(Preamble: Trevor Smith joined the Liberal Party in 1955 when it had five MPs; he fears he may die with the LibDems having the same number!)
The Lib Dems are in a very serious state, possibly facing meltdown of the kind experienced by the Canadian Conservatives some time ago (though they managed a spectacular come back), or the Canadian Liberals in last year’s elections. The burning question is how, at the very minimum, to limit the electoral damage and hopefully to revive the party’s fortunes.
A starting point is to recognise the turbulent condition that has characterised most party systems in the western democracies for some time. Voter alienation resulted from the dramatic loss of public confidence in the ability/integrity of political elites. This has prompted a perceptible lurch to the Right in many countries, including such notable social democracies as Holland. The UK has not been immune to this. New Labour was the most obvious symptom, encapsulated in Mandelson’s phrase – “we are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, as Blair has succeeded in unashamedly doing for himself since leaving office. New Labour also presided over the continuing growing gap between rich and poor. The drift Rightwards was also seen in the thrust of much of the argumentation in the Orange Book, written by influential LD MPs. The Tories, of course, have always had a significant number of far-Right MPs, – especially the ‘Flag, Faith, Family’ brigade – whose influence waxes and wanes over time, but who are currently becoming more vociferous in the light of the Eurozone crisis.
Where does this place the future of the LDs? We must undertake a tally of our strengths and weaknesses and must not flinch from doing so. The LD Leadership should not seek to stifle this – not least because it can’t. The Labour and Tory parties are engaged in public debates about policy, which are neither particularly convincing nor edifying. But the high rhetoric/low substance surrounding Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ (but no Big Deal!) musings and the oxymoronic (pun intended) nature of the advocacy for ‘Blue Labour’ should not detract LDs from arguing robustly among themselves about the future direction of the party. Such a debate is essential if we are to prepare for the future.
First, at the outset, we must fully recognise the toxic effect of the U-turn on tuition fees: it is as indelible a stain on us as Iraq was on Blair/New Labour or as the treatment of miners was on Thatcherism. There are no mitigating arguments that can be prayed in aid to dispel the sense of public betrayal over tuition fees. Compounding the situation is the stark fact that the new fees system is too complicated to convey easily for general consumption – and in itself that is bad politics.
Second, in Coalition, LDs have allowed the Tories to assume too much of the initiative especially in policy areas where we had earlier set the pace. Prior to 2010, for example, Vince Cable had established his unassailable authority on a whole range of economic issues: unsustainable public and private debt levels; excessive remuneration packages in the big corporations; the inadequacy of banking regulation; and the monopolistic position enjoyed by Rupert Murdoch in the mass media. That considerable advantage has been allowed to be largely squandered. Tackling fat cat pay has now been adopted by Cameron and Osborne and by Ed Miliband. They are all ‘Johnny-come-latelys’ to the problem: the Tories are unconvincing converts, while the Blair/Brown governments positively refused to address the issue, which had become increasingly blatant during their watch. We’ve let both pinch our clothes and it will be difficult to recover our previous unique position. Cameron’s latest proposal to give shareholders more control over remuneration is far too weak; the boards of the institutional shareholders, who control the votes, are as steeped in fat cat greed as elsewhere in commerce and their record (e.g. insurance companies successive pension scandals) is not unblemished.
Third, Nick Clegg fought the last Election promoting the notion of “Fairness” as an operating political principle. The Coalition’s adoption of steadily raising the income tax threshold and pupil premium is consistent with this, but they have to be seen alongside the Government’s fiscal policies that bear most heavily on the poorest and particularly women and thus will have far greater general impact.
I could go on but these examples are enough by way of illustration.
In our stocktaking, we should ask what effect have individual LD ministers had on policy-making of a distinctive LD kind. We have not resisted Michael Gove’s emaciation of local authorities’ involvement in education in England with the quangoisation of schools through a massive expansion in the number of Academies. Andrew Lansley (if we are foolish enough to let him) will have poisoned the NHS with a massive injection of private marketisation. When Lib Dem ministers demit office, what foot prints will have been left of which they can be proud? In these two policy areas LD ministers seem to have exercised little or no clout.
Since May 2010, the position of women has deteriorated both in terms of lower-end job prospects and representation on the boards of major corporations. Lynne Featherstone, the LD minister for women, should say what, if any, policies have been initiated to deal with these two problems.
We should ask ourselves what the noticeable Lib Dem impact has been on broad areas of Government policy not covered in the Coalition Agreement, and in too many areas it is clear that we have been out-manoeuvred by our Tory partners in Government. True, we are the junior partners but we should not be pushovers – too much has been conceded to date.
For example, in the areas of Defence and Foreign Affairs – where we have ministers – there is no public evidence of any obvious LD influence in the conduct of policies; indeed, quite the reverse as in the case of the employment of Cameron’s EU veto. At best, there has been acquiescence. And, yet again as with the economy, our internationalism has been squandered – a unique selling- point over decades. How can we recover this?
What steps should now be taken to protect/re-assert our profile/ratings?
First, we should acknowledge the tuition fee debacle, and demonstrate that our remorse over fees is not as fragile as our original commitment against them. To this end, we should fight for a substantial reduction in fees now and, very importantly, ensure this happens before the 2015 general election. A post general election reduction could be met from the savings from abandoning Trident. (We assume that’s still LD policy but wouldn’t bank on it!).
Secondly, LDs should make a firm commitment significantly to reduce the gap between rich and poor that has been growing under successive governments over the past three decades. This Government is reforming welfare payments to save public funds, reducing welfare dependency, as well as “idleness” among the poor. Any future government with formal Lib Dem involvement or support must address the other end of the spectrum – the idle rich, to which end the ‘mansion tax’ or some variant should be re-visited.
Thirdly, we must also state LDs will tackle three other glaring inequalities: gender, ethnic and regional.
As we’ve said, the position of women continues to deteriorate and this must be reversed. For example, there must be much more childcare provision for working parents, while consideration of the introduction of quotas on the boards of major corporations as has been successfully accomplished in Norway. It’s clear the recommendations of the Davies’ Report, that called for FTSE 350 boards to have 25% women membership by 2015, are not being taken seriously enough by business generally, and neither the ratio nor the date look like being achieved.
Similarly, it is abundantly clear, in view of the appalling slowness to date, ethnic recruiting quotas must be introduced for a defined period of, say, ten years for the police services; this policy has worked very well in remedying the Catholic/Protestant imbalance in the Police Service of Northern Ireland and should be emulated in Great Britain. Quotas are a very effective method of remedying ingrained institutionalised bigotry, bias and prejudice.
Regional inequalities: the North/South prosperity divide continues to widen. Are the recent Enterprise Zones, part of a policy of “managed decline” or an earnest attempt to promote authentic economic growth in the Regions? The Barnett Formula should be applied to the English Regions with full transparency; in a way previous governments have shied away from doing.
Finally, for the moment, but very importantly, there remains the question of the future of the NHS. How it develops is vitally concerning for England (NI, Scotland, and Wales are distinct) and no less so for the LDs. There needs to be some very serious intra-party discussions if ruptures are to be avoided or at least contained.
In terms of LD party management, the NHS issue is symptomatic of a growing authoritarian tendency amongst the Leadership. Party Conferences are becoming too stage-managed. Tom McNally, LD leader in the Lords, has written in Liberal Democrat News suggesting they should be held less frequently! The provision for membership participation in policy-making distinguishes the LDs from the Tories and Labour. It should be lauded, defended and not diluted.
Trevor Smith is a Liberal Democrat working peer.