I’m sorry to see Richard Grayson resign, but I’m sticking with the party of liberalism thanks

I was sorry to see Richard Grayson has resigned from the Lib Dems. We’ve met only once. It was at the 2010 Brighton party conference when we were interviewed together for Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour. As I noted at the time:

I felt almost sorry for Richard as we chatted beforehand, a loyal liberal and Lib Dem who finds it baffling to be almost a lone voice making the case against Coalition within the party. … the Coalition — if not always the Coalition policies — is broadly popular across the membership, and across the different sections of the party. True, there is more concern on the liberal-left of the party than there is in the centre, or among those who are economic liberals. But for the moment at least there is large degree of unity. Of course this is the ‘easy’ conference: next year’s, and especially the year’s after, will be the tough ones. By then Richard might not find himself quite such a lone voice.

He isn’t a lone voice. He has chosen, along with thousands of others since the autumn of 2010, to leave the party. The party’s membership has declined over the past couple of years from over 60,000, following the excitement of ‘Cleggmania’ and the Rose Garden, to little more than 40,000.

I’ll be honest: I’ve always respected Richard’s thinking more than I’ve agreed with it. But I like the party being a broad church. An unashamed economic liberal, I think the focus on more equal outcomes of the social liberal wing of the party is an important corrective to the free market self-reliance I favour. A Liberal Democrat party which tilts too far in either direction will be purer, but impoverished.

I like the sparring, the dialectic. It makes us stronger. And that’s why I’m sorry to see Richard, and the many other who agree with him and have already lapsed their membership, depart.

Let me be honest again, though: I think the rationale Richard has constructed for his resignation is deeply flawed.

Richard claims his angst is rooted in his fundamental disagreement with the Coalition’s economic policy. Well, it’s not hard to criticise. The Lib Dems made two major mistakes in May 2010. Agreeing to follow Labour’s plans to cut capital expenditure, and agreeing to put George Osborne in charge of implementing them.

The reality is all three parties signed up to austerity. Yet Richard slates the Lib Dem leadership for noting “savage cuts” would be inevitable whoever won the election, while ignoring Alistair Darling’s pre-election warning of “cuts deeper than Thatcher” even if Labour were to win.

In truth, Richard could never forgive the Lib Dem leadership for agreeing to enter a coalition with the Tories. He’s pretty explicit about that: ‘the Liberal Democrats are a left-of-centre party and should work for a coalition of that nature.’ In other words, we can deal only with Labour.

It’s an absurd argument. Intellectually absurd because the Lib Dems should be prepared to deal with either party if we can deliver liberal policies as a result. And pragmatically absurd because you cannot negotiate effectively unless you have a viable alternative partner.

Politics is a pendulum. Currently the Lib Dems are in coalition with the Tories. It’s quite plausible that in under two years’ time a Tim Farron-led party could be in coalition with Labour. If so, there will (I’m sure) be plenty of economic policies with which I disagree that I will have to swallow.

In that scenario, I’m happy to have these words quoted back at me: I will stick it out because I recognise that coalition requires compromise and until the Lib Dems are a majority we are going to have work with parties with which we disagree and sometimes vote for things we don’t much like. Why? Because that’s what happens if you can’t persuade enough of the public to vote for you.

I’m sorry to see Richard resign. But I’m sticking with the party full of liberals even when I do disagree with it.

PS: do read David Boyle’s superb blog-post: Why Richard Grayson got it wrong.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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31 Comments

  • Well said. Good post.

