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The trouble with Boris

August 10, 2018

Is the joke at last on Boris Johnson?  His multiple gaffes, political mistruths and misjudgements would have sunk most other politicians years ago.  Johnson’s career as a serious front line politician has been living on borrowed time. Now, maybe, surely, his time is up.

Johnson has survived as long as he has as a politician and columnist partly due to his self-deprecating charm and humorous lines. Anyone who’s had any dealings with him will know that the self- deprecation is skin deep and internally he has the bags of self-confidence possessed by most Old Etonians. Since 2016 he has been one of the heroes of Brexiters.  His late decision to back Vote Leave was in itself an act of self-promotion and belief, knowing he would be one of the few well known faces of the Brexit campaign.  As a Remainer, he would have been overshadowed by that other possessor of Etonian swagger, David Cameron.

Theresa May gave him the chance to deliver the Brexiters’ vision of global Britain.  He turned out to be the worst Foreign Secretary since 1945. His eventual resignation was another act in the Johnson playbook, escaping responsibility for the government’s Brexit failures and positioning himself at the head of hard Brexit malcontents and then for a challenge to Theresa May.

His Telegraph column on the clothing choices of Muslim women was no doubt meant to be the start of the next stage of achieving his destiny in Downing Street.  The column was the usual Johnson blend of comedy and politics.  But it’s blown up in his face.  It was a little too obvious to everyone that the mocking of face-veiled Muslim women as “letter boxes” or “bank robbers” was really a shrill and nasty dog whistle on immigration, masquerading as comedy.  He probably gave more thought to those words than the rest of the article, seeking lines that would be noticed, rather than penning a serious column on culture clashes in a liberal society.

Brexit has obvious economic consequences.  But the 2016 referendum also exposed deep seated social divisions, which were exploited to the full by the Leave campaign. The success of Trump across the Atlantic later that year showed that exploiting social fears, spreading “fake news” and deploying other underhand campaign techniques could work to devastating effect.  We know now that there was a huge amount of cross over between the Leave and Trump campaign techniques.  Trump’s associates, such as Steve Bannon, are keen to make Britain the next front in their culture wars.  Johnson, Gove, Fox and Farage see themselves as his British generals. Britain’s first past the post electoral system (for Westminster) lends itself perfectly to a polarisation of society, with a right wing party stoking up fears about immigrants and championing economic nationalism.  I’m surprised they’ve not already borrowed Trump’s slogan and called their movement ‘Britain First.’

Liberals, social democrats and others who believe in an open and diverse Britain must be careful how they respond to the rise of identity and culture based politics. I’ve written other articles on this blog site about how we should respond on policy issues.  But one thing that should definitely be avoided is an over-reaction to every provocation. There’s a tendency among far too many liberals to express their hurt and to show in public how they feel offended at the slightest barbed comment.  There’s often a rush to label someone a racist, homophobe or transphobe just for expressing an opinion or making a poorly worded joke.  If the words are uttered by a political rival then there’s palpable glee in the trashing of their reputation via social media.  I’ve been called homophobic and racist on several occasions by rivals on the political left.  The over censoring of political speech ends in the stifling of legitimate debate, most obviously on immigration. Over sensitive criticism of genuine extremist politicians plays into their hands, giving them more publicity and strengthening their appeal among the disaffected voters whom they are targeting.

Some of the criticism heaped on Johnson has been over the top.  I guess many of us feel he’s got away with so much for so long that a heavy pummelling is justified.  But in my opinion his comments aren’t racist and aren’t a hate crime. They are culturally insensitive, rude and calculated to appeal with those who do have a problem with Muslim immigrants, which is bad enough. The criticism isn’t just from liberals and the left. Moderate Conservatives are desperate to block his path to the top.

Johnson’s reputation may well have sunk among his political and commentariat peers. But polls show that millions of voters have misgivings about Muslim women covering their faces, even if they confuse a niqab from a burka. They may tell reporters that Johnson shouldn’t use insulting language but privately they fee such issues need an airing. At this moment in time Johnson may calculate that he’s advanced his standing with the section of the public that might vote for his brand of politics.  But if the Conservative Party finds that he’s breached their code of conduct then his words will have backfired spectacularly.

Finally, one of the problems with Boris Johnson is the over familiar use of his first name. It gives him the air of a jovial fellow who we can laugh along with. News presenters have said “Boris will be Boris” thereby excusing behaviour that would be frowned upon or just considered weird if it came from any other public figure. So let us all resolve to refer to him in the same way as we would any other politician.  It’s the first and easiest step in the battle to stop his attempt to inject American culture wars into our political debate.



I wrote a blog  the day after Trump was elected, reflecting on some of the lessons that should be learned by liberals from his success and the Leave result in our referendum –


Brexit – is the tide turning against Leave?

