Rear end analysis from Comment is Free

Okay, let’s get the blindingly obvious out of the way first. The Lib Dems are in trouble. We are floundering in the polls. Lewis Baston has a fair assessment of our woes over on Comment is Free.

Sadly, Iain Macwhirter has also decided to have a go. Aside from the blindingly obvious – that our stock isn’t all that high at the moment – it would appear that there is no point so large that Macwhirter isn’t capable of missing. Of course, accusing him of being stupid (which is of course what he calls us) would be unfair, since he is really being disingenuous. But it disappoints me that this is what passes for analysis these days.

First of all, he makes the following claim about why the Lib Dems failed to go into coalition government in Wales:

The Welsh Lib Dems were offered a share in a nationalist-led coalition in Cardiff, but pulled out at the last moment after the party executive was leaned on by the UK leadership. “Alliance with Plaid Cymru?” said Sir Ming’s minders. “Never! Unthinkable! The Liberal Democrats are a unionist party, always will be.”

Oh really? Knowing many of the individuals involved, if there had been the slightest hint of central interference here, they would have raised a shit storm. The one thing that might have convinced Peter Black to support coalition would have been the sense that Ming was pushing him the other direction.

There are a great many reasons why we failed to negotiate an acceptable package in Wales – a clear sense of identity and vision for Wales being the main one – but to blame Ming is an accusation too far.

Meanwhile, the Tory leader, David Cameron, has been pinching Liberal Democrat clothes on the environment, green taxes, public services and personal politics. Cameron has even allowed himself to be described as “liberal”. This attempt to drive the Liberal Democrats out of Tory marginals in England has sent the party into a state of ideological confusion. It no longer knows whether it’s orange or green; or blue or red. The truth is: no one cares.

This paragraph makes no sense at all. Which party has been sent into a state of ideological confusion? If you are going to polemicise about a political party you should at least observe the rules of basic grammar.

Either way, the fact is it is the Tories who are in ideological turmoil at the moment. Even this argument about the EU referendum is small beer compared to the gladiatorial contests that have been going on at CCHQ. This Summer, Cameron has invented a new concept in British politics: the revolving door policy development tool. What you do is stick Zac Goldsmith, Ken Clarke, John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith in a revolving door, spin it round really fast and then, when they’ve finished bashing into each other and falling over themselves, scoop up the resultant vomit and call it a manifesto.

By contrast, the one thing that Ming has been getting right is the development of a coherent set of policies. He doesn’t shout about them anything like enough (AND SHOUTING IS WHAT WE NEED AT THE MOMENT MING!), and I disagree with several of them, but we have a clearer idea of what we stand for now than we did during the last general election. Credit where it’s due: Ming has delivered here.

Just what are the Liberal Democrats for? They used to be about constitutional reform, about sharing power, about proportional representation.

Gosh this sounds familiar. I seem to remember writing an *ahem* award nominated blog post on the subject. Is it too much to expect these bozos to not go around plagiarising each other? No honour among thieves, clearly.

To reiterate for the hard of thinking: we’ve never been “about” any of those things – they are just convenient things that lazy drink soaked hacks who can’t be bothered to view politics through anything other than beer glasses label us as. Even PR has never been more to the party than a means to an end, which is to create a more liberal and equitable society.

They have lost the initiative to Gordon Brown and the SNP leader Alex Salmond, both of whom have launched “national conversations” on constitutional reform.

Splutter! Both of these “national conversations” thus far have been frustratingly thin on details. Salmond’s “white paper” on Scottish Governance even states that they have no idea how to conduct this “national conversation” and plan to consult widely on the matter (which, surely, is the role of a green paper?). They’ve made a couple of speeches, but neither of these men have yet demonstrated that their commitment to democratic renewal is anything more than skin deep.

Sir Ming Campbell’s call for a UK constitutional convention rings decidedly hollow after the Scottish Liberal Democrats refused to discuss setting up a constitutional convention in Scotland with the SNP.

This I’m sure Macwhirter knows to be a lie. At no point has Salmond discussed holding a convention; by contrast Nicol Stephen’s response to his white paper was to demand one. The opposite of truth is called a lie, is it not?