  • Simon McGrath 11th Jul '13 - 10:15pm

    I’m sorry to see anyone leave but Grayson disagrees with one of the most successful policies of the Party in Coalition – taking the low paid out of tax. He says in his Compass article ( over a debate in 2008 which backed tax cuts over public spending):
    “Put simply, the debate was over whether or not, if savings could be found in public spending (and nobody doubted that they could be), then the money should be used for tax cuts (as the leadership wanted) or to fund alternative spending priorities (as the party had long argued). It was a fairly small issue, but for people like then MPs Paul Holmes and Evan Harris who proposed a challenge to the leadership, it was a crucial one about the direction of the party”

    As he said in the debate ( the Guardian had an excellent account):
    ““3.25 PM: Richard Grayson, from Hemel Hempstead, comes on next. He defends the amendment, which, he says, doesn’t say don’t have tax cuts, but simply says don’t make it such a high priority.
    The idea that people will be more powerful with a few more pounds in their pockets doesn’t necessarily stack up. He argues instead for high spending in public services to achieve say, smaller class sizes in state schools, to match those in private education.
    “Money can be better spent in better ways than by introducing tax cuts.”

    If he really thinks that in 2008 after 11 years of Labour increasing public spending that it was better to spend money on public services than making work pay for the poor then he will probably be happier with Labour.

  • “I think the focus on more equal outcomes of the social liberal wing ”

    Social liberalism, to me, is about equalising opportunity. Economic liberalism, to me, is about entrenching privilege and thwarting opportunity, fairness and the potential of the UK economy.

    @Simon McGrath
    The proposal was to re-distribute savings from one area of public spending to other priorities, so it was certainly not for additional public spending. Secondly, the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto called for the lower income tax threshold to be increased, paid for by increasing taxes on wealthy avoiders. Instead, it has been paid for by increasing VAT – a tax that is regressive (and, additionally, the highest rate of income tax has been cut).

    “one of the most successful policies of the Party in Coalition – taking the low paid out of tax.”

    Successful according to whom? I would suggest it isn’t the lowest earners, as they have received no benefit from the income tax threshold change but have been hit with the increase in VAT that was used to pay for it.

  • I remember hearing Richard Gryason talk at a Federal Conference fringe meeting in September 2010. He stated that we could have reached an agreement with Labour. From that moment onwards I have failed to take anything he has written seriously.

  • A very curious line: ” It’s quite plausible that in under two years’ time a Tim Farron-led party could be in coalition with Labour”. This is not the first time I have seen hints that Nick Clegg plans to resign ahead of the next election. I cannot see how that would work out, nor that it would necessarily change Lib Dem fortunes: it could go either way – coalition supporters could be lost without getting significant numbers back from coalition opponents.

  • I can’t see how you can claim that increase in personal tax allowances is a “successful” policy, Simon McGrath. It has given a large amount of public funds, which could otherwise have been used, for instance, in ensuring local govt has proper funding. All the evidence, anyway, was that the better off benefited more from it, and those whose incomes were buttressed by benefits didn’t overall gain.

  • Was I the ONLY Liberal Democrat who was gullible enough to be lulled into a false sense of security that the leadership would actually listen to the overwhelming pleas of the party in numerous amendments, ie qualifications, to the formation of the coalition at the Birmingham special Conference? The more I look at it, the more I think I may have been. I ask you!
    Hardened politician, or what?!

  • “If he really thinks that in 2008 after 11 years of Labour increasing public spending that it was better to spend money on public services than making work pay for the poor then he will probably be happier with Labour.”

    You seem to have forgotten that in 2008 the Lib Dem tax cut policy was not being billed as “making work pay for the poor” (as you put it in your rather paternalistic, Victorian way). There was no thought of even being as progressive as raising the allowance then. It was going to be a 4p cut in the basic rate of tax – a regressive tax cut, in other words – and Nick Clegg had just decided that he was going to cut a further £20bn from public spending in order to fund additional tax cuts, specifically for those on middle incomes:
    Mr Clegg has announced that he will cut £20 billion from public spending, which will be ploughed into tax cuts for middle earners. “We are now in a process of identifying what I believe will be the most radical package of tax- cutting measures for people on middle incomes,” he said.
    http://www.libdemvoice.org/clegg-lib-dems-to-pledge-larger-tax-cuts-3561.html

    When trying to rewrite history, it helps if you know what actually happened, and in roughly the right order …

  • @ Stephen Tall

    “An unashamed economic liberal, I think the focus on more equal outcomes of the social liberal wing of the party is an important corrective to the free market self-reliance I favour. A Liberal Democrat party which tilts too far in either direction will be purer, but impoverished.”

