Lib-Dem-logoThis is a long post – the version in my head is even longer – but it’s been gestating in various forms for a while and I wanted to get it out there while we’re thinking about the future of the party. To make it slightly easier, I’ve divided it into three parts – the first about the decisions the party made about its political positioning before 2010, the second about the decisions made with coalition and the effects they had, and the third about where we go from here.

Part 1: How did we get here?

‘Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it.’ If we’re going to look at where the party should go from here, we need to look at the process that brought us here, and for me that starts in the mid-90s as the party abandoned equidistance in favour of working more closely with Labour. Up until that point, our positioning had been best known by Spitting Image‘s Ashdown catchphrase: ‘neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere in between.’

However, after the shock of the 1992 election and the travails of the Tory Government that followed it, Paddy Ashdown began the process of shifting the party into being part of the anti-Tory bloc. This was rewarded with lots of tactical voting that led to the big by-election gains from the Tories, and also the party’s gains at the 1997 and 2001 general elections, only one of which (Chesterfield in 2001) came from Labour.

Things shifted after 2003 and the Iraq War. The party had already begun picking up council seats and councils from Labour, while losing ones gained before 1997 back to the Tories, but this accelerated, particularly in the North, culminating in a number of gains from Labour (and losses to the Tories) at the 2005 general election, coupled with a failure of the ‘decapitation strategy’ against senior Tories whose seats were perceived as vulnerable. After this, and particularly once Clegg became leader, the party began to move back towards ‘equidistance’.

That’s a simplified version of the strategy – there were lots of other currents going on at the same time – but I want to talk about it in general terms instead of getting bogged down in the details.

There’s a concept in the academic study of party systems, introduced by the late Peter Mair, called the structure of competition for government, which underlies other issues of the party system within a country. Part of it covers the way parties work together even while competing with each other in the electoral system. For example, in Sweden there are clearly separate left and right blocs of parties who tend to alternate with each other in government but a party from one bloc will not go into government with the other, while in the Netherlands, there are no clearly defined blocs so shifting between parties in government after elections is more fluid.

Britain’s post-war structure of competition was seen as being a very closed one, with just two parties competing for Government, and power alternating between the two. It had wobbled in 1974 and through the Labour government that followed, but reasserted itself in 1979. However, it broke down again after the 2010 election result, and we took the opportunity of that change to enter Government and formed the coalition with the Conservatives.

In the minds of many in the party, this was entirely natural decision. After all, we’d gone back to being equidistant between the parties, so we were free to choose whichever way we wanted to go, and there was no real way of forming a stable coalition with Labour. However, what I’d argue is that we catastrophically misjudged the mood of the public and their understanding of how the party system and structure worked. In their minds, we were still part of the anti-Tory bloc and so to line ourselves up with them was breaking our role in the system.

We’d convinced ourselves that returning to equidistance was right, but we’d failed to get that message over to the electorate – and indeed, our message to the electorate completely ignore that. In so many of our constituencies, we were fighting the Tories and putting out the message ‘vote for us to keep the Tories out’. Because the bulk of our seats were Tory-facing that’s the message the bulk of our voters got.

We also failed to notice that equidistant parties are incredibly rare in all political systems. People like to point at Germany’s FDP, but neglect to notice that they’ve only ever been in coalition with the SDP once, and that was over thirty years ago. The rise of the Greens as the SDP’s natural partner on the left since then made them a natural part of the CDU’s right bloc, not an equidistant party that can shift between the two of them.

There was a mismatch between the way we (especially the leadership) saw ourselves and the way our voters saw it. Joining coalition with the Tories exposed that rift.

Part 2: What the hell just happened?

It’s very easy to look back on May 2010 with 20/20 hindsight and imagine that everything that’s happened since then was entirely predictable. What we forget is that at the time nothing seemed predictable as the voters had delivered us into an entirely new political situation. Everyone was wandering in the dark and trying to guess the rules of this new political landscape, while the media – denied of the clear election result they expected – were howling at everyone to get on with it and give them something to report so they could move on to the next thing.

