Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The psychological roots of political parties

Shortly after the election results, my brother-in-law arrived from Cardiff with his business partner, and both announced that they were planning to join the Lib Dems.

I was encouraging of course, though I doubt very much that they have done so.  I was also surprised: he's never mentioned anything of the kind before.  But even if he hasn't gone through with the idea, it suggests that the 14,000 or so people who joined the party may just be the tip of a much bigger iceberg. That's how many planned to join and acted on it – goodness know how many planned to and never quite did.

But why are they joining? I can think of many good reasons, but keep on coming back to the folk memory about 1962.  It suggested that the Liberal Party lost a large number of members after winning the Orpington by-election.

They were, in fact, so used to losing and so uncomfortable with winning, that it was as if their comfort blanket had been stolen from them. They couldn't deal with the hope perhaps. Or they felt out of place in a political force that was now advancing fast instead of retreating slowly and with dignity.

There are people who prefer quietly keeping the flame alive than lighting the signal flares and the bonfires.

This suggests to me that there are some Lib Dems who find that fighting back suits them psychologically, especially from some way behind. It suits them because, perhaps, the psychological profile of Liberals is feeling a little left out.

These are people who find their feeling of being excluded is so powerful that joining the right political party can offer them some relief.  Especially perhaps when the party is up against the wall.

I came to this conclusion when I was rather closer to the party than I am now, editing Liberal Democrat News, which reminded me day after day just how powerfully so many of the members felt left out. Even Paddy Ashdown seemed to feel it, and he was the leader.

It intertwines with the other Lib Dem characteristic, extreme optimism, which I've written about  elsewhere.  People who feel left out but pessimistic go elsewhere (perhaps Ukip).

In fact, the psychological motivations of joining parties can be pretty distinctive. The profile of Conservatives is also pretty clear. It is deference.

These are people who believe we should defer to overwhelming power, be realistic, knuckle down: that is the advice they give themselves. Fit in, accept it, don’t fight city hall (as they say in the USA). It disturbs them when people fail to defer as they feel they should. It is a relief from this feeling that makes them join one political party rather than another.

Of course, there is an inherent division here. There are those who defer to market forces and those who defer to existing social mores. Those two are often pretty incompatible (as Nigel Farage will tell you). There is the source of the fundamental division in Conservatism.

Then there are the Greens.  Their profile seems to me to be rage. Go to a Green Party meeting and you find people there are delightful but extremely angry. It may be a relief from this to join a political party.

But when I think about the psychological profile of Labour members, it gets confusing. The traditional profile was insecurity: they were people who projected their own sense of insecurity onto everyone else.  But there are now Labour people who are just cross and Labour members who believe we should defer to the status quo, whatever it is. There are a whole range of other people in there too.

I don't know whether this psychological mixture is a sign of strength, that they have built up a potentially successful coalition of different people,  or whether it is because they stand for nothing, and all you have left is the incoherent remains of what was once a powerful movement with a sense of direction.

I suspect it is the latter, but I don't know.

Before I get criticised for generalising, I'm not saying that all members of political parties can be categorised in this way.  I am claiming that parties often attract people because what bothers them the most is relieved by joining one party rather than another.

I'm also saying that - apart from some rather dubious stuff about 'framing' political arguments from the USA - parties spend no time at all thinking about the psychological roots of the people who might support them, and far too much time thinking about the sociological roots.

But perhaps that's just as well....

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Monday, 25 May 2015

Iraq and the perils of positioning

Where were you in February 2003? Did you join the two million people in Hyde Park then to demonstrate againt the idea of going to war illegally?

I certainly did.  The previous demonstration I had been on, a CND march in 1981 attracting 250,000 people, had convinced me that demonstrations change nothing.  The events of 2003 seemed different, though I don't know if it was.  Being with so many people, ordinary unpolitical people, seemed so powerful.

I don't think many of us were motivated by any love of Saddam Hussein or his barbaric methods, though who knows about some of the fellow-travellers who loomed large on the march.  But we did have a sense that we had to stand up against American hubris and the brutal idea that shock and awe made the world a safer place.

