Please understand what The Alternative is about

The AlternativeJudging by the reaction to Andrew George’s post last week  there seems to be a lot of unnecessary fretting among Liberal Democrats caused by ‘The Alternative’, the book I have co-edited with the Labour and Green MPs Lisa Nandy and Caroline Lucas. Allow me to explain why I think some people are getting the wrong end of the stick.

I fully understand the views of those who say Labour is not a progressive party, and that we sometimes have more in common with the liberal wing of the Conservatives than we do with Labour or the nationalist parties. Those views can be defended, but they don’t alter the practical reality of what we face.

Everyone is talking about how we were hammered at the 2015 election, which we were in relative terms, but the 8% of the vote we polled would have given us around 55 seats if we’d had a proportional election system, which was roughly what we had in the last parliament.

As a liberal, I’d happily accept whatever our core vote is – probably something between 8% and 20% – under PR. We’d probably never be a party leading a government, but we’d have real influence, and could pursue liberal-democratic policies in association with whichever other parties were receptive to our ideas.

So our main priority needs to be PR, but we have a problem. Electoral systems don’t inspire the public, and politics and politicians are in such low repute at present that any alliance to get PR could easily be painted as a power-grabbing lunge by those whose policies are out of fashion.

Therefore, if we’re ever to get PR, we have to inspire the public with ideas, to build a picture of a Britain that people can get excited about. That’s why ‘The Alternative’ has essays on rethinking economics, a creative approach to public services, a deeper take on the environment, ideas on how we live and how we get about, and much more. The aim is to build up a picture of a caring, compassionate, modern Britain in which everyone has a voice – and if everyone has a voice, that must mean a proportional voting system (which wouldn’t need a referendum if it were in all the key manifestos).

So it’s a question of building up your cooperation and your optimistic vision in a way that inspires people, and eventually our majority for PR will come. It won’t be easy, but it’s a lot more promising than trying to bludgeon PR through now when all the winds are blowing against us, as witnessed by the 2015 and 2016 results.

The problem, I agree, is still Labour. Until it commits to PR, the scope for cooperation will remain limited. But there are signs Labour is seriously thinking about it, and several leading Labour figures are now pro-PR. If we start airing exciting progressive policies that could inspire the public to have renewed hope in politics, Labour may well come to see that it has more to gain than to lose by embracing PR.

By contrast, the Conservatives will never do so. There are a number of good Tories, people who might well support several of our policies, but the Tory machine is a malign one. It acts in its own interests, and will not give away the mechanism by which it does very well for itself.

‘The Alternative’ is a collection of essays that explore a course of action. Feel free to disagree with some of them, but please don’t diss the whole project. We are Liberal Democrats, we are free thinkers – and we have to give this approach fair consideration.

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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36 Comments

  • simon mcgrath 28th Aug '16 - 8:27pm

    Getting PR would be great. Getting it if it means Corbyn (or Owen Smith for that matter) as PM would not be a price worth paying,

    There aren’t two sides in politics Tories and not Tories which is the underlying assumption here. Most people in our Party want a Lib Dem Govt, not a hodge podge non Tory one.

  • “the Tory machine is a malign one.”

    Sigh. Maybe one day someone will make a post like this without calling those on the other side evil. Today is not that day.

  • Zack Polanski 28th Aug '16 - 9:04pm

    Until we have Proportional Representation, whatever party is in Government is there, in effect, illegitimately.

    It’s not that PR is the most important priority – it just happens to be the first.

    I haven’t read the book yet but I think your thoughts here are spot on and I shall be doing so. The Tories won’t ever give us PR. Many in Labour will.

    Keep up the good work.

