Being in coalition shouldn't change Liberal Democrat values, so why is the party failing in the intellectual battle of political ideas?
Government in extremis
Liberal Democrat members are in danger of falling into the huge political trap of equating party policy with decisions taken by the coalition government. Of course Liberal Democrat ministers have a responsibility to implement Liberal Democrat policies and liberal values in government as far as is possible in the political and economic circumstances that constrain decision making. The abilities of Liberal Democrat colleagues in government have clearly had a positive influence on government policy in a number of areas, but there are other areas where government decisions have been unpleasant and illiberal. That, alas, is the uncomfortable nature of coalition.
The conditions in which Liberal Democrats entered government for the first time in sixty-five years could hardly have been worse. Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, put it in stark terms a month before the 2010 election when he said that "Whoever wins this election will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be." The parliamentary party - with the assent of the party as a whole - entered into coalition in full knowledge of the huge dangers confronting us. But there was no choice strategically, electorally or politically. To have funked the challenge would have destroyed the party's credibility as a major political force.
Taking on the immense responsibility of government in such circumstances entails a vast amount of party nailbiting and robust restraint. If the party accepts the liberal credentials of its representatives in government then it has, by corollary, to accept that what they agree to is the maximum possible - unless, of course, their political skills are lacking, and, arguably, to some extent the November 15 reshuffle addressed this. Even so some "tactical" decisions were flawed - it was, I believe, an error to abandon the presence in the Ministry of Defence when a key aspect of the party's distinct identity is invested in its position on Trident.
Arguably there has never been a similar coalition in Britain - one formed by two parties that fought an election against each other but who have entered into a formal post election arrangement. Every other coalition has either been formed by parties that fought an election with the avowed intention of forming a coalition or were formed with recalcitrant sections of parties - not least when parties were not as tightly knit as they have become since the war. It is hardly surprising that no-one really knew how to cope with it. It has been a huge learning curve for ministers, back bench MPs and for the party generally. Significantly many columnists, commenting on the recent mid-term review, have been more positive about the nature and strength of the coalition process than their earlier cynicism had indicated.
I also believe that on a number of issues it is not so much coalition policy itself that provokes a bitter response from party members but the insensitive and deeply illiberal use of language on the part of Conservative ministers. The attitude towards potential students from developing countries, towards asylum seekers and, most recently, the use of terms such as "shirkers" and "skivers" is appalling and vividly provides the evidence that Conservatives are still the "nasty party." It is cynical, and counter productive, to use the problems with a small number of individuals as an excuse to brand whole swathes of individuals with derogatory descriptions. Such attitudes are unfortunately lodged like shrapnel in the mentality of some of our coalition partners.
Beware of assuming that the grass is greener at the other end of the political spectrum. It is true historically, that even though there has always been some traffic between Liberal and Conservative parties, the natural political partners have been the Liberal and Labour parties. Though the two parties have always had different perceptions of "life chances", with Labour emphasising economic outcomes and Liberals understanding the importance of a much broader expression of human values, but traditionally they shared the progressive "space". The ideological division has been much more on implementation - collectivism versus co-operation - than on aims, but the ground for co-operation steadily diminished as Labour came to believe it could achieve electoral success on its own. Thereafter its innate hegemonic tendencies came to the fore and it became arrogant and increasingly believed that the end justified the means, particularly in retaining control of its big city industrial fiefs. No Liberal Democrat who has to fight an entrenched Labour party harbours any illusions that coalition with Labour would be all sunlight and roses. Coalition is inevitable, never easy and has consequences for all political parties.
Faced with the deeply illiberal attitudes of our present coalition partners it is unsurprising that a number of Liberal Democrats have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of the party's participation in it. Some of the criticism has been focussed on the role and performance of Nick Clegg, feeding off, and in turn feeding, the almost continuous and unwarranted media denigration of him. Whatever one's assessment of Nick's performance is, I am absolutely sure that the press must not be allowed to decide which politicians should survive and which should go. Time and again politicians have been targeted by one or other newspaper, followed by others feeling the pressure to get in on the act until, in the end, the individual feels unable to continue in office. The latest victim was Andrew Mitchell. I was unhappy with events at the time and even more so as the story has unfolded.
