Author Archives: Chris Bowers

Richmond shows progressive alliances do work

Buried amid the dramatic and highly welcome headline of the Liberal Democrat landslide on Richmond-upon-Thames Council was a rather overlooked factor –that, when progressive alliances are done properly and sensitively, they can work and be a great asset to the party.

In 2014 the Conservatives won thirty-nine of Richmond’’s fifty-four councillors. This time we won thirty-nine but, while we picked up the other fifteen councillors four years ago, this time the Tories only got eleven, with the other four going to the Greens. And those four Greens are in part a Liberal Democrat …

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We must make a passionate case for staying in the EU!

Last week I wrote an email to an actively pro-Remain party colleague. Events had led me to believe that a referendum on the Brexit deal might indeed be possible, so what I wrote was: if we do manage to secure a second referendum, are there any plans afoot for the Remain camp to fight a vastly better campaign than it did in 2016? To lose one referendum might be considered a misfortune; to lose two would be the height of carelessness.

The key to winning a referendum on the Brexit deal lies in inspiring people that the EU is worth supporting …

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Thinking the unthinkable is fun and might just lead us somewhere interesting

Have you ever wondered if there’s a policy the Lib Dems could be promoting that simply isn’t part of the political landscape? One that doesn’t fall under economics, health, education, environment or any of the traditional categories of modern-day politics?

This question was raised during the ‘Radical Liberalism’ fringe meeting held in Southport last weekend, which was part of the Social Liberal Forum’s fringe programme and which I chaired. The meeting itself was very unlike most fringe meetings which focus on a speaker or two from the top table – this was more of a brainstorming session, and I threw in a number of questions at various intervals to guide the debate. The result was that most of the 80 or so people who packed out the room contributed to the discussion.

About half-way through, I asked whether there were any policies that people might like to throw into the mix which weren’t currently on the political map, even if they may seem a bit off-the-wall. I said they might well not be viable, but sometimes thinking the unthinkable leads to ideas that might not otherwise emerge.

The first suggestion was that we might advocate moving the capital from London to somewhere more central. The person suggesting it wasn’t just arguing for geographical fairness, but saying it doesn’t help us to have the country’s administrative and democratic centre in the primary financial hub, and that London should be allowed to become like Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Zürich which are major cities but don’t host national parliaments and governments.

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Radical, distinctive and quite possibly the start of something big

How do we get off 8%? We’ve been at or around that figure in the polls since well before the 2015 election, and despite our very clear and principled stance on Brexit, we’re still stuck.

Maybe we just need some ‘events, dear boy’. We’ve had precious few parliamentary by-elections, which were the lifeblood of the party’s momentum in the 1960s, 70s and 90s, and we haven’t had the kind of Iraq War issue that puts us on the right side of public opinion and leaves the Conservatives and Labour on the wrong side. But do we just wait for such an event to arise?

No, we have to grasp the nettle and do something, and if you’re going to be in Southport for the Lib Dem conference, please come to a fringe meeting that involves doing just that. It’s only for an hour, and at 6.15pm on the Saturday night before the alcohol starts flowing. But it’s aimed at starting the ball rolling towards the party finding a handful of policies that can define us as a caring, distinctive and radical social force in British politics.

Entitled ‘Radical Liberalism – defining what we stand for’, it builds on a paper Paul Pettinger and I wrote in the autumn, and which was the subject of a piece we jointly wrote on LDV on 27 October. Many of the responses from LDV readers were very helpful, and have helped shape the meeting we’re organising in Southport in association with Social Liberal Forum and Compass.

The two central thrusts of that paper – which are also the two thrusts of our meeting – are that we need to be defined in policy terms, not in relation to other parties, and we need to frame our policies so others who support what we stand for in elections where we can win (and their preferred party can’t) feel able to vote Lib Dem. There is also an implied willingness to work with people of other parties who have a similar mindset to ours, be it pre- or post-election, public or behind-the-scenes. As elections get closer, the media will try to present a Lib Dem vote as a closet vote for another party; we will find it easier to rebut such coverage if we can say ‘We’re clear what we stand for – if you agree with it, just vote for us!’

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We need to be smarter in the battles we choose

The frantic and febrile environment of a general election isn’t always conducive to clear-headed thinking, but I fear we Lib Dems are guilty of some serious fuzzy-headedness that even a general election shouldn’t excuse.

This is the background. We tumbled from 57 seats to 8 at the last election. This election is all about limiting Theresa May’s majority, and under a voting system that doesn’t help us. If we’re smart about it, we could boost our seats to the point where we have a healthy bloc that will recapture the oxygen of publicity needed to push liberalism to a wider audience. If we’re not smart, our number of parliamentary seats could actually go down.

