Should we give the Lib Dems a break?
May 11, 2011
My colleague Postcode Politics argued recently that the Lib Dems should leave the coalition government. You have caused immeasurable harm to your party and your country, wrote PP. I agreed with almost every word. The Lib Dems are propping up an unelected government. They do not have enough sway around the Cabinet table to justify this situation. However, I am left feeling a bit uneasy about the whole thing. Part of me does want to say that the stick that Clegg and co are getting is a little undeserved.
There is the obvious argument that the main thrust of coalition policy is very much driven by the Conservative’s radical neoliberal agenda. Even if it wasn’t for the deficit, they’d be cutting just for the fun of it. As such, it is unfortunate – not to mention unhelpful to the progressive cause – that the Tories are able to shield themselves from criticism by planting Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander between themselves and an angry electorate.
This is a valid argument but it is not my argument. In fact, the Lib Dems signed up to the cuts agenda lock, stock and barrel and therefore must be ready to face the flak.
In reality, the malaise about the Lib Dems in government goes beyond the impact of deficit reduction. The party is in fact facing a wholesale disappearance of trust and credibility. The people that voted for them have no idea what they are anymore.
It is this criticism that, in my opinion, is unfair. That is not to say that the accusation is inaccurate. I believe the Lib Dems are letting down the people that voted them. However, I am on the left, and I do not believe that most of the people that voted for the Lib Dems were really voting for a left-wing alternative to Labour.
There are some issues, on a crude left/right political spectrum, where the Lib Dems have long been ‘to the left’ of Labour. Defence and security issues, for instance. But on most big fiscal and economic issues, the Lib Dems have always been and always will be, in my opinion, ‘to the right’ of Labour.
To the right of Labour is precisely where their voters want them to be. This is why one of the party’s main demands during coalition negotiations was the implementation of a range of middle-class tax cuts. These measures benefit the class of people that vote Liberal Democrat. The Lib Dems in office have, however, become associated with certain policies that are directly targeted to hurt this group of people. Higher education funding is the best example. The Lib Dems pledged to keep university as cheap as possible because they know that this is precisely the kind of measure that their base adores. Most Labour voters don’t prioritise higher education funding as an issue, because their kids are far less likely to go to university. Most Tory voters couldn’t care less about fees, because whatever Oxbridge costs, they will be getting their money’s worth in the end.
Yet what do the first ever Liberal Democrats in government go and do? £9,000 fees, that’s what! As a party they are tarnished forever in the eyes of their former supporters. Just like many one-time Blairites will never, ever forget about Iraq. But from a left-wing perspective, the Lib Dems have performed a great service for the country’s poor. They could not shield their own base from higher fees – because it is these people that the Tories were explicitly targeting – but they managed to introduce a series of exemptions for the poorest students, which have arguably made the system much fairer and more redistributive.
Perhaps they hoped that, even though their party’s base was hit where it really hurts – that is, their ISAs – they might instead be cheered by the thought that university is going to become much more affordable for the poor. Instead, the middle-classes are in revolt. Their heartstrings have not been plucked. Some of them are in the streets hanging effigies of Clegg. Some of them are even throwing fire extinguishers off buildings.
Maybe this is just desert for a party that has long, shamelessly, dressed up its pro-bourgeois agenda in universal principles. But if you ask me, if there is going to be a Tory government, I’d rather have one sprinkled with a few Lib Dems.
Aside from the concessions secured on the higher education funding settlement, the Lib Dems also deserve credit for their stance over NewsCorp’s attempt to buy BSKyB. When this story was reported, it was a story about Vince Cable growing buffoon-ness. Now it is a story about seemingly unlawful investigative practices. But let us not forget how and why this came about. Vince Cable told two people that he had never met before that he had declared war on Rupert Murdoch. Read it again: declared war on Rupert Murdoch. This should have been music to the ears of anyone in this country that cares about liberty and equality. Instead the middle class’ obsession with blaming the Lib Dems for policies over which they have very little control has allowed David Cameron to hang Cable out to dry. If higher university fees were the price that had to be paid for the opportunity to have a genuinely radical reformer like Vince Cable in the Cabinet to stand up against Cameron and Osborne, that is no price at all in my opinion. Yet the hugely misplaced anger now directed at the Lib Dems has only enfeebled their position within the coalition.