Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Argument for a 5 Option EU Referendum



Following on from all of the arguments, disputes and political deadlock over Brexit, there has been much talk of holding a new or 'second' (or 'third'!) or 'Peoples Vote' referendum over the issue, to allow 'the people' to make a decision. It is something I have always supported, and continue to help campaign for. And I make no apologies for doing so! From where we are, I don't see any other way out of the situation - we have to understand what the majority actually want, knowing what we know now about both possible outcomes and about the potential wrongdoings in the previous campaign. I can see no other solution that could remotely be described as 'democratic' - in my opinion, it would simply not be 'democratic' at all to take the previous 'advisory' referendum result as a 'settled will of the people' decision to leave the European Union, under any circumstances, no matter what the terms. As Nigel Farage put it with regard to a possible 52/48% result for Remain, it would have been 'unfinished business', and it clearly is now.

Over the last two years, I've given much though to what form that new vote should take - what should be the questions, and what should be the possible answers. I think I have reached a conclusion now, in my own mind, that it should be a 5 option referendum, conducted with an STV voting system. I have always been extremely wary about the idea of a simplistic 'either/or' kind of referendum - it just doesn't give any indication of the true opinions among the population. It was a disaster last time particularly because one of the options didn't have any kind of clearly defined outcome, so it allowed contradictory and competing claims to be made about 'Leave' actually meant in practical terms. Even now, any binary referendum would fail dismally to cover anything like the range of available options, whether it be 'Remain versus Deal', or 'Remain versus No Deal', or whatever. It leaves an awful lot of options out entirely. We need to do a much better job than that at assessing the public mood if we're going to find out what the majority of the public actually want from their politicians.

For a long time, I was thinking along the lines of a 4 option referendum, because that could be balanced between two Remain and two Leave options (more about those 'two Remain options' later). As time has gone on and things have become slightly clearer, though, I've come to the conclusion that the balance is less important than reflecting all of the options under a workable preferential voting system. 'Single Transferable Vote' is, I think, the best kind of voting system, and it works best once you have 5 options or more for people to choose preferences from. As it happens, we now have 5 options that I think can be clearly defined, with each option having an apparently reasonable amount of support among 'campaigners' such that it would be possible to form an 'official campaign' for each.

One of the big issues with a simplistic binary question is that it throws together people who have quite different opinions and forces them to be 'on the same side' and within the same campaign. That causes several problems, as we saw in the 2016 campaign:

1. Since they don't agree, they can very easily end up making contradictory statements to the public among themselves - we saw a great deal of that from Leave campaigners, giving mixed messages (an overall effect of 'having cake and eating it', a cynic might suggest), although it also happened to some extent among 'Remainers' with some of the attempted 'Remain and Reform' messaging.
2. With different people within the same campaign saying, and emphasising, different things, the media can pick and choose what they show and discuss. The broadcast media have a duty of 'balance' between campaigns, but that all too easily becomes 'balance' between the campaigns on the basis of what they deem most 'controversial' (and therefore interesting) and what is being said by the people they deem most 'important' or 'interesting'. This happened in 2016 to the Remain camp, as prominent government figures focussed on 'controversial' and 'negative' ('Project Fear') economic arguments - the voice of those campaigning on the basis of a more positive pro-European vision were simply ignored, but without any apparent issues with 'balance' (because they were only a part of the one campaign, and that one campaign was being 'adequately covered' for 'balance' by showing the other part).
3. Those who are 'most important' set the messaging agenda to an extent anyway, and if they've got it 'wrong' there's really nothing that others with different messages can do about it.

On top of that, a binary question is always open to the danger, or even promotion, of 'emotional reaction' over 'thinking', and that's a very bad thing. Having a range of defined options to choose between forces people to examine them and think about them, and to feel that they want to be more informed about the decision that they are being asked to make. Making people choose between 'Yes or No', or whatever, can allow it to appear deceptively simple, as if the issues involved are simple and they only have to 'go with their gut' and should make a decision based on 'initial instinct' alone. That's not a good way to have an 'informed' democratic decision making process at all. That's something we really ought to consider when it comes to any kind of referendum - there are always going to be multiple possible options and outcomes, and a reasonable variety and number of those options should always be put to people so that people are encouraged to find out what they all really mean, and think about all of their possible implications, before going ahead and making their mark on the ballot paper. I don't buy the 'it's too complicated' argument at all - the issues are complicated, and people should be thinking about that as they make their decision. People are perfectly capable of doing that, and reminding them to do it by giving them multiple options can only be a good thing, in my opinion.

A binary referendum on a complicated issue with multiple potential outcomes is never going to provide a true reflection of how the public feel about those different options, and it could even contribute towards producing a 'false result'. Aside from all the other potential arguments about failures in the last referendum, how many of those 'Leave' voters thought we were set to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union, and would rather Remain than leaving with No Deal? The only honest answer is that we haven't a clue, because that referendum didn't tell us anything useful like that. We need a referendum that does.

So, here is my solution. A multiple STV referendum vote, with an 'open' question and 5 options to choose from (in order of preference). Note that for the 'short title' of each option, as well as avoiding the previous 'Leave; and 'Remain' terms, I have also avoided some of the most common terms that have been flying around - it's entirely possible that some of them are not as well understood as we often assume (in the case of 'No Deal', for example, some apparently believe that it means 'Not doing a deal so we Remain in the EU', rather than leaving altogether without agreeing anything on anything).

Question: 'What should the UK now do about membership of the European Union?'

Option 1: Withdraw With No Agreement - Essentially the 'No Deal' scenario, leaving the EU without signing any agreement on terms or future relationships, then negotiating trade deals on a case by case basis.
Option 2: Sign The Negotiated Deal - Sign and apply the Withdrawal Agreement, as negotiated by the government, and then negotiate a future arrangement as put forward in the existing political declaration.
Option 3: Adapt our position to only membership of the Single Market and Customs Union - the 'Norway' option of leaving the EU itself, but staying in the SM and CU for trade purposes (with all that complying with the rules entails, including keeping 'freedom of movement').
Option 4: Stay in the EU, under our current membership terms - maintain the status quo, and continue out membership under the current circumstances (assessing any future treaty changes as we do now, in parliament).
Option 5: Integrate further into the EU - Seek further political integration as a leading EU member, looking to enter the Schengen Agreement and Adopt the Euro as our currency at the earliest viable opportunity.

That last 'Integrate' option is, I think, a really important one to have on the ballot paper, whether or not it's 'expected' that it might 'win'.

Firstly, it is a body of opinion that we ought to be aware of among the population - are 'Remainers' actually wanting to go down that route, or do they just want to stay as we are? At the moment, we have no more idea about the relative strengths of those opinions than we do about he various 'Leave' options. Indeed, it could be speculated that, in a reverse of the current 'Leave' situation, a Remain win could have been used as a supposed 'mandate' to suggest that the 'will of the people' was 'overwhelmingly' in favour of becoming more and more involved in the EU. That suggestion would obviously have been as entirely false as the 'will of the people' being used to support any given Leave option, but it would have been just as possible to do so had that been the result.

