Can Clegg be forgiven?

Ross McKibbin on the debacle of 5 May

The first anniversary of the coalition government has been and gone, and – like its members, no doubt – we have no clear idea of what its future will be. The various elections that accompanied the anniversary didn’t help. By general consent the Lib Dems had most to worry about after the counting, Nick Clegg especially. It is hard to make confident judgments about the wisdom or otherwise of their decision to join the coalition, still less their subsequent performance, given the difficulty of their position after the general election. I thought then (and still think) that there probably was no alternative to the present arrangement. A coalition with Labour was not on the cards. The Lib Dems could have come to a ‘confidence and supply agreement’ with the Tories whereby they would support a minority Conservative government on a piecemeal basis, but a formal coalition, they hoped, would tie the Tories to a five-year parliament and eliminate the chances of an opportunistic election.

The problem was that they negotiated from weakness and had in Clegg a leader who is as much a Tory as a Liberal – and politically naive at that. It had been obvious during the 2010 campaign that he was sympathetic to Tory policies on the economy and public expenditure. He said then that we would have to face ‘savage cuts’ (as we have) and that the Lib Dems would support the party that won the largest number of seats. Since the opinion polls all agreed that that would be the Tories, Clegg’s commitment meant only one thing. But he was not a good negotiator (though he was almost universally praised for ‘playing a blinder’); or rather, he was not a representative one. All the Lib Dem negotiators were Orange Book Liberals – i.e. agreed with the Cameron-Osborne view of economic policy – which the majority of Lib Dems both in Parliament and in the country were not.

They also made a bad mistake (perfectly obvious at the time) about AV. Electoral reform was (still is?) central to Lib Dem politics. In the negotiations Clegg abandoned proportional representation, which is what his party wanted, and secured Tory agreement on holding a referendum on AV – which the Tories would have the right to campaign against. More important, the Tories got Clegg to agree that what they wanted – the redistribution of electoral boundaries in their favour – would be achieved by the safe route of legislation. Perhaps Clegg didn’t realise that the chances of getting electoral approval for AV were slight, but he should have insisted on the legislative alternative (it is said that Brown offered him this) and threatened to end negotiations when he didn’t get it.

That the Tories were ‘calculating, ruthless and tribal’ in their campaign against AV seems to have surprised Clegg, although a quick reading of any history of the Conservative Party would have enlightened him. Furthermore, his primary and endlessly repeated defence of the coalition (that it has to clear up the terrible mess left behind by Labour), though not completely untrue, contains a large element of untruth and as a defence can benefit only the Conservative Party. In sum, the Tories have got pretty much what they wanted – especially over spending and welfare policies – whereas the Lib Dems have got only what Cameron was happy to concede. And some of these concessions have turned out not to be concessions at all, or, as in the case of tuition fees, what the Lib Dems were able to achieve (a measure of student access) was lost in the general debacle.

The Lib Dems’ often ill-considered communitarianism and localism have also been turned against them. Much of the most reactionary Tory legislation has been clothed in the rhetoric of community ‘empowerment’. Eric Pickles’s local government legislation, which has ravaged councils’ finances, is justified on the grounds that it gives them the right to spend their pittances as they wish. But if they choose to exercise their rights by raising council tax they can forget it – council taxes have been capped. Michael Gove’s ‘free schools’, by giving parents the right to set up their children’s schools and determine their character (unqualified teachers and all), will, it’s said, liberate them from the heavy hand of local government, while the NHS proposals are supposed to strengthen the authority of patients via their GPs. The election of police commissioners, who will replace police authorities, will supposedly make the police fully accountable to their communities.

All of these proposals are, in practice, designed to weaken or abolish strong local bodies and replace them with institutions or individuals either easily bullied or in ideological agreement with the Conservative Party. All are terrible pieces of legislation which the Lib Dems should never have supported. But it has been difficult for them to find convincing language in which to justify a withdrawal of support for legislation that pretends to stand for the same things they stand for. Their humiliation by their coalition partners on 5 May has given them reason to change tack: the mutiny of some Lib Dems in the House of Lords has led to the defeat of the police chief proposals (whipped by Clegg through the Commons) and opposition to much of the NHS legislation is now officially sanctioned by the Lib Dem leadership – though the legislation in its current form was probably dead in the water anyway. However, there is no going back on public spending cuts, and no minister, Tory or Lib Dem, was prepared to offer hope to the disabled who demonstrated in London against cuts that will make their lives even more difficult than they already are.

The loss of the AV referendum, which removes the prospect of electoral reform as far ahead as we can see, is a body blow to the Lib Dems. There are no doubt many reasons it was so heavily defeated; some of them as yet obscure. As a system AV is as easy as falling off a log and many voters in the UK already cope with more complicated arrangements. It is used in Australia (as we were told) and there is no desire there to change it (despite what we were told). The Australians have experimented with almost every voting system but they have rarely been put to the electorate, precisely because Australian politicians had already attempted to amend the constitution through referendums, the great majority of which ended in No votes. No matter how desirable the proposed changes or how apparently uncontroversial, it takes very little to frighten an electorate. People are easily persuaded that they won’t be able to understand the technicalities. When in doubt they vote for the status quo. A long period of preparation, and either widespread community support or near unanimity in the political class, as in the case of Scottish devolution, are needed before people will support constitutional change via a referendum. (In New Zealand what did it was a feeling that the political class was using first past the post to introduce policies for which they had no mandate.)

