Tag Archives: coalition

“Help to buy” undermines the very purpose of the Lib Dems in government

AlexanderUnlike a lot of disgruntled former Lib Dems (and, for that matter, disgruntled current Lib Dems), I still have a lot of time and sympathy for the party. I still think that joining the coalition was the right thing to do. I see the Lib Dems stopping Tory madness on a daily basis and anyone who doesn’t accept this must either deluded or plain dishonest. I oppose many of the welfare reforms, but recognise that with Labour offering virtually no opposition on the subject and public opinion very much in favour, there is not a whole lot they could really do.

And while I’m distinctly uneasy about George Osborne’s economic policies and the Lib Dems’ support for it, I will give him this: even if he wanted to adopt a dramatically different approach, the combined forces of Germany and the financial markets would make it exceedingly difficult for him to do so. And while it’s possible the recovery would have been swifter if we had borrowed more and cut less, I can’t honestly say that I know this to be true.

But much of my respect for the Lib Dems’ work in government is rooted in the fact that it was a responsible decision in the face of economic chaos. It stops right at the point where I think they start signing up to policies which are economically irresponsible. And that brings us to this “help to buy” scheme.

I am hardly the first person to point out that inflating house prices at this time to help people to take out mortgages in an untargeted way will simply help to increase property prices in an unsustainable way and price even more people out of the market altogether. I was alarmed to hear Danny Alexander on the radio this morning denying that the current rate of unaffordable house prices was even a problem and insist that all that was needed was easier access to mortgages. To hear him wistfully talk about how he got a 95% mortgage “25 years ago” (which meant he got his first mortgage when he was 16, incidentally), made it sound as if the Lib Dem policy was now simply a case of returning to the old housing boom fuelled economics of the last few decades and had lost all interest in learning from those excesses.

Housing was one of Labour’s greatest failures. More than anything, their failure to get Britain building during the noughties both heightened the boom and deepened the inevitable bust. And of course, the housing benefit bill would not have escalated in the way it has done. Yet, tellingly, this is one area of policy the coalition have failed to attack Labour on. In the case of the Conservative wing, the reason is fairly obvious: they are engaged in class warfare and very much see the retention of an economy in which the elite’s rent-based wealth is preserved. Historically, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats stood against that sort of thing, at least in the 20th century. Cynics like myself bemoan that Clegg and his former adviser Richard Reeves are part of a faction within the Lib Dems that consider the 20th century Liberals an aberration and see themselves as merely the heirs to Gladstone. It is hard to dispute that when you hear them talking about this issue.

The 2010 Lib Dem manifesto had this to say about the economy:

Fairness is an essential British value. It is at the centre of how the vast majority of British people live their lives, but it has been forgotten by those at the top. Instead, greed and self-interest have held sway over the government and parts of the economy in recent decades. They have forgotten that growth must be shared and sustainable if it is to last.

It would appear that in government, the Lib Dems themselves have forgotten that lesson very quickly indeed. Justifying your role in government as having to tackle the economic crisis is one thing; setting the foundations for the next economic crisis is quite another.

Lib Dems, welfare and the art of negotiation

Nick Clegg signing the NUS anti-tuition fees pledge.As former, disgruntled party members go, I think it is fair to say that I’ve been remarkably discreet and reasonable. I’m not a huge believer in trashing my former colleagues (and still, in many cases, current friends) in some vanity exercise designed to justify my resignation ex post facto, and tend to distrust the judgement of people who feel the need to endlessly do so. Aside from a couple of blog posts, I’ve generally kept pretty schtum, and have very little time for those who denounce the Lib Dems as having sold out and failed to achieve anything in government, as if the position they were put into wasn’t fiendishly difficult or that the alternative – a Tory majority government – would be somehow better. Generally speaking, while I think they are getting the big picture pretty badly wrong, on a daily basis the Lib Dems are making a very real difference in government.

You can tell there’s a but coming, can’t you?

But, then. Tuesday. What, the actual, fuck? Just for the sake of argument, let’s completely ignore the human cost of yesterday’s vote on benefits. Let’s just focus on the politics. Back in September, flushed with his (non) apology about his handling of the tuition fees debacle going viral on YouTube, Nick Clegg issued an ultimatum: “For me, it is very simple. You can’t have more cuts without more wealth taxes.

Well, aside from some tweaking to the pension rules, he didn’t get any wealth taxes this autumn. But you know what? The cuts are happening anyway. So much for “it is very simple”.

Unless, apparently, you are Stephen Tall: “It’s the kind of compromise that happens within a Coalition government.” Well, er, no. The “compromise” was that the Tories would get a cut in benefits and the Lib Dems would get a wealth tax. Spinning retrospectively that all that has happened was Cameron and Clegg split the difference is delusional. What actually happened is that Clegg made an opening gambit, Osborne called his bluff, Clegg blinked, and got a pity concession so he could at least pretend to have saved some face. Carry out your threats or don’t make them; you won’t get a second chance.

Putting benefits at the centre of a horsetrading negotiation is one thing. Failing to carry out threats is quite another. You can argue that the Lib Dems have conceded too much in this coalition, but tuition fees aside, they haven’t actually done that bad a job of over-reaching or making pledges they weren’t prepared to stand by. Clegg, to his credit, has carried out his threat to block boundary changes in exchange for the Tories’ betrayal over House of Lords reform (although the fact that the zombie boundary review lives on within the pages of the Mid Term Review speaks volumes about the weak leadership of both Cameron and Clegg). Things were looking up. Today’s capitulation however can’t be put down to naivety. What it suggests is that for Clegg there ultimately is no bottom line and no point at which he is prepared to walk away. What it tells Osborne is that he can merrily keep salami slicing the welfare bill, and the Lib Dem response will be the Stephen Tall “genius” move of “splitting the difference” each time. It would be comedy gold if it didn’t affect the lives of so many vulnerable people.

Speaking of comedy gold, it should not be forgotten that the Lib Dems communications department would very much like its parliamentary party to keep pushing the line that “The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fair society.” Based on today’s performance, it is manifest that that assertion is not true. Of course you can trust the Conservatives. They have an agenda and they doggedly stick to it. They might not want a fair society (although by their standards, and many voters’, they do), but they can damn well be trusted. That consistency counts for an awful lot in the electorate’s eyes.

