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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Political Journalists Really Don’t Know What They’re Talking About

When it comes to the Lib Dems, political journalists are utterly clueless, and this means that a lot of people have severe misunderstandings about the likely result of the election if there’s a hung parliament.

I *keep* seeing two subjects coming up, over and again, in these discussions. These are “a Tory/Lib Dem/UKIP/DUP block” and “Nick Clegg would prefer a deal with the Tories than with Labour”.

The first is impossible. The second doesn’t matter. And both for the same reason.

What political journalists on all sides simply don’t get about the Lib Dems is that no matter how much the leadership push the “centrism” message, the party is fundamentally different from Labour, UKIP, or the Tories, the right-authoritarian parties journalists are used to talking about. In those parties, the leader makes the decisions and that’s the end of the matter. The leader can be deposed, but otherwise what he says goes.

In this respect, the Lib Dems are hugely different. Party policy is decided by the party, democratically, and if there’s a deal with another party *that* has to be decided democratically, too.

If there’s a situation after the election where the Lib Dems may be able to make a deal with one or more other parties, there’s a process in place, it’s not just the leader’s whim. That process is as follows:

The party will talk with the largest other party first, but *will* talk with any other party that can reasonably make an offer.
There is a five-person negotiating team who will go into any discussions and try to hammer out an agreement.
That agreement will be put to the party’s MPs, who would have to agree with it.
It will then be put to the Federal Executive, the party’s elected ruling body, who would also have to agree with it.
And then it will be put to a special party conference, who would have to support it by a two-thirds majority. (And it was said at Spring Conference this year that this would apply even to a supply and confidence agreement, not just to coalitions).

Yes, Nick Clegg’s view (if he’s still the leader, which would depend on him being re-elected in Sheffield Hallam, the election going well enough that he doesn’t feel obliged to stand down, and other such matters that are for the electorate to decide) will certainly be listened to by the party — but so would the views of, for example, Andrew George, the long-time MP for St Ives, who’s ruled out a coalition with the Tories. So would the views of Tim Farron, the party’s former president who’s widely tipped as the next leader, who says he’d prefer supply and confidence to a coalition. And so would the views of party members throughout the country.

It may well be the case that Nick Clegg might have a preference for working with the Tories over working with Labour. It may also be that he’d actually prefer to work with Labour — he’s not said one way or the other. That preference, whether it exists or not, doesn’t really matter. What matters is what the other parties offer, and how much the Lib Dem party members trust them to deliver it. Last time, the coalition agreement contained a large number of things that were very important to Lib Dem members, but which the Tories later reneged on.

My feeling of the mood of the party, which may well be wrong, is that the membership as a whole don’t want another coalition — with either party — unless there’s an absolutely *spectacular* offer, and that between the Tories’ current position and their behaviour this Parliament, it’s very unlikely they’ll make one, or that we’d believe them if they did.

I think the party as a whole are most likely to go for supply and confidence rather than a coalition, and more likely to support a Labour minority government than a Conservative one, all else being equal.

One thing that will *never* happen, though, is an agreement involving the DUP or UKIP. The Lib Dems are a broad church, but what unites the entire party is liberalism on social issues — the rule of law, free movement, internationalism, human rights. These are anathema to extreme authoritarian parties like UKIP or the DUP, in a way they aren’t to at least the moderate end of the Tories or Labour, and there is simply no point at which those parties and the Lib Dems overlap in views (that’s even ignoring the fact that neither of those parties will get enough members to make a difference in forming a stable coalition).

An agreement involving the SNP is more likely, though still difficult. The SNP are nationalists, which causes natural suspicion in the Lib Dems, and there’s a lot of bad feeling between the two parties in Scotland in the wake of the referendum which might make a deal impossible on a pure personality level on both sides. Unlike UKIP or the DUP, though, there is a reasonable amount of policy overlap, including on several Lib Dem priorities, so it’s not completely impossible. I’d put the chances fairly low, though.

So if you read anything talking about a deal with UKIP or the DUP, you know the journalist is either clueless (and therefore not to be trusted on anything else in the article either…) or deliberately misrepresenting the facts. And if you read anything about Nick Clegg’s opinions, just think “that’s interesting. I wonder what the opinions of the other 45,454 Lib Dem members are?”

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.

The Single Biggest Reason I’m Still A Lib Dem

I’ve never had any doubt that this election I will be campaigning for, and voting for, the Liberal Democrats, the same party I’ve voted for in every election since 1997 (except I think for a single council election about fifteen years ago, where I wrongly thought that the Green had a better chance of beating Labour in my ward).

