Archive | September, 2008

Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)

Posted on 30 September 2008 by admin

Labour’s plan to rewrite the Act of Succession is very small beer, but few Conservatives dare to entertain radical constitutional reform either

Electoral reform is a difficult sell at the Conservative party conference; promoting it sometimes seems like trying to sell Chelsea tractors at the Greens’ annual gathering. But there are some stirrings, and some new arguments about the constitution and elections are being heard at Birmingham. Tories who support proportional representation have in the past tended to be liberal in their general approach, but reform is finding some adherents among hard-edged right wingers such as Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich since 2005 and one of the more interesting thinkers within the Tory party – one of the few MPs who can refer to Weber and Gramsci and sound as if he knows what he is talking about.

Representation in parliament is one of the last monopoly public services left. Carswell asked at an Electoral Reform Society fringe meeting in Birmingham why it was that in a world where people are used to shopping around, telephones and electricity had been made competitive, there was still a single supplier of representative services that you had to like or lump. In an environment where consumer choice is the dominant force, and people increasingly look at politics as consumers, why not have multi-member constituencies? Competition and choice improve standards. Lazy MPs, or those who did not represent the views of their constituents properly, would face internal competition, and there would be fewer barriers to new talent and new ideas coming forward. While Carswell is vague on which electoral system he favours with his multi-member seats, his vision is perfectly compatible with the long-term electoral reform goal of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). It is also part of Conservative history – after all, Disraeli introduced the three-member boroughs and the “limited vote” in 1867.

Carswell is very much a maverick Conservative, and he was joined on the ERS panel by more familiar Tory voices. Eleanor Laing represented the pleasant, moderate face of Tory partisanship and constitutional immobilism, and Bruce Anderson adopted his familiar role as the voice of candid reaction who frankly acknowledged the benefits of elective dictatorship – as long as it was the Conservative party doing the dictating.

I doubt that many opponents of the Conservatives would be unduly worried by the arguments of Laing or Anderson, but Carswell’s case would be unsettling. He uses reforming language to argue for quite radical Conservative projects – a more securely founded Conservative government would have the hegemony necessary to deal with the alleged progressive bias of the broadcast media, the civil service and the education system. Carswell also favours direct democracy and the right of recall. His embrace of change is based on more intellectual self-confidence than the old fashioned belief in grabbing the controls of the machinery of the centralised, elitist British state and making it serve Tory ends. New Conservative constitutional reformers can talk confidently about trusting the people, because they believe that the people ultimately agree with them. And left of centre constitutional reformers feel some anxiety that Carswell may be right about this. The interesting debate may end up being between radical Conservative direct democracy, and progressive reformers trying to define the acceptable limits of popular control.

Unfortunately, neither front bench seems interested. Labour’s increasing timidity about constitutional reform is sad indeed. From the radical change promised (and largely implemented) in 1997, the party now trumpets reforms such as changing the Act of Succession to make the first-born, rather than the first-born son, heir to the throne, as radical. This reform affects one, theoretical, person in perhaps 70 years’ time. The Conservatives are vaguely aware that the current electoral system is biased against them, but grumble in an entirely ill-informed fashion about constituency boundaries. Their main solution is to try to game the current system better than Labour by swamping marginal constituencies with Ashcroft money. It may work in the short term, but it is a cynical exercise in gaining and maintaining power on a minimum of public support that will ultimately do politics no good. It is a sign of how seductive the embrace of the Westminster establishment is that neither main party really intends to do much to shake up the power structure.

Comments Off on Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)

Beware hubris (28 September 2008)

Tags: , , , ,

Beware hubris (28 September 2008)

Posted on 28 September 2008 by admin

The Tories’ basic ideology is, if not bankrupt, trading under Chapter 11. Cameron may be safe, but his policies look vulnerable

The Conservatives have had a wonderful year since their last conference, when they deterred Gordon Brown from calling an election in November. Apart from the wobble of the past week – which is probably attributable to Labour’s usual post-conference bounce – the Tory vote has been hitting a stable and high level in the mid-40s since spring 2008. That’s well ahead of anything they’ve managed since 1988, and an election-winning position. David Cameron’s personal approval ratings are more variable, but on this measure as well there is no cause for complaint. Their local and London elections in May demonstrated real electoral progress. The party has also recorded its first byelection gain since 1982 in Crewe and Nantwich and seen off a Liberal Democrat challenge in Henley.

So what could possibly go wrong at Birmingham? Now the prospect of a Tory government is being taken so seriously, the Conservatives can expect a greater degree of scrutiny from the broadsheets. Another risk will be bandwagon-jumping from interest groups and lobbyists who wish to become on better terms with the potential next government. Conference will have a busier, more glossy and hectic feel than in the past, which will fuel the feeling that the Conservatives are on their way. The risk is of premature hubris.

