Opinion: Federal Policy Committee to the left of me, Tories to the right, where are the Parliamentary Parties? Stuck in the Middle with whom?

Perhaps Stealers Wheel had it right… so it’s time to speak my mind, isn’t it?

I have been following the debate on internal party democracy with first interest, then frustration, and now a degree of numbing disbelief, as the Parliamentary Parties have taken significant flak from a cross-section of Party members and activists.

And yet, from my perspective of a reporter on events in the Lords, a very different story emerges to the increasingly popular one of rogue Parliamentary Parties trashing Liberal Democrat policy in an entirely unaccountable way. But let me tell you a story…

Once upon a time, a small, furry political party lurked in the undergrowth. It was small, but it had big dreams, dreams of changing its world for the better. It was full of ideas, ideas drafted by the brighter amongst its numbers. All it needed was to get rid of those wretched dinosaurs… But it was utterly convinced that only it was in charge, all could be well.

But evolution is a funny thing. The ability to go from lungfish to bird is, as scientists tell us, entirely realistic. However, it doesn’t happen at once, and sometimes, in fact, usually, there’s a transition phase in between. And so, the cute, furry ones came to do a deal with the dinosaurs. In return for not being torn to pieces and eaten, they promised not to eat dinosaur eggs. It was an uneasy arrangement, but both sides promised to stick to it.

The Coalition is a bit like that. As Liberal Democrats, we haven’t held power at Westminster. We aren’t, if truth be told, entirely in it for power – it would be so much easier to join the Conservatives or Labour, depending on where we live. And, as a result, we make policy on the basis that either it can be popular, or it can be good, and sometimes both. However, it is ours, holistic (hopefully) and part of a bigger package – a manifesto, if you like.

In coalition, that doesn’t necessarily work well. Yes, the Conservatives can only get their policies through if we support them in Parliament, but the reverse is true too. All of those good things that we want to do? Entirely reliant on Conservative support. And you know something, they don’t like what’s happening much either. My Conservative near-neighbour, Lord Tebbit, really doesn’t like it that we’re in coalition with them, and he’s not alone.

And so, the two sides negotiate. Sometimes it’s done by megaphone, sometimes by quiet diplomacy, sometimes in the public eye, sometimes behind closed doors. And believe me, it happens. Coalition policy is a combination of Conservative and Liberal Democrat ideas, some good, some not so good. But Liberal Democrats in Parliament cannot simply say no, unless an idea is so obviously barking that no sensible person could accept it. Instead, they work to knock off the rough edges, doing so within the framework of a financial settlement that is very difficult, and making that policy as liberal as they can.

Opposing the difficult decisions is easy, as Labour have demonstrated since handing the keys of a wrecked economy over. But when even they accept that some truly ghastly cuts will have to be made, the question is not how much, but what, to whom, and how many can you save? A Liberal Democrat government would be better, it would make better decisions – if I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t remain a member – but we don’t have one.

Labour are not offering anything fundamentally different. Regional benefit caps even tighter than those currently proposed, a welfare assessment process introduced by them that degrades and terrifies those genuinely vulnerable people within our society – that’s what Labour’s contribution to the debate really is.

So, before you wade in with charges of betrayal, remember this. Our Parliamentary Parties are caught between you and the Conservatives, on one hand wanting to deliver as much of your agenda as possible, but knowing that only so much can be forced down the throats of the Conservatives. They’ll do their best, but they’re human. Our policy is, itself, a compromise, and they’ll get the deals with the Conservatives wrong sometimes. Sometimes, they’ll get a really good deal. And sometimes, they won’t be able to tell the complete story, because to do so will put at risk what they might win in the future.

Trust is a funny thing. In the past, we’ve traditionally distrusted our leaders because, well, they’re our leaders. And now that it really matters, we really don’t trust them. Pity that, because they’re the best chance of delivering Liberal Democrat policy we’ve got…

Mark Valladares is a parish councillor in deepest Suffolk, and is married to a Liberal Democrat parliamentarian.

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59 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Feb '12 - 11:35am


    Once upon a time, a small, furry political party lurked in the undergrowth. It was small, but it had big dreams, dreams of changing its world for the better. It was full of ideas, ideas drafted by the brighter amongst its numbers. All it needed was to get rid of those wretched dinosaurs… But it was utterly convinced that only it was in charge, all could be well.

    But evolution is a funny thing

    It is suprising how many people write “evolution” but mean “intelligent design”. The whole point of the theory of evolution is that the small furry animal does NOT have “dreams”, there is NO consciousness of evolution moving forward to anything, no feature that evolves consciously as a step to another. If one states that there is some sort of guiding force pushing evolution towards some goal, then that is “intelligent design”.

    Ans so, assuming that by “evolution” you actually meant intelligent design

    And so, the cute, furry ones came to do a deal with the dinosaurs. In return for not being torn to pieces and eaten, they promised not to eat dinosaur eggs. It was an uneasy arrangement, but both sides promised to stick to it.

    Well, it looks to me like you are saying we have made a deal not to campaign against the Tories, which I very much hope we haven’t. However, perhaps this is to stretch your analogy too far. Sticking to it, it might have helped if the small furry creature had not puffed itself up to make itself look bigger (but everyone else said it just made itself look silly) and claimed that not eating dinosaur eggs was a fulfillment of its dreams, or at least of 75% of its dreams.

