Author Archives: James Baillie

Dropping the 1p tax rise has political costs too

It’s easy to forget how little even politically engaged voters see of our conferences. Some family members – middle-class voters in a rural Conservative seat, environmentally inclined and still considering who to vote for next year – saw just one headline from the past, and it was “Lib Dems drop pledge to raise income tax”.

Their verdict? “Disappointing”.

Changes to a major policy are something to be done with caution and care. Any political benefits of a change need to be weighed against the costs. Shifting positions can weaken a party’s brand, making it less clear to voters what we stand for unless we have a powerful narrative to explain why circumstances demand such a change. Shifts also need to be weighed carefully for credibility, especially when it comes to taxation policy, the shoulders on which the costs of building a liberal society need to be carried.

Dropping the 1p income tax increase, frankly, fails such an analysis. The truth is that dropping one of our longest-standing pledges weakens a party brand that, as John Curtice pointed out at conference, is already getting eaten away at by Labour and the Greens as voters don’t know where we stand. It weakens it at both ends too, reducing our ability to show ourselves as a fiscally credible progressive alternative and coming at a real cost to liberal spending priorities. Fixing the NHS, repairing our social safety net – these won’t be cheap, and voters will see past any pretence to the contrary.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 26 Comments

The Nature of Public Debate – a win for Conference

Last conference, I moved a vote to reference back the paper on the Nature of Public Debate. Referring a paper back – a procedural move that returns the paper to a federal committee for six months’ reworking before the next conference – is designed for cases where conference believes that the broad approach of the paper is correct but that there are notable flaws with the detail that need reworking. That was the case here, with a number of issues around the thorny issue of regulating speech on the internet that needed working out or tightening up. In my speech last autumn to move the referral back, I said that I’d be happy to sit down with the working group to iron out some of those details – that’s what I did, and members voting for that reference back has led to a far more robust paper.

The changes made to the paper are in the detail, but online regulation is a world where details can have immense ramifications. A more effective definition of algorithms has ensured that proposals to give people more control of their content viewing online are workable and effective, where the paper’s previous versions would have been impossible to enforce and risked weakening our reputation as a party able to make effective proposals on tech issues. We also clarified language on online content provision and built more explicit alignment with EU regulations into the proposals, ensuring we’re better in step with the front line globally on these issues.

We also worked to improve the focus on who the proposals are aimed at. We tightened up the definition of social media in the paper to ensure our proposals only hit companies big enough to account for them – a looser definition risked new regulations hitting smaller companies and communities, stifling competition and hurting diversity of spaces online. We clarified much more effectively, too, that people’s speech rights in online communities of any size exist with regard to the rules of those communities, not an external legal precept. As liberals, we should never want to force companies or communities to host, for example, racist speech, and we shouldn’t want it to be possible for the wealthy to threaten smaller outlets with legal battles for moderating or refusing to publish their views. The changes to the paper protect smaller forums and communities from the full scope of the new regulations, better protecting free speech and our ability to build a diverse array of different spaces for which varying rules on members’ speech will be appropriate.

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Ending overpolicing: a new, liberal approach

As liberals, we are uniquely placed on issues of tackling societal problems, as the UK party which has historically been driven by caring from the community level up, not just the top down: redistributive, willing to stand up for those marginalised by society, and sceptical of an overbearing and authoritarian state infrastructure.

Today, especially given the racial disparities which are all too clear in our policing and our society as a whole, that liberal legacy must be put to work again, starting a radical rethink of how Britain deals with its social problems. We use the police for far too many problems across our society: overstretched forces dealing with problems the police were never going to be effective at solving, leading to problems developing, community mistrust, and discriminatory outcomes. It’s a round peg in a square hole that’s damaging all of us as successive governments keep trying the authoritarian method of hammering it in ever harder. But there is a better way.

Finding ways to ensure people, especially black people, feel reassured that the police have appropriate powers and oversight has to be part of the puzzle. Stop and Search powers are largely ineffectual, widely mistrusted, and statistically clearly flagrantly racist in their deployment. There can no longer be any argument for Section 60 powers that allow Stop and Searches without suspicion of a crime to be controlled solely within the police force: they should be abolished and an external magistrate should be required to sign any sort of future search order, reducing overuse and acting as an important assurance for communities. Stronger oversight measures that bring in communities better, and ensuring that groups like the Border Force come under proper scrutiny, are also important parts of that picture.

