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.

The Times’ comment suggests that many business leaders are attracted by the Liberal Democrat commitment to rebuild trade and cooperation with the EU, and to go for regulatory ‘equivalence’ instead of divergence. Pressure for divergence and deregulation comes from the financial sector, not for those who make things or provide services, who see Truss’s obsession with tax cuts and deregulation as damaging to their interests.

Some Liberal Democrats are still scarred by the experience of the 2010 coalition, and will want to resist any talk of future participation in government. The chaos of single-party government since 2015 has however made business and commentators suggest that the formal procedures of inter-party negotiation within government would offer more stability that the faction-ridden Conservatives have provided. In the past seven years we have had three prime ministers (and soon a fourth), five chancellors, foreign and business secretaries of state, six for justice and seven for culture, media and sport – a constant shuffle in which few Cabinet minister have had time to learn their brief before they’ve moved on.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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36 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Aug '22 - 1:15pm

    A very intelligent approach from Lord Wallace.

    William, can you say how you think we ought to meet the comment from Keir Starmer, that in his current mood, he is not minded to even talk with our party after an election if he just about could have a majority with our support?

    As we are enthusiasts for cross party agreement, how do we make others feel that?

    We need to be more radical on business than the orthodox Rachel Reeves, the energy crisis and cost of living crisis reveals the need for a clear left of centre holistic approach.
    Now onwards we cannot have ,business as usual, a phrase with a pun intended, as on nearly everything it sums up Starmer.

  • Tristan Ward 22nd Aug '22 - 3:42pm

    The issues raised by William are important. I suggest our priorities in any hung parliament should be:

    1 Stable government;
    2 As much Liberal Democrat policy as possible;
    3 Minimal damage to our party.

    The 2015 election suggests the biggest loser from coalition is the smaller party. In 2015, that damage was nearly terminal, because of first past the post.

    An arrangement with Labour is likely to result in just as damaging a loss to us as in 2015. The votes we need to win seats at the next election will be conservative voters in almost every target seat. Those Tory voters who are persuaded next time will feel betrayed if we go into government with Labour. We would lose that support at the next election, even if we tell them this is a likely result of our winning seats: after all, in 2010 we told the electorate we would work with either party.

    On the other hand, if the record in 2015 is any guide, voters will see a Labour Prime Minister and attribute any success of that government to what they see as a Labour government, and vote accordingly.

    If our MPs are to join a government next time (either Tory or Labour led) they MUST secure policy that is worth the likely loss of support at the next general election. The only such policy I can think of is Westminster proportional representation.
    The Tories fear PR above anything else. It would deprive them permanently of the untrammeled power they so crave.

  • Katharine Pindar 22nd Aug '22 - 4:25pm

    I am glad you have raised these issues, William, and I think it is important that when proposing help to households in the cost of living crisis of this autumn, we also propose help to businesses and services, and consider how best to do that.

    I also want, however, to draw attention to one comment in the Ian King article, from Saturday’s The Times, to which you rightly give publicity. There is one point in the article when the business presenter, considering our policies, says they veer “from the eminently sensible to the plain daft. Among the latter, up for debate at conference is a motion that could implement a universal basic income, a concept regarded as unaffordable by most economists.” I’d like to remind everyone that, while UBI is Option One in the Fairer Society motion, F17, Option Two is for a Guaranteed Basic Income, which while also expensive is proposed to be carried out over a decade – the first two terms of the 2024 government, for choice – and should, if chosen by Conference, surely be fully discussed with our hoped-for future partners in that government. That Option should be affordable, and it is projected to end deep poverty in that decade.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Aug '22 - 4:52pm

    I think the comments Katharine refers to are significant. I am really concerned about the back tracking on our basic income policy. It is affordable. Cut the budget of DWP, as a result of the new policy , as well as massive savings on staff. Indeed we can abolish that department as it is now. As well as that, we could have a bi, a basic income, withoutb the u, or universal bit. Pay it to all below fifty or sixty thousand.

    Five or six thousand per year for all who earn under fifty or sixty thousand, is simple. And as we saw in the pandemic, lots of things are affordable. They need to be more believable. My suggestion is.

  • Peter Watson 22nd Aug '22 - 4:56pm

    Katharine Pindar “… the plain daft … a universal basic income”
    This could be a massive issue for the Lib Dems. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to present a party-defining “big idea” and put the spotlight on a compassionate approach to reducing poverty but, on the other hand, it risks being toxic to its target voters who might feel they will be footing the bill. Even the option 3 cop out might not be a safe bet since the party could find itself having to defend and explain both a UBI and GBI while being frustratingly vague about the details.
    If the party picks a side, I would suggest that it will have to “go big” on the policy and prioritise being able to communicate it with simple, clear messages about the costs and the benefits.

