Young Fogey

Political clickbait. Like cookie-dough ice cream, I know it’s not good for me or society, and yet I find myself unable to resist mouthful after creamy mouthful. This is particularly true when it’s from The Spectator, a magazine that’s really more Buzzfeed than Addison and Steele. Hate-read the latest calmly-worded James Delingpole column, and then move on. Instant gratification.

Yet, there’s something about the latest article by Toby Young which gave me a little more to digest than usual. Not that it’s good – it’s extraordinarily bad. But it’s bad in such a way that it deserves a little gentle probing.

Young opens with the story of his (not doubt well remunerated) presentation to a recruitment consultancy to ‘provide an urban anthropologist’s take’ on the new ‘tribe’ of young people entering the workforce. The words ‘urban anthropologist’ are enough to make me fear for what will come next – this is a self-description, like ‘social media expert’ or ‘interested in evolutionary psychology’, that portends a lot of warmed-up shower thoughts framed in semi-scientific garb. Still, since we have not paid top dollar for what exactly Young said (hint: almost certainly less terrible than what he’s written here), TY then muses: what if he were to open a recruitment consultancy about how to recruit young people?

It’s at this point that things start to go sharply off the rails. Set aside the fact that this framing device makes no logical sense, as this smart new business venture is pretty much what he’s just said that he’s already doing. More importantly: why would you pay for a forty-three-year-old, who as far as I can tell hasn’t held a management position since the early 90s, to advise you about managing millennials? To any FTSE 100 CEOs who might be reading this blog, I have some advice for you if anyone ever comes to you with the idea of hiring Toby Young to advise you about the youth of today – fire this person. Trust me.

Anyway, Young comes to his main argument – young people are severely maladjusted to the workplace. The ‘me, me, me’ generation of ‘snowflakes’ is stuck forever in the ‘safe space’ of adolescence. It’s at this point that you realise that Toby’s really not giving his all here – this is a string of insults about under-30s that makes the paragraph sound like The Great Automatic Grammatizator set to ‘SPECTATOR’ mode. Putting aside this penchant for ad hominems, Young argues that this ‘kidulthood’ is because

their immersion in social media since the year dot has accustomed them to just communicating with their peers. It’s difficult to grow up if you have no idea how to talk to grown-ups. That, at any rate, is the theory of Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardises Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).  ‘Never before in history have people been able to grow up and reach age 23 so dominated by peers,’ he told Time magazine. ‘To develop intellectually you’ve got to relate to older people, older things: 17-year-olds never grow up if they’re just hanging around other 17-year-olds.’

This is interesting, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s curious to wonder whether Young actually read Bauerlein’s book or just wrote his entire column on the back of a review he saw in Time magazine. More important, however, is what little sense the argument makes. For sure, the generation now coming into the workforce is the first to grow up with social media (although it’s worth saying that, for anyone in their late twenties, social media wasn’t really a big thing until they were well into university, if not later). But the idea that social media interaction with peers has replaced communication with those in older generations seems fairly unlikely – young people tended to be friends and associate with young people before the arrival of Facebook. The big shift took place fifty or more years ago, when youth culture arrived as a phenomenon, and more gradually as fewer teenagers went into the workforce as teenagers and more progressed to university. More than anything, however, the assumption that the new generation will be completely unable to comprehend their elders is utterly absurd, as any person who’s actually met someone under the age of 25 would understand. It’s an assumption that Young never offers a piece of evidence for, not even a measly anecdote. It’s almost as if urban anthropology isn’t really that rigorous a discipline.

After a bizarre joke about Millenials speaking Esperanto, Young explains why he thinks he might be able to help any employer working with these generational Martians – he was completely unsufferable as a new entrant to the workforce himself!

For instance, on my first day at work I was in the lift waiting to be transported to the 11th floor when an attractive Vogue fashion editor standing next to me tried to hold the doors open for her friend. They slammed shut, almost trapping her hand, and I turned to her and said, ‘They’re fashion sensitive. If you’re not wearing Prada or Gucci they will take your arm off.’ She gave me a baffled look: ‘But I am wearing Prada.’

Oh, Toby. Oh dear. I do feel for you, brother. Almost.

After I’d made a couple more of these unsuccessful attempts at flirtatious banter, someone left a copy of Condé Nast’s ‘Sexual Harassment Policy’ on my desk. ‘It has long been the policy of Condé Nast to maintain a professional working environment for all its employees, free of any form of discrimination or harassment,’ it said. The next bit was underlined in red felt-tip pen: ‘A joke considered amusing by one may be offensive to another.’

