Labour need to decide whether their “Save the Deficit” campaign should continue

There are two different economic debates to be had with Labour politicians these days.

One of them is a sensible debate about how fast, and how far, cuts should go. Alistair Darling, just a few months ago, told us that Labour wanted to cut deeper and longer than Thatcher did in the 1980s, with talk of a 25% cut in public spending over seven years and hefty tax rises.

The Coalition Government takes the view that the pain of cuts should be slightly shorter and sharper than Labour had planned – still 25%, but spread over five years rather than seven – those “savage cuts” Clegg warned us were needed at our conference a year ago.

There are those who believe even Labour’s plans are indefensible. And others who think the Coalition should go even further. The new Labour leadership looks set to have a vigorous debate about cuts.

Then there’s the other strand of Labour thought that’s emerged from the shadows since the General Election. Under this view, it seems, Darling was completely mistaken. There is no fiscal crisis. We can go on spending pretty much as we are now, making very modest snips to public spending here and there, and everything will turn out fine. The magic money fairy will wave her wand and we’ll all skip happily into the sunset.

To be fair to Labour, there is another version of this “no cuts” philosophy. Some have been opposing every cut, and not offering any alternatives. But rather than claim the cuts aren’t needed, they simple say “we’re in opposition you see: it’s our job to oppose, not to put up alternatives.

That’s a little disingenuous. True, no-one expects an opposition party to have a fully costed and detailed plan for government when we’re four years out from the next election; but it isn’t unreasonable to expect an answer to the question “if you wouldn’t cut this, what would you cut instead?”.

This “Save the Deficit” campaign may well turn out to be popular. When faced with trimming billions from the public services people up and down the country rely on – as Labour policy currently proposes – who wouldn’t like to think there was a less painful alternative to clearing all that debt?

And, as I’ve argued in the past, there’s a massive difference between calling for cuts in general terms and getting down to the specifics. It’s much easier to accept that we need to shave billions off our public spending than to accept that specific services in my area will be hit. That may be why Labour had planned £44 billion of cuts but not said where the axe would fall.

So Labour have a decision to make.

Do they embrace the Save the Deficit campaign, or do they continue to accept that cuts are needed and engage in a debate about where they should be, offering alternatives to Coalition plans?

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44 Comments

  • Daniel Furr 27th Sep '10 - 9:16am

    If they embrace it – then Labour are finished. Ed Miliband believes cuts must occur, but the unions honestly believe he does not think it should happen. Ed Balls has written in the guardian today and sided with the unions. Labour are about to embark on a bloody internal conflict – the leadership result shows it.

    A brief view of the papers, you can see the knives are out for Ed and the unions.

  • Sorry, deficit thinkers – no good just blaming Labour for this. The same debate(s) goes on in our party! We have allowed ourselves to be sucked onside with the Tory approach by the orange book and pre-coalition thinking. One issue not mentioned here is who should pay, as well as how quickly. I am sure no-one would disagree that we would think some aspects of Labour spending stupid and / or wasteful, but we have been very active in the past encouraging Labour to reduce government underinvestment (1997 – 2000). This is a problem brought about mainly by attempts to prevent bank failure and subsequent huge disruption of national life, so it should be recttified, over time, using the same mechanisms in reverse, not by hits against governmentand local public spending or against welfare, at a time when it is likely people will be under financial pressure. The attempt to set out a “structural deficit” as the main problem is highly tendentious, and seems to be motivated by neo Thatcherite thinking.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 27th Sep '10 - 10:13am

    Can you really be trying to take the moral high ground over having a “sensible debate” about deficit reduction when Nick Clegg, according his own account, said – very forcefully – one thing during the election campaign while believing something quite different?

    No doubt Labour will oppose the cuts in public spending – just as the Lib Dems have always opposed such cuts in the past – and if they do it skilfully they will reap the benefits – just as the Lib Dems have done in the past. And no doubt the government will carry on asking “Well, what would you do?” but there’s a limit to how effective that line of attack will be, considering that Labour is in opposition, not in government.

