by Stephen Tall on February 4, 2016
Much deserved mockery greeted the Daily Mail’s portentous front page plea for a plucky patriot to take up cudgels on behalf of Brexit:
Today the Mail asks a question of profound significance to our destiny as a sovereign nation and the fate of our children and grandchildren. Who will speak for England?
To which there is only one answer, and it’s an answer as uncomfortable to the right-wing Mail as it is to the right-on Twitter crowd: David Cameron speaks for England. And I say that as someone who views his re-negotiations as, largely, a sham.
Like most of the rest of the voting public I’ve been quite busy with Real Life this week, and so haven’t followed the ins and outs of the Prime Minister’s deal. I’ve heard snippets about “red card vetoes” and “emergency brakes”. My basic impression is that he’s not got an awful lot out of it, but probably got as good as he was going to.
And I suspect that’s how it’ll end up being viewed by most of the British public, too.
(As an immigration-lover I deprecate his efforts to strike a tough pose on an issue like migrant benefits he knows is a near-irrelevance; after all, immigrants pay in to this country far, far in excess of what they take out. But I understand I’m in a small minority of voters who thinks like this, and so I also understand why Mr Cameron did it.)
The closest Gordon Brown ever got to defining his Britishness in a way that wasn’t cringey was in his his first speech as Prime Minister when he quoted, with endearing awkwardness, his school motto, ‘I will try my utmost’. What it lacked in inspiration it made up for in genuineness.
We like our leaders to try their best, be seen to try their best. Their actual achievements are pretty secondary as long they’re basically competent and the economy’s ticking along.
Mr Cameron’s decaffeinated negotiations are, it feels, an insipid, British version of what Greece’s Alexis Tsipras attempted last year: issue an ultimatum to try and bluff your opponents into thinking you might actually dare to torpedo the entire Euro project in the hope they might concede more than they otherwise would. And then sell that deal, no matter how far short it falls, as the best possible.
In fact, Mr Cameron has triangulated himself into the ideal position. As he very smartly remarked after the televised Clegg-Farage Euro debate in March 2014: “Nick thinks there’s nothing wrong with Europe and we shouldn’t have a referendum, and Nigel thinks there’s nothing right with Europe and we should just get out and leave. They’re both wrong.”
Cameron’s the leader who’s gone out and batted for Britain. He might not have scored a century but it was a useful knock. Like it or not, those of us who support ‘Bremain’ are lucky he’s on our team.
The chap did what he could, tried his damnedest. And you can’t get more British – sorry, Daily Mail: English – than that.
by Stephen Tall on February 3, 2016
Can’t think what it was about Tim Montgomerie’s tweet, below, which put me in mind of this quote* from George Orwell’s Animal Farm:
“The creatures outside looked from Brexiter to Cybernat, and from Corbynista to Brexiter, and from Brexiter to Cybernat again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
As Bertrand Russell more or less said:
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”
by Stephen Tall on January 29, 2016
‘Cecil Rhodes statue to be kept by Oxford University college’, the BBC notes. Here’s my hot take…
1. I’m glad I’m not working in the alumni office at Oriel College – having been an Oxford fundraiser for 13 years, I can only begin to imagine the correspondence they’ve been dealing with since this storm erupted. Oriel says its decision to rescind its earlier decision and to let Rhodes statue stand has had nothing to do with the response of its old members. Yeah, right! I’ve no idea if the £100m threatened cost in lost donations and legacies is at all likely, but – let’s remember – Oriel was the last college in Oxford to agree to admit women (1986): there will be little sympathy with tearing down its heritage.
2. I find myself quite conflicted on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. I go to Spain regularly (my partner is Spanish and our son has dual nationality), and to see the fascist dictator Franco publicly commemorated to this day, most notably with his tomb at Valle de los Caídos (The Valley of the Fallen), is jarring. Why haven’t the Spanish torn down these monuments, as Iraqis famously did when the statute of Saddam Hussein was toppled? Because both right and left made a conscious decision in 1975 to avoid any form of truth and reconciliation and instead to commit to el pacto del olvido (‘The Pact of Forgetting’) — which is easier said than done for those whose lives were torn apart by its brutal civil war.
