“Soggy Syriza with sandals” – thanks, Danny, for giving Osborne a stick to beat us with

I almost choked on my Earl Grey this morning when I read Danny Alexander’s piece in the New Statesman in which he suggested that there was much to cheer in George Osborne’s budget. I wondered if he had forgotten that May, you know, happened?

The reason we lost so many seats to the Tories is,  at least in part,  that the people who voted for us no longer felt that we represented their values, the sorts of values that had seen us stand up for freedom and social justice. Those people turned to the Greens and Labour. Yes, of course the Tory tactics over the SNP were relevant but we kind of stoked that by legitimising it.

We also made a great thing during the election campaign of talking about our opposition to the Tories’ £12 billion welfare cuts proposals, much of which we had stopped in government. Now Danny suggests that we shouldn’t go out of our way to oppose them in opposition:

Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats should envisage a future as a sort of soggy Syriza in sandals. I  don’t like some of the welfare reforms in the Budget, but to make it the political dividing line is to fail to recognise the views of most people.

I’m not sure that compromising your values in favour of a more populist approach is the right thing to do. Surely we should be setting some of the myths straight in a reasonable way. The Tories make out all benefits claimants to be feckless scroungers. If that narrative isn’t successfully challenged, the welfare state could end up being dismantled. Danny joked that the Ginger Rodent agreed with the woman who gave him that name, but it really isn’t anything to be proud of.

Danny talks about not being able to oppose things like the new non-doms rule which he devised. Fair enough – but the Finance Bill doesn’t come in bits. You can’t pick or choose. As a package, I think we should oppose it because the bad stuff outweighs the good by a massive margin.

Stephen Tall wrote last week that if we had been in coalition, we’d have been cheering the Budget. I don’t think so. Where I disagree with Stephen is that I don’t think that the Budget was “liberal enough.” In fact, the cuts to tax credits and benefits undermine a lot of what we have been trying to do in recent years to help disadvantaged kids. The cuts to tax relief for buy to let may well lead to a shrinking of that market and rents going up. So we are investing in helping disadvantaged kids in school while heaping yet more disadvantage up on them. It’s not easy to learn if you don’t have enough food in your tummy or you are living in poor, overcrowded housing.

That there may have been a few things in the Budget that didn’t give us apoplexy (and the increase in the tax threshold was virtually automatic anyway) does not make it good.

Danny’s article isn’t all bad, but what he has done is that every time our new leader gets up to oppose a cut to welfare, the minister will simply quote it at him. The “soggy Syriza” will become a mantra inflicted by one of our own. It’s not really a term that shows respect for the party, its members and traditions, either.

His conclusion is one which merits further debate within the party:

Ensuring that schools have the policies and resources to deliver rising standards for all children feels like a much more fertile argument for the next leader of the Liberal Democrats to lead. Picking fights over core liberal issues such as civil liberties and the environment, which the Conservatives seem intent on trashing, and speaking with the most authentically pro-Europe voice in the EU referendum, all underpinned by a responsible economic policy, seems like the best route for my party to follow.

There is an argument, though, that our economic policy has always been responsible. We’ve been obsessed with making things add up and be credible. Even way back in 1992, that penny on income tax for education was seen as almost dangerously radical by some while being very well received by the public. It’s about time we really let our values do the talking and not get so tied up in the detail. It hasn’t done the SNP any harm.

 

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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46 Comments

  • Well said.

  • Conor McGovern 16th Jul '15 - 1:10pm

    Danny has a point on marrying financial discipline with social justice, as well as slowing the pace of cuts, but apart from that I don’t buy his analysis or his answers. If backing measures like a two-child policy for low-income families is a mark of us ‘sticking to the centre’ it’s not a ‘centre’ I want to be part of. It’s certainly far from liberal.

  • Danny’s piece is the final (hopefully) disservice to the party which gave him so much. The problem with Danny is he never really knew what liberalism was about.

