Tag Archives: duncan brack

Pack’s podcast shows striking parallels between Kennedy’s leadership and now

In the 36 years the Liberal Democrats have existed as a political party, we have had eight leaders, and Mark Pack’s latest Never Mind the Bar Charts podcast offers an evaluation of one of those eight, Charles Kennedy (1999-2006). The podcast, featuring Mark chatting with the Liberal historian Duncan Brack, has just come out, and the timing is interesting.

Most of the information in it has long been in the public domain, and anyone who has read Greg Hurst’s biography of Kennedy – or, for that matter, mine of Nick Clegg – will find it a refresher rather than a revelation. What was a revelation, however, was just how similar the party’s situation is now compared with the 2001-05 parliament when Kennedy was at his peak.

There are of course some differences, notably that Kennedy’s 52 Lib Dem MPs elected in 2001 were in opposition to Labour, while the 11 Lib Dems elected in 2019 have been opposing the Conservatives. But there are some striking similarities, with some equally striking conclusions to be drawn.

Brack is a firm adherent to the conclusion Hurst drew: that alcoholism was not the cause of Kennedy’s downfall, rather he had no agenda for his leadership, and as he became more aware of this, his drinking got worse. Kennedy was a great communicator who had cut-through with the public because of his appearances on popular TV shows, but he had no clear idea of what he wanted to do with the party leadership, and never seemed to give any policy direction.

Pack takes this as read, and describes Kennedy’s approach to the 2005 general election as “muddled”. Numerically, it was the party’s most successful election, peaking at 62 MPs (up to 63 following a by-election in early 2006), but Pack says, “under those very favourable circumstances (notably the principled Lib Dem stance on the Iraq war), perhaps that was more of a missed opportunity.”

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Lessons from 97 Lib Dem/Labour co-operation – Compass/SLF podcast

Lib Dems and Labour swapping lists of target seats, co-operating on policy and not getting in each other’s way helped oust the Tories in 1997. What lessons can we learn from that today?

This week, I went along to the recording of Compass’s “It’s Bloody Complicated” podcast. Our own Duncan Brack, Compass’s Neal Lawson who was one of the fixers of the deals between Blair and Ashdown and YouGov’s Peter Kellner  who looked back to 1997 and the co-operation between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown.  The event was chaired by Compass’s Frances Foley

Duncan explained how, after the disappointment of the 1992 election, there were tentative attempts  to float idea of co-operation between non Conservative parties but Labour under John Smith were not interested.

When Blair became leader, there was significant co-operation including swapping information on target seats. Later on, Neal Lawson told of a meeting in a pub in Victoria where bits of paper were swapped.

A significant part of this was that information was fed  to the Mirror during the campaign. Their subsequent recommendations on tactical voting meant that we won 20 out of our 22 targets.

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Last year I left the Liberal Democrats. Here’s how a new leader could win me back

It’s never easy leaving home. Prior to last year I had been a Lib Dem my entire adult life, but I made the decision to leave the party following changes I had seen build up over a long time. We used to advocate radical ideas, but we had become too comfortable with campaigning to uphold the status quo.

However, my vote is still winnable for the Lib Dems. And frankly, left-leaning young people like myself are going to need to vote for the party again if it is ever going to build an electorally viable voting base. The experiment over the past decade of trying to attract liberal, ‘small c’ Conservatives has proven to be an unmitigated disaster, as well as having blunted the party’s radical edge.

So, what kind of policies and ideas could a new leader bring in to broaden the party’s appeal? For my money, there are three key targets which need to be hit in order to make the party an electorally desirable entity across the centre-left. I know these may make for uncomfortable reading for some in the party – but when your comfort zone is three disastrous elections back-to-back, a little discomfort can go a long way.

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All in a day’s Lib Dem conference: hustings, fringes, OMOV and sex work

It’s felt like a slow start to conference – I’m habituated to the Friday night rally and meaty policy debates starting at bleary o’clock on Saturday morning. But with the rally moved to Saturday night, conference itself wasn’t opened until this afternoon.

20141004_100527_resizedHowever, that meant there was time this morning for the first official hustings of the Party Presidential contest, with Sal Brinton, Daisy Cooper, Linda Jack and Liz Lynne all present. In fact, there was possibly too much time – 90 minutes in a too-efficiently air-conditioned room at times dragged a little. No fault of the candidates themselves – they were all fluent and thoughtful – but they also all agreed on pretty much everything of substance. All pledged to be the independent voice of the membership and to speak truth unto leadership power.

