Asking the qustions: James Baillie
Here's the second of our two leadership contest interviews, the much awaited "Swinterview" in which we sent James Baillie to ask deputy leader Jo Swinson questions on the issues that matter to radical Lib Dems (our first interview, with Ed Davey, can be found here). In this interview, Jo talks about having a national debate over our collective priorities, the hypocrisy of Conservative drugs stances, how we can support activists better, the overriding importance of stopping Brexit, and how to harness technology for both the party and society. Want to know more? It's all here...
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?
Because I’m proposing a truly radical agenda of change that focuses on fundamentally re-shaping our society and building a system that works towards the priorities we set as a country – tackling inequality, reducing poverty, and rebuilding our social safety net, rather than just offering rewards to the richest, the safest, and the people with the most power. If that isn’t radical, I don’t know what is!
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?
Back in 2007, just two years into my first term representing East Dunbartonshire and long before it was fashionable to carry reusable water bottles and coffee cups, I tabled a Bill in Parliament aimed at reducing the amount of packaging used for products bought in our stores. As a result, I secured commitments from manufacturers such as Nestle and Cadbury to reduce excessive food packaging.
If I had a five-year term leading a government, I would want to enact electoral reform so that we finally do away with the broken two-party political system in our country. And that way we can have far more opportunities as a party to enact a radical, liberal agenda to build a better future for all.
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 – it makes no sense to me that Tory policy would see them give people who have moved permanently out of the UK votes for life, and deny them to our next door neighbours. We only need to look at the difficulties many EU citizens faced when trying to vote in May to see how many councils view the ‘optional extra’ voters who are unable to vote in General Elections – many not even receiving the information they needed to properly register.
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?
The financial crisis of 2008 presented us with an opportunity to fundamentally change our economy. But in the fog of a collapsing financial system, we were too focused to get the show back on the road and failed to see the huge appetite for change and that the system hadn’t been working for everyone for a while.
I think we are at a similar crossroads now. Not only is our future prosperity at risk because of Brexit, but the technological revolution ahead of us presents us with immense opportunity to do things differently. And I think this time we need to do whatever it takes to seize this moment because we are long past the point where tinkering at the edges will be enough to create a system that works not only for the planet, but also for people.
That means being radical, and the Liberal Democrats have a proud tradition in that. I can see how UBI is attractive, and I also think that ideas such as Universal Basic Services have merit too. But in order to debate the solution, I think first we need to debate and define what it is we want our economy to do and look like – and that debate should be with the public, not just Lib Dem conference.
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?
One of the big problems with Lib Dems is that we love to talk about policy. The ins and outs, the debates, the minutiae – at conference, in the media, in the manifesto. Most people don’t engage with policy in that way. What we need isn’t a way to sell ideas but how to sell the feelings that they evoke.
For example, nothing gets a Lib Dem member more excited than talking about land value tax, but there are millions of liberal-minded people for whom that policy means very little. What they do care about is keeping local shops open, that their elderly relatives who live in small towns can still go to a bank to collect their pension, that high streets have something to offer to children, young people and other parts of the community too. A radical reform to our tax system is vital to reviving our local economies, but let’s talk about it in a way that excites the many others who are not yet part of our movement. We need to talk about what our policies do, not what they are.
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?
As a party, we should be so proud of our liberal stance on social issues, and we should be unashamed in taking credit for the progress we have achieved in our country, especially while we were in Government. Take our stance on drugs. Like many people, I’m someone who smoked cannabis at university, and am so angry at the hypocrisy of Conservative politicians who admit casual drug use and then argue for a drugs policy that doesn’t work and fail to recognise the link between drugs use among the privileged and the knife crime crisis on our streets.
In terms of our core policy messaging, I think we need to find the right opportunities to maximise the impact of these ideas. For example, the campaign to stop Brexit is a perfect time for us to make the liberal case for why immigration is good for our country.
7. You're seen in some quarters as being the candidate more willing to work with parties like ChangeUK. What do you say to those who worry about how we'd reconcile our positions and policies with a group in which some MPs were for example prominent in the No2AV campaign or helped pilot ID cards?
The single most important thing we need to do right now is to stop Brexit. And I won’t rule out anything that helps us to do that, including working with other parties to deliver the numbers we need to deliver, and then win, a People’s Vote. This is simply too important for us to draw tribal lines over.
On the broader point, I have always believed that you achieve more in politics by finding the areas you agree with people and working to deliver them. Take Andrea Leadsom, for example. Her and I disagree quite strongly on a great range of issues, not least Brexit, but I still worked with her, and others in Parliament, to deliver proxy voting for MPs on parental leave. We set our differences aside and made the House of Commons that little bit more modern and inclusive.
We will always be able to find points of division if we look hard enough, but I think if we are serious about uniting the country, the political class needs to work harder to find those points of agreement and common-ground. And, as a party, we need to welcome those who share our liberal values, and be ready to work with others on the issues where we share a goal.
8. Your pitch discusses harnessing the technological revolution - given the rapidly changing economy, can you say more about how we ensure power doesn't become too concentrated in the hands of those who control key technologies?
