Author Archives: Patrick Maxwell

Election Diary 3: Into the final stretch

Harold Wilson stated more than fifty years ago that a week was a long time in politics, and in a general election campaign this is especially true. There are just under two weeks left until the country goes to the polls, and a huge proportion is still up for grabs in this most divisive election. It is also the most important since Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, which fundamentally changed Britain, for better or worse. 

It is therefore little surprise that two main parties have recently shifted their focus going into the final weeks and days of the campaign. Labour, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s increased poll ratings, has not garnered enough support to pose a real threat to Boris Johnson’s plans for majority rule. His party has now focused its attempts on retaining its Northern Leave-voting seats, which could give the Lib Dems an opportunity to heavily target previously Labour-supporting Remainers. The huge spending pledges have not caught the public’s imagination as much as Corbyn and Seumas Milne would have wanted, nor have their plans for large-scale renationalization. Or, for that matter, the party’s disgraceful failure to combat, let alone admit to, its anti-Semitism. 

A new poll, employing a method that accurately predicted the 2017 election result claims that the Lib Dems are on course for thirteen MPs if the election were held today. If true, this would a disastrous. After the recent successes in European and local elections, such a poor showing would mean that the Remain voice would have virtually no voice in Parliament, and would, I fear, mean the final failure of the Remain campaign as a whole. 

The party’s pledge to revoke Article 50 is one of the main reasons for this slump. Speaking to even the most ardent Europhiles, I have found a disquiet about the policy. For Jo Swinson to succeed, she needs to position herself as the moderate, opposing both the extremes of Corbyn and Johnson. Supporting revoking does exactly the opposite. It presents the Liberal Democrats as un-democratic, ignoring the first vote and not allowing even a second. Much anger in the public at this extreme turn has meant that a rethink is needed if the current poll figures are to be reversed. 

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Election Diary No 2: The third week

It would be accurate to say that this mid-point is destined to be the hardest part of the election campaign for the Liberal Democrats. After being blocked off the head-to-head leaders’ debates, they have seen the avaricious spending pledges of the two main parties taking much of the headlines. Labour are trying to capitalise on the issues of the NHS, and the Tories on how much money they plan to spend. It leaves Jo Swinson in a difficult position, before the crucial issues of Brexit, on which the party is strong, and the image of a brighter future, come to the fore in the days before December 12th. Or, at least that is what many will hope for. 

A recent poll suggested that voters like Swinson less as they see her in this campaign. This is extremely puzzling. On the one hand there are the extreme figures of Corbyn and Johnson, who have both spent their careers cosying up to shadowy, racist, and crooked figures, and are both highly establishment figures. On the other hand Swinson shows a new vision that is energetic and radical. Of course, any poll at election time should be taken with a large barrel of salt, but it is worrying news all the same. 

This leaves the party with a challenging question: how to cut through to voters angered at the disastrous policies of the right and left. When ‘Cleggmania’ erupted in 2010, it was the offer of an alternative to the two-party system that made the most traction, but the popular support did not transform into more seats in Parliament. Research has suggested that this time around Lib Dem support is more concentrated, and that offers hope that the archaic electoral system won’t hinder the real political gains possible.

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Election Diary: The opening week

This has been a week of gambits; each party has spent the first days of this campaign issuing their first pitches to the country, and trying to set the tone of the debate to their liking. From now on the endless series of pledges, manifestos and almost certainly ludicrous spending ideas will dominate the party events and news headlines for the ensuing weeks. We have even began to see the inevitable debate over debates; Jo Swinson has been excluded from the major ITV event announced at this stage, and we are to be left with the repartee of two stale men, who are both ardent Brexiteers. 

