What the manifestos really tell us

May 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

The manifestos tell us that Britain has a big gap in its major-party politics, a gap that’s bigger than it has been perhaps in a generation. It’s not, however, the one that the media seemed to be angling for. The expectation given was of a “hard right” Tory party against a “hard left” Labour party. Neither prediction, looking at the policy detail, is anywhere near correct.

It turns out that Britain doesn’t have a gaping need for a centrist party. It has a desperate need for a liberal one.

The Tory manifesto is hard to write much about because it’s so light on detail – but it’s clear that this is one of the most hardline nationalist and authoritarian programmes for government in decades, possible the most so since the second world war. Rising requirements for couples to bring their spouses to the UK, an uncosted “aim” of cracking down on migrant numbers at the expense of the economy, and a commitment to a hard Brexit with the possibility of a cliff-edge one left open all leave any idea of the Conservatives as an economically sane option in tatters. They also destroy the idea of a “compassionate” or “liberal” conservatism – a spurious idea at the best of times, but now more clearly than ever a simple lie. Opposing this Tory isolationism will have to fall to the Lib Dems (and to a lesser extent the Greens) – we need people more than ever in parliament who are prepared to be unequivocal about the virtues of reaching out to the world.

May’s vicious stance towards foreigners is a known quantity, however. There are also big and worrying new issues from a liberal perspective in the Tory manifesto. Massive new commitments to internet regulation could have a chilling effect on free speech and allow the government unprecedented and dangerous levels of management over what needs to be a neutral, public, free conduit for information. The Tories are openly seeking to change voting systems to suit themselves too, with plans to implement first past the post in the London Assembly and Mayoral elections, making a joke of local democracy and choking out smaller parties from the political scene. It’s not just Brexit that means we need liberal voices opposing the Tories: it’s genuine threats to our democracy.

Corbyn’s Labour, meanwhile, have managed to talk a strong socialist game, but it’s not reflected in the manifesto. The much talked of programme of renationalisation has had little to no money allocated to it; even with the railways, only the management is set to move back to state control, as apparently no money has been set aside to buy back the rolling stock. More surprisingly still, the party is being far, far less ambitious in reversing Tory welfare cuts than the Lib Dems, with McDonnell apparently hoping to keep the child tax credit cuts and benefit freeze in place (which would, one imagines, be a very nasty shock). As much as I passionately believe in moving toward free at the point of use higher education, I know far too many people who’ve suffered under the current benefits system believe that it’s a higher priority than rebuilding the country’s badly damaged social safety net. I have no qualms about saying that before 2015 Labour were absolutely right to call the coalition out on the damage they did to social security, and that my own Lib Dems were wrong in failing to oppose more of the DWP’s excesses: and yet it now feels almost cynical that Labour, having got this far largely on the basis of that very principled position, isn’t actually seeking to reverse some of the harshest cuts yet.

But regardless – a more simple, gaping fact remains, and that is that Corbyn’s Labour is not a liberal party. Which shouldn’t be news to anyone, but it still seems to rile people who believe that as a progressive voter I am in some way a traitor or closet conservative for disputing the idea that Labour is the only progressive option in every respect. It’s simple when one looks at the manifesto, though. Labour under Corbyn has retained its commitments to mass surveillance, to an undemocratic electoral system, to expensive and failing drug laws, to a criminalisation system that puts sex workers at risk. Labour’s manifesto devotes its entire section on the self-employed to discussing people who aren’t really self employed, and a vague commitment to the UK taking its “fair share” of refugees comes with precisely no money or concrete pledges at all to back it up. And then of course there’s Labour’s commitment to ending Freedom of Movement, which commits a Labour government to a hard Brexit and the end of any sensible trade deal (also meaning in the process that many of Labour’s budget calculations are wildly optimistic, based as they are on heavily taxing prosperous industries that are likely to up sticks and head abroad when the UK leaves the EU).

As is probably obvious, I have no problem with Labour under Corbyn being “too left wing”. They’re really not saying anything dramatic there, placing themselves well to the right of the Lib Dems on social security and offering very similar funding increases to the NHS. But having liberal values, believing people should have an equal say in our democracy, caring about people regardless of what sort of work they do, taking evidence based approaches to social problems rather than punitive ones, having an open and internationalist mindset – those things I do care about, I believe I’m right to care about them, and right not to support either of the two main parties that very clearly do not care about them, never have done and show no sign of ever doing so.

And that is, I guess, what keeps me going and talking about these things, through all the shouts of “enemy of the people” and “yellow Tory” and whatever other bogus nonsense gets thrown at me on any particular day online. I know that no other party, no matter how much easier it might make my life if I joined a bigger bandwagon, will actually articulate many of the problems I see in British society. Nobody will say these things if liberals don’t, if we don’t, if I don’t. I am a liberal and a Lib Dem because I believe, as our constitution calls for, in a society where we balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity. If the manifestos show one thing above all, it’s that if we didn’t have a party with those goals, we’d have to invent one.