The real task ahead, however, is to broaden our conception of how to deal with societal problems away from simply using the procedural justice system, the pipeline of policing, courts and sentencing that we rely on for far too many of our problems. On the front line, we should be piloting community teams that work on conflict de-escalation and helping people toward other services they need. Run from local government not from the Home Office, these could provide a more easily trusted, more engaged service that is better equipped to deal with problems, preventing them escalating and providing a more specialised approach to solving a wide range of problems in a more localised and sensitive way. That could mean anything from ensuring homeless people have good access to night services, to talking people through a neighbourhood conflict that has caused, or risks causing, property damage, to forwarding a shoplifting incident to appropriate restorative justice systems.

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Threats to ban outdoor exercise are dangerous – and show us our mission now

Government threats to ban exercise outside the home are dangerous, illiberal, and utterly foolish on medical grounds. “Never threaten something you can’t carry through on.” is a good rule of negotiating generally – and following through on this would break the UK’s virus effort.

On purely practical grounds, it’s unenforceable. Even if patrolled by martial law, you can’t coop people up across the hundreds upon hundreds of miles of rural England and Scotland. The manpower isn’t there. And doing it only in cities would very reasonably breed resentment – and thus it breeds contempt for the whole lockdown and erodes public …

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This week, fight for our values on social security 

As we enter one last push before the election, it’s important to remember why we’re doing this. It’s tempting to clamp down into an unhelpful, wearying “shut up and deliver leaflets” mode, but really the best way to get motivated and to motivate others in politics is to have something to fight for. For me, the Liberal Democrats’ social security policies are exactly such a motivator.

A good safety net that liberates people from poverty and the threat of income insecurity is an absolutely crucial part of a liberal society. One of the reasons why coalition-era cuts in this area were so damaging for us as a party is that it jarred strongly with our natural position fighting for a society that supports and enables and empowers people. As liberals, we believe in people being supported to choose their own paths in life, and few things disempower people like time and energy and health being absorbed by a lack of good living standards. Fortunately, five years on, we’ve responded to that challenge, and are now exactly where we should be, leading the two main parties in having the most progressive welfare system plans on offer according to a Resolution Foundation analysis.

First, we have a plan to fix the system so it’s fit for purpose. Our root and branch reforms to Universal Credit, reducing the waiting time from weeks to days and scrapping the two child cap and bedroom tax, would rapidly and significantly improve people’s lives. Simply spending more on raw benefit levels is also urgently needed, and something that our Liberal Democrat MPs will fight for in the next parliament.  Since 2016 we’ve also been committed to the even bigger step of abolishing the benefit sanctions system: it is unconscionable, no matter what the circumstances are, that people should be left with insufficient income to live on. 

One area we’ve talked about less, nestling among the wide constellation of official Lib Dem policies not explicitly mentioned in the manifesto, is the longer term future of the system. As of Autumn Conference, our long term plan is to pilot turning the standard element of UC into a guaranteed minimum income, removing all claiming conditions other than income level. This is a natural evolution of policy from the abolition of sanctions, and also fits with our policies on lifelong learning and providing living cost support for startup businesses: by piloting an unconditional minimum, we will be looking towards having a single, streamlined system that will provide people with new opportunities, as well as giving people the stability they need to take care of themselves and those around them.

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Party Reforms – My Unanswered Questions

Back in September, I wrote on the subject of the proposed party reforms here on Lib Dem voice. In my article, I raised a number of questions over how balloting of these new supporters would work and what was being put in place to create a robust internal democracy based on full and comprehensive debate, accessible from across the liberal movement. Well, I’m here to tell you how many of my questions have been answered in the intervening months. The answer is, precisely, none of them.

Others have written better than myself on the possibility of entryism and the lack of consistent, detailed safeguarding proposals – I wish to focus here, as I did then, on the issue of member democracy and engagement with the supporters scheme across the party. I believed then, and still believe now (no supporter of the scheme has even tried to convince me otherwise) that engaging supporters with decision making power whilst only exposing them to a single source of information within the party risks creating a centralised system in which vague initiatives could be put to the “supporter base” for indicative votes and the results of such polls used to “gently persuade” conference to back a particular specific motion. If that sounds a familiar worry, dear reader, you’re not alone in the disconcerting sense of déjà vu. 

