Opinion: self-denying … and self-defeating?

It may have been a “miserable little compromise” back in April but AV would now appear to be the big prize. The coalition has to hold together, whatever the cost, at least long enough to allow a vote on electoral reform. But will the way we get from here to there impact significantly upon what happens when we get there?

Only those on the inside know what’s actually happening, but there are many competing readings of how things are playing out coalition-wise.

The most challenging reading for many Lib Dems is that the displays of unity between the coalition partners are genuine: the leadership has bought in to a right wing Tory agenda which could amount to the destruction of the achievements of the welfare state. Dark mutterings are rife about orange (book) Tories. Of leaders using the coalition as a pretext to ignore the party and jettison policy commitments they never agreed with in the first place. Some public pronouncements by the leadership don’t help to dispel these fears. Reports of LibDems in government “going native” can only fuel this position.

A more comforting reading might be that in private there are fierce battles being fought across clear ideological divides. But LibDems are having to hold the coalition line in public for the good of the country. There is also the possibility that disowning the agenda will come at an electoral price in 2015, if the Tories’ shock therapy actually works. Then the LibDems would not be able to claim any credit. Others have queried whether this approach, based on a unified front above all else, is self-evidently desirable.

An alternative reading is that the Lib Dems in government are denying themselves opportunities for dissent and differentiation from the Tories not so much for the good of the country but to hold the coalition together for long enough to achieve the prize of electoral reform. Conceding ground or agreeing to a range of measures that will be unpopular with sizeable portions of the electorate – from capping HB to doubling tuition fees to the horrors of the CSR – will be a price worth paying if it delivers significant constitutional change.

My question is whether these self-denying strategies are likely to pay off politically. Or might they be self-defeating?

What will be in play when we get as far as a vote on AV?

On the one side, we have a technical change to electoral rules that will be hard to sell, will be perceived as more likely to deliver coalition government, and our coalition “partners” will feel little compunction in campaigning against.

On the other side, the electorate’s only experience of coalition government. This entails a government “of millionaires” administering a massive fiscal shock in the knowledge that it will reduce the living standards of many, slash frontline services, and massively increase unemployment. The hope is for a medium term recovery in economic prospects: but that is still going to be a gleam in the Chancellor’s eye come referendum time.

These conditions are not, let us say, entirely propitious for delivering voting reform. The economic circumstances mean that whoever was in power now would be faced with some very tough and unpopular choices.

Could it be the party’s strategy of self-denial has made winning the AV game considerably more challenging? The Lib Dems could be seen as complicit with and/or no better than the Tories, so what is the point of changing the electoral system in a way that, primarily, increases the chances of the LibDems getting somewhere near power again? Voting down AV could be seen as sufficient punishment for the party’s ‘treachery’ in failing to deliver on its distinctive agenda, even though that would be impossible as a junior partner in the coalition.

It may be that by focusing on the long game – what credit can or can’t be claimed come 2015 – the party has not played its cards in a way that maximises the chances of success with AV in the shorter term. The worse case scenario would be that the AV vote is lost and the economy is still in the doldrums in 2015, so there is no credit to be had. That possibility can’t realistically be discounted.

This makes the issue of how the Lib Dems position themselves in relation to the coalition agenda ever more pressing. A pessimist might say it’s too late. The damage has already been done. An optimist might say that there is still time to demonstrate more clearly to the electorate what difference the LibDems have made to government. And why giving the party a greater chance of having a meaningful input into government would be a good outcome for all.

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25 Comments

  • Anthony Aloysius St 21st Oct '10 - 6:02pm

    “The Lib Dems could be seen as complicit with and/or no better than the Tories, so what is the point of changing the electoral system in a way that, primarily, increases the chances of the LibDems getting somewhere near power again?”

    Absolutely. That’s exactly the way I feel just now.

    And I think it is already too late. There has been a progressive movement away from support for AV in opinion polls – at the same time as Lib Dem support has been dropping – over the last few months. I’d be surprised if it didn’t continue as the impact of these cuts starts to sink in.

