Author Archives: Lord William Wallace

Lord William Wallace writes…Heading towards a real crisis?

When I first read a commentator in a serious newspaper saying, in the early summer, that the UK was heading towards a potential political and constitutional crisis, of the sort that we have not faced for a century, I thought that was an exaggeration.  Now I’m not so sure.  In the course of the next few weeks, if the Prime Minister’s attempts to achieve a deal to leave the EU which will at once satisfy enough members of her party, appeal to a number of Labour MPs as well, keep the DUP on board, and not provoke a run on the pound and a slump in business confidence, collapse, with less than six months to go before the UK is due to leave, British politics – and the British economy – will be in unknown territory.

The atmosphere in Westminster is surreal.  I ran into two senior Conservatives with whom I have worked this week, both of whom remarked bitterly to me about the behaviour of colleagues within their own party.  Confusion, bitter rivalries, and for some despair, grip many MPs within the Labour Party as well.  Neither House is busy; legislation is thin, while we all wait for the government to send us the weight of bills and statutory instruments needed to arrive at an orderly transition at the end of March.  It’s now almost too late to manage that without emergency sessions and extended sittings.  Even the  trade bill, which has been through the Commons and had its second reading in the Lords, is now stalled until some clarity emerges on what sort of future relationship it needs to cover.  And behind that stretches a succession of bills and statutory instruments, promised for last Spring and postponed by the government’s own failure to agree.

The government statement on Tuesday, as Parliament returned, talked of a possible ‘delay between the end of the implementation period and the entry into force of the treaty on our future relationship.’  That suggests that the current uncertainty, which is leading banks and companies to start moving investment and staff out of Britain, could lead after the 21-month transition period, to a void without an agreed framework. Most trade experts say that it will take 3-5 years to negotiate a treaty which will then require ratification by 27 EU states as well as the UK.  The battle within the Conservatives about whether any ‘temporary’ arrangements should be strictly time-limited is about what happens in 2021, with the ideologues determined that we drop out of current arrangements then, and the pragmatists within the government (yes, there are still a few) recognising that our economy – and our security and foreign policy – need certainty about some continuing framework.

Meanwhile, panic preparations are underway to prepare for a ‘No Deal’ outcome, which begins to look quite possible.  You will have heard of the start of work on lorry parks stretching back for Dover – for up to 10,000 lorries, potentially tying up a significant part of the freight transport fleet.  Stories from Whitehall say that officials are being pulled out of their regular duties into emergency teams to prepare for a No Deal scenario.  Across the water, the DUP is threatening to bring down the government, while the SNP is preparing to campaign for a second independence referendum if the UK crashes out of the EU – which they would probably win. The possibility that the UK might break up, with Northern Ireland opinion moving towards favouring unification with Dublin and Scotland going it alone, looks real.

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William Wallace writes…We need to challenge Conservatives on Tax cuts

Right-wing Conservatives like Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are calling again for tax cuts to ‘free’ the economy.  It’s always popular to call for tax cuts, so long as you don’t link them to spending cuts; so it’s a priority for Liberal Democrats to link the two, and point out that the Brexiteers’ agenda is also one that shrinks the state further, and enforces continuing cuts in the NHS, social care, children’s services – the entire welfare state – education, bus services, even police and prisons.

And the Brexiteers have a problem.  They promised, of course, that they could spend £350m a week more on the NHS – a promise given by a campaign master-minded by Matthew Elliott, founder and first director of the Taxpayers Alliance, a lobby/think-tank dedicated to cutting state tax and spending.  He had used the same cynical ploy in leading the campaign against the Alternative Vote, arguing that the cost of the referendum and the new system could better have been spent on the NHS: knowing that this would appeal to hesitant voters, but not intending that any more money should be spent.  

Their problem is that the narrow majority that voted for Brexit were, and remain, deeply divided on public spending.  One of Lord Ashcroft’s latest polls, intended to inform the Conservative Party conference, warns that roughly half of those who still support Brexit support further cuts in spending and tax, while half – the less well-off, the ‘left behind’ and the ‘just about managing’ – want an end to austerity.  Pushing through Brexit, with a resulting fall in tax revenue on top of the corporate tax reductions right-wing think tanks are calling for, would force yet another squeeze on public services of all types – and would lose the Conservatives the working class support they think they have won.