Winning is a considerable benefit in the struggle for party unity. The 2006 conference, which was at the softest and most listening phase of Cameronism, saw some subtle displays of different priorities: tote bags bearing tax-cutting and anti-EU slogans were carried around conference. Last year’s conference became a festival of unity, despite sub-surface misgivings within the party, because of the pressure generated by the mishandling of the election announcement by Number 10. An imminent election concentrates minds. In 2008, the sense that they are on the way and the Cameron strategy is working will mean that there will not be much by way of public dissent. The party’s self-presentation has also shifted a bit to the right, with recent pronouncements on obesity and other issues rooted in a traditional Conservative emphasis on personal responsibility. The party has also rowed back from some previous proposals for reform or consensus, such as the composition of a revised Lords. This suggests confidence in their ability before long to implement an undiluted Conservative agenda.

However, there are still a few tensions. One is quite how far it is permissible to go in painting a negative picture of the state of Britain. Oppositions always have to judge whether they will be hurt by the allegation that they are “running down Britain”. Cameron’s frequent references to a “broken society”, while striking a responsive chord with mid-market newspapers, seems hyperbolic to many other commentators: it does not match up with the reality of life as it is mostly lived. The phrase was criticised by none other than the principal Conservative executive politician, Boris Johnson, who called it “piffle“, but it remains a Conservative campaign theme and no doubt we will hear it from Birmingham. The Cameron team has essentially absorbed the particular definition of “social justice” promoted by Iain Duncan Smith since 2003.

The Tories’ plans and policies are at a late but nowhere near final stage of evolution. They have, however, a more pithy overall narrative than the other two parties. Policy areas have been grouped into three “agendas”: giving people more opportunity and power over their lives; making families stronger and society more responsible; making Britain safer and greener. It is not a bad narrative, but the detail is lacking and where it is spelt out (as, ironically enough, over the promotion of apprenticeships) it is sometimes not that different from Labour’s. Like a lot of political rhetoric, the Tory slogans are banal. Who would say they were for giving people less opportunity and power over their lives, weaker families and a more irresponsible society, and a more dangerous and dirty Britain?

While the economic downturn has helped the Conservatives to achieve their current position of dominance, it also risks undermining their policies. The likely recession’s effect on public finances may make the sums cease to add up (if indeed they did to start with), and the priorities of the public shift during recessions (as Labour found when its policies, conceived in the boom of 1988-89, looked less appropriate in recessionary 1992). The oil price spike has also exposed some contradictions between different strands of Conservatism, with potentially different free market, environmentalist and populist responses. The Conservatives have gone for the populist “hard pressed motorist” line – a possible sign that Cameron’s initial emphasis on the environment has shallow roots.

Indeed, in some ways the financial crisis undermines non-interventionist ideology that has driven the party. They still have little coherent to say about how the key institutions of capitalism should work. Gordon Brown last week at least had the start of a narrative of how to respond to the crisis. The Tories’ basic ideology is, if not bankrupt, at least trading under Chapter 11, and they are vulnerable because of their inexperience.

However, while policy is somewhat difficult, Cameron’s position is extremely strong and he can stamp his authority on the party at this conference. Emerging from the conference season with polling numbers back in the mid-40s and their poll lead recovered would be enough to rally the party’s confidence.

Comments Off on Beware hubris (28 September 2008)

Getting over the London blues (24 September 2008)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Getting over the London blues (24 September 2008)

Posted on 24 September 2008 by admin

The mayoral defeat was painful for Labour, but urban voting patterns mean the Tories shouldn’t assume it means more success

At a Progress fringe meeting this week, Labour delegates in Manchester examined the London elections last May with a mixture of pain and pleasure. The pain was of course in the loss of the mayoralty, and the resulting self-criticism of the language, tactics and apparent deafness to the concerns of many white and outer London voters. The pleasure was in the gain of an assembly seat, and in what was generally acclaimed as a professionally organised campaign that had got activists enthusiastic in a way that is unusual in Labour politics (and contrasted with the paralysis of the will that prevails this week in Manchester).

As well as the surface politics of the London elections, there were some intriguing fragments of information in which deeper currents could be glimpsed, provided by Ben Page of the polling organisation Ipsos-Mori. These left me thinking as much about the Conservatives as Labour.

Ipsos-Mori’s research on local government suggest that levels of “unhappiness” – fear of crime, dissatisfaction with local services and the council’s record, and a perception of dirt and squalor – are highest in the outer London boroughs, with Croydon and Harrow leading the way. People in inner London seem by contrast relatively happy with their lot.

