There are two post-election Lib Dem narratives doing the rounds. One is that the Lib Dems were doomed as soon as they entered coalition; that from 12 May 2010 until 7 May 2015, the party was stuck on railway tracks which inexorably lead to them going from 57 MPs to jut 8. The other is that while no-one believes the party would have come out of coalition looking popular, the party made a whole series of mistakes which would have mitigated the losses and resulted in the party still having dozens of seats rather than a handful.
I hold the latter view, but it does appear that fatalism has gripped an awful lot of people at the top of the party. Although I’m not a member and am not planning to rejoin, this troubles me because the last thing I want to see is the party simply go back to repeating history. There is a lot of talk about phoenixes (I’ve used the metaphor myself), but the important thing about the death and rebirth of the phoenix is that it is cyclical. Does the party really want to spend the next 20-40 years rebuilding only to make the same mistakes time and again? I don’t understand the point of a political party that doesn’t learn from its mistakes, and while I can understand why many aren’t really excited by the prospect of introspection right now, someone has to do it (far from it for me to suggest that no Lib Dems are having this debate; the Social Liberal Forum has published a whole series of articles exploring what went wrong, among other bloggers). The “keep buggering on” mindset arguably is as responsible for the scale of this defeat as anything else.
Here then are three specific examples where the Lib Dems could – and should – have done things differently.
I’m not going to rake over the coals of the repeated stand offs between Nick Clegg and conference over whether or not to keep the scrap tuition fees policy or the wisdom of parliamentary candidates, including Clegg himself, in signing those NUS pledges; nor am I going to claim that the Lib Dems were in a position where they could have argued for HE spending to have been protected in such a way that fees could have been kept at £3,000.
The crucial issue for me is the presentation of the policy itself. Specifically, why didn’t the party insist on replacing the fees system with a graduate tax. In many important respects the current system is a graduate tax in all but name. Vince Cable himself put it on the record that he was keen to explore this option as early as June 2010.
Why didn’t this happen? Well, the explanation has always been that the Tories wouldn’t let it. I’ve never bought that for several reasons. Firstly, Clegg, Alexander (and even Cable) were against scrapping fees and Clegg’s key advisor Richard Reeves was someone who was frequently antagonistic towards the left of the party. Secondly, the focus of that troika at the time was quite explicitly about hugging the Tories as closely as possible; their stated belief at time was that being seen to be united with the Conservatives trumped all other considerations. And thirdly, we were also told repeatedly that this was a flash in the pan issue, only of interest to the Lib Dem grassroots and student activists, and would be forgotten about by the time of the next election.
Clearly, the theory that there were few political consequences to breaking this particular election pledge has been tested to destruction, but at the time that looked pretty untenable as well. The 2009 expenses scandal had made trust a central political concern, so much so that Clegg himself had chosen to make it his core theme in the election campaign, with an election broadcast which began with the words “no student tuition fees“. The logic of the party’s own election campaign was that this sort of thing was unacceptable.
The Tories of course had good reasons for trying to undermine the credibility of the Lib Dems, but they had every interest in maintaining the stability of the government. If, as we are to believe, the option of a graduate tax really was pushed as hard as Clegg claims and he was rebuffed, then that in turn should have caused him to question the validity of the “hug them close” strategy (which he persisted with even after the AV referendum). It was simply a question of judgement and priorities for the senior Liberal Democrat team, and they made the wrong call.
The 2014 Annihilation
To the annoyance of a lot of my friends in Social Liberal Forum circles, I always believed that getting rid of Clegg and replacing him with someone else before the general election would have a limited impact, certainly if done too early. If Clegg had been replaced two or three years before the general election, as a number of people hoped, then his successor would have gone into the 2015 election almost as tainted and the party would have been open to the accusation of causing government instability in the name of self interest.
2014 however marked a new low for the party, where it had been annihilated in both the local and European Parliamentary elections. In London, it was quite shocking watching the party get wiped out overnight. Lord Oakeshott had commissioned a number of polls which showed that Clegg was a liability to the party and attempted a rather ham-fisted coup on the back of them; but you didn’t need those polling figures to tell you the blindingly obvious. Clegg was a busted flush. A new leader, punctuating a new direction for the party, would almost certainly have made a difference.