  • Anthony, do you really have nothing better to do than to troll these threads, offering up your contrarianism to counter every argument made by every LDV post? Seriously?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 27th Sep '10 - 10:47am

    “… you will never balance the Budget through measures which reduce the national income. The Chancellor would simply be chasing his own tail – or cloven hoof! The only chance of balancing the Budget in the long run is to bring things back to normal, and so avoid the enormous charges arising out of unemployment.”
    Keynes, radio talk, 4 January 1933 – back in the days when Liberals used to talk sense.

    Don’t you understand that growth is key to solving the deficit problem? The experiment has been tried in Ireland and it has failed. You went to the country saying something different from what you now preach – although you leader has now admitted that he didn’t believe what his party was saying during the election campaign. True Keynesian and Beveridge liberals need to wake up and realise how they have been duped. After last week’s rally I am beginning to doubt whether there any any out there.

  • @blanco

    While Anthony is monotonous in his condemnations of the Coalition, when he writes “Can you really be trying to take the moral high ground over having a “sensible debate” about deficit reduction when Nick Clegg, according his own account, said – very forcefully – one thing during the election campaign while believing something quite different?”, he has a strong point. Nick does need to clarify this point as it is central to all those, and believe me even among those who support the coalition they still think this is true, that Nick was in someway duplicitous. Nick needs to clarify this.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 27th Sep '10 - 10:49am

    LibDems need to decide whether their “keep the recession” campaign should continue – if you want a simple soundbite.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 27th Sep '10 - 11:01am

    blanco

    “Anthony, do you really have nothing better to do …”

    I might ask you the same question.

    At least my comment had something to do with the subject of the thread; it wasn’t an attempt to shut somebody up just because I didn’t agree with their views!

  • “And I tell you we have learned from past mistakes. Just as you cannot spend your way out of recession, you cannot, in a global economy, simply spend your way through recovery either.” (Gordon Brown, Labour Party Annual Conference, 29 September 1997)

    Make up your minds, Labour trolls.

  • @Anthony

    As it happens, I agree with you that Nick Clegg has some explaining to do. It would be one thing, albeit relatively unbelievable, had he said his mind changed about the need to deal with the deficit AFTER he’d taken office and had a look at the public finances from inside government. To say that he changed his mind either before or during the election campaign, and yet continued to advocate the “halve the deficit within four years” plan on the campaign trail – that’s downright duplicitous, and makes me concerned about the direction of the party under his stewardship. Ultimately, politicians lie – most of them lie in small subtle ways, like with bar graphs on their leaflets, or by saying things like “only our party has the answer” etc, and some lie in larger ways, like Blair over Iraq – but what I’m concerned about is getting stuff done.

    I have changed my mind over the deficit – it took me a few months longer than Clegg, and I still have my concerns about some of the cuts – but really, the difference between Clegg now and Clegg then is a question of scale and timing. Is it better to cut harshly and cut now, rather than cut harshly and cut later. Short sharp shock, or longer, more drawn out pain.

    What I was trying to get at in my earlier post, is I don’t understand why people so critical of the Lib Dems and their role in the coalition would spend so much time essentially trolling threads of a Lib Dem-supporting blog. Yes, you could say the same back at me – but that doesn’t really address why you feel the need to whine constantly here. Why not be constructive about it – I’m trying to help you here – and write to Clegg himself?

  • Labour’s deficit reduction plans included more revenue from tax bases, and less cuts to public spending. This represents less risk to growth, especially when you look at places like Ireland that have done that deep, fast cuts programme, and gone back into recession.

    When the new leadership beds in, this will remain Labour’s position. Unlike the Lib Dems, Labour won’t tell the public one thing and then go and do the opposite.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 27th Sep '10 - 12:02pm

    Mboy

    But you and the Government are reading this as saying that you can cut your way out a recession, which is just not logical. Demand management isn’t all and of course other things need to be done – but cuts now and at such a pace are not the right answer – and believe it or not that is what you lot were saying in the election (although of course Nick never believed it and kept such thoughts to himself).

  • Anthony Aloysius St 27th Sep '10 - 12:02pm

    blanco

    This site is avowedly open to all for political discussion. I don’t understand what further explanation you need.