But I’m very lucky, in that the candidate in the seat where I live, Dave Page, is someone I could never *not* vote for. He’s not only a very good friend of mine, but he’s an extremely principled liberal, the hardest working activist I know, the most *effective* activist I know, and someone who’s both intelligent and a genuinely nice person. When your choice is between someone like that on the one hand and Gerald Kaufman, a useless, venal, time-server who doesn’t even have a constituency office but did try to claim nearly £9000 in expenses for a TV, and successfully claimed £1800 for a rug, there’s no choice at all. Dave gets my vote.

Similarly, the constituency where I’ll be doing most of my campaigning, Manchester Withington (next door to mine), has John Leech as its MP. John is an absolutely exemplary MP who does a *huge* amount of constituency work, and is also one of the most rebellious MPs in the country (20th out of 650, and fourth most rebellious of the 57 Lib Dem MPs), regularly voting for the liberal thing rather than voting with the government when the two disagree.

So in my case, I can happily vote for, and campaign for, my local Lib Dem MPs with a clear conscience, knowing that I’m actually voting and campaigning for people who will be supporting liberal principles. The same goes for those in the constituencies of many other Lib Dem MPs and candidates — if you vote for, say, Adrian Sanders, Julian Huppert, or Tim Farron, you know you’re going to get a good representative who will do good work in Parliament.

However, some Liberals, or leftish people who’ve voted Lib Dem in the past, aren’t so lucky. Their local MP has been in government, and has made compromises as a result of that, compromises which the voter is uncomfortable with. We could argue all day about to what extent those compromises are justified, and everyone has different red lines. Personally I have a lot of sympathy for Tim Farron’s position, when he recently said:

“I’ll tell you the thing I am most proud of, most proud of, that nearly nobody knows about, is that there are nearly 3,000 children of asylum seekers who are not under lock and key now because of what Nick Clegg did with his popularity.

“I hear Nick Clegg being attacked regularly; if you want to know the integrity of somebody, it’s that he spends his political capital, gets nothing for it and makes people’s lives better. That’s a man with integrity.

And in general, I think the Lib Dems have done a lot of good, underreported, things like that. But we do all have red lines, things we simply cannot tolerate, and I don’t think there’s a single Lib Dem member who hasn’t been so annoyed by something this government has done that they haven’t thought “Is this worth it? Is this really what I got into politics for? To support this?” at least once (those who follow me on my non-public Twitter will have seen exactly how often this happens to me…)

But even if you’re one of those people who think that the compromises the party has made in power have been too great, there’s one very important reason to vote Lib Dem again.

This election, more than any other, shows that our electoral system, and our political system more generally, has become unfit for purpose. As the Daily Mash put it, A vote for the SNP ‘is a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for the Tories is a vote for UKIP’. The so-called “first past the post” system (a misnomer if ever there was one, given that there’s no post — “biggest loser” would be a more accurate term) made some kind of sense when there were two ideologically opposite, distinct, large parties to choose from. If you’re trying to choose between a party that wants to nationalise pretty much everything, raise the top rate of income tax to 95%, and scrap nuclear weapons, and one which wants to privatise pretty much everything, bring back the death penalty, and criminalise strikes, and there are no other parties contesting the area, then the biggest loser system makes sense.

But when your choice is between two right-authoritarian managerialist parties debating head-of-a-pin distinctions like “we will stop anyone under 25 from claiming benefits, and make them take a job” versus “we will have a compulsory jobs guarantee, and anyone under twenty-five who doesn’t take the compulsory job will lose their benefits”, while at the same time there are another five parties who might affect the final government, with policy platforms ranging from “free money for everyone and save the whales” to “we hate the foreigns”, the biggest loser system is laughably unsuitable.

We have a system now that is only democratic in the loosest possible sense. What government we get this election will have almost nothing to do with what people vote for, and still less with what they actually want. When you add in things like the unelected Lords, and the Bishops who still sit in Parliament, the system’s barely fit for the nineteenth century, still less the twenty-first.

The Lib Dems are the *only* party that will actually do anything to fix this problem. When the chance came to change the voting system, even though the option available (AV) was one that would disadvantage the Lib Dems (the Lib Dems would do better under a proportional system than they do now, but AV isn’t proportional), the Lib Dems voted and campaigned for it. The Labour Party — who had a referendum on changing the voting system in their manifestos in 1997, 2001, 2005, and 2010, but just never quite got round to it — voted against having the referendum at all, and then the majority of them campaigned with the Tories against the change. The Greens’ one MP voted against having the referendum as well.

