Liberals may not want to defend Tim Farron. We still should.


Religion is not an excuse for discrimination. But that should not blind us to the fact that evangelical Christians are now a minority in the UK, whose rights liberals may need to fight for.

Part 1: What liberalism is NOT

To the surprise of essentially no one, Tim Farron has confirmed that he does in fact believe that gay sex is sinful. Equally unsurprisingly, this has led some to question his liberalism and whether he belongs in a party that espouses liberalism.

Writing in Prospect, the philosopher Julian Baggini explains the misapprehension this view embodies:

Suspicion of Farron’s equal rights credentials reflects a wider misunderstanding of the very nature of politics and its relationship to morality. Secular, pluralist democracy rests on the assumption that members of society have different, often very divergent conceptions of morality and the good life. It negotiates these differences by distinguishing between public and private space, allowing individuals to live according to their own consciences as far as that is compatible with allowing others to live according to theirs.

To be a liberal in such a polis is to be firmly committed to this principle of individual liberty of conscience. It doesn’t require actually having a liberal personal morality. A political liberal can be a moral conservative. What matters is not whether Farron believes that gays will burn in hell for their sins but whether he believes they have the legal right to secure their own damnation before rule passes from the human to the divine.

Part 2: the wages of Tim

Now, one can give Farron too much credit when it comes to separating politics and personal morality. As I blogged about back in 2015:

there does seem to be a pattern whereby Tim is lobbied to do something by Christian groups, does it and then on reflection realises he shouldn’t have.

And one of those instances does seem to be what initially provoked journalists to begin asking questions about what Farron thought about homosexuality. However, these infractions are generally minor. For example, instead of voting for equal marriage three times, he did so twice and abstained once. For that reason, I still feel comfortable endorsing the position taken by Jennie Rigg, acting chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems, that the two things that matter in this regard are:

1. How Tim Farron votes in parliament

2. How he treats people – LGBT+ people in particular – in everyday life

And that on both these matters he has a defensible record.

Indeed, it is striking how removed the discussion about Farron and his views have become from these concrete concerns. It may have begun with a discussion about how he voted on equal marriage, but it has ended with us parsing a purely psychological phenomenon, and seldom bothering to consider why Tim Farron’s views matter beyond the confines of his skull.

It would be different if he had used his public position to preach to his fellow citizens about what they should do in their private lives. But that was emphatically not he was doing. Indeed, he spent his entire tenure trying to avoid telling us his views on the matter – and on occasion claiming even to hold a wholy different view. Even now, his coming out and saying he thinks gay sex is sinful, seems to be less an attempt to convince others of his viewpoint, than to set right a moment of dishonesty on his part. Throughout, he seems content that his private views to remained private. It is his critics, who made them a matter of political salience.

Part 3: the wider issue

Now I am wary of taking this argument, where I am about to. I appreciate that many in the LGBT+ community would take umbrage at a straight Christian – even an LGBT affirming one – making a case that conservative Christians deserve to be seen as oppressed rather than oppressors anywhere close to the issue of gay rights. I completely acknowledge there are valid reasons for that, including but not limited to the fact:

  • In many parts of the world churches continue to perpetuate extreme legal and societal repression of people on account of their sexuality
  • That has historically been the case in the UK too
  • Nor has such behaviour in the UK entirely disappeared. Evangelical churches continue to be a major barrier to equal marriage in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, too many churches – even in the UK – continue to make life miserable for any young person unfortunate enough to grow up gay in their orbit.
  • When Christians make claims about their rights not being respected, they often do so in an overwrought, intellectually lazy manner that fails to show empathy for others. It often involves exageration, hyperbole, equating the inability to discriminate against others with being discriminated against oneself, making unwarranted connections between the challenges faced by Christians in the UK and indisputable instances of oppression in places like Saudi and North Korea, or making resentful comparisons with the supposed preferential treatment given to Muslims that manage to imply either that the predicament some Christians face is the fault of Muslims or that Muslims do not deserve to have their human rights protected.
  • Being fined for not baking a cake or being asked unpleasant questions by politics reporters are problems of a wholly different magnitude to being imprisoned or prevented from being married.

That said, a real problem remains. We cannot ignore the extent to which secularisation has changed Christianity’s position within the UK. Those professing a Christian faith in an active manner are clearly no longer just a minority but a small minority. For some Christians – myself included – this does not pose an especially acute challenge. We are what Tim Farron would describe as – perhaps ‘dismiss as’ – ‘cultural Christians’. We see secular humanism not as a threat to our faith but an outgrowth of it. For us, its concern with equality and human flourishing, accord with the all human beings being made by God and loved by him. However, for others, no such harmony exists. As they see it, God has decreed there to be a certain order to things, and now humans are messing with it. That sets them against the values of the majority, and history suggests that in such a situation the temptation for the majority to act intolerantly will be strong.

