Two cheers for Liberalism: Thoughts from Torbay

What will 2018 bring for my party? That’s a question every local party Chair has probably asked themselves already, as we paused to reflect on the turbulence and mayhem (no pun intended) of 2017.  Local elections will be on many party officers’ minds, as it is in my neck of the woods, where work on finalising our pool of candidates for 2019 is already underway.  The prospect of another General Election- seen by the bookies as more likely in 2019 than 2018- will never be far away.  And Brexit will muddle on while the contradictions of the process become ever plainer to see.

In my Christmas stocking was Nick Clegg’s “How to Stop Brexit”- a gift from someone who truly knows me well.  No sooner had I read it then a new hero emerged to back the Lib Dem call for a referendum on the Brexit deal – in the unlikely form of Nigel Farage.

If ever you wanted proof that the wheels are wobbling on the Brexit bandwagon, look no further.

Farage, (somehow overlooked in the New Year’s Honours…) has spotted something that most Brexiteers have yet to grasp: the need to prepare for Parliament rejecting the government’s Brexit plans on the deal.  He sees, quite rightly, that there is every prospect of Parliament taking back control and refusing a deal that would leave Britain bound by rules it could no longer influence, with reduced trade and uncertain co-operation on everything from nuclear safety to counter-terrorism.

And we know his simple solution- no deal and the disaster of rupturing access to our biggest export market overnight.

That’s why 2018 has to be the year we fight Brexit.  As David Davis said “A democracy that cannot change its mind ceases to be a democracy”.  Plenty of folk thought that taking back control of our fishing grounds, ending payments to Brussels and having an extra £350m a week sounded like a good deal.  As these turn out to be delusions, we should be brave enough to say let’s let the nation think again.  

Especially when our opponents are getting ready for just that eventuality.

Last time, Leavers outshouted Remainers on social media, and the Daily Mail ran anti-immigrant lead stories on 17 out of the last 23 days before the referendum.  Let’s make sure that if there is another chance, we are ready to take it.

In the South West we have the dilemma of fighting Brexit in areas that backed Leave by some of the biggest margins in the country.  People who do not know our region may wonder why.  It’s tempting to say it was all about a fear of immigration- and the Daily Mail surely played its part in that- and underplay some other factors.

But let me make a few observations.  In Torbay, we had one of the biggest Brexit supporting votes in the country, which no doubt led to an increased Tory vote in 2017.  Despite the risk of the dementia tax, which threatened older homeowners, Tory-inclined voters (often aged 60 plus) rallied to the cause of backing May’s hard Brexit.   These same voters are not likely to accept the loss of control that the government’s negotiations are so far delivering.  With just over a year left of the Article 50 process, May’s government is still negotiating amongst itself as much as with the EU.  But already some things look fairly clear.

First, there will be compromises from the British side, and plenty of them.  Already we have rolled over on payments to EU budgets, the continued role of the European Court of Justice and the basic format of the talks themselves.  Far from having our cake and eating it, we are having each slice served to us at a time and manner of the EU’s choosing.  And there is no chance they we are getting as much as we had before as a full EU member.

Some of our Brexit backing voters here will scream blue murder and demand we crash out of talks.  But I suspect that they will be a minority.  Most will despair of the process, blame May’s government for not delivering on its promises and become either disenchanted or turn into protest voters.  So I see some grounds for a UKIP resurgence- as does Mr Farage, no doubt.  But it is just as likely that that protest vote could turn into a boost for Labour or the Lib Dems, however illogical that may sound.  Why would a Leave voter vote Lib Dem?

The answer, I think, is that voting Leave was a secondary issue for many people.  Registering anger at endless austerity, protesting against an establishment that seemed not to care, and having a free shot at Cameron’s public schoolboy Toryism, were just as important.

Those issues are still mostly in play, and should be the cornerstones of a Lib Dem revival.  Uppermost in my mind is the need to create a new narrative that lays to rest the awkward apologism for what we did in coalition between 2010 and 2015.  Coming across as a party of the status quo in the current climate is fatal.  We have to stand for radical change, and be recognised as a different party to the one that propped up Cameron and Osborne.  Redistribution should be at the heart of that change- wealth inequality and inter-generational inequalities are frankly shocking and largely the result of market failures and inefficient taxation. To save free market capitalism, we need to restore a basic sense of social equity- something the Tories will never achieve.  It is this, rather than a narrow sectional politics of identity and good causes, that will restore liberalism’s fortunes.  And, if we are its champions, the Liberal Democrats themselves.