As early as 2002, the Conservatives under Iain Duncan Smith did relatively well in some outer London boroughs, regaining Barnet, Redbridge and Enfield. Their campaign in these boroughs tapped into a sense that the areas were in decline, becoming more inner city and chaotic. It would be inaccurate to see this merely as a coded appeal to racism, although no doubt susceptible voters did hear a dog-whistle. The main aim was more about tapping into a sense of a lost dream among London suburban voters of a clean, green place with families living in large houses, good public services and a sense of (perhaps stifling) social order. In voting Conservative in local elections in 2002 and 2006, and in such numbers for Boris Johnson in 2008, suburbanites (including the working class suburbanites of Dagenham, and other outer London council-built areas) are saying that they do not like the current state of their suburbs very much, and haven’t felt that Labour cares very much about it.

While many suburban voters feel that they are losing what they initially found attractive in their communities, inner Londoners have often made a conscious choice to come to a place that fits their aspirations. This applies to the people who have come from all over the world to live and work in London, and for instance to the affluent inhabitants of Camden Town or Islington who prefer urban life to the calm of the suburbs. This in turn displaces people who would like to live in inner London, but cannot afford it (recent immigrants and the young) further out to cheaper suburban areas. Population turnover is so high in the inner city that people, to some extent, are sorted into places that suit them. The same is not true of the suburbs, where older established voters (including those who moved there as recently as the 1990s) have seen their areas change before their eyes. In Bexley and Bromley, which turned in a massive vote for Johnson in 2008, there has been anxiety about ending up like Croydon or Lewisham.

Urban politics in a city on the scale of London messy and complicated. The task of maintaining a complicated rainbow coalition of competing interests without alienating any of them, or indeed arousing too much reaction from the white working and middle classes, is a tricky job to pull off, and the strains were clearly showing in Ken Livingstone’s second term with rows over the London Development Agency’s policies, Lee Jasper and Yusuf al-Qaradawi among others. London is, after all, still majority white and majority suburban, and assembling a winning vote for Labour on this basis is tricky. Livingstone and the Labour Assembly group pioneered some interesting new political approaches – in the first term, with Livingstone governing as an Independent, and in the second term with the City Hall alliance of Labour and Green facilitated by the proportional electoral system. Labour needs some new political skills – an inclusive, coalition-building approach and the ditching of old ambitions of monolithic control – to manage it.

There is no long term future for the Conservatives in a politics of suburban backlash. Little can be done about the broad trends, and by winning local elections a party becomes part of the perceived problem rather than part of the solution. The Conservatives now control most suburban boroughs, and in 2006 there was a swing to Labour in Enfield and a mediocre result in Barnet – four years of Tory control had not slowed the rate of change much. The Conservatives run Croydon, Merton and Harrow after the 2006 elections and it would not be surprising if they underperform in 2010.

But there is an alternative. The Republicans have won every New York mayoral election since 1993 with a formula of fiscal discipline, tough language (and achievement) on reducing crime, efficiency and social tolerance, and to some extent this has been a winning Conservative formula in the inner London boroughs like Westminster, Wandsworth and Kensington & Chelsea which they control. But New York remains a very left-wing city in all other elections from president to borough council, and the fact remains that there is huge tension between what is needed to win in New York and the nature of the wider Republican Party. Michael Bloomberg, after all, was always a pretty nominal Republican and went independent in 2007. Perhaps there is something structural, as well as personal, in the speculation about a rift between Johnson and Cameron, but these are early days and it may take Tory control at both national and London level to reveal the potential for division.

Comments Off on Getting over the London blues (24 September 2008)

It could be worse (20 September 2008)

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

It could be worse (20 September 2008)

Posted on 20 September 2008 by admin

However unpleasant it might be for Labour in Manchester, at least it won’t be as bad as Blackpool in 1976

The conference season in 2008 will be the first conference season in 20 years in which the psychology of politicians and the media is based on the fairly confident expectation that the next government will be a Conservative one.

Labour comes to Manchester against an awful background, the worst for a party of government since the Conservatives convened in 1996. John Major’s government from 1992 to 1997 was a tedious procession of failed relaunch attempts and stabs at defining a narrative of what the Conservatives were for, and so far at least the Brown government seems to be following in these footsteps. The conference is a – slim – chance to start getting it right. However, sometimes in the past a good conference has set a troubled government on the path to recovery, as with the Conservatives in 1986 and Labour in 1969.

Brown government’s relationship with public opinion falls into three phases, and ministers fervently hope that the conference will start a fourth, of recovery. The first was the honeymoon phase, lasting over the summer of 2007 and rising to a peak in mid to late September, until it was abruptly ended by the “non-election” at the start of October. This led to a sharp switch in public opinion about Brown, and this (and a successful Tory conference) led to a revival in Conservative voting intention and Cameron’s personal ratings which took them back to where they had been for most of the late Blair period.

