Breaking the Establishment

House of Commons. Crown Copyright applies to this photo - http://www.flickr.com/photos/uk_parliament/4642915654/“We stand up for the outsider instead of the establishment.”, Tim Farron said during the leadership rally last week. For party members who were rather discouraged by our missteps in coalition, that line gives us hope.

Our failings in the Coalition can be traced to one key fault: after speaking out against the establishment, we were seen to be now a part of it. There are so many bills that we extracted key concessions on, but we were not able to communicate that. How could we, after all? We were bound by Cabinet collective responsibility. But it was never designed to operate the way it did in coalition.

Cast your minds back five years to Vince’s infamous statement on tuition fees. Imagine a different statement, in which he said “Our right honourable colleagues, and the honourable Opposition, have argued that the review should be adopted in full. My right honourable friends and I obviously take a different approach. We will consult with stakeholders and publish a bill in due course.” Immediately, everyone would have been seen us as fighting our corner. And even if the fee level stayed the same, we would have seen to have fought honourably and lost instead of being seen to not fight at all.

Why is this important now? Because of the absolute cowardice of Labour on Monday to oppose the Welfare Bill that Clegg and Alexander had kept off the floor of the House for five years and warned about during the election campaign. 148 Labour MPs sat on their hands and did nothing. The government’s majority on the bill was 148.

Of course, we should not be under any illusion that the bill could have been defeated on Monday. If Labour came out against it, then the result would have been something like 315-308. Indeed, there were reports that some Labour MPs were paired off. But the Tories refused to pair when it came to bringing down Callaghan, saying it was too important. So was a bill putting millions of families into poverty not important enough for Labour to properly oppose?

The allure of joining the establishment is all too intoxicating. Just ask Syriza in Greece. But we must not let ourselves be drawn in by it again. Convention is by definition conservative, by definition illiberal. We cannot create a better country through gentlemen’s agreements in lieu of proper reform. Liberalism is about freeing the individual from the grasp of the establishment. Let us fight for that and never forget our purpose.

* Sarah Noble is an activist in Calderdale. Alongside her role on the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats executive, she shares a keen interest in devolution and transport policy.

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44 Comments

  • Colin: you’ll be unsurprised to know that I completely agree, hence the reference to Callaghan, who had to wheel in dying MPs constantly, and was even brought down because no Tory would pair with Alf Broughton on a confidence vote.

  • Alisdair McGregor 23rd Jul '15 - 2:40pm

    Of course, if Labour had indicated they would oppose, it could have emboldened the Tories who are uncomfortable with this (& yes, there are some) to also oppose.

  • Good stuff Sarah!

  • montypython 23rd Jul '15 - 2:55pm

    “But the Tories refused to pair when it came to bringing down Callaghan, saying it was too important. ”

    For the record, Labour also stopped pairing during the Tories’ agonies over Maastricht: see page 26 of http://goo.gl/pY7Fgc.

    The LibDems’ problem is not that the stuff they prevented ( “the Welfare Bill that Clegg and Alexander had kept off the floor of the House for five years”) but they stuff they permitted.

    As for the impassioned plea not to be part of the Establishment in the final paragraph, well, sorry, but nobody in the Establishment actually needs or wants you anymore. So you weren’t going to be invited, anyway. Sorry.

  • Amazing. The Lib Dems would rather bash Labour than avoid hard truths. Even the other day Joe Otten wrote on here using the term ‘so called’ Bedroom Tax. Cake and eat it time at Lib Dem Voice. Please get real. Just because the Conservatives alone are worse does not wipe the pain and suffering caused over the last five years away. Labour are a mess and we need a strong Lib Dem opposition. Danny Alexander and the others who ruined the party should not be lightly praised while calling Labour cowards. It wont wash.

