My recommended reading for today April 4, 2014

by Stephen Tall on April 4, 2014

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention in the past couple of days…

The Swiss Wheeze: the Better Off Out argument that’s full of holes

by Stephen Tall on April 3, 2014

Swiss CheeseIf only we were Switzerland, eh? That’s the dream of the Better Off Out brigade, who long for its freedom as part of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). And it’s a tempting offer: all the benefits of free trade with EU member states, and (if you believe Nigel Farage, Dan Hannan et al) none of the risks.

Except it’s not quite that easy, as The Economist highlighted when it investigated Britain’s options.

Here are 5 reasons to be sceptical of the Sceptics’ alpine panacea…

Britain would be a smaller, more isolated country.

“Britain would have less diplomatic and military clout, too. For the Americans, a Britain that is disengaged from the rest of Europe would be a much less useful and influential ally. For NATO, a Britain that is semi-detached from Europe would weaken the ties that bind the continent and its defence to the United States at a time when those ties are already under strain because of slashed defence budgets and America’s strategic “rebalancing” towards Asia. Another likely casualty would be the budding Anglo-French defence treaty, seen by both countries as a way to help themselves continue to punch above their weight.”

This, of course, suits the isolationist Ukip very well. But for those of us who are internationalists becoming an irrelevance on the world-stage isn’t an attractive option.

It took the Swiss a decade to negotiate the trade treaties we already enjoy.

“The British would doubtless try to negotiate a special deal with their former partners, using the argument that trade benefits both sides and that Britain is itself a large market for many. But the process could take many years (it took a decade for the much smaller Switzerland).”

Sure, it would probably take the much larger Britain less time. But that’s a long period of instability tied-up doing little else but try to get back to where we were.

And those deals Switzerland does negotiate tend to be less good – say the Swiss.

“The EFTA countries tend to rush in behind the EU, though in some cases—South Korea, for example—they go first. But the bigger club can win slightly better terms. “The EU is more powerful than we are,” says Didier Chambovey of Switzerland’s state secretariat for foreign affairs.”

Hardly surprising: if you’re part of the world’s biggest economy, as the UK within the EU is, then you get a better deal.

The British would get less generous treatment than the Swiss.

“There is little chance that Britain, a far bigger country with a history of being difficult, would be allowed to squeeze in alongside Switzerland. … The halfway options of Norway and Switzerland were offered largely in hopes of tempting both to become full members one day. Britain would be travelling in the opposite direction, without a map. In this, as in so many other ways, leaving the EU would be a colossal gamble.”

There’s every incentive for the EU to woo a country it hopes will become a member. There’s very little incentive to treat a country well that has walked out on it.

The Swiss have less power outside the EU than the British have in the EU.

“[Switzerland] is not beyond the reach of Brussels. The Swiss are currently exercised over several European directives, including those covering finance, chemical factories and the movement of labour. Switzerland is hampered by the lack of an accord with the EU on financial services and by its lack of representation in Brussels. In the broader fight against protectionism and financial over-regulation in Europe, it relies on an informal alliance with another country that also has a big financial-services industry, as well as a valuable seat at the negotiating table: Britain.”

If Britain leaves the EU, paradoxically the Swiss option becomes far less attractive.

* 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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Nick v Nigel: the polls call it for Farage. Disappointing, but don’t panic! Here’s 3 reasons why you shouldn’t…

by Stephen Tall on April 2, 2014

Farage cleggLast week we had one post-debate poll. It showed Farage won overall, but the split was more interesting: Labour and Lib Dem voters went for Nick, Tory and Ukippers for Nigel. As you’d probably expect.

This week we had two post-debate polls, and their results are remarkably similar. ICM says Clegg was reckoned to have won by 31% of viewers, Farage by 69%. YouGov says 27% preferred Clegg, 68% Farage.

ICM has released the breakdown of its poll. This week, Labour voters split (narrowly) in Farage’s favour, by 57% to 43%, which means only Lib Dem voters reckoned Clegg won (by 58% to 42%).

It’s fair to say, the polls have called it for Farage. And, as I blogged earlier, I’d broadly agree.

But, and it’s a big but, does that mean Nick Clegg’s gamble of laying down the gauntlet to Nigel Farage has failed? I don’t think so. Here’s three reasons why…

Nick Clegg has galvanised Lib Dem supporters.

