Monday, 5 August 2013

The Debate on the Future of the Liberal Democrats

I posted earlier today on the issues that Welsh Liberal Democrats need to be thinking about in the light of the National Assembly Anglesey By-Election result. My attention has since been drawn to a contribution from a fellow Member of the Social Liberal Forum. There is now a general debate beginning about the future direction of the Party. We need to have that debate in Wales, but starting from our own particular circumstances. I would particularly endorse the point about the self-identified supporters of Nick Clegg frequently attacking internal critics of UK Government policies as being insufficiently realistic, dedicated to the necessities of coalition, or ‘serious’ about being in government, preferring juvenile oppositionism. Most of us voted for the coalition and still support it reluctantly - so, yes, we are serious about being in power and all that entails. It's just that some of us have not been too impressed with the way many issues have been handled and we need to have a debate on our future direction and the best time to have that debate is over the next twelve months. By this time next year we will all have to concentrate on the General Election battle ahead. Of course some in the Party realise this, but they need to understand that delaying tactics to prevent debate will not help anyone in the long run.

Reflections on the National Assembly Anglesey By-Election

Thursday 1st August saw a by-election take place for the National Assembly Constituency seat of Anglesey/Ynys Mon. The result, when it was announced was:

Plaid Cymru  12,601 (58.2%) +16.8%
Labour  3,435 (15.9%) -10.3%
UKIP  3,099 (14.3%) +14.3%
Conservative  1,843 (8.5%) -20.7%
Socialist Labour  348 (1.6%) +1.6%
Liberal Democrat  309 (1.4%) -1.7%

Turnout: 42.4% (-6.3%)

From a Liberal Democrat and Liberal perspective it could not be much worse. As Roger Scully said on 3rd August on the Click on Wales Blog: "The less said about the Liberal Democrat's Ynys Mon showing, the better." And, of course, there will be some in the Welsh Liberal Democrats who will attempt to deal with it by saying precisely nothing hoping that it will go away quietly, some will say that the Liberal Democrats have never performed well in this Constituency, that in the recent past the Liberal Democrats have had a small membership base here, or that it is the mid-term point in the life of a currently unpopular UK Coalition Government of which the Liberal Democrats are a part (so what can you expect), or even that the Liberals/Liberal Democrats have been here before. I'm afraid none of that will wash.

The first comment to make is to commiserate with Liberal Democrat Candidate, Steve Churchman, who was brave enough to put his name forward and try his best to fly the flag for Liberalism. He deserves thanks from the whole Welsh Liberal Democrat Party, which I hope he will receive. My comments do not in any way reflect on his candidature, his efforts to run a campaign, and quite frankly, his personal sacrifice in what was an impossible task.

We need to look beyond the Candidate and take a long, hard look at this result. To receive just 309 votes on the entire island of Anglesey out of over 21,000 people who voted (and a total electorate of 51,000) is not only humiliating but indicates an impending collapse for the Liberal Democrats in many parts of Wales. Why is this happening? Is it just a short term problem or are there longer term trends at work?

Back in the heady days of 2008 when Kirsty Williams became Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, I remember the excitement and expectation - here was a new, fresh and radically different type of Leader with ambition for the Party and for Liberalism who could take the Party forward in Wales. Someone who could lift us beyond the six Assembly Members and four MPs that we then had - towards perhaps a dozen AMs and half a dozen MPs. However, we now have only five AMs and three MPs and, if the latest opinion poll is to be believed (I know - it's only an opinion poll) we will end up with only one MP after 2015 and only two AMs after 2016. Even if we are optimistic and say it will be two MPs and three AMs, the picture is still bleak. So what's gone wrong and do we need to re-think our strategy?

Looking back from the vantage point of 2013, we can see three key factors which have got us to where we are: the start of probably the longest economic recession and consequent economic restructuring in recent UK history (which has now been going on longer then the equivalent period in the 1930s), a 2010 UK General Election which failed to produce an overall majority and in which the number of Liberal Democrat MPs fell from 62 to 57, and the formation of a Conservative - Liberal Democrat UK Coalition Government. It is interesting to note that all three factors have happened on an international or UK-wide basis and do not have their origins in Wales. However, their impact on Wales and on the Liberal Democrats in Wales has been huge. In my view their full impact on the Welsh Liberal Democrats has still to be felt.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the Recession - it has had an impact on almost everything aspect of the economic and political environment. The Economy is now at the top of most voters list of concerns. There is fear and worry about getting or keeping a job, about how to make ends meet to pay all the household bills, about how to keep up the payments on credit cards or other loans and a fear that the next generation will have a lower standard of living then the current one. It has also led to worry and anxiety about immigration and about loss of identity. It is no coincidence that the period since 2008 has seen a significant increase in anti-European views and we have seen a steady increase in the level of support for UKIP, which is now on the point of entering the political mainstream to create a four party system at a UK level and a five party system at a Welsh level.

