Misunderstanding the Liberal Democrats  

Posted by Big Gav in

With the UK's Liberal-Democrats deciding to join the conservatives in government rather than Labour, it will be interesting to see how much of Cameron and Clegg's green rhetoric gets put into practice.

The Lib-Dems seem to be getting a battering from everyone but in my mind are actually on the winning side of the 2 big issues that have defined politics in recent decades - aligned with both free markets and socially liberal thinking - unlike the conservatives and labour. In many ways it surprises me they aren't the largest political bloc already (the vested interests that make up the support bases of the other 2 blocs presumably being the reason why).

Crikey has a look at the coalition deal that was hashed out and some of the malcontents that may yet scupper it - Clegg and Cameron: common interests, common enemies.

Those on the left of the Lib Dems are understandably upset at the coalition deal. But they have to come to terms with the fact that Clegg's options were extremely limited, given the near-impossibility of putting together a stable majority without the Tories. And as I keep pointing out in relation to Australia's Greens, if they aspire to serious influence as a third party, they have to demonstrate some flexibility: they can't afford to be seen as just a permanent auxiliary to one of the major parties.

More interesting is the relentless hostility towards the Lib Dems from certain sectors of the right. At one level, this is not a surprise, since the Lib Dems are in many respects a left-wing party: pro-environment, pro-European, hostile to military spending, strongly supportive of civil liberties, gay rights, and numerous other progressive causes.

But the hostility comes from many people who regard themselves as free marketeers, and who claim to regard the Lib Dems as supporters of "big government", saying they have betrayed their Gladstonian heritage of low taxes and fiscal responsibility. The evidence for this claim, however, is desperately thin: whatever else can be said about them, Clegg and his closest colleagues are free marketeers through and through.

As Helen Dale put it prior to the election:
"Make no mistake: given power, the Liberal Democrats would engage in a 'bonfire of the quangos' the likes of which Britain did not even see under Margaret Thatcher. Their manifesto is riddled with 'abolish', and 'decentralise'. Many Labour voters (and people on the left generally) still do not appreciate that the Liberal approach to achieving fairness and reducing inequality is via a small state and a steep reduction in income tax."

What's going on, it seems to me, is the old bait-and-switch trick on the right: redefining "freedom" to mean support for vested interests -- "pro-business" rather than "pro-market", "private enterprise" rather than "free enterprise" -- and ignoring or being positively hostile to the claims of freedom in other areas. Even when they claim not to care about cultural issues, their distaste for liberalism is tribal, not rational.

The hostility towards the Lib Dems is in fact strangely similar to the hostility to Cameron within the Tory Party. Cameron's attempts to drag the party into the 21st century have made him many enemies (including those who sometimes call themselves Thatcherites, forgetting that Thatcher in her day was a ruthless moderniser), and the coalition with the Lib Dems has given them more ammunition; Paola Totaro's report this morning notes that "some of [Cameron's] right-wing colleagues ... have already started muttering about his agenda."

Don't be surprised if Clegg and Cameron find themselves on the same side in cabinet more often than not.

Charlie Stross has decided to give the new government a break for a while to see how it goes - Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss ... not..
So we have a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government (those words, I think, throw the difference between the British and American political weltanschaung into stark relief).

I'm really not a fan of the Conservatives; 18 years of ThatcherMajorism left deep scars. (If you're American and not a fan of George W. Bush, it was like this: Thatcher treated her foes with exactly the same contempt as Bush's people did. And eighteen years of contempt backed up by malice and a legislative sledgehammer leave very bad memories.)

On the other hand, the coalition platform seems to have retained a surprisingly large chunk of the LibDem platform on civil liberties. A lot of the most objectionable illiberal and authoritarian measures of the past decade look likely to be repealed in the early days of the new government. (This isn't as odd as it may sound to outsiders; the Conservatives have long harboured a Libertarian faction, and Cameron appears to identify with them strongly on some issues.) On constitutional reform, it looks like we're getting a fully elected upper house to replace the House of Lords, and a full referendum on electoral reform for the lower house — although the conservatives reserve the right to campaign against their coalition partners. I don't like the cap on non-EU immigration, but I suspect it was politically inevitable, as likely under a Labour government as this one.

All in all ...

We've got a government that, for the first time since the 1930s, more than 50% of the voters voted for. There are a lot of positive policies here, on civil liberties and constitutional reform. There are some stinkers, but fewer than I expected. There is also a systemic weakness, insofar as the extreme fringe of either of the coalition parties have the ability to take down the government. So we're probably going to see lots of compromises. In particular, I'm hoping the Liberal Democrats act as an effective brake on the Conservatives (who I fear are capable of behaving much like Stephen Harper's Canadian tories if governing on their own). But I'm deathly afraid of what the Conservatives are going to do about unemployment and drug usage, to name but two aspects of domestic policy where the doctrinaire right wing model is broken (and unemployment is at its highest level since 1994).