    And you really do need to understand that people who have different opinions from you aren’t “trolls,” and posting opinions that are different from yours isn’t “trolling.” It seems odd to have to point that out repeatedly to people who describe themselves as “liberals.”

    In fact, it could be argued that the continual name-calling and personal attacks directed by some party loyalists at those who are quite legitimately expressing a different view really do amount to “trolling.”

  • So in the simplistic world of LDV, Labour’s position is to ‘save the deficit’, so does that make the ConDem position ‘bring on the double dip’?

    DonPaski’s post says just about everything that needs to be said. Apart from I would add that not only do you not understand Ed Balls and others were saying, and you are deliberately smearing and distorting that position.

  • @Paul B

    “Labour won’t tell the public one thing and then go and do the opposite.”

    Tuition fees? Ethical foreign policy? An end to boom and bust?

  • Mike(The Labour one) 27th Sep '10 - 12:26pm

    If you don’t want opposition views then say so clearly on the website for all to see. Don’t have your blog posts listed on non-partisan websites like PoliticsHome.

    This blog post is utter nonsense. The *government* has not yet set out what it will cut and had Labour won, due to the cuts coming a year later or so based on economic circumstance they would have had plenty of time to formulate a proper plan making sure that everyone knew what was going to happen in advance.

    This policy of having departments *race each other* to set out their cuts to the Treasury is not sensible. And what is not sensible is trying to talk about the economic position of Labour people like Ed Balls when you so obviously don’t know the first thing about what you’re talking about- if you did you wouldn’t have to talk of “magic money trees” and other ridiculous demonisations. You would be able to address what he’s actually said, not a caricature formed in your Tory brain.

    Address the arguments he’s actually given. Make a serious post and you’ll get serious answers, but this isn’t a serious post. This is a childish sub-tabloid mess.

  • As someone who voted Lib Dem off the back of what I perceived to be their higher economic competence (i.e Vince Cable), listening to economists sucha s Stiglitz and Krugman and pretty much any other ranking economist who predicted the recession, I supported Clegg’s orginal position of cuts that he campaigned upon.

    What is completely unacceptable to me, Mr Roberts, is that you are deliberately misrepresenting the Labour position using a right-wing talking point. Every day I read something like this on this site, something that denies the real debate within our own party, I am more pushed to voting Labour at the next election.

    Stop using the Tory Line. We Lib Dems voted for Liberal Democrats precisely because we ignored strawman arguments from the right wing press…. stop repeating strawman arguments that illiberally seek to misrepresent the opponents position.

    If you can’t show that you can win the debate on the deficit with genuine evidence and reasoning, and have to resort to accusing Labour of ‘denying the deficit’, then I won’t vote for this party at the next election… and would recommend others don’t either.

    The Lib Dem position before the election and Labour’s position now has always been that the deficit must be reduced, but it must be reduced at a slower pace to guarantee recovery. Vince Cable made the argument successive times during the election campaign, and dismissed the ‘Greek Defence’ when Clarke used it in the financial times.

    Labour simply do not deny the deficit, they simply are taking the approach recommended by the vast majority of credible economists, like VInce Cable. It is the Liberal democrats who are putting the country in jeopardy by supporting a policy they considered adverse to the wellbeing of the country,… just to win elections. If Clegg or VInce talked more about ‘compromoise’ then I might be more accepting, but now they are tying their fortunes irrevocably to a Tory deficit plan which they spent the entire election opposing.

  • I do find it amusing how so many self-described ‘Lib Dems’, in following CLegg, have become utter tribalists who find it impossible to debate the relevant policy issues or have a democratic debate on the direction of the Lib Dems.

    The triablists here ‘say’ that although they supported the Lib Dem position before the election ‘NOW’ they support the Conservative position. What is the reason for this we may ask? Credible economic judgment? No! Clegg leads and they feel compelled to follow…. even agains the arguments they believed in at the last election. Do not expend your unquestioning loyalty in Clegg, he has shown no loyalty to us… Lib Dem members and voters.