Against this background, the Greens have offered to stand down in about a dozen seats if we stand down in one. Sounds like a good offer, eh? Except the local Lib Dem party in the one seat we’re being asked to stand down in has said no.

That seat is the Isle of Wight, and it’s important to stress that the local party there is being very honourable. Its brief is to fight for liberalism, and as we had the MP there until 2001, it’s potentially fertile ground for us. So IoW Lib Dems have quite reasonably said this is an election where we need to rebuild the Lib Dem base, and in principle we should support that.

But given where we’re starting from, given how much is at stake, given that it could make the difference between having a single-digit number of MPs and a number in the 20s, someone should be guiding the Isle of Wight party about the wider implications their decision could have.

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Grasping the cross party nettle

Whoops of delight and the whoosh of triumphant fists punching the air were apparently to be heard at Lib Dem HQ on Tuesday when Theresa May announced the 8 June election. For a party hammered so badly two years ago, the chance to regain some lost ground is indeed enticing, but if we’re to make the most of the opportunity some nettles need to be grasped.

Tempting though it is to believe in our invincibility based on recent by-election successes, we are still only around 11% in the polls. That will go up in certain seats, but our final total of MPs will depend on whether we’re willing to be smart, and to set aside the tribalism of past elections.

If you’re sick of terms like ‘progressive alliance’ or ‘cross-party cooperation’, fair enough. But then think of it like this: in an election that is going to defy traditional party allegiances because of the role of Brexit, we cannot adopt the old “my party right or wrong, and all other parties are the enemy” attitude. We have to think of the broader concept of liberalism, as well as openness, tolerance and internationalism.

That means recognising that there are plenty of people in other parties – largely Labour and the Greens – who are philosophically close to us. We may have issues with the Labour leadership, but that doesn’t stop us recognising that there are many good people in Labour. And while we believe we’re big on the environment, it helps to have a specifically environmental party to keep us all honest.

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A slogan you might not expect from the Lib Dems

 

When a political party is struggling for attention, or even to establish in the public’s mind what it’s actually for, it needs to do something that catches the imagination. Something that fits with the party’s ethos but still manages to take the country by surprise. I may have just the thing for us Liberal Democrats.

When I look at the reasons for the Leave vote in last summer’s referendum, I see a lack of identity as a central factor, certainly in England. However irrational it may seem (on a pragmatic level the whole vote was irrational), people feel the EU has eroded their sense of who they are. Globalisation has robbed them of a sense of national belonging, so slogans such as ‘Take back control’ and ‘I want my country back’ appeal to a sense of who we once were, regardless whether the golden olden days really existed.

That analysis goes for England, but less for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Scots seem very happy to know that they’re Scottish, and as the likes of Andy Murray and Chris Hoy have shown, they’re sufficiently proud of their Scottishness that they’re happy to be British as well. Even the Welsh seem happy with their Welsh identity, despite voting a different way to the Scots and Northern Irish in the referendum.

But as by far the biggest nation in the UK, many English people have the sense that they’ve lost their sense of being English.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 70 Comments

Can we build in an extra question, please?

Maybe it’s just my own predisposition, but I seem to be seeing the phrase ‘more candidates’ all the time in Lib Dem literature. Mark Pack’s excellent pamphlet ‘How to Rebuild the Liberal Democrats’ talks about ‘more candiates’, Tim Farron has used the phrase, and my regional chair has just asked me to contribute to a by-election fund so we can stand ‘more candidates’.

All of which is good stuff, especially if more candidates lead to better quality candidates and increased diversity of candidates because more candidates are applying to fly the Lib Dem flag. But I’d also like to encourage the idea of ‘smarter candidates’, which requires asking the question: is this the right election for the Lib Dems to stand a candidate at all?

Cynics may point out that my current hobby horse is cross-party cooperation, and it is. But I’m still a Liberal Democrat who wants to see liberalism – especially social liberalism – enacted in this country. And for that to happen, we need the cooperation of other like-minded people who aren’t necessarily Lib Dems, people who Caroline Lucas, Lisa Nandy and I called ‘progressives’ in our recent book ‘The Alternative’.

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Please understand what The Alternative is about

The AlternativeJudging by the reaction to Andrew George’s post last week  there seems to be a lot of unnecessary fretting among Liberal Democrats caused by ‘The Alternative’, the book I have co-edited with the Labour and Green MPs Lisa Nandy and Caroline Lucas. Allow me to explain why I think some people are getting the wrong end of the stick.

I fully understand the views of those who say Labour is not a progressive party, and that we sometimes have more in common with the liberal wing of the Conservatives than we do with Labour or the nationalist parties. Those views can be defended, but they don’t alter the practical reality of what we face.

