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:
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.
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 conference notes (I’m not actually well enough to do a proper blog post yet):
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 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.
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…
One of the larger running themes in political journalism — and especially blogging — over the last few weeks has been that there are rumours of rapprochement between Labour and the Lib Dems — Clegg and Balls jokingly exchanging tweets, Balls describing Clegg as a man of principle and so on. The implication has been that the two parties are preparing for the possibility of coalition, and there has been a lot of talk about Labour adopting various Lib Dem policies, and about the Lib Dems stressing their more left-wing positions and points of difference with the Tories.
The line in most political blogs has basically been “Labour are no longer confident of winning a majority, and want to leave the possibility of coalition open”.
Now, I don’t discount this as a possibility, and I think it a consummation devoutly to be wished — short of a Lib Dem majority government or a Lib Dem/Green coalition, a Lib/Lab coalition would be my preferred government. I would be ecstatic if these rumours were true, and even more so if the election made them a reality.
But I don’t believe that’s what’s happening for a second — or rather, I think that we would be seeing exactly these stories appearing now whether or not there was any behind-the-scenes planning for a Lib/Lab coalition. And I’m quite amazed that none of the political blogs I read have mentioned this.
The reason is simple. From the Lib Dems’ point of view, it’s a good idea to talk this up as much as possible — we’ve lost a lot of left-wing support because of the coalition with the Tories, and the single most convincing argument against voting Lib Dem now is “they’ll let the Tories in”. We need to win as many of those left-leaning voters back as possible, and aligning ourselves more with Labour is a way of doing that.
But it’s also, paradoxical as it may seem, in Labour’s interest to make the Lib Dems look good.
The first reason is simple — they want to keep many of the ex-Lib Dem voters who are now supporting them, and the best way to do that is to align their policies, somewhat, with the Lib Dems’. As the election gets closer, some of those voters will drift back, as always happens. If Labour can say “well, we have the policies you like from the Lib Dems, and we’ll probably go into coalition with them anyway”, then those voters are more likely to feel comfortable sticking with Labour rather than drifting back.
But the second reason is that Labour need to encourage *some* people to stop voting Labour and to vote Lib Dem instead. Honestly.
The next election is going to be a close one — it’s likely to lead to a slim Labour majority, but Labour’s lead in the polls is a fairly low one for an opposition party at this point in a parliament, and it might lead to a hung parliament, especially if the economic recovery continues.
So Labour needs not only to maximise its own number of seats, but to minimise the number of Tory wins, either to get an actual majority or, failing that, to make sure it’s the largest party in a hung parliament.
Now have a look at this. My apologies for linking to the Egregious Tory Tosser, but in this piece he’s largely correct. I’ve been saying all along that the Lib Dems will win about thirty-five seats in the next election, and he’s agreeing with me.
But look at the breakdown — of the twenty-two seats he thinks the Lib Dems will lose (and I largely agree with his assessment), eight will go to Labour, while fourteen would go to the Tories. And this will be entirely because of people moving from the Lib Dems to Labour.
Of course, if Labour and the Tories hadn’t both conspired to keep the godawful voting system we’ve got now, that wouldn’t be happening, but they both made their bed and now they’ve got to lie in it — people switching from Lib Dems to Labour will actually reduce Labour’s lead over the Conservatives in seats.
This means that the best strategy for Labour is the old anti-Tory “progressive front” nonsense — if they can come as close as possible to saying “Labour and the Lib Dems are on the same side against those evil Tories” without actually saying that, they’ll keep as many ex-Lib Dems as possible in Labour/Tory marginals and the odd three-way marginal, but give Labour supporters ‘permission’ to vote Lib Dem in Lib Dem/Tory seats (Labour have no fear of losing in the tiny number of Labour/Lib Dem marginals, though I’ll do everything in my power to see that John Leech, at least, keeps his seat).
So in the next sixteen months, leading up to the general election, it’s in the best interests of both Labour and the Lib Dems to portray the two parties as more alike than different. Expect more and more talk of Lib/Lab coalitions, how Vince Cable used to be a Labour member, how Andrew Adonis used to be a Lib Dem, how Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband ganged up to vote down the Tories on some minor but symbolic piece of legislation, and all that sort of thing.
For precisely the same reason, it’ll be in the Tories’ best interests to portray the Lib Dems as being like the Tories, so expect a constant run of stories, all coming from the Tory side, about right-wing Lib Dems like Jeremy Browne or David Laws “considering defection”. Again, whether those stories are true or not will have *absolutely no bearing* on whether they get reported — and when they do, the stories will be coming from the Tories, and the denials will come from the Lib Dems.
Honestly, this was obviously going to be the strategy from the *second* the AV referendum was lost, and it gives us no information whatsoever about what will happen *after* the election. It’s just each party doing the game-theoretically optimal thing in a situation with as stupid a voting system as we’ve got, and I’m amazed so many people seem to have taken the stories at face value.