Public opinion stayed fairly stable through this second phase which lasted until the end of February 2008. The third phase, of acute crisis for Labour and a large Conservative poll lead, has been in place since March, although June saw the slump that had taken place from March until the local and Crewe elections in May, bottom out. The polls are still bad and Gordon Brown’s personal rating at abysmal levels. There was perhaps a slight change of mood during August, as might be expected, as the holiday season calmed politics following the fevered days of July, but September has seen another frightening downturn with the banking crisis and the Conservatives hitting new highs in the opinion polls.

Since March the Labour Party has been in fatalistic mood. This is, I think, partly a matter of political generations. Few among younger Labour people will have experience of a government facing deep unpopularity other than this, and the Major government which went down to overwhelming defeat in 1997. But before this, in 1990, 1985, 1981, 1977, 1971, 1968, 1963, 1957… governments dipped to alarmingly low levels of popularity and came back from them, sometimes by enough to win. In an article for Progress, I quote a comment from Richard Crossman, a minister in Wilson’s government, reflecting on the apparent hopelessness of Labour’s position in December 1968. Yet only a year and a half later, the party was the favourite to win a general election.

The fatalism that has gripped Labour is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it generates the “every person for themselves” attitude – saving one’s personal position – that undermines party unity and in turn creates worse problems. The best hope for the party is to make a proper decision about whether or not to get rid of its leader, and stick to it. There will also have to be a turnaround at least in economic expectations – the collapse in confidence in people’s thinking about future economic conditions took Labour down to its current low ebb. Labour also needs a tough, brutal campaign modelled on the Conservatives’ in 1992 attacking an inexperienced and risky opposition party that has arguably not changed enough. But the party currently lacks the money, the self-confidence and the receptive ear from the public to carry it off, and needs to start pulling itself together.

Although a leadership coup is possible it is unlikely. More likely is that a consensus will start to form on whether Brown should stay, go later, or be given an ultimatum to shape up. Although there need not be action at Manchester, the strategic decision needs to be contemplated and no doubt it will. Before the conference, it seems that an ultimatum is the most likely route, with a showdown in spring 2009 if there has been no improvement by then in the polls. But moods can change, and movements form, rapidly at conference – one only has to return to Labour’s growing sense of euphoria at last year’s gathering in Bournemouth to demonstrate that.

Labour will also have to hope for not too many “noises off” so that the desired message comes across. The Lib Dems in Bournemouth lost out on coverage because of the more dramatic developments in the financial markets. The last thing Labour needs is for a re-run of 1976, when a run on the pound caused Chancellor Denis Healey to turn back at Heathrow Airport and return to Labour conference and try to calm the financial markets. Healey was heckled, delegates called upon him to resign, and the government had to go to the IMF anyway. Back in those days, Labour conferences were brutal festivals of blood sports as far-left delegates openly baited and denounced their own government’s ministers and the language of treachery was on everyone’s lips. However unpleasant it might be in Manchester, at least it won’t be as bad as Blackpool in 1976.

Comments Off on It could be worse (20 September 2008)

Don’t turn right (16 September 2008)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Don’t turn right (16 September 2008)

Posted on 16 September 2008 by admin

Some Lib Dems are tempted to tack rightwards to win back votes from the Tories. But it’s an extremely risky strategy

The Lib Dems are not in such a dire polling position as Labour. But the party is facing a big dilemma of electoral strategy – which, in turn, poses ideological issues that are surfacing in Bournemouth this year.

The problem stems from the step change in Lib Dem parliamentary representation came in 1997, when the party gained a swathe of rural and suburban seats from the Conservatives. In 2001 and 2005 the Tory vote was also at a low ebb, but if – as seems likely – it revives significantly in 2010, a lot of Lib Dem seats are at risk. History suggests that Conservative revivals are generally bad for the Liberals – in 1924, 1951, 1970 and to a lesser extent 1979 the party fell back as the Conservatives swept up a lot of the anti-Labour vote. What strategy would be most effective in holding onto the ex-Tory marginals, and can this be combined with gaining ground from Labour?

The new right-of-centre Lib Dem pressure group Liberal Vision thinks it has an answer: to embrace an agenda of tax cuts and social libertarianism that will appeal to right of centre voters. The group, as was surely intended, caused a splash with its list of Lib Dem MPs threatened by the Conservative revival – some MPs on the high risk list such as Adrian Sanders of Torbay were apoplectic with fury about it. But its identification of the seats at risk was broadly accurate. If the Conservative vote generally is going up, places such as Romsey, Carshalton and Hereford look extremely tricky. But is a move to the right actually going to protect their vulnerable incumbents from a Tory tide?