  • Leon Duveen 7th Feb '12 - 11:37am

    Mark, you have it spot on. The trouble is how do we explain it not just within the Party but also to the wider public & especially the media. Many just don’t get that coalition politics are a matter of comprimises on all sides, they are just too used to binary politics.
    I many “borrow” some of this article for a plob I am writting on the same subject (attributted of course) as you have explained it far better than I can

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Feb '12 - 11:53am

    Leon Duveen

    The trouble is how do we explain it not just within the Party but also to the wider public & especially the media.

    The trouble is there are some in the party who are using it as an excuse to push the party in a direction they wanted it to go anyway – towards one which views liberalism as primarily being about endorsement of extreme cash market economics. The result is that they are reluctant to issue the “compromise” message (that is what I was alluding to in the last sentence of my previous message), and also that the compromise message, which I very much accept myself and have strongly argued myself here and elsewhere many times, gets treated with suspicion.

  • David Evans 7th Feb '12 - 12:05pm

    ‘Charges of betrayal’ no. But astonishing repeated misjudgement and on occasions apparent conceit – absolutely.

    We are in a total mess and it is now so bad that unless we call Cameraon’s bluff and vote something down in parliament, we will continue to be seen as closet Tories by the vast majority (90%+) and we will lose all hopes of liberal democracy for decades.

  • I am aware that the parliamentary party is compromising, but ultimately what is the point of internal party democracy if it doesn’t come into play in government? These negotiations involve a group of people hypothetically bound by conference not only ignoring it based on their own hunches but also not even informing it of the negotiation process! It is opaque and it involves a small elite within the power having disproportionate power.

    To a large extent, they cannot be blamed, as there are no alternatives. Put bluntly, the party’s institutions are not fit for the task of government. It should be the case that a semi-permanent conference-like system should be in place, even if the conference is just virtual (i.e. a web conference or something), so that the party can be involved in ongoing negotiations. This could give some more bargaining power as at the bargaining table it could be stated, quite correctly, that the grassroots doesn’t like x,y,z. It would also mean that the parliamentarians would have a good excuse to not get involved in bills which probably shouldn’t’ve made it to the Commons – i.e. the health and social care bill.

    In short, I understand why the parliamentarians are doing this but it does make the whole way the party is set up a bit pointless if the activists don’t get a say when it actually counts. And as Matthew has said, some of the more right-wing members of the party are pushing the party as a whole in a direction largely contrary to the views of the grassroots and voters, which is concerning. So, I hope that some way to involve the wider party will be devised in time for if and when we are next in coalition. Ideally it should be in place by the end of this parliament but that’s probably not very likely to happen!

  • @Simon – I would hope that that camp has more to complain about now than they would under an LD majority! It is never possible to enact policy exactly as one would like but I think there are pretty fantastically big reasons for supporters to be upset over government policy at the moment, and the roles of LD parliamentarians in it.

    It goes without saying that it’s not an actual betrayal, but negotiations between LDs and Tories in government comes across as very opaque – the wider party simply isn’t involved, which is unacceptable and contrary to much of what the party stands for. Perhaps even more importantly, it doesn’t come across as actually producing good results – some fairly insane Tory policy looks as though it will become reality with the LD influence barely softening the edges. At least in the Commons, the Lords, to their credit, have been doing very well recently.

    I am, of course, referring to the so-called reforms of the health and welfare systems. These bills, although not entirely without merit (the universal credit is a good idea for instance) completely fail to address the actual problems facing these systems and threaten to weaken the benefits of the systems currently in place. Now, as far as I’m aware these bills are not referred to in the coalition agreement (the health bill definitely wasn’t), so I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering why they were allowed to get off the ground in the first place.

    Where LD policy does get through, it is more to the whims of the parliamentarians than to the activists who theoretically decide what party policy is. Don’t get me wrong, some good policy has gone through, the rise in the income tax allowance is a great policy for many reasons, but the good policy tends to be what is dear to parliamentarians rather than what is dear to the party as a whole. Would the party as a whole have chosen the Pupil Premium to become policy over all of the policy pushed to the side for this parliament? I doubt it.

    This is all quite a big problem – the parliamentary party is seen to be opaque in its negotations and not getting the kind of results the grassroots want even in areas which, from the outside looking in, should be easy (they may not be in reality of course). It is because both of these things are the case that there is a problem.

    If negotiations were transparent and involved the grassroots, then I’m sure that there would be less people unable to accept the outcome of these negotiations. If the parliamentarians visibly won great victories in negotations then I’m sure there’d be fewer people who would make a noise about the lack of transparency. It is the combination of both that is the issue and it is far less risky to reform the internal party institutions to be more fit for government than to extract a highly visible victory at any cost.

    Also, maybe I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but maybe it’s worth trying to engage with the people who cry “betrayal” rather than (correctly) telling them they are wrong. Their language may be emotive but if you strip out the rhetoric there’s a sound reason why they are upset. And I think the majority actually are people who would have voted for the LDs once and who may do again if the party treats them well.

  • ………………..And so, the cute, furry ones came to do a deal with the dinosaurs. In return for not being torn to pieces and eaten, they promised not to eat dinosaur eggs. It was an uneasy arrangement, but both sides promised to stick to it………….

