October 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
For the last 12 months or so I’ve been de facto, (and for the last 8, de jure) running the Radical Association – the radical pressure group within the Liberal Democrats. I, and others, created the association to help research and campaign for ideas like a guaranteed minimum income, land value taxation, and other new ideas to move liberalism toward solving the problems of the 21st century.
In the last few months, this has included:
- Constituting the association and running two committee elections (our initial one, and one now – October will be the time for all future elections, which are done online and fulfil the functions usually ).
- Building the membership to around 140 members from all parts of the country
- Building social media reach, with nearly 900 Facebook followers and over 1100 on Twitter (making us one of the fastest growing LD pages/groups for social media impact, and thus creating a long-term campaigning infrastructure that we can use in future).
- Running the RA’s general election campaign, in which we selected an agreed set of campaign policies and I designed a micro-targeting system to advertise radical Lib Dem policies – on civil liberties, social security spending, cannabis, and electoral reform – to voters in target areas of the country. (Outside the RA I also ground campaigned in Cheltenham and Cambridge and provided research work for a constituency in London – campaigns are hectic things).
- Working on setting up two policy research groups – an in-house group on housing policy, and supporting an upcoming independent group on minimum income systems.
- Two conferences, the latter of which I was trying to run things at without being physically present, including writing and promoting briefings on policies ranging from higher min wages on non-guaranteed working hours, to sex work, to our stance on the EU and helping forcing the party leadership to explicitly call for an Exit from Brexit in policy documents for the first time.
I find it hard to say how well it’s all gone – I don’t know what one should expect – but I think I can reasonably say that I did the best I could, and that the RA… well, exists, which was a rather more doubtful prospect last winter. Now, though, I’m living in Vienna, and the last few months have taken a lot out of me – and so I decided that this autumn election was a good point at which to step down and hand the baton over. The work of the RA in the coming years is going, I hope, to be an important part of building a Liberal Democrat party that can stand proudly on the core values it was constituted to work for – a world in which no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity, a world with freer movement of people, a democratic and co-operative business sector, a safe and stable environment and strong community organisation. In the age of the internet, automation, climate change, mass misinformation, and rising authoritarianism, refocussing on these goals and building our own path towards them, rather than fearfully protecting the rapidly disintegrating status quo for fear of something worse around the corner, has never been so important for a liberal party.
The elections are ongoing, but whoever wins I’m confident that the new RA team has the skills necessary to keep our association going (and I’m looking forward to supporting them as a volunteer). Based as I am halfway across Europe, though, my relationship to politics is about to get rather less frontline, and a new chapter is coming along.
In the next few weeks and months, I’m going to try and post several more blogposts, firstly to discuss my time on the front line of politics and where the Association might want to head next, and secondly to start help providing some of the ideas frameworks for a 21st century Radicalism. I do believe that radical liberal thought should be seen as a strand of political theory in its own right, and that it can form the core of a future political consensus on the left flank of politics – and perhaps across the political spectrum too. The breakdown of the post-Thatcher consensus in Europe and North America means that the call for big new ideas has never been greater – yet politicians across the spectrum are currently shadow-boxing mythological migrants or denying the scale of the problems they face. Breaking these narratives and showing that a new policy direction is possible outside a reversion to Butskellism or trying to shore up the creaking hulk of Thatcherite economics is vital. The RA’s existence, I hope, will be one important contribution to that debate: I’m hoping that my writings and work over the next few months might help comprise, in their own small way, part of another.
June 7, 2017 § Leave a comment
It’s time to decide how to vote – and this is why that vote should be for the Liberal Democrats.
I’m not a prescriptive sort of person – when the list below says “Vote Liberal Democrat If”, I certainly don’t mean to imply that people who vote a different way don’t care about those things – rather, that I think my party has the best chance of representing that want or value in parliament (accompanied by an explanation as to why). As you’ll see, I think that a Conservative government would be particularly disastrous, and I have friends who are disabled and/or reliant on social security and the NHS who I very much worry about if as seems likely we have another five years with a working Tory majority. If people want to use their votes to block that outcome then there are around 150 of the UK’s seats that are marginal between the Conservatives and another party where that would be very worth considering. There are also a couple of seats where the Lib Dems aren’t standing (Skipton & Ripon and Brighton Pavilion) where I very much endorse voting Green, and there’s Northern Ireland, where the Alliance offer a kinder, non-sectarian option.
