» coalition ¦ What You Can Get Away With

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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There’s a very good open letter to Nick Clegg on Lib Dem Voice today, and it covers many of the points I wanted to make on the ‘shares for rights’ proposals George Osborne put forward this week.

The plan itself is bit of political game-playing by Osborne, in my opinion. The Tories have failed to get any traction for any of the Beecroft proposals on employment rights, so they’ve now switched to a different tactic. Employee ownership of companies is a good thing, and something – as Nigel Quinton points out in that LDV article – that the Liberal Democrats have pushed for. So, Osborne’s using those as a Trojan horse to hide his real aims in. By allowing some Treasury support for a version of employee ownership, he can cover the real aim of the policy which is to start chipping away at employment rights. Then once the principle of employment rights being universal has been surrendered, they can come back and look at removing them from others – maybe if employers don’t want to give away shares, they can offer employees a bit more pay for less rights, for instance – until they’re all but gone for everyone.

That’s why it’s especially galling to read that the party leadership appears to have fallen for the con trick and allowed this to progress. The press release on the Treasury website, the talk of consultation, the start date of April 2013: all of this points to something that’s been agreed at a high level, with Osborne given approval to announce at Tory conference as a Government policy, not a Tory proposal. Until Tim Gordon mentioned it in the briefing email that Nigel Quinton mentions, there’d been not a word on this from anyone high up in the party, when they’ve been hurriedly rushing to the media to condemn other Tory Conference wheezes. Indeed, given that Tim Gordon’s email misrepresents the scheme, one has to question just what is going on, and who’s giving who bad information?

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Today’s seen George Osborne give his speech to the Conservative Party Conference. As you might expect, there are many things in it that concern me, but I want to highlight two of them.

First we have the heavily trailed announcement that he wants to cut another £10bn off welfare costs by introducing more cuts and restrictions on who can claim various benefits. This, of course, is before we’ve even seen the impact the first wave of cuts in Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit will have, but then when did sense ever apply to an Osborne proposal?

This proposal has obviously caused some consternation, but there has been a firm line from the Liberal Democrats against this proposal. Sure, it started with ‘party sources’ saying it was bad, but now I’ve seen quotes directly attributed to Nick Clegg saying that nothing of the sort has been agreed, and Tim Farron making a clear statement of the same point.

However, there’s been another Osborne proposal that hasn’t been shot down and I’m actually worried that this has already been agreed to by the leadership without members even being consulted. It’s the ‘rights for shares’ proposal in which you would surrender various rights (unfair dismissal, redundancy payments etc) in exchange for being given shares in the company you work for. So, if the company goes belly-up you’re left with no redundancy and a bunch of worthless shares. Or if you’re unfairly dismissed, you can’t get compensation, but you can try and find someone interested in buying shares that will give them no control over a privately traded company. You won’t get a choice in this, either – employers will be free to offer contracts based on this with no alternative, so forget the idea that your employment rights in any way belong to you and that you have a choice whether to exercise them.

Some have attempted to claim that it’s a John Lewis-style model of employee ownership, ignoring the fact that staff at John Lewis keep their rights while being the sole owners of the company. This is much more Fifty Shades Of Grey – you might have a contract, but you’re still getting screwed.

It’s illiberal nonsense, and the sort of thing the Liberal Democrats should be shooting down before it’s even left the auditorium, but I’m worried that we’re allowing it to happen. As well as the announcement at the Tory Conference, it’s on the Treasury website, alongside the logo for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (where Vince Cable is Secretary of State). That, and the mention at the bottom of the press release that the Government will be consulting on this, makes me fear that this is already well on its way to the statute book.

Have the party leadership allowed this to happen? And will they let us know, or have they traded our rights away for a few magic beans?

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Earlier this week, I linked to James Graham’s piece on Clegg and the coalition, in which he mentioned my post on ending the coalition. This isn’t just incestuous blogging back-patting – James made some points about my post which I promised to think over and respond to. He wrote:

But Lib Dems who imagine that there is some dividend to be earned by leaving the coalition early are simply misguided. The public won’t thank them – they’ll simply conclude the Lib Dems are even more of a waste of time. By contrast, there is a historic, long term gain to be earned by simply allowing this coalition to last a full five years.

The electorate has a short collective memory; I’ve lost count of the number of people who hated the Labour government but now look back on it with rose-tinted spectacles. No matter how painful this coalition feels at the moment, or what damage it does, the fact is that if it lasts the full five years it will be seen as a success for coalition politics while if it falls apart it will be seen as a loss.

If the Lib Dems ever want to return to power again, persuading the country that coalition is not the scary thing that both Labour and the Conservatives insisted it was during the last election will have to be a priority. Adding another footnote to the argument that all coalitions fall apart after a couple of years will slow any chance of a Lib Dem recovery for the simple reason that people will see a vote for the Lib Dems to be a vote for chaos and weak government.

