How you can take part in LibDemVoice’s exclusive party member surveys

by Stephen Tall on October 19, 2014

libdemvoiceLibDemVoice’s surveys of party members signed-up to our discussion forum have been running for over six years now. (I posted yesterday the final set of figures from our most recent poll.)

Our surveys are a way of testing members’ views on a variety of hot topics. And as they’ve been running throughout the four-and-a-half years of the Coalition they’re also an interesting record of changing views on how the Coalition is regarded within the party.

If you would like to take part in the LibDemVoice surveys, there are simply two steps you need to follow:
1) Be a current Lib Dem member, and
2) Sign up to LibDemVoice’s members’ forum.
You will then be emailed a unique link to our next survey enabling you to offer your verdict on a range of current matters.

I have compiled a Google spreadsheet summarising the results from our Coalition tracker — together with the satisfaction ratings for Lib Dem ministers and other leading party figures — which you can view here.

The full archive of our members’ surveys as published on the site can be viewed here.

Both my former LDV Co-Editor Mark Pack (here) and polling expert Anthony Wells (here) have assessed the reliability and credibility of our LibDemVoice surveys — for those with doubts about them (or indeed those who think they’re 100% to be trusted always) they’re well worth reading.

We hope you find the surveys interesting — certainly political journalists are interested in what our members have to say! And, as ever, if you have ideas or suggestions for topics and/or questions you would like to see included please do get in touch: stephen@libdemvoice.org.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

10 Years on from The Orange Book: What should authentic liberalism look like?

by Stephen Tall on October 19, 2014

Orange_Book“10 Years on from The Orange Book: what should authentic liberalism look like?” That was the title of a Lib Dem conference fringe meeting in Glasgow, organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), at which I was speaking alongside MPs Tim Farron and Jeremy Browne, Orange Book co-editor Paul Marshall, the IEA’s Ryan Bourne and ComRes pollster Tom Mludzinski. Here’s what I said…

I often describe myself as an Orange Booker. Like most labels it’s a short-hand. To me it simply means I’m a Lib Dem at ease with the role of a competitive market and who believes also in social justice. To many others in our party, though, Orange Booker is a term of abuse – Orange Bookers are thrusting, smart-suited, neoliberal Thatcherities, never happier than when mixing with red-blooded free-marketeers like the IEA.

What I want to do briefly is make a pitch for something that’s become quite unpopular among the party ranks: I’m going to make a pitch that the Lib Dems should be a party that’s unabashedly of the liberal centre.

Yes, I used the c-word: centre. Centrism brings out some liberals in a rash, among those who see it as nothing more than a soggy, split-the-difference mush of vague intentions. It can be that, of course. But it doesn’t have to be. The liberal centre can be a principled place. It is also a brave place – as Janan Ganesh put it recently in the Financial Times: “Centrism is despised as effete, but it takes steel to leave your ideological comfort zone”.

It also happens to be the only place from which the Lib Dems can fight the next election and thrive as a party.

But before I explain why that is I want to reassure you of my core liberalism. If I were that oxymoronic thing for a day – a liberal dictator – I would pass 10 general laws as follows (I’d flesh the details out afterwards):

1. I’d shift taxation away from earned income and towards wealth and property, including through a land value tax, as well as pollution;

2. I’d abolish any form of net migration target and welcome wholeheartedly those who choose to work here as fellow citizens;

3. I’d eliminate any protectionist taxes and tariffs, including the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which stifle free trade and discriminate against developing countries;

4. I’d devolve powers over budgets and policy for key services from Westminster to national parliaments, assemblies and local councils;

5. I’d scrap the Barnett Formula and ensure public spending was allocated on the basis of citizens’ need not a 1970s’ patching job designed to prop up the Callaghan government;

6. I’d introduce a Citizen’s Income, guaranteeing an above-poverty level of income to people who have no earnings from work at all;

7. I’d ensure local residents were properly compensated for new housing developments to break the logjam which pits housing need against understandable NIMBY opposition and prices young people out of the market;

8. I’d strip private schools of their charitable status so they could market their social cachet as the commodity it is without being subsidised by the state;

9. I’d legalise drugs and prostitution;

10. I’d bring in a Bill of Rights that enshrined civil liberties protections for individuals from an intrusive state – yes to the ECHR, no to the Snoopers’ Charter;

11. Oh, and no regulation of the press or Internet either;

12. And of course I’d bring in a written constitution, electoral reform, an elected second chamber, a disestablished church – oh and abolish the monarchy in favour of a republic as well.

