Saturday 7 May 2011

Not shedding tears for AV

I'm really not too sad about losing the referendum on AV. Nick was right – AV is a miserable little compromise, better than FPTP but not hugely so. I am more sad about losing the opportunity to get a proper debate a vote on voting reform that really works.

I am also very sad about the losses of councillors we suffered yesterday. My own district council, having been LibDem run for some time, and well run, is now Tory. Oh boy. But we live in the real world, and I think Tim Farron got it right yesterday – this is our first experience of being in government, and now it's our first experience of being in an unpopular government. It's downright unpleasant, but it's what happens. The reaction from some is also what happens – Nick Clegg is finished, the party is finished, we've been outfought, outfoxed, etc, etc. In the Independent yesterday. Mary Dejevsky called our some of voters “naïve and disgracefully fickle”. She's right. But again that's reality. We have to work to reacquire those voters and to show that we can govern. Right now, I still feel that we have done the right thing all the way through the last year. Maybe some decisions and some tactics could have been marginally better, but I don't think anybody could have put us in a better position than Nick and the party leadership have done. OK. We've had a kicking. Live with it.

I think it remains worth remembering, and reminding people how we got here.

We went into the last election facing a massive public sector deficit and a world in recession. The recession was not Labour's fault, but their continuing to spend when the money was no longer there, and their insistence on maintaining light regulation of the baking sector were the cause of it being deeper and more painful in this country than it would otherwise have been. Dealing with the deficit was going to be the major problem for any new government. All three parties had different strategies for dealing with it, but there would have been pain under any of them.

After the election all three parties had choices. Ours was to go into coalition with the Conservatives, go into coalition with Labour or sit on our hands. The Conservatives' was to go into coalition with us, or to try to govern as a minority party. Labour's was coalition or nothing. We and the Conservatives found we had things to talk about which enabled both us and them to make coalition government a reality. Labour were clearly not serious about negotiating (whatever they say now) and in any case, coalition with Labour was not nearly as palatable as coalition with the Conservatives looked at the time, and has turned out to be since. And, yes, I know what I just said.

Coalition with Labour. Leaving aside the practicalities of governing a rainbow coalition, we'd still have Gordon Brown, that great clunking fist dominating everything. And ID cards; would Labour have given those up; I doubt it, with the control freaks in charge.

We chose coalition with the Tories and they chose coalition with us. We got a lot of our manifesto in to the coalition agreement. There were some things we were never going to get – free university tuition was one of them. It's only actually a broken promise if you are capable of doing something and don't. Given the electoral maths, we were not capable of delivering free tuition under the coalition agreement. I do not regard that as a broken promise. I know other people do, and that is a political reality. But maybe we could work harder to change the way people see that decision. I also think – if we're going to talk about broken promises – I think about all the students who said they were going to vote for us and then broke their promise. We know that fewer students actually voted than any other demographic in the UK. Just consider what the position might be if they had voted: we might have a lot more seats than we have now, the Conservatives fewer, as well as Labour. The dealing around that negotiation table would have been very different. So I accept it's a reality, but I do find it a bit hard when people talk about being betrayed.

What “do” we have? 75% of our manifesto being delivered. That's not bad. I am so glad to be rid of ID cards and all that database state paraphernalia that went with it. And we actually agreed with the Tories on that, and disagreed heartily with Labour – something that ought to give any tribal leftwinger in the party pause for thought. What else have we got?

A crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion; equalising capital gains and income tax rates, a substantial hike in personal tax allowances, with plans to head for £10,000, restoring the link between pensions and earnings, got a fair deal for Equitable Life pensioners, we have a commission looking at breaking up the big banks, we've got the banks agreeing to lend more, we have delayed the decision on replacing Trident, we are reducing red tape with a one in one out rule, we're supporting superfast broadband, we are expanding the market for green products and technologies, we have extended flexible working, we've introduced the pupil premium, we're improving SEN educational provision, we're reviewing the National Curriculum to make it slimmer and more flexible, we are strengthening guidance to head teachers on combating bullying, including homophobic bullying, work is being done on integrating health and social care, we have increased the priority of research into dementia, we have increased funding for counselling, we have introduced controls on low price alcohol sales, we are maintaining free entry to museums and art galleries, and we are making putting on live music easier for small venues, we are increasing spending on early years education, and on respite care, we are ending the compulsory retirement age, we have created an entire new Green Deal, including energy company obligations, created a Renewable Heat Incentive, we are investing more in plants to build wind turbines, we are working with others to establish a system for reducing emissions from deforestation, we have been influential in the EU wide ban on the import of illegally sourced timber and timber products, we are reviewing the restrictive terms and conditions of employment for police officers, we have a new strategy for hate crimes, we are moving towards prisoners contributing to financial reparation for victims.

I could go on. And on and on. But I think I've made my point – after only a year, we have record we can be really proud, and even if we do go into oblivion – which I don't think we will – we have done things we can look back on with pride.

We have also had a valid and valuable effect in keeping Tory headbanger policy off the agenda. We have been instrumental in forcing the “pause” on Lansley's ill judged NHS reforms, with the prospect of genuine changes in what is being proposed. We have kept the loonier rightwing ideas about benefits and Europe off the agenda. That is something to be quietly pleased about even while we nurse the wounds of May 2011.

The realities of political life on the street are different. The public has chosen to give us a kicking. That's what happens. We need to keep working, keep our nerve, keep an eye to eye with the ruthless, calculating and tribal Conservatives, and keep communicating with people who we know we can serve better than the Conservative or Labour parties can. In that regard I think Nick Clegg is doing well; this is what happens when you're in government. I hope he carries on doing well. If the economy comes right, which is looking a decent prospect at the moment, we will also prosper.


Nich Starling said...

You totally contradict yourself. You said

"this is our first experience of being in government, and now it's our first experience of being in an unpopular government. It's downright unpleasant, but it's what happens."

But it's not true is it. The Tories are part of this same unpopular government and they made gains, largely from us. Now explain that ?

Time to end this coalition before it destroys the party.

Rob Parsons said...

There's no contradiction. Lots of our voters didn't vote for us because they're punishing us. Lots of Tory voters are happy with what the Tories are doing. Also, it seems to be the case that the referendum brought out the no vote, and a lot of them voted Tory as well.

And look at what we've achieved. Things like the ending of detention of child asylum seekers and the substantial raising of personal tax allowances would simply not have happened without us being in government. Neither Tory nor Labour governments would have delivered those. Are you really saying you would prefer those not to have happened?

My point is that these bruises are part of being in government, and if we're serious about power we have to get used to it. It will not destroy the party, it will ultimately make us more resilient. The alternative? Walk away from the coalition? Get serious - that's the end of us as a real party for generations. We'd go back to being a protest movement, permanently letting other people set the agenda, then complaining about it. If you want that, go and find a protest movement to join - the LibDems are a real party.