The Case for Keeping Clegg (Even in Opposition)

Unless something dramatic happens between now and election day it appears as if we are in for a hung parliament. Unlike the previous one, there will be no obvious match between the parties; a right-of-centre coalition of the type we have enjoyed/endured (delete as applicable) will be difficult to achieve given the culling of Lib Dem seats. What is more likely is either a grand coalition of the left, or a minority Labour government lurching from vote to vote on the goodwill of SNP, Plaid, Green and Lib Dem votes.

Whichever way the election goes, leaders that are not deemed winners are for the chop. The Tories are sharpening their knives ready to take out Cameron, a dethroning they have been dreaming of for years. They held back from realising this desire due to the delusion that he could easily defeat Miliband and Cameron’s failure to do so has made Miliband’s position stronger than it was a month or so ago. However, a last minute swing to the Conservatives could set back the recent good-will Miliband’s garnered within his party, and if the Tories managed to form a government he too would be finished. Even the smaller party leaders such as Farage and Bennett face potential peril. Both have enjoyed an almost perfect scenario for minor parties to have any hope of breaking through in the First-Past-The-Post system. If they fail to capitalise, questions will be asked as to how they were allowed to blow it.

But the most likely to fall is the most hated man in British politics Nick Clegg. Since going into coalition with their arch-enemy, the party’s ratings have plummeted. Estimates range between the Lib-Dems returning 20 and 30 seats (down from 56) though Lib Dems usually face an election day slump as voters flee back to the safety of the two main parties, in which case they may sink lower than that. With as few as 25 MPs the party won’t have enough to negotiate a coalition with the Conservatives, nor an exclusive one with Labour. Instead they will be merely one of many small parties doing vote by vote deals.

With a reduced presence, a hammering in the polls, and a left leaning parliament, it makes sense for Clegg to go, right? Consistently he’s shown to be a drag on the Lib Dem ticket, with candidates leaving him off their election material. It would only be right for him to step down and leave the party in the hands of someone like Vince Cable or Tim Farron, both hailing from the Social-Democratic wing of the party and better placed to negotiate with Labour.

I put the alternative to you, however: this approach would be a mistake. Whilst ditching Clegg would give the Lib Dems quick east boost in the opinion polls, a long term strategy might be worth considering:

If Miliband makes it into Number 10, Cameron is bound to resign his party’s leadership. Similarly, other familiar faces of the current campaign may also vanish; if Farage fails to win his seat, he may well resign leadership and hand over the reins to Douglas Carswell; if the Greens fail to take anything other than Brighton Pavilion they might turn back to the eminently more media-savvy Caroline Lucas.

These fresh faces (in terms of leadership – not actual freshness) would be in for a bumpy parliament. Whether successful or not, a grand informal coalition of the left would soon turn bitter as each side struggles for influence. The public are unlikely to support it for long.

Which brings us back to the question of Nick Clegg’s fate. In such a tumultuous parliament a party leader well-known to the public and experienced in government will be of the upmost importance. With Cameron gone, Clegg would represent and speak up for the previous government. Right now this suggestion would be the last thing the party membership would like, but after a year or so of failed votes and indecisive leadership the memory of the Liberal-Conservative coalition might well be a vote winner. Clegg reminding the public of economic growth and stability might well work, whereas Tim Farron, known only to political junkies, won’t even get the air-time.

Eventually Clegg will need to go, but to dump him unceremoniously in the wake of a bad election result would be for the party to run to the left and turn its back on what it has managed to achieve in government. Like it or not, the Lib Dems have become a centrist party, not a party of the hard-left. It can keep Clegg and remain the sensible voice of the centre or they can go into a full-blown rout. I fear to do the latter would mean that when the public grow tired of Labour’s minority they wouldn’t have the Lib Dems to turn to for stable pragmatic government; instead they will identify them with haphazard left-wing bartering, or worse, something not worth considering at all.

Election Pain and Tactics

As the AV Referendum nears, both sides of the Coalition are beginning to gnash their teeth and growl across the wide pit that is government. So simpler would it have been if this was a Coalition between the Lib Dems and Labour. In such an instance, the Labour rebels would have been hushed up, turning the divide into a simple government vs opposition debate. Instead the Coalition is split along party lines, with a rather confused Labour party joining both groups, like teenagers trying to start a scuffle in the playground. It is a cluster-fuck of epic proportions.

It is perhaps the unpredictable nature of this referendum that has everyone on edge. The polls seem to fluctuate quite dramatically depending upon who you ask. One minute the ‘Yes’ group are flagging, the next they’re pulling into the lead. On the day it’s all going to come down to who can get their vote out, and with so many Lib Dem voters disaffected, this could dramatically hamper the ‘yes’ campaign.

