Happy Birthday: on their 25th anniversary the Liberal Democrats face their worse crisis yet

rennard_2490087aDid you know it’s the Liberal Democrats’ 25th birthday today?

And what a couple of weeks it’s been to celebrate such a milestone with the Liberal Democrats facing what is easily their worse crisis of recent memory.

During the dark days of the first tuition fees protests, it seemed the Liberal Democrats could sink no lower. And yet, they have managed it.

The Lord Rennard scandal and the Chris Huhne perversion of justice sentence that proceeded it have made the Liberal Democrats seem like everything they had despise in previous Labour and Tory governments.

Lying, sexism, even criminality were perceived as acts of politicians corrupted by power they, as the perennial opposition, were supposedly above. They were supposed to be the voice of level headed reason and human decency. They were the people who entered politics out of a sense of duty, not a megalomaniacal or narcissistic desire for power and influence.

Lord Rennard is hardly the first politician to become embroiled in sexual impropriety claims, Westminster is after all notoriously sexist. His fellow Lib Dem, Mike Hancock is currently being sued by a constituent over claims of sexual impropriety. The stories of sexual harassment floating around Westminster are legend and I can definitely think of a few ‘honourable’ members from other parties guilty of similar crimes.

But the ongoing abuse of power in the party exposed this week is particularly damaging to the Liberal Democrats because it is the final nail in the coffin for the idea they’ve been above it all for the past 25 years.

Examples like the nasty, homophobic by-election campaign of Simon Hughes in Bermondsey in 1983 back when they were still the Liberals, Mark Oaten’s fondness for rent boys back in 2006 and the ongoing saga of Chris Huhne’s legal troubles show they’ve never been perfect.But this scandal is in a different league as it shows the failing are institutional rather than a few bad apples.

And let’s face it, back when they were the third party no-one really noticed what they got up to, now they’re in government they need to get their act together.

But this scandal goes all the way up to top and it is hard to see how Nick Clegg is going to wriggle out of this one. For all his brief popularity during the last election Clegg has proven he isn’t capable of wiping off the misdeeds of his party as previous ‘Teflon’ leaders like Blair and Cameron have done.

The drip drip revelation of Clegg’s part in brushing the outrageous abuse of power by Lord Rennard under the carpet have shown that however personally progressive his values are, he is either unable or unwilling to tackle the caveman style mistreatment of women in his party.

A leader with such a loose grip on power (or indeed the plot) is dangerous with only two years to go to what may be the toughest general election they will ever face.

In spite of all this Clegg will still probably get a stay of execution until after 6th May 2015. Now his main rival has been defeated and the Eastleigh by-election was won with the smart decision to field an unassuming, local candidate who is unlikely to say anything stupid, no-one will want to rock the boat too much.

No-one wants to become the captain of a sinking ship but with his authority compromised Clegg will only just be able to keep his party together in the run up to the election. Not unlike Gordon Brown’s fate after the snap election that wasn’t in 2007. Most of the Liberal Democrats I seem to talk to, appear to be looking forward to escaping government and reclaiming their comfortable seat on the backbenches where they feel they belong.

Rachel Sylvester wrote in the Times this week (£) the Liberal Democrats weren’t ready for government. She said they had spent so long in opposition being ignored they cannot face up to the scrutiny and disappointment of government. Back in 2009 when Rennard was quietly moved on it seemed like the most practical way to avoid a scandal but in the days of new government accountability, people are angry enough to see yellow heads roll.

The Liberal Democrats have made it to their Silver Jubilee but if they seriously want to make to their Golden one they need to get to grips with the nature of power.

They need to learn they can’t act like progressive champions of women’s rights and let “octopus” tentacles slither up their female members’ legs. They need to learn how to fight a by-election as simultaneously the party of local people and the party of government. They need to learn when to make tactical withdrawals and become a party which can take a firm stance on issues without making promises it can’t keep.

Most of all they just need to learn to act like a modern, dynamic socially progressive of the twentieth first century not the hypocritical, middle class guilt party of the twentieth.

