The Dissenter's Voice

The ocassional comments, opinions, rambling and rants of a liberal dissenter in New Labour's Britain

Friday, June 30, 2006

Bromley, Blaenau and a bloody nose

Here's something I posted on earlier today...

"I went to bed last night with Tories promising to ‘eat their hats’ if there was a recount and accusing ‘Limp Dems’ of spin for suggesting B&C was going to be close.

Whither DC & Rik now? Anyway, gloat over (teehee).

This is a great result for the LibDems, very poor for the Tories and BG was just plain abysmal for Labour. However, this result does not really change the fundamentals of the current political situation.

The Tories are doing well under Cameron but not well enough to be confident of winning the next election. Bromley has exposed the fragility of his message.

In opposition under Thatcher in the late 70’s the Tories were winning seats of Labour like Workington & Birmingham Stechford with massive swings. They held their own seats like Saffron Walden with increased majorities, indeed the Liberals fell below the National Front in that by-election despite starting in second place! In comparison to that the Tory performance last night was woeful.

This result exposes a vulnerability to their right in certain places - if UKIP can get its act together it could play an important spoiler role in some areas running on a nationalist, anti-immigration ticket, denying the Tories seats they need to win at the next GE.

It also shows that Big Dave is not invincible. Yes it was a local campaign & an unsuitable candidate - but if Cameron were really creating a wave of popular dissent in the suburbs then that shouldn’t have mattered - like the Tories in the 70’s he should have swept all before him on the strength of a national swing. The comparison to make is not with the Tories under Thatcher in the 70’s but Labour under Kinnock in the 80’s.

Once again Cameron’s luck has come through. He should actually be thankful that Labour’s treadful own goal and the local Bromley association’s stupidity will allow him to avoid answering some tough questions about his electoral prowess.

Blaenau Gwent is just horrendous for Labour. Yes they made a tiny recovery but it shows two things.

First, where the habit of revolting against Labour takes root it very hard to shift. That doesn’t bode well for seats where there was a big swing to the LibDems at the last general election. There a many Labour people in the Labour party who believe that when Blair goes, memories of Iraq will fade and things will return to normal. This result chimes with the opinion polls that show that isn’t necessarily the case at all - Labour is likely struggle to recover lost ground.

Secondly, Blair has to go and go soon. While some iin the party may round on Charles Clarke, the turth is that the spectacle of this Govt eating itself alive has to stop. As I’ve just said Labour will struggle to reconnect with its lost support anyway, however if it carries on like this much longer - it will have no chance of doing so - and will evetually reach a Major Govt-like condition. The only way for them to lance the boil now is for Blair to go before it is too late to rewrite a winning narrative for the govt.

For the LibDems this simply shows yet again, for those who continually write them off, that to paraphrase Mark Twain ‘reports of their death are greatly exagerated’.

The party still packs a punch - and this is not just about by-elections. Yes, the locals in may were disappointing, but they still came second in the popular vote with 27% and consolidate their seat tally. This result, as with Dunfirmline and Cheadle should demonstrate to both Labour & Tories that they will be far harder to shift at the next election than many currently expect.

The Bromley result re-inforces my view that the LibDems support is not about the popularity of its Leader. The party is I believe reaching the critical mass of solid support that implies yet again that we are in an area of 2 1/2 party politics for some time to come."

Monday, June 26, 2006

What are these bloody liberals for anyway?

I'm often quite surprised by the reaction my views provoke, some people just can't believe that I am a LibDem, 'you should be a Tory' they say. It's funny how many people think in such as two dimensional way - you must either be Conservative or Labour - as if there's no room for anything else. It's equally strange how many people, even the politically informed misunderstand who the LibDems really are. All parties are coalitions, the LibDems no less than anyone else, and it worth taking time to think about who it is that actually makes up the LibDem coalition.

The LibDems are not a leftwing party, what we have been guilty of though is being overly reactive, reacting against the excessives of Tory and Labour governments rather than articulating a coherent world view of their own.

Probably about 20-25% of the party are like me, traditional economic liberals who believe in choice in public services, lower taxes and smaller government; while there is about another 25-30% are welfarists arguing for traditional direct state provision, the remaining bulk of the party are somewhere in the middle, a largely non-ideological bunch who want to do what's best for their local community - a sort of residents' association with a social conscience. The whole coalition is held together by its commitment to civil liberties & environmentalism and a strong internationalist stance.

How did the party of John Stuart Mill, Gladstone and Lloyd George lose its ideological edge? Well I believe this can be traced back to way the Liberal Party imploded in the interwar years and slowly rebuilt itself over the following decades. When the Liberals shattered in the 1920's, a result of personal rivalry, changing demographics and its own policy inertia, its great electoral coalition split off in different ways, creating a liberal diaspora right across the political spectrum.

Those more concerned with the protection of personal freedom & private enterprise mainly fled to the Tories, while those more worried about poverty and unemployment tended to end up with Labour. All that was left behind was a small rump, reduced by the 1950's to 6 seats in Parliament and winning only 2.1% of the vote in the 1955 General Election.

It must have been tough being a Liberal back then. How tempting it must have been for Clement Davies, the then Liberal Leader, to succumb to Churchill's coalition offer in 1951. But he didn't and the Liberal's survived as a party in a new role - party think tank, part pressure group. For the next 20 or so years that was pretty much the party's function despite the leadership attempts to turn it into something rather harder edged.

