Lord William Wallace writes…Britain’s deepening political confusion

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

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

This has, until now, been a highly effective political machine, although less and less of a political movement.  But it may be about to break apart.  It’s not just a question of Brexit.  It’s the agenda behind Brexit that worries moderate Conservatives, and that has put off younger activists who would have joined the party a generation ago.  The Brexit Right, and their think tank allies, want to cut taxes further, to slash regulations, and let the ‘free market’ rip. In the Lords debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill this week, Brexiters offered Switzerland and Singapore as models for the country Britain should aspire to be: Singapore, an authoritarian democracy with tight restrictions on media freedom and civil rights, which is one of the world’s leading financial centres.   Those who criticise the record of the coalition should note that income inequality declined between 2010-15 (partly because of rises in the starting point for income tax) but has risen again since 2015 (largely because of cuts in tax credits); free market Conservatives have little sympathy for the Left Behind.  And cuts are continuing, in prisons (now 40% since 2010), police, and schools as well as the NHS.  This is not what ‘One Nation Tories’ believe in.  Nor is it what responsible business leaders want from government – thus the emergence of the CBI, and even the Institute of Directors, as critics of a Conservative government.  The deep divide within the current Conservative Party, in Parliament more than in the shrunken and elderly party outside, begins to look unbridgeably bitter.  Theresa May is now sustained as Prime Minister not by admiration or loyalty but by fears on both sides that no-one else could be found to hold the party together, reinforced by fear that an early election prompted by Conservative collapse would bring a Labour landslide.

Labour is in many ways in a far better state, with a large influx of enthusiastic new members, and a continuing flow of financial support from the trade unions which swamps our tiny resources.  It also, however, has acute internal tensions, on the surface over Brexit, but underneath over the distinction between managed social markets and full-blooded socialism.  There’s much pressure within Labour to modify their approach to Brexit, which Corbyn and McDonnell are so far firmly resisting.  If Labour were to shift its position, to the half-way point of insisting that the UK stays in the Customs Union and Single Market, that would transform the position within Parliament and the public debate.  But those around Corbyn have been opposed to the ‘capitalist’ European Union for most of their careers, and will not yield easily.

So where does this leave us, starved as we are of media attention and of the hoped-for upswing in popular support?  We lack the money that sustains the two major party machines.  That means local campaigning, local volunteers and local media matter much more. We have attracted tens of thousands of enthusiastic new members ourselves; we have to encourage them, keep their enthusiasm alive, and recruit tens of thousands more.  Going into an election in which we could claim that our membership was twice that of the Conservative Party would be a coup – and the larger the membership, the better our membership-dependent finances will be.  The Conservatives fear that the May local elections will be disastrous for them; we need to do all we can to ensure that the swing comes to us in many areas, rather than to Labour.  A string of gains will reignite media attention, and should at last begin to raise our poll ratings. We need to be open to defectors from both other main parties, when we recognise that their priorities are compatible with ours.  We need also to be conscious that Labour as a machine is no more friendly to us than the Conservatives, and will do its utmost to claim all the credit for stopping a hard Brexit if and when it moves its position.  Above all, we need whenever we can catch media attention, nationally or locally, to talk about why Britain needs a Liberal party in an increasingly illiberal society, to counter the illiberal tendencies of a Labour Government as well as of the Right.  And we need to push for the domestic reforms (and higher public spending) that matter as much as Brexit, and about the links between those pushing for Brexit and the tax-cutting and state-shrinking agenda of the free-market right.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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7 Comments

  • Nick Collins 4th Feb '18 - 9:18am

    An excellent article which needs to be read in conjunction with Paul Holmes’ on why a good targeting strategy is essential.

  • Trevor Stables 4th Feb '18 - 10:24am

    Excellent! Lets make sure this is spread widely on Social Media.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Feb '18 - 1:02pm

    The best we have had from William Wallace !

    We must do more at national level though William, utilising media that is not one we get ignored in but have a say in, the internet !

    We must also promote more people to speak who are not mps and are a voice for us, especially the best of our BAME , whether in the Lords or wider sphere.

  • Peter Hirst 5th Feb '18 - 5:24pm

    an excellent analysis, William. If I could just add we need to present ourselves as a package that includes the environment, improving our democracy and animal rights. Also, if we can be more specific about what we mean by liberalism including civil rights, internationalism and the rule of law.

  • William Fowler 6th Feb '18 - 1:39pm

    “The Brexit Right, and their think tank allies, want to cut taxes further, to slash regulations, and let the ‘free market’ rip”

    True but Mrs May is into the large State and not slashing public spending as it would interfere with her power trip (she would have less control over things), although her tenure isn’t without limit. Labour has picked up on public dissent at being ripped off by large companies (and thrown in a load of marxist junk it hopes to sneak in if it wins) which should be natural Liberal territory, unfortunately the link between increased govn spending and an ever expanding and intrusive State seems to be lost on the party and the best they can offer is to be like Labour but with extra taxes to match the spending rather than the fantasy economics describe by Sir Vince.

    I think it will be an interesting election if we have a right wing Conservative party offering to slash and burn taxes and govn spending versus a Labour govn offering much higher taxes and higher govn spending versus the LibDems offering a bit more spending and taxes right down the middle ground of being sensible.

  • Peter Watson 6th Feb '18 - 2:10pm

    “The Brexit Right, and their think tank allies, want to cut taxes further, to slash regulations, and let the ‘free market’ rip.”
    And that will be opposed by the party whose leader, Tim Farron claimed, “We are the free market, free trade pro-business party now.”?

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