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Chris Nicholson resigns as CentreForum chief executive, appointed Ed Davey’s new special advisor

When Chris Huhne resigned as energy and climate change secretary last month, he didn’t just create a vacancy in the cabinet — his departure also triggered some musical chairs elsewhere.

The same day Ed Davey was appointed Chris Huhne’s sucessor, Duncan Brack and Joel Kenrick departed as Chris’s special advisors. You can read Duncan’s take on his time in the job here, Liblink: Duncan Brack on how to get green policies implemented in Government.

These two vacancies have now been filled by Katie …

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Liblink: Duncan Brack on how to get green policies implemented in Government

Until recently, Duncan Brack was Chris Huhne’s Special Adviser in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. He has written for the Green Alliance blog about the challenges of putting green policies into practice. As well as insight into the practical realities of Government, he has some interesting points to make about the importance of policy making within political parties and how it might need to change in the future:

The coalition agreement hammered out by Liberal Democrat and Conservative negotiators over five days of talks in May 2010 (with details added over the following two weeks) became, at least in

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Ashdown, Glover and Williams on the party’s history

The latest edition of the Journal of Liberal History caries this account from me of the conference meeting which launched the new history of the party, Peace, Reform and Liberation. You can watch the meeting in full here.

It would be a brave person who walked up to Paddy Ashdown or Shirley Williams and told them to their face that they are history, or even old, but they are two of the most charismatic, interesting and thoughtful members of the living history class – people who have been around in politics long enough to be able to talk at first hand about not only the origins of the Liberal Democrats but prior events too. So to have both on the bill at the Liberal Democrat History Group’s Autumn 2011 conference fringe meeting not surprisingly resulted in a spacious room being packed, leaving people standing at the sides, the back and in the doorways. However, the star of the show in many ways was the less well-known third speaker, then of The Guardian and now of Downing Street, Julian Glover.

All three were introduced to the meeting by the Group’s chair, and one of the lead authors of the book being launched, Peace, Reform and Liberation, Duncan Brack. He reassured the audience that the meeting was maintaining historical party traditions, for Paddy Ashdown was going to have to leave early … and Shirley Williams was late! He also quoted Paddy Ashdown’s words on the importance of political history to a party, taken from his autobiography, A Fortunate Life, in which Ashdown recounted some of the problems of the 1989 SDP–Liberal merger. He wrote that, ‘Being a relative outsider compared to the older MPs I had, in my rush to create the new party, failed to understand that a political party is about more than plans, priorities, policies and a chromium-plated organisation. It also has a heart and a history and a soul.’

The same applies to a newspaper, too, and in kicking off with the first main speech Julian Glover took a look at one part of his newspaper’s history and soul – its on/off, love/hate relationship with the Liberal Party and its successors. Glover cited The Guardian’s May 2010 editorial urging people to vote Liberal Democrat. But, as Glover added, ‘As soon as we did it, we changed our minds.’ That prevarication is nothing new and, he implied, not necessarily much of a problem for the party given that polling showed that Labour support amongst Guardian readers went up after that 2010 editorial.

The paper’s political advice has varied much over the years. Julian Glover even located a 1950s Guardian editorial which urged people to vote out Clement Atlee and vote in the Conservative Party. But much of the time the paper had been a Labour-supporting outlet which urged best wishes on the Liberals and their successors, often advising the party to be just a little different in a benevolent / condescending (delete to taste) way.

Much of the editorialising about Britain’s third party has been, as Glover highlighted, variants on a common theme: to bemoan that the third party is not fully backing whatever cause is of most concern to the paper at the time. The other theme, he added, is to write off the third party as doomed. On occasion, The Guardian has combined both themes in one leader, including in a 1987 leader that said, ‘These are dire days for the Alliance. They have some of the most thoughtful and radical politicians around.’ Glover added, ‘As a paper we certainly seem to enjoy nothing more than praising the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats while going on to explain why we can’t actually support it.’ The party’s 1992 general election manifesto received praise from the paper: ‘it far outdistances its competitors with a fizz of ideas and an absence of fudge’, but even that was not enough for the paper to call for Paddy to become prime minister. ‘So there you have it, 150 years from The Guardian and the Manchester Guardian calling on the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats to be brave, radical; praising the party’s policies and then writing it off as irrelevant’, concluded Julian Glover.