  • Labour banged on about cuts and zero hours contracts but the stark fact is that 1) many people were unaffected by either and 2) Labour didn’t win the election.

    If you talk only to the disadvantaged you will never be in the position to help them by actually getting elected.

  • Jonathan Pile 16th Jul '15 - 1:17pm

    Danny has to let it go. We need a non-coalition liberal economic policy, responsible yes, but also creative which seeks to reject knee-jerk neo-liberal economics. Keynes had talent and imagination. We need another Keynes. I met with Danny with a group of Bradford business people in October 2014 with David Ward. I begged Danny as someone setting up a small business to stop using the word austerity as it was killing consumer confidence and business investment. He declined and I’m sure his embracing of austerity has much to do with the poor performance of the party viz anti-austerity parties like the SNP and Greens. On one substantive point – the raising of the tax threshold always was a tax cut for the rich as well as the low paid, perhaps we ought to revisit that and look at ensuring that those on 40% don’t get a tax cut every time the lower threshold rises.

  • (Matt Bristol) 16th Jul '15 - 1:23pm

    Hear, hear. Alexander is not helping, he is hindering.

    I don’t know the people concerned, obviously, but I think Stephen Tall has a point and I really can in my mind’s eye see Nick Clegg attempting to persuade the Party that the recent budget (or something like it) was ‘liberal enough’ to be seen as a product of our wonderful historic second-term Coalition…

  • I seem to remember he was one of the proponents of tuition fees. I’m sure he’d make a great Tory minister, but sadly liberal values don’t exactly seem to be his focus.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Jul '15 - 1:32pm

    I broadly agree with Danny. The case for moving to the left is a moral one, not a strategic one. However, a lot of people feel better when they are on the left, so for them it is also strategic.

    The SNP are nationalist. Scottish Labour and others will fail if they try to copy the SNP without the nationalism.

    We have to be flexible, but not so flexible that we forget history or ignore our deepest instincts. I will make a small comment later under the new leadership article, but there needs to be room for respectful dissenting voices.

  • This could be like ‘iron lady’ in reverse.

  • Geoffrey Payne 16th Jul '15 - 1:36pm

    I sometimes try to imagine how the negotiations between Danny and George went on the economic policy of the government. Maybe they didn’t need to if this article is anything to go by.

  • As a package, I think we should oppose it because the good stuff outweighs the bad by a massive margin.
    Did the second half of this sentence slip through a wormhole from the alternate universe where the Lib Dems are still in coalition? Or has defending Tory budgets become so ingrained you are struggling to break the habit?

  • Andrew Emmerson 16th Jul '15 - 1:42pm

    With respect Caron, I think you may have gone off the deepend as much as Danny here. .

    I’ll state now, the phrase “soggy Syrizia in sandals” is in no way, shape or form helpful it should never ever have been used. But to use this as a stick with which to beat Danny does exactly what you accuse Danny of doing, giving others a stick to beat us with,

    I often think it’s too easy to fall into the Labour trap here, oppose everything, suggest no alternatives and just be as loud as possible about how evil the tories are. It doesn’t take us anywhere in the long run, as proved in 2010, and indeed by Labour in 2015. It is much braver to stick the neck out to say this is what is good, this is what is bad. I don’t necessarily buy his prescriptions, but I respect it more than some of the reactions i’ve seen from the wider party.

    I’ve also long thought that on some things we should lead the public by the hand, on others we should take a few steps back and meet the public half way where we are so far ahead of them. Immigration and indeed welfare are two areas. There is definitely room for a distinct liberal identity than can be bother popular and liberal (but not necessarily as radical as we’d all love)

    Finally I’d say let’s not fall into the labour trap “we’ll never win, so we should stay pure, even if that means not getting near power again” a la corbyn, We have to be realistic ,and be seen as competent, kind and not cruel, but able to take tough decisions when it matters. Resisting everything won’t put us in that place.

