June 2, 2019 § Leave a comment
The leadership contest continues, and here’s some brief thoughts following on from my large runners and lanes post about how things are going…
The largest bit of news in the race is that Layla Moran will not be running. I think that’s a pity, and there are many members who I think would have preferred a post-coalition leader. I worry a little that her not running allows the remaining two candidates to sit in their comfort zones more on areas like economics, but we’ll see how that pans out. I think her withdrawal probably helps Jo Swinson more than Ed Davey of the remaining two candidates: people who think it’s high time we had a woman leading the party now have one clear route to get that, and Ed’s typically more business-friendly message is likely to push some more lefty members into Swinson’s camp who’d previously have backed Layla. On the flip side, if I’m right in thinking that no Layla means less debate on economics, that might suit Ed, whose record sits him probably a little further right than the bulk of the membership. But what of how the remaining two candidates are doing?
Ed Davey has executed about as effective a campaign as one can reasonably have imagined – it’s been active, disciplined, and sharply run, and included a lot of active endorsement seeking behind the scenes as well as a clear slogan (“back in the game”) and a clear policy-offer-as-slogan (“decarbonise capitalism”) for in front of the cameras. The decision to focus heavily on climate change is a smart one, and with the increased prominence of the issue lately it’s helped him capture the zeitgeist somewhat. His relative opposition to working with other parties and focus on winning under a specifically Lib Dem banner has also perhaps won him some friends among those who balk at the idea of doing deals rather than trying to fight for Lib Dem wins everywhere.
Ed still, I think, has an underlying vulnerability on economics, which he’s managing to smooth over because the talking point topics of Brexit and the environment aren’t forcing him to engage with it, and nor is his relatively economics-neutral opponent. His “decarbonise capitalism” slogan will rub some on the left up the wrong way, given that “defending capitalism” is seen as very much a marker of Conservatism in some circles and a lot of liberals would either prefer not to talk in those terms or would actively debate whether the economy as envisioned in Liberal Democrat policy, one primarily based around the principles of mutualism, sustainability, and businesses accountable well beyond their capital holders, really counts as “capitalist” to start with. Given all that, Ed is running a strong campaign, and is managing to showcase his record on areas like civil liberties better, in my view, than Jo seems to be doing.
Jo Swinson‘s campaign meanwhile has been as always likeable and smoothly run but it’s also lacked vitality somewhat – she and her supporters have been less visible and active amongst the PPC and senior member echelons than Ed and his team have been, and notable figures from the party’s social liberal wing have been muttering that their support for her is somewhat begrudging than they hoped and more about opposing Ed. Her line that the economy needs to put people and the planet first is a small contrast to Ed, but she’s not managing to find a big rallying point there yet.
What Jo needs – and soon – is an emphasis and offer that turns her campaign into something people who don’t know her personally are genuinely excited about. Currently, her only serious message that differentiates from Ed has been that she’s more in favour of cross-party cooperation. This has been a pretty poor choice on her part, for two reasons. Firstly, it opens her up to attacks from the left on her willingness to work with Tories, and thereby cedes the natural advantage she’d otherwise have among social and radical liberals, a large chunk of the party, in being less heavily tied into the core workings of the coalition than Ed was. Secondly, it’s a message she’s not willing or able to deliver as a consistent front, because of her vehement opposition to the SNP, who most English Lib Dems see more as a natural ally than parties like ChUK who she seemingly is willing to work with. The result is a confused message that isn’t working for her. She needs clear signalling on other policy areas – emphasising the party’s centre-left policies on raising taxes to fund the NHS and on restoring social security funding would be a strong additional plank to her campaign if she’s willing to go there, but either way she needs something for people to hang onto.
That’s not to say she’s losing. Jo’s long standing and high profile in the party give her a natural early advantage, she’s got an impressive endorsement list, and many who know her personally are very deeply committed to her candidacy. Jo clearly inspires significant and deep personal loyalties, and those combined with her other assets as a candidate mean that she’ll run strongly whatever happens. As it stands, she’s a far less overwhelming favourite than I think might have been the case a month ago, but if forced to bet then I think she still has something of an advantage.
In terms of endorsements, there’s a little less of a pattern in higher level endorsements than you might expect – Ed’s campaign have been careful to ensure some local coverage outside his home stomping ground, getting MEPs for the South West and Yorkshire & the Humber and a former Scottish leader on the endorsement wagon. Jo’s website showcases more endorsements from grassroots members although quite a number of well thought of former MPs (Martin Horwood, Julian Huppert, Tessa Munt, Shirley Williams) have also backed her – I think she has the advantage on heavy hitting surrogates, though perhaps more narrowly than I’d have expected. Showcasing grassroots endorsements I think is a good strategy on her part – one of the things people have questioned about Ed in the past is his preference for running things top-down, which can sometimes be a tricky fit in a fiercely individualist political movement. Geographically most of the grassroots buzz for Ed is a southern phenomenon, whilst Scots members seem to be largely loyal to Jo.
As for myself, I’m still keeping out of endorsing a candidate – I’ve been working on helping form question lists for the Social Liberal Forum and Radical Association, and I’m seeing my role as best I can as being one of scrutinising the candidates. I have some reservations about both candidates at the moment, but I think the best thing I can do is ensure that whoever gets to be leader, the right (and difficult) questions have been asked so we know where they stand and they have the right start as leader. I hope those of you who are reading this will be asking your own too – perhaps one of the things I believe most strongly about campaigns like this is that questions, particularly the awkward questions, should be seen as a way of supporting candidates to be the best they can be. Good scrutiny makes for great leadership – and with great leadership, the Liberal Democrats have huge opportunities to change the UK’s course for the better. Let’s make that happen.