3. Oliver Moody in The Times wrote the best defence of the Rhodes memorial I’ve read:
If the Rhodes statue must be a symbol, then let it be a symbol of our freedom to demur without hating; to criticise without silencing; to live in civil disagreement with our own history. It seems a bit thick that a boring effigy of a man you could very reasonably call a complete tool should become a monument to the established British tradition of not being a complete tool. But so be it. Rhodes must stand.
While Ian Dunt rightly reminded us not to conflate this latest student furore – an entirely legitimate debate about how we come to terms with our dubious past – with pathetic, infantilising attempts by student unions to close down debate through no-platforming controversial speakers:
The Cecil Rhodes statue does not have a voice. It is not talking. It cannot shut up any more than it already is. The petition calling for its removal does not demand that those who hold racist views or believe in colonialism should be censored. It is, admittedly, full of the usual rhetorical devices of the student censorship movement, including the insistence that the university is a “home” rather than a place of learning and a systematic misuse of the word “violence”. But the issue itself, whether the statue should be removed, is not a free speech issue. The only free speech issue which would arise is if those supporting “Rhodes Must Fall” are silenced from what is a perfectly valid debate.
4. Of course if Rhodes is pulled down, clean-up efforts won’t stop there. Just as US students at Princeton have turned their attention to the segregationist views of Woodrow Wilson, why wouldn’t British students question Winston Churchill’s racist attitudes and culpability for the Bengal famine? Once we put history in the dock, we won’t be short of blokes with dodgy pasts to put on trial.
5. My personal view is that there are far more important, useful ways of trying to make amends for our past than to debate bits of carved masonry. But, I’m aware (and many opposing Rhodes Must Fall would do well to imagine themselves into the protesters’ shoes for a moment) that is easy for me to say.
by Stephen Tall on January 20, 2016
The release yesterday by Labour of Margaret Beckett’s report into her party’s election defeat reminds me to post here my article – published in the Journal of Liberal History’s special autumn issue, Coalition and the Liberal Democrats – looking at my party’s experiences.
At 10pm on 7 May, 2015, Lib Dems experienced our very own ‘JFK moment’ – we all remember where we were – when the BBC exit poll was released showing the party scythed down from 57 to just 10 MPs.
Some, like our campaign chair Paddy Ashdown, refused to admit the possibility, famously promising David Dimblelby that, if it were accurate, “I will publicly eat my hat on your programme”. Many more of us had an instant sinking feeling in our guts, recalling how accurately the 2010 poll had predicted the Lib Dems were destined to lose more seats than at any election since 1970.
If anything, the psephologists were over-optimistic this time: in forecasting the party would reach double figures, they inflated our result by 25 per cent.
No-one – not even the most pessimistic, coalition-hating, Clegg-allergic, Orange Book-phobic Lib Dem – had thought it would be that bad. The rout of all but one of our Scottish MPs by the SNP wasn’t entirely unexpected. Nor was the loss of our urban English seats where Labour was the challenger.
What was quite stunning – utterly, compellingly, breathtakingly unforeseen – was the scale of our defeat at the hands of our Conservative coalition partners in the suburbs and rural areas we had thought were our fortresses. None of us had seen that coming.
Thinking I could detect some kind of 1992-style Tory bounce-back in the final few days of the campaign, I got in touch with a top Lib Dem strategist to ask, “should we be worried that Cameron’s schedule is targeting so many Lib Dem-held seats? Do they actually sniff 300+ seats?” No, I was assured, the Conservatives were “wasting their time in Twickenham and Yeovil”. Tell that to Vince Cable and David Laws.
In one top Lib Dem target, where the party ended up finishing third, I was told by a highly experienced activist that “our canvassing goes back years. I thought it was robust. I still do. There were absolutely no signs of this, not even on the ground today.”
So how did it happen? What caused the most disastrous election result for the Lib Dems since… well, pretty much since records began?
The answer is almost too obvious: our decision to enter into a coalition government with the Conservatives during the most severe economic downturn in a century.
However, it’s worth taking a step back to make another obvious point, but one which is now often forgotten: the Lib Dems hadn’t expected to be in government in 2010.
The widespread assumption had been (from the moment Gordon Brown flunked ‘the election that never was’ in October 2007) that David Cameron’s Conservatives would triumph. In April 2010, the Independent on Sunday asked eight pollsters to predict the result: all eight forecast an overall Conservative majority. The Lib Dems were widely seen to be on the defensive against this blue tide; after all, the Tories were the nearest challengers in most of the party’s held seats.