    As a Social Liberal I am not interested in equality of outcomes (I think that might be Socialism). However as a Social Liberal I am interested in ensuring that no one is homeless or lives in poverty or is so concerned about their social or economic conditions that they cannot take part in democracy or cannot have the same liberties as the rich. I do wonder why economic liberals join the Liberal Democrats rather than the Conservatives, because the Liberal Democrat traditions both Liberal and Social Democrat were committed to Social Liberalism and rejected pure economic liberalism.

    @ Simon McGrath

    It seems Simon believes that tax cuts are always better than the government spending money. The example given was reducing class sizes to try to get public education to the same standard as private education. I am surprised that he could join the Liberal Democrats if he doesn’t believe that the state should be in the business of trying to provide education to the same standard as in the private sector to try to give everyone equality of opportunity.

    He implies that he supports “making work pay” does he therefore support increasing the minimum wage so that the “in work” benefit bill can be reduced?

    Also it appears that in 2008 it was not party policy to increase the Income Tax Personal Allowances it was our policy to reduce the basic rate by 4p, which Richard Grayson supported. Personally I have long supported increasing Income Tax Personal Allowances to remove low income earners from paying income tax and think it is it much better than cutting the basic rate.

    @ Tim13

    An increase of £1000 to Income Tax Personal Allowance would reduce the amount most tax payers pay by £200. However a 2p cut in the rate would reduce the amount paid by more for those earning more. For example someone on £12,000 would not pay £77.90, while some earning £30,000 would not pay £437.90 (using 2012-13 rates). However you may be correct about those getting in work benefits and of course those who don’t earn as much as £9,440.

  • Geoffrey Payne 12th Jul '13 - 6:20am

    Most of this article is good and reasonable, but I think the use of the word “absurd” goes too far.
    I think it is reasonable that in a Coalition we should negotiate a deal with the Tories or Labour on what the economic policy should be. In this case we did not. George Osborne has been given a free had to do exactly what he would have done had the Tories been elected by themselves. We were told that the policy would stop the credit ratings agency from downgrading us, which they would do under Labour and this would be catastrophic. Well we were downgraded, it was not catastrophic, and yet there are no dissenting voices from the Parliamentary party about our economic policy.
    I wonder if the party leadership will be so supine if they have to negotiate with Labour in 2015? Having said that, I have no idea what position Labour will take in 2015.
    The Liberal Democrats have not always been equadistant between Labour and the Tories, Paddy Ashdown preferred Labour to the Tories in 1997. If we are always going to be equadistant then that will mean that our position will effectively be defined by the other parties. I am wondering how at the next general election we can even achieve that given we now support Tory economic policy into 2016. It is not the party that has decided it prefers the Tories to Labour – you just need to look at the policies we pass at our conference – it is the party leadership.
    We should not ask how to we find a political space half way between Labour and the Tories. We should ask how to the other parties compare to us and build our alliances accordingly. We are a player not a referee.
    I respect the point that you make that you want the party to be a broad church. I wish the same could be said about the party leadership. Rather than trying to unite the party, and wanting to encourage social liberals that we are on the right path, we are constantly being told off. Yet whilst some social liberals are leaving the party, I do not see hordes of economic liberals joining to take their place, certainly not in equal numbers. I do not see how the Liberal Democrats has a viable future on the course it has been taken on by the leadership of this party, and I do not see any sign that the economic liberal wing of the party has any idea what to do about it. It is really up to you Stephen, and people like you. You are in the driving seat, how are you going to build up the Liberal Democrats again? Where are the Liberals who have not joined yet?

  • David Evans 12th Jul '13 - 7:24am

    @ Stephen Tall

    “It’s quite plausible that in under two years’ time a Tim Farron-led party could be in coalition with Labour.”

    Where on earth does this come from?

    A closer representation of plausible reality would be

    It’s quite plausible that in two years’ time the Lb Dems have lost so many seats that Nick Clegg is finally forced to resign and any one of the few remaining MPs could be leading us in coalition with Respect to fill a taxi.

