Why UBI is the way forward

Universal basic income is a fundamentally liberal idea. It’s time the Lib Dems adopted it as our central economic pledge.

The significance of the economy for liberals cannot be understated. It is the underpinning of everything, and the single biggest determinant of one’s life chances and quality of life. It is essential, then, that the basic structure of the economy be set up correctly. The basic fabric should be fundamentally capitalistic: the capitalist economy at its most fundamental respects and responds to the choices of the individual, and thrives when our basic freedoms are most respected. But capitalism can be warped – without a proper flow of information, and without regulation, the power that capitalism rightfully deprives from the state in terms of economic control can be transferred almost entirely to private entities, where their unwarranted domination is no less problematic. True capitalism – liberal capitalism – must regulate free markets to ensure sufficient information is given to consumers to be able to make informed choices, must ensure no entity grows so large that it gains dominative power, and ensure that capital – capitalism’s basic unit – is accessible by the masses. The problem in recent times has been that companies have been owned by an increasingly elite group of people, and free markets have been pursued as an end in themselves, rather than an instrument for the freeing of individuals.

If our system is to be capitalist, then, money takes on a high value. Those with it can do as they please, unstressed and unburdened by the disenfranchising problems of poverty, while those without it feel exploited by a system that doesn’t work for them, disallowing them the free enjoyment of the fruits of our society and the economy. Most importantly, and most relevantly for liberalism, poverty means they lack the capacity as individuals to participate and engage in society and democracy, and from there stem multiple societal problems – disaffection leads to crime, to lower educational outcomes, and to health problems, particularly mental health problems. Individuals and families teeter permanently on the edge of poverty, where having enough to eat or pay rent is in doubt every month, and where every financial decision is a survival decision. This is economic precarity. It is a burning injustice. And in such a situation, it is clear that a person cannot participate fully in society. From a purely civic point of view, they haven’t the time or capacity to participate in political institutions to the same extent as their richer counterparts. But it is more than this: poorer people cannot take advantage of their fundamental civil liberties as much as rich people. Freedom is its own currency to be spent; important by virtue of what you can do with it. True freedom entails being able to live life according to your own notion of the good life, without undue interference or oppression. And so, what good is autonomy from the state if that autonomy cannot be enjoyed and taken advantage of as a result of economic forces; if every day is spent constantly labouring just to survive?

In this way, the poorest in our society cannot be said to possess equal freedom from domination compared to wealthier citizens, because they are dominated by financial pressures, and not economically free to flourish. Fixing that economic precarity that people find themselves in is crucial, then – it is a source of the highest domination in people’s day-to-day lives, and as liberals, we have to eradicate it.

How? As intimated above, our philosophical priority must be getting the poorest to a point where they can meaningfully participate and flourish in society; where they can make independent choices as to how they live their lives as individuals without being oppressed by economic necessity. And if precarity is the great barrier to that, and therefore the target of our action, there is a very simple answer: unconditionally give everyone a reliable source of income to push them over the threshold. This is a universal basic income (UBI), and has been trialled successfully in a few places around the world.

It is superior to the present welfare system for practical reasons: rather than creating a complicated bureaucracy of dozens of elements requiring form-filling, checks, multiple levels of processing, and everything that accompanies it, it is one single payment that everyone gets. For the rich, who don’t need the money, it gets taxed away, but for the very poorest, it completely removes economic precariousness as a source of domination, by knowing that whatever happens, they will have enough money to live off. Without that looming economic anxiety, they can make decisions about themselves in accordance with their own ideas of what the good life is – the pinnacle of liberalism.

Objections to this policy are obvious: giving money to people who don’t work for it could be criticised as subsidising the lazy. But there are compelling reasons why this is not a persuasive objection. Firstly, even in the present social welfare system, there are free-riders, as there will be in any comparable system. It is a constant section of the population, and giving the payment in one tranche and as one payment won’t affect that. If people will take advantage whatever the system, we should simply have the best system for those who genuinely do need it. And secondly, on a more philosophical level – the money proposed as part of a UBI would be enough to cover the basic costs of living. What compelling moral argument can there possibly be for someone not to receive the bare minimum to survive? All members of society, regardless of what they do or don’t do, deserve that much. To argue otherwise is to say that some people deserve destitution or penury. Such an argument is indefensible.

Another objection is that it would encourage people not to work. But it seems to me that this lacks force as well: very few people are satisfied with earning the bare minimum to live anyway. Indeed, empirical evidence shows this to be true. A UBI pilot in Canada in the 1970s found that there was no change in employment rates, but people did stay in education longer, there were fewer hospitalisations, and mental health admissions sharply declined.

A final objection is that while the basic idea is good, giving money to the rich as well is counterintuitive. Such objectors tend to propose alternatives like a negative income tax (NIT) as an alternative, whereby people earning below a threshold amount are paid by the state, in proportion to how far below that threshold they are. It is argued that this pays those who need it, while not giving payments to those who don’t. Bluntly, I am intensely relaxed about the difference between the two policies, and would be delighted if either UBI or NIT were implemented. However, NIT has one serious downside: if someone goes from earning above the threshold amount to below it (eg by losing their job), it would require a reassessment of their income, and a delay in receiving the updated NIT payment. This requires bureaucracy, and undermines the principle that everyone will be able to rely on having a basic income stream. It is merely an approximation of the current welfare system. Consider the current lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic: if UBI were in place, everyone would still be getting paid, and no additional applications would be necessary. If it were NIT in place, those who had been earning over the threshold amount but were now jobless and penniless would have to wait for reassessment – clearly not good enough. It seems to me that UBI is a superior system, then.

