“Loathe this government if you will…” – 4 points following on from Julian Glover’s must-read Guardian article

by Stephen Tall on October 18, 2010

Julian Glover, writing for The Guardian’s Comment Is Free, puts forward a trenchantly pro-Coalition, pro-Clegg line — one that’s guaranteed to attract the ire both of Guardianistas, and of some Voice readers, too. This excerpt offers the substnance of his argument:

Loathe this government if you will, but at least acknowledge that neither side in it got all it wanted at the election and that neither has sold out all of its principles. The strangeness of co-operation exposes its component parts to the easiest of attacks: of promising one thing before an election and doing another after it. But as Clegg has pointed out, the reason he is not implementing the Lib Dem manifesto is because the Lib Dems lost. So did everyone else.

Riled, Lib Dems are making a poor job of defending themselves. They are embarrassed to speak confidently – not so much because of the deal they did, better than anyone guessed before the election, but because they never presented themselves as deal-makers. Instead, they presented themselves as tellers of fantastical truths, signing pledges on tuition fees the leadership never thought they’d need to return to. That was the worst of the Lib Dems: indulging an unworkable policy that amounted to an unaffordable middle-class subsidy dressed up as principle.

Some of the voters won over by such things are angry. Many have decided to support Labour instead. Fair enough: many Lib Dem voters – and many members too – were content with the perfection of irrelevance. Clegg, though, is dealing with the imperfection of power. He’s hoping to be judged on what he does: on his multibillion pupil premium; on being in a government brave enough to cut prison numbers and defence spending and middle-class benefits; on political reform. It hurts when everyone throws rocks at you – but it is better that the rocks come from all sides. It suggests the claim of balance is real. Navy admirals are angry, so is the Daily Express – and so are many Guardian readers. …

Britain’s political tribes are determined as much by emotion and prejudice as any absolute sets of policy. There are instincts, ideas and loyalties that pull one way or another, and parties must set those out as best they can before an election. Clegg believes he is doing that: he talked of liberalism, warned of savage cuts, and promised to create a different kind of state – and the consequences can be traced everywhere in coalition policy.

Reflecting on this article, and the past tumultuous week for the Lib Dems, I’d make four quick points:

1) The Tories believe too many concessions have been made to the Lib Dems… though it’s clear some Lib Dems are looking at the Coalition and thinking ‘Did we really sign up to this?’ as a result of the leadership’s about-turn on tuition fees (and, to a lesser extent, nuclear power), Tory members are convinced they were the ones who have conceded too much to the Lib Dems (on prisons, Europe, capital gains tax increases, constitutional reform, etc).

2) Our communciations are inconsistent… Mark Thompson is right in his article for LibDemVoice today: the party has too often failed to strike the right note between ‘collective responsibility’ and ‘amicable disagreement between partners’. In part, this failing can be excused by the cash-starved party’s abrupt post-election redundancies. But in part the leadership must carry the can for failing to present a consistent tone, sometimes admitting openly the differences between the Lib Dem and Tory approaches which have necessitated compromise, at other times trying none-too-credibly to paper over the cracks.

3) Coalition means party members are bound to be disappointed… Just like public spending cuts, it’s one thing signing up to the principle, it’s quite another to see the reality. What we’re seeing now is the reality of Coalition. As I wrote on 11th May about the purpose of consensual politics:

Many of the hobby horses of political parties which are not mainstream, and do not command majority public support, are jettisoned. Instead politicians learn to focus on those policy areas which they know the public will like, and on which there’s widespread agreement. Parties hate it – they like to be in control – but the public is the winner.

4) No-one now asks if the Coalition will last… This, for Nick Clegg, is I suspect one of the biggest prizes of all. Back in May, people were speculating about the Coalition breaking up in a matter of weeks or perhaps months, the idea of it lasting a full Parliament was dismissed as a pipe-dream. It may yet collapse in ruins, of course — but most people now talk of the Coalition lasting years not months. For a party that’s always championed the idea of Coalition politics — of politicians putting the national interest first — that’s a crucial first step towards convincing the public that pluralist politics can work. If it implodes, those who will be most grateful are Labour and Tory tribalist reactionaries, who will crow about how strong, stable government can only be assured by continuing to rig the electoral system (aka first-past-the-post).