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Sanders kernel is not a secret recipe

April 22nd, 2011 Posted in Liberal Democrats, Naval gazing by

Earlier this week Michael Crick reported on a critical article by Torbay MP, Adrian Sanders, in the latest edition of left-liberal magazine, Liberator. The thrust of the piece is that the party has “irrevocably damaged our public image… fractured our core vote, alienated a generation of young voter…” and needs

“better organisation on the ground… (to) fight for backbenchers’ rights… (and) to return to what the party is all about. A devolutionist, anti-authoritarian, internationalist, pro-environment, fair-tax, socially progressive Liberal Party in the tradition of Beveridge… we need the leadership to start acting like the leadership of an independent political party…”

It contrasts with a piece by Charles Kennedy in Prospect, where he has reservations, but has “learned to love the coalition”.

Noises-off so close to an election are rarely helpful, but the Sanders’ analysis that the public perception of the party for fair dealing and integrity has been damaged by the last year is one widely shared. The Leadership’s failure to prepare the ground for the difficult decisions of government has made Nick Clegg’s life far more difficult than say for Tony Blair or David Cameron, who fought and won their internal battles before doing largely what they said they would in Government.

I agree most with Adrian most in respect of the importance of consulting widely when taking decisions. The Leadership’s style of consultation sometimes means they only finds out about a serious problem when the angry mob are waving the pitchforks outside the castle.

But consultation means precisely that. After consultation, decision-making is best left to decision-makers.

If the decision goes against the consultees, they usually still complain they weren’t adequately consulted.

There’s quite a bit of that in grass-roots complaints about the leadership for as long as I can remember.

Sanders is also right to note that where the party has campaigned well locally it will mitigate the general trend.

His own result (+5%) in 2010, in a Conservative target seat, increasing his majority by squeezing Labour (-8%), underlines how electorally important a credible “we’re not the Tories” message is in some seats.

His concerns then, cannot be casually dismissed.

I’m not sure though where they take us, or whether he’s taking enough personal responsibility for the trust problem he identifies.

First if that really was how ‘the party used to be’, it should be noted it entirely failed to deliver a majority liberal government. It was creaking as a saleable proposition in 2005, where gains were well below expectations.

A party where “keen, idealistic and uncompromising” grass-roots activists ran the party in the “tradition of Beveridge and Keynes”, and not ministers “driven by special advisers, who never have to face an electorate” or “opportunistic careerists”, is crowd-pleasing, but nonsense.

The party has never been grass-roots run, or the creature only of the centre-left that he describes. We are a coalition. Tensions between the different traditions, between the leadership and leading activists, are nothing new. Careerist opportunism is more a necessary qualification for entering Parliament than doing the work of the back-room professionals who help it happen.

It is also never likely that the party would have achieved majority government “street by street, ward by ward”. The party’s widely copied campaign techniques burn through volunteers nearly as fast as they waste paper. They work best when negative rather than positive. They become unsustainable when Liberal Democrats hold power and have less time to campaign. A rather more serious operational issue in the last decade is how little the party has learnt from our opponents, not how much.

Nor would the party’s reputation for honesty, consistency or integrity be enhanced by ditching the coalition at the first sign of unpopularity. Just being, ‘not the other lot’, or ‘the real alternative’, is a strategy than can only last as long as you don’t hold power. In power it is inevitably going to make you look hypocritical.

There is a tension then between what worked in Torbay, and what works in the national debate. 326 people all attacking ‘the establishment’, making local spending promises in the hope the magic money tree will provide, does not a coherent Government make.

Complaining, ‘our government has failed to deliver all the impossible things I promised on the pretext I’d never have to actually deliver’, is at the heart of the problem facing the party. The discipline and accountability of ministerial office is far starker than that required to be an effective local campaigner, particularly one in permanent opposition.

Trust further can only be restored slowly, by evidence of deed.

It is delivering deficit reduction over the next four years, the stated purpose of this coalition, rather than Adrian’s suggestion of a string of rent-seeking “private members bills”, that is the road back.

The kernel of truth in what Sanders has analysed then cannot purely be put on the leadership. Local and national policy populism is as much to blame for the lack of preparation for coalition, and public disquiet after the event. Adrian’s solution, essentially more of both, would make the problem far worse.


8 Responses to “Sanders kernel is not a secret recipe”

  1. Simon Goldie Says:

    An excellent analysis ofthe party’s situation after decades in opposition. One of the biggest problems the party has is to shift from an oppositionist mindset and into one that says the party can govern. With that will come many challenges as well as opportunities to implement a liberal agenda.

  2. Louise Shaw Says:

    Fantastic analysis

    “The party’s widely copied campaign techniques burn through volunteers nearly as fast as they waste paper”

    Entirely correct

  3. Richard Coe Says:

    This Liberal Vision seems to be in the same vane as “Liberal Future” – broadly you guys should clear off and join the tories – because your “Liberal Future” turns out to be “Liberal Demise” now you’ve taken over the party.

    The Liberal values you advocate properly belong today in the Conservative Party – they are inconsistent with our party constitution and its historical evolution.

  4. Andy Mayer Says:

    The party Richard, is plural, democratic, and tolerent, or liberal. It hosts a wide range of views on what liberalism means. If you don’t agree are you really in the right party?