    It’s like ‘1984’ doublethink, the case for the Lib Dem pre-election deficit plan was set out with a logical argument, the Tory one was not. Now supporters of the Lib Dem plan have magically switched over to the Tory one, and have the temerity that say that the ‘arrived’ at this ‘conclusion’. The fact of the matter is they simply will believe and do whatever Clegg tells them…. thus they become worse than Labourites.

  • Frankly the fact that all the Lib Dem leadership have done so far to counter Labour’s economic argument is tell us that Labour are denying the deficit.

    If you want me to believe that the Lib Dems now support this plan out of their own volition….you must make the economic argument for it, not deny that you’re position was the same as Labour’s before the election.

  • I menat your*

  • Don’t get me wrong, I still really want to vote Lib Dem at the next election. I still think the Liberal and rational tradition that this party has is the greatest and most influential tradition in British history, I am a Liberal, not a socialist. Yet I am a classical Liberal, not a Thatcherite Liberal, and part of that belief is that freedom means nothing if all economic power is in the hands of the wrong people. I just don’t think we are going in the right direction at all.

  • Can someone please explain to me how the following are compatible:

    (1) Cuts of 25% in local authority (LA) spending from 2011-2015.

    AND

    (2) Nick Clegg’s claim that the Tory government plans to reduce public expenditure to 2006 levels by 2015.

    Whoever offers a plausible answer to the above can then have a go at the following:

    (1) Was LA spending in 2006 25% less than it is now?

    (2) Is it possible for LAs to cut spending by 25% by 2015 and continue to discharge statutory duties?

    (3) Is is possible for LAs to cut spending by 25% by 2015 and continue to provide services that residents consider remotely satisfactory?

    Is any of this possible or is it economic fairyland? Can we look forward to a Britain where bin bags are piled high along our streets, the roads are riddled with potholes, school buildings crumble, children go unprotected, and social work and care for the elderly is provided exclusively by untrained volunteers?

    I don’t suppose Cameron, Osborne, Gove and Hague give two hoots if any of this happens. Liberal Democrats – apart from the free-market “libertarian” fringe – might think differently.

    Let’s not obsess with what the aptly named Ed Balls thinks. Let’s concern ourselves with what Liberal Democrats should think.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 27th Sep '10 - 4:06pm

    “I don’t know about the particulars of local authority spending, but yes, Public spending in this country has risen by 25% since 2006.”

    But such figures are meaningless taken in isolation from the economic cycle. Public spending always rises during a recession. Unemployment now is about 50% higher than it was in 2006.

  • Anthony Aloyisus St wrote:

    “But such figures are meaningless taken in isolation from the economic cycle. Public spending always rises during a recession. Unemployment now is about 50% higher than it was in 2006.”

    And there was also the recapitalisation of the banks.

    Stephen W,

    “I don’t know about the particulars of local authority spending,”

    Evidently not. LAs are spending roughly the same now as they did four years ago. 25% cuts will cause major damage. Unless you know something more about LA spending than the people who work for LAs do.

    “Fears of “a Britain where bin bags are piled high along our streets, the roads are riddled with potholes, school buildings crumble, children go unprotected, and social work and care for the elderly is provided exclusively by untrained volunteers” are totally wrong.”

    That isn’t what LA Chief Executives and Proper Officers are saying, but then you presumably know more than they do, and they are all “labour fools” (sic) who are “wilfully lying”. The cosmetic cuts we have had already (eg, the Performance Reward Grant and the Area Based Grant) have already caused major damage (particularly to the Youth Service).

    And there’s more. During the last cycle, many LAs tried to make major cuts, but ended up having to restore them. One LA I know well got rid of a third of its administrative staff, but had to replace them with (more expensive) agency staff because it was unable to cope.

    “This scare mongering is utter rubbish spread by labour fools who want to wilfully lie and distort reality to further their own ends. ”

    Wake up, Mr Stephen W. Don’t do this to our party.

    Oh, and explain what scrapping Local Safeguarding Chidlren Boards is going to do for child protection. Answers please.

