Why the Liberal Democrats must learn from Charles Kennedy

The tragic passing away of former Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, which rightly resulted in eulogies from all sides of the political spectrum, also provides a moment for the depleted Liberal Democrats MPs to consider the future of their own party. Under Kennedy’s stewardship, the Lib Dems gained the highest number of Liberal MPs since 1923 but following the disastrous 2015 general election, this legacy of 62 seats has been decimated to a mere 8 seats only a decade on.

Following the election disaster, many prominent Lib Dems, from Vince Cable to Paddy Ashdown have found a wide range of reasons to explain their electoral collapse, except one : The Coalition Agreement (which Kennedy himself didn’t support). Local and European election results from 2010 indicated growing public disaffection for the Liberal Democrats, resulting in their calamitous sixth placed performance in the 2014 European elections. The idea that the SNP, opinion polls or divisive Tory rhetoric killed the Lib Dem’s election chances is ludicrous. More worryingly, if the party continues to live in a parallel political universe, it could turn the Lib Dems into a political irrelevance.

During the five years of the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats, a centre-left party which still, somehow, prides itself on fairness and decency, supported the Bedroom Tax, oversaw cuts to legal aid, cuts to their cherished mental health budget, the introduction of fees for employment tribunals and an explosion in the number of food banks and homelessness. At the same time, they broke promises on tuition fees, VAT increases and the mansion tax. This was a complete dereliction of democratic duty and political suicide. This is the real reason why the Lib Dems lost 85% of their MPs. Squeezed on all sides by the Greens, Labour and the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats ended up in a no-man’s land where they criticised their coalition partners, only taking responsibility for their favoured policies whilst shirking responsibility for their part in a government which ’hit the poorest hardest’

If the next Liberal Democrat leader has a fraction of the political and moral judgement, principles and courage of Charles Kennedy then the party might just rebuild itself from this nadir. Otherwise, the stark alternative is an obsolete or even defunct political party.

Fixing British politics

Public trust in politicians has reached such depths that even estate agents and bankers are more trusted to tell the truth. In addition to widely stated reasons such as the expenses scandal, empty rhetoric and broken promises, I believe one underlying reason is the lack of expertise and professionalization in British politics across all parties. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice is an English graduate without any legal experience. An ex-Labour shadow Chancellor, without any relevant qualifications or experience, admitted to needing a book in economics for beginners when given the role. The Education Secretary is a former corporate lawyer without any teaching experience. The Equalities Minister voted against gay marriage. The list of examples is endless but the random nature of the government ministerial appointments does not inspire public confidence. Furthermore, ministers could feel less confident introducing policy reform especially in the face of civil service opposition. Therefore, relevant expertise in their field would not only make the public more confident but the minister in the implementation of their own policy agenda.

My policy suggestion would be for the Prime Minister to insist on previous experience or qualifications before awarding a portfolio to a minister. This criterion could be met through previous and/or current academic studies, extensive professional experience before entering politics or a mandatory acclimatisation period of, at least, 12 months if the party is currently in opposition. This mandatory training period would involve work placements, shadowing and academic study of relevant policy issues facing the department. This training period could be necessary in order to compensate for the lack of expertise around more modern departments such as the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The initial problems of narrowing the talent pool for current Members of Parliament would be far-outweighed if political parties started to look at potential parliamentary candidates from professional bodies, for example Keir Starmer as a prospective Secretary of State for Justice. Although future reshuffles would be more limited as promotions would effectively be ‘in-house’, junior ministers, who were familiar with their brief, would be able to take on more senior positions.

This relatively cost-free policy would bring credibility to Cabinet ministers, improve public confidence in politicians and increase the levels of professionalism and expertise in British politics as a trend emerged away from ‘career politicians’ towards distinguished experts in their respective fields.

Labour is having the spending debate five years too late!

The post-mortem has well and truly begun in Labour ranks with many differing explanations and reasons being given for Labour’s comprehensive General Election defeat. There appears to be an acceptance that the party was not pro-business enough and did not reach out to aspirational voters. It is also clear Labour did not do enough to convince voters on the economy, notably failing to answer the question on whether Labour spent too much whilst in government.

This last question in particular is currently defining the leadership contest with each candidate trying to prove they are the one who can win back voters trust on the economy and show they have learnt the lessons from this election defeat. Both Mary Creagh and Liz Kendall have been fairly open from the beginning in saying they believed Labour spent too much before the crash in 2008. This is also a position Andy Burnham is also expected to endorse in a speech. Yvette Cooper has yet to make the same admission. Debate over this issue is clearly going to run and run throughout the leadership campaign.

