Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Nick Clegg: Or, how people learned to process their worrying by hating the Liberal Democrats

So where did it all go wrong?

A brief modern history, because it's quite instructive as to how we, and Nick Clegg, got here.

Early 2010. The Labour government under Gordon Brown was tired. Noticably tired, fed up of defending ideas that, post-Blair, it wasn't sure whether it believed in anymore; the government had begun to look like its leader. Brown was a divisive figure, awkward in front of the public either on television or in person, with a repuation for draconian control over his finances as Chancellor; Brown's government continued to adopt the schitzophrenic attitude towards social engineering seen under Blair. Things they didn't like, or understand, were made illegal; or in some cases of the already-illegal, given far harsher punishments than before. The debate over cannabis reclassification and the draconian terms of the Digital Economy Act towards copyright piracy are cases in point. Yet alongside such restrictive behaviour, plans to open a SuperCasino in Manchester had been put in front of the House of Commons, and 24 hour licencing laws had been approved. No vices were tolerated, except for any which pumped money into the economy - and those were to be positively encouraged.

People didn't know where they stood on Labour, but they knew they didn't like Brown. Aloof, aggressive, and bad on television, Brown was not just a prime minister for another era, his decision-making (particularly over whether to call an election immediately after taking over from Blair) had made people question whether he was cutting it as prime minister at all. Pretty soon the economy had tanked, and they had decided that he wasn't.

It's worth remembering too, that Brown let down a lot of the expectations built up around him by people with traditional Labour sympathies - the hard left, state-ownership advocates, who had looked at the Scandinavian system of the 1990s with envy as Tony Blair had brought in private companies to the NHS and introduced student-paid tutition fees to universities. Brown had allowed perceptions of himself as being the voice of Old Labour in Blair's cabinet to grow, yet when in power not only was that not true (if anything, he carried on much of Blair's work) but he didn't seem to have an ideology at all. People, particularly the left-leaning students, felt disenchanted.

 Flashback: 2003, Tony Blair follows George Bush in invading Iraq, leading the move to take the decision to the UN that ultimately backfires. By taking a leading role over the international pre-war argument, Blair gains a reputation from left-leaning voters as a war-monger, tainting the Labour party at the polls, particularly among students. Charles Kennedy, on ideological grounds that feel (and were) entirely genuine, presents the Liberal Democrats as the sole major party that is anti-war, and the LibDem vote share shoots up.

The public also didn't really 'get' David Cameron. His slick presentational style was very Blair-esque, his ideas seemingly homespun. His grand notion before the election had been his 'Big Society', which at the time was notorious for being incomprehensible, possibly because he hadn't explained the system of cuts that would operate alongside his program of replacing previously government-funded local services with volunteers.

Yet the Tories hadn't seen the financial crash coming either. People didn't trust the baby-faced, more obviously-posh-than-Cameron shadow chancellor, George Osborne, and his speech to the Conservative party conference ('there will be pain, but we're all in this together') hadn't gone down too well with ordinary voters, who weren't interested in pain of any sort, thank you very much. The idea of 'pain to come' was pretty swiftly rowed-back on by the Tory press office, who were keen to win over new voters to the Conservative cause.

The one person who had seen the crash coming was Vince Cable, the Deputy Leader and financial spokesperson for the LibDems, and who had made great hay of his foresight over the crash. He'd even written a book about it. But Vince was untouchable, because most of what he'd said had been true, and some of it had even been funny: his line as Acting Leader of the LibDems about Gordon Brown transforming from "Stalin to Mr Bean" over his election dithering was not, perhaps, the funniest line ever said in the House of Commons, but it caught on, particularly with the media, who didn't like Brown one bit. It got him noticed. Pre-election, Cable had been the LibDem's main weapon.

In 2010, then, no one knew what the Liberal Democrats actually stood for. This, however, was true of the Conservatives, and it was true of Labour, except that with Labour, people knew it meant more of the same and all that meant was more Brown. Cameron had been careful not to reveal policy before the election, apart from his 'Big Society', and the three parties spent much of the election arguing over a £6 billion cut to the economy to be made in 2010, that Britain ended up giving to Ireland in bailout anyway. The one exception, for the Liberal Democrats, was students. They stood for students.

Flashback: 2009 - The Daily Telegraph begins a series of publications detailing the expenses claims of all MPs. MP salary had been capped at £60,000 per year by Margaret Thatcher, due to media and voter anger at the level of pay in comparison to the average income. To make up for this (after all, many MPs could earn far more in the private sector if they changed career), the expenses system had become very lax, allowing through payments in a very casual manner. Once exposed, the scandal created led to a handfull of prison terms for fraud, and the resignation of a large number of MPs at the 2010 election. Pubic reaction was extremely angry, led by a newspaper media that had discovered a story that people would pay to read about. A massive anti-politics mood swept the country.

The election was initially electrifying for one simple reason. The three television debates that took place were the main driver of newspaper coverage, and in those debates Nick Clegg stood on stage next to Gordon Brown and David Cameron and was given equal opportunity to speak. It was a stupid decision on Brown and Cameron's part to allow it, but there was no other way they could have the televised debates in the British tri-partate system. Having all studied American political history, and all desperate to be JFK to the others' Richard Nixon, they had to say yes.

