Red and yellow Ed turns blue: Blairism reemerges in the guise of Blue Labour

A guest post by Chris Hurst

Forget ‘Red’ Ed: the attempt of the right-wing press to depict the Labour Leader’s ascent as the second coming of Tony Benn always rang hollow. Forget ‘Yellow’ Ed: Miliband’s partially successful strategy for winning over disaffected left-wing Liberal Democrats is old news. The only remaining route is to go ‘Blue’ – so say Blue Labour strategists, although some of their thinking is flawed.

Since becoming leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband has struggled to establish a public persona. Polling research suggest he has worse approval ratings than Nick Clegg and most voters simply know him as the man who usurped his brother for the Labour crown. The emergence of Blue Labour – a high profile pressure group urging the leadership to address the disconnection between the Party and socially-conservative working-class voters – is nothing new. The thinking which underlies it began under Tony Blair. Read more of this post

Cameron may not be a sexist but he is an embarrassment to the country

The press and blogosphere have been full of discussion over whether David Cameron made sexist remarks to a Labour frontbencher during prime minister’s questions last month. He made the gaffe shortly after he claimed that Dr Howard Stoate, a former Labour MP who supports his health reform proposals, had been defeated by the Tories in the general election last year. Upon being corrected by shadow chief secretary to the treasury Angela Eagle, who pointed out that Dr Stoate had stood down before the election, Cameron chanted “calm down, dear” a total of five times to the elation of the Tory front bench, including George Osbourne who laughed uncontrollably as he sat next to him. Read more of this post

Should we give the Lib Dems a break?

My colleague Postcode Politics argued recently that the Lib Dems should leave the coalition government. You have caused immeasurable harm to your party and your country, wrote PP. I agreed with almost every word. The Lib Dems are propping up an unelected government. They do not have enough sway around the Cabinet table to justify this situation. However, I am left feeling a bit uneasy about the whole thing. Part of me does want to say that the stick that Clegg and co are getting is a little undeserved. Read more of this post

The day democracy died

On Thursday the Great British electorate, in its infinite wisdom, chose to retain the first-past-the-post electoral system. I don’t blame them. Because it wasn’t t any day this week that democracy died. It was the day that the Liberal Democrats accepted the ‘miserable little compromise’ that is the alternative vote as an acceptable alternative to FPTP.

It is easy to be wise in hindsight. But the judgement of history must surely be that Clegg and his co-conspirators got this wrong. AV is an absurd electoral system. Beyond absurd. Giving one arbitrary group of voters a second vote has no justification whatsoever. As such the Yes campaign has been unable to put together a positive case for AV, and has been forced to make its pitch at a purely abstract level.

The principle at the root of FPTP is equally absurd from the point of view of democratic principles. But the system has a raw appeal in terms of simplicity, and of course the advantage of incumbency, crucial in a small-c conservative country usually quite reluctant to rock the boat unless it’s absolutely necessary.

It is absolutely necessary to change first-past-the-post. If the Lib Dems had not sold out on electoral reform in return for a few places at the Cabinet table, progressive forces may eventually have been able to coalesce around a real alternative. Now the chances of electoral reform are over for at least a generation.

But it gets worse. Whereas you might think that a referendum on AV is the very least the Lib Dems could have got out of their Conservative masters, they actually had to agree to a shameless Tory plan to carve up the constituency boundaries to serve their own interests.

So now we face a Conservative Party empowered by a referendum victory that was inevitable from the word go, shielded from public backlash against public spending cuts by their coalition partners, rigging the democratic process. Apparently they are also planning to withdraw support now from Clegg’s House of Lords reform agenda. All of this was entirely foreseeable.

It was also entirely unnecessary. The notion that the national interest needed coalition government is ridiculous. If they were so concerned about the deficit, the Lib Dems could simply have agreed to vote through a Conservative government’s spending plans, without necessarily agreeing to the rest of its right-wing agenda. The national interest may or may not have required these cuts, but it did not require Nick Clegg in the Cabinet Office, nor Vince Cable in a non-job at BIS – just as it does not require the marketization of the health service, middle-class tax cuts, war in Libya, and a dilution of banking reform.