It also avoids the 'Stay' option being dogged by false assertion that 'stay' automatically means 'Integrate' further, which has been a significant issue in the public debate (with fabricated accusations being currently circulated, for example, that in 2022 we cease to be allowed to call ourselves a country, will be forced to adopt the Euro and sign our armed forces over to the EU, and so on). That is obviously an issue as seen from the 'Remain' side, but the same principle holds true for supporters of the 'Leave' options equally - there can be no false suggestions from 'Remainers' that one of the 'Leave' options really means another, because all of the options will have to be be pretty closely defined.

Secondly, in the context of the referendum itself, it ensures that the aforementioned issue of 'balance' doesn't allow the 'positive pro-European vision' part of 'Remain' to be submerged beneath the 'negative' stuff about 'preventing the economic damage of leaving'. That's really important. Without that, the 'Leave' side has an advantage (as they had before) in being able to present their 'vision' of the future in emotional terms, rather than just as a set of dry and boring 'projected accounts'. That positive vision of a UK leading in Europe would be presented as a distinct option, and would have to actually be adequately covered to ensure 'balance' (and again, the same applies to the different 'Leave' options, with each being able to put its own case without it being submerged beneath another).

The three possible 'Leave' options reflect where I think we have got to now that we have a negotiated 'deal' on the table, and can see what it is - what used to be referred to as a 'Hard Brexit' outside the Single Market, but not going as far as to leave with no agreements on anything (with all that that could involve). Having all three Leave options, and both 'Remain' options, on the ballot paper means that nobody can really complain that an option they voted for 'wasn't really what they voted for'. Nobody can use the result to claim in as something that it actually might not have been, and at the same time nobody can claim (rightly or wrongly) that that is what 'the other side' is trying to do. It would give us clarity about where public opinion really lies - something that we haven't had since 2016 (or at all before that, for that matter!), and something that we desperately need in our current farcical state of stalemate and mutual suspicion all round.

Of course, with an STV voting system, there would be a 'winner', and that 'winner' would be what would have to be enacted without further obfuscation or delay. Such a referendum could and should be 'binding', in setting out the legislative process that would follow in the event of each of the options securing a 'win'. Alongside that, though, we would have an idea from the 'first preferences' how many people actually favoured each option individually, and that would be very useful as we move forward to the future with whatever option is ultimately chosen, since nothing in politics is a 'fixed situation' and the UK and EU will continue to develop. If, for example, 'Stay' won the referendum vote, but the 'first preference' round showed that there was little public support for 'Integrate', that would strengthen the arm of UK negotiators in future treaty negotiations in being able to point out that significant further EU integration that includes the UK would not have UK public support (and that reason alone should really be an answer as to why 'Leavers' should accept 'Integrate' as an option for this referendum - if we do end up staying in the EU, it could provide them an strong argument for going no further 'in' than we are now).

Some of the voting patterns might look fairly 'obvious' at first sight, but I don't think that is necessarily as much the case as it might look. For example, I guess you'd expect people choosing 'Integrate' as their first option to automatically take 'Stay' as their second, but there might well be some people who think we should be 'in or out', believing that the 'European Project' is more important than the UK, and should proceed with greater political integration without us moaning all the time and 'holding them back'. On the other hand, their might likewise be people who believe that we should be 'out or in', and if we can't 'Withdraw' altogether we should stay in and at the decision-making table rather than be the 'worst of both worlds' 'vassal state' that some have suggested we would be under other options that tie us in to the Single Market or whatever. There will also, I suspect, be a number of people who choose 'Stay' as a first option, but would rather leave in some way than 'Integrate'. Individual votes really could go in any direction from all options, and we really need to know the kind of balances we are dealing with among the opinions of the public if we are going to not only make this decision but make future decisions on a more democratically informed basis (at least to some extent, noting obviously that a referendum is a 'snapshot' and the balance of opinions may change - on that, though, at least we are giving the pollsters some defined options for their future 'how do you feel about it now' questions!).

So that is my preferred kind of referendum. Whether such a (sensible, I think, of course!) referendum is likely to be considered and agreed by those responsible for doing such things is obviously an entirely different question!

One further thing I would like to add, on the issue of that now infamous 'government propaganda leaflet', sent to everyone in advance of the referendum, giving the 'government recommendation' alongside 'information' about the vote. It isn't unreasonable for the Leave campaigners to point out that it was an expensive exercise aimed at helping one side, and equally it isn't unreasonable for Remainers to consider that it was quite possible counter-productive anyway, opening up an easy 'establishment' line for the opposition. I would suggest that that isn't repeated, and that indeed the 'government' takes no 'official line' on the whole thing anyway. It would be for each 'politician' to join whatever campaign they wanted, and it might not be a bad idea for some senior government figures to be seen to be favouring no option and keeping their noses well out of it if they want their actual preferred option to have any chance of success! Other political parties and individuals can do as they please, although the same kind of argument might perhaps be considered by some of them them, too - from the 2011 AV referendum, I suspect many Lib Dems (for example) are acutely aware of the dangers of a referendum option being seen as 'here's a big stick to beat the politicians you currently don't like'.

That certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't have a government-funded document sent out to everyone, though, in my opinion. We need to have an informed electorate - informed about the options they have to choose between, and what the campaigns supporting them have to say about them. We should also have a level of 'fairness' between campaigns, regardless of the funding that donors choose to give them - spending limits don't help much if you don't have a few millionaires coming to support your campaign, and the decision should be much more about the options themselves than the relative support they have received from extremely wealthy donors.

I would suggest a format something like this:

Each 'official campaign' is given 4 pages in a pamphlet, to be sent to everyone as before. Firstly, they set out their arguments (however they like) on two pages. Once they are finalised, those two pages from each campaign are circulated to all of the other 'official campaigns', and their other two pages are set aside for their responses to what other campaigns have put forward. That means that all of the electorate will have an initial overview of the main arguments from every campaign to read and consider, regardless of what happens over the next few weeks as those are developed and communicated through the media and the campaigns' own activities (and also anyone can then 'dispute' or 'fact check' things said in that leaflet, of course). No possible accusations of 'bias' or 'unfair government interference' or anything - everyone gets to have their own say, communicated to everyone, at the start of the campaign.

I won't go in to other issues of ensuring 'fairness' in the campaign here, though there are a number of points that could be made about the Electoral Commission and its role and powers to deal with potential illegal activities as they happen (not just spend years after the result investigating possible stuff when a result has already been declared and enacted), and the way in which campaigns are permitted to work with social media, and so on.