Boris Johnson’s Conservative conference speech relied on the ‘Laffer Curve’ to square the circle: the assertion that cutting corporate taxes will increase revenue, as companies and their owners are freed to increase investment, create more jobs, and spur faster economic growth.  The record of successive Republican Administrations in the USA has shown that this does not work.  The second Bush Administration cut taxes without managing parallel cuts in spending, leaving the Clinton Administration to struggle with the accumulated deficit it inherited.

Behind this commitment to continuing cuts lies a deep antagonism to the public sector and to those who work in it, and an insistence that private provision always works better than public.  Teachers, they argue, are overpaid and underworked, civil self-interested and intrinsically inefficient bureaucrats.  But never a word from the libertarian lobby about rent-seeking executives in the private sector, or examples of corporate failure or corruption in the provision of services.  And it’s corporate taxes they want to cut deeply, more than personal taxation.

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Immigration White Paper

Before a mass of Liberal voices condemns the party’s immigration paper and the related motion for party conference, we need to reflect on two underlying issues: first, that global population growth, combined with weak states and intermittent conflicts across the developing world, and exacerbated by climate change, mean that migration to richer and safer countries is becoming one of the most intractable issues democratic nations will face over the next generation; second, that the white working class in Britain (above all, in England) have real grievances, which we cannot dismiss, and which are partly – though only partly – associated with immigration.

Yes, much of the resentment unskilled people in England feel against incomers is unjustified and misdirected.  That doesn’t mean that we should ignore it: politics, sadly, is as much about emotion as about reasoned argument.   However, we can’t reassure them merely by saying that they are mistaken, or ill-informed.  We have to address those grievances, by campaigning for policies that answer them.

The Leave campaign, aided and abetted by Migration Watch and the right-wing media, managed to present the challenge of immigration as coming from the European continent, triggered by EU free movement rules. In reality, migration from other EU countries has never accounted for the majority of arrivals in the UK in any year, despite the surge after east European nations joined.  The real ‘Project Fear’ in the Referendum campaign was the suggestion that the entire population of Romania and Bulgaria would move to Britain, and that 70 million Turks would follow.  The population of the EU-28, in total, is 500 million.  However, the population of Africa has grown by 500 million over the past 30 years, and current expectations are that it will double again over the next 25-30 years. Across the Middle East and South Asia, birth-rates remain high – closely linked to the subordinate position of women and their limited access to education.

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Brexit: It isn’t all over yet – not by a long way!

Several comments on LibDem Voice last week argued that we’re all too late to stop Brexit: ‘it’s a done deal.’  Except that it’s not: we have a government that still has no clear idea of what future economic relationship it wants to have with the EU after we leave, and no coherent proposals for managing our future borders with the EU.  9 months from the date on which the UK is committed to leaving, Theresa May is holding together a divided Cabinet by endlessly postponing hard decisions that would trigger resignations from one side or another. The odds are rising on a political crisis towards the end of this year, as hard Brexiteers call for Britain to crash out of the EU without a deal, the Prime Minister promotes a formal exit which will leave us still following EU rules for an extended transition period (‘Brexit in Name Only’, or BRINO), and business protests that they lack any guarantees about future rules to encourage investment in Britain.

Remember what No.10 was saying about the timetable a year ago?  To manage an orderly exit, we would negotiate a package of measures with the EU by June 2018, to be agreed at the June EU Council.  That would allow time for the necessary legislation in the UK, and ratification both here and in other EU states, to be completed before March 29th next year.  We are now reaching the June European Council, after months in which David Davis has assured us that the negotiations ‘are making good progress’, and find that there is no package and little attention to Brexit on the agenda. Number 10 is now briefing the media that there may be ‘serious’ negotiations at the October European Council, but that agreement on key issues may be postponed until December.

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Why you should go to Lewisham this weekend

Helen and I spent Tuesday evening canvassing in Lewisham. We met the friendliest reception we have had on doorsteps for a long time, from people who remarked that everyone assumes that Lewisham is a safe Labour seat and no party then seems to care about the voters. We were the first canvassers they had seen so far, in this hurried by-election, rushed ahead by Labour to do its best to prevent any other party from mounting an effective campaign, with polling day on June 14th. So, if you can carve out an afternoon or evening, better still a whole day, and are within travelling distance, do your best to go to Lewisham!

