(This blog has been updated to include the gain of Richmond Park on 1st December 2016)
The Liberal Democrats claim to have thrown the party’s kitchen sink at the Witney by election. Buoyed by the strong showing there they will now throw the whole liberal house at the Richmond Park by election, which is much more promising territory. Victories and strong showings in parliamentary by elections used to be strongly associated with the Liberal Democrats and its predecessor parties. Spectacular gains such as Crosby, Bermondsey and Brent East gave the party a major boost, often rejuvenating flagging political fortunes. But the party last gained a seat in a by election over a decade ago.
Long established Liberal Democrat members will have fond memories of the exhilaration of a by election win, particularly when the campaigns used to get extensive daily TV and newspaper coverage. But with the exception of the false hope brought about by the retention of Eastleigh in 2013, there has been nothing to cheer since the party went into government in 2010. The Witney campaign may be the sign that the party is rediscovering its lost by election magic.
By elections are far more important to the Liberal Democrats than they are to either Labour or the Conservatives. A spectacular by election performance gives the party the oxygen of positive publicity denied to it by the media for most of the electoral cycle. They have given the party victories on the back of strong campaigns against unpopular government policies such as the poll tax in Ribble Valley in 1991 or VAT rises, as in Christchurch in 1993. The victory in Brent East in 2003 showed that the party was right to oppose the Iraq war, giving Tony Blair his first electoral bloody nose. It may well be that the spectre of Brexit will propel the party to victory in Richmond Park. Previous by election wins have given a jolt to party ratings in the opinion polls. The party needs that by election shock therapy more than ever at the moment.
While by election successes are part of the history of the party and a contributor to its perception as a winner by the media, they also leave a strong internal impression. A win obviously leads to a massive morale boost, leading to more people joining and more members becoming active. Success breeds success. The feel good factor is often temporary but a succession of wins such as during the 1990s can build the momentum for sustained success in general elections. Many by elections have been false dawns, damned by that overused post by election phrase, “if this swing were repeated at a general election…”, which of course it can’t be. By elections enable the Liberal Democrats to assemble all its Davids to take sling shots at Goliath. In a general election the concentration of effort cannot be replicated. By election wins have led to false expectations of a party that has fewer people on the ground, less national money and hardly any media friends compared to both the other major parties of government.
By elections assemble people for a common endeavour. The Liberal family comes together, rather like at party conferences but with an immediate practical electoral purpose. Like all family gatherings they can be happy and sad. In the 2010 Parliament they felt like a procession of funerals. In the 2015 Parliament I think that the party, smashed and left for dead in the general election, can quickly recover and by election success will be part of the journey. They can make politics enjoyable again. New members can learn some old campaign tricks and our professional campaign staff will trial new ones. Local council by election wins are already having a positive effect, with over 20 gains since May 2016.
Since 1981 the SDP has gained 4 MPs in by elections, the Liberal Party also 4 and their successor Liberal Democrats have gained 11 prior to Richmond Park. The Liberals have held one and the Lib Dems two. There have also been several near misses, the most recent being Bromley and Chislehurst, lost by just 633 votes in 2006.
I’ve helped in 27 by elections, with Richmond Park now my 28th. My first, by pure chance was in my home seat of Cynon Valley in May 1984. In a safe Labour seat, it doesn’t feature in anybody’s history of significant by elections. But as a 17 year old I was standing in my school mock election as the SDP candidate. I turned up at the SDP campaign office in Aberdare to ask for some posters and a rosette. I was asked if I wanted to try some real campaigning. I was given a clipboard (a piece of wood and a bulldog clip with a pencil attached by string, nothing flash) and told to go and ask the people on the list for whom they intended to vote. This was the beginning and the end of my canvassing training. But I enjoyed it and I’ve now being doing it for 32 years. I’ve trained dozens of new canvassers in my time, hopefully without throwing them straight into the deep end. I also won my school election and then had to wait 9 years before I won a real one!
Here’s my own list of the most significant by elections for the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties after the formation of the SDP and the Alliance with the Liberal Party in 1981:
Warrington (16th July 1981)
The first by election since the formation of the SDP and contested by Roy Jenkins, the grandee of the Gang of Four. The Liberal Party had secured only 9% of the vote in the 1979 general election. Having agreed broad terms of a national pact in the previous month, the Liberals stood down, giving Jenkins a free run. The result was an electoral earthquake. Jenkins won 42% of the vote with Labour holding on with just 48%, down from the 62% in the general election. The result propelled the SDP-Liberal Alliance to giddy heights in the opinion polls. Jenkins himself said that though it was his first defeat in an election, it was by far his biggest triumph.
Croydon North West (22nd October 1981)
The Conservative MP Robert Taylor had died before the result of Warrington and the Liberal Party already had a candidate in place, William Henry (known as Bill) Pitt. Bill Pitt had fought the three previous general elections and neither he nor the local Liberal association were willing to stand aside for a new SDP candidate. But Pitt became the beneficiary of the SDP’s national popularity and standing as the candidate of the Liberal Party “with SDP support” he gained the seat with 40% of the vote and a majority of 3,254 over the Tory. In all subsequent by elections until 1988 the SDP and the Liberals fought joint campaigns as the “Alliance”. Pitt proved that by elections could be won by candidates who were not household names. He lost in the 1983 general election by 4,092 votes and by 1996 had joined Labour.
Crosby (26th November 1981)
With Bill Pitt contesting Croydon NW it would fall to the SDP to contest Crosby. The seat was one of the most prosperous in the north west and had been safely Conservative on various boundaries since 1918. The Liberals had been third in 1979 with 15%. The Crosby by election became the vehicle for a triumphant return to Parliament by Shirley Williams. She became the SDP’s first elected MP, winning with 49% of the vote. But the triumph was short lived as Williams lost the seat (on different boundaries) in the subsequent general election.
Glasgow Hillhead (25th March 1982)
After Shirley Williams’s return to Parliament the SDP’s priority was to find Roy Jenkins a berth. Hillhead was in many ways tailor made for him, being the intellectual middle class heart of Glasgow. It was the last remaining toe hold of the Conservatives in the city. On a huge turnout of 76% Jenkins gained the seat, returning to the Commons he had left in 1977 to become President of the European Commission. He was then elected as the first Leader of the SDP. He held the seat in 1983 but lost in 1987 to the odious George Galloway. One of the young SDP volunteers in the by election was Glasgow student Charles Kennedy.
Mitcham and Morden (3rd June 1982)
After Hillhead it seemed that the SDP-Liberal Alliance was on course for a breakthrough at the next election. But just a week later General Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina shattered that hope. The Falklands War transformed the public impression of Margaret Thatcher and the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party. Bruce Douglas-Mann must be one of the unluckiest by election candidates. The incumbent Labour MP, he had defected to the SDP but unlike all the other defectors resigned his seat to fight a by election under his new colours. It must have seemed a safe gamble but by polling day the Alliance national opinion poll rating had slumped and the Conservative Angela Rumbold gained the seat, a rare example of a governing party gaining a seat at a by election. Prior to Mitcham it looked as though the Alliance would indeed “break the mould” of British politics as both Labour and the Tories were deeply unpopular. After Mitcham, the progress of the Alliance would be much more of a hard slog.
