Opinion: Cold comfort for the Lib Dems in the dawn of the new politics

On Thursday night we saw the dynamics of the New Politics unfold.

For the first time, advocates of the Lib-Con pact came face to face with opponents and the general public in a very public forum. On Question Time, Simon Hughes MP and Lord Heseltine defended the new government against a tirade of abuse from Lord Falconer, Mehdi Hasan and Melanie Phillips, while the audience expressed exasperation and dismay. Get used to it. This is the New Politics, and if Cameron and Clegg are to be believed, this is what we have to look forward to for the next five years.

The first lesson seemed to be that it was the Lib Dems that were the early losers. Falconer and Hasan tore into us for what they saw as a “betrayal of The Left” (I paraphrase). Never mind that some of us don’t see any common ground with the Labour Party and refute the bipolar definition of politics. To them, the Lib Dems have sold out. And it’s a powerful narrative. The Left-Right axis is ingrained in the minds of politicians, commentators and voters alike, and Lib Dems have been all-too-willing to paint themselves as “of the Left”. It is easy for Labour to claim that by siding with the Tories we have betrayed our “natural coalition partners” and the supposed Left Wing of British politics.

Indeed, the second lesson is that Labour is already positioning itself as the beneficiary. In Friday’s Times Jack Straw made clear that Labour see opposition as a clear opportunity to put the past behind it. And they may succeed. Over the next five years the Government will be forced to cut deeply into public spending without also being able to cut deeply into taxation. This will make it very unpopular with a public that struggles to accept the fact that the pain of the next five years is payment for the excess of the last ten. Labour will emphasise their expansion of the public sector and decry every cut we make, without ever admitting that we are today paying the bill for their hire-purchase approach to public services.

The third lesson is that our counter-case is far less easy to make. The audience seemed to accept the fact that economic necessity called for a strong and stable government. That did not seem to assuage their anger. Tories felt we’d extracted too many concessions; Lib Dems felt betrayed; Labour supporters vindicated. Simon Hughes did an admirable job defending the decision to enter into coalition, but an electorate steeped in the Old Politics will not easily slip into the thinking of the New. “Compromise” is a dirty word; deals are “shady” and made in “back rooms”; and (as more than one member of the audience suggested) politicians are only interested in power.

As an activist, I can already imagine how hard it is going to be to persuade people that the “national interest” required that we support a party that barely more than a week ago we were excoriating. And the painful decisions have yet to be taken.

Yet for all that, I do believe that we have done the right thing. As Simon said, “I didn’t go into politics to be in opposition, but to change society for the better.” We are not in a Conservative Government. There is no Conservative government. There is a coalition government, and it is one where Liberal Democrats will ensure that policies of the next five years promote fairness and freedom for all in society, and not just those whom the Tories – untrammelled – would have favoured.

Our challenge is to remind the electorate again and again that Labour failed them and that this government, our government, will make things better for them because Lib Dems are a part of it. It will not be easy, as last night demonstrated. But we must do it. The alternative is too awful to imagine.

Tom Papworth remains the parliamentary candidate for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, where he recently failed to unseat an MP who is now one of our new coalition partners.

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  • GeorgeRowan 15th May '10 - 2:59pm

    Hear Hear. Excellently put Tom: if we couldn’t step up to the plate and show ourselves to be a credible and effective party of government and of reform, then we would have been consigned to the (relative) irrelevance of opposition until such a point as we could. Hung parliaments come around once in a generation, and to not have seized the opportunity presented here would have been political suicide.

  • I thought the more telling interview with Simon Hughes was on radio 4’s Any Questions. Roy Hattersley was a far more eloquent voice of the left and Caroline Lucas also pretty good. Hughes sounded painfully torn trying to defend the indefensible especially over nuclear power, swingeing cuts and the authoritarian, self-serving 55% majority proposition. Unless you guys get better at explaining why you are in thrall to the party of Duncan Smith, Cash and Redwood, you are going to loose all credibility long before your five undemocratic years is up.

  • He is angling for a job in the Labour Party, he isn’t a journalist. Even Alastair Campbell was more objective when he worked in the media.

  • “This will make it very unpopular with a public that struggles to accept the fact that the pain of the next five years is payment for the excess of the last ten.”

    The main difficulty with this line is that the ‘excesses of the last ten [years]’ were enjoyed mainly by a different group of people than those who will bear the burden of ‘the pain of the next five years’.

    I agree that a Tory majority would have been worse, and I am pleased to see so many green and civil liberties measures, but I don’t see as much evidence of fairness in the coalition agreement.

  • The programme has to go down as one of the poorest Question Times ever. The bile which was injected by Philips and Hasan persuaded me that we must be right. They had no rational argument to offer. Quite an appalling exhibition of where some elements of our press have got to. I’ve seen several comments from objective viewers about how they now think the Coalition is the only sensible approach.

    What ever happened to analysis and the profession of journalism? Surely a need for grown up journalism to go along with grown up politics….

  • Get used to it folks. You could have let the Tories have a minority government – which was Camerons’s suggestion – but you have now created a majority Tory government carrying out Tory policies. If you think the reaction on QT was rough, just wait till you next have to knock on some doors. You could tell by Simon Hughes’ sick expression how much he enjoyed the prospect .