It is Clegg, and all those who go along with him, who can’t be trusted. From a communications point of view, flip-flopping in this way is more damaging to the Lib Dem brand than any number of backbench MPs going off message. The Lib Dems’ communications problem isn’t non-entities saying the wrong thing; Clegg himself is the living embodiment of the Lib Dems’ fundamental communications problem. Focusing on anything else is just displacement activity.

Oh, and a final thing. I really don’t understand why it is that so many Lib Dems are so up in arms about Ken Clarke’s secret courts legislation, with talk of special conferences and all out war coming my way from numerous sources, while the best welfare gets is a shrug of the shoulders. It isn’t that I don’t think civil liberties are worth standing up for; it’s the lack of a sense of proportion. Enabling the government to hold secret trials, at most, might affect thousands of people. Benefit cuts stand to affect millions.

Even if you agree with these cuts, from a civil liberties perspective, surely last year’s legal aid cuts were more onerous than the secret courts? I just don’t understand why so many seem prepared to die in the ditch over a principle that affects a tiny minority, while don’t appear capable of doing anything more than shrug their shoulders over cuts which affect a whole segment of society. Again, it appears dangerously to resemble displacement activity; the wider cuts are too hard and too vast, so it is easier to focus on small measures and exaggerate their importance (see also: this utter preoccupation with Labour hypocrisy and opportunism as if that somehow justifies anything whatsoever).

90% of the criticism of the Lib Dems is at best unfair, at worse downright mendacious. But what I saw on Tuesday was a party that has ceased to have any kind of strategic nouse or moral compass whatsoever; that will doom them more than anything.

Clegg and coalition six months on

Nick Clegg signing the NUS anti-tuition fees pledge.The fact that Lib Dem conference is rapidly approaching means that I have a semi-anniversary of my own to mark. It’s now been just over six months since I left the Lib Dems.

Life after party politics

How do I feel? I’ve had a tough, and at times frustrating half year: negotiating the fineries of coalition politics when your full time job is focused on delivering democratic reform is not easy. But I can honestly say that I’ve been happier in myself during that period than I have been for pretty much any period in the last 12 years.

People who follow my blog, my twitter feed or my Facebook account will probably have noticed I’ve been exploring my non-political interests with far more gusto than I had before that period (and yes, I will finish my A-Z of Judge Dredd soon). Although I’ve never had much in the way of personal political ambitions, there has always been a tiny shiny suited version of myself in my head screaming at me to only ever present the world with a cookie-cutter version of myself. I’ve always been a geek and been quite open about it, but these days I feel I can let it all hang out a bit more: it’s heavenly.

Fundamentally though, I’ve felt less guilty. In fact, I’ve felt so much less guilty that I feel a little guilty about that in itself. There’s a significantly louder voice in my head that believes that it is important to feel the weight of the world and to do your bit to stop it from sliding into chaos, and that it is better to have tried and have got it wrong than to have not tried at all. But it would be a total lie for me to deny that the feeling of not coming home from a hard day’s work to angst about all the other awful things happen and what I can do to sort them out is anything less than bliss.

I know this feeling is temporary and that at some point I’m not going to resist getting back into the thick of things. But I’m less inclined to believe that will mean returning to the Lib Dem fold any time soon than I did back in March. Party politics feels so broken for me at the moment that while I am enormously grateful that there are still people working from inside the system, I can’t really imagine myself doing the same.

My quitting the party was a long time in coming. I haven’t been a shiny faced new believer since my disastrous party job in Leeds, which ended more than 10 years ago. Since then, things like party conferences have mostly been a chore for me: a place where there is work to do, and where some of my closest friends could be found, but something which I would escape from every evening at the very first opportunity I got. To truly love the Liberal Democrats in all its idiosyncrasies is to love Glee Club, and I haven’t been able to stomach that rather grotesque and self-congratulatory tradition for years.

I can think of no better way to sum up my six month “holiday” than to refer you to the lyrics of Blue Lagoon by Laurie Anderson (sorry, I did say I was letting my geeky side hang out more). Nonetheless, as it has been a while since I wrote about any of this and since we are about to enter the conference season, I did think it would be a good time to type up my thoughts on the party, its future and the state of politics in general. This has been somewhat precipitated by two things this afternoon: Richard Reeves’ new article in the New Statesman and Nick Clegg’s now seemingly ubiquitous apology:

Tuition Fees

On the apology, I think it fair enough, not too badly expressed and is relatively heartfelt. It’s long overdue. For whatever reason, the tuition fees incident is a running sore that has come to dominate pretty much everything the party has done in coalition since and it is hard to see how the party can move on without somehow getting over this incident. I’m not saying that Clegg’s apology will achieve that, but it will do more good than harm even if the short term effect has been to open up some slowly healing old wounds for some people.

There is a problem with it though, which is that Clegg is apologising for making a promise he was never in a position to keep. That’s not entirely true. He could have made it a dealbreaker for the coalition. I’m not saying that he should have done, in fact I think it would have been downright foolish, but he had a choice and made it. For the past couple of years, Clegg has been altogether too much in love with claiming there is no alternative to what he and the coalition have undertaken to do – as if he is some unwilling victim being buffeted along by events. If you listen to his speeches, you will rarely see him take responsibility for anything: everything is expressed as being either obvious or inevitable. It gets to the heart of his weakness as a politician, and why people find it so hard to like him any more.

So let’s have a short reminder of why he is very much the architect of his own destruction. Throughout his time in opposition, Clegg made no secret of his hatred of the Lib Dems’ policy on tuition fees. On two occasions he attempted to win a vote on the conference floor to scrap the policy; on two occasions he lost the vote. Anyone with any sense at all within the party could see that he was never going to be able to win that fight, and that there was little point in wasting his political capital in fighting that fight.

As an opponent of the policy, what he should have done is attempt to de-prioritise the policy and make it a negotiable add on to the manifesto rather than a core goal. In fact, in terms of the manifesto, he more or less achieved that and he probably could have gone further if he hadn’t raised so many people’s hackles (even a number of tuition fee supporters ended up turning on him in the end and his failure to respect the party’s wishes). The problem is, by exhausting so much energy in attempting to scrap the policy he caused a backlash. A number of parliamentary candidates, not to mention the campaigns department itself, was so determined to alleviate concerns that the party couldn’t be trusted on the policy that they ramped up its status in their campaign literature and their personal statements. Just to make things even crazier, Clegg ultimately went along with it, agreeing to be photographed signing the NUS pledge.

