...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Day 5241: The Balloon Goes Up


Well, as Sir Bedivere might have said surveying the field of Camlann and the ruin of the flower of England, that could have gone better

Fear won the day. Scotland voted for the SNP out of fear of the Tories; England voted Tory out of fear of the SNP. This was terribly cynical populism on the part of Mr Balloon and Mr Nicola Insturgent. We are as a nation more divided, more diminished as a result.

Not that the Liberal Democrats' campaign was innocent of blame in this.

Fear won the day because we didn't give hope a chance.

Sometimes only chocolate can help

Launching our manifesto, Nick Clegg said it was time to give people hope at the end of austerity, but instead we fell into a trap of saying we would try to moderate between extremists. "Who do you fear more?" was the underlying language of our "hearts and brains" message. "They're scary, vote for us because we'll keep you safe."

It wasn't what we WANTED to be saying – we had a story to tell about ending austerity once the job was done; about the opportunities of education; about lifting the stigma of mental ill-health; about creating a green future – but we quickly got side-tracked into debating deals, darkened rooms and red lines.

It would be easy to blame Cap'n Clegg. Some already have, though the swiftness and dignity of his departure has drawn much of that sting. He was at his best inspiring people in the debates before 2010 and in his resignation after 2015. It was only the intervening five years as Deputy Prime Minister that got in the way of seeing him as a decent man.

Hindsight and cynicism might say we should have replaced him a year ago, pulled out of the Coalition and let the Tories run as a minority for a year, to show everyone who bad it could get. But that was never what we went into Coalition to do. We wanted to show it could work and that we could be trusted in office to do our duty. We couldn't have defenestrated one leader and then saddled a new one with Coalition partnership.

And we're not really that sort of Party anyway (no matter how ruthless people think we were with Chatshow Charles and Sir Ming the Merciless).

Ultimately, this election was lost in May 2010. Never mind the tuition fees: that was the albatross hung around Cap'n Clegg's neck, but the opinion polls showed that the voters had already deserted us. We lost because we went into Coalition at all.

So add to the (depressingly long) list of things that the Great British public says that they want, but do not vote for: cooperation between parties that behave like grown-ups.

I was, fluffy feet in the air, totally sold on the Coalition. If we were or are to mean anything as a Party surely that has to mean getting our fluffy feet on the levers of power and implementing some of those policies. And implement them we did, many good policies – raising people out of tax; pupil premium, school dinners and apprenticeships; pension reforms; and most personally equal (er) marriage.

The Liberal Democrats paid a VERY high price today so that we could wear these rings as husbands. Thank you. We are SO grateful. It will NOT be forgotten.

Pluralist politics is off the agenda, now. No one will go into a coalition, possibly ever again.

Before the election, the positioning of the Nationalists – the Scottish Nasties, their Welsh Mini-Mes or the English Kippers – and their hangers-on the Greens that they would never join a coalition, that their principles were too "pure" was just too precious and too self-serving for words. They would get their policies by "confidence and supply", they claimed – no, you get nothing for confidence and supply; if you want policy to be implemented you need a minister to guide it through; you've got to get your fluffy feet DIRTY.

But now, who in faith could recommend a Coalition deal if the punishment meted out by the voters is so vastly, disproportionately out of scale to the offence.

Which is a great sadness, as it marks the death of a tradition in British politics going back to the start of Cabinet government.

We become more Presidential, more dictatorial, more in the Thatcher-Blair model than the tradition of debate, scrutiny, argument and compromise that was very British.

And look at the things we might not have in five years' time: human rights, a welfare state, a place in Europe, the BBC

Within hours of the election, the now-Liberal-free government was already planning on cutting benefits for the disabled while Theresa Nuts-in-May was revving up to rummage through your emails by reintroducing the "Snoopers Charter".

This will be the first test for the new Parliament. There are Tories – notably David Davis who forced a by-election on the issues of Civil Liberties – who might be persuaded, cajoled, even honour-bound to vote against the intrusive and unworkable spying on every citizen. Mr Balloon's majority is as thin as an After Eight – or an After Twelve, perhaps.

Leadership hopefuls, take note: the Liberal Democrats have got to be in that debate, making a lot of noise, and a dozen new friends!

And this is merely the beginning of the scale of what faces the new Liberal Leader (I look forward to the contest, and Norman Lamb will no doubt give him a good debate and maybe even a run for his money, but it will be Tim Farron).

There are plenty of good people putting forward "where do we go from here" plans: Auntie Jennie, Auntie Alix, Andy Hinton, David Howarth, to name but four, all have decent takes. Even Daddy Richard tossed out some thoughts over the course of election night:

We need to stop being so cautious, playing piggy-in-the-middle and say something that might frighten the horses, so:

1) Housing. We need a radical alternative that says how we can deliver the "build more" we all know is the answer. So raise a tax on existing property equal to the (few billions) you need to spend building. And to discourage NIMBYism, the more houses we build the lower the tax (hmm, taxing existing land values, strikes a familiar chord). And while we're at it, pay for housing benefit by taxing rents.

2) Clean the air of our cities. This means planning to replace *all* cars with electric, which means planning the charging infrastructure and planning how we're going to generate all that electricity (which means fusion).

3) Wi-if. Free. Nationally. Same rationale as the penny post in the Victorian age – it's a key architecture for government so the public might as well get it for nominal cost too.

4) Drugs policy. Currently the war on drugs is obviously utterly counterproductive. Decriminalise. Medicalise. Possibly even legalise regulate and tax in case of weed.

