Wednesday, 13 April 2011

On being a punch bag - part 2

In the first post of this title I reflected on the torrid time the LibDems have faced in the last few months.  I noticed with dismay the kicking we have taken from some quarters and the way in which the LibDems have become at times toxic.

I argued that going into coalition with the Conservatives was courageous and probably right for the country and going with Labour was not really possible.  And I argued the coalition agreement at that point was essentially sound!


Lets start at the deep end - It seems to me the no university tuition fees pledge plus photographs in leaflets was a mistake and will go down in the annals of UK politics as one of the great electoral mistakes and cautionary tales!

I think the public seem to understand that if you go into coalition you have to compromise but expect you to deliver something on your key policies.

By campaigning with a pledge and a photo LibDems made tuition fees a key point.

It was about the young, it was about a flagship policy and an essential part of our brand, aping what had been incredibly effective politically in Scotland.  It was about progressive politics, our belief in education, social inclusion and mobility and also loved by middle class voters and mums and dads and grannies and grandpas too for that matter!

It seemed good politics humanising the rather dry business of key points and a costed programme - this was the vital emotional ingredient that told our story!

But, as Ed Milliband later said - it was naive to go with an out and out pledge!

What went wrong? 

The LibDem leadership did scenario testing quite well in pre election preparation for potential coalitions.  They considered the possibility that it the free tuition fees pledge may not be deliverable.  From what I understand Clegg realised too late that it may not be deliverable and Danny Alexander felt there was
enough there of the policy they could deliver in spirit to go with.  This means it was a mistake they ought not to have made.

Are they liars - no, of course not!

They achieved wider social inclusion and have improved the deal for more students from disadvantaged backgrounds than Labour or the Conservatives were proposing.  And they got more resources put into early stage and pre-school education that wasn't there before.

There were too many dependencies to deal with to unravel tuition fees.  The money wasn't there.  The universities had been deprived of too much funding. The Brown commission came to recommend tuition fees.  The Vice Chancellors want it.  Labour and the Conservatives want it.

They tried, they made a difference for the good, they got rid of them in Scotland before - but they couldn't deliver on this this time.  It is a slightly perverse irony that such a pile of excrement has fallen on the LibDem's head for fighting and failing - all because of the political mistake of making a policy a pledge and those photographs!

Clegg's mistake - which may indeed have been difficult to avoid as the difficulty in delivery became apparent at the 11th hour - means that being the FibDems is now part of the brand!

I fear in coalition you get associated with one thing.  In Scotland this was Free tuition fees and then Free personal care for the elderly.

I fear that with this government the one big thing we are remembered for may be the tuition fees fail.

We need this one thing to be something else!


Well quite a lot it would seem!!

Raising the Income Tax threshhold to reduce tax for the lower paid, take 880,000 of the poorest out of income tax altogether and to fundamentally shift our tax and benefits system to make work pay is a major achievement.

Introducing the Green Investment bank and mapping out our route to renewable energy and low carbon sources of energy is important and I hope will become a more substantial achievement as this parliament unfolds.

I rather like the achievements on prioritising Dementia research and expanding talking therapies for mental health illnesses.

But there needs to be more delivered.

We must be seen to make a difference with reining in poor NHS reforms - of acting as a check and a balance.

We must be seen to move to limit cuts if things go well and tax receipts improve and progress is made with reducing the deficit.  We believe in public services and community after all.  Cuts are a necessity for us to put us on an even keel - not an article of faith like with some Tories.

But what will our one big thing be?

"Read my lips, no new taxes" was the mantra quoted by George Bush Snr on the stump.  I'm sure that was his intention but he couldn't deliver and this came back to crucify him 4 years later against Bill Clinton.  I fear Free Tuition fees and the failure to deliver on that pledge may haunt the LibDems and Nick Clegg through this election cycle.  I fear that may be our big thing we are remembered for!

We may yet make a difference!

Dr Eoin Clarke, historian, academic, and someone who is building quite a reputation as master of the data in his comments on Anthony Wells' UK Polling Report website reckons the LibDems will come back to poll ratings of 18%.

This would mean holding a lot of key seats but losing a few as well.

I feel we will eventually come back in this election cycle but damage will be done.  Eoin is pretty objective as a psephological commentator and has an uncanny nack

No he doesn't have a crystal ball but he is Irish so may be in league with the faeries!

Where did we expect to be in the polls after deciding between red and blue and going into coalition with a tough agenda involving inevitable cuts.  I thought in 2010 maybe 15% - not around 10-12% (and worse in Scotland and Northern England)

I hope we get over what we have done on tuition fees.

I hope we find 1 big thing that the LibDems are recognised for delivering in government.

Better still, I hope we find a classic list of 3 big things the LibDems are recognised as having delivered.


I have been rather amused at the schadenfreude (love that word) or joy at the LibDem's misfortune permeating the blogosphere.  You see it on Twitter and on the comments of blogs like UK Polling Report.

"The LibDems are liars and getting what they deserve".  The natural order of progressive politics is being restored with Labour on 45% and rising with the LibDems facing oblivion.  The reds can man the barricades to fight the evil old Etonians who care not for ordinary people preferring to persecute them while feathering their nests. A bit of a caricature perhaps but sometimes I wonder!  It certainly seems to be a role some of the reds love to play!

