Lib Dem Misconceptions: The Alliance Parties

This is number one of what may or may not be an occasional series of posts, about what people outside the party get completely wrong about the Lib Dems.
In this case, I want to talk about the pat summary one gets from the Guardian‘s less-well-informed columnists, and from people who like to act like they know a lot by taking talking points from those columns and restating them as their own opinion:

The Lib Dems’ problem is that they have two factions — their left wing, which is the old SDP, and the right-wing Orange Bookers from the old Liberal Party. The two factions never really belonged in the same party

Sometimes, in place of the “right-wing Orange Bookers” you’ll just hear that the SDP were left-wing and the Liberals were “centrist”. Either way, *everything* about the description in quotes there is wrong.

If you want the short version of why, Richard Gadsden did six tweets to someone spouting this earlier today, which sum it up simply. Here’s the slightly expanded version.

The Liberals were a radical party. Liberals have always argued that the left-right distinction makes no real sense, but as people currently use the terms, they were a party of the radical left. You can read the preamble of the old Liberal Party constitution as it stood in 1980, just before the Alliance, here. Some key points:
Opening sentence: ” The Liberal Party exists to build a Liberal Society in which every citizen shall possess liberty, property, and security, and none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”
“It looks forward to a world in which all people live together in peace under an effective and democratically constituted World Authority; in which all people enjoy access to the earth’s abundance; in which the various cultures of mankind can develop freely without being warped by nationalist, racial or religious antagonism”
“working steadfastly for the eventual abolition of national armies and armaments”
“At home its goal is a country in which the powers of the State will be used to establish social justice”
“autonomous institutions ensuring genuine self-government; an effective voice in deciding conditions in which they live and work; ”
“an assurance that the community shall enjoy the full benefits of publicly created land values;”

You can say a lot about this, but what you can’t say is that it’s either “right-wing” or “centrist”.

However, while the party was radical, many of its MPs were centrists. Not all, by any means — there were plenty of radical Liberals in the Parliamentary party, but there were also people who were mainly in the party because they wanted to be in politics but didn’t approve either of state socialism or of the Tories’ viciousness, or they’d fallen out with their local Labour party, or that kind of thing. All parties have this mix of different factions, and the Liberal leader would often be a centrist, because they wouldn’t go on TV and scare the horses.

The party’s policies, however, were truly radical — land value tax, electoral reform, disestablishment of the Church, replacement of the Lords, basic income or negative income tax, employee ownership of businesses… they came out for full equality for gay men in 1975, decades before any other party.

The SDP, on the other hand, were very different. Essentially, they were the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, before Blair (who only became an MP in 1983). They ranged from Roy Jenkins, who was essentially a Liberal who had joined the wrong party anyway, through to David Owen, who was basically politically indistinguishable from a moderate Tory. Unlike the Liberal Party, they saw centrism as a good in itself — and unlike the Liberal Party they were driven by their MPs, rather than their activists.

The alliance (or Alliance) between the two parties was useful for the leadership of both. The SDP brought with them a large number of MPs, but very few activists — they knew they couldn’t win seats without the Liberals’ experience at door-knocking and basic infrastructure. Conversely, the SDP brought the Liberals a bunch of MPs, many of them famous faces with government experience.

As the Liberals were at the time led by someone from the centrist faction (David Steel), it was easy enough to come up with a compromise manifesto that would be economically centrist but constitutionally radical — giving the Liberals the devolution and “community proportional representation” (a much better name than STV) they wanted, but backing down slightly from their economic radicalism to promote a continuation of the Keynesian post-war consensus. As the SDP had the greater media presence, the Alliance was presented as “centrist”, with the nuances ignored.

(Of course this neglects one other factor too — the Alliance started very, very shortly after the SDP formed, and anyone joining either party after that would be likely to choose based on the party that was standing a candidate in their area, rather than any policy difference, which meant a lot of Liberals ended up joining the SDP, and a smaller number of SDP types joined the Liberals).

After the merger in 1988, the party that was left was one with a radical activist base as the dominant faction in its membership, but a strong centrist group as well, and with the ratio more or less reversed in Parliament. The post-merger party was led by Paddy Ashdown, a former Liberal Party member who actually wanted to work towards merger with Labour, to heal what he saw as a divide on the left, but who had centrist instincts that made him acceptable to both sides.

(The post-merger party’s constitution, incidentally, starts “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”)

As the party began to shift back left though, after the right-wing influence of Owen was gone, it was still attracting centrists like Nick Clegg, who joined in the early 90s. And there were a new grouping starting to join — people like Mark Oaten and David Laws, who would naturally have been Tories economically, but who were put off by the homophobia and anti-European attitude of the 1990s Conservative party. These people were basically Libertarians, and referred to themselves as “economic Liberals”.

These people started to get elected after the party’s big breakthrough in 1997 (made by essentially both Lib Dems and Labour doing nod-and-wink messaging that they would work together rather than with Tories), and especially after 2001. By this point, the party were led by Charles Kennedy, the only SDP person to actually win a seat at a General Election without first having been an incumbent MP for another party. Kennedy didn’t really belong to any of the traditions of either party — he was a social democrat, and a liberal, but didn’t fit neatly into any of the boxes you could put him in (as can be seen by the fact that he moved the party both to the left and away from Labour).