That matters for two reasons. First, in a low-turnout election, as the 22 May Euro elections will be, getting your base to turn out matters. And secondly, that base is also far more motivated now to get out the vote – in that sense, Ukip is a useful enemy for the Lib Dems. As anyone who was at the York spring conference will testify, it was easily the most cheerful party event since 2010 – and the decision to fight a focused pro-European campaign and to take on Ukip is a big reason why.

A boost for Ukip hurts the Tories and Labour more than the Lib Dems.

There’s no denying that Nigel Farage and Ukip have emerged well from these debates, especially tonight’s. Their populist, insurgent message – that all the nation’s ills are the fault of foreigners, Westminster and big business – clearly resonates. But it will resonate least well with Lib Dem voters, and best with Tory and Labour voters. A polling spike for Ukip will probably be at their expense, not ours. Though that’s a slightly depressing thought – I’d rather people voted Labour or Tory than for Farage’s isolationism – it’s far less of an electoral worry for the Lib Dems.

Pro-Europeanism appeals to moderate, centrist voters.

Recent polls show the British public pretty split on whether the UK should remain within the EU, but tilting towards staying in. The Lib Dems’ internal polling suggests that, among the one-quarter of the public who’ll consider voting for the party, pro-Europeanism plays pretty well. My main frustration of tonight’s debate was that Nick Clegg failed to advance the pro-reform case for staying within the EU as well as he’s done in the past – but there will be many more times and places for him to make that point in the next seven weeks. Overall, clear defining the party as being pro-European is more likely to win the Lib Dems the votes the party needs to win, both in 2014 as well as 2015.

* 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.

Nick v Nigel, Round 2: My second thoughts

by Stephen Tall on April 2, 2014

clegg farage lbcLast week, there was no doubt in my mind that Nick Clegg won the debate – he quite simply out-classed Nigel Farage, and YouGov’s poll showed Labour and Lib Dem voters agreed (though not Tory and Ukip voters).

This week, it was much more evenly matched. The early part belonged to Nick. With the focus on the Ukip leader’s praise for Vladimir Putin as a “brilliant operator”, Nigel Farage was always going to be on the back-foot. He was, and Nick was able successfully to claim the calm (but yes, also passionate) high ground, portraying him as something of a fantasist, “The party of Putin”. But however deluded Nigel Farage’s views on Russian tyrants are, they are unlikely to be the deciding issue in the elections.

Probably Nick Clegg’s most successful line was about half-way through the debate: “I like modern Britain, Nigel Farage doesn’t.” Crisp, clear, direct – and pretty accurate, too. This is the dividing line for much of the Europe debate: whether you want Britain to be open and engaged, or closed and isolationist.

In the second half, though, Nigel Farage moved up a gear. Looking far calmer (and less sweaty) than last week, he unashamedly pitched himself as the populist politician who tells the voters exactly what they want to hear – the people you can blame for whatever’s wrong in your life are foreigners, Westminster and big business. It’s a pitch that’s worked for plenty of politicians down the years and I suspect it will have worked for Nigel Farage tonight.

Nick Clegg ended up looking too much like he was defending the status quo, summed up by his response to the question “What do you think the EU will look like in 10 years’ time” – “I think it will look pretty similar”. If ever there was a question sitting up to hit by pro-European reformer (which is what Nick Clegg is) that was it.

Add that to the tired jokes (sample “Nigel Farage probably wants WG Grace to open the batting”) and Nick’s peculiar obsession with explaining the distinction between primary and secondary legislation to justify his (quite correct) point that only 7% of laws are made by the EU, and it felt like he was grateful for it all to be over. To be fair, his closing pitch was well-crafted and earned warm audience applause.

Neither of the two debates will have changed many minds. That wasn’t really ever their point. For Nick Clegg it was a case of wanting (and needing) to lead the pro-European campaign to galvanise the Lib Dem campaign. For Nigel Farage it was a case of grabbing the publicity. Both have emerged winners on their own terms – but tonight Nigel was probably a little bit more of a winner than Nick.

* 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.

So how’s my scenario 3 – a Tory lead of 6% by May 2015 – working out then?

by Stephen Tall on April 2, 2014

Time to dust down a post from last December looking at scenarios for the 2015 election based on current polling – two of which pointed to the Conservatives being likely to take a poll lead in the next year.

(NB: as then, please note my huge caveat – “the extent of the polling science on display here is me playing around on an Excel spreadsheet.”)