As I have already mentioned, it is quite possible to overstate this danger. If you had to be out of step with the values of any society, you’d choose a liberal and humanist one because part of its essence is that it affords strong protections to minorities. Hence the authorities will not shutter churches, believers will hardly ever face prison, and the mobs they confront will be allegorical. That said it is also to understate the problem. Besides, what happened to Farron, there is also the case of the evangelical bakers fined by Norther Ireland’s equality commission for refusing to produce a cake with a pro-LGBT slogan on it and at least one case of the courts having to step in after someone was unlawfully dismissed from their job for posting to their private Facebook page that equal marriage was ‘an equality too far‘. I have on multiple occasions heard generally liberal-minded people using anti-Christian language like ‘God botherer’ or ‘Bible basher’. It is also worth considering the possibility that the changing demographics of the church-going population are liable to increase the possibility of anti-Christian discrimination. Black majority churches are growing whilst white ones contract. That creates the ugly possibility for racial and religious prejudice to align and feed off each other. In this context, the mixture of bemusement, derision and revulsion that characterise the reaction to Farron’s views on homosexuality, should seem like a warning sign of a minority in a vulnerable position, which should also be a call to action for liberals. That might feel uncomfortable because his opinion might seem abhorent, but that’s kind of the point. It is not the people who hold pleasing, widely shared views, whose right to hold them requires defending.


It is perhaps instructive to consider what would happen if the law allowed politicians to bring cases for unlawful discrimination against the electorate and the wider polity. [For clarity: I am not advocating that – this is just a thought experiment!] It seems pretty clear to me that if Farron were to pursue such an action, he’d likely win. The courts have previously recognised that for some Christians, opposition to homosexuality may be a manifestation of their religious beliefs. Given that, placing someone in a situation where they must affirm support for same-sex relationships or lose out on the chance for advancement at work (in this case leading a larger parliamentary party) would potentially amount to indirect discrimination, which is prohibited by the equalities act. It is possible to ‘justify’ indirect discrimination, if one can show a good enough reason why it’s needed. But could we as a body of voters? If it were necessary to defend the rights of LGBT+ people, then absolutely it would be. However, given Farron’s voting record it seems that argument would falter for lack of evidence.

Which brings me to what is the nub of the issue for me. Is stigmatising a man who voted for equal marriage, campaigned against section 28, tabled a bill to end the ban on gay men donating blood and pushed for the UK to take stronger stances on LGBT+ issues globally for thoughts he is reluctant to express, an effective way of promoting LGBT+ rights? Or is it punishing him for belonging to an outgroup that thinks differently from the majority of us?

What I learned from being Vince Cable’s intern

Photo with Vince

I have almost certainly written more letters and emails as Vince Cable than I have as myself. Back in late 2006/early 2007, I spent four months of my gap year as an intern in his Westminster office. My main job was to draft replies to correspondence for him. Me and another intern would print out our drafts, so there was a big pile of them for him to either sign or make amendments to when he came into the office.

That does not make me a close confidant of his or anything approaching it.

Dozens of other people will have filled the same role since I did. I have spoken to him

So what did I learn from working for the new Lib Dem leader?


His public persona is pretty close to the one he presents in a professional setting

If you are expecting anything shocking from this post, you are going to be disappointed. Basically, nothing I saw him do or say jarred with the impression I’d formed from seeing him on the telly.

If you ‘judge a man by how he treats his waiter’ then the judgement on the new Lib Dem leader is positive.

Researchers, interns and caseworkers are the proverbial waiters of Westminster. I heard stories of them being yelled at, given impossible instructions and expected to do strange things unrelated to their job description. Indeed, the waiter comparison is not entirely figurative: one researcher apparently had to wait their boss’ dinner party.

However, none of these stories were about Vince. The people who worked for all seemed to like and respect him, and felt in turn that he respected them. I’d be lying if I said his employees never griped about him – that’s what employees do about their employers – however, the tone of these complaints tended to be affectionate rather than seriously aggrieved, more like pointing out a foible than anything else.

Having a rather distant relationship with technology does not prevent you becoming the Cabinet minister responsible for it

Of those foibles, the one that stands out in my memory is his relationship to technology. I recall another member of staff saying with mild exasperation that ‘he theoretically understands what you can do with computers, but not how’.

The best symbol of this attitude was probably his mobile phone, which he’d kept despite it being several years old, and having a cracked screen, because ‘he knew how to use it’.

This seems rather ironic given that he went on to be Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills which had responsibility for science and technology. He was by all accounts pretty good at that aspect of the job, so maybe specific subject knowledge isn’t all that important a quality in a minister.

Delegation is the heart of good management

His attitude to both his Westminster and Twickenham offices seemed to be to pick people he liked and trusted to run them, and let them get on with it.

Politicians should emphasise common ground (even with people they disagree with)

As an awkward but ‘intellectually self-assured’ teenager my inclination was to reply to emails expressing illiberal views with a forthright explanation of why the correspondent was mistaken. When Vince rewrote these letters, he’d not only tone them down, but also look for points on which he and letter writer did agree, and put them up top. This seemed to make our correspondents less defensive and more open to changing their minds.

