You only had to open last week’s Observer to realise what a lot the party leader has on his plate at the moment. As well as dealing with the ‘Petition of 104’, the constant repetition in the paper of the ‘liar’ tag was pretty unpleasant.
Nick Clegg has managed to survive the battering with great dignity so far. But it is hardly surprising that the commentariat are currently writing off his party.
I think they are wrong. But the health of the Lib Dems depends on staying on the correct side of the revolt.
Just set aside the student demonstrations and the flying fire extinguishers for a moment, because – under the radar of the media – there is, I believe, another revolt going on.
You only get the occasional glimpse of it. The teachers who refused to organise SATS. The sit-in by Ryanair passengers dumped on a distant runway. The nun who frustrated a police raid to enforce health and safety regulations.
In fact, it was the nun who first set me thinking along these lines. This was the strange story, earlier in the month, about the raid on the housing estate run by Tower Hamlets Homes, the arms-length management organisation for Tower Hamlets Council.
Without asking for permission, the health and safety team with the police cut through chains to remove a whole range of clutter deemed unsafe, including children’s bicycles and clothes lines.
The process was stopped by a local nun. The Tower Hamlets Homes management withdrew their people, returned the equipment and stepped back.
I was interested in this partly because it was an example of the kind of tyranny over tenants that social housing has tended to lead to in practice in this country, under governments of right and left. But it happened to coincide with my own experience with a voluntary sector conference in Wales, where the frustration with the county council was so intense that one person could say: “Bring on the cuts!” – in the hope that it would relax the powerful controls around nearly everything connected with local life.
If this wasn’t enough, I was at a brilliant conference last week led by the systems thinking pioneer John Seddon – and including speakers from two Lib Dem controlled councils – which aggressively poured scorn at New Labour’s industrial approach to public services.
Every mention of the word ‘McKinsey’, the global management consultancy most associated with imposing industrial systems on human services, was greeted by howls of derisive laughter.
This is the first fluttering of an important revolt, maybe more important than the students, against industrial systems, faceless call centres, huge factory schools and hospitals and corporate disdain. It is a revolt in favour of people over process. And I feel more excited by it than anything else since, ooh, well, May.
And, let’s give Nick Clegg some credit. It began, in some ways, with his public promise not to carry an ID card (and ID cards have since been cancelled by Lib Dems in government).
The problem is that there seems to be some kind of struggle inside the soul of the coalition about which side of this revolt the new government is on. Are they setting people free, localising power and abandoning the New Labour control systems? Or are they actually still backing the big procurement systems, big IT systems, warehouse call centres and industrial processes, just like the last government – with all the waste and incompetence it leads to in practice?
If we can stay on the correct side of this revolt, we will be under huge pressure from the corporate lobbyists – the supermarket oligopolies which want to tighten their control over healthy eating policy – but we will at least be Liberals. And in the end we will be on the side of people – which is what really matters.