Under Kennedy’s leadership, the Orange Book was published. This has a reputation as being some sort of Thatcherite Mein Kampf, but if you actually read it, most of it is fairly standard Liberalism, with one or two barking right-wing ideas thrown in to make it “controversial”. The Orange Book combined economic liberal and centrist ideas, and after the Menzies Campbell (an ex-Liberal) interregnum, Nick Clegg, a centrist and not a member of either predecessor party, took over as leader, and under him the party moved towards the centre in its messaging.

Once the coalition formed, the centrists and libertarians were the dominant voices, because they were the ones who were most able to work with the Conservatives. Now, however, after the end of the coalition and the party’s collapse in the polls, the party’s most left-wing remaining MP, Tim Farron, a former member of the Liberals and of the party’s radical activist tradition, is the leader.

So as you can see, there are at least three “groups” in the Lib Dems, and they don’t correlate neatly at all with the predecessor parties (and the majority of members were never in either predecessor party anyway, but joined in the nearly thirty years since the merger). To the extent they *do* correlate with the predecessor parties, though, the “Orange Bookers” would be the SDP and the “left” would be the Liberals.

But most wrong of all is the “they don’t belong in the same party” part. They do. WE do. There are disagreements among the different groups in the party, but we are actually united by far more than what divides us. In particular, the radical liberals and the libertarians agree on more than they disagree on, because liberal economics is about handing power to individuals rather than centring it in the state.

I’m on the radical left of the party, but we need the libertarians there to critique the left’s ideas and vice versa — both make the others stronger. And the centrists are necessary to focus the party on pragmatic politics rather than just being a talking shop.

I’ve been talking about factions, but the Lib Dems are the least factionalised of the UK parties. And this, more than anything else, is the problem with the pub-bore narrative about centrist Liberals and right-wing SDP. We’re *all* liberals. A friend half-jokingly introduced me to someone else a couple of weeks ago by saying “Andrew’s an anarcho-syndicalist, but they haven’t got a party so he’s in the Lib Dems”. But in truth, most of the people on the supposed *right* of the current Lib Dems could be described that way just as accurately (probably more). The libertarians (still the smallest of the groupings) have more in common with Chomsky than Ayn Rand, in my experience.

I’ve talked about the party and its predecessors being on the left, then swinging to the centre, then to the left again, then to the centre again, and now back to the left. I’ve been with the party throughout the last few changes because the values of the party aren’t so much to do with left vs right, as with freedom vs fascism. Everyone in the party, whatever other party they may have been members of in the past, and whatever internal faction (if any — and for most it’s “none”) they align themselves with, joined because they agree with the values in the preamble of the party constitution:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.

That’s what we’re about. We’re liberals.

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Highlights of the Lib Dem Manifesto

I’ve had a look through the Lib Dem manifesto today, because of course I have. It’s long — something like three times as long as the larger parties’ — and full of detail (as someone — I’m afraid I can’t remember who — pointed out on Twitter, only the Lib Dems and the Greens have much in the way of detail in their manifestos, and this may be to do with the fact that they’re the only large parties whose policies are developed by the membership, so they *have* a lot of policy).

Most of the manifesto is, frankly, dull as ditchwater. A lot of it’s the same managerialist platitudes you’ll get in any manifesto, just with additional costings. EVERY party says they’ll protect the environment, cut crime, protect the NHS, and stroke puppies. So I’ve gone through and found the stuff that seems like it’s worth commenting on — mostly positively, but occasionally negatively. The stuff that seems distinctively liberal, or disappointingly not, not the rest. I’m also only looking here at stuff I have a clue about.

Liberal Democrats remain committed to introducing
Land Value Tax (LVT), which would replace Business Rates in
the longer term and could enable the reduction or abolition of
other taxes.

LVT is one of those ideas that Lib Dems seem to love, and that no-one else ever talks about. When I first heard about it, I thought “that makes so much sense, there *must* be a catch!”, but no-one’s ever pointed one out to me (which is not to say there isn’t one).

a new legally binding target to bring net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050

Possibly too little too late, but *something* like this needs to be done…

As a major global economy, we must promote open markets and
free trade, both within the European Union and beyond. Only as
a full member of a reformed European Union can we be certain
Britain’s businesses will have access to markets in Europe and
Liberal Democrats believe we should welcome talented people
from abroad, encourage visitors and tourists who contribute
enormously to our economic growth, and give sanctuary to refugees
fleeing persecution. Immigration procedures must be robust and fair,
and the UK must remain open to visitors who boost our economy,
and migrant workers who play a vital role in business and public

A bit of a difference from mugs saying “controls on immigration”…

Protect the independence of the BBC while ensuring the Licence Fee does not rise faster than inflation, maintain Channel
4 in public ownership and protect the funding and editorial independence of Welsh language broadcasters

Sounds good, although it’s basically “we’ll leave this alone”.

Raise the Personal Allowance to at least £12,500, cutting your taxes by around £400 more

Nice idea in theory, not a priority I’m particularly keen on in the current economic climate.

Legislate to make the ‘triple lock’ permanent, guaranteeing decent pensions rises each year

Not keen on this either — the triple lock as a temporary measure is, and has been, a good thing. But making it permanent is to guarantee that an ever-increasing proportion of spending will go to pensions, regardless of need. I accept that I’m in a minority on this one though.