(You might have noticed that’s 12, not 10, by the way: always under-promise and over-deliver.)

You won’t agree with them all, of course not. But those dozen measures are what I’d call authentically liberal. My kind of liberalism, anyway, which is what most people actually mean by authentic liberalism.

So that’s my authentically liberal policy platform. Now, who’s going to offer to write me the Focus leaflet setting all that out which will get me elected? Anyone? [No-one offered.]

And that’s my point. We have to accept that one of the reasons we Liberals are such good friends to minority causes is because we are one. Individually, I’d probably lose an election on the basis of any one of those policies. Taken collectively as a manifesto it’d probably even lose us Orkney, our safest seat.

So authentic liberalism is all very well, but we aren’t only Liberals – we are also Democrats. That means we need to recognise the majority will of the people. And if we want to move towards the Promised Land of milk and honey we may need to make do with semi-skimmed and marge from Lidl before we get there.

That’s where the Liberal centre comes in.

Yes, the Lib Dems should campaign as a liberal party with distinctively liberal policies: it’s what we’re here for and it’s what the voters have the right to expect of us.

However, I assume none of us is under the illusion we’ll win an outright majority next May? Which means we won’t get to implement any of those liberal policies unless we cooperate with either Labour or the Tories in government after 2015. And in that circumstance we’ll have to accept some of their illiberal policies we don’t much like, they’ll accept some of our liberal policies they don’t much like, and on the rest we’ll work out some kind of compromise. Sound familiar? It should do: that’s the last four-and-a-half years.

Let me put it like this: if Lib Dem members really want to remain in government after May 2015 then we will have to do a deal next time with either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour. We may not place ourselves in the centre, but our circumstances do.

It’s no coincidence that the areas where the Lib Dems have achieved greatest success in this Coalition — raising the personal allowance, the Pupil Premium, same-sex marriage — have been areas that are mainstream, centrist. To put it another way: they are popular with enough people to stand a chance of making it into legislation.

And that’s what makes being a minority party such a challenge. We have constantly to set out our liberal vision, to remind ourselves of the authentic philosophy which makes us distinctive. And then we have to work out how to translate that into practical ideas that not only get approved by our conference here, but also have a cat-in-hell’s chance of Labour or the Tories living with them too.

There’s sometimes a temptation in our party to wish for ideological purity. Orange Bookers wishing themselves rid of the social liberals, social liberals wanting the Orange Bookers to go privatise themselves. And yes there’s comfort to be had in being surrounded by people we agree with, wrapping our confirmation bias around each other. But you know what? I’m glad we have MPs like Tim Farron and Jeremy Browne, each representing different wings of the party, offering different — but, in their own ways, just as authentic — liberal visions.

The tension within the Lib Dems (when we keep it civil) is a healthy one. The Orange Bookers were quite right to sound a warning 10 years ago that too much Lib Dem thinking had grown flabby, that our answer to every public service problem was simply to say spend more money and hire more staff, to try and out-Labour Labour.

But I’ll tell you something else. I wish we’d listened as hard to the social liberals who warned, rightly, that the Bedroom Tax was a harsh and senseless way to cut the welfare bill and free up social housing.

We might sometimes be all too obviously two ill-fitting parties in one, a smart jacket combined with scruffy trousers pretending to be a suit. But we need the authenticity of both economic and social liberals within the Lib Dems: we are ourselves a coalition which is, how best to put it?, Better Together.

If you want to get a flavour of what was said by others, the meeting was covered by the New Statesman‘s Anoosh Chakelian and also by Lib Dem blogger Alex Marsh.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Economic liberals or social liberals? Pragmatists or ideologues? How Lib Dem members describe their own political identity

by Stephen Tall on October 18, 2014

Lib Dem Voice has polled our members-only forum  to discover what Lib Dem members think of various political issues, the Coalition, and the performance of key party figures. Almost 600 party members responded to this set of questions – thank you – in a supplementary poll ran just before the party conference.

How do Lib Dem members think of their own political identity? I asked this question in April 2011, when the Coalition was less than a year old. With less than a year of the Coalition left, I thought it was time to revisit it.

60% social liberals, 29% economic liberals; 64% pragmatists, 16% ideologues

We asked… Please tick any or all of the descriptions below that you would be happy for someone else to use to describe you: (Comparisons with April 2011 in brackets.)