    And the leaders of the cute furry ones did and, in fact went even further; they left those soft furry ones, who believed that eating dinosaur eggs was their purpose in life, to survive as best they could.
    However, having lured the leaders of the cute furry ones into their world, one day the dinosaurs decided they didn’t need them and, lo and behold, started to tear them to pieces. The leaders went running to those soft furry ones left behind crying, “Help!”……..

    To be continued…

  • “unless an idea is so obviously barking that no sensible person could accept it”

    But some of them are… And surely if you think something’s a silly idea and you want some proper explanations, it doesn’t mean you automatically think there’s a right-wing plot to take over the party, down with the leadership etc. etc. etc. Maybe you actually want the coalition to last. You’d just rather it didn’t do barking things.

  • Leon Duveen 7th Feb '12 - 1:21pm

    There are a number of observations that I think need to be made.
    1) Yes our Parliamentary Party has not been forceful enough in dealing with our wonderful Coalition partners. Maybe it is because many of them do not have experience of local government & dealing with duplicatous & double-dealing Tories in and out of Coalitions there.
    2) We need to get out there and talk up our acheivemnts in Goverrnent because no-one else will. For a party with no modern experience of Government, we have acheived far above expectations both in the policies we have seen through and in those we have stopped.
    3) Not everything has been great and there have been a number of bitter pills to swallow but as long as we can face the electorate and say that are doing a better job of opposing the Tories from within Governemnt than Labour are doing from outside Governemnt, then we need to stick it out.

  • Grammar Police 7th Feb '12 - 1:36pm

    Whilst expressing views similar to those in this article had me labelled a troll on the LDV forums, I stand by the “main thrust” of it.

    @Mark Valladares – “And sometimes, they won’t be able to tell the complete story, because to do so will put at risk what they might win in the future”

    This is a key point, but it’s a difficult one, as how can we (the wider membership) be sure that such discussions happened, and even if they did, how can we be sure that our “wins” are the right ones?

    I am also supportive of using the media to put pressure on the coalition to get more concessions in policy. But this is not an easy thing to do, and if we’re not careful is imo more damaging than helpful. Politically I’m not a million miles away from the Social Liberal Forum (I’m slightly more centrist), but those who express doubts about tactics are labelled closet Tories.

    @Leon Duveen, I think you’re spot on with (2) and (3). I’m less sure about (1) – I think it’s certainly true some times, but I don’t think it’s a universal criticism.

  • LondonLiberal 7th Feb '12 - 1:46pm

    Sorry, Mark, where did it say in the coalition agreement that we would conspire to bring about the slow death of council housing and hand over the countryside to developers? If there was any influence from our side on those policies – all signed off by Stunnell and Cable – it is barely visible. I think now i’d rather the Tories allowed those policies to be the rough, tough rubbish that they are and be completely owned by them, rather than being, maybe, slightly watered down rough bits of rubbish that we now co-own and will be published for co-owning come election-time.

  • Daniel Henry 7th Feb '12 - 5:19pm

    Can’t agree Mark. The grassroots have accepted a lot of unpleasant compromises in all areas of government.

    The requests for changes to the welfare bill were extremely small, asking for small compromises to protect the most vulnerable.

    The fact that the party has failed to win the smallest of such compromises has been VERY disappointing.

  • I must say I agree with Londonliberal. I didn’t vote for the emasculation of the NHS or our system of Social Security and I don’t care if our Parliamentarians have suceeded in watering down these crazy Tory policies I didn’ t vote for them and I am sad that we are associated with them.

  • James Sandbach 7th Feb '12 - 6:48pm

    Was it not our Leader in the Lords and the Justice Minister who when asked what he would do about the legal aid strand of the welfare reform motion (to retain legal aid for benefit cases – contrary to the Legal Aid Bill) passed at the last conference, replied by saying “that was a resolution passed by a few hundred people on a wet saturday afternoon and can’t possibly be binding on Parliamentarians.” An article then appeared from Ld McNally in Libdem News a couple of weeks later arguing that the Party Conference should be abolished and stripped of its policy formation role. He now fronts for the Legal Aid Bill in the Lords which contains many dreadfull measures voted against by the last two Party Conferences, gives no ground, accuses all the formidable legal minds (including lib dem ones like Andrew Phillips et all) in the Lords of being vested interests, and repeats verbatim chunks in debate of a green paper which 95% of respondents completely panned.

    I now take it as red that Conference is irrelevent as far as the coalition’s agenda goes, and the same goes for any policy input and influencing from all the civil society groupings and community interests with which our Party has been traditionaly aligned (the wider liberal family).

    I’d like to believe that our Ministers are working hard behind the scenes to modify tory policies – but where’s the evidence of this(?), especially when we’re cheerleading for them – and treating the independent wisdom of cross-benchers as if they’re an arm of the official opposition, rather than people with far more knowledge of the issues being debated than those at the dispatch box.