It turns out that ‘to tell someone they’re wrong, first tell them how they’re right’ is a well-established approach that’s been discussed since at the 17th century, when the philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about it, and is now backed up by psychological research.

When I later read that Vince had met his second wife when she asked him a critical question about his views on farm subsidies at a Lib Dem event that didn’t surprise me all that much.

It is really hard to explain things to voters without talking down to them

Because Vince was at the time Shadow Chancellor, a lot of the messages I drafted were to do with economics. I had done an A-level in the subject and was going to study it at uni, so I had been reading an awful lot about it. Thus many of my answers, incorporated the kind of “imagine we both have three burgers and four bananas…” metaphors that are a staple of popular economics writing. Vince would invariably take them out again because they come across as patronising. Explaining positions on complicated issues like economic policy with clarity but without seeming like you are lecturing voters is really tough. Vince has that ability. Not many other people do.

I may still have a career as a ghost writer ahead of me

When I started my internship, the drafts I was writing would have been equally applicable to any Lib Dem MP. They would often come back with a note from Vince outlining a personal touch he wanted added to the final message.

By the end of the internship, I had seen hundreds of such notes, and more often than not I could add these ‘personal’ touches myself before Vince ever saw a draft. The example that springs to mind was beginning an email on the ivory trade with something like: ‘Having lived in Kenya for a number of years, I have a deep respect for these magnificent animals…’

Even if you ignore Vince’s political career, his life has been genuinely eventful

There was a lot of material for these personal asides. He came from a working-class family, he was the father of three children, his father disowned him for marrying someone who wasn’t white and it was years before they were reconciled, he lost his first wife to cancer, he was in the Ibrox stadium during the deadly stampede that killed 66 people, he worked for the Kenyan government, he was chief economist at Shell, and that was all before he was a contestant on Strictly!

The impact of your email to your MP has will be proportionate to the time you put into producing it

Most of the emails Vince received were the product of campaigns by pressure groups and charities. These generally involved getting people to put their name and email address into an online form that would then automatically generate an email to their MP. The result was that we got many identical emails. I remember one email, the sender of which had neglected to delete a line saying ‘<Add details of your personal experience here. It will make more impact on your MP if you do>’. Another came in with a note saying, ‘apologises for sending a standard email, I hope you won’t mind’. I was tempted to start the reply with ‘Not at all. I trust you will not mind receiving a standard reply’.

And that’s the problem with sending an MP the same email as a dozen other people. You will all get the same reply. Each additional message requires very little from the MP who receives it and its impact will be limited.

If you really care about an issue, compose your own unique email. It shows far more commitment than does typing your name and email into a website. Furthermore, it is very possible that your MP and his/her staff will produce a reply specifically your message. That involves them spending additional time thinking about the issue you raised. It’s obviously harder, but there’s a payoff to doing it.

There is a definite pre/post ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ switch in how well-known Vince was

Before, during and for a few months after I did my internship, if people asked me which MP I had worked for, my answer would leave them blank. Then came Vince’s stint as interim Lib Dem leader and the PMQs that included his jibe that in just a few weeks, Gordon Brown had gone ‘from Stalin to Mr. Bean, creating chaos out of order, rather than order out of chaos.’*

Suddenly not only did anyone who read a broadsheet paper know who he was, but I enjoyed (unearned) kudos from my association. Strangely, the fury over the tuition fees hike – a policy implemented by the department he was Cabinet minister for – only partially dented this.

Vince was a remarkably diligent correspondent

I don’t know what the situation is like now, but in 2006/07 if you wrote Vince an email you would get a reply even if:

1) You didn’t live in Twickenham;

2) You were writing about something he couldn’t really help you with and in which he’d never taken a particular interest;

3) You weren’t clear about what you wanted; and

4) You weren’t polite about it.

Indeed, if you replied to that reply, you could find yourself exchanging multiple emails.

At the time, I didn’t understand why he devoted so much effort to randomers. My answer came a few years later, when Susan Kramer, then MP for a constituency that bordered Vince’s, came to speak to my university Lib Dem society. She recounted Vince telling her that shortly after he was first elected, a Labour MP who had been in parliament for ages, warned him against replying to letters because ‘it only encourages the bastards’. I now interpret Vince’s studious replying as the sign of a determination to be a very different kind of MP.



*Despite the brutality of that put down, my impression is that he actually respected and liked Brown.

Tim Farron and the search for an equilibrium that wasn’t there


One of the sub-plots of the recent General Election was the discomfort of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron any time he was asked about LGBT issues. It reached its  endpoint today with his resignation. In an e-mail to party members he reported that:

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

I wrote back before his election as leader, that there were issues when Farron’s faith became politically relevant. Nonetheless, I would still endorse Jennie Rigg’s defence of his actions as a public servant. I also share Isabel Hardman and Nick Cohen‘s sense that there’s something (ironically) retrograde about our unwillingness to let a man’s private thoughts stay private.

