Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Ken Clarke shows how Labour's Lib Dem "betrayal" narrative is nonsense

Every opportunity that Labour spokespeople get these days they attack the Lib Dems. Not usually for any specific Lib Dem policy but for the fact that they were willing to go into coalition with the Conservatives. It often seems like Labour MPs feel like jilted lovers whose rightful and "natural" partners the Lib Dems have inexplicably spurned them for an ill-suited lover and that they will surely soon live to regret this folly.

What this ridiculously simplistic narrative fails to take into account is that there are not just areas of commonality with Labour (of course there are some) but there are and always have been areas of commonality with the Conservatives. It is nowhere near clear cut that a partnership with Labour (irrespective of the fact that the parliamentary arithmetic made it unworkable) would have fitted like a glove and a partnership with the Conservatives is utterly doomed.

Yes there are some of the Conservative policies that I and many of my Lib Dem colleagues would rather not have seen enacted (not least in the budget last week) but we have been able to get plenty of our own policies as part of the deal and ameliorate what our party sees as the worst excesses of the Tories.

One of the areas where the previous government were woeful was civil liberties and justice. Labour was authoritarian from the start of its tenure in office and these tendencies got worse and worse as time went on. The prison population shot up from around 50,000 in 1997 to well over 80,000 by the time they left office. Little time was given to the idea that alternative approaches may work. No, they were all dismissed as "soft on crime" as the numbers of people banged up were forced inexorably up.

A good liberal principle is to only imprison people when there is no alternative and to examine the ways in which such a drastic sanction (which is often the direct cause of further crime later) can be avoided. So I am delighted to see that Ken Clarke has started off in his post as Justice Secretary by making it clear that just continually banging people up is not always the right approach and that we need a more constructive way of approaching this issue. He is strongly signalling that there will be more use of community service and attempts to rehabilitate offenders.

Now I am not naive enough to think that this problem can be solved overnight (or indeed ever fully) but the fact that the government has laid down a marker that their approach will not be dictated by the "bang 'em up" brigade is very welcome and dare I say it, liberal. In fact it is probably no exaggeration to say that Clarke's speech today is the most liberal from the cabinet minister responsible for justice in a political generation at least.

And how has Clarke's predecessor Jack Straw responded to this? With a scaremongering article in The Daily Mail (the Mothership of the "bang 'em up" mob) which makes it clear that he is proud of the fact that the prison population is now pushing 85,000. He basically accuses the coalition government of being soft on crime and makes it clear that as far as he is concerned there is no alternative to an ever rising prison population even though it costs an absolute fortune, recidivism rates are through the roof, prisons are massively overcrowded and many times his government was forced to ensure some inmates were released early (which demonstrates that despite all the rhetoric by its own terms their policy was failing).

So we come back to my initial point. I have fairly strong liberal instincts and if I had not been a member of any political party I would have been very pleased with what Ken Clarke had to say today and the clear direction of travel upon which he intends to embark. I would also have been distinctly unimpressed with the behaviour of Straw and his colleagues trying to poo-poo the idea that a more constructive approach is "soft on crime". In other words what this government with its many Tory MPs is planning is very closely aligned with my own politics and almost diametrically opposite to that of the Labour Party.

As it happens I am a member of the Lib Dems but on this issue that is irrelevant. I would support the government on this anyway. And it is a stark example of why the narrative about the Lib Dems having done the dirty on them that Labour keeps pushing is nonsense. Our party is not the "natural" partner of Labour on lots of issues. Their reaction today is a stark reminder of that.

They should bear this in mind next time they hurl accusations of "betrayal" at us.


Bill Quango MP said...

The blame the Libs attack is a strategy. Labour will keep at this fault line for the entire length of the parliament.
Its a good attack strategy because of the many left leaning Libs and the because it gives a story to the media to explore.
At each new announcement Labour can react with horror, and say , "How could you! How could you increase VAT on single mothers and pensioners and the disabled"
That will be the headline and Labour will hope that some LD cabinet member must come out and defend their actions, supposedly against the wishes of those who voted for them.
It is a good strategy. Exploit the fissure. Mine the gap.