He was followed by Paddy Ashdown, who in typical fashion strode towards the audience before starting to quiz everyone in the room, testing people’s knowledge with quotes from history. After an easy duo with ‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’ and ‘I intend to march my troops towards the sound of gunfire’, with the audience easily and correctly guessing (or in many cases, remembering) David Steel and Jo Grimond, Ashdown posed a tougher one with, ‘Ideas are not responsible for the people who believe in them’. The answer? Paddy himself (on being particularly exasperated by Alex Carlisle). Probably. He admitted he may have borrowed it from someone else and forgotten. (A search through Hansard finds him first using the phrase in Parliament 1986, in a different context and even then not sure if he had penned it himself).

He went on to entertain and enlighten the audience with a sequence of many other quotes from past Liberals, including from Lord Acton: ‘A state which is incompetent to satisfy different races, condemns itself. A state which labours to neutralise, to absorb, to expel them destroys its own vitality. A state which does not include them is destitute of the chief basis of self-government.’ Acton got several mentions, with Ashdown also picking out what he described as one of his favourite quotes: ‘It is easier to find people fit to govern themselves than it is to find people fit to govern’. The quote should be emblazoned across the party’s political manuals, he said, making the implicit point that many of the lessons past liberal drew from their contemporary experience are still highly relevant today.

As he said, ‘our history is our present’ – just after quoting Gladstone on Afghanistan. Different centuries, different wars but the same humane, liberal creed: ‘That philosophy of liberalism that combines a solution to the questions of liberty and freedom – and sometimes, as John Stuart Mill said, they oppose each other, the freedom to and the freedom from – you have to determine where that balance lies for your time, for your nation and for your generation. It does not lie always in the same place. You have to determine that. That is why liberalism is a living creed.’ He finished saying, ‘The thing that we have in our party title – liberal – goes back thousands of years. You should be proud of that. It should give us strength, and it should make us campaign even harder … Henry Gibson once said, ‘You do not go out to battle for freedom and truth wearing your best trousers.’ Sometimes I think our party wears its best trousers too much. This is our heritage and it is also our message today – and we should be proud of it’.

It would take a speaker of rare skill to match Ashdown’s speech, but Shirley Williams is one of the select band who could – and did, even though she opened joking that she wished she had after all agreed to speak before rather than after him. She contrasted Ashdown’s drawing of lessons from the more distant past with her own talk – looking at the lessons from more recent political history, in particular the way the limited teaching of history in the US helps shapes its leaders’ worldview – if you only teach American history, you end up with people who do not think much beyond the boundaries of America. This had ‘devastating consequences’, Shirley Williams argued, when the lessons of the Vietnam War and the state the country was left in were not applied to Iraq.

She then turned to the way the Liberal Party declined so sharply in the early twentieth century, becoming reduced to near irrelevance. ‘What kept it going were the deep roots it had put down in some parts of the country – the Pennines, parts of the West Country and of course the Celtic Welsh and Scottish Liberals,’ Shirley Williams explained. Her own roots, of course, are in the social democracy rather than liberalism – a distinction she described as being based on being less distrustful of the powers of the state, but also a distinction that has faded as the merged Liberal Democrats have evolved.

Returning to America and the uses of history, Williams said that lessons from the 1930s are still very relevant. One of her conclusions from them is the need to consider a job creation program, aimed particularly at young people, funded by a dedicated temporary tax. More optimistically, she thinks politicians have learnt from the 1930s that they should not ‘simply take the dictation of the market without any question as to whether it is right or whether it isn’t.’ Then only the American President FDR amongst western leaders bucked that consensus of treating the recession as an act of inevitability, introducing instead a liberal and democratic government to fight that which other people viewed as inevitable.

The USA is also responsible for her views on coalition. Williams revealed that initially she would have preferred a minority Conservative government, with a confidence and supply arrangement rather than a formal coalition. However, she has since changed her mind, drawing on what she has seen in the USA and the dangers it shows of ‘total political polarisation’ stopping the government from taking necessary action in an economic crisis. As a result, she now thinks forming a coalition ‘was necessary and it was right … One had to make the political system work, even if it was painful and difficult to do so.’

Finally, looking back a century to Britain’s own history, Shirley Wiliams said there were three failures of the Liberal Party in 1911: on gender, inequality and Ireland. ‘It was appalling that Asquith consistently refused to consider suffrage for women,’ she said, before stressing that in her view the party had made far too little progress in improving the diversity amongst its MPs – and has a diversity problem illustrated by the near all-white audience for the fringe meeting. The success of ‘zipping’ in introducing gender balance amongst the party’s MEP’s points the way, she said, towards the need for action in other areas.