  • Jamie Stewart 23rd Jul '15 - 3:49pm

    Great article, couldn’t agree more. As a former Lib Dem by 2010 (only because I lived abroad), I had great hope for the coalition and, most importantly, for the Lib Dems to hold the Conservatives to account PUBLICLY. The Tories ran rings around the Lib Dems because of the Lib Dem’s obsession with keeping the coalition together. They should have stood firm, and been prepared to take the ultimate step of withdrawing from coalition. Hopefully, should we get any more coalition opportunities, this mistake will be identified and rectified in the future.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Jul '15 - 4:28pm

    The Fixed Term Parliament Act was a device which was intended to make stable government possible and it should endure, but what most governments have in democratic countries on the continent and in the Irish Republic is a fair electoral system. Fairness to the voters is needed, they should get what they voted for. We cannot deduce how they would have voted in an STV election from what they did in a first-past-the-post election, but we will get some idea from the elections in 2016 to the Scottish parliament, th e Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Greater London Assembly and Mayor.

    What “Colin” said above is totally wrong, but I have heard it often from Labour supporters.. He is still fighting the last election.
    Very few political parties have the money to fight repeated general elections in the way he proposes, but the British Conservative party is one of them They raised £250 million during David Cameron’s leadership, according to The Times.

    Others would include the Kuomintang in Taiwan and the so-called Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, a party with strong connections to business , which is not a member of the Liberal International.

  • I agree with the article, it is important that we are not seen to be part of the establishment. Yes conventions are “by definition conservative”. However we need to be clear which parts we wish to change. Cabinet collective responsibility is a problem and we should have recognised the need for more open government. However I am not sure Nick Clegg is anti-establishment. I am also not sure how many of our 57 MPs in 2010 were anti-establishment.

    Colin is of course correct “that without the LD MPs in the coalition nothing would get done” assuming that Labour opposed the Conservatives, which they are not effectively doing on the Welfare Bill. It was the area of economics and budget deficit reduction that we had the most issues. Once the Parliamentary party had accepted Tory deficit reduction plans it was always going to have difficulties over agreeing to Tory cuts. A more open government might have helped. Did we accept the bedroom tax as being less bad than cutting housing benefit for those under 26 and with the protection we obtained for the most vulnerable? If so did the government announce this? I don’t think so.

    Once the Fixed Term Parliament Act was passed we should have taken a much tougher line. We should have opposed most Conservative policies that were not in the coalition agreement and when we accepted them it should have been made clear by the government what we achieved to balance them.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Jul '15 - 7:45pm

    Colin,
    Guildford is a beautiful town. What you need is not to move house and cut yourself off from some of your contacts,.
    What you need is that a system of transferable voting, such as that being used for the Labour leadership election, It should be used for electing MPs and borough councillors. It is undemocratic that a Tory governemtn should be elected with a majority in parliament on 37% of the vote.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Jul '15 - 7:48pm

    Colin, Please do not insult us by putting us into the alphabet soup. Calling us by our name makes it more likely that we will listen.

  • Colin “the failure to publically oppose that which was not in the coalition agreement makes even less sense.”

    Yes you are abso,utely right. I have never understood why Clegg allowed all those things through, it was like turkeys voting for Christmas. I would still be a LD member if Clegg had shut down the NHS reforms. But I doubt he would have wanted people like me in the Party anyway. Result: 8 MPs and one MEP.

  • Little Jackie Paper 23rd Jul '15 - 9:34pm

    ‘How could we, after all? We were bound by Cabinet collective responsibility. But it was never designed to operate the way it did in coalition.’

    Sorry, but no. This gets trotted out all the time and it’s arrant nonsense. Policy is developed in Cabinet Committees – it’s not just dictated from on high. In Coalition or not by definition cabinet committees are not partisan. The whole point is that Ministers don’t get to claim, ‘not me guv,’ in Parliament when it comes to accountability. Ministers are, of course, quite free to resign.

    It is also important from the perspective of the civil service too to have collective responsibility to work with.

    Politics and government are not the same thing. Cabinet collective responsibility and coalition can absolutely be reconciled.

    Voters of course can make of things what they wish – they’re not dumb.

  • Sammy O'Neill 23rd Jul '15 - 11:53pm

    Of course the lib dems are seen as part of the establishment- the party membership is filled with white, middle class men and their associated world view. Too many lib dem councillors have been more concerned with blocking housing developments (after all don’t want the value of their own house reduced or to lose a few votes from the NIMBY’s!) than addressing the housing problems in their area. The party is about as demographically far removed from the reality of modern Britain as it is possible to be. I dare say we are the worst of all parties, including UKIP. Farron will not change that.