Radical, articulate, hopeful liberalism is so desperately needed in politics right now – and there is, quite simply, no substitute on offer.

Donating to beat the Tories? Here’s where to spend your money.

May 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

Many of you might be worried at the prospect of a massive Conservative majority, for all sorts of reasons. But it’s often hard to know what to do, especially if you’ve got little time and little certainty about where to donate your money. That’s where this guide comes in, helping you micro-target your donations to the individual Liberal Democrat candidates most likely to stop the Tories, with short overviews of the different fights and handy links straight to the donation list. Money to these crowdfunders will go directly to the individual campaigns and into the hard on-the-ground work that is so desperately needed now to get the vote out and build support in the run-up to June 8.

With Labour potentially set to lose up to fifty seats to the Conservatives, every seat that the Lib Dems can gain in response will be crucial in pegging back that Tory majority. If you want to know where and how the Tories will be stopped, and how you can donate to make it happen – read on.


Lewes

Top of this list comes Lewes: it’s the third seat on the Lib Dem target list numerically, but with excellent local election results there it’s probably the strongest single chance of a gain from the Tories, with the seat’s strong remain leanings strengthening the Liberal chances in the area. Kelly-Marie Blundell is an exceptionally able candidate, and the Greens pulling out will also have boosted the Lib Dems’ chances here. The Tories will no doubt pour resources into the seat, however, and spending is one of the areas where the party will struggle to keep up with the Conservatives unless they can get more help.

Donate to Kelly-Marie Blundell in Lewes

Eastbourne

At number two on the numerical target list (number one being Cambridge, which won’t be on this list as it’s Labour-facing), Eastbourne is another great opportunity to stop the Tories. Returning former MP Stephen Lloyd is seeking to unseat Caroline Ansell: his relative Euroscepticism and high local profile, as well as his independent-mindedness and past opposition to unpopular measures like tuition fee rises, give Lloyd a fighting chance in this Brexit-voting seaside town.

Donate to Stephen Lloyd for Eastbourne

Bath

The town of Bath – affluent, well-educated, heavily pro-remain – is the sort of territory that should be perfect for a Lib Dem revival, though the indications are that the Tories are digging in and trying to keep up the flimsy pretence that local MP Ben Howlett is a “moderate”. The key here will be trying to persuade fiercely pro-remain Green and Labour voters to back Wera Hobhouse and get the message out to moderate Tories that Howlett’s “moderation” never seems to follow him into parliament’s voting lobbies. A win for Hobhouse would be a great boost for Remain backers and provide a strong and independent-minded pro-European voice for Bath in parliament.

Donate to Wera Hobhouse in Bath

Cheltenham

A set of thumping wins in the county council elections will have put the Cheltenham Lib Dems in good spirits heading into the General Election campaign. Fighting in a pro-remain seat, former MP Martin Horwood will be hoping that the large swings in the Lib Dems’ favour (increasing the Lib Dem victory share across most of the constituency’s county divisions, and coming within a whisker of taking two of the three they don’t hold) will be repeated in the general election. The Lib Dems have a fighting chance of unseating the Tories here – and you can help them do that.

Donate to Martin Horwood in Cheltenham

Kingston & Richmond

This covers Kingston & Surbiton, Richmond Park, and Twickenham. These seats, forming a powerfully anti-Brexit wedge of leafy south London currently narrowly held by the Tories, should be some of the most fertile Lib Dem territory: one (Richmond Park) the Lib Dems hold after last year’s by-election, though with a narrow by-election win over the Tories Sarah Olney can afford no complacency there. The other two see returning big beasts. In Twickenham that’s the return of Vince Cable, who since losing the seat in 2015 has focussed on moving the party’s economic policy to a more investment-driven stance. In Kingston and Surbiton Ed Davey, whose undoubted effectiveness as a minister saw his energy & climate change department more than double the UK’s renewables capacity between 2010 and 2015, is running again. All three seats are winnable, especially with the party’s anti-Brexit message, but the challenge will be stretching two boroughs’ worth of activists over three hard fought seats. Funds will be desperately needed to help the (often badly out-spent) local activists get letters and targeted advertising out to local voters.

Donate to Ed Davey & Sarah Olney in Kingston

Donate to Vince Cable & Sarah Olney in Twickenham & Richmond

Sutton

The London Borough of Sutton will be a very hard Lib Dem-Tory fight where every penny will count. In Carshalton and Wallington, veteran MP and expert political survivor Tom Brake holds the seat and has fended off the Tories for a quarter-century, but the Conservative to UKIP swing puts him in danger. In Sutton and Cheam, Amna Ahmad, the party’s spokesperson on refugees, is a great candidate and a breath of fresh air, facing off against hardline Brexiteer Paul Scully. Both of these fights, in one of London’s few leave-voting boroughs, will be won and lost around issues of local service provision and especially the Lib Dem defence of St Helier hospital against further Tory cuts. Helping the local party get that message out about the services people in Sutton need will be crucial to staving off a Tory victory nationwide.

