Author Archives: John Pugh

Back to Beveridge at Ballot Time

As the countdown to the General Election begins, people grow increasingly nervous. The spectres of triumph and disaster lurk hidden from view as we approach the electoral starting gate.

Some with long memories fear the false step – the promise to reverse Brexit without referendum, the trumpeted amnesty to illegal immigrants etc.

Some with equally long memories bemoan a lack of boldness and differentiation – where is the penny on income tax for education ?

Much my depend on your local political geography. In the leafier parts of the South saying ‘we are not the Tories’ may be sufficient.  In the Labour dominated north it’s certainly not.

This underlines the need to have a message that impacts in the North and does not startle the horses or the electors in the South.

There are such messages particularly in the field of health and education.

I think it is now accepted that the Coalition Health and Social Care Act 2012 was one of the most pointless, opportunity-squandering and ham-fisted pieces of legislation in modern times with most of its provisions (CCGs etc) now abandoned or reversed.

Parliamentarians persisted with it despite the concerns of nearly all health professionals, the Lib Dem conference, Baroness Williams and colleagues like Andrew George and other brave souls.

It was not a charter for privatisation but a definitive and conclusive expression of the market principle when applied to health which although rampant in the Blair years had to be toned down even then to get through the Commons. It proved unworkable in our NHS which still tries to cling to Beveridge principles.

What if though we were to revisit those principles and abandon the costly, bureaucratic internal market in the NHS – where the piled on overheads of administrators, defending as commissioners and providers their own silos, disappear ?  Arguably the necessary creation of the new Integrated Care Boards has already blurred the boundaries within the internal market. Commissioners and providers are now working together as the NHS to desperately husband scarce resources.

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John Pugh writes…Lord Ronnie Fearn 1931-2022

Most people who knew Ronnie have a Ronnie story. If there is a book written about how to become an MP or a Lord, Ronnie never read it.

He was never going to be one to tick all the boxes in a bloodless modern selection process  and yet he was loved by his constituents and possibly the only one who could have in the 1987 General Election delivered the only Liberal gain in England. He won because he was no political careerist using the constituency as a stepping stone, but because his only ambition was to represent the town of his birth and the people in it.

Southport, albeit it has its eccentricities and detractors, has deep Liberal roots and the heart of Southport liberalism is valuing each individual regardless of where they stand in the social hierarchy.

Ronnie practised rather than theorised about Liberalism showing an omnivorous and genuine interest in the daily life of ordinary and not so ordinary folk, patronising ,in the proper sense, all sorts of groups and associations.

Posted in Obituaries and Op-eds | Tagged , and | 6 Comments

An endangered species – Where are we with party reform?

John Pugh and Sir David Attenborough John Pugh with Sir David Attenborough

We are, by nature, political outsiders. None of us has been able to find a home in the establishment parties that dominate our political landscape. The political climate – electoral system, media, financial backing- is not favourable to us either. We struggle to get our voice heard, and our limited grip on power is always in peril and often short-lived.

As an endangered species, we would merit the David Attenborough treatment and as any endangered species need to husband carefully and efficiently our resources to survive. We survive by campaigning effectively on causes that matter to us and the electorate. However as Dorothy Thornhill said in her landmark report on the 2019 election “winning seats in elections has too often come second to internal discussion and management”, pointing out that “resources are being deployed on committees concerned with operational ..minutiae and their purposes and agendas at all levels of the party-national, regional and local”. The Thornhill report called for a review of the governance of all areas of the party.

Interestingly Dorothy in the report describes herself as “not an insider”, but even a party of outsiders needs its insiders. We should be grateful for those prepared to sit through the committee hours keeping the party’s cogs turning year after year as leaders, MPs and other stellar luminaries explode temporarily onto the scene, as membership waxes and wanes.

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Rolling the boulder back up the hill again….

Embed from Getty Images

In ancient mythology Sisyphus is condemned to spend eternity in Hades rolling a huge stone up a hill only to see it roll down again and have to repeat the process. Judging by the reaction of many Lib Dems to the 2019 General Election, that seems a good metaphor for the predicament party members and activists feel themselves to be in.

The most common injunction is currently is to go back to basics, build up the local base, immerse ourselves in community politics,set out on the long march again.

Like Sisyphus we may find this necessary even obligatory- even if tinged with reluctance and a sense of sad futility. We can see it as a consequence of living in this vale of tears where FPTP rules and political power inevitably goes to those with most economic clout. Breaking the mould can seem impossible if you don’t control those forces that set the mould in the first place.

