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Tuesday, May 11, 2010 

The Liberal moment has arrived!

Let's get the mea culpa out of the way straight off. Frankly, all of us who called for a vote for the Liberal Democrats now look more than a little silly. To be sure, it was always likely to end up this way, and indeed, we wanted a hung parliament: we just didn't really expect for Nick Clegg to jump so willingly into a coalition with the Conservatives. On any realistic measure, the policies of Labour and the Conservatives outside of economics and perhaps civil liberties are closer to each other than those of the Liberal Democrats on so many things that it seemed risible to imagine that the two parties could agree to a full-blown coalition, and yet that's now what we have. The right-wing press and politicos said vote Clegg and get Brown, and yet we've received the opposite. We saw Cameron and Clegg tearing strips off each other in the final debate, and now we have them as prime minister and deputy. Clegg urged us to shake off the shackles of old politics and vote for something new, and while we've somewhat got that, just how many Liberal Democrat supporters will be anything other than mortified by the Frankenstein's monster we now have in government?

The idea that this can possibly last for a full five years, with fixed terms thrown in as another of the concessions, is fantastical. We can't for certain completely dismiss the behaviour of the Conservatives so far, which seems to have involved throwing numerous cherished policies straight on the bonfire (or not, as argued below), such has been their desperation to return to power, itself puzzling considering how they could easily have governed with a minority and/or gone almost straight away for a second election at which they would have received a majority, but does anyone truly believe that they aren't going to go at the first completely open opportunity to try and get a majority of their own, even with this ridiculous supposed agreement which has already named the date of the next election? Do the Liberal Democrats now seriously imagine that even if they get their referendum on the alternative vote, which will in many places make safe seats even safer, that they'll be able to win it when both the Tories and almost certainly Labour will oppose it to the hilt?

If the concessions made by the Conservatives look eye-watering at first sight, then examining them from a different angle is most certainly required. A majority Conservative government might just have pushed ahead with its plans on inheritance tax, but a minority one would have risked a huge backlash at the same time as it was making what look likely to be horrendous spending cuts. It was always likely to be shelved, same as the marriage tax credit, or however recognising marriage in the tax system would have been implemented, although the Lib Dems have now said they'll abstain on that, giving it a chance of passing. As it is, IHT hasn't been completely buried, just not likely in this "parliament", while the Liberal Democrats' similarly fanciful mansion tax has been sacrificed. There isn't even it seems an agreement on the always doubtful Lib Dem policy of raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, instead simply putting something towards helping lower earners, while the "jobs tax" will not be imposed, despite the Lib Dems siding with Labour over the national insurance rise during the election campaign.

In fact, the more details announced, trickling out as I write this, the worse the deal looks for the Lib Dems. Trident will be replaced, the "value for money" simply scrutinised; there will be a cap on immigration, against all liberal instincts; spending cuts will begin this year despite the warning from the IMF that it wasn't necessary and could tip economies back into recession; and a referendum on transferring any further powers to the EU, although whether that's literally any powers we're unlikely to know. Where exactly the Conservative compromises that were "embarrassingly" being made, according to one senior Lib Dem source are, is difficult to ascertain, unless you include the five cabinet posts which are to go to the party, one of which is Clegg as deputy prime minister. Rumours are suggesting that Chris Huhne could be home secretary, which would be incredibly welcome and definitely a brake on the Tories' authoritarian instincts on crime, but I'll believe it when I see it. Can we seriously imagine the Sun welcoming an actual capital L liberal as home secretary, especially when Dominic Grieve was apparently thrust aside because of how he objected to Rebekah Brooks' (nee Wade) face about her then paper's coverage of law and order?

One of the most fascinating aspects of the deal will be just how the media responds to it. One presumes that to begin with the right-wing press will welcome it, simply because it ensures that the Conservatives are in Downing Street as they predicted and so earnestly hoped for. Once the novelty wears off though, and after they've forgotten how they previously attempted to shank Nick Clegg just like the hoody gang of their collective worst nightmares, are they really going to be happy with a coalition as potentially unwieldy and with such potential differences of opinion? How on earth can they be happy with the most pro-European of all the parties actually in power, even if they have no actual control on policy? More pertinently, they're going to be chasing their own backsides over just how much influence they will have over the government: previously they were assured of their concerns not just being noted but pursued and reacted to by a Conservative majority; now they're going to have to deal with unknown quantities also exercising power that by right is theirs! How long before the first newspaper urges the Tories to shaft the Liberals and either go it alone or call another election?

There's no doubt that this is a historic moment, but then history also tells us that past coalitions or pacts have ended badly. There's every reason to believe that this trend is not about to be bucked. The difficulty is in predicting exactly when: frankly, I can't see this lasting any more than two years, which would the best possible time for the Tories to back out, before the cuts have really started to hit home and when their support is likely to be highest. The Liberal Democrat vote is almost certainly going to be slashed in any event, and their Scottish seats especially must be in danger.

The least worst outcome, even when you weigh up the Liberal Democrats acting as a moderating influence on the Conservatives, was a Tory minority government. Yes, the coalition between the two parties seems to have delivered for now on civil liberties grounds, but that may well turn out to be the least of our worries. Can they Lib Dems really be happy, for instance, with the Tories' welfare reform proposals, which they've just signed up to? There'll no end it seems to the forcing of the sick and vulnerable into work, regardless of all the other factors concerning. Admittedly, coalition government, and it's almost certainly what we would have if we did finally get a form of PR, involves compromises and the doing of deals exactly like this one, but that usually involves parties which share more than the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives do, or at least do the surface. Key, after everything, might well be that Nick Clegg didn't so much as mention voting reform in his speech after the party accepted the deal. Perhaps, after everything, the sheer lustre of power clinched it.

For the wider left, the absorption of the Liberal Democrats into the government for however long it turns out leaves us in opposition but with more space for ideas than ever. For some of us, no longer sniping at those we are sympathetic towards, even if New Labour divorced itself so inexorably from our own values, will do us the world of good. It will also unite us far more than power ever did. To quote Bob Piper, with the caveat that I'm not going to dismiss Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats as the Ramsay MacDonald(s) of the noughties just yet:

Meantime, this is the opportunity for those of us genuinely on the left of centre of politics in this country to reconnect with the electorate, re-engage with the trade union movement, and ensure the Tories are defeated next time round, and Ramsey MacClegg and his rag, tag and bobtail quasi Tories are consigned to the dustbin of history. If we can get nearly 30% of the electorate to vote Labour at a time of financial crisis, with an unpopular government and leader, it should be a stroll in the park.

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