The argument is pretty unconvincing. While polling demonstrates that there is an appetite for a small state among a lot of voters, whether the Lib Dems can appeal to this feeling is questionable, because (even though its current policies are very cautious) the Conservatives have such a strong brand image as a party of tax cuts. The Lib Dem right also seems to forget that although many of the seats it holds are affluent and suburban and vulnerable to the Tories, they depend on the votes of people with left of centre values in those areas – their wins often come courtesy of tactical voting or outright conversion of Labour-inclined people. Too much rightwing posturing will alienate these voters.

But what about winning seats from Labour? The Lib Dems have talked, rather unbelievably, about shifting resources to the top 50 Lib Dem targets from Labour. To achieve anything like that assumes a complete meltdown of the Labour vote. It is not completely impossible that Labour will follow the economic markets downhill in a collapse of epic proportions. But this is at the outer end of the range of possibilities, and more worthy of a bit of contingency planning than a large commitment of scarce resources.

Rightwing liberalism will not help win seats from Labour. Their leftwing profile in 2005 helped the Lib Dems build strong votes among a particular category of seat: academic, professional suburbs and college towns. The easiest seats to gain from Labour (other than Rochdale, which already has a Lib Dem incumbent but becomes theoretically Labour under new boundaries) tend to be in the same sort of places that swung strongly in 2005. Oxford East, Edinburgh South, Hampstead & Kilburn, Islington South & Finsbury, Aberdeen South, Edinburgh North & Leith, Durham City and Norwich South are the logical successors to the seats that went Lib Dem in 2005 like Cambridge and Bristol West. While many of these seats were Conservative at one time, their electors are often liberal, environmentally minded people who were permanently turned off the Tories by Thatcherism and may desert the Lib Dems for the Greens or even Labour if the party sounds too rightwing.

Further down the target list there are a few seats that could plausibly pack a surprise, such as Swansea West, Burnley and Sheffield Central and probably a couple of seats that look safe from the 2005 numbers. But picking off a serious number of these is unlikely without a massive Labour meltdown (and even the current polls indicate only around a 3% national swing from Labour to Lib Dem). In seats where the Conservatives are still in contention (except maybe Watford, with its local scandal) it will be difficult for the Lib Dems to persuade floating voters not to join a national Tory tide. After all, seats such as Hastings & Rye followed the national trend in 1997 and elected Labour MPs despite the party running third in 1992, and it is reasonable to expect Conservatives in seats like Hampstead & Kilburn and Ealing Central & Acton to fancy their chances of winning. In some Scottish seats, the rise of the SNP (who polled poorly in 2005 but can expect much better at the next Westminster election) will interfere with Lib Dem chances, making places such as Edinburgh North & Leith and Glasgow North more difficult than they look on paper. Overall, again barring that meltdown, potential Lib Dem gains from Labour look more like 10-15 than 50.

Electorally, therefore, the Liberal Vision approach looks dubious. There is probably little mileage in going any further right than Clegg has already steered the party. The tax cuts approved at conference yesterday can be plausibly presented as being about fairness to low and middle income families, and therefore compatible with the liberal consciences of people who voted for them on the basis of their opposition to the Iraq war and tuition fees. A slide to the right would risk this core Lib Dem vote for uncertain reward. The Liberal Democrats should perhaps ask themselves why Cameron has found talking like a social liberal to be a route to electoral success, and fight him on their turf rather than charging into Tory territory.

Comments Off on Don’t turn right (16 September 2008)

How liberal is too liberal? (16 September 2008)

Tags: , , , ,

How liberal is too liberal? (16 September 2008)

Posted on 16 September 2008 by admin

A provocative index ranks Lib Dem MPs by their liberality. But is repealing the smoking ban really a vote-winner?

Liberalism has always been tugged between two conflicting ideological traditions, libertarianism and social reform. The Liberal party almost from its foundation until its nadir in the 1950s suffered splits, breakaways and defections from its economic liberals to the Conservatives and its radicals and reformers to Labour. None of these actually resolved the problem, and even in the 1950s the old conflicts were being played out in Lilliputian form.

A new pressure group, Liberal Vision, is interested in restarting the debate and has done it in the provocative form of an index of how liberal or not the 63 Lib Dem MPs are on various “lifestyle freedoms”, measuring their votes on measures concerning the smoking ban, gambling and licensing, and who signed which Early Day Motion on various subjects. The index was launched at a lively fringe meeting in Bournemouth, at which one of the speakers was Gavin Webb, a rebellious libertarian Lib Dem councillor from Stoke-on-Trent. Webb was introduced as having liberal views on drugs, prostitution, handguns and drink driving (hopefully not all at the same time). There are no out-and-out libertarians like Webb in the parliamentary party, but the liberal index is still quite intriguing and revealing.