In any case, poverty and economic uncertainty are two of the greatest causes of social and public health problems. Welfare systems are overcomplicated and enormously bureaucratic, leading to eye-watering costs, and also to people falling through the cracks and being left in dire need but with no money whatsoever for periods of weeks or months, while checks and assessments are carried out. A universal basic income identifies this source of economic domination, and eradicates it immediately. It is a happy coincidence that it also respects the dignity of the individual, giving them money and trusting them what to do with it. For the philosophically minded, this in particular will satisfy liberal luck egalitarians – people are given money to enable them not to be dominated. But if they choose to squander it (which studies show does not really happen at all), that is the consequence of their choice. It therefore corrects the brute bad luck of being born into a poor family, but not the bad option luck of using the money badly.

Liberals should be deeply alarmed by the great injustice of poverty, and its distorting effect on society. Rather than tinkering around with minor tweaks to tax rates, personal allowances and other things which fail to attack the core of the issue, we should be unafraid to be bold in our ambition to eradicate economic precariousness for every citizen of our country. A universal basic income does precisely that, and, I would argue, is a liberal thing indeed.

This is an edited and revised version of a post I wrote two years ago as part of a broader philosophical interrogation of what liberalism means. Those essays can be found here.

Thinking Locally

Hold more than a cursory conversation with a Liberal Democrat, particularly one who has been involved in the party since before the Coalition, and you’ll almost certainly hear them extol the virtues of “community politics” as the party’s salvation and bedrock. The principle of embedding deeply into our communities and becoming supremely concerned with potholes, bin collections and community petitions has won us thousands of council seats over the years, and is frequently seen as crucial to our capacity to come back from national defeats. If we retain a strong local base through community activism, the logic says, we can hold on until the next election and convert that into national success.

This logic is not necessarily wrong. Clearly, being a party with a wealth of activists, active local volunteers, and a less overbearing federal party has its advantages, and has helped our survival since wipe-out in 2015. But increasingly, I fear it is not sufficient for our success, and is in fact becoming an obstacle to it. The survival tactic has been internalised as a catechism of liberal ideology, harmful because the tactic is itself so bereft of any real liberalism at all. And lately, the logic has been reversed. In our most recently won national seats, it is not because of strong local council bases that we were victorious, but rather, we won strong local council bases after taking back those seats (think Oxford West and Abingdon, where we stormed to victory last year two years after Layla Moran’s initial victory; or Bath, where we sensationally seized control from the Conservatives two years after Wera Hobhouse’s win).

My central argument here is that while survival is good, thriving is even better – and in order to thrive, we need to regain a sense of liberal vision, which, I argue, we have lost over the past few decades. With the flatness of our efforts over the past few years, and with our potentially necromancing issue (Brexit) now settled, we need an ideological revival. Local councils seem the best place to start this for two reasons: first, we actually control several of them outright, and so we can practise what we preach; and second, there are local elections coming up, so we can implement this more quickly.


The problems

At present, there is a litany of problems with our approach to local politics. Some of them are external, and beyond our control – for instance, local authority powers are limited, and in many cases reliant on funding from central government which is particularly unforthcoming at present. And the public often has a particular set of expectations as to what the function of a local authority is, and acting outside that set of expectations may be controversial. But many of our problems are internally created: a lack of imagination about what to do with the powers we have, and a general confusion as to what liberalism means and how we can practically implement it.

Local authority powers (table from Wikipedia)


This latter problem is particularly acute. I may largely disagree with the conclusions that were drawn from it and implemented under the Coalition government, but the Orange Book era was the last time a coherent philosophy was motivating the party. Since 2015, it has seemed at times that we have had nothing to say, no broader vision for what the country would look like under a Liberal Democrat government. Our over-reliance on principles of common sense and ‘evidence’ (which, while comforting, can only ever provide half of the picture: once we collect evidence, our response to it must be governed by our political philosophies, ie our ideology) along with tightly-managed and focus-grouped national campaign messages have replaced values-based campaigning and the policy we derive from those values. Buzzwords drawn from the preamble to the Constitution are not enough – we need to have a discussion as a party about what we mean when we say we are liberal.

For my money, the core of liberalism is that it must be transformative. If it is not transformative, it has lost its essential essence – that radical opposition to conglomerations of arbitrary and unchecked power which transformed the world in centuries past. Liberalism which rests on its laurels or believes that it has ‘won’ or that the status quo is largely acceptable not only fails to recognise how broken our society and our economy are, but is in danger of sliding into privileged conservatism.

In my experience, much confusion lies in an essential misconception about what liberal politics means: it is the difference between personal liberalism and political liberalism. Personal liberalism is an attitudinal thing – it is personal tolerance and acceptance and permissiveness of things that we might ourselves disagree with. Political liberalism, however – the subject matter of politics and the end goal of us as a liberal party – is a matter of statecraft, and is concerned with ensuring that the government observes neutrality – that the rule of law is strong, that no group is preferred or discriminated against by the state, and that freedom is advanced on a societal basis. It is political liberalism that we should concern ourselves with – essentially, the question of what government should do to further freedom and non-discrimination.

