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07/05/2011

Lib Dems at the crossroads

Dave wrote the note, Ed stuck it on him then Rupert told everyone...

The party I've supported for a few years now, the Lib Dems, are at a crossroads following a damning mid-term electoral result. I switched to them following Labour's sinister treatment of one of their dissenting members and because I believed their platform as social and political progressives had far more substance than Labour's 'spin to win' approach to our country's issues. 

Unfortunately, as with many parties that move from opposition to government, the Lib Dem's talented leadership have lost their way for the sake of holding onto power. The machinations of government have shackled and bruised them, particularly so because they are the junior partner in a coalition with a Conservative Party far more experienced at such things.

In the words of fellow Sheffield MP, David Blunkett, today, “Cleggmania” has become “something akin to Clegg pneumonia.” It appears Nick Clegg, as figurehead of his party, has become the convenient scapegoat for the Conservatives as they make whole-scale cuts - cuts which were predicted before the 2010 General Election to make any next governing party overseeing them unpopular and unelectable. Even the Lib Dem party faithful have bought into the 'toxic' label and sought to distance the local election campaigns in his home city of Sheffield from him - just as Labour played on this and distanced themselves from him for the Yes to AV campaign (and the campaign itself). It would also seem that other leading figures in his party are in quiet opposition and maybe even considering a leadership challenge - it could be that the self-declared Westminster interloper now faces a Judas moment.

So where do the Lib Dems go from here? Where does Nick Clegg go from here?

First they must dismiss the lie that the Lib Dems have somehow betrayed the socialist-left. For a start, the Lib Dems are not part of the socialist-left tradition - their very founding was a result of Labour members who dissented from their party's increasing militant-socialist stance. The Lib Dems have since developed their own distinct (albeit broad church) tradition, one that is generally liberal-left - favouring a leaner state (though larger and more welfare-minded than the Conservatives), a fairer and more transparent redistributive tax system, support for ethical capitalism, an emphasis on democratic reform, an emphasis on protecting individual liberty, a more pacifist pro-European foreign policy and a focus on environmental conservation.

Secondly, the stand-out progressive policies such as whole-scale electoral reform, the breaking up of the banks and free university places for all were simply unachievable following the results of the 2010 General Election. The Lib Dems could only have implemented these if they had won a majority or if they entered a more equal coalition partnership with Labour, which again would have required more Lib Dem seats in parliament. In reality, the Conservatives were the largest party in parliament and the Lib Dems did the principled and honourable thing in forming a coalition with them as the victorious party under the first-past-the-post system.

The question that senior Lib Dems have to answer is whether they can continue to act constructively in government with a Tory apparatchik that is seemingly treating them in an unprincipled and dishonourable way? Will the bitter after-taste of the AV referendum lead to the party returning to minority opposition?

I think the Lib Dem leadership must first take stock with their MPs and ordinary members - they must re-affirm their unity. They must get behind Nick Clegg (for now at least) rather than getting caught up in Murdoch-Miliband spin. Then they must return to the the terms of the coalition agreement and find their voice again as a robust liberal-left party working in partnership rather than appearing as wide-eyed flunkies. This means using their position as a party in government to push ahead on the following:
  • Democratic reform of the House of Lords
  • Introduction of fixed-term parliaments
  • Establishing powerful committees on devolution with a view to further democratic reform
  • Opposing the almost universal adoption of prohibitive tuition fees by English universities
  • Opposing further marketisation of the NHS
  • Continue working towards full implementation of the Freedom (Great Repeal Bill) which restores rights and personal freedoms following the encroachments of 'War on Terror' legislation
  • Holding the banking sector to account
They must also draw attention to their achievements so far - their removal of income tax paid on the first £10,000 earnt being one and their role as limiter on Thatcherite-style initiatives such as NHS reform.

To simply press the ejector seat now would solidify the Lib Dem image as perpetual oppositionalists - nice ideas but too naive and idealistic for government, still not ready for the rough and tumble of Cabinet. The Lib Dem leadership must dust themselves off from this kicking, dust off their principles and get ready for some dust-ups with their Conservatives colleagues in the name of progress. If in another twelve months the Lib Dems are still no further in their agenda, then it will be time to declare the coalition 'unworkable' - and in turn, seek new direction under a new leadership.

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