Nick Clegg’s mea culpa this week certainly marks a watershed of some kind coming as it does nearly half way through this Parliament and coalition. It is an attempt by Clegg and the Lib Dems to ‘move on’: a textbook move from the Blair guide on how to do to politics.
Clegg’s apology isn’t actually an apology for his actions; it is an apology for making the original pledge to not support tuition fees. In this it ranks with Tony Blair’s non-apology on the Iraq war; it is the post-modern, evasive way some of our politicians now conduct themselves.
The Lib Dems believe that by the next election their achievements in office will allow them to stand on a progressive but honest prospectus: ‘we cleaned up Labour’s mess’, but we stopped the ‘toxic Tories’ banging on about their favourite subjects.
Yet what have the Lib Dems actually achieved in office? Their most treasured and precious plans – electoral reform and House of Lords reform – have been blocked by open Tory perfidy. What they can boast of in their conference document, ‘What have the Liberal Democrats ever done for you?’ (taking a leaf out the book of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ and the SNP) is a short list.
There is the much vaunted pupil premium and taking of low income workers out of tax by raising tax thresholds, and that’s about it in specifics. Hardly an adequate response to the withering of Sure Start, or the scale of benefit cuts, and bonanza offered to top rate taxpayers and the wealthy through the 45% tax rate and quantitative easing.
The Lib Dems claim they have grown up, become wiser and more mature through the experience of government. Well, bully for them. It is just a shame that the lessons they seem to have learned are to become more like the rest of our failed Westminster political class.
Listen to the words in Clegg’s ‘apology’ and he goes on to make the new Lib Dem case. ‘We are fighting for the right things’, he claims, ‘rebuilding our economy to make it strong, changing the tax system to make it fair, defending the vulnerable in these hard times’. These are the mantras politicians tell themselves and the public when they begin to lose their touch with reality.
What is the actual record of the Lib Dems? Yes they have stopped the Tory Party going on about a few of their ‘nasty’ obsessions. And they have done the odd decent thing which wouldn’t have happened without them. But overall the record is unedifying: of grim austerity not working, public spending cuts the scale of which Britain has not seen in generations, and the attempt to make those most vulnerable and poor pay for the crisis they didn’t bring about.
What have the Lib Dems stood up for in this coalition of the willing? It wasn’t tuition fees going from £9,000 to £27,000 in England obviously. Nor was it the marketisation of the NHS in England. Nor the attempt to introduce regional pay to overfeed the South East powerhouse and distribute away from everyone else.
What the Lib Dems made a principled stand over was the issue of Lords reform. The issue of electing an entire institution of new career politicians turned out to be the sole issue they said public harsh words to the Tories on. If ever an issue revealed what the Lib Dems have become in office this was it; never mind the NHS, rising hardship and poverty; what matters to Lib Dem politicians is having more Lib Dem politicians.
All of this leaves the Lib Dems in a quandary and crisis. They now stand in the opinion polls in single figures or just scraping into double figures either running neck and neck or just ahead of UKIP. Even more dismal are Clegg’s ratings with 23% of voters satisfied with his leadership and 66% not satisfied, putting him in the George Osborne area of toxicity. And the Lib Dem party is not doing any better in members, having lost 25% of them in a single year.
Two discussions matter to the party. The first is the leadership; the second party positioning and philosophy. Clegg now believes he can remain in place and find a new momentum to 2015, but he is fundamentally damaged.
The Lib Dems unlike Labour get rid of ineffective leaders – think Charles Kennedy or Ming Campbell. A leadership vacancy either occurs by Clegg going before the election voluntarily, or 75 local associations requesting a contest. In either case, a post-Clegg leadership before the next election, under Vince Cable or Lib Dem President Tim Farron, could win back some support and seats.
A Cable leadership would make him the oldest party leader since George Lansbury for Labour in 1932, older than even Michael Foot in 1980. It would hardly be a vote for the future; it would be a move to safety, comfort zones and yesterday’s politics; for the Hit Man of pre-coalition days who has hardly shone as a government minister.
Much more interesting would be Tim Farron, who has not ruled out standing for the leadership, and is younger, energetic, and a proven campaigner, and who having not been a minister, can establish distance between his party and the Tories.
As important is party positioning and philosophy. Up until 2010 the Lib Dems positioned themselves to the left of Labour – on Iraq, tuition fees, civil liberties – to gain the low hanging fruit of disenchanted votes. It was a short-term strategy, and they have lost most of this vote by being in coalition.
The Lib Dems have to start heading back to their historic position of equidistance between the two big parties. Crucially, they need to restate their values after the ‘Orange Book’ economic liberals showed themselves too eager to buy into the clichés of shrinking the state.
One prospectus is already being prepared from Richard Reeves, Clegg’s former chief of staff, in his forthcoming ‘Inside Liberal’. It makes the case for a liberalism which is about dispersing power, from banks, the public sector and vested interests, and empowering an active citizenry across public life.
This could be part of a politics distinctive from Labour statism and Conservative marketism, but the Lib Dems will struggle to be listened to for now. Voters have learnt that they are competent to an extent, but just as flawed and thin skinned as the rest of the political classes.
The Lib Dems after being outsiders for years, have become insiders, and just another political party. They may have learned from this, but there is a price to pay for it. And they and we in the meantime have lost something.