Author Archives: Lord William Wallace

It can only get nastier until the election

It’s not surprising that polls suggest that many young people in the UK now despair about democratic politics. The partisan Westminster debate has become more and more negative. Prime Minister’s Questions have been getting worse week by week, throwing insults across the floor.  The Conservative Party has run out of positive themes to appeal to the public, and is falling back on attempts to discredit all of its opponents.  The right-wing media are in full hysterical mode, while conspiracy theories, culture wars and ideas about ‘Christian nationalism’ flow from across the Atlantic along with American finance to support Tory factions and think tanks.  And the Labour leadership is sufficiently intimidated by the right-wing media that it is responding cautiously and nervously – as are we.

I am as frustrated as other party members by the apparent timidity of both Labour and our own party leadership in the face of this right-wing onslaught.  But I’m also painfully aware of the ruthlessness and effectiveness of media monstering, and the closeness of the alliance between Conservative HQ and the right-wing media.  As soon as the Post Office scandal hit the headlines, CCHQ set out to pin the responsibility on others.  The Mail responded by going for Ed Davey, supported (of course) by the Telegraph and GB News – with the Standard giving him a frontpage monstering a few days later.  If he’d apologised immediately that would have fed the attacks and maintained the front-page coverage.  There’s nothing fair about tabloid press campaigns.

Conservative researchers have combed through cases Keir Starmer had any involvement with as Director of Public Prosecutions, hoping to find some dirt to throw – so far without much success.  So their press attack dogs are doing their best with Angela Rayner’s council house sale.   The Mail has given this front-page treatment several times in the past fortnight.  It’s an indication of what the Conservatives get away with that the allegations on Rayner taking advantage of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘right-to-buy’ on her council house came from Lord Ashcroft, who has avoided paying infinitely larger sums in tax through offshore havens like Belize.

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Which dangers to democracy threaten most?

‘Democracy’, Boris Johnson wrote in his weekly Daily Mail; column on March 8th, ‘is always more fragile than you think.’   But what are the most direct threats to British democracy which we face at present?

For the Prime Minister, Michael Gove, many other Conservatives and the right-wing press, the most urgent threats come from Islamist terrorism and disorder on the streets.  Pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London may have been non-violent but are seen to be intimidating; climate-change activists have blocked streets, and put banners on the Prime Minister’s constituency home.  Gove will be issuing a new definition of extremism later this week, which is expected to focus on Muslim organizations and direct-action groups for ecological issues; how far it will also flag up right-wing extremists remains contested within the government and the right-wing media.

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Following the ‘five families’ of the Conservative Right

As the Tories continue to tear themselves apart, have you checked whether any of your local Conservative MPs belong to any of the factions of the Tory Right, scheming and plotting so actively that moderate Tories have dubbed them after the mafia families of southern Italy?

 There’s no point in putting on leaflets that many Tory MPs have lost touch with reality.  But it’s very useful to do some quick research on which groups particular Tories belong to, what they stand for (and against), and what they’ve said about key issues.  Even the right-wing press has concluded that that ‘plenty on the government benches are living in a dream world’, as Harry Cole commented in the Sun.  The Times parliamentary sketch on a December Commons debate Rwanda protested that ‘many of the contributions to the debate were fantastically unhinged.’  Peter Lilley, a member of the ‘Common Sense Group’, insisted in the Lords the other week that Britain is being run, and ruined, by a liberal conspiracy of which our party – together with the BBC, the universities, lefty lawyers and the like – is an active component.  He believes that passionately; he shouted it across the chamber at us.

The European Research Group is the oldest of these factions: the Brexit dinosaurs, still fighting to cut further links to Europe.  Mark Francois is now its chair, Jacob Rees Mogg, Steve Baker and Suella Braverman having gone into (and out of) government. Francois was nicknamed ‘Corporal Francois’ when a junior defence minister; it was not meant kindly.  Since the Referendum the ERG has campaigned for the hardest possible Brexit. Nine of the 40+ MP subscribers to its shared research team were appointed to Liz Truss’s Cabinet. Six were retained in Sunak’s Cabinet, although Braverman has since resigned; Chris Heaton-Harris, who opposed the Northern Ireland Protocol, now struggles as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to reconcile conflicting pressures.  The group condemns ‘foreign courts’, and demands that we leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Northern Research Group – deliberately modelled on the ERG, with funds for research support – is larger, and has the most practical agenda: to strengthen the voice of the large number of northern MPs in the southern-dominated Tory Party, and in particular to support Boris Johnson’s Levelling-Up promises.  Jake Berry, MP for Rossendale, was its chair and driving force until briefly made a minister in Liz Truss’s government, when John Stevenson, MP for Carlisle, became chair.  54 MPs signed a letter in support of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ in 2021. But its influence has shrunk; Levelling Up was never funded, northern infrastructure continues to deteriorate, the Conservative Government is still run from southern England.

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William Wallace writes: Why we should be wary of Lib-Labbery

Labour strategists are warning their party not to take it for granted that they will sweep into power in the coming general election with a large majority.  They point to earlier campaigns, in the UK and elsewhere, during which substantial initial poll leads have evaporated, to leave either no overall majority or even a surprise victory for the incumbent government.  It looks extremely unlikely that the Conservatives can recover that far; but it may be wise to reflect on the possible implications of Labour failing to win a comfortable majority.

Many of us, while desperately anxious to see the back of this dying and faction-ridden Tory government, will nevertheless lack confidence that a majority Labour government would offer sufficient political and economic change.  But we also need to be cautious and suspicious about how Labour would behave if it were to emerge without a clear Commons majority.

Those of us with long memories recall how difficult and frustrating cooperation with Labour has proved on previous occasions when they have needed third-party support.  When Harold Wilson won a bare majority in 1964, Jo Grimond – committed to ‘the realignment of the Left’ and to reasoned cooperation between politicians of goodwill – offered support.  Wilson responded warmly when opinion polls looked bad for Labour in the Spring of 1965.  When they turned back in Labour’s favour that summer, he ridiculed the Liberals in his speech to Labour’s conference, and went on to secure a clear majority of MPs in the 1966 election.