    Zack

  • Rightsaidfredfan 28th Aug '16 - 9:11pm

    No other party will grant PR without a referendum, to do so would be disgusting, essentially it would be politicians would be getting into power and then deciding to change the rules under which they are elected. Nobody in their right mind would dare do that without giving the public the final say via a referendum. The public seem to favor FPTP but it is looking less and less legitimate. I would argue that there needs to be a referendum on PR but The problem with that is the lib dems seem to now think referendums are not democratic or that they should need 60%+ to pass? The lib dems seem to want PR by legislation which just isn’t going to happen so should we just stick with FPTP by default?

  • paul barker 28th Aug '16 - 9:41pm

    The crucial point is that Labour is at least 3 Parties in a single body & that body is breaking up. I quite often visit Labour List, their equivalent of LDV (not as good of course) & I have noticed 2 distinct trends over the last few months. First, the tone has got even nastier & second, more people are saying that even a split would be better than endless war.
    Of course if you count comments calling on the Other Side to leave or be thrown out there probably already a majority for splitting but each side wants The Labour “Brand” & Organisation for itself. Thats why the final split is going to be slow & very painful.
    From our point of view, the longer Labour takes to accept the inetivitable, the better. If we continue to recover as we have been doing then when The Labour Split does come we have a real prospect of becoming Englands 2nd Party, ahead of both Labours.
    We would still need some sort of arrangement to defeat The Tories but we would be in a much stronger bargaining position.

  • There’s another assumption without foundation here; that Tories and Labour must reform but the Libdems are just wonderful as they are. On the contrary, had I the reins I would first rid ourselves of the increasingly strident illiberals and the undemocratic. Then I would try to get the party to focus on issues that are actually of interest to the public rather than non-vote-winning trivia and unrealistic green-energy dreams that would ruin the country.

    If you don’t imagine that a 3rd party can become a 1st party then I’d urge you to look at the SNP. They did not become popular because everyone suddenly became nationalistic because that undercurrent has been there for 50 years. Rather they changed their tack to becoming credible as an alternative and waited for Scottish Labour to trip up and follow the previous Scottish Tory self-destruction.

    I recommend we similarly sit back and enjoy UK Labour meltdown, set a credible manifesto with grown-up policies and prepare to receive the votes from the exodus of centre-left voters looking for the old ‘new Labour’ rather than the Socialist Workers Party clone that Corbyn will visit upon them.

  • On PR I believe Paddy Ashdown said it best; “Turkeys don’t vote for xmas”.

  • Stevan Rose 29th Aug '16 - 1:10am

    60% of the population are not interested in the voting system. Two thirds of those that are interested prefer FPTP. We had that referendum, the public thought they voted on the Lib Dems’ preferred system and now you’re going to tell them wrong question, wrong answer, try again. What do you think the answer will be next time, and the time after that? So don’t saddle us with a priority that has just 14% support, 28% opposition and 58% complete indifference. Bury it deep in the manifesto so when we’re in majority Government with 35% of the vote in 2020 we can pass it without a referendum. Or maybe not.

    I would be very careful what you wish for. With proper PR in 2015 the only Coalition that would have added up would have been Tory-UKIP-DUP. That is what PR advocates are actually asking for. Sorry, it’s a No from me.

    But since it won’t be happening in my lifetime, I would prefer our priorities to be health, housing, transport, clean energy, jobs and trade. I also want an English Parliament with powers and an electoral system similar to Scotland. Thus you get proportionality in decisions addressing a lot of the main topics but UKIP are weaker when dealing with non-EU policies.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Aug '16 - 4:07am

    Colin, you do not understand ,perhaps , surely , the feelings expressed on here on the previous or any thread about a progressive alliance , are not tribalism , but realism , not getting hold of the wrong end of the stick , but feeling the stick Labour have hit us with electorally and verbally in many areas!

    I was once in Labour , though passionately a non far leftist then or now , the very happily accepted , radical centre and mainstream centre left description of my views, shows that , with experience of that party , I know the difference.

    And so too does Paul Barker who comments on these things , effectively , as often , here. With Paul and others on here ,like the thoughtful George Kendall, I too visit the Labour sites, and sometimes ,Bright Blue ,the self described, liberal conservative one, and others as well.