I have to say that the campaigns department was extremely foolish to put the party in this position – not for the first time it behaved like it controlled the party and knew better than the people in charge of the manifesto, the Federal Policy Committee (I still find it frustrating that the 2005 manifesto was essentially usurped by a 10-point pledge which had little resonance and was completely useless to those of us fighting seats in Scotland at the time). But Clegg went along with it. He bottled it. He made a calculation that he could get away with signing his name to a policy which he was personally hostile to. That doesn’t just represent weak leadership and poor judgement, but an outlook on life that raises serious questions about a fitness to hold public office. It reveals the inner core of a politician who, if you look at his track record, has never had to fight particularly hard for anything at all, and has always depended on political patronage (thanks to Leon Brittan who discovered him in the European Commission, Paddy Ashdown who championed his bid to become an MEP, Richard Allen who bequeathed his Sheffield Hallam constituency to him and Ming Campbell who kept the leadership chair warm while he got himself ready) and never really had to fight for anything. It is one of the reasons why I find his constant talking up of social mobility at the expense of tackling all other forms of inequality so empty and galling; I really do think he has fooled himself into believing that he’s got where he is today through his own effort and thinks that everyone else would have the same life chances if only they had a slightly better school.

But since I have been defaming Clegg, I will say this: whatever you think of his apology, at least he has apologised. You won’t hear anything even close to an apology coming from the lips of his fiercest critics on the left. And the left really do have a lot to be sorry about.

I actually think the new higher education policy marks a real step forward compared to the policy we had before that. Most students will end up paying less but over a longer timescale. It has been poorly presented, but it represents a tax on the relatively affluent which is not being paid out of poorer people’s income taxes. But even if it was the worst system imaginable, there is a real question of priorities. Why is it that the left, particularly the far left and those engaged with student politics, have been far more exercised about this single policy than they have ever demonstrated in terms of the NHS, welfare or Educational Maintenance Allowance?

Oh, and if you’re a lefty reading this, yes I’m quite sure you believe those things were equally if not more important. But you simply didn’t get the numbers out on the streets for those campaigns did you? The NHS reforms in particular were in a particularly vulnerable state in 2011 – yet the only people doing the running in terms of stopping that policy were Liberal Democrats – mostly the Winchester local party and the Social Liberal Forum. If even a proportion of the numbers who turned out for the student funding marches turned out for the NHS, it would have been a dead reform. Instead, they mostly sat on their hands.

The collective failure of the left to get its priorities even marginally correct during this period of economic uncertainty is going to be something academics will be scratching their heads about for years to come. I have no easy answers: all I hope is that a few more people would act (and speak/tweet/blog etc.) with a little more humility and responsibility than they do.

Richard Reeves

So much for Nick Clegg and the left; back to Richard Reeves. His article previewing the party conference is utterly bizarre, but manages to sum up both his success and his abysmal failure.

In terms of success, Reeves and his fellow “Orange Bookers'” greatest victory has been to frame the debate in the Liberal Democrats as a struggle between noble Liberals seeking to defend the tradition of Gladstone with sinister entryist Social Democrats. There is an irony there of course because it was entryism within Labour that the Social Democrat Party was in part a reaction against. But of course it is utter bollocks, not merely because it essentially writes off the entire Liberal Party history from 1900-1950 – including the party’s proudest moments in terms of establishing the welfare state – as an aberration. It also blithely ignores the fact that many Orange Bookers come from the Social Democrat wing of the party themselves – Richard Reeves himself was a Blairite loyalist (as he himself alludes to in his assessment that Clegg exists to fill “a Blair-shaped hole in British politics”).

It is very notable that in his rather long and rambling article, Reeves seems incapable of defining what he means by “liberalism” other than say that it is neither Conservativism or Labour. What Reeves calls “radical liberal[ism] of the political centre” emerges as little more than the triangulation of Clinton and Blair: take two extremes and position yourself between them. By sheer, breathtaking coincidence, this is the same triangulation of Cameron – and even though many of his leftwing supporters would prefer otherwise, of Ed Miliband. In short, Reeves’ answer to the Lib Dems’ ills is to simply continue obsessively pursuing the same agenda which has dominated Anglo-Saxon politics for well over two decades now and has lead to a disengagement with politics the like of which we have never seen.

For all my mocking, there aren’t any easy answers. What I can tell you is that the last thing the Lib Dems can afford to do is to take Reeves’s advice and doggedly resume the politics of the centre ground. Nye Bevan’s warning of what happens to people who stand in the middle of the road applies doubly to third parties attempting to recover from a mortally wounding coalition. The fight for this tiny bit of political real estate has already reached its logical conclusion, with three virtually interchangeable parties finding themselves completely at the mercy of global, cultural and economic forces.

To talk with most party politicians, you would think this was the only game in town and in a sense they are correct. It is simply undeniable that to win a majority under any electoral system you need to be able to win over those undecided swing voters. Their mistake is to massively overestimate what you can achieve once you get there if you have done nothing whatsoever to prepare the groundwork for what you actually want to achieve. In short, unless you can answer how you can widen the Overton window onto your territory, you really are wasting your time.

Regardless of my earlier criticisms, at least the relatively sensible members far left get this. The purpose of UK Uncut and later Occupy was not to foist revolution on our doorsteps but to alert people to the possibility of change. While people are often quick to dismiss the anti-Iraq demonstrations as a failure, the fact that Bush and Blair were prevented from their headlong rush into attacking Iran was at least in part due to the enormous cost the protest movement forced them to pay in toppling Saddam.

The far right definitely get this: the Tea Party may be making Mitt Romney unelectable at the moment, but they’re successfully chipping away at issues which the left long presumed had been won such as abortion rights – and they have done a terrific job at putting the Democrats on the defensive on the economy despite the Republican’s own dire record. Obama’s own options in office have been limited precisely because the right have made it almost impossible to get any of his agenda through Congress without paying a blood price.

Thatcher, and the people behind Thatcher got this – and that it would take them decades to achieve. Every lobbyist worth their fee understands this. Yet, for some reason, it is a lesson which mainstream party politicians stubbornly refuse to learn – possibly because mainstream party politics is dominated by people who only seek power for themselves.

