What will Thursday bring for the Liberal Democrats?

Four key things to watch out for as the results come in...

As you start to read this piece, you might well be expecting (and be readying yourself to be bored) by the usual pre-polling day political spin, so instead I am going to pick out four key points to watch out for as the results come in on Thursday and Friday to judge how the parties are doing.

First: how do the Liberal Democrats do in Scotland? Historically, when Labour has gone down in the polls and the Conservatives up, the Liberals and then the Alliance have suffered. Recent elections - including both the last two general elections - have seen this pattern broken. With Labour's popularity clearly on the ropes in Scotland, will the Liberal Democrats prosper or not? The outlook from the last batch of opinion polls is looking promising for gains, and Scotland was of course the scene of the famous Dunfermline by-election victory in 2006.

Second: how do the Liberal Democrats do in the key Westminster marginals? A divergence between overall results and those in key Parliamentary contests was seen last year in London. In several key seats for the next general election the party made substantial progress (such as in Brent, Camden, Haringey and Lewisham). Whilst there were less good results elsewhere, the overall result was that the Lib Dems are far better poised to elect more MPs next time in London than we were before the London elections. We may well see a similar pattern this year, with the Liberal Democrats doing significantly better in many of the key marginal Parliamentary seats than elsewhere.

Third: how credible will any Conservatives claims to be back on the road to power turn out to be? After the May 1978 elections (i.e. the last round of elections before they won the general election) the Conservatives had 49.6% of councillors. After May 1996 (i.e. the last round of elections before they won the general election) Labour had 48.1% of councillors. The Conservatives had 38.6% after last May's elections, so to get up to 48.1% would require net gains of over 2,000 councillors (even allowing for by-election gains in the interim).
Anything short of 2,000 gains would still leave them well short of the position they and Labour were both in last time they won from opposition.

Fourth: how does the Liberal Democrat share of the vote compare with Labour? On the estimated equivalent national share of the vote, the Liberal Democrats and Labour were neck and neck in 2004 and 2006. Will the party emerge in a clear second place this time?

As for the result I'll be looking out for most closely ... it'll be the one where I was involved in a last minute legal scramble to sort out problems with the nomination paperwork. Let's hope that hassle was worth it!

Mark Pack is the Head of Innovations for the Lib Dems. He previously worked in their Campaigns & Elections Department for seven years.
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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.