By Chris Bowers, Iain Brodie Browne and Paul Pettinger
There are moments in politics where you just have to stop and say: the emperor is wearing no clothes. And the latest YouGov poll for The Times showing just half of Labour voters in 2017 will vote Labour at the next general election is one of those moments.
The implications of this are profound. Labour is set to lose a raft of seats simply because its Remain voters are abandoning the party in droves. But where those seats go will depend on whether the Remain vote can coalesce around one Remain candidate. And this might be the Remain parties’ one chance or avoiding a long winter of populist right-wing government that could undo much of the liberal society we take for granted.
The puts the onus on the Remain parties to create an electoral alliance, which could become known as the ‘Remain Alliance’, or perhaps ‘Open Society Alliance’ is better as it’s about more than just remaining in the EU – it’s about creating a modern, compassionate, democratic society in which everyone has a voice. Unfortunately, time is not on our side. If there is to be a General Election this autumn – and the more people talk about it, the more likely it becomes – there will be limited time to piece together this Open Society Alliance. But something that can help create such an alliance would be a short declaration of principles that could cut the need for lengthy policy negotiations.
What would this declaration of principles look like? It would have to be short – the longer it is, the greater risk of natural Remain parties rejecting it because of a technicality which overshadows the overall ethos. It would probably have to be limited to four policy pledges and one parliamentary commitment:
- A proportional voting system for the next and future Westminster elections (the exact voting system could be prescribed or not, depending on how much of an obstacle doing so or not doing so would be).
- An immediate programme of efforts to tackle climate change that starts the process of having Britain net zero-carbon on a far more ambitious timetable than the May government has mapped out.
- An end to Brexit, either through straight revocation of the UK’s Article 50 letter or through a people’s vote that offers the option to Remain.
- A non-Brexit dividend, in the form of a package of measures to tackle the effects of austerity, including an emergency funding package for councils.
- Anyone elected on the Remain Alliance platform would be committed to voting for the above four principles, and then voting to call a General Election as soon as all four were through Parliament, in order to have a fresh Parliament under a fair voting system.
It may be that this set of principles may have to be proposed by a non-party-political entity (could be an ad hoc group of private citizens) so it isn’t associated with any one party. If involvement from a political party were not an obstacle, the Social Liberal Forum would be an obvious body to lead the creation of this alliance from the Lib Dem side.
The existence of this alliance platform would have the advantage that all the Remain parties – Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru – could sign up to it, which would make it easier for voters to identify Open Society Alliance candidates.
It would also make it easier for parties to stand aside in areas where two competing Remain parties risk splitting the vote and letting the Conservatives or Brexit Party in. The party standing aside would know that their core beliefs were represented by another party that had committed to the four Open Society Alliance principles, and it would gain by another party standing aside in its favour elsewhere.
The one fly in the ointment would be if two or more parties in a marginal constituency campaigned on the basis of being in the Open Society Alliance. In constituencies where no Remain party could still come close to winning, or one would win anyway, this wouldn’t matter. But, in the current landscape, there may be as many as a quarter of all constituencies where a Remain party could win if Open Society Alliance supporters got behind just one candidate. If such unifying candidates could be identified, they would then use the term ‘Open Society Alliance’ in their campaigning, but this begs the question as to who would decide this? There may not be time to go through all this.
Therefore, an Open Society Alliance declaration cannot on its own bring the Remain parties together. But what it can do is certainly facilitate greater tactical voting in key seats and help emphasise the common purpose between supporters of an Open Society Alliance. In so doing, this will make it easier for parties to come together, to explore ways of stopping the Johnson/Farage ‘regressive alliance’ exploiting the undemocratic nature of our first-past-the-post electoral system, and winning a snap election, and, let’s face it, doing even more damage than just taking our country over the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit.
What’s currently happening in Brecon and Radnorshire, where Plaid Cymru and the Greens have stood down in our favour to support internationalist politics, could, with enough reciprocation, be reproduced across Britain to stop Johnson and Farage in their tracks. A declaration of key principles might also allow certain pro-Remain Labour candidates to say they support the Open Society Alliance (as long as they were willing to vote for the four principles and the short Parliament if they were elected). If they didn’t, they’d have broken their promise, and we know what happens to politicians and political parties who break their promises.