Access to information on what people are really voting for is a crucial issue in any democracy, and our internal democracy must be no exception. In my previous article I asked whether the party’s internal member organisations would have any way of engaging with supporters to help bring them into internal debates and ensure that supporters could form meaningful opinions on the major internal issues of the day – to the best of my knowledge, it’s still not clear beyond a vague promise in the motion to “provide guidance” how and whether our core Specified Associated Organisations would be able to interact with them, let alone many of the policy activism groups which are wholly unmentioned despite often providing the lifeblood of member engagement in policymaking. The potential spectre of HQ going to the supporters saying “we’ve got a fantastic idea, don’t you think it’s good” and the supporters saying “yes”, with nobody having the right to give an alternative viewpoint, would not create a useful polling exercise let alone a useful democratic one.

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Minimum income: From Finnish trial to Lib Dem policy?

The Finnish Basic Income experiment ended at the start of the year, and preliminary results have now been reported publicly. Certain sections of the press blared out that the trial, which paid 2000 unemployed people an unconditional €560/month income for two years, was a “failure” – but was it? It is true that the experiment did not lead to significant increases in the experiment group finding work, but should we be judging the success or failure of a benefits system solely by whether it pushes people into any job that can be found? Our values and policy as Liberal Democrats should lead us toward different analyses.

Looking at the results closely tells a different, important, and encouraging story from a liberal perspective. Despite those opposed to guaranteed incomes claiming that a basic income would lead to nobody wanting to work, the data shows no drop in work-seeking among Finland’s experiment group. The fact that there was no rise either suggests that marginal income effects may be less important in influencing work-seeking than some had imagined; a lack of suitable jobs and retraining opportunities is not something for which any social security system will provide magic bullets. Other potential positive economic effects of a guaranteed income are, however, likely to have been invisible in this sparse study – increasing the spending power of the worst off and building a labour market that can be more flexible in retraining are significant potential positives that would only be effectively visible at scale.

The most important results from Finland’s trial, in any case, are the effects on wellbeing. The experiment group reported lower stress levels and better health outcomes than their counterparts in the control group. This is where we should be getting excited about the possibilities of a minimum income – freeing people from the psychological strain caused by income insecurity, freeing people to make the most of opportunities and build stronger communities, freeing people to live happier lives. Not only that, but consider the strain on other public services, the NHS in particular, caused by health issues that are largely down to poverty. Taking steps towards eradicating those ills is both smart and compassionate politics.

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The social market – a big Lib Dem idea

What people often struggle with when it comes to Lib Dem economics is not the detail of our specific policies – which voters frequently don’t have the time to dig into, in any case – but our economic vision. Labour has a Big Idea, nationalisation, which dominates its economic agenda. The focus on Corbyn’s renationalisation plans was out of proportion to their potential impact, because it fits with how people see Labour’s economics, putting more of the economy under state control in the hope that permanently benevolent governments will somehow manage to run it all for the public good. The Tories likewise have their Big Idea in privatisation, moving more and more of the economy toward shareholder-driven corporations, deregulation, and the profit motive, in the apparent belief that this will placate the magic efficiency fairies. What’s our Big Idea?

The answer, in my view, is the social market, the core of which is that businesses should be owned and run by and for people across society, as independent bodies working to do good things in their own way. Taken to its conclusions it’s a truly radical vision, requiring the transformation of how we hold and invest capital to make cooperative, mutual, and social businesses the new normal. Even taken over the short course of a parliament, it’s a vision that can provide deliverable goals, improving working conditions and pay as we democratise workplaces and help new social businesses enter the market.

The social market is far from the misconception of Lib Dem economics as blandly toeing the middle line between the two other parties. It’s what happens when we logically put our principles into practice, decentralising economic power directly to people in a way that’s sustainable, democratic, and socially just. So how do we get there?

Firstly, we have to make it clear what we’re leaving behind, and secondly, we have to put policies in place that make it clear that what are now considered ‘alternative’ business styles should be standard norms in a liberal future, and ones that we’re prepared to act to help people build and grow. That’s why at Brighton Conference I’m bringing forward Amendment One to F28, the motion on business policy.

