The result was crushing. A firm no to electoral reform and a pummelling at local level for Lib Dem councillors is a devastating double whammy. The road back to even slight popularity will be rocky and steep, with huge risks of even further falls on the way. The media were quick to pounce on the misery of Clegg and the tensions within the coalition. Whilst exaggerated, there is no doubt that the coverage accurately reflects a permanent shift in the dynamic of the parties in partnership.
Firstly then why was the defeat so bad? And why did the Conservatives not only escape punishment but considerably strengthen their position with gains? In many ways it is pointless to dwell on the results. What’s done is done. Liberal Democrats across the board are declaring the need to move on and get on with the job, seemingly out of bitterness, but also out of practicality and necessity. It is perfectly understandable however that some big names, such as Cable and Huhne, have lashed out at their Tory coalition partners in the dizzying spiral of disappointment and defeat.
They feel, rightly, that their party has become a human shield. They feel that they are victims of immense unfairness, ironic given that the core of their policies on tax, education and indeed the voting system, are intended to increase fairness. The Liberal Democrats had to enter into coalition with the Conservatives. Labour was never a viable or democratic alternative. A minority Tory government would have been ineffective and lacked any Lib Dem input on policy, whether as a restraining or creative force.
They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Clegg would never have been forgiven had he passed up the chance to introduce a host of coveted Liberal measures. As I’ve argued before Clegg also saw an opportunity to open up politics. By showing that coalitions could work, the old seesaw between Labour and the Conservatives would be challenged. Consensus and cross party collaboration would produce broader ideas and solutions to the bigger issues, in a 21st century where ideology is far less important than results, to voters at least.
Where they went wrong is debatable. There are obviously a range of reasons. But primarily it seems to be that too much eagerness and what’s been described as “personal chumminess” between Cameron and Clegg, was on display. The broken promises therefore appeared to be callous and genuine deception, rather than an inevitable concession from the minority partner in coalition. On tuition fees the Lib Dems made the mistake of trying to claim that the new policy was a better one because of changes they instigated. They needed to make a greater show of their overwhelming reluctance to charge fees at all, whilst still championing the restraining measures for fairness that were their doing.
Ultimately it all comes down to Clegg’s economic gamble though. I am still not sure just how fully he buys into George Osborne’s interpretation of the crisis and his drastic solution. It may well be that privately Clegg still stands by his pre-election comments, that the deficit should be reduced gradually with a focus on growth in the short term. Adopting the Tory approach could be the primary price of going into government for the Lib Dems. But publicly he has signed his party up to comprehensive cuts in public spending that are at odds with the instincts of most Liberals. And you’d have to say that Clegg must believe the Conservative plan will eventually lead to growth, because if it doesn’t his party will be battered once more come the next General Election.
Certainly earlier this year I wrote about a speech in which Clegg made the most compelling argument thus far in favour of extreme deficit reduction, which essentially boiled down to longer term sustainability and strength in diversity for the economy. I still think he may be torn though and that he might accept some of Labour’s arguments that claim a slower pace of cuts would have restored greater growth sooner.
With regards to the referendum on AV Clegg clearly made an error when choosing the date. The key reason for Yes2AV’s failure was that their argument became inseparably embroiled with party politics and the local elections. Clegg’s personal unpopularity rubbed off on the campaign for reform, mainly because of dirty tactics from the No camp. Yes2AV also made ridiculous unrealistic claims about accountability, rather than keeping their argument simple. Celebrities made a late push for reform at a rally but by then it was too late, the argument should have been made more forcefully outside of the political sphere weeks before May the 5th.
Of course the important and interesting question now is what do the Lib Dems do to recover? And how will this affect the coalition? Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain’s third party, was on Question Time on Thursday. He spoke eloquently and with reason on foreign affairs, prompting cheers and claps from the bulk of the audience. But when it came to domestic politics he found himself bogged down by the harsh public opinion of Clegg, so very different from the polls after the TV debates over a year ago. He valiantly defended the courage of his party’s leader under fire but could only react with frustration when the audience flatly refused to hear him out.