When the Lib Dems got a cross-party committee to come to a consensus for how to reform the Lords and make it democratic, Labour, a party that had Lords reform in its manifesto every election but somehow never quite got round to it, voted with the Tory backbenchers to stop the bill having Parliamentary time, blocking reform. The Greens’ one MP voted against even setting up the committee to look into it.

Quite simply, politics is broken. There is no space in the current political system for the voices we need to hear — whether from socialists, or environmentalists, or libertarians, or nationalists, or Burkean conservatives, or anyone else outside the tiny Westminster consensus. To my mind, the issues surrounding this — whether to do with the actual electoral system, or with the increasing restrictions being placed on freedom of speech, are the most important facing us at the moment. We can’t get anything else right in politics until we have a system that *allows* us to get things right, and right now we don’t have that.

I broadly agree with the Lib Dems’ policies, and I think most of the Lib Dems’ elected representatives are at least basically OK, but even if I disagreed with the party on almost everything else, I think the fact that they’re the only party that actually want to fix our broken system would be reason enough by itself to vote for them.

I have no idea what will happen in May — my *guess* is that the Lib Dems will get about 35 seats and Labour will be the single largest party, but beyond that I haven’t a clue — but whatever happens, it won’t be what *anyone* wants or has voted for. I’m hoping that whatever mess of a government we end up with in two months, in five years, if nothing else, I won’t have to write this same blog post again. And the only way to make that even slightly likely is to vote Lib Dem.

So Farewell Then, @timfarron

Today the Liberal Democrats announced their new President, Sal Brinton. She wasn’t my first preference, but I’m sure she’ll do a very good job — people who work in equalities stuff tell me that she’s extremely good on that, especially.

She’ll have to work very hard, though, to be as good as the outgoing President, Tim Farron.

Tim got the role at a difficult time for the party, coming into the role in 2010. Anyone who has paid attention to the Lib Dems over the last four years knows there’s been a very interesting split in the behaviours of the Parliamentary party. For the most part, the front bench have been bound by collective responsibility, and so have not only voted for some illiberal measures, but have at times seemed to see it as their duty to make the case that those measures are what we as a party have wanted all along — and recently some have gone further, and seem to be arguing that what we really want is to be even more right-wing than this government has. There have been exceptions — Lynne Featherstone, Norman Baker and Vince Cable, in particular, have all continued to be strong Liberal voices from ministerial posts, but too many have seemed to see their job as making the case for coalition policies to the party and public, rather than making the case for Liberal policies to the coalition.

But then the backbenchers have, for the most part, carried on supporting strong Liberal measures. If you look at the voting records of, say, John Leech, Adrian Sanders, Julian Huppert, or any number of backbench Lib Dems, you’ll see that while they vote for any measures in the coalition agreement, for the budget, and all the other commitments that cause problems, they have frequently rebelled on the issues that have become red flags — tuition fees, the “bedroom tax”, secret courts and so on. The Lib Dem backbenches, unencumbered by collective responsibility, have been far more inclined to push for a strongly Liberal society. But they, of course, tend not to have media profiles, so even when an actual majority of the Parliamentary party votes against or abstains on an illiberal measure, and even when the party’s policy is against that measure, when the front benches vote for it, the media has tended to say “now the Lib Dems support X!” rather than “now the Lib Dem leadership vote for X!”

Tim Farron has been in an interesting position in this regard, being on the back benches, but having a position in the party that gives him some media presence. And he has used that position to argue consistently for a challenge to the Thatcherite consensus, for a liberalism in the tradition of Beveridge, Keynes, Roy Jenkins, and the other great left-Liberal figures. Just read this speech on housing from July, or this on immigration (NB, both those are New Statesman links, and I know a few people who refuse to click on that site). It’s plainly-spoken undiluted Liberalism, a million miles from the standard platitudes of most politicians on all sides at the moment. Tim’s voice has been hugely important over the last few years.

But the job of the President isn’t just to make the public case for Liberalism, it’s also to listen to the membership and the public and be a voice back to the leadership — a role that has never been more important, and that Tim more than anyone has stepped up to. This tweet today summed it up:
Screenshot from 2014-11-30 01:26:37

Farron has, more than any MP I know of, managed to use the internet well. He listens to people’s concerns, talks more freely than any other politician in any party, discusses policy, and will change his mind on issues after discussions. He uses social media as a space for discussion, not as most politicians do as just somewhere to tweet links to their latest press release.