Extend free childcare to all two-year olds, and to the children of working families from the end of paid parental leave.

Expand Shared Parental Leave with a ‘use it or lose it’ month for fathers, and introduce a right to paid leave for carers

Both entirely good ideas.

Complete the introduction of Universal Credit (UC), so people are always better off in work.

In principle, UC is a very good idea. In practice, the implementation has been a complete balls-up so far. If the reforms that are talked about make it work better, then it might be a good thing. We’ll see.

Reductions in benefits may not always be the best
way to improve claimants’ compliance: those with chaotic lives
might be more successful in finding a job if they were directed to
targeted support with their problems. We will ensure there are no
league tables or targets for sanctions issued by Jobcentres and
introduce a ‘yellow card’ warning so people are only sanctioned if
they deliberately and repeatedly break the rules.

Nowhere near what I’d like, but a definite massive improvement on the current system.

Liberal Democrats will protect young people’s entitlements to the welfare safety net, while getting them the help they need to get their first job.

In other words, “bollocks to this idea of stopping benefits for under-25s that both Labour and the Tories have”

Introduce a 1% cap on the uprating of working-age benefits until the budget is balanced in 2017/18, after which they will rise with
inflation once again. Disability and parental leave benefits will be
exempt from this temporary cap.

I really, *really* don’t like the below-inflation benefits rise thing, when we’re promising to increase pensions at above inflation. On the other hand, there’s a definite term limit on this. Not something I support, but could be worse.

Withdraw eligibility for the Winter Fuel Payment and free
TV Licence from pensioners who pay tax at the higher rate
(40%). We will retain the free bus pass for all pensioners.

Sounds good to me. I’m right on the 40% tax rate border, and I manage to support two people, pay a mortgage, spend quite a lot of money on leisure pursuits, and put a reasonable amount away in savings every month. Anyone with more income than me (and who will be unlikely to still be making mortgage payments) doesn’t need free stuff paid for by people who are on average worse-off than them. (The bus pass is worth keeping because it encourages public transport use, which is a good thing in itself).

Ensure swift implementation of the new rules requiring companies with more than 250 employees to publish details of the different pay levels of men and women in their organisation. We will build on this platform and, by 2020, extend transparency requirements to include publishing the number of people paid less than the Living Wage and the ratio between top and median pay. We will also consult on
requirements for companies to conduct and publish a full equality pay review, and to consult staff on executive pay.

Ask the Low Pay Commission to look at ways of raising the National Minimum Wage, without damaging employment opportunities. We will improve enforcement action and clamp down on abuses by employers seeking to avoid paying the minimum wage by reviewing practices such as unpaid internships.

Establish an independent review to consult on how to set a fair Living Wage across all sectors. We will pay this Living Wage in all central government departments and their agencies from April 2016, and encourage other public sector employers to do likewise.

Improve the enforcement of employment rights, reviewing Employment Tribunal fees to ensure they are not a barrier. We will ensure employers cannot avoid giving their staff rights or paying the minimum wage by wrongly classifying them as workers or self-employed.

All very good stuff.

Conduct a review of the Work Capability Assessment and
Personal Independence Payment assessments to ensure they are fair, accurate and timely and evaluate the merits of a public sector provider.

Simplify and streamline back-to-work support for people with
disabilities, mental or physical health problems. We will aim for
the goal of one assessment and one budget for disabled and sick
people to give them more choice and control.

This is stuff that desperately needs doing.

Reform the policy to remove the spare room subsidy. Existing
social tenants will not be subject to any housing benefit
reduction until they have been offered reasonable alternative
accommodation. We will ensure tenants who need an extra bedroom for genuine medical reasons are entitled to one in any assessment of their Housing Benefit needs, and those whose homes are substantially adapted do not have their Housing Benefit reduced.

In other words, “we’re not going to *say* we’re scrapping the ‘Bedroom Tax’, we’re just going to make sure it doesn’t actually apply to anyone”.

To ensure all children learn about a wide range of religious and nonreligious world views, religious education will be included in the core curriculum; however we will give schools the freedom to set policy on whether to hold acts of collective worship, while ensuring any such acts are strictly optional.

Getting rid of the statutory requirement for worship in schools is a *big* deal, and a great thing.

We are the only party with a credible plan to deliver the extra £8 billion NHS leaders know our health service in England needs by 2020, with the appropriate boost to funding for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too

Labour will only promise about a third of this. The Tories until last week were the same, and then suddenly said they’d put in the extra eight billion too, but without saying where they’d get it from.

That is why we will increase mental health spending in England’s NHS by £500m a year by 2016/17 – half of which we delivered in this year’s Budget – and provide the cash for similar investments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Desperately needed. There’s a lot of good wonkish mental health stuff in there.

Liberal Democrats are committed to repealing any parts of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 which make NHS services vulnerable to forced privatisation through international agreements on free markets in goods and services. We will end the role of the Competition and Markets Authority in health, making it clear that the needs of patients, fairness and access always come ahead of competition, and that good local NHS services do not have to be put out to tender. After determined negotiations, we now have a clear guarantee from the EU that member states’ rights to provide public services directly and not open them up to competition are explicitly enshrined in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and we will ensure this remains the case for TTIP and any future trade agreements.

