Monday, July 27, 2015

Forgetting the lessons of History

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the "polls" for the leadership of the Labour Party is, well, absurd. He is practically the textbook example of the unreconstructed Marxist hard left. A product of the sixties North London Poly, and a long time columnist for the Morning Star, which for younger readers is a comic inspired by Leninism. For goodness sake, even his parents met as peace campaigners during the romantic Socialist defeat of the Spanish Civil War! Yet the fact is that this totally unreconstructed dinosaur, a stalwart of mistaken and lost causes throughout his entire political career still looks better than the three overachieving Oxbridge high-flyers that he is pitted against.

The Labour Party, despite the Social Democrat interlude of Tony Blair, was founded and in important aspects remains a Socialist Party. The battle over Clause IV- which committed Labour to Communist style state ownership of the means of production- may have been won by Blair and his cohorts, but particularly amongst the Unions, the ultimate goal of state control has never truly been abandoned. The New Labour modernisers, whether "Blairite" or "Brownite" were only ever one stream- albeit the dominant one- in the Labour river. As the surge to Corbyn shows, there remains an Old Labour stream, and one that, in the face of disillusionment with the fruits of New Labour, has acquired a new impetus.

So what? All it surely means is that after flirting with disaster Labour will elect Burnham, but very probably the Tories will clean up again in 2020. Certainly that is the conventional wisdom being peddled across the Op-Ed pages of the UK press.

Except I think that is to miss the point of what actually happened in the 2015- and even the 2010 election. The electorate is more fickle and less ideologically committed that ever. Fewer than ever are voting for the old choice of Left versus Right. Although the Leftist groups rally to the Corbyn banner speak in terms of ideology, in fact it is the brand authenticity of Corbyn that has most appealed- I think temporarily- particularly to those who have no memory of the dismal failure of the Hard Left of the 1980s. For those of New Labour, steeped in the language of advertising, it must be both galling and astonishing that Corbyn has advanced on territory that they might have legitimately claimed as their own. For there is certainly enough truth in the accusation that in focusing simply on selling the message, the heart -for want of a better word- of Labour has been lost. Even if, as we may still expect, Burnham is ultimately elected, the Labour Party has exposed a point of weakness that will be mercilessly exposed by the terrifyingly well funded Conservatives.

Labour can not rebuild on the basis of the old "New Labour". Yet the fundamental truth is that Socialist ideology, as offered by Jeremy Corbyn, is a total failure: you might as well advocate Imperial Preference or go back to the Corn Laws for all the value the stale thinking that Socialist State Control offers us.   

So the surge to Corbyn truly is serious. It implies that the Socialist puritans would prefer to retreat into the failure of the past, rather than actually tackle the serious problems of the future. In the 1980s, the electoral system saved a backward looking Socialist Labour Party from oblivion, but thirty years later, it seems to me that the electorate may now simply choose not to vote Labour at all- and with FPTP, we can not exclude a Scottish style wipe-out across the country. So the rise of the Hard Left may yet do to Labour what it threatened to do in 1983: send them crashing to defeat they can never recover from.

Of course that may prove to be the seed of a massive political come back for the Liberal Democrats, and the abortive political realignment - the breaking of the mold- that was promised, and which seemed to be a possibility if Blair had led a minority government in 1997, may finally take place. One thing is clear: the Constitutional crisis of FPTP, the position of the different nations in the Union, the scandal of the unelected House of Lords- thanks for reminding us John Sewel- and all the rest of it, cannot long be ignored.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Osborne sows the political wind

They sow the wind
    and reap the whirlwind.
The stalk has no head;
    it will produce no flour.
Were it to yield grain,
    foreigners would swallow it up.


Hosea 8-6

The first Conservative budget in 19 years is an act of of political hypocrisy so astonishingly blatant that it is hard to know whether to cringe at the opportunism or applaud the cynicism.

George Osborne has the reputation as a masterful political tactician. Certainly he has been a astute observer of the political weather and occasionally he has been something of a rainmaker himself. His first Conservative budget is certainly far stronger from a political point of view that it is from an economic one. Take the Minimum Wage, which for the purposes of politics he re-branded as the "living wage". He portrayed the large increase as a "pay rise for Britain", yet the quid pro quo has been such a sharp reduction of in-work benefits that even such a "pay increase" will leave the working poor worse off. Now don't get me wrong here: I have been and remain a sharp critic of the tax credit system which is complicated, unfair and incredibly expensive to administer. Osborne has given notice that in time he intends to scrap this subsidy to employers who will not pay fair wages. However this budget makes the system even more unfair, even more complicated and even more expensive. 