This post may seem a little hagiographic of Farron, and I don’t want anyone to think I think he’s perfect. I have had several areas of disagreement with him over the last few years, and his record is far from perfect. But I think he has done a remarkably good job of navigating the tricky areas of remaining in coalition while pressing for Liberal policies and of communicating sensibly with the membership and the wider public, and he also seems a genuinely nice man. I’m sure his period as President coming to an end won’t be the end of him taking a high-profile role in the party.

I was very cautious about him when he first became President, and I’m glad to say I was completely wrong to be. Let’s all hope Sal Brinton rises to the challenge as well.

Lost Causes

Last night, I found myself in tears, and thinking to myself “despite everything, I still believe in Liberalism, and I still believe that the Lib Dems are the best vehicle for it. I’m going to have to fight harder for the party”.

Which is probably not the response Steve Earle was intending to provoke.

I’ve been having a tiny bit of a crisis regarding the party recently. It’s partly been to do with stuff that’s been in the news — not just the Rennard stuff (about which I agree with Jennie), but also Clegg’s speech about immigrants, which had me spitting blood. (And it was specifically the bits about *immigrants*, not about immigration, that annoyed me. People of good will can disagree about what level of immigration should be allowed, but taking rights and services away from people who are already here is just vile.) I try to be loyal in my public statements, to accept the realities of politics, and not just to be someone sniping from the sidelines, but that really pushed me to my limit.

But mostly because I’ve been fairly unwell myself for quite a while, and had a *LOT* of personal stuff to deal with (enough that when I’ve just listed some of the “highlights” of the last couple of months people have tended to laugh because the sheer number of things going wrong has been hilarious) and I’ve had difficulty keeping to my party commitments. I’m on my local party exec, and I try to do a good job, but there are some very simple things that I haven’t been able to do recently. I hope to be able to pull my weight again very soon.

These things have combined to create a sort of “what the fuck is the point of even bothering?” attitude in me. I’ve been using up more and more energy, but having less and less actual ability to do the things required of me, and all for what seem to be rapidly diminishing returns in terms of result. I’ve been seriously questioning why I bother.

Basically, in short, I’ve been turning into a whiner.

But yesterday I went to see Steve Earle, at the conference centre attached to the Echo Arena in Liverpool. I hadn’t meant to go to the gig, actually, but my friend Emily had a workmate who couldn’t go, and so I got their ticket. I love Earle’s work, but hadn’t seen him live since about 1998 — he always seems to play Manchester when there’s another gig on the same night that I already have a ticket for, or when I’m out of town.

After a support act which reinforced my desperate desire to get out and perform music again — their guitarist played exactly like I do, by which I don’t mean “badly”, but that he had exactly the same phrasing, to a degree that was frankly spooky — Earle came on and launched into You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and I remember realising that I have never yet seen an American act play Liverpool and *not* play a Beatles song. Blondie even did it in Delamere Forest, because that’s close enough…

For those who don’t know who Earle is (which I discovered when talking about the gig in the days leading up to it is far more people than I would have thought), he’s usually described as a country singer, but like all genre labels that’s something that can describe totally different forms of music. In Earle’s case, it seems to mean “man who has both a guitar and a Texas accent”, and not much more than that — Earle’s music definitely has a resemblance to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Michael Nesmith, or Townes Van Zandt, but no more so than its resemblance to Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits (in ballad mode), Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, or Elvis Costello, none of whom normally get called country singers.

Earle did a two-hour set, which touched on most of the highlights of his career — I Ain’t Never Satisfied, My Old Friend The Blues, Devil’s Right Hand,Goodbye, Tom Ames’ Prayer, Copperhead Road, Guitar Town, and Galway Girl (which got a small number of people who had seemed rather disapproving of his swearing and songs about crime, and who had presumably only come because they knew that song from the cider advert, on his side), and the rest. He also talked a lot between songs — about the different types of song he writes (“I write those songs so that I get women in the audience, which stops my audience getting uglier and hairier, because when I look at the men it’s like looking in a mirror” — which made me laugh more than it should, because I’d been joking earlier that Earle’s current glasses/balding head/huge beard look is stealing my style, and because he said this right after Goodbye, my single favourite song of his, so it might not be having quite the effect he hopes), and about his own personal struggles (he’s currently going through his seventh divorce, though to his sixth wife — he married and divorced one of them twice).

The one area of his songwriting he didn’t go into much in the show was his political songwriting. While almost everything Earle does has an at least implicit political message, he left out most of the explicitly political stuff he did in the mid-2000s, songs like John Walker’s Blues or Amerika v6.0 (The Best We Can Do), at least until the encore.

