Stuck in the middle with who?

It’s been interesting watching the reaction from some to the Liberal Democrat victory in the Richmond Park by-election. One trend I’ve noticed is people (generally from the left) pointing out that Tim Farron hasn’t said that the party would never be in a coalition with the Tories again it means that the party is clearly just a bunch of evil Tories in disguise, can never be trusted and are somehow responsible for everything bad that has ever happened.

Now, while the interpretation might be a bit extreme, the basic fact is true in that Tim Farron hasn’t ruled out coalitions with anyone. (What he has done, however, is set out that any Lib Dem participation in coalition would be based on red lines like electoral reform without a referendum, that it’s hard to see the Tories agreeing to) However, there’s a reason for this, which is best illustrated by comparing his position to Paddy Ashdown’s back in 1992.

Back then, the party was well know for its policy of equidistance between the two main parties. Paddy’s Spitting Image appearances generally revolved around the phrase ‘neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere inbetween’, and polling showed that the public were pretty much evenly split on which party we were closest to. Then, a few weeks after the 1992 election Paddy gave a speech in Chard which declared a new strategic direction for the party. The party’s task for the next Parliament would be:

to create the force powerful enough to remove the Tories; to assemble the policies capable of sustaining a different government; and to draw together the forces in Britain which will bring change and reform.

That set the party on an explicitly anti-Tory path, which passed back and forth through various levels of co-operation and co-ordination with Labour, and eventually gave the party its best electoral performance in years at the 1997 election. (I’ve written a lot more about that here)

There’s plenty of people who would like to see Tim Farron make a similar declaration, but despite being from the left of the Liberal Democrats, he’s not in the same strategic position Ashdown was. For a start, Paddy was talking after thirteen years of Tory rule, which an unexpected election victory now threatened to make eighteen. That’s considerably longer than they’ve been in power now or will be by the time of the next election. Perhaps more importantly, Labour was in a completely different position. They’d just got 37% of the vote in the election under Neil Kinnock, who was about to be replaced by the very popular John Smith. Even though they’d lost the election, they were a credible alternative Government.

The problem Farron faces is that if he explicitly positions the party as anti-Tory, the immediate question from the media becomes ‘so you want Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, do you?’ Labour in 2016 are simply not a credible alternative government in the way Labour of 1992-97 were, and the way our media frame politics as a binary choice mean Farron’s options are limited for the time being.

All that being said, Farron also has to be conscious of a much bigger opportunity than Ashdown ever had: a realignment of British politics. The referendum and its aftermath has shown up a division in our politics that could supplant the left-right cleavage as the main determinant of voter identification and electoral choice. If that sounds far-fetched, remember that there are already two parts of the UK – Northern Ireland and Scotland – where questions of identity and nationalism drive the political debate much more than economic. If the politics of England and Wales follow a similar path and Leave/Remain (or nationalist/internationalist or open/closed) becomes the main political division then which side of left/right the Liberal Democrats support becomes a moot point.

If that happens, then the important issues for the Liberal Democrats are how to organise and co-ordinate a whole new wing of politics, which is an entirely different mindset to operating a party in the centre of it. It also puts Labour into a whole new set of troubles, trying to straddle a division and hold itself together while forces within it are pulling it in vastly different directions.

Farron’s having to play coy on the ‘which side do you support?’ question right now because giving a definitive answer weakens the party’s position, but if things keep changing, it might not be him who gets asked that question in the future.

1992 and all that: Useful advice from Paddy

220px-PaddyAshdownCampaigningOne interesting side-effect of my dissertation research has been looking at some of the responses to the 1992 general election. Any parallels to then are obviously inexact – Labour had a leadership contest then that didn’t threaten to split the party, for instance – but some of the reaction to the Tories’ fourth election victory in succession was to claim that everyone was doomed and John Major and Norman Lamont were now masters of all they surveyed in the political landscape. It’s interesting how much our conventional narrative of ‘Tories win election, then Black Wednesday happens’ elides the fact that there were several months between the two events when things looked very different.

It was in that gap – just a month after the election – that Paddy Ashdown delivered a speech in the town of Chard. It’s an important moment in the history of the party because it’s where Paddy began the process of switching the party’s strategy from one of equidistance between the two main parties and towards the goal of ‘realignment on the left’, a strategy first advocated by Jo Grimond in the 50s. The Chard speech didn’t make that leap in one go, but it does mark a clear positioning of the party as an ‘anti-Conservative’ one even though Ashdown is generally dismissive of Labour’s chances of recovery. Indeed, the idea that Labour was a hopeless case after an election defeat is perhaps the biggest parallel between 1992 and now – before Black Wednesday, things did look dire for Labour.

