by Stephen Tall on October 2, 2015
I was one of 11 contributors to the Lib Dems’ Agenda 2020 collection of essays on views on ‘the Liberal Democrat philosophy, core values, beliefs and approaches’. Here’s what I wrote…
Liberalism is an optimistic creed. How else to explain the influx of some 20,000 new Lib Dem members in the aftermath of the party’s worst ever election performance? For many, the trigger was the dignified but downbeat resignation speech of Nick Clegg:
“One thing seems to me clear: liberalism, here, as well as across Europe, is not faring well against the politics of fear.”
Such a gloomy assessment was understandable given our eclipse, displaced by isolationist Ukip as the UK’s third party and all but wiped out by the nationalist SNP in Scotland. But was his ominous warning justified?
Liberalism is winning. So should we!
Not according to The Economist: ‘Mr Clegg lost not because liberalism is under threat but because it has become mainstream.'1)‘Not dead yet’ (The Economist, 16 May 2015 And I think it has a point. Many Lib Dems will harrumph at this, pointing out (reasonably enough) that neither David Cameron’s insular Conservatives nor Tony Blair / Gordon Brown’s centralising Labour governments have shown themselves to be especially liberal.
Yet a form of liberalism (albeit a bastardised version) won the twentieth century: Britain became considerably more socially and economically liberal. Poverty, ignorance and conformity – the three enslavements our party’s constitution commits us to tackle – have not been banished, but they have been weakened. We are a more prosperous, healthier nation; our citizenry is better educated, society more diverse and tolerant; and individuals are freer to live their lives as they choose.
From RAB Butler’s Education Act, introducing free secondary education for all; to the creation of the modern welfare state through Clement Attlee’s implementation of the Beveridge Report; to Roy Jenkins’ ushering in of the ‘permissive society’; to Edward Heath’s push for British membership of the Common Market; to Margaret Thatcher’s ending of the closed shop; to Tony Blair’s devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and London; to David Cameron’s commitment to same-sex marriage – such reforms have transformed Britain.
This is, I guess, a triumph for the liberal disapora of ideas. What has proved to be a weakness in building a Liberal party big enough to win by itself has proved a strength by embedding itself in the Conservative and Labour parties that have governed Britain. We shouldn’t, of course, be complacent. It is possible the current Conservative government could (for example) lead Britain’s retreat from the EU and withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.
However, it appears unlikely this liberal age is about to slam into reverse gear. If anything, it shows signs of gathering pace. The structural changes underpinning it – accelerating urban growth, mass participation in higher education, the boom in ethnic minorities – are, as Jeremy Cliffe has observed, ‘together forging a more plural, open, fast-moving, post-industrial country where the political assumptions that held true for the postwar decades no longer do so.'2)‘Britain’s cosmopolitan future’, Jeremy Cliffe (Policy Network, 14 May 2015)
The challenge then for the Lib Dems is clear. If liberalism is winning, why shouldn’t we?
Sticking within the liberal mainstream …
Perversely, the election disaster offers us an opportunity.
For as long as the Lib Dems were a party of government and wished to continue as such, we faced an unappetising prospect: to do a deal with either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour. Our circumstances placed us inescapably in the split-the-difference centre, pushing policies which might be acceptable to either potential partner. This partially explains our misplaced enthusiasm for continuing to raise the personal allowance to £12,500, a tax-cut we claimed would help low- and middle-income earners, despite clear evidence it was a riotously expensive policy (£5bn) which would benefit wealthier households more than the poorest.3)See ‘Five things you need to know about the personal allowance increase’ by Adam Corlett (Resolutuion Foundation, 17 March 2015)
However, our crushing experience of coalition makes it unlikely we will embrace it again in 2020 (should the voters give us the chance). This liberates us to pursue vital liberal causes even and especially when they clash with the ‘Labservative’ consensus – and, indeed, even and especially when they are minority positions. Just as we succeeded in shifting mental health from the fringes of public debate to centre-stage, so can we endeavour to position new liberal campaigns squarely in the mainstream.
Before highlighting such edgier policies, though – the ones I think speak to our liberalism and will differentiate us in the now-crowded political market-place – I want to be crystal clear: the Lib Dems should stick resolutely within the liberal mainstream.
As with most political choices, I’m motivated by two reasons: pragmatism and principle. The pragmatism is probably least contentious. Elections are won from the centre and parties which forget that invariably lose. As Danny Finkelstein has noted of the voters who delivered David Cameron his unexpected majority:
‘… it is wrong to think of them as Tories. These are people who just want a moderate, competent government which keeps the economy on track. One which ensures that there are decent public services that don’t cost the earth.'4)‘‘Shy Tories’ are not really shy . . . or Tory’ (The Times, 13 May 2015)
A political party which doesn’t persuade such people to vote for it — for ‘a stronger economy, a fairer society’, to coin a phrase — is destined to banish itself to the fringes.
