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.