However, as the party recovered from its near death experience it learnt to campaign developing innovative techniques that propelled Liberals to some unlikely local victories. It clawed its way up to 19% of the vote in the February 1974 election and peaked as part of the Alliance at 26% in 1983. This new campaigning prowess came at a cost though, as the party focused on local populist campaigns it began to lose its ideological clarity, often its campaigning was reactive and parochial, defending the status quo against change whatever it was. This was good for winning elections, but not for philosphical coherence.

This reactive tendency was strengthened during the yers of the Libreal/SDP Allaince - the extremism of both the Tories and Labour parties meant that it simply had to demonstrate its moderation in order to gain new support. Not being either of the other two parties gave the Alliance electoral momentum without it having to find a sharp ideological or policy profile of its own, becoming instead the last defender of the Butskellite consensus.

For many years it seemed as if the Alliance and its successor, the Liberal Democrats, were in danger of losing any authentically liberal voice. Reacting first against the Thatcher and then against the Blair government, the party appeared to be increasingly leftwing, even knee jerk in its opposition. As Tory & Labour tried to outbid each other in rightwing populism the LibDems appeared in comparison to be the party of tax & spend and producer interests, with 'penny on income tax' policy reinforcing this perception with the public.

However, just as this perception started to get fixed in the public's mind the small government liberals in the party started to become restless. After the 1997 general election groups like LiberalFuture & new MPs like Mark Oaten, David Laws and Vince Cable started to call for the party to go back to its roots.

I vividly remember hearing the phrase 'I am an economic liberal' for the first time at the 2000 party conference. As the limits of Gordon Brown's spending increases were exposed more and more people in the party started to question the drift towards tax & spend. Pretty soon economic liberals were coming out of the closet all over the place and a new agenda was being formed to reach outside the party's traditinal voting block and call the liberal diaspora home. By 2004 the publication of the Orange Book gave a name to this growing school of thought.

Today, the Orange Bookers, although they remain a minority in the party are the LibDems' intellectual driving force - for instance the new tax proposals are pure Orange Book thinking. It seemed as if I'd been waiting 15 years to hear the things that Ming said at their launch.

When I first joined the party back in 1990, I often felt a little like a lone voice arguing for a traditional liberal approach. When I was first approved as a Parliamentary Candidate - the assessor wrote that my views were 'beyond the normal range of party opinion', today I think I may well be slightly to the left of the party's Treasury team!

The party is reaching a tipping point in policy thought, the intellectual argument in favour of a traditional liberal approach is being won, even if there is still an emotional reluctance to admit it. To put it another way, the future's bright the future's Orange!

Friday, June 23, 2006

This is a Liberal Blog

This is a Liberal Blog.

I've finally joined cyberspace so that I can add my voice to the growing number of liberals who not only surf the net but also have their own little island out there in the ether.

The internet is amazing, the natural home for a liberal: free-thinking, open, linking like minded people, challenging assumptions and preconceptions. It's just the place I want to be.

I'm a political anorak of course, a sometime amateur politico, LibDem aparatchik and general hack - this place is made for me. The internet feeds my insatiable appetite for information, analysis and gossip. But the internet is much more than that. Look at how it is changing the face of politics in the US.

Bloggers are changing the way parties campaign - the quixotic Howard Dean US Presidential run in 2004, changed things permanaently - the web went from being considered as a sort of citizens' band radio for anoraks into a powerful tool for raising money and mobilising support. Now the viral marketing techniques of the web bloggers are spreading word of new policy ideas and new sorts of political candidates.

That's what we need here in Britain. People are tired of what we've got, I know I am, we really deserve something better. I'm tired of this authoritarian, tabloid, lying, brutish Labour government. I'm equally bored of the smiling, opportunistic, shallow 'Rainbow' Tories.

And even though I'm a LibDem I'm pretty tired of a tepid centrist fudge masquerading as liberalism.

I'm a Liberal and I want a different kind of politics.

A politics that doesn't confuse simply taking power from the private sector and handing it to the state, even the local state with liberalism. There isn't anything particularly liberal about promising to spend other peoples' money on big one size fits all government schemes. Liberalism is about devolving power, wealth and choice to individuals and their communities.

Surely there is room in British politics for a party that believes in social justice and the freedom of the individual. I want a politics that recognises that if you are poor in the UK and have no day-to-day control over a state that provides your healthcare, education, income and transport then you are not truly free. The point of having money, is that you can afford to walk away and do your own thing. When you're poor you don't have the choice.

I can't be the only liberal who totally rejects the so-called 'leftwing' idea that 'the poor' are too stupid to make informed choices themselves and need enlighted middle-class lefties with bad 2:2s in Sociology to make those decisions for them. I want a politics that gives ordinary people as much or more choice and control when using public services as they do in the private sector.

Britain's politics mustn't be allowed to degenerate into a tedious managerialist squabble. The internet provides an alternative, it gives us a glimpse of something different, better, not controlled and regimented from above. I'm convinced that it's here that the ideas that will change politics will be born and spread. The internet is free, open and devolved.

That's just like the sort of politics I want, and that's why I'm here - where else would a liberal want to be?