May 21, 2017 § Leave a comment
The manifestos tell us that Britain has a big gap in its major-party politics, a gap that’s bigger than it has been perhaps in a generation. It’s not, however, the one that the media seemed to be angling for. The expectation given was of a “hard right” Tory party against a “hard left” Labour party. Neither prediction, looking at the policy detail, is anywhere near correct.
It turns out that Britain doesn’t have a gaping need for a centrist party. It has a desperate need for a liberal one.
The Tory manifesto is hard to write much about because it’s so light on detail – but it’s clear that this is one of the most hardline nationalist and authoritarian programmes for government in decades, possible the most so since the second world war. Rising requirements for couples to bring their spouses to the UK, an uncosted “aim” of cracking down on migrant numbers at the expense of the economy, and a commitment to a hard Brexit with the possibility of a cliff-edge one left open all leave any idea of the Conservatives as an economically sane option in tatters. They also destroy the idea of a “compassionate” or “liberal” conservatism – a spurious idea at the best of times, but now more clearly than ever a simple lie. Opposing this Tory isolationism will have to fall to the Lib Dems (and to a lesser extent the Greens) – we need people more than ever in parliament who are prepared to be unequivocal about the virtues of reaching out to the world.
May’s vicious stance towards foreigners is a known quantity, however. There are also big and worrying new issues from a liberal perspective in the Tory manifesto. Massive new commitments to internet regulation could have a chilling effect on free speech and allow the government unprecedented and dangerous levels of management over what needs to be a neutral, public, free conduit for information. The Tories are openly seeking to change voting systems to suit themselves too, with plans to implement first past the post in the London Assembly and Mayoral elections, making a joke of local democracy and choking out smaller parties from the political scene. It’s not just Brexit that means we need liberal voices opposing the Tories: it’s genuine threats to our democracy.
Corbyn’s Labour, meanwhile, have managed to talk a strong socialist game, but it’s not reflected in the manifesto. The much talked of programme of renationalisation has had little to no money allocated to it; even with the railways, only the management is set to move back to state control, as apparently no money has been set aside to buy back the rolling stock. More surprisingly still, the party is being far, far less ambitious in reversing Tory welfare cuts than the Lib Dems, with McDonnell apparently hoping to keep the child tax credit cuts and benefit freeze in place (which would, one imagines, be a very nasty shock). As much as I passionately believe in moving toward free at the point of use higher education, I know far too many people who’ve suffered under the current benefits system believe that it’s a higher priority than rebuilding the country’s badly damaged social safety net. I have no qualms about saying that before 2015 Labour were absolutely right to call the coalition out on the damage they did to social security, and that my own Lib Dems were wrong in failing to oppose more of the DWP’s excesses: and yet it now feels almost cynical that Labour, having got this far largely on the basis of that very principled position, isn’t actually seeking to reverse some of the harshest cuts yet.
But regardless – a more simple, gaping fact remains, and that is that Corbyn’s Labour is not a liberal party. Which shouldn’t be news to anyone, but it still seems to rile people who believe that as a progressive voter I am in some way a traitor or closet conservative for disputing the idea that Labour is the only progressive option in every respect. It’s simple when one looks at the manifesto, though. Labour under Corbyn has retained its commitments to mass surveillance, to an undemocratic electoral system, to expensive and failing drug laws, to a criminalisation system that puts sex workers at risk. Labour’s manifesto devotes its entire section on the self-employed to discussing people who aren’t really self employed, and a vague commitment to the UK taking its “fair share” of refugees comes with precisely no money or concrete pledges at all to back it up. And then of course there’s Labour’s commitment to ending Freedom of Movement, which commits a Labour government to a hard Brexit and the end of any sensible trade deal (also meaning in the process that many of Labour’s budget calculations are wildly optimistic, based as they are on heavily taxing prosperous industries that are likely to up sticks and head abroad when the UK leaves the EU).