* Lee Howgate is a Lib Dem activist who lives in South Devon. He is a senior leader at a large comprehensive school in Cornwall, and formerly worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with experience in Russia and the EU. You can follow him on tumblr where he posts as leetheliberal

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  • William Fowler 17th Jan '18 - 2:07pm

    Interesting that both the left-ish parties are run by OAPs and therefore open to being kneecapped by a relatively youthful Conservative leader when May steps aside, don’t underestimate the Tories ability to reinvent themselves in short order. Nick Clegg had his moment of near glory but did not quite get there and was taken down by the tuition scandal etc. Liberals need to be both pro free-market, minimal non-intrusive govn and convince people that they will simultaneously take down large companies running cartels with punitive taxation, the Conservatives weakest point that they are seen as being to lax on the scams of large co’s (whereas they had previously given the impression of freeing up the individual to live their lives as long as they were willing to work hard).

  • Sue Sutherland 17th Jan '18 - 2:21pm

    I totally agree with the final paragraph. I hope the Spring conference can express this

  • @ William Fowler Perhaps you could tell us what you imply is wrong with parties being led by what you term as OAP’s, and then maybe give us your age so we can assess what weight to give to your opinions.

  • Peter Watson 17th Jan '18 - 3:11pm

    @David Raw “Perhaps you could tell us what you imply is wrong with parties being led by what you term as OAP’s”
    Apparently they they don’t have a stake in the future so their views don’t count for much. Well, when they vote for Brexit, anyway. 😉

  • John Marriott 17th Jan '18 - 4:24pm

    How old was Churchill when he became PM in 1940? How old was Gladstone when he formed his last administration? ‘Young’ Dave and Nick were hardly a massive success. And what about ‘young’ William or Ed, for that matter. We have been obsessed with youth for far too long.

  • Churchill was 65 in May, 1940 (76 when he formed his last administration). Gladstone was 82 in July 1892.

    Perhaps young Master Fowler should reflect on the old phrase about ‘respecting one’s elders and betters’ when postulating premature ageism..

  • John Marriott 17th Jan '18 - 5:25pm

    It reminds me of the story of the old bull and the young bull, who were standing at the top of a steep meadow, looking at a herd of cows in the valley below. “Let’s run down the hill and make love to one of those lovely cows”, suggests the young bull. The old bull replies; “Let’s walk down the hill and make love to them all!”

  • The advantage of being old William is you get to see ideas run their course; we have seen your plan for ” Liberals need to be both pro free-market, minimal non-intrusive govn”, it failed badly and is one of the reasons we are in the straits we are in.

    People want a government that cares and looks after them when times are tough, if Lib Dems don’t aim to do that what use are we and what use is the party. I know Libertarians have a different philosophy red in tooth and claw, but strangely enough that philosophy seldom survives misfortune.

  • John Marriott 17th Jan '18 - 9:01pm

    Frankie, you are so right. I was young and idealistic once. I thought I had all the answers. At 74 I never cease to be amazed at how some people’s optimism never wavers and how those who have revpcently entered the fray seem to be making the same mistakes that we made. That period in government put paid to the Lib Dems’ political party. They are just like the others now.

    The way forward? A Written Constitution, a Bill of Rights, Devolution in the form of Regional Government, a Federal Parliament and a Senate on the lines of Germany’s Länder, Bundestag and Bundestag and pride in being a once powerful but now minor country, which still punches significantly above its weight.

  • John Marriott 17th Jan '18 - 9:04pm

    Sorry about the typos. The one that does need clarification is contained in the sentence ‘put paid to the Lib Dems’ political PURITY’.

  • We can certainly change our Policies, we can make clear that we are demanding a high price for our co-operation in any future administration. What we cant do is claim we are a different Party to the one that existed 3 Years ago, no-one would believe us & we would look a bit feeble.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Jan '18 - 12:16am

    paul barker 17th Jan ’18 – 10:43pm

    “What we cant do is claim we are a different Party to the one that existed 3 Years ago, no-one would believe us & we would look a bit feeble.”

    I don’t know; it seems to be working for Labour…

  • Paul Barker, The problem isn’t that we can’t claim to be a different party now. It is that our new leader pretended in 2010 we were the same party as the one he took over from Charlie Kennedy in 2008. We ceased to be relevant to 90% of the population in that time. To get that back, we have to change.

  • “we would look a bit feeble.” Not much change there then.

  • nvelope2003 18th Jan '18 - 9:46am

    Frankie: Surely it is Liberalism which seldom survives misfortune. The party of peace retrenchment and reform was destroyed by the First World War, Irish Home Rule and the end of Free Trade in 1931. It has never recovered because it cannot find a cause which is significantly different from that advocated by the Labour Party which has a solid core of supporters, formerly working class but now mostly relatively well paid public sector professionals who want to hang on to their jobs. Support for Irish Home rule actually lost support, rather like support for remaining in the EU seems to have done. British people do seem to like living in an independent state, however much we may think they are misguided.