Donate to Tom Brake & Amna Ahmad in Sutton

Southport

A currently held Lib Dem seat where seeing off the Tories will be a difficult fight. Southport was practically a four-way marginal in 2015, and with the collapse of UKIP and the retirement of veteran Lib Dem John Pugh, getting local businesswoman and Lib Dem leader on Sefton council Sue McGuire into parliament will be a hard fight. There’s both a large Labour and a large UKIP vote here, so there’s everything to play for, and whilst this is the hardest seat of their current nine for the Lib Dems to hold, the local party are working hard and with extra financial support may well manage to deny the Tories a victory here.

Donate to Sue McGuire in Southport

Oxford West & Abingdon

Probably the best chance of the Lib Dems taking a seat they didn’t hold in the 2010-15 parliament, OXWAB has a locally recognised candidate in Layla Moran and a hardline Brexiteer opponent in Nicola Blackwood, in a heavily pro-Remain seat where the Lib Dems managed some impressive council results earlier in May. Wrestling the rural parts of the constituency back from the Tories will be tough, though, as will ensuring that the Labour vote in the Oxford wards knows that they need to back Layla to beat the Tories. All those things need leaflets, and leaflets need money!

Donate to Layla Moran in Oxford West and Abingdon

Torbay

Another Brexit-voting town on the south coast, Torbay sees a new Lib Dem candidate in Deborah Brewer, a local businesswoman and lecturer. The Lib Dems have seen some local election success here, including returning former MP Adrian Sanders to the council with a vast pro-Lib Dem swing, and the Labour vote is larger than UKIP’s meaning that it might not take too much tactical voting to put Brewer into a decent position to grab the seat.

Donate to Deborah Brewer for Torbay

Yeovil

Yeovil’s long Lib Dem history – held by the Liberals since 1983, and the leader’s seat under Paddy Ashdown – as well as its continued Lib Dem representation at a council level will give the local party hope that they can take the fight effectively to the Tories here. The small margin of Marcus Fysh’s victory over David Laws in 2015 also means this is a seat firmly in the Lib Dems’ sights, though the collapse of UKIP support locally will make the fight harder. The new Lib Dem candidate is Jo Roundell Greene, an award-winning veteran councillor who will be a credible and locally well known opponent to the rather bland Tory incumbent.

Donate to Jo Roundell Greene for Yeovil

North Norfolk

If the Blue-Kip surge reaches its full height, North Norfolk is the third of the three Lib Dem seats (along with Carshalton & Wallington and Southport) that could be threatened. Whilst local election results were good here, the collapsing UKIP vote could give the Tories the boost they need, and with no other serious contests in Norfolk the Conservatives are throwing everything they have into trying to unseat Norman Lamb. As the Lib Dem health spokesperson and a prominent voice on liberal issues including drug reform, NHS funding, and mental health, Norman Lamb is one of the driving forces behind post-coalition Lib Dem policy, and would be a huge loss to parliament. Whilst he has a good chance of winning, the Tories are likely to out-spend his campaign heavily unless he can get more funding from outside.

Donate to Norman Lamb in North Norfolk

Colchester

Former local MP Bob Russell is returning in Colchester – whilst the Tory lead in 2015 was over 10%, the Labour and Green vote was over 20%, with a conversely relatively small UKIP vote, meaning that building a tactical alliance to unseat the Tories is by no means an impossibility here. In recent council elections, the combined Lib Dem and Labour vote would easily have been enough to stop the Tories – as long as the second-placed Lib Dems can persuade enough anti-Tory voters to back them, this could be a genuinely close contest and provide one of the real upsets of the 2017 election.

Donate to Bob Russell in Colchester

Eastleigh

Another area where the Lib Dems’ council control gives them a strong local base, and where promising council election results may give the local party a boost for the general election. Eastleigh council is almost entirely Lib Dem, so despite the party’s tough loss in 2015 their local electoral base is still very strong. The borough has a recent history of large voting swings electorally too, and the Lib Dems won a 2013 by-election here, so this may be more in play than the 2015 numbers would suggest.

Donate to Mike Thornton’s fighting fund in Eastleigh

10 May: Campaign Update

May 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

I’m just writing this as a brief update with thoughts on the ongoing campaign, which may be of use to others in some cases.

Events & Polling

We’ve had two major events so far since the campaign being called: the local elections and the CPS decision. The latter has, probably rightly legally albeit frustratingly, proven to be a damp squib. The former underlined what we already knew – that the real story this election will almost certainly be a giant UKIP to Tory swing that will move the Tories from majority territory into landslide territory. It’s extremely difficult to see how the other parties can turn this around at this point: without any real TV debates, with a fairly pliant media landscape, and with few obvious sources for curveballs, the Tories will not hope to walk this one home.

