Mick Clogg and the Bedroom Tax

Imagine there were a political party – let’s call it the Piberal Lemoncrats. The Pib Lems are a minority party in government at a time of austerity, and they are trying to reform the benefits system.

The government comes up with A Policy to save some money. But everyone who’d be involved in implementing This Policy on the ground predicts that it’d be a disaster – unfair, difficult to implement, and probably won’t save much money. Lots of Pib Lem members, who work day-to-day on these issues or have experienced them first hand, think the same thing.

Nonsense, says the leader of the Pib Lems (Mick Clogg). The Policy will work, he argues, and what’s more it’s fair. Some members sort-of go along with this, to the extent that The Policy is described as socialism.

And so, The Policy becomes law and is implemented. Lots of Pib Lem councillors, who are having deal with The Policy at the sharp end, point out that it’s going terribly. They are quietly ignored, or assured that they are wrong, and told to call The Policy by its correct name. Pib Lem Conference comes around, which passes a motion pointing out that The Policy isn’t working and asking for it to be changed. Nothing happens for another year or so, except for occasionally voting against Opposition attempts to abolish The Policy.

Then, a report comes out, nice and official on good quality paper which repeats all the things that everybody, inside and outside the Piberal Lemoncrats, has been saying for the past two years about The Policy being a total car crash. “Aha!” Mick Clogg announces. “I see now that The Policy is a disaster. Who could have predicted? How could I have known before now? We should now get rid of The Policy. You see, When The Facts Change, I Change My Mind.” And he awaits praise for his wise handling of the whole thing.

Can you see why people might find the actions of the Piberal Lemoncrats and Mick Clogg rather frustrating?

Thankfully, this is a completely fictional story which could never happen in a mature democratic party in Britain.

Michael Gove and the juvenile right

So, Gove is gone. Nicky Morgan is likely to continue in the same line as him, but in reality he himself (whisper it) largely followed the policy consensus over schools that has been since the Thatcher years. It was not in policy, but in pugnacity and zeal, that Gove distinguished himself. A fixation on school structures, the introduction of new metrics and structures to measure and enforce accountability, a belief in raising standards, and the weakening of LEAs to the point of obscurity – all of these are trends that can traced back to Kenneth Baker. But this post isn’t about what Gove’s achieved, but about his supporters on the right. One can’t look at them and deny that there are Tories who care passionately about social justice, who are angry at poor social mobility. It’s undoubtedly to their credit, as is the fact that they haven’t gone down the socially divisive and ineffective route of grammar or maintained schools. They’re quite nice people.

What attracted them to Gove was his avowed iconoclasm. As Shadow Education Secretary and then in office, he attacked, with a dramatic and ideological quality not seen in his predecessors, what he saw as decades of flabby anti-intellectualism and trendy leftism which he believed had weakened British schools and needed to be reversed. Moreover, the teaching profession, defended by left-wing unions, was denounced as moribund and self-protecting. The answers – reform of curriculum and testing, more independence for new schools, more control over the old – were not new. But they happened with a dizzying speed, and they were associated with ferocious polemics against at least some in the teaching profession. American liberals have a wonderful phrase for a needless attack by a Democratic politician on their own base on the left for spurious electoral gain – ‘hippie punching’. This is what Gove was doing: beating up a stereotype of a corrupt teaching establishment, with the promise of a transformation British schools.

This is really what Gove’s admirers loved, and this is what gives me pause. An alarming number of them express a certainty that his policies are correct because they’re opposed by the teaching unions who they see as defenders of mediocrity. As a product of a state comprehensive, I’ve suffered at the hands of useless teachers and dumbed-down teaching. Perhaps it’s because I understand the motivations of the Spectator crowd that I’m wary of them. Gove’s successes are not measured in children schooled, but teachers scolded. The NASUWT and other ‘producer interests’ don’t like him, so he must be doing something right. He has, to quote Andrew Marvell, ‘cast the kingdom old/into another mould’; the enemy of my enemy is a radical reforming genius.

It’s tempting. It’s also childish, drawing on resentments, prejudices and antipathies. Evidence is advanced relatively rarely; faith is often enough. It’s certainly not the job of the Education Secretary to do what teachers tell him to – it’s to make sure that kids get an excellent education. Sometimes that means standing up to the teaching establishment. But in reality, the public services are filled with people who usually care and know what they’re talking about, and teaching is no exception; if they’re complaining en masse, something probably *is* going wrong. This leads me to my second worry: so-called ‘liberalisers’ (and often self-described liberals) are ferociously supporting the man in Whitehall and the micro-management of curricula and pedagogy as long as said man (or, now, woman) is merrily punching hippies. Forgive me if, as a liberal, the idea of a wise Secretary of State knowing best and imposing a vision from above leaves me rather cold.

In reality, if you talk to teachers or nurses or civil servants, most of them will be candid about the imperfections of their various areas of expertise and would cautiously welcome the ‘right’ kind of change. And if you want to successfully introduce radical change, especially in a time of austerity, you have to work with them. I strongly believe that it makes for better policy. Yes, let’s be critical of anyone who is more interested in protecting outdated practices than in the interests of students. But for the ‘liberal’ right to support Gove almost blindly and with frightening zealotry in his campaign against ‘the Blob’ shows them to be thoroughly juvenile.

