2022 Election Results: New Liberal Opportunities?

May 8, 2022 § 2 Comments

Somerset’s Lib Dem Win – Graphic from New Statesman/Britain Elects

So, the 2022 election results were very pleasing from a Lib Dem perspective. We took control of a number of new and old councils – Somerset, Westmorland, Hull, Woking, and Gosport – and knocked the Tories out of control in several more, including Tunbridge Wells and West Oxfordshire. We also heavily consolidated a number of existing council wins, including in South Cambridgeshire, St Albans, and Richmond Park, where we moved from already controlling the council to a state where the Tories were almost entirely routed.

A good night, however, is not a good time to avoid asking questions. Just as we need to understand why losses happen, it would be a foolish leader who failed to try and understand which factors were important in a win, whether we could have done better, and what this might mean for strategy going forwards. I’ve no doubt that such discussions will be happening internally, but here’s my take on the results.

The first question to ask is what predicted Lib Dem success. One of the key answers to this is “where were we already winning?” – this was a set of results that consolidated and advanced gains where we had strong local parties able to take advantage, and conversely one that saw relatively few breakthroughs and even the occasional loss where we didn’t. This is in line with how the party has been working since 2019, with a very heavy focus on ground campaigns and a tendency to retain quite a narrow targeting focus. We did somewhat better this year, not least because the government is more unpopular. In councils demographically similar to and indeed neighbouring ones where we did well, however, breakthroughs were not evident: Reigate & Banstead, Tandridge, Hart, Maidstone, and Fareham for example are all part of the ‘blue wall’ south of London and saw minimal progress, while nearby places which already had a good deal of strength were doing much better.

And so we come to our second consideration, which is how success tallied with strategy. In one important respect, the high internal focus on ground campaigns, success did indeed tally with strategy, in that the strategy was “get” – though, as noted, this doesn’t seem to have reached weaker local parties well. One critique we should be considering in the coming months is whether these results might have been further improved if some of the strongest local parties had been better encouraged to spend more time in neighbouring areas, perhaps lessening the iron grips we’ve ended up with in St Albans or Richmond Park but producing stronger performances in places like Welwyn Hatfield or Elmbridge. There’s a significant medium term net positive to “seeding” smaller but functional non-target local parties near to target areas: them being able to put up a fight prevents our opponents focusing their resources as effectively on our targets, whilst also building up groups of activists some of whom can refocus their efforts onto the target seats come general elections. Some areas with very weak opposition groups can also be proportionally softer targets where we can make surprising breakthroughs, due to the ‘Glasgow Effect’ (so named for Labour’s loss of the city to the SNP) where an incumbent party’s campaign infrastructure tends to weaken after too many years in power. The results we’ve got, in any case, suggest that we’ve done well on supporting ground campaigning but have been overtargeting our areas of existing strength and that’s something we could improve on.

In another respect, the strategy clearly has a problem. The party’s nominal strategic goal for a while has been to focus on the “blue wall”, a band of affluent, liberal-leaning seats around London and the Home Counties where, it is imagined, long-standing Conservative voters who dislike high taxes but aren’t exceedingly socially conservative and maybe voted Remain in 2016 will flock to the Liberal Democrats because they dislike the fact that the Prime Minister is an obvious law-breaker with no respect for the dignity of his office. Various variants on this suburb & leafy posh shire strategy have floated around the Lib Dems for some years, with a few breakthroughs and held seats but little wide-scale breakthrough to show. So it remains, as noted above: the Lib Dems have nail-scraped a lot of second places, and there is no question that this is where many of the party’s targets now lie, but the progress is far from even and tends to correlate better with liberal elbow grease than voter demography.

It is important to note that from the perspective of internal strategic discussions, the Blue Wall is a very southeastern phenomenon plus a few leafy suburbs in the north (Cheadle, for example). The reason it is important to recognise this is that when it comes to policy and messaging, it is these voters, not other groups of Conservative voters, who get brought up as the necessary focus: in policy working groups, for example, the pressure tends to be e.g. “can we avoid raising taxes on people in Woking and St Albans earning in the eighth and ninth deciles” rather than “what do we need to do to appeal to voters in the numerous council wards in Somerset that are in the bottom fifth nationally for social deprivation”. Both of these sets of areas are Conservative/Liberal swing areas – only the former is occupying the minds of senior party figures with any reliability.

These results show that that’s a problem, because our opportunities actually may not be where we thought they were. As noted, large swathes of the classic Blue Wall remain unmoved by Sir Ed Davey’s appeals to good governance and modest taxation: and yet, here come the Liberal Democrats to break through in Labour-facing Hull, and across the rolling hills of Somerset and Westmorland. These are not the wealthy suburbs the party’s messaging strategy keeps imagining, and indeed these are probably successes despite, rather than resulting from, that messaging. The Lib Dems in Hull include a number of the party’s most vocal supporters of Universal Basic Income, officially party policy but at present rarely mentioned by the leadership for fear of the tax implications. The Somerset win shows that the party once again has serious potential in the South West, much of which is badly off, badly connected, very rural, and increasingly sick of a lack of support from the centre.

If the party’s future lies as much in Kingston-upon-Hull and Yeovil as it does in Esher & Walton and Tunbridge Wells, this poses a quandary that must be answered. Is the party’s messaging to the affluent centre going to cut the mustard in a general election where we need to be considering the former areas in our targeting? Personally, I suspect not. Re-centring a more vigorous localism, being less afraid of tax if it’s needed to solve cost of living crises, and taking a somewhat punchier stance towards the institutions of a central government that is letting people down, rather than posing as the upholders of their dignity, may all be needed. The Misfit Coalition of voters, defined by their shared inherent issues with and demands against centralisation and authoritarianism, that were so important to Lib Dem success before 2010 might not be as buried in the past as some party strategists had hitherto believed.

The 2022 election results are a real, and major, success for the Lib Dems. But they also tell us some things about how we’re doing that might be difficult for the party to take on board: if we can do so and we can better link up messaging with our new target possibilities, there are serious electoral opportunities to increase our parliamentary and local representation. But for that, we have to realise what those opportunities mean and that, come a general election, we’ll need to ensure we support our local activists with a strategic and messaging perspective that speaks to the people on the doorsteps they’re visiting.

Restorative Justice: time to talk it over?

March 10, 2022 § Leave a comment

So, this weekend at Liberal Democrat conference I’ll be putting forward an amendment to a policy motion that reaffirms and, more importantly, significantly extends the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to restorative justice policies – it’s a severely under-discussed area with immense potential to be a flagship part of how liberalising justice systems could work, and this post is here to tell you more about why and how.

For those who haven’t come across the concept before, restorative justice stands in contrast to procedural justice. The latter – which is the justice system you all know and probably have mixed feelings about – basically stipulates that justice comprises specific breaches of a legal code that have penalties attached to them. We therefore have police, who both directly enforce the law and , and a court system, which determines how people are penalised. Restorative justice is conversely justice as a system of mediation and restorative action between those causing and those on the recieving end of harm (who in some cases can, indeed, be the same people). The role of the professional facilitating the process is to provide a framework in which those discussions can take place, with the aim of providing both acceptable restitution for wrongs that have been done and of integrating those causing harm back into communities more effectively. Meetings can build, discuss, and put in place individualised plans for restorative action which can give victims and offenders a stronger voice in the outcomes of the process and their own futures than the procedural justice system allows.

Government research demonstrates that restorative justice provides an 85% victim satisfaction rate, and a 14% reduction in the frequency of reoffending. ”

UK Restorative Justice Council

We use restorative processes already in the UK justice system, albeit that they’re often severely under-utilised: whilst in theory it should be offered to all victims of crime, in practice this only happens in a shockingly low five percent of cases. But where they’re used, they work: reoffending rates are cut, victims of crime express higher satisfaction.

We use restorative justice in the UK, however, essentially only as something to run alongside procedural systems, and only as something accessible through police services, and that limits some of its potential. Offering the possibility of restorative justice as a more complete alternative system has been tried more in the US, where it has been developed from indigenous models and has had some notable success stories. This is partly because it significantly changes the incentive structure for offenders: the traditional legal system encourages offenders to deny everything until the latest possible moment, creating more pain for victims and a far lengthier and more expensive process for everyone involved. Accessing restorative services in place of the courtroom, especially if routes can be found that don’t always involve the police directly, may also help people in communities with low levels of police engagement and trust find effective justice and decrease other social problems.

