Author Archives: Chris Bowers

The Stephen Lloyd case shows there is no room for nuance in politics

Politics ought to be synonymous with good governance, but it’s not. It’s a game you have to play to get into a position where you can practise good governance. Politics doesn’t seem to have any room for nuances or counterintuitive positions, as the case of the Eastbourne MP Stephen Lloyd has shown.

Lloyd is a classic liberal hero. He can thank the NHS for the fact that he can hear anything – indeed that he’s alive – because it saved him when his hearing and his life were seriously threatened as a toddler. He therefore believes in public services through deep personal experience. He also mortgaged and remortgaged his house to allow him to fight the traditionally Conservative stronghold of Eastbourne. He failed to win the seat in 2005, won it in 2010, lost it in 2015, and won it back in 2017.

The way he won it back in 2017 has sown the seeds of his decision to resign the party whip. Bear with me on the detail, because this is very important.

At the start of the 2017 general election campaign, Lloyd worked out that the only way he was going to win Eastbourne was to accept that the Brexit issue was over, and that despite his own views – he was an enthusiastic campaigner for Remain in the 2016 referendum – he would respect the referendum result. He quotes voters who said to him ‘I’d happily have you as my MP but I voted Leave and if you’re our MP you’ll work to scupper Brexit in Parliament.’ He therefore made a pledge that if the government did a withdrawal deal, he would vote for it.

Viewed from today’s perspective, it might be considered rash, but the vantage point at the time was different. The prevailing narrative was that Theresa May had called the election because she knew she’d increase her majority, and the question was merely whether her post-election majority would be 30, 60 or even 100 seats. The idea that she might lose her majority seemed fanciful, and therefore Brexit seemed as good as done.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 21 Comments

Where is our tough on the causes of Brexit package?

I’m somewhat amazed that the slogan ‘Tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit’ hasn’t caught on over recent months. It should have done, and we Lib Dems should have appropriated it.

It was a brilliant slogan when deployed by Tony Blair in the early 1990s. Labour was always known as a party that cared about people whose difficult starts in life led to them committing crime, but it was never going to be elected to government unless it showed that it cared about the damage crime inflicts on victims. With one three-second soundbite, Blair dealt with both sides of the issue.

We have rightly been tough on Brexit, and we’re right to say it’s not the solution to the problems many who voted for it hoped for. But even if our ‘exit from Brexit’ campaign is successful, what kind of country is it going to leave us with? We’ll sigh with relief that the Brexit nightmare is over, and wake up to a country that’s even more angry and divided than it is already.

There’s growing evidence that austerity – in which we had a part as coalition partners 2010-15 – was a leading contributor to people’s anger with the EU. OK, so we know the EU wasn’t to blame for most of the ills, but when the industries you’ve grown up with die out, when automation threatens thousands of jobs, when the livelihoods of fishing villages are trashed seemingly by a ‘Common Fisheries Policy’, and when the gap between rich and poor seems to be widening with those dealing in finance and asset trading seen to be doing very well thank you, it’s little wonder people take it out on Britain’s membership of the EU.

That’s why we as a party need to develop a package of policies that will act as a reward or dividend for abandoning Brexit. We can call it our ‘Tough on the causes of Brexit’ policy if we want, but it has to make clear that we have heard the angst and anguish that led to the Brexit vote, and we’re not simply saying patronisingly that it was all a nightmare based on a misreading of the facts.

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We need a two pronged approach to Brexit

Theresa May’s travails suggest we may be close to a breakthrough on Brexit, but we need a new strategy. Normally if you’re making progress, your strategy is working, but something different is required for the final push. Let me explain.

There’s only one way to make sense of Brexit, and that’s to realise that it has nothing to do with the UK leaving the European Union. Or only peripherally. How else does one explain a situation that is already making Britain poorer, hitting hardest those keenest on being out of the EU? How else does one explain the vehemence with which anti-EU views are held, and the ease with which the supposed facts underlying this vehemence can so easily be discredited? And where will we go when we’ve left the EU but the very things the Leavers voted for – primarily lower immigration and greater sovereignty – just don’t happen?

Brexit is largely a protest. Not exclusively – there are some reasonable people who believe we’d be better off outside the EU (though the ones I’ve met have a fairly garbled understanding of how much sovereignty the EU actually has), and the future of the EU is itself somewhat hazy. But Brexit is Britain’s version of the rust belt revolt, a revolt partly based on genuine hardship, and partly motivated by how things seem. Traditional sources of work have gone, workers in eastern Europe and the developing world are paid a pittance to undercut British workers, immigration is out of control such that you can’t get to see your doctor but those who speak a different language have no difficulty, and the shop you knew in your childhood as a hard-working grocer’s is now a delicatessen run by someone from abroad. Oh and those City-types in London are doing rather too well for themselves.

It doesn’t matter how much of this is true. The fact that it seems to be true is enough. Add the growth of social media that allows the spread of views that go unchallenged, plus the relentless anti-Europe bombardment from certain tabloids, and even the most cogent anti-Brexit arguments fail to dent many people’s visceral commitment to it.

The result is that if Brexit implodes and we end up not leaving the EU, there will be masses of anger against the liberal elite, which could create a very dangerous situation. And in electoral terms, the result of an exit from Brexit could be an even bigger backlash against the Liberal Democrats than we suffered in 2015. Getting a referendum which we then win (and getting it may prove easier than winning it) won’t be enough to see off this anger. Somehow we have to separate membership of the EU from the sense vast swathes of Britain’s rust belt have that no-one is listening to them.

Posted in News | Tagged | 31 Comments

Co-operation with the Greens – debunking the arguments against

There’s something strange going in within the Liberal Democrats, and it isn’t helping us, or showing us up in a very favourable light.

Last month we had an astonishing success in the Richmond upon Thames borough elections. In 2014 the Conservatives won 39 of the 54 seats; this time we won 39, reducing the Tories to 11 and the Greens picked up four thanks in large part to an arrangement with us. It was an outstanding achievement for Gareth Roberts and his team.

But in the weeks since then, there seems to be a movement afoot trying to pretend that cooperating with …

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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 …

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 86 Comments

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.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 59 Comments

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’.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 30 Comments

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.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , and | 36 Comments

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.

Posted in News | Tagged , and | 57 Comments

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.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , and | 55 Comments

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 …

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , , and | 21 Comments
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Recent Comments

  • User AvatarGeoff Reid 17th Dec - 12:29pm
    Fair comment David. But I still remember the conference apparently unperturbed by the speech. I am sure that Harold Wilson’s action was in the best...
  • User Avatarpaul barker 17th Dec - 12:27pm
    On the subject of Polls, an average of the last 50 gives us 9%, assuming that we are still going up that probably means that...
  • User Avatarexpats 17th Dec - 12:22pm
    jayne mansfield 16th Dec '18 - 7:10pm................I take the poll results with a very large pinch of salt. Liberal Democrats have had two years to...
  • User AvatarRoland 17th Dec - 12:04pm
    @Glenn - As I said I’m part Jewish, I’m atheist and I don’t do the essentially Catholic BC/AD thing. Calendars and Clocks, we forget just...
  • User AvatarRoger Lake 17th Dec - 12:00pm
    Joe B -- many many thanks for your swift help!
  • User AvatarPeter Martin 17th Dec - 11:52am
    @ JoeB, "When most taxes are collected regionally, the need for regional distribution goes away." No it doesn't. Taxes collected by the euro using countries...