Everyone finds it hard to admit when they’ve made a mistake. Mr Clegg, Mr Cable, Mr Huhne – you made a mistake. You have caused immeasurable harm to your party and your country. Don’t make it worse by digging in. Leave this coalition now. The Conservative Party did not win a general election, and by allowing them to govern as if they have, you are undermining everything you believe in.

Nick Clegg: when dreams turn to nightmares

A guest post by Chris Hurst

A year on from the 2010 General Election Nick Clegg must own up to one fact: the peculiar slump in Liberal Democrats’ support is Clegg’s responsibility alone – his Party may not be able to tolerate his market liberalism for much longer.

‘I must be the only politician in the space of a week to go from Churchill to a Nazi’, Nick Clegg joked during the General Election campaign as he attempted to shrug off right wing smears from the Tory press. Now the tables are turned and the vitriol is supplied by the left. To quote contestants of reality TV, for Nick Clegg it has been a ‘journey’.

So what accounts for Clegg voyage into notoriety? And why is it that the Liberal Democrats have singularly taken the hit of public anger over the direction of the Coalition Government?

Clearly Nick Clegg has not helped himself. A series of policy u-turns has diminished the Party’s credibility as the torch-bearers of new politics. In May, he stood as the candidate who would defy the political establishment and the ‘two old Parties’. Now he stands as the archetypal Westminster insider.

By forming an unlikely coalition with his Party’s great enemy, Clegg was always going to risk antagonizing the social liberal wing of the Liberal Democrats. For decades, polling has suggested Lib Dem Party members overwhelmingly describe themselves as left of centre. Despite these facts, some of Clegg’s supporters claim the membership is fully supportive of the government. They point to the unanimous endorsement given to the coalition agreement at a specially convened Party gathering on May 16th last year.

However, Party members were effectively coerced into supporting an arrangement which had already been formed five days previously. Top Liberal Democrats had already been sworn in as cabinet members and Clegg had been made Deputy Prime Minister. The so-called ‘triple-lock’, requiring the leader to seek agreement from the wider Party, had already been prised open.

The seeds of betrayal had been set in motion.

Still, back in May 2010, Clegg’s personal popularity remained high. Despite his Party’s seeming failure at the ballot box where they lost five seats – thanks in large part to a lethargic last week of campaigning – the Lib Dems actually increased their share of the vote by 1% and 800,000 voters. Clegg himself had enjoyed a comprehensive victory in his own constituency of Sheffield Hallam. He holds a majority of over 15,000. It is hard to believe, but in May Conservative commentator Nile Gardiner claimed Clegg was ‘beyond doubt the most left-wing major UK politician in a generation’.

But almost from the moment the Coalition was formed the Liberal Democrats began to lose support. Their leader could have been excused for his calm response to this development. People needed time to get used to the idea of Party’s cooperating in the national interest. A similar dip in the polls occurred after the 2005 election, shortly after Charles Kennedy had led the Party to its best results in over 80 years.

Labour’s accusations of Lib Dem betrayal rang hollow. After all, the Labour party had presided over a period which saw the 10p tax band scrapped and the war in Iraq. Labour was leaderless and directionless, wavering between the liberal Ed Miliband and his Blairite brother, David.

The warning signs for left liberals were there though. Starting with the Lib Dem volte-face over VAT, the Coalition agreement was about to undermine what it had meant to be a Liberal Democrats for over a decade and arguably for much of the twentieth century.

The only Party to remain opposed to nuclear power caved in when in August the Environment Cabinet minister, Chris Huhne, agreed to a new wave of nuclear stations, provided they were not financed by government. His claim that his position on nuclear power has ‘always been much misunderstood’ looked laughable when contrasted with his 2006 statement:Not only does nuclear cause a great threat to the environment through the large amounts of waste produced, but it is also economically unviable’.