The frankness of these admissions is in stark contrast to much of what we heard during the election campaign. Ed Miliband famously did not rebuff this question when it was posed at the last leadership debate, choosing instead to defend Labour’s spending record. To be fair no one in the Labour Party seemed to want to face-up to this question.

It is easy to look wise after the event and after a defeat but you have to question whether this sudden apparent change of mind from some leadership candidates is credible and is not simply a convenient about face.  Opposition to this view seemed scant in the run up to the election with seemingly little being done to advise the Labour leader to adopt a more convincing position

This debate feels five years too late. Labour had the whole of the last parliamentary term to come up with a more credible position on this issue and failed to take it. It should not have taken two election defeats to open this particular can of worms.  Questions over the economy constantly define elections, so failing to provide a compelling answer to the spending question was always going to be costly and so it has proved.

Is It Time for Labour To Make A Clean Break With The Unions?

In recent times the relationship between Labour and the trade unions has become more strained. Tensions have been bubbling under the surface for a while, but have come to the forefront during the last few days. There is little love lost between Blairite figures in the party and leading trade union figures as demonstrated by Jim Murphy’s recent attack on Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite the country’s largest union.

The Labour Party was born out of the trade union movement and this alone means that there will always be close links between the two. They still have ties to many Labour MPs and are largely responsible for financing the Labour Party. However times have changed in recent years and the political climate is very different. The relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions is no longer as strong as it once was and for some it feels more like a millstone than a cause for celebration.

Gaining the support of the unions for any Labour leader was once seen as imperative, but now it is increasingly being seen as a poisoned chalice. Although their influence is useful in seeking the Labour leadership, after this their influence is largely perceived as negative. Ed Miliband never really shook off the tag of being the union’s man and was regularly mocked as a union puppet. Electorally this damaged Miliband and made him appear weak without the power to criticize the unions. It does not appear that a close link with the unions plays well with the voters.

Labour have struggled to compete financially with the Conservatives and do not have the number of large donors that the Tories have.  As a result, they remain overly reliant on the trade unions for financing, without which it is difficult to see how they could survive financially, raising questions about whether a break between Labour and the trade unions would be viable.

Due to the interwoven history of the two groups, it is hard to see how the link can ever totally be broken. However questions do have to be asked about whether the unions have too much influence in the Labour Party and whether this helps or hinders the Labour Party. Although Labour do benefit in some aspects from their close relationship with the unions, many now argue that the link stops Labour progressing. Maybe for both it is time for an amicable split.

 

Scottish independence doesn’t have to be inevitable!

The election night provided many notable stories. One of the most remarkable was what happened in Scotland. The SNP won 56 out of the 59 seats including some dramatic gains from the Labour Party.

The people of Scotland showed they had lost trust in the Westminster parties and didn’t appreciate being taken for granted. Whilst on the night this hurt Labour far more than the other parties, it should be seen as a failure for all the big parties who now all have almost no representation in Scotland.

This was not a vote for independence though or even a vote for an independence referendum. It was made clear independence wasn’t on the ballot paper this time and results may have been different if a referendum promise had been in the SNP manifesto.

Despite this, the chances of independence have risen after this result. There is a clear and obvious division now between the people of England (broadly Conservative) and people of Scotland (broadly independent socialists). In the election campaign the Tories successfully played on the fear of the SNP having an influence in a UK government. Whilst this clearly influenced voters England, it served to anger many voters in Scotland increasing the level of discord between the two nations.

However, independence is not inevitable. There is no overwhelming mood in Scotland for another independence vote yet, leaving a window of opportunity for Cameron. Cameron’s first task is to improve relations between the countries which clearly soured during the election campaign and then to display that he has understood the concerns of the Scottish electorate and respects what they have voted for.

Sturgeon is right to say that it cannot be business as normal. Cameron and the government have to make a clear and concise offer to the SNP and the Scottish government. This means delivering both on promises which have already been made and going even further. If done in the right way this could highlight how a devolved Scottish parliament could work in tandem with a Westminster government and render another vote on independence pointless.

On Friday morning after the election, we were probably closer to Scottish independence. The Scottish people had placed their faith in the SNP. What happens next is pivotal. Cameron has been given a clear mandate to lead England country, now he must do his part to save the Union.

Can we ever change political perceptions?

