Content warning: contains discussion around mental health, depression and anxiety
Hi there, dear reader.
You may notice that I haven’t been blogging much recently. Um, at all, to be precise. Indeed, aside from the occasional spurt of enthusiasm, I haven’t really been blogging with any degree of regularity since 2010.
Why is that? Well, lots of reasons. I was briefly banned from blogging during the AV referendum campaign, during which I worked for the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, and I didn’t really get back into the habit from then on. Even before then, I found winning the (hah!) Lib Dem Blog of the Year Award back in 2007, weirdly intimidating – shades of imposter syndrome I guess. Fundamentally though, my output declined as my mental health fell apart, culminating in me essentially not getting out of bed from 2014 to 2017. And that mental health decline coincided as my disappointment with party politics, and the Lib Dems in particular, grew.
I should stop here and point out that this is not a case of causation. I don’t blame my mental health on how the Lib Dems governed themselves (and for a while, the country). It’s far more a case that as my mental health declined, I found myself less able to deal with the adversity I faced, and that largely came from within the political party I had spent by that point over a decade organising within.
I quit the Lib Dems in 2012 quite suddenly, after months of attempting to keep it together. At the time, I was one of the main organisers of the Social Liberal Forum, and one of the few people who set that organisation up who hadn’t by that point either gone into government or defected to Labour. It was hell. Instead of doing any work to help the organisation’s goals, I spent sleepless night after sleepless night having what I now recognise to be severe anxiety attacks.
So, to be clear, I don’t blame the Lib Dems for the state of my mental health. Nonetheless, it did utterly break my heart. I helped set up the SLF because I saw the writing was on the wall and that Nick Clegg was steering the party in a direction that I couldn’t follow. Despite the howling criticism at the time about “factionalising” the party, my biggest regret in life is that we didn’t start that process much sooner than we did.
I remember the evening that the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was announced, in May 2010. It was quite a surreal period walking around Westminster during that time; you had the palpable sense that no-one was in charge of the country – it felt quite liberating and a tiny bit terrifying. I ended up voting for the coalition at the party’s special conference, but nonetheless regarded it as a crushing defeat. I wouldn’t have done if I had conceived the degree to which Clegg would press ahead with his personal agenda at the expense of the party (the “compromises” the Lib Dems made over higher education, free schools and NHS reforms were all personal hobby horses of his, not things imposed by the Tories), and if I’d predicted that the Tories would, in 2015, manage to win a general election outright (I massively overestimated Labour’s ability to capitalise on the coalition’s unpopularity).
The truth is, I feel massively responsible for the coalition government, and everything that has followed – including Brexit and the current crisis the country is in. That’s a feeling that has had the effect of completely eating up all of my self confidence and sense of any moral authority. It’s hard to write when every time you do, you’re overwhelmed by guilt and self-loathing.
It’s odd therefore, that I’ve found myself crawling back to the Lib Dems. In fact, I’ve done it twice. I rejoined in 2015 and even did a bit of campaigning in the 2017 general election, only to be again disillusioned by Tim Farron’s faltering leadership, and allowed my membership to lapse again. By contrast, Vince Cable was a far more effective leader than I predicted. He certainly seemed as rudderless as I predicted, and the party seemed to spend two entirely fruitless years obsessed with meaningless internal reforms that didn’t seem to go anywhere, but you can’t argue with the last set of elections, so he must have been doing something right.
When the leadership election was announced, I knew that I couldn’t sit outside and had to join, to vote if nothing else. Jo Swinson has been a personal friend of mine for 21 years, and if failing to do more to tackle the Orange Book takeover is my greatest political regret, then helping to get Jo elected in 2005 for the first time is my proudest moment.
The question is, am I going to end up being disappointed again? On substance, I’m pretty happy with what she’s said and done thus far. In terms of presentation, well, last week was a bit of a mess. Her team need to do much better and avoid pitfalls like that if they are going to maintain the momentum that she has been building.