I would also stand by his performance as leader more generally.

In many ways, he became leader at the wrong moment. A personable northern bloke in a wax jacket representing a farming constituency in the Lakes who had stayed aloof from the coalition, would have been the perfect antidote to Nick Clegg in 2015. Likewise, he would have worked well in a 1997esque period of progressive harmony, in which the Party’s ambition was to defeat the Tories in individual constituencies where Labour would fear to tread. But as an alternative-alternative Prime Minister in place of the (apparently) doomed Corbyn, or as a spokesperson for upmarket remain voters? For that we needed someone urbane, a bit posh, someone who’d have convivial lunches with Times opinion columnists and get puffy columns in return, basically an Emmanuel Macron from Southwark, or a Nick Clegg from an alternative dimension where the coalition never happened.

Both of those figures being figments of my imagination, Tim Farron stepped up and, while not ideal, still made a series of broadly correct decisions. He realised we needed a clear answer on Brexit. And that we continued to need it after the vote. That decision allowed the party to (modestly, electorally and in the short term) co-exist with a Corbynism that proved to be much stronger than we imagined. Angry remainers gave both Labour and the Lib Dems opportunities to make gains off the Tories. It will also – I hope – ultimately serve to solidify the party’s identity.

Nonetheless, he still had to go. I say that regretfully and as a matter of political calculation, rather than convicition. The reason is not Farron’s views. It’s not even their potential unpopularity. They did not represent some huge inundation that would sink HMS Lib Dem, but an ongoing problem that would have required the leader and his followers to be constantly bailing out water. Using up energy that might carry the party forward to stop it sinking, is not something a party with as many head-winds as the Lib Dems could afford.

It might have been different if Farron had been more assured in his stances, but as his resignation email made clear, he was wrestling with internal conflicts. Indeed, let’s be honest, the interviews he was giving before the election made that pretty clear too. It is hard to watch them and conclude that Farron was ever going to find a stance from which he could have dodged, repeled or absorbed those questions. Had he stayed on as leader, he would have been signing himself, and the party, up, for an ongoing beating. His decision to forestall that was correct.


Reflections on a by-election in Witney

This is essentially my ‘hot take’ on the Witney by-election. At time of writing it’s almost 10pm here in South Korea. So I’m prioritising speed over things like finding links to support my assertions, redrafting and proofreading. If that leads to problems, please point it out in the comments and I will try to rectify them.

1: The Liberal Democrats can go on the offensive again

The 2015 General Election showed the incumbency advantage enjoyed by Lib Dems to be hugely overrated. However, for the duration of the coalition it was basically all we had going for us. From 2010 onwards, all our attempts to break into new territory or appeal to new groups of voters floundered. We could only seriously compete in (some of) our existing seats.

That dynamic seems to have shifted. It must be a mathematical certainty that the bulk of people who voted Lib Dem yesterday didn’t do so in 2015. That supports the pattern that we’ve seen in a string of spectacular local council by-election wins.

It’s important not to get carried away here. What we are describing is mostly potential rather than actual. The Party still has basically the same poll ratings it had in our annus horribilis of 2015. And I’m not sure whether affluent rural and suburban remain voting Tory areas are a great platform for a broader resurgence. If Labour gets its act together we could still be stuffed. But at least for now our potential to decline exists alongside the tantalising possibility of growth.

Or put another way in the ecosystem that is British politics, the Liberal Democrats are now predators as well as prey.

2: It’s going to take a miracle to stop a Hard Brexit

The implosion of the Labour Party has turned Britain into a version of one of those American congressional districts gerrymandered to make it an impregnable Republican fortress that as a result has a really hardline congressman more worried about pleasing the handful of ideologues who vote in primaries than in the opinions of the broader electorate.

The events that followed the Brexit vote would not lead you to suspect that Leave had only squeaked a victory by less than the margin of error of a standard opinion poll. It seems that the only view the government seems interested in are those of the most ardent outers and it will do that by delivering a maximalist version of Brexit. This fact will doubtless distress the 48% who voted to remain and presumably at least some of the leavers who were told quite explicitly that they could ‘have their cake and eat it’. But broad swathes of the country being opposed to the direction the government is going in does not matter to Theresa May. As long as there is no credible threat to Conservative rule from another party, all she has to do to maintain her premiership is keep her own deeply eurosceptic party happy.

A win in Witney might have shaken that sense of invulnerability. I am, of course, not criticising anyone involved in the campaign for not securing that an outright victory. Getting to a strong second from basically nowhere is an incredible achievement that was at the very limits of what could realistically be achieved. But that’s kind of the point: we’re running out of plausible ways to prevent our country blundering out of the Single Market.

3: Cosmopolitanism is the opium of the elites?