    90% (+3) – Liberal
    73% (+13) – Internationalist
    72% (+7) – Progressive
    64% (+9) – Pragmatic
    60% (-4) – Social liberal
    59% (+7) – Reformer
    49% (+4) – Centre-left
    45% (+1) – Civil libertarian
    47% (+3) – Radical
    47% (+6) – Green
    34% (=) – Social democrat
    33% (=) – Moderate
    33% (+3) – Moderniser
    30% (+5) – Keynesian
    29% (-6) – Economic liberal
    25% (-2) – Centrist
    16% (-4) – Ideological
    15% (-6) – Libertarian
    13% (-1) – Free marketeer
    10% (+1) – Centre-right
    9% (-7) – Mainstream
    1% – None of these
    0% – Don’t know

This is the kind of debate which can to easily become bogged-down in semantics, with some phrases (eg, economic liberalism, social democrat) loaded with historical baggage not always inferred by those using the descriptors of themselves. Nonetheless, there are some interesting findings here.

First, let’s look at the two terms with greatest currency at the moment to describe the different ‘left/right’ wings of the party. Six-in-10 Lib Dem members identify themselves as ‘social liberals’ (‘left’), twice as many as the 29% who self-identify as ‘economic liberals’ (‘right’) — though, interestingly, both labels have declined a little in popularity since 2011. However, centre-left (49%) is a much more popular self-descriptor than centre-right (10%).

What there’s no evidence for in this survey is the party membership ‘lurching to the right’, as is sometimes commonly assumed must have happened during the course of this parliament as Lib Dem membership declined by one-third. As we didn’t ask the question before the Coalition was formed, it’s impossible to know what an equivalent survey in 2009 would have shown (and of course our surveys are self-selecting, not a random sample). But it’s certainly not obvious looking at this data that the notion all those members who’ve left in the past four years were from the party’s liberal-left is sustainable. If that had been the case then you’d expect to see the proportions swing away from ‘social liberal’ towards ‘economic liberal’, but they don’t.

The biggest increase in self-identification is with being ‘internationalist’, up from 60% in 2011 to 73% today. That’s not surprising, and presumably is a reaction against the rise of Ukip and the prominence attached to anti-European / anti-immigration views in particular in the right-wing newspapers (ie, almost all mass market newspapers). Also increased significantly is identification with being ‘pragmatic’ — up from 55% to 64% — a sign perhaps that members are increasingly comfortable with the modus operandi of being in coalition.

And (as I mused in 2011) interesting to ponder what such a survey of the party 27 years ago, when we were the SDP/Liberal Alliance, would have shown: my guess is fewer than 90% of party members would have been happy to call themselves ‘liberal’, and more than 34% would have self-identified as ‘social democrat’. That latter descriptor appears to have more or less replaced by the term, ‘progressive’, which 72% of members willingly ascribe to themselves.

We then asked: How would you describe your own politics?

Almost 500 of you responded with your own free text description. Here’s the collective Wordle of how Lib Dem members describe ourselves:

ldv wordle identity

  • 1,500+ Lib Dem paid-up party members are registered with LibDemVoice.org. 586 completed the latest survey, which was conducted on 2nd and 3rd October.
  • Please note: we make no claims that the survey is fully representative of the Lib Dem membership as a whole. However, LibDemVoice.org’s surveys are the largest independent samples of the views of Lib Dem members across the country, and have in the past offered accurate guides to what party members think.
  • For further information on the reliability/credibility of our surveys, please refer to FAQs: Are the Liberal Democrat Voice surveys of party members accurate? and polling expert Anthony Wells’ verdict, On that poll of Lib Dem members.
  • The full archive of our members’ surveys can be viewed at www.libdemvoice.org/category/ldv-members-poll
  • * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 7

    by Stephen Tall on October 18, 2014

    Congratulations to George Murray and Jon Featonby, who lead the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 7, with 421 and 419 points respectively. They’ve opened a bit of a gap at the top — but just 18 points separate the next 8 places.

    LDV FANTASY FOOTBALL_7

    There are 149 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    Danny Alexander, not Vince Cable, designated Lib Dem shadow chancellor (oh, and no Lib Dem reshuffle)

    by Stephen Tall on October 18, 2014

    speech danny alexander 6The Guardian’s Nick Watt reports today the long-trailed announcement that Danny Alexander, Lib Dem chief secretary to the treasury, will take on the role of the party’s shadow chancellor at the 2015 election:

    Nick Clegg has decided that Alexander, his closest ally in the cabinet, will be the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman during the campaign and will face George Osborne and Ed Balls in any television debates on the economy. … The Lib Dems insisted that the election roles for Alexander and Cable were consistent with their cabinet roles. A Lib Dem spokesman said: “We are enormously fortunate to have two talented and well-known ministers on economic matters that are recognised and respected by the public. By the next election Danny Alexander and Vince Cable will have both served for five years as chief secretary and business secretary respectively, so they know their areas inside out. It therefore makes complete sense that they should continue in those roles during the election.”