Bermondsey (24th February 1983)
One of the bitterest by election contests of all time, Bermondsey was a contest between the Liberal Simon Hughes and Peter Tatchell, then seen as a representative of the Labour hard left. The local Labour party split, with the former MP Bob Mellish (Chief Whip under Harold Wilson) backing the “Real Bermondsey Labour” candidate and former Southwark Council Leader John O’Grady. Tatchell was known to be gay and O’Grady used this against him. It is current Labour folklore that the Liberals exploited Tatchell’s sexuality but the homophobia came mainly from O’Grady, with one of his campaign ditties saying that not only was Tatchell an Aussie but he wore his trousers back to front. The result was a 44.2% swing, the biggest by election swing in history, propelling Hughes into the Commons and giving the Alliance a pre general election boost. I met Peter Tatchell several times while I was an MP, sharing several platforms on gay rights. In 2007 we spoke on the same side in an Oxford Union debate, massively defeating the motion that “this house believes that marriage should be between men and women only”, six years before I led for the Liberal Democrats on the legislative stages of gay equal marriage!
Portsmouth South (14th June 1984)
To some, an unexpected gain for the SDP but demonstrating the strength of a candidate well rooted in the constituency, Mike Hancock was a long serving Labour then SDP councillor. Labour’s candidate was a CND supporter, an unpopular stance in the home of the Royal Navy. Hancock’s victory was a boost for the continued independence of the SDP, which had been reduced to just six seats in the 1983 election. He suffered two narrow defeats by just over 200 votes in the 1987 and 1992 elections before returning in 1997. Rather like Bob Russell in Colchester, Hancock was one of the few former Labour working class members of the Lib Dem Parliamentary party, often giving Nick Clegg a hard time at group meetings. The Tory he defeated in 1997, David Martin (uncle of Chris from Coldplay) went on to be defeated by me in Bristol West in 2005.
Brecon and Radnor (4th July 1985)
A huge rural constituency, the largest in England and Wales. The campaign took Liberal Richard Livsey from third in 1983 to first in the by election in a tight three way contest, which saw the incumbent Conservatives drop to third place. On the back of major gains in the May county council elections it returned the Alliance briefly to the heady days of early 1982. But it was another false dawn. For me the by election was my first taste of victory. I had just sat my A levels and the constituency was next to my home of Cynon Valley. Apart from the usual leaflet delivery I also got the chance to tour Radnorshire villages in the broadcast car. Loudspeaker vehicles used to be a normal feature of election campaigns but disappeared (at least for the main parties) by the 1990s. I was selected after an audition conducted by the agent who decided I had the most pleasing Welsh accent. I said what I liked in English but stuck to the script in Welsh. “Good Morning Knighton, Prynhawn da Trefyclawdd” was followed by what passed for the campaign soundbites of the day. It was all very “hi di hi” for politics but great fun making people jump when bellowed at while going about their shopping.
Bootle (24th May 1990)
I include this not as an example of party triumph but as a vital contest in the battle for party survival. After the 1987 general election disappointment (23% of the vote but a joint tally of only 22 MPs) the SDP and Liberal Party merged to form what became known as the Liberal Democrats. A minority of activists and serving and former MPs of both predecessor parties refused to accept the merger and continued to fight elections as the Liberal Party or SDP. Prior to legislation on party names and ballot papers in 2000, nothing could be done to stop them. The upshot was that by elections in the first two years of the 1987-92 Parliament were often contested by three liberal factions. By elections that would have been won with a united candidate were instead thrown away while the Liberal Democrats struggled to establish themselves as the main third party of British politics. Bootle was a rock solid safe Labour seat and the official Liberal Democrat candidate John Cunningham got only 3,179 votes, 8.9% of the total. But the unofficial Liberals and SDP were beaten to just 474 and 155 votes each, with the “SDP” having the added humiliation of being beaten by the Monster Raving Loony Party. After Bootle the Lib Dems were free to make their own luck, though local rumps of liberals and social democrats remained in a handful of councils. The winning Labour MP died from a heart attack just 57 days later, necessitating a second by election.
Eastbourne (18th October 1990)
The by election was caused by the murder of Conservative MP Ian Gow by a car bomb planted by the IRA. But the Conservatives did not receive a sympathy vote. The party was unpopular, seeing huge reversals in the May council elections as a protest against the poll tax. By the autumn the party in the Commons was bitterly divided over Europe. The result was the first by election win for the Liberal Democrats and David Bellotti became the first elected Lib Dem MP, taking just over 50% of the vote. The by election was a massive boost for Paddy Ashdown and the party went on to win two more by elections at Ribble Valley (7th March 1991, Mike Carr probably putting the nail in the coffin of the poll tax) and Kincardine and Deeside (7th November 1991, won by Nicol Stephen) giving the party enough fuel to survive the 1992 general election with 20 Liberal Democrat MPs. Sadly, the three by election winners were not among them.
Newbury (6th May 1993)
The first by election of the 1992 Parliament was a huge defeat for the Conservatives, shorn of their reputation for economic competence after “black Wednesday” and the pound crashing out of the European Exchange Mechanism in September 1992. David Rendel won a massive 37,590 votes, 65% of those cast. This is still the record vote tally for the party, though Winchester (see below) surpassed it in percentage terms. Newbury was the first of a string of by election losses to the Lib Dems and Labour that robbed John Major’s government of its Commons majority. The victory and the scale of it was all the more remarkable as it occurred on a normal May polling day for the county council elections. Liberal Democrat by election wins are usually the result of extraordinary levels of commitment by activists from all over the country. But Lib Dem activists were involved in battles for council seats all over England and Wales. I won my own Cabot ward seat on Avon County Council on the same day but went to Newbury twice. The party made large council gains on the same day. The subsequent three by election wins in Christchurch (29th July 1993, won by Diana Maddock), Eastleigh (9th June 1994, won by David Chidgey) and Littleborough and Saddleworth (27th July 1995, won by Chris Davies) gave the Liberal Democrats bursts of good publicity and continued electoral credibility. They were also important in establishing the importance of tactical voting to defeat the Conservatives, vital in seeing the party win 46 seats in the 1997 general election.
Winchester (20th November 1997)
Mark Oaten had scraped home to victory by just two votes in the 1997 general election, becoming the 46th Liberal Democrat MP elected at that election. The defeated Tory, Gerry Malone, over turned the result with a court challenge. It was a big mistake. The Tories had crashed to a terrible defeat and the new Blair government was in a long honeymoon. The public were in no mood to help out the Tories. Of all the by election campaigns I’ve helped in, Winchester was the most friendly to canvass and easiest to hand out orange diamond window posters. Mark was re-elected with 68% of the votes cast, a Lib Dem record. Next door Romsey (4th May 2000) was the only other Lib Dem win of the 1997 Parliament, with Sandra Gidley joining Oaten and Chidgey in a strong Liberal Democrat corner of Hampshire.
Brent East (18th September 2003)
While previous Alliance and Lib Dem by election triumphs had mainly been at the expense of the Conservatives (Bermondsey and the SDP’s Rosie Barnes in Greenwich being the exceptions) Brent East was a major victory against Labour. It was the first by election loss for Tony Blair’s government and a vindication of Charles Kennedy’s decision to oppose the Iraq war. Sarah Teather went on to become one of the party’s star performers in the media and held the seat in 2005 and its successor (with a massive boundary change) Brent Central in 2010.