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Economic dishonesty, political irrationality

Ahead of the Autumn Statement the Financial Times quoted former Chancellor Philip Hammond as saying: ‘the politician who is honest about the situation probably gets voted out.’ Jeremy Hunt was less dishonest than the irrational right-wingers on the benches behind him who called for substantial tax cuts, but he gestured towards them in the ‘cuts’ he offered, his reiteration that ‘Britain is a low tax country’ and his claim that cuts in taxes (and therefore in public investment and services) is the surest path to economic recovery.

There’s a remarkably wide gap between our partisan debate and what expert economists and think tanks (apart from the Tufton Street standard-bearers of economic liberalism) are saying about the UK’s economic and political priorities. The Institute for Government Public Service ‘Tracker’ for 2023, just published, states bleakly that we risk spiralling down a ‘doom loop’ of cuts, unable to reverse ‘the consequences of successive governments’ short-term policy making, with decades of under-investment in capital having a serious impact on the productivity of public services… and many services are experiencing a full-blown workforce crisis.’ The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation have pointed out that Hunt’s future ‘headroom’ on which he rests his case for some tax cuts now implies future cuts in public services that no government would be likely to approve. On the business pages CEOs insist that an increase in public investment is needed before businesses will increase their domestic investment rate: the private sector needs better public infrastructure to invest, particularly in our poorer regions.

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Don’t call it proportional representation

Most Liberal Democrats care passionately about electoral reform.  Most voters don’t begin to understand what it’s all about.  So how do we catch their attention, let alone their support?

Let me make some suggestions about how to gain public attention.  First, don’t talk about ‘proportional representation’ or ‘electoral reform’.  Say ‘fair votes’, and ‘a more democratic system’.  If we mention the choice between STV (the Single Transferable Vote) and the Additional Member System (AMS) eyes will glaze over.  Tell them that Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic use more democratic systems.  The choice for fairer voting lies between the Irish and the Scottish systems; both are already in use and easy to understand.  Putting it this way makes it harder for Conservatives to argue, as ministers did when removing the Supplementary Vote system for electing mayors in the Elections Act in 2022 that even that half-baked form of the Alternative Vote (proportional when there is only one person to be elected) was ’too complicated for voters to understand’.  If Scots, Irish and Welsh voters can manage this, it’s absurd to argue that English voters can’t.

Second, link it to the broader issues of Westminster’s toxic culture and popular disillusion with the style of our national politics.  Both Sunak and Starmer attacked the close world of the UK’s over-centralised Westminster politics in their conference speeches this year – though neither suggested they were going to do anything much to change it. Ask your Tory and Labour counterparts if they are happy about the way Westminster has worked in recent Parliaments (Sunak said it’s been awful for 30 years) and how they propose to improve the way government and Parliament operate.  Changing the way politicians are recruited and elected is central to opening Westminster up.

Third, recognise that changing the way our political leaders are recruited is only a part of the reforms that are needed to open up UK democracy and regain public trust.  Tighter controls on party finance, loosening the government’s control of parliamentary business, reinvigorating local democratic authorities, reconstituting the second chamber, would all contribute to transforming British government and politics for the better.  The strongest case for electoral reform is as part of a broader programme of constitutional reform, not as a project on its own – as it was presented in the Alternative Vote Referendum in 2012.  Not all of those changes can be introduced within a short timescale, of course, nor without carrying a disengaged public with them.  If we want electoral reform to last longer than the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act has done (enacted in 2011, repealed in 2022), we need to build a groundswell of public support.

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William Wallace writes: Making the case for Constitutional Reform

Rishi Sunak has told the Conservative Party conference that British politics are ‘broken.’  That will make it more difficult for his party to resist changes in the way we do politics – constitutional reform, as we nerds put it.

It was the Conservatives that broke British politics, of course – or rather, populists inside and outside the party, cheered on by right-wing media (and American and Russian encouragement and funding) that swept aside established conventions on political behaviour and governmental restraint.  A major new report on political reform, jointly published by the Institute for Government and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy in Cambridge, notes the breakdown of constraints on executive behaviour, attacks on judges and the rule of law, attempts to bypass parliamentary scrutiny and the steady erosion of local government that has characterised the past eight years.

Four prime ministers since 2015, seven chancellors of the exchequer, nine secretaries of state for education – constant ministerial churn, changes in policy announced without much preparation or consultation and then reversed by the minister’s successor.  This single-party government has given Britain an object lesson in incompetent government.

The Conservative conference demonstrated how ungovernable the Conservative Party has become.  Liz Truss peddled her free market nonsense to a packed fringe meeting.  Ministers attacked policies that no-one had yet put forward. Danny Kruger, representing the American-influenced evangelical right wing, channelled conspiracy theories about the threat that climate change efforts were intended to bring ‘world government’.   Nigel Farage swanned round the conference, wearing his GB News pass: not a delegate, but a highly visible presence, benefitting like other right-wing populists from generous GB News funding.

Keir Starmer in his Labour conference speech almost echoed the prime minister.  ‘Our politics feels broken’, he declared; ‘we must win the war against the hoarders in Westminster, give power back and put communities in control.’  But beyond a reference to strengthening local government, he has said nothing specific about political reform beyond making it clear that he is opposed to changing the voting system.  He gives every impression that he intends to govern within the same centralised, executive-dominated structure the Conservatives have used and abused, with only minor adjustments to improve relations with the UK’s three devolved governments.

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How rotten is our democracy?

This is the question Isabel Hardman poses at the beginning of her review of Chris Bryant’s new book, Code of Conduct: why we need to fix Parliament – and how to do it.  Hardman’s own book, Why we get the Wrong Politicians (first published in 2018 and updated for a paperback edition in 2022) had already covered much of the same ground – on the ‘toxic culture’ of Westminster politics, the power of the whips over individual MPs, the neglect of parliamentary scrutiny of government legislation and decisions in favour of efforts to become ministers, and above all the strains on personal relations and family life.

Bryant – chair of the Commons Committees on Standards and Privileges until this month – writes in an easy, personal style, but his underlying anger at the corruption and the toxic culture of Westminster politics is evident.  He starts with the Commons’ handling of Owen Paterson’s censure for ‘paid advocacy’ for companies which were paying him more than £100,000 a year. 250 MPs voted to reject the Standards Committee recommendations, with support from Johnson as prime minister and Rees-Mogg as leader of the House.  ‘I felt that Parliament itself was on trial’ in that vote.