    I would not accuse our Parliamentarians & Ministers of betrayal etc,,of course it’s tough dealing with the Tories and in such tough spending review constraints, but I do think that many are guilty of

    – displaying stunning arrogance that paper-thin arguments, and reading from civil service scripts, will not be rumbled by more critical minds, experts and independent analysis

    – seeing their jobs in terms of getting controversial legislation through Parliament unchanged rather than casting a critical eye over these Bills and engaging with critics

    – playing dog whistle politics over deficit reduction – yes we all recognise that cuts are necessary but that does not that these measures can’t be designed in ways which have far less adverse impacts for vulnerable groups

    – not having regard to the longer term political consequences for liberal democrat campaigners and interests

    – not making better use of policy expertise within the Party across a range of subjects

    – drowning in official briefings from civil servants who are trying to please their political (tory) masters and deliver on tory agendas rather than liberal demorcat priorities

    – failing to question policy lines that come from the Treasury (ultimately where all policy roads lead to in Whitehall)

    – not understanding some of the practical mechanics of policy implementation and how different bits of public sector (and voluntary sector) activity work on the ground

    – poor communications within Government and usual departmental silo-policy delivery, so we see different lib dem ministers talking up quite contradictory policies

    – getting “reassurances” out of Tory Ministers on contentious issues, where such reassurances are not worth the air that they are breathed into

    It all leaves the impression that we are not actually partners in Government at all – ie owning and shaping Government agendas, but rather a small group of lobbyists dispersed across Government trying, behind the scenes, trying to get the odd concession eaked out here and there.

    It seems a marked contrast with relations with Labour in the late 90s – where despite smaller numbers, Labour going on to win and govern with a massive majority, and no coalition, we still obtained massive policy wins such as on constitutional reform, human rights policy, improving public services, europe, and even the odd wealth tax etc..several areas where discussions and co-operation between blairites and lidems delivered lasting policy changes with lid dem fingerprints all over them..

    But then again, I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective and perception..

  • Paul Pettinger 7th Feb '12 - 9:28pm

    I trusted Kennedy and Campbell – just saying.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Feb '12 - 9:30pm

    Simon McGrath

    Excellent piece. What is really depressing is the number of Lib Dems whose default mode is ‘we were betrayed’ and who are always willing to believe in elaborate conspiracy theories (see above) about right wing plots to take over the Party.

    Well, there were only three people writing above you, one expressing agreement with the article, one explicitly denying betrayal, and one me. So I suppose you mean me when you write “(see above)”.

    So, Simon, just where am I saying “we were betrayed”? I have not once said that since the coalition was formed. Rather I have fully accepted that the Parliamentary balance after the May 2010 election meant the coalition we have was the only viable government, I have fully accepted that compromises have to be made in such a situation, and actually I don’t recall once having attacked our Parliamentary party for the way it has voted.

    On “elaborate conspiracy theories”, well I don’t think there’s anything elaborate in suggesting that those whose politics is closer to the Conservative Party are happier about the situation than those who are not, and are taking advantage of the situation to help move the party in their direction. One of their number actually wrote a book claiming that Nick Clegg has executed some sort of “coup” in the party – so if you’re going to go around throwing accusations at people for conspiracy theories why not attack the person who wrote this book which carefully explained what can rightly be called a conspiracy, and those in the party who enthusiastically endorsed that book? Anyone who does not want to be accused of a conspiracy should not use words like “coup”.

    My complaing is not that we were “betrayed”, but that poor presentation of our position by the leadership allows the opposition to get away with such claims.

  • We did have a leader who wrote in his diary about how bad he felt because he was deliberately misleading his parliamentary colleages.

    Our current leader also had a leadership campaign committee up and running well before Ming resigned if a recent biography is to be believed.

    Those could be reasons why we mistrust our leaders.

  • LondonLiberal 8th Feb '12 - 9:32am

    @ Mark
    “LondonLiberal,

    Conspiring to bring about the slow death of council housing? So, the introduction of right to buy in the eighties, the transfer of council housing stock to housing associations and the move towards market rents didn’t start that process? Might I suggest that you protest too much?”

    Thanks for your reply. All those things you mention have certainly hurried council housing towards an end, and changed the face of social housing provision profoundly. However, they were done by Conservtaives in majority government. One expects it of them. But to introduce ‘affordable’ rent, which is nothing of the kind, and to bring back right to buy, and short term tenancies, and ‘pay to stay’ and to cut the housing budget by 75% – these were all done, if not by a majority LD govt, then at least with our connivance in a coalition. That is what is so dispiriting. I camapaign for nearly two decades to get us in power, and this limp, neoliberal excuse for a party is what i get?

    No thanks.

  • Andrew Wiseman Caron Lindsay 8th Feb '12 - 10:43am

    Mark,

    Yes, being in Government is a great opportunity, the first in our lifetimes to implement Liberal Democrat policy in a coalition government. Despite everything, this Government is still the best I have known, at UK level anyway.

    Our people in the bubble have got to learn to take the rough with the smooth as well, though. They love to bask in the usually deserved praise they get when they win the fight to raise benefits by the rate of inflation against pressure from the Tories, or invest in mental health services, or give the biggest ever cash rise in the state pension, or abolish child detention for immigration, or raise the tax threshold, but they also have to take the heat when things go the other way.

    If I were a parliamentarian, I would not be sitting there expecting the party to be happy with the decisions made over the Welfare Reform Bill, for example. I might want to think long and hard about how best to explain those decisions to members and develop a strategy a long time in advance how to do it. What has been particularly worrying over the Welfare Reform Bill is that some ministers have adopted a narrative that is way too close to the Tories for my liking. They should be concentrating on how the Welfare Reform Bill is about enabling people, helping them to get up and get on in life, rather than adopt the more strident Tory responsibility line. When Cameron started attacking people on sickness benefits, suggesting that drug addicts and alcoholics were there due to their own fault, and getting the stats wrong, Nick Clegg should have pulled him up on it the way he did about human rights after the riots. Tone is really important and there are times when we’re getting it badly wrong.

