Wednesday, 13 May 2015
Steel's six beefs
After praising Nick Clegg for his "dedication and skill" in keeping the coalition intact for the whole term of the parliament, when many pundits confidently predicted it could not possibly last, our former leader David Steel, in an article yesterday, goes on to make six criticisms of Clegg's leadership. In my view he misses out Clegg's two most crucial errors, but first let's examine the Steel Six.
1. Clegg promised that, in the event that no party had a majority he would talk first to the largest minority. I don't see this as an error but think this was and is perfectly acceptable position. It seems right that the largest party should have first crack of the whip, though there was no need for the discussions with the second party to be vaguely clandestine. I do agree that the idea, floated by panicking Tories in 2015, that a coalition which excluded the largest party would somehow lack legitimacy, is a nonsense.
2. The formation of the coalition over a weekend was too rushed. Agreed. I suggest a minimum a three weeks, which would give the parties time to study the "small print" and recognise the pitfalls (eg in 2010 that a Tory agreement to "bring forward proposals for electoral reform" did not mean that they would vote for them.) *
3. In both he coalition negotiations and in government little use was made of experienced senior people (Ming Campbell et al). Instead jobs given to inexperienced young Turks. Agreed, and so in the coalition negotiations in particular the Tories ran rings round us. Also neglected were the Liberal Democrat council leaders who had already had experience of negotiating successful coalitions at local government level.
4. Tuition fees. Yes, the issue is not the tuition fees themselves, but the dramatic loss of trust in our reputation for credibility and honesty which, painstakingly built up over the years, was our major asset. Thanks, young Turks.
5. The constitutional reforms (AV referendum and House of Lords proposals) were ill thought out and introduced too hastily. I would be more inclined to accept that the proposals were the best that could be obtained in a coalition compromise. Electoral reform failed because the Tories misled us (see above), the campaign against was disreputable and the campaign for feeble. Lords reform failed because of Labour's duplicity (they voted for the reform but not for the parliamentary time to implement the legislation).
6. The debate with Farage. I don't see this as an error. By taking part Clegg enhanced our pro-EU credentials and I fully expected him to win the day with may plaudits. Sometimes, alas, over-confident bluster triumphs over reasoned argument, but this was not to be anticipated.
The two major errors which Steel does not mention are:
1. Clegg's early declaration, made in the era of the misguided "rose garden" hubris, that we could not pick and choose, but must "own" everything the coalition did. Rather we should have, in the coalition negotiations, defined:
i. those issues on which we agreed and on which we would argue and vote together;
ii. those issues on which we, as the minor party, took a different view, but on which we would give "confidence and supply" support;
iii. those issues on which we would reserve the right to campaign for an alternative and to abstain in on any vote in parliament;
iv. issues on which we would reserve the right to campaign and vote independently.
This taxonomy, or something similar, should be noted and argued for if and when we got the chance to be part of another coalition government.
2. The craven support of a misguided, vindictive, unnecessary and counter-productive economic policy way outside the traditions of the party, heir of that of Keynes and Beveridge. One if my worst political memories is that of Nick Clegg patting with approval the shoulders of George Osborne after his first and highly illiberal budget, which reversed the economic recovery already under way. On this issue we should have at least taken option (ii) above, explained that the Tories had over 300 MPs, we had only 57, so we couldn't stop them, but were the numbers reversed we should do things very differently.
A minor irritation rather than a personal error (lots of Liberals are equally guilty) was Clegg's repeated claim of occupying the "centre ground." He and others have been told repeatedly that that definition allows others to define our position. We are a distinctive party with a distinctive position; on liberty, the rule of law, democracy, internationalism, compassion, the responsibility of the government to attempt to regulate the economy in the interest of all etc. We define ourselves and don't and won't allow anyone else to do so.
* Comments below claim, and I accept, that it was always clear that the Conservatives would campaign against.