Then, two things happened. First, the global financial crisis rocked the domestic political scene. Cameron’s flimsy platform of compassionate Conservatism – that through “sharing the proceeds of future growth” it was possible both to cut taxes and protect public services – collapsed, and his party retreated to its right-wing, austerity comfort zone. The public looked on, nervously, at the thought of the untested Cameron and his even younger shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, taking the helm at this moment of crisis. The Tories’ poll lead narrowed.
And secondly, the first ever televised leaders’ debate between the three main party leaders took place, with the fresh-faced Clegg besting both Cameron and Gordon Brown. The Lib Dem poll surge it sparked proved to be phosphorescently flashy and brief. But even the small ratings boost probably helped deprive the Conservatives of the majority they had expected to be theirs, as well as saving a clutch of Lib Dem seats – eight MPs won with majorities of less than 5 per cent over their Tory challenger – that might otherwise have been lost.
It’s intriguing to pose the counter-factual: what if the Conservatives had edged a victory in May 2010 and the Coalition had never been formed?
Cameron would have had to have tried to keep his rebellious backbenchers in check without the assistance of the hefty majority the Lib Dem bloc of MPs afforded him. Chances are he would have struggled at least as badly as his predecessor Tory PM, John Major. Meanwhile Labour, denuded of the instant unity conferred by its misplaced outrage at the ‘ConDem’ coalition, might well have descended into Miliband v Miliband civil war. It would have been an ideal scenario for the Lib Dems, the perfect launch-pad for further gains from both parties.
True, an alternative reality based on nothing more than idle speculation – but the tantalising glimpse of what might have been is worth bearing in mind, not least because it’s what the Lib Dem leadership had planned for. One of Nick Clegg’s first decisions as party leader at the start of 2008 was to commission what became known as The Bones Report (after its author, Professor Chris Bones, a Lib Dem activist and management expert) “into how the Liberal Democrats’ internal organisation could be built upon to double our number of MPs over the next two general elections”. The implicit assumption was that the party would grow, rapidly but incrementally, for a further decade in opposition.
As it was, the party was faced on 7 May, 2010, with the Hobson’s choice of doing a deal with the Tories. This was the only option available for which the numbers added up to more than the 323 MPs required for a bare majority, and so offered a period of stable government. The alternative, most of us assumed (I still think correctly), was a minority Tory administration forcing a second cut-and-run election within months and a resulting vicious squeeze on the Lib Dems.
However, few of us were under any illusions quite how dangerous a Lib/Con pact might be to the party’s electoral fortunes. As I wrote on the LibDemVoice website on the Saturday morning after the election:
“… many of our members, and even more of our supporters, would identify themselves as ‘progressives’, a vague term which can be reasonably translated as ‘anti-Tory’. There is a very real risk that by throwing in our lot with Cameron, or even just appearing to, those progressive voters will desert the Lib Dems in favour of Labour, and that may threaten many of the 57 Lib Dem seats we now hold.”
Despite these fears, though, it was a collective, almost unanimous, decision. No official count was taken at the special Birmingham conference on 16 May, 2010, which sealed the deal, but estimates in the hall, where some 1,500 Lib Dem members debated the formation of the Coalition, suggested only about 50 conference representatives voted against the motion endorsing the agreement: the rest of the hundreds eligible to vote were all in favour.
Initial enthusiasm was understandable. The Lib Dems had been out of government for close on a century, and the prospect of our policies, approved by our conference, being implemented in government by our ministers was a glistening one.
What is perhaps more remarkable is that even with the benefit of hindsight, it appears most of us would do it again. When LibDemVoice asked party members in May 2015, “Knowing all you know now, would you have still gone in to a coalition with the Conservatives back in 2010?”, 74 per cent said yes.
At first glance that enthusiasm appears odd, given we can date the Lib Dems’ election catastrophe to that point-of-no-return decision. For many members, though, it wasn’t the signing of the Coalition deal which signed the party’s death warrant; it was our actions within the Coalition.
