Thursday, September 22, 2011

Birmingham syndrome - or denial is not just a river in Egypt for the Liberal Democrats

If you happened to see the debate on Newsnight on Monday when Paxman faced an audience of conference-going Liberal Democrats and tried to get them to confess their sins, you would have been struck by their unity of purpose and self-belief that they had no choice but to go into coalition with the Tories, that they were doing the right thing and that the electorate would come to understand this in due course and might reward them at the next election. Of course, some of this is hardly surprising - most of those who choose to go to any party's conference are true believers in their party and any doubts are generally kept for the more private meetings. However, their denial of the obvious, that the party is teetering on the edge of an electoral precipice, is remarkable - Kevin Maguire was the only voice of sanity in that discussion. Perhaps this is a form of Jerusalem syndrome.

The Liberal Democrats aren't accustomed to government and the compromises that this brings - they are attuned to being the party of eternal opposition, the safe place to put your vote knowing that it won't do much damage, the centrist party that disaffected Labourites and Tories can swing towards to keep their eternal foes out of office. For years, that has been a very successful election ploy - hence the 'two horse race' graphics that are a feature of every Liberal Democrat campaign, promising that one party cannot win here, so making it safe for supporters of that party to vote Lib Dem to keep the other side out. Make no mistake, having your party in government is very seductive - power is the only way to get things done and most Labour supporters would agree that Labour over 14 years did achieve many things in line with Labour ideals and principles, as well as making mistakes along the way. The same would be said by Tories about Thatcher and Major. Governmental records are always imperfect in the eyes of their party activists - it is the art of the possible, not necessarily the home of the idealist. As an aside, that's why I've always believed that Labour supporters struggle when we are in government - we attract idealists by the coachload who believe in an imperative to improve life for the many and get disappointed when we fail to build a new Jerusalem by the end of the first term.

If we look ahead to the next election, then one of two narratives seem likely and both revolve around the economy, which is likely to remain the most pressing issue for most of the decade.

In the first - the government ideal view, perhaps - two years of pain and grief in cuts are resolved by 2013/4, there is growth in the economy, people start to feel more secure as private sector jobs replace the ones lost in the public sector and perhaps Osborne is able to offer some pre-election tax cuts in the 2015 budget, just as the government goes to the country. The public are relieved that they can see the sunlit uplands ahead, accept that the service cuts were necessary and have adjusted to the new reality, so are prepared to give the government another chance. Given that the Tories will be able to paint the economic revival as their doing - after all, the Liberal Democrats opposed swingeing cuts in 2010, as did Labour -  Cameron and Osborne will come out fighting, expecting their just rewards as the economic saviours of the nation.

The Liberal Democrats will be left to trumpet their supporting role, hoping against hope that their two horse strategy attracts Tory voters desperate to keep Labour out of office in Labour/LD marginals, but they will quite likely be deserted by many of their soft-Labour supporters, risking the LD/Con marginals falling to the Conservatives. In reality, Labour will remind the electorate at every opportunity that the Liberal Democrats voted with the Tories on controversial legislation and by the nature of things, some of that legislation will have caused problems in services that people hold dear. Even if you think that the government has it right on education, health, defence or crime, something is bound to go wrong with implementation and the Liberal Democrats will be held jointly responsible. The likely outcome here is a Tory majority, with a rump of Lib Dem MPs, some of them new and untested, but probably no more than half of the number that they currently have.

In the alternative view, which is likely to gain ground as the juggernaut of depression looms large on the carriageway ahead, the economy stagnates, unemployment rises and inequality grows further. Any tax cuts from Osborne are perceived as desperate bribes or the plans are postponed. Perhaps the Tories throw their friends to the wolves and say that if they had been allowed a free hand, rather than being restricted by the Liberal Democrats, then they could have resolved things better - there are bound to be a few green shoots by that point. The plaintive cries from the Liberal Democrats about what they achieved in government, that they have 75% of their manifesto enacted, will be drowned out by Labour reminding them that the Lib Dems voted with the Tories and pushed through the failed economic plans that cost jobs and didn't encourage growth. Perhaps some of the Tory/LD marginals will be saved, as Labour voters hold their noses and decide that an impotent Lib Dem is better than a Tory, but the Labour/LD marginals will fall apace and return a Labour majority, with again, a rump of Lib Dem MPs numbering no more than 25.

However you look at this, the Liberal Democrats appear to be stuffed. If the economy recovers, the credit will go to Cameron and Osborne. If it tanks, the Liberal Democrats will be seen by the electorate as equally to blame - the voters are cruel masters and will brook no whimpering from Clegg or his successor. In the meantime between now and 2015, the Liberals have a number of big local election days to come and the historic experience is that being in government is toxic to your local chances. 700 councillors disappeared this May and we can surely expect similar results on upcoming election days. For all some Liberals were excited about a handful of council by-election wins, those are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. This will erode their activist and councillor base and that will take time to rebuild - look at the experience of Labour or the Conservatives. It took each of those parties a decade to recover from their beatings in 1979 and 1997 to the point where they regained campaigning credibility and realistic momentum.

The suggestion being touted is that the Liberal Democrats will engineer a divorce at some point late in the coalition and probably replace their toxic leader - although none of the other potential candidates appear particularly attractive and Chris Huhne's speech was positively soporific, given that he has piloted the Green Deal through parliament (a Labour policy, I will note). Whether this will allow them to put some clear water between them and the Tories sufficient to allow the public to tell them apart is questionable. Even if the split were to be engineered over a 'point of principle' - the 50% tax rate currently looks like a prime candidate for the cause - will the public forgive the Lib Dems? I'm very far from convinced.

None of this is helped by the boundary changes, which - if they come to pass for 2015 - are likely to cost the Liberal Democrats about a third of their current English MPs before a vote is cast. Nick Clegg sacrificed their electoral chances for a badly-timed referendum on electoral reform, one that they were always doomed to lose and thereby put electoral reform off the public agenda for a generation - indeed, I'd be surprised if I see it return within my lifetime. He and his colleagues threw away the one totemic policy that has survived since the days of the SDP and in return, they are colluding in a shameful attempt to fix the electoral system to deny any other party a sniff of government.

Putting my party hat back on, the real lesson for Labour is that we need to train our fire on the Tories. They will be the only other party in the game come 2015.

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