Since Parliament is treading water at present while the government struggles to come up with some coherent policies on Brexit, groups of LibDem peers have been travelling down to help with the campaign. You travel to Lee station, 15 minutes from London Bridge towards Dartford; our campaign headquarters is a 5-minute walk from there: 19 Leegate Centre, London SE12 8SS, just off Burnt Ash Road. They turned us round fast and efficiently when we arrived, and sent us out with a good briefing to use on the doorstep. If needed, contact [email protected] or phone 07384 525159. If you bring a large party I’m sure they would appreciate warning of your arrival.

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We need to talk about tax

The developing consensus that the NHS needs more money, and that there is nowhere else for that to come from except increased taxation, shows that there are some things that voters may well be willing to pay more for in order to get better-quality service.  But we need, also, to recognise how strong the anti-tax lobby in this country is, and how difficult it will be to shift popular perceptions that others should pay more, but we deserve lower taxes ourselves.

Liberal Democrats beat themselves up about their collaboration in the coalition’s austerity programme.  Our mistake was not to mount a stronger argument in 2010 for funding a higher proportion of the adjustment through tax increases rather than cuts.

But we ought to recognise that all three parties have collaborated in the myth that decent public services could be provided without higher and more progressive taxation.

Margaret Thatcher set the tone, financing public services partly through the windfall revenues from North Sea oil – instead of establishing a sovereign wealth fund as the Norwegians did –  and partly through selling off state assets to fund current spending (‘selling off the family silver’, as the elderly Harold Macmillan had remarked).

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Migration and the liberal dilemma

The Spring conference will be discussing migration policy in Southport, on the basis of a carefully-written consultation paper. This is a particularly difficult topic for Liberals. Almost all of us would prefer to live in a world in which borders were open, and immigrants and refugees were welcomed. But global population growth, combined with state collapse, civil conflict and climate change, are combining to create a rising flow of migrants – driven both by political disorder and economic deprivation – towards the safe and prosperous countries of Western Europe. Many of them are trafficked on their …

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Lord William Wallace writes…Britain’s deepening political confusion

Anyone who thinks that they know what British politics will look like in 3 months’ time is a fool.  The opinion polls, it is true, have hardly moved since last year’s general election; most voters, it seems, have been disengaged since then.  But among the parties, things are moving, in a very confused and uncertain fashion.

The Conservative Party is in the most extraordinary position.  Here is a party which had over a million members when I was a Young Liberal, which does not challenge the statement that its individual membership is now around 70,000.  It is sustained by large donors, mostly from the financial sector but with some prominent businessmen, which give the central party the funds to manage campaigns from the centre – as we learned, to our cost, in the last two elections, as centrally-funded mailings poured into LibDem target seats.  And it is politically supported – and pulled to the right – by a number of highly effective think tanks, many of them substantially funded by offshore donors and foreign sympathisers. (The advantage of contributing funds to think tanks which promote right-wing ideas, offshore donors are told, is that they remain anonymous and avoid the checks the Electoral Commission requires on party donations.)  The Legatum Institute is openly funded by a Dubai-based New Zealander; the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and most other Conservative-oriented think tanks do not declare their sources of income.  The right-wing media, above all the Telegraph and the Mail, provide a direct link to older voters, though they do not reach many of the younger generation who read news on line.  These papers combine with think tanks like Civitas to denigrate the BBC as ‘biased’, meaning that it puts out a range of opinions that are beyond Conservative control.  

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William Wallace writes: Stopping Brexit isn’t enough – we have to help the left behind

Larry Elliott in the Guardian the other day declared that the Remainers don’t have any answers to the problems of the Left Behind in Britain.  He didn’t bother to claim that the Leavers had any answer either.  Their commitment to deregulation (with abolition of the Working Time Directive one of their first targets) will hit marginal workers in insecure jobs; their hopes of cutting public spending will increase the gap between rich and poor and starve education and health of resources.