Leicester South (15th July 2004)
This by election has its place in Liberal Democrat history as being the only seat so far to elect a non-white Lib Dem MP. Parmjit Singh Gill gained the seat from Labour on a 21% swing, in similar circumstances to Brent East. He did not establish enough of an incumbency advantage to hold the seat at the general election nine months later. On the same day as the by election the Lib Dems came within 460 votes of winning the safe Labour seat of Birmingham Hodge Hill. This was a repeat of the disappointment in May 1986 when the Liberal Alliance candidate Elizabeth Shields won Ryedale in Yorkshire by Chris Walmsley fell short in West Derbyshire by just 100 votes.
Dunfermline and West Fife (9th February 2006)
This was the last by election gain for the Liberal Democrats for a decade and was won in extraordinary and not very promising circumstances. Charles Kennedy had lost the confidence of his Parliamentary colleagues and had resigned as Leader in the first week of January 2006, before the return of Parliament from Christmas recess. The Labour MP for Dunfermline died on the same day. MPs dutifully trooped north to help in the by election, partly to raise our morale and show we were still in business. I recall being freezing cold walking round a snow bound housing estate delivering leaflets with Nick Clegg and Ed Davey as we chatted about how the party could re-establish itself as a serious outfit in the eyes of the public. Ironically, Charles Kennedy himself helped rescue the situation. To his supreme credit, he turned out to help in the election. I walked down the high street with him, surrounded by journalists and cameramen. It was clear that he was still hugely popular with the Scottish public. Willie Rennie pulled off a most unlikely by election win by a party without a leader.
Oldham East and Saddleworth (13th January 2011)
I include this by election as it was the first electoral signal that the Lib Dem decision to form a coalition government with the Conservatives would cause a haemorrhage in support in Labour facing constituencies and among left leaning voters. The reception on the doorsteps from many previous Lib Dem voters was as icy as the winter weather. The election shows the often personal unfairness of politics. The Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkins had fallen short by just 103 votes in the 2010 general election. The court overturned the result as Labour MP Phil Woolas was guilty of “knowingly making false statements” in campaign leaflets. In normal circumstances Watkins would have secured the result he had deserved in the general election but Labour held the seat with a majority of 3,558. The Lib Dem vote did in fact increase by 0.3% but this was as a result of huge tactical voting by Conservatives.
Eastleigh (28th February 2013)
A rare by election in a seat held by the party or its predecessors, the last two in this survey being Cheadle in 2005 and Truro in 1987. Triggered by the resignation of Chris Huhne, pleading guilty to motor insurance fraud, the by election was critical to the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. Support for the party in council elections and other parliamentary by elections had plummeted. Party HQ and nervous MPs clung to the hope that well entrenched incumbent MPs would withstand the fall in support elsewhere. Eastleigh would put this theory to the test. The party made a huge effort, supporting one of the most successful local party machines that had built an overwhelming domination of council seats. Local councillor Mike Thornton came out on top of a tight three way split, with UKIP pushing the Conservatives into third place. MPs and party strategists heaved a sigh of relief. But two years later no amount of local goodwill and incumbency advantage could withstand the tidal wave that swept all but 8 defending Lib Dem MPs out of office, including Thornton. Eastleigh stabilised the party at the mid-point of the coalition but ultimately it gave false hope.
Witney (20th October 2016)
This was the first by election since the days prior to the 2010 coalition formation when the party came together to fight a major campaign, hoping for a strong advance rather than avoiding embarrassment. The shock of the 2015 general election reversal and then the referendum vote to leave the European Union had resulted in an influx of new members into the Liberal Democrats. The Witney by election saw many of these “newbies” join by election stalwarts in trying to pull off a spectacular result in one of the safest Tory seats in the country. For those of us who are by election veterans it indeed felt as positive as the old days and it was a big learning experience for new members. In the end the excellent local candidate Liz Leffman increased the party’s vote share by 23.4% and jumped to second from the miserable fourth place secured in 2015. Witney showed that the voters were once again prepared to switch to the party in large numbers. It was also a major morale boost to the party, showing that the party could, in the right circumstances, win again and even enjoy by election campaigns!
Richmond Park (1st December 2016)
The contest was triggered by Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith resigning after the government announced it was proceeding with a third runway at Heathrow. Goldsmith must have felt confident. He was honouring a campaign promise to resign and fight as an independent and he was cushioned by a 23,000 majority over the Lib Dems in May 2015. But his gamble ended in disaster. The constituency had voted about 70% to remain in the EU, whereas Goldsmith was one of the most ardent Brexit supporters. His 23,000 majority was also flattering and not a real reflection of the strong Liberal Democrat support in the seat going back decades, including three victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005. Buoyed by the huge swing in Witney, and smelling Brexit blood in the water, the party poured in resources. Hundreds of members turned up every day (I went 4 times) to knock on doors and deliver leaflets. While Goldsmith wanted the election to be fought on the single issue of Heathrow the Liberal Democrats focused on resisting a hard Brexit and calling for a new referendum on the eventual deal with the EU. Three parties decided not to field a candidate. The Conservatives and UKIP stood aside to help Goldsmith. The Green Party pulled out to help the Lib Dems in a “progressive alliance”. Labour insisted on standing and no doubt would have preferred a Goldsmith win in order to stymie a Lib Dem revival. The result was a Lib Dem triumph, with Sarah Olney defeating Goldsmith by 20,510 to 18,638 votes and Labour crashing to 1,515 and a lost deposit. Olney was one of the thousands of new members to have joined the party since 2015. Her win will restore the morale of campaign veterans, excite her fellow “newbies” and no doubt lead to a rise in support for the party. It also plots a path back to success for the party, as the clear voice for the 48% who voted to Remain in the EU and probably for a few more who now have doubts about the sense of a hard Brexit.
And finally this is my own by election roll of honour, 28 campaigns, including Richmond Park:
May 1984 Cynon Valley (Lab hold, SDP 2nd)
July 1985 Brecon & Radnor (Liberal gain from Tory)
February 1987 Greenwich (SDP gain from Labour)
February 1989 Pontypridd (Labour hold, Social and Liberal Democrats 4th, continuing SDP 5th)
March 1991 Ribble Valley (Liberal Democrat gain from Conservative)
May 1991 Monmouth (Labour gain from Con, LD 3rd)
May 1993 Newbury (Lib Dem gain from Con)
July 1993 Christchurch (Lib Dem gain from Con)
February 1995 Islwyn (Labour hold, LD 3rd)
July 1995 Littleborough and Saddleworth (Lib Dem gain from Con, Lab 2nd)
November 1997 Winchester (Lib Dem gain from Con after GE result void)
May 2000 Romsey (Lib Dem gain from Con)
November 2001 Ipswich (Labour hold, LD 3rd)
September 2003 Brent East (Lib Dem gain from Labour)
July 2004 Leicester South (Lib Dem gain from Labour)
July 2004 Birmingham Hodge Hill (Labour hold, LD 2nd)
September 2004 Hartlepool (Labour hold, LD 2nd)
July 2005 Cheadle (Lib Dem hold, Con 2nd)
February 2006 Dunfermline and West Fife (Lib Dem gain from Labour)
June 2006 Bromley and Chislehurst (Con hold, LD 2nd)
July 2007 Ealing Southall (Labour hold, LD 3rd)
May 2008 Crewe and Nantwich (Con gain from Labour, LD 3rd)
June 2008 Henley (Con hold, LD 2nd)
July 2009 Norwich North (Con gain from Labour, LD 3rd)
January 2011 Oldham East and Saddleworth (Labour hold, LD 2nd)
February 2013 Eastleigh (Lib Dem hold, UKIP 2nd)
October 2016 Witney (Con Hold, LD 2nd)
December 2016 Richmond Park (Lib Dem gain from Con)
So after a couple of decades of delay, the Conservative government has announced that Heathrow Airport will be expanded with a third runway. This will lead to thousands of extra flights in and out of London, already one of the world’s busiest airports.