What we need is a free and fair vote that allows the electorate to express clear opinions on clearly defined options, in a way that 'politicians' can then read and react to from an informed position about what really has the support and consent of the public. That is what democracy should be all about, not the general mess of fog, suspicion, claim and counter-claim that we find ourselves in at the moment. The previous EU referendum didn't really tell us what any kind of majority of the public actually want at all - let's have one that does.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Best Albums of 2018



So here it is again - my annual round up of the Best (or at least my favourite - I'm not claiming any special objectivity!) albums of the year:


 20. Cancer Bats - The Spark That Moves
 19. Krosis - Solem Vatem
 18. Collibus - Trusting the Illusion
 17. Ghost - Prequelle
 16. The Five Hundred - Bleed Red
 15. Time, The Valuator - How Fleeting, How Fragile
 14. Ihsahn - Ámr
 13. Parkway Drive - Reverence
 12. Oceans of Slumber - The Banished Heart
 11. Unprocessed - Covenant
 10. Valis Ablaze - Boundless
  9. Skyharbor - Sunshine Dust
  8. Bleed From Within - Era
  7. The Dali Thundering Concept - Savages
  6. Bury Tomorrow - Black Flame
  5. Architects - Holy Hell
  4. Monuments - Phronesis
  3. TesseracT - Sonder
  2. Haken - Vector
  1. Between the Buried & Me - Automata (I & II)



(A quick note on the Number One - although available separately as Automata I and Automata II, it was announced as one double album with split release dates a few months apart, so it does count as one album not two) 

And here's a link to a Spotify playlist, with one track from each:
https://open.spotify.com/user/towardsthesoundofgunfire/playlist/0SNaDSYOLdMYh9tnGNfuvg?si=Zuar_n55TomHqv4VJobReA

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Proportional Representation and the Old Political Tribes



Our political parties in the UK are not what they should be. The most basic definition of a political party should be that they are a grouping of individuals who share basic political ideals, ideologies and goals. Here in the UK, though, that really doesn't apply to any of our major parties. The reason for that, I suggest, is our electoral system.

First Past The Post (FPTP) is a system designed for two large 'parties' fighting each other. We use it in the UK for fairly understandable reasons - when our system was designed, that was really the case. Every 'realignment' we have seen in politics since then has really been a matter of one or both of those two extremely vague groups 'realigning' to the circumstances of the changing world. That 'us or them' situation isn't how it should be, though.

Look at the way our political parties are constructed in the UK (and the same broadly applies in other two party system countries). They aren't alliances of like-minded people at all, as the current Brexit debate is starkly highlighting. They are just permanent 'coalitions' between groups who are mostly opposed to each other slightly less than they are opposed to 'the other lot'. The hardcore Brexit-supporting 'ERG' and their like within the Conservative Party really have very little in common politically with the 'One Nation' Tories, other than being broadly opposed to anything resembling 'Socialism'. Likewise, the Socialists now in charge of the leadership of the Labour Party have little in common with the 'Social Democrats' like Tony Blair. The big parties are nothing more than 'Tribes' united only by (and in) their hatred of 'the other lot'.

Even in the Lib Dems the same applies. In a sense it's often not quite so obvious because it's a smaller party that has gone through a recent process of damage and recovery in membership (so many have perhaps signed up to be 'Lib Dems' as opposed to being one or other of the formative groups), but the formation of the party is telling. The SDP was formed by a group of Social Democrats leaving Labour to get away from the other parts of that 'tribe'. As a smaller and more specific grouping, it was always going to be virtually impossible to 'break through' and challenge the dominance of the two parties in their two party system - to survive, it almost had to try to form another broader grouping with the people it disagreed with least - to try to create another big 'tribe' to stand up to the other big 'tribes'. The same was true of the Liberals, of course - as a broadly single ideology party, they were never likely to be big enough in their specific support to defeat the big 'tribes'.  UKIP were, you could say, similarly born from a group of Tories leaving their party - they perhaps did achieve a lot in terms of aims with very little, but they never made much of an electoral impact.

What that leaves us with is a sense that a 'political party', in what I would call the 'truest sense' of the basic definition above, cannot actually actually exist in the UK. Or at least it cannot exist as a UK-wide party with any serious hope of being a significant or influential group within parliament and government (a coalition has happened once in recent times, of course, but that was to a large degree down to both of the big tribes spectacularly failing to 'win' (i.e. to seem to those few significant voters in marginals to be a marginally less awful option than the other one) at the same time - a very rare occurrence). That is down to the electoral system actively working against anything other than one mass grouping opposing another mass grouping - it is entirely set up for nothing more than constant mutual entrenchment.

Let's consider this in purely practical terms. In order to form a 'national party' across Britain (note: I'm leaving aside the issue of the smaller parties that are geographically specific to the smaller nations within the UK - they are by definition working on a far more limited scale anyway), any party has to be fighting seats at elections across Britain. Any party other than the big two has to do so knowing that it cannot hope to defeat the 'us or them for government' narrative in anything more than a few seats, but that it won't get taken seriously enough to win even those if it can't show itself to be a 'national party' standing across Britain. For the sake of argument, let's say they really need to be standing in 600 seats in order to win the relatively few that they can realistically win.

That 600 seat number has several implications - firstly, they need to find 600 suitable and willing people to stand, along with up to another 600 to act as agents. That's 1200 people, spread evenly across the length and breadth of Britain. OK, it might be that they ought to have that number of members and more in order to show that they are seriously representing the views of enough people to get voted in anywhere, so that isn't a problem. It is a practical difficulty, though, and especially for a new party that is starting out - they have a limited time to get that kind of traction between elections, without there being any kind of coverage of them because the media usually won't talk much to a group with no MPs.

Then think about deposits - in order to stand in 600 seats, they need to find £300K before they start. That's just the deposits to get them on the ballot paper, with no campaigning funds for anywhere, and they they will also know that they are going to lose a significant amount of those deposits as they are squeezed out by the effects of a two party system, narrative and tactical voting ('vote for us to keep them from winning here'). So any smaller party that wants to ever be taken at all seriously really has to find a fully disposable £300K just to get started - OK, they can build up to that, but it's a very long process to undertake when you know ultimately that the chances of ultimate success and government even partly according to your ideals is still virtually nil. Meanwhile, the huge 'us or them' groupings with their huge resources don't really need to worry about that, because they know they will retain all but a tiny number of deposits anyway.

So the system is self-perpetuating - a two party system that makes sure that the barriers for any other parties (even long established ones) are so high that it's virtually impossible to get over them. I'm going to say that that is extremely unhealthy for democracy, and that's before we even consider the 'make votes matter' issues of FPTP, and the fact that most of our votes might as well have gone straight in the bin anyway because most of us (unless we live in one of a handful of 'marginals') have zero chance of exerting a significant democratic influence. We end up inevitably with two huge groupings that can't even agree with themselves on anything more fundamental than 'we don't like what the people over there want to do'. Actually on individual issues many on both sides would agree with each other more than they agree with people on their own side, but they aren't allowed to because of 'tribal unity' - the whole thing is a fairly ludicrous way to do 'democracy', when you stop and think about it.

