The Lib Dems’ success is the root of their failure – will Farron change this?

Today Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, beating his only rival Norman Lamb. Together the two-horse leadership contest represented 25% of the parliamentary party, of which Farron was the favourite throughout. He now has a herculean task on his hands – how can he rebuild a party which has been devastated by its stint in coalition? Unfortunately for Farron, the very tactic which made the Lib Dems so successful locally is the cause of their undoing nationally – and is the reason why they now have so little goodwill from the electorate.

The Liberal Democrats’ current electoral strategy can be traced back to the (Liberals’) autumn conference of 1970 when, following a disappointing general election, the party chose to back a resolution put forward by the Young Liberals. This suggested that the party “focus its campaigning at the community level.” The logic was that success on a local level, based on an effort “to help organize people in their communities to take and use power… to build a Liberal power-base in the major cities of the country… to capture people’s imagination as a credible political movement, with local roots and local successes” would trickle up, into success on a constituency level, returning Liberal MPs in general elections. (Dutton 2013, p.197). Thus ‘pavement politics’ was born, and the whole country has had to suffer countless Focus leaflets ever since.

Of course, in following this road the Liberals, and later the Liberal Democrats, also made much hay of being a protest vote. This goes hand in hand with pavement politics – the current party is useless, stick it to ’em by voting for us.

The logic of this approach is sound – however, it is in the execution where the Lib Dems face problems. Since getting a cracked pavement repaired, a pothole filled in, or flytipping cleared requires no ideology, this emphasis on ultra-local pavement politics comes at the expense of a coherent national policy direction. This, coupled with the highly decentralised nature of the party, means that local parties have a great say in their ideological positioning.

This flexibility is an asset when the same party is trying to fight elections simultaneously in, say, the Home Counties and Glasgow, but on a national level it leads to problems. By essentially presenting yourself as centre-left when against a Labour opponent, and centre/centre-right when you’re facing down the Conservatives, you set yourself up to disappointing at least one half of the divide. This is also a problem when you set yourself up as a protest vote – it’s all well and good uniting to be against something, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will all be for the same thing. Every policy decision has the potential to alienate a significant section of support somewhere.

This happened to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition. Those who voted Lib Dem, but with a second preference for Labour, were horrified that the party had jumped into bed with the Conservatives at the first whiff of power – regardless of parliamentary arithmetic. Those who voted Lib Dem with the Conservatives as their second preference thought ‘may as well vote for the real thing’. Further, since voters place more emphasis on national politics than local – and indeed nowadays local elections are broadly at the mercy of a party’s national popularity – this national level decision overrode a huge swathe of local-level support, painstakingly built through years – often decades – of activity.

Nick Clegg, bless him, attempted to repackage this Janus-faced local approach into a winning national position, arguing that only the Liberal Democrats could provide a ‘heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one’. As the election result showed, acting as a brake on another party is no replacement for a winning, coherent, policy formulation.

Of course, the Lib Dems have always tried to be something to everyone – they are themselves the result of an oft uncomfortable merger of the SDP and Liberal parties. But the sad fact of the matter is this; the Lib Dems’ greatest local election campaigning tool, pavement politics and being the protest vote, is also its greatest general election liability. It was not until the Liberal Democrats had a taste of power in 2010 that the inherent incompatibility of this electoral strategy became apparent.

If Farron wants to rebuild his party – and the country needs a strong liberal voice in parliament – he needs to move beyond the party’s ultra-local, ‘trickle up’ campaigning tactic. Without a clear, popular, national policy direction, the party will have to continue to rely on pavement politics, and in attempting to be everything to everybody, they’re doomed to be nothing to anyone.

PSA Conference 2015 Paper: ‘Modernisation Theory And Support For Liberal Values In Great Britain: A Quantitative Approach’

I’ve finally finished re-drafting my paper I’m presenting at the Political Studies Association 2015 Annual International Conference. I’ll be presenting my paper, ‘Modernisation Theory And Support For Liberal Values In Great Britain: A Quantitative Approach‘ on the ‘Liberal values, identity and public opinion’ panel for the Liberals and Liberalism specialist group.

This will be the first time I’ve given a paper, or indeed given any real academic presentation in any meaningful sense. I’m fairly confident that I know the theoretical side of my paper, specifically modernisation theory and postmaterial values, but if someone asks anything more than a perfunctory methodological question I’ll probably just have to respond with ‘h8z stay mad’.