The future of the Liberal Democrats lies not in obsessively worrying about mainstream acceptance and chasing the centre ground, but in winning the argument across the country. That means that any future Liberal Democrat party is going to have to agree pretty darn quickly about what it wants to achieve. It is hard to see what the Orange Bookers achieve by remaining in the party when the best chance for implementing their policies lie in the Conservatives and Labour. If post-coalition Liberal Democrat politics is dominated by the same fissure which came to dominate the party over the past eight years, then annihilation will be all but inevitable. If by contrast it can rally relatively quickly around a clear vision of society that it wants to achieve, then it will be in a position to make a slow and painful recovery – and if it acts smartly it will see the political ground shift in its direction long before it gets another sniff of power.

Clegg and coalition

There are two questions which I suspect will dominate the late night conversations at the Lib Dem conference next week: when Clegg needs to go and when the coalition needs to end. One of the reasons why I’m better off out of it is that my head and my heart tell me completely different things in answer to both.

I’ve come to loathe Clegg and his style of leadership with a passion. At the heart of his leadership bid was a dishonest failure to come clean about his agenda; something which he attempted to impose on the party indecently soon after his narrow victory. One of the reasons the coalition has been quite the failure it has been is that Clegg negotiated a deal which he and his narrow base of allies in the party felt relatively comfortable with, knowing full well that at the same time they got to junk all the policies they never supported in the first place. During the first few months of the coalition, it was very clear that Clegg was enjoying the fact that he’d managed to get one over the party enormously (and we should admit at this point that the left of the party failed prevent this and must bear heavy responsibility as well). He didn’t govern as the leader of the party but as its usurper and it was only once he had been made painfully aware of quite how unpopular his own policies truly were that he suddenly rediscovered the “progressive” concern which he normally reserved for bluffing his way through elections.

So yeah, I’d quite like to see him out on his rear. I’d like to see that quite a lot. My big problem though is that I’m pretty non-plussed by leadership at the best of times and find the choices on offer to the party to be remarkably poor.

Dismissing out of hand the option of the Lib Dems selecting a rightwinger like David Laws or Jeremy Browne as Clegg’s successor (I suppose it could happen; suffice to say it would be political suicide), there appear to be two real choices available:

  • Vince Cable: despite stumbling over tuition fees and then being stripped of his media regulation powers by indiscreetly claiming to be at war with the Murdochs, Cable has had quite a good couple of years. He’s made little secret of his disdain for the coalition or for George Osborne’s economic policies in particular. The problem with Cable though is that he is very much his own man. A vote for Vince Cable is a vote for the party going down the Conservative Party route of having all party policy decided by the leadership – this in spite of the fact that Cable’s attempts at autonomous policy development have consistently ended in disaster. The man is simply not collegiate and has an ego the size of a planet. And let’s not forget the fact that he was fully signed up to Clegg’s project; it is only Clegg’s unpopularity and Cable’s own unpopularity within the Conservatives which has lead him to reinvent himself since joining government. There has been a lot of reinvention going on which he has largely got away with – such indulgence will end the second he becomes leader.
  • Tim Farron: Tim is charismatic and charming, and decisively leftwing. He’s a contemporary of mine, which makes his rise particularly interesting on a personal level. My problem with Tim is threefold: firstly, he has a notorious tendency to speak before thinking and to rhetorically overreach in a way that is veritably Clegg-like – he hasn’t come a cropper in the same way that Clegg regularly does, but I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t simply because he is subject to less scrutiny at the moment. Secondly, he consistently wobbles on cultural liberal issues, whether it is regarding homeopathy or his links with gay cure supporting CARE organisation. And finally, there is the fact that I simply haven’t been very impressed with his time as party president. I can see very little evidence that his crusade to bring back community politics (but without all the “it’s worth doing for its own sake” nonsense) has come to anything; similarly his membership pledge has come to nothing. What I see in Tim is a lot of dynamism, a lot of charm and heaps of rhetoric – but very little substance.

The only other person who I can conceive could take the mantle is Steve Webb. But while Steve has, by all accounts, done a great job at keeping in touch with the parliamentary party, he has been all but invisible to those of us outside the Westminster bubble. He appears to have done a competent job in terms of pensions reform inside the Department of Work and Pensions, but it simply isn’t clear how great an extent he takes responsibility for many of the more controversial welfare reforms being lead on by Iain Duncan Smith. So as a leadership contender he would have to deal with both his disappearance from the public gaze and serious questions about his own complicity: even if he tackled himself well in both respects, I somehow doubt he’d get a look in.

In short, I don’t think the Lib Dems have all that much in the way of talent on their benches, and that makes getting rid of Clegg an especially risky premise. The fundamental problems pre-date Nick Clegg, which is why the last leadership election in 2007 was fought by two former MEPs who had only taken their seats in 2005. Sadly, this dearth of talent is a natural outcome of an electoral strategy which has focused so much on casework and community work at the expense of vision and clear strategic thinking.

The other issue is when the coalition should end. Many would like it to end tomorrow, or even sooner – as articulated by Nick Barlow. I find it hard to argue against Nick’s charges against the coalition: to call it fundamentally dysfunctional would be generous.

But Lib Dems who imagine that there is some dividend to be earned by leaving the coalition early are simply misguided. The public won’t thank them – they’ll simply conclude the Lib Dems are even more of a waste of time. By contrast, there is a historic, long term gain to be earned by simply allowing this coalition to last a full five years.

The electorate has a short collective memory; I’ve lost count of the number of people who hated the Labour government but now look back on it with rose-tinted spectacles. No matter how painful this coalition feels at the moment, or what damage it does, the fact is that if it lasts the full five years it will be seen as a success for coalition politics while if it falls apart it will be seen as a loss.

If the Lib Dems ever want to return to power again, persuading the country that coalition is not the scary thing that both Labour and the Conservatives insisted it was during the last election will have to be a priority. Adding another footnote to the argument that all coalitions fall apart after a couple of years will slow any chance of a Lib Dem recovery for the simple reason that people will see a vote for the Lib Dems to be a vote for chaos and weak government.

None of this is pleasant to say and the counter-argument that this coalition is so uniquely awful that it simply can’t be allowed to continue carries a lot of weight. But again, the question needs to be asked about how effective the alternative would be. A majority Conservative government is still just about conceivable if an election were called tomorrow: the Tory argument that they need a mandate to finish the job, and that Labour aren’t fit for office will carry substantially more weight than the polls suggest. Such a government would be an utter disaster.