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Cabinet reshuffles and looming election wipeouts

The Coalition Cabinet in the early days of 2010 before the axe started to fall. © The Daily Telegraph

Giving a speech at the 2009 EU elections results night, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan delivered an eye catching plea for Gordon Brown to resign and call a general election. He had allegedly lost the ‘moral mandate’ and Hannan highlighted the farce of the political situation at the time by quoting popular children’s poet, Dr Seuss.

Three years on from this time when the strong, confident Conservatives were looking down their noses with glee as Labour slowly unravelled from within you cannot help but be amused by the irony of the upcoming, unprovoked cabinet reshuffle that is expected in the coming weeks. Or indeed, the news that the Liberal Democrat power base could be wiped out at the next election.

Every day the news seems to report another body blow to the Coalition as the Conservatives are still languishing eight points behind Labour  and the Liberal Democrats are even further behind on a paltry 10 points, only two points ahead of the UK Independence Party. According to YouGov (where the figures come from) if the election was held today Labour would win with a majority of 96.

To make the situation worse, the government has given up the pretence that they all still get along as George Osborne and Nick Clegg lock horns over Clegg’s comments to the Guardian that the rich should pay more tax.

With this government stuck in the quagmire less than halfway through its parliamentary term, its no wonder that the public mood is at dangerously low levels. David Cameron has to act now to break the spell and restore what little faith the country still has in him.

This reshuffle is designed as a shot in the arm for Cameron’s government; to root out naysayers and saboteurs and get the Coalition back on to track to Cameron’s grand plan: getting a majority in 2015.

Of course, the difficulty in this that Cameron is being torn in different directions by three groups with conflicting aims, none of are particularly interested in whether he gets to keep his job.

Cameron’s decision to shelve House of Lords reform may have been a concession to restore party unity but the result is this current deadlock. To friend and foe alike it made him look weak; it was a betrayal of the promises to the people and the Coalition partners that got them into this increasingly kamikaze government in the first place and to his enemies among the backbench of his own party.

Backbenchers have been grumbling over Cameron’s untraditional (for a Conservative) stance on Europe and gay marriage and are unhappy with the party entering into a coalition in the first place. Now that conference season is upon us, rising stars are looking to make their mark on the party and the press with headline grabbing speeches and the respective parties will be looking to consolidate with a policy agenda for the coming year.

Therefore now is the time for Cameron to quell the opposition to his agenda, or indeed his leadership. When he kowtowed to the backbench over Lords reform he demonstrated that he would back down if the party dug their heels in hard enough. Meanwhile MPs like Brian Binley are telling Cameron to mend relationships within the Tory party and stop behaving as the ‘Chambermaid’ for the Liberal Democrats and remind them who the senior partner in the Coalition is.

He is under increasing pressure to promote more right wing members to the Front Bench and get rid of some of the more unpopular figures; Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is reportedly facing the chop despite his claims that he is ‘totally laid back’ about the pending reshuffle. However, regardless of the change to the ideological line up of the Conservative side of the bench, Cameron is honour bound by the terms of the coalition agreement to keep five Liberal Democrats in the cabinet. So Business Secretary and Liberal Democrat hero, Vince Cable and  Minister for Scotland Danny Alexander look set to keep their jobs.

The Liberal Democrats have very different concerns when it comes to this reshuffle. Contrary to backbench opinion, the public feel there is little or no discernible yellow influence on the blue cabinet and that Clegg and his cronies simply decided to sell the young, the old and the ‘squeezed middle’ down the river in order to get a name in the political history books and possible a seat in the House of Lords one day.

Nearly every single one of the causes Nick Clegg championed when he gave the David Cameron the keys to number 10 have been dismantled or postponed and nearly every Lib Dem is getting restless. Since the defeat of Lords Reform, Clegg has declared open season on any and all Conservative policies he doesn’t like, including threatening to sabotage boundary change plans and criticising the Tory’s supposedly lenient tax policy. He needs to prove to his party (and the public) that he still has a backbone to prevent electoral ruin at the election. This uphill battle means he will continue to be a thorn in Cameron’s side and will not allowed his more popular ministers, like Cable, to feel the weight of the axe.