As it turned out, we had little or no effect.  The war went ahead, over a million Iraqis died and now the ISIS death cult has rushed in to full the vacuum.  Worse, the Atlantic alliance has been weakened and no longer seems to have the confidence it needs – and, by striking and failing so dismally, Bush and Cheney seem to have revealed the decline of their own nation.  Future generations will date the great geopolitical shift from 2003.

But the new film We Are Many about the 2003 marches, which took place that day all over the world, suggests that the huge peaceful upsurge inspired the Egyptian Spring, and presumably also the disastrous uprisings in Libya and Syria.

But looking at the film poster – which is as close as I have got so far to seeing the film – reminds me that I was there too, and it reminded me also of the dangers of the Lib Dem obsession with positioning in those years, and since.  And of the current debate about 'Liberal centrism'.

The full story has yet to be documented about how Donnachadh McCarthy, the brilliantly maverick Lib Dem activist, managed with his colleagues to bounce the party leader Charles Kennedy into speaking at the march (but see James Graham's insightful blog from 2008).

The rather tentative stance Kennedy took against the war as a result meant that not everyone in the establishment closed ranks behind Blair.  It meant that the case against war was made clearly.  It meant that the Conservatives jeered at him unpleasantly in the Commons.

It led to a temporary blip in the electoral decline of the Lib Dems, which seems to me to have gone alongside the intellectual decline of the party in the first decade of this century. The party stopping thinking and began campaigning on empty, but opposition to the war briefly gave it something to say..

And they were right about the war, from nearly every point of view.

Now, here's the point – and I'm continuing my debate on Liberal centrism; with Stephen Tall (who I notice hasn't replied for some time, so it may just be me). Opposing the war wasn't exactly centrism. It wasn't even Liberal centrism.

It seems likely that Kennedy and his advisors, left to themselves, would have taken the positioning route – taking up a safe, compromised opposition.  They would have supported just a little war, a delayed threat, more safeguards, more inspection, a vote in Parliament (which they demanded and got, for all the good it did).

They would have called for a different timetable to war.  They would have positioned themselves somewhere less threatening, trying to find the dead centre of the debate.  I'm glad they didn't.  I'm glad they abandoned centrism and said clearly what was right.

The trouble is, on so many issues - and economic issues in particular - Lib Dems have chosen an ecstacy of positioning rather than saying anything clearly at all.  I agree that positioning and centrism need not be the same, and one of Nick Clegg's great strengths was that he was prepared to take a series of brave stands on what he believed to be right, from ID cards to Europe.

But brave stands do not derive from centrism.  They derive from Liberalism.

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Thursday, 21 May 2015

What would Rowland Hill have done now?

I’ve no idea which way Rowland Hill, the great founder and originator of modern postal services, used to cast his vote. But since he was a friend and close associate of John Stuart Mill, I’m inclined to believe he was a Liberal.

So bear with me for a moment while I rehearse the well-known story of the penny post. Because, in the 1830s, before Hill conjured up the Post Office, the postal service worked like this.

If you were an aristocrat, you could send what post you liked by’franking’ it, which would guarantee its delivery. Everyone else had to pay to receive letters depending on how far they had come. Hill is supposed to have been nudged towards rethinking the post by watching a girl forced to refuse a letter from her fiancĂ© because she couldn’t afford to pay for it.

Now, here’s the question I wanted to ask, and it is part of the debate on so-called ‘Liberal centrism’ I am kind of conducting – in the spirit of open debate and mutual respect – with Stephen Tall. What would Hill have done, if he had been a centrist, Liberal or otherwise?

I don’t know enough about Rowland Hill to know what intellectual process he actually went through to reach the conclusions he did, so let’s assume that was the situation with the post now (and who knows, it may be soon).

A good centrist would have had to look at the various positions around at the time.

The Conservatives would want to keep the situation as it is. Labour would want to defend the position when the state used to pay for the post to everyone, but then would do nothing about it in government.