So the first lesson from 1992 is that in politics, things aren’t often as bad as they seem, and no matter how dominant a Government may look, events can always get in the way of even the best laid plans. No one expected that within twelve months of the 1992 that the Tories would have lost their reputation for economic confidence and would be facing guerilla warfare from their own back benches over the Maastricht Treaty.

The more interesting, and possibly important, lesson is how much of what Ashdown says in the speech is relevant today. Indeed, there are large sections of it that you could cut and paste into a speech for Tim Farron to give today, and they’d seem just as appropriate. Consider these as aims for the next five years, for instance:

to create the force powerful enough to remove the Tories; to assemble the policies capable of sustaining a different government; and to draw together the forces in Britain which will bring change and reform.

Or this as a reason why it needs to be done:

The poor, the unemployed, the homeless, those who have lost and will increasingly lose the small luxuries of hope as our public services continue to decline, our environment continues to get dirtier, and our pride in a compassionate and caring society withers away in the face of a continued Conservative assault on the things we took for granted as part of a civilized society only a few years ago. As we now contemplate our strategy for the years ahead, let us never forget that these are the people who sit huddled outside, waiting for us to get it right.

And this, on the role and ideology of the Liberal Democrats:

It is our task, as Liberal Democrats, to set our sails to the new winds which will blow through the nineties; to establish the new frontier between individual choice and collective responsibility; to draw up the practical means to change our economic system in order to respond to the environmental challenge; to liberate the political power of the individual within a practical system of government; to build a powerfully competitive economy, based on individual enterprise and founded on a flexible labour market; to create a taxation system whose purpose is not just to redistribute wealth, but also and perhaps chiefly, to redistribute opportunity; to extend ownership as a means of spreading wealth and diffusing economic power; to establish a network of individual rights which will fill the gap left by the death of collectivism; to rediscover pride in being English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish within a Britain that is big enough to allow different cultures and diffused government to flourish; to respond to the decline of the nation state in Europe without recreating the nation state on a European scale; to find practical means to strengthen global institutions so as to increase our capacity to act to preserve world peace and respond to global catastrophe.

It’s an interesting speech, and worth reading in full, but this is at the heart of it. At the time, the popular media caricature of Paddy, thanks to Spitting Image, was that he led a party that was ‘neither one thing, nor the other, but somewhere inbetween’ and this is an attempt to move beyond that by pushing forward a policy agenda that’s both liberal and of the left. Yes, it’s straying into some of the territory and language that Tony Blair would use for New Labour, but it was those similarities that allowed Ashdown and Blair to develop a working relationship after 1994, by which time Ashdown and the party had been able to develop the party’s position in more detail.

What’s important is that while Ashdown couldn’t predict the events of the next few years, he understood the fundamental pressures that would drive the party’s strategy. The nature of the political and electoral system meant it was unlikely that someone would defeat the Tories on their own, but combining efforts to achieve a common aim doesn’t mean you have to surrender your own identity to achieve it. That’s something we need to bear in mind over the next few years if we want a happier result in 2020, regardless of the events that come between now and then.

And one final idea to take away from that speech: Paddy proposed working with other parties in a National Election Reform Commission, which doesn’t seem to have taken flight back then, but in our more diverse politics with more high-profile parties seeking electoral reform, maybe now its time has come?

Merging Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be a bad idea, working together wouldn’t be

liblablieIt will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been at a Liberal Democrat Glee Club or said the words ‘Liberal Democrats’ to anyone in the Labour Party over the past few years that the general reaction to Jamie Reed’s proposal that Labour and the Liberal Democrats merge has been a resounding ‘no’ from both sides. It’s the sort of idea that people should dismiss as a non-starter, but because it was apparently seriously considered by both Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair in the 90s, it’s acquired a veneer of respectability and possibility that it doesn’t really deserve. It’s a bad idea that only looks vaguely plausible because of the distorting lens of the British electoral system – because two parties separately don’t get the representation in Parliament that’s commensurate with their separate shares of the vote, the assumption becomes that they must become one, and somehow combine their vote shares into something greater. That people vote for those parties based on their separate identities, and would not necessarily vote for a combined mush of the two, is assumed away.

There’s a reason that splits of political parties are much, much more common than mergers of them: it’s a lot more common and easier for people – especially politicians – to believe that they’re right and need their own organisation to prove it than it is for people from different groups to decide that they’d both be better off if they come together permanently. The merger that created the Liberal Democrats was the last major one in British politics, and that not only nearly killed the new party but also created two disgruntled splinter parties. That was with the benefit of two parties that had worked under an electoral part for two elections and where Roy Jenkins had initially considered joining the Liberal Party rather than establishing the SDP. Other mergers involving major parties (the Tories swallowing the Liberal Unionists and then the National Liberals) only happened after many years of the two parties involved having worked closely together.