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Tribal politics and liberalism – the fight to the death

I have a slightly irrational aversion to holding up diamonds, wearing rosettes and beginning sentences with the phrase “Only the Liberal Democrats”. In fact I canvass now with a badge I had made which says on it against a yellow background “Bloody Politicians”. 

I really,really do get the importance of branding etc but I do think that the future of Liberalism depends on the death of tribal politics.

We are living in strange times where political discourse is often reduced to the exchange of insults, declaration of tribal belief and parodying of alternative perspectives. As Nick Robinson tweeted<

Much but not all of this is done through social media. Political debate ,as opposed to the political exchange of fire, is harder now to engage in. Voters are increasingly endorsing populist-right and left- politicians who offer simple solutions, ignore complexity and play successfully on emotions and fears.

Polarised politics though has certain key definable features we need to understand and as importantly worry about emulating.

It characterises political opposition in terms of a moral gulf. Those who back a different position are knaves, fools or both. They are not just people who have arrived at a different opinion. There can be no dalliance with the enemy not just because they are wrong but because they are necessarily evil. So we have the coarsening of political discourse, mindless abuse of opponents etc 

A second key characteristic is to deny or minimise the possibility of shared truths between political opponents. One side has to have got all the facts right and the other side all the facts wrong.Intelligence is only ever used by opponents to mislead and confound. 

These two key characteristics act to reinforce each other. It cannot possibly be the case that one’s political opponents have looked at the same facts one sees and arrived at different conclusions, possibly sharing some similar core values to oneself. That’s a liberal mirage.

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Regional Branding: the path to recovery

Christmas looks a little more cheerful for the Lib Dems after a string of November council by-election results but so far as national opinion polls go we are bumping along the bottom.

Given such data, it would be unsafe to draw the conclusion that are resolute anti-Brexit stance is paying dividends. It may well do so when some turn of events demonstrates to the vast swathes of voters that Brexit was a catastrophic economic and political mistake, but no-one just now is holding their breath. There may well come that Iraq moment when the party’s wisdom is demonstrably vindicated but …

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Cllr John Pugh writes: Cautionary tales from Southport

We’re happier people in Southport after our council by election which we won decisively in what used to be a rock solid Tory Ward and left Labour in a poor third place.

People might be surprised to know that whereas I owe my success to my small and dedicated team, I drew what inspiration I had from my limited reading not of J.S.Mill or Jo Grimond but from the Hindu classic ,the Bhagavad Gita.

Let me explain. We’ve had a rough time lately in Southport – pushed from first to third place on a rising tide of Corbynism in the General Election. a councillor suspended, two defecting to Labour and a fractious and demoralised mood growing. We had a substantial rally of the Corbyn cult on Southport beach with St Jeremy himself in attendance, a media losing interest in us, the party nationally tanking in the polls, a new Tory MP and many of us were just plain knackered after the gruelling, high-intensity campaigning of July’s General.

In such circumstances we were scarcely in a position to welcome a by-election in a ward polarised between a wealthy shoreside area and a deprived town centre. There was serious a possibility of us only being able to add to a narrative of decline. On the other hand we could conceivably change that narrative.

I had when stepping down this year intended to return to local politics but would have welcomed more propitious circumstances in which to do it. I was only too aware of the adage that ‘all political careers end in failure’ and a former MP not winning or worse in a council seat in his own constituency would be a pretty good way of proving it- especially as I knew both Labour and Conservatives needed to pull out all the stops in the contest.

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How we lost Southport

Gut wrenching horrible was how it felt to be pushed into third place in a seat we have held for the last twenty years but by way of catharsis I would like to tell you good folks what I think happened.It would be good to have other tales of success and failure here.

The election took us as by surprise.Weeks before the Constituency Chair and I had decided that I would announce my retirement from Westminster after what we assumed would be good set of local election results. The snap election forced my hand. But we had ready a great alternative in Sue McGuire ,our council group leader with considerable profile in the town and a real record of action.

The campaign was much better and more high powered than any Southport campaign I have been previously associated with. Lots of help from outside (some incredible shifts put in), bigger canvassing teams, good literature, armies of stuffers, IT & Connect sophistication, bags of help from the national party and two leader’s visits. The pace was unrelenting; the output impressive. Neither the Labour nor the Tory candidate lived in Southport- a fact we sought to exploit. We lobbied at the school gates on education cuts and throughout the town on the dementia tax. Squeezes and switches galore. Other parties campaigns seemed modest in comparison.