Whitehall would suggest some tiny reforms – a version of Ofcom, perhaps, which would make sure that the charges stayed ‘reasonable’ and ‘evidence-based’.

The IEA and the Policy Exchange would no doubt look to the American think-tanks and propose a ‘market-based’ system which would allow competing mail systems to charge a sliding scale, with discounts for heavy users of the mail, extra charges for people who wanted their letters faster, and rising incrementally in the cold weather or for impoverished receivers.

Did Hill draw a line between all of those to find the right centrist compromise? As we know, he didn’t. He proposed a new postal service altogether, paid for by the senders not the receivers, at a flat rate that did not disadvantage people who lived further from the centre.

He did this partly for the sake of ordinary people to give them access t the main communication system, and partly also for the sake of entrepreneurs.

It was emphatically the right decision, and made a whole new level of small business possible. It made long-distance relationships possible and basic communication affordable.

Of course, his proposals were roundly condemned in the House of Lords as “devoid of facts”. Facts, as we know from reading Hard Times, was Victorian for ‘evidence-based’.

Conclusion: Liberal solutions, solutions which set people free, are not compromises with the status quo. They are more often radical ones.

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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Perils of centralism: don't ignore the emerging Liberalism from the right

Listening to the fall-out from Steve Hilton's proposal that bankers should earn packages in line with senior civil servants suddenly flung me back five years to the start of the coalition, when I proposed something similar to a packed meeting of Lib Dem special advisors and parliamentarians.

An icy cold fell on the room as they looked down the table at me.  "How would you do that?" someone asked, with a tone that was if anything even cooler.

"Tax their bonuses at 95 per cent?" I said hopefully, and a little interrogatively, but I had lost my audience.  Nobody replied.  The core of the Lib Dems was already re-shaping itself around what Whitehall regarded as the practicalities - which pretty much ruled out discussion about anything...

(a) The coalition partners would veto,
(b) That would fall foul of the Treasury, or
(c) That fell outside traditional assumptions or existing legislation.

I learned something in that exchange.  It made sense to be overwhelmingly pragmatic at that time, and I forced myself to Think Practical, which was extremely good for me.  But we need to do more than mould ourselves around the immediate circumstances, at least if we're going to meet the challenges of the future.

Listening to Steve Hilton on Start the Week, the previous day, also flung me back to my mood at the beginning of the coalition years, aware that he was a radical at the heart of the coalition machine - and that seemed at the time to make some things possible.

I know he has come in for criticism from most sides.  Former Lib Dem SPADs have been less than complimentary about him in the last few days.  One leading Conservative even called his ideas juvenile.  Actually, I believe his emphasis on rebuilding institutions to make them more human is extremely important, even if the details may not be finalised (he says quickly, to reassure the former special advisors).  It may even be the most important new political theme.

I've written something along parallel lines myself, in The Human Element.

But just for a while, in those first few weeks in 2010, I began to hope that a combination of Liberal radicalism and Hilton-esque Conservatism might actually amount to more than the sum of their parts.  I hoped there might be changes we could make with the Conservatives that it would have been hard to do with Labour - radical devolution, genuine diversity in public services, major banking reforms....

For a moment I wondered whether we might actually set services free from central targets (we actually turbo-charged the targets as 'payment by results' contracts).

I wondered whether the Big Society might genuinely shift resources towards more informal mutual support inside public services (actually it turned out to have few intellectual roots, and to have ignored what was
already being pioneered).

I even wondered whether we might, as we certainly should have done, break up the dysfunctional banks to create a more effective lending sector, as every other country in Europe has (we didn't).

These didn't happen.  But it is interesting that there is an emerging critique of institutions from the political right that looks remarkably Liberal (see what Douglas Carswell wrote today about spreading power).

So this is my conclusion about the debate about 'Liberal centrism' which I appear to be conducting with Stephen Tall.

Unless the Lib Dems can articulate this much more clearly and powerfully than they have done in recent years, instead of worrying too much about staying in the middle, other parties on all sides of the political divide will do it instead.  Then the precise business of pinpointing the centre ground won't matter.