That said, that still leaves a good 450 seats that are either safe Labour, safe Tory, or where the Lib Dems have a chance of winning. If you’re in any of those seats, I think you should vote for the Liberal Democrats, and this is why.
1. Vote Liberal Democrat if you want the worst off to have decent living standards
It’s simply a fact that of the three largest GB parties, the Lib Dems are offering by far the most redistributive manifesto. It’s no surprise that the Tories are offering nothing for the worst off, continuing to freeze benefit levels (which erodes them over time due to inflation, meaning families on the breadline will sink further into poverty over the next five years). The Tory disability rating system meanwhile is a national disgrace, and needs to be ended immediately. Labour have pledged some improvements, but have budgeted no money to end the benefit freeze or undo Tory child tax credit cuts. Labour tax plans, based on corporation tax, may also lead to higher prices being passed on to consumers, which without any improvement in social security funding could be very bad news indeed for the worst off. The Liberal Democrat plans, whilst not as radical as I’d like, at least would restore a basic safety net that could be guaranteed not to erode over the course of the next parliament – and every Lib Dem MP elected will help hold both Labour and the Tories to account in order to achieve that.
2. Vote Liberal Democrat if you want to avoid a Brexit recession
The Lib Dems offer a different path on Brexit, and the opportunity to get MPs who will argue for free movement, trade, international cooperation on defence and security, scientific links that have powered up our research sector, and more. Labour and the Conservatives are pretty similar in contast; both want to withdraw from the single market, end freedom of movement, and attempt to negotiate a new free trade deal that avoids tariffs. It doesn’t have to be this way, and we need MPs willing to stand up and say that. Even leaving the EU there is no mandate to crash out of the single market, which will hole Labour or Tory budgetary plans below the water-line and cost jobs. The Lib Dems will provide a desperately needed voice for a different future based on trade, tech, and cooperation. We need them to do so now more than ever.
3. Vote Liberal Democrat if you want an NHS funding solution that works
It’s clear that the NHS is stretched to the brink under the burden of Conservative cutbacks, and the Tories are promising no new money. Whilst Labour are looking at big cash injections, these rely on corporate and financial service tax reciepts remaining stable (see point 2) and don’t account for companies passing on tax rises to customers: a corporation tax boost, whilst a reasonable form of tax in general, will often fall on customers more than shareholders. The Tories would be far more of a disaster, with no plans to seriously address the fact that an ageing population is breaking the health and social care system, already buckling under the strain. The Liberal Democrat solution of a 1p in the pound increase in income tax is a fair, stable, workable plan to save the NHS, and we need Lib Dem MPs in the commons to argue the case for it.
4. Vote Liberal Democrat if you believe in democracy
Representative democracy, the principle that the governed should be able to choose their leaders, is one of the most powerful ideas in human history, and fundamental to liberal values and principles. Neither of the UK’s two largest parties really believe that individuals should be able to elect their MPs – both are committed to retaining a system that presumes instead that local areas have singular, monolithic concerns and that the will of the largest single minority in an area should be taken as an absolute statement of that area’s beliefs. The number of conversations I’ve had with people frustrated that “they want to vote X but have to vote Y to keep out Z” this election is significant and bizarre – because it’s so easy to fix by having a fair voting system where everyone’s voice has a better chance of being heard. The Lib Dems are and will continue to be the strongest voices for electoral reform, whilst the two main parties jealously protect the status quo.
5. Vote Liberal Democrat if you believe in evidence based, cost effective drug policy
On cannabis legalisation, the Liberal Democrats are once again leading the way. Legal cannabis could bring £1 billion into the NHS, save lives by allowing regulation of consumed cannabis products, and fight crime by ripping income sources away from criminal gangs. Legalisation would be a huge step forward and provide vital money to the health service – with the current system being abandoned by police forces and costing us millions that we can’t afford, it’s high time for a legalisation policy.