And people wonder why our governments are usually pretty useless at getting anything much done!

By definition, our 'parties' (those two currently capable of getting the numbers to form governments particularly) don't even vaguely agree with themselves! More than that, we 'the people' have no way of exerting influence over the balance of views within those parties - they select their candidates, and we have to vote for the candidate that they happen to give us in order to 'keep the other lot out' whether they reflect our views or not. The electorate cannot decide between a 'Socialist-led' government and a 'Social Democrat-led' government if they elect a Labour government, or between a 'One Nation-led' government or an 'ERG-led' government if they vote Tory.

If you are a 'One Nation Tory' voter living in Jacob Rees Mogg's constituency, for example, what do you do? How do we know whether his Tory voters support his ERG stance or Ken Clarke's type of Conservatism? We don't. That's not really very 'democratic' at all. It's not just a matter of groups reflecting a majority between them negotiating a coalition deal to reflect those views - it's a large group of 'not the other side' deciding for themselves what kind of government they are going to be without reference to the balance of views that should be being expressed by the population in any democracy.

So how does Proportional Representation (PR) help us with this situation? Think of it this way - let us say that a system of PR is set up that elects MPs on a transferable vote basis, with larger constituencies electing 5 MPs each, and has a similar numbers overall as the current system. There are arguments to be had about exactly what the best system is, but we'll leave those aside to consider the basics. Now in order to have a candidate to for everyone to vote for, keeping to that general principle of 600 of the 'old constituencies' as coverage, you only need to stand one fifth of the numbers to achieve it. Of course, larger parties will put up multiple candidates to try to get more than one of those 5 seats in each constituency, but smaller parties can make an assumption that they are unlikely to get more than one of their candidates elected in any seats and restrict themselves accordingly. Now any 'third' or 'new' party can become a 'national' UK-wide standing group by putting up 120 candidates (at a cost of only £60K).

That puts us in a situation where people can form far better defined 'political parties' with smaller numbers of people, but still with a realistic chance of getting a number of people elected to represent those views from the electorate. The ERG and the One Nation Tories, for example, no longer have to be in the same 'party' to get elected, and no longer have to constantly compromise or even hide their views to prevent the group from splitting apart (and thereby 'letting the other lot in'). They can put their own cases forward, and stand (or fall) on their own merits, but still with the chance of getting their views and policies into government as part of the post-election coalition negotiations. That's an important point - it means that the negotiations and compromises that politics and government will always require would be taking place after the election, in the open, and according to the balance of leverage given by the electorate (rather than behind closed doors in party rooms according to who has 'influence' of some kind within the party, as is all too often the case at the moment).

There may be some who don't like this idea, because they might feel that they would lose some of their 'influence' if their ideas had to actually face the public vote instead of just being pushed through their parties with the threat of causing 'disunity' (and the public apparently don't like 'disunity'). There are some, indeed, who would be worried that they would lose their own seat in parliament if they had to stand on their own merits, or at least on the merits of their own political ideologies, instead of on their 'we're not the other party' label. We shouldn't allow such people to dictate the agenda of electoral reform - they are worried about losing their own disproportionate influence over the direction of the country. That is an influence they should never have had in a democracy, and I suspect we can now all see the flaws in the commonly cited argument of 'FPTP produces strong and stable government'!

The argument against electoral reform does tend to fall back on 'you end up with lots of smaller parties negotiating with each other instead of the public directly voting for a government'. That argument is deeply flawed. The public don't get to decide the direction of the government under FPTP, because they only get two realistic alternatives for government to choose from, and don't get any real say over the direction that the big two parties are wanting to go in. The reverse is true - in a post-election process of parties with specific ideologies, a government has to be formed according to the views of the majority of the electorate (or at least reasonably close to that). The public decides how much weight each party has within such a negotiation, not internal party 'groups'. Any deal they come up with has to sufficiently satisfy the ideals of each party involved, and then they have to work within the context of a parliament with an opposition that actually reflects the balance of all of the views that aren't represented within the government.

The current Brexit scenario is a a great example - you couldn't put a cigarette paper between the positions of the two big parties, because each is trying to somehow satisfy their own internal divisions and groupings while simultaneously trying to fulfil their real primary purpose of 'keeping the other lot out'. And those divisions are the same division on both sides, but largely being artificially prevented from working together where they agree because it would damage their 'tribe'. Meanwhile, all other views are being more or less ignored - the smaller parties have little practical voice because they are limited in numbers by the 'us or them' system and the two 'tribe' parliamentary dominance. We've ended up, at this moment, with a government deal that virtually nobody on any side of the debate really supports, and an opposition that isn't really offering anything much different. It's a 'compromise' for both lots, but not reached on the basis of the balance of opinion within the country at the time of the election. It doesn't matter what side of that argument you are on - whether you want a full fat 'no deal' brexit, or a Norway-style 'soft brexit', or a people's vote and exit from brexit - you have no seriously influential voice in the debate in our primary democratic institution speaking on your behalf, because neither of the big two parties are doing anything other than desperately trying to keep themselves in one piece to stay or get into power against the other.

If we had a system where we proportionately elected parties according to our own views, and they then negotiated and argued with each other in government and parliament to represent their own ideological positions, based on a strength in numbers directly dictated by the electorate, at least the debate would be an open one. There wouldn't be the fear of one tribal lot refusing to work with another tribal lot because they are in the wrong tribe that we have now. There wouldn't be the chaos of a government and opposition both paralysed by their own internal contradictions. It would be the normal state of affairs for parties to work together in various ways, because that is how it would always have to work. The different sides of this and every other argument would be represented, and those that agreed would be free to agree, and those that disagree would be free to disagree.

Contrary to the usual defences of FPTP, that wouldn't mean 'chaos' at all. Quite the opposite. It would be an end to the chaos that is created by nobody being able to stand up for what they actually believe on such an important topic for the future of the country without the risk of destroying themselves and their own party. More parties means more representative of public views, and more representative debate and decision making in parliament. That would be a very good thing.

Of course, some will suggest that it means more 'radical' views getting a parliamentary voice, and that can happen. Better that those views are represented openly by parties that stand and get elected on that basis than in secretive and potentially influential groupings hiding within larger parties, though, I would suggest. Let those views be heard in the elected chamber - that's democracy. Let their views be openly debated and challenged, too, and let them continue to sit and rant on the fringes as everyone else gets on with the practical business of running the country, hopefully without pandering to those more extreme voices that can only get the influence that the public allows them. Are there risks to that? Of course - there is always an inherent risk to allowing the public to vote in any way at all, in case they don't vote the way you want them to. That's not a valid reason for abolishing democracy itself, though.