I find myself in the odd position of being deeply sceptical of leaders in general, and considering them to be a necessary evil, and yet believe in Jo personally. I think she’s smart enough to take the Lib Dems forward, and has the emotional intelligence to navigate a very tricky and fraught political situation that inevitably require compromise on all sides. I know she isn’t the crypto-Tory that Twitter likes to constantly reassure me she is. Of course, by having a friend in a senior position during such a time of political crisis means that I have to churn through a daily tide of bile and vitriol, and I’m struggling to develop a thick enough skin after years of sitting comfortably on the fence. It doesn’t help that some of this bile is coming from personal friends who I respect, and indeed love. Hopefully I’ll find a way to navigate through all this in time.
Why not stay neutral? Why not even simply jump ship and become a Labour supporter? After all, I’ll always be on the left of the Lib Dems and in many fundamental ways (wealth taxes for one) would consider myself to the left of Jeremy Corbyn.
I did in fact vote Labour in the last two general elections. In 2017, it was strictly tactical but in 2015 it’s fair to say that I supported much more of the Labour manifesto than I did the Lib Dems’.
Weirdly, I’ve never felt more alienated by Labour than I currently do. It isn’t simply about Brexit, although that forms a large part of it. Corbynites seem entirely convinced that the only objection anyone could possibly have to Corbyn is his policies and that everything else is a pretext to cover for opposition to his socialism. My answer to that is: what policies? I’m sure he has some, but aside from things like his support for the Tory welfare cuts in 2017 and opposition for free movement of people I struggle to be able to name any of them.
And that’s the rub for me; we can argue about whether the ability to win elections and govern effectively became too predominant in the era of managerial politics (which appears to have well and truly come to an end now), but the Corbyn and his supporters appear to think they are entirely irrelevant. Under Corbyn, the worst of hard left politics – the type I used to have to deal with in student politics which typically ended with my friends getting beaten up – has merged with the worst aspects of the same Labour tribalism and triangulation that Blair, who they avow is to be regarded as the Great Satan, relied upon. It’s a toxic mess and one that at worst has lead to a growth in leftwing antisemitism. An alarming number of formerly sensible people seem at best complacent about this and at worst apologists for it. At a time when racism and white supremacy is on the march, this is something I find quite chilling. I could never be a part of it.
So I’ve rejoined the Lib Dems and, for the first time in 2012, have decided to out myself as a supporter. I’m currently terrified that I’m going to get let down again; but I do have faith in Jo that it ultimately won’t be. Is that all I have? Time will tell.
This has been a very self-indulgent, meandering blog post, but I’m going to publish it anyway. At some point in the last few years, I lost my voice and all of my optimism – and that sent me into a vicious cycle that I’m still recovering from. Somehow I need to get them back; nihilism is now killing the country and the world in the way that it was eating me a few years ago. Right now, just believing that a better, kinder world is possible feels like a radical act. I sincerely doubt I’ll ever be the political activist that I used to be, but if I can at least just put my thoughts into words again, that would be something.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of my joining the Liberal Democrats, an anniversary somewhat marred by the fact that I ceased to be a member between March 2012 and July this year. I rejoined following Tim Farron’s election as party leader, but I haven’t exactly bounced back into things. I’m still not over my political depression; my head says I should get back involved, but my heart still isn’t in it.
Farron has had a pretty low profile over the summer, but that’s fairly understandable given a) the need for a bit of post-election recuperation and b) the Corbyn phenomenon. And much has been written speculating about whether Corbyn represents a problem or an opportunity for Farron, who was widely perceived as wanting to shift the Lib Dems over to the left.
I didn’t go to Lib Dem conference this year, or watch it from afar especially closely. It seemed like a fairly typical post-election conference, focused mainly on housekeeping (adopting one member one vote, rejecting the “leader’s veto” on policy) as opposed to policy. The only substantial policy announcement I picked up on was Norman Lamb’s proposal for local authorities to have the power to raise taxes for local healthcare, which sounds potentially interesting but I’d need to see more detail.
I did however decide to watch Tim Farron’s speech. It was as accomplished as I expected it to be. I’ve seen people describe it as the best Lib Dem leader’s speech ever, or at least in “50 conferences” and I don’t think that’s far off the mark. Whatever other challenges the Lib Dems face, I think they have the best rhetorician of all the other UK party leaders right now.
