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Conservatives may vote Liberal in Lower Saxony. They won’t in Britain.

21 Jan

The German Liberal party, the FDP, has defied expectations in the Lower Saxony state election. Most people thought they’d continue their poor run of results in state elections. In the ten state elections in 2011 and 2012, they won the 5% of the vote necessary to win seats in just four of them. Opinion polls had consistently put them on between 3% and 5% and so there were doubts about whether they’d win enough votes to get into the state parliament at all.

In fact, they received 9.9% of the vote in Lower Saxony, up from the 8.8% of the electorate who backed them five years ago. That wasn’t enough to stop the Social Democrats and the Greens taking control of the state by just a single seat.

Nick Clegg meeting FDP Leader and German Vice Chancellor Philipp Rösler

It’s easy to spot the similarities between the FDP and the British Liberal Democrats. Both are in coalition with their country’s conservative party. Both have unpopular leaders. Both have – until yesterday – been suffering electoral losses.

I imagine many Lib Dems are hoping for a similar boost in their electoral fortunes. One Lib Dem councillor has already tweeted that the FDP’s result “gives us #libdems hope.”

It’s extremely unlikely that the Lib Dems will see electoral success in the same way as the FDP has done.

Just over 100,000 of people who voted for the FDP were “Last-Minute-Transfers” (yes, that’s what the German press are calling tactical voters) from the German conservatives, the CDU. Nearly 70% of FDP voters said they’d voted tactically and more than 90% of them said they could have also voted for the conservative CDU party.

Does this sound like people who vote Lib Dem to you? The Lib Dem leadership may be close to the Conservatives. Traditional Lib Dem voters certainly aren’t though and Conservative voters aren’t close to the Lib Dems either.

The FDP are a party of classical liberals voted for by liberals. In Lower Saxony, conservative voters also supported them in a bid to keep the CDU-FDP coalition. The Lib Dems are a party of liberals and social democrats voted for, until 2010, by social democrats. This is a generalisation, but not a big one.

It just doesn’t seem possible that huge numbers of Conservative voters are going to come to the Lib Dems’ rescue as CDU voters did for the FDP. The FDP has spent 60 years as the governing partner of the CDU and CDU voters know and trust them. The liberals in the Lib Dems have traditionally sought out social democratic voters with their policies on mansion taxes and tuition fees. Conservative voters haven’t had time to get to know or trust a liberal Liberal Democrat party and won’t vote tactically for them.

Clegg’s Call-In: Good for Politics

7 Jan

I like Nick Clegg’s plan to go on LBC 97.3 for a weekly half hour call-in to “keep in touch” with the voters. Unfashionable though it is to praise Clegg for anything, I think it’s a good thing for senior politicians and people to have conversations as much as possible. I’m sure Clegg is doing it to improve his image but I don’t mind too much if it improves his understanding of life outside Westminster and helps listeners to buy into the importance of representative politics.

The Evening Standard has a quote from a Lib-Dem saying it’s “desperate to commit so much time to this.” On the contrary, improving communication between politicians and people is one of the most pressing challenges facing British politics so it’s a very effective use of his time.

Labour Has to Be Ready to Work with the Liberal Democrats

9 May

The news that Labour has started productively engaging with the Lib Dems is a promising development for centre-left politics. The parties simply have to work together now if they are to be in any way prepared for formal or informal collaboration against the common enemies of conservatism and neo-liberalism after the next General Election.

That the Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham is sending letters to Lib Dem MPs asking them to support his calls for “1. fair admissions 2. qualified teachers in schools 3. ‘face-to-face’ careers advice” at the third reading of the Education Bill on Wednesday is encouraging. Reaching out to the Coalition’s junior partners like this is significant on a couple of levels. It points to Burnham’s trust that the Lib Dems are not a lost cause for those interested in pluralist, centre-left politics. It is also a sign that some within Labour want to start building a working relationship with the Lib Dems as soon as possible, whether they are working (or conspiring as some would have it) with the Tories or not.

As Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy rightly points out, Labour’s and many others’ obsession with wanting Clegg, Cable, Huhne and Alexander to resign, fail or apologise has distracted attention from the real drivers of the government’s regressive proposals and policies, the Tories. Just as important though is that the Lib Dems need to be aware that they do have a viable choice in who they work with. Labour, the Greens and the broader left must be prepared to continue to build a working relationship with the Lib Dems to be ready to fight conservative and neo-liberal ideologies and politics both now and in the future.

Against the backdrop of NHS reforms unpopular with the Lib Dems, an article in yesterday’s Observer claims that Ed Miliband is openly calling for defections from the Lib Dems to Labour. The caption to the picture to the article states that Miliband would “welcome defectors” from the Lib Dems. I’m not convinced Miliband has actually said any such thing though. I can’t find any direct quotes in the article from Miliband clearly saying that nor am I able to find the original text by Miliband which the quotations in the article came from. [If anyone reading this finds such a text could you let me know?] The only quotations in the article which might be interpreted as encouraging defection are “They can come and work with us. My door is always open” and “Lib Dems have to work out which side they are on. Do they want to be on the Conservative side, backing the Conservative-led government, or on the progressive side? It really is time for them to make up their minds.” Miliband’s comments appear to me to respect Lib Dem cabinet ministers’ and MPs’ continuing membership of a Liberal Democrat party which could and should be able to work with Labour, the Greens and others. Again, these are promising signs from the Labour leadership. 

