Author Archives: Ben Rich

Politics as an Article of Faith

For tribal politicians the primacy of one’s party is an article of faith but the 2019 election must give many loyal Lib Dem a dose of political agnosticism, if not atheism.  Even the most committed party member should be asking themselves what the party is for or if it still serves any purpose at all.

At the least it must be a mouthpiece for liberal ideals of openness, inclusivity and justice.  But it must be more than just a cry in the wilderness.   Politics need to deliver change, either directly in government or indirectly by influencing others.   At the moment the Liberal Democrats are capable of neither, nor do they look capable of reinventing themselves.

From 1945 onwards the old Liberal Party had little interest in direct political power nationally, instead seeing itself as a political think tank, churning out detailed policies to be adopted by others.

Only with the advent of the Alliance did the party once again take a serious interest in national power.  But when Blair adopted large parts of its constitutional agenda it was bereft of new liberal insights, while uniquely liberal ideas – such as a citizen’s income – were quietly abandoned in the name of political pragmatism.

By 1997, the party’s most prominent policy was to raise tax to help pay for education, a technocratic proposal.   Still it was a message that appealed to the campaigners, enabling them almost to double their Parliamentary representation despite a declining poll rating.  For this reason, the party assumed a pride in its campaigning  ability to deliver electoral success against the odds.

In fact, this remains a self-deception.  One has to look back to the 2001 election to find the party winning seats ‘against the head’ in rugby parlance and more often than not it failed to take advantage of polling advances.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 28 Comments

Time for a fresh start

My former boss, Tim Farron, was frequently heard to say that a party never lost a general election because its manifesto wasn’t long enough.

The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto process, whilst very democratic, has one fundamental weakness.  It starts from the bottom up with dozen of policies on top of which the party will then attempt to impose a central message, rather than with a core narrative, which it will then illustrate with a series of eye-catching retail policies.

For the European elections the party communications staff very successfully circumnavigated this difficulty by ignoring the content of the manifesto altogether and simply plastering “Bollocks to Brexit” across the cover.

But the challenge of making a general election manifesto short enough to win an election still remains.   The devil has all the best tunes and there is no doubt that the Conservative message of “Get Brexit Done” seriously resonates on an emotional level.  We are seeing it in their steady climb in the polls and in the willingness of nineteen Labour MPs to endorse a Withdrawal Bill which they surely know is even more deeply flawed than Theresa May’s.  And we see it in the Labour party’s ambivalence both to a general election and to opposing the Withdrawal Bill outright.

At the same time, the Lib Dem message seems to have lost some of its emotional appeal.   It is still a vow to ‘stop Brexit’ but it feels more resigned “We will fight on” but lacks an imperative for the public to support it.

So what should be the Lib Dem equivalent to “Get Brexit done”?  The attractiveness of the slogan is that it speaks to the overwhelming sense that this has all dragged on too long and that we are all just desperate to make it stop.   Of course, getting the Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed would in no way “make it stop” – it would merely just trigger the next stage in the negotiations which would drag on years.

What the Lib Dems need to be shouting from the rooftops is that the only way to “make it stop” is to revoke or overturn the referendum result. Whatever way you look the sense is that the last three years have been an unmitigated disaster for Britain: whatever way you want to go we are currently headed in the wrong direction with politicians at war with each other and ignoring the people.

But “make it stop” is not enough.  It is an instruction not an impulse.   Instead, the sentiment that most attunes with people’s emotional need to rewind and start again is a fresh start.

Posted in News | Tagged and | 38 Comments

Radix and the Liberal ecosystem

One of the huge successes of Blairism was creating an ecosystem of thinkers around new Labour who set the tone for political debate throughout the 90s and beyond. Left of centre think tanks had a symbiotic relationship with the party and the centre left media, who could be relied upon to be sympathetic. When Blair eventually took power the party recruited many policy advisers and senior staff from this ecosystem: Campbell and Mandelson, Patricia Hewitt from the IPPR and Geoff Mulgan from Demos, who became the Head of the Number 10 Policy Unit.

The political centre ground – including …

Posted in News | Tagged and | 29 Comments

European Elections aren’t about the Lib Dems, they are about Remain

Tim Farron rightly gets lots of criticism for his lack of clarity on one issue. Unfortunately, this tends to obscure the huge credit that he should receive for his boldness – back on 24th June 2016 – in being the first to argue that there would need to be a final vote for the British people on whatever deal was eventually strike. I’m biased, but that looks visionary: not only was he clearly right but it gave the Lib Dems a raison d’etre, at a time when they might otherwise have seemed wholly irrelevant.

The Lib Dems now find themselves, increasingly, on what appears to be right side of history. Whether or not a people’s vote is achieved and ultimately Britain votes to remain, the party holds a position that will be a key determinate of how people will vote for decades to come.

And yet, the Lib Dems have frequently been right in the past without reaping political rewards. Even at this moment of greatest opportunity, going into EU elections, the party runs the risk of annihilation.

Yesterday’s Today programme carried two set-piece interviews about the forthcoming EU elections: the first with Nigel Farage about the launch of his Brexit party and the second with Anna Soubry MP about Change UK’s campaign. News is called that for a reason: what is new always trumps what is old.  And the Lib Dems are old.

The emerging media narrative for the EU election campaign is a fight between, on the one hand, the two new parties as the champions respectively of leave and remain, on the other, more broadly between the old parties and the new. Despite three long years of championing the remain cause the Lib Dems simply have no place in this narrative – they are irrelevant.

And yet despite what must now be viewed as an existential threat going into these elections, it feels uncomfortably like ‘business as usual’ for the party: 

There is some griping about the unwillingness of TIG to form a pro-EU alliance, but why would they? They see our brand as fatally tarnished. Whether they are right or wrong, they aren’t ready to do deals.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 47 Comments
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Recent Comments

  • User AvatarJohn O 4th Jul - 12:50pm
    Really don't understand all the apologizing & distancing from the coalition specifically aimed at Labour voters, many 'soft' Tory voters thought the coalition worked well...
  • User AvatarLorenzo Cherin 4th Jul - 12:37pm
    The comments from Geoffrey are ott, John, thanks, as with David, Barry!
  • User AvatarGeorge Kendall 4th Jul - 12:36pm
    @Tim Harney You are right that these words have different meanings to different people. Tories think leftwing means a big state, so North Korea which...
  • User AvatarPeter Chambers 4th Jul - 12:18pm
    I had thought that in the UK de-funding the police was what Theresa May and Nick Clegg were doing between 2010 and 2015, under the...
  • User AvatarGeorge Kendall 4th Jul - 12:12pm
    @Peter I'm glad you agree with some of my article, but it seems we disagree with other parts. Social media gives an bad advert for...
  • User AvatarMartin 4th Jul - 11:55am
    John Bicknell and Stephen Howse's comments deserve to be repeated and some here really do need to properly absorb the message. "The author of this...