Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Clegg seizes opportunity but jeopardises Lib Dem future

In light of his speech to his party conference in Liverpool, this article is an attempt to put what little knowledge of politics I have into an analysis of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats' role in the coalition government so far, addressing the extent of their success in balancing faithfulness to their voters and policies with 'playing politics', and accepting their role as a minor power, but a power all the same.

There can be no doubt that Clegg made the right decision entering government with the Conservative party. As the leader of a party whom the public had resoundingly rejected at the election, polling 23% and losing five seats, well short of both hopes and expectations, he had the choice of quasi-leading the Liberal Democrats through the wilderness of minor opposition, or trying to influence Conservative policy-making in government, in so doing allow for both greater public representation in government, and a chance, if a minor one, for a measure of progressive politics to prevail. This was an opportunity Clegg could not pass up.

Having said that, Clegg and his party have been accused of weakness in government, and going back on much of what they stand for in order for the coalition to work. This has resulted in the Lib Dems agreeing to a host of policies they previously opposed. Clegg supporters, coalition-backers and realists would argue that a consensus must be reached in order for a coalition government to prevail and act, and that the Lib Dems must accept that most policies implemented by government will inevitably be Tory ones, the Conservatives being the largest party in Parliament and according to the public vote. But, in order for Clegg to serve his country, he sees the right thing for him to do as picking his battles and scoring policy wins for the Lib Dems where he can get them, exchanging it by supporting Conservative measures. Clegg also needs to address the fact that, as he, his party, and his manifesto have stated, many plans proposed by the Tories are not good for the country, and do not help society's most vulnerable.

Among the most worrying prospects for the less-well off include proposed vast cuts in disability and incapacity benefit, while Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is proposing letting those finding it difficult to find work 'go to the top of housing lists elsewhere', a disturbing return to the Norman Tebbit 'on your bike' approach to solving unemployment, and, according to Labour leadership candidate Ed Miliband, an admittance on the government's part that they cannot create jobs in many deprived areas of the country. Meanwhile, the plans for drastic public spending cuts goes against the party's values and election promises, and has been called 'economic lunacy' by its own former Secretary to the Treasury David Laws. The Liberal Democrats will be backing all of these measures, as well as rubber-stamping the Emergency Budget. Many, myself included, see George Osborne's ruthless cuts as ideological rather than necessary, with the government using the recession as a chance to reduce the size of the state and blame Labour for its own recklessness.

The point here is that the Liberal Democrats have turned their back on the policy its voters had voted for in order for a minor share in government, and having to back much Tory policy, which it previously rejected. Clegg and his MPs will describe this as necessary for consensus politics and working together, but how valuable has the Lib Dem share in power been, or have they merely served as the extra votes needed to implement Tory policy? As described, they have given up much in the compromise, and the main policy victory they have scored is a referendum on electoral reform, expected next year. With the Tories greatly opposed to the reforms, the referendum is, at this stage, likely to lose. This would be a bitter blow for the party, who sacrificed much to win Conservative approval on this issue. Despite this, the income tax allowance is to be raised by £1000, taking over 800,000 people out of the threshold and reducing income tax for many of the less-well off. This has been described as a huge policy victory for the Lib Dems, despite the squeezes on public sector jobs and welfare around them.

That said, the purpose of this article is not to analyse and scrutinise government policy, nor to attack a still fledgling system. Everybody has, and is entitled to, their opinions on that. This government can only be fairly judged once it has run its course and its proposals debated and implemented. But this poses a problem for the Liberal Democrats. The government will ultimately be judged by the electorate in the polling booths, and this coalition is starting to prove harmful to core Lib Dem vote. Polls have indicated many Liberal Democrat supporters believe the party has 'sold out', while Labour party membership has shot up since election day, rising by more than 13,000, an entire 8.5%, with some experts suggesting disgruntled Lib Dem voters are a large part of this rise. Yougov polls have put the Lib Dems at 12% in mid-September, while a UKPR average has them at 14%, a dramatic loss of support and a 20-year low for the party. Meanwhile, support for a Brown-less Labour is increasing again. It seems likely that progressive voters, i.e Lib Dem's core, will turn to Labour believing that their party has 'sold out' if things continue as they are; at the same time, if the coalition is a success, the Conservatives will take the plaudits from the public and, more importantly, the media, and will return to government with a majority in 2015.

So what can Clegg do to keep his party relevant in future years, and prevent it from declining into political obscurity? They're in decline because they are seen as having abandoned many of their policies for a share in government, allowing Tory policy it did not want to pass, in exchange for a few measures of their own and a few cabinet posts. In his speech to his party conference, Clegg urged his party to stick with him, but gave no mention of the imminent feared spending cuts and welfare reforms, and no mention of its effect on the most vulnerable in society, increasing numbers of whom are being made redundant each day, perhaps because he knows that it will not be benefiting them at all. Surely the Liberal Democrat leader understands cuts to the public sector result in job losses. The party has more influence on government than he seems to think. Clegg desperately needs to stick to his guns and stand up for his party and its values. As part of a coalition, they have more power than they are exerting, because without them the Conservatives are a difficult minority government. They can do better than this, and we deserve better from them. Prominent and respected Lib Dem MP Vince Cable has spoken out in criticism of the coalition government, calling its immigration cap harmful to UK business. This is what coalition politics is about. The Lib Dems should not be afraid to disagree and fight their corner on issues they believe will benefit the country. Coalition politics is not about Cameron and Clegg playing husband-and-wife, or Clegg backing Tory proposals, standing by as the Tories announce their huge cuts, simply to put on a united front, justifying their concessions by saying they are in a privileged governmental position. More is at stake here for the Liberal Democrats than the country's well-being. Clegg needs to show the country he is not just a liberal-leaning Tory MP, and his party needs to stand up and be strong. If they are seen as weak, which polls suggest right now to be true, they will disappear to 12%. At this conference he asked his party to stick with him, but soon will come a time when he will need to perform a coalition-style compromise and stick with his party too, and convince voters that it is worth voting Lib Dem in 2015, and not Tory, or indeed Labour, because right now, his party is losing support.