The title for this post popped into my head while listening to Liz Kendall being interviews on Radio 4 Today programme.
Of course she’s in the race to win. What a stupid question! Not much better than that other stupid question she was asked.
I like Liz. Apart from her awesome taste in hip hop, Liz’s trouble is her ideas are way ahead of where most of the Labour party is right now.
If Liz wants to lead an economically credible party with a social conscience she really needs to join the Lib Dems.
But more of that later.
Politics is defined by key moments and how you respond.
The Welfare Bill was a key moment.
Tim Farron responded, and Labour flunked it.
Progress on political positioning OR How Tim got it right on the Welfare Bill
After That Channel 4 interview Tim started the week a bit bruised and getting media coverage sadly for all the wrong reasons.
The first test of his political skills came on Monday when he needed to make a call on the Welfare Bill.
This was a basic test for all opposition parties(set by George Osborne (complete with his in-your-face Guardian article) and while all the focus was on Labour, as Her Majesty’s Opposition, it was just as important for Lib Dems to get our response right.
The Lib Dems doing the right thing on the Welfare Bill was critical for a few reasons:
One, it was the first time Tim had spoken as our leader in Parliament, and indeed the first time Lib Dems as a political force would get to set out their stall without the Tories alongside us.
Over the next five years we are going to need a response to that perennial question: What IS the point of the Lib Dems?
This question is followed close behind by what are the Lib Dems for? And what are they against?
Tim’s response to the Welfare Bill is the start It helps us to begin to answer all those key questions
Consistency is everything (particularly for Lib Dems)
So what did Tim’s speech against the Welfare Bill tell us about the position he wants to take the Lib Dems, and what the Lib Dems are for?
Politics as we are often told is about choices. Framing choices between one thing and another, and also making them.
In his speech on Monday night, Tim said:
‘In truth, the Government do not have to take £12 billion from the poorest families in the country, mostly working families, but are choosing to do so.’
This is consistent with the line that Nick Clegg took before the election;
“[The Conservatives] are asking for £12bn over two years,” said Clegg, speaking to Newsnight’s Evan Davis.
“We’ve made £20bn over five. They want to ask the poorest to make additional sacrifices while not asking the richest to pay an additional penny through the tax system to balance the books – that’s downright unfair.”
Tim underlines the marked contrast between the Tory vs Lib Dem approach later in the speech:
‘The reduction in the incomes of poor families in work comes at the same time as the Government are giving inheritance tax cuts to millionaires, cutting corporation tax for the richest firms and refusing to raise a single extra penny in tax from the wealthiest people—for example, through a high-value property levy.’
Consistency is important in politics.
This is not to be confused with saying everything you say in politics has to the same.
Not changing your message to fit the times would be a mistake. However, your values which underpin everything – they need to be consistent. I wrote about the Lib Dems’ recent problems in that regard here.
In these media-driven times, it is particularly important to be consistent in what you say and do so people can point to things you’ve said and done over a period of time and see a pattern.
Saying one thing and doing another ergo Tuition Fees is where it all went horribly wrong for us in the last Parliament.
In opposition, what we say becomes a guide for our would-be voters – to what we would do in government.
Finally, let’s also not forget the fact that seventeen thousand plus people recently joined the Lib Dems precisely because of what we were saying and doing in the last Parliament.
So, for all the reasons outlined above consistency of message is even more important for Lib Dems.
Establishing clear yellow water
But the success of Tim’s speech was not just about it’s consistency. Tim was also highly successful in setting out a key dividing line between us and the Tories.
One of our challenges during this Parliament is going to be setting out, repeatedly and at regular intervals, how we as a party differ from the Tories. This may sound obvious but it’s very important.
Firstly, we have suffered hugely because of being associated with decisions some of which we agreed with but a lot we did not made by Tories and with Tories in the last Coalition government.
The ‘nasty Tory’ brand has rubbed off on us and we are going to have to spend a lot of time washing it off.
Secondly, being in coalition with a party that is much bigger than us – and with a lot more media backers – has meant that our smaller brand has been subsumed.
So, every chance we get Tim, our MPs, our Peers, our councillors – all of us members – will need to talk about what makes the Lib Dems different from the Tories.