In many ways, the first part of this election campaign has gone largely as could have been predicted; Labour has tried to turn away from any attention on Brexit, not surprisingly given that its official position is about as clear as cloudy lemonade infused with a touch of cyanide; as enigmatic as it is dangerous. Indeed, an internal Labour memo advised the party to ‘not mention Remain … that European Referendum topic, whatever it was called.’ Jeremy Corbyn has tried to shift the debate towards his plans for gargantuan public spending and fighting the ‘elites’ that run British business – ignoring the fact that as a long-standing MP who has been involved in London politics for his almost his whole adult life he epitomises the perception of the establishment. The shadow chancellor John McDonnell has been rather quiet of late – perhaps announcements of his iconoclastic economic policies and lynching of those who disagree with him will be saved for later. 

On the other side, the Tories have been constantly stuck to the message that they are the only party who will ‘Get Brexit Done.’ I fear that this is an extremely attractive, if meretricious, tagline. Like the Vote Leave slogan (dreamt up by Dominic Cummings), it gives a short, sharp message that gives security of a kind, and contrasts them with Labour – whose ambiguity is losing its previously strong support in the North and the Midlands. They have also been attempting to portray their vision of post-Brexit Britain and their investment into public services – which misses the point that  leaving in any form will cost Britain’s economy.

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Revoking Article 50 is a highly risky strategy

Death is in charge of the clattering train!

(Edwin James Milliken)

The now seemingly inevitable general election that we are doomed to endure will without a doubt be one of the most divisive and decisive in British political history. Boris Johnson’s strategy is to divide the Remain vote and set himself as the people’s champion – no matter how irrational that theory is. Labour, who plan to try a rerun of their 2017 campaign and put Jeremy Corbyn forwards as a radical, reforming leader, and polling miserably for an opposition to a disastrous government. Dominic Cummings is intent on capturing northern working-class seats who want a no-deal Brexit, as he successfully did for the Leave campaign in 2016.

Both main parties will have to offer manifestos that capture the public imagination and offer clear paths forward. They will have unfunded spending sprees, promises of immigration caps, and patriotic tirades. No change there, then. The sceptre of Brexit does, however, add an extra dimension – the polarisation that has divided the country will shape any public vote.

For the Lib Dems to succeed, they need to offer a new message disenfranchised voters, beyond the boundaries of the Remain-Leave divide.

Jo Swinson’s announcement that the party will be arguing in their manifesto for an unequivocal reversal of the referendum result must be treated with caution therefore. Many voters on both sides of a traditional Liberal base – Tory voters despairing at the economic crisis of a no-deal and Labour voters outraged at Corbyn – are not natural Leave voters. Neither are they going to be brought over, I suspect, by the option of revoking Brexit without a public vote. Voters who want to revoke Article 50 would pick the Lib Dems as the main pro-European voice in Parliament as it is. This latest move brings little support and many even detract from it.

Brexit has divided many, but beyond the date Britain leaves the argument for revoking will become less. The argument for another referendum will become more credible, as the consequences of the exit become clearer, and the powerful Remain voice is no longer the establishment.

The recent surge in Lib Dem support and new recruits in parliament show that a new, radical liberal movement has palpable support nationally. This requires new policies that can bring swing voters over and ensure that the party does not continue to fall foul of the first-part-the-post method that shows no sign of being reformed.

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Boris Johnson is the most vulnerable Prime Minister to enter No 10

Boris Johnson reminds me of an old school bully of mine. Behind the confidence and malcontent facade of someone who knows he can exploit those less fashionable (my politics never helped) lies the hidden fragility. The pursuit of popularity and the insatiable desire to be liked create a deep personal weakness, the lack of authenticity or character, masked by the charade of charm and affability. Eventually the act wares off, and he is left as a lamentable figure, destined for either a melancholy reprisal of his previous life or a painful self-evaluation. You nearly end up feeling sorry for him. Nearly.