So let's end the current mess of a so-called 'party' system in the UK, and have a real democracy of actual political parties that are themselves bound together by their ideological positions (that then negotiation according to the leverage given to them by the public). Let's get rid of the Tories and have 'One Nation' standing against 'ERG', and similarly have 'Socialist Labour' standing against 'Social Democrats', and even the latter against 'Liberals'. Let's see what the public majority actually tells us about the balance of all of those different views and more, and then let those new parties work together across the old tribal lines to achieve things in a way that has some chance of commanding reasonable support among the people. Let's sweep away the whole failing system by having an electoral system that actually allows the public to make real choices, have a real influence over the direction of their government.

Would PR really kill off the old parties? It would be a long and (for some) pretty painful process, of course, but eventually I suspect it would. And not a moment too soon.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Response to Vince Cable's 'Leading Change: Proposals to open up the party' paper





Here is my response to the consultation paper for proposed ‘reforms’ to the Liberal Democrats. The consultation paper can be found here.

Questions:

Supporters’ Scheme:
   1.       Do you agree that the party should introduce a registered supporters’ scheme?
Yes. Many local parties already run informal supporters’ schemes locally, and it is a very good idea to broaden this out as a national scheme and open up the party to new voices and new ideas.

   2.       Do you support this paper’s proposals to give registered supporters a vote in future leadership elections, providing nomination rights are left with party members?
No. Absolutely not. The paper’s assumption that we are somehow immune from ‘entryism’ (malicious or otherwise) because ‘moderate’ is simply naive arrogance. For example, if Momentum decided to encourage Labour members to join the scheme and vote in the least good option (and less good or ‘controversial’ candidates can and do get put forward), they would easily outweigh the party membership with only a fraction of their numbers, and there is nothing we could then do about it. Have we learned nothing from Labour’s Corbyn experience? It also devalues the idea of party membership, and the concept of members being the ones who ultimately make decisions. This, I think, is an important principle – without it, there is no incentive for taking that extra step to becoming a member, and paying a membership fee (and money, perhaps sadly, does actually matter a great deal to the party at the moment). This idea is both unnecessary and extremely unwise.

   3.       Do you think the safeguards proposed in this section are sufficient to protect the party against abuse of the registered supporter scheme?
Absolutely nowhere near being remotely credible as ‘safeguards’, and no amount of ‘safeguards’ would sufficiently mitigate the dangers of giving ‘supporters’ decision-making powers over the party membership. It is wrong in principle, and a bad idea.

   4.       Do you have any further thoughts on implementing a registered supporter scheme, and the rights which might be offered to supporters?
What can and should be offered is a party of the policy development process – a formal and easy way in which they can put forward their own ideas, become involved in policy groups, give feedback on policy areas and ideas, and so on. A supporters’ group could be a very useful policy ‘think tank’ and ‘focus group’ for the party to call on, and a very good way for us to identify specific communities and groups (especially those not based on geographic location) that may be receptive to our message and/or receptive to particular policies and messages based on our ideals that could be tailored to them. Members at conference making the ultimate decisions and being sovereign on policy (and in leadership elections, of course) would be sufficient safeguard to prevent any kind of ‘entryist’ abuse.


Rules on standing for office:
   5.       Should the party remove the existing time barriers for standing for election, as outlined in this section?
I understand that the 12 month limit can be relaxed under certain circumstances, at least in some of our federal party jurisdictions. I have no real problem with reducing this time as standard, as long as the full parliamentary candidate approval process remain in place, and there is some time limit on any ‘licensed’ candidates that haven’t yet gone through that full process. We certainly do not ever want a situation where anybody can join the party and get our name placed next to them on a ballot paper the next day without further scrutiny, just because we need to find willing candidates to fill the slate in a more challenging area.

   6.       Do you have any further thoughts on the present barriers to standing for election?
Removing barriers generally is a good idea, but we absolutely have to remember that some of those ‘barriers’ exist for very good reasons – the protection of our party’s good name, and to stop us being used as a vehicle to get elected by personally ambitious, inappropriate or indeed malicious people who do not support our ideals and would ignore them once elected. Seeing the ‘supporters’ scheme’ as a ‘first step’ towards eventual candidacy, counting that time towards any time limit (or perhaps allowing ‘supporters’ to apply for and undertake the approval process, as long as they become members before they are allowed to stand for selection or election), would perhaps be a better idea than eliminating time limits altogether. As for other barriers, we also need to look at the current candidate approval systems to see whether they are reliable, robust, fair, open and available, and we need to do far more on the issue of ‘bias’, and especially ‘unconscious bias’ in our selection processes (for example, we should have good online training available, and be pointing ALL party members towards it, and be backing that up with additional materials in party mailshots for those who can’t/don’t have online access – it’s a huge issue, but inevitably one where those with the biggest problem are the least likely to turn up to training sessions on it).

Thankfully in Wales we have not adopted All Women Shortlists, but that is an issue the party needs to revisit too – a shortlist consisting of middle age, middle class, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, university educated women doesn’t really do very much to increase our actual or visible ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusivity’ as a party – it deals with one symptom while ignoring the wider problem. Adding the suggested All-BAME lists in other places doesn’t help much either – we need to find a permanent way to ensure that all shortlists are always genuinely diverse, and that all members understand the issues of ‘bias’ (unconscious or otherwise) in selection processes, and I think that is perfectly possible.


Electing a non-MP as leader:
   7.       Should the party remove the present restriction on who may stand for the party leadership, by permitting any party member with sufficient support in the nominations process to stand?
No. Absolutely not. Not ever. We surrender our position as a serious parliamentary political party if we go down that road, and I joined a parliamentary party not a mere protest pressure group. The leader of a political party absolutely has to be able to stand in the House of Commons and put questions to ministers and Prime Ministers – it is not only a fundamentally vital part of the role in itself, but also one of the significant ways in which media and public attention can be gained. The examples cited of other parties with ‘parliamentary group leaders’ are often quite obvious false equivalency – the leaders of those other parties are within the main parliamentary institutions that serve their countries, because that is where their focus lies and where they are most needed and useful. Our situation, as a Britain-wide party, is entirely different. The closest equivalent is the Green Party, and the reality of their situation is that their outside parliament leaders are virtually anonymous compared with their single MP. That should be a warning to us, as indeed should the difficulties experienced in public and media perception since we elected a non-elected leader in our own party in Wales. That situation was sadly forced on the party, but the reality is that it is really not an easy situation at all for the party of the leader, especially in terms of public recognition.

