The Syria Vote and Beyond – Radical Ideas for Difficult Problems (by George Kendall)

Originally published on LibDemVoice on 5/01/16

This Saturday, there is a day conference for Liberal Democrat members on the Syrian issue, sponsored by Lib Dem Lawyers association, Liberal International, and the Lib Dem Christian Forum.

It looks excellent.

To quote from the organisers, the event is to “discuss/disagree/learn from others in a respectful way to promote better understanding”.

It won’t be for recriminations over the vote in parliament or looking backwards; but rather an event where we can all learn a lot, and share forward-looking ideas.

In the Lib Dems, we’ve a wide range of opinions over Syria. There certainly are in the Social Democrat Group. I suspect, we all have a lot to learn, I certainly do. But, by and large, we want the same outcomes and there may be more agreement than we realise.

Syria is possibly the most complex foreign affairs issue for fifty years. The organisers have provided some links for background reading, and it’s clear from these that this will be a very thoughtful and serious event.

Congratulations to Graham Colley for organising it.

I’m going, and I’m looking forward to a fascinating and productive day.

The Syria Vote and Beyond – Radical Ideas for Difficult Problems
9.30 to 17.00, this Saturday, 9th Jan,
Bermondsey Village Hall, Kirby Grove, London SE1 3TD
Pre-register here (before Thursday, £25, £10 for concessions)

George Kendall is convener of the Social Democrat Group, which is being formed to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party.

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Is evidence-based policy losing out to populism? (by George Kendall)

Originally published on LibDemVoice on 10/09/15

Populism always sounds good, but in the long-run it usually hurts those it is supposed to help.

In the UK, interest rates used regularly to be cut to stimulate an artificial boom before an election. This was good for the ruling political party, but the country paid a heavy price later. In the nineties, the Liberal Democrats championed the idea of making the Bank of England independent, and, in 1997, Labour implemented the policy.

As a result, inflation has been controlled, and business and international investors have more confidence in the UK. It’s no panacea. It didn’t stop serious mistakes being made over bank regulation. But, I think, it’s proved a real success.

In 1997, the Labour party proposed a National Minimum Wage. Many were deeply concerned that, by not allowing the existence of low paid jobs, this policy would price some low skilled workers out of the job market.

To counter that fear, the minimum wage was set, not just by politicians, but after the public recommendations of a new independent body.

The Low Pay Commission’s terms of reference were:

to recommend levels for the minimum wage rates that will help as many low-paid workers as possible without any significant adverse impact on employment or the economy.

Over the seventeen years of its existence, internationally, the Low Pay Commission is seen as a policy success.

These two policies are excellent examples of evidence based policy. Independent bodies assess the evidence and publish their conclusions. Politicians provide their terms of reference, but, by subcontracting the assessment of the best precise levels of interest rate or minimum wage, we avoid populist decisions that might do more harm than good.

Unfortunately, the tide seems to moving against evidence based policy. In the 2015 election, Ed Miliband proposed a minimum wage of £8 by 2020. £8 wasn’t a particularly high figure. From previous experience, if the economy kept growing, that’s about what the Low Pay Commission would have recommended.

What was bad about Ed Miliband’s proposal is that it ended the policy of setting the minimum wage based on the evidence at the time.

Worse was to come after the election.

In a shameless piece of political opportunism, George Osborne announced that the minimum wage will be raised to £9 per hour by 2020. The Office for Budget Responsibility warned that this could well cost around 60,000 jobs. But as this policy provided Osborne with political cover to significantly cut in-work benefits, and few of those extra unemployed would ever vote Tory, why should he care?

Of course, Jeremy Corbyn has now gone one further than Miliband and Osborne. He is proposing £10 per hour.

Jeremy Corbyn is also proposing the Bank of England print money for new large scale housing, energy, transport and digital projects.

If politicians could instruct the Bank of England to fund the capital spending of the government, this would drive a coach and horses through the independence of the Bank of England.

I would like more capital spending, especially on housing, but printing money to get it is dangerous.

 Up to the time of the independence of the Bank of England, inflation was a constant threat to the UK economy. If we want more capital spending, the government needs to struggle with the difficult problem of finding the money, not pretend it can magic it out of thin air without dangerous inflationary consequences.