The potential gains are massive. With Labour’s vote crumbling and many Tory Remain supporters anxious about Farage and a no-deal Brexit, an alliance of Remain parties could easily hold a healthy balance of power, which could be enough to see off Brexit and bring in PR.
With the possibility that Boris Johnson could cut and run, figuring an election in mid-October is his best chance of getting a working majority, work on an Open Society Alliance for the next General Election has to start now. This should be a priority for our new party leader, and this process should be supported by drawing up a declaration of principles that all the Remain parties would be asked to sign up to.
SLF welcomes the decision by Chuka Ummuna to leave Change UK and join the Liberal Democrats. After the EU elections it was obvious that Change UK’s fate was sealed with just 3% of the vote but as the interview in the Independent reveals Vince Cable had to persuade Chuka that that the party was no longer committed to austerity before he felt he could join (see this 17 minute video). As a result, Chuka is now the business and treasury spokesperson and will now be a key member in driving the economic policy of the Liberal Democrats in a clearly anti austerity direction, which we in SLF see as a welcome development.
This is all part of a bigger picture of a Lib Dem revival in which in the space of just 3 months the party is now challenging 3 other parties for the highest opinion poll ratings. And in addition to the Brexit Party, Labour and Tories, the Greens and SNP/PC parties are also likely to be challenging for power in future elections.
There is no doubt that the Liberal Democrat party has changed since the end of the Coalition 4 years ago. With a new leader soon to be elected and a huge number of new members the party has much to be positive about. However there remains difficult questions about what, beyond Brexit, the party stands for these days, and if it were to gain a block of say 100+ MPs at the next general election as some opinion polls suggest, how it would use its newfound political power.
The demand from the EU Remain movement is that the pro-Remain parties work together in order to defeat the Tories and Brexit party, who themselves may form a pro-Leave alliance. This will be far from easy as relations between the political parties of the left of centre are currently so poor. The first step in this of course is to debate and we intend the forthcoming SLF conference to advance that process.
When it was announced that a new political party was being setup that would support a People's Vote on the UK's membership of the EU, this was welcomed by SLF.
A new disruptive force could in addition add to the campaign to change the voting system and bring in new people into party politics to campaign for progressive change.
As events unfolded however the new party failed to impress. The notorious memo leaked to the Daily Mail demonstrated that they had calculated that the Liberal Democrats are a spent force and that their job was to actually replace the Liberal Democrats by recruiting their members and taking away their donors. Having offended the Liberal Democrats in a very public way they could have disowned the document, but instead chose not to comment on it at all.
Their failure to stand in the local elections followed by their insistence not to do a deal with the pro Remain parties in the EU elections may well have dealt it a fatal blow. Having secured less than 5% of the vote it is hard to see where they go from here.
To their credit, in addition to their 11 MPs, Change UK has succeeded in bringing many people into politics who are new to party politics. It would be a shame if they were to all give up on politics now. Given the rise of the Brexit party and the likely lurch to the right in the Tory party they are very much needed.
However the election results have left them in a position of weakness. They will need time to decide between themselves what to do next. Their leader Heidi Allen has shown she is happy to work with other parties. We hope she can persuade the rest of her party to do the same.
We welcome the disruptive impact that the new independent group is having on our failed, dysfunctional and clapped out political system. We welcome that they, like us, demand a Peoples Vote and would campaign to Remain in the EU.
But it is not only over Europe that our outdated political system has failed. Our antique electoral system, designed for people who could not read and write, has squeezed out radical voices with important things to say like the Greens and ourselves. We invite TiG and all like-minded people to join us in campaigning for a fair voting system that will enable diverse and progressive voices to be heard and have influence.
As social liberals we support the widest possible distribution of wealth and income. We do not believe that the market alone can achieve this objective. We are committed to eradicating the gross inequalities of power, health and wealth. The freedom, dignity and wellbeing of individuals is our chief concern and we will work collaboratively with those who share our objectives.