    I’ve made no secret of my view on this: there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Vince Cable should have continued in the role he held in 2010 as the party’s shadow chancellor. He is, quite simply, head and shoulders above any of his colleagues when it comes not only to understanding the British economy, but, just as crucially, explaining it in a way that is both credible and distinct from the Tories.

    When we polled Lib Dem members last month on who they wanted to lead for the party on economic policy the answer was overwhelming: by 65% to 24% they preferred Vince to Danny. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the real reason Nick has passed over Vince is because they don’t get on, rather than what should be the most important reason: what’s best for the party. Badly done, Nick.

    Elsewhere in Nick Watt’s article, there’s confirmation of what I’d previously reported here — that there will be no Lib Dem ministerial reshuffle:

    The Lib Dems announced the election posts as the party confirmed that Clegg had decided against a reshuffle of ministers before the election. There had been speculation that Jo Swinson, the business minister, would replace Alistair Carmichael as Scotland secretary, making her the Lib Dems’ first female cabinet minister. But Clegg, who has a high regard for Carmichael’s energetic role in the Scottish referendum campaign, believes it would be unwise to make changes while the Lib Dems work to ensure that the vow to devolve further powers to Scotland is honoured. “Alistair helped to support a phenomenal referendum campaign,” one source said.

    It’s an understandable decision in some ways. The best time to promote Jo (and there’s no doubt she deserves to be in the cabinet on merit) would have been a year ago, when Nick reshuffled his ministerial team. That would have given her 18 months in post, time to achieve something in office. However, she was just about to go on maternity leave. Promoting Jo now would mean she has just six months in post at a time when she’ll want to focus all her political energy on retaining her marginal East Dunbartonshire constituency.

    But the decision not to reshuffle does mean the Lib Dems will have gone an entire five years in government without a single one of our female MPs becoming a cabinet minister. That’s not a record in government of which we can be proud.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    My must-reads this week October 17, 2014

    by Stephen Tall on October 17, 2014

    Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention this week…

    Mori’s Sir Bob Worcester increases his forecast for Lib Dem seats in May 2015

    by Stephen Tall on October 16, 2014

    Sir-Robert-WorcesterYes, you read that headline right: founder of MORI, Sir Bob Worcester, increased his forecast of how many seats the Lib Dems would win in May 2015 when asked for a prediction at last week’s Lib Dem conference.

    I’ll be honest, though: I don’t think he meant to.

    Last year, you may recall he predicted the party would win 24 seats. I certainly remember: Bob Worcester forecasts Lib Dems to be reduced to 24 seats in 2015. I’ll run naked down Whitehall if that’s the result (17th Sept 2013). I further, erm, nailed my colours to the mast on the BBC’s Daily Politics: Lib Dem blogger pledge ‘to run naked down Whitehall’.

    I’ll be honest again. I’m a little less cock-sure than I was a year ago. But, still, I don’t think it will be as bad as 24. And neither, apparently, does Sir Bob now: this year he forecast the Lib Dems would win 25-30 seats. I was careful to make a note of it at the time:

    So it seems I (and the denizens of Whitehall) will be spared a sight none of us wish for next May: a disappointing poll.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    Does everyone want to live in London?

    by Stephen Tall on October 16, 2014

    20141016_161511_resizedThat was my deliberately provocative question asked at The Guardian / British Academy round-table on immigration I took part in last week at Lib Dem conference – reported in the paper here under the headline ‘A numbers game that does not add up’.

    One final – and telling – point came from Stephen Tall, co-editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

    He asked all the members of the panel to consider whether they were indeed representative and whether they could actually understand the views of other people, from different backgrounds and parts of the country.

    Tall said that there was always a danger at a “Guardian roundtable” at a Liberal Democrat conference, of the contributors all coming from the same viewpoint and not understanding the mentality of those who came from elsewhere.

    “There is a tendency for us to assume that everyone would want to live in London and have a metropolitan lifestyle; I am not sure they do,” he said.

    I am, of course, as pro-immigration as they come: not just the economic benefits, but also the principle of open borders. But I’m a minority (a not very visible one).

