Why Liberal England Slept

Lib Dem ministers eye up their latest crush

Are Liberal Democrats naive or merely foolish? This seems to be the key question of current British politics: their apparently genuine shock and amazement at the extent of the Tory betrayal on the AV campaign suggests that at the very least the party’s leadership were too credulous when negotiating with the Conservatives, or that the were positively cavalier, ignoring all previous experience in the face of an Old Etonian smile. The Lib Dems are notoriously dirty campaigners themselves; that they have been knocked for six by a Tory-funded No campaign that spared no one’s blushes, and certainly not the terms of some paltry prenuptial, strains credibility.

Labour, of course, were sadly split on the AV issue – not least because the party’s Scottish MPs, who saw their bailiwicks turn to Alex Salmond on Thursday, rely in large part on FPTP to shore up their  majorities. But it seems a trifle rich to blame Ed Miliband, a leader who continues to speak the language of the ‘progressive majority’ despite all evidence of its existence tending to the contrary, for the failure of a campaign  that mattered apparently so much to Lib Dems (though not so much that all the party’s supporters could bring themselves to vote Yes). The blame must fall on whomever under-estimated small-c conservative opinion and large-c Conservative dishonesty – and over-estimated the chances that the public would turn to constitutional revolution at the merest flimsy word from an admittedly cuddly liberal.

Nick Clegg will continue that under-estimation of the electorate at his peril – yet his transparent positioning on the rolling back of Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms suggests that the Lib Dem leader, who is oh-so bravely choosing to do away with a Bill already abandoned by many Tories, including Cameron himself, will forge ahead in the only way he knows how: blindly, but with an increasingly forlorn hope that something will turn up. One might welcome the demise of the proposed NHS reforms, but Clegg will need not to halt Tory policies already in the process of being abandoned by Tories themselves, but succeed in implementing Liberal Democrat policies which people care about. It’s not enough for Ed Miliband to invite Lib Dems into his own party – he should be supporting any sign of a sort of fifth column within the Coalition. But with Labour under-performing and the Lib Dems at such a loss, that Old Etonian smile grows broader by the day.


4 thoughts on “Why Liberal England Slept

  1. I voted yes, but neverthless see it as a sideshow; even if my preference had prevailed, not very much would have changed. The real referendum is the upcoming Scottish Independence vote. If the Scots vote yes, it will doom England to perpetual Tory government. That’s a sobering prospect.

    • danhartland says:

      I agree that a Yes to AV would have been a tiny change in the grand scheme of things – but then that was the bind Cameron set up for Clegg, right? How to excite anyone about that?

      On Scotland – quite. A quailing quite.

  2. By the way, if I remember correctly Labour didn’t offer AV without a referendum during the coaltition talks. I think that was the controversy. Labour denied that they ever offered it, Nick Clegg denied that he ever told cameron that he was offered it and Cameron was accused of lieing to his backbenchers for using it as the reason for why the tories had to at least offer it as a referendum.

    My point is that I, personally, don’t think the Labour party would have ever agreed to AV without a ref. The labour party are more split on AV unlike the tory’s complete opposition to it but, in a general sort of way, I don’t see Labour as particularly welcoming to the issue of electoral reform (Not that they have to be). Basically, I fail to see this as some uniquely Tory conspiracy. Mr Ed didn’t exactly put much gusto into the ‘yes’ campaign and I always felt that his support was some cynical effort to pose as the ‘new’ politics (A phrase that’s more overused by politicians who don’t know what it means than the word ‘Progressive’). Anyway it is what it is, I don’t think it would have changed much anyway. I, myself, did vote in the ref rather half hearted.

    • danhartland says:

      The Wikipedia entry on the AV story certainly repeats the claim that AV without a referendum was offered by Labour. But let’s assume for a moment that it wasn’t, and that Ed Balls and his fellow ‘tribalists’ did nix all idea of a Labour party willing to unite against such a promise: why then did the Lib Dems accept AV from the Tories? Why not a system, or a demand, more likely to turn out as a win for them? As it is, their most visible concession – a concession most voters wouldn’t list as a priority – is in tatters.

      Aside from my interest in posting pictures of chaps in top hats, the issue isn’t really one of ‘nasty Tories, silly Lib Dems’ (though that is part of it). Had the Lib Dems accepted the same offer from Labour, it would still have been wrong. They made the wrong demand, and backed the wrong horse – it was a political miscalculation. Clegg and the Lib Dem leadership are now locked into a Coalition from which they will have difficulty wringing further significant wins – yesterday’s university fees debacle may well have been less a mistake, more a warning shot across the bows of any Lib Dems who thought they could push the Tories too far.

      The story of the Coalition so far is not that Tories are evil (of course they are!). It’s that the Lib Dems are a bit hopeless.

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