Why the Centre must hold

It’s easy, after an electoral setback such as that we suffered last week, to look for easy answers and quick solutions.

The truth is, there are none.

We need a proper analysis of what the raw data tells us and, yes, we need some soul searching about the prospectus we put to the people and the personnel (behind the scenes and in front of the cameras) that came up with and sold-or failed to sell-the message.

But on one thing, I argue, we can be clear. The Centre must hold firm.

As I prepare to enter my fourth decade (I turn forty on Leap Year Day 2020…or just ten in actual birthdays celebrated!), I’ve shifted my political thinking from when I first joined this party almost a decade ago.

Though my values and principles absolutely remain broadly Centre-Left, I no longer believe that ‘the Centre’ is-at best-some meaningless phrase or-at worst-a mushy middle which appeals to only a few. I now understand that the broad Centre (Centre-Right, Centre, and Centre-Left) is still where most voters are.

Of course, in elections, especially this one, given who the leaders of the two main parties were, it can feel as if the extremes are the new status quo. But most voters still want a government that’ll run a sound economy, deliver investment into public services, be a responsible player on the world stage, and do what’s right by the Climate.

Indeed, if you can look beyond Brexit (not easy, I know) that is, pretty much, what Boris Johnson asserts is his platform.

Now, do I believe he’ll deliver on it? No. However much he might believe he’s a One Nation, ‘liberal’ Tory, he now leads a populist, nationalist, Little Englander party.

Labour, whoever it chooses as its new leader, is likely to be a lost cause for at least a decade.

It is we Liberal Democrats, even as we lick our wounds from last Thursday’s bruising results, that need to reaffirm our position as the owners of the freehold of the Radical Centre of British politics. Not ‘middle-of-the-road’ but seeing all the road. The full vista.

As the Tories tack Right and Labour lurches Left, we need to show that being moderate, pragmatic and sensible is the new Radical in British politics today.

Tony Blair got some things very wrong, not least the illegal invasion of Iraq which our party rightly opposed, but he remains one of the most sensible voices on the state of the nation that we have.

We need to reimagine the Third Way, for a new political age.

We need to be the party of aspiration and compassion. Of employer and employee. Of fiscal responsibility and well-funded public services. Of investment and reform. Of rights and responsibilities. Of centuries old Liberal values, but with policies that make them relevant to a world which is ever changing. Pro European and internationalist, but able to be honest about when the Continent and the international community get it wrong as well as right.

The worst thing now, however tempting, would be for us to revert to our comfort zone and hope that the electorate will, inevitably, come around to our way of thinking.

Our new leader needs to be someone who is bold, brave and battle-hardened.

The irony of our weakened parliamentary position is that Liberalism has never been more needed than now. Together, let’s re-assert the broad Centre and deliver a truly radical option to the British people. A Liberal future.

* Mathew Hulbert is a parish Councillor in Leicestershire.

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  • The economic centre ground is plain to see – 80% of the economy is services, and there are many more self-employeds and SMEs in a gig economy. The far left, with big national companies and big unions in manufacturing does not and cannot stand here, as they have discovered twice since the ’70s. The Tories are always big Capital, latterly hedge-funds, and wedded to Brexit are also in trouble here (the latest IR35 mess-up hits in Apr 2020). We, in contrast, have pragmatic spending and funding plans that can benefit this economic majority. If the northern constituencies can somehow vote Tory & Leave, if we accept Brexit we can make gains there, imho. That’s even before we talk about the NHS…

  • Oliver Craven 22nd Dec '19 - 4:50pm
  • Matthew, I think your analysis is spot on. One of our party’s strengths is that whilst we represent the ‘Centre’ , that centre incorporates a broad spectrum of views from Centre Left Social Liberals like myself to the Centre Right. By embracing that spectrum, I agree that we are the party that best represents what is a centrist country.

  • John Marriott 22nd Dec '19 - 7:01pm

    It genuinely worries me when people feel the need to keep redefining (or should that be defining) themselves. We get a lot of people on LDV telling us that liberals are not centrists. That may be one definition of liberalism. As far as I am concerned I want to vote for a party whose policies make sense and that tells the truth without spin. It needs to admit that it doesn’t have all the answers and acknowledges that other parties actually have a few good ideas. Above all, it needs to look at issues and say “It doesn’t have to be like this”. When the Lib Dems start behaving like this I might actually vote for them again.

