Lib Dems, welfare and the art of negotiation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. This. A thousand times this.

    Sometimes, I wish that our MPS weren’t so bloody *reasonable*. A belief in pluralism, and in coalitions if necessary, can frequently morph into a handwringing of the necessity – even virtue – of compromise. This is only exaccerbated by the fact that we only got 24% of the vote last time and came third. Therefore, there’s an inbuilt idea that we have no right to ask for more than what we eventually get. At the same time, we’re dealing with the outsized egos of the Tory benches who are used to dealing with power and who are utterly contemptuous of little ideas like pluralism, democratic mandate, etc, etc.

    The irony is that castigating the membership for ‘not being ready for government’ is completely off – it’s the leadership who doesn’t quite understand how much more influence we could have if we were willing to get bolshy once in a while. I remember being told for the umpteenth time at the Birmingham Conference in 2011 about how great it was to be in government, and thinking ‘if we’re in government, why was I told fifteen minutes ago that we’ll have to settle for the current accreditation regime because they’re Home Office guidelines? Why can’t we get our minister in the Home Office to sort this out?’ The same applies for a lot of different issues.

    I think you’re slightly off on Secret Courts though – I think that welfare is an equally big issue among the ‘grass roots’ from what I’ve seen, although it’s pretty divisive as well. Also, SC is worrying for the simple reason that Clegg shows absolutely no interest in negotiating or talking to the grassroots, instead spouting platitudes about Hard Decisions In Government. The party can sort of accept for the time being that he’s a right of centre liberal, but it increasingly seems like he might actually have no red lines or grounding principles at all, and that he’s actually Tony Blair c. 2002. As someone who got into politics and really became a liberal (and later a Lib Dem) because of Tony Blair’s hand-twisting about the Responsible Decision he made to bomb the living shit out of Iraq and lock up people without trial, that is incredibly frightening.

    1. “Yes”: I may be being unfair on the party grassroots. All I know is tha while lots of people seem unhappy about welfare cuts, the threats to go beyond that and actually call for special conferences, etc., seems to be reserved for secret courts.

  2. To be fair, I think you are one of the more reasonable and thoughtful critics of the party.

    Earlier on this evening I heard the repeat of the Daily Politics. It was striking that when Steve Webb was counter-attacking Stephen Timms with the standard (and often reasonable) “what would you cut instead? Or would you borrow more?” Timms for Labour had nothing to say about wealth taxation. It is no more part of Labour’s plan than is the Coalition’s.

    I was struck by a statistic reported on tonight’s news that I had not heard before: 60% of people receive more in benefits than they pay in tax. That means 40% of the population pay for 100% of the population. That is so surprising a number that I feel it is likely that it was mispreported or I misheard. But if it is true, I don’t believe that the opportunity to create wealth is so badly distributed that such a figure could be justified. There are some people who have limited chance to make a net contribution to society, but not 60% of society.

    I would be grateful if anyone can clear up for me whether that statistic is right. I hope to be told it is not correct.

    On Secret Courts, I am surprised you dismiss the importance of this issue.

    It is no exaggertion that in the hands of the wrong government (and I think your past remark “we could elect someone a lot worse than Tony Blair” – an observation on whether Harold Saxon was true to life IIRC – is entirely correct) it could literally be the end of democracy. Where is the evidence that only 1000s of people will be directly affected?

    In any case, in many dictatorships it may have been only 1000s who were subjected to secret trials, show trials or some other form of unfair trials. That’s enough. Everyone else just has to know that the state /can/ torture you or kidnap your relatives then dismiss your civil claim for redress through secret evidence in a secret process where the only protection is a judge the government ultimately appointed.

    Those who think “we can trust the judges” should look at South Africa. The judges kept Apartheid at bay in the 1950s as unconstitutional but it was only a matter of years before they retired and were replaced by judges shaped by the same social and educational racialist influences that led to a pro-Aparthied govt. in the first place.

    I honestly think that if we have secret courts then whether benefits go up by 1% or 2.5% will be the least of our worries in the long term.

    1. Antony: I didn’t dismiss the importance of secret courts; I questioned why this was considered a more serious issue than welfare cuts – and even legal aid cuts.

      I can’t really comment on your 60% / 40% figure as I don’t know how it breaks down. Presumably it includes children in that 60% figure for example. It seems more like a debating point than an informative statistic.

  3. Going back to an earlier discussion, I think this shows why the Lib Dem ‘we must prove coalition government works, so we can’t even think about quitting’ strategy is wrong. Because the Tories know Clegg won’t walk away, they can keep taking a tough line in negotiations, as he’ll always blink first and go for a compromise.