You might have thought that it would be impossible for the UK to have a more complicated and expensive tax system- it has the longest tax code in the world: over 16,000 pages long. Osborne has managed to increase the complications of the system, and with it the regulatory burden and the cost of compliance. At a time when the tax code is already an intolerable burden on small businesses, Osborne has made it worse. Neither is this pernicious over regulation confined simply to one area- the welcome reduction of subsidies to the buy-to-let sector is also simply part of an "interim solution", which again makes the tax position even more complicated.  From a political point of view it allows the Tories to keep their options open- to attack the foreigners who "buy to leave" in London, benefiting from the complicity of HM Treasury in the distortion of the UK housing market, or to gain further donations from those who have made the second home market their pension pot. Politically astute it maybe, but from an economic point of view it is horseshit.

This budget is emblematic of the whole of Cameron's Conservative approach- play the political ball rather than establish a connected strategy. This is certainly true of David Cameron's European policy. It seems self evident that the PM does not intend to be the man who takes the UK out of the EU, and thus, within the current European context he will need to accept the limitations set out by the other 27 member states: namely no major treaty changes. This of course is hardly the red meat that the anti-EU rump amongst the Conservatives are looking for. Nevertheless Cameron is nothing if not a lucky politician, and as the Labour party enters a long period of convulsive introspection and as the Liberal Democrats ponder the agony of effort to recover from the 2010 defeat, the PM may yet have sufficient political capital to cut the EU Gordian knot. As the political wind turns against UKIP it looks as though Cameron's political folly of the referendum may yet be a high wire act that he can pull off.

Nevertheless, Osborne can not pull off the Pollyanna optimism of the current incumbent of Number 10- he is more the Mandelson or the Iago of the Conservative party.  This political budget was Osborne's statement of intent: settling scores- including with his chief rival, Boris Johnson- rather than setting out a coherent long term agenda. Thus even as Osborne basks in admiration from his own side at the political slight of hand that has left Labour in chaos, the fact is that he is setting the seeds for his own destruction. When Cameron steps down, presumably after the success of an EU referendum, then Osborne will be facing quite a different political environment. As the clouds gather over Scotland, and the mess of the UK tax code becomes a crisis, I suspect he will look back on July 2015 with a sense of "never glad, confident morning again". 

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Building a Scottish Liberal Consensus

 The 2015 general election has seen a change in direction in the politics of the UK, yet in Scotland the change seems not far short of a revolution. The astonishing advance of the Scottish National Party- taking all but three seats in Scotland, despite failing to gain even a bare majority of the votes cast, still less the total electorate- was certainly one of the most eye-catching aspects of the election result. 

For the more avid nationalists, the general election result is proof that the independence movement has become unstoppable and that Scotland will- despite the hiccough of the 2014 referendum- become independent in pretty short order.

Yet the referendum result is hardly likely to be set aside so easily- not least because the total votes the SNP gained in 2015 is still a lot less even than the number of losing votes for Yes and it is still quite probable that Scotland - faced with a drastic fiscal deficit and dramatically declining North Sea revenue- would reject independence a second time should the referendum be repeated.

Scotland thus faces a deadlock: a Nationalist bloc trying to alienate Scotland from the rest of the UK, yet with increasingly ever less economic basis for a viable independent state. For the current Parliament, the concerns of Scotland seem set to be ignored, and the SNP has little voice and less power to influence the direction of the Conservative government. The SNP will play on a sense of grievance to promote a more alienated and frustrated Scottish electorate, yet in truth their ability to do more than irritate is strongly limited.

What then for the non-nationalist majority of Scottish voters?

For the time being the  Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats find themselves on a surprisingly level playing field: the power of the Labour machine has been comprehensively weakened, while the Conservatives have made progress, especially against the Liberal Democrats in wealthy east cast seats. Yet despite the collapse of the Lib Dems in Edinburgh, in the North east and the Highlands there are still prospects that may allow them to make gains at the next election for the Scottish Parliament. Admittedly such any such recovery would be from the depths of the greatest nadir, but still it may be that the 2016 Scottish election will be a much brighter result than the 2011 one. Meanwhile, the SNP too thinks it can make yet further gains, presumably from Labour. The result next year, therefore, seems set to be rather "unpredictable".

For what it is worth, despite the advance of the SNP at the general election, there is some evidence that SNP support may indeed do no more than hold at the Holyrood election. This opens up some significant questions as to what might be done to advance the cause of Liberalism in Scotland.