As is probably obvious, I have no problem with Labour under Corbyn being “too left wing”. They’re really not saying anything dramatic there, placing themselves well to the right of the Lib Dems on social security and offering very similar funding increases to the NHS. But having liberal values, believing people should have an equal say in our democracy, caring about people regardless of what sort of work they do, taking evidence based approaches to social problems rather than punitive ones, having an open and internationalist mindset – those things I do care about, I believe I’m right to care about them, and right not to support either of the two main parties that very clearly do not care about them, never have done and show no sign of ever doing so.
And that is, I guess, what keeps me going and talking about these things, through all the shouts of “enemy of the people” and “yellow Tory” and whatever other bogus nonsense gets thrown at me on any particular day online. I know that no other party, no matter how much easier it might make my life if I joined a bigger bandwagon, will actually articulate many of the problems I see in British society. Nobody will say these things if liberals don’t, if we don’t, if I don’t. I am a liberal and a Lib Dem because I believe, as our constitution calls for, in a society where we balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity. If the manifestos show one thing above all, it’s that if we didn’t have a party with those goals, we’d have to invent one.
Radical, articulate, hopeful liberalism is so desperately needed in politics right now – and there is, quite simply, no substitute on offer.
May 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
Many of you might be worried at the prospect of a massive Conservative majority, for all sorts of reasons. But it’s often hard to know what to do, especially if you’ve got little time and little certainty about where to donate your money. That’s where this guide comes in, helping you micro-target your donations to the individual Liberal Democrat candidates most likely to stop the Tories, with short overviews of the different fights and handy links straight to the donation list. Money to these crowdfunders will go directly to the individual campaigns and into the hard on-the-ground work that is so desperately needed now to get the vote out and build support in the run-up to June 8.
With Labour potentially set to lose up to fifty seats to the Conservatives, every seat that the Lib Dems can gain in response will be crucial in pegging back that Tory majority. If you want to know where and how the Tories will be stopped, and how you can donate to make it happen – read on.
Top of this list comes Lewes: it’s the third seat on the Lib Dem target list numerically, but with excellent local election results there it’s probably the strongest single chance of a gain from the Tories, with the seat’s strong remain leanings strengthening the Liberal chances in the area. Kelly-Marie Blundell is an exceptionally able candidate, and the Greens pulling out will also have boosted the Lib Dems’ chances here. The Tories will no doubt pour resources into the seat, however, and spending is one of the areas where the party will struggle to keep up with the Conservatives unless they can get more help.
At number two on the numerical target list (number one being Cambridge, which won’t be on this list as it’s Labour-facing), Eastbourne is another great opportunity to stop the Tories. Returning former MP Stephen Lloyd is seeking to unseat Caroline Ansell: his relative Euroscepticism and high local profile, as well as his independent-mindedness and past opposition to unpopular measures like tuition fee rises, give Lloyd a fighting chance in this Brexit-voting seaside town.
The town of Bath – affluent, well-educated, heavily pro-remain – is the sort of territory that should be perfect for a Lib Dem revival, though the indications are that the Tories are digging in and trying to keep up the flimsy pretence that local MP Ben Howlett is a “moderate”. The key here will be trying to persuade fiercely pro-remain Green and Labour voters to back Wera Hobhouse and get the message out to moderate Tories that Howlett’s “moderation” never seems to follow him into parliament’s voting lobbies. A win for Hobhouse would be a great boost for Remain backers and provide a strong and independent-minded pro-European voice for Bath in parliament.
A set of thumping wins in the county council elections will have put the Cheltenham Lib Dems in good spirits heading into the General Election campaign. Fighting in a pro-remain seat, former MP Martin Horwood will be hoping that the large swings in the Lib Dems’ favour (increasing the Lib Dem victory share across most of the constituency’s county divisions, and coming within a whisker of taking two of the three they don’t hold) will be repeated in the general election. The Lib Dems have a fighting chance of unseating the Tories here – and you can help them do that.