    BTW, “Labour” has upper-case “L”, good English avoids split infinitives, and lying is by definition wilful, so “wilfully lying” is tautology.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 27th Sep '10 - 5:29pm

    Of course, in addition to the point about the cyclical increase in public expenditure since 2006, we know that spending on the NHS – which accounts for another big chunk of the budget – has risen in real terms, and that the government is “ring-fencing” that increase. Other areas are also being partially protected. The result of all this is that spending in unprotected areas will inevitably be cut to well below its 2006 levels.

    So it’s (wilfully?) misleading to pretend that the cuts won’t be too bad because they’ll only be taking us back to 2006.

  • It will be easier to have this discussion in five to ten years time because then there will be a number of different examples of the way governments have responded to the economic crisis and we will be able to work out which ones seem to have worked better than others. At the moment what we have are economists’ theories.

    I am not an economist but I believe that whilst the cuts will be bad the alternative to cuts would be worse. If we don’t have cuts then [unless we have higher taxes which I discuss below] then there will be a larger government deficit. If the government has to borrow more then it will end up paying higher rates of interest [and as a consequence so will everyone else] therefore more of the tax revenues will be going on interest payments because of the higher level of borrowing and the higher rate of interest – this makes the government’s deficit position worse and it is very easy to get locked into a vicious spiral. Interest rates for the government are lower now than they were a year ago – so already a higher proportion of the taxes raised can go on services and less on servicing debt.

    Something very similar happened in 1997. You may recall that Gordon Brown [or was it Tony Blair] took the advice which Malcolm Bruce, the then Lib Dem Shadow Chancellor, offered and made the Bank of England independent – the result was that the confidence of the financial markets improved the amount the government had to pay on interest fell and for the first two or three years the chancellor used some of this gain to invest in new government spending programmes.

    An alternative to cutting is to put up taxes – but almost all taxes other than taxes on land – hence the value of “mansion taxes” distort economic activity and may slow growth or just cause the wrong type of growth to take place as people develop ever more elaborate schemes to avoid taxes.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 27th Sep '10 - 6:25pm

    @Richard A

    “At the moment what we have are economists’ theories.”

    Well yes we do – but we also have quite a lot of economic history, this is not the first recession. Perhaps you should have a look at the impact of public expenditure cuts that took place in the Great Depression and more recently in Ireland and Japan before reaching your conclusion that the alternative to cuts now would be worse. Yes there are differences from what happened before – but that doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. Remember what they say about history repeating itself.

  • Stephen W – I think you need to look at what the spending was now, versus what it was on in 2005 / 6. Of course, if you try to rectify, either the huge amounts put into the financial system, or wasted on PFI schemes (still, it would appear supported by Tories) by money generated from cuts to everyday health, education, investment in green developments, public transport etc, the underinvestment will be palpable, and will affect the poorest and those in the lower middle the most, proportionately. What should happen is a plan should be drawn up (as in the Marshall Plan post World War 2) for staged repayments – as far as possible by the financial sector, which has mediated most of this mayhem. If the markets don’t like it, we should try to ensure an international way of dealing with that is found. For once, perhaps sticking with the USA on their deficit reduction plans would have paid dividends. To suggest that the cuts are all fine, “because it merely returns us to 2005 spending levels” is disingenuous. And to suggest as blanco did, that politicians can be expected to lie, is appalling, when we have come in on an explicit pledge “to clean up politics”. Frankly, if we can’t get a financial problem like this sorted without major dislocation, how on earth are we going to deal with the much bigger set of environmental crises coming down the tracks at us?

    Yes, “we’re all in this together”, and the wealthy, individuals and companies, must realise this and stump up the lion’s share of the costs.

  • This article is a total bundle of cliches . I’m surprised you guys have spent so much time talking about it. I was hoping for some serious debate about what the labour Leadsership might and should do. In this instance I obviously came to the wrong article.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 28th Sep '10 - 12:03am

    “This article is a total bundle of cliches …”

    Surely the appropriate collective noun has to be a raft of cliches?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 28th Sep '10 - 12:20am

    Looking at tonight’s YouGov poll, of course one has to understand why the party is so concerned about the Opposition finally getting a proper leader – for the first time in three years Labour has moved into the lead.