In the meantime, I've ordered Hilton's book More Human (published tomorrow).  He and I are using the same language and I want to see if we're talking about the same bundle of ideas.

I'll report back when I've read it!

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Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Come and talk about circular economics

Perhaps the first management consultant was James Oscar McKinsey, a US army logistics officer who became a professor of accounting at Chicago University after the First World War. A lone and exhausting copy of his text book on accountancy is still available in the British Library.

McKinsey thought that rigorous measurement could help companies find new strategies. But he had great charisma and huge confidence, and he took the risk of launching himself on his own to apply his ideas to other companies. He set up McKinsey and Co in Chicago in 1926, coming a cropper in his contract with a Chicago department store, and expiring shortly afterwards.

It was one of those thrilling periods of economic expansion and accountancy was busily transforming itself from an art into a science. The very first accountant in America, James Anyon, gave a valedictory speech in 1912 urging his successors to “use figures as little as you can”. “Remember your client doesn’t like or want them,” he said, “he wants brains.”

But Mac, as he was called, didn’t see it that way. It has never been clear quite who coined the McKinsey slogan ‘everything can be measured and what can be measured can be managed’, but that was certainly what McKinsey believed. 

 The huge global influence of the company that he founded, after more than 80 years, is now clearly apparent – not just in most of the biggest companies in the world – but many of the most powerful governments too

The impact of that slogan is also everywhere, and that goes some way to explaining why we are still chopping up aspects of work into measurable chunks and exercising increasing control over the people who put them into effect. It explains a little about why, despite all the vast investment in IT, human capacity seems to have become so seriously constrained. 

Because the McKinsey slogan is a fallacy: everything can’t be measured. In fact, the more important it is – love, education, wisdom, imagination – the less it can be measured, and the more disastrous the attempt to do so tends to be. 

To the extent that McKinsey follows the dictates of its own fallacy, it is responsible for so much that doesn’t work in the world we live in.  More on this in my book The Human Element.

So I was pretty staggered to find this relatively enlightened article on their e-newsletter, setting out the principles of a circular economy, where waste is used as the raw materials for the economy.  It is the best hope for economic activity that doesn't damage the climate.

This is the very kind of intellectual breakthrough that the McKinsey fallacy discourages in organisations.  It's important.

I remember when I first heard the idea, from a Dutch geographer called Tjeerd Deelstra in about 1987.  It seemed to me then, and seems now, absolutely fundamental to the future.  It may also provide the missing resources that impoverished areas need to claw themselves out of dependency.

It also has another implication: a shift from using raw materials to using technology.  We are already shifting in this way over energy: gas and nuclear fuels (getting more expensive) to solar technology (getting cheaper).

This is all a rather complex way of saying that I'm discussing the circular economy tomorrow, together with my New Weather colleague Andrew Simms at the Hay Festival and it would be very good to see you there and hammer this out a little further.  It's called 'Cloudy with a chance of compost' and it is at 4pm (21 May).

I'm doing a follow up meeting on 29 May at 11.30am (Stormy with a sunny local banking outlook) with Andrew and Caroline Lucas.

And while we're about it, if you happen to be in York the following day, at 4pm on 30 May, you can see part of my musical (with Naomi Lane, Danube Blues) at the New Musicals Festival.  More on that later.

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Monday, 18 May 2015

The elusive, missing political ingredient

I wrote last week about the experience if hearing the former Liberal Party president Adrian Slade, a former Footlight, imitating Roy Jenkins during the 1982 party assembly in Bournemouth.

It was the first time I had been to any national Liberal event and I wasn’t sure what to expect, had no idea that Slade had entertained successive assemblies with his songs, but I was hooked.  It was also the first full year of the Liberal-SDP Alliance – hence Adrian’s other creation that year ‘Social democracy, what the hell is it meant to be?”

This included the immortal and suddenly relevant lines: “We know how to win them,/And we know how to lose them”.

At the height of the performance as Jenkins, the man himself walked in ,as a gesture of solidarity with his Liberal allies. He wrote later that it was the nadir of his Alliance years.  Especially perhaps Slade's line about his “great crusade to change everything... just a little bit”.