The party’s decision not to go down that route was highly depressing to watch. The reason it went into government was an admirable case of putting the national-interest above the interests of the party. The reason it didn’t ditch Clegg was focused more out of loyalty for the individual than anything else. That was neither in the party or the national interest, as the electoral consequences have now shown. Being told by Clegg on a weekly basis that “there is no alternative” had lead to a dangerous level of groupthink.
Of course, a coup would have been risky. But once again, it was in Clegg’s gift to do the right thing.
The 2015 Election Campaign
I don’t really know where to begin with the general election campaign itself. One of the things it had been impossible to avoid as a friend of several Liberal Democrats was that for the past two years they had been told that the secret to the party’s success was to stay on message, and that that message was to be “a stronger economy in a fairer society, allowing everyone to get on in life”. So it was a surprise to see that messaging get ditched at the start of the campaign in favour of “look left, look right, then cross” – a phrase which was as naff as it was meaningless. If I want slogans reminiscent of 1970s road safety campaigns, I visit Scarfolk; I don’t expect serious election campaigns to use them.
But the messaging was to get increasingly worse. First, we had the odd Wizard of Oz references to giving Labour a brain and the Tories a heart; cute, but again essentially meaningless. As the election date loomed and anxiety over the Scottish wipeout intensified, the focus on the Tories and Labour was relaxed in favour of dire warnings about what would happen if the SNP or UKIP have any influence over government. Then it was if someone had suddenly realised that the party had spent four weeks talking about everybody apart from themselves, so a new slogan was concocted, which was possibly the worst yet – “stability, unity and decency” – which managed to sound as crypto-fascist as it was uninspiring.
Clegg’s resignation speech lamented how the politics of fear had won the election. What he failed to mention is that he had spent the past couple of months stoking fear himself. The election broadcasts consisted of night-time road users cautiously attempting to cross roads in the face of speeding incoming traffic. The symbolism is simple enough to follow; a vote for anything other than the Lib Dems will have pant-wettingly terrifying consequences. But nowhere is there a real answer. We know we’re meant to think that the Lib Dems are the only good choice, but we aren’t told why.
Mark Pack has lamented how the ghost of 1992 and the endless talk of coalitions was revived in this election campaign. What I don’t understand is why Paddy Ashdown, leader in 1992 and election supremo in 2015, though it was a good idea. All the Lib Dem campaign did was to reinforce the Tories own messaging about the dangers of a government which Labour and the SNP have influence over. If you tell people to vote for the devil they know, don’t be surprised if they end up voting for the senior coalition partner.
All things being equal, it is very possible that even the best judged election messaging would have made very marginal difference to the election result, but by playing up the unrelenting doom, the Lib Dems were simply curling up and dying. Worse, the party has seen the dangers of appearing too establishment in the past; I’m thinking the 2007 Scottish elections and numerous council elections where the party has been in control as an example. I simply don’t understand why took the conscious decision to spend an entire election campaign trying to sound as uninspired and insidery as possible.
There is a very real risk right now that the Lib Dems simply “keep calm and carry on”. If they do, their hopes of revival are extremely limited. The question I have for the leadership election candidates is: which of the two of you is capable of taking control of your own destiny? Nick Clegg was extremely capable of presenting all his decisions as simply the only logical course of action, that any deviation from the road would lead to chaos and instant death. He surrounded himself with advisors that told him what he wanted to hear, presented every policy choice he took as effectively out of his control, presented every compromise he made as inevitable. In that respect, he could not be more illiberal: his politics was one in which agency had no part to play. It was summed up in his election campaign: straight ahead, with no deviation, in the face of everything which said it was time to turn.
The question Lib Dem members have to ask themselves as they decide which candidate to vote for is: does this man believe that the road back to power is a straight one of “obvious” choices, or a winding one with a series of crossroads. If they know what’s good for them, they won’t go for another leader who believes it is the former.