  • Oliver Craven
    That is indeed illuminating
    Beginning to understand why the centre and/or the Libdems perceived as wishy-washy i.e not authoritative enough. For example, all this talk of being ‘tough’ on crime, more difficult to argue ‘effective’ on crime…

  • Tristan Ward 23rd Dec '19 - 2:39pm

    “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, anarchy is loosed upon the world. ”

    I fear the centre has gone.

  • Richard Easter 23rd Dec '19 - 3:19pm

    Many of those over 50 believe the centre has failed them and undermined the nation state, democracy, armed forces, policing and traditional patriotic values, in favour of some sort of mushy global unpatriotic “liberal” establishment. Hence the election result and Brexit.

    Many of those under 40 believe the centre has failed them and undermined their ability to find decent work, privatised essential public services for purely ideological reasons, landed them in massive debt, and presided over a housing crisis to line their own pockets, and served the needs of corporations over them. Hence Corbynism and Labour’s massive hold on the bulk of voters under 40.

    Until the Lib Dems find realistic and practical solutions to deal with the issues effecting at least one of these groups – and a realistic narrative to sell it on, they will be totally irrelevent. To actually realistically become a party of government in any form – they will have to appeal to both groups.

    Swinson had zero appeal to the first group and very little appeal to the second. If Paddy Ashdown was leader in 2019 – he would have potentially had the gravitas, backstory and patriotism to appeal to the first, and potentially the policies and vision to appeal to the second.

  • Paul Murray 23rd Dec '19 - 3:58pm

    To continue from Yeats’s “The Second Coming” – “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”. Seems about right.

  • David Franks 23rd Dec '19 - 4:16pm

    I am nowhere near the centre. Calling your political position the “centre” simply means you allow your position to be defined by the two big parties. the “centre” always has to be somewhere between their two positions. We are Liberals and as such should not be ashamed to say that we are of the non-socialist left.

  • david grundy 23rd Dec '19 - 9:24pm

    I am very heartened to read this. I joined the party about 5 years ago, and have felt concerned over these last weeks that the party maybe didn’t represent the centre ground that I wish to associate with. When we were gaining MPs earlier in the year, there were several reasons: concerns over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, a rejection of Boris’ vision for Brexit in the Conservative party, but also a great sense that both those two parties were lurching towards the extremes. So I failed to understand (and still do) why the Lib Dem campaign didn’t overtly claim to take the centre ground. Had it done so, we would have attracted so many more moderates. We were perceived as extreme on Brexit, rightly or wrongly. Are we a centre ground party ? If so, we should be happy to say this more confidently than I have seen. If it was stated in the campaign, I for one missed it. Anyway, your article gives me a bit more confidence and analysis, as someone else has commented, seems spot on.

  • @George Kendall “That’s why I prefer to call us centre-left, even if I agree with you what you have written.”

    Persist in the use of the term “centre-left”, and you will perpetuate electoral failure. That in turn will perpetuate absence from the leavers of power.

    The simple fact is that the voters we need to attract utterly abhor anything left wing, so calling our selves left anything will ensure we never get the chance to enact the policies we ascribe to.

  • Peter Martin 26th Dec '19 - 10:45am

    “…….let’s re-assert the broad Centre”

    OK but have the Lib Dems pursued a Centrist policy, in the last decade or so, on the one issue that come to dominate UK politics?

    We can read on a Lib Dem leaflet dating from 2008:

    “It’s been over thirty years since the British people last had a vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. That’s why the Liberal Democrats want a real referendum on Europe. Only a real referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU will let the people decide our country’s future. But Labour don’t want the people to have their say. The Conservatives only support a limited referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Why won’t they give the people a say in a real referendum?”

    That does sound fairly centrist. You were taking a balanced view. A view which has become a lot more unbalanced since then even though Lib Dems did vote in early 2016 to hold a referendum on the issue. As we all know, you didn’t like the result, and any pretence at seeing the issue from both viewpoints was gradually but steadily discarded.

