I haven’t updated this blog for over a month. For people used to my more loquacious periods, that may seem odd. The reason for not blogging much however is quite straightforward: I don’t have anything to say.
That isn’t to say that I don’t have opinions about stuff, in particular how our new coalition government is faring. I’ve got “reckons” coming out of my ears. I just don’t think they’re particularly worth broadcasting beyond the occasional sarcastic tweet.
I have had, I have to admit, a bit of a crisis of confidence. How I steer a course through this political brave new world isn’t something that I’ve managed to get a particularly strong handle on yet. Do I defend the Lib Dems and champion the various things that we are getting out of this deal? There are numerous things that I support and possibly even more things that I’m prepared to accept, but I didn’t get into this blogging lark to simply echo the party line and I don’t see any reason to start now. Equally, I have no wish to turn this blog into one long whingefest about all the things that are happening (effectively in my name, natch, since I signed up to this) that I am less than comfortable about.
In theory it is all a question of balance, but in fact I think it is about more than that. Political commentary over the past few months has become something I have become increasingly intolerant. So much of it is little more than noise; a succession of cliches that don’t fundamentally add anything. Fundamentally, I’ve become very conscious of the fact that I need to choose my fights carefully; I just haven’t fully worked out what exactly those fights should be.
After 100 days of the coalition, I can’t deny that my overwhelming emotion is one of frustration. I’m frustrated with a government which seems to be lead by a small coterie of people more interested in expressing their mutual admiration than being clear about what they are doing and in what direction they are planning to take the country. I’m frustrated by ‘deficit porn’ – of talking about cuts as if they are the answer to every single question instead of questioning rigourously where cuts may in fact prove to be a false economy (both in the sense of cuts leading to a double dip recession – on which the jury is distinctly out – and in the sense of creating cuts in social care and anti-fuel poverty measures that end up creating more strain on the health service, which is theoretically ringfenced). I’m frustrated that the vision, such as it is, for what we want to see the country look like after we emerge from this economic crisis, is so tepid. This appears to be mainly because, despite all this florid talk of how united Clegg and Cameron are, this is the one area where the coalition fundamentally disagrees. Yet that makes it all the more important that we start talking about it instead of limiting it to lowest common denominator stuff like “social mobility”.
And I am especially frustrated with the opposition, such as it is. My fears that Labour would end up getting trapped into a mindset of “what’s bad for the coalition is good for us” have proven to be well founded, and it is an infection which has spread across the board, even among some relatively sensible types. A perfect example is AV. Leaving aside the rather tedious row about boundary changes (which, aside from some of the legitimate social justice issues at stake, amounts to two parties with a rather inflated sense of entitlement arguing about which party should be given the greatest unfair advantage), the idea that losing the AV referendum will damage the coalition is quite mistaken. It will certainly damage the Liberal Democrats, but we’ll have nowhere to go. Our only recourse will be batten down the hatches, refocus on Lords reform and a handful of other reforms, and hope for the best. It will be the Tory right that will hold all the cards, not Labour. The idea that suddenly we’ll decide to pull out of the coalition and meet our doom in an early general election is pure fantasy.
By contrast, what better way to undermine the Clegg-Cameron love in than for Labour to champion AV, and win? The Tory right will be damaged, Labour will come out smelling of roses and the Lib Dems’ influence within the coalition will increase. For many Tories, that will be simply unscionable. An unruly Tory backbench will make Lib-Lab cooperation in Parliament far easier. This is the prize Labour have within their grasp; yet they are so obsessed with ‘betrayal’ they simply can’t see it. I can only look on in despair.
On the economy, Labour are simply in la-la land. Let’s be clear: Labour pledged at the last election to halve the deficit within four years; the coalition plan to half the deficit within three years. Labour planned a 70:30 cuts:tax rises package and conspicuously didn’t rule out raising VAT; the Coalition plan a 77:23 cut:tax rises package which includes raising VAT. While the Coalition’s cuts are undeniable steeper than what Labour intended, Labour has made it clear that they oppose number of cuts to non-frontline services that the Coalition is introducing – specifically by scrapping the National Identity Register, ContactPoint and prison places. These ringfenced spending plans would have to be paid for out of increased cuts to frontline services.