Then the third, and most important, group that Cameron needs to placate are the voters. When the election was held in May 2010 people (if not a majority of people) believed that if the Conservatives could cut the gross overspending by Labour, the economy would right itself and the country could go back to dancing on clouds and rainbows again. Fast forward two years and the economy has actually got worse now that we are in a double dip recession and the ‘deficit reducing’ government had to borrow money to plug a deficit in a month that is normally always supposed to run a surplus. Understandably the people are angry as they are losing their jobs and the props designed to support them when they do are being kicked out from under them. Meanwhile the Conservatives ring fence the rights of corporations and wealthy individuals such as their (politically foolish) announcement that they were going to criminalise squatting when thousands are already facing losing their homes.

One causality of reshuffle that is frequently called for his Chancellor, George Osborne. Having lost the support of several economists who had backed his deficit reduction plan at the beginning of his term, Osborne is increasingly becoming the target for people’s dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and his personal approval ratings have dipped lower than supposed Public Enemy Number One, Nick Clegg.

However, as Cameron’s best friend in government, Osborne is likely to survive. He may be the face of the ideology but Cameron is as much an architect of the economy as he is and there would be little gain from his removal. Whilst approval may take a slight upswing if he were replaced with the favourite, Vince Cable, it would not be worth the resulting destruction of Cameron’s power base within the party. Furthermore, Cable’s appointment may create a small respite for the economy as increased confidence in the Chancellor begets increased confidence in the economy which in turn begets growth; it is unlikely to have much long term effect if Cable is forced to pursue the same or similar policies to Osborne.

The whole situation is a political deadlock and it will be interesting to see if Cameron can get out of it, or at the very least keep his party together. Whatever happens in the long term public opinion is unlikely to be rosy. We can only wonder if any Labour MEP will be quoting Dr Seuss at Cameron come the European elections in 2014.

House of Lords reform and the coalition’s house of cards

A Broken Marriage? Cameron and Clegg
A Broken Marriage? Cameron and Clegg

In years to come, when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sits down with his ghost writer to pen his memoir reflecting on his time in power, he will undoubtedly remember the past few days. Its the kitchen sink moment, the hanging out the washing line reflection; the realisation that the marriage is over and there is nothing more you can do.

The people around him have known for a while, there are already rumbling over a potential leadership challenge from the left wing of the party led by Vince Cable. Given the way the Lib Dems have seemed to shed its leader every few years since the resignation of Charles Kennedy in 2006, Nick Clegg has done well to survive at the helm, especially since the beginning of the coalition in 2010.

The question is however, not how he survived this long, its whether he’ll survive in future. The ever controversial Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who has never shy about her contempt for the so-called ‘Posh boys’ of Westminster, said he and his counterpart David Cameron probably won’t last until the next election. However, this is probably premature as the Coalition is still unlikely to fall for at least another year or so.

The only thing that has died is any notion that this government is anything more than a marriage of convenience that is only sustained by the fear of reprisal from the masses in the event of an early election. Of course, this comes as no surprise to the majority of the country but the Cabinet can no longer pretend to play happy families when husband and wife are so openly attacking each other.

Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem ministers’ threatened revolt over boundary changes that would favour a would be Conservative MP is reminiscent of a wounded animal striking out fruitlessly in the hope of doing some damage. They stand to gain little from their revolt, this act will do little to regain the public’s respect or indeed trust, and will only destroy what little tolerance the Conservative back bench have left for them.

Clegg’s little act of spite will no doubt be an attempt to win back a small part of the respect of his party and prove himself as more than just Cameron’s lap dog. Whether or not it’ll do anything to earn back his party’s trust remains to be seen, but he still has a long way to go before he can hope to start earning the country’s forgiveness.

So what serious change will come about in both parties as a result of their respective scheming this week? Although Cameron’s failure to fight for Lords Reform has demonstrated he’s afraid of his own back bench which will do him no good when he tries to push through any more progressive legislation (a notable example being the Marriage Equality Act)designed to modernise the party’s image, he is not likely to face a leadership challenge. Whilst he may not be popular within his own party, their only remotely popular figure with the public is currently running London.