I’ve already said what I think about Labour’s decision to target Lib Dem-held constituencies at the expense of Tory-held ones, so I won’t repeat myself here. This article looks at the bigger picture, and how the Labour’s Lib Dem obsession for the past five years ultimately backfired on them.
It is striking how the Labour Party opted to define itself in opposition to the Lib Dems over the last few years, rather than the Tories. The ultimate expression of that was the “EdStone”, a fairly explicit response to Nick Clegg’s broken tuition fee pledge and “no more broken promises” position in 2010. More precisely however, the EdStone was a failed attempt to get Labour out of a hole of its own making.
The main lesson of the Clegg’s 2010 campaign should have been that politicians claim the moral high ground over trust at their own peril. Any party which has been in power for any amount of time knows that not all promises can be kept, even with the best of intentions. After all, I’m a member of the generation of students who was told by their NUS president, a certain Jim Murphy, that we had to drop our support for student grants to help ensure Labour stood by it’s promise not to introduce tuition fees. In the event, Labour – and Jim Murphy MP – did no such thing. More recently in folk memory was of course the notorious Iraq dodgy dossier, and more recent still, the country was still reeling from the 2009 expenses scandal.
The risk that politicians take when they explicitly attempt to taint their opponents with dishonesty is that they end up getting tarred by the same brush. Clegg could get away with it to a limited extent in 2010 because he was a relatively unknown and seen as an outsider. He didn’t need his opponents to do much work making him look shifty after the tuition fees debacle, but Labour went for it like a dog with a bone, even producing their own re-edit of the original Clegg zombie apocalypse PEB.
Did this damage Clegg and the Lib Dems? Undoubtedly. But it didn’t give voters a single reason to support Labour; in fact it reminded them why they abandoned Labour in the first place. Every time Labour focused on this issue, they ceded ground to the Greens, UKIP and SNP who didn’t fit the public’s perception of the politician mold. And as a consequence, they found themselves in a vicious circle, having to up the stakes every time they made an issue out of it. That they ended up having such a problem with trust that they felt they had to engrave their election promises literally in stone for people to believe them should have been a lightbulb moment; when you reach that stage, the truth is that you’ve already lost.
As has been expressed to me on and off the record by numerous Labour activists over the last few years, one of their key objectives over the last few years was to wipe out the Lib Dems, and thus revert back to two party politics. The Tories were keen to see the same thing happen, and so we have seen several examples over the last few years where they have actively colluded to undermine the third party. Miliband himself, to be fair, did briefly put himself above all that during the AV referendum, but lacked the authority to restrain most of his party from signing up with the Tories. They did it again during the attempts to reform the House of Lords. I’ve upset many Lib Dems arguing that they have to accept their own share of the blame for this failure, but that wasn’t to suggest that Labour weren’t also shortsighted.
The attacks were repeated and personal, at one point producing a highly glossy election broadcast in the run up to the European Elections to brand Clegg as the “un-credible shrinking man“. And again, it was extremely effective.
Labour may have been successful in wiping out the Lib Dems, but as we are now all too aware, the attempt to revert to two-party politics went absolutely nowhere. Anyone with any awareness of political and social trends in the UK over the past 50 years could have predicted that would happen. When Labour should have been worried about the Tories, all they seemed capable of focusing on was the Lib Dems and their so-called “betrayal”. It smacks of all-too Old Labour bullying, and like all playground bullies, it revealed a distinct lack of self-confidence and deference to the even “bigger boys”. While he was busy hitting Clegg over the head at every opportunity, Miliband was letting Cameron set the terms of the debate. For all this talk of the Conservatives being stuffed by members of the upper classes, whenever they were in the room Labour couldn’t tug its collective forelock hard enough.
I don’t actually believe, or even particularly make sense of, the idea that Miliband failed because he wasn’t “Blairite” enough. Blair fought his first election campaign when the Tories’ economic reputation was in tatters due to events he could not claim credit for; Miliband faced a party which was, putting to one side how for a moment, steering the country through an economic recovery. Arguing that Miliband should have both taken more responsibility for Labour’s economic mismanagement and claimed more credit for the golden age of Blair, the First Lord of the Treasury who deregulated the City spent money like water during an economic boom which any Keynsian would tell you should have been tackling the national debt, is simply rubbish. Surely they aren’t suggesting that Blair was so weak that he daren’t stand up to Gordon Brown?