July 30, 2018

A month is a very long time in Brexit politics.  At the start of July Theresa May had stayed at the helm and held together her minority government for a year longer than many thought likely.  She was edging towards getting her fractious party and cabinet to accepting a carefully crafted Brexit plan that delivered an exit from EU institutions while seeking to minimise the damage to trade. A cabinet away day at Chequers endorsed the plan. Two years after the referendum and a year after losing her majority in a general election, the Prime Minister at last had a deal that could be presented to Monsieur Barnier as the definitive British objective in their negotiations.

Within 48 hours harmony had turned to discord and rupture.  Her Brexit Secretary resigned, followed by the Foreign Secretary and a clutch of minor members of the government. By the end of the month the Chequers Agreement was in tatters, amended in the Commons as May caved in to the Rees Mogg led Brextremist faction in her party.  In trying to hold together her party it seems May had pleased nobody.  The Brextremist faction (numbering perhaps 50 MPs) pulled one way and the Tory hard core Remainers (now as low as about 15 MPs) tugged another way but the party and government has now moved onto true hard Brexit territory.

This raises the prospect of Britain leaving the EU in March next year without agreeing exit terms or a trade deal.  Theresa May’s second most (in)famous Brexit related phrase is that “a no deal is better than a bad deal” but she must now realise that this is as fatuous as “Brexit means Brexit.”  Representatives of British industry have become louder in their warnings about the chaos that will ensue if there is no deal. As her new Brexit Secretary was appearing before a Commons committee, Downing Street announced that the Prime Minister was taking the lead in the remaining stages of negotiations with Brussels. Dominic Raab’s rather unhelpful metaphor for describing his demotion was that it was a “rearrangement of the deck chairs” of government. Let’s hope there are enough lifeboats.

If the government has abandoned “cakeism” and accepts that the EU will agree a Canada style trade deal but not cherry picking current arrangements, then Mrs May’s problem is that her Brexit ultras now appear to prefer a no deal outcome.  Liam Fox has indicated his preference for such a “clean Brexit” and the government has prepared a series of 70 ‘technical notices’ for what we should expect in a no deal scenario.  This has led to speculation that the supply of certain foods and medicines that are sourced from the EU will quickly dry up, the approach roads to ports will be jammed with lorries and the army will be deployed to get essential supplies to hospitals and vulnerable people.

Such talk has previously been dismissed by the Brexit brigade as “Project Fear” and scaremongering. But more of the public, including many Leave voters, are now appreciating that exiting the European Union comes at an enormous cost. They also believe that the government has failed so far and is unlikely in the future to agree a beneficial deal with the EU.  Support is growing rapidly for a referendum on the terms of the exit deal, with an option for abandoning Brexit altogether and staying in the EU. Several polls now show strong support for a “Peoples Vote” on Brexit, rather leaving it up to a dysfunctional Parliament.

A Sky News poll today shows that a slight majority of people now believe that Brexit will be bad both for themselves and the country. A huge majority of 78% believe that the government has done a poor job of negotiating with the EU.  The poll also shows that if there were to be another referendum, the Remain option would be the clear winner. If people are presented with the three options of Remain, the government’s Chequers Agreement or No Deal then Remain comes out ahead with 48% support with No Deal on 27% and the government deal with just 13% support and 3% don’t know.  When asked about second preferences Remain wins with 59% support.  What stood out the most for me was that my home country of Wales, which voted narrowly for Leave in 2016, now becomes the leader of the pack in EU support with 73% backing Remain, a truly remarkable turnaround.  The Sky poll was limited to Great Britain.  Several separate polls have shown a solidifying of Remain support in Northern Ireland. The Brexiters will no doubt now start to panic that the “dream of Brexit”, to quote Boris Johnson’s self-serving resignation letter, is slipping away from them. Expect to see more comments about a “great betrayal” and a “stab in the back” as the Brexcrement hits the fan.

Delivering Brexit was never going to be the walk in the park predicted by the Brexiters.  They said negotiating a trade deal with the EU would be easy, as they needed us more than we needed them. Davis and Johnson have fled the field.  Fox and Gove remain in post, believing in a Britain free from the EU but closer to the US. They now have to work with May to salvage Brexit, while reality dawns on more people inside government that the project may be undeliverable.

The Brexiters’ chickens have now come home to roost.  With Trump in the White House, demanding “America First” trade deals, those chickens will be chlorine washed.  I’ve thought since 2016 (perhaps with a dose of wishful thinking) that Brexit would eventually collapse, pulled apart by its internal contradictions. With eight months to go I am now more hopeful than ever that this national act of self-mutilation will be averted.  The public have got wise to the snake oil salesmen of Brexit. The tide is turning but eight months is a very long time and who knows what twists and turns lie in the road ahead.