Clearly good.

Restrict the marketing of junk food to children, including restricting TV advertising before the 9pm watershed


Lots of environment stuff which sounds very nice but which I have no basis to evaluate the effectiveness of

Yay the environment. I sound dismissive, but this is actually probably the most important stuff in the manifesto in the very long term. I just have no reasonable way to evaluate any of it, other than “that sounds good”.

we have set an ambitious target of increasing the rate of house building to 300,000 a year.


Enable Local Authorities to…levy up to 200% Council Tax on second homes where they judge this to be appropriate.

Sounds fair to me.

Challenge gender stereotyping and early sexualisation, working with schools to promote positive body image and widespread understanding of sexual consent law, and break down outdated perceptions of gender appropriateness of particular academic subjects


Give legal rights and obligations to cohabiting couples in the event of relationship breakdown or one partner dying without a will.

Permit humanist weddings and opposite sex civil partnerships, and liberalise the rules about the location, timing and content of wedding ceremonies.

Support schools to tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying and discrimination, and to establish a tolerant and inclusive environment for all their pupils. We will remove schools’ exemption from the bar on harassment in these areas while protecting the right to teach about religious doctrine.

Promote international recognition of same sex marriages and civil partnerships as part of a comprehensive International LGBT Rights Strategy that supports the cause of decriminalising homosexuality in other countries.

Seek to pardon all those with historic convictions for consensual homosexual activity between adults.

Enhance the experience of all football fans by making homophobic chanting a criminal offence, like racist chanting.

Ask the Advisory Committee on Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs periodically to review rules around men who have sex with men donating blood to consider what restrictions remain necessary

All good stuff, apart from the football chant one, which I’m in two minds about, because I don’t like laws against speech but I also don’t like tens of thousands of people chanting homophobic hate speech. The rest is all great, thanks to the good work of LGBT+ Lib Dems.

(There’s a lot of stuff about racial and religious discrimination, but I’m not qualified to see if those policies are as good, as it’s not an area I know much about.)

Formally recognise British Sign Language as an official language of the United Kingdom.

About time.

Prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion in the provision of public services.

Move to ‘name blank’ recruitment wherever possible in the public sector.

Introduce statutory public interest defences for exceptional cases where journalists may need to break the law (such as RIPA, the 2010 Bribery Act, and the 1998 Computer Misuse Act) to expose
corruption or other criminal acts.

Ensure judicial authorisation is required for the acquisition of communications data which might reveal journalists’ sources or other privileged communications, for any of the purposes allowed under RIPA; and allow journalists the opportunity to address the court before authorisation is granted, where this would not jeopardise the investigation.

Some much needed protection for journalists here.

To promote the independence of the media from political influence we will remove Ministers from any role in appointments to the BBC Trust or the Board of Ofcom.
To guarantee press freedom, we will pass a British ‘First Amendment’ law, to require the authorities and the courts to have regard to the importance of a free media in a democratic society.

Both obvious Good Things.

And a list of things from the freedoms and digital rights sections, without my comment because they’re obviously good (though they don’t go as far as I would — but then pretty much *no-one* would go as far as me):

Establish in legislation that the police and intelligence agencies should not obtain data on UK residents from foreign governments that it would not be legal to obtain in the UK under UK law.

Back a full judicial enquiry into complicity in torture if the current investigation by the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee investigation fails to get to truth.

End indefinite detention for immigration purposes.

Introduce restrictions on the indefinite use of police bail.

Require judicial authorisation for the use of undercover police officers to infiltrate alleged criminal groups.

Identify practical alternatives to the use of closed material procedures within the justice system, including the provisions of the 2013 Justice and Security Act, with the aim of restoring the principle of open justice.

Tighten the regulation of CCTV, with more powers for the Surveillance Camera Commissioner.

Extend the rules governing storage of DNA and fingerprints by public authorities to include all biometric data – like facial images.

Protect free speech by ensuring insulting words, jokes, and non-intentional acts, are not treated as criminal, and that social media communications are not treated more harshly than other media.

Prevent heavy-handed policing of demonstrations by tightly regulating the use of ‘kettling’.

Ban high-frequency Mosquito devices which discriminate against young people.

Strengthen safeguards to prevent pre-emptive arrests and misuse of pre-charge bail conditions to restrict civil liberties and stifle peaceful protest.

End the Ministerial veto on release of information under the Freedom of Information Act

Enshrine the principle that everyone has the right to control their own personal data, and that everyone should be able to view, correct, and (where appropriate and proportionate) delete their personal data, wherever it is held.

Forbid any public body from collecting, storing or processing personal data without statutory authority, and require any such legislation to be regularly reviewed.

Give increased powers and resources for the Information Commissioner and introduce custodial sentences for egregious breaches of the Data Protection Act.

Ensure privacy is protected to the same extent in telecoms and online as in the offline world. Public authorities should only invade an individual’s privacy where there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or where it is otherwise necessary and proportionate to do so in the public interest, and with appropriate oversight by the courts.