In particular, I was curious what might have happen to my third scenario in the meantime. So pasted below is what I wrote in December, but I’ve updated the graph to add the last four months’ average poll leads to see how they fit the trend-line. (The answer is pretty well.)

Scenario 3

File this under the heading “a bit of fun… probably” – let’s look at the whole parliament and insert a polynomial trendline to take us through to May 2015. Here’s what happens:

tory lead in may 2015 scenario 3

Under Scenario 3, then, the Conservatives bounce back from their mid-term slump to lead Labour by 6% come the next general election. It couldn’t happen – could it?

By the way, if you recalculate the trend-line to include the last four months’ average poll leads, it still suggests a 6% Tory lead by May 2015.

Will the monthly average poll lead data points continue to follow this trend-line? It seems unlikely. As I’ve said before, I expect the polls to jump around a fair bit this year, especially around the Euro elections. But poll-watchers look at trends – and currently there’s only one trend apparent in the polls: a narrowing Labour lead.

Apart from my amateur polynomial trend-lines, there’s another criticism that can be flung at this quick and dirty look at the polls – that it’s wrong to focus on poll leads, far better to focus on the party poll shares. True enough.

But history won’t be much consolation to Labour here. The graph below is from this article – 3 early warning signs that Labour’s poll-lead drama is about to become a full blown crisis – by LabourUncut’s editor, Atul Hatwal.

It shows that opposition parties lose an average of 5.7% in support in the final year before a general election. The only time in the last half-century the opposition didn’t lose support in the final year before an election was 1983, as Labour had already reached their nadir in the immediate aftermath of the Falklands war.

Oh, and yes… for the record, the Lib Dems poll share remains 10%, where it’s been since December 2010. Consistency, that’s the watchword!

* 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.

Vince Cable in his own words on the sale of Royal Mail

by Stephen Tall on April 1, 2014

Vincent CableThe publication of a report today by the National Audit Office criticising the “deep caution” of Vince Cable’s department in setting the sale price of shares in Royal Mail has, inevitably, been leapt on by opponents of the policy. Critics who would, of course, have been equally happy crowing if the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills had set the price too high causing the flotation flop.

Vince Cable went to the despatch box of the Commons today to defend his department’s actions, making headlines for unambiguously stating, “The last thing I intend to do is apologise”. Here he is, in his own words, on the sale of the first batch of shares of Royal Mail:

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable):
The National Audit Office has today published its report on the Royal Mail sale of shares. The report confirms that we achieved our primary objective of securing a sale of shares, allowing Royal Mail to access the private capital it needs to invest and thrive. As a result the taxpayer now faces reduced risk of having to provide financial support to the universal postal service.

It was right that we took a cautious and measured approach to the sale. That approach was taken in the light of our primary objective, and reflects the considerable risks we faced due to industrial relations and challenging market conditions.

The price range for the shares was set following a comprehensive programme of engagement with over 500 potential investors and was benchmarked against valuations of comparable postal companies. I am clear that this was the correct approach to secure a successful transaction.

A more aggressive approach to pricing would have introduced significantly greater risk. The advice that we received in this respect was unambiguous. There was no confidence that a sufficient number of buyers would offer a significantly higher price. A failed transaction and the retention of Royal Mail in public ownership would have been a very poor outcome for the taxpayer, as the NAO report confirms.

Achieving taxpayer value is about securing both short-term and long-term benefits. In the short term, we have delivered a successful transaction, which raised £2 billion for the Exchequer, enabled over 690,000 members of the public to buy Royal Mail shares and put in place the largest employee share scheme of any privatisation in nearly 30 years. In the long term, we have reduced the ongoing risks to the taxpayer by putting Royal Mail in a position where it can operate commercially and finance its own funds if needed. In doing so, as the NAO confirms, we have achieved our key objectives.

The sale of shares in Royal Mail has delivered on our commitment to protect the universal postal service and safeguard vital services for the taxpayer.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab):
… The Secretary of State dismissed claims that a cherished national institution was being sold off on the cheap as “froth”. The truth is that this has been a first-class disaster for the taxpayer and those he once referred to as “spivs and gamblers” are laughing all the way to the bank. The very least he can do today is apologise.