April 1, 2019 § 5 Comments
So, we’re having a leadership contest. This is my really rather long attempt at producing a preview of it, and also generally setting out some of the dividing lines within the party for the benefit of other members and non-members alike.
Firstly, some notes on how I see the contest. I’ve prepared a discussion of some of the “lanes” that candidates may well attempt to appeal to as they try to find a path to the nomination. The fundamental difference between the seven lanes presented below is that they’re really subtly different answers to the question “what are the Liberal Democrats for” which any new leader (or other candidate for party-wide office – keep an eye out for a President race overview later this year) will have to find some sort of balance of answers to as part of their pitch. From, and feeding into, these answers are various aspects of both policy and party strategy, which are outlined below.
I’d like to here say a few things the lane theory isn’t. Firstly, it’s not a set of groups into which people fit. It’s rather a set of routes to appeal to overlapping groups of Lib Dem members, and it’s best seen in that light. If you want to discuss which lanes you or others “fit into”, be my guest, but these are more intended to represent a set of strategists’ simplifications of the truth for the purposes of campaign planning, not a way to categorise the multifaceted and diverse beliefs within the party. Secondly, the other big thing this isn’t is a model that stands alone. As you’ll see when I get to talking about the candidates, there are several unifying or variable features that sit outside the below dynamics and which could prove extremely important. There’s a lot of appetite in the party for electing a woman as leader for the first time, for example, and how experience versus newness are percieved will vary across members in ways that don’t neatly fall into line with the theory below. Finally, the lane theory isn’t necessarily one that accurately captures armchair members nearly so well, despite their importance to the leadership contest: pressure groups like Liberal Reform or the Radical Association actually have very few members and little reach outside a small policymaking activist core. Nonetheless, many armchair members will be reachable via the lanes presented, and I think each lane is a significant enough bloc or force that candidates will take them into consideration (if not in explicit terms).
With those caveats, here’s my rough idea of the lanes: Orange Bookers (or Market Liberals), True Centrists, HQ Loyalists, Moderates/Parochialists, FBPE-ers, Social Liberals and Radical Liberals:
Probably one of the smaller groups within activist circles, but one that tends to punch above its weight, armoured by having a strong core of activists, actual organisation (via Liberal Reform), and a strong recent history of providing senior party figures. These are market liberals (and indeed that might be a better name for this group) who have a developed philosophy of what that means. Among other things this tends to include increasing market-style choice in public services, improving competition as a major focus of business policy, a strong emphasis on free trade, and a sceptical approach to the cooperativist, wealth taxing approach of the party’s radical and social liberal groups. Post-2015, the star of this wing has generally not been in the ascendant as Lib Dem economic policy has moved sharply left; this group along with the True Centrists tend to be the most defensive of the coalition’s achievements.
“The Lib Dems are for building a market liberal society with strong competition, free trade, and freedom of choice; with the right incentives, markets are our most powerful tool to solve social problems and make life more affordable.”
Watch for: candidates talking a lot about market choice or competition, candidates defending the coalition.
This bloc overlaps with Orange Bookers in many ways, but I think it’s worth considering them separately because they have a fundamental difference of opinion regarding what the party is for even if they often vote the same way. These are the people for whom the raison d’etre of the Lib Dems should be to hold the “centre ground of British politics”, whatever that may be. They fundamentally see the Lib Dems as a vehicle for moderating the two larger parties or providing an anchor to prevent politics going too far to the right or left. With the advent of ChangeUK this bloc is likely to be strongly in favour of cooperation to create a broader centre-ground alliance.
“The Lib Dems are for maintaining balance in British politics, providing a moderating influence on a Labour party that pulls too far left and a Tory party that pulls too far right.”
Watch for: candidates positioning the Lib Dems as a moderating influence, talking about Labour and the Tories primarily in terms of them being too far to the left and right respectively, advocating close cooperation with ChUK/TIG.
These people have an unerring loyalty to more or less whoever is currently in charge – and usually of course also includes the people in charge themselves. They tend not to come with a very strong policy focus, though perhaps skew somewhat towards the centre owing to the fact that MPs and their entourage have a higher tendency to get really terrified of swing voters than some of the activists do.
“The Lib Dems work best when we pull together behind our leaders; whatever our varying aims are, we’re more united than we tend to realise and if we pull together behind our elected leaders then we’ve got the best chance of putting those ideals into practice.”
Watch for: candidates embracing Vince Cable’s legacy, endorsements from Lords and other senior establishment figures, who gets top billing for party events.
Moderates & Parochialists
This is quite a sizeable bloc, not least because it’s really two blocs with quite similar behavioural patterns. Moderates (by which I here mean moderate within the internal spectrum of the party) are thosepeople who have one or two issues of interest, and otherwise just generally feel at home in the Lib Dems, whereas parochialists are largely tied to a specific area and are interested in local politics there without much national scope. Like the HQ loyalists, these groups lack a particularly strong policy agenda. Unlike them, however, they have relatively little loyalty to the leadership, and often have a typically Lib Dem disdain for being told what to do. To appeal to these groups candidates need to meet them on their own turf, by and large (and in the parochialist case, perhaps literally).
“The Lib Dems are important to me as a vehicle for changing my community and providing the sort of political atmosphere that I feel at home in.”
Watch for: candidates spending more time congratulating council by-election winners (and even losers), candidates spending time talking about local government, candidates suddenly coming out with policy or positions on niche and unexpected areas.
Most of the party is Europhile, with a very small number of exceptions. The post-2016 party, though, definitely has a bloc of members who are pretty much single issue pro-Europeans, with little wider feel for policy. They are not particularly loyalist to HQ, and vary wildly between radical and centrist on any other positions they might hold – but those other positions may be eclipsed by their wanting to vote for the most pro-EU candidate possible.