This is a terrible decision. It’s bad for the environment as extra flights will lead to more localised pollution and atmospheric damage. Congestion will increase on the M4 and M25. It’s bad for the nations and regions of the UK as yet another infrastructure decision favours London. The economy will be further unbalanced. It’s bad for politics too. The Conservative Party fought the 2010 and 2015 general elections opposing the original Labour plan for a third runway. The Coalition kept that promise. The current Conservative government has a Commons majority and the current and former Prime Minister both made strong personal pledges to block a third runway. People will now become even more cynical about politicians.
I know that Heathrow has problems, running round most of the clock at full capacity. But instead of increasing that capacity, why not reduce the demand for using Heathrow? This could be done in at least three ways:-
1. Divert more flights to regional airports. If I want a direct flight to New York I can’t go from my nearest airports at Bristol or Cardiff. For all the popular long haul destinations I have to go via London Heathrow. Travelling to busy west London is a major inconvenience and is even worse for people from the far south west of England or South Wales. Why can’t we reduce the pressure on Heathrow by having more direct links to the world’s leading hubs from Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham and Manchester? It would be no threat to Heathrow’s status as one of the world’s hub airports. But it would be a major boost to regional economies outside London and the overheated South East. To force airlines to make the shift and make it attractive to passengers there should be a major tax incentive. Long haul air passenger duty is currently £150 per passenger. Halving it for non South East airports and increasing it for London would surely lead to a major change in behaviour by airlines and passengers.
2. Switch air freight to regional airports. About two thirds of the UK’s import and export of physical goods by air currently goes via Heathrow. This is mad. Smaller goods go in the holds of passanger aircraft so a passenger switch would also facilitate a goods shift. Larger goods with dedicated flights should also be switched, either by a new tax or legislation on landing fees. Again, this would be a major boost to the regional economies outside London, with growth in logistics management.
3. Switching aircraft maintenance away from Heathrow. More capacity could be freed up at Heathrow’s existing two runways and other on the ground facilities if non immediate repairs and maintenance were shifted to other locations. The aircraft maintenance, repairs and overhaul business is worth billions to the UK economy. The West of England and South Wales is already the main alternative to London. Why not switch most of the business to areas that already have a strong engineering skills base in aero-engineering?
There’s a much wider debate about the crazy economics of aviation and the environmental implications of expanding flight capacity. The taxation of aviation fuel, the charging and allocation of landing slots and improvements in air traffic control to reduce delay and excessive fuel burning can all play a part.
But today’s decision to expand Heathrow will lead to more flights in order to justify the billions that will be spent on building a third runway. This will be bad for the UK as a whole, further unbalancing our economy and undermining our climate change reduction obligations. It’s a decision that was avoidable and must now be resisted.
The NHS currently costs about £130Billion. Every sensible politician agrees that the amount needed will keep on going up, year after year. New drugs and treatment and diagnosis techniques increase the cost pressures of an ageing society. But there is no consensus on how to find the extra money and safeguard it when government finances remain tight. My former parliamentary colleague Norman Lamb, the excellent health spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, has revived the idea of a tax dedicated to the NHS. At the party’s conference he announced he was setting up a “New Beveridge Group” to consider how a new tax could work. He also confirmed that the Lib Dems want to see an integrated NHS & Care Service.
Details are sketchy at the moment and the names announced so far as members of the group are health practitioners rather than tax experts or economists. It’s also not entirely clear whether they will be looking at options for increasing existing taxes with the proceeds of the increases hypothecated for the NHS or whether they will go further, creating a new tax, with the entirety of its yield dedicated to the NHS. Gordon Brown did the former in his 2002 Budget, raising national insurance contributions by 1% across all incomes. A repeat of such a move would be an easy recommendation but it could only fund a one off uplift in the NHS budget. It would not be sufficient to cover future health cost rises. It would also fail to deliver Norman’s desire to make it plain on everyone’s payslip how much they are paying for the NHS. So I think a new tax would be a better option.
New taxes don’t come around that often and in recent times they have been tiddlers in terms of the revenue raised, just a few billion here and there from the likes of air passenger duty or landfill tax. To raise in excess of £130billion a year requires a behemoth of a new tax, not seen since the introduction of VAT when Britain joined the EEC in 1973. VAT currently raises £115.4Billion making it the second largest source of revenue after income tax on £168.5Billion. The third largest is national insurance (NIC) at £113.7Billion. Setting up a new NHS tax would necessitate a major disturbance to one of these three big existing taxes. The obvious candidate is NIC.
My Liberal hero Lloyd George created national insurance in 1911. It paid for two of the foundation stones of the welfare state, sick pay and unemployment benefit. Later it also became linked to the financing of an earlier Liberal creation, the old age pension. Despite popular myth that it funds the NHS, this has never been the case. When another great Welshman created the NHS in 1948 it was decided that it should be funded from the general range of all taxes. Aneurin Bevan rejected William Beveridge’s attachment to insurance. Now might be the time to convert NIC into the NHS tax that many people already believe exists.
Several obstacles would need to be overcome. First, NIC would have to be shorn of the remaining links to entitlement to the state pension and non means tested Job Seekers Allowance. NHS and social care are both devolved issues and the budgets of the Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast governments are adjusted by the now antiquated Barnett Formula. If a dedicated NHS and Care tax is to be introduced, why not devolve the setting of the rate to the devolved governments with the Chancellor being responsible for the rate solely for England? Social care is currently funded via local government (the Coalition started a limited pooling of council and NHS local budgets in 2015 with the Better Care Fund) so a fiscal change would be needed in the local government settlement too. The December 2015 Spending Review announced an optional 2% rise in council tax specifically for social care. But council tax is a regressive tax and it would be better to fund social care from a broad based tax on income.
Making NIC the funder of the NHS & Care Service would enable us to kill two birds with one stone. NIC has for many years effectively been a second form of income tax. But its rules make its operation more complicated and less progressive than income tax. Thanks to the Liberal Democrats the Coalition raised the starting point for income tax to £11,000. The starting point for employee NICs is just over £8,000 – an unfair tax on the lowest paid. Worse, the charging rate of 13.8% drops to just 2% on incomes over £43,000, the same point where income tax doubles to its 40% rate. While income tax is levied on all forms of remuneration, several perks such as company cars escape an NIC charge. Employers also pay NIC and the rules are different here, with different rules again for the self-employed.