6. Vote Liberal Democrat if you want a vibrant start-up economy
In a world ever more focused on tech and other service industries run from small businesses, having a strong culture where people have the freedom to start their own business is really important. The Lib Dems’ plans to give new startup owners living support for the crucial first few months will enable many more people to take the plunge and start their own business – that means more chances to find the businesses that will really take off, and levels the playing field so that people who aren’t lucky enough to have a cushion of starting capital can still get into business.
7. Vote Liberal Democrat if you support refugees
The refugee crisis is so often drowned out by other world issues – but it still exists and is still very, very real. We can’t isolate ourselves from the world, it’s simply not tenable in today’s society; we need both an active foreign policy to restore stability in troubled parts of the world, and a willingness to play our part in accepting thousands more refugees. As one of the world’s wealthiest countries this is simply part of our moral and human obligation to our allies – and it’s an obligation that the Liberal Democrats will prioritise delivering, with a fully costed plan that won’t stretch local budgets and will be a hugely important investment in our shared future with our neighbours.
8. Vote Liberal Democrat if you don’t want criminals stealing your data
As liberals, we in the Liberal Democrats are often pretty isolated politically on issues like surveillance and data security – but the Tory & Labour backed Snoopers’ Charter shows just how important it is that there are people in parliament providing a liberal opposition. Tory talk of “encryption backdoors” is extremely dangerous. Either encryption is effective, or it is nonexistent, and there’s no real way around that. Adding backdoors and engaging in mass data collection will put people’s data, including sensitive medical or financial records, at very serious risk both from hostile governments and from criminal activity. Besides, neither is particularly useful compared to the real job of giving the security services decent human resources. We need MPs from parties that have been vocally and consistently liberal on these issues, or we face the prospect of yet more botched legislation that puts the public at risk in the name of keeping them save.
9. Vote Liberal Democrat if you believe in an evidence-based approach to sex work
Sex workers are some of the most marginalised people in society, and the current laws put them in danger on a daily basis whilst doing nothing to cut actual abuse and crime. The Lib Dems’ willingness to put actual sex workers at the centre of an evidence-based plan for decriminalisation. This would greatly help both people who want to leave sex work, by freeing up funds currently spent on criminalisation, and most importantly would protect sex workers who would no longer be forced to fear arrest for doing their jobs. We shouldn’t make policy on this issue based upon arbitrary moralisation, but on the evidence – and that clearly points to the Liberal Democrat decriminalisation approach.
10. Vote Liberal Democrat if you want to care for the environment
As a recent letter to the Guardian by environmentalists and green business owners says – “Only the Lib Dems combine the ambition to bring forward climate change targets and support for the Paris agreement with an entrepreneurial approach to investing in cutting-edge clean technologies, and commitment to international institutions to enable Britain to be a world leader in protecting the global environment.” The environment has been a lost issue this election, but the Lib Dems’ clear commitment to renewable energy and environmental protection is something that is worth rewarding for the future.
So there you have it, that’s my closing argument – we’ll see how things go when the results come in, but I really do hope that you’ll consider voting Liberal Democrat. Liberty needs a voice in our country – and this election, you can help provide it at a time when it is genuinely under threat.
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.
April 19, 2017 § 2 Comments
I’ve seen a lot of speculation about coalitions in relation to the election, and especially in relation to the Lib Dems. So I’m going to set out my own position here, and explain why my position matters (which it wouldn’t if I were a Labour or Conservative member).
A coalition deal including the Lib Dems requires the consent of two thirds of Liberal Democrat conference delegates, under Article 22 of the Lib Dem constitution. We are a democratic party, and for example in 2010 we held a special conference that endorsed the coalition deal. Times have changed since then, though, and instead of the collection of delegate-bigwigs who made the call in 2010, the party has moved to one member one vote. That’s the system that any coalition deal would have to go through. I suggest to any of you reading this that you take speculation on Farron’s motives or comments regarding coalitions with a strong pinch of salt – it’s emphatically not his call to make in a democratic party, and in the (exceptionally unlikely) event of a hung parliament the Lib Dem members would make their voices clearly heard.
