Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has announced that the politics of plenty are over. I assume by this he means plenty of war, plenty of cuts and plenty of sell-offs because he could not possibly be saying that up to now we have never had it so good. Or could he? Clegg set out to show what a serious bunch the third party can be by dropping a swath of its own policies as unrealistic. It's an interesting way to try to give people confidence in your manifesto by tearing half of it up shouting: "This is all rubbish! We were never going to do any of it." In a press release entitled "Four steps to a fairer Britain," the Lib Dems criticised the Labour and Conservative parties for pretending the recession wasn't happening and not being prepared to take the necessary tough decisions to dig us out of this hole. Describing the two largest parties as engaging in "make-believe economics" and failing to face up to the fact that we're living in difficult economic times is quite a staggering thing to say.
I really don't know where Clegg has been for the last year and a half, but the idea that the other parties' economic policies proffer an Aladdin's cave of giveaway policies seems a bit far-fetched. The Labour Chancellor has, for instance, just promised the toughest spending cuts in 20 years. The Tories criticise them for not going far enough. Now Clegg wades in saying they are both sugar-coating their policies? That's actually quite frightening. A number of commentators have described the coming general election as a turning point for a generation - that's over-hyping it. The difference between the parties' spending plans are marginal at best. Particularly since the failed coup attempt against the Prime Minister last week, the new Labour Cabinet has shifted towards a more full-scale cuts approach that differs from the Conservative version only in that neither have been fully spelled out to the electorate. One Lib Dem said the difference between the three main parties was that his party would "cut with a heavy heart."
Presumably that means if you're laid off you are meant to feel sorry for them. Perhaps redundant workers could send the Liberals a condolence card to commiserate with what they must have gone through sending out all those notices. After describing voters as grown-ups, Clegg then announced that he would introduce caps on public-sector pay, scrap the government baby bonds scheme, ditch the commitment to free childcare and their "citizen's pension" and that he would no longer advocate free personal care for the old and disabled. Added to this the Lib Dems would keep tuition fees, at least until the good times roll again. Clegg described this bonfire of the policies by saying: "We have stripped away everything that is not essential because the country cannot afford it." There was me thinking that policies like free child and personal care existed because parents and the disabled couldn't afford them. Maybe they aren't part of "the country." The abolition of tuition fees was seen as a defining policy for the Lib Dems and for the leader to describe this as "not essential" speaks volumes about the shift at the heart of mainstream politics.
Far from demonstrating how different the Lib Dems are from the other parties, this announcement demonstrates the tight consensus that exists at the top of all three parliamentary parties, which are determined to deny the voters any viable choice. Clegg may think that you treat people like adults by reducing their living standards, but he could have taken a very different approach - one that stems the growing tide of unemployment rather than adds to it. He disparagingly described long-held political commitments as a "shopping list of pledges" to voters, adding that he wasn't going to "buy their favour with cheap trinkets." One moment it's a point of honour and principle to abolish tuition fees, the next the right to an education regardless of your wealth is a "cheap trinket." Fascinating stuff. One less high-profile announcement was that the Lib Dems would create "a new national infrastructure bank to bring in private money to build the transport links, energy grid and public buildings we need for a sustainable, low-carbon economy in every part of Britain." This commitment to deepen the privatisation agenda shared by the Conservatives and new Labour is another expression of how barren the state of progressive political ideas is today.
In the past many people who have leaned to the left of politics have voted Lib Dem. The party's stance on ID cards, tuition fees or opposing the Iraq invasion - until it started - gave it some appeal to those who could no longer stomach voting Labour. But even this option has gone now. Ditching policies designed to help the poorest in society while giving big business the wink that there will be plenty of profits to be made out of a Lib Dem-influenced government is an indication that their leader's priorities are far from progressive, a fact that many on the left of the party are all too aware of. If Clegg really wanted to be treated like a grown-up he should have taken the risk of presenting his party as a genuine political alternative, not another shade of the same failed approach. He even dropped the idea of proportional representation at the very time that it is gaining a hearing, watering it down to a commitment to "abolish safe seats" - presumably those of his colleagues, judging by his current uninspired performance.