And a Labour government wouldn’t be much better. Labour simply do not have an economic policy at the moment and under Ed Balls it seems inconceivable that they will want to adopt one. A Labour government would probably spend a bit more, and have somewhat better priorities, but it would be a mistake to think that they would be drastically different in terms of the coalition. So destroying a long term gain (not just for the Lib Dems, but for pluralist politics as a whole) in favour of a short term highly marginal improvement simply doesn’t appear very enticing to me.

Finally, there is the question of confidence and supply. Many coalition supporters cling to this as if it would be the answers to all their problems: yet all it would mean is that the Tories would be able to speed up their spending cuts with the Lib Dems voting their budgets through. And even disregarding how votes in the Commons would be likely to go, the damage a solely Conservative government would do would be immense.

I simply don’t see an easy way out; merely a long, painful haul. Having made this bed (which I have to accept some personal responsibility for), the party is going to just have to lie in it. Instead of worrying too much about the next couple of years, the Lib Dems ought to be thinking bigger, and what they will be doing during their wilderness years. Fundamentally, they need to get over their obsession with winning parliamentary seats and start thinking much more about the sort of society they want to see. Ultimately, the problems are far bigger than simply Nick Clegg’s own incompetence and dishonesty.

Know your place

I’m a bit of a shy republican, but today gave me a glowing reminder of why any sane person should be one (sorry Dad).

On the same day the Queen “generously” agreed to “rededicate” herself to the UK, Downing Street let it be known that the Cabinet spent their time “banging the table” to celebrate the passing of the Health and Social Care Bill.

It is no accident that this little snippet of information was leaked today. The triumphalism is palpable, as is the very explicit attempt to indelibly tie the Lib Dems to the reforms. So too is the signal it is intended to send.

This quintessentially public school act is very clearly meant to send the opponents of the bill a very clear, class-ridden message: “know your fucking place”. It is no coincidence it has been declared on the same day as all the pageantry going on with the Queen’s visit to Parliament.

This is all about class warfare. And, given the country’s response to the royal wedding last year, it will doubtlessly be extremely effective. Until we somehow manage to extricate ourselves from this mindset, the country will always be extremely vulnerable to such propaganda; however much we might consciously find such behaviour repugnant.

Know your fucking place, serf. And if you don’t like it, what are you fucking going to do?

Labour Needs A Plan B

It has been odd watching the Labour party over the last 18 months. If ever an opposition has had a golden opportunity, it has surely been this. With the economy in a mess, any government would be forced to make tough, unpopular decisions right now. Combine that with the nature of coalition, and scoring some palpable hits should be a cynch.

Somehow, however, they appear to have missed almost every target in their path. Liam Byrne’s cynical gaffe, leaving a note to his successor about there being ‘no money left’ may not have single handedly lost Labour the next election but it provided the coalition with a frame they could construct the entire economic debate around (and you can bet it will be used as an election poster in 2015). Ed Miliband’s election has been a disaster, not so much because he is a geek (I, for one, have quite a soft spot for politicians who don’t fit the oleaginous Blair-Cameron mould), but because most of his members and MPs voted against him in the leadership election. That shouldn’t have been a problem for a party which is comfortable with its union links in the way that it so often claims; but it palpably isn’t and so it has proven to be a cancer which has riddled Miliband’s leadership ever since. It was striking at the 2010 conference quite how many people expressed how they felt Miliband had ‘stolen’ the leadership.
As a result, Miliband has spent most of his time forced to disappoint his core supporters in an ultimately futile attempt to appease his detractors. It is hard to see how he can ultimately survive. With so little goodwill within the party, every mistake gets exaggerated in a way that a leader with more respect would never have to worry about.

But the simple fact of the matter is that the mistakes have not been few and far between. On public service reform they have been weak, mainly because the coalition have merely expanded upon Labour’s existing programme. Even on health, which is further from Labour’s position than, say, education, they have been shockingly absent from the debate. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can never remember the name of Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary before Andy Burnham’s appointment; that’s his fault, not mine. What is very much Miliband’s fault is that he should have been shipped out as soon as it was clear he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. However weak Clegg may have been initially on standing up to Lansley, it was Labour’s responsibility to provide the main voice of opposition here. It has done precious little, too late.

On welfare reform, again, the government has too often merely picked up Labour’s baton and run with it. Liam Byrne’s comments (him again) earlier this week suggest that, if anything, we will now see them attempt to outflank Cameron from the right. It is frankly unbelievable that the main opposition from George Osborne’s plan to further cut benefits in the autumn statement came from David Laws, the loyallest Lib Dem MP in the Commons, not from the Labour front benches.

This should be a source of despair for Liberal Democrats, who predominantly dedicated to mitigating the worst of the Conservative’s reforms. Our ability to wring concessions from Tory ministers is extremely limited when Labour is absent or, worse, on the opposite side of the debate. And this isn’t merely an issue for welfare reform; we have seen echoes of it in terms of government policy on criminal justice and, of course, AV.

Of course, it isn’t Labour’s job to be helpful to the Lib Dems, but one has to question why they have made it their mission to go for them at the expense of targeting Cameron and Osborne. The thinking within Labour circles is that by weakening the Lib Dems they will destabilise the coalition and thus reap an electoral reward. Yet it hasn’t worked out like that.

No-one can pretend that the Lib Dems are in a strong position; Labour’s mission to portray us as pariahs has been largely successful, mainly because they have been aided and abetted by both our own so-called allies and of course our mistakes. But in focusing on this they have largely left it to the Conservatives to frame the debate on all the big issues of the day. They’ve largely stayed ahead in the polls until recently, but on the single biggest issue, the economy, they have lost ground considerably. No great surprise when that agenda has been left to Balls, an arch monetarist masquerading as a Keynesian, who can’t make his mind up whether to focus on reversing spending cuts, introducing tax cuts or pushing for a stimulus package.

Labour needs to get a grip, fast, and end its obsession with undermining the Lib Dems. The lesson of the last 18 months is that the further down in the polls the Lib Dems become, the stronger the Conservatives get. If they insist on killing off initiatives like Lords reform, it won’t be they who benefit but Cameron who will then be free to carry out his threat of appointing hundreds of new cronies. Triangulating on crime and punishment simply emboldens to Tory backbenchers, gaining Labour nothing.

Of course, it has to be said that the Lib Dems could make it easier. Clegg’s tendency to allow the Labour backbenchers provoke him into anti-Labour tirades has not exactly helped, and during the AV referendum it was positively harmful. Tim Farron too, who sitting outside the government has the freedom to articulate things that ministers must be more discreet over, ought to be attempting to rebuild bridges instead of burning them down in interview after interview.

