Three aspects of coalition government

[This post is the original version of a text that first appeared in issue 370 of Liberator magazine (February 2015), under the title “Sustained by useful idiots”]

4604466137_65e4ae185d_nAs we approach the last few weeks of this Parliament it is almost inevitable that our thoughts turn to evaluating the Coalition Government as a whole, the role of the Liberal Democrats within it, and the implications for the party of participating in a Westminster government for the first time in many decades. But this is by no means a trivial task. Not least because the answers depend on the angle from which the issue is viewed.

If we focus on the politics of the Coalition then one common criticism has undoubtedly been put to bed – coalition governments are not by definition weak because at their heart sits horse-trading and compromise. This government has pursued a radical agenda renegotiating the role of the state. It has set in train structural changes in a whole range of policy areas that have yet to fully work themselves through the system. This was possible in large part because for much of the Parliament the Liberal Democrats were willing to put aside dissent, in public at least, and support a wide range of Conservative projects. Only in the last year of the Parliament has the party made any real effort to differentiate from the Conservatives. [Read more…]

The narrow politics of slogans and symptoms

The long election campaign is now well and truly under way. It is hard not be underwhelmed by the story so far.

Politics is a complicated, multidimensional business. Indeed, one of the things I don’t envy politicians is that they are expected to have intelligent views on all sorts of topics close at hand, or at the very least be able to recite the current party line with some semblance of cogency and sincerity. At one level I rather admire those who manage it, and in the process avoid the bear traps laid for them by the media.

But at the moment we aren’t getting a very multidimensional view of what the parties are thinking or planning. Isabel Hardman’s piece in today’s Observer gives us an insight into why that is the case. [Read more…]

Resuscitating Greek myths

4432808605_43e7400304_nNick Clegg has a rather extraordinary post at the Telegraph today.

The second half of the post is pretty standard: the Libdems are less spendthrift than Labour and less ideologically anti-state than the Conservatives. Split the difference and aim for the sensible centre.

But in order to grab the opportunity to reiterate this message he has to find a hook to hang it on. And the hook that he – or, presumably, someone in his team – chose was the Greek election.

He makes some comparisons between Greece and the UK in 2010 when the current UK coalition was formed. In doing so he resuscitates some myths about the state of the UK economy and, therefore, makes some implausible claims about the role of the Libdems in government. [Read more…]

Senior Lib Dems talk coalition …

… and I’m not sure the messaging quite hits the spot.

Today’s Telegraph contains a piece entitled Vote Libdem for another Coalition, Nick Clegg says. On closer inspection it turns out that the article is based on the advanced briefing. But, nonetheless, the statements attributed to Clegg in the article seem to be framed rather unwisely.

It is surely true that a coalition government is one of the likely outcomes of the General Election. It is also the case that a coalition in which Liberal Democrats are involved, alongside either Labour or the Conservatives, is likely to have a more desirable policy platform than either party governing alone, for the sorts of reasons Clegg alludes to.

But the idea of voting Liberal Democrat if you want a coalition doesn’t make much sense. Whether this is precisely what the briefings, or Clegg, actually said or meant is no doubt open to debate. But, whatever was said, it opened up sufficient space to be construed in this way. [Read more…]

Green on yellow sniping

Concept of war or fighting. Lemon and lime against each otherYesterday’s Telegraph carried a piece about the rise of the Green Party, largely at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. It opens:

Nick Clegg has “betrayed” his voters and traditional sandal-wearing Lib Dems are switching to the Green party across the country, the party’s leader has said.

Natalie Bennett said that the only people left in Mr Clegg’s party are “right wing Liberal Democrats” and their traditional supporters voters are choosing the Green party because they do not want to make the “mistake” of 2010 again.

Bennett subsequently elaborates upon the point: [Read more…]

Visible liberalism goes AWOL again

Group Of Business People With Their Mouths Taped ShutBack in 2011 Nick Clegg famously said:

you shouldn’t trust any government, actually including this one. You should not trust government – full stop. The natural inclination of government is to hoard power and information

It’s a position embodying impeccable liberal principles. It demonstrates a clear understanding of the dangers of concentrating power and, by implication, the benefits of pluralism. The heart of many a jaded liberal sang in response. Clegg circa 2011 got it.

