Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Will the promise of a new approach bring the same old, same old?

Having voted LibDem in the recent UK election, this comment piece for the excellent Holyrood magazine betrays an anger with Clegg and his ‘new politics’ that I think plenty of left-of-centre voters felt in the immediate aftermath of the coalition agreement, and many still feel today.

“This is the start of the new politics I have always believed in.” Speaking just hours after the announcement of his appointment as Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg was at pains to reiterate the ‘new politics’ mantra he employed to such devastating effect in the live debates. But just as Clegg’s televisual charm failed to translate into ballot box success, critics are already suggesting that behind this soidisant new dispensation it’s business as usual in Westminster.

It was an unexpectedly exacting election for the Lib Dems. On the back of the telegenic Clegg’s success in the first prime ministerial debate hopes were high among the party faithful that 2010 would be the year that they finally managed to disrupt the Labour- Conservative duopoly. On the day, however, the Liberals failed in their bid to take more than 100 seats, actually losing a number, and were unable to push an unpopular Labour into an embarrassing third place in the popular vote.

Nevertheless, surveying the wreckage on May 7, Clegg, and other Lib Dems, would not have gone hungry for want of crumbs of comfort: over the course of the campaign the party’s media profile increased dramatically, and their vote rose, albeit fractionally from a low base. And, of course, the Liberals woke on Friday morning to find themselves kingmakers in a hung parliament.

The decision to go into coalition with the Tories, driven from the top by Clegg and rubberstamped by the party’s Federal Executive less than a week after the election, might look like great business to party mandarins but it has left many Lib Dem voters bewildered and angry. A sizable proportion of the Lib Dem vote – and the vast majority of the new voters it gained at the recent election – identify themselves on the left of New Labour, were disillusioned by Brown and Blair and attracted by Clegg’s Obama-like promises of change.

Having voted Clegg and got Cameron – and not Brown, as the right-wing press threatened – many will be reluctant to vote Lib Dem in the future, particularly if the new coalition, as expected, pushes through austerity measures not seen since the IMF were invited onto mainland Britain in 1976.

But has Clegg really sold his voters short, or might the Lib Dems in government be able to push through central tenets of their manifesto?

The party’s medium-term electoral survival depends on the latter, and, while it is certainly too early to tell whether the unholy Con-Lib pact will hold, the Liberals have managed to drive an impressively hard bargain (aided, in part, by their salacious overtures to Labour during the negotiations).

The Conservatives will adopt the Lib Dem plan to increase the tax-free allowance on income tax to £10,000, a key pledge for many low earning Liberal voters. Although this is a long-term policy, an initial rise in the allowance is expected, quickly followed by a timetable for the full £10,000. That the Tories have given their backing to a measure that will cost the Exchequer somewhere in the region of £17bn is remarkable given both their commitment to reducing the deficit and the party’s historic neglect of those on low incomes.

Electoral reform was a major plank of the Lib Dems’ general election campaign and dominated much of the horse-trading that followed. Labour tried to tempt Clegg with a pledge to adopt the Alternative Vote method and a referendum on proportional representation, but senior figures in both centre-left parties appear to have had extreme misgiving about the so-called progressive alliance. The deal with David Cameron’s Tories has not brought the radical voting reform that many Liberals had hoped for but the Conservatives are committed to a referendum on the, rather disproportional, Alternative Vote during the course of the next parliament – although the party has already said it will campaign vigorously for a ‘no’ vote in that plebiscite.

Many Lib Dem voters, and members of the parliamentary party, will be hoping that their party can curb the excesses of a Tory government, so feared by many, particularly outside England. Certainly the Conservatives have softened a number of their positions to facilitate the coalition: the Tory manifesto pledge to increase the threshold for inheritance tax has been kicked into touch, and a commission is to be set up to investigate the viability of splitting up the big banks, a proposal that has Vince Cable written all over it.

The sickly sweet love-in between Cameron and Clegg outside No 10 that followed the coalition announcement played well in the gallery but such bonhomie masks deep fissures between the new government partners on a range of key policy issues. The Lib Dems have been forced to abandon their opposition to renewing Trident and building nuclear power stations, and their commitment to joining the euro and an amnesty for illegal migrants. Not all vote winners, granted, but many policies popular with left-of-centre supporters.

Senior Lib Dem officials defended Clegg’s decision to do a deal with Cameron by saying that their party would be punished by voters if it allowed a Conservative minority government to collapse. While this might be true in the south of England, north of the border and in the English regions, the opposite is almost certainly the case. As well as alienating its core vote, the Lib Dems would do well to heed the salutary lessons from Ireland, where the Green Party faces electoral meltdown having entered coalition with the centre-right Fianna Fáil at a time of economic crisis.

The Lib Dems have been locked out of power for 70 years but the party could be counting the cost of its shiny, new cabinet seats for decades to come. The Liberals risk becoming handmaidens to a Tory government that has pledged to make the most savage cuts to public spending in living memory, while, on the opposition benches, Labour has an opportunity to regroup and reclaim its mantle as the undisputed party of the centre-left. We have entered a ‘new politics’, but not quite as Nick Clegg would have envisaged it four weeks ago.

Will the promise of a new approach bring the same old, same old?
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