Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday 9 September 2016

Were the Lib Dems "useful idiots" in coalition?

Polly Toynbee seems to think so.

She wrote a piece yesterday using this exact phrase expressing her disgust with Nick Clegg and the legacy that she perceives he and his party have left behind following the coalition of 2010 - 2015. Some of her points are reasonable but amongst it all are many unfair claims and some of what she says is absolutely ridiculous.

I thought it was time for a good old fashioned fisking:

Can you forgive him? That depends on whether you think Nick Clegg venal or just a political idiot. Seeking power was no sin, as that’s the purpose of politics: he is to be judged by how he used it. In a rich crop of self-justifying politicians’ books this autumn, Clegg’s Politics: Between the Extremes is first to invite an assessment of how he did.
He might have been wiser to keep his head down and hope the country has a short memory. But that would be out of character, as his own account reminds us of one grave political misjudgment after another. Almost everything he colluded with in the Cameron government was an error, while almost all he achieved was piffling in comparison. His role now is as a warning beacon of what not to do in future coalitions.

It's not fair to say that almost everything Clegg did in government was an error although of course there were some big ones. But I would certainly agree with Polly that there is a lot that the Lib Dems did in government and the way they approached it that should be lessons for future putative junior coaltion partners. (For further reading on these lessons by the way I recommend this excellent piece by Former Lib Dem MP David Howarth).

How Icarus-like was his fall from the dizzy days of Cleggmania. Back in 2010 “I agree with Nick” was mirrored by opinion polling. For the record, this paper backed the Lib Dems in 2010, though its political columnists – myself included – wrote supporting Labour.
It took decades of local pavement-pounding for the Liberals to grow from a taxi-full of MPs into a 57-strong coach-load at Westminster. But after Clegg led them to a thrashing last year, they are now back in an eight-MP people carrier (with probably only four MPs after boundary changes) – and have few local councillors. They have deserved it.
Start back in that 2010 sunlit No 10 rose garden, with toe-curling smiles that look yet worse in retrospect. Clegg and his party had to make one big call: was the country indeed on the verge of Greek-style bankruptcy and in need of David Cameron and George Osborne’s emetic austerity medicine? They fell for the bait and called it wrong, as even the likes of Mervyn King, Bank of England governor at the time, now agree.

It's easy to forget now just how much turmoil the political and economic world was in in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 general election. The country hadn't had a peacetime coalition since before the Second World War and the financial crisis was still rumbling on. I agree with Polly that the Lib Dems were a bit too hasty to accept the need for the level of austerity that Osborne wanted but to pretend that this was somehow an easy and obvious call that they should have avoided is to play the game of hindsight. The press was going ballistic. The markets were all over the place. Had the politicians carried on much beyond the Tuesday with their coalition discussions God knows what would have happened.

Now I happen to think that this is ridiculous. There are countries all round the world that wait weeks or months for new governments to form and give their politicians plenty of time to thrash out the agreements needed to govern in coalition. But that is not what was happening here. Our body politic and the Fourth Estate are not used to this way of doing things. They expect the removal vans to be round the back of Downing Street the morning after an election result. The press were pushing very hard the narrative that Gordon Brown was "The Squatter in Downing Street" which was preposterous given that all he was doing was fulfilling his constitutional duty*. We needed a Prime Minister and a functioning government whilst the coalition talks were going on. But our press were unwilling to acknowledge that and hence there was massive pressure on the Lib Dems to cut a deal, any deal to get a "legitimate" government in place.

The Lib Dems swallowed the story that the country needed a boiling down of every function of the state to its bare bones. They were useful idiots for what was always an ideological project: Cameron and Osborne said within a short time that even once the deficit was down, there would be no restoring of cut-down public services.

I hear this "ideological" claim about the Tories and austerity all the time. I'll just say that up until the financial crisis of 2007 Cameron and Osborne were not contemplating anything like this. Their mantra was in fact "sharing the proceeds of growth". But of course by the time they came to power there was very little if any growth to share and the economy was in the toilet.

In accepting extreme cuts as an economic remedy, Clegg abandoned his party’s greatest thinker, Keynes, who would have gone for growth through government investment. But even if Clegg has been right on austerity, why did he let the axe fall on the most vulnerable? In policy after policy, the bottom half bore the brunt as VAT rose, while the top had an income tax cut and kept their many benefits: tax reliefs, and cuts to capital gains and corporation tax.

And here I would (at least partially) agree with Polly. The VAT rise, the cuts to capital gains and corporation tax as well as the reduction of the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% in the pound were all largely regressive and unwelcome measures.

The rightwing thinktank, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, showed how Osborne raised the lifetime tax-take from the bottom 20%, while tax for the top 20% fell. Even Clegg’s flagship raising of the income tax threshold was soon revealed by the Resolution Foundation to direct most of its huge £10bn cost to the benefit of the upper half while low earners gained little.