In the context of historical comparisons with past parliamentary scandals, he concludes that ‘this is indeed the worst Parliament in our history.  More than twenty MPs have been suspended or have left under a cloud.  Rules have been flouted… Ministers have lied and refused to correct the record…’  There is ‘a widespread sense that politicians believe the rules don’t apply to them.’

He sees ‘something rotten’ in the structure of the Westminster system, with far more ministers than in comparable democracies, dependent on prime ministerial patronage.  Unchecked prime ministerial power allows corruption to spread through PPI contracts, through the allocation of levelling-up funds and through the appointment of friends to paid public offices.  He details the lies Boris Johnson as PM made to Parliament, the bullying habits of government whips, the conflicts of interest that arise through moves from ministerial office to private directorships and consultancies.  He reports the massive outside earnings that former ministers and PMs make – noting that in the first three months of 2023 Johnson registered £3,287,293 in outside earnings.

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William Wallace writes: How rotten is our democracy?

This is the question Isabel Hardman poses at the beginning of her review of Chris Bryant’s new book, Code of Conduct: why we need to fix Parliament – and how to do itHardman’s own book, Why we get the Wrong Politicians (first published in 2018 and updated for a paperback edition in 2022) had already covered much of the same ground – on the ‘toxic culture’ of Westminster politics, the power of the whips over individual MPs, the neglect of parliamentary scrutiny of government legislation and decisions in favour of efforts to become ministers, and above all the strains on personal relations and family life.

Bryant – chair of the Commons Committees on Standards and Privileges until this month – writes in an easy, personal style, but his underlying anger at the corruption and the toxic culture of Westminster politics is evident.  He starts with the Commons’ handling of Owen Paterson’s censure for ‘paid advocacy’ for companies which were paying him more than £100,000 a year. 250 MPs voted to reject the Standards Committee recommendations, with support from Johnson as prime minister and Rees-Mogg as leader of the House.  ‘I felt that Parliament itself was on trial’ in that vote.

In the context of historical comparisons with past parliamentary scandals, he concludes that

This is indeed the worst Parliament in our history.  More than twenty MPs have been suspended or have left under a cloud.  Rules have been flouted… Ministers have lied and refused to correct the record…’  There is ‘a widespread sense that politicians believe the rules don’t apply to them.

He sees ‘something rotten’ in the structure of the Westminster system, with far more ministers than in comparable democracies, dependent on prime ministerial patronage.  Unchecked prime ministerial power allows corruption to spread through PPI contracts, through the allocation of levelling-up funds and through the appointment of friends to paid public offices.  He details the lies Boris Johnson as PM made to Parliament, the bullying habits of government whips, the conflicts of interest that arise through moves from ministerial office to private directorships and consultancies.  He reports the massive outside earnings that former ministers and PMs make – noting that in the first three months of 2023 Johnson registered £3,287,293 in outside earnings.

His remedies come close to Liberal Democrat policy.  ‘We need to look at the underlying structural problem in our British way of doing politics…the “Winner Takes All” system is at the core of our problems.’  Our voting system, combined with the government’s control of parliamentary business, leaves limits on executive authority dependent on the self-constraint of ministers – and that has broken down in the past seven years. ‘Parliament needs to rediscover its backbone and reassert its freedom.  Good government and better decisions depend on the proper exercise of power.’

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William Wallace writes: Michael Steed, his Liberal history

Liberal Democrats in Kent, Yorkshire and Manchester in particular will remember Michael Steed as a candidate, councillor, and activist on many issues over more than 60 years.  Others will recall him as party president in 1978-9, as a regular attender of party conferences in spite of being wheel-chair bound by a neurological disease that resisted precise diagnosis, and latterly as an active member of the Liberal History Group and of its journal’s editorial board.

Michael grew up on a farm in Kent, went to a local independent school, and took six months before he went to Cambridge University in 1959 to work on the continent, coming back a convinced European and internationalist. After narrowly losing election to the presidency of the university Liberal Club he became president of the Union of Liberal Students (then a separate organization from the Young Liberals).  There he cultivated closer links with ‘the World Federation of Liberal and Radical Youth’ and its Swedish president, Margareta Holmstedt.  They married some years later, and set up home in Todmorden.

He was, however, always as much of a scholar as a campaigner.  He was a student of David Butler at Nuffield College Oxford from 1963-65 (alongside Alan Beith), and then for many years a lecturer in government at Manchester University.  As a student he already demonstrated an astonishingly detailed knowledge of parliamentary and local government elections.  He contributed the statistical appendix to the Nuffield election studies through many elections, in later ones in cooperation with John Curtice.  Teaching about the British constitution and commitment to political and electoral reform linked his professional and political lives.

Michael was on the radical wing of the 1960 Young Liberals, becoming vice-chair of NLYL’. He campaigned on apartheid in South Africa, on gay rights and on joining the European Community. He fought his first parliamentary campaign in the Brierly Hill by-election in 1967, gaining less than 8% of the vote. From his study of constituency histories and results he then decided that Truro was one of the most promising prospects, and travelled down to fight it in the 1970 election – disappointingly coming third.  He came closest to entering Parliament in the bitter Manchester Exchange by-election in 1973 – a safe Labour seat, almost entirely council housing, where Labour reacted furiously to what councillors saw as a Liberal ‘invasion’, in the wake of by-election wins elsewhere.  After an enthusiastic campaign in a seat that had had no Liberal activity (and which Labour had taken for granted) he gained 36.5% of the vote.  Typically, he afterwards wrote an academic article which noted that the real winner had been the 56% who had not voted.

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Taxing and Spending

It’s astonishing that leading Conservatives are still getting away with calls for tax cuts before the coming election without any challenge as to where they will cut spending to pay for them.  Our economy is flat-lining, our public debt rising, our population ageing, our young children smaller than their counterparts across the Channel, our schools and health services losing workers to higher-paid jobs – and yet serious Conservatives think we should cut taxes and spend less?