    In the end you ended up saying that we should stay in the EU regardless. There are arguments for saying that but they aren’t centrist arguments. You’d only ever expect to win seats, at least in England and Wales, which are economically very affluent. The ones with a high percentage of A and B social classes who’ve done well from the EU. See link below. The chances of your reclaiming seats such as Bodmin and North Devon were zilch. You’d need to rediscover the genuine centre ground to have a hope there.

    Its odd that a party that proclaims a faith in social justice should now find that its support is now highly skewed. It comes from the wealthy in our society.


  • Sopwith Morley 26th Dec '19 - 11:40am

    @ Peter Martin.
    “It’s been over thirty years since the British people last had a vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. That’s why the Liberal Democrats want a real referendum on Europe. Only a real referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU will let the people decide our country’s future. But Labour don’t want the people to have their say. The Conservatives only support a limited referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Why won’t they give the people a say in a real referendum?”

    You know as well as I do the LIbDems rhetoric about a referendum on our membership, was said in the full knowledge they would never have to implement it, empty words used repeatedly over many years simply to attract the vote of eurosceptics.

    The minute they realised that there was a real possibility of said referendum, and the uncertainty that we might actually vote for leave, they blew the reverse idler gear right out of the side of the gearbox on the LIbDem bus as they engaged it at 100mph.

  • 2016 was the first chance the UK had to vote on the EU. The UK has rejected the EU with every vote they have had.

  • Peter Martin 26th Dec '19 - 12:57pm

    @ Sopwith Morley,

    That’s quite a cynical way of looking at it! I wouldn’t put it quite that way myself but you could be right 🙂

    I’ve just realised that the Bodmin constituency no longer exists! So it’s possibly a little unfair of me to say LibDems should have won it back. But I’m sure my underlying point is still valid. Both the Lib Dems and the Labour Party need to talk to their former heartland voters and find out what they want. I don’t believe it’s a form of fascism.

    But if their former political parties of the left/centre left/centre don’t listen then that’s the way they will inevitably drift.

  • Peter Watson 26th Dec '19 - 12:58pm

    “the broad Centre (Centre-Right, Centre, and Centre-Left) is still where most voters are”
    The problem is that centre-right vs. centre-left leads to disagreements just as vitriolic as those between the left and right further out. You don’t have to look far back on this site to see responses to suggestions that a bit of nationalisation might be a good thing along the lines of “That Jeremy Corbyn, you really luurrrvv him”!

    Polling has shown that most people consider themselves as politically centrist and then judge others accordingly. Consequently many of Labour’s election policies looked like extreme Marxism to some and European-style social democracy to others.

    This article seems to be putting the cart before the horse. Rather than fret about labels and a soggy centre, a radical centre, the middle of the road, triangulation, etc., concentrate on developing and communicating a vision and a consistent set of specific policies that the party believes will “build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.

    If you do that properly you might be able to judge afterwards where the outcome puts the party on the left-right spectrum, but sometimes the party (or at least those on LDV) seems too hung up on dismissing individual ideas as too left or too right without stepping back to see whether they could be a useful part of a more liberal/radical/centrist whole.

  • Peter Watson 26th Dec '19 - 1:18pm

    @George Kendall “To many, centre implies the status quo, and radical just means fundamental change (Brexit was definitely a radical policy).”
    I think this is an important point, especially when coupled with the party’s reluctance to risk frightening away different types of voters in different seats.
    All too often it is easy to depict the Lib Dems as a small-c conservative party that exists simply to oppose changes proposed by the Tories/Labour/UKIP/SNP/Greens which those parties believe will fix particular problems in society that affect their potential voters.
    Consequently the party risks limiting its appeal only to those who like the status quo (predominantly comfortably-off middle-class folk?) or a disparate bunch whose fear of the “wrong” type of change outweighs their dislike of the way things are.

  • Peter Watson 26th Dec '19 - 10:07pm

    @Paul Walter “roughly 16.4 million people voted for pro-remain or 2nd referendum parties such as Labour … ”
    True, but unfortunately undermined by the repeated claims by Lib Dems before the General Election that Labour were a Brexit party! 🙁

  • David Allen 27th Dec '19 - 4:39pm

    The Lib Dems are not a centrist party. They are a party which plays deceptive games around the centre. They yammer about progressive, liberal, radical ideas from the moderate left of centre. Then they vote with the Right, every time.