The ‘Shy Tory’ is a concept which has plagued pollsters since the 1992 election and last Thursday we saw it return with a vengeance. This concept is based on the idea that many voters are reluctant to admit they vote for the Conservatives and therefore mislead the polls. Why, because the Tories are still viewed as the nasty party and voters are scared of being associated with them, even if in reality they will vote for them.

This matters because in an open society people should be encouraged in expressing what they believe, including the political party which they support. Politics is surely at its best when a spectrum of different opinions are discussed and debated. This does not go for just the commentariat but for the general public as a whole. If people are scared to say what they really believe then politics and arguably society is the loser.

If this is to change and political debate is to become more open, then long held perceptions of political parties need to change. Political parties on all sides of the spectrum struggle with certain labels, often regardless of the reality. Labour have traditionally struggled to gain trust on the economy whereas the Tories have traditionally struggled to gain trust on the NHS. For a long time both parties have attempted to change these perceptions, but with very limited success. Therefore it is perfectly valid to ask whether these views can ever be changed.

Entrenched political views and ideas can be hard to change, but this is no reason to simply give up. The responsibility rests on us all, political parties, the media and the general public regardless of political views or persuasion to be less partisan and judge policies fairly rather than lazily judging based on political stereotypes which only further embeds long held perceptions.  Perhaps the biggest challenge will be for all political parties to stop using labels as a way of alienating the public from an opposition party.

This will inevitably be a long process we one that we ought to start now. Our country prides itself on freedom of speech and the freedom of expression and if people do not feel comfortable declaring who they will vote for, we have freedom of expression in word only. That is why the ‘Shy Tory’ voter should concern everyone interested in politics.

 

How Labour can win in 2020

The scale of Labour’s general election defeat, its worst since 1987, and the multitude of reasons behind it, coupled with the Conservative boundary changes, means that Labour has a mountain to climb to win in 2020. The triple bind of SNP’s inexorable rise, traditional Labour voters in the North switching to UKIP and the inability to convince English voters of Labour’s economic competency, perceived lack of centrist values and possible reliance on the SNP resulted in a perfect storm scenario for Ed Miliband. Although a Labour victory seemed unlikely in the light of the Conservatives’ commanding advantage in both economic management and Prime Ministerial ratings, calls to return to New Labour Mark II downplay the underlying reasons for this crushing defeat. A radical and multi-faceted approach is required if Labour intends to claw back a 100 seat deficit against a post-austerity Conservative Party by 2020.  After taking for granted its traditional voters in Scotland and the north, Labour now needs to reach out to these voters and address their concerns. In Scotland, a self-governing Labour party, which is no longer ran as a branch office is a must. An independent Scottish Labour should attack SNP’s lack of progressive credentials and redistributive policies, especially if full fiscal autonomy is granted to Scotland, thus depriving the nationalists of its get-out clause of blaming Westminster. This strategy, combined with the SNP’s inevitable drop from such dizzying heights, could be the beginning of Labour’s recovery in Scotland. The next Labour leader will also need to reach out to those UKIP voters left behind by New Labour and globalisation, breaching the subject of English identity, immigration, and possibly most importantly, integration in order to not alienate more centrist Labour voters and work within the realities of our (presumed) membership in the EU. The introduction of a contributory benefits system, as mooted by Jon Cruddas in the past, could also be a step in proving that Labour is on the side of workers and neutralising benefit tourism. Additionally, UKIP’s fluid positions on the NHS, tax cuts for the rich, small state neo-Thatcherism provide significant targets for Labour to attack on and win back disillusioned voters. Finally, Labour need to promote a more positive, aspirational message supported by economic credibility aimed towards the 90% of voters not in the super-rich apex or the disadvantaged base of society, to win back marginal seats in the Midlands and South. If Labour can marry its credibility for the intrinsic social justice values present in the British electorate and demonstrate that it has learnt lessons from past mistakes on the economy, immigration and loyalty, then the long journey back to power can begin.

Labour can still win outright, here’s how!

Most pollsters and pundits seem to have already accepted the result of the next election. A hung parliament has been factored in and the only debate has been about the make-up of potential coalitions after the election.

Publicly Labour and the Conservatives refuse to listen to what the polls are saying and maintain that they are fighting for an overall majority. In order for Labour to form a majority they would need to improve significantly on the 256 seats they ended on at the dissolution of the Parliament, some 70 seats short of the 326 needed to form a majority. The current electoral system favours the Labour Party, even though they start from a pretty low base. The system generally means they will not have to poll as highly as the Conservatives to gain an overall majority.