The top and bottom scoring MPs for liberality on lifestyle issues illustrate a curious fact of political life. Lembit Öpik is the most “liberal” of the lot, but represents Montgomeryshire in mid Wales. The constituency has been one of the most consistently Liberal in the land, with only one Tory lapse (in 1979) in the last century. Despite a small influx of downsizing professionals and pot-smoking self-sufficient types, Montgomeryshire embodies the chapel-going, rural traditional heritage of the party. Other seats that consistently vote for the most liberal of the three main parties are also among the most conservative in their own social mores, such as Orkney and Shetland, the Highlands and Aberdeenshire, and to some extent Cornwall. The second and third most liberal, David Laws and Paul Keetch, represent Yeovil and Hereford, provincial towns not usually associated with letting it all hang out. Only at fourth place, with David Howarth of Cambridge, do we have a stereotypical liberal constituency.

The lowest score in the liberal index went to John Leech, who represents Manchester Withington. Withington is a classic example of a liberal, academic suburb. I would not be surprised if, despite Leech favouring a higher classification for the substance, Withington has a higher than average cannabis intake, and probably fair trade, organically grown cannabis at that. MPs’ views, perhaps particularly on these lifestyle liberal issues, are quirky, personal and often incongruous with their constituencies. Next lowest come three ex-Labour MPs, Mike Hancock, Vince Cable and Bob Russell, and leftwing Liberals such as Paul Holmes and John Pugh. Perhaps this means that MPs’ personalities are less important in deciding elections than they like to believe. Perhaps, also, voters tend to see these lifestyle liberties as being secondary to the principal questions of politics. Many voters who want these lifestyle choices just do it anyway, whatever the law says, and get away with it. Laws against brothels, pornography and cannabis are enforced in a rather liberal way, with the police usually taking action only in cases which clearly break the harm principle (such as people trafficking, child porn or gangsterism). The articulate and careful middle classes can already opt out, although it is unlikely that enforcing a law in a socially unequal way is a satisfactory way of dealing with lifestyle issues.

However, the view of Liberal Vision’s Mark Littlewood that some votes can be won on lifestyle liberalism is probably correct, even if the market for this sort of politics is smaller than Littlewood would like. There is potential in being the only large party that does not insist on telling people how to live their lives and which pleasures are officially licensed and which are punished. This has the potential to build a bridge between the old liberal left electorate and the new, more rightwing liberal types the party is wooing.

However, as the Liberal Vision meeting showed, what seems at first like a simple clear principle can end up being a matter of balance and compromise. Nearly every liberal accepts John Stuart Mill’s principle that activities that do not harm anyone else should not be restricted, but the question is always what counts as harm to others. The ban on smoking in public places is a particularly clear example of these differing interpretations and standards. Personal freedom will define and divide liberals long into the future.

Comments Off on How liberal is too liberal? (16 September 2008)

The magic number (13 September 2008)

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The magic number (13 September 2008)

Posted on 13 September 2008 by admin

As the conference season gets under way there are three simple steps the Lib Dems can take to get the public’s attention

When they convene at Bournemouth, the Liberal Democrats will be queasily aware that they have spent a year treading water. Their poll ratings have more or less flatlined since their last conference. They have been stuck at 16% (give or take a point or two for sampling error), around 6 points down on where they stood in 2005, and about 5 points down on their rating at the equivalent stage of the 2001-05 parliament.

This showing is disappointing to the Lib Dems, as have been the election results in mid-term elections since autumn 2007. They did catastrophically in London and not brilliantly elsewhere. They were also squeezed by the Conservatives in Crewe and Nantwich, and even more ominously had a swing against them in Henley, the sort of seat where they would have previously expected to have a big swing in their favour.

The poor electoral results have added to a sense of drift at the centre of the party. Nick Clegg has not captured the public imagination since he became leader in December 2007. The Lib Dems have had a difficult time of it as the political scene has been polarised between the Conservatives and an increasingly troubled Labour government. They have had trouble in projecting a distinct image or any specific policies, and Clegg has been overshadowed by Cameron. They have also had problems and soul-searching in Wales and Scotland.

The Lib Dems have three basic tasks this season, the first of which is familiar from previous conferences:

1) Assert their continuing relevance. This is a perennial objective, and one that in the last couple of conference seasons has proved difficult as politics has centred on the presidential contrast of Cameron with Blair (then Brown). It will be difficult again this year. Coming first does the Lib Dems no favour in terms of gaining attention from the media and the public (for whom the first half of September still has something of a holiday feel).

2) Present attractive coherent policies. The Make it Happen document being referred to conference was intended to serve as a pre-manifesto, but given that no election is expected in 2009 it has been restyled as a “visions and values” document. The party needs a decent narrative, and some eye-catching policies. The party’s tax policy, of emphasising cuts for lower and middle income households (paid for by closing tax loopholes further up the scale) is part of this, although whether it bears scrutiny and commands support in the party are both questionable. Council tax abolition, lower and middle-end tax cuts, localism in public service and criminal justice, clean energy and an energy windfall tax will be some headline policies.

