Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The next general election may be closer than we think

A nuclear bunker in south-west London housing ConDem Minister Vince Cable's constituency surgery. Picture: Sea Change staffer

Back in 2001, when I stood for parliament against the Liberal Democrat Ed Davey in Kingston & Surbiton, we were debating his party’s nonsensical, uncosted manifesto pledges. Believing they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever forming a government, the Lib Dems felt able to promise pretty much anything they wanted to the electorate. Naturally, I was well briefed by the Labour Party on the financial burden the policies would impose on the hard-pressed British taxpayer and the spurious calculations that lay behind them, so had a lot of good ammunition up my sleeve.
One of Ed’s first lines of defence was his academic credentials and he reminded the audience that he had a Master’s degree in economics. In one of my slightly sharper contributions to political discourse in south-west London, I observed that it was amazing how people could hold a Master’s degree in economics, yet seemingly still not be able to add up.

Ed Davey comes to mind when I observe the current plight of his government colleague, Dr Vince Cable. The former chief economist for Shell, who is MP for the neighbouring constituency of Twickenham, is an exceptionally intelligent man too. But for all his book learning and commercial experience, he is left this week looking like the court jester. Not only has he foolishly shared his intimate thoughts with unknown visitors to his constituency surgery, but he has demonstrated a naive belief in his own ability to bring down the government. In reality, Cable’s ‘nuclear’ option is no Hiroshima. It’s a firecracker that he doesn’t even know how to light.

The decision by David Cameron and Nick Clegg to keep Cable in the Cabinet is used by some to demonstrate just how important the cerebral Lib Dem sexagenarian is to the Coalition. I would argue it shows their weakness and indecision rather than Cable’s strength. They could happily have dumped him, because the guy is a spent force. Can he really act as a rallying point for disaffected Lib Dems? Not any more. He is someone whose credibility has been shot to pieces over the past six months. No one knows what he stands for and no one much cares. He has undergone a remarkable transformation from Moses to Mr Bean.

Cameron and Clegg may still fear a Lib Dem backlash, but the real threat to the Coalition is actually from the smouldering anger of backbench Tories. They can’t abide the way that their leader plays nicey-nicey with the Liberals. Had a Tory made the same mistakes as Cable, they argue, he’d be out on his ear. They’re also horrified by the lukewarm support that Cameron is giving to the Tory campaign in Oldham, where a byelection is being fought following the ruling against former Labour Minister Phil Woolas. It’s almost as if Cameron would prefer the Lib Dem to beat Labour in what was previously a fairly close three-way marginal.

I have long argued that the Coalition is much less stable than many commentators would lead you to believe. The people who need the Coalition are its leaders. It is not wanted by the majority of Tory MPs or party activists or, for that matter, by their counterparts in the Lib Dems. I don’t accept that this is a similar situation to the one encountered by Tony Blair in 1997 – a populist leader facing down his internal party critics. The former Labour leader had effectively killed off meaningful opposition in his party before he assumed office. Indeed, the process had started much earlier, back in the 1980s, with Neil Kinnock. There has been no such groundwork in the other two parties, because no one anticipated the extent of horse-trading and compromise that the mathematics of the 2010 election threw up.

There is, I feel, a 50/50 chance of a general election taking place in 2011. The Coalition is on very rocky ground and a few more unfortunate events could create a seismic shift in the political plates that underpin the government. Cameron is nothing without Clegg. And the excruciating Clegg is less than nothing without Cameron. The Lib Dems would, of course, be the main losers in any sudden upheaval. Their best hope by far is to stay the course, change the electoral system and agree some kind of informal pact with the Tories in 2015. But the tide of history has a habit of scuppering the best-laid plans.

Ed Miliband was a poor choice as Labour leader. Had his brother assumed this role – as was the wish of the majority of party members – I think the ConDems would be on the ropes already. Instead, they’re back in their corner, nursing wounds but hoping to triumph on points over the full 12 rounds. Ed will have opportunities in 2011 to deliver a knock-out blow. Whether he’s up to the task remains to be seen.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

It isn't a vote about student fees. It's a vote about democracy.

I don’t have a particularly strong point of view on how a student's time at university should be funded. The whole business is very expensive and there’s a legitimate debate about how much of the cost should be shouldered by the taxpayer and how much by the graduate. Maybe there’s no ideal answer. I do, however, have a strong point of view about self-serving, hypocritical politicians who say one thing to get elected and then do the reverse when they’re in office.