Firstly, and it's a thing that comes up several times from the suggestions my fellow Lib Dems are making, is the need to reboot the Liberal Democrats as a Party – hold our own constitutional convention, as Jennie puts it – to reform the organisation into something a bit less like a drunken gavotte by a spider drenched in ink. It is vital that the Party recognise its big failings from the years in power and before that allowed what happened with the likes of Mike Hancock and the whole Chris Rennard debacle, where no one saw any justice and we all came out looking sleazy. It needs to be done, so let's get it done, and do it right, but it is essentially inward-looking. We need to be projecting a positive face outwards too.

So, looking forward, HOUSING is the idea that clearly coming forward from the thinking in Lib Dem circles: it's a clear crisis in supply and one intimately linked to the fundamental flaws of the British economy, namely that most of it gets turned into wealth and tied up in property instead of working to create jobs and opportunities. Ideally driving down house prices would increase opportunity for people to own their own homes while releasing capital into more production, non-rent-seeking projects. Our ability to make large-scale changes – planning garden cities – may be curtailed by the wipe-out, but local campaigns can still focus on local developments, particularly those that fail to make affordable provision part of their mix.

This is a START but we need something BIGGER, not just managerial tinkering but real radical change.

The linking theme of those policies is that they are about changing things for the better, offering hope and opportunity.

That is an agenda that we need to move swiftly to seize. The roots of it exist within our 2015 manifesto, as I've already said, and in the slogan "Opportunity for Everyone".

The Blairite faction within Labour are already urging their Party to become the Party of "aspiration"; we need to give people a REAL CHANGE alternative to Thatcherism-lite, and do it pretty darn quickly.

Where, in all this, the Labour Party?

Well, Labour lost the election badly for all the reasons I've been spelling out for months: they never made the effort to address their failures at the end of Mr Frown's government, they didn't develop a critique of the Coalition's policies. No, shouting "traitor!" and "no cuts!" (then mumbling something about how you'd cut "nicely"), does not amount to a critique. Mr Milipede's personal handling – scoring cheap debate-club points and stunts, culminating in the infamous EdStone (now known as the "heaviest suicide note in history") – were every bit to blame, but so was the rest of the Party by letting him muddle through putting off the difficult decisions because he wanted to avoid the fights that characterised the Blair/Frown years in office.

Truly, Labour's problem was that they spent five years being ANGRY, and angry does not win elections.

The blogger Another Angry Voice put up a typical meme hitting out at the folly of the electorate punishing the Lib Dems for siding with the Tories by electing the Tories.

It's obviously enjoyable seeing so many Lib-Dems MPs suffer the consequences of their self-serving treachary, but seeing so many of them lose their seats to Tories beggars belief.

How can you punish the Lib-Dems for collusion by voting for the very people they colluded with?

AAV says "It's obviously enjoyable seeing so many Lib-Dem MPs suffer" demonstrating *exactly* why the left lost this election. When you would rather see people suffer than campaign to *stop* suffering, then you're part of the problem, not the solution, no matter how clever you think you are by calling the electorate "drunk".

The suggestion is that Labour's spite sent teams to Sheffield to try and unseat Cap'n Clegg when they should have been working Ed Balls seat, and so they lost the shadow chancellor to their own decapitation strategy.

In a way, though, Labour will be helped by Ed Balls losing his seat.

I am sad for Ed Balls personally, for losing a job he clearly loves.

But more broadly, I hope that it helps Labour move on, rethink their economic policy and admit to and move on from the errors of the Gordon Brown era.

Also, it will allow Yvette to contest the leadership without the shadow of standing against (or blocking) her husband which would have been used (unfairly) in the way Ed v David was used.

Labour's travails do impact on us. So long as they remain in eclipse, they drag down the politics of hope with them. By looking a shambles, or worse in hock to the Scottish Nasties, they strengthen the Tory position, which is of course based on fear.

Which brings us back to where we came in.

We cannot let fear win.

There IS a place for the CENTRE: not as "neither one thing nor the other" but as heart and hope; not splitting the difference between left and right but healing the divisions in our society; not just holding back the tide against things getting worse, but saying it's okay to believe that things can and will get better.

In this diary:

Mr Balloon is David "Call Me Dave" Cameron, leader of the conservative party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom with a majority of 12 seats on a 37% share of the popular vote.

Ms Insturgent is Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland, the devolved government of Scotland, whose Party won 56 seats in the UK Parliament on 4% of the nationwide popular vote (the quirk of our voting system that it rewards geographical concentration rather than broad popular support – normally I call this Largest Loser Wins, but in Scotland in 34 out of 56 seats, the SNP polled more than 50% of the vote)

Cap'n Clegg is Nick Clegg, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, resigned after winning just 8 seats on 8% of the popular vote. I should probably start calling him "Parson Blyss" now that he's retired.

Mr Milipede is Ed Miliband, former leader of the Labour Party and Her Majesty's Leader of the Opposition, resigned after winning 232 seats on 30% of the popular vote.

Chatshow Charles is Charles Kennedy and Sir Ming the Merciless is Sir Ming Campbell, the two leaders of the Liberal Democrats immediately preceding Nick Clegg. The Party's MPs persuaded Charles to stand down when it became apparent he had an alcohol problem; Sir Ming stood aside of his own accord when it became clear that the newspapers were only interested in his age as an issue, and not the Party's message.

Norman Lamb and Tim Farron are two of the remaining Liberal Democrat MPs: Norman is a former minister and seen (fairly or unfairly) as the Clegg loyalist successor; Tim is former Party President but stayed out of government to maintain his independence, seen as the hot favourite.

Mike Hancock and Chris Rennard are Liberal Democrats who were involved in scandals during the last five years (both alleged to have behaved inappropriately to women).

Yvette is Yvette Cooper, wife of Ed Balls, Labour's Shadow Home Office spokesperson, seen as a possible leadership candidate, though rumoured to be uncertain she wants the job now.

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