Don't forget about 1/3rd of Labour's current doesn't particularly believe in Labour policy yet! Partly because they are split between those who would tackle the deficit and those who see no need to cut anything!! See my previous posting about the paradox of Labour and some of the polling on the Labour support.

The LibDems may yet get some of these people back

Spare a thought for the LibDems courage and what they are doing. See beyond tuition fees - which was a political mistake not dishonesty or having the wrong idea!

In Scotland the Scottish election platform from the LibDems is actually rather good!

The centrepiece of the plans is a £1.5 billion windfall, coming from making Scottish Water a public benefit corporation. It retains public ownership, by selling off the debt it owes the taxpayer so that it pays the public back for the money it's borrowed. This restructuring would give an immediate cash windfall of around £2.75 billion.

  This would be invested for the long term - to create 100,000 jobs,

In addition:
  • abolishing the Council Tax for pensioners on less than £10,000, paid for by reducing the pay bill for the highest earning public sector employees
  • introducing a pupil premium to ensure that kids from poorer backgrounds don't lose out at school
  • making sure business has the help it needs - with regional development banks providing investment 
  • plans for getting superfast broadband out there to all of Scotland - to make Scotland the most connected country in Europe
  • investment in science
  • keeping the free higher education, which the LibDems won in 1999 in Scotland!!
  • opposing the political power grab to the centre, especially a single Scottish police force.
This programme has been well received by analysts and independent commentators.

There remains very much a market demand for third party - a centrist party.

From what I read about the SNP, if Independence were achieved and the SNP broke left, right and centre, about 30% would break centre to Green or LibDem.

Some of the current Labour support could go LibDem if we remind them of why they used to like us.

However, we must beware the formulation of a special interest groups rainbow coalition - or of so called blue Labour - don't let Labour be receptacle for that - if we do Ed Milliband will have outflanked us and built his own Blairite coalition.

As LibDems we need to remember core ideas and be clear what we have done through government.  This includes what we have stopped being done.  This includes putting the brakes on the likes of Bill Cash and the Euro Sceptics!

Take me to the ball game!

It is a new ball game.  There has been no coalition since the war - and that was wartime national unity. It is a new game with new rules.  We should perhaps not get into a slavish adherence to cabinet responsibility.  We owe a duty to be clear about what LibDems are arguing for in government and against.  Yes, in government we must support the decisions that are made but I believe it is ok to have the party running arguments - on say whether we should have such high VAT - it is an honest approach.

We should not worry about being a punchbag by Labour supporters or the Daily Mail, or by getting lost in the quagmire of tuition fees - what's done is done!

We must now focus on deliverables and by getting out there with what we are trying to do!  Olly Grender, Paddy Ashdown's Director of Communications, has argued as much in the New Statesman recently!

It is also important that we don't look like poodles and that Clegg doesn't look like Cam's fag!!

Remember the LibDems like us. The Conservatives think we are ok.  It is Labour who hate us and they never supported us before!

As for ex LibDems - there must be some inevitable loss but if we deliver in government we will remind some of these voters why they liked us in the first place - at the next election cycle if not this one!

I still can't see the Greens on a reading of their current platform being a mass party.  The market demand for the centre is very much there as is the scope for doing well with a leader who catches the popular imagination!

We must toughen up, not listen to those who partisanly wish our demise and deliver stuff!


  1. Gavin,

    Fascinating stuff...
    I love the LD red logo.. its a cracker

  2. Thanks Eoin.

    I hope that is fascinating good!

    Think the logo has origins in attracting Labour voters to vote LibDems from better times but may become apt again in the weeks and months to come.

    Onwards and upwards towards Utopia!! :)

  3. Gavin,

    The fact that it is the making, not the breaking of the tuition fees pledge that the Lib Dems regret says a lot about their commitment to the policy in the first place. They cynically courted the student vote while the party's top brass, it would seem, had no intention of ever enacting their headline tuition fee policy. In my book, that only deserves contempt.

    The Scottish Water policy is flawed as well. The £1.5 billion taken by selling off SW would most probably be offset by a corresponding cut in the block grant - so it would be the UK Treasury, not Scotland, that benefited from the sell-off. Unless, of course, you can get a commitment from the Treasury that this would not happen - which has not been forthcoming so far.

  4. I think the LibDems meant the pledge alright, they just found they wre anyable to deliver it even though they wanted to.

    I don't think they were cynical.

    I think they have worked hard to deliver as good a deal for poorer students as possible in the circumstances. And they delivered free tuition fees in Scotland.

    The Tories believe in fees and Labour started the Brown commission that called for them!!

    The LibDems would ideally not have fees and if they can't deliver that will mitigate against them where they can.

    Ironic but politics that they are fetting a kicking.

    I also think they are delivering some important things in government along the lines of what they campaigned for.

    It is important to understand what they are doing rather than the soap box slapping!

    As for water I will need to do some more reading to say more about that I have heard both negative and positive arguments on this one in the last few days. :)

    I may post some more chat about that later!

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