Author Archives: Stephen Barber

Liberal Democrats need to be prepared for more than a change of government at the next election

Yesterday, Stephen wrote of the damage to our politics caused by the current Conservative administration. Today, he looks at how these might be repaired…

Boris Johnson has damaged Britain: its cohesion, its standing, its reputation, its economy and its constitution. But what is increasingly apparent is that he has also damaged his own Conservative party. When the time comes to remove them from office, an electoral strategy will be insufficient; there needs to be a positive plan for long-term progressive politics that both fixes the mess left by Johnson’s opportunistic populism and makes sure no future Prime Minister can act with such gross impunity. And that represents the singular opportunity for Liberal Democrats today.

The North Shropshire by-election, which smashed the Blue Wall, demonstrated the role and reach Liberal Democrats have when it comes to ejecting this government from office. But that is only the beginning. It must be the springboard into a decade of permanent progressive reform.

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Johnson’s gross unsuitability for office must herald a decade of genuine progressive politics

Boris Johnson has damaged Britain: its cohesion, its standing, its reputation, its economy and its constitution. But what is increasingly apparent is that he has also damaged his own Conservative party. When the time comes to remove them from office, an electoral strategy will be insufficient; there needs to be a positive plan for long-term progressive politics that both fixes the mess left by Johnson’s opportunistic populism and makes sure no future Prime Minister can act with such gross impunity. And that represents the singular opportunity for Liberal Democrats today.

When he led the Tories to an 80 seat majority in 2019, exploiting the new Brexit voter cleavage, and taking red wall seats in the Midlands and the North, Johnson seemed electorally predominant and largely Teflon. The usual rules of politics didn’t seem to apply and that, of course, is how Johnson likes it. But for the Conservatives that victory came at a cost. For starters, they accepted Johnson as their leader because he could win votes. Most Tory MPs, it seems, view Johnson no differently from the rest of us – that he is a self-interested opportunist, with a casual relationship with the truth and who is unsuitable for office. And that explains a victory built on easy slogans, misinformation and untruths. To get there, the Conservatives also ejected a raft of sensible and experienced politicians from the parliamentary party: the likes of Dominic Grieve, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Justine Greening. This explains why now there is a dearth of serious alternative PMs on the Tory benches and how the party is captive of its own reactionary right. There is a clear message that there is no place in the modern Conservative Party for people like Anna Soubry or Rory Stewart. That is limiting.

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If there is a realignment, liberalism must claim its place

A lot of early evaluation of last Thursday’s elections has written the obituary of the Labour party as the ‘Red Wall’ further fell to Johnson’s populist Tories. There is a strong sense that a realignment is taking place in British politics and if so, Liberalism needs to be part of it.

While the death of Labour is, I think, still premature, the implications of the realignment analysis should not be lost on Liberal Democrats preparing for the electoral battles of the decade ahead. Many commentators have confidently concluded that Keir Starmer’s party has lost relevance and cannot recover now that the Tories have been accepted as a credible alternative in places that were solid Labour. That is, Labour is trying to hold together a coalition of younger, metropolitan types with older working class voters and there is a clash of values.

This evaluation is far from conclusive. The elections took place during a national (and international) crisis, 4.2 million furloughs were being paid by the state on polling day, Johnson has taken the credit for a successful vaccine rollout, as Tim Farron pointed out, the electorate has tended to support incumbents in England, Scotland and Wales, plus in analysis of the 1247 key wards there was actually a small swing to Labour. Don’t forget, after the 1992 election, there was similar analysis that Britain now lived in a one-party state. And it really wasn’t that long ago that commentators were wondering if there could ever be a route again to the Conservatives commanding a majority. So let’s take care with apocalyptic predictions.

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Progressive politics needs Starmer to ‘definitely’ be a better Labour leader

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Let’s hope that Ed Miliband’s candid admission is right: that Keir Starmer is ‘definitely’ a better Labour leader than he was.  Miliband’s failed strategic approach, after all, helped put the cause of progressive politics back a decade. And as the Liberal Democrats pick a new leader, it’s essential that those lessons are learned – for both parties.

When ‘Red Ed’ snatched the Labour leadership from his heir apparent brother David in 2010, it was in the aftermath of a crushing election defeat: the lowest share of the vote since 1918 and seat numbers back to 1980s levels.  There was resentment, of course, that the Liberal Democrats did not cobble together a coalition to keep Gordon Brown in Number 10 but any rational assessment would conclude this was never going to happen: the numbers simply did not add up and frankly voters had resoundingly rejected Labour after 13 years in office.

There was talk, in those early days of the coalition, with David Cameron’s Conservatives, of ‘New Politics’. That is a new era of cooperation and consensual discourse.  The sort of politics that would come about in a system where all votes count and which represents the views of all voters. This was, after all, the first government since before the Second World War able to claim it represented more than half of all those who voted.  It was an idea promoted by David Miliband who soon left the Westminster stage.  But for Ed Miliband, it was never on the agenda.

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