Well. Where do you start? He uses the word ‘banter’, which at this point in time is pretty much a synonym for ‘about as funny as a burning orphanage’. Then there’s the fact that Toby thought that (unsuccessful!) ‘flirtatious banter’ in the office was a great idea. And, finally, that he behaved grossly enough that someone at Condé Nast gave him a semi-formal warning from the Sexual Harassment Policy. That’s… not normal? Pretty worrying? Does he think this makes his argument stronger? It certainly doesn’t make me want to start writing out a cheque for Toby Young Millennial Consulting LLC, that’s for sure.

Anyway, Young remains confident that he can apply his own experience to today’s workplace. But here’s the key difference – unlike him, Millennials are ‘generation snowflake’, constantly ready to take offence. ‘Instead of them worrying about saying the wrong thing to people my age, it’ll be middle-aged men like me worrying about saying the wrong thing to them.’ With good cause, based on what you’ve just told us, but let’s put that to one side for a minute to admire how Young manages to cram in yet another evidence-free dig at the younger generation, from another dimension, that just happens to chime with current conservative orthodoxy. It’s a keen irony that, in the very process of arguing that young people are unwilling to accept alternative outlooks that he is feeding his readers the intellectual equivalent of baby food, mild and unchallenging pap that’s exactly what they want to devour. You can almost hear the whirr of the Great Grammatizator.

It’s difficult to reconcile this tirade against a whole generation with the fact that Toby Young’s great cause which he has written about more than anything else is actually education. The founder of the West London Free School, Young is soon to be the director of the New Schools Network and, back when Cameron was Tory leader, he was at the forefront defending his Free Schools policy. Toby must spend a lot of his time with intelligent teenagers, so why is he regurgitating this rot? Does he despair even of the special snowflakes educated at his own school? Is he just a hack? Is it a product of cognitive dissonance? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Either way, it’s representative of a broader trend in conservative discourse – away from the Cameroonian interest in youth and its values, to an increasing disdain and even hostility for young people, and for the more liberal ideas that they prefer. It also reflects an increasing dumbing-down of right-wing argument, as analysis and facts are replaced by sneering labels and wild leaps of logic. The fact that this column of this quality was published in the premier journal of British conservatism says a lot.

Even so, I believe that there’s hope for Toby. Take some advice from an egotistical, intolerant Millennial, if you can bear it. Meet some more young people. Talk to them. Learn about their interests. Make friends, if you can. And then, perhaps with some better chosen background reading, you can write a genuinely good piece about generational divides in the workplace.

And don’t write about your time at Conde Nast ever again.

The Future of Socialism – a preface

The impact of The Future of Socialism on its publication in 1956 should not be underestimated. Although the left and the right of the Labour Party had been in open war since Aneurin Bevan’s resignation in 1951, Crosland’s text was the most lucid attempt to date to define the purpose and meaning of social democracy. The Future of Socialism, published a year after the 1955 election which was Labour’s second defeat in a row and in which Crosland had lost his South Gloucestershire seat, was immediately lauded by many commentators as a serious reformist case against the left, which was then defined largely by their adamant pursuit of further nationalisations. The response from the Bevanite left was, predictably, one of scandalised outrage. ‘SOCIALISM – HOW DARE HE USE THE WORD?’ blasted one article in Tribune, the house journal of the Labour left.

In a nutshell, Crosland argued that the pursuit of socialism did not necessarily mean more of the big nationalisations that had defined the Attlee government (most notably of coal, the railways, the Bank of England, and, controversially, steel). Championing what was widely known as the mixed economy, he argued that the way to dissolve the class distinctions and finally eradicate poverty was instead to use the powers the government already had – through taxation, social spending, monetary policy, and other economic tools to be found in the hands of the state, relying on wealth created through economic growth. Crosland’s work, sixty years on, remains the most significant and influential work in the canon of British social democracy.

 

Why should liberals read The Future of Socialism?

Over the next few months, I will be reading The Future of Socialism and, chapter by chapter, blogging a summary of its argument and some reactions to it. There are two main reasons why I find it of interest. One is purely historical – to understand Crosland’s arguments in the context of his time, with its very different political, ideological and economic landscape. That is a good enough reason to read Crosland: if you want to understand the Labour Party of the 1950s and 1960s, his is an invaluable voice. Much of my blogging will probably concern this aspect.

However, I will also be reading The Future of Socialism in light of the politics of today, and specifically as a liberal and a Liberal Democrat. Furthermore, most of the readers of this blog are also liberals, and Liberal Democrats. It seems fitting, then, to explain why I think it’s a book that liberals should read.