Clegg continued to show that courage in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. Given the pictures of his gloom and the mountain to climb left by the results, Clegg gave remarkably assured answers and honestly asserted that he’d misjudged things, and that the Lib Dems needed to have a “louder voice” in the coalition. He spoke of the need to sing about the unexpectedly high number of Lib Dem manifesto policies being implemented. But in many ways all this was predictable and necessary.
The efforts to give his party an individual and distinctive again will undoubtedly begin to heal the wounds of defeat. He needs to show greater reluctance when he must go along with Conservative plans, pick the Tory policies he does oppose carefully for maximum impact and point out measures that perfectly illustrate the moderating influence of his party. Clegg has already worked out that NHS reform is the best way to begin a recovery, threatening to block it and demanding changes are made to meet concerns. However what would really give the Lib Dems a distinctive voice back is to propose and explain policies they would be implementing without the Conservatives.
What I mean by this is to set out policies, on tuition fees for example, that the Lib Dems would implement if they had the ideal (but unlikely) scenario of a majority government. These policies should be calculated to appeal to Labour voters and those within Labour potentially open to coalition. The Lib Dems need to reach out to Ed Miliband or those around him with influence, to stop him pounding the human shields of the coalition as opposed to those in the driving seat. A senior figure in the party, perhaps likeable President Tim Farron, should be chosen to run what would almost be an alternative Lib Dem opposition.
I accept this would be difficult to handle and could shatter trust and cooperation with the Tories. Many might say it’s impossible. But as long as Clegg and key Lib Dem ministers weren’t directly involved, the group did not challenge specific government policy and simply proposed Lib Dem alternatives not covered by the coalition agreement, there would be little the Tories could do to stop it. AV may be lost but the Lib Dems have plenty of arguments they can still make that are unique to them. They must take the philosophy behind AV, choice and fairness, and tie it to attractive policy. For example their manifesto went further on tax, transport, energy and the House of Lords. Choice is the key to freedom in a modern society and the Lib Dems must make the case for the state actively empowering individuals. The Liberals must show how they would liberate.
It’s probably better for Clegg to keep his head down for a while and continue to soak up pressure whilst his party recovers independently. Clegg’s popularity will take longer than his party’s to heal. But this does not mean he is the wrong man to lead it. He has for the most part taken bold decisions both in the national interest and to achieve greater fairness sought by his party’s voters. He has had to concede costly economic compromises, but to overcome these he must be bold again. Frankly after the tactics of the No Campaign, so wholeheartedly backed by Cameron, Clegg must dirty his hands a little. A louder voice will only convince dispirited voters if it hints at what the coalition is doing wrong because of the Conservatives, as well as what it’s doing right because of the Lib Dems.
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Cast your minds back to the days of the last election. All the talk was of cuts and the campaign was curiously short on optimism. Nick Clegg rocketed to popularity because of his outsider status and a rare ability to sound slightly hopeful about the odd issue. Cameron and Brown battled over grim details, tainted by all that had gone before. One of the few rays of hilarity to shine out of the darkness was the very British ridicule of one of our current Prime Minister’s key policies and publicity stunts.
I’m referring, of course, to Cameron’s notorious airbrushed poster campaign. The abnormally clean image of the old Etonian presented on billboards everywhere to the entire nation, took the Tory drive for renewal to the laughable extreme. Dave was not wealthy and out of touch, merely handsome and approachable. As funny as the image and tactics themselves were however, it’s the snappy quoted message alongside his shiny face coming back to haunt the Prime Minister now.
I certainly do not pretend to even partially comprehend the reforms to the NHS this Conservative led government is proposing. Indeed the lack of understanding from its own ministers seems to be a large part of the problem. And it’s no secret the Conservatives have long planned a shake-up, fuelled by the steadfast belief of their long serving top dog on health, Andrew Lansley. However whilst the faults and flaws of the plans that are becoming clear are extremely important, in terms of political capital and strategy for Number 10, they are in many ways besides the point when it comes to that infamous election promise.