Overall, though, I’m fairly happy with this paper, and I’m hoping to get it published next year once I get a bit stronger on the quantitative side of things. The idea emerged from my MA dissertation, which used a similar methodology to examine the role of modernisation theory and postmaterial values on support for democracy in Poland, Ukraine and Russia. If I have some success publishing this paper, it’s likely I’ll also update and try to publish my dissertation too.

If you’ve got half an hour or so to kill, you can read the paper on my page by clicking here. Please do comment and let me know what you think!

I’d also like to thank Gareth Anderson for reading it over and pointing out various errors. Much appreciated!

For now, I’ll leave you with the abstract.

This paper will quantitatively examine the extent to which modernisation theory is able to explain the holding of ‘small-l’ liberal values in Great Britain. Firstly, this paper identifies economic development, increased education, emergence of a strong civil society, and the increased prevalence of the holding of postmaterial values as four key aspects of modernisation. Following this, a quantitative analysis is undertaken to measure the extent to which each of these factors influence individual-level support for liberal values, (measured by support for a democratic system of government, the importance of gender equality, and support for tolerance of minorities). This is done using the World Values Survey (2005-2009 wave) dataset.

This aim of the paper is twofold. Firstly, it attempts to ‘plug a gap’ in the modernisation literature, where the bulk of research focuses on the macro, rather than the individual, level. Secondly, it challenges the argument made by Inglehart and Welzel (2010) that the effect of modernisation on liberal values is fully transmitted via the development of postmaterial values. This paper shows that whilst all aspects of modernisation play a role in explaining the holding of liberal values, there remains a gap in the models that is unaccounted for by the theory – thus, we must cast a wider conceptual net should we wish to fully understand what causes individuals to hold these values. Furthermore, postmaterial values are shown to be less important than Inglehart and Welzel claim.

Review: Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research

Note: This review has been submitted to Political Studies Review, and as such is not the final version. The definitive version will be available at Wiley Online Library. Do not cite without permission of the author. Can also be found on my page.

K. Widerquist, J. A. Anguera, Y. Vanderborght, and J. de Wispelaere (eds.) Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013).

The rise of the Green Party in the 2015 British general election has raised the profile of the basic income (even if the policy was quickly dropped from the 2015 manifesto). Those who find their interest in the policy piqued should seriously consider Widerquist, Noguera, Vanderborght and de Wispelaere’s comprehensive and coherent anthology of research around BI. Split over nine sections (freedom, justice, reciprocity and exploitation, feminism, economics, post-productivism, implementation, institutions, and politics), the seventy-four chapters provide a rigorous introduction to the concept (and variants thereof, including the Negative Income Tax and the Participation Income).

The editors have done well to compile such a varied collection of positions; whilst the majority of the chapters are supportive of a BI (in some form) either in vacuo or as part of a larger package of reform, the anthology does not shy away from well thought out critiques of the policy, especially in the feminist and economics sections. This is a refreshing inclusion, since advocates must deal with the widespread real-world opposition to the policy.

The anthology is also effective at balancing philosophical and political schools, and features thinkers as diverse as Tobin and Friedman, as well as Marxian, libertarian, left-libertarian, and republican proponents of BI. Furthermore, much thought has clearly gone into ensuring the chapters ‘talk’ to one another. Works are sequenced to follow debates, with the first three sections providing a strong philosophical grounding for the latter sections. However, most chapters can be read individually.

However, perhaps due to the availability of existing scholarship, there is a heavy bias towards the philosophical, with just a minority of chapters featuring a significant empirical component showing how a BI could work in practice – this is problematic, since a lack of feasibility is a common criticism of the policy. A further gap in the anthology is the almost universal focus on Europe and North America. Exceptions to this are the brilliant and intriguing chapters by Van Parijs and Standing, both of whom examine the global South and the movements towards, and potential for, a BI in these polities – one cannot help but be left with the feeling that prospects for a BI are stronger here than in the West.

Overall, this anthology is a welcome contribution to the basic income corpus. Although some chapters draw upon models or concepts that may be alien to a general audience, there is something for everyone within this outstanding collection.

David Jeffery

Queen Mary, University of London