Firstly, the Liberal Democrats are a product of a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. Several of our most outstanding figures (Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, and Chris Huhne to name but three) started off in the SDP, and many members today would define themselves as social democrats. However, perhaps because of the predominance of Liberals in the new party, this heritage has been largely neglected. There is an idea promoted, by no means only by those on the right of the party, that the SDP (or at least Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams) were always really liberals who stumbled into the Labour Party by accident, or because of the weakness of the Liberals when they came into politics. This seems to me to be a mistake – Jenkins, for example, although always friendly towards the Liberals, was closely associated with Crosland, Hugh Gaitskell, and other reformists and himself participated almost as actively as Crosland in these debates within the Labour Party.[1] It is my opinion, then, that The Future of Socialism is as important a text for Liberal Democrats as anything by Hobhouse or T.H. Green.

The second reason why The Future of Socialism might be of interest to liberals is because it was written as a critique in response to a resurgent far left. This has relevance for British liberals for two reasons. Firstly, there is the fact that, historically, British liberalism has offered a non-socialist opposition to the Conservatives. At the same time as revisionists like Crosland were active within Labour, the Liberals led by Jo Grimond were also developing a socially progressive politics which critiqued monolithic institutions, public or private. Of course, Crosland came from a different position, seeking to reclaim socialism rather than oppose it, but nevertheless there is an obvious family resemblance. Secondly, there are clear contemporary resonances – for the first time since the 1980s, the Labour Party leadership (and membership) are socialists, and social democrats, within Westminster and in the country at large, find themselves marginalised. It might be good for critics of Corbyn, both in the Liberal Democrats, and Labour, to remind themselves of one of the most eloquent criticisms of the far left.

Thirdly, there is the fact that social democratic parties across Europe, with isolated exceptions, have fared poorly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, losing much of their support to parties of the insurgent radical left and to parties of the populist right. Labour is no exception to this, losing votes to UKIP and the SNP. This phenomenon will continue to shape politics for the foreseeable future, and so it is worth understanding social democracy better for this reason alone. This will not be an uncritical reading of The Future of Socialism – far from it.  While the work as a whole has continuing relevance, much of what Crosland wrote now seems naïve or complacent. It is worthwhile reflecting, therefore, on the contemporary weaknesses of social democracy.

Finally, there is my long-standing belief that British liberalism is too inward looking and self-referential. Cross-fertilisation with other traditions is, in my opinion, prevents us from becoming stale and dogmatic. Social democracy is the obvious place to start – although a separate tradition, it is an adjacent one. Yet it is generally poorly misunderstood within the party – partly because of partisan mischief and the anxiety to define liberalism against The Other, but also because it is poorly explained by its adherents.  If we learn from, and engage critically with, other ideologies, we will learn more about our own.

 

A note on the text

I am using a 2006 paperback edition of the text published by Constable, with a foreword by Gordon Brown, an introduction by Dick Leonard, Crosland’s PPS in the early Seventies, and a brief selection of reminisces by his widow, Susan Crosland. Leonard’s introduction is a good appraisal of the argument of the text and a brief biography and historical context; Susan Crosland’s ‘snapshots’ provide a touching insight into Crosland, the man himself. The less said about Brown’s foreword the better – it is more interesting as a product of New Labour c. 2006 and the preoccupations of Brown himself (for instance, it concludes with a rather unsubtle swipe at Tony Blair). All page references will be to this edition, which is available on Amazon from £7.

 

 

[1] Certainly many on the left of the Labour Party argued that Jenkins and Crosland *were* liberals in disguise and should ‘go and join the Liberals’ (does this sound familiar?) But this should be treated as factional abuse rather than serious analysis.

Would a progressive alliance actually work?

There’s been talk recently about a ‘progressive alliance’ of some sort, comprising of all the anti-Conservative forces in British politics.  This agreement, made up of Labour, the Greens, Lib Dems, and perhaps the SNP, is imagined as an encouragement of tactical voting, an electoral pact, or even a merger.  I’ve seen a fair number of Lib Dems open to the first two, given the desperate need to defeat the Tories, but also many others objecting on the grounds that we hold a distinctive ideology and because of distrust of being pulled too close into the Labour Party’s orbit.  Nick Barlow has summed up the major stumbling blocks for any agreement, which are the significant ideological distinctions between the parties (beyond being anti-conservative) and the difficulty of any kind of agreement when every force in party politics is pulling the other way.

