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By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, September 22nd 2012

Is there a future for the Lib Dems? Is there one for Nick Clegg after Cleggmania and after he has become the nation’s favourite whipping boy?

Nick Clegg’s mea culpa this week certainly marks a watershed of some kind coming as it does nearly half way through this Parliament and coalition. It is an attempt by Clegg and the Lib Dems to ‘move on’: a textbook move from the Blair guide on how to do to politics.

Clegg’s apology isn’t actually an apology for his actions; it is an apology for making the original pledge to not support tuition fees. In this it ranks with Tony Blair’s non-apology on the Iraq war; it is the post-modern, evasive way some of our politicians now conduct themselves.

The Lib Dems believe that by the next election their achievements in office will allow them to stand on a progressive but honest prospectus: ‘we cleaned up Labour’s mess’, but we stopped the ‘toxic Tories’ banging on about their favourite subjects.

Yet what have the Lib Dems actually achieved in office? Their most treasured and precious plans – electoral reform and House of Lords reform – have been blocked by open Tory perfidy. What they can boast of in their conference document, ‘What have the Liberal Democrats ever done for you?’ (taking a leaf out the book of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ and the SNP) is a short list.

There is the much vaunted pupil premium and taking of low income workers out of tax by raising tax thresholds, and that’s about it in specifics. Hardly an adequate response to the withering of Sure Start, or the scale of benefit cuts, and bonanza offered to top rate taxpayers and the wealthy through the 45% tax rate and quantitative easing.

The Lib Dems claim they have grown up, become wiser and more mature through the experience of government. Well, bully for them. It is just a shame that the lessons they seem to have learned are to become more like the rest of our failed Westminster political class.

Listen to the words in Clegg’s ‘apology’ and he goes on to make the new Lib Dem case. ‘We are fighting for the right things’, he claims, ‘rebuilding our economy to make it strong, changing the tax system to make it fair, defending the vulnerable in these hard times’. These are the mantras politicians tell themselves and the public when they begin to lose their touch with reality.

What is the actual record of the Lib Dems? Yes they have stopped the Tory Party going on about a few of their ‘nasty’ obsessions. And they have done the odd decent thing which wouldn’t have happened without them. But overall the record is unedifying: of grim austerity not working, public spending cuts the scale of which Britain has not seen in generations, and the attempt to make those most vulnerable and poor pay for the crisis they didn’t bring about.

What have the Lib Dems stood up for in this coalition of the willing?   It wasn’t tuition fees going from £9,000 to £27,000 in England obviously. Nor was it the marketisation of the NHS in England. Nor the attempt to introduce regional pay to overfeed the South East powerhouse and distribute away from everyone else.

What the Lib Dems made a principled stand over was the issue of Lords reform. The issue of electing an entire institution of new career politicians turned out to be the sole issue they said public harsh words to the Tories on. If ever an issue revealed what the Lib Dems have become in office this was it; never mind the NHS, rising hardship and poverty; what matters to Lib Dem politicians is having more Lib Dem politicians.

All of this leaves the Lib Dems in a quandary and crisis. They now stand in the opinion polls in single figures or just scraping into double figures either running neck and neck or just ahead of UKIP. Even more dismal are Clegg’s ratings with 23% of voters satisfied with his leadership and 66% not satisfied, putting him in the George Osborne area of toxicity. And the Lib Dem party is not doing any better in members, having lost 25% of them in a single year.

Two discussions matter to the party. The first is the leadership; the second party positioning and philosophy. Clegg now believes he can remain in place and find a new momentum to 2015, but he is fundamentally damaged.

The Lib Dems unlike Labour get rid of ineffective leaders – think Charles Kennedy or Ming Campbell. A leadership vacancy either occurs by Clegg going before the election voluntarily, or 75 local associations requesting a contest. In either case, a post-Clegg leadership before the next election, under Vince Cable or Lib Dem President Tim Farron, could win back some support and seats.

A Cable leadership would make him the oldest party leader since George Lansbury for Labour in 1932, older than even Michael Foot in 1980. It would hardly be a vote for the future; it would be a move to safety, comfort zones and yesterday’s politics; for the Hit Man of pre-coalition days who has hardly shone as a government minister.

Much more interesting would be Tim Farron, who has not ruled out standing for the leadership, and is younger, energetic, and a proven campaigner, and who having not been a minister, can establish distance between his party and the Tories.

As important is party positioning and philosophy. Up until 2010 the Lib Dems positioned themselves to the left of Labour – on Iraq, tuition fees, civil liberties – to gain the low hanging fruit of disenchanted votes. It was a short-term strategy, and they have lost most of this vote by being in coalition.

The Lib Dems have to start heading back to their historic position of equidistance between the two big parties. Crucially, they need to restate their values after the ‘Orange Book’ economic liberals showed themselves too eager to buy into the clichés of shrinking the state.

One prospectus is already being prepared from Richard Reeves, Clegg’s former chief of staff, in his forthcoming ‘Inside Liberal’. It makes the case for a liberalism which is about dispersing power, from banks, the public sector and vested interests, and empowering an active citizenry across public life.

This could be part of a politics distinctive from Labour statism and Conservative marketism, but the Lib Dems will struggle to be listened to for now. Voters have learnt that they are competent to an extent, but just as flawed and thin skinned as the rest of the political classes.

The Lib Dems after being outsiders for years, have become insiders, and just another political party. They may have learned from this, but there is a price to pay for it. And they and we in the meantime have lost something.