    The differences are profound . Bitterness and rancour , in the Labour ones , far less of anything of the sort in the Tories.

    There are indeed several Labour parties in one , as Paul , above comments .

    To Colin , and Andrew George , I would ask , at present , though it may change , which one is our ally ?

    If Labour split , we could obviously have a relationship with a party that ranges from , say , Owen Smith , to Liz Kendall , the centre left to centre right of that party .

    If it says we wait and establish us further , a good deal more so , as credible, and get some coverage for it , we must do that first.

    I believe Tim Farron is just the sort of progressive , radical , moderate kind of mixture, to do it . But we must be credible on Europe , and not fantasists .

  • Rightsaidfredfan 29th Aug '16 - 5:23am

    @paul barker “when The Labour Split does come we have a real prospect of becoming Englands 2nd Party, ahead of both Labours.”

    UKIP would be England’s (or at least should be) England’s second party. Only one labour has a future, the hard left labour would continue to win seats but no where near enough for a majority. The blairite wing would die.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 29th Aug '16 - 7:02am

    “So our main priority needs to be PR”

    Why? It’s not the public’s main priority. Could it be because PR is in the lib dems self interest? OK nothing wrong with that, but you can say the party’s main priority needs to be something the public isn’t interested in because it’s in the party’s self interest and then berate the the other party machines for acting in their own self interest?

  • Worst case scenario is a government supported by Simon McGrath

  • Peter Davies 29th Aug '16 - 9:00am

    “The problem, I agree, is still Labour. Until it commits to PR, the scope for cooperation will remain limited.”
    I’d go with “Until it implements PR”. Getting it to commit in opposition has never been the problem.

  • In 2010 we entered a ‘coalition’ with the Tories…At the end of it we were all but destroyed as a party and the best we could muster was Mark Pack’s tale of, “The twenty things we stopped the Tories doing”….How much better for the party (and the country) if, instead of an official coalition, we had given support/opposition on a policy by policy basis…

    As for PR…
    The ‘boundary changes’ will give the Tory party an advantage that may ensure their governance for the foreseeable future….no chance of support for PR
    Labour, with or without Corbyn, are unlikely to overcome this Tory advantage so are approachable on PR….

    We are entering an era of uncertainty; Brexit, NHS, etc. It’s true that most of the electorate do not understand/are not interested in the ‘workings of politics’ but in this climate of uncertainty there will be a chance to mobilise popular support, on local issues (A&E closures, etc.), for ‘a new kind of politics’…

  • “Getting PR would be great. Getting it if it means Corbyn (or Owen Smith for that matter) as PM would not be a price worth paying,”

    Support for PR is not about changing the political landscape to increase your chance of winning (or seeing a PM you favour) whereas boundary changes and a refusal to support PR (seen by the majority of the Tory party) can be perceived that way. A desire for voting reform is about giving power to those in the north who are far more excited about who can count votes the quickest because labour will win even if Donald Trump stood for them and giving that young Tory in the Mail before the last GE reason to vote because her area may not end up Tory whether she bothers or not.

    “By contrast, the Conservatives will never do so”

    While I agree that it’s unlikely that the majority of this, and previous incarnations, Tory party would ever support voting reform it’s important to show those Tories who are open to it that we have not shut the door on them. It’s unlikely that PR will happen without labour but it’s also unlikely that PR will happen without some, at least, conservatives.

    “Why? It’s not the public’s main priority”

    It may not be the public’s priority (you only have to looks at the tens who voted in the AV referendum. though there are other reasons for that) but at least the last few votes have seen an odd phenomena where you’re told you can’t complain if you don’t vote then you’re told you can’t complain about the vote, despite many people feeling it’s unfair and doesn’t represent the public, something that doubles for young voters. At least if the voting system allowed for a more representative result (more not fully) then people can start to look at how supporters of each option are giving information and hopefully we can have an informed and representative decision making process. Or, you know, we could just have dead cats, project fear and Trump like nonsense.

