I am most well known as a Liberal Democrat activist, from my days as Liverpool City Councillor (a World famous city), and also as someone who taught students Criminal Law at the University of Liverpool for many years. Even many friends do not remember that I left the Liberal Democrats in 2012 to stand in the election for Police Commissioner for Merseyside, and that I have not rejoined the party. (My website, by the excellent Prater Raines, is branded as an official Lib Dem website from when it was first created but in fact has always been my personal political website). It was my intention to rejoin the Liberal Democrats before this General Election because Britain really does need a Liberal party, and the Liberal Democrats are our best hope for a Liberal party. However, I am away doing voluntary work in Ukraine for a month as a visiting Professor in South East Ukraine and never got round to rejoining. Why am I still supporting the Liberal Democrats?
The Liberal Democrats are incredibly unpopular in Britain because of Nick Clegg's decision to go into Coalition with the Conservative Party in 2010. In addition no one trusts the Lib Dems because of Nick Clegg reneging on his promise not to increase Tuition Fees for University students. I bitterly disagreed with Nick Clegg on the Tuition Fees policy (a policy that I supported but he never really did). I also believe that it would have been better for the Liberal Democrats to not enter a coalition but simply support votes in Parliament on their merits. Nevertheless, Nick Clegg was both brave and honest in entering a coalition. I like Nick but believe he is a failure as a Leader, but I don't doubt he went into Coalition for the good of the country, and the UK is better in 2015 because the Liberal Democrats are in Government than if the Conservatives had ruled alone. The Liberal Democrats have mitigated the worst excesses of the Conservative ideologues.
And don't tell me the tosh about a Coalition with Labour in 2010. The Conservatives won the election. They got the most votes and the most seats. Labour were rejected because they were out of touch and unpopular – something Labour activists and MPs who won their seats forget. Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have been very unpopular because they went into Coalition with the Conservatives, but they would have been equally unpopular in most of the South of England and with 'middle England' if they had gone into Coalition with Labour, something that Labour voters fail to think about. There are actually genuinely different views in the country and your tribe is not necessarily right. The Liberal Democrats are the third party in Parliament and most people voted Conservative, more people Labour, but – despite everyone remembering one broken promise – to be fair to Nick Clegg he has implemented a very large number of Liberal Democrat polices in Government. The Liberal Democrats did not win a majority, they are not the Government, and they have enacted a very large number of Liberal Democrat policies. I like Nick Clegg personally but disagree with him severely on political strategy. But it is a fact that he has kept a lot more promises than he has broken. I believe most people in British politics are honest, and Nick Clegg is more honest than most. After the election I hope he is swiftly replaced by Tim Farron as Party Leader because some miracle would be needed to restore Nick Clegg's reputation and trustworthiness, fair or not, and a miracle has not been forthcoming. Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy, these are our popular leaders and I'd put them on leaflets, not Clegg.
For me the most important political areas are the Economy, Foreign Affairs (internationalism), the Environment, and Civil Liberties. With the exception of the Economy, the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition government has been better on each of these areas than Labour were in 1997 – 2010. Labour started well on most of these issues, and under Gordon Brown as Prime Minister it actually finished quite well, but in between, the Tony Blair, Ed Balls, Gordon Brown roller coaster was a disaster in many areas. Labour crashed the economy through the boom and bust that they promised to avoid because they would not rein in people's greed in the housing bubble and the credit and claims cultures. They failed to tackle generations of unemployment by getting third generation families off benefits and into work. On foreign policy they usually followed United States' Presidents' policy right or wrong. And on civil liberties they were obsessed with legislation and social control. (Incidentally I used to list only civil liberties, the environment and foreign affairs, but my view on the importance of the economy – jobs – both changed over time, as jobs are so important, and because of a conversation once with a girlfriend, Emily, who pointed out very clearly that issues that were important for me might not be those that were of most real importance to other people. And I realised that for many people the economy is actually most important because they have no choice otherwise). On the economy, the Conservative policy has been too ideological – swingeing cuts driven by political dogma; too fast; too much. Drastic action was needed, not Labour's proposed sticking plaster, but this has been the worst of Thatcherite slashing. Tuition fees was important and symbolic for me – but students have been better off because of the Coalition policy than if the Labour Party policy was still in place. Most people – particularly the vehement Labour activists, student politicos and the legions of Middle Class Labour supporters – who criticise Nick Clegg (and by unfair extension all the Liberal Democrat MPs and party) on tuition fees, actually voted for parties that support Tuition Fees and didn't vote for the one main party that opposed Tuition Fees. If they had voted Liberal Democrat then there would have been more Liberal Democrat MPs and tuition fees and other unpopular polices might have been stopped. Instead the public reverted to voting by tribe – in Liverpool wasting their votes by voting Labour, that achieves nothing as it makes no difference to the result, and in many marginals backing Conservatives because of fear of Labour. As the Icicle Works sang, "Be careful what you wish for it may come up and surprise you .. ".