But there is a downside. The obvious answer, as Vince Cable admirably demonstrated on QT, is ..

"We wouldn't necessarily have to do this if your lot hadn't Fubar'ed the country."

And that works on the economy, environment, crime, drugs, pensions ..anything. The answer brings up Labour's many, many failures and keeps reminding the public of them.
It also plays to the current desire of the country to see the country working together and further damages Labour when they just attack everything. It matters nothing to Hattie, she's only playing to her own party. But Dave Mil. will have to find a much more coherent argument to take to the country.

If Clegg can get his people to realise this, and remember that counter attack line, things should go much smoother until a genuine conflict arises.

Anonymous said...

"We wouldn't necessarily have to do this if your lot hadn't Fubar'ed the country."

That 'counter-attack' is effective for a maximum of two years. After that YOU get ALL the blame for what the country looks like.

Conversely the "how could you do this" attack is good for the whole parliament- it is a luxury of being in opposition that you exploited with abandon before May !!

CJ Stanley said...

Excellent stuff. With regards to the two previous comments, the main point to remember is that the public can tire of strategies at any moment. Therefore, you always need more than one strategy.

So from a Labour point of view, one can always argue that repealing the foxhunting ban is not a matter of urgency, because the main focus is the economy. And from a Lib Dem/Tory view, it is important to point out that it was not just the economy being in trouble that angered people, but also the extent to which they were misled and lied to by politicians. A government with 33% of the vote misled 100% of the electorate. If Labour think that people will soon forget about the 2005-2010 Parliament, they are in for a nasty shock.

redarsedbaboon said...

I'll say it clearly.


You can't say "It's all your fault! Yes!" When you would have done EXACTLY THE SAME had you won a majority.

Mark, you are in complete denial that you've been sold a pup by the Tories. You're all like a character in a shit sitcom trying to row back from an embarrassing statement: "well, when I said I hated your mother's hair, what I actually meant was". You fold your arms and smugly grin at anything you can proudly call 'liberal', no matter how small it is (and how unlikely it is to actually see the light of day - this is clearly the prelude to Clarke being edged out), and then sign up to another billion tory policies that your leaders were decrying in the strongest possible terms a few weeks ago. That's not the spirit of compromise in coalition, that's the spirit of surrender and desperation.

And please, can you abandon this pompous, fatuous, self-affirming line about Labour seeing the LibDems as an extension of themselves. I don't, I never did, and I'm glad about that - the percentage of idiots within Labour is high enough without having a whole new constituency composed entirely of idiots.

Mark Thompson said...

@redarsedbaboon: I don't understand the first part of your comment. Could you clarify?

As to the substantive part, I am not in denial. I am facing the reality of what it means to be in a coalition. We have 57 MPs, the Tories have over 300. We got 24% of the vote, the Tories got 37%. There is plenty in the coalition agreement that is from the Lib Dems, we have already seen some measures in the budget. We haven't surrendered to anyone. Of course we are not going to get everything that we want but neither are the Tories. That is how compromise works.

I am fascinated to hear what you think should have happened given the election result. Allow the Tories to govern in minority for a few months until they were finally toppled and then await a likely Tory majority as the electorate punish the parties who appeared to play politics at the time of a national financial crisis? Go into a wobbly "rainbow" coalition forever teetering on the brink of collapse and expressly against what Labour seemed to want (they were psychologically prepared for opposition after the election) with likely a similar result of a Tory majority.

You say that you do not see the Lib Dems as Labour's natural partner but in that case why are you so scathing about the fact that we have gone into coalition with the Tories? As far as I am concerned it was the right way forward given how the country had voted.

libhom said...

Labor does have a point. The UK, like US states, could easily resolve its budget issues without any cuts. All that would need to be done is to make the rich pay a bit closer to their fair share in taxes.

Tax me more please i've still got a few pence left. said...

Yes Libhom. Or fairies could magic the debt away.

Get real or get out.