2017 General Election Diary Day 8: Some lights in the depths of the tunnel

I achieved something today. By not watching Prime Minister’s Questions at lunchtime, I’ve successfully avoided watching it for an entire Parliament, and I really don’t feel I’ve missed out at all. Now, can I manage to do the same for BBC Question Time if I hold out for the next few weeks?

We seem to be hitting a slight turning point in the election buildup as news turns from who’s not standing to who actually is going to be up for election in June. Having had a week to get themselves together, local branches of all parties are having selection meetings and putting candidates into place, with some former MPs rushing to get themselves back into Parliament. Esther McVey has rushed to fill George Osborne’s Tatton seat, which means that while he’s off to become editor of a newspaper despite having no experience in journalism, he’s being replaced as an MP by someone with journalistic qualifications and experience.

In further ironic replacements, after their former MP Zac Goldsmith quit the party over Heathrow expansion to stand in an ultimately futile self-inflicted by-election, Richmond Park Conservatives have tonight selected a Conservative Party member who’ll be committed to the party’s manifesto which includes Heathrow expansion. The new candidate, coincidentally also called Zac Goldsmith, and sharing a similar background to his predecessor, is clearly not the same person because that would be silly and there’s no way they’d select the man who not only forced them into an entirely pointless by-election but somehow contrived to lose it.

Oh, it turns out they have, and it’ll no doubt turn out he made a pledge not to stand if there was a snap election because all words are now completely meaningless.

Tenuous link news takes us from Richmond Park, where the Greens didn’t stand a candidate in the by-election and supported the Liberal Democrats instead, to Brighton Pavilion where local Liberal Democrat members have tonight decided that they won’t be standing a candidate so as to improve Caroline Lucas’s chances of re-election in the seat. Maybe, just maybe, this might indicate that the circular firing squad is lowering its weapons and realising that there might be a better way of doing things.

One last piece of non-selection news: David Ward is not the Lib Dem candidate for Bradford East. From what I’ve been able to piece together, it seems that a loophole in the rules made him eligible for selection and his local party took advantage of that, and a few discussions at party HQ found a way to close that loophole and kick him out again.

The floaty heads of electoral doom will not be seen this year.
In other news, Jeremy Corbyn has achieved something today in making sure that TV debates won’t happen for this election. If everyone but Theresa May was ready to turn up, they might well have gone ahead and empty-chaired her, but now he’s said he won’t attend if she doesn’t, he’s now taken away any pressure there was on her to attend as well as meaning that broadcasters won’t be rushing to arrange debates without both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. So, everyone can join in a slow handclap for the strategic geniuses who though that up.

And finally, we turn to Election Leaflet Of The Day…but there isn’t one. Sadly, the only leaflets to have gone up on the site today (despite me waiting until really late to do this post) have all been local election ones. It’s like calling a snap election when no one’s prepared for it and lots of people are focused on the local elections for the next week means there are few general election leaflets being delivered right now. If you do get one, then do make sure you upload it as right now there’s a good chance it’ll be featured here and it might be seen by dozens of people.

Three things I’d do if I was Tim Farron today

I’m still debating whether to follow the example of 2010 and 2015 and do a daily general election post here. Part of me feels like I should if only solidarity with the academics who about elections and have suddenly found that they’ve now got to add ‘write an election book’ into their already overstuffed 2017 diaries. While I debate that, here’s the first of my election hot takes, as everyone with a blog is mandated by law to do at least one of these today.

This election has the potential to start rebuilding the Liberal Democrats as a Westminster force after the catastrophe of 2015. However, what Tim Farron has to be careful of is not falling into the trap of the Alliance in the 80s (and, to some extent, Clegg in 2010) of piling up lots of votes but not turning them into seats. To do that – and to have any chance of denying Theresa May an overall majority in Parliament on May 9th – I think he needs to do three things.

1) Keep up what he’s done for the last four hours – The party’s press team was on the ball, getting out press statements as May was speaking, and Tim was quickly delivering a clear and confident statement about the party and its prospects. Some of the framing was slightly lucky, but in PR terms, the fact that he was making his statement in the Cornish sun surrounded by activists while Jeremy Corbyn’s was delivered indoors in an empty room, is a good start at delivering the image of him and the party as active and campaigning. He (and the rest of the party) need to keep that up for the next seven weeks.

2) Make a statement about coalition – 2010-15 is still an albatross around the party’s neck, and ‘you’ll just go into coalition with the Tories again’ is still being repeated as a reason not to vote Lib Dem. He should look at the way Theresa May has pitched this election – her vision for Brexit against all those opposed – and take it as an opportunity. A statement on the lines of ‘Theresa May is committed to delivering a hard Brexit which we’re totally opposed to. There are no circumstances under which we could enter a coalition with the Conservatives or support them in Government after this election.’ would be entirely in line with the party’s policy and positioning. With Jeremy Corbyn talking about a ‘Brexit that works for you’, it would be a clear positioning of the party as the real opposition on the key issue of this election.