Now I’m all for moderation and compromise, as long as it is a small part of a greater ambition.  At least, that’s what I thought as I read Stephen Tall’s contribution on this very subject, which he called ‘Why the Lib Dems should stick to centrism’ (I’ve shortened this, but you get the gist). 

In this blog post, he wrote positively about an economic policy in which “free enterprise is balanced by workers rights”.

I have huge respect for Stephen Tall, who is a very talented and inspiring blogger. More than that, he was a fellow candidate with me for Horsham Borough Council this year in the Lib Dem interest.  But I wanted to take this a bit further.

I very much agree that Liberals need to be centrist in the sense that they must not veer towards either a conventionally right or left wing stance. But the economic policy he advocates here isn't centrism, it is compromise, and it is so anodyne that it is hardly worth saying.  

It goes in one ear and out the other.  It is, in short, like saying nothing on economics at all. Just laying it on one side and talking about something else.

Does that matter?  Well, actually, I think it matters very much.

There is a parallel debate in the Labour Party which gargles with the irritatingly Blairite phrase ‘aspirational people’, as shorthand for what Ed Miliband missed out.  It carries within it a quite unnecessary class baggage, as you might expect from a Labour Party debate.

Where it applies equally to Labour and the Lib Dems is this.  

No political party can make a successful appeal to the electorate without some kind of economic proposition. You can’t just talk about welfare, important as that is, and feel you have somehow put forward a plan for prosperity.

This is a problem for the left everywhere. There is no alternative narrative, no convincing package, explaining how we would create prosperity. Leftist governments have been elected in the past three decades, but only by embracing the conventional economic message.

No political party can aspire to government without a convincing plan to create a prosperous economy.  Not just how to spread the money, or just how to spend it, but how to create it.

In the absence of one, people revert to the lazy assumption that the Conservatives can create prosperity, thought there is little evidence that they can.  But we allowed them to get away with it without putting forward a Liberal economic approach.  Because there isn’t one.  

Or is there?

I realise I'm about to fall into Stephen's trap, arguing that the missing element in the election campaign was exactly what I've been advocating for years.

So let's try and set that aside.  Because, there was - until the 1950s - a distinctive Liberal approach to creating prosperity.  We just got bored of it.  Liberals let it atrophy.

It is an approach to economics based on the same Liberal principles that we use for everything else: Karl Popper’s idea of the open society, where the small must be allowed to challenge the big, and the poor, powerless and local must be able to challenge the rich, powerful and central. 

That is the original meaning of the Liberal concept of free trade, which emerged originally out of the anti-slavery movement as a critique of monopoly, a guarantee of the right to challenge from below.

It is the fault of Liberals everywhere that they have allowed this powerful economic idea to become an apologia for monopoly, a justification of it, a circular argument that monopolies must have earned their position and must be defended – though they narrow choice, raise prices, trap or bypass the poorest, and shrink the economy.

The latest US research shows that regional and local economic growth is highly correlated with the presence of many small, entrepreneurial employers—a few big ones may be positively damaging.  See my new book People Powered Prosperity.

This would imply a Liberal challenge which was both pro-enterprise but at the same time confronting the privileging of semi-monopolistic corporates by both Labour and Conservative, which has sucked some local economies dry, making them so much more dependent on central government. 

It would imply a Liberal approach that was neither conventionally right or left, but which is emphatically not a compromise:

  • It would be based on a major expansion of small business and enterprise, and of the institutions that entrepreneurs need: local banks, enterprise support, mutual support, maybe even mutual credit.
  • It would mean a genuine rebalancing of the economy away from finance and property and towards productive capacity (see recent IMF report that too much finance damages an economy).
  • And it would mean a major monopoly-busting measures to give people better choice and more vibrant, diverse local economies.  

See how Joe Zammit-Lucia and I put it in our recent pamphlet.

That is powerful, distinctive and overwhelmingly Liberal.  It also has the benefits of being right.  But don't let's pretend we can be a major opposition party without putting forward some approach to creating prosperity.  The truth is that we know how to, acted on it in government, but never really articulated it.