The situation for the Scottish Liberal Democrats is rather different than it is for the rest of the party in the UK at large. Firstly, Scotland already functions under a reasonably proportional regime, so the constitutional question that has so damaged the party in the House of Commons does not apply to the Scottish Parliament. As a result, the manifesto for Holyrood will need to be a far broader discussion than the laser-like focus that is now needed on the constitution at the UK level. The question is going to be one of priorities for Scotland: economic, social, and indeed political. 

Alastair Campbell suggested, after the tragic death of Charles Kennedy, that Charles was considering the prospect for a new unified progressive party to contest the elections in Scotland and take the fight to the SNP. Although each of the non Nationalist parties: Conservative, Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats, have ended up in the same place with one MP apiece, the momentum behind each of the parties is not the same. The Conservatives have made some small but solid progress- and as the UKIP bubble deflates, they may recover a good deal further. Meanwhile Labour is facing pressure across the board, and the legacy of decades of Tammany Hall style politics which caused the wipe-out of 2015 may yet find an further echo in 2016. Nevertheless even though the fact of fairer votes in Scotland may well limit the damage in the short term, the direction of travel for Labour in Scotland does not look good. This probably explains why Alastair Campbell, historically the most tribal of Labour loyalists- was kite-flying a "new progressive party" or even a Labour-Lib Dem alliance, which he suggested was on Charles' mind before his death.

What then should the Scottish Liberal Democrats be thinking of, as we consider the options and prospects for the 2016 Holyrood elections?

The question implies setting the goals that the party wants to take forward, and the fact is that the centre of gravity of the Scottish Liberal Democrats is still quite a fair way from that of the Labour Party. The individualist, dissident mind set of Lib Dems does not sit well with the collectivist patronage that has disfigured much of Labour's way of doing business. On the other hand the Conservative Party is now an even more bitter enemy: the utter ruthlessness of the Tory campaign against the Lib Dems has left a legacy of bitterness that will take many years to overcome. Thus, when we consider where we can find more votes, it seems clear that political alliances- formal or informal- are unlikely to work. The question then for the party will be the principles and the positioning.

From the point of view of what is right for Scotland, the left wing consensus between Labour and the SNP has got to be challenged. The statist Labour years have now been made even more damaging by the centralisation and patronage distributed by the SNP: neither is the recipe for the dynamic Scottish economy that we all want to see. The delusional economic policies put forward by the SNP as a platform for independence were deservedly rebuffed by the electorate, and yet the Nats refuse to learn the lesson. Thus the Liberal agenda is both Anti Socialist and Anti Nationalist. The Community aspect of Liberalism- promoting mutual, co-operative and local ownership- is attractive, yet difficult to distill into clear messages. Even still, local control and local ownership are clearly a necessary antidote to the centralisation of the other parties.

In the end it will be the attitude of the party that will determine whether we make progress in May. I believe that, despite the hammer blows that the party has taken in the past few years, culminating in the catastrophe of May 2015, there is every prospect that the Scottish Liberal Democrats can move forward. What the party must consider is whether we should step out and attempt a political re-alignment and, whether or not we do that, what the priorities must be for us going forward.    

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Liberal Democrats can now have only one single purpose



As time has gone by, the message of the 2015 general election becomes even more bleak for the Liberal Democrats. Amid much talk of #LibDemfightback I see a party struggling to cope with the magnitude of the catastrophe that has befallen it. Frankly the policy discussions that are being put together as part of the leadership election campaign are a exercise in self delusion and denial. 

There is only one discussion and only one policy that can offer the Liberal Democrats any relevance or viability at all: It is the constitutional crisis that threatens to destroy the very fabric of the country. 

2015 was one of the most blatantly unfair elections in British history - certainly since the passage of the Great Reform bill in 1832. Less than 25% of the electorate have supported the Conservatives, and yet they have 100% of the power. That is an absolute scandal. In Scotland a party that gained the support of 36% of the electorate has all but three of the Parliamentary seats. This is terrifying, especially since this party is a populist ragtag that holds the British constitution in utter contempt. As well they might, even though they have benefited so strongly from it.

The Conservatives are triumphant, because they have played a ruthless game against the Liberal Democrats, and we have been comprehensively defeated. Although Tim Farron thinks that "campaigning" can eventually bring us back into contention, I am not convinced. Party politics as a participation sport is dying on its arse. The idea that we can continue to play the game of political snakes and ladders and make some kind of come back by doing what we did before is not viable. The ladders are very short, and the snake we have just fallen down has actually taken us back to the point where we need a double six to even start the game. We do not have the money or the members to simply repeat the thirty-forty year battle that brought us back from the previous rout. The generations are passing and ageing, and the party may like to think that it can appeal to "youth" with some cheesy and rather insincere positioning, but since no other party- with the exception of the SNP- has, I find it hard to believe. We need to play a different game entirely.