  • Peter Watson 24th Jul '15 - 1:03am

    @Sammy O’Neill “Of course the lib dems are seen as part of the establishment- the party membership is filled with white, middle class men and their associated world view.”
    A recent documentary about Melvin Bragg quoted a letter to the Radio Times in the 1960s: “The problem with the Liberal Party is that there are too many chartered accountants and too few farm labourers.”
    Plus ça change …

  • A Social Lliberal 24th Jul '15 - 1:29am

    Funnily enough, I saw a figure on the members forum of this website which suggested that 57% are men – a long way from the “the party membership [being] filled with white middle aged men”.

  • David Warren 24th Jul '15 - 9:53am

    Good article Sarah.

    I saw us make similar mistakes locally going into coalition with the Tories on the council.

    The electoral consequences we similar to what we just experienced nationally.

    One of the problems is we do have some career politicians in our ranks, who can’t resist the lure of office at any price.

  • (Matt Bristol) 24th Jul '15 - 11:07am

    The problem of a concept of the Establishment (and I’m not saying an Establishment doesn’t exist) is that it is binary, and based on assumptions about class, race, gender and institutional power as well as on conformity to the procedural status quo.

    Almost any LibDem politician at a more senior level is going to be perceived by someone somewhere as part of ‘the’ or ‘an’ Establishment of some kind, almost the minute they get elected and put on a suit, unless they intend to act like a cliched teenage rebel and dress, speak and act deliberately differently to make symbolic points (Respect to local councill in Kingston, John Tolley, for so far avoiding this by being himself, from what I’ve seen on his blog).

    And of course, there are regional elites and power-centres and different forms of ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘conformity’ in different professions and networks. (For eg, is the SNP part of ‘the’ Establisment? Discuss).

    To put it another way, which of these politicians are part of ‘the’ or ‘an’ Establishment (and compare it with where they were 20 years ago, or where they may think they stand)? …most of them are local to me and most are LibDems:
    – George Ferguson, Mayor of Bristol
    – Baroness Janke, ex-leader of Bristol Council
    – Gavin Grant, Western Counties Chair
    – Lord Avebury
    – Dawn Primarolo, my ex-MP
    – Mark Wright (of this site), my prospective MP on several occasions

    For me, for most of these figures, they are (willingly or unwillingly) part of certain kinds of Establishment institutions and thinking and may well need to be to get things done. But at the same time they may be or may have spent time in the past, challenging certain other kinds of Establishment.

    It’s not a binary ‘on’ or ‘off’ thing, for most people and on most issues.

    The answer for me seems to be that you can question, challenge, fight and change political orthodoxy, the structures of power and lazy thinking, and we should always do this wherever we can, as LibDems. The fight on the Welfare Bill is absolutely a good example of this.

    But ‘busting the establishment’, which in some ways I’d love to do for the sheer punk violence of the thing, is always fraught with the risk that we end up with the scenario of the Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ – ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’.

  • Sammy,

    I think it is evident that the OP in this thread is not middle-aged or male!

    If we are to improve the demographic of the party we need more female members. I realise that for some women the white middleclassness of the membership (in addition to the maleness) may be too much, but if you agree with the preamble to the constitution I would urge you to join/stay and improve the Party! The same goes for any BAME people who may be reading this.

    The alternative would be be for white middle class male people like me to resign, but I don’t think that is the solution! Phyllis, I would be very happy if you would rejoin too – your posts are always sensible!

  • Jamie Stewart 24th Jul '15 - 12:03pm

    Sammy O’Neill, being seen as a majority-white party is a common predicament in the UK, but not one that should be too big-a-worry unless we have far too small a proportion of ethnic minorities (which I believe we do). Additionally, having more men than woman is not desirable, but it still appears to the case that more men choose to get involved in politics.