Suddenly, Nick Clegg was able to present himself to the public, and did it very well. Brown's unfortunate repetition of "I agree with Nick" became a catchphrase. His policies didn't go further than 'fairness' and 'scrap Trident', but since neither Brown nor Cameron had much in the way of policies either, the public initially didn't care. Clegg was for 'new' politics. That sounded good. The old politics had led to the expenses scandal. It was A Bad Thing.

But, as often happens, once the election arrived people became more conservative in their choices, and a spectacularly poor (and poorly-funded) Liberal Democrat campaign completely failed to capitalise on Clegg's charisma.

This is partly because it was entirely unexpected that the debates would have such a galvanising effect, but the fact that Liberal Democrat activists were not on street corners handing out 'I agree with Nick' T-shirts the day after the first debate goes to show the unreponsive nature of the British political machine.

The one memorable policy they had had, though, was to attempt to shore up their student vote, which had held up after the Iraq war and Brown's continued attachment to New Labour. Clegg, Cable and many other LibDem candidates, signed the National Union of Students' pledge not to put up university tuition fees.

After the election, no one could tell who had won, but the Liberal Democrats had lost.

They had lost for two reasons. Firstly, they had lost seats compared to the previous election in 2005. Secondly, they held the balance of power in a system that suggested there might be a tiny chance that they could form a coalition with Labour. It would have needed the Scottish and Welsh national parties, and the one Green party MP, to go along as well, but it was possible.

This represented the ideal for the left-leaning voters. A liberal Labour party was exactly what was wanted. Before the 1997 election, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown, then Labour and LibDem leaders, had been in discussion over a potential alliance - a thought annihilated by the size of Blair's landslide win. But this possibility was virtually impossible and certainly unworkable. Partly the mentality of Labour, who had been expecting to lose but that were filled with all the pride and ego that running a country for 13 years gives you, meant that they weren't ready to work with the LibDems, and partly the seeming openness of the Conservatives, desperate to get back into power, and with more votes and more seats than any other party, meant that they were the only feasible option for Clegg to turn to. Cameron and Clegg had even worked together before on Gurkha's rights. It seemed ideal.

So the coalition was formed, and that was that.

What next?

Up until this point, Nick Clegg was fine. Sure, the Labour heartland, who campaigned (as did many Lib Dems) against 'Letting the Tory In' were incensed, but the youth hadn't been conscious of Thatcher except as history, and those who did remember saw Cameron as something different - more caring, less slash-and-burn.

So the slash and burn policies of the government haven't helped the popularity of either Cameron or Clegg. But Cameron, who has previously said that Thatcher was who inspired him into politics, is at least part of a party of which this sort of thing ís expected. Clegg isn't. 

Worse, he went back on the pledge to the students, the core LibDem voters, especially since 2003, and put up tuition fees. Not just by double, but by treble the amount at which Labour had capped them. £9,000 per year. Paid in taxes after graduation, obviously, but that isn't the point. No one wants a compulsory £27,000 worth of debt when starting life, and look at the job market for those without degrees if you think it isn't compulsory. It also doesn't include anything more than just fees - for most that figure will multiply by a factor of many.

Why did Clegg do it?

There are many factors, but essentially he is the junior partner in a coalition (the Tories would have done this anyway), and he has bought the idea that the deficit needs to be cut now. So the state won't pay for things the state used to subsidise, and that includes universities. The money must come from somewhere, and in the US it comes from the students. As the US is still the model, then that is what will be done. But the pain will be lessened by having it as a tax later, so only wealthier graduates start paying it back when they can afford it.

None of this matters. In a black-and-white, simple, manner Clegg has broken his pledge, and betrayed the people who voted for him on that basis. The fact that probably relatively few people voted for him purely on that issue doesn't matter either, because breaking promises was seen as Old Politics, and Clegg is now part of that hated, disaffected circus. Nick Clegg, who, baby-faced, earnest, and puppy-dog, demanded fairness for all at the election, is deputy prime minister in a government doing many things that are decidedly unfair. Cutting the arts. Cutting school funding. Entirely privatising the NHS. Massive things, things that anyone left-leaning would see as a disaster.

And for what? Let's be clear - Liberal Democrats are roughly one sixth the number of Conservatives in parliament, and are being treated as the junior partner. The meat in the sausage, as Boris Johnson memorably put it on election night, is Conservative. Lib Dem policies only get through when the Tories like them - like cutting tax on all earnings under £10,000. Tory policies get through regardless.

Clegg himself has a job that means nothing, but he has not conducted himself well. His Great Repeal Bill, repealling all of Labours civil-liberties-restricting laws, has been reduced to eliminating outdated laws about squirrels. When Cameron was on holiday, he sounded surprised that he was supposed to be running the country - indeed, he was apparently on holiday too. So Clegg easily gives the impression of a man who sold out, and sold out for a title rather than a proper job. Vince Cable too, after foolishly admitting to an undercover reporter that he was 'at war with Rupert Murdoch', managed to torpedo the only potential policy the LibDems could have affected in a way that would have pleased the Murdoch-hating left by having that responsibility stripped from him. On top of that, he had to be the man to announce the university fee hike.

This, therefore, certainly looks like a pretty clear recipe for wipeout at the next election.

So what next for Clegg? That can only be properly decided after the one major concession by the Tories to the LibDems, the AV referendum, has taken place on May 5th. Only then will the next phase unfold, and we will get the answer to the question of whether the bottom to the fall taken by the Liberal Democrats has truly been reached.

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