Restorative justice isn’t a catch-all to solve every problem, and changing mindsets to get it into widespread use will take time and investment. It’s also important to stress that this is a system and a service that needs to be built, not something that will flower on its own: the role of a restorative justice facilitator is a difficult, serious professional task, and needs to be supported by additional staffing ideally at a local government level where councils may have the local knowledge needed to apply relevant resources effectively. The focus for using restorative justice in its own right should probably initially be towards non-violent and property related crimes where it is easiest for the public to envisage restitutive actions, though its use elsewhere suggests the long term possibilities are wider.

Liberals in the UK have traditionally been at the forefront of progressive thinking on policing and justice reform, from tackling heavy-handed policing to campaigning for rehabilitative prison services, and now is an important moment to embrace some of the possibilities offered by a more wholeheated endorsement of wider restorative justice use in its own right. As we focus on the high costs and lack of access to courtroom justice that have plagued that system in recent years, it would be wrong to fail to consider alternatives as well as fixes, and bad politics to pass on the chance for an approach that more effectively demonstrates our values.

That’s why this weekend, Liberal Democrat conference will get to debate an amendment I wrote on the motion ‘Swift Access to Justice’ which moves our position forwards on this in two important ways. First, it accepts clearly for the first time in party policy that restorative justice has the potential to be used in place of procedural justice, rather than as an addendum to the procedural system as at present. Second, it explicitly calls for routes to be made available to access restorative justice facilitation that do not always rely upon already overstretched police forces. These changes provide a stronger commitment to restorative justice, and demonstrate our values: taking an evidence-based approach to policy, tackling problems at the level of and in conversation with the affected communities, providing justice whilst seeing the value and needs of victims and offenders alike. My view is that it would make sense to redirect part of the funding that our previous manifesto committed to raising police numbers in order to provide this uplift at council level, though given that manifesto financial commitments change and the money spent is fungible, this isn’t specifically included in the amendment text. If conference commits to this policy, in any case, we’ll be heading down a significant new route that offers some very exciting possibilities for us as a party and more importantly for the public debate and the future of policy in this area more widely.

Restorative justice won’t work in all cases: like any policy solution, it’s not a magic wand. It is, however, something that we know works, that brings the values of liberty, equality, and community clearly to the forefront of how we approach justice, and on which we have a clear route forward to start arguing our case. We can’t just be hide-bound by looking at how to fix the procedural justice system – moving forwards will take thinking outside the box and seriously considering alternatives to procedural justice. This Saturday, the Lib Dems will have the chance to do just that.

On Fighting Fascist Memories: Ukraine, Russia, the US and the UN

February 17, 2022 § Leave a comment

One feature of posting about the Ukraine-Russia crisis that occasionally comes across my social media feeds is that of left-wing, pro-Russian bloggers and thinkers attacking Ukraine and its independence on a number of grounds. In particular, the claim or implication made is frequently that Ukraine is an aggressive nationalist-fascist state, backed by America for selfish geopolitical reasons to do with their opposition to Russia. Russia, in turn, is seen as the wounded party, being “surrounded” by NATO such that they have no option but to defend themselves via, apparently, militarily posturing on the Ukrainian border. This perspective, to my eyes, feels utterly divorced from reality and in particular fails to accept or read Russia as what it is – a former colonial power suffering from an extreme sense of entitlement towards a former colony. The fact that America and Britain could certainly at times be justly accused of similar senses of entitlement doesn’t somehow mean that Russia is immune to such sentiment simply because it is a geopolitical rival of theirs: the failure to analyse Russia as a colonial power, with all that this implies about the sentiments expressed by the Kremlin towards formerly and currenly colonised peoples from eastern Europe to Siberia, and all that this implies about Russian policy, is a grave one on the part of many western progressives and leftists.

In any case, this post isn’t about the general issues (for which there are better people to listen to) but the specific: specifically, one claim made in the service of the pro-Russia left is that the US and Ukraine voted against or blocked motions at the UN that condemn the glorification of Nazism: an example is shown below. I’ve seen this crop up a few times on my Twitter feeds, and decided that I wanted to understand more about what was going on here. Was it really true that the entirety of Europe decided to neutrally shrug when it came to the glorification of Nazism?

So, I want to make a couple of things clear before I embark on a slightly longer look at this: first, I am not trying to make any general defence of how any particular country votes at the UN. The preceding tweets in MacLeod’s original thread, for example, quoted above document a couple of other votes by the USA on rights of children and food rights, against the vast majority in opposing the overall UN motion in both cases. I haven’t looked into those cases and won’t be commenting on them, but precisely because of that I don’t mean this post to suggest that the US isn’t often flat out wrong on international issues when there’s often evidence to the contrary. I’m not even going to defend this specific vote – I certainly wouldn’t have voted the same way the US did – though I am going to discuss why it’s a bit more complicated than at first glance. The second point to make is that I’m a historian and activist, not a UN-watcher or a lawyer, so others may well have a better understanding of the chicanery behind how United Nations resolutions are put together.

So, onto the vote itself: the UN is pretty good at recording votes, and the notes for this one can be found here. The US didn’t “block” the vote, which passed the assembly, but it and Ukraine did indeed vote against: the map above is accurate in that regard. One feature is however interesting: a number of states were not present to vote, making them de facto abstainers. These included Iran, the Congo and DR Congo, Mozambique, and some small nations like Tuvalu and Palau. We (definitionally) don’t know how non-voters would vote, but excluding them makes the map visually isolate the Europe/US block more clearly and thus underlines the implied point: it’s worth considering that a map can be entirely accurate but how it’s presented can still make a difference to how the outcome sticks in the reader’s head.

The other document worth looking at, though it does a frankly rather shoddy job of actually providing a clear explanation, is the US Mission’s record of why it voted No, which you can find here. I’ve checked the Ukraine Mission’s statements folder, but it appears they didn’t give a public English explainer on their 2021 vote. A factor that complicates reading both resolutions and explanations in such votes is that they often interlock, and a further complicating factor is that the UN has rather little power: resolutions are statements of shared intent, not laws that can be enforced. As we see from the tweet we started with, countries can vote yes, no, or abstain: the latter doesn’t prevent a motion passing, but suggests that there are some problems with the motion that prevent a member from wholeheartedly endorsing it.

So, let’s start with the US explanation. The first thing to point out here which starts making the “the US voted to be OK with Nazis” argument look a bit flimsy is that most of what’s here is very much attacking Nazism. This is a more important point than one might think, in that of course it’s possible for someone to say one thing and do another, but as we’ve noted, all UN motions really do most of the time is make a statement of intent. So it’s not a question of saying one thing and doing another, but of seemingly contradictory public statements… unless, of course, the US has some other reason that isn’t “being pro-Nazi” to vote against this motion. And they do raise two points on this front, though they don’t explain them at all well and one is pretty terrible.

First, they accuse the motion of fostering “thinly veiled attempts to legitimize Russian disinformation campaigns denigrating neighboring nations and promoting the distorted Soviet narrative of much of contemporary European history“. In other words, the US say they believed that voting for the motion would have been tantamount to slapping Hitler by endorsing Stalin, and therefore endorsing the USSR’s control of much of eastern Europe, something that the US under many leaders has a pretty long record of opposing. So, indeed, do most of the countries that abstained on the motion.

Second, they cite “the constitutional right to freedom of speech and the rights of peaceful assembly and association, including by avowed Nazis, whose hatred and xenophobia are vile and widely scorned by the American people“. In other words, the US officially has such a hard line on being in favour of free speech that it doesn’t think one should ban Nazis from speaking. As a British liberal, I think the US is frankly nuts on this point – it whacks into Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance like a high speed train – but it’s important to note it here. I think this is the point that comes closest to justifying attacking the US for this vote: the US position explicitly was that banning Nazis from expressing their views was something they couldn’t support.