As to more detailed local election trends, it was very clear that the ToryKip swing was the big deal. Take the Lib Dem friendly area of North Norfolk: the Lib Dems gained three seats and lost two… but in both of the two they lost, they gained both raw votes and vote share compared to 2013. The Conservatives’ ability to gobble up the UKIP vote meant they could “leapfrog” the Lib Dems. This trend was evident right across the southwest of England and into Cornwall as well, which suggests that the Lib Dems will have great difficulty breaking through a “blue wall” in their former heartland. Liberal gains are probably most likely in areas that were either very tight in 2015 or where the UKIP vote is very low and the Tory vote quite soft/centrist (like parts of south London). There are some brighter spots for us, topping local polls across some key targets like Eastleigh, Lewes, and Cheltenham, but the overall picture of recovery is somewhat scattered.

For Labour there is basically nothing positive that can be said; failing to capture the West Midland and Tees Valley mayoralties shows their weakness in a lot of even semi-marginal areas, and the results in midlands council areas likewise indicate they’re in for a very bad night indeed. Their fortresses in Manchester and Liverpool will hold, and their vote seems to be remaining fairly strong in London and some southern cities like Bristol, but the party lacks places to go on the offensive and is getting hammered hard by May’s presidential-style “strength” message in its heartlands.

As to the polling, the following trends now seem to be clear:

  • There’s a massive UKIP to Tory swing as noted above, at least five points
  • The Labour vote has been consolidating/reverting to the mean by 2-3 points since the election was called, probably at the expense of the Lib Dems and Greens.
  • UKIP/LDs/Greens are all static or falling back a bit, definitely falling back in UKIP’s case and less clear in the case of the other two.

This isn’t what pundits seem to have expected: Labour’s hold on its voters seems to be pretty tight, and with both Corbyn and May disingenuously pretending the race is competitive the two larger parties are working hard to apply effective squeeze messaging to voters. The Lib Dem projected national share from the locals far outstripped their current polling, but it seems on balance that this is more likely to be the result of local/national differential voting than a genuine “shy Lib Dem” effect.

My current expectation would be that the Lib Dems can make some gains, but precious few of them (I’m going to suggest maybe six to eight seats gained and maybe one lost on current polling). Labour stand to lose fifty seats; they’ll be heartened by their somewhat consolidated vote, but unless they can peg the Tories down to the lower half of the forties they still stand to take very heavy losses indeed.

Policy

This is an interesting election for policy, and a complex one.

For the Tories, their initial wariness about policy seems to be evaporating with the fresh discussion of fox hunting. The idea that they’re throwing these ideas out as some sort of cover is implausible: instead, I think it’s simply a sign of confidence. The Tories haven’t really felt they can govern unimpeded since the early 1990s: getting hard-right policies and those that appease their financial backers out now means that they can claim the election result as a mandate for them (even if Tory votes are actually just centred on the dual issues of Brexit and leadership competence). They’re generally keen to avoid policy chat in general, and have avoided making Cameron-style big claims on tax or pensions. Avoiding questions is a sensible if frustrating precaution with a leader whose image relies on distance and whose ability to think on her feet is not widely regarded as one of her stronger suits. And, of course, as long as they can get away with not answering questions, why tie their hands by doing so?

Labour have not moved nearly so far left as one would think from the shrieking right-wing tabloids or some of their own tub-thumping supporters.  Their higher tax plans are still unclear, but they seem to be taking a fairly “soak the rich” attitude. This plays to their base well, and in theory is sound: as one keeps going up the percentiles, wealth exponentiates. Whether Labour’s taxes will be able to realise this wealth is another question; simply ramping up NI or income taxes isn’t going to obtain much extra given the high propensity of the wealthy to avoid tax. It’s worth noting that Labour policy on many issues hasn’t moved a lot: the party is still pro-surveillance, has moved right to a soft-Eurosceptic position since the EU referendum, is still pro-criminalisation on issues like drugs/sex work, is still in favour of a like-for-like Trident replacement, and is still stubbornly opposed to electoral reform. Corbyn has proven himself extremely effective at wielding his support base within the party, but his achievements in policy movement seem to have been almost exclusively on the economic axis.

Labour’s tax-lock plan for most workers is definitely a sound electioneering tactic, and enables them to fend off the Lib Dem plans which do involve taxing middle-income workers more. On the other hand, it’s terrible economic strategy, tying the government’s hands if stimulus spending turns out to be needed, and means that their “soak the rich” taxes will need to come with a very convincing plan. It’s also a traditionally right-wing strategy that Labour may find hard to sell coming this close before an election with an electorate already saturated with the idea of Labour as high-tax left wingers and with a lot of big spending pledges that they’ll need to persuade people they can pay for. McDonnell’s strategy seems to be to try and outflank the Conservatives at their own game economically, emphasising low tax and fiscal responsibility alongside higher spending. Whether this triangulation works is unclear, and probably obscured by Corbyn’s crushingly low favourability ratings.