But one thing Blair understood was that to govern, he needed to take seats off the Tories and not sweat the small stuff. It is hard to believe he would have achieved the 179 majority he had done if he’d spent so much time and energy trying to stop the Lib Dems from making their own breakthrough, citing the ancestral hatred borne out of the 1983 “betrayal” of the SDP.
If Labour had taken twelve more seats from the Tories instead of the twelve they took from the Lib Dems last week, Cameron would have been denied a majority. More than that however, if it had focused on the Tories over the last five years and not allowed itself to have become obsessed with the notion of restoring a two party hegemony, it would have done better still.
History consistently tells us that the right has always done better out of the two party system than the left, yet this is a lesson that Labour have stubbornly refused to learn. If Labour is serious about coming out of this slump it now finds itself in, it will have to correct this mistake. Membership in the Greens, UKIP, SNP and now, apparently, the Lib Dems, is surging. Like it or not, the smaller parties aren’t going to be going anywhere. It is time they evolved or stepped aside.
I haven’t had much sleep, but here are a few random thoughts about the election.
I’m angry with the Labour Party. I did my bit: I voted Labour in a constituency where they are in second place to a Tory with a majority of 106 (Hendon). I admit, I didn’t do that last time, high as I was on the prospect of the LDs getting 30% of the vote, which turned out to be a false dawn. But I didn’t make that mistake twice.
But where the hell were Labour? During the campaign proper, just one highly generic Labour leaflet was hand delivered in our area. By me. It was clear that the guy in charge of distribution was overwhelmed and didn’t really have a clue what he was doing. Sure, they hurled a load of equally generic and uninspiring literature out in the post, but there was virtually no evidence of a campaign at grassroots level. My wife and mother in law, who had offered to help, were given nothing to do (apart from the aforementioned leaflet and a target letter a few weeks earlier). You’d be forgiven for thinking Hendon was a safe Tory seat from the level of activity either party were putting into it on the ground.
Meanwhile, Labour activists in North London are busy patting themselves on the back for booting Lynne Featherstone out of Hornsey and Wood Green. Leaving aside any personal feelings I might have about that, Labour winning in Hornsey did not help to deny the Tories a majority government one iota. A win in Hendon would have.
That’s elementary electoral maths. Of course, you can’t predict what is going to happen in each individual seat. But if you put zero effort into the Tory marginal and bust a gut winning the Lib Dem marginal, then it is hard to deny that you had rather skewed priorities. And this pattern seems to be reflected across the country, with Labour going all out in Lib Dem constituencies and just tinkering in Tory seats. Norwich is another clear example, with Labour failing to gain Norwich North whilst slugging it out with the Lib Dems and Greens in Norwich South.
Labour made a huge deal out of their doorstep operation at the start of the campaign. I suspect it may have been exaggerated, but assuming for a moment that it wasn’t, it’s clear they were marching on the wrong bloody doorsteps. Who was making these calls? Presumably the same person who commissioned that ridiculous pledge stone. Presumably the person who decided on those meaningless “pledges” which were carved onto the pledge stone.
Anyone who says that Miliband failed because he went back to the politics of Michael Foot deserves to have their head rammed against that blasted lump of rock. Because say what you like about Michael Foot, he’d never have lead a campaign which was based around six vague and meaningless pledges like those ones. And he certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of doing something as hubristic as engraving them anywhere. I mean seriously. Would Michael Foot have cribbed an abbreviated Tory campaign slogan from ten years ago like “Controls on Immigration”? If you’re going to blow a racist dog whistle, at least find one that isn’t so ineffectual.
Labour didn’t lose because it veered to the left. It lost because it has no idea what it is. Either an authentically left wing Labour Party or an authentically right wing Labour Party would have done better than this vague shower.