Are these concerns justified by the text? I’m going to focus on the first of the two points, about the commemoration or not of the USSR, not because I think it’s per se more important but because I think the US is more isolated on its bizarre free speech point (Germany and Austria for example have very clear provisions not allowing avowed Nazis a right to assembly or association, but still abstained). It is pretty clear that the resolution clashes with the US’ free speech at all costs standpoint, for example in point fourteen where it “Emphasizes once more the recommendation of the Special Rapporteur that any commemorative celebration of the Nazi regime, its allies and related organizations, whether official or unofficial, should be prohibited by States” and later in point where it reiterates the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination Article 4 saying signatories “Shall declare illegal and prohibit organizations, and also organized and all other propaganda activities, which promote and incite racial discrimination“.

Most of the motion, it’s important to note, should be pretty unobjectionable. A lot of it is loosely worded to “emphasise” or “encourage” or “recall the importance of” its points, rather than to actually resolve to do very much, but most of what it asks, regarding everything from combating Nazi commemorations to general anti-hate-speech work, is perfectly worthy. It’s worth considering that numerous states which did vote yes are pretty clearly doing things which breach the generically anti-discrimination parts of the text or are run by people who don’t observe them. This includes Brazil, whose leader once said that some Black Braziliansdo not serve for anything, not even to procreate” but whose government still signed up to this resolution that “condemns without reservation” incitement or harassment on the basis of ethnic origin or religious belief. China’s well-documented human rights abuses against its Muslim Uyghur minority, including the destruction of ancient mosques, also didn’t stop it signing: nor did Azerbaijan’s attempts to erase Armenian Christian heritage in their southwestern regions, or Israel’s citizenship laws which explicitly discriminate against those of Palestinian heritage. This should mainly serve as a reminder that how a country votes at the UN is not very well connected to how they act in practice.

An interesting phrase does crop up in the text pretty early on – the “anti-Hitler coalition”, which it uses consistently for those who fought against the German Nazi state. This isn’t per se a wrong statement to use, but it does two bits of work which don’t necessarily serve for good drafting: first, it zones the motion in pretty strongly on mid C20th German Nazism. Its somewhat loose wording otherwise can be read to include or exclude a lot of other fascist and discriminatory tendencies, dotting between sections containing very general reference to “extremist parties” or to racism in a general sense (eg sections 33 and 35) and sections that are solely focused on the Second World War and Nazi crimes and do not mention any other fascist movements or genocides (e.g. sections 11 and 14). As a resolution it thus shifts focus wildly from paragraph to paragraph, and risks creating the unfortunate implication in its wording that extremism, racism, fascism and Nazism are purely interchangeable terms. That’s a problem because it lets the resolution’s titular “other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” go unmentioned in any concrete way and the motion side-steps much consideration of what modern neo-Nazis do, commemorate, or look like beyond the easy stereotype of using 1940s German Nazi symbolism, which is still used by many such movements but is far from the only symbol or event they seek to claim. This in turn reduces the effective pressure the motion puts on states to combat fascism by taking a limited, frozen picture of how such an ideology relates to historical memory. It also may let people exonerate modern totalitarian governments who are happy to vote against the commemoration of Hitler whilst committing their own daily atrocities, letting them pose under the general anti-Nazi stance of the motion whilst not having the motion actually call out their specific fascisms. Both a motion against the specific movement and symbolism of Nazism and a motion against fascism and extremism worldwide are worthwhile aims: trying to bolt the latter onto the former without accounting for other fascisms effectively weakens both aims.

Second, and this is the most important bit, the “anti-Hitler coalition” focus means that the motion consistently equates all of the anti-Nazi forces as generically good – the enemy of my enemy being herein my friend. For example, see para 17 where the motion “welcomes efforts by Member States to preserve historical truth, including through constructing and preserving monuments and memorials dedicated to those who fought in the ranks of the anti-Hitler coalition“. This could be taken innocuously, but for states that subsequently suffered under Red Army occupations it is equally possible to see why a blanket positive memorialisation of the USSR forces might be unwelcome. Monuments are a horribly poor form of preserving historical truth: they are about celebrating, not informing, first and foremost, and the fact that they are singled out here is decidedly curious in that regard.

Section 29 is even more important in understanding Ukraine’s opposition in particular, where the text “expresses serious concern regarding attempts to prohibit, at the legislative level, symbols associated in States with the victory over Nazism;” – Ukraine explicitly bans Soviet symbolism and has had a fairly extreme ban in place since 2015, though it also bans Nazi symbolism. Other eastern European countries that suffered under USSR rule also have partial bans on certain Soviet symbolism, including Georgia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Whether or not one agrees with them, it’s pretty hard to read Section 29 as anything other than a very explicit rebuke of these policies, and therefore as singling out those particular countries. Russia is known to have strenuously objected to other countries adopting such policies, and the presence of this clause seems very likely to be on their initiative. This is, I think, by far the most likely explanation for Ukraine and much of the EU voting “no” despite their own bans on Nazi symbolism – whilst the US might want to retain the right to hear Nazis out, EU member states and their allies want to retain the right to not hear Stalinists out.

This is, of course, where we come full circle and back to Kremlinophile-leftist bits of Twitter, whose framings of the issues around this motion tend to stop at the title. This neatly absolves them from having to discuss any awkward questions about the memorialisation of the USSR’s imperialism in Eastern Europe, whilst conveniently bolstering pro-Putin leftists’ claims that Ukraine is an uncomplicated ultranationalist villain that needs to be cut down to size to protect Russian speakers in the country’s east. As with so many things in the world, though, the reality is a lot more complex, and voting on a poorly drafted seventy-four point long UN resolution is not as simple as voting yes or no on the idea of the title. The reasons for particular states’ votes seem to have been messy: the US’ free-speech absolutism and Ukraine’s presumed defence of its anti-Soviet-propaganda policies are not actually coming from entirely the same angle. Were I a government, I would probably have considered abstaining, but for reasons not related to either no vote: I strongly disagree with the US position on protecting Nazi speech, don’t necessarily think banning Soviet symbols is a net good (though it’s not my place to tell Ukraine how to deal with that by a long shot), but personally have quite a lot of concerns about the extent to which the world allows its ideas of what fascism must look like to still be dominated by the symbolism of eighty years ago. Either way, absurdist suggestions or implications that this is a simple way to sort the pro-fascists from the anti-fascists among world governments belong firmly in the fireplace. Accurate information without effective context can mislead every bit as much as misinformation, at times.

The truth, as ever, is a messy thing, made up of a thousand little realities: fear that fact, and cherish it, in equal measure.

Leaders, Priorities and Projection

January 26, 2021 § 1 Comment

One critique of the radical wing of the Liberal Democrats has been, frequently and especially from those close to the party leadership, that it has some narrowness in its policy obsessions, and an over-focus on process, then policy, then values and then narrative in that order. Party president Mark Pack has made these charges quite explicitly in the past, complaining that “radical” is in his view too often code for “here’s a policy idea I really like and this is all I think we should talk about” (he’s singled out for example cannabis policy and basic income as examples of these). Rather, in his view, a tactical approach should be taken of looking at our voter targets based on who shares our values, and selecting policies to talk about which allow us to showcase those values, as opposed to what he (wrongly, I think) sees as calls from the radical wing to simply run hard on particular policies on their own singular merits.

However, in recent months we’ve had a number of chances to observe what, when left to their own devices, the current establishment of the party tends to roll out as its messaging, especially in the last year when it has been up to the Davey-Pack team to lead us past the problems of the 2019 election and through the difficult pandemic situation. Importantly for the purposes of this post, the rapid time development of the pandemic has meant relatively little Lib Dem policy has been passed on the issue, such that the leadership’s response has been relatively unfiltered by circular feedback from the party membership. We might, then, expect to see that above progression from targeted narrative through to values and then policy pitches in action.

What we find, rather surprisingly, is a total obsession with process and pivoting off short-term news cycles in the most process-oriented way possible. A few recent examples of what we’ve actually heard out of the party will hopefully illustrate:

Biden wins the US election? We respond by talking about when a state visit will happen and calling for that to occur as soon as possible. Now, of course engaging with a Biden administration is something I’m generally in favour of. One must, however, admit that this is hardly a position that says a great deal about the Liberal Democrats: wanting to engage with the most powerful elected official in the world is a test of common sense more than of liberal values. And it’s essentially an argument about timing of the process which even I as a historian and political nerd find difficult to get excited about.

