Lib Dems: Desperate to avoid wipe-out
Nick Clegg has resorted to claiming that coalition government is a virtue in itself, writes Eddie Ford
Liberal Democratic nerves are beginning to fray. You can see why. In some polls, they trail in fourth place behind the United Kingdom Independence Party - which could conceivably come a close second, or even first, in next year’s European elections. For instance, the latest Opinium/Observer poll puts the Lib Dems on a miserable 7%, compared with a vote share of 23% at the 2010 general election and scores of more than 30% in the run-up to polling day.1 Remember the heady days of Cleggmania?
Anyway, the party faces a possible wipe-out at the next general election, maybe going back to the days when you could fit the entire parliamentary party inside a taxi cab. At the very least, given the vagaries of the quasi-democratic ‘first past the post’ electoral system used for Westminster elections, it will see a significant reduction in its parliamentary presence.
Those on the left of the party are uncomfortable, to put it mildly, with the fact that they find themselves in bed with a rightwing Conservative government. Reflecting this, party membership has fallen from 65,038 to 42,501, something Clegg readily admits - an honesty, it does have to be said, that stands in marked contrast to the fantasy membership insisted upon by the Socialist Workers Party central committee. Inevitably, this fall in membership has contributed to an operating deficit of £410,000 in the latest annual accounts.
What next for the Lib Dems? Two recent polls shed an interesting light on its possible future direction. According to a poll conducted by the relatively influential Lib Dem Voice blog, 76% of party members think a hung parliament is the “most likely” outcome of the 2015 general election - and 39% expect the party will be part of a coalition government again.2 Assuming that the outcome the next general is another hung parliament, 54% of Lib Dem members want to see some form of arrangement with Labour. By comparison, only 21% want to see a continuing governmental arrangement with the Tories. Meanwhile, according to a Guardian/ICM poll, 56% of Lib Dem voters would prefer to form a coalition with Labour, compared with 22% who want to maintain the current coalition with the Conservative Party.3
But, whatever the poll tea leaves say, coalition politics is unpopular with swathes of the party - some of whom loathe the Tories even more than they did before entering the coalition. As the Glasgow party conference showed, there is what passes for a conscience in the Lib Dems ... but it is quitting.
Expressing the angst of many Lib Dems, Sarah Teather - former minister of state for children and families and MP for Brent Central - announced her intention not to stand for the next parliament. She said the coalition’s approach to immigration and welfare left her feeling “desolate” and “catastrophically depressed”, lamenting that Clegg seems to be leading a party that no longer appears passionate about “social justice and liberalism”. Rather, she thought, he constantly panders to public opinion and the “reactive pursuit” of the latest poll findings. She might be right.
Such sentiments were aired in Glasgow. Indeed, Vince Cable, the business secretary, laid into the Tories with relish - leading many commentators to chatter excitedly about him being ‘off-message’ and going feral in his native Glasgow. He accused his coalition partners of peddling “cynical” and “ugly” politics, almost as though the Lib Dems were in a “coalition with Ukip”. After a few years pretending not to be the nasty party, Cable continued, the Tory Party was reverting to type - we now have “dog-whistle politics” orchestrated by that Australian Rottweiler, Lynton Crosby. Warming to his theme, he commented that the list of people the Tories disapprove of is getting longer by the day - public sector workers, especially teachers; the unmarried; people who do not own property, etc. In fact, he argued, the Tories’ “core demographic excludes pretty much anybody who wouldn’t have qualified for the vote before the 1867 Reform Act”: they have become “Tea Party Tories” and this is “not our kind of politics”, Cable declared.
