Friday, 9 April 2010

Resisting the Charms of Adonis

In today’s Independent, Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis appeals directly for would-be Liberal Democrat voters to switch to Labour in Labour-Tory marginal seats.  Adonis bases his arguments upon history, as well he has to.  It smacks of desperation that he boasts of Labour removing “most of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords – a reform the Liberals failed to implement when they had the chance in 1911.”  Please!  That begs the question why did it take Labour nearly eighty years to catch up?

Cheap shots aside, Adonis claims that Labour and the Lib Dems have much more in common with each other than we have with the Conservative party.  As part of the proofs on offer, he admits that Labour has often stolen Liberal Democrat policy and put it into law.  All very gratifying but Labour has not been shy of doing this with Tory ideas either.  Blair and Gordon Brown have rightly been called Neo-Thatcherites, for they have continued with light-touch financial regulation and the privatisation of public assets that would have made even ex-chancellor Ken Clarke blush with shame for the modesty of his own ambition.  From health, defence and prisons, if it isn’t screwed down by union interest, Labour has sold it; usually through the mechanisms of PFI initiatives.   Shall we then talk about the levels of debt incurred as a result of these policies?  Something that the Conservatives were supremely unconcerned with but an issue the Liberal Democrats have been raising since the early part of the decade.  Now are we all Keynesians again in the face of the economic storm but in order to be true Keynesians, the government ought to have been saving during the good times.  Instead they were like the pools winners whose motto was “Spend spend spend!”  Whoever is in power next will have to cut cut cut, for as a country we are totally spent.  It is still not clear that we will avoid the fate of Greece and become another IMF basket case.  But we have been there before; last time under the leadership of James Callaghan and Denis Healey in the 1970s.
On the matter of defence, although Andrew Adonis would like to place Iraq firmly in the history books, I don’t think the British people would agree with him.  Blood, both of the British service personnel who were killed and injured, the Iraqis who died in their hundreds of thousands, and all those who are still suffering today, is not so easily washed away.   On the political front, the whole business shows a massive failure of judgment, with an all-powerful executive able to hoodwink and railroad most of parliament and a large part of the country into an illegal and aggressive war.   With honourable exceptions on both sides, spineless Labour MPs were followed by gung-ho Tories through the lobbies in support of Blair and Bush’s crusade.   It was the proudest moment of my political life so far when we Liberal Democrats stood up and with one voice said “No!” to war.  And in other areas, Labour and Tories stay united, wedded to the military demands of a Cold War mentality, refusing even to consider the prospect of a Britain without Trident.
Lord Adonis writes “The Lib Dems and us are united by a common antipathy to the values of Tories.”   As illustrated above, is there such a large difference between Labour and Conservatives?  Twitter is awash with the (rather clunky) term “Labservative” but there is a point.  Since Labour renounced socialism, the democratic debate has been considerably narrowed in this country.  He accuses the Lib Dems of self-interest with our demands to change the voting system.  Not of course there is any self-interest in Labservatives wishing to keep the first-past-the-post system(!).  But the main point in changing the voting system to proportional representation is to strengthen democracy in Britain.   For instance, in their domestic policies, Labour has very little environment ambition in evidence, nor do the Tories.  There should be room for smaller but entirely representative parties in Westminster.  But under the current system there isn’t.  So proportional representation is not the pure self-interest that is claimed.  Nor do the Liberal Democrats support Labour’s Big Brother vision for Britain, nor their repression of social mobility through the vastly inefficient families’ tax credit scheme.
The problem with Labour is that they are addicted to power and are cynical in their pursuit of it.  Perhaps Andrew Adonis feels well placed to appeal to Liberal Democrats since he was a Lib Dem counsellor himself once.  I have to ask though whether he really understood the party of once he was a member.  Sure, it is possible to become a high profile politician by being a Lib Dem but we have to fight tooth-and-nail for any real power that the public might entrust to us.  Not so with the other two parties.  Since World War Two, all they have really needed to do was to wait a generation for their turn in the ministerial limousine.  This is not a political system worthy of the people of Britain.  One has to wonder however, if it wasn’t such a temptation that motivated Adonis’ switch to Labour in the first place and whether it still is behind his desperate appeal to us today.


Francis Sedgemore said...

They are fair points you make, Martin, but in the current circumstances surely the best hope for those Brits who adhere to left-of-centre liberal views is a minority Labour government with LibDem support. And by this I mean more ministers than just Vince Cable running the Treasury. A Tory administration with Labour and the LibDems in opposition doesn't bear thinking about!

When it comes to proportional representation, I have to say that I'm disappointed in LibDem leaders and spokesmen who've downplayed its importance in negotiations to form the next government. In fact I'm wondering where the leadership is in the LibDems. Apart from Cable, that is.

Martin Veart said...

There is a reason for the down-playing of any deals Francis. To talk about such things now would be to resign ourselves to third place automatically (a placing which the media has been attempting to nail the Lib Dems to before the start of the election campaign) and also to alienated many voters. Both the larger of the two parties are all to happy to say "A vote for the Lib Dems is really a vote for Tory / Labour" (delete as appropriate). The current system is first-past-the-post and they are the rules we have to play with.

You also query the depth of the Liberal Democrat front bench. Chris Huhne and Ming Campbell spring immediately to mind as equal to any of the current cabinet. Norman Baker on Transport is also very able and has been deeply involved in the planning of the High Speed Rail link. Without going on and on, there are also many younger MPs like Jo Swinson and Sarah Teather (housing) who have displayed real talent. Just for your information, Labour had 163 of their MPs as ministers, junior ministers and PPS's. How many of them can we all name?

To return to your point. It may be hard for outside observers to credit it, but the Lib Dems are playing this election to win, not to come third. If there is horse trading to be done, that can wait until after the people of Britain and Northern Ireland have voted.

Francis Sedgemore said...

Martin – I can understand the need to avoid pointless discussions about the detail of hypothesised negotiations; it's the way in which LibDem spokesmen have failed to stress matters of principle that irritates me. Time and again the party has done this during election campaigns, and time and again its leaders have been called on it by the more astute representatives of the Fourth Estate.

You refer to the LibDem front bench. There may be some capable people there with management potential, but some of them don't half talk shite. Baker is reasonably good on his transport brief, but Tether just blethers continuously in Question Time mode.

VInce Cable is by far the best spokesman you have, and the reason for this is his frankness and honesty. That is not uncommon in political elder statesmen, as they are regarded as untouchable, and no longer have to play silly careerist games. But the fact that others in your party do play such games indicates that the political culture within it is little different from that of Labour and the Tories.

Playing to win is a good thing, when it comes to specific constituency contests. I was talking before about the UK-wide debate (or "discussion", as we're now supposed to call it). If the LibDems really want to develop a new political culture in Britain, then they need to live out their professed beliefs, and stop fecking about.

Another irritation is the way in which some LibDem constituency parties deal with local propaganda. I'm in London right now, in the Lewisham East constituency. Through the letterbox this morning popped a thin newspaper designed to look exactly like a local news rag, and in small print on the front page is a ridiculous statement about it not being funded by the taxpayer. Jesus wept, mun! Many rightly complain about local councils publishing propaganda in the guise of local journalism, yet in Lewisham this is exactly what the LibDems are doing. Such behaviour fosters cynicism and political apathy.

Such criticisms aside, I really hope the LibDems do well in this election. But I'm under no illusions about the nature of the organisation – a corporate political entity in the same mould as the other two established parties. The only difference is that it doesn't bullshit quite as much as Labour and the Tories.