The Labour leadership candidates have been remarkable. The four men (Diane Abbot is the exception to all rules here) have all indicated that they think the economic policy Labour fought the election over this year was mistaken, to a less or greater extent. At some point, surely, someone should ask the question: if four of the supposedly most talented and articulate members of the last cabinet opposed that economic policy, why was it adopted? Surely they had the numbers on their side; surely they could have forced Brown and Darling to back down? Their radical convictions fail to convince in another area: for all this talk of increasing taxes on the rich, I’ve yet to hear any of them call for anything more radical than keeping the 50p rate on higher levels of income tax after it is due to be scrapped in a few years time. The Robin Hood Tax (how I hate that name)? Nice idea in theory but how will you introduce a financial transaction tax without international cooperation? And how long will that take? And let’s not kid ourselves that this is a tax on rich bankers; it’s a tax on bank accounts. I’m afraid that none of the leadership candidates have come up with anything even mildly radical when it comes to progressive tax measures, even failing by the Lib Dem 2010 manifesto’s own modest standards.
It is now clear that Labour never intended to win the election and feared what might have happened had it done so. None of the parties published adequately detailed spending plans, but Labour’s plans were the most opaque. In doing so, they have a blank slate from which to work from and can spend the next five years opposing every single cut while knowing that they would had to have made most of them. That’s the plan anyway, but I’m not convinced that it will do them any good. However painful and wrongly targeted the Coalition’s cuts may be, by 2015 most of them will be history. The narrative of taking the hard decisions sorting out Labour’s mess has a great deal of merit to it even if you discount the nonsense about increasing spending immediately after the credit crunch (which was almost certainly the only option). I’m not convinced it will ultimately get them anywhere. Worse, by keeping their activist base in a bubble of unreality, I suspect that any attempt to start adopting a more responsible line is likely to cause any new leader a great deal of difficulty.
But most of all, I am frustrated by the shrillness of it all. Over on Twitter, we’ve been having some fun taking the michael out of the absurd, over the top nonsense emanating from Labour at the moment in the form of #labourbingo (note to self: must make up some cards for the conference season), which in turn has resulted in Ryan Cullen’s Labour-o-matic. It is the only meaningful response I’ve come across to all this patent absurdity. At least the ridiculous ZaNuLieBore lunacy emanating from the rightwing blogosphere was ultimately only articulated by a distinct minority of wingnuts during the last Parliament; within Labour, unironic talk about ConDemNation and allusions to Nazi collaborators has become common currency. Only a tiny handful of people within Labour seem to realise quite how overblown it all is.
The real problem I am having with all this hysteria is that it is ultimately muting my own concerns about the coalition. Exposing myself to this tirade (and the alternative is to shut myself off from reading all tweets, blogs and articles written by any Labour activists, which would almost certainly be worse) simply shuts down all my critical faculties and puts me on defensive mode. I realise it is a bad habit to get into but after three months of it, my inclination to even think about engaging positively with anyone in the Labour Party has reached an all time low. Perhaps that’s just a problem I will have to work out myself, but it would be nice if there was at least some self-awareness of quite how over the top it has all become.
What am I doing positively? Well, I’m pleased to be moving a motion to conference this autumn entitled “fairness at a time of austerity” which seeks to put forward a series of positive objectives the Lib Dems should be fighting for in coalition (including making the Office of Budget Responsibility genuinely independent, making the case for wealth taxes, investing in housing, preventing the creation of a ‘lost generation’ and ending child poverty). The Social Liberal Forum has a good line up of fringe meetings at this autumn conference. I’m also becoming established as a quite shameless media tart. Beyond that, I’m doing a lot of thinking offline and trying to get my head around it all.
I never thought I was going to enjoy a coalition with the Conservatives and thus it has proven to be. But lest there be any doubt, however much I might be uncomfortable I am clear that it is better than all the alternatives. The problems we face as a country are problems that all three parties are currently failing to grasp and both the Lib Dems and I personally have never been in a better position to do something about that. But I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m not entirely clear what that needs to be.