Archive for the 'Lib Dems' Category


The practical guide to centre-left schisms

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015


The Labour party leadership election has left the Blairites looking isolated.  Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have described them as viruses and cancers, and have suggested that they look for the exit.  Every Blairite from Tony Blair and Liz Kendall downwards has disavowed the idea of leaving the Labour party, but vows are spoken to be broken, and given the bitterness and the ideological divide they might in due course consider their options.

Before doing so, they should look at historical precedents.  In the last 150 years, the centre left has split on five occasions.  Past experience is no guide to the future, but as we shall see, there are some consistent themes.  Here are those five instances:

The Adullamites (1866-67)


The Adullamites are almost forgotten nowadays, but for a year their actions convulsed British politics.  By 1865, the Liberals had been in almost unbroken power for a generation.  Following the death of Lord Palmerston (who had been strongly opposed), the new Liberal leadership decided to tackle the subject of electoral reform.  More traditional Liberals, under the leadership of Robert Lowe, resisted this strongly and the group in opposition that they formed was known as the Adullamites (after an obscure Biblical reference).  They worked with the Conservatives to defeat Gladstone’s proposed Reform Bill, leading to the collapse of the Liberal government.

Disraeli became the guiding spirit behind a minority Conservative government that then proposed a Reform Bill that was far more radical than the one that Gladstone had put forward.  The Adullamites had been abandoned by their previous partners in opposition.


Following the passage of the 1867 Reform Act, the Adullamites rejoined the Liberal fold.  No lasting harm seems to have been done to the Liberal party, who were re-elected in 1868 on the new franchise with an increased majority.

Fate of prominent dissidents

Despite being outmanoeuvred, Robert Lowe did not suffer for his disloyalty.  On the resumption of a Liberal government at the end of 1868, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Liberal Unionists (1886-1912)


Like the Adullamites, the Liberal Unionists broke from the Liberal party initially on a point of principle: on this occasion, Home Rule for the Irish. Following Gladstone’s defeat over Home Rule in 1886 and the subsequent general election, the Liberal Unionists (who numbered 77 MPs) propped up a minority Conservative government.


The Liberal party moved from being a natural party of government to being relative outsiders overnight.  In the 54 years from the Great Reform Act to 1886 the Whigs and Liberals had been in power for nearly 40 years.  In the next 20 years they would be in power for only three years.

Many on both sides thought at first that there would be a reconciliation at some point, as there had been with the Adullamites.  Reconciliation discussions with the Liberals broke down again over Home Rule for Ireland and as a result most Liberal Unionists moved closer to the Conservatives.  By 1895 they were ready to join the Conservatives in government.  By this stage the two were already seen as part of a wider movement of unionists and boundaries were already breaking down.  The government split over the question of free trade in the early years of the twentieth century, with Joseph Chamberlain (one of the leading Liberal Unionists) fiercely advocating a protectionist policy.

In the wake of the crushing Liberal victory of 1906, the Liberal Unionists were reduced to 25 MPs.  In 1912 the Liberal Unionists formally merged with the Conservative party.

Fate of prominent dissidents

The Liberal Unionists included many political stars who prospered in their new home.  George Goschen became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Conservative minority government in 1887.  In the 1895 government, five Liberal Unionists featured in the Cabinet.  Joseph Chamberlain, who led the Liberal Unionists, might well have led the unionists in the wake of the 1906 defeat had he not suffered a stroke at the critical moment.


Through the Chamberlain family, the Liberal Unionists exerted a powerful influence over Conservative party politics in its afterlife.  Both Austen and Neville Chamberlain rose to become that party’s leader.

Neither Neville nor Austen Chamberlain actually stood for Parliament as a Conservative candidate because their local political association in Birmingham preferred to call themselves Unionist rather than Conservative during this time.  Neither actually fought a general election as leader, a dubious distinction which they share only with Iain Duncan Smith.

Lloyd George National Liberals (1916-1922)


Of all the splits on the centre left, this was the most personalised.  Following the fiasco at Gallipoli in 1915, Asquith had brought the Conservatives and parts of the Labour party into a coalition government.  But over the next 18 months, senior figures across all parties grew concerned at Asquith’s handling of the war and Lloyd George sought (with newspaper support) to get responsibility for the conduct of the war into his own hands.  Asquith refused to meet his terms and was confronted with the withdrawal of support both of Lloyd George and of the Conservatives.  He resigned, to be replaced by Lloyd George.  The bulk of the Liberal party remained loyal to Asquith but sufficient numbers stayed with Lloyd George to enable him to form a coalition government with the Conservatives and, initially, parts of the Labour party.


