Betraying themselves

Published in Prospect (March 25th, 2011)

An army of political obituarists is arguing that we are witnessing the suicidal spasms of one of our great political parties. Oceans of ink have been expended on the death throes of the Liberal Democrats. These views have been strengthened in May with the rejection of electoral reform and the party’s terrible local election results.

It is, of course, nonsense to write the party off after one year in office. But as Nick Clegg flails around in political panic, there are grave dangers he is about to make his problems even worse. As he searches for ways to convince voters he is the government’s liberal conscience, the nice guy softening the blows of the nasty party, he is at risk of undermining his two core strategies.

The first of these is the desire that lies behind everything Clegg has done since the general election: to show that, although Disraeli doubted it, coalition government works in Britain. This is the ambition that sustains him through the debacle of tuition fees, the tantrums of his colleagues, the plummeting in the polls, even the burning of his effigies. It is the hope that when he hauls his battered party over the finishing line at the end of five years, he will have made two-party politics look outdated and shown that a vote for the third party is neither a wasted one, nor just a protest vote.

Unfortunately, the longer the coalition lasts, the less the public seems to like it as a form of government. After last year’s election, voters said they approved of parties working together. But a spate of polling to mark the first anniversary found that, by large majorities, people believe coalition has made government weaker, more muddled, indecisive and less responsive to the public. Four out of five say that government is “more confused” with a coalition.

Such scepticism will grow as the Lib Dems seek to assert their identity with what they call “muscular liberalism,” and the two parties fight over the spoils of government. Privately, ministers say nothing has changed behind the scenes and while Clegg has been complaining about Cameron’s “Bonapartism,” the pair are texting and speaking as much as ever. “The occasional frostiness is exaggerated,” said one cabinet minister. “There has been no change inside government.”

But even if this is true, there is little doubt Lib Dems feel very upset by their brutal treatment in the referendum campaign. Endless bickering in public will increase disenchantment with this continental style of government. How, for example, could voters not be confused when each party claims it was responsible for slamming on the brakes over health reform, or when the prime minister brazenly undermines his deputy’s social mobility work by saying he is relaxed about giving work experience to friends’ children?

Such fears are worsened by the feeling that Clegg has lost control of his party, as shown by the massive vote against health reforms at his spring conference, or his peers resisting furious whipping and voting against elected police commissioners. “They were trying to give a slap on the wrist and ended up breaking an arm,” said one minister wryly. There is growing suspicion the Lib Dems may move against their leader before the next general election if poll ratings continue to slump—which would hardly endear the public to “new politics.”

The vote against elected police chiefs highlights the second core strategy endangered by the outbreak of tribalism. On both sides of the government there is a desperation not to be defined by public spending cuts. This is one of the reasons for the frantic pace of public service reform, shaking up everything from schools and hospitals to the police, pensions, prisons and planning.

Now the Lib Dems, aided by the more timid Tories, are seeking to rein in what Vince Cable famously called a “Maoist revolution.” But the more they slow the pace of change, the more the risk grows that the government will be shaped by spending cuts alone. “They are making long-term strategic mistakes for short-term political gains,” said one Downing Street source.

Much Lib Dem concern revolves around the populist issue of private firms encroaching into the public sector, despite evidence from Europe of how market-led reforms transformed state services. “The trouble is they have no strong policy agenda and all they’re doing is stopping progressive reforms,” said another key Conservative. “It’s all so negative. The only way they can demonstrate their position is to block stuff, but they are putting up nothing in its place. It does not exactly show coalition government at its finest.”

The irony is that, by propping up monopolistic state services against their own localist instincts, the Lib Dems are betraying their liberal traditions for the cosy conservatism of the crowd. By voting against elected police chiefs, for instance, Lib Dem peers endorsed the idea of centralised power in the hands of the home secretary over devolved power in the hands of communities.

If they really want to pick fights with their coalition partners, they should be doing the exact opposite: taking on pockets of Tory intransigence against devolution and the prising open of state services. Some senior Tories are displaying unexpected caution on public sector reform, frustrating some of the bolder plans to remould public services in the interests of both taxpayers and those most in need.

Many of the key Lib Dem ministers were, after all, the people behind the infamous Orange Book, which promoted the idea of aggressive localism and genuine choice in public services. Some of the suggested ideas, which included replacing the “second rate” NHS with a social insurance scheme, were far bolder than anything yet suggested by the Tories. But now they seem terrified of anything remotely reminiscent of 1980s-style privatisation.

They need to rediscover their radicalism. It would make more sense for them to be taking on the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, for example, to push the idea of mayors across the country with tax-raising powers. Or tackling the Treasury to extend the liberating use of personalised budgets across the public sector. Or pushing far greater political reform than tinkering with the House of Lords, which the public has little interest in, and instead  arguing for giving parliament the right to veto public appointments and allowing more use of recalls and referendums.

Instead, Clegg risks all his pain for no gain through the unwitting demolition of his two central strategies. In his speech to mark the anniversary of the coalition, the likeable Lib Dem leader said that after decades of scaremongering, they had proved that coalitions are not “un-British,” but a better way of delivering in government. The voters may take a different view.

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