Within political liberalism, we can distinguish further. Political liberalism is concerned with both means and ends. That is, political liberalism requires that politics be both procedurally liberal (means) and substantively liberal (ends). To put it in the simplest terms possible, we have to be liberal in style and liberal in substance.


Bringing it back to localism

Over the past day, I’ve asked different groups of people if they can identify a unique policy or principle of local governance which every Lib Dem council, no matter where it is, implements and adopts. Almost universally, the answer I have received is “nothing specific, but we are more open and consultative”. To be absolutely clear, I think being open and transparent is a fantastic thing – it is clearly of central importance to any democracy. But you will be able to see where I’m going with this – consultation and transparency are matters of style and procedure. They don’t tell us what the decisions themselves are which we’re consulting on or being transparent about. We are thus still left without an account of what liberals substantively believe in.

Why is this a problem? Very simply because exclusively procedural accounts of liberalism render us vulnerable to objections that we in fact don’t have any substance, or that we are ambivalent about the actual substantive decisions so long as liberal process has been observed. Liberalism cannot be as hollow as merely carrying out what local residents want, no matter how illiberal. It would render our ideology empty – we wouldn’t be standing for anything ourselves. That cannot be right.

And it isn’t right. Clearly, liberals do not have merely procedural goals. We are liberals because we have shared beliefs about what government should and should not do, and those beliefs are motivated by our political ideologies. For instance, liberals almost universally object to police overreach, to the use of indiscriminate facial recognition technology, to fining the homeless by abusing public space protection orders. These examples illustrate that we can and do have shared beliefs, motivated by liberal ideology, about what local government should substantively do. We just need to be more imaginative and unique, and be louder about these beliefs when we campaign.


Bringing it all together

“Harry, you’re mouthing off about political philosophy again,” I hear you say. So let me put this all into practical terms.

We should retain the good local stuff we’re doing already. Lib Dem councillors will always be best at making sure potholes get filled, bins get collected, and that communities are empowered. We will always ensure that consultations are carried out, that the public are engaged with (even if we disagree with some of them) and that information is circulated.

But let’s also be bold in having a local, liberal agenda to transform the lives of people living in the authorities we control, and make sure society works for them.

We should be the pre-eminent party of affordable housing and liveable towns and cities. This means insisting on affordable and social housing being present at volume in all housing developments. This means putting environmental considerations at the heart of all developments. This means discouraging car use through cycle and pedestrian friendly design, and expanding and cheapening public transport.

We should be the party of eradicating homelessness. This means taking the lead of Oxford and Manchester and constantly, loudly opposing Labour’s fines on the homeless and the use of hostile architecture. This means expanding shelters, and setting up task forces and special services designed to tackle underlying mental health problems and break the cycle of homelessness. We’re already taking a housing-first approach to campaigning on this issue in London with Siobhan Benita: let’s make it a big ticket thing we put emphasis on in all our local campaigning.

We should use 2011 Act powers to set up radical anti-poverty measures. This could include direct payments to those who apply for benefits to ensure they can survive while they wait for their applications to be processed. This could include topping up their benefits. Funding from central government is low and local authorities are cash-strapped, so this is difficult. But where there is a will, there is a way. Poverty is the number one obstacle to economic freedom in this country, and local authorities can take innovative approaches to tackling it.

We should take the initiative and be the party of adult social care. Adult social care in this country is an unmitigated disaster. One of the scariest things for families and care recipients is the prospect of paying for it, often including paying for family homes. We should reduce the minimum contribution by the care recipient to make Lib Dem councils the lowest-charging authorities to be cared for in, and look at alternatives to avoid the outright sale of family properties to fund care under local authorities’ discretionary disregard powers.

We should oppose the use of facial recognition technology. This applies wherever we have councils, and should also form a central part of any police and crime commissioner campaign (which matter and we should take them more seriously).

We should champion the arts. This last one is indulgent of me, but arts programmes often help disadvantaged kids find their niche in the world, and enriched lives are better and freer lives. We should enter into partnerships with the private sector to save cultural amenities threatened with closure like theatres, leisure centres and libraries (which have a huge role to play in providing services for those in poverty), and expand provision of them by building new ones. We can then use our stake in them to ensure cultural activities are cheap and accessible for all.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are more things that can be included. And I’ve not tried to stitch the above into an electoral narrative. But the point is that we should be punchier and more ambitious about our exercise of local power, and make sure that Liberal Democrat councillors and councils stand for something distinctive. It’s not going to happen overnight, or even over the course of one or two electoral cycles, but if over the next decade we can embed in people’s minds that a Liberal Democrat council means a greener, freer, more vibrant local community, with affordable places to live and radical support for those in need, then what is there to lose? Let’s keep the liberalism of style, but be bold and add the liberalism of substance.

Above all, though, let’s reignite a discussion about what liberalism really means when we talk about it. I for one am fed up of the policy soup we have which at election time gets vaguely meshed into a milquetoast document with no punch or overarching vision. There are flashes of brilliance in our manifesto, particularly on criminal justice, the environment, and political reform. Our whole platform can be like that. We need to each ask ourselves why we are liberals, why that matters, and why that makes us different from Labour and the Conservatives (NB not equidistant, but different). We then need to ask ourselves what the roots of our country’s problems are, and how we tear up those roots. We cannot be a bland party broadly fine with the status quo, who tweak a couple of things through extremely specific and technocratic policy. We have to recapture the transformative, revolutionary nature of liberalism, and articulate why it’s not just some weak, highbrow, unambitious thing. Only through conversations such as these will we come up with a consistent and substantive vision, based on our values, that people can really believe in.