Furthermore, for all his faults, Cameron’s position on the Left of the party (relatively speaking) is what enabled them to (almost) get back into power in 2010. The years in the wilderness during the glory days of New Labour were compounded by the view that the Conservative party, and its then leaders; William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, were stuck in the mud and often just plain old. The ‘Soft Tory’ brand created by Cameron after his election to Party Leader in 2005 detoxified the Conservatives’ image as the party that helped Thatcher run amok in the eighties, the party of privilege and ducks houses, the party that favours the old and rich over the young and poor.

Cameron may not have been able to win them an election, but they still need him to prevent them from a crushing defeat.

So what about Cameron’s partner-in-crime? Clegg has fallen a long way since his brief (and more than a little premature, I thought, even at the time) crowning as the ‘British Obama’ by the Guardian back during the election campaign. From his position now as the biggest turn coat in British politics many would presume that his position is under threat from the increasingly mutinous members of his own party. However he is still likely to hang on till the next election simply because no other major politician is going to want to become the face of the coalition and man the sinking ship. Whatever happens, the Liberal Democrats are still likely to be crucified at the next election so the ordinary members will be looking to their own position. They hope they can convince their constituents that they are different from their party by making as much as noise as possible now and hoping things get a bit better if they wait until May 2015.

The biggest danger Clegg wants to look for is that the more left leaning Lib Dems that may even resort to crossing the floor and becoming part of the Labour party. Although this is a drastic measure, (the last Lib Dem MP to do was Paul Marsden in 2005 who returned to Labour having left in 2001 over the war in Afghanistan) because it means you sacrifice your local party base in your local constituency (those in safe seats wouldn’t dream of it for instance) but for those facing a challenge from Labour, especially in the student constituencies, it may be worth the risk. Clegg has to be careful of losing its MPs to the other side of the floor because every MP lost is a chip away at the slim majority the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats share. If one or two Lib Dems desert, Cameron may view it as a wave and see no point remaining in a harmful coalition when it can’t even guarantee him a majority.

Currently both Conservative and Liberal Democrats cards are balancing against each other, it only takes one to fall and the whole house of cards grumbles.

Putting The House In Order: Lords Reform Off The Menu Once Again

House of Lords Reform: A Historic Problem

Nowadays, if ever, a promise in an electoral manifesto is seldom worth the paper it is printed on.

The slow but steady inch back of the Conservative party’s assurances to their beleaguered coalition partners continued apace yesterday with the news that House of Lords reform had been postponed and the scheduled debate on reforming the upper house to half its current size with 80% of its members being elected. Despite the fact that it was one of the few consensus points between the three major political parties, House of Lords reform is more than likely to be dead in the water at least until the next election.

One of the key oppositions to it espoused by the right wing press and many of the oppositional MPs is that the coalition government should be focusing on fixing the economic situation. However, as the government are doing such a bang up job of tearing up any ‘green shoots’ of recovery to plug the drain of ‘the deficit’ and eliminating any fair or sensible approaches to education, paid employment and distribution of income with a rampant and destructive glee it may have been wise to give them a new, more positive project to focus on.

The Daily Telegraph claims that public demand for reform is lacking. However polling data released by YouGov suggests that although only 18% of those polls believed Lords reform was priority, 52% thought it was a good idea and only 20% believed the work well as it was and should be left alone.

This shows that there is a substantial if slightly lukewarm clamour for reform even if the Conservative backbenchers do not like it. One of the main oppositional points to an elected house of lords is that it become a largely an extension of the House of Commons and, according to another YouGov poll released this weekend, 64% of those polled believed that MPs were without politics or ethics. Thus the prospect of more politicians filling the upper house fills them with dread rather than optimism about the potential of democracy.
Continue reading Putting The House In Order: Lords Reform Off The Menu Once Again

Britain Ablaze Over What Exactly?

Santander Smashed Up Near Victoria Square in Birmingham (Taken by myself)

Last week I was doing work experience on the Strand and staying in North London, where they’re rioting. This week I’m in Birmingham and there are more riots. Next week I’m in Leeds doing work experience and I’m fairly sure there will be rioting.

Now normally I would say I was right: I do attract trouble but as I’m not that self centered I’d say that the motivations behind the riots are unclear.

Why riot?

Continue reading Britain Ablaze Over What Exactly?