Austrian Scenarios: Election 2019

October 6, 2019 § Leave a comment

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Vienna, a few days after the 2019 election. The city remained its tradition red overall, but the OVP won the centre district and outer suburbs, and a huge new green belt emerged driven by student and middle class left-liberal voters.

In January 2018, I outlined 8 scenarios for Austria’s future, from a slow reversion to the mean through to an Orbanising right-wing coalition slowly steamrollering its opponents. With Austria just having just had another election, years ahead of schedule, it’s pretty clear what the outcome was. Here’s the second scenario I outlined as a possibility two years ago:

Scenario 2 – Kurz Wins

This is almost certainly Kurz’s planned or hoped for victory condition. In it, the FPO, unused to government, are wobbled by scandal – though not sufficiently to hurt the OVP – and government successes in lowering middle & upper class taxes, looking tough on migration, and cutting back red tape reward the OVP whilst making the FPO’s policy goals look comparatively weak. FPO voters abandon the party for the now-proven Kurz as a better guarantor of their interests, and the party begins to collapse into infighting, locked in as a decidedly more minor coalition partner in future.

The FPO have been more than wobbled by the Ibizagate scandal – the traditional third party of Austrian politics, they were only a couple of points away from coming fourth. The polls showed their vote holding up rather better at around 20 percent, but in the event they did around four points worse, and Kurz conversely better, than expected. Considerably lower turnout than the previous election may have been partly driven by FPO voters staying at home, demoralised by multiple scandals. Indeed, the major difference to the scenario I proposed above indeed seems to be that the FPO seem to be planning to drop out of coalition talks altogether in order to lick their severe electoral wounds.

Strache, the FPO’s front-man who pulled them back and brought the party through the years of challenge from the BZO and Team Stronach, is not only gone but increasingly persona non grata after being identified as the possible source of an extremely damaging expenses leak which hit the paty just day before the election. His successors, the more extreme-presenting Herbert Kickl and the softer spoken but less than energetic Norbert Hofer, may be more focused on duelling for whatever sits in the void where the FPO’s soul ought to be than trying to plug the gap. Even if the OVP were short on options, declaring a minority government, daring the FPO to vote it down, and then attempting a further raid on their voters might well be more tempting than putting up with a coalition partner in disarray.

So, and since governing without him is essentially an impossibility, who will Kurz turn to? The most likely answer now, and the other big winners of the night, were the Greens. Campaigning with the word “comeback” prominently emblazoned on posters, and sweeping a big left-liberal voting belt in Vienna, the Greens have surged back into parliament (after an embarrassing set of catastrophes prior to the electionlast time) with enough support to be a viable sole coalition partner for Kurz’s OVP. They will however be understandably nervous about coalition with the right, with the risk of the social democrat SPO nipping at their heels. Whichever more progressive party agrees to join with Kurz, they will run a severe risk of losing out due to the taint of coalition with the right. The Greens have their recent time outside parliament to glance back at, while the SPO have just had a historically bad result themselves and are doing a great deal of rather public soul searching. Nonetheless the Greens, perhaps in combination with the right-wing liberal NEOS to beef up the parliamentary majority, are now in pole position to form a coalition given Kurz and the SPO’s mutual antipathy, but whether Kurz will be able to satisfy Green demands without fear of risking his more socially conservative voters is unclear and may depend on how bad the cracks in the FPO turn out to be in the coming months. Another election in the face of deadlock should not be entirely discounted as a possibility.

I’ll maybe do another post on the next coalition and how it could pan out, but that’s best done when a coalition or minority government actually forms, which that could be some months away yet…

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On Stepping Back

September 28, 2019 § Leave a comment

After three and a half years of very solid Lib Dem activism, I’m taking a break, dropping most of my party activism and planning to spend the next two years outside the cycles of internal Liberal Democrat politics and campaigning activities. This may seem an odd time to do so, with the UK hammering towards a pivotal moment in the international debacle that has dominated most of the time I’ve been active, but the fact is that there come points in life when you can’t just keep walking in the same direction and carrying the same load and hoping you’ll come out the other end sometime.