What of the principle of remaining within the liberal mainstream? To answer this, let me first pray in aid a quote from Edmund Fawcett’s brilliant book, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea5)‘Liberalism: The Life of an Idea’, Edmund Fawcett (Princeton, 2014), which reinforces how persuasion, compromise and tolerance are at the heart of the liberal ideal:
‘Liberal politics aspires to openness and toleration, to settling matters by argument and compromise, to building coalitions rather than creating sects, and to recognizing the inevitable existence of factions and interests without turning them into irreconcilable foes.’
As for putting this pluralism into practice, Lib Dems have (1) long advocated free markets tempered by regulation to keep them competitive, protecting the rights both of workers and consumers, and (2) long been open to a mix of state and/or private provision of local and national public services, never dogmatic, often preferring a combination if that’s what works best.
By definition, then, our approach on the two issues which matter most to the voters – the economy and public services – is liberal, rational, pragmatic, flexible, grown-up, balanced, centrist. This is, I suspect, the outlook which inspired so many of the party’s new members to sign up.
And it is precisely this sane and judicious disposition which gives us the voters’ permission to have a hearing on those issues – wealth taxes, civil liberties, drugs, the European Union, environmental sustainability, localism, immigration, prisoner rehabilitation, constitutional reform – where our radical ambitions, so fundamental to us, are either unpopular with, or irrelevant to, vast swathes of the population.
We are not only liberals, we are also democrats: let’s not fixate on our own outlier enthusiasms to the exclusion of the liberal mainstream where we share a great deal of common ground with the voters.
… While championing a distinctive liberal offering
So what are these edgy policies which allow us to flaunt a bit of liberal leg to attract the growing constituency of cosmopolitan voters and enable us to live out our philosophy?
The party’s new leader, Tim Farron, has said that we need to be realistic about the amount of public attention we’ll now get and focus on three policy areas to champion.6)‘Tim Farron – Full Interview’ (Liberal Reform, 15 June) He’s identified housing, civil liberties and climate change. Each has particular salience for the younger, more urban and educated voters, whose live-and-let-live spirit combined with a belief in progressive internationalism, chimes with our party’s values.
There are a further two areas – both of them touchstone issues for the mass of voters – on which I would hope the Lib Dems can make some noise in the next five years.
• Education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet, a public policy which can lever open opportunity for all. For far too long, our party fixated on the wrong priority: abolishing tuition fees. As Vince Cable’s 2010 reforms have demonstrated, it is possible to create a higher education finance system which is both fair to students and ensures our universities have the funding they need to thrive. Our focus and investment instead should have been on the early years, providing high-quality nursery and primary education which gives all our children the chance to succeed. The attainment gap separating rich and poor kids – which is in evidence pre-school, then widens, and perpetuates into later life inequalities – is a stain on our society, and one which Lib Dems must commit to ending.
• Immigration should be a source of pride to Britain: we attract some of the brightest and best from around the world because of this country’s high international standing. And they put in – their taxes, their entrepreneurial drive – far more than they take out. So why not (as the think-tank British Future has proposed7)‘High net migration needs practical response, not distractions’ (British Future, 20 May 2015)) create an ‘Immigration Fund’, hypothecating the financial gains from increased migration to directly manage some of the pressures communities and their services face as a consequence of new arrivals? It is necessary, but not sufficient, simply to defend immigration from the scare-mongering of Ukip, the Tories and, increasingly, Labour. We need also to show we have fresh ideas which can respond to voters’ concerns.
British society is moving in a more cosmopolitan direction, one attuned to our liberal philosophy. Our task is not simply to observe this phenomenon, but to shape it, applying our liberal values in practical ways to better the lives of those we seek to represent. We will need all of our optimism; but it’s our realism that will matter most.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||‘Not dead yet’ (The Economist, 16 May 2015|
|2.||↑||‘Britain’s cosmopolitan future’, Jeremy Cliffe (Policy Network, 14 May 2015|
|3.||↑||See ‘Five things you need to know about the personal allowance increase’ by Adam Corlett (Resolutuion Foundation, 17 March 2015|
|4.||↑||‘‘Shy Tories’ are not really shy . . . or Tory’ (The Times, 13 May 2015|
|5.||↑||‘Liberalism: The Life of an Idea’, Edmund Fawcett (Princeton, 2014|
|6.||↑||‘Tim Farron – Full Interview’ (Liberal Reform, 15 June|
|7.||↑||‘High net migration needs practical response, not distractions’ (British Future, 20 May 2015|
by Stephen Tall on October 1, 2015
I told the BBC’s Daily Politics show in 2013 that I’d “run naked down Whitehall” if the Lib Dems were reduced to just 24 MPs at the next election.