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John Pugh writes….Time to be practical

There’s always been a tinge of otherworldly eccentricity about some liberals- the ability to hold a conversation about the merits of site-value rating while simultaneously clutching a bundle of ready-to -go Focuses- the blending of the theoretical with the practical.

Now is the time for the practical. Here in Southport we are fighting off the Tory hordes with our excellent candidate Sue McGuire – and we all know that as a party we need more women MPs.

We need more MPs period……and Southport has provided the party with one since 1987. It’s a winnable seat that has to be won and has never been won easily. Its one of only two held in the North West.

Every rational activist in the North West should be asking themselves “When am I going to go to Southport” and possibly “How often?”. Those troubled by the current ,relative lack of Lib Dem women MPs should be asking themselves what practical help can I give ?

The threat to our electoral prospects is never people actually being inactive but the super-optimism that sees Tory strongholds and Labour heartlands toppling like ninepins to a Lib Dem surge in one electoral cycle. The threat is not concentrating our firepower but exerting huge amounts of energy in pursuit of a good second place. 

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John Pugh MP writes.. Diversity now: Words into deeds

8 Lib Dem MPs were elected in 2015 – all male, all white and myself the oldest. This was despite the party having put a lot of effort and energy behind some absolutely superb female candidates in seats where sitting MPs had stood down.

So monochrome were we until the Richmond by election that when we were caricatured as pale, male and stale I felt almost apologetic at being elected. However it wasn’t really our fault; it wasn’t the party’s fault. It was all down to an electorate spooked by the possibility of a Miliband/SNP government ….oh and a little bit …

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John Pugh MP writes: Campaigning for your local school

Its Spring and much is stirring as people look cheerfully ahead at prospects new. Every well informed individual in the schools sector though looks ahead with scarcely disguised pessimism.

There is one very obvious reason for this. School funding is scheduled to nose dive. Heads know it,teachers know it and gradually parents are getting to hear about it. Today we have seen a new report published by the Education Policy Institute underlining the same grim statistics that troubled everyone from the National Union of Teachersto the National Audit Office.

The message is stark. Rejigging pupil funding on a national formula within a budget falling in real terms by £3 billion spells gloom for all. Nearly every school they suggest will lose and on average that will cost two teachers to primary schools and six to secondary schools. In many places the impacts will be worse.

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Banging on about Europe

I didn’t join the Liberal Democrats in order (to use David Cameron’s phrase) ‘to bang on about Europe.’ My main pre-occupation was building communities and quality public services.

I have met colleagues in the party though for whom this was the big “thing” that brought them into politics and for whom any tinge of Euro-scepticism smelt of heresy; any suggestion that the European project was going off the rails was unspeakable back-sliding.

This sensitivity always struck me as odd but as something to be aware of rather than to react to.

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John Pugh MP writes…Two lessons from Thursday

Southport councillors 2016In Southport last Thursday we did something no party has ever done before in Southport’s history- won all the council seats by healthy margins. Not everyone knows where Southport is but its on the northern tip of the Merseyside region on the Lancashire coast. On Thursday I was puzzled when contacted by the press department expressing worry about the defection of one of my councillors. It turned out it was a bloke in Stockport who had defected. Easy mistake to make if you are from London.

Southport is part of Sefton MBC which has big wards averaging 12,000. During the Coalition most of Merseyside fell like dominoes to Labour including the Sefton seats outside Southport leaving us (Southport) an isolated fortress. This year it was different with Richard Kemp and Kris Brown spearheading a heroic revival in Liverpool and gains made in Knowsley. The only sadness was that in some other areas of Merseyside where we had taken successive kickings in previous years the will to win and the belief that we could was not there. Hopefully that won’t be the case in 2018 or in the counties in 2017.

Conclusion number one therefore is that the atmosphere is changing but more self-belief is needed.

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John Pugh writes: Our vision for Education

Teacher In Classroom

In 2010 Michael Gove, acting before the ink was dry on the Coalition agreement, rushed the Academies Bill through Parliament. Governors were free to turn their school into an Academy Trust, without canvassing parental or local opinion . This being a little high-handed, I moved an amendment during the Commons debate requiring school governors to consult parents – particularly important  as the government were pressing on with this radical change during the school holidays.

