Quaequam Blog! Not dead but…

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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.

19 thoughts on “Quaequam Blog! Not dead but…

  1. “if four of the supposedly most talented and articulate members of the last cabinet opposed that economic policy, why was it adopted?”

    Because the formulation of policy is not independent of the social forces at work: the ability of a democratic socialist party to formulate an independent economic policy whilst holding national office within a capitalist state (& deregulated economy) is even more limited than it was when Daddy Miliband was writing (a little too pessimistically for my taste) about Labour in the context of a mixed-managed economy.

  2. Exactly. This is basically the post I keep trying to write and not managing it.

    Every so often I go and read through a LibCon thread and despair, bad enough some of the articles are coming from discredited loons, but the casual stupidity from a lot of people I used to respect is more than grating now.

  3. “lowest common denominator stuff like “social mobility”.”

    I’ve read Nick’s speech, and if we have begun to implement his ideas in five years’ time I’ll be very happy. Nothing to do with LCD.

  4. I think you got a bit carried away with the “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)” bit. There’s plenty of interesting stuff being written by Labour activists which you’d find a lot to agree with (or at least find interesting). I can send you links if you’re struggling to find these.

    It’s only been three and a bit months since the elections, and Labour is still trying to work out what it did right, wrong, what needs to change and so on. I reckon that once Labour has got a leader, a new shadow cabinet and so on, then there will be less reflexive opposition and more areas where Labour and Lib Dems can find common ground and work together. I certainly hope and expect that this will involve Labour shifting its policies on civil liberties, foreign policy and many other areas in ways that you and other liberals will find more appealing.

    One thing I do find baffling, though, is that grassroots Lib Dems seem a lot less bolshy or prepared to challenge the leadership than Labour activists when Labour was in government. A couple of weeks ago, Cameron announced plans to hire private bounty hunters to snoop through people’s bank accounts, and there didn’t seem to be any grassroots protest amongst any of the people who think civil liberties is a big deal. It would make it easier for Labour to work more with the Lib Dems if you lot were as prepared as Labour people are to say when they don’t agree with the leadership.

  5. Don,

    There is certainly some constructive stuff emerging from the Labour camp, but it does tend to get crowded out. Worse, there has been a tendency of the sensible wing of the party to adopt a lot of the sound and fury of the headbangers, seemingly out of a desire to put on a show of party unity (I’m looking at you Next Left and Left Foot Forward).

    I understand a lot of the psychology behind it all. The lack of Lib Dem opposition surprises and disappoints me too, but I understand the psychology behind that as well. My view remains that we can afford to push it a lot harder than we do, for the simple fact that the Tories will always be outnumbered in parliament. Most of the LD reticence to take a stand I think is based on the notion that we are a junior partner and in a considerably weaker position that I think we are in reality.

    A lot of the things I have a problem with I think go to the heart of blogging – and twitter – more than anything else. It is just the sheer noise of it all that I stuggle with.

  6. I don’t know what happened to my earlier post …

    ‘…lowest common denominator stuff like “social mobility”’

    I’ve read Nick’s speech, and if we begin to move in the direction he outlines within the next five year, I will be very happy. Nothing LCD about it.

    I’m also pleased to see Simon Hughes speaking up for Lib Dem principles, and look forward to more from him in the near future.

  7. Yeah, I’m there too. I thought listening to Conservatives on Twitter was bad enough, until we were in coalition and Labour went further.

  8. Thank you James. I’ve been waiting to hear what you thought and it was worth the wait. I keep finding myself paraphrasing Churchill’s remarks about democracy. Coalition is awful… but better than any of the available alternatives.

  9. Don, what James says is true, but there’s also the fact that Cameron *isn’t* ‘the leadership’. He’s the leader of the Tories. I don’t know about any other Lib Dems, but I tend to assume that everyone will assume I disagree with every word Cameron says unless I specifically say otherwise, so don’t go around saying “I disagree with the Tories about this, and this, and this, and…”

    But for example, Jennie Rigg and Millennium Elephant complained vociferously about the stuff you’re talking about, and I’m sure others did as well – those were just two posts that sprang immediately to mind.