    If they continue like that, then there is a huge danger of disconnect with the activists. We’ve seen this happen in Scotland where the parliamentary party pretty much did what it liked from 1999 onwards, even during the years from 2007-11 when we were in opposition. Believe me, it’s not a healthy situation.

    The ESA time limit and other aspects of the WRB were a case in point. Jenny Willott’s article on here the other day was long overdue. Its tone was respectful and understanding of how the party was feeling, but it was the sort of thing that should have been said a long time ago. The WRB proposals came out over a year ago, and our team could, bluntly, have handled the whole thing much better.

    Nobody will ever persuade me that the ESA time limit is the right thing to do, nor the bed tax on housing benefit, nor the benefit cap and I was always going to find those votes hard to deal with. I was never going to leave the party over them, and never will, and nor will my level of activity diminish because of it, but it was acutely painful for me to see us associated with these things. I’m hearing a bit of stuff from parliamentary sources that people shouldn’t voice their criticisms cos it helps the other parties, but there needs to be a bit of understanding here. Retreating
    into a passive aggressive fug won’t help.

    What I am getting fed up with is the tone of some of the debate within the party, with people claiming that other party members aren’t real liberals. This party is a broad church and we need to be a lot more accepting of each other. We have always been able to have robust debate and stick together. Our MPs might not have voted in a way that suited me the other week but they are still the good, decent liberals they always have been. I know that they are doing their best, but they’re not always going to get unconditional adoration from me and nor should they. I’d fear for their egos if that were the case.

    This Party is never going to be one that defers to its leaders, however much those leaders would like that to be the case. It’s one of its best points. There are some worrying changes of tone in the runes that could become destructive if left unchecked. Let’s continue with our robust debate conducted in an atmosphere of respect, talking about ideas and emotions but not attacking each other personally.

  • “We believe in devolving power downwards, so GP commissioning makes sense.”

    Were you saying that at the last election, though, or were you supporting what was in the party manifesto?

  • James Sandbach 8th Feb '12 - 12:03pm

    It would help if there were clear bottom lines, red lines or yellow lines (whatever you want to call them) which lib dem parliamentarians will not cross for Government, and our participation in it, to work – the problem is that there are none beyond the motherhood and apple pie of generalities in the coalition agreement.

    So when we get to the detailed mechanics of deficit reduction strategy – because we’re signed up to the principle, under current arrangements it means swallowing whole Bills which have a deficit reduction imprematuar to them regardless of any nasty tory social engineering measures or skewed illiberal priorities contained therein. This really is very dangerous – voting for state run infanticide can be justified on that basis.

  • I see that Simon McGrath is lobbing around the “conspiracy” smear, the classic last-ditch device to shut down an uncomfortable discussion. Well, it can hardly be me that Simon is referring to, because I have yet to post in this thread.

    For the record, I have only recently expressed disagreement with David Allen that the right-wing partial takeover of our party is the result of an organised conspiracy (I don’t think those were David’s words, but that is what he was hinting at). At least, I don’t regard it as a full-blown conspiracy in the manner of Militant, the School of Economic Science, Exigesis and the Peniel Pentecostal Church, where in each case a secretive organisation or cabal sought to penetrate and work within and/or influence an established political party. In each example, one can point to a specific date in the calendar when the entry took place, and the entryists acted in consort and spoke from the very same script. The right-wing partial takeover of the Liberal Democrats is quite a different beast. It has involved different groups of personalities in its various stages and has never appeared, at least, to be under the control of an external puppet-master. In its early stage, the move to the right was associated with Mark Oaten, who joined the SDP in 1981, was briefly an Owenite, and became a Lib Dem MP in 1997, a full eight years before Nick Clegg. If he was an entryist stricto senso, he spent a devlishly long time sleeping. Jeremy Browne, who is often considered to be the No 2 or No 3 in the right-wing cabal, joined the party at Nottingham University in the early 1990s, long before Nick Clegg. There is nothing remotely analogous to the Revolutionary Socialist League (Militant), the School of Economic Science, Exigesis and the Peniel Pentecostal Church, which are all examples of proven conspiracy fact (not theory).

    David is, of course, right when he says that a small minority of leading personalities has assumed a dominant position in the party, with the support of the right-wing media and probably City money, and is now evidently calling most of the tunes. I say that the main reason for this is the weakness, lack of cohesiveness and wishy-washyness of the party’s mainstream (plus Royal Mail). But I may be wrong, and am happy to be horrified.

    I call the right-wing takeover “partial” because the right has still failed to get mastery of the party’s committees and internal policy making processes, and it is no more able to kick the likes of Tony Greaves out of the picture than David Steel was. But takeover there has been. In the 1980s, Michael Meadowcroft wrote an article in “Marxism Today” in which he said that he was “anti-capitalist”. Was he hauled over the coals for betraying the party’s ancient and inherent commitment to the unrestricted free market? Er, no. He was elected Party President the following year. See how far we have come? We now have LDV littered with the opinions of free market fundamentalists who like to give the impression that the Liberal Democrats is and always has been their kind of party.

