Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 14 February 2011

Iain Dale highlights the Lib Dem plight

Iain Dale wrote a piece for the Mail on Sunday yesterday entitled "Nothing to do with us, Guv - It's those wicked Tories!" in which he claims that some Lib Dems in government are essentially trying to have their cake and eat it by being in power but trying to shirk responsibility for the unpopular decisions.

His thesis runs thusly:

...too many (Lib Dems in government) seem to believe they can cherrypick the government decisions they can bring themselves to support. Their attitude to the coalition’s more unpopular policies seems to be “nothing to do with us, guv, it’s those wicked Tories.” Collective responsibility doesn’t work like that.

That’s why David Cameron was happy to accede to Nick Clegg’s request for a LibDem minister in almost every government department. He knew it would bind them in, with no get out of jail free card.

All political parties are coalitions within themselves. No politician can ever agree with 100% of what their own political party does. But the LibDems have taken wearing their hearts on their sleeves to new extremes as they try to salve their collective consciences. And some of their major figures, who showed so much promise in opposition have struggled with real power and real responsibility.

There is a big problem with that though. Accepting full collective responsibility for decisions that a Lib Dem government ruling alone would not have taken is essentially misrepresenting what the party is about and making them look a lot more right wing than they actually are.

This is a problem for the Tories in government too the other way round but less of a problem for them for two reasons. Firstly they have not had to make as many compromises as the Lib Dems as they have much greater parliamentary strength. And most importantly, secondly, compromising with the Lib Dems brings the Tories more onto the centre ground which is where David Cameron wants to pitch his tent anyway (like his political idol Tony Blair (or "The Master" as Cameroons refer to him) was so adept at doing) and which is to their electoral advantage. It is very much not to the Lib Dems electoral advantage to be seen as more right wing than they are.

Later in his piece, Iain seems to hit the nail on the head himself:

The problem for Nick Clegg is that it will be difficult for him to differentiate himself from the Conservatives at the next election.

That is the exact point I am making too! So Iain seems to recognise that the party needs to differentiate itself from the Tories somehow and yet castigates Lib Dems who try to maintain their distinctiveness. It is the classic dichotomy that minor coalition partners face.

We need to find a way to square the circle. There are no easy answers but the longer we are unable to, the harder it will be to convince the public that we can both govern responsibly and at the same time still stand for something distinctive.


Lorna Spenceley said...

"So Iain seems to recognise that the party needs to differentiate itself from the Tories somehow and yet castigates Lib Dems who try to maintain their distinctiveness."

Exactly the point I was trying to make in my comment on Dale's ridiculous blogpost! Thanks, Mark.

Richard Morris said...

Iain's article does seem very stuck in the old politics too. Why can't we have a more grown up approach to government in which members of different parties in the same government are are allowed to have their own opinions. We just need a new approach to collective responsibility

Galleristocrat said...

Convincing the public to vote LibDem next time will be less about squaring the circle and more about turning water into wine... Or indeed horse piss into beer. The way that many former-LibDem supporters (including me) feel isn't merely that Clegg will have to differentiate himself from the Tories, but that he will have to resign and the incoming leader will have to promise not to work with the Tories... which given what we all now know about LibDems and pledges probably still won't work.

The actions of LibDem MPs in this parliament will speak much louder than any words at the next election, and the talk of 'difficult decisions' just won't wash. Where previously we looked to LibDems to provide a strong alternative voice of reason, we now hear only acquiescent murmuring as they shuffle through the Tory lobbies.

Paul Griffiths said...

While agreeing with Lorna and Richard, there is no magic formula waiting to be applied. The tensions that Mark identifies will be (are being!) manifested in a series of envelope-pushing incidents as a new equilibrium is established. It is, inevitably, a process of trial and error.

Oranjepan said...

Dale manages a clever piece of sleight-of-hand here. One which I think LibDems should be wary of swallowing without thought.

You correctly identify that LibDems require a separate identity, and historically this has not just been the political perspective offered, but also the way of doing politics too.

So where Dale proposes LibDems need a separate policy agenda or risk electoral oblivion, he promotes conventional analysis - something which has never helped LibDems in the past!

This conventional analysis is that policy is only worthwhile if it leads to electoral success - that policy is a means to an end.

But it isn't.

For LibDems who've spent a lifetime in opposition we've made a name for ourselves by arguing - and proving - that good policy is an end in itself, and long may this remain.

So instead of taking Dales advice, LibDems should forget about electoral fates for the next two-or-so years and get on with making the best possible policies under these awful circumstances.

If the public see LibDem ministers haven't become the arrogant self-serving narcissistic bunch of hacks expected of all politicians in power and are concentrating on policy in the widest possible interest, rather than political positioning in anticipation of inevitable elections, then the party will undoubtedly build new respect for the party to confound current predictions of a wipeout.

So now is not the time for LibDems to be making grand announcements of differentiation - now is the time to differentiate ourselves by getting on with the job, quietly and effectively.

If you want to view it as a race to the line, the time to peak in the polls is on election day more than four years hence, not during the TV election debates and definitely not during mid-term!

Mark Thompson said...

OP - 2 problems:

1) Getting on with the job quietly and effectively will not differentiate us. It would just seem like we are fully implicated in all the changes.

2) It's all very well talking about 4 years time but there are local council elections in May this year and every year until 2015 as well as Scottish, Welsh and London ones in the next couple of years too. Although they should all be fought on local issues you can bet your bottom dollar if the national party is scraping single digit figures it will have a big effect. So we cannot just ignore the national polling until 2015.

Oranjepan said...

maybe initially, but if we're not doing all we can to make as good a fist of it as possible (and seen to be doing all we can ie by shutting up and stopping complaining, offering only constructive contributions), then we wouldn't deserve to reap any electoral reward.

Oppositions need to worry about strategy because strategy is about getting from opposition to government and they've got all the time they want to worry about it.

Governments can't worry about strategy. Governments should already have had it sorted out before they get there, so they can spend all their time enacting new policy and ironing out the wrinkles in existing policy.

The impact of national polls on local elections is a problem, for the party and for the country - it's one of the reasons why councils don't work as effectively as they could.

All the same local LibDems are local democrats first - campaigning on local issues. Council candidates should concentrate on residents concerns, as that is what they have the power to influence. If voters choose to vote for something which can't be controlled then they'll get exactly that.

There's no point in trying to pander to unreliable constituencies - this is where traditional virtues of resolution and determination come into play.

We've just got to stick with our principles, however uncomfortable it feels in the meantime.

Admittedly it's a bit perverse for a mainly agnostic party to tell itself to 'have faith', but how many times have we been told we were wrong over Iraq, the credit crunch or a thousand other issues?

Right, back to work.