Archive for category Lib Dems, where next?

Nick Clegg – a wasted opportunity

The SDP was formed in the 1980s by four former Labour Cabinet Ministers. Their goal was to ‘break the two-party mould of British politics’. Thanks to our absurd voting system, they failed to win more than a handful of seats and a decade later decided to merge with the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats was born. Nearly twenty years later, the party held the balance of power in a general election. This was the first time the Liberal Democrats had ever achieved this (and the last time their legal predecessors the Liberals held office was in the 1920s).

Their 2010 manifesto made a list of radical commitments to constitutional reform:

  • reducing the number of MPs by 150
  • replacing first-past-the-post with the single-transferrable vote
  • requiring all peers and MPs to pay tax
  • Abolishing the House of lords
  • Reducing the voting age to 16
  • A written constitution

How many of these commitments were carried out? None. The face of British politics is exactly the same as it was in 2010. Had Cameron won outright, politically speaking we will still have a system, which locks out anything other than the duopoly of Labour and Conservative.

One of the biggest mistakes the Liberal Democrats made was removing Charles Kennedy. Kennedy did not need to be sacked – yes he needed time to deal with his drinking problem, but an extended leave of abscence would have been sufficient. It’s impossible to imagine Kennedy handing Cameron a blank cheque.

Clegg spent his career trying to create multi-party politics and squandered it at the first opportunity – an opportunity which probably won’t come up again for a while.

The next general election (presumably in 2020) is likely to result in another hung parliament or a wafer thin majority – the two main parties share of the vote has been steadily declining for thirty years and is unlikely to change. The matter of electoral reform for the House of Commons (which should be a priority for all of the non-major parties) will come up again – hopefully this time the opportunity will not be undermined by someone as vilified as Clegg.

Update: Clegg claims his biggest mistake was sitting next to Cameron at PMQs – which is a strange conclusion – given that no-one outside the Westminister bubble cares about PMQs.

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Can Caroline Pidgeon even expect to retain her deposit?

Caroline Pidgeon has been appointed the Liberal Democrat’s candidate for Mayor of London in 2016. No, I hadn’t heard of her either until now. I have since discovered she is the Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the London Assembly – so it’s possible people in London will have heard of her. (Incidentally there is only one other Liberal Democrat Assembly member – so it’s unlikely her leadership role is particularly taxing or has provided  her with sufficient experience, to be Mayor of a major city).

What are her chances in London then?

The liberal democrats have never done well in the London Mayoral election:

2000 – 11.9% fourth

2004 – 15.3% third

2008 – 9.8% third

2012 – 4.2% – fourth place, deposit lost

A steady decline since their peak of 2004 – when less than one in six people voted for them. Pidgeon clinched the post as no-one else ran. It’s therefore hard to judge how she will fair in an election. What other factors are there? Directly elected posts tend to descend into manly contests – of the 17 directly elected mayoralties in England only five are held by women.

Non-major parties, are held back also, by lack of media focus. A liberal democrat candidate cannot even hope to widen the debate.

There is no second prize. This is winner take all. The winning Mayor, also has to work with the assembly – which as stated has only two Liberal Democrat assembly members out of twenty-five.

The deposit, which they will doubtless  lose is £10,000.

All this raises the question: why bother?

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Is Farron attempting to force House of Lords Reform?

Farron’s announcement, that he will use Liberal Democrat peers to vote down legislation has been branded hypocritical. I would describe it as calculating. From Lloyd George to Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leaders have tried and failed to abolish the House of Lords. Farron does not support the Lords (as far as I can tell the last major party leader to support the House of Lords was John Major).

There is a convention that peers do not vote against manifesto pledges (the Sailsbury Convention).  If the Liberal Democrats choose to ignore this convention, there will be no ramifications whatsoever. The convention is nothing other than a pact. Farron could set a precedent of the Lords becoming a large blockade, in the path of the Prime Minister.

Throughout history, Prime Ministers dealt with opposition in the Lords by either reform or attempted abolition. Lloyd George himself stripped the Lords of the right to veto legislation, in order to prevent them from voting down laws that would introduce higher rates of tax. Wilson tried to remove the hereditary peers who consistently blocked his bills.

Cameron himself favours abolition of the House of Lords. He voted for a 80% elected chamber in 2007 and the Conservative Party manifesto states: “While we still see a strong case for introducing an elected element into our second chamber, this is not a priority in the next Parliament.”

