Published on September 18th, 2013 |
by Eleanor Newis
Must Be Tricky Being A Liberal Democrat
“Hostility towards organised labour, people on benefits and immigrant minorities. The list of people the Tories disapprove of is even longer: public sector workers, especially teachers; the unmarried; people who don’t own property. Their core demographic excludes pretty much anybody who wouldn’t have qualified for the vote before the 1867 Reform Act.” Someone has been laying into the Conservatives this week; but, strangely, this someone is not from the opposition – or indeed from the media. That “core demographic” joke – a pretty good one, no matter your politics – came from none other than Vince Cable. In his conference speech a few days ago, Cable heavily criticised the Liberal Democrats’ coalition partners. Perhaps unwittingly, perhaps very knowingly, he highlighted the central tension within his party: a tension that they will have to resolve before the next election, or risk losing voters over incoherent policy.
The Liberal Democrats are a party of contradictions, and as illustrated by David Laws’ recent interview on Radio 5 Live, they are proud of these contradictions. Lots of different points of view, lots of different backgrounds, all coming together to form policy that holds up freedom and careful balancing of the centre ground at its heart: sounds good, right? Yes, it sounds fine, until you attempt to run a united party conference when your leadership is defending Monetarist economics, your core vote are demanding social justice, and all the people in between are chipping in as well. And then, to add to the shambles – or omnishambles if you still laugh at that joke – you have to deal with Cable’s speech. Oh, and then the Paddy Ashdown interview, in which he managed both to say that the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives work very well and “nevertheless trust each other” and also to insult them rather eloquently, calling them “the stinking, rotten, smelly, fought-them-all-my-life Tories”. Interestingly, Ashdown took to twitter to claim “this is the worst interpretation of an interview given by me I have ever known.”
Having read the interview, Paddy, I would have to disagree. The problem is not that you have been misinterpreted; the problem is that you are struggling to insist you are a “social democrat” whilst also trying to get into government. You are trying to prepare yourself and your party for another term of hanging on to Conservative coat tails, whilst also opening up negotiation ground for a partnership with Labour. The statistics favour the latter: a poll of party activists for the Independent on Sunday found that 39% would prefer a Liberal-Labour coalition, versus only 15% preferring a Liberal-Conservative one. Naturally of course many Liberal Democrats, people that like Ashdown, call themselves “social democrats”, and unlike Ashdown actually are, sit much easier with Labour partnership. Yet the leadership of the party is not only in coalition with the Tories, but gets on with them a whole lot better than many of these “social democrat” core voters. Economically there is not as much difference between Conservative and Liberal Democrat policy as Clegg would like you to believe.
Clegg won a controversial motion this week, which declared the Liberal Democrats were right to sign up to reducing the deficit by cuts to public spending. After two hours of heated debate, members backed Clegg and rejected amendments to the “fiscal mandate” – “drastic public spending cuts” to you and me. Even Cable lined for support, as the great leader promised (that’s right, promised) to argue for “more fair taxes” in compensation for public sector cuts. Sharon Bowles, Liberal Democrat MEP, in a striking use of metaphor, said “every cookie means more time in the gym. Now is not the time to change the fiscal envelope.” Meanwhile, poor not-a-politician-and-therefore-allowed-real-convictions-but-not-power Naomi Smith, argued “we must not vote for an ideological merger with the Conservative party’s economic policies.” These opposing voices illustrate that the tensions within the Liberal Democrats are not only the age old ones of political parties; every party has idealistic, pure beliefs, and every party is brought closer to bureaucratic reality the nearer power they get. But the Liberal Democrats also have to contend with the social democrat and classical liberal ends of their political spectrum.
The majority of the Liberal Democrats’ core voters would probably identify with the social democrat end of the scale, hence the statistical preference for a Liberal-Labour coalition. Yet the leadership, Clegg especially, are largely classical liberal in ideals: thus, they can be in coalition with the Tories. Up to now, the Liberals have attempted to use this to their advantage. They have consistently implemented Monetarist economics, policies that suspiciously lean towards Thatcherism. Yet all the time they have used “the smelly, fought-them-all-my-life Tories” as an excuse: the country needs the Liberal Democrats, otherwise the Tories will have a free run. But in the run up to a general election, Clegg needs to find within his party a consensus on policy. He can’t very well blame those nasty Tories for the manifesto he presents to the British public in 2015. When the Liberal Democrats cannot pass off their more right-wing ideals onto another a party, they will have to resolve them with their more left-wing members and voters. From an observer’s perspective, this is great politics: a party trying to reconcile the liberty of John Stuart Mill with the social support they feel is essential in a modern society. From a Liberal Democrat perspective, trying to work out what on earth to tell both the British electorate and their own members – and, for that matter, each other – it must be terrifying.