    This article makes the small point that blaming the leadership alone for our polling ills is unconvincing. The tuition fees policy was always likely to get chopped in a downturn. It’s regressive, expensive and a lower priority than essential services. Any tax you could raise to pay for it would then beg the same question, why spend it on this?

    That the FPC knew this, Centre Forum’s analysis in 2006 was comprehesive, and still saddled the party with the policy is not Clegg’s fault. I’m not sure whose bright idea the pledge was, but I doubt it was the Leadership. It was not though the campaigning decision of a party serious about government. More one running a local targeting strategy for short-term advantage.

  5. Richard Coe Says:


    Everything you say is true – none of it takes away from my point – your brand of Liberalism is almost identical to what the Conservative Party stands for.

    On the one hand you say the party is democratic – then in the next sentence you reject the party’s democratically decided priority on tuition fees. (Incidentally Clegg is mostly in trouble for the tuition fees pledge – he made a firm promise and then broke it – he clearly deserves what he gets – if you make a promise you keep it – otherwise you can’t be trusted)
    Furthermore the preamble to this website proudly declares Liberal Vision to be undemocratic.

    The tuition fees pledge was produced by NUS – it was very cleverly worded – Clegg was right to sign it and wrong to break it. The current state grew up to address the failure of the market to provide education, healthcare and social insurance – there is no evidence that it will provide better now – indeed the evidence from the US suggests the contrary.

    The tuition fees pledge was not a stratgey as you cynically suggest – but a principle – one which many of us who forged this party over the past 23 years have fought hard and long for – your suggestion it is a stratehy suggests you are not well aquainted with the activists who have built this party.

  6. Andy Mayer Says:

    I do, you are right, reject the party’s policy on tuition fees. We’re allowed to dissent from majority opinion in a liberal democracy.

    You are also right that Liberal Vision is a campaign group, not a parliamentary democracy.

    You have something of a year zero view on the welfare state and evidence. There was plenty of education, healthcare and social insurance before either the 1909 or 1945 settlements, I recommend “The Welfare State We’re In” for a good summary.

    I think if you try and articulate the tuition fees policy as a principle you run into a number of problems. It isn’t for example ‘free education’ it’s just making people who don’t go to university subsidise those who do. Given who those people are it is then a regressive policy.

    Is that the principle you have spent 23 years of campaigning to defend? It sounds a little Tory to me.

  7. Richard Coe Says:

    @ Andy

    The people who actually lived through the 20s and 30s are I think the experts of the efficacy of the systems which existed before – they threw them out and founded the welfare state because they didn’t do the job.

    Your argument on Universities is bizarre – it assumes there is no public good derived from higher education – we know – and many rapidly developing economies believe Higher Education is a good thing. Meanwhile detailed studies show that the graduate premium is a myth for most graduates and although a quick mean shows this to be just true – more detailed examination shows that the distribution of the higher earnings means that most do not benefit financially.

    I’m not too sure what you mean by “given who those people are” at 18 people are adults and most have zero income or assets many of us who were at university 23 years ago were the first to go to University in our families and were from ordinary backgrounds. It is free education in the same way the 1945 introduction of Secondary Education is free – free at the point of use – nothing is of course free. My Dad didn’t go to University, but did work from 14 to 66 – are you saying that having paid his taxes all those years he should then have had to pay my tuition fees? bonkers.

    What is wromg is that many people taking vocational qualifications have to pay and aren’t supported.

    I think your minimum state stuff sounds more Tory than anything I have to say. As I think I said before – you may be Liberal – most modern Conservatives fit in to the classical / economic liberal fold – but that is not where our party constitution places us.

  8. Andy Mayer Says:

    Richard the ‘public good’ argument has three problems.

    First it doesn’t stop the ‘no fees’ transfer being regressive, it remains the case that the beneficiares are overwhelmingly both the children of the best off and themselves likely to be better off. The graduate premium is not a myth and the pupil premium is a policy based on recognition of the inter-generational nature of wealth and income and educational outcomes.

    Second quanitfy public benefit.. you can’t… it’s subjective, not only varying by perception of the good, and worthiness of your degree, but also by how those degrees are used… Then tell me what the relative public benefit is from different non-graduate professions…

    Liberals who use this argument do on reflection tend to pull back from the rather feudal implication that they are suggesting hard-working non-graduates are less valuable to society than those with a degree in medeival french.

    Third, if there is a quantifiable relative public benefit premium, it remains whether you pay for degrees by subsidy or loan. This is an argument in favour of university education, not how you pay for it.

    On the point about your dad, I think you need to study the government scheme. Your dad doesn’t pay, you do, it’s a loan from the taxpayer that you pay back if and when you can.

    On ‘free’ vocational qualifications… so to make the tuition fees pledge less regressive we should now subsidise all other forms of adult education, apprenticsehips and training whether or not there is a market failure? Perhaps we should make all books free and the point of sale lest someone reads one and learns something new, then tells somebody else and creates a public benefit… newspapers… commercial Tv… all websites… maybe not twitter…

    Education is a merit good, not a public good. the liberal worry is market failure underprovides… hence the retention of some general subsidy and access subsidies through grants. Merit goods favour mixed/regulated market solutions not socialism.

    The constitutional point is another canard on your side Richard… the passage frequently cited concering “the widest possible distribution of wealth”… I don’t have a problem with that, like most economic liberals I support land tax and rigorous competition policy to break up monopolies. Where I suspect we disagree is what ‘possible’ means or to what extent redistribution should be coerced at the expense of liberty.