    The root problem is not being under-represented by various under-represented groups, but under-representing those groups. Whilst Tim Farron and the rest of the white middle-class males who obviously play a big part in this party should be aware of their privilege, it should not hold them back from shouting about liberal values which do represent that typically under-represented. Whilst Tim may not be the PR officers dream in terms of appearance, and even (dare-I-say-it) oratorical style, he is much better than most politicians, and more importantly, is a committed liberal. If anything, his faith should serve as a stronger affirmation of the integrity of his liberal values, even though I freely admit that there are numerous examples of hypocritical/illiberal “pious” people. For a start, those people do not normally combine their faith with liberal politics!

  • Sammy O'Neill 24th Jul '15 - 3:00pm

    @Peter Watson

    Very apt quote, think I’ll have to borrow that one!

    @Andrew

    I have never claimed the OP is a middle class man. My point is that the party as a whole is disproportionately white, middle class and male. As a woman I know first hand how badly a lot of female members are treated, and how inherently sexist the party is. Until the party changes, you will not get female members. I won’t be renewing my membership because I have lost faith with the party and its priorities. If things change, I’ll come running back. But it’ll be a while I suspect.

  • Sammy O'Neill 24th Jul '15 - 3:06pm

    @Jamie Stewart

    When you are in a position that the Lib Dems have no ethnic minority MP’s or MEP’s, no female MP’s, no female party leadership candidates, a membership that is disproportionately white even in areas like London where the white population is 44% and little willingness to change things then you’ve got to wonder how long the party can survive as a viable force.

    Your comments about Farron and PR/oratory style are all fair I think, though I currently see him as a heavily damaging influence on the party. Already we’ve had a series of guffs and bizarre comments from him- that dreadful tweet today being the latest. Perhaps he was hacked, but I can appreciate people being cynical about that given a solitary tweet was sent out and his previously stated views on such matters. Really Farron is at best a caretaker leader until someone with more appeal/connection with the real world comes along. I just hope there are some slots in the seats we hold open for new candidates come the next election, as fresh blood is so desperately needed and we cannot rely on seat gains alone to provide it.

  • Sue Sutherland 24th Jul '15 - 3:14pm

    If our purpose is to free people from the grasp of the establishment that aim is not met by refusing to be the establishment but by remembering to free people when we become the establishment. That is a very difficult thing to do, to dismantle the trappings of power when you have it in your grasp, but now we know what NOT to do we have a hope of doing it right next time.

  • Excellent article.

    Long before the 2010 election I sensed a change in the Lib Dems’ stance. Over time, and very gradually, any radicalism seeped away because, I think, of two main factors. Firstly, the failure to define an alternative programme for government and secondly the failure to make a definitive break through in Parliamentary representation.

    The first failure is to me the most crucial as it made the second inevitable. It meant that in recent decades Lib Dems have only offered an alternative managerialism; they took the recipe as a given and just proposed slightly different proportions of the various ingredients – a little more welfare here, a little less austerity there.

    And if a reformist agenda didn’t exist and an electoral break though wasn’t possible then for many party Parliamentarians and apparatchiks it meant that joining the establishment became the next best alternative and certainly the only one that offered material prizes. That is why the press has for so long obsessed about coalition politics because they too sensed that this was really what it had come down to even though nobody could afford to admit it, perhaps not even to themselves.

    In coalition with the Tories this inevitably meant we were seen as ‘Tory lite’. Had the electoral arithmetic dictated a coalition with Labour it would have been ‘Labour lite’.

    If the Lib Dems rediscover their soul then the world is their oyster in the present environment. Neoliberalism is thoroughly played out – intellectually and morally bankrupt and surviving only because, astonishingly, no-one has yet challenged it. I think that challenge may be about to emerge. I certainly hope so.

  • Julie Maxon 24th Jul '15 - 4:17pm

    @ Sammy – “… Perhaps he was hacked, but I can appreciate people being cynical …”

    Of course he was hacked. There is no way Tim would have sent it and he has made his position very clear. All members should be united against rubbish like this, which is an attack against both Tim and the Party. I totally accept that you are not a fan of Tim – you’ve said so on various threads. However, on a point like this I think it is unfair for you to try to cast doubt and add further unnecessary fuel to the fire.

  • @Gordon “Neoliberalism is thoroughly played out – intellectually and morally bankrupt and surviving only because, astonishingly, no-one has yet challenged it. I think that challenge may be about to emerge. I certainly hope so.”