    The more uncomfortable cultural question is one I’ve been thinking about more since moving house last year. I left very multi-ethnic East Oxford, where I’d lived (very happily) for a decade and re-located to the monocultural Horsham in West Sussex – and I love it there. Working in London as a commuter – leaving the house at 6.30am, returning at 7pm or later – I’m really enjoying the semi-rural tranquility. I get my dose of raucous urban life during the day: I’m more than happy to escape it at night and the weekends.

    London is a powerhouse, an immense force for economic good, where children from low-income backgrounds are more likely to succeed than anywhere else in the country, where people of every different race and religion rub along together well, a cultural mecca. But I don’t want to live there, thanks. And I’m not alone.

    None of which means I’ve changed my pro-immigration mind. But it suggests those of us who do believe in open borders need to do a bit more than simply point out the economic benefits of the UK being such an attractive migrant destination.

    By the way, it’s well worth reading the contributions from the other participants at the table – including Vince Cable, Brian Paddick, Ros Lucas and Suzanne Fletcher – also available here.

    How should we share the gain and the pain in the next Parliament?

    by Stephen Tall on October 16, 2014

    resolutionfoundationThat was the question the Resolution Foundation posed at a Lib Dem conference fringe meeting in Glasgow last week. Some of what follows was inspired by (ie, copied from) IFS Director Paul Johnson’s excellent LibDemVoice article, Balancing the books: some unpalatable choices, published last week. Some of it I’ve previously rehearsed in my ConservativeHome column, Make no mistake, these are deep and meaningful cuts – and there’s more to come. Anyway, here’s what I said…

    “The gain and the pain.” I want to congratulate the Resolution Foundation on taking a glass half-full approach to the next five years. But I also want to challenge the premise of the question. Because – and I don’t want to be too depressing in what follows – I can see quite a lot of pain and I’m at a bit of a loss to see where the gain is likely to come from. Here’s why.

    Five years ago, the deficit (that is, the amount the Government spends in a year minus the amount it raises) reached £157 billion as a result of the deepest recession in a century. The deficit’s currently hovering at around £100bn. The Office of Budget Responsibility reckons some £70 billion of that deficit is structural (rather than cyclical) which means £70 billion of tax increases or spending cuts over the course of the next Parliament are needed if the next Government is going to balance the books.

    Now the Lib Dems are, I’m glad to say, doing the sensible thing. We’ve abandoned Plan A. Well, actually we abandoned it a couple of years ago when the economy spluttered to a halt. But now we’ve officially abandoned it. We’ve gone back to the future and reincarnated Gordon Brown’s golden rule – which means that under Lib Dem plans we’d eliminate the current structural deficit but give ourselves the freedom to borrow to invest. That gives us a lot more wiggle room than the Tories.

    By the way, the Tories have also abandoned Plan A: they don’t now only want to eliminate the deficit, they also want to generate a surplus. They also want to cut everyone’s taxes and protect spending on the NHS. I want to live in this Tory world where simply saying something can make it so. The reality is that – as the IFS has stated – these Tory plans would mean spending on public services would by the end of the next Parliament be at its lowest level since World War 2 as a proportion of national income. Utterly, utterly fantastical – but that’s not to say the voters won’t like it. After years of grim austerity maybe enough people will be up for some make-believe.

    But back to our Lib Dem wiggle room. It’s good we have it. It means less pain. But not no pain – there will still need to be cuts to public spending of around 2.4%. Doesn’t sound huge in the scheme of things compared to what’s come brefore, but don’t forget we’ve also got pay for our spending commitments too. Here’s a couple of questions then about the Lib Dem approach…

    Tax-cuts: One way in which the pain has been alleviated over the past four years is the party’s flagship policy, now the Tories’ flagship policy, to raise the personal allowance. We’re committed to going further, raising it to £12.5k in line with the minimum wage. Part of me cheers: it’s an excellent aim. Part of me groans: around 70% of the benefit is felt by the better-off half of tax-payers, not the lowest-paid. Question: wouldn’t it be better first to raise the level at which workers start to pay national insurance contributions, currently just under £8k?

    Young v Old – intergenerational justice: One group which has definitely gained over the last five years and will continue to gain are the retired. Spending on the state pension – as a result of the triple lock – will have increased by nearly 20% in real terms between 2010–11 and 2017–18. That’s even more expensive when you consider there will be two million more pensioners at the end of this decade than the start. The impact of the current cuts is to redistribute on a large scale to pensioners from some of the most vulnerable young people who rely on benefits. Is that right?