The Liberal Democrats core policy, core belief, is the urgent need to change the way we are governed.  Radical constitutional reform is now critical for the survival of the country, and without it the UK probably does not have a future, so all the detailed policy wonkery in the world is just so much intellectual masturbation unless the roots of power are changed dramatically and irrevocably. I will address my Scottish colleagues in a separate blog, but for the UK Liberal Democrats focusing on campaigning will not get us back.

So I will be voting for Norman Lamb, mostly because I agree with him on core issues. Sure Tim represents "change" in that he did not take responsibility for either the mistakes or indeed the achievements of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition. Norman Lamb did take responsibility- indeed served as a minister- and was far more respected in the Parliamentary party and the country as a result. What I have heard from Tim Farron is that campaigning can recover our losses. I think that is intellectually empty. What I have heard from Norman Lamb is that Liberal principles can help us create an unconventional recovery- focused on the gathering constitutional crisis that lies ahead of us.

The only thing that Liberal Democrats should be talking about now is the the crooked, dishonest and outrageous political system. We should shame the Tories over the House of Lords, We should demand a Federal system and we must insist on fair votes. We have no means of changing educations, health, welfare or any other part of state policy- we can start a campaign to change the state. In fact it is the only way we can ever restore a Liberal voice in government.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

To speak of a friend

A man who smoked, who famously refused to exercise, who even more famously drank way too much, who was middle aged, male and Scottish has died only 55. In a way, therefore, Charles Kennedy was a young death foretold. Yet, still it has been a heartbreaking day for those who admired him, or liked him or who knew him.

I know that there have been a hundred "the Charles Kennedy I knew" pieces in every media outlet today. It is hard to offer anything more than cliche or stereotype.

I have known Charles since I was 19, and he was 25. I -like so many others- was caught in his charm: his all too human charm. His death was not necessarily a surprise, but my God it has been a shock. A bitter reminder of how near mortality really is. 

What has made this day so painful has been to understand that Charles, as brilliant, warm, clever and charming as he was, never did escape the doom that was pronounced upon him when he was elected aged only 23 as the MP for the West Highlands. It was the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to him. It made him as a public figure, but perhaps it was the undoing of him as a man. 

For when I first met him he had much of the same awareness of himself as a public figure as Lembit Opik had when he too was first elected to the House of Commons -far too young. In the face of such expectations and adulation, it was hard to retain a sense of self, but whereas Lembit was a secure extrovert, Charles was not. As Alastair Campbell noted in his touching eulogy today, there was a corner of Charles that very few, if any, ever really knew. Outwardly controlled and confident, inwardly Charles was shy, and intense and eternally questioning: he was a sceptic, but most of all he questioned his own motives and his own agenda. This made him a unique political figure but it made him also a man who would never give himself the benefit of the doubt.

He was a man of passion: David Bowie, good debate, the Highlands, alcohol, politics, people, music, all found their place in the heart of this big hearted man. He was a later convert to Liberalism, having made a political migration to become a convinced Liberal, but in truth there was no other cause that a man of such integrity could have truly followed.

To see today the genuine pain and loss that his many friends feel at his death is to understand that this flawed, occasionally difficult, even impossible, man was so beloved. People liked Charles: he was all too human.

Yet though I have known him superficially for decades, I never truly knew him, for in the end he was a withheld and private man. Perhaps he believed in a purity of spirit which invites disappointment; perhaps he never found a place of comfortable observation. He was a remarkable intelligence, a gifted speaker- as all good University debaters should be- and a shrewd judge of character, yet he judged himself harshly, and his conscience would not admit of the slightest moral compromise. Kind to others and too harsh to himself.

Charles Kennedy had an acute and ready understanding of politics. His idea of a new party for Scotland may yet prove to be the future, but it will only work if it has Charles' own warmth, tolerance and humanity. Internationalist, Liberal, European, Highlander, British. open and decent: this was the man. 

May his legacy and Liberal vision live on.      

