Tuesday, September 19, 2023

My article on For a Fair Deal in the Conference issue of Liberator

The new issue of Liberator has been posted on the magazine's website in time for the Liberal Democrat Conference. It's issue 419 (September 2023) and you can download it for free.

I'll start posting Lord Bonkers' Diary here tomorrow, but first here's my article from this Liberator on For a Fair Deal, the policy document being presented to conference.

No Place Like Home Counties

“We want to use the by-election playbook across the Blue Wall,’ says one Lib Dem insider, encouraged by the party’s victories in Chesham, North Shropshire, Tiverton and Somerton.”

I don’t know how many ‘Lib Dem insiders’ there are, but they seem to spend most of their time in conversation with journalists. This one was talking to James Heale, who wrote about our plans for the general election in the Spectator:

The Lib Dems’ focus has been on early selections of respected community figures, raising their profile and finding a local twist on national issues: the NHS, cost of living and sewage. They are targeting the 34 seats in the south-east where they finished second to the Conservatives in 2019. Seats with a Tory majority of 2,000 or less were asked to find a candidate at the earliest opportunity to enable ‘an 18-month by-election’. There have been savvy selections in places such as Wimbledon and Winchester, where the local vet was chosen. New seats offer new opportunities too. In the freshly created constituency of Harpenden and Berkhamsted, the Lib Dem candidate has been bombarded by invitations to events by constituents who mistakenly believe she is the sitting MP.

And when you are fighting a by-election what you want in the policy field is a few appealing bullet points for your leaflets and nothing that will upset the voters you are targeting if they happen to find out about it. It’s best to keep this background in mind when reading For a Fair Deal, the overall policy paper being presented to the autumn conference of the Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth. 

Turn to the early chapters on the economy and on business and jobs, and you will find commitments to invest in infrastructure, innovation and skills. It also promises a ‘proper, one-off windfall tax on the super-profits of oil and gas producers and traders’ and action on the various loopholes that allow the very wealthy to pay tax at a lower rate than the rest of us.

Perks of the rich

All this is good in that it recognises that it is not wicked for governments to tax and spend – and the need for more capital spending on school and hospitals has become more apparent even since For a Fair Deal was published. In taking aim at the perks of the rich, it chooses the right target and one that will chime with the widespread anger at the approach of the current government, but you will search in vain for mention of a wealth tax or an attempt to square the circle of advocating economic growth at a time of environmental.

You will find a mention of Europe in these chapters in a pledge to:

Unlock British businesses’ global potential by bringing down trade barriers and building stronger future relationships with our closest trading partners, including by starting to fix the Conservatives’ botched deal with Europe following the four-step roadmap as set out in chapter 21.

This is a little like Private Eye’s ‘continued on page 94’ as chapter 21 or ‘International’ is For a Fair Deal’s final chapter and the one where you feel a commitment to give children an hour’s teaching a week in Esperanto would be hidden if conference voted it through. Yet it’s where we find what should be at the heart of those early chapters:

We are determined to repair the damage that the Conservatives’ deal with Europe has done to the economy, especially farmers, fishers and small businesses. … Finally, once the ties of trust have been restored, we would aim to place the UK-EU relationship on a more formal and stable footing by seeking to join the Single Market.

Because there is no sensible policy on economic growth that does not involve lifting the sanctions we imposed on ourselves by leaving the Single Market, and that is true whatever position you took on Brexit. This is why Labour should be talking about rejoining it and why even intelligent Leavers – those who really do want to ‘make Brexit work’ – should support this policy too. (The unintelligent Leavers want Brexit to fail so they can announce that have been betrayed and wallow in self-pity.)

Interviewed on Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart’s second podcast Leading at the start of the month, Ed Davey declined to say that the Liberal Democrats wanted to see Britain back in the European Union. He was happy to talk about our instinctive internationalism, but that was as far as he would go. He dwelt on the need to develop a language that would take people with us, which is something, it is true, the official Leave campaign spectacularly failed to do in the EU referendum campaign. Above all, he did not want to return to the divisive politics of those days.

Yet it’s hard to see how an issue like Brexit can ever stop being divisive. The 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Economic Community was won by more than two votes to one, but it did not reconcile the losers to Britain’s increasing involvement with European institutions. No one would argue that the 2016 referendum campaign was good for British politics – Labour activists going to by-elections now have to be told not to insult any Conservative voters they came across – but the case for rejoining the Single Market has to be made and the debate has to be won. As sensible Conservatives has learnt to their cost, if you try to buy off the Brexit ultras they simply bank your concessions and come back for more.

This determination to avoid being ‘divisive’ may well have one eye on the general good of British politics, but the other is firmly on those 34 seats in the South East of England. Because I’ve heard that word ‘divisive’ somewhere else recently – when Munira Wilson, the party’s education spokesperson, talked to the education magazine Schools Week:

These days, Wilson … is sceptical that grammar schools help with social mobility, believing entry is “a case of who can afford to coach their children to go”.