  • Paul Holmes 22nd Aug '22 - 6:18pm

    First priority and absolute Red Line -Guaranteed PR.

    Otherwise Confidence and Supply is the most we should agree to -with Labour, since Truss Tories will be unthinkable.

    But in any case Starmer has said he will not even talk to us or anyone else and PR is very low on his list of priorities.

  • Simon McGrath 22nd Aug '22 - 6:53pm

    @ Lorenzo
    “ I am really concerned about the back tracking on our basic income policy. It is affordable. Cut the budget of DWP, as a result of the new policy , as well as massive savings on staff.”

    the total DWP admin budget is £9.5bn – but that covers many other things thAn just administering welfare payments. Even if you could cut say £5bn that would only fund a small part of the costs of UBI.

  • @ Paul Holmes I am not sure that is absolutely correct, Paul.

    ” Statement for immediate release from the Electoral Reform Society – Friday 31 January, 2020…. The Electoral Reform Society has welcomed an announcement today from Sir Keir Starmer on his support for a constitutional convention and electoral reform to repair Britain’s broken democratic system.

    The frontrunner in the Labour leadership election announced his support for a constitutional convention and the need for a fairer, proportional voting system.

    Starmer said: “We do need a constitutional convention. One of the most powerful things coming out of the referendum was the sense that people want decisions to be made closer to them and by them. It was a very, very powerful thing… I think that’s a very powerful message, it’s a socialist message and it’s a Labour message about power coming from bottom up, not top down.

    “I also think on electoral reform, we’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their voice doesn’t count. That’s got to be addressed. We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level.”

    Commenting on Starmer’s announcement Willie Sullivan, Senior Director (Campaigns), Electoral Reform Society said: “It’s great to hear Keir Starmer coming out in support of a constitutional convention and electoral reform and putting it as a key part of his leadership platform.’

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Aug '22 - 7:30pm

    @Paul Holmes
    “But in any case Starmer has said he will not even talk to us or anyone else and PR is very low on his list of priorities.”

    Indeed. But given increasing union support for PR – https://www.makevotesmatter.org.uk/news/unions-back-proportional-representation
    -might he be out of touch with what others in the Labour party and Labour supporters might be thinking?

  • Tristan Ward 22nd Aug '22 - 7:53pm

    @nonconformistradical

    might [Starmer] be out of touch with what others in the Labour party and Labour supporters might be thinking [about PR]?

    He might. But if Labour win an absolute majority at the next election I bet most of them would reluctantly come round to the idea that PR isn’t desirable.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Aug '22 - 8:36pm

    @Tristand Ward
    “But if Labour win an absolute majority at the next election I bet most of them would reluctantly come round to the idea that PR isn’t desirable.”

    I wouldn’t disagree with that.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Aug '22 - 10:28pm

    Simon

    Appreciated, you are correct. But My view stands, that is the best way forward. We save that sum, fund the rest through taxes, for example a new top rate on those who earn say five hundred thousand.

    If we want to do a thing, we do it. What the country needs is change. This leads to us being the change oriented party. It isn’t the big two!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Aug '22 - 10:32pm

    I also would say to everyone here the basic income, as per the stances on economics and the subject of the article, needs to be presented very easily and obviously. No stealth. No fudge. It is not a divisive undemocratric policy. It is unifying and humane.

  • James Fowler 22nd Aug '22 - 10:41pm

    Good to see we’re getting an airing in the press and doing some thinking about what government might require if us. However, it’s pretty much pie in the sky for the moment.

    I also have very little faith in Labour’s commitment to PR. Their best position would be to govern (fairly) well as a minority and then go back for a strong mandate – as they well know. See 1966 and October 1974, or for that matter the SNP’s rise from 2007-11.

  • Paul Fisher 23rd Aug '22 - 3:03am

    Thought provoking article which is written so as not to provoke the deep unease many feel about drift in Libdem strategy! So much talent here. Harnessing it requires leadership.

  • David Garlick 23rd Aug '22 - 9:50am

    Thanks for this interesting prompt.
    Coalition is a no go for me. It was last time and forever will be..
    Starmer says he will not talk to anyone . This usually means that others will informally. Needs to keep his members happy..

  • Helen Dudden 23rd Aug '22 - 10:07am

    Im involved in two Housing Steering Groups and have made comments on Accessible Housing and the real lack for this sector.
    I feel its important to push positively for the many failures.
    I know personally the difficulties of every day life in a property not appropriate for my needs. Propertys dating back to a time where things were much different, Power Wheelchairs were not the norm as disability becomes more open and a better chance for a more normal life.
    It is a good idea to have a strategy that is seen to be useful in the problems many are facing, making a fairer society.
    There are many who took us through lockdown, from supermaket staff, to those who drove the buses and those who worked to collect our rubbish. Of course, there are many more, some preparing to strike as morally this government has reached an all time low.