We sometimes forget that the 2010 UK General Election result was hugely disappointing for the Liberal Democrats. Once again the Party was the victim of the first past the post electoral system gaining 23% of the vote but only 9% of the seats in the House of Commons. The positive performance of Nick Clegg in the Leadership Debates produced little real tangible benefit and the long-standing campaigning technique of concentrating resources in target seats seemed to have reached its maximum potential. We seemed to have stalled at a support level of around 22 to 23% (confirmed recently by the new Liberal Democrat Chief Executive, Ryan Coetzee who has estimated the Party's maximum 'market share' as approx 23%). It has been clear to a number of us for some time that there was a limit to so-called 'Renardism' - the idea that you can gain seats and power in slow increments campaigning on purely popular themes. What we should have done and what we need to do is build a core vote for Liberalism. This argument has been put forward forcefully by Simon Titley writing in Liberator Magazine in July 2011. His views deserve careful consideration. To quote him:

"The Partys' basic problem pre-dates tuition fees. It pre-dates the formation of the coalition or last year’s general election. It even pre-dates the merger. It is that the Party has consistently failed to consolidate a sufficiently large core vote. While Labour and the Tories can each rely on at least 25% of the electorate to vote for them through thick and thin, barely 10% of the electorate is similarly committed to the Liberal Democrats. The rest of the Party’s support is ‘soft’ – the Lib Dem vote is like a bath with the taps left on and the plug left out. Consequently at each successive election, the party has to put a disproportionate effort into winning its previous vote afresh. It can’t build out from a base because it hasn’t got one."

"Consolidating a core vote is simple, really. All you have to do is state clearly what you stand for and who you stand for. But the Liberal Democrats have always found this problematic because attracting some people necessarily repels others. The Party refuses to do that because it would inevitably upset some of its MPs and councillors, who represent a very diverse demographic. So it has fudged the question, either by campaigning locally on issues about which no reasonable person could disagree (e.g. everyone wants the dog shit cleaned up) or by attracting protest votes against the government of the day (e.g. opposition to the Iraq War). To make matters worse, the Party tries to make a virtue of this, with its slogan: “We can win everywhere”. Well, yes, you can, but only if you avoid confronting people with serious moral choices. And since the resulting electoral support is wide but shallow and transient, the opposite equally applies: “We can lose everywhere”. 

The roots of the problem in Anglesey, and of the results yet to come, lie deep and I see no-one in the Welsh Liberal Democrat hierarchy tackling the issues. What we see is a media operation supporting the Liberal Democrat Assembly Group in Cardiff Bay which, in itself , does a good job. However, we see little in the way of a long-term vote building strategy to address what some of us see as long-term problems.

And finally, the UK Coalition. As a Carmarthenshire blogger put it last year: "It's not so much a coalition as a hostage situation." I was one of those who put my hand up at the Party's Special Conference to support the formation of the Coalition but did any of us really know what we were letting ourselves in for? Did any of us really factor in the sheer inexperience of our leadership (the Rose Garden scene, tuition fees, the alternative vote referendum etc) in dealing with a hard-nosed and double-dealing coalition partner? Is it really possible to have a coalition with people who fundamentally do not believe in coalition and will do anything to undermine it when the opportunity presents itself? Coalition was never going to be easy but we did not handle it well in the early days and it seems hard to see how we can recover quickly from the damage that has been done.

How do these three factors play out in the Welsh context? Not well is the answer. The Recession has hit Wales hard - it is very tough for many people in our local communities. Memories of the Thatcher recession are fresh and the wounds barely healed. A coalition with the Tories was always going to be resented by a majority of people in Wales (as in Northern England and Scotland) and the 'Nick and Dave Show' has gone down particularly badly. The 2010 General Election saw us lose one of our MPs (OK - it was Lempit Opik) but the argument about our core vote applies even more so in Wales where we have a four party environment. You can't help but feel for the Welsh Party Leader, Kirsty Williams. She was elected just as all these three factors started to come into play and she has effectively been 'on the back foot' through no fault of her own and unable to make much headway - in fact, we have been driven backwards.