    You need to get out into the real world a bit more.

  • Amalric – I understand your points about the likely effects on people’s incomes of increase of personal allowance vs rate cuts across the board, of course. I am also saying that by taking more away from public spending in whatever form (but most forms are available to users) there is an “increase in the social wage” – ie services become more accessible to those on low incomes (whether free or subsidised).

    Your point about equality of outcome vs equality of opportunity – always a debating topic at school or in student politics! The Liberal Party I have known , until around 10 or so years ago, always felt that inequality (of outcome) was too great in Britain. Compared with 40 years ago, inequality has become considerably greater (I have seen the latest figures, which tbh, are a blip). I cannot see it as very liberal NOT to put in places mechanisms to reverse these trends. Most people argue it can’t be done “because of globalisation”. An opposed argument is that by supranational cooperation in various forms we can move towards a better equalisation of outcomes. We as Lib Dems (and indeed, Cameron) have moved that way on international aid. But Cameron’s rhetoric on wage levels here is all about competition – with China, and India etc – by which he seems to mean levelling down wage levels – NOT a good way to go.

    Old fashioned school debates on equality tended to focus on the impossibility, and undesirability of everyone having exactly the same material goods. This is even more true now than in the 60s, so moving income back to more equal levels is a feature of equalising opportunity, not a feature of (a very old-fashioned) socialism.

  • jenny barnes 12th Jul '13 - 9:07am

    “the Lib Dems should be prepared to deal with either party if we can deliver liberal policies as a result.”

    That would be good.
    How did we do on the criminalisation of qat? secret courts?

    And if one party, to name no names, refuses to allow liberal policies? What then?

  • We seem to have lost about a third of the members since entering Government but this is normal. The same thing happened to Labour with the rate of loss peaking in their first year & tailing off after. They lost 60% of their members over the 12 years to 2009. Note that the rate of decline peaked in 1998 at a time when Tony Blair was ridiculously popular & the economy was booming.
    It seems that Parties, all Parties are punished just for being in Power at Westminster.

  • “time for the nay sayers to go out to grass and for the positive view to be given…”

    Tractor production is up, five year plan coming to fruition and enemies of the revolution have been purged. Every reason to be positive.

  • @peter.tyzack

    At the 2010 General Election the vote share was:

    Con: 36.1; Lab: 29.0; L/D 23.0; Ukip 3.1

    According to UK Polling the current share is now:

    Con: 30; Lab: 38; L/D: 10; Ukip 12

    http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/

  • Peter Tyzack – I assume irony is your middle name?

  • @Tim13

    I am sorry I just don’t understand your point – “there is an “increase in the social wage” – ie services become more accessible to those on low incomes (whether free or subsidised)”. I think the social wage is the amount a person or household receives from the government. I think it could be said that the coalition government is reducing the social wage but I don’t know if it is reducing it more for the poor than for the rich.

    I am sorry it appears you have misunderstood me. There is a difference between reducing inequality and equality of outcomes. I would agree with you that reducing inequality is a good thing because it increases opportunities and access to liberty for the poor, which are decreased when one is poor.

    @ John Roffey

    General Election results should not be compared with opinion polls. It is a commonly held belief among Liberal Democrats that we do better in general elections than in the opinion polls.

    The figures for July 2008 were:

    Con 44%
    Lab 26%
    LD 17%

    Down 7% is better than down 13%, the question can then become can we put back 6% as we did in 2010. In 1997 we won 46 seats with 17% of the vote.

  • Amalric – Sorry if we seem to be at cross purposes. I am saying that services (often universally free at point of delivery or subsidised) make up a part of the “income” of people in general. This effect has been described as a part of the “social wage”. In terms of your statement about the social wage – like you I believe the Govt is reducing it, and because it is made up of different elements in different areas (because of local govt provided services being different in different places) we can’t tell if there are differential effects across different income levels, either through type of service provided, area and demography, or take up.