I still think the coalition was the least worst option available to us at the time and the other options on the table (confidence and supply, the rainbow coalition or just sitting it all out) would have led to a Tory majority government within 6 months to a year. However, I also think the process was ridiculously rushed and many parts of the decision-making process were made in the immediate post-election blur, rather than being discussed slowly and sensibly, giving much more time for a wider public discussion and a chance for us to assess the public mood.

The infamous Rose Garden press conference wasn’t a problem in itself. Indeed, it was probably a boon for the party in making Cameron and Clegg look like equals in the Government, and basic media management meant that they had to present a positive image at the start of the Government – imagine how bad it would have looked if they’d begun by looking like they could barely tolerate each other. The problem came with not seeing that as a temporary need at the time of establishing the new Government and instead taking that as the default mode for the party.

We completely messed up the politics of coalition. We were so determined to prove that coalition government worked that we let ourselves get caught up inside the machine and effectively went native. With a few exceptions, our ministers didn’t talk and look like liberals in government, but more like the government’s emissaries to the liberals. They decided their mission wasn’t to get as many of the wishes of the party and its voters into law, but instead to take what was decided by an increasingly remote government and attempt to persuade the party that that was it really wanted. Rather than justify compromises as the best we could get under the circumstances, we began talking about them as being somehow better than the position we started from and what we’d really wanted.

This led to the position of crowing about being ‘a party of government, not a party of protest’ which showed just how much wrong it was possible to combine into just nine words. The idea that these two ideas were polar opposites, the idea that the party was just about protest, the way it ignored the party’s role in local and devolved government over the decades, all combined to show that the leadership saw the party’s role as just another part of the beige consensus of the Governing Party of the elite consensus that dominates British politics.

All this led to the decision where we fought the election as a party of centrist managerialism, offering voters nothing more than the opportunity to split the difference between the two big parties. It’s not an inspiring vision, which can be seen by the way the slogans used to sell it kept changing. First ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ which then got ‘opportunity for all’ bolted onto it, which then was replaced by ‘Look Left, Look Right, Then Cross’ for the election broadcasts, which was then trumped by the ‘heart for the Tories, head for Labour’ gimmick which lasted till the final week of the decade when it was replaced by ‘Stability, Unity, Decency’ which sounded like the slogan of a dystopian dictatorship from Poundland.

The party forgot what it was for and the leadership tried to mutate it into something else during our time in government. The decision was made to let the necessities and limited possibilities of government define what our values would be rather than allowing our values to define what we would try and do in government. The message became a defensive one of managerialism and moderating other parties, rather than one of talking about what we wanted to do and what we stood for. We swallowed the managerialist mantra that the only thing people want from a political party is some form of nebulous competence, rather than making a liberal case for a liberal party.

Part 3: Where do we go from here?

I said on Friday morning that the election had been an extinction-level event. On reflection, it wasn’t quite that bad, but it would be easy to stumble on into extinction from this position. Centrist managerialism has been tested to destruction as a strategy and it has utterly failed. We’ve not just seen our number of MPs shattered, we’ve lost councillors across the country, slipped back to the fringes in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd, and gone down to just one MEP.

It’s the worst position the party’s been in since the 50s and 60s, and back then we were able to grow in a gradual way because we faced almost no competition as the old voting behaviours broke down. There were no Greens and no UKIP, and the nationalist parties were only beginning to gain a toehold in by-elections. Now, we’re in an intensely competitive electoral battle, and hoping to gradually accumulate while we sit in the middle being neither one thing nor the other is not going to work. We have to stand for something, and be seen to stand for something – we have to make liberalism mean something to the people again.