The reason Cameron does not consider it a priority, is he knows it will be a fight he is unlikely to win, nor can he face a lengthy showdown with his backbenches. Nevertheless Farron may force his hand.

Cameron is the first Conservative Prime Minister who cannot rely on the support of the House of Lords. Since 1999, only 10% of the hereditary peers have been allowed to sit on the Red Benches. The break up of the coalition, means the Lords is now a hung legislature.

The current composition of the House of Lords is thus:

Conservatives: 224

Labour: 211

Liberal Democrats: 101

Cross-benchers 176

With just under  1/7th of the votes (assuming all peers turn up and vote in unison) it’s clear the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power – but only if they join forces with the Labour party or the crossbenchers (who never signed up to the Sailsbury convention either).

The four main leaders are united on Lords reform. Based on their voting records: Cameron favours 80% elected, Farron favours 80% or 100%, with Corbyn and Robertson supporting 100% elected. It seems plausible that the leaders could reach a compromise of 80%.

The Liberal Democrats consistently oppose the Lords. The SNP boycott the House of Lords; there are no currently no life peers with the SNP whip (and I am unaware of any previous SNP peers). However there are more divisions in the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. Some Labour MPs favour outright abolition IE the House of Parliament rather than the Houses of Parliament. Fifty Labour MPs signed an early day motion supporting this, in 2007. Cameron himself faced considerably rebellion in 2012; reportedly he shouted at Jesse Norman MP who spearheaded the rebellion that scuppered the Coalition’s attempt to reform the Lords.

With a divided Labour Party and internal opposition, the prospect of Lords reform cannot enthrall Cameron. Nevertheless it seems hard to imagine it will remain off the table, if Farron uses his position in the Lords to scupper legislation.

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No Cable, we don’t need another new centre-left party

The SDP. The Liberal Democrats. New Labour. Three attempts to form centre-left parties. The SDP was killed off by the voting system. The Liberal Democrats (which emerged from the wreckage of the SDP) abanonded any attempts to be centre-left in 2010, and consequently lost all but 8 of their 57 constituencies. It’s difficult to tell when New Labour died. I would argue, given the that Blair Government kicked things off with the ‘benefit integrity project’ which resulted in disabled people committing suicide, New Labour was never a centre-left government.

The demise of the Liberal Democrats, has led Vince Cable to suggest the formation of the fourth centre-left party since the 1980s. Cable himself has been a member of four parties, so I suppose creating a fifth one, seems like a natural step to him. Given Cable drafted the bill that introduced £9,000 tuition fees, it’s difficult to imagine he would have any credibility as a member of a centre-left grouping

The SDP never formed a government, so it’s impossible to access their record. Both New Labour and the Liberal Democrats were centre-left in opposition, but decidedly centre-right in government.

I personally do not like the whole ‘centre-left’, ‘centre-right’, ‘right-wing’, etc, spectrum. Describing Labour MPs as ‘Red Tories’ is a term that has been used so much, it has lost all meaning. Politics should be about issues. UKIP, CISTA and NHA are all criticised as ‘single issues’ – as if to suggest that EU membership, rolling back the nanny state or universal health care were in some ways trifles.

Charles Kennedy made the excellent suggestion of a Scottish Unionist party – given Independence has been a key issue in Scotland for some time (and will continue to dominate for years if not decades) this would provide a voice for the Unionists (being Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat does not disqualify you from being a Nationalist).

What issues does the Liberal Democrats have a monopoly on? Both Cameron and Corbyn support abolition of the House of Lords, EU membership and saving the Union. The environment has been a cross-party issue since the 1980s. Net immigration increases, regardless of who is in power. UKIP and the Greens both want electoral reform (neither of them want the ‘miserable little compromise’ of AV).

There does not seem to be a gap in the market for a new centre-left party. What issues are there, which no party represents? Apart from the conspiracy nonsense the market seems to be sewn up.

One issue which does need support is electoral reform. This however needs to be brought about by electoral pacts and either the Labour or Conservative Party to adopt it as a policy. Creating another party, which splits the vote even more, is not going to achieve this.

 

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So where now for the Liberal Democrats?

davidsteel

The Liberal Democrat Party is currently in its  weakest position in decades. The party has its fewest seats since the 1970s and performed even worse than in 1979 (the year former leader Jeremy Thorpe was appearing in court, charged with conspiracy to murder). Losing 7/8th of their parliamentary seats has to be some sort of record. In addition the party lost all but 1 of its 12 seats in the European parliament and suffered heavily losses in local elections. Under Charles Kennedy the Liberal Democrats established a Shadow Cabinet, which lasted until 2010; with only 8 MPs they can shadow just over a third of the government.