The Lib Dems, in contrast to Labour, have made a sharper tack to the left than anyone seems to have noticed; the social liberal core of the party have reasserted themselves strongly in the wake of 2015. The Lib Dems’ proposed 1p in the pound rise in income tax, which is recieving some bizarre attacks from Labourites, is a broad-based progressive taxation measure which has the solid bonuses of being up-front about what it’s there for and potentially coming on-stream to help plug the NHS funding gap pretty quickly. Commitments to infrastructure & housing spending also underline a centre-left economic stance, moving further from the Tories. The party has moved to more radically liberal positions elsewhere, too, especially on cannabis where legalisation is now party policy. This could potentially provide another billion a year for healthcare taking into account savings on police budgets and potential taxation revenue. It’s unlikely that much Lib Dem policy will get a good airing, especially with Brexit being such a core line for us (which in the short term may not pay off in seats: see below), but even a brief glance will reveal a very different party to that which was electorally massacred two years previously.

There are two particularly interesting spectres hanging over both parties, one obvious, one less so.

Brexit is the obvious one. Labour seems to keep fudging just enough to hang on to remain supporters, many of whom continue to insist in the face of quite a bit of rhetoric to the contrary that Labour will deliver a “soft” Brexit (that is to say, retaining EEA membership) when in power. Whether it will be able to continue this game after the manifestos are published remains to be seen. For the Lib Dems, this election may be something of a Brexit write-off: we have thus far largely failed to persuade big voting blocs of Tory and Labour remainers to switch our way, and there’s not a lot of time left. In certain seats such as Oxford West the “remain breakthrough” seems possible still, but there are few of those. The party has without a doubt consolidated its core, a necessary step after the loss of direction that accompanied the coalition years, but this may have come at the expense of, rather than as a springboard for, electoral success in 2017.

So, here’s the non-obvious policy issue for both Labour and the Lib Dems: land value taxation. For Labour, it’s the most obvious sensible answer to make their sums add up: a tax that’s hard to dodge and hits high-value wealth. They’ve expressed interest in the idea, but whether they have the foresight to put it into the manifesto will be a real test. For the Lib Dems, the issue is similar but different: whilst the party doesn’t necessarily need LVT from a pure budget maths perspective, a land value tax is party policy (most recently confirmed at Spring Conference 2016). If Labour prominently adopt the issue and the Lib Dems fail to make it a manifesto pledge, it robs the Lib Dems of one of their potential economic ace-cards for the future. Needless to say, I think my party should put LVT in its manifesto: whether either party does remains to be seen.

What next?

The headline news is grim for the Tories’ two main opponents. The cavalry are not coming to save anyone (and nor are the CPS). The size of the likely Tory majority is still far from set, though, especially as the polling for the Lab/Con battleground is really in a “slide zone” (that is to say, where a small amount of polling movement can cover a lot of seats). A Tory part of 350 seats versus one of 420 is an immense difference in mandate and outcomes, and that’s the kind of board we’re probably playing across now.

For the Conservatives, the strategy is mainly to keep on hammering on at the current lines. As long as they can protect the Prime Minister from heavy policy scrutiny, they can probably ride out anything else in the election and finish with at least 43% of the vote, enough for a solid majority. For Labour, there are two options: “wagon circle” and “barnstorm”. The latter strategy would be to get Corbyn and McDonnell publicly speaking in basically every vulnerable seat in the Midlands as fast as possible: both are competent speakers, though Corbyn’s baffling refusal to do a debate without May might have cut the possibilities here. The other option, the wagon circle, is to leave the national campaign and the most vulnerable 20 seats for dead, and try to pour resources into boosting the local candidates in the 20-30 seats after that. The Lib Dems didn’t manage this one very well in 2015, but there are potentially arguments for it nonetheless.

For my party, most of the variables have been set: focusing on the target seats as hard as possible is of course vital. It would be good to see Norman Lamb being used more and making the 1p pledge (far simpler than the party’s somewhat complex Brexit strategy) a more core pillar of the campaign. Returning Vince Cable to the position of economic spokesman may not have been optimal strategy – whilst Cable’s experience is immense, his less than enthusiastic position on free movement sits badly with the party’s overall stance, and it would have been good to see for example Kelly-Marie Blundell or Julian Huppert in more prominent roles.  There are definitely still a wide range of possible gains for the Lib Dems in the course of this campaign, and even an achievable polling gain of 2-3 points would put us in striking distance for a respectable double-figures gain in seats.

Still a good few weeks to go – I’ll try and write another update in a couple of weeks, and then one in the run-up to polling day.

Be realistic – coalition isn’t happening

April 19, 2017 § 2 Comments

I’ve seen a lot of speculation about coalitions in relation to the election, and especially in relation to the Lib Dems. So I’m going to set out my own position here, and explain why my position matters (which it wouldn’t if I were a Labour or Conservative member).