It it simply a fact Nick that because of the Liberal Democrats the Coalition Government has been better on the environment than Labour was. Labour did some things. The Coalition promised a lot and has delivered some things, but it has definitely done more than Labour. It has also been overall better on Foreign Policy (it started well, as did Labour but then retreated to populism more, but still largely very good on overseas aid), and on civil liberties. The same with civil liberties – it started very well and then retreated into some of the same mistakes as Labour – presumably because of pressure from some senior civil servants, some wings of the police, and the authoritarianism of some in the Conservative Party. Labour under Tony Blair (because of the Cook – Maclennan agreement) were better on civil liberties at first than I expected, and good on constitutional reform. In fact the Labour Government of 1997 made the most important constitutional reforms in nearly a century, and introduced important measures on police accountability, thanks in large part to Jack Straw, someone I have usually personally strongly disagreed with. The one Labour policy that I disagreed with that proved a huge success was the minimum wage.. I thought it would drive costs up in the North and damage our economies outside of the South East but Labour were right and I was totally wrong. On the other hand, while Cameron and Osborne and their party have been wrong on cuts – the scale and pace – they still make more economic sense than current Labour Party policy. Ed Milliband is deeply unpopular among Conservative voters and many 'left wing' Labour activists but this is unfair. He is not tainted by the mistakes of New Labour, he is principled and honest. He actually seems to say what he believes. Clegg and Cameron do too I think, but with Milliband it is more intellectual. For me the best government after the election would be a coalition of all the talents, including Al Murray as Foreign Secretary as one of our very most intelligent political commentators on history and foreign affairs, but this is probably a step too far for the conventional British public, let alone our political parties.
An issue for me that is both symbolic of the Coalition failure, and a real significant social problem, is the destruction of public libraries. I appreciate there are many views and arguments, and that libraries are not a priority for many people with other concerns, but for me – had campaigning by civil and political activists not stopped closures – the near wholesale destruction of our network of free public libraries would have been the historical legacy of failure of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Government. As it is, the philanthropy, the huge generosity of that great human Andrew Carnegie, has been been hugely damaged by a mean Government and I regret that my political party nationally has failed to stop this and been worse than Labour were (even though locally, Liberal Democrat Councils have protected libraries better than other parties).
PS Three other answers to questions.
Yes I will rejoin the Liberal Democrats if Tim Farron is Leader. In fact I will rejoin after the election to campaign for my very good and principled Liberal friend Tim Farron to become Leader.
Yes, after the election principled Liberals within the Liberal Democrats will try and rebuild the Social Liberal party that Britain needs – and I will support the group led by our leading Liberal intellectual Michael Meadowcroft – who try to achieve this by providing intellectual leadership to the social Liberal activist community.
Yes I have run away to Ukraine to deliberately hide from the election. I am in a part of the World now where issues are rather more important than the debates in Britain. Also I have been a political activist from the age of 15 (with Crosby Liberals / Liberal Democrats) for 25 years (yes I did start young) and wanted a break. Even last time getting married and having a honeymoon during the election campaign was not successful in giving me a break as of course I still got stuck in helping my friends when I got back. So I am sorry I am not helping my friends this time – in another post I will ask you to vote for them and help them – but I wanted a break for the first General Election since 1987.
PPS My wife, Frances, has my proxy vote and will use it however she sees fit. It is entirely her decision. I believe we both voted Green locally, in my case of course I oppose many Green Party authoritarian or unrealistic policies, but our local Green Party councillors in St. Michaels ward in Liverpool are exceptionally good (the same reason many people always voted Liberal in local elections). I'm happy for Frances to use an extra vote entirely as she sees fit. And here in Ukraine, politics really is a matter of life and death through no choice of the Ukrainian or Russian people.
A wider statement on rebuilding the Party after a poor election result.
Yes, after the election principled Liberals within the Liberal Democrats will try and rebuild the Social Liberal party that Britain needs – and I will support the group led by our leading Liberal intellectual Michael Meadowcroft – who try to achieve this by providing intellectual leadership to the social Liberal activist community. I've read Michael Meadowcroft's arguments in support of Liberalism from his Liberator magazine published pamphlets of the 1980s, through his days as President of the independent 'Liberal Party' to now, and continue to believe with him and my many friends that a quick fix solution to create a Liberal tolerant society is not possible. Like Simon Titley , Greaves, Lishman, Le Breton, Wilcock, Smulian and others I believe that continued promotion of the values of tolerance, fairness and liberty is needed. As both friends and opponents remind me, I constantly need to remember these values myself. Re-reading the work of Conrad Russell is always a good place to start. Plus anything recommended by Alex Wilcock, Mark Pack or Bill le Breton.