    Is the right-wing partial takeover to blame for the propping up of Cameron’s Tory government? No. The party’s left (including Tony Greaves and Matthew Huntbach) appears to support this. That is the enduring mystery that haunts our party.

  • Sue Doughty 8th Feb '12 - 7:27pm

    I really don’t think it’s helpful saying that Jenny’s type of response should have happened a long time ago. It’s a huge credit to both George and to Jenny that they have had this dialogue and I would hate to see it wither because some people didn’t like it.

    I also don’t think that personal criticism has any place in this debate, as I generally stop reading as soon as it starts. In particular I have to say that most women switch off the moment that this gets into the personal. That’s just the way it is.

    Mark, you have had the courage to put this up and to encourage debate. I think that James has, however got to the nub of the problem. We must not forget that we were not handed a rule book when we went into coalition, and given the situation we are facing for the period ahead of the next election it would seem to me that it is vital that we do have red, yellow and green lines. Additionally do remember that our core team is incredibly tiny and the more practical support we can give the better.

  • Tony Greaves 8th Feb '12 - 10:06pm

    Sorry I have not read through all this stuff – I stopped when Mark posted umpteen ciomments justifying his own comments

    Mark – if you want to be a Lords reporter just report what happens and let other people comment. Otherwise it’s an agenda not a report – sorry.

    Tony Greaves

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Feb '12 - 10:19pm

    Mark Valladares

    And let’s start with Matthew… Well, thanks for being so astonishingly patronising. Yes, I understand the difference between evolution and intelligent design, but am entirely pleased that I’ve never watched a stand-up comedian in your company. The dinosaur/furry animal story is a narrative device, not science. I don’t know, you try to entertain…

    I felt your analogy was neither amusing nor helpful. It just did not work for me as any sort of explanation of the dilemma the Liberal Democrats were in following the May 2010 election results. I actually had a few other things in mind about why it was such a bad and indeed damaging analogy, but I write too much anyhow, so I dropped them in what I did write.

    On the evolution thing, well, yes, I know you meant it light-heartedly, but recall just right now there is an election going on in what is perhaps still the most powerful country in the world where stupid ideas about evolution are a big factor. Evolution is frequently spoken about as if it is as you put it in your humorous analogy, and I actually think this popular conception is something which needs challenging. It’s the same way as racism and sexism in humour needs challenging – the comic may say it wasn’t meant seriously, lighten up, can’t you take a joke? – but if even light-hearted use of stereotypical misbeliefs serves to continue those misbeliefs in common currency, we ought to be on our guard to avoid them.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Feb '12 - 10:26pm

    Simon Banks

    Still, you did, so let me disagree and say that the precise meaning of evolution is itself disputed ground and the Dawkins line is not, as it were, gospel.

    I am not saying it is, actually I am a practicising Roman Catholic and I detest Dawkins. The position of the RC Church is that there is no conflict between our faith and evolution. One thing that worries me enormously is to see the way that a comobination of the evangelical political right in the USA and anti-religious bigots like Dawkins have led to a revival of anti-evolution rhetoric amongst some RCs – see Santorum and Gingrich in the US elections right now.

    My position is that creationists are in fact atheists, with their endorsement of creationism just a pretence they put up for themselves to hide it. I could explain further, but this is not the place for it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Feb '12 - 10:56pm

    Sesenco

    Is the right-wing partial takeover to blame for the propping up of Cameron’s Tory government? No. The party’s left (including Tony Greaves and Matthew Huntbach) appears to support this. That is the enduring mystery that haunts our party.

    In 2010 the argument was that if we had not gone into coalition there would have been a minority Tory government, which would have engineered things to win an outright majority in another general election in a year at most. In 2011 it is because I am a democrat and it is what the people voted for. Any doubt about that was ended by the AV referendum. The “No” campaign put the case “the current electoral system is a good thing because it distorts representation in favour of the biggest party and against third parties”. Although 2010 didn’t quite give the Tories a majority, the distortion which the “No” campaign think is such a good thing was enough to rule out anything but a Tory government – and the people voted by 2 to 1 in favour of it. So far as I am concerned anyone who voted “No” in the referendum effect voted for THIS government the one we have now – they destroyed the biggest argument against it which was that it is not based on fair representation of the parties. The only legitimate criticism anyone who voted “No” could make of the Liberal Democrats is that they are stopping the Tories doing what the Tories want to do – since the logic of the “No” campaign was that it is better that all power should go to one party even if that party got nowhere near half the votes. So, it seems to me, the more the Liberal Democrats “prop up” the Conservatives, the more they are giving the people of this country what they voted for when they voted by 2 to 1 against the first step towards electoral reform.

    Of course, I would like our party leadership to be explaining it in this way, rather than giving the impression it was an ideological coming together of minds (as a few did, and others let happen by their silence when that line was used) or because of a delight in “power” (as all this “we should own the coalition” and “75% of our manifesto implemented” and much other nonsense coming from the top gets read as by most people outside our party).