3) Make alliances with others – Given the current state of the polls, the only way to deny the Tories a majority is with widespread tactical voting. The only way to have a chance of getting widespread is for the parties to actively encourage it. Tim needs to demonstrate a real commitment to this and there’s an easy way for the party to do it: announcing we’re not going to oppose Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion. We already know she’s in favour of cross-party pacts, and making a clear signal like that is the opportunity for Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid Cymru, anti-Brexit Labour and Tories, and others to get together and work out where and how we can make deals for local electoral alliances. This election is too important for everyone to sit around waiting for someone else to make the first move, and Tim can use this opportunity to build a strong Parliamentary force against May’s Brexit.

Our political climate is changing rapidly, and this election will help create the future political rules of this country. It’s a time to take risks, not play it safe, and Tim needs to take the chance to put the Liberal Democrats at the heart of the new politics.

Early morning thoughts after Richmond Park

richmondparkIn a year of waking up to so much bad news, today has finally brought some cheer to 2016 with the news that Sarah Olney has defeated Zac Goldsmith to become the new Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park. Congratulations to her and the team who delivered this result – yes, it was a winnable by-election, but it still had to be won, and that takes a lot of effort from a lot of people to achieve.

The #LibDemFightback takes a big step forward

This is a great result for the party – the first by-election gain since Dunfermline and West Fife over a decade ago – and a continuation of the trend from local council by-elections of big swings from Conservative to Liberal Democrat, especially in areas that voted Remain in June. It’ll give a massive boost to campaigners across the country, and will likely result in more media coverage and attention. It may even prove to be one of those by-elections that helps to kickstart a rise in the opinion polls as a result of the new focus and coverage. The result should give Tim Farron and the party a bigger platform, now it’s up them to use it.

Progressive alliances can work

Richmond Park offered us a sight not seen since the 80s: multiple party leaders campaigning for a single candidate. The decisions by the Greens and WEP to not stand candidates in favour of endorsing Sarah Olney were as welcome as they were unexpected, and the narrowness of the result (Olney’s majority is smaller than the Green vote in 2015) means they were very likely a critical factor. I’ve said before here that we need to find ways to work together, and this bold step will hopefully lead to a whole lot more. Caroline Lucas and Jon Bartley deserve a lot of praise for making this happen, and for facing down those in their party who were opposed to it. Hopefully, this is the start of something between the parties, not just a one-off.

The question of working together could be a key issue across a lot of parties over the next few months, and might prompt some interesting divisions and new alliances. We’ve seen Scottish politics shift massively over the last few years as independence and unionism become the two key poles of political competition, might the rest of the UK now follow suit and realign around pro-European and pro-Brexit poles? When a Tory MP is cheering on a Lib Dem by-election victory, the tectonic plates of British politics might just be shifting a little bit more.

Labour losing their deposit: all of this has happened before and will happen again

Labour’s vote share fell from double figures to just 3.7% and they lost their deposit. Surely, this must mean they’re going to be wiped out at the next election? Maybe, except exactly the same thing (right down to the 3.7%) happened in the 2000 Romsey by-election, and they did OK in the 2001 election, as I recall. They also slumped lower than that when the Lib Dems gained Newbury and Christchurch at by-elections, which didn’t harm Blair too much in 1997.

Yes, the circumstances are different, but this feels more like a good old fashioned tactical squeeze of the Labour vote rather than some Corbyn-related calamity. Anecdotal evidence from people campaigning in Richmond Park was reporting a big anti-Goldsmith switch from Labour voters, eager to punish him for his nasty campaign against Sadiq Khan in May. There’s not really much good news for Labour in this by-election, but the bad news isn’t as bad as some will make it out to be.

Richmond Park: Don’t write off working with other parties

The AlternativeOne thing I wanted to write about after being at Lib Dem Conference in September were the fringe meetings about working with other parties. One was Caroline Lucas, Lisa Nandy and Chris Bowers, talking about their book The Alternative, while the other featured Lucas, Norman Lamb and Peter Kyle talking about similar issues as part of a Social Liberal Forum fringe.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the fringes didn’t result in a spontaneous desire to co-operate between the three parties, but I think they gave everyone there a decent amount of food for thought, and having read The Alternative since, it’s clear that people aren’t just thinking that shouting ‘progressive alliance!’ enough times will overcome all obstacles.