The UK reaches 100,000 Covid deaths? We respond by calling for a public enquiry. Again, it’s not that this is in any sense a bad thing: absolutely we should have such an enquiry. But what does this tell people about the Liberal Democrats that’s different to any other opposition party?

What else have we been hearing from the Lib Dems recently? Outrage and fighting back over the government’s decision to ban leafleting. Yes, the Conservatives’ decisions around this are deeply self-serving and cynical, and yes, it is a real problem for us when we can’t get our message across ahead of important local elections. It is, however, not an argument we’re likely to win: we don’t have legislative power in order to prevent the Conservatives legislating in this way, and whilst strategically leafleting works, that’s by no means the same as leaflets being popular in the abstract.

I’m, to say the least, an engaged Liberal Democrat member. I’ve helped out in campaigning across a range of parliamentary seats over the last five years, including long evenings of digital support work even when outside the UK, I’ve contributed to double figures of different Lib Dem policy papers and documents. Fundamentally, though, I don’t know what story the leadership are trying to tell about us, and one key reason for that is that the stories we’re getting coming out are driven by concerns over process, not concerns over outcomes that will actually affect voters.

The ability, when discussing policy, to link it directly back to people’s lives is a big reason why policy is better than process for building narratives, which is a contention that’s key to understanding what I think is actually the radicals’ overall position on this area. Calling for an enquiry or a visit is an open-ended outcome: the effect of the process isn’t obvious until after the process has taken place. That means you can’t use it as a way of discussing what sort of country you want (and which you want the voters) to live in: the open-ended outcome makes it indistinct as a demand. This, incidentally, also heavily applies to the way the Lib Dems messaged through the 2016-19 period: we did best with a flat “Stop Brexit” message because this was an outcome, whereas much of the rest of the time we ended up getting trapped into trying to explain the preferred mechanics of the process, whether a second referendum or winning a parliamentary majority, which was less effective.

The core contentions of radicals regarding messaging are, then, not actually that we should hyper-focus on any one policy, bur rather that we should build narratives that focus on what makes us distinctive and that our narratives need to be ones about fundamentally changing how the UK works in order for us to stand out enough to win votes. As the very small party we are right now, getting noticed and getting cut-through is more important than the countervailing need to avoid putting off voters. To do that, we need a narrative position that actively engages both with real day to day problems and concerns that voters up and down the country are having and with policies where we are the largest or only core advocates for our particular position. We need a narrative, too, that is longer than a news cycle: rather than Biden winning being a chance to discuss Biden winning, we need to realise events like that as a chance to make points about our shared outcome goals – on racial justice, for example, or on climate change (Do people know what Biden’s climate policies are? Perhaps not, but they probably have a better idea of “Biden greener than Trump” than the precise meaning or importance of a state visit vis-a-vis doing diplomacy over the phone.)

The closest the current leadership have come to a longer term message is their Carers Campaign, which has so far as I can tell failed to excite even its core advocates – and the reason for this is that, while a very honourable and decent cause to be championing, it comes across as a singular focus on a singular policy area that isn’t well moored to a wider distinctive idea of who we are as liberals and Liberal Democrats. In short, I can’t help but feel that the presentation of radical policy as being in some way removed from voters’ concerns clashes with the leadership’s comfort zone messaging of fighting on process issues to the extent that it feels like something of a problem of projection.

I’ll finish with the good news: we can fix this. Crafting a workable narrative and finding better ways to deliver it are not beyond the ingenuity of the liberal movement, and nor indeed is agreeing and forming a shared narrative beyond our diplomatic capabilities. The first step is admitting that our current strategy doesn’t have the narrative core that it needs to work, and that we need to tell people who we are and where we want to take them, not just through a news cycle and not just through an electoral cycle but beyond both, beyond the pandemic, and into our idea of the future. Then, by finding key themes, images, and ideas that can connect a wider sense of that journey, we need to – and everyone in Britain needs us to – articulate what that means for people across the country. Finally, we showcase the right parts of our policy portfolio to tell those stories effectively, including by using policy narratives as the basis for how we react to news cycles. We can do this, if we and our leadership are prepared to talk and to try.

A final note: it’s easy to get caught in smaller and smaller loops of thinking when one feels pushed backwards. That’s true of a lot of us at this moment in time, as the world has closed in around us: it’s natural for people who feel under threat to focus more and more on protecting what they have left and avoiding taking jumps, as the resources available to take risks become smaller. That it is natural, though, does not make it good political strategy or effective moral leadership. I can only speak for myself but right now I need to hear voices saying that things will be different once this is over: not just back to “normal”, not just the status quo processed better, but forward to a place where we have a more trusting, more kind, more open society.

We need a liberal narrative with vision because, now of all times and today of all days, we need hope.

Lib Dem Conference 2020: A Party With A Voice

September 30, 2020 § 1 Comment

Liberal Democrat federal conference this weekend was the strangest in a very strange run of years and conferences since I joined the party in 2015. Reeling from an abysmal general election result last year, demoralised by a fractious leadership election campaign that left many on the party’s left questioning their place in the movement, it felt at times heading into conference like there might be a doom bell tolling over the struggling party. On top of that, COVID meant that a physical conference was impossible, meaning that this would be the party’s first attempt at an online-accessible event, an idea fraught with possible pitfalls.

The result was, however, one which left party members like me feeling our resolve stiffened – not, perhaps, reconciled to how things are going, but feeling that this is by no means the end of the road.

This was not, alas, due to the party’s leadership. Both leader Ed Davey and president Mark Pack were frustratingly evasive on key questions about the party’s direction. Ed’s speech was effective on his motivations, in a quietly personal way, but failed to provide a sense of vision. His charge of the party “failing to listen” came across poorly to those in the membership who feel that over the past decade, it has tended to be the leadership in which Ed has often featured, not the membership, who have often failed to address the reasons why the party lost many voters’ trust and to move forward effectively from the party’s time in government. The leader’s Question & Answer session saw even fairly innocuous questions about the leader meeting with party bodies blocked, presumably in case they caused embarrassment.

For his part, party president Mark Pack gave some rather unsatisfactory defences of the diversity arrangements on his new steering group project, which he defended by suggesting that having members who are, for example, northern, or LGBT, is sufficient to ensure those viewpoints are represented in discussions – despite the fact that the members of the committee with those characteristics are ex officio representing other stakeholder areas entirely. That in turn is before one gets onto the question of democratic deficit, in a handpicked 14-member group that has taken over the Federal Board’s functions whilst only containing a single directly elected Federal Board member who did not actually win the Federal Board election. In a strategy discussion, descriptions of the party as a “brand” and claims that voters don’t vote on values by new communications head Mimi Turner were viewed with some suspicion by those like me who suspect that the reason most voters’ impression of us is “don’t know” comes from a failure to articulate values and principle not an over-reliance upon them.

So why is there a sense of quiet satisfaction at the weekend’s proceedings from even Ed’s most strident critics I’ve been talking to among the membership?

Put simply, it’s because this conference showed that, perhaps despite themselves, the Liberal Democrats still have a voice, and a distinctive one in which the party’s radical tradition can make a difference, and that despite COVID-19 the party’s democratic processes can still function very effectively.

For the latter, huge credit has to go to the Federal Conference Committee, led by Geoff Payne, and especially to Jennie Rigg who was instrumental in among other things recruiting and running the volunteer moderation team (of which I was a part, doing about four or five hours of text-chat moderation over the course of the weekend). The Hopin system used wasn’t without problems, and the exhibition in particular suffered from the online format, but in general FCC managed the whole event magnificently and with a great deal of slick professionalism, and the presence of excited members who hadn’t been able to come to conference for years if at all previously made the whole event feel especially rewarding.