Technically, that didn’t happen. We did far, far worse. But a pledge is a pledge, as Lib Dems know only too well.
Plus former Sun editor Kelvin McKenzie has offered me £5,000 for the charity of my choice to see it through.
My charity of choice is Médecins Sans Frontières UK (aka Doctors without Borders). MSF deliver medical aid to the people who need it most, no matter where they are or whether they have hit the headlines. MSF UK takes no money from government; 99.9 percent of its funds come from private donors, like you and me – and Kelvin.
Full disclosure: I’ll be substantially naked but don’t expect a Full Monty.
My JustGiving page is here: https://www.justgiving.com/StephenTall. Please do make a donation if you’re able to do so.
I think this Smack The Pony sketch comes closest to explaining Jeremy Corbyn’s concept of the nuclear deterrent
by Stephen Tall on September 30, 2015
Jeremy Corbyn has said he can live with the idea of the Labour party he leads spending £100bn on the Trident nuclear weapons system even though he’s today confirmed he would instruct the UK’s defence chiefs never to use it.
It’s certainly an interesting approach to the concept of a nuclear deterrent.
For some reason, it reminded me of this Smack The Pony sketch (begins 8 seconds in):
by Stephen Tall on September 25, 2015
I’m one of the contributors to this week’s Guardian Politics podcast, focusing on the three big stories this week: the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth, lurid allegations contained in Michael Ashcroft’s revenge biography of David Cameron, and George Osborne’s trade visit to China.
As ever, I thought of all the things I should have said afterwards. In particular, on why the Lib Dems were in such a chipper mood at conference, I mentioned only a couple of reasons. So here’s a fuller list:
1. Conferences are (nearly) always fun – it’s the one time of the year many of us get to meet up with friends we know from afar and to spend time with fellow politics obsessives with a similar outlook to us.
2. This year’s has also reverted to being a members’ event – a record-breaking attendance, and the desertion of lobbyists, the media and corporate hangers-on, has meant the conference feels like it’s ours again: the hall was pretty full throughout, with fringe meetings over-flowing.
3. No security – don’t underestimate how much more fun conference is when you can just show your pass to get in, rather than have to queue for airport-style security bag searches, belt removal etc.
4. Good debate – a piece of advice I give to anyone attending conference for the first time is to sit through at least one whole policy debate. I never cease to be impressed by the passion, humour and good liberal sense I hear (most of the time!). And thankfully we dodged the bullet of deciding to go full unilateralist on nuclear weapons (and kudos to Tim Farron for leading from the front on this).
5. 20,0000 new members – that’s a 50% increase, up from 40k to 60k. Interestingly, as most joined out of ‘Proalition’ sympathy for the kicking the party took on 7th May, the Lib Dem membership is probably now more moderate and centrists than it’s perhaps ever been.
6. Improving local by-election record – straws in the wind, it’s true, but the party’s performance in local election by-elections post-7th May have been pretty encouraging: some big wins, with our vote up in most places.
7. We’ve avoided a civil war – many of us were braced for a massive falling out post-May, with different wings of the party indulging a vicious blame-game. However, the fact the result was so much worse than anyone expected – and that we lost as badly to the Tories as to Labour – means there has been a rallying to the flag, assisted by a short and mostly civil leadership contest.
8. Corbyn’s election – Labour’s decision to respond to the Tory win by electing a hard-left leader who will make their party unelectable for years to come has undoubtedly opened up a huge political space. The Lib Dems aren’t in the best shape to take advantage; but it’s a lifeline nonetheless.
9. Tim Farron’s speech – as I wrote when I explained why I was voting for him: ‘I’ve heard him speak a few times, and have always felt lifted, energised, inspired. That’s a rare gift. When someone has it, you can do worse than elect them your leader.’ His leader’s speech was pitch-perfect, even winning over the flint-hearted sketch-writers. His denunication of Cameron’s management of the refugee crisis deserved the mid-speech standing ovation it was given.
Tim Farron's views on the refugee crisis – and Cameron's pitiful response to it https://t.co/WCD7gLV6YQ
— Liberal Democrats (@LibDems) September 24, 2015
by Stephen Tall on September 22, 2015
For the first time in a decade, I was merely a day-tripper to the Lib Dem federal conference, speaking at a full-to-bursting Resolution Foundation meeting on social justice. (I’ll try and post my thoughts on that tomorrow.) And, obviously, catching up with a load of people, as you do, even in the brief few hours I was there. Here were my key take-homes…
Now leaving #ldconf. Impressions: 1) LibDem members are cheery (honest!). Feels more like members event: less media/lobbyists. Comforting.