Gaining the support of Ed Balls, then Labour party Education spokesman, I pushed it to the vote and divided the House. We lost as most of my colleagues voted against and the Whips angrily  informed me that trying to amend government legislation, however crass, was not how coalition in the Commons was meant to work. Now in 2016 we have even school governors sidelined as the Academy bandwagon, courtesy of the Tories smashes through every barrier.

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Conference Countdown 2015: John Pugh MP writes…Benchmark for Bournemouth

Every political party has its own narrative. In the last decade we have  moved from being a popular party of opposition to an unpopular party of government. Our ambition is to be a popular party of government.

Our success in doing so will be influenced by the direction of travel in other parties. Labour is manifestly on a  strange journey but we should be hesitant about drawing parallels or making comparisons. Blairites in reforming their party took that party to massive electoral success. Orange bookers in endeavouring to re-direct the Liberal Democrats took us to electoral wipeout.

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John Pugh MP writes…Why the Marris Bill on Assisted Dying failed

I voted against the Marris Bill and found the result and the debate strangely heartening even though it’s an issue its hard to feel certain about. I will not rehearse the arguments presented but endeavour to offer a different explanation than offered by Norman Lamb for why the Marris Bill failed.

Firstly there was an implicit dishonesty in the proposal. No-one is against assisting the dying but if you arguing for assisted suicide you should call it that. Words ,as George Orwell said, matter. Conflating state-facilitated suicide with care of the dying even if the former is appropriate conflates a distinction which is both morally and legally important.

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John Pugh MP writes: Getting Back on Track

Railway trackLooking at the wreckage of our electoral hopes, the defeat of MPs of massive talent and commitment who have served their constituencies well, it is hard for all of us not to feel angry. A lot of that anger spills through in the post hoc analysis as we seek to distribute blame and identify the critical errors made.

I suspect that in years to come people will still argue about what went wrong and when, but certainly at the moment its all too raw to arrive at objective,dispassionate conclusions that all will accept.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 43 Comments

John Pugh MP writes…Liberals must tackle rising social inequality and improve social cohesion

Liberal Democrat badge - Some rights reserved by Paul Walter, Newbury, UKThe nice thing about Lib Dem Voice is that they print what you say rather than what they want you to say.

After the disappointing General Election of 1987 I made the press ,when as Party Chairman of the only constituency in the England we had gained, I suggested it would be good for the party if David Steel  stepped down and Paddy Ashdown took over. I think I got that one right.

So understandably I thought long and hard before saying …

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John Pugh MP writes… Grim up north

You may have read the Observer article entitled “Northern Lib Dem MPs rebel over cuts.”

It’s a source of wry amusement to behold how the national media treat our internal democratic procedures. Not since primary school have I been referred to as “ringleader”, let alone of a bunch of “rebels” – Northern council leaders, peers and MPs who endorse the pre-budget submission “Grim up North?”.

The title is meant to be a little ironic because there are many promising signs up North and a lot of support for the Coalition’s objectives of re-balancing the economy.

However, your typical Northerner is classically known …

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John Pugh MP writes…Lessons from Bulgaria

There is something strange happening. This week we have seen the British Prime Minister question whether the free movement of labour is necessarily a good thing. The prospect of potentially socially disruptive Bulgarian and Rumanian immigration is concentrating his mind while all across the EU pray devoutly that the worst of tabloid fears will not come to pass.

The banking collapse in 2009 made all of us question whether the unfettered, free movement of capital was invariably a good thing. Currently the merits of the free movement of capital and labour are up for debate.

What we are seeing is the collapse …

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Opinion: No economic case for regional pay

The clamour against regional pay received renewed vigour yesterday as 25 Liberal Democrat backbenchers endorsed a paper calling for the government to scrap any plans to link public sector pay to private sector earnings across the UK. The paper prepared in the office of John Pugh MP, analyses the evidence submitted to the Treasury and Office of Manpower Economics and concludes that there is no economic case for introducing regional pay.

The government has considered the introduction of regional pay in light of concerns that public sector pay premiums across the UK are ‘crowding-out’ the private sector. However statistics show that the private sector is not struggling to recruit staff, as vacancies in the public sector go unfilled for longer and a survey of business leaders shows that the majority have not struggled to compete with public sector wages.