  • Andrew Emmerson 16th Jul '15 - 1:44pm

    Also the amount of people calling Danny a Tory, can we please not turn into the Labour party. Danny is not a Tory. Danny is a Liberal. A Proud member of the Liberal Democrats, who worked relentlessly for the Liberal Cause.

    I absolutely despair at prominent people above – the type of people who’d probably be setting up Liz Kendall for Tory leader pages on facebook.

  • @Andrew Perhaps that was a bit harsh. I just didn’t feel that his views on welfare in that article seemed very liberal.

  • The only thing soggy is the centrism advocated by those who still think we’re in coalition. We’re not.

  • >> There is an argument, though, that our economic policy has always been responsible.<<

    There is another argument, that our economic policy has always been responsible, EXCEPT DURING THE COALITION when it held back economic growth for three years longer than necessary.

  • @ Sara >>The protest vote was lost to UKIP…<<

    It's more complex than that. Many socially liberal people switched from Lib Dem to Labour, but many Labour bigots switched to UKIP, masking that.

    Which is bad news for Labour, btw, if we can win our former voters back with progressive and sensible policies – I agree with Danny's point on education, for example. (Penny in the pound for education, anyone?)

  • jedibeeftrix 16th Jul '15 - 2:35pm

    “I’m not sure that compromising your values in favour of a more populist approach is the right thing to do.”

    Open question; can you tell which party has 331 MP’s and which has eight?

  • @Sara Scarlett are you advocating building up the party on protest votes again? That’s a hiding to nothing.

  • Steve Davenport 16th Jul '15 - 3:11pm

    I agree with much that Danny Alexander has to say, particularly the need to focus on core Liberal issues such as civil liberties and the environment whilst being the most visibly pro-European party. If you added housing into this you would pretty much have the key priorities that Tim Farron has advocated.

    All this will be overshadowed though by the awful “soggy Syriza” line which just provides easy ammunition to political opponents, as you correctly point out.

  • @ GPPurnell
    I’m just wondering if you think categorising concerned voters as, *bigots switching to Ukip*, is going to be a winning strategy, given the black eye you got in May 2014, and the bloody nose you received in May 2015?
    It will be interesting to see if your new leader has learned any lessons, even though it’s evident that many in Lib Dem ranks don’t seem able to adapt, preferring instead, to pour vitriol on voters?

  • A period of silence and humility from Alexander D would be welcome. He should have figured out by now that the electorate didn’t buy it.

  • Danny Alexander is a man who couldn’t even command sufficient support in his own constituency to keep his job. Why on earth would the Lib Dems listen to his opinions on what direction the party should take?

    The failure of Clegg, Cable, Alexander and the others who drove to the Lib Dems to their worst election result in decades and destroyed them as a meaningful political party in the House of Commons to recognise their own failure is utterly desperate. Lib Dems losses don’t stem from the rise of the SNP, they stem for the Lib Dems spectacular programme of alienating their own voters. The result in 2015 may have been surprising in terms of the number of seats lost but in terms of actual votes it was pretty much bang on the money for what the polls had been screaming for years – Clegg, Cable, Alexander and a few others took the Lib Dems from being a popular party and drove it fullpace into electoral irrelevance.

  • Neil Sandison 16th Jul '15 - 4:10pm

    Have you noticed that the most annoying coverage we have had in recent days has come from MPs who failed to retain their seats. If they want to be considered for reselection perhaps they should not be so keen to rush into the press with comments that are unhelpful at this time and should wait or debate the future direction of the party once the new leader is in place and by submitting a motion or amendment to conference just like any other member.
    Instant policy by former grandees via the media is both undemocratic and no ordinary member gets the same level of coverage by way of right to reply.

  • Ruth Bright 16th Jul '15 - 4:14pm

    He probably just couldn’t resist the alliteration. The possibilities are endless – Pallid Podemos in Plimsolls etc etc.

  • Many of my friends namechecked Mr Alexander when explaining their dislike of the Lib Dems. One consolation in your brutal mauling in May is that Dannys out of office and no longer an MP…the party would be wise to keep this an ongoing thing. Good riddance Danny.