This approach, based on the idea that the country is moving to the right, is unlikely to win much support among Tory voters who already have a right-wing party to vote for and seems almost designed to put off those to the left who lent them their vote in previous elections. Disaffected Labour voters and those who support smaller left-wing parties have been given a clear warning that the Lib Dems are not for them. They would do well to heed it. At last the Liberal Democrats have answered the question that someone, somewhere may well have been asking. Who would they favour if they held the balance of power in a hung Parliament? It turns out that the answer is anyone who will let them sit at the big table and is willing to sign Nick Clegg's autograph book. There's been a certain amount of straw-clutching in the last few days because one poll has suggested that the gap between Labour and the Tories is narrowing, which would increase the chances of neither party commanding a majority in the House of Commons. The poll has been built up into far more than it really is with those who see what they want to see, forgetting that one extremely unlikely swallow does not make a spring.
At the weekend Clegg announced that "whichever party have the strongest mandate from the British people, it seems to me that they have the first right to try and govern." While he was right to point out that in a democracy it should be the people who decide who governs, it does rather ignore the fact that those who vote for Clegg's party are making a political decision which should count for something. In effect Clegg has decided to cast his party in the mould of a neutral referee without philosophical allegiance or strong opinions either way. He may as well have indicated that if you want to decide who runs the country after the election, don't vote Lib Dem because they'll take their lead from everyone else anyway. What makes it even more bizarre is that this damp cloth of an announcement is seen as the strongest statement Clegg has ever made on the subject and, as such, is news. Just don't ask him what his favourite biscuit is for heaven's sake or we'll be here all day. Tony Benn often remarks that politicians are either weathercocks or sign posts - that is, those who point whichever way they are blown and those who stick to their principles no matter what. However, it appears he left out the category of limp knitted windsock, which is where Clegg is building his electoral niche.
Just because someone's in an organisation that has more in common with uncultured yoghurt than a political party, that doesn't mean they should be demonised. There are good people in campaigns to defend council housing, against various wars and to protect particular public services who also happen to be members of the Lib Dems. When Lib Dem Cambridge MP David Howarth attended the G20 protests as a legal observer and eloquently spoke out against the behaviour of the police, I don't have the slightest inclination to moderate my praise with a "yeah, but..." There's no question that some of the vote the Lib Dems receive is to the left of new Labour. Those whose progressive instincts are repelled by Trident, ID cards, the Iraq occupation and a host of other monstrosities that I don't need to go into here have often lent their vote to the Lib Dems.
What these people rarely do though is begin to see themselves as "Lib Dem voters" and, as such, that vote is extremely soft and vulnerable.
In recent times we've seen the new Lib Dem leadership begin to shift the party towards a more Cameron-lite style of politics - which is no mean feat when you consider that helium has difficulty being lighter than Cameron. Clegg's announcement at conference that he was for savage cuts and was ditching the commitment to scrapping tuition fees was an attempt to look more substantial in an era of financial crisis. But for many this simply came across like the sidekick of an Eton bully egging on the violence without the clout to actually join in themselves. When Clegg surprised his party's policy-making body on the abolition of tuition fees he hoped to signal that he was up to the task of handling the recession, but he ended up showing that he was just an identikit politician, as undemocratic and cynical as other party leaders but less influential. A party without an identity is hardly up to the task of tackling global problems like climate change, the financial collapse or war.
If you don't believe in anything you're not fit to govern. Currently the Lib Dems' local campaigns even seem to be pushing the party towards a kind of "patriotic" pro-war position and they are making more than clear that the one area of spending they won't be trying to make cuts in is the armed forces.
The leaflet that came through doors in late November this weekend focused solely on the local candidate's loyalty to the troops in Afghanistan. This isn't just unconvincing - it means that none of the three largest parties is even trying to represent public opinion on ending the occupation. The nation's forgotten third party seems to be on a mission to become completely indistinguishable from the very worst parts of the stifling consensus at the heart of so-called respectable politics. Clegg's announcement that he'd just go with the flow after the next election and isn't bothered either way is hardly inspiring. Partly because it emphasises that his party is always "the would-be king-maker," never the "would-be king," but mainly because it demonstrates how alien conviction politics is to the leadership. Judging from the early reaction from Lib Dem blogs even their activists aren't too impressed with the new announcement. This may partly be due to the way they get to act as spectators to major decisions made by their party rather than actual participants.
Some thought they'd already ruled out a coalition with Labour, others that they'd taken a vow against the Tories, but no-one seemed astonished that the actual position was a rather feeble "whoever." There's no doubt the Lib Dems will swing left again when the wind blows them that way. But whether leaning to the left or the right, without a philosophical anchor there's nothing much to get excited about.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.