Fundamentally, I’m tired, both physically and mentally, of wading through a political system that takes much and gives back little. and whilst based in Austria and doing the other things that comprise my life, something had to give somewhere. The world’s problems are not going away any time fast, and destroying my health working on them in my mid twenties may not be the best long term thing I can do either for them or myself.

I’ve been weighing this up for some time – my PhD is going to need more time in the coming years, and I’d like to get the book I’m writing finished and make progress on my comic and songwriting, besides recurrent issues with stress related health problems this year which have made things more difficult. Recent experiences have tended to confirm the necessity of doing so, however.

In particular, the party’s gross mishandling of the defection of Dr. Phillip Lee proved an exhausting and upsetting episode, in which I was at times pulling twelve hour or more days getting people to sign letters, talking over with them whether or not they would end up resigning and from what, and trying to help people deal with the fact that the party let in a man who even at the point of writing is in flat denial about the effect of a grossly xenophobic legislative amendment that he himself wrote five years previously. I and over eighty other members, including a number of federal committee members, parliamentary candidates, and councillors, wrote to the party leader, president, and chief whip about the issue. As of the time of writing, none of those three people had even bothered to acknowledge receipt of the letter, much less respond to it. I accept that these are extraordinary times and many people in politics are under excessive strain, but quite honestly this makes it more, rather than less, important to keep people on-side and keep things together. To date the party has lost organisers responsible for over sixty recent Liberal Democrat election victories, two chairs of its LGBT+ group, has an unnecessary by-election to fight in a key recently held council, and has lost several of my closest friends and colleagues entirely. Whilst I’m retaining my membership card, the leaden footed and at times actively discourteous response from the party leadership over this issue has undeniably made me less inclined to go sit on the proverbial front lines for them.

Of course, this was at the tail end of a long streak of burn-out, as such things tend to be. Frustrations with party systems that have ended up more increasingly leaning to unduly favour passing unamended any policy papers proposed by party elites, even if flawed, are another concern. Frequently, a level of stringency is applied to the text of amendments to motions (largely submitted by party members) that is not applied to the text of motions submitted by spokespeople or the federal policy committee, and this double standard is making real debate at conference and the ideal member-driven policy a more tiring set of things to achieve. A system where sloppy wording like the suggestion that we want to “reduce unnecessary imprisonment” – as if we felt there was a reasonable level of unnecessary imprisonment that could be achieved – gets through on a spokesperson’s paper, whilst far stricter standards are frequently applied to amendment texts – has certain problems. Coupled with that are issues with conventions adopted by the federal committees. For example, on the topic of a minimum income, for two years after the 2016 paper the FCC convention was that social security was in a “cooling off” period, and thus ineligible for a new paper. At the start of this year, that having ended, campaigners on the issue were told that a paper on minimum income would be inappropriate because a new working group had been formed which we could feed into or amend the paper of. Come Autumn, and despite no concerns over the text being given in conference committee feedback, our amendment on this motion was rejected out of hand. And now, of course, the two year “cooling cycle” begins again. This ‘blocking cycle’ problem is an issue that should be under serious discussion for the upcoming federal committee and presidential elections, and I hope suitable questions will be asked upon it.

Much of the rest of what I’ve done in the past few years has been exhausting to say the least. Whether it was doing research for parliamentary candidates, knocking on doors, writing policy motions, advocating for ideas in internal party discussions, writing letters and opinion pieces, or simply the daily grind of being told I was a monster, traitor, et cetera by supporters of other parties, it all combines to drag one down over time mentally. As tired and fed up as I am with aspects of Liberal Democrat activism, there is nothing like being a Lib Dem to help one discover the least pleasant corners of all the other parties, many of whose activists have kindly taken time out of their days to ensure I am aware that I am lower than dirt in their worldviews. The psychological effect of things like being told by a stranger to go and lie down in the road and wait for a bus does accumulate after a while (I was in Norfolk then and would have died of starvation well before a bus arrived thanks to Tory underspending on local transport, which I noted at the time, but that’s somewhat beside the core point).

