Liberal Hero of the Week #77: Press Gazette’s “Save Our Sources” campaign

by Stephen Tall on October 24, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

cf hero press gazette

Press Gazette’s “Save Our Sources” campaign

British media trade magazine
Reason: for campaigning to stop public authorities spying on journalists’ phone records

Earlier this month, I spoke for the first time from the floor of the Lib Dem conference to back an amendment proposed by Evan Harris to introduce a public interest defence to protect responsible journalism, ensuring greater protection for legally privileged and journalistic material from requests for telephone and other records.

Why? Well, the Press Gazette’s Save Our Sources campaign explains:

Without whistleblowers there is no investigative journalism.

That’s why the news that the Met Police secretly obtained the phone records of Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn and of calls to the Sun newsdesk should concern anyone who cares about journalism and high standards in public life.

The Met used the information to track down and sack three police constables accused of leaking information about the ‘Plebgate’ incident of September 2012 in which then Government chief whip Andrew Mitchell swore at a police officer outside 10 Downing Street. This was despite the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that no charges should be brought against the officers because a jury would judge that they acted in the public interest.

Last year public authorities made more than 500,000 requests for telecommunications data under RIPA.

Both the Met Police and the Association of Chief Police Officers have said that they believe it is lawful to target journalists in this way.

But this appears to drive a cart and horses through the overriding public interest which the European Court of Human Rights has placed on the protection of confidential journalistic sources under Article 10 (freedom of expression).

Put simply, if police and other public authorities can secretly obtain journalists’ phone records at will – why would any public sector whistleblower ever contact a journalist by telephone again?

This is seriously bad news for anyone who believes that scandals and corruption are best dealt with by being exposed.

That is bad news. Fortunately, there is also good news. For a start, Evan Harris’s amendment was passed. This week it was reported that the Lib Dems are now encouraging the other parties to consider backing a public interest defence as part of a more wide-ranging review of the sprawling RIPA powers. Let’s hope it happens. As I said a fortnight ago:

The best journalism, acting in the public interest, holding power to account, righting wrongs, preventing injustice: that journalism deserves our whole-hearted support. And so do those who confide in journalists despite the risks. Conference, liberals believe in challenging authority. This amendment gives protection to the underdogs challenging authority.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Alex Salmond to make Westminster comeback – threat to Lib Dem seat of Gordon?

by Stephen Tall on October 24, 2014

Alex Salmond - License Some rights reserved by Ewan McIntoshFormer Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has hinted he might make a comeback at Westminster, as the BBC reports:

Alex Salmond has said he has not made up his mind whether or not to stand for a Westminster seat at the next general election. The outgoing Scottish first minister was asked on the BBC’s Question Time programme if he would consider becoming an MP again. Mr Salmond said he had “absolutely decisively” not made up his mind, but agreed that the door was not closed.

Alex Salmond made his name at Westminster, as MP for Banff and Buchan for 23 years (1987-2010). However, two factors will be in his mind.

First, his personal standing in Scotland means that whichever seat he stands in the chances of the SNP winning will be much, much higher. We saw this in 2011, when Mr Salmond’s decision to stand for the Scottish parliament in Aberdeenshire East boosted the SNP ticket throughout the area — to the Lib Dems’ cost.

Secondly, the chances of the SNP making a breakthrough at Westminster on the back of Labour’s collapse in Scotland means the Nationalists could wield significant influence in the event of a second hung parliament. An SNP delegation of c.15+ MPs could end up being far more powerful than Nigel Farage’s Ukip.

So where might he stand? Here’s Glenn Campbell, BBC Scotland political correspondent:

When he announced his intention to stand down as party leader and first minister following the independence referendum he promised to “continue to offer to serve” as MSP for Aberdeenshire East. But that does not prevent him from running for Westminster too. A so-called “dual mandate” is allowed. Targetting the Gordon constituency which overlaps with his Holyrood seat is perhaps the most likely option. The SNP were the second-placed party there last time and the sitting Liberal Democrat MP, Sir Malcolm Bruce is standing down.

What would be bolder and riskier would be for him to seek the SNP nomination in a Glasgow or North Lanarkshire constituency. These are areas that traditionally vote Labour but backed independence in the referendum. If the nationalists are to make gains in west central Scotland they need to persuade ‘yes’ supporters from all parties and none to vote SNP.

