May Elections and Referendum - Clegg Takes a Very Cold Shower Indeed
Peter Kellow writes
It is seldom that the results of council elections turn out to be as significant as those that took place this Thursday on 5th May 2011. In addition there occurred that rare event in our Kingdom’s politics – a national referendum. There were not one but two big national constitutional issues that came out of the fifth of May – the regional divisions within the Kingdom and the trouncing of electoral reform. But there was another issue that was just as luminous, at least for those south of the border - the rout of Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats.
There are words to describe what happened to the LibDem leader this week. Clegg was played. He was taken. And in line with those who suffer that fate the worse of all he brought it on himself. The moment he signed up for his Faustian pact with the Tories they took out of him what they wanted and he was too foolish to see it. LIbDem veteran, Paddy Ashdown, on the BBC on election night, whilst trying to put the best spin on the debacle pointed out that sometimes parties have bad showings - even catastrophic ones - but that is all part of politics, and the LibDems would surely be back soon. What Ashdown did not appreciate - or did not say - is that when Clegg went in with the Tories in the coalition he made a fundamental strategic error. Yes a strategic not a tactical error. The consequences for the party will be long term, if not permanent
Some have said that you have to give it to the Tories for so roundly taking Clegg for a ride one year ago after the General Election but in truth the Tories were just doing what they do best (a lot of the time) and that is survival. The coalition pact was brilliantly one sided. Cameron got to be Prime Minister and implement practically all his manifesto - plus a few, not so minor, other things, such as turning the NHS up side down. What did the LibDems get out of it? They got to see the inside of ministerial cars. They agreed to break their pledge on tuition fees that they had roundly trumpeted in university constituencies. They got to defend the indefensible austerity measures before the whole nation. And, oh yes, the biggest prize of all – they got a referendum on the Alternative Vote.
How the Tories pulled that one on them seems a mystery. A mystery that is until you take into account the sheer naivety that Clegg is capable of. Clegg and his party have for long been desperate for electoral reform. They know that this is the only way they will ever stand a chance of increasing their representation in parliament. A system of proportional representation would certainly deliver this – but AV? It is far from certain that it would make much difference. It is just possible that a significant proportion of the British people would warm to PR in a referendum on it, but AV is an oddball electoral system that only a tiny, tiny percentage of the world’s voters use.
Let’s give the Conservatives some credit. At the time when the pact between their party and the LibDems was being drawn up they must have known for certain that AV would lose a national vote. Either at the time, or even before, they must have done private surveys to ascertain what public opinion was on AV. The majority against of two to one that the referendum showed up is sufficiently great that even a small statistical sample would have proved beyond doubt what the result would be. Of course, Clegg could have done the same survey. He would have done it before signing the pact - if he had been just a little savvy. It is now clear however that he swallowed Cameron’s offer of the referendum on AV, seriously believing that it might be accepted by the voters. It is clear that he simply hadn’t done his homework.
Clegg was outplayed by Cameron. He must have great difficulty now viewing all those chummy photographs taken of them together after the signing of the pact in May 2010. He now knows what, for many of us, was obvious at the time, that the guy standing next to him, wearing the same identikit smile and giving the same identikit wave, had taken him for a ride.
In the year since that historic event, the Libdems have had to defend the austerity measures as much as the Tories who lead on their implementation. But it is worse than that, for them for they have been forced to take even more of the criticism precisely because of the way they have always presented themselves in the past. The Tories were behaving just like Tories always do and so they did not attract the attacks as much as their coalition partners. This enabled Cameron to use Clegg as a shelter from much of the antagonism. Clegg and his party were the advancing infantry soaking up the fire and suffering the heavy losses. In Thursday’s elections they were hammered - and they deserved to be. In the aftermath they can reflect on how they came to this – the broken promises, the austerity measures, the loss of identity, the political misjudgments. They may want to blame the Conservatives but the truth is they have brought themselves to this pass.
This is not just a wobble for them. Parties can suffer unpopularity just because the tide somehow just goes against them. But the LibDems had had a quite good result at the 2010 election. They might have looked forward to a reasonably good spell. Many people respected them and others were prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. But they threw it all away. They were under absolutely no obligation to do a deal with anyone. Their hopes of PR are gone for generation. Their hopes of political power, that is more than a foot under the Cabinet room table, out of sight - probably forever.
Paddy Ashdown tried to make the LibDems sacrifice seem honorable claiming that they went into the coalition in the national interest to sort out the economic problems. That argument is going to be a harder and harder sell as the austerity measures stifle what little growth there is in the economy and as more people lose their jobs and suffer distress. Not many will be saying: thank you, Mr. Clegg, for making austerity possible.
But in any case the overt betrayal of electoral promises by the LibDems means that people are going to have difficulty trusting their motives. They wanted political power but all they got was political responsibility – carrying the can for their new “friends” in coalition. The atmosphere in the coalition cabinet will never be the same again. If they manage to make it last, it will only be under unbearable tension.
Is there anything else they can do now, other than twist and turn on the petard they have hoisted themselves on? Probably not. The game is up for the Liberal Democrats. They had managed to cultivate an image of themselves as the third party, the party in waiting – waiting for the break that would come some day. They were the nice guys of politics. They could be extreme (as on Europe) but, because they were always so far away from the levers of power, no one really cared that much. Whatever image they cultivated for themselves in the last thirty years has now been blown apart. They are no worse and no better than Labour or the Tories. And that is their problem. They are now fully identified with the old politics that we live under.
We are moving into uneasy, unstable era. We may well slip back to the old two party system for a period that endured resolutely until the eighties, with the third party having only a handful of MPs. But there are other trends at work such as the emergence of exaggerated regional differences in the Kingdom. And the turmoil can only work to the benefit of new parties.
Recommended article of the week
- The country needs an economic vision, but who will provide it?
Comment from Mr.R.MacMaster Tuesday 10 May 2011
To all concerned, It has become apparent by the result of the election that the people of Britain are doing their talking with their votes, and I believe it is now more than ever that the republican party strike while the iron is hot. We are on the verge of a great transition in this country, the people have had enough of the puppet government running this country into the ground and undoing everything that many a great men and women have built for us. It time to shake off the dead weight of this government, and take a step back, and get back to basics, setting down new firm, stable foundations for the future.
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