It’s just yet another reason we need a sane voting system…
(Continues from the introduction)
Before I start explaining what Liberalism is, it’s probably a good idea to explain what it isn’t — why the Liberal Democrats are perceived very differently from the reality, and why some of what you think about them is probably wrong.
Since at least the French Revolution, there has been a traditional splitting of parties into left-wing and right-wing. In Britain, the principal left-wing party is nominally the Labour party, although that party has moved very far to the right in the last twenty years compared to its historical positions. The principal right-wing party has always been the Conservative party.
Both of these parties, like all major political parties, are broad coalitions of different interest groups, but very roughly their split is on economic grounds.
The Labour party have traditionally been democratic socialists and social democrats. This isn’t so true any more, as they have moved much further to the right than even most of their supporters would like, but the basic idea animating the Labour movement is, roughly (and I apologise if I caricature this, and would welcome corrections from anyone who thinks I’m missing nuance):
The best way to organise the economy is to have large parts of it controlled by a central government that can redistribute resources to those who most need them, and for the party running the government to retain ties to the working classes by being allied with a mass Trade Union movement.
I don’t know to what extent the modern Labour party leadership agree with that statement, but it’s one that much of the membership agrees with, and can be seen in some of the actions taken by the Labour government between 1997 and 2010.
By contrast, the Conservative party, post-Thatcher, broadly believes:
The best way to organise the economy is through the profit motive. Those who have money at the moment generally have it because they’re better at making money than other people are, and since the only reasonable way to make money is to provide a service that people will pay for, people who are good at making money for themselves are also benefiting society. The best thing government can do is to step aside and leave them to it (and sometimes provide them with a little help if they think it’s really necessary).
I may be over-simplifying, there, but I think that those positions are very roughly correct.
Liberalism, on the other hand, is not an economic position at all.
That’s not to say that there is no such thing as Liberal economics — far from it. Both the most influential economists of the twentieth century, Keynes and Hayek, described themselves as Liberal (although the Liberal Democrat party has always been far keener on Keynes than on Hayek). There is a whole long history of Liberal economics, from John Stuart Mill’s laissez-faire through the Distributists of the early part of the twentieth century to the zero-growth economics advocated by some in the 1980s, and I will be dealing with it more in future essays. Essentially, though, the point of Liberal economics has always been:
An economic system which enables each individual to achieve fulfillment through his [sic] work, which distributes the proceeds of industry to all, and which, denying excessive power to the bureaucracy and to those who own capital, guarantees to each worker the right to share in the direction and rewards of his [sic] labour
Apologies for the sexist language there — feminism and identity politics had not yet become part of the Liberal mainstream when that was written.
The Liberal economic tradition can best be described as a sort of market socialism — ensuring that workers control the means of production, but directly, through mutuals, co-operatives and so forth, rather than indirectly through the state. (Half my Liberal friends will have shuddered at that description because I used the word “market”, the other half because I used the word “socialism”. I’m trying to over-simplify our own ideas here too…)
But crucially, Liberalism has never been primarily about economics. Even from the beginning of Liberalism as an identified philosophy, with John Stuart Mill (and Harriet Taylor), On Liberty did not make the same arguments as Principles Of Political Economy. Mill’s laissez-faire economics were certainly compatible with the politics of On Liberty, but he never claimed that they arose from the same principles — he argued for them on pragmatic grounds .
Rather than being about how one organises the economy, then, Liberalism has always been about how one organises society — the organisation of political institutions, and the distribution of political, rather than of economic, power. The two are interlinked, of course, and so political and economic Liberalism go well together — the Liberal Democrats’ unofficial anthem, The Land, is a call for a land value tax to prevent rent-seeking — but it is perfectly possible to be a Liberal Socialist or a Liberal Capitalist.
Liberalism exists on an axis orthogonal to the conventional left-right axis, which is a terrible oversimplification. A good comparison would be with environmentalism, which is orthogonal to both axes — one could be a right-authoritarian environmentalist, like for example John Aspinall or the Goldsmith family, a left-liberal environmentalist, like many members of the Liberal Democrats, or a left-authoritarian one like many in the Green party.
But this leads to a problem. The easiest way to explain this for harried journalists, or for those politicians who are more keen on pragmatism than on political theory, is just to say “Liberalism is neither left nor right, but in the centre”. It’s only in the centre if the top of a pyramid is in the centre of its base.
Liberalism is a unique philosophy of its own, and to think of it as a compromise between the beliefs of the Labour and Conservative parties, in the “moderate centre”, is a bit like thinking of Christianity as a moderate compromise between Judaism and Islam.
In the next essay, I plan to talk about why centrism itself is a bad thing.
1 — Young Liberal Statement, 1970, quoted in Meadowcroft, M. Liberal Values For A New Decade, 2nd edition, North West Community Newspapers, 1980.
2 — I am indebted here to The Thinking Person’s Guide To Liberalism by Conrad Russell for this argument.