I’ve banged on repeatedly for the past year (because Conrad Russell’s not here to do it) about how we as liberals need to understand that liberalism is fundamentally about power, and specifically about challenging unaccountable power and putting that power back in the hands of the people. In his resignation speech, Nick Clegg talked entirely rightly about how we risk losing the argument to ‘the politics of fear’, and one of the things that drive that fear is the utter powerlessness people feel, which causes them to lash out and blame innocent others.

thorpetakepowerOur first big post-war breakthrough came in 1974 with the message ‘Take power. Vote Liberal.’ and we need something like that as our core message, but not just a crude libertarian understanding of power that sees it only as something that comes from that state. We need to show that we’re about helping people take power over every aspect of their lives, in the economy and in society, not pretending that government is the only problem. The best way to counter fears is to give people the power to confront them and realise that they’re not a threat, and we have to be the party that will help people take that power back.

Coupled with that, we need to be the party of hope, optimism and positivity about the future. That means being a party that gives people reason to believe that the future will be better than today for them and their families, not just somewhere with more gadgets to fill their increasingly small houses in the diminishing free time they have from their precarious employment. We need to be the party that talks about how science and technology can transform and change society, bring real opportunity to everyone to live the lives they want, and not be afraid of offering people a radically different vision of society. Let’s not be afraid to bring out all those old radical ideas to the public – land value taxation, basic income, drug legalisation and all the rest – and not just offer a vaguely liberal tinge to the current consensus.

To deliver this, we need to review everything about the way the party works. The structures we have now are essentially those laid down in the late 80s, a period when the idea of mass membership parties hadn’t quite died and the communications revolution driven by the internet hadn’t begun. Starting from a blank slate we need to ask ourselves the question ‘if we were setting up a liberal political party in 2015, what would it look like, and how would it work?’ There needs to be flexibility in the way the party works, coupled with a structure that trusts members to do the right thing and doesn’t just regard them as foot soldiers to be directed from the centre.

With just eight MPs, we’re going to need new ways of working. Already, the media are barely mentioning us and we can’t assume that making worthy speeches in the Commons is going to change that. We need to be a force outside of Parliament, building alliances and being part of campaigns that champion liberal values against a Government that’s going to ride roughshod over them. However, we also need to recognise that we can’t do this on our own, and will have to work with others – we’ve shown coalitions in government are possible, so we should be willing to push them in opposition. When we’re in agreement with others, we shouldn’t let tribalism get in the way of doing so, and perhaps we should be considering that we’re going to need to consider electoral alliances if we want to achieve the reforms we want.

I’ve gone on for long enough here, and this is just part of starting the debate about where we go from here. From my perspective, if we’re going to survive and thrive we have to be a radically-minded party that’s willing to be different and challenge the consensus. Liberals shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, and we’ll have to take plenty of them if we’re going to make this country a better place.

(If you’re still looking for things to read about the future of the party after that, I’d recommend David Howarth, Alix Mortimer and Jennie Rigg, but there’s plenty of thoughts out there right now)

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Question: what is the closest to a election that a party has released its manifesto? Because I’m pretty sure that outside of snap elections called at breakneck pace, the SNP choosing today to launch theirs must be one of the latest. Indeed, judging from some of the comments I’ve sen, it may be a real first in a party delivering its manifesto after votes had started being cast – some places had their postal ballots arrive at the weekend. That’s something that could raise an interesting discussion – what if you cast a postal vote for a party and then they surprised you by putting something in their manifesto that you fundamentally disagreed with? Is the answer that you should’ve waited, that they should’ve published earlier, or some combination of both?

With it being the SNP’s day in the spotlight, it’s a chance for London-based journalists to start revealing just how little they know, and Bill Turnbull got off to a fine start on BBC Breakfast this morning. Turnbull was interviewing a somewhat bemused Stewart Hosie (SNP Deputy Leader) about Trident, and seemed to be labouring under the impression that if there was a minority Labour government, the SNP would have some magical power of veto over them. It does sadly show how much Tory propaganda has sunk in that it didn’t occur to someone with years of journalistic experience that if Trident renewal was up for debate in the Commons, there’d have to be quite an odd situation going on for the SNP to be voting with the Tories to get rid of it.