  • Sadly the underlying theme from the replies to this article is that the Lib Dems will not be having much say in the policy making of our country in the near future, so as someone of a certain age ,my only hope is that the present excuse for a government is comprehensively defeated in near future, whatever the makeup of the next administration is! I have witnessed some awful governments in my time but this present bunch would take some beating!

  • If Labour’s lead,15% over the Tories as shown in the three latest opinion polls, is sustained or increased under a Truss Premiership, then all of this speculation about a hung parliament or some sort of Lib Dem participation in government (Coalition or Confidence & Supply) is just mere idle chatter.

  • Even in systems with PR that are used to coalitions, small parties in coalition find it extremely hard to retain their identities and tend to get hammered in the subsequent election. The Irish Greens are an example.

    In the next parliament, unless an historic breakthrough occurs, I don’t want to see anything closer than a confidence and supply agreement.

    The priority price for us should of course be electoral reform.

    After the AV and EU referendums I think it should be clear that Attlee and Thatcher were correct in describing referendums as “tools of tyrants and demagogues”. If there must be a referendum, schedule it for after one or more national elections have occurred under the new system, so the electorate have experienced the options on the ballot for themselves.

    Establishing a citizens’ assembly before a change to consider electoral reform will help legitimise reform in the eyes of the public.

    If anything else can be gained in negotiation, I would like to see parliamentary time for Liberal Democrat use, to debate and preferably vote on policies of our choosing. This can be used to reinforce our identity and split the electoral coalitions (and possibly MPs) of Labour and the Conservatives. And if we do get anything to pass, it would be easier to take credit for introducing it.

  • Labour will never give up First Past the Post.

    Labour fear PR as much as the Tories. Without PR Labour will never get a majority in the Houses of Parliament either.

    In the 1997 election Labour got 43.2% of the votes, 2001 40.7%, 2005 35.2%.

    Labour won’t shout it from the roof tops but Labour benefit from FPTP as much as the Tories.

  • At Conference we are discussing the cost -of-living crisis (F15) and I expect the motion to be amended so it includes an energy price cap for consumers. I am thinking about amending it to include an energy price cap for everyone, including businesses, public bodies, charities; everyone in society. There are two reasons why the UK needs this: it will reduce the increase in inflation, without it businesses will have to pass on to consumers their increased energy prices; and it will reduce the number of businesses going under, on Newsnight last week they reported that the energy increase in October is likely to make many businesses go bust because they will not able to afford the new energy prices. Both of these factors if not dealt with will bring the UK economy into recession. Just the energy price increase for consumers will decrease the economy by 1.8%. The greater the number of businesses which stop trading the worse the recession will be. It might be so bad that it would take five or more years to recover from it.

    Lorenzo Cherin,

    Option one of the Fairer Society motion, is for a UBI with no time scale and no amount, but one thing is clear the UBI would be on top of the existing benefit system, therefore we have no plans to abolish the DWP. We plan to remove from it the role of helping people find employment. Keeping the existing benefit system means the poorest in society benefit more than.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Aug '22 - 12:34pm

    Michael BG

    That about describes the current framework. But there is thus room for development, with regard to the amount, plus the amount saved. The need for DWP is not enshrined by us at conference. New pms abolish and rearrange govt depts as they like. My view is at least some considerable cuts in administration of that dept can happen. I value your contribution though. My feeling is we need a new top rate of tax on the super rich to pay for a basic income. Also there ought to be real consideration of it being as stated in my piece, not universal, paid up to, say fifty thousand earnings, removed after those levels of income .

  • Tristan Ward 23rd Aug '22 - 12:41pm

    “Labour fear PR as much as the Tories. Without PR Labour will never get a majority in the Houses of Parliament either.”

    Exactly. This also gives the lie to the idea Labour is a progressive party.

    The only way PR will happen is if we (and the minor parties, if they are interested) take any opportunity available to us to make it happen.

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Aug '22 - 1:06pm

    The leverage for reform must be to prevent a return of the Conservatives in 2029 or whenever. To do this we need electoral reform probably on whatever terms Labour will agree to it. A Constitutional Assembly would help to dissolve the Conservative legacy and pave the way for a UK that encourages more inward investment and favourable interest from the EU. The challenge is that Labour persists in thinking they can do this on their own.

  • Robert Harrison 23rd Aug '22 - 3:49pm

    Grateful to Katherine Pindar for highlighting the point in Ian King’s article in the Times about motion F17 at conference. Ian has only focussed on Option 1 and somehow assumed that this is party policy – it is clearly not. It is an Option and one that needs to be seriously discussed. There are other options on the table.

    Like many, I am highly sceptical that UBI is affordable, and I cannot see it being made affordable in the current economic climate. It also fails to provide for targetted benefits where these are needed and justified. A Guaranteed Basic Income – Option 2 – can be made affordable and – to adopt William’s concerns – we need to work out the way that this can be implemented from the next General Election.