But for the first song of the encore, he played Jerusalem, his song about the Middle East, and talked about the work he’s done there producing collaborations between Jewish and Palestinian musicians and working with anti-war Israeli activists. And he said “I don’t believe in lost causes, because I’m a recovering heroin addict, and for a long time everyone thought I was a lost cause, and I even thought so myself, and I turned my life around”, before talking about how Belfast had changed over the years, and how even the seemingly impossible can soon become normal in politics, and then singing:

I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say

And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find

That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

And suddenly I understood how Earle could carry on his own political campaigning, which is mostly against the death penalty in the US, a cause that seems far more hopeless than any of the causes I’ve been involved in. And I thought about my own pathetic moaning that I haven’t yet got everything I want in politics, and that changing the world is quite hard and sometimes you have to do it even when you have a headache or are a bit tired, and I compared that to the people in the Middle East for whom political activity is literally a matter of life and death, and who just get on and do it, and realised just how comparatively easy my own political “struggles” really are.

So I’m more resolved than ever that I’m going to keep campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, and that I’m going to keep pushing within the party for it to be more like it is at its best and less like it is at its worst. I can’t promise that I’ll be any more use than I have been, given my health, or that the efforts I do make will be any more successful. But I’ll do what I can, when I can, to make the world a little bit better…

Brief #ldconf notes

Brief conference notes (I’m not actually well enough to do a proper blog post yet):

Good things:
The Digital Bill Of Rights proposals from Tim Farron and Julian Huppert are the most sensible thing any party has ever said on the subject. Given that it was only about eighteen months ago that the parliamentary party was almost going to let the horrible surveillance bill go through essentially on the nod, the turnaround has been fantastic. I’m proud that I played a very small part in that turnaround, and that I’m friends with some of the people who did more of the work, and now we have an actual Liberal policy. Now to put it into action.

The Power To The People motion. It could have been better if the amendment about devolution had passed, and I think the bit about job-share MPs is a hostage to fortune (they’d be fine *with STV*, but it’s the kind of thing that could very, very easily be provided on its own as a sop in coalition negotiations, and job-share MPs with FPTP would be catastrophic, so I supported Nottingham Sarah Brown’s attempt to delete those lines) but it’s a fine motion overall.

The attitude towards equality and diversity. The party is still far too white, too male, and too upper-middle-class, but when you hear people like Bernard Greaves talking in serious, knowledgeable, terms about the intersectional problems facing trans people from Africa, or employment discrimination against autistic people, it’s clear that there is a *serious* effort to rectify this.

Meeting many people I knew from the internet but hadn’t met in real life before, as well as spending (all too little) time with friends.

The Bad:
The fatuous idiot from EMLD (not the chair, but someone else from it) who tried to deny that there *any* were problems within minority communities and claimed that the *only* problem they faced was oppression from white people, and then made the absurd claim that white women choosing to have labioplasty is equivalent to involuntary female genital mutilation. I was unsurprised to learn he was both a policeman and ex-Labour — the communitarianism was strong in that one, at the expense of sense. (Not all Labour people are communitarians, but almost all communitarians are Labour — it’s a failure mode of Labour’s culture in a way that Little-Englanderism is of the Tories or an obsession with systems over people is with us).

The new immigration policy. It’s largely rather good, but there are enough bad things about it that I couldn’t vote for it. I was finally swayed by Caron Lindsay’s intervention, when she pointed out a line I hadn’t seen — if our new policy had been law eight years ago, I would not have been able to get married. I could not in all conscience vote for something like that.

The dull speech from a minister which went on about improving equality in the boardroom. Frankly I think there are about ten quadrillion things more important than ensuring that a quota of women be reached on the boards of FTSE 100 companies, since that can by its very nature only improve things for a few, already extremely-well-off, women.

Clegg talking once again about keeping British politics firmly in the centre. He was pretty decent otherwise in his speech and Q&A, but he doesn’t seem to realise that his party are *not*, for the most part, centrists, but radical Liberals.

The way some aspects of the policy proposals seemed pre-negotiated-away for coalition agreements. The thinking seemed to be to go for policies we might be able to persuade one of the other parties to agree with as they are, rather than to go for the best policy we can and then negotiate it down if any coalition negotiations happen.

The worst:
I thought when I was heading off to conference that the reason I was feeling ill was an ongoing niggly throat infection I’d had for weeks and that didn’t seem at all contagious. Instead, within a day or so of getting there it had turned into some sort of monstrous chest thing that made it almost impossible for me to breathe. I may, therefore, have infected people, and I apologise. I’d have stayed at home had I known this was a new thing rather than a continuation of the old one.

Oh look, that’s turned into a blog post after all. I’ll post it on my blog as well as FB…