I would quibble with this point though. I remember seeing these analyses at the time. What they did was highlight that the very poorest did not earn enough to benefit from the tax cut. But that ignores or at least misunderstands what the point of the raising of the threshold was meant to do. It was supposed to allow people who were previously earning not very much but still paying tax keep more of the money they had earned. Polly's is an argument for never raising the tax threshold at all as this will never benefit the very poorest, most of whom do not work. I'll leave it to the reader to decide if this would be fair.

Guardian readers need no reminding of the extreme severity of the benefit cuts – hitting children, mothers and people with disabilities hardest. Clegg had no need to fall in with the vindictive spirit of the bedroom tax, the sale of swaths more social housing, or the ever-tightening screw of work capability tests, as food banks opened everywhere. Labour supporters seeing the Lib Dems sitting on their hands and saying nothing may never forget. But then social justice was never the Lib Dems’ strong point: good on human rights and the environment, social equality is not in their DNA.

This is bullshit. I was a Lib Dem from 2008-2013. Many of my closest political friends are still in the party and I struggle to think of any of them who would wish for anything other than social equality and justice. In most cases they have spent decades fighting for just that. That their parliamentary representatives in government may have fallen short of this ideal is not a reason to besmirch the DNA of the entire party in this way.

In 2012 Andrew Lansley’s health and social care bill was stumbling in parliament, as it dawned on the Lords that this was a project to blow the NHS into fragments by setting up a market tendering every shard out to any bidder. “No top-down NHS reorganisation,” said the coalition agreement, and the Lib Dem grass roots rebelled. But they were soothed by Shirley Williams, and Clegg voted it through.
Why? Cameron was astonished not to lose the bill. So disastrously unworkable has it proved that it’s now being dismantled again, but deep, lasting damage was done to the NHS that Clegg could easily have stopped.

I keep hearing this. That the coalition "destroyed" the NHS. I have no idea what Polly and the people who say this are on about. I can still see my GP in exactly the same way as I could when Labour were in office for 13 years. I have also had cause to use hospitals numerous times in the last few years and again they are as accessible and free at the point of use as they always were. There is literally no difference at all in that respect. The changes were very complicated but essentially were attempting to allow the NHS to use facilities and services whether private or public where appropriate without dogma getting in the way. It is simply a small extension of what Labour had already done.

I think in fact what this episode tells us is that whatever the Tories do with the NHS when they're in office, however bland or minor it may be they will always, always be described as having "privatised" and "destroyed" it as well as trying to flog off its constituent parts to their mates. Especially by people like Polly Toynbee.

The charge list is long. The value of his pupil premium remains disputed, and he has suffered enough for his tuition fees debacle. He boasts of pushing through 5p plastic bag charges, but he should have stopped the banning of land-based wind turbines. He was treated as a minor irritant in the great Tory project – and that’s all he was.
In his book, Clegg observes Tory savagery on benefits and housing as if he were a non-participant; yet he had the power to stop or soften much of this. What makes him more of an idiot than a villain is his weak understanding of the power he had.
Take his failure to seize the one great prize his party sought for decades – proportional representation that would make such coalitions a fixture. His party would justify a pact with the devil to secure electoral reform. But out of sheer incompetence, Clegg blew that chance. He got his referendum, but only on AV: the weak “alternative vote” even his own side didn’t want. Fatally, he failed to force Cameron to pledge his party’s support. The same team of Tory liars who swung the Brexit vote ran the anti-AV campaign, preposterously claiming the tiny cost would deprive babies of NHS incubators and our boys in Afghanistan of kit. How Cameron’s crew laughed when Clegg lost.
Had he secured PR, the political landscape would be changed for the better, beyond all recognition. The Tory party would have split between pro- and anti-EU wings. Labour would split between Corbynites and social democrats. Ukip and the Greens would have their fair share of seats.
Above all, citizens could vote for a party closest to their views. At a time of turmoil and alienation, it’s never been more urgent to restore a closer link between what people want and what they get in Westminster. I can never forgive Clegg for bungling that once-in-a-generation mission so badly.

This is the part of Toynbee's piece that I most profoundly disagree with.

I am not happy with the legacy that the Lib Dems left behind. Indeed I left the party part way through their time in office disillusioned with what had been achieved and more specifically the lack of a difference in their approach to politics (I highlighted Clegg's very disappointing approach to PMQs when he deputised as an example of this). I myself wrote a pretty scathing piece late last year about Nick Clegg and how he hasn't been held properly accountable for his failings in government.

But the idea that Clegg somehow bungled the chance for PR is to misread reality so badly that I wonder just how well Polly even understands the dynamics of politics in this country.