“The Lib Dems have an absolute duty, above all other concerns, to be the pro-European party the country needs and fight with every sinew to ensure we retain, or if lost regain, our EU membership.”
Watch for: candidates sharing the revoke petition or advocating a pivot to revoke, talking up European Parliament elections, seeking endorsements from notable pro-EU campaigners.
One of the larger groups within the party and the one that gives it its traditional centre-left anchoring. This group tends to be particularly concerned about economic equality, favours more social-democratic economic policies, is keen to actively repudiate or apologise for the coalition, and is often comparatively keen to form anti-Tory alliances. Like the Radicals, they will generally support policies like cooperativisation and basic income; they are somewhat less likely to couple this with a no-holds-barred pro immigration and civil liberties agenda, however. The Social Liberal Forum is the major internal pressure group for this bloc, though as with most internal pressure groups it’s unclear how strong their reach is in party-wide elections.
“The Lib Dems are for building a more equal and thus more liberal society, working as a progressive force in our politics, rebuilding services after too many years of cuts and freeing people from poverty.”
Watch for: candidates campaigning on anti-poverty issues, left-leaning economic proposals, speaking slots at upcoming SLF events, distancing the party from coalition, calling for cooperation with the Green Party or “progressive alliances” more generally.
The Radicals tend to favour an across-the-board, strongly liberal approach on foreign, economic and social policy, especially favouring big policy ideas. Whilst most of the party is broadly in favour of, for example, LGBT rights and civil liberties and being pro-immigration and voting reform, this group tends to drive to sit those sorts of agendas at the heart of Lib Dem policy. Economically this group are more likely to show strong support for “change it at the root” systemic solutions like a minimum income, strong support for cooperative and social businesses, and land value tax. The Radical Association is the internal group that most closely represents this bloc, though trying to make an umbrella group for self-described radicals is a challenge for even the most ardent herder of cats. This group tend to most strongly oppose descriptions of the Lib Dems as “moderate”, preferring a much stronger liberal policy agenda, and are consequently likely to be quite sceptical of working with groups like ChangeUK.
“The Lib Dems are a radical reforming party, especially focused on opposing conformity and authoritarianism wherever they arise and by distributing power more evenly across our society.”
Watch for: any candidate endorsing a minimum income, unequivocal pro-immigration sentiments, any candidate claiming they or the party are explicitly not moderate.
Given these lanes, how does one win a Lib Dem leadership contest? The first thing to reiterate is that they only cover a pretty small section of the party and lots of other things matter too, and that the bulk of the party can easily swing one way or another if the wind is right. Also, none of the lanes represent monoliths of voters, and lots of them overlap. Nonetheless, one can discuss past elections with reference to the above. Tim Farron’s win over Norman Lamb was one where the Social Liberal faction tended to favour Tim, along with a large bunch of the party’s moderates who were reacting to Tim’s (at the time) grassroots popularity and were likely in part reacting against the idea of a leader with a coalition ministerial record shortly after the 2015 election drubbing. There was no monolith though, all the same – Julian Huppert and David Grace were among notable social liberals from my region who backed Lamb, for example.
There are several pretty major current issues in the party I’d expect any leader to have to address in their campaign to some extent. Firstly, the EU – candidates may e.g. be asked whether they’d support return in the event of Brexit. I think there’s very little benefit in taking a less pro-EU stance than other candidates, so this may just be a race-to-the-top issue. Second, expect some questioning on a minimum income. I’ve not written about that much here because as far as I know none of the candidates have said anything on it and because I’m too personally involved in pushing the idea myself, but the chance of it being debated this September is high and the activist parts of the party’s Radical & Social Liberal wings have been increasingly pushing it towards the agenda. Endorsing UBI or NIT would be a big boost for any candidate with that flank, but perhaps at the expense of some HQ Loyalist & True Centrist support among people who either see it as too radical or fear a negative electoral impact. Third, and this I have gone into detail on below, the party’s response to the new Blairite-centrist bloc, ChangeUK, will be a huge strategic issue. Reports are that on cooperation, Ed is most sceptical and Jo most favourable with Layla between the two, but that may very well change in the current fast-moving environment.
With that said, here are the candidates…
Jo is effectively the heir apparent, and especially if Layla Moran doesn’t run, it’s pretty hard to see how one beats her. As current deputy leader, she’s one of the best placed people to appeal to loyalists, and is generally well liked across the party. She’s also made few missteps that would cause significant friction with any particular wing – as a junior minister in coalition she’s seen as having experience without a high degree of coalition taint, and besides one or two awkward moments – her writing in the Mail to argue in favour of having a public statue of Thatcher was a controversial moment – she’s not put her foot in it badly with the social and radical liberal wings. Having a seat in heavily pro-EU Scotland makes it easier for her to come out swinging with pro-EU policies as well, and both Christine Jardine and Wera Hobhouse are reportedly likely to back her bid for leader.
That’s not to say that Jo’s campaign will be entirely plain sailing. Layla in particular, with her relatively high meda profile and offer of a larger break from the past, could pose a real threat. Jo’s largest weakness is the counterpoint of her strength – she has a very broad base of support in large part because she’s been strong on issues that are relatively unifying within the party, such as women’s rights, LGBT rights, the EU, and so on. She’s near studiously absent when it comes to more divisive questions of economics and political strategy which will now confront her very rapidly. Those who know her consider her a smart and sure-footed operator, but she’ll need to start pinning herself down on more issues as she moves from deputy leadership to a party leadership candidate in order to avoid getting outflanked by the other candidates.