The party’s policy outlook was also undeniably shaped by this weekend, too, and largely for the better. Most prominent in the long run was the adoption of a Universal Basic Income policy, via a motion drafted by myself and former Harrow PPC Dr. Adam Bernard and backed by Welsh Lib Dem leader Jane Dodds. UBI is definitionally a flagship policy, and has become an increasingly loud ask within the party in recent years: its effects are so wide-ranging that one can’t help but design the rest of the policy platform around it to some extent. It was an excellent debate, in which thoughtful critiques especially from prominent candidates Laura Gordon and Ian Sollom provided a constructive counterweight to the successful proposing arguments in a discussion that will hopefully continue as Federal Policy Committee develops the policy details further.

The party’s fight on Europe, whilst an avoidable mess, ultimately was a victory for the leadership’s opponents too, and one sealed before the debate had even begun: Ed Davey and Christine Jardine’s attempts to brief about moving away from a position of explicitly favouring membership and bounce the party into backing that position backfired, as did their attempts to avoid the Federal Policy Committee putting forward a more explicitly pro-Europe motion which FPC member Olly Craven broke ranks to discuss with the Independent. Duncan Brack, perhaps the party’s most prominent policy veteran, led the charge to re-insert a clear statement of longer term intent to rejoin into the policy, whilst Radical Association executive member George Potter successfully tabled a second, far more aggressively pro-rejoin, amendment – which successfully scared the leadership into accepting the Brack amendment in order to defeat the Potter amendment, exactly the intended outcome.

Other policy fights of note included a very close-run vote on whether license fee non-payment should be a criminal rather than civil matter – a loss for the latter position taken by the radicals, but not by much. My own amendments both sailed through without incident. I presented one alongside Ryan Mercer to the post-Covid public debate policy that called for focusing engagement on the most marginalised and worst affected groups rather than advocating sortition-based methods as the original motion did, which was accepted by Daisy Cooper as the motion’s proposer. My other amendment, on enshrining biodiversity concerns and the use of nature recovery networks in our post-Covid planning, equally proved without incident and was accepted by Duncan Brack on behalf of the motion’s movers: Peterborough Cllr Nick Sandford kindly provided a very good summation. My speech on that was the first time I’ve gone and read a verse of poetry mid-speech, which if a bit flowery seemed to go down well.

Finally, on equalities and civil liberties issues, the core of the Lib Dems’ raison d’etre for many activists, the party seems to be finding its feet better than it has done in a while. A successful Black Lives Matter motion firmed up the party’s plans to curb Stop and Search and presented a worthwhile plan for citizens’ assemblies to discuss the impacts of Empire, a powerful debate on Hong Kong was a nuanced and profoundly liberal look into how we could best support the people of that city against the authoritarianism of the CCP, and the business motion on trans rights was won by an overwhelming majority of members despite obsessive organising by the party’s transphobic lobby which included one of their members sitting on the networking function for the entirety of conference to try and lobby people. I sincerely hope we don’t have a debate like that again any time soon – having to hear waves of regurgitated transphobia from a succession of speakers from the stage must have been painful for trans members watching, and I share concerns that the chair was too laid back rather than stepping in at some points. Nonetheless, stunningly strong speeches by trans members Jasmine Josephine Sakura-Rose and Charley Hasted at the end of the debate were absolute highlights of the conference, and the decisive outcome at least firmly shows that there is no place for those views in our party.

The party’s policy outlook is just one part of its make-up of course, and the presentation can be wildly variable even with the same policy substance. But the essential values and theses of the party – social justice, civil liberties, a mistrust of over-centralisation, empowering people both legally and financially to make their own decisions – show more continuity between now and the party’s greatest modern election success in 2005 than some give credit for. That’s a reflection of some of the key instincts that bring people into the party, and the relative fit of that to particular electorates is one reason why the party has struggled with the post-Clegg strategy of attempting to find new turf in centrist, sound governance and finance style appeals to the commuter belt as opposed to the campaigning, scrappy, misfit coalition that saw greater Lib Dem successes in the late 1990s to 2000s. The embrace of the innately radical-looking UBI will further cement the Lib Dems’ need to pivot to hunting for a slightly different class of currently conservative swing voter than the highly affluent commuters who Clegg and later Swinson seemed to design their campaigns around targeting.

After all the leadership contest furore the party’s leadership seemed in the end somewhat secondary over the course of the weekend: Ed Davey and Mark Pack were understated, Daisy Cooper largely uncontroversial (though a well recieved speech in the trans rights motion was very much to her credit). Rather, this felt like a party collectively testing where it now was, and pleasantly finding that it had a little more to agree on than it might have feared. Those agreements will have long term consequences for Lib Dem strategy, and there can be little doubt that at six percent in the polls the strategic and constitutional wrangling of the next year or so may be severe – but the party’s internal voice, perhaps despite the party’s predicaments, is still noticeable and has its own tune. The question for the coming years is whether the party’s upper echelons are going to go for their volume mixers and autotune, or whether they will find that, with a little conducting and instrumentation, that liberal voice can sing in its own electoral right after all.

Why I’ve voted for Layla Moran

August 22, 2020 § 1 Comment

I’ve voted for Layla Moran to be the next Liberal Democrat leader. At our best, we’re a democratic, blue skies thinking party that revitalises communities: at our worst, we’re a clique-led party of dull centrism that stares into potholes. Layla, I think, is the candidate who best understands that.

I’ve increasingly felt that the key to this leadership election is between a vision of the Lib Dems that justifies our existence by electoral results and one that justifies our existence by the liberal clarity of our vision and policy outlook. Fundamentally the latter is my view. Liberals have best survived over the past century by retaining a passionate, effective activist base, and by articulating values – localism, mutualism, human rights, internationalism – that other parties all too often fail to talk about. We also need to recognise the past voter coalitions that brought us to the more successful elections of 1997-2010, rather than doubling down on the rather less successful commuter belt strategies of recent years, and I think Layla is the right person to achieve that.

If we can do that and articulate our values, it’s the best way for us to succeed electorally too, winning voters for the long term and turning local into Westminster level gains. Putting liberalism and policy at the heart of what we’re trying to do, and emphasising that electoral strategy is a means and not an end, is also important because it allows us to build other means as well: as Layla has been showing with her work in the Coronavirus APPG, we can influence policy by influencing the national conversation, as we have done so many times in the past, and that too is a worthwhile goal for a liberal movement. Essentially, I think our electoral future depends on our ability to show that we have a distinctive purpose in a world where “inoffensive centre left party run from London” already has a big red occupant in its box. A strategy of a sharp focus on a few uncontroversial issues might win us more district council seats next year but it won’t win us more Westminster seats at the next general election, and in a country as overcentralised in its decision-making as the UK, the latter really does matter for actually achieving liberal priorities rather than becoming an effective network of residents’ associations.

I also trust Layla on policy. I said at the start of this campaign that I’d need any candidate to commit to tackling our over-reliance on policing before backing them: Layla was the only one who responded positively to that call to look at alternative ways to solve social issues, providing servies other than the police and making restorative justice methods a core part of how we deal with crime in the UK. In addition, as someone who’s spent countless hours working on minimum income campaigning within the party in recent years, an often difficult task,  Layla is clearly the person whose record and outlook places her best to credibly take that policy forward in the future.

Believing in leaders as the primary source of change is a bad idea in politics, and I’ve always thought that – it’s a large part of the reason why I’m a liberal to begin with. And that’s my final reason for backing Layla: I think Layla will give the party the space to fix itself. In my interactions with her, I’ve felt that she has massive respect for party democracy and accountability, two things that we desperately need at the top of the party right now. I believe that we need someone who hasn’t presided over the party’s top cliques developing into their current form to work out how we make the upper echelons of the party more accessible to informed member input, scrutiny, and debate. I’m sure that the results won’t be perfect, but I think this is a problem that Layla is the only one of our candidates credibly placed to have a go at solving.

I deeply believe that it’s important to give candidates a fair hearing in elections: I’ve worked to hold to those values this time, and didn’t want to make my voting call in the immediate aftermath of last week. But this election matters, and I wanted to share my thoughts now.

So, for those still undecided on the Lib Dem Leadership, I’d urge you to Vote Layla. For an innovative, democratic, liberal party caring about human rights and income security for all, and for thereby securing the future of our movement, Layla is the leader we need right now.