  • Laurence Cox 23rd Aug '22 - 4:00pm

    The problem with 2010 was that a small group, led by the then Leader of the Party, made a decision on the terms of the deal then put it to the Parliamentary Party and only after getting the support of a majority of the Parliamentary Party did they put it to a special conference of members on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. This is back-to-front. It should be up to the members to decide before an election which policies in the manifesto we would die in a ditch over (e.g. PR at Westminster) and which would merely be nice to have. We need to tie the hands of anyone negotiating a deal; there is nothing wrong with offering another Party support on an issue-by-issue basis without any further commitment, while backsides on the rear seats of Ministerial Daimlers are not a good basis for an agreement.

  • A lot of the voters we are targeting as Lib Dem/Conservative swing voters. They may be prepared to Vote Lib Dem but don’t want to put in a Labour government. I can see a number of problems with the strategy of saying we want to work with Labour to keep out the Tories forever.

    1. It will put off floating Lib Dem/Conservative voters.
    2. it will weaken the parties bargaining position with Labour. If they know that we will never do business with the Tories then Labour know they are the only game in town and will have no incentive to offer us anything.
    3. Other undecided voters may just see us as a bunch of Labour Yes-men/women and wonder what is the point of voting for us.

  • Paul Barker 23rd Aug '22 - 7:16pm

    Whenever the next Election is one of the Tory attack lines will be to warn about a “Coalition of Chaos” between Labour & The LDs or The SNP. For Starmer to say that Coalition is out of the question seems sensible Politics.

    For Davey to say that PR is a Pre-condition for Coalition Talks is also sensible – we know the damage entering Coalition will do us & without PR its just not worth it. We don’t have any idea now what the result of the Election will be but even in a Hung Parliament Labour could easily Govern as a Minority.

    Labour have shifted a long way on PR – its now backed by most Members & Most Unions.
    Angry cynicism will not help our case. Lets keep open minds & open eyes & have confidence in our chances.

  • @David Raw. David you quote Kier from 2 years ago but he has now distanced himself from much of what he said during and shortly after he ran for the Labour Leadership.

    Last Autumn he refused to support PR at Labour Conference and in July this year he stated that PR was a very low priority and that he would in any case not do any deals with any other Party even after the next election.

    Labour will only ever adopt PR if they are forced into it by electoral circumstance and by potential Coalition partners playing hardball instead of being distracted by short term gain of a few Minesterial Limos. In 1997 for example Labour MP’s would have been voting to abolish a large number of themselves if they had introduced PR -since they were, and usually are, so over represented under FPTP. Also don’t underestimate how much they dislike all their rivals and believe very much in the Buggins Turn offered by FPTP.

  • Tristan Ward 23rd Aug '22 - 11:29pm

    “Labour will only ever adopt PR if they are forced into it by electoral circumstance”

    Totally agree. It is our job to create the electoral circumstances – for the good of the country.

  • @ Paul Holmes. I’m obliged for your update, Paul.

    Sounds very like the same motivation of the then Liberal MPs of both persuasions during the debates on the Representation of the People Act in 1917/18.

    Funny thing, political history. Some human things never seem to change.

  • Laurence Cox
    It should be up to the members to decide before an election which policies in the manifesto we would die in a ditch over

    I like this idea. How can we get it implemented?

    The pre-manifesto – ‘For a Fair Deal’ does not have a priorities section where we set out our six or so must have policies in the event of a coalition?

    My first thoughts on my six are:

    PR for the House of Commons and reform of the House of Lords;

    Increasing benefit levels above inflation with the aim of ending deep poverty in ten years, starting with a £20 a week increase;

    Providing at least £150bn for a green investment programme that would tackle the climate change emergency by reducing greenhouse gas emissions that would include a plan to insulate all Britain’s homes by 2030, cutting emissions and fuel bills, and ending fuel poverty by providing free energy retrofits for low-income homes;

    Provide the resources needed to sort out the crisis in the NHS and social care;

    Provide at least £50bn to invest in the regions with at least £30bn being invested in the three regions with the worse unemployment levels;

    Ensure that at least 380,000 new homes, including at least 150,000 new council and social homes for rent are build a year.

  • Peter Watson 24th Aug '22 - 4:58pm

    @Laurence Cox “It should be up to the members to decide before an election which policies in the manifesto we would die in a ditch over”
    Even that might not be enough!
    In the Coalition years, the party was keen to draw attention to the four key points in its manifesto (“fair taxes that put money back in your pocket”, “a fair future creating jobs by making Britain greener”, “a fair chance for every child”, and “a fair deal by cleaning up politics”) along with a dozen related policies but, for some unfathomable reason, other people kept harping on about trivia like tuition fees, VAT bombshells, no more broken promises, etc.

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