While it would be “divisive” to close existing grammar schools, she “wouldn’t necessarily” create new ones.

Evading the Leopard

I will admit to nostalgia for the days when the products of council grammar schools outshone academically the products of expensive private schools, but that was in an era when those private school had not yet noticed there was no longer an Empire to man and so continued to prize an ability to evade the school leopard above book learning. Once they caught up with the modern world – and it took only two or three decades – money began to tell and we soon learnt that what was really divisive was selection at 11 and the private/public divide.

Munira Wilson did talk about making private schools work harder to justify their charitable status, but none of that has made its way into For a Fair Deal. So instead let me quote the former Conservative education minister George Walden on why that divide damages us all:

In no other European country do the moneyed and professional classes  – lawyers, surgeons, businessmen, accountants, diplomats, newspaper and TV editors, judges, directors, archbishops, air chief marshals, senior academics, Tory ministers, artists, authors, top civil servants  – in addition to the statistically insignificant but eye-catching cohort of aristocracy and royalty, reject the system of education used by the overwhelming majority pretty well out of hand, as an inferior product.

In no modern democracy except Britain is tribalism in education so entrenched that the two main political parties send their children to different schools.

There are some sensible reforms suggested in this chapter, though no sign of our previous view that schools were too dominated by testing and Ofsted inspections. You can see why Schools Week got the impression that we have rather lost interest in education.

Reflecting Ed Davey’s interests, the chapters on climate change and energy, and those on health and care, are among the most convincing. Climate change is ‘the biggest threat to human existence’ and we ‘urgently need to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C or we will face irreversible change’ – no worries about being divisive there. And these statements are accompanied by a series of strong policies, including:

  • Cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2045.
  • Invest significantly in renewable power so that 80% of the UK’s electricity is generated from renewables by 2030.
  • Provide free retrofits for low-income homes and generous tax incentives for other households to reduce energy consumption, emissions, fuel bills and reliance on gas, and help to end fuel poverty
  • Plant at least 60 million trees a year to help reach net zero and restore woodland habitats, and increase the use of sustainable wood in construction.

The chapter on care emphasises the importance of social care and the crisis in which it currently finds itself. Strikingly, it calls for free personal care to be introduced, ‘based on the model introduced by the Liberal Democrats in government in Scotland in 2002’. In the health chapter, we call for patients to have the right to see their GP within seven days or within 24 hours if it is urgent and recognise that to make this a reality we will have to recruit and train more doctors. The seven-day wait would not so long ago have been seen as unacceptable, but this is where this Conservative government has left us.

It doesn’t do to be churlish. If the policies laid out in For A Fair Deal were enacted, Britain would be a better place, but reading it has left me with two unanswered questions. Are the Liberal Democrats in any sense a radical party? And if they are, is it possible to build such a party on the votes of comfortably off residents of the Home Counties?

Jonathan Calder is a member of the Liberator Collective.


Oxonensis said...

Thanks for this article. I agree with it, and think it is important, so will pick up on the only element I'm not sure about...

I think that "comfortably off residents of the Home Counties" are actually and in their subjective experience much less comfortably off than they have been for generations. This isn't to detract from the more important issue of real poverty, but it has important implications for the Lib Dem strategy. (i) Economic goods that had been taken for granted are increasingly out of their reach (free higher education, housing in the areas they'd like, reliable commuting, private schools etc). (ii) Their own opportunities to exercise agency at work or in their local communities has declined: some jobs no longer exist (bank manager, old-style high street solicitor), and others have become far less attractive and more micro-managed (GP, headteacher, and a swathe of jobs in business). (iii) They are increasingly worried about the environment. So, a 'safe' 'respectable' electoral approach which rests on better management of the existing system isn't going to do the LDs much good. We've seen this electorally in the rise of the Green Party in many areas with the same demographic as the LD focus. We also see it in the fact of Labour picking up these votes in areas without an existing LD network, because they are regarded (wrongly in general) as being more opposed to the status quo. I fear that the current LD electoral approach is built on demographic and cultural sand.

Matt Pennell said...

Your observation about our recent and growing strength in the Home Counties raises a number of vital points. I went to an election rally at the Battersea Arts Centre in Nov 2019. I met an activist from Esher and Walton who asked when the manifesto was going to be published because he was getting a number of people asking what our stance on the Mansion Tax was. Prior to this I hadn't really considered how dependent we're going to be on the asset rich just outside the M25. If we didn't have to placate a large cohort of voters in Surrey, Sussex, Bucks and Berks with £750,000 houses, having a radical approach to a regressive tax like Council Tax wouldn't be problematic.

The party needs to be very careful to ensure that chasing wins in the richest parts of Southern England is not a millstone round our necks when it comes to pursuing socially progressive and redistributive policies.

Frank Little said...

I am suspicious of "windfall taxes". However, they do resonate with the public and the current Tory one, which probably benefits the oil companies more than penalising them, has to go.

Otherwise, I add my hurrah to the article.