The second failure was shown by the so-called workers’ rebellion, fuelled by a dramatic drop in real wages. As with gender, this source of 1911 failure is a challenge for the modern party too, with real wages once again dropping. But on this issue Williams said the party was getting right, with its emphasis on a fairer tax system, keeping the 50 per cent tax rate and increasing the basic rate income tax allowance to £10,000. When she was first elected in 1964, the ratio between the pay of the country’s leading chief executives and the average wage of people who worked in manufacturing was about 8:1 she said; now it has risen to over 80:1. ‘That’s not just inequality: it is appalling obscenity.’

On Ireland, Williams reminded the audience that Ireland was long a passion of William Gladstone. The tragedy of his inability to secure home rule for Ireland was a heavy burden on Britain and Ireland’s subsequent histories. But, much less well known is that when in office Gladstone offered the Zulus a military alliance against the Boers. When he fell as prime minister the proposal fell apart, with huge costs to South Africa, too. On this point, Williams did not explicitly say what the lessons for modern Liberal Democrats are, the implication was left hanging in the air that it meant – at least some of the time – being willing to militarily support the oppressed. What she did say in conclusion was that history matters, for ‘we must learn the lessons, even the painful ones, and not make the same mistakes again’.

In answers to questions from the audience, Ashdown agreed that Gladstone’s love of thrift and voluntarism is still very relevant – environmentalism is a form of thrift and community politics is based on voluntarism. But community politics is greater than voluntarism, for community politics must also be about shifting power.

Williams agreed, saying the country was increasingly realising how unreal the New Labour economic boom had been, based on unsustainable debt producing a mirage which both the public and the government believed in. For her thrift has a moral and psychological purpose, making us more happy, she thinks, given the costs of the anxiety that comes from seeking ever-more riches rather than enjoying what you have.

On voluntarism, Williams again agreed with Ashdown, pointing to the amazing care that hospices provide, thanks to a system based on voluntarism. Repeating her high profile opposition to some aspects of the government’s health reforms, she nonetheless saw a key role for such voluntarism.

The question and answer session was rather taken over by contemporary political questions, including very strong comments about the importance of the party improving the diversity of its parliamentary party in the Commons from both Williams and Ashdown. The latter admitted to changing his mind on the topic and is now willing to support more radical temporary measures if necessary than he was when leader of the party.

Ashdown also retold a story of a meeting between Henry Kissinger and Mao Zedong. Seeking to kindle a shared interest in history to smooth the business, Kissinger asked Mao what he thought would have happened if it had been Khrushchev and not John F. Kennedy who had been assassinated. Mao pondered before saying that he doubted that nice, rich Greek ship owner would have married Mrs Khrushchev.

Closing the meeting, Duncan Brack reminded people of the comment made by the distinguished historian and Liberal Democrat peer, the late Conrad Russell, that the party via its predecessors was probably the oldest political party in the world. This 350 years of history is captured in the new history of the party – to remember, to celebrate and to learn.

You can buy Peace, Reform and Liberation from Amazon here or reviews from William Wallace and Iain Sharpe.

* Declaration of interest – I’m one of the chapter authors.

Watch the event in full

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Was there a Clegg coup? Review of The Clegg Coup – Britain’s First Coalition Government Since Lloyd George by Jasper Gerard

Many book titles reveal little about what their book contains, either providing but a banal name for its contents or a clever, clever name which obscures rather than reveals. However, The Clegg Coup – Britain’s First Coalition Government Since Lloyd George by Jasper Gerard has a title which is revealing in two aspects. First, the way general accuracy in the book is marred by detailed slips – for whilst the general point of the title is true, with the May 2010 coalition being the UK’s first peacetime coalition in Westminster since before 1939, the title does not use the …

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Book review: Peace, Reform and Liberation – “the first port of call for anyone wishing to learn more about Liberal and Liberal Democrat history”

There has long been a need for a single volume history of the Liberal and Liberal Democrat parties covering the entire period from its roots in the constitutional struggles of the seventeenth century to the present day.