Everyone is talking about how we were hammered at the 2015 election, which we were in relative terms, but the 8% of the vote we polled would have given us around 55 seats if we’d had a proportional election system, which was roughly what we had in the last parliament.

As a liberal, I’d happily accept whatever our core vote is – probably something between 8% and 20% – under PR. We’d probably never be a party leading a government, but we’d have real influence, and could pursue liberal-democratic policies in association with whichever other parties were receptive to our ideas.

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We cannot turn a blind eye to the Brexit anger

The unravelling of the Brexit vote – and parallel calls for a second referendum – is gathering pace. There may be hope for us in this, but there is also a massive warning which is crucial to the viability of liberalism in our country.

The referendum result was a triumph for illogicality. Many of those who voted Leave stand to lose most, through everything from endangered employment rights gained through the EU to the security of jobs reliant on trade with Europe. So we need to look deeper behind the reasons for the Leave vote, and when we do, we see a pattern that was evident at the 2015 general election.

The old certainties of politics no longer fit those who voted Leave. Many people support the NHS but harbour deep hostility towards immigrants, especially migrant workers. People who have seen their safety nets taken away through cuts to public services – all originating from the credit crunch of 2007-07 which was caused mainly by reckless financial instutions overreaching themselves – are understandably angry with those who appear to have kept their affluence while they themselves are fearful for their livelihood and can’t make sense of changes to their high street wrought by globalisation.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 55 Comments

Opinion: Progessive parties unite – for survival!

Through the grief and bereavement of last month’s election results, I have been trying to make some logical deductions about the future not just of the Lib Dems but the progressive forces in British politics. Try my logic and see if it works for you.

There may be about 8-12% of those who vote who are willing to support Lib Dem candidates (excluding protest votes). That percentage is fine as long as there’s PR. If there isn’t, we will struggle to have any influence, certainly at national level.

The only way we can get PR is if we have a main party in government willing to enact PR. And that main party has to get into government via first-past-the-post.

The Conservatives aren’t interested because they do very well without it, and will continue to do so. By contrast, Labour may be at the point of recognising that the only way a Labour prime minister can happen is via a coalition – and on that basis, Labour should be open to PR.

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Opinion: We should be alert to this threat to Europe!

There’s a new acronym doing the rounds, which I think is a vicious wolf in sheep’s clothing. And I fear the party may have fallen for the sheep’s clothing and not seen the wolf.

The acronym is TTIP. It stands for Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which sounds all well and good. And if all it’s doing is promoting free trade between Europe and America, fair enough. But the question we should all be asking is: at what cost?

TTIP has made its way into the election campaign solely as an adjunct to the NHS debate. There are fears that the TTIP agreement – still being negotiated (in secret) by EU and US trade negotiators – will threaten the state funding of medical services. Lib Dem candidates like me are advised by the party’s Policy Response unit to say that Vince Cable has been given several assurances that neither our ability to run the NHS nor our ability to protect the environment will be threatened.

But the threat is bigger than that. A few days ago, Germany’s environment agency UBA expressed serious concern that the EU’s position on the emerging TTIP could weaken environmental protection standards in Europe. It says Europe’s current proposals would breach the democratic principles at the heart of the EU by giving US companies the right to information about EU legislation before the European Parliament or European civil society groups get to hear about it. Lib Dems should be alarmed at this.

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Opinion: We must ask the right questions

Question markIn an era of increasingly presidential-style politics, it’s very tempting to fire the party leader when things go wrong – but would this actually help us for next year’s general and local elections?

To answer this, I feel we need to ask what made us successful pre-2010, what is actually going to work for us next year, will doing this be enhanced by having a different leader, and is there a better leader than the one we’ve got?

There are two obvious reasons for our pre-2010 rise. One was that we were …

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  • User Avatarexpats 23rd May - 11:25am
    David Raw 23rd May '18 - 10:44am...........According to the Guardian, “The EU has leapt ahead of the UK in the pursuit of free trade deals...
  • User AvatarNeil Sandison 23rd May - 11:20am
    Anyone who has been following Grenfell could not fail to notice what happens when communities become dislocated from those who have authority over them or...
  • User AvatarRuth Bright 23rd May - 10:59am
    Lord Greaves - The current position is that there are no rules on maternity leave for candidates. This led in my case to me having...
  • User AvatarRuth Bright 23rd May - 10:51am
    Gordon - thank goodness. A piece which is the perfect antidote to the totally uninspiring "parish magazine" school of FOCUS.
  • User AvatarRuth Bright 23rd May - 10:47am
    Thank you for sharing this Elizabeth.
  • User AvatarDavid Raw 23rd May - 10:44am
    According to the Guardian, "The EU has leapt ahead of the UK in the pursuit of free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand after...