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Jul '15 - 4:51pm

    I have just read the article in the New Statesman.

    Is he suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?

  • David Evershed 16th Jul '15 - 4:59pm

    There are some Lib Dem policies in the Budget and I don’t see why we would want to oppose them.

    Don’t forget Lib Dems are liberal on economic policies.

  • Sorry to say it but this article sounds like the kid in the playground that nobody wants to play with any more, who responds by just telling everybody their games are rubbish anyway and he doesn’t care.
    In terms of public image though, maybe we need someone to highlight the fact that we’ve moved away from the harshness of austerity. In that sense, more similar noises from DA could actually serve a useful purpose.

  • Stephen Campbell 16th Jul '15 - 5:32pm

    Before the 2010 election, Danny Alexander was a vociferous campaigner for disabled people and fought against the way Labour treated them (and rightly so). He regularly made appearances in the media highlighting the disgraceful WCA and the many cruelties disabled and mentally ill people suffered at the hands of ATOS and the DWP. In fact, during the election campaign, he continued to speak out against this injustice.

    Then the Lib Dems went into coalition and within less than two weeks, he did a complete about-face. Suddenly, he supported the Tories’ even harsher treatment of disabled and mentally ill people who could not work and defended cutting benefits from vulnerable people. He completely went native.

    There’s a word to describe people such as himself, but it would not be polite to say it (plus this site’s censors don’t allow said word).

    Good riddance to him. He deserved to lose his seat.

  • Graham Evans 16th Jul '15 - 10:20pm

    I have been a member of the Liberal Democrats and its predecessor the Liberal Party since my school days in the late 1960s. I accept that politics is a rough old business, but there is a big difference between vigorous debate and mindless personal vitriol. Having read many of the above commnts, I really am starting to ask myself whether I want to remain in a party which seems to be populated with so many people, unfortunately mainly on the left, whose attitude to others is more reminiscent of the religious right in the US than to the tolerance and good natured respect for others which was once a characteristic of the Party.

  • @Graham Evans +1

    @Sara Scarlett “The LibDems have lost the protest vote and it’s not coming back”

    A lot of left leaning activists are going to be very disappointed then

  • Richard Underhill 17th Jul '15 - 10:46am

    Some Liberals were derided as “beards and sandals” but those people are now in the House of Lords, sometimes with less hair.

  • Tony Dawson 17th Jul '15 - 1:07pm

    Danny Alexander was right to embrace and retain use of the word ‘austerity’. It is the perfect word to define his personal lack of vision for the Party and the country.

  • Richard Underhill 17th Jul '15 - 3:20pm

    The New Statesman also said that
    “Danny Alexander is MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey and Lib Dem work and pensions spokesman”.

  • If someone had said that before the election we would lose votes to UKIP and The Greens , I would not have believed them. As this appears to be the case, I think we need to examine the nature of sour support.
    Graham Evans
    Good point. If we are going to treat the opinions of large swathes of the British electorate with disdain, then we are going to struggle to attract votes.
    The reality is that large parts of Labour and Liberal middle classes appear to share a shallow self righteousness , as Orwell said. This combined with a disdain for British culture , common sense and common decency if off putting to much of the electorate.

  • Liberal Neil 22nd Jul '15 - 9:51am

    I agree with the bit of what Danny says that there is no future for us in shifting sharply to the left, but as nobody is proposing anything like that, it’s a pointless thing to say.

    The reality is that the Tories have shifted sharply to the right, making it much more obvious that we are to the left of them. (In so far as politics is a simple left-right spectrum.)

    We are actually in exactly the same place we have been for the last five years, opposing ideologically driven cuts and arguing that the rich should bear the brunt of austerity rather than the poor. It is the Tories that have shifted.

    Given the Tory agenda on these and other issues such as their attacks on civil liberties and their dismantling of the last government’s work to tackle climate change, we will be much more in opposition mode, and rightly so.

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