Sunday, 18 September 2011

Nick Clegg and the great Lib-Dem betrayal.

Lib-Dem leader, Nick Clegg's pledges,
not worth the paper they are written on.
When the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum was defeated, most progressive thinkers in Britain saw it as a defeat that signalled an end to their dream of any kind of fair or proportional Parliamentary electoral system in their lifetimes, resigning themselves to the idea that political reform is dead, mainly thanks to the Liberal Democrats.

For those of you that don't know, the Liberal Democrats were a fairly popular political party that campaigned tirelessly on two key issues. The first being their opposition to fees for university education and the second being the need for wide ranging political reform to our anachronistic and undemocratic political system.

When there was no overall winner in the 2010 General Election the moment had come for the Liberal Democrats, they were the kingmakers. They had three main options,
  1. Let the Conservatives form a minority government and win plaudits by shooting down every bit of unpopular and barkingly right wing "Nasty Party" legislation.
  2. Formed a rainbow coalition government with Labour and some other "minor parties", that may not have had a majority, but could have formed a larger voting block than the Conservatives.
  3. Formed a coalition with the extremely unpopular Conservatives.
Choosing the third option was a huge gamble, the Tories had been out of power for a political generation and the actions that had put them into the political wilderness (Union busting, industry destroying, Poll Tax raising, rail privatisating, scapegoat bashing, coddling of the rich) made them one of the most reviled parties in British political history.

In thirteen years of opposition the Tories had shown absolutely no signs of softening of their far-right neoliberal agenda other than some transparently misleading and inept "hug a hoodie" style rubbish to pretend that they had given up on the Thatcherite "no such thing as society", "greed-is-a-virtue" attitudes that had made them so unpopular.

Despite 13 long years of exactly the same kind of transparently neoliberal governance (that had made the Tories so unpopular) from the supposedly socialist Labour government, combined with their tendency to score repeated own goals (Iraq, National ID Database, Mandelson, Blunkett, Cash for honours implications, Fuel protests, Foot and Mouth) the Tories were still so unpopular that they were unable to deliver a majority of the MPs in the 2010 election.

The sight of Nick Clegg and David Cameron laughing it up
in the Downing Street garden was enough to make hundreds of thousands
of Lib-Dem voters vow to never vote for them again.
The British electoral system is so anachronistic and so unrepresentative that even though the Conservatives had only gained on 36% of the vote (23% of the registered electorate) the system handed them 47% of the MPs and put them within spitting distance of power. In 2005 the imbalance of the system was even more pronounced with Tony Blair's Neo-Labour party securing a strong majority (54.6% of MPs) with the votes of only 21% of the registered electorate.

The 2010 hung parliament was the Liberal Democrats' golden opportunity to undo this imbalance that had been created by decades of successive Tory and Labour governments rigging the system in their favour, but they squandered it terribly.

A coherent Liberal Democrat strategy would have been to draw some very clear red lines on political reform, tying them into the huge public anger at the expenses scandal. The lines should have been made on a few very clear subjects. My picks would have been:
  1. A fully elected house of Lords.
  2. Right of recall for corrupt or compromised MPs.
  3. A modern proportional balloting system.
The Tories would certainly have rejected a democratic House of Lords and Proportional Representation, leaving the Liberal Democrats to take the moral high ground and either forge a rainbow coalition with Labour and others, or allow the Conservatives to form a minority government.

Many people have repeated the claim that the Tories would have called another snap election, then won it outright. However it is my opinion that this would have been a very dangerous strategy for a party that had just failed to secure a majority government then turned down a coalition out of entrenched opposition to progressive electoral reform.

The Liberal Democrats could have made enormous political capital out of the refusal. Appealing strongly to anyone with a progressive bone in their bodies by repeating the line that "we are the party of political reform, Labour wasted 13 years of majority government in which they could have brought in reform and now the Tories have shown that they are fundamentally opposed to reform of this anachronistic, undemocratic and corrupt system". No doubt the Labour party would also have gained extra political capital by painting the Tories as a bunch of regressive reactionaries too.

The idea that the Tories were somehow a shoe in for victory in a re-run of the 2010 election is absolute fantasy, and the fact that it is repeated so often by Liberal Democrat supporters to justify their role in the coalition shambles just illustrates how low their estimations of their own party have become.

Clegg was an idiot not to see that he was getting so much of his traction from the pre-election reform politics rhetoric, it's a shame it was just hollow political spin. If only he'd stuck by it they could either have made themselves even more popular by shooting down every bit of regressive right wing policy from the Tories or in the case of a snap-election they could have gone into the re-election campaign with even more people saying "I agree with Nick",winning an increased share of the vote and an even more powerful position to act as kingmaker in return for real political reform.