The proposition being put forward here – and James isn’t the only one to have put it forward – is that there’s a duty on the Liberal Democrats to prove that coalition government can work at a national level in the UK. If we break – or are perceived as breaking – the coalition, then we (and possibly all other small parties) will be damned for all time (or at least a few electoral cycles) by the electorate.

It’s a strong argument, and the public can have curiously long memories. Bringing down the coalition now would be a major step, and there is a strong possibility that it would poison the well for many years and that ‘coalitions don’t work in the UK’ could become part of the conventional wisdom. So, I don’t think this is a step to be taken lightly.

However, I don’t think it’s right to completely rule out ending the coalition in all but the most extreme circumstances. From my perspective – and I do have some local experience of working within one – one of the features of a coalition is an ongoing negotiation between the parties. (In the current Government, this is represented by the meetings of the Quad) The problem with the ‘we have to show that coalitions work’ argument is that it only applies to one side in the negotiations. The Tories aren’t working under that condition, which gives them an advantage in negotiations beyond the inbuilt one of being the largest party.

By saying – explicitly or implicitly – that nothing short of Cameron falling under the proverbial bus or it’s equivalent will make the Liberal Democrats walk away from the negotiating table, the party is drastically weakening its hand in any discussion. It emboldens the Tories to push further to the right, as there’s no counterforce to draw them to the centre if the Liberal Democrats have hidden their most powerful weapon in negotiations. Leaving aside my position that it should end now, I’m not saying that Clegg and Alexander should be threatening to walk out over everything, but if their counterparts don’t believe it’s possible that they will, then they’re dangerously weakened in negotiations.

Yes, there’s a significant risk of long-term damage in bringing the coalition down now, however that has to be weighed against the potential benefits that would be brought about by it ending. There is a strong argument that the Liberal Democrats need to prove a national-level coalition can work, but there’s also the counter that to make coalition work, there needs to be some desire to do so on both sides. It’s entirely right to leave a negotiation if one side is acting in bad faith – the problem then would be to explain the reasons why to the public afterwards.

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I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, but today’s announcement of the Government reshuffle has finally tipped me off the fence and into writing it. Back in June, I wrote a post questioning whether it was in the national interest for the Liberal Democrats to remain as part of the coalition government, and given what has happened since then, I’m now convinced that it’s not.

As I’ve said before, I voted for the coalition at the Special Conference in 2010 and given the circumstances at the time, it was the least worst option available to the Liberal Democrats. However, what we’re seeing now is not the coalition we were promised then, and errors made by the leaderships of both parties has contributed to the situation we’re in now.

The principal reason for the coalition coming into existence was because we were – and still are – facing a global economic crisis, and the national interest required a stable government that could take steps to deal with the economic situation. On that count – the prime mover behind the creation of the coalition – the government has failed. The British economy is at best stagnating and at worst going through the opening pangs of an overlong multiple-dip recession. The government’s plan for dealing with the problems has failed and there’s no agreement between the coalition parties over what we should do instead. Indeed, I don’t think there’s even consensus within the parties as to what to do next, and that’s not a recipe for a stable government in the national interest but for petty squabbling as the economy shrinks around them.

The reshuffle was a chance for a new direction to be put forward, for Osborne and/or Alexander to be replaced by someone with a different idea of how to get the economy moving forward that wasn’t just doubling down on the rhetoric of austerity. Instead, we’re going to get more of the same, and there’s clearly no situation in which George Osborne will be removed as Chancellor, no matter how badly the economy performs.

What’s also clear is that the Conservative Party we’re now in government with is not the same party we were promised in 2010. Remember David Cameron talking of the ‘greenest government ever’ and describing himself as a ‘liberal conservative’? Events have proven those to be in same category as Tony Blair being a pretty straight kind of guy. Now we have a coalition partner that’s talking about how the green agenda is holding the economy back and how what little that’s not been built on in the south east should become more airports for London, while the Home Office proposes taking more powers to snoop on people’s internet usage, an almost-liberal Justice Secretary is replaced by a homophobe and equalities pass from someone who worked for equal marriage to someone who’s consistently voted against equality. This is a Conservative Party that doesn’t even want to wear a figleaf of being green or liberal, and so the question has to be whether the Liberal Democrats want to spend nearly three years watering down increasingly right-wing proposals from them.

The coalition’s no longer about trying to come up with a joint policy programme, but about horse-trading and threats, and the problem is that there’s a lot more Tories in the Government than there are Liberal Democrats and they’re setting the agenda. It’s not about trying to get even vaguely liberal policies through – as the Lords reform debacle showed, the insanity of the Tory right and the shamelessness of Labour mean that won’t happen – it’s going to be about taking on Tory policies and trying to give them a veneer of normality before bending over backwards to get them through the Commons.

This is not the Coalition we signed up for, and it’s not a coalition that’s good for the country. If we’re going to work in the national interest, we have to accept that it’s time to withdraw from it and find a better way of moving forward. That may be attempting a different coalition with other parties, it may be using power over a Conservative minority government, it may be a whole new General Election to let the people have their say. As it is, this government is harming the country, and it’s time to drastically change the plan.

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