The country didn’t turn to the Conservatives. Seriously, look at the results. Overall, they gained 0.8% of the share of the vote. Labour gained 1.5% of the vote share (if they hadn’t lost votes to the SNP in Scotland, they’d now be neck and neck). That the former shift gifted the Tories 23 more seats while the latter even larger positive shift cost Labour 26 seats isn’t just stupid; it’s morally repugnant.
The examples of how this voting system has denied the British public its voice are everywhere: the SNP winning 95% of the seats in Scotland with just 50% of the Scottish vote. The fact that the Tories have done virtually the same thing in the South of England. The fact that the SNP won 56 as many MPs as UKIP despite winning almost a third of their UK share of the vote (4.7% versus 12.6%).
The thing that seems to be giving some people pause for thought about electoral reform today is the prospect of it leading to a Conservative-UKIP coalition. That’s a hard bullet to dodge; all things being equal, it’s exactly what would have happened, albeit with the slenderest of majorities. However, it is also the case that all things wouldn’t have been equal. For one thing, the Greens would almost certainly have got more votes. For another, we wouldn’t have seen Tories voting tactically in the north for UKIP because their own party was a wasted vote. And UKIP’s own populist leftwing positioning would either force them into getting some concessions from the Tories or would have bitten them in the bum.
I’d go as far as to say that even a UKIP/Con coalition would be better than what we got for the simple reason that it would have included Conservative and UKIP MPs from across the UK. The “Maggie Simpsonification” of the UK would simply not have happened. Given the choice between a monolithic one party rightwing government with no representation north of the border and a wafer thin majority and a two party government rightwing government with some representation north of the border, I’d take the latter every time.
I would strongly urge you to sign this petition and get stuck into the campaign for voting reform in the UK.
There is nothing good about the Lib Dem humiliation. It’s no secret that I was no Nick Clegg fan. I didn’t quit the Lib Dems because of him, but he certainly wasn’t doing anything to keep me there. But I certainly don’t take any pleasure over what happened to them yesterday. They didn’t deserve it, and British politics is the worse for losing them. Hell, it’s the worse for losing the bloody Orange Bookers.
The dismay I’ve seen online in response to the prospect of a majority Tory government bears this out. The capacity for leftie magical thinking never ceases to amaze me. Somehow people can vote for a party that they no has zero chance of winning in a Lib Dem-Conservative marginal seat and still be dismayed when the Lib Dems get wiped out as if magical pixie voters were going to keep them elected so they didn’t have to. So many people who spent the last five years insisting that the Lib Dems made absolutely no difference in government seem to now be reeling off lists and lists of dreadful Tory policies which will now be implemented without the Lib Dems in the way to stop them.
Let’s be clear: yes, the fact of the coalition, the tuition fees “original sin” and Nick Clegg’s unpopularity were strategic dead albatrosses around their necks. Yes, they ran a dreadful, confused and negative campaign (at least the air war; I can’t comment about campaigns on the ground because I wasn’t there). But at the end of the day they lost in no small part due to a fit of pique by voters more concerned about their own political purity than stopping the Tories. That’s on them. It was on me when I did the same thing five years ago, so I know how it feels. I don’t condemn anyone for doing it – I understand the temptation – but I do expect them to accept responsibility for it.
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.
My ire was particularly roused yesterday by Owen Jones’s latest attack on Nick Clegg. Now, regular readers of this blog may be aware that Nick Clegg is not exactly my favourite person, I actually agree that Clegg is populist with little in the way of actual principles, and that this latest capitulation to crack down on virtually non-existent use of the UK welfare system by EU migrants is an apt if depressing example of this. But Jones’s analysis has one fatal flaw: he’s a member of the Labour Party.
You don’t have to agree with Martin Shapland’s equally flawed analysis that the fact that Labour have equally let down EU migrants and indeed the UK electorate that that somehow makes the Lib Dems’ own actions more acceptable to agree that Owen Jones and his cohorts are in no position to criticise.
If Clegg’s “scapegoating” of EU migrants (which is to ignore the fact that the Lib Dem position is far less coherent than simple scapegoating) is “unforgiveable”, then what does that make Yvette Cooper’s claim that the coalition are playing catch up behind Labour on this issue? Indeed, so behind the coalition were Labour on Tuesday that they set one of their lead attack dogs to smear Laszlo Andor, an EU commissioner who had the unmitigated gall to criticise the UK for adopting such a policy, wrongly claiming he was a fascist.