This debate matters because it has big implications for whether the party should consider coalition again. Is there something intrinsic about being a junior party in a Westminster coalition which means you’ve lost before you’ve started? Or is your fate in your own hands – is it possible to make a success of it, if handled well?
The biggest single plummet in Lib Dem vote share occurred in those first six months. Entering into the Coalition with the Conservatives was a toxic act for many 2010 Lib Dem voters, and our rating plunged from 23 per cent in May, to 13 per cent by the end of the year. The tuition fees U-turn coincided with this, though didn’t in itself precipitate the collapse. It did, however, do longer term reputational damage to the party (and, of course, to Nick Clegg, whose infamous 2010 pledge to the NUS to oppose any increase spectacularly backfired).
What followed was a long-drawn-out decline. This was the period in which the party found itself out-numbered by the Conservatives in government, out-oppositioned by Labour on the centre-left, and out-flanked by anti-establishment parties untainted by government office with more strikingly populist messages: Ukip’s anti-immigration dog-whistle, the SNP’s pro-nationalism placebo, the Greens’ anti-austerity posturing.
Quite simply, we disappeared from view, becoming seen as an irrelevance as our support dwindled: a vicious spiral. By the time of the 2015 general election, and our doomed attempt to fight a first-past-the-post election on the basis of being everyone’s second favourite party, we had been ruthlessly squeezed down to just eight per cent.
Was it worth it? Let’s look at the profit-and-loss account, the debits and credits of our 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.
Was there anything the party could have done to staunch the losses we suffered in May 2015? I’m doubtful. We were, I believe, destined for heavy defeat the moment we joined the coalition.
Too Tory for our progressive voters, not Tory enough for our small-c conservative voters. The voters who remained – pragmatic, rational liberals (many of whom have since swelled the ranks of the party as new members) – are too thinly-spread to win us many seats.
Maybe it would be different under proportional representation (our eight per cent of the vote would yield us around 50 MPs), but first-past-the-post is what the voters chose in 2011. And for as long as we have it, a third party looking to be the moderating force will get flattened by the inevitable pincer movement. Even our MPs’ much-vaunted local incumbency isn’t, it turns out, a magic wand.
The party’s campaign itself has been much-criticised, in particular for Nick Clegg’s mantra that the purpose of the Lib Dems was to “bring a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one”.
This kind of split-the-difference positioning was unloved by activists – who labelled it defensive and unambitious – yet it was the only realistic option available. I call it an option, but it wasn’t, not really. It was thrust on us by the voters when they popped the ‘Cleggmania’ balloon in May 2010 and then torpedoed electoral reform by rejecting the Alternative Vote a year later.
Those who denounced the strategy of liberal centrism were hiding from the truth that the party’s only route into government was in coalition with one of the two main parties, either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour.
That inevitably meant compromise, pegging the Lib Dems as the party of moderate, fair-minded pragmatism. We may not have wanted to place ourselves in the centre, but that’s precisely where our circumstances put us. We had no choice but to make a virtue from necessity.
An appeal to radical liberalism – land value tax, proportional representation, a Citizen’s Income! – would merely have invited derision given our necessarily constrained record in Coalition, and that we would have been unable to explain how such manifesto promises could plausibly be delivered.
Ultimately, the 2015 general election simply wasn’t about us. It was not a change election, but a fear election. The spectre of Prime Minister Miliband in hock to the SNP appears to have spooked enough voters into putting to one side their doubts about the Conservatives, to hold onto nurse for fear of something worse.
Former Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne was surely right when he said: “If the Coalition was on the ballot paper, it would win in May”. But it wasn’t, so the only logical choice for those voters anxious to avoid a change of government was to vote Conservative.
On completing the coalition negotiations in 2010, William Hague is said to have told his wife, Ffion: “I think I’ve just killed the Liberal Democrats.”
Well, perhaps. After all, we were just 24,968 votes – the combined majorities of the eight rump Lib Dem MPs – away from being wiped out. And, assuming the Tories now move to implement the long-overdue constituency boundary reforms (blocked by the Lib Dems in 2012 in retaliation for the Tories kaiboshing House of Lords reform), our notional number of seats is a mere four.
Just because we feel we’ve hit rock bottom doesn’t automatically guarantee things will now get better.