But what do those of us who support Remain offer the Left Behind?  Remember that the highest votes for the Leave campaign came in England’s declining industrial towns, and in the county and seaside towns that have also lost out from economic and social transformation.  Middlesborough, Skegness, Canvey Island and Wisbech all returned over 80% of votes to leave.  It was easy for the Leave campaign to encourage them to blame the globalised ‘liberal elite’ for their woes; they have lost out from globalization, and feel patronised and neglected.  Some of their grievances are justified; others are not.  The selling off of social housing and the incursion of private landlords into what were once Council housing estates is not a consequence of European rules or of immigration.  But the loss of the stable employment that their parents and grandparents had IS a consequence of open frontiers and technological change, and successive governments of all parties have failed to invest enough – in education and training, in housing, in infrastructure, in supporting the growth of new local entrepreneurs – to spread the prosperity of the South-East and the metropolitan cities across the rest of the country.

Liberal Democrat peers tackled these issues in a working party over the past year, the report of which is attached here.  We have submitted a resolution for the Spring conference to take the debate within the party further.  Our analysis, and our proposals, cut across several policy areas.  Greater investment in education and training, from pre-school to further education, is central.  Long-term finance for local start-ups, of the sort that the British Business Bank was intended to provide but which also needs nurturing at regional and local level, is essential.  A revival of social housing is urgent.  Most difficult of all, we have to find a way of rebuilding political trust: a revival of local democracy within communities that feel abandoned by all parties and agencies of government, and that see politics as a game conducted by well-off and well-educated people in London.

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Campaigning for higher and fairer taxes?

We need to talk about tax. The IMF’s annual report on the UK economy recommends that taxes should be raised, in order to reduce the deficit further without cutting public investment and services. Philip Hammond, it is reported, would like to do so; but he is opposed by the ideological (and Eurosceptic) right of his own party, and by the influential group of free market think tanks who were cheerleaders for the Brexit campaign.

The Taxpayers Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs have repeatedly argued that it’s impossible to raise more than …

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William Wallace writes….What’s Brexit really all about?

At the consultation meeting the Lords Party held at our Bournemouth conference, the strongest plea that came from round the table discussing Brexit was for more information on what is happening.  We will take that back to the wider parliamentary party and our small and overworked group of researchers, and see what more we can do.  There are some really good papers from Nick Clegg’s advisory group on the party’s web site, which explore the underlying issues; but the politics of the negotiations are moving and changing almost every week, and I guess that campaigners want usable material to respond to that.  So meanwhile, here are some initial suggestions on how best to play the issues in different places.

The most important shift in the Brexit debate over the summer has been from general principle to detail, as negotiations get under way, and as the deadline of March 2019 begins to loom.  Boris Johnson’s Telegraph article was a denial of where we are – sweeping aside the difficult questions about HOW we manage a mutually-advantageous relationship with the EU after we leave, to argue that those who say Britain will suffer if we don’t get an agreement are talking the country down, and that a close external association with the EU will make the UK ‘a vassal state’, in ‘a national humiliation.’  This, we must all repeat vigorously, is Brexit denial, like climate change denial: refusing to admit the detailed evidence that there are problems to resolve.  The detail matters, we must insist against the ideological sceptics: crashing out without a deal will cause chaos in the UK economy, cost jobs, and endanger standards.

Let’s take the issue of border controls. 2.6 million trucks pass through Dover every year, five times as many as when the Single Market started in 1992.  They spend an average of 2 minutes each passing the border.  If this extended to 20 minutes each (the fastest one estimate suggests they could be cleared outside the customs union), the queues would soon stretch along the M20, supermarket shelves would empty (1/3 of our food is imported from the EU) and assembly lines would grind to a halt (Honda’s Swindon plant alone depends on 350 truck-loads of components a day coming through Dover). Revenue and Customs are trying to introduce a new computer system, but that may not have the capacity to cope with the number of transactions required outside the customs union, and in any case may well not be ready by March 2019.  Estimates of additional customs staff needed by then are in the thousands; but recruitment has not yet begun.  And Boris doesn’t think we need a transition arrangement after that date?

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A pointer towards the future of British Conservatism?