The political tide may be turning towards populism, but we don’t have to follow it. In coalition, the Liberal Democrats had a good record of supporting these evidence-based institutions. Even if Labour and the Tories start to abandon them, I hope we stick with what has served the country well for eighteen years.

George Kendall is convener of the Social Democrat Group, which is being formed to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party.

If left-wing is anti poverty, how is Corbyn left-wing? (by George Kendall)

Originally published on LibDemVoice on 11/09/15

Most left-wingers I meet think of left-wing politics as being about reducing poverty. If that’s left-wing, then I regard myself as a left-winger.

They usually only believe in a bigger state, because they think the state is the best way to help the weakest in our society.

That can be true, but it depends how far you take it.

In my previous article “Is evidence-based policy losing out to populism?”, I argued that two supposedly left-wing policies, which Jeremy Corbyn has proposed, could actually increase poverty. Raising the national minimum wage beyond the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission will probably increase unemployment, particularly for the unskilled who will increasingly have difficulty finding work. And printing money to fund capital projects will risk a return of the curse of high inflation.

Not all Corbyn’s policies are bad, but I think the worst is his central theme, an end to austerity.

We are currently running an £89.2 billion deficit, a lot lower than the £153.5 billion of five years ago, but still high. Even if we adjust for the economic cycle and remove capital spending, it’s still £43.7 billion per year.

On top of that, we have a public sector debt of over 80% of our GDP, which is already worryingly high. If we don’t reduce the deficit, the debt will continue increasing, and so will the interest future generations pay on that debt.

Many left-wingers argue that austerity is not necessary because Keynes shows we can get out of a deficit by spending more, stimulating demand, and the increased size of the economy will generate taxes that will reduce the deficit.

That seems to me a complete misrepresentation of Keynes. He argued that deficit spending made sense during an economic downturn, but it should then be matched by budget surpluses after. As we are now in the expansion phase of the economic cycle, it’s very disappointing to hear supposed followers of Keynes advocating the opposite of Keynes.

Of course, Keynes’ belief in surpluses during the expansion phase is only his opinion. In a paper just released for debate, some IMF economists have suggested that countries like the UK could have the option of running a balanced budget, and then allow our high levels of debt to decline as the economy grows. This suggests that George Osborne may be being too savage with his cuts, which I think many Liberal Democrats would agree with. However, it would still require continued austerity, as we are a long way from a balanced budget.

Whichever of these two views is correct, running a deficit in a recession clearly makes sense. But now we are in the expansion phase, failing to reduce the deficit means borrowing more money from the future to pay for better public services today.

However, it’s even worse than that.

There are currently four people of working age supporting each pensioner in Britain. By 2035 this number is expected to fall to 2.5, and by 2050 to just two. Pensioners bring many benefits to society, but, with a greater need for health care and welfare support, they significantly increase costs to the welfare state.

That means that by 2035 our welfare system will be under much greater strain than it is today. And, in that sense, the future will be poorer than the present.

If, rather than running a surplus or a balanced budget during the expansion years of the economic cycle, we run a large deficit, that means we’ll be forcing the taxpayers of 2035 to subsidise our public services today. And that means we’ll be taking from the poorer future, to pay for our richer today.

How is that left-wing?

(This article raises many questions which I don’t have space to answer. If LDV are willing, I will continue in a future article which will suggest what policies would truly reduce poverty)

George Kendall is convener of the Social Democrat Group, which is being formed to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party.

We should weep at what is happening to Labour (by George Kendall)

Originally published on LibDemVoice on 3/09/15

Whoever wins the Labour leadership battle, it’s going to be a torrid time for Labour. There are already accusations and counter-accusations, threats of a legal challenge, and that’s before we know the result. Perhaps, this will help with the #LibDemFightback. It may well lead to a faster recovery in the polls, another surge of new members, and more by-election victories. But there is a terrible downside.

I remember the last time Labour self-destructed. When that happened, I was horrified. We had a Labour party that was unfit to be the Official Opposition, and a Conservative government that ruled in triumphalism for 18 years. Not everything the Tories did was bad, but some of it was appalling. The Poll Tax was only the most prominent of many policies which harmed the weakest in society, and sometimes the worst policies were small measures that the newspapers never noticed.