    My point is that with universal free or subsidised services (even if only across a local council area), a less well off family CAN have access to a service which would otherwise come out of their discretionary spending. Their overall potential income, adding in the value of these services increases, and the percentage of their overall income will be potentially higher than for the better off. By cutting this, which you acknowledge that the Govt has done, this is intensifying the deprivation being experienced by people on low incomes. In other words, it is an effect that offsets the Coalition’s claimed benefit of increasing personal tax allowances. Reducing the tax take IN ITSELF has an effect on inequality from this view – local government has been hard hit both initially, and in the round of cuts being described now. I do not deny that this effect has been continuing for some years, and also that a policy like pupil premium will help offset this.

    I hope that describes my position. I have said I agree that there is a difference between reducing inequality and the rather fantasy world “equality of outcome”. I think the party nationally is in a difficult position in at least three ways:

    1 By pushing the implementation of take up via means test of various services and benefits, it has the classic effect of disincentive because of over-complicated and embarrassing claiming (again – and you are never going to be able to include everything in Universal Credit). It could well prove more expensive provision than universal service.

    2 By reducing local government’s ability to provide (through large cuts) the Lib Dems’ claim to devolve, and to opt for better, more differentiated local provision for local communities is damaged.

    3 It increases, again, the amount of outsourcing, privatisation, contractorisation etc, which reduces meaningful democratic input, helping to make true all those doorstep complaints “You are all the same – what’s the point of voting?”

  • Peter Watson 13th Jul '13 - 9:23am

    @Amalric “It is a commonly held belief among Liberal Democrats that we do better in general elections than in the opinion polls.”
    This effect is often attributed to voters forgetting about the Lib Dems between elections, e.g. due to the lack of media coverage. That is certainly not the case now. Also, I expect that the 2015 campaign will probably be more like 50 or so by-elections than a truly national campaign, so the link between current national polling and 2015 election performance is pretty unpredictable.

  • Past experience may not be a useful guide but its the only one we have. Comparing polls now to those in the past suggests we would get around 18%, UKIP around 8% & that The Tories should get 4 or 5% more than Labour. That however doesnt take account of how Labour supporters are likely to react to their poll lead melting away or their splits & financial problems.
    We are going to have to run 2 campaigns in parallel, the National one defending our role in Government & the “75 Byelections.”

  • “It is a commonly held belief among Liberal Democrats that we do better in general elections than in the opinion polls.”

    What is undoubtedly true is that the Lib Dems have in the past done better in mid-term elections than in the general election. If that pattern continues (although there’ no reason why it should) then you’re pretty stuffed.

  • @ Tim13

    I am glad we agree. I think your position is that increasing personal tax allowances does not compensate for the reduction in services caused by the cuts. I have no problem with this view. Like you I disagree with the coalition’s position on local government than builds on the lack of trust for local government by central government politicians that started in the time of Margaret Thatcher.

    However I am not sure that increasing personal tax allowances did reduce the tax take. I thought there were other tax changes to make it neutral.

    I am not sure about universal benefits. I do understand that it improves take up, but it is inefficient in that people both pay income taxes and receive universal benefits. I wonder if there would be savings if they are all mean tested.

    @ Peter Watson

    “This effect is often attributed to voters forgetting about the Lib Dems between elections, e.g. due to the lack of media coverage. That is certainly not the case now. Also, I expect that the 2015 campaign will probably be more like 50 or so by-elections than a truly national campaign, so the link between current national polling and 2015 election performance is pretty unpredictable.”

    You may be correct that we can’t expect the normal increase in our support during an election campaign, however there is still little media coverage of our policies rather than the coalition’s policies and divisions.

    The idea that we could fight 57 by-elections is a myth. I am not aware of us being able to win two Parliamentary by-elections on the same day. Those who help during a by-election will be divided across 57 seats plus any extra target seats. During a general election I believe that we win seats because of our strength in that seat and what support that seat can get from the surrounding area. I do not believe that the 57 seat are all like Eastleigh.

    @ Steve

    “What is undoubtedly true is that the Lib Dems have in the past done better in mid-term elections than in the general election.”

    I would like to see the evidence for this.