Tim’s message was clear ‘this is a Tory Bill. We wouldn’t vote for it in Coalition and we’re not going to start now!’
All of this is a lot easier to do in opposition but the pleasing thing is it’s already having a transformative effect.
Warming to his themes
Politics, particularly opposition politics, is all about picking your battles. It’s also about establishing territory on which to fight them.
If you listen carefully to the speech you can hear Tim setting out some key themes and key groups that he plans to champion this Parliament (you will notice many of these are familiar from Norman Lamb’s campaign)
In many ways, young people are the biggest victims of the Bill. I think of young people being supported by housing benefit…Taking housing benefit away from young people is not just morally wrong but utterly counterproductive, because it will prevent them from accessing work and other life opportunities.’
Low paid workers:-
We will stand for the thousands of people in work and yet in poverty, and for the millions of people who might not be personally affected but who do not want to see inequality grow in Britain.’
The 1-5 Britons who have experienced mental ill-health
‘We will continue to make the case for u for a welfare system that understands the needs of people with mental health conditions and helps them back into work, rather than putting them under the kind of pressure that simply makes them worse.’
‘We will continue to speak for the millions of people who are young, who suffer from mental health problems, whose parents have no spare rooms or spare income, who do not have parents at all, or who have more than two children. The Liberal Democrats will stand up for families, whether they are hard-working or just desperate to be hard-working.
Tim is bidding to replace Labour as the credible alternative to the Conservatives
If Tim had simply managed to be vaguely consistent in his message, careful not to trash our five years in government and had set out some key Lib Dem themes in his speech this would have gone down as a solid start.
But what impressed me is that Tim went further, much further in his speech than simply attacking the Tory government.
He stuck the knife into Labour too and signalled his bold ambition to get the Liberal Democrats into a position where we replace Labour as a political force.
Tim’s neat drive-by on Labour did the job perfectly:-
‘We will not let the Conservatives through choice, or the Labour party through their silence, unpick our welfare system.’
This was a full-frontal assault on Labour MPs for their complicity, conspiring with the Tories in recent years to create a toxic narrative in the media which has fatally undermined public confidence in welfare.
It fits in well with TIm’s comments last week in the speech he made when he became leader when he said ‘your failure is not my success’
Tim is explictly calling-out in his speech the fact that is Labour who first got the ball rolling on calling welfare claimants benefits scroungers a when they were in government 1997-2010.
The Tories simply carried on where Labour left. Tim’s remarks also echo something Tariq Ali said yesterday evening on Newsnight:
“These Labour people, most of them, can’t oppose the Tories because they agree with most of what they say” says @TariqAli_News
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) July 24, 2015And right-wing commentators have spotted it too:
Tim’s speech would have been strong at the best of times, but on a Bill in which Labour abstained en mass against huge cuts to Welfare his timing could not have been better.
As Cllr Keith House, Lib Dem Leader of Eastleigh correctly tweeted after the debate:-
Tim did the right thing to rub salt in Labour’s wounds the following day with his excellent letter to Harriet Harman.
Yes, it was a stunt (a lot of opposition politics is!) but he was right to point out that it is the Lib Dems who are leading opposition to punitive Tory cuts, not Labour:-
‘Labour claim to be a party who believes in social justice. If that is true, then they must join with the Liberal Democrats in voting against these cruel and excessive cuts.’
With Labour seemingly intent on consigning themselves to opposition for decades there is a gap in the market for a party that is fiscally credible and socially-conscious
But its not just that Labour don’t seem to want to win it’s the fact they know and the public knows they don’t really stand for anything anymore.
Labour activists are now faced with the fact that their party is hollowed out, spent, after decades in power and subsequent years in denial about why they lost the 2010 election.
There is a gap in the market for a party that responds to British society as it is rather as we might wish it to be.
For a party with a vision grounded in reality, mixed with hope.
All that left and right schtick doesn’t work any more – it’s terminally broken.
The issues people care about now: housing, education, mental health, our ageing population, public services globalisation – all require a liberal approach.
Liberalism – the freedom to live the best life you can afford, regardless of background, and in the manner you choose (as long as it doesn’t harm others) is where it’s at.*
If you agree with this and you’re not a member you should really join us*.