To publicly suggest that Lib Dems ought to leave their party would surely appear patronising, cynical and tribalistic. It assumes that there is no possibility for the Liberal Democrats to ever do good work with the Labour party in the future and that the Labour party has a monopoly on centre-left thought and action. Neither assumption would lead to a productive engagement with a party who should be an ally in the fight against the common enemy of those informed by conservative and neo-liberal traditions. There is a constructive and positive way forward without requiring Lib Dems to switch tribe. Co-operation between the two parties, the Greens and others outside of party politics allows for the broadest possible consensus against regressive, conservative and neo-liberal politics. The rest of the Labour party should follow Miliband and Burnham’s pluralist lead and treat the Lib Dems’ members and traditions with respect despite the current Lib Dem leadership’s disregard for those same members and traditions.

A caveat to all of this talk of co-operation is that it doesn’t seem possible for the most prominent Lib Dem adopters of neo-liberal economics – Clegg, Alexander and Laws – to continue to lead the party while in any formal collaboration with the Green party or a Labour party led by Ed Miliband. Clegg is electorally toxic and the light-touch economic policy espoused by him – but crucially not huge swathes of social liberals in his party – seems in direct opposition to Miliband’s and the Greens’ politics of democratic resistance to the negative effects of capital. There would surely have to be changes at the top of the Lib Dems before co-operation between the parties was formalised.

For their part, Labour needs to develop economic policies which resonate with the electorate, counter the ‘no alternative to cuts’ narrative and are convincing to other parties within the centre-left. Just saying “we’ll cut less than the Tories” doesn’t seem to do that. Building up a broader narrative based on stimulating not cutting an economy into growth is my preferred approach but I’m sure not the only way to encourage the centre-left unity necessary to oppose the Tories.

The Underperforming Lib-Dems and Implications for the AV Campaign

21 Jul

Over my month away from blogging I’ve absolutely lost the sense that the Lib-Dems are making the best possible use of their prominent position in government. Indeed, they don’t really seem to be softening the impact of the Tories’ plans either. After the heights of Nick Clegg’s speech on reform of the electoral system and Parliament’s Upper House, the Lib-Dems appear to have lost their voice at the heart of government. Opinion polls are beginning to reflect this. According to a YouGov poll published yesterday, only 40% of Lib-Dem voters at the General Election approve of the coalition’s performance compared to 36% who disapprove. Similarly, only 46% of Lib-Dem voters at the General Election would vote for them in another General Election today.

It isn’t a huge leap to suggest that a drop in support for the Lib-Dems could lead to defeat for the ‘Yes’ campaign in the referendum on the Alternative Vote. In another YouGov poll published yesterday, AV’s lead over FPTP was down from 13% a fortnight ago to just a single percent. As much as supporters of the ‘Yes’ campaign will try to avoid this, the referendum could all too easily end up being a poll of the public’s view of the Lib-Dems.

As the main parliamentary advocates of electoral reform, the Lib-Dems have a huge responsibility to keep a strong, distinctive and successful role within the government. It’s important that they show that coalition government – slightly more likely under AV – works. Equally important though is that they ensure that they, as the party which will be campaigning hardest for AV, keep to the principles that their supporters voted for at the last General Election. It will be nigh-on impossible for AV to be passed without Lib-Dem voters voting in favour of it. Unfortunately, the Lib-Dems seem to be forgoing the principles upon which they were elected which has of course been reflected in their poll numbers.

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The Tale of Two Scandals (or the Telegraph’s Missed Opportunity)

7 Jun

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the University of Birmingham student paper ‘Redbrick.’ The original is available here. To be clear, I disagree with the headline’s assertion that Laws’s practice was unethical. This article continues with some of my ideas from a previous blog post on David Laws.

The recent case of David Laws has illustrated the hypocrisy about how sexuality is often represented in Britain today. The Daily Telegraph accused Laws of illegally claiming expenses on the rent he was paying to his landlord who was also his long-term, though secret, boyfriend. Laws soon resigned from his ministerial post where he was responsible for reducing government spending. The ethics of Laws’s expenses claims are much disputed but that is to miss the most crucial aspect of the episode. If he had been open about his sexuality, he could have also claimed for his partner’s living costs and hugely increased his claims. His motives were clearly to keep his homosexuality private and the effect was to save the taxpayer money!

The Telegraph maintains it did not intend to divulge Laws’s sexuality. This is little more than a cynical attempt to deflect criticism that they were unfairly violating Laws’s privacy. As soon as Laws heard the story was soon to be published, he had little choice but to declare his sexuality. Neither his friends, nor his very traditionally Catholic family were aware that he is gay. Laws grew up in an inhibited family environment during a time typified by the Conservative government’s legislation banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by teachers. It is hardly surprising that Laws valued his privacy so highly.