So what might a Jo campaign look like? The temptation for her will be to run a campaign that emphasises her broad-appeal stuff and keeps the ship steady elsewhere, as something of a continuity candidate. Besides HQ loyalist types this would have a fairly broad general appeal across most lanes, and leave time and space to address local concerns in the moderate/parochial bloc rather than hammering down a new position on policy or electoral strategy. This would likely also mean continuing Vince’s extremely accommodating position towards ChangeUK (the artist formerly known as TIG). News reports, and her her recent appearance alongside Heidi Allen, suggest that Jo may well be placing herself in a position to do that strategically – cuddling up to ChUK would likely be very popular with the True Centrist lane, and would enable an “anti Brexit alliance” positioning that might appeal well to FPBE-ers too.
For what it’s worth, I suspect that running as a continuity-centre candidate could actually be very much a mistake and would risk leaving Jo too much space on her left via which Layla’s campaign could outflank her and then persuade moderates to opt for change and a more primary colours policy agenda over smooth continuity. Vince’s leadership, if safe-handed, has lacked energy, and people from all lanes of the party are pretty desperate for something to pull us out of that. Embracing ChUK has strong risks as well. One notable party blogger recently commented to me that a rumoured proposal from Jo to share resources with ChUK could lead to her “going below RON for me”. Still more worryingly for her, some seats (the key Lib Dem target and currently ChUK-held seat of South Cambridgeshire especially) could cause significant local upset if Jo were to advocate giving ChUK a free pass there. Senior organisers in the Eastern region are reportedly privately upset at Jo’s closeness to Heidi Allen and are loath to throw away one of the party’s best potential target seats in East Anglia, especially to a party that has no financial or organisational base of its own to offer in return.
Overall, Jo is a strong but not insurmountably strong front runner in this race – she has the skills and the base and the experience for the job, whilst also presenting a fresh enough face for the party. However, using her relative lack of factional definition as a strength, and effectively navigating the potentially fraught issues of party strategy on which she’ll now be obliged to take a stand, will require something of a reinvention of the Jo Swinson we’ve seen so far, and if she’s going to keep a strong position then it’s a reinvention she needs to take place.
Ed Davey, former energy minister and more recently home affairs spokesperson, would in some other circumstances be seen as having a pretty formidable CV for party leadership. He’s widely regarded as having been a spiky but effective champion for his own department in government, and is generally considered towards the party’s more economically centrist wing, giving him a strong natural base amongthe Orange Book bloc in particular. He also has a potentially effective local support base in the “yellow wedge” of Lib Dem leaning areas across Richmond, Kingston, and Sutton boroughs in southwest London, where Lib Dems hold three of the five parliamentary seats and all three borough councils. If as expected Tom Brake backs Ed’s bid, then this further strengthens his position in a key Lib Dem area.
However, he has a number of major hurdles to get over that make him an extreme underdog in this race. His natural base on the party’s orange book wing is small and somewhat in retreat, and he’s quite heavily tied to it after taking stances in favour of making firing workers easier and taking strong “markets work” stances as a minister. He’s also not endeared himself strongly to radical and social liberal circles post-coalition, with a tendency at times to get frustrated at the party’s trenchant habit of activists overruling their leaders. Most recently he notably landed himself in a difficult conference-floor fight that involved a move to refer the flagship immigration paper he was proposing back to its committee and him being defeated in his opposition to an amendment (which, for the sake of disclosure, I was the author of) abolishing income restrictions on bringing foreign spouses to the UK. There’s a strong appetite for electing a woman to lead the party, too, rather than another white man with a South London seat and a knighthood; with the party’s position fragile, experience is seen as far less important than campaigning mettle, undercutting one of his major advantages.
Ed’s campaign is very much in swing, unlike Jo and Layla’s, with him working his way around at conference and publishing op-eds to set out a pitch – perhaps an admission of his status as the underdog. Interestingly, he seems to be focusing on pushing liberal issues in his home affairs brief as a major part of his campaign. Removing Home Office responsibility for immigration, for example, is a policy he’s been pushing for some time that strikes a good chord on the party’s more radical wings, and his mentions of mutualisation and wealth taxation will sit well with the radical and social liberal wings. He’s also naturally putting climate change as a major part of his pitch, given his ministerial experience. Finally, he’s taking quite a spiky approach to ChUK, who he insinuates are “unconvincing” in his recent New Statesman op-ed. But with his pro-immigration moves couched with his claiming that governments “failing to address illegal immigration” is a major problem, and his reputation as a right-leaning figure, he may need to be more firmly unequivocal, especially in his public statements, about wanting to take those radical-friendly stances if he wants to start changing people’s minds.
There’s no getting around the fact that Ed has a huge hill to climb, and some big handicaps in his coalition baggage and demographics that he can’t easily get rid of. I think his move to circle round and try to pull in policy-interested people on the party’s left and radical flanks is probably the right move in his position; given Jo’s front-runner status but relatively narrow policy positioning, Ed does have a brief window in which to push himself forward on policy grounds and establish himself as a distinctively liberal candidate for a distinctively liberal party. Whether he can really capture the party’s zeitgeist and be seen as a credible messenger for a very post-coalition liberal economic message is going to be by far the biggest challenge of his political career to date.
Layla is the newest of the contenders, only elected in 2017, but already seen as a visible face for the party and quite a natural media performer. She now seems likely to run, given her recent timed admission of a past arrest (which did not result in any charges) after a domestic dispute six years ago – rumoured versions of the story had been doing the rounds for some time, and getting the skeletons out of the closet at this point was probably a smart move on that front. Layla’s natural base mostly seems to be on the party’s social and radical liberal flank, where her position as a post-coalition candidate significantly helps her popularity. She’s already been labelled by multiple sources as this race’s “Pardoe”, according to a theory that most Liberal/Lib Dem leadership races end up, like in the 1976 contest, pitting a more centrist-leaning safe pair of hands (Steel) against a more spiky and vibrant, but also less reliable and more scandal prone, opponent (Pardoe).