— Stephen Tall (@stephentall) September 22, 2015
2) There's a thirst to be distinctive, radical. Clegg made liberal centrism toxic. Yet on economy/public services party is centrist. #ldconf
— Stephen Tall (@stephentall) September 22, 2015
3) On issues where party *is* radical – eg, drugs, wealth taxes, prisons, envt, localism, constit reform – public disagree/indiff #ldconf
— Stephen Tall (@stephentall) September 22, 2015
4) Much talk of "Corbynism". Like Lab tho reluctance to engage with public on their terms. Tories dominant, progressives split #ldconf
— Stephen Tall (@stephentall) September 22, 2015
5) True test for party is re-learning how to win elections: to matter again. If we don't this year's energy/enthusiasm won't last. #ldconf
— Stephen Tall (@stephentall) September 22, 2015
by Stephen Tall on September 17, 2015
The latest issue of the Journal of Liberal History is a special issue focusing on the Coalition, 2010–15.
It includes an essay by me under the general heading, ‘Why did it go wrong?’, with my contribution titled ‘Decline and Fall: how Coalition killed the Lib Dems (almost)’, alongside those of Matthew Huntbach, Sir Nick Harvey, John Pugh and David Howarth.
Here’s an excerpt, where I ask the question “Was it worth it?”, looking at the profit-and-loss account, the debits and credits of the Lib Dems’ record in government:
The Lib Dems were not short of achievements. There wasn’t a senior Lib Dem who’s wasn’t able to rehearse, when challenged “But what have you done?”, the line that the our three of our top four 2010 priorities – tax-cuts for low-earners, the Pupil Premium, the Green Investment Bank – had been delivered. Or who wouldn’t point to other policies – like infant free school meals, or same-sex marriage, or more apprenticeships – which were successfully pushed by the Lib Dems in office. Or who wouldn’t highlight Conservative policies, such as hire-and-fire at will or repeal of the Human Rights Act or the proposed “snoopers’ charter”, which the Lib Dems had vetoed. It is a creditable litany, especially for a party with just nine per cent of MPs.
The trouble was the public didn’t notice. At least they were even-handed, ignoring not only our triumphs but also our disasters and treating both those imposters just the same. As the British Election Study, which has been examining how and why the public votes as they do in every election since 1964, noted: “The Lib Dems did not do so badly because they were blamed for the failings of the Coalition; rather, the majority of voters simply seem to have felt that they were an irrelevant component of the last government.”
Two examples suffice. Among the 44 per cent of voters who though the economy was getting better, just 19 per cent credited the Lib Dems compared to 73 per cent who thought it was thanks to the Conservatives. Meanwhile, of the two-thirds of voters who thought the NHS had got worse under the Coalition, just 19 per cent held the Lib Dems responsible while 69 per cent pinned the blame on the Tories.
Unfair? Mostly, yes. But like sailors complaining about the sea, it’s pointless to wag our finger at the voters. Moreover, I don’t think I was the only Lib Dem who, as the Coalition drew to a close, felt a nagging worry that while our party’s successes were things which the Conservatives had little trouble with, the Conservatives’ successes (too-tight-too-soon austerity, over-harsh crackdowns on social security like the ‘bedroom tax’, Andrew Lansley’s pointlessly expensive health reforms) were things we should have had no truck with.
Sure, our ministers did their best, and yes, the Coalition was markedly less right-wing, and in some areas even quite liberal, compared to full-blown Tory rule. But – let us ask ourselves honestly – did we truly succeed in moving the country in a sufficiently liberal direction for enough people during our five years in government given the price we ended up paying?
Because it wasn’t just in May 2015 that the Lib Dems were wiped out. That was simply the culmination of five years of humiliating defeats at every level of representative government. In the European parliament, 11 of our 12 MEPs were defeated. In Scotland, we lost 12 of the 17 seats we were defending. (Wales, where we lost only one of our previous six AMs, was a relative success.) Our local government base was hacked down year after year, from 3,944 councillors in 2010 to just 1,801 in 2015. Today we control six councils, down from 25 in 2010. Only in the unelected House of Lords has Lib Dem representation grown.
For five years of restraining the Conservatives at Westminster, plus a handful of policy advances, the Lib Dems sacrificed decades of hard-won gains across the country. The opportunity cost of lost liberal influence has been huge.
by Stephen Tall on September 15, 2015
I’ve an article on today’s Times Red Box blog looking at how (and whether) the Lib Dems can capitalise on Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader.
The obvious answer is we don’t know. The parallel with 1981-83, when hard-left Bennism was at its peak, is fuzzy. True, the Liberals were weak, then, too, having been singed by their unhappy experience during the Lib-Lab pact. But, at least at the moment, there seems no prospect of Labour moderates setting up an SDP v.2.
Without the excitement of a new Alliance to dominate the centre-ground of British politics, it’s going to be a much tougher gig for Tim Farron and his seven Commons’ colleagues to get a hearing, no matter how attractive their more moderate, progressive vision might be.
Anyway, here’s how it starts (sorry, the rest of the piece is behind the Times paywall):