It’s not just Turbull, though. All across the spectrum, political journalists and commentators – the elite experts who are meant to be explaining these things to us – are falling over themselves to tell us it’ll all be far too complex. Just as we saw in the run up to the last election, when the idea of a coalition and a hung Parliament was getting closer, it’s becoming clear just how hard it is for some of our media class to think outside the box. But then, this is a country where the comments of someone who may or may not be running for US President next year were ranked above any mention that Finland had an election yesterday, and even when Germany or France have elections, there’s no danger of Dimbleby being brought out to anchor all-night coverage of it, or armies of reporters travelling all over them to tell us what the race looks like from Dusseldorf or Lyons. Too much of our coverage is based on the idea that elections have to have winners and losers, and can’t be expressions of opinion. Maybe we’ll get a result this time that shakes that consensus a little more.

On a related note, I’ve noticed a similar consensus in reports looking ahead to the post-election period that seem to be assuming that Liberal Democrat MPs can be easily added to the Tory pile when considering the potential deals. Andrew George’s comments on this aren’t outside the party mainstream, and I know very few people – online or off – who’d be enthusiastic about a second coalition with the Tories. I’m sure there are some in the leadership who’d prefer it, but they’re going to have to convince the party to go along with it, which is going to be a significant issue at all the stages of agreement the leadership would need (Parliamentary party, Federal Executive and Conference). A lot depends on the final outcome of the election and how the coalition maths end up, but there are significant swathes of opinion in the party who’d prefer no coalition or one with Labour to carrying on with the Tories.

A very interesting discovery on Election Leaflets today, of a letter from Michael Fallon, flagging him up as Secretary of State for Defence to voters in Barrow and Furness playing up the threat of a Labour government ‘propped up by the SNP’ not renewing Trident. This is real ‘all politics is local’ territory as Barrow is where Vickers/BAE carry out the maintenance of Trident submarines (if you ever go to Barrow, that’s what the giant buildings looming over the town are for) and the only time it’s not been held by Labour since WW2 was in the 80s, when Labour were either either in favour of disarmament or seen as weak on keeping it. Labour have a decent majority there (over 5,000 in 2010), but worries about losing jobs at Vickers drove those losses in the 80s and could be just as strong today. Might be worth adding Barrow to the list of seats to keep an eye on for interesting results on election night.

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Judging from some of the things I’ve been seeing on social media, this appears to be the point where the stress of campaigning is getting a bit much for some people, and levels of tetchiness are reaching dangerously high points. This is accompanied by its traditional cry of ‘I’ll report this to the returning officer!’ when confronted by anything from their opponents that seems even slightly dodgy, as though they have any power to intervene.

Something most people don’t understand about British elections is that the powers of the Returning Officer are pretty much constrained to organising the running of the election itself, not regulating any behaviour of candidates. While election law is a distinct field, it’s not separate from the criminal law and breaches of it are dealt with by the police, not the returning officer. There is not, as far as I know, a separate electoral crimes division within any of Britain’s police forces so any investigations are handled by regular officers. In the quest for TV novelty, someone may one day hit on the idea of an officer specialising in the field of electoral crimes, but no one seems quite that desperate yet.

Two firsts for this election for me today. First I went out and did some deliveries for a friend, then then this afternoon had something that hasn’t happened for several years and actually had a canvasser knocking on my door. It was an interesting, but somewhat awkward experience as it turned out they didn’t quite know the area they were in and their canvass cards didn’t have basic information on them like ‘by the way, one of the people at this address is a local councillor’. Of course, if it happens again, I might not be so forward about my status, just to find out what they’re saying about me.

Question of the day: after planning to sell houses off at less than the market price, Tories now want to sell Lloyds shares off at a discount too. For the party that keeps telling us that they know business, it’s a bit weird that they keep selling things off for less than they’re worth, as that’s not what successful businesses do.