This isn’t a call for a return to Lib-Labbery, merely equidistance. Now we are in coalition it is more important than ever that we make it clear this is an alliance formed of necessity rather than some fundamental shift in position. Nor is it a paean to some sort of ‘progressive alliance’ – if progressive actually meant anything in practice then there’d be no reason to have two seperate parties and if the last 18 months have taught us anything it is that the ‘we’ll know it when we see it’ definition of progressive simply will not do. What we need more recognition of is that a less destructive relationship with Labour would strengthen the party’s hand in terms of both the coalition now and any coalition talks to come. With Labour and the Lib Dems outnumbering the Conservatives in the Commons, Clegg needn’t be negotiating as a junior partner with just 57 MPs under his belt quite as often as he does.

But ultimately, all Clegg and Farron can do is improve the mood music; it is Labour that needs to revisit its strategy in a more fundamental way. Labour’s approach in 2011 has palpably failed either in terms of opposition or in terms of gaining the party popularity among the electorate, and shows no sign of improving. It is time they looked at a Plan B of their own.

Quaequam Blog! Not dead but…

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.

Should Clegg cuddle up with Gordon Brown?

Via Twitter, Tom Griffin alerts me to an article by Philip Stevens claiming that by ruling out supporting Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg has thrown away his negotiating position for forming a reforming coalition government with the Labour Party. There are only two problems with this article: Stevens clearly has no idea how the UK constitution (such as it is) works, and clearly has not listened to anything Nick Clegg has actually said on the subject.

Before I continue this article, a caveat. It is speculates what might happen if we find ourselves in a hung parliament situation on 7 May. I’m not predicting this will happen; I have no idea what will happen. What I am seeking to clarify are what the Lib Dems’ options actually are in such a situation.

In terms of the latter, Clegg has been quite clear: the party with the biggest mandate should have the first chance to form a government. Contrary to any cheese-induced dreams Stevens may have had recently, he has explicitly not stated that the Lib Dems would automatically support the party with the biggest mandate, nor has he defined “biggest mandate”. The latter is crucial because even now we have no idea if the party with the most seats in the Commons will have the largest share of the vote. Defining “mandate” will inevitably be a judgement call based on numerous factors.

Secondly, he appears to be under the impression that if Brown is ousted, then the Queen will automatically approach Cameron to form a government and that if Cameron is defeated then a General Election will automatically be called. Both these assertions are completely incorrect. Before writing his article, Stevens should have spent a few minutes studying the briefing note the Cabinet Office prepared back in February which explains exactly what will happen (pdf). It states that:

When a Government or Prime Minister resigns it is for the Monarch to invite the person whom it appears is most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government. However it is the responsibility of those involved in the political process – and in particular the parties represented in Parliament – to seek to determine and communicate clearly who that person should be. These are the principles that underpin the appointment of a Prime Minister and formation of a government in all circumstances.

Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, the expectation is that discussions will take place between political parties on who should form the next Government.

What this means is that if Cameron cannot form a majority without the Lib Dems’ help, and is not prepared to make some pretty major concessions to the Lib Dems (if you aren’t aware already, those demands are the four key Lib Dem manifesto commitments for a fairer tax system, education, a fair and green economy and a fairer politics), then as long as Labour are prepared to make such concessions there is no reason at all for the Queen to even ask Cameron to form a government*. Furthermore, the Queen is obliged to listen to the Liberal Democrats (and others, for that matter) before making a decision, not merely talk to the main two parties. And even if Cameron does get as far as a Queens’ Speech, which falls, fresh elections will not be automatic:

A Prime Minister may request that the Monarch dissolves Parliament and hold a further election. The Monarch is not bound to accept such a request, especially when such a request is made soon after a previous dissolution. In those circumstances, the Monarch would normally wish the parties to ascertain that there was no potential government that could command the confidence of the House of Commons before granting a dissolution.

Tom raises the spectre of 1974 when the Queen ordered fresh elections despite the reassurances of Harold Wilson that he could form a government. But one of the few things we do know is that 2010 will not lead to a repeat of the ’74 parliament whereby a coalition government combining the Liberals and either the Conservatives or Labour was not really viable. The Liberals had 14 MPs and no negotiating position – they didn’t have enough people to even have a significant Cabinet presence. In 2010 by contract, the Lib Dems could have anything between 60 and 120 MPs and thus hold a very decisive balance of power. If the Queen were to call fresh elections despite Labour and the Lib Dems requesting to form a coalition government with a clear majority, the only thing she would achieve would be to make her own future an election issue.

The question boils down then, not to what Clegg would do but how the Labour Party will respond. How quickly will they be able to recover from the affront that Clegg won’t prop up Brown (a leader who, it has been clear from the last couple of years, most of them regret coronating in the first place) and start looking at alternatives? Or would they rather have a Tory administration just to spite the Lib Dems? That certainly appears to be Gordon Brown’s own current position (I was amused to read John Harris describe Brown adopting a scorched earth policy – that’s exactly how I had described it five minutes before reading his article). My prediction is that once the dust has settled, cooler Labour heads will prevail and they will start talking.

If they think they can still brass neck it and blackmail the Lib Dems into backing them, they need to remember three things. Firstly, any attempt to prop up Gordon Brown would be seen by the public as an utter betrayal of Clegg’s rallying call for real change – he would be finished. Secondly, assuming the Tories win the most seats (and Labour would have to move mountains to change this at this stage), the Lib Dems don’t need to actually vote for a Cameron administration but merely abstain (and such a Cameron government would still be hamstrung by having to negotiate everything with Parliament). And third, we’ve been waiting a lot longer for this moment than Labour has, and have a lot less to lose.

So spare us the threats and the “our way or the highway” posturing. That way lies oblivion. And Mr Stevens, perhaps you ought to do a bit more research in future?

* This is a fact that Cameron himself may like to appraise himself of, if the report in the Telegraph of Cameron ruling out talks with the Lib Dems are true. If that’s the case Dave, you can kiss the keys to Number 10 goodbye.

STOP PRESS: Nick Clegg ends Lib Dem equidistance

With his Demos pamphlet published today, it has to be said that Nick Clegg has ruled out any chance of doing a deal with the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament following the next election. That isn’t quite the same thing as saying he has ruled in a deal with Labour but it does look as if our latest flirtation with equidistance has come to an end.

