Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday 13 April 2013

Seven awkward questions for the Lib Dems

My friend Isabel Hardman of The Spectator Coffee House blog wrote an interesting piece yesterday entitled "Seven awkward questions for the Tories" which was itself prompted by the seven questions Tony Blair had recently posed for Labour.

I thought I'd have a go at posing seven questions for my own party as we move into the final two years of this parliament.

1) How can the party fight the next election running against numerous Tory policies that they don't like but have allowed through?

There is a difficult and delicate line to be trodden between making it clear what distinctive Lib Dem policies look like and distancing ourselves from those measures we would not have implemented ourselves whilst not looking like we are trying to run away from our record in office. Politics is so often filtered through a binary prism. The idea that a party may have compromised on measures does not sit easily within this system. We need to find a way to make this argument without constantly fighting a rearguard action against accusations of "betrayal" which Labour (and indeed the Conservatives) will throw at us. This will be particularly true if leader debates go ahead in advance of the election. If Clegg is still the leader in 2015 he will not have the luxury he had in 2010 of being able to attack the Conservative's record as he will be attacking his own! It will take a great deal of political skill to navigate this and not come out looking hypocritical or ridiculous.

2) How can the party restore its much vaunted internal democracy?

One of the reasons joining the Lib Dems was attractive to me several years back was that the members made the policy. Recent events such as the parliamentary vote on secret courts which led to a number of significant figures quitting the party have shown the limits of this. I actually submitted one of the emergency motions on this to the recent conference (mine was not picked but the other one by Jo Shaw was) and the point was repeatedly made to me that it is against our constitution to "mandate our parliamentarians". This point was also made from the floor during the debate on Jo's motion. But if our MPs can essentially do what they like in direct defiance of the will of the party membership then this shows that we are not so very different from the other two main parties with a de facto top-down structure. This is one of the biggest crises the party faces. We all thought we as voting members determined the policy programme. The party needs to find a much better way of reconciling a restive membership with being in government.

3) What do the Lib Dems stand for?

Alex Wilcock set a challenge last month for Lib Dem bloggers to set out what in their opinion the Lib Dems stand for. I did not personally participate in this and I think this fact is rather telling in that I am struggling to answer the question at the moment. Before 2010 I would have had no problem talking about civil liberties, social justice and all of the other good stuff referred to in the preamble to our constitution. But after all the compromises of government it is getting harder and harder to point to a distinctive theme for the party. The next manifesto needs to make this clear and give us all something to unify behind and fight for.

4) How can the party make sure it is still heard in the run up to the next General Election?

The last three years have been anomalous in terms of how much coverage the party has had. We have 5 cabinet ministers including the Deputy Prime Minister and over 20 junior ministers. What we decide really matters in a way it hasn't for 65 years or more. But as May 2015 approaches I expect we will start to see a squeeze on this. That binary prism effect will kick in once more as the media focuses on "who do you want to be the next Prime Minister". The increasingly presidential style of our media coverage and the fact that no major publication is likely to back the party directly means we will once again have to fight for every column inch and soundbite.

5) How does the party deal with its Northern problem?

I've nicked this one directly from Isabel but it is an important question for the Lib Dems as well. We have numerous seats in the North many of which have relied on "borrowing" votes from Labour leaning voters. How many of them will be willing to still vote for a Lib Dem after 5 years of being part of a Conservative led government? Incumbency can be a powerful tool but the anger of the electorate can be stronger still.

6) What is the party's position on electoral reform?

At previous elections this has been a no-brainer. We want STV with multi-member constituencies for a more proportional parliament. The problem is AV was overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate and whilst I will to my dying day keep shouting that "AV is not PR" the plain fact is electoral reform for Westminster is off the table for the next decade or two at least. There are some like me who say we should focus more on reform for local council elections. There are very strong arguments for this such as stopping the all party fiefdoms that too many of us live under locally but we need to be careful not to appear like pig-headed ideologues ignoring the will of the people. At least that's how our opponents will paint us if we're not careful.

7) How do you solve a problem like Nick?

I like Nick Clegg. He's a nice guy and a much better politician than many of his opponents in the media claim. But there is a simple fact that he is the politician most closely associated with the compromises and difficult decisions of government. I know there are a fair few former Lib Dem voters who will never vote for the party again whilst he is still leader. There are also plenty within the ranks who feel bruised and battered and as 2015 moves ever closer will start to wonder if a Cable or a Farron might help heal some of the wounds.


gwenhwyfaer said...