Paul Johnson’s just-published Follow the Money: how much does Britain cost? is a clearly-written guide to Britain’s dilemmas on public spending, and the failures to invest sufficiently in public infrastructure and services in recent decades. He’s been director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (a body respected by all except supporters of Liz Truss’s economic strategy) for many years, and before then served in several government departments, so he knows what he’s talking about.

He sets out how progressive cuts in defence spending since the end of the Cold War in 1989-90 have funded rises in welfare spending.  Without going into details on the defence budget, he underlines that defence spending is more likely to rise than fall further: the Ukraine conflict has shown has stretched the UK’s stores of equipment and ammunition have become.  He doesn’t remark that rising North Sea oil revenues in the early 1990s (and the one-off gains from privatization) allowed Margaret Thatcher to cut taxes without deep cuts in services – though in retrospect she would have been wiser to accumulate oil revenues in a sovereign wealth fund, like Norway, or allocate them to improving the UK’s infrastructure.

North Sea oil revenues are now running down; and privatization has long since run its course.  So any government is faced with hard choices, about the level and distribution of taxation and about priorities in public spending.  ‘There are no easy solutions to the problems we face.  Tax cuts do not pay for themselves.  Debt cannot rise forever.  Spending implies taxing.  Economic constraints are real.’  (Tell that to Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.)

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Why we should defend the BBC

The ‘Huw Edwards affair’ has been another round in the long-running Murdoch press campaign against the BBC.  The exact details behind the charges against him as published in the Sun remain unclear; the Sun has now retreated from its initial story, and the police have said that there is nothing to justify pressing charges.  The Times fired off shots in support, listing the highest salaries of BBC presenters with a disapproving commentary – not noting the remarkably high fees that Talk News, owned by the Murdoch press and promoted ad nausea in the pages of the Times, pays to right-wing MPs and chat-show hosts for doing a few hours’ work a week.  Other papers have hinted at the not so defensible private behaviour of Dan Wootton, a former Sun journalist now with GB News and Mail Online, on which the Murdoch press has remained silent.

 The BBC attempts to hold together debates within the British national community.  The Murdoch press, from its first incursion into British media nearly 50 years ago, ha been a disrupter and divider.  Rupert Murdoch has also seen himself as a political player, expecting political leaders in Australia, Britain and the USA to court him for his support – or, at least, to moderate his opposition.  Tony Blair travelled to Australia to meet him; Keir Starmer has reportedly met him twice this year.  The aggressive style of the Murdoch media has made British politics more raucous.  But it’s in the USA, without a well-funded public broadcasting network, that it has had the deepest impact.  Fox News has given voice and encouragement to the populist right, to climate change deniers, conspiracy theorists and closet racists, preparing the ground for Donald Trump to make a successful run for the Presidency while dismissing as ‘fake news’ the evidence-based policies he was rubbishing.

While all active and fit Liberal Democrats were out delivering leaflets or knocking on doors in Somerton and Frome the BBC showed its quality in the underlying message of the opening concert of the summer Proms.  Dalia Stasevska, Finnish but born in Kyiv, conducted a concert of mainly Nordic patriotic music, Sibelius and Grieg, as well as a new commission from a Ukrainian composer.  It carried a strong implicit message of British solidarity with Ukraine and of the links we have with countries on Russia’s western border.

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Young Liberals, youthful radicalism: remembering Peter Hellyer

For most current members of the Liberal Democrats, the tensions within the Liberal Party in the late 1960s and the different ways we responded to the student revolts of 1968, the Vietnam War, the apartheid regime in South Africa and the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which ended in the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, are all ancient history.  For those of us who were Young Liberals then, however, this is a key part of what shaped our approach to politics.  A phone call last week from Hisham Hellyer to tell me that his father Peter had …

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What’s our line on the Charles Line?

Few Liberal Democrats in England’s south-east will be aware of the depths of resentment in the north at the long-term imbalance between infrastructure around London and in and around the cities of northern England.  I’ve lived both in Yorkshire and London for the past 40 years, moving to work in London while staying engaged in politics in the north.  My own resentment has grown, as the last Labour government cancelled the metro tram schemes planned for Leeds and Liverpool and the trans-Pennine link remained as slow and unreliable as when I had first travelled on it in 1967, while the work on the Elizabeth Line was sustained and has now transformed transport connections across the Home Counties.

Boris Johnson’s expansive rhetoric on ‘Levelling Up’ briefly raised expectations that at last government would invest in revitalising the north.  Realization that ‘levelling up’ has in practice meant only small pots of money for tarting up high streets and restoring local buildings has deepened cynicism about London’s neglect of the former industrial north.  So the conference in Doncaster last Friday of the Conservative Parliamentary Party’s ‘Northern Research Group’ was worth noting.  Johnson’s easy promises helped the party to win all those ‘red wall’ seats.  If voters now feel betrayed, the Conservatives will lose them all again.

George Osborne, a powerful proponent a decade ago of the idea of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ recanted his commitment to austerity, which had led to cancellation of the eastern leg of the HS2 rail line and a determined Treasury resistance to a new line across the Pennines between Leeds and Manchester.  He noted that the Treasury had wanted to cancel the Elizabeth Line on several occasions, that it had taken over 30 years from proposal to completion, but that the outcome is proving transformative for the already-prosperous London region.  Conventional cost-benefit analysis has not taken into account the transformative effects of new rail links across the north.  Bits of electrified line, localised improvements of junctions, have left the journey from Liverpool to Leeds, Hull and Newcastle far slower and awkward than between Reading and East London.  

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 Why Westminster desperately needs reform

 Target seat parliamentary candidates don’t have much time to read books.  But they ought to find time at some point before the election to read How Westminster Works…and Why it Doesn’t, by Ian Dunt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2023), to warn them how dysfunctional they will find Britain’s Parliament and government have become,

Some Liberal Democrats will be familiar with Ian Dunt from his previous book, How to be a Liberal, which came out in 2020.  His analysis of Westminster, based on extensive research and interviews with current and former parliamentarians, staff, civil servants and outside observers, is devastating.  Parliamentary sovereignty, he argues, is a convenient myth that covers executive dominance – which has become more dominant in recent years, above all under Boris Johnson’s prime ministership.

