Birds of a feather: how the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party shapes up

Birds of a feather cartoonThe June/July edition of Parliamentary Brief ran this piece looking at the state of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party:

With the party’s unity under the spotlight of the media and in the gunsights of the Labour party, now is a good time to look at the underlying unity of the Liberal Democrats. Over the last five years it has had a leader ousted, another resigning without fighting a general election, contests for both party president and deputy leader, opinion poll ratings sinking as low as 11 per cent, a formal coalition arrangement with another party and now it is facing the difficulties of being the junior coalition partner in a government making as difficult decisions as any peacetime government in living memory.

It does not sound like the account of a happy or united party, but many outside observers have fallen into clichés about chaos, splits or division without appreciating the fundamental unity and common outlook of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party throughout the period. Even the enforced resignation of then party leader Charles Kennedy in 2006, whilst difficult and traumatic for many MPs, was a predominantly united move by the parliamentary party. Only two of the party’s then MPs (Mark Oaten and Lembit Opik) firmly stood by Charles Kennedy, defending his position in internal debates as the rest of the parliamentary party came to the conclusion that he could no longer continue as leader.

The confusion commentators sometimes face when trying to understand the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party is illustrated by Vince Cable. Is he a man of the right or left, the establishment or the grassroots? Sometimes he is painted as a member of a small right-wing clique – the so-called Orange Bookers – keen on leaving behind traditional party policies that involved spending large sums of public money, preferring instead a smaller state and lower taxes. But then sometimes he’s painted as a man of left-leaning grassroots – an ex-Labour man himself, a man who argued in The Storm for widespread intervention in the oil markets, one of the keenest to see if a deal could be done with Labour after the 2010 general election and a prime supporter of Simon Hughes MP in the latter’s bid to succeed him as deputy leader of the party.

Neither description is wholly right or wrong and their contradictory nature shows how hard it is to impose simple categories in a way that illuminates rather than confuses.

One reason for this is the way in which events have applied unifying rather than divisive pressures to the parliamentary party. The ousting of Charles Kennedy became a unifying event, with it extremely clear that the party then had to unite or sink, just as the ousting of Iain Duncan Smith gave the Conservatives a period of unity under Michael Howard. One of Kennedy’s strengths as a leader – that he was not a factional person – meant ousting him was not a case of one faction versus another (cf Brownites vs Blairites) but rather almost everyone against him and a couple of others. Charles Kennedy, Mark Oaten and Lembit Opik did not a faction make.

Across the three parliamentary leadership elections (2006 leader contest, 2007 leader contest and 2010 deputy leader contest) only three MPs have publicly backed the ‘non-party establishment’ candidate each time: Chris Huhne (twice that candidate himself), Martin Horwood and John Leech. As with the Kennedy, Oaten and Opik trio, this is not a basis for significant factionalism. Only a further three MPs either backed the outsider candidate or backed no-one in public – Annette Brooke, Lynne Featherstone and Mark Williams. Even this wider group is still small and does not have a distinctive ideological perspective that is at odds with others. Indeed, none of the contests were fought over significant ideological differences.

On the other side, there were only seven MPs who publicly backed the ‘party establishment’ candidate in each of the three contests: Jeremy Browne, Ed Davey, Don Foster, Nick Harvey, Michael Moore, John Pugh and Sarah Teather. A wider group of seventeen always either backed the establishment candidate or did not publicly back anyone. Combined, these twenty-four MPs comprise 42 per cent of the current parliamentary party and dwarf the six strong or weak non-establishment backers.

In addition, the parliamentary party for several years has been a very disciplined group. On key parliamentary votes such as Iraq there were no splits amongst MPs. This discipline has been helped by parliament traditionally having free votes on some subjects where the interpretation of ‘liberal’ varies amongst the party’s MPs, most notably abortion. Even on issues such as banning smoking in various locations, the libertarian viewpoint, whilst present, has not led to divisions with significant numbers on both sides.

Arguably this is partly a matter of chance as MPs who have taken the more libertarian line have not been faction builders. The lack of support from fellow parliamentarians for Mark Oaten’s leadership bid and Lembit Opik’s bid to be party president highlights the absence of any widespread groupings analogous to the anti-Europeans under Major or the Brownites under Blair.

A key figure in understanding this absence of serious fractures within the parliamentary party is Simon Hughes. Twice a non-party establishment candidate for party leader (in 1999 and 2006), he has also been party president and was the party establishment’s outsider of choice in the 2010 deputy leadership contest. In that contest both he and Tim Farron presented themselves as the left-of-centre voice of grassroots activists, but it was Simon Hughes who had the tacit support of senior party figures, who preferred to have him in the tent than out.

Simon Hughes in turn has not played up to the role of grassroots rebel. At the party’s special conference in Birmingham in May 2010, where the coalition with the Conservatives was debated, he gave an impassioned speech in favour of the agreement. It was no mere formulaic display of public loyalty but rather an extremely effective speech that was described by many present as the best Liberal Democrat conference speech they had heard.