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Will party reforms really lead to more democracy?

As anyone glancing down the Lib Dem Voice homepage will become rapidly aware, Vince has recently laid out his plans for the future of the Liberal Democrats, and party grandees and official social media accounts are pumping out a slickly coordinated and prepared promotional run of articles and ads. Whether this is remotely appropriate during a consultation on a draft paper, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader – but I wanted in any case to discuss the detail, so let’s cut the rhetoric and talk about the fine print that’s been conspicuously missing from recent articles. Do these proposals actually present a blueprint that will turn the Lib Dems into a much larger “movement for moderates”? And is that what we want to become?

It’s unclear either how the party will validate supporters effectively and efficiently, or how conflicts between member and supporter votes will be balanced if they arise in this two-speed system. The issue of tensions between Federal Policy Committee’s priorities motions and the proposed priority ballots for supporters has likewise been unaddressed, especially if HQ rather than FPC intend to write those ballot papers. A non-MP leader also raises the constitutional problem of how the parliamentary leader is then selected – if members are entirely cut out of selecting our parliamentary leader then we risk a worrying gulf opening between our policy-making members and our policy-delivering MPs. The right to choose our parliamentary leader is not one I think that Lib Dem members will be happy to give up lightly.

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In 2018, let’s campaign for Councils of Sanctuary

2017 was a year when a lot of unpleasant events occurred – from the Trump inauguration, to a continued Tory government, to reminders every other week that Labour still think foreign policy is something that only happens to other people. One story you may have missed however – and one of the most shocking – was that of an undocumented migrant being arrested by border security after reporting her own rape to police. That modern Britain is in a situation where the police will simply hand over extremely vulnerable victims of violent crime to the Home Office’s enforcers – a practice both Labour and the Tories are defending – is deeply, deeply saddening.

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The Radical Association: Fighting for a bolder Lib Dem future

Times are tough for liberals and liberalism internationally, and perhaps especially at the moment in the Anglosphere. It’s frustrating to be locked out of power, and to see our values attacked from all sides both at home and abroad. It’s miserable seeing the UK lurch towards a hard Brexit, and I hope that together we can fight against May’s love-in with the hardline authoritarian regime emerging across the Atlantic.

Even in the darkest and most confusing times, though, it’s important that we look to the future as well as fighting present battles.  That’s why I and others have been working on setting up the Radical Association, a new ginger group hoping to build innovative new policies and strategies for the Liberal Democrats to face the challenges of the 21st century. Global warming, increasing automation in the economy, cybercrime, building a more open & accessible society, coping with an ageing population, strengthening and revitalising local communities – these and more are all issues that need a wave of fresh liberal ideas to meet them and ensure we’re ready for the challenges that the future will bring.

We’ve now got to the stage where we’re ready to lay the groundwork and put together a formal organisational structure for the Radical Association so we can carry these goals forward. We’re planning to work right along the policy pipeline, from supporting policy research and discussion groups, through to working out how we can get bold, clear policies onto the conference floor, to helping the party campaign on new ideas and get them out into the country’s wider political debate. At last conference we were active in calling for a wider rethink of the party’s social security policy, and we’re committed to building on that and working on other areas in the months ahead and helping ensure members are presented with clear choices and big new policies on the conference floor and beyond.

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Three Freedoms: the campaigning priorities for Brexit

The upcoming Brexit negotiations will be difficult for Liberal Democrats to watch. The vast majority of us campaigned to remain, and even those who voted to leave will, I imagine, be nervous at the prospect of an authoritarian Tory leader, probably without a specific mandate from the electorate for her party to run these negotiations, having so much power over what Britain’s negotiating position is to be.

As a parliamentary party, our lack of numbers will make it hard for us to get our message across when we’re needed the most. This is a time we as members and supporters are perhaps needed more than usual; to directly protest, write letters, persuade our fellow citizens, and hold the government to account from outside Westminster in support of our representatives inside.
Creating unambiguous messages to send to government on such a complex problem with such diverse viewpoints is difficult, and much ink has been and, I’m sure, will continue to be spilt on the subject. Today I just want to outline an idea of one specific strategy we could take, which I’m dubbing the “three freedoms” principle, as an attempt to boil down the terrifying complexity of the EU negotiations to something rather punchier.