Kingston & Richmond
This covers Kingston & Surbiton, Richmond Park, and Twickenham. These seats, forming a powerfully anti-Brexit wedge of leafy south London currently narrowly held by the Tories, should be some of the most fertile Lib Dem territory: one (Richmond Park) the Lib Dems hold after last year’s by-election, though with a narrow by-election win over the Tories Sarah Olney can afford no complacency there. The other two see returning big beasts. In Twickenham that’s the return of Vince Cable, who since losing the seat in 2015 has focussed on moving the party’s economic policy to a more investment-driven stance. In Kingston and Surbiton Ed Davey, whose undoubted effectiveness as a minister saw his energy & climate change department more than double the UK’s renewables capacity between 2010 and 2015, is running again. All three seats are winnable, especially with the party’s anti-Brexit message, but the challenge will be stretching two boroughs’ worth of activists over three hard fought seats. Funds will be desperately needed to help the (often badly out-spent) local activists get letters and targeted advertising out to local voters.
The London Borough of Sutton will be a very hard Lib Dem-Tory fight where every penny will count. In Carshalton and Wallington, veteran MP and expert political survivor Tom Brake holds the seat and has fended off the Tories for a quarter-century, but the Conservative to UKIP swing puts him in danger. In Sutton and Cheam, Amna Ahmad, the party’s spokesperson on refugees, is a great candidate and a breath of fresh air, facing off against hardline Brexiteer Paul Scully. Both of these fights, in one of London’s few leave-voting boroughs, will be won and lost around issues of local service provision and especially the Lib Dem defence of St Helier hospital against further Tory cuts. Helping the local party get that message out about the services people in Sutton need will be crucial to staving off a Tory victory nationwide.
A currently held Lib Dem seat where seeing off the Tories will be a difficult fight. Southport was practically a four-way marginal in 2015, and with the collapse of UKIP and the retirement of veteran Lib Dem John Pugh, getting local businesswoman and Lib Dem leader on Sefton council Sue McGuire into parliament will be a hard fight. There’s both a large Labour and a large UKIP vote here, so there’s everything to play for, and whilst this is the hardest seat of their current nine for the Lib Dems to hold, the local party are working hard and with extra financial support may well manage to deny the Tories a victory here.
Oxford West & Abingdon
Probably the best chance of the Lib Dems taking a seat they didn’t hold in the 2010-15 parliament, OXWAB has a locally recognised candidate in Layla Moran and a hardline Brexiteer opponent in Nicola Blackwood, in a heavily pro-Remain seat where the Lib Dems managed some impressive council results earlier in May. Wrestling the rural parts of the constituency back from the Tories will be tough, though, as will ensuring that the Labour vote in the Oxford wards knows that they need to back Layla to beat the Tories. All those things need leaflets, and leaflets need money!
Another Brexit-voting town on the south coast, Torbay sees a new Lib Dem candidate in Deborah Brewer, a local businesswoman and lecturer. The Lib Dems have seen some local election success here, including returning former MP Adrian Sanders to the council with a vast pro-Lib Dem swing, and the Labour vote is larger than UKIP’s meaning that it might not take too much tactical voting to put Brewer into a decent position to grab the seat.
Yeovil’s long Lib Dem history – held by the Liberals since 1983, and the leader’s seat under Paddy Ashdown – as well as its continued Lib Dem representation at a council level will give the local party hope that they can take the fight effectively to the Tories here. The small margin of Marcus Fysh’s victory over David Laws in 2015 also means this is a seat firmly in the Lib Dems’ sights, though the collapse of UKIP support locally will make the fight harder. The new Lib Dem candidate is Jo Roundell Greene, an award-winning veteran councillor who will be a credible and locally well known opponent to the rather bland Tory incumbent.