Moreover, Simon Hughes illustrates the unusual combination which applies to many Liberal Democrat MPs and their constituencies. Hughes may have instinctively preferred it if a post-general election arrangement with Labour had been possible, yet in his own constituency – at both parliamentary and council levels – the battle is between Liberal Democrats and Labour. Any warming to Labour is tempered by knowledge of the need to oppose them effectively on his home patch. Similar mismatches apply to many MPs, including those who instinctively may have preferred a deal with the Conservatives rather than Labour, such as Jeremy Browne who faces a contest with the Conservatives to hold his seat.

A more useful pattern to look at is the generational one: did an MP cut their political teeth before or after Margaret Thatcher’s fall? Those whose formative political experiences date back to Mrs Thatcher’s time often have a more instinctive, even emotional, distaste at the thought of dealing with the Conservatives than those who came to politics more recently. They usually have a more even-handed attitude towards Conservatives and Labour, or even have a strong instinct against Labour if it was under a Labour government that they formed their own political views.

During and after the coalition negotiations, it is notable that those who publicly expressed their preference for, if possible, a deal with Labour were often of this older generation – Simon Hughes, Vince Cable and Ming Campbell for example. (Even the more youthful Charles Kennedy is politically a man of the 1980s, as he was elected to Parliament at the age of just 23 back in 1983.)

Despite these generational differences, external events have helped in uniting the party. There is a social liberal versus economic liberal axis within the party, and in good economic times some MPs have had a much stronger instinct for increasing public spending than for cutting taxes or reducing debt – John Leech and David Laws being two contrasting examples. However, current economic reality means that choice is unlikely to present itself for quite some time.

These limited lines of division are also reflected in the fact that three MPs – Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Steve Webb – contributed both to The Orange Book and also to Reinventing the State, the book produced in response to the former and organised by more socially liberal inclined members of the party. That three such prominent MPs contributed to both, and that both had a foreword by the then party leader (Kennedy and Campbell respectively) illustrates the clear desire not to be too factional even in these  literary debates. Indeed, the one specific policy proposal in the Orange Book that sparked heated controversy – David Laws’s views on an insurance-based health system – was almost the only proposal in the book which was not already party policy and was not discussed with the other contributors before publication.

Similarly, partly by design and partly by chance, the party’s keynote taxation policy – raising the basic income tax allowance to £10,000, now enshrined as a long-term goal of the coalition government – unites rather than divides. For some MPs at the social liberal end of the spectrum it is the fairness aspect that appeals most (especially when combined with raising other taxes on the most well off in order to fund the policy). For those more at the economic liberal end, cutting general taxes appeals most. But as both appeals end up supporting the same policy, it is again a difference that circumstances makes theoretical rather than practical.

Other issues on which there are ranges of opinions cut across each other, so as to muddle rather than create overall dividing lines. For example, the question of whether power should be devolved to local councils or to other (often new) local structures is often the subject of heated debate at Liberal Democrat party conferences, but there is no consistent pro or anti local council division. Both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, who went head-to-head in the last Liberal Democrat leadership contest, have at times argued for devolving power to new local arrangements.

Despite the muted and often contradictory nature of these existing fault lines, the huge pressures of coalition – particularly from tax rises and spending cuts – may yet expand them into serious divisions. As the coalition’s first budget has shown, even a mix of policies that contains plenty of Liberal Democrat origin (such as rises in capital gains tax and in the state pension) may also contain much that strains Liberal Democrat support (such as the rise in VAT).

The starting point for coalition was no Liberal Democrat MPs voting against the agreement when it was put to the parliamentary party. However, there is a natural in office / out of office fault line which often grows up within political parties and there is no reason to think the Liberal Democrats will be any different. Add to that tough economic times and a Labour Party which is keen to try to talk up splits within the coalition (witness Harriet Harman’s response speech to the 2010 budget) and the future may be less harmonious than the past.


UPDATE: James Crabtree has written an excellent piece on the same topic for Prospect. I don’t quite agree with all his judgements, but it’s packed full of useful insight.

2 responses to “Birds of a feather: how the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party shapes up”

  1. I do not feel there is a split after coming away from Liverpool. Of course there are always a few. Our biggest problem is the media, some of whom spend their time stirring things up.

  2. Is there a split coming? To be honest it’s too early to call. They’re right to be worried, and much will hand on the upcoming referendum. I’ve moved between the Lib Dems and Labour Party for the last few years, and decided to start the Reform Party (www.thereformparty.tk & http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Reform-Party/129700340399596?v=photos#!/pages/The-Reform-Party/129700340399596?v=wall) a few months ago after Clegg’s coalition with the Conservatives, the Lib Dem shift on economics (I’m a little close to Stiglitz’s view, which uses similar logic to Ed Ball’s perspective if you don’t know Stiglitz), and their refusal to say where they differ in policy.

    The aim of the Reform Party is to give people a real voice, and this is why we have horizontal decision making. I believe that when faced with such an important decision Clegg should have given party members a chance to voice their thoughts over the internet, and this is what we aim to do. Our policy formulation process is such that all prospective manifesto policies are discussed and voted on by Party Members. What I would like to see in the future is the Lib Dem party come back to the left of the centre line, and accept this policy formulation process in order that more people, like myself, might join them. If they did do this, and took a lesson from coalitions on the continent in saying where their policies differ from the Conservatives’ then they would certainly not split. As it stands a drop in support from 23% in May to 12% today is certainly worrying!

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