The unctuous Nick Clegg – and unctuous is one of the nicer words I can muster to describe the Lib Dem leader – isn’t just leading his party members into a cul de sac. He’s threatening them with oblivion. One reaction to this debacle might be simply to shrug one’s shoulders and take pleasure in the two-faced Tory lookalikes getting their comeuppance. The problem is that their behaviour doesn’t only damage liberal democracy. It damages democracy as a whole.

What might voters be entitled to conclude from the last general election? I think it would be entirely reasonable for them to believe that their votes count for nothing. They were told in a large number of constituencies that the Lib Dems were the only party capable of stopping the Tories. They thought, in the event of a hung parliament, that Clegg & Co would act as a bulwark against extremism and ideology. They hoped, after his contribution in the televised public debates, that he offered a fresh kind of politics that people could believe in. To say that they were deceived doesn’t really do justice to the scale of the breathtaking sell-out that has taken place. Listening to Vince Cable claiming the concocted coalition ‘agreement’ takes precedent over the manifesto commitments that he and his mates put before the electorate is really frightening. People voted for your manifesto, Vince. They didn’t vote on some worthless document cobbled together subsequently out of political expediency.

Former Labour Minister Phil Woolas was stripped of his parliamentary seat for supposedly telling lies about his Lib Dem constituency opponent. I don’t have a problem with this, although admit to being somewhat disappointed, as I first saw Woolas in action as President of NUS 25 years ago and have always been impressed by his intellect and communication skills. The important point is that a much, much bigger lie was told by the Liberal Democrats in the national election than anything that appeared in Woolas’ local publicity. Their big lie poisons a democratic system which had already been battered through the shameful revelations over MPs’ expenses.

In the circumstances, there’s only one thing to be thankful for. The lie is out in the open. We see the Liberal Democrats standing trial in the court of public opinion, indicted on multiple charges of political deception. Although it’s thoroughly depressing to watch, justice will eventually be done. But we should never become complacent or indulgent or just shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves that politicians will always behave this way. Such a conclusion is not only profoundly dangerous for democracy, but also undermines the work of those rare politicians who genuinely do some good.

At the moment, we’re all aware of exactly what the Lib Dems are up to, but sometimes the lie is not out in the open. Politicians tell us one thing and then do another without our knowing. It therefore becomes difficult to hold them to account. That’s why the Wikileaks revelations are doing us all such a great service. We only know about the deceit and duplicity because communications which were supposed to be private have been made public. It’s caused a hell of a hullabaloo, hasn’t it?

A good parallel is the man who has multiple affairs and doesn’t want his wife to find the text messages sent from his lovers. When she does uncover them, an uncomfortable truth is revealed. There may be shock and anger and all kinds of protestations. The wife shouldn’t have been snooping. Her hubby has a right to privacy. He didn’t really mean what he said in those messages to his girlfriends. And if she lets the revelations change their relationship, it will destroy everything. What about the kids, the house, the future?

But the man is a liar and he has been caught. And five years down the line, the woman will be grateful that the truth came out and that she was able to step away from deceit and into a more trusting relationship with someone else perhaps.

One of Tony Blair’s great achievements – although ironically, it’s one that he regrets – was the Freedom of Information Act. You can see the legislation as a sanitised, watered down, version of WikiLeaks, which forces local authorities and central government bodies to reveal what they’re doing in private. We pay these people’s bills, after all, and we damn well have a right to know what they get up to. Anyone, though, who’s made FOI requests in the UK will realise just what obstacles can be put in their way. I spent a whole year getting information from a government agency that demonstrated it was easier to pass a driving exam in some test centres than others. I’ve been fobbed off with letters from other government departments quoting all kinds of loopholes and restrictions. There’s a lot of stonewalling and prevarication, so I have nothing but admiration for journalists persistent enough to uncover good stories.

We have finally created a world in which politicians can be properly exposed if we work hard enough. If citizens request information or insiders leak it, then it can be circulating around the web in the blink of an eye. What we lack are the real mechanisms to dismiss or punish those responsible for hypocrisy and wrongdoing. One of the best possible remedies we could introduce is known as ‘voter recall’ – a system that allows constituents to petition for a fresh election when they believe their elected representative has broken a promise or behave inappropriately. It’s a system championed by the Lib Dems. Or at least it was. When students suggested its introduction could lead to the recall of turncoat Liberal MPs, Nick Clegg was quick to write and tell them they’d got the wrong end of the stick. Where exactly was this man when a sense of shame was being handed out?