We are living through a technological revolution that will change our lives in ways we can’t even imagine. But while advances in healthcare and green transport will improve our society, there is no doubt that the companies behind many of these technologies are exercising ever greater power over our lives and influence over our behaviour.
We should create a Digital Markets Unit to support greater competition and consumer choice in digital markets, which would build on the work I did while Business Minister to extend consumer rights to purchases of digital content. The Unit would agree and set out upfront a code of conduct to complement anti-trust enforcement. It would make data portability a reality, making it easier for us all to download our data and take it to another provider. And, a lot of the power that these tech giants have is down to the sheer volume of data they hold, so we need to find ways to open up data access in a way that still protects privacy to help build new businesses and challenger services.
9. One of your key pledges is to look beyond GDP as a core prosperity measure. How do you think that would change government decision-making?
Before changing what we measure, we need to first have a debate as a society about what we value so that we can be confident we are putting people and our planet first in the decisions and investments that both government and business make. The key difference will be focussing less on the here and now and more on the future we are creating for the generations to come. We need to be clear about the kind of economy and society we want to create, and then point all of our resources to achieving that – whether it’s government, our public services, our businesses or civil society.
With the way in which trust in our political establishments has broken down among the public, I think it is fundamental to the success of any future government to have that debate, get the agreement, and then deliver on it. Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand is setting a fantastic example – as a country, they’ve published a well-being budget with investment in mental health, children wellbeing and homelessness, having decided to measure success by assessing not just economic health, but also the well-being of the nation. I think we have some lessons to learn from their approach.
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?
There is no limit to my ambition for the Liberal Democrats. At the last local elections and European elections, we have proved that we are the rallying point for the liberal movement in our country, and as leader I would want us to go from strength to strength in even more parts of the country.
I think digital has a big role to play in building our presence and encouraging more members to do more. For example, we could provide more training digitally to help build up the skills you need to run a local party and campaigns. One potential solution is to build links between stronger and bigger local parties with those where we are trying to build from a low base – again digital connections can help hugely with this too. We have such great knowledge and experience among our members, and we just need to get better at sharing it!
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?
The number one thing we can do is to grow the party and then train and support them so that we can grow our activist base. We are 105,000 strong but there are millions of liberals out there who I want to join us, and that way we’ll have a much stronger base to campaign from. I also think it’s about working smarter, not just harder. We have to invest more in digital campaigning, and help local parties to learn those skills and use them at a local level so that we can deliver our messages in new ways.
And we also need to ensure we don’t make unrealistic demands of people. Some will happily travel far and wide every weekend or evening to deliver and door-knock, but so many others will have caring responsibilities, demanding jobs, or chronic illnesses, that restrict how much they can do. It shouldn’t be all or nothing, we should make it easy for anyone to help as much or as little as they can.
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?
One of the things I love about our party is that the party members play such a crucial role in policy decisions. I will always argue vigorously for the things that I believe in, but the job of the leader is to be the messenger of the party’s policies. So if the party agreed a policy I disagreed with, I’d accept that result and then do my absolute best to get out there and sell it!
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?
I want to see more recognition of why it is that people join the party now – not primarily at a local level but at a national level where key issues and policy-making are high on their agenda. Attending conference is a big commitment – financially, in terms of time, in just getting up the nerve to book – for members who may not ever have met other Liberal Democrats. That’s why I want to see us commit to providing more online engagement with conference – including online voting. People shouldn’t have to be able to pay to give up 4 days and travel hundreds of miles to engage in democracy.
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?
Interest groups are hugely important to the party – we know that people who are members are more likely to stay members, and I think they have a key role to play in recruiting people with certain interests or from certain communities to be party members. I want to see AOs and SAOs treated like local parties so they earn money when they recruit members directly – and are rewarded for keeping hold of them. I also want to see these groups run as professionally as possible – really giving people with interests somewhere to get involved at an issues level if they’re not involved in their local party or if they joined us for a particular reason. We need to make more of them.
15. What will your approach be to diversifying the party from what's currently a very white, middle-class base?
I’m a big believer in visibility and inclusivity. If I’m a young black woman and I don’t see anybody in the Lib Dems that looks like me, why would I think I would be welcome? At a really basic level it’s about being welcoming and making sure we’re listening to people who support our policies but just can’t quite get themselves to join us. Higher up the party I also think we need to recognize that the people who can give up a lot of their time for free (or at their own expense) are disproportionately middle class, white men. We need to look at ways to involve people that doesn’t require them travelling or giving up multiple evenings a week – making the best use of technology and, yes, considering funding positions which are currently simply out of reach of the vast majority of the population.
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?
I have often said that we have lost the art of disagreeing well. We have to be able to have debate and disagreement in politics without it becoming abusive and divisive, but too often that isn’t possible. As leader, I’d be setting the example of how I want our politics to be by not acting like an old-school tribal politician but instead focussing on where we can work with those people we agree to tackle the big issues that face us, namely Brexit and the climate emergency.
And that's all from us! As always, please do let us know what you thought of the questions; you can email us at email@example.com, tweet to us @RadicalAssoc, or join our Radical Association Supporters Facebook group for discussions. Thanks for reading, and good luck deciding how to vote!