The full data set of the Sky News poll can be read at


Time for full equality in our marriage and partnership laws

June 27, 2018

The Supreme Court ruling that civil partnerships should be open to opposite sex couples is a welcome instruction to the government to update our personal relationship laws.  Marriage law has long been an interest of mine, both as a politician and due to one of my major hobbies outside politics, as a genealogist.  It’s time that marriage moved from its legal origins of advancing the property rights of men and safeguarding the male lineage to a fully equal institution recognising loving and committed sexual relationships and celebrating them in an inclusive way.

The case decided unanimously by the Supreme Court judges today is an important victory for the plaintiffs Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who want a civil partnership rather than a civil or religious marriage. The anomaly in the law was created by the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. The former gave legal recognition for the first time to same sex relationships. The latter extended the rights of marriage to same sex couples.  In a radical change from the usual state of our laws this meant that gay and lesbian couples had more legal rights and options than heterosexual couples. This anomaly was never likely to last long and should have been prevented when the gay marriage Bill was progressing.

Gay marriage is one of the landmark reforms of our century and will be seen as an enduring achievement of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government.  On a personal level, it was something I was proud to play a role in achieving. The reform started in the Home Office, initiated by my Lib Dem colleague Lynne Featherstone and supported by Theresa May.  It was given enthusiastic support at the top of government by both David Cameron and Nick Clegg.  By the time the legislation was ready for its Parliamentary stages Lynne had moved to the International Development Department.  The Bill was to be led for the government by a Tory minister from DCMS, Hugh Robertson. As the Liberal Democrats’ first openly gay MP I asked if I could lead for the party during its Commons stages.  I thought it was important that the Bill was not seen as a Tory achievement and that gay MPs should be involved in its passage.  I was joined on the Bill committee by my Lib Dem colleague Stephen Gilbert, our second openly gay MP.

During the evidence sessions in advance of the formal committee stage (where most of the time was spent dealing with the agonies of the Church of England and other denominations) it became obvious that at the end of the process gay couples would actually have two relationship recognition options open to them, while straight couples could only marry, though their religious options were wider. So I tabled an amendment, opening up civil partnerships to opposite sex couples.  You can read about that amendment in my blog written at the time –

I assumed, perhaps naively, that the government would accept the amendment.  But it was made clear to me by Nick Clegg’s office that Cameron wanted the smoothest possible passage of the Bill.  This meant no amendments, no matter how worthy.  The Bill was unpopular with many Tory MPs and Cameron did not want any opportunity for it to be derailed.  There was an implied threat that the Bill would be withdrawn if it ran into difficulties and delays. So I withdrew the clause.  Later on, during the Report Stage, Tim Loughton, a Tory MP who had not been very supportive of equal marriage at the committee stage, tabled his own amendment for opposite sex couple civil partnerships.  He had recently been fired from the government by Cameron and many people saw his amendment as more to do with causing difficulty for Number Ten than with a genuine interest in relationships equality.  So I voted against his cynical manoeuvre.  Loughton has taken up the issue again in 2018, perhaps this time with genuine commitment.

I hope that the government will now act swiftly and amend the Civil Partnership Act in the way that I intended five years ago.  I hope that they will also take the opportunity to amend several other aspects of relationships law that were also discussed in 2013.  Humanist marriages should be recognised in England and Wales in the same way as they are in Scotland.  I proposed such an amendment in 2013 and (being made angry by the dismissive response of Tory minister Helen Grant) pushed it to a vote.  The result was a tie, which meant that the Bill was left unamended! Reform is also needed in the law governing married couples where one of the spouses transitions gender.  Again, Edinburgh is more advanced than Westminster on this issue, avoiding a spousal veto.  While on the subject of devolution, as the Northern Ireland has been suspended for some time, I hope Westminster will legislate for same sex marriage and other reforms in Northern Ireland.  Given Theresa May’s dependence on the extremist DUP, this may be a forlorn hope.

It’s time that our relationship laws reflected society in the 21st century.  Marriage is available to straight couples but it is estimated that there are over 3 million “cohabiting” couples who do not want to join the institution.  Many of them want to enter a civil partnership.  Enabling them to do so would be a reform that enhances the rights of one group of people without diminishing those of anyone else.  It’s a liberal reform that would bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.  The Supreme Court has spoken, Parliament must act.


This was my speech in February 2013, at the start of the Same Sex Marriage Bill –




How long will British politics float in suspended animation?

May 31, 2018

A year ago during general election campaign hustings and interviews in Bristol West I predicted with confidence that the shock of Brexit was about to shake up British politics.  One of my frequently deployed phrases was that Brexit was “a meteorite striking the surface of our politics.”  I thought that the almost 50:50 split of the country into two camps would break the mould of politics in the way that many had predicted in 1981.  The fact that the Labour Party really had been captured by the hard left between 2015 and 2017 meant that the conditions were surely right for a major realignment.  I was wrong. But then so were most other predicted outcomes of the 2017 election.

