Travels in Coalitionland - notes of disquiet and dissent

This is A Good Book. Occasionally, when each of us fears that we are the last Liberal left in captivity we find a kindred soul. Similarly, when we bemoan the lack of intellectual rigour amongst Liberals and despair at the lack of publications helping party members and activists to analyse the Coalition's programme from a party point of view, along comes Alex Marsh with Travels through Coalitionland. This is a collection of his blogs from June 2010 to January 2013 and is an astute and often challenging commentary on the past two and half years, written from the perspective of someone "at the maximal social liberal end of the spectrum of views within the Liberal Democrat party." Helpfully, his sources are all referenced. His day job is as Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bristol.

Positioning the party
In using Liberal rather than Liberal Democrat wherever possible I am following Nick Clegg's example - see for example his forward to the party's 2011 policy paper Facing the Future - and this is important in the context of much of Alex Marsh's analysis. He is especially punctilious in making the important distinction between party and government. All governments, national and local, require compromise. Far more than for a political party, a government's agenda is considerably driven by an unavoidable agenda of problems for which are all too often there are no solutions that fit comfortably into a party's philosophic construct. But, as Marsh points out, that need not inhibit the party from continuing to state and to campaign for its values-driven policies, even whilst it understands the constraints on its ministerial colleagues. He makes the positive point that internal critics of coalition policy have a key role as the conscience of the party.

It is this perception which needs continually to be put to those excellent colleagues who have given up on the struggle and have resigned. I have not noticed that the party qua party has changed, and while that is the case, the support of Liberals for it should continue. One of the problems is that of "tone," with the Conservatives increasingly exhibiting all the vicious, exploitative and harsh kneejerk responses that are the gut reasons why we have always opposed them. I have set out on a number of occasions why the parliamentary arithmetic, and the political reality, of May 2010 required the coalition, but, as Marsh concludes, "Coalition with the Tories has proved as unpalatable as the sceptics had feared." He continues:

There needs to be people willing to question and to refresh the collective memory of where we started and what we stand for. That is the only way for the party to keep anchored and not drift to its demise as a pale shadow of one of the other parties.

He does, however, appear to have swallowed the myth of the Orange Book. It is a classic example of something that gets into the clippings and is continually regurgitated without any effort to check on the realities of it. Its emphasis was, of course, a restatement of economic liberalism but it was certainly not monolithic. The darling of the anti-Clegg commentators, Vince Cable, was one contributor and another was Steve Webb who is certainly no swivel eyed right winger - and was also a contributor to the social liberal response Reinventing the State. Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg also contributed to both! I am rather more relaxed than some about the economic liberals not least because they were always vociferous in my early days in the party. Liberal party members of the time, such as Oliver Smedley, S W Alexander and Arthur Seldon argued their case - and largely lost the argument. Similarly today, the deployment of reason and logic is the only way to deal with what I believe to be a philosophy which is unsustainable in the prevailing social conditions.

Alex Marsh recognises the Conservatives' economic obsession when he states that "Cameron's position would appear to be 'the answer is marketisation. Now what's the question.'" The Liberal position has always been, "The market where possible where possible, the state where necessary." And it has also differentiated itself from socialism by being aware that Liberals have a philosophy of the state, whereas socialism has a cult of the state. I've always been fascinated by the dogged awareness of their Liberal values that fed party members' determination to carry on in the early 1950s when it appeared that the Liberal party was dead and buried. I recall asking George Allen who fought elections in 1953 and 1955 why he and his colleagues carried on. He reflected for barely a moment and replied, "Well, we couldn't stand the Tories and we didn't trust the state." Marsh similarly talks about opposing the "over mighty state."

He is rather inconsistent on the placing of the Liberal Democrats on a left-right spectrum - an axis which only works in terms of economic determinist parties, and thus excludes any Liberal party worth its salt (though not necessarily social democrats.) At one point Marsh perceives this and states that "the Liberal Democrats stand clearly in opposition to the authoritarianism of the two main parties." However, elsewhere in the book he talks about placing the Liberal Democrats towards the left of this spectrum. Of course, the left-right concept is lodged like shrapnel in the minds of the media and one cannot easily escape from it, but party members really need to appreciate why Liberals should reject it. We ancient Liberals were brought up on Donald Wade's booklet Our Aim and Purpose in which he pointed out the simple truth that the far left and far right of this spectrum were very similar in their effect - public and private monopolies had the same impact - and that the "lines" actually bent round to meet. Given the Liberal opposition to authoritarianism and to the concentration of power, we are thus at the extreme end of a very different and more relevant "North-South" axis.