    On the benefits issue, I agree that more people should have been making noise about it – and I know I haven’t talked about it much – but I suspect the elevation of secret courts above that as the big issue of dissent is because it allows people to distinguish themselves from both the Tories and Labour. It’s horrible tribalism, but I think the mutedness on benefits comes from a ‘I don’t like this, but Labour are also against this and I don’t like them, so I won’t say too much about it’.

    There’s been a continuing demonisation of Labour within the party, and I think this makes people reluctant to pick up causes that are associated with them because of it.

    1. Nick: I fear you may be right. To be fair on me, I don’t think there is a comparable of Clegg caving in in a negotiation before (there are numerous examples of Clegg selling out the party but that is slightly different and these have lessened as he has got to grips with the politics of coalition). But if this is the state of things to come, then the whole exercise is doomed.

  4. “The “compromise” was that the Tories would get a cut in benefits and the Lib Dems would get a wealth tax”

    Which never made a massive amount of sense in the first place – if we’re levying additional taxes, doesn’t this provide the funds to avoid the cuts anyway?

    In order to negotiate strongly for something, it helps if what you’re negotiating for is self-evidently coherent and sensible. If it ticks some political narrative boxes, so much the better. I’m not sure the “more wealth taxes and more cuts” proposal did any of that, so it’s not surprising to see that it didn’t come to pass. It’s a wonder that anyone thought it would. If, that is, it was ever anyone’s realistic expectation?

    1. Rob: I think you are right that it was a poor position to negotiate from in the first place; Cameron and Osborne had rejected wealth taxes even before Clegg had issued that ultimatum. He always was likely to not get what he wants.

      I’m sure I’m not alone to assume therefore that what he was actually saying was that there was no way he was going to sign up to benefit cuts. How wrong can I be?

  5. Ever since the Coalition agreement was made, as far as I can tell the lib dems in parliament have conceded to absolutely every bad policy the conservatives have come up with, the only legislation that was even threatened to be voted against never reached the commons for a reading and was only veto’d in a party political tit-for-tat rather than because it was opposed in principle as a matter of policy – after all, (unlike the welfare cuts, work assement program, and piss poor ideological “reforms” to the benefits systems and NHS) it was in the Coalition Agreement.

    I honestly despair of the party, and each time I think “maybe I’ll rejoin and try and change them for better” (as I naively did 6 years ago when I first became a card carrying member) they pull a stupid stunt like supporting the NHS Bill, or Snooping Bill or these welfare cuts and reforms.

    Last night I saw a tweet from a former party leader saying he voted yes on 2nd vote and they’ll fix it later.. he *must* know they’ve never managed to get any really significant amendments into any of these bills that managed to transform a steaming turd into something acceptable, every time they say how unhappy they are then vote it through at 3rd reading with some minor tweaks saying how much they dislike it but how they couldn’t possibly vote against a government bill on it’s 3rd reading as that would break parliamentary precedent and mean all the time they spent on it was wasted..

    If I had any hair left I’d be pulling it out 🙁

  6. I disagree with the 1% cap, but I can see a fairly cynical political case for why the Coalition might want to do it.

    Like you, it’s the politics that gets me. What I don’t understand is why the leadership viewed benefits uprating as such a big issue last year – defending the 5.2% rise as ‘not balancing the books on the back of the poor’ (see for e.g. ) and presumably expending a fair amount of political capital to make that 5.2% rise happen; and then this year defending the 1% rise to the hilt.

    Is consistency too much to ask?

  7. Brian, as I said, it just looks as if they’ve lost their way entirely, both morally and strategically.

  8. Well, there’s always the “when the facts change, I change my opinions. What do you do?” argument – when pushing for a 5.2% increase last year, we thought we’d have higher growth this year to pay for it. Now we don’t and something has to give. And since benefit increases are cumulative year-on-year, we’re still better off with a 5.2% increase last year and a 1% increase this year than we would have been with, say, two 2.5% increases. If you don’t think too hard about what this means for people actually on benefits, it doesn’t sound too unreasonable, which is part of the problem.

    A better plan might be to establish some arbitrary standard of fairness – say, for every £1 of spending cuts there will be £1 of tax increases, and no net tax increases on anyone below, say, the fourth decile (I have plucked those figures out of thin air so they might not work at all – I’m sure a passing clever person could help me out with some better ones). Call it “the Lib Dem fairness test” and refuse to sign off on a budget that fails it. Absolutely do not debate the details of 1% off this or that spending item and stick to the high-level principle.

  9. “60% of people receive more in benefits than they pay in tax. That means 40% of the population pay for 100% of the population”

    There’s some statistic like that from the CPS, or someone similar. But it doesn’t mean anything without knowing a lot more about it. If a govt has a budget deficit then every household could receive more in benefits than they pay in tax, but it wouldn’t mean 0% of households were paying for 100% of the population as it ignores the private sector.

    If you just mean govt spending them it seems obvious – the top 40% earn about 70% of the income, so they will pay a large share of tax and get less spending.

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