The question that I want to answer, however, is whether a progressive coalition would actually do anything to progress its desired goal, which is to stop the Conservatives forming the next government in 2020.  There is an intuitive appeal to the argument that, if the vote of the parties on the left was no longer divided, this would provide a ‘progressive majority’ which could beat the Tories.  This is true on a national level, but even more compelling at a local level, where, thanks to our First Past The Post voting system, a Conservative candidate can win despite only being supported by a minority of the electors.

So far, so obvious.  But all the arguments made above presuppose a large, rather monolithic, ‘progressive’ bloc which can be added together from the votes of the other parties.  And here, I fear, the argument starts to fall apart, because large numbers of these parties’ voters probably wouldn’t be on board with the whole concept, because they don’t feel like these parties have a lot in common.

There are a few examples from my own party.  Polling of 2015 Lib Dem voters in London suggest that they will split 52:48 in favour of Conservative Zac Goldsmith in the second round of the Mayoral contest, which hardly suggests a progressive insurgency in the making.  Anecdotally, I find that many of our middle class supporters feel that it is ‘safe’ to vote for us but aren’t comfortable with Labour, some people support our candidates locally but have unpredictable views on national issues, and of course there are people who hold liberal views and so vote for us but have more right-wing views on economics.  We can also look at  where our vote went between 2010 and 2015 – yes, a good chunk went to Labour and the Greens, but a surprising number of our supporters defected to the Conservatives or UKIP.  Now, consider that what remains is the people who were happy supporting us through five years of Coalition with the Tories, and it becomes clear that at least one component of the alliance looks pretty unpromising.  If offered a choice between an incipient coalition with Jeremy Corbyn at its head and a Tory majority, a good number of Lib Dem voters will choose the latter.

We also have some solid evidence of how unwilling the supporters of the members of this alliance might be to go along with it.  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.)

Green political axis

The Green axis has the greatest spread, with strong Green supporters viewing themselves (light green) and their party (dark green) as being firmly on the left, the Lib Dems and Labour clustered around the centre, and the SNP somewhere in between.  Green supporters obviously don’t feel themselves to be in sympathy with Labour and the Lib Dems, although the leaderships of Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron may cause this to change.  It is true that Green *voters* are much more ideologically diverse, with many of them holding mainstream centre-left views.  However, more significantly, they are also generally suspicious of the political establishment and, having chosen a fringe party, would probably not be willing to be corralled into voting for two of the traditional Big Three parties.

SNP political axis

I almost didn’t bother with the SNP because while they remain hegemonic in Scotland they have no conceivable interest at all in a progressive alliance, and also because they are primarily interested in nationalism rather than ‘progressivism’.  But, for what it’s worth, strong SNP supporters see Labour and the Lib Dems as centre parties, and they themselves are almost totally overlapping with the Greens (that would technically be the Scottish Green Party, presumably) on the moderate left.  In Scottish politics, the constitutional issue makes the left-right divide far less relevant anyway.

Lib Dem political axis

Finally, the Lib Dems (the lighter orange dot is where Lib Dem supporters see themselves).  Of all the parties so far, this is the one which shows a greatest ‘progressive’ clustering – Lib Dem strong supporters on average see themselves as centre or left-of-centre, but not too far from Labour, the SNP, and the Greens, and far away from the Tories and UKIP.  As has already been said, however, these are strong supporters, and not necessarily typical of all Lib Dem voters.

In conclusion, then, there is not much evidence that Labour, SNP, Lib Dem or Green supporters see themselves as having much in common with each other.  There is a real risk of any form of formal alliance or pact alienating one part or another, with voters drifting off to the Tories, a far left party like TUSC, or to the great army of non-voters, and actually hurting the prospects of the left.  A ‘progressive alliance’ could easily work out as less than the sum of its parts.

My fundamental misgiving about any ‘coalition of the left’ or ‘progressive alliance’ is that, in the face of two shattering election defeats, some people on the centre left are still trying to rearrange the people already voting for ‘progressive’ parties rather than trying to persuade Conservative or UKIP voters.  In the aftermath of the 2010 election, Ed Miliband’s game plan for Labour was to absorb disgruntled Lib Dems; now, we hear muttering from some quarters about natural anti-Tory majorities.  It strikes me as slightly anti-democratic to fix things in this way, but more than that it seems futile, and a distraction from the real task at hand.  In 1997, Labour and Lib Dems together got 60% of the vote; in 2015, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens together only received 42%.  By far the best thing for centre-left politics is for Labour and the Lib Dems to focus on rediscovering their appeal to people outside the ‘progressive’ ghetto, particularly people who voted for them in 2005 or 2010 and who switched to the Conservatives in 2015.  Political parties have become sufficiently focused on targeting, and voters willing enough to vote tactically, that the likelihood of any of the ‘progressive’ parties actually acting as spoilers to one another to any great extent is small.  It would be better to work out how to chip away at the actual Tory majority, rather than trying to construct an elusive anti-Tory majority.