The beginning of the end of the Liberal party as a significant force in politics for three generations.  Lloyd George was the last Liberal Prime Minister.  By the 1923 general election the two wings of the Liberal party had reunited under Asquith but could manage only 158 seats and third place behind both the Conservatives and Labour.  Its decline from that point was rapid as its vote polarised in subsequent elections between those two parties.

Fate of prominent dissidents

Lloyd George got to be Prime Minister and retained that position after 1918, even when the Conservatives far outnumbered his own party.  While his Cabinet was Conservative-dominated, many prominent Liberals including Sir Winston Churchill also held office during his tenure in office (Sir Winston managed to effect a mini-schism of his own in 1924, standing under the Constitutionalist banner in the general election of that year before re-ratting to the Conservatives).

Liberal Nationals / National Liberals (1931-1968)


The relative importance of the policy of free trade and of forming a national government.  The leadership of the Liberal party were opposed to any weakening of a commitment to free trade and made their support for the national government conditional on that being retained.  Those Liberals who saw the necessity of free trade as secondary to the formation of a national government broke away to form the Liberal Nationals (those few Liberals, led by Lloyd George, who opposed the national government, also broke away to form the independent Liberals).


The Liberal party’s destruction was more or less complete.  The official Liberal party was reduced to 33 seats in 1931 and to 21 seats in 1935.  The Liberal party organisational structure was also wrecked by the different factions all claiming to be Liberals.

The Liberal National party continued in separate existence, migrating slowly from a Liberal orbit into a Conservative orbit over the next fifteen years.  In 1947 the Liberal National party merged with the Conservative party at a constituency level but retained its separate identity at a national level, changing its name to the National Liberal party.

Fate of prominent dissidents

The Liberal Nationals initially prospered in government.  In Ramsay Macdonald’s second national government they had three Cabinet ministers including the Foreign Secretary, rising to four Cabinet ministers in Stanley Baldwin’s government and five in Neville Chamberlain’s government.  They only waned in significance once Sir Winston Churchill took over in 1940 and Labour joined the government.

Following the merger with the Conservatives, three National Liberals sat in the Cabinet in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The National Liberal party was folded into the Conservatives completely in 1968.  The final leader of the National Liberals was Sir John Major’s predecessor as MP for Huntingdon.


Lord Heseltine stood as a National Liberal in 1959 (though was not elected under that banner).  Sir John Nott, Defence Secretary during the Falklands war, began his Parliamentary career as a National Liberal. They remain living links to what otherwise seems like a distant historical period.

The SDP (1981-88/2015)


The SDP was born out of factional infighting within the Labour party.  Taken for granted by the centre of the Labour party in its battles against the left, 28 Labour MPs left the party in 1981 to found the SDP under the leadership of the “Gang of Four”, seeking to find a middle way between Thatcherism and the leftward direction that the Labour party was then taking.  Aside from the Gang of Four, few were well-known and many were at risk of deselection.  The SDP also attracted some support from wet Conservatives, including one MP.

It formed an alliance with the Liberal party and initially recorded enormous popularity in polls, backed up by spectacular by-election results.  The wind was taken out of the Alliance’s sails by the Falklands war, however, which gave a boost to the popularity of the Conservatives largely at their expense.


While the Alliance ultimately took 26% in the 1983 election, it took only 23 MPs, of which only six were SDP MPs.  The Conservatives were elected in a landslide.  Labour were kept out of power until 1997, but the Alliance was unable to profit by this.  The two parties of the Alliance eventually merged in 1988 to form what became the Liberal Democrats (with some dissenting SDP members under the leadership of David Owen then founding a successor independent party).

The Liberal Democrats, after a shaky start, gained a secure Parliamentary foothold, building on local successes in successive elections until finally joining the Conservative party as the junior partner in a coalition government in 2010.  That experience, however, resulted in the party being nearly wiped out in the 2015 election.  They look unlikely to be significant political players again any time soon.

Fate of prominent dissidents

In sharp contrast to all the other splits, none of the initial senior founders of the SDP ever achieved high office again.   From a personal viewpoint, the decision to leave the Labour party was a disaster.


Power and pelf proved hard to come by for the SDPers.  By seeking and failing to break the mould, they found the route to power much harder.  Vince Cable and Chris Huhne eventually became Cabinet ministers under the Liberal Democrat banner.  More SDP supporters, however, attained that rank as Conservatives: Greg Clark, Chris Grayling, Andrew Lansley and David Mundell managed that feat, and Anna Soubry, while not in the Cabinet, attends its meetings.


None of the splits resulted in the mould of politics being broken (with the unintended exception of the coup by the Lloyd George Liberals, which resulted in the Liberal party being displaced as one of the two main political parties).  So if the aim of any breakaway is to build up a new political party, forget the idea.