Uphold the right of individuals, businesses and public bodies to use strong encryption to protect their privacy and security online

The stuff on violence against women and sexual violence looks very good, especially:

Ensure teachers, social workers, police officers and health workers in areas where there is high prevalence of female genital mutilation or forced marriage are trained to help those at risk.

Require the teaching of sexual consent in schools as part of age-appropriate sex and relationships education.

These are hugely important areas, and currently not dealt with at all well.

We believe that a large prison population is a sign of failure to rehabilitate, not a sign of success. So our aim is to significantly reduce the prison population by using more effective alternative punishments and correcting offending behaviour.

It’s that our manifesto has sensible things like this — things that anyone who thinks for half a second would say are reasonable, but that go against the knee-jerk authoritarianism that’s been the norm in politics for as long as I’ve been paying attention to it — that convince me I’m in the right party.

Reform prisons so they become places of work, rehabilitation and learning, with offenders receiving an education and skills assessment within one week, starting a relevant course and programme of support within one month and able to complete courses on release

Yeah. Sensible, non-knee-jerk, policy.

Carry out an immediate review of civil Legal Aid, judicial review and court fees, in consultation with the judiciary, to ensure Legal Aid is available to all those who need it, that those of modest means can bring applications for judicial review of allegedly unlawful government action and that court and tribunal fees will not put justice beyond the reach of those who seek it. This will mean reversing any recent rises in up-front court fees that make justice unaffordable for many, and instead spreading the fee burden more fairly.

Translated “I can’t believe we let that idiot Grayling into Justice. We’d better undo the damage as quickly as possible”

Adopt the approach used in Portugal where those arrested for possession of drugs for personal use are diverted into treatment, education or civil penalties that do not attract a criminal record.

As a first step towards reforming the system, legislate to end the use of imprisonment for possession of drugs for personal use, diverting resources towards tackling organised drug crime instead.

Enable doctors to prescribe cannabis for medicinal use.

Put the Department of Health rather than the Home Office in charge of drug policy

The drugs policy doesn’t go nearly as far as I’d like, but again it’s such a relief to see it being talked about in ways that have anything at all to do with reality…

Introduce votes at age 16 for elections and referendums across the UK, and make it easier to register to vote in schools and

Reform the House of Lords with a proper democratic mandate, starting from the proposals in the 2012 Bill.

Reform our voting systems for elections to local government and Westminster to ensure more proportional representation. We will introduce the Single Transferable Vote for local government elections in England and for electing MPs across the UK. We will reduce the number of MPs but only as part of the introduction of a reformed, fair, voting system

And this is the single biggest reason why I’m a Lib Dem. We NEED proper electoral reform. I was worried that while this remained policy, it would quietly be dropped from the manifesto, but it’s still there. Councils are mentioned before Parliament, presumably because they’ll be more likely to be delivered in a coalition, but we’re trying for both.

Building on the Wright Committee recommendations of 2009, and experiences of Coalition, we will conduct a full review of Parliamentary procedures, which should formally recognise individual political parties not just Government and Opposition

This is something that is VERY necessary if multi-party governments are to become the norm.

We will deliver Home Rule for Scotland by implementing the
Smith Commission proposals in full in the first session of the next
Parliament. We will continue to make the case for powers currently
held at Westminster and Holyrood to be transferred directly to local
government where appropriate.

Proper devolution and Home Rule good. There’s lots of specifics about Welsh Home Rule as well, with a lot more powers granted to the Welsh Assembly, but I don’t know what most of them are. Same for Northern Ireland.

In some areas of England there is an even greater appetite for powers, but not every part of the country wants to move at the same speed and there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. We will therefore introduce Devolution on Demand, enabling even greater devolution of powers from Westminster to Councils or groups of Councils working together – for example to a Cornish Assembly

Proper devolution and Home Rule good.

Some of the wording under “Working for Peace and Security” appears to take a Blairite “liberal interventionist” stance, as many Labour supporters have spent much of the day saying on Twitter. I’m not especially happy with that, but I still think that overall the policies in that section (things like reducing the number of nuclear weapons) are more good than bad.


We will only support an agreement that upholds EU standards of consumer, employee and environmental protection, and allows us to determine how NHS services are provided.

I should certainly hope so!

(Most of the foreign policy stuff I’m not competent to comment on, like the environmental stuff; and like that, it’s probably more important than much of the rest).

Overall, much of the manifesto is sensible managerialism with which few people could disagree. There are also a couple of bits — but only a couple of bits — with which I very strongly disagree. But even though this is a manifesto designed to appeal to moderates who prize competence, rather than to radicals like myself, there’s plenty of good, strong, Liberalism in there.

Now we just have to get some good, strong, Liberal MPs elected to put as much of it as possible into practice.

Against Primaries

One of the things I’ve been seeing a lot recently is the repetition by people who should know better of the idea that what we need in British politics is primary elections. It started with the Tories, who are more prone than most to a disease that affects almost everyone in Britain — fetishising the United States, especially those aspects of it we don’t really understand, to the point that they want to make cargo-cult versions of everything American — but I’ve recently seen it being brought up, apparently seriously, on Lib Dem Voice of all places, where it’s been suggested that open primaries should be compulsory and that we should demand this in future coalition negotiations.