  • There’s another alternative reading: the Nick Clegg wants to convince the public that coalition and pluralistic politics in general can work. Before the election all we heard was “hung parliament = shambles and weak government”. And since the formation of the coalition, the media have been panting for stories of splits. 

    If we pick public fights with the Tories this early in the parliament, those “coalitions don’t work” headlines will return with avengeance, and the question the public will ask come the referendum will be “do we really want more hung parliaments which seem to just result in endless bickering?”.

    Nick has always had a deep contempt for our bipolar and combative political culture, and is a big admirer of the more pluralistic, business-like politics found on the continent. I believe that’s his main object in engineering both the coalition and our current united front approach to it – to demonstrate that it can work in Britain.

    I’m not saying that this strategy will necessarily be successful. The economic situation makes it probably the worst possible time to try and convince the public of the benefits of pluralistic government, when all most people will notice is that same government slashing their jobs and benefits. But I think it’s the strategy with the greatest chance of success – in fact IMO the only chance of success.

    I suspect there’s another calculation in Nick’s mind too, which is that publicly buying in to coalition policy and taking joint ownership of the cuts gives him more leverage in private. Look at the reports of him intervening to stop over-16s child benefit being scrapped.

    We were dealt an incredibly difficult hand in May. But I don’t really see how we could play it any better – refusing to enter government would’ve made us look ridiculous (not to mention pointless), coalition with Labour was unfeasible and would’ve entailed a host of other equally damaging compromises, and publicly arguing with our coalition partners would convince a sceptical public that the scare stories were right and coalitions really don’t work. I’m not doing cartwheels about the situation, but what else, realistically, could we have done or be doing differently?

  • For me personally, I was always in Favour of the AV.

    But to be totally honest I would also have voted Labour as my 1st Choice, Liberals as my 2nd and then Greens as my 3rd.

    I would never give my Vote to the Tories as I remember what it was like in the 80’s and 90’s under a Tory Government, and they have already shown that they are en- route to take us there again.

    I was always conscience that AV could give us more coalition governments, but I always hoped that would mean a Lib/Lab Coalition.

    I never thought in a million years that Liberals would jump into bed with the Tories, Purely because TRUE LIBERAL Democrats and their values where poles apart from the Tory Fat cats.

    Since witnessing this Coalition Government and how Liberal Democrats have so quickly abandoned their Core beliefs, and their values.

    As it stands There is no way I will risk voting for AV in the referendum come May.

    There is no way I would risk this kind of Government happening again.

    Liberal Democrats would have to do something pretty drastic between now and then, and start showing me they where true Liberals rather than being bullied into submission my the Tories, For me to even contemplate changing my mind.

    I am sure many others feel the same

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Oct '10 - 7:34pm

    I was always conscience that AV could give us more coalition governments, but I always hoped that would mean a Lib/Lab Coalition.

    I never thought in a million years that Liberals would jump into bed with the Tories, Purely because TRUE LIBERAL Democrats and their values where poles apart from the Tory Fat cats.

    Yes, well, I never thought there was any chance of a coalition with Labour, because their authoritarian madness is pretty much exactly the opposite of Liberal values.

    That’s the choice we had at the last election: greed or insanity.

  • @ Andrew Suffield
    “Yes, well, I never thought there was any chance of a coalition with Labour, because their authoritarian madness is pretty much exactly the opposite of Liberal values.
    That’s the choice we had at the last election: greed or insanity.”

    So you chose both.

  • You’re deluded if you think you’ll get away with less or even equal blame for the coming storm than the Tories. The Tories are just doing what Tories do, no one expected any less (or more) of them.

    I for one will be voting against AV because the prospect of bringing down the coalition and hopefully burying Clegg is far more enticing than AV is. As one of those who voted for Clegg in the leadership election just a short couple of years ago I say that with sadness rather than relish.

