liberal society.

The principal problem with Mark’s approach is that he’s looking at basic income mainly as a welfare issue and how it would compare to the current system. For me, that misses the point about basic income: it’s not about making tweaks to the current system, but instead about proposing a completely new way of looking at issues of how we use the state to support and empower individuals. Part of this, I believe, comes from the way ‘welfare’ has replaced ‘social security’ over the last couple of decades, with all the connotations of it being handouts to the poor rather than providing a necessary security for everyone in society. To treat basic income as merely a ‘welfare’ policy is to miss the wider point of it.

Liberalism, for me, is about providing everyone with the opportunity and the power to live their lives to the full and a liberal state exists not just to protect people from the harm caused by others but to be proactive, distribute power and enable opportunity. A universal basic income, where society through the state provides a minimum standard of living to everyone without qualification, is the logical progression of other universal provision (such as education and healthcare) that was once seen as utterly utopian but is now widely accepted. A basic income is an inherently liberal idea because it creates opportunity for everyone by reducing risk. It gives people the ability to take entrepreneurial and creative risks because they know that the system is there to support them if they fail and give them the opportunity to try again.

One of the important questions we need to face is whether the vision we put forward of a liberal society is something that’s just a few tweaks away from what we have now, or something much more radical and different. The problem with the tweaking approach is that it ignores the widespread changes we’re going through with the advent of mass automation. (See, for instance, Scott Santens on the wider effects of self-driving trucks) Committing to widespread basic income coupled with other traditionally liberal ideas for redistributing power like Land Value Tax gives us the ability to set out an optimistic vision of a liberal future where automation is a good thing because it frees us from drudgery and gives all of us the opportunity to do more with our lives than merely toil away at work.

Basic income may not seem attractive when considered purely as a solution to ‘welfare’ issues, but it is so much more than that. We need to promote it not just as a policy idea amidst everything else remaining the same, but as part of a wider liberal reimagining of society. It’s a radical proposal to achieve liberal ends in the vein of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge, and it won’t be something easily argued for or conceded by those who would see their own power drastically reduced by it. Formulating and explaining a fully liberal vision for the future isn’t going to be an easy task, but basic income needs to be seen as part of a set of policies that will bring radical change, not just as another way of keeping things close to what they are now.

(And if you want to do more, there’s the Liberal Democrats for Basic Income group on Facebook)

What if Labour split? A Liberal Democrat perspective

laboursplitI’m still of the opinion that while a formal split in the Labour Party is possible, it’s not likely to happen. There are three options for those Labour MPs and members currently dissatisfied with the direction of the party: stay there, bunker down and wait for better times; give up and find something more productive to do with their time than party politics; or go off and either join another party or start a new one. As someone who was sure the Tories were about to split for about a decade from the mid-90s, I know the temptation to jump past the first two options to proclaim the third is definitely going to happen, but I’ve also noticed that predicted party splits usually fail to happen.

There are plenty of things that fall into the category of possible, but not likely that we still prepare ourselves for, just in case. That’s why I think that we as Liberal Democrats need to think about what a Labour split would mean for us as a party, and how we should react to it if it does happen. Of course, a lot of this depends on the nature of the split which could vary from a tiny group of ultra-Blairites forming the New Blairist Party to a significant chunk of the PLP jumping into the Moderate Sensible Centrist Party. (People with more interest in marketing than me will no doubt think up more plausible party names if these events ever happen)

There are three different approaches that the Liberal Democrats could take towards any new party that emerges from Labour in the event of a split: compete with it, work with it, or be part of it. What would these look like in practice?

Competing with it would be in the spirit of Cyril Smith’s advice about the SDP – ‘strangle it at birth’ – and the approach the party took towards the continuing SDP after the merger. It would be the party saying that the centre to centre-left of British politics is our turf and seeking to finish off any competitor at the ballot box before they could get established. Just like in 1989-90, it’d probably be a series of battles over who could come 3rd or 4th in by-elections and local elections. It’s a risky and high-stakes strategy, with the victorious party getting a lot of attention while the loser would face many ‘so what’s the point of you?’ questions.

The second option is to work with the other party, though this can cover a number of different relationships between the two. It conjures up images of the formal electoral alliance and co-operation of the SDP/Liberal Alliance but could be something much more informal ‘we won’t campaign hard in X if you stay out of Y’ type arrangements coupled with some Parliamentary co-operation. A lot of the pros and cons of this are the same as they were with the Alliance: increased electoral effectiveness and combined strength, tempered by having to deal with all the issues generated by the memberships and bureaucracies of two different parties. Within any working relationship between two parties there’s also the issue of the relative size of the two partners, both in Parliament and in the country, which will have knock-on effects in what both want from any partnership.

Finally, and probably the most controversial option, Liberal Democrats could join with any Labour splitters to form an entirely new party that includes both within it. From one angle, this would be fast-forwarding through the 80s, jumping straight over the Alliance stage and into the merger, with similar pros and cons: you’d have the advantage of having a single party, but forming that party would be a tricky process if you want to make it a truly broad church. This may seem an unlikely option at first, but one that I think could suddenly seem very plausible if a new party is formed and has initial popularity while Lib Dem fortunes in the polls stay low. A centrist/centre=left party split off from Labour would be attractive to many current Lib Dem supporters and members, and it might end up being in the best interests of the party’s aims to decide to formally become party of it rather than suffer the slow death of a thousand defections.

(There’s one option I haven’t included here, partially because it’s not technically a split, but also because I think it’s very unlikely to happen at least in the short-to-medium term: a Labour MP or MPs joining the Liberal Democrats. In Labour eyes, the party is still too tarnished from its time in coalition and doing too badly in the polls to make it a tantalising prospect, even before that MP has to come up with their answer to the Carswell Question and decide if they want to go from one party where the membership gets angry with the MPs over votes on Syria to another where the same thing happens.)

To reiterate my point at the start: a Labour split is possible, though not likely and the relevant conditions are now unlikely to change before next May. As Liberal Democrats, we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with discussing Labour’s woes and possible future to the exclusion of anything else, but we do need to be prepared for the possibility of a new party emerging relatively suddenly and have an idea of how we’re going to approach it should it happen.

My article in the new edition of Liberator

liberatorcoverI got the latest edition of Liberator in the post this morning, and was delighted to see that my article in it is mentioned on the cover. It’s based on the research I did for my Masters dissertation on the links between equidistance, tactical voting and Liberal Democrats winning seats and hopefully will prompt some thinking and discussion within the party. If you’re not a Liberator subscriber (still only £25 a year!) you’ll be able to read it when the edition is available online in the New Year, or you can read the blog post I wrote on the same subject a couple of months ago. You can also read Nick Harvey’s article from this issue on how the party lost seats because we believed our own propaganda too much)

If you have read my article, I’d appreciate any comments or thoughts people have, and I’m open to suggestions on topics to write about for future issues of the magazine if you liked this one.