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

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

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

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

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

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

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2015 General Election Day 35: Rock of pledges, cleft for me

milibandstoneAnd lo, it didst come to pass that someone in Labour HQ took the words ‘my pledges are carved in stone’ far too literally. I’ve been involved in enough election campaigns to know that at this point – five weeks in! – everyone’s starting to get quite frayed at the edges, and ideas that seemed poor a few weeks ago will suddenly look like utter genius because they’re new, fresh and different. You’ve been looking at the same leaflets in the same design for weeks, and so naturally the idea of carving your pledges into a massive block of stone will initially seem like the greatest idea in the history of political ideas. It’s just that at some point between the meeting that comes up with that and someone placing the order to the stonemason for it, there needs to be someone in the loop who says ‘hold on, has it not occurred to you that this is a really stupid idea?’

Indeed, there’s an idea for future Governments to implement. Just as ancient Rome tempered the ambition of the triumphant general with a slave telling them to remember they are mortal, so the Government could do with an Office of It’s A Bit Of A Shit Idea, Isn’t It? or an independent Institute of Mockery And Pointing Out The Obvious Flaws. During Parliaments, they could examine all proposed policy and then take on a wider role during elections, of informing parties just how silly their new idea would make them seem. I’ll happily take on the job of setting up one or both of them, especially as there’ll be no one yet in place to tell them how bad an idea that is.

Anyway, let’s pause for an election advert.


We’re into the all hands to the pump stage of campaigning now, where the priority is knocking on as many doors and delivering as many leaflets as you can before polling day and hoping no one makes a major error that messes everything up. It’s a chance to try and tactically squeeze as many voters as possible, and deliver enough messages to your supporters just in case they’ve forgotten it’s election day on Thursday. People who live in marginals and have gone away for the bank holiday weekend will likely come home to small mountains of leaflets delivered while they were gone.

So with just a few days to go, competition for the final places in my minor party of the day slot has reached fever pitch. Or no pitch at all, leaving it entirely up to me to choose the Young People’s Party and its two candidates as today’s party. The first thing I’m going to say is the obvious one: looking at the pictures of senior party figures, they don’t look that young. Young by the standards of most people involved in politics perhaps, but not young by the standards of society. Their manifesto is interesting and goes some way to explaining the name as they’re an explicitly Georgist party, strongly in favour of Land Value Tax because it supports the ambitions of the young more than the current system in their view. Indeed, the manifesto is interesting because it starts strongly with calls for LVT and Citizen’s Income, but slowly descends into oddness and down the pub ‘I reckon’ policies that moan about political correctness and sub-Clarksonian moaning about climate change science. It’s a party I can’t quite see the point of – though it’s always good to see Georgism being promoted – and one I doubt will be causing any great shocks on Thursday.

Today on election leaflets, we find that Dennis Skinner doesn’t even stick to the party line for leaflet design. The only concession to modernity appears to be that the photo is now in colour, but his style of campaigning has kept him in Parliament for 45 years, so why change it? Elsewhere, I know I’ve said I want leaflets to look different and use varied design principles, but this independent candidate in Bath appears to have gone a bit too far down the ‘leaflets that look like they’re from an estate agent’ path. Or for crazy leaflets, Mike Nattrass is still pushing his ‘An Independence From Europe’ party, complete with scary photo, and going back a few weeks to one of the earliest nutty leaflets I featured, Mike Walters has now discovered he can’t call himself an SDP candidate so is now an ‘independent troublemaker’, though I suspect the Poppy Appeal may be complaining about the picture on the back.

As I was writing this we went past the point where there were 100 hours left until the polling stations close on Thursday. The election’s getting very close, very fast…

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After lamenting the lack of public engagement in the campaign yesterday, I should start this post with some praise for our local Greens who have held a public meeting for people to meet and question their candidates. If you want to know what happened there…you’ll have to check out the Colchester Chronicle who’ve been live-tweeting from it. They’ve called it ‘Grill The Greens’, and the pedant in me would like to point out that one needs to steam your greens to get the best taste and nutrition from them.

