Friday, 30 July 2010


There are a lot of stories doing the rounds about disquiet within the Liberal Democrats over the state of the coalition. The disquiet exists, but runs nowhere near as deep as is sometimes played up in the media. And it has to be set against some clear realities.

Reality check 1 – there was no choice for the Lib Dems after the general election

With the arithmetic produced by our crazy electoral system, there was really no choice but to accept David Cameron’s offer of a coalition. The maths wouldn’t have made a deal with Labour work (Labour didn’t want it anyway, whatever Gordon Brown may say), and if we’d sat tight in splendid opposition and let the Conservatives form a minority government, we’d be facing a second election this autumn which would almost certainly have delivered an overall Tory majority. Then we’d be no better off, and people would be wondering what the Lib Dems were for.

Reality check 2 – things would have been equally bad under a Labour government

Despite the collective amnesia engulfing Labour which convinces them that nothing bad happened before 7 May, Labour would have faced the same economic situation and would have had to take equally brutal measures. Ed Balls has even admitted that Labour’s election pledge to halve the national deficit in four years was unachievable. Any current boost to Labour is simply down to it not being the party that’s doing the dirty work.

Reality check 3 – the current government would have been a lot nastier without the Lib Dems as part of it

To Lib Dems, the government seems a Tory one that’s using our support and doing its own thing anyway. But many Conservatives feel the opposite – that the Lib Dems have too much influence. The reality is that it is a Tory-led government with Lib Dem influence, and that influence is measurable in several ways. We will achieve our aim of a £10,000 income tax threshold by 2015, we will get a referendum on a step towards a fairer voting system, we will get our ‘pupil premium’. There are fringe benefits too, like the renewal of Trident not being funded from general taxation, and the flowering of moderate Tories like Ken Clarke, whose liberal slant to his work as justice minister could never have happened if the Tories ruled alone.

Reality check 4 – all parties lose support when in government and gain it when in opposition

We have been in opposition for 65 years, during which time you pick up a number of supporters. But opposition is a lot easier than government, and when you’re responsible for issues rather than just commenting on them, you lose some of the people you picked up in opposition.

Reality check 5 – the Lib Dems (and previous incarnations) have been unpopular before and have always bounced back

We were unpopular during the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-78, we were hammered by the Greens in the 1989 European elections, and we were down to 11 per cent in the opinion polls three years ago. We always bounce back because there is always a place for a third force alongside the parties representing the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ – a place for imaginative ideas that aren’t beholden to an orthodox or proletarian ideology.

The next couple of years won’t be easy for the Liberal Democrats. I fear we’ll lose some very good councillors next year because of a backlash against our role in tackling the deficit.

But I went into politics to try to change things for the better. At the election we got 23 per cent and the Tories 37 per cent. If we go into government with them, we have to play the junior role, but we’re still achieving things. That’s why we need to hold our nerve – and leave a dignified return open for those people who are leaving us now.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


It takes a fair bit for me to scream at the television (yes really, I gather some people do it constantly), but I found myself yelling at Ed Miliband on Question Time the other week.

He was commenting on the coalition’s spending cuts, which is all fine and good – that’s his constitutional job, after all. But what got me yelling ‘That’s disgraceful!’ at the set was his comment ‘and the British people will show what they think of these cuts at next year’s council elections’.

If ever there was a case of bringing democracy into disrepute, this is it. The contempt he has for local government encapsulated in such a brief statement is breathtaking.

Next May’s local council elections have nothing, repeat nothing, to do with national politics. They are a vote on who runs your local council, in our case Wealden District Council. Is the council well run financially? Is it well run democratically? What is one party offering by way of a local programme for the next four years? How does that compare with what another party is offering? These are the questions that should take centre stage at council elections.

OK, a bit of realism here. I know there are a lot of people who vote in council elections on the basis of national politics. A lot of people don’t know who runs their local council, indeed many don’t know the name of their council – it’s easier just to blame everything on ‘the council’. Many even think the MP is the leader of the local council.

This situation isn’t helped by the demise of local media. Because of financial pressures, local newspapers are often run these days with one news reporter, who’s looking for the granny-rescued-by-the-fire-brigade story rather than scrutinising the local council. But that’s no excuse to encourage local elections to be run on national issues.

There are some brilliant councillors – of all parties – who put in four years of hard work, stand for re-election, and are then unceremoniously dumped because their party nationally isn’t flavour of the month. This is a tragedy for good local decision-making – a tragedy that’s being fed by Ed Miliband’s cavalier attitude, just because it suits his purpose to attack the coalition for doing the dirty work it has to do.

There could be a second ulterior motive to Miliband’s skulduggery. Next May’s council elections will probably feature another vote, the eagerly awaited referendum on changing our voting system.

Could it be that Miliband the Younger is trying to get people to protest about the coalition through voting against the move to a fairer voting system? After all, the chances of his party getting an overall majority would be somewhat reduced under the Alternative Vote system, but deep down he – like every other Labour and Tory politician – knows there is no moral defence of the current first-past-the-post method.

Any government formed after the 6 May election would have had to take the harsh decisions the coalition is taking. And yes, it will be unpopular for a time. But if anyone uses that as an excuse to sacrifice hard-working local councillors working on local issues, and a long overdue tentative first step at reforming the voting system, they will be guilty of the most disgraceful opportunism.