The result left May weakened, Corbyn strengthened, the Liberal Democrats stabilised, the Greens deflated and UKIP almost extinguished. The Tories and Labour had a combined vote of over 80% for the first time since 1979.  The Ugly Sisters had shared the Brexit spoils between them.  The Remain vote had given Labour the benefit of the doubt, with the party clocking up 65% vote shares in most urban intelligensia seats, including the one formerly represented by me. The Tories added lots of votes to Cameron’s 2015 tally but lost seats.  Ironically, May’s Premiership was saved by Unionism, in Scotland where they did manage gains from the SNP and by the Northern Ireland DUP, one of the most right wing parties in western Europe. The Liberal Democrats bet everything on a trenchant pro EU stance.  It worked in south west London, Bath and Oxford but fell flat elsewhere.

In the last year nothing much has changed.   The Brexit negotiations grind on.  The difficulties of achieving a deal that satisfies all sections of the Tory party become ever more apparent.  Yet polling shows very little slippage in support for Leave.  While I don’t set much store in individual opinion polls of party voting intentions, the overall trend is clear.  British politics has settled into support ranges of just over 40% for the Conservatives, just under 40% for Labour, a static 8% for the Lib Dems, with UKIP and the Green Party in the margin of error of negligible support below 3%.  We are now in a holding pattern, the question is – how long will it last?

There is one factor that mystifies me more than any other.  It infuriates me as much as it puzzles me. How does Corbyn still manage to delude millions of progressive voters that he is on their side? How has he remained the utopian Pied Piper at the head of a column of millions of young people?  Corbyn has convinced them that he is the new Red Messiah.  But Brexit is the biggest blow to progressive politics in the post Second World War era. It will reduce work and study opportunities for everyone.  It will hobble economic growth.  A weakened economy means lower tax revenues, starving the NHS and other public services of the extra resources needed for a growing and aging population. There is nothing socialist about Brexit. The only red thing about it is the carpet Corbyn has rolled out for Theresa May’s plans.

Corbyn is May’s brother in arms in Brexit. He is her collaborator, a harsh political word.  It was one that was spat at me with some venom by numerous Labour voters in 2015. The Liberal Democrats have been given a punishment beating and shoved out of the electoral sight of millions of progressive voters for the crime of acquiescing in the increase of tuition fees while in coalition.  Brexit will have a far more adverse and long lasting effect on the future prospects of all young people. But in the weighing scales of progressive opinion Brexit is not yet tipping the balance.

It seems that Corbyn can do no wrong. Neither his long term Eurosceptism, nor his opposition to any war unless it is against the interests of the west, nor his insouciance in the face of evidence of ant-Semitism in his party nor the vile behaviour of many of his acolytes towards their rivals – none of it takes the glow off his halo.  Peak Corbyn, like peak oil, seems to always be further away than predicted.

The Brexit clock is ticking.  In less than ten months time we will have left the political structure of the European Union. Depending on the terms of the eventual deal Mrs May negotiates we may have left the Single Market and the Customs Union too. If Mrs May lands a deal that satisfies most of her MPs then her party will continue to enjoy the support of over 40% of the public and UKIP can be given a local authority funeral.

Maybe it will take until the day after 29th March 2019 for 16 million plus voters to realise that Brexit has actually happened and Labour waved it through. The betrayal of political adultery will finally be revealed as people cease looking the other way, no longer hoping it would just stop. Will they then turn on Corbyn and Labour?  Logically, yes.  But I can’t be sure.  The last couple of years have been one long psephological headache.  I used to pride myself on the ability to read the minds of voters and predict electoral outcomes.  Thousands of hours of canvassing, public meetings, surgeries, letters and emails gave a smell to the wind of public opinion. I now have a blocked nose and just don’t know.  Neither do all the well paid pundits in the media and academia.

One thing is certain – that the Brexit meteorite will strike on 29th March 2019.  When the dust settles we could be looking at a new political landscape.  It’s also possible that the dust will take a long time to clear! Corbyn could still be marching at the head of his true believers and liberalism might still be in the doldrums. Or he could have been rumbled and liberalism will be bouncing back.  I may have lost my political nose but I cling still to my liberal optimism.

The Severn Bridge doesn’t need a new name

April 11, 2018

Naming places and objects can be a political minefield.  Whether it’s a polar exploration ship or a Bristol shopping centre, letting the public suggest a name risks frivolous recommendations while an elite committee might choose a name that causes offence.  Now the Secretary of State for Wales has caused an upset by announcing that the Severn Bridge, or at least the newer Second Severn Crossing is to be renamed the Prince of Wales Bridge when the tolls are abolished later this year. He’s turned a good news story on the tolls into a public relations disaster worthy of the ‘Thick of It’. What on earth was Alun Cairns thinking? You can imagine the scenes in Gwydir House on Whitehall, where Wales Office officials, press officers and the hapless minister himself are all blaming someone else for the mess.