Why Labour party members should consider becoming Lib Dems in 2019
In recent times a number of debates within the council of the Social Liberal forum, of which I am a member, have turned as much on where the Labour party as well as our parent party the Liberal Democrats is heading. Extrapolating from these as a Liberal Democrat I am bound to ask whether, given the current crisis of leadership within and support for Brexit by the latter (with which 88% of Labour’s members appear not to agree), there is scope for some and possibly even a great number of Labour activists either to join the Liberal Democrats or to set up a new centre party which they in their turn may then want to invite others to participate in.
Inevitably a short essay like this will be accused of opportunism or, worse, being no more than cheap party-political propaganda. It isn’t intended to be either. Whilst I am – since 1981 – a near-lifelong Liberal or Liberal Democrat it was my voluntary opting-in to this, the Social Liberal forum, which by its very nature attempts to bring together/assimilate adherents of more than one political grouping, which prompted me to put it here in print. Whilst I would clearly like to see the Liberal Democrats grow from their current modest base of eleven MPS and a few hundred councillors I can also see greater or equally great gains for the country in the emergence of any new centre party comprising initially those with solid representative or campaigning experience at any level but representing that large swathe of ‘middle England’ at present without any voice in the Westminster legislature on account of the Brexit debacle. This is that very same establishment we thought of until recently as the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’!Read more
As the European institutions get back to work, most of the talk in Brussels surrounds how the new Romanian presidency of the Council will fare in wrapping up a lot of unfinished business before the European Elections in May. Tongues are also wagging as to the political complexion of the next European Commission, which is expected to begin its mandate in December this year.
To the extent to which non-Brit officials in Brussels still discuss Brexit, their incredulity it seems to me, stems from the fact that they see the UK taking such a huge strategic gamble based on so little understanding of the long, hard and winding process to come. Living in Brussels and working on EU legislation these last few years, I have often been struck by how little the political debate in the UK seems to relate to my day-to-day understanding of how the EU works.
Nothing illustrates this better than references in the UK media to “The EU says” or “The EU wants”, or “Brussels says”. Nobody in Brussels would ever speak like this; for the simple reason that the EU is so multifaceted that it is impossible – especially at the outset – to discern a single EU line. Interests and opinions between member states, between political groups and within and between the institutions vary hugely. What I think most UK commentators tend to mean when they say the “the EU wants” is the European Commission, but I have often seen the descriptor appended to the personal views of single MEPs, often from smaller political groups like the Greens.
If Brexit does go ahead on the 29th of March, the UK public and media will soon find out that the high degree of consensus between the 27 EU member states on the dry technicalities of the Withdrawal Agreement is unlikely to hold once the UK is out and discussions turn to the future trading relationship. It will be a “blind Brexit”.
The joint political declaration appended to the legal text of the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement is little more than a goodwill statement. But if the Brits are serious about securing access to the Single Market for goods, they will have to begin negotiations with, essentially 27 other countries after March, each of which will have a veto, as will the new European Parliament. What happens to the £100 billion or so worth of services the UK sells to EU countries every year is anyone’s guess. Services are not usually included in trade deals and “passporting” is due to end.
To give a flavour of how long it generally takes to go from vague political statements to fully-fledged regulations and directives, published in the Official Journal of the European Union, the legislation I have been working on, called the Clean Energy for All Europeans Package, first received its “political declaration” from Heads of Government in the European Council in October 2014. It is not yet complete. The EU-Canada Trade deal (CETA) took around eight years to negotiate and ratify and was held up for several months at the 11th hour by the Walloon Parliament in Belgium, one of Belgium’s three regional parliaments, all of which can block the ratification of an EU trade treaty.
So, if Brexit goes ahead on the 29th March the UK will be taking a leap into the dark. For non-Brits, this is an unprecedented political and economic experiment on a huge scale. It still gives me the shivers.