If only that were enough. In terms of substance, I think the speech was fine. Excellent in places but lacking in theme and fairly dire in others. It showed potential, but it also highlighted some dangers. For what it’s worth, here are my “reckons” about the state of the Lib Dems right now:
Corbyn is the great unknown
I simply don’t know how the Corbyn phenomenon is going to play out. Like most people, I didn’t see it coming, although I understand all too well what has motivated it. A significant part of me really wants Corbyn to succeed. I technically had a vote in the Labour elections having registered as a union supporter (I felt entitled to vote given that I voted Labour in the General Election), but I didn’t cast it as I subsequently joined the Lib Dems and didn’t feel it was appropriate to vote in another party’s elections. If I had done so, to the consternation of my Labour family members, I’d have had to vote Corbyn 1, Kendall 2, Cooper 3. He was without question the most able to lead given the choice, but the choice was so limited – a fact that the anti-Corbynites within Labour seem incapable of accepting, let alone understanding the implications of. I agree with much of what he’s had to say, especially on economics.
I don’t think he’s going to succeed, and strongly doubt he will fight the next general election as leader however. Part of this, depressingly, is because the media and political class just won’t allow it. Some of that, however, he can simply shrug off. I suspect that the attacks on his republicanism, atheism and, gah, alleged lack of patriotism, will ultimately bounce off him and have the positive effect of opening up the amount of political space available to republicanism. But while I think the media’s capacity to destroy him is often overstated, the attacks from within his own party will be harder to deflect. I just don’t see him surviving in an environment where loyalty is so thin on the ground. Some of that is his own fault, but much of it is rooted in pure spite from his enemies within the party.
But the other major factor is the hard left which elevated him in the first place. I can’t see a large body of people who pride themselves on their unyielding inability to compromise as capable of finding any accommodation for people within Labour whose views are not identical, let alone moderate their own platform in the interest of finding common cause with floating voters. And that’s the ones actually in Labour; in my own social network I know of far more vocal Corbyn supporters who are actually Green Party members – and have no intention of even voting Labour let alone joining – than I know of ones who have actually decided to back him up from inside of the party.
In the long term, I have high hopes that a new generation of “soft left” Labour activists and politicians will emerge from this current situation who will be capable of steering their party back to principled electability. Over the next couple of years (at least) however, we are likely to see the hard left and Blairite hard right tear themselves to pieces.
What this represents to Farron is a headache, and a much more complex one than the simplistic media analysis that Corbynite Labour will cost the Lib Dems in left-leaning voters. Labour faces years of instability and until it has settled, settling on a Lib Dem approach to Labour – regardless of what is should be – will be futile. In short, Farron currently faces his own Kissinger Question: if he wants to talk to Labour, who does he call?
Farron should own the coalition – up to a point
The leftwing media has made a lot out of the fact that Farron failed to disown the coalition in his speech, with some even claiming it amounted to a u-turn. This is of course nonsense on stilts. In his ownership of the coalition years, Farron’s position on Wednesday was precisely the same position he adopted before the election and during the leadership contest.
He didn’t list all the things the Lib Dems in coalition did wrong, partly because it would have been dull, partly because – as a rebel in several key votes – it was redundant (not for nothing did a “senior” Lib Dem describe him as a “sanctimonious, god-bothering, treacherous little shit”), and partly because it would have resolved nothing except invite pious members of the commentariat to write endless screeds about the Lib Dems’ failure in government.
Ed Miliband has rightly been criticised for failing to stick up for Labour’s record in government and Farron has almost certainly learned from this. But there is actually an even stronger imperative for the Lib Dems to stick up for themselves here. In short, the Tories’ are doing much of the Lib Dems’ job on detoxification for them. Every time the Conservative government does something heartless and cruel – which let’s face it happens almost daily – the Lib Dem response is that they spent five years stopping precisely this sort of thing.
I say all this despite the fact that personally I found many of the Lib Dems’ actions in coalition to be unacceptable and driven by Clegg’s own ideological zeal rather than the need for compromise. That problem has mainly been nipped in the bud by the fact that however much Farron might personally like Clegg, he is a very different person. He does however need to engage at some point about some of the strategic failures of the Lib Dems in coalition, and make it clear that any future period as a junior partner in government won’t lead to the same mistakes being made. Clegg’s insistence on strict collective responsibility in areas beyond the scope of the coalition agreement, and the ceding of key decision making to the so-called quartet were particularly problematic. Farron should of course be open to coalitions in the future, but should rule out a return to the Rose Garden.