Statement on the Radical Association Hustings

August 9, 2020 § 1 Comment

A week or so ago, I was asked by the Radical Association to chair their Liberal Democrat leadership hustings event. As a former Association Chair, as an academic historian experienced in moderating discussion events, and as someone who has not endorsed, nominated, or campaigned for any of the candidates, I was happy to accept.

Unfortunately that event will not be going forwards, largely as a result of issues over chairing. Specifically, I was made aware in the past week that Sir Edward Davey’s leadership campaign had made representations to Lib Dem HQ making allegations about my partiality and complaining about my ability to chair the event. I have not been shown the content of that complaint, or given any right of reply to it. Even more surprisingly and disappointingly, Ed’s team at no point made any attempt to discuss their concerns about my chairing with me and thereby attempt to resolve any issues through reasonable dialogue.

I try not to take myself too seriously in politics – it pays not to, as a Lib Dem. I do, however, take my professionalism and integrity seriously, and I take my sense of fairness extremely seriously. Having those things attacked and undermined by a leadership campaign, out of the blue, has been one of the most deeply disappointing and demoralising things that has happened to me as a party member.

I’m sad for Radical Association members that they won’t get a full chance to put all their questions to the leadership candidates, and I’m hurt on a personal level that Ed’s team thought that this was an appropriate way to deal with me as a party activist who’s spent countless hours in recent years working on Liberal Democrat policy and on getting our party’s candidates elected.

I hope sincerely that this conduct by Ed’s campaign has been a one-off which they will on reflection agree was not up to the standards to which they would wish to hold themselves, and is not representative of their wider attitude to my fellow party activists. I will be taking no further part in anything else relating to the leadership campaign for a few days as I deal with the outcome of this extremely unfortunate episode and consider what to do next.

On Misfit Liberalism

July 19, 2020 § 5 Comments

A lot of people wonder what on earth binds the Liberal Democrats together. A lot of those people are Liberal Democrats – though it’s also confusing to external observers. The glib answer is that liberalism binds the Liberal Democrats together, but this is also unhelpful for observers, because the Lib Dems’ understanding of what “liberalism” means is somewhat internationally idiosyncratic, sitting economically well to the left of most of their counterpart liberal parties in similar countries.

The failure to pin down the core elements of the Lib Dem coalition – and the challenge and failure of attempts to change the core Lib Dem instincts and coalition over the past decade or two – are in my view closely intertwined.

Before 2010-15, the Paddy Ashdown/Charles Kennedy voting coalition brought us over sixty seats with strength in suburbs, university towns, the South West, rural Wales, northern Scotland, and some more remote English rural seats and seaside towns. One of the main arguments that has been raised against a return to this coalition of voters is the allegation that it was incoherent, and that we had such a “protest vote” support base that it was inevitably going to shatter. This leads to the question of where the Lib Dem support ought to come from, and the answer is usually one of refocus on wealthy, socially liberal seats: strong bastions of pro-European sentiment who might want a more caring option than the Tories. This strategic shift has been tried more than once now – the 2015 and 2019 General Elections both emphasised some of those sorts of seats – and it’s largely failed both times. I’m not here to re-do any of the endless post-mortems on that, but I do want to discuss why I think the party’s voting and membership coalitions are more coherent than they look and why the party’s traditions might have sat badly with trying to find the newer and more coherent voter base that some of its leaders have craved.

So here’s my explanation pitch: liberalism, in the British tradition of such, is misfit politics. It’s a political movement the most fundamental identifying feature of which is as a grouping of people who are (or at least feel) in some way excluded from societal norms, and who, equally importantly, want to retain the right to that difference, rather than either imposing a new norm or paper over those differences.

I use the term misfit here because it seems to better encapsulate the sentiment than, say a term like “diversity” – it’s not just about the range of identities under discussion (which has always been far too limited in our party), but about the relative acceptability, performed roles, and self-perceptions of people holding those identities. One can have a certain sort of diverse Toryism, but you can’t have misfit Toryism. Misfit also implies a more conscious rejection of authority. One can have a certain unity in diversity: misfit politics doesn’t value unity for its own sake, setting out explicitly to create a noisy, varied, ragged patchwork blanket of a society, pulling together those who dislike the imposition of prevailing norms and the centralisation of power.

This broadly helps explain much of the party’s history. Nineteenth century liberalism was often focused on religious exclusion: Toryism and Anglicanism were then deeply intertwined, and the non-conformists meanwhile had a strong liberal tradition. Some people I’ve seen have taken this religious divide and assumed that far too much can be explained by its aftershocks, like the continued strength of the Liberals in non-conformist areas like rural Wales through the twentieth century. But in fact, I want to suggest that rather the things that made those areas good ground for nonconformism also made them good ground for liberalism in this particular form. The fringes of Britain, often left quite badly off but with a mistrust of central governance and without the urban or union traditions through which Labour flourished, were misfit communities ideal for a misfit movement that would fight for more localist approaches and whose MPs somewhat by definition tended to build independent, local-minded reputations.

The later twentieth century saw a liberal movement that was increasingly invested in, and ahead of the curve on, issues like LGBT rights, and which was also adopting its distinctive “community politics” streak. These again fit the overall pattern: community politics in its original Greaves/Lishman formulation is fundamentally about ways to empower communities to act on their own behalf, accepting, permitting and making a strength out of their differences. Areas like civil liberties and LGBT rights are natural areas of growth for a movement whose defining characteristic is “people have a right to not fit in”.  Cooperatives, championed by Jo Grimond? That’s where you end up if you don’t like conforming to corporatism or statism. The list could go on.

So we reach more recent times, and misfit politics in many ways formed a core of the new Liberal Democrats’ voting appeal, and certainly its appeal for its own members. Some people write off things like voting reform and localism as being a matter for anoraks, but correctly played they can be a powerful call to people who feel alienated by central government policies. Core Lib Dem shouts of “decentralise”, “community services”, “make votes count”, or “protect our rights” all have important parts to play in building that. Another core appeal point has always been the idea of the Lib Dems as the blue skies thinkers, the ideas party. Again, this fits in very well with a party that at its heart sees itself as out of the box to begin with, so approaching ideas that are also out of the box comes as a comparatively natural next step.

The problems of the Lib Dems in more recent years have come from a number of sources, but have not fundamentally altered this fact about the party’s make-up. Misfit politics, built on that fundamentally human desire to see an authority figure and stick a middle finger up at them, has never sat so easily with the desire for the Lib Dems to be a party of moderating influence as it fought the catastrophic 2015 election on. Outgunned by a barrage of attacks from Eurosceptics before and after 2016, the also party never managed to do the thing it most needed to do and present its internationalism within the scope of its misfit sensibilites: as the “you shouldn’t be allowed tell me which country I get to live in and who I get to love”, rather than as an appeal to not rock the boat and tick back to past halcyon days which is how it all too often came across. That’s been a factor in the splintering of the Lib Dem vote share: one of the explanatory factors for losing votes to the Conservatives after 2010, other than a general loss of trust in the party, is that anti-Westminster sentiment became increasingly effectively weaponised as anti-Brussels sentiment by the right, allowing certain sorts of voters to be hoovered up into Conservative or even UKIP voting tallies.

Recent events, I think, show that the party has not lost the knack or desire for misfit politics. In particular the work of Jamie Stone in becoming the parliamentary front man for ExcludedUK, a group for people falling between the cracks of the government’s Covid support measures, is a very notable example. It also shows how misfit politics isn’t just identarian in nature: anyone can find that they have fallen between the cracks, and enough people have done at times to potentially make their collective action a politically powerful force. This may be mistaken for purely protest politics because of its explicit appeals to disaffection, but it offers something very different – a mode of politics that aims at empowered individuals and strong communities, not in order to bring everyone into one bubble of increasing similarity, but to allow, liberate and empower people to keep not fitting in. “If you’re excluded, you’re included,” says ExcludedUK’s website. Taken more generally, that’s a political blueprint worth paying attention to.

