A week or so ago I wrote about the needs for the Lib Dems to prepare for a partnership parliament. Since then we have won the Brecon by-election and a lot of the talk, quite rightly, has been about the ‘Remain Alliance’ which helped to deliver victory to the marvellous Jane Dodds. What the by-election has, in my opinion, absolutely demonstrated is that politics has become so factionalised that there will not be a Parliament in which one Party will have an absolute majority after the next General Election whenever it is held.
If we are to have a ‘Partnership Parliament’ then perhaps, we ought to consider a partnership approach to the elections which will precede that Parliament. In many ways the one is clearly the precursor to another. So, in response to the challenges that have been made to me I set out what I think are the key themes on which we should negotiate pre and post-election.
Note that I said themes here. People rarely vote for or against specific policies. They vote for or against beliefs and themes which express themselves by way of high-level principles which they can relate. They then conclude on those themes that such a Party or such a person is the one that most resembles ‘my’ beliefs.
There are two items which seem to be to be redlines which must be a pre-condition of the Lib Dems working with other Parties.
Firstly, we must revoke Article 50. This is a change from my previous position that we must aim for a referendum in which we would put the case for staying in the EU. Things have now dragged on for far too long. The public and private sectors are unable to make key investment or other decisions because there is no clarity about the way forward. The only way to resolve these concerns and protect jobs in places like Ellesmere Port for automotive workers or the hills of Brecon for upland sheep farmers is to have a quick decision.
Secondly, there must be an absolute commitment to electoral reform. The impasse in Parliament has largely happened because too many MPs are calculating their individual chances of survival in a haphazard ‘First Past the Post’ system which has failed to deliver a strong government. Not only does this apply at the election stage but also in the way people behave in Parliament with a narrow tribalism which limits real innovation. In practical terms we need a single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.
Both of these objectives can be delivered quickly in the kind of short-term Parliament which might exist after the next election. Then a General Election could be held in which the elections took place on the new STV system Let’s leave the House of Lords out of this quick fix agenda and return to it later. But there are four more areas where declarations of intent can be made now for wider, more rational strategic discussions but where some things can be done very quickly.
Principle One – Housing. Housing is a basic human right and we should consider the place we live primarily as our home rather than as a financial investment. Our homes should be appropriate to our needs and should be placed in safe, green clean neighbourhoods. Quick wins would be taking the money away from the calamitously expensive programmes to assist home ownership and putting it into social housing; and removing incentives for buy to let or buy to provide holiday uses.
Principle 2 – Climate Change – Put remedial and prevention measures into every strategy so that all departments and levels of government take this seriously and think about it in every step they take. Quick wins including reinstating grants at an appropriate level which would encourage investment in solar, wind and water power generation; and putting more investment into bus and rail delivery.
Principle 3 – Education – Make the centrepiece of our policies the belief that the best education systems are ones that ensure that people of all ages want to learn rather than being forced through a sausage machine of tests within narrow disciplines. Quick wins include abolishing regional commissioners and OFSTED and put the money into reduced class sizes and local support mechanisms for schools; and reducing the SATS regimes which cause so many problems to teachers, parents and students.
Principle 4 – Health and Social Care – Make the centrepiece of our policies the prevention of illness and disease rather than the curing of illness and disease. Quick wins include using the 1% on income tax already proposed to create prevention strategies and programmes to keep people fit and healthy; and stronger controls on the advertising of food and drink to limit unhealthy consumption.
Now you might argue that I have left out vast areas of policy from defence to transport to regionalism to employment etc. I’ve done that for two reasons:
- We need to get “Six to Fix”, in people’s minds and we do that best by giving a limited number of things for them to think about. We can get all six on a pledge card the size of a playing card that we could give to people as an aide memoire to liberalism
- These are the things that most people talk to us about on the door step.
This does not mean that we shouldn’t have a high-quality and precise manifesto which covers the whole gamut of policies. Of course, we should. If I was fighting Portsmouth, for example, I would want to be able to talk about defence. In Wales and Scotland, I would want to talk about devolution.
This approach has three main merits:
- We don’t need to establish large amounts of new policies. The ones I have mentioned above are ones where we already have established policy ready to go.
- Most people agree with the basic principles outlines above
- They act as a useful ‘litmus test’ for parties or individuals that might want to work with us pre-or post-election.
Whether you support the contentions in this article or not it is abundantly clear that all Parties must begin now to think through what will happen in the run up to and after a General Election. It must not be business as usual on the basis that one Party, ours or another, will form a single party majority Government after the election. If Parliament is to be effective it must be prepared for new ways of working and the best way to prepare for those new ways is to test them out by realism in the cauldron of British Politics – the General Election itself.