In The Liberal Moment, Nick Clegg makes it clear that while he sees progressive liberals (the tradition of which he squarely places the Liberal Democrats within) as enemies of conservativism, he places Labour within the wider progressive movement – and thus our rivals. Far from sidling up to Labour however, the pamphlet is a denunciation of the modern Labour Party and a declaration that Labour’s time has now past. Just as Labour eclipsed the Liberals in the early 20th century it is now the task of Liberal Democrats to in turn eclipse them in the 21st. Indeed, much of this pamphlet might have been written by Mark Anthony: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” pretty much sums it up.

Broadly, I agree with him – at least in sentiment. As I wrote last month, I do wonder if “progressive” is a term that means anything to the non-politico. To the extent that I would consider myself to be a progressive – and for want of a better term, I do – I’m not sure I go along with Clegg’s definition:

At the core of progressive thought is the idea that we are on a journey forward to a better, and especially more socially just, society; it’s a political ideology that stems from a restless, optimistic ambition for change and transformation.

I agree with the second clause but not the first. Like Richard Dawkins, whose God Delusion I have thus far failed to write my review of (tsk! tsk!) Clegg seems to have signed up to the quaint enlightenment notion that progress is somehow inevitable. I disagree and consider that idea to be fraught with problems; if we assume that we are trundling along the road to progress then there is a danger that we tend to assume that each staging post is a step along the way. If we are on a journey, then it needs to be emphasised that we very much need to be in the driving seat and alert to every bump in the road (I think that metaphor has been safely tortured to death now, don’t you?). Indeed it is that lack of critical faculties that Labour can be blamed for; blindly following the “greater good” regardless of the cost.

If we are serious about replacing Labour then we need to resolve three things: funding, strategy and thought. When it comes to funding, it doesn’t matter how dead the Labour parrot is the unions will have the muscle to prop it up for years to come. How do the Lib Dems compete? The last time the Liberals were in the ascendency, party funding was a form of cheerful corruption, as the hereditary peers created by Lloyd George can testify. These days that simply isn’t an option.

Secondly, strategy. We aren’t going to ever replace Labour via an election strategy focused on target seats. It will take us decades, during which time Labour will surely regroup. Yet what is Lib Dem strategy except targeting? This isn’t a question we especially need to answer now, but we do need to have a significantly different game plan in place by the next-but-one general election if we are really serious about this.

Thirdly, thinking. There is an odd paradox when it comes to the Lib Dems and policy. On the one hand we undeniably have tended to be ahead of the curve when it comes to a range of issues, be they Iraq, the environment, democratic reform and now the economy. On the other hand, frankly, that policy comes across all too often as slapdash and poorly joined together. The party’s policy making process is more democratic than our rivals’, yet the party as a whole discusses policy least of all. Quoting Lord Wallace, Chris White wrote on Next Left last week that

He said, in effect, that when he joined the Liberals in the 1950s/60s (?), the party was great at talking about its philosophy but hopeless at campaigning. But now the situation was the reverse.

I for one find this incuriosity about policy within the Lib Dems extremely frustrating. It matters because I don’t believe things like “narratives” and core values can be handed down from on high; they have to be absorbed. Somehow we repeatedly fail to have the debates we need to have; each year we get excited about a specific policy here and there but in terms of broad priorities we thrash very little out.

Partly I feel our policy development process is at fault; it isn’t the democracy that’s the problem but rather its inflexibility. It’s extremely resolution heavy and deliberation light. But the other major weakness we have compared to Labour and the Tories are a lack of think tanks out there producing helpful research and original thinking. Both the other parties have a host of different organisations beavering away at this; the Lib Dems have the Centre Forum.

Ultimately, I don’t think the Lib Dems can hope to replace Labour until we start thinking of ourselves more widely than just a political party and build around ourselves a liberal movement. Labour and the Tories both have these; by contrast we have a liberal diaspora squatting inside the other parties. The decline of Labour and (inevitable?) failure of Cameron to fulfil his promise of liberal conservativism may help us change this, but at the centre the party needs to be ready for it.

It’s a worthy ambition, Nick. Now make it happen.

UPDATE: other responses from Anthony Barnett, Graeme Cooke, Costigan Quist.

A secret Lib-Lab plot?

So claims Peter Oborne, something which appears to have got the Tories into a right tizzy. Stephen Tall at Lib Dem Voice has debunked most of it so I will try to avoid repeating what he has said. It should also be pointed out that Clegg in particular has been linked to rumours (also by rightwing commentators) of planning a coalition with Cameron at various stages over the past couple of years. The idea that Vince Cable has suddenly become Gordon Brown’s “poodle” because, um, Gordon Brown has finally started agreeing with Vince is ridiculous – is he really supposed to start disagreeing with his own policies once Labour adopts them? Lead by Cable and Clegg, the Lib Dems have recently worked with the Tories to force a vote on the VAT cut – a fact conveniently not mentioned by Oborne.

The Lib Dems’ opponents like to think the party is just itching to jump into bed with whichever party pulls back its duvet. The reality is somewhat more complicated. The party embarked into a near civil war at the end of the nineties when two distinct schools of thought emerged: one that the party should strengthen its ties with Labour and eventually merge (the Ashdown option) and one that the party needed to regain its independence and walk out of the Joint Cabinet Committee it sat on to oversee the constitutional reform agenda (a joint agenda post-1997 following the Cook-Maclennan Agreement). The latter school won. Yet at almost the same time we were in government with Labour in Scotland and about to enter a partnership government in Wales. Fast forward to 2007, and the Lib Dems walked away from coalition in both Scotland and Wales, the latter subtly (and sometimes not-so subtly) framing the recent leadership election between Kirsty Williams and Jenny Randerson.

For a third party, coalition is an opportunity to get your hands on real power, but it is also liable to blow up in your face. Look at what’s happened to the FDP in Germany (more controversially perhaps, I would argue it has happened to the Scottish Lib Dems, going by the opinion polls, the fact that they are on their third leader in three years and personal anecdote – it remains to be seen if Tavish Scott will get them back on track). And in recent history, every time we’ve had to seriously consider coalition, we have been well aware of this fact. That’s part of the reason why it is the one issue liable to split the party down the middle; as a party which tends to resolve its policy disputes by debate and voting, we can pretty much weather anything else.