Vince Cable:
The last thing I intend to do is apologise. What I do intend to do is refer to what the report actually said, as opposed to the spinning and froth that is being generated around it. Let me read again the report’s initial conclusion on value for money:

“By floating Royal Mail on the Stock Exchange the Department achieved its key objectives of introducing private capital and commercial disciplines. Given Royal Mail’s prospects and prudent initial capital structure it is now less likely that the taxpayer will have to provide public support for the universal postal service.”

That is what it actually said.

Let me address the criticisms, if that is what they were. The first was that the Department was cautious, but I would have thought that caution in this context had a lot to commend it. The reason the Department was cautious was the very real risk that the floatation could fail. The choice we faced was: had the floatation failed, it would have remained in public ownership and, despite the hon. Gentleman’s preference for keeping it in public ownership, the valuation placed on it continuing in public ownership was about £1 billion. That was not disputed by the National Audit Office. The alternative—the floatation which happened—resulted in a value for the taxpayer of £2 billion in cash and £1.5 billion in continued value of the retained sale. There was a choice between the £3.5 billion that resulted from the privatisation and the £1 billion had it failed, so it is absolutely right and sensible that we were cautious.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that there was a lack of flexibility in the initial public offering system. Indeed, the National Audit Office makes that point: there was a lack of flexibility. The question, therefore, is: were there any alternatives? Could this have been done in a different way? The Government could have eliminated the retail investors and had more flexibility over price at the time of sale, but as it happens one of the successes of the privatisation is the fact that 670,000 investors now have shares.

The other way of selling Royal Mail would have been through a trade sale, and of course we looked at that as an option. One of the reasons we did not pursue it was that we looked at the history of privatisation under the Labour Government. and there was one very good example of what happens when a trade sale is pursued: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the NAO report on the privatisation of QinetiQ. … What happened in that trade sale was that a company with an equity value at sale of £125 million was eventually valued at £1.3 billion—10 times what the Labour Government sold it for. That is the alternative model with which we were confronted.

Let me address specifically the issue of the long-term institutional investors. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that one of the key objectives, to which I attach particular importance, was ensuring that the long-term institutional investor base was strong, and indeed it is. When the hon. Gentleman looks at the breakdown of share ownership, he will see that between two thirds and 70% of the shares held as a result of the IPO are held by those long-term institutional investors. When we put that with the Government’s retained shares and those of the workers, we see a very large majority of investors who are committed to the long-term strength of the company. One does have to ask the question: why did some of the long-term institutional investors sell? Some bought, some sold. The reason they sold was that they considered the share price after sale was overvalued. It was an obvious market reaction, and that was the consequence. None the less, having a long-term investor base remains a basic objective, and we have achieved that fundamental objective.

Let me turn to the issue of the valuation, to which so much importance is attached. It should be blindingly obvious, although I do not think it is to the Opposition, that trying to sell 600 million shares at one go is a fundamentally different proposition from the 2 million to 3 million sold in daily trading, which explains why the price has varied since the flotation.

I have said and I continue to say that there is a great deal of froth in the valuation of this and other shares—that is how equity markets operate—and this particular share is surrounded by a great deal of volatility. There are two main reasons for that. The first is a great deal of uncertainty over industrial relations in a company that has had a very troubled industrial relations history. It is worth pointing out—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman noticed—that the mere mention last week of a Unite strike took the stock price down by 20p. That was the context in which we had to make the sale. …

Looking at the volatility of shares, this company is exposed to a considerable level of competition, as a result of actions of regulators beyond the Government’s control. The estimate has been made—I think that I cited this to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee—that a 1% fall in sales is the equivalent of a 17% fall in profits for this company. We hope, and we have every reason to be optimistic, that with the very good management of the company, the co-operation of the work force and the investment that privatisation now makes possible we shall have a positive outcome in terms of competitiveness, but there is a great deal of uncertainty, which lies behind the volatility of the shares.

We in the Government have been criticised, not least by the Select Committee, over the past few months because we failed to take account of the estimates made by the banks that were bidding for business. One section of the NAO report—the hon. Gentleman has clearly not read it—completely vindicates the Government’s decision to ignore those estimates as completely worthless. They were touting for business, the estimates had no value whatever and we were quite correct to ignore them. Much of the propaganda that he and his colleagues have developed over the past few years has proved to be completely beside the point.