    Cameron always wanted merchant banker Laws and his Orange Book rightists in his cabinet – and just look how at home they are.. The cabinet is a white male public school club again.

    Thanks for proving what I always told potential tactical voters – never trust a Liberal.

  • A Tory minority government would’ve enacted full Tory policies too, you chump ‘resistor’ – at least this way there are some liberal policies.

    I forgot, you’re Labour, the party of ID cards and 90 day detention. You hate liberalism.

  • Nishma, Harrow 15th May '10 - 5:28pm

    Hi Tom, sorry you didn’t win the RNP seat but you were up against the latest of the Hurd dynasty. If its any consolation you got the greatest lib dem share of the vote from the three Harrow constituencies.

    This is a great article and many of us feel the same way, we fight elections to govern and implement our policies not to sit comfortably heckling from the opposition benches. Now we have to prove we are worth voting for.

    I was also fascinated by Melanie Phillips and Mehdi Hassan on QT … My conclusion is they are scared… Scared that this might actually work and they will have nothing to rant about!

    Come and visit us in Harrow soon!

  • I’m afraid that until the new politics does alter the debate to a more mature level – the best defence is attack! Hughes needs to toughen up a bit and stop trying to apologise, we did what we had to do for the good of the country.

    Against, burn the house down and run away, Labour we can say that rather than punishing the poor and ditching the 10% tax rate – we’re getting the poorest out of tax up to £10k earnings. We can say that we are going to avoid invading any more countries, that whatever our MP’s CV’s we are with Obama braking up the banks rather than being in awe of the City as was Labour, the error which will cause a decade of pain, and that no one will be arrested by police if they disagree at one of our conferences. And that’s just for starters!

    We’re in power. It’s tough! Toughen up!

  • I thought the performance of Mehdi Hasan on QT was simply astonishing. A more obnoxious and bitter performance by a supposedly intelligent progressive I have never seen. If he is the kind of prospect that we can expect from Labour in future I genuinely fear for their future. And Melanie Phillips was her usual poisonous self, but that was to be expected. Hestletine was superb, as usual; and indeed Simon Hughes was also excellent.

  • In the words of Dad’s army “don’t panic.”

    We will get everything including the kitchen sink thrown at us for a while, then calm will come then we will be very unpopular for some time as the govt addresses the economy. We have, perforce to take the long view. The danger will come when some want to cut and run at the first sign of unpopularity. The coalition is more likely to be threatened by events than anything in the agreement. I hope they have good mechanisms in place to deal with the unexpected.

  • Chris Smith 15th May '10 - 8:52pm

    Excellent article Tom. The attack dogs are off the leash unsurprisingly and you are right that we are going to have to get used to it. We are also going to have to get more on “the front foot” as the expression goes, perhaps more quickly than we had anticipated. For example our explanation of the contentious 55% threshold has been poor, or at best low profile, so far. It enhances democracy, if anything, by putting a brake on brazenly opportunistic parties in a coalition and should be a part of fixed term parliaments in order to avoid constant elections, while not protecting the govt from a no confidence vote which remains 50%+1. Not a good soundbite but this needs to be explained to the rabid crowd who think they smell an early whiff of blood. An interesting test for Cameron as well….

  • It has to be said again and again that there’s nothing progressive about Labour.

    1. The Lib Dems are going to have to clear up their economic mess – ie Labour cuts

    2. There’s nothing progressive about high unemployment, having to beg for more of your own money

    3. There was nothing progressive about democratic centralism

    4. There’s nothing progressive about ID cards and all the other authoritarian measures

    5. There’s everything progressive about lowering class sizes so that help can be targetted on the kids that need it

    There are two types of `leftism` in competition – the kind that thinks that all the Government has to do is pull a lever there or `throw a lollipop` there and our kind that understands that the state can only do so much yet we must ensure that opportunities are maximised by giving people more of their own money and lowering those class sizes.

    And before it’s too late we have to give people back more of their power – whether it be within their Council, school or with their vote.

  • What JohnM said!

  • George Kendall 16th May '10 - 3:22pm

    Tom Papworth said: “As an activist, I can already imagine how hard it is going to be to persuade people that the “national interest” required that we support a party that barely more than a week ago we were excoriating. And the painful decisions have yet to be taken. Yet for all that, I do believe that we have done the right thing”

    Very well put. I don’t think we can repeat too often to ourselves how difficult this is going to be. But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t make it a mistake.

    In my opinion, even if this were politically disastrous for us, and in 2015, we were to lose 50% of our seats, it will have been worth it. We’ll have brought in a whole raft of reforms, softened the impact of the necessary cuts on the poor, and introduced a range of other progressive measures.

    If another consequence is that we moderate the culture within the Tory party. Even if that hurts us electorally, that will be a good thing for the country.

    But, in my opinion, the most important thing is that we will have provided a more stable government than would have been possible otherwise. Something that is essential at a time when the world economy is faced with major crises, and the country desperately needs to address such severe debt.

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