3) Build Nick Clegg up as a strong leader. Clegg needs to dispel the perception that he is not a political heavyweight and is more conservative than his party – “too light and too right” perhaps. Clegg’s speech needs to come over strongly to the party in the hall and the elements of the electorate that will be paying attention. Lacking an inspiring personal narrative (Ashdown and Campbell both had interesting backstories before they became politicians), he will have to surprise. One option is the Blair 1994 strategy of confronting his party with hard truths, and forcing it to do something against its instincts in the interests of modernisation. Another is to go against type – a rallying cry for social justice coming from someone who has seemed to belong to the right of the party. In any case, he needs to start defining himself before the public and this is as good an opportunity as he will get before the election campaign.

In terms of electoral strategy, the party is talking of targeting 50 Labour seats, which is a tall order and what Sir Humphrey Appleby might have described as “brave”. I hope to return to this question in another post. Clegg’s leadership has involved a further repositioning of the party. Broadly, the Lib Dems were “equidistance”‘ between Labour and the Conservatives until around 1992, when Paddy Ashdown proclaimed that position as having come to an end (although in practice it was, for Labour, benevolent neutrality, particularly after 1989). From 1992 until about 2001 the Lib Dems were part of a loose progressive front with Labour. From 2001 until roughly 2007, they formed a left opposition to Labour. Now they seem to be back at equidistance. But Clegg’s tone implies that this equidistance could be evolving into benevolent neutrality towards the Conservatives.

The party’s grass roots are for the most part situated on the anti-Conservative left, although with a dislike of the Labour party’s culture because it seems too establishment and collectivist. The prospect of a deal with the Conservatives, or loose participation in a pincer movement aimed at securing not just defeat but humiliation for Labour, will have consequences that most Lib Dems would find unappetising. On the other hand, anti-Labour posturing has the effect of raising the price of cooperation with a minority Labour government.

The Lib Dems face the essential dilemmas of positioning, electoral strategy and simply how to get their message heard in a two-party climate where the pros and cons of the Conservative alternative and the Labour government are dominating the scene.

Comments Off on The magic number (13 September 2008)

The secret life of a party conference devotee (12 September 2008)

Tags: ,

The secret life of a party conference devotee (12 September 2008)

Posted on 12 September 2008 by admin

The delegates love conference season. But, as the parties get ready for a month of political jamborees, Lewis Baston recounts the experiences of the hundreds of others who travel to Brighton, Birmingham, Blackpool or Bournemouth to meet and greet the political elite each year

For the normal political activist – if that is not a contradiction in terms – a party conference is an infrequent treat, a brief and wonderful trip to what amounts to a small town inhabited by people who are politically sympathetic, and an opportunity to meet their party’s star performers. The conference debates, and the myriad meetings, debates and parties of the fringe are exciting, hectic stuff, and the adrenalin will carry one through.

But there is a whole other side to party conferences. If you work in public affairs for a cause, a charity, a commercial lobbyist, public sector body or as a political correspondent for the media, the conference season is the definitive end of summer. While the delegate or MP will only attend one conference, some of us go to all three (or more, for those with an interest in Scotland, Wales or smaller parties). Welcome to the sad subculture of the party conference exhibitor.

On the road

Each party, and each conference town, has its own distinctive atmosphere. Labour in Brighton, and the Conservatives in Bournemouth, are probably the best, and the Lib Dems in Blackpool probably the worst, for entertainment value. Blackpool was perennially unpopular, for its air of dereliction, its chilly grey seas, unreliable train connection at Preston and sometimes squalid hotels.

But it had some redeeming features as a conference venue, such as the rattling trams, the splendid Funny Girls drag show and the illuminations. Recently the lamp-posts along the sea front have been adorned with giant illuminated bloodshot eyeballs, which always evoked a smile of recognition from some conference delegates.

But Blackpool is no more, replaced by the less quirky charms of Manchester and Birmingham for the two big parties. Their conference centres may be very efficient, and large enough, but something is lost when the party conference is just another big-city event rather than the taking over of a seaside town. Hats off to the Lib Dems for sticking with Bournemouth, which is always a pleasant venue with its warm climate and sandy beaches and its ready supply of cheap and reasonable hotels near the conference centre.

The conference season has its own rhythm. The Liberal Democrats, unfortunately for them, go first in mid-September while the political classes are still struggling out of their summer torpor, and the conference is a lot smaller and more earnest than the other two. Labour’s is huge and hectic, and prone to sudden mood swings such as in 2006, when people decided they loved Tony Blair after all, and 2007, when it was overtaken with enthusiasm for an immediate election and rumours that that was about to happen.