Courtesy of Gerry Hassan – http://gerryhassan.com


Comments  

 
#
UpSpake
2012-09-25 09:40

Let’s face it Gerry. Few in Scotland give a monkey’s toss about the Lib-Dems or anything else that might be happening in England this ‘conference’ season.
Scotland is on the march and followed up by a first class Rally on Saturday, were you there ?. Perhaps not.
Here is the flowering of Scotland’s future not in the defunct and failed political structure of old increasingly irrelevent to Scotland which will be a totally different place to England in just a few years.
Hope and aspiration for the future is what we want now Gerry. The time for navel gazing is gone – finished. The old order failed itself as much as it failed the people by lacking vision and feeding from a trough which eventually would run dry.
Scotland needs none of it. A fresh start, fresh politics and Yes, even as envisaged by Dennis Canavan, a rennaisance for Labour in Scotland in a free and independent country. A nation again Gerry, no longer a dependency hanging on to an irrelevent moribund UK which is so long past its sell by date as to be putrid and decayed beyond recognition. Wake Up Mr. Hassan your articles are becoming increasingly irrelevent and tedious.
 
 
#
redcliffe
2012-09-25 10:03

The 2014 EU elections will be interesting when the LibDems come nowhere and the SNP presumbaly get about half the vote.
This will be a hard act to question, particulalry if the Greens grab another 5%.
Stating a vote for us is a vote for more seats for Scotland as an independent voice in Brussels and not to be an M25 mouthpiece wil provide shockwaves at a time when claiming the SNP view is a minority one will be pushed hard in all the MSM.
The EU vote may be said not to matter if the result goes badly for the M25 group.
I wonder what will be announced a week before the election. Salmond has Murdoch’s love child is what I am predicting, but who knows what plan will be afoot then.
If the Queen is around her comments will be amplified as an attempt for her to say she is happy with things the way they are, without making a direct comment on Scotland’s independent right to choose of course…
 
 
#
Mad Jock McMad
2012-09-25 10:57

As a once card holding Libdem (I lived in SW England – they were the only anti Tory vote around) they lost the plot long before Clegg as they thought their local success meant they were increasingly attractive to the Westminster voters, did a New Labour and moved ever more to the right on the grounds this was the way to gain power and seats. They became a ‘me too’ party and lost their distinctiveness in the Augean Stable of Westminster. Voters have woken up to this and the Libdems in England will be following their Scottish Region back to the fringes in 2015.

Gerry – for some one who wants the debate on Scottish Independence widened – I would have thought you would have been in Princes Street Gardens to hear whether the rally on Saturday saw the start of a project you claim to champion. Sadly you remain trapped inside the Ukania you claim to hold in contempt.

It has clearly got Ms Lamont worried with her hastily arranged press conference today, possibly because Allan Grogan said what a lot of Scottish Labour grassroots are actually thinking, as the gap between the SNP and New Labour stays wide in the latest poll.

Yet you and the MSM continue to ignore the infighting between New Labour MPs and MSPs, criminal activity by the Better Together Campaign, New Labour’s contrary stance over Trident (and so much more) while pretending (on planet McKenna Tangerine) Lamont gets the better of Wee Eck every week at FMQ.

Maybe you are becoming part of the problem why the real issues of Scotland’s withdrawal from the Union Treaty and its impact on England are not being discussed. For example just what will be the impact on England’s Treasury when it looses 40% of its positive foreign exchange, or the current National grid subsidy of the SE of England’s power needs then, there is over 10% of its tax take disappearing – a direct loss to the English Treasury of an estimated £53 billion pounds (not including the £27 billion, and decreasing, Scotland actually gets as pocket money).

Yet somehow, it appears, the MSM and professional journalists like yourself only consider it will be Scotland that will have problems ‘coping’ – How so? We will be a minimum of £53 billion better off for a start with levels, in terms of percentage of GDP, of foreign exchange which will make most other EU countries envious.

I ask you, politely Gerry, to begin to address the real issues around the independence debate looking at the impact both sides of the border – even if it makes poor reading for the New Labour Party and its non existent socialist policies.
 
 
#
The Laird
2012-09-25 11:26

Does this mean that an election manifesto is not worth the paper it is written on? A lesson for all political parties. People are fed up being told one thing before an election and getting the opposite thereafter. Well, at least I am.
 
 
#
Jiggsbro
2012-09-25 11:44

Quoting The Laird:

Does this mean that an election manifesto is not worth the paper it is written on?



No.

It’s the words ‘election manifesto’ that mean an election manifesto is not worth the paper it is written on.

 

 
#
dunnichen
2012-09-25 12:47

Just a word in Gerry’s defence – if I’m not very much mistaken I did see him shaking hands warmly with some of the marchers on the mound on Saturday. It is possible for your heart to be in the right place and still be interested in the UK wide version of politics. Whether we like it or not this still affects the prospects of our country – at least until 2014 and even thereafter. I’m afraid there’s no getting away from our geographical and social ties to our neighbours – even though their attitude to us is often xenophobic and one-eyed.
 
 
#
davemsc
2012-09-25 13:34

Meanwhile, in sunny Brighton, Willie Rennie has effectively given up on making a positive case for the Union himself, saying that it’s up to the English to do so:

bbc.co.uk/…/…
 
 
#
Jimbo
2012-09-25 14:25

Considering they consulted a focus group first as to whether they should apologise, or not, it makes Clegg’s apology a rather hollow one.
 
 
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sneckedagain
2012-09-25 15:21

I have absolutely no interest in the antics of the LibDems (the “Home Rule Party” that never campaigns for home rule) but I find the predictable attacks on anything Gerry Hassan says just as tedious.
Dave McEwan Hill
 
 
#
lochside
2012-09-29 05:36

Willie Rennie descibed opponents of the Scots Libdems as ‘fizzing’. No Willie, that’s the sound of a rocket taking off..you wee man, just you.
 

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