But we have 18,000 new party members and we have a new leader, Tim Farron. Which other political force in the next five years will be making the case for being pro-immigration and pro-Europe, for reforming our drugs laws and our political system, for championing civil liberties and the environment, and for opposing inheritance-tax cuts which benefit only the wealthiest and tax-credits cuts which hurt the working poor?
For five years the Lib Dems were the opposition to the Conservatives within the Coalition. Now that’s done, and with Labour clueless about how to respond to their defeat, it looks like the Lib Dems will be the only effective national opposition to the Conservatives in this parliament as well.
We’re not dead yet.
by Stephen Tall on January 15, 2016
I’d been half-intending to do it for a couple of weeks, putting it off because I didn’t want it to seem like a New Year’s resolution (which, actually, it was) as I don’t make New Year’s resolutions (I do, really).
Next day, I did something else. I added a website-blocker extension to the Chrome browser on my work computer to stop myself reading Twitter there.
I targeted Twitter as it’s the website I can most easily accidentally spend too long grazing on when I should and could be doing more useful things.
I still have Twitter on my tablet and home laptop. And I can still post to Twitter from my phone and work PC (either from Buffer or Instagram) if I want to. But it now has to be a conscious decision to log-in and scroll down and check my notifications and start sparring.
Five days in, the cold turkey’s less bad than I thought it might be. True, I’m missing out on the shiny-shiny of the latest LOLtastic memes on my daily commute and at lunch-time.
But I’m reading more articles via Feedly and Pocket. I’m tucking into my weekly Economist magazine. Occasionally I manage to read a book. I’m catching up on lots of good TV (War and Peace, Deutschland 83, Dickensian).
More importantly, I’m getting a bit of perspective when Twitter goes silly.
Like when the Corbynistas went beserk at Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, for getting Stephen Doughty to resign live on air. Or like yesterday when the humourless on Twitter weirdly decided that Charlie Hebdo was racist for publishing a savage but bang-on cartoon satirising nationalists’ stereotyping of immigrants.
Previously, I’d probably have ended up descending into the Twitter-mire, wasting time and energy duelling with people I’ll never even meet. Or else, I’d have kept my head down, reckoning it wasn’t worth the hassle getting involved. And then getting frustrated with myself at such cowardice.
Instead, when I did read about the furore I just thought “Tsk, don’t folk on Twitter get upset easily.”
by Stephen Tall on January 14, 2016
There’s a really good article today by Helen Lewis in the Guardian with the straightforward headline: Yes, there is one great contribution men can make to feminism: pick up a mop.
She quotes an IPPR report to summarise the practicalities of her argument:
“On most key issues, the route to modern feminist goals must pass through fathers. Men should work more flexibly, take greater responsibility for caring for their children and their homes, and have the right to reserved parental leave.”
This hit home today for two reasons.
The first is my partner, who’s been on maternity leave for the past year, has returned to work today. I say returned, but actually she has a new job, her previous employer having been unwilling to offer her flexible working hours. Many of her mum friends have encountered similar problems. It’s not male bosses that’s the problem (mostly in these cases they’re women); rather, it’s a system which assumes flexibility means unreliability.
The second is that I’ve just started a new commute with new working hours, my employer thankfully being an enlightened one that recognises my productivity is not solely a function of 9-5 office-presenteeism. This means I can share the nursery runs and do my bit. Had they not been willing to, the load would almost certainly have fallen back on my partner, and I’d have become yet another shrugging-my-shoulders-“what-can-yer-do” kind of bloke whose life is free to continue as before.
I don’t count myself a feminist, not least for fear of turning into one of those men who uses the statement as a bragging right. But I have always taken equality seriously. And I have become more acutely aware over the past year quite how tilted in my sex’s favour are the rules of life.
One of the reasons the annual argument about the gender pay gap irritates me is that it rarely seems to address the real problem: our attitudes to work once employees become parents/carers.
I’m sure there are still companies and bosses who, consciously or not, discriminate against female employees. In fact, I know first-hand that there are. But the fact that women in their 20s earn more than their male peers suggests the bigger problem here is the so-called “mummy penalty” – as women are the primary child-caregivers, they are the ones who usually end up sacrificing their careers and therefore their pay, either in part or in whole.