Tribalism, Tim Farron, and what Richard Grayson doesn’t say

I was intrigued to see that Professor Richard Grayson had written an article about Liberal Democrat tribalism. Grayson, a former Liberal Democrat who joined Labour three years ago, is an intelligent person with insights to share on this subject. It is also true that there *are* incredibly tribal people in the Liberal Democrats, who swing between regarding Labour as a bunch of doctrinaire spendthrift lunatics and seeing them as hard-right sell-outs. I have seen people say that the Liberal Democrats can never go into coalition with Labour because they are uniquely tribal, unlike the pluralist Lib Dems – they don’t seem to see the irony. So I was a little surprised to see that Grayson had singled out Tim Farron for criticism.

Grayson’s argument rests on two incidents, both of which are now over four and a half years old. The first relates to a vote at the 2008 Autumn Conference in Bournemouth which dedicated the Liberal Democrats to a policy of cutting £20bn from existing public expenditure and shifting towards other Liberal Democrat priorities – a large chunk of which was, indeed, meant to be directed towards cuts in income tax (I think I am right in saying that the intention at that stage was to reduce the basic rate rather than increasing the threshold, although the details were rather vague). Grayson clearly sees this as a pivotal moment in the rightward shift of the party, the moment when we became a party devoted to shrinking the state rather than (as in the Ashdown and Kennedy years) advocating greater investment in public services. Furthermore, he sees Tim Farron’s intervention as crucial in making sure it was passed. According to that logic, then, Farron is directly responsible for the Liberal Democrats’ support of the Conservatives’ fiscal policy.

There are a few problems with that argument, however. For one thing, although I wasn’t (quite) a member at this point (I think I joined in the October), I wonder whether Grayson exaggerates the influence of Tim, who by this stage had only been an MP for three years and held no portfolio of significant importance. More fundamentally, Grayson’s narrative leaves out the small matter that, shortly after the conference vote, the collapse of Lehman Brothers precipitated the greatest recession since the 1930s. This is significant for us in that Make It Happen was a dead letter almost by the time it was written – economic and political events had overtaken it completely. In the following years, Liberal Democrat policy swung towards broad support of Alistair Darling’s policy of Keynesian expansion of public spending, and the £20bn number was quietly dropped. The support for tax cuts became a fiscally neutral ‘tax switch’, raising green levies and taxes on high earners. The 2010 manifesto again proposed this ‘tax switch’, but this time also set out plans for a moderate pace of deficit reduction while keeping the flagship commitment to eliminating tuition fees. Only during the Coalition negotiations did Clegg sign up to the Conservative deficit reduction plan, and only after a couple of years in government was it clear that income tax cuts were going to be paid for by cuts elsewhere rather than a Mansion Tax or, in David Cameron’s words, ‘green crap’. In other words, it is impossible to draw a straight line between the Bournemouth conference and Coalition economic policy, except for the continued interest of Nick Clegg in shifting the party in favour of cutting Income Tax and public spending. For that reason, dragging up a seven year old Conference vote seems a little quixotic.

Grayson’s other bone to pick with Farron is related to his rejection in 2010 of working on a Labour Party policy working group. Grayson sees this as a demonstration that he isn’t really interested in pluralism, but I think that this is unfair. I suspect that I differ from him on how exactly politicians should work across party lines – he is clearly a generous soul who believes that any invitation offered should be accepted, and that if you don’t then you have slapped aside the hand of pluralism. My view is that you work across party lines on a pragmatic basis where you have common goals – as a social liberal, that often means working with the Labour Party. Intellectually, I think there is enormous value in discussing policy ideas and philosophy across party divides, creating a cross-fertilisation of ideas without which party dogma quickly becomes stale. Compass has generally been good at this on the left. And there is also a value in getting to know MPs from other parties socially – as well as facilitating the intellectual cross-fertilisation I mentioned above, it helps ease the formal interactions between them. Several observers have said that Nick Clegg found it difficult to relate to Gordon Brown during the Coalition negotiations in 2010, whereas he found himself at ease with David Cameron, with whom he had a fair amount in common.