Delaying the leadership election: why it is a terrible idea

During my time as a member of the Lib Dems, I have experienced the full gamut of emotions. The exhilarated joy I felt the night we won the European Parliament election in London and beat both Labour and the Conservatives nationwide was a highlight, showing the power of liberalism, the strength of our party’s campaigning machine, and crucially, that we could win wherever we stood. But after all that positivity, I find myself full of worry about the future. This has not been helped by a perplexing decision made by the party’s governing body, the Federal Board.

A primer for those uninitiated in the story thus far: after Jo Swinson lost her seat at the 2019 general election, a leadership election was automatically triggered to replace her, initially timetabled to begin in May of this year and conclude in July. But last week, Federal Board made the decision to postpone this leadership election until May 2021. I think this is a terrible decision.

The reasons in favour of delay are dubious

As far as I can see, three arguments have been put forward in favour of a delay to the election, all based on the current pandemic.

  1. The pandemic will mean MPs are busy and shouldn’t be distracted by an election.
  2. The pandemic will prevent in-person hustings and campaign events.
  3. The pandemic is pre-occupying members, who won’t want to take part in an election. We should wait until things are back to normal.

With respect to reason (1), it is true that MPs are busy. But it is the nature of the Westminster Parliamentary system that MPs will be busy all the time helping their constituents, and that leadership elections and other internal party matters will always be a distraction from their primary job. It is an unavoidable fact. But a party system is what we have, and it is through the mechanism of our party that we can win elections and achieve power in the country. Furthermore, with the original election slated to begin in May – after the peak of the pandemic, in the opinion of the government’s epidemiologists – it is not unreasonable to suggest that the unusual workload will have begun to tail off. So, while MPs’ workloads are undoubtedly high at the moment, MPs are always going to be busy, and this is not an argument to interfere with the principle of democratically electing a leader as soon as possible.

With respect to reason (2), very few members out of the total selectorate of 120,000-ish attend hustings anyway. Furthermore, demand for online hustings is always exceptionally high, and live-streamed hustings in the 2019 leadership election were very successful. Almost nobody these days is bereft of internet access – 96% of people have it in their homes – and printed literature is still able to be distributed to those who are totally without any facilities. This would provide a different medium for the leadership election, but difference and fear of change is not a reason to prevent a democratic election.

And with respect to reason (3), anecdotally I would submit that this is wrong. Almost all the members I have spoken to – of all ages – agree that this decision was the wrong one, and were looking forward to engaging in an extremely important election as part of our determining our future as a party. The premise of reason (c) also arguably demonstrates a certain level of patrician out-of-touch-ness. For some people – the poor, the sick, disabled people, carers, and many more – major worries and problems are their day-to-day existence. The job of our party is to achieve power so we can alleviate problems like that – similarly with this pandemic, we want the strongest, most forthright leadership so we have the platform to challenge government decisions which we think are wrong. Politics is not an unwelcome distraction from the problems people face – politics is the means of solving those problems.

The arguments for an election are compelling

On the contrary, there are three reasons I think a leadership election as soon as possible is essential. The first concerns party strategy, the second concerns principle, and the third concerns practical reality.

On party strategy, members that I speak to have still not quite managed to process what happened in 2019. Going from a position of such strength – leading national polls, beating back the duopoly parties, winning defectors – to losing seats at a general election and becoming an irrelevance once more in the national conversation was an experience so bruising that it feels almost like it was a dream. But it happened. And we have not yet had a serious conversation about why it happened and where we go from there. Nor have we ever had an opportunity to properly discuss the Coalition legacy and choose a leader elected to Parliament without having participated in it.

These are serious strategic and philosophical discussions we need to have and resolve. And the only way to resolve them is in a leadership election. There is no other time – not even Conference – when the entire make-up of the party feels so mouldable or is so mouldable. There is no other time when our MPs feel free to discuss the direction they think we should take, rather than avoiding such questions and toeing the party line as they do around Conference. And considering the arguable democratic deficit of Conference (so few members, and such unrepresentative ones at that, making decisions), a leadership election is the only time where fundamental changes to the party’s direction or strategy can be sanctioned en masse by the membership, in a democratically legitimate way. It is a matter of principle, then, that we should hold our leadership election as quickly as possible, in order to grapple legitimately with the strategic decisions and reflections we need to make as a party.

Because the truth is that the strategic decisions we have to make and the principled reasons we have to make them democratically have practical effects. Without a proper mandate – and remember that Ed Davey was elected only unopposed by fellow MPs, without any membership involvement, to the position of Deputy Leader – it is doubtful that Davey would make any major changes to the party’s vision or strategy. This is particularly true with Spring Conference having been cancelled and Autumn Conference looking likely to be cancelled. He would have no democratic mandate to do anything, or make any new policy.

This would completely freeze us up in the run-up to some of the most important national and local elections in recent times in 2021. We would limp into the 2021 elections as a filler party – a temporary proposition. We might as well put ourselves on the ballot paper as “TBC”. Overshadowed by a new Labour leader making their mark and a surging Boris Johnson, popular off the back of a national crisis, deciding on our own that we don’t matter and maintaining a position as a mere political question mark would be a sure sign that are unserious about winning and taking political power and leading across the country. What a terrible indictment that is of the instincts of the country’s only liberal party, at a time when liberalism is needed in the aftermath of a national lockdown and interferences with our freedom.