The past few years have been taxing for the left-wing parties. A key reason for that is they’ve tended to rely on combining their traditional base amongst the unionised working class with strong support from middle class professionals. The increasing prominence of issues of culture and identity has frayed and in some cases broken this alignment because the two halves of it generally have very different views on the merits of an open society.

A commonly articulated response to this problem is that social democratic parties need to pursue a more resolutely left-wing economic agenda. This will supposedly increase the salience of the traditional left-right dichotomy and consequently downplay the problematic open-closed one.

I doubt this will work. I see little evidence that the working class voters who are the audience for this socialist sound and fury will fall for this misdirection. I find the notion that their cultural grievances are just sublimated economic anxiety unconvincing and I suspect they would find it a tad patronising. The Sanders and Corbyn movements have tried this approach and yet appear to draw the vast bulk of their support from the middle class left.

Rather than accentuating economic issues to appeal to a shrinking working class, it would probably be wiser to accentuate cultural ones and appeal to the growing populations of graduates and minorities. This is what seems to be the coalition that will allow the Democrats to win the White House for a third time in a row. It is the affluent suburbs of big cities where Clinton seems to be making the biggest gains against Trump. Witney is essentially what one of those areas looks like in a British context. The successes enjoyed first by Remain and then the Lib Dems in the seat indicate that achieving something similar in British politics is not impossible.

So perhaps the trick to making left-wing politics work in the 21st century is using social liberalism to get wealthy professionals to vote against their short run economic self-interest. Sort of like the Marxist concept of false consciousness but turned on its head.

Not saying that will be an easy trick to pull off but it seems like a more promising avenue to explore than hoping postwar socialism will suddenly start working again.

The last Lib Dem manifesto mentioned Israel more than the entire Asia-Pacific, and that’s a problem

The good folks at Liberal Democrat Voice have very kindly run an article I wrote on the Liberal Democrat policy towards the Asia-Pacific, or rather the lack of it. They sensibly ask contributors to keep their submissions fairly short. Given that I was writing about a rather broad topic that meant I had to leave a fair amount out. So for those of you who are interested, here is the unabridged version of the article.

Did you see Gary Johnson – the Libertarian Party candidate for the American presidency – forgetting ‘what’ Aleppo is? If not I’d recommend it:

I challenge you to watch the look of bafflement on his face and not laugh. But when you have finished chuckling, may I ask you a question? What do you think about Shenzhen?

My guess is most of you are now drawing a blank. Until I had to catch a train from Shenzhen station, I did not know either. Which is rather embarrassing as by one definition it is the 8th largest city in the world. It is adjacent to but several times the size of Hong Kong. Startlingly, China has grown so large that Hong Kong is no longer among its twenty largest cities.

Most Britons now know that China is enormous. What is less widely understood is that so is the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed more people live there than in the rest of the world combined:

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Credit: Redditor valeriepieris

Despite this the last Liberal Democrat manifesto includes more references to Israel – which has 0.001% of the world’s population – than to all the countries in the Asia-Pacific combined. And the only context they are mentioned in is advocating the benefits of EU membership. There are (or have been) groups declaring themselves to be “the Liberal Democrat Friends…” of Israel, Palestine, Kashmir, India and Turkey but not of China, Indonesia or Vietnam.* Basically it appears that if a Lib Dem says they are interested in foreign policy that means they are interested in Europe or parts of the Islamic world somewhat adjacent to it.

I can foresee two possible reasons to think it is more import for British politicians to know about these regions than about the Asia-Pacific.

Firstly, they are nearer the UK. This has some merit but misses our close connection to the Asia-Pacific. Much of it used to be British colonies and as a result many Britons can trace their ancestry there. More than 100,000 students from the region study in the UK. China is our second largest import partner. Many of the financial flows to and from the Asia-Pacific go via the City of London. Lest we forget, HSBC stands for ‘the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’. And thousands of British citizens, myself included, live in the region.

The other response might be to suggest that there have simply been more events worthy of our attention taking place in Europe and the Middle East. If you have been thinking this then this demonstrates my point about how little attention is paid to the Asia-Pacific. It is true that the region has not seen anything as grim as the Syrian Civil War of late. Though the situations of the Rohingya minority in Burma and of the citizens of North Korea do bear comparison.

However, plenty else has happened. Ponder the following developments:

When a crisis eventually pushes one of these issues into the spotlight of British politics – and that will happen sooner rather than later – will we have something more to offer than a Gary Johnson style blank stare? We certainly could. We have done it before. Paddy Ashdown’s advocacy of giving passports to the residents of Hong Kong ahead of its return to China was one of the issues the Party used to prove its relevancy and distinctiveness after the disaster of merger. But my impression is that our credibility on that issue was essentially down to Ashdown personally – he had lived in Hong Kong and spoke Chinese – and is not something that we institutionalised at all. I may be being unfair but I struggle to think of anyone other than Ashdown at a senior level in the Party who has much insight into the Asia-Pacific. We have to rectify that. The Asia-Pacific is set to be the fulcrum of the twentieth-first century. If we have nothing to say about it, in a real sense we have nothing to say about the world we live in.