This isn’t the first time, and won’t be the last, that Clegg’s team has concluded that with Labour and the Tories united on an issue they might as well go along with it for fear of being singled out. It was the same reasoning that made Clegg so keen to not come out against the snooper’s charter. Clegg isn’t a liberal, although he wore that mask for a while, and his mission is to be seen to be in the centre of politics between Labour and the Tories, no matter where that centre happens to be (he’s only sticking with the party’s pro-EU stance because he knows that dropping it would lead to a split the party would not survive from). He’s pretty despicable. But does anyone really believe that is more despicable than the party leaders he is slavishly following? Miliband could have caused a split within the coalition by adopting a pro-migrant, and fact-based stance on immigration. Leaving aside his ethical and moral responsibilities, he had a responsibility to do so as the leader of the official opposition. Cringing in fear of how Lynton Crosby would respond, he chose not to.
I’m not suggesting the Lib Dems should be let off the hook, merely that they are irrelevant. Even if every single Lib Dem voted against these measures, the combined Labour-Conservative hegemony would get it through parliament. If Owen Jones truly had the principles he has pinned his professional career to, he would have chosen to lay into who is possibly the next prime minister for his cowardly stance, rather than the leader of a declining third party. Does anyone else see the irony in choosing to pull his punches on Miliband and ramp up the rhetoric on Clegg in an article denouncing the political practice of scapegoating? This is black propaganda indeed.
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.
I was intrigued by last week’s list of 10 new Lib Dem appointments to the House of Lords. As longstanding readers of this blog will know, I was one of the people who helped develop the Lib Dem system of electing an “interim peers panel” from which the party leader gets to choose the majority of appointments. Every party leader has railed against the constraints of this system and tried to get around it wherever possible, but even I was surprised that only one out of ten new peers this time around was from the list.
So I decided to have a little look at what the current party policy on appointing peers is. Lib Dem Voice said that a report was due at the 2013 spring conference but I couldn’t find anything. But I did find the following in the Federal Executive report (pdf) published for the autumn conference taking place in Glasgow this autumn (emphasis mine):
Interim Peers Election Panel
At the beginning of the year, the FE also established a working group on Internal Democratic Reform, whose first task has been to look into a replacement for the Interim Peers’ Election Panel.
Last year, FE came to the conclusion that given (at the time), we were hoping for a more wholesale democratic reform of the Lords, and that the Peers List was not operating as well as might have been hoped, the existing list would stand until we could produce a more appropriate replacement. This replacement is intended to be in place for elections in autumn 2014.
Our group, chaired by Sue Doughty, is consulting widely on this process, and will be distributing a consultation paper and holding a fringe at Glasgow to ask for input from members. A final motion will then be brought to Conference in spring 2014. Given that we haven’t yet succeeded in convincing the other two parties of the need for democratic reform of the Lords, I hope that you will be engaging in this process with Sue to ensure that the process we end up with is a fair, free, and democratic as
our party always aspires to be.
All of that is fair enough; I’m the first to admit that the current system is not perfect. But it bears absolutely no resemblance to the list of appointments made last week. And however imperfect the current system may be, it is infinitely preferable to simply appointing whichever millionaire donor happens to want their ego stroked.
I’m amazed that the Lib Dems allow themselves to have the mickey taken out of them by their leader like this every time. No doubt the Federal Executive will shuffle its collective feed extremely vigourously over its authority being usurped once again – and then do nothing.
More than anything, the thing that made me want an elected second chamber was dealing with Lib Dem peers – especially over lobbying and Lords reform. Patronage is a poison that infects the brain of even the greatest democrat. It is a sad thing to see.
UPDATE: I should have worked out who is or isn’t on the list myself before posting. In fact, two of the peers appointed last week were on the interim peers panel: Brian Paddick (who was elected), and Ian Wrigglesworth (who was on it by dint of being a former MP). In my defence, it is a nuance between considering an elected person to be on the list and including the “ex-officio” members as well. It is indirectly linked to above, but the paper outlining the process can be found here. As far as I’m aware the party has not revised the process since then, but since it refuses to publish the rules then who can really say?