However, it’s perfectly possible for parties to work together and co-ordinate electorally without merging. Indeed, it’s the sort of thing that happens regularly in other countries. It’s a lot easier to do that in a proportional voting system, of course, where parties within a grouping are free to compete with each other, knowing that moving votes from one party to another within that bloc won’t affect the overall electoral prospects of that bloc. For instance, assume a country with four parties (A,B,C, and D) that exist broadly as two blocs – A and B would usually work together in government, as would C and D, but a combination other than those two would be very unlikely. Now, imagine that A gets 30% of the vote, B 25%, C 40% and D 5%. In a proportional system, A and B can compete freely with each other and most likely would over the 5% of voters that would determine which of them is the largest party. However, their combined 55% of seats would put them into power. In the same way, C and D’s prime focus would be on trying to shift voters from the AB bloc to theirs. In a system like ours, though, we instead have a situation where A and B competing only benefits C, unless large chunks of B voters can be persuaded to switch to A (or vice versa).

In the latter situation, it might seem that the logical solution is to get A and B to merge, as they’ll get 55% of the vote – but only if all their existing voters will back the newly merged party. However, unless the two parties wer already nearly identical in their policy positions, that’s very unlikely to happen, as the newly merged party will have to try and find common ground between the two parties’ positions that will likely alienate former voters.

Before I detour completely into dissertation-land and regale you with more Downs and Mair theory on party positioning, I’ll try and get to a point – and for once on this issue, I find myself in general agreement with Paddy Ashdown.From the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, there was electoral co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and it proved to be one of the most electorally successful periods ever for both parties. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the majority of Liberal Democrat seats have been won from the Tories, or had the Tories in second place, and a lot of those were won thanks to co-operation with Labour – sure, it wasn’t official co-operation but there’s no doubt that there were plenty of seats in 1997 where one of the two parties put in very little effort which made it easier for the other to persuade voters to switch and back them as the best anti-Tory choice. (Incidentally, the bulk of the seats with Lib Dems in second place are now Tory-held)

I’m not saying that any agreement could be accomplished easily or quickly, but ruling it out entirely only plays into the Tories hands – the evidence suggests that they’re the ones who benefit the most when Labour and Liberals are too busy turning their noses up at each other to understand we share a common enemy. Yes, we’ll all have to sit through shouts of ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘Health and Social Care Act’ (whilst we shout ‘illegal war’ and ‘ID cards’ back, of course) but shouldn’t we at least see if something’s possible without ruling it out without even discussing it?

Farron-hunting season begins

I wasn’t at Liberal Democrat Conference last weekend, because I had a much more relaxing and stress-relieving weekend away booked instead, but it seems that the Conference was used to make a major declaration: we’re now in Farron season. Yes, those who’ve been waiting for months, even years, to begin having a go at the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale have been given official sanction to do so by Paddy Ashdown.

(And yes, in a week where the media’s been filled with the elder statesman of Top Gear being suspended for punching someone, it seems it’s still all right for former Marine commandos to threaten volunteers with violence if we say it’s only joking)

Farron season allows for threats on all fronts, so as well as being criticised for being too popular and too honest, he also finds ‘senior party insiders’ are briefing against him in the Times. Here he’s come up against the magician’s choice of politics, where whatever choice he’d made would be criticised on spurious grounds. Having weekly briefings as part of his Foreign Affairs brief apparently makes him ‘like Sarah Palin’, whereas if he didn’t have them he’d be attacked for being either uninformed or too arrogant to want them. In the same way, during the campaign he’ll either be criticised for ignoring his constituency and spending too much time helping others, or spending too much time worrying about his own majority while others are struggling.

It is interesting to see that despite the leadership’s claims that all is well and the party is heading towards inevitable Cleggite triumph at the election, whatever the polls say, there does seem to be a concerted attempt to amplify the Stop Farron messaging. It suggests to me that some people aren’t quite as confident about Clegg remaining leader after the election as he seems to be, and have realised that they need to be getting ready for the next fight. I suspect there are quite a few people currently in the leadership coterie who would be likely to not be so close to power if Tim Farron was in the role, but would remain there if someone else got the job, and they’re the sort of ‘senior party insiders’ who don’t get told to shut up and deliver leaflets instead of briefing the Times.

All in all, it seems to me that Tim Farron’s the one getting on with his job with the same candour he usually does it with, while others are skulking in the shadows, laying the ground for the fight after the election. It’s just another level of intrigue to add to an election campaign that’s turning into a giant policy-free soap.