The truth is that, although things are uncertain and we live in unprecedented times, we have to begin to take action and rouse the sleeping beast that our party had managed to become again, so ferocious in 2019 but temporarily tranquilised by the December election. While a brief delay may have been necessary – until the late summer or autumn, perhaps – a knee-jerk, reactionary year-long delay is simply to sink another stupefying dart into our neck. The Federal Board must reconsider its decision. If it does not, the members must force its hand.

LEADERSHIP POLL: Swinson ahead of Davey

Over the past week, I have been running an informal poll for the 2019 Liberal Democrat leadership election. I did the same in 2015, and came within 2% of the correct result, so thought I’d have another go this time round.

The results are now in, and before I go into them, I’ll just put a caveat here that although I have tried to do demographic weighting as accurately and diligently as possible, because I don’t have precisely accurate membership data (and have had to rely on the QMUL Party Members Project for information), the weightings may be slightly out. As such, this poll should not be relied upon as a formal, professional-standard poll, but its results should be relatively indicative.

I surveyed 846 participants between 24th June and 1st July 2019. This gives a theoretical margin of error of 3%. The results are weighted based on gender, age and joining period, as well as implied 2015 leadership vote based on stated ideological self-identification, corroborating the data with my 2015 leadership poll. This last weighting mechanism replaces a question about past vote (simply because more than half of members today were not members in 2015). Because it is a more experimental weight than the other three, I have also run the data without it: the results of that are under the headline section.

Full tables are available here.


The headline figures are Jo Swinson on 54%, and Ed Davey on 46%. This is a narrower race than some were expecting, but still a relatively comfortable margin for Swinson. Along with Mark Pack’s survey putting her on 60% (albeit with a large number of undecideds), my poll seems to justify her status as favourite for this race.

NB: Even without the weighting by implied 2015 leadership vote, weighting only for gender, joining period and age, Jo Swinson still leads with 53% to Ed Davey’s 47%.


Perhaps most interesting are the demographic trends.

Men appear to be voting overwhelmingly for Jo Swinson, with 62% of them joining Jo, and only 38% going wavy for Davey. Women, on the other hand, are splitting in the opposite direction, contrary to what many expected at the beginning of this campaign. 57% of them are voting for Ed, while 43% of them are voting for Jo.

The other trend to note is one of age. A whopping 68% of 18-24 year olds say they will be voting for Jo Swinson – perhaps reflective of her much-publicised time involved in LDYS and her frequent appearances at Young Liberals Conference. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a massive 78% of those over 65 say they will vote for Ed Davey – which could be crucial, as over 65s make up the largest proportion of the party’s membership. If Davey manages to turn them out en masse, while youth voters stay at home, his big margin here could be the difference. The trend is the startling thing however – in each category, the older you are, the more likely you are to be voting for Davey. The only exception to this is under 18s, who Ed is winning handily – but this should be caveatted, because the raw sample is so small that it may not be accurate to draw statistical conclusions from it.

While there isn’t any reliable data available for sexuality to be able to weight based on it, some interesting trends do emerge from the raw data. Amongst heterosexuals, Ed Davey has the edge with 52% to Jo’s 48%. With those self-identifying as LGBTQ+, Jo Swinson is ahead with 66% to Ed’s 34%.

Finally, amongst the BAME community, Jo is ahead with 53% to Ed’s 47%, though again, and unfortunately, this should be caveatted due to a small sample size. The low number of BAME respondents to this poll was of deep disappointment to me, and shows that we need to continue to work to make our party reflect the wide diversity of the country we’re seeking to represent.


Unlike in 2015, where my poll showed that Norman Lamb won a clear majority of those identifying themselves with the ‘classical liberal’ tradition, and Tim Farron won a huge majority of those identifying with the ‘social liberal’ tradition, the picture is much more mixed.

Those placing themselves in the left wing of the party make up 38% of the membership, according to my poll. And 64% of them say they will be voting for Jo Swinson, which is a big lead. There has been much discussion of the Coalition legacy at this election, and with two Coalition ministers fighting it out, the belief was at the beginning of the race that there was no clearly ‘left’ candidate. But for whatever reason, Jo is seemingly on course to win this essential bloc of voters.

Those placing themselves in the centre of the party are the largest share of the membership, making up 47% of the party. Ed Davey is on course to win 54% of these voters, which is another piece of evidence to suggest that the race will be closer than anticipated. Although this margin is much narrower than Jo’s popularity with the left of the party – and thus doesn’t make up for the size of her win there – if Ed can consolidate this lead with the party’s self-identifying centrists, this could be his path to victory.

Those placing themselves on the right of the party – the aforesaid ‘classical liberals’ – make up a smaller portion of the membership compared with 2015, with only 15% belonging to this group (cf. 22% in 2015). Among these voters, Ed and Jo are effectively tied – Jo ekes ahead with 51% of the vote, while Ed is on 49%.