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Stages of Grief: the journey to Constitutional Liberalism

Tim Farron has, famously, compared the resilience of the Liberal Democrats in the face of discouragement to the supposed indestructibility of cockroaches even after nuclear war. Paddy Ashdown too, often praises the strength of will of the activists of the party. In the face of the worst general election result in more than half a century, the surge in membership applications for the Liberal Democrats is a small sign of optimism after the disaster. Yet the scale of defeat is so large that to rebuild in any conventional way will take many decades. Indeed, with the significant economic, social and demographic changes underway in British society, the grim truth is that a recovery in the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats may not be possible at all. Meanwhile all of us are working through the stages of grief that this defeat has caused us.

The lessons of both the coalition and the general election are slowly emerging from the smoke of disaster, and the first lesson is that this defeat, far from being the result of any actions of the party in government, has in fact been a very long time in the making. Indeed one can argue the case that the tipping point in the fortunes of the party dates back to the election of Charles Kennedy as party leader, over a decade and a half ago. Certainly the Liberal Democrats would not be the first organisation where the end of a charismatic spell of leadership- in this case that of Paddy Ashdown- showed up weaknesses that had been less obvious before. Although under Kennedy's leadership the popularity of the party surged after it took the risky but principled step to oppose the Iraq war, the fact is that organisational problems were already emerging. It was not just the rapid turnover of the leadership, following Charles' alcohol-mandated removal in favour of Ming Campbell and then Nick Clegg, there was also the rapid turnover of Chief Executives, after the long reign of Chris Rennard, the brief reign of Chris Fox and then Tim Gordon. The bitterness caused by the allegations against Lord Rennard was at least as toxic to the Liberal Democrat brand as the vexed issue of tuition fees- and alienated far far more activists, members and supporters. 

The fact is that the 2015 General Election disaster was merely the latest of a series of Liberal Democrat setbacks, which actually long antedated the advent of the coalition. Local government results were becoming fairly ho-hum even before the 2005 general election. Let us not forget too the result of 2005: where, although the Liberal Democrats advanced by 11 seats, the Conservatives even under the reviled Michael Howard, were able to gain three times more, and the Liberal Democrat "decapitation" strategy was almost completely unsuccessful. The 2010 election brought further disappointments, and indeed the loss of five seats. Subsequent elections have seen the near wipe out of the party at every level, from local councils to Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections, to European elections. The 2015 defeat merely completes the cycle.

So although many will point the finger of blame for the wipe-out on the actions or otherwise of the party in government, in fact the crisis is even more deep seated, which is, arguably, why the Nick Clegg apology strategy failed- it did not address the real reason why the British public has been turning away from the Liberal Democrats for far longer than the term of a single Parliament. In my view the problem is the failure of the party to articulate a single coherent message. The ambiguity of the Liberal tradition is partly a function of the ideology and partly a function of the confusion of the members themselves. Liberalism is not a grand theory, it is a set of principles about how to approach the business of government. 

The fact is that there are roughly equal numbers of members who focus more on equality than freedom; as against those who focus more on freedom than equality or those who focus more on community than either equality or freedom. Our generally well educated activists understand that this debate remains unresolved, but the voters do not and sense that different messages are put out in different places. The bitterness of the battles currently taking place on Liberal websites and blogs reflects this unresolved conflict between so-called social Liberals and so-called economic Liberals. For me it is not that either side has the monopoly of truth, it is that there is still no agreed language to negotiate the divide.

So, if it has not been possible to define the party ideology in a crisp sentence- and believe me it has not been for want of trying- there has also been a stunning failure of strategy. The guiding principle of the party, pretty much since inception, has been the need for wholesale reform of the system of government and the business of the state. For my part it is the urgent need to radically reform our constitution that has driven my membership dating back to 1979. It is not just the need for a new electoral system, but for a new system of control over Whitehall; the end to a Parliament with any appointed or hereditary component whatsoever; a radical decentralisation of power; the creation of a genuinely Federal country and the complete package of change that is now a century overdue. We achieved a coalition and were not able to gain a single one of our key agenda points. No House of Lords Reform, no change in the structure of the Cabinet or of Whitehall and most crucially of all, no fair votes. We were outmatched and out played by the Tories at every point and despite our record of competent managerialism in office it is that failure to achieve constitutional change that has been the major cause of the scale of our defeat.

Now it is to that auld sang of constitutional reform that we must return, if we are ever to recover. Simply put there is no doubt that the popularity of the political class- or rather lack of it- is such that the idea of radical change is a pretty easy sell. Furthermore, the fact of having so few MPs will make it impossible to cover the full gamut of the work of government. It seems to me that we should make a virtue of necessity and instead of expending too much effort on the old social vs economic Liberal argument, we should unite as constitutional Liberals.  This is not to say that we should abandon internationalism, human rights, pro Europeanism and all the other definition points of Liberalism, but rather all of these should be defined within a single message of the overwhelming need for constitutional change. Furthermore there are a lot of votes now up for grabs. The success of the SNP and the 3.8 million votes cast for UKIP underlines the volatility of the electorate, which is now more than willing to abandon long-standing allegiances. Yet both UKIP, now mired in post  election recriminations and even the SNP face a real challenge to keep their new voters loyal. 