A coalition deal including the Lib Dems requires the consent of two thirds of Liberal Democrat conference delegates, under Article 22 of the Lib Dem constitution. We are a democratic party, and for example in 2010 we held a special conference that endorsed the coalition deal. Times have changed since then, though, and instead of the collection of delegate-bigwigs who made the call in 2010, the party has moved to one member one vote. That’s the system that any coalition deal would have to go through. I suggest to any of you reading this that you take speculation on Farron’s motives or comments regarding coalitions with a strong pinch of salt – it’s emphatically not his call to make in a democratic party, and in the (exceptionally unlikely) event of a hung parliament the Lib Dem members would make their voices clearly heard.

So, speculation over a Lib Dem-Tory coalition. Short version: it’s nonsense and no more likely than a Labour-Tory one at this stage. I do not think such a coalition deal would be possible to begin with, as an immediate change in the electoral system and commitment to retaining membership of the European Economic Area would likely be the party leadership’s minimum red lines. In the unlikely event that the leadership reneged on these red lines, they would have to try and force a deal through an energetic, belligerent conference floor. Even if these lines were met (in which case the Conservative party would be collapsing internally), it would be up to any prospective dealmakers to convince conference that such a proposed government could save the NHS, rebuild our education system, and deliver on liberal values in other areas. I don’t think that this scenario is possible, let alone likely.

But I’ll be clear for my own part: I think, and I think most of my party agree, that the Conservatives lack the moral authority to run our country. They are a ramshackle party clinging to their internal unity at the expense of the country, mired in corruption allegations, with an incompetent record on the economy and an immoral one on social policy. Whilst I am sure that such a conversation won’t happen, I would not vote for (and would campaign to oppose) a proposed government that was led by the Conservative party, under any terms, and I am confident that a majority of Liberal Democrat members would not do so either.

The Choices of Conservatives

March 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

As usual, I wish I had better words – but will probably make up in volume what I lack in wisdom.

This is the largest setback for progressive forces in Britain in my lifetime, perhaps in a half-century. There should be no confusion about that – even if there had been last June, the scale of the damage that the Conservative government will do under cover of Brexit is now increasingly apparent. Brexit itself is, I have always thought, a bad move – but it has been the choices of Conservatives that have created this catastrophe.

In ruling out both freedom of movement and the oversight of the ECJ for trade relations, May has made two choices (and we must see them as choices, being by no means inevitable parts of Brexit) that will hurt people across the country. A city of London without financial passporting could see billions wiped off our GDP and thus be used as an excuse to further dismember our NHS and social services; small businesses who export to Europe in a wide variety of areas could face tariff barriers that they have no room on their balance sheets to absorb. The economic impacts of this will be very real for people’s livelihoods, and will largely be the result of the choices of the Tory hard right.

But there the choices do not end. The hard right have won their victory, and are only now discovering that they cannot tell one end of a ministerial briefing from the other. What a Brext Britain needs would be a radical, effective economic strategy – active, effective support for our creative industries and massive investment in science & technology in order to make the most of Britain’s knowledge economy, meaningful support for SMEs, and big steps in adult education to fight poverty traps and improve the dynamism of our labour market. And yet, only deafening silence reigns. Creatives and academics are at critically low morale and are checking their options for work visas elsewhere. There is no plan. The Conservatives have hammered down what they are against, but what are they for?

It is a question they have chosen – chosen – not to answer.

The choices of Conservatives must not, cannot, be unaccountable to the electorate. It is both our right and our duty as citizens to call our government out when it takes a wrong turn, when it fails to represent our interests. The choices of Conservatives through this process so far have been, for many of us, to not only fail to represent our interests, hopes, and aspirations, but to actively and aggressively attack them across a wide range of policy areas. For me, at a time like this, parading false unity and failing to take on the government would be a betrayal of my values, of my friends, and of myself. People – many I’ve never met, many I care about, many I love – will have to face the choices of Conservatives. I will not stop fighting their corner. I cannot.

I do not believe, and will not allow myself to believe, that this fight is futile. Brexit is a hammer-blow, but standing up for people’s jobs and aspirations, for their freedom to move and love and create and hope, goes far beyond it. A radical, liberal future for Britain has never been more needed; restoring our battered standing in the wider world, giving people real effective choice in elections, caring better for people’s mental and physical health, giving people opportunity through education and security through minimum incomes, and much more. It’s a future that we need to articulate – not so much to oppose a Conservative vision of our future as to fill the void that the choices of Conservatives look set to leave our country in. We deserve better than that. We deserve hope.


Finally; I know there will be some people particularly upset today – fresh uncertainty over whether families will be able to stay together or jobs will continue to exist, whether they’ll be able to stay in their adopted country of residence, feeling a stranger in a country they thought they knew, or simply exhausted by the absurd allegations and attacks on those of us who have fought an internationalist corner in these difficult times. If you’re one of those people – stay strong, take care, and look after yourself. Thinking of you all.

