These are troubling times, for many reasons. If you’re interested in the politics of the Liberal Democrats then you’re driven to ask precisely what’s going on. For those who considered they were joining a tolerant and federal party of the centre–left, the omens seem to get worse by the day.
Yesterday we had a letter in The Times by leading Liberal Democrats in local government (reported here). The argument was utterly reasonable. They were not disputing the need for cuts. They were not even pressing all that hard on the point that the cuts cannot, pace Mr Pickles, be made through efficiency gain but will require reductions in frontline services. The main point was that the cuts being imposed on local government – unlike those being made in Whitehall – are being frontloaded. As a consequence they cannot be dealt with by natural wastage or by considered restructuring. Rather they have to be rushed and dealt with by compulsory redundancy, which will incur considerable additional costs. This is going lead to irrevocable – but avoidable – damage. So it was a public request for equitable treatment. Not an unreasonable point, one might have thought.
Rather than Cameron or Pickles putting their heads above the parapet, Nick Clegg was out and about yesterday talking of public sector reform and his response to the letter was, inevitably, sought. That response, as reported in the Guardian at least, struck – for me – the wrong note. Clegg more clearly sided with the policy of the Coalition government than the members of his own party –who he criticised for engaging in “megaphone debate”. The tone felt all wrong.
One might ask why local Libdems are engaging in such public comment and disagreement with policy at the centre. As anyone following the debate will realise, it is quite clear that every other route to more constructive dialogue with the Communities Minister has failed. In the local government sphere, the fox has been put in charge of the hen-house. And the fox is not in the mood for negotiating over how few hens to slaughter. The hens felt that the only option left was to go public. These concerns are not confined to the Liberal Democrats. Similar concerns have been voiced in all quarters of local government except the most rabidly right wing, which is embracing the strategy of decimating local public services enthusiastically.
And, of course, this week we’ve also had the defenestration of Lord Oakeshott for criticising the feebleness of the Merlin deal. His point hardly seemed unreasonable. It is being made by just about everyone outside of the Chancellor’s inner circle.
Today we have a piece in the Independent reporting on “secret” – although, apparently, not very secret – Liberal Democrat strategy discussions at Ministerial level. If the piece is at all accurate then it is further cause for concern. The report is reminiscent of the sort of triangulating behaviour we came to expect in the Labour era.
On the basis of “private polling” the Liberal Democrat leadership is reported to have concluded that left-leaning supporters who have abandoned the party for Labour or the Greens as a result of the collaboration with the Tories will not return. Nick Clegg was seen by poll respondents as being to the right of his party – no surprise – while David Cameron was seen as to the left of his – probably true, but worrying to anyone who reflects on what that says about how extreme the views in his party must be. So the best Liberal Democrat strategy for the future is to resist calls from within the party to “tack left”. Instead it should hold a position in the political centre and reach out to “soft Tories” who might be concerned that the centre of gravity of the Conservative party is too far to the right. Any such argument is guaranteed to reignite the argument within the Liberal Democrats over the rightward drift of party under the malign influence of the ‘Orange Bookers’, who some see as an unrepresentative but well-placed minority trying to turn the party into the Tories-lite.
The Independent suggests that this strategy could cause tension between Clegg and Cameron. That’s not the half of it. If the report is at all accurate then, quite apart from the substance of the proposed change, it raises a whole host of constitutional questions for the Liberal Democrats. As a federal party these are not, as far as I am concerned, decisions that the leadership can make in this way. Certainly not on the basis of private polling or tactics aimed mainly at electoral survival rather than principle. So much for the New Politics.
As far as I understand the constitution of the party, and it’s a little while since I read it, the Leadership is there to represent the views of the party democratically determined through its internal deliberative mechanisms. That is what makes it different from the other two main parties. No one, I think, pretends those mechanisms are perfect or that the policy that emerges from them is always judged to be optimal. But the process is just as important. It is a deontological rather than a consequentialist position. Any other mechanism would be nonsensical, given the substance of the political liberalism the party espouses.
Are we seeing the leadership – and if we are honest that really means Nick Clegg – becoming increasingly detached from the party? Placing more importance on keeping in with his new friends than aligning with the members of his own party?
This is the first time in generations that a genuinely liberal party has had influence over policy. But at what price? Power is a complex phenomenon. Sure it allows you to get things done. To implement political changes the party has advocated and sought for many years. But power has an appeal all its own. And the exercise of power is easier when you are not obliged to take account of the views of others. Indeed that is, from some perspectives, the very definition of being powerful. Without checks and balances, more power tends to be actively sought and power becomes concentrated in the hands of the few, to the exclusion of the many.
But that should hardly need saying. It is part of the very foundations of liberalism. I suppose the point is that Liberals are not, unless they are very careful, immune to the seductions of power. It is in holding to principle – not by tacking in one direction or the other – that the political future of the Liberal Democrats should lie. Anything else is to be perverted by power.