Ed Miliband has been much maligned during his leadership and has trailed David Cameron significantly in the leadership stakes. An impressive performance in the television debates has greatly improved his numbers. If voters become less concerned about the prospect of Miliband becoming Prime Minister and the leadership numbers narrow between him and Cameron, Labour are likely to gain.

A proportion of voters are still not feeling the recovery and remain scared of potential Tory cuts, most notably in welfare. These fears alongside the negative campaign being fought by the Conservatives, leave room for a compelling Labour message which can still attract undecided voters.

By exploiting these factors, Labour should give themselves a good chance in many marginal seats. They would expect to take many seats off the Lib Dems who face the prospect of a hard election. This could bring Labour close to the finishing line.

The main problem for Labour is the SNP surge in Scotland. Labour HQ believe this will fade as the election draws nearer and voters’ minds in Scotland are focused on the choice between a Conservative government and a Labour government.

Labour have much to do and a long way to go to gain that  majority, but if these factors were all to line up there is still a possibility of a substantial late swing towards the party, perhaps even enough to see them across the line.

The Tories can still win outright, here’s how!

The televised debates between the major leaders have failed to yield a significant breakthrough for either of the two major parties according to the opinion polls. Both Labour and the Conservatives are still neck in neck with a hung parliament appearing to be the most likely outcome out of this General Election.

Both major parties and their leaders are insistent that they are still fighting for a majority. The Conservatives though arguably have an easier task as they ended Parliament with 302 MPs, less than 25 short of an overall majority. They could even achieve this by not taking any seats off the Labour Party and concentrating on winning seats off the Lib Dems.

Polling is not an exact science and has to be taken with a pinch of salt as evidenced by the polls of the 1992 General Election. Historically the polls have tended to underestimate the Conservative vote and traditionally there is also a late swing towards the governing party. If these factors were to occur again at this election, the Tories could perform better than any of the polls are currently suggesting.  Perhaps even 25 seats better.

The rise of the SNP offers more hope with the belief that voters in England will become more worried about a Labour government propped up by the SNP and so move towards the Tories. Allied to this, there are signs in some polls that UKIP’s vote is currently being squeezed. Proportionally UKIP still take more votes from the Tories than they do from Labour and if this squeeze materializes on Election Day, then this will benefit the Tories.

There is also a feeling within Tory HQ that people have not started paying attention to the forthcoming election yet and when this happens voters will inevitably move towards the Conservative Party. Questions over economic competence and leadership, both areas on which the Tories have a lead will come more sharply into focus in the final few days of campaigning.

A hung parliament may be seen as a given by most in the political bubble, but there is a plausible case to be made that the Tories can still win this election outright and can gain a majority. Inaccurate polls, a late swing to the governing party and the fear factor of the SNP.  Suddenly 25 extra seats might not be so far out of reach.

 

Labour must be more aggressive in fighting the SNP!

Recently Alex Salmond gave a very provocative interview to Andrew Marr in which he stated that ‘if you hold the balance, you hold the power’. He then went on to claim that any future Labour government would have to negotiate their budget with the SNP. This has drawn an angry response from Labour leader Ed Miliband who called these statements a combination of ‘bluff and bluster’. However this has not stopped the Conservatives and the Tory oriented press jumping on these comments.

The Conservatives have released a video showing Ed Miliband dancing as Alex Salmond plays a penny whistle. The Tories clearly believe this is a productive line of campaigning for them to take with a previous poster showing Ed Miliband tucked into Alex Salmond’s pocket. The comments from Salmond also featured prominently in much of the press with many traditional Conservative supporting newspapers reporting them and using them as an explicit warning.

With many people in England fearful about the influence the SNP may have after the next election and the personal disdain that is felt towards Alex Salmond, pressure was placed on Miliband to rule out a coalition with the SNP. This promise though has not stopped the story and so Miliband had little choice but to hit back hard over these comments. Being seen to be in cohorts with the SNP is an electoral millstone and Miliband must distance himself from Salmond and insist he will not work with the SNP.

However although they both protest, Salmond and Miliband are likely to need each other after the next election. Without Labour, the SNP have nowhere else to go. They have already ruled out a deal with the Conservatives and Scottish voters would look very unfavourably on any SNP party which took down a Labour government and let in a Conservative government.

Alex Salmond may have overplayed his hand and forced Labour into a corner where they have to come out swinging. Labour can seriously weaken Salmond’s position by holding onto their Scottish MPs but to do so they will have to adopt a more aggressive approach to the SNP. Miliband must show that he is the one calling the shots and not Salmond. This will not be easy against the old wily political campaigner though.