In the middle of an election campaign, Liberal Democrats don’t have time to read books. But keep an eye out for reviews, and extracts, of The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, by Douglas Murray, which was published on May 4th by Bloomsbury. The Sunday Times gave us a full-page extract last weekend, indicating the Murdoch press’s approval of its author and his arguments. His opening sentence states that ‘Europe is committing suicide’: from loss of will, decline of Christian values (he calls it ‘existential civilizational tiredness’), lost commitment to reproduce enough children, and above all …

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Lord (William) Wallace writes…Defining the issues in this election campaign

One lesson of the Richmond Park by-election that we should all take account of in the coming general election is that those who call an election may lose control of the campaign. Zac Goldsmith chose to fight a by-election on the expansion of Heathrow airport. But he lost the election because voters found other issues – above all, Europe – mattered as much to them.

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Reaching out to the ‘Left Behind’: what policies should we put first?

The pitch which the Leave campaign successfully made to the poorest 10% of UK citizens in last June’s EU Referendum was that their problems of low pay, insecure jobs and waiting lists for affordable housing were all due to competition from immigrants, and would be eased by leaving the EU. The budget, with little on social housing and less on funds for schools or other public services in deprived areas, has made their situation worse, rather than better. Labour has been hesitating about how far to buy into their grievances about immigrants. How should Liberal Democrats respond …

Posted in Conference | 35 Comments

William Wallace writes a letter to a new member….

 

Dear New Member,

It’s been exhilarating to meet you and so many of your friends and fellows at meetings over the past few months.

After years of talking to small numbers of Liberal Democrat members in the corners of pubs or the living rooms of houses, packed meetings of interested and well-informed people warm the soul.  Some of the questions thrown at me display levels of expertise on specific policies well above what I’ve acquired; the only answer I could offer to the new member who asked what I thought we could learn from the Finnish school system was, “You tell me”.   I was invited to a meeting for new members in Yorkshire, some months ago, to talk about our party’s approach to foreign policy, to discover from the first three people I met that each of them had years of experience of working in countries that I had never visited.

The party organization is struggling with its limited resources to make good use of the expertise which many new recruits have brought us.  Some are already serving on policy working groups, some helpfully advising different parliamentary spokesmen, others are feeding in to shaping policies at regional level.  I look forward to meeting more new members at the Spring conference in York, including in the consultation sessions on Friday which provide the easiest opportunities for members to feed in ideas.

Many of your friends and fellow enthusiasts have piled in to Witney and Richmond, and some also to Sleaford, Copeland and Stoke – and found election campaigning a wonderful collective activity.  But can I say to you what I’ve said to the several university professors who have come to talk to me about helping the party they have just joined?  “Get out there and walk the streets, outside active election campaigns.  Deliver leaflets, and knock on doors.  You will learn a huge amount about the state of British politics and society; and it starts to make a difference to people who feel cut off from politics and political elites and will respond to activists who take an interest in their own concerns.”

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William Wallace writes…Populism in the media

Active Liberal Democrats should read the Daily Mail.  You need to know where issues that dominate the news have come from. Even more under this Conservative government than under Tony Blair, the Mail sets much of our political tone and agenda; it’s the newspaper from which Conservative constituency executives take their opinions, feeding back to MPs, ministers and No.10.

The BBC’s recent revelation that David Cameron tried to persuade Lord Rothermere that it was time for Paul Dacre to retire, after 25 years as editor, before the EU Referendum, illustrates how successive Prime Ministers attempt to cultivate the Mail while at the same time fearing it.  Its populist narrative is skilfully presented.  The vicious way in which it attacks those who challenge that narrative persuades its readers that they are on the right side, and that others are responsible for whatever goes wrong.

The Daily Mail narrative on the NHS has fed directly through to government policy.  Its campaign against ‘health tourism’, in which the picture of a Nigerian woman who had quadruplets while visiting Britain has appeared multiple times over the past year, has pushed the government into action; there is, after all, a real problem, though the Mail has exaggerated its extent and overall cost.  In parallel it has run a campaign against ‘lazy’ GPs who close their surgeries for half a day a week – also leading ministers to respond.  The deliberate implication of both of these has been that the NHS’s problems are caused by foreigners and lazy staff, not by lack of resources.  Indeed, one of the longest-running campaigns in the Mail has been about the ‘wicked’ denial of new cancer drugs by NICE, ln grounds of cost (David Cameron responded by setting up a special fund to underwrite a limited supply). Tthe Mail thinks more should be spent on these, without explaining to its readers where the extra money might come from.

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William Wallace writes…What should the Liberal Democrats be saying to the “left behind?”