A couple of articles that may be of interest. May 2015 look at post-election coalition scenarios and how things seem to stack up a lot better for a Miliband government than a Cameron one. I think their scenarios tend to overplay how keen the Liberal Democrat membership would be to agree a second coalition – the leadership might be, but the decision’s not in their hands. Meanwhile, and fitting with my earlier talk of door-knocking, the Economist looks at campaigning on the ground, and how Labour’s better organisation is giving them a distinct edge there. In close races, having a better ground team – especially on election day – can make a big difference.

Moving down the party list, we find a regionalist party that’s probably not going to swing this election but could represent interesting trends in years to come: Yorkshire First. They’re not tied to many specific policies but rather to their ‘Yorkshire Pledge‘, calling for Yorkshire to have decision making powers of its own. It’s something that could be of interest in the next Parliament as devolution – particularly city regions – seem set to go ahead whoever is in power, and the debate over the geography of devolution, not just the powers, could be an interesting one to follow. Will Yorkshire be treated as a whole, or broken into city regions?

Nothing too interesting on the leaflet watch for today, but there is a UKIP candidate who seems to have misunderstood ‘sea change’ as ‘sea of change’ and run with that motif for his leaflets.. As he’s standing in Battersea, I’m not sure people there would welcome the prospect of the sea rushing in, as it would mean the Thames Barrier had failed.

Eighteen days to go, and if you want to do something positive before the election starts you can sign Save The Children’s Restart The Rescue petition to get EU action to save lives in the Mediterranean.

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People who were born after this poster was used are eligible to vote in this election

People who were born after this poster was used are eligible to vote in this election

When Margaret Thatcher went back on to the campaign trail in 2001, they managed to link it to The Mummy Returns, which was in cinemas at the time. Unfortunately for Tony Blair – but fortunately for us – no one’s yet come out with a series of Daddy movies, and none of the movies currently in cinemas really work for him. I very much doubt he’d want to be linked with a film called Insurgent, for a start.

His intervention may be something that affects the campaign, but I’m starting to get the feeling that we’re in a campaign where most people would like something to happen that would excite people. It’s all feeling a bit like 2001, where despite all the bluster from all sides (‘thirty days to save the pound!’), very little changed at the end of it. It’s the sort of campaign that feels of vital importance to everyone inside it, but it’s not reaching anyone outside. Then again, maybe someone’s taken one of my earlier Twitter ideas to heart and hacked the computers of the various polling companies to show no real change in the results when in reality they’re churning up and down. I think you could call it a psychological experiment to see what happens to academics and pundits over an extended period with no real change in their data. (The first symptom appears to be starting #constituencysongs on Twitter)

Of course, a lot of the campaign time at the moment is going to be taken up with people getting nomination papers filled in and returned. This can take up a lot of candidate and campaigner time, especially if there’s a council election going on and you’re having to chase round to get papers filled in, find out where your candidates have taken them off to , or just try and decipher the names they’ve got and work out if they’re on the electoral roll. Those are all things I’ve done in the past in an attempt to make sure everything’s done in time for the deadline. (And if you’re suddenly possessed by the desire to stand, you have until 10am 4pm (apologies for the earlier error) on Thursday to get a nomination form filled in and returned)

David Cameron visited the Game of Thrones set today, and claimed he’s a big fan, but I can’t see what attraction there’d be for him in a series about a bunch of feuding aristocrats whose feuds lead to terrible times for the (barely noticed) ordinary people. After all, a Lannistory always gets someone else to pay his debts.