Setting up a new NHS tax would enable the charging thresholds and rules to be aligned with income tax, with quieter squeals of anguish from higher earners than if the reform was done as part of a normal Budget. The rates of tax would depend on the amount needed to be raised. The National Audit Office’s latest report on adult social care in England says that current spending is £19Billion. So with an increased NHS budget the target revenue for a combined service would be in the region of £155Billion. HMRC officials would need to work out the tax rate needed to raise this amount. I would want to see a small reduction in the current main 13.8% rate and a rise in the 2% rate on higher incomes. The new tax could be called National Health and Care Contributions, NHCs.
I wish Norman Lamb well with his New Beveridge Group. If they take on board some of my ideas they could at a stroke bring clarity and stability to NHS finances and make our tax system more progressive. Whatever path they choose, I hope they are bold in their recommendations, like the great Liberal himself William Beveridge.
Theresa May said she would be a more interventionist Prime Minister than her predecessor. She promised to help British industry and do more to tackle inequality. I rather hoped that she meant it. But if today’s childhood obesity strategy is anything to go by, they were hollow words.
Health inequality scars Britain, with life expectancy varying widely even within the same towns. Theresa May could have done something about a public health issue that is making the gap wider, obesity. Instead she watered down draft ideas, bowing to pressure from food manufacturers. So she has indeed helped industry, ignoring those pesky experts, much derided in the Brexit debate.
Apart from warm words and exhortations to cut sugar content the only tangible measure is the soft drinks industry levy announced by George Osborne in what turned out to be his last Budget. The “sugar tax” will bite on drinks that have more than 5% sugar content (specifically 5 grammes per 100 millilitres) with a higher levy on drinks with 8% added sugar content. The higher levy will increase the price of both Pepsi and Coke and will even catch Lucozade, which according to the BBC has 8.7g sugar per 100ml.
The government has rejected other measures recommended by public health experts, such as mandatory clear labelling, advertising restrictions or product placement in supermarkets. Without such complementary measures the sugar levy will be just a new regressive tax on the poor.
Compare this inertia on sugar with the measures taken on tobacco. High levels of duty make cigarette packs an expensive product but in recent years those packs have been covered up in shops, can’t be sold from vending machines and will soon be sold in plain packaging with stark health warnings. As Chair of the cross party parliamentary committee on smoking I was at the forefront of these changes. I wouldn’t put sugar in the same category of danger as tobacco and as anyone who knows me will attest, I am a chocoholic! But if we are to reduce sugar content in drinks (the government is not proposing anything for cakes or confectionery) a tax will not be enough.
Reducing the consumption of harmful substances requires a holistic approach including marketing, advertising, public information, provision of alternatives as well as pricing and tax measures. Tackling obesity also requires sustained investment in sports and physical recreation activities in which everyone can participate, as well as elite Olympic athletes. After my general election defeat last year I took up swimming and try to go to Bristol’s Horfield pool three times a week. I’m fitter and slimmer as a result.
Excessive levels of sugar in food and drink is a public health problem, leading to weight gain and obesity. Children and adults who are obsese are at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart and liver disease and of course tooth decay. It is legitimate for a responsible government to act to reduce the risk of such outcomes.
Libertarians, including too many Liberal Democrats, often lambast public health measures as the actions of a nanny state. I would wear a nanny state liberal badge with pride. Effective tobacco control measures have given Britain one of the lowest smoking rates in the developed world. In the years ahead fewer people will have lives impaired and cut short by lung disease. But we’re still a nation of binge drinkers and have high rates of teenage pregnancy. Given Theresa May’s timidity on childhood obesity I doubt if we’ll see any action in these areas.
Without an effective all embracing public health strategy for tobacco, other drugs, alcohol, fat and sugar too many people, mostly from communities already held back by low wages and poor educational standards will live unhealthy and shorter lives. Poor health is a drain on the NHS and saps economic productivity. But it leads to misery for too many families. A government that truly wanted to help people succeed in life would be bold rather than timid on public health.
There’s been a lot of speculation that the UK’s impending exit from the European Union might lead to the break up of the longer lasting union of nations on these islands. Scotland voted most strongly to remain, while England voted most emphatically to leave. Northern Ireland voted to remain while Wales voted the same way as England, albeit by a smaller margin. Nationalists in Scotland are planning a second independence referendum. Nationalists in Northern Ireland have called for a border poll on union with the south, rather than facing a hard border on the UK’s only land border with a European Union country.
Brexit has already caused turmoil in both the Conservative and Labour parties. It may lead to the realignment of British politics, at least on the centre-left. There are renewed calls for electoral reform. But might Brexit also provide an opportunity for a more fundamental recasting of the British state? Is there a way to hold together the British union while allowing for more self determination by the Celtic nations and more decentralisation in England?
Since the 1970s when devolution to Scotland and Wales was first seriously mooted there has been no answer to Labour MP Tam Dalyell’s “West Lothian Question” about how to resolve the democratic deficit of MPs from English constituencies having no say on NHS reforms in Scotland but MPs from Scottish constituencies being able to vote on all matters before the House of Commons. The current Conservative government has tried to solve this with English Votes for English Laws. I heard a lot about their obsession with “EVEL” when I was a member of the cabinet committee on devolution during the coalition. In the aftermath of another referendum, on Scottish independence, EVEL was more important to them than delivering more powers to Edinburgh or reforming local government in England.
The intractable problem with the current House of Commons is that it is effectively both an English Parliament and the body that decides UK wide macro-economic policy and Britain’s relationships with the rest of the world. Removing Scottish MPs altogether or solving a West Glamorgan Question by stopping the MP for my home town of Pontypridd from voting on the vast majority of issues would be untenable. The Prime Minister of the UK would not be able to speak for the whole kingdom. And it’s the kingdom that is the blockage to solving this democratic conundrum. We have a head of state with no real political power. The monarch is also at the pinnacle of a network of an unelected establishment that includes the absurdity of the House of Lords, a body of people that still includes a smattering of hereditary Earls and Barons. Former Prime Minister Cameron has just made the institution look even more absurd with his resignation honours list. The gilded chamber also has places reserved for bishops from one denomination of one religion from one part of the United Kingdom on its red benches.
I believe that the best way to hold our country together and renew our democracy would be to abolish the United Kingdom and replace it with the Federal Republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The short name would be Great Britain, which seems to be acceptable to everyone watching the Olympics in Rio at the moment. We would elect our head of state who would rule in conjunction with four national parliaments and a British Senate. Everyone who makes laws in Great Britain would be elected. Here’s how I think it could work:
The FEDERAL GOVERNMENT of the Federal Republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland shall consist of a President and Senate.
The PRESIDENT of Great Britain shall be elected by all British citizens aged 16 and over, using the alternative vote system. British passport holders in the various offshore dependencies such as the Isle of Man and Gibraltar shall also be able to vote for the person who would be their head of state. The President’s term of office shall be five years, with one option to stand for re-election. The President will be head of state and head of the federal government of Great Britain. The President will be primarily responsible for macro-economic policy, foreign and defence policy and international trade. There will also be some residual social welfare powers and a duty to arbitrate on cross border issues. The President will be the authorising signatory of all federal and state laws and will be the civil commander in chief of the British armed forces.
