Saturday 11 January 2014

Political sea-changes

1.  If it were not for the Liberal Democrats all branches of the media would now be palpitating with frenzied speculation on "When will it be?"  Will Cameron call it in March, to take advantage of apparently good economic news and before any bubble bursts? Or try pulling a fast one and calling it it February ?  Or will he choose the same date as  the Euro elections and thus hope to stymie Ukip, who will not, he hopes, fare so well in the higher turnout that a general election will produce (again, he hopes)?

For the first time in our history, and thanks to the Liberal Democrats who insisted on it as part of the coalition agreement, we have a fixed term parliament and, barring unexpected events, we know when the general election will be.

Persuading any prime-minister to give up the trump card of the historic right to call the election when he best thinks he can win it is a triumph akin to persuading turkeys to vote for Christmas, and the Liberal Democrats should do much more to publicise this substantial advance in democratic fairness..

2.  In the early days of the coalition Nick Clegg said that Liberal Democrats must "own" all the government does.  Happily at the beginning of this week, when George Osborne announced that a further £25bn worth of government spending cuts are still necessary and that half of these should come from the welfare budget, Clegg unequivocally  described this as a "monumental mistake" and recognised that the Conservatives were " remorselessly paring back the state for idealogical reasons." 

Well some of us have been yelling that at the top of our voices ever since 2010, but it is good that the scales have at last fallen from Mr Clegg's eyes and we can now hope for a more distinctive Liberal Democrat voice on the economy as well as on Europe, Human Rights, and other areas of difference.

This is not to argue that the coalition should be brought to a premature end: the prize of a fixed term parliament is far too  important to jeopardized.    I believe we should remain  in government until parliament is dissolved, but need, as I've argued before, to adapt our understanding of collective responsibility during  coalitions so that on those issues where we differ with the senior partner, with their 305 seats to our 57, we should have the right to indicate our own preferred policy without actually bringing down the government.

3.  From 2010 onward Labour supporters berated Liberal Democrats for an alleged betrayal by getting in to bed with the Tories.  This is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.  Not only did leading figures in the Labour party show no inclination join us in coalition, and some of their "big beasts" openly derided such a possibility, the parliamentary arithmetic made a Lab-Lib coalition unviable.  Even with the support  of all the nationalists and the one Green, such a coalition would  have had a majority of only one and, even barring other accidents, every time an MP died (which an average of four do every year) the government would be fighting for its life.

As Simon Hughes put it at the time "Politicians must  play the cards the electorate deals."

Unfortunately the concept of a Liberal Democrat betrayal has gained credence, even among many of our own members.  One of our  major accusers  was Labour's "big beast" Ed  Balls, who declared himself "shocked" at Clegg's decision to take the Liberal Democrats into government with the Tories.  Now however, he has seen the light, and in this week's New Statesman says that he "understands" Clegg's decision, and can even envisage working  with him the future.*

4.  Vince Cable caught the public's imagination when he noted the transformation of the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown "from Stalin to Mr Bean."  Poor Nick Clegg's descent from the heady days of "I agree with Nick in the first Leaders' Debate to a rather sad figure of fun has been equally dramatic and equally unjustified. However, this could now be changing:  former troy MP and now Times columnist Matthew Parish says of him:

 I've seen [Clegg] as brave and resolute and capable of surprising.  I've seen him as ideologically not too far  from the Tory moderates, but viscerally  repelled by British class-based politics, and by a strand in the Conservative Party  that's simply nasty.  There's a generous anchorage  available in our politics for such a view. . .but it would entail defying the many Liberal Democrat soft-socialists. ( The Times 21/12/13)

Naturally I take issue with the last part of the last sentence.  Socialists believe in centralised rule by state diktat: Liberals (soft or hard) believe in trust of the people and devolution of democratic power to the lowest possible level.

But if we can put behind us pointless diversionary scaremongering about immigrants and referendums on the EU and concentrate on the lines outlined above we could be in for an uplifting  and profitable 18 months.

*Reading between the lines it appears this conversion took place after a conversation  as they stood side by side in the parliamentary urinals.

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