Now, I have no problem with parties choosing to use primaries if that’s what they wish to do, but compulsory open primaries would be such a ludicrously stupid idea it’s hard to know where to begin.

Firstly, the Lib Dems already have a policy that would, were it to be enacted, solve all the problems that primaries supposedly solve — STV. Advocating two mutually exclusive solutions (and you can’t have both) to the same problem would make no sense whatsoever.

There are no problems that primaries solve that wouldn’t be solved by STV, and they have a large number of problems that they bring about. If you have compulsory primaries, how are they administered? Who pays the cost of the primaries and, if the government, how can you avoid that being in many cases effectively government subsidised partisan campaigning? Do you let the Bring Back Birching, Legalise Marijuana and Close All Schools Party run a “primary” with only one candidate? If not, how do you force them to get a second candidate when they only have one member? If you do, how do you stop the Tories also running a primary with just one candidate?

But the most important problem is that it is solving the wrong problem. The problem we have at the moment is that people aren’t getting their voices heard when it comes to who represents them in Parliament (a problem which STV would solve). Primaries don’t solve that — they instead give people a voice in deciding who represents *a particular party* in *an election campaign*.

Political parties are private organisations, and should have the right to run themselves as their members see fit. I do not think George Osborne or Ed Balls are particularly good candidates, but that’s because I’m not a member of those parties. I do not, and should not, have the right to impose someone who thinks more like I do as the Conservative or Labour candidate. The Conservative candidate should be chosen by the Conservative Party — that’s what being the Conservative candidate means. Of course, should any party choose, voluntarily, to open their selection process up to the public, that too is their right, but if Labour say in 2015 that they are putting Gerald Kaufman up as candidate in my constituency because he is the person they think best represents what the Labour Party stands for, what right do I have, as someone who is not a member of that party, to say they should put up a different candidate?

It is the absolute right of private membership organisations to choose representatives who actually represent them, and not to have people who don’t represent their positions foist upon them. If you don’t like your Tory MP, the solution is to vote for a party other than the Tories, not to make the Tories devote time and resources to campaigning for a candidate they don’t believe represents the Conservative Party.

And if voting them out doesn’t work, because you’re in a safe seat… then we need to get in a voting system that lets you do that. And that, not copying the Americans and getting it wrong, is what we should be devoting our campaigning time to.

The Liberal Future: Direct Democracy vs Representative Democracy

This is something I’ve talked about here before, but only in comments, and it’s a subject that keeps coming up, so I thought I’d better make it a main post.

My single biggest political issue, the one I care about more than any other, is making Britain’s democracy something closer to functional. If we could get the constitutional changes I want — freedom of speech, proper federal assemblies for the English regions, increased devolution to Scotland and Wales, a fully-elected second chamber, no monarchy (or no role whatsoever for the monarchy in the lawmaking process, at the very least), no involvement of the Church in government, and every level of government elected by STV (or AV in the case of single-member roles like the Mayor of London), I would gladly let my political opponents have everything their own way, on every issue, for a full Parliament, because a properly working democracy can fix any problem, no matter how severe, while with a broken one like we have now it’s impossible to fix any of the major problems facing our economy, our environment, and our society.

So why, if democracy is so important to me (and the fact that the two major parties have spent this entire Parliament blocking those reforms while the Lib Dems have spent the entire Parliament fighting for them is, more than anything else, why I stay in the party despite any problems I have with the current government — it’s proof that they really are still better than the rest) why do I find the whole concept of referendums somewhat repellent?

There are many reasons, but it boils down to the same reason why I think that representative democracy is a real solution to many of our problems. It’s that I think people giving their informed opinions can only end up making the world a better place.

Most of us don’t have a real understanding of most of the business of government. I certainly don’t.  There are issues — constitutional issues, civil liberties, technological issues, LGBT+ rights, copyright law — where I have very strong opinions based on serious long-term study of the facts and ideas in question. There are other issues — health, education, economic equality, the environment — where I have some idea of what kind of outcome I’d like to see, but no idea which of several competing policies might bring about those outcomes. And there are yet others — most economic issues, most foreign policy — where I simply don’t have a clue.

I suspect this is the case for 95% of people, or more. The areas that we know about may be vastly different, but everyone cares about some political issue enough to have an informed opinion about it, and everyone has blind spots where they’re clueless.

Now, in a referendum, the chances of any individual actually having a clue about that particular issue are small — and as we’ve seen with both the AV referendum and the Scottish independence referendum, the campaigns generate so much more heat than light that it’s effectively impossible for an ordinary voter to educate herself on the subject once a campaign has started. This means that in a referendum, noise swamps signal, and the chance of getting the “right” answer (where “right” is the one that will actually make most people happiest, or that most people would choose had they all the facts, or however you want to define it) is no better than chance.

This might suggest that democracy itself is fundamentally flawed, were it not for the fact that we have representatives.

For all that professional politicians are a despised class, they are people who are paid to spend all their working lives becoming experts on every aspect of governance at their level (that not all of them do so is partly due to the stupid system we have). Where they don’t have the expertise themselves, they defer to colleagues — in the same party so at least theoretically sharing the same values — who do. So in a representative democracy, such as I’d like to see (and, to the extent that we have one, in our present system), legislation is made by people who know what they’re talking about on every issue — something most of us (who have jobs that involve things other than knowing about every detail of politics) don’t have the time or inclination for.