    And I’d hardly say stuff like this or this was uncritical of the current leadership…

    And finally there’s the benefit-of-doubt aspect. I didn’t vote for Clegg as leader, and I don’t like many of the signals he sends out a lot of the time. But he managed to have a very good election campaign and to play what was a terrible hand *amazingly* well in the coalition negotiations. I think both parties are still trying to figure out how you work in a national coalition, and I’m going to give the leadership at least a few more months to figure things out and start getting results before I start screaming for people’s heads…

  10. Dan,

    There’s plenty of interesting stuff being written by Labour activists which you’d find a lot to agree with (or at least find interesting). I can send you links if you’re struggling to find these.

    What would actually be good? When LC started up, there was the daily netcast, which Jennie used to contribute to. While the format proved unworkable as the site grew and tensions between contributors killed it off, a semi regular linkdump of constructive Labour blogging, as opposed to constructive blogging, would be somethnig I’d be interested in.

    I used to enjoy reading a lot of Labour blogs, especially those critical of the Govt, but now so many (with some notable exceptions) are concentrating on crying ‘betrayal’ and other such nonsense I can’t bring myself to do it, I’m close to taking LC off my feeds currently, or at the very least create a filter view so I don’t see the tripe from certain headbangers.

    It’s only been three and a bit months since the elections, and Labour is still trying to work out what it did right, wrong, what needs to change and so on … One thing I do find baffling, though, is that grassroots Lib Dems seem a lot less bolshy or prepared to challenge the leadership than Labour activists when Labour was in government.

    I think, to be honest, you answered your own question there, which combinede with what James and Andrew has said explains others as well.

    I’m happy to be critical of my party’s leadership, let alone the coalition policies, when it’s appropriate, if I’m in the mood. Labour had been in power for 9 years when I started paying attention to political blogs. Apart from the headbanging fringe, do you really think there’d be that much online criticism at this point in 1997?

    Combine that with the insane amount of abuse anyone identifying as a Lib Dem gets in some places and on some sites, what’s the point? Seriously, even if I was inclined to regularly write up everything I disagreed with (and my mental health simply isn’t there right now), if I post it to LC, what’ll happen?

    Odds are very good if I say a single nice thing about a single coalition policy, including policies I helped write and LCs been calling for for years, several sill simply dismiss the whole thing as being “coalition cheerleading” and similar.

    So combine the honeymoon with the online stupidity, and it makes a lot of us less inclined to engage. It certainly makes me less inclined to engage.

    I reckon that once Labour has got a leader, a new shadow cabinet and so on, then there will be less reflexive opposition and more areas where Labour and Lib Dems can find common ground and work together. I certainly hope and expect that this will involve Labour shifting its policies on civil liberties, foreign policy and many other areas in ways that you and other liberals will find more appealing.

    Gods I hope so. I really want, at the next election, to have a genuine choice as to where to put my 2nd/3rd preference. My MP is a centrist Tory in what will be, regardless of boundary changes, a 3-way marginal where we’re just 3rd. If Labour doesn’t sort its act out I and many like me will find it very hard to put my preferences down that way. (the reason I say 3rd is the likely Green candidates are all good).

  11. Hi James, Mat, Andrew,

    Good responses, thanks. Just as an e.g. about some of the more thoughtful stuff in the Labour blogosphere, two of the last four articles on Labour Uncut have been on immigration and drugs policy, both are very different from the official Labour line on these subjects.

    Just on the point about “Apart from the headbanging fringe, do you really think there’d be that much online criticism at this point in 1997?”, two months after Labour’s victory in 1997, more than 80 Labour MPs had signed EDMs against the plans to cut lone parent benefits, and lots of Labour activists were furious about this at that time. I think that James is right and that Lib Dems are in a much stronger position then they realise to get more changes in policy (this is also Tim Montgomerie’s view).