Equidistance should end – but when?
My and many others’ support for the coalition with the Conservatives was very much predicated on one thing: that it was a one-off. It was unique because we found ourselves in a position whereby coalition with Labour was both arithmetically and politically impossible at a time of heightened economic uncertainty. It was assumed that Labour wouldn’t go on to collapse so completely that the Tories would go on to not only gain seats at the next election but form a majority (back in May I thought that Labour’s inability to challenge the Tories meant that with the benefit of hindsight the coalition had been a mistake; now, with Labour facing even more instability for the foreseeable future, I’m not so sure).
A case can be made that going into an election promising to prop up a defeated and deflated Labour government in 2010 would have been a major mistake; somehow however this has mutated into a position of permanent equidistance. Nick Barlow has explained in detail why this would be a mistake and that from a purely pragmatic perspective, an anti-Tory strategy is far more likely to deliver electoral success. I have to admit that the sooner the Lib Dems end up back in this position, the happier I will be.
The question however, is timing, and the reason for that is again Jeremy Corbyn. We do not yet know whether Corbyn is to be an acrimonious flash in the pan or has real staying power. If Farron had announced the end of equidistance on Wednesday, it would have been grossly premature and signalled such a massive change in direction that it would quite possibly backfire. Corbyn needs to be able to demonstrate he has the capacity to lead a major political party, or be replaced by someone who can, before the Lib Dems can seriously consider ending equidistance; and Farron needs to pick his moment well. It was after all three years between the Chard speech and the Lib Dems’ formal adoption of the position.
Being pro-Europe is not enough
The weakest sections in Farron’s speech were the ones where he attacked Corbyn directly. That’s not because I don’t think he should criticise the leader of the Labour party but because they were ineffectual. These criticisms centred around his Euro-scepticism and his economic policy.
On Europe, Farron defined the Lib Dems as the “No ifs, no buts” pro-European party, and there’s nothing wrong with being pro-European in principle. In practice however, regardless of the upcoming UK referendum on whether to remain in it, the EU is currently tearing itself apart. While Corbyn might be coming from an anti-EU position, his proposal that Labour should not accept the debate around EU reform on the Tories’ terms is not a bad one, and reform is coming regardless of what David Cameron wants – whether it is due to countries such as Greece straining at the policies being imposed at is, or the hundreds of thousands of people currently marching through the Schengen agreement and the EU’s complacent position on immigration and supposedly sharing the burden of humanitarian aid. The EU is currently not a thing to be especially proud of; a bit of ambivalence about the EU right now is not only looking awfully sensible and patriotic, but the pro-European position to take.
It was a missed opportunity for Tim Farron not to reflect on that in preference to a couple of jibes at Corbyn’s expense. And in this respect, he is very much Continuity Clegg, who never looked more like a fully signed up member of the establishment when he took on Nigel Farage in 2014 defending the status quo instead of articulating what a liberal vision of the EU looks like.
The urgent need for an economic policy
On a similar note, Farron’s main charge against Corbyn was that he indulges in “fantasy economics”. In doing so, he legitimises the current economic status quo. David Boyle has more to say on this and I’ll try to repeat him here.
The initial hug-them-close strategy of the Lib Dems in coalition had devolved by the halfway mark into a more businesslike arrangement, but at its heart, Clegg and Alexander insisted, was an acceptance of Osbornomics. The idea was that the Lib Dems would share the credit for the economic recovery.
The problem was of course, that it was nonsense. Faced with a choice between the authors of the economic policy and its cheerleaders, voters quite reasonably opted for the real deal. All Clegg achieved by insisting that there was no alternative was to argue his colleagues out of their seats.
Describing Corbyn’s position as fantasy is a luxury a party lacking an economic policy of its own cannot afford to do. If, hope against hope, the party goes onto adopt an economic policy of its own, any similarity to Labour’s position risks being portrayed as at best a u-turn, at worst, the very fantasy that Farron himself had been condemning up until that point.
By all means, I’d love to hear a Lib Dem critique of Corbynomics, but so far all we’ve heard is insults. The truth is that the Lib Dems have survived for decades without a meaningful economic policy of its own, other than a bit of fiscal jiggery-pokery. For Farron, it needs to be the number one priority if he truly believes in the social justice he has staked his leadership on.