Rather more predictable is the local elections. Expect a slaughter of the Liberal Democrats, big gains for Labour, and a Conservative Party holding firm, mainly because the Tory voters have nowhere else to go. The week following the inevitable disaster for the Lib Dems is going to be followed with countless interviews with disgruntled ex-liberal councillors blaming Nick Clegg for it all. I have no doubt that there will be many calls for his head and the end to the coalition, but this would be a dire mistake.

Nick Clegg will not survive another general election. This is true, yet it would be so even if he wasn’t unfairly carrying the blame for every unpopular decision the government’s taken. Being the smaller party, the Lib Dems were ultimately the ones who had to make a choice to join the coalition or not. The Conservatives pulled over in their white fiesta and said, “I’ve got sweets in here if you’d like to get in?” and the Lib Dems were the ones who had to decide whether or not to climb on-board.

This pact makes any electoral campaign difficult. Do you hammer the coalition partner, or side with them? The idea of Nick Clegg and David Cameron taking bites out of each other in a televised debate is preposterous. The only sensible option for a smaller party facing such circumstances is to formally end the Coalition in the run up to the general election, elect a new leader and campaign as an individual entity. Sleepwalking into an election as the junior in a Coalition could easily see them getting dumped by the Tories, the moment they secure a majority.

Would this mean that the Lib Dems would be distancing themselves from the Coalition? Certainly not. Such a process is all part of the reality of Coalitions, and the Lib Dems should be proud of what they’ve gained from such a weak hand. At the moment the public and the Labour party don’t understand how coalitions work and it is the duty of the Liberals to show them.

The only other option available would be to merge the parties, and that would be very messy indeed….

Two Households, Both Alike In Indignity

It’s been tough for the Liberal Democrats and Coalition supporters over the past few weeks. Many on the liberal flank of the unholy union have been getting jittery, talk of rebellion on the forthcoming tuition fees bill is rife and the party is openly mocked for renegading on their pre-election pledge.

But for those who have struggled to understand how a coalition works and are horrified by the Liberal’s concessions, they should keep a close eye on today’s announcement by Ken Clarke.

If free education is something close to a Lib Dem’s heart, then crime sits in every Tory’s gut. Before the election (and indeed, probably before any election) the Conservatives campaigned under a ‘tough on crime’ banner, promising more prisons, harsher sentences, and abstinence programs for drug addicts.

And yet, despite these promises to their electorate, the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has announced that instead of creating more prison places, there will be less. Less prison places, more community sentences. Why? Because the evidence suggests that prison does not work, and community punishments do.

“I think the prison system is not doing some of the things it’s meant to do. That’s stopping us preventing the rise of a criminal under-class who commit more crime when they are out.”

Ho ho ho. What a crazy mixed-up world this is, when a conservative party is proposing sensible policies on crime. He also wants to put more emphasis on putting drug addicts into treatment instead of prison and identifying inmates with mental illnesses.

This could all be straight out of the Lib Dem’s Big Book of Crimefighting and no doubt those of a liberal persuasion will be delighted. One significant delight is the dropping of the Tory pledge on mandatory sentences for carrying knives. On this Clarke said:

“Serious knife crimes will get serious prison sentences, but we’re not setting absolute tariffs.”

This will anger many Tories who campaigned under a ‘tough on anyone who looks like they could be a criminal’ stance, and indeed there is already talk of a rebellion from Tory back-benchers.

But this is the price of a coalition. Without the Liberal Democrat wing there is no chance Ken Clarke would be able to push this ahead. Indeed, it is doubtful such a sensible and liberal conservative could hold such a position in government at all. This will anger many conservatives, but the reply is the same as it was to the lib dems who are getting ansy about the tuition fees: you didn’t win the election so you have to compromise.

The fate of Ken Clarke’s proposals may well rest in the hands of the lib dems. If they rebel on Thursday over the education bill, then that will give an excuse to the Tories to rebel over crime. And this will cause a downward spiral to the end of the coalition, a snap election, and ultimately victory to Labour who will slime their way back into power without a shred of conviction between them.

We wait with baited breath.

How Many Students Does It Take To Screw A Party?

How easy is it to trick a student? From looking at the escalating (I refuse to use the term snowballing) protests, I would say ‘very’. The Right always lives up to its reputation of being made up of arseholes and right now the Left is truly showing itself to be as thick as two short planks.

Next Thursday the Lib Dems are going to line up and collectively hang themselves, just before the vote on raising tuition fees. Perhaps then, with fifty or so yellow corpses dangling from London Bridge, people will finally say, “gosh, they really didn’t want this did they?”

For those Lib Dems who don’t obey the party whip and do themselves in, they will be forced to choose between fucking the country, or fucking themselves. Ouch. Tough.

Because, despite the many moral and philosophical reasons why education should be completely free, this current proposal is about all we can do for the time being. We’ve got no cash, so sorry students, you’ll have to pay the state back once you get a fancy job with your degree.