Layla is certainly not a front-runner in the way Jo is, and the arrest admission and her lack of experience are both things that will damage her among (not wholly overlapping) sections of the Lib Dem membership. She also has a very slim majority in her seat of Oxford West and Abingdon, so members may feel nervous about the risk of a leader losing their seat, a severe potential embarassment that indeed nearly happened to Tim Farron in 2017. In policy terms she’s not likely to be a darling of the party’s right wing, which she can afford, but restricts her options a little. Perhaps more damagingly she (mostly by association with her local party) is seen in some quarters, especially by vocal factions within the Young Liberals who oppose current “green belt” regulations, as being too reticent to back house-building programmes, and by implication rental and housing issues generally – a perception she’s likely to want to tackle in any campaign.
Layla’s strategy, assuming she does run, will probably look something like Tim Farron’s in 2015; she has to hit hard on policy on the social/radical liberal flank, and present herself as an effective outsider who can help the party move on from the past and revitalise our ability to campaign. Her strong supporters see her as a potentially game changing figure who can revitalise the party and give it a strong break from the disastrous elections of 2015 and 2017 (the party gained seats but lost vote share at the latter). Expect to see Layla taking a bullish anti-Tory stance and hammering home her work attempting to get the Vagrancy Act, a law often used to punish the homeless, repealed in particular. I’d not be at all surprised if she took a strong line on social housing and renters’ rights, too – this would help blunt critiques of her by the anti Green Belt lobby as well as helping solidify her social-liberal base. I expect her to take a strong tack towards winning the FPBE vote as well, whilst conversely being the least likely to play toward the True Centrist and Orange Book lanes. If Jo Swinson runs too heavily as a continuity candidate, that opens the best hope for Layla to win – a lot of ordinary members are very frustrated at the party’s lack of media coverage and time, and that creates an atmosphere in which running as the “change” rather than the “continuity” candidate gives potential for real traction. Jamie Stone, a fellow 2017 newcomer, is rumoured to be a likely backer for Layla, which may help her pitch towards change.
Layla’s a potentially strong candidate, but with some weaknesses and baggage of her own and less deep roots than her opponents which weakens her starting position somewhat. Her most important initial task if she runs will probably be to back up her generally warm welcome among the party’s Social Liberals with some solid policy proposals that will cement a base for her in that lane, from which she can then go on the offensive. That path, though, is decidedly narrower than Jo’s very general appeal, which means Layla can afford proportionally fewer missteps than her main opponent.
Well, that was… long. I hope you found it useful, and well done if you read this far! This may well not be my last word on the matter, since we’re still at very early stages and it may be that some of the candidates will put together very different campaigns and platforms to those I expect at this stage. Feel free to comment and give your thoughts: I should also say that I’m not endorsing a candidate at this stage, and that I hope I’ve been reasonably even-handed with my assessments of the candidates. We’ll see how this all pans out…
November 16, 2018 § 17 Comments
An open letter has been circulating, which has a range of over fifty signatories from across the party from ordinary members to federal committee members and a number of PPCs, calling for the suspension of the Liberal Democrat whip from Stephen Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne. I was the author of the text of the letter, and I wanted to put a post out to explain why I took the decision to write the letter.
I did so because, in short, whip withdrawals are a disciplinary tool used for issues as important as the budget or greater. This vote is of significantly greater importance than any single budget in the last half-decade at least; it’s a vote where the government’s position is directly antithetical to our core values, our party policy, and our constitutional position. The idea that we can’t or shouldn’t validly impose a full whip with effective sanctions on a vote of this magnitude is, to me, utterly bizarre. I have absolutely no interest in making a party that is too jumpy to apply sanctions to MPs, and I absolutely respect that MPs should be allowed a significant amount of leeway in disagreements with the party. But even a broad church has to put its walls somewhere, and voting for a relationship with the EU and the world that is as limited and bleak as the one that Theresa May’s deal envisages? That steps outside those walls for me, and for many others across the party.
I say this not as someone who disrespects in any way Stephen Lloyd’s electoral achievements – but we can’t continually put the career of one MP ahead of the wellbeing of our party and our movement. We lost significant quantities of support, and our reputation was damaged well beyond party circles, over Cable and Farron failing to turn up for a Brexit vote a few months back; we can’t afford in terms of manpower or finances to be seen as a split house when it comes to this vote. The question isn’t just one of Eastbourne alone, it’s about balancing Eastbourne with our ability to win across the vast majority of our other targets and held seats. In those circumstances, the suspension of the whip is an entirely proportionate response. Suspending the whip doesn’t revoke someone’s party membership, and it isn’t even necessarily permanent; it is however an important way of signalling to the vast bulk of our members and voters that we are a party led by our values and policies first and that we do require people to uphold them if they want to sit as a Liberal Democrat in elected office. That’s absolutely vital if we’re going to rebuild our political identity with the public.
Some people have expressed concern to me about the optical issues of suggesting disciplinary action against one of our own MPs: the truth is that ignoring this sort of thing won’t make it go away, not when there are much bigger fish in the pond like Labour who are happy, however hypocritically, to repeatedly hammer us on things like this in order to try and stop us recovering amongst centre-left voters. I see people’s concern, but I think it’s based on the false premise that there’s a route to sitting there quietly and hoping this all blows over, which really isn’t the case. Waiting to act until the Labour wing of the media catch up and start attacking us on it is waiting too long: we need to get on and give a firm signal here. People expect us to be a party driven by internationalist values, and signalling that we’re not prepared to take disciplinary action when on vital parliamentary votes an MP votes with the government in opposing our flagship policy and core values is a far, far worse optical message to send than taking clear, calm, measured action to show the public what our values are.