Political reform is not an issue that excites most voters.  Dunt attempts to explain how repeated failures in policy outcomes are affected by the constant changes in ministerial posts, the weakness of parliamentary scrutiny, the adversarial culture of the Commons and the increasing control by central party machines of the recruitment of candidates who are assisted into safe seats.  He includes two case studies to illustrate how policy disasters emerge out of the concentration of power in too few, often poorly-qualified, hands: Chris Grayling’s privatisation of the probation service, pushed through against strong advice from experts, and the evacuation of British and local Afghan staff from Afghanistan, by a Foreign Office which had run down its relevant expertise and ministers who only paid intermittent attention to its urgency.

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The Coronation as a symbol of national community

History and ritual are much closer concerns for Conservatives than for Liberals.  Faith, for many Liberals (and Socialists) is a positive turn-off.  So the Coronation will leave many of our active supporters cold.  But it shouldn’t.

Shared memories, myths and rituals construct a national community and hold it together. Shatter them, and the community falls apart.  Politicians try to reinterpret them to support the messages they prefer – which is why arguments about history are contested so vigorously, and why we should engage actively in debates about history and national identity.  The argument about Brexit was partly about whether we see ourselves as a European country, one among several European states with shared histories, or as an exceptional (and Anglo-Saxon) state with a global reach and a moral mission.

I have a particular perspective on all this.  I became a chorister at Westminster Abbey in 1950, when Britain was still the centre of an empire, believing itself to be a Great Power in spite of acute economic difficulties.  I sang at George VI’s lying-in-state and at the Coronation in 1953.  And I’ve remained involved in the Abbey since then, observing how ceremonial and ritual is carefully adapted to our changing national community.

In 1953 deference and social hierarchy were central. 1000 peers and peeresses filled the transepts. Dignitaries from ‘our’ dominions and colonies sat in the stalls below the choir gallery.  Apart from the Queen herself, the ceremony was conducted entirely by men (white men, of course).  The only non-Anglican minister of religion involved was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland; the Cardinal Archbishop sat in a gallery outside to observe the procession.

On the 50th Anniversary of the Coronation, the Cardinal Archbishop read the first lesson, while representatives of nonconformist churches sat behind him in the Sanctuary and leaders of ‘Britain’s other faiths’ sat in front.  The 60th anniversary service included a procession representing public service from across our national community.  Scouts and Guides, petty officers and NCOs were in the front; I walked in the back row, in peers’ robe, with a high court judge.  Just in front of us, in her reflective yellow jacket, was a school crossing keeper.  And it was her photo that was splashed across the papers the next day – a familiar figure with whom those watching could identify.

A great deal of care has gone into the symbolism of this Coronation, to show an image of Britain that relates to the diverse community we now are as well as to the traditions on which our state is based.  Some older people will think that the changes have gone too far.  Many younger people may think the whole thing is an echo of a past we should forget. The politics of striking a balance between continuity and change – a central issue in any democracy – are never easy.

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Political chaos and political reform

If you haven’t read the extracts from Anthony Seldon’s forthcoming book on Boris Johnson’s mismanagement of government, being serialised in the Times and Sunday Times since Saturday, you’re missing something that you can usefully quote next time you come up against a Tory candidate. Seldon is not a commentator who can be dismissed by the Right as a ‘leftie’ intellectual. Biographer of Margaret Thatcher, former vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, son of one of the founders of the Institute of Economic Affairs, he is a pillar of the conservative establishment. (Full disclosure: his mother canvassed for the Liberals in the Orpington by-election, and Michael Steed and I stayed there for a week.) The extracts quote from insiders who knew what was going on.

And it’s devastating. Chaotic, with an incompetent prime minister dependent on an adviser (Dominic Cummings) who despised him almost as much as he despised Parliament and the conventional rules of constitutional government, and with a new partner/wife with her own political views and expertise. It portrays inability to take clear decisions at the centre or to implement them through Departments, with an inbuilt tendency to bypass ministers and civil servants whenever possible and to prioritise presentation over substance. This was politics as a permanent campaign, rather than a recognition that government is complicated and unavoidably slow-moving.

The Conservatives campaigned in 2017 and 2019 on a platform of strong and stable single-party government, against what they portrayed as the chaos of coalition – by which they meant a Labour government dependent on the SNP. What they’ve inflicted on the UK is the chaos of single-party factionalism, compounded by dreadful leadership choices in both Johnson and Truss. Opinions on May and Sunak are a little less negative, but both have been hamstrung by internal conflicts within the parliamentary party between a dwindling bunch of pragmatists, a group of ambitious cynics and an ideological right. The defenestration of Raab suggests that the chaos will roll on to the 2024 election, likely to be postponed to the latest possible date by continuing squabbles between ‘realos’ and ‘fundamentalists’.

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The Republican colonization of the British Conservative Party

Liz Truss has just made her second visit to Washington since she stepped down as prime minister: this time, to deliver the ‘Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture’ to the Heritage Foundation.  She pleased her audience by declaring that ‘It was Anglo-American individualism that made the world prosperous…Low taxes, limited government and private enterprise were what won the Cold War’ – and warning that ‘stagnation, redistributionism and woke culture’ are weakening the West in the coming struggle with China.

There are many untruths in such a statement.  It was Rooseveltian social democracy, on both sides of the Atlantic, that secured and revived democracy to win the Cold War.  The Thatcherite revolution swept in as the Cold War was ending, low taxes aided by the ‘peace dividend’ of cutting spending on defence.  ‘Woke culture’ is an invention of the American right, with racial undertones.  ‘Redistributionism’, otherwise known as progressive taxation, is an essential element of any democratic economy and society, resisted only by radical libertarians and authoritarian free marketeers.  But she was no doubt at home with her ideological Republican audience, far more than she would have been with almost any audience in London.

The colonization of the British right by American ideas and American money is one of the most worrying developments in national politics.  We cannot tell how far the well-funded think tanks of the right depend on US funding, since none of them publish where their funds come from.  Policy Exchange has a US Foundation to ease US giving, and the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs have close US links.  There are rumours that US Evangelical bodies have promoted and funded ‘family-friendly’ campaigns against abortion and trans rights, in the ‘battle against woke culture’.  And the links with the Conservative Party are evident, in the flow of MPs and advisers to Washington conferences and of American visitors to events over here.

