The Radical Interviews - Ed Davey!

Asking the qustions: James Baillie
In the first of our two leadership contest interviews, we sent James Baillie to catch up with Sir Ed Davey to ask a range of questions on matters important to radical liberals and Lib Dems. Our interview with Jo Swinson is is out and can be found here. In this interview, Ed defends his record as energy minister and his "decarbonise capitalism" slogan, details plans for pushing ahead with tackling climate change, backs a renewal of council house building and votes for non-citizen residents, and offers the idea of policy crowdsourcing as his key plank for expanding member engagement in policy processes. Interested? Read on...

1. First off, the elevator pitch: in one sentence, why should radicals - those who believe in fighting for big liberal ideas, economic justice, and social freedoms - vote for you to be Lib Dem leader?

I have spent 30 years in the party arguing for redistributive policies like land value tax, scrapping council tax and an expansion of council housing, for economic reforms like employee share ownership, mutualism in the energy, health and transport sector and green economics and for new social and political freedoms like new rights and support for more vulnerable people like the homeless, the bereaved and the disabled – and I have a track record of achievements for many of those ideas.

2. What's the most radical thing you've achieved in politics, and what's the most radical thing you'd want to achieve if you had a five year term leading a government?

Getting the EU to agree to a target for at least 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 when I was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, not least because this paved the way for the 2015 UN Paris Climate Treaty. The then Head of the Civil Service told the Tories that it was OK to allow me to have this goal as the UK’s negotiating position in the EU, as there was no chance of EU states ever agreeing to it! And even the EU’s Climate Change Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, thought it was too ambitious to get agreed. But I formed the “Green Growth Group”, worked with likeminded countries, and conducted what I call climate diplomacy across the EU for nearly 3 years and I won, confounding the sceptics!

The critical role which I played was recognised at the time by EU leaders “Ed Davey is taking a leadership role in setting ambitious targets and it is very much to his credit that we’ve made so much progress” (Danish Climate and Energy Minister Rasmus Paterson speaking to The Guardian, 7th October 2014. For me, this showed both the vital role which the EU can play in tackling climate change and the benefits of working with, rather than against, our EU partners in achieving policy goals.

I would want to deliver my aim of decarbonising capitalism in five years – both because tackling the climate emergency is so urgent but also because it would enable radical redistribution of economic power within our country, including greater regional economic development for communities that feel and have been left behind in recent decades. My work developing the supply chain for renewables showed the potential of this, with the top example being when we persuaded Siemens and ABP Ports to invest £320 million into a green port and an offshore wind turbine factory in Hull. This produced 1,000 direct well-paid jobs and many jobs indirectly and is a key part of the economic regeneration of Hull. Similar though less dramatic changes have occurred on the back of my renewables work in places like Grimbsy and Lowestoft, proving the economic justice that can be achieved on the back of green economics and a “Just Transition” from fossil fuels.

We can do so much more of this – for example, by kickstarting the geothermal heat industry in Cornwall, by developing a new Tidal Lagoon industry in Wales, the North and South West, by reversing the Tory changes to my plans for a Carbon, Capture and Storage industry. Add in the benefits to areas like Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland of the offshore and onshore wind sectors, and there’s an economic transformation enabled by decarbonising capitalism. If you then add in the social, economic and environmental benefits from a massive programme of insulating buildings to end fuel poverty, consider the economic benefits of promoting my ideas of “Your Home, Your Power Station” (solar, batteries, etc), and look at radical green transport policies, five years’ decarbonising (without the Tories!) could transform our country.

3. Vince recently suggested that we should expand the vote for national elections in view of the contribution that EU27 immigrants make to our society. Would you support ending taxation without representation and giving all permanent UK residents the vote regardless of citizenship?

Yes, absolutely. It makes no sense that Commonwealth citizens are allowed to vote in national elections but EU citizens who are UK residents cannot.

4. Forms of social security that don't depend on work-seeking, such as NIT, UBI, and unconditional universal credit, are an idea that could be a logical step onward from our current policy of abolishing welfare sanctions. Where do you stand on those ideas, and do you think it's time we debated them fully at conference?

I am very open to this.