*There are the Chinese Liberal Democrats but they exist “to promote closer links between the Party and the Chinese and South East Asian community in the UK.”


If you are interested in this topic then check out a post I wrote last year on why British politicians need to stop ignoring China

Don’t confuse liberalism and radicalism

The Liberal Democrats have another internal grouping, this one is called the Radical Association. Its website explains that it:

“…has been founded out a sense of frustration at the state of the Liberal Democrats and a genuine fear that the party will fail to miss (sic) a once in a generation opportunity to define a unique role in British politics. We exist to enable members to work together to reshape the Liberal Democrats to be the radical, distinctive, pro-European and liberal movement which we know it can be.”

While this description might lead you to believe their aim is to reshape the party’s policy agenda, their concerns seem mostly to be organisational. As far as I can tell the Association is made up of Liberal Youthers who feel the Party is too cumbersome an organisation and when they get more specific about their aims they turn out not be all that radical. A pretty typical example is updating local party websites. So while I’m not hostile to the initiative nor am I remotely enthused.

Nonetheless, I want to dwell on them for a moment because their self-presentation illustrates a Lib Dem pathology. We feel a great pull towards the rhetoric of radicalism. I’ve written about this before. While everyone in the Lib Dems will talk about our radical heritage, we tend to ignore how strong the conservative undercurrents of our tradition are:

“Edmund Burke, who injected [a conservative philosophy] into political consciousness with his critique of the French Revolution, was a Whig not a Tory.  His ideas would underpin much of the Victorian Liberal Party’s ideas about the British constitution: they saw its stability and tendency to gradual evolution to be one of its chief virtues. Then in the mid-Twentieth Century, Isaiah Berlin would, with more than one eye on Communism and Fascism, argue that the plurality liberals so valued demanded that politicians be modest in their aims; utopianism was doomed to fail because we could not agree what utopia would look like. And then in the 1980s, Roy Jenkins would argue that there needed to be a third party to restrain Labour and the Tories from taking Britain on an ‘ideological big dipper’. It also came through strongly in the party’s resistance to the Blair government constantly attempting to reinvent public services.”

I’d suggest that balancing radical and conservative elements has served both our party and country currency well. During its heyday the Liberal Party steered Britain through the difficult processes of industrialisation and democratisation without a civil war or revolution. It was very adept at changing our system of government just enough to prevent it collapsing into violent conflagrations. That spared Britain Jacobian guillotines, Bolshevik gulags, Nazi jackboots, and a war between free and slave states.

Given that one of Liberalism’s great strengths is an aptitude for holding these two elements in tension, it’s striking how much more popular one side of this duality is. A reminder that we are the ‘true radicals’ is an easy clap line at any Lib Dem event. The suggestion that we should be rather reluctant to change things unnecessarily, less so.

Despite this, inherent virtue lies in stability not change. It allows people to make plans and become familiar enough with their environment that they can operate in it comfortably. Perhaps this explains why psychological research indicates that we feel losses substantially more acutely than gains.

Which brings me back to the Radical Association’s desire to “reshape the Liberal Democrats to be (sic) the radical, distinctive, pro-European and liberal movement”. Supporting continued British membership of the EU is a quintessentially  conservative position. We know and understand life within the organisation. Leaving it is an experiment undertaken without a convincing rationale that is already begetting instability. Opposing Brexit is the right thing to do. It is the liberal thing to do. But it is not a radical course.

Some quick thoughts on ‘Super Thursday’

Britain voted, I hapzardly analyse.


Yesterday was a novelty for Liberal Democrats. The public voted and we came away in a better position than we were before. We not only gained councillors (and a council) but our absolute gains were more than anyone else’s. And there were some impressive wins in the constituency section of the Scottish Parliament. The sense of near elation at not being battered by the electorate again is palpable.

However, these results do demonstrate that the end of the coalition will not end the damage it did to the Party. We have gone from being Britain’s 3rd party to one of a number of minor parties. We are now only the fifth largest party in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and GLA.

It would be tempting to think we’ve turned a corner. And we may well have done but yesterday could also simply be a stay of execution. While the good outweighed the bad, there were some depressing results too: notably big losses in the Welsh Assembly. And things could quite easily start getting worse again. We faced Labour and Conservative Parties that were both unpopular and divided. If they get their acts together we could be in trouble.

I’m also concerned that renewed successes for our old approach of burrowing in and building at a local level may lead us to neglect building a brand that resonates nationally.


With so much of European politics currently revolving around Islamophobia, the fact that the continent’s largest city now has a Muslim mayor is encouraging. That London’s voters chose him despite a Conservative campaign that sought to remind everyone that Khan was a Muslim and that Muslim’s are all scary extremists, makes it more heartening still.