If that is a free choice, there’s no problem. But if the woman feels she has no real option, then it is a problem. What it shouldn’t be is her problem alone. Men should be asking to work flexibly to ensure we are properly sharing domestic responsibilities (and not just the tokenistic daddy day-care) – the more of us do it, the more normal it will become.
Of course, we actually have to want to do it, rather than find work is a convenient excuse to stick to our comfortable routine. True, “men should work more flexibly and take greater responsibility for caring for their children and their homes.” The real question is how we turn should into agree we will.
by Stephen Tall on January 7, 2016
This year’s in/out Euro referendum (it almost certainly will be this year) poses an interesting dilemma for the Lib Dems.
Not which side the party backs — the overwhelming majority are pro-EU, though by no means as uncritically as we sometimes appear.
But we do need to think through if our role is to mobilise Lib Dem voters to turn out by running a campaign that appeals to pro-EU liberals; or whether we think our role is to reach out beyond our comfort zone to the persuadables, the floating voters, who have yet to decide how to cast their vote (and probably haven’t given it more than a second’s thought yet).
There’s an argument for either approach.
David Howarth and Mark Pack have set out the case for the Lib Dems’ needing to build up a core vote after last May’s massacre. And one of the easiest predictors of whether someone is open to voting for the party is their degree of support for the UK’s membership of the European Union. Indeed, the 19% which say they are certain to vote ‘Remain’ sounds pretty similar to the 1-in-5 voters the party’s pre-election internal polling suggested would still consider voting Lib Dem. Pitching the Lib Dems as the ‘Party of In’, to coin a phrase, has the chance of being distinctive and resonating with that 19%, maximising referendum turn-out and perhaps boosting the party’s current anaemic ratings.
But such pro-EU zeal comes with a significant risk (as we found out at the 2014 Euro elections). The Lib Dems could easily become pigeon-holed as uncritical Europhiles too starry-eyed to stick up for British interests. The contrast with David Cameron, also almost certain to campaign for ‘Remain’ but (unlike the Lib Dems) able to point to tangible concessions extracted from his ‘tough’ negotiations, will do more for him than us. Bluntly, being the most pro-EU might shore up our support among the 8% of Lib Dem voters but put a ceiling on breaking through, say, 12% any time soon.
However, if the Lib Dems want to reach beyond the core pro-EUers, there’s a different challenge the party will face: we’re going to have to learn to talk about our pro-Europeanism in a very different way than we normally do. To persuade, not to proselytize.
Some suggestions about how we can do just that are contained in British Future’s latest excellent publication, How (not) to talk about Europe. As its authors Sunder Katwala and Steve Ballinger note:
The ‘In’ side has no end of questions to ask about whether the sums add up, with its facts and figures about the economy and trade, with statistics about the net contribution of migrants and warnings about the economic risks of exit. That case for ‘In’ will do well enough for most Liberal Democrats and carry a clear majority of graduates in all of the big cities. It will hold on to anybody who is already certain to vote to stay in. The problem is that the pro-EU camp is struggling to be heard by anybody who doesn’t already agree.
Their advice includes ensuring pro-Europeans have positive things to say about English identity (not just British identity) and how it makes sense in terms of our national history to remain within the EU — and certainly not to repeat Nick Clegg’s mistake of declaring that we should want to be ‘Great Britain, not Little England’.
Katwala and Ballinger are also clear that we should not duck the issue of immigration, but also not just gloss over it by claiming net migration is always and everywhere a success. We need to have practical solutions, such as creating 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. Nor, they say, should we shy away from setting a civic norm and expectation that “everyone in Britain for a year or more should know English, or be learning it” – after all, how else do we hope they can become fully engaged citizens?
Such ideas will chafe with some Lib Dems. But that’s the nature of politics, of finding an accommodation that can persuade a majority inevitably including many sceptical non-liberals. As the authors note:
Winning standing ovations from one’s own supporters can be distracting, intoxicating even. The problem is that from the stage, you fail to notice that only the front row is clapping. Further back, people are shuffling in their seats and checking their phones. Twice as many people think ‘In’ campaigners are out of touch with ordinary people than think they understand their concerns.
Preaching only to the converted. Seeming out-of-touch with ordinary people’s concerns. This time we’re talking about the EU, but the metaphor has wider relevance — not only to Corbynite Labour, but also to Tim Farron’s Lib Dems.