Am I a ninny?

‘PROOF THAT THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS ARE A PARTY OF NINNIES’ bellows the headline of a recent Spectator article by Alex Massie. Not an auspicious beginning, but I couldn’t resist the clickbaity title and so went on to read why exactly we are all ‘foolish or stupid’, to quote Mirriam-Webster’s definition. The answer: only 70% of Lib Dem voters, when polled, said that they wanted the party to be in power at the next General Election, with 17% hoping for a Labour majority government and 6% wanting David Cameron to govern alone. Massie then goes on to attack the Lib Dems as ‘a party that preens and congratulates itself for being ‘above’ mere grubby politics but that actually is really just about a polite form of copping-out and quitting the game’ – a rather odd conclusion given the last four years, but I suppose old stereotypes die hard.

It is, however, fair to ask why a party might not want to be in government. One answer is that the Lib Dems rely more heavily than other parties on tactical votes from people who are actually Labour or Tory supporters. But, Ashcroft polling aside, there are probably a fair few ardent supporters of the party who quietly pray for a Tory or Labour majority next time. I can think of at least three good reasons for taking this attitude:

1) We won’t get a good offer from either of the two other parties.
If there’s a hung parliament next time, I doubt that the offer from either side will be particularly generous. Cameron is constrained by his own backbenchers and the party’s right, who will be far better organised in putting forward their demands and blocking any unacceptable deal. The result will probably be a large chunk of Tory policies on the economy, public services and Europe with some of the more palatable Lib Dem demands (e.g raising tax thresholds) sprinkled on top. Labour would be more subtle – I imagine a proposition along the lines of ‘we are really very similar in a lot of areas, which is why we should just implement the Labour manifesto’.

There is also the added problem that we will probably lose maybe half of our vote and probably return between 30 and 40 MPs. Not only will the loss weaken our legitimacy in any negotiations, it would mean that we’d probably have only two or three Cabinet ministers and a large number of departments without any Lib Dem representation at all. The result would be that our influence in day-to-day governance would be weaker than it is now.

Of course, we will probably be able to implement some Lib Dem policies in these hypothetical governments. But we’d also implement a lot of illiberal policies as well which take us further away from a freer, fairer and more open society. It would therefore be perfectly sensible to reject these offers.

2) Westminster isn’t everything.
This is a trap which the leadership falls into with alarming frequency, pretending that we never ran anything more serious than a car boot sale before May 2010, whereas in fact we’ve run big cities and delivered public services in County and District Councils for years. There’s also the small matter of us running Scotland for eight years. My point is that the Westminster bubble doesn’t realise the importance of elections to anything other than Westminster in implementing Lib Dem policy. For a pro-European party, we underestimate the importance of what our MEPs did on the environment, fisheries, human rights, and trade. And given how much time our MPs and PPCs spend pointing angrily at dog crap, it’s surprising how little many at the centre seem to care about our increasing inability to do anything in local government other than send angry letters to the Chief Executive.

National coalitions hurt our vote, whoever they’re with, and the results are real. Our collapse in urban Britain from 2011 onwards means that almost all of our inner cities are now completely dominated by Labour, with all that entails for local services. In 2011, Scotland and Wales returned majority SNP and Labour governments with help from disaffected Lib Dems, with predictable results for health, education, and other key services in the devolved nations. This May, we lost all our MEPs, one of the reasons why ECR overtook ALDE as the third biggest group in the parliament. Backlash from Coalition, then, has helped our opponents and weakened our ability to implement our priorities in Holyrood, Cardiff, Brussels, and in town halls across Britain.

3) The long term fate of the party is at stake.
Can we survive another coalition, either with Labour or the Tories? The answer – in terms of having some parliamentary representation and a basic structure – is probably ‘yes’. But the possibility of setting off a death spiral, similar to that suffered by the Liberals in the Thirties and Forties, should not be discounted. Furthermore, there are large areas of the country where we are possibly already dead for a generation – again, most Northern cities and inner London, but also most of Scotland outside the Highlands and Islands – and where another Coalition will destroy our identity and any chance for recovery. An argument might be made that preserving a viable liberal force in British politics is more important than any particular short-term policy gains.

Alternatively, the existential threat to the party is actually internal. We are a divided party, and the only way that we can reform ourselves is by licking our wounds in opposition. Another five years of government – particularly with the Tories – would likely strain to breaking point the compromises and annoyed silence that is currently preventing open warfare.

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I don’t think we should rule out a coalition with either the Tories or Labour after May 2015. In reality, a hung parliament would force us to choose some kind of arrangement, however loose or temporary, with either party. But I do want to kill the idea that rejecting another formal Coalition is somehow stupid or self-indulgent. I also think we should be open to a confidence and supply deal next time, as Stephen Tall has suggested, even though it has some very obvious problems. Let us say to the Spectator, then – what’s wrong with being a ninny?