    I’d suggest that the vital thing for the party is to forget the knocking copy about “Red Ed” being in the pocket of the unions, or living with a lady who is not his wife, or any of that other rubbish. The one thing that the party needs to demonstrate is that it is exerting some real influence to protect the most vulnerable from the horrendous cuts that the government is about to enact. It signally failed to do so with regard to the budget. If the same is true of the cuts, then it really will be “game over” – and deservedly so.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 28th Sep '10 - 1:36am

    “In another thread, I’ve complained that some of the regulars here are accusing others of lying, because one interpretation of what they say is untrue, despite the fact another interpretation of what they are saying is not untrue.”

    Come off it, George. You know what a trade union block vote is, as well as I do.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Sep '10 - 10:39am

    Geoffrey Payne

    In fact I cannot think of any economist who was backing the Lib Dems Keynesian economic policy prior to the general election who became a deficit hawk the same time the party leadership did. Only card carrying members of the Lib Dems seem to think this way.

    Well, the press like to put it that way, because the press like the idea that political parties are just fan clubs of their leaders. This is really the fascist/Leninist view of politics, and not the liberal and democratic view. The elite in this country have this fascination for what is really fascism-lite politics, because that’s the sort of people they are – they cannot conceive of a way of organising society except a top-down way where people like them in their little Bubble dictate downwards to the plebs. That is why their coverage of politics is all about leaders, why they are so keen on this stupid idea of directly elected executive mayors, and so on. It is their sort of politics because they are too blinkered to see it could be any other way, and the contempt they express for any sort of bottom up politics is obvious – see even how Ed Miliband’s election is being treated because he got in through the votes of union members. Union members are considered to be evil contemptible people, because they are – well they probably don’t speak in posh accents or wear posh clothes and they are outside the Bubble. But when Vince Cable criticises bankers for maybe in some cases being a bit greedy and taking more than they deserve, WELL, that’s quite a different thing, and the media establishment reacts with outrage. Doesn’t this country stink in the way this tiny wealthy elite and its spokespeople are so dominant in opinion forming?

    I’m a card-carrying Liberal Democrat, and I certainly have not changed my views just because the leader of my party has done so. I’m not a fascist or a Leninist, so my politics doesn’t mean I obey the leader of my party whatever he tells me to think. And I hope most other members of the party are likewise.

    If Mr Clegg has just changed his views then he should consider his position very carefully. He went into the election saying one thing, if he really does now think what he said was wrong, he led us on a false prospectus and should do the decent thing and stand down. Of course, accepting that he is a leader of a minority group within government, so has to compromise is another thing, but if that’s the case he should be honest and say so. Also, yes of course, we accept that politics has to be fluid, it has to react to the situation as it is rather than rigidly following out a five year plan regardless of circumstances. But again, if his line is that what he said before the election was right considering how the situation was then and wrong now, he should be honest and make clear why it is he has changed, what exactly new he has discovered. Apart from “Because Mr Cameron and his colleagues told me that’s how it should be”.

    Unfortunately, we elected as leader someone who was a bit of an empty-head, skilled at saying whatever it was that would make him sound good in whatever company he was keeping, but with little originality of his own. This is something I could see in him from the start, which is why I so strongly urged party members not to vote him in as leader during the leadership election. Sadly, the sort of person he is seems to have meant that surrounded by Tories he had not the strength to preserve himself from being converted to a Tory.

    If I am wrong, well, I hope I am. But that is currently the impression that Mr Clegg is giving, and I think he and his advisers need urgently to correct that if they have any decency and sense of commitment to the good people of our party who worked so long and gave so much in order that Mr Clegg should have the nice job he now has as Deputy PM.

  • “I don’t understand why people so critical of the Lib Dems and their role in the coalition would spend so much time essentially trolling threads of a Lib Dem-supporting blog.”

    I am a longstanding Lib Dem and critic of their role in the coalition. I spend a lot of time arguing that case here because I want my party to see things differently and to change their position. I think it is a very constructive thing to do, and that those of us who do it are now beginning to make serious headway. I am very happy to see intelligent counter argument from George Kendall and others. I don’t understand people who claim to be Lib Dems and then simply close their minds to any analysis which might challenge their thinking.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Sep '10 - 3:19pm

    George Kendall

    Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, as effective politicians, knew that the Lib Dems needed to present a simple unified message. Whatever their doubts, they had to agree on a policy, and keep to it.

