Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Coalition with the Tories... Its pros and cons from my perspective.

Liberal party unity

In years to come a Liberal history of this year's events could read thus :-

As the years of New Labour slipped away they were replaced by a new darker order - The Coalition. Nick Clegg took his place at David Cameron's side, not as the young liberal idealist he had been but as Darth Clegg Deputy prime minister.

But it won't.

Clegg has not sold out his ideals, the Coalition is not the Evil Empire and David Cameron is not an evil master mind ala Palpatine or Thatcher. Many people are seeing the Conservative dominated coalition as the coming of a new dark age of British politics, they don't see it as a force for change that we, as Liberals are a part of it.

The decision to go into coalition was not an easy one, not one that would please everyone. I remember those tense days watching the negotiating teams meeting. The fair votes demonstration cheering to Nick's words from the steps, anxious 'phone conversations with my Tory friend, who asked in a hushed voice; "I heard you're talking to Labour... You wouldn't do that to us would you?"
We all wanted change, preferably through a Liberal parliament but a coalition would do, if run fairly.
We may be mocked for being Tory puppets or Sell outs but what were the other options?

1: Force another election which would be costly and time consuming leaving Britain without leadership in a time of crisis and war. We would forever be labelled as indecisive and not capable of making big decisions and thusly not capable of running government.

2: Have a hung parliament that had no party in majority. Yes it makes it an open forum for debate but it also means the process of governing at a time of crisis is lengthy with too much debate. We would also be labelled cowards and seen as indecisive (Again) in the face of real power.

3: Side with Labour. Apart from being ridiculed for propping up a dead horse and prolong the death throes of New Labour we would be forever linked to their failure. Although a breath of fresh air I cannot believe that Brown's cabinet would have made room for Clegg and co. Also - more importantly historically Labour has spent the last century gradually replacing us as the champion of the people and in my opinion the differences between the parties would have been lost and our policies would become their policies.

4. Side with the Tories. Our Ideological enemies from time immemorium but now becoming a fluffier more approachable party that is also trying to encroach on the Liberal Heartland and causes.

The coalition government is our chance to prove that the party is strong, undivided and capable of making the big decisions of government. We can bring our ideas to the table and through negotiation and compromise we can try and moderate the Tories and their policies but still remain separate so that when we do come to the next general election we can stand separate from the other parties and say that we have made a difference.
Already we have made a difference to this government with the scrapping of ID Cards, the pupil premium, political reform, transparency of government etc.

Yes we have had the tuition fees and the fallout from the Browne review but let’s be honest; had the Conservative party had a majority government the fees would be higher and paid up front with no respite for the poor. Danny Alexander and Dr Vince have worked hard to give it a Liberal spin with the grant for the poorest and the percentage to be paid back each month. I know that this was one of our BIG election stand points, the removal of tuition fees, and the parliamentary party signed pledges in support of this iniative and we have been put in an exceptionally awkward position by the government but there are a couple of points to bear in mind.

a) On the assumption of power the Liberal Members had to face the fact that they were actually running the country and promises that had seemed reasonable, even vote winning were not as plausible as they may have sounded on the hustings. Indeed the parliamentary party had wanted to scrap the whole tuition fee promise however it was thrust upon them by the grass roots.

b) Both the Labour and Conservative party wanted to raise the tuition fees before the election. Both wanted to await the results of the Browne commission but both had a sneaking suspicion that they would be advised to put them up and were willing to embrace it. Don't be suckered in by Mr Milliband's "Graduate Tax" and Labours, for once united front in voting no. Dr Vince and his team evaluated the idea of a graduate tax and deemed it unsuitable. In my opinion I think that Labour cynically voted no as a way to win votes and to oppose for the sake of opposition with no real constructive alternative.

c) The fees have not tripled they have doubled to £6k a year (£9k in certain institutions, i.e. Oxbridge) which DON'T have to be paid up front. They are wiped after 30 years (like the current system) and you DON'T have to pay anything until you are earning £21K a year (currently 15k)

So if you get a degree but end up doing a crap job, as you find belatedly (like me) that your degree is not as good as you thought it was and everyone else has one, then you don't have to pay a single penny back.

d) I truly believe that Nick Clegg has had a real battle with his conscience and done all he can to make this policy more liberal. Look at the guy... No offence Nick (I doubt he's reading this but you never know!) but he looks like the weight of the world is on his shoulders and has visibly aged since that sunny day in the Rose garden. I'm sure that he, Dr Vince and Danny Alexander have not taken this course without serious, and I mean SERIOUS contemplation. He knows what it meant to the electorate, to the party members, to the MP's... Why endanger the party and indeed his position as DPM and party leader on one policy unless he believed it in his core and that the policy had been made as Liberal as possible.

At the moment we have a lot of angry LibDem members, I was one of them, and I know a lot have left the party because of it. Some have defected to Labour, others to nationalist parties and the Greens and some weirdly defecting to the Tories!!!! Surely they must realise that we are not a one policy party. Tuition fees were important but they are not the central meaning of the party and if people joined just for that then...
Surely if you have problems with the party and what it is standing for nowadays leaving it in protest and sending your shredded card to Nick Clegg is not the way to change it. It takes debate, contacting your MP's, standing up at conference, chatting on Twitter with like minded people and people with connections. You can't just bail at the first major hurdle.
It comes back to the pledge I guess and the serious questions of the Liberal's integrity and more importantly Mr Clegg's integrity and honesty and I can understand how people feel about it and how it looks but what else could they do? Stand on principle and stand in the way of progress? Or have Nick, flanked by Dr Vince and Simon Hughes and cross the floor back into opposition?
It doesn't help that the Media have targeted us over the issue and lost sight as to who instigated the review (labour) and who wanted the reform (the Conservatives.)

What I’m saying is that... as a party we all have our pet policies and beliefs. Some Libdems are more passionate about electoral reform, others trident and tuition fees but all hold firm to the Liberal ideals and we should let some of our losses go and accept that we are making a difference elsewhere. I agree with David Laws’ assertion that in government you have to sacrifice your popularity for responsibility. It is good to have angry party members though it shows that we have passion and hopefully the party conference for 2011 will be a hotbed of activity with members and Nick being called to account for themselves and their actions and fresh ideas and suggestions being put forward for the future.

I know the coalition is never going to give us all that we want and yes we will have to compromise some of our ideals and more sacrificial ideals but we need to unite as a whole behind the parliamentary party and not appear weak to the media or voters. For too long we have stood on the fringes of politics seen as beardy weirdies, sandal wearing, humus eating crazy liberals and the home of the disenfranchised.