After 16 years of big egos using the Mayoralty as a platform for their clowning, it’s actually rather refreshing that London now has a rather average machine politician as it’s Mayor.


A trope of discussions about the ‘Remain’ campaign’s tactics is that ‘No’ to independence was too negative and calculating. The argument is that frightening people about the consequences of breaking up the Union stopped people voting ‘yes’ but energised no one. That set the stage for the freshly fired up nationalists to sweep all before them in the subsequent General Election. Their new political dominance will eventually lead to independence. The moral apparently is that ‘Remain’ can’t just warn about the consequences of Brexit, it needs to make people feel good about the EU.

Yesterday was a blow to that theory. The SNP is not unstoppable. It lost its majority at Holyrood. Independence may not be inevitable after all. Of course, Brexit will be inevitable if ‘Leave’ wins the referendum as polls suggest it very well might. Stopping that should be our priority and if raising valid concerns about its results is the way to do it, then let’s do that.


On the one hand, the fact that the main unionist voice in Scotland is now the Conservatives makes it easier for the nationalists to equate opposition to independence with support for Conservatism. But the fact that the Conservative Party is winning elections in Scotland makes it harder for the SNP to present it as an alien force imposed from London. Expect them to try anyway.


During an episode of Have I Got News For You from week of the first elections to the Scottish Parliament, Angus Deayton turned to the camera and reminded viewers that ‘this program is being recorded before the announcement of the results. So we cannot tell you how Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Greens or Scottish Socialists are doing. However, we can tell you the Conservatives have done extremely badly.’

How times have changed.

Scotland was supposed to be the proving ground for Corbynism. The voters who’d rejected Blairism for Nationalism would supposedly be won back with red blooded socialism. To say the least, that’s not really worked.

More generally, I find the notion that because these elections were not quite a total disaster for Labour they were therefore a vindication of Corbyn’s leadership rather mystifying.

Opposition parties with new leaders basically never lose seats in the first round of local elections of a parliament. Given that the Government has a) split over the EU referendum and b) inflicted the junior doctors strike, academisation and an unpopular budget on itself, Labour slipping backwards is even more damning for Labour.


An understandable inference for a Conservative to draw from these events is that as long as Corbyn is Labour leader, they can do whatever they want without electoral repurcusions. That’s probably true up to a point. If their splits on Europe develop into schisms or they elect a leader even less qualified to be PM than Corbyn (*cough* Boris *cough*) then trouble could lie ahead.



You know how UKIP loves to go on about corruption in the EU? Do you think this reflects an honest disdain for corruption or knee jerk Europhobia?

Well if they actually wanted clean politics, then they’d want nothing to do with Neil Hamilton. He is after all the personification of the sleaze that engulfed John Major’s government; the man who took money for asking parliamentary questions. But he’s now in the Welsh Assembly under UKIP colours. Which is all a bit yucky.


My reading is that the fate of the Greens is in Labour’s hands. If Corbyn survives or is replaced by somebody like himself they’ll struggle. If the Labour moderates reassert control of their party, then there will be a lot of seriously pissed off lefties ripe for the taking.

Until Labour choses what direction to go in, the fate of the Greens is likely to be ambigious.

Lib Dems in glasshouses

Liberal Democrats should denounce Ken Livingstone’s antisemitism but our own record on dealing with out of order grandees is pathetic.


The Labour Party appears to have an Anti-Semitism problem. Many of its own members say so. That fact was hard to dispute even before Ken Livingstone’s intervention. But a former mayor of the nation’s largest city expounding on a spurious connection between Zionism and Nazism displays the issue on an IMAX scale.

It is absolutely correct that Liberal Democrats – and every other right thinking person – should be condemning this. It was quite fair for Tim Farron to say:

The sight of Ken Livingstone – a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee and former Mayor of London – touring television studios spouting more and more ill-informed, divisive rhetoric was truly unbelievable and grew in offensiveness with every interview.

And most of the harsher words spoken by Lib Dem activists on social media were also justified.

What is not merited, however, is us developing any sense of superiority over the Labour Party. As a Party we have been terrible at dealing with wayward members. The most obvious example of this is the fact that despite being accused of sexual assault by multiple women, Chris Rennard still takes the Lib Dem whip in the Lords. The reason being that this he said/she, she, she and she said story was judged according to a criminal standard of proof, despite the fact that party membership is clearly a civil matter. The deeply unsatisfactory outcome is that Rennard is still in the Party but his victims have been pushed out.

However, more relevant to Livingstone’s case is that of another Lib Dem peer: Jenny Tonge. Whilst  she was eventually pressured into resigning from the Lib Dem group in the Lords, she remains a member of the Party. That is despite saying things that make Ken sound like a semitophile. The most gobsmacking came about in the wake of the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Medical assistance came in from across the world (including Israel). Tonge suggested that there should be an investigation into an allegation originating that the Hezbollah Youtube channel that Israeli medical teams were harvesting organs from the earthquake’s victims.