  • 6.8 million people voted Liberal Democrats 23% of the Votes

    8.6 Million Voted Labour with 29% of the Votes

    10.7 million Voted Conserv 36.1% of the Votes

    It is fair to say then that based on the Election Manifesto’s, Election Promises and How each party campaigned on how the Cut’s should happen.
    52% of the public supported Labour and Liberal Democrats Proposals, to make cuts, Just not as fast or as Deep.
    Compared to 36.1% of the Public who where in Favour of Conservatives Savage Cut’s.

    I think it is also fair to say that a significant proportion of the population where disillusioned with labour and so gave their support to the Liberal Democrats, in the hope and promises of something Different.

    However those people who did vote for Liberal Democrats, clearly where not in favour of the Tories polices and never Imagined for 1 second that they would end up with the Government we have and the Fat Cat polices that are being rushed through and forced upon us all.

    I think it is fairly obvious on that basis alone, that all former Labour Supporters (Who Gave there vote to LIbs at the Last Election) Will not in a million years now vote in favour of AV at the referendum.

    They never voted for the Policies that are being forced upon us now, which are being propped up and supported by Liberal Democrat MP’s.

    How on Earth can you think the British Public would ever trust Liberal Democrats again and support there call for AV

  • Do the Lib Dem party really think that in any referendum for AV, that the vote will be a clear positive result in favour of AV…
    Sadly, in the current climate your party is showing why the people of this country should not vote in favour…
    AV had an uphill struggle to start with, and all those who thought that coalition governments could work or be good for the UK have now had a shock to the system, I actually think it will be a complete waste of time and money, but if there is a referendum I will have to go and vote, and I will encourage all who I know to go and vote, I will also encourage them to vote against AV.

    I was one of those who thought it would be good for the people, and the country; now I believe it would be very bad for the country as a whole, and thank you for showing us the people why it would be such a poor choice.

    I think the party as you know it now, as you convinced the public to support you now, they will remember the deceit for many generations, and that will cost you very much, I think you could number in single figures of MPs after the next election.

    Never would I have thought that the Lib Dem party would be sold for AV, or the thirst for power, thirty pieces of silver would be a fairer price…

  • What i think is sad is how many fellow Lib Dem activists are willing to sacrifice the vulnerable in society to gain a half-hearted reform under AV. To say I am disgusted is an understatement. The policies of this government are the most regressive for decades. There’s dealing with the deficit and there’s pushing through virtually irreversible reforms to the welfare state which are driven by a nasty, selfish, out of touch, Tory right wing,

    Why oh why are we signed up to this???

    A Lib Dem Councillor I know tweeted “how can Labour lecture us about broken election promises?”. But weren’t we supposed to be different?

  • Lisa Ansell 22nd Oct '10 - 1:09am

    Wasn’t it PR the Lib Dems were after? When did this miserable little compromise come about? Sacrifice the welfare state, and a generation for a miserable little compromise. Lovely. I see the convoluted logic is out. Is definitely likely that Clegg is playing a ‘subtle’ game. Subtle not what I would call it.

  • MIght be early to be a doomsayer, but I simply cannot see how we are going to win an AV referendum in the middle of the cuts, possibly against our Coalition partners and the official opposition, while so much of the electorate think that our approach to coalition means we have abandoned our principles. Don’t see how we make that work.

  • “the destruction of the achievements of the welfare state”

    If what Nick Clegg is saying today in the Guardian is true – full quotation below ***- this seems somewhat over the top. Clegg is saying that at the end of the budget cuts, the country will spend a larger share of its national income on “the state” that it did when Labout came to power in 1997.

    So what are the facts? In the fiscal year 2009-2010, (we are told by the Institute for Fiscal Studies: see http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/oct/18/historic-government-spending-area#data) it was about 47.8% of GNP. It was about 38.2% in 1997-8, and remained at or below that level for the first few years of Blair’s govenment. It increased to 40.7% in 2007-2008 (ie before the credit crunch). It is only in credit crunch years/years of Gordon Brown’s premiership (2008-9 and 2009-10) that there was a massive increase – to 43.9% and 47.8% respectively. Clearly the massive increase in the state’s share of GNP was some combination of:

    a) a massive increase in expenditure driven by a change in government’s approach following Bowrn’s becoming prime minister; and/or

    b) the credit crunch.

    if the coallition’s plans follow through, the state will take 39.8% in 2015-16.