Essentially, my view is that in the negotiations (setting aside the upcoming struggles on eg working rights and environmental protection which are likely to devolve to Westminster) there are three key things to secure.

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We need to talk to Yanis


We’re fighting hard to stay in the EU in this campaign, and we’ve got a good fighting chance of winning it. But it’s important to remember that this has been the campaign that never should have happened. What we’re fighting against isn’t just the lacklustre waffling of a Tory-led Vote Leave campaign that’s largely been hijacked by a fluffy-headed careerist Etonian. That would have been no problem. The real enemy is a drip-feed of decades of anti-EU propaganda and domestic politicians deflecting blame to Brussels – which is in turn made possible by the catastrophic scale of voter disengagement with European politics.

And that’s at the heart of why we should take the leftist reformers of Another Europe is Possible seriously.

The EU needs reform. This oughtn’t be a controversial statement to make; it’s self-evident that in most European elections voters have been wholly disengaged from the issues upon which they were electing their MEPs, and that’s not largely the fault of the voters. It doesn’t help that the appointed commission wields a great deal of authority with little direct accountability, and the tendency of national politicians to use European elections as mid-term referenda on national governments compounds the problem.

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Community – a liberal value in a changing world


Community is – rightly – considered a fundamental part of our values as liberals. Beyond its inclusion in our basic creeds, however, it is perhaps one of the less discussed and debated parts of Liberal Democrat belief. Whilst much ink is continually spilt over our positions on equality and liberty, what “community” means is perhaps too often taken as a given.

I want to suggest that we need to think about this more, because community has to stand at the core of a liberal society – and not just in the sense of localism that “community” is too often restricted to in discussions I’ve seen. If we are to be a party that seeks to liberate the people of our country, community is a crucial part of that process. The interpersonal links people make are vital on all sorts of levels; for exchanging information, for coming into contact with new people, for mental and physical health. These things form the difference between being able to positively use economic and social freedoms and condemning people to soulless individualism; nobody is liberated by being thrown as an isolated object into a rat race.

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Nature conservation: a liberal legacy

2015 was a strange year for me, as it was a strange year for the party; an odd, jarring mixture of losses and new hopes. In my case, one especially sad loss was that of my grandfather, Ted Smith, a pioneer of nature conservation across the UK, and especially in his native Lincolnshire – and also a Liberal and Liberal Democrat since the 1930s (one of the last few times I saw him, I helped him fill out his ballot for last year’s leadership election). He was a kind, quiet man, relentless in his pursuit of good causes; but others now have to lift that flag, and as such I thought this might be a time to reflect on how we think about conservation as a party.

We know that the natural world is under threat, perhaps more so than ever given the threat of climate change, and we have been the party most committed to strong science-led efforts to tackle that threat. The green agenda, however, must not be simply reduced to a question of climate alone. We owe it to future generations to conserve and protect Britain’s biodiversity, green spaces and habitats.
Liberal Democrats have to take the lead on the politics of nature conservation. Firstly, we must because nobody else will do so effectively. The Tory agenda for rural areas is one for corporations and landowners, protecting vast mismanaged estates and failing to provide effective solutions to rural issues. Labour’s agenda for rural areas is all too frequently non-existent. We can do better, and we must.

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Liberty: It’s an economic issue


In light of recent events, one key question that has been flying about is where we fit into this new and radically changed political climate. Corbyn’s Labour may adopt more liberal policies on social issues such as mental health or LGBT rights, which whilst welcome gives us fewer unique campaigning avenues. Amongst all this, the economy is a key divider, and how we frame our policies may be crucial to our electoral revival or lack thereof.

Building a new liberal economics, distinct from Conservative or Labour strategies, is possible, and we need to do it by the simplest of methods – applying our own passion for personal liberty in the economic sphere. That means ensuring that neither corporate wealth, private wealth, nor the state are able to dominate people’s economic lives, and trying to make the position of ordinary individuals more economically powerful. That means a push to spread wealth and income more evenly without direct state control, by targeting ownership as a source of economic power.

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