I’ve noticed something about the Tories’ ‘coalition of chaos’ leaflet (which is going out a lot earlier in the campaign than the ‘Danger! Hung Parliament!’ ones did last time). Obviously, there’s the fact they use Salmond instead of Sturgeon to represent the SNP, which both dates it and reveals their sexism, but they also stick Farage alongside Miliband, Clegg and Salmond on the ‘chaos’ side. The problem with that is that all those parties have ruled out the possibility of a coalition with UKIP, while the one leader who hasn’t is David Cameron…

No odd candidates to feature today, but when the nomination lists come out, I’m sure we’ll find some good examples. However, the contest for ‘silliest line written in an ostensible serious article’ has a frontrunner who may not be caught for the rest of the campaign: “Ed Miliband, surely as left-wing a leader as you’ll find outside Central America”. That comes from this article, which seems to stem from a bizarre idea of right-wing commentators that it’s surprising that contemporary Scots don’t share the same beliefs as the 18th century Scottish intellectual elite. Maybe they’ll suddenly swing to that belief in the campaign, but articles saying they’ve all gone mad are unlikely to be a catalyst for that happening.

Just a month to go until election day. We can survive this if we support each other, I’m sure of it…

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We could’ve been anything we wanted to be
But don’t it make your heart glad
That we decided, a fact we take pride in
We became the best at being bad

If you don’t know it, it’s from Bugsy Malone, but for me it sums up a lot of my feelings about the coalition. I know it seems hopelessly naive now, but there was optimism back in May 2010, and a feeling that this was a government that might do things differently. Instead, that optimism has been methodically dismantled, piece by piece, as the government’s revealed itself to be even more cynical and mean-spirited than its predecessors, and the Liberal Democrat leadership has collaborated in this rush to the bottom, eager to prove that it can be just as horrendous in Government as the Conservatives and Labour.

Clegg’s immigration speech on Friday was just the latest humiliation in this series. I’d say it shows him reaching the abject depths of political cynicism and triangulation, but there are so many times he’s gone and drawn deep and deeper from that well that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him going deeper on something else. LIke the immigration speech, it’ll no doubt start with a few paragraphs of boilerplate liberalism, then veer wildly into appeasing tabloid sensibilities and saying we must support invading Iran and introducing ID cards while removing all benefits from anyone Iain Duncan Smith doesn’t like the look of.

The one flash of a silver lining is that the mood in the party feels much more mutinous than it has done at any point in the last few years. The leadership have dumped so many petty humiliations on the membership in recent times, from secret courts to Clegg’s speech, that a lot of people seem to have finally felt the straw that broke their back. (For instance, see Stephen Tall’s post on LDV and the comments below it) Any residual goodwill from Eastleigh and the party conference has been dissipated, and perhaps the only thing preventing a full on howl of rage is that most activists have one eye on the fast-approaching local elections.

What we have to decide as Liberal Democrats is not just whether we as a party can take two more years of this, but whether the country can survive two more years of it. As I’ve stated before, we came into this government because we thought it was in the national interest to do so, but it’s now clear to me that we’re merely supporting a narrowly ideological administration that’s on the verge of condemning the country to years of economic stagnation while dismantling the social framework. I think it’s time to end the coalition, but I also think we’re now beyond the point where those in the party who want to continue it can just trot out the ‘we have to show coalitions work, that’s why we can’t leave before 2015’ line. You have to show what will actually be achieved in the next two years beyond getting to sit round the cabinet table and showing we can make ‘tough decisions’.

It’s also time to question whether we need to replace Nick Clegg as leader. He’s shown a complete disregard for the party and its opinions, and when his statements get reported as being party policy, despite them being the complete opposite, it drags us all down with him. The question we need to answer is whether we want a leader who’s at war with his party, and seems to want to replace it with another, more pliant, membership or one who wants to actually lead a liberal party and make the case for liberalism, instead of capitulating and triangulating in the face of any criticism.

To got back to the start, what kind of party do we want to be? A liberal party, making the liberal case or a party that ranks power over principle?

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Back in September, I explained my reasons for wanting to see an end to the coalition, and nothing I’ve seen politically in the last three months has caused me to change my mind on that issue.

One of the reasons I gave for wanting to see it end was that “the coalition’s no longer about trying to come up with a joint policy programme, but about horse-trading and threats”. I think this trend is perfectly exemplified in this story, where the Tories in government were supposedly negotiating with Liberal Democrats while also raising funds from donors to stop it from happening.