The President shall appoint a cabinet of ministers from the members of the British Senate in order to administer the federal government. There shall be a Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Defence Secretary, International Development Secretary, Trade Secretary, Pensions & Welfare Secretary and a Federal Relations Secretary and Federal law officers. The British federal government will set and receive the revenues of a federal income tax (including employee national insurance) and will be the sole controller of corporation tax, capital gains tax, inheritance tax and all international customs and tariffs. The British government will also control the rules but not the rates and thresholds of all taxes levied in any of the four constituent states. The President and the president’s staff shall occupy Buckingham Palace and Number Ten Downing Street but will also have a physical presence in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
The British SENATE shall consist of 200 members, elected by the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies of 5 Senators for a period of 5 years, with no term limits. England shall elect 110 senators, Scotland 40, Wales 30 and Northern Ireland 20. The Senate will occupy the chamber of the Palace of Westminster currently used by the House of Lords, an abolished institution. Senators will set federal law, pass a federal budget and scrutinise the actions of the President and ministers. The President shall choose federal ministers from among serving members of the Senate. A Senate committee shall scrutinise each federal department. Senators shall elect a Speaker at the outset of each five year term. The Speaker shall assume the office of President pro-tem on the death or resignation of a President, pending a by-election to elect a new President for the remainder of the former President’s term, unless there is 6 months or less until the next scheduled election.
The Federal Treasury, Foreign Office, Defence Department and Home Office shall be based in London. The Office for Federal Relations shall also be in London. The Pensions & Welfare Department shall be located in Edinburgh, the Trade Department shall be in Cardiff and the International Development Department shall be in Belfast. The Home Secretary will be responsible for British immigration law and the domestic intelligence and security services. The Pensions and Welfare Secretary shall be responsible for pensions law, the state pension and other benefits including those for disability and parental responsibilities. The Trade Secretary will be responsible for competition law, international trade agreements and will work with the four national governments on inward investment and strategic economic development funds to facilitate economic convergence across the federal republic. The Secretary of State for Federal Relations will assist the national governments on cross border issues on areas such as transport and will hold responsibility for federal institutions of a cultural and scientific nature.
There shall be 4 national parliaments for all aspects of domestic law and administration that are not expressly reserved for the federal government. The PARLIAMENT OF ENGLAND shall have 450 members, located in London, based in the chamber of the former House of Commons, an abolished institution. The PARLIAMENT OF SCOTLAND shall have 129 members and be based in Edinburgh. The PARLIAMENT OF WALES (SENEDD CYMRU) shall have 80 members and be located in Cardiff. The PARLIAMENT OF NORTHERN IRELAND shall have 108 members and be located in Belfast.
The four Parliaments will all sit for five years. The Members of Parliament in England, Scotland and Wales will be elected by the Alternative vote in single member constituencies plus a regional top up to give greater proportionality. The accumulated first preference votes in a group of constituencies will be used to allocate top up seats, with the number of constituency seats won being taken into account. The English Parliament will have 300 constituencies and 150 top up seats drawn from 25 regions each with 6 top up MPs. The Scottish Parliament will have 73 constituencies plus 56 top up MPs drawn from 8 regions each with 7 MPs. The Welsh Parliament will have 45 constituencies plus 35 top up MPs drawn from 5 regions each with 7 MPs. The Northern Irish Parliament will have 108 MPs elected by the single transferable vote in 18 constituencies each with 6 MPs.
The four Parliaments will have primary responsibility for all domestic law and administration within their national boundaries. The existing laws of the UK will be the basic law of each territory until amended by the national parliament. The national parliaments will each control the rates and receive the revenues of national income tax (including employee NIC), employers’ NIC, VAT, excise duties and stamp duty. Income tax and NIC will be allocated on the basis of the primary residence for tax purposes of the individual.
At its first sitting after an election each Parliament shall elect a Speaker and then a First Minister. The First Minister shall appoint a Finance Minister, Justice Minister and ministers for education, health, welfare, transport and culture plus law officers. The Finance Minister will be responsible for the national budget and economic development. The Justice Minister will be responsible for policing and all aspects of the criminal justice system and will have a duty to cooperate with the federal Home Secretary on security issues.
The national parliaments shall pass laws for their territories in the areas for which they are competent and are not reserved for the federal Senate. Bills passed by the parliaments shall become law on the signature of the President. The President may, in exceptional circumstances where it is believed the proposed law would be prejudicial to good relations between the four nations, veto the law. The veto would give the national parliament up to one year (or the expiry of the 5 year term if less) to submit a new proposal. If the new proposal is vetoed for a second time it is referred to the Senate. The Senate may uphold the veto, nullify the veto or amend the law, which is then sent back to the national parliament before referral to the President for signature.
The relationship between the national parliaments and LOCAL GOVERNMENT shall be a matter for each national government. But the structure of local government shall be unitary principal authorities. Combined Authorities may be set up for city regions, with powers and revenues devolved from the national governments to be exercised by a Regional Mayor, elected by AV. Unitary Councils will set a local income tax and will control all aspects of council tax. They will retain all business rates and may introduce supplementary local taxes and levies from a menu set by each national parliament. Unitary Councils (or a referendum of a defined group of not less than a thousand electors) may set up neighbourhood councils for towns and villages. Neighbourhood councils may charge a precept on the council tax. All councillors will be elected by STV in multi-member wards. In rural councils or sparsely populated areas the AV+ method may be used.
Election of the President and Senate will take place on the third Sunday in September. The President and Senators will assume office on the Monday four weeks after the election.
Election of MPs for the four parliaments will take place on the second Sunday in June. MPs will take office on the Monday four weeks after the election. They will then elect a Speaker and a First Minister.
The creation of the democratic institutions of the Federal Republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will require the abolition and phasing out of existing United Kingdom institutions. On the inauguration of the first President the monarchy will cease to have any constitutional role in law making and all prerogatives will vest in the President. The Civil List will be adjusted and accommodation rearranged for an interim period. On the death of Queen Elizabeth all royal titles will be abolished. A generous resettlement package will be provided for the remaining principal members of the former royal family together with the conferment of hereditary peerages. The Church of England will be disestablished on the same lines as the Church in Wales. The bar on same sex marriage in both institutions will be abolished, though it will be up to them whether they offer same sex marriage. The President of Britain would not be the head of state of any other Commonwealth country, other than the dependencies that are included in the presidential franchise.
The House of Lords will be abolished. The titles associated with the peerage will remain with existing holders but there will be no new creations of life peers. The House of Commons, Scottish Parliament, National Assembly of Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly will be abolished and replaced by the four national parliaments. The combined current total of Peers, MPs, MSPs and Welsh and Northern Ireland AMs is almost 1,800. The combined total of new elected law makers at federal and state level will be 968 including the President.