  • Sopwith Morley 27th Dec '19 - 6:21pm

    “he now leads a populist, nationalist, Little Englander party”

    He not only leads one, he celebrates it, and our nation, and its achievements, promising to put the interests of England and the celtic whingers if they intend to stay first. What’s not to like.

    In contrast your left, right, centre party ignores England altogether as an entity, puts priority on handing over our resources to anybody as long as they are not England or the English, you demean and belittle everything we have achieved, and everything we stand for, and generally tell us that we should be ashamed of our identity and we should perpetually apologise for anything and everything we have been involved with for the last 500 years.

    Good luck with trying to attract the majority who love their country to support you with that lot on your party CV

  • Rodney Watts 27th Dec '19 - 7:57pm

    @ Sopwith Morley
    “He not only leads one, he celebrates it, and our nation, and its achievements, promising to put the interests of England and the celtic whingers if they intend to stay first. What’s not to like.”
    What’s not to like? Time will tell, but I very much tend to agree with Matthew when he says that Boris will fail to deliver. Sadly Boris has given a new dimension to ‘Con Artist’.

    Your second paragraph is manifestly not true, However your description of ‘left, right, centre party’ strikes somewhat a chord of agreement in me. I remember discussions of what and who constituted the LibDem party many years ago. We agreed that indeed we, as people , had views that ranged from left to right in traditional political demarcations. So it was suggested that instead of differentiating right from left, it would be better to differentiate right policies from wrong ones.

    Anyway, a happy and prosperous New Year to all!

  • “puts priority on handing over our resources to anybody as long as they are not England or the English,”
    Margaret Thatcher started selling off the family silver.

  • Sopwith Morley 28th Dec '19 - 9:38am

    @Manfarang 28th Dec ’19 – 12:47am
    “puts priority on handing over our resources to anybody as long as they are not England or the English,”
    “Margaret Thatcher started selling off the family silver.”

    You’ll get no argument from me on that count.
    However all three parties have been, and continue to be complicit in deliberately disadvantaging, even to the point or outright discrimination against England and the English, discrimination which has been in place all the way back to the introduction of the Barnett Formula in 1978.

    However the mood in the country over the behaviour of our political establishment over the the last few year has created a demand for change and reform. If your party persists in its belief that England should be politically broken up into EU style regions to marginalise its economic and political power, then you are going to lose again and perhaps become totally irrelevent to your principle voter base.

    I wonder why my sense is that you will not learn this lesson either, in the same way as a party you chose to defy the instructions of the 2016 referendum using obfuscation, dissembling and outright deceit to try and undermine the democratic decision.

  • Tim Stevens 29th Dec '19 - 4:47pm

    I’m not sure where Sopwith Morley gets the idea that England is being discriminated against? On the contrary, England always was, and still is, by far the dominant nation in the UK (probably due to its population size, and the Westminster-based UK parliament). The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have had to fight and fight again to achieve proper representation. At least they now each have some form of self-government, even if it’s not perfect.

    The only sensible and equitable solution is for England to be divided into regions, each with their own governments. After all, Greater London has a population nearly as great as Belgium. And I’m sure the North of England would welcome the opportunity to control its own destiny, no longer dependent on hand-outs at the whim of a Westminster government. We could then achieve a truly federal UK, with power devolved to the lowest practicable level.

    As for the 2016 EU referendum, let me remind Sopwith Morley of the figures again. On a turnout of 72%, the Leave vote was 52% (= 37% of the total electorate) and the remain vote was 48%. Hardly a decisive victory for Leave. Indeed, Nigel Farage at the time, and Dominic Cummings more recently, both said that if the result had been 48% Leave and 52% Remain, they would have challenged it. A vote of this constitutional importance should have had a minimum threshold, for example a minimum of 66% of the vote and/or 40% of the electorate voting for the “change” (i.e. Leave) option. Even a domestic Trade Union ballot for strike action is required to achieve similar thresholds. So let’s hear no more talk of the “will of the people”.

