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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Making the right choice

As if attempting to make up for their shameless misrepresentation of Nick Clegg yesterday today's Independent on Sunday carries an interesting article by John Rentoul on the long term prospects for the Liberal Democrats.

I do not agree with everything he says and in fact think that his conclusion is a bit fatuous, but nevertheless there are some interesting passages on why we are where we are:

The historian Kenneth Morgan recently argued that those previous coalitions were also all disastrous. "The first prevented Irish self-government and was responsible for the Boer War. The second saw us plunge into economic depression. The third made the social effects of that depression even worse. Each time, the Liberal coalitionists showed themselves to be mostly shallow opportunists willing to jettison their principles for the sake of office."

The thing about conventional wisdoms, however, is they can be wrong. There was a time when men thought mullet haircuts were a sensible idea or when aliens thought mashed potato should come out of a packet. So it is worth exploring the alternative thesis: that Clegg and his colleagues responded intelligently to the election result and that the Liberal Democrats could be strengthened for the long term by the coalition.

In fact, the days after the election have already been picked over several times by the instant historians - including, most recently, by Steve Richards, my esteemed counterpart on The Independent, in a book published last week. The account in Whatever It Takes makes it clearer than before that Clegg did as well as he could in an awkward situation. The option of a deal with Labour was – if only just – unworkable.

Clegg's real choice, therefore, was between a coalition with the Conservatives or a looser deal that reserved the right to decide how Lib Dem MPs would vote on each division in the Commons. The latter would have reduced the Lib Dems to reacting passively to whatever was proposed by the Tories. Put like that, it was not a difficult choice. Either way, the Lib Dems would have had to allow George Osborne's Budget cuts to go through, or to have forced another election. Yet the spirit of the party, which takes bodily form in the persons of Clegg's four predecessors, Sir Menzies Campbell, Charles Kennedy, Paddy Ashdown and David Steel, hankers after the myth that a Lib-Lab pact was do-able and remains an option to which the Lib Dems could revert at any time. That ghost story will provide much of the narrative thrust to the reporting of this week's conference.

Not only did Clegg make the right choice in May, however, but there is a case for saying that it was in the long-term interests of his party and the values for which its members think it stands. The case against him is essentially that the coalition is bound to be unpopular and that the Lib Dems will share the blame for making unpalatable cuts. It ain't necessarily so.

The key issue is the depth and timing of the cuts. Here, I think Osborne is playing politics as much as economics. Like any negotiator, the Chancellor knows he has to start the bargaining by asking for more than he expects to get. He wants to send a shock through Whitehall, make the deepest possible cuts in the first three years, then ease up as the next election approaches. It may be the economy will bounce back more strongly than expected, in which case he and David Cameron would think it prudent to allow Clegg to claim some of the credit for "saving" popular services from the worst of the cuts.

Personally, I do not buy the argument that future elections will naturally gravitate towards hung Parliaments which will enable the Liberal Democrats to choose between Labour and the Tories. We have to be in good enough health to have a bargaining position in the first place.

However, there is an argument to be made that we have made a real difference in Government and that we can be trusted with power if things do work out and we get the economy right. If that leads to an increase in the number of Liberal Democrat MPs then further hung Parliaments are very possible.
We will see after Next Mays election, I've voted Liberal three times now, I think it will not be a fourth which is a pity really, I have never saw the Liberals as a copy of Labour or to the left but after being sent the pact to become a member I so nearly joined.

But right now Labours out, Tories out, the Liberals are the Tories, so I'm not to sure where I go from here.

more then likely give up.
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