What should the Liberal Democrats be saying to the ‘Left Behind’?  We’ve claimed a strong position as the voice of the 48%; but there are many among the 52% who are not illiberal at heart, and others who voted ‘Sod off!’ in the Referendum to London as much as to Brussels in their disillusion with politics and the distant elite.  People who live on partly-sold off Council estates, or in places built to house workers in factories that closed 30 to 40 years ago, where local services have been steadily cut back and jobs are hard to get to, low paid and insecure, have some justifiable reasons to feel resentful .

Theresa May has spoken about the ‘left behind’ at the Davos World Economic Forum, but said little about what an’ active state’ (yes, she has used that term) should do to help them. Donald Trump in his inauguration speech promised ‘the forgotten people’ from globalisation that they will now be remembered, but didn’t say what he would do to help them beyond putting up barriers to imports.  The right-wing media in Britain have portrayed their problems as mostly down to fecklessness and immigrants – taking their jobs and the social housing they want to claim, weighing down the NHS.  Labour is wavering over whether to give in to that narrative, or address more underlying problems.

But what do we want to say, consistent with our values, and without pandering to the ‘blame the East Europeans’ narrative?  Liberal Democrat peers have set up a working group to address this, to feed into party campaigning in ‘left behind’ areas.  The London-based media portrays the political choices for such voters as between Labour and UKIP (having forgotten the Lib Dem record in cities like Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle, Hull and elsewhere).  We know that Labour has already lost their trust, and that local campaigning has created new pockets of Liberal Democrat support, with encouraging local by-election results in recent months. Our group includes peers with local government experience in northern cities and neglected rural areas; and we are drawing on a number of reports on the social and economic conditions of England’s pockets of depression and deprivation.

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William Wallace writes…The politics of unreason

As 2017 begins, the politics of unreason seems to be spreading its influence across British politics and media.  Liam Fox inside the government, and John Redwood and Peter Lilley outside, are arguing that we don’t need to negotiate a treaty with the EU as we leave.  They propose that Britain simply reasserts its sovereignty, and to hell with international law, commercial and security interests, and rights of access and residence elsewhere across the EU for the 50 million journeys UK citizens make every year. (Peter Lilley, like Nigel Lawson, lives part of the year in France; you’d have thought he might have taken rights of residence into account.)  Free trade, they assert, is something that we can if necessary adopt unilaterally.  The mercantilist policies of China and India, the threats of protectionist tariffs that the President-elect Trump has been making, do not disturb their tranquillity.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s Times  carried an article in its business section by Mark Littlewood, the director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, recommending Las Vegas as the model for post-Brexit Britain’s economy, in particular by spreading casinos through our ‘left behind’ seaside towns.  He’s as serious about this as Tim Congdon (of Economists for Britain) is when he argues that Britain’s economy can manage without an industrial base, and as the Taxpayers’ Alliance is when it recommends further deep cuts in public spending.  That’s the US Republican model they aspire to, even as Donald Trump moves away from it.  It is, of course, the opposite of what most Leave supporters thought they were voting for, and what the Leave campaign appeared to be promising.

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Our not-so-decrepit peers

peersinrichmond

If you read the Evening Standard the day before the Richmond Park by-election, you might have noticed this wonderful comment on the participation of Liberal Democrat peers in the campaign, which I suspect came from someone in Zac Goldsmith’s team who was overwhelmed by how many Liberal Democrat activists were on the streets.

One hundred Lib Dem peers were sent to knock on doors. Only a handful of the ill and very old were spared by-election duties – in echoes of James Graham’s play This House which recounts how MPs close to death were dragged to the Commons for crunch votes in the seventies.

If you’ve seen the play, you will appreciate the picture of the elderly and infirm being wheeled in to do their bit.  Of course it wasn’t at all like that.  I don’t think more than 25 of us were ever there together at one time, though many of us went as often as we could, and canvassed over the phone when we couldn’t:  not as a ‘duty’, but because we enjoy election campaigns, we’ve done a lot of campaigning in our time, and we’re committed to the party.

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Brexit: You broke it, you fix it.

It’s now five months since the EU referendum on June 23rd: plenty of time, you might have thought, for a government which appointed ministers committed to Brexit to key posts to have developed a strategy. Yet confusion reigns in Whitehall and Westminster. The clock is ticking towards Theresa’s pledged date of invoking Article 50 by the end of March. Yet the government seems more focused on fighting a court case to limit the involvement of Parliament than in setting out its preferred future relationship with our neighbours on the European continent.