Sadly, as with all articles about my political beliefs these days, this has degenerated into a rambling mess. This is why I write, let alone publish, so few blog posts these days. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to publish and be damned this time, which in turn might explain why I’m quite so all over the place.
Reading articles by your past, more idealistic self is a little cringe-making, and this Comment is Free article written by me at the height of Cleggmania in April 2010 is no exception. Back then, despite previously agreeing to a vote swap with my wife in which I voted Labour in the General Election in exchange for her voting Lib Dem in the locals, I ended up casting a big, positive vote for the Lib Dems. The result was a Tory MP with a majority of 106 over the Labour and an unfortunate tendency to compare same sex marriage to incest. As for the locals, the Lib Dems were beaten into third place. So much for that.
This year, I’m going to cast the least ideological vote of my life, and will be voting Labour. I will be doing so knowing that the man I’ll be supporting, Andrew Dismore, is exactly the sort of cynical Blairite that I spent most of my time as a Lib Dem activist fighting against. To be fair, he’s a genuinely conscientious community campaigner, but really the best thing I can say about him is that he isn’t Matthew Offord.
I’m lucky that my choice is so stark and so simple this time around; if I were in a constituency with a larger majority or a less loathsome Tory MP, I might have a harder decision to make. I’m extremely grateful that happenstance has left me in a situation where I don’t really have to think much about my vote this time round.
But this all rather begs the question, what do I believe in these days? Most people who have left the Lib Dems stalked off over some firm, principled objection to something they had done. In my case, it was simply that I was burnt out, feeling responsible for everything and yet not able to change anything. I’ve never advocated people following me into the wilderness, and I simply can’t fathom why so many of my former colleagues have ended up joining Labour, where the ability to actually influence anything must surely be even more limited.
At my heart, I’m still a left-leaning liberal, and by most measures I should still be a supporter. As I’ve said before however, for me it boils down to the fact that the Lib Dems don’t have a vision of the economy at their heart. I’m just not convinced that it is enough to be a “liberal” party these days. All the mainstream parties have liberalism at their heart, merely existing along a spectrum of in terms of to what extent they focus on negative or positive freedoms. You can happily be a classical liberal in the Conservative Party, or a social liberal in the Labour Party.
What should, and manifestly doesn’t, mark the Lib Dems out as different is their economic policies. I could get on board for a party with a clear vision for actually tackling the massive privatisation of our common wealth, even if that was tempered by pragmatic policies about how to get there. What we get instead is a couple of piecemeal, populist sops to a “mansion tax” – carefully designed to offend the least number of people and thus ending up not being able to raise that much money. That, aside from more austerity and pain, is all the Lib Dems have to offer about the economy, and that isn’t enough for me.
With all that said, I have a sneaking admiration for my old party. Say what you like about this government, but the fact that it has managed to last five years is a fantastic, game-changing achievement. Past experience suggested that it would have been lucky to last two years; the fact that it confounded these expectations in an age of Twitter is all the more remarkable.
I confess, there isn’t an awful lot I can put my finger on and point to as massive Lib Dem achievements that they can be proud of. There are some. Steve Webb’s pension reforms. Jo Swinson’s work on shared parental leave. I still support raising personal allowance in principle (although I don’t like the way it has been done). But at the same time, I have seen almost weekly examples of the Lib Dems blocking Tory policies that would have been dreadful.
I confess, that feels like small beer, and I can also name many Tory politics they did let through, which I find fairly hard to forgive (especially when it comes to benefit cuts and reforms). There are also things that they seemed to have been actively complicit in, rather than merely passively letting the Tories run with, most notably in the case of the Lobbying Act which has caused me to really doubt the Lib Dem top brass’s commitment to democracy.
Overall, I think the fact that they’re taking a knock in this election is justified. Despite predicting it however, I don’t think they deserve to take the beating that they look set to get. I see an awful lot of competent, smart people losing their seats regardless of their personal qualities, and that sucks.