While this is just one incident, it’s a symptom of how this coalition is failing. For a coalition to work, there has to be mutual trust between the parties involved. No matter how closely the parties want to show they are in public, there will always be disagreements in private that have to be resolved in some way. However, you can’t expect disputes to be resolved if one party is not coming to the table in good faith and pretending to negotiate over something they’ve got no intention of conceding on and, indeed, are actively working against.

However, as I also wrote about in September, this is a trap the Liberal Democrats fall into when we commit to the ‘we have to show that coalition works‘ line. If one party is resolutely wedded to not leaving the negotiating table in any circumstances, then it encourages the other to not play fair – there’s no need for them to build a relationship of trust with their partner, as breaking that trust doesn’t lead to any penalties.

As I’ve argued before, there’s plenty of evidence from across the UK and across the world to show that coalitions can work, so to claim that we have to stick in government regardless to prove they can isn’t strong leadership, it’s reflective of an unwillingness to make a wider argument. (Yet again, it’s the crippling belief that only what happens in Westminster is important in British politics) A single-party government can fail (see 1992-97 for an example), but that doesn’t mean that all single-party administrations are doomed to failure. In the same vein, the argument can be made that coalitions can work, but that the bad faith of the Tories has made this one unworkable. Just as one couple getting divorced doesn’t mean all marriages are doomed to fail, one coalition ending because one party to it is wedded to an unsuccessful economic dogma does not mean that all coalitions will end the same way.

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Two bits of news about the business of Government that have caught my attention over the last few days.

The quad has become the sextet – As we’ve come to see over the past couple of years, a lot of the real decisions about the direction of the Government are being taken by the ‘quad’: David Cameron, George Osbourne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. That’s now expanded include David Laws and Oliver Letwin.
Philip Hammond is pushing on with Trident replacement contracts – The ‘main gate’ decision isn’t meant to be taken until 2016, but work is still being undertaken as though that’s already been decided. Institutional inertia, anyone?

I’ve linked these stories because they both highlight something important about this government that I don’t see being talked about much, possibly because we’ve all internalized the belief that no one wants to talk about process stories. I’m usually inclined to agree, but the problem can be to assume that process and policy aren’t strongly linkes. Sure, in Government they can’t exist without each other, but we must not forget that the way the process is structured can effect the policy as it works through the system. (I had a whole lot of analogies here, none of which worked)

Nick Harvey’s removal from the MoD without a Liberal Democrat replacement coming in for him has already sparked off lots of discussion about the Trident review and replacement and today’s announcement is just a small part of that. The key point here, though, is that there’s now no longer someone like Nick Harvey fighting that corner in the MoD day to day. Clegg and Alexander are supposedly overseeing the issue, but that’s different from actually having a minister in there – overseers tend to only get to see what the process spits out at the end, when what’s needed here is someone to influence it a long time before final reports are made.

This is why I think the recent reshuffle is going to cause lots of issues further down the line as the implications of it are felt. As well as Liberal Democrats leaving certain areas behind, it also saw the Tories shift rightwards, and the additions to the quad make it look unlikely that it’s going to provide any brake to that tendency. The quad determines what does and doesn’t get done in government, what each party is willing to trade off with the other and for what. The Liberal Democrat members of it have an important job to do in not just keeping government running smoothly, but in understanding and representing what the party will and will not accept. Unfortunately, adding David Laws to it doesn’t instil much confidence in me that the party’s full range of views are going to be reflected. Adding in another member of the party ‘right’, someone ideologically closer to the Tories than many others in the party, seems to me to be a strategic error.

If we’re really seeking to act as a handbrake on the Tories, why is the centre of political gravity on the quad so far to the right? The quad might just be a process within government, but the decisions it makes – explicitly or implicitly – have an ideological effect on what policies get pushed through the system. Yet again, too much is being conceded to the Tories before proper discussions even start, and we know where that’s led us before.

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