So surely, then, this means that we should just have rule by our betters, and not bother with elections at all, if people don’t know as much as the politicians?

No — and this is the important bit about representative democracy, but it’s the bit that gets ignored, or glossed over, or not explained properly when we talk about this — because representative democracy is a great way of cancelling out ignorance and getting only the right answers out. It’s not a perfect way, but it’s very good.

Say you, I, and a neighbour all lived in the constituency of Hornsey & Wood Green (which I’ve picked for the example because it has one of the better current MPs), and we all have very different areas of knowledge. My big issue is democratic reform, yours is equality for LGBT+ people, and our neighbour’s is ending female genital mutilation.

I look at the candidates, see that Lynne Featherstone is good on democratic reform, and vote for her. You look at the candidates, see that Lynne Featherstone was one of the main people responsible for bringing in same-sex marriage, and vote for her. Our neighbour looks at the candidates, sees that Lynne Featherstone is campaigning to end FGM in developing countries, and votes for her. If a candidate is good on all our individual issues (and on schools, on health, on taxation, and on whatever other issues people in the area care about) then all the people who know about those areas can vote for her.

The result is that I know that the candidate I vote for is good on the areas I care about, and assume she will be good on the other issues, because she’s paid to investigate them all (and she obviously comes to the same conclusions I do where we’ve got the same information). But if I’m wrong in that assumption — if she’s very good on civil liberties but lousy on education, say — then all the people who care about education will vote for someone else.

This means that in a properly functioning representative democracy, what you end up with is a result that is better than any individual voter would have come up with, because it presumes everyone is competent in the areas that they care about, and that their competencies reinforce each other and cancel out their incompetencies. Someone who is good on most issues will be more likely to get elected than someone who is only good on one or two. Referendums, on the other hand, presume that everyone is equally competent at everything, which is dangerous nonsense.

Direct democracy is a tool for demagogues. Representative democracy is a tool for the people. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

If Compulsory Voting Is The Answer, You’re Asking The Wrong Question

Last week’s election raised a lot of questions, including “should Nick Clegg resign?”, “should people calling for Nick Clegg to resign shut up?” and “why didn’t you vote for me? Is it because I smell?” (that last one mostly being asked by me, to be fair). But one topic I’ve seen coming up over and over is the low turnout.

And what people seem to be saying, over and over again, is “UKIP only won because hardly anyone voted! We should make voting compulsory!”

Well, no.

Firstly, because you don’t just change the rules because you don’t like the result. That’s not how democracy should work. I know (from bitter experience during the AV campaign) that the supermajority of people don’t actually care in the least about democracy, and just want to make sure their side wins, but a few of us actually do care about that kind of thing.

But also because compulsory voting, like internet voting, is one of those solutions in search of a problem that people keep bringing up, that wouldn’t actually do anything worthwhile.

Let’s look at those groups who don’t vote, shall we?

Firstly, there are a small number of people who have religious, political, or ethical objections to voting. It would be iniquitous to make these people vote. Yes, even if there was a RON or None Of The Above option, yes even if they could spoil their ballot paper. If you’re going to force people to act against their conscience, it should do much, much more for the public good than the average vote does.

That leaves the other two groups — the ignorant and the apathetic.

The ignorant are that group who simply don’t know enough to make any kind of informed decision. There are a lot of people who don’t know the most basic facts about politics — people who couldn’t name a single politician, or a single political stance of any of the parties. My own sister, for example, didn’t even know there was an election last week, despite me standing as a candidate. This isn’t because she’s stupid (she’s got a first class honours degree in physics) but because she’s never paid attention to politics. Unless you get very involved in political campaigning, though, you’ll never realise just how many of these people there are, because people who discuss politics on the internet tend only to talk with other people who know about politics. It’s only when you go knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, and phoning people up, that you realise just how many people still think the SDP is a national party, for example.

The apathetic, on the other hand, are those who consider that the result makes no difference to them. Again, this is a large chunk of the electorate. It may seem daft to those of us who spend our lives obsessing over such things, but there are a lot of people who really, really, don’t see any difference between, say, a UKIP government and a Green one.

Now, yes, you can get the ignorant and apathetic to vote, if you want, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage them, because they’ll essentially cast their votes at random. This is one of the things that confuses me about this campaign to make voting compulsory — since it seems to be based around a desire for a different result, it’s essentially saying “Yes, the people who cared enough to vote and who knew enough to know what day the election was disagreed with me, but all the people who didn’t know there was an election on and didn’t care would have voted my way!”

But more importantly, it’s not a solution to the problem. It’s a sticking plaster. The solution to ignorance isn’t to force people to make choices they don’t understand, but to make sure people have more information — civics lessons in schools, voter information campaigns, and political campaigns that actually tell voters what it is the parties stand for (the Lib Dem campaign this time, while misguided in many ways, at least had a clear message about the party’s policies and priorities).

And the solution to apathy isn’t to force people to make a choice they don’t care about, but to make them care. Have political parties that don’t all compete for the same tiny space of centre-right ground, but instead present different visions of how the world should be, and have a voting system that makes their votes matter, so they can see it makes a difference to their own lives and the lives of those around them who they vote for.