    Yes, and that was surely the one they went into the election arguing for.


    After the election, there were reasons to adjust their position: the financial crisis in southern Europe, and the need to adopt joint cabinet responsibility in coalition with the Conservatives.

    Yes, but these two different reasons leave open the question as to which one of them was the more pushing one. And this in a context where the influential media people who comment on politics are 1) thick and ignorant, so they don’t understand or want to understand how coalitions work, they just cannot think outside the box of single party government and 2) hate us, so they will always find whatever it is they can to put us in the worst possible light. It is for both of these reasons that the commentariat almost right away started pushing the idea that the coalition should lead to merger of the parties even though no-one in our party is at all interested in that. For reason 1), to them it really does seem, natural, and it restores politics to the two-party system they are happy with because it means they don’t have to adopt new thinking. For reason 2) they like the idea because they like the idea of us being destroyed. We cannot, of course, expect anything but the same from Labour because they too have reasons 1) and 2), and also 3) the more they can make us out as Tory stooges, the more they can win an outright majority at the next general election.

    So the problem is that even if the situation really was much more different than Clegg and Cable supposed it was when they said what they said before the election, almost all the players outside our party have a vested interest in putting the case that the real reason they changed their position was that they have comfy jobs in a Tory government and don’t want to rock the boat. If the people of this country are led to believe this, it is a corollary that Clegg and Cable are untrustworthy people – they will say one thing to get elected, and once they have a bit of power, change to something else. That is particularly unfortunate when that something else is something that will cause a lot of short-term hurt to a great many people in this country. It is particularly unfortunate when we went into the election with the image of being a different sort of more honest and principled group of politicians than the other two parties.


    In private, they’d probably admit that they are unsure about the best approach to repaying the deficit. In public, they have no choice but to hide those doubts.

    Realists can see that the financial crisis in southern Europe you mentioned, the arithmetic of the new Parliament, and Labour’s unwillingness to enter a coalition, all meant that a coalition with the Conservatives was the only realistic option for the Liberal Democrats after the May 2010 election results. That is why it was overwhelmingly endorsed in the special conference. Realists also knew we would have the “Tory stooges” line thrown at us, and that Labour would be merciless in pretending we were gung-ho enthusiasts for all the Tory-with-a-bit-of-Lib government was doing, rather than people who to some extent were accepting that the country voted for something other than our manifesto so the result would have to be some way towards the party who won the most seats.

    Under these circumstances, it seems to me that good politicians would behave in a way that was more open about any doubts. If their aim is to lead the Liberal Democrats as an independent party into the next election, then they need to be positioning themselves to do that. That means doing more to throw back what our opponents are throwing at us for reasons 1), 2) and 3). That means showing some willingness to reconsider the 5-year coalition plan if the Tories won’t move in negotiations. That means NOT giving the impression, as Mr Clegg is doing right now, that he sees his main job as selling the Conservative Party to us rather than leading our point of view in the coalition.

    To be sure, the commentariat would attack Mr Clegg mercilessly every time he appeared to be saying something different from Mr Cameron. Well, tough. We’re being attacked mercilessly anyway for being Tory stooges. I don’t think the “Tory stooge” line is a fair attack, but I’d like a leader who is more able and willing to stand up to it than the one we have now.

    The most difficult position is if Mr Clegg really has changed his mind, not because of the situation being different, but because he really how does believe he was wrong to say what he said before the election. Having gone into the election endorsing a slower deficit reduction plan, I’m afraid he is under some binding to keep to that even if he has privately changed his mind. If we get something from people – here votes – on a promise, we have to keep to that promise as far as we can, even if afterwards we feel it was a foolish one to make. That is basic honesty. If one is placed into a situation where one feels one cannot honestly keep a promise because one really does now feel it was a foolish one to make, then one has to return what was gained from making that promise. In Mr Clegg’s case that would mean stepping down and seeing re-election on the basis of his new understanding.

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