The media's own agenda
The media's agenda thrives on conflict and intrigue. Political ideas and philosophy are not sexy and the press pursuit of attention and thus circulation leads to curious predictions and assumptions, even from those who should know better. I heard the veteran commentator and pollster, Peter Kellner, opining on the Radio 4 Today programme recently that he could not see how Nick Clegg could conceivably recover from his current poll ratings. With over two years to go? It's not just a long time in politics - it's an eternity. Those of us who remember the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-78 recall that the party's poll rating halved during its fifteen month duration but recovered to a higher level than before in the 1979 general election less than a year later. The different problem today, with a fixed term parliament, is how one achieves a sufficiently long separate existence before polling day to demonstrate the party's very distinct values and philosophy.
It is perfectly legitimate to have serious concerns with Liberal Democrat influence in government and of the party leader's performance, and these have been openly and forcefully put to Nick and robustly dealt with him at his question and answer sessions with party members, but it is a grave error to think that we have a press suffused with sympathy for the party and its representatives. Liberal Democrats must not fall into the elephant trap that the press enjoys placing enticingly in their path. The key point about Nick, which few in the media like, is that his responses to issues are liberal, from his advocacy in the leaders' debates at the general election of an amnesty for long resident asylum seekers, to the recent minor but significant issue of supporting his office cleaner who left union leaflets on desks. He is also the only party leader who understands and is enthusiastic about a united Europe.
Liberalism and liberal values
It is, of course, not possible to avoid the linkage between the party and its involvement in government but the party itself has crucially different role and it is failing to pursue it. When one joins the party one is doing just that. One doesn't join the government; nor, indeed, does one join the party leader. The party has its distinctive values and has its clear vision of the kind of society it works towards. These have not changed by one iota since entering government and the party needs to keep on promoting them. We are living in an increasingly illiberal society in which the public dimension in service provision is being steadily diminished, in which there is more surveillance of public areas than in any other country, in which narrow nationalism is exploited and in which cultural values are being eroded. And, despite the occasional gain, the destruction of local government largely continues, not least through the control of finance.
To take just a few issues: why is the party not arguing for worker co-operatives which can make a significant contribution to creating employment? The curious concept of a mansion tax is becoming accepted, as if the bricks and mortar increases in value, as opposed to the land which certainly does. The taxation of land can inhibit the hoarding of development land and bring sites into use and provide the means of paying a land tax. A possible referendum on membership of the European Union is now hardly challenged despite the fact that no referendum ever answers the question - see Chirac's disaster in May 2005 when his low personal political ratings cost him a "yes" vote on the EU constitution.
We have two other parties whose test of successful policies is expressed narrowly in economic terms and there is a great opportunity for a party that understands the importance of human values, life chances, community identity and internationalism, to drive into the huge liberal-shaped space in British politics. In common with other major parties, membership of the Liberal Democrats is declining. It matters more to us simply because we happily have a smaller class base but unhappily we have to work harder for our support. The only way to sign up and retain members is to recruit on the basis of values and vision. Those who join on the basis of the local councillor's work or because of a specific policy will fade away unless the reason why there is such commitment is set out.
Where are the party leaflets, booklets and pamphlets setting out the party's key principles? Where is the material taking apart the fallacious educational arguments of Michael Gove? Where are the briefings analysing the tiresome insincerities of Andrew Adonis? Why was Michael Sandel speaking at the Labour conference and not at ours? How has the Labour party managed to latch on to Danielle Allen? We are increasingly losing the intellectual battle. Previous supporters such as columnists Henry Porter and Deborah Orr have become disenchanted and only John Kampfner argues the liberal case regularly in the serious press. Only in the columns of Liberator do Nick Harvey, Peter Downes, David Boyle, Simon Titley and other colleagues set out the liberal case on key issues.
If the Liberal Democrats promote a the powerful case for the party's values and vision it will not only help revive the party's poll ratings but it will also strengthen Nick Clegg's arm in government.