In 2010, Gordon was held by Sir Malcolm Bruce by a majority over the SNP of 6,748 (14%). With Malcolm retiring, Christine Jardine has been selected to try and retain the seat. She’ll have a tough fight on her hands no matter what, but it’ll certainly be tougher still if Alex Salmond does decide to throw his hat into the ring.

* 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 24, 2014

by Stephen Tall on October 24, 2014

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

“It’s 8th May, 2015.” My scenario-question to the Lib Dem candidates for party president

by Stephen Tall on October 23, 2014

I’m genuinely undecided who to vote for in the election for Lib Dem party president. I know a little, not a lot, of each of the three candidates: Sal Brinton, Daisy Cooper and Liz Lynne.

At the hustings event I attended, there was little of substance to separate them, with the exception of all-women short-lists (Sal and Liz opposed; Daisy open to them), but in any case that isn’t a decision made by the party president.

Much of it, then, comes down to personality: who do I think will be best able to help guide the party through what is likely to be a shit-storm next year? Here’s the thing (or things)…

In the next 12 months, the Lib Dems are almost certain to have the worst general election result since 1970 (when we lost half our MPs); have to decide what we do in the event of a hung Parliament (if anything, and if we have a choice); and hold a leadership contest.

Oh, and start the process — hard if we’re in opposition, harder still if we remain in government — of re-building a party that, bar a few dozen far-flung outposts dotted around the country, has been scythed down. Oh, and also the minor matter, too, of learning the lessons of our first taste of government for a century.

During this time, the next party president will be the sole point of continuity for the Lib Dems (as I noted here). Nick Clegg probably won’t be leader this time next year. The deputy leader certainly won’t even be an MP this time next year (Malcolm Bruce is retiring) and nor will the chief whip (the ‘deputy deputy leader’, Don Foster, is also standing down).

I know liberals are constitutionally obliged to gripe about our leader, whoever it is. It’s in our DNA to hate being led. But we all need our boundaries, as Supernanny would say, to help us think in an orderly way and get along with the other children. For at least a time, it may be only the party president has the authority to set those limits for the Lib Dems.

That’s the cheerful backdrop to the scenario-question I’m asking all three candidates:

It’s 8th May, 2015. The Lib Dems have lost some MPs but are still a force to be reckoned with in the House of Commons. Nick Clegg announces he will step aside to let a new leader take over. No single party has an overall majority. What will you do in the next 7 days to maximise Lib Dem influence and keep the party united?

My guess is all three will be reluctant to be drawn by the premise of the question (Lib Dems losing MPs, Nick quitting). Fair enough, that’s how politics works. You’re not allowed publicly to think through the Plans B, C and D you need to be thinking through, or the media will tear you to shreds. So I’m not necessarily expecting their real answer.

The reason I’m asking it to them is simple. That scenario, above, is the most likely one to play out in six months’ time, and I really want them to be thinking now about how they handle it. Their response will likely determine not only the success of their time as party president, but also how the party handles it.

I’ll publish the replies here once I’ve received them or by 4th November (whichever is sooner).

The day Private Eye invited me to lunch

by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2014

I wrote my one and only letter to Private Eye when I was 17. They published it, and so I retired as a correspondent with a 100% success rate. It was about their coverage of John Smith’s death. I’m pretty sure I was accusing them of tastelessness and am absolutely sure it’s the kind of priggish letter only a teenager who reads Private Eye would send.

Two decades letter I got an invitation to attend a Private Eye lunch. If I had a bucket list that would probably have been on it. So I went. I’m not really sure why I was invited. I guess because The Times reckoned I’m the 33rd most influential Lib Dem (yeah there are 33 of us still haha lol) and the other 32 weren’t available. After all, it’s not like there’s ever any gossip or scandal attached to the Lib Dems they might want to know about…

As I was fiddling on my phone outside what I thought was the restaurant I saw Ian Hislop approach. “I’ve absolutely no idea who any of these people are,” I heard him say to a colleague as he walked past me, so I knew I was in the right place.

It was fun. There were a dozen of us. I was entertainingly hosted by Andy Murray (© Not that one) and Adam Macqueen from the Eye. Frances Wheen – whose biography of Tom Driberg I loved – was there, along with luminaries like David Mitchell, Tim Harford, Sadiq Khan and Vicky Pryce. I wish I could tell you juicy tittle-tattle gushed forth, but it didn’t (either from my lips or in my hearing). Sorry.