The original suspension bridge was opened in 1966 and has been known as the Severn Bridge for over fifty years. A graceful piece of engineering, it must be the most visually arresting link between two countries in the world. Strictly speaking though, the Severn Bridge is entirely within England, linking the two Gloucestershire banks of the river Severn.  The rather more utilitarian bridge over the Wye has to be crossed in order to arrive in Wales. The bridges over the Severn and the Wye need no name other than the rivers that the cross, just like the Humber and Forth bridges.

A case could be made for a different name for the newer bridge, opened thirty years after the original.  But that case should have been made in 1996.  It wasn’t, so for the last 22 years it has had the rather ungainly name of Second Severn Crossing.  It’s more of a causeway than a bridge with four fifths of it a concrete viaduct, with the bridge as the central span. Maybe it should have been called the Severn Causeway in 1996.  Renaming it the Prince of Wales Bridge now seems a bit late.

Perhaps Mr Cairns was trying to make his mark in his inconsequential role.  Devolution has been in place for Wales and Scotland since 1999.  The Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament have legislative competence over a wide range of areas.  Yet there are still UK cabinet positions for a Secretary of State for Wales and Scotland. There can’t be much for the Wales Secretary to do. Ironically, even the bridge tolls decision was out of his hands as the bridges are managed by the England Department of Transport, headed by his awful colleague Chris Grayling.  If Cairns had wanted to both show his relevance and make a popular intervention he should have got Grayling to scrap the tolls before the Easter holiday, rather than on some indeterminate date later this year. I’m glad the tolls are going, I launched a campaign for their abolition four years ago, with my Welsh Liberal Democrat colleagues.

Cairns’s bridge naming intervention shows that Westminster still doesn’t respect devolution.  The Second Severn Crossing has one leg in devolved Wales and another in the West of England, which elected its first Regional Mayor (regrettably not me…) last year. Neither the First Minister of Wales nor the Mayor appear to have been involved in the decision. If they had been I would assume that they would have suggested at least some form of public engagement, rather than a fait accompli.

Personally, I think the first bridge should remain as the Severn Bridge, Pont Hafren in Welsh. The 1996 bridge should be called the Severn Causeway, or Sarn Hafren in Welsh.  But there are alternatives:-

Prince of Wales Bridge – I gather Cairns means this name to be a 70th birthday present for Prince Charles.  On balance, I admire Charles and think he’s made a positive contribution in his difficult role of understudy to his mother. The Prince’s Trust does excellent work with young people.  But the bridge name is non-specific, rather like a lot of pubs with the same name.  The name will upset republicans on either side of the border and will upset nationalists in Wales as it refers clearly to the prince of the English crown, rather than a native Llywelyn or Owain.

St David’s Bridge – after the patron saint of Wales.  Maybe the 1966 bridge could be the St George’s Bridge (as it’s all in England) and the two could be known as David and George. This might upset secularists as well as multi-culturalists.

The Red Dragon Bridge – after the national flag of Wales.  Even if this name isn’t adopted, I think more Welsh flags should be flown on the Welsh side, maybe where we now have the clutter of the toll booths.

Other national symbols such as the daffodil or leek don’t sound right for a solid structure like a bridge.

Famous Welsh people – with priority for South Walians such as Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Dylan Thomas or Ivor Novello. If we widen the net to all of Wales then it should be the Lloyd George Bridge, after my political hero.

I think what this proves is that bridges are best named after the river that they cross, or after the town or village in which they lie.  Naming a bridge after a person, especially a living one, is asking for trouble. And there must be better birthday presents to give to Charles.



A petition has been launched, against the renaming of the bridge.  At the time of writing 35,000 have signed it.




The legacy of the SDP

March 26, 2018

Today is the anniversary of the launch of the Social Democratic Party in 1981.  I was too young to join at the time but I was interested in politics and joined just after the 1983 general election, when I was 16. The following year I helped in what would turn out to be the first of many Parliamentary by election campaigns, in my home constituency of Cynon Valley. I stood as the SDP candidate in my school’s mock election and won. The SDP had started me off on a political journey that has had its ups and downs and may or may not be completed.

The SDP had a short life of just 7 years before it merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats.  Historians and commentators have generally described its brief existence as a failure.  It did not “break the mould of British politics”, the task set by one of its founders, Roy Jenkins. There were some spectacular by election results, stellar heights in opinion polls but the 1983 and 1987 general elections were both crushing disappointments.

Political parties are more than brands. They are a collection of like-minded people. The SDP as an institution ceased to exist in 1988 but lives on through the former members who are still active in politics.  They are mainly in the Liberal Democrats but there are others in the Labour Party (attracted by Blair) and even a few in the ranks of Conservative MPs.  The SDP’s core policies of a mixed economy, constitutional reform and above all keen support of Britain’s place in the European Union, are still the key messages of the Liberal Democrats. The SDP brought tens of thousands of people into political activism.  Rather than a failure, I believe it was an understated success.