It also opens us up to cheap and easy headlines about ‘Lib Dems prepare for parliamentary oblivion and losing all of their MPs’, ‘Lib Dems give up politics’ and the like – that is something we absolutely cannot afford. It also, of course, opens up the possibility of a party leader who is disconnected from parliament and the parliamentary group – that is a significant danger. Even worse, perhaps, is any notion that we could try to riding to power on the crest of a wave of someone else’s apparent fame and popularity with certain groups if we elect them as our party leader (there’s an obvious example that has been much cited since this idea raised its head – I’m sure I don’t need to name names!) – that would put us on a very slippery slope towards ‘personality cult’ politics, and that could be deeply destructive to the party.

This is a poor idea that has been poorly thought through – as much as we need to try new things and do things differently, we cannot deal in wishful thinking rather than political reality. As a serious parliamentary political party, we need to have our leader in parliament.

   8.       If the present restriction is removed, should the same nomination process apply both to MPs and to non-MPs wo put themselves forward?
The nomination procedures are irrelevant, and won’t protect us from the effects of doing it – the entire idea needs to be rejected.

   9.       In your view, would an open party leadership would necessitate providing party resources (salary, staff, office) to the successful candidate?
It would require resources that the party can’t really afford to throw away on such an unnecessary and potentially risky experiment. Let’s not waste our money.

   10.   Do you have any further thoughts on allowing any party member to run for the leadership?
If our party elects a leader who is not in parliament, we are no longer a serious parliamentary political party. I joined a political party, not a protest group. I joined to become involved in changing society through the political and democratic process, not to shout from the sidelines and hope someone listens (even if that ‘someone’ is a few MPs of ‘our own’, who may end up severely disconnected from a leader who isn’t in parliament with them anyway) – there are many alternative groups for that. That other role is an important role in any democracy, but it is not our role as a political party. If we try to become ‘all things to all people’ in such a way we could all too easily end up becoming nothing to anybody as we do nothing quite as well as others are doing the one thing they have become specialised in.  


Opening up the party:
   11.   What excites you about proposals to open up the Party and build a liberal movement?
A genuine and open consultation includes and effort to make the questions it asks balanced and non-prejudicial – the emotive wording of this question doesn’t really seem to be that, and that I find a little worrying. It sounds as if it is inviting a particular kind of response, while sending a subtle message that we should see these particular proposals as above all ‘exciting’. It smacks of a deliberate attempt to generate particular responses to be used in future debates on the proposals – how can you disappoint people who are so ‘excited’ by these proposals? That is really not the right way to go about consultation.

This is a ‘consultation’ that is being carried out after the big media launch of the ‘plan’, and after our social media and web outlets have portrayed (and advertised) it to the public as a plan that will be implemented (even if it says somewhere that it hasn’t quite yet been rubber stamped). This further compounds the feeling that the membership are being manipulated or ‘bounced’ into accepting the plan, because to reject it now would produce a whole heap of negative ‘undermined the leader’, ‘bitter in-fighting’, ‘party in chaos’ headlines, possibly right before a general election. ‘Support the plan or screw your own chances’, in effect – this is a situation that should never have happened in this party. This plan has been presented to the public, without consultation, cutting across existing party processes and consultations. In the process, it has potentially thrown a great big firecracker into the middle of ‘party unity’ unnecessarily. The handling of this has been extremely disrespectful to the party membership – this really wasn’t the right way to go about proposing major changes.

In the ‘The Process’ section, the document goes on to say:
‘These are important changes which deserve to be debated as widely as possible.’
That should have happened BEFORE the public media launch, and before being presented through social media, mass emails and advertising as fait accompli. That would have been the correct process. Clams have been made that this isn’t the case because the word ‘proposals’ is included on the webpage, but that is very clearly not the way the material the party has been putting out since the launch (which, on top of everything else party members couldn’t watch, so the media knew about these plans before the membership did). The intended implication is clear to the public, and equally clear to many members. The party belongs to the members, not to the leader and/or a small group of ‘party grandees’ gathered around him – they obviously need to be reminded of this.

   12.   What concerns you about the proposals?
See above.

Note the contrast in tone of the question from the previous – you may be ‘excited’, or you may just have some ‘concerns’. That doesn’t feel like an attempt to elicit a genuinely balanced set of views from those who may be for and against the plan, or parts of it – that’s ‘tell us in emotive terms how wonderful and fantastic you think it is’, followed by ‘let us know if you’re maybe a little bit worried about some little bit so we can reassure you’. That may seem like only a subtle bit of linguistic manipulation, but any attempt to prejudice consultation outcomes through such question construction should be noted (and shouldn’t be happening).

I’m deeply concerned that the whole thing seems to be based on a notion that we can wave a magic wand and sweep to power if we only do this simple thing, and supported by a number of false assumptions about us being in a similar situation to others, Canada being the most obvious example. We are not only relatively recently down in ‘third place’, for a start, and we are not being led by the exceptionally charismatic son of one of the most popular politicians in our country. Our situation is very different in many ways, and assuming that the same things will apply in anything like the same way to us as to them is simplistic wishful thinking.

We cannot assume that waving a magic wand is going to sweep us to power. It isn’t. This is the same simplistic, muddled reasoning that created ‘More United’, an organisation created by one of our own members which endorsed and funded opponents to our candidates, in some cases even before we had candidates in place for the snap general election (for which that member was never, as far as I know, disciplined by the party). It failed to make any significant headway in politics or society, though, because it was a bad, simplistic, and poorly thought through idea of ‘social movement’ based around an essentially nineteenth century view of society, politics and ‘mass social movements’. The idea that because of its failure we should turn the whole party into ‘More United II’ in the hope that the few MPs we have (who could then even become an afterthought in our ‘party’ structure anyway) will suddenly dramatically increase is something we should reject utterly.

This is a massive and unnecessary distraction from what we should be doing – things like modernising our methods and structures and revolutionising the way we operate and campaign in order to reach out to ‘communities’ in the non-geographically based context of the way they increasingly now exist in the modern world of mass free communication. Developing tailored policies and messages that actually speak to individuals and communities – it’s not all about the ‘big stuff’ (the NHS, and so on, though we have to talk about them too). We have to remember the principles of ‘community politics’ – ‘most people’ don’t care about a big pothole on a street in Sheffield, for example, but those who care really care, and we can attract those people by speaking to them over their burning issue. Likewise, ‘most people’ don’t care about lots of little things that modern ‘interest-based communities’ care about, but those communities really care. ‘Community politics’ much as we did back when people lived, worked and played together in the new world in small areas, discussing the local potholes across the garden walls and in the street, but for the 21st century communities based on shared interests and social media communication.