I do think the urgent priority is to reform universal credit, abolish welfare sanctions and get a council house building programme going, and that is what I would focus on initially. However, having led the research work on a Citizen’s Income back in 1989 and 1990, when the party last advocated what we then called a Citizen’s Income or Basic Income, I am very open-minded too ideas like a Negative Income Tax (NIT) and Universal Basic Income (UBI). Since we did that ground-breaking work 30 years ago, there is now more evidence we can consider – for example, the evidence from countries where trials have been held, such as Finland and Alaska. So far, the results to be fair have been mixed, and we need to understand why. This may be because of the design of the scheme or because of intrinsic problems – I genuinely don’t know. I think what the introduction of Universal Credit has shown us is that simplifying the welfare system is very complex and that to do it in a politically acceptable way to avoid too many losers is likely to be expensive. So yes, let’s look at it further and then debate it at Conference, but the experience of Universal Credit would make me reluctant to proceed without significant trialling of the proposals.

Another radical benefit proposal I would want us to consider alongside is whether we can reverse the policy of housing subsidies via housing benefit, and see if instead, we could focus subsidy on bricks and mortar, as used to be the case. I fear we are giving huge amounts of money to private landlords – some of whom are very poor landlords – when we could instead capitalise that money into a longer lasting and ultimately more cost effective and socially just revival of council housing.

5. How would you promote Lib Dem economic ideas like land value tax, restoring social security funding, and increasing NHS spending? Do you think we need to make it clearer that we're in favour of greater economic justice?

We must make it clearer that we’re in favour of greater economic justice, but it is the messaging that is key and I think we need to get much better at this. As a party we have many great policies coming out of our ears but hardly anyone knows about them! One of the lessons from the EU campaign was the value of simplicity and clarity of message “Stop Brexit” and “Bollocks to Brexit”. In the early 1990s, I helped devise the policy/slogan of “a penny on income tax for education” – which was rediscovered by Tim Farron to provide an answer for or commitment to fund the NHS and social care. And I thought up and led the campaign under Charles Kennedy to “scrap council tax”, given its such an unfair tax. We must once again have simple clear message linked to social justice!

I would want to involve the whole party – opening up the whole policy making process – to bring in new policy, campaign and messaging ideas! I think we should have a crowd-sourcing and competition approach to opening up policy to members – looking at successful models elsewhere. I’m particularly keen on learning from experiments like Better Reykjavik!

6. How would you go about incorporating liberal social ideas, such as our stances on immigration, drugs, and sex work, into our core policy messaging? Do you think this is something we should do more of?

One of the three key messages of my leadership campaign is “Fighting for Liberal values” so yes we need to be clear on liberal social ideas. We need to be tactical in when we deploy these and other messages. The furore about Michael Gove and other Tory leadership contenders’ drug use is a great opportunity for us to get across our values and policies on drugs, as are the problems which immigration controls are causing for the NHS, social care, agriculture, construction and other sectors. But alongside being tactical in getting our message across as the opportunity arises we must avoid the temptation to adopt a scattergun approach to messaging. We should have strong policy in all these socially liberal issues, but we must have some message discipline if we are going to win – because if you talk about everything, from the public’s perspective, you talk about nothing. We must re-establish a core identity among the voters.

7. One of your key slogans is that we need to "decarbonise capitalism". Do you worry that talking so much about capitalism will make people question our commitment to economic reforms, and do you think that sits well alongside our commitments to support mutual and worker owned businesses?

I think regulating capitalism toughly – which is what decarbonising capitalism means - fits full square alongside our commitments to mutualism, employee share ownership and worker-owned businesses.

Liberal Democrats believe the market is our servant not our master. We want a mixed economy, and a diverse set of ownership models. We want to make sure markets don’t mistreat workers or the planet. Decarbonising capitalism is a profoundly radical approach to reforming the City, banks, stock exchanges, pension funds and debt markets – and is entirely in line with an approach of “responsible capitalism” promoted by Vince Cable, with new stronger regulations for better Environmental, Social and Governance policies for business. The reforms I introduced as Energy and Climate Change Secretary to reform the electricity market and to promote energy efficiency showed what can be achieved, by smart government intervention – as we saw renewable energy boom and I brought in minimum energy efficiency regulations for the rented sector.

I certainly don’t see the traditional shareholder corporate model as the only one. When I was a junior minister in BIS I worked closely with Co-op UK to push collective purchasing by consumers and then introduced this to the energy market through collective switching. I insisted that there should be a significant employee ownership of Royal Mail and am only sorry that after I left BIS the Tories scaled back the ambitious scale of employee ownership which we had. I introduced legislation which will allow a future government to mutualise the Post Office. At DECC I pushed for and published the UK’s first ever community energy strategy for renewables to provide a challenge to incumbent energy operators and after leaving government chaired a community energy company, helping many communities get into solar and even wind power. So I am passionately committed to delivering much wider forms of ownership than the traditional forms of corporate ownership.