“I’ll cut the deficit-not the NHS” translated for voters to “This is a new kind of Tory party that treasures the NHS above all else. We will not mess with it anyway.” Cameron will argue his promise did not say he wouldn’t change the NHS and that it needs modernisation for the better. But he knew the implication of his promise and the votes it would win him. His protestations about the benefits of his reforms will therefore mean little to those his promise swayed.
It’s also especially hollow given that the Prime Minister has since watered down and diluted that concrete pledge, which formed the symbolic heart of his campaign, again and again and again. First it became merely a safeguard for frontline services and then promised improvements, like an increase in the number of midwives, were scaled back and ultimately scrapped altogether, with even plans to maintain current numbers reversed. Fears about privatisation which the reasonable man might have attributed to overzealous, sensational leftist press, are now emerging to have hard evidence behind them. 50,000 jobs are set to be cut. How exactly is this not cutting the NHS?
If the workers within the system themselves were in favour Cameron would have a much stronger argument. But countless GPs have written to newspapers, as well as other types of professional, warning against the changes as unnecessary and damaging. The Prime Minister continually insists that locals have the right to opt in our out, but what are those that oppose and don’t sign up to the scheme meant to do? Even in my quiet rural area GPs feel overworked and many local people distrust the vested interests of certain doctors. Is handing over the biggest budget in the country to them really a good idea and what people want? It’s doubtful if the new system will even be able to produce what the public need.
Another argument constantly wheeled out by the Tories is the pressing need for modernisation and reform, which make it necessary. There is nothing necessary about these plans though. Whilst the health service has its flaws, the current system leads to a mostly positive service. There are undoubted challenges in health care such as an ageing population and emerging drugs, which often seem insurmountable. Government proposals do not do enough to ease the burden and according to many that know, they actually complicate the fight. For a leadership so keen on cutting the deficit, you would think that such costly, ideological plans could wait for better times.
It would also do more good in the long run, and reduce the deficit substantially, to work out some realistic spending priorities centrally. Vital areas and treatments need to be protected nationally and things the NHS can’t afford to provide should be phased out. The private sector does have a role but it should grow independently of the NHS and take up the slack for treatments it shouldn’t be wasting resources on. Taxes and other initiatives should encourage healthier living. Devolving decisions to GPs is no magic pill, no silver bullet and it doesn’t even equip the NHS for the critical, worsening challenges it will face in the future. It would be a far more sensible decision for the government to begin a nationwide debate about what we expect, want and need from our NHS now. It would fit with the “new politics” of plural cooperation and potentially produce actual solutions.
Perhaps the main reason the government looks less likely to bow to pressure from the public on this issue is the Prime Minister’s ego and pride. He’s been happy to recognise the weaknesses of coalition and concede on issues like the forests and sport in schools. But the NHS plans are too inextricably linked to Cameron’s personal brainchild; the Big Society. Its philosophy of localism and choice in the community over centralised solutions marries nicely with Lansley’s ideas for health. The health reforms open the way for the sort of community cohesion and interaction, fuelled by voluntary, charity involvement, that Cameron wants to see. He genuinely believes it’s the path to a social recovery for Britain that’s sustainable and empowers government to do what it does best, as well as liberating people from the state. He’ll continue to be blind to all the irreversible wounds the “reforms” will inflict on the NHS itself and his popularity with the people as long as it remains tied to his vision. His recent attempt to re-launch the initiative demonstrates his huge commitment; it cannot afford to fail.
The real shame for the country and even the Conservative party, is that Cameron’s election pledge could have been a clever way of dumping a responsibility and challenge for maximum political gain. His implicit promise of not touching the NHS meant it could have been left as it was, a gargantuan issue for a future administration to tackle, ticking over just fine for the time being. There are after all, enough problems for the coalition to face. If this government had done mostly nothing on health, the public would have thanked them for it, the Conservatives especially. But Cameron is so determined to be radical and appear to be so, that he will press on, regardless of the consequences. It may prove to be the well meaning project that took his remodelling of the state too far.
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