Wednesday, 22 June 2011

What Nick can do next...

I contributed recently to a forum on LibDem Voice on what the party should be doing to secure its future. Depressingly - after arguing the success of achieving 70% of Lib Dem manifesto commitments - I was told that my views were unrealistic. Indeed, all the threads from activists were for dropping any hint of supporting a Tory policy and grabbing the nearest thing to a Labour one that could be found in order to bolster a hemorrhaging voting base - currently plumbing the depths at around 10%.

Now I can perfectly understand that Lib Dems should be worried about such figures. What I cannot understand is a party that wants to go in exactly the direction that is hell bent on destroying it. The Lib Dems are being crucified by the Left, not the Right. There is never so much anger as those who think they have been 'betrayed'. But we need to remember that to betray you must first belong, and Lib Dems need to ask themselves - whether its academy's, welfare reform, free schools, elected police commissioners, the NHS or constitutional reforms - Labour now fights on the side of producer interests and against the interests of the people with every major reform being proposed. Despite the fact that most provide an evolutionary fit with New Labour's Blairite agenda, as the man himself has recently pointed out.

Why would the left have such a pull for Lib Dem's? Partly because it's ideology is based on the principles of equality and social justice - concepts so powerful that all parties now subscribe to them - although welfare dependence, poor educational achievement, the lack of opportunity and deeply problematic social structures are now firmly the province of the Liberal centre of British politics and not the old left.  And partly because, for more than a century of great political struggle throughout the world, it offers the promise of a radical alternative to the dominant capitalist model in which we live.

The problem for the left is that when those principles are based not on people, but on building the state and its bureaucratic institutions as the solution to each social problem, then Lib Dems should be leading the criticism - not endorsing it. As Blair says in an interview with Prospect magazine today; caution against the ‘natural inclination of the party to say "we created the state ... we created its institutions, we should be ... defending the way public services are". This position may be a comfortable one, but it is also a losing one'. He should know. He won three consecutive elections. And he is hated by the left for 'betraying' them.

The truth is that the left continue, under Ed Miliband, to offer only a bigger, more centrist and bureaucratic state - where the essentially personal has been lost. We need to start exactly where we have always been - firmly rooted on the centre ground of British politics, putting people and their aspirations first. Start with the brilliant piece by Julian Astle, a director of CentreForum an independent, liberal thinktank, in Monday's Guardian. He points out that the left has always owned the values of equality and social justice, and the right of liberty and aspiration, the modernisers have sought to blend the two - taking base metals from left and right and turning them into political gold. The first point in the discussion 'what Nick can do next' is to stay firmly rooted on the centre ground giving nothing to both the far left and right in the battle for ideas and policy.

Second - and more importantly because this centre ground is also inhabited by a relatively small but intensely bright coterie of both Blairite and Cameron supporters, each some way from the mainstream of their party - Lib Dems must continue to be at the radical edge of this Liberal centrist Coalition. Not the dour, road block which Gordon Brown represented to Blair's swift foil. As Tim Montgomerie - among the most succinct Conservative commentators - noted in a recent article, over the past year, Clegg had appeared to reject the politics of the lowest common denominator, and backed bold reforms. Iain Duncan Smith regarded the Deputy Prime Minister as a decisive ally in his battle with the Treasury in overhauling welfare. The Lib Dems were also radical in switching the balance of educational funding from university to a child's first few years, when investment can make the biggest difference. On other issues, too – such as pensions, local government or lifting the poorest out of the income tax system – there was something exciting about the Coalition, and their contribution to it.

This is exactly the ground that the Lib Dems should be occupying. Indeed it should go a lot further. Come 2015, the electorate need to understand that the Lib Dems not only delivered the Coalition Agreement including more than 70% of their manifesto, but that they drove the Coalition on some of the most important and radical issues of the day, but which enhanced the lives of the British people - a comprehensive package of penal reform turning prisons into adult education centres and giving re-habilitated prisoners a stake in society, a new deal on the two largest areas of criminal activity which blight our society - drugs and prostitution - bringing them into society, re-writing our privacy laws in answer to outdated super-injunctions, the first comprehensive bill of rights setting out responsibilities of the state and its citizens and incorporating a new UK human rights act, Parliamentary reform including obligatory open primaries for the one third of seats that have a safe majority, expulsion for any members convicted of a serious crime, openly elected parliamentary committee's with the power to set and scrutinise the annual budgets for every quango. Lords reform and, yes, the committment to hold a referendum on PR if a further Liberal centrist Coalition were necessary after the next election.

The answer to the question 'what Nick can do next' is stay radical, stay Liberal and stay at the centre. I really don't think it unrealistic to believe this Coalition is capable of a great deal more. As Julian Astle points out, a majority of the British people are moderate voters unconvinced by the partial solutions traditionally on offer.