So, speculation over a Lib Dem-Tory coalition. Short version: it’s nonsense and no more likely than a Labour-Tory one at this stage. I do not think such a coalition deal would be possible to begin with, as an immediate change in the electoral system and commitment to retaining membership of the European Economic Area would likely be the party leadership’s minimum red lines. In the unlikely event that the leadership reneged on these red lines, they would have to try and force a deal through an energetic, belligerent conference floor. Even if these lines were met (in which case the Conservative party would be collapsing internally), it would be up to any prospective dealmakers to convince conference that such a proposed government could save the NHS, rebuild our education system, and deliver on liberal values in other areas. I don’t think that this scenario is possible, let alone likely.
But I’ll be clear for my own part: I think, and I think most of my party agree, that the Conservatives lack the moral authority to run our country. They are a ramshackle party clinging to their internal unity at the expense of the country, mired in corruption allegations, with an incompetent record on the economy and an immoral one on social policy. Whilst I am sure that such a conversation won’t happen, I would not vote for (and would campaign to oppose) a proposed government that was led by the Conservative party, under any terms, and I am confident that a majority of Liberal Democrat members would not do so either.
March 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
As usual, I wish I had better words – but will probably make up in volume what I lack in wisdom.
This is the largest setback for progressive forces in Britain in my lifetime, perhaps in a half-century. There should be no confusion about that – even if there had been last June, the scale of the damage that the Conservative government will do under cover of Brexit is now increasingly apparent. Brexit itself is, I have always thought, a bad move – but it has been the choices of Conservatives that have created this catastrophe.
In ruling out both freedom of movement and the oversight of the ECJ for trade relations, May has made two choices (and we must see them as choices, being by no means inevitable parts of Brexit) that will hurt people across the country. A city of London without financial passporting could see billions wiped off our GDP and thus be used as an excuse to further dismember our NHS and social services; small businesses who export to Europe in a wide variety of areas could face tariff barriers that they have no room on their balance sheets to absorb. The economic impacts of this will be very real for people’s livelihoods, and will largely be the result of the choices of the Tory hard right.
But there the choices do not end. The hard right have won their victory, and are only now discovering that they cannot tell one end of a ministerial briefing from the other. What a Brext Britain needs would be a radical, effective economic strategy – active, effective support for our creative industries and massive investment in science & technology in order to make the most of Britain’s knowledge economy, meaningful support for SMEs, and big steps in adult education to fight poverty traps and improve the dynamism of our labour market. And yet, only deafening silence reigns. Creatives and academics are at critically low morale and are checking their options for work visas elsewhere. There is no plan. The Conservatives have hammered down what they are against, but what are they for?
It is a question they have chosen – chosen – not to answer.
The choices of Conservatives must not, cannot, be unaccountable to the electorate. It is both our right and our duty as citizens to call our government out when it takes a wrong turn, when it fails to represent our interests. The choices of Conservatives through this process so far have been, for many of us, to not only fail to represent our interests, hopes, and aspirations, but to actively and aggressively attack them across a wide range of policy areas. For me, at a time like this, parading false unity and failing to take on the government would be a betrayal of my values, of my friends, and of myself. People – many I’ve never met, many I care about, many I love – will have to face the choices of Conservatives. I will not stop fighting their corner. I cannot.
I do not believe, and will not allow myself to believe, that this fight is futile. Brexit is a hammer-blow, but standing up for people’s jobs and aspirations, for their freedom to move and love and create and hope, goes far beyond it. A radical, liberal future for Britain has never been more needed; restoring our battered standing in the wider world, giving people real effective choice in elections, caring better for people’s mental and physical health, giving people opportunity through education and security through minimum incomes, and much more. It’s a future that we need to articulate – not so much to oppose a Conservative vision of our future as to fill the void that the choices of Conservatives look set to leave our country in. We deserve better than that. We deserve hope.
Finally; I know there will be some people particularly upset today – fresh uncertainty over whether families will be able to stay together or jobs will continue to exist, whether they’ll be able to stay in their adopted country of residence, feeling a stranger in a country they thought they knew, or simply exhausted by the absurd allegations and attacks on those of us who have fought an internationalist corner in these difficult times. If you’re one of those people – stay strong, take care, and look after yourself. Thinking of you all.