  • nvelop2003 “now mostly relatively well paid public sector professionals who want to hang on to their jobs.”

    What a depressing and dismissively cynical view of the vast majority of public service employees.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Jan '18 - 3:30pm

    We are “a different Party to the one that existed 3 Years ago” because we have had a large influx of new, pro-European members. Election candidates should be aware.
    Labour’s influx of new members have changed the balance on Labour’s National Executive Committee (Momentum three – others nil).

  • nvelope2003 18th Jan '18 - 3:34pm

    David Raw: How do you know what the vast majority of public sector employees think ? I wish I could have your rosy view of life but my experience of them does not enable me to do so. Reputable and hard working people harried while crooks get away with whatever they like because as I heard someone from the public sector say to the boss – you will come to court and pay the fine whilst they would not – this for a trivial error in the paperwork which was totally unintended.

  • nvelope2003 18th Jan '18 - 3:37pm

    The magistrate imposed no penalty and the prosecutor apologised but they did not offer to pay the lawyer’s bill, though he did not charge much as even he could see how absurd it all was.

  • envelop2003 ” David Raw: How do you know what the vast majority of public sector employees think ?”….. And how do you know they don’t ?

    Between us, my wife and I have amassed over seventy years in the public service at senior level in Social Work and Education, both as a Director, and later as an elected Cabinet Member. With the occasional exception, that is what we have experienced

    And, aart from what a bloke in a pub told you, what evidence do you have to justify your depressing and dismissively cynical view ? What has in fact eroded it is the austerity death by a thousand cuts policies of the last seven austerity years.

    PS I most certainly don’t have a rosy view of life when I survey what has been done to the public services and the people they serve since 2010 by people who are now living the a benighted good life as Directors of an Insurance Company and a Chinese Investment Bank..

  • nvelope2003 18th Jan '18 - 8:09pm

    Mr Raw; I do not listen to people in pubs. What I have described comes from my own experience. I also worked in the public sector for about a third of my working life and I agree most of the people were decent people trying to do a good job but the ethos was all wrong. For the rest of my life I worked for a private firm and although the work was hard and friends said how do you stick it I found it made me feel I was doing something worthwhile. The depression I felt when working for the government soon vanished and I could always get a good night’s sleep.

    If you work for the Government you are working for politicians and whilst some may be well meaning most are ill informed and say things that they do not believe. How can any decent person with a conscience live with that ?

    The idea that you seem to have that all business people are crooks and chancers ripping off the public is not what I saw at all. The boss was there every day and did everything he could and the same applied to our competitors.They were serious people. The scandals we hear of happen when the Government gets involved or fails to enforce its own laws.

    I have had to wait in a hospital on occasion and I was surprised to observe that although there were plenty of staff they ignored the ringing telephones until they stopped. We never did that in the firm even though the calls were not likely to be a matter of life and death.

    And you have heard it here first but the Government is secretly planning to scrap railway freight as they claim it sometimes makes the passenger trains late, although in reality it is the failure of the public sector Network Rail to upgrade the track and signallinng which is the real cause.

  • nvelop2003 depressing, cynical…..and now a conspiracy theory….. If it’s a secret how do you know ? Perhaps you ought to relax and look this up.

    Rail Freight Strategy –…/rail-freight-strategy.pdf

  • nvelope2003 19th Jan '18 - 9:29am

    Mr Raw: Your link does not work but I did find a document dated September 2016 and it seems to be the usual worthy statements which governments make. There was a 2014 document which proposed great improvements in the West Country rail system but nothing has been done and the latest announcement from Whitehall makes it clear that they have no plans to implement the schemes which would make a real difference – re opening the line from Okehampton to Plymouth to create an alternative route and additional double track on the Waterloo to Exeter line between Salisbury and Exeter.

    There has been quite a lot in the railway press about the plans for freight including Lord Adonis’s comment that he wanted freight removed from the railways to the motorways. When asked about this the National Infrastructure Commission said it had an “open mind” on this which does not sound very reassuring and is the sort of thing Government bodies say when a change of policy is being considered. Fortunately it is only a plan and hopefully may be rejected. These things concern me and I am surprised that a Liberal Democrat would not be alarmed . However, I do find some things rather depressing. We seem to be going backwards and the hopes I once had are vanishing.

  • nvelope2003 19th Jan '18 - 9:31am

    It would be helpful if people could make comments without personalising everything. There is more than one valid opinion and it is not helpful to be sneering and abusive.

  • It’s impossible to personalise with an anonymous pseudonym. As for Adonis, he’s hardly likely to have any influence given the present state of his relationship with HMG.

  • nvelope2003 19th Jan '18 - 8:28pm

    David: Well thank goodness for that. I used to admire him but he seems to have gone off the rails. It was the statement by the NIC that I found more alarming.

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