You can argue about cause and effect, but on each occasion a split took place, progressive politics suffered at least temporarily and more usually it ushered in a lengthy period in which the Conservatives did substantially better than they had done in the preceding period.  So anyone participating in a breakaway has to be prepared for the Conservatives to benefit in the short term.

Rather surprisingly, this damage is visible only at a macro level.  Many individual politicians who broke away achieved major rank either immediately or shortly afterwards.  Two dissidents became Prime Minister.  Many more achieved Cabinet rank.  All of these, however, did so by reaching an accommodation with one of the existing major parties – usually the Conservatives.  The one occasion on which the centre left breakaway party sought to go it alone was a failure.

So if the Blairites do decide that life in the Labour party is unendurable but they wish to see their political careers prosper, they need to be prepared to reach an accommodation with the Conservatives sooner rather than later.  By retaining a separate identity but operating a non-aggression pact, much as the Liberal Unionists did, they may be able to influence government policy far more than either standing aloof or by remaining in the Labour party.

Such an outcome would probably be bad for leftwing politics but probably personally good for the Blairites.  Are they sufficiently ruthless?  I guess we’re going to find out.



The Temperate Desert

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

YouGov Left Right

Antifrank asks who will appeal best to centrist voters?

The centre ground of politics used to be very crowded.  And with good reason.  Roughly half the electorate sit in the middle stratum of electoral geology.  In a YouGov poll taken just after the election, 13% described themselves as slightly left of centre, 19% described themselves as centre, 14% described themselves as slightly right of centre and a further 23% didn’t know where to place themselves (presumably they would regard themselves as having mixed left and right views).  Elections will continue to be won and lost among these voters.  Either they will be met on their ground or they will be persuaded to move onto different ground.

Public perception

YouGov regularly asks the public to place parties on a left-right spectrum.  The results up to July last year are shown in the graphic above.

The public in aggregate, incidentally, see themselves as pretty much in the dead centre.  Up to now, the public in aggregate haven’t regarded the Labour party as being as leftwing as they have seen the Conservatives as being rightwing.

The empty centre

7 May 2015 has left the centre ground looking like a wasteland.  The Lib Dems were reduced from 57 to 8 MPs, with relatively few seats even looking like plausible targets for 2020.  The Conservatives long ago ditched the green crap.  And despite Ed Miliband having aimed to engineer a move in the political centre ground towards the left, the reaction of the Labour party membership in the Labour leadership campaign has been to canter further leftwards in pursuit of a real alternative to austerity.  For a group of voters who are supposedly assiduously and obsessively courted, centrist voters are lacking obvious representation right now, particularly those on the centre left.

In the post-election opinion poll referred to above, 31% of the public thought that Labour was slightly left of centre or centre (exactly the same percentage that thought Labour was fairly leftwing or very leftwing), but 44% of the public thought that Labour should aim to be slightly left of centre or centre.  Among those who expressed an opinion, by a margin of nearly 2:1, the public thought that the next Labour leader should try to take the Labour party towards the centre politically rather than take it towards the left (more recent polling has been more equivocal on this last point, however).  There is nothing obvious in any of the polling that suggests that the public wants Labour to turn to the left.  Labour party members seem to believe that they know better.

That said, winning over these voters is not as simple as just plonking yourself as closely as possible to them.  At the last election the Conservatives gathered a greater share of the vote than it had managed since 1992, yet they were the furthest distant from the average member of the public of Labour, the Lib Dems and themselves.  The voters take many things into account other than how much they identify with policy.

This may sound like good news for a Labour party that is exiting stage left.  It is not.  In May, those other things led to the voters decisively preferring the Conservatives despite their greater ideological distance from the public in aggregate.  That decisive preference in favour of the Conservatives will get still stronger, all other things being equal, if Labour withdraw further from the bulk of the voters.

This time around, the other relevant considerations may well have included the quality of the main party leaders, economic credibility and the wish to have a stable government.  We may also have seen some voters deciding to stick with known quantities.

The relevant considerations in 2020 may be different.  Right now it seems entirely possible that all of those will continue to weigh heavily on voters’ minds.  Becoming more ideologically distant from the voters would only make Labour’s challenge harder.

The hopefuls

Nature abhors a vacuum.  Who is going to fill that gap?  The answer isn’t obvious.