In my corner, we talked of: why some dictators are comedy figures (Hitler, Kim Jong Un) but not others (Stalin, Mao); which year the Guardian will go bust unless it comes up with a business model that values its own content; stealing jokes (“What’s the collective noun for comedians?” “A Plagiarism” — I nicked that by the way); the Daily Mail’s vendetta-campaigns… and a lot about poker and Vegas (a conversation I wussed out of).

I suspect I got more out of being there than they did (but maybe me thinking that’s the trick?). I find it slightly odd in those situations wearing a LibDemVoice hat. It’s assumed it’s a full-time thing rather than a part-time hobby. I pointed out our annual turnover’s about £1.5k: the currency we trade in is goodwill. I was introduced at one point as, “Here’s Stephen, he once wanted to be a Lib Dem MP” which, though accurate, won’t make the final cut as my epitaph.

Why I’m so over proportional representation

by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here yesterday. It was given the headline “British politics is more fragmented than ever” which is a more accurate reflection of what I said than my own click-bait version. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

It’s not playing out according to the script. Rewind to the start of the Coalition, Conservative and Labour strategists were both agreed on two things. On only one of them have they been proven correct.

First, they said the Lib Dems entering into coalition with the Conservatives would be electorally disastrous for Nick Clegg’s party. Fair do’s. Since the Coalition was formed my party’s lost 1,500 councillors, 11 of our 12 MEPs and about a third of our membership. I guess I’ll have to give that one to the strategists.

Secondly, they said that as the Lib Dems were crushed under foot, two-party politics would once again assert itself. To begin with it looked like those strategists might be annoyingly right once more. By spring 2012, the Conservative and Labour parties had bounced back from the 65 per cent they polled at the general election, and were regularly sharing 80 per cent of the vote between them. The duopoly had struck back! Politics could revert to its good ‘ole binary ways without those pesky Lib Dems interfering.

But then something happened: George Osborne’s disastrous March 2012 budget. The Granny Tax, Pasty Tax, Church Tax, Charities Tax… whichever way the Chancellor turned there was another interest group incensed at his decision to target them for revenue. Eventually he U-turned on it all, ‘getting the barnacles off the boat’ as Lynton Crosby pragmatically termed ditching unpopular measures which weren’t worth the electoral pain. But by then Tory support had taken a hit from which it hasn’t recovered, down from 37-40 per cent to the 30-33 per cent where it’s been stuck ever since.

And then something else happened: in May 2013, Ukip came from practically nowhere to win 22 per cent of the vote in the local elections, a feat of added significance given the seats up for grab had nothing to do with Europe. Their surge hit the Tory vote, down from 31 per cent to 25 per cent compared with the previous year’s local elections. But it hit the Labour vote harder, down from 38 per cent to just 29 per cent.

So it was that, just 14 months after the Conservative/Labour duopoly had appeared to be back on track, those two parties which have dominated post-war politics attracted just 60 per cent of the vote. Worse was to come, of course. Last May, less than half the electorate — just 47 per cent of those who voted — put their ‘X’ by either Labour’s red rose or the Conservatives’ tree-squiggle in the European elections.

Perhaps there are still some Conservative and Labour strategists who believe this five-year Coalition will yet prove to be the springboard for the two-party politics’ comeback they assumed it would be. Maybe those who campaigned so ardently against the Alternative Vote, for example?

I don’t want you to think, by the way, that as a Lib Dem I remain tortured with bitterness by the overwhelming rejection by the voters of electoral reform (even if it was AV, that “miserable little compromise” (© Nick Clegg)). Honestly, I’m not. You think I’m protesting too much? Consider this:

1) The Lib Dems now depend on first-past-the-post for our continuing significance. Chances are my party will win at least 30 seats next May thanks to the ‘incumbency factor’, the tenacious grip our MPs exert on their stamping grounds. By contrast, Ukip will struggle to win 5 seats even if they out-poll the Lib Dems. I tell you: I’m so over proportional representation.

2) If the Alternative Vote had passed, it’s hard to imagine the Lib Dems would have vetoed the re-drawing of constituency boundaries (even if House of Lords reform had been kicked into the long grass by Tory backbenchers). New constituencies would likely have destroyed much of the Lib Dems’ incumbency factor: our much-talked about wipeout would have been far more likely than it is, and not even AV would have saved us.