I believe that the institutional shock of Brexit gives us an opportunity to refresh our British democracy. Those who advocated a break with Brussels alleged a lack of democratic control over law making in Europe. The same people were largely blind to the deficiencies of the creaking machinery of British government. A national Parliament with one House unelected and the other elected by a system that fails to reflect the proportionality of the votes that were cast. The elected House with MPs having different voting rights over domestic policy. An uneven devolution settlement between the Celtic nations and emasculated local government everywhere. My proposed model allows for even handed devolution within a federal structure and a system where everyone with a hand on the levers of power is elected, by a fair votes method. Ironically, whether we actually leave or end up remaining in the EU, it is a structure that will be all too familiar to our fellow Europeans.
The Tory energy policy mess – stalled, obstructed and scrapped nuclear, renewables and home efficiency
I wonder if Theresa May’s pause for thought on Hinkley Point C will also mean a rethink about the Tories’ sceptical and obstructionist attitude to renewables and energy efficiency. I am open minded about the role of nuclear energy, as long as the costs can be brought down. I hope the new government, as it increasingly seems to be distancing itself from the Cameron era, becomes more open minded about the other essential components of our energy mix.
My experience in government was that the Tories were at best sceptical and often openly hostile to investment in renewable energy and measures to reduce home energy consumption. Their hostility to wind energy in particular stemmed mainly from party political considerations. Cameron allowed ministers to fulminate against wind farms and to actively use the planning system to obstruct their construction. This was not based on sound engineering or cost grounds, rather it was a political need to see off UKIP and placate the Tory backbench headbangers and climate change deniers. This tendency of Cameron to throw red meat to those that snarled the loudest at him was as bad for energy policy as it was disastrous for our place in the European Union.
When I became Communities Minister in 2013 one of my responsibilities was regulation of the building industry. The suite of building regulations covered everything from fire safety to the design of staircases. They also covered energy efficiency. I’d been saying for years that as well as switching our energy sources of supply away from carbon towards renewables we should also look to reduce demand if we are going to make any meaningful contribution to reducing greenhouse gases. The first Liberal Democrat minister at DCLG, Andrew Stunell, had tightened building regs in 2011 so that house builders had to do more to improve insulation and install energy efficient heating systems. My officials explained to me that there would be a chance to go further and bring to life a concept that had been around since the Brown government, of “zero carbon homes.”
Like a lot of buzzwords from the Labour era, zero carbon homes was a misnomer. No house could be built without consuming resources and no family living in the house would live a cold life in the dark. But it was certainly possible to further reduce energy consumption and also require housebuilders to make a contribution to low carbon energy projects. Officials and housebuilders had invested several years in working up proposals. After several briefings with my talented and knowledgeable officials I met with a group of housebuilders who told me that what they wanted from government was policy clarity. Neither the previous Labour government nor the coalition had actually committed to introducing the legislation necessary for a zero carbon homes standard to operate by the original target date of 2016. So I undertook to make the case inside government.
I could (and will!) write another blog entirely about the policy making process and wheeler dealing that went on inside the coalition government. But suffice for now to say that to get anything signed off that was a policy priority of one party needed the agreement of the two Cabinet Office ministers from each side, Oliver Letwin for the Conservatives and David Laws for the Liberal Democrats. So I found myself in many meetings with Oliver in number 9 Downing Street, with a view down the street of the comings and goings through the most famous front door in the world. Eventually it was agreed that we would proceed and zero carbon homes would be part of an Infrastructure Bill in the final session of Parliament of the coalition. I’m sure the Queen has read out lots of eye brow raising proposals from her twelve Prime Ministers but on 4th June 2014 I watched with pleasure as she said “Legislation will allow for the creation of an allowable solutions scheme to enable all new homes to be built to a zero carbon standard”
The proposals I took through Parliament would require housebuilders from 2016 to further improve the energy efficiency of new homes. My visits to lots of building sites plus the amazing Building Research Establishment (founded by Lloyd George as part of his promise to build “homes fit for heroes”) at Watford had shown me what could be done on site. Brick design, wall insulation, glazing enhancements and making triple glazing the norm could all make a contribution. Boilers were getting more efficient. Homes could also be built with photo-voltaic panels to generate the house’s own energy. But only so much could be done on site and to new houses. The location of some sites would not be suitable for solar energy. The vast majority of our existing housing stock was built without energy efficiency as a consideration.
Greater returns for investment by housebuilders would be found in retrofitting older homes or by funding other low carbon projects. I wanted to have a wide range of options for housebuilders to invest in the “allowable solutions” for off-site carbon off-setting. Retrofitting Victorian housing was an obvious example but I was also keen on funds for electric car charging points, cycle routes and possibly a direct financial contribution to the Green Investment Bank that had been set up by Vince Cable.
The allowable solutions menu was to be worked up once the Infrastructure Act became law. This is what should have happened during the second half of 2015. Oliver Letwin had told me that imposing more regulations on house builders would not have been done if the Conservatives had been in government on their own. So it was no surprise but still a deep disappointment that in July 2015 George Osborne announced that the new Tory government would suspend the scheme. With no sense of irony the Chancellor included his scrapping of my scheme in his proposals for a productivity plan to increase national prosperity. The allowable solutions scheme would have been a huge boost to the low carbon economy, stimulating investment right across the country. To make matters worse, Osborne also cancelled the uplift in on site home energy efficiency.
Theresa May has a reputation for immersing herself in the details of policy. On home energy efficiency the work has already been done and the legislation is in place. Whether or not to proceed with more nuclear plants is horrendously complicated. But it should be a no brainer to realise that reducing demand for energy in our homes will reduce the need for a new supply of nuclear energy. Our new PM has shown that she has no qualms about overturning the decisions of the Cameron-Osborne era. Let’s hope that she acts now to get us back on track for zero carbon homes. By doing so she will demonstrate that she understands that as well as diversifying our energy supply we also need to manage down demand if we are to have a sustainable future. Housebuilders are well prepared to make the transition and householders would thank her for the lower bills. And our small part of the planet would breathe a little easier.
These are extraordinary times in British politics. The second decade of the twenty first century is the most turbulent since a hundred years ago. After 1916 the Liberal Party was split and weakened, opening the way for the rise of the Labour Party as the main alternative to the Conservatives. Both the Liberals and Labour faced further splits and crises in 1931 but by 1945 politics had settled to a Conservative-Labour duopoly of parties of government, with the Liberal Party squeezed to a tiny rump by the merciless force of the first past the post electoral system. The main beneficiary of this turbulence on the left has been the Conservative Party, the most successful political party in Europe.
Liberal leaders in from the 1950s to the 1970s, Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe, talked about a realignment of the left, their hopes buoyed by shock by election wins. David Steel almost pulled it off when the Liberal Party fought the 1983 and 1987 elections in alliance with the new Social Democratic Party. I joined the SDP as a 16 year old just after the 1983 election and have been an activist ever since. My hopes of a breakthrough were dashed in 1987 when over 7 million votes translated into just 22 MPs for the Alliance. The messy merger of the Liberals and SDP and the theft of much of our social democrat language by Tony Blair in 1994 made me feel at the time that a realignment had indeed taken place but mainly inside the Labour Party. I very nearly joined Labour at that time but personal loyalties kept me in the Liberal Democrats.