This is a degree of incompetence about …

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William Wallace writes…Taking on the anti-tax movement 

If you read any other paper than the Guardian, you will have noted some days ago a generously-covered story about the enormous ‘lifetime tax bill’ faced by British families. The ‘average UK household’ in 2014-15 was estimated to pay £826,000 in direct and indirect taxes over their working life, while the top 20% ‘will pay £1,686,970’ – a curiously exact figure for an estimate, and a claimed rise of 4.3% over the previous year.

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William Wallace writes: Could Brexit split the Conservative party?

 

How deeply could Brexit divide the Conservative Party, as the contradictory choices involved in negotiating an alternative relationship with the EU become clearer?

Media focus since the Referendum outcome has been on the widening divisions within the Labour Party.  Press comment has praised the self-discipline of the Conservatives, by contrast, in resolving the issue of leadership so quickly – though in reality it was resolved by the implosion of ‘Leave’ candidates, one after the other, leaving Teresa May in command of the field.  But the divide between practical Eurosceptics and ideological Europhobes is wide, and often bitter.

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Lord William Wallace writes… How you can make sure we win this referendum

The betting odds on the outcome of the EU Referendum are comforting. And the polls so far are not too bad. But once you are out of London, and on the doorstep, it doesn’t feel good. The messages that feed back, picked up from social media and the subtle messages that the Leave campaign are putting out, show how many people have picked up their portrayal of the EU as draining both our sovereignty and our budget. Their latest political broadcast played heavily on the idea that the NHS will get worse if we stay in, and will benefit from extra funds and fewer patients if we leave.

Not all Liberal Democrat party members feel passionate about Europe. For many, local issues and local campaigning is more important – and more directly relevant to those whose votes we are seeking. The ALDC has fixed a full-day conference the weekend before the Referendum to discuss local campaigning, which will I imagine include a session on how to combat the appeal of UKIP at the local level. But local and international issues do not exist in separate compartments: concerns about immigration and diversity, competition for housing, schools and jobs (and hospital admissions), bridge the two. UKIP, and some local Tories, play skilfully on fears of change and mistrust of incomers, to our disadvantage.

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Could Trumpland reach Britain?

We all hope that Donald Trump will not be the next US President; even if he wins the Republican nomination, it’s unlikely that he will win over a majority of states and voters. But his astonishing success so far, in mobilising the embittered, marginalised and nostalgic, all those who feel they have lost out through rapid economic and social change, has lessons for British politics.

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In the Spring …

 

In the Spring every Liberal Democrat activist goes out delivering and canvassing.  To pass the time, and increase the interest, many of us play mind games about the political tendencies of the streets and houses we are approaching, trying to anticipate what we may expect.  In Bradford we have to anticipate first of all whether the front door and letter box will be at the front or the back – well, we hardly ever open our own front door in Saltaire, though the letter box is there. In generations past, front doors  in West Yorkshire were only used for weddings and funerals; now, you are more likely to encounter thick piles of clothes and shoes which prevent the person you wanted to talk to from getting close enough to open it.

The most successful game I ever played, with others in our group, was in an affluent area of Sheffield Hallam in the 2010 campaign: guessing the sort of reception we would get, and the likely political leanings, from the make of the car in the drive. BMWs indicated solid right-wing views, Mercedes only slightly less so.  Minis denoted concern not to hog the road or to look aggressive, Peugeots had a definite tendency towards Liberalism, and Volvos were a pretty sure bet.  When one of my nephews was lodging with us a few years later, and looking for a car to buy, he explained to me how each make and model of car carries a particular image that the purchaser buys into: male, female, assertive, family-oriented, socially aware.  This reassured me that I had not been idly associating choice of car with political tendency.

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Lord William Wallace writes… Fighting both the local elections and the EU referendum

Whether we like it or not, the European Referendum campaign is already under way, threading in and out of the May elections. UKIP is hoping to make gains in the Welsh Assembly, and will be standing candidates in many local elections across England. Competing Leave campaigns fill the pages of the Mail and the Telegraph every day; leaflets are beginning to drop through letter boxes. LibDem activists who protest at the ‘distraction’ that the referendum campaign presents to local campaigning between now and May forget that voters don’t think about local and national politics in sharply-differentiated compartments. They also ignore the extent to which Conservative and UKIP candidates will be using nationalist and anti-EU themes in their pre-May campaigning.