    I am sure some people will say that a 39.8% share of national income to the state is way too little. Are they right, on Liberal principles?

    An important Liberal principle is sancity of property. Taxation is, at base, convescation of a citizen’s private property, which clearly should not take place without good reason. SInce taxation is a good thing (enabling protection of the weak, education, public health care, public defence etc,) a balance has to be struck.

    Another important Liberal pinciple that the state must not be excessively powerful, and should not exercise excessive control over people’s lives. One way of controlling the state is for it not to have excessive amounts of money.

    To be absoutely clear, this is not to say that any state expendiutre is bad, and should be as low as possible. Liberal principles also require the state to champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, and prevent enslavement by poverty, ignorance or conformity; and that will require public expenditure. What is true is that exessive public expenditure is just as illiberal as insufficent public expenditure. And, leaving aside the morality and politics, the financal reality is that money spent on paying debt on interest is wasted; and that if you don’t pay your debts, retribution awaits.

    ***What Nick Clegg said: “We are going to spend 5% more of national income on the state at the end of this process that Tony Blair and Gordon [Brown] were in 1997. We are going to employ 200,000 more people in the public sector at the end of this process.”

  • LibDems need to take a huge step back and try to view the situation from eyes other than LibDem supporters. That way they might actually see the peril the LibDem party faces.

    I am a disallusioned Labour party voter,. I detested Blair and his mockeries. Like many I sought a new politcal home. Like many I looked to the LD party. Like many , suddenly I cannot see the join where Conservative ends and LD commences. Over a hundred year period the Liberal, and thence LD party has been accused of being undefined, having little character, little impact in terms of distinct ‘brand’ image. This was the time when the LD’s might have made serious gains. What have we seen ?…

    We have winessed a sell out where any Conservative converts to libdem’ism ( however few that may be) have seen little real result in switching horses. Why should they bother breaking in a new orange conservative party when the old blue one is clinging on.
    What of the many labour malcontents , like myself. Well , I detest betrayal. That is why I became disatisfied with socalled NewLabour. They were becoming indistinguishable from the Tories ( that is a huge clue right there). The breaking point for me was the imposition of student fees, and declarations that increases would be furthered.
    Their policy of imposing fee-debt of young people merely seeking to complete their education, and enhance the skills pools available to society, was the final straw. Thatcher’s Americanisation of Britain , the imposition of business ethic into all walks of life, suddenly seemed an imperative for the NewLabour ‘Bliars’ and their ilk.
    Apart from anything else such policy has been seen to fail miserably. It has been downhill since the 70”s. Disagree ? then why are we paying parking fees in hospitals ?

    I am the product of a mining background, thoroughly working class origins. I would not have been able to attend university at all if fees had been in place. The types of crippling increases Clegg and co are apparently ready to kowtow to would have meant most of my friends, and I , would have been denied access to any higher ‘ed.

    I saw a party signing a pledge to oppose any increases in student fees. I saw a party state in its manifesto they would erradicate them. I saw a party offering me a more ethical base, a more responsible view of our future, a more fair and balanced understanding of how privilege and wealth creates a buffer that absorbs the greatest shocks of economic downturns. I saw a party offering a sense of the politics I approve of.

    What did we get… A coalition where the the LibDem appears to have sold its soul. Now you may feel your libDem sensibilities to be a little bruised and badly done to by my saying that. Tough, that’s what I see your leadership doing, they are selling out to a party they told me they were not even vaguely aligned with.
    In few months the LiibDem partty has disapeared , been subsumed.
    Willingly .