The always entertaining Stephen Fry has an articulate but slightly jaundiced look at the prospects for the Lib-Dems to have the UK electoral system reformed to allow parliament to actually provide a fair representation of the will of the voters - Stalemate: PR and PR, Ice Cream, Bananas and Fudge.

One of the most puzzling features of the current unstoppable wave of political punditry that is flooding all channels and outlets at the moment (including this one of course) is the peculiar propensity of commentators to feel qualified to extrapolate from the election results the Manifest Will of Britain. “The people have voted for change”, “The people have told Gordon Brown that he has got to go” , “The people are saying that they don’t really trust any one party”, “The people have said that they want Parliament reformed, the tea room in the House of Commons redecorated, new carpeting in the women’s lavatory of the House of Lords and a vegetarian option in the canteen.” What fevered branch of electoral hermeneutics allows any such interpretations on the basis of the summing of millions of individual’s single votes I cannot imagine. It is possible that people do want real change, but a single cross next to a single name is no way to deduce it.


We only get one vote, one cross to put next to one name. If you put your cross next to Victoria Tory’s name you declare that want her to be your MP, representing you constituency, although it is perhaps also permissible to assume that you are up for her party and her party’s leader winning an overall majority in the Commons in Westminster as well. If the cross is next to Fabian Labour’s name or Libby Dem’s one might be justified in assuming the same there too. There really is almost nothing more nuanced or sophisticated that one can infer from our recent general election except to say that that of the 68% who voted there weren’t enough who wanted Conservatives to win to allow Cameron to claim first prize, and even fewer who wanted to vote for candidates from the other parties. One could deduce a huge amount more if voters were allowed to express their preferences in an intelligent way that reflected how they really feel and think. The Electoral Reform Society is a good place to go for information as to how precisely such a form of voting could be implemented, as it is all round much of the civilised world. My friends at Vote For A Change have also been campaigning for the same thing. Proportional Representation is the prize that many of us hope this “confusing” election will deliver. But there is an obstacle. An obstacle so huge that I cannot see it being overcome.

The Sitch

Here is the situation as I read it.

1. David Cameron’s Conservative Party elders and backbenchers will never allow him to seal a pact with Clegg that guarantees electoral reform in the shape of proportional representation.
2. Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat Party elders and backbenchers will never allow him to seal a pact with Cameron that that does not guarantee electoral reform in the shape of proportional representation.
3. Cameron will spring an obvious trap by saying, “We’ll see. We’ll look into it. You can have concessions on schools and hospitals.” Children who want an ice cream know that when their parents say “We’ll see, but you can have a banana” it means no ice cream. The Lib Dem and PR pressure groups are perfectly aware of that too. Any talk of “an independent enquiry … a Royal Commission … a committee to look into it” will be treated for what it is. Fudge.
4. Stalemate

It comes down to this: the Conservatives believe that under a PR system they will never achieve full supremacy in the country again. This would mark a sharp reverse in their ambitions. Their manifesto commitment to a 10% reduction in MPs and a consequent redraft of constituency borders would necessarily gerrymander massively in their interest, all but guaranteeing Tory power for the foreseeable future. The idea that they will for one moment countenance PR reform that will see them reduced, as they would interpret it, to the role of Euro-style hedgers, compromisers and pragmatic consensus inclusionists is more than a bitter pill, it is a suicide pill and Cameron knows that he could never induce the party to swallow it.

There can therefore be only two outcomes. Either Clegg blinks and accepts a “We’ll see, dear” fudge which would cause outrage in his party and his own political death or Cameron refuses the deal, demands a new general election and watches grandly, nobly and in a “statesmanlike manner” from the sidelines as Labour attempts to cobble together something with both the Lib Dems and the requisite number of independents and nationalists required to form a majority who could push through an Emergency Budget. Cameron would calculate that the press and public might well see him as the iron man of principal, with the most votes and the most ‘authority’. Clegg would be painted as an opportunistic spoiler: after all his party actually lost ground in the election. Brown, if he stayed, would continue to be portrayed as forlorn, desperate, blundering, out of touch, cynical, greedy, lame and fatally wounded. The media would, I think, successfully raise Cameron and the Conservatives in public estimation: “What principle! What courage! They were not squalid smoke-filled room negotiators, they didn’t strike ugly deals behind closed doors… they deserve the chance to run a stable administration without all this sordid horse-trading. They made handsome and significant concessions on issues that really matter, hospitals and schools, yet instead of seizing this historic opportunity to do something for the country the Lib-Dems insisted, at this time of economic crisis, to fuss about cosmetic changes to the constitution that no decent Englishman understands anyway… nasty European nonsense. Now we see Clegg for what he really is…” You can write the Telegraph and Mail leaders for yourselves. They will argue furthermore that if the Lib Dems and reformers get their way, then the kind of deal-making, compromise and gridlock that we are seeing now will become the norm after every general election and that, they will declare, is no way to run a whelk stall.


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