The SNP have still not achieved the majority of votes cast at a general election, and their success- so flattered by the electoral system that has given them all but three Scottish seats despite gaining less than 50% of the vote- will come under pressure after it becomes clear that they have very little room for manoeuvre. A bare 9 months on from the last referendum, there is no chance of any repeat during the course of this Parliament and thus the door to independence is still closed. This gives the Liberal Democrats, whose results in Scotland were far less bad than the rest of the UK, the possibility to regroup. I shall leave my thoughts on the future of the Scottish Lib Dems for another blog, but suffice it to say, I believe that the relatively stronger position that the party has can become a foundation for recovery, even as soon as the Scottish Parliamentary elections next year.

As for UKIP, the EU referendum in expected 2017 may keep them alive, but to be honest, I doubt it: they lack the ruthlessness killer instinct that has driven the SNP forward. The rise of UKIP unquestionably diluted the USP of the Liberal Democrats as the party of none of the above, their growing weakness gives us a future opportunity to gain the "sod-'em-all" vote back.

Meanwhile there is the question of Labour. London-centric, middle class and out of touch they too had a dreadful election. Nor does their future look particularly great. Away from London they held a mere handful of seats in the South, and their hold on Wales is beginning to look like it might go the same way as Scotland. The Labour leadership campaign has seen several of the more interesting candidates falling victim to the media or the difficulty of the process itself. Though they have the crumb of comfort of knowing that they did far better than the Liberal Democrats, there seems little sign that the workers party can make more than cosmetic changes to themselves. Andy Burnham presents himself as worthy and slightly dull: he won't frighten the horses, but is not likely to scare his opponents either. Certainly the idea of a "big open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats" to create a platform for Radical reform is unlikely to come on his watch. Labour has long ago lost "the vision thing".

So although the demand for reform is clearly out there, the Liberal Democrats, through necessity and a certain amount of luck could be well placed to lead a movement for constitutional reform. It is certainly going to be topical as the issues of Scotland and the EU move up the political agenda. The Lib Dems too are well placed, since although the party is divided on other issues it is fully united on this one. So as we continue the journey from denial to acceptance, there is emerging the first glimmer of an open, if unconventional road to recovery.  

    



Friday, May 08, 2015

From a Party of Protest to a Party of Power to... What?

In the course of the mid twentieth century the Liberal Party, that great organ of the Victorian state was destroyed. In his 1935 book, "The Strange Death of Liberal England", George Dangerfield analysed the course of social and political change that had altered the course of the country and in the process destroyed the Liberal Party. Of course the factors that lead to the Liberal eclipse were both long and short term, and as a work of history the book is a commentary on a whole raft of social and political evolution.

From the 1960s onward, the Liberal Party began to recover. It established itself as a party of protest, of practical pavement politics, and from this niche it made steady progress up until the 2005 election. The impact of the vote against the Iraq war moved the party into a new position as a radical conscience, as it had been during the Boer War, which created the conditions for the Liberal landslide of 1906. In 2010, however, the party did not achieve a landslide,  though it advanced in votes, it fell back in terms of seats. As we know, the electoral maths created by the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system more or less compelled the Liberal Democrats to accept David Cameron's offer of a coalition. We were warned that the consequences of such a coalition would not be good for the junior coalition partner, and so it has proved. Massacred in previously untouchable local government strongholds, removed as all but a nominal force in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament, the general election result of 2015 is merely the latest catastrophe to befall the Liberal Democrats. Yet the scale of this catastrophe is overwhelming. David Cameron has secured a small majority in Parliament with about 37% of the vote, but while he has defeated Labour, he has destroyed the Liberal Democrats as a party in serious political contention. The defeat may yet be epochal and represents the worst result in nearly two generations. For 8% of the vote, the party has virtually no voice left in the House of Commons.