The No campaigners in the AV referendum spent a great deal of time telling people that AV is tremendously complicated, gives some people more than one vote, is understood only by the ‘elites’: that it is, in short, a conspiracy against the ordinary voter. The No campaign was thus lent a spurious air of democracy and the electorate did the democratic thing and rejected AV. We must also assume that the breathtaking mendacity of the No propaganda had some effect. The claim that we would need immensely expensive voting machines seems to have been widely believed. Certainly the Yes campaigners’ arguments were much less snappy and well directed. Whether people voted against AV because Clegg was for it we don’t yet know. My guess is that the role of anti-Clegg can be exaggerated. The main reason for AV’s defeat is the extreme hostility to the proposals of the majority of the political class. The Conservative Party was almost as one against it, as was much of the Labour Party.

Labour (but not its leader) comes out of the affair poorly. The behaviour of the Conservatives we could expect; their opposition was as much instinctive as self-interested. They are the party of the constitution, after all. But the sight of those clapped-out Labour warhorses (who had had no trouble voting for reformed systems in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) enthusiastically supporting a Tory-funded campaign against a proposal from which Labour was almost certain to benefit was pretty sickening. Had AV been enacted by legislation (as it would have been many years ago if the Labour government hadn’t collapsed in 1931) voters would quickly have adjusted to it.

Those who voted No represented a very wide spectrum of the population. Socio-economic status didn’t seem to play much of a part. There is some evidence that people with first-hand experience of a different system were less opposed: 43 per cent of the Northern Irish voted Yes, though those votes might have come disproportionately from nationalists. (The Yes campaigners could have made more of the fact that when the present Northern Irish constitutional arrangements were being set up the last thing anyone would have adopted was first past the post.) Only ten districts voted Yes: six partly gentrified inner London boroughs (Camden, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Lambeth and Southwark) and Cambridge and Oxford in England, and Glasgow Kelvin and Edinburgh Central in Scotland. Brighton and Hove came within an ace of voting Yes and there were high Yes votes in Bristol, Lewisham and Tower Hamlets, in Cardiff Central, and in Glasgow Southside and Edinburgh Northern and Leith.

Unlike the No districts, the Yes and near Yes districts have much in common. All have high levels of tertiary education (and contain institutions of tertiary education) and a large professional middle class with high average incomes. Mostly Labour but with a strong Lib Dem and now Green presence, they are the classic areas of ‘metropolitan’ culture. But they are also areas of mixed ethnicity, which may or may not have mattered. (The turnout in London of 35 per cent suggests it didn’t.) To some extent, it is the same electoral sociology that was seen in the Australian republic referendum, where a vote in favour of a republic correlated strongly with high levels of tertiary education and/or a large ethnic population. The result was that nearly all the Liberal Party’s safest and wealthiest seats (including the prime minister’s) voted for the republic. Rural constituencies with comparatively low levels of tertiary education, low wages and a small ethnic population voted strongly against it.

Although the No vote was emphatic the result has been to leave Parliament very exposed. All the country’s other major institutions – the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, the London Assembly, the London mayoralty – as well as the leadership of the Conservative Party, the new police commissioners (if that legislation ever gets off the ground), British members of the European Parliament and directly elected mayors, are chosen by forms of AV or proportional representation or both. Every institution established in this country in the last decade or so (virtually all by the Labour Party) is elected by a reformed electoral system. If we were to start again it is inconceivable that we would choose to elect the lower House of Parliament by first past the post. The House of Commons, though still the country’s most important elected institution, is thus anomalous, and the long-term consequence will be a steady decline in its legitimacy. Since it is unlikely that there will be reform of the House of Lords, which will continue to be swamped by placemen appointed by the prime minister of the day (the coalition appointed 117 peers in its first year), its legitimacy will be even less. This situation will also perpetuate the destructive tension between social custom, which has become democratic very fast, and the completely unreformed central institutions of the state.

How has all this voting left the parties? The general view is that it has been good for the Conservatives, mixed for Labour and bad for the Liberal Democrats. On the whole, that would seem fair. However, a parliamentary by-election in Leicester South (a seat held by both the Tories and the Lib Dems within living memory) to replace Sir Peter Soulsby, who was standing as mayor, went virtually unreported. Leicester is not the South-East, where Labour will have to do much better, and the seat had a strong Labour majority anyway. But it is not the North. In the by-election the Labour vote rose by 12 per cent and the total coalition vote fell by about 11 per cent. That is a very good result for Labour. The Conservative vote fell by more than the Lib Dem vote, which suggests that voters blame the Tories more than the Lib Dems for the cuts etc (presumably Conservative voters weren’t voting tactically to prop up the Lib Dems). In which case, if the Lib Dems can distance themselves from the Tory Party and claim to be a moderating influence on both the Tories and Labour their future might be more promising than it appears to be at present. It is unlikely that they will now be able to get legislation passed on things which matter to them, but they can argue that so long as they stay in the coalition the electorate will be protected from the worst of the Conservatives. Short of withdrawing completely, which the majority of Lib Dems don’t want to do, that is their only possible strategy. And there is another interesting fact about the elections in Leicester. The coalition parties have almost disappeared from the council, while Soulsby, the Labour candidate for mayor, was elected by AV, the technicalities of which the citizens of Leicester appear to have understood very well.