Huhne’s new enthusiasm for nuclear power – now tested by the disaster at Fukushima – and his insistence that he had not changed his mind over the issue goes to the very heart of Lib Dem problems. Rather than accept that they are having to support Conservative policies they actually oppose, Clegg and his Lib Dem cabinet colleges adopted a policy of total unity with David Cameron’s Tory agenda. Clegg adamantly resisted ‘artificial rows’ with the Conservative leader.

It is this approach which has severely damaged Nick Clegg and led to the accusation he is a turncoat. The criticism of backbench tuition fee rebel Greg Mulholland – that Clegg ‘has done a very good job as Deputy Prime Minister but he also needs to show that he remains the right person to get out and communicate with our members’ – is gaining support among the grassroots. Certainly Mulhollnad underlines a growing concern within the Liberal Democrats at Clegg’s neglect of his party in pursuit of government goals.

The entire tuition fee debate is a vivid example of Clegg’s double standards. It was no secret that Clegg and fellow Orange Book liberals like David Laws had long sought to abolish the Party’s policy on fees – only for the Party members to force it upon them. Their compromise position to abolish fees over six years should have ended the conflict. The Party willingly trumpeted their opposition to University fees at the General Election; and the dreaded pledge committed candidates to a very public promise. It helped the Party hold on to their seats in University towns such as Cambridge, Cardiff, Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, and fuelled Clegg’s massive win in Sheffield.

Clegg went back on his word. The unapologetic way he went about selling his u-turn – his insistence that the rise was fair and progressive – has greatly contributed to the public’s loss of trust in the man. Once a political identity is established, it becomes almost impossible to change it.

Left-wing Liberal Democrats should worry. Clegg has surrounded himself with a band of fellow travellers of the market liberal wing of his party who claim that much public anger is merely down to a failure of communication – but his problems as a politician go much deeper.

At the General Election Clegg promised, above all, a new brand of politics – one with ‘no more broken promises’. His performance during the Prime Ministerial TV debates, as he looked into the camera with puppy-dog eyes, had convinced viewers that there could be a new way of doing things if only the Liberal Democrats were in charge. The two old Parties have let you down. Yet in office Clegg has proven to be the epitome of old politics. The Coalition deal was extremely undemocratic: proposals on education, the NHS, the rise in VAT and the rate and savagery of spending cuts were never put to the electorate. No wonder there is a growing sense that this government has no mandate.

The feeling Clegg has betrayed his voters is understandable. Long-surviving and loyal Party members have resigned on principle and the Liberal Democrats have taken a huge hit in the opinion polls. Interestingly the Conservatives have not. But the issues on which the Conservative Party have had to compromise do not strike at the heart of what it is to be a Conservative voter. Yes, for the likes of the Daily Mail, there is disappointment they will not scrap the Human Rights Act, an inheritance tax cut will not be introduced and capital gains tax has risen. But these compromises do not threaten fundamental tax-and-spend policies which go to the core of Tory thinking. The Government is successfully going about dismantling the state throughout the public sector and freeing up private enterprise much as it promised.

For the Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, the story is very different. Its electoral success over the last decade has rested very much on its appearance as the conscience of the Labour Party. It was the Lib Dems who first fought the battle for increased investment in public service with its 1p in the pound tax policy under Paddy Ashdown. The Party’s drift leftwards was underscored by Charles Kennedy – whose leadership opposed the Blair government’s increasing attempts to privatize higher education; advocated raising the top rate of income tax to 50p; and bravely opposed the Iraq War.

Being asked to compromise on much-cherished policies on public services, tuition fees and nuclear power undermines the Party’s identity.

In the end, Clegg has always wanted to move the Party rightwards. He was a notable contributor to the Orange Book which stressed market oriented solutions for the public sector. He commented at the Hay festival in 2010, ‘I am not a man of the left, I am a liberal’ – as if the two were mutually exclusive. He is also one of few Party leaders to shun support from the left: ‘The Lib Dems never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.

Soon, he may find out there is no future for the Party to Labour’s right either.