Let me make a final point on valuation. The hon. Gentleman gave us a lecture on the dangers of undervaluing public assets, but let me just quote to him his Government’s experience of the difficult art of valuing assets. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), sold large quantities of gold at between $250 and $300 an ounce, but the price subsequently increased to more than $1,500—five times the original value. That is the nature of the highly volatile markets in which we have to operate.

The NAO report reached the important conclusion that we had successfully achieved our objectives. Under this Government, we have taken a loss-making public enterprise and turned it into a highly successful, respected public company.

* 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.

Chris Huhne is a glass half-full kinda guy

by Stephen Tall on March 31, 2014

chris_huhneChris Huhne’s weekly column for The Guardian is a must-read for me. Mainly because his writing is just as you’d expect: not afraid to put some stick about (yeah, yeah: he takes no prisoners) but there’s plenty of sharp intelligence too.

And there’s a pretty hefty dollop of optimism this week, too, as he looks at the polls for evidence of a Lib Dem revival:

There was also a straw in the wind pointing to happier times: YouGov just found more people saying they would vote Lib Dem in the European elections in May than in the general election. If true, that reverses the norm, whereby the Lib Dems poll lower in the European elections than in local or Westminster competitions.

Chris is right. We have reversed the norm. Though not, I think it’s fair to say, in quite the way the party might have intended. Still, liberalism is an essentially optimistic philosophy and it’s good to see Chris still sees the glass as being half-full.

* 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.

Liberal Hero of the Week #64: Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013

by Stephen Tall on March 31, 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

same sex marriage act 2013

Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013

An Act of the Parliament legalising same-sex marriage in England and Wales.
Reason: for ending the state’s discrimination against same-sex couples

Can an Act of Parliament be heroic? I’m not sure. But there are too many campaigners who deserve praise for same-sex marriage being recognised in law to single out any individual†, or any one group. They span all parties and none, united by a common cause: to enable two people of the same sex who love each other to have the same rights in law as a man and a woman who choose to marry.

A nation awoke on Saturday morning to photos of beaming gay couples as the first same-sex marriages were celebrated. Die-hard opponents like Ukip’s Nigel Farage and the Conservatives’ Philip Hammond are retreating for fear of looking churlish in the face of such evident happiness.

Three is, in fact, a liberal argument against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. It was made, rather splendidly, by CentreForum’s own Tom Papworth, writing to a constituent who’d asked his view on the legislation.

Tom’s point was simple: that there is no reason why the state should be involved at all in marriage, either its legal or ceremonial functions. After all, we manage to make our own wills without the state needing to officiate; and who wants the government to organise their party? Tom concluded:

The government seeks to create a fair system for everybody who wishes to get married, while at the same time retaining the monopoly on defining and licensing marriage. I believe that it is the government’s ongoing wish to be the final arbiter of what is, what is not, and who can engage in, marriage that is the source of the conflict over this issue today. I hope that we can one day move to a system whereby individuals are free to define their union, celebrate it and – where appropriate – have it blessed in whatever manner they chose. In the meantime, I welcome the current proposals as a small step forward in creating a free and fair system.

He’s right. For as long as marriage is legislated for by the state it should not discriminate against couples wishing to have their relationship recognised by it. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 has removed a source of discrimination. That’s heroic in my book.

† Though I stand by my decision to recognise David Cameron’s support for same-sex marriage by making him my 24th Liberal Hero. He had lots to lose, little to gain, but bravely never flinched.

* 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.

Time for Nick Clegg to ditch the “Great Britain not Little England” line

by Stephen Tall on March 30, 2014

england-flag“Great Britain not little England” – it was a line Nick Clegg used in his recent Spring conference speech, setting up the new political dividing lines between those who are optimistic, outward-looking, progressive pro-Europeans and those who are gloomy, isolationst, reactionary anti-Europeans.

It’s a line he used again in this week’s Nick v Nigel debate. “Great Britain, not Little England” was the subject line, too, of the party’s immediate post-debate email to supporters.

Clearly it’s a line the party believes encapsulates the main fault-line in British politics right now. But is it the right line to push? And is it a good, liberal line?

Here are 3 reasons why Lib Dems should pause before continuing to set up the dividing line between Great Britain and Little England…

They’re drawn from a report published last summer by the think-tank IPPR, England and its two unions: The anatomy of a nation and its discontents*. This takes a long hard look at national self-identity and its political implications.