  • ” I do not believe that the 57 seat are all like Eastleigh.”

    In fact, you’d better hope they’re not like Eastleigh. At Eastleigh, the Lib Dem share of the vote dropped by more than 14 points – almost exactly in line with the party’s national poll rating. That performance is no basis for optimism.

  • @ Chris

    You haven’t provided any context for your belief that Eastleigh’s “performance is no basis for optimism”. How does down 14% compare with other by-elections in this parliament? How did government parties perform in the past? How does it compare with other by-elections where we were the defending party?

  • @Amalric
    “I would like to see the evidence for this.”

    http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/5439

  • David Evans 15th Jul '13 - 2:38pm

    Amalric

    Let me give some context. The perceived wisdom of many of the party strategists was that we did badly in mid term opinion polls because we didn’t get the national publicity we deserved except in the run up to a GE. However, we did well in By-elections because we turned out in numbers to get our message across and this resulted in a swing to us (often 10% plus).

    As an optimist, I went into the coalition confident that our leaders would be so good in government (compared to the rubbish that went before) that we would get the publicity we deserved, our poll ratings would hold up and we would steadily gain ground as we held the Conservatives in check. We would therefore do even better in by-elections, because we would be starting from a higher base and progress further.

    I think we all know where things went from there, and where the by election results (and particularly Eastleigh) leave us.

  • @David Evans
    “Let me give some context. The perceived wisdom of many of the party strategists was that we did badly in mid term opinion polls because we didn’t get the national publicity we deserved except in the run up to a GE. ”

    If that was the perceived wisdom of the party activists then they are deluded fools. As demonstrated in my link above, the Lib Dems in the past have always done better in mid-term local elections than at general elections. Mid-term voting intention polls (for a general election) show a lower percentage than achieved in local elections, but that’s because they are quite accurate at predicting Lib Dem general election voting share which is lower than local election voting share.

  • Thank you Steve for the link to comparisons between local elections and opinion polls.

    @ Steve
    “What is undoubtedly true is that the Lib Dems have in the past done better in mid-term elections than in the general election.”

    The figures could be:

    LE 1995 23.0 GE 1997 16.8
    LE 1999 25.0 GE 2001 18.3
    LE 2003 26.0 GE 2005 22.0
    LE 2008 25.0 GE 2010 23.0

  • I am sure the evidence on this generally is that mid term opinion polling is EVEN LOWER than the GE polling obtained 2 years or whatever later. In other words, the debate here, between the view “of some party strategists” and that of Steve here, is not as quoted here at present considering the fact that there are two effects: 1 The well known one that our GE results are lower than our local election results, and 2 That opinion polls relating the voting intention question to GE voting a likely two years away from that election shows our %age lower because of less publicity for us at that point.

    Both these facts have been true in the past. Our reduced, and much more centralised campaign strategists have not publicly acknowledged that this has changed now, in that Lib Dems have a lot more publicity now in mid-term (“we are in Government now”). Strategists have tried the very simplistic approach of comparing our poll ratings with those involving previous Labour and Conservative Govts (“we are suffering a mid-term downturn, all will improve towards a GE”) What they are not doing is asking whether a junior coalition partner’s ratings will behave in the same way as a majority government’s – at least not in public! We have seen that the results achieved in local elections, in 2011, 2012, and 2013 are much closer to national opinion polling now, so we could have a number of views of how those results will move as we get closer to the GE.

    I think events are in some ways showing that the leadership gets that we have a continuing political problem, ie that the politics we are showing as a junior coalition partner is not the politics that people have been led to expect over the years, or (and this may have surprised the Cleggies!) that many people seem to want from us. Whether Steve’s “deluded fools” describes them (NOT party activists, by the way, Steve – most of them know much better, but strategists). However, the timid and contradictory actions of our parliamentary colleagues simply will not be enough to significantly change views. I am expecting Paul Barker on here any moment to label my words “doom-mongering”, but I cannot see that anything will fundamentally change with our ratings unless we stand for something rather different from centrist Tory / nuLab ideas, as we always have previously pushed.

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