What is most unedifying is seeing the Lib Dems getting the blame for the wrong things. Despite the “broken promise”, the resulting policy on HE funding is by all measures fairer than what came before it; indeed, it’s biggest flaw is that I suspect it will quickly be deemed unsustainable by whoever forms the next government (I’ll laugh, albeit ruefully, when we subsequently see the NUS rushing to defend the status quo then). Meanwhile, we have the monumental screw up that was the NHS restructure, which only happened because Clegg personally supported Lansley on the issue (it certainly wasn’t Lib Dem policy). If he should be crucified for anything, it is this. It is weird that our politics are such that the media is preoccupied by “broken promises” yet lacks the analytical skills to adequately assess things like competence and whether a policy is likely to actually work.
I’m even in two minds about Clegg. On the one hand, he’s pretty much everything I hate about modern politics. He stood for leadership of the Lib Dems on a false prospectus, lead the 2010 election campaign on a false prospectus and negotiated the coalition agreement on the basis of his own priorities rather than the parties (which is why tuition fees, health reform and free schools were all “conceded”; these were all Clegg policies). On the other hand, to have managed to survive five years having so much ordure poured over his head, is quite remarkable. I hesitate to admit that I like him more than I did five years ago, but I do (but let’s not get carried away).
Ultimately, the thing that completely alienates me from the Lib Dems however is the internal culture. I couldn’t bear it even 10 years before I finally left, ducking out of Glee Clubs and party rallies whenever I could. I might dislike Clegg, but I had a growing problem with how Lib Dems campaigned long before he was leader. The Lib Dems simultaneously like to think that they have a monopoly on community politics, and that it can be reduced to an election-winning strategy. Neither are true, which is why it will always result in cynical campaigns and ever decreasing circles.
I had a problem with the man behind the modern Lib Dem campaign strategy Chris Rennard, long before the allegations of sexual impropriety emerged. The way the party ultimately welcomed him back under the fold, and threw the women who made the – to quote the official report – “credible” claims against him under a bus, is utterly shameful. The allegations about Cyril Smith’s conduct are clearly more serious than the ones made against Rennard, but the pattern is the same: studied incuriosity and scrupulous hand washing after the event. This is a party with a serious problem when it comes to how it deals with allegations of a sexual nature made against its own senior party figures, and we have seen nothing that suggests this culture is likely to change significantly in the future.
I have to admit that, for me, it’s personal. If I was still a party member and this hadn’t happened to personal friends of mine, I might be more inclined to shuffle my feet and shrug in the way that the vast majority of Lib Dem MPs and members have. I can’t shrug off the perception that this is linked in with the party’s wider failure to improve its record on gender balance and Clegg’s now largely forgotten decision to include a pledge to grant people accused of rape with anonymity in the coalition agreement. When it comes to sex and gender, the Lib Dems find themselves on the wrong side of the argument far too often, and it can’t begin to renew itself until they can credibly claim to have changed that.
So I’m torn. On the one hand, I’m grateful to the Lib Dems for proving that coalition government can work and stopping the Tories’ worst excesses over the last five years. On the other hand, I’m very conscious of deep cultural and philosophical shortcomings of the party. It deserves a hit in the polls, but I’m highly ambivalent about the fact that many of the wrong people will end up being at the sharp end. The pragmatist in me thinks I should get back involved and try and change it from the inside, the idealist in me is repelled by the idea of being tainted by all that again. Fortunately for my idealist side, there’s also my mental health to consider, so it is largely academic.
I’m hopeful that a new party can emerge from the ashes on 7 May. But if it ever wants my vote again it will need to have a much stronger commitment to social justice, wealth distribution and feminism at its core*.
* Inevitably, I’m going to get asked why I’m not turning to the Greens. I have to admit that I’m increasingly struggling to come up with a good answer to that. The simplest answer is that a) I’m happy voting tactically this time and b) staying away from political activism for the foreseeable future. But as someone who was rather preoccupied with the Lib Dems’ (subsequently dropped) 1992 pledge for a citizen’s income when he first joined the party, I can’t deny that the party has its appeal. I’m not yet convinced that, if I ever do get off the bench, my time wouldn’t be better spent organising inside a party with a national infrastructure than inside a party which has yet to demonstrate that it has one. It remains to be seen how many of these new members the Greens have purportedly recruited will go on to organise themselves outside of election time and turn their handful of potential target seats into something more ambitious. If they can prove they are a sustainable force, things might be different.
Unlike 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.