  • JamesG 28th Aug ’16 – 11:12pm

    ” I would try to get the party to focus on issues that are actually of interest to the public rather than non-vote-winning trivia and unrealistic green-energy dreams that would ruin the country.”

    ‘Green energy’ is not so much as issue of prosperity – but survival – as yet another climate change scientist explains:

  • Steve Treveth 29th Aug '16 - 12:35pm

    Thanks to you and your colleagues for going to the thought and effort of writing a book and this article.
    Perhaps there are more actors and factors we might consider/discuss?
    To what extent is majority public opinion managed/controlled by the mainstream media?
    How impartial and objective are the MSM?
    “The research produced jointly by the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and the Media Reform Group found that twice as much air time was given to critical rather than supportive voices in relation to Mr Corbyn on main BBC bulletins.”
    Similar bias occurred prior to the AV referendum.
    Bias in the MSM is not inevitable. It can be reduced/avoided by its being recognised, clearly labelled and assertively contested.
    Amidst the social fracturing and polarisation of political life post-Brexit the need for a more plural and inclusive MSM and similar inter-party conversations has rarely been more urgent. (From D.J.Sclosberg: Media Reform Group)

  • Chris Rennard 29th Aug '16 - 2:12pm

    So far I have only read Duncan Brack’s excellent chapter about learning the lessons from the history of inter party co-operation, promoting coalition etc.

    I have always agreed with the phrase about those who don’t learn the lessons of history being doomed to repeat it and there are clear parallels shown in this chapter between the problems of being associated with a Kinnock led coalition in 1992, and being associated with any kind of coalition in 2015.

    Having distinctive and popular messages nationally, which supported constituency campaigns based on promoting the efforts of the candidates and Councillors within those constituencies, proved to be effective for us in the elections in between 1992 and 2015. Effective Co-operation on issues, however, may be pragmatic and in the interests of the party as well as the ‘national interest’.

    Duncan explains in this chapter some of the work of the ‘Cook-Maclennan Committee’ in 96/97 (of which I was Joint Secretary) and which paved the way for much of the 97 – 99 constitutional reform programme that was enacted before Tony Blair lost interest in the subject, leading Paddy to resign as Leader.

    Obvious areas for co-operation now include supporting measures to improve voter registration (which is particularly low amongst young people) and which all democrats should support. In the longer term, all parties opposed to us becoming a one party (Tory) state at Westminster should agree to support the introduction of Proportional Representation as soon as there is a majority vote in a general election for parties supporting it.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Aug '16 - 2:57pm

    JamesG: “Turkeys don’t vote for xmas”. Yes they do. Please consider the Duke of Wellington leading a mass abstention of Tories in the House of Lords to allow the passage of the Reform Bill 1832. He said repeatedly that he would not compromise and he did not, he conceded entirely “the bill and nothing but the bill”.
    Please consider SNP MPs moving a motion of No Confidence in James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979 and voting for the Tory motion of No Confidence, which was carried by one vote, although they knew they were likely to lose their seats and did not, at that time, have a parliament at Holyrood.
    Please consider Labour at Holyrood agreeing to STV for local government in Scotland.
    Please consider PM Margaret Thatcher telling the Tory conference that “the lady is not for turning”. She settled with the National Union of Mineworkers before the 1983 general election as per Energy Secretary Nigel Lawson’s memoirs.