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Thursday, 14 May 2015

Nick Clegg: our part in his downfall

I first met Nick Clegg after I wrote a pamphlet for Liberator in 2000 about how we might re-imagine a political party which could, once again, have a mass membership.  He was interested in ideas.  I liked him enormously.

I have only spoken to him twice since he became deputy prime minister.  You can't really be friends with senior politicians.  You have to devote yourself completely to their cause and be useful to them.  I don't blame him for this: it's the nature of the job and, also, I did rather let him down a couple of times.

But I have a memory before that of how he thought.  Wrestling with new ways forward.  Sceptical in a positive way that is actually very unusual for working politicians. He was a gut Liberal and I'm sure he still is.

I believed at the time, and still believe, that he was the right choice as leader. We needed a thinker, which is what I wrote during his leadership campaign in my first ever blog post here in 2007.

We still do need a thinker (which is why I will be supporting Norman Lamb).  It wasn't that Clegg failed to fulfil this role.  It was, as DPM, that he was locked in a Whitehall office with an agenda that required a minute by minute response.  It wasn't exactly conducive to thinking, so the thinking still urgently needs doing - and at least as much as the campaigning.

The trouble with departing swiftly after a major setback is that you tend to get the blame for it, and we have already seen those - from David Steel downwards - who have seen this as the moment to blame Clegg.

Not only do I think that is wrong, it is also rather shortsighted.  Because I believe, in his political skill, his eloquence, his humour and his unique ability to sound human, Nick Clegg was the most effective leader the Liberal force has had in this country since the Second World War.  I don't want to lose those elements of the party's personality that he pioneered.

I have seen tributes to his integrity, and they are absolutely correct - who else would have taken care to choose his words so carefully that he did not betray a confidence from a political opponent on the Today programme, when the temptation to do so must have been overwhelming?

But if we think back over the TV debates, his performance in 2015 was extraordinary - passionate, articulate but also human.  That is such a difficult trick to pull off for a politician, and it is cruel and unjust that he did not reap the benefit of it.

His great skill has been to see how policy objectives might be achieved, despite the mess of the government system, and despite the opposition from his coalition partners.  The idea of localism by individual City Deals, which he masterminded, has made a huge difference.

I'm not, of course, endorsing every campaign decision in 2015, or every decision the coalition made.  It is so easy in hindsight to say what should have happened.

Of course the tuition fees business, which has ended up giving us a more successful and fairer policy, could have been managed better - and perhaps would have been after a few more months experience.  But before history hangs that like an albatross around Nick Clegg's neck, let's just remember that he warned the party not to adopt the abolition position.

They took no notice.  And here I had a personal part to play as a member of the Lib Dems' federal policy committee, and I should confess it.  Along with a majority of other members of the committee, I voted to carry on the policy to abolish tuition fees - even though the leader had warned us of the consequences.

The consequences happened.

Actually, it is worse than that. When it came to the moment, before the 2010 election, I couldn’t decide how I ought to vote on tuition fees, and I’m not absolutely sure I did vote to maintain our policy against tuition fees or not. Such an important decision, as it turned out, and I can’t remember what I did.

There we are.  That's my confession.  The truth is that the defeat the party just suffered was a defeat for the party as a whole, not just for the leader or the strategy.

It was also the culmination of an intellectual and electoral decline which had been going on for a decade. Clegg took the party, turbo-charged it suddenly, took a place in government for the first time since 1916, managed it magnificently.  But the basic trends have been downwards since the turn of the century.

But why are the critics shortsighted?  Well, here's my prediction, and it is inspired by the latest blog on the New Statesman's website.  The period when Clegg was deputy prime minister will soon be regarded as a brief shining moment of civilisation, successfully steering the economy to some kind of security, and pioneering major economic and educational shifts that will stay with us.

That understanding will happen much sooner than most of us expect.

It isn't a proper reward for the former party leader, but it is at least fully deserved.  I feel very proud to have been a member of the party when he led it.

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