In March 2011 I planned to write a blog to mark the 30th anniversary of the SDP’s foundation.  My intention was to show the strength of the contribution of former SDP members to the Liberal Democrats in Parliament.  I set out to speak to all of my then 57 Commons colleagues, plus many Peers and former MPs, to gauge how many of them came into politics via the SDP.  The list took so long to compile that I sailed past the anniversary and never wrote it up.  So today I’ve dug it out of my files.

SDP members in the House of Commons

The original SDP parliamentary party was made up of 28 defectors from Labour and one from the Conservatives. Between 1981 and 1987 there were 4 MPs elected at by elections and there was just one gain in the 1983 general election, though it turned out to be a very significant one. The SDP MPs who went on to serve as Liberal Democrat MPs are Robert MacLennan (the last Leader of the SDP and the first joint Leader with David Steel of the Liberal Democrats), Charles Kennedy (the sole gain in 1983) and Mike Hancock.

The MPs elected as Liberal Democrats who had come into politics as SDP activists are, in chronological order – Matthew Taylor (originally SDP but elected as a Liberal in Truro in March 1987), Mike Carr, Mark Oaten, Vince Cable, Paul Burstow, Bob Russell, Evan Harris, Sir Robert Smith, Michael Moore, Annette Brooke, Norman Lamb, Paul Holmes, David Laws, Roger Williams, Alan Reid, Chris Huhne, me, Stephen Lloyd, Gordon Birtwhistle, Ian Swales and Mike Crockart.

What was interesting from my conversations was the number of my colleagues who had never been a member of either the Liberal Party or the SDP, in many cases because they were too young!  The post 1988 political joiners of the Lib Dems who became MPs were – Andrew George (who had been in Mebyon Kernow), Steve Webb, Edward Davey, Richard Allen, Lembit Opik, Sandra Gidley, Matthew Green, Sarah Teather, Parmjit Singh Gill, Lorely Burt, Julia Goldsworthy, Jeremy Browne,  Lynne Featherstone, Greg Mulholland, John Leech, Jenny Willott, Jo Swinson, Danny Alexander, Dan Rogerson, Susan Kramer, Nick Clegg, Stephen Gilbert, Duncan Hames, Tessa Munt (who left Labour in 1997!), Julian Huppert and Simon Wright.   I don’t know the origins of the new MPs from the 2017 general election, so would be interested to find out about Layla Moran, Jamie Stone and Christine Jardine.

Many former SDP MPs and activists have entered the House of Lords. All bar one of the Leaders of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party in the Lords have come from the SDP – Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers, Shirley Williams, Tom McNally and the current leader, Dick Newby.

Outside Parliament the SDP will have contributed tens of thousands of party activists, many of whom will have served as local councillors. Several professional staff went on to work for the Lib Dems or elsewhere in public life.

Thoughts in 2018

It’s my belief that the short life of the SDP has had an enduring and positive impact on British politics.  Its founders left Labour as it had lurched to the left and advocated Britain’s withdrawal from the European Economic Community.  Sounds familiar? The Labour Party of 2018 is under a more left wing (and much less intelligent) leader than Michael Foot. The party leadership has embraced Brexit.  The party machinery has been captured by the hard left, to a much greater extent than 1981.  Yet moderate, pro EU Labour MPs are sitting tight. Maybe they hope Corbynism is a temporary aberration.  But I suspect in many cases they will have looked at the fate of the 28 defectors in 1981 and don’t fancy their prospects outside Labour.  I think they are mistaken.  An understanding of history shouldn’t lead to fear that it might repeat itself.  The circumstances of 1981 and 2018 are quite different.  Brexit is a meteorite about to strike our political order.  A breakaway of pro EU MPs from Labour could easily become a success and this time there might be more than one defector from the Conservatives. So much has happened in recent years that was not predicted, so who knows what lies around the corner.  I hear all the time that people are fed up with the current political offer.  It’s time to try breaking the mould again.

How we can build the new homes that are needed

March 9, 2018

The fact that Theresa May is taking a direct interest in building new homes is a welcome step. Government departments and their ministers will often roll their eyes at yet another initiative from Downing Street, catching the daily headlines but without the follow through that makes any real impact.  But they also know that if the full weight of Number Ten is behind an agreed policy then it stands a good chance of success among competing demands for parliamentary time for legislation and also Treasury money.  Over the next year (as over the last one) Brexit preparations will crowd out most of the routine business of government.  If a drive to build houses is going to gain any traction then the active support of the Prime Minister is essential.

There is a big hill to climb if the country is going to build enough homes to meet the increasing demand of a growing population. Even without population growth (and it’s possible that new household formation will dip post Brexit if immigration falls) we need new homes to match the pent up demand already in the system.  In property hot spots, with high private sector rents and large deposits needed to buy your first home, it is now common to find “young” people in their late twenties or early thirties still living with their parents, while they save up the money needed for independent living.