If the Blue-Kip surge reaches its full height, North Norfolk is the third of the three Lib Dem seats (along with Carshalton & Wallington and Southport) that could be threatened. Whilst local election results were good here, the collapsing UKIP vote could give the Tories the boost they need, and with no other serious contests in Norfolk the Conservatives are throwing everything they have into trying to unseat Norman Lamb. As the Lib Dem health spokesperson and a prominent voice on liberal issues including drug reform, NHS funding, and mental health, Norman Lamb is one of the driving forces behind post-coalition Lib Dem policy, and would be a huge loss to parliament. Whilst he has a good chance of winning, the Tories are likely to out-spend his campaign heavily unless he can get more funding from outside.
Former local MP Bob Russell is returning in Colchester – whilst the Tory lead in 2015 was over 10%, the Labour and Green vote was over 20%, with a conversely relatively small UKIP vote, meaning that building a tactical alliance to unseat the Tories is by no means an impossibility here. In recent council elections, the combined Lib Dem and Labour vote would easily have been enough to stop the Tories – as long as the second-placed Lib Dems can persuade enough anti-Tory voters to back them, this could be a genuinely close contest and provide one of the real upsets of the 2017 election.
Another area where the Lib Dems’ council control gives them a strong local base, and where promising council election results may give the local party a boost for the general election. Eastleigh council is almost entirely Lib Dem, so despite the party’s tough loss in 2015 their local electoral base is still very strong. The borough has a recent history of large voting swings electorally too, and the Lib Dems won a 2013 by-election here, so this may be more in play than the 2015 numbers would suggest.
May 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
I’m just writing this as a brief update with thoughts on the ongoing campaign, which may be of use to others in some cases.
Events & Polling
We’ve had two major events so far since the campaign being called: the local elections and the CPS decision. The latter has, probably rightly legally albeit frustratingly, proven to be a damp squib. The former underlined what we already knew – that the real story this election will almost certainly be a giant UKIP to Tory swing that will move the Tories from majority territory into landslide territory. It’s extremely difficult to see how the other parties can turn this around at this point: without any real TV debates, with a fairly pliant media landscape, and with few obvious sources for curveballs, the Tories will not hope to walk this one home.
As to more detailed local election trends, it was very clear that the ToryKip swing was the big deal. Take the Lib Dem friendly area of North Norfolk: the Lib Dems gained three seats and lost two… but in both of the two they lost, they gained both raw votes and vote share compared to 2013. The Conservatives’ ability to gobble up the UKIP vote meant they could “leapfrog” the Lib Dems. This trend was evident right across the southwest of England and into Cornwall as well, which suggests that the Lib Dems will have great difficulty breaking through a “blue wall” in their former heartland. Liberal gains are probably most likely in areas that were either very tight in 2015 or where the UKIP vote is very low and the Tory vote quite soft/centrist (like parts of south London). There are some brighter spots for us, topping local polls across some key targets like Eastleigh, Lewes, and Cheltenham, but the overall picture of recovery is somewhat scattered.
For Labour there is basically nothing positive that can be said; failing to capture the West Midland and Tees Valley mayoralties shows their weakness in a lot of even semi-marginal areas, and the results in midlands council areas likewise indicate they’re in for a very bad night indeed. Their fortresses in Manchester and Liverpool will hold, and their vote seems to be remaining fairly strong in London and some southern cities like Bristol, but the party lacks places to go on the offensive and is getting hammered hard by May’s presidential-style “strength” message in its heartlands.
As to the polling, the following trends now seem to be clear:
- There’s a massive UKIP to Tory swing as noted above, at least five points
- The Labour vote has been consolidating/reverting to the mean by 2-3 points since the election was called, probably at the expense of the Lib Dems and Greens.
- UKIP/LDs/Greens are all static or falling back a bit, definitely falling back in UKIP’s case and less clear in the case of the other two.
