Saturday 21 August 2010

Tough week for the Liberal Democrats

Been a rough week for the Lib Dems: since the election, they've seen their poll ratings down about 10% or so, on 14% according to the latest YouGov poll. A lot of tiresome "ConDem" bashing is really starting to get on my wick.

A few stories in particular caught my attention, though. The first is in relation to Simon Hughes, who to be fair was never exactly going to be a LibCon enthusiast. He caused a bit of a stir by talking about a coalition veto, and reiterating that a future LibLab pact was still "on the agenda". When I first saw this, my immediate reaction was quite similar to Boris Johnson's aide and London Assembly member James Cleverly: it came across as Hughes trying to derail the spirit of the coalition in what is undoubtedly a challenging context. I was particularly angered because the inference I drew from his, and the mutterings of some other LibDem supporters I know was that they would only ever be comfortable with a coalition with Labour. It seems to me, frankly, to be quite hypocritical for those who believe in proportional electoral systems and therefore coalition based government, not to work with the coalition the election result dealt them. How democratic would it be if, under STV, we had de facto permanent LibLab government because their core votes plus just a handful of swing voters happens to make-up 50% or thereabouts of the voting electorate?

Tony Benn once said of those in power that one of the most important questions we need the answer to is "how can we get rid of you?". A Liberal Democrat party backing Labour all the time would make it absolute hell to get rid of an almost certainly Labour dominated government. Given Labour's track record of overspending and expanding the state beyond acceptable levels, that would be a truly dire, illiberal and certainly undemocratic reality.

HOWEVER, having thought about it for a couple of days, I actually think what Simon Hughes has done is a potential blessing in disguise: for the Lib Dems AND for the Coalition. With Labour doing everything they can to leech off  Lib Dem support (more of later!) the main accusation has been that the Lib Dems have been annexed by the Tories and have sold-out their principles to facilitate cuts. The effect of Hughes' superficial scepticism of the coalition could be to act as the lightening rod for Lib Dem disaffection, preventing large-scale defection to Labour and providing Nick Clegg with a useful check on the Tories if they try to deviate too far from the coalition agreement. Because of their core votes, the Tories are never going to be fully social liberals, and the Lib Dems never fully economically liberals. In the absence of a strong "libertarian" grouping in the UK, the existence of a strong Liberal Democrat party is absolutely essential to produce even occasional semblance of such an agenda. By channelling economic disaffection to a figure within the Lib Dems, the Coalition is more likely to hold, and in time, prosper.

The second "news" story relates to rumours that Charles Kennedy and 5 other Liberal Democrat MPs are planning to defect to Labour by the end of the month. The claim has been denied officially by Lib Dem Officials and although not yet by the man himself, I'm largely sceptical that there's any truth in it. Jo Swinson, one of those I would have thought would be among any number led by Kennedy, has point blank denied knowledge of any defections in the pipeline (Kennedy or others) and made clear in no uncertain terms that she has no desire to defect to Labour! As a final link, after a lot of speculation on Twitter, I thought this Tweet rather hit the nail on the head.

If, however, the rumour does prove to be true, I think it would not only be a sad day for the UK's liberal agenda, but would also reflect very poorly on Charles Kennedy, a man for whom I have a lot of respect. It is one thing for him to oppose the Coalition deal on a variety of policy and identity grounds. It is quite another to show total disloyalty and contempt for your successors, and to spit the proverbial dummy out the pram because your democratic party have come to a different conclusion from you. I hope for Kennedy's sake that this isn't true, and that he fights his battles from within the party, instead of making friends with those responsible for a 40 year debt legacy, erosion of civil liberties and the greatest vacuum of principles in British politics through the New Labour project.

My last article sees Nick Clegg's rebuke of a member of the public accusing the coalition of going on "an ideological crusade to attack the weakest in society"

Leaving aside the low-grade rag the story's taken from, I find myself having a lot of sympathy with the content and manner of Clegg's response. The never ending rhetoric that's being thrown about, portraying the Tories (and via the Coalition, the Lib Dems) as people that will sell your gran on eBay and make you pay the Paypal fees is getting utterly tiresome. The public finances are in an absolutely appalling state, and people don't seem to be picking up that a) almost all of the cuts were of the scale and ilk Alistair Darling alluded to in "the deepest cuts since Margaret Thatcher", so would have been done by Labour anyway b) they're trying to minimise the threat to the absolute poorest by looking at universality of benefits and lowering, for example the Child Benefit threshold so families on two professional salaries, who clearly don't need it, no longer get the same as those who are genuinely impoverished.

Economic growth over the next few years, regardless of deficit reduction model, was never going to be as substantial as during the Blair-Brown years. The suggestion, therefore that we can sustain those sort of levels of spending, when Brown ran up annual deficits during boom-time, is borderline hilarious. The problem with the last 13 years is that people have grown to expect that the state will assist them to a level simply not viable. Responsibility and hard work have been replaced by senses of recklessness and entitlement. Of course some of the public spending was inherently good; few argue with that. The problem is that it was too much, too quickly and too unaccountably. PFI contracts handed out willy-nilly, keeping new schools and hospitals off the balance sheet, leaving the children of people yet to be born to pick up the last of the bill for facilities that will almost certainly be redundant in under 20 years. A tax and welfare combination that makes it less of an incentive for people to work more than 16 hours a week on the minimum wage than to sit at home and pretend to look for a job. That's the legacy we inherit, and although the next four years are going to be bloody difficult for all (and yes we'll have to be especially careful about the vulnerable) a sharp dose of reality being brought to public sector finances will leave us much stronger going forward.

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