Instead all they managed to negotiate out of the Conservatives was a national referendum on an alternative voting system unimaginatively called Alternative Vote. The fact that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had previously described the Alternative Vote system as a "miserable little compromise" demonstrated their pitiful negotiation skills. Not only was Alternative Vote absolutely nothing like a properly proportional voting system (little more than an absurd multiple vote recounting system), the referendum was doomed to failure because rich establishment Tories launched an expensive NO2AV campaign with Nick Clegg as the poster boy. Their campaign consisted of little more than advising people to vote no to AV in order to give "sell-out Nick" a good kicking, backed up with a load of misinformation and outright lies. The fact that Tory supporters were bankrolling a demonisation campaign against Nick Clegg for the act of forming a coalition with their own party was incredibly brazen, but it worked and the the Liberal Democrats' "miserably compromised" dream of progressive political reform was comprehensively defeated.

One of the main reasons Clegg had become such a hate figure with the public was the incredible Liberal Democrat U-turn on tuition fees. The party had spent more than a decade building up their student vote with a principled opposition to the commodification of university education and student fees. Before the election, every single Liberal Democrat MP, including Clegg held signed large signed pledges, which read "I pledge to vote against any increase in student fees". Within months they ditched their pledges in order to vote through the highest university fees in the world for English (but not Scottish or Welsh) students. Meaning that millions of low-mid income (£21,000-43,000) English graduates will be lumbered with a lifelong negative equity "aspiration tax" that they will continue to pay for their entire working lives.

The defeat for Nick Clegg's hopelessly compromised electoral reform was not the end of political reform in the United Kingdom, the Tories had a number of extremely regressive and anti-democratic political reforms up their sleeves and absolutely no intention of bringing them to a public vote.

Instead of a fair and proportional voting system the Tories decided to launch a gerrymander scheme that looks to further entrench the two main parties (both adherents of orthodox militant neoliberal dogma) by reducing the number of Parliamentary seats to 600, even further diminishing the likelihood that alternative parties will be able to obtain fair representation. Not only that, but the Tories decided to disenfranchise up to 10 million voters by replacing mandatory electoral registration with a more complex voluntary scheme designed to permanently scare off young people and the politically disengaged, a plan to erase millions of people from political participation.

Just like with tuition fees, the Lib-Dems have feebly enabled the Tories to deliver exactly the opposite of what the vast majority of their voters actually voted Lib-Dem for. Their voters overwhelmingly opposed the further commodification of higher education and desperately wanted to see progressive electoral reform.

The Lib-Dems meekly handed them the opposite, the highest fees in the World to attend public universities, and some disgustingly regressive, anti-democratic reforms to the voting system, that would resemble a political Coup d'etat if it weren't being carried out by the incumbent government.

A large proportion of Liberal Democrat voters wanted them to do well in the election so that they could open the door to proper political reform. In the wake of the expenses scandal and bankers' bailouts the timing couldn't have been better. Instead of seizing the moment to rejuvenate British politics by battling tirelessly for fair representation and an end to conflicts-of-interest and corruption, they have actually helped the Tories nailing shut the door of reform forever.

The only problem for the Lib-Dems is that they are so clueless that they haven't even realised that they are on the other side of the door, nailing themselves outside the corridors of power with the other minor parties whilst "the Nasty Party" and the Neo-Labour party are on the inside laughing at their stupidity.

Recent events like the Neoliberal Economic Crash and the Expenses scandal handed Britain the greatest opportunity ever to reform her anachronistic political system, to stamp out corruption and undemocratic practices and take the levers of power back from the bunch of crazy "greed-is-good" morons that have been running the show for 30 years, however the ball fell to the Lib-Dems and instead of running with it they meekly handed it over to the Tories to bury in a million tons of concrete.

Not only have the Liberal Democrats ruined any real chance of progressive political reform for the foreseeable future, they have created the impression (through inductive logic) that any minor party campaigning on a platform of political reform in the future will probably just be clueless and immoral liars like the Lib-Dems, searching for the breadcrumbs of power.

If this had been a deliberate plan to completely destroy the Liberal Democrat party from the inside, further entrench militant neoliberalism as orthodox political dogma in the UK and kick the prospect of progressive political reform at least 50 years in the future, Clegg and the Lib-Dem leadership couldn't have executed it better.

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