"It will take a great deal of political skill to navigate this"

And there's the problem. It would have taken no political skill whatsoever to avoid the calamity that was the secret courts vote. The Lib Dems were covered from every side: they had a clear, longstanding commitment to oppose it; they had two floor votes making it clear that it should be opposed; it wasn't in the coalition agreement, so they weren't bound to it that way; and it would have gone through anyway, because Labour were voting for it. There was no clearer position on which the Lib Dems could have taken a principled stand, and no better opportunity has presented itself - or will. To have missed such an opportunity takes almost the precise opposite of political skill.

And yet, the precise opposite of political skill is exactly what the parliamentary Lib Dems demonstrated - and to assign blame, you really need look no further than the leadership.

"How do you solve a problem like Nick", indeed... but I think that problem is more likely to be solved by the voters of Sheffield Hallam than by the broader Lib Dem party before then, given the difficulty in forcing a leadership challenge and the absence of any obvious replacement. And even if the wagons could be marshalled and Clegg could be replaced, it would probably have the effect of forcing a general election almost immediately; the Tories would see it as the perfect excuse to extricate themselves from the coalition, and tempting as the idea of leaving an impotent Tory government stranded for two years might be to Labour, in reality I suspect they'd leap on the polls and vote for an early election. Which a brand new leader would have to fight without having established themselves first... it's probably the surest route to a Lib Dem wipeout.

All of which leads me to wonder: If Nick Clegg had been a Tory (or Labour, for that matter) entryist into the Lib Dems, tasked with ensuring that the party faded back into oblivion and stopped annoying those parties who "rightfully deserved" power - what would he have done differently?

David Bradley said...

The point you have miss and that Nick Clegg and the parliamentary Lib Dems fail to understand is the one of trust
Before the last election Nick Clegg said "we need a new type of politician on who word we could trust"
So far we have had David Laws resigning as a Cabinet Minister due to the disclosure of his Parliamentary expenses claims £40,000 how come all he had to do was pay it back anyone else would of ended up in court and lost their job as well.
Chris Huhne pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice also allegations of sexual impropriety and claims of a cover-up.
Even if we except Nick Clegg's apology on tuition fees up to a few years ago the Lib Dems had a E.U referendum pledge in your manifesto
The point I'm making is this as soon as it looks likely to go ahead it's a other opportunistic vote wining pledge dropped
So you pleases tell me why we should trust the Lib-Dems when it now clear they are just as shallow and opportunistic as the other main political parties.

asquith said...

"All of which leads me to wonder: If Nick Clegg had been a Tory (or Labour, for that matter) entryist into the Lib Dems, tasked with ensuring that the party faded back into oblivion and stopped annoying those parties who "rightfully deserved" power - what would he have done differently? "

Well, they could have responded to the 2010 election with a disastrous formation of a coalition with Labour with some kind of formal or informal arrangement to get every very minor party on board.

Apart from the fact that such a government would have been held to ransom by various special interests, demanding more for their own constituencies, it would have utterly lacked legitimacy.

Yes, I did vote for the LDs but I've never been an especially staunch supporter of them. Even though I consider the coalition to be wrong on several issues I do think Clegg has played a pretty awful hand quite well. He pretty much had to react to the coalition and he's got quite a lot, albeit obviously less than the Tories given that they're senior party in the coalition, and really are a party whose malice and outright stupidity on the backbnches are a sight to behold.

We are forgetting the deserved unpopularity of the previous government here. A Lib/Lab/etc. government would have been a real tragedy, far worse than this coalition.

That said. There's no valid reason for the bedroom tax. Cameron sneers that Labour brought in a similar policy for the private sector in 2008. What a useless argument that turns out to be, as it rests on the assumption that anyone who criticises him must be blindly loyal to Labour. Does he (or the right wing on Twitter, with their usual cheap sacrasm) honestly not understand the possibility that Labour were wrong in 2008 and Tories are wrong now? That someone can think that and not be a hypocrite? That they still haven't defended their policies?

Anonymous said...

Re: 7. The longer labour enjoy large poll leads, the more attractive the cable-farron option is. A shift to the left might save a few seats drifting to labour in london and the north and prevent some labour gains from the tories as well, reducing or eliminating a labour commons' majority and sparing the LDs 5 years of irrelevance. The loss of a few seats in the south would be a small price to pay.

Anonymous said...

Not sure why electoral reform is thought to be such a dead letter. What if - as is quite likely - UKIP poll 8-10% at the next election, and win no seats at all? Will that not drive home to the most bone-headed rightie that the current system is simply not democratic?

But the Lib Dems ought to heed the fact that preferential voting was resoundingly rejected by the electorate in the AV referendum. So, ditch STV (which is also way too complicated for all but the most nylon of anoraks) and go with the Additional Member System, which would also be more likely to get the decent sorts in Labour on board.