This isn’t what pundits seem to have expected: Labour’s hold on its voters seems to be pretty tight, and with both Corbyn and May disingenuously pretending the race is competitive the two larger parties are working hard to apply effective squeeze messaging to voters. The Lib Dem projected national share from the locals far outstripped their current polling, but it seems on balance that this is more likely to be the result of local/national differential voting than a genuine “shy Lib Dem” effect.
My current expectation would be that the Lib Dems can make some gains, but precious few of them (I’m going to suggest maybe six to eight seats gained and maybe one lost on current polling). Labour stand to lose fifty seats; they’ll be heartened by their somewhat consolidated vote, but unless they can peg the Tories down to the lower half of the forties they still stand to take very heavy losses indeed.
This is an interesting election for policy, and a complex one.
For the Tories, their initial wariness about policy seems to be evaporating with the fresh discussion of fox hunting. The idea that they’re throwing these ideas out as some sort of cover is implausible: instead, I think it’s simply a sign of confidence. The Tories haven’t really felt they can govern unimpeded since the early 1990s: getting hard-right policies and those that appease their financial backers out now means that they can claim the election result as a mandate for them (even if Tory votes are actually just centred on the dual issues of Brexit and leadership competence). They’re generally keen to avoid policy chat in general, and have avoided making Cameron-style big claims on tax or pensions. Avoiding questions is a sensible if frustrating precaution with a leader whose image relies on distance and whose ability to think on her feet is not widely regarded as one of her stronger suits. And, of course, as long as they can get away with not answering questions, why tie their hands by doing so?
Labour have not moved nearly so far left as one would think from the shrieking right-wing tabloids or some of their own tub-thumping supporters. Their higher tax plans are still unclear, but they seem to be taking a fairly “soak the rich” attitude. This plays to their base well, and in theory is sound: as one keeps going up the percentiles, wealth exponentiates. Whether Labour’s taxes will be able to realise this wealth is another question; simply ramping up NI or income taxes isn’t going to obtain much extra given the high propensity of the wealthy to avoid tax. It’s worth noting that Labour policy on many issues hasn’t moved a lot: the party is still pro-surveillance, has moved right to a soft-Eurosceptic position since the EU referendum, is still pro-criminalisation on issues like drugs/sex work, is still in favour of a like-for-like Trident replacement, and is still stubbornly opposed to electoral reform. Corbyn has proven himself extremely effective at wielding his support base within the party, but his achievements in policy movement seem to have been almost exclusively on the economic axis.
Labour’s tax-lock plan for most workers is definitely a sound electioneering tactic, and enables them to fend off the Lib Dem plans which do involve taxing middle-income workers more. On the other hand, it’s terrible economic strategy, tying the government’s hands if stimulus spending turns out to be needed, and means that their “soak the rich” taxes will need to come with a very convincing plan. It’s also a traditionally right-wing strategy that Labour may find hard to sell coming this close before an election with an electorate already saturated with the idea of Labour as high-tax left wingers and with a lot of big spending pledges that they’ll need to persuade people they can pay for. McDonnell’s strategy seems to be to try and outflank the Conservatives at their own game economically, emphasising low tax and fiscal responsibility alongside higher spending. Whether this triangulation works is unclear, and probably obscured by Corbyn’s crushingly low favourability ratings.
The Lib Dems, in contrast to Labour, have made a sharper tack to the left than anyone seems to have noticed; the social liberal core of the party have reasserted themselves strongly in the wake of 2015. The Lib Dems’ proposed 1p in the pound rise in income tax, which is recieving some bizarre attacks from Labourites, is a broad-based progressive taxation measure which has the solid bonuses of being up-front about what it’s there for and potentially coming on-stream to help plug the NHS funding gap pretty quickly. Commitments to infrastructure & housing spending also underline a centre-left economic stance, moving further from the Tories. The party has moved to more radically liberal positions elsewhere, too, especially on cannabis where legalisation is now party policy. This could potentially provide another billion a year for healthcare taking into account savings on police budgets and potential taxation revenue. It’s unlikely that much Lib Dem policy will get a good airing, especially with Brexit being such a core line for us (which in the short term may not pay off in seats: see below), but even a brief glance will reveal a very different party to that which was electorally massacred two years previously.