Social policy
Alex Marsh digs in splendidly when he comes to coalition social policy. He comments wryly that Liberal Democrats who were determined "to ensure that the vulnerable were protected .... were pleasantly surprised to discover that I[an] D[uncan] S[mith] willingly stated a similar commitment." Marsh then lets fly:

At this point I felt like shouting. It's all very splendid that we all agree that vulnerable people should not be unduly disadvantaged. But that doesn't appear to stop it from happening. Anyone who has been following the operation of the regime applying tests to determine fitness to work, and hence withdraw disability benefit, will be aware of repeated reports of injustice.

There would, of course, be some logic in measures to get individuals back into work if there were jobs, but with, in effect, five persons currently chasing every job, some of the draconian measures simply seem insensitive. It was a very traditional Conservative MP, Sir Ralph Howell, who made the point in parliament in 1995:

There is something awful about insisting people should go on writing application letters when there was no work available...... It's like forcing people to play bagatelle on a board which has no holes in it.

Nick Clegg
Marsh is fairly ambivalent about Nick Clegg. He initially comments on Nick's speech at the end of the 2011 Spring Conference as being out of sync with the tenor of the rest of the debates and discussion. The speeches on other days had, he says, placed the Liberal Democrats "firmly as a progressive party of the centre-left (sic)." Then came Nick:

It felt like he'd wandered in from some other conference that was happening next door and ploughed on regardless to deliver his speech, with all its classical liberal overtones.

Later he lauds Nick Clegg's speech given at Demos as being "a brilliant encapsulation of the problems facing our society."

I understand Alex Marsh's puzzlement at the variations in the message but, frankly, I am more of a Nick supporter, not least because despite his curious attachment to the "middle ground" and to "governing from the centre" - as if there was an identifiable location for such a spot, or that the party should just split the difference between Conservative and Labour, rather than determine its own position - I find his instinctive responses essentially Liberal. These range from the global issues, such as Europe and international aid, down to the parochial but significant point of supporting his office cleaner who had been disciplined for leaving propaganda leaflets on desks.

Certainly the party should not fall into the elephant trap set out by the media who have carried on a sustained and largely undeserved personal denigration of Nick Clegg. Apart from The Independent from time to time, there is no paper that gives a sympathetic hearing to the party or its leader, and members should be aware that these proprietors and editors have an agenda and it is not aimed at assisting the Liberal Democrats. Nothing would please them more than to see party members fomenting internal dissension over the leader. During all my time in the party there have always been colleagues who fondly believed in the "silver bullet" theory of politics: if only we had a new leader or a new slogan we would sweep the country.

It simply isn't true, and the remarkable success at the Eastleigh by-election in unimaginably adverse conditions shows it. That victory was a consequence of over forty years of solid political campaigning and consolidation there by Liberals such as Martin Kyrle and his late wife, Margaret, and the many colleagues over the years who knew why they were Liberals and were able to convince others of its importance. It was the depth of that persuasion and commitment that was able to withstand the bitter winds of personal circumstances.

Marsh's criticism of the leadership for being distant from the grassroots has some resonance, particularly in the sense of not having come through the party organisation - a trait, alas, common to almost all leaders - and therefore often unaware of the trials and tribulations of holding a party and its structures together. It would be less significant if Nick appointed good bright party hacks who could fill the gap. Duncan Brack rather than Richard Reeves, for instance.

The nature of politics
Marsh makes a clear statement of the need to combat the public's oft stated that the parties are all as bad as each other, combining it with a rejection of the debilitating concept of the "middle ground":

It turns politics arse about face. Political parties could stand for something identifiable, developing a policy platform rooted in their beliefs and then attempting to convince the public to vote for them. Instead we have politicians working out what tickles the swing voters sweet spot and then working backwards to assemble a suitably alluring manifesto. If you're not careful beliefs and principles become rather incidental to - and possibly an inconvenience in - the grubby grab for power.


Travels in Coalitionland - Notes of disquiet and dissent by Alex Marsh, 2013.
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