As those of you who read my blog may have worked out I have a history with the UK Liberal Democrats. I am, although living in the US, President of a wonderful Liberal Democratic Association - Amber Valley - in Derbyshire. My association with the place is it is where my parents used to live, though I am a Derby boy born a few miles away in Allestree. Derbyshire is one of the most beautiful places in the UK to visit. I should also mention i chaired the Liberal Parties youth wing for two years and served on its Party Council and its Defence Panel.
So having explained my link to the party I wanted to make additional comments on the state of the party and why it needs new leadership.
The party in opposition over the previous 30 years had established itself as a party of principle on the left in British politics this was highlighted by a number of policy positions such as:
- The additional of 1p on income tax to pay for improving education
- The opposition to the war in Iraqi without an agreement of the UN Security Council
- Being at the forefront of green politics at the local and national level - including on climate change
- Being against the UK having an independent nuclear weapons
- Being against the expansion of nuclear power
- Being in favour of devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
- Being in favour of proportional representation in elections
- Being in favour of the reform of the House of Lords
- Being in favour of freedom of information
- Being against monopolies
- Taking on Murdoch over his attempt to take over SKY TV and supporting the investigation into his employees practice of snooping on people through their mobile phones
- Predicting the 2008 crash and the possible housing bubble that is emerging in London now
- Taxing the higher incomes to help address inequality while bringing out of tax those on lower incomes
- Holding the banks accountable for what they did
- Against Tuition fee increases
These are good policies and they in 2010 resonated with the British public as did Nick Clegg who was well loved by the British public as the election campaign finished.
Labour was a mess and the arithmetic did not make it possible for a coalition of the left. In a period of still very unsure economic recovery there was only two choices available:
- Go into Coalition with the Conservatives
- Allow a minority Conservative administration
Now it is clearer to me that the second should have been the choice we made…so much easier to say that in hindsight.
What happened over the period of the 4 years of the Coalition has been a real problem. Liberals have always defined themselves as distinct from Labour and the Conservatives. We are not on a linear scale somewhere in the middle. Historically, we have been on our own Liberal scale, with economic liberals at one end and social liberals at the other.
The huge mistake that the party leadership made over the tuition fees it has never recovered from. If you make a promise then go into government and break that promise then people will no longer believe what you say. That decision whether rightly or wrongly is associated with Nick Clegg. The more recent Syria incident where they were prepared to go to war with Syria without a UN Security Council decision added to the view that the party just wanted to be in power as opposed to following and being consistent to the ideals that they had in opposition. There have been other changes such as on nuclear power and our independent nuclear deterrent that added to a view that we were 'just like the others' this allows protest to a party like UKIP to happen - it is basically a xxxx on all your houses. It adds to the disillusionment of the general public in politics and political parties. Tom Snowdon reminded me that "the Coalition agreement did not call for increase tuition fees, restructure the NHS, privatise the NHS, spare bedroom tax, secret courts."
I don't think that everything that Nick Clegg has done is bad I think he and the party in government have some good stories to tell such as reducing income tax on the lowest paid, on the green bank - though the role out of the energy efficiency programme has been a joke.
In the economic area i think that the party got captured by right wing ideology and should have gone back to its roots in Keynes. I do agree with David Boyle on the need for some real thinking on economics and perhaps a Liberal Commission on Economy and Jobs is needed. There is some great work out there by Stiglitz, Lord Stern and others that should be the base of a new economic model. Stiglitz reminded us of the cost of Labours Iraqi war:
“The budgetary cost to the UK of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2010 will total more than £18 billion. If we include the social costs the total impact will exceed £20 billion.”
The financial crisis we have lived through isn't finished. Governments have not put in enough of a robust regulatory framework to stop it from happening again. As the head of the IMF has recently pointed out. The finance markets should have to prove that their new cocktails are not a potential problem – they should be checked by a government body before being allowed into the market. One excellent idea is to require companies listed on the stock exchange to report on their environmental, social and governmental impact. This would enable the market to truly understand which companies are addressing these challenges and place a proper price to reflect this.
A new leadership in the party should ask: Will policies strengthen or weaken the regulatory framework and protect the people and how can we break up companies so they are not too big to fail? I would add with serious potential for a perfect storm around the nexus issues of climate-water-food and energy also possible in the next ten years there is a need for a party that is on top of these new challenges.
Back to the reason for this blog is because today i opened the BBC web site to find Paddy Ashdown former leader of the Liberal Democrats attacking those who want a leadership election:
"I have got a very clear message for the party - anything you do now which is not... campaigning in the context of the next general election behind a fine leader and, I think, a fine record, is a distraction and a dangerous distraction - stop it now."
My support for the call for a new leader is based on the view that with only 13% thinking that the Deputy Prime Minister was doing a good job - compared to 78% who said he isnt it underlines that he has lost public support. It may not be fair but politics is anything but fair. The general public has made it clear in the elections in May that they will not support the Liberal Democrat’s with the present leader.
I believe it is impossible for him to lead the party into any success in the next election. He should stand down and let the party unit around a new leader. He is young enough to still play a significant role in the future, the British public are forgiving in the longer term, but at this point the time has come for change. Yesterday the first constituency party votes for a leadership election, Ribble Valley, did so on a margin of 2-1. All local parties should be asked to vote on the issue to give a clear view to the leadership in the Westminster bubble what they want.
There is a bright future for a party that articulates the list i started with but only under new leadership.
Future challenges will be complex and the world may become a more dangerous place. Liberalism could, and should, be the beacon of light that guides us. We need new Liberal Democratic leadership to help lead the nation to a better future for every woman, man and child, and for the planet itself, but only if we abandon a timid mind-set and think big.