Estimates have been bandied about but it is fair to say that we need to build at least an extra quarter of a million homes every year.  The Liberal Democrats went into the 2015 and 2017 elections saying that we needed to reach 300,000 pa over a ten year period.  Both of these figures are a huge leap from our current position.  The latest housing completion figures for 2016/17 show that there were 217,350 net additions to the housing stock in England.  Only 183,570 of these were completely new builds. Much of the balance was from various other initiatives, including office to residential conversions and the sub division of houses into flats. Some empty homes would have been brought back into use as well.

The country has only just got back to the level of house building prior to the crash in 2009. The last time the nation built at the levels needed now was in the 1950s. But the extraordinary levels of house and flat building under Harold MacMillan was largely to make up for war damage and there was also a huge programme of slum clearance.  So much of the building programme was replacing existing housing stock.  It is also true to say that much of the building, particularly council tower blocks, was well below the standard that would be acceptable and legal now.

So how do we increase the rate of new home building by say 100,000 every year? It won’t be easy. The Prime Minister resorted to attacking the private sector volume builders, an odd position for a Conservative politician. It’s true that companies could build out their sites at a faster rate. But that’s not always going to be the most profitable option and like it or not, companies are not social enterprises so their shareholder interests are paramount. The bonuses paid to their directors, obscene as they might appear, are a consequence of this economic reality.

Theresa May also announced yet another review of the local authority planning system.  I was a minister at the Department of Communities and Local Government from 2013-15.  I believe that the Coalition Government wrung the most that was possible (or desirable) from reforms of the planning system.  There will be much diminished returns from further reforms, though some could work.  I also think that the Treasury led initiatives to help people onto the housing ladder have little scope for expanding the rate of house building. “Help to Buy” and its various funding cousins have certainly helped individuals finance their first house purchase and when the housing market was flat it would have stimulated new build. But now that house building has picked up there is a danger that the major result of finance schemes is to blow price inflation into the market.

So here are some reforms and initiatives that I believe will drive up the rate of housebuilding:

1              Planning reforms – I would tighten up two existing rules.  Housebuilder companies have been much criticised for “land banking” whereby they sit on sites without building homes once planning permission is obtained.  This stops anyone else taking on the permission in place for the site for three years. It should be straightforward to reduce the maximum time allowed between permission being granted and work starting on site.  There should also be tougher anti-avoidance rules to make sure that the clock isn’t stopped by minor works that are not a serious intention to build out the site. If the limit was reduced to two years then further pressure could also be applied after 18 months, opening up bids for someone else to acquire the site.

The second planning reform I would advocate is a tightening up of site viability assessments. Local councils enter into negotiations with developers for local improvements (highways works, etc.) and also for a proportion of the development to be affordable housing. Developers will, naturally, try to get away with as little as possible.  They will claim that the development is economically unviable if councils demand too much.  During the recession developers often wriggled out of prior commitments.  This may have been a pragmatic approach by councils at the time, some new homes (plus construction jobs) being better than no activity at all. There is no excuse for it now.  It would be better for all if the process was more transparent and assessed by an independent examiner. If a developer wishes to revise an agreement then they would have to pay for a report, with the consultants appointed by the council.

2              Restructuring local government – successive Conservative ministers have criticised local councils for their tardiness in driving extra house building.  Yet they’ve shied away from any meaningful structural reform. Local government in England is a mess, with some areas little changed from the last nationwide reforms in 1888 (county councils) and 1894 when district councils were created. Edward Heath’s government started to put in a more rational structure in the early 1970s. Then Margaret Thatcher and John Major scrapped the strategic authorities created by their Tory predecessor.  New Labour carved lots of city and large towns out of their historic counties, creating all-purpose unitary councils on tight boundaries. These are usually surrounded by small district councils, which hold the planning powers that are key to increasing the number of new homes.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government made a start on re-ordering the map by creating a network of Local Enterprise Partnerships and providing finance to competitive local growth deals.  I appraised many of these and it was often clear that the lack of affordable housing was a drag on economic growth.  This was particularly true around Oxford, Bristol, Cambridge and other centres of the high-tech knowledge economy.

All too often the economic needs of a city are not the direct concern of the surrounding authorities, where protecting the character of small towns and villages will be seen as more important. There was little incentive for districts to expedite planning consents for new housing.  My Conservative coalition colleagues came up with the New Homes Bonus, a central government grant for each extra unit in the council tax base. This sounds fine at first but I found it objectionable as the extra money was funded from top-slicing the whole local government budget. Once data became available for a couple of years it was clear that much of the “bonus” was going to prosperous districts that had plenty of scope for expansion, at the expense of depressed areas that had little need for new housing.  At a time of a huge squeeze on council budgets this policy has become socially unjust and should be phased out.