    Transparency: To quote the IFS again: “None of the parties has so far identified more than a fraction of the measures they would use to hit their deficit targets.” In fact when I read that it gave me a sense of deja vu. In April 2010, the IFS published its Election Briefing, highlighting that no party had yet set out anything like enough public spending cuts to meet their objectives of cutting the deficit. The Lib Dems had produced the most detailed measures, yet these totalled only 25 per cent of the cuts needed; the Tories had identified 17 per cent, and Labour just 13 per cent. The finding attracted little scrutiny, with the media fixated instead on the personality-fest of the televised leaders’ debates. Shouldn’t all the parties – including ours – level with the public about what awaits?

    Because there aren’t many options available. The reality is that after 2015 one of four things will have to happen. Either (1) big, additional cuts to spending on public services; (2) big cuts to social security; (3) delaying deficit reduction to postpone the problem; or (4) raising taxes – and not just on the rich because there simply aren’t enough of them.

    Most likely it’ll be a pick ‘n mix of all four. I think we should level with the voters about what that means. But which party’s prepared to go first?

    I was interested (and heartened) that my point we should be focusing any tax-cuts first on national insurance contributions (not further raising the personal allowance) got a spontaneous round of applause from the audience. The party has adjusted its tax-cutting position to include NICs, but only once the income tax threshold is raised to £12.5k (itself an expensive pledge). We should reverse that priority.

    I am aware, though, it’s easy for me – unelected, not standing for election – to pontificate that “we should level with the voters”. To give Nick Clegg his due, he did just that in his conference media interviews. Cue newspaper headlines such as “Clegg will send taxes soaring should Lib Dems be elected”. Compare that with the eulogistic coverage Cameron’s fantasy finance tax-cuts attracted and it’s hard to see where the incentive is for politicians looking to get elected actually to level with the voters.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    In praise of the retiring Jeremy Browne

    by Stephen Tall on October 15, 2014

    Jeremy Browne and I should, I guess, be ideological soul-mates. We both self-identify as Orange Bookers. We both believe in free and fair markets and that access to those markets are often the best way by which social injustice can be righted. We both want to see the Lib Dems self-confidently making the case for Britain as a proudly open and liberal nation.

    Yet when I read his book, Race Plan, I was, to be honest, a bit disappointed. Most of the policies put forward were notable more for being conventionally right-of-centre (for-profit schools, cutting social security and the top-rate of income tax) than radically liberal (no mention of shifting tax from income to wealth or decentralising power, for instance). And Jeremy’s passion for an active state – through massive infrastructure investment – is one area where I’m much more cautious (governments have a very bad Big Project track record: see The Blunders of our Governments for details).

    But – and it is a big but – here was a current Lib Dem MP actively thinking out loud. Whether I agree with the details of his policy ideas is largely beside the point. Parliament needs more intelligent MPs prepared to think and speak for themselves. It’s all too easy to opt for the quiet life of regurgitating the latest key lines supplied by Party HQ. Much harder to think through from first principles what you believe in and why, and to be prepared to argue for it.

    I spoke at a fringe meeting with Jeremy at last week’s Lib Dem conference. He seemed to be enjoying the freedom to make his case for what he termed “360-degree liberalism” (a name he openly admitted he hated). He looked relaxed and engaged, liberated even. I guess now we know why.

    There are a handful of Lib Dems – those who relish internecine warfare – who have openly welcomed Jeremy’s resignation. (I’ve even previously seen a Lib Dem peer openly express the hope he’d lose his seat: nice, eh?)

    Others, including some of his admirers, have regretted it but attacked him for its timing (just seven months from the election leaves the local party scant time to ensure his Lib Dem successor can bed in within the constituency).

    But standing as an MP is not like most other jobs. Most of us can quit and work out our notice and no-one will think twice. Standing for re-election, especially in an age of five-year, fixed-term parliaments, means committing yourself to the crazy you-must-be-mad life of an MP until 2020. Given Jeremy’s been working for the party more or less solidly since 1993, I think we should cut him some slack. If his heart’s not in it any more – and that’s not something you can carefully plan in advance – he has to do what’s right for him and his family. Nick Clegg’s ungraciously terse, luke-warm acknowledgement of Jeremy’s resignation could at least have acknowledged that.

    I might have ended up disagreeing with Jeremy more than I’d have expected, but I’m sorry he’s going. The Lib Dem parliamentary group will be weaker for his absence. Even those who’ve always felt (righteously, wrongly) that he should have joined the Tories might come to miss him more than they expect: internal debate is how you sharpen your arguments before you try them out on opponents much less sympathetic.



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