People are welcome to disagree with my assessment of the situation, of course, and I respect that disagreement, but I think the call I’ve made is the correct one. To the people who suggested I should “consider my position” (what position, I’m not sure), I can inform you that I have done and on full consideration I’m content with it. I don’t have any antipathy towards Stephen or anyone else here – but I do think that when it comes to what may be one of the most pivotal parliamentary votes in a generation, it’s reasonable to expect that the party should look after its own interests and values.
If you’d like to join myself and others in signing the letter, you can find it here.
Edit 17/11/18: It was correctly pointed out to me that I had discussed us losing members, rather than simply support, over the Farron/Cable vote failure, which was too specific a claim in view of the fact that we don’t have those numbers available. I did hear from numerous people and sources about that issue at the time, and have edited the text to more generally encapsulate that problem as I saw it. Thanks to Paul Holmes for the query.
November 12, 2018 § 2 Comments
Predictably, I saw yet more memes yesterday lauding the “real men” of the UK’s wartime generations, and comparing them favourably to the “offended, mentally ill gender neutral vegan snowflakes” that men supposedly are today. I didn’t make this post on remembrance day itself because yesterday was a time to reflect more than to argue, but I am going to say it now – that attitude is monumentally disrespectful.
The war generations in the first half of the last century were people like us. They weren’t some kind of invincible demigods, and building them up as if they were doesn’t respect the reality and hurt that they went through. War and the resulting mental ill health damaged those people permanently. Many had post-traumatic stress disorder for life – men who couldn’t listen to the whistling of a kettle without flinching, or for whom loud noises could trigger dangerous flashbacks. For others, the violence of what they had seen made them erratic and dangerous to be around – a knock-on effect that damaged the lives of them and their loved ones.
Living in a society that often didn’t recognise those effects on them, let alone one that severely repressed other parts of their lives for many of them – because yes, we had gay, bi, and gender non-conforming soldiers fighting just like all the others, who had to go through the same hell as everyone else without being allowed to admit to parts of their own identity – wasn’t something that strengthened those people later in life. Quite the opposite, it was something that increased the pain they went through. A lot of the time, rather than being able to admit to who they were or how things were affecting them, they killed themselves. The 1930s, a decade in which many First World War survivors were also having to grapple with being unable to feed their families properly during the depression, saw suicide rates three times higher than they are today.
People today have made significant, though by no means complete, progress towards respecting and accepting people for who they are and towards accepting that mental illness is something that needs compassion and support, not shutting down. And that’s good, for ex-service personnel and for everyone else. So I’m sick of seeing social media posts attacking the fact we have a more caring attitude to trans people, a less rigid attitude to people’s roles in life, a sensible compassionate approach to mental illness. Every time you post or share one of those, you send the message that the military service of those who are trans or those who don’t eat meat is somehow worth less. You send the message, too, that you don’t care about looking after folk who need it, when they need it – hardly the world that the world war two soldiers who came back and voted in droves for a government that would build a National Health Service wanted. Perhaps most self-defeatingly, you send the message that we should paper over what the soldiers on the battlefields of the world wars went through in favour of some sort of plastic cut-out rose tinted view of what people endured.
One final point about “real men”. Think about the men in your life when you read this, the ones you love and care about, and ask yourself a question. If that person was struggling, if that person was trying to deal with horrors in their mind, would I rather know and do something to help? Or would I rather that person kept the mask up, kept trying to be a “real man” like people claim “real men” used to be, until it got too much for them and killed them? I think there’s only one of those answers that really respects what wartime PTSD sufferers, or anyone else with mental health issues, goes through. Which society would you rather live in?
If there is one thing which people of all generations deserve, then, it is this; that we allow them to be vulnerable, that we show them compassion, that we respect, above all, that they were and are human.
Thanks for reading.
September 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
Large, far-reaching constitutional changes can be an important way to revitalise a political movement, refashioning it for new challenges and to bring in more people or engage members better. They can also be embarrassing, gimmicky wastes of time and money that at best are never spoken of again and at worst consign political careers to ignominious fates. The stakes are by nature high – which is why it’s vital that the process for consulting and deciding on such changes is fair, open, and engages members in making fully informed decisions. Whilst the leadership have been quick to try and reassure members in general terms that this will occur, there are some specific measures that the leadership may be tempted to use to strengthen their hand within the party – but which could be unwise in practice.
One temptation might be for the leadership to call a special conference, rather than leaving the amendments until a vote at our usual Spring conference. The attractions of this are obvious; it could attract those members most motivated to vote for the policy, and would allow the whole thing to be sorted before the expected Brexit furore in March. It would however, I believe, be a significant mistake.
First, it restricts the timeframe on an issue that isn’t obviously time limited, and may mean that there will not be time to properly scrutinise and, if necessary, redraft any amendments before attempting to pass them. Introducing a supporters’ scheme is likely to require significant additional burdens on local parties (who will need to be the ones signing people up for it) and on HQ, which will need to find the funds to vet the presumably large number of people who’d sign up for a vote in our leadership elections. The constitutional, manpower, and financial implications of this move all need proper consultation and it would be unwise to rush into this without giving members the chance to fully consider them.