I certainly don’t mean to say, with all of the above, that I think this conception of misfit politics is the only force in defining the Lib Dems. It emphatically isn’t, and slogans like “Open, Tolerant, United” which I had to cringe through in recent years display that there is a much more centralising and unity-driven tendency that’s strong within the party. We also emphatically fail to live up to what the strategic and ideological requirements of misfit politics done at its best would be: in particular the party has been and continues to be poor at engaging disaffected working-class folk and, overlapping those, BAME folk who are some of the most marginalised in our society today. Nor can any of this stand alone as a principle – the harm principle in combination with the social-liberal political turn are important mediators for this style of politics, preventing it from veering into spaces where people’s right to not fit in is misinterpreted as a right to abuse and harm others. I do think, however, that understanding this approach is critical to understanding what drives the UK’s liberalism as opposed to that in other countries, and helps provide an overarching principle that explains much of how the UK liberal movement we see today came together and stays together.

Finally, well… I don’t actually have a final point here about what all this should mean for the party’s strategic future, other than the fact that I think we have to live with the fact that this is who we are as a political movement. I don’t know if it’s possible to persuade enough people in for example former South Western stomping grounds that they share their perception of themselves as outsiders with migrants, LGBT folk, etc, and if one can any more put together a voting coalition on that basis. The Brexit divisions are very, very deep. But I think there’s a lot to be said for recognising this aspect of who we are, for better or worse, recognising that there IS a workable policy and electoral logic to attempting to form the grand misfit coalition, and then deciding what we do with that information.

As for me, I think and hope that there’s a future for misfit liberalism. May we never be brought into line!


Lib Dem Leadership Notes 2020

July 17, 2020 § Leave a comment

We’re here again, a year later, for another LD leadership contest. I’m not doing an endorsement, having said that I won’t endorse anyone who doesn’t sign up to a meaningful set of actions on policing reform – though those who know me won’t find it hard to work out which way I’m leaning, but rather I wanted to make some comments on the state of the race and my models for dealing with these races.

I’ve previously held that I think one can adopt something of a “lanes” model for internal party elections, as I explain here. I think last year’s election give some interesting twists to that, which is that for leadership elections we need to take more of a tiered approach to the party – my lanes identification, whilst I think it’s valid, I also suspect falls into the trap that most activists fall into in leadership elections, namely over-focusing on swings and movement among a small activist core and not thinking about the armchair members who make up most of the actual electorate. It’s very hard to know how those members think for the most part, and this perhaps gives quite a large capacity for surprises and also makes things like media appearances more important and party endorsements far less important than most of the party’s core tend to think.

Another tweak to the “lanes” model is that I think the FBPE bloc as a regular segment of the party can now more or less be dropped for model purposes. After last year’s general election and Brexit happening earlier this year, the number of “rejoin now at all costs” votes within the activist base is too low for it to be a core of anyone’s campaign.

I think we can nonetheless see lanes as being useful for understanding what positioning candidates are adopting, and the activist part of the base are by no means irrelevant in leadership contests as candidates need them to actually volunteer to run and staff their campaigns. MPs seeking leadership will want to build a broad coalition of activists to win, although those who tack hard outside their standard lane may alienate activists and hamper their future base within the party.

The candidate choice in this election is pretty clearly defined in style: Sir Ed Davey, a former coalition minister who touts his climate change record, has a south London constituency, relatively heavy establishment backing and a lot more money, versus Layla Moran, a former teacher who would be the party’s first leader not to have been an MP during the coalition years and who has a more populist, ideas driven style. Ed is straight, white, and male: Layla is a half Palestinian pansexual woman.

Whilst none of these lanes are absolutes, it’s fair to say that Layla’s activist base is on the social and radical liberal wing, while Ed’s is based around the HQ lane plus a good chunk of more parochialist backers who he’s spent a great deal of time cultivating. The true centrist and orange book factions are fairly solidly pro-Ed, but given the lack of a challenger to his right he’s making minimal effort to court them. The division between the candidates, at least in the campaigns, is not however primarily one about a left to right divide – not least because Ed has pitched himself in a “centre-left but a safer pair of hands” mould – but rather about radicalism and electoralism. Ed’s political style is electoralist first and foremost, and his strongest supporters are often backing him on the grounds that they think Layla’s open discussion of radicalism and lower experience may make her less electable. Layla meanwhile is an ideas first politician, and her strongest supporters are likely to be those that charge that if we don’t have a strong liberal vision and persuade people to back it, there’s not much point in us winning elections to start with. Both candidates are likely to somewhat pitch away from those starting points to avoid being percieved as weak on their opponent’s natural turf – Layla has been rhetorically leaning increasingly heavily on her experience taking soft Conservative votes to win her formerly Tory seat, in response to Ed’s charge that radicalism won’t win the Conservatives we need to peel off our largely Conservative-facing block of marginals next election. Much more than last election or the presidential race last year, though, this election may test a subtle but important distinction of viewpoints on what the Liberal Democrats should be for.

Layla’s campaign has perhaps been the less slick of the two organisationally, but has largely avoided major slips so far and has managed to craft a fairly distinctive image as a “change candidacy”, with a lot of material on the need to move on from coalition and shed some of that political baggage. Her release of an entire new multi-author book led by her on possible future directions for the party has been largely well recieved, and she has been endorsed by a number of well respected voices in policy circles, like former Cambridge MP Julian Huppert. She has half of the party’s Scottish MPs backing her (Jamie Stone and Wendy Chamberlain) along with Wera Hobhouse of Bath, whose own leadership ambitions with a strongly pro progressive alliance pitch faltered largely due to lack of parliamentary support. Her hustings performances have generally been well recieved, and her recent appointment to lead a new All-Party Parliamentary Group on tackling and scrutinising the Coronavirus response has been a significant new boost to her credentials as someone who can make effective cross-party working happen.

The weaknesses of Layla’s campaign are partly in relative visibility – with a less well known candidate who isn’t already party leader, it’s simply harder to make up ground. Her past includes an arrest a number of years ago alongside a then-boyfriend after an altercation between them (both parties were released without further action), and this along with her more radical presentation and occasional incidents of verbally shooting from the hip has fuelled some suggestions of her being the “risky candidate”. As discussed below, she has generally lagged in endorsements and had rather fewer nominating members than Ed, which whilst meaningless in terms of the party as a whole is the sort of thing that can indicate a more stretched and less broad based campaign team. She has also perhaps struggled, despite her more ideas-led campaign plans, to really get easy clicks on big policy ideas, in part because Ed has tacked relatively leftward himself (to the point where in a hustings he recently started talking about a key childcare policy as a core reason to vote for him, at which point Layla quietly pointed out that it had in fact been her policy as party Education spokesperson). On policy, her struggle is therefore to avoid getting boxed in – though it seems likely, as I’ll discuss below, that the later stages of the campaign may increasingly move onto valency issues like media competence.

Ed’s campaign meanwhile has a strong starting point in terms of finances, organisation, and money. He’s had the infrastructure in place solidly since last year, has greatly outraised Layla allowing him to spend heavily on Facebook advertising, and has worked very hard on the endorsements game with considerable success. Notably he’s gained the support of Christine Jardine, who was one of Jo Swinson’s most loyal backers, of former leader Tim Farron, and of St Albans MP Daisy Cooper. Daisy’s endorsement is the most surprising, as her base has generally been very much on the party’s left and she’s known for among other things being a severe thorn in the side of Nick Clegg during the later coalition years – she will presumably be hoping that the gains in profile and establishment support made by backing Ed, if he wins, are significant enough for her to lose a lot of her backing on the social liberal wing of the party. Prominent members of the SLF who would have been among Daisy’s most enthusiastic backers had she run herself have been publicly talking about feeling disappointment or even betrayal at her endorsement. It’s nonetheless a coup for Ed, and may well net him additional support from some of Daisy’s supporters on the left and from the large local parties of southern Hertfordshire. Ed’s role as acting party co-leader is perhaps his greatest asset, though, giving him very large quantities of additional media time when acting as a party spokesperson that Layla can’t easily match. If Ed wins, it’s likely to be a result of better financed organisation coupled with better recognition among the membership.