Might 2016 have the right mixture of factors to bring about a union of progressives, liberals and social democrats currently spread among several parties? I think so but it all depends on whether the foundations of the Labour Party broad church have been shaken enough for the walls to come tumbling down. Much has changed since the Labour landslides of 1945 and 1997. Tribal support for both the Conservatives and Labour has been declining since the 1960s as the class based society has been eroded by social mobility and huge changes in our economic base. The political landscape has become more crowded as the Scottish National Party has surged, more successfully than Plaid Cymru in Wales. UKIP was initially a threat to the Conservatives but now is arguably more of a problem for Labour as white working class people respond to its simple messages about job insecurity and suppressed wages being the fault of the EU.
The 2015 general election was a disaster for the Liberal Democrats, reduced to 8 MPs but still obtaining 2.4 million votes. In Scotland it was a shared humiliation with Labour as both parties were pummelled by the SNP and reduced to just 1 MP. UKIP polled 3.9 million votes, doing well in towns in the north of England. Labour had only 231 MPs from England and Wales, its worst result since 1987. Labour members chose Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader. The party suffered a further set back in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, reduced to third party status in a country where it had been the dominant force for fifty years. The result of the EU referendum, with many of Labour MP “safe seats” voting for Leave has plunged the party into crisis. MPs have no confidence in the Leader, who at the time of writing is still popular with Labour party rank and file members.
If Corbyn survives the forthcoming leadership election then it is very likely that the party in Parliament will fragment into several factions. So a realignment in 2016 depends on the fate of one man. The swift coronation of Theresa May as Conservative Leader and Prime Minister will keep pro EU, socially liberal Conservative MPs inside their party, at least until the Brexit crunch time arrives. But the break up of the Labour Party is a distinct possibility. The broad church could well be falling down.
Labour MPs who reject Corbyn’s brand of extra Parliamentary protest march socialism face three choices. First, I think most of them will sit tight, waiting for the wind to blow over. The Labour Party is their political home and in many cases they can’t contemplate life outside. Then there are those who feel that all is lost and Labour, robbed of its Scottish heartland and threatened by UKIP in many of its safe seats, is heading for electoral oblivion. They have nothing to lose by trying another path.
So a second group may break away from the official Labour party in Parliament and form a new group in the Commons and quite possibly in the Lords too. This new grouping, let’s call it the “Independent Labour Party”, will be a party without a base in the country or any party apparatus. Given the gulf between MPs and their Corbyn supporting members it is likely to be a party with lots of chiefs and no Indians. As the SDP showed in 1981, this is a massive risk. In 2016 there are lots of other options for progressives with a range of political parties and campaign groups, with less room for a new party than there was in 1981.
A third group of Labour MPs could simply defect to the Liberal Democrats. I know of many Labour MPs who have always had more in common with the Lib Dems than they care to acknowledge in public. They could easily have joined the Lib Dems at an earlier stage in their life but chose Labour due to family history and political ambition to win power. It would be a wrench for them to depart now and both defecting MPs and the existing Liberal Democrat MPs and constituency parties would have to show good grace, putting behind them past rivalries, arguments and personal slights.
The relative sizes of these three groups will have implications for the operation of parties in both Houses of Parliament. The Liberal Democrats have 107 Peers so it would only take 52 of Labour’s 209 members to defect to make the Lib Dems the official opposition in the Lords. In the Commons there could be four party groups (including the SNP) on the opposition benches with more than 50 MPs, which would break the underlying assumption of business that there are only two main parties, one in government and one in opposition. This was a major problem for the Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2015.
If Labour does break up then the next general election is a great opportunity to put before the electorate a range of candidates from credible centre left parties. But if those parties compete in every seat then Theresa May will win the greatest Conservative landslide since 1931 when it won 460 seats. Such an outcome would be a catastrophe, propelling Britain out of the EU for good and emboldening the Tory right to shake up state services and welfare. Given that she is well aware of this opportunity it is imperative that progressive politicians in all parties act to mitigate the risk before it becomes a reality.
I propose that the Liberal Democrats and any new Independent Labour Party should cooperate on the ground to avoid clashes in Conservative facing seats. There could also be arrangements involving the Green Party and Plaid Cymru though neither of these parties is a serious contender in any constituency currently held or under threat from the Conservative Party. I see little scope for an arrangement in Scotland, such is the dominance of the SNP and weakness of the Tories.
The Lib Dems and the new ILP could fight the next election as separate parties with their own manifestos but would have a Common Ground set of objectives and principles. The first Common Ground objective is obviously the defeat of the Conservative Party, leading to a House of Commons with a progressive majority. All candidates fighting under the Common Ground banner would have to agree to a 36 month Parliament to allow time in both Houses for a programme of constitutional reform the most important of which would be a more proportional election system. It should be easier than in the past to agree campaign finance reform, on the assumption that the unions have stuck with the Corbyn led Labour Party.
The Common Ground would also set out some other basic principles such as maintaining the closest possible relationship with the European Union, retaining the integrity of the UK with full devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and greater power for local government in England. While the parties would have their own detailed manifestos it would be necessary to agree some broad tax and spend parameters for a Common Ground coalition government to operate within.
Common Ground candidates from the ILP, Lib Dems and possibly other parties would be chosen primarily on the basis of who was best placed to defeat the Conservatives. The criteria would include the electoral history of the constituency over the last four general elections and of course the attributes of an individual candidate who could be the sitting or former MP or a well known individual standing in a new seat. I would add a further factor, obtaining a measure of political pluralism even under the last election to be held under first past the post. So while it is likely to be the case that the Liberal Democrat candidate is best placed to defeat the Conservative in most of southern England there should be an ILP MP in Surrey or Cornwall. Similarly, it would not be right for there to be no Liberal Democrat MPs in Lancashire or the East Midlands.
This arrangement of giving the Common Ground coupon to Liberal Democrat or ILP candidates should be straightforward in most Tory facing seats. There would be other problems to iron out the biggest of which is what to do with constituencies with a Corbyn Labour sitting MP. It would be crazy for those seats to be handed to the Tories as a result of all of the Lib Dems, ILP and the Green parties fielding a candidate. The same would apply to the Green Party’s sole seat in Brighton Pavilion. There may be other seats where historically the Lib Dems and Labour have been in hot competition, such as Cambridge and Hornsey & Wood Green. These would have to be settled on a seat by seat basis and in some cases it would have to be accepted that the Lib Dems and the ILP would fight each other, with neither candidate having the official Common Ground coupon. I believe there are also some sitting Conservative MPs who might be tempted away from their party if they were guaranteed a safe berth with a Common Ground coupon.
This is a momentous period with a mix of factors that give Britain the best opportunity to transform its politics from the stale tribalism of two big parties that is now so unappealing to millions of voters and indeed non voters who think nobody listens to them. A pluralist political system of several parties, underpinned by a proportional voting system is potentially in reach. Achieving that goal will require MPs, Peers, councillors and activists currently in several parties to think differently about how they conduct politics. My excitement and optimism is only tempered by a knowledge that we have been here before and it didn’t happen. But given the extraordinary political events of the last 6 years, the Coalition, the Scottish referendum aftermath and now the Brexit aftermath, anything must be possible. If not now, then it is hard to see a better opportunity ahead to reinvent British politics.