Second, the travel and accommodation costs of getting to an additional special conference may restrict the people there, in particular leaving out lower income, younger, or disabled members who struggle to get to conferences as it is. Passing a motion to theoretically broaden our movement in a situation where the full diversity of our membership can’t be consulted might (rightly) be seen as a strange road to take for a party that has for some years been talking about the need to commit itself to diversifying decision-making to bring in people outside a white, middle-class activist core.
Additionally, the leadership may wish to take care when it comes to surrendering the precedent that they have set of informing members that special conferences are too expensive. I was involved in negotiations with FCC in 2017 when the possibility of a special conference over Brexit policy was raised. We were then informed that the cost – estimated by FCC members we were in discussions with at £40,000 for a special conference not connected to the main conference – was an expense the party could ill afford. If the leadership now believes the party is sufficiently flush with cash to make such expenditures to accelerate a constitutional change by eight weeks, party members are likely to take them at their word and decide that issues that have recently struggled to make it onto conference agendas might just be worth gathering 200 signatures for after all.
The other risky option for the leadership would be to use a consultative ballot to find, if I may coin the term, the will of the membership. Given our stance on ensuring that opinion ballots are properly managed, this would need extremely careful handling. It would be a grave embarrassment for the party, not to mention a giant red target for satirists left, right, and centre, if those opposed to changing the status quo were not given a fair chance to make their case and the leadership won such a ballot on that basis. This possibility further emphasises the issue of time-frame too – for members to be able to make an informed choice, the member ballot needs to have enough time attached for local parties to run discussion meetings and both sides to make their case.
We await the outcome of Vince’s speech tomorrow – I will be interested to see his actual proposals in detail when they appear, and I fully hope that they’ll be ones I can support personally. Vince’s job here won’t begin and end with a single speech, though – it’s incumbent both upon Vince and on Federal Board to ensure we have a transparent, well run consultative process that isn’t seen to be bouncing members into any particular decision. Whatever decisions we make about the future of the Liberal Democrats, it’s important that we make them openly and democratically in accordance with our values, so we can move forward together to demand a more liberal Britain.
August 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
“No Recourse to Public Funds” is a phrase which has become surprisingly common in the immigration policies of the British centre-left. The idea is essentially that, instead of the current system of having a flat cap on incomes below which you’re not allowed to bring a spouse to the UK, instead the family simply need to show that they are not going to have to rely on “public funds” (social security, essentially). After a number of clearly inhumane cases where the Conservative flat income cap has ripped families in half the idea of NRPF has appealed to some as a “moderate” alternative; it appeared in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, and it’s reared its head again in the upcoming immigration paper that will be debated at Liberal Democrat conference next month.
Here’s the problem: the No Recourse to Public Funds rule is not moderate by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it a reasonable, decent basis for a progressive policy on family migration.
We know that income caps rip families apart. Even when a family meets the criteria, cases of families who have been forced to spend thousands of pounds on appeals and repeat applications or who have had proofs of income rejected have been all too common. People like Grace Smith, nearly deported for failing to meet income rules despite both her and her partner working full time, Wanwan Qiao, who was nearly deported away from her newborn baby until the Home Office buckled to public pressure, and Laura Clarke, whose son is growing up without his Ethiopian father, should never have had to be in the situations where I end up mentioning their names in this blogpost. They are people who just happened to fall in love with someone from another country, and for this the state deemed it necessary to put them through thousands of pounds and years of appeals, and a great deal of very real pain and fear at the prospect of being removed from the people they loved.
These are not isolated cases. The Guardian reported this April that fifteen thousand children in Britain are growing up with a parent missing due to the UK’s visa rules. Fifteen thousand children whose growing up may be badly affected by lack of a loving parent who has been told they are too poor to be allowed to see their child, in Britain, in the twenty-first century. Of course there are many couples without children caught in the horrific maze of the UK immigration system too, some of whom likely feel unable to start a family in which their child would have to grow up without one of its parents, and all of whom deserve to have their marriage and love respected by the law. For those who are already here, too, there is the struggle to stay above the income threshold, pressuring those families to keep working any job that will get them to the threshold even when it may not be the right decision for themselves or their dependants.
No Recourse to Public Funds is not a solution to this situation, for two reasons. The first is what I consider the broader moral case: that it is essentially and fundamentally wrong for a government to tell people who they’re allowed to have a consensual, loving relationship with and who they’re not. Banning two people who are in love from having a family life together is wrong, whether you do it by telling them there’s a cap on their incomes or whether you simply force some families to split up by denying them the money they need to live together. It is also a rule that is directly discriminatory against those who are disabled or unwell and need additional support: what kind of society are we if we ask people to choose between the person they love and the ability to cater for their own disability?
The more sinister thing, though, is that when it’s been implemented in practice, as it was in the UK prior to 2012, the rule isn’t as simple as simply preventing immigrants from applying for certain funds once they arrived. Applicants were, in fact, asked to prove in advance that they would not make recourse to public funds. This is actually a logical consequence of any NRPF system, given the potential costs of emergency support or deportations if people were to turn out not to have the means to avoid recourse to public funds. So how do you prove that you won’t have to rely on public funds? You get asked your income, and based on that, someone makes a decision.
Reread the last sentence of the previous paragraph, and think about it for a moment.
Because yes, that description exactly fits the system we have at the moment. The one that removes people from their loved ones, the one that has left thousands of families split apart. An NRPF system might have lower income thresholds than the current cap, but given that the decision would no longer (even in theory) be based on the single metric of a centrally set income limit, there is a real risk of decisions being more variable and arbitrary from case to case, throwing some families into even more chaos.
NRPF is, in short, an income cap by the back door, capable of doing every bit as much damage to family life, causing every bit as much legal confusion, and hurting people for who they love just the same.