While Liberal history has received plenty of attention from historians, previous studies of the party have been limited to a specific eras or themes. In many ways of course the party has several histories. This includes the origins of the Liberal tradition in the Whigs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the heyday of Liberal government in the middle of the nineteenth century, the party’s decline and near extinction between the 1920s and 1950s, its recovery in the second half of the twentieth century, and now the challenges of governing in coalition with the party’s historic enemies, the Conservatives.

So it is welcome that the Liberal Democrat History Group has sought to fill a gap with Peace, Reform and Liberation.

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The political thought of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats since 1945: book review

Kevin Hickson’s volume, The political thought of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats since 1945, may be a short volume from an academic publisher with an academic book price tag to boot (look out for cheaper second-hand copies) but its contributors include many political practitioners. With Vince Cable, Steve Webb, David Howarth , Richard Grayson and Duncan Brack amongst them, this book has a very strong representation of people at the coalface of policy making rather than simply those who know of it only in theory.

As Hickson points out in the book’s introduction, the policies of the Liberal Democrats – even more so than other aspects of the history of the party and its predecessors since 1945 – have had very little coverage in books, an omission which this volume sets out to remedy and which political fortunes in the year after the book’s publication has made all the more useful a task to tackle.

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Opinion: Interpreting the internal election results

The bare bones of the internal party election results were set out here on Saturday showing who had been elected by conference reps to the various committees.

The detailed results for the Federal Executive and the Federal Policy Committee, hosted by Colin Rosenstiel, show some revealing trends when compared with previous years’ election results.

This year, in the Federal Executive elections, Evan Harris came top on first preference by a long stretch with 263 votes. Following him was David Rendel (107) and Ramesh Dewan (77) with others on 55. Evan is clearly identified with the progressive, Social Liberal wing …

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Duncan Brack stands down as chair of Federal Conference Committee

Following his appointment as a special advisor to Chris Huhne, Duncan Brack has stood down as chair of the party’s Federal Conference Committee (FCC). A key figure in the organisation of party conferences for many years, first as the party’s Director of Policy and then on the FCC, Duncan was Chair for seven years.

This extends a neat chronological sequence of Federal Conference Committee chairs serving for four, five, six and now seven years.

Duncan will be continuing as a member of the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) which I think will provide a welcome extra link between the party’s policy processes and …

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Further details of special conference published

As reported earlier today by Helen, the party is holding a special conference in Birmingham on Sunday.

More details are now available. First, here’s the explanation from Duncan Brack (Chair of the Federal Conference Committee) about why it is being held:

The Federal Executive has called this special conference to enable the party to debate the coalition agreement reached between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party, and approved by the Federal Executive and the Parliamentary Party, on 11 May…

The motion endorsing the agreement – though not the agreement itself – is open to amendment … The amendments selected for
debate by

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Leadership v. Activists – a personal reflection on Bournemouth ’09 #ldconf

I’m not, by any means, a party conference veteran – Bournemouth ’09 was in fact only my fourth. But it has been distinctive for one thing in particular: it’s been the first year when the media coverage of conference has genuinely reflected what folk (at least those I’ve met) have been talking about at conference.

In previous years, we have been continually told that Lib Dem delegates were chattering about the fate of our leaders – when actually we were quite contentedly chewing the fat of meaty policy issues. This year, there has, as ever at a Lib Dem conference, been plenty of meaty policy debate, but there’s also been more than a little discussion, and not a little grumbling, about the style of the party leadership, both Nick and Vince. And it seems to me – as I blogged here yesterday – that these grumblings are fair.

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Sweeping changes to conference motions rules come into force

Here’s the email which has gone out to party members today:

Seasoned conference-goers might have been expecting the Preliminary Agenda for the autumn conference in Bournemouth to have arrived by now. Well, it hasn’t – because conference last year agreed a set of sweeping changes to the timetable for submitting motions for debate. They’re designed to make it easier for local parties and conference reps to submit motions and amendments, and to increase your chance of having a say in party policy.

The old series of three deadlines for submitting motions has been replaced by two, and we’ve scrapped the Preliminary Agenda.

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Reinventing the State reprinted

I’m very pleased to say that Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism for the 21st Century has been reprinted with the first print run having sold out. The editors (myself, Duncan Brack and David Howarth) have taken the opportunity to relate the book to recent events by including a new foreword which explains why we think the ideas contained in the book are more relevant than ever. Among other points, we have said:

The collapse of the banking system worldwide has revealed the ultimate dependence of what had previously appeared to be free-standing market relationships on straightforwardly state institutions, such

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