8. What are the biggest specific things you'd be pushing for to make good on that slogan and combat climate change? Do you think we can cover the energy gap effectively with renewables, and if not what other technologies should we be looking at using?

Behind the slogan, I’ve developed a range of detailed policies – from new mandatory rules for transparency for the financial and fossil fuel sectors to new Paris-compliant rules (ie the UN Paris Climate Treaty) on disclosure, accountancy and audit. If anyone thinks that’s boring and dull, tough: they are crucial. I’m in favour of “Divest, Invest”, and have worked with the Carbon Tracker Initiative – my favourite green NGO – on a range of ideas for taking this forward. It’s vital to recognise there are four aspects to reducing carbon emissions.

The first is to reduce our use of energy by improving energy efficiency. There is massive scope to do this through using existing known technologies both in domestic and industrial energy use.

The second is to decarbonise our power sector. We made massive strides in achieving this during our time in government increasing renewable electricity from less than 10% to around 35% currently, whilst substantially cutting the use of coal power generation. There is much more to be done through greater use of onshore wind, solar and tidal lagoon power which the Tories have choked off and offshore wind. Beyond renewables, my next got-to technology would be carbon, capture and storage – not least because the UK has a comparative advantage in it and because we need the technology in order to decarbonise heavy energy intensive industry too. The Lib Dem programme for this which I established was closed by George Osborne sooner after the Coalition.

With respect to nuclear, I have always been sceptical because it is so expensive – and as Secretary of State I ensured it had to pay its full cost, including decommissioning, waste management and the risks of delay and cost overruns. Because I insisted on that – and because we were also so successful in getting down the cost of renewables, especially offshore wind - nuclear now looks incredibly expensive. Moreover, the huge advances in storage technologies – from batteries to smart and pumped hydro – show that remaining “base load” advantage of nuclear is much less significant. So I think the case for nuclear has weakened significantly. But because climate change is such a threat, I don’t think we should ever rule out any low carbon technology, but for the next decade at least, nuclear shouldn’t be in the plan.

The third and fourth aspects of decarbonising are of course heat and transport. Road transport is looking increasing doable and we should have tougher targets for phase-out of the internal combustion engine in new cars. Heat – beyond energy efficiency – remains a remarkably contestable area for the best solutions – with the battle unresolved between zero carbon gas solutions (eg hydrogen) and electric solutions, like heat pumps. We need to focus far more on R&D and demonstrator pilots, at scale, to answer this.

9. Your campaign launch speech mentioned opening up our policymaking process. Can you say more about what you think that should involve?

At the moment our policy making process can sometimes be seen to be too heavily influenced by those who can attend policy working groups in London and who can afford to attend party conferences. So whilst we say that members make policy, in reality it made by a relatively small number of people who may or may not be representative of the views of the wider party membership. I would want to lead a debate on different solutions to this – and pilot some.

My own starting points are the different experiments we’ve seen using technology pioneered in other countries both by political parties and governments at different levels. One example is Reykjavik City council who have been crowdsourcing policy ideas under the banner Better Reykjavik for nearly a decade. In any one period, ideas are put forward by citizens (in our case members!), and then other citizens can vote in real-time, over time, on which ideas they prefer. Then the most popular ideas have to be considered and debated by the Council – who has then to implement some! Over around a decade, this online public participation platform has seen around 80% of local residents engage at least once, and over 600 ideas implemented as a result. Why couldn’t we do something analagous?

Let’s not forget that one of our most recent distinctive policies - raising the personal tax allowance to £10,000 - was a proposal from one of our members in Chester Elizabeth Jewkes. So we have a great precedent.

10. There are many areas of the UK where the Lib Dems still can't field full candidate slates. What's your message to members who live in areas where the party doesn't have current or traditional strength, and what will you do as leader to support us rebuilding in those areas?

As we move from a period of (imposed) retrenchment it is vital to assess how we can best support those who wish to revitalise the Liberal Democrats in their areas. The inspiring thing is how a relatively small number of people can make a massive impact. Whether that was in past Lynne Featherstone in Hornsey and Wood Green to more recently Hannah Kitching in Barnsley and Adam Carter in Rotherham, big breakthroughs can be made. Often stronger nearby parties have helped in providing advice and support such as the Sheffield party in Rotherham but we can perhaps make this rather more structured.

And we also need to recognise that strong national messages appealing to people who share our values can have a massive impact. Who would have thought that in the European elections that we we would win boroughs such as Wandsworth and Westminster where we have no Councillors currently? As Leader my role will be to ensure that we put those supportive structures in place and that we have those clear national messages.