From May 15-17 the US-led National Conservatism movement will hold its seventh conference in four years, this time in London.  Its listed keynote speakers include Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, together with Suella Braverman, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Douglas Murray (author of ‘The War on the West’). Other speakers offer a parade of right-wing thinkers from the UK and elsewhere. The most important intellectual figure is Yoram Hazony, an Israeli-American philosopher and Old Testament scholar, whose writings on national conservatism reject much of the enlightenment tradition as well as the tenets of liberal thought.

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The changing media for public debate

How do Liberal Democrats get our message across to the wider public?  When I was briefly the party’s assistant press officer, over half a century ago, the answer was fairly straightforward.  There were mass-circulation newspapers, with a range of political perspectives, which welcomed stories and Op-Eds; there was also a thriving regional and local press.  And there was the BBC, stolid and serious, to hold the national debate together.  I pride myself that the largest audience I have ever reached was when I wrote an Op-Ed for the News of the World for Jo Grimond: its circulation then was over 4 million.

The situation now is far more confused and difficult.  Newspaper circulation is in steep decline.  No national paper sells more than a million copies, and the ‘quality press’ sell a few hundred thousand each.  Few people under 40 bother with printed newspapers; they go straight to websites, to newspapers on-line or alternative sources.  The BBC website is reportedly the most trusted for news, but most heavily accessed by people over 40.  Younger generations choose between a very wide range of channels, on-line, audio-visual and printed.  Political campaigners struggle to keep up with changing tastes and fashions in following news and public debates.

Our written media have become absurdly biased.  I’ve almost given up on The Times, after 50 years reading it over breakfast while my wife reads the Guardian.  Over the past week it has carried articles downplaying the threat of climate change, supporting Netanyahu in his attack on Israeli judges, and a two-page spread on the pernicious ‘liberal elite’ that allegedly runs Britain – as well as the usual undercurrent of anti-BBC stories and culture-war scares.  The Telegraph appears to live in another world, in which Daniel Hannan, David Frost, Julia Hartley Brewer and others rage against political correctness, modernity and evidence-based arguments.  The Mail is even more hysterical in its headlines than it used to be.  Their influence lingers on in the way the BBC still follows the cues of their news stories, and covers ‘the papers’ in its reporting; but the evidence from surveys is that the majority of the public trust the BBC for news far more than any newspaper.

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Liberalism: the delicate balances between democracy and market capitalism, between freedom and solidarity

When I first joined the Liberal Party many decades ago, it thought of itself as the party of ideas.  It wasn’t much good at campaigning, but groups of Young Liberals and old liberals, in universities and London clubs, held study sessions and published papers and books; and the Liberal Summer School devoted several days to serious discussions of policies and principles.  We took pride in the occasions when other parties pinched our ideas: we saw ourselves as the intellectual drivers of British politics.

Since then we have learn how to campaign, above all at the local level.  But that’s come at the cost of thinking and debating, of picking up new ideas and translating them into policies.  There are many reasons for this.  Politics in Westminster has become far more hectic, preventing our MPs (and peers) from spending the time with outside experts and intellectuals that their predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed. Our policy-making process is slow and under-staffed, churning out policy papers over 9-12 months for conference approval.  Since Paul Marshall went over to the dark side of Brexit politics we have lacked a friendly think tank to push out proposals before they grind through our official processes – though there are some bodies to which we can and should turn for advice.  The Social Liberal Forum and other groups do their best, but cannot – without staff and funds – compete with the well-funded think tanks of the right.

With an election campaign in 18 months or less, now is hardly the time to sit back and reflect at length on alternative futures for British politics.  But we will fade away as a party unless we develop distinctive narratives about how to promote liberal values in our society, economy, environment and international policy.  We should, for example, be picking up the themes being developed by policy-related economists, criticising the dominance of free-market assumptions and reintroducing political economy and the moral concerns that Adam Smith addressed in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments but downplayed in The Wealth of Nations. 

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Are we ready to fight the Culture War?

Two op-eds in the Sunday Telegraph in recent weeks have hailed Ron de Santis, Governor of Florida and strongest alternative Republican candidate for the US Presidency in 2024 to Donald Trump, as showing the way forward for British Conservatives: to fight the culture war as vigorously as possible. It looks as if the Conservatives are already doing so.

The whole point of culture wars is to distract the attention of voters from economic difficulties and concerns about inequality by attacking ‘the liberal establishment’ which – it is claimed – is betraying the instincts and traditions of ordinary people. Migration, friendliness with foreigners, intellectual sophistication (instead of ‘common sense’ and ‘what you know in your gut’), concerns about diversity, gender, rewriting history and what used to be called political correctness and is now called ‘woke’ make up the mix.

De Santis is a graduate from Yale University, where he now claims that he was ‘taught that communism was superior’, and Harvard Law School, who is now attacking the autonomy of Floridan universities. He’s tightened state laws on abortion, thrown doubt on climate change, resisted the Covid lockdown and removed tax privileges for the ‘woke’ Disney Corporation. That’s the example that many Tory strategists want to follow.

Over the past week we have seen the political technologists of Tory political strategy take over from the reasonable face Rishi Sunak has been presenting. ‘Stop the boats’ is a three-word slogan borrowed from Australia rather than the Trump phrasebook. A ‘new’ deal has been launched which is much the same as last year’s anti-migrant initiative, with no clearer indication of how its targets can be reached or those who manage to reach the UK removed. At Prime Ministers’ Questions on March 8th a ‘red-wall’ Tory MP raised the threat of ‘graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner and 72 genders’ to children in English schools, and the Prime Minister promised an ‘urgent review’ into sex education. And the following day Conservative HQ circulated a digital message in Suella Braverman’s name blaming “an activist blob of leftwing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour party” for blocking her attempts to stop the flow of undocumented migrants across the Channel.