Working within formal party structures, however, is always going to breed suspicion. Grayson fails to mention that by this point Farron was the Party President, and that he would be working with Labour MPs to develop Labour policy. This would have been an level of co-operation at a high level between two parties last seen in British politics between the Liberals and SDP, and completely unknown when the two parties are on opposite sides of the House.  Perhaps Ed Miliband was genuinely seeking some kind of pluralist arrangement. Even if so, Farron’s supposition that he was trying to play Lib Dems off each other or recruit them to Labour was not unreasonable, especially given that Miliband’s electoral strategy was based almost entirely on hoovering up 2010 Lib Dem voters. I suspect that, rather than demonstrating partisan hackery, Farron was instead being shrewder than Grayson himself. He was also demonstrating a basic level of political loyalty which is really the currency of the Labour Party. To put it in other words, it is difficult to imagine Ben Bradshaw serving on a Liberal Democrat policy group without being burnt at the stake by his constituency party. If Miliband was genuine, he was certainly being cack-handed about it.

Grayson finishes by saying that many Labour members suspect Liberal Democrats as being soggy Tories. I can certainly understand that point of view, given some of our actions and rhetoric in government. As he says, the likes of Danny Alexander will hardly warm the cockles of the average Labour member. But the thing is, Danny Alexander is no longer an MP. On the other hand, Tim Farron, a man of the left, is our Leader. Might it not be best for Grayson – who obviously has a more sophisticated and accurate view – to try and point that out to his fellow Labour members? It would do a lot more for relations between the two parties, which Grayson wishes to improve, than misrepresenting Tim Farron based on years-old incidents.

Why it’s time for Tim

This is my first leadership election as a member of the Liberal Democrats. I joined in September 2008, so I missed the last one – and, even though I had started volunteering a year before, I can’t remember anything about the Clegg-Huhne dust-up. It’s a contest which I’ve been anticipating (waiting for?) for several years now, but one where I presumed that I would be a neutral observer, at least to start. And yet, I find myself strongly supporting Tim Farron to be our next Leader.

Why has this happened? It’s not out of any antipathy towards Norman Lamb – I have enormous respect, and even affection, for Norman, whose effective championing of mental health as a minister deserves all the praise that it gets. Nor is it an uncritical endorsement of Tim – I can see his flaws, and think that he’s a work in progress (as most party leaders are when they’re elected). But, despite this, Tim is the candidate for now, the one able to lift us out of the dire situation that we find ourselves in.

It’s worth considering just how awful things are for the Liberal Democrats. Not since the early 1970s have we had so few MPs; we have ceased to be the third force in British politics, overtaken by UKIP in England and the SNP in Scotland; we dipped below 5% of the vote in the majority of constituencies in the UK. Seth Thevoz’s analysis of the results at constituency level is as acute as it is utterly depressing. We have elections for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in less than a year, where on current trends a further wipeout, on top of the disastrous 2011 results, looks likely. Our financial resources are limited by a severe reduction in the hoped-for Short Money, and we can anticipate the collapse of many local parties held together by an MP’s money, staff, or force of character (and there are far more of these than we’d like to think). Yes, we have had a welcome boost of members since the election – I welcome them, and I say that they will be absolutely crucial in the struggle ahead – but unless our fortunes enjoy improvement sometime soon they will become disengaged. So will our longstanding activists, who will begin to wonder if they shouldn’t devote their time to pressure groups or join another party. We have no newspaper, except perhaps The Independent, which supports us, and most are downright hostile. But, worst of all, nobody knows what we stand for, and after an election campaign where we changed our messaging several times and defined ourselves as moderating influence to everyone else, who can blame them? I have heard an alarming number of members say that, as bad as things are, they’re worse for the Labour Party. I think that this is self-comforting balls. Labour’s situtation is grave, but there is a path back to government for them.  We could die as an effective national force, and without a severe jolt to the system we probably will. Even with that jolt, we still could.

What’s the point, you might ask, of this wallowing in miserablism? My point is that I believe we need two things to have a hope of survival: a reason for existence, and a means of getting that through to voters. Tim, I believe, is the candidate who offers both. Norman is probably stronger on the details of policy (although Tim is sharper here than his critics suggest), but Tim is better on the big themes that are necessary for where we are now. Tim has had time to develop these on the backbenches, and you can see them on show in his Beveridge Lecture to SLF conference a few years back where he describes the way forward for a modern, interventionist liberalism. Tim has also chosen to emphasise housing policy, which is something as close to his heart as mental health is to Norman’s (it is also a passionate interest of mine) – it is also an issue of increasing salience with the electorate, particularly younger voters, and one where there is a lot of space for the Lib Dems to make the issue our own. These are the broad narratives on which we can build a distinctive platform.