The Lib Dems are ideologically close to the average voter.  They will hope to profit from any move to the fringes by Labour while being able to attack the Conservatives in government.  But the Lib Dems’ closeness to the public’s views did not result in the public giving them their support in May.  And the hammering they received will make it harder to get that support back where it counts.  Voters who are motivated by choosing a government will not linger over the possibility of voting for them, new leader and new direction notwithstanding.  The Lib Dems will only gain votes either by persuading voters that it is a costfree choice or by getting voters to conclude that both of the two main parties have drifted too far from the centre.  Even then, such voters might well just decide to abstain.

After their experiences of government, the Lib Dems may wish to pitch themselves as a party of opposition.  Indeed, they have already taunted Labour after the Welfare Bill fiasco with the tagline “Be part of the real Opposition”.  This may be effective at picking up protest votes (though there is heavy competition for these now) and the votes of those who live in safe constituencies.  Centrist voters in marginals who want to choose the next government will, however, be looking for something more constructive.

Can Labour offer them something more constructive?  If Labour move leftwards, they will need to persuade a sizeable section of voters – from opposition – that their more hardline critique is worthy of trust in government and they will need to do so without frightening a similar sized section of voters into the arms of the Conservative party.  Labour seem likely to embark on this strategy.  I don’t fancy their chances if they do.

A different strategy might have been to offer a broad tent based around themes that all strands of left and centrist opinion could rally under.  None of the three mainstream candidates for Labour leader have been able to articulate such themes and the opportunity is going begging.  It seems unlikely now that the Labour party will take that chance in the next few years.

If the Labour party is not going to appeal to centrist and centre-left voters, preferring to broadcast a hard left message, might a breakaway party take up the slack?  All things are possible but the prospect looks unlikely and past precedent is offputting.  Establishing a new national party needs a clear message, big names, organisation, nerve and luck.  Labour moderates do not seem to have any of these right now.  The SDP was stronger on almost all of these counts in the early 1980s and still it ultimately failed to break the mould.  Only two of the eight Lib Dem MPs were in the SDP.  They are outnumbered by Conservative MPs with an SDP past.

Speaking of which, can the Conservatives extend their advantage with centrist voters?  Unlike Labour, they certainly want to try.  The summer budget showed George Osborne gleefully trying on progressive clothes for size.

The Conservatives face a different problem, which is that they have long been seen as further from the centre than either Labour or the Lib Dems, as can be seen from the diagram above.  Changing longterm perceptions takes a lot of doing.  At a time when the government is undertaking extensive spending cuts, are they really going to be able to achieve this?  Also, this Parliament is going to be dominated by the referendum on EU membership.  It would be highly surprising if traditional Conservative rightwingers are not heard at great length in this process, undermining any Tory attempts to colonise the middle ground further.

So far as the Conservatives are concerned, in the short term the question is a bit of a red herring.  They don’t need centrist voters to identify with them.  They only need them to continue voting for them in preference to other parties.  Enough of these voters gave them their support on 7 May, however unenthusiastically.  They would settle for that in 2020 as well.

In the longer term, however, we are looking at an unstable political landscape where the voters must choose between parties with prospectuses that do not enthuse them and a party with a prospectus that they do not believe will stand a chance of being implemented.  This cannot last indefinitely.  Sooner or later, the gap will be filled.



Gains from both CON and LAB plus other good local results on Tim Farron’s first night as LD leader

Friday, July 17th, 2015


Tim Farron won the Lib Dem leadership on the strength of his election successes and was very much the choice of the activists.

With only eight MPs at Westminster Farron would dearly love there to be a parliamentary by-election. But who knows when one of those is going to come up? So in the meantime the emphasis will be going back to its roots by seeking to build up the party on a local level.

Next May’s elections are nearly ten months away but on a week by week basis the hope is that they can build up momentum by chalking up gains in local by-elections.

Overnight Farron’s party won two seats. These were Battle on Rother council from the Tories and Llay in Wrexham which the party had not contested last time. But the result that will give most pleasure to the new leader was in the Grove ward in Kingston upon Thames where the LDs had the Westminster seat until May 7th.

What’s striking about these numbers is where its 26.3% increase in vote came from. A bit came from the Tories but a lot from Labour and the Greens.

The one Westminster by-election is prospect is Zac Goldsmith’s Richmond Park – a seat where not so long ago the LDs were strong and, indeed, had the MP. The Tory majority of 23% looks impregnable but I know there is some nervousness in the Tory camp about having a battle here if Zac resigns over Heathrow or on becoming Mayor of London.

  • The other by-election change overnight was CON gain from UKIP of Gorleston St. Andrew on Norfolk County Council.