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The alternative reality of the political right

Liberal Democrats operate in a world in which we assume that those we talk to and work with are reasonable, open-minded, fair and generous, and share broadly the same assumptions about society that we do. Except, of course, that those in power don’t. To an increasing degree, Conservatives who read the Telegraph, Mail and Spectator, watch Talk TV and GB News, follow research by right-wing think tanks and see US Republicans as their closest political soulmates live in an alternative reality.

Liz Truss is a classic example of this. After her rapid exit from the Prime Ministership, she travelled to Washington, to institutes already well-familiar from previous visits, to regain her intellectual self-confidence. The lengthy essay the Telegraph has since published for her was headlined ‘I was brought down by the Left-wing economic establishment’. That’s the Treasury, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the City of London, the solid ranks of economists in leading universities in the UK and other wealthy countries, even the business journalists of the Times. They’re all part of a left-wing consensus, against which right-wing free marketeers must valiantly struggle, with only the support of hedge-fund and property billionaires to finance their fight.

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Breaking the taboo on increasing public investment

You probably missed the Conservative Way Forward paper published on December 10th which argued that cutting the money allocated to equality, diversity and inclusivity staff and training in the public sector could save enough ‘wasteful’ spending to allow for tax cuts. You’re more likely to have noticed when the Daily Mail splashed the story across its front page the following week. You may also have seen this week’s coverage of the Taxpayers Alliance report that prisons have spent £11m over the past two years on equality, diversity and inclusivity staff and training, presented as another ‘gross’ waste of government spending.

The constant trickle of ‘studies’ like this has a clear purpose. They tell voters that waste in the public sector comes from politically motivated spending on ‘unnecessary’ projects. They distract from the money ministers spend on outsourcing to consultancies and private contractors, who overcharge for their products and services (and contribute to right-wing think tanks and the Conservative Party in return). And they justify continuing calls for tax cuts, rather than addressing the long-term need to increase public spending in response to Britain’s economic, educational and demographic challenges, and to the need to move towards a more sustainable economy and society.

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Brexit non-opportunities

Peers are asked to give speeches at all sorts of occasions.  It’s particularly important for LibDem peers to accept invitations to a range of events while we have so few MPs, to maintain our visibility as a serious political party. So last Friday I spoke at the ‘Christmas Gala’ dinner of a UK bilateral Chamber of Commerce for one of the member states of the EU.

An official responsible for trade policy gave an upbeat presentation of the prospects for UK trade with EU countries.  I followed with a mildly critical interpretation of the situation, mentioning that I was a Liberal Democrat and had been sceptical of the promise of ‘Brexit Opportunities’ from the start, and a promise that the Lords would do everything it could to prevent the forthcoming Retained EU Law Bill from diverging too far from common regulations with the EU Single Market.

I was struck by the response from British business people there.  One rushed up to me after I had sat down to urge me and my colleagues to do everything we could to stop the government from deliberately diverging from EU regulations, as Jacob Rees Mogg and right-wing MPs are pressing it to do.  (I have passed his name on to our fund-raising team.)  Two others told me that their companies had now transferred staff and functions to Amsterdam, in order to operate within the EU Single Market; one added that his company is now paying more tax within the EU than in the UK as a result.  The sense of impatience with the bone-headedness of the Conservatives came across strongly.  Business people, it appears, are beginning to abandon the Conservative Party.

The message for Liberal Democrat activists is clear.  You should be visiting local employers to ask them how their business has been affected by Brexit, and how it would be affected by further barriers to trade with our neighbours created by deliberately incompatible standards and regulations being introduced.  And you should tell them that Liberal Democrats in both Houses will fight hard to limit the damage and bring the UK back to a closer relationship with the EU.  And you should tell the local voters how much the whole fiasco of pursuing the hardest possible Brexit, against the illusory promises made before the Referendum, is now costing local businesses and the national economy.

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Should we take a risk and be honest about taxation?

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Liberal Democrats, we have a problem. As Max Wilkinson has commented in a recent posting, soft Conservatives are turning to us partly because the government has broken its promises not to raise taxes. But we are committed to decent public services, staffed by people who are decently paid; and after 20 years of cuts in services and real reductions in public service pay, quality can only be regained by substantial and sustained increases in spending. Furthermore, public service workers – people who believe that life is not only about money but also about what you put back into society and community – are among our natural supporters.

So what, under the current fiscal and economic crisis, do we say to potential LibDem voters about tax?

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William Wallace writes: The Westminster system is broken; so how do we change it?

The Westminster model of politics and government is broken.  A change of prime minister will make little difference to the deep divisions within both our major parties, and the deterioration in the quality of policy-making.  A change of government can only make things a bit better, but sadly not that much.  We need a major set of changes in the framework of constitutional government.

That’s not at all easy, in spite of the polling evidence of popular disillusion with Westminster politics, particularly among young people, the decline in membership of all parties, growing discontent with government instability in the business world and painful awareness in Whitehall that British prestige and international influence is slipping.  Nor that unless we change our structure and methods of government, both Scotland and Northern Ireland will probably leave the UK within the next 10-15 years.  Keir Starmer, the most likely prime minister after the next election, is cautious, concerned to hold his fractious party together, looking forward to grasping the levers of central government without weakening the powers of No.10.

Labour, of course, is part of the problem.  Its leaders cling to the current political and electoral systems because they guarantee Labour a shot at power when our governing Conservatives fall apart.  They look across the Channel at what happened to social democratic parties in France, Italy and elsewhere and cling to a system with high barriers against alternative parties, holding in place two centrally-funded organizations which parachute their favoured candidates into seats across the country.

Yes, Labour constituency parties voted in favour of a more open system of voting.  But the party leadership doesn’t want to press that case, and (rightly in current circumstances) gives higher priority to effective government in the context of a national emergency, a war in eastern Europe and a global recession.  So we are going to have to work hard to persuade the incoming government, the commentariat and the wider public that rebuilding public trust in democracy, and strengthening the checks and balances that make for stable constitutional government – which Boris Johnson did so much to weaken – need to be part of the next government’s agenda.

We will have to work with friends across parties to make the case for political reform.  Yes, PR is an essential part of any reform, but we shouldn’t start with that if we want to win over the hesitant, but explain why it’s important to include it in any political reform package.  And we shouldn’t talk about ‘PR’, an offputting acronym: offer the choice between the Scottish and the Irish systems, both of which work and neither of which confuse their voters.