So when Oborne starts doing his 2+2=5 calculations, you have to factor that in. You have to consider it in relation to the late nineties – a far more fertile period of Lib-Lab cooperation – which failed to result in coalition. Nonetheless, with the Tories the strongest they have been in fifteen years and the clear realisation that their current economic policies (such as they are) would be ruinous to the country, you can see why there is at least a temptation to think about formalising the two parties’ relationship once again.

The clearest stumbling block to a coalition however is Labour’s continual attack on civil liberties. The Lib Dems would lose their reputation as civil libertarians for all time if they entered a coalition with the party of identity cards and the database state. Unless Labour were to recant all these policies (which a number of its own backbenchers would have a thing or two to say about it – they aren’t all called Bob Marshall-Andrews you know), Clegg would have to be suicidal to contemplate it: a new, authentically liberal party – with at least a dozen MPs – would have formed before the ink on the agreement had even dried. As readers may have noticed, I have a tendency to be a bit down on Clegg so you might think I’d want a reassurance that this won’t happen – but it is so far in the realm of fantasy that I think I’d make myself look silly even demanding it.

The bottom line is, we no longer live in a political age where a few people in a Commons tea room can decide to enter a coalition. It is an area that any party leader treads very carefully in. Even if we found ourselves in a no-overall control situation after the general election, I don’t see the Lib Dems agreeing to anything more than providing confidence-and-supply to the party which won the plurality (this was bizarrely dismissed by Clegg in 2008 back when it was cooperation with Cameron that was the rightwing press’ “dead cert”, but then he does a lot of bizarre things – it was Kennedy’s stated policy in 2005).

One thing I will confidently predict is that in 2009 we will have at least one major “revelation” that, in fact, Clegg is in secret talks about a coalition with Cameron. Until Clegg makes his equivalent of the Chard Speech, I won’t be putting much faith into either spin.

Deny everything, Baldrick (UPDATE)

For me, the most interesting thing about the Guardian’s exclusive today about Lib-Lab talks is that it is credited to an anonymous “staff writer.” Clearly whoever wrote it (Wintour? White? Mulholland?) considered it so explosive that they didn’t want to alienate their sources by being outed as the author.

The other interesting aspect is the non-denial denials. From Lord Kirkwood:

“We are getting this sort of speculation all the time from people who want to write stories about cooperation [between the parties] at levels which are in their imagination.

“But they [Mr Brown and Sir Menzies] talk all the time, they talk about Fife and other things. If you start getting into particular meetings it’s impossible. This suggestion is not known to me and not admitted. Some of these players do have to trust each other in relationships one-to-one.”

From Ming’s office:

“We are not commenting on this tittle-tattle or any other story based on rumour and speculation, now or in the future. We are an independent party which firmly disagrees with Labour and Gordon Brown on the issue of Iraq, civil liberties, including ID cards and 90-day detention, nuclear power and council tax to name but a few.”

What the latter source appears to not appreciate is that this tittle-tattle was nipped in the bud between 1999 and 2006; basically the inter-regnum period between Ashdown and Campbell. Kennedy had many faults, but he at least appreciated the danger of a third party getting distracted by this sort of endless speculation. By contrast, and in spite of his rhetoric, Campbell is developing a talent for getting dragged into this non-issue.

And of course Ashdown used to make a habit of dismissing this “tittle-tattle”. He used to enjoy denouncing anyone who claimed he had been having secret talks with Blair as fantasists and liars. I should know; back when I was the (elected) LDYS sabbatical, his office leant on the LDYS Chair to get me sacked. Then, months after stepping down as leader, he flogged his diaries to Rupert Murdoch for a six-figure sum in which he proudly boasted about the wool he had been pulling over our eyes.

As such, Liberal Democrats ought to be highly sceptical about statements that, once again, we should believe that there is smoke without fire, especially given how integral Campbell was last time around.

As for the substance of what is being suggested, it seems hard to understand what the Lib Dems’ role is here. Apparently “Mr Brown is thinking of launching an all-party initiative on the future of the British constitution, and it may be that he would like a senior Liberal Democrat involved on a specific basis. He may also make a move on Iraq that could require the help of other parties.” So why aren’t these talks happening with Cameron as well? Is this a return of the Joint Cabinet Committee on constitutional reform? Back then it turned out to be a complete waste of time; bipartisanship on constitutional reform in any case leaves almost as much a sour taste in the mouth as unipartisanship. Both models are concerned primarily about self-interest as opposed to the nation’s. The debate in democratic reform circles is currently coalescing around new models such as Citizens’ Assemblies: these ideas don’t require bipartisanship and have the advantage of being under the control of members of the public. The thought of Campbell and Brown stitching up the electoral system and other reforms together isn’t just undemocratic (and I can guarantee that we would never get PR for the Commons out of such a negotiation), but frankly a little old-fashioned.

The lesson that the Welsh Lib Dems have taught me over the past month is that we should never say never to the idea of coalition. We should have red lines. But Campbell’s infamous Harrogate speech earlier this year illustrated all too clearly that Labour is currently in breach of pretty much every red line we might care to come up with. So what is there to discuss? There is no halfway compromise between the Lib Dems’ position on civil liberties and Labour’s. It’s all or nothing. Sorry if I come over all tribalist here, but I don’t consider human rights negotiable in exchange for local fucking income tax (or even, dare I say it, LVT).

Instead of this distraction, Ming ought to be redoubling his efforts to give his own party better definition. Last week’s housing policy launch demonstrated that we still have much work to do on our presentation. Any negotiation now is from a position of weakness, not strength. I still believe the party can turn itself around in time for the next General Election, but not if Campbell keeps allowing this sort of speculation to break out.

UPDATE: The official Party line –

There is no prospect of any Liberal Democrat joining the Brown Government.

On so many issues, the Tories and Labour are part of a cosy consensus and Liberal Democrats are the real opposition.

Tories and Labour now agree on:

  • tax breaks for the richest
  • the Iraq War
  • council tax
  • nuclear power
  • student tuition fees

The need for a strong independent Liberal Democrat party, to challenge the cosy consensus of Labour and Conservatives has never been stronger. We are committed to remain that strong and principled voice of opposition.

Sounds good to me. I would wryly observe that some of us have been pushing this ‘cosy consensus’ line for some time and have been rebuffed. Indeed, I recall Ming dismissing it during the leadership election Question Time last year when Chris Huhne mentioned it. C’est la vie.