He also delivered a rebuff to those who think the UK economy is undergoing an economic renaissance. Cable feared instead that we are witnessing the beginning of yet another unsustainable housing bubble, fuelled by runaway London property prices and Osborne’s ‘help to buy’ scheme - the bankers and speculators are “rediscovering their Mojo”. Dubbed a Jeremiah by Cameron, the business secretary reminded conference that the Old Testament prophet was right because he warned that Jerusalem would be overrun by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar and joked that in his own “book of lamentations” he outlined how Gordon Brown’s New Jerusalem was “overrun by an army” of estate agents, property speculators and bankers. The only problem now, he added, is that the “invaders” are back and have a “bridgehead” in London and the south-east of England - they “must be stopped”.
More concretely, he called for “action” on zero-hours contracts, the Office for National Statistics having estimated that around 250,000 workers are on such contracts - though some think the total figure is much higher. Cable also told conference that he had instructed the Low Pay Commission to carry out a study on what economic conditions would be needed for the minimum wage to rise more quickly than it has in recent years without costing jobs. Furthermore, he said, there was a need to tackle “reckless” directors (the Pavlovian response of the Institute of Directors, quite predictably, was that Cable’s focus on rogue directors could place “unfair burdens” on corporate enterprises).
These sorts of comment were widely interpreted, correctly no doubt, as a barely coded warning to Clegg that he should not become too close to the Tories in advance of the general election and any potential future negotiations with Labour over power-sharing. Cable appears to be positioning himself as the flag-bearer of the party’s left.
There were other rumblings of discontent. The Social Liberal Forum tabled two amendments to Clegg’s main motion, one calling for the economy to be “rebalanced” by borrowing more money. Another wanted a total removal of borrowing limits for councils to boost social housing and a wider remit for the Bank of England to boost employment and incomes. One SLF activist was loudly cheered for saying that Lib Dems should not “collude” with Osborne’s cuts.
Responding to the criticisms, Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, strongly urged members not to retreat from austerity at the 11th hour - arguing that it would be a “huge irony” if the party backed away from its “staggeringly tough decisions” just as economic recovery is “starting to take hold”. In the end, Clegg and his supporters won the day with relative ease - conference deciding to “stick to the plan” of deficit reduction (ie, continued austerity) and even voted to retain Trident, albeit a “scaled down” version.4 Bang goes another Lib Dem principle. The only slight upset for the leadership was that conference voted for a “review” of the bedroom tax, one delegate, Richard Kemp - leader of Liberal Democrats in Liverpool - denouncing it as “evil”.
Slightly sweetening the pill, Clegg promised - and we all know how reliable his promises are - that Lib Dems would argue in 2015 for “more fair taxes” and reject any Conservative argument for reducing the deficit “purely” through spending cuts. In a rather feeble attempt to put a little bit of clear yellow water between the Lib Dems and the Tories, Clegg indicated that his party will put “at the heart” of its next manifesto a pledge to take everyone on the minimum wage out of income tax altogether. He announced in his closing speech on September 18 that every child at infant school in England will receive free lunches as from next September - the quid pro quo, however, being that the Tories will be allowed to introduce a marriage tax allowance. Apparently, this clearly showed the “dividing line” between the Lib Dems and the Tories - the latter’s priority was to “help some families over others” with its tax break for married couples, whilst the Lib Dems wanted to give everyone a fair chance. He also warned again that the Tories would pursue “ideological cuts” if they were left to govern by themselves. The Lib Dems are a “restraining” force on extremism, right and left.
Faced with such discontent within the ranks, Nick Clegg is desperate to hold the line - the coalition government is here to stay right up to the day of the election - and beyond that as well, if the votes fall in the right way. A message hammered home on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on September 15, Clegg arguing that the creation of another coalition government in 2015 was the only way to achieve “balanced politics” and a “sustainable recovery”. During the interview, though naturally he never explicitly said so, it became fairly clear that a second term in partnership with David Cameron was his favoured option - dismaying many on the left of the Lib Dems. Labour would “wreck the economy”, Clegg claimed, and the Tories would provide the “wrong kind of recovery”. So Clegg and Cameron, like partners in crime, are in this together right to the bitter end ... and maybe beyond.
4. The Scotsman September 18.