Boris Johnson shares many of the same traits. His lifelong desire to become Prime Minister has meant that his principles can be shifted to suit the beliefs of whatever crowd he wants to please. His Euroscepticism can be traced back to his early years as the Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph, where he found that plainly ludicrous stories could get him a loyal and supportive following. Later, as London mayor, he promoted an image of himself as a liberal, pro-European leader, who was in favour of the single market. Sir Nicholas Soames begged him to pledge his support for Remain, even offering to run any future leadership campaign. Later Soames would say that he knew that Johnson never backed Leave in his heart, and was trying to appeal to the Tory grassroots to win them over for the leadership. Johnson has always moulded his political stances to please a certain crowd, and his desire to be popular could well be his downfall.

With no mandate for the job from the British public, Johnson’s assuredness about getting another deal from Brussels is severely displaced. Any hope avoiding the backstop will not pass the approval of the twenty-seven member states and will also fall in Parliament. Theresa May’s deal with a smiling face may well be the only way forwards, but it would be soon discovered by Johnson’s hardline comrades to be a betrayal of their interests. Then the government as a whole could be brought down. 

Any plans for an early election may also prove fatal. The Brexit Party still has a large support base, and a split between them and the Tories could easily let the Lib Dems through in many marginal constituencies as the unequivocal vote of Remain. This could also lead to the dangerous situation of Johnson being able to defeat Labour and command a majority through the Lib Dem surge. Whatever the scenario, no Tory leader can expect to win a large majority, with a threatening Brexit Party and the resurgent Lib Dems. It gives Jo Swinson a huge chance to capture a mood that can transform the party’s fortunes. The first past the post system has always dogged their chances, but a strong Remain Alliance could have important consequences for the future of the country, as the Brecon by-election showed. 

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The shift to the extremes gives the Liberal Democrats a perfect chance

Anyone who spectated upon Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle last Wednesday would have got the message: Britain is on a fast track to the far-right. Priti Patel, who has previously backed the return of capital punishment, is now in charge of the Home Office, overseeing crime policy and immigration. Dominic Raab, who abandoned his responsibility as Brexit Secretary to pursue his own leadership ambitions, is the new Foreign Secretary, where his views of feminists as obnoxious bigots will be represented on the world stage. Whilst Theresa May attempted to bring her depleted party together in her Cabinet, Boris Johnson has wiped …

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The centre ground is the new home for millions – the Lib Dems must exploit it

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The current Tory leadership contest has so far been a revealing episode of expert political maneuvering.

With Boris Johnson ahead with a convincing lead, there is little hope of any other opponent garnering sufficient support among the Party membership to beat him. Matt Hancock is guilty of questionable practice by withdrawing from the race and then backing Johnson in the hope of getting the post of Chancellor. Such egotism is in no way uncommon.

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On standing up to Farage

The growth of Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party has been extremely frightening to watch. We may not want to think it, but many in the country are deeply disenfranchised from the Westminster establishment, and want Brexit ‘over and done with’. They voted for for something, therefore they want it delivered. Brexit may well be the gross national soliloquy that has destroyed Britain’s political respectability, but democracy certifies that the government must enact the decision that the country supported. We all want a second referendum, but without one Brexit cannot be discarded. The consequences for trust in democracy in Britain would be very harmful. There is no way around this  disturbing fact, and the Brexit Party is exploiting the fragile nature of Brexit antagonism. 

George Orwell wrote that “If Liberty is anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This admirable maxim can be voiced to both sides of the Brexit debate, to both the Brexiteers living in John Betjeman’s ‘Eternal Safety Zone’ or to Remainers unable to accept the result of a democratic vote. 

This utterly demoralising situation makes the European elections even more important. Farage’s band of rebels scream their creed of a new Peasants’ Revolt against the ‘liberal elite’ and proclaim that they are able to speak for working people. The familiar faces of Farage and the ultra-reactionary Ann Widdecombe reminded me that this is a very far-fetched idea. The party claims to be a group determined to keep democracy alive, but Farage has been opposed at the ballot box seven times. The idea that democracy is being tarnished is also very evidently nonsensical, Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union and a deal has been agreed with Brussels. The Brexit hardliners are refusing to countenance compromise and in doing so endanger their sacred project. The Prime Minister’s Brexit deal is the closest they are going to get to their original aim, but the cry of ‘betrayal’ at every proposal apart from the unicorn no-deal solidifies the case for their permanent residency in cloud-cuckoo land. 