In terms of joining date, Jo is winning with every group except those who joined pre-Coalition, where she is tied with Ed on 50% apiece. Jo’s lead by 65% to Ed’s 35% amongst those members who joined during the Coalition is particularly notable in the context of Ed’s decision to campaign hard on his record as a Coalition minister. Of post-Coalition joiners, the gap is at its most narrow amongst the 20,000 who joined in the 2019 surge, perhaps reflecting the fact that they are by a long way the most centrist group of new joiners (with a full 50% of 2019 joiners identifying as centrist rather than left or right of the party).

How do you solve a problem like Umunna?

Change UK have already split. We knew it was coming. But the formal breaking away of more than half of their MPs has raised the question of whether the splitters will defect to the Lib Dems.

Some would fit naturally into the party (Allen, Wollaston, Berger) if they wanted to come. To me, it is a no-brainer that they defect. This is because:

(a) I believe most of them are fundamentally liberals, but have just never described themselves as that due to prior party loyalties and whips;

(b) We shouldn’t turn down the prospect of a swathe of new MPs, increasing our voice in the media, in Parliament, and amplifying our message that we are the home for liberal, progressive internationalists in modern politics

(c) There is a serious prospect of our becoming one of the main parties, but this only happens under FPTP if you build broader coalitions within your party, which means ideological purity will lead to our failure.

Others would face some more serious ideological difficulties (Smith, Shuker). Serious conversations would need to be had about their positions, particularly Shuker’s, whose religion influences his politics away from the social liberal policies most Lib Dems get particularly fired up about.

But that leaves one problem case: Chuka Umunna. Some say he shows authoritarian tendencies; others say he is more liberal than his voting record suggests. This is a good opportunity to discuss an important point for the near future: where is the line between ideological purity and maintaining our identity as a liberal party?

To be very clear, I don’t want the Lib Dems ever to be anything but liberal first and foremost, and I don’t want just anybody to be able to defect if they fundamentally disagree with our views, even if they are pro-EU. For instance, I am staunchly opposed to the SNP and Plaid Cymru. So, to that end, we need to be able to distil down what the fundamental beliefs of the Lib Dems are, in order to be able to check whether someone is broadly aligned with us such that they could defect without diluting our identity. To my mind, there are a few areas.

  1. Internationalism. We are an internationalist party who wants to stop Brexit, prevent new borders being thrown up, and improve free trade and co-operation.
  2. Environmentalism. We believe in ending the climate crisis as a matter of urgency.
  3. Equality. We believe in equal rights for everyone, and are particularly firm in supporting the rights of those who are under threat the most in today’s society.
  4. Political reform. We think politics under FPTP is broken, and advocate for a change in the electoral system.
  5. Anti-authoritarianism. We’re opposed to snooping, to interference in our private lives, and in favour of reforming authoritarian laws like drug laws.
  6. Making people better off. We want to invest in public services, and think disadvantage and poverty are great ills which need to be tackled with everything we have.

Using this list as a vague guide as to our fundamental beliefs, and “what makes the Lib Dems liberal”, I personally think that Chuka Umunna (to go straight to the problem case) fits enough to be broadly compatible with us. He is pro-EU, has voted for environmental protections, supported all rights issues as a Labour MP, supports electoral reform, and wants to tackle disadvantage.

The understandable area of hesitation is on anti-authoritarianism, considering his recent proposal of a national civic service scheme, and a vote in Parliament in December against the legalisation of cannabis. There are two points of rebuttal to raise here. First, on the cannabis issue, voting records often do not belie a person’s real beliefs due to party whips (and indeed, post-Coalition, treating voting records as mirrors of a person’s true principle would be a surprising thing for us as Lib Dems to do). And on the issue of national civic service, the idea was phrased in a vague way and one which even he admitted would need refinement. He would need to be asked about this during discussions. It is certainly not something the party could support.

I want to labour one point in particular. If Umunna doesn’t defect, it is entirely his loss, and he will be beaten by the Lib Dems at the next election. As such, I will lose no sleep over it and won’t view it as a missed opportunity. This is not least because of our fantastic PPC in Streatham, Helen Thompson, who works with refugees and aid organisations, has been doing fantastic work for disenfranchised EU citizens, and through the dedication of her team in Streatham, won the equivalent constituency at the European Parliament elections.

But if Umunna does approach us to defect, and pending important and serious discussions with Helen and the Lambeth local party about how it would work, I don’t think we should dismiss him out of hand. While I don’t agree with him entirely, his policy set would not be particularly far outside the wheelhouse of the mainstream party, and provided he was properly briefed on the correct lines, and the situation made clear that defying our fundamental policies or not playing as part of the team would terminate the arrangement, the benefits of having a high-profile defection to us – with the media attention that follows it – would outweigh the issues arising.

It’s time for Remainers to get real about the European elections.

I thought about starting this post with a milquetoast introduction to the fact that elections were coming, but it’s time to get straight to the point. Remainers need to get real about the European elections. And, as a full disclaimer, I am a paid up member of the Liberal Democrats, so you might think that “I would say this”, but this post is aimed in particular at the Green Party, and secondarily at “tactical voting” websites which are using terrible, outdated evidence.

In plain English, even though the elections use proportional representation, the counting method is such that it is still very possible to split the vote. And naturally, Remain voters are anxious not to do that. So anxious, in fact, that they tried to lobby the parties with anti-Brexit positions to form a joint list or stand down for each other. And it didn’t work – not that the Lib Dems didn’t try.

So we’re now left with a conundrum. Who to support? This is where I think we need to get real.