    The irony will be if the Johnson regime, seeking to “take back control” from the so-called “shackles” of the EU, ends up governing merely “little England & Wales”, with the Scots having understandably opted for independence, and the Northern Irish having voted for a united Ireland. It may well happen; and it will be the arrogance of the English ruling classes that will have helped to bring it about.

  • Innocent Bystander 29th Dec '19 - 6:50pm

    When England is broken into little regions (which won’t, of course, appease the Scots or diminish their quest for independence one iota) we will need anthems. I suppose Yorkshire will have their own (On Ilkley Moor bah’t hat), and will have to be on their own because no-one will want to be with them.
    Could I offer for ours?
    Home Counties North, of thee we sing,
    From Stevenage to leafy Tring.
    And nowhere else is half as pretty,
    As our Welwyn Garden City.
    I realise this is ridiculous, but not as much as suggesting ( yet again) that the English would quietly let their home be destroyed.

  • Samuel White 30th Dec '19 - 7:07am

    It’s your fifth decade:

    0–9 — First decade
    10–19 — Second decade
    20–29 — Third decade
    30–39 — Fourth decade
    40–49 — Fifth decade

    Happy birthday!

  • Peter Kenny 30th Dec '19 - 1:32pm

    You can call yourselves ‘centre’, ‘liberal’, ‘non socialist left’ or whatever but from where I stand what defines your party is opportunism – left in left areas, right in right areas etc.

    A strong, recent example would be your attitude to Brexit. Your claim was that ‘stopping Brexit’ was the highest priority. I would suggest that winning a load more seats was actually your highest priority! Now you failed in both and will be needing something else to be ‘the priority’.

    Of course, people will say, ‘no, no you’re wrong – if we were cut our blood is blue with little stars in it!’ However, the simple fact of forcing an election points in the opposite direction. The Tories were in Brexit hell, far from a majority and with all the chances of you being able to achieve a second referendum through amendments to the withdrawal bill.

    Alternatively, you could have taken a leaf from the book of the Party that said that Brexit was their highest priority and stood down your candidates in seats being fought by ‘Remain’ MPs.

    Whatever, your dream of perhaps a hundred seats drew you on, not ‘stopping Brexit’.

    So, you stand for your own survival and growth first – that’s your political principle.

  • John Littler 30th Dec '19 - 2:00pm

    Well Peter Kenny, you naively assert that the LibDems are in it to grow, as if this was somehow unusual or that the party aims could somehow be achieve by staying at the same level or shrinking? Do you believe the readers here are fools who might be influenced by such nonsense? Instead they include many of the most thoughtful and insightful contributions to any forum I have ever seen.

    Perhaps you will find a more comfortable home arguing to reduce migration or push some little Ingerlunder agenda about rebuilding empire preference in predominantly white countries, inevitably ending up chasing tariffs, straight up Trump’s trouser leg ?

  • Peter Kenny 30th Dec '19 - 2:14pm

    I’m not naive – of course that’s your primary purpose. I think you’ll find that your post 1920s history indicates that is in fact it’s whole ‘aim’. I’m just suggesting that this article is pious humbug.

    It’s interesting that you take me immediately to be ‘Pro Brexit’ and right-wing, I’m neither and nothing I wrote indicates that I am.

    How very ‘liberal’ or ‘centrist’ of you!

  • John Littler 30th Dec '19 - 2:28pm

    This piece is correct that the LibDems have to be radical, as people want change, rather than just some kind of soft triangulation in the middle. This can be done and stay in the political centre, well clear of the Corbynist ’70’s cult and the Tories little Ingerlunder nationalism. If the LibDems were to rebuild on the back of the brexit disaster to come, it would be thrown away in weeks if they ever went into a close arrangement with the Tories again. A close pact with Labour might be less catastrophic but would still involve damage, if PR voting was not extracted.

    The LibDems high points in the past were built on the back of a radical liberal centre leftist programme and the centre right Orange book extreme free markets stuff was not liked by the public when they saw it and was too close to the toxic Tories. It withered, as if getting too close to the Sun, which has happened to the Brexits and UKIP on the right.

    The LibDems need to own the future, to give people and businesses hope and support in the world that exists now, rather than harping back to the 70’s, 1950’s, or 1850’s. The manifesto was excellent but only one paper published the headlines, the Daily Mirror. I did not see this much in even the Guardian or Independent.