With all that vent given, I think I should probably note for myself as much as anyone what I have achieved in the last few years of policy activism. Along with others, I’ve helped move the Lib Dems from coalition era positions on social security to a firm position on abolishing the sanctions system and, as of this autumn, promising pilots for an unconditional minimum income benefit (this last part especially supported by Jane Dodds MP and my friend Dr. Adam Bernard, PPC for Harrow East). The clause of party policy promising the complete abolition of benefit sanctions is my writing, and the pilots pledge came in part as a result of my working with the relevant working group putting them in touch with experts and advocates for the policy. Labour have just this weekend followed suit in publicly pledging the abolition of sanctions for the first time, knowing they cannot risk being outflanked from the left on this – moving the Liberal Democrat position does, I think, move the Overton Window for the country as a whole.

Another area in which I hope I’ve helped make an improvement is on immigration policy, where in 2018 I led the move to commit the party to scrapping the No Recourse to Public Funds rule for foreign-born spouses as well as the income cap. Holly Matthies moved, and I summated, an amendment that replaced a planned commitment to roll back to the pre-2010 Labour policy of NRPF, effectively a lower but more arbitrary cap on the income a family could have before being allowed to live together, as opposed to the current higher flat cap. Instead we put forward what is now Lib Dem policy  – that spouses should be able to live together no matter what their income level. That we passed this despite opposition from parts of the party front-bench, and managed to move the support of senior figures (including the late Paddy Ashdown, who kindly stopped to congratulate me afterwards – the only time I ever met him), is a source of pride and one of the moments I’ll most carry with me from the last few years of activism.

Some other areas of party policy have my fingerprints on them. This conference, that meant incorporating an additional condemnation of Boris Johnson’s Stop & Search expansion. Last Autumn, it involved committing the party to measures to support cooperative startups and looking forward to an end to business models in which shareholders are treated as the sole stakeholders, as well as writing a clear and unambiguous civil liberties clause into the party’s overall priorities motion which will set the outline for a future manifesto. Besides those bits which I’ve actually written, I’ve been able to contribute to a range of other motions and amendments worked on by friends and colleagues. I hope those changes have been worthwhile, and that they help the party to help people in the years ahead.

Outside policy, party strategy has been a concern for me as well. One of my more controversial, but in the event I think justified, decisions was to advocate and organise a large open letter backing the idea that it was untenable for MPs supporting Theresa May’s deal to continue to hold the Liberal Democrat whip. I have great respect for the MP who resigned the whip as a result of that internal discussion and I’m glad he retains membership of the Liberal Democrats, but think events have shown that his not sitting in our parliamentary group was the right call both for him and for the party, as it’s on the basis of the clarity of our opposition to Brexit that we’ve finally broken through and started making spectacular gains in the polls, in local elections, and in the European parliament in the past few months. Not all my advocacy within the party has gone so well – see the unfortunate case of Dr. Lee mentioned above – but I think what I have done has been worthwhile.

Finally on this front, I should note my bequeathing the party its Radical Association, which I think will be greatly needed in the coming years and whose members and committee I hope will come together to provide a radical liberal critique of our politics as a country and as a party. I am always hesitant to attribute things to myself – no activist is an island, and I have had huge support both practical and emotional from so many people in the party – but I think I can with some justification say that the Association would not exist today had it not been for the work I have put in across recent months and years. As its first chair, its constitution writer, its back-office manager, its conference guide writer or its social media support, I’ve supported the Association in a range of ways because I think room for an anti-statist, progressive, radical liberal position is something there needs to be within a successful and meaningfully liberal party, and without which such a party cannot succeed and will not improve people’s lives to the extent that it could do.

There are many brilliant radicals in the Liberal Democrats, and my biggest sadness about stepping back is that I will be less able to see and support them. Activists and candidates like April Preston in Manchester, Cllr George Potter in Surrey, Joe Toovey in Hertfordshire, Oliver Craven and Natasha Chapman in Lincoln, or my own excellent parliamentary candidate Josie Ratcliffe are all people I hope to see providing strong voices for liberalism both inside and outside the party in the coming years. I encourage readers of this post to find ways to support strong liberal voices where they can, to ensure a broad church of debate within Britain’s liberal movement, to strengthen the cross-party commitment to social justice and civil liberties in the UK, and to help ensure any future administration in which the Liberal Democrats take part is one that is as committed as possible to our constitutional values, expanding our moral circle as a country beyond the narrow confines of citizenship and ensuring that nobody is enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity. For them as much as anything else, my party continues to receive my passive support even if my activism has for the time being proven a spent resource.