    Mark Valladares supposing he is making some great contribution by his laboured analogy annoys me, because it shouldn’t be needed. I have myself been defending the formation of the coalition and attacking the “you have sold out by propping up the Tories” crowd since May 2010. I’ve done it again and again in Liberal Democrat Voice, and I’ve done it in the national press – I think mine is actually the only letter the Guardian has ever published clearly taking that line, and is most certainly the only letter the Times Higher Education ever published taking that line. There’s a lot similar I’ve written that were never published – see how I have defended this party, every time I see some stupid “Liberal Democrats propping up the Tories” comment anywhere in the media as if we somehow could have implemented a 100% Liberal Democrat government or even a working LibDem-Labour coalition but chose not to, I write a “letter to the editor” explaining the real position – it was either minority Tory government and majority Tory government shortly after, or what we have now. And my thanks for this – well, see what Simon McGrath wrote about me.

    Now you can see, I defend the party DESPITE my position on its current leadership (in case anyone hadn’t noticed, I am not a great fan of it). If it had any sense, any competence, it would see how valuable it is to have that sort of defence coming from people who find it very hard to swallow what we have to in the current situation, who aren’t natural “liberals and conservatives share much in common, particularly adoration of free market economics” types. But oh no, they continue to insult the left of the party, they continue to promote only their ideological soul-mates, they continue to give the impression they wish we’d drop out an leave the party to them and their super-rich backers (whether directly or through their tame think tanks).

  • David Evans 8th Feb '12 - 11:53pm

    @Mark,
    ” ‘Astonishing repeated misjudgement and apparent conceit’. Well, two can make that accusation. Misjudgement by whom, exactly? Our leadership, an entire Parliamentary Party, both of our Parliamentary Parties? I’m attempting to suggest that there is a possibility that they might be doing the best with what they have, or at least giving it their best shot.”
    Mark, If this is the best they can do with what they have, they shouldn’t have agreed to go into government. Initially, the down side was massively underestimated, and no thought given to what could go wrong. Now we are 800 Councillors down, another 400+ next time and people are still trying to justify what will become an absolute catastrophe, if the leadership don’t learn from their massive mistakes and change rapidly.

    They were the ones who came out with an agreement with more holes in it than a Swiss Cheese, including such triumphs of judgement as allowing Eric Pickles to be the main minister over local government. What did he do first? Front load cuts on our one area of real strength, local government. Also volunteering one of our guys to be the Chief Secretary to the Treasury or ‘bad news scapegoat’ as the Conservatives call it.

    There were lots of guides available in local government, just not the sort listened to by the leadership; lots of practical advice to be had, that wasn’t looked for; and our Parliamentarians have had to struggle with lost researchers due to lost finances, and an idea that our status should reflect the number of MPs we have, not the votes we received, leading of course to an absolute monopoly of the positions of real power being given to the Tories. There are some here who don’t seem to get that the problems are self inflicted.

  • Mark

    You do realise, don’t you, that the Tories are the enemies of the Lib Dems, and that they have now succeeded in manoeuvring them into a position where they can be – to all intents and purposes – annihilated at the next election?

    If the party wants to have any significant continued existence, it needs to start doing something very different very soon.

    [Go on – delete this comment. You spend nearly all your time doing Cameron’s bloody work for him anyway. You ought to be ashamed.]

  • Matthew Huntbach,

    “In 2010 the argument was that if we had not gone into coalition there would have been a minority Tory government, which would have engineered things to win an outright majority in another general election in a year at most.”

    I know this has been said ad nauseam and has never really been challenged by anyone other than myself, but it is at best highly doubtful. If David Cameron had believed what you are saying, then surely he would have called that second general election as soon as he could and obtained the majority that you think he would have been so certain to get? But he didn’t, did he? Rather, he persuaded the Liberal Democrats to prop his government up and pursue right-wing policies such as the generation of mass unemployment and the stealth privatisation of the NHS – with Liberal Democrat support, which you say our party is obliged to give.

    Your analysis of the AV referendum may have some logic in it, but I don’t think it is how voters perceived it at the time. The reason the “Yes” campaign lost so badly was (1) the perception that it was a sop to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, (2) the failure of the Labour Party to get behind it and (3) a background fear of change. The leadership actually traded a reduction in the number of MPs and gerrymandered boundaries for this ridiculous referendum which the right was never gong to allow us to win (at least, not without Labour support). What does that say for the competence and judgment of our leadership, leaving aside any allegations of treachery?

  • @ Mark

    “Fine, I’m just trying to express a view that the criticism might be a bit harsh. You’re entitled to a view. So am I, and we can agree to differ. But as very few people predicted what would happen in the months after May 2010, suggesting now that we shouldn’t have gone into coalition on the basis of subsequent performance is a mite quirky. Yes, there have been mistakes – pick one, everybody has their ‘favourite’, but who was to know that at the time?”

    “Harsh?” Mark, have you still no idea of the cataclysm the party is facing because of the appalling mismanagement of our involvement in the coalition? We elect leadership because we expect them to show foresight and they clearly didn’t have a clue what was going on around them. They clearly hadn’t looked at what went wrong in our previous forays into this area, whether it be the Lib Lab pact, or our disastrous involvement in the National government in the 1930s.

    “A mite quirky?” more ‘totally and utterly objective’ and as for “But as very few people predicted …” the leadership shouldn’t have got carried away with their excitement on being spoken to by the Tories, should have consulted much more widely than just with those easily impressed and as a result would have known what was a likely outcome and planned for it. In business, it’s called scenario planning and no-one going into such vital negotiations would not have one.