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Public spending and the social contract 

Raising the rate of domestic economic growth, against the background of a global economic recession which may well be worsened by the current downturn within China, cannot have been the main rationale for the Truss and Kwarteng’s ‘fiscal event’.  The underlying purpose was to force public spending cuts, to shrink the size of the state and to make it more difficult for a successor government to raise taxes sufficiently to restore the social democracy that adequate public spending underpins.  Simon Clarke, now ‘levelling up’ minister, has specifically remarked on what he sees as the over-extension of the UK’s welfare state.

If current ministers were serious about introducing supply-side reforms they would recognise that public investment is needed to repair current inadequacies.  Low productivity is partly the result of inadequate education and training, most evident in basic skills for our domestic workforce.  Years of under-funding for pre-school support (yes, we should have fought harder against the coalition’s killing of the ‘Sure Start’ programme), for state schools and further education colleges, are to blame.  But as the Conservative chair of the Commons Education Committee has just protested, the new government has only talked about grammar schools and entry to Oxbridge so far, leaving education and training for the vast majority of British citizens to one side.

The UK has a lower proportion of its population in work or looking for work than many other advanced countries.  That’s not just due to the rising number of retired; it’s also because we have such a high proportion of people under 66 who are unfit for work or long-term unwell.  Underfunding of the NHS, and in particular of public health programmes that focus on healthy lifestyle, explains a good deal of this.  Lengthy waiting times for treatment translate into absence from the workforce.

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Which public services will the Conservatives shrink further?

Liz Truss has just handed Liberal Democrat campaigners a powerful set of questions to put to Tory MPs. She insists that tax cuts are the answer to Britain’s economic problems – amounting to 1-2% of GDP, perhaps more once the full package of proposed cuts emerges. She’s pledged to raise defence spending by 1% of GDP – for which, sadly, there is a case when Russia intervention in Ukraine threatens European security. She’s promising to provide financial support for household and business energy bills, likely to amount to between 2% and 4% of GDP over the coming year, without offsetting the cost through a windfall tax on energy companies of the sort that most of our continental neighbours are levying. Other government programmes will have to be slashed to prevent public deficits spinning out of control.

So what cuts in other public services will Conservative MPs accept in order to prevent government debt spiralling and the pound sinking further on international markets? A squeeze on schools, or policing, or on the already-overstretched NHS? Holding down public service pay, while letting bankers’ bonuses soar? Slashing public investment in hospitals and transport infrastructure, and reducing local authority budgets further, thus saying goodbye to the promises of ‘Levelling Up’ that helped them to win the last general election? Or holding down benefits, leaving the poorest in our society even poorer? Ask every Conservative MP what further cuts they will support – or whether they will oppose this tax-cutting strategy.

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William Wallace writes: The chaos of single-party government

Conservative HQ has briefed the media that it plans to attack other parties in the next election campaign for offering ‘a coalition of chaos’ instead of the ‘strong and stable’ single-party government the UK has benefitted from since 2015.  Liberal Democrats should be rubbishing this fantasy.

In the past seven years we have suffered two early elections and three prime ministers – with a fourth now coming into office.  We have had four Chancellors of the Exchequer, five foreign and business secretaries, and six cabinet ministers for education – seven if we include Michele Donovan’s two-day term.  Junior ministers have turned over at an even faster rate, many moving on after less than a year without time to learn their jobs.  Rapid shifts of policy, inconsistent announcements on priorities, officials having to start again briefing new ministers often arriving without any relevant expertise about their responsibilities: chaotic government by any definition.

We can expect another round of ministerial churn in the coming week.  In 2019, what’s more, 21 MPs were suspended from the Parliamentary Party.  Only 10 had the whip restored; two former chancellors and two other former cabinet ministers were among those expelled from the party.  Ken Clarke remarked that the party that expelled him was no longer Conservative; ‘it’s the Brexit Party, rebadged.’

At a Liberal Democrat Business Network gathering last week people were telling me how they longed for the stability that a coalition government might offer after the twists and turns, factional plotting, and inconsistent ministerial directives they have suffered since 2015.  We are likely to face more infighting after the embittered leadership contest we have seen this summer, which will make it even harder for the Conservatives to present themselves as a model of stability at the next election, and easier for us to make the case for institutional change to give Britain better government.

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If business is to take more interest in the Liberal Democrats, isn’t it time to develop our response?

The business sections of newspapers often take a different angle on British politics than their earlier pages. While Matt Chorley was promoting Ed Davey in Saturday’s Times in order to make fun of Keir Starmer, Ian King, the business editor of Sky News, was writing about why business representatives and corporate lobbyists should be taking the Liberal Democrats more seriously, and making contact with party policy-makers. He suggests that larger numbers of them will be coming to the Brighton conference, since opinion polls persist in suggesting that the next election will not produce a majority for any single party, leaving the Liberal Democrats in a position to influence whatever government emerges.

If business is already talking about this, we had better put in some careful thinking ourselves. Our record on preparing for the possibility of conversations with other parties is mixed. A week before the 1979 general election, when it still looked possible that the Conservatives might not gain an overall majority, I was authorised (as the lead on our manifesto team) to contact my Tory opposite number, and discovered he was far better prepared than anyone of us.. In 1996-7, in contrast, we conducted extensive private consultations with Labour, only to be overtaken by the scale of the swing to Labour. In 2009-10 there was vigorous resistance by some MPs and activists to contemplating the hard choices that negotiating with another party about priorities would bring. I recall repeated Federal Policy Committee meetings at which attempts were made to shape our policy on student fees so that it would be defensible if we found ourselves in government, resisted by enthusiastic campaigners who insisted that it was a vote-winner.

Another recent Times business article, sharply critical of the fantasies floated in the Tory leadership campaign, wrote of the difference between ‘campaign economics’ and ‘government economics’, and the need to ensure that campaign promises do not make choices in government too difficult. Economic and political choices after the next election are likely to be fraught. We will need to have some clear and simple priorities, first for the campaign and then for any negotiations that might follow.

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Recent Comments

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