The collapse is sudden and shocking, and yet it comes as the end of a much longer process of decline. It is quite clear that the tactics-turned-principles of pavement politics, which were a Liberal innovation of the 1960s are no longer effective against a mechanized, well funded campaign. The way we fought the general election was like fighting email with a carrier pigeon, and it may be that we simply cannot afford to play in this highly tech-heavy battle. In that sense the message is bleak indeed- even the much vaunted Manatee system was simply an expensive and clumsy gimmick in the face of far superior Tory voter ID techniques. Canvassing and leafleting too have lost their potency- so the Liberal Focus stalwart of the past decades no longer works. The other parties stole our clothes, learned the lessons and improved, while we have not. Of course we knew we were in trouble- Simon Hughes told me even two years ago that he feared for his future. We fought a campaign of "60 by-elections", and it failed beyond even our worst despair.

The problem of political tactics emerged because of a failure of our message. Our "Look Left-Look Right" split-the-difference moderation was uninspiring and reflected a failure of vision. The reason I am a Liberal Democrat is because they have a vision of individual freedom that is as critical of an over mighty state as it is of over mighty corporations. The need for a complete recasting of the structures of power is the central tenet of our party and has a resonance that moves far beyond the worthy dullness of pupil premium, triple lock, and fiddling with tax thresholds that were the managerial core of a hollow manifesto. Vince Cable trumpeted the need for thousands of new tax inspectors, and did not understand that the UK tax code is the worst in the developed world- an expensive disaster crying out for Radical, Liberal surgery. Our platform was timid moderation and not Radical and not even particularly Liberal. 

The problem was not that the Lib Dem ministers were not good. In fact they were genuinely excellent: They were energetic, bright, innovative- they enjoyed the practice of power and they were good at it. Yet in the end they did not, indeed could not, reform the system they were trapped within. Steve Webb and Ed Davey both have a claim to having been genuinely reforming and skillful administrators, yet despite this they were tarred -unfairly- as being more of the same political practitioners, or even Tory-Lite, which they truly were not. We offered effective, nuanced government, but we never explained the root principles that drove these decisions and our failure to do so allowed our opponents to characterize the Lib Dems as hypocritical and mendacious.

If, before the 2010 election, we had been told that the Tories would win the 2010 election on a minority and the election after that with a small majority, then that would not have seemed particularly surprising. Labour, under Gordon Brown, had clearly lost its way. Yet that seemingly probable prospect of 2010 is in 2015 actually the result of major political shifts. The big churn between the Lib Dems and Labour was perhaps inevitable at some time, because no matter which way you cut it the Liberal traditions are anti-Socialist, and the party is not now and never was "Labour lite"- but it sometimes tried to look that way. Yet more serious has been the rise of UKIP, and to a lesser extent the Greens, which has eaten the Liberal Democrat lunch as the party of protest. The market for "screw em all" populism has never been more crowded and our bunch of tolerant, open minded activists were never that convincing in the role anyway.

This catastrophic result will need far more detailed analysis than this relatively short blog can give justice to, yet as the dust settles, there are several contours that we can see concerning the future. I suppose the first thing to say is that in the end this is not the worst, nobody died, it is not Nepal where lives have been ruined, perhaps for generations, by the earthquake. Nevertheless, the challenges facing the UK have just got a whole lot more serious. The emergence of an unfettered SNP- largely as a result of FPTP- poses an existential challenge to our country. David Cameron now has only a horizon of one term, and with most that set to be dominated by his unnecessary referendum on the EU, many of the most deep seated problems will continue to fester- not least because the fractious Conservatives may provide less stable government than the multi-party coalition has done. Cameron will seek to go after he has achieved the landmark of winning his cosmetic concessions and his nominal referendum. Meanwhile the economic crisis- distorted housing market, creaking banking system, failing investment, poor productivity and all, will be kicked down the road for another successor to tackle or avoid as they see fit. There is, after all, an awful lot of ruin in a nation.  With Scotland in a truly awful economic condition, the Tories also think that they can cut a deal with the SNP that keeps some version of the UK intact- though this trusts a lot to the SNP, a party that seems to rely on listening to the voices in their heads when it comes to economic reality. Meanwhile a party on 37% of the votes can wield 100% of the power, so to put it politely our democracy is imperfect. The Liberal Democrats have some good answers to these constitutional and economic conundrums, but for the time being we will not be listened to even if we were able to put them forward. David Cameron's second term could be as difficult as John Major's - and there is always "events, dear boy, events" which could really blow both the country and the party off course. The real possibility of Putin launching another European war, which could go nuclear, the break up of the Euro or even EU, post Grexit- all pose systemic challenges to the UK. In the 1980s and 1990s, a Parliamentary majority of 12 would have seemed barely adequate, and John Major's majority of 21 in 1992 was inadequate for the term of the Parliament. In hindsight this Conservative victory may seem as Pyrrhic as that of 1992.