But these are things that require actual work, that can’t be distilled into a single tweet, and that take time to have an effect. No, far better to go around shouting for quick-fix “solutions” that don’t actually fix the problem they’re intended to solve, but that are simple enough to sum up in a soundbite. You know, like UKIP do. Maybe that result wasn’t as inaccurate as these campaigners think…

In Defence Of Papa John’s And John Schnatter

I get really, really annoyed at the Chinese whispers of the so-called ‘progressive’ internet sometimes.

You’ve probably seen a huge number of shared image macros calling for a boycott of Papa John’s Pizza, because they’re cutting people’s hours so they don’t have to pay health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. Awful, right? You probably shared one of the pictures yourself.

And it’s definitely true, because it clearly says so on MSN — “The pizza mogul announces he will reduce worker hours in light of Obama’s re-election”.

Except that their source is the Huffington Post, which only says “he will likely reduce workers’ hours”, not that he’s announced he’s going to.

Except that *THEIR* source is this story from Schnatter’s local newspaper, where he talks about what he perceives as good and bad points of the law, before saying that “it was likely that some franchise owners would reduce employees’ hours”

Papa John’s is a franchise chain, which means that in different areas of the US the restaurants are owned by separate businesses, which just buy the license from the central company. All Schnatter has actually said is that *some of those separate businesses, which he does not control* *MIGHT* cut hours, not that he is going to do anything at all.

I disagree with Schnatter about the Affordable Care Act, but it seems all he’s actually done is commit the terrible crime of having a nuanced position — saying it’s good that everyone will be covered, but that he could imagine some people, other people, cutting employees’ hours as a result — in an age when nuance is deadly.

But then, I don’t know why I’m bothering to write this — these words aren’t overlayed on a photograph, and they’re all correctly spelled, so no-one will read it…

One big rule if you’re writing about politics

There are people supporting every party and none who can make convincing arguments for a point of view, and who it’s worth reading whether you agree with them or not. But I find they are increasingly outnumbered by people who it’s simply not worth reading.

And there is a simple way of telling who they are — they use canned phrases that seem to come from some political party’s central office.

Mostly these seem to come from Labour supporters at the moment (possibly because Labour are the most popular party, possibly because my social circle skews leftwards). Some of these phrases sound reasonable, others definitely don’t, but they include “Conservative-led government”, “savage cuts”, “our NHS”, “most right-wing government in [insert time period]”, “ConDems”. The problem is when those phrases get used by everyone simultaneously.

It’s certainly not confined solely to Labour, though — “Tony Bliar”, “ZaNuLieBore”, “cleaning up Labour’s mess”, “Red Ed, the unions’ man”… these all have the same effect.

If you’re using these insta-cliches, which tend to spread through political twitterers and bloggers like herpes, then to anyone who is unaligned, or does not share your particular alignment, or even who agrees with you but has an aesthetic sense about the use of words, your post will actually be saying to that person “I have not actually thought about this issue myself, rather I have read a press release from the party of my choice, please ignore me.”

If I read someone saying “We must protect our NHS from the effects of the savage cuts brought in by this Conservative-led government, cuts which are too deep and too fast”, then I know that they haven’t actually thought about the issue themselves and there’s no point reading what they have to say.

If, on the other hand, I read someone saying “We need to protect *the* NHS from government cuts, which I think are far deeper than necessary”, I think “this is a person with whom I could have a discussion, and find out which cuts she thinks are most damaging and what we could do about them. It may turn out that she’s wrong, but it may not.”

Likewise, someone saying “The government need to do this because they’re cleaning up ZaNuLieBore’s mess!” gets instantly disregarded. Someone saying “Realistically, if we want the economy to recover, then some things need to be cut, and while it’s bad, better to cut this than let the recession continue” is, again, someone with whom discussion is possible. They may well be someone I disagree with, but I will at least be disagreeing with *her*, not with a press release she glanced at.

Each of these phrases sound focus-group-chosen to be convincing on an emotional level. “OUR NHS” sounds much more important than “THE NHS”, doesn’t it? But after hearing them a thousand times, they’re not. They’re manipulative, and to me at least they have an actively scary, creepy feel to them, like being surrounded by beings that have been mind-controlled by aliens.

But luckily, there’s a very simple rule you can follow, which will allow you to write convincingly and without people looking at you in the expectation that your faceplate will fall off to reveal the robot underneath. It’s this:

Think about what it is you want to say, and what words you can use to say that as clearly as possible.

It’s a simple rule, but one that’s rarely followed by bloggers and twitterers (and, reading through Orwell’s essays, it appears never to have been followed by pamphleteers).

If you’ve thought about something, and you have a clear idea of what it is you want to say, and you have chosen the words you think will best express your thoughts — chosen them yourself, not picked phrases that have been handed to you by a third party — then people will, when they read your writing, say “That’s a good point” or “I never thought of that”, or “You’re wrong, here’s why…” — all of which are useful reactions if you’re wanting to convince people of something.

If, on the other hand, you string a bunch of stock phrases together, you may well get five hundred retweets from people who already agree with you, but you’ll never change a single mind, except to possibly make some people who did agree with you before disagree with you in disgust.

(Doctor Who post will be up tonight, nearly a week late…)