Immigration is an issue that affects voters’ choices in local as well as national elections. Attitudes to asylum-seekers, and how far they should be welcomed into local communities, shape voting intentions. Internationally-minded people, generously-inclined towards outsiders and non-citizens, are likely to be natural Liberals – and potential members and activists. I recall canvassing on a former Council estate in Hull in 2004, with a Washington journalist who had asked to come with me to pick up attitudes towards the US after the Iraq invasion. The first person who opened his door to us started with complaining about cars parked on the grass verges; but 2 minutes later he had reached Iraq and how strongly opposed he was to British intervention alongside the Americans – without any prompting to move away from local issues.

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William Wallace writes… Sources of UK extremism

Part of our role in both houses of Parliament is to hold the government to the commitments they – often reluctantly – give.  One of the five conditions Lib Dem parliamentarians established in return for supporting the extensions of air operations over Iraq to Syria was that the government should set up an enquiry into sources of funding for extremist versions of Islam within the UK.  Alastair Carmichael in the Commons, and myself in the Lords, are holding the Conservatives to the promise they made to report on this by ‘the Spring of 2016’. Alastair has pressed ministers on the size and quality of the ‘Extremism Analysis Unit’ set up in the Home Office to cover this.  I asked an oral question in the Lords yesterday (February 3rd) on how thoroughly overseas funding will be investigated, from both foreign government and from private sources. In both cases, the answers have been that the government is acting on this commitment, but there are clear reasons why we should continue to put pressure on them to deliver.

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William Wallace writes…Liberalism in an illiberal world

The twenty-five years since the end of the cold war have been a good time for liberals, both at home and abroad. In Britain the moves towards a more open and tolerant society that had begun in the 1960s continued. Legal and social prejudices have been pushed further back; same-sex relationships, equal opportunities for women, ethnic diversity, have all been accepted as basic values, even – reluctantly and partially – by the right-wing press. There have of course been negative developments in parallel – widening economic inequality, the contraction of social services, the marginalization of the long-term unemployed – but the overall picture has nevertheless been one of progress.

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William Wallace writes…Liberal Democrats will fight for votes at 16 and balanced EU referendum rules

The EU Referendum, Sir William Cash declared during the passage of the Bill providing for it through the Commons, is of fundamental importance to the future of this country over the next generation and more.That is why Liberal Democrats have been arguing, regardless of the broader issue of lowering the voting age, that on this occasion 16- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote. We agree with Eurosceptics like Bill Cash that this is a vital, long-term decision; so those that have the longest stake in the future of this country should not be denied a say.

The Bill has now passed through the Commons, and has its second reading in the Lords today. Liberal Democrats will be putting down amendments on a number of issues in addition to votes at sixteen. We support extending the franchise for the referendum to UK citizens who have been living and working elsewhere within the EU for more than 15 years, which is the current cut-off for non-resident voters. We will also be putting down an amendment to allow EU citizens who have become long-term residents within the UK to vote in the referendum; they already have the right to vote in local and European elections here, so in many cases are already on the register.

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William Wallace writes: Charities and public trust

 

Charities have been in the news this summer: first the ‘Olive Cook’ affair, raising the question of over-aggressive charitable fund-raising, which led to an active Daily Mail campaign, and then Kid’s Company, a charity which had run repeated deficits, depending on large cheques both from government and from major donors to bail it out, with trustees who seem to have been in awe of a charismatic chief executive.

Liberal Democrats watching the news to catch coverage of Tim Farron’s conference speech will have heard about the publication of a report on abuses of charitable fund-raising, which proposes a tougher regulatory regime.  I was one of the four members of that committee, at some cost to my summer.  Some had dismissed the Daily Mail campaign as another right-wing attack on progressive good causes.  We heard fund-raisers and major charity CEOs admitting that they had failed to monitor how the commercial agencies they employ handled telephone canvassing, that they had ignored the telephone preference scheme, and had overridden data protection in swapping contact details on donors.

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