Many in the media and various (mainly Labour) MPs have argued however that it is equally as unethical for a privately gay MP to bend the expenses rules to avoid his sexuality being revealed as it is for an aristocratic MP to claim for his moat cleaning bills. In many cases, the viewpoint underpinning this assertion is that there is no reason for gay people to keep their sexuality secret in modern Britain. Two tweets from Ben Bradshaw, a gay Labour MP, epitomised this stance and asked ‘why should anyone in Britain today feel ashamed to acknowledge they’re gay’ and later ‘when is “protecting your privacy” a euphamism [sic] for feeling shameful about who you are?’

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On the Expenses and Privacy of David Laws

30 May

The case of David Laws is more complicated than many would wish to portray it, both on the issue of the legitimacy of his expenses claims and on his sexuality. Yes, he is a millionaire and could have easily afforded the rent for which he was claiming but all MPs are allowed to claim on rent for a second home under the current rules. Implementing a means-tested expenses system would perhaps go someway towards solving this problem.

It is wrong though to conclude that Laws was somehow cynically ripping off the tax-payer. As the Independent on Sunday’s leader points out,

had he been honest about his personal life, he could have legitimately claimed more from the public purse, as Mr Lundie’s housing costs would have been claimable as his property would have been the couple’s second home.

I am prepared then to accept that Laws is being truthful when he says the reason he covered up the use of his expenses was to protect his privacy and more specifically his sexuality. After all, if Laws was somehow claiming on public funds to maximise his personal monetary gain, it made no financial sense to keep his relationship with his partner secret. Continue reading

Possibilites for a Growing Green Party

13 May

One of my favourite moments of the General Election was Caroline Lucas winning Brighton Pavilion for the Green Party. I’m very much in favour of more diversity of political parties in the House of Commons and with the vast experience that Lucas has from working in the European Parliament, I expect her to be an excellent addition to the chamber. I support the principal of many of their policies. They seem to be the party most in favour of redistributing wealth and as a Republican I welcome their proposal to all but abolish the monarchy. This got me thinking; I can see many Lib Dem and Labour voters turning to the Green Party in the coming years. If much of the centre-left of Britain’s electorate become disillusioned by a Liberal Democrat party in coalition with the Conservatives and a Labour party potentially in civil war and continuing down their tribalist path, a large amount of those voters could switch to Lucas’s Greens. Lucas should use her new-found position to good effect and increases awareness of the Greens and make a centre-left swing to the Greens even more likely.

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Co-operation Rightly Trumps Tribalism

12 May

I came home this evening to see David Cameron entering Downing Street. It’s a truly momentous occasion, a turning point in British political history. All my instincts tell me to be deeply unhappy to see a Conservative as Prime Minister. But after a couple of hours to consider the policies in the coalition agreement and the makeup of the new coalition, the outlook is not so grim. The policies in the coalition agreement and the makeup of the cabinet seem to have given a lot of ground to the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems’ best policy of a fairer tax system is there and the Tories’ worst policy of a tax cut for Britain’s richest is not. Nick Clegg is Deputy Prime Minister and several other leading Lib Dems will have top cabinet positions. As a passionate supporter of Proportional Representation I am saddened at the lack of fundamental electoral reform in the agreement but it was obviously too great a stumbling block for the Tories who have compromised instead on a wide array of issues. Continue reading

The Purple Revolution: The Need for Electoral Reform

10 May

On Saturday afternoon, the Take Back Parliament campaign marched throughout Britain to call for change to the current electoral system. I took part in the London demonstration, loudly marching from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street, past Westminster and the cameras of the BBC and Sky and finally to Smith Square where Liberal Democrat MPs were meeting. Dressed in purple, the traditional colour of pro-democracy activists, the campaigners urged the Liberal Democrats to insist that any coalition agreement includes their commitment to introduce a proportional system where everyone’s vote counts.

Almost every European country, including Scotland and Wales, successfully uses a proportional system. This sees parliaments where the people are genuinely represented, governments with popular support and elections where everyone has a say. Germany avoids extreme parties gaining power by requiring parties to receive 5% of the vote to win any seats. Because people know their vote matters, turnout tends to be higher. Most proportional systems return coalition governments meaning mature politics are necessary, with co-operation and consensus-building needed to govern effectively.

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On the Virtues of Coalition Government

5 Feb

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the University of Birmingham student paper ‘Redbrick.’ The original is available here.

At some point before June 2010, Britain is to become an elec­toral bat­tle­ground. Polit­i­cal par­ties will be cam­paign­ing for our votes at a gen­eral elec­tion, with vot­ers poten­tially being swayed by issues such as the econ­omy and the MPs’ expenses scan­dal. How­ever, this elec­tion may be his­toric for the most unex­pected of reasons.

In Britain, one party usu­ally gains a major­ity of the seats in Par­lia­ment, mean­ing they do not need the sup­port of the oppo­si­tion par­ties to make laws. How­ever all this might change after the upcom­ing elec­tion. For the first time since the 1970s, there is a strong pos­si­bil­ity that no sin­gle party will gain over­all con­trol at West­min­ster, result­ing in what is known as a hung parliament. Continue reading


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