The creation in May 2017 of new Regional Mayors and Combined Authorities in several conurbations (West of England, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Teesside and Cambridgeshire) may bring people together for a more holistic approach to planning.  But the underlying structure of local government remains and it is unlikely that the May government will go for a big bang reform. During the coalition Eric Pickles told me that he kept a pearl handled revolver ready to shoot any (Tory) minister who talked about reorganisation.  The preponderance of Tory councillors in the shire districts makes Tory MPs nervous about upsetting their activist base.

But Dorset is about to restructure, abolishing all its districts, merging Bournemouth and Poole into a single unitary with the rest of the county’s towns and villages coming under a Dorset county authority.  The two new councils will undoubtedly save money and will hopefully also be a model for strategic planning in the rest of England.

I have long favoured a Dorset model for the rest of the country.  England should be divided between city region and county authorities.  The new structure would be more efficient, would have the potential to rejuvenate local council chambers and crucially, would be able to plan in a strategic way to meet local needs, including new housing. A duty to cooperate would ensure that structure plans were coherent across a county or sub-region.

3              State intervention in house building.  Even with a fit for purpose planning system it is inconceivable that we would get anywhere close to 300,000 units a year by relying on the private sector. The huge volumes reached over 50 years ago were achieved only with a large amount of state investment, with much of the delivery by local government. The state needs to get back into the business of building homes. That means enabling local authorities to build but also making sure that housing associations have the resources to expand their portfolios.

There should not be a return to the state building monolithic estates of council houses and flats. The state should finance the building of balanced communities of homes of different sizes for rent and sale. The Treasury should relax local authority housing borrowing constraints, making permanent an initiative I helped launch in 2014.  Local authorities, housing associations and other state bodies (the NHS and MoD own lots of land) could pool resources into a social enterprise to build homes for sale and social rent.  All profits would be reinvested in social homes.  To safeguard the asset base and to maintain social balance the ‘right to buy’ should not apply to new homes.

4              Diversify the housing mix.  While our housing stock has not grown to accommodate a larger population it has also not changed to reflect the changing demographic mix. There are more single households and people are living at home well into their eighties and nineties. More smaller units of accommodation are needed in the social sector, to free up houses for families.  The same principle applies in the private sector.  Many elderly people are living in houses that are larger than they need and are also expensive to adapt for reduced mobility.  People are reluctant to give up the autonomy they enjoy in their own home if the alternative is council sheltered accommodation often presided over by a jobs-worth warden telling them they can’t have flower pots outside their front door. We build far fewer units of high quality owner occupied flats and bungalows than other countries. Perhaps a tax incentive would get pension funds and other institutional investors more interested in this sort of long term investment.  At the other end of the age spectrum students occupy large swathes of neighbourhoods near to their university.  The huge expansion in student numbers in the last two decades has not been matched by new halls of residence or purpose built student flats. Local families have been crowded out of many streets by buy to let landlords. Universities or private investors should be incentivised to provide student rooms and flats and local authority plans should identify suitable sites.

5              Learn from others. My comments so far have referred to England, where I have been a politician as a councillor, MP and minister.  Local government and housing policy are devolved to Wales and Scotland. It’s possible that their governments have had more success in raising the levels of housebuilding and have invested more in social housing, though I’ve not seen any evidence that this is so.  Housing pressures are concentrated mainly around Cardiff and Edinburgh so it’s possible that the national need is not as urgent as it is in large areas of England. But there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from many of our European neighbours.  There is a much larger private rental sector in prosperous countries such as Germany and Switzerland.  But the flats and houses are purpose built, owned and managed by institutional investors rather than the small private landlord model we have in Britain.  Modular build is also more common, enabling sites to be built out much faster than our traditional bricks and mortar method.

6              Address the skills gap.  Building more homes will require more resources other than land and money.  A big expansion cannot happen without the skilled workforce needed to bring sites to completion.  It is likely that Brexit will make this much harder, as freedom of movement ends and the pool of labour from Eastern Europe diminishes. A concerted drive is needed to attract more young people into the construction industry, with particular focus on the gender gap.

7              Quality and sustainability.  Finally, this is not just a matter of numbers of units. The mass building of the 1950s to the 1970s was often of very poor quality, especially in flats.  Today’s building regulations are much tighter. All homes, whether private or social sector, need to be built to high standards of sustainability and with generous dimensions.  As a minister I put in place a national standard for room space and also the legislation for “zero carbon homes.” The Conservatives governing on their own have scrapped the higher sustainable standards and the ‘allowable solutions’ that would have compelled housebuilders to invest in other environmental schemes such as retrofitting older homes.  This policy should be reinstated so that new homes are built to last and older homes (the vast majority of our stock is a century old) refurbished for more sustainable and affordable living.



Further information

DCLG latest housing statistics for 2016/17 –