The Tories are opposed to any change at all to the electoral system for the Commons. That is almost all of them. Certainly almost all of them in parliament. I could write a very long piece on the reasons for this but it is a bald fact.

Furthermore the Tories are absolutely implacably opposed to any change to a proportional system for the Commons.

These two facts conspired to make it impossible to get a proportional system during the 2010 coalition agreement. It was difficult enough for Cameron to get them to agree to a referendum on a pretty minor change to the electoral system (AV) that wouldn't have been proportional. The idea that Cameron could ever, ever, ever have got his party to vote for a referendum on a proportional system for the Commons is laughable.

With AV, the Tories would have been looking at maybe losing 10 or 20 seats that they would ordinarily win in an election. With a properly proportional system they'd lose 100 or more seats that they consider "rightly" theirs. I of course utterly disagree with them about this but that is what they think. They would consider it electoral suicide. Even a referendum on such a system would have been (and would still be) way, way beyond the pale for them because of the risk they might lose it.

They just about accepted the AV referendum thinking that they'd have a pretty good chance of winning it as it's difficult for those opposing the status quo in referenda and AV is a system that nobody is particularly enthusiastic about. But a fully proportional system whose benefits would be much easier to coherently argue for in a referendum? Over their cold dead bodies.

I am 100% certain that had Cameron tried to force this through we would have seen one of two things. Most likely the coalition agreement would have failed. The Tories would have governed alone for a few months doing all the easy things. There would have been no austerity during this time and they would have spent it spreading poison about how the Lib Dems had eschewed their chance at governing because they "selfishly" wanted to change the electoral system "massively in their favour" and away from our "stable" system that had "served us well" for "hundreds of years". And then gone to the country again in the autumn of 2010 and got a majority.

The second possibility is what happened with Lords reform. Which is that the Tories might have said they would do it but in practise when it came to a vote in the Commons loads of backbench MPs would have voted against it. And Labour would almost certainly have found a pretext to oppose it too in order to dish the Lib Dems (in exactly the same way they did when they had the same chance with Lords reform) and hence the referendum would not have got through. And that would have caused the government to fall with the same outcome as the previous paragraph, "selfish Lib Dems" etc. etc. etc. followed by a Tory majority.

To suggest that Clegg somehow fumbled an historic opportunity on PR is so far from the truth and what was possible that it actually makes me angry. Angry that Polly Toynbee would write it and angry that so many people in my country seem to also believe it.

Clegg did lots of things wrong in government but messing up his One Big Chance for PR was not one of them. Such a change at that time was simply politically impossible.

History may remember him as no worse than clueless. But one tragedy is that the country needs a strong unequivocal pro-European party, as the Lib Dems once were. Clegg’s miscalculation of everything has left behind only a tiny rump with too little heft to influence the battle ahead.

I would certainly agree that Clegg's miscalculations have left the Lib Dems as a small rump but to characterise this as "everything" he did in government is manifestly unfair and does not give him credit for the things he did manage to achieve in his five years as Deputy Prime Minister of this country.

It's worth mentioning as well that throughout the piece Toynbee falls into the trap that many people seem to of overestimating the leverage that the Lib Dems had in office. They had 57 MPs so despite the fact that they had 23% of the vote vs the Tories 37% (i.e. roughly 4 voters for every 6 the Tories had) they only had 1 MP for every 6 the Tories had. That put them in a fairly weak position in terms of being across issues in the government and certainly in terms of parliamentary firepower. A junior partner with a seventh of the MPs of a government simply cannot dictate terms on every single policy as her piece suggests they should have done.

Had the Lib Dems pushed it too far, eventually the coalition would have broken down. I used to talk about this and used to predict that were that to happen, all those Labour supporters cheering for the end of the coalition would be very sorry when we saw a majority Tory government. I was derided for talking such "nonsense" but of course in 2015 when the parliament ran out that's exactly what we saw. It's now pretty obvious in hindsight that that would have been the result had the election been earlier.

So in actual fact the Lib Dems ameliorated the worst Tory excesses, did some good things and some not so good things (as every party in government does) and staved off majority Tory rule for five years. In a just world they'd be thanked for "taking one for the team" instead of being pilloried and castigated by left wing columnists who don't appear to understand how politics actually even works.

*Indeed the depth of the lie of this "squatter" narrative is exposed by the fact that Brown actually wanted to resign and was persuaded not to by Clegg who begged for more time. In the end Brown resigned before the coalition agreement had been finalised and hence Cameron went to see The Queen unsure if the deal would be formally reached and if instead he would have to lead a minority government. That's just how wrong the narrative is and yet it still persists. Even now people talk about how Brown "squatted" in Downing Street. We truly live in a post-truth world now.