I joined the SDP. I don’t regret it for a moment. Someone needed to provide a credible alternative to the Tories, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Labour.

For a moment, it looked like we could achieve the impossible, beat the first-past-the-post system and kick the Tories out of government. But we failed, and those in poverty paid a terrible price.

My worst memories of that time are the 1992 election, when in many seats we seemed about to make a breakthrough. Then the Tory leaflets dropped on our supporters’ doorsteps saying, don’t vote Lib Dem, or you’ll put Neil Kinnock in number 10.

Those leaflets were devastating. Fear of Labour was so great that even some who had put up our posters admitted later to voting Tory.

Something similar happened in May this year. The fear of Prime Minister Ed Miliband, held hostage by the SNP, was enough to deliver a result no one expected: the majority Tory government that rules today.

If Labour self-destruct, as it looks like they’re doing, I won’t be celebrating.

There’s nothing we in the Lib Dems can do to stop it. We just have to carry on with the fightback, campaigning for sensible policies, recruiting more new members, winning more by-elections. And we will need to try to displace them.

But we should be under no illusion. It’s the Tories who should be laughing. We should be weeping.

George Kendall is convener of the Social Democrat Group, which is being formed to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party.

How do we reach out to social democrats beyond the party? (by George Kendall)

Originally published on LibDemVoice on 7/12/15

Many Labour members are thinking of resigning. I’m sure we would love them to join us. How can we encourage them without being too pushy?

If you are a social democrat outside the Liberal Democrats, whether in the Labour party or not, if there are ways the Liberal Democrats could make it easier for you to switch to us let us know in the comments below.

Here are a few of my thoughts.

Don’t forget we lost too. Moderate members of the Labour party may have lost the leadership battle for their party, but we’ve lost most of our MPs. Let’s acknowledge these twin disasters for the centre-left, and talk about how we can move forward.

Don’t call them authoritarians. The rule of law is central to Liberal Democracy, so a lot of anarchists call us authoritarians. If you don’t like that, don’t use the term on others. As a party we have a range of opinions on how to balance liberty and security. Social Democrats are the same.

Don’t call them Liberals. If they prefer to be called social democrats, respect that. If they join they’ll soon discover they are also Liberal Democrats.

Don’t tell them to resign. Many in the Labour party will have been members for years. Perhaps their friends and family have always supported Labour. This has happened incredibly fast, and it will take time to decide how to respond. We need to respect that and respect them. At this stage they need to know they’ll be welcome, but also that we understand if they feel they have to stay and fight.

Those are just my thoughts. I’ll be interested to read what others think.

The Social Democrat Group aim to reach out to social democrats beyond the party. If you would like to help, do email us, fill in the form here, or visit our Facebook page.

George Kendall is convener of the Social Democrat Group, which is being formed to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party.

Why I am a social democrat (by George Kendall)

Originally published on LibDemVoice on 17/09/15

Social democrats know that to fight poverty you need a vibrant economy. It is the goose that lays the golden egg, and it flourishes with freedom, but it stagnates in a factory farm.Social democrats don’t just do poverty reduction as a minor act of charity, it is central to what drives them. But a true social democrat won’t just throw money at the problem, they will look for what works.

For a short period, I worked in the field of international development. When listening to those who had worked in the field, I was struck at how hard it is to be effective. How easy to introduce schemes that make you feel good, but when the funding runs out, you have left poverty just as it was, and a legacy of disillusionment, with rusting white elephants as testimony to good intentions but bad planning.

I’m acutely aware that the same is true in British politics, that helping people out of poverty requires more than just good intentions. It can’t be done on the cheap, and so, to fund it, you need a strong economy.

This means that among the allies of the poor are those who pay the taxes to fund the programmes that can help them.

I never joined the Labour party, I joined the SDP in 1981, but I always knew that kindred spirits in the Labour party were fighting for these same ideals. I wished them well, but I couldn’t join them.

I saw in Labour a party divided, between those driven by thoughtful compassion, and those driven by anger. I remembered too well at university a Labour member grabbing me by the throat, and I always feared that Labour was vulnerable to a takeover by dangerous people, perhaps with good intentions, but too much anger, and not enough rigorous thought.