Liberal Democrats have led the way in the past decade on moving towards a world where your gender shouldn’t affect who you get to fall in love with; it’s time we stood up and said, clearly and without exception, that nor should you be banned from living with the person you fell in love with because someone decided you were too poor. That rule, in whatever form it takes, is inhumane and illiberal. I will not vote for an immigration paper that contains it, and I think it would be a dangerous and politically incoherent strategy for the Lib Dems to follow Labour in adopting a policy that the paper itself admits was “already damaging to family life” (Page 18) when it was in force prior to 2012.
It’s time to make both income caps and NRPF a thing of the past – I hope conference has the courage to stand beside the many families who have been hurt by these policies up and down the UK, and commit our party to fighting to do end this system of injustice.
July 18, 2018 § 1 Comment
The conflation of liberalism with centrism is a topic I’ve discussed before and no doubt will again. Like with all arguments about political terminology it’s an unwinnable argument, by its very nature; I can use “liberal” to mean a certain thing and someone else can attach a very different meaning and there’s no ultimate arbitration on the matter available. Language is arbitrary – but vitally important, nonetheless. In this post, though, I want to look at the
Liberalism is on the rise in the US. Nearly 10% more of the population self-ID as “liberal” today as they did when I was born (Gallup), up to 26%. That’s less than identify as conservative or moderate, but it’s still a large chunk of the population and a plurality if not a majority of the Democratic party’s vote. One can reasonably assume that self-identified socialists make up a small subset of the “liberal” wing in a liberal/moderate/conservative choice poll, though I’ve not found any reliable numbers to give an estimate of how small. What over a quarter of the US population identify as, to put it mildly, matters. This is doubly the case because people don’t just hold opinions en bloc: if someone identifies with a political movement or faction, they’re generally more favourable to literally any political viewpoint if it comes from one of their own tribe (as has been well attested from various studies)
This is why the question of who owns liberalism matters, and why the fact that two specific interest groups within the Democratic party have effectively come upon a mutually agreeable answer they want to push hard on this subject is important. Especially when those groups are the Democratic Socialists of America and the financially powerful centrist bloc within the Democrats. Both of these groups want to push the same answer for different reasons – that liberalism is the ideology of the old guard, to be associated predominantly with figures like Pelosi and the Clintons. In today’s heavily partisan system, being seen as what authentic liberalism means is a bonus for the Democrat establishment with voters where a generation ago it might not have been, and it helps separate them from the more electorally risky DSA. Meanwhile, the DSA benefits too. By pushing a manufactured binary between “establishment centrist liberals” (conflating those otherwise not at all necessarily connected words) and “socialists” on the other hand, they can position themselves and thus socialism specifically as the only route to a more radical, transformative political solution, giving socialism more traction on the progressive wing of US discourse and harnessing the energy of many younger activists whose activism can then be shaped to have a distinctively socialist flavour.
So far, so good for everyone – but there’s a catch, and the catch is that neat binary splits, in political rhetoric as everywhere else, are a really bad way of resolving reality. Both sides of this particular split have particular sets of key policy goals and long-held opinions that may not fit an ideal route for the Democrats.
The DSA is a democratic socialist party – its heroes include people like Sanders and Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, and the policy solutions include (along with a wide range of mainstream reforms like the introduction of single-payer healthcare), classic socialist ones like a job guarantee. The Sanders/Corbyn model, however, isn’t always especially radical on some areas, including hot-button topics like border control: Sanders has called open border policies a gimmick and attacked them for “doing away with the concept of a nation state”, and even Ocasio-Cortez, the charismatic and talented younger face of the movement, has couched her calls to abolish ICE in terms of reminding people of the pre-ICE system rather than calling for permanent loosening of immigration controls. There is no leftist pride that can be taken in Sanders-style blanket opposition to trade deals, either; reducing tariff barriers and similar has been a huge force in lifting people worldwide out of poverty. It would be unfair of me to tie the DSA and the new socialists too heavily to Sanders, of course, but at the same time it’s clear that the political tradition upon which the new movement is building is that of a social-democratic, ultimately statist, left; the new US left does not talk so much about cooperativism, open borders, unconditional minimum incomes, disarmament, and other hallmarks of what in other countries might be liberal-radical or ecosocialist-green progressives. Needless to say, the Democratic establishment aren’t all jumping on those bandwagons either.
To put it a different way, drawing the divides between a simple “socialist” grouping which gets to solely represent “the left” and a “liberal” grouping which gets to be run by the establishment may be mutually pleasing to partisans of both of those groups but bad for radical and progressive politics in the USA. Taking away people’s linguistic space to describe themselves as both liberal and radically progressive should be seen as a deliberate railroading tactic, and one that members of all groups involved should see as beneath them. The US’ political structure is pretty bad for permitting difference and fluidity between parties: it would be an especially great shame if the socialist movement, so often in the past losers from exactly that system, were to work towards building a new pole in a polarised system rather than embracing the need for a wide range of progressive stances, some of which will fit more and some less well into their specific movement ideals.
All liberals should in many ways applaud a number of things that groups like the DSA have achieved, such as their effectiveness in pushing single-payer healthcare firmly onto TV screens. Brave calls by Ocasio-Cortez to take the necessary steps to abolish ICE should also give liberal radicals hope that DSA-backed candidates will in the coming years be persuadable away from a Sanders-type isolationist model and prove allies on most of the immediate substantive political fights. It is, however, I think important to avoid a situation where the only sort of progressive you can be is a DSA progressive and the only sort of liberal you can be is a centrist liberal. If partisans are allowed to keep pursuing that sort of political wedge-forming, it will do a great disservice to any sort of forward-looking democratic politics in America at a time when radical ideas to build a better United States are likely to be more needed than ever.