Many exhibitors have a sneaking fondness for the Conservative conference. While stuffy Tories are very stuffy indeed, the fun Tories are probably more fun than anyone from the other two parties, and exhibitors are usually getting demob-happy by then, not to say a bit tired and hysterical. There is a decadent undertone, something of the night perhaps, about Tory conference.

Making an exhibition of oneself

The Labour and Conservative conferences are both enormous trade fairs with some people talking about their political ideas as if they mattered in a room off to one side. The exhibitors are put in rows of little booths in a hall, around which delegates, MPs and off-duty fellow exhibitors will wander while one tries to grab their attention. If you think about the windows of the red light district in Amsterdam, you are getting the idea, but at conference the middle-aged men in rumpled suits are the ones hawking their wares.

The stand will have been assembled, if you are fortunate, by professional contractors. The unfortunates put up their own stands, with the result that conference starts with an involuntary team-building exercise that leads to arguments, breakages and the realisation that some essential bit of kit was left in the lobby of the office back in London. I was maimed in a Stanley knife incident during this process at last year’s Conservative conference in Blackpool.

There is a physical syndrome that sets in as the conference season progresses. Bad breath is one of the first symptoms, aggravated by poor diet, hangovers and a constant flow of instant coffee, but combated with a visit to one of the stands (Royal Mail is often a good bet) dishing out powerful breath mints.

Part of the reason that exhibitors are getting puffy-faced and dead-eyed by the middle of the Labour conference is that a diet of fried breakfasts, canapés and alcohol is not a very healthy way to live, and it takes its toll after a while. A reasonable rule of thumb is that nothing in a fringe meeting buffet counts towards one’s “five a day”, even if it appears at first glance to contain vegetable products. In recent years the health sector pressure groups and professional bodies have got together and held their meetings in a “health hotel”, which also offers some health checks and, wonderfully, supplies of fruit. And, unlike rehab, it’s free and doesn’t take very long. Some exhibitors also give out bottled water.

Further complications include the compulsive twitching of “exhibitor’s knee”, the stiff back and the frozen, coat-hanger grin of someone who has spent all day trying to be charming and polite. A rest and a massage are probably the most sensible ways of dealing with these problems, but most people choose instead short-term oblivion at the cost of feeling even worse the next day, and go out and get blind drunk at fringe meetings.

Under the influence

If you are something of an insider, or know someone who is, there are the big receptions, held by the major newspapers (the Mirror reception at the Labour conference used to be legendary). An invitation to one of these is highly prized. However, most exhibitors have to settle for going to each other’s fringe meetings.

Market economics determines that the more loathsome the cause, the better the food and wine at the fringe meeting or evening reception. Some very worthy causes have the dreaded “cash bar” tag in the fringe programme. A general rule is: unless the fringe sponsors are very wealthy or morally suspect, stick to the red wine. Bad white wine can strip paint from walls, while bad red wine only gives one a bit of a headache.

After the fringe has exhausted itself, there are discos. Among the best of these is often the Absolutely Equal bash sponsored by various equality organisations. This is particularly fun at the Conservative conference, as one can play the game of “spot the Tory” among all the liberal voluntary and public-sector types huddling together for warmth and mutual support. After these, the conference hotel bars stay open pretty much all night, and this is where the most outlandish stuff happens. Some of it is touching, like a late-night impromptu Billy Bragg singalong that sometimes happens at Labour conference. Some of it is a frightening tribal ritual outsiders witness at their mortal peril, such as the infamous Glee Club at the Lib Dems where they sing scurrilous folk songs at their own expense and Paddy Ashdown tells a convoluted joke.

A scant few hours later one jolts awake, in one’s own or, even better, someone else’s, hotel room, knocks back some Solpadeine and wonders who on earth these people whose business cards have appeared in one’s pockets might be. Then you go and do it all again.


Politics is rock’n’roll for ugly people, and similar rules of etiquette apply. What goes on tour stays on tour. It is the height of bad form to tell tales about what happens at night when you take several thousand people with a shared interest nobody else appreciates, and fill them with as much alcohol as they can take. If you must have an ill-advised liaison with a fellow exhibitor, it is best left until the Conservative conference, as it is easier to avoid each other for one conference than it is for three.

The meaning of it all

David Cameron briefly contemplated abandoning annual conferences, but decided not to. His idea was, from a purely practical point of view, not without merit. But one party, or indeed one exhibiting organisation, would lose out if it alone decided to boycott the entire circus. We are trapped into doing conferences the way we have always done conferences. It’s stressful, it certainly counts as work (and often involves 16-hour days), and it’s generally bad for one’s health and wellbeing. But packing up at the end of the Conservative conference can be a sad, wistful business. For all its excess and absurdity, I love the conference season.

Comments Off on The secret life of a party conference devotee (12 September 2008)