One line that’s stuck with me from the first meeting was something Lisa Nandy said: ‘we’ve all won fought and won lots of battles against each other, and while we were busy doing that, the Tories were winning the war.’ That’s what makes it especially interesting to see that she’s one of the Labour MPs who’ve called for the party to consider not standing a candidate in the Richmond Park by-election. Part of that comes from the rather odd situation of a by-election caused by an MP resigning to protest against Government policy only for the governing party to not stand a candidate against him. With the Tories having already left the field, it’s perhaps easier for Labour MPs to suggest their party does the same. (And according to this Guardian article, there’s a similar discussion going on in the Greens)

It’s an interesting idea, and perhaps a reflection of the interesting and febrile political times we’re living in that these suggestions have been made. It’s perhaps also a reflection that some people haven’t recognised this in the reaction I’ve seen from several Lib Dems online. There’s too much ‘we shouldn’t work with other parties’ and ‘those quotes will look good on the squeeze leaflets’ and not enough reflection on the possibilities that are opening up. Yes, if this was to happen, it might lead to the party having to make difficult decisions in the future, but if you want to change things you’re going to have to make difficult decisions and find ways to compromise with others. You can try glorious isolation in your idyllic world of never compromising, and maybe you can spend some time there mocking the Corbynistas for being naive about how to change things (it’ll stop both of you from looking in a mirror and making any discoveries about yourselves, anyway).

I stand by what I wrote back in July about similar reactions to the launch of MoreUnited:

We can sit around and wait for everyone to agree with us like we’ve done for most of the last century (a strategy of, at best, occasional and partial success) or we can get out there and try and find common ground we can build on. If we’re so convinced that that liberal arguments are correct, then why fear working with others when we should be able to persuade them to our way of thinking? Sure, it can be fun to sit around in a small group indulging in the narcissism of small differences, but maybe we’d be better off engaging with those we seek to dismiss and trying to persuade them to work with us and perhaps even getting them to agree with us? If we’re so convinced that they might be wrong on something, why not try and persuade them of that, instead of declaring them beyond the pale?

Let’s be prepared to reach out and play a role in building the common ground, instead of standing on the sidelines and complaining that we weren’t included when someone else builds it without us.

It’s fun to fight battles against each other, I admit that. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to win the war once in a while too, though?

The Greens, Citizens Income and how journalists still don’t understand how political parties work

After it flared up into media prominence over the last week, the Telegraph today eagerly covered the news that the Green Party won’t be including Citizens Income as a policy in their General Election manifesto.

However, there seems to be a problem with that news: it’s not true. Reading an account from a Green Party member, it seems that the party’s conference has insisted that the policy is included in the manifesto, and the Telegraph’s report is merely extrapolating wildly from some comments by Caroline Lucas. The member’s account suggests that she has opposed the inclusion of it in the manifesto, but even with that news, the Telegraph appears to be stretching her words. It reports that she said:

“The citizens’ income is not going to be in the 2015 general election manifesto as something to be introduced on May 8th. It is a longer term aspiration; we are still working on it,”

The key point they’re not factoring into their story is ‘as something to be introduced on May 8th’, instead focusing on the first part of the sentence. Let’s be honest, I don’t think even the most hardened support of a basic income scheme thinks it could be introduced quickly, and it helps to show the ignorance of reporters who believe that is the case.

However, I think this comes back to the point I made a couple of weeks ago about how journalists don’t understand how policy making within parties actually works. As someone with experience of seeing similar things in the Lib Dems, it’s almost pleasant to see another party being similarly misunderstood. Journalists like to believe that all political parties are run from the top down, not the bottom up, and of course ‘senior party figures’ are always happy to encourage this impression. So, when Caroline Lucas says something (and it’s misheard) it’s easy for them to leap to ‘the party has changed its policy!’ rather than ‘hmm, better check that for accuracy.’

It does make me think about the Iron Law of Oligarchy – the idea that all political organisations will progress from democracy to oligarchy over time – and whether the media have a role in encouraging and fostering that process. Could one even argue that social pressures and the expectation that an organisation will be run from the top are as much a pressure making it happen as the role of bureaucracy concentrating power in the organisation? Something else to add to the list of things I need to think about and write about some more…

Let’s work together for a constitutional convention

One reason why getting more democracy and devolution is going to be a tough fight, illustrated in three tweets from the last few hours:

That’s three different petitions for a constitutional convention from three sources you would expect to have had some contact with each other in recent times and so would have been able to co-ordinate their efforts. There’s lots of support out there for the idea of a constitutional convention and lots of people wanting to be involved in the discussion of how we get a better democracy. The problem is that at just the time there needs to be some co-ordination and people speaking with coherence on this, it’s all getting dissipated because those who should be co-ordinating are all off doing their own thing.

We have a fantastic opportunity, possibly the best in my lifetime, for some genuine reform and better democracy across the UK, but we’re going to need to work together to achieve it, and focus it on one thing at a time, not multiple attempts to get the same thing in slightly different ways. Are we going to let it slip and end up with some classic British constitutional fudge dumped on us from Westminster instead?