I have a lot of respect for the Green Party. I have advocated alliances with them in Oxford when I was involved in the Lib Dems there. I worked with them to help get Layla Moran elected in 2017. I think they share a vast amount of policy with us, and broadly represent the same worldview. It is welcome that the Greens are supplanting Labour and beating Tories in limited places across the country.

But we need to be cold and ruthless and logical in swinging our support behind one Remain party at these elections, and I think the Greens are being disingenuous by claiming that it should be them. And before I explain why, I want to say: we have no time to beat around the bush anymore. So I am going to be blunt, and put the statistics exactly as they are. I mean no disrespect to the Greens, to whom I would probably give my second preference in any preferential election in England and Wales, in so doing.

Their main claim is that they have 3 MEPs compared to only 1 Lib Dem MEP, and this means that they are the strongest pro-EU party now. But this is ludicrous. It is absolute nonsense. We have to be honest with ourselves. This state of affairs arose from the 2014 European elections. To hammer home the point, this was five years agoduring the Coalition, when the Greens had more members than the Lib Dems, and we were at our lowest point in our history, ever, full stop. Two general elections later, and with the Lib Dems now having over 100,000 members compared to the Greens’ mere 40,000, and with the Lib Dems having significantly improved their electoral fortunes – for instance gaining over 700 seats just this week, absolutely dwarfing the Greens’ efforts both in terms of gains and raw councillor numbers – the situation is just not the same anymore. We cannot rely on evidence from before Brexit happened – before the seismic shock which changed politics – as justification for how we should act now, against Brexit.

What makes this contention even more outdated is precisely where they are saying they are stronger. In the South West – a Lib Dem heartland, where the party just hit it out of the park in local elections (see chart below). In the South East, where the Lib Dems just picked up a cluster of brand new councils – Mole Valley, Winchester, the Vale of White Horse. In London, where post-Brexit opinion polls clearly show the Lib Dems are doing best and outperforming the Greens.

Again, I want to underscore with as much clarity as I possibly can that I have enormous respect for the Greens. If we used a sensible system of proportional representation like STV, they would get my second preference. If it were an election at any time other than this, I would not be making this post. But this is not the time to be messing around. We need to make a statement.

People can vote for who they like. It’s their right as electors. And I’m sure this post will get a reaction from Green members who are understandably passionate about their own candidates. But I just want to present the evidence once again. Evidence from the post-Brexit era.

  • The Lib Dems beat the Greens in every region in the 2015 and 2017 general elections.
  • The Lib Dems beat the Greens in terms of vote share and councillors elected in 2017, 2018 and 2019
  • The Lib Dems beat the Greens in the London local elections in 2018, including gaining majority control of an extra two whole councils.
  • The Lib Dems beat the Greens in the Scottish local elections in 2017, which are the only post-Brexit election conducted by proportional representation in mainland Britain so far. They got almost double the number of first preferences, and over treble the number of councillors.
  • The Lib Dems are ahead of the Greens in by-election victories
  • The Lib Dems have proven they are back stronger than pre-Coalition by gaining +704 council seats this week, concentrated in the South East and South West.
  • The average of polls conducted for the 2019 European elections has the Lib Dems on around 9%, with the Greens on around 7%. These were before the local elections, which showed a major Lib Dem set of gains.

Every single one of these things are facts. The only countervailing evidence is that most of these elections were done by First Past the Post. But there is not a single time that the Greens have beaten the Lib Dems post-Brexit, and nor is there a single region where the Greens are outperforming the Lib Dems. Remainers: we have to wake up. We have to accept reality. I know there are Greens who will vote Green no matter what, and all power to them. But at this election – this one time, where so much is at stake and so much can change if we send the right signal – we have to get behind the party which all the evidence shows is the strongest pro-European party out there. Please let’s get real, and force the main two parties to understand that we want them to stop Brexit.



It’s true: the Liberal Democrats are far more radical than Labour

At autumn conference this year, unnoticed by most as the farce of Brexit continued to dominate headlines and Lib Dem attentions, the party passed some of its most radical, progressive and exciting economic policy in years. In the nearly four years that I’ve been a member, I’ve spent a lot of my time criticising the party for failing to think properly about the economy beyond tinkering with the existing system, so it fills me with happiness that we’ve finally sorted ourselves out. In particular, I noticed this article get a lot of stick. How ludicrous, the critics say, that the dull, centrist Lib Dems can paint themselves as more radical than Corbyn and McDonnell! But here’s the thing – it might be uncomfortable for some to admit, but it’s true. And here’s why.

In some of my more formal essays on liberalism, I’ve outlined the necessity for liberals to be genuinely radical and creative with their economic solutions, and not just be content to operate within the same old systems which have caused such structural damage and disadvantage. I’ve argued that we need to systematically dismantle those structures of domination, and truly liberate people economically. These policies do exactly that.

The policy I’m perhaps most excited about is the realignment of wealth taxation. By abolishing inheritance tax and instead taxing intergenerational transfers as income, as well as taxing income from wealth in the same way as normal income, we stop the entrenchment of privilege across generations by huge transfers of wealth, while giving most people – the non-wealthy – a very generous allowance and exempting small gifts. A similar proposal was mooted by the IPPR, my favourite think-tank, and it’s fantastic to see it as formal Lib Dem policy.