It’s not all about ‘message testing’ and ‘polls’ that demonstrate particular policies and messages have a level of apparent ‘mass popularity’. Or at least ‘mass not being put off by’ – we should be very careful not to confuse those very different concepts, for such is the route to maximum meaningless bland that positively attracts nobody at all. That issue worries me about the party at the moment too – just when you thought there could be nothing more bland, non-distinctive and meaningless than ‘Stronger Economy, Fairer Society…’ (so non-distinctive to us that the Conservatives have stolen it) along comes ‘Demand Better’. I understand some of the deeper reasoning behind it (and its potential usefulness as a way of describing ‘issues’), but we shouldn’t be completely seduced by that kind of stuff when it comes to creating our primary slogan for the public to latch on to - it really hasn’t served us well in recent elections. A modern ‘movement’ for us is about gaining an accumulation of support from lots of different ‘communities’ (as we have always done), each with their own particular ‘burning issues’ that we are talking about to them, as well as broadly making sense to them on the ‘big issues’ – it’s not about suddenly gaining ‘mass support’ from nowhere because nobody really dislikes our meaningless slogan.

There is no magic shortcut – we won’t succeed by trying to ride on unicorns, and we risk just destroying ourselves and our influence in the process of trying to find the right ticket to the unicorn riding. There is huge opportunity for us out there to do things that other parties can’t and won’t do, but distracting ourselves from that over proposals that won’t help us anyway, and have been presented and proposed in exactly the wrong way, won’t help us at all.

   13.   Are there any other proposals you think the party could implement which would open up the party?
Have a supporters’ scheme. Talk to them, and listen to them. Use them as a resource, and provide them the benefits of getting involved. This is a great idea. ‘Opening up the party’ to entryism, easy ridicule and the risk of ultimate defeat of ending our tradition as a serious voice in parliament is not.

This is far from the end of the reforms I believe we need to make as a party, and it isn’t just about ‘opening up the party’ either. Through discussions on these proposals, there have been some somewhat offensive suggestions that those objecting to them are effectively ‘stuck in the past’, ‘resistant to change’, and so on – this is, for myself and many others, completely untrue, and I hope that such accusations will not cloud this debate. We need to change. We need to reform. We also need to avoid the disastrous mistake of thinking ‘we need change, this is change, and therefore we need this’.

In that spirit and the spirit of ‘consultation’, I present a few personal (not associated with any party organisation or group) ideas for ‘counter-proposals’ of radical reforms for discussion and debate (and they are up for debate – I don’t claim to have all the answers or to have reached a perfect plan to move us forward, and that isn’t how such discussions should work anyway):

1.       Supporters’ Scheme
A scheme that brings together the current ‘local’ schemes, opens up the party to new ideas, involves its members in more than just ‘social activities’, campaigning and donating money, and creates a resource for the party. Free to join, and with engagement and deep involvement (see below), and even high-level representation within party structures (an elected (by them, and only them) ‘Supporters’ Representative’ on the Federal Board, for example) but just with no vote on the leader. If people want to vote for the leader, they should join the party – that is, and should remain, one of the benefits of membership, and is also a way to help persuade people to take that extra little step. If you want to have a vote, you have to join.

As well as involvement in policy making (as noted below), we could invite them to attend conference (at the usual costs, of course). Come to conference, go to training, go to fringes, watch the speeches and debates, meet people, get involved, and enjoy. That’s a benefit of being a registered supporter, and a benefit to the party in opening up our conference to new ideas and new people. If you want to speak in debates or have a vote, though, you need to take that extra little step and become a member – there’s that ‘voting incentive’ again. Luckily, you can sign up while you are at conference and receive your new Member voting pass within minutes – as a supporter you can attend conference, but you can also get actively involved in policy debates and votes if you just take that extra little step.

2.       A new and open approach to policy-making
Involving both our party membership and our new ‘supporters’ directly, and utilising modern communication technologies to move away from our outdated and pedestrian method of creating policy. We need to be able to create individual policies for individual ‘communities’ in the non-geographical proximity way that they now exist. We need to encourage new ideas for such policy to come from individuals for discussion and eventual adoption without the cumbersome and old-fashioned idea of committees, getting enough members and/or local parties to formally propose, holding long discussions at conference, and so on. This is an area where we can embrace new technology for debate and all-party/supporter ballots, but without removing the ability of conference to make the final decision.

We can create an official party online ‘Policy Discussion Forum’ (using forum software rather than social media and Facebook Groups – it is better suited to complicated and detailed discussion) where policy ideas can be proposed and debated, based on any forum member (so party member or ‘supporter’ – this is direct involvement in policy making for our new ‘supporters’) putting forward a ‘motion’ (or even an ‘idea’ for someone else to turn into a ‘motion’). That can be discussed (including by party spokespeople, who can and should directly engage with members and supporters and their ideas), debated, amended and improved until its poster decides to formally ‘move’ it via a simple forum poll (even if it’s quite specific and ‘niche’, and not of interest to many – in a sense that’s kind of the point!). If it passes that stage, it can then be taken to a more formal email poll of all members and supporters. We could be creating lots of ‘little’ policies to aim at different communities this way, and could end up with a ‘monthly policy polls’ email going out for people to vote on several motions at once.  Much of the discussion stage is already gone through informally, of course, and it shouldn’t cost a great deal to formalise that process so that more of these policy suggestions actually make it through to the end of the process to becoming party policy.

Having gone through that process (and passed, obviously), it is assumed to become a policy motion for conference, but to be either accepted or rejected by conference without debate on the floor being necessary (because debate has already happened). We hold a session at conference for these motions, vote on each in turn either to Accept (in which case it becomes party policy) or to Reject (in which case it doesn’t, but is in effect an automatic ‘refer back’ to the originator, since there is nothing stopping them from proposing an amended version on the ‘Policy Discussion Forum’ and starting again). There could be the option of voting to have a ‘mini debate’, too, so that any issues can be aired at conference. Repeats of almost the same unacceptable motion should be avoided by the pre-conference double-polling system anyway.

This would enhance rather than replace our current processes, particularly on the major issues of wide public importance, which is more suited to a process of committee or working party, expert evidence, and so on. Party members and local parties would still be able to submit motions for consideration according to the usual procedures (so there is no threat of people who do not have internet access losing their ability to propose policy). It could, however, provide a streamlined approach to conference that allows us to pass more policy, and in particular more ‘community-tailored’ (what some might perhaps call ‘niche’) policy for 21st century communities, and doing so while fully embracing and involving party ‘supporters’.

3.       A new approach to ‘national’ campaigning
We need to recognise that the changing nature of ‘community’ in the modern world means that ‘community politics’ is no longer something that we can just leave to be done by local parties – they can’t cover this kind of ground. Communities are increasingly nationwide and beyond, and our approach to talking to communities and doing ‘Community Politics’ now has to be nationwide too.