    Mike Smithson

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    Tim Farron becomes LD leader after beating Norman Lamb

    Thursday, July 16th, 2015


    The vote split was 56.5% to Norman Lamb’s 43.5:

    I maintain my record of having voted in every LD leadership election but never for the winner

    Mike Smithson


    Why in the end I voted for Norman Lamb

    Wednesday, July 15th, 2015


    We need effective liberal voices in an increasingly illiberal world

    Although I’ve not been an active Lib Dem for more than a decade and a half I have still retained my membership and consider my politics as being strongly liberal with a small “l”.

    As I posted the week before last I arrived back from holiday to find my voting papers waiting for me and at that stage I could not decide between the two. I have enormous respect for the campaigning abilities of Tim Farron and the way he seems to have matured during the leadership campaign. The party needs someone with his energy and if it is to move forward from the disaster on May 7th.

    Although Lamb is of an older generation he’s a highly effective campaigner too and I’ve been hugely impressed by the way he has conducted his campaign. I think that his powerful liberal voice can inspire the party and, of course, he brings considerable ministerial experience.

    The way he raised the status of mental health within the NHS can be rated as perhaps the party’s biggest political and most lasting achievement from the coalition years.

    I should add that my vote is probably the kiss of death. Since joining the party on its formation in 1987 all my votes in leadership elections gave gone to losers.

    We’ll know the result tomorrow.

    Mike Smithson


    LD Newswire survey has Tim Farron heading for 58-42% victory over Norman Lamb for next party leader

    Monday, July 13th, 2015

    The results will be announced on Thursday and given the fact that second class reply envelopes have been used then virtually every party member planning to vote will probably have done so.

    Mark Pack gives the details here.

    My main observation about the survey is that these tend to be dominated by activists and might not be fully representative of those voting. We’ll see when the results come out.

    Meanwhile I rather like this from the first time Tim Farron stood for parliament in 1992 when we was just 22.

    Mike Smithson


    The LD leadership race where NOT being anti-immigration could be a vote winner

    Sunday, July 5th, 2015

    With the Lib Dem leadership race drawing to a close the favourite, ex-party president Tim Farron, according to the Observer, has said that the UK should take 60,000 immigrants to help deal with the current crisis. According to Toby Helm’s report:

    “..“We should support this because we are decent people. Our party should not have a mixed message about this. We should not turn people away,” he said.

    The former Lib Dem president has written to David Cameron to say the UK should be proud of its record on taking in refugees, citing the admission of many thousands of Ugandan Asians who were expelled by President Idi Amin in 1972… “

    In my judgement this is a wise move by Farron which will resonate well with the 60,000 party members who are currently voting on who should succeed Nick Clegg.

    All the polling suggests that Lib Dem voters have a different view on immigration from those of other parties and my guess is that this will be more so with actual party members.

    This call will help Farron reinforce his liberal credentials which have come under attack from some quarters in the campaign.

    Mike Smithson


    The Lib Dem choice: The highly regarded ex-minister or the formidable campaigner?

    Friday, July 3rd, 2015

    norman lamb tim farron   Google Search

    Why my LD vote could be against my betting self interest

    Just got back from a wonderfully restful holiday on the coast near the ancient sherry town of Jerez in South West Spain to find my LD leadership voting papers there waiting for my attention. The choice is very difficult.

    Back in April 2011 I suggested on PB that Norman Lamb, then 25/1, might be a good next party leader bet and I do well if he wins.

    Certainly if, as was possible at least twice during the coalition years, that Clegg had stepped down then Lamb, almost a John Major figure, would have been the ideal safe pair of hands to take over. He had the backing of party grandees and during his time in government built up a strong reputation particularly on NHS policy on the mentally ill. Health sec Jeremy Hunt paid him a glowing tribute after the election.

    But May 7th was totally devastating for the party and the yellows need to show pretty quickly that they are not a spent force.

      A key part of that could be parliamentary by-elections where in the old days they used to be so strong. Winning a seat might be a tall order but a strong performance would provide a significant boost and demonstrate that they are in the game again.

    It is here where I believe that Tim Farron offers a lot. As his Westmoreland constituency results show he is an enormously effective campaigner who can bring in the votes and energise activists.

    His position is helped by the fact that the one by-election in prospect at the moment is Richmond Park – the seat of Zac Goldsmith – current hot favourite to be next year’s CON London Mayoral candidate which he held with a 23% majority in May. Goldsmith has also repeatedly threatened to resign his seat if Heathrow is chosen in the London airports debate – something that looks more probable after this week’s events.

    Richmond under its old boundaries used to be in yellow hands and a by-election would provide an opportunity for campaigner Farron to show his electoral skills. Overnight the party had a gain from CON in the borough though not in the parliamentary constituency.

    I can’t make up my mind which way and plan to defer voting to the very last moment.

    Mike Smithson