That is as may be, it does not alter the fact that this election the Liberal Democrats have had calamitous losses. Those MPs who have lost will need Herculean efforts to return, and in the end, the cost in effort, family life and the financial sacrifices that are required make it a pretty poor bargain. Anyway many will simply think, "why should they?" when the voters seem unprepared to recognize the sheer blood and guts it takes to be a good Member of the House of Commons, still less a good Cabinet Minister. It will probably take a whole new generation of leaders to recover, and that recovery process, so fragile as we have seen, could also take a generation.

I think in the end, perhaps one of our biggest failings was not to be frank enough with the electorate: Biggest thing you can do to help the NHS is to stop smoking and go on a diet, in other words to take some personal responsibility. We failed to say this, we kept trying to feel the voters' pain, and to be honest it was an unctuous and slightly nauseating spectacle. We offered jam today, tomorrow and every day, never showing that it was necessary to make a choice- and while this is true of all politicians, we were supposed to be more open and honest than "all politicians". Pandering to a sense of victim hood is childish and unconvincing- and I firmly believe that the rise in the vote for UKIP (a subject, perhaps, for a later blog) is to some extent attributable to their cheerful lack of political correctness. As an aside, I think that people resent the restraint laid on expression by a dogmatic and narrow self-selecting elite, and the hounding of some figures for what they say rather than what they act on is not what a Liberal party should stand for. Through misplaced libel laws and self censorship, the UK has lost the freedom of speech that we should have.

And yet, and yet.

For all the faults of the campaign, for all the timidity of the platform, for all the errors and omissions, the fact is that History may judge the Liberal Democrats far more kindly than the electorate did yesterday. It has already almost become the conventional wisdom that Nick Clegg laid down his party for his country- it was an honourable decision, supported by a full vote of the membership, to go into Coalition. Maybe no good deed goes unpunished, and to say the least "mistakes were made", yet I personally am extremely proud of our Ministers and our record in government. If our practical achievements were not everything that we would have wished, at least we brought to the table intelligence and decency and that atmosphere is what helped the Coalition government to be a success. It is only a pity that the Liberal Democrats have been robbed of the benefits of that success. Strangely, as the scale of our defeat has become manifest, there are signs of buyer's remorse amongst the electorate- in a few hours overnight over 650 people joined the party.
  
Now we will go through a leadership election. It will be contested. It will not be easy, indeed it will be a test that will determine whether the party can weather the blows we have taken or whether we cease altogether to have any political relevance. I will await the ideas and the pitches of the prospective leaders with interest and an open mind, because to be honest taking on the leadership in such circumstances is an horrendous burden. The decimated Parliamentary party will need much support from outside- and of course our financial position will be much weaker going forward too. The Lords will be another area of concern- not least because as members retire or die they will not be replaced. The denuded council groups- for, alas our defeat has included another massacre of councillors- will no longer be able to make the contribution to the organisation of the party and the development of policy that they once did. The challenge for the new leader will be formidable to say the very least. It will be months before we will be able to begin to try to engage with the voters once more.

"The people have spoken- the bastards", and although the system is crooked, and the media even more so, and we may say that the voters have been hoodwinked by fear, the fact is that in the end it was a free choice, and the country- even if it survives in its current form- must take the consequences. The system is so bust that everyone knows that they must think tactically to achieve/avoid certain outcomes. In the end the non Conservative majority did not have the discipline or the understanding to do the right thing in the country as a whole, while the clean sweep for the SNP in Scotland comes despite them gaining a bare majority of the vote. Tactical voting under the current system may be negative, but ultimately it is not a luxury, it is a necessity, and far too few understood this. 

In the end, I don't know how we come back. I have no answers. I am wounded by the loss of so many dear friends: Ed Davey, Danny Alexander, Bob Smith, Steve Williams and so many others. I do know that I was and remain a convinced Liberal and Liberal Democrat. I have been a proud supporter of Nick Clegg and remain convinced that he has served our country decently and honourably. I want the Liberal voice to be at the centre of our political life. I want our party to gain further opportunities to serve. I believe we can rebuild and recover, but it will not be easy and may not be possible at all without a profound rethink. So we go back to the drawing board and start again. We need to understand the wider social and political context of our defeat otherwise this election will indeed be epochal and the "Death of Liberal England" will be a final reality. The smallest glimmer of hope is that, as the 2010 "Cleggasm" showed, the volatility- some might say, the shallowness- of the electorate is still out there. It has been our curse, maybe one day it may be our redemption.