In which I attempt to become radical furniture

February 27, 2017 § Leave a comment

Hello friends! This is a blogpost officially announcing that I’m going to be running to be the first elected chair of the Radical Association.

So, the RA. What is it and why is it? It’s a ginger group – an internal pressure group, that is to say – with the Liberal Democrat party. Its aims are to support specifically radical and blue-skies policy creation, with a view not only to working on a policy research level but determining how we can get new ideas through into party policy and out to the public at large.

Why’s this needed? The big answer is because for generations in the UK, people have had their lives changed, for the better, by big liberal ideas and reforms – implementing pensions, writing the blueprint for healthcare free at the point of use, leading the way on seeking more cooperation with our continental neighbours, pushing for equality under the law in marriage and a host of other areas. As the 21st century continues we’re seeing a wide range of new or continuing problems facing our society – low political engagement in some parts of the community, automation permanently changing the way we interact with work, a changing population structure meaning radically different pressures on public services, the need for clean energy self-sufficiency in the face of climate change, and more. The RA’s specific focus on campaigning to get bolder ideas onto the table is, I believe, a necessary part of building a Liberal Democrat party that’s capable of standing up to the challenges of the coming years and winning people back behind a more open, more egalitarian, kinder political agenda than the one being pushed by our present government.

So, what am I doing? The Chair of the RA is essentially what it says on the tin – it’s a role distinct from that of the director, who runs day to day operations, and is responsible for overall final decision calls, direction, and public engagement. The organisation is new and small so this “election campaign” is likely to be mostly about ensuring that we can get all positions contested and encouraging people to vote, but I’ll be doing my best in the coming fortnight to set out some aspects of my vision for the association and where it should go next.

If you want to help and are a Liberal Democrat member, please join the Radical Association and vote in the elections (voting starts roughly March 5) or even consider running for a post – we have some non-portfolio positions that still could do with people expressing interest. If you want to help and are not a Lib Dem member, I’ll probably have some horrendous Facebook page for campaigning knocked together soon which you can like and things like that.

As always, I’m very happy to try and field any questions on any of this – ask in the comments, or on my Facebook event, or tweet at me – and congrats if you’ve had the patience to read this far!

I’ll be adding one or two more blogposts in the coming days hopefully to further set out my ideas for the Association and where we can take it going forwards 🙂

Europe: An Integrationist Backlash?

February 20, 2017 § 2 Comments

The UK and US have both set a national course along similar trajectories recently. Brexit and Trump may not be precisely the same phenomenon, but the resulting governments have some distinctly similar features; a traditional right-wing party being led by its most nativist, nationalist elements, pushing anti-immigration policy and sentiment without regard for the potential economic or political damage, a disregard for innovation as an economic driver, and the heavy rhetorical use of “real” (as code for an idealised vision of “masculine/manufacturing”) people being played against a caricature of “elite” city-dwellers. The similarities go on, but the point is made.

We and our media, however, may be so wrapped up in our current situation that we are missing the patterns and trajectories in other countries, assuming too quickly that they are simply waiting or threatening to follow us along that road, or at the very least that their more centrist politicians will have to give significant ground to the nativist right in order to withstand the tide. Such a view is by no means stupid – the hard right has been resurgent across Europe as well as the Anglosphere – but if one looks beneath the surface, Europe may be about to take a hard tack in the opposite direction altogether.

There are three key elections coming up in Europe this year – France, the Netherlands, and Germany. As three of the EU27’s largest economies, these countries (especially France and Germany) have a huge rule in dictating the future of the European Union. Closer union cannot realistically happen without their consent; their leaving the European project would be far more fatal than Britain’s exit, were it to take place. A quick examination of these three countries gives us a very interesting, and very real, glimpse of the Europe that the Anglosphere might find itself dealing with by the end of 2017; it may not be what some in our commentariat, enthralled by the potential success of hardline populists like Le Pen to match that of Trump, seem to expect.


So, how are these three elections shaping up? The Dutch election is probably the least consequential and hardest to predict of the three. With a plethora of parties likely to gain seats in parliament, and the hard-right PVV likely to come first but with no plausible coalition partners, an unwieldy multi-party coalition is a near certainty, probably led by the current right-wing VVD, who have themselves been moving to try and head off PVV support by moving away from their pseudo-liberal roots towards a harder-right stance on Islam and migration. The resulting government, if it hangs together at all, will struggle to take any definite position on anything whatsoever given that it may need at least five parties to form a majority. Nonetheless, with the PVV having seemingly peaked in the polls and sliding back down towards the VVD, and the latter needing support from left and centre parties to govern, the hard right is likely to stay locked out of power in the Netherlands.