One of the hallmarks of an extremist politician is their connections to shadowy organisations. Jeremy Corbyn has been consistently and rightly called out for his links to terrorist groups; his calls for ‘dialogue’ distinctly in opposition to his rejection of talks with Western powers. Farage is the same, he pretends to be the opposite of Corbyn, yet his tactics are always the same, and exposed by his dubious supporters. Whether he is supporting the dictatorial and conspiracy theorist Viktor Orban as the “future of Europe” or cosying up to Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the  Trump-backing ‘Ted’ Malloch. 

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1906 General Election: The zenith of liberalism

As we approach Brexit day, whenever it finally occurs, it is important to remember the struggles and victories that have defined the political liberalism that is at the core of the modern movement in Britain. One such famous example is the landslide victory for the Liberal party in 1906. 

If 1951 was the nadir of our history, then 1906 was surely one of the many high points. The creed which we might call ‘Gladstonian Liberalism’ was at its intellectual apogee, but the new ideas of social liberalism and equality were also beginning to flourish and resonate with the populace, with the rise of the new trade unions and the Labour Party forwarding the cause of worker’s rights and the voice for the less well-off in society. These new ideals were often supported by the Liberal Party, with Henry Campbell-Bannerman saying in 1903 that ‘we are kindly in sympathy with the representatives of Labour.’ 

This new political environment was changing Britain from the Victorian era into the 20th Century, although later moves on the continent would of course lead to disaster. In 1906, Campbell-Bannerman had only been Prime Minister for a month and a half having replaced Arthur Balfour, and consolidated his position as a reformer, with his controversial stand on the Boer War at the turn of the century. 

Balfour had resigned in the hope of seeing the Liberals split as his party had done so, but no such divisions were seen, and the widespread unpopularity of the Conservatives was echoed in the election result. Campbell Bannerman started the campaign with the following speech at The Royal Albert Hall:

Depend upon it that in fighting for our open ports and for the cheap food and material upon which the welfare of the people and the prosperity of our commerce depend we are fighting against those powers, privileges, injustices, and monopolies which are unalterably opposed to the triumph of democratic principles.

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Whatever happened to the ‘burning injustices?’

In her speech on the steps on Downing Street in July 2016, Theresa May said that her new administration would be committed to battling the ‘burning injustices’ that faced many in modern Britain. The promises to curb racial inequality among some of the most vital organs of law and state resonated well with the public and the new Prime Minister’s initial poll ratings were high. Over the course of her mainly disastrous premiership, May has decided to ignore most of her promises to the country in the face of the ongoing decline of any Tory Party unity, instructing

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How do we respond to the Labour split?

The news yesterday morning that there is to be a new breakaway group inside the House of Commons, the ‘Independent Group,’ is an historic moment. That may seem hyperbolic, but the anger and resentment displayed by those seven who have left the Labour Party was as damning as it was dramatic. It showed once again why Jeremy Corbyn is, and always has been, the wrong person to lead the Labour Party, let alone be Prime Minister. 

Talks of electoral alliances have of course led to discussions about how the UK’s main centrist party reacts. Echoes of the days of the SDP seem a bit early as the movement has not yet morphed into a political party yet, but if more join the group it could become both a serious challenge for Corbyn to overcome and also a friendly group for the Lib Dems to cooperate with in the Commons, with similar positions on Brexit. 

So far, there seem to be few plans to create another alliance. I think this may well be sensible. The new group define themselves as heavily on the social democratic wing of the spectrum, potentially in opposition to many of the more centrist-leaning principles of the Lib Dems. There is of course the danger that an alliance could damage the independence of our party, as going further to the the left would alienate many potential voters looking for a centrist alternative. It may well be a risk to hard to take for many inside the party, and the failure of the SDP to really change the political landscape still hangs in the mind. 