I wonder what Clegg circa 2011 would make of the actions of Clegg circa 2014?

This week we have witnessed the all too familiar sight of Liberal Democrats in the Commons dutifully trooping through the lobby in support of an illiberal Conservative bill. This time it was Chris Grayling’s Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. In the process they overturned some wise amendments passed by the Lords, where a rearguard action had been fought to try to stop the bill achieving its primary objective of putting government decision making largely beyond scrutiny. In the Lords the Liberal Democrats supported these amendments en masse.  In the Commons the only Liberal Democrat to vote against the Government was Sarah Teather. It’s a sorry tale. Many liberal activists have been sent near apoplectic.

[Read more…]

Together in election dreams

You can find one or two brave souls who are willing to put a positive spin on Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference yesterday. But the dominant view among the commentariat seemed to be that it all felt rather flat and unfocused. Given this was the last big set piece before the General Election that has got to be a worry for the Labour party. Hasn’t it?

Miliband’s omission of the passage on the deficit generated a lot of excitement, although it seems likely that this was a genuine failure of memory rather than a strategic omission. He would surely have realized that any such intentional omission would be jumped on, given that it had been pre-briefed to the media. He would, wouldn’t he?

I’m not surprised Miliband forgot some of the speech. Not just because it was long, but because it lacked much shape. I wasn’t able to watch the speech being delivered but I’ve read it and it lacks any clear structure or sense of direction. It also lacked much in the way of light and shade; highs and lows. I’m not sure it will keep students of political oratory detained for very long, except perhaps as a salutary lesson on the pitfalls of overdoing the empathy and attempts at humanisation.

Others have been more scathing. After spending several paragraphs picking out some modest positives from the speech John Rentoul finishes by summarizing with this zinger: [Read more…]

Liberal Democrat travails over the bedroom tax

Well, well, well. It turns out that the bedroom tax isn’t such a good idea after all.

Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have U-turned on the policy, ostensibly in the light of the (delayed) publication of interim report of the DWP evaluation. The report indicates that the policy largely isn’t achieving the objectives set for it.

Early tabloid headlines announcing that the Liberal Democrats were calling for abolition were misleading. Instead, what Clegg and Alexander would appear to have done is withdraw support for the policy in its current form and adopt a position broadly in line with the motion critical of the bedroom tax passed by Liberal Democrat conference last autumn in Glasgow. To be fair to NC he did state at the time of the Glasgow conference that the independent evaluation would be important in shaping support for the policy. And so, it would appear, it has proved to be. [Read more…]

Strategic silences

I’ve been thinking a bit since Nick Clegg’s big speech on Monday. It was a speech intended primarily for the party faithful, rather than the broader public. Some of the shifts in position it signalled were only really going to be detected by those with well-tuned antennae.

Some of Clegg’s speech on Monday was as toe-curling as usual. It repeated some tired Coalition tropes. Some passages captured that air of vacuous profundity that you expect from these types of political speeches. But then again I thought some of the substance wasn’t so bad. [Read more…]

Going down fighting

decision...My goodness the atmosphere around the Libdems is febrile at the moment.

No sooner had it become clear that Friday’s Libdems4change petition was going to fizzle out than we learn of Lord Oakeshott’s freelance polling manoeuvre. It’s almost as if the timing of the leak of the poll results was planned to keep the heat on.

A number of people online referred to Lord Oakeshott as a Scooby Doo villain, but his acrid resignation letter may yet prove to be genuinely damaging not only to Nick Clegg but also to Vince Cable, his preferred party leader. If so then the self-inflicted damage means the comparison with Dick Dastardly might turn out to be more apt.

As Lord Oakeshott disappeared sulphurously into the sunset the next instalment in the saga arrived in the form of a letter to The Times from the co-chairs of the Social Liberal Forum. The letter calls for a review of strategy and approach, including to the leadership. This was initially represented – and indeed was represented by the Times – as another call for Nick Clegg to stand aside. But, to be fair, the letter doesn’t call for that. Not quite. [Read more…]