It is in France and Germany that things get far more interesting. Germany, not so long ago, looked nailed down for the CDU, with a likely continuation of the centrist “Grand Coalition” – but that was before Martin Schulz, a popular former bookseller and veteran EU politician, took the helm of the lesser coalition partner, the Social Democrats. On January 23 a poll suggested that the SDP were on 21%, behind the CDU by over ten percent. A fortnight later, Schulz had them on 31%, with a narrow lead. Merkel’s position is unexpectedly under threat, and not from the hard right AfD at all (whose “surge” of the last two years has brought them only to a distant third place in Germany, and whose positions on issues like immigration, unlike those of their UKIP counterparts, have been resisted and rejected by the centre-right). Instead, the challenge comes from a resurgent centre-left.

In France, the dice have been favourable to the long-shot candidacy of former economy minister and centrist liberal Emmanuel Macron. Not so long ago, he was clearly well behind Les Republicains’ Francois Fillon (a Russophile, soft-Eurosceptic with economically Thatcherite leanings), and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen (whose success in painting a veneer of merely “hardline authoritarian” over the fascist core of her movement is remarkable, but whose party is still too unpalatable for a majority of French voters to consider). Whilst Le Pen is still clearly likely to win the first round with around 25-27% of the vote, scandal has descended on Fillon’s campaign and Macron is now the narrow favourite to sneak into the second place spot. In France’s two-round system, second place can be every bit as good as first – the top two candidates book a place each in the second round, and polling clearly shows Macron as an easy winner there, crushing the National Front by as much as a 2:1 margin.

Macron and Schulz have some obvious commonalities. Both are of the centre and centre-left, for one thing – but more importantly, both are passionate about one thing perhaps above all else. And that thing is Europe and European integration. Schulz has been president of the European Parliament for five years; Macron encourages his supporters to fly the Union’s golden crown of stars along with the French Tricolour at his rallies. If these two men end up forming a future axis across the heart of Europe, it could put rocket skates beneath the EU’s ability to integrate policing, defence cooperation, budgets, and far more.

Perhaps more pertinently for the Anglo-American “Trumposphere”, it could set Europe’s foreign policy on a path of dramatic opposition to Britain and the US. The Macron-Schulz EU, if it happens, will in all likelihood be trying to forge forward with international trade deals just as America and Britain retreat from them; it will, perhaps dragging a less-willing US behind it, perhaps not, take the lead in a bullish pro-democracy stance against Putin in Ukraine and Georgia. As for Brexit, the thought of facing Macron and Schulz across the table should be keeping Conservative negotiators up at night. The two men will not seek to humiliate or needlessly damage Britain, but they will certainly ensure that it cannot get benefits reserved for members of the European club; defending the indivisibility of the “four freedoms” (people, services, capital, goods) will be more of a priority. More so than their more naturally cautious Conservative alternatives, they may be prepared to stomach a brief economic punch for the potential gains of industries and services relocating into their own countries.

How have we got here? Ironically, perhaps because of some of the very dynamics that brought Trump and Brexit to the fore. With an isolationist Trumposphere having formed, a gap now opens for a populist opposition in Europe to an exceptionally unpopular US president and an increasingly disliked and chaotic Britain whose reliability as a partner seems in question and whose platitudes about trade cannot mask the cosying up to Trump or the wholesale sacrifice of Britain’s hard-won trade deals in order to curb the bogeyman of immigration. Being able to run against two increasingly disliked foreign governments is a gift to politicians like Macron, who despite his inexperience can already look the part of a Europhile statesman.

Whether this stance is likely to be successful in government is a question far beyond the discussion here, but it may have significant electoral appeal for playing to centre-left voters. It may also provide opportunities in domestic policy – Macron’s vision of France sees the country taking over as the capital of entrepreneurship and innovation, benefiting from an Anglo-American “brain drain”. He will find such a project difficult for France specifically in some respects, but the potential gains for the Eurozone as a whole in providing a strong pull for US/UK researchers are clear. With Trump having both declared fair game on sharp-elbowed economic diplomacy of a sort not often seen nowadays, and having alienated some of his most mobile labour and capital forces, Europe has an opening to snap up potential gains by ramping up the “pull” factors without seeming churlish on the international stage. The integrationists have every intention of doing just that; the Trumposphere’s loss may yet be their gain.


One final note: all the above is a possibility, not a statistical prediction. There are as yet many things that could prevent any of the above coming to pass, the most obvious feature being the fact that both Macron and Schulz are in no better than a statistical tie with their rivals (Fillon and Merkel respectively). The scenario discussed is however considerably more likely than a right-populist wave overtaking the core western European EU states, with Le Pen faring ill in all second-round matchups that have been polled, Wilders lacking partners to govern with, and AfD languishing in the polls and the CDU sharply distinguishing themselves from their policies. Rather than the question “who’s next?” being first to mind when looking at Europe, it may yet be the case that Trump and Brexit have handed the integrationists the last laugh.