  • Chris Burden 29th Aug '16 - 3:08pm

    @ Stevan Rose
    “60% of the population are not interested in the voting system. Two thirds of those that are interested prefer FPTP. We had that referendum, the public thought they voted on the Lib Dems’ preferred system and now you’re going to tell them wrong question, wrong answer, try again. What do you think the answer will be next time, and the time after that? So don’t saddle us with a priority that has just 14% support, 28% opposition and 58% complete indifference.”
    Extraordinary stats, Stevan. Where are they from? Bears no relation to any of my interactions with hundreds of voters of various kinds, except tribal Labour and Tory ones. Is there a shred of evidence that this is the current state of affairs? It is true that while many people are wearily aware of the failings of FPTP, they are not sufficiently aware of how it mangles the way our politics operates. Ref: the frequent claim that politicians ‘don’t listen to us’. This IS true. They don’t ‘cos we have an electoral system which means they (mostly) don’t have to. The public is not, yet, angry enough to demand change.
    @ Rightsaidfredfan
    ” “So our main priority needs to be PR” Why? It’s not the public’s main priority. Could it be because PR is in the lib dems self interest? OK nothing wrong with that, but you can say the party’s main priority needs to be something the public isn’t interested in because it’s in the party’s self interest and then berate the the other party machines for acting in their own self interest?”
    *sigh* Whether or not ‘PR is in the lib dem self interest’ is neither here nor there, IF it is overwhelmingly in the nation’s interest which I contend it is.
    ‘… something the public isn’t interested in …’ As above, not my experience.

  • Stevan Rose 29th Aug '16 - 3:26pm

    “Extraordinary stats, Stevan. Where are they from? ”

    You requoted the source… they’re votes. We had that referendum, the public thought they voted on the Lib Dems’ preferred system and now you’re going to tell them wrong question, wrong answer, try again. You’re clearly not having representative interactions.

    “it is overwhelmingly in the nation’s interest which I contend it is.”

    Really? Seriously? A Conservative-UKIP-DUP coalition, the only PR combo possibility on 2015 votes, is overwhelmingly in the nation’s interest is it? I can’t really express just how much I strongly disagree with that concept.

  • R, Underhill
    Ok let me amend it: Turkeys don’t generally vote for xmas. We have some bargaining chips then I presume that will make anyone want to do things our way?

    J. Roffey
    Regardless of any climate hysterics you might dig up we are heading for an energy disaster in the UK that is far more immediate and certain than any climate crisis in the distant future. All our nuclear plant but one are due to be closed by 2023. By the numbers (check out David McKays book or anything he said) wind and solar cannot possibly fill the gap even if we could afford the ridiculous expense. It’s too late for new nuclear. So that leaves gas, with or without CCS, and a meagre amount of energy efficiency. These are the things that matter to the voters. If you go around blathering about certain doom to voters based on extrapolating a 0.6K rise last century to 6K next century then tell them they need to cough up £1000+ more for green energy to avoid it, and that they’d need to largely do without energy for a 15 year interim period while we build this bunch of white elephants, then they won’t just slam the door in your face they may also call the men in white coats.

    Gawdelpus, Is this a reality-distortion zone?

  • Labour consist of 3 seperate parties

    1) The hard left (Stretching from Burnham all the way to Bob Crow types).
    2) Red UKIP (Field / Hoey…)
    3) The global liberals who we can actually work with.

    Until 3) gets in charge of Labour, ditches left wing economics and tells the trade unions where to go, there is no point in us dealing with Labour. Until Labour have a leader who will rightly condemn the striking rail staff and junior doctors for their sickening behaviour, Labour is a threat to our country.

  • John R.
    Sincerely, nobody would be happier than me if alternative energies could make up the difference regardless of the science and I am even currently involved in this effort (nuclear fusion) but this is currently just a self-sustaining belief system that is belied by simple arithmetic and facts. I have already said it’s fine for society to decide to limit emissions. My concern is that we do far more harm than good insodoing. One day, I trust, we will have renewable energies but it won’t be anywhere near in time to avoid a major energy shortage in the UK. And I can assure you that will do us all serious damage. There will likely be a new dash for gas and I trust it is quick enough.