It is disturbing to say the least that a known menace to women and a propagator of a modern day blood libel are still Liberal Democrats. The scandal that followed the unearthing of Rennard’s misdemeanours led to the Party’s procedures being tightened but it remains to see how effective these will be in practice. More disturbing, is that both Rennard and Tonge still enjoy the support of vocal minorities within the Party.

We should by all means criticise Labour’s shortcomings but we must also recognise our own.

Livetweeting the General Election review

“Our current problem is not technical or organisational but that the party lacks a sense of overarching purpose”

While other people worry about the EU negotiations, Harper Lee passing or you know having a job, I spent this afternoon burrowing into the review of the 2015 General Election campaign by the Lib Dem’s Campaigns and Communications Committee. A cynic might suggest I was procrastinating from packing for a move to another country!

I tweeted as I went along:

I wrote my own post-mortem back in June in case you are interested.

Odd one out: Lib Dems and a progressive alliance

Labour can ever have an alliance of the centre-left alliance with the Lib Dems or an alliance of the hard left with the Greens and Nationalists. It can’t have both.

A couple of weeks back I wrote a post highlighting why I thought an alliance between the Lib Dems and Labour was unlikely. James King, a fellow Lib Dem and occasional guest poster here at Matter of Facts, has written a post tackling a similar subject: the notion of combining all anti-conservative forces in the UK together into ‘a progressive alliance’. Where I mostly relied on intuition, he’s found empirical evidence to show quite how hard this might be. This bit particularly caught my attention:

This post by Tim Bale, Paul Webb, and Monica Poletti is based on survey data which asked strong supporters of each major party to plot their own ideological position, along with that of their favoured party and the other parties, on a score from 0 to 10, with 0 being the most left-wing and 10 being the most right-wing. In principle, the closer the dots are, the greater potential for an agreement there should be between the parties.  Of course, this approach is far from perfect – the left-right spectrum, while widely used, is unsubtle and frequently misleading, and these values are the averages of a potentially very wide spread.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting starting point, and if anything underestimates any potential problems with the coherence of the ‘progressive alliance’.

With the help of MS Paint, I have visualised the outlook of each party’s supporters as a linear scale.  First up, Labour.

Labour political axis

A quick explainer: the pink dot is where Labour’s strong supporters put themselves, and the red dot is where they put their party.  Green is Green, Yellow SNP, Orange Lib Dem, and so on.  The thing that stands out here is how Labour voters see themselves as being in more-or-less the same space as the SNP and the Greens, with UKIP far out to the right.  The Lib Dems, on the other hand, are perceived as slightly right-of-centre, roughly equidistant between Labour and the Tories.  Any association of Labour with the Lib Dems will alienate these supporters; while you can see a pattern of a possible progressive coalition on the left there, the Lib Dems are the clear odd-one-out.  (It should be said that this data was collected immediately after the General Election, so there may have been a shift of the views of Labour Party supporters since then.)

I don’t think Labour voters are mistaken to perceive a gap between the Lib Dems and ‘the left’.

The different components of the Labour Party may have staggeringly disparate ideas about what it means to be on the left but in my experience what tends to hold them together is a visceral opposition to the right. This is referred to as ‘negative partisanship‘. This is also a potent force for the Greens who tend to oppose Labour out of a sense it’s made too many compromises with the right-wing forces in British society. And an association of England with Toryism provides nationalism with much of its fuel.

‘Negative partisanship’ is a much less powerful force for Liberal Democrats. This can be seen in its willingness to contemplate coalitions with parties of both left and right.

Underlying this is a fairly weak identification of Liberal Democrats with the left. Which is not to say we don’t incline left. Vastly more British Liberals understand themselves as being on the left than the right. A factor that becomes pretty obvious whenever self-consciously right-wing liberals try to exert influences within the party. But there are plenty of Lib Dems who prefer to define themselves as centrists or reject the whole notion that the left/right split is meaningful. A fair number – and this includes me – are an incoherent mixture of all three. The figures James presents do indeed show that Lib Dem voters tend to see themselves as closer to Labour than the Conservatives. But only a minority of that is because they place themselves to the left – they barely do. It’s mainly because they see the Conservatives as further from the centre. Or maybe that should be ‘saw’ rather than ‘see’ – Jeremy Corbyn may have changed this.

Essentially, it will be difficult to fit the Lib Dems into an alliance built on ‘negative partisanship’. Our anti-conservative leanings are not definitive enough to convince adamant left-wingers of our reliability. And we probably need some kind of positive alignment to really buy into the alliance.

Therefore, I think Labour probably has to decide between creating ‘a progressive alliance’ with the Greens, other far left groups and perhaps the nationalists that is based solely on the notion of beating the Tories, or alternatively doing what it did in the early stages of Tony Blair’s leadership and creating a sense that Labour and the Lib Dems are engaged in a shared ‘project’ with concrete policy objectives that go beyond anti-Toryism.