    Finally “Yes, there have been mistakes – pick one, everybody has their ‘favourite’,” And here, at last, we have an acknowledgement from you of the problem. There are so many mistakes to choose from. I think the only thing we didn’t know at the time was how bad the leadership’s judgement would be, not just going into coalition, but over a prolonged and still continuing period and we still seem nowhere near improving. The best we can say is that it doesn’t seem to be getting worse.

    Anyone for another 30+ years in opposition?

  • David Evans 11th Feb '12 - 3:27pm

    Mark,

    I’m sorry, but you are trotting out all the tired old mechanisms to hide the leadership’s failure to understand the problem. First pretend that I am blaming the party for not identifying in the leadership’s failure – Wrong. We are in a mess and one thing that is preventing the leadership from changing is that so many people (sadly including yourself) are protecting it from the sad truth. If it doesn’t realize how badly it is doing and sadly having lots of supporters continually trying to change the argument in order to protect them from it only delays them realizing what is going wrong.

    And I can’t help feeling that any lessons to be drawn from the National Government or the Lib-Lab Pact would have been somewhat limited in their applicability. The media environment, the impact and immediacy of global markets, the attitude of the public towards politicians, all of these make for a very different politics to those of the 1930′s or the 1970′s.”

    Secondly Mark, the one thing you learn from the past is that most people do not want to learn from the past. Politics is about people’s perceptions of honesty, ability, values etc, leading to a view as to whether a party is fit to receive your support. The risks and problems are the same, it’s the tools and mechanisms you can use or that can be used against you that are different. We haven’t been doing this well enough.

    “One thing hasn’t changed though, in that for any coalition to work, you need to have people who believe that they can make the relationship work for long enough to deliver an agreed programme. If they’re wrong in that belief, it will fail soon enough.”

    Key to this is the programme’s fitness for purpose and the abilities and values those implementing it. The prime question here is ‘Will it help deliver liberal democracy?’ Pickles has been allowed to implement cuts that are totally destroying our areas of strength. And we just accepted it. Now they are proposing localizing council tax benefit – I.e. a 10% cut in benefit and getting local authorities to take the blame. Unless people like you get those at the top to actually accept this as a real problem, our party will continue to implode and our values will disappear. As I said earlier the “idea that our status should reflect the number of MPs we have, not the votes we received, leading of course to an absolute monopoly of the positions of real power being given to the Tories,” was a massive show of weakness.

    “And David, if it all goes hopelessly wrong, and we get slaughtered in 2015, I’ll acknowledge that you knew far more than I did, and leave the Party to your care…”

    Now what do you mean by slaughtered and by this do you mean you will leave the party? The problems we will face as a result of the coalition (unless we change quickly) will continue for much longer than 2015, but incumbency may save more seats than we would otherwise manage. However, that can’t go on for ever. What we need then is an acceptance from everyone that they screwed up and a commitment to stay the course to put things right. My mum and dad were with the liberals all the way through the bad years of the 40s and 50s through to the 1980s. It will take many more like them to see us through this time. I hope you will be there alongside the rest of us.

    Of course if you are right and we manage to deliver a stonking success in 2015 with increased MPs from 2010, increased councilors over 2010, more members and greater support all round, I will agree you and Nick were right all along. I wouldn’t hold my breath for Nick’s doubling the number of our MPs in 2015 though!

    David

  • David Evans 13th Feb '12 - 4:07pm

    Mark, Thanks for the courteous response.

    “At Birmingham in May 2010, I demonstrated my faith in the competence of our leadership by endorsing their decision to form a coalition with the Tories. That’s because I believed that they had sufficient skill and nous to obtain the best deal they could, and to deliver in government.
    You appear to believe that I was wrong to do so. Im not sure that you have even tried to explain how I might have known that I was wrong to do so then.“

    I think you are misinterpreting my point – I know that not going into coalition would have almost certainly reflected very badly on us; but the agreement we negotiated was poor and our management of the ongoing situation has been no better. We went for an AV referendum (a very bad decision) rather than STV in local councils only as a definite. Overestimating our chances of a big win and giving the power in the Tories re ministers etc. The membership had to go with this at conference, because the leadership at the time were saying this is a good deal. But it wasn’t and we all know why – AV, Tuition fees, Short money, Ministerial posts etc etc.

    “And if we get slaughtered in 2015, and I think that there will be a generally accepted sense of what would represent that if it does happen, I’d retreat to row Z of the Party. I’d still be a member – I’ve been one since 1984 – but it might be more appropriate for others to hold the reins. My life does not revolve around being something in the Party, especially these days.”

    Hopefully not, but I hope you would be in Row C at least – determined, committed activist, working as hard as ever but now behind the scenes to rebuild for the next generation. They will need us.

    “It’s interesting, because I’ve never said that 2015 will be a triumph for liberal democracy, as you suggest. I actually don’t know what the outcome will be, although I’m amongst the majority of Liberal Democrat Voice readers who think that the Coalition will hurt us then, hardly a rose-tinted view.”

    Apologies here – I interpreted your “And David, if it all goes hopelessly wrong, and we get slaughtered in 2015,” as meaning you didn’t think it would all go hopelessly wrong, but were one of the ‘It will all work out right on the night’ brigade. But if you are in the it will be worse for us in 2015 than in 2010 group like me, I do feel we all need to put a lot more pressure on those we can influence to get them to pass on the message on the need to improve. Because if we don’t it will go badly wrong.

    “Perhaps we ought to move on?”

    Agreed – All the best.

    David

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