But more than anything else, Tim can communicate our ideas and policies better than any British liberal I know of. He comes across as an ordinary bloke, and his roots are decidedly outside the Westminster Bubble. He is passionate and unwavering in defence of the liberal position on issues like immigration, but doesn’t come across as chiding or lecturing. I know that there is a suspicion of his way with words from some in the Party, but it is a skill which we desperately need right now as we fight for airtime against the other minor parties. Having met Norman, I can attest that he can electrify a small gathering with his charisma, something which explains his success in North Norfolk. But Tim can project his energy and passion to a far wider audience.

There is another reason, which has come out of the campaign, which makes me glad to have backed Tim, and that is the way that Norman’s campaign has defined their candidate as a ‘true liberal’. I’ve long said that we Lib Dems are far too nice to each other for our own good, so it isn’t the deliberate implication that Tim isn’t a ‘true liberal’ that bothers me so much. It’s the definition of what exactly makes a ‘true liberal’, which seems to amount to abortion, assisted dying, drugs, and gay rights. I have sympathy with the last point – Tim’s record on LGBT rights frankly isn’t where I would like it to be, although he does have a clear plan of future action in this area. But Tim has said that he supports the 1967 Abortion Act, and his on drugs is far more liberal than anything advocated by anyone in the two main parties. Moreover, the singling out of these issues as the acid test of a ‘true liberal’ makes me uncomfortable. There is an insidious pattern in party discourse to see these issues as the real ‘liberal issues’, and things like public services, unemployment, and so on as extraneous, despite the enormous effect these latter issues have on people’s ability to live their own lives independently and on their own terms. James Graham has described the problem with this kind of thinking better than I can, though I did have a stab a few years ago. Furthermore, there is an irony that Tim has often been accused of just saying what people want to hear, but it’s Norman’s campaign which has sought to stroke the sensibilities of Lib Dem activists. I know that a leadership election by its nature is about pleasing party members, but we need to remember that there is a wide world out there which needs to be persuaded of the merits of immigration, drugs reform, and so on.  Sometimes the Lamb campaign seems to ignore that you can be very, very liberal, but if you can’t bring people with you then it’s a complete waste of time.  If a Lamb leadership were to continue along these lines it would, I think, be a dangerous path for the health of British liberalism and the success of our party.

I think that this leadership election will be closer than most people think, although Tim is still the frontrunner. These are my personal reasons for voting for Tim, and you might find them unconvincing. I do ask, though, that if you have a vote in the election that you (a) use it, and (b) vote as if the future of the party depended on it. Because, as I have explained, we are in deep trouble, and the leader we choose now will be central to whether we live as a relevant force in British politics, or crumple into irrelevance. The hour is dark and the times are hard. It’s time for Tim.

Ed Miliband’s problem, in one tweet

I am not a campaigning guru by any stretch of the imagination.  I have never artworked a piece of literature, never mind written a campaign plan or come up with a political slogan.  Yet even I winced when I saw the tweet below:

There are two separate issues here.

First, there is the tiresome belief, apparently widespread in the Labour Party, that the entire media is out to get them.  This is not completely unreasonable – much of the Tory press *is* out to get them – but the BBC?  How about the fact that the publications which led the ‘Miliband in crisis’ story last week were the Guardian and the New Statesman?  Complaining about media bias in order to bludgeon critical voices into quiescence has often been a successful right wing tactic, but here it just comes across at petulant whining.

The second problem is rather more significant – Ed Miliband has decided to appeal to the electorate with fifteen separate promises, clumped into three vague headings.  (This is not an exact extract from his zero-zero speech, though it has similarities to an even longer list of policies Miliband ran through in it, but is apparently from an e-mail sent out to Labour supporters immediately after.) This is, from a messaging point of view, really stupid.  It’s not just because of the difficulty of the electorate receiving, processing and remembering these fifteen top lines of policy.  Reading a list of these promises – which are all doubtless positively received individually – the average voter, already sceptical of politicians and with a vague idea that Labour are a load of well-meaning profligates, will think: “and I’m going to get the moon on a stick as well, I suppose.”  As a reasonable rule of thumb, five is the limit of the number of main issues a party can campaign on before becoming incoherent.  One experienced campaigner I know says that the four promises on the front of the Lib Dem manifesto in 2010 was one too many.