    The issue libdem supporters face is not whether they should support the current leadership , but whether they want their party to survive.
    When the next election comes LD’s will not benefit from voting reform. The reality is that the labour party will oppose it en masse, and significant numbers of the tory right will also oppose it. Ignore Tory pledges to apply whips, they will decide it is so fundementally constitutionally far reaching the vote must be one of conscience. ( or , the tory right will vote reform down anyway as they know the party will let the defiance slide as they really don’t want AV , PR, or anything else to upset things) ..( equally, what if the tories have Pledged to support it. They are seeing that Pledges mean damn all to LibDems anyway, so why would they worry about smashing a few.) Result , libdems severly damaged.

    If it goes to Referendum, this betrayed voter will not be voting on electoral reform , I will be voting to punish LibDems for their treachery. You can guarantee every person with a soupcon of labour sentiment will do the same, every current labour malcontent will be doing the same , every labour convert or almost convert seduced by libdem policies to be betrayed,will vote against. . It is a given that tories will vote against it en masse.
    Result…Cameron can shrug , smirk , and tell libdems sorry , the public says no (cough).

    As my 17year old daughter asked when she and some friends were discussing the situation …
    ” God dad , do the LD’s reallise they are so screwed “. She went on to explain that she and her friends are the most likely ground to produce LD voters, as they are Uni ‘fodder. She added that her elder sister , at uni now, and her friends were the same material. She recognised that disaffected labour voters like me would not only return , reluctantly , to labour, but would actively oppose , and campaign against any action or measure that might benefit the LibDem party.
    Why , because she knows I ,and those like me, dislike being betrayed, lied to and conned. That is why we turned away from the ‘Bliarites’.
    My 17 year old daughter knows that by supporting increases in fees, or allowing them , the LD’s will be creating a situation where many graduates will be unable to pay off loans and buy a home , and thus will be penalised to become renters. This might well benefit a private , conservative biased, landlord culture. However , she knows it will not benefit herself , or the libdem’s whom she , and her friends, are intent on discarding as amoral trollops.

    Will someone please remind the leadeship that the most fertile ground for harrvesting LD votes is that found at Univerrsities. Students and their families and networks are the hope for your party…

    How can I put this so Clegg and co will understand it…
    Perhaps mentioning the nickname my daughter and her friends have given Nick Clegg might help.
    They now refer to him as Homer. (and not in any Iliad kind of way )
    DOH.

  • and Yes…
    daughter and her friends do call Cameron Mr Burns.

  • @ Will

    I would call Clegg ‘Smithers’!

  • @Catherine
    I’m not doing cartwheels about the situation, but what else, realistically, could we have done or be doing differently?

    Well, with respect Catherine, the party could have stuck rather more closely with what it told the voters before the election…remember that this was the party was going to shake up politics, was going to tell the truth, was going to be straight with voters, only use the facts etc etc etc yah yah yah……

    And this is the Lib Dems biggest danger now… that despite all the wonderful intellectual arguments that have been and will be made about PR the Great British public will use the opportunity to get its revenge and defeat the referendum aided cynically of course by the Conservatives.

    I’m not saying its right (I support PR personally) I’m not saying its logical, but from where its looking at the moment it will be completely understandable.

  • I think the planned National Demonstration that is being organised for March 2011
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11612012

    Will have a serious effect on AV.

    A demonstration that takes place 2 months before the local elections, protesting about the cuts, “unfairness” and 490’000 job losses (Some of which would have already been lost) is going to have a massive detrimental effect on the Liberal Democrats at Local Election’s and also on AV.

    Liberal Democrats will be seen as the one’s to blame over their Tory Counterparts, as nobody expects anything different from Tories.

    However they do expect “Fairness” from Liberal Democrats, and “Fairness” is a word that Nick Clegg has used over and over again in his campaign speeches, and most recently in his defence to the CSR.

    I can see the placards and logos now that will carried, scrawled with the Words “Fairness” along with the Job Losses and the cuts to lower income families.

    And if Liberal Democrats need to recognise that this will effect their votes and hopes for AV.

    There is still time to turn things around though, and I think you need to start by getting rid of clegg

  • A lot of what WILL says reflects much of what I have heard from friends, family, and colleagues.

