What the Lib Dems need to do to get back on track in 2013

Stopping the worst excesses of the Tories is not enough. The party needs radical new policies.

We’re bumping along in the polls at around 10 per cent, we have the most unpopular leader of all the major political parties, and in the last three Westminster by-elections we came third, fifth and eighth, losing our deposits in two of the three campaigns. You might think the Lib Dems go into 2013 with a large black cloud hanging overhead and an awful sense of impending doom. You’d be wrong.

The grassroots are surprisingly chipper. In the most recent Lib Dem Voice survey (fieldwork just before Christmas), 77 per cent of respondents said they continued to support the party being in coalition, 61 per cent said they thought the party was on the right course, and (hold onto your hats) 58 per cent said they were either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with Nick’s leadership.

How come? Well, partly it’s the Pollyanna lurking inside every Lib Dem. Doing less than spectacularly in mid-term polls is the default expectation for most grassroots members (even if by-election disaster after disaster is something of a novelty), so this doesn’t feel like particularly alien territory for most folk. It’s also true when you look at local election results – and when we think about the 2015 general election, we think of it at a local level – we’ve done rather better in 2013 than most people realise.

And many in the party genuinely look at the good things the Lib Dems have achieved in government – 2 million out of income tax altogether, the pupil premium, Green Investment Bank et al – and think actually, for doing all that, unpopularity is a price worth paying. And that’s a fair point. But I can’t help but feel the party may have listened to the Prime Minister’s call for the country to approach 2013 with a sense of realism and optimism a tad too literally.

So here’s my two pennies' worth for the next 12 months if the Lib Dems are going to get back on electoral track.

We have a ‘new’ positioning of the party as the only repository of both economic competence and social justice. Of course, it’s not new– Nick announced it at conference in September 2011. But it’s not really stuck has it? Might I suggest that this may have something to do with the fact that demonstrating economic competence during the worst economic malaise for 80 plus years is quite tricky? Ditto social fairness, when the last government before you has spent all the money, and you’ve got your coalition partners introducing a benefit cap and apparently encouraging words like ‘feckless’ and ‘workshy’ to be bandied about.

So if that’s the strategy, fine – but we’ll need some rather better communications to get it resonating than we’ve managed to date. Might I suggest ditching the HQ line of ‘the Lib Dems are working to build a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life’ for the rather snappier ‘Lib Dems represent the head and the heart’. Folk might actually remember that.

And while stopping the worst excesses of the Tories is as important as ever – the snoopers' charter being just a starter – that won’t be enough. Neither will shouting ‘well, what would you do then?’ on a continuous loop at the Labour Party. We need some new, exciting policy initiatives of our own. Our newly elected federal policy committee needs not just to be thinking about the general election manifesto for 2015. It need to be presenting conference very quickly with some radical new thinking for debate and agreement. And then we need to be presenting it to the country.

As a party, we spent too long on our non-differentiation strategy with our coalition ‘partners’ – and we are now similarly in danger of thinking that if we shout at the Tories about how awful they are for the next 30 months, all will be right in the world. It won’t. We have 12 months to show the country we are still the radical, reforming and creative political party the members all joined. And if we do that, combined with our record to date, we’ve got a half a chance.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Nick Clegg delivers a speech to the Centre Forum at The Commonwealth Club on December 17, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Sir Ivan Rogers: UK may wait until mid 2020s for an EU trade deal

The former ambassador to the EU had previously warned his colleagues about Brexit negotiatiors' "muddled thinking". 

Brits may have to wait until the mid 2020s for a free trade deal with the EU, UK's former ambassador to Brussels has warned.

Sir Ivan Rogers, who quit abruptly in January after warning of "muddled thinking", gave evidence to the Brexit select committee. 

He told MPs that his Brussels counterparts estimated a free-trade agreement might be negotiated by late 2020, and then it would take two more years to ratify it.

He said: "It may take until the mid 2020s until there is a ratified deep and fully comprehensive free-trade agreement."

The negotiations could be disrupted by the "rogue" European Parliament, he cautioned, as well as individual member states.

"Canada [the EU-Canada trade deal] not only nearly fell apart on Wallonia, it nearly fell apart on Romania and Bulgaria and visas," he said. 

Member states were calculating what the loss of the UK will mean to their budgets, he added - although many were celebrating the end of Britain's much-resented budget rebate. 

He also thought it unlikely the EU member states would agree to sectoral deals, such as one for financial services, if it meant jeopardising the unity of the EU negotiating position. 

In his resignation letter, which was leaked to the press, Rogers told his staff that "contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities"and that he hoped they would continue "to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking".

Rogers said the comment was about "a generic argument on muddled thinking", which applied to "the system". He described how the small organisation he initially headed had been swamped by new arrivals from the newly-created Department for Exiting the EU.

The new recruits were enthusiastic, he said, but "they don't know an awful lot about the other end".

The UK needed to understand "we're up against a class act with the European Commission on negotiating", he warned. 

He said that if the UK reverted to World Trade Organisation rules - the option if it cannot agree a trade deal - it would enter a "legal void".

"No other major player trades with the EU on pure WTO terms," he said. "It's not true that the Americans do, or the Australians, or the Israelis or the Swiss."

The US has struck agreements "all the time" with the EU, he explained: "A very significant proportion of EU-US trade is actually governed by technical agreements."

Once the UK leaves the EU, it will be treated as a "third country", he added. This meant that the UK would need to get on a list to be allowed to export into the EU. Then individual firms would have to be listed, and their products scrutinised.

Rogers revealed he had debated "endlessly" with colleagues about the UK's relationship with the EU. "The core of the problem is not day one," he said. "The problem is day two, or day two thousand. What have you just captured your sovereignty and autonomy for?" Simply getting access to the single market would not mean a level playing field with EU companies, he explained.

He said: "The European Union is not a common sense agreement. It's a legal order."

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.