However, these three factors have not yet worked their way fully through the system and their cumulative effect could be nothing short of catastrophic for the Welsh Liberal Democrats. The strategy for fighting the 2015 UK General Election determined by the Party in London is to concentrate resources on 'strategic' seats (the ones we think we can hold or win). The reality of our position is that this is the only viable option - it is, in essence, a survival strategy based on fighting a series of local by-elections. Let's hope it works. However, the result will be that we effectively abandon any pretence of a Liberal Democrat presence in most of Wales. The message to many of our activists and ordinary members is stark and clear - we're effectively abandoning you.

The danger is that, post-2016, Wales will have a four party environment - but the Liberal Democrats won't be one of the four. So, it really is time to re-think our strategy - our very survival as a viable Welsh political party and the future of Liberalism in Wales is at stake. Simply carrying on regardless and hoping it will all come right by 2015 (or 2016) will not do. This is not just a short-term crisis caused by the UK Coalition - it is about addressing long term and fundamental issues. New thinking is required - and urgently. I will come back to what this new thinking might involve in a later blog post.

Monday, 15 October 2012

The Case for Hospital Chaplaincy Services

The Welsh Liberal Democrats voted to withdraw NHS funding from hospital chaplaincy services this weekend at its Autumn Conference. Instead it wants to see chaplaincy services funded by a charitable trust. In reality, especially in Wales, this will mean the effective end of this service within our hospitals. This is in the context of the 2010/11 ONS Integrated Household Survey which shows that 66.1% of the population of Wales identify themselves as Christian with a further 3.4% identifying themselves as followers of other faiths (predominantly Muslim). This represents not only a potential defeat for the NHS Chaplaincy Service in Wales but a sad defeat for Liberalism in Wales.

For those of you not familiar with the background to all of this, hospital chaplains funded from the Health Service budget have been an integral part of the NHS since its foundation in 1948. This was a recognition that the NHS was there to provide for people's physical, mental and spiritual health needs. It recognised what in today's language we would call an holistic approach to health care. The role of chaplains is to provide both a pastoral service and to act as a conduit into the appropriate religious or faith communities. Originally, the service was Christian but more recently it has become a multi-cultural and multi-faith based service to reflect the modern society that Britain has become. So, there are Anglican, Roman Catholic and Free Church priests and ministers and also rabbis and immams. The service is continuing to evolve. I know from personal experience and from the many positive comments I hear in my role as a local councillor that the service is valued highly by those who've used it. This also includes those of no religious faith who value the pastoral role played by the service especially those who are very ill or terminally ill. Modern health care professionals are under great pressure and often simply do not have time to spend with patients. Chaplains are there to provide emotional care as well as spiritual care - many people need to talk through a wide range of life issues. It's often at times of ill health, stress and worry that people desperately need a pastoral service, especially if they have no family close-by to where they are being treated or no family at all.

And what does all of this cost? Well, in England the estimated amount is £29m and in Wales £1.3m. This is against a current total NHS budget of £104.3billion. So, good value for money on any objective measure. So, why are some people seeking to effectively abolish a valuable and valued service? The answer is a long running campaign by the National Secular Society, which amongst other objectives, seeks to challenge what it regards as "the disproportionate influence of religion on governments and in public life". It also seeks to counterbalance what it sees as "the more destructive religious impulses that can threaten human rights worldwide." In other words it is anti-religious and anti-faith. Abolishing NHS funded chaplaincy services is one of its current key campaigns and it has campaigned particularly hard in Wales to achieve this objective.