Here’s a thought: given that we’ve known the date of this election and the start of the campaign for several years, why have none of the major party manifestos been launched yet? We’ve had campaigning and press events since launch, we had the official start of the ‘short campaign’ last Monday, I’ve been writing these blog posts for 13 days so far, and yet still no one has come out with the official list of the policies they want to implement in Government. We’re told they’ll likely come out next week – though I expect someone at Tory HQ is frantically rewriting it to include the new pledges they’ve come up with over the last couple of days – but there’s no reason they couldn’t have been launched back when the campaign started. (That way, of course, we’d also know which of this week’s policies were always planned, and which were scribbled on the back of an envelope)

Polling is now discovering important information about voters in Britain, with the revelation that people called Tim are more likely to vote Lib Dem than anyone else. Many in the Lib Dems may question the validity of the research when they note that Lynne is the third least Liberal Democrat-supporting name. I can think of at least two who’d disagree. But at least we know that ‘come on Tim’ is a proper Lib Dem rallying cry.

Today’s news from Election Leaflets is that the SDP is still with us, and standing a candidate in Kent. Unfortunately, not against Farage in Thanet South, but over in Gillingham and Rainham (though while his leaflets say SDP, the official statement of persons nominated has him with no description). There have been some lingering continuing SDP candidates since David Owen’s original continuing SDP was wound up in 1990 with one of their last councillors dying last year.

However, I would question if this candidate is actually part of the official SDP or a chancer borrowing the name, especially given the lack of a party description on the official list (you can only use a party name as a description if your nomination is supported by that party’s Designated Nominating Officer). It’s true that micro parties can go through some odd changes in ideology (the continuity Liberals stood as part of the hard left No2EU slate for the 2009 European elections) but here the SDP name appears to have been appropriated by a right-wing political gadfly and previous English Democrats candidate who uses this leaflet to complain about various other parties he’s been involved in and rant about immigration.

Whether he is official SDP or not is hard to tell as the only website for the party I can find is a bizarre string of rants and conspiracy theories that doesn’t seem to have much relationship to anyone standing for election. However, this is the rather odd world of fringe and micro parties in British politics where many odd people tend to gather and then fall out each with each other. (Major party politics is where odd people gather, grit their teeth, and pretend to get on with each other)

We’re a third of the way through the election campaign – 13 days gone, 26 to go until election day. However, voting will be starting much sooner than that as the postal ballots will start going out within the next week and at least one reporter is taking up a suggestion I made last time and trying to find the first voter in the country:

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From a comment on Lib Dem Voice:

It is my expectation that, when the Tory right seeks to exert their power and to remove Cameron as leader, that many would give serious consideration to leaving the Tory party and joining the more moderate Liberal Democrats.

To borrow a phrase: sadly, no.

I’ve been following and involved in British politics for at least two decades now, and one constant of that time has been confident predictions of imminent splits in one party or another. I’ve made quite a few of them myself, and it’s this long tradition of failed predictions that has taught me that large-scale party splits are an incredibly rare event in British politics. Even singular defections are pretty rare, and they increase in rarity with the seniority of the potential defectee – the most senior defectee in recent times would appear to be Shaun Woodward.

I think attitudes can be coloured – and particularly in the Liberal Democrats – in that we are in a period where there has been a comparatively recent major party split when the SDP formed in 1981. Rather than being a part of regular politics, though, that was an exceptional event, notable because large numbers of MPs and senior party figures (including former Cabinet members) left one party and formed another. Aside from the contortions over the National Government and Mosley’s New Party in 1931, the last time that had happened in British politics was Chamberlain and the Liberal Unionists in 1888.

What tends to happen in British politics is that those disheartened by the direction of their party take one of two courses. They stay and fight, trying to bring the party back to the position it had before or they decide to give up on active politics altogether and find a new way to occupy their time. In terms of the contemporary Conservatives, one could see Ken Clarke as an example of the first and Michael Portillo as an example of the second – those who take the second option usually try the first one before moving on. They very rarely switch to another party, even one of their own creation.

It’s easy to say ‘that’ll definitely split the party’ but permanent large-scale splits are a very rare occurrence in British politics. What’s much more common is the losing of conviction and the withering away of the minority. You’re much more likely to see former rebels making documentaries than signing up for another party.

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