There are two particularly interesting spectres hanging over both parties, one obvious, one less so.
Brexit is the obvious one. Labour seems to keep fudging just enough to hang on to remain supporters, many of whom continue to insist in the face of quite a bit of rhetoric to the contrary that Labour will deliver a “soft” Brexit (that is to say, retaining EEA membership) when in power. Whether it will be able to continue this game after the manifestos are published remains to be seen. For the Lib Dems, this election may be something of a Brexit write-off: we have thus far largely failed to persuade big voting blocs of Tory and Labour remainers to switch our way, and there’s not a lot of time left. In certain seats such as Oxford West the “remain breakthrough” seems possible still, but there are few of those. The party has without a doubt consolidated its core, a necessary step after the loss of direction that accompanied the coalition years, but this may have come at the expense of, rather than as a springboard for, electoral success in 2017.
So, here’s the non-obvious policy issue for both Labour and the Lib Dems: land value taxation. For Labour, it’s the most obvious sensible answer to make their sums add up: a tax that’s hard to dodge and hits high-value wealth. They’ve expressed interest in the idea, but whether they have the foresight to put it into the manifesto will be a real test. For the Lib Dems, the issue is similar but different: whilst the party doesn’t necessarily need LVT from a pure budget maths perspective, a land value tax is party policy (most recently confirmed at Spring Conference 2016). If Labour prominently adopt the issue and the Lib Dems fail to make it a manifesto pledge, it robs the Lib Dems of one of their potential economic ace-cards for the future. Needless to say, I think my party should put LVT in its manifesto: whether either party does remains to be seen.
The headline news is grim for the Tories’ two main opponents. The cavalry are not coming to save anyone (and nor are the CPS). The size of the likely Tory majority is still far from set, though, especially as the polling for the Lab/Con battleground is really in a “slide zone” (that is to say, where a small amount of polling movement can cover a lot of seats). A Tory part of 350 seats versus one of 420 is an immense difference in mandate and outcomes, and that’s the kind of board we’re probably playing across now.
For the Conservatives, the strategy is mainly to keep on hammering on at the current lines. As long as they can protect the Prime Minister from heavy policy scrutiny, they can probably ride out anything else in the election and finish with at least 43% of the vote, enough for a solid majority. For Labour, there are two options: “wagon circle” and “barnstorm”. The latter strategy would be to get Corbyn and McDonnell publicly speaking in basically every vulnerable seat in the Midlands as fast as possible: both are competent speakers, though Corbyn’s baffling refusal to do a debate without May might have cut the possibilities here. The other option, the wagon circle, is to leave the national campaign and the most vulnerable 20 seats for dead, and try to pour resources into boosting the local candidates in the 20-30 seats after that. The Lib Dems didn’t manage this one very well in 2015, but there are potentially arguments for it nonetheless.
For my party, most of the variables have been set: focusing on the target seats as hard as possible is of course vital. It would be good to see Norman Lamb being used more and making the 1p pledge (far simpler than the party’s somewhat complex Brexit strategy) a more core pillar of the campaign. Returning Vince Cable to the position of economic spokesman may not have been optimal strategy – whilst Cable’s experience is immense, his less than enthusiastic position on free movement sits badly with the party’s overall stance, and it would have been good to see for example Kelly-Marie Blundell or Julian Huppert in more prominent roles. There are definitely still a wide range of possible gains for the Lib Dems in the course of this campaign, and even an achievable polling gain of 2-3 points would put us in striking distance for a respectable double-figures gain in seats.
Still a good few weeks to go – I’ll try and write another update in a couple of weeks, and then one in the run-up to polling day.