    At the moment, Lib Dem MPs and activists are a lot less critical of their government than the Labour MPs and activists used to be. I think by being a bit more critical publicly when the government does bad things, you’ll get more policy concessions and less online (and offline) abuse.

  12. Don,

    I too would like to see the LD Parliamentary Party more vocal in its opposition. I think they are being too cautious. But I don’t think the Labour situation in 1997 bears any comparison.

    First of all, this is a coalition not a single party in government. The repercussions of open rebellion are thus potentially much greater. Vocal Labour opposition in 1997 didn’t fundamentally mean very much because it didn’t at any point risk tearing the government apart. That, in part, is behind a lot of the thinking behind the muted response. The question everyone is asking is, how far is too far? The short answer is that no-one actually knows. I might think they are being too cautious, but if can’t claim to answer that question and it is one I wrestle with myself.

    Another reason why it is different is that the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party has always been small and has always tended to operate like a team and a unit. This is in stark contrast to a parliamentary party with hundreds of members in which factionalism is all but inevitable. Labour had its divisions in opposition and entering government didn’t especially change anything.

    But the third reason is that no observer can have failed to have notice that all those grumblings didn’t actually change anything. Blair wasn’t defeated in a House of Commons vote until 2005; Blair tended to win even unwhipped ‘free’ votes until then, such as the 2003 House of Lords reform vote when he intimated it was a vote of confidence in him. The vocal opponents very quickly got dismissed as the usual suspects and found themselves shut out of the conversation entirely. It was only when the number of ex-ministers on the backbenches had reached enough of a critical mass that Blair/Brown were put in a position where they had to start giving their backbenches a time of day.

    I very much doubt that any Lib Dem MP has failed to notice this. And they are certainly very aware of the fact that fighting a rebellion – and losing – all too often can leave a government strengthened. And it isn’t as if the Lib Dem leadership hasn’t made a game out of rising its stock each year by trying to develop a narrative about ‘clause four moments’ in recent years.

    That’s a context we’re all too aware of in the Social Liberal Forum as well, which is why a lot of my summer thus far has been spent trying to dissuade people from trying to fight battles that might be good from the point of view of ensuring ideological purity for a minority of malcontents but will leave us in a weakened position.

    I’ll admit that we don’t always get the balance right. We’re on a steep learning curve. But I for one am very conscious of the fact that simply opposing is never enough; you have to make a difference. If I were to sum up the problem with “the left” throughout the past 30 years or so, it is a failure to appreciate that fact. The problem is, always focusing on moving forward and never looking back is a nice idea in theory but in reality very difficult to maintain.

  13. Is this a Libdem repenting.

    I see the old gag of labour raising vat is doing the rounds.

    Labour cut VAT, and reduced VAT on energy bills, shame that fact didn’t register with the author.

  14. Why are there cuts while that, ‘pointless folly’ Trident is left untouched. Why aren’t the Libdems making it clear that until Trident is put onto the table, there will be no more co-operation?

  15. Matthew:

    Labour was repeatedly invited to rule out raising VAT during the election campaign and repeatedly declined to do so. Thanks to Peter Mandelson, we now know that not only did Alastair Darling intend to increase VAT after the election but planned to do so before so but was overruled.

    By not campaigning about VAT in the election, the Tories were under very little pressure to admit their own plans. In short, Labour created the perfect weather for Osborne to go on to impose the increase. That is ultimately on your head.

    David:

    The short answer to your question is: because Labour would never let it happen. We’ve already seen Labour hold a three line whip to oppose a motion to include Trident in the Strategic Defence Review. Why on earth do you think the LDs should make something a deal breaker that both Labour and the Conservatives actively support? There are nearly 600 MPs in Parliament who are members of a pro-Trident party, none of them Lib Dems.

  16. I’m also still trying to get my head round what kind of activism I want to do during the coalition government, particularly how to get the right balance between public dissent and internal lobbying. It’s not helped by the fact that work and parenting are both keeping me even busier than usual at the moment – while I enjoy both of those, they’re making it difficult to carve out the space to think about activism issues, never mind actually act on the results.

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