The party achieved other dubious honours whilst in office: shortest ministerial career (17 days), first Cabinet Minister to be charged with a criminal offence, only the fifth Privy Councillor to resign in history and the lowest votes recorded in a by-election by a governing party.

Then we come onto the small matter of ideology. Prior to 2010 it was clear what the Liberal Democrats stood for: a proportional voting system for the House of Commons, a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and no university tuition fees. However once in government the party supported a non-proportional voting system for the House of Commons, no referendum on the EU and £9,000 Uni fees.

The party has lost all identity and purpose. In the 2011 local election over 1000 wards did not have a Liberal Democrat candidate, reportedly because local activists said they didn’t feel they could represent the party, when they no longer knew what it stood for. I myself am struggling to define it.

Under the leadership of Asquith the Liberal Party introduced the People’s Budget – which taxed the rich and increased social security. Under the leadership of Clegg, the Liberal Democrats (the Liberal Party’s legal successors), voted for the Welfare Reform Bill – arguably the worst welfare act since the introduction of the workhouse in 1388. At the same time the only taxes they increased where the bedroom tax and the raising of VAT from 17.5% to 20%.

The brand of Liberal Democrats simply cannot survive – it is far too toxic. People who agree with what the government is doing: cutting disability benefits to ‘protect the vulnerable’, slashing housing benefit (‘to make work pay’) and granting tax cuts (‘to cut down on tax avoidance’); will vote for the Conservative Party. People who oppose it will not vote Liberal Democrat.

Under the coalition government of 2015, the economy ‘recovery’ was entirely at the expense of people who have to work for a living, or are currently unable to do so, due to circumstances beyond their control. People, misled into thinking it was the economically responsible thing to do, voted Conservative. People, unimpressed by the Liberal Democrats record, voted for Green, Labour (and in some cases UKIP).

History does seem to have a nasty habit of repeating itself. In 1918, at a time of national crisis, the Liberal Party and Conservative party, opted to form a coalition. The country had a hefty national debt. A honours scandal was to follow. At the following General Election, the National Liberal Party lost 74 seats. The Conservatives themselves were able to form a single-party government with a small majority. Over the next decade the Liberal Party continued to decline, by 1935 they had only 21 seats.

Tim Farron, the former party President, is widely expected to become the Leader. If that is the case, he will lead the smallest number of Liberal/Liberal Democrat MPs since Jo Grimmond in 1964.

The rump party of 8 MPs have 3 options; continue as if nothing has happened, go their separate ways or re-brand.

Option 1: Carry on as normal

I support the concept of multi-party politics. A party with only a few MPs can achieve something – the Liberal Party held the balance of power during the Callaghan administration, and David Steel managed to legalise abortion via a Private Members Bill. If however the Party makes further losses at future elections (only 3 of their seats are safe*) their collective clout would be further eroded. It’s hard to imagine the party coming back from this – they have lost their unique selling point in general elections – gone are the days when they were a positive alternative – untainted by the realities of holding government office.

Option 2: Pastures new

When the Liberal Party collapsed in the 1920s, Winston Churchill rejoined the Conservative Party and later became Prime Minister. William Gladstone himself went the other way – serving as a Tory Chancellor and later a Liberal Prime Minister. But these men are the exception, not the norm. It’s hard to imagine a biopic of Shaun Woodward, who defected from Conservative to Labour in 2001.

Option 3: Re-brand

This is by far their best option. Re-branding any product, particularly a political party, is a good way of washing your sins away. The classic example is New Labour – a simple rename and the party went from 18 years in opposition, to winning the greatest election triumph in their history.

What will the new party be named? It can’t be named Liberal Party or Social Democrat Party (those two parties already exist). What will it stand for? Harsh public spending cuts, increased food bank usage, less opportunities for young people and carving up the NHS? Given Farron’s voting record (he was one of the Coalition Government’s most rebellious MPs) it seems likely the party will return, to its rejected roots.

Whatever it’s name and it’s policies, for thing is for sure – it would have a far better chance of recovery than the Liberal Democrats.

*Safe seats are defined as seats that can only be lost on a swing greater than 8%

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