But that’s not what the student protesters think. They have fallen for Labour’s line like a twelve year old girl being offered cigarettes by her seedy English teacher. Labour are claiming that the cuts to public finance are the part of some ‘whim’ on depart of the government. “We wouldn’t be making these cuts”, they bellow, sounding like a scumbag father, kicked out of his family home for spending all the family allowance at the bookies, then telling his children that if he was in charge instead of their mother, he’d buy them that Xbox she claims they can’t afford.

“These are ideological cuts” they cry, but this statement is meaningless. Any debate on what should be spent by the state is ideological. It’s ideological to make those spending commitments in the first place, and then just as ideological to cut them. The motivation might be based upon facts, but the act is always ideological. Claiming this is in some way new or bad is quite frankly moronic.

There’s a lot of chatter about students becoming radicalised into the socially active students of the 60’s. Sadly this couldn’t be further from the truth. There doesn’t seem to be any urge to right the wrongs of the world, just a dissatisfaction at getting a bill at the end of their course.

Students are so gullible they believe that bad headlines and angry comments at Question Time means they are making progress for their cause. What they don’t seem to realise is that Britain is obsessed with bad headlines and angry comments. We thrive on it. We don’t really care about the cause, we just want to moan. In a couple of weeks we will have moved on to the next issue to rant about and student fees will be forgotten. It’s our way.

But the Lib Dems, swinging from their ropes, won’t have forgotten. They’ll remember quite clearly never to try to help students again.

Best Of A Bad Situation

Every MP in each of the main parties must now be wishing the result had been slightly different. The Tories must be kicking themselves; if they had only a slightly greater shift in their direction, they would never have had to do a deal with the Lib Dems.

For the Liberals, just a few more seats to them or Labour would have meant a progressive alliance, something that would have sat much better with their grass-roots.

Labour was left in the uncomfortable position of losing the election, but not by enough. In the party’s interest, this was an election to lose. Lose and regroup is the aim of all tribalist members of Labour. Sadly for them, they had just enough seats to make a “rainbow alliance” possible, so had to go through the false dance of entertaining the notion. When the talks fell apart they revealed themselves as the tribal and selfish clan they are.

So the bizarre situation of a Conservative Liberal Democrat Coalition has arisen, sending shock waves through both parties, and Labour rubbing its hands with glee. Fuck the country, Labour’s thinking, this will shoo us in next time for sure!

But will it? And will it be the disaster the Liberal Democrats grass roots think it will be?

Throughout this campaign I’ve been supporting the Lib Dems with the main opposition in my mind being the Tories. In a coalition I always assumed the Liberals would side with Labour. If the seats had fallen slightly differently, that is no doubt how it would have gone down. As it was, Labour made it impossible. The Liberal Democrats did not have that choice. A rainbow coalition needed support from all the nationalist parties, and Labour announced very quickly it would not work with the SNP, putting a nail in the coffin of that idea.

So it was either allow the Conservatives to form a minority government, or join them in coalition. Many Liberals would vomit down their shirts at the idea (as I’m sure many Tories are doing right now too), but if they think calmly for a moment, they will see this is the best choice out of a barrel of shits.

David Cameron is under fire from his party. He didn’t do as well as he’d hoped, and they are claiming it was because he pursued the centre ground too much. They wanted him to retreat to the right more on immigration, tax, deficit reduction, crime etc. In a minority government he would have been at their mercy, and so the party would have been dragged to the right, giving us a ghastly conservative government reminiscent of the 80s.

With a coalition with the Lib Dems Cameron has instead been dragged to the left, firmly straddling the centre ground. Indeed, he is now forced to maintain a social liberal stance to hold the coalition together. By sacrificing the country’s goodwill, Clegg has saved us all from Conservative back-benchers.

Not only that, but he’s got Liberal policies being enacted and conservative policies scrapped. By forcing the two parties to work together, the Liberals can now try and shape conservative thinking in their direction. We could be on the cusp of a new era of socially liberal politics. Before he became party leader, Cameron was on the extreme social-liberal progressive wing of his party. Sadly, in all his time at the helm he sank further and further away from that. Now that he’s in bed with the Lib Dems, he might just have the courage to return to his roots.

Of course, in all likelihood it will end in tears. These are two parties that loathe each other and pull in very different directions. What we may see is a split that’ll dwarf anything that ever existed between Brown and Blair. But perhaps the obvious gulf between Cameron and Clegg will help ease the divisions? Disagreements might be seen, less as a betrayal, but as a genuine and expected tussle of ideas.

Only time will tell, and already the Liberals are feeling the pain. I sympathise,but congratulate them. This isn’t what any of us wanted, but they’ve done the best with the hand they were dealt. This is grown up politics, crossing the line and doing deals with those you disagree with. I can’t stand Cameron, but I’m glad he’s got Clegg in there with him, keeping an eye out for all of us.