To be honest, there’s also the issue of raising money for the party. We have failed to hit fundraising targets in recent years – so we need to do much better. I believe I can go to businesses and individuals interested in our European ideas and our decarbonisation ideas, and get them to back us – and if we can raise significant extra funding, we can support less well-off areas, and support the rebuilding of the party in different parts of the country.

11. Activist burn-out is a continual and real problem in politics. How can we better support our activist base, and get more members involved to help share the work of winning elections?

Yes “activist burn out” can be a problem and we need to avoid this where possible by training in time and workload management, recruiting new helpers and sometimes a quiet word to suggest people ease off.

But often in my experience it is not “activist burn out” but people doing other things in their life, whether that is family, career or other interests. I can think of many people who were extremely committed activists in their youth and then after ten or twenty years after bringing up their family or developing their career come back to active politics. They have never stopped being Liberal Democrats but other things have taken over for a period. The trick in my experience is to find ways to keep them involved in some way, whether it is in policy making, making financial contributions or just helping out at election time, until hopefully they have the time to become active again. Delivering lots of leaflets or canvassing is not the only way people can help. There are many ways and as far as possible we need to ensure that it is fun and that we give people the opportunity to talk about policy and politics. After all the reason most people join a political party is that they share the same values and politics.

12. One of the most important features of how we make policy is conference, which of course as leader may mean conference will at times vote for policies you didn't agree with. How do you deal with those defeats, and what would your approach be when faced with the party passing a policy you didn't personally want?

It has always been a fundamental aspect of our policy making that it is the members who make policy. I agree with that and we should make a virtue of it. I will of course argue the case strongly if I agree or disagree with a particular policy but ultimately it is right that the members, not the Leader decide on policy. However, we must also recognise that it is a small minority of the party who can afford to, and wish to, attend party conference. So we should look actively at piloting new ways to involve more members in policy-making – from improving the consultation processes to e-voting on policy motions. (See also my previous answer to 9.)

13. Turnouts for internal party elections, such as those to Federal Policy and Conference committees, are often poor, despite these bodies having a huge impact on what becomes Lib Dem policy. How can we better engage members to get involved in these party processes?

See my answers to Questions 9 & 12. I think we must seriously consider reform – but it has to be done with the whole party, and we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water – as there are strengths to having well-considered policy. I think piloting different approaches is the right way forward – to widen the participation – but I’d engage with the party on this.

14. What role do you think associated organisations and ginger groups should have in the party? Would you be in favour of supporting their role more strongly, such as providing better routes for new members to find groups they want to take part in, and making it easier for or incentivising such groups to sign up new Lib Dem members?

They have a vital role to play in the party. In general terms the more the better, as it will show that the party is a vibrant ferment of ideas and will help enable its diversity. I would look to see if we can improve the signposting for new members so that they can understand the party better and more quickly. This would involve making it easier to sign up to party groups. I would also look to see whether we could use the intent of the supporters scheme to attract people in the Liberal Democrat movement initially through interest groups or ginger groups before they are ready to commit to being full party members.

15. What will your approach be to diversifying the party from what's currently a very white, middle-class base?

It is vitally important that we seek to make our party more representative of the society we live in – and at all levels.

My own constituency may well be the most ethnically diverse of any currently held seat – with over 25% BAME and I am delighted that the proportion of our Council Group who are BAME is similar. I have actively sought to encourage BAME candidates: we have for example councillors with Pakistani backgrounds, Tamil heritage and even Britain’s first Korean councillor. I am determined we will improve the ethnic diversity of our MPs.

The same is true on women candidates and councillors. Over 50% of Kingston’s Council Group are now women, and the leadership is predominantly women. I have gone out of my way over many years to encourage women to stand, and to give them the confidence.
You can only ever achieve progress on diversity by making a constant, genuine effort to reach out to these different groups and communities, going to them rather than expecting them to come to us.

16. A serious final question - abuse has been a real problem in politics in recent years, from which no party has been immune. What do you think your role would be as party leader in helping tackle that, and what message do you want to send on it?

We must have a zero tolerance approach. The partymust be a safe space for everyone and anyone who has been shown to have engaged in any form of abuse whether it is sexual abuse, racial abuse or online abuse, must face the consequences. The party must have robust policy and processes for dealing with accusations, independent of the Leader of course – but my message to the party will be that zero tolerance is the only measure for us.

So there you have it! There'll be plenty of interest in here for all Lib Dems Please do let us know what you thought of the questions; you can email us at, tweet to us @RadicalAssoc, or join our Radical Association Supporters Facebook group for discussions.