Just why the Liberal Democrats have opted for political oblivion is one of the great mysteries of modern politics. In Scotland, their manifesto was a near-perfect fit with the SNP’s on policies such as nuclear power, Trident, local income tax, Asbos, constitutional reform, renewable energy, taxation, student debt, class sizes and even Gaelic education. Yet they refused to sit down to discuss a Chilton with the SNP leader Alex Salmond unless he dropped his commitment to a referendum on independence – a referendum which was never going to happen anyway because the minority SNP would lose the vote on any referendum bill in Holyrood.

Simply not true. The deal on the table was to back a bill on a referendum or walk away. The Scottish Lib Dems, elected on a unionist ticket, chose to walk away. Salmond could have dropped the subject. He didn’t. End of. Why am I repeating myself? Because from now until the end of time SNP supporters no doubt will continue to peddle this airbrushed view of history. Well, that is until the steam begins to run out for Salmond’s minority administration. Then, I think you may just find him trotting up to Nicol Stephen with his tail tucked between his legs. We shall see.

Meanwhile, Alex “monkey” Hilton has been having a pop, making the bizarre claim that not ruling out a coalition with the Conservatives and capitulating to Labour’s every whim means that we must automatically be in favour of Cameron’s batty proposals for a fiscal marital aid. Er, what? So presumably we can’t not rule out a coalition with Labour without automatically accepting the need for ID cards, the moral righteousness of Brown and Blair’s war on Iraq and gimmicky policies on anti-social behaviour which have the opposite effect to what they’re supposed to do? I don’t think Alex undestands basic concepts like “negotiation” and “compromise”. He also seems to have missed the rather startling point that unless the Tories suddenly agree to PR (which, you know, might happen on Planet Zog), there’ll be no deal anyway.

Worryingly, I find myself agreeing with the Lib Dems’ critics all too often these days. Fingers must be pulled out, pronto. But where does the Guardian dig these people up from?


  1. “This Summer, Cameron has invented a new concept in British politics: the revolving door policy development tool. What you do is stick Zac Goldsmith, Ken Clarke, John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith in a revolving door, spin it round really fast and then, when they’ve finished bashing into each other and falling over themselves, scoop up the resultant vomit and call it a manifesto.”

    I love it! You make it sound like some kind of slot machine. 😀

  2. What to make of the Lib Dems as their Conference looms?

    Theirs is a wholly inadequate vehicle for any of the vitally important traditions from which they derive: of Gladstone, carefully re-appropriated in the light of his own “Four Doctors”, namely Aristotle, Augustine, Dante and Joseph Butler; of Keynes, Beveridge, and the One Nation politician’s One Nation politician, Lloyd George.

    Yet the cause of opposition to the neoconservative war agenda is an important one, though not one for which the rising faction among the Lib Dems will continue to fight.

    The cause of opposition to the pointless “renewal” of Trident is an important one (and an important reminder that Labour policy towards nuclear weapons had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of the SDP), although the Lib Dems have failed to get their act together properly on this one.

    The cause of defending civil liberties is an important one. I have come to see that the causes of an elected second chamber and of changing how MPs are chosen are important ones, although I am profoundly opposed to the specific Lib Dem proposals on these matters.

    And the cause of representing systematically marginalised and ignored areas such as the West Country, Mid-Wales, the North and South of Scotland, Northumberland, Merseyside, the more rural parts of Lancashire and County Durham, and parts of London like Southwark and Bermondsey, is an important one.

    The people of those and comparable areas, those who want to make our parliamentary system genuinely representative (which must mean all of us), those who want to defend and restore civil liberties (likewise), those who would and do oppose Trident “renewal”, and those who would and do oppose the neoconservative war agenda (and thus neoconservatism itself) are among the many, many, many constituencies now crying for the re-emergence of one or more proper political movements in place of the present hopeless, useless One Party.

    The Lib Dems might pretend that they are not part of that One Party, but in fact they are its licensed pretend-dissidents, to keep up the illusion that it faces some sort of opposition.

    If you want it to face real opposition that it desperately needs and richly deserves, and not least if you fall into any one or more of the above categories, then what are you doing about it?

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