Vince Cable tweeted yesterday that he was ‘open’ to working with the new group and announcing that there will be discussion between the two sides over how to stop Brexit, which both the Lib Dems and the Independents see as a national disaster. We should welcome discussion over Parliamentary cooperation, but whether there is a public appetite from members and the wider electorate to see a merge remains to be seen. But any moves should definitely be treated with caution at this stage, I think.

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In Praise of the Backstop

As Theresa May goes to and for from Brussels once again the forlorn hope of getting reassurances on the Irish backstop, the Brexit process is stagnating, and the clock keeps on ticking towards March 29th. The hard truth for Theresa May, as revealed by the ERG, is that the hardline Brexiteers in her party will never accept any deal that comes back from Brussels. They saw any cooperation with the EU as suspect, and any hopes of securing their backing at the eleventh hour our woefully misguided, despite desperate hopes for a last-minute solution.

The backstop has, of course, been …

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The Lib Dems must be the party of small business

As the staggering uncertainty around the Brexit process continues in Westminster, the risks faced by the millions all around  who back up the economy has been largely ignored. This must come into focus as the Davos conference comes to a close, an annual meeting of the global economic elite, the big business. While they sip away at their innumerable glasses of champagne, those who rely on Europe for frictionless and tariff-free trade are fraught with anxiety. The small-business community contains some of the hardest-working people in Britain, and they form the backbone of the economy. In the midst of the chaos in Westminster, the Lib Dems need to present themselves as the party of small business, the party of compassionate capitalism.

Early last the year, the Federation of Small Businesses said that it ‘saw the potential wins of an international trade policy’ that Brexit might present. It also said that it wanted to keep ‘the closest possible trading relations with the EU 27’ and that it was their top priority to secure a full, time-limited transition period for leaving the EU. Crashing out with no-deal would be catastrophic for the plethora of micro-sized companies up and down the country, with colossal delays and losses.

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What next?

Theresa May’s Brexit deal is dead in the water. This has been true for a while, but with no obvious mandate for the Withdrawal Agreement, however it is tweaked, the political future for the Prime Minister looks bleak. Her steel and resilience have been tested many times before and have so far survived, but the seemingly hopeless situation before her now may be the final time that Mrs May bleats out her rhetorical tangents. With a government in disarray and a poignantly undecided Opposition, the Lib Dems need to find a logical and realistic Parliamentary solution to break the impasse.

There is not yet any majority for anything in the House of Commons. The next few weeks may well change that, but it shall be a time of unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty. Mrs May was perhaps correct to say earlier yesterday that no Brexit has a more genuine chance of getting through Parliament than no-deal. Let us hope so. That said, it will certainly take some trying to turn over the referendum result in such a short period of time. 

The hard-Brexit rabble have proved themselves to be zealous and ineffective over the year, and their logistical failures in the Commons are doomed to continue. If there is a majority for one thing on the green benches, it is that against no-deal. The very notion of not having a proper and palatable relationship with the largest trading block in the world seems impractical at best and economically cataclysmic at worst. The first mission of the small yellow-striped army inside the Commons should therefore be to rally against such an eventuality. 

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Brexit cannot be the sole issue of the Lib Dems

As the 29th of March comes ominously closer, the eerie reality of the political situation in Westminster is slowly becoming clearer. The Commons is in deadlock, with none of the solutions proposed gaining signification support on the green benches and party infighting rife. This is, however, nothing inherently new.

When faced with such monumental events such as these, the responsible and pragmatic response from our politicians would be a compromise.

A ‘Government of National Unity’ has been proposed, but in such times, the idea of unity it is, as always, an illusion. The country is evidently deeply divided, as is Parliament. No …

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