That requires a complete rethink in the way that we develop policy and messages (and the way we use and read ‘message testing’ – it shifts the emphasis to attracting the potentially sympathetic on their issues, not seeing what ‘big messages’ have ‘mass not unpopularity’), the way that we target particular messages at particular groups, and the way that we structure our online materials and campaigning activities in particular. Our restructured website would become far more our campaigning ‘front line’, rather than a relative afterthought somewhere below leaflets, and could even include ‘suggest a policy motion’ and ‘support this idea’ kind of stuff to be relayed directly to our official ‘Policy Discussion Forum’ in the way that 38 Degrees has its ‘set up a petition of your own’.

Think about that for a moment – not just ‘contact us with your ideas’ (that disappear into the ether, never to be seen again!), but allowing the public to go to our website and ‘lobby’ us directly and publicly about any policy they like in a way that is directly taken forward to our own policy discussions for possible adoption as party policy for a parliamentary political party. That would be a real and visible change in the way ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ do business, and really open us up for modern community involvement. Of course, the criticism will no doubt come back ‘but that means our opponents will come on to our website and propose (and/or support) malicious ‘policies’ such as backing Brexit’, and of course that is true. It won’t dictate actual policy at all, though, because the policy process is still very much in the hands of supporters and ultimately members at conference. If ‘opponents’ and ‘doubters’ are doing that kind of thing, they are coming to our website, engaging with it, seeing our messages, and almost certainly raising their awareness of who we are and what we believe in (and perhaps, even if sharing it in opposition to us, sharing our website content) – in our current situation of near zero media coverage, that in itself could be a huge bonus. Some of them or their friends might even end up agreeing with us on some things, and beginning their journey from opposition or indifference to interest and eventual support.

We need to build our support by leading people individually on a journey from ‘they are talking about my burning issues – I thought nobody cared’ through ‘I like these other things they say too’ and ‘I now understand the background to why they are saying these things I agree with’ to eventual ‘they believe what I believe’ and ‘I support them’ (and that is again partly a structural issue for the website, and the way it leads people along a path from a policy, through wider policies, and to their ideological underpinning). Just saying ‘we support the NHS’ and checking our ‘big issue’ messages aren’t unpopular via polling isn’t enough in the modern world of increasingly diverse and distributed communities – everyone is talking about the same issues in similar-sounding ways, and many people assume that it’s mostly political platitudes anyway before they get as far as examining the details. We still have to say nice things about the NHS, and come up with real policies for improving the NHS, but the stark reality is it probably isn’t going to motivate many voters to vote for us over the other parties who seem on the surface to be saying much the same kind of nice things.

That isn’t really how we have succeeded in the past anyway – our MPs haven’t won seats by us just saying such things that supposedly interest everyone, they have won by them and their supporters knocking on doors, offering help, asking people about their own specific local ‘community’ issues and helping to get them resolved (or at least making people feel like we’re interested in their concerns). We need to keep doing all of that and more to win individual seats, of course, but if we are going to build up our national vote share and challenge in more seats that’s how we need to be operating on a national basis too – talking to individuals about those issues that they don’t think any ‘politicians’ care about, and being ‘on their side’. Building support through ‘Community Politics’, but in the kind of ‘communities’ that now exist in our modern, connected world.

Technology has changed society and how it operates for people almost completely. It is no longer about ‘mass movements’ of large, similar groups in the way that it was a century ago when the Labour party grew – we won’t repeat that kind of ‘movement’ in politics in the same way, but neither does our evidence-based policy approach produce the kind of easy ‘mass’ emotive appeal that produced the ‘Corbyn surge’ in Labour’s membership (and it should be noted that that hasn’t produced sweeping public popularity or electoral success anyway!). It’s a massive mistake to think of organisations like 38 Degrees in that kind of essentially 19th century ‘mass movement’ way – they haven’t succeeded in growing so far and fast as a whole because they are a ‘mass movement’ at all – quite the opposite. They have succeeded because they are able to talk to each individual community and person about what is of specific interest to them through allowing them a platform, even if it is only of interest to relatively few other people. Such a mass movement today isn’t formed by masses of people with a single shared goal unifying around it, but by bringing together large numbers of smaller groups under one roof and gradually leading them along a path to awareness of other issues that they might also find interesting. That is the big lesson we need to learn as a party.

4.       Renaming and rebranding the party
Whether we think it is justified or not, we do have a hangover in the minds of the public from the coalition. We shouldn’t try to disown that period and our achievements in government entirely, but we do need to recognise the issues and demonstrate a ‘new dawn’ for the party in some way. In the current political context, we also need specifically to attract ‘Social Democrats’ from the Labour Party, and emphasising our heritage and origins in the SDP would be a good way to do that. Claiming to be ‘the party of in the middle’ has not served us well (Look Left, Look Right….), and to be ‘moderate’ is to be merely ‘bland’ and ‘inoffensive’ – it might not lose us many votes, but it won’t enthuse people in order to gain us many either. The public want an alternative to the problems of the recent past, but ‘the party of not believing strongly in anything much really’ doesn’t offer them that. Many members have talked in recent days about being ‘Liberals’ rather than just ‘moderates’ (myself included), and rightly so, but forgetting to also be clear and proud ‘Social Democrats’ as a party at the moment would be missing a huge opportunity (as well as disrespecting our own party history).

I propose, therefore, to abandon the shortened name ‘Liberal Democrats’ and revert to the previous ‘Social & Liberal Democrats’ (SLD), at the same time creating a lasting ‘tagline’ that reflects our values distinctively and can last long enough to actually be noticed and remembered by the public: ‘Liberty, Equality, Community’, or perhaps ‘Liberty, Equality, Society’ to further emphasise that Social Democrat element and provide some obvious ‘clear yellow water’ between us and Thatcherite Conservatism. In addition, we should completely overhaul the look of all of the party branding, incorporating some echoes to the SDP past in terms of lettering and colour schemes (that might be an issue for some of our good ole 2 colour printing processes, but that’s not a good reason to not use more colours when colour printing!) – certainly not abandon ‘Libby’ entirely, but create a new logo format that makes it clear that we are a party that has now moved forward from that which entered a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 (and we are a changed party, of course, given the percentage of our members that have joined since 2015). We might not like to admit it, but our current Lib Dem brand is toxic to many who might otherwise support us, and we do need to visibly move on from it. We need to do so in a way that doesn’t look like the party just trying desperately to ‘hide’ under a brand new ‘non-descript’ or ‘moderate’ label too, and ‘Social & Liberal Democrats’ could provide a solution to that problem.

There is, I’m sure, much more we can and should do. I must once again warn of the dangers of thinking ‘we need change, this is change, therefore we need this’. We do indeed desperately need change, but it needs to be the right kind of change to move us in the right direction as a party. We can change. We should change. We MUST change. All of that is true, but we must make sure that the change is moving us in the right direction, not consigning us to political oblivion – that would be a tragedy for the country.






(Note: The image at the top is just a bit of fun produced with reference to the text above - it's not a serious attempt at creating a new party logo or branding!)