3) Much as Lib Dems rightly care about electoral reform (and much as far-sighted Tories should if they want to re-build their party in places where it’s long been extinct) it’s of minimal importance to the British public. The bruising AV defeat has forced the Lib Dems to stop banging on about it and to start focusing on the retail issues which voters do actually give a damn about.

It’s impossible for those of us who support electoral reform to suppress our grinning schadenfreude, as we now watch Conservatives panicked into considering a pact with Ukip and Labour similarly troubled by the rise of the Greens. If only there was some way in which voters could mark a first and second preference in the confidence that their vote would still count, eh?

You can tell what a funk the Conservative part is now in: it’s started listening to Ken Clarke again. At a private meeting of Tory backbenchers last week, according to James Forsyth, the former Chancellor warned his party against trying to out-Ukip Ukip by attempt to satisfy the public’s ‘insatiable appetite’ for action on immigration. Instead, he said, the Tories should concentrate on the economy. “A surprisingly large number of Tory MPs … feel that the old stager has a point. They worry that the leadership is losing sight of its own agenda and they complain that the party has said almost nothing in the past fortnight about the popular tax cuts it unveiled at its conference earlier this month.”

There’s no rocket science here: the tax-cuts for low-earners which the Lib Dems have made the centre-piece of this Coalition are, by some distance, the most popular policy achievement of this Government. And even though David Cameron branded them unaffordable in 2010, 26 per cent of voters credit the Conservatives with the policy. That irritates the hell out of my party (though 41 per cent do at least correctly credit the Lib Dems). And it irritated them even more when he promised in his conference speech to push the personal allowance still higher (long-standing Lib Dem policy) and was rewarded by immediately seeing the Conservatives over-take Labour in the polls. Thankfully, after this brief experiment in appealing to the mainstream the Conservatives have once again reverted to banging on about Europe, benefits and immigration again. You’ll never learn, it seems, for which your opponents, I promise you, give much thanks.

While Conservatives talk once again among themselves, the remorseless fragmentation of British politics continues apace. A YouGov poll last week showed its lowest ever combined Conservative/Labour vote: just 63 per cent. Intuitively, it seems likely this will rise between now and May as the electorate properly focuses on who it wants to govern the country for the next five years. But there are no guarantees. The nihilistic desire of voters to kick against all three main parties and beggar the consequences cannot be ignored.

The British economy has suffered the longest and deepest recession in any of our lifetimes. It would have been a miracle if it had not also shaken up British politics and its parties. The old script’s been rejected, the new script’s still being written, and no-one’s sure how it all ends. But this is a sequel, not a repeat, and the cast list of protagonists is growing.

Voting for the next Lib Dem party president starts a week today

by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2014

Libby - Some rghts reserved by David SpenderA week today, Wednesday, 29th October, ballot papers will be sent to all c.44,000 Lib Dem members enabling us to vote for the next Party President in succession to Tim Farron, who’s held the post for the past four years. Other than the party leader, the presidency is currently the only other post in the Lib Dems determined by a vote of all its members.

Three candidates successfully secured nomination — click on their names to follow the links to their campaign websites:

The ballot will close in just over a month, Wednesday, 26th November. The result will be announced on Saturday, 29th November.

All three candidates have written for Lib Dem Voice — you can read articles written by them to help make up your mind about who to vote for by clicking on the following links:

Lib Dem Voice polled party members in our most recent survey — you can read what it said here. We’ll be conducting a further poll shortly now the candidates for the post have been confirmed.

* 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.

Is this the front page of the next Lib Dem manifesto?

by Stephen Tall on October 21, 2014

Ryan Coetzee, recently appointed the Lib Dems’ General Election Director of Strategy, was snapped today clutching papers which look like they might reveal the party’s top four priorities for the 2015 manifesto.

The four priorities read:

Balance the budget
Balance the budget by 2018, protecting the economic recovery and bringing down Britain’s debt.

Cut income tax
Cut income tax by £400 for low and middle earners, paid for by taxes on the rich.

Protect mental health
Guarantee equal care and waiting times for mental health as for physical health, by increasing spending on the NHS.

Improve education
Ensure every child is taught by a qualified teacher and protec spending on nurseries, schools and colleges.

The accidental leak triggered much interest from journalists, more probably than if it had been emailed to them…

* 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.

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.



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