    Have a read of this: http://www.timworstall.com/2012/07/31/this-aint-neoliberalism-mr-monbiot/

  • Sammy O'Neill 24th Jul '15 - 4:38pm

    @Julie Maxon

    My personal guess is that it’s unlikely he posted it and either one of the other two people with access to the account did, or somebody has been careless in setting an easily guessed password which was then exploited. Alas, there is no way of knowing either way unless Tim opts to post some evidence. I suspect he won’t.

    Of far more interest to me is what Farron’s view on same sex attraction actually is. We already know he holds some pretty controversial views. It’s going to be pretty hard trying to claim to be a liberal if you think it’s a lifestyle choice or that it’s fine to be gay providing you remain celibate. Tim may well, based on previous form, hold those views. The party have made an incredible mistake in electing Farron.

  • @ TCO

    That was an interesting piece on the difference between neo-liberalism and libertarianism. I was surprise to find “preventing monopolies” in there. Both often come across as wanting the market to be used with little or no regulation.

    Tim Worstall states that neo-liberals “believe that market mechanisms (no, not markets unadorned, but market mechanisms as suitably tweaked) are often the best way to solve those problems that are amenable to a solution.” However they come across as believing that “market mechanisms” are ALWAYS the best way. As a Social Liberal I can accept that the use of “market mechanisms” sometimes improves services, but I also recognise that markets fail to bring prosperity for everyone.

  • Julie Maxon 24th Jul '15 - 6:07pm

    @ Sammy O’Neill

    I think Tim has made his views very clear and his voting record (if people look at the facts rather than false rumour) speaks for itself. In any event, I think he is perfectly entitled to his own personal views just as the rest of us are. There was nothing in the membership pack I recently received that stated I had to conform to a particular way of thinking!

    Anyway, rather than going over old ground, since you suggest there might be an issue of whether Tim can claim to be a liberal depending on his personal views, did you read Jennie Rigg’s excellent blog post earlier this week? She puts it far better than I could ever hope to …
    http://miss-s-b.dreamwidth.org/1660221.html

  • This is what Tim has tweeted

    Tim Farron ‏@timfarron 20h20 hours ago

    I am investigating after a fake and malicious tweet appeared to be posted from my account this evening. I apologise for any offence caused.

  • Of course some people on Pink News don’t believe him… They seem to think that because there was only one “rogue tweet” it must have come from Tim… Which is not terribly logical..

  • Sammy O'Neill 25th Jul '15 - 1:31am

    @Julie Mason

    “I think Tim has made his views very clear and his voting record (if people look at the facts rather than false rumour) speaks for itself. ”

    Yes- he didn’t vote for same sex marriage, has supported some pretty questionable reforms to abortion and of course some questionable support for homeopathy legislation. Add to that sitting there whilst the party destroyed itself (see press accounts of his role in all of this) and it’s not a pretty picture.

    “In any event, I think he is perfectly entitled to his own personal views just as the rest of us are. ”

    Indeed, but when some of them are so dubious that they are harmful to the prospects of the party it’s not unreasonable to expect them to be protested against.

    “did you read Jennie Rigg’s excellent blog post earlier this week? She puts it far better than I could ever hope to …”

    I have read it, don’t find it persuasive at all. Farron failing to support same sex marriage falls foul of her own test as demonstrated here: “Liberalism is about defending the rights of people to do things you detest, because even though you detest their actions, they are not hurting anyone else.” Tim’s decision could have stopped people being able to marry. He did not defend or advance their rights, he tried to prevent that.

  • Sammy,
    Following on from Paul, Tim has also made it clear on numerous occasions that if he had his time again his voting record would be 100%. He had his typically Liberal, complicated reasons for abstaining on the third reading because the Bill was not “perfect” in his terms, but he would not do it again…

    Tim supports the current abortion legislation, which is a balance between sincerely held views. So do I. I don’t think we should be complaining that he does not want to change it.