    The fact that he took so much time to write his post should indicate how betrayed he, and others like him, feel.

    We’ve lost all credibility. There’s little point saying “Labour would have done this, or Labour caused that”. If they were disaffected Labour supporters in the first place they already know that. What they do know though, is that Labour never joined hand in hand with the Tories. If we don’t end this now we can forget about getting any Liberal Democrat policy through government in the future because we just won’t be there.

    We should also fear the resurgent right-wing of the party, On many of these threads I see references made to “liberal laissez-faire economics” and the like. These indeed were the policies of the Liberal Party which is ONE of the predecessors of the Liberal Democrat party. However, they were later adopted by the neo-liberal tories under thatcher. Policies which we vigourously opposed. Don’t forget that we came about as an alliance between social democrats and liberals.

    Sometimes I feel as though we have been infiltrated by right-wingers much like pro-hunters joining the RSPCA.

  • I think the problem for Liberal Democrats and for AV is now.

    A) For Coalition to seem attractive to the Electorate, It needs too be seen that 1 Party is Curbing the Excesses of the other. I Think it is fair to assume that any Coalition Government would be, either a, Con-Dem Coalition or a Lib-Lab Coalition.
    And for that Coalition to work and be acceptable in the Public’s eye they would want to see.
    If It was a ConDem Coalition, For Liberal Democrats to infuse “Fairness” into the coalition and to restrain Tory Governments from hammering the poor and vulnerable (Conservatives have been known for this, for Decades, Liberal Democrats have accused Tories of being so fo decades, Just because your in coalition now does not make all those thought’s and feelings go away and is political Ignorance to try and think otherwise) They would also want to see Liberal Democrats using their position’s to prevent the Tories from destroying our Public Services, especially the NHS. ALL Liberal Democrats and Labour Supporters Remember how the Tories Destroyed our Public services the last time they where in power.
    I think most people would agree that public services improved dramaticly under Labour (not to say there wasn’t problems)

    If it was to be a Lib/Lab Coalition the public again would want to see the Liberals using their power to curb the excess of Labour. Although Public services improved dramaticly under labour, the amount of money that was wasted on Quango’s and Managments was getting riddiculous, it was something that Liberal Democrats and Vince Cable had been very vocal on for ages. The public would expect the Liberal Democats to play a major role in making dramatic improvements to Education and especially HE, Again Labour did improve standards over tories, but too much money was wasted in the wrong area’s. Liberal Democrat Policy would have brought balance, sense and major improvements to the system.

    The reason it is not working at the moment is because Liberal Democrats are failing to curb those excesses of The Tory Government, they have always been famed for.
    I think the public would have the same opinion, if Liberal Democrats had gone into coalition with Labour, and where failing to Curb, Labours Excesses, that so many people where unhappy with

    B) Liberal Democrats, need to maintain a sense of Identity. It is also Vital to the Public that they are able to see that Identity.
    At the moment to the public eye, It appears that we have Tory Government. And 63.52% of the Voting public did not vote for a Tory Government.
    Disagreements in public between coalition partners is NOT a sign of weakness, It is a sign to the public that both parties are acting in what THEY believe is the national Interest. It is through those differences that balances can be found for fairer policies.
    Having a media blackout from liberal democrats preventing them from expressing differences to Tory Policies shows great signs of weakness.
    We all know where Liberal Democrats stood on polices at the start of the Election, And now we see them making complete U-Turn policies in favour of Tory Right Wing Policies.
    Many of these changes in Policies where not known to the Public before the Election.
    Because the Public do not know where the Tories or the liberal Democrats stood on these policies before they where announced, and because Liberals are preventing from expressing their views in the Public. We have no Idea what influence one party has had over the other, Therfore it will always appear as though Tories are getting there way yet again.
    This again makes the Coalition look Weak and makes the proposal of AV less and less attractive.

    For AV to win at the referendum and for the Electorate to be willing for more Coalition Governments. It is Vital that the Liberal Democrats be allowed to express differences in Public

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