So far so good. In a free society the National Secular Society is perfectly entitled to promote its views and campaign accordingly and, as Liberals, we would defend its right to do so. However, let's not forget that secularism is a belief system in the same way that Christianity or Islam is a belief system. A liberal society is one in which the state is both neutral as to belief systems but which also actively enables its citizens to enjoy and exercise the rights and freedoms of a liberal society (as long as the exercise of those rights and freedoms does not impinge on the rights and freedoms of their fellow citizens - a key principle from John Stuart Mill). From the time of the 'New Liberals' at the start of the 20th Century the modern Liberal/Liberal Democrat Party has largely accepted the philosophy of social liberalism. We have accepted that rights and freedoms are meaningless unless people have the practical means to exercise those rights and freedoms. The way we have made a reality of this principle is by funding public services from general taxation. As a result, public services expanded throughout the 20th Century and many of us are fighting to preserve those public services in the current economic climate. Hospital chaplaincy services are one of those public services. They enable those (a majority of the population) who identify with a faith community to be able to exercise their right and freedom to have a service that addresses their pastoral and spiritual needs and that helps to make a reality of their rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The National Secular Society and others of a similar view would argue that no-one is taking away anyone's rights. The argument is that if faith groups want to provide chaplaincy services then they should pay for them. They should not be treated as a public service. They argue that some of the faith groups have plenty of money (not true incidentally in Wales where the Anglican Church was disestablished as long ago as 1920). But this isn't about the faith groups, this is about the ability of the individual citizen in a liberal society to exercise their right and freedom to receive faith-based services in an NHS hospital (which they pay for through national insurance and general taxation). That's why chaplaincy services should be a public service. Very few, if any, Liberals would argue that Britain should be an exclusively Christian country - we have diversity as a core value. By the same token we should not argue for it to become an exclusively secular country. We should be here to uphold and make a reality of every citizens's rights and freedoms - regardless of whether they hold to a faith based view of the world or a secular/athiest view of the world. For one, I find it profoundly disappointing that the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference has failed to uphold this key Liberal principle.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Cameron's Reshuffle Will Make Little Difference

Cameron's reshuffle (or shuffle depending on your view) is a classic example of politics 'in the bubble' of Westminster and Whitehall. In the big wide world that the rest of us live in life carries on and people couldn't care less about some Cabinet Minister they've never heard of being replaced by a new Cabinet Minister (who they've never heard of). Is the Government lurching to the right? Who's Up? Who's down? Who cares?

What people do care about is whether they and members of their family can get and keep a job, whether they can pay their utility bills, whether they can afford this week's food prices. Small businesses worry about whether they can get a loan from the bank, whether they can afford the rent on their premises or whether they'll still be in business in three months time.

The one reshuffle we needed was to see George Osborne shuffled out of his job at the Treasury. His record of incompetence in presenting and delivering the Government's economic strategy has been woeful - even some Conservatives accept this, but clearly not David Cameron. The last budget was a shambles as all of us who were trying to fight local elections found out to our cost. His reception at last night's Paralympics medal ceremony summed it up - he is completely out-of-touch and understands little about the lives of ordinary people.

I supported and support the Coalition for one reason and one reason only - in 2010 the Country was in a huge economic mess and just walking away and leaving it to a weak minority Conservative Government or trying to keep an exhausted and discredited Labour Party in power were not sensible options. Liberal Democrats had to act responsibly and we did. Even the Labour Party leadership accept that the budget deficit has to be tackled and despite all the sound and fury, the policies of the Government and the Labour Opposition are not that far apart on the issue of the deficit.

However, we won't make progress on reducing the deficit if we don't get the economy growing again. Instead our deficit could actually increase. George Osborne looks like a startled rabbit with no real idea of which way to jump. As Liberal Democrats we came into this Coalition to tackle the Country's dire economic situation and we mustn't give up on that. That means applying even more pressure on George Osborne and the Conservatives to deliver a credible and deliverable plan for growth, as Vince Cable has been arguing for some time. Enough of the excuses, of blaming the Eurozone crisis - the Chancellor needs to take responsibility and act. If not, it's time to get more assertive within the Coalition - we can't afford any more aimless economic sleep-walking from the Tories.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Nick Clegg's Leadership

Yesterday's newspapers have been full of speculation about Nick Clegg's Leadership of the Liberal Democrats with some voices within the Party calling for him to go. To go down this route seems to me to be nothing short of suicide. Like many others within the Party, I attended the Special Conference of the Party in Birmingham which approved the Coalition overwhelmingly and I don't remember many hands raised in opposition. Even with the benefit of hindsight I don't think we had much choice other than to go down the route we did. 

It's unfortunate that the Conservatives (including David Cameron) showed bad faith in the way they handled the AV Referendum and it's also unfortunate there's a significant minority of Tory MPs and others in the Conservative Party constantly looking to undermine the Coalition at every turn. It doesn't help. But perhaps it's now teaching us the difficulties of running a coalition with people who fundamentally don't agree with coalition politics because they are happier to be 'tribal' politicians.