As for myself, there is an autumnal damp sinking into the Vienna air, and I am gearing up to teach my first full university seminar, on the reception of Medieval topics in computer games, as well as to try and make some further progress on my core project database. My creative projects are more than ready to have some dust blown off them, and the beliefs and hopes I hold for myself and for the world will no doubt in the coming months echo in the hills of stories, even as I hand over to others for a while to ensure they echo in policy papers and the chambers of power. Time to tread quieter paths for a while, but hopefully no less valuable ones for all that.

Onwards.

Resigning from the Social Liberal Forum council…

September 6, 2019 § 2 Comments

Of the various Lib Dem activities I’ve been doing in the past couple of years, one of them has been acting as a council member for the Social Liberal Forum. The SLF was founded as an anchoring and organising group for the party’s centre-left and left in February 2009, and functioned as a centre of opposition to the Nick Clegg’s centrist and centre-right policies during the coalition years. As someone who has never believed in the wisdom of coalition-era austerity, and whose policy focus has always been towards the redistributive end of the spectrum, I stood for SLF council last year in the hope of providing a useful voice and support for its activities.

Today, with great sadness, I resigned from the organisation’s council, primarily because of the persistent failure of its executive to deal with a serious transphobia problem.

Without going too deep into the facts of the case, at the same time as myself a member of the SLF’s council was elected who is known to hold deeply transphobic views and who has campaigned strongly against trans rights. This issue was flagged up last year shortly after the election, with one member of the council resigning very soon afterwards.

For the last few months, I have attempted to ensure in my role as an SLF council member that the Forum was doing the things it is nominally there for – fighting for, discussing, building and promoting social liberal values, including fighting for a minimum income as party policy and pushing for more redistributive tax policy in the Liberal Democrats – as well as lobbying to get it to take the transphobia issue seriously. The SLF lacks an effective constitutional process for dealing with disciplinary issues either on its council or amongst its members, but I hoped that this situation, if properly handled by the executive, could provide the impetus to solve that problem as well.

Today, I cannot reasonably continue to hold out hope for a solution to this. It has been a long and frustrating year, and at the end of it an extreme transphobe who shares social media posts from fascist-adjacent American news sites is still treated as a member of the SLF council. That person is still frankly having their activities covered for by certain members of the executive who, if not sharing those views, appear to strongly differ from me on the question of whether having bigots signing off on the council decisions of a liberal organisation is a workable way for such an organisation to proceed. My attempts to discuss this, despite providing both evidence and explanations for my concerns, have failed.

In view of this, I came to the realisation that I could not in good conscience ask fellow liberals, especially LGBT+ fellow liberals, to join and support an organisation that would fail them if a complaints process about their senior members was needed, and which does not appear at an executive level to see transphobia as incompatible with their vision of the organisation right now.  My position on the council is as a result fundamentally no longer tenable, and my resignation email was sent in earlier today.

I have a great deal of respect for many of the SLF’s council and executive members, but fundamentally they have failed on this one and this is an issue on which they cannot afford to fail. I wish those who remain all the best in getting the organisation to a better place, if indeed a change of direction can be made. I am sorry that I was unable to achieve that myself, but there are some days when it is important to admit when a problem is making things impossible and step aside rather than throwing energy at a project you no longer have enough faith in to keep going with.

The Lib Dem Leadership Race: An Update

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.

The Lib Dem Leadership Contest: Lanes and Runners

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:

“Orange Bookers”

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.

True Centrists

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.

HQ Loyalists

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.

#FBPE-ers

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.

Social Liberals

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.

Radical Liberals

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 SWINSON

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

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 MORAN

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…

The Eastbourne Ultimatum

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.

The real men behind the “Real Men”

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.


(A brief note that this was originally written as a post on my Facebook wall – if you use Facebook and want to share the original directly, you can find it here.)