Let’s try that again. I’ve just updated the spreadsheet that I set up a few years ago. It turns out that Brian Paddick was elected in 2008, and so the four year rule means that technically he was no longer on the panel by summer 2013. A very generous interpretation of the rules could however be made that it was allowable on the basis that the party (after establishing that Lords reform wasn’t going to, um, happen), decided to not hold a ballot in 2012 – and thus the previous two lists (2008 and 2010) still apply. Ian Wrigglesworth most definitely is on the panel however – being a former MP is for life.
It appears the party has interpreted the rules regarding ex-MPs to include MSPs and AMs. That never was the case however, and you can see from the list of people who have got elected to the panel over the years that it includes former MEPs. If they aren’t eligible, why are MSPs and AMs?
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.
You can’t politicise the police any more than they have politicised themselves
Every time the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Federation or someone like Lord Blair complains about the “politicisation” of the police, the Baby Jesus cries. The police have always been political, and over the last decade have become quite shameless about this: Ian Blair representing perhaps the apex of this.
Let’s not forget the hacking scandal, and the close links between the police and media that it revealed. Or the interplay between police and politicos over the De Menezes shooting. Or the transparent way in which the Police Federation and the Sun worked together over the Andrew Mitchell affair in a blatant attempt to divert attention away from the Hillsborough inquiry.
I don’t like PCCs for very many reasons, but in terms of “politicisation” the only thing they will do in terms of the police is to take that politicisation slightly out of the hands of the establishment and put it slightly in the hands of people at a more local level. Of all the reasons to oppose them, this is the weakest.
The Lib Dems are to blame for holding the elections in November
They deserve the credit for this and twelve months ago, Nick Clegg was claiming it to everyone who would listen internally (I was on the party’s Federal Executive at the time and can claim first hand experience of this). They insisted on this partly because the party was woefully unprepared for fighting the elections in May 2012, the government’s original plan, and partly because they very much wanted them to be held as far from the council elections as possible, fearing that the increased prominence of law and order issues during that period would damage the party. This went hand in hand with a mindset, not universally shared across the party, that it shouldn’t field candidates in the PCC elections at all.
In retrospect, I’m not entirely convinced of the wisdom of this. The answer to the party being weak on law and order issues is to be better on law and order issues, not to pretend they don’t exist. I disagreed with the argument that the party should not field candidates and am pleased that in the face of some quite strong pressure from the centre, the FE did at least say it was a local issue rather than the original position of attempting to actually ban local parties from fielding candidates.
Nonetheless, as it is a stupid policy anyway, moving polling day to November has only undermined it further – and thus increased the chances that PCCs might get replaced with something better sooner rather than later. My only real concern about it is what the Tories got in return for this delay, which I fear we won’t discover until the main player’s memoirs are published.
The Tories are to blame for everything else
The sad fact of the matter is that the creation of a role like Police and Crime Commissioner goes hand in hand with the mindset that you can hold elections without having to promote the elections whatsoever. It’s all part of a “no such thing as (big) society” philosophy that dictates that participation in elections is solely due to personal responsibility and the ability of individual candidates. I’m only surprised that someone managed to force them to provide any online information at all, and that they didn’t ban the Electoral Commission from doing what it could.
Returning to Andreas Whittam Smith, it is hard to see the creation of these posts and not see clear parallels between them and the direction he wants to see British politics to go in: surely this shift from politicians to “managers” is exactly what he wants, so why not simply support the Conservatives? And it is hard to see what he brings to the table. 12 independent PCCs were elected on Thursday, out of a possibly 41. Meanwhile, Democracy 2015 managed to garner just 35 votes in the Corby by-election.
More than 4,000 people have signed Unlock Democracy’s open letter to Theresa May, calling for her to take steps to ensure we never see a repeat of Thursday’s elections, and for her to consider alternatives to PCCs. Please add your name.
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.