    And no, this is not the NASA that sent men to the moon it is NASA Giss – an extremely alarmist offshoot. That much-hyped increase in temperature in 2016 has now come rapidly back down to ‘normal’ in just a few months, thereby proving it was likely 100% due to a powerful el nino even as in 1998 – ie Giss are already wrong. If, like then, there is a following la nina (as happens with the ENSO) there will be a cooling period followed by a continuation of the model-defying temperature ‘hiatus’ which ex NASA Giss boss Hansen and current head Schmidt as well as the vast majority of climate scientists around the world have been spending years trying to explain away. If you knew about the basis of the attributions you’d know that the entire case for warming is built on the lack of an alternative explanation for the sudden warming. ie it is a ‘best guess’. The idea that the sea buried the heat was actually poo-pooed by both Hansen & Schmidt because ‘if it goes in the se then it is not coming back’. Notwithstanding that it would be unphysical, defying both radiation physics and the 2nd law it would, if true, just be another way to describe natural variation. Other oft-repeated concerns; eg that weather becomes more extreme has no basis in theory or data – as even detailed in the IPCC report.

    To quote Bertrand Russel, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts”. This was never more evident than the hubris of ‘expert’ world economists being punctured with the financial crisis.

  • Tony Dawson 30th Aug '16 - 4:11pm

    @Stimpson

    “Labour consist of 3 separate parties

    (3)The global liberals who we can actually work with.

    Until 3) gets in charge of Labour, ditches left wing economics and tells the trade unions where to go, there is no point in us dealing with Labour”

    Negotiations have to be held with people with whom one does NOT agree if one is to get anywhere. Waiting for Labour to be run by people we like before negotiating with them will likely leave you waiting for an eternity. We negotiated a Coalition agreement with some very nasty Tories as well as some more pleasant ones.

  • John R
    This is the trouble with apocalyptic types; they never want to discuss the effects of ‘green’ energy policy. Yet it’s the policy that is vital and immediate, not the science! Read something of Deiter Helms work on the policy or David McKays work on the current state of Renewables.

    As for Oreskes conspiracy theories about fossil fuel companies, words fail me: Shell and BP have spent more on renewables research and manufacture than anyone else outside the US government. Exxon funds US universities to the tune of millions for renewables research – in fact much more than they can spend. And most oil companies are in fact state owned; with roughly 5% of oil reserves being in private hands.
    http://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/121715/worlds-biggest-state-owned-oil-companies.asp
    Something that seemed to escape Oreskes limited attention span. Hence blame governments for any conspiracies!

    As for your polite request to troll me, no thanks!

  • I’ve been a LibDem member for over 10 years but reading some of the comments above, especially those which abandon principle for tactical advantage, make me wonder why I still pay my sub. Especially after 5 years of a coalition during which I had to bite my tongue continually and during which I watched our support ebb away. Stimpson, as a LibDem and active trades unionist I couldn’t disagree with you more; for me a progressive coalition is vital if we are to challenge the Tories in any meaningful way. And PR is the price we pay for any future engagement. It’s utter nonsense to say a referendum is needed to change the voting system. Did we have one on universal suffrage or the Great Reform Act?

  • @ John Stone. Agreed.

  • Yellow Submarine 5th Sep '16 - 6:52am

    Changing the Electoral system without a Referendum is one thing. Changing the Electoral system without a further referendum after losing a referendum on changing the Electoral system is quite another.

  • Neil Sandison 6th Sep '16 - 12:50pm

    Always thought we went about gaining PR the wrong way .The public needs to see PR in practice and not just for our capitals and mayors but at a tier of government at a local level .Introduce PR in local government elections first and let the public get used to it .We may find there is wider cross party support and it would help break up the one party state councils who face no constructive opposition and where it is almost impossible to break into local government because of the stranglehold on these councils by the party machines .When the public can see councillors can co-operate and deliver local services under PR they will have less fear and may support it at Westminster level.

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