I’m afraid my fear has been vindicated. Jeremy Corbyn and John MacDonnell may mean well. But I do not trust the movement they lead. There is too much anger. There is too little careful thought. There is too much ready condemnation of those with different views.

I stayed with my party as it merged with the Liberals. I’m still uneasy about calling myself a Liberal. However, I am proud to call myself a Liberal Democrat, and when I talk to those around me who call themselves Liberals, they care just as much about poverty as I do.

We’ve had an awful time in Coalition. Shackled to our traditional enemies when the money had run out. But there’s no doubt in my mind that what drives my party is a desire to help the weakest succeed in life.

I suspect there are some Labour social democrats who are now looking for a new home. If you’re one of them, have a look at the preamble to our constitution, have a listen to Tim Farron, and I think you’ll realise that, even if you’ve lost one home, there’s another waiting to welcome you.

The Liberal Democrats have a daunting responsibility. Before, there were two parties which could be said to be led by social democrats, and there used to be a strong tradition of one nation conservatism that cared about the poor.

But since the cynical regressive budget in June, and the election of the new Labour leader, we are alone.

We are still badly bruised from an awful election result. As the sole standard bearer of social democracy, we need your help. Please join us.

Written by George Kendall, who is convener of the Social Democrat Group, which is being formed to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party.

We must reclaim our Social Democrat heritage (by George Kendall)

This was originally posted on LibDemVoice, and you can find it here.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party brings back memories. Of when a Labour activist grabbed me by the throat, and a Trotskyist threatened to break my arm.

Few Labour members in the 1980s were violent, and nor are the vast majority of Corbyn supporters. But I have no doubt that the same intolerance and intimidation that I experienced at university is being felt by moderate Labour members today.

There will be many lifelong supporters of the Labour party, who believe as we do, that to fight poverty you need a vibrant economy. People who are now being told that they are not welcome in the Labour party.

As Liberal Democrats, we would love them to join us, but it won’t be easy. Liberalism has a long heritage, but so too does social democracy.

If they leave the Labour party, they may be turning their backs on decades of their life, be cutting ties with many friends.

They will hate the idea of abandoning the rich tradition of social democracy, to join a party about which they have many misconceptions. This is why I believe we need to explicitly reclaim our social democrat heritage.

The Liberal Democrats were formed as a merger of the Liberal party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Former members of the SDP have been among our most prominent figures: Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers, Bob Maclennan, to name just a few.

However, too often, the SDP is airbrushed out of history, and we are simply described as a continuation of the Liberal party.

Social democracy lives on in the preamble to our constitution. We are not a party that is only interested in liberty, but seek “to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity“.

The words of the founding declaration of the SDP still resonate with many Liberal Democrats today: “We want to eliminate poverty and promote greater equality without stifling enterprise or imposing bureaucracy from the centre. We need the innovating strength of a competitive economy with a fair distribution of rewards.

Like most members of the SDP, I was enthusiastic about the merging of our two parties into the Social and Liberal Democrats.

From the start, there was controversy about the name of the party. We needed to move on from those arguments, so I was one of those who voted for the new name, Liberal Democrats.

In practice, that name change meant little. When I meet new members of the party today, they are inspired by much the same values that brought me into the SDP in 1981.

Since then, I might not have thought of myself as a Liberal, but I was happy to simply call myself a Liberal Democrat.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected this autumn, that changed.

What really matters is what we believe in. But labels are also important, because they shape perceptions. If Labour are foolish enough to discard their social democrat heritage, we should reclaim ours, and, by doing so, show that social democrats have a home with us.

To help reclaim that heritage, I would like to suggest a new fringe group within the party.

It would have two aims: to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party.

In the private members forum, we have discussed what to call this group, and we settled on Social Democrat Group.

If there’s anyone reading this article who would like to see such a group created, please email us, fill in the form here, or visit our facebook page. You can also add a comment after this post.

Our party faces very serious challenges, but the need for the Liberal Democrats is as great as ever. This is also a time of opportunity, when we may be able to draw in many who share our values, but who don’t think of themselves as Liberals.

Let us take that opportunity.

Written by George Kendall, who is convener of the Social Democrat Group, which is being formed to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party.