A couple of its top-line conclusions are that a stronger sense of English national identity is increasingly asserting itself. And that, though ‘Britishness’ is more important to black and minority ethnic citizens, among ALL citizens there are significant concerns about the UK’s existing power structures (eg, perceptions that the EU is too powerful, that Scotland gets a better deal at the rest of the UK’s expense).

But Englishness is not necessarily the same as Little Englander. Take a look at this table showing voting intention in an EU referendum by national self-identity:

english british - eu remain 2012

Unsurprisingly, support for leaving the EU is much higher among those who self-identify as only English or more English than British. Opinion is more divided among those who see themselves as equally English and British. and those who prioritise their Britishness over their Englishness are more likely to want the UK to remain in the EU.

You could say this shows Nick Clegg’s point is essentially right: Englishness is more associated with being anti-EU. However, what this table also shows is that there’s nothing incompatible with self-identifying as English and also wanting the UK to remain within the EU – exactly as 1-in-6 of those who say they’re English-not-British wish to do.

In other words, there is a real risk that in setting up dividing lines (“Great Britain not Little England”) we fail to reach out to those who are open to our arguments.

Let’s look at another table, this one showing the preferences by party voting support for how laws that apply to those of us living in England should be made:

english british - govt pref 2012

Those who support the status quo of the UK’s existing ‘constitutional settlement’ are a minority. From a Lib Dem perspective what’s striking is the degree of support (38%) among the party’s voters for ‘English votes for English laws’ (ie, only English MPs able to vote on matters that affect only to England). An English parliament is supported by 1-in-5 Lib Dem voters.

Two caveats here. First, the sample size of Lib Dems in the poll is pretty small (178). Secondly, other options (such as further devolved power to local councils) weren’t offered. Those caveats inserted, I think it’d be unwise to swat away these findings too glibly. It’s not very surprising that a growing sense of English self-identity is also reflected, across voters of all parties, in a wish for greater self-determination.

Here’s my third and final table, showing responses to the question ‘Which political party best stands up for the interests of England?’

english british - party pref 2013

This needs little explanation: Ukip is seen as the party most likely to stick up for the interests of England by 21% of voters. Just 6 per cent think the Lib Dems do.

Though many of their policies are quite different, including notably on the EU, Ukip is increasingly performing a similar function in England as the SNP does in Scotland – as a repository for voters wanting a party they can identify with nationally and culturally. The question for the major parties, including the Lib Dems, is simple: how do we respond to this growing sense of English identity?

Here’s how the IPPR’s report concludes:

For some, Englishness seems to be regarded as a dark and chauvinistic force, best kept under wraps. The evident association of English discontentment with the right-wing populism of Ukip may well reinforce that concern. In particular, progressives may be reluctant to engage with the emerging English agenda for fear of legitimising what they see as the grievances of ‘little Englanders’.

This, we believe, would be a serious error. The issue is not going to go away. This is not merely because of the public attitudes identified in this report – although they constitute sufficient cause in their own right – but also because the continuing processes of renegotiation of the terms of union in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales will ensure that England, by default, becomes ever more clearly delineated as a distinct political arena. Any decision to ignore English discontentment for fear of guilt by association with right-wing populism is only likely to further feed such discontentment – and perhaps encourage it to develop more toxic undertones, if the perception grows that
the political class is simply ignoring issues of real concern to people. …

There is no reason to believe that recognising England as a political community and giving it a voice must be inevitably linked to the more inward-looking and defensive agendas pursued on the political right.

I realise that what Nick Clegg refers to as ‘Little England’ is a catch-all term for the right’s “inward-looking and defensive agenda”. But, to many voters listening, it will more likely appear that their identity is simply being belittled by one of those Westminster elite politicians they feel so detached from. It’s the kind of language that fuels populists like Nigel Farage.

We shouldn’t be encouraging the artificial divide between Englishness and Britishness. It is perfectly possible for citizens to feel both, either or neither and still to be open to persuasion on arguments about the UK’s membership of the European Union. And we certainly shouldn’t be ceding how Englishness is self-defined to the likes of Ukip or the rest of the right.

Liberalism is about recognising individuality and promoting community – whether at family, village, town, city, county, national or international level. There’s nothing wrong with believing in Great Britain. But there’s nothing wrong with believing in England being Great either.

* My thanks to Sunder Katwala at British Future for pointing out this report to me.

* 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 recommended reading for today March 30, 2014

by Stephen Tall on March 30, 2014

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention in the past couple of days…

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