The answer is to have a clear strategy for dealing with the Tories, be much smarter at communicating our key messages and more assertive in the way we push our policy agenda. Changing the Leader is not the way forward. So, I don't agree with those calling for a change of Leader for the reasons set out by Stephen Tall. However, that doesn't mean that we don't need change - we do! So, I very much agree with those voices, like Adrain Sanders MP, who are calling for Nick Clegg to get better advice and support on strategy and campaigning especially from those with broad based experience of the Party and who are in touch with the real world outside 'the Bubble'.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

European Problems Need European Solutions

Both the Eurozone and the wider European Union face huge challenges. The bailout for Greece may soon be followed by a bailout for Spain and then, the question is: who's next after Spain? Meanwhile, economic growth throughout the EU faces stagnation with all the consequences involved including large-scale unemployment and lack of business growth. It's hard to to argue that the response within the EU so far has been either adequate or strategic. Individual Member States are trying to battle through on their own whilst Germany and France struggle to come to terms with the scale of change that is required in respect of the future development of Europe. All of us in the EU need those changes to take place so that we can get back on the road to prosperity. In this thoughtful piece, Chair of the European Movement UK, Petros Fassoulas argues that now is the time for  European solutions to European problems.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

We Need a Fairer Tax System

In an interview with The Guardian yesterday, Liberal Democrat Leader, Nick Clegg, called for an emergency wealth tax so those who are best able to, should make a bigger contribution in shouldering the current economic pain. His comments have met with the usual knee-jerk reaction from a selection of both Conservative and Labour politicians. Conservatives such as Bernard Jenkin have dismissed it as "the politics of envy" whilst Labour politicians have questioned why Nick Clegg wants a wealth tax on the one hand but has supported a cut in the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45%. Yet others have questioned why Nick Clegg has left it till now to make the case for a wealth tax.

Liberal Democrats are often taunted by their opponents saying: "What's the point of the Lib Dems - what do they stand for?...not a lot etc etc." Well, taxation is an area where we offer something different and have done for some considerable time. The Conservatives have consistently looked after those with entrenched wealth whilst pretending to look after ordinary people and small businesses. They are still at it - see The Telegraph. George Osborne's comments are disingenuous. Liberal Democrats do not advocate 'hitting the wealth creators'. Meanwhile Labour are the people who do hit the wealth creators by consistently having high income tax rates and high capital gains tax rates on entrepreneurs (who create and grow businesses and create new jobs).

Liberal Democrats and Liberals have long supported taxing wealth and not income generation. As far back as the second half of the 19th Century this has been a hallmark Liberal view, famously expressed by the Liberal philosopher, John Stuart Mill. His argument was that large amounts of unearned and inherited wealth had an overall negative effect on the economy and should be taxed in order to produce positive economic and social benefits for the wider community. What should not penalised by heavy taxation was work, investment and entrepreneurial risk taking.

It is truly unbelievable that Labour seemingly cannot understand the difference between taxing income generation and taxing wealth. As a Partner in a family business myself, I experienced at first hand an increasingly onerous taxation system developing for small business during the 13 years of Labour Government. Most small and medium sized businesses were at their wits end with the burden of keeping up with tax changes and increasing regulation. Meanwhile Gordon Brown abolished the 10% rate of income tax hitting hard pressed low paid workers and pensioners with savings. And what did Labour do about taxing wealth? Nothing.

So, good for you Nick in putting wealth taxes on the agenda. Even some of those who are certainly not natural Liberals have supported the idea including WPP Chief Executive Sir Martin Sorrell and the New Statesman. And for those critics who say it's bit late in the day for Nick Clegg to be raising a wealth tax. Well, it's fair point in one way but remember that this isn't a Liberal Democrat Government - it's a Coalition Government with a Conservative Chancellor. There is little doubt that wealth taxes would have been implemented by a majority Liberal Democrat Government.

It's about time, as a Country, that we had a debate about wealth taxes. If we want a fairer tax system, then we have to stop penalising those who create wealth. Instead we need to make sure that those with unearned or inherited wealth pay their proper share of the cost of running and maintaining a decent, civilised society -and, no, before the scare stories start in papers like the Daily Mail - we're not talking about taxing people who want to leave their home to their children. 

Given the scale of the financial and economic challenge we face, I don't think the issue will go away. Further cuts to welfare, on top of those already proposed, are unacceptable and we must avoid new taxes for the country's entrepreneurial wealth creators, So, in looking to raise tax revenues we will need to look at wealth taxes as well as, crucially, getting the economy growing again. Interestingly, even George Osborne appears willing to consider a wealth tax (a so-called mansion tax) - see Nick Robinson's comment. If we're really "all in this together" as David Cameron claims, then this Government needs to look at fairer taxes - now.