Ed does, however, have vulnerabilities, despite his impressive infrastructure. His strategy is fairly clearly to avoid controversy, clock up endorsements, and keep things steady: his simple, core policy pitch of “the environment and carers” is somewhat motherhood and apple pie in Lib Dem circles. However, as mentioned above, endorsements often mean far less than people expect, and in a campaign with a fairly dynamic, policy-driven opponent, the safe hands approach can start to look flat footed. More worryingly for his strategy, though, he has not succeeded awfully well at avoiding controversy and has struggled at hustings. His defences of the coalition have tended to continually return to his successes on green energy to the point where they sound tone deaf – him taking the ‘but we got green energy’ line with a member who asked a question about their personal experience losing out from benefit cuts recently was a particularly egregious example. A recent interview with right-wing radio pundit Julia Hartley-Brewer where he angrily referred to her as senile and accused her of being paid off by the government also raised questions about his temperament and media skills. As effectively incumbent leader, too, the rather flat single-figures polling the Lib Dems have had all year, despite core issues like civil liberties being so high on the agenda, is potentially a weakness for Ed. The question “how will you get us above 8% in the polls reliably” is much easier to answer if people can’t then say “so why aren’t you doing that already?” The overall risk for Ed, then, is that through hustings and media his core initial selling points as a serious-minded, reliable, respected figure with huge experience as an election winner may be undermined by poor polling and a need to improve at hustings performances.

So where will the contest go now? There are many virtual hustings to go. From the race so far, my suspicion is that Ed has the starting advantage thanks to his better name recognition, but my sense, like that of most in the party, is that it will be a tight race overall. Differing attitudes to dealing with coalition, and the related question of whether it’s more electorally and morally valuable to try and lead conversations on liberal policies or to push a smaller number of less controversial issues to maximise potential breadth of appeal, involve quite deeply entrenched pre-existing party divisions: that in turn makes it likely that the activist membership will sort strongly based upon them and that the conversation will turn to valency issues for the voters who don’t have a strong opinion on that particular divide. What they think, and what the wider membership thinks of it all, we’ll really only know when the ballots are counted.

Six First Steps: Toward a more just system in a time of injustice

June 3, 2020 § 3 Comments

We stand at a point of crisis. The death of George Floyd and the subsequent suppression and maiming of protestors in the USA horrify us – but we in the UK cannot and must not pretend that this critical point and desperate cry for justice is an American problem alone. Black people are also targeted by a range of police actions at wildly disproportionate rates in the UK. Stop and searches are, to take one of the most prominent examples, used on Black people at a rate over ten times that of White people; 2018 figures suggested that of uses of force by police, those on Black people accounted for four times more than their share of the population.

There are many facets to this problem. Racism is deep-rooted, permeating and harming all aspects of the lives of people of colour. Redressing it and the vast societal disparities it has caused is something that covers all areas of public policy. Black people along with other people of colour face barriers in areas as varied as education, access to both mental and physical healthcare, access to housing, workplace discrimination, and many others.

In light of the recent crisis, however, and as one small strand of this wider task ahead of us, we wish to particularly highlight the role of over-policing in presenting additional burdens to people and communities of colour in the UK. Racial profiling leads to the over-criminalisation and dehumanisation of young BAME men in particular, resulting in them being harassed by police for simply existing in public while Black or Asian.

As a country we rely too much on the police and procedural criminal justice for roles that they are often ill suited for. Moving away from this over-reliance is possible: pledging to not just operationally reform the police but actively seek to allow alternative pathways to justice is a positive and long overdue step that we as liberals should seize this moment to commit ourselves to.

Redressing the balance of power between citizens and the state has long been a core fundament of liberalism in Britain. We are at our best when we are proudly standing up for civil liberties, for a more diverse, welcoming society, and for forward-thinking policies that help shape a path towards a kinder and more liberal country. We must recognise with some humility that we have not always been that party when people of colour needed us to be in the past. Equally we must not, at this crucial juncture, fail to be that best version of ourselves that is so badly needed in this moment.

We therefore challenge fellow Liberal Democrats – especially those who seek to lead our party – to agree to back the following six points and commit to backing a policy paper to bring them forward as party policy at the earliest opportunity. These are not an end-point to the issue of how we as a society tackle racism and keep one another safe: but they are a start towards relieving the pressure that many communities have long felt and continue to feel, and open up new possibilities and hope for those seeking justice of many kinds.

We believe Liberal Democrats should work and campaign to:

  • Ensure police searches require judicially approved warrants, ending blanket stop and search powers. If searches of particular areas are an operational requirement then warrants for these should be strictly time limited.
  • Develop use of restorative justice approaches to make them more regularly deliverable, including routes to access them that do not work through the procedural criminal justice system.
  • Pledge significant new funds to both expand restorative justice services and raise awareness of them as an option among victims of crime, aiming for restorative justice use to become a new normal for a wide range of crimes and conflicts.
  • Pilot and roll out the use of mediation and intervention teams that work outside police forces and can provide an alternative point of contact to use restorative justice and de-escalate conflict situations in the community without engaging the police.
  • Work toward stricter oversight structures for the police, especially on reducing racial profiling, and replace current state enforcement bodies such as the UK Border Force which currently have weaker oversight structures than police forces with ones that will receive at least that level of accountability.
  • Move forward with and expand our existing Liberal Democrat commitment to decriminalise victimless crimes such as cannabis possession, reducing burdens on police forces and communities alike.

This statement supported by:

Natasha Chapman (Co-Author: Vice-Chair, Lincoln, Sleaford and North Hykeham Liberal Democrats)

James Baillie (Co-Author: Member, Breckland Liberal Democrats)

Dipa Vaya
(Vice-Chair, Racial Diversity Campaign)
Cllr Jon Ball
(Vice-Chair, Federal Conference Committee; Deputy Leader, London Borough of Ealing Liberal Democrat Group)
April Preston (Member, Federal Board; Director, Radical Association)
Alisdair Calder McGregor (Member of Federal Policy Commtittee; Chair, Radical Association)
Olly Craven
(English Party Representative to Federal Policy Committee; Parliamentary Spokesperson, Sleaford and North Hykeham)
Jennie Rigg
(English Party Representative to Federal Conference Committee; Former Chair, LGBT+ Liberal Democrats)
Joe Toovey (Member, Federal Conference Committee; Executive member, Radical Association)
Cllr Kate Smith (Police and Crime Commissioner Candidate, Derbyshire; Secretary, Amber Valley Liberal Democrats)
Cllr Fran Oborski MBE. (Deputy Leader, Wyre Forest District Council; Worcestershire County Council; Treasurer, Wyre Forest Liberal Democrats)
Cllr George Potter (Guildford Borough Council)
Cllr Nick Barlow (Colchester Borough Council)
Pushkin Defyer (BAME Officer, Young Liberals)
James Bliss (Policy Officer, Young Liberals)
Katharine Macy (Accessibility, Diversity and Standards Officer, Young Liberals)
Meraj Khan (BAME Member, Young Liberals Diversity Committee)
Richard Flowers (Treasurer, Liberal Democrats Party in England; Treasurer, LGBT+ Liberal Democrats; Treasurer, Lib Dem Immigrants)
Andrew Hickey (Member of English Council)
Charley Hasted (LGBT+ Lib Dems Exec member; Lambeth Lib Dems Exec member; HVP Young Liberals)
Holly Matthies (LGBT+ Lib Dems Exec member; Lib Dem Immigrants Exec member)
Stephen Chapman (Chair, Lincoln, Sleaford and North Hykeham Liberal Democrats)
Jasmine Joséphine Sakura-Rose (Treasurer, South Wales East Valleys Liberal Democrats)
Mark Waller (Treasurer, Cambridge Liberal Democrats)
Andy Hinton (Wandsworth Liberal Democrats: Access and Diversity Officer, Radical Association)
Archie Coomber (Social Secretary, Durham University Liberal Democrats)
Dr William Barter (Westminster Borough Liberal Democrats)
Luke Graham (Highland Liberal Democrats)
Philip Dixon (Newport Liberal Democrats)
Clio Toogood (Trafford Liberal Democrats)
Amanda Wintcher (Gateshead Liberal Democrats)
Jack Fleming (Camden Liberal Democrats)

To be added to the above list, please contact james@wavcott.org.uk.