The Thick of It

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The two-headed beast

After spending an intense month campaigning to turn Islington Labour again I can now turn my thoughts back to blogging. Politics is interesting again. Everyone is talking about it. Nick Clegg is talking to everyone.

My expectation was that the election would produce a narrow Tory victory. It has produced a hung parliament which has left Nick Clegg as king-maker despite his party's own disappointing election results. I have commented on the World Service twice since the election that this was the election that everybody lost. Labour lost being in charge. The Tories had expected to win a majority and failed after the electorate who might have been ready for a change were not convinced by David Cameron. The Lib Dems failed to capitalise on Clegg's short-lived popularity after the leader debates.

Which way should the Lib Dems face? I have said before that until they decide whether they are predominately a classical liberal party or a social democratic party the Lib Dems will not be able to progress. Having to choose between a coalition with the Tories or Labour might force the issue. It could end up breaking the Lib Dems as members and voters might punish them for picking the "wrong" side in a coalition deal.

The evidence from local government suggest that the Lib Dems are happier bedfellows of the Tories than with Labour. This counters the commonly held view that the Lib Dems are quite left wing. They are not. Their party has typically sided with the Tories in local government when given the option to keep Labour out. See examples in Birmingham and Southwark. Now that they can smell power they are doing whatever they can to get their hands on it and I expect the Lib Dems to do whatever they can to get what they want. They want power and the want electoral reform.

Positions in cabinet could do for the Lib Dems what the second world war did for Labour. It will give them experience and credibility in government that they currently lack. Electoral reform is the important second stage because it then gives them a chance of an electoral breakthrough, impossible for a third party under first past the post.

Getting a referendum on electoral reform might get the Lib Dems a temporary seat at the cabinet table but it might not deliver the full scale reform the party wants. If the country votes against reform or if it seriously wounds the party by angering those against a Tory/Labour/any coalition then the Lib Dems might go from king-maker to dodo.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Lib Dems in our metropolitan cities are one-nation tories, not 'liberals' at all.

Anonymous said...

Libdems may or may not be left-wing in the tradiional sense of the word but they are much more left-wing than new labour, take a look at their corresponding manifestos. It is also a reason why a tory-libdem coalition couldn't work. you can't have the right wing tories ousting the marginally less right-wing new labour with the help of the new left in british politics. the whole thing is very interesting and very much of an impasse on all sides I think.

Anonymous said...

Lib Dems are more left than Labour are.

Stephen Henderson said...

"Libdems may or may not be left-wing in the tradiional sense of the word but they are much more left-wing than new labour, take a look at their corresponding manifestos"

Or perhaps look instead at the IFS analysis of the tax policy in the LibDem manifesto which massively redistributes cash to the errr.... upper middle classes (5-8th percentiles gaining most).

Mike Katz said...

Look at Camden. Four years of Lib Dem led coalition with the Tories with a programme of selling off council homes, privatising caretaking on estatesm hiking up care charges, cutting services and vol sector funding - the verdict was pretty clear, as well as in Brent next door.

Why are people surprised that they will go with the Tories? Come to that, why are those like Malcolm Rifkind shocked that they are trying to play Tories off against Labour in the negotiations? They're Lib Dems; it's what they do: very pious words, but shoddy wheeler-dealers in practice. Shoudl come as a surprise to no-one that they aren't the principled upholders of transparent, 'new' politics that Clegg promised.

Chris Whitrow said...

The Lib Dems are clearly more 'left wing' than New Labour, if we judge by their actual manifesto policies, and if 'left wing' is interpreted to mean being in favour of social justice and looking after the interests of the disadvantaged. Compare Labour's pledge to increase NI with the Lib Dems' proposal to lift the income tax threshold to £10k (@Stephen: I don't know how the IFS can come to its conclusion but it HAS to be wrong - lifting the threshold always benefits the poorest most).

Local politics is always murky, dominated by local issues and rivalries. To argue from that to national level is totally misleading.

We could argue the toss about this all day, but the crucial point is that personal liberty and social justice are not incompatible aims; in fact they should be inseparable. The Lib Dems are a long way from being the party of Lloyd George, but frankly he was considerably to the left of Tony Blair, by anyone's measure.

All parties contain diverse elements and a spectrum of views. Arguing about historical links and abstract 'isms' is just pointless. It's so obvious that the policy gap between Lib Dem and Labour is much smaller than between Lib Dem and Tory that it hardly needs stating. So let's stop arguing about who is 'leftier than thou'.

Jack said...

"@Stephen: I don't know how the IFS can come to its conclusion but it HAS to be wrong - lifting the threshold always benefits the poorest most"

'I don't understand it but it has to be wrong because I say so', brilliant logic there. I would assume the IFS know what they are talking about.

The Lib Dems are to the left of New Labour on civil liberties issues and until the financial crisis were to the left on economics too. Now that Labour are rediscovering their economic roots that's up for debate but being to the left of Blairite Labour is in some cases not hard. It's not a 'leftier-than-thou' question, it's about the strange nature of the Liberal Democrats and who they are more likely to work with in government. Which, it turns out, is the Tories. Oh well.

Tim McLoughlin said...

I refute that New Labour wasn't left wing. In a number of ways it was the most left wing Labour government post Attlee. Remember that New Labour re-built our national infrastructure of schools, hospitals and made most council homes decent. It also introduced the minimum wage and introduced redistributive tax credits.

In Islington my experience of the Lib Dems in charge is of a council that sold off property, closed youth clubs, closed the citizens advice bureau and looked after the wealthy, not the poor.

The huge choice faced by the Lib Dems after this election has meant that the British electorate might finally be given a signal about who the Lib Dems really are.

Idle Pen Pusher said...

"Or perhaps look instead at the IFS analysis of the tax policy in the LibDem manifesto which massively redistributes cash to the errr.... upper middle classes (5-8th percentiles gaining most)."

Surely that (less state control over people's money) would make the LibDems more 'liberal'. 'Liberal' isn't just another, nicer word for 'socialist' without all the murderous, inept and authoritarian overtones. It means favouring liberty over authority.

Incidentally, I'm minded to agree with Chris Whitrow. I can't think of a LibDem manifesto policy that benefits the those on high incomes. Certainly not their "mansions tax", capital gains hike or the removal of pensions relief. And raising the threshold is, by definition, proportionately more beneficial to those just above that new threshold than those who earn more.

But Lloyd George to the left of Tony Blair? He would have been horrified at the size of the state at its smallest under Thatcher, let alone the mighty leviathan which blossomed under Blair.