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John Pugh MP writes … TINA and NHS Choices

Mrs Thatcher was reputed to declare in more than one context that There Is No Alternative – earning herself the sobriquet of TINA . In life that is rarely the case and as an avowed existentialist I am disinclined to believe that is ever the case.

The party will be told that there is no practical alternative to the Lansley Bill. That could be true. I have no doubt that the Bill has been substantially changed and improved as a result of the listening exercise and amendment in the Lords.

It is, however, still a massive set of changes to the NHS and a continuation …

Posted in Op-eds and Parliament | Tagged and | 1 Comment

John Pugh writes: is an apology in order?

There was little real choice about choosing to enter the coalition. There was little real choice about addressing the nation’s colossal budget. There was no way to avoid risking unpopularity.

As the Liberal Democrat councillors took the bullet for the coalition on local election day and Conservatives emerged relatively unscathed, it must be asked whether the extent of our defeats was avoidable. To put it another way could we have played the coalition game better – both in terms of presentation and in terms of policy?

The answer is unequivocally yes and for that reason MPs owe an apology to …

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John Pugh MP writes… “Calm Down, Calm Down!” – keeping Coalition partners happy

Perhaps it comes naturally to someone born a Liverpudlian but — without donning a shell suit (a la Harry Enfield) to cry “Calm Down, Calm Down” — the media village, so anxious for a scrap and the possible downfall of the Coalition, need to do just that.

The remarks of Vince Cable and other Lib Dem ministers (whether public or private), the rumblings of back-benchers, the cracks in cabinet unity – they all come with the territory.

There are those in the Whips’ offices of all parties who dream of …

Posted in Op-eds | 24 Comments

John Pugh MP writes… What I have learned from ‘The Mafia’

Stephen Tall on this site last week queried why it was that so many Liberal Democrats sounded ‘conservative’ on public sector reform. Supporting local democratic bodies (ie, councils) was likened to Conservative support of business and Labour support of unions— both sectional interests.

I think this is a flawed analysis. Liberal Democratic attitudes follow not from any sectional interest but a belief in democratic accountability. Opposition to many alleged reforms in public services hinge on a conviction that they are a poor substitute for it.

To understand what’s going on I have learned from Mafia films you must ‘follow the money.’

We …

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Opinion: good and bad reasons for backing Ken

Ken Clarke is coming under pressure from the Red Tops about his plans for sentence reform. According to Conservative Home, even David Cameron is getting cold feet. But Liberal Democrats, it is assumed, are bound to be backing Ken.

This might be thought a given as Liberals are, from the point of view of the media, supposed to have a benign, Panglossian view of human nature which unkind souls might call unrealistic or wet.

Wrong on both counts!

I have long thought the only good moral reason for punishing someone is that they deserve it and that the state is …

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John Pugh MP writes on the health debate ahead at Lib Dem conference

The Coalition White Paper on Health could be the top topic at the Lib Dems’ Liverpool conference. There is still time for delegates to have a genuine impact on future legislation.

Previous soundings on have produced a thoughtful and largely critical postbag with the results passed on to the party’s Health Minister, Paul Burstow.

Paul, and indeed Nick Clegg, believe there is plenty in the White Paper Liberal Democrats should warmly support — such as the increased commissioning role for GPs, and the increased role of local authorities in public health. Others point out that Coalition agreements to have …

Posted in Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters | 8 Comments

Opinion: liberals should cut the deficit and support a strong state

There is a myth that a desire to balance the books is a virtue only of right-leaning governments.

There is myth that those who want to shrink the state are more concerned than others about how the state raises money.

Deficit deniers in one corner – state shrinkers in the other.

But Liberal Democrats can act to reduce the deficit and be positive about the role of the democratic state.

What prompts any given government to run a deficit is usually circumstantial, prompted and encouraged by economists reading the runes. Reaganomics was based both on huge deficits and reducing the role of the …

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John Pugh MP asks for Lib Dem members’ feedback on health issues

As part of the empowerment (sorry about the cliche!) of ordinary members it might be useful if you let us in the Westminster village know how you react to unfolding coalition policy.

I’m tasked as Co-Chair for the Backbench Health Committee to ensure that distinctive Lib Dem policy on health goes into the Coalition Government equation.

So I have decided to seek party members’ views on the much-reported Health White Paper – especially from those who have a bit of hands on experience of the NHS.

Please post here or alterantively e-mail me at [email protected]

The issues are not insignificant, with …

Posted in Party policy and internal matters | Tagged | 163 Comments

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