But it’s also about what we can do with the money raised from this. We now have policy to set up the Citizens’ Wealth Fund, a sovereign wealth fund managed by independent financiers, to invest on behalf of the nation. Most excitingly, we want to use it to set up a citizens’ dividend, so every person can share in the growth of the nation they helped contribute towards. I am particularly interested in a supplementary idea, spoken about before by Vince, of turning this into a young people’s dividend, receivable on their 18th birthday, to really hammer home our message of intergenerational fairness. We also want to invest in lifelong education and reskilling, so workers are equipped for the modernisation of industry. We are the only major party talking about this.

But we’ve also come up with more: most notably, abolishing business rates and replacing them with a land value tax. This proposal would stop the absurd disincentive to investment and development that business rates currently provide, and would instead tax solely the basic land occupied. In this way, the burden of taxation also shifts from tenant to landlord, and thus provides a major shift of economic power.

Adding all of this together is a radical platform in itself. But combined with existing policy – most notably employee-ownership, one of our core pieces of industrial policy for over half a century and ingrained into our constitution, and a preference for new wealth taxation on property rather than higher income tax, our economic policy is by far the most reformative and fresh of any of the major parties. This is most notably true with Labour: the economic section of their 2017 manifesto merely called for some taxes to be tweaked upwards, a few nationalisations, and intervening to stop high street ATMs being taken away. They try to present themselves as radicals, but the truth is that their policies are pedestrian. The Lib Dems are the real reformers, and after Conference this year, that is truer than ever.

Party Reforms

It has been widely reported in a number of newspapers and other outlets today that Vince Cable is planning on introducing a series of radical reforms to the Liberal Democrat rulebook in an effort to re-energise the party and create a “mass membership movement”. Although some of the details appear to have been mangled in some of the reporting – most notably because journalists tend to have a chronically shaky grasp of how Lib Dem internal structures work (and Jennie Rigg of FCC has debunked them well in her blog here) – I want to tackle the principle of it, and explain why on balance, I think parts of this would be a bad move, regardless of how or when it’s introduced. I qualifiedly support a supporters’ scheme, but I do not support the party being led by a non-MP.

Supporters’ scheme

The first element of this would be the introduction of a supporters’ scheme, according to the reports, and it has been touted as being along similar lines as Labour’s, but requiring that a person be of twelve months’ standing before they gain the full privileges associated with it, which are implied to be leadership election privileges.

This strikes me as a half-good idea for one main reason: engagement. Membership of the party is £12 per year (or less if you’re under 26), which is the cheapest of the main parties, but the psychological barrier of “being a member of a political party” is, I would argue, more significant. The ordinary person who watches the news and has a set of opinions, but doesn’t like to associate themselves with “politics” or being “a politician” is often put off by the idea of party membership, seeing it as a step too far. The way I see it, the supporters’ scheme could be a way to bridge this gap, and give those people who are liberal and want to show support an avenue for doing so within the framework of the party. That way, we can keep in touch with them, engage with them, and hopefully persuade a few of them to end up delivering and campaigning, and maybe even joining as full members.

Where I depart from the idea, however, is the idea that we should give such supporters voting rights in leadership elections. The reason for this is not entryism (the Lib Dems are already very open to entryism with our unconditional one-member-one-vote system for determining conference policy, and entryism didn’t impact Labour’s leadership elections at all) but rather incentive: if supporters have the same primary rights as members, what is the point in being a member? My suggestion would be that supporters gain reduced or limited rights, such as half-votes at conference with special voting cards, or half-votes for internal committees, and so on.

Non-MP Leaders

The worst part of the ideas mooted, however, is changing the rules to allow a non-MP to become leader. It has been rumoured that this is a step to allow Gina Miller, the anti-Brexit campaigner, to become leader, but I’ve not heard any reputable person in the party give any credence to that. But regardless of who is being lined up for it, it should be fully resisted. And the reason for this comes down to what the party ought to be.

The Liberal Democrats are the youngest of the major parties in a very narrow sense, but are the formal successors to the Liberal Party, who are the formal successors to the Whigs, and thus, the Lib Dems are the modern representatives of a liberal tradition and movement going back almost 350 years, into the seventeenth century. And crucially, that tradition is a Parliamentary one. We introduced the welfare state, we expanded the franchise, we liberalised the economy, we equalised marriage – all through having MPs in Parliament as the supreme decisionmaking body for the country as a whole, and making that our primary goal. It is a goal that we should maintain. Having a non-MP as leader would shift this focus unacceptably.

From a public relations standpoint, it would also be undesirable. Having a non-MP leader would make it considerably harder to get name recognition in the media. We already struggle – having a confusing split between the person leading us in the Commons and the person leading us overall would exacerbate this. And worst of all, it would signal a lack of seriousness, a relegation to the position of pressure group or single-issue party, like the Greens or UKIP. We are neither of those things. We are the only liberal party in British politics. We have been in government more recently than Labour, and – I’d wager – it is unlikely that they will get into government before us again. It would be a betrayal of the 2.3million people who voted for us last year to pack it all in and abandon our Parliamentarism – especially if the goal of so doing would be to put someone like Gina Miller in power to defer to the Remain crowd, thus obscuring further our other policies.

So while the supporters’ scheme may have some merit and may be a good way to get more people involved in liberalism and the party, some of the specifics aren’t quite right, and the idea to allow non-MPs to be leaders is, to me, very much the wrong route. If we want a better pool from which to pick leadership contenders, then there’s only one option: we’ve got to get more Lib Dem MPs elected.