    As for this “Add to that sitting there whilst the party destroyed itself (see press accounts of his role in all of this) and it’s not a pretty picture” I just do not get that one. Short of resigning or forcing a coup against Clegg with very uncertain consequences (with hindsight, of course, it could not have made things worse… But generally dumping your Leader 12 months before an election is a very bad idea…And a failed coup pushed to the limit would have been the worst possible thing), I don’t know what more he could have done. He voted against the main self-inflicted wound the Party did to itself. If he was really just sitting there and not rocking the boat he would not have got such criticism from the likes of Ashdown…

  • Sammy O'Neill 25th Jul '15 - 3:56pm

    @Paul

    You are also attempting a form of revisionism that is manifestly dishonest. On the key vote on same sex marriage, Farron opted to abstain. He did not vote for same sex marriage. He voted for the later reading, which was comparatively an irrelevant vote because the do or die vote was the one he opted to abstain from. When given the opportunity to vote for same sex marriage, Farron failed.

    @Andrew

    What we see is a constant pattern of flip flopping from Farron. Changes his mind (allegedly) on same sex marriage, changes his mind on abortion (interesting voting history there…), changes his mind on homeopathy. It’s a neverending string of changing his mind. I find it disturbing that his mind even needs changing on some of these things, but alas that’s Farron.

    As for Farron’s conduct pre-election, he talked Clegg out of resigning. Clegg was an electoral liability. He needed to go, desperately. A cynic could be forgiven for questioning what is real motives were in that decision. Do remember, he’s a politician.

  • @ Sammy O’Neill

    I had not seen the report that Farron had helped talk Clegg out of resigning after the Euro elections in 2014.

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jun/24/nick-clegg-offered-to-resign-as-lib-dem-leader-a-year-before-2015-election

    It might well have been in the interest of Tim Farron for Nick Clegg to stay on as leader, but I don’t think it was in the interests of the party. As it seems that Nick Clegg did recognise he was a problem for our message even being heard he should have resigned, while saying he was prepared to continue as Deputy Prime Minister if the new leader wanted him to. His resignation would have been a signal to those in the party and the public that we as a party recognised we had to change. With a different leader we would have had a different manifesto and different messages during the general election. I don’t know how much difference it would have made, but I can’t see that a leadership election would have been a problem and it is very unlikely we would have done worse. But of course we will never know what difference it would have made.

  • Sammy O'Neill 25th Jul '15 - 8:37pm

    @Paul

    You can link as many websites as you like, you won’t find one that can change the fact that when it mattered Tim couldn’t bring himself to vote in favour of same sex marriage. You are evidently totally fine with that, I and many others are not.

  • Sammy O'Neill 25th Jul '15 - 8:40pm

    @Andrew

    Naturally we will likely disagree on this, but I am absolutely of the view that Farron did nothing because he didn’t want to be holding the leadership baton when it all went wrong. He probably miscalculated how badly the election would go (an understandable error, which I too made) but has nevertheless got a less pressing danger of being forced to resign. Any improvement from the current position can be spun as a success, whilst he’ll get a period of goodwill from much of the party before the critics become more vocal.

  • Whatever comments Nick may have made, I do not believe that he seriously contemplated resigning the leadership at any time prior to 7 May 2015, nor that, if he had seriously intended to do so, anyone else could have “talked him out of it.”

    And while I fully concur that Nick turned out to be a poor, ineffective leader, I am not certain that Vince would have been an enormous improvement; by 2014 he was as complicit in the Liberal Democrats’ coalition strategy as Nick was. The Party needed a much more dramatic gesture at that point to yield a change in fortunes.

  • Sammy,

    Farron would not have been elected leader in 2014, 12 months before an election – it would have been Cable, or one of the other senior people. And that article makes it pretty clear that several senior figures including Paddy Ashdown told Clegg to stick it out… The only reason there is much about Farron in there is because they got him to give an interview about it, and the available evidence is that Clegg did not think much of him…… Until Nick Clegg comes out and says “Only Tim Farron convinced me to stay” then it is all just speculation.

    as for the so-called conscience issues, they have been done to death in the Leadership election, Tim has
    made his position pretty clear on every issue and it is perhaps time for all of us to let that particular bone go, judging the Party Leader by what he does from now on.

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