SLF Council member Paul Pettinger writes about his experience of attending Green Party conference on behalf of the SLF:
In October 2018, the SLF had a stall at the Green Party of England and Wales’ annual conference in Bristol for the first time.
Relations between Lib Dems and Greens have improved in recent years and in no small part thanks to the sacrifice of local Green parties who have stood down for Lib Dems in Conservative Lib Dem marginals, such as in the 2016 Richmond By-election and a host of seats at the last General Election.
These local arrangements have not only encouraged former Green voters to vote tactically, but also allowed Lib Dem candidates to use the endorsement to better squeeze other anti-Conservative voters, something made much harder since the Coalition.
At the 2017 general election the contribution of Greens probably made the difference between the Lib Dems winning or losing in Tim Farron’s seat, as well as Layla Moran gaining Oxford West and Abington. More generally, many social liberals and Greens agree on today’s biggest issues (Europe, environmental issues, electoral and constitutional reform), and there are demonstrably many social liberals in the Green Party.
Pluralism should be a strength of progressive politics, not a weakness, and it is in the hands of progressives to determine whether this is the case or not. To date, SLF members have not needed to be Lib Dem members. Back in the summer a constitutional amendment was passed at our AGM allowing Green members to join the SLF. Consequently, we decided to organise a stall at their annual conference.
Our attendees were struck by the open minds and friendliness they experienced. I am pleased to report that since the summer several Green members have joined the SLF and I would like to extend a warm welcome to them. I look forward to working with all SLF members over the year ahead towards forging a society that is more liberal, equal and green.
“Massive money laundering and a major tax haven; failing police effectiveness including official as well as unlicensed corruption; insufficiency of judges, too few prosecutions that are often ill-prepared; insanitary over-crowded prisons with endemic drug-taking and rioting; use of drug-pusher children; and epidemic of teenage knife crime; foreign assassins; declining health provision; too few schools with growing teacher shortages; crumbling railways; increasingly deficient regulatory system with conflict -of -interest ‘revolving door’ hop-on hop-off recruitment; lack of effective party leadership; government reliant on a bunch of crony unaccountable fixers; growing demagogic populism carrying ever-more fascistic overtones; increasingly impotent representative bodies at all levels; and many more deficiencies besides.”
This is a fair description of many third world countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Yes, but it also defines contemporary England and especially its capital London.
Thus throughout the UK varying degrees of chaos threaten the very essence of what have been accepted as the canons of representative democracy. A brief survey is revelatory.Read more
Ian Kearns is the former Deputy Director of the IPPR thinktank and an author. He made a speech at this year's Lib Dem autumn conference which is well worth reading in which he talked about why he had left Labour for the Liberal Democrats.
He has also written in the Independent on the same topic and about how it was the importance of the social liberal tradition that drew him to the Liberal Democrats. We reproduce the article below with his kind permission:
There is nothing that this country needs today that cannot be drawn from a social liberal rather than a socialist tradition.
After many years in the Labour Party, and after many months of agonising, I left the party in June of this year to join the Liberal Democrats. This is why.
At home, the idea that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is radical is a myth. Its 2017 manifesto was a travesty of a document for a party that claims to believe in a more equal society.
The biggest single spending commitment in it was the £11.2bn set aside to abolish university tuition fees and reintroduce student grants. The majority of those who would benefit are from the wealthier end of the income distribution. They need help, for sure, and this could be achieved by switching to a graduate tax and some additional support from general taxation but, in the same manifesto, Labour failed to commit to reverse the closures of Sure Start centres and refused to reverse all the Tory government’s welfare cuts. They refused to do this, even though we know life chances are largely locked in by age three or four, the problem Sure Start was designed to address, and even though those on welfare are some of the most vulnerable in our society.
Corbyn’s manifesto demonstrated that he is prepared to pour money into the middle class while screwing the poor, including the youngest of the poor, if that’s what it takes to get elected. And on top of that, his catastrophic position on Brexit would reduce tax receipts and lead to further cuts in the public services relied on most by the least well off. Labour can’t defend the poor while being complicit in making them poorer.Read more