  • John Littler 30th Dec '19 - 2:36pm

    I don’t know of a party that puts out just one message nationally. The leaflets are all written locally to address local conditions and interests, unless mainly centralised like the Brexits. Do you think Labour’s messages are exactly the same Islington as in Wigan?

    This piece is neither pious nor humbug in my view and appears to be getting away from the centre right extreme marketisation than captured much of the Party leadership under Clegg. That didn’t work for anyone except bolstering the Tories while giving them cover and excuses for the unpopular in coalition.

    My remarks about your views were an informed guess and if they were wrong then fair enough, but that ( & Putin) is the main area where criticism of Liberalism comes from now. The left don’t so much criticise the actuality of LibDem policy, as pretend it does not or would not exist and that everyone but them are Tories. Utter balderdash of course.

  • Peter Kenny 30th Dec '19 - 3:40pm

    Look, these are your dreams so you’re welcome really.

    The point I’m making about opportunism, which every political party is prey to, is that it’s actually in your DNA. All of this stuff about your positioning is actually just a search for the thing that will cut through and win you a few seats.

    Your infamous bar charts are that very process in action, as were your long gone ‘Focus’ leaflets which would claim every positive thing in an area as a result of your activity.

    I won’t bother with further policy examples because the list is very, very long indeed.

    The ‘orange book’ was just a more organised version of the same process.

  • Peter Watson 30th Dec '19 - 5:34pm

    @Peter Kenny “Your claim was that ‘stopping Brexit’ was the highest priority. I would suggest that winning a load more seats was actually your highest priority!”
    I certainly agree with this part of your argument (but will gloss over whether or not opportunism is a fair summary of Lib Dem motives!). The party strategy since June 2016 has appeared to prioritise gaining votes from the 48% rather than actually stopping Brexit by winning over some of the 52%. By 2019, even ensuring (however selflessly and unilaterally) that the 48% delivered more seats for MPs who supported Remain or a second referendum might have been more fruitful than the actual result.

  • A lot of Lib Dems may want some form of change, not sure many of the rest of the population do. All I hear is “give Johnson a chance”, the people I know – whether they voted Tory or not – seem happy to have a government with a decent majority. They were tired of the uncertainty of Brexit and just want the government to do their best and get on with running the country. All this talk of breaking up the UK into regions or changing the voting system seems a bit like losers trying to find an excuse for not winning. It’s early days, but so far this government seems far less extreme than the coalition government.

  • David Allen 31st Dec '19 - 6:02pm

    Peter Kenny,

    All successful political parties need to have a strong opportunist streak. Johnson’s opportunism is blatant. Arguably, Corbyn’s major failure can be characterised as putting his principles (some misguided, some not) ahead of opportunism and electability. So yes, effective campaigning tactics such as Focus leaflets and bar charts can reasonably be described as opportunist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad. What matters is whether or not they involve either sacrifice of political principle, or serious deception of the voting public.

    Bar charts can be used fairly honestly (and often are), or dishonestly. Very often, they have been used effectively to show the voter that a tactical vote for the Lib Dems can achieve what the voter would like it to achieve. What’s wrong with that?

    Focus leaflets do of course promote what the local Lib Dems are doing, and not what other parties are doing – In much the same way that you don’t see Aldi telling the public that Sainsbury’s make some great sausages, even if it’s true. But that’s normal advertising practice. What’s wrong with that?

    I think you have a much stronger case when considering the last General Election. The Lib Dems posed as the party who would do everything they could to Stop Brexit. It wasn’t true. Faced with a Labour Party which moved toward the Lib Dem position on seeking a People’s Vote, what did the Lib Dems do? They hurriedly distanced themselves, and adopted an extremist “Revoke” policy, which they could be confident Labour would not follow. Faced with the overwhelming need to make some sort of common cause with Labour if Brexit wwere to be stopped, they ran a mile. Faced with Johnson’s opportunist ploy of seeking a General Election, the Lib Dems – unforgivably – backed it. A win for Brexit was totally predictable.

    And the public weren’t fooled by Swinson’s opportunism. They rightly refused to reward the Lib Dem opportunists with the massive gains they had expected. A deserved comeuppance.

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