Monday, August 23, 2010

Retro....grade? – Reflections on whether I was right to back Clegg

Inspired by the retro reflections of the inimitable Paul Walter and this excellent article by Gaby Hinsliff – I decided to trawl through some of my numerous blogs supporting Nick Clegg's candidacy three years ago. Longsuffering readers will remember that I was unstinting in my support for Nick, despite much criticism from those who thought it was misplaced. The past few months have caused me to consider this question in a way I didn't feel I needed to back in 2007.

When it became clear that there would be an election for a new leader I remember having a conversation with Nick to say that if Steve Webb stood I would of course back him. In the event Steve chose not to and Nick let me know that he had Steve's support. My reasoning for supporting him was simple – I didn't trust Chris Huhne's "left" credentials, but I did trust Nick's liberal ones. While I didn't agree with him on quite a few issues, having worked with him on our crime policy I knew him to be a true liberal and someone who cared deeply about the life chances of those who were all to often ignored. I trusted him and I liked the way he was prepared to listen even when he vehemently disagreed with you. When I sent him an angry email about us not fielding a candidate against David Davies he took the trouble to call to explain his decision. While he jokingly referred to me as a "little lefty", I felt that we were agreed on outcomes if not process – and for that reason vociferously supported his campaign, to the extent that I was thanked by his campaign manager at his victory party, who rather kindly said he thought my blog could have made the difference in the narrow margin of his victory! So my support for Nick, despite our differences has been unquestionable and unwavering.

So what now? Those heady days of the leaders' debates seem long gone – rather as those hot days of July seem a million miles away as I sit here on a very damp and cool Exmoor. The man who I believed could truly inspire both our party and the country seems a shadow of his former self. He seems to be backing things that are anathema to me, can I possibly continue to support the man? It is a tough one. To be honest I feel rather as one does when a friend ends up in a relationship that you know is wrong for them. It may not be physically abusive, but it is emotionally abusive. The friend seems to stop being able to be themselves – they dress as their partner desires, they speak as he or she desires, they have less and less contact with their old pals. You know that old pal you know and love is in their somewhere, but their unequal relationship with their new partner is stifling their true identity. Now I understand all the chat about us being the "junior partner" but frankly no unequal partnership can work, regardless of the size of the partners! While I accept that our government ministers in general and our Deputy PM in particular have collective responsibility, this surely doesn't mean they are obliged to appear to sacrifice their integrity? I am extremely disappointed that what is coming across is that we are more than happy to go along with the Tories. There is no explanation or restatement of Lib Dem policy – no rationale for the compromises that were made in our name. It is this, I believe, more than anything, that has lead to our drop in the polls.

So, can I still support Nick? Despite my support for him I have always felt able to challenge him (hence the quote on the top of my blog!) and one of the things I admire about him is he is not someone to fall out with folk just because they have a different opinion. So the answer is yes personally, yes politically on some things, but no on some significant others. Yes, personally, I still admire him and believe he can, if he wants to, turn things around. I still rate him as an exceptional, compassionate and committed human being. I still think given the options, (Simon Hughes having also ruled himself out) he was the best person to lead our party. Yes, politically, I do believe he will play a significant role in making this a far more liberal country, and yes, I think he can play an equally significant role in improving social mobility . No, politically, I don't like the way he seems so comfortable in bed with the Tories and adopting their mantra. No, I can't go along with his rationale for supporting such savage and damaging cuts. No, I can't support the way he seems to have accepted being muzzled - how ironic that the man who was such a vociferous critic of the bombardment of Gaza last year was almost silent about the flotilla, leaving it to Mr Cameron to describe Gaza as a prison camp.

So, to return to Gaby Hinsliff's analysis. I agree Nick is a fox, though in some ways he may be more of a hedgehog at the moment! I trust he will rediscover his foxyness, stand up to his new partner and demonstrate what those of us who know and admire him recognise, that he does have what it takes to make this not only a more liberal country, but a fairer and more equal one too.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

100 Daze...............

..........or.............100 Nights of the Long Knives and Runcible Spoons......?


Hard to believe it is 100 days since that Tuesday evening in May when, for me, we as Lib Dems did the unthinkable. I had spent most of the previous few days intermittently chatting to a pal on FE who had consistently reassured me that there was no way we were going to do a deal with the Tories. And of course when Nick appeared to have achieved a coup in getting Gordon Brown to resign, I naively thought that the deal with Labour was done and dusted.

I was under this misapprehension until early on Tuesday morning. As the Labour dinosaurs (John Reid, Blunkett, Prescott et al) were wheeled out on the Today programme – and then throughout the day, it became clearer that a "rainbow coalition" was a non starter. My head said, well, if we have to have the Tories, at least we may be able to mitigate against their worst heart said something quite different.

Early evening I was in Davey's in Canary Wharf with ex Lib Dem MP David Bellotti after a meeting at work. It was then that the news was coming in of Brown leaving Downing Street and Cameron trotting off to the palace. I certainly wasn't prepared for my emotional reaction. As pals from work were piling in and I was introducing them to David, the tears were pricking the back of my eyes. Fellow Lib Dem Lee saw what was happening and gave me a knowing hug. As I travelled back to Luton I confess I was fighting back the tears. Around 1.30 in the morning my pal from FE called to explain their decision to me. I was gutted – I guess I finally got to sleep around 3.30. Work the next day was a haze. Everyone could see what a state I was in. I watched the Clegg and Cameron nuptials in the rose garden as in a dream......was this really happening? Would I wake up and discover it was an all too realistic nightmare?

100 days later the dust has more or less settled, we have a "coalition agreement", we have a "deputy Prime Minister", we have a few Cabinet ministers, we are "Making a Difference". Er.........right. Since I was stuck on a poxy little freezing cold train for nearly 4 hours today without a plug for my failing laptop, or a cup of tea!!!! I had chance to reread both the Coalition Agreement and our manifesto. Frankly, as Ms Warsi let slip, that "Coalition Agreement" is the Tory manifesto augmented with a little "Lib Dem thinking". Not only that, but I have scoured that wretched agreement to see what it says about cutting housing benefit.....??? What is says about Academy schools.....(a little yes, but not what has ended up in the legislation), about the very real cuts to front line services that are already happening. Actually, what is says is "We will make modest cuts of £6billion to non front-line services" (my emphasis) why are we looking already at 30% - 50% cuts to services to young people? Vital front line drugs and alcohol services already gone? Youth Services and Connexions as we speak issuing redundancy notices?

Simon Hughes is right to be raising concerns. The Tory numbskulls who are laying into him at the moment should surely cause those of us who actually subscribe to the values enshrined in the preamble to our constitution, namely that "no one should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity" to be a little unsettled. We have found ourselves in bed with a bunch of people, most of whom frankly don't give a shit about those who haven't had their advantages. Believe me, I have spent most of my life working with them, I know. So, with apologies to those of my fellow Lib Dems who are making a brave show of trying to defend the indefensible, it's time our party woke up and smelt the coffee. Frankly, if we don't, we may be spared the pain of waking up altogether and find ourselves 6 foot under.