True, there’s an attempt to group the promises into three key areas.  But they are vague to the point of practically being meaningless.  The first (‘I will undo the damage the Tories have done to our country’) is just a melange of four bad things which the Tories have done, with no particular unifying principle other than that they are bad things which have been done by the Tories.  The second (‘I will take on the powerful vested interests that hold millions back’) is a bit sharper, though the apologetic mention of immigration at the end looks painfully tacked on (since when have employment agencies been powerful vested interests?)  Finally, there is the catch-all promise, that Labour will ‘start to rebuild a fairer, better, Britain’, which covers everything from expanding housebuilding to raising the Minimum Wage.  This is really just a restatement of his wider attack on inequality.

If I were a canvasser on the doorstep, and I were asked by a sceptical elector to explain exactly why they should vote Labour, I would find it difficult on the basis of this without just listing a series of policies – an approach which persuades nobody except the loyal and policy fanatics like me.  The overarching theme – the vision – of a ‘zero zero society’ is one that will resonate with many people.  The policies, as I say, are probably all very popular (some even make sense).  But there’s nothing of substance in between – no values.  And that matters because it’s these arguments which give intellectual credibility to everything else, and which really explain how Labour will govern.  Everybody knows (apart from Eoin Clarke) that the attrition rate of the policies listed above would be about 50% even in a majority Labour government, and that they would make up enough material for two Queen’s Speeches at the most.  What would a Labour government do the rest of the time?  What would its priorities be?  How would it change Britain?  Answer came there little.

This is (by one count) Miliband’s third relaunch, and with six months before the General Election it is reasonable to think that it can only be his last, and that these are the messages he will take into the election; the die is cast.  At least he is responding to declining poll ratings, rather than, say, driving in fifth gear over an electoral cliff while murmuring ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ (naming no names).  And perhaps voters dislike the Coalition enough to give his party the benefit of the doubt in the end.  But, after over four years, Miliband still hasn’t proffered a persuasive explanation of what the Labour Party stands for.

Drugs policy – sending the wrong message

One of the most frequent arguments against a more liberal drugs policy is that liberalisation would ‘send a message’ that drugs – even hard drugs like heroin and cocaine – were not harmful.  This, so the argument goes, would lead to people trying these substances who would never have done so before, thereby leading more people into addiction.  This is apparently the reason for David Cameron’s opposition to even seeking Civil Service opinion on the subject, with today’s Sun reporting him as saying that “I don’t want to send out a message that somehow taking drugs is OK or safe.”  The idea that the criminal law should be used to ‘send a message’ – to set a moral guideline, regardless of the consequences or practicality of its enforcement – is in general a bad one which leads to bad law.  But it is a legitimate question to ask in this case.  Evidence from Portugal suggests a possible increase in the proportion of the population having ever used illegal drugs; similarly, there is plausible evidence of increased uptake of cannabis in some jurisdictions where it has been legalised.

But if the law is there to ‘send a message’, it should be asked exactly what message is being sent at the moment.  It is forgotten now, but many who in the 1960s argued in favour of legalising homosexuality – and, to a lesser extent, abortion – argued from the position that the widespread flouting of the law brought the legal system into disrepute.  When one-third of the population admits to having tried an illegal drug, and one in five young people say that they’ve used drugs in the past year, this is a real concern.  (Social stigma and fear or prosecution probably mean that these numbers are greatly underreported.)

Furthermore, from personal experience* I would suggest that the irrationality of our drug laws, and the exaggerated claims often used to defend them, lead people to underestimate the dangers of hard drugs.  Two examples.  The first is somebody I knew at school – someone very bright but rather wayward – who, after taking at a house party what had been sold to them as ketamine, passed out and had to be revived by paramedics.  (We didn’t call the ambulance until they stopped breathing because we were afraid that they would end up in trouble – another disadvantage of criminalisation.)  I remember them saying beforehand that the dangers of ketamine were small, and while I don’t know for sure that they were influenced by government drugs policy, the fact that cannabis – which for my knowledge has never nearly killed someone – was rated as a Class B drug while ketamine was then Class C might have contributed to their thoughts.  The other is a friend who briefly became an occasional cocaine user.  When I found out, I had to explain to them – and, again, this is a very well educated and intelligent person – that cocaine was highly addictive and damaging.

When you lump together a group of substances which have little to link them except social disapproval, and rank them with very little correlation to social and personal harm, you send out a confused message – as is fitting, given our country’s confused conversation on illegal drugs.  This message underestimates the dangers of alcohol.  It brings the criminal justice system into disrepute.  And it also leads many to